Movie review: The Meg

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The Meg

A very entertaining summertime popcorn muncher. This movie is way better than the previews would lead you to believe. The trailers are dominated by grainy underwater footage, lame one-liners, and flashes of over-the-top action without context.

But the actual movie is well-done with impressive visuals, humor that works, and shark scenes that make much more sense when seen in the context of the full story.

You have to wait for it, but the megalodon makes a great entrance. This is followed by an exciting deep-sea rescue. Then we get a little levity and brewing romance back at the oceanographic research station between Jonas (Jason Statham) and love interest Suyin (Li Bingbing). Soon we get big set-piece attempts to stop the giant shark (or sharks?) in the open sea and then again as it nears a crowded Chinese beach in a surprisingly fresh spin on the typical shark-in-the-shallows sequence.

The plot develops very quickly. In some other shark movies there is down time, lounging around on boats, chumming the water, waiting for something to happen until something terrible finally does. Not so much in this one—it’s pretty much one attack scene after another peppered with enjoyable conflict among the characters.

Readers of Steve Alten’s book, the one that started the megalodon craze of the past twenty years, will enjoy seeing the story finally making it to the silver screen. There have been a lot of imitators, but don’t be fooled—this is the definitive take on the original.

Jonas is a deep-sea pilot who survives a meg attack but many people doubt him. Years later, he’s proven right when a meg escapes the deep recesses of the Mariana Trench. Mayhem ensues.

While keeping that same basic premise, the movie takes liberties with the original story from there. The Japanese Terry Tanaka and her researcher father in the book are replaced in the movie by Chinese Suyin and her father, with Chinese settings taking the place of the American west coast to appeal to Chinese movie audiences.

There are other character changes too: the additions of a wisecracking billionaire Jack Morris (who provides an clever mix of comic relief and villainy), a badass geek babe “Jaxx” (as a vehicle for Australian actress Ruby Rose), and a precious daughter for Suyin for family appeal. Jonas’s ex-wife character is totally reworked.

“Meg-heads” should not be disappointed in the changes because the book’s spirit is alive and well in this juggernaut movie.

Don’t wait for Netflix—splurge now to see this on the big screen.

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Book review: Bluff is a hand well played

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Bluff by Michael Kardos

Michael Kardos’s Bluff is an absolute delight. Natalie maims a volunteer at her magic show in a priceless scene, but it’s Natalie we feel bad for. Surrounded by jerks, she’s the victim of repeated unfortunate circumstances for which she is totally innocent or only partly blameworthy.

Falling deeper into a hole, she shifts from honing her craft as a professional magician to learning about card sharps. This sets in motion a suspenseful series of events leading up to a million-dollar poker match. In the process, Natalie teams up with Ellen, a woman with great technical skill at the poker table who offers Natalie mentorship as well as a glimmer of friendship that seems to be missing from her life.

The descriptions of magic acts and card sharping are presented with such enthusiasm and intrigue that they are 100 percent compelling, even though I don’t even care about those topics in the real world! The details reach out and grab you by your throat with their authenticity. Kardos’s heartfelt and precise language elevate the novel above typical genre fiction.

Also, I loved the sense of humor in Bluff, especially in the beginning and in the middle before things became more serious. Kardos is able to present information in a very funny, succinct, and descriptive way. It’s not the zany, confrontational humor of Carl Hiassen–it’s much more economical and subtle.

Even though I’m not a magician, a gambler, or a woman, I felt connected to and very invested in Natalie and her plight. Some books take me months to finish because I lose interest, but this one I gobbled up in three days. I even stayed up late to finish, which I can’t remember doing with any other novel ever!

But it turned out that I wasn’t sold on the ending, otherwise this would have easily earned five stars for the wonderful language, humor, character development, compelling details, and near-Hitchcockian suspense.

Book review: The Dead Key delivers

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An absorbing novel by D.M. Pulley. The book alternates between two time periods in Cleveland—one in the late 1970s and the other in the late 1990s.

In the 1970s, sixteen-year-old Beatrice leaves home and starts a new life as a secretary at the First Bank of Cleveland. Although Beatrice doesn’t know it, the reader quickly learns that the bank was shut down not long after she starts working there.

In the 1990s, Iris, who is a new employee at an architectural firm, is sent to the First Bank of Cleveland’s old building to survey it. She has to take very careful measurements, notes, and drawings of all the floors of the high-rise building. We learn that the bank closure was very sudden. Consequently, many desks and files were left intact and untouched. The only apparent continuity is Ramone, a live-in security guard employed by the property owner.

At the heart of the book is a mystery surrounding the safe deposit boxes in the basement of the building. During her onsite inspections, Iris discovers a key to a safe deposit box maintained by her aunt that serves as the initial clue into the mystery.

The highlight of the book is the atmosphere. We are one with Iris in feeling palpable mystery from the big broody building. During the scenes with Beatrice, we are equally bewildered about what’s going on behind the scenes at the bank in the boardrooms and executive washrooms. Both young women are outsiders, not taken seriously by older, higher-ranking employees. Like them, the reader is shut out from understanding the truth. But through painstaking efforts of the heroines (on the part of Beatrice, some deceit and improvisation, and for Iris, intelligence and persistence) we gradually learn the story of corruption and theft at the bank.

Neither young woman is perfect. They are both flawed—almost dangerously so—which makes them more vulnerable in a high-stakes world where the powerful will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden. Their vulnerabilities increase the realism, intensity and suspense of the novel.

There are some cluttered elements in the book that could have been improved upon. For instance, there are a lot of middle and upper management male executives at the bank. It’s hard to distinguish and remember each of them. That makes the resolution of the mystery more difficult to follow.

Also, despite the title with a singular pronoun, The Dead Key, be prepared for many keys. So many keys that, like the businessmen at the bank, they become difficult to distinguish. Keys get left in desks, hiding places, bags, and keyholes. This key leads to that key leads to another key. And the keys are hidden or forgotten in the two distinct historical periods. So your brain better be firing on all cylinders when key placements are mentioned. I’m not saying this to help you solve the mystery, I’m saying it so you can follow subsequent scenes.

Like some contemporary fiction coming from India, this thriller presents us with savvy young women in danger in a financial den of wolves. In the Indian novels, there is typically an avuncular figure mentoring or looking out for the young woman. There is a little of that in The Dead Key, but it is mostly every woman for herself without much help from the boys. This could be seen as a feminist novel or women’s fiction, but categorizing it that way would be unfairly limiting. Even as a male reader I could certainly appreciate the position that Iris found herself in.

Final comment: this would make for a suspenseful Hitchcock-style movie.

Book review: Sting of the Drone

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Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke offers a nuanced perspective on the U.S use of drones to kill terrorists.  It depicts scenarios where drones are more effective with less collateral damage than alternatives.  It shows that there are many layers of experts and decision-makers involved in each drone strike.

It also presents legitimate causes for concern.  Should drones be used in allied, first-world countries where terrorist cells are operating?  You might say no, if the ally wants the U.S. to kill a terrorist in their midst who is plotting an attack, you may arrive at a different conclusion.

The book also makes the reader question whether the individuals involved in making drone strike decisions the best people to be making the decisions.  It would be beneficial to have more transparency about their deliberations, but the challenge would be keeping national security secrets secret.

As a thriller, this novel could have used some improvements.  The first half of the book is more of an ensemble cast than a story with one main character.  Eventually it settles on somebody.  I read the book two months ago, and I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.  There is a reasonably compelling villain, and he’s plotting an attack against America’s drone infrastructure, which is a great concept.  But the failure to ground the story in one main hero limited how engaging it was.

Another issue was an exaggerated treatment of drone operators.  There is a group of Air Force pilots in the book who take their drone piloting seriously, but quietly wish they were still flying “real” planes.  They become racked with guilt after some bad publicity about one or two strikes that Al Qaeda made to look like civilian massacres.  They start exhibiting PTSD.  That is all sort of interesting, but overblown.  Most UAV pilots are normal, well-adjusted people.

Overall this is a fair and balanced glimpse into U.S. drone policy and its ethics presented through a vivid story.  Just don’t expect to fall in love with the characters.

Book review: Darktown illuminates

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Darktown

As an Atlantan who thought I had a good grasp of local history, Darktown by Thomas Mullen was a splash of cold water in the face. Very informative.

Two rookie black officers must investigate a murder case that the whites don’t care about, or worse, are covering up. In the first few chapters, Darktown reminded me of other police procedurals where the clean/honest cops (in this case, the black rookies) have to investigate around the dirty cops (here, the ultra-segregationists on the police force).  But the further the story develops, the clearer it becomes how severely the deck is stacked against the black officers.  They are dealing not just with discrimination in the police force, but when they’re off-duty as well, which complicates their unofficial investigation even further.

The book vividly illustrates the effect of segregation on the black community in Atlanta and rural Georgia in the 1940s. Highly recommended.

The dinosaurs of my enemy are my friends

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Impressive artwork. His fellow native Americans tease him, but Turok is naturally a stronger, cleverer, nobler warrior than them. Fresh from battles in the Holy Land, the English invade the New World bringing dinosaurs with them. (Yeah, a lot of timeline problems there and a touch of Dan Brown-style conspiracy theories, but try not to overthink it). Turok has to outwit the invaders and come up with a way to use the dinosaurs to his advantage. Volume 1 includes the first four issues and Greg Pak’s script for the first issue, plus bonus artwork. Those bonus features offer an interesting glimpse into the making of this reimagined 2014 version of the classic Turok series.

Book review: Great Zoo of China is clever tale

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In my review of Planet of the Dragons, I complained that there weren’t enough dragons.  Not so here.  The Great Zoo of China is bursting at the seams with dragons of every color and size.  Prince (horse-size), king (bus-size), and emperor (airplane-size) dragons.  Yellow, red-bellied blacks, swamp dragons, etc.  Possibly even too many dragons.  Chalk it up to being careful what you wish for!

Regarding the debate about whether this book is too similar to Jurassic Park, I would say that the first half was too reminiscent, but that wasn’t a deal killer for me any more so than The Land That Time Forgot capitalizing on the Lost World a hundred years ago.  Building on the popularity of another book isn’t a new development in the publishing industry.  But like TLTTF and Lost World, the predecessor was superior to the successor.

The explanation for the origins of dragons and why different cultures have their own dragon legends is superb.  It’s a truly great premise.  Coupling that with the military and cultural ambitions of modern China is even better.  My qualms are not with the fundamental story, but more so with the execution.

The writing in the book is uneven.  There are excessive explanations of exactly who is located where with exactly which groups.  It’s as if an attempt is being made to prove to the reader that the author hasn’t forgotten where all the characters are.  Too many times when Chinese people are speaking, the text reiterates that they spoke “in Mandarin.” That got old.  Generally, I assume the English speakers in the book are speaking English, and the Chinese ones are speaking Chinese.  The only time it’s somewhat helpful is when the main American character, CJ, speaks in Mandarin, but even then, it’s not always needed.  I didn’t really care what language anybody speaks as long as the book is in English.

The book was also marred by an awkward transition from happy albeit VIP tour of the dragon zoo to a nightmare.  One passage we’ve had a great experience learning about the exotic dragons.  We step inside for a nice lunch, and by the time we come out, the dragons have pulled off their electronic monitors and eat the humans.  It was too abrupt.

Another problem in the beginning and middle was a lack of suspense.  I guess I was supposed to sense that something would go terribly wrong, but I never got too worked up or engaged wondering what would happen next.  Maybe it was because the characters weren’t quite compelling enough, or because the foreshadowing was too subtle or non-existent.

But the book definitely picked up toward the end.  The various details gelled together and Frey presented several very clever ideas.  A great concept and a solid ending earn this book a favorable rating.