The Descendants

Descendants Clooney and WoodleyAlthough this movie might not be suitable for all ages because of language and some adult situations, it is nonetheless a family movie.  It deals with the issues people face, both as parents and as children, and ultimately it addresses the responsibility of generations to their family.

When Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) falls into a coma as a result of a boating accident, her husband, Honolulu attorney Matt King (George Clooney), is forced to grapple with the problems his youngest daughter, 10 year old Scottie (Amara Miller) has developed in her mother’s absence.  Scottie has begun to act out her own insecurities by sending offensive texts, bullying her fellow students, and posting pictures of her comatose mother.  The time comes when Matt is informed by their doctor that there is no longer any hope that Elizabeth will recover, and, per her living will, will be removed from the machines that keep her alive.

Matt and Scottie fly to Kauai to pick up his oldest daughter, 17 year old Alex (Shailene Woodley) who attends a private school.  Alex is drunk when they get there, but she comes home with them.  As they argue, Alex reveals that her mother has been having an affair, so Matt sets out to find out who the man is.  Alex insists that her friend, Sid (Nick Krause) accompany them on this journey.  They must tell Elizabeth’s parents about the decision of the doctors.  Her father, Scott (Robert Forster), is a bitter man who is trying to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease.  When Sid laughs at her behavior, Scott punches him in frustration.

They discover that the man Elizabeth was having an affair with is Brian Speer ((Matthew Lillard), a wealthy real estate agent.  They discover that Brian has taken his wife Julie (Judy Greer) on a vacation to Kauai, so they follow.

All of this very personal action takes place against Matt’s family background.  He is the sole trustee of a family trust dating back to the last Hawaiian kings that includes 25,000 acres of prime land on the island of Kauai.  This trust is set to expire in seven years due to Hawaiian law and Matt’s cousins, who have squandered their inheritance are pressuring him to sell the land now so they can all cash in.  It is a matter of some concern to the Hawaiian people, as the developers who have bid on the land want to turn it into another resort.

Director Alexander Payne (Sideways, Nebraska) adapted the Academy Award winning screenplay along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a novel of the same name by Kaui Hart Hemmings, who served as a consultant on the movie.  His style is characterized by simplicity so that what you see is pretty much what you get.  None of the camera work or lighting ever imposes itself on the action and that is sometimes a very good thing.

George Clooney is terrific as Matt, driving the film from beginning to end with a restrained and thoughtful performance.  Alongside him, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller are absolutely perfect as his daughters.  Wonderful performances by Judy Greer and Beau Bridges (as Matt’s cousin Hugh) add to the dramatically powerful, yet sometimes comedic story.

The movie is engaging, heartwarming, and flawlessly beautiful.  With the landscape of Hawaii constantly dominating the action, the eye is never disappointed.  In addition, the soundtrack of Hawaiian songs, befitting all of the moods of the story, is an absolutely perfect addition to the storytelling.  In spite of the subject matter, it will leave you feeling very good, comfortable, and content with the world.

In an industry that thrives on thrill-a-minute action, larger than life special effects, and a blaring soundtrack, more movies with the passion, power, and humor of The Descendants are desperately needed.  I highly recommend this film!

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Hunger GamesThe struggle of right against wrong is probably the oldest theme in entertainment.  When Suzanne Collins wrote her novel, The Hunger Games, it was foremost in her thinking.  However,  society itself molds what is considered right and wrong according to the times, rewriting history and ideals to conform to current thinking.

The Hunger Games, like many excellent novels, moves that conflict to another time and place so that we can clearly see right and wrong for what it is and react accordingly, without prejudice.  This iconic Young Adult dystopian novel, written in First Person Present, certainly brought the entire genre a gigantic step forward, pitching it into the general public as a phenomenon.  Although wildly popular among teens, it has also been a crossover hit with adults, partly because it explores the parameters of right and wrong without prejudice.

In District 12 of the country of Panem, a nation formed from the ruins of the old United States, Katniss Everdeen struggles to feed her family.  Since the death of her father, a coal miner, her mother has become distant and Katniss takes care of her younger sister, Primrose.  Every year, two young people are selected from each district to participate in a fight to the death in a special arena created for them by a game master.  Called the Hunger Games, this event is televised throughout Panem, using special cameras that are hidden all over the arena.  When Prim’s name is unexpectedly chosen, by a representative of the Capitol named Effie Trinket, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She travels to the Capitol with the male tribute from her district, Peeta Mellark, the son of their local baker.  She remembers that he once threw her a burned loaf of bread when her family was starving.  Accompanied by drunken Haymitch Abernathy, the lone District 12 winner in the history of the games, she learns more about getting sponsors by being likable.

A sytlist named Cinna gives her an appealing appearance and the tributes are all interviewed by television personality Caesar Flickerman.  During his interview, Peeta reveals that he has always had a crush on her, but Katniss suspects he is only saying it to gain sponsors.  Half of the tributes are killed during the first few minutes of the Hunger Games as they try to gain the weapons held in a Cornucopia.  Katniss, Peeta, and a few others run away and the remaining tributes, mostly those from the wealthiest districts who have been professionally trained, join forces to kill them off.  Their leader is a bully named Cato.  While hiding in the woods, she discovers that Peeta has joined forces with them.  She forms an alliance with a young girl, Rue, from District 11, but that is cut short when Rue is killed.  Katniss kills her assassin, then mourns Rue by singing to her and surrounding her body with flowers, an action that elicits much sympathy among the viewers of the event.  Styled as “the star-crossed lovers,” the game master takes advantage of viewer support to change the rules so they can both win if they survive.

Katniss goes looking for Peeta and finds him badly wounded, hiding covered with mud near the river.  She cleans him up and nurses him as best she can, cleaning out a deep wound, and creates a makeshift shelter.  Finally, she kisses him to enhance the story line of “star-crossed lovers” and is rewarded with some broth for Peeta.  Determined to put on a good show and perhaps get some salve for Peeta’s leg, Katniss kisses him again.

Only six tributes remain alive at this point, but they are killed off until only Cato remains.  Forced to the Cornucopia by wild dogs, a struggle ensues until Cato is dead, but the game master changes the rules again, stating that only one of them can be victor.  Katniss brings out deadly berries and they decide to suicide together, but then the game is stopped and they are declared mutual winners.

Haymitch warns Katniss that her act of defiance may have severe repercussions from the government.  At the end, Peeta realizes that she’s been playing a game with his affections to get sponsors and they return to District 12, but Katniss is herself unsure of her feelings.

The book is very economically written, nearly perfect in its concentration on the action, yet through Katniss’ thoughts, we gain all kinds of inside into who she is and we see her arc from someone who just wants to survive into someone who is beginning to understand that a revolution will be necessary.

It moves so quickly that it is tempting to finish the book in one read and then return to it with leisure to savor all of the good writing that makes it a potent novel.

The ideas are not necessarily new, but the style makes it very special.  One of the most difficult things for a writer to create is naming characters and Collins has done a masterful job in giving us names that are unique and resonate.  That carried over so well into the movie where the actors were able to develop their characters based on a name and a very little deep information.

Another triumph of this novel is how well Collins uses the First Person Present perspective.  It is not easy to write, yet in Collins’ hand, it seems effortless.  Moving so quickly, it seems amazingly natural.

An iconic book, The Hunger Games seems destined to be a Young Adult novel that will have many, many years of shelf life, partly because it can be read again and again with deepening enjoyment.

I highly recommend this novel not just for teens, but for all readers.


Hunger Games 03Please read my review of the movie The Hunger Games!

The Hunger Games

Hunger Games 01The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was already a huge success when producers began bidding on the film rights.  Clamor for the movie was both strong and at the same time a bit dubious.  It is a great story, but would some director muck it up by “making it his own” or changing things so dramatically that the original work lost its integrity?  Unfortunately, this has happened so many times that films of beloved novels must be met with some skepticism.

Hunger Games 02Fortunately, for this project, producers Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik were already fans of the novel and they protected this film by making good, strong, and remarkable choices right from the beginning.  Veteran screenwriter Billy Ray was hired to do the first rendering and he produced a good script.  Next, they hired the amazing writer and director Gary Ross (“Big,” “Pleasantville,” “Dave,” and “Seabiscuit,” among others) to shepherd the production.  Ross brought his considerable writing skills to Ray’s script and began making it even better.  The author of the novel, Suzanne Collins, was brought into the process and joined Ross for several weeks working out many of the details of the transition from page to screen.  This respect for the original vision is almost unheard of in Hollywood, but the filmmakers were also fortunate in that Collins had written a very cinematic novel and she was open to making some changes to make it a good adaptation for the screen.

The following plot synopsis reveals information about the ending, so beware.

The Hunger Games deals with a future America in which 12 Districts exist under the brutal control of the Capitol, which is located in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  While those in the Districts work hard to provide for the Capitol, they do not enjoy its debauched luxury.  In fact, most of the Districts are on less than subsistence footing, with starvation and poverty the norm.  Nearly 75 years previous to the start of the story, a revolution occurred that the Capitol had to put down with force.  An original 13th District was utterly destroyed in that bloody fight and the Capitol created the Hunger Games as a way to remind their tributary Districts where the power lay.  Every year, a boy and girl, between the ages of 12 and 18 are randomly selected to represent their District in a fight to the death with representatives of all of the other Districts in a unique arena created for the occasion by a Game Master.

Hunger Games 03Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an 18 year old girl from District 12, hunts illegally in the woods with bow and arrows just beyond the tatters of a fence designed to restrict movement.  Her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), joins her on the morning of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games and after hunting, they go to trade their game.  Katniss finds a pin in the form of a circle with a Mockingjay inside.  These birds, hybrids between mockingbirds and jays, imitate sounds in the wild.  Her sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who has just turned 12, worries that she may be selected, but Katniss reassures her.  At the Reaping, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a powdered and wigged representative of the Capitol, pulls Prim’s name for the girl to represent District 12.  Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place and for that she honored by the others with a three fingered salute unique to their District.  The boy selected is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).  On the train to the Capitol, they meet the only winner from District 12 in the entire history of the games, a drunk named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is supposed to be their mentor.  Initially, his only advice to them is to get ready to die, but on further probing he also tells them that they need to be likable so they can get sponsors.  He has already decided that Katniss will fail being likable.

Hunger Games 04At the Capitol, they are assigned a stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and they are introduced to the citizens and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) in a parade of chariots.  Cinna has designed special costumes for them that leave a trail of fire as they blaze up a gigantic arena for the presentation.  Katniss gets her nickname “The Girl on Fire” from the Master of Ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci).  They begin their physical training and meet the other participants.  Districts 1 and 2 are more affluent than the others and spend a great deal of time and effort training their young so they are more equipped to win the games.  Their representatives are Marvel (Jack Quaid), Glimmer (Leven Rambin), Cato (Alexander Ludwig), and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman).  The strongest is Cato.  During their final demonstration before they are given grades, Katniss misses her target and finds herself ignored by the Game Master, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and sponsors.  To get their attention, she fires an arrow into their midst, neatly skewering an apple from a roast pigs mouth and pinning it to the wall.  She receives an 11, the highest grade of all of the contestants.

Hunger Games 07During their final television interview with Caesar before the games begin, Katniss demonstrates fire again by swirling her red dress, designed by Cinna, the hem of which crackles with flames.  Peeta, that last to be interviewed, reveals that he has always had a crush on Katniss and Caesar renames them “the star-crossed lovers from District 12.”  Angry at Peeta for blindsiding her, Katniss confronts him, but Haymitch, who has now taken an interest in them tells her that it will probably be good for them in terms of sponsors and that she should act the part.  As she prepares to go to battle, Cinna pins the Mockingjay onto her shirt.

The Games take place in a woodland as each Tribute enters on a small, round elevator facing a Cornucopia of weapons and survival gear.  When the countdown reaches zero most of them run for the Cornucopia and a bloodbath ensues.  While Peeta turns and runs directly into the woods, Katniss grabs a backpack before she takes off.  Twelve of the tributes are killed in the initial fight and a small band of Tributes join together, led by Cato and the other Tributes from Districts 1 and 2.  Surprisingly, Peeta joins with them in hunting Katniss.  She wanders far enough away from the main site that the Game Master creates a fire to push her back toward the others and she injures her leg.  Scrambling to the river, she is discovered by the pack and chased into a tree.  On Peeta’s recommendation, they decide to wait her out.  Haymitch arranges for a sponsor to send her an ointment that she applies to her wound and when she awakes, it is completely healed.  In a neighboring tree, the very young female representative of District 11, Rue (Amandla Stenberg) points out a nest of tracker-jackers, which Caesar explains to the audience are genetically engineered wasps whose sting causes hallucinations and sometimes death.  Katniss climbs up to the branch and saws it off, but she gets stung in the process.  The nest lands in the midst of the sleeping tributes and the aroused tracker-jackers begin stinging at random, killing Glimmer in the process.  Hallucinating, Katniss grabs the bow and quiver of arrows from Glimmer’s body and runs blindly into the forest, eventually passing out.

Hunger Games 06When she awakes, her stings have been neutralized by medicinal leaves put there by Rue.  The two become friends and form their own alliance.  They plan to destroy the weapons that have been gathered together by the career Tributes.  While Rue sets fires to distract the others, Katniss shoots an arrow into a sack of apples that spill over the gathered weapons and trigger mines that have been implanted around it.  Katniss runs to find Rue, but finds her caught in a net.  After cutting her out, they are interrupted by Marvel, who throws a spear, killing Rue.  Katniss shoots him with an arrow, then arranges a bower of flowers around the body of Rue, weeping as she mourns the girl’s death.  Before leaving Rue’s body, Katniss finds the camera broadcasting her image and she raises a three-finger salute to Rue’s memory.

That action incites the residents of District 11 to riot, which the storm troopers from the Capitol quickly stop.  Seneca Crane considers killing Katniss for the action, but Haymitch speaks on her behalf, convincing Crane that they should capitalize on the crowd’s desire for hope by altering the rules of the game to allow two winners, but only if they come from the same District.  That will allow people to root for “the star-crossed lovers.”  The rioting, however, catches the eye of President Snow, who calls in Crane to advise him to control the situation.

An announcement is made to the Tributes letting them know about the rule change, so Katniss goes looking for Peeta.  She finds him seriously injured, hiding by the river.  They find a cave and she kisses him for the first time, on the cheek.  When they get a package from Haymitch, she expects to find more ointment, but only gets a cup of hot soup, with the message, “You call that a kiss?”  Another announcement is made that there will be gifts from the Capitol for those who need help the next morning at the Cornucopia.  Peeta begs Katniss not go and she gives him a real kiss.  Watching at home, Gale, who is now working in the mines, reacts jealously.  The next morning, when she runs to grab the ointment for Peeta, she is caught and pinned down by Clove.  Before killing Katniss, Clove boasts about killing Rue, but she is overheard by the other representative from District 11, Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) who then kills her in retaliation and lets Katniss go.

As they hunt for food, Katniss finds Peeta picking deadly Nightlock berries that kill instantly and they discover the dead body of Foxface (Jacqueline Emerson), one of the last surviving tributes, who died from eating Nightlock.  They decide to bring berries along with them in case Cato is hungry.  To create a finale to the Games, Crane has his people create large, vicious dogs.  Katniss and Peeta listen as Thresh is attacked and killed, leaving only three survivors: them and Cato.  The dogs chase Katniss and Peeta to the Cornucopia.  Climbing on top, they encounter Cato as the dogs snarl below them.  Holding Peeta by knifepoint, Cato threatens to kill him.  Katniss gets off one arrow that hits Cato in the hand, then Peeta pushes him off the Cornucopia where he is attacked by the dogs.  Hearing Cato beg for mercy, Katniss puts an arrow into him, ending his misery.

Crane turns on the lights in the arena, then makes an announcement that the previous rule change has been rescinded.  Peeta volunteers to let Katniss kill him, but she insists that the eat the berries together, leaving the Capitol without a winner.  Before they can go through with their plan, Crane relents and they are declared mutual winners.

President Snow takes his revenge against Crane by forcing him to suicide by Nightlock berries.  Haymitch warns Katniss that she has shown up Snow and that she needs to watch her back.

The second great decision, beyond hiring Ross to direct, was his decision to cast brilliant young actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss.  The entire movie revolves around her and Lawrence’s performance carries it in every way.  She has a strength of personality far beyond her ephemeral beauty and incredible voice and is Katniss in ever way.  All of the young people cast around her perform extremely well and work together with a kind of chemistry that elevates the entire endeavor.  In addition, Ross’s decision to cast well-known, award winning actors in the mature supporting roles, such as Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland, was absolutely perfect.  Banks is magnificent as Effie.

The production design, by Philip Messina is amazing, especially the architecture of the Capitol, using broad, open spaces, that smooth limestone feel to the buildings, almost as if we were in a throwback Nazi Germany, rather than years into the future.  The relationship of the playing field of the Games to the Game Room itself with its gigantic computer simulation, a half dome on a large round table, is extremely impressive and utterly believable.

Hunger Games 05Costumes by Judianna Makovsky range from the throwback, monochrome dresses worn by the women in District 12 to the beautifully understated and functional to battle gear of the Tributes in the arena to the absolutely outrageous outfits worn in the decadent Capitol.  They display and wide range of skills are brought to bear on this challenging project.  In addition, the make-up on the Capitol citizens, also byMakovsky, really adds a dimension to their flamboyant and debauched lifestyle.

Most of the cinematography, by Tom Stern, is done in a cinema verité, giving it a very kinetic feel.  Just as Katniss always seems to be running, so does the camera, jumping from intimate close-ups to quick pans to fast tracking shots.  Like everything else about the production, this was designed from the beginning by Gary Ross, who planned and storyboarded each and every shot in his shooting script.

The music, by James Newton Howard is very good.  Except for the martial sounds of the Capitol, it is fairly austere, never forcing itself on the action or calling attention to itself.  However, the short fanfare played when a Tribute dies, is extremely memorable.  The sound, created by Christopher Assells is truly amazing–and again, Gary Ross played a big role in the design–especially the use of silence during the initial bloodbath in the arena, the quick rush of sound out of silence, the cross-fading during the hallucinations, the gasping and breathing, the sharp sounds of battle.  It adds an element that really brings the action to life and at times even comments on it.

The editing, by Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, and Juliette Welfling, under the supervision of Ross, really knits the movie together in very special ways.

The DVD also has two marvelous special features, “Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” and “The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games.”  The first one isn’t very long, but it looks at the adaptation process, using interviews with the publisher, the producers, teachers, and teen readers to show how special the book is.

“The World is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” is a feature-length documentary that examines every facet of making the film, from the adaptation process to the finished print, featuring extensive interviews with the director, the producer, the cast, and the technicians.  Most of the time I don’t really find “making of” documentaries to be very enlightening, but this one, because of the length, the depth, the access to all of the movie makers, is truly remarkable and so entertaining in itself that it makes a great evening’s entertainment.

When Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik, and Gary Ross first got to work on this project, I don’t think any fan of the book would have believed that a film could do such a fine novel justice, let alone actually improve on it in creating a new work of art, but these three, along with their cast and technical collaborators have succeeded.  Gary Ross deserves most of the credit for his work on the script and his powerful vision as a director, but truly this group works in harmony.

And the vision is so strong that it makes The Hunger Games a film that can be enjoyed over and over again, and probably makes it an instant classic.


Hunger GamesRead my review of the novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins!

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica RothThis third and final installment of the Divergent Trilogy takes the bizarre, complicated plot even further and it relies even more on people making stupid decisions, rending it by far the worst of the three books that make up this ill-advised trilogy.

This review reveals the conclusion of the series, but it is for the benefit of the reader as you may not wish to read the whole thing knowing how it ends.

The battle between the factionless, led by Four’s mother, Evelyn, and the former factions, led by Four’s father, Marcus, heats up considerably, so Tris and Four leave Chicago and find the people who are really running this bizarre mess of a society, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, and its leader David.  It turns out that these people have really screwed things up by trying to create better humans, so the Divergent are actually normal people and those belonging to factions are genetically damaged.  When Four discovers that he is genetically damaged, he stupidly joins in a plot against the Bureau, which, it turns out, wasn’t such a bad idea because they are in fact the big bad villains.  David decides that since their experiment was a failure, they need to release a chemical throughout the city that will wipe the minds of everyone, then they can start out all over again and do it right.

Reacting against this bizarre notion, Tris throws her life away trying to stop him.

It was established in the other novels that Tris has a death wish, but quite frankly, I never took it seriously, because in all other respects, she seemed (in spite of a steady spate of tears) to be a strong, fairly intelligent person.  She is, after all, the heroine.  Readers need to be aware that this trilogy is a *tragedy* in the true sense of the word.  We’re all so used to having happy endings, especially in Young Adult literature, that reading a dystopian YA tragedy is a pretty shocking affair.

Roth has tried to make her death seem organic, by repeatedly bringing up her death wish, but I really thought that it was perhaps the final thing she had to overcome in order to become a complete person.  No, it turns out that she really hasn’t grown that much at all.  She simply throws herself away.

Although the plot, and especially the ending, are serious problems in the novel, maybe the biggest problem is the “voice.”

In the first two novels, Roth established a wonderful voice for Tris and since both of the books are written in the First Person Present tense, it works very well.  The third novel, however, introduces the voice of Four as she alternates perspective in different chapters.  It is a bit of a shock, after having a consistent viewpoint in each of the first two novels, to have someone else speaking, but real problem is that Roth has not bothered to create a unique voice for Four.  He sounds so much like Tris that many times I had to flip back to the beginning of a chapter to find out who was speaking.  In terms of creating unique characters, this is a very serious problem.  Once I understood that Tris would die, the reasoning became apparent: she had to have someone continue speaking after Tris was dead.  In the end, I don’t think that matters at all.  As soon as Tris died, I closed the book and put it away because the voice I had listened to for several hundred thousands words was silenced and I didn’t care what happened afterwards.

Allegiant has the feeling, like Insurgent before it of being a rushed effort.  I don’t think that Roth truly took the time to think through her story before writing it, because there are so many things that don’t make sense, that don’t seem believable, that it seems unnatural, rather than an organically sound plotting.

My final advice to readers would be to enjoy the first book in the series, Divergent, and be happy with that, because it is the only complete, beautifully written, cogent novel in the trilogy.  It is pretty well designed, with strong characters, a terrific plot, and it is written in a style that makes for satisfying reading.

Of all the Young Adult dystopian trilogies in the market, the Divergent Trilogy starts out among the best and ends up among the worst.

The Skies of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

Skies of Pern Les EdwardsIn this final book in the 9th Pass saga of The Dragonriders of Pern, the story turns to the aftermath of events in All the Weyrs of Pern.  At the end of that book, the dragonriders, led by Jaxom and under the guidance of the computer AIVAS move the engines of the three space ships that brought the original colony from Earth into Red Star, exploding to force it into an orbit from which it can no longer drop Thread onto Pern.  Following this heroic exploit, AIVAS turned itself off and Master Robinton expired.

The following review contains plot spoilers.

The Skies of Pern brings forward the character of F’lessan, son of F’lar and Lessa, who appeared much earlier in the saga as a boy and a young man.  Now, the mature rider of bronze dragon Golanth, with sons of his own, F’lessan looks toward the end of the Pass, contemplating what he will do After.  In the previous novel, he discovered the ruins of Honshu Hold deep in the Southern Continent.  He has been restoring it.  Coming to Landing for the Turnover festivities at the beginning of the 31st Turn of the Pass, he goes to the AIVAS library to do some research and runs into a female green dragon rider, Tai, whose dragon is Zaranth.  Making friends with her, they attend the festival, but she disappears when Mirrim and T’gellan show up, she disappears, only to discover Abominators breaking glass at the Healer’s Hall.

The same dumb Abominators from All the Weyrs of Pern are back, wreaking havoc by destroying products that AIVAS showed the Pernese how to create and use.  They are working on a large, concerted level.  F’lessan finds Tai swimming and shows unusual concern for her welfare, just as Golanth seems to care about Zaranth.

Before their relationship can proceed further, however, a comet fragment bursts through the atmosphere and plunges into the eastern sea, causing massive tidal waves that inundate both the north and south, completely submerging Monaco Weyr.

After a great deal of timing, once again the dragons of Pern and their courageous riders rescue holders and move people to higher ground, exhausting themselves in the process.  F’lessan manages to work with Tai and gets her and the other Monaco riders to go to Honshu for rest.  After the others have made new weyrs, Tai and Zaranth stay on.  When Zaranth rises to mate, Golanth flies her and F’lessan discovers that Tai has never had a good experience with the almost compulsory sex that goes along with a mating flight of dragons.  She has been raped over and over by other dragonriders.  Showing a great deal of care and concern, F’lessan makes love to her and brings her to love him.

Having served as an assistant to Starsmith Wansor, Tai is well versed in studying the heavens, so F’lessan retrieves what he needs from Landing in order to get the Honshu telescope working again.  After a night of stargazing, they swim in the river and then fall asleep on one of the ledges above the pool, with their dragons sleeping just below them.  Zaranth wakes up to a feeling of danger just as a large pack of the wild felines attack them.  Golanth is closest to them and they do considerable damage to him and to F’lessan, while Zaranth uses her newfound power of telekinesis to throw the felines off.  Ruth, Ramoth and Mnementh all respond to Zaranth’s distress call and she shows them how to use telekinesis to destroy the felines.

As F’lessan and Golanth go through a long and difficult recovery, the holders of the planet plan to press the dragonriders into finding a way to prevent future meteorites and comets from attacking Pern.  The answer lies in mapping the skies, a concept that F’lessan had previously given to the weyrleaders.  With a future in astronomy, F’lar and the others make plans to build more observatories to map the skies and watch for future incursions.  With the dragons having telekinesis, they will find a way to deflect future meteorites.

F’lessan and Tai become weyr mates and will be in charge of the Honshu observatory.

Along the way, the Abominators are defeated.

There are a great many delightful things in this novel, but the villains are such minor characters that they really don’t get much in the way of the story, as McCaffrey’s villains do in some of the other books.  All of the familiar characters are back, of course, excluding Master Robinton.  F’lar and Lessa are considering retirement, but F’lar wants to continue to lead Benden Weyr through the end of the Pass.  They are much larger characters in this novel than in some of the other later novels in the series.

F’lessan and Tai are both delightful characters and the attack of the felines is one of McCaffrey’s best written action sequences in any of her books.  There is much to love in this novel for the dedicated Pern reader, but I must confess that I felt very sad when it was finished, almost as if I were putting away Pern again for a while.

But the wonderful thing about The Dragonriders of Pern is that it can be started all over at any time and the reader will delight in following through all the books to get to The Skies of Pern.  It’s such a wonderful series that it can be read over and over again.  You can look forward to the beginning, even as you read through the end.

All the Weyrs of Pern by Anne McCaffrey

All the Weyrs of PernIn what many thought might be the last of the Pern 9th Pass novels, the computer AIVAS (Artificial Intelligence Voice Address System) serves as a major character in the fight to end Thread forever.  At the end of the previous novel, The Renegades of Pern, AIVAS came to life in the old Landing Administration Building after Piemer, Jancis, Jaxom, and his white dragon, Ruth, had unearthed the solar panels that had been intermittently covered by ash and dust over the last 2,500 years since the explosion of the volcano that sent the original colonists scurrying north to take Hold there.

The following review is written with the understanding that readers are already familiar with the novel, so if you haven’t read it yet, beware of plot spoilers!

With technology long lost to the people of Pern, AIVAS recites the history of the founding of the colony as told in Dragonsdawn, complete with movies and stills showing Admiral Paul Benden, Governor Emily Boll, and all of the other colorful figures, including the exploits of Sallah Telgar in thwarting the evil intentions of Avril Bitra.  In a sonorous male voice, AIVAS explains that his last assignment was to find a way to permanently remove Thread from the skies of Pern.  Now–with the help of darned near the whole planet–he’s found a way to do it.  This delights F’lar no end and they set about reconstructing Landing, teaching Jaxom, Piemer, Jancis, and anyone else who is interested how to assemble and use a computer.  Teaching remedial math, physics, medicine, and so on, he gradually elevates the level of education to the point where they can understand sophisticated concepts and manage complicated machinery, bringing them back to the level they were at when the original colonial ships arrived in orbit some 2,500 Turns ago.

This effort is not without the pernicious attempts of villains to thwart it.  Chief among them are Master Norist, head of the Glass Smith Crafthall and Lords Sigomal of Bitra and Begamon of Nerat.  Norist gives AIVAS the nickname of “The Abomination” and blames it for destroying the traditions of Pern.  He refuses to have anything to do with AIVAS and thus one of his subordinates, Master Morilton takes over working with Landing, his work benefiting from a greater knowledge that Norist.  In addition, Toric’s brother, Hamian, who had been sent to receive his Mastery from Fandarel in the Smithcrafthall, decides to take up the production of plastic, leaving Toric to commit himself to Landing.

AIVAS takes on the education of Master Oldive, Sharra, Mirrim, and others to not only study medicine more deeply, but to take apart frozen Thread ovoids and find ways to change parasitical bacteria into predators.  As time passes, Sharra gradually becomes aware that AIVAS has selected Jaxom to lead the dangerous mission.  Gradually, the craftsmen and dragonriders take each step along the road to prepare them for AIVAS’s Master plan, which he will not actually discuss with them: there are trips between to the Yokahama to prepare the ship for human occupation (and to remove Sallah Telgar’s body from the bridge), repairs and maintenance on the old ship, and extra-vehicular activity to familiarize dragons and riders with space.  Hamian is trying to develop enough space suits for the dragonriders.  Eventually, Jaxom, F’lar and Lessa take a trip to the Red Star to familiarize themselves with the landmarks so they can have reference points for the other dragons.

In spite of the best efforts of D’ram, Lytol, Jaxom, and the others, the Abominators hire devious people to drug and kidnap Master Robinton with the notion that they can force the dragonriders to destroy AIVAS to get him back.  They take this action boldly at the Ruatha Gather with Lord Jaxom and Lady Sharra presiding.  Of course, the dragonriders, with the help of fire lizards, locate Robinton and round up all the villains, who are condemned to exile for all their days.

Using a massive number of bronze dragons, the engines of the three space ships that were used to bring the original colonists to Pern are shifted between to the Red Star, where HNO3 canisters administer leaks that will eat through the metal surrounding the antimatter engines and eventually cause an explosion that will move the Red Star enough out of orbit that it will no longer drop Thread on Pern.  In addition, a number of green riders seed the bacteria that will eventually kill all Thread where it exists in the Oort Cloud, thus eliminating the threat of Thread forever.  What the other dragonriders don’t know is that Jaxom and Ruth lead two of the three groups far back in time to create explosions that nudge the Red Star toward its eventual orbit change–thus the two periods of long Intervals.

The book ends with Master Robinton expiring in the AIVAS chamber as the computer himself, his job done, shuts down to leave the Pernese to solve their future problems themselves.  “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven” is his final message to everyone.

Dragonsdawn and All the Weyrs of Pern are the only genuinely science fiction novels in the Pern series.  Of course, the entire premise is based on a science fiction concept, but that is difficult to tell early in the series.  Indeed, just hearing the title “Dragonriders of Pern” makes most people automatically assume that the series is Fantasy.  Not so and these two books provide the groundwork.  And they are both very fun reads.

This book moves along quickly and it invests serious time in all of the major characters that readers have come to know and love: F’lar and Lessa, Jaxom and Sharra, Piemer and Jancis, Sebell and Menolly.  There is Robinton, D’ram, and Lytol, as well as the sympathetic Lord Holders, most notably Groghe, Larad, and Asgenar.  As the book takes place over four years–and the entire chronicle takes place over thirty Turns–we see the characters aging.  The Weyrleaders are over fifty years old now and we are seeing the decline and eventual surrender of Robinton, moved along by the actions of their enemies.

The villains are, as usual, shallow and one dimensional, while the major, positive characters are much more well-rounded.  And again, I can make the arguments that the villains are nearly unnecessary, given the difficulty of the overall problems to be overcome.  One thing that struck me in the last reading is the great depth of stupidity of McCaffrey’s bad people.  It is almost as if she’s making a point that there will always be shallow, stupid people.  On one level, that seems painfully obvious, but on another level, it seems to run counter to her ideal that most people are good and strive to improve themselves.  Humans are basically generous, fun-loving, inquisitive souls that strive to improve the world around them and also to enjoy the wonders of sexual fulfillment and of having and raising children.  These things are basic to Anne McCaffrey’s view of humanity, yet nearly every book contains a few people that are just stupid and shallow, with no inkling of what living is all about.  I guess the good thing here is that these characters are minor, as opposed Thella in The Renegades of Pern or Avril Bitra in Dragonsdawn.

Overall, this is one of the best books in the series.  If you are a fan of Pern and read the books in order, this is one of the most fun and quick to read.  If there is some sadness that the series is coming to an end, there is also much to delight in here: all of your favorites characters, plus the addition of AIVAS, the great, heroic deeds to be accomplished, the funeral of Sallah Telgar, which is something really special, and, of course, the moving of the Red Star.

It is truly a fun and well-written Dragonriders of Pern novel!

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies

Grace Tamar and LaszloGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, the 2009 Wales Book of the Year, is officially listed as a book of short stories by the acclaimed Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies, but it is much, much more than that.  In fact, I struggle to use the term “book of short stories” because the connection of the stories featuring the sisters Grace and Tamar is so tight and integrated that I am inclined to call it a novel.  This is a mature and powerful work of art intended for adult readers.

The first story, “Stirrups,” actually begins with their mother on the event of Tamar’s birth, showing how the woman’s fragile mind tries to deal with the baby girl who is Grace’s younger sister by two years.  She struggles to give her love to more than one person at a time, missing Grace and wondering if she can ever relate to this new child.  The next story, “Point,” finds Grace at the age of six already somewhat ethereal and hating her four year old sister, Tamar, for being so feral.  It is a relationship newly formed, but one that will be a part of their lives until they are adults.

From one story to the next, told in chronological order, the relationship between the two sisters dominates the book as the point of view weaves back and forth.  As a child, Tamar spends most of her time alone, creating strange games for herself, becoming fascinated with the weird neighbors, pushing her sister Grace to exasperation.  Grace lives in a world where she was the only child.  She can barely stand Tamar, yet there is a bond between them that is extremely tight.  Grace pushes Tamar from a tree, Tamar beats on Grace, they push each other back and forth and stand united in only two things: first, their amusement that their mother seems to be going insane (“Radio Baby” is a powerful reminder that their mother’s hold on reality is tenuous at best) and second, the great common dream that they share of being together as adults with their own baby.

As they grow up, Tamar’s perversity is intensified by an incident with a brutal pedophile in “Whinberries” that turns out much different than one would expect in the follow-up story “Stones.”  That perversity comes back out in her childish sexual display to her bedridden grandfather in “Fun and Games.”  Grace’s reaction is to pull back away, growing more and more distant.  In her adolescence, she seems to have difficulty understanding the banal, meaningless action of the boys around her, especially so in “Laszlo the Beautiful,” a story about her first crush.  Tamar also has difficulty relating to boys, but she is far more open sexually.  Grace acts out her sexuality in “Kissing Nina,” “Thong,” “Negligee,” and “Grace and the Basset Hound” while maintaining a strange distance from it.  She becomes engaged, gets married and divorced and seems untouched by the whole cycle.  Tamar reaches out for life in “Thong,” “Whatever,” and “Wood.” 

There is a stark parallel to Grace’s retreat from the world and Tamar’s reach to embrace it.  The importance of Tamar’s dream of the baby comes full circle in the final story, “Cords,” a taut, emotional reach between the two adult sister.

The writing throughout is beautiful, a real pleasure to read.  Lean and well-constructed, the stories are each absolutely compelling portraits of two sisters adrift in the world.  The sentences are spare, concerned only with what is most important.  Sometimes they drift, like the sisters, but they drift with a singular intensity that always reaches back to the heart of the book.

And that’s really what makes me think of this is a novel.

In a novel, one looks to see a compelling story arc, from one place to another from the beginning to the end, with an integrated theme throughout the book.  Even though Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful jerks from one story to another, I see a very powerful, overarching story arc that binds the stories together into one, long cohesive tale that stands up to the highest scrutiny.

The jacket contains the following epithet:  “moving, hilarious and terrifying.”  I found the book to be less hilarious and more moving, but, yes, at times it is also terrifying.  I found it to be one of the more emotionally disturbing and satisfying books that I’ve read over the last twenty years.  The combination of such beautiful, powerful writing with such original, distinctive characters is quite unusual.  In fact, after I finished reading the book, I found myself drawn back to one story or another just to lose myself in the prose.  I haven’t had that feeling since I first read Salman Rushdie.

This is a great book that I highly recommend to all adult readers.

Jane Eyre 1997

Samantha Morton2_Jane EyreThis film adaptation of the classic novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was originally aired on Great Britain’s ITV in March of 1997 runs approximately one hour and 45 minutes.  Obviously, a great deal had to be cut from the story in order to fit it into that kind of time parameter, but Kay Mellor’s script concentrates rightly on the romance between Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester and the Gothic suspense of Thornfield.

This review contains plot spoilers.

Orphaned ten year old Jane Eyre (Laura Harling), horribly mistreated by her father’s family, is bundled off to the Lowood Institution, a terrible school for orphan girls, ran by the evil Reverend Brocklehurst (Michael Denigris).  She makes one close friend who dies of typhus, but grows up to become a teacher.  The adult Jane Eyre (Samantha Morton), looking to see more of the world, takes a position as governess at Thornfield Manor.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax (Gemma Jones) treats her kindly and she takes charge of a little French girl, Adele (Timia Berthome).  The master of the manor, Mr. Edward Rochester (Ciarán Hinds) is a rough man who has been greatly disappointed in life.  He takes an interest in Jane and they become friends, gradually falling in love.

But Thornfield holds a great secret, which Jane gradually becomes aware of: a seemingly crazy servant, Grace Poole, wanders the house at night, giggling insanely.  Mrs. Fairfax informs Jane that Ms. Poole is kept on due to her long service to the family.  Mr. Rochester brings some of the local gentry to visit him, including a beautiful young woman, Blanche Ingram (Abigail Cruttenden) who is determine to marry Rochester.  Jane is nearly at her wits end when she receives word that her aunt is dying and has requested her presence.  While Jane is gone, Rochester misses her terribly and when she returns he proposes to her.  They have some happiness before the wedding, which is interrupted by a Mr. Mason stating that they cannot be married because Mr. Rochester already has a wife.  Rochester drags them all back to Thornfield to reveal his insane wife that he married in Jamaica, through the deception of her family.  The marriage called off, Jane runs away and is discovered unconscious in a field by a young, handsome minister, St. John (Rupert Penry-Jones) who begs her to marry him and follow him to India as a missionary.  Jane, still obsessed with Rochester, goes back to find Thornfield burned to the ground, Rochester’s wife dead, and him a blind man wallowing in his own misery.  She surprises him, they marry and have two children.

Obviously, to anyone familiar with the novel, the film leaves out a great deal of the story.  It rushes through Jane’s childhood, skips through the Lowood years, eliminates the Reeds as viable characters, leaves out her inheritance and shoots through her association with St. John, all to serve the purpose of the romance, which is quite successful.  In this adaptation, it is not a deep story, but it is skillfully told.  The direction by Robert Young is deft, using creative camera angles, deep colors, and excellent editing.

Samantha Morton really carries the move from beginning to end.  Beautiful, passionately attached to her character, she wraps the movie around her and makes everything work.  Ciarán Hinds is a fine actor, but gets carried away sometimes with his passion.  The other supporting actors, including the wonderful Gemma Jones, all add to the strong ensemble.

In this version, we may miss major parts of the story, but the arc has been honed into something that somehow works altogether.  It’s sad that a knowledge of the full work by Brontë might hinder enjoyment of this movie, but that simply can’t be avoided in any adaptation of a major novel.  The one thing we call all be thankful for is that the preachiness of the book is cut along with everything else.

I think this movie should be seen, if for no other reason than the excellent performance by Samantha Morton!


Jane EyreRead my review of the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte!

This 1847 classic novel both delights and confounds a modern reader.

Told mostly in first person past (with brief lapses into first person present) by the heroine, Jane Eyre, the book was originally subtitled An Autobiography.  It begins with Jane as a young girl of ten years as an orphan living with her Aunt Reed at Gateshead Hall.


Jane Eyre 1996Read my review of the 1996 movie Jane Eyre by Franco Zeffirelli!

Adapting a classic novel to the big screen is always a dicey proposition.  The screen writer and director have a limited amount of time, yet there is so much in a classic novel that readers depend on for a satisfying experience.


Jane Eyre 2011Read my review of the 1997 Cary Fukunaga movie of Jane Eyre.

This adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre was produced in 2011.  Directed by Cary Fukunaga from a script by Moira Buffini, this is clearly the best of the recent movie versions of the novel.  Ms. Buffini’s script is faithful to the novel, yet innovative in the way it tells the story, bringing a passion lacking in the other attempts.

Divergent

shailene_woodley_divergent-wideAdapted by Evan Daugherty and Vanessa Taylor from the novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, this 2014 movie is remarkably faithful to the original book, which is both good and bad.  See my review of the novel.

At an unspecified time in a dystopian future, the city of Chicago has been walled in to protect its citizens from the chaos outside.  Their society has been divided into five sects, supposedly to emulate traits that are desirable in this new society, Abnegation (selfless), Erudite (wise), Dauntless (brave), Candor (honest), and Amity (friendly).  Teenagers Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) and her brother, Caleb (Ansel Elgort), must be tested before they make their declaration of which faction they will choose for life.  Their mother, Natalie (Ashley Judd), and father, Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), who serves on the ruling council, are both Abnegation and want them to choose their own faction.  Beatrice, however, shows a strong regard for Dauntless and looks ready to take risks.

During the test, which consists of the administration of a hallucinogenic drug that simulates a series of choices, Beatrice tests out positive for more than one faction (Abnegation, Dauntless, and Erudite).  The woman administering the test, Dauntless Tori (Maggie Q) tells her that she is Divergent, but that she must keep this a secret, claiming only that she tested out as Abnegation.  The next day, Caleb declares himself Erudite.  Caught in a dilemma as to which faction to choose, Beatrice takes Dauntless and is immediately thrown into a new life of daring exploits.  Jumping off the train at Dauntless headquarters, she volunteers to be the first to make a three story leap into a gaping hole in a roof and she does so effortlessly.  Although she is obviously quite brave, her physical training falls short and she is near the bottom of her class.  Putting in extra hours, her training leader, Four (Theo James), gives her extra instruction and she quickly rises in the ranks.  During a field exercise, she demonstrates that she can use her mind to help overcome obstacles, then, when she is again administered a hallucinogenic in order to face her worst fears, she finishes in record time.  Four grows close to her and protects her.

The Erudite are in the process of planning the overthrow of Abnegation and have developed a serum that will place all of the Dauntless soldiers under their mind control, but Four and Beatrice (who goes by the Dauntless name Tris) are immune to the serum and must find a way to defeat the evil Erudite leader Jeanine (Kate Winslet).

If all this sounds a bit far-fetched, it’s because it is quite unbelievable.  The book has the same problem in that the factions with their self-important purposes just doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny.  Although it’s true that Americans are definitely prone to conformity, I find the concept of their adherence, especially among the young, to a single faction to be pretty ludicrous.  The very idea that dividing your society in such a way will lead to peace and prosperity is laughable.

That being said, once a reader or a viewing audience buys into the concept and becomes willing to suspend their disbelief, the story becomes quite compelling, especially the first half where Tris is fighting to be accepted into the Dauntless faction.  We love to see an underdog growing and changing, developing, and showing the big bad bullies that she can hold her own.  We also delight in her ability to be divergent and to live more than one faction.  The direction by Neil Burger is really tight and the movie is smartly edited, but the movie owes most of its success to the two performances by Shailene Woodley and Theo James.  Each of them, in their own way, possess a kind of offbeat beauty that is terrifically attractive, but their acting talents are undoubtedly very strong and they carry the film through its absurd premise.

It’s beautiful to watch.  The cinematography, art direction, and music are all superb and the editing carries the viewer along at a fantastic clip.  Although it runs an astounding two hours and 19 minutes, no time is wasted.  It might have been a better movie if 30 minutes had been cut, but it is fine at its current length.

A very entertaining film, quite well done, if based on a patently absurd premise.