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E. A. Solinas (MD USA)

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Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children)
Price: £5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars "No way of coping with this world, which doesn’t want us back.”, 11 April 2016
Fantasy stories are full of children who find themselves in another world -- Narnia, Oz, Wonderland, Fairyland, and many other strange and magical places that the children explore before going back to our world.

But what happens to the children then?

That idea is at the heart of "Every Heart a Doorway," which introduces us to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, where children who speak of journeys to impossible places can be counseled and assisted as they struggle to deal with a world that no longer fits them. Seanan McGuire's writing is luminously unnerving, and she effortlessly whips together the fantastical struggles of her characters with a haunting murder mystery on the school grounds.

For the last six months -- or six years, if you ask her -- Nancy was in an Underworld of cold stars, pomegranate trees and shadowy gods. She longs to return to that strange, cold, ethereal world ruled by the Lord of Death and the Lady of Shadow. So her parents send her to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, which specializes in children who have gone to other worlds and come back -- both Logic and Nonsense worlds of various types, angled either towards Wicked or Virtue. Yes, the classification is very complex.

Nancy soon finds that the other kids there (and the teachers) are like her -- they have been altered by their time in these other worlds, and find themselves unable to live normal lives. All of them crave a return to the place where they now feel they belong, but only a few will ever return.

But Nancy's orientation is rudely interrupted when girls are suddenly murdered on the grounds, with each one missing an essential body part. People immediately start throwing accusations around at some of the more morbid children, including Nancy herself, and a panicked Eleanor even prepares to evacuate the school. As more deaths heap up on the Home, Nancy and her new oddball friends must uncover the murderer's identity, and stop them before they kill again.

Seanan McGuire has been writing excellent urban fantasy stories for many years, but "Every Heart A Doorway" is an almost transcendent story. Part of its charm the concept (a refuge for those who have travelled to other worlds), and the idea that those other worlds exist -- though only a few seconds of them are actually seen, McGuire spins a silken web of glimpses and hints that are all the more tantalizing because they are never actually shown in the story ("dancing skeletons that gleamed like opals"), only reflected in the children who have been there.

And her writing is absolutely enchanting, full of lingering magic that has followed the kids back to our world. The prose is often as disturbing as it is beautiful ("A girl with hair the color of moonlight on wheat stared at her hands while she talked about boys made of glass whose kisses had cut her lips..."), and McGuire comes up with some truly memorable moments (Christopher leads a dead girl's skeleton to her grave through his flute music). Some of the cruder comments can cause ripples in the luminous storytelling, but once the murders start, it seems to work better.

And all the characters are also oddballs, haunted by a hollow yearning for worlds where they fit in, because there is some part of them that needed to be there. Nancy is a prime example -- she is now a creature of stillness and shadow, unable to cope with sunlight or colorful clothes. She's also specified as being asexual early in the story, which is hinted to be a part of the reason why she fits into the Underworld of starlit beauty and unmoving ghosts more than she fits into the everyday world. She's awkward and ill-fitting at first, but grows more self-sufficient and strong as the story unwinds.

The other characters also don't quite fit in, even in a school full of kids who went down the rabbit hole -- hyperactive and brutally blunt Sumi, the prim mad-scientist-in-training Jack, quietly sensible Kade (who is transgender and reaching adulthood, and thus unable to return to a place that only wants little girls), and the meek bone-obsessed Christopher. They're even more poignant as you realize that the adults who run the place are basically the grown-up versions of these kids, and that outside the Home, they have no education, no home, no future.

"Every Heart a Doorway" is an astoundingly good novella that shows off Seanan Mcguire's writing talents at their best -- it's uplifting and bittersweet, enchanted and bloody. And even if only for a moment, it will open a door for you.

Reliquary (special edition)
Reliquary (special edition)
by Douglas J. Preston
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars The secret of Mbwun, 11 April 2016
A year and a half, a monster known as Mbwun tore a bloody swathe through the New York Museum of Natural History. Of course, the good guys triumphed by killing it.

But the legacy of Mbwun lives on in "Reliquary," which introduces a new grotesque brain-ripping threat to New York City, while revealing some truly shocking twists about the monstrous creature. At times it feels tangled up in social commentary on the homeless and the wealthy, but the central story is a pretty chilling one, even as Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child dive into the filth, abandoned rooms and shadowy subways where the new monsters dwell.

A pair of skeletons are found sunken in river sewage, with their heads chewed off and their bones deformed. Since one of them turns out to be a well-known socialite, the police and the news media are immediately being hounded to find out what happened, and both Smithback and D'Agosta soon find that the answers may be tied to the network of tunnels under the city. The vast population of homeless people down there is being attacked by the "Wrinklers" -- and almost as bad, the dead socialite's mother is stirring up riots against them.

To make things even more complicated, Margo Green and Dr. Frock are called on to help identify the second decapitated corpse. This seems pretty normal... until Margo discovers a connection to Mbwun, and a discovery that Frock's theory about where it came from may be entirely wrong. Nightmare fuel and nerd arguments ensue.

With everything rapidly going down the tubes, Inspector Pendergast pops up to help D'Agosta contact the underground people, and find out where these Wrinklers are congregating and what they are doing. Unfortunately, they may be running out of time -- the Wrinklers are rising to attack more and more innocent victims, even as the mobs on the surface begin clashing with the homeless. But the true danger of the Wrinklers is more sinister -- and close to home -- than D'Agosta or Pendergast could ever have guessed.

"Reliquary" is effectively "Relic Part II: Electrical Skin Boogaloo." While the Mbwun is nowhere to be seen this time around, almost every part of the plot ties into the events of the first book -- the brain-eating, subterranean monsters, DNA weirdness, and the elite world of polish and intellectualism being swamped by musky, blood-spattered brutality. And while Preston and Child had seemingly explained away Mbwun's existence in the past book, they add some interesting twists to this creature's true nature in this one.

And as such, Preston and Child give the story the same sort of appeal -- a dark, pulpy popcorn thriller with plenty of blood and harrowing chase scenes in dark tunnels. Despite this, the story is actually rather complex, with two or three investigations going on at the same time before twining together by the climax, as well as a spattering of smaller subplots that wind through them like the roots of a clinging plant. This story also feels grimier and dirtier than the one before it, with lots of explorations down into dark, dank tunnels full of filth and scuttling creatures.

They also explore what has happened to the protagonists in the months since the attack of Mbwun. Pendergast seems relatively unchanged (a sort of twentieth-century Sherlock Holmes, down to the disguises), but D'Agosta and Margo seem haunted by what has happened, with Margo learning to use a gun and exercising... you know, just in case. And the ones who have benefited from the event -- Smithback and Frock -- seem to be spinning in opposite directions, with Smithbeck exploiting the whole scenario for all he can, and Frock becoming more arrogant and dictatorial.

The biggest problem is perhaps the whole issue of the homeless people being attacked by the wealthy elite, who want to get rid of them... well, because otherwise the world just isn't safe for the wealthy elite to do drugs and party. The abuse of power by the wealthy is a legitimate and serious issue to address, especially towards a group of people with no resources or power, but in a story about wrinkled brain-eating monsters lurking in the subways... it feels shoehorned in, and sometimes it clutters an otherwise lean story.

It's bogged down by one too many subplots, but "Reliquary" is a fairly entertaining follow-up to the "Jaws in a museum" tale that came before it, adding some new horrifying twists and shocking reveals to a seemingly simple monster story. Just don't expect the rest of the Agent Pendergast series to have this sort of stuff.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie Collection)
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie Collection)
by Agatha Christie
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars “Prisoners at the bar, have you anything to say in your defence?”, 11 April 2016
Ten people are called to a remote island, with a luxurious mansion set on it. One by one, they are murdered for their past crimes-- and they have no idea who the one hunting them is.

That chilling premise is all there is of "And Then There Were None," Agatha Christie's classic novel that completely subverted all ideas of what a murder mystery was like. There's no detectives. No innocent people. No clues. There are only people accused of terrible crimes, alone on an island.... and slowly being killed off as they descend into a cold, clammy mire of paranoia and terror, before blindsiding the audience with a truly shocking ending.

Eight strangers are called to the remote Soldier Island (the original name is unprintably offensive now): a former governess, a callous soldier of fortune, an elderly judge, an alcoholic doctor, a prim spinster, a former soldier, a playboy and a disguised private investigator. Two servants -- who seem to have their own skeletons in the closet -- are already waiting in the mansion to serve them. All were summoned here for various reasons by the mysterious Mr. and Mrs. U. N. Owen (GET IT?), who are oddly absent during the first night's dinner.

And we soon learn why, as a recorded message addresses them all, and lists the murders they have committed. Each one is a killer, ranging from vehicular manslaughter to the murder of African tribesman, from drowning a child to condemning an innocent man to death. Even the servants are guilty.

And almost immediately, people start dying in the same way as the "Ten Little Soldier Boys" poem, which is posted in every bedroom. With every death, one of the ten china figurines on the table goes missing. With no way on or off the island, the rapidly-dwindling group realizes that one of them is the murderer -- and soon paranoia, suspicions and even madness begin to afflict them. Who is the person who is punishing them all, and can they figure out his or her identity before all of them are dead?

One of the most striking aspects of "And Then There Were None" is that it smoothly shucks off most of the trappings you expect from a murder mystery -- there is no detective to serve as the conduit for the audience, none of the characters on the island is actually a good person, and there is no reassurance that at the end there will be a tidy sum-up before most of the characters go on their own way. It has all the darkness, the nameless horror that is at the core of every Christie story, along with her knowledge of the evil in human hearts.

And somehow her spare, lean prose and ordinary dialogue make the horror of the situation even more pronounced -- even the most mundane scenes are threaded with a sense of unease, right from the very beginning of the book. After the record plays, Christie stirs up a powerful sense of paranoia and fear, growing more intense with every passing chapter until it reaches nightmarish fervor in the final chapters. (“Why did I never see his face properly before? A wolf—that’s what it is—a wolf ’s face ... Those horrible teeth....”). The penultimate chapter is almost hallucinatory, as the seeming last survivor succumbs to madness.

And since she has no one chapter to rest her narrative upon, Christie darted from one character to another -- little glimpses into their heads to show how their thoughts unravel as the specter of death looms over them. But though all this, Christie never loses her brilliant and logical method of plotting her mystery -- a cool-headed and logical examination of the suspects would reveal the murderer, but most of her characters are too freaked-out to actually manage such thoughts.

Perhaps the most petrifying aspect of "And Then There Were None" is that the killers in this book are "ordinary" people -- none of them are crazed serial-killers, but ordinary people with ordinary jobs. And yet, they had an opportunity to help themselves through murder, and they did it... and worst of all, they easily live with it. Sure, their consciences twinge them subconsciously every now and then, but clearly most of their days are untroubled by the thoughts that they drove people to their deaths, both directly (Rogers) and indirectly (Brent), deliberately (Lombard) and accidentally (Dr. Armstrong).

These are the people we could meet on the street any day, and never think of the rotten, oozing darkness in their hearts, and that is the horror of it. Human beings like to think that "good" or "respectable" people can't secretly be awful people, but Christie clearly saw the ugliness that can fester inside them. Yes, some of these people inspire more sympathy than others, such as Macarthur, who seems haunted by his crime and its repercussions. But there is no one here who hasn't done something terribly wrong... or else, they wouldn't be here.

Slow-building and painfully intense, "And Then There Were None" is one of the greatest and most creative murder mysteries that Christie ever penned -- no heroes, no innocence, only a terrible march of death upon those who have harmed others. Brilliant and hard-edged as a diamond.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation - Season 1-7 [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 1-7 [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Patrick Stewart
Price: £54.99

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Boldly going, take two!, 11 April 2016
Almost twenty years after "Star Trek" was cancelled, it returned to television screens in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This series was set many decades after the original, on a brand-new starship.

And while the first two seasons are fairly awful (peppered with some brilliant jewels), "Star Trek: The Next Generation" eventually came into its own, weaving together interstellar political strife with some very entertaining stories. Indeed, it boldly went where science fiction had not gone for quite some time, creating epic conflicts that were easily combined with the smaller-scale problems-of-the-episode, and distinguishing itself from the original "Star Trek" without losing its sense of wonder.

The year is 2364, and the Enterprise-D is being launched under the command of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart). But as the ship proceeds towards Farpoint Station to pick up the rest of their crew, they are waylaid by a seemingly-omnipotent alien creature who calls himself Q (John DeLancie). Q decides to put the human race on trial for past savagery, so the crew of the Enterprise must solve the rather obvious mystery of Farpoint Station to prove themselves.

Over the seven years that follow, the Enterprise-D crew has a wide array of strange and mind-blowing adventures, including time-travel to the 1800s, the discovery of a humanoid android like Commander Data (Brent Spiner), assorted murder mysteries, a hologram that conquers the ship, a witchhunt for spies, a probe that beams ancient memories into Picard's head, ancient traps left behind by dead worlds, and strange life-forms that look like grains of sand, giant snowflakes, nanites, space jellyfish, imaginary friends and other such creatures.

Furthermore, they become deeply enmeshed in the politics of alien races. Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn) becomes the central point of a conspiracy that might spark off a civil war in the Klingon Empire, and the tenuous relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire threatens to start ANOTHER war, especially when there is talk of reunification of the Vulcans and Romulans. And thanks to Q, the Enterprise-D encounters a terrifying enemy in a far-off corner of the galaxy -- the biomechanical Borg, who sweep through and assimilate every civilization they encounter.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" is one of those rare spinoffs that managed to create an identity of its own, and to distinguish itself from the original series without being drastically different. Much of this comes from the arcs that are lightly woven through the seasons, which often finds the Enterprise-D crew finding themselves trying to maintain a delicate balance of peace and morality, often with outcomes that don't feel right, but are necessary to avoid devastating warfare. Yes, the Cold War ended during this show's run. Why do you ask?

What are its flaws? The first season... well, to be frank, it sucked. It was smug, obnoxious, hypocritical, uncreative and poorly-written. The second season sucked somewhat less, but it was still badly flawed. And though all the seasons that followed ranged from very good to brilliant, they had a few clunkers in there as well ("Genesis," "Rascals," "Sub Rosa," etc), including most episodes with the Ferengi.

But after those first two seasons, the complexity and depth of the writing bloomed along with the plotting. The stories often dealt with some serious ethical issues (euthanasia, drug addiction, terrorism versus freedom fighting, loyalty to an old commander, McCarthyesque witch-hunts), and had some very clever stories that could be wrenching and thought-provoking, such as the brilliant "The Inner Light" (where Picard experiences a whole lifetime on an alien world) or the action-packed, harrowing "Best of Both Worlds" two-parter, in which the Borg are poised to destroy the Federation.

Despite a rough start, Patrick Stewart's Picard becomes a warmly endearing character over the course of the series -- he's a reserved, intellectual man who is also kind of an introvert, but also a brilliant orator, a compassionate man, and one who commands respect whenever he speaks. He also was backed by some truly excellent supporting characters -- Jonathan Frakes does quite well as the first officer, even though Riker is kind of controlling and slutty; Gates McFadden is the endearingly passionate Doctor Crusher; and LeVar Burton as the endearingly earnest, awkward engineer Geordi LaForge. Just ignore Wesley Crusher.

But probably the two breakout characters were Data and Wolf, played respectively by Brent Spiner and Michael Dorn. Every Star Trek series needs its oddball, and these two shared the duty -- Data is a childlike, literal-minded android whose encyclopedic knowledge doesn't give him understanding of human emotions or actions, while Worf is a warrior alien raised among humans, not fully belonging among his own kind or among his adopted people.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" had a bumpy start, but gradually blossomed with the introduction of the Borg and the exploration of truly creative, unique science-fiction stories. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, and they are (mostly) astonishing.

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians)
Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians (Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.33

4.0 out of 5 stars Rutabaga, 7 April 2016
Alcatraz Smedry seems like an ordinary preteen boy... except he has a particular talent for breaking things, he's an Oculator, and he's being chased by fascist Librarians.

And that's only the beginning of the insanity that goes on in "Alcatraz Vs. The Evil Librarians," a charming middle-school fantasy by fantasy titan Brandon Sanderson. And rather than playing the book's events straight, Sanderson keeps his tongue firmly placed in his cheek, both about his oddball hero ("If you are anything like me – clever, fond of goat cheese, and devilishly handsome") and about the topsy-turvy world of misinformation and paper monsters he inhabits.

On his thirteenth birthday, Alcatraz receives a bag of sand, which is allegedly from his birth parents. He's more concerned about being bounced from his latest foster home, and having nowhere to go -- until a man with a gun menaces him, and a strange old man who claims to be his grandfather rescues him from the evil "Librarian." Grandpa Smedry claims that he is an Oculator from the Free Kingdoms, and that the bag of sand is the power Sands of Rashid... which makes it problematic that the Librarians have stolen it.

Obviously Alcatraz believes the old man is insane at first, but goes along with it -- and soon discovers a strange world of paper monsters, silver-haired teen knights, bizarre talents (of which his "breaking things" is one), magical eyeglass lenses and hidden continents. They must infiltrate the local library to get back the Sands of Rashid before it's too late... but they also have a terrifying enemy in a Dark Oculator. Will Alcatraz, Bastille and Sing (yes, the characters have prison names) be able to save themselves, let alone the rest of the world?!

It's obvious from "Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians" that Brandon Sanderson had a fun time writing this one. It's whimsical nonsense ("secret" continents, evil Librarians and paper monsters), but he clearly relished reveling in that nonsense -- the entire book is a metafictional exercise written from Alcatraz's perspective as a sort of memoir, and he declares that the perception that it's all nonsense is because the Librarians have molded your mind and perceptions of reality to fit their ends, declaring that the "no Librarian is likely to recommend it."

And in the process, he has some fun with what people consider "serious" literature for kids ("Instead, his dog will die. Or, in some cases, his mother will die. If it’s a really meaningful book, both his dog and his mother will die"), and twiddling with the idea of what is "realistic" and/or "nonsense." If real life has taught us anything, it's that people are easily lied to and deceived. See also: every election.

In the meantime, Sanderson presents us with a fun, colorful adventure that jaunts along at a rapid pace, full of funny little moments (such as Alcatraz explaining how he once "broke" a chicken) and quirky first-person narration ("If you are ever attacked by unstoppable monsters created entirely from bad romance novels..."). It has the typical elaborate forms of magic that you'd expect of any of his books, presented with a whimsy AND menace that is thoroughly entertaining. Nothing too deep here, just a rollicking adventure story that likes to poke fun at story tropes.

And Alcatraz himself is a fun lead character -- snarky, self-deprecating, and constantly reminding us that he's not a nice person (after all, would a nice person tantalize us with action and excitement, then go back to a depressingly awful birthday?), but we do see some of the scars from a life of foster care and massive breakage that have led to him being so oddly removed from others. And while they're not terribly developed yet, the other characters -- wildly eccentric Grandpa Smedry, the irascible Bastille, nonsense-spouting Quentin and weapons-happy Sing -- are all fun to read about.

Fun and light, "Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians" is an entertaining introduction for kids to the works of Brandon Sanderson -- clever, imaginative and very rarely slow-moving. Remember: Cantaloupe, fluttering paper makes a duck.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (MacMillan Alice)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (MacMillan Alice)
by Lewis Carroll
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.77

5.0 out of 5 stars "We're all mad here", 1 April 2016
The Cheshire Cat. Down the rabbit hole. Mad hatter. Curiouser and curiouser. OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!

Even if you have never read "Alice in Wonderland," some part of its charmingly nonsensical story has probably slipped into your head over the years. Lewis Carroll's classic fantasy tale is a dreamlike adventure that breezily eschews plot, character development and any kind of logic... and between his cleverly nonsensical writing ("I daresay it's a French mouse, come over with William the Conqueror") and surrealist adventures, it is absolutely perfect that way. How many books can say that?

A bored young girl named Alice is by a riverbank when a White Rabbit runs by, fretting, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!" and checking the watch from his waistcoat. Unsurprisingly, Alice pursues the rabbit down a rabbit-hole... and ends up floating down a deep tunnel to a strange place full of locked doors. There's also a cake and a little bottle with labels instructing you to eat or drink them, which cause Alice to either shrink or grow exponentially.

As she continues pursuing the rabbit (who seems to think she's someone named Mary Ann), Alice quickly discovers that Wonderland is a place where logic and reason have very, very little influence -- talking animals in a Caucus-race, a hookah-smoking Caterpillar, even more bizarre growth potions, a grinning cat, the Duchess and her indestructible pig-baby, eternal tea-time with the March Hare and the Mad Hatter (plus the Dormouse), and finally the court of the Queen and King of Hearts.

"Alice in Wonderland" is one of those rare books that actually is more enjoyable and readable because it's pure nonsense, without more than a shred of plot or even proper narrative structure. The entire story is essentially Alice wandering from one wacky scenario to another in Wonderland, meeting more violently weird people with every stop and finding herself entangled in all sorts of surreal situations. It doesn't really lead anywhere, or come from anywhere.

And yet, this works perfectly -- it's all about nonsense, and a coherent plot or developed characters would get in the way of that. Never has such a perfect depiction of a weird dream been turned into fiction, especially since Alice regards everything that happens with a sort of perplexed detachment. Even though NOTHING in Wonderland makes sense (vanishing cats, talking animals, arguing playing-cards painting roses, the Hatter convinced that it is six o'clock all day every day), she addresses everything with a sense of bemused internal logic ("I've had nothing yet, so I can't take more").

And Carroll festoons this wacky little tale with puns ("We called his Tortoise because he taught us"), odd snatches of mutilated poetry ("Twinkle, twinkle, little bat/how I wonder what you're at") and tangled snarls of eccentric logic that only works if you're technically insane (so... flamingoes are like mustard?). This keeps the plotless story as sparkling and swift-moving as a mountain stream laced with LSD, so the mind never has a chance to get bored by Alice simply wandering around, growing and shrinking, and engaged in a string of conversations with loopy people.

"Alice in Wonderland" is a mad, mad, mad, mad experience -- and between Carroll's sparkling dialogue and enchantingly surreal story, it's also a lot of fun. Never a dull moment... except the wait to read "Through the Looking Glass."

War and Peace [DVD] [2016] [2015]
War and Peace [DVD] [2016] [2015]
Dvd ~ Paul Dano
Price: £9.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In the heart of Russia, 1 April 2016
Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" is a true historical epic -- it's well over a thousand pages long, spans several years, and fearlessly tackles subjects from warfare to social reform, from love to loss.

So it's hardly surprising that the BBC's adaptation of "War and Peace" requires six hours to tell the sprawling story, which follows three passionate young Russians through the travails of war, love and beliefs (both religious and political). It's a polished, gilded affair that shows all the beauty and decadence of tsarist Russia, mingled with the blood-spattered ugliness of war -- it sometimes gets a bit bogged down in the complexity of its story and cast, but the sweeping scope of the story cannot be denied.

The story takes place in the early 1800s, when Napoleon has invaded Austria and was preparing to invade Russia. Three young Russians are coming of age at the time -- the sweet and romantic Natasha Rostova (Lily James), who desperately wants to fall in love; Andrei Bolkonsky (James Norton), a young man dissatisfied by the shallowness of his life, and determined to go to war; and Pierre Bezukhov (Paul Dano), a kind-hearted and idealistic (but easily led) young man, who is the illegitimate son of Russia's wealthiest noble.

When Pierre unexpectedly inherits his father's fortune and title, he finds himself suddenly the target of the cruelly mercenary Hélène Kuragina (Tuppence Middleton), even as Natasha is entranced by Hélène's dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner). Andrei is wounded during his brief stint in the war, and his craving for a life with meaning leads to a terrible loss for himself and his family, as well as a burgeoning love for Natasha. As the French invade Russia, these three and their families will be forced to face the perils of war, and the broken world they must rebuild.

Obviously a lot more than just war and romance is going on here -- there is a vast web of characters living in light-filled palaces, whose lives and fates are all bound up together through affairs, social-climbing, money, class, favors and secrets. With so many people woven into the story, there is plenty going on, including duels, gambling, saving kids from burning buildings, an incestuous relationship, and the occasional policeman tied to a swimming bear.

It's a credit to screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Tom Harper that the luminous purity at the book's core is still here, represented by the flawed idealism of the three lead characters. And through them, the story takes on an appropriately epic scope, from elegant balls to the pale-skied, snow-encrusted fields -- and even more important, we witness the dazzlingly smooth interplay between the different layers of a society (religion, political strife, personal kindness... and yes, war and peace). If there's a problem, it's that "War and Peace" sometimes gets bogged down in its own complicated subplots, of which there are MANY.

And visually, this miniseries is a truly beautiful experience -- the camera lingers just long enough on vast vaulted rooms filled with light and silk gowns, but brings equal luminosity to simpler places and people (such as the kindly Marya). Even in the darker moments (a woman draped across a silken bed, with the camera panning to reveal that her flowing white dress is drenched in blood), it often feels like we're watching a series of paintings come to life.

It also has a very solid cast -- Dano and Norton perfectly embody a shyly earnest boy-man who seeks to better the world, and a world-weary proto-hipster who grows noble and heroic. They revolve around Lily James for much of the story, and she does an excellent job as well -- she initially plays Natasha as a wide-eyed teen waif, and gradually matures into an elegant lady, and then a powerful young woman. These three are backed by an even more solid supporting cast, including Middleton, Gillian Anderson, Jessie Buckley, Jack Lowden, Turner, and many more.

The adaptation of "War and Peace" is a dazzling affair, full of visual beauty and a fair amount of fidelity to the original novel. Harrowing, luminous and powerfully written -- and the people who made it deserve plenty of praise.

The Manitou [DVD]
The Manitou [DVD]
Dvd ~ Tony Curtis

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Is that your SCIENCE talking? (spoilers), 1 April 2016
This review is from: The Manitou [DVD] (DVD)
Like any other massively-popular movie, "The Exorcist" seems to have inspired many derivative horror movies -- a person is possessed or infected by a horrifying presence, and someone has to rid them of it.

One of the more blatant examples would be "The Manitou," a tepidly generic horror movie that attempts to cloak its "Exorcist"-lite plot in Native American trappings, racial insensitivity and... a reference to Lovecraftian-horror writer August Derleth, of all people. The first half of this movie is enough to hypnotize you into a stupor, with lots of very serious discussions and a few unintentionally funny "horrific" scenes... but once the movie gives up on trying to be scary, it ends up becoming comedy gold.

A young woman named Karen (Susan Strasberg) develops a bizarre growth on the back of her neck -- it's about the size of a softball, and popped into existence over the course of a few days. Doctors are baffled by it, especially when they realize that it kind of resembles... a fetus! What's more, this strange tumor-baby-thing manifests strange mystical abilities, such as causing the surgeons to physically harm themselves, turning a surgical laser into a phaser, and possessing Karen's body .

Karen's boyfriend Harry (Tony Curtis) is a faux psychic who caters to elderly ladies, so he's understandably freaked that a genuine supernatural event is threatening Karen. After doing some research, he discovers that her neck-tumor is somehow related to a long-dead Native American shaman.

So he goes to get another shaman, John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) of the Lebanese-American tribe, who is not particularly enthused about helping him -- especially when he finds that the shaman is the legendarily evil Misquamacus, and he cannot hope to actually match Misquamacus in magical power. And worse of all, Misquamacus is going to summon the Great Old One. No, not Cthulhu -- he's basically summoning Satan.

"The Manitou" is one of those movies that is at its best when it isn't trying to actually be scary. The first half is capable of inducing narcolepsy -- many lingering shots of the beautiful San Francisco area, interspersed with people having serious discussions about medical problems and Native American lore. Director William Girdler seems to be incredibly uncomfortable with actually diving into possession-related, and seems to hope that the tepid body-horror will freak people out instead.

Unfortunately, the few genuine scares are... not particularly scary, especially since they always take place in well-lit, crowded areas. Some are simply silly (the medical laser blasting people), and others border on epic narm (an elderly lady is possessed, floats around and flings herself down a balsawood staircase).

But something happens about halfway through the story. After the revival of Misquamacus, the movie suddenly begins veering towards less realistic, more bizarre forms of storytelling, complete with some unintentionally funny dialogue ("Gichi Manitou? Harry, you don't call Gichi Manitou." "Oh, yeah, well he's going to get a person-to-person call from me... collect!"). Soon the hospital is not only deserted, but encrusted in a thick layer of ice with vast icicles, with a starfield occupying Karen's hospital room and a giant glittering computer dominating the story. It's as though Girdler has stopped caring about being scary, and has abandoned even the slightest illusions of subtlety.


It also has the single most delightful climactic battle ever committed to film. Not because it's good, but because it has a topless woman possessed by computer spirits shooting love-powered Force-lightning at the Eye of Sauron and a naked Native American dwarf, while asteroids pelt Harry and John. It is both insane and ridiculous, and I love every deranged second of it.

As for the acting, it ranges from tepidly average to utterly disinterested -- Tony Curtis in particular looks like he is counting the seconds before he can get paid, much like his character when dealing with elderly ladies who want their "mystic mantra." And Michael Ansara does an okay job playing the type of Native American character you would expect from 1978 -- John apparently doesn't have any aspect of his personality or life that isn't explicitly tied to his Native American roots (because that is totally how people are), and he's incapable of reconciling science and spirituality -- but he's at least more likable than Harry.

It's a third-rate "Exorcist" ripoff, but "The Manitou" redeems itself somewhat by becoming so bad it's hilarious -- so while most of the story is tedious, it gradually becomes magnificently bizarre and laugh-out-loud silly.
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The Sleeper and the Spindle: WINNER OF THE CILIP KATE GREENAWAY MEDAL 2016
The Sleeper and the Spindle: WINNER OF THE CILIP KATE GREENAWAY MEDAL 2016
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.58

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sleep! Plague! Doom!, 28 Mar. 2016
In a far-off kingdom, a beautiful young girl is locked in an enchanted sleep, which also afflicts everyone else in that land. You may think you know this story and how it will end... but you really don't.

And it takes a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman to not only give a clever new twist to fairy tale plots, but do it with an effortless elegance that makes it seem utterly natural and original. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" entwines the echoes of two traditional fairy tales, but subverts everything you expect from such a story -- from the hero (no, it's not a lesbian retelling) to the resolution, this is a stunningly lovely, thorns-and-roses tale that brings suspense back into these stories.

A group of dwarfs are traveling to buy a wedding gift for a young queen, who is to be married the following week. But on their travels, they hear of a "plague of sleep" that is afflicting a neighboring land -- a young princess in a castle surrounded by roses and thorns, cursed to a magical sleep which has spread to other people in her land. Unfortunately... it is continuing to spread, and anyone who tries to rescue the princess and break the spell is horribly killed by the witch/fairy/whatever. "She's old as the hills, evil as a snake, all malevolence and magic and death," one character warns.

So the dwarves tell the young queen, who decides to deal with the situation right away (even though it means postponing her wedding). Along with her dwarf friends, she ventures through a land of cobweb-draped sleepers, toward the high tower where a beautiful young maiden sleeps, and a strange old crone has lived alone for decades. But all is not as it seems, and the young queen must summon all her wit and strength to defeat the evil creature that rules this sleeping land.

"The Sleeper and the Spindle" has an airy, silver-embroidered delicacy that you don't find in many fairy tale retellings -- normally they lose some of the magic that is spun into the original tales. Gaiman painstakingly links together two different fairy tales (one obvious, one more subtle) and adds some surprising twists without overcomplicating the story -- it's a straightforward quest that begins to curl and twist when the queen reaches her destination.

Gaiman has the rare skill of being able to adapt his writing style to whatever story he's telling, so his writing here is luminously beautiful without ever becoming too personal -- in short, he's writing a fairy tale. But he dips occasionally into the perspective of the unnamed (but obvious) young queen and her dwarf companions, as they wander through the eerie cobwebbed kingdom. And he describes the story with a flair for both enchantment ("sat on the moss beneath an oak tree, and tasted the stillness, heartbeat by heartbeat") and the ugly underbelly of the tale ("close to the stone of the castle there were only dead, brown stems and creepers, with old thorns sharp as knives").

Furthermore, this story is graced with some truly enchanted pen-and-ink drawings by Chris Riddell, which suit Gaiman's story very well -- they're very slightly cartoony in proportions, but are also delicately elaborate and detailed, with a slightly translucent quality. He also adds touches of gold to many of these pictures -- often a golden frame, but sometimes other details like the dwarves' hats or the young queen's mirror. Some of the pictures are also framed by images of thorns and skulls.

While Gaiman doesn't make the identity of the unnamed young queen obvious, it's very clear from the beginning who she is, fairy-tale-heroine-wise -- and he gives her a gravity and wisdom from her past troubles that makes her far more heroic than a straightforward princess-kissing prince would be. Bits of her backstory -- and why she chose to handle this strange magical event -- are sprinkled through the story, rounding out her tale and why she feels oddly hesitant to have her "happily ever after."

"The Sleeper and the Spindle" is a delightfully eerie fairy-tale mash-up that is both a sequel and a subversive twist on the original, with an exquisite delicacy that makes it feel masterful. And of course, it's always nice to see ladies armor up and take on the villains.

Evil Dead 2 Special Edition [Blu-ray]
Evil Dead 2 Special Edition [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Bruce Campbell
Price: £8.02

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "WHO'S LAUGHING NOW? AAAAAAAAAA...!", 28 Mar. 2016
Sam Raimi's "The Evil Dead" became a massive cult hit almost immediately -- but not entirely for the reasons he had hoped. Yes, some parts of it are scary, but it's also hilariously over-the-top.

So when it was time to give the world "Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn," Raimi decided to embrace the joke. Sure, it still has some horrific moments (possessed lady in the basement! Ash stuck down there with her!), but the movie is now being deliberately over-the-top for the sheer joy of it -- fountains of gore, quotable lines, chainsaw hands and laughing deer heads. And of course, Bruce Campbell has completely graduated into his memelike status here, as a demon-slaying mass of manly awesomeness.

It begins with a heavily abridged retelling of the first movie, where Ash (Campbell) and his girlfriend Linda (Denise Bixler) take a romantic vacation in a rickety old cabin, but stumble across a weird old tape recorder and the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (aka, Book of the Dead). An evil force possesses Linda, and Ash is forced to behead her with a shovel. Got it? Onto the story!

After being possessed for a grand total of six seconds, Ash finds himself trapped in the haunted cabin, with no way of getting back to civilization. He's slowly driven insane by demonic hallucinations, and the undead Linda reassembles her very-rapidly-decayed body so she can attack Ash once more. This time, she bites his hand and possesses it, forcing Ash to take very extreme measures to protect himself. Think a chainsaw. Used for amputation.

Meanwhile, ANOTHER quartet of disposable individuals are approaching the cabin, led by Annie (Sarah Berry), whose father left behind the tapes on the Necronomicon. Not only did he leave the Necronomicon and the tapes in the cabin, but his possessed wife Henrietta (Lou Hancock and Ted Raimi) is buried in the basement -- and she wants out. More horrible killings, possessions and demonic evil ensue.

Despite having a few million dollars more, "Evil Dead 2" retains the same low-budget charm as the original. The story takes place in the same weird little cabin, there's a cast of about five or six people, and demonic possession is represented by some charming stop-motion and clever makeup. Sam Raimi has definitely polished his special effects with all that extra money (Ash talking to himself in the mirror), and has added a few for comedic effect (the laughing deer head, geysers of blood!), but hasn't lost the rough edges that made the first so delightful.

He's also dialed his directing up a few notches. It's still a horror movie with a sense of creeping dread, especially as we discover more about the Necronomicon and the undead horrors that come from it ("We are the things that were and shall be again!")

But Raimi fully embraces the over-the-top ("I'll swallow your soul! I'LL SWALLOW YOUR SOUL!" "Swallow this!") and in-jokes (Ash pins down his hand... with "A Farewell to Arms"), with plenty of delightfully quotable lines (... groovy"). There's also a lot more weaponry in it, since Ash swaggers through the film with a sawed-off shotgun (which he fires into demon faces) and a chainsaw that he ends up attaching to his arm. It is almost as awesome as it sounds.

This is also the movie where Bruce Campbell blossoms into the one-liner-slinging, larger-than-life, gun-and-chainsaw-swinging cult icon he is today -- he plays Ash as the kind of cool yet frenetic guy that every guy would like to imagine he would be in a supernatural crisis, and he is utterly delightful. The other actors do serviceable jobs as characters you don't know very well, but Bruce simply expands to fit the movie with no room for anyone else to steal (or chew) the scenery with such aplomb and charm.

"Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn" is one of those rare sequels that has more money and polished special effects, but doesn't lose what made the first movie so much fun. Instead, it takes everything that was fun... and amps it up.

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