Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

* spoilers *

A nuclear war has made the world into a desert wasteland and society has collapsed. Immortan Joe rules from his Citadel, keeping the water from the common people and giving it out just enough to keep them complacent. He has an army of War Boys who never reach adulthood and gladly give their lives to fight for him. Max, a crazed man tortured by his past, is captured and used as a blood bag for an injured War Boy named Nux. Imperator Furiosa is supposed to be going to collect gas for Immorten Joe, but instead she takes his five wives and makes a break for the legendary Green Place. Determined to achieve glory, Nux straps Max to the front of his car and tears off after Furiosa, but things don't go as planned. Max and Furiosa reluctantly team up to defeat Immortan Joe, save the wives, and escape to the legendary Green Place.

Going in, I assumed Mad Max: Fury Road would be a typical testosterone fueled, misogynistic action movie. I had heard nothing but good things about it from everyone, so I decided to give it a chance and it didn't disappoint. The world building and aesthetics are amazing. The world is a barren desert due to nuclear war and aging Immorten Joe holds on to his power with an iron fist. He takes all the natural resources and commodities from random the public to hold over them and divvy out as he wants. This keeps the people poor and prevents them from overthrowing him. The most fascinating part of this bizarre world is the War Boys. They are strong and healthy young boys taken from the public and raised to be brainwashed, blindly faithful followers of Joe. As they get older, these strong and healthy boys become sickly and lose all sense of individuality. They gladly give their lives for their beloved leader and believe his promises of Valhalla after their death. None of them see maturity since they die from cancer or in the battles they fight. This whole regime is sick and unnatural because ancient Immortan Joe sacrifices the youth of his society in order to destroy the natural order of youth eventually taking power over the old. The young men are completely disposable and accept this state while the women are reduced to breeders and breastmilk machines. The film employs a style similar to steampunk, but more updated and mixed with a primitive, tribal vibe. Nothing in the film is new, but is instead repurposed from trash and stolen goods. Metal and technology in the film represent decay, stagnation, and enslavement rather than advancement or progress.

My favorite part of the film was the use of gender equality throughout from the portrayal of the female characters to how other characters treated them. Furiosa is the only woman with any sort of power in this world. Her crew defers to her even if they don't understand what she does. She has proven herself to them and they (mistakenly) trust her completely. While Max is the title character, he stumbles upon the main events by accident and isn't really the main focus of the film. Furiosa is the driving force behind it and I related more to her. Once they join forces, Max treats Furiosa as an equal. He accepts that she is better at him at some things, like driving the massive rig, shooting a giant gun he repeatedly missed with, and continually following her lead. They help each other and recognize each others' strengths and weaknesses. Their relationship is a partnership and a friendship. Furiosa is a nuanced character who is tough as nails and extremely capable, but still has emotions. She seeks to improve her life, exact revenge, and save others. Charlize Theron captures both sides of the character and just blew me away. The emotions in the film run strong despite all the explosions and violence, resulting in some beautiful, quiet scenes between characters. In the end, it's Furiosa who kills Immortan Joe, overthrowing his regime, and takes the responsibility of rebuilding that society while Max continues on his own journey.

One of the reasons I thought I would hate this movie was the portrayal of Immortan Joe's wives. I saw an early preview of the first scene with Max and Furiosa. The wives wear diaphanous, sexy silks which are incredibly impractical for the desert setting. I figured they would be repeatedly raped on screen, nude at inappropriate moments, and generally useless to the story. I am so glad to be wrong. The misogynistic treatment of women in the film stems from Immortan Joe's regime. He reduces women to unwilling breeders and milk providers while Furiosa and Max eventually free all these women in their upheaval. So many people mistake the inclusion of misogyny in a film as an affirmation of it, but they need to look at its context within the film instead of jumping to conclusions. The wives' dresses are meant to titillate and look pretty, but they've chosen to free themselves from this view. Their past sexual abuse is never shown in the film because it doesn't have to be. They don't have to prove to the audience that they were indeed essentially sex slaves in a guilded cage for a megalomaniac. Some of the wives want to go back to their guilded cage because of a combination of Stockholm Syndrome and that their cage and its trappings are familiar in contrast to their uncertain fate in the desert. The wives, while not physically tough, did all they could to help Furiosa and Max through physically blocking them with pregnant bellies, deceiving the enemy, reloading guns, etc.

I enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. The characters are complex; the visuals are brutal and beautiful; the story is surprising; the themes are relevant; and the inclusion of music in a dystopian society is spot on. Why would future societies reject art? The guy with the flamethrower guitar was my favorite minor character. The movie is just a breath of fresh air all around. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 10/10 fishmuffins

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

DNF Mini Book Reviews

I almost never give up on books once I start them. I think in the past 7 years there have only been 10 books that I just couldn't stand to read anymore. These two were super close together and I have to review them, so here they are.

Jekel Loves Hyde by Beth Fantaskey

Jekel Loves Hyde takes the classic Jekyll and Hyde story by Robert Louis Stevenson, treats it likes it's actual history, fast forwards to present time, and adds teenagers. Jill Jekel and Tristan Hyde couldn't be more different. Jill is a good student who is always on time and achieves the highest she can. Tristan is content to sit in the back of the classroom and read instead of paying attention. Of course he is devastatingly handsome, but he has a dark side. When extremely angry, he blacks out and loses control. He thinks it's a curse originating from Henry Jekyll and wants to work with Jill to somehow find a cure.

I'm a sucker for a good retelling and this book stood on my shelf for years. I finally decided to read it and I simply couldn't finish it. Up until the halfway point, the characters, the plot, and the writing were fine. Nothing momentously good or bad, so I kept reading. The characters are a little flat. Jill is super straight laced and rejects everything else until Tristan comes along. Then she's sneaking out at night, kissing, and breaking into schools. The romance was ok and I was becoming invested in their characters. I really wanted to know why they were two people since Jekyll and Hyde shared a body in the original story. However, I rage quit when Tristan is kissing Jill, attempts to go further than she wants, and she sticks around to comfort him after he comes very close to assaulting her. This a book for teens. I don't want to support a story or an author that shows teens that sexual assault or rape (even attempted) is ok and not the perpetrators fault. The real world solution would be to get as far away from him as possible and get help, not stick around and feel so sorry for his inner evil.

Also, based on reviews, Jill and Tristan trade personalities later in the book so Tristan is super good and Jill has the dark side. Tristan's evil manifests in the urge to kill people and apparently Jill's  makes her promiscuous. So a teenage girl being sexual and acting on natural sexual urges is just as bad as a teenage boy attempting to kill people. That's horrible and incredibly sexist. I'm very glad I stopped reading. I won't be subjecting myself to any other books by Beth Fantaskey.

The Brokenhearted by Amelia Kahaney

Anthem Fleet, ballerina extraordinaire, is privileged with having millionaire parents and a cushy apartment. She rarely sees the real world until she meets cute Gavin, who is poor and from the wrong side of town. After they illicitly sneak out a few times, she spends the night over at his place. In the middle of the night, a gang of criminals busts in, find out who she is, kidnaps her boyfriend, and demands that she pay an exorbitant ransom to get him back. She rushes home and ends up falling into a river and having her heart replaced by a machine.

The premise is pretty cool and the writing is pretty engaging. Anthem Fleet is a horrible name, but I was willing to overlook it. The world building is nonexistent. I have no idea where it takes place or when. The only differences between the present and the book world is the weird gas mask gangs going around and gassing people and the horrible lingo for drugs. I read about the first 100 pages. Anthem got her new heart from a random illegal doctor who just so happened to have a bionic heart that fit Anthem's body. She wakes up a few days later and sneaks away, totally fine. Not slowed down at all by the very major surgery that REPLACED her heart. She runs home and no one thinks to have her examined even though she was missing for days. Then, on top of this other ridiculousness, the new heart somehow makes her crazy beautiful and have super powers. The whole thing is also based on Anthem being head over heels in love with Gavin, which I just don't buy after so little time and development. I didn't hate the book, but since logic didn't play into the story anywhere, I just put it down and started a new one.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Winner's Crime

Kestrel made a deal to free Herran with the emperor in exchange for her betrothal to the emperor's son. She is surrounded by the best of Valorian society and all the riches she could want, but she's completely unhappy. She's torn between wanting to further help Arin and the Herrani people and loyalty to her own people and her father. Of course she has to keep her true motives from everyone, including Arin, to be able to eventually rule the empire and do some good. The emperor is controlling and demanding, keeping watch over Kestrel's every move. Arin, on the other hand, is also miserable, but for completely different reasons. Herran may be technically free, but Valoria is leeching the country for all its worth so the people are as impoverished and beaten down as ever. Arin is trying to his best for his country, but he essentially has no power. Can Kestrel and Arin make a difference in their respective situations? Will they stay estranged forever?

The Winner's Curse was one of my favorite reads of last year and its sequel follows that same trend. It doesn't fall into the second book funk that so many other trilogies do. Although there isn't a huge revolution like in the first book, much of the plot is political intrigue and misunderstandings. Kestrel has to navigate the shark invested waters of the Valorian capital. She can never be herself or let her true feelings known, so she's constantly assessing how best to lie in each situation. With both the war in the East and the situation in Herran, Kestrel has to suggest ways to minimize harm without seeming too sympathetic towards the enemy cause. The emperor has taken her under his wing in the worst way possible. His goal is to make her as callous and cruel as possible to follow in his footsteps since he's labeled his sympathetic son as a lost cause. Kestrel can be his true heir if she follows his guidance. Understandably horrified, she struggles to seem like a true protege so she can do some real good as ruler when she and his son take over. However, this training includes witnessing torture and enduring countless mind games that wear on her psychologically. I felt for her each step of the way. I didn't always agree with her decisions, but I understood where she was coming from, even through all of the deceptions and lies. Juggling so many expectations and deceptions wears on a person.

The story also follows Arin and his struggle to save his country. The freedom of Herran is a sham since the emperor demands more money and resources than they can afford to give. Arin is still expected to be part of Valorian society even though it's painfully obvious how separate he is from them. He's mocked, looked down upon, and treated like dirt. After Kestrel convinces him she is a heartless opportunist and the emperor attempts to murder him, Arin recklessly decides to go to the East to secure an alliance against Valoria. His story is so heartbreaking  because there's truly no hope for his people without outside help. He's powerless in the face of the empire and his people starve and become sick with every passing day. His exploits in Dacran expand the world and allow the reader an unbiased look at this different culture as well as bring back an interesting character from the first book. Arin spends most of the novel angry or frustrated and I also felt for him. I was impressed by his ideas even if the implementation may have been a little rough. It's just part of who he is. He isn't built for intrigue or deception and it's one of his endearing qualities.

The Winner's Crime puts Arin and Kestrel through hell and keeps them mostly apart. Their scenes together were excruciating because they could never be truly honest with one another. It's cliche to have a couple misunderstand and misinterpret things badly, but there's a real reason for it here. The ending is a huge cliffhanger, so wait for the next one if you don't want to sped months wondering what will happen like me. The book moves slower than the last and a lot of the conflict is less obvious, but it's no less exciting or well written. Marie Rutkoski's skilled writing creates vivid images, taps into emotions, and kept me reading for hours on end. I'm counting the days until the conclusion.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Silver Swan

Alexander Feldman is a virtuoso violinist and well regarded teacher who is sought after for his talents and revered by the music community. He is also volatile, passionate, and sometimes cruel. In the middle of his career, he bought the Silver Swan, a Stradivarius cello, to play for his career and pass on to his daughter, Mariana. She performs and teaches well herself, but abruptly quits her career after a failed concert and a scandal involving a years long affair with a married conductor. Now, she focuses on taking care of her father as a passes 90 years old. He passes away and leaves her a note, detailing his decades long affair with another woman. Then another bomb drops when he leaves the beloved and priceless Silver Swan to that woman's son, Claude Roselle, so the cello can continue to be heard in performance. These revelations turn Mariana's world upside down and she starts to come apart at the seams.

I am a musician and love music, so I have a hard time passing up books about music. The Silver Swan has a lot of enjoyable elements. Alexander's magnetic presence is all over the novel, even after he has died. He is wonderful and terrible all at once. His tremendous talent makes him justify his giant ego and his selfish, demanding nature. It was especially interesting to see all sides of him and how each character viewed him. Mariana sees the most of both. He wants her to succeed and become great, but he also doesn't want her to surpass him, so he puts her down whenever he can. Their relationship is complex and difficult. The musical elements are well described and actually accurate.

Unfortunately, all the characters are pretty awful. Mariana seems pretty reasonable and relatable at first, but rapidly becomes unlikable. She is so upset that her dad cheated for so long, but she had a years long affair with a married man as well. It doesn't really make sense. I'm more surprised that he didn't have more lovers and children out there. Claude is just a huge douchebag. He begins an affair with Mariana while he is in a committed relationship with someone else without disclosing it when Mariana specifically asked. He ignores his girlfriend when he's with Mariana and then Mariana when he's with his girlfriend. Then he wonders why everyone is mad at him and laments over wanting to be free from being tied down while also sleeping with any woman he wants. Claude is the whiniest, childish idiot and I kind wish he would just shut up. The whole book is like two children fighting over a toy.

Some of the plot developments got really weird and V.C. Andrews-esque. There's a really weird scene where Mariana's mom accuses her of incest and replacing her with Alexander. It was really off the wall and out of place. There was enough there to be interesting without venturing into this territory. The back cover touts it as being sensual and sexy, but it's really quite awkward and not very well written. Overall, The Silver Swan is an interesting read but has a lot of big flaws that makes it insufferable by the end.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Friday, June 19, 2015

I Am Princess X

May Harper and Lily Deaton have been best friends since fifth grade. They do everything together although May is kind of awkward and shy while Lily is confident and outgoing. Together, they created the adventures of Princess X, a girl who lives in a haunted house, wheres sneakers, and carries a samurai sword. Then Lily and her mother die in a car accident. Now, May is sixteen and still feeling unresolved about her best friend's death. She starts to see Princess X everywhere on street art and stickers all over the place. Princess X is now a famous web comic with a mysterious creator. The adventures are different, but most of the characters are the same. Princess X has to find the five keys in order to escape the Needle Man. May starts to read it and sees references to her childhood with Lily. Convinced Lily is still alive, May examines the comic and tries to find the messages she believes Lily has left for her with the help of a tech savvy neighbor. Their quest attracts the attention of the real life Needle Man and the race is on to connect the dots and help Lily before he catches them.

I Am Princess X is Cherie Priest's first foray into young adult fiction and I enjoyed it. It's a hybrid comic book and novel. I read an ARC, so I didn't get to see the majority of the comic part. The art at the beginning was adorable and I'll have to pick up an official copy so I can see the grown up Princess X art. It starts with May and Lily's friendship and their adventures of Princess X. It's adorable, creative, and gave me the warm fuzzies. Then Priest drops the bomb: Lily and her mother die in a car accident. May never really recovers from it and always has an inkling that Lily is still alive. A lot of things just didn't add up and she discovers that her best friend and her mother were actually murdered. Her father rightfully becomes concerned when Lily obsesses over the Princess X comics. Maybe May is latching onto it simply because she never had closure and she sees things that aren't there. I was surprised that the plot went so dark, especially in such stark contrast to the happy, bubbly beginning. The darker plot really hit me and I felt for May.

The rest of the novel is a cool mystery/thriller where May deciphers each of the keys to find the mysterious comic book creator while avoiding the villain. I enjoyed her friendship with Trick, the hacker who gets roped into all this. They have kind of a sibling vibe and trade snarky remarks. The lack of any romantic subplot is so refreshing and I wish more YA books would follow suit. My only real problem with the novel is the Needle Man. He may as well be a shadow because his presence is just a blank menace. He doesn't even really seem like a person. The creepy factor is pretty high, but I don't care for one dimensional villains. The rest of the book is so well written that it stands out as meh.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Golden Son

Golden Son starts shortly after Red Rising. Darrow au Andromedus has accepted a position with Augustus, Archgovernor of Mars, after his rule breaking stint at the Academy. Things aren't going well. Darrow makes some miscalculation and other insidious people spread mostly untrue rumors about him to discredit him. It doesn't help that the Bellona family still wants him dead and it has escalated to a house war. All of this is why Augustus is on the verge of abandoning Darrow despite his potential. Darrow allies with an old enemy and exploits injustice he sees in their Sovereign to descend Gold society into chaos. Now it's Augustus and their few allies against the Sovereign and most other Golds. To win the war, he must convert Golds to his side and crush the rest while keeping his true aim, to destroy the hierarchy their society depends upon, a secret.

Like Red Rising, Golden Son starts a bit slow. I read the first book a year and a half ago, so I don't remember every character with great clarity. The book just throws the reader into the world with no recap to speak of. About a hundred pages in, I felt solid with the characters and the story really takes off. Darrow faces hell in this installment. First, he's disgraced and almost gives up on his mission altogether. He is totally unprepared for the indirect backstabbing and cattiness of Gold society and just flounders. After everything looks hopeless, he almost succumbs to a senselessly violent plan that would do nothing but make Gold vengeance swift and terrible. Throughout the novel, plans are formulated and things seem like they looking up, but then nothing ever turns out as it should. When the Sovereign throws out their society's laws for her own political gains, Darrow sees where he can create chaos and start a war with the highest and most corrupt level of the Golds. He quickly rises to power with the backing of Augustus and Golds follow in his wake to glom onto his success.

My favorite part of Golden Son is Darrow's consistent efforts to treat other colors the same as he treats Golds. He never forgets that deep down he is Red and what his true mission is: to overthrow the caste system and make everyone equal. Although it angers his allies, he puts this into practice by allowing a Blue to command his ship, allowing an Obsidian to wield a weapon made exclusively for Gold, and striving to keep the other colors out of the crossfire of the Gold war. He even causes a whole enemy ship of Lowcolors to follow him by treating them as people and valuing their lives and talents. The best instance of this Darrow's conversation with Ragnar the Obsidian. Darrow reveals his true origins and throws Ragnar's world into chaos. Obsidians are taught that they are slaves to the Golds, who are nothing short of gods. Darrow forces Ragnar to decide for himself if he wants to follow Darrow or go along with Gold propaganda. Little by little, Darrow undermines the status quo and breaks down at least a little of the brainwashing the Golds work so hard to maintain.

Golden Son is an addicting read. War in earnest comes to the Golds and it's not as glorious as they were expecting. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the book and I was surprised by the plot's twist and turns. It doesn't fall into the second book of a trilogy trap. The story is compelling and interesting in its own right while still setting up for the big finale. The ending is so insane and does end on a cliffhanger. I usually hate that, but I didn't mind it. I can't wait to read the final book, Morning Star.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Library at Mount Char

Carolyn has a lot in common with normal people. She likes guacamole and cigarettes, but her knowledge of modern conveniences is sketchy at best. Years ago, she was a normal American child until her parents were killed and the man she comes to know as Father adopted her and other children around her own age. Father isn't just a man. He creates kings, raises the dead, kills on a whim, and doles out swift and cruel punishments for disobedience. They all get a portion of Father's library to study, but are not allowed to venture out of their area of expertise. One day, Father is missing and Carolyn and her siblings can no longer enter the Library. Father's rivals are gathering and Carolyn must gather all her allies in order to protect his vast power.

The Library at Mount Char is a fascinating book that shows fantasy as I've never seen it. We are thrown right into Carolyn's world that coexists separately from our own. Her world has two sides. One is magical (although she insists there is nothing actually magical about it). Her catalog is language and she learns every single language in existence: known, forgotten, animal, etc. She and her siblings are essentially immortal. With other's catalogs, she and her siblings have access to healing powers, the power to heal the dead, and the power to do things mankind has only dreamed of. It's brilliant that the most powerful being in the universe is so because of a library, which is the amalgamation of all his knowledge. The other side of her world is disturbing and incredibly cruel. If their Father isn't obeyed, his punishments are swift and unforgettable. They very often include death and unimaginable pain. Death isn't even an escape because he simply brings them back to dole out more punishment. The most physically powerful of them, David, is a monster and doesn't hesitate to take out his frustration on his siblings. Carolyn is one of the more meek and quiet, so the others consider her an easy target. Throughout the novel, she proves over and over that she is much more powerful and strong than she seems.

The book is written in an unexpected way. Sometimes chapters just follow seemingly random people for a few pages before that character or situation is connected to the rest of the narrative. The main characters are Carolyn, Steve the hapless normal guy that gets mixed up in all this, and Erwin the seasoned military man. It was nice to have the perspective of people outside of Carolyn's library. The plot goes to some wild places I never saw coming. The twists and turns gave me whiplash and I compulsively turned to the next page to see what would happen next. The story also has HUGE ramifications on our world and it gets pretty crazy. I was starting to get bored with the book when the big climax happened about 3/4's of the way through the book, but stay on through to the end. It's definitely worth it. Disparate events and characters turn out to be connected and it was wonderful to read everything fall into place.

Scott Hawkins' fiction debut impressed the hell out of me. The Library at Mount Char throws together fantasy, thriller, and horror with a dash of philosophy and makes a bizarre book that works for me on every level. I will read pretty much anything else Hawkins writes. His imagination is crazy and it's clear that he has no shortage of fresh ideas. I hope some sort of of follow up to this comes out even though it's a wonderful stand alone.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, June 1, 2015

Sisters of Blood and Spirit

Lark and Wren Noble are twins who are very different. Lark has white hair while Wren has red hair. Lark is more sarcastic while Wren is more sunny. Lark is alive while Wren died when she was born. They can communicate and see each other, but no one else can see Wren. Rumors abound as they grew up when Lark's imaginary friend never went away and it stopped being cute. Lark attempted suicide, was saved by her friend Mace, and was sent to a mental institution for her supposed delusions. She's back and a bit traumatized and more jaded, but better than ever. Now, Mace needs her help. A group of his friends stupidly pissed off an old and very powerful ghost at a dilapidated mental institution and desperately need their help. Can Lark and Wren beat this powerful ghost or will they die trying?

I loved Kady Cross's Clockwork Century series, so I had to read her new supernatural book with a modern setting. The strength of the novel is in the sisters. Lark and Wren are fully realized and have very different outlooks on life. Lark is snarky, sarcastic, introverted, and kind of cold. Some might find her unpleasant, but I understood where she was coming from. Most view her as a crazy freak and don't care to get to know her. She recently went through a dark patch where she tried to kill herself and ended up in a mental institution. There, she had herself almost convinced that Wren was a delusion, but came through stronger than ever. Now, she has to lay low and keep attention from herself to ensure never returning to that awful, ghost infested place. She owns her mistakes and learns from them. She can be a bit reckless, but she's crazy brave and willing to fight for those she cares for. The power she shares with her sister is strong and not fully understood by either of them. Not everything can be Googled. I liked that they learned their limitations and abilities over time through experience.

Wren is a bit different. She obviously can't talk to a lot of people and has minimal contact with other ghosts because of her close bond to her sister. Loneliness is pretty familiar for her. Then, she suddenly has a few more friends and a living boy who both likes her and can communicate with her. Wren is definitely more friendly, warm, and much less jaded than her sister. I felt for her because she doesn't really have a life of her own. She can explore the Shadowlands and meet other dead people, but she chooses to stick close to her sister and the land of the living. It simply isn't enough to have only one person to interact with. Wren also has a dark side that she rarely indulges in, but it's definitely disturbing and she relishes in it. She hides it from Lark and it'll be interesting to see how deep into it she's willing to go in future books.  

The story itself is pretty cool. I liked how Cross wasn't afraid to delve into some darkness and gore, but it was fairly predictable. I expected some wrenches thrown into my expectations, but was a bit disappointed. I also didn't really like many of the human characters beyond Lark. Mace kind of seemed sleazy because he clearly has a crush on Lark, but also has a girlfriend. That girlfriend (her name escapes me) is insufferable. If you thought Lark was a bitch, this girl takes the cake. She's mean for absolutely no reason and stays that way. The writing for Lark and Wren is so good, but this girl is super flat and every time she showed up I wanted to throw the book across the room. Kevin the clairvoyant was mediocre and the other human characters just kind of jumble together in my mind. The cover really bothers me. The concept is good, but the photoshop looks awful.

Overall, Sisters of Blood and Spirit was a fun book. I always like dark stories with fun characters. Everything was not always gloom and doom. Cross brings in humor to lighten the mood and break up some of the heaviness. The ending is satisfying without tying everything up too neatly and I would eagerly pick up the next book.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins