Book Review: Christmas on a Rational Planet by Lawrence Miles


Author: Lawrence Miles
Title: Christmas on a Rational Planet
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1996.
Summary/Review:

This is the first Doctor Who novel by Lawrence Miles, who would later go on to be one of the leading writers of the Eighth Doctor Adventures, introduce the Faction Paradox, and co-wrote the history of Doctor Who series About Time.  But in this first novel, Roz is trapped in a town in New York in 1799, Chris is trapped in the TARDIS with someone trying to kill him, and secret socities are worshipping Satan and the like.  The book is interesting at parts, but also just weird in ways that makes it hard to follow.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Unicorn Store (2019)


Title:The Unicorn Store
Release Date: April 5, 2019
Director: Brie Larson
Production Company: The District
Summary/Review:

This movie directed by and starring Brie Larson is about a girl named Kit who grows up enjoying princesses, fairies, and rainbows and yearns to be an artists. But when the professor at her art school disapproves her Lisa Frank-style painting, Kit flunks out of college and is forced to move back in with her parents.  Suffering from depression Kit decides that she has to become a responsible adult and takes a temp job.  Some of the funniest scenes are basically Kit cosplaying at adulthood, and finding the people in the office is are also neither mature nor have it all together. (And 20+ years after being a temp myself, I had to laugh that temps are still expected to make lots of photocopies, and are complimented for being good at it).

Kit receives strange invitations which lead her to The Store where The Salesman offers to fulfill her dream of owning a unicorn.  The Salesman is played by Samuel L. Jackson (who had such great chemistry with Larson in Captain Marvel)  who plays against his tough guy persona, but still manages to drop in some profanities.  In order to earn the unicorn, Kit must provide her a home, food, and a loving environment (meaning she has to work out her diffrences with her parents).

Kit takes on the first task by hiring Virgil (Mamoudou Athie) from a local hardware store to build a unicorn house.  Virgil is also in a low-level job for which he feels he has not talent and is uncertain about his future, and it appears he takes on the seemingly absurd task out of curiousity more than anything else.  But Kit and Virgil form a bond and their friendship begins to help them grow and change.  Kit also gets the opportunity from her creepy boss to work on an ad campaign, which gives her a chance to use her artistic talents.

The unicorn plot could’ve gone in some predictable ways.  Either The Saleman could’ve been a scam artist or Kit could’ve been delusional.  But I’m glad that the story went another way entirely. The premise of the movie is basically having the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope be the main character and then justifying her place as a real person.  After all athletic boys are allowed to become jocks when their men even if they no longer play sports, and the itnerests of nerdy boys are well catered to for adult men, so why not make a space for women who still love unicorns and rainbows.

The cast in this film are great, especially Athie and Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford as Kit’s parents.  Nevertheless, I felt the humor was just a bit off and the movie was less satisfying than it had the potential to be.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone by J.K. Rowling


Author: J.K. Rowling
Title: Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone
Narrator: Jim Dale
Publication Info: 1999 Listening Library
Summary/Review:

My daughter is working her way through the Harry Potter ouevre, and I decided I should revisit the books myself, and have someone read them to me (Jim Dale does a charming job).  I am impressed at how much of the full story is established in the first book.  I mean Sirius Black is mentioned on the first page, for starters.  But the basics details of Hogwarts and the Wizarding World are all very well established in this book.  This novel is also a good stand-alone story (IIRC, so are the 2nd and 3rd books, while 4 through 7 are more of an ongoing story).  It’s hard to remember what I thought when I first read this book around 15 years ago, but I have to say it holds up well.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)


Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Release Date: November 18, 2016
Director: David Yates
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

The first spinoff movie from Harry Potter’s Wizarding World introduces mazizooligist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), author of the eponomynous textbook used at Hogwarts.  Set in the 1920s, the British Scamander arrives in New York City with a suitcase full of magical creatures.  His ultimate purpose in being there is revealed slowly of the film, but first, hijinks!  Newt accidentally swaps suitcases with a non magical person, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), and several creatures escape.  As Newt and Jacob look for the missing animals, they draw the attention of an American witch, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), who has recently lost her position as auror.  More hijinks ensue and Tina is forced to bring Newt and Jacob to her apartment and introduce them to her charming sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who has the ability to read minds.

The film feels at first a comedy of errors and takes time to delight in introducing aspects of the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts and Great Britain, with a lot of fun visual effects.  But there’s more going on here as the story unfolds.  First, there’s the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a 20th century heir to the Salem witch hysteria, who are openly promoting that wizads and witches are real (true, in the story) and need to be defeated. Second, the dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald is on the loose and killing magical and non-magical people alike.

I enjoy the culture clashes between the British and American wizards.  Americans very practically call non-magical people “No-Maj” instead of “Muggles,” which sounds as silly as calling a truck a lorry, when you think of it.  Instead of a Ministry of Magic, the USA’s wizarding government is the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), where Tina works.  And even though only European schools participated in the Triwizarding tournament, there is an American school of witchcraft and wizardry as well, called Ilvermorny.  And I’ve learned from Wikipedia that Ilvermorny is in Massachusetts, on the peak of Mt. Greylock, so wizards also send their children to New England for their education.

Newt Scamander is very good with magical creatures, but is a bit awkward around people.  Redmayne plays his introversion well, and I enjoy seeing another quiet lead character in an action-fantasy film to go along with Rogue One.  Despite being the main character, Newt is more of the straight man to the quirkier characters of Jacob, Tina, and Queenie.  The leading quartet have a lot of chemistry and I enjoy seeing them playing of one another.  They carry the film that at times is a bit thin on plot.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Alcatraz Versus the Dark Talent by Brandon Sanderson


Author: Brandon Sanderson
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Dark Talent
Narrator: Ramon de Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)

Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil LibrariansAlcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones, Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia and Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens
Summary/Review:

The fifth and possibly final Alcatraz book picks up where the previous one ended with Alcatraz having destroyed all of his family’s talents.  Now he must ally with his mother – an evil librarian – to stop his father, a Free Kingdomer whose desire to give every one on Earth a Smedry Talent which could have disastrous consequences.  Smedry and his team go to the Evil Librarian’s Highbrary – a.k.a The Library of Congress in an alternate universe version of Washington, DC.  Unfortunately, Smedry’s friend and defender, Bastille remains in stasis for the better part of the book.  Smedry and Bastille’s love/hate chemistry when they are together is one of the best part of the series and this book suffers from its absence (although when Bastille finally makes her entrance, it’s spectacular).  The book has the usual clever wordplay – including a chapter of delicious puns – but it feels like Sanderson’s heart is not really in it anymore, and it is the weakest book in the series.  Or it could be Alcatraz, who obstinately states this is the last part of his biography after an uncharacteristically dark ending to the book.  But Alcatraz is an unreliable narrator who has lied to us before, and there are clues that this is all just a big cliffhanger leading to yet another book.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)


Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Release Date: November 16, 2001
Director: Chris Columbus
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures
Summary/Review:

My daughter has succumbed to the Harry Potter bug and wanted to watch the first movie this weekend (a bit of peer pressure since of her best buds was watching the movie too). I hadn’t seen this movie in about 17 years or so (!).  It was a reminder that the movie series (as does the book) starts off with a fairly simple plot compared with the intricate world-building it would acquire later.  It was also a reminder that Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint were oh-so-little when this all started, and it was an impressive job of casting at that age to get actors who’d do so well over 8 movies and into their adult careers.  Chris Columbus takes a safe-but-boring approach to directing, I think some other directors are more creative and adventurous later in the series, but nevertheless the movie has its charms in bringing the books to life for the first time.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Just War by Lance Parkin


Author: Lance Parkin
TitleJust War
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, c1996.
Summary/Review:

The Seventh Doctor makes frequent visits to World War II: The Curse of Fenric on tv, Colditz on audio, Timewyrm: Exodus and this book in the Virgin New Adventures. We begin this book with one of this Doctor’s great manipulative plans.  Roz and Chris are working with British intelligence in London, Benny is undercover with the Resistance in Guernsey, and the Doctor is seeking a particularly genius Nazi scientist.  Things go horribly wrong, of course, and as happens all to often in the New Adventures, it leads to a companion getting tortured. The book features a strong narrative though, one of the most easily readable New Adventures, with great character moments for Benny, Roz, and Chris.  It’s also close to being a pure historical, with The Butterfly Effect and the Doctor’s hubris being the main antagonists outside of the Nazis.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde


AuthorJasper Fforde
Title: Early Riser
Publication Info: [New York] : Viking, [2018]
Other Books Read by Same AuthorThe Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost PlotsShades of GrayThe Last DragonslayerThe Song of the QuarkbeastOne of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.
Summary/Review:

I’ve been a fan of Jasper Fforde ever since my now defunct book club selected The Eyre Affair way back in 2002.  He generally pumps out his humorous, clever, metafictional, and totally original novels about once a year, but this time Fforde Ffans had to wait FIVE WHOLE YEARS for his new book.

Early Riser is unrelated to any of Fforde’s previous series of novels, although it shares some elements of the classic Fforde style. Every Fforde novel, while comical, is set in a dystopia and Fforde’s dystopia of choice is the Bureaucratic Hell.  In this novel, the alternate universe Earth is beset by long, brutal winters, so humanity survives through hibernation.  The Winter Consuls, a police force of sorts, stay awake to protect the rest.  Charlie Worthing, a Novice Winter Consul, narrates his first winter in this dangerous job.

One challenge is that Morphenox, the drug that helps people hibernate, has the side effect of putting people in a state of narcosis.  Sometimes they can still perform menial tasks, but if they get hungry, they may also try to eat people.  (And if long winters and zombie-like creatures make you think of A Song of Ice and Fire, there are some tangential similarities).  Charlie also has to contend with a woman who, dolphin-like, sleeps with only half of her brain at time, and has completely different and conflicting personalities.  Then there are dreams that are going viral among the sleepers and even becoming dangerous. And there’s a mythical creature called The Gronk, who loves Rogers & Hammerstein musicals and folding laundry, but will also eat peoples’ fingers (I doubt Fforde is aware of the New England Patriots football player, but its funny all the same).

Fforde novels tend to be high-concept, and Early Riser was the most difficult one for me to comprehend in the early going what exactly are the parameters of this world and getting past the jargon that’s sprinkled liberally in the text.  I eventually cottoned on.  The book is funny, but it feels more grimdark than other Fforde novels.  There’s an obvious parody of climate change in the novel, but there’s also the darkness of people’s’ souls in their willingness to exploit others for a little gain.  Early Riser is a challenging read, but ultimately a worthwhile one, and a worthy addition to the Fforde oeuvre.

Recommended books: Passage by Connie Willis.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Also People by Ben Aaronovitch


Author: Ben Aaronovitch
TitleThe Also People
Publication Info: London : Doctor Who Books, 1995.
Summary/Review:

The Doctor takes Benny, Roz, and Chris on vacation to the Worldsphere, a world populated by the technologically advanced, utopians society of The People.  In addition to the advanced People – who can change their shape and gender – the Worldsphere is populated with sentient artificial lifeforms, including God (who got its name as a joke from watching over the Worldsphere), ships, drones, and even tables, bathtubs, and parachutes.

Because The People are so technologically advanced they have a nonaggression treaty with the Time Lords that prevents them from developing time travel.  The Doctor and God are friendly but also don’t trust one another and dance around a lot of tensions.  And despite saying the visit to the Worldsphere is a holiday, the Doctor also has ulterior motives involving an old frenemy, and a difficult decision for Benny.  When a drone is murdered, the Doctor also volunteers to investigate the crime, and Roz is key in using her skills in the procedural story.

The Also People is inspired by a science-fiction series called the Culture by Iain M. Banks.  I’m not at all familiar with Banks’ work, but it does appear to be another example of Doctor Who crashing into another genre and making another story.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)


TitleAtlantis: The Lost Empire
Release Date: June 15, 2001
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

One of the most under-the-radar animated film releases in recent Walt Disney Pictures memory, Atlantis: The Lost Empire pretty much stands alone as a Jules Verne + steampunk + Indiana Jones action-adventure story with science fiction and fantasy elements.  Milo Thatch (perfectly voiced by Michael J. Fox), a scholarly cartographer and linguist, is recruited to join basically a military expedition to find the lost continent of Atlantis in 1914. Their inevitable discovery of a surviving civilization puts the noble and idealistic Milo at odds with the exploitative mission of the rest of the task force. He also befriends Kida, the princess of Atlantis (portrayed by Cree Summer), who is a criminally underdeveloped character who is drawn in ways that seem designed to appeal to the male gaze.

It’s stunning that this movie was released just a year after The Emperor’s New Groove which was saturated in the ironically-detatched pop culture of its era.  Atlantis, by contrast, is disarmingly straightforward and sincere in its storytelling in a refreshingly old-fashioned way.  Unfortunately, old fashioned means that Atlantis is derivative and predictable in all of its plot beats.  I can’t put finger on it exactly, but this movie comes so close to being great, and again and again fails to do so.  Everything looks good and all the pieces are there, but it just lacks the Disney magic that brings it all together.  I wish this movie had succeeded because there’s an opening for a solid animated adventure classic in the Disney canon.

Rating: **