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

 

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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. 

Tyler’s Top Ten Films of 2014

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Up front, let me be clear that this my list of my favorite films of 2014. This is not necessarily a list of which films should be nominated for any Oscars in particular. When I’m thinking of a list like this, I’m focusing on enjoyability, as well as rewatchability. I can watch a film and recognize that someone has a particularly outstanding performance , or that the film overall is technically superb, or even those few films that are so clearly, wholly phenomenal that they should garner an Oscar nod. Thus, this list may overlap with those we’ve been talking about this past weeks. However, I have to expand a bit: just because a film gets–and deserves–an Oscar nod doesn’t mean that it’s enjoyable or that I’d watch it over and over.

I’m looking for a whole moviegoing experience. Would I recommend it to others? Is it impactful or particularly important? Was it fun? Visually appealing? Obviously, this is largely a matter of taste, and it’s an incredibly unscientific process to formulate a result.

Here goes, in order:

1. Chef

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Chef might be my favorite film of 2014. It’s not the best, most technical film. I didn’t break new ground in cinematography; it didn’t have an actor contorting himself into a wholly different persona; it didn’t hit new heights of sexuality; and it won’t win Best Picture this Oscars Season. But I think it’s my favorite anyway–it’s just a joyful film. From the addictive, upbeat soundtrack to the redemptive relationship between a nearly estranged father and son, it hits on all cylinders. It’s a truly heartwarming film, yet it doesn’t fall into the cheesy category, something that I think has been missing of late.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

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3. American Sniper

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This film reminded me of Zero Dark Thirty, which is a film I can watch and rewatch. I see that happening here. It is still an intriguing film, well-made and thoughtful. Bradley Cooper’s intense and true portrayal of PTSD, as well as the juxtaposition of war life and home life was poignant and significant. The quickness of the film was needed to highlight the blur of war, and the struggle that soldiers and their families must go through during transitions.

4. Gone Girl

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Gone Girl was a crazy, intense film. First of all, I almost never like a film more than the book from which it is adapted: Gone with the Wind, the Bourne Trilogy, The Godfather, Parts I & II, and The Hunger Games series. In this case, it’s hard for me to decide which I liked better, because this film is quite faithful. The book is deeply mysterious and emotional, as is the film, yet the film was more visceral and impactful than the book. Usually I don’t think that, because my imagination is pretty vivid, but in this case it was more gripping.

5. Interstellar

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Interstellar was one of those movies that I wanted but didn’t even know that I wanted. I love films like this: films that mess with time travel and space travel, that explore the ideas of what lengths we might have to go to in order to preserve the human race. That, combined with McConaughey, Chastain, and Hathaway’s stellar acting sells the gravity (puns intended!) of the situation that they’re in. Finally, add in Hans Zimmer’s rich organ-oriented score and the captivating visuals, and you have a perfect storm of a film.

6. Whiplash

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I had to pick my jaw up from the floor at multiple points throughout Whiplash. It was a deeply dark and disturbing film, but one that also probes the depths of passion and perseverance. This isn’t an inspirational film, but it is a film that readily delves into the dark corners of the drive to achieve greatness, not necessarily for the love of the creativity of art, but for the notoriety of that greatness. I loved the film, but I would have to think twice before getting ready to sit through it again, because it brought me to a dark place. The opening scene, however, is maybe the most precise and concise piece of characterization I have seen in a long time.

7. Birdman

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Birdman was a singularly immersive experience. From the opening moments, I was enraptured by almost every element: Keaton’s (dare I say) breakout performance, the single-take conceit, the seamlessly woven play within a film, and the slow psychological burn that underpins everything we see. Each performance was spot on, though not all are nomination-worthy. This film will battle for Best Director as well, and I think it may deserve both awards (as well as Keaton’s Best Actor nod). However, no other film on this list tries to do what this one accomplishes, nor possibly leaves such an impact.

8. Selma

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I was riveted by Selma, from the bombing early on to the frenetic, emotional riots and brutality throughout. This move easily deserves its place on this list of nominees, if only to balance out The Imitation Game‘s shortcomings. The acting is superb from all angles (every actor is British, except for Common and Oprah), the music accents everything emotionally, the story is relevant and impactful, and they didn’t have to hit anyone over the head with the message of peace and equality. It does it on its own without being underscored by epigrams at the end.

9. Jodorowsky’s Dune

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Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film that is many things at once, and they all work together to form a compelling narrative about a madman’s dream about a hippie’s trippy novel about drugs and war. It was described as the greatest movie never made, an influential film that preceded seminal movies like Star Wars, Alien, and Blade Runner. To see the inner workings of the making of this film, as well as the exploration of Jodorowsky’s film career, is like a bit of a film history class, but the most exciting one you’ll ever take.

10. Still Alice

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Still Alice was excellent, and Julianne Moore is the quiet, yet standalone winner for me. Even with the other good performances on this list, Moore is clearly at the forefront. Where Felicity Jones is the rock next to Redmayne’s deteriorating academic husband, Moore is both the rock and the quicksand, clasping desperately at sanity, hoping that it will remain, and preparing herself and her family for the inevitable. It was a heart-rending performance, and one that is all-too applicable to audiences today.

Runners Up:

I understand that, with some of the films above, you may be scratching your heads a bit. There are some surprises on my list. To comfort you, here’s my long list (in no particular order) of the top films of the year overall. Remember that I was looking for rewatchability, more than simply the greatness of the film itself.

  • Foxcatcher
  • Boyhood
  • Theory of Everything
  • Begin Again
  • Fury
  • Big Eyes
  • The Judge
  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
  • The Lego Movie
  • Babadook

Film Review: Chef (2014)

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Chef might be my favorite film of 2014. It’s not the best, most technical film. I didn’t break new ground in cinematography; it didn’t have an actor contorting himself into a wholly different persona; it didn’t hit new heights of sexuality; and it won’t win Best Picture this Oscars Season. But I think it’s my favorite anyway–it’s just a joyful film. From the addictive, upbeat soundtrack to the redemptive relationship between a nearly estranged father and son, it hits on all cylinders. It’s a truly heartwarming film, yet it doesn’t fall into the cheesy category, something that I think has been missing of late.

Jon Favreau, the always exceptional writer, director, and lead, goes even further by going back to his indie roots. Favreau is Carl Casper, the lauded head chef of a successful LA restaurant, and he’s about to be reviewed by the notorious, pretentious food critic and vicious blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). When Carl’s boss (Dustin Hoffman) won’t let him bring in a new menu to wow the critic, despite the fact that Carl feels he’s grown creatively stagnant, he is eviscerated by Michel. This leads to a Twitter war (a nice motif running throughout the film), then a loud public meltdown. Carl has long been a workaholic (as many chefs are), which led to a divorce from his wife Inez (Sofía Vergara) and to little contact with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). He travels with them to Miami after he loses his job, where Inez finally talks him into buying a food truck. Carl, along with Percy and his former sous chef (John Leguizamo), travel from Miami back to LA, selling Cuban sandwiches, reinvigorating Carl’s passion for food, as well as reforging his relationship with his son along the way.

At times, Chef exemplifies what Anthony Bourdain has called food porn, where the audience salivates over every lingering shot. It is an ode to delicious, beautiful food and how it brings people together. More than simply loving the idea of food, Chef illustrates food’s central place in so many cultures and families. It at first tore Carl’s family apart because he made it about the business of food. His time was spent working on the construction of food, rather than on his passion for it, and his family suffered and broke apart for it. He needed to rekindle that relationship, and it is food that does it. He becomes a good dad, teaching his son about his passion, about how to work for it and not lose yourself in it.

It’s rare enough these days to get a touching film that is also well made. Something that exemplifies the reality of family life and the sacrifices that a father must make in order to keep his family together, and that you’re never too far gone to come back home.

Film Review: Lucy (2014)

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I both loved and hated Lucy. It has two really interesting, promising premises that fail one another in their indecisive execution.

From the beginning, as expected, Scarlett Johanssen steals the show. This is another chance for her to show off her unique, consistently watchable acting skills. The juxtaposition of before and after Lucy is excellent, with just enough of the film dedicated to grounding Normal-Lucy in her humanness before Extra-Lucy takes over. She is the most constant aspect of this film, attempting to hold the two warring halves together despite Luc Besson’s high-concept bungle. In fact, each of the actors did a great job–Choi Min-Sik in particular as the cool, calm, and collected (except when he isn’t) antagonist, brings a nice relentless animosity to the film, even though I think it’s misplaced as an element.

If this were simply a cerebral, Tree of Life-like exploration of what might happen if someone begins accessing the depths of their brain capacity, I could get behind it. That’s a fascinating premise to get us going. Even if the film remained nearly the same from the beginning until the arrival at the University, I’d be down with that. But the moment Besson decided to split our focus from the intellectual and move to the action, it went from science fiction that makes us think to a thriller that pushes the suspension of disbelief aside with each preposterous bullet that flies through the air.

If this had been simply a thriller with a crazy smart spy wiping out a drug ring, that would have been fine–and probable really exciting. But, the moment that, at 40% of her brain capacity, Lucy could stroll utterly unharmed through a hallway of villains, incapacitating them as she struts, the sense of danger from the Korean mob pursuing her at the university is cut off. Why the firefight? She allows the cops get blown to bits because she needs to focus, when it would take five seconds (not even leaving her office chair) to wipe everyone out. The tension is already there because she’s about to shred herself with the drug–we don’t need to cheapen that with a gunfight.

Finally, the question at the end that was supposed to answer that from the beginning? We were asked at the outset: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” A good question that teases us and makes us think.

At the end, we’re asked: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.” What?! Oh yes, take a lot of drugs so that it’ll increase your brain capacity. Really? Don’t paint a cerebral sci-fi film with hollow philosophical questions. It’s confusing and it exposes the film’s flaws all the more. We definitely have no more answers to that question at the end than we did at the beginning. Don’t pretend that we do. That’s insulting to your audience.

Lucy should have been awesome. I loved the style, the score, the intercuts with the mousetrap, the cheetah, and the others like them. It brought up interesting ideas about the mind and what we can do with it, but it fooled itself into thinking that it was answering life’s great questions. There are already comparisons made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Limitless, and other films like it, but those were well focused to do themselves justice and to actually bring up excellent questions. Besson tried to jam two films into one (I suspect to boost the already lacking running time), and he did neither justice and leaves us with a bemused, underwhelmed taste in our mouths.

Doctor Who 8.01 “Deep Breath” or, Bring Back the Heart(s) to Doctor Who

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I’m crazy torn by the premiere of the Eighth Season of Doctor Who, and it has nothing to do with Peter Capaldi’s brilliant performance–or Jenna-Louise Coleman’s, for that matter. It’s just about everything else.

I’m going to leave the more summary for the other reviews, so I’ll be brief.
For a more comprehensive summary you should be sure to check out the episode.

Spoilers follow…

A dinosaur in Victorian London chokes on the TARDIS, spits it out, and the Doctor and Clara roll out to meet Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.

The Doctor is suffering from a dementia-like amnesia following his regeneration, and Clara is disturbed by this surprising turn of events. As expected, the Doctor runs headlong toward the mystery about the dinosaur–which isn’t actually about the dinosaur but of course about clockwork cyborgs who are repairing themselves through dismantling people (a la the SS Madame du Pompadour from “The Girl in the Fireplace”). The Doctor finds himself and Clara reconciles with him.

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The plot was of absolutely no consequence in this episode.

It was about being eerie and shocking, from the dinosaurs to the unanswered questions about the clockwork robots. Even if they come back as part of a larger plan (which it seems as though they will), there was so little revealed about the cyborgs that it can barely be said that they teased something. The dinosaur was directly discarded in deference to the Doctor’s derailment into self-diagnosis and dangerous detective work.

The episode teetered on a knife-edge of brilliance and insanity. There was a requisite mystery that moved the plot forward, but it was constantly overshadowed by the brilliance of Capaldi. While Smith fixated on Fish Fingers and Custard (brilliance!), Capaldi looked into emotional depths of character that promise an exciting run as the Doctor. He brought out more acting prowess from the get-go than Smith did in his three years (Smith absolutely got there, and I wish he’d stayed just one more year to really settle into his character’s skin).

Capaldi’s 12th Doctor digs into the disorientation that the Doctor must feel when he changes his face, and Vastra sheds more light on why he must subconsciously choose his appearance and character. With all that the Doctor went through in the last year, this reflects his emotional and psychological state brilliantly, and I foresee that Clara (and the other upcoming companions) will have the job of redeeming and humanizing him more (without the flirting).

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This is Steven Moffat’s challenge: Go back to where you started. Remain eerie and intriguing, absolutely. But bring back the heart in Doctor Who. This episode was at its best when exploring the conflict between the characters–the confused Doctor and the companion who just seemingly lost her best friend.

Bring back the stuff of Captain Jack and the Dancing Doctor, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” or the Girl who Waited for the Mad Man in a Box with fish fingers and custard. That emotion drives the story and keeps the audience. The timey wimey wibbly wobbly mumbo jumbo (with plot holes the size of the time vortex) needs to take a back seat to the heart that embodies the core of Doctor Who.

Brief Book Review: Doll Bones by Holly Black

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This is another successful Middle Grade book by Holly Black which explores the time in which you’re supposed to grow up but you’re not quite ready to give up your toys or to cease believing in a fantasy. She’s always brilliant at capturing that time of life when kids are on the cusp of growing up, and there’s that last vestige of wonder struggling to keep their feet off the ground.