TV series review: Agent Carter (2015)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, loosely based on various sort-of-related comics by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others. Starring: Hayley Atwell, James D’Arcy, Chad Michael Murray, Dominic Cooper, Enver Gjokaj, Shea Whigham, Bridget Regan, Ralph Brown, Neal McDonough, Ray Wise.

This review contains some spoilers.

Following her distinguished service in World War II, Peggy Carter (Atwell) joins intelligence agency the SSR, where she’s treated disrespectfully due to being a woman. When industrialist Howard Stark (Cooper) asks her for help clearing his name from accusations of treason, she gets the chance to show herself equal or superior to her colleagues, but the dangers are vast, since sinister forces are after the powerful inventions stolen from Stark’s secret vault.

Agent Carter serves up much to like. The beautifully realised 1940s setting permeates everything from set construction and costume to lighting and music, making the show look like a noir film, if those had been shot in rich colours. The feminist angle is interesting too, showing from a woman’s perspective just how oppressive and restrictive the “man’s world” of most of the 20th century was compared to today. The writing is competent as well, certainly a couple of notches above Agent Carter’s “parent show” Agents of SHIELD, and there are several memorable characters, including Carter herself, confidently and convincingly played by Atwell.

But although it oozes quality and has a decent mystery story at the centre of its espionage/sabotage concept, it seems to me that the creators of the show should have dialed everything up a little. For example, the dialogue is good, but could have been great, especially in the often humorous interactions between Carter and Stark’s butler-cum-adventurer Jarvis (D’Arcy). The action sequences have oomph and showcase just how powerful a fighter Carter is, but they’re seldom all that outstanding, except one or two featuring “Dottie” (Regan). The mystery is good, but the revelations it offers are warm rather than blistering hot. The show takes place within the Marvel Universe, which it uses competently but without that whizz-bang punch of recognition and amazing connections that could have been there (for instance, they put none less than Ray Wise in charge of sinister Marvel oil company Roxxon, but nothing comes of this plot strand). All of this decent capability gradually grows frustrating and paradoxically disappointing – the show turns out merely good when it initially promised greatness.

The Marvel Comics connections are rich and its elements well chosen: apart from Roxxon Oil, we get to meet the Howling Commandos, Tony Stark’s father Howard, Jarvis the butler, Doctor Faustus (although not named as such in the show), a surprise finale cameo, and a precursor to the Black Widow, among other elements large and small. All of this is well done, whereas the previously established link between Carter and Captain America is less elegantly utilised, and seems to be there A) because it’s expected (Carter and the Captain had a relationship in the first Captain America movie), and B) as a red herring.

Where Captain Carter wins is in its expertly balanced tone, somewhere between early James Bond comedic suavity and more austere cold war thrillers, all spread like custard over a world that seems almost like ours … except when it happily gallops into comic book science fiction. It is, I dare say, the very tone Agents of SHIELD was initially going for but failed to reach. As a consequence of this ambience, Agent Carter is fun virtually all the time and keeps you dashing madly along with Carter in her adventures even when your brain’s buzzkill centre keeps telling you “they could have done more with this” or “that wasn’t very clever, was it?” and so on. Fun is, just like in the comics, the whole raison d’être for something like Agent Carter, and in that regard it delivers continuously. We could have used a stronger season finale, some dialogue sharpening and perhaps a less harebrained endgame from the main villain, but this show still sends the pulse pounding, the Marvel reference-o-meter pinging and the old sense of adventure soaring. Not great, but quite, quite good.

Rating: 7 of 10.

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Film review: Birdman (2014)

Posted in Film reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2015 by Mistlake

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Director: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu. Writers: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo. Starring: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Riseborough.

Down on his luck former movie star Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is trying to revitalize his career and prove he can be more than Hollywood superhero Birdman. To do this, he adapts a Raymond (Short Cuts) Carver book for the stage for himself to star in, but his coworkers, notably volatile Broadway actor Mike Shiner (Norton) and the women in his life, keep causing him trouble. And he is still haunted by a crass, foulmouthed version of the hero he used to play.

With its long, continuous shots and literate dialogue, Birdman feels more like a highly visual stage play than a Hollywood movie, and that is of course eminently suited to the story. Above everything else, this is a character study, focusing on Riggan but giving ample spotlight to the other people in his life as well. It’s detailed, beautiful material, equal parts agonizing and belly laugh funny. There’s also a strong streak of bleak poetry running through both dialogue and visuals, creating a world space that is at once limited to the Saint James Theatre, and encompasses a wide vista of imagination and magical realism.

Riggan must have been written specifically for Keaton, of course, since he has the perfect baggage for the part: he had early success as Batman (Riggan last played Birdman in 1992, the same year Keaton made his last Batman film, Batman Returns) and subsequently a career slump which I predict will end thanks to Birdman. I was never very fond of Keaton for one reason or another, but here he is simply magnificent, pulling out everything he has to give this broken but still fighting man so much blood, guts and sweat that one becomes transfixed by his ordeals.

The supporting cast is excellent, too, with Norton also playing someone close to himself, or at least to the public perception of him as a “difficult” actor. Stone gets more to work with than I’ve ever seen her get before, in the juicy part of Riggan’s cynical former drug addict daughter.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is knowingly sordid, all the characters being damaged and afflicted, doubting and fearful, and so it may not sound like a lot of fun, but it is. I don’t know when I laughed so much watching a drama film, and the dark humour tells us a great deal about the people we are watching, like when Riggan jealously turns off a broadcast detailing Robert Downey Jr.’s success as Iron Man; Riggan doesn’t want to be Birdman anymore, but it annoys him that others have successfully followed in his footsteps and, as it were, taken his crown.

The movie might be five or ten minutes longer than it needs to be, and the drums-only score started to bug me after a while, but this aside, Birdman is a splendid, profound film that digs deep into its characters while commenting wittily on the superficial obsessions and trends which preoccupy the human species. And it feels original – how often does that happen?

Rating: 9 of 10.

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Book review: Charles Dickens – Little Dorrit

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by Mistlake

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Upon returning to England after many years abroad, Arthur Clennam visits his stern old mother, who seems to be harbouring a family secret. She has also employed a young girl, Amy Dorrit, whose father has been incarcerated for a quarter of a century in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. Arthur takes an interest in the girl and her family.

Voluble, talkative, verbose, prolix, chatty, longwinded, prattling, bombastic, garrulous, loquacious, effusive, wordy, rambling, palaverous, grandiloquent, logorrheic, circumlocutory and plain old-fashioned motor-mouthed. Dickens edited the magazine where most of his novels first appeared, but in the case of Little Dorrit he could most emphatically have benefitted from an outside editor. I think that most very long books would be better at about half the length, but I’ll make an exception for this one: it would have been perfect at about a quarter of its 900 pages.

Typical of Little Dorrit is the way Dickens sets up a scene where the reader realises after about a page or two where it’s going and what the people involved are going to say and do, whereupon the characters just keep right on talking for pages and pages before finally reaching the relevant lines of dialogue that the reader has been patiently (or impatiently) waiting for. Certain characters, like Arthur’s former flame Flora Finching, outstay their welcome by appearing again and again, blathering on interminably in a way that’s initially humorous but soon begins to grate. Yes, Dickens is always verbose, but in this book it reaches parodic levels.

To make things worse, there’s nothing in the story to justify such an inordinate length. Where Great Expectations has a great story chock-full of surprises and mysteries, Little Dorrit is a pretty basic “oh the impoverished little darling is actually an heir to millions” plotline embellished with all kinds of subplots of varying superfluity.

Verbal diarrhea and thin story are two of the major flaws, and the third one is made up of the characters themselves, or rather their depiction. They’re colourful and interesting, as usual with Dickens, but here they’re even more caricatured than normal, and how many times does one need to be told just how a certain villain’s smile looks, or just how Mr. Pancks abuses his hair? How many pages need be devoted to Flora’s mindless gibbering? The very point of colourful characters, one would think, is that they stay in the reader’s consciousness so that one need not be reminded of their traits and quirks every other sentence. Also, Dickens likes to deal in absolutes, where the good are very good and the bad are ever so bad. Arthur Clennam is a stoic saint, and Amy – the title character – is twice a saint, bearing every misfortune with passive patience, and in general being the sort of luminous little angel only found in … well, books written by sentimental men.

Now, I understand perfectly well that neither the story nor the characters as such are the point of Little Dorrit. What Dickens clearly wanted to do was to don his satirical brass knuckles and give the entirety of Great Britain a good old bashing. Passive women and hardworking men of relatively little ambition appear to be safe from his swinging fists, but anyone and everyone else is fair game, from lowly day labourers to the very tops of government – Dickens hates them all. He saves his most entertaining vitriol for the gigantic machinery of British bureaucracy, as personified by the fictitious Circumlocution Office (apt name for an institution appearing in this wordy tome), whose sole function is to prevent good ideas from being carried out. If that sounds like Kafka, it’s no coincidence – reportedly Kafka loved Little Dorrit and was inspired by it in his own work. Other targets for Dickens’ wrath are high society, free-thinking women, and what he perceives to be the sheepish gullibility of the British populace at large. This voluminous, spitting rage at all and sundry is probably Little Dorrit’s greatest redeeming feature, along with the intriguing recurring theme of imprisonment real and metaphorical.

The language is of course quite extraordinarily beautiful (and in this case certainly plentiful) when Dickens doesn’t ensnare himself in interminable sentences whose many sub clauses wrap themselves around him like sticky cobwebs. Such sentences, few as they are, provide further circumstantial evidence that very little editing happened to this book on its way to print.

Little Dorrit is not one of Dickens’ greatest works, and to make it through the book you have to be infused with a love of language for its own sake. The satire is sharp, and much of it is still relevant today, but 900 pages? Come on!

Rating: 5 of 10.

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TV series review: Game of Thrones, season 4 (2014)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , on February 11, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Starring: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Iain Glen, Charles Dance, Maisie Williams, Jack Gleeson, Sophie Turner, Aidan Gillen, Conleth Hill, Julian Glover, Jerome Flynn, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Stephen Dillane, Carice van Houten, Gwendolyn Christie, Liam Cunningham, Diana Rigg, John Bradley, Rory McCann, Alfie Allen, Natalie Dormer.

Death and dishonor keep rolling across the known world, raising some people up, like Danaerys (Clarke), who is creating a cozy little empire for herself across the sea, and tearing some people down, like Tyrion Lannister (Dinklage), who faces execution for a rather noteworthy murder, of which he is innocent. Meanwhile, the Night’s Watch, hopelessly outnumbered about a thousand to one, are preparing to do battle with a gigantic army of wildlings from beyond The Wall.

The fourth season of Game of Thrones is pleasantly reminiscent of season three, since it chugs along at almost the same brisk pace and always placates us with the horrible death of an established character any time we risk coming close to boredom. This season also repeats the previous one’s odd structure of locating its loud and violent climax at its penultimate episode, which is then followed by a more complacently paced finale. Never mind, though – in this type of serialized story, the tale goes ever onward and there is no need for a knock-it-out-of-the-stadium ending to each season.

The fighting, mayhem, murders and scheming (especially that of Lord Baelish (Gillen)) are all as satisfying as ever, but there are some conspicuous flaws in this batch of episodes. One is a lack of proper explanations for certain events (for instance, just how was Stannis (Dillane) able to get an entire army of cavalry beyond The Wall?). These are mainly small things, but they stack up to get mildly annoying when accumulating. The other drawback is how some characters are kept in a holding pattern waiting for their big moment – Arya (Williams) and The Hound (McCann) keep wandering through the countryside, as does Bran (Hempstead Wright) and his companions, and Danaerys ends up gathering dust on a throne in Meereen until next season, all of them figuratively twiddling their thumbs until they are to once more go on stage.

But it is very hard, and would be unfair, to gripe too much about superbly nasty entertainment on this level, and even more so since the show keeps right on developing. There’s more humour this time around, all of it dark, most of it very funny. Even better, new concepts are being introduced (like the mysterious Children), surprises abound (mostly to do with abrupt death) and there’s more sense to all the nudity and sex – now it usually shows us something about the characters aside from how they look in their birthday suit. Futhermore, the special effects are more plentiful, allowing for more fantasy elements to spice things up. Also, I for one can’t wait to see what effect the creepy old mad scientist’s experiments will have on The Mountain.

Bring on season 5. Given the developments in the last couple of season 4’s episodes, we can look forward to a number of serious changes to the show’s dynamics, all of them tantalizing and potentially extremely exciting.

Rating: 8 of 10.

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Book review: Stan Lee & George Mair – Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2015 by Mistlake

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Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ grand old man, co-creator of Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men and too many others to mention, tells the story of his life and career, with additional passages on the bigger picture by biographer George Mair.

For starters, if you know a thing or two about Stan Lee, you will learn very little that’s new from this book. Furthermore, it doesn’t go into detail much, and the controversies that have been gathering steam around Lee in the last decade or two are dealt with in a less than forthcoming manner.

Good things about Excelsior! include the fact that Lee wrote at least two thirds of it himself (when there’s an additional author listed on an autobiography, it usually means that the subject has written bugger all) and that he did so in his own unmistakable and inimitable style, filled with enthusiasm, corny jokes and joie de vivre. You just can’t help liking a guy who is as bouncy as a schoolboy (as of this writing Lee is 92 years old and still going strong) and endlessly eager to enthuse any and all fans.

This level of happiness could get gagging in too massive doses, but Lee douses his flames on occasion, telling us a few less pleasant stories about the death of his infant daughter, some dishonest wheelings and dealings at Marvel Comics and elsewhere, and the sordid end to his 1990s company Stan Lee Media. He also confesses that before the breakout hit that was The Fantastic Four, he was considering getting out of comics, since he regarded it as a dead-end career and himself as a hack.

Then, of course, as far back as the Marvel comic books of the 1960s, Lee has always cheerfully admitted to having a terrible memory (which may be one reason Mair was hired), so let’s grant him that excuse for saying certain things that quite simply aren’t true. To give a harmless example, he claims that the Hulk was yet another mega-hit immediately upon his creation in the early 60s, whereas the truth is that The Incredible Hulk was cancelled after a mere six issues, following which the Hulk languished as a second feature in Tales to Astonish for years before being given his own book again.

Then there’s the juicy stuff, which was the real reason I wanted to read Excelsior!, namely the feud between Stan Lee and the many fans who want him to concede that artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (and others) played as big a part in the creation and development of all those famous characters as Lee himself did. As I expected, it’s a subject he seems reluctant to touch upon at all. He manages quite the somersault when it comes to Ditko, claiming that he’s willing to admit that Ditko co-created Spider-Man if that will make Ditko happy … which of course means that he’s willing to admit no such thing (incidentally, Ditko left Marvel over disagreements with Lee). About the comic book stories in which the contentious characters appeared, however, Lee is perfectly happy to acknowledge that Ditko and Kirby did at least as much to create the tales as he himself did as the nominal writer.

Apart from his stubborn refusal to grant the artists “creation credit” (credit which, upon weighing the evidence, I can only conclude that they amply deserve), it is – again – extremely difficult to dislike Stan Lee, so I won’t even try. He’s a humanitarian, an entertainer, the creator (hrm, co-creator) of many a happy childhood memory, the man who reinvigorated superhero comics and showed the way towards greater maturity, depth and variety, and he’s a man who has inspirationally lived his life seeing opportunity and positive challenges everywhere. Added to all this, he’s also funny and a charmer, so I will always like him, and I feel a strong sense of gratitude to him for filling my somewhat drab childhood with colours and adventure.

Excelsior! feels like a lightweight outline for a much more in-depth work, and in some of its aspects it’s not exactly a candid sort of autobiography, but it does clearly delineate Lee’s life and many of the meandering vicissitudes of Marvel Comics as a company, so it’s well worth reading if you’ve got an hour or two to spare.

Rating: 6 of 10.

‘Nuff said.

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TV series review: Game of Thrones, season 3 (2013)

Posted in TV Series reviews with tags , , , , , on January 28, 2015 by Mistlake

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Created by: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Starring: Peter Dinklage, Michelle Fairly, Lena Headey, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Iain Glen, Charles Dance, Jack Gleeson, Sophie Turner, Aidan Gillen, Conleth Hill, Richard Madden, Julian Glover, Jerome Flynn, James Cosmo, Stephen Dillane, Carice van Houten, Gwendolyn Christie, Liam Cunningham, Diana Rigg, David Bradley, John Bradley, Mackenzie Crook.

With Danaerys (Clarke) amassing an army and Stannis (Dillane) and Lady Melisandre (van Houten) using blood magic to harm their enemies, the Seven Kingdoms are under greater threat than ever, but that is as nothing compared to the army of undead slowly making their way south from beyond the Wall.

The only real problem of season 2, the lying-in-the-grass-with-a-straw-in-your-mouth pacing, is nowhere in evidence here, as Game of Thrones puts the pedal to the metal to accost us with all manner of surprising, shocking and intriguing developments. It’s also nastier than ever, taking a specific delight in reducing strapping young men to quivering cripples or, well, corpses.

The overarching theme this season appears to be weddings, of which there are several performed or decided upon, none of which are very much to the liking of their participants. One in particular should go down in television history as perhaps the least joyful occasion of any kind ever. The various pairings are unexpected and would, on another type of show, have been entirely incongruous, but in Westeros, of course, political necessity is the driving force for matrimony among the highborn, which literally makes for some very strange bedfellows indeed.

Amid all the maiming, betrayal and vicious scheming, we find some worthy new additions to the cast, none more so than the inestimable Diana Rigg, playing Olenna Tyrell, a barb-wire tongued little old lady who is capable of plotting with the best of them while delivering savory dialogue on the level of Tyrion (Dinklage) himself. Speaking of Tyrion, his scenes are still the jewels in the crown, and this season sees him “rewarded” for his service in a number of humiliating ways, not least by his own father, Tywin (Dance), who grows into an even more magnificent creature here than he was in the previous season.

Yes, weddings are a theme, but so is degradation. If you’re sensitive to torture mental and physical, this is not for you – many a scene is excruciating in its pure cruelty, and to be honest, there really are more torture scenes that are warranted by the furthering of the plot. The same still goes for the sex and nudity, of course, but it all gives Game of Thrones a visceral quality that’s balanced by its writing, which in season 3 must be the finest on the show so far.

However, not all the set pieces concern themselves with carving people up or getting in their pants. There is also a treasure house of fantastic tableaux and vistas to finally put the mighty clang of epic fantasy into this previously often lackluster world, and some of the grandest ones belong to Danaerys’ storyline, which has gone from prolonged and tedious to snappy and thrilling; it could even be said that her high fantasy adventures are moving ahead almost too rapidly at this point, as if she’s charging a motorbike up the slopes of military power.

Game of Thrones was good from the start, but in season 3 it reveals a startling number of new and higher gears to its engine, as it gleefully barges ahead across its landscape of dead or copulating bodies.

Rating: 9 of 10.

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Book review: Glen Cook – The Black Company

Posted in Book reviews with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2015 by Mistlake

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Mercenary brotherhood The Black Company receives an offer to take on a commission for an evil being called The Lady, who is waging war against rebels in her domain. The Black Company betrays their current employer and travel north to a land of battle, evil entities and endless games of cards.

“Military fantasy”, thought I. “That sounds like fun. I should try some.” I’m sure it can be fun and that I should try some more, but The Black Company was an exceptionally poor choice on my part. It was so poor, in fact, that I have difficulty deciding where to begin deriding it.

Let’s pick the plotting, for instance. It seems to me that Glen Cook comes from the Edgar Rice Burroughs school of narrative thought, where you just start writing stuff down with little forethought and then refuse to make the story more cohesive, since, let’s face it, doing a second draft is so boring and too much like working for a living. Hence, we get plot developments like the sudden appearance of a comet in the later part of the book, and a hackneyed prophecy connected to it – this is, it turns out, the one factor on which the rebel army’s hope of success hinges, yet it has not even been mentioned in passing previously. Sloppy writing, that, and The Black Company is indeed characterised by sloppiness in general, giving the solid impression of an author who simply doesn’t care. Another, if minor example: the narrator, company physician Croaker, gives someone a birthday present, and Cook can’t even be bothered to tell us what it is. Also, several mysteries are revealed … to Croaker, who forgets to tell us about them.

That sort of thing is the one problem that towers above all others in this novel. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, particularly if it’s the very first one in a series (and Cook has cranked out a great number of sequels), you need to describe things. I think this goes without saying. You’ve set your story in a place no one has ever seen or heard of before, and you’re dealing with magic, monsters and circumstances which simply do not occur in real life. Consequently, you need to set things up, explain them, describe them – in brief, show them to the reader. But no, Cook cannot be bothered. We get a few fragments of description here and there, but on the whole, I can visualize the world of this book about as well now as I could before I read it. Clothes? Armour? Buildings? I have little idea what their appearance might be, since they’re not described in the book. In fact, the few things that are described are things that we already do know what they look like: yes, thank you, I have seen a hill before, and a forest too. The added bonus of the author having little to no idea about military tactics is somewhat mitigated by the fact that, in a novel about a mercenary company fighting a war, he lazily manages to avoid depicting every single battle except the last one … decisive parts of which Croaker can’t tell us about, since he sleeps through them.

This indifference stretches to the characters as well. Few are described visually, and forget about characterisation; these people are at best caricatures, at worst simply blank spaces. The kindergarten level humour, mainly centering on the “hilarious” sparring between two punch-in-the-face-worthy little wizards, reappears over and over again with no connection to anything else in the plot, as if the editor told Cook “You need to insert instances of jocularity” in a robot voice. Following on from this, there’s also a horrendous issue with the dialogue. I’m sure military men of all ages have had their jargon and their repartee, but making vaguely medieval soldiers sound like modern day American marines is just too jarring, and produces an involuntarily comical effect (so there are instances of jocularity) when clashing with the high fantasy fruitiness of some of the rest of the prose. Said prose is not much to write home about, being either – as I’ve said – terse to the point of uninformative blandness, or intent on telling us that the region surrounding The Lady’s tower looks nothing like Mordor.

There are a couple of moments of suspense, which would have been more gripping if there had been anything about Croaker to make us care about him, and there’s a nice sense that while The Lady is evil, the rebel leaders aren’t much better. There’s also a realistic sense of military camaraderie, which does add a little something. These are the only three aspects I can come up with to even feebly recommend The Black Company. This book was an early work by Cook, so I will say that perhaps he has evolved as a writer since.

Rating: 3 of 10.

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