Orson Scott Card’s Empire Duet Series Reviewed: Red State vs. Blue State Leads to Benevolent Dictator?

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Orson Scott Card does nothing if he doesn’t thoroughly analyze a topic through his novels. Some may be pure fiction, such as time travel analyzed in Pathfinder and Ruins, stand-ins for the non-fictional such as the Ender series where he analyzes hatred of and hostility towards those who are different (Ender’s Game), then dealing with the consequences of how you treat those who are “other”, alien or different than you. In Empire and Hidden Empire, Mr. Card reflects on the political chasm of those who are conservative and those who are liberal (red state vs. blue state), a civil war that results from the chasm and a potential leader who views the only solution to that and other global problems is to become a benevolent dictator, albeit one who keeps the form of democracy.

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Of course, the idea that the best leaders can’t be voted in a democracy is nothing new nor is the idea of a benevolent king. We can look to Plato’s Republic to remind us that the very desire for office is a trait that precludes you for being the best person for office. Rather the best person must be forced to take office. Jumping forward to the day when Octavian thinks Augustus is a good idea and we have one man’s solution out of the mess that the red/blue state division leads us.

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Orson Scott Card

While I’ll be reviewing the books together, Empire can stand on it’s own; Hidden Empire would be a bit more frustrating to read without Empire. Empire essentially deals with the lead up to and conclusion of the civil war. Hidden Empire leads up to creating a political base taking advantage of deadly events.

What I love about the series:

  • Told within the context of family. Political and global events effect us locally with our own particular take on things. This typically happens in the context of relationships and family. At least for now, family is still the bed rock of relationships. Mr. Card does a beautiful job giving events meaning and impact by telling them from within a family perspective while not losing an eye toward global implications.
  • Clear analysis and articulation of all of the sides. Throughout the story, Mr. Scott nicely presents the perspective of red state, blue state and the various factions that think they have a solution to the ripped social contract that is America.
  • The characters.  I love Rubin, Cecily and the children. I love and empathize with Cole. While I disagree with some of what everyone says, I even appreciate the motivation of General Alton, Aldo Virus, Averill Torrent and the Jeesh. Among the main characters, there really are no totally evil, one-sided characters. They all thought they were doing at least some of what they did for “good.” Ain’t that the way.
  • The Storytelling: This is a good story with well-done dialog, well-timed actions and a great narrative line. Even if we were to ignore what it was about, it’s a good story. I should add that I’m in the minority of assessments of the story. Most think it’s mediocre, even fans of Mr. Card. Indeed, I held off reading the series for a long time due to many reviews but my three teenage boys continued to hound me – “have you read it yet?” I gave in and am glad I did. I’m not sure where the disconnect is but I liked it.
  • The openness of the conclusion. As much as some people suggest Mr. Card has an axe to grind, you’re pretty much left to your own devices about whether morally justifiable action is taken, even in a utilitarian way.

What do I not care for about the series?

  • The deaths: No spoilers, just to say there are some characters I came to care about who die. In particular, there is a point in Hidden Empire where I was fully weeping in my kitchen. Now I confess to tearing up more than most in emotional moments of books and movies, but it’s been a long time since a book had me doubled-over crying like a baby. Alas, good people die.
Stefan Rudnicki

Stefan Rudnicki

Narration

As is my typical practices, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of Empire but the Audible version only of Hidden Empire. Mr. Card provides the narrative introduction to each chapter while Stefan Rudnicki narrates the core of the story. Mr. Rudnicki is a consummate narrator and he brings his golden voice, deft pacing and perfect inflections to bear on these stories. He ranges from a Southern soldier and an eastern-seaboard house wives / political wonk to an Hispanic soldier and a Nigerian boy; now that’s range. An amazing job, as always. Rusty Humphries joins the narration effort in Hidden Empire and does fine job essentially playing himself. If you enjoy audio books, you’ll like this version.

This is good political intrigue brought down to the reality of family in the midst of a deeply divided world. I commend it to your reading, some of which will feel like reading current events.

Notes from the field: Windows Phone 8.1 Update & Customer Retention

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In the mobile world, change has been and continues to be a driving force. As consumers, we watch this relentless change even while we wait a couple of years between changing phones. (Yes, I know there are expensive programs to accelerate this, but for most of us in the U.S., our mobile bill is too high a percentage of our costs as it stands.) I recently reflected on my move from Android to Windows Phone a year and a half into the switch.

Nokia Lumia 920

Nokia Lumia 920

The two take aways from this experience has been that it’s been a great experience, overall. If I could do it all over again with the ability to choose any phone available at the time, I would still choose the Lumia 920 and, with it, Windows Phone 8. The other take away is that my desire to upgrade this long into my two-year contract is much less than in devious phone cycles. I would love the Lumia Icon, for example, but I’m still happy. So, there’s no real desperation. Nonetheless, I’m starting to think about my options when my contract is up within the next six months.

One of the really smart things to do with customers looking for newer, bigger, better & stronger is to at least freshen up what they have. Actually, in the mobile space, where there is so much change, providing good and frequent updates, quickly made available to customers, is critical. Nokia has worked really hard to bring new experiences to the Lumia line through apps and updates. Microsoft has helped in this process and, I hope, will take up the baton. The Windows Phone ecosystem has allowed this to happen faster than Android, albeit with some carrier delays. Android is so fragmented that you were lucky if you received one update within your two year contract and it came much later than for the same phone without the carrier add-ons.

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Windows Phone 8 Left – Windows Phone 8.1 Right

As you can see above, 8.1 enables transparent tiles with a background picture allowed to display (yes, it’s a Tardis – this is called Joe’s Geekfest, after all). It also allows more tiles on the screen. This seems small, but when your window into your mobile world looks significantly different, your mobile experience is different. Of course, the update isn’t just eye candy, but the point is that well into the second half of my contract, where I might be getting antsy for a new experience, I get one. My eye is less likely to rove to a new platform, phone or carrier. This is not just nice, this make really good business sense. When those updates come out and many of your customers can’t experience them (or have a very delayed experience}, you have just the opposite effect – you alienate your customer. You become the worst kind of tease when others are moving on to new things.

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Now if were just sugar, the thrill is short. Fortunately Microsoft and Nokia (now part of Microsoft) are smarter than that. There is lots more available in this update, but I’ll highlight two that are both functional and improve the aesthetic experience, both visually and sonically, namely Cortana and the updated calendar.

- My favorite Cortana ad

Cortana: Windows Phone already had pretty good voice integration (certainly better than my old Froyo & Gingerbread Android experience). Cortana not only enhances that experience but sounds natural, even conversational. This is in no small part due to employing Jen Taylor’s voice talent (the voice of Cortana in the Halo game series). It also in how it’s rendered and the algorithms in it’s response. While “my” Cortana is still learning and defaults pretty readily to a web search, it does a nice job responding.

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Calendar: With Windows Phone 8, you typically went between a day, month and to do views.

Windows Phone 8 Calendar

Windows Phone 8 Calendar

Whereas 8.1 has views that dynamically allow you to drill in. So, the default look at the week is:

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Selecting into a day brings an scrollable, expanded view:

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Not huge, but hugely useful. The weather’s a nice touch as well.

Like I said before, lots of other nice touches, from an integrated Skype button on calling screen to better granularity in notification sounds and volume.

The salient point is that even with carrier delays, Windows Phone 8 users have or will have the updates and they’ll have a new experience to tide them over. In our own customers experiences, there are often big wins with small updates that keep it fresh even while we plan larger changes. Happy now and happier later.

Charlie Holmberg’s The Paper Magician Review – An Utterly Delightful Story Whose Magic Draws Us In and Whisks Us Home

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It was some lovely serendipity that brought me to Charlie Holmberg’s, The Paper Magician. It’s part of Amazon’s Kindle First program where you pick among some novels about to be published whose price is included in your Prime membership. This is the second novel I acquired this way (Time Bound being the first). So far, the program is batting 1000. The serendipity part of this is the astonishing level of polish, comedic timing and ability to generate poignant moments in a first novel.

Breakdown of The Paper Magician Review:

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Charlie N. Holmberg

Introduction:

Early on in the book, I found myself alternately smiling and chuckling at the protagonist, Ceony Twill, and her interaction with Magician Emery Thane, the magician to whom she’s apprenticed.  Set in turn of the 20th century London, Ceony has just graduated from well-regarded school for magicians and now must take up her apprenticeship. In Ms. Holmberg’s well-constructed world, magicians must bind themselves to a material such as glass, metal or paper and may practice magic only with it. Mg. Thane is a Folder (bound to Paper) and that’s considered about as sexy as it sounds. Ceony did well at school and would normally have a choice of materials among which she may bind herself. There are, however, a dearth of Folders, primarily due to the aforementioned lack of sexiness, and so the school assigned her to Paper. She is less than thrilled.

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Ceony can come across a bit haughty and more than a little forthright in her dealings with those in authority. She certainly doesn’t back down. Mg. Thane keeps his cards close to the vest, betraying little except through his expressive eyes. Through her ties to Emery, Ceony becomes embroiled in an adventure, risking life and limb, against the nefarious Excisioners.

Before I dive in further, I want to mention a new, at least to  me, practice of authors picking a playlist which ties to their book by reminding them of characters or would play well to certain scenes. Ms. Holmbrerg highlights her playlist here. It’s not necessarily music that would be in the background while you read although you could. I personally can’t read to singing but often read to other music (discussed here).

I’ll be honest, reviewing The Paper Magician presents a challenge. Part of the genius of the book are a number of brilliant choice points Ms. Holmberg makes, not only in the plot, but also the way in which she tells the story. The challenge is that the evidence for these moves lies within the realm of spoilers. We all know that special place in hell, to which Shepherd Book refers, reserved for those who take advantage of women is also reserved for those who spoil a story for others. So, for those who have yet to read, and you will want to read it, I’ll provide fairly generic reasons. Below a spoiler warning line, I’ll go into a bit more detail for those of you who’ve read it and want to see if we concur.

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Why so serious?

Humor & Pathos:

One aspect of Ms. Holmberg’s storytelling I love is her deft touch using both humor and pathos. She has a number of seemingly throw-away moments that have you smiling almost from the beginning. Typically these are through amusing situations and the responses within them rather than through funny dialog. I just know that I couldn’t help smiling through much of the story. The empathy and charity (or love, sometimes costly, resulting in action) displayed by Emery and, more surprisingly by Ceony as well, make for lovely moments of surprised joy and pain commingled with care. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a syrupy sweet novel. There’s some real nastiness on the part of the bad guys and moments of steely resolve from the good guys. It is precisely due to Ceony’s and Emery’s empathy and charity towards one another and others, however, that the moments of steel and indignation take on a bit more meaning and weight.

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Another paper magician – Origami Swan by phissen – phissen.deviantart.com/

Brilliant Plot Mechanism:

Another aspect of her storytelling I love is a plot mechanism she uses to simultaneously provide back story for her readers and Ceony on Mg. Thane’s life whilst building the relationship between the two. This is all done through an action-packed cat-and-mouse game between a powerful and dangerous Excisioner and Ceony. No long expositions here. There are other aspects that make this plot mechanism even more clever but that’s as far as I can go before dangling perilously close to the spoiler line (and that special reserved place).
Well executed clever & caring v.s. powerful & selfish:

We’ve seen a number of novels where clever courage lived out through sacrificial action beat brute force and power. I, for one, don’t ever tire of it, but the devil’s in the details and Ms. Holmberg executes the idea in a particularly artful manner. It never strikes one as too contrived or artificial. Alas, I’m once again limited in details of how she does this due to those pesky spoilers.

Challenges:

What did I find a little less appealing? There were times when Ceony went from seemingly cocky to quite contrite at the drop of a hat. Now few real people always act consistently but. on occasion, Ceony’s shifts seem a bit much  This stark change may have been exacerbated by the formal and stiff language ( for a teen, even one from her time period) used by Ceony, contrasted with casual speech at other times. Neither the circumstances, nor those participating in the dialog, seemed to provide a reason for these changes. These, however, are nits within the whole context of the story. Overall, the dialog was natural, the action well-paced and the narrative beautifully done.  This would be a fabulous 4th or 5th novel; it’s nothing short of astonishing in a debut novel.

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Amy McFadden

Narration:

As is my typical practice, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of the book. Amy McFadden did yeoman’s work through her narration. I particularly like her Emery with a mostly calm voice often infused with a hint of amusement. Her Lira’s syrupy condescension and self-satisfied humor as she is about to harm or kill is also brilliant. My only nit is that the tone of Ceony’s voice seems to waiver from posh Etonian English to a much more common flavor from time to time, again without circumstance seeming to warrant a change. I don’t believe Ms. McFadden is a native of the UK, so maintaining the dialect throughout was quite a feat. Anyway, the flips are rare and didn’t distract from a good narration of the book. I’m delighted she is also the narrator for The Glass Magician and anticipate her narrating any other additions to the series.

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Summary:

To sum up, the comedic touch is perfect, the action and danger well executed, the relationships are believable, nicely developed and drove the narrative, and the actual writing is spot on. Simply put, it was a fun read that was over all too quickly (even though this did save me from multiple sleep deprived nights). I also want to give a shout-out to a beautiful ending. Ms. Holmberg tied up this book nicely while setting up the end; all too often an initial book in a series simply stops without fully ending (more here) but she doesn’t fall into that trap. I’m seriously looking forward to The Glass Magician which is out November 2nd and which I’ve pre-ordered. I highly commend The Paper Magician for your reading pleasure.

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***SPOILER ALERT*** Don’t read past this line if you haven’t read the book

Arguments for brilliance: OK, let’s get down to brass tacks. I make some pretty strong claims about the humor, of the sheer cleverness of the story and well executed theme of bright good guys beat strong bad guys. On what basis do I make these claims? Well, let’s take the humor, or rather joyful moments first. You’ve got to love her awkward introduction to Mg. Thane and more awkward moments during the first week of the apprenticeship. For example, her first impressions of being assigned as Mg. Thane’s apprenticeship and his abode: “I’ve been shot to hell.” as told to her mentor from school. As Ceony makes it clear, she has no desire to Fold and looks more than slightly askance at Thane’s sanity. She discovers that he is her benefactor who paid her tuition, however, so she’s quickly falling all over herself to thank him and embarrassed by they way she treated him. This is all done with humorous vignettes. Of course, she discovers much later that his empathy in this area was quite natural as he found himself pushed to be a Folder as well.  Typical of their interchanges:

“The front you put onto you home is horrid,” she quipped. Mg. Aviosky passed Ceony a warning look as she stepped into the dining room. Mg. Thane mere replied, “Yes. Pleasant, isn’t it?”

So Mg. Thane simultaneously refuses to be goaded while he piques her ire. This dance between them is fun, but then he does something like create Fennel and throws her completely off. Who of didn’t smile when we read:

Ceony gaped in surprise. There, wagging its little paper tail, stood a dog.

What a brilliant move! It allays homesickness, wins the regard and loyalty of your apprentice, shows care and provides a palpable example of the benefits of Folding.

Now, however, we come to the genius bit. How brilliant is the whole taking of Emery’s heart and her having to go through it. Add to that the four chambers mapping to our light and dark sides of joyful moments, hopes, doubts and those dreadful things we think or do. In this plot device, Ceony comes to know his history and thereby his character (as do we). She sees more clearly her affection for him and grows to know him more quickly than she could in any other way. This will allow Ms. Holmberg to use this intimacy and knowledge without a lot of further development in future books in the series. But wait there’s more! It also allows him to know she knows much of his history

“It’s my heart, Ceony. Of course I would know what’s in it. Most of it, at least.

It allows Ceony to get to know her enemy Lira so that she can defeat her. Finally, it allows Emery and Ceony to worked together as a team in a way that normally couldn’t happen between magician and apprentice. That’s like 6 birds with one stone, albeit a very large stone. The heart scene reminded me a bit of Frodo and Sam slogging through the dangers of the Tower of Cirith Ungol and Mordor. It felt like it lasted forever (it’s 42% of the book), I was delighted when they finally got through it but there was no better way for the story to go. Now making that plot device, my friends, is sheer genius.

Finally, we see Ceony, top of her class, pushed to bond with Paper, the apparently lowliest of the materials. Opposing her is Lira, a powerful Excisionist who will kill to bring herself material (mainly blood) for magic. What defeats Lira?

  • Knowledge – Ceony uses her fabulous memory (which can be a curse) and wits to learn Folding, Lira’s weaknesses, and options to maneuver out of danger
  • Care – Had Ceony not cared, she would have stayed (relatively) safe at home and Emery would be lost to the world. Yes, some of this is enlightened self-interest but it is indicative of caring.
  • Team-work – Emery was able to help Ceony at the end. She had to battle on her own, but Emery was able to equip her.
  • Selflessness – If Ceony had not been willing to sacrifice herself, if need be, to defeat Lira, she would not have made it.

In all of this,  everything she performs something likely or possible. Ms. Holmberg deftly moves the good to triumph in plausible ways.

So, there you have some relatively brief examples of humor, a brilliant plot device, and bright and caring good triumphing over strong and selfish evil. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments below.

Midnight in Paris Review – Finding The Lost Generation Allows Us to be Found

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An Experiment – I’m trying something new: for the second time I’m creating an audio version the review (read by yours truly) below. If this is something you might be interested in future reviews (is it helpful, it doesn’t matter to you or it gets in the way), please let me know in the comments below, as well as any feedback on the reading itself. Thanks

 

 

In Midnight in Paris we see the magic of Woody Allen come alive. Gil (Owen Wilson) is drawn into ’20s Paris connecting with the Lost Generation in a pure and honest relationship with Ernest Hemingway, the fiery relationship of Picasso with Adriana and his relationship to the city. Midnight in Paris is an enjoyable, fairly light romp into this lovely Paris, the City of Lights, peopled with caricatures of famous figures while allowing us to recognize our craving for authentic living.

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So, for a guy who mostly writes about books, this is the third movie in a row I’ve reviewed with another Woody Allen film, Magic in the Moonlight being one and The Hundred-Foot Journey, the other. Part of this is just serendipity, but I’m on a bit of tear through some missed Woody Allen films, so next is To Rome with Love.

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Owen Wilson plays Gil perfectly as an unpretentious writer who is intelligent but allows others expectations to drive his life. He so easily follows and is all too pliable. His fiancé, Inez, while not the most unpleasant of women, is prosaic in her thinking, as is her family. Gil however, as the above poster intimates, lives in a Chagallian colored world with more vibrancy than her family will allow.

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Gil thinks the answer to all of this is a more romantic time in which he engages both the physical lights of Paris reflected in raindrops and the literary luminaries of the Lost Generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray and Gertrude Stein. Woody Allen plays them broad and comedic while still conveying the excitement in the city for arts and literature. I especially like Hemingway with his true, brave and clean brevity and desire for a fight and Dali’s maniacal fascination with Gil’s nose as reminiscent of a rhinoceros. As always in a Woody Allen film, the entire cast was amazing ensemble, with each, in their turn, perfection. Michael Sheen’s perfectly pompous pedantic is precisely the personality to present. Seriously, he does a great job with the role- plays it up without becoming a hammy cartoon character.  Corey Stoll’s Hemingway is so much fun to watch as is Andrien Brody’s Dali; both are broad-brush drawings of the men, really playing their characteristics out on their sleeve. It works, especially considering what they have to convey in relatively brief screen time.

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Tom Cordier as Man Ray & Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali

The film mainly deals with two tried-and-true themes – don’t be afraid to follow your heart but don’t get fooled that the grass is greener in another time or place. Gil has to come to grips with following his passion while realizing what that passion truly is. Mr. Allen explores these issue through Gil’s encounter with the characters and times. The non-subtle portrayals of the time, place and people provide a stark contrast for Gil to see that his apparent dilemma is based on a false dichotomy.

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There are so many levels on which to enjoy this story – the romances and relationships between Gil and his fiancé Inez, Gil and Adriana from the ’20s crowd, Gil and his work as a script writer and book author and Gil and his times and that of the 20s. Each of these aspects are done well, but the way that they’re woven together in the film is genius.

This is a fun and thoughtful, well acted movie with a strong cast through-out. For Woody Allen, it’s pretty tame on the sexual innuendo and language. It’s one of my favorite Wood Allen films and I highly recommend it.

ParisintheRain

 

 

The Hundred-Foot Journey Review: An Exquisite Journey of a Lifetime

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An Experiment – I’m trying something new: below is an audio version the review (read by yours truly). If this is something you might be interested in future reviews (is it helpful, it doesn’t matter to you or it gets in the way), please let me know in the comments below, as well as any feedback on the reading itself. Thanks

 

The mix of cultures and cuisine, cutlery and cutting remarks and rosemary and romance presented by The Hundred-Foot Journey is an absolute delight. Before I dive into the movie, let’s get a couple things out of the way – yes, it is a fun, mostly light romantic comedy. If you hate that, you’ll probably want to give this miss. Yes, it has a Disnesyesque ending. If you can’t enjoy some happy, well, that’s sad for you. The jaded will probably diss the film (which is not the same as claiming that you’re jaded if you don’t like the film – I’m not saying that). Let me also make clear where I stand – I believe it’s one of the best films of 2014. A clash of cultures, a tie that binds and a pain that’s remembered and re-lived all come together to give this film grit and heart. Add to that a great cast and adroit directing and you have a recipe for a great film.

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[Full disclosure: unlike my typical practice, I am all about books after all, I did not read Richard C. Morais's book prior to the movie. I intend to amend that error in the near future. ]

We have an uptight, controlling restaurateur with many centuries of French cuisine tradition, and a Michelin star behind her juxtaposed to an emotive, talkative family running an Indian restaurant right across the street in a country village. Some may find this a bit much and all too familiar. Of course this kind of contrast has been done before, from The Prince and the Pauper to My Big Fat Greek Wedding (which I also liked), so what makes The Hundred-Foot Journey so special? It’s all in the execution. First, we have Helen Mirren (nobody her age should look so good) at the top of her game as Mme. Mallory.

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Ms. Mirren never plays her character one-dimensionally. Yes she is controlling, traditional and stubborn but like a good soup, however, there are complexities layered in. This is most definitely not a one woman show, however. Om Puri plays her counterpart with a genuineness and ease that would have you eating at Maison Mumbai.

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Manish Dayal, as the gifted chef Hassan, and Charlotte Le Bon as Marguerite, the fresh-faced countryside French beauty of a sous-chef, both play their roles perfectly. I particularly love the fact that, while helpful and caring, she does not back down or crumple under the weight of Hassan’s culinary gifts. Hassan and Marguerite’s interplay is a wonderful dance of fleeting moves in and around each other while rarely directly butting heads or lips.This allows the characters, and the story, to develop without simply bogging down into cliché.

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Director Lasse Hallström has a deft hand on the film avoiding the twin shoals of taking itself too seriously or becoming a farce. It is poignant precisely because it is funny and sad, it is this hilarious competition and ugly racism and it is these lonely people holding on to the past when they must let go to find their way that build the heart of the film. An example of the brilliant directorial moves that kept it light were the “eyes” – the quick shots between the various players in this culture war “showdown.” An example of what kept it from being silly was the fact that the culture wars escalate out of control and go where the initiators didn’t intend.

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While much of the movie’s focus is the business of food, it is really about community and belonging, family and friends and priorities of values. This is no heavy-handed fable; the narrative drives forward based on the relationships and restaurants. Within the context of this story, we are reminded about our universal need to belong (and include others), to love and be loved and that hate never helps. It doesn’t even preserve that which needs no defense.

 

 

I hope I’ve given enough of a hint of the film to entice you to see it without resorting to spoilers. You may notice that it’s not loved by a number of the critics, as is typical of this type of movie. For example, only 67% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes like it while 85% of the audience do. Please don’t let critics dissuade you from seeing it (unless you enjoy feeling above the bourgeoisie values of community and family). Maybe more conflict and loss would somehow deepen the film, but I’m OK with things going fairly OK. Somehow, I’ll even survive a happy ending. One further note: it’s nice and refreshing to not wade through a bunch of cussing and sex to get through to a story. This movie is very light on both. I unreservedly recommend the film to you.

 

Magic in the Moonlight Review – Mesmerized by the Magic Therein

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On the surface, there seems nothing particularly special about Magic in the Moonlight, Woody Allen’s latest foray into intelligent romance. However, I quite liked the movie and even found it mesmerizing. However, it appears that I am in the minority. Let’s find out why. Now, I admit, there’s a little creepy element to it given the 28 year difference between Colin Firth’s age, albeit, he’s aging disgustingly well, and Emma Stone’s in a romantic relationship. This is made even more creepy by Mr. Allen’s personal history with the adopted daughter of his erstwhile partner Mia Farrow. (Of course, this isn’t the first time Mr. Allen has had wildly divergent ages between the love interests, often including himself.)

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Was it the surprising plot twists that made it intriguing? Well, while there were a couple of small surprises, over all, you knew where the plot was heading. Was it the chemistry between Mr. Firth and Ms. Stone? Not so much. While that was mostly on purpose (I’ll get to that later), there wasn’t much of a spark there. The joy comes from the cast and the overall ambiance of the film – costumes, cinematography,music, manners and the times. This ties into expectations for the film; Magic in the Moonlight seems to me to be a relatively light, bon bon of a film that’s more about characters and sketching vignettes than big, broad comedy or a brilliant film with poignant pokes at society. It’s really about getting the measure of a sliver of time with its people and places more than anything else. Some might not find that worthwhile, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Notwithstanding Mr. Firth’s and Ms. Stone star power, like many of Mr. Allen’s films, this felt like an ensemble cast. Indeed, Eileen Atkins seemed to steal every scene during which she has screen time. David Thomson, of the National Review, suggests, along with this being Woody Allen’s worst movie, that Ms. Atkins was fed only boorish dialog to inflict upon the poor, innocent viewer where she unsubtly hammered her point to look beyond the here and now in a calculus of self-interest. Maybe, but what I mostly saw was this lovely relationship with her nephew with her taking some delight in him finally getting a life. I love that it was said from the side whilst culling flowers, rather than face on. There was the main conversation with this side dialogue about his loosening up. I found myself drawn to her dominating the landscape even while more well-know and prettier stars fluttered about. Mostly, however, I mean that the entire bench was incredibly deep in this film. Simon McBurney’s deftly played Howard Burkan was spot on. I’m not sure how this could have been played better. Hamish Linklater’s love-besotted Brice was great, even with vibrato-laced singing and questionable Ukulele playing. Even roles with little screen time like Mrs. Baker (Marcia Gay Harden) and Caroline (Erica Leerhsen) did all that their roles required and more. In very brief dialog, Ms. Harden’s conning skills come to the fore and Ms. Leerhsen provides a clear portrait of a girl of her times and class with breezy grace.

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Turning to our protagonists, Stanley (Colin Firth) and Sophie (Emma Stone), we are presented with broad-stroke archetypes that slowly become fleshed out as real people. Stanley presents the hard-boiled man of science who suggests that’s incompatible with any belief of what cannot be measured; he is pitted against a putative spiritualist in the form of a distractingly pretty girl. She is quick and comfortable with herself even if she hasn’t been raised as a lady of leisure. For much of this film, the dynamic is hunter and hunted/ detective and charlatan. Any seductive attempts are merely another weapon to be used in this game of cat and mice. Both Stanley and Sophie are pragmatic people, in their own ways. So while the characters relationship spark was dim at best, their inability to demonstrate emotional connection seems in step with their characters even if makes for a bit duller movie.

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A bit more surprising, Mr. Thomson states: “Then where is the moonlight, and why has cinematographer Darius Khondji been hired to photograph the south of France when Allen can hardly seem bothered with it?” Um, did he see the shots along the beach, the vistas from the house, the gardens, the dance scene or the, well, everything? I’m not sure what his hopes were, but the whole look and feel of Magic in the Moonlight was mesmerizing from the costumes to cars or the jazz club to the observatory. The world Mr. Allen created was as much a character in the film as Howard. This film, like an impressionist painting, captured a world in a moment and a beautiful moment it was.

So while this may not be winning any acting or directing Oscars, I would rather sit through a couple hours of the light fun, sometimes wit and stark beauty of this film than many including just about any Transformers movie. I guess Mr. Thomson requires a director to knock it out the park or go home. I think as nice double will just fine thank you. To put it another way, I would be more than delighted to see  it again. I commend it to your viewing pleasure.

Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, issue 6

J. T. Frazier:

The Little Red Reviewer has yet another beautiful review, this time of Bastion SF Magazine

Originally posted on the Little Red Reviewer:

bastion 6Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, issue 6

Published September 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the Editor (thanks!)

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This was a very satisfying, yet difficult issue to get through. Let me unpack that a little, because it sounds a little mean, and I meant it to be the opposite.  this isn’t a very long issue, so I’d planned to binge read the entire thing in one or two sittings. The  stories in issue 6 focus around death and memories, risk and responsibility, things we all have to deal with but are terrified to talk about.  After a couple of stories I needed to take a break and read or watch something happy.  But it was really hard to take a break, because the stories all start with a great hook! When fiction can affect you like that, this is…

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Rysa Walker’s Timebound Reviewed: Unbounded Beguiling Book

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Timebound

What? you say. Another time traveling novel? Haven’t we seen every permutation of that idea there is? Possibly, but it still makes great drama. That’s a little like thinking- hey, another love story – didn’t Romeo & Juliet cover that? Rysa Walker uses the time traveling plot device to propel us into a compelling story of power, love, loss and broken, complex relationships. Our teenage protagonist, Kate, finds herself caught up in a world of gifted time travelers using this über cool Chronos Key which can be controlled by your eyes. One of the real benefits of the time traveling is that it allows you to become immersed in history (or play with future predictions). This is used with particular effectiveness here. Ms. Walker is a historian (and a fellow Caryite, who knew?) and does a marvelous job bringing 1893 Chicago and The World’s Columbian Exposition (AKA World’s Fair) to life. She was even able to bring in the nefarious H. H. Holme’s, the first documented serial killer in America and the murders he committed during the World’s Fair (see Erik Larson‘s The Devil in the White City for all of the seedy details of this sick man).

Rysa Walker

Rysa Walker

I ran into Timebound through a bit of Amazonian serendipity; Timebound was part of the Kindle First program (another great feature of being Kindle Prime – each month, you have a choice among 4 not-yet-published books on Kindle to own at no additional cost). Both the cover and the premise took my fancy. I’m glad they did.

This fun, rewarding read revolves around a family, many of whom can operate these time keys. One of them abuses this ability to use his knowledge of events to come (when traveling to the pass) to become wealthy and to manipulate events so that he can gain power. Kate & her grandmother try to stop him with the help of others. Of course, Kate will need to work with her younger grandmother (awkward) with the help of some friends (including current and erstwhile boyfriends, yup, more awkwardness). As you can imagine with family and friends, the relationships become quite complex between current, future and alternate timeline ties that bind.

 

What were some of the things I loved about Timebound?

  • Pacing: Ms. Walker’s ability to keep the pressure on an across-time hunt whilst building budding relationships amongst family members and potential suitors all the while giving enough descriptive detail to make it feel like we visited the 1893 World’s Fair is nothing short of astonishing. Absolutely dead on.
  • Relationships: Relationships are tricky enough; messing with earlier, future and alternative timeline selves is even trickier. Kate had a challenging enough situation with divorced parents, her mother estranged from her grandmother and the normal challenges of being a teen. Adding on the time element simply explodes those challenges exponentially. I can’t imagine how Ms. Walker kept all of it straight while meshing them into to the plot elements.
  • History: How cool would it be to travel back in time to well known events? Well, unless you have your own time traveling mechanism, Timebound would probably be your best bet to do so. Ms. Walker is a historian and that really comes out in the details of the World’s Fair scenes. It’s not so detailed that you feel like you’re reading a history text book but gives enough hints, descriptions and dialog to provide great feel for the time.
  • Ending: Ms. Walker’s ending was a delight in that she wrapped up the current book with aplomb whilst setting herself up for book two. Good endings are more rare than one would think and I never take them for granted.

What did I not care for in Timebound? There really weren’t any problems. If I had to dig for an issue it would be that Kate’s Dad, Harry and boyfriend, Trey are a little too perfect. These are some seriously patient, understanding guys who’ll stick with you at all costs; Kiernan’s pretty close to sainthood as well. On the one hand, I would say to all teen guys reading this book: emulate Trey (except for the wanting sex prior to marriage part – back off), but on the other hand, that’s a depressingly high standard to measure oneself against. The women come off less well. Kate’s Mom, Deborah, divorces Mr. Perfect and is irritated at her pretty cool, albeit focused and demanding grandmother while said grandmother is, well, pretty focused and demanding. This book may have been a bit more interesting if the guys were a little less perfect but maybe they were just to offset Mr. Holmes’ (America’s Jack-the-Ripper) unabated, cold-blooded evil.

Kate Rudd

Kate Rudd

Typically, I flip between the Kindle and Audible versions of books, but I listened to the whole audio book since it’s performed by one of my favorite narrators, Kate Rudd. A couple of my other favorite books she’s performed are The Fault in Our Stars and The Mad Scientists Daughter. Her voice is a natural for Kate. I love her Kiernan and actually love the fact the Trey and Harry sound similar. The boys our daughters date should, in part, remind them of the Dad, right? As always, Ms. Rudd’s timing, inflection and clarity are all spot on. I hope that she continues with the series. lf you enjoy audiobooks, I highly commend this version to you.

Timebound was great fun. I’m totally caught up in the Chronos Files now and have already pre-ordered its sequel, Time’s Edge, coming out October 21st.

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Timebound @ Amazon:

Timebound

 

 

Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife – A Quick Shout Out to a Clever, Dark Novel

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If you like your stories like I like my chocolate and coffee – dark – The Book of the Unnamed Midwife may be for you. I’ve never posted about a book I’ve not fully read before, but I want to mention this one. While I’m fond of dark chocolate and coffee, I like my books a little on the lighter side. Dystopian, post-apocalyptic & plague-ridden worlds sometimes find room on my bookshelf (virtual or otherwise), but this one makes Hugh Howey’s Wool look like light-weight fuzz. Things go quite amiss in her world decimated by plague, especially if you’re female. After reading the first few chapters, I stopped because, and I freely admit it, I’m a whimp and it was painful for me to read simply due to the unabated nastiness of the world depicting “man’s inhumanity towards man.” I’m making an exception to my not-posting-on-something-not-fully-read rule because Ms. Elison’s writing is fabulous. Her pacing is spot-on, dialog tight and world descriptions (all too well) place you on the scene.

Meg Elison

Meg Elison

So for those of you that love seeing people work through devastating world changes, you chew through dystopian novels for breakfast and want to read a clever, well-written novel with challenges galore, give The Book of the Unnamed Midwife a shot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bastion Magazine Review – September’s Scintillating Issue

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I’ve become a bit of a fan of the fine work Bastion Magazine is doing with science fiction short stories. September will be only their 6th issue yet the quality of the stories is nothing short of amazing. While the first issue was good, each issue has gotten progressively better to the point where September’s can go head-to-head with the most established SciFi magazines; the stories are consistently excellent throughout the magazine. And, of course, wicked cool cover art work, once again calling on the talent of the fabulous Milan Jaram.

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I most recently touched on some of the Basition’s work in Ode to the Joy of SciFi Short Stories, which highlighted, among other stories, Axel Taiari‘s fabulous Degausser. Bastion’s work is also part of the inspiration for Visual Signs Part 2: How Visual Design Builds Bridges from Content to Consumer and  Visual Signs Part 3: SciFi Magazines, Covers, and Pitching The Story. Finally, I had an opportunity to do an interview with R. Leigh Hennig, its editor. Here I am again, with a review of the September issue. Why so much focus on Bastion? There are a number of reasons but primarily it’s because I love short story and, in particular, SciFi short story. Bastion is completely focused on quality SciFi short stories. Another reason is reflected in the first paragraph – to go from no magazine to one that has an entire issue of top notch stories is remarkable and a tribute to Mr. Hennig and all those involved in the magazine. Finally, let’s be real here, I’m not all that altruistic, I love the stories. [Full disclosure: I'm not directly associated with Bastion nor do I receive compensation from them; I did receive a free advanced review copy for an honest review.]

So, enough with all that gushy stuff, let’s get down to the business of storytelling. Before I look at individual stories, I want to highlight a couple of themes I noticed (beyond the theme of death).

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1. Endings: These folks know how to end a story. You have a maximum of 5000 words to set the stage, build your world, flesh out characters and build relationships. That is an Herculean task and yet they wrap up their stories and leave us wanting more. Alas, with a much broader “landing sight” quite a few long form writers fail to do so.

2. Bravery and Relationships: A number of the stories are all about making difficult choices, often effecting the ones we love, and living out those choices. The authors seem to share the idea that a life fully lived takes risks – safe lives are grey lives lived in the shadow world of those not fully awake.

3. Imagination: Speaking of leaving us wanting more, I love how most of the stories end with the next step clearly pointed out but left to us to fill in the complete. We’re invited to use our imaginations to see where the next part of the journey goes.

Now for the stories themselves and some brief spoiler-free sketches or thoughts sparked from the stories:

In John Herman’s Pancakes,  we our provided a vista of future world with marvelous technology that does no more to reconcile a broken family than it does today. Mr. Herman paints this futuristic context within which a  long-standing inner-family feud is played out.  The son and father talk past each other and cannot be together in a meaningful way. All the burden of guilt is poured into a moment where loss and loathing, remorse and revulsion are juxtaposed to one another. All of this is splendidly laid out in this brief tale.

Stephanie Herman’s The Long, Slow War portrays true bravery in a context where there are no easy answers, no quick fixes. I am again reminded how much cultural history, relationships and current challenges are conveyed in a brief span of writing. No long expositions, rather Ms. Herman sneeks us glimpses within this beautifully crafted story. I think King’s Mark will need to go on the TBR list (plus – coolest Twitter handle ever – @wildliterati). James Hart’s The Loop plays on similar themes in a very different context – the bravery of stepping out into the unknown rather than playing it (relatively) safe. Mr. Hart seems to invite us to do likewise as we write our own stories for our days and years ahead. Bravery in the face of death isn’t limited to dangers foreseen but also to ends foretold. In J. C. Davis’s Death Wears Yellow, we see a no-nonsense women deal with her eminent (as in less than 12 hours) death. Very quickly we are aware of Lori’s personality, relationships and history in a world where death notices are brought with a happy face.

In Debugging the Ghosts, Damien Krsteski is able to convey both cold logic and coding with heart rending loss and relationship. I love the diary motif  for taking us on a journey of a puzzle, albeit a personal one, to be solved. I work in IT and appreciate the depiction of the difficult detective work of getting to the root cause of an issue and, the, sometimes, equally daunting task of creating the fix.  Mr. Krsteski splendidly presents this IT world entwined with the world of family.

Paul Hamilton’s The Custody of Memory is based on such a cool premise that you might lose sight of how well the story is told. Mr.Hamilton has this brilliant idea of us running out of room for our memories due to our longevity increase in the future; we periodically have to let  some go. Hard choices ensue in the best of times, but when those memories are shared and divorce lawyers are involved, yowsah, yowsah, yowsah. Mr. Hamilton’s story is funny and poignant all in the same sentence.

These stories are about choice points we have before us and how and why we make our decisions. Three of the stories focus on making hard choices in difficult situations and living by those choices. Maggie Clark’s he Last Lawsuit is all about choice and who gets to make those choices in the face of a very difficult circumstance – likely extermination of the human race. Even here, the theme of bravery plays out – are we brave enough to let go of our control when the survival of our species is at stake?

Be brave

I hope that these glimpses into the stories provide a sense of the incredibly clever, vibrant, and original storytelling that goes on within Bastion magazine. Even more important is the execution; it’s great to have a clever premise to a story, it’s another thing to write a good story based on that premise. These stories are all well done.

I understand that my feeble attempts to whet your appetite cannot fully convey how well written they are, only reading them can do that. If you haven’t delved into short stories in a while or had an opportunity to read those in Bastion, the risk here is quite small, both in terms of time (they are short stories after all) or cost. Be brave, you’ll be glad you were. If you like the work being done at Bastion and you want it to continue, there are a plethora of ways to support them. Subscriptions are a great way to do so; Bastion subscriptions are available at Weightless Books as are individual issues, which are also available at Amazon & Barnes & Noble.

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