Tuesday, February 06, 2018

"Phantom Thread" (2017)

Imagine a fairy tale where Cinderella plays the villain, where the story begins as a romance but then slowly twists into a horror movie. Lush costuming and soft colours hide a sinister aggression that slowly unfolds over the course of the movie.

As with all Paul Thomas Anderson films, there is a soft precision in “Phantom Thread” that confidently sets the viewer in the period, allowing for the film to take other liberties that play against expectations. The plot for example, lulls the viewer into a false sense of familiarity before taking two separate twists that completely change the nature of the entire film.

The two main characters Woodcock and Alma are layered with multitudes, both equally fascinating and terrible in their own fascinating way.

Woodcock is petulant, exacting and unforgiving. He doesn’t suffer fools, nor does he permit his routine to be interrupted for anything or anyone. His attention to detail makes for an amazing designer with impeccable clothing but an unapproachable grump in social situations. One needs only look to how he treats his clients, his sister and even his muses to understand how he views everyone else. Everything subservient to his work and all who don’t lend themselves to this are anathema to him.
His strange relationship with his mother and sister seem to have rippled out to affect how he treats all women and coaxed him to retreat into himself and away from the world. It’s no coincidence that he lives in the same house that he works in. It’s both economic but also safe and comfortable. Some might say claustrophobic and stifling.

Alma is mysterious and her introduction would seem to indicate that she’ll just be one more muse in Woodcock’s long line of discarded women. At first she appears shy and clumsy, somewhat mousy and incredibly na├»ve category. After all, what woman would agree to visit the house of a man she’s just met or agree to strip down to her negligee for him? But as the film progresses we learn that under the surface Alma, is far more devious and sinister than at once conceived.  

His previous pattern involved choosing a live dress-form to clothe and copulate with but Alma balks at this tight control. Here Alma finds an ally in Cyril and isn’t so easily bullied. Oh she plays along as you can see in the second breakfast scene. She butters her toast in silence and moves with mute exactness. But as soon as she’s married she exaggerates her former behaviour, possibly to play with her newfound power. And as Woodcock has married her he seems incapable of even voicing his discontent. Instead we’re left to watch him squirm as he likely never has in his entire life.

What he and the audience don’t notice is that she was never weak or naive. She’s in fact very daring and it’s only when she starts to push back against his routine, fights his wish to control her outer appearance and inner thoughts that we see the real Alma. She forces Woodcock to acknowledge their relationship when previously he made no concessions or allowances for the women in his life, including his muses.

She is the aggressor, the one pushing for physical intimacy while he’d rather work. Their relationship in fact is at first an outgrowth of his work. He fits her for dresses, exhibits them and works under his harsh gaze. But she wants more and won’t be bullied by either him or Cyril. In fact she puts up with quite a lot of verbal abuse and refuses to leave when her situation is made uncomfortable. In fact in the second half of the film the balance of power shifts to her after she makes a drastic decision that moves the film into uncharted territory.

Difficult to categorize but pleasurably unpredictable, “Phantom Thread” is a quiet, unassuming film that hides a myriad of secrets that will change how you view the characters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

The 6th Extinction - James Rollins

This is sierra, victor, whiskey. There’s been a breach. Fail-safe initiated. No matter the outcome: Kill us…kill us all.”

In Northern California a military research facility is blown up along with its staff in order to contain the experiments within. The precautions fail however, unleashing a deadly cloud that destroys everything it touches. Bad weather coupled with a lack of information has bureaucrats looking at a possible nuclear option.  Sigma Force must now find a cure, traveling as far afield as the Amazon rainforest and Antarctica for answers and a cure.   

The book is part of a series but can be read as a stand-alone. There will be references to past exploits and characters that can be confusing if you haven’t read the previous books but it doesn’t detract from the plot.

As well I appreciated how much the book leaned on real science for the foundation of the plot, addressing the ethical issues that can arise in the face of new technology as well as showing what happens when morality isn’t a consideration. For readers looking for an explanation of terms there is an entire section in the Author’s Note dedicated to expanding on the locations, history and science cited.

The main problem I had with the book was balance. While the book doesn’t drag in terms of plot, which is appreciated, it’s so long and unrelenting in terms of action that it gives readers no room to breathe. Rollins weaves multiple storylines together to create a complex plot but at times we jump around too much to stay grounded with one chapter being only five pages long. Also almost every chapter ended on a cliff-hanger which while exciting, also became predictable and exhausting. The pace of action never lagged but at over 500 pages it was a slog to reach the end.

It was an entertaining read that immediately grabs the reader and doesn’t let go. With a story and secrets that span centuries, this book will keep you on your toes until the very end.   

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The How-To Handbook - Martin Oliver

This book was received for free from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers in return for a review.

A book that provides life skills for a wide range of topics with everything from stain removal to curing hiccups. Divided into sections each topic carries do’s and don’ts as well as labeled diagrams to illustrate each step. This is helpful for those who learn better through visuals rather than by text alone.

Compact for storage, there’s a great section called “How to Read this Book” as it’s not meant to be read front to back but instead used when the situation arises. And if you think you’re already skilled enough and wouldn’t glean anything new from this book there is a great way to slice onions included inside.

There is room for improvement though. Some topics reference other skills and use section numbers when really page 
numbers would be more helpful. As well, like activities should be grouped together. For example, bow ties and ties are together but separate from ironing pants. Why not collect all clothing skills together in one area to make them easier to find?

Intended for audiences of all ages, this book is useable in a variety of situations.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Soldier's Sketchbook - John Wilson

This book was received for free from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers in return for a review.

In 1916 World War I, while raging, had devolved to attrition in the trenches. Any news received from the front for public consumption was censored, sanitized and reframed in such a way that most people on the home front had no idea what conditions were really like. Fortunately soldiers kept diaries, providing first-hand accounts of their own experiences. RH Rabjohn was one such soldier, signing up at 18 with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. In possession of an arts background he put his skills to use, illustrating what he saw, seeing action in such battles as Vimy Ridge, Arras and Passchendaele.

His drawings have a kinetic feel to them, most with figures in motion whether on the clock or on leave. But he doesn’t shy away from death or the aftermath of battle. These scenes provide a real sense of the horror he and others must have experienced, a true telling of the cost of war.   

The book is divided up chronologically in terms of battles and locations, allowing the reader to see what Rabjohn did and where he was. This is further divided into categories such as “mud” and “POWs”. The book is clearly an abridged version of the diary but it’s unclear if only sections with accompanying illustrations were included or if the choice was random.

One confusing aspect was the font choice. Alongside the diary entries are additional notes written by the book’s author. The entries though use a more modern font while the author’s contributions look more archaic. Normally I would have expected this to be reversed to reflect and reinforce the differing time periods in which Rabjohn and Wilson wrote. The fact that this isn’t the case, sometimes led me to start reading Wilson’s portions as if they were Rabjohn’s.

Overall an enjoyable read that provided a personal look into one soldier’s experiences, peeling back the layers of time on events quickly receding into history.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Wounds of God - Penelope Wilcock

This book was received for free from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers in return for a review.

He saw the expression on Father Matthew’s face as Theodore stumbled over his broken sandal strap, shot out his hand to save himself, and dropped the jug he was carrying. It was smashing into tinkling fragments on the stone, in a puddle of warm fizzing beer that splashed my lady’s elegant gown and my lord’s embroidered shoes. There was a moment in which the universe stopped to allow for Brother Theodore’s mind to reel is dismay, Father Matthew’s expression to change from mere resentment to red-hot rage, and my lady to step back with a little, affected ‘Oh!’ of alarm.

Father Peregrine’s story continues in the second book of the Hawk and Dove series where he faces a variety of new challenges, filled with new and familiar characters that reveal the humanity and divinity present within the life of a monastery. This is interspliced with the story of a modern day family with each section relating to a parable within the Peregrine sections.

Wilcock has a soft way of writing, with diction that gives a warm, comfortable feel to the story. This, coupled with a variety of rounded characters that aren’t all likeable, creates a richness in each vignette. Thankfully this book can serve as a standalone, allowing readers to jump in at any point in the series. Thanks to Wilcock’s references to earlier events, it’s not necessary to have read the first book in the Hawk and Dove series to understand characters or setting.

One concern was the form. This book would have been better served if it had only focused on Father Peregrine. Every time the story switches back to present day, it loses tension being less interesting than the adventures of Peregrine. Currently they interrupt the narrative flow and pull the reader out of the story. The message of the vignettes are obvious enough that nothing would have been lost if these sections were eliminated.

Ultimately the best parts of the book are the scenes with Father Peregrine. While the world is populated with unique characters and personalities, it’s Peregrine that we identify with the most. He is the most interesting of all the monks with his struggle with his own body and how he interacts with the world and the people around him. Again and again he must use his sharp mind rather than a strong body to defend himself and navigate the world. If you’re interested in watching a man outsmart others on brainpower alone and spread compassion wherever he can, check out this book. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye - Tania del Rio

I received this book as a giveaway through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers Program.

Warren the 13th has lived in his family’s hotel his entire life. Run by his lazy uncle, the building has fallen into disrepair and hasn’t seen a visitor in five years. Apart from trying to keep the place together, Warren is also busy thwarting his new aunt from her obsessive search for a legendary family heirloom, the All-Seeing Eye. One day after cleaning up after her destructive behaviour, a stranger wrapped in bandages checks in. From that moment on his life will never be the same again.

The gothic art style is reminiscent of Edward Gorey and the illustrations not only helped set the mood but were also essential in the telling of the story. Every chapter has a title page with gorgeous typography and artwork that hint at what’s to come next. There’s also a secret message hidden throughout the book that spells out where Warren’s going next. This fit in with the mystery in the book as well as the graphical info in the illustrations.

This story is filled with a variety of quirky characters that lean towards the fantastical. There’s a witch who’s missing her voice, a pirate who only comes ashore every ten years or so, a creature who speaks in whistles and more. With each though we only get a taste of their background along with an illustration, leaving the readers wanting more. Part of the reason is the pace of the story. It moves so quickly that readers don’t spend much time with anyone apart from Warren. There could easily have been another hundred pages added onto the book to flesh out people and places.

Clearly this is only the beginning of Warren’s story as the ending was left open with several plot threads unresolved. It will be interesting to see where he goes next. 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Bobcat and Other Stories - Rebecca Lee

“As I walked home, I turned back and saw through the trees again that window, ringing with clarity and light above the dark grounds, the way the imagination shines above the dark world, as inaccessible as love, even as it casts its light all around.”

Bobcat and Other Stories is a collection of seven short stories. There is a softness to Lee’s writing and a melancholy that hangs over the book. The stories themselves give the impression that there is a before and after to each world, with the text nestled in between.  It speaks to the skill of the author that Lee was able to populate worlds that are larger on the inside. The reader only dips in for a short moment in the lives of the characters but details in description and dialogue create the idea that events will continue to unfold long after the story is over. The endings however all have a truncated feel to them and rather than creating a desire for more content, it left me with the idea that they were incomplete or rushed.

Also the unity of voice throughout the stories was appreciated because they helped to create a cohesiveness to the book overall. But this also meant there was a tedious repetition to the protagonists in each story to the point where it was difficult to distinguish between them. It created the question of whether the stories were in some way connected as each was told through a first person perspective with themes of deception, acadaemia, familial discord and writing. It appeared to be too much of a coincidence to keep finding similar ideas throughout each story but perhaps that was the reason for them to be collected together in this manner. Instead the only variance appeared to be in length of story. A wide array of characters and plots would have done more to showcase Lee’s range and abilities.  

This would be a great option for a rainy day coffee read if you’re looking for some light and short reading.