MatthewSean Reviews

Book reviews, movie reviews, and other writing

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth — April 7, 2017

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

Book Review – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

space_merchants

Facts:

Book: The Space Merchants
Author: Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
Genre: Science Fiction
Year of Release: 1952
Read 154-page hardcover edition in March 2017.

Book Description:

In this classic dystopian science fiction novel, we are treated to a troubled world, where society’s masses are controlled by the whims of corporations and their sharp marketing plans. It has become easy to get the majority of the population to mindlessly think they need something, and buy it, without question.

Expert marketer Mitch Courtenary is asked by his company President to come up with an ultimate plan. Encourage flocks of humans to travel to Venus, to colonize the planet. The challenge is that Venus is a barren wasteland of a planet, and it will be an uncomfortable life there. For a skilled marketing executive of course, this is all in a day’s work.

However, when competition comes to Mitch from within and outside the company, he starts to see how humans really live, and he must decide what he will do, both for himself, and for others.

Book Review:

This novel is a classic piece of dystopian literature, and though it was written in the early 1950s, it mainly stands the test of time. The novel has some issues with sexism and gender roles that one wouldn’t expect today, and that felt clunky and out of place. However, other than that, this novel does a great job of predicting a world that feels very possible, in our age of consumerism and capitalism. In fact, in some ways one can see a reflection of 2017 society in this novel, at least on some level. The authors have done a good job of predicting what the future looks like now, and what it may look like in the future.

The novel has an interesting plot which takes us from the corporate world of skyscrapers to the dirty, filthy, mining world occupied by humans just trying to make it through life. Classism is showcased by the authors through the plot very successfully. The plot and the messages and warnings it tells are definitely the strengths of this novel. The scenes in urban America, Costa Rica, and the moon contrast nicely and keep the story moving. (Although the opening couple of chapters did feel a little bit slow.)

The characters are somewhat interesting, although the novel isn’t quite as strong in this area. Some of the characters feel undeveloped and there actions don’t always seem to make perfect sense to the reader. Although we have a strong sense of Mitch as the main character, the other characters often seem to be hanging in the background, yet they play various roles in the novel where it would be nice to have a little bit more understanding and substance to them.

Overall, the novel is a great dystopian read, even 65 years after its original publication. It has timely and valuable lessons for humanity, which makes the reading a valuable experience.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015) — March 11, 2017

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015)

Movie Review – Front Cover (2015)

front_cover

Movie Synopsis:

A gay fashion stylist who is still trying to figure out his place as a gay person and a Chinese-American living in New York City is told to work with a famous actor from China, who is in town to do some filming. As he spends more time with this man, they begin to grow very close, despite their differences, and they end up both going on journeys of self reflection and discovery.

Movie Review:

This independent film which won several awards at film festivals definitely has charm, intelligence, and grace, as it explores numerous subjects. The sensitivity with which Director and Writer Ray Yeung covers two men exploring their sexuality, their culture, and their developing feelings for each other is truly successful.

Main actors Jake Choi and James Chen also do a nice job playing Chinese men who both have challenges when it comes to really understanding who they are and how they can live comfortably in the world they inhabit. As they explore these questions together, the audience is treated to both humour and tenderness, and the film is definitely successful in this way.

The scene where the two characters spend time with Ryan’s parents, who also live in New York City, is truly an example of well executed comedy, and everyone can relate to this scene to some level, although certainly not to the extent that Ryan has to, given his situation. The audience was laughing throughout the opening of this extended scene, yet later there were tears flowing when the scene evolved to the touching one it became involving the older generation. This showcases the success of the directing, acting, and writing.

Overall, the film also succeeded for having a very practical ending as well, one that was believable and was not a perfect, happy ending, but one where everyone still made decisions and learned something.

This was definitely a fascinating and enjoyable film, looking at two Chinese men and their understanding of their own sexualities and cultures. The diversity of the film, and the focus on characters who were not straight white males, was definitely to be celebrated.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars.

Movie Review – Titan A.E. (2000) —

Movie Review – Titan A.E. (2000)

Movie Review – Titan A.E. (2000)

titan

Movie Synopsis:

In the 31st century, humans are on the verge of extinction, having been usurped by other species with much more power in the galaxy. The evil Drej species have destroyed Earth, and humans are scattered across the galaxy, often doing menial work to survive. However, when Cale is approached by a small crew led by a human captain, he is told that his deceased father had led a Titan Project, which would help restore the soul and spirit of the human race. Cale joins the crew to try and find the lost ship Titan, and save the human species.

Movie Review:

This animated film from the year 2000, which suffered production and distribution problems from Fox Animation, which was in the process of being shut down at the end of the film’s production, nonetheless does a fantastic job of bringing a passionate, touching, and action-packed science fiction story to the screen.

This film succeeds with great, diverse characters, both good and evil, voiced with talent by Matt Damon, Drew Barrymore, Bill Pullman, Nathan Lane, and Jim Cummings.

Directors Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who directed numerous films in the late 1900s including Anastasia, did a great job with this animated film switching to more computer animated techniques. The visuals of the film are stunning, and create an exciting sense of the wonders of the galaxy.

Furthermore, the music in the film is well done, with a variety of rock bands from the time period providing a variety of music with applicable lyrics to the story, and with a beat that keeps the action moving.

Finally, the plot itself, that of a young man trying to find himself and trying to help save humanity, has been explored before, but is nonetheless explored with excitement and enthusiasm here. The darker tones that are present in the storyline are welcome here for an animated film, and it almost makes you feel you are watching an American anime film.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, entertaining, and thoughtful science fiction animated film that was ahead of its time when it came out in 2000.

Well Done!

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars.

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab —

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab

Book Review – A Darker Shade of Magic – V.E. Schwab

darker_shade_magic

Facts:

Book: A Darker Shade of Magic
Author: V.E. Schwab
Genre: Fantasy
Year of Release: 2015
Read 400-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

This fantasy novel, which opens a new series by V.E. Schwab, tells the story of four London’s, who all exist in parallel to each other. Only some citizens are aware of the different London’s and can travel across them. One such person is Kell, who officially is an Ambassador for the King and Queen of Red London, but unofficially also likes to trade magical items with people who do not have access to them, despite the fact this is illegal.

When Kell ends up getting into some serious trouble , and has to fight for his life, he is joined by a surprising ally, Delilah Bard, who agrees to help him despite her usual approach of staying alone as she pickpockets her way through life. These unlikely allies have to work together to keep the London’s safe, and stop some dangerous and powerful people from causing destruction with a powerful magical object.

 

Book Review:

Schwab definitely has a talent for writing interesting urban fantasy, and using fresh and new ideas to tell stories. This novel, and opening of a new series, was no different, with a mix of interesting characters with magical abilities, unique settings with 4 very different London’s overlaid on each other, and even a mix of swords, guns, and ships all battling for attention. Schwab does have a great imagination, and it shows in her setup of this new universe.

That being said, a couple of things that were unfortunate in this novel was that the characters themselves, and even the setting to a lesser degree, felt underwhelming and under-utilized throughout the plot. I was left at the end wondering about how these various London’s worked, and wondering more about the feeling in the various London’s. I felt the plot and story that was told didn’t give me as much of an insight into them as I would have liked. Furthermore, I often felt that the characters in the novel were not very complex and as developed in their relationships with each other as I would have liked. Many of them felt a little bit flat, such as one of our magical arch enemies in the novel, whose character felt under-explored, and his nebulous relationship with our main character Kell was left too under-stated.

One thing that was clear about this novel was it was the opening of a series. As such, there was a lot of “set up” in the novel, setting up characters and plot points that would be covered in later books. This led to a slow start in the novel, and the novel felt slow in some parts, almost as if we were watching the stage being set for later novels in the series. Thus, this first novel of the series did indeed suffer for that.

Although there was a lot to be interested about in this novel, and the idea of multiple London’s in an urban fantasy tale is a great premise, there was much about this novel that felt sadly undeveloped.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue —

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue

Book Review – Sudden Death – Alvaro Enrigue

Sudden_Death

Facts:

Book: Sudden Death
Author: Alvaro Enrigue
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 272-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

In this mystical novel with shades of magical realism, Enrigue portrays a 16th century tennis match between two unique and historical characters, an Italian painter and a Spanish poet. Infamous historical figures come to the gallery to watch this important and deadly tennis match. At the same time, the novel explores some important historical battles and truths that occurred in Europe and Central America in the 16th century forward, particularly as it relates to several infamous Popes and Papal political figures, as well as Aztec Emperors and how they dealt with Spanish explorers.

Enrigues uses a variety of writing styles, including speaking directly to the audience from time to time, to bring these disparate ideas and strands together.

 

Book Review:

This novel by Mexican author Enrigue had a truly unique structure and style.

There were times where this novel really demonstrated power of thought and idea. Two examples of this was when the author spoke about the back story to the two tennis players and how they met, and the homoeroticism that was present. Another example was early in the novel when the author spoke directly to the audience about how the most powerful thing about a writer writing a novel is that readers get to read and interpret. There were some thought provoking comments written by the author on these points that really provided for thinking on the part of the reader, which is everything you can ask for in a good novel.

However, the problem with this novel was that there was such an array of characters from different places in the world, different time periods, and going through different stories and plots, that it often became difficult as the reader to understand the connections and keep up with what was happening. Although there were some interesting notions being shared, at times it was a lot of work to keep everything together, and truly see how the various stories intertwined.

Although this novel had a lot of promise, it also suffered from unnecessarily complicated structure, along with a plethora of characters that didn’t always have a clear role in the grand scheme of the novel itself.

Overall: 2.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead — March 4, 2017

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Book Review – The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

underground_railroad

Facts:

Book: Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2016
Read 310-page hardcover edition in February 2017.

Book Description:

 

Cora is a young slave on cotton plantation in Georgia. When she meets a slave by the name of Caesar, she finds an opportunity to escape the horrible conditions she lives with daily. This leads her to discovering the underground railroad, which in this world is a literal rail system built underneath the ground to provide a means of escape for black slaves to the north or west.

However, when Cora’s old slaveowner begins sending bounty hunters after her, Cora must continue escaping dangerous situations, and learn more about the dangers of prejudice and racism that exist in different states along the way.

 

Book Review:

A really strong novel is one that makes the reader think and keep thinking, even long after reading the final page. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is one such novel.

The author has done a tremendous job at bringing to life a treacherous, tragic truth of human history. The journey of Cora, as she tries to escape a cotton plantation to find freedom, and further escape other tortures along the way, brings to life the horror of slavery.

The author has a large cast of characters around Cora, some other slaves, some trying to help with the underground railroad, and some very wicked villains. By bringing the various  characters together, the author succeeds in telling a story from a variety of angles, and really drilling home the true horror and crime of slavery in America.

The author also expands the story canvass and succeeds in painting the ugly case of how the American Indigenous population was slaughtered as European colonists and then Americans took the land from Indigenous people while decimating the population.

Further, the author’s ability to weave fictional elements into the novel, starting with historical fact but then using the concept of a real underground railroad, made for a unique and interesting reading experience. The reader was left wanting to know where the railroad would take Cora next, and what the different states would be like.

The writing style also assisted in making this a fast read. The language was powerful, moving, and disturbing, which created a poignant plot that also told dark truths about slavery.

The author had a real knack for using language to say powerful lines, and there were many powerful quotes from the novel, for example this scene when Cora was acting as a black slave scrubbing the deck of a ship coming to America:

“There had been no kidnapped boys swabbing the decks and earning pats on the head from white kidnappers. The enterprising African boy whose fine leather boots she wore would have been chained belowdecks, swabbing his body in his own filth. … nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” (Page 116.)

Another example of powerful learning and language: “The land she tilled and worked had been Indian land. She knew the white men bragged about the efficiency of the massacres, where they killed women and babies, and strangled their futures in the crib. Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” (Page 117.)

In conclusion, this amazing novel is highly recommended for all to read, especially in this day of uncreased racism and prejudice, where we need to be reminded of the damage, danger, and disgusting places humanity has been, and ensure we continually try to move forward, and not go backward.

Well done.

Overall: 5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood — February 12, 2017

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Book Review – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last

Facts:

Book: The Heart Goes Last
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2015
Read 308-page hardcover edition in January 2017.

Book Description:

In a near future where unemployment has skyrocketed and crime is everywhere, Charmaine and Stan are living in their car, with Charmaine working a menial job as a waitress in a shady bar to make just enough money to eek out a living. Stan and Charmaine both wish their lives were better, but the economy has fallen apart.

When an opportunity knocks to join a pilot project, where you share a house with another couple, and each of you takes turns, one month in your house, then one month in prison, they jump at the chance. Promises of a better life and stable work and comforts are too good to pass up.

But when they are in the closed community, Charmaine and Stan start to see their lives unraveling, and how the project was not what they intended.

Book Review:

This dystopian novel by the talented Canadian author Margaret Atwood was a fascinating read. The main characters Charmaine and Stan were interesting to learn about, particularly in the opening sections of the novel. Atwood did a nice job of allowing the reader to really get into each of the main character’s minds early on, and get a sense of who they were, and what they were thinking. We also got the treat of hearing thoughts they each had about their relationship and sex, which they didn’t share with their spouse. These insights were fascinating in looking at how the married couple was dealing with difficult situations of the near future.

The main characters, along with other characters in the pilot project, were definitely interesting, as we got to know them. However, one downside was that at times it felt the characters were not necessarily consistent. For example, Charmaine seems very kind, calm, and even somewhat simple at the beginning of the novel. However, later on she finds herself in a job where she is committing all kinds of actions that one doesn’t necessarily see her character carrying out in the beginning. For example, her relationship with a man she meets in the project, and her job in the prison, both seem surprising departures from what we know about her at the beginning of the novel.

Overall, the plot of the novel was exciting, and the pacing of the novel made it a fast read. There were lots of great themes to consider in this dystopian future created by Atwood. Although at times the characters did not always feel consistent, overall this was an interesting read for those who enjoyed dystopian literature.

Overall: 3.5 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was — January 17, 2017

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

Book Review – Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

moonstone

Facts:

Book: Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was
Author: Sjon
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2013
Read 147-page hardcover edition in January 2017.

Book Description:

In 1918 Iceland, the island is facing a variety of challenges. Incoming political change with Denmark. The prospect of the Great War occurring in Europe. Volcanic eruptions on Katla. The spanish flu outbreak. And most importantly to 16-year-old Mani Steinn, the continued development of the cinema.

We follow young Mani as he explores the cinema, his passion, and as he goes through his life in Reykjavik as a closeted gay person, unable to come out, and with only an elderly woman as his family.

As change ebbs and flows across Iceland, we see how Mani’s life changes with it, in this poetic novella from Icelandic author Sjon.

Book Review:

This was a fascinating and very lyrical story about a country and character of mystery. The author tells the story in a way that is very poetic, with a number of quotes and a couple of photos placed in the tale that add to the richness of what is being told.

We get right into the head of the main character, and see how he feels growing up very much alone in the capital of Iceland, feeling very much an outsider, but working with those feelings and putting his passion into the cinema, which has arrived recently.

As Mani discovers sex, the cinema, and deals with challenges including the spanish flu, understanding his family background, and homophobia, we learn more about what it was like to be in this time and space.

The author does a great job painting a picture of the character and the setting, through very poetic and flowing prose.

Although at times this was a little hard to fully understand, and it almost felt too short, it was definitely well worth the read.

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters —

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

Book Review – The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

paying_guests

Facts:

Book: The Paying Guests
Author: Sarah Waters
Genre: Fiction
Year of Release: 2014
Read 566-page hardcover edition in November 2016.

Book Description:

 

It is 1922 in London, post-WWI, and Frances Wray lives with her widowed mother in their large house. However, because of the death of Frances’s father and brothers in the war, and their lack of financial resources, Frances has had to lay off their servants, conduct the cleaning and cooking herself, and now bring in renters to the upstairs rooms. These “paying guests” are Mr. and Mrs. Barber. As Frances gets to know this couple, she starts to form an unlikely friendship with Mrs. Barber, while wondering that something may be a little strange. However, when things truly start to unravel, Frances Wray and Lillian Barber have many quick decisions to make, decisions that will have lasting repercussions.

Book Review:

This lengthy novel by Sarah Waters was an enjoyable, fascinating read through 1920s London.

Firstly, Waters does an incredible job of setting the scene for us. We truly feel we are in an old mansion in 1920s London, and as the reader we can feel the emptiness of the house, feel London post the Great War, and feel what the characters are feeling in this time period. This is all thanks to the great description and the thoughtful dialogue, which makes us want to keep reading to learn what happens next.

In addition, Waters has created some fascinating characters. The four main characters, who all live in this old house with so much history, all have peculiarities of themselves. Waters does a great job bringing the plot to a slow boil, sharing details and surprises about various characters throughout the novel. The mystery / police drama this book takes on halfway through is also effective, as is the exploration of various relationships in the novel. There are some great twists and turns as the plot evolves, and I won’t give anything further away to avoid spoilers.

The one slight detraction for this book is that when considering the characters from the beginning, middle, and end, particularly Lillian Barber, one gets the feeling that things are a little bit inconsistent. For example, Lillian seems very free-spirited and independent in the beginning of the novel, but in the middle and end she seems to become less so. Part of this may be due to the circumstances she finds herself in, but part of it seems a little out of character.

This is a minor complaint though. Overall, the strong characters, interesting plot, and wonderful descriptions of London in the 1920s makes this a historical fiction that is well worth reading.

 

Overall: 4 stars out of 5 stars

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald —

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

Book Review – H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald

h_is_for_hawk

Facts:

Book: H is for Hawk
Author: Helen Macdonald
Genre: Memoir
Year of Release: 2014
Read 306-page paperback edition in December 2016.

Book Description:

In this memoir, the author combines the exploration of her grief at the sudden death of her father with the decision to acquire a new goshawk, a difficult to train bird of prey. As the author rears this young bird, she throws all of her energy into the process, while also considering how it relates to the management of her grief.  She also takes the time to explore her family history and her past fascination with birds of prey.

Book Review:

This memoir by Helen Macdonald truly had some thoughtful insights, and some spectacular scenes.

There were moments within some of the chapters, when the author was describing the training of the goshawk, where we were literally feeling the excitement she felt seeing it soar through the skies of rural England, or the fear she felt when perhaps it had flown away and left her very much alone.  These moments of exhilaration or fear, when they came, were well written and were a testament to how the author could draw the author in.

Furthermore, the chapters where the author explored her grief, whether through the sometimes strained relationships she had with friends and family, or how she worked through her grief in step with the training of the goshawk, was a fascinating thing for the reader to think of.

That all being said, the one thing that detracted from the book was that at times the memoir felt a little bit disjointed. There were some sequences specifically to the goshawk, very few specifically to the grief the author was working through, and sometimes they didn’t flow smoothly or connect well.  Furthermore, there were several chapters devoted to a historical trainer of birds of pray, Mr. T.H. White.  Although the author makes it clear this historical character was important for her, at the end of the day it made for some dull reading to be frank, as the readers did not sign up to read this memoir to learn more about this individual. It served to detract somewhat from the overall story of the author’s life during this time period.

Overall, the memoir had some exciting and thoughtful moments, but also had some slower sections that took away from the overall quality of the piece.

 

Overall: 3 stars out of 5 stars