Title: Suicidal Samurai: Meiji Mysteries Book One
Author: Sarah G. Rothman
Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Action
In 1878, a tall Japanese cowboy in a black duster arrives at the port of Yokohama, Japan. Fifteen years ago, Makoto Mori’s family was killed by the Shinsengumi, the infamous corps of Shogun loyalists. Makoto survived by hiding in a ship bound for America. Now, in the Meiji era, he’s come home for revenge. But before Makoto can gather his bearings, he finds a dead man in his hotel, a man who has seemingly committed suicide. The dead man, Watanabe, was an associate of actress Helen Arkwright’s industrialist husband. While she plays detective, the bumbling policeman Kotaro Yamada thinks he knows who the real killer is: Makoto, “the man in black.” As Makoto, Helen, and Kotaro collide, they uncover a conspiracy that threatens the very heart of Japan.
I bought this book last June, when I was at the Local Author’s Showcase at Cumberland County Library, because of all the books for sale, Suicidal Samurai appealed most to me. I love mysteries and I love the Meiji era in Japan. In fact, I lived in Japan for three years and made it a point to study the bakumatsu, a chaotic period when the two hundred year reign of the Tokugawa Shogunate came violently to an end and the stage was set for rapid modernization under the Meiji era. I read the first couple of the chapters, and the prose flowed smoothly. It didn’t seem like high literature, but I thought it might be a fun read.
Fifty pages in, the struggle began. There was nothing really wrong with Suicidal Samurai, but there was nothing really right, either. This could be me--I’m very picky--but when I read a book, I want to learn something, to feel something, to experience sights and sounds I can only imagine. When I read Suicidal Samurai, I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other. The prose was competent but did not have an artistic signature. I could see what was happening, but I did not get swept up in the moment. It was fine but not novel, and so I found myself getting bored.
When I was in high school, I saw a little movie called Gladiator. I loved it, but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than cheering for the (supposedly) heroic, stoic, and (in my opinion) boring Maximus (Russell Crowe), I found myself rooting for Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the murderous, incestuous, and emotionally turbulent villain of the story. I knew he would lose, but I didn’t care. He was interesting, and, despite all the bad stuff he did, I still related to him far more than the hero. Thus began my fascination with twisted, crazy, creepy, villainous characters who more often than not take the form of pale-skinned, blue-eyed brunettes.
Joker is the origin story of Batman’s greatest foe, set in a realistic version of 1980s Gotham. In it, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a mentally ill man, working a menial job as a party clown and taking care of his ailing mother, Penny Fleck (Francis Conroy). He has dreams of making it as a stand-up comedian and idolizes talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Nero). However, a series of events leads him down the path of violence, chaos, and villainous glory.
Naturally, Joker was going to appeal to me. It’s a movie that takes the kind of character I always root for anyway and puts him in the spotlight. The fact that they got Joaquin Phoenix to star in it only made it that much more delicious to me. Before going into the movie, I was keenly aware of the supposed controversy surrounding the movie, about whether or not the Joker was the “patron saint of incels,” and whether this made Joker a movie we needed to watch or a movie to avoid at all cost. I watched it on Sunday of its opening weekend, and my reaction was, as usual, not the right one.
I thought Joker was fun. I enjoyed it. I was thoroughly entertained.
And because my reaction seems inappropriate, I feel the need to explain it. So here I go. First, and most obviously, I enjoyed Joker because Joaquin Phoenix did a heck of a job acting, and I was completely mesmerized by his performance. I could watch him over and over again. Second, I not only empathized with Arthur, I related to him, and there was no moment where he ever lost my sympathy. Third, within the specific context of this movie, moral justice is upheld—the wicked are punished, the powerless become powerful, and society achieves a warped sense of balance. In that way, the conclusion is emotionally satisfying.
I think it’s ironic that most of the fuss revolves around what the movie says about society, how it will influence society, and whether it’s important to society. Joker isn’t a movie about society. It’s a movie about the individual. Joker portrays an individual breaking free from society, with all the joys and pains that liberation incurs.
(Warning: The following analysis reveals key character deaths. If you have not seen Joker and want to be surprised, do not read ahead. You’ve been warned.)
Hi everyone. I’m trying out a new section of my blog called “Writing Stories,” where I let you in on how my writing process works. I have no idea if this will be of interest to anybody, but I thought I’d try it out.
I grew up hearing that would-be writers are undisciplined. They moan about Writer’s Block, chase inspiration like butterflies, and never get work done on time. I didn’t want to be like that. For many years, I tried to be disciplined. I set goals, broke my goals into measurable tasks, and tried to accomplish my tasks by a reasonable deadline.
Results have been mixed.
On the one hand, I can now sit down and write almost anywhere with little to no angst. I write every day, and when I need to, I can write for hours. I have a clear idea of how long it takes me to accomplish a goal and how that goal needs to be broken down into other stages.
On the other hand, I’ve learned, rather painfully, that trying to force out chapters sometimes means I miss out on genuine moments of inspiration. While trying to accomplish a single concrete task, I often lose sight of the bigger picture. Constantly doing work leaves me no time to think, learn, and reflect.
So this past year, instead of planning my tasks months in advance, I decided to wing it. I was going to listen, day by day, to my own feelings and write whatever appealed to me the most. This meant giving up some of my control over the writing process, but it also meant I wasn’t beating my brain against a computer screen (metaphorically). I’ve enjoyed the process of giving up control, and I feel like the quality of my work has risen as a result.
This brings me to Nanowrimo.
Title: The Witch’s Daughter
Author: Paula Brackston
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy?
In her lifetime, Elizabeth Hawksmith has gone by many names. She was Bess in 1628, when witch hunters claimed the life of her mother. She was Eliza in 1888, when Jack the Ripper roamed the streets of London. She was Elise in 1917, when World War I ripped the continent apart. But through all those lives, the common thread has always been Gideon Masters: the man who awakened her magical powers. Gideon is the reason she cannot die. Gideon is hunting her, slowly but relentlessly. Modern day Elizabeth has settled down in quiet Willow Cottage, befriending a local teenager named Tegan. But when Gideon looms once more, Elizabeth decides its time to put an end to the threat once and for all.
I bought The Witch’s Daughter at the same time I bought House of Echoes, while perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble. I don’t often buy books from the Fiction section, preferring different genres, but I wanted to try some Historical Fiction and this offered a nice sampler. Elements of witchcraft and immortality offered me a fantasy hook. The first few pages were slow, but the lush description gave me an immersive experience. I decided to give the book a chance.
The Witch’s Daughter reads like four distinct stories, each set in a different time period: 1628, 1888, 1917, and present-day. Aside from Elizabeth and Gideon, none of the characters cross over. With each era, Paula Brackston begins the set-up anew: here is the setting, here is what Elizabeth is doing now, here are the supporting characters, where is Gideon? If you want a leisurely traverse through dramatic points in history, this structure works nicely. If you want plot and a quick pace, well, you’re out of luck.
My cousin, Nathan, who has good taste in movies (unlike me), recommended I watch Nightcrawler. He said the film was excellent, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s acting was superb. One day, while sifting through uncased DVDs at a thrift store, I found a copy of Nightcrawler for 25 cents. I triumphantly brought it back to my home. I was going to savor this movie, so I made popcorn, poured a glass of wine, and waited until it got dark. To kill time, I watched Jupiter Ascending, and let me tell you, it made for a weird double feature.
In Nightcrawler, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed man with loose morals and a huge business vocabulary. After a chance encounter on the freeway, he decides to pursue a career as a freelance crime videographer. He listens to police radios, races to the scene of a crime, tapes the gory footage, and sells it to a local news channels, headed by Nina (Rene Russo). Finding his calling, Lou intends to grow his freelance business, but to do so he’ll need to take greater risks and push the boundaries of the law.
Nightcrawler is tense, tense, tense, to the point I frequently had to stop the movie just to take a breather. It was well-crafted on every level: great acting, beautiful cinematography, complex characters, tight plot, and clear themes. Granted, those themes are extraordinarily dark and cynical--but damn if the movie didn’t know what it wanted to say and hammer in that point. It was a brilliant film that I never want to see again because it was just too hard to watch.
(Although I try not to include any major spoilers, my review does mention key details and give away the ending to Nightcrawler in a very general way. I recommend watching the movie first.)
It was a gloomy Saturday afternoon, and I had notes to type, so I scanned Netflix for a movie to put on. I wanted something that would not be involving, something that could function as background noise. I spied Jupiter Ascending. I had never seen the movie, but I knew its reputation--oh, boy did I know. A $176 million dollar bomb by the Wachowskis, it was eviscerated by critics and audience alike. I had already read a long and snarky, point-by-point summary of it and seen enough parodies to know the general plot, so I figured it wouldn’t take up too much of my attention.
I should have known better.
Jupiter Ascending is the story of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a poor Russian immigrant living in Chicago, who finds herself unwittingly caught up in a power struggle that spans the universe. A powerful race of advanced humans have discovered a way to keep themselves young and beautiful forever by using other humans to create an immorality serum. This is a lucrative industry, with the Abrasax family “seeding” planets with humans and “harvesting” them when the population reaches its peak. Earth currently belongs to Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), the eldest of three siblings, who plans to decimate Earth’s population in the near future.
But there’s a wrinkle. Jupiter Jones is the genetic match of the now-deceased matriarch of the Abrasax family, the matriarch’s “reincarnation,” so to speak. As such, she can stake a claim to the Earth--provided she can survive the plotting of the three Abrasax siblings. Aided by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a genetic “splice” of human and dog DNA, Jupiter Jones learns what makes her special (her genetic code), finds love, and learns to appreciate the miserable life she has on Earth.
Jupiter Ascending is an uneasy mixture of Star Wars and Twilight, with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey and dollop of Cinderella. It has way too many ideas and most of them are under-baked. It doesn’t know what it wants to be or what it wants to say. Without a core to hold it up, it stumbles from one incident to the next. The characters are cardboard-thin. Jupiter gets the most development and the most sympathy, but also spends most of her screen time being a damsel in distress, getting tricked, and/or trying to flirt with Caine using cringe-inducing banter. The action and cinematography have the glossy competence of a Hollywood blockbuster, and the sets and costumes are absolutely beautiful. It’s not good, but it’s also harmless and forgettable fluff.
What ended up tearing my attention from my typing and forcing me to watch the film was not so much the movie itself, which, for all its explosions, was pretty boring. No, it was the meta question: “What went wrong?” Because skimming the surface of the film, it seemed like a pretty standard movie. A high concept idea, generic action set pieces, a forced romantic subplot, pretty visuals. About midway through, I started getting into it. I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but it’s a movie I had some affection for, unlike, say, The Meg, which I found generic, dull, and unambitious. Yet Jupiter Ascending was ridiculed and reviled. Why?
(From this point on there will be spoilers. I will not be doing a point-by-point summary, but I will give away the ending. You have been warned.)
Title: House of Echoes
Author: Brendan Duffy
Genre: Fiction, Horror
Life in the city has become strained for Ben and Caroline Tierney, so when Ben’s grandmother dies and leaves him property in the remote New England village of Swannhaven, they decide that this is the place for a fresh start. They sink their savings into the Crofts, a magnificent old house they hope to renovate into an inn. But their new beginning is marred when dead animals start appearing in the forest--and on their front porch. Strange cries erupt from the house when the wind blows, and their eldest boy, Charlie, spends more and more time alone in the woods. As Ben, a novelist, begins researching the town, he finds a troubling history of tragedy: mysterious fires, missing children, and a terrible winter of starvation from the time of the American Revolution. It is a history deeply linked with his own family. Alas, Ben is about to discover that not everything in the past stays buried.
I picked up this book at Barnes and Noble, because I was interested in reading a horror book, and I liked the idea of an old inn in a (possibly) haunted woods. After skimming the first chapter, I noted that the prose was smooth and clear, and the strained family relationship intrigued me. I bought House of Echoes, and I’d read a chapter or two in the evening, while taking a bath or before going to sleep.
Titles: An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns
Author: Jonathan Green
Genre: YA, Coming-of-Age
An Abundance of Katherines
Colin has a habit of dating Katherines. They have a habit of dumping him. But Katherine #19 has done a real number on him. On top of that, Colin is a child prodigy who is quickly not turning into a genius adult. To distract him from his woes, his friend Hassan suggests a road trip. They wind up in Gutshot, Tennessee where Colin runs into a girl named Lindsey Lee, gets a head wound, and has a revelation--an idea that will certify him as a genius and possibly win back Katherine’s love. He will create a mathematical theorem for figuring out exactly how long a relationship will last.
Looking for Alaska
Miles Halter’s life in Florida is boring, so he convinces his parents to send him to a prestigious boarding school in Alabama. There he meets his roommate Chip “the Colonel,” who gives him the nickname of Pudge. More importantly, Miles sees Alaska Young, a gorgeous girl with a room full of books and a lust for life. He falls for her instantly. Between the Colonel, Alaska, and the other friends he makes, Miles has the chance to live the life he’s always dreamed: studying, pulling pranks, drinking, and smoking. But something is about to happen, which will change Miles’s life forever.
Quentin (Q) Jacobsen has admired his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman, since they were kids. But she’s a beautiful, popular, daring girl that is totally out of his league--until one day when she spirits him away in an epic adventure of revenge, breaking and entering, and pranks. The next day, Margo disappears. But she leaves behind a series of clues. Quentin is convinced he can solve the puzzle and find her--but to do so, he’s going to have to go beyond admiring Margo and understand her as a person.
One of my favorite yearly family traditions involves going out with friends and cousins, having a big picnic in Los Angeles's Griffith Park, and watching some free Shakespeare courtesy of the Independent Shakespeare Co. We arrive early, stake out our blankets on the grass, roam the old zoo cages near the stage, eat spam musubi and chicken salad sandwiches, and hang out until the show time. The play is always awesome, and it's a good way for us to bond as a family.
(Shakespeare by the Sea also puts on good free shows, too, but my family tends to prefer the less traditional interpretations that the Griffith Park players act out.)
This year, we saw Twelfth Night, a cross-dressing comedy with one of the most bizarre love triangles (squares? pentagons? shapes?) put to pen. We rolled with laughter. My 3-year old niece, Leilani, got a crush on one of the actors, and even my 1-year old nephew swayed to the songs and dance.
I never thought that this would turn into a tradition. When this started, I was just a Shakespeare geek with no car, grabbing along whoever I could find to give me a ride. But little by little, it started to become an event. I'm glad.
I think that supporting and even just going out and enjoying the arts is important. It creates a connection, a shared experience, a memory. For me, personally, it lets me share one of my passions with my family. Above all else, it just makes me really happy. And who doesn't like to be happy?
After being burned by Legion, I decided to watch a horror movie that I hoped might turn out to be good. I went with The Ritual on Netflix, which has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes and a pretty nice trailer.
Four friends, grieving their lost buddy, go backpacking across the Scandinavian Mountains. One falls and hurts his ankle. The men to decide to go off the trail, taking a shortcut into the woods. Weird things happen. A dead animal, impaled on high on the branches, drips blood. Strange letters appear on the bark of trees. Something is about to go horrifically wrong.
The Ritual is well-crafted and beautifully shot. The actors all do a good job of making their characters seem believable. They’re everyday blokes who find themselves in an increasingly horrific situation. I bought into the premise from the start, and because of that, for the first half hour of the movie, I was genuinely unsettled and frightened. But the longer the movie went on, the less it scared me.
On a purely visual level, the antagonist is unique, creepy, and even occasionally beautiful. But the story failed to develop the antagonist’s motivation and mythology. This caused the final act to collapse in on itself. The Ritual turned a simple premise into a complicated, muddled mess. It remained beautiful and well-crafted until the very last shot, but by then, I had stopped believing in it. I left the movie with mixed feelings and vague sense of disappointment.
Why is that though?
(Warning: From this point on, I will be a LONG, scene-by-scene summary, that will SPOIL every plot point of the movie. If you haven’t seen The Ritual, read on at your own discretion.)
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.