Spies of the Balkans (Nigth Soldiers 11) by Alan Furst

Product info (from Goodreads):

Greece, 1940. Not sunny vacation Greece: northern Greece, Macedonian Greece, Balkan Greece–the city of Salonika. In that ancient port, with its wharves and warehouses, dark lanes and Turkish mansions, brothels and tavernas, a tense political drama is being played out. On the northern border, the Greek army has blocked Mussolini’s invasion, pushing his divisions back to Albania–the first defeat suffered by the Nazis, who have conquered most of Europe. But Adolf Hitler cannot tolerate such freedom; the invasion is coming, it’s only a matter of time, and the people of Salonika can only watch and wait. 

At the center of this drama is Costa Zannis, a senior police official, head of an office that handles special “political” cases. As war approaches, the spies begin to circle, from the Turkish legation to the German secret service. There’s a British travel writer, a Bulgarian undertaker, and more. Costa Zannis must deal with them all. And he is soon in the game, securing an escape route–from Berlin to Salonika, and then to a tenuous safety in Turkey, a route protected by German lawyers, Balkan detectives, and Hungarian gangsters. And hunted by the Gestapo.

My impressions:

Half-baked at best, boring like hell at worst – that would be my summary of choice. This one didn’t work for me at all. Perhaps it’s a case of over-inflated expectations, perhaps the formula wore off, and small wonder, after 11 parts it’s hard to come up with something fresh. I am going to dissect the novel in the most cruel way but I promise I’ll be concise.

The fate of Costa and his love interest, Demetria, failed to interest me because both these characters were as flat as a pancake. Well, even two pancakes. And a filling. I didn’t care about any particular Jewish refugee because the author didn’t give me an opportunity to do so. The plot was formulaic and very predictable, especially if you’ve read any of previous parts. It was soon deteriorating into an endless series of vaguely connected scenes with paper-thin heroes and heroines who did stuff. Even a daring escape from occupied Paris didn’t move me enough, it was so bland (and let me tell you, if an author botches up Paris there’s no hope). The proper research was there but I expect nothing less from such an experienced writer, specializing in the era so it is not a real asset.

Final verdict:

Don’t read this one, it’s not worth your effort. A major disappointment for me and a total failure.

Other Alan Furst books reviewed on this blog:

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Movie review: Control (Kontroll, 2003) directed by Nimrod Antal

Product info:

Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) is a metro ticket inspector working in the

underground transit system in Budapest. His job consists of ensuring commuters have paid to ride the train. Simple? Not really. Try to explain an idea of paying for a ride to, say, a pimp accompanied by several ‘working girls’.  Or a gypsy. They are not there for paying anything to anybody.

A quirky young woman dressed in a bear suit (Eszter Balla) catches the attention of Bulcsú, and their relationship suggests that he might escape from the drudgery of his subterranean life and finally see sunlight again. But first he needs to find out why passengers are jumping — or being pushed — to their deaths onto the tracks. And then he needs to persuade himself that life up above has something more to offer.

My impressions:

I was recommended this comedy-thriller by a certain Ksanthippe (thank you!) who has studied Hungarian at university. I admit that my knowledge of anything Hungarian is scant so I wanted to improve that and I thought this movie was a perfect choice.

If I had to sum up the movie I’d say it is a cross between Trainspotting, Matrix, Metro directed by Luc Besson, Kafka, and uncountable action comedies shot by Tarantino. It also proves that you don’t need a dark, big forest or a dark big mountain to create a certain atmosphere. An underground system is more than enough, especially as it is frequented by fortunate and unfortunate people and also a friendly owl.

The plot was hardly linear, centered around a crew of colleagues who patrol Budapest metro system and check tickets. They compete  with other, similar groups, they fight with unruly passengers, they have to overcome their own weaknesses and avoid the attention of their bosses called, very affectionately, the Gestapo, not to mention a mysterious, hooded figure of a murderer who pushes passengers on the rails when a train arrives on the platform. Is he one of the controllers or just another deranged soul?

What makes people work in the subway? Let’s face it, the job is miserable and it attracts just misfits, slovenly, unkempt, unshaven, often sleeping in the same clothes they work in. Bulcsu never returns to surface, preferring empty platforms to a warm bed.  One of his pals, Muki, when enraged, suffers from narcolepsy. Another one, called simply the Professor, considers Kontrolling a holy mission of a kind. Soon it becomes obvious the kontrollers don’t really care if people are riding free; what they care about is getting a proof they still have some self-respect left.

The funniest but also the most haunting scene was a session with a psychologist each controller has to undergo once in a while. It was creepy to see how botched-up these people were. Is our reality much different, however? Is the schizophrenic, slightly childish hero and his deranged gang a metaphor of the post-communist Hungarians?  Who knows?

Final verdict:

I suppose it could be easily a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie if only the director had a bigger budget. A blend of styles but similar problems – if you feel like watching something original give Control a chance. The ride was a bit wild but enjoyable nevertheless!

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Movie review: Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) by Jim Jarmusch

Product info:

Married for centuries and now living half a world apart for reason or reasons unknown, two vampires wake as the sun goes down. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) sits holding a lute in his cluttered Detroit Victorian, as Eve (Tilda Swinton) wakes up in her sumptuous bedroom in Tangier, surrounded by tons of books. These are completely modern vampires. They don’t go and attack people because there is the “good stuff” available in hospitals – safe, clean, cruelty-free. Their biggest fear is contamination from blood, poisoned by the degradation of the modern environment.  On a hunch Eve calls Adam and her husband seems to be seriously under the weather. Concerned, she decides to pay him a visit. The same idea occurs to her younger (?) sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Three vampires in a flat? There will be troubles. And blood.

My impressions:

I grant it, it was a highly atmospheric movie. That atmosphere made it float up to a point admiringly well. A reclusive rock musician. His pale muse/lover/wife who resides across the globe in Tangier, but stays in touch with her Apple iPhone (Adam, Eve, Apple. Perfect). The ennui. More ennui. Mushrooms. Blood in short supply. A double-trouble bratty younger sister who has to spoil everything whenever she turns up. I liked it all, I really did, but then, roughly after an hour, I missed some action. If only Ava/Mia brought a lover or two in tow. If only there were more vampires fighting for ‘lebensraum’ and an easy access to blood in the neighbourhood (but then it wouldn’t be a Jarmusch movie, I know, I know…).

I finished this movie being a little bored, not sure what the director wanted us to see and/or understand. An universal love story? A modern soul drama? Both? Wikipedia dutifully informed me that in 2016, the film was ranked among the 100 greatest films since 2000 in an international critics poll by 177 critics around the world. Well, it wouldn’t get my vote for sure.

Final verdict:

If you are a fan of Hiddleston and/or Swinton you are going to watch this one sooner or later just for the couple’s wry sense of humour. Perhaps it is worth borrowing to fill in a long, autumn night, after all as a perfect example of cinematic dandyism. Still does dandyism have to be boring?

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Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler

Product info (from Goodreads):

Norman Ohler investigates the murky, chaotic world of drug use in the Third Reich. There have been other books on Dr Morell’s cocktail of treatments for Hitler and Goering’s reliance on drugs, but Ohler’s book is the first to show how the entire Nazi regime was permeated with drugs – cocaine, heroin, morphine and methamphetamines, the last of these crucial to troops’ resilience and partly explaining German victory in 1940. Ohler is explicit that drugs cannot explain Third Reich ideology, but their promiscuous use impaired and confused decision-making, with drastic effects on Hitler and his entourage, who, as the war turned against Germany, took refuge in ever more poorly understood cocktails of stimulants. This chemical euphoria changes how we should think about the Nazi high command and its ability to understand the situation it found itself in by 1944-45. As such Blitzed will force a wider reinterpretation of several key events during the Second World War.

My impressions:

It is going to be a very short review. People, this book was good. Really good. It made me see many WWII events in a quite different perspective. What’s more, it was a fun, gripping read even though the topic was rather ominous. The drug usage in Germany before and during the Second World War is a neglected part of history that needed to be told.

I was absolutely amazed at the amount of drugs that Hitler consumed  during the war, knowingly or unknowingly it doesn’t matter. I think it explains a lot of his irrational behavior, stupid, even absurd decisions, and his crazy outbursts of anger that he had with his subordinates. I was also amazed at the fact that so many big, powerful pharmaceutical companies, like Merck or Bayer, sold drugs freely at the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century – they make all the contemporary cartels look like complete amateurs! The truth is definitely stranger, and more compelling, than fiction.

Final verdict:

Undoubtedly a brilliant story! Anyone with even a passing interest in World War II needs to read this book. Anyone who wants to know whether methamphetamine/cocaine/heroin might be a temporary solution to their problems needs to read this book as well. It should be compulsory in schools.

Rating icon with the words "one brilliant book" and a small butterfly on it.

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Movie review: Maman A Tort (Trainee Day) (2016) directed by Marc Fitoussi

Product info: 

Anouk (Jeanne Jestin), a Parisian fourteen-year-old ninth grader, has to spend an obligatory week as a trainee in a company of her choice. Her papa was supposed to secure her a placement at a TV channel, a very interesting option from any adolescent’s point of view, but then the plan fell through practically at the last minute.  Disgusted by his second-best offer (his own wine shop) and slightly panicky, Anouk begs for help her mother, Cyrielle (Emilie Dequenne). Cyrielle, contrary to her ex-partner, has always been the doer and the fixer – she bags Anouk’s internship in Serenite, an insurance company she works for, without any problems. Or so it seems at first.

Things take a turn for the worse very soon. First the girl is given nothing more exciting to do than a composition of  post-it notes collage on the wall, a task only kindergarten kids would enjoy. Then she progresses to a supremely important  “re-organizing a storage closet” (so, basically, cleaning it thoroughly) supervised by a duo of nasty, passive-aggressive women who constantly change their mind about what is right and wrong. That’s just a beginning.  Soon Anouk has to witness her mother’s public humiliation at the hand of her superior in the cafeteria plus some mild sexual harassment and good, old bullying. By accident she discovers really nasty secrets the Serenite company (and her mommy dearest among others) keeps hidden. Welcome to the world of adults, ma petite.

My impressions:

It was a surprising movie, on more than one level and I mean it very positively. First, the portrayal of young Anouk and her experience I found very refreshing. The director tried not to whitewash things too much – the girl, even if underage, had to face the soul-crushing world of adults in its full ugliness. Underhanded tricks of big companies, mind-numbing office work without any perspective, favouritism, misogyny, nasty, gossiping employees, finally sexual harassment, it seems the naive Anouk has to grow up very quickly and readjust her ideas of about everything, her own parents included. Her maman does nothing to help, quite the opposite. Below the veneer of a self-made woman and a dynamic, successful professional she hides a lot of insecurities, even traumas, especially connected to her work.

Overall the director preferred realism over saccharine cliches and I suppose it is the biggest strength of this movie; another asset – the film is full of wonderfully observed details about how professional and private needs frequently clash. I personally enjoyed an ending shot of a dark skinned cleaner at the office whose two small boys he’s brought to work because he obviously has no other place to take them. Such a simple scene, almost without any dialogue, and it tells you so much about the working reality in France (and elsewhere too). And the ending – it was so good and so real! No easy answers, no instant fixes, almost no hope… just Anouk and her thoughts.

Final verdict:

A surprisingly watchable and realistic movie full of subtly (and not so subtly) ironic scenes. Completely recommendable for a quiet evening of intelligent fun.

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The Warded Man (Demon Cycle 01) by Peter V. Brett

Product info (from Goodreads):

As darkness falls after sunset, the corelings rise—demons who possess supernatural powers and burn with a consuming hatred of humanity. For hundreds of years the demons have terrorized the night, slowly culling the human herd that shelters behind magical wards—symbols of power whose origins are lost in myth and whose protection is terrifyingly fragile. It was not always this way. Once, men and women battled the corelings on equal terms, but those days are gone. Night by night the demons grow stronger, while human numbers dwindle under their relentless assault. Now, with hope for the future fading, three young survivors of vicious demon attacks will dare the impossible, stepping beyond the crumbling safety of the wards to risk everything in a desperate quest to regain the secrets of the past. Together, they will stand against the night.

My impressions:

A Warrior, a Minstrel, and a Healer/Herb Gatherer. Three among many characters of this book are usually presented as the epitome of fantasy lit cliches. Brett managed to break that mould and it made his fiction highly readable to me.

The story begins by following a young boy, Arlen, allowing well integrated world-building as Arlen grows up, suffers his first serious loss and runs away from home. Before Arlen reaches teen years, the point of view switches to a young girl, Leesha (the Healer), and then on to another boy, Rojer (the Minstrel). All of these are presented very well indeed, as three-dimensional heroes with hopes and fears of their own.

Still. The worldbuilding wasn’t that original – it was a fairy common Medieval-style community with princes, castles, knights, peasants etc. What’s more, the  humans vs. demons, good vs. evil fight soon became boring. I also found plenty of inconsistencies when it came to the roles of women. They are revered as Mothers. Then they are shamed for extramarital children and sleeping around. They should have as many babies as possible because demons are killing people constantly. And yet they take contraceptives if they wish and it is not against any law. Hmm… somebody hasn’t thought it through. The last word of warning: this author likes torturing his characters and in his writing tool box he seems to favour rape.

Final verdict:

It wasn’t very bad but it wasn’t exceptionally good either; if you don’t care about logic in the world building you might enjoy this one far more than me.

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Movie review: Spa Night (2016) directed by Andrew Ahn

Product info:

An immigrant saga and a coming-of-age story which main hero, David (Joe Seo), an American teenager of Korean origin, is going through a difficult

period. His parents’ restaurant had to be closed because his father can no longer afford the lease and his own SAT performance has been found not up to the scratch. Now his mom is working as a waitress, his dad is drinking heavily, drifting from one menial temporary job to another, and he himself is not sure whether or not he is gay or what should he do with his life.  In order to help his parents pay the bills, his refreshment course bills included, David finds a temporary job in the titular spa/bathhouse for men. His new position still brings you more sorrow than money.

My impressions:

The movie was shot on real Koreatown locations — and featuring mostly Korean dialogue. I found it a bonus. What I didn’t like, it moved slowly and  several times I wished it was edgier, faster. Perhaps, as a contemplation of loneliness, the slowish pace was ok, but from time to time I found it slightly boring. A social drama about social issues doesn’t have to be boring after all. I know real life is not always a growth spurt but a movie plot should be engaging, right?

Spa Night has been marketed as a “gay Korean film” but it’s far less erotic than you’d expect. It’s largely a family film, as silly as it sounds, because family dynamics is the most important here. Should David be a dutiful son and fulfill his parents’ wishes and expectations? Should he rebel against them, find his own way and be happier? He does so in a way, opting for spa nights over his SAT study, but, on the other hand, his parents need badly any financial help they can get so…

I liked his performance and the performance of David’s mother, Soyoung, played by Haerry Kim, a disillusioned immigrant who was promised a better life in America, only to pick up a waitressing job she hates and constantly fight about money with her husband. Still I found the ending frustrating.

Final verdict:

An homage to the sacrifices first-generation immigrants made in order that their children could achieve their full potential in the States. Plus a coming-of-age story but without the coming-out-of-the-closet bit. For interested in both these topics and highly motivated viewers.

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An Evil Mind (Robert Hunter 06) by Chris Carter

Product info  (from Goodreads):

A freak accident in rural Wyoming leads the Sheriff’s Department to arrest a man for a possible double homicide, but further investigations suggest a much more horrifying discovery – a serial killer who has been kidnapping, torturing and mutilating victims all over the United States for at least twenty-five years. The suspect claims he is a pawn in a huge labyrinth of lies and deception – can he be believed? 

The case is immediately handed over to the FBI, but this time they’re forced to ask for outside help. Ex-criminal behaviour psychologist and lead Detective with the Ultra Violent Crime Unit of the LAPD, Robert Hunter, is asked to run a series of interviews with the apprehended man. These interviews begin to reveal terrifying secrets that no one could’ve foreseen, including the real identity of a killer so elusive that no one, not even the FBI, had any idea he existed … until now.

My impressions:

It was a truly evil book and it is not a compliment.

First of all, almost all character descriptions were done extremely clumsily. They more or less qualified as infodumps. Secondly, I got a feeling the plot borrowed too heavily from stories about Hannibal Lecter, especially ‘Silence of the Lambs’, and a old Brad Pitt thriller ‘Seven’. Thirdly I had an impression every single chapter ended with a kind of cliffhanger. Which was annoying because I hate that narrative device and kind of silly too because most of these ugly cliffies didn’t work as they should have. Fourthly, I found the characters to be mere cutouts and the main baddie, an evil genius of serial killing, was not scary in the slightest. I grant it, the horror parts were disturbing and sick, but I felt it was done just for the sake of them being described as shocking. I DNFed after one third of the book.

Final verdict:

A below average ‘thriller’ that offers nothing original, just providing a string of cliches and stilted dialogue scenes as a plot. To be avoided – a total failure.

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The Ambassador by Graham McNeill

Product info (from Goodreads):

Grizzled ex-general Kaspar von Velten finds himself unprepared for his duties as the new ambassador to the court of Tsarina. Not ready for the power struggles and politics, Kaspar is soon using his battlefield experience to cajole, influence, and get his way. But when a member of Tsarina’s family is murdered in Kaspar’s homeland, relationships become strained to the point of war.

My impressions:

This time let me re-write the product info because I feel the one I copied and pasted from Goodreads hardly does this book justice.

So…  where to start? Ok, let’s try the beginning. A grizzled ex-general who behaves like a teenager finds himself unprepared for his duties because, as soon as he arrives, he falls in insta-love with a local hussy of noble birth. Insert a major roll-eye. Kaspar, the said general, is the new ambassador to the court of Tsarina but he comes to a foreign country without a cook, servants or money. What’s even worse, he comes without any agenda, hidden or otherwise. By the way the Tsarina, who seems to be a love child of the Snow Queen and Ivan the Terrible, has just one notable trait, her blue hair, and a super-duper sword inherited from an ancestor – not especially impressive. Ok, let me return to the actual plot.

Not ready for the power struggles and politics, Kaspar makes one cliche mistake after another. Remind me again, why such a klutz was sent abroad in a capacity of an ambassador? No idea? Oh well… His battlefield experience also seems to be very limited – it should have taught him to travel with a cook and plenty of food supplies for instance. By the way, an ambassador or not, never quarrel with a man you know nothing about as soon as you arrive to your new post.

Final verdict:

This book disappointed me and I DNFed it with real pleasure after hitting one third of all pages. I hate stupid ambassadors and, generally, stupid characters.

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Movie review: Deadpool (2016) directed by Tim Miller

Product info:

Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) is a former Special Forces operative who now works as a mercenary. His world comes crashing down when he finds out he has a cancer. His only hope is an evil scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein) but that man takes a dislike to Wade. He tortures, disfigures and transforms him into Deadpool. The rogue experiment leaves Deadpool with accelerated healing

powers and a grudge. With help from mutant allies Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), Deadpool uses his new skills to hunt down the man who nearly destroyed his life and kidnapped his fiancee. 

My impressions:

To be honest there’s nothing much to say. The movie is a pastiche of Avengers/Superhero movies and it does it well although sometimes the jokes are flying low, too juvenile to be really funny. Still I enjoyed it, especially those moments when Wilson was laughing off Hollywood’s incessant pursuit of physical perfection and eternal youth. Plus, of course, their fixation on sex. Visual effects were also quite decent but the plot was same old Marvel stuff. If not for constant wisecracking I would get bored after fifteen minutes.

Final verdict:

Fast, funny and a bit profane – if you like X-Men parodies that tend to subvert the whole formula, this one is for you. Still watch it at home and don’t invite younger teens along. Deadpool 2 ? Maybe.

Posted in cartoon based comedy adventure, fantasy, fantasy action movie, movie review, sci-fi | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments