Thursday, May 21, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Shorefall (Founders, #2) by Robert Jackson Bennett

Shorefall  is the second book in an magical fantasy-adventure trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett called “The Founders.” The first book was titled Foundryside and introduced the majority of the primary characters in the series and the setting of the story.

We are in Tevanne, the major metropolis of this continent. Tevanne is controlled by several powerful families, who rule the city (and it is implied, the rest of the world) through their superior technology. Except in this case their technology is “magic.” Except Bennett has picked a magic system which is well-defined and has scientific undertones. The magic system is called “scriving” and it involves being able to use special symbols called “sigils” which can be used to rewrite physical reality (like changing the weight of an object so it can float, convincing wheels they want to turn in a particular direction, etc). Not everyone, can scrive; it is considered a special, almost divine skill that only certain “advanced” people can do. (Any comparisons to coding and software is completely unintentional, I'm sure!)

The main characters in Shorefall  (and Foundryside) are an interesting, diverse group, starting with Sancia, a former slave and current thief who discovers she has surprising powers. Sancia is an unusual choice to be the main character of a fantasy series: she’s a lesbian with non-white skin in a world where being male and pale are often signs of power and status. The other important characters are Clef, a magical (scribed) device which for some reason appears to be able to communicate telepathically with Sancia and has very special powers of his own; Gregor, a large, muscular former soldier who happens to be the scion of one of the most important families in Tevanne; his mother Ofelia Dandolo, the longtime head of House Dandolo; Orso, the head scriver of House Dandolo and Berenice, Orso’s assistant and (eventually) Sancia’s love interest.

The primary plot of Shorefall  involves the return of one of the ancient Founders of Tevanne, the most powerful of them all, who happens to also have been the creator of Clef. His name is Crasedes Magnus, “the First Hierophant, Destroyer of Empires, Sacrificer of Millions,” and yes he’s as scary as the name signifies he will be. (People die horrible deaths clawing out their own eyes if they see him face to face.)

If you think to yourself, “oh here we go again, Sancia and friends have to save the world as we know it” (which was basically the plot of Foundryside) you’re not wrong, but Bennett writes with verve so we can enjoy the ride. However, one of my issues with the sequel is even though there are definitely new elements, the element of surprise (or sense of novelty) is not one of them. That can mostly be made up by the development of an interesting depth to Sancia’s relationship with Bernice, Orso and Gregor, which all take turns that are MOST definitely surprising. Bennett is excellent at writing action-packed sequences, and there are plenty in Shorefall. Being the middle book, it mostly resolved the tension of this book, while setting up a major showdown for the third and final book. The books in the Founders series are not as self-contained as the three books in Bennett’s excellent Divine Cities trilogy.

Overall, I would say that Shorefall is definitely worth your time and effort to get into (it’s not a quick and light read), especially if you enjoyed Foundryside. And if you admire stories about quick-witted, profane lesbians who can wield near-magical powers, you’ve come to the right place!

Title: Shorefall.
Robert Jackson Bennett.
Paperback: 493 pages.
 Del Rey.
Date Published: April 21, 2020.
Date Read: May 10, 2020.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).


Thursday, May 14, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Girl (Maeve Kerrigan, #3) by Jane Casey

I love Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series (as you can see from my reviews of The Reckoning and The Burning)!! The Last Girl is the third book in this British police procedural murder mystery series with a strong but definitely not perfect female protagonist. As I have said many times, what makes a strong genre book in my opinion, in addition to a compelling main character, are interesting and well-rounded secondary characters. We know it’s a genre book; there’s gonna be some horrific crime (usually a violent murder or three) and our hero is part of a team who is trying to catch the perpetrator or perpetrators while surviving/avoiding/managing interpersonal dynamics of the team members or familial/relationship drama (or both!). We return to these genre books not for the crime-of-the-week but because we are engaged with the characters due to our familiarity with their foibles.

Casey gets it. Her DS Maeve Kerrigan is at times frustratingly obtuse (especially when it comes to the relationship with her boyfriend Rob, another policeman) and is also very good at her job, despite her boor of a boss/partner, DI Josh Derwent. But as the reader we can both root for and rail against Maeve (sometimes in the same chapter!)

The mystery/crime in The Last Girl is particularly heinous. A mother and teen daughter are viciously attacked and killed in the living room while the daughter’s twin sister swam in the pool. The father was attacked (not fatally) in the upstairs bathroom. It turns out the family dynamic was a nightmare, starting with the father/husband who is a defense attorney whom the police had come across before in multiple cases and is a huge *ssh*le. But, that doesn’t mean he’s guilty, does it?

This third book in the series has a relatively surprising ending with a fair number of red herrings tossed in front of the reader for good measure. The longer arcs (Maeve’s increasingly serious relationship with Rob, the return of her dangerous stalker/peeping Tom, Maeve's professional career trajectory at the London Metropolitan Police Murder Squad) are becoming more significant than the resolution of this book’s crime. But that just makes me want to spend more time with Maeve, in the next book. Soon!

Title: The Last Girl.
Jane Casey.
Paperback: 384 pages.
 Minotaur Books.
Date Published: May 21, 2013.
Date Read: April 13, 2020.

★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, May 07, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: Light of Impossible Stars by Gareth L. Powell

Light of Impossible Stars is the third and final book of the Embers Of War trilogy by Gareth L. Powell. A nice feature of the series is that although each book advances the overarching story, they are also readable on their own with each having self-contained plots. Even so, they should still be read in order (because Powell is ruthless about killing off major characters): Embers Of War, Fleet of Knives and Light of Impossible Stars.

In the third book we are introduced to a new major character, Cordelia Pa, and her brother Michael Pa (among others). It’s an interesting choice to have the third book in a trilogy revolve around a new character that didn’t appear in the first two books. Happily, Cordelia is a great character so it’s fun to spend lots of time with her.

The central character of the trilogy as a whole is Trouble Dog, the sentient spaceship that is used to transport the other main characters: Sal Konstantz (the captain of the ship) and Druff (the many-limbed alien who is the primary engineer/mechanic on the ship) among others. The other main character is Ona Sundak (a former space ship captain who ended an interstellar war by committing a horrific act of genocide).

The overarching narrative tension in the entire trilogy is between Sundak’s vision of the future and Konstanz’s (and Trouble Dog’s) opposition to this vision. It takes awhile but eventually we find out what role Cordelia Pa plays in resolving the conflict.

Another feature of the books in the trilogy which is also readily apparent in Light of Impossible Stars  is that they are fast-paced and action-packed. They are also fun to read and great diversions, exactly what good science fiction should do. Additionally, Powell is able to include a diverse cast of characters and present thought-provoking situations for the reader to ponder and reflect on, even after the book is over.

Overall, I would strongly recommend the series as a whole, even though I don’t think the last book is the strongest entry in the trilogy. That said, Light of Impossible Stars is a fun and exciting read in its own right.

Title: Light of Impossible Stars.
Gareth L. Powell.
Paperback: 400 pages.
 Titan Books.
Date Published: February 1, 2020.
Date Read: April 4, 2020.

★★★★☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Thursday, April 16, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Institute by Stephen King

The Institute is the sixth book by Stephen King that I have read in the last few years. I am not a fan of supernatural or horror but every now and then the prolific King does step out of those genre boxes and write books in other genres that are more aligned with my reading interests: science fiction, mystery, and suspense/thriller. Regardless, King is very, very good at what he does, and The Institute is another example of that.

The premise of the story is that there are people who are born with high levels of an enzyme/hormone called BDNF that is correlated with telekinetic and telepathic ability. For some unexplained reason, there’s a group of people who monitor high-BDNF kids and at some point (before they are adults) they kidnap them, murder their families and bring them to a secluded, prison-like facility called “The Institute.” One glaring omission in the story is that no explanation is given for why The Bad Guys only capture kids (especially since the kids' ages vary from 8 to 16, which any parent or teacher would tell you is like grouping dogs and spiders into the same collection). The obvious reason for why the author has made this choice is that it serves King’s desire to accentuate the depth of evil of the antagonists in the story and enhance the reader’s empathy for the protagonists.

The main character in The Institute is Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old super-genius (he has been admitted to MIT *and* Emerson College and intends to attend both simultaneously). Luke is awesome and King does a great job (I think) of telling huge swaths of the story from a pre-pubescent white American boy’s perspective. When Luke gets to The Institute he meets Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris and Avery, who become the core group of children at the center of the story. The main villain is Mrs. (Julia) Sigsby, who runs The Institute with a firm, unsympathetic gloved fist, along with countless adults who have become inured to the mental and physical torture of the many kids that they “care” for.

Some/most of the adults have been told the reason for The Institute’s existence and are true believers in its mission, which they believe is to save the world from nuclear holocaust by exploiting the special powers these kids possess. However, we the reader don’t learn that information until very late in the book, and it is one of the key questions: Are the adults involved with The Institute evil or mercenary? How can any end justify these means?

The Institute does a very good job of raising thought-provoking questions and presenting interesting themes about the nature of evil. If you believe the kidnap, torture and murder of hundreds of people would save the lives of billions of people, would you do it? What if the people in question are children aged 8-16? How certain would you need to be that the deaths of billions are being prevented? How, exactly, does one implement a system of torture/total control of children? What kind of person participates in such a system? And on the flip side, how does one protest/resist when suddenly thrust into an unfair, violent system, especially if you’re just a kid? Will the good guys actually win in the end?

It’s a bit of a cliché at this point because so many of King's written works have been adapted into award-winning blockbusters (e.g. It, Carrie, Misery, The Outsider, The Stand, Pet Sematary, etc) but The Institute reads like a screenplay for a movie (a particular action-packed one!) I think this is because King’s writing in The Institute is so evocative and visually stimulating while the plot is suspenseful and thrilling. I look forward to watching (the inevitable) movie adaptation!

Title: The Institute.
Stephen King.
Paperback: 561 pages.
Date Published: September 10, 2019.
Date Read: December 31, 2019.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Sunday, April 12, 2020

Virginia Enacts LGBT Non-Discrimination Protections!

Virginia has become the first state in the Southern United States (former member of the Confederacy) to enact comprehensive civil rights protections for LGBT people. Last night Governor Ralph Northam signed the Virginia Values Act into law. The legislation (SB 868) goes into effect July 1, 2020 and in addition to prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing and credit on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, it also expanded public accommodations protections on the basis of these categories and others. According to the Williams Institute (at the UCLA School of Law) twenty-three states and the District of Columbia now have statutes specifically protecting LGBT civil rights.

The national LGBT advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign, described the new law:
In addition to sexual orientation and gender identity, the law also creates all-new protections for Virginians in private employment and places of public accommodation on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, disability, and status as a veteran. Virginia is the first state in the South to have non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, the first state in over a decade to add both sexual orientation and gender identity to existing non-discrimination law, and the first state since 1993 to add a prohibition on discrimination in public accommodations (protecting all Virginians) where none existed before.
Virginia Governor Northam said:
"We are building an inclusive Commonwealth where there is opportunity for everyone, and everyone is treated fairly. No longer will LGBTQ Virginians have to fear being fired, evicted, or denied service in public places because of who they are."
The bill was shepherded through the Virginia legislature by two openly gay legislators, Senator Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) and Delegate Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax). As a result of the 2019 legislative elections and the 2017 gubernatorial elections Democrats have complete control of the legislative process in Virginia for the first time in decades. Since I used to live and work in Virginia I am very excited to see this progress!

Monday, February 10, 2020

2020 OSCARS: The Winners

The winners of the 92nd Annual Academy Awards were announced last night, and I correctly predicted 6 of 8 of the Top 8 categories, missing the big wins for "Parasite" in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, which I am quite happy about. Elsewhere I picked 17 of 24 categories correctly. Parasite ended with the most with 4 while both 1917, Once Upon a Hollywood and Ford v Ferrari ended with 3 Oscars each.

Best Picture
Best Director
Parasite – Bong Joon-ho
Best International Feature
Parasite – South Korea
Best Actress
Renee Zellweger – Judy
Best Actor
Joaquin Phoenix – Joker
Best Supporting Actress
Laura Dern – Marriage Story
Best Supporting Actor
Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Best Cinematography
1917 – Roger Deakins
Best Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari – Michael McCusker & Andrew Buckland
Best Original Screenplay
Parasite – Bong Joon Ho & Han Jin Won
Best Adapted Screenplay
Jojo Rabbit – Taika Waititi
Best Original Score
Joker – Hildur Guðnadóttir
Best Animated Feature
Toy Story 4
Best Documentary Feature
American Factory
Best Production Design
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – Barbara Ling & Nancy Haigh
Best Costume Design
Little Women – Jacqueline Durran
Best Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari – Donald Sylvester
Best Sound Mixing
1917 – Mark Taylor & Stuart Wilson
Best Visual Effects
1917 – Guillaume Rocheron, Greg Butler & Dominic Tuohy
Best Make-up and Hairstyling
Bombshell – Kazu Hiro, Anne Morgan & Vivian Baker
Best Original Song
(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again – Rocketman (Elton John & Bernie Taupin)
Best Documentary Short
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Best Animated Short
Hair Love
Best Live Action Short
The Neighbors’ Window

Saturday, February 08, 2020

2020 OSCARS: My Predictions in the Top 8 Categories

Here is my annual prediction post for the 2020 Oscars, i.e. the 92nd Academy Awards. I really just consider the Top 8 categories on the blog but I play the Oscar prediction game like lots of other people (on other websites) where I think about all 24 categories. Last year I predicted 4 of 8 categories correctly and 12 of 24 overall. This year I have only seen a few of the nominated pictures.

Best Picture:
  • “Ford v Ferrari” 
  • “The Irishman” 
  • “Jojo Rabbit” 
  • “Joker” 
  • “Little Women” 
  • “Marriage Story” 
  • 1917” 
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” 
  • Parasite” 
SHOULD WIN: Parasite.
WILL WIN: 1917.

  • Martin Scorsese (“The Irishman”)
  • Todd Phillips (“Joker”)
  • Sam Mendes (“1917”)
  • Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
  • Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”)
SHOULD WIN: Bong Joon Ho, Parasite.
WILL WIN: Sam Mendes, 1917.

Lead Actor:
  • Antonio Banderas (“Pain and Glory”)
  • Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
  • Adam Driver (“Marriage Story”)
  • Joaquin Phoenix (“Joker”)
  • Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”)
SHOULD WIN: Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria).
WILL WIN: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker.

Lead Actress:
  • Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”)
  • Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story”)
  • Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”)
  • Charlize Theron (“Bombshell”)
  • Renee Zellweger (“Judy”)
SHOULD WIN: Renee Zellwegger, Judy.
WILL WIN: Renee Zellwegger, Judy.

Supporting Actor:
  • Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”)
  • Anthony Hopkins (“The Two Popes”)
  • Al Pacino (“The Irishman”)
  • Joe Pesci (“The Irishman”)
  • Brad Pitt (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
SHOULD WIN: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
WILL WIN: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Supporting Actress:
  • Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”
  • Laura Dern (“Marriage Story”)
  • Scarlett Johansson (“Jojo Rabbit”)
  • Florence Pugh (“Little Women”)
  • Margot Robbie (“Bombshell”)
SHOULD WIN: Laura Dern, Marriage Story.
WILL WIN: Laura Dern, Marriage Story.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • Taika Waititi (“Jojo Rabbit”)
  • Steve Zaillian (“The Irishman”)
  • Anthony McCarten (“The Two Popes”)
  • Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”)
  • Todd Phillips and Scott Silver (“Joker”)
SHOULD WIN: Little Women
WILL WIN: Jojo Rabbit.

Original Screenplay:
  • Rian Johnson (“Knives Out”)
  • Noah Baumbach (“Marriage Story”)
  • Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns (“1917”)
  • Quentin Tarantino (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”)
  • Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won (“Parasite”)
SHOULD WIN: Parasite.
WILL WIN: Parasite.


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