Movie Review: Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)


TitleHot Tub Time Machine
Release Date: March 26, 2010
Director: Steve Pink
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

I’d be wanting to see this movie for some time even though I knew it was a low-brow, grossout movie. Still, I’m the target demographic for “men nostalgic about the 80s,” I like time travel stories, and I like the cast.  The most interesting choice in making this movie is to have all the characters be so unlikable but have them played by likable actors.  The mind spins as one finds oneself rooting for these jerks.  And while these men returning to 1986 to relieve a weekend as their younger selves is the key part of the film, it doesn’t really feel like the film reached the potential it had to say something about past & present, youth & adulthood.  It doesn’t even really seem like they tried to make it feel like the 1980s, although there are parallels to 80s comedies like Back to the Future and Weird Science. There are some good gags, but even with low expectations I’m underwhelmed by how Hot Tub Time Machine fails to explore the possibilities of its premise.

Rating: **

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Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Groundhog Day (1993)


TitleGroundhog Day
Release Date: 12 February 1993
Director: Harold Ramis
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t watched Groundhog Day since the 1990s so I figured the 25th anniversary of its release would be a good time to see if it has held up.  The first thing I noticed about the movie is that the production is very 80s/90s, and OMG! Bill Murray looks so young!  The story is familiar, seeped into our culture by now. We see egocentric meteorologist Phil Connors head to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony and then he has to live that same day again and again and again, until he learns a lesson and does it right.  The thing that’s always impressed me is that Phil doesn’t repeat the same day for a week or two, but it’s implied that he’s caught in the loop for thousands perhaps tens of thousands of times. It’s also impressive that the filmmakers were brave enough to never offer an explanation of how or why Phil gets caught in the loop (or how he gets out), it just happens.

Groundhog Day is more melancholy than I remembered.  It moves very smoothly among madcap comedy, romantic comedy, and a more solemn reflection on mortality and morality rather seamlessly.  Much of this is due to the versatility of Bill Murray who can offer both wacky and gravitas depending on the situation.  I guess Groundhog Day  set him up for these type of roles that he’s become more well-known for in his later career in movies such as Rushmore and Lost in Translation.

So it turns out that Groundhog Day is actually better than I remembered and a deserved classic.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Jackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleJackie & Me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info: New York : Avon Books, ©1999.
Summary/Review:

This is the second book in the Baseball Card Adventure in which Joe Stoshack uses  his power to travel through time using baseball cards to meet Jackie Robinson.  As an added wrinkle to the story, he initially arrives in 1947 as an African-American boy and directly experiences the racial animus of New York at that time.  I felt that Jackie Robinson’s character in this novel was one-dimensional, too much of a heroic martyr, although the book does offer some nice glimpses of his family life.  Meanwhile, it seems too flippant that Stosh is traveling to meet Robinson merely to write a Black History Month report for his school, and spends much of the novel trying to gather rare baseball cards to bring to the future.  The lesson of the book is how to stand up to bullies without resorting to anger, which Stosh applies in his own youth baseball games, but seems to miss out on the heart of the Jackie Robinson story in the process.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Ted & me: A Baseball Card Adventure by Dan Gutman


Author: Dan Gutman
TitleTed & me: A Baseball Card Adventure
Publication Info:  New York : Harper, c2012.
Summary/Review:

Joe Stoshack is a kid who can travel in time by touching baseball cards which take him to the time and place of the player in the photo.  In this installment of the series, the FBI learns of his ability and send an agent to convince him to go back in time to warn Franklin Roosevelt of the Pearl Harbor attack and prevent the United States entry into World War II.  The person to help Stosh on this mission is Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, an appropriately patriotic figure who gave up five seasons of his career to serve in WWII and the Korean War.  The characterization of Williams is well done since it captures a person who could be alternately an abrasive jerk and good-humored and generous.  Williams is also impulsive enough to take Stosh under his wing, and after finishing up the season in Philadelphia ensuring his .406 batting average, takes Stosh on a road trip.  There are a few stops along the way which I won’t spoil, but add to the characterization of Williams and his bond with Stosh.  Obviously, Stosh doesn’t prevent World War II, but it’s interesting to see some of the historic detail through his eyes, including a frightening encounter at an America First rally with supporters of Charles Lindbergh, something you wouldn’t expect to see in a children’s book.  It’s a good adventure for kids who are fans of baseball and American history.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Blizzard of the Blue Moon by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleBlizzard of the Blue Moon   
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2006.
Summary/Review:

This may be my favorite Magic Tree House book yet.  Jack and Annie are sent to Depression-era New York City to find a unicorn (SPOILER: If you didn’t guess, it’s in the Cloisters museum, although there’s a great diversion where Jack & Annie try to go to the Bronx Zoo).  Jack & Annie take a subway and a cab on their quest as they have to fight against a blizzard and a pair of dark wizards en route to their goal.  What’s great about this book is that the fantasy and adventure elements are blended so well with an honest portrayal of the poverty and desperation of the Depression.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Good Morning, Gorillas by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleGood Morning, Gorillas
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2006.
Summary/Review:

Another delightful Magic Tree House journey where Annie and Jack spend a few days living among a family of mountain gorillas in Congo and learn the “magic” of communication.  Osbourne knows a lot about gorilla behavior and incorporates it into the story in informative and entertaining ways.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Haunted Castle on Hallows Eve by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleHaunted Castle on Hallows Eve 
Publication Info: Random House Books for Young Readers (2010)
Summary/Review:

There’s such a great variety of stories in the Magic Tree House series.  Having just read the historical fiction of a story set at the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, we read this book set in the totally magic world of Camelot.  Annie, Jack, & Teddy must go to a clean up a haunted castle.  Oh, and they turn into ravens.  And there’s a pretty cool divide of talents among the three children.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Night of the New Magicians by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleNight of the New Magicians
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2006.
Summary/Review:

This is a really entertaining installment of the Magic Tree House series where Annie and Jack visit the Paris World’s Fair of 1889 to learn of for forms of “magic.”  The magic is actual the inventions and discoveries of Gustave Eiffel, Louis Pasteur, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell who all meet in a memorable scene atop the Tour Eiffel.  Annie and Jack also end up flying on a bicycle.  Cool stuff!

Rating: ***

Book Review: Monday with a Mad Genius by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
Title:  Monday with a Mad Genius
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c2007.
Summary/Review:

Jack & Annie are given the mission to spend the day in Renaissance Florence helping Leonardo Da Vinci.  It’s harder than it sounds but they’re persistent and participate in Leonardo’s science and art adventures, and even a little bit of magic and a mysterious smile.  A good story!

Rating: ***

Book Review: Stage Fright on a Summer Night by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleStage Fright on a Summer Night
Publication Info: New York : Random House, 2002.
Summary/Review:

This may be my favorite Magic Tree House story yet.  Jack & Annie travel to Elizabethan London and join Shakespeare on stage at the Globe Theatre where they learn the magic of theater.  There’s a lot of great touches like Annie’s sympathy for a bear used in bear baiting and Jack’s stage fright.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Ghost Town at Sundown by Mary Pope Osborne


Author: Mary Pope Osborne
TitleGhost Town at Sundown
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c1997.
Summary/Review:

Jack & Annie go back to the Old West and visit a ghost town with real ghosts!  They also encounter some cattle rustlers and a kindly cowboy named Slim.  It’s a fun adventure with a riddle to solve.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Mummies in the Morning by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitleMummies in the Morning
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c1993.
Summary/Review:

Another Magic Tree House classic.  Annie and Jack travel to Ancient Egypt and help a ghost-queen by solving the riddle of hieroglyphics and finding their way through the false passages of a pyramid.  This book also demonstrates their different talents very well, Annie the adventurer, and Jack the researcher.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Pirates Past Noon by Mary Pope Osbourne


Author: Mary Pope Osbourne
TitlePirates Past Noon
Publication Info: New York : Random House, c1994.
Summary/Review:

Swashbuckling adventure awaits Annie and Jack as the magic tree house takes them to an island, and they have to help pirates find a treasure.  I love pirates, but this is a weak story in the series, albeit still entertaining.  It also introduces Morgan in a section at the end that feels a bit tacked on.  Apparently this was supposed to be the last book in the series, but I’m glad that they didn’t stop there!

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs


Author: Ransom Riggs
Title:Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Narrator:  Jesse Bernstein
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2011
Summary/Review:

16-year-old Jacob travels to a remote Welsh island to learn more about the shelter that took in his grandfather during World War II.  Through some mysterious encounters and time travel he learns that the children at this home were not just refugees, but have magical powers.  It’s entertaining fluff and I’m mildly interested in finding out what happens next in the sequels, but I’m not sure if I’m going to invest the time.
Recommended booksThe Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, and Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery


Author: Evan J. Mandery
Title: Q : a novel
Publication Info: New York, NY : Harper, c2011.
Summary/Review:

An unnamed narrator tells the story of Q, Quentina Elizabeth Deveril, the love of his life.  After meeting, dating, and planning to marry, an older version of the narrator arrives via time travel to tell him that he can’t marry Q.  He takes his elder self’s advice and tries to move on with his life.  But then more and more time traveling future selves arrive, constantly interfering with his life.

This may be the most twee novel I’ve ever read.  It pushed the limits of Poe’s Law, making me wonder if this is the ultimate New York hipster with affectations novel, or just a parody of New York hipster with affectations.  I eventually decided that it’s later, and to its credit parts of this novel are laugh out loud funny. The conclusion is also very satisfying.  But to get to that point – whoa boy – it was tough to not just give up reading.

Recommended booksThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and The Little Book by Selden Edwards.
Rating: **

Book Review: All Clear by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title:
 All Clear
Publication Info: 
New York : Spectra, 2010.
ISBN: 
9780553807677
Previous Works By Same Author:
Summary/Review:
As noted in my review of Blackout this book is less of a sequel and more of a direct continuation of one lengthy work about three time travelers studying life in England in the early years of World War II.  Both books are part of a larger series of  loosely connected works by Connie Willis about a future Oxford University where graduate students in history are able to study the past by traveling through time via a mechanism known as the net.  I enjoy Willis’ approach to time travel fiction and particularly am impressed with her well-researched and detailed descriptions of contemporary life.
 The three main characters Polly, Eileen, and Michael finally met up toward the conclusion of Blackout and now begin working together to find a way to an open drop in the net that will return them to Oxford.  The mysterious characters of the previous book turn out to not be so mysterious after all and are woven fairly well into the narrative, although through unlikely coincidences that approach the edge of plausibility.   And yes, they do get out of the past (well, sort of) but the conclusion is satisfyingly unexpected.
I did find the greatest flaw of both of these novels is that a character will come up with an idea, will then discuss the same idea, and then carry out the idea which created a lot of unnecessary repetition  (especially since every attempt to return to the future is a flop).  If Willis could have tightened up the novel and created more tension if she did more showing and less telling, perhaps even condensing the story to one volume.  Still I found these lengthy tomes to be mesmerizing and read straight through to find out what would happen next, so it’s still an engaging work with a great attention to detail.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Blackout by Connie Willis


Author: Connie Willis
Title:
 Blackout
Publication Info:
ISBN:
9780553803198
Previous Works By Same Author:
Summary/Review:
Connie Willis is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors and I particularly enjoy her take on time travel fiction in works such as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog so I eagerly sought out this book once I learned of it.  This book like the two previous I mentioned is set in a future Oxford where graduate students in history study the past by traveling through time through a device known as the net.  Blackout shares some of the supporting characters of the earlier novels but focuses on three young historians studying England in the early days of the second World War.  Polly, the main protagonist of the novel, is an experienced time traveling historian observing people in shelters during the London Blitz.  Eileen is a new historian spending time working with children evacuated to the countryside.  Michael is hoping to learn about heroism by visiting various battles including the evacuation of Dunkirk.
<Spoilers Begin Here> All three historians find themselves unexpectedly trapped in their time.  Furthermore, they find themselves participating in major historical events and seemingly affecting their outcome, something that the time travel theory of the net says should be impossible.  The main conflict of the novel becomes whether Polly, Eileen, and Michael can find a way out of the past which means first they must find one another. <Spoilers End Here>
I find the best part of this novel is that it captures the everyday life of English people during the War in great detail, almost as if Willis were a time traveler herself shedding light on the ordinary life of the past.  Willis’ thorough research and attention to detail carries the novel through even at times when the plot and dialogue are a little flat.  There are other characters introduced in the novel who are seemingly dropped although their resolution is made clear when I realized that the next book All Clear is not so much a sequel as a direct continuation of a lengthy work.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Time Traveller by Dr. Ronald L. Mallett


Author: Dr. Ronald L. Mallett
Title: Time Traveller: A Scientist’s Personal Mission To Make Time Travel A Reality
Publication Info:  New York : Thunder’s Mouth Press, c2006.
ISBN: 9781560258698

Summary/Review:

Young Ronald Mallett was devastated when he was a ten-year old having to deal with his beloved father’s death.  Discovering the concept of time travel in science fiction and later in scientific works dealing with general relativity, Mallett commits himself to learning mathematics and physics so that he can invent a time machine and go back in time to prevent his father’s early demise.  This motivation carries Mallett through school, military service, teaching and research until at last his theories are being tested in research lab.  Sadly, there’s no time machine yet.  Mallett’s story is all the more interesting that as an African-American he had to face racial discrimination in his quest as well as being the only black man in the room at many gatherings of physicists. Mallett writes an engaging autobiography and is also good at explaining scientific concepts in layman’s language.

Related Works: Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life by Leonard Mlodinow

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Little Book by Selden Edwardse


Author: Selden Edwards
Title: The Little Book
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2008), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN:  0143143514

Summary/Review:

Wheeler Burden is a lot of things:

  • son of a revered athlete and war hero
  • a successful – if not ambitious – high school and college baseball pitcher
  • a rock & roll superstar
  • heir to a mentor’s collection of writings about fin-de-siecle Vienna which he publishes into a book
  • a time traveler

I do love a time travel adventure and this is a pretty good one as the protagonist Burden suddenly arrives in Vienna in 1898.  Armed with the knowledge provided by his teacher “the venerable Haze” he successfully navigates a time half-a-century before his birth and becomes acquainted with the intellectual socialites of the time.  More surprisingly he meets quite a few people he already knows.  The novel jumps between Burden’s story in Vienna and biographical stories of three generations of the Burden family. Along the way, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler and Buddy Holly among others play a part.

It’s not a perfect book as Edwards’ dialogue and characterization is kind of weak, and there’s no end to the superlatives he lays on the characters we’re supposed to like.  But there’s enough of a cracking adventure to make it worth a read.  File it under intellectual brain candy.

Recommended books: To Say Nothing of the Dog; or, How We Found the Bishop’s Bird Stump at Last by Connie Willis, Time and Again by Jack Finney, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  Also reminiscent of John Irving’s early works because of the New England boarding school and Vienna connections.   Said to be inspired by Fin-de-Siecle by Carl Schorske.
Rating: ***