Book Reviews: Dead of July (***)

As is usual, I received this book from the author in exchange for a review. Despite that kindness I give my absolutely candid opinions below.

The high-level summary of this book is pretty straightforward. Our main character finds herself in a new city and almost immediately embroiled in trouble just because she tried to help out a child in need. What ensues is a mixture of violence, suspense and the paranormal.

On the positive side, our author has taken great and obvious care with her work. Seldom has an independently published novel come across my desk that is so well edited and free of grammatical and spelling problems. Thompson also has a knack for creating characters that pop with realism; these are the sort of folks I’d like to invite out for a drink sometime. They are candid, real and well-formed almost as if the author knows them in real life. I also enjoyed the way the author wove the supernatural and mundane aspects of the world together. Yes, our protagonist has contact with the spirit world but it’s not the center of the story but put forth as a sometimes casual aside. This attitude lends a great deal of believability to the supernatural aspects of the story.

To the negative, I asked the author specifically what genre she was targeting because at times the book seems to drift between suspense and memoir. She replied that it was intended to be suspense and that didn’t surprise me but it did reveal that she has a fairly steep hill to climb from a writing standpoint. The novel is written in the first person and includes a wealth of very specific anecdotes that in no way add to the suspenseful aspects of the novel. That, coupled with the first-person point of view, tends to squash any attempts at really building tension from one page to the next. We know a lot about the character and we can relate to her. She’s very real to the raeder but it’s hard to build much suspense when the protagonist seems to spend so much time doing unrelated unsuspenseful things.

In summary, I like what the author’s done with this book and it has great potential but it does need some tightening up. As a reader we can see the action very vividly but the story does seem to lack the dark and grimy aspects necessary for a true suspense novel. I’d suggest that potential readers perhaps bookmark this author and wait for future installments when she has had a bit more of a chance to perfect her craft as I am confident she will. You may not be on the edge of your seat with this novel but you may well be with the next one.

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Movie Reviews: Ward No. 6 [Russian] (****)

I picked this movie because it looked very lonely on the Amazon Instant watch. Am I glad that I did? Yes, for the most part.

To the positive, this movie encapsulates some pretty deep philosophy, plunging all the way to the depths of pondering existence itself. The story follows a psychiatrist working in a mental ward who slowly goes native and begins to identify more and more with his patients until… well, you’ll see if you watch the movie. The movie shot is in a documentary format that makes the setting feel like a pretty accurate rendering of a 2007 Russian insane asylum.

To the negative, the film takes a LONG time to build up to anything. Even though it’s only 85 minutes long those first 30 seem like they could be condensed to about 5. By the standards of the average movie viewer this one is a bit long in the tooth. Also the yellow subtitles are sometimes exceptionally hard to read against the white backgrounds so keep your eyes ready for gymnastics as you read along with this one.

In summary, this is a slow-mover but one with a great point to make. There’s not a lot of action but plenty to think about if that’s the sort of thing you’re in the mood for.

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Book Reviews: The Counterfeit Priest by Paul Cross (***)

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As is usual I received this book for free directly from the author in exchange for a review. Am I glad I did? Yes, but with some important caveats.

The basic story premise is that a documentary filmmaker has insinuated himself into the very heart of the Catholic church and while there seeks out the church’s deepest darkest secrets. So far so good.

On the positive side, the author takes us on a grand journey into the very bowels of the Papacy and gives us intricate details of the inner workings of that august and ancient body. I have no idea, of course, if anything described in the book is true but it sure makes an interesting read. In addition to telling a fine story Cross can also sure paint a great villain. His characters are crisp and despicable or delightful depending on Cross’s whims.

To the negative, the actual story behind this novel is greatly lacking in cohesion. While the details of Papal tradition are an easy distraction, the fact remains that much of what happens just doesn’t make sense logically. The story is implausible and disjointed and without actors to fill in the missing bits and smooth out the wrinkles the story falters. Additionally, the back cover describes the book as adapted from a screenplay and this is very evident in the writing. The book infuriatingly and randomly switches between past tense and present tense in a most unsettling and confusing way. There’s a fair amount of clean-up to be done before this is a proper novel.

In summary, I really liked this book before the problems began to slowly nibble away at my tolerance. It’s evident that as a movie this might work much better but as a novel it’s just not ready for prime time. I can see what the other reviewers see in it but I think they’re looking past some major issues.

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Movie Reviews: Joker (Hindi with English Subtitles) (*****)

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I picked this movie on Amazon Instant watch because it looked lonely and I’m a sucker for anything Bollywood. This movie did not disappoint but it’s important to know what you’re getting yourself into.

This comedy seems to be patterned after American flicks like Idiocracy and Dumb and Dumber in which the real humor is found in wondering just how stupid can these people be. In that vein the movie does have some truly laugh-out-loud moments but they’re mostly palm-to-forehead jokes rather than anything more intellectual. The story is absurd, the effects are absurd and the acting is at times absurd. So if you’re looking for wacky madcap then here you have it.

Casting seems to fall along the usual lines for films like this; you have a cast of Indian actors and one token white-dude in the main group who is just a tad more nuts than the rest and all the villains are, of course, Americans. Our primary hero looks a lot like Ben Stiller but I have no idea if that’s intentional.

Musically, you of course have all the standard trappings of Bollywood movies. Personally I love this stuff; there’s no music in the world that can get you going on the exercise bike like a Bollywood standard. If you’re not into the Indian music scene then you might move on. My only real complaint is that the songs aren’t subtitled so you have next to no clue what the song is about. At various points in my life I’ve contemplated learning Hindi for the sole purpose of better understanding Indian movies so perhaps this is just extra incentive.

In summary, this movie is great if it happens to be what you’re looking for at this exact instant. It’s pure absurdist humor with some really catchy tunes in the middle. Expect a few serious laughs but mostly smirks and toe-tapping.

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Movie Reviews: Noah (***)

The majority of the negative reviews on this movie seem to center around how un-biblical it is. As a ‘secularist’ (as my Christian friends call me) I couldn’t give less of a hoot about about Biblical accuracy but I still found the movie rather annoying.

To the positive,as is typical in most modern movies, the visuals were wonderful. A lot of the scenery was truly stunning and made me wish I did a lot more traveling. The CGI details of the ark in motion we well done enough and as a work of visual art the movie was pretty good. Also, as much as people complain about the “rock monsters” or “transformers” I found their origin story rather intriguing.

To the negative, I tend to complain endlessly about unnecessary action sequences and this movie had plenty of them. I fail to see how the death and destruction depicted really moved the story along or why anyone bothered to include them. As a story, I tend to think that, ironically, it depended too much on the viewers previous knowledge of the Biblical version of events. I’m at least vaguely familiar with the original story and even with that knowledge I’m not sure why some things happened. It just doesn’t hang together very well at all.

In summary, as everyone else has said, if you’re looking at this movie because you feel it to be somehow Biblical, don’t bother. If you just want a good storyline, probably also don’t bother. If you just like action for the sake of action, well go for it. It’s got that but be warned that your action will be interrupted by some rather feeble attempts at a story.

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Book Reviews: The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne (***)

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As usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review. This time from LibraryThing. Also as usual I provide my scrupulously honest feedback below.

The story runs basically along the lines of the standard ne’er-do-well gambler who runs afoul of not only the law but also the laws of probability until one day… he doesn’t. That’s really all you need to know and probably exactly what you expected.

On the positive side of things, the setting for this novel is fascinating and that fact alone is what kept me reading. The multitude of cultural differences in the East and Macau specifically make for an entertaining backdrop if you’re a xenophile who just likes to see how other people live and think. It seems evident that the author has spent no small amount of time in this region and has gotten to know the natives as well as they know themselves. I believe this is what the more professional reviews tend to refer to as ‘atmospheric’. It was that and it’s a good thing because there wasn’t much else to keep me interested.

To the negative, there just isn’t … anything. To speak bluntly, things happen to this gent but at no point am I at all sure why I should care. He’s neither sympathetic nor sufficiently odious to inspire any real opinion one way or another. The description refers to this book as “suspenseful” and somehow a “ghost story” but don’t believe a word of it. Through the book there’s a passing reference to spirits in two sentences out of the entire text. Even then it’s just passed off as the superstition of the natives and quickly dropped. I just don’t see how this book lives up to its description.

In summary, normally I blast through a book this size in a night but in this case it stretched on for a week because I kept finding reasons not to go back to it. This one drags on abominably and resides on the fetid fringes of not even worth finishing. If you’re really into Eastern culture or love baccarat specifically, this will have some appeal. The rest of you should just move on to something else. An interesting cultural peepshow but not what the majority of the world is going to consider worthwhile.

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Book Reviews: Dancing in the Streets by Steven P. Unger (***)

As is usual I received this book free in exchange for a review. Despite the great kindness of the author I give my candid opinions below.

To start, I couldn’t keep my eyes open long enough to finish this book but I can imagine that for a certain sort of reader with more in common with the subject matter this would be a dizzying and unforgettable book.

I couldn’t wrap my mind around it because of the almost endless detail. The author describes the times in which he lived with a clarity that few others can even begin to claim. His descriptions are almost Dickensian in their richness and if one has even a remote hook with which to relate to this content then they’ll be inexorably drawn into this cross section of history so wonderfully portrayed. Unfortunately, I didn’t have that hook so it left me with mind wandering and doing the math to find out how long it would be before I could move to something else.

So, is this book for you? I would posit that the optimal readers of this book are in their 60s, or devoted fans of life in the 60s and 70s. They have had some chance to travel, rather randomly and broadly and probably have some stories of their own to tell from the era. Readers of this sort will nod in recognition when they read this book while I was just nodding off.

In summary, this wasn’t the book for me and may not be the book for a lot of people but to some out there this will be THE book that crystallizes their own lifetimes and echoes their own adventures in a former world much different than our own. I appreciate it for its attention to detail and its rare literary craftsmanship but I just couldn’t force my eyes to finish it. Probably a pity but such are the random vicissitudes of literature.

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