Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I’m not the target audience for this book.

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a dystopian action-adventure novel by American author Suzanne Collins. It is a spinoff and a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy. …

Critics had a mixed overall reception …

The central character is the teenage Coriolanus Snow who would 64 years later become the dictatorial president of Panem as Donald Sutherland.

This book didn’t really work for me.  And the 10th Hunger Games were pretty horrible.

The only character of interest is Volumnia Gaul – The Head Gamemaker of the 10th Hunger Games.

Fans of YA fiction where teens kill other teens will probably love it.

Needless to say, a film version is in the works.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I post on Juneteenth, the day celebrating the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States.

Small Great Things (2016) was recommended for those who want to learn more about racism.

The American author, Jodi Picoult, is a white woman.

I’m a super privileged white man.

And I did learn from this book.  Especially many of the subtle instances where Black Americans are stereotyped by oblivious whites.  It made me wonder how many times I’ve done the same things.  I am often oblivious of the feelings of those around me.

The story concentrates on an African-American labor/delivery (L&D) nurse, Ruth Jefferson, in charge of newborns at a Connecticut hospital.

Ruth is ordered not to touch or go near the baby of a white supremacist couple. After the baby dies in her care, Ruth is charged with murder, and taken to court.

Small Great Things is being adapted into a film starring Viola Davis and Julia Roberts.

P.S.

I happened to have recently read a big chunk of The Innocents Abroad (1869) by Mark Twain, one of the best-selling travel books of all time.  Of course Twain was a humorist, skilled at making me laugh.

He’s an American imperialist abroad, mocking everyone and everything he finds abroad.  It was off-putting.  Later in life he became an ardent anti-imperialist.

Twain was an adamant supporter of the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of slaves, even going so far as to say, “Lincoln‘s Proclamation … not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also”.  Yet in his travel book you have to call him a racist.

That I found also off-putting.

The only instance of praise for anyone in the first part of the book, however, was for an African American tour guide working in Europe.  The only good guide they had in months.

The Secret Commonwealth (2019) by Philip Pullman

Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were great friends—both Oxford writers and scholars. Both important to this day.

Philip Pullman is another Oxford man, one who believes he should be ranked with those great writers.

I wouldn’t go that far.

Certainly Lyra in The Golden Compass (also known as Northern Lights) is one of the great children characters in fiction.

Certainly Pullman’s invention of the daemon is one of the great fantasy inventions.

A film adaptation of Northern Lights, titled The Golden Compass, was released in December 2007 by New Line Cinema, starring Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra, along with Daniel CraigNicole KidmanEva GreenSam Elliott and Ian McKellen. Though it was a financial failure, I personally like the film.

That all said, the plot of this other world is simply too scattered.  Seems he started without knowing how it would end.

Secret Commonwealth is 5th in the series, and weakest so far

Super fan Rine Karr posted the best review I’ve read. She was disappointed. The book is too preachy:

Racism, xenophobia, and the refugee crisis. Sexism, violence, and rape. Propaganda, the suppression of free speech, and religious fundamentalism.

Recall Pullman’s His Dark Materials series:

  1. Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass)
  2. The Subtle Knife
  3. The Amber Spyglass

His The Book of Dust series is a prequel and sequels:

  1. La Belle Sauvage (2017)
  2. The Secret Commonwealth (2019)
  3. … TBD

The Secret Commonwealth follows Lyra Silvertongue and Dr Malcolm Polstead, both at Oxford; she as an undergraduate at St Sophia’s college and he at Durham College.

It takes place twenty years after the first volume, La Belle Sauvage and seven years after the conclusion of His Dark Materials.

The setting is a world dominated by the Magisterium (commonly called “the Church”), an international theocracy which actively suppresses heresy. …

The relationship between Lyra and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, has been severely strained …

This is my least favourite of the 5 books, so far.  Too confusing.  Too random. I certainly hope book 6 wraps up Lyra’s endless and seemingly pointless journey in some satisfying way.

 

Contagion (2011 film)

Contagion is a 2011 American thriller film directed by Steven Soderbergh.

Its ensemble cast includes Matt Damon, Laurence FishburneGwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, …

Jude Law is the conspiracy theorist flogging a fake cure.

… The film has received renewed popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many parallels between the fictitious MEV-1 and COVID-19. 

But MEV-1 is much more severe. More like the 1918 Flu.

In a flashback, a bulldozer razes palm trees while clearing a rainforest in China that disturbs the natural habitat of some bats. One bat finds shelter in a pig farm and drops an infected piece of banana, which is eaten by a pig. The pig is slaughtered and prepared by a chef in a Macau casino, who transmits the virus to Beth (Paltrow) in a handshake.

Click PLAY or watch it on YouTube.

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

One for the Money (1994) is the first novel by Janet Evanovich featuring the bounty hunter Stephanie Plum …

Before this novel, Evanovich was a Romance novelist.

There are parallels with her character Stephanie Plum, laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer for a Newark department store, who goes to work for her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman.

One for the Money is a light-weight easy read. Short and silly.

If you saw the 2012 movie, it’s true to the book.

Click PLAY or watch it on YouTube.

This mystery series had run for 24 books as of 2017.

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

The Silent Patient has an interesting premise.

… a woman’s act of violence against her husband―and of the therapist obsessed with uncovering her motive.

It’s getting great reviews.

Brad Pitt’s company snapped up the film rights.

That alls said, I found it a bit slow.

Psychology has never been an interest of mine. Also, the surprising twists and turns simply seemed too unlikely for me.

Without Remorse by Tom Clancy (1993)

Without Remorse is long. Stephen King long.

…  Kirkus Reviews gave it a mixed verdict, stating that it is “twice as long as the two rather creaky storylines can bear …”

The writing is not particularly skillful.

Chronologically it’s the first in the Jack Ryan universe.

But I’d never gotten much into the Jack Ryans: Alec BaldwinHarrison FordBen AffleckChris Pine, and John Krasinski. 

Jack Ryan is not an important in Without Remorse. This book introduces a more interesting character, John Clark, portrayed by actors Willem Dafoe and Liev Schreiber over the years.

Published 1993, it’s dated. Every marijuana users is EVIL, for example. And likely to die.

That’s the bad news.

But, surprisingly, I made it through.

I enjoyed learning about John Clark (real name John Terence Kelly), the former Navy SEAL. His particular skills are fascinating.

His main talent is killing people. Vigilante justice.

In any case, I’ll give Red October a try. Second book chronologically in the series.

Blood Road – a cycling documentary

Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen were first to pedal the entire length of the 1,800 km (1,200 mi) Ho Chi Minh Trail through VietnamLaos and Cambodia.

Blood Road, according to director Nicholas Schrunk, “set out to document an epic cycling expedition as well as Rebecca’s personal journey to visit the crash site [of her father], but we ended up uncovering something much deeper.

It’s a story about the scars, both physical and emotional, that war leaves on families, countries, and cultures, and how they still exist today.

Rebecca Rusch and Huyen Nguyen

Click PLAY or watch a trailer on YouTube.

Superb cinematography. Incredible drone footage.

I was reminded just how stupid and futile was the Vietnam War and all wars. What a waste.

Watch it FREE on Red Bull. (90min)

I learned of Rebecca Rusch from an excellent and inspiring interview on the Adventure Podcast.

What a badass. Mountain Bike Hall Of Fame. Mountain Biker of the Year, Endurance LIVE Awards. Adventure Sport Magazine “Queen of Pain” (2004)

Rebecca says she was never much of cyclist. Climbing was her thing. But she won a lot of races due to grit, determination and pain tolerance.

Says her toughest adventure was her first Iditarod Trail endurance bike race in winter.

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

Red Sparrow (2013) is a novel written by Jason Matthews, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative …

Dominika Egorova, or “Red Sparrow”, is a former Russian ballerina who is forced by her uncle to undergo espionage training for the Russian government at the Sparrow School, where people are trained to seduce their targets.

Other key figures are Marble, a Russian double agent who provides intelligence to the CIA, and Nate Nash, a CIA internal-ops officer who recruits and handles intelligence assets for the agency. …

Most interesting to me was the depiction of surveillance and countersurveillance techniques, said to be quite accurate.

I enjoyed the recipes included at the end of each chapter.

To me it is a dumbed down John le Carré spy novel. Less confusing than Carré. Still enjoyable.

It was made into a 2018 film adaptation with Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Reviews were not good.

Click PLAY or watch a trailer on YouTube.

 

Bird Box – on Netflix

I finally got around to watching this intense end-of-the-world film — while locked up for COVID-19.

Bird Box is a 2018 American post-apocalyptic thriller …

The film follows a woman, played by Sandra Bullock, as she tries to protect herself and two children from malevolent supernatural entities that make people who look at them go insane and commit suicide. …

On Rotten Tomatoes, an approval rating of 63% …

Sandra Bullock is always good.

And I found the film quite skillful, interweaving two story lines set 5 years apart.

Click PLAY or watch the trailer on YouTube.