Category Archives: Reviews

Book reviews, including recaps, analysis, and MVP, my pick for favorite character.

Show vs. Book: 1984

19841984 on Broadway: We are Big Brother

by Samantha Holle

It was a humid, sweltering day in September, and the clocks were striking three. It was time for the Sunday matinee of 1984.

In case you evaded reading it in high school, 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, an average Joe living in a not-so-average world: after tremendous world-wide territorial battles, Earth has been split into three superstates that are perpetually at one another’s throats. Winston lives in Oceania (what used to be London) and works at a government agency called the Ministry of Truth. His job is to literally rewrite history: when a person has been “unpersoned” — erased from society for going against the government — it is Winston’s job to go back into the files of history and remove any mention of this person’s name. The goal is to keep up the idea that Big Brother, the entity which governs and controls everything in Oceania, is never wrong, is never defied, and always comes up victorious.

But when we meet Winston, he is growing tired of this life. He has seen proof in his work that people who were labeled “government enemies” were not where they were said to be nor were they doing the illegal acts for which they were vaporized. Winston hates Big Brother and the society that lives for war, destruction, and the beating down of the human spirit.

Then he meets Julia, a coworker who, on the outside, doesn’t seem to be Winston’s type: She is a diligent worker at the MiniTruth (as the Ministry of Truth is called in the new vernacular, Newspeak). She screams the loudest and with the most vigor during the Two Minutes Hate, a daily event in which everyone watches a televised murder of an enemy of the state by government officials. It comes as a complete surprise to Winston when Julia quietly reveals that she, too, hates Big Brother and wants to defy the government by feeling love and experiencing freedom.

But there are no secrets in Oceania. Television screens can watch you as you watch them. Neighbors listen at keyholes for any sounds of dissent. People throw one another to the wolves to save themselves. And Winston and Julia soon find themselves biting off far more than they can chew when they get involved in the underground resistance movement called The Brotherhood. Their relationship — and their secret opinions of Big Brother — become more than an act of rebellion. Soon they have to decide which is preferable: a difficult life of defiance and secrecy, or an easy life of love for only Big Brother.

The novel has recently gained popularity, and it’s not hard to see why: Phrases like “fake news” and “alternative facts” pervade our conversations. People communicate via screen more frequently than they communicate in person, and the concept of handheld devices monitoring one’s actions and locations is now a definitive reality. There is little room for intelligent conversation between people of differing opinions, as the ability to argue without screaming has almost entirely disappeared. In these times, it seems every day has a little bit of a Two-Minutes Hate.

It is a dark thought: are we living in the world Orwell imagined almost 70 years ago?

That is the question that Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan pose to their audiences through their stage adaptation of the novel. The two brought Orwell’s 1948 publication to life  in 2013 in the UK; the play was brought to the Big Apple for previews this past May. Just a little over a month later, it began to make serious headlines because people began to fall ill as they watched, especially during the extreme torture scenes at the end.

As an English teacher who has read the novel twice, I went into the play fully aware of this. How bad could it be if I already know that what I’m going to see is disturbing?

The answer to that question: no number of articles about the play or my understanding of the book could’ve prepared me for it. I left the theater uneasy, nauseous, and dizzy. It wasn’t the strobe lights and sound effects, or the fake blood, or the electrocution scene, or the revelation about what really happens when a dissenter is brought into room 101. It was the way some things hit close to home: the bastardization of the English language in order to reduce meaning (and thus kill meaningful conversation), the discomfort between people of varying opinions, the confusion of trying to balance what one feels is right and what everyone else is doing. Yes, 1984 takes place in a dystopian future, but there are present day elements. The lines between the fictional content and our reality blur.

Content and nausea aside, what made this play stand out from any I’d seen previously was the incorporation of media. The production utilizes overhead projectors and hand-held video cameras to capture action that the audience cannot see from their seats: Winston’s diary entries are projected onto a screen above his head as he writes; Julia and Winston’s secret trysts are recorded off stage in a secret room and played on this same screen. This allows the audience to feel like Big Brother in that we have access to people’s privacy, but it also creates sympathy for those being watched.

Ultimately, the novel comes to life in disturbing vividness on Broadway. There is no better indicator of this play’s construction of confusion than the opening scene: Winston is writing in his diary, questioning if the year is actually 1984 or if that’s just what he’s been told. He is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a group who are discussing “the book” and that the act of writing it is, in and of itself, a small act of rebellion. The group explains that without the book, we’d have no way of knowing how bad the past really was and how to avoid these mistakes in the future. It is, at first, unclear about whether or not they are talking about Winston’s diary. Later, the audience comes to understand that this group was the resistance, and they were discussing the book of Emmanuel Goldstein, public enemy number one of Big Brother and leader of the Brotherhood.

However, is it such a stretch to imagine that they might have been talking about Orwell’s book?

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Review: That Crazy Perfect Someday

that252520crazy252520perfect252520someday252520coverRecap: The year is 2024. Self-driving cars are the norm. Surfing is an Olympic sport. And Mafuri Long is hoping to win the gold medal in the sport against her arch nemesis Kimberly Masters. But in the middle of her surf game and focus are her father and his ongoing mental health problems, the loss of her mother still eating at her all these years later and her best friend getting married and being MIA.

At her best friend’s wedding, she befriends her little brother Nixon — who she’s not interested in romantically, but who “gets her” as a person. She continues riding waves so well, her coach is assured she’ll likely win gold at the upcoming Paris Olympics. Her dad swears he’ll behave himself while she practices for the last few weeks before the Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

But suddenly her world implodes when Kimberly Masters starts a rumor that Mafuri is doping, and in her time back home in the States to deal with her legal battle, something completely unforeseeable ruins her shot at the 2024 Olympics. Her dreams are crushed, and so is Mafuri. All that she’s been working for has been for naught. Now it’s time to find out what she really wants, besides surfing. And suddenly, her world changes again.

Analysis: Author Michael Mazza takes what could be an obviously predictable story and instead turns it on its head. Not reading much about the book before actually reading it, I just assumed this would be the story of a girl accomplishing all her dreams. But it’s not. And it’s even better because of it.

So many obstacles are thrown Mafuri’s way — from the quasi-absurd to  what I imagine would be the norm seven years from now. (Speaking of which, Mazza does an awesome job of creatively portraying what things might be like by 2024 with his depiction of self-driving cars, drones, and updated cell phone and medical technology.)

Mafuri is completely broken down two-thirds of the way into the novel. But breaking her down only helps to build her back up, and while I enjoyed the surfing storyline, she ultimately became empowered when her surfing dreams were crushed and she found a new dream and goal to work toward.  In the end, That Crazy Perfect Someday is really a story about family. The ending doesn’t answer all questions but leaves you with the feeling that everything’s going to be okay, and after seeing what she’s gone through, okay is more than enough.

MVP: Mafuri. She is a badass who knows her worth, knows her power, makes her own decisions and bounces back from anything. Things aren’t easy, and she knows it. She gets down on herself and her world like anyone else. But eventually she keeps on going, and her resilience is inspiring.

Get That Crazy Perfect Someday in paperback for $11.55. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $10.97.

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Movie vs. Book: IT

41acskyedwl-_sy346_Contributed by Michelle Baker

**SPOILER ALERT: This review includes spoilers from both the movie and novel IT. Consider yourself warned. 

Over a thousand pages long, IT is more a story about the importance of true friendship and unity in the face of evil than it is a horror novel. The story follows seven friends in 1950s Maine who label themselves The Losers. They find solace in one another, and together they find a place to escape to, where they can be themselves. But there is something evil in Derry, and they have all seen something that has absolutely terrified them. One is chased by a giant bird, another a mummy; the girl hears voices down her bathroom drain and is subsequently met with a deluge of blood from said drain. The adults don’t see these things, so they don’t understand what scares the kids so much. 

The story is told in two intersecting parts: flashbacks of the Losers in the ‘50s and the Losers coming back to Derry as adults almost thirty years later. They are called back by Mike, the one member of the group who stays behind to keep an eye on the evil. He soon realizes that they didn’t defeat It as kids, and the only way to stop  children from disappearing or turning up mutilated is to fight It again. Once together, they acknowledge  working together to defeat It is the only way to save their hometown.

My initial thought about the movie is that Bill Skarsgård gives an incredible performance as my new biggest fear. But director Andy Muschietti also makes a few alterations to the novel, particularly by not cramming the entire novel into one movie: Chapter 1 is only about the children, and Chapter 2 (which will be released in September 2019) will be about the adults. By doing this, he ensures that the character development isn’t rushed or forced.

That said, there are also uncomfortable changes like shifting Mike’s purpose as historian and watchmen to Ben in the movie. In the novel, Mike is the only son in the town’s only black family. Mike grows up learning the stories that taint Derry’s history from his father and informs the kids of the cycles of evil. He continues this tradition of historian into adulthood as the one who calls the group back when the patterns reemerge. But in the movie, Mike doesn’t come into the action until almost halfway through the movie, and the information about Derry’s grisly past is provided by Ben. Mike merely seems to serve as “the token black kid” in the movie, and it’s awkward. 

Another big change involves one of the most controversial scenes in King lore: Each of the kids in the Losers possesses a strength, and when they are together, these powers are almost unstoppable. After they battle It for the first time as kids, they try to leave the sewer system but find their powers weakening. As a way to reunify and gain back their powers, Bev suggests all six boys in the group have sex with her. There aren’t enough words to describe how uncomfortable this was to read. The thought of this girl losing her virginity to her six best friends in the sewers of her hometown after battling a centuries-old evil creature made me feel privy to something extremely sensitive. 

But I do, in a strange way, understand King’s logic. The overall message of the book is the complexities of navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood, and it is clear in this scene that the “It” the kids ultimately face is not a clown, mummy or  bird, but being a grown up. And what’s more “grown up” than “doing it”? Sex is weird and messy, as is this scene. I concluded King chose this as the method of unification because what we don’t understand is scary. Bev Marsh doesn’t understand why this act will unite them, but she just has a feeling that it will. And she’s right. They make it out of the sewer, agree to come back if It ever does, and go home as if nothing happened.

The movie, thankfully, does not depict a multiple child sex scene, but instead offers up a reduction of the strong female character in the group to a damsel in distress. Bev is taken by It to the sewer where she catches a glimpse of It’s Deadlights–supernatural lights that cannot be comprehended by the human mind and that can drive the viewer of them to insanity. As a result, Bev is stuck in a catatonic state floating in It’s lair. The boys band together to save Bev and fight It, and Bev is awoken from her stupor by a kiss from Ben. (Seriously, why did all of the important elements of the story get shifted to one character?!)

While I am glad the scene was altered, there is something to be said about the printed Bev. In the novel she is strong, capable of making decisions, and is the one to get the group to focus on their shared goal when everything seems to be going wrong. In the movie, she is just a girl who needs rescuing. She is not taking control over the situation, nor is she coming to understand the power that she holds as a woman. She is filling the Hollywood script mold of Girl in Trouble.

Stephen King, who raised by his mother and aunts, has always had a knack for creating strong female characters with whom one can empathize and relate. Bev in the movie is only strong when she is flirtatious, which is a far cry from what King created. The movie was a great interpretation of the text, full of shocking, scary, and thought-provoking scenes and special effects. However, considering the changes made to some of the novel’s substantial characters, I would have preferred if the credits said “Loosely Based on the Novel by Stephen King.”

Get IT in paperback for $13.16. 

Or get it on your Kindle for $11.99.

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Review: When the Future Comes Too Soon

51locs0rbnl-_sy346_Recap: World War II is taking over the talk, minds and happenings of British Malaya, and the people there are starting to fear for their lives. Young mother Mei Foong realizes things are heating up once Malaya is bombed. As the war worsens and the family must temporarily flee their home for safety, Mei Foong gets to know several other families from her town, including a man named Chew Hock San, who makes her feel things she’s never felt before. But Mei Foong is also married with four children and a fifth on the way. Her relationship with her husband is not ideal. She provides children and a wealthy status for him, and he provides financially for her, but the chemistry has dwindled over the years.

Mei Foong and her family are able to return home, but soon after that, the Japanese take over. People are getting killed, the prices of good skyrocket and Mei Foong’s husband becomes sick. He must go to a hospital far away where he can get the care he needs, but while he’s gone, Chew Hock San starts popping up yet again, offering to help Mei Foong with whatever she needs. The mixture of her fear of the war, her sick husband, her desire for Chew Hock San and her love for her children push Mei Foong to the limit in a time of desperation.

Analysis: As a person who loves World War II novels, I couldn’t put this one down. It’s a war story I’d never heard before; it wasn’t about the Holocaust or Jewish people being persecuted. To read about another persecuted group’s experience, the Malayans, and the evil they faced was eye-opening. More interestingly, Mei Foong’s family wasn’t directly impacted by the war in terms of being killed or tortured. In fact, in many respects, her family was one of the lucky ones — and yet, the war still so badly severed her family and relationships with others. It’s proof that WWII did more than just kill people; it caused an astronomical amount of stress that affected people in unexpected ways. Fresh perspective on something that happens 75 years ago isn’t easy to do, but it’s done here.

MVP: Mei Foong. For a wife who at first is so submissive, Mei Foong ultimately stands up in the only way she can. Because of this decision, her life does not go the way she wanted or planned, but her strength and stubbornness in her decision is undeniable and awe-inspiring.

Get The Future Comes Too Soon in paperback for $10.25.

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Review: Can’t Buy Forever

51rhw10ql4l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Recap: Odessa is a young girl living in a boarding house run by a widowed aunt. She has lived there for years after her father died and has made a life for herself there and gotten to know the others who live there as well. It’s a house full of miners, and though they’re all older, young Odessa falls for Nicholas. Dessa and Nicholas seem destined to be together, but one of the boys at school wants Dessa for himself. This age-old tale of two men fighting over a beautiful girl starts off reasonably enough but quickly enters dangerous territory, consisting of kidnapping, fighting and abandonment. Dessa is left in despair. Nicholas saves her. The two get married the night of Dessa’s prom.

But somewhere along the way, the truth comes out about Nicholas: he’s not actually just your average man. He’s an immortal gypsy. About halfway to two-thirds of the way into the book, the story takes a sci-fi turn and flees into the depths of a cross-country chase, several lifetimes lived by Nicholas and his family members and those who Dessa has known for most of her life also being connected to Nicholas’s gypsy family in some way.

Analysis: I was on board with the story for the first act. The romance between Nicholas and Dessa was satisfying and lovely. The two needed each other, and I liked it. But the sci-fi/fantasy aspects of the story seemed to come out of left field. It certainly took the book in a different direction, but a weird one, and as the deep details about Nicholas and his family continued to come, the story became more and more confusing. It was hard for me to follow, and by the end I wasn’t entirely sure that Nicholas was even Nicholas anymore. I powered through the book since it was short, but by the end, it lost all the greatness of the first half.

MVP: Dessa. Her character is taken on a journey — albeit a crazy, hard-to-follow, roller coaster of a journey, but a journey nonetheless. She offered the sweetness and innocence that the book needed to try and make the story work.

You can buy Can’t Buy Forever in paperback now for $2.97.

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Review: Valley of the Dolls

81ys9egzy2lRecap: The scandalous, spiraling-out-of-control lives of three up-and-coming women in New York merge in this 1960’s tale of fame and self-destruction. Anne Welles has just moved to New York in an attempt to escape her small-town life and find love and happiness. Jennifer North has worked her way through Europe and landed in New York looking for nothing but love. Neely O’Hara doesn’t care much for love, but cares every bit about fame, success and her singing and acting career.

The three meet at similar times in their lives. Anne meets a man who finally makes her feel something. Jennifer is working steadily and meeting men here and there. Neely is a young star on the rise. Anne works for an agent and stays involved in the entertainment business of Broadway, movies and eventually television as the other girls continue to focus on performing. After the only man she’s ever loved leaves her, Anne becomes the new commercial face of a makeup campaign, while Jennifer moves to Paris, shooting risque films and Neely becomes a huge, but unreliable and diva-like star.

As the lives of the three women start to spiral out of control, they all turn to pills: sleeping pills, weight-loss pills, any kind of pill to make them feel and look the way they’re pressured to feel and look. The pills — or “dolls” as the girls call them — lead to illness, rehab, depression and anxiety. It’s an ongoing struggle for the girls that doesn’t end even when the novel does.

Analysis: In the beginning, I couldn’t put this book down. Going back and forth between the three girls and trying to determine their character arch was exciting. It felt like an adventure. In the middle section when Jennifer and Neely start their addictions, I started rooting for them to overcome it all. They were the “underdogs” in a book full of sadness. I hoped the best for them as Anne’s love life continued to sour. But the last part of the book was a hard slog. None of the girls overcame anything. In fact, they just repeated their awful cycles or gave up entirely. There was no one and nothing to root for anymore. Their lives were a depressing pile of resentment and loss.

Knowing that Valley of the Dolls was such a huge hit when it came out in 1966 — it was the biggest-selling novel of the year! — I had high expectations. I understand why it was a hit. It was that perfect “trashy” novel and a great summer read if you’re into that kind of thing. But reading it fifty years left made it clear that it was dated and didn’t quite hold up.

MVP: Anne. She’s the least lost soul of the three. Although she became jaded at the end of the novel, she certainly held out the longest and worked the hardest. It seems she just surrounded herself with bad people.

Get Valley of the Dolls in hardcover for $9.99. 

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Review: Lord of the Flies

lordofthefliesbookcoverRecap: The age-old story of a group of people abandoned and trapped on a deserted island basically originated in the 1954 classic novel The Lord of the Flies. A plane crashes on an island, leaving just a group of young boys to fend for themselves without grownups. Their first goal is to be saved. But as time passes, their new goal is to survive, and it proves more difficult than they imagined. After just one day, one of the boys goes missing and is never seen or heard from again. Ralph declares himself the “chief” of the group from the start, using a conch shell as his loudspeaker to call meetings to order and to organize plans, rules and work groups. Piggy, though annoying, becomes his much more logical and intelligent sidekick — or thorn in his side as the case may be. And then there’s Jack, who initially competes with Piggy for Ralph’s attention and then later competes with Ralph for his title.

As time goes on, tensions rise. Ralph is trying to convince the group to bathe every day, go to the bathroom in designated areas and most importantly keep a fire going at the top of the mountain in the hopes a ship will someday see smoke and save the boys. Jack directs his focus in another way: hunting. He becomes obsessed with hunting for pigs. Savagery becomes a source of power for Jack, and most of the other boys follow suite.

AnalysisLord of the Flies is one of the best novels of all time for a reason and remains just as powerful a read for an adult as it is for the teenagers who typically read the book in school. The struggle between order and savagery proves to be the innate struggle in any society, including our own no matter how “modern” we may think we are. That also makes the book particularly relevant now in the United States, a country divided much like the boys on the island are.

Perhaps some of the best parts of the novel come from its symbolism and foreshadowing. As time passes, the conch pales in the sun, which is a clear sign of the conch and the order it represents losing power. The boys are also constantly talking about the desire to hunt pigs, while one of the characters’ names is Piggy. If that’s not a sign of what’s going to happen to him, I don’t know what is. The “flies” in the title represent death, like the flies that typically surround dead bodies. The many “light” references included in the book are obvious signs of the “heaven” that comes after death and/or the heaven that the island appears to be initially, but so clearly is not. The list goes on and on.

There is so much to unpack, interpret and analyze. There’s so much that can be compared to other great classic novels (my personal favorite is the line the “green lights of nausea,” which immediately reminded me of the “green light” in The Great Gatsby). Ultimately The Lord of the Flies remains a great novel because of the one simple and terrifyingly haunting truth it proves: there is darkness in all of us, and when things are as bad as bad gets, we can’t stop it from coming out.

MVP: Piggy. Even Piggy “breaks bad” to an extent, but it’s much less severe than most of the other boys. His intelligence could have saved the boys very early, but his lack of confidence stops him from doing so. His story is a sad, pathetic tragedy, but a fascinating one.

Get The Lord of the Flies now in paperback for $11.48. 

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