Film Review – It Comes At Night

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IMDB Summary

Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, a man has established a tenuous domestic order with his wife and son, but this will soon be put to test when a desperate young family arrives seeking refuge.

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It Comes At Night is a 2017 psychological horror film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. It was a movie I’d heard little about going in, other than a trailer and the look of the poster. It was the title along with the poster (above) that particularly enticed me. What I got from the movie wasn’t what I expected.

This is a particular breed of horror film where the external forces surrounding the people contained within a situation, in this case and house and the surrounding property, don’t matter as much as the drama and tension building within the group itself. The outside world is afflicted by a highly infectious disease, as we learn at the onset of the film, and bringing in new people is a risk. Despite this, Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family allow another couple and their young son to live with them, who seem trustworthy. Paul is ever vigilant, however, and stresses to his own son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) that you can only truly trust family.

Though it’s hard to pinpoint an exact protagonist, Travis is the strongest perspective we get in the film. He’s haunted by the recent passing of his grandfather, frequently suffering from nightmares, and as a result has trouble sleeping. Thanks to his insomnia he usually finds himself in the middle of nighttime developments, as he’s prone to responding to activity he notices. His performance was particularly noteworthy for me, as he’s visibly alienated and shaken by the isolation and loss that circumstances have put him through, and this is almost completely communicated visually, through context and his body language. This helps add to the suspense, as dissolving relations between the families is not so much a matter of if, but when and how. I didn’t believe dissolution would be his fault, but his behaviour had me suspecting he’d be more than a bystander to it.

The tension and pacing of the film is quite masterfully handled, giving the characters time to impress upon the audience before things start to come apart. It’s a film that raises questions about what the audience thinks they would to in such a situation as well, and it’s hard to really pinpoint where your sympathies should lie. Is there such a thing as too protective or too careful? What is the cost? When things get violent its horrifically abrupt, giving a raw depiction of human violence and desperation. Nothing is over the top and every gunshot matters.

Despite the film’s quality as a psychological horror, and a compelling depiction of human desperation, there is a bit of an elephant in the room for me. The title, trailer, and poster for this film are deceptive as to what this film is about. There is no literal “it” that comes at night, and since even friends and family have protested at me revealing this to them, I must stress that this is not a spoiler. At no point in the story are any of the characters worried about an unnatural force, entity, or being coming at night. There is threat of other human beings or animals, possibly carrying the unknown disease, but that is it. Hearing the title, watching the trailer, and/or simply glancing at the above poster of a dog looking alert into the dark unknown of the woods, its tether taut, will likely lead you to believe otherwise.

All that being said, I still think It Comes At Night is a great horror film, but it’s great in how it deals with internal forces among people, not anything external, which is unfortunately misleading. Despite it’s quality, this last detail did leave me disappointed. Still, I highly recommend watching it. The performances are great, the pacing and atmosphere are well structured, and the suspense is palpable. It really drives home the question of how important survival is at all costs, though the answer is left to you. I hope going in with a more realistic understanding of what it’s about makes it all the better.

WWW Wednesday – 2017/06/21

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WWW Wednesday is a book meme run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

TheftByFindingCoverI’ve finally put my energy back into reading Theft By Finding by David Sedaris; I’m a couple more hundred pages in now. I’m still a little disappointed I haven’t finished it yet, but for some reason I’m just finding it harder to get through as quickly as a straightforward novel. I’m really enjoying it now, regardless. The diary entries are curated, so we’re only seeing what Sedaris wants us to see rather than the whole raw thing, but it’s still surreal to see the years of a life summarized and pass by so quickly. It’s making me a little self-conscious about how I’m spending my own time, though optimism is among the resulting feelings.

Recently Finished

WyrdSistersCoverOver the weekend I finished reading Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett (review here). It was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed the characters, as well as the use of theatre to explore how words and stories can effect truth. It shows how a story with the right spin can effectively change reality by warping people’s perception of something until it’s no longer what it once was, as far as public opinion is concerned. I was a little disappointed, however, simply because I think it was a little too built up for me. It was good, consistent with Pratchett’s work, but not especially captivating.

HellboyWeirdTalesVol1I also read Hellboy: Weird Tales Vol. 1, which is a collection of stories written and drawn by other artists who wanted an opportunity to portray Mignola’s iconic character. Some of the stories were really great, giving glimpses into Hellboy’s relationships with other members of the B.P.R.D. that we don’t really see in the main series. A good number of others were very cartoony, though, which is not what I read Hellboy for. They were cute and fun, but not to my taste for the character.

Reading Next

LovecraftCountryCoverI’m pretty much dead set on reading Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff once I’ve cleared by current slate. I really ought to look into other new books coming out, but as of yet I have nothing on my radar. I’ve been meaning to get to Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein this year too, which should be a quick read, so I may tackle that soon as well.

Book Review – Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

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Summary

Three witches gathered on a lonely heath. A king cruelly murdered, his throne usurped by his ambitious cousin. A child heir and the crown of the kingdom both missing…

Witches don’t’ have these kind of dynastic problems themselves – in fact, they don’t have leaders. Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn’t have. But even she found that meddling in royal politics was a lot more complicated than certain playwrights would have you believe, particularly when the blood on your hands just won’t wash off and you’re facing a future with knives in it…

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Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett is the sixth book in the Discworld series. It is also the second book to focus on the Witches, reintroducing Granny Weatherwax, who first appeared in Equal Rites. She is part of a coven with her old friend Nanny Ogg and a younger witch Magrat, the trio serving as a parody of the three witches from Macbeth, as well as a play on the archetype of the Crone, the Mother, and the Maiden. The works of Shakespeare are a particular subject in this novel, with a traveling theatre troupe playing a huge role, and story elements from the plays Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear being adapted as well.

The book’s parodying of Shakespeare’s plays supplants the usual jabs at the Fantasy genre. This is the first time (perhaps except Mort) that Pratchett has shifted the subject from that genre’s tropes to another that still works in the setting. Shakespeare having written a lot about royalty, it also plays heavily with the legends and beliefs behind the importance of kingship, those destined for it, and the power it grants.

In classic Discworld fashion, the book doesn’t pull many punches when making fun of monarchy, especially in the face of the usual romanticizing. The new king, Duke Felmet, who assassinated his cousin to get the position, hates the kingdom and has got to go, but it’s not a matter of replacing a tyrant with a benevolent ruler. The old king would burn down property and take advantage of “droit du seigneur,” he just had a vocation for the position and would often fairly compensate those affected by his actions. It still sounds backwards, but framed in a humorous way that doesn’t conflict with the story. Though not too self-conscious, the characters are aware of the tropes and work to maintain them as traditions.

The trio of witches play off of each other really well. Granny’s stubborn expertise, Nanny’s jovial rambling, and Magrat’s meek inexperience makes for a lot of great banter, especially the more compromising a situation they’re thrown into. Witches have a nature that, while fair from evil, clashes with social stations or practices of etiquette (such as loudly critiquing a play you’re watching). This assertive nature serves the comedy and acts as a driving force in their feud with the new king, who falsely blames them for his problems.

The one thing this novel gets into that I really appreciated was the power of words (storytelling) in shaping reality. This not in the literal sense, but reality as perception. There are instances of word of mouth and spin, but this culminates in the use of theatre, which frequently portrays the drama of history. A popular production of a story, of history, becomes the truth in the eyes of the masses, even if the facts are much different. Felmet wants to use a play to turn public favour against the three witches and onto his side. We see how words could change a group of herbalists and healers who utilize the arcane into scheming hags that murder babies and sink ships with sinister powers, in the eyes of an audience. Though the book’s presentation of this is at a microcosmic scale, it demonstrates the realities that fiction can create and how that can be used for good or for ill in swaying perception.

The only real negative for me with this book was the storyline itself didn’t grab me in any particular way. It was a nice change of pace from the increasingly familiar globe-trotting plot with a climactic catastrophe, but I was much more interested in the characters than how things were developing. I heard people singing the praises of this as a Witches book, but I must say I enjoyed Granny Weatherwax more in Equal Rites, where she was not a part of an ensemble and more instructive in her craft. Witchcraft as an approach to magic in the Discworld is much more interesting to me than Wizardry.

Wyrd Sisters is a good Discworld novel that shows Pratchett really starting to branch out into different subjects more deeply with the series. I wasn’t captivated by the plotline, but it had great characters and plenty of witty banter and narration that certainly made up for it. I will praise it in particular, as I did with Sourcery, for having a standout funny moment that actually made me stop reading mid-sentence and put the book down. If you’re particularly interested in the Witches series within the greater Discworld collection you certainly could start here, but I would still recommend starting with Equal Rites to get a more solid bearing on witchcraft in this world.

WWW Wednesday – 2017/06/14

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WWW Wednesday is a book meme run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

Unfortunately I have not made any progress on Theft By Finding by David Sedaris since last week. I’ve been a little out of whack. I’m a little disappointed in myself, since I feel getting a review up for it should be more urgent, but I just don’t feel a huge drive to get through it.

I decided to focus the majority of my energy on Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, which I’m over 200 pages into now. It’s an odd tale that puts an interesting spin on Macbeth story, if Macbeth were wracked by his crimes for himself and his wife. It feels like the plotline is more of a frame to flesh out the witches and their place in the world than it is the focus of the book. I’m quite fine with this though, as the three have a good dynamic between them. For the most part they’ve reacted to what is thrown at them, so to speak, rather than being more active, but that is changing in the book’s final third.

Recently Finished

I read Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War over the weekend, the third volume in Marvel’s Darth Vader series that ran from 2015-2016. Though it does involve Vader combating some of his rivals, challenging him to become the Emperor’s new enforcer, this volume felt a lot more like a side-story than I would have liked. This was following the crossover event Vader Down, however, so I do understand  a desire to let things settle a little before ramping back up.

The story concerns a conflict on a planetary level — a change in scale I appreciate in Star Wars when I can get it — and shows the kind of measures the Empire takes to keep certain worlds in line, as well as what they shape out of impressionable young leaders in the process.  I liked seeing both Vader’s influence in political matters and his being made to reign himself in (out of necessity) by the rulers otherwise under his heel.

Reading Next

Hard to say what novel I’ll read next, though I am still eyeing Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. Since the New Year I’ve had a list of books I wanted to read this year, though, and there are a couple of Neil Gaiman books on there I ought to crack open as well. Otherwise, I’m definitely going to read Darth Vader: End of Games soon to finish off that series, and will probably read the first volume of Hellboy: Weird Tales as well.

Film Review – Wonder Woman

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IMDB Summary

Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when a pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers and her true destiny.

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Wonder Woman is the latest DC Extended Universe (DCEU) film directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot as Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman. Though the latest in this cinematic universe, this film chronologically takes place much longer before the others, almost entirely detached from the modern day concerns of the films we’ve seen thus far.

It was great to see DC Comics finally have a film released in their unfortunately cobbled-together universe that feels well-made through and through. It is even more pleasing its direction was helmed by a woman and starring a woman as the lead character. In a genre full of so many heroines, it’s unfortunate that the popular trend of superhero movies has taken this long to feature one.

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On its surface it’s easy to draw comparisons between this film and Captain America: The First Avenger. Both involve super-strong heroes garbed in patriotic attire, meant to be ideal combatants that take part in a world war, but Wonder Woman takes a much more different approach. Based on the photo in Batman v. Superman that teased the events of this film, I expected she’d be fighting officially on behalf of a certain side. While she allies herself with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to fight against the Germans, she’s also entering into a world where the men in charge don’t even want to see a woman in the room, let alone fighting the fight for them. This is handled well, with humour and realism. It is less idealistic about how Diana would be received by stuffy English leadership, yet empowering in how she does not waver in the face of dismissal.

Gal Gadot does a great job of portraying a stranger in a strange land. She’s a naïve young hero who wants to save as many people as she can in a world where everyone cannot be saved. Her chemistry with Steve Trevor is great as well, who is both challenged by Diana’s nature and mystified by her. They rally together along with a decent supporting cast, each with their own valuable sets of skills and personal demons.

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It’s a fish-out-of-water story that succeeds in a number of striking ways, thanks to how much Diana’s home of Themyscira — the hidden island of the Amazons — contrasts with the world at large. This has two well executed effects, one of which is the film’s sense of humour. Watching Diana brazenly interact with a world so sexually repressed and restrictive of women makes for some legitimately funny scenes that help to lighten the grim nature of the First World War. A more substantial way the worlds contrast is just how idyllic Diana’s homeland is versus the grey mess that was Europe during the Great War.

This contrast between character background and setting is also at the heart of the conflict for this film, presenting something more than simply stopping a bad guy. While that does factor into the story, it’s much more about Diana’s ideals coming face to face with harsh reality. She’s already a person possessed of phenomenal strength and reflexes; she can shove over a tank like its nothing and deflect bullets like flies. She must learn, however, that what she faces is not overcoming a singular foe and ending the war, as she believes. She faces the darkness that humanity gets wrapped up in, with neither side being wholly innocent or responsible, and must come to terms with and learn how to deal with such a bleak reality.

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The weakest part of the film was Ares, the villain himself. What he represents is interesting, but as an active antagonist he doesn’t amount to much more than a big bad for Diana to fight in the climactic sequence. It doesn’t hold the film back very much, it’s just unfortunate because a strong villain can turn even a good superhero film into something even better.

While many people have already — the film is a runaway success — you should go see Wonder Woman if you haven’t already. It’s a great superhero film with fun characters, a lot of great action, and an above average story. It also shines the spotlight onto a deservedly iconic heroine, hopefully setting a trend for films to come. I loved Wonder Woman’s appearance in Batman v. Superman, which left me hopeful for the DCEU’s future, and I’m so happy I was not disappointed here. I just hope this film is not a diamond in the rough, but instead a turning point for the DC films from here on out.

Film Review – Alien: Covenant

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IMDB Summary

The crew of the colony ship Covenant, bound for a remote planet on the far side of the galaxy, discovers what they think is an uncharted paradise, but is actually a dark, dangerous world. When they uncover a threat beyond their imagination, they must attempt a harrowing escape.

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Alien: Covenant is a new sci-fi horror film directed by Ridley Scott. It is the follow-up to his 2012 film Prometheus, and is a part of the Alien franchise. Like many other fans of the franchise I was excited to see that this film would once again star the iconic creature we’ve come to fear and love. The alien was a little missed in Prometheus, but there was still a lingering concern for me that the xenomorph’s involvement would be largely superficial. It was looking like this film would explore the origin of the creature too, which had promise thanks to the groundwork laid in the previous film, but was also a risky prospect.

This movie was unfortunately a mixed bag. I did like a lot of the performances, with Michael Fassbender starring as Walter, an android posted on the Covenant, as well as reprising his role as David 8 from Prometheus. A particular sequence between the two, after the crew’s rendezvous with David, is an especially fascinating and tense scene, despite not being overtly threatening. It was the kind of scene I want to see in an Alien film helmed by Ridley Scott, reminding me of the methodical pace of the original classic.

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The other characters, while not deeply developed, are fleshed out enough to understand their personal stakes in what unfolds. Most notably for me were Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who is functionally our protagonist and finds herself at a loss with space colonization after a personal tragedy, and Oram (Billy Crudup) who becomes the unconfident captain of the crew and feels his faith in God is not respected. The latter of the two was a little underused, but I felt a connection with these people and their unique perspectives. Neither is antagonistic, but offer conflicting views about what to do when confronted with a mysterious human signal and a habitable planet that seems “too good to be true.” I could get behind both sides, making the division understanding, and the consequences more sympathetic.

There are points in the crew’s exploration of this planet that get frustrating and nonsensical, mirroring an issue I also had with Prometheus. I understand that the core idea with these movies is that crew members become infected, but the way this happens flies in the face of any protocols, or even common sense, that one would expect. They land on a habitable world that they know is teeming with life, and nobody is wearing anything on their heads to protect them from the unknown. One character puts his face right up to some strange pods, which release microscopic motes, and nobody even chastises this foolishness. I just can’t buy that a massive colonization effort wouldn’t have vastly stricter guidelines about avoiding contamination.

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The neomorphs, new creatures that incubate in bodies infected with the motes, do offer some good moments of body horror as they rabidly grow in their hosts. It could have been treated with a slower pace, which I would have appreciated more, but it was still a fairly nerve-wracking sequence. The xenomorph itself, unfortunately, felt more liked a tacked on addition to the movie to give the climax a more formidable monster. For all the marketing about the xenomorph’s appearance, this movie isn’t really about dealing with the creature that much.

The best thing in the film was David, who has become twisted in his long time alone on the planet. While we don’t get a full understanding of everything he got up to, he’s been up to Frankenstein-esque work of his own, toying with the life forms on the planet and the black goo first seen in Prometheus. David’s madness and the implications of what he got up to made for the better, disturbing parts of the picture. The explorations of artificial intelligence, creativity, and purpose in life are also decently done as well. His confliction with Walter, less free willed yet dutiful, is more compelling than any alien threat.

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Alien: Covenant is not a bad film, but it suffers a lot from abandoning themes established in Prometheus, and having bad pacing when it comes to the actual monsters. Gone are tense, unpredictable gestation periods. Every creature emerges faster than ever, ready to give chase immediately. The xenomorph for me as an unfortunate, superficial addition, despite the gravity the film tries to give its emergence. It sounds cynical, but I’m pretty sure it was included to ensure more widespread interest in the movie — which admittedly worked on me. Flaws accounted for it was still a fun film to watch, it just lacks the substance that would allow it to join the pedigree of the franchise.

WWW Wednesday – 2017/06/07

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WWW Wednesday is a book meme run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

I’m currently 105 pages into Theft by Finding by David Sedaris. I wanted to have a lot more of it done by now, but I spent last Thursday to Monday visiting with family and attending my brother’s wedding, so I did not have as much time for reading as I normally would have.

Things were off to a bit of a shaky start with this book, as it’s a lot different from what Sedaris normally writes. Though hand-picked and edited, these are his raw diary entries from these points in his life, so they lack the refinement of his anecdotal essays. As I’ve gone through it my interest has been continuously sated anyway; the glimpses into his life, while at first vague and feeling without context, have grown into something more as I get deeper and learn.

I’m afraid I haven’t made any progress on Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett due to the already-stated busyness. I’ll push myself to get further along soon, though. I plan on making myself get through it before I finish Theft By Finding, if I can.

Recently Finished

The only thing I managed to finish in the last week was Frankenstein Underground by Mike Mignola and Ben Stenbeck. It is about Mignola’s version of Frankenstein’s Monster, who previously appeared in Hellboy in Mexico. This book immediately follows the Creature’s parting ways with Hellboy from that book. The story goes to some strange places, incorporating the Hollow Earth hypothesis with established Hellboy mythology to explore how a creature such as he could come to be, all the while remaining pretty faithful to the original characterization of the Creature. It’s a wonderfully weird tale that fleshes out an otherwise brief appearance into a meaningful addition to Hellboy canon.

Reading Next

While in the middle of two books already it’s hard to say what novel I will get to next. I’ve been meaning to get to Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, but I really can’t say what I’ll go for when the time to grab another book comes.

Otherwise, I’ve been able to snag The Shu-Torun War and End of Games, the last two volumes of Star Wars: Darth Vader by Kieron Gillen et al. There was a big sale on Kindle editions for Marvel books last week, so I got them for only a couple dollars each. These I will definitely get through soon, then I can move on to the Doctor Aphra spîn-off series that followed.

WWW Wednesday – 2017/05/31

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WWW Wednesday is a book meme run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

Currently Reading

At the moment, I’ve only just started reading Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett. I’m a little over 30 pages in, so I don’t have much of an impression of it yet. It looks like the story will be mashing up elements of  Hamlet and Macbeth, which sounds like fun. This book is the second one focused on the Witches, with the return of Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, the former being a recurring character I’m fond of since reading her debut in Equal Rites. Other than that there’s a great little scene where Death is perturbed about having to explain that someone is set to be a ghost after dying (undead things are not really his jurisdiction).

Recently Finished

I’ve had a rather busy week in this respect. First I finished reading Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar. The ending wasn’t what I expected, but it was a tale that inspired a lot of thought, as well as conflicting emotions. Ultimately, I really liked it. It’s a great story about the effects of power and responsibility over it. I posted a review for it last Thursday.

I also finished Hellboy in Hell: The Death Card, the final volume and conclusion of Hellboy’s story. While short, this series was a wonderful couplet that wrapped up the whole series quite nicely. The final pages are artfully done, leaving things on a muted, bittersweet tone (leaning more towards the sweet). There are a lot of call-backs to the series as a whole, which were woven into the story taking place quite well. One in particular made me very happy I read Hellboy in Mexico before moving onto these books.

Lastly, I also finished reading On Writing by Stephen King, his memoir on the craft that also teaches how to write. I found his advice invigorating and valuable. I’m hopeful that I will take his lessons forward with me as I push myself to write my own fiction. It did leave me a little disappointed in myself as well, however, as I have not been writing fiction as much as I want myself to be. Hopefully I get a good kick from this book. I see myself reading it again in the near future to make his advice stick.

Reading Next

Yesterday I got my copy of Theft By Finding by David Sedaris. I will be starting that soon, and probably putting more energy into it than Wyrd Sisters for the next little while so that I can get a review out as soon as possible.

Book Review – Tarkin by James Luceno

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Summary

Groomed by the ruthless politician and Sith Lord who would be Emperor, Governor Wilhuff Tarkin rises through the imperial ranks, enforcing his authority mercilessly while pursuing his destiny as the architect of absolute dominion. Under Tarkin’s guidance, an ultimate weapon of unparalleled destruction moves ever closer to becoming a terrifying reality. But insurgency remains a genuine threat. Guerrilla attacks by an elusive band of freedom fighters must be countered with swift and brutal action — a mission the Emperor entrust to his most formidable agents: Darth Vader, the fearsome Sith enforcer, and Tarkin, whose tactical cunning and cold-blooded efficiency will pave the way for the Empire’s supremacy…and its enemies’ extinction.

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Tarkin by James Luceno is part of the new Disney canon of Star Wars, after all of the previous extended universe (EU) stories were reduced to “Legends.” I bring this up because Wilhuff Tarkin, the book’s titular character and villain from the original Star Wars film, had an extensive history established in the EU. Some of it has apparently been adapted here, but if you’re invested in those old stories I’m afraid they no longer apply. I’m coming at this book with virtually no knowledge of Tarkin’s history outside of what was established in the films, but I wanted to acknowledge that this isn’t the first time Tarkin has been given more backstory. For better or worse, however, this is now the backstory.

Though he’s not such an inspired character that I was dying to know more about him, Tarkin is an icon of Star Wars and important enough in the Empire that a novel about him made sense. This book gave an intriguing look into Imperial politics from the perspective of those in high ranks. Tarkin interacts with the Emperor and Darth Vader, as well as Naval Intelligence and Imperial Security heads, to resolve an issue involving an attack from unknown dissidents. Though it was limited, I liked seeing a bit of how these different arms of the Empire interact with the Emperor and each other, and the ways the Emperor oversees them.

While this storyline takes place in the book’s present, we also learn about Tarkin’s life growing up on the planet Eriadu, an Outer Rim world where his wealthy family has resided for a millennium. Though affluent, the Tarkins also believe in discipline and survivability, preserving the legacy of their family who helped settle the world and tamed its savage wilderness. Growing up, Wilhuff took trips into preserved wildlands with his grand-uncle to learn skills to harden him, make him cunning, and teach him how to overcome adversaries through fear and force. Learning the nuances of his upbringing and life on a specific planet in an otherwise vast galaxy were some of the best parts of this book. I’d have be more than fine with an entire book being dedicated more closely to the life of a character at a smaller scale like this.

As a work connected to a larger franchise this book tries to do too much. Grand Moff Tarkin is an iconic villain, after all, responsible for the destruction of Alderaan, so giving him a book makes sense, but they try to cram as much about him as they can into one 300 page book. So we learn about his upbringing and early military career, details of activities during and following the Clone Wars, his time as Governor of Eriadu, his relationship with Palpatine (before and after he becomes Emperor), hints at friction between him and Vader, this current mission, his promotion to Grand Moff along with his official appointment as overseer of the Death Star, and so on. A lot of these things were still worth reading about, but it felt like far too much crammed into one story, and as a result the only compelling information is stuff that’s already happened. The book is full of interesting biographical facts and details about Tarkin, but framed around a low stakes story that plays it really safe.

Ultimately, safe and inoffensive is what Tarkin boils down to. It’s not a bad book; there are sections that are legitimately unique and worth your time, but its buried in a mediocre story. Even the supposed friction between Darth Vader and Tarkin is virtually nonexistent. It is heavily implied when they’re first paired together, but seemingly for the sake of synergy with existing Star Wars material nothing dramatic happens between them at all. This could have been a conflict to delightfully trump the run-of-the-mill dissidents they have to deal with. I would love to see how Tarkin could earn the grudging respect of a dismissive Vader. If he is a character who interests you, I’d still say it’s worth checking out, there are certainly worse things you could read, but don’t expect much to wow you here.

Book Review – Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King & Richard Chizmar

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Summary

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

GwendysButtonBoxCover

Gwendy’s Button Box, a novella written by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, is a twist on a familiar story/social experiment. I was immediately reminded of the 2009 film The Box, based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button” and previously adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone by the same name. The story more or less always goes that an enigmatic man gives someone a box with a button on it. If they push the button two things will happen: they will receive a sum of money, and someone will die. What follows is the expected moral dilemma. While I’m certain this book is meant to recall these tales, the situation here is actually a lot more complex.

While the above button presents strictly a moral dilemma — which do factor here — the button box is more a matter of responsibility. On top of that, it is power; what one could or should do with unfettered access to it, as well as power’s effect on your life. The button box itself has numerous coloured buttons on it corresponding to each continent on the globe. What these buttons do is hinted to be disastrous, but never specified. There’s also a black button, suggested to be worst of all, and a red one, which will do what the user wills.

All Gwendy is prompted to do — by a man in black, Richard Farris, who charges her with keeping the box — is pull a lever on one side to receive a tiny chocolate animal from within the box every day, which tastes as good as all get-out, and pull another on the other side to receive a valuable silver coin. Otherwise, she’s to keep the box secret. Pushing any of the buttons is up to her.

Simply having the box, keeping it secreted away, eating the chocolate, and collecting the coins induces miraculous changes in her life. It actually perplexed me for a good while that much of the book explores the wonderful ways her life changes with no definitive ill side effects. It seemed lacking conflict, operating counter to what I would expect from a story like this. I assumed Gwendy would have to actively deal with direct consequences and more actively struggle with temptations.

Her good fortune does harbour ill feelings from others, however, and attracts unsavoury attention. As wonderful as the changes are, forces seem to be at work to make sure they stay positive too, even at the cost of others. We’re made to wonder how much the box’s mysterious influence ought to be blamed for the misfortunes other people face. With comfort and contentment comes complacency in Gwendy as well, and the box doesn’t like to be ignored or forgotten.

Though the implications of the box are troubling, she deals with it in a more optimistic way than expected of such a story. The story really is more about the gravity and responsibility of such a thing, not as much using it. Still, her time with the box, spanning her preteen years to young adulthood, is not without its experimentation with the tantalizing red button, or using it when she unexpectedly needs it. What becomes an interesting question for the reader regarding the buttons is not what she does use them for, but what she could have.

With such nebulous possibilities for what the box does, I wonder what crises that came her way could have been avoided if only things had been a little different, with the box in her possession still. The book concludes fairly closed ended, but left me with complicated feelings: how can I feel everything went so well for Gwendy when so many terrible things happened? These mixes in tones, from fortunate to tragic, feel so strange because they’re conveyed naturally. I feel like they’d conflict, but they don’t.

It’s hard to say where different author’s contributions lie. It reads a lot like a King book to me, whose style I’ve enjoyed pretty consistently, but clearly the two pair together well. Short as the book was, I went from page to page so fluidly I was almost done before I knew it. Had I the time I probably could have read the whole thing in a sitting without complaint.

Gwendy’s Button Box is not groundbreaking, but tells a thought-provoking tale of power, responsibility, and the unknown that I will reflect on for a while to come.