Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Twisty Teutonic Time-Travel Tale is a Treat

Mysterious disappearances. Obsessions. Secrets. Time travel. Such are the essential elements of DARK, the Netflix Originals Series sci-fi/supernatural mashup set in a small town in the middle of the heavily-forested German countryside.  

Although there will be the inevitable comparisons between it and STRANGER THINGS, the fact that both shows feature several adolescent characters, take place (at least, partly) in the mid-1980s, and involve strange phenomena is the extent of the similarities.

STRANGER—with its cast of imminently-likable characters (juvenile and adult) and coulda-been-shot-in-the-early-‘80s filmmaking style—seems like a lighthearted, feel-good romp when compared with DARK, which never once delivers any warm fuzzies. 

DARK is, as the name implies, just the opposite: a brooding, tense, atmospheric drama, with nary a moment of levity. The forest is vast, dense, and all-encompassing. The rain—which seems to pour every day—isn’t just a polite little shower; it’s a soaking deluge. And the people? None of them seem even close to a state of being you'd call "happy" (with themselves or with each other). It all might come across as unremittingly grim, even.

Lest that put you off, though, hold on; DARK is also a thoroughly-absorbing tale, bouncing back and forth from the 1950s to the ‘80s to 2019… following the stories of the same characters at different points in time. Rarely do we, as viewers, see how a show’s characters have been formed, but in DARK, we zing between the eras, watching as things happen and everyone reacts and responds. 

And then, of course, there’s the sci-fi/supernatural bent, for it isn’t just a matter of the series taking viewers on some little trip down Memory Lane. Nope, DARK delves into the murky waters of time travel, multiple dimensions, and issues of messing with the time-space continuum, in the process. Mind-bendy stuff, right there… and it was impossible fo me to not get sucked right into the wormhole. 

My one (and only) complaint re DARK, in fact? It’s dubbed, for crying out loud. (Good lord, what were they thinking?!?) So, rather than treating the viewers like intelligent beings (who can rapidly read subtitles *and* watch expressions and movements), the show’s creators opted to treat them like simpletons in that regard (which yes, is hella ironic, when you consider the heady subject matter therein). That one egregious decision aside, though, this one’s a really, really interesting watch.


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Truths We Hide Beneath the Layers We Share

If there’s one thing that nearly every person who bravely enters the romantic-relationship fray can bet on experiencing at some point, it’s the feeling of having their hearts broken… of being cast aside (for someone else? after the “new” wore off? because they drifted apart?), and losing whatever special bond they had (or thought they had) with another. (And sure, we’ve all heard the stories about those too-cute-for-words couples who met at pre-school, never dated anyone else, and lived happily-ever-after, but me, I view such tales as either urban legends or empirical evidence of magical unicorns.) Anyway, back to the rest of us… no matter whether straight, gay, young, old, experienced, or novice, the bottom line is always pretty much the same: being rejected hurts like hell.

How we handle it, though—what we do, how we cope—that’s where things really get interesting. And, in The Wife Between Us (by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen), we get a look at just how far some people might push the “coping” envelope.


Vanessa used to “have it all”—certainly in the eyes of most people who knew her. A handsome, wealthy, and doting husband—Richard, her prince in a bespoke suit—who’d whisked her away from her former life, requesting that she quit her low-paying jobs (as a preschool teacher and a waitress) in New York City to move out to the beautiful house in the suburbs he surprised her with as a wedding present. Fancy dinners and soirees to attend, adorned with fabulous clothes, shoes, and jewelry. Plenty of free time to pursue her own interests. The possibility of starting a family. On the surface, it seemed like a fairy tale come to life.

Until several years later, when Richard’s eye wandered, that is… to his secretary Emma, herself a younger-by-a-decade carbon copy of Vanessa. And just like that, the dream was over. 

When we first actually see Vanessa, it’s clear she’s still struggling; she is working as a style consultant at a high-end department store (waiting on the very women she used to rub elbows with). She drinks too much (and tries desperately to hide it from the aunt who took her in). She’s depressed. She can think of little but the man of her dreams—her man—in the arms of the nubile replacement he’s now dating.  

Things don’t come to a head, though, until one day a customer—one of the women with whom she’d attended many of the same events—innocently (or not so innocently, perhaps) lets it slip, while trying on a designer dress, that Richard and Emma are getting married. Like a candle being snuffed, the tiny bit of normalcy Vanessa had been working so hard to achieve, dies.

Suddenly, her whole world becomes about making sure the wedding doesn’t take place, and she’ll do whatever it takes to prevent it.

But, here’s the thing: no one—not the cast-aside Vanessa, not the husband-who-decided-he-wanted-a-younger-model Richard, and not the fish-about-to-be-out-of-water Emma—is quite what she or he seems… nor do any of them behave as one might assume.


Much like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train (both of which The Wife Between Us will inevitably be compared to), this story has as many layers as an onion… and I read it with equal measures of apprehension, suspense, and a sort of giddy delight as each layer was peeled—or ripped, at times—away to reveal what else lay just beneath. (I didn’t see much of it coming.)

Wonder of wonders, Hendricks and Pekkanen managed to come full circle by the last page, tying up all the loose ends in ways that actually made sense—quite a feat in something so elegantly complex. 

Psychological suspense, fear, relatable emotions (and not of the pretty variety, but the raw and real), and understandable actions (and reactions)… The Wife Between Us has it all. This is one hugely-satisfying read.  :)


Note: At the time of this review, The Wife Between Us is slated to come out early January, 2018.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Lunar Conspiracy Sciences the $h!t out of me... but Lacks the Same Spark

So let's get this out of the way, right off the bat: anyone expecting a stellar follow-up to Andy Weir's immensely-entertaining debut, The Martian, with his sophomore outing (the soon-to-be-released Artemis), may be a little disappointed... not because it isn't a fun read, but because the bar was set SO very high from the get-go.

The Martian was in my top-five books for 2014, because it hit on all cylinders. Smart, funny, smart-ass, regular-guy hero? Check. Fascinating setting, depicted in glorious detail so that it felt like I was there, too? Check. Seemingly-impossible snafus to get out of? Check. Thrilling, edge-of-my-seat kind of ending... that also seemed plausible? Yep, check.

On paper, Artemis has most of the same kinds of things going for it. Bright, wise-acre, ordinary-gal hero (a young female protagonist who's on the shady side, but close enough)? Roger that. Cool setting, given ample descriptions to make it "real" (a little town on the moon)? Got it. Jams and scrapes aplenty (on the moon, as with Mars, it sorta goes without saying they're seemingly impossible, eh?)? You bet. Nail-biting ending? Yep, more or less. 

Why, then, did Artemis leave me content to move on to the next read... rather than unwilling to pick up something new for a few days, as its predecessor did? Let's take a look...

Jasmine "Jazz" Bashara is a porter in Artemis, the first permanent settlement on the moon ("porter" being a euphemism for smuggler, by the way). It's not so much that she's an outright criminal, more that she knows how to slide past a lot of pesky little legalities while trading in contraband, and in turn ekes out a very meager living for her efforts. So, although she's a huge disappointment to her welder father (who naturally wanted his talented daughter to follow in his respected footsteps), she manages to fill a necessary void (people who really want contraband-whatever are gonna get it somehow, after all, and Jazz does it without hurting anyone else, which is good for everyone) and mostly stay out of (serious) trouble. 

When one of her regular (and more-lucrative) clients offers her a very different sort of job, though, everything changes. Things go wrong in a huge way, and Jazz finds herself at the center of a conspiracy worth gazillions to more than one party. Suddenly, she is in (seriously-big) trouble, not to mention hella danger... and finds herself in the unusual (and undesirable) position of having to ask others for help trying to fix the humdinger of a mess she has landed in.

To Artemis' credit, Jazz is a feisty character with oodles of spunk (which plays nicely with her talents and skill sets, which I really appreciate). There are also several interesting characters for her to play off of (something The Martian had little of, given its structure), which allows for some humorous scenes. Artemis, itself, is a strong presence here, too, which further makes for good reading.

One of the biggest problems I had with Artemis, though, is the science... or rather, the amount of it. There were long passages when my eyes sort of glazed over, reading about pressurizing this or welding that. (Err on the side of being a bit skimpy on the tech instead of throwing it all in kitchen-sink style, I say.)

Another thing is that it seems to take an awfully long time to get to the "situation"... which (descriptions of the science around/behind it, aside) then doesn't take all that long to resolve, considering the build-up. I felt a little cheated at the end, sort of like, "Is that it?". (Again, this comes in stark comparison to The Martian, in which the entire story deals with handling one, always-growing, ever-changing problem.)

Finally, in the realm of "it ain't broke, so don't fix it", Weir may have only two novels under his belt, to date, but both follow a very similar pattern... which is notable, when that formula (for instance, the messages to a friend on earth) is so specific. (As it happens, it's a good formula that serves him well, but still...)

Am I glad I read Artemis? Yes, and I  enjoyed it (though I definitely didn't love it). Is it something of a letdown, after the brilliance of Weir's first book? Well, yeah, that, too. (It wasn't quite "meh", but it wasn't "OMG, wow", either.) Will I look forward to whatever comes next from Weir's head and pen (ok, keyboard)? Absolutely... so in the end, no harm, no foul (even if this outing wasn't his best work). 


[Note: I received an advance copy of this book in return for providing my honest thoughts on it via this review.] 

Friday, October 6, 2017

When the Hunter Becomes the Hunted

Sometimes life is just crazy-pants busy—so full of a million and one little things, that tasks I was (almost) certain had been accomplished, instead wound up getting completely overlooked. A "for instance," you ask? Take my failure to review any of the books in the Detective Helen Grace series by M. J. Arlidge—something I was positive I’d managed to do at least a couple of times over the past few years… but which, in fact, seems never to have happened, at all.

With that said, this is actually the perfect time to rectify my rather unfortunate little bout of forgetfulness, because the sixth entry in this consistently-engaging and well-written series, Hide and Seek, is, to my mind, the best one, yet.

Without spoiling things too much for anyone unfamiliar with the series (certainly no more so than reading the back of a book jacket or synopsis on Amazon would do), a brief bit of backstory is necessary…

Detective Inspector Helen Grace works out of Southampton, where she has a stellar track record for solving cases involving sadistic acts of violence (although her methods do have a tendency to go against established protocol, with regard to orders from her superiors and safety limits). Nonetheless, results talk, so her actions (and sometimes-abrasive personality) are mostly tolerated.

On the personal front, she is perhaps even more unconventional (but just as driven); she lives alone—neither having nor seeking a romantic relationship—and she runs, spars, and rides her motorcycle in her spare time, rather than hanging out at the pub with friends (of which she doesn’t really have any), going shopping, or doing any of the other spare-time things we all tend to enjoy. What she does have, in spades, is a messy, sad childhood—something she ran from for most of her adult life (but which finally starts coming to brutal light early in the series).

Moving forward, then, to where the sixth book picks up… A sequence of shocking events has transpired that finds Helen—unbelievably—not only framed for a series of vicious murders, but imprisoned for them… housed in a decrepit penitentiary right alongside many of the very same inmates she’d helped put there over the years. 

With everyone on the inside naturally against her, and no one on the outside (not the former subordinate who gleefully took her job, not the superior who’d been gunning for her forever, and not the thorn-in-her-side reporter who now delights in detailing Helen’s miserable stay behind bars)—save one colleague (and the closest thing to a friend she actually has), who refuses to give up and has her back (going so far as lying to their boss about what she’s investigating)—it’s down to Helen to figure out how to survive inside long enough for a miracle to happen… and she's fresh out of miracles.

As I said earlier, M. J. Arlidge’s Helen Grace series started out with a bang and has just continued picking up steam. Helen is a complicated character, and the fact that she brings so much baggage with her—that truly horrific stuff in her past—which she deals with in ways we typically only ever see men do, is refreshing.

Could you read Hide and Seek on its own, and get the gist of what's going on? Sure, you could… but do yourself a favor and start at the beginning. This is a fascinating journey well worth taking.


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A Snow-Covered Clunker...

There are a lot of different writing styles out there—and obviously, a multitude of genres in which those styles can be employed—but in the end, one’s enjoyment of anything written is an individual thing; some things just click with us, while others leave us feeling indifferent.

For me, B.D. Smith’s The Ice Maiden falls into the latter category (and with a big thud). 

The thing is, it really seemed, at first glance, like a sure bet: a serial killer operating in a small community somewhere in Maine (which, by dint of having read very few stories set in that distant state, made it immediately interesting), who acts out tortures from the Spanish Inquisition (ooh, cool historical undertones, anyone)? How intriguing! Add a wintry scene for the cover plus the title itself (“ice”)—hey, I’m nothing if not magnetically drawn to things set in cold, snowy climes—and again, I thought it would be a slam dunk. 

The problem, unfortunately, is Smith’s writing style… which, to put it into screenwriting parlance, falls way more to the “tell” side than the “show” side of the spectrum. (The idea, if I lost anyone there, is that it’s far better to show your audience what you want them to see/know/feel/understand than it is to tell them.)

Fine, you may be thinking, that makes perfect sense for a program or movie… but with a book, how does an author manage to “show” the reader anything; isn’t it all “tell”? 

Actually, no, it isn’t. A novelist can “show” us things in different ways. He/she can draw vivid pictures and characterizations with words, allowing us to “see” scenes, people, places, and the like. The writer lets his/her characters speak to each other and interact, as well as conducting inner monologues—all of which serve to show us who they are, and to better understand their reasoning or motivations. In other words, the writer allows the characters and the places to “show" us what’s happening… so that we can draw our own pictures, conclusions, and suppositions in our heads.

In sharp contrast, a writer who “tells” his/her readers everything uses considerably less dialogue, opting instead to describe everything—and not from the characters’ points of view, but from an omnipotent outsider’s POV. It makes for a considerably less active style of storytelling… and for me, a rather dull one.

So, although Smith had a compelling story to impart with The Ice Maiden, I never felt it was being told well… and that was because I was almost always being told, rather than shown.

In the end, did I like the characters, the setting, the story? The bones of the thing were actually good… which makes the style that much more unfortunate. Would I recommend the book? Nope… unless you’re someone who prefers being told things with as little dialogue involved as possible. Finally, is it likely I’ll ever read another tale by this author? No, that won’t be happening.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Searching for Movie Gold: A Tale of "The Bigs"

It definitely wasn’t by any conscious plan, but I found myself—on two consecutive nights—watching “big” movies (both based on real-life events, no less), then on the third night, realized the thoughts swirling around in my brainpan about those films—and about movies, in general, to a lesser degree—probably needed to come out. 

So, about those “bigs”…

When The Big Sick was suggested for Movie-Night-In, I had only the vaguest recollection of the title from a few months earlier. Still, I thought, why not? It almost had to be better than a couple of other movies we’d watched recently. 

My verdict? Great call. The Big Sick—a semi-autobiographical recounting of how a Pakistani-American boy and an American girl fell in love and wound up together—is far from the average romantic comedy. (Not that there haven’t been some fab rom-coms, mind you, it’s just that this goes to a different place.)

Basically, it starts out simply enough, with the meet-cute of a stand-up comedian (Kumail Nanjiani, who plays himself in the movie) and grad student Emily (played by Zoe Kazan). They deal not only with all the usual issues that couples in the early stages face, but also with Kumail’s struggles trying to reconcile the expectations of his uber-traditional family (arranged marriage, anyone?) with what he wants for his life.

And then, in the midst of all of that business, the completely unexpected (and way more serious) happens: Emily gets sick—really, really sick (“big”, remember?)—and winds up in the hospital in an induced coma so the experts can poke, prod, and try to figure it all out. 

There are plenty of laughs (with fantastic support by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, as Emily’s parents). but the majority of those laughs come at you like the best comedy does—out of truths (think, the painful variety) and realizations—rather than being manufactured and forced. 

There’s growth, understanding, and genuine compassion. The Big Sick is real, it’s messy, and in the end, is something pretty special… a feel-good (as well as feel-bad/feel-sad/feel-terrified) flick, great for Date Night or Ladies’ Night, alike, and one I highly recommend.

The following night, while perusing my Netflix watch list (and flying solo), I noticed another “big” movie sitting there, just waiting for me to (finally) pick it… which is how I wound up utterly absorbed in The Big Short

Why it took me so long to see, I have no idea; there’s no shortage of star power (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, plus many more), and the reviews were overwhelmingly good. (Maybe I thought it would be too depressing, the mid-2000s worldwide market bubble collapse? I dunno… but finally, the time was right.)

Slick, smart, shocking, and (almost) impossible to believe, The Big Short details the time leading up to the catastrophic credit and housing bubble bursting ‘round the globe, as lived out by four separate individuals/groups: Michael Burry, the offbeat Wall Street guru who first realized how many home loans were in danger of defaulting (and began massively shorting the bonds everyone else assumed were safer than houses [no pun intended]); Jared Vennett, a banker who noticed Burry’s activities and devised his own plan of shorting stuff; Mark Baum, an opinionated hedge fund manager who—along with his small team of aides (flunkies)—was willing to bet on Vennett’s plan; and a young pair of newbie traders who’d packed their bags and made the journey from Colorado to New York with their own tiny (but successful) fund under their belts, looking to make it big. 

Some of the scenes—especially viewed nearly a decade after the huge collapse occurred—are jaw-dropping: watching a couple of tools bragging about how much money they were making on loans so underemployed (or even unemployed) folks down in Miami could buy their own McMansions; listening to a fund manager who claimed to represent the investors justifying his actions… even though all of the (horrible) bonds he was bundling together and selling them came directly to him from a bank (rather than him doing any research and putting together sound portfolios from multiple sources); and seeing how oblivious everyone attending the huge financial convention in Vegas—mere months before the collapse began—was, to what was really going on. (The fact that there’s a fair amount of humor to be mined from this nearly-unbelievable episode in our collective history comes as a bit of a surprise, but—like The Big Sick—the fact is, some degree of amusement can be found nearly everywhere. Guess that’s one of our finer traits, as humans, to see funny in gloomy times.) 

The Big Short is a brilliant cautionary tale… but of course, the tragedy there is that those who need most to learn the lessons it tells are the very people who either went right back to doing what they’d been doing, pre-collapse, or those who got into the biz afterward. (Humans have nothing, if not short memories… one of our less-desirable traits, in this case.)

So, after a period of feeling utterly worn out by (almost) every super-hero movie finding its way to the big screen (again and again and again…), being worn out by ridiculous (and boringly-long) action sequences in pretty much everything that comes out, and groaning at the thought of yet another puerile (and patently not-funny) “comedy”—in other words, a sizable portion of the new theatrical releases in any given month, these days—it’s with considerable relief and pleasure that I mull over “the bigs” I’ve just watched. 

There will always be gems out there; I think it’s time to stop mindlessly accepting the dross—either by paying inflated ticket prices at the box office, or by streaming them, just for the “privilege” of being disappointed—and start doing a little more work to dig out the bits of gold, whether old or new. 

Happy viewing, everyone…


Thursday, August 31, 2017

What Happens in a Future with Too Many People

A recent entry in the dystopian sci-fi thriller arena--with undertones of “Logan’s Run”, a bit of “Blade Runner”, and, borrowing most heavily from “Orphan Black”--Netflix’s “What Happened to Monday?” turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

The quandary for government and scientists: How to deal with an epic food shortage for a massive population explosion… just bio-engineer more food, right? Yeah, bad plan. Mucking around in Mother Nature’s genetic pool always seems to lead to unexpected hinky-ness in the consumers of all that not-so-natural food, and in this case, causes an epidemic of multiple births… basically the exact opposite of how to solve a burgeoning population. So, part two of the brilliant plan (with Glenn Close playing the role of mastermind at the sci-tech conglomerate responsible for solving the problem)? Cryogenically freeze any additional babies from multiple births, so every family has but one child. Problem solved!

Until, of course, some family decides to buck the system… as one grieving father (Willem Dafoe) does when he conspires with a sympathetic doctor to save the seven grandbabies left in his care when his daughter dies in childbirth.

What follows next is a little time capsule, showing how the ingenious grandpa modifies their home—and designs their very lives—so that the girls won’t be found out. Basically, he decides there’s one little girl for every day of the week… so each girl is named after a day, and is allowed to go outside and be “Karen Settman” on her day, while the rest stay indoors, hidden, until their days pop up each week. (It is a solution both clever and far-fetched, but of course the thought of freezing newborns is untenable, so we have little trouble putting ourselves in his shoes and buying into the scheme.)

Cut to the present, when the sisters (played by Noomi Rapace) are 30ish, and we see what it looks like for seven adult women to still be perpetuating the ruse. (Yeah, the lack of freedom and monotony six out of seven days is grating on them, to varying degrees, as you might expect.) At home, they can be themselves… but they’re trapped at home, unable to develop serious friendships or relationships with anyone outside the confines of their large loft apartment.

Then one day, something happens. The always-reliable Monday doesn’t return home from the bank where “Karen” has a job… throwing the other six sisters into a major tizzy. What to do? Two women can’t be out in the world being “Karen” at the same time—especially not since everyone is kept track of via wristbands that are scanned at various entry points—and yet at least one of them has to venture out, if they’re ever going to find out what, exactly, did happen to Monday.

Although parts of “Monday” are admittedly a bit thin—for instance, we’re only shown Close’s company, as though hers is the only one responsible for all the cryogenics—there is much to enjoy here… particularly Rapace’s skillful performance(s) as the seven adult sisters. There’s nowhere near the time for her to fully develop their personalities in a two-hour film—unlike that afforded the brilliant Tatiana Maslany in the five-season TV show “Orphan Black”—but she makes the most of it, leaving us with a sense of who each woman is, and how each one is (or isn’t) coping with the challenges inherent in being allowed to interact with the outside world only one-seventh of every week (month, year, decade).  

The premise of the movie is also a fascinating one—and timely, given how many of the poorest nations in the world have long faced the dual problems of overpopulation and food shortages/starvation. The solution in “Monday” is, undoubtedly, an extreme one, but discussions can certainly be had about how we as a world might deal with the same issues.

Overall, while I think “Monday” feels like a (very well-done) made-for-TV movie, it nonetheless has plenty of substance—as well as some twists I didn’t see coming—to please most sci-fi aficionados… myself included.