17 Again Pt 2: When a Boulder Meets a Lake

 It takes some time for the Little Liang and Old Liang to become aware of each other. In the meantime, every time Little Liang is let loose, she wreaks havoc and chaos wherever she goes. And on top of that, she meets a guy, and starts falling for him.

This happens when Little Liang is taking the train somewhere. A cute guy catches her eye, so she takes out her sketchbook and starts drawing. Just as she finishes the picture, the train stops… and the spell cast by the chocolate ends as well. Old Liang drops the notebook and walks out, totally unaware of what she has just done or of the boy who’d seen her doing it.

Later, we see Mao is talking to the all-important Mr. Geo. The businessman is not impressed with the designs for his new perfumes that Mao’s company is providing. He explains they need something fresh! And exciting! Like….. He pulls up a photo that has been going viral online. It’s a photo of the picture Liang drew and left on the train, along with a picture of Liang herself. Yan, the guy from the train, is apparently trying to find the girl who drew the picture. Mao is dumbfounded as he immediately recognizes Liang. When Mr. Geo finds out Mao knows the girl, he says he’ll invest in Mao’s company….. IF Mao will have Liang do the designs. Mao tires to argue that Liang is not right for this. But Mr. Geo just waves him off, and leaves Mao with no other choice.

And thus we enter the real meat of the story: Old Liang must convince Little Liang to draw the pictures. Old Liang has lost all her skill and passion, but she wants to win Mao back, (because when Little Liang was around, she kicked him out of the house and told him to push off). But Little Liang is not at all interested in painting for her older self. All she wants to do is go hangout with Yan and have fun.

It is very interesting, and amusing, watching the two Liangs learn how to communicate with each other and make deals. Slowly, the young and the old Liang become closer, working better together, and getting along. Many things happen. Little Liang discovers that not everything is fun and games, and that life and relationships can be hard and confusing. Meanwhile the Old Liang, while she still has many bumps and trials, is remembering there is still color and wonder in the world

It’s an interesting dilemma set up here. At this point I was totally committed. The two Liangs couldn’t be more different; it was like watching a boulder crashing into a lake and making waves without end. So how are they going to resolve this? I just had to keep watching to see.

REVIEW: “Sword and Flower”, by Rawle Nyanzi

Let me start off with this: I went into this thinking I’d like it.

I went into this hoping I’d like it.

I’d read reviews from people I trust who liked it.

I like Rawle. I certainly have no ax to grind with him. I WANTED to like “Sword and Flower”.

But I couldn’t. It’s just not a very good book.

It’s not terrible. And I certainly think Rawle can and will get better. It’s just…not good.

Forget the prose style. That was fine. I barely noticed it, and it’s the big criticism I’ve seen cropping up.

The problem is the characters, and it’s a big problem. I had two big issues with them. They either,

  1. Had barely two-dimensional personalities, or worse,
  2. Didn’t act like real people at all

Let me give you an example of what I mean (SPOILERS from her on out – you’ve been warned). Our protagonist, Dimity, a Japanese pop star with magical powers that apparently are a common thing in “Sword and Flower” world, has this happen to her:

Someone has hacked into Dimity’s account. She goes to the bank to clear it up.

She learns that the banker is a fan of hers. She has trouble clearing up her money when this happens (this is the banker speaking):

“…I wouldn’t want you to miss your next concert, so I can do something for you: I’ll have the bank give you one million yen for your personal use. It will come with an official letter from the bank so that it can sail through customs with no problems,” Sugihara said. Dimity beamed. “That’s wonderful!” she said. She hadn’t expected free money, but here it was, handed to her on a silver platter.

What? Who reacts like that? Your immediate reaction to being handed ten thosuand dollars (the rough equivalent of a million yen) is never “Free money!” it’s “That sounds completely illegal and doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.”

Later Dimity’s security is “very suspicious” of the money. This is also unrealistic. Even IF Dimity is naive enough to accept the money, security isn’t going to be “suspicious”, it’s going to tell her not to take the money, since it’s an obvious scam, since banks can’t hand out ten thousand dollars just because.

So let’s move on. Dimity dies in a violent explosion. Her immediate reaction to landing in the afterlife is puzzlement, until she fights a demon monster. An angel of God helps her out.

Dimity doesn’t react like a normal human being. She’s not remotely afraid of the demon monster – again, the demon monster – and, worse, she doesn’t seem even slightly concerned that she’s died.

I compared her reaction to Meg Finn’s in Eoin Colfer’s novel “The Wish List”. Meg also dies in a violent explosion. Her first thought afterward is to assume she woke up in a hospital. When she realizes she died, her reaction is muted, but Colfer specifically mentions that the tunnel to the afterlife has a calming effect on her. Later, when she ends up back on earth as a ghost, she tries to stay calm for awhile but eventually breaks down emotionally; when she gets over this – quickly – she acts decisively for the rest of the novel.

That is how an actual person reacts to dying. Even if Dimity is the sort of person with a strong enough will to not be freaked out at the concept of literally exploding, shouldn’t she at least be upset at not getting to see any of her friends again? Never getting to perform at any more concerts? Heck, fighting demons?

She just…isn’t. She doesn’t come off as particularly brave or strong-willed for this. She comes off as sort of robotic.

One of the things I did like about the novel is the concept of the lesser heaven, a sort of “second chance” world for people who die sudden, violent deaths. It’s an interesting answer to the theological question of how fair it is to judge people who didn’t have a real chance to prepare for their deaths.

Unfortunately, interesting as it is in the concept phase, Rawle doesn’t go very far with it. Lesser Heaven is a lot like earth, but where demons attack and divided in subsections for different cultural groups – including the Puritans, who feature prominently. I wanted to see something more – but with that said, he seemed to be setting up a sequel hook at the end of it and I’m hopeful that things will get more interesting.

Let’s go back to the bigger problems – the characters. After rescuing the Puritans from a demon, Dimity is put on trial for witchcraft for using her magical powers in the fight. She is defended by a swordsman named Mash, and instead of being executed is made a sort of housekeeper for one of he families until her sentence is complete.

Let’s look at Mash. The problem with Mash is that he acts exactly the same as all the other Puritans…except he defends Dimity. Why? There’s a hint that because another character, Elizabeth, healed him earlier from the brink of death with magic he’s more sympathetic to magic, but this doesn’t work; after all, Dimity did save all of their lives earlier thanks to her magic. Mash is dull. He’s another Puritan who inexplicably acts like every other Puritan except when the plot requires him not to.

Moving on. I’ll try to avoid some spoilers. Suffice to say that Dimity and a group of Puritan warriors are now fighting demons in their lair. This scene is all fine. Rawle has some good ideas here – the setting where they fight the demons, a creepy, semi-organic Japanese castle, is very cool. The fight scenes work well enough.

But the people still don’t act like real people. In the attack, all of the Puritan warriors are killed except for Mash and Dimity. This doesn’t even slow them down! Shouldn’t Mash, at least, be briefly upset? Horrified? Disturbed?

But he’s not. He keeps on fighting and moving as if everything is perfectly fine and things are going well. The effect, again, isn’t heroic; it’s robotic.

Okay. They make it through the cool organic castle, and after some fighting and other things – handled fairly well – Dimity and Mash are in a stand off against the villain, the head demon. Elizabeth, the girl who used magic to save Mash’s life earlier, showed up and is killed in the fight. This, for the first time, affects Mash very strongly; it is the first time in the book either him or Dimity (who also reacts, if not as strongly) acts like a real life human to a tragic events. This is good!

But then it’s all cut short by the ending. Again, I don’t want to be overly harsh here…but this is really, really inexcusable. After the defeat of the head demon monster, Dimity and Mash go back to the village. A service and period of mourning is held for Elizabeth…but not for any of the warriors who died.

What?

An entire team of warriors is killed, and this isn’t even worth bringing up again at the end of the novel. It’s never mentioned. Apparently not only do Mash and Dimity not care, but nobody cares. This is such an egregious oversight that I’m still not sure if I’m missing something, but until I find what it is, I really can’t excuse this. It’s the sort of thing that, even if you forgot about when you wrote it, you have to find in a proofread. It’s just too big.

The book ends on an interesting sequel hook. I’ll probably buy the sequel to see how Rawle improves.

Here’s the thing: I know I’m supposed to focus on the pulpy formula, and how it affects and improves the work…but I can’t, because I just did not care about the characters. They weren’t people, they were automatons who reacted the way they did in order to push the plot forward. They didn’t have normal human reactions to events. As a result, even though it’s nice, for once, to have a feminine-ish (it’s hard for me to say feminine when she’s fighting monsters right alongside the male hero) heroine and masculine hero, I didn’t really care because why would I care about these people? They’re not people. They’re robots. With Mash this is even more egregious since he acted exactly the same as the other Puritans anyway! If another Puritan warrior suddenly changed his mind and decided he liked Dimity, we’d have a clone of Mash. I just couldn’t get invested.

That’s not to say it was a total disaster, as bad as all that sounds. The story had a couple of Way Cool ideas. Rawle threw you right into the action, which is good. The writing is competent, the fight scenes effective, and everything moves logically. There were no egregious plot holes (unless, I suppose, you count the massive oversight of the suddenly ignored Puritan warriors). Rawle didn’t embarass himself, in the sense that he wrote a logical work of fiction with competent prose and some cool ideas.

It’s not a poor book, just a mediocre one. What he’s missing are the characters.

The thing is, this is a BIG deal. To overcome unrealistic characters, you need some other hook to draw the reader in and make them overlook that flaw; for example, Asimov’s robot stories weren’t about the characters but about solving the puzzle. “The Three Body Problem” wasn’t about the characters but about the aliens, the mystery surrounding the game, and the protagonist’s weird visions. Rawle just didn’t have a strong enough hook to make me ignore the characters, and for that reason “Sword anf Flower” just didn’t work.

One last thing: When I was asked to describe what I meant by “mediocre”, I thought for a moment then mentioned an early story of mine. Needless to say, I haven’t given up on my own writing, and I haven’t given up on Rawle’s. There is room for improvement here, and I think he can do it. This is not the work of somebody who wasn’t trying. This is the work of somebody who tried and simply fell short of the mark. I look forward to seeing Rawle progress and hopefully start to hit those marks he sets for himself.

The effort is admirable; now let’s see if he can nail the execution.

17 Again Pt 1: Looking For Love, Finding Chocolate

 I have fallen in love with this story. I want to tell you all about it, so prepare yourselves.

It all started one night on YouTube. I’m not sure why, but in the suggestions next to the video I was watching, was a movie called 17 again. I’ve seen a movie by this title starring Zac Efron, but the thumbnail of this video was of a Chinese woman….. Definitely not the same movie.

So, it was already close to midnight and the question is: do I click on it and risk some loss of sleep?

The answer: Yes! (Curiosity is a cruel master.)

I’m not sure if I was expecting to watch the entire hour-and-a-half movie, but I soon found I had no choice. And boy, was I glad I did! Here are just a few reasons why:

It was funny.

It was entertaining.

You never knew what would happen next.

There was chocolate!!

It was strong girl story, without discounting the men.

It left me inspired.

It was superverise.

It fascinates me, and so I simply must talk about it! But I like to talk a lot, and there’s a lot I have to say. So my review/analysis of this story will be broken up into parts. But I suggest you watch the movie first if you can. There will be many spoilers ahead.

It starts off following the morning of this prim and proper house not-wife, Liang. Because even though she has been with her guy for 10 years and seems to act just like a housewife, they are not married. We find out today is the day she expects her boyfriend to finally propose to her. However, to the boyfriend Mao, today is just another day. He has work to get to, things on his mind, and he doesn’t pick up on the dreamy gaze of his girlfriend.

The breaking point comes when Liang plucks something out from his suit pocket, a case with a diamond in it, and holds it up in triumph – much to Mao’s confusion and annoyance. With a sigh, and a bit of hesitation, Mao explains, “Mr. Geo’s wife likes diamonds. So, when I was in Dubai last week, I brought one back for her.  As you know, it’s a critical stage for my company. Mr Geo is important.”

In that moment, we see Liang flash back to the moment when Mao asked her to be his girlfriend. He is bright and energetic, promising that he loved her, and in 10 years they’d be married and have lots of kids. Back in the present, Liang’s face turns from bright and flirtatious, to lost, to completely crushed; until she is reduced to nibbling on a piece of bread and staring at the table, as her not-husband leaves for work.

From there, I had to keep watching. What would become of Liang? Would she get her guy to propose? Or would she leave him? Would it all be for naught, and 10 years would have been lost on being the perfect woman and trying to get this guy to commit to her?

She does what any heartbroken girl would do in this situation. She sits on the couch eating junk food, watching TV, and crying. And in this dark and lonely place, a TV infomercial comes on, advertising this amazing chocolate that makes you feel young and revived again. Being the heartbroken, crying girl that she is, Liang orders the chocolate. Then promptly forgets about it.

Meanwhile, the plot moves on as Liang and her best friend, Ning, make a plan to get Mao to propose at Ning’s wedding reception. This gives Liang some hope, and she agrees to it. Unfortunately, the plan ends in embarrassment instead of a ring. Mao is hesitant when pulled up on stage. Liang tells Mao he is her one and only prince, but Mao is freaked out in front of the crowd of people chanting “Propose! Propose! Propose!” He says instead, “This is Ning and her husband’s special day, we should not intrude.” Again, we see Liang’s face crumpled by rejection. Mao then receives a business call and takes that as his cue to run away.

Liang can’t believe what is happening and chases after Mao. During the intense little car chase that follows, Liang finally gets Mao to pick up his phone. She tries to apologize, but she is cut off by Mao informing her that he thinks they should break up. Right at that moment, Liang is stopped by a traffic light, and when her cars slams to a stop, so does her whole world. Liang stares in shock as she watches Mao’s car drive away. And, at last, she completely breaks.

It starts raining, of course, as Liang sobs uncontrollably. And after noticing the chocolate on the seat next to her, she picks one up and eats it. That’s when things start going crazy.

Now, I forgot the mention one small, but very important detail. Where did the chocolate come from? Well, if you rewind just a little bit, to right as Liang arrives at the wedding, there is a very short scene in which a man steps in front of her car. He then delivers the box of chocolates she ordered from the commercial. Liang sets them on the seat next to her, and promptly forgets about them.

But in that moment in the car, because of those chocolates, something surreal happens. Liang is no longer the heartbroken, stale, and lost 28 year old. She is suddenly the wild, mischievous, and passionate 17 year old Liang.

And thus adventures and chaos ensues!

This opening is pretty well done. It sets up a character, makes you like her, then crushes all her dreams and throws her into an adventure. It starts out good, and only gets better. I can’t wait to tell you more about it!

Review: Night Machines

Image

Oh, this was a fun little ride of weird.

First, the premise

Maggie decided to have an affair. No one needed to know. Not even her lover.

 

Who would it hurt, if Maggie decided to carry on a torrid affair in her mind? It would soothe her feelings, hurt by her husband’s emotional abandonment while he worked on a disturbing new murder case. It would provide an outlet for the dizzying desire she felt for her employer. It would make her feel loved and appreciated and better able to be a good wife and mother. After all, it’s not really cheating if it’s only a fantasy. Right?

 

But Maggie loses control of the fantasy as lust becomes love, and things she believed confined to her own imagination are somehow known to her spectral lover. A harmless mind game spins out of control and threatens the sanctity of Maggie’s greatest treasure – her family.

Night Machines has three interesting character studies. Maggie is the bored housewife married to the “boring” cop, and her brand new boss is the nerdy kid from high school who grew up to be a billionaire with the looks of a guy on the cover of a romance novel. The new boss, Cambien, is a specialist in medication of dreams (which makes me wonder if his name is supposed to rhyme with Ambien).

It’s also three stories of obsession. Maggie’s husband is consumed by the case of a dead girl. Cambien has thought of Maggie since high school, and his thoughts start sweet and cute, and something darker starts to take shape. And then there’s Maggie herself, who decides to have her “non-affair” with Cambien, one purely consistent of daydreams and fantasies, and it starts to eat her up inside. I’d tell you what it made me think of, but it turns out to be a spoiler.

I always thought the Rod Serling meets Robin Cook equaled F. Paul Wilson. Nope. This is chocked-full with more of the irony found in the Twilight Zone. Especially since it starts with Maggie dreaming, and dreaming about what her life could be or should have been … and oh, boy, does it go the way of Nightmare on Elm Street. No, it’s not terrifying, I’d even suggest it could be given to Young Adults, but beware the fact that there are sexual situations, but nothing graphic.

Along the way, Night Machines explores the concepts of family, of love versus lust, and what happens when you live too much in your head. Because there are some times things in the dark that will eat you.

By the start of “act three” of the book … well, not to give too much away, but there was the scene with Maggie’s priest, where I had fulled expected the line “What part of thou shalt not covet did you not understand?”

I did not expect the sudden Catholic turn that the novel made, but it addressed every last point I had considered as I read through the book. That chapter alone made it more deeply philosophical and faithful than some books written by members of the Catholic Writer’s Guild. And better written.

At the end of the day, it’s a romance book that can even be read by people who hate romance novels. Why? Because I really hate romance novels, and this was fun..

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award Nominated Author for Honor At Stake, book 1 of his Love at First Bite Series.  Finn’s own work and collections of essays can be found at his personal web page.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “The Wind Rises”

So here we are. Miyazaki’s final latest! film, “The Wind Rises”. What is there to say about it that hasn’t been said about the great man’s other films?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. “The Wind Rises” is one of the most difficult and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever watched. So of course I watched it twice.

The movie is a very, VERY fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Japanese airplane the Zero fighter, one of the most remarkable fighter planes of WWII and most notoriously one of the planes involved in the Pearl Harbor attacks. Given this knowledge, a movie that gives an extremely sympathetic, even kind-hearted, portrayal of the designer should be incredibly tasteless at best and horrifying at worst.

Well, perhaps for a normal director, but Miyazaki is no normal director. “The Wind Rises” is many things – an exploration of the role of art in society, the horror of war, the fleetingness of life, and one simple tragedy: In life, there are endings. But one thing it is very much not is tasteless.

As far as the production quality, well, it’s Studio Ghibli. Yet I can’t help but think that the visuals are stunning even for a Miyazaki film; the only one that really comes close on visuals alone is “Ponyo”. Jiro’s fantasy sequences, where he meets with his hero, the (real life!) Italian aircraft designer Caproni, are nothing short of stunning, and Miyazaki’s airplanes (also real airplane designs!) are magnificent. Miyazaki made the interesting artistic decision to have actual humans imitate the various airplane noises rather than use sound effects. It sounds kind of crazy, but it works, enhancing the already vaguely dreamlike feel of the world: This is all happening in a real historical place and time and even with real people, but not QUITE in the real world. This is the real world as imagined by Hayao Miyazaki.

One must be careful psychoanalyzing creators through their art, but after reading some interviews and quotes from Miyazaki it becomes difficult not to imagine Miyazaki’s version of Jiro as a creator analogue. The debates and discussions Jiro has with Caproni in his head don’t actually sound very confident; Miyazaki doesn’t seem overly sure of the answers he’s giving to the questions Jiro is asking. This is actually to the movie’s strength – instead of being lectured at with a message we’re exploring an idea.

You can perhaps say that the main conflict of the movie is reconciling Jiro’s love of aircraft design with Japan’s involvement in WWII. Miyazaki was inspired by a quote from the real Jiro Horikoshi: “All I ever wanted was to make something beautiful”. There’s something highly unsettling about the phrase due to the context – the “beautiful” thing Jiro is making is a WWII fighter plane that was used to kill thousands of people.

In one of the dream sequences Caproni addresses the conflict with this question: “Would you rather live in a world with pyramids or without them?”. When  I brought this up to a friend, he said “Well, no pyramids if it means not killing slaves, right?”

And he’s right! If it means not enslaving people and getting them to work to the bone, then it’s wrong to make pyramids!

But making planes for your country is a little more complicated, isn’t it? Helping your own country in a war is also a matter of patriotism and loyalty. After all, in our own country, draft dodgers are shamed, even if the war is a controversial one. Is it really fair to blame a man for making something beautiful to serve his country?

It’s not an easy question, and Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from it. By the end of the film, Jiro points out to Caproni that every single one of his planes has been destroyed in the war. As he says, flying is a cursed dream; for man to fly is also for man to use flying machines to kill each other.

The heart of the movie is the (in this case, fictional) romance between Noriko and and Jiro. For the first time I’ve seen so far (two films to go!) Miyazaki doesn’t have a strong female protagonist or deuteragonist to go with his male hero (his sister, who becomes a doctor, is a major character but not really on the level of a lead). This really isn’t a bad thing. Noriko is a lovely character, and her romance with Jiro is charming.

And tragic, of course. Noriko and Jiro’s doomed romance serves as another exploration of Miyazaki’s theme of endings, and of balance. Jiro’s love for his wife leads to him to…

…Okay, I’m going to stop here for a moment and talk about briefly why I stalled so long on this section of the review. Because I’ve been stuck, and now I think I know why.

Both times I watched “The Wind Rises”, the romance was actually my favorite part of the film. This is quite rare for me, as I don’t particularly like romances, but this one moved me. For a long time I wasn’t sure why, but I think I do now. It’s because I’ve been making a category error.

I separated the incredible visuals of the film from the storytelling. This cripples some of my language as a result, like talking about what I thought was so great about “Firefly” after passing over the dialogue in the first paragraph. The visuals aren’t separate from the movie, they’re at the heart of it (this was even more the case in “Ponyo”, which was a weaker movie and so leaned – quite successfully – even more on the quality of its animation than “The Wind Rises” does).

The romance is so wonderful because the images we get associated with the romance are some of the most memorable of the film. The umbrella scene – partially portrayed in many of the posters for “The Wind Rises” – is not only charming, but amazingly animated; only Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli cold make fighting over a windswept umbrella so compelling.

Similarly, later scenes intended to build the romance are sweet on their own but coupled with the animation sing with life. One scene has Jiro making and throwing paper airplanes off a balcony to Noriko. The scene is cute in itself but the effects of the wind on the little paper planes is simply stunning, bringing new energy to a simple, quiet moment between the couple.

This energy and life serves the movie well later when Noriko’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Early scenes with Noriko were deliberately set outdoors and in a bright, breezy, almost dream-like environment, but after Noriko’s first health setback everything shifts. The spark of life and energy to the scenes is gone; Noriko spends almost the entirety of the rest of the movie literally lying down. The brightness is gone – there is no sun. Everything is set indoors. There’s no umbrella chasing, no flying paper airplanes.

Much like in “My Neighbor Totoro” some of those earlier scenes seem to have no obvious point, but suddenly when Noriko is framed as the only thing that could potentially unfocus Jiro from his planes – and, perhaps tragically, does not – it all fits, because we saw the relationship, why it formed, who they are, and what makes it so wonderful and special. We know why Noriko puts rouge on her cheeks to hide the extent of her illness from Jiro, and why Jiro makes sure to move so he can be next to her every day. The biggest tragedy of the film isn’t really Noriko’s death; we knew that was coming. It’s that Jiro also knew it was coming but still decided it was worth it to leave town.

In a way, this reframes Caproni’s initial question: Would you rather live in a world with Noriko or without her?

Jiro ultimately makes the decision to leave his extremely ill wife behind for several days to see to his planes, yet in the end his planes are all destroyed, while his wife dies alone.

Was it worth it? Really?

In the end it doesn’t matter. The choices were made. And even while the whole world dies around him, for Jiro, the wind still rises. He must try to live.

And he does.

Jiro Horikoshi lived to be 78 years old. Excerpts from his personal diary made it clear that he greatly opposed Japan’s involvement in World War II.

Review: Specter

In Bleeder, by John Desjarlais, we were introduced to philosophy professor Reed Stubblefield, who thought in Aristotle quotes. During a bit of R and R in the countryside, in a quiet, sleepy little village right out of a Miss Marple novel, he meets a priest, the local stigmatic. When the priest is murdered, Reed becomes the primary suspect.

What follows is an intricate, brilliant work that Agatha Christie would have been happy with.  Desjarlais’ prose is tight, erudite and powerful. His vocabulary is well-used. He knows how to engage the reader, and is very good with turning a phrase.

I enjoyed this book, and I was surprised by the villain-reveal at the end. Five stars all the way.

In Viper, new names appear in the local church’s book of the dead.  Except, none of these people are dead yet. When the names on the list begin to correlate to the fresh homicides in the neighborhood, it’s clear that this is a hitlist.  At the bottom of that list is the former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz. Selena’s passions are guns, shoes, fast cars, and kickboxing, so if someone wants to kill her, it’s going to be a fight they’re going to regret. It was more of a thriller than Bleeder, though it’s set in the same universe — Selena is even dating Reed. This was a fun, solid ride from start to finish.

My only problem with the book was the unrealistic character of a DEA agent who was not only racist, but whose solution to everything was a SWAT team breaking down the front door (Seriously, how did the guy not get fired? Did he have a relative in the hierarchy? Was he a nephew to the AG?).  Even that only knocks it down to a 4.5 star rating.

Finally, we come to Desjarlais’ third book, Specter. And no, not a crappy James Bond movie of a similar name.

In our opening prologue, a Cardinal is murdered in an orchestrated hit that looks like the end of a brilliantly executed caper movie … only with an assassination.  The incident is loosely based off of the death of Cardinal Ocampo in 1993, which was presumed to be the worst case of timing and luck on the planet Earth.

But what if it wasn’t?

16 years later, former undercover DEA agent Selena De La Cruz (of Viper) is about to get married to Reed Stubblefield (of Bleeder), and then the Vatican comes by and says “Hi, we think your family was in on the hit, and you were in town at the time.”

Desjarlais

And we’re off to the races.

A fun part of this is the dynamic between Reed and Selena.  Bleeder was very much Reed’s book, where Selena first appeared. Viper was all Selena, with a few cameos by Reed. Specter is their book. Even the alternating points of views (third person personal) are very distinct. Their chemistry is very much a part of the narrative as it is part of their relationship.  She’s very a very tough, outgoing modern woman who has little problem with a shootout, and he’s a quiet, bookish, old-fashioned gentleman who thinks in Aristotle quotes. And I really like these two together, even though we hadn’t seen much of their developing relationship.  Looking at the two of them deal with the trials of dealing with the wedding is more than enough evidence for why these two belong together.

There’s even one entire conversion that sums it up quite nicely.

Him “We’re incompatible. I’m North Side, you’re South Side. I’m Cubs, you’re white Sox …. I’m publicly-employed pro-union Democrat for gun control and you’re small-business owner-Republican with a gun….I drive a Volvo, you drive a Charger.”
Her: “My godmother is very traditional and is having a hard time thinking of me as Selena Perez de La Cruz Stubblefield.”
“You don’t have to adopt my last name…”

See what I mean? They work so well together, I’m surprised more of this wasn’t a romance novel.  I would have read it twice for banter like that.

Okay, the fact that John Desjarlais has a female badass teamed up with the nerd just like I did in The Pius Trilogy really doesn’t have anything to do with my enjoyment of the book. Honest. It just works really well.  It’s like Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series — they just have this great dynamic together. And if you don’t like Baldacci, don’t worry, that’s the only overlap I can think of.

As for the rest … if you’re thinking that this is going to be exactly like Bleeder or Viper, it is and it isn’t. The overall plot feels like an excuse to watch Reed and Selena on screen, which, frankly, I’m happy with. If you read Desjarlais’ books for the intricate puzzle solving (like Bleeder), you’re going to be disappointed. If you’re in this only for a knock-down shootout (like Viper), you’re going to enjoy the second half of the book a lot.

There is also the best look at supernatural phenomenon I’ve seen in years.  Even little conversations like “ever have a seance or use a ouja board? Those things attract all sorts of nasty things.”

Awesome.

However, if you want to read this book to follow Reed and Selena, dive right in.  As far as I’m concerned, these two are right up there with Nick and Nora Charles. And, from what I’ve heard, Chesterton Press wants more books in this universe from John Desjarlais, despite that it’s “just” a trilogy.

Frankly, I own all six Nick and Nora Charles movies, so I’m perfectly happy with the idea that we’ll see more of these two.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award Nominated Author for Honor At Stake, book 1 of his Love at First Bite Series.  Finn’s own work and collections of essays can be found at his personal web page.

CASTALIA Miyazaki Retrospective: “Castle in the Sky”

Image result for castle in the skyI was going to call this a review, but considering that it’s a film from the 80’s universally considered a classic it would sort of be like writing a “review” of “Casablanca”. It’s obviously not on quite that level (though certain Miyazaki films might be – if you haven’t seen “Spirited Away”, do so right now), but you get the idea. Hayao Miyazaki is a director I heard praised so much by critics and friends I trusted that I figured I might as well try him out eventually. So I went with “Spirited Away”, his 2002 Oscar winner and widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

So was THAT particular film as good as promised?

In one word: Yes.

In two words: HELL, yes.

“Spirited Away” is what “Alice in Wonderland” should have been, adding the plot and character development “Alice” always lacked. This review isn’t for that film (though one will probably be forthcoming), so in lieu of a full explanation of what made it so great I’ll say that if you haven’t seen it…see it. Not “If you like anime”. Not “If you’re okay watching a children’s movie”. If you like films at all, see “Spirited Away”.

Okay. That out of the way, what about “Castle in the Sky”?

“Castle in the Sky” was the first film released under the acclaimed Studio Ghibli banner (“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”, also considered a masterpiece, was actually NOT an official Ghibli film as many think – it was more like a test case to see if the production team could make enough money to justify a studio), and the third film by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki.

At this point, Miyazaki was already fairly well known in Japan. He was a popular manga writer and a writer/artist for several different animes. His first feature film, a Lupin III piece titled “The Castle of Cagliostro”, received mixed reviews by Lupin III fans but in later years has become widely recognized as a classic thanks to its stunning visuals and compelling action setpieces – two aspects of Miyazaki’s work that are used to full effect in “Castle in the Sky”.

Miyazaki’s second feature film, “Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind”, is the first film that made people sit up and realize what an exceptional talent they had on their hands. “Nausicaa”, like several of Miyazaki’s works, is widely considered one of the greatest animated films ever made, known – as Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli films always are – for its striking visuals and fascinatingly original story. The success of the film spawned the creation of the also-legendary Studio Ghibli, an animation studio whose unbroken string of successes was at one time rivaled by only classic Disney and Pixar (all three have since diminished somewhat, alas).

So how to top that?

By creating one of the best adventure films ever made (“best ever made” is a phrase you get used to hearing with Miyazaki).

“Castle in the Sky” was both intensely familiar and like nothing I’d ever seen before. The movie feels sort of like a children’s “Indiana Jones”. The action scenes are absolutely stellar; there is a chase scene aboard a train early on in the movie that is possibly the best I’ve ever seen, and things only get crazier from there.

The plot: A young girl – somewhere between 12 and 14 – named Sheeta has been captured by the army, lead by the villainous Colonel Muska (in the English dub a wonderfully hammy Mark Hamill), who are holding her aboard their giant airship, Goliath. A family of sky pirates lead by their matriarch, Captain Dola (an ugly old crone played by a perfectly cast Chloris Leachman), attack Goliath in an attempt to kidnap Sheeta themselves; the distraction gives Sheeta a chance to escape. She slips from the airship and goes tumbling towards the earth….

…Right into the arms of Pazu, an adventurous and outgoing young orphan boy about the same age as Sheeta. For Sheeta did not fall the whole way; the crystal she carries around her neck apparently has magical powers, and it allowed Sheeta to float safely down into Pazu’s arms (who immediately almost drops her).

From there, events move at a breakneck pace, as it becomes clear that both the pirates and the army haven’t given up on finding Sheeta and stealing her crystal. Together, Pazu and Sheeta try to escape from the pirates, the army, and maybe – with luck – perhaps find Laputa, the City in the Sky of the title and the source of Sheeta’s crystal, themselves.

The movie has a sort of optimism and enthusiasm for life I don’t think I’ve ever seen replicated before. When Pazu meets Sheeta, there’s no hesitation whatsoever – he believes her story immediately and designates himself her protector with absolutely no strings attached and  no regard for his own life. The townspeople, when they realize Pazu and Sheeta are on the run, do their best to aid him – none think for a second to doubt his story or convince him to go to the police. Later, at the end of the aforementioned train scene, the army shows up. At first, Pazu and the train conductor are pleased until they see Sheeta’s terrified reaction – and then the army is an enemy. No doubt, no hesitation, no fear of reprisal.

And the amazing thing is that this is all so effortless. No attempt is made to convince you that people would act like this – it’s just assumed. At one point in the story, before a rescue attempt, Pazu yells “Sheeta means everything to me!” To be clear, Pazu met Sheeta perhaps two days ago – and the wonderful thing about this moment is that you believe him. The scene could come off as weird or creepy, but instead it’s sweet and sincere, because Miyazaki has sold you that this is the sort of world, and Pazu is the sort of person, where a relationship forged with a stranger could inspire such love and devotion.

This protective giant robot makes an impression in one of "Castle in the Sky"'s most memorable scenes.

“Wait, you mean a giant robot took on the army and this WASN’T worth mentioning to you?”

As good as the action scenes are – and they really are remarkable – the relationship between Pazu and Sheeta is perhaps the best part of the film. There’s never one big romantic gesture – never the Big Damn Kiss – but it’s tons of little things throughout the movie that all add up to one of the best movie romances I’ve ever seen. And between twelve year olds!

If there is one moment  that I had to pick to convince somebody that “Castle in the Sky” is worth watching, it would be this one:

Pazu and Sheeta have just landed in Laputa for the first time, having barely survived a horrible storm. They are alone, on top of a sort of outcropping and tied together (as a safety precaution from the flight – if one fell out, the other can hold onto them).

They decide to go and look down at Laputa for the first time, but Sheeta is unable to undo the knot binding them. So instead of waiting, Pazu simply picks her up and carries her over to the edge of the outcropping. With Sheeta in his arms, they stare in awe at the City in the Sky for the first time, a breathtakingly gorgeous view of a crumbling castle overtaken by nature, clouds drifting through the scene almost like ghosts. The two take a moment to simply stare, as Joe Hisaishi’s incredible score plays in the background

And that’s Miyazaki in a nutshell. It’s a small act of love transforming an already visually stunning scene into something quietly transcendent.

And that, my friends, is the very definition of superversive.

 

laputa 13 (1200x647)