Book Review: Days Of Blood And Starlight by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

While the first book in this trilogy, “Daughter of Smoke and Bone“, was light-hearted fare with hints of darkness, “Days of Blood and Starlight” is dark fare with hints of blackness.  Karou, after re-experiencing the trauma of her own death as Madrigal and the revelation that the Seraph she loved both as Madrigal and then again as Karou is responsible for the near annihilation of her fellow Chimaera, is almost unrecognizable from the first book.  She has gone from messenger to the Chimaera resurrectionist, Brimstone, now dead at her lover’s hand, to the heavy burden of resurrectionist for the rag-tag leftovers of the Chimera army and taking unquestioning orders from the new Chimaera commander, Thiago.  This is a little jarring given there’s no real build-up to this and she’s gone from unknown participant in an unknown war to the key element necessary to keeping the war going.  This change of personality is understandable, but it’s a weakness of the book that it’s glossed over.

Much of the rest of the book follows Akiva on the Seraph side and Karou on the Chimera side.  They follow twin paths leading to the same conclusion and their paths cross and separate multiple times throughout.  On Akiva’s side, he’s already dedicated to figuring out a way to stop the madness of this war and must tread a delicate line to see his dreams to fruition.  Karou, on the other hand, starts out as pretty much dedicated to the war effort and only slowly realizes that she’s become kind of a monster and must slowly back away from staring into that particular abyss.  The Akiva story-line is well thought out and the evolution of his two partners is explored in a depth that makes that evolution make sense.  The Karou story-line, on the other hand, is kind of a mess.  If you read it as the tale of someone suffering through post-traumatic stress disorder, Karou’s actions and reactions make a little more sense and this is why a bit of a fill-in narrative about Karou for the time between book one and book two would have been appreciated.  Taylor also kind of shoe-horns Zuzana and Mik from book one into book two and while their interactions between themselves and with Karou are delightful, they really don’t add to the story and it’s obvious that Taylor just needed to include them for the sake of letting people see their favorite characters again.

The biggest problem by far with the book is the facile use of a violent attempted rape to further the plot.  Sadly, I can’t even say that it does that, since the rape scene is immediately followed by a strange coincidence that remains unexplained and made the rape completely unnecessary.  The only possible explanations are to either make the reader hate the attacker, even though there was plenty of reason for the reader to already to do, or to make the victim fear the attacker, even though there was already plenty of reason for her to do so.  If you read the story without the rape, you would miss literally nothing from the book.  It was so distasteful, I pushed my review down a star.

Despite that major bit of distastefulness, I did rather enjoy this book.  Probably better than the first one.  It is certainly not a happy book, but there are good surprises throughout and the Akiva arc is definitely Taylor’s best thought out portion of the series to date.  War makes fascists of us all and this book made that clear while wrapping a compelling story around it.  I’m still kind of on the fence as to whether I would recommend the series to anyone except to the young adults they’re supposed to be written for, but we’ll see if book three can kick me off that fence one way or another.  “Harry Potter” this series is not, but that’s an impossibly high standard.

Glycobiology Rap

In honor of my friend Gaurang obtaining his doctorate, I present to you the Glycobiology Rap!

My name is Gaurang Bhide but you may call me Doc G
For I just got my doctorate in glycobiology!
"What is that?", you ask, well it's really quite simple
The explanation of such is as easy as popping a pimple!
Glyco means sugar, it's tasty and it's sweet
But it really is a substance that you shouldn't overeat.
Then there's biology, the study of all life
There's the simple answer and it shouldn't cause you strife.

Put the two together and it's a little more complicated
For sugar and life intersect in ways you've never contemplated.
Sugars, you see, couple in ways that are many and varied
And there's magic that can happen when these molecules are rightly married.
And by magic, I mean science, because magic just ain't real
And that's the truth you suckas, no matter what your ass may feel.
Getting these guys together ain't as easy as you may think
That's why much of my job consists of cleaning bottles in a sink.

Glucose and fructose are some compounds that I manipulate
Into unique combinations with the hopes that I may demonstrate
From my cultures that I feed in the hopes that they will propagate
Applications that are practical and easy to duplicate
That's what I do and I hope I was able to inculcate
These ideas in your mind in a way that raised your interest rate.

 

Movie Review: Spiderman: Homecoming

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Marvel does it again.  Good mix of humor, action, and story.  Tom Holland is a star.  Michael Keaton is good, but wasted in his role.

Ok, this is going to seem weird, but my favorite thing about “Spiderman: Homecoming” is how it challenges the preconceived notions of family and race.  Spiderman has, of course, always done that to some extent.  Peter, after all, is being raised by his aunt and uncle prior to becoming a superhero.  In this movie, he is now being raised solely by his Aunt May, played by a very 70s hippy looking Marisa Tomei.  The only thing nuclear about this family is Peter from his radioactive spider bite.  Peter’s main crush is a black girl who is also taller than him.  Bye bye Mary Jane.  The debate team that Peter is on is also very diverse, which was nice to see.  There is also a reveal that I will not get into because it’s tangentially plot related which had me almost laughing with delight.  Marvel knows who its audience is and it knows who his audience will be and it’s doing all it can to include everyone.  it’s good to see.

The story starts with a preface just after the first Avengers movie (I think) and then fast forwards to recap the Spiderman events from “Captain America: Civil War”.  It then follows Peter/Spiderman (Tom Holland) as he tries to be something more than just your friendly neighborhood Spiderman.  He has Avenger envy, you might say.  He discovers a group of people led by Adrian Toomes/Vulture (Michael Keaton) who have been stealing the alien technology left over from the first Avengers movie and re-purposing it and selling it on the black market and tries to take them down himself.  Oh, and he also suffers through high school.  Not sure which is more dangerous.  One physically, one mentally.

I was a little disappointed in Marvel’s use of Michael Keaton as the main villain.  This, to me, continues to be Marvel’s weak spot.  Keaton’s a great actor and the Toomes/Vulture character has much to explore, but they give him some weak-ass “anything for my family” background and run with simply that.  I know that Spiderman is the main attraction, but bad guys are cool and I wish Marvel would focus on them a little more, especially when getting top talent to play them.  That said, it really is Tom Holland who steals the show.  He has that perfect mix of awkward teenager/superhero that Spiderman deserves.  And at just 21, it seems obvious that Marvel plans to build their future around him.  The Marvel franchise is strong with this one.

Marvel continues to rule the movies.  It really is astounding how well they have done.  I don’t know if this is Disney’s doing or if Disney has let them have free reign with their creative license, but I don’t really care.  Whatever they’re doing, more of “Spiderman: Homecoming” please!

Book Review: Daughter Of Smoke And Bone by Laini Taylor

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

“Daughter of Smoke and Bone” belongs firmly in the glutted young adult “teen doesn’t know who she is but discovers she is so much more” genre, but does a good job of distinguishing itself from the pack.  Taylor does this by giving the main character a pretty weird life right from the get go.  Taylor does a good job of giving her characters, both human and other, an exotic flavor while keeping them relatable at the same time.

The main character is Karou, a 17 year old with blue hair and tattoos living in Prague and going to art school by day and owning one of the coolest names of bookdom.  By night, Karou is a messenger/gofer for an individual named Brimstone who lives in some sort of trans-dimensional space and collects teeth in exchange for wishes.  Karou was raised from birth by Brimstone and his assistants who are all chimaera, animal/human hybrids of varying sorts.  Karou keeps this portion of her life secret from her human friends, including her best friend Zuzana, a spunky, wisecracky, ball of energy who goes to school with her.  Obviously, since this is a book they want you to read, Karou doesn’t keep her secret for long after it is revealed to Karou that seraphim have invaded Earth and that the seraphim and chimaera have been at war for thousands of years.

Taylor has built a very interesting world here and there is a lot of material that I wish she had covered, but was sadly left unexplored.  This is especially true of the chimaera, of whom very little is explored.  I would have loved to see some anthropological (chimaerapological?) diggings into their society.  Perhaps this will be done in the next book.  Yes, this is the first of a series.  The whole chimaera vs seraphim war is intriguing and the bleeding of it into the human world and its impact therein is well thought out.  The whole system of wishes is well thought out, having varying denominations like currency (scuppy, shing, lucknow, gavriel, and bruxis, from weakest to strongest).  Imagine what you would have done as a teenager with almost unlimited scuppies, which can’t do much more than cause jock itch, and you have an idea of what happens to them in Karou’s hands.

My biggest problem with the book is that there are chapters and chapters dedicated to describing a relationship between the teenager Karou and a hundreds of years old angel named Akiva.  First off, eww.  Second, it’s not that the relationship was there which bothered me, but the superficiality of it.  Everyone is just so beautiful.  Karou, her ex Kazimir, Akiva, all the seraphim.  And if that weren’t bad enough, much of the evil/betrayal portrayed in the novel is done by ugly people or people jealous of beauty.  And before you simply accuse me of not liking romance, there is another romance story in this book that worked well and that I enjoyed.  There is also a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing which I rolled my eyes at, but in Taylor’s defense, delivers quite effectively even if it is the very end of the book.  That the book just ended there was annoying as there was much left hanging and there was really no sense of accomplishment felt plot-wise.

Quibbles aside, this was a very enjoyable book to read and I’ve already started reading the next in the series.  Given that Taylor most likely started right in on the second book, I don’t have hope that she received much feedback about the first and thus will continue to populate the second book with my quibbles, but that’s ok.  I just have to remind myself that this is young adult fiction and not meant for masterpiece theater, though they are working on a film adaptation of the first book as we speak.

Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5

Bottom Line: Tom Cruise is not funny.  Neither is anyone else in this movie.  Some of the action is pretty cool, though.

Once upon a time, there was a movie called “The Mummy” starring Brendan Fraser and it was good.  Not great, but good.  It had that perfect mix of oddball corniness and action that requires a sense of comic timing and versatility that goes unappreciated until a movie like “The Mummy” starring Tom Cruise comes along.  Tom Cruise is a fairly accomplished dramatic actor and he has also made a name for himself in the action movie category as well, but by moving from a serious action star to a comedic action star, he has finally found his weak spot.  Now, you might think that a poor comedic action star might still not ruin a movie if you surround him by actual comedic actors and beef up the writing a bit.  And you would be correct as can be seen by the success of the “Mission Impossible” franchise with the addition of Simon Pegg, among other.  They tried that in this movie by adding Jake Johnson of “New Girl” fame.  Johnson has a decent comedic repertoire, but man does he fall completely flat as Cruise’s sidekick.  Every single attempt to be funny in this movie goes over as well as a lead balloon to the point that you almost have to laugh at how poor the comedic attempts are, when you can recognize them as such.

Luckily, the movie isn’t a complete waste of time.  The back story of the Big Bad, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is pretty cool, if not nearly fleshed out (ha ha, get it, because she’s a mummy?) enough. There is also some decent action to be had, filled with rats and zombie-mummies and plummeting airplaines, but that can’t quite save the movie from the likes of questionable plot points and questionabler appearances by the likes of Russell Crowe in an attempt to make a franchise of the whole affair.

Despite all this, I actually recommend that you do see “The Mummy”, only the 1999 version with Brendan Fraser.  You should mostly pretend that the 2017 version never existed.  And hopefully, the studio execs will as well.

Bye Bye AUMF?

After 9/11, in an incipient bit of cowardice and fear that still plagues our country decades later, Congress passed the Authorized Use of Military Force Against Terrorists Act (AUMF).  This was a bald faced dereliction of duty that passed easily because of a large faction of authoritarians and an even larger faction of cowards in Congress.  It basically gives the President carte blanch when going after anyone the President determines is a terrorist anywhere in the world.  Under the auspices of the AUMF, we have killed U.S. citizens, bombed sovereign states without a declaration of war, and killed untold numbers of innocent human beings.

At the time, there was one lone voice that spoke out against this abomination of legislation.  Her name was Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA).  She, and she alone, voted against it.  Well, today, she proposed an amendment to the 2018 Defense Appropriations bill that would rescind the 2001 AUMF and it was approved by the House Appropriations Committee.  Almost unanimously.  The lone holdout was Representative Kay Granger (R-TX).  This is still only a first step, being still in Committee, but it’s an important one.  Let’s hope the amendment stays in and gets passed by all of Congress.  It will put a very dark time behind us.

Book Review: Garlic And Sapphires by Ruth Reichl

Jean-Paul’s rating: 3/5 stars

I have been living my life all wrong.  Instead of cultivating friendships with restaurant critics who would then take me for free meals while they review restaurants, I have this motley group of friends every single one of which is decidedly not a restaurant critic.  Friends, you have all failed me.  Completely and irrevocably.

How cool would it be to be friends with the New York Times restaurant critic?  Especially if hat person is Ruth Reichl.  That is the main conclusion I come to after reading “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise”.  The book follows her time as a restaurant critic between leaving the LA Times in 1993 for The New York Times till her departure from there for Gourmet magazine in 1999.  Now, you might be thinking that a book about a person’s time as a restaurant critic sounds like an incredibly boring story, but you’d be wrong.  Reichl, you see, has a hook.  After discovering that her likeness was pasted across all the popular restaurants with instructions for the staff to be on the lookout for her, Reichl decided to develop disguises complete with alternate personas.

The book is equal parts Reichl developing her disguises and trying them out at restaurants and just random weirdness that happens to you when you happen to be The New York Times food critic.  It is then padded with some filler copy of reviews straight from the newspaper and fleshed out with select recipes of some of Reichl’s favorite dishes.  The personal experience stuff is fun to read, if a little too polished.  In the afterword, Reichl does explain this polishing for time, flow, and various other literary reasons to create a book worth reading, which I appreciated.  The newspaper articles, with an exception or two, mostly break up the flow of the narrative and feel out of place.  And as for the recipes interspersed throughout, I WANT TO MAKE ALL THE THINGS!

If you enjoy food, you will likely enjoy this book.  It’s light reading and perfect for a beach vacation or airplane fodder.  People who do not like food will probably not get much enjoyment out of it, but you people are barely human so you don’t even count.

Now, to begin stalking Phil Vettel

Movie Review: Wonder Woman

Jean-Paul’s rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Finally, a solid DC Comics movie.  Solid story.  Good acting.  Wonderful supporting cast.  Gal Gadot IS Wonder Woman.

Never let it be said that DC can’t make a good Superhero movie.  All it takes is a female Superhero and a female directory.  The director of this delightful movie is Patti Jenkins.  You may know her from her disturbing directorial debut film, “Monster”, about female serial killer Aileen Wuornos.  And that’s it.  She’s directed a few TV movies and shows, but nothing big screen until “Wonder Woman”.  All I have to say about that is get this woman a blank check and a script to her liking.  She should be doing more stuff.  I hope her lack of directorial credits is of her own choosing and not something more nefarious.

“Wonder Woman” begins on the island of Themyscira, where the Amazon women have lived, training and preparing for the day Ares returns to Earth to wreak havoc upon the world.  This entire back story is wonderfully retold in a sort of moving Renaissance painting style that is both effective and beautiful.  There are, in fact, many scenes like this where you can tell that a lot of love went into the labor of bringing this movie to the screen.  Themyscira itself is breathtakingly gorgeous and scene after scene on the island is so full of detail that you can get lost in it all.  The island is, unfortunately, made mostly out of whole cloth so you will be booking your airfare tickets in vain if you choose to try to visit the real world Themyscira.  Not that I scoured the credits and the interwebs looking for clues as to where to find this island paradise…  It definitely has influences of Italian islands with some Southeast Asian flavor thrown in for spectacle, so those destinations will have to do.

Diana becomes Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) when she helps Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a World War I pilot/spy who crash lands on the island while being pursued by Germans leading to one of the most badassed movie fight scenes ever devised in which the Amazons square off against the Germans, escape the Amazons as she is convinced it is their duty to fight in the war and stop what surely must be Ares returned at last.  Chris Pine is a wonderful supporting actor opposite Gal Gadot, but Gal Gadot just steals it.  The looks.  The personality.  The accent.  Everything about her was just perfect for Wonder Woman.  As a friend said, “Gal Gadot’s personality such that you forget her looks (that’s a compliment!) but every now and then you’d catch her legs in that costume and…hot d-mn!!!”  The three exclamation marks are hers and well warranted.  I’d also like to give a little shout out to Lucy Davis who plays Etta, Steve Trevor’s secretary.  She’s there for comic relief and doesn’t have a large role, but she plays wonderfully off both Gadot and Pine.  She was absolutely delightful.

Wonder Woman, the Superhero, and thus “Wonder Woman”, the movie, does suffer from many of the problems that plague DC Comics Superheroes in general in that her powers are largely undefined.  See Superman and Green Lantern for other examples.  This leads to an epic final battle in which two massively powered individuals with undefined abilities square off against each other and inevitably leads to them throwing each other around and flinging impossibly large objects at each other until someone finally succumbs to one of the other’s ill-defined powers for ill-defined reasons.  But, while “Wonder Woman” the movie has that, it is kept on even footing with the all too mortal humans quietly saving the day in the background.  It’s a nice touch that other Superhero films often forget.  It also ends in one of the most beautiful cinematographic visuals I have ever seen.  In it, Wonder Woman is standing all badass in front of a massive crater where Ares was blasted into oblivion and the sun is rising in the distance and the battle’s wounded are struggling to their feet on both sides of her.  Like the Amazon backstory at the beginning of the movie, it is very Renaissance painting-ish and makes a good bookend for the movie.

I am so happy this film is doing well.  Not only because it is awesome and should rank up there as one of the best Superhero films of all time, but because it’s also pissing off all the right people (or I guess wrong people) for all the right reasons by its success.  And while I, for one, will celebrate this momentous movie making miracle of women headlining a male dominated genre and being badass on the silver screen and making obscene amounts of money all at once, I can’t help but recall comedy maven Michelle Wolf’s words, “You know when it will feel like women are equal at the box office? When we get to make a BAD superhero movie and then immediately make another bad one.  Men get chance after chance to make superhero movies.  No one left crappy “Batman vs. Superman” movie saying ‘well, I guess we’re done making man movies’.”  Watch the whole thing.

Missus Ann Rand

*sung to the tune of Mister Sandman

** for any words in parenthesis, imagine Ayn Rand popping out the side of the screen correcting the pronunciation.

Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb
Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb

Missus Ann Rand (Ayn), bring me a dream
Give me the best government that I've ever seen
Make it so only rich people are in charge
Then our economy will surely grow large
Ann Rand (Ayn), look at the poor
Let's take what they have and then show them the door
What a big bunch of moochers and fakers
Missus Ann Rand (Ayn) get me away from these takers

Missus Ann Rand (Ayn), let's run away
This government is toothless and full of decay
Let's take with us only the makers
And form a country filled with movers and shakers
Ann Rand (Ayn), here we'll call home
We'll build an empire more glorious than Rome
All the others will look on us with despair
While complaining that their life's not fair

Missus Ann Rand (Ayn), things are just swell
'cept for the riot that we had to quell
Just because there's not enough food
But besides that everything is good
Ann Rand (Ayn), you've got my back
You'll provide us with the things we lack
All we're missing now is clothes and shelter
Oh, and society's sort of gone helter-skelter

Missus Ann Rand (Ayn), we'll still pull through
We found a man who knows just what to do
He'll fix everything for merely a song
There isn't a thing that could possibly go wrong
Ann Rand (Ayn), our country's on fire
And our prospects are increasingly dire
It turns out that those who think they are makers
Are really some of the biggest of takers

Missus Ann Rand (Ayn), it's fallen apart
Turns out your ideas are not very smart
Why'd we think that we'd be able to build
A world in which our dreams would ever be fulfilled
Ann Rand (Ayn), Objectivism's sad
Because, you see, that the selfish are bad
Looking out for just number one
Is a thought that most other people will shun

Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb
Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb

 

Movie Review: Alien: Covenant

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 1/5 stars

Bottom Line: Sloppy. Lazy. Dull.  Improbable.

“Alien: Covenant” is a story about man’s hubris and how it inevitably will lead to our downfall.  In it, Ridley Scott attempts to make a movie so bad under the assumption that his subjects are so dense that they will go see an movie with the name “Alien” in it just because there were once two good movies in the series.  Ridley Scott was correct.  Humanity is doomed.  I think the movie itself was also about man’s hubris, but I was too busy rolling my eyes and wanting to punch something to much pay attention.

If you have seen ‘Prometheus”, I’m sorry.  But also, you’ve already seen “Alien: Covenant”.  Only this time, instead of finding a mysterious ship and acting stupid, a whole new set of supposedly smart people find a mysterious planet and act stupid.  Let’s back up a bit, though.  The movie begins with a bit of a preamble in which the creator of androids first brings Michael Fassbender online and treats him like a dick.  The purpose of this scene is to make the movie over two hours long.  Michael Fassbender takes the name David which, if you will recall, was the android in Prometheus.  Fast forward some indeterminate amount of time and now we’re on board the Covenant, a colony ship en route to planet QRQ51521 or some-such.  And Michael Fassbender is on board!  Only, he’s totally not David, but Walter this time and thus totally trustworthy.  Or is he?  Dun dun DUNNNNNN!  While in the middle of this journey, the ship is subjected to a one in a billion star event while at its most vulnerable, recharging its batteries, which kills a bunch of people and wakes up the crew from hibernation.

Let’s meet the crew, shall we?  The crew consists of: one char-boiled captain cooked in his own juices for five minutes just because it would look cool, a first officer who you should know is some sort of religious and is certain that is the reason why he isn’t captain but now he is since the ship decided to have a barbecue, at least two married couples which seems like a really bad idea for people who are expected to make life and death decisions for others, another couple who are bumpin’ uglies and thus must be punished for it in true horror cliche fashion, Michael Fassbender, and various other people who will sacrifice their lives in the name of stupidity.

While doing repairs to their ship, one crew member hears a transmission of a John Denver song on his piddly little space suit while the massive ship doesn’t hear it at all.  Because reasons.  The transmission is coming from a planet that all of their scans somehow completely missed and is almost perfect in every single way and is much better than the crappy planet they were planning on inhabiting and screw their orders and let’s go check it out!  Up to this precise moment of the movie, we’re still kind of ok.  Sure, they’re not making good decisions, but they’re at least in the realm of probable bad decisions that a crew in their position might make.  Then they land on the planet.

Here is just a sampling of the bad decisions these people make.

  • They go down to the planet, which is a tempest of storms and hurricanes and electricity.  It’s going to be a scary, bumpy ride and communications will be almost impossible at times.  Let’s do this.
  • They land on the planet.  You might think, “Well, sure, why wouldn’t they?”  Ah, but you’re forgetting, my friend, that they’re there to track down a transmission and it turns out that the transmission is coming from a crashed ship not far from a massive dead city that if they even bothered doing a fly-by first, they would have discovered had plenty of space to land.
  • They separate from the group.  This place looks like a great spot to take water samples on this completely unexplored planet.  You guys go on ahead.
  • They romp through the planet like a dog rolling in its own shit.  Let me just go take a piss and dig my foot really deep in this mass of weird spore-like looking filth.  I, too, am going to put my face up really close to this mass of weird spore-like looking filth and poke at it.
  • They interchangeably freak the fuck out and behave calmly whenever the mood fits.
  • They calmly follow a complete stranger who appears from nowhere without questioning where he came from or how he got there.  Spoiler alert: It’s Michael Fassbender, er, David.
  • They separate from the group.  “You know what, I know I just watched my friends die and we’re in this massive dead city, but what I could really go for is a nice bath.”  I’ll be right back.  No you won’t.
  • They continue to listen to David even though he repeated lies to him.  “Oh, here, follow me down into this dank hole so I can show you something after you just saw me communicating with the alien that has been making a smorgasbord of your crew.”  “OK!”

There’s plenty more, but I’m  making myself plenty angry reliving the movie so I will stop there.  There is no good reason to see this movie.  Oh, wait, no, there is one.  With every stupid, preventable death, you will secretly whisper to yourself, “Thank god they died!  They were intolerably stupid.”