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E. A. Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA)

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by Stephanie Garber
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £5.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The ticket to Caraval, 3 Jun. 2017
This review is from: Caraval (Hardcover)
Caraval is magic. Caraval is mystery. You might have your dearest wish fulfilled, or you might go completely mad. And until the final pages, "Caraval" is also a twisty-turny, luxuriantly sensual experience. Stephenie Garver acquits herself beautifully in her first novel -- seemingly the first of a series -- which follows a desperate young woman over the the five nights of Caraval, where she faces the possibility of losing everything she holds dear.

Scarlett Dragna is anticipating her wedding to a nobleman she's never even met -- it will mean she and her wild sister Donatella can finally live free of their vicious, murderous father. But then she's sent an invitation to the magical Caraval, run by a mysterious man known only as Legend. And when she refuses to go, Tella and her paramour Julian kidnap Scarlett and take her to the remote island where Caraval is being held. The prize for the winner of this strange game? One magical wish.

But Tella vanishes right after they arrive. And despite the intoxicating magic and alluring illusions that enshroud the entire isle, Scarlett is desperate to find Tella and make it back home before her scheduled wedding. But as she's swept away in a strange world of magical gowns, hallucinatory tunnels and mysterious young men, Scarlett realizes that Tella may be in real danger from Legend -- and she has only five nights to find her. To save her sister, Scarlett must take her destiny into her own hands.

I initially expected "Caraval" to be a pretty standard young-adult romance/fantasy -- you know, a fantastical setting with a strong-willed heroine who will get together with a brooding young man. However, Stephanie Garber surprised me with not only how luscious her prose was, but how complicated the plot became as it slowly unwound towards its climax, twisting this way and that like a curled-up ribbon set free.

And Garber takes incredible care to spin out all layers of the story; once she has conveyed just how horrifying life with Governor Dragna is, she sweeps readers right off to the Caraval. And once there, she conjures up a real sense of magic -- dresses change shape according to the wearer's whims, things are paid for with lies/secrets/a day of life, shoplifters turn to stone, tattooed men tell the future, and illusions walk through the lush glittering nighttime. But she knows not to let the whimsy and enchantment obscure the darker side of Caraval, with constant reminders of darker magics.

Her writing is similarly skilled; in the ordinary world the writing is detailed but practical and straightforward. But once they get to the island, the prose becomes absolutely luscious ("Air smelling of evergreen, dusty with flecks of gold lantern light"), and Garber began twining darker plot threads that hint that something dangerous is afoot. However, she also weaves in some twists, some of which can be seen in advance... and one that definitely won't. It feels kind of anticlimactic, but it's also something of a relief.

Downsides? The bickering between Julian and "Crimson" becomes a bit annoying in the first half of the story, to the point where you wonder why they're sticking together if Scarlett dislikes him so much (besides the obvious shipping). Of course her love/hate relationship with Julian evolves gradually into just love, but the initial dislike needed to be keyed down a little.

That said, the character of Scarlett is a pretty likable one -- she's a bit fussy, but her dogged determination to escape her monstrously sadistic father evolves into a true, independent strength over the course of the story. And in addition to her burgeoning relationship with Julian, a golden-skinned roguish sailor who might be lying, the story is about the relationship between her and Tella, a seemingly flighty blonde girl who has hidden depths that even her sister didn't realize were there.

"Caraval" is a strong, enchanted start to a new series, and one that shows that Stephanie Garber is an author to keep an eye on. Just don't trade that eye for a shapeshifting gown.

The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles, Book 1)
The Black Witch (The Black Witch Chronicles, Book 1)
Price: £3.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars “It’s best to stay away from non-Gardnerians,”, 1 Jun. 2017
It's always tricky to deal with real-life bigotry through fantastical surrogates -- just consider the X-Men, or how vampires/werewolves are treated in various books and TV shows.

So Laurie Forest had a tightrope to walk with "The Black Witch," a fantasy series set in a world where black-clad mages reign over a variety of oppressed magical minorities. Forest is an excellent writer with a vivid, haunting writing style and a world she clearly has put a great deal of thought and imagination into, but her characters and world-building start falling apart when the racism angle is addressed.

Raised in the wilderness. Elloren Gardner finds herself stuck between two possible paths -- her uncle wants her to go to Verpax University to make her own way, while her aunt Vyvian demands that she be wandfasted to charming Lukas Gray immediately. To pressure Elloren, Vyvian makes sure her stay at Verpax will be as miserable as possible, so she'll consent out of desperation. Not only does she have to work in the kitchens, but she's rooming with a pair of Icarals (which Gardnerian mages consider demonic).

And Ellen quickly finds that people at Verpax don't like her much -- some because she's a Gardnerian, and some for more personal reasons (like the cruel and beautiful Fallon Bane). As she tries to stay afloat in this hostile environment, she finds that she's being stalked by murderous Icarals -- and learns some of the ugly facts about the Gardnerian civilization and the other races they've oppressed.

First, the positive. Laurie Forest has undeniable skill as a writer, evoking a vaguely 19th-century world with a winding, complex history and a variety of clashing species -- Elves, Icarals, the vaguely humanish Kelts, the colorful Urisks -- each with their own history, and many little details and events of significance. And her writing style is quite luscious ("Ironwood trees are bursting with glowing Ironflowers that cast the road in their soft blue luminescence"), with some genuinely scary moments (when Elloren is assaulted by Icarals).

The problem is, this story is about racism. And racism is bad, mmmkay?

While it's a commendable message, it's handled with far too little subtlety here. "The Black Witch" takes place in a world where every single aspect of society is devoted to upholding racism ALL THE TIME -- the pseudo-Christian religion, the clothing, the school curriculum, and every single aspect of history explicitly revolves entirely around Nazi-like hatred of other races. Rather than making the world feel more three-dimensional, it instead flattens it down into one aspect of people's lives and thoughts.

As a result, Forest seems to be tackling weighty, complicated issues -- colonialism, racism, slavery, the malleability of history -- but she doesn't have the skill and subtlety to handle them that well. And by tying it explicitly into complex issues like religious faith, or depicting all racist offenders as religious zealots, she makes her handling of racism even more clumsy. Seriously, most religions don't have actual written doctrine supporting racism. Mostly people just interpret it to what they want.

And Elloren makes very little sense: she has supposedly been raised far apart from Gardnerian society, to the point where she barely knows about some aspects of it (such as sweatshops and Urisk labor camps). Yet she has all these racist views that are common among the other Gardnerians, which turn into outright hate when any non-Gardnerian isn't fawningly nice to her ("I barely hear her as hatred flares inside me, searing any speck of compassion"). I suspect this character was intended to be likable but flawed, and we were supposed to follow her as she learns that racism is bad MMMKAY?

But Elloren isn't likable enough for this. She's naive, dim, whiny, and most of her interactions can be summed up as "He's so hawt," "Someone's being mean to meeeee!" and "I didn't know any better!" And she's also wildly inconsistent, being both ignorant AND knowledgeable about the dynamics of this world, and immediately going from super-pious to discarding her religion because... well, because her brother is gay. Which she also responds to in an awful way, I might add.

The other characters are just as subtle -- Fallon Bane is basically a less interesting genderflip of Draco Malfoy, who apparently has no purpose in her life except torturing others; Lukas isn't much better. Most of Elloren's friends are fairly pale and uninteresting, and the Kelt boy exists merely to be hot. The only ones who stick out are the Elves and Icarals.

"The Black Witch" aims high with a story about racism and how it can infect everything in a society, but falls short in its actual handling of racism... not to mention the flimsy main characters.

In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World
In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World
by Storms Reback
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.54

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars In black and white, 14 May 2017
One of the biggest problems with judging a book like "In Full Color" fairly is that when reading an autobiography, you're effectively taking the author's words as truth. But when the author has been caught egregiously lying multiple times? It gets complicated.

And this is one of the biggest problems with "In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World," the autobiography of the infamous Rachel Dolezal, a woman who was found to have lied about many aspects of her life -- including her ethnicity, since she had masqueraded for years as a black woman. While technically well-written, the book contains so many fantastical, bizarrely racist and condescending attitudes that it's nearly impossible not to get angry.

Dolezal was born to a pair of farmers in Montana, where she claims she was discriminated against since birth as a "cursed" child with darker skin and hair (by which she means slightly reddened). According to her, her parents were violent religious fanatics who just needed mustaches to twirl, and she escaped this life by fantasizing about being black (with National Geographic magazines as her guide. Not kidding). Then her parents adopted four black children (according to her, purely for tax reasons), and left her to care for them.

Her fixation on African-American culture only increased as she went to college and made well-received artwork; she also became enmeshed in a doomed marriage and subsequent divorce that left her alienated from her family and friends. Once free, she began styling her hair and skin in order to seem more like a light-skinned black woman, and made a name for herself as an activist -- until it was revealed that she was not actually black, and the house of cards came crashing down.

It becomes obvious early in "In Full Color" that a lot of this story is not based in reality -- as a child, Dolezal tells us, she fantasized about being a weather-controlling magical girl in Africa. No, I'm not kidding. She fantasized about being Storm, because she saw black people as a strangely mythical race like elves.

And that vein of magical thinking seems to run through the whole book, constructing a world where all white people are wealthy and perpetually racist, and all black people are just OVERJOYED to be in her presence, and eagerly accept and defend her as being "more black" than some of them.

The only exception is her abusive, racist ex-husband and a rapist customer. In her eyes, the black people who accept and adore her are "good," and the ones who don't are "bad" and "self-loathing." And anyone she feels has done her wrong is the evilest of all -- her parents and ex-husband are so uniformly vile that Skeletor would have trouble being nastier. This is made even worse because Dolezal doesn't have the slightest hint of awareness that a temp job or farm chores are not comparable to slavery, nor does she realize how contradictory her beliefs are.

Technically, the book is written fairly well, although she often halts her narrative to pompously lecture the readers on African-American history or issues. But as it winds on, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable as Dolezal becomes more painfully "white-saviory," and unwittingly airs out a lot of very problematic issues. For instance, she often voices distaste for white people, Christianity (especially pro-life ones), and black people who don't conform to how SHE thinks black people should act, feel and think.

That last one is a huge sticking point. Dolezal seems to base her perception of African-Americans not on the reality, but the fetishized fantasy that she has concocted in her head. For instance, she seems to believe there is a global, uniform "Black" culture that incorporates all black people in all cultures and locations, rather than the reality that they are as culturally varied as any other ethnic group. And she seems to have decided that she is the one who determines what "blackness" means -- she condescendingly talks about some biracial girls "not knowing they're Black" or black people who are "self-hating" because they don't express it in the way she believes is right.

And so "In Full Color" becomes a wildly uncomfortable experience. And as you wind through a maze of half-lies and carefully-constructed half-truths (like her claim that an African-American friend is her "dad"), it makes you wonder precisely how many of her other tales (such as those of her allegedly violent and racist parents) are exaggerated or outright fabricated.

Despite her claims to be black inside, "In Full Color" exposes the cringiest type of white person -- one who thinks she can define and acquire the experiences of another ethnic group. My advice: go buy a copy of "Get Out" instead.

The Secrets of My Life
The Secrets of My Life
by Caitlyn Jenner
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.00

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Secrets of my ego, 12 May 2017
This review is from: The Secrets of My Life (Hardcover)
Perhaps my standards are too high, but when I read a book called "The Secrets of My Life," I expect there to be... well, secrets being revealed. New information. Something worth my time.

But nothing such appears in "The Secrets of My Life," the memoir of Olympian-athlete-turned-reality-"star" Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. Despite supposedly covering Jenner's entire lifetime, it focuses on exactly one aspect of said life -- that she is transgender, and that she always has been, and this has caused her a lot of turmoil and unhappiness over the years. All other aspects of life -- children, marriages, other experiences -- are treated as secondary appendages.

Jenner's story is told in a non-chronological order -- half is in the present, where she has to repeatedly debut her new female identity; and half is the sixty-plus years that led up to this point. Born as a boy in New York, Bruce was raised in a conservative fifties town where the thought of being LGBT was shocking, and the idea of being transgender was almost unheard of. And so he threw himself into the world of sports, ultimately winning a gold medal for the decathlon in 1974.

Also along for the ride -- three wives and a gaggle of children, including reptilian reality-TV matriarch Kris Jenner and her coven of daughters. But as Jenner struggled as the beleaguered sitcom dad on "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," it became obvious that he could no longer hide who he really was -- a woman named Caitlyn. Who would, of course, receive massive worldwide press, and become the face of the trans community (who really deserve better).

The biggest problem about "The Secret of My Life" is that there aren't really any secrets here -- there's not even much in the way of biographical material, as Jenner skims over most parts of her life that don't involve gender dysphoria. You never get the feeling that ANYTHING in the life of a thrice-married Olympian was really very interesting or important; the only parts to get any loving detail are after she comes out as transgender and gets surgery, goes on road trips and gets a new wardrobe.

And while this story should feel inspiring.... it really doesn't. Instead, it feels vaguely narcissistic as Jenner floats through a whole lifetime focused almost exclusively on herself. It's hard to tell anything about her many kids or three ex-wives, for instance, because so little attention is paid to them. Certainly that's true of Jenner's first two, lesser-known wives and their offspring, who come across as being distractions along the way.

Instead, Jenner seems more focused on letting us know what a wonderful person she is, and how those selfish or uncaring things are TOTALLY not what she's like. But the selfishness slips out of the cracks when she's not looking (when the first ex-wife Chrystie had a child that Jenner suggested she abort, Jenner isn't upset because she wasn't there for her daughter's birth... but because it's a blow to her self-image as a good guy). It's this self-absorption that makes "Secrets of My Life" so staggeringly BORING -- there's nothing but a breezy navel-gazing safari trip through Jenner's life, with no focus on anyone else unless they're lavishing all praise on her.

Some parts of the book are striking and interesting (going back to her alma mater as a woman), but it also highlights that Jenner hasn't suffered any kind of blowback or misfortune as a result of transitioning. Instead, she occasionally launches into defensive political rants, or laments that it's SO awful that she was constantly being hounded by the paparazzi as she was transitioning (including the infamous accident where a woman died).

"The Secrets of My Life" contains neither secrets nor much of a life -- it's a tedious, self-indulgent slog that isn't detailed enough to be a biography, and is too self-centered to be very inspiring. There are better stories of trans success out there.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2017 6:02 PM BST

The Kennedys: After Camelot (Decline and Fall) [DVD] [2017]
The Kennedys: After Camelot (Decline and Fall) [DVD] [2017]
Dvd ~ Katie Holmes
Price: £14.99

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars After Bobby and Jack, 12 May 2017
"The Kennedys" miniseries ended with the death of Robert F. Kennedy, but there was a lot more Kennedy history to go over.

And "The Kennedys: After Camelot attempted to cram a few decades' worth of scandal, family drama and political issues into another miniseries, but this one isn't graced with the charisma of Barry Pepper or Greg Kinnear, and it tells us few things we don't already know. Instead, this miniseries goes over the unavoidable highlights (like Chappaquiddick) in a breakneck fashion, and avoids the uglier details that it can entirely.

In the aftermath of Bobby's death, a devastated Jackie (Katie Holmes) decides to marry the charming Greek tycoon Aristotle Onassis (Alexander Siddig). Meanwhile, Ted (Matthew Perry) declines to run for president in his brother's place, but finds himself ensnared in the worst scandal the Kennedys have ever had to weather -- a crash in the Chappaquiddick river in which he left a young woman to die in his sunken car.

And as the years go by, the Kennedys are confronted with more tragedy -- Jackie's marriage to Onassis is overshadowed by his bitter daughter and his son's death, Ted's neglected wife Joan (Kristen Hager) sinks into alcoholism, and his presidential campaign is overshadowed by the Chappaquiddick incident.

Near the end of this miniseries, Jackie finally admits that she made up the whole myth of "Camelot." But "The Kennedys: After Camelot" seems reluctant to let that myth go, because it does its best to avoid or make up for as many of the family's flaws as possible -- and while obviously you don't want a historical miniseries to sink into tabloid fodder, the miniseries avoids some extremely important developments involving in the Kennedy clan.

For instance, the rampant marital discord of John Jr. and his wife Carolyn Bessette is replaced with a montage of adoring togetherness. The rape by William Kennedy Smith and the murder of Martha Moxley are completely ignored. The writers seem particularly eager to expunge the sins of Ted Kennedy, who is constantly depicted as a pure, unselfish and moral man; a single comes-out-of-nowhere-and-goes-nowhere scene about a health care bill seems to be a pitiful attempt to wash away the stench of his misdeeds at Chappaquiddick.

They also desperately -- and rather offensively -- try minimize his infidelities and other bad behaviors, instead laying the marital blame entirely on Joan, who is depicted as a bitter, disruptive lush who just wasn't strong enough to be... whatever the writers think she should have been. Anyway, it's a coldly nasty way to depict an addict.

Admittedly, the handling of the Chappaquiddick incident was handled very well, emphasizing the horror of the situation, the turmoil for both the Kennedy and Kopechne families, and how the whole situation was handled. Honestly, the whole miniseries should have been about that. But instead, the rest of the miniseries ends up being a story that seems to go by too fast (Jackie's publishing career is over in about five minutes!) and yet has very little substance (oh noes, Jackie is squabbling with her son!). By the end, we're left feeling like the whole clan has basically been coasting on nostalgia for several decades.

The women are also what carry this particular miniseries -- Katie Holmes is too cutesy to play Jackie, but does a competent job, while Hager and Kristin Booth are wildly underused as the other Kennedy wives. Siddig does an excellent job as Onassis despite the obvious fake nose and the Greek accent he struggles with. But Matthew Perry is woefully miscast as Ted Kennedy, coming across as bombastic, baffled and sometimes suffering from an odd speech impediment; rather than a dynamic politician, he seems more like a screw-up uncle who imparts sage advice occasionally.

"The Kennedys: After Camelot" had plenty of material to work from, but chooses to feature as little of it as possible in its efforts to praise Ted Kennedy and his family. Only for completists, or those who really want a dramatization of Chappaquiddick.

Kong: Skull Island [DVD + Digital Download] [2017]
Kong: Skull Island [DVD + Digital Download] [2017]
Dvd ~ Tom Hiddleston
Price: £9.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The god of Skull Island, 20 April 2017
Like his Japanese cousin, King Kong is just one of those characters who keeps popping up. Who doesn't love a giant ape who can smash helicopters out of the sky?

And the latest iteration of the big ape's adventures is "Kong: Skull Island" -- which is not a remake or sequel, but an original entry into a bigger monsterverse that is coming up. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the big ape himself, the monsters of Skull Island, and on the grizzled men who either want to kill or protect him. Where it falls apart is... well, most of the other characters, who range from cannon fodder to "Meh, who cares what happens to them?"

On the day the Vietnam War ends, government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) begins assembling a mission to go to a remote, heretofore-undiscovered Pacific island -- including a bunch of soldiers led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and professional tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). They do manage to make it to Skull Island, but their explosive charges attract the attention of a mighty ape the size of a small skyscraper, who swats the helicopters down to the ground.

With no way of getting home and many of their number dead, the survivors are found by the natives of the island -- and by Marlow (John C. Reilly), who has been trapped on the island for almost thirty years. He reveals that the ape, Kong, is the island's god and protector, the last of his kind. It is he who keeps the humans safe from the lizard beasts (called "skullcrawlers") that would kill them. Unfortunately, the explosives have woken the skullcrawlers, who are all too happy to devour the humans -- and if Packard has his way, Kong will be dead before he can save anyone from the death lizards.

One thing you can't fault "Kong: Skull Island" for is false advertising -- it has a lot of Kong, and most of the movie takes place on Skull Island, fighting various gruesome giant spiders, man-eating pterodactyls, and two-legged lizards who like to eat people for no particular reason. It also does a pretty decent job giving a modern, somewhat less raicst twist to some classic aspects of Kong's story, such as the native tribe who dwell on the island, or Kong's rescue of the token blonde.

Beyond that... well, it's a fairly straightforward jungle-trek movie. There are plenty of unpleasant deaths (the soldiers mostly exist to die in creative ways), and the odd awesome scene (Hiddleston carving through a flock of pterodactyls with a katana), but for the most part it's a simple get-off-the-island story without any real twists or complexity. The most moving parts are, oddly enough, the contemplative scenes where we see the lonely Kong contemplating his reflection, or staring down at the humans from a distance. You can almost see the mind working behind his enormous dark eyes, and his enigmatic, looming presence is both frightening and oddly endearing.

However, the human characters are a mixed bag. Hiddleston and Larson's characters are almost embarrassingly flat and shallow, without even a character arc or subplot for them to sink their teeth into. They just... sort of exist, and they could have been written out with barely a ripple. It's almost like the writers of the movie were told, "You have to have two attractive young white people for the audience to identify with!", and they went, "Fine, but we'll refuse to give them any depth!"

This is especially notable because the best-developed characters are played by Jackson, Reilly and Corey Hawkins -- two black, two middle-aged. It almost feels like Hawkins, who plays a mild-mannered geologist who begins a tentative romance with Jing Tian's biologist character, was the original hero of the piece. Jackson also reigns through sheer force of will, playing a frustrated soldier who cannot accept the withdrawal from Vietnam, and seems to be channeling his anger into a vendetta against Kong, while Reilly plays an amiable World War II veteran who has been stranded there for thirty years.

"Kong: Skull Island" has some painfully dull characters and not much of a plot, but it does give us a riveting Kong, some interesting supporting characters and plenty of monster action -- a solid popcorn flick, if you're in the mood to watch a giant ape beating a lizard to death.

Robots and Murder: The Caves of Steel/ The Naked Sun/ Robots of Dawn
Robots and Murder: The Caves of Steel/ The Naked Sun/ Robots of Dawn

5.0 out of 5 stars Man and machine, 20 April 2017
If there's one thing the mighty Isaac Asimov excelled at, it was robots. Lots of robots.

So it isn't surprising that when Asimov wrote a trilogy of mysteries, they revolved around robots. And murder. Robots and murder together, whether as the victims or the suspected killers -- and this combination proved to be all the more compelling as Asimov sculpted an entire futuristic world where robots dwell among humans, domed cities dot the Earth, and the simple art of murder has been further complicated through robotics.

All three mysteries take place in a now-zeerusty future where the inhabitants of Earth live in enclosed city-domes, crammed in like so many sardines, with robot servants doing anything that needs to be done outside. There are many Spacer worlds such as Aurora (a free-love society) or Solaria (a place where physical proximity is considered unclean), which use their superior tech to make sure that Earth never expands outside its boundaries (even if they could manage to get outside their domes).

New York Cop Elijah Bailey is paired up with humaniform robot R. Daneel Olivaw, who possesses superior intelligence and looks almost exactly like a human. Despite Lije's dislike of robots, he and Daneel work well together, which is necessary to solve the bizarre, robot-centric murder mysteries that keep coming their way -- two Spacer scientists, and another humaniform robot. What's more, these crimes are more than simply one person killing another -- they are tied to complex political issues that could destroy Earth if Lije doesn't find the answers.

Though Isaac Asimov is best known for spinning tales of advanced intelligent robots, "Robots and Murder" relies just as heavily on political thrillers and whodunnits as it does on science fiction. In fact, he weaves together these three literary genres until they can't be separated -- each murder mystery is tied directly to the political strife and schemings on the various planets, and each murder also is tied deeply to the robots in some way. The catch is, robots are inherently programmed not to harm humans.

And through this, Asimov explores very alien ways of life -- the languid and stagnant Solaria, the cramped dark cities of Earth -- while also exploring the mistrust, fear, lack of logic, and ignorance that keep people apart. There's a lot of philosophical meditation in here, including musings on the nature of life and intelligence, and whether a robot like Daneel is truly "alive."

But Asimov is too skilled a writer to let these deeper themes bog down what is, essentially, a hard-boiled mystery/political thriller. The first two stories move along at a brisk, smooth pace, tying together the basic crime-solving methods with sci-fi issues (though robots are often implicated, they literally CAN'T commit murder). "Robots of Dawn" is a bit slower-moving, with many chapters that are a bit too meditative (Gladia gives us a blow-by-blow description of her life since she left Solaria).

Asimov also crafts the ultimate odd-couple cop duo -- Elijah Bailey is an old-fashioned cop with a quick but not infallible mind, living a formerly ordinary life until he becomes a sort of celebrity detective. What's more, he has his own biases and prejudices, but is open-minded enough to work past and despite them. Daneel makes up for Lije's shortcomings by being logical and unbiased, but he doesn't have Lije's imagination -- and he's a wonderfully endearing android sidekick.

"Robots and Murder" brings together a brilliant trilogy of futuristic murder mysteries -- lots of robots, mysterious deaths and planetary conspiracies. And of course, a cop duo at the center of it all.

Detective Dee - Mystery Of The Phantom Flame [DVD]
Detective Dee - Mystery Of The Phantom Flame [DVD]
Dvd ~ Andy Lau
Offered by Direct-Offers-UK-FBA
Price: £4.44

4.0 out of 5 stars Flame and water, 20 April 2017
England has Sherlock Holmes. America has Philip Marlowe. And China has Di Renjie (or "Detective Dee") -- the fictionalized crime-solving version of a 7th-century imperial chancellor.

And just as Guy Ritchie did for Sherlock Holmes, Tsui Hark does for Detective Dee. "Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is a smooth yet frenetic blend of wuxia fantasy/action and political thrillers. While it really helps (a lot) to have some knowledge of Chinese history during and before the reign of Wu Zetian, the story is a pretty entertaining, bittersweet ride on its own -- expect everything from graphic spontaneous combustion to court intrigue.

Only days remain before the coronation of the Empress (Carina Lau), which is being commemorated by a two-hundred-foot-tall Buddha statue overlooking the palace. But when two officials spontaneously combust -- from the inside -- the investigator Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) can't figure out who might have done it, and how. So the Empress sends her faithful servant Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) to free Di Renjie (Andy Lau), a brilliant detective who was involved in a rebellion against the Empress some years ago.

Di quickly rubs both Jing'er and Donglai the wrong way with his quirky style of investigating, but the constant assassination attempts show that he's on the right track. And as Dee unravels the cause of these fiery deaths, he also becomes entangled in a rebellion against the Empress, and a conspiracy involving the Empress' mysterious chaplain. But can Di uncover the murderer -- and the source of these deaths -- before he becomes the next victim?

"Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" has a lot of things that Western audiences won't expect to see in a murder mystery or political thriller -- supernatural overtones, made-up solutions to the mystery, and a lot of wuxia wirework. What's more, it's a mystery whose setting will probably be familiar to Chinese audiences, but Western ones should probably do a little research on Di Renjie and the reign of Wu Zetian (the only reigning empress in Chinese history). Not that Tsui Hark slavishly follows history -- he's pretty loose about it.

And despite its dense backstory, "Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame" flows along at a pretty brisk pace, elegantly intertwining different subplots without really losing the momentum. Hark especially seems to enjoy the lush visuals (the Empress's hair alone is fascinating to watch), from a petal-strewn prison to the haunted, supernatural sub-city of the Phantom Market, a vast epic cavern where multi-armed musicians and creepy hooded figures wander. And fight scenes, naturally, often with wildly colorful backdrops and lots of stuff to smash. Think steampunk chainsaw puppets.

Hark also weaves in some dark humor in places (Dee thwarts eavesdroppers by having a morgue attendant READ EVERYTHING VERY LOUDLY). But there's a strong bittersweetness to the story, with many hints that though Dee is now technically free, he is constantly chained by suspicion, by political manipulations, and by his own past. And as the very graphic deaths pile up, that bittersweetness starts edging into out-and-out tragedy.

The one big flaw? It's that sometimes it feels like the movie is sweeping ahead of the characters, and they aren't quite able to develop sufficiently. For instance, there's some friction between Jing'er and Pei, as well as a sneaky suggestion that they work together... but this never really goes anywhere.

But Lau gives a thoroughly solid performance as Dee here -- he does a great job as a quirky, slightly eccentric detective whose bluntness often irritates the people around him, but his keen intellect and some action chops forces those around him to respect him. He also has pretty good chemistry with Li and Deng, one of whom is a fiery young martial-artist/handmaiden/secret agent, and the other who is a fierce, incorruptible albino officer. And Carina Lau does an excellent job as the Empress, casting her as a woman who is ruthless and cruel, but who in a sense has chosen to be that way because otherwise no woman can attain power.

While it requires some research into Chinese history, "Detective Dee & The Mystery of the Phantom Flame" is a fast-paced, darkly intriguing whodunnit that never slows down -- although occasionally it could use it.

Delinquent Hamsters
Delinquent Hamsters

4.0 out of 5 stars They just do what they wanna do, 20 April 2017
This review is from: Delinquent Hamsters (Amazon Video)
Ah, hamsters. Anyone who has owned these round, buggy-eyed little puffballs knows that there is absolutely nothing intimidating about them. So its all the more adorable when the "Delinquent Hamsters" continually assert their lifestyle as hardened delinquents -- and if two hamsters with pompadours swearing and fighting over sunflowers seeds doesn't make you giggle, nothing will.

Most of the episodes clock in at about two minutes, and are animated with fairly simple flash animation. The stories follow a pair of hamsters who live in a Japanese apartment -- one with a shiny pompadour and one with a mohawk -- where they feud over the sunflower seeds, space in their little plastic hideaway, a chubby lady hamster, and happily contemplate all the bad things they've done in the name of delinquency (like wasting the last Q-tip).

But their little furry lives are further complicated when their owner gets a new hamster, this one with curly red hair. Ginger aspires to be just like Pompadour and Mohawk, so he quickly joins Pompadour and Mohawk in their antics -- including trying out a new sleeping arrangement, bonding with the dustiest creature of them all, overseeing a cheek-filling competition, and trying to elude their owner.

"Delinquent Hamsters" is the kind of thing you marathon-watch on Youtube -- two-minute long little Flash animations, with squeaky little voices in Japanese (with English subtitles, natch). It's mostly about hamsters doing hamster things (getting dusty, stealing tissues, cuddling together, stuffing their cheeks), but with the added hilarity that they also think they're being hardcore and rebellious.

It certainly helps to have a bit of knowledge of Japanese social customs (the whole kohai/senpai thing that crops up), but the core of the humor is simply that these are adorable, slightly incompetent hamsters who believe themselves to be awe-inspiring, and thus have many violent (and adorable) fights while cursing in tiny squeaky voices. The Flash animation is simple and clean, never really going beyond the boundaries of what it's capable of conveying.

For a pleasant way to pass fifteen minutes, you could do worse than the first season of "Delinquent Hamsters" -- it's cute, it's brief, and it's familiar to anyone who has ever owned a hamster. If nothing else, you'll discover why your hamster suddenly has a shiny black pompadour.

Brandon Sanderson's White Sand Volume 1 (Signed Limited Edition)
Brandon Sanderson's White Sand Volume 1 (Signed Limited Edition)
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £35.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Great Sand Lord!, 20 April 2017
"White Sand" has the distinction of being the first proper book that Brandon Sanderson ever wrote -- twenty years ago, he penned the original draft while doing missionary work abroad, then rewrote it into a more unique form several years later. But it somehow never got published... until Dynamite asked for an original work to turn into a graphic novel series.

And this brings us "Brandon Sanderson's White Sand Volume 1," set on a planet suspended between two stars, which leaves one side super-bright and the other relatively dim. Most of Sanderson's staples are here and accounted for -- lots of complicated different cultures, languages, varying levels of technology -- mixed with an earthy combination of politics, magic and adventure.

Kenton is the son of the Lord Mastrell of the Sand Mages, and for eight years, he has struggled against his father's scorn to prove that he can become a mastrell himself. Never mind that he has almost no skill or aptitude. But when he finally uncovers a way to become a mastrell despite his lack of ability... the Diem is practically wiped out by the barbaric Kerztians, who haven't attacked for countless years. The only one left alive is Kenton.

He's found by a scientific expedition from the darkside of Taldain, including the Duchess Khrissalla and a handful of bickering professors, who are on an expedition to find the Sand Mages. But accompanying them is only the first part of Kenton's journey, as he discovers that hatred of the Sand Mages and their arrogance has not only led to a religious uprising against them... but that political winds are blowing against him as well.

Since it was originally conceived and written as a novel (which we'll hopefully get in text form someday), "White Sand Volume 1" quickly establishes itself as being wildly creative and much more complex than your average graphic novel -- different flora and fauna (including riding animals that burrow under the sand when frightened), cultures, languages, a complex political system and a sense of general history that permeates the story (the arrogance and insulation of the sand mages).

Furthermore, Sanderson weaves together at least three subplots through the first volume. One is obviously Kenton's, since he is the underdog hero of the tale and has to somehow save the Diem from treachery, fanaticism AND local politics. But we also follow Khrissalla and her professors, since the duchess clearly has some motives for being in Lossand that she hasn't told anyone about. And there is a smaller subplot about a lady cop in search of a master criminal, who is being reassigned to handle Kenton -- we'll see where THAT part goes.

And though the story is told through pictures, Sanderson's distinct style comes through in the dialogue and the narration/thought boxes -- slightly tongue-in-cheek and fairly realistic ("Well, if they WANT to fight a mastrell -- then they'll... uh oh, this isn't good"). And the art itself is quite good -- realistic and detailed, with lots of sharp lines and detailing to make sure the neutrally-clothed characters don't just fade into the sand.

The characters are also fairly likable -- Kenton is one of those classic Sanderson protagonists who let force of stubborn will push him through his problems, but who still has enough obstacles that brains and athleticism are needed for him to actually get things done. Khrissalla is a pretty good counterpoint, as a smart and learned woman who nevertheless isn't too familiar with the dayside of Taldain, and her bickering professors are an absolute riot... but a riot with big splodey GUNS. The only character who feels underfleshed is Ais, who will presumably get more characterization later.

It's a little frustrating to have to wait for the next part of such an engrossing story, but "Brandon Sanderson's White Sand Volume 1" is a robust, intricate look at yet another one of Sanderson's complex fantasy worlds. Bring on the next part!

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