Top 10 Reads of 2015

2015 was a big reading year for me, as I found a way to get some reading done in my spare time, whenever I was able to. I stumbled on quite a few new ones, but I also tried to knock a few outstanding books off of my To Read Shelf. Take a look on Goodreads to see more specific stats for my reading year. You’ll notice a hefty amount of Brandon Sanderson, who has quickly become one of my favorite authors of all time. I made it another one of my goals to try and finish all of his Cosmere novels this year–his YA offerings aren’t really to my taste, but I’ll try again. Also, not listed here are rereads of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

So, I took on the difficult task of ranking the books I read this year. They did not have to be published this year–I was trying to check off books from my long To Read list. Here are my Top 10 Reads of 2015:

The Martian novel1. The Martian by Andy Weir

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living.

Hero of Ages2. Hero of Ages by Brandon Sanderson

At the close of the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson brings everything together with a heartfelt, satisfying (albeit surprising) ending. It took me awhile to finally pick this up after I finished Well of Ascension, and I regret not immediately continuing on to this epic finale.

Words of Radiance3. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

Another Brandon Sanderson, I know! Don’t worry, it’s not the end by any means. This hefty tome took a long, long time for me to finish: over a year. From March 7, 2014-March 12, 2015, I slowly waded through it, picking it up and putting it down, because I wanted to give it my full attention. I was rarely able to do so, which meant that each time I picked it up again I had to back up a bit. Eventually, I powered through and finished. I loved it, and it was a pleasure to work through.

Armada4. Armada by Ernest Cline

It must be difficult to follow Ready Player One, which was such a unique smash hit a few years ago, but Cline did it. Armada is funny, thrilling, and packed to the gills with deep pop culture references. It’s Space Invaders meets Ender’s Game, but without the subterfuge (sort of). I read it in just about 24 hours–I could not stop.

the magicians5. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This is one of those books I didn’t know I needed to read. People had mentioned it, but no one had really described it well, other than it’s “adult Harry Potter.” While that’s certainly true, it’s more like: Harry Potter goes to college and then goes to Narnia to defeat Edmund. This was engrossing (no pun inte
nded) and mind-bending at times. I totally loved it.

Alloy of Law6. Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

I don’t think he’s the first to do this, but he’s the first I know of: while most fantasy novels are just medieval and stay there, age after age, Brandon Sanderson takes us beyond that level of culture and technology to the Victorian era. This isn’t steampunk–it’s still Scadrial, just naturally developing from where Hero of Ages left off. It’s a swashbuckling, shoot ’em up adventure, with wit and, as always, a great magic system.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

This is another book that took me just a day or so to read. It’s The Fault in our Stars meets Perks of Being a Wallflower, with some of the wit of Paper Towns. It’s a great example of high school life and dealing with impending tragedy in different ways. The narrative style also varies throughout, from script to prose narration, which adds a unique flavor to this fun story of friendship.

Gray Mountain8. Gray Mountain by John Grisham

This surprised me, I’ll be honest. Maybe that’s why it’s so high on my list. It had been a long time since there had been a really excellent Grisham novel: maybe not since 2007’s Playing for Pizza have I really loved a new Grisham. Gray Mountain dealt with current economic and environmental issues while keeping it close and personal. This could easily be optioned as a TV series, and it could be a cross between Justified and The Good Wife.

Do Hard Things9. Do Hard Things by Alex and Brett Harris

Do Hard Things impacted me personally this year, as I was working more closely with my students on trying to impact the world around them. We discussed the challenges offered by this book, which encourages teens to defy the low expectations that people have of them and to step up and be a part of the world they’ll soon inherit. I loved it.

Invisible Man10. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I’m surprised I hadn’t read Invisible Man before this, but I picked it up on a friend’s recommendation and I blew through it on the flights back home for Christmas. It’s completely relatable, with an easy narrative voice, and it demonstrates the wide breadth of struggles that the African-American community has faced from Reconstruction to the 1950s.

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

  1. Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
  2. Finding Truth by Nancy Pearcey
  3. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
  4. Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson
  5. Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson
  6. Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson
  7. It by Stephen King
  8. Giants Beware by Jorge Aguierre
  9. We Were Liars by e. lockhart
  10. Damsel Distressed by Kelsey Macke
  11. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
  12. Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
  13. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
  14. Alias, Vol. 1 by Brian Michael Bendis
  15. Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith

 

Film Review: Fantastic Four (2015)

In an attempt to be different, Fantastic Four leaves out everything lovable about superhero films – including fun.

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After months (possibly years) of bad press and mixed anticipation for Fox’s reboot of Fantastic Four, the film released to scathing reviews and some added behind-the-scenes drama. The movie, helmed and co-scripted by Josh Trank, director of Chronicle, seeks to do something different in the superhero genre.

The story we probably know from the first series of films. In the name of science, a (future) husband and wife, her brother, and their friend, are essentially infected with different powers. They must learn to harness their abilities, while working as a team, to save the world. 

The first two films were largely disliked for their goofy tone and cartoonish plot. In this 2015 reboot, they attempt to ground the film as hard as they can in reality, so as to not make the same mistakes as the other films.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a brilliant young scientist who, with help from his childhood best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), builds some impressive spacetime-bending equipment. Noticed by Dr. Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara) at a high school science fair (I guess they were just browsing random science fairs? Not too clear on the reasoning there), Reed is given a scholarship in exchange for help building the Quantum Gate with the Storms and the moody Victor Von Doom. Oh yeah, and Johnny Storm crashes a car and is punished by being made a high-valued member of the Quantum Gate team, for some reason.

Von Doom’s entire part in the film is completely inexplicable. From his introduction where he’s simply an angry brat who hates everyone, to his only occasional feelings for Sue Storm, to his on-again off-again friendship with Reed, to whatever his motives are for briefly trying to destroy Earth, Von Doom just doesn’t make any sense.

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There are some admirable aspects to Fantastic Four. I appreciate the attempt at a grounded, realistic tone, but “realistic” doesn’t have to mean it sacrifices fun. In fact, there’s almost no action in the entire film. Isn’t that why we go to superhero movies? There’s only one real fight scene, and it’s horribly predictable.

The film started to really interest me when the four returned with their powers. Each was under observation, and everyone was scared for what could happen. Just when I thought the film would really explore the fear and psychological effects that these strange powers would have, the film jumps ahead a year, skipping the interesting part! I was so disappointed.

In the end, Fantastic Four had a lot of potential, ultimately wasted by forgetting why people see superhero films: to have fun and see crazy action. Without either of those elements, replaced by a really confusing and uninteresting story, Fantastic Four is a bust.

Sidenote: There was a lot of talk about either Trank being really hard to deal with or Fox putting too much pressure and control on a creative, leading to this mess. Without any of us truly knowing what happened, it’s hard to put the blame on any one person. For an interesting timeline of the bad press, check out this great article from Film School Rejects.

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Film Review : The Gift

The Gift surprises and impresses at almost every turn.

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At the start, The Gift appears to be a traditional thriller. The setup is so average that the viewer could assume he knows the plot and the twist within the first few minutes. As the film progresses, however, it becomes fairly clear that nothing is as expected.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to California, close to where Simon grew up. Soon enough, while out shopping one day, the couple runs into an old acquaintance of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Everything feels pretty standard; Gordo is a weird dude who hangs around a bit too much, creeping out the couple. Things go in very unexpected directions more than once, keeping you on your toes.

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The audience of course tries to guess where the film is headed at every turn. Every time it seems like you may have figured it out, the film completely surprises you. The writing here is really strong. Not only does the plot trick you, it’s not even the type of movie you think it is.

In addition to his excellent performance, Edgerton writes and directs this very promising debut. There may not be anything groundbreaking here, but The Gift is a very enjoyable, tense, and unexpected delight. Edgerton is certainly a filmmaker to keep our eyes on.

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Film Review: Ricki and the Flash

Stuffed with Oscar winners, Ricki and the Flash delivers a fairly unsurprising plot with a nice polished exterior.

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Meryl Streep stars as Ricki Rendazzo, the wannabe-rock-star and nonexistent mom trying to figure out how to reconnect with her family. When her daughter Julie, played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer, attempts suicide after losing her husband, Ricki returns home to help her pull herself together. Of course, Ricki must learn to pull her own life together first.

The premise alone is pretty unremarkable. We’ve heard this all before. Luckily the film has enough charm and superb performances to make up for the cliches.

Ricki and Greg (Rick Springfield) lead The Flash, the aging house band at a tiny bar in Los Angeles. The film opens on their performance, a great sequence that starts only on the band, leading the audience to believe it might be a successful group, until swiftly cutting to the small, old, and odd crowd in the bar.

Once Ricki returns to the family in Indiana, the family drama shines. Ricki’s ex Pete (Kevin Kline) is fairly uninteresting, but the family dynamic keeps things snappy. A dinner sequence with the whole family in particular overcomes so many predictable moments with hilarious dialogue.

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As with every Streep performance, we’ll see this performance coming into the awards conversation soon, but it’s deserved. Ricki is a severely insecure character who covers with false confidence. Streep’s subtleties let the insecurity feel so true. Mamie Gummer holds her own alongside her mother: Julie’s depressed character also steals the show. While it may not be groundbreaking or Oscar-caliber, Gummer deserves awards talk of her own.

Ricki and the Flash is nothing new in the family drama realm, but the humor and performances make it an enjoyable, if unremarkable, film.

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Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

  The Martian is Castaway in space.
Astronaut Mark Watney is marooned on Mars and is left to survive on his own for hundreds of days. He needs to deal with a diminishing food supply, as well as the innumerable hazards that come with being the only inhabitant on a lifeless planet. This is the epic story of survival and humanity banding together to save a man’s life. 

This is probably the best book I’ve read this year. The Martian is thrilling, suspenseful, and hilarious. Mark Watney’s narrative voice is utterly readable and memorable–almost addictive. This is a fantastically compelling story of a man and all that he will do to keep on living. 

Finally, other than the excellent writing, I appreciated the accessible hard science fiction here. Like Michael Crichton, Andy Weir has made this a book that doesn’t dumb down the technical aspects but brings the readers up to what they need to understand while also not wasting time on the minutiae.

The Martian is a rare book, and I look forward to seeing how the film adaptation treats it. The one thing they can’t leave out (which the trailer seems like it may…) is Watney’s irascible sense of humor. It’s an essential aspect of his character that should not be lost. It’ll be hard to replicate the “captain’s log” inner monologue format, but that helps keep the book from getting too dark. 

The Last Man on Earth – TV Series Review

**Contains spoilers for the pilot episode of The Last Man on Earth**

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You had me at “Chinese hello.”

In a sitcom landscape populated with crowded ensembles and overused concepts, here comes Phil Miller, the last man on earth.

The Last Man on Earth starts around two years after some unexplained catastrophe hit earth. Phil Miller (Will Forte) travels the country looking for another human alive, but to no avail. He settles down in his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, and tries to survive on his own. He does, but he’s going pretty crazy.

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The loneliness is getting to him. In one of the best scenes of the pilot, Phil decided it’s time to off himself. It’s surprisingly heartbreaking for a sitcom, even if we know he’s not going through with it. With confidence, The Last Man showed the audience that it’s not afraid to get dramatic.

It’s a sad concept if you think it through. That would be true lonliness. That’s why we immediately sympathize with Phil, and we want him to find another human.

And find one he does. Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal) is everything Phil did not want to find in a partner. She’s corrective, annoying, and hilarious.

What I love about The Last Man is that in this wholly original concept, it finds it’s way back to sitcom tropes. The relationship between Phil and Carol is similar to many marriages in older sitcoms, with a nagging wife and the slacker husband. But here we have a whole new spin on things. They’ve got to get along or die alone. It’s pretty black and white.

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The concept drew me in, but it didn’t stop there. The visual comedy is some of the best on TV right now. Sight gags and funny cuts are used heavily, separating it from many of the dialogue driven sitcoms that are so prevalent (not that those are bad, mind you).

The Last Man on Earth has an immediately intriguing premise and pitch-perfect comedy, with two stars that we can’t help but root for. As long as Forte and director/producers Phil Lord & Chris Miller have a long-lasting plan for the series, The Last Man on Earth will be well worth tuning into for years to come.

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Fresh Off The Boat – TV Series Review

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ABC has been basking in the glory of their crown jewel Modern Family. It’s a cash cow, and it’s won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series five years in a row (one for every single season so far), tying Frasier‘s record. They new they hit something good with relating to white families, so of course they must replicate it.

Black-ish premiered in fall 2014 and tried to do for black families what Modern Family did for white families. Anthony Anderson’s comedy is decent, but never truly feels original. It’ll last, I’m sure, but it’s not the newest and greatest show.

Enter Fresh Off The Boat. Premiering a bit under the radar, this new series stars an Asian family who makes a move from Washington, D.C. to Florida and must adjust during the mid-90s. Rather than focusing primarily on the adults, Fresh is narrated by Eddie, the eldest of the three elementary-age boys. Eddie’s perspective guides the show as the family makes due in their new lives. He’s a wannabe gangster rapper, and his nineties-vibe is hilarious and well-written.

FORREST WHEELER, IAN CHEN, HUDSON YANG, CONSTANCE WU, RANDALL PARK

The family is entirely likable, even the harsh Jessica (Constance Wu) and Louis, portrayed by the funny, if not the best actor, Randall Park. The secondary kids are all funny and decent actors, unlike all the kids in Black-ish. Of course Eddie is the standout as the lead. It’s a fresh perspective, different from the kids on Modern Family.

Fresh Off The Boat succeeds where Black-ish fails. While it centers on an Asian family, the storylines don’t hinge on racial stereotypes. While Black-ish (often a very funny show, don’t get me wrong) seems to only have one card to play, Fresh Off The Boat doesn’t use race as an excuse to fill every episode. Sure there are plenty of racial jokes and funny bits having to do with the Asian family, but it’s secondary to the main plot.

Don’t get me wrong, Black-ish is a funny show that will hopefully get better, but Fresh Off The Boat is the real “answer” to Modern Family. It’s got a unique perspective and hilarious take on the family sitcom. I hope it continues.

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