Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path
by Daniel Abraham
Recommended Ages: 14+

+++ REVIEW IN PROGRESS +++

Sorry about all this pending going on. I have been getting very little recreational screen time lately. If I didn't park these reminders here, I would never be able to catch up!

This is Book 1 of a series titled "The Dagger and the Coin." My review is based on an audiobook read by Pete Bradbury.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jane, Unlimited

Jane, Unlimited
by Kristin Cashore
Recommended Ages: 13+

Jane is a college dropout who is still shaken by the death of her Aunt Magnolia, an undersea wildlife photographer who got caught in a blizzard in Antarctica. The last time Magnolia came back from a photo shoot, she made Jane promise to accept any invitation to visit Tu Reviens, a lavish, cobbled-together mansion on an island off the coast of New York. When she gets just such an invitation from her former tutor Kiran, who grew up there, Jane packs up her umbrella-making supplies and allows herself to get swept into...

Well, what she gets swept into depends on which of five options she chooses at a critical point in this story. Somewhere between a "choose your own adventure" book and an exploration of a multiverse layered with parallel realities, Jane's adventures - depending on which character she decides to follow at that crucial moment - include an art heist investigation, a secret agent caper, a case of paranormal creepy-crawlies, a visit to a dimension in which a convoy of spaceships is all that remains of the Earth, and a fantasy world that I don't dare to describe for fear of blowing the surprise.

At times, while pursuing one path or another, Jane picks up faint echoes of the other might-have-beens. Some versions of her visit to Tu Reviens reflect better on her character than others. Some of them lead to a reasonably good fate, some to a pretty bad one, and only one ties up everything for her in just the way she needs.

It comes together as a uniquely structured book, something like five books in one. It seems to explore a variety of possible stories that could grow wild in the same earth, while leaving the impression that there could have been even more to tell about that weird house with mismatched rooms and the unhappy eccentrics who live there. Grief, loneliness, disillusionment, artistic creativity, feelings of belonging, feelings of being trapped, and fits of dread and shock all come into expressive focus in this one book, which dares to let the curtain drop and let the reader see an author's choices steering the course of a ship-like house, an island, a world. And yet, despite being up-front about its own fictionalness, this book is also an immersive experience.

Adult Content Advisory: Parents who like to keep tabs on what is going into their kids' heads should be advised that this book features some profanity and sexuality, including same-sex attraction and a post-intercourse bedroom scene. It seems to be marketed for teens, but I would advise specifying older teens. On the other hand, a book that invites young readers to wrap their heads around a mash-up of five different fiction genres may both expect and foster a certain maturity of mind.

Kristin Cashore is also the author of the "Seven Kingdoms" books Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. Her forte seems to be fantasy that challenges genre conventions and develops powerful emotions in its reader. It is interesting to see her striking out into an even more unusual direction. I plan to try to keep up with where she goes from here.

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Predator

So, I guess this is the fourth installment in the film franchise that started in 1987 with the "alien hunter stalks commandos in the jungle" movie Predator, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers and gave former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura his signature line, "I ain't got time to bleed." That was followed up by the 1990 "alien hunter stalks cops in L.A." feature Predator 2, starring Danny Glover, Gary Busey and Bill Paxton. The third one, in 2010, was Predators and it starred Adrien Brody and a bunch of TV-grade talent and, let's face it, I didn't see it. Not numbered in this list is the "Alien vs. Predator" franchise (2004's Alien vs. Predator, starring Lance Henriksen, and 2007's Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, starring nobody in particular), which I suppose is a separate series, or a two-film stunt mashing up the "Predator" and "Alien" series. I haven't seen either of them. I kind of feel that I have to say all this, though, because the titles of the movies are somewhat similar and I, for one, haven't seen them all. I'm missing at least half of the "Predator" mythology, so I can't say anything intelligent about series continuity or whatnot. But if you're like me, you'll probably approach movies with titles like "Predators" with a bit of skittishness, not knowing where it fits into the whole confusing mess.

This one, directed by original movie cast member Shane Black, was a fun diversion on the night of my 46th birthday, when I had nothing else in particular to do. Forgive my ignorance of three out of the previous five movies, but if Movie 1 was "commandos meet Predator in jungle" and Movie 2 was "L.A. cops meet Predator in the big city," I reckon Movie 4 (or 6, if you insist) would have to be "Ragtag group of mentally damaged military misfits go after Predator in the suburbs." Actually, there are two Predators in this one. It's not that there's a good Predator and a bad Predator, so much as that one of them is on the lam and the other one is kind of a bounty hunter going after him, and both of them are bad news for humans. The one being chased is big and bad enough, but the one chasing him is bigger and badder, harder to kill, and he seems to mark the main character (an Army Ranger sniper) as his particular prey. Actually, of course, it's not the sniper himself but his autistic son (played by Auggie from Wonder, not that you'd notice without the Auggie makeup), whom the Predator identifies as his nemesis. Funnily enough, the kid has the goods to fight him. But having a heavily armed dad and a squad of "Loonies" at his back doesn't hurt, much.

There's a lot of carnage and gore and explosive, fast-moving action, almost from the beginning of the movie to the end. Character development is done in broad strokes and seems pretty effective, if you don't notice how heavily it relies on stereotypes about certain psychiatric conditions. A more or less non-stop humorous patter gives a perhaps disturbingly light tone to a movie in which most of the characters die horribly and in which death (including by suicide) is portrayed so calmly, casually, one might even say callously. By now there doesn't seem to be much point in concealing the Predator's appearance, so only a handful of scenes are played for suspense. The adrenaline flow in this outing shows a definite preference toward fight as opposed to flight. What seems to me to be an interesting development is the amount of screen devoted to the Predators' technology, which is pretty spiffy and can actually come in useful, if you have a high-functioning savant along for the gore-fest. Also appearing are government bad guys willing to kill their fellow Americans - sometimes almost as threatening as the alien baddies.

The cast is effective, though only somewhat familiar to me. I know from Thomas Jane, who plays a Loony with Tourette's syndrome. Jake Busey, son of Gary, was in one of my favorite paranormal slasher flicks, Peter Jackson's The Frighteners. Trevante Rhodes, whose character puts the "suicide" into this movie's version of the Suicide Squad, was in 12 Strong, which I saw not too long ago. A couple of the other faces look familiar, but their film and TV credits are pretty much stuff I haven't been watching. So, it's a pretty good ensemble without being headlined by a big star. And it's an entertaining enough movie to suggest that some members of the ensemble might get a shot, in the near future, at becoming a big star. It would be interesting to be able to say you were there to see it happen, the magic moment when someone went from nobody in particular to somebody big. If that happens to anyone in this movie, I'll go out on a limb and predict that it will be Boyd Holbrook, who plays the sniper with the autistic son. He proves in this movie that he can pull off an inwardly tortured but tough and super-capable type, with a vulnerable spot hidden somewhere about him (in this case, his son), and with the strange combination of the ability to be an authority figure and a habitual disregard of authority. That's a mouthful. But it's also a good money-making character type. John Krasinski just recently proved he can pull it off (cf. 13 Hours) and where is he now? Playing Jack Ryan. If the makers of Jack Ryan had waited a beat or two before casting the role, they might have discovered Holbrook. Next time, dude.