Assembly by Natasha Brown – A Book Review

I often pick up thin books in the “new” section at my library simply to try out authors I haven’t read before or for the experience of a quick read. I knew nothing about Assembly other than that I liked its cover and it only had about 100 pages.

Within the first ten pages of Assembly, author Natasha Brown captured my attention and never let it go.

Assembly is told from the perspective of a Black woman living in England. She’s successful in the corporate world of finance, yet that success comes with a price. No, this is not the stuff of fantasy or thrillers. This is the stuff of stifling your personality, putting up with loads of reprehensible behavior, ignoring your own desires to honor the sacrifices made on your behalf, and grinding day in and day out to finally achieve what you long ago earned.

And yet …

Our narrator can’t help but acknowledge the ridiculousness of it all, especially as she visits her “old money” boyfriend’s mansion. His ancestors’ wealth was predicated upon her ancestors’ suffering, and even if a direct line of connection cannot be made, that connection remains even if tangentially so. He does nothing as his wealth grows day by day; she must make her wealth grow day by day.

There’s also the issue of her health. She’s young, ascending, and destined for great things as long as she keeps grinding, so of course she has every reason in the world to preserve her health.

Or so you would assume.

Short, potent, and brutally blunt, Assembly is a little bit novella, a little bit poem, a little bit indescribable, but very well written with a powerful voice.

If you’re looking for a book that actually says something, try Assembly by Natasha Brown.

All the Horses Of Iceland by Sarah Tolmie – A Book Review

I chose this book at my local library because it was so slim. I wasn’t familiar with the author, Sarah Tolmie, at all, nor did I have a particular interest in the horses of Iceland. However, it was touted as fantasy and published in association with Tor, so I figured it was worth a shot.

In the end, I didn’t love All the Horses Of Iceland, but I didn’t dislike it either. The premise of the novella seeks to explain how Iceland gained its horses. Great travels ensue, as does magic, ghosts, trading, and tribal warfare. Yet, even with that being said, All the Horses Of Iceland is an intimate book that doesn’t delve too deeply into any of those things. It touches the surface, offers just enough to propel the story forward, and then keeps racing to the end.

I’m not sorry I read All the Horses Of Iceland. I’m always excited to experience a new (to me) author, but I can’t necessarily say I’d recommend it, either. I believe there is an audience for this book, it’s simply not me.

Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness – A Movie Review

No pun intended, but it’s very strange to me that Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen have, in many ways, become the heart and soul of the MCU. I happen to really like both of them as actors, but I never dreamed Cumberbatch would play such a significant role across many MCU films after his initial Dr. Strange movie, nor did I expect Olsen’s character, Wanda, to undergo so much growth after first appearing in Age of Ultron.

Furthermore, Multiverse Of Madness seemed to be the crux of several previous MCU storylines. WandaVision, Loki, Spider-Man: No Way Home and more all seemingly led to this film, which, obviously, created high expectations.

Finally, adding Sam Raimi to the mix elevated the excitement even more. In many ways, Raimi is the unofficial grandfather of the MCU thanks to his Spider-Man movies, and, if you check out his IMDB page, is no stranger to making weird horror films. He felt like the perfect fit for Dr. Strange.

So what did I think of Multiverse Of Madness?

No spoilers, I promise.

In the end, I liked it.

In the beginning, I didn’t.

I felt that Dr. Strange In the Multiverse Of Madness started off maddingly slow. Additionally, the special effects were … not good. Almost laughably bad, in fact. But, the good news is that the movie soon picked up speed and maintained a quicker pace, and the special effects got much, much better. I’d also like to say that some of those slow beats in the beginning paid off in the end. I was surprised that, for a film spanning multiple realities, a coherent, connected storyline eventually emerged.

Dr. Strange is a ridiculous looking character. Benedict Cumberbatch, at first glance, looks ridiculous as Dr. Strange. Yet, somehow, someway, Cumberbatch infuses a strange mixture of arrogance, charm, regality, intelligence, and even heroism into his performance in such a way that the audience quickly accepts all of the visual silliness and commits to the story. There were moments in this movie when I felt that Cumberbatch appeared as though he stepped right out of a comic book panel–and I mean that as a compliment. Cumberbatch plays very similar characters–he’s been typecast to a degree–yet there’s something different about him as Dr. Strange. Even apart from the hair and goatee, his entire appearance and demeanor just seems … different from his real life persona. A transformation occurs.

Of course, who knew Elizabeth Olsen would take an initially paper-thin character like Wanda from Age of Ultron and eventually turn her into perhaps the most sympathetic, relatable, and horrifying character in the MCU’s entirety? Again, no spoilers, but Multiverse Of Madness zigged when I definitely thought it was going to zag. I appreciate the fact that it proved unpredictable, and much of the film’s originality hinged on Olsen’s performance. No matter what, I’m Team Wanda, and I think most people are. That’s absolutely due to Olsen’s portrayal.

As stated earlier, Sam Raimi fit this movie perfectly. On the one hand, there were some obvious Sam Raimi choices. Overlays, fade-outs, audible cues–you’ll easily identify his fingerprints. On the other hand, his experience with horror and super heroes truly paid off. Dr. Strange In the Multiverse Of Madness had some genuinely scary moments. This is not the typical MCU kid gloves. Characters look scary, frightening things happen, and the gore, given it’s the MCU, shocked me on some occasions. I’m not sure we got full Raimi, but we got way more Raimi than I expected! I’m not convinced Dr. Strange In the Multiverse Of Madness was perfect for him, but he was certainly perfect for it.

Let’s quickly touch on some other performances. I loved Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez. Her character’s arc drove the film’s plot, which meant Gomez had to do a lot of work. She had to win over the audience, be both vulnerable and capable, and strike the right chemistry with her co-stars. No easy feat for a first appearance! Chavez pulled it off and I look forward to seeing America again.

Of course, Benedict Wong always steals the scenes. I love that his Wong has somehow become an MCU touchstone.

I’m also so glad that they finally gave Rachel McAdams something to do as Dr. Christine Palmer. The MCU was not especially gracious to its female “love interests” in the beginning, but they seem to be course correcting now. McAdams is an exceptional actor who is finally getting to show her skill to the MCU audience.

I guess we should address the anticipated cameos, right? Wrong. I’m telling you nothing. I’ll just say they made me so, so happy. Yet, like everything else about this movie, things did not go as expected. I’ll just leave it at that.

Credit scenes? Yep. The mid-credit scene is vital and has me SO excited for future possibilities. The post-credit scene is not must-see, but I loved it. It’s the perfect Raimi send-off.

Dr. Strange In the Multiverse Of Madness will prove polarizing among fans and critics alike. It dared to go against the grain, which will surely create some controversy. Another pain point for audiences could be that it does not have any interest in catching people up. It assumes you’ve seen all the Marvel shows and movies, and if you haven’t? Try to keep up. It’s not the best Marvel movie, but Raimi’s direction, the performances, the utter weirdness of it all, and the titillating cameos made for an entertaining experience.

Looking For a Show In Chicago? I Recommend The Play That Goes Wrong

My good friend urged us to see The Play That Goes Wrong during our spring break trip to Chicago because he and his family saw it in New York and they all loved it. He even went so far as to say he would buy me a steak dinner if I saw it and didn’t like it!

Well, good news for him — he doesn’t have to buy me a steak dinner.

We attended The Play That Goes wrong on a Tuesday night at the Broadway Playhouse, which is part of the Water Tower Place. An intimate theater, it didn’t appear as though the Broadway Playhouse had a bad seat to be found! We managed to get front row seats which made for an even better experience.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a play within a play about a murder occurring in an era similar to that of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie. The actors are quite intent on delivering a deeply complex mystery, but, unfortunately, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Misplaced props, items falling off walls, inabilities to stay in character, personal injuries, a faulty set — nothing goes right for these poor characters or the actors portraying them.

In fact, the controlled chaos is actually rather amazing. I’m not going to spoil any of it, but the engineering necessary to make this play “go wrong” is nothing short of genius. I’ve personally never seen anything quite like it live and on stage.

But, of course, the play will be a hit with your family due to the nonstop laughs. As my wife noted, there are literally no slow or dull moments in The Play That Goes Wrong. It moves at a frenetic pace and will surely entertain both young and old alike.

So, if you’re looking for a comedic, family-friendly show to take in while in Chicago, I absolutely recommend The Play That Goes Wrong.

(If it helps, I got our tickets through Ticketmaster and found my parking spot through SpotHero.)

News Of the World by Paulette Jiles – A Book Review

I’ll be honest, I grabbed this book from my local library’s shelf because I recognized the cover from HBO Max and it looked like a fast read. I have not seen the movie adaptation starring Tom Hanks, nor did I particularly want to. You see, from the trailers I watched, the story did not seem all that appealing. A man riding from town to town reading newspapers? No thanks.

Little did I know, however, that News Of the World is actually about so much more.

The novel begins around 1870 as Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a man in his early seventies and veteran of multiple wars, is hired to return a ten-year-old girl to her relatives near San Antonio. This isn’t just any girl, however. This is a girl who has lived with the Kiowa for four years after they killed her family and took her captive. She has fully immersed herself in the Kiowa ways–she seems to have no recollection at all of her previous life. Kidd is headed towards San Antonio anyway, and so he agrees to take her with him.

Though Kidd does indeed read the news of the world to those isolated in Texas, the story is really about the bond he forms with the girl–Johanna–as they must evade danger at every turn and even, at times, face it head on. A patient–though very tough–man with children and grandchildren of his own, Johanna is more than just a passenger to Captain Kidd–she’s perhaps his last chance to do something meaningful in this world.

Paulette Jiles has written a story that is genius in its apparent simplicity. I could easily recount to you the major beats of the entire book. Make no mistake, though, Jiles sprinkles in such nuanced detail that you feel as though you are riding right along with Captain Kidd and Johanna in that covered wagon of theirs. The landscape, the clothing, the politics–Jiles deftly describes all of it with brief, potent, easy to envision passages.

Best of all? The book ended exactly how I wanted it to. I’m not going to spoil anything for you, but Jiles’ writing style reminds me quite a bit of Proulx and McCarthy, and so I naturally had great concern for Kidd and Johanna. In this case, at least, Jiles decided both had already been through enough trauma, which I greatly appreciated. I am definitely excited to read more by Jiles. Plus, you know what? I think I will indeed watch the film adaptation now.

Night Of the Mannequins by Stephen Graham Jones – A Book Review

While visiting the Normal Public Library, this cover and title jumped out at me as it resided in the “new” section. I read the back cover copy, became intrigued, and promptly checked it out. Plus, I had this feeling that I knew the author from somewhere.

Once I got the book home and started reading it, I realized that I enjoyed another work by Stephen Graham Jones called Mapping the Interior.

Night Of the Mannequins proved … interesting. The back cover led me to believe it would be a literal monster story–a story about mannequins coming to life. Instead the book presents a young man seemingly suffering from a psychosis of some sort who wants us to believe that he believes a killer mannequin is on the loose. His strategy for delaying the murder of many innocent people? Kill the mannequin’s primary targets instead so that the mannequin won’t commit any collateral damage. Those primary targets happen be the narrator’s closest friends.

It’s a strange story, to be sure. Part of me wanted to read it as a simple serial killer tale. Another part of me wanted to interpret it as a satire poking fun at modern day film. Yet another part of me felt it could be a story sympathizing with those who completely break from reality. Maybe it’s all of the above? Maybe it’s none of the above?

At just 130 pages, I didn’t mind going along for the ride. I personally didn’t particularly enjoy the book nor would I recommend it, but I’m sure there’s an audience out there for it. That’s the beautiful thing about books–there’s a reader for each and every one of them.

The Batman – A Movie Review (No Spoilers)

I’ll admit that I initially didn’t get too excited by the prospect of yet another new Batman. I happened to like Ben Affleck as Batman and wasn’t quite ready to accept the guy from Twilight as his would-be replacement. To go along with that, I was fully invested in the Snyderverse and didn’t want to switch directions from that, either. Furthermore, it wasn’t the idea of a parallel Earth that bothered me. I’ve been enjoying DC comics since 1980 and am therefore very comfortable with the multiverse plot device. I am fine with a few different Batmans running around in my movies. I just didn’t think I wanted this Batman because it looked as though it would simply be a retread of Nolan’s films.

Let me say this clearly and in all caps: I WAS WRONG.

The Batman depicted the comic book character we know and love more closely than any other version I’ve seen on screen. Also, the film was dark, gritty, street level, violent, rainy, and seething with noir.

Robert Pattinson, the aforementioned Twilight guy–fantastic. His Batman was physical, cerebral, brooding, and emotionally damaged. Best of all? He wore the costume for 90% of the movie. (It had to be absolute hell for Pattinson to film this thing, by the way. I read somewhere the costume weighed 60 pounds.) This Batman truly seemed detached from his emotions. He didn’t strike me as a rich guy with fancy gizmos. He honestly depicted a man unable to overcome his emotional devastation while seeking solace by beating criminals to a pulp. Yet there was an emotional vulnerability to his Batman as well. Watch closely for his reactions when kids are being impacted by crime. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and also laid the psychological groundwork for how a “Robin” could even be possible in Batman’s world. Speaking of subtle, Pattinson is definitely the strong, silent type. The camera made a point to zero in on Batman’s face often. There Pattinson did his best acting. A flutter of the eyelids. The setting of the jaw. The dead stare daring someone to challenge him. It was remarkable.

Of course, I must give credit to Pattinson’s costars as well. Jeffrey Wright as Jim Gordon proved a force. I never thought anyone could challenge Gary Oldman’s hold on the character, but Wright most definitely has. He and Pattinson delivered an unspoken, unbreakable trust between Gordon and Batman. However, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a more compromised Jim Gordon. Gordon is constantly vouching for Batman, squirming as he’s questioned for bringing a vigilante to a crime scene, yet totally confident in the masked man’s help and moral center. Again, it’s a complicated balance to accomplish, but they managed to pull it off. It mirrored what we’ve seen in the comics for decades. Have you ever seen Batman investigating a crime scene while surrounded by the police in any other Batman movie? No, but it’s common in the comic books. It was stunning to see Batman, Gordon, and a crowd of police officers crowded in a room studying evidence together.

Speaking of stunning, Zoe Kravitz is phenomenal. She’s charming, physical, and magnetic as Catwoman. She and Pattinson have real chemistry, which is quite a feat considering Pattinson had a mask on for all of their interactions. I do think they could have done a lot more with Kravitz, but here’s hoping a spinoff will further showcase her talents.

Paul Dano was creepy as could be. Disturbing. I don’t want to reveal too much, but they definitely tapped into the Joaquin Phoenix “this could be your neighbor down the street” kind of vibe. His intelligence seemed atypical, but his emotional scarring, his need to lash out, and his misguided social affiliations did not.

John Turturro played Carmen Falcone, a character I have never–ever–cared about … until now. Turturro made him strangely human–even likable–as his character helped with heinous actions.

Finally, though, I must give my MVP award to Colin Farrell. Farrell played the Penguin. This ain’t your previously established Penguin, though. Farrell was completely unrecognizable, and with that came a side of the actor that I’ve never seen. I still have trouble believing it was actually Colin Farrell. This man was boisterous, ugly, loud, and decidedly uncool. The opposite of Farrell in every way. He definitely squeezed every ounce from his character that he possibly could.

Matt Reeves wrote and directed The Batman. Yes, you can certainly trace moments of the film to comic book inspirations, but it also felt uniquely different. On one hand, Batman was in virtually every scene and in costume. That struck a chord with me because I remember in my younger days always wanting more Batman, less Bruce Wayne. It also felt far more grounded and realistic, even compared to Nolan’s films. Furthermore, between the rain, the action, the crowded sets, and the many, many close-ups, The Batman appeared to be a very difficult film to shoot. No angle looked easy; no scene took the simple way out.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I highly recommend The Batman. Believe it or not, it’s different from any other Batman you’ve seen before. And while I can’t believe I’m saying it, Robert Pattinson’s performance while wearing a mask and Colin Farrell’s performance while wearing copious amounts of makeup proved to be what I enjoyed most. It’s largely a performance driven film, which sounds ridiculous, but is true. I consider The Batman a victory in every facet.

By the way, my sincere apologies to the 1989 Batmobile, but you’ve been put on alert. The 2022 Batmobile is somehow even cooler and looks like something that could actually function on the roads as intended. I’m not saying it’s replacing the 1989 Batmobile as my favorite … but it is in contention.

Later by Stephen King – A Book Review

I erroneously declared years ago that Stephen King’s best fiction writing days were behind him. As with Elevation, he continues to prove me wrong.

I thoroughly enjoyed Later for a few very simple reasons. First, it’s a short, concise, fast read. Second, it sticks to a main plot and does not deviate at all. Third, it’s a flat-out good story.

When you first start reading Later, you’ll be a little concerned that you’ve already experienced this story. It’s about a child who sees dead people. Of course, nobody has their finger on pop culture’s pulse more so than Stephen King and he references The Sixth Sense very quickly in Later. He is fully aware this premise has already been explored. However, because this book is part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, it tries to focus mostly on a crime element.

The main character is a young boy named Jamie who is recruited by his mom’s cop-friend, Liz, to help stop a mad bomber from killing hundreds. Why bring in the boy, you ask? Because the mad bomber is dead but the bomb is still set to go off. At that point, Stephen King can’t help himself and the already supernatural premise becomes more about seeing dead people than crime, but that’s okay. He could have published this book separate from the Hard Case Crime imprint, it’s not necessarily reliant on a crime or a hard-boiled mystery, but it works just fine as it is. I’m certainly not complaining!

Well, on that note, I do have one small complaint. It’s briefly mentioned early on that Jamie doesn’t know who is father is–it was something of a throw-away line. King’s only narrative detour arrives when he tosses in a monkey-wrench at the very end regarding that father. For me, it proved really distracting and detracted from the overall story. I would have left it out and leave well enough alone, but I’m obviously not King’s editor.

Overall, though, I truly loved reading this book. Short fiction Stephen King is a powerhouse–all that imagination packed into a tiny container. It’s honestly so much fun. If you’re a King fan, Later is top-notch King. If you’ve never read King (which is unlikely, I know), Later would be a wonderful first experience. The narrative voice is on point, the story is interesting, the pace is perfect, and it’s just creepy enough without scaring the pudding out of you.

Star Wars – The High Republic: The Rising Storm – A Book Review

In this second novel of the The High Republic series, author Cavan Scott continues the story initiated in The Light Of the Jedi. Set roughly 200 years before The Phantom Menace, Marchion Ro and his Nihil minions still plot against the Republic. They will do anything to disrupt peace, including a brutal attack against civilians at the Republic Fair, a moment meant to bring the galaxy together.

The first half of The Rising Storm focusses on setting up the Republic Fair and further establishing characters such as the Jedis Stellan Gos, Elzar Mann, and Bell Zettifar. It also allows us to better know Chancellor Lina Soh, reporter Rhil Dairo, and a new character named Ty Yorrick, whom we are led to believe received Jedi training in her youth before going renegade.

To be honest, the first half of the book goes into such detail regarding the Republic Fair and those characters involved that it began to get just a touch boring.

… And then the Nihil attacked.

The second half of this book is nonstop, full-on action. Scott proves masterful at maintaining plot and story amidst constant unfolding physicality. Writing action is no easy feat, but he pulls it off very well. The first half took me a while to get through; I couldn’t put it down during the second half.

There are also some surprising character beats throughout the novel. Characters change. Characters suffer. Characters die.

Which leads to my only general complaint about The High Republic. As potent as some of the characterization is, I cannot connect to most because I simply can’t picture them in my mind. I’ve been a Star Wars fan my entire life, but that doesn’t mean I have memorized every species ever mentioned. I think including a sketch of each character included in the book would be very helpful and assist me with picturing them better in my mind, and therefore helping me bond with them. Yes, I know there are many websites out there with official art, fan art, etc. I’m afraid I’m not willing to put quite that much effort into it. A character guide within the book would be most helpful to those of us unwilling to invest time on the Internet.

In the end, I’m enjoying The High Republic series and The Rising Storm is an exciting installment to the overall tale. I’m not sure where exactly all of this is going or how long it’s supposed to last, but I’m definitely along for the ride.