July 27, 2016

Review: The Ninja's Daughter

The Ninja's Daughter The fourth Hiro Hattori mystery
By Susan Spann
Available August 2nd from Seventh Street Books (Prometheus Books)
Review copy

I have not read the previous Hiro Hattori mysteries, but it was easy to catch up on the basics. Hiro is a ninja in disguise as a ronin, following mysterious orders to protect a Portuguese priest. Said priest, Father Mateo, keeps getting him involved in solving crimes when he'd rather focus on protecting his charge.

Their latest mystery hits close to home for Hiro, however. Emi was found strangled on the banks of a river by a young man she had been flirting with. The officials are uninterested in her case since she was just a daughter from an acting family. Secretly, her father is a former ninja and uncle to Hiro. He calls upon their family ties to get Hiro interested in who killed Emi.

You don't have to know much about Japanese history to enjoy THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER, but it does make parts more fun. For instance, there are many nods to famous figures of sixteenth-century Japan. Mostly, the outsider of Father Mateo is used to introduce cultural concepts. One he struggles with is the fact that Emi would've been seen as more respectable as a prostitute than what she was -- an actor's daughter who liked to walk with men by the river. (The book is ambiguous about whether Emi ever actually worked as a prostitute to further her dreams.)

I found Emi a compelling murder victim, a woman out of her time and place, who wanted a career instead of a husband and children. There's a good mix of people with motive to kill her. I came to find the title a bit distasteful, since Emi deserved a title focused more on who she was than her father, especially since many people were interested in finding out who killed her for money or ambition or anything but justice for her. The ending brought me right back around to liking it, fortunately.

There's also an ongoing plot about Hiro and Father Mateo's relationship. Father Mateo reveals a secret past that I found disappointing, and I can't imagine long-time readers would find much more satisfying. But I did enjoy how clearly protecting Father Mateo is more than a job to Hiro, and the bond of mutual respect between the men. I'm curious what will happen to them in the next book, since Father Mateo had to flee the city in fear of the shogun, straight to the home of Hiro's clan.

If you like your mysteries with immersive settings and complex motives, THE NINJA'S DAUGHTER is a good choice. I'm not rushing out to read the earlier books, but I'll certainly pick them up if they cross my path.


July 25, 2016

Movie Monday: NERVE

NERVE is a new teen technological thriller opening this Wednesday, July 27th. Thanks to the ever trusty Alamo Drafthouse, I was able to attend an early showing. I mostly wanted to see it since Dave Franco plays the male lead, _ian_.  (Who I shall now call Ian instead of stylizing it like the screenname it is.)

Nerve I didn't know this, but NERVE is actually based on a book by Jeanne Ryan. I haven't read it, but I might pick it up because screenwriter Jessica Sharzer obviously had good material to work with. The technology is more reasonable than many similar thrillers -- phrases like 'open source,' 'dark web,' and more are actually used in the correct manner.

NERVE is a game. You can play for free or pay to watch. Players win by completing dares from the watchers in the time given and move up the ranks by gaining more watchers as they complete riskier dares for more and more money. NERVE scrapes details from players' social media profiles, so watchers can tailor dares to their fears: talking to boys, heights, and more.

I appreciated that NERVE didn't focus on bad things happening to players on-screen. This isn't about seeing a bunch of teens get maimed. It's about social pressure, how much access people can gain to your life through social media, and how making risky decisions can escalate after you overcome previous challenges. I also appreciated that the main characters, like Vee (Emma Roberts), were essentially good people who are doing their best to be ethical even if it goes against the game. I particularly liked how NERVE wove a secondary character throughout the story, building well to the reveal of his true character at a climatic moment. This is a thriller that grounds its story in character.

(Okay, I'll also mention that I loved that Vee's best friend Tommy (Miles Heizer) clearly has a crush on her, but doesn't turn against her when she starts falling for Ian even though he's clearly hurt. He keeps working to help her out, because they're friends. There are just so many good people in this story about how evil people can be when they don't have to face the consequences.)

Vee isn't the type to be a player, or so all her friends say. She can't even hit accept for the school she wants to go to, because she's afraid of her mother's reaction. (Juliette Lewis plays her mother, doing good work in a minor role.) Her brother died a few years ago, and her mother reacted by becoming smothering. But after her best friend accidentally humiliates her in public, Vee is ready to take control of her own life -- by letting complete strangers tell her what to do. Hey, she's a teenager.

NERVE is a fun little thriller with a cool look and winning characters. It wears its moral on its sleeve, but I think the earnestness works for it. Sometimes it is nice to watch a thriller with a heart instead of one that revels in nastiness. There's a place for both.


July 21, 2016

Review: The Devourers

The Devourers By Indra Das
Available now from Del Rey (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

I was drawn to THE DEVOURERS by the beautiful traditional illustration on the cover.  Chris Panatier did the front and back cover illustration with ink and watercolor on board, and the full piece can be seen on his Deviantart. The lush, claustrophobic illustration pairs perfectly with the way the beauty of the story envelops you.

I found the opening of THE DEVOURERS somewhat disappointing. It seemed to be devoted to being overly edgy, with the narrator Alok meeting a man with a strange story of being a half-werewolf. Alok agrees to transcribe a set of scrolls for him, and starts with the story of Fenrir, a werewolf who rapes a human woman. Luckily, the novel brought up the exact objection I had and takes a turn into the story of Cyrah, the woman pregnant by a werewolf and determined to confront him with the beast of Gevaudan by her side.

I found Cyrah's tale the most compelling part of THE DEVOURERS. She makes tough decisions for complex reasons, and manages to have true empathy for her traveling companion.  I enjoyed the way that she was able to suss out more of the werewolf culture and find a place for herself bargaining with Fenrir's transgression.  She's a clever, determined woman who is allowed to be angry.

I found that the edginess of THE DEVOURERS evened out as I read. Gender and sexuality are explored through both the nature of these nonhuman creatures and the way they interact with humans. The gore is delightfully horrific, both repulsive and drawing on the human love of the macabre. There's also a lot to enjoy if you like explorations of different cultures, as both historical and modern non-Western human cultures come into play and each tribe of werewolves have their own cultures that shape the characters' behavior.

At first I thought THE DEVOURERS was going to disappoint me, another literary book with a faint layer of the supernatural as an excuse to be shocking. But the book grew on me and I fell under its lovely spell, to find out what happened to Cyrah, Gevaudan, her son, and Alok. And to be sure that Fenrir wasn't forgiven or redeemed.

Indra Das does use a very poetic style that might alienate some (as might the content), but it worked well for me. I also found that there was just enough difference in language between the narrators to make them clearly different people but not disrupt the tone. I certainly look forward to Das' next novel.

July 20, 2016

Review Rerun: Returning to Shore

I recently traveled to St. Simons Island, Georgia. When you cross from the mainland to the island using the causeway, you might notice extra large holes in the highway dividers. These allow the terrapin turtles to make it across.

The nearby Jekyll Island is the home of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.  This center offers a chance to learn about these animals and conservation efforts, and to participate yourself. Since it is currently nesting season, efforts to ensure that the turtle nests are protected are in high gear.

Thinking about these animals led me to remember RETURNING TO SHORE, which I first reviewed in 2014.

Returning to Shore By Corinne Demas
Available now from Carolrhoda Books (Lerner)
Review copy

RETURNING TO SHORE is a brief book, not particularly fast paced but a quick read by virtue of its brevity.  It's cover is bleak, but the book is anything but.  It's a simple tale, enlivened with a touch of quirk and symbolism.

Clare has lived with her mother since her parent's divorce.  She loved her stepfather, and still misses him, even as her mother is marrying for the third time.  But she doesn't have much time to contemplate her dislike of her new stepfather before she's swept off to a small Cape Cod island to live with her father while her mother honeymoons.  Her father knows absolutely nothing about raising a teenager, and he's distracted by his work with turtles (terrapins, to be more specific).  It's egg-laying season, and he intends to make sure that those eggs survive.

Seriously, it's a book about a daughter and father finding each other and themselves, and the father is obsessed with turtles and ensuring that their offspring survive.  It's kind of absurd and obvious and it works.  It's partially because turtle conservation is a real, serious thing.  But it's more because the characters are richly drawn and their development is subtle.

In a novel as short and simple as RETURNING TO SHORE, everything hangs on the protagonist.  I think I was first drawn to the clear gulf between what Clare knows and what the narrative insinuates that she doesn't.  That her mother's relationships, particularly that with her first stepfather, are more complicated than she's been led to believe.  Then there's her father, who knows quite a bit that he holds too tightly - knowledge that he should tell his daughter, at least if they're going to have a real relationship.

There's also a small subplot about Clare making friends of necessity with the other teen girl who lives on the island.  There is, of course, inherent friction in the relationship made more out of proximity than true interest in what the other has to offer.  At the same time, it's not like it's two people hanging out who secretly hate each other.  Then, as Clare learns more about her friend, it conflicts with the things she's learned about her dad.  And it's more than just differing environmental views.

RETURNING TO SHORE is a novel that doesn't rely on romance to deliver deeply felt emotion.  It's a wonderful coming of age story, with a picturesque setting and a strong environmental message lurking not-far-back in the background. Is it strange to say that this is a book for Studio Ghibli fans?  Because it is.

July 11, 2016

Movie Monday: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar I find The Lonely Island hilarious. Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer are amazing at combining music and comedy. Their latest venture is a mockumentary about Connor4Real, a rapper who hit it big with trio The Style Boiz and then his first solo record. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping charts the release of Connor's sophomore album and it's subsequent failure. This forces Connor to all sorts of crazy shenanigans to get back on top, before perhaps admitting that he's made some mistakes.

Lots of the usual suspects like SNL alums Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph make an appearance. It's also chock full of real musicians like Nas, Seal, and Justin Timberlake (as an intense chef). The funny people help land the jokes and the musicians help give the silliness of Popstar a sense of reality.

The movie had me hooked from the opening music number, "I'm So Humble (feat. Adam Levine)," which closes with an interview with Mariah Carey stating how much she relates to the song. The jokes in and around the song both hit. I think that's the musical highlight of Popstar, even though there's plenty of humor in the songs to come. (Including Connor's way-too-late anthem in support of gay marriage.)



Samberg has been developing his acting chops on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and his improved acting serves him well. He's more at ease inhabiting a character instead of over-emphasizing the punchline. Taccone is great as the one friend who has stood by him in a see of yes men and just wants to see his friends back together. Schaffer is hilariously intense as his ex-friend who pretends to like the farm he's ended up on.

The jokes in Popstar are broad, but many of them hit. It's a classic tale of hubris and friendship, wrapped up in a gloriously ridiculous package. The date for the video release doesn't seem to be finalized yet, but I recommend Popstar to any fan of The Lonely Island.

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