Cut Off

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“Can only dream of being a competent movie.”

cutoffRich-bitch heiress Patricia Burton finds her easy life yanked out from under her, after her millionaire father stops her allowance and requires her to get a job. Rather than anything legal, she opts, along with dumb boyfriend Pauly (Nicholas) and his friendly drug dealer, opt to rob a check-cashing store. That goes badly wrong, and they’re forced to hijack an ambulance which is transporting a stabbing victim to hospital. That doesn’t exactly solve their problems, as the local cops are on their trail after the drug dealer is arrested, whole the patient in the back (Kurupt) also turns out to have gang ties, and so is none too keen to meet the police either. How will Patricia handle the multiple threats?

The makers must have called in a lot of chips here, since the supporting cast is impressive and well above average in terms of star power. Patricia’s parents are portrayed by McDowell and Faye Dunaway, while also in the cast are Anne Archer, James Russo and Clint Howard. However, these fail miserably to cover up the flaws in the script, which is full of massive plot-holes. Apparently, when you hijack a vehicle in Tucson (hey, local interest to this Arizona resident!), for the first few hours, the authorities will only send a single patrol car, containing two vanilla officers, to keep an eye on you. And if you’re in a siege situation, you can just wander out the back, because the police won’t bother to cover it. I will admit, these inconsistencies are addressed with a final twist. On the other hand, that simply replaces it with a far worse, cop-out, which I’ll avoid spoiling, except to say I was warned against it by my English teacher when I was seven. This is, however, probably the only GWG film which explicitly nods for inspiration to The Wizard of Oz.

It’s a difficult role for Brooks, especially given her lack of experience, because the film starts off by making Patricia borderline repellent, and she has to spend the rest of the film pulling the audience back from this initial dislike. There are a number of flashbacks, which explore her relationship with her father, and make it clear that her brattishness and delinquency are largely cries for his attention. However, this may be a case of ‘too little, too late,’ and while you can admire the strength of personality she is shown as developing over the course of the proceedings depicted here, it’s a quality which also has its impact undercut by the final twist. The influence of Quentin Tarantino is clearly present in an excess of mind-numbingly meaningless dialogue, and if I remain a sucker for an action heroine with a British accent, that isn’t enough to salvage what is closer to an ill-conceived mess.

Dir: Gino Cabanas + Dick Fisher
Star: Amanda Brooks, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Kurupt, Malcolm McDowell

1632, by Eric Flint

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2actionhalf

1632Veteran science-fiction writer Eric Flint, the author of this opening book in his Ring of Fire series, self-identifies with the political Left; but his is an old- fashioned, Jeffersonian sort of populist liberalism, which embraces democracy, human rights, religious freedom (as opposed to “freedom from religion”), personal moral responsibility, retributive justice, and widespread gun ownership. When the small town of Grantville, West Virginia is transported, through a super-advanced alien race’s meddling with the fabric of space-time, to Germany during the Thirty Years War, the residents are willing to fight for these principles, in the midst of a maelstrom of rampant evil and oppression; and the reader is soon caught up in cheering them on!

As one might expect, there’s a lot of graphic violence here –the real Thirty Years War was no Sunday school picnic either– but Flint’s characters (at least, the good guys and gals) employ violence only as an instrument of moral order, not in opposition to it. The premise here is really original, and it’s worked out in believable detail that brings it vividly to life; there’s a good balance between action and the quieter aspects of life that build our understanding of the characters and their relationships; the pacing is brisk, and the characters are well-rounded and thoroughly life-like. (Grantville’s local UMW leader, Mike Stearnes, is nominally the protagonist, but there’s really no one “main” hero or heroine; Flint follows a number of characters who play important roles.) Well-researched actual history is incorporated seamlessly into the narrative (I learned some fascinating stuff I didn’t know before, and I majored in history!).

For readers who follow this site, one of the main attractions here are three gun-toting ladies (all of them major characters) who earn the stars above for the kick-butt quotient. High school cheerleader Julie Sims becomes the ace sharpshooter for Grantville’s thrown-together army. (She was seriously training to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in shooting events before the time-travel incident –and my guess is that she’d have not only qualified, but brought home the gold medal.) Sexually-abused camp follower Gretchen Richter, rescued by the Americans, becomes a force to be reckoned with when she learns to use a pistol. And while a young Jewish lady named Rebecca actually isn’t a very good shot, she doesn’t need to be when she’s packing a sawed-off shotgun. If you like your fictional heroines strong, tough, gutsy, and not a bit bothered by using lethal force, you’ll appreciate these gals. (The only ones who don’t are the bad guys –and their opinion doesn’t matter much once they’re pushing up daisies!)

Note: There are a few instances of unmarried sex here, but nothing explicit; the only sex scene that’s dealt with at length takes place on a couple’s wedding night and isn’t treated in a salacious way. There is quite a bit of bad language, which often includes profanity (Flint confuses this several times with “blasphemy;” but there actually isn’t any of the latter) or the f-word.

Author: Eric Flint
Publisher: Baen Books, available through Amazon in all formats.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Duelist

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“A triumph of style over content”

DuelistposterNamsoon (Ha) is a hard as nails detective in medieval Korea. While working undercover at a market on a counterfeiting case, she encounters a masked man (Kang), and battles him before he vanishes, though not before she manages to cut away a fragment of his mask revealing his ‘Sad Eyes’ – the name by which he is known for the rest of the film. What is his tie to the forged money? And why has be been seen going into the house of a powerful government Minister Song (Song)? Namsoon and her mentor, Ahn (Ahn) investigate, though the closer they get to the truth, the more perilous things become, not least because she begins to fall for Sad Eyes, especially after infiltrating Song’s mansion as a courtesan – a task for which she is singularly unsuited. After a public incident, while Ahn has to fire Namsoon from the police force, this is merely a ruse, allowing her to go after the final piece of evidence they need to raid Song’s mansion and bring down his operation.

Rarely have I seen a more beautifully-shot film. Truly, this picture is as pretty as a… er, picture. The cinematography is top-notch, offering a sumptuous feast of visuals that mixes styles and techniques to great effect, and freeing the movie from bothering with banal chores like dialogue for extended periods. Unfortunately, neither the story nor the characters are a match for the look and feel, leaving the viewer largely to admire the film, rather than being engaged by or liking it. As I recall, the director’s previous film, Nowhere to Hide, had much the same issue, pitting two (male, there) adversaries against each other, in a rain-drenched landscape that was emotionally distant – but, boy, did it look good. Here, the action is extremely stylized, resembling a modern dance routine more than a fight in some cases, or even, as one character puts it, “It was like they were making love under the moonlight.” I also sense there are creative anachronisms at work: did they even have cops, never mind lady ones, at this time? However, the biggest weakness is likely the sudden way Namsoon falls for Sad Eyes; she doesn’t seem at all like the kind of person who would do that, and since this supposed relationship is at the film’s emotional heart, it’s a flaw that may explain why this feels so uninvolving.

Under other circumstances, this could well be a fatal flaw, yet there’s still enough for your enjoyment in the eye candy department to make this worth watching, even at a fairly long 111 minutes. One senses that Lee is much more interested in the technical aspects of cinema, rather than the emotional one of connecting with the audience. I can appreciate that side, certainly, yet for a film to be truly successful, there needs to be some yin to go along with the yang, or what results will seems frustratingly incomplete.

Dir: Lee Myung-se
Star: Ha Ji-won, Kang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang

Warrioress

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“Cecily, Warrior Princess”

warrioriessThis is one I’ve been aware of since as far back as 2010, but it seemed to have been lost in post-production hell, so I was surprised to see this had finally got a release, coming out on DVD in its home territory of the UK last May. It’s one of those films where you need to know, going in, that this is not a slick Hollywood blockbuster with massive production values, and instead is clearly a work of love for those involved, doing their best with limited resources. In fact, I can’t really do better in setting those expectations than another review, which said the film was, “Best described as ‘Xena filmed on a Doctor Who-circa-1980 budget by way of a Robin of Sherwood LARPing weekend'”. I can’t really improve much on that, though would perhaps add, “Set on Steampunk Sunday at your local Renaissance Festival.”

The story is triggered by a prophecy, which sees Boudiccu (Fey) first win custody of a pair of legendary weapons, then journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape, where humanity has largely reverted to tribal savagery. However, the crypto-fascist Falonex clan still appear to have a handle on some old-school technology and appear to be massing to establish their dominance. On the way to the prophesied location, where she will face another warrioress in a battle which will hopefully lead to a champion rising who can defeat the Falonex, Boudiccu is joined by White Arrow (Simpson), who is seeking revenge on those who killed her family. Or something. They have to fend off attacks, share flashback sequences and, eventually, have a twist revealed in their relationship that should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone paying attention.

What works? Simple: the action, led by Fay. She’s a tiny thing – 4’9″! – yet it’s entirely convincing, because the style of her fights don’t show her using strength and power to beat her opponents (which would be implausible), they instead emphasize skill, quickness and agility, which she has in spades. Credit, too, for Boyask, who consciously avoids the rapid-fire style of editing, knowing that the best thing he can do with a talent like Fay, is point the camera in her direction, then let her get on with it. [Sometimes, knowing not to do anything is more important than trying to do it] There’s a battle, not long after Boudiccu leaves her village, in which she takes on half-a-dozen other women, which is just glorious: it’s probably the best action heroine sequence ever to come out of the UK. But therein lies a problem, in that nothing during the hour thereafter is as great: good, sure, sometimes very good, but the final battle in particular feels like a letdown.

What doesn’t work? Sadly, way too much of the stuff between the fights, which feels like a slapdash grabbing of elements lifted from elsewhere, lobbed into a storyline which might just about have passed muster on a wet Sunday at my college D&D society. The efforts at generating any kind of broad, post-apocalyptic landscape are feeble, particularly the Falonex, who are represented by a ropey CGI backdrop and the interior of a single tent, which does not succeed in making them the kind of global threat they are supposed to be, especially since their scenes are play largely for laughs. But what’s really missing from the dialogue and performances, is any sense of intensity. They’re purely functional, intended to get the story from A to B (where A and B are almost certainly fight scenes). It’s clear from the action scenes, everyone involved had a passion for what they were doing there. Unfortunately, that passion is absent from everywhere else, and weakens the overall product to an extent that many will be unable to look past the flaws, and appreciate the positive attributes to be found here.

Dir: Ross Boyask
Star: Cecily Fay, Joelle Simpson, Christian Howard, Merrilees Fay Harris

88

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“Not entirely forgettable.”

88More by accident than design, this is the third film I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks which features amnesia as a plot-device. It’s a bit of a scripting minefield, since it’s easy to become a crutch for the writer, with the amnesia being “cured” at the moments necessary to the plot. You need a lot of discipline to avoid this: Memento is likely the platinum standard for this being done well, and to be honest, most other efforts come up short in comparison. This is no different, with an absolutely key piece of data being withheld from the audience [and the lead character] until dramatically convenient at the end – though it doesn’t exactly take Nostradamus to figure it out in advance. Gwen (Isabelle) find herself eating in a diner, with absolutely no memory of how she got there. Checking her purse, she finds a gun, and accidentally shoots a waitress. Fleeing the scene, she also discovers a key to a motel room, #88. Going there, she finds more questions than answers. What was her relationship to local mobster, Cyrus (Lloyd)? Did her really kill her boyfriend, Aster? Who is Ty (Doiron), the cheerful killer who is helping her? And why does everyone keep acting as if she’s a stone-cold killer?

This opens with a caption explaining the concept of the “fugue state”, which Wikipedia tells me is “characterized by reversible amnesia for personal identity, including the memories, personality, and other identifying characteristics of individuality… and is sometimes accompanied by the establishment of a new identity.” I note that the section there on this disorder in popular culture, is rather longer than the list of real-life incidents, since it’s pretty much an open invitation to scriptwriters, to sculpt as they see fit. The key question is how interesting the story would be without the conceit. Here, I give it a qualified passing grade, since both Gwen and Cyrus are interesting characters, the former particularly when she’s in bad-girl mode, and just not giving  damn [the same can be said about Isabelle’s most well-known performance, as a teenage werewolf in the wonderful Ginger Snaps] It’s also fun to see Lloyd, better known for his mad scientist in Back to the Future, playing a sleazy scumball, But I can’t help thinking the fractured timeline doesn’t actually add all that much to proceedings, and is only made necessary by that single point of data mentioned above. It could have been played as a straightforward revenge flick, without the psychological trappings, and been little or no less effective.

The style here is a mix of the effective and the irritating. The soundtrack seems particularly intrusive, as if the director simply set her iTunes collection on random and let it play, and the shootout at the bowling alley ends with the characters skipping merrily away across the lanes, which as someone who has tried to walk down one knows, is wildly unrealistic [a over-energetic bowl had led to my wedding ring following the ball, and I can state confidently, it’s the only location where the physics of a Tom and Jerry cartoon is actually a good approximation to real life!] But even if you work out where this is going, the underlying story is a solid one, and Isabelle’s performance does a good enough job of compelling attention, to make for a passable 90 minutes of entertainment.

Dir: April Mullen
Star: Katharine Isabelle, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Doiron, Michael Ironside

All Souls: A Gatehouse Thriller, by Karin T. Kaufman

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

allsoulsFull disclosure at the outset: Karin Kaufman is a Goodreads friend of mine, and I was one of ten people to claim a free review e-copy of this book. Through much of my reading, I was ready to give it a solid three stars, and the super-strong ending commanded a fourth.

The premise here is that humanity is secretly menaced by a worldwide society of thrill killers, who make the notorious Thugees look like philanthropists, and who are recruited from all walks of normal life, into which they blend anonymously. (Their Gatehouse adversaries call them “Sacks,” short for “Sacks of sh*t”.) By Gatehouse estimates, the society has well over a million members, and has been around for at least 100 years. Organized in hierarchical ranks (members of each rank supposedly don’t cooperate very closely, and hate the other ranks –but they take orders from the higher ranks, and want to advance into them), it has a culture of strange behaviors, like the members taking bizarre secret names and tattooing them on their bodies.

Yet it has apparently no belief system or ideology except conscious embrace of evil and chaotic destruction for its own sake; Sacks apparently have no agenda beyond picking off as many individual innocents as they can without being exposed. The U.S. government –and possibly other governments, but our setting is the U.S.– knows about them and preserves their secrecy. But it combats them with an unofficial arm, the Gatehouse organization, which commands a small army of “hunters” who periodically assassinate individual identified Sacks (as opposed to, say, dealing with them through law enforcement and the court system) at the direction of contacts called “porters.”

Our action-heroine protagonist here is Gatehouse assassin Jane Piper, who’s very competent at what she does, and very motivated –her only sister was butchered by a Sack. She’s as lethal a woman as you’ll ever meet in fiction –but at the same time,one of the most compassionate (the two qualities aren’t incompatible), a decent person who’s kept her humanity and moral compass in a blast furnace of trial. I never had any trouble liking her, nor any doubt of her butt-kicking capabilities.

Early on, Jane reflects that if she stood up and shouted all of the above information in public, nobody would believe her anyway. Apparently, she thinks that the general populace might find this premise far-fetched. Readers might have the same difficulty. The idea is definitely original, but it’s rather hard to suspend disbelief here. While many people do embrace very evil agendas, including the killing of the innocent, hardly any do so while openly and consciously telling themselves that they’re doing so. The vast majority of them have to have some ideological belief system that justifies the evil by telling them that in reality it’s “good,” or for a greater good. I may be naive, but I don’t think Sack recruitment on the basis of “embrace homicidal evil just because it’s fun” would gain as many adherents as they have here. And while I see how Sacks have an interest in keeping their activities secret, I don’t buy the explanation that the government tacitly agrees to cooperate in letting them do so, lest they unleash an even greater blood bath if they’re forced into the open. Credibility is also strained by some individual characters’ motivations. Granted, action-heroine fiction writers often do stretch strict credibility a bit in their premises, and sometimes the tone is sufficiently tongue-in-cheek that the reader doesn’t take such lapses very seriously. Here, though, the tone is pretty serious.

It’s all the more a credit to Kaufman’s ability as a writer, and the strength of this book, that she took that kind of premise and made a four-star book out of it. Her command of language is impeccable –professional, literate, with the kind of painstaking craftsmanship that makes the flow of words seem easy. A Colorado native, she sets her tale in her home state, and the neighboring parts of New Mexico and Wyoming; she’s obviously at home on the ground, with real locations and a sense of place. The plotting is very taut in terms of time, compressed into just seven days –Oct. 27-Nov. 2, All Souls Day. Jane’s a first-person narrator for all but the first chapter, and hers is the perfect voice for the tale. She and the other major characters are all well-drawn. “Gripping” doesn’t begin to describe this book; it grabs you and pulls you along from the starting gate, and I’d have read it in one sitting if I could have.

That’s not to say it’s all action; but the waiting intervals in between are as tense as harp strings. When action comes, it comes quick, realistic, and bloody, with a high body count by the time you get to the last page; Kaufman knows her guns, and she writes action scenes clearly and credibly. Jane’s colleagues tend to be as combat-skilled as she is; and some of their adversaries are extremely deadly and crafty as well. (Generally speaking, in real life I have a problem with governments violating their own laws by sponsoring programs for extrajudicial killing. But I don’t hold operatives like Jane and Nathan responsible for acting in the situational context they’re in. They don’t make the policy; all they can do is protect the innocent and take care to kill only the guilty.) And Kaufman’s plot is a roller-coaster of surprises.

Ultimately, though, this is more than a novel of slam-bang action. It becomes a serious exploration of the possibilities of moral conversion, from great evil to willing embrace of good; of guilt and atonement; of the limits of forgiveness –in short, the kinds of serious moral questions that occupy the great literature of the Western tradition; underneath the smell of gun smoke and blood, we’re in the same realm here that Hawthorne and Dostoevsky, Undset and Graham Greene have visited before. Since this is a series opener, it’ll be interesting to see where Karin takes this theme in future books. And I’ll find out; because I definitely want to follow the series!

Note: there’s not only no sex here, but no romantic sub-plot. Gatehouse doesn’t encourage its operatives to marry, and doesn’t allow them to stay in the organization if they conceive a child. (If Jane ever decides that she wants a man in her life, I think that she deserves a good one, and that she’d be a great wife; but for now, she’s content to be alone, and doesn’t obsess about men and sex.) There is a fair amount of bad language, including some use of the f-word.

Author: Karin T. Kaufman
Publisher: Amazon Digital Services, available through Amazon, only for Kindle or as an audio book at this time.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Girl’s Blood

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“All over the bloody place.”

girls blood2I’m very confused, at to who is the target audience here. It’s part earnest drama about serious social issues, including gender identity and spousal abuse. But it also depicts a hardcore underground fight-club, “Girl’s Blood” in which women battle it out for the gratification of spectators. However, don’t expect a Japanese version of Raze, for while the fights are well-staged [Sakamoto has a good track record, most recently having done 009-1: The End of the Beginning], it has all the class of WWE’s Divas division and amateur night at your local strip-club, combined. For it panders shamelessly to every sexist stereotype imaginable, from sexy nurse through sexy schoolgirl to sexy idol singer. And don’t even get me started on the mud wrestling, filmed with such prurient camerawork, I was genuinely embarrassed for the participants. Then there’s copious and lengthy lesbian sex scenes, which appear to have strayed in from another genre altogether, albeit filmed with a good deal more style and bigger budgets than usual for such fare.

The central character is Satsuki (Haga), the club’s best fighter, but who is estranged from her family and refuses to change with the other girls. Her position as top dog is challenged by the arrival of Chinatsu (Tada), well-versed in MMA techniques. After the two have become close, personal friends, if you know what I mean, and I think you do, it turns out that she’s working without the knowledge of her abusive husband (Hideo) , a karate master who is unimpressed by the unsanctioned nature of these bouts. He abducts Chinatsu and brainwashes her back into submission; worse, still, he threatens to have Girl’s Blood closed down. There’s only one way to settle things: that old chestnut of a school-vs-school battle, in which his top three students will face off against Satsuki two of her colleagues: if they win, Girl’s Blood becomes official, but if they lose, they will have to disband forever [because, apparently, this is how sanctioning martial-arts works in Japan]. You will be unsurprised to hear this contest all comes down to the final match, which sees Satsuki facing off against Chinatsu.

I watched the Director’s Cut version which runs 128 minutes, and wonder if this is perhaps part of the problem; maybe the regular edition has a better consistency of tone or genre. Personally, I dug the action (and, fortunately, there’s no shortage), was disinterested in the drama, and gave severe consideration to fast-forwarding through the soft-core porn, while giving thanks under my breath that my wife was out. Not that she minds: however, the stream of sarcastic comments which would surely have resulted, might well have sunk what chance the film had of any serious evaluation. I’d be hard-pushed to argue with her in this case. While this could truly be described as a film with something for everyone, there are equally significant elements which will be of no interest – or even actively off-putting – for just about anybody. If the creators had made their minds up what they wanted this to be, the end result would likely have been stronger.

Dir: Koichi Sakamoto
Star: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Sakaki Hideo
a.k.a. Aka X Pinku

 

Clash

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“Vietnam Calling?”

clash_04cAfter The Lady Assassin was my first venture into Vietnamese action heroine film, it didn’t take long for the second to show up, though this could hardly be more different, being a gritty beast set firmly in the modern era. It begins with Trinh (Van) putting together a team of criminals – in an amusing nod to Reservoir Dogs, they each take code names, and there’s bickering over who gets what animal. The job is to steal a laptop containing sensitive information on behalf of Trinh’s employer, Hac Long (Phuc), but after the mission achieves its end, one of the gang goes renegade and vanishes with the computer, intending to sell it on his own behalf. Trinh teams up with – in more ways than one, if you know what I mean, and I think you do –  another member, Quan (Nguyen), unaware that he’s actually an undercover cop, seeking to bring down her boss. Trinh has issues of her own to worry about, for Hac is holding her young girl hostage, and requires her to complete “just seven more” jobs, in order to win Trinh’s daughter her freedom.

I’ve heard of Nguyen before; he did some work in Hollywood, before returning to his native country and starring in The Rebel, which became the biggest-grossing local film at the time of its release in 2007. This re-unites him with his co-star there, and the film does a good job of balancing the two stories, though it’s not until the second half that Quan steps out from the crowd of supporting actors to join Trinh in the spotlight. The martial arts is certainly impressive, with a hard-hitting style which seems to borrow a fair amount from Muay Thai, and former beauty queen and pop singer Van certainly holds her own. It’s notably less successful when it strays from this, and tries to incorporate gun-battles into the mix: it delivers the kind of high-volume, low-accuracy shootouts which might have passed muster during the heyday of Hong Kong cinema, but is more likely to produce a derisive snigger these days, for example due to the apparently bulletproof nature of Vietnamese furniture.

Have to say, elements of the storyline are also more than a tad over-familiar too, especially if you’ve seen Ronin, which used a number of the same elements, and had a rather better cast, acting-wise. Van isn’t bad, but she does have the advantage of the script providing her character with significantly better back-story. Quan is an undercover cop, largely for the reason that the story appears to have decided it needs one. Naturally, things build to the expected finale where they have to take on Hac Long, and… I should say no more for fear of spoilers, though that would probably imply there was something unexpected – and that isn’t exactly this movie’s strong suit, shall we say. Still, as mindless action, it’s entirely serviceable: perhaps I’ll make The Rebel #3 in this ongoing series?

Dir: Le Thanh Son
Star: Ngo Thanh Van, Johnny Tri Nguyen, Hoang Phuc, Lam Minh Thang
a.k.a. Bẫy Rồng

Real Dangerous Job, by K. W. Jeter

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2actionhalf

kimoh2I was graciously given a free review e-copy of this second series installment by the author, with no strings attached. As in the case of the first one, I blazed through it; it’s compulsively readable, and I made every opportunity I could to log on to it. Had time permitted, I’d have read it in one sitting –it’s that compelling.

Much of the evaluation and background material in my review of Real Dangerous Girl applies to this sequel as well. Here, Jeter brings the immediate story arc begun there to a close, while leaving the future open. The themes of coming-of-age, “primitivism,” and darkness vs. light begun in the first book are also explored further here, to serious effect. Kim has to really grapple here with the significance of what she’s decided to do, and face the fact that it’s changing her into a person who’s less innocent and less gentle, and that this isn’t necessarily a good thing. But that’s set against other psychological factors of self-actualization and self-determination that aren’t wholly negative either. This isn’t the story of a good girl changing to a bad one. It’s the story of an essentially decent girl learning to balance who she is with a world that’s far from decent, with no other guides (besides a very dubious mentor) than her heart and her conscience. And this will be reflected in the real moral choices that come her way.

We get to know Kim better here, as a person as well as the fact that she’s only 17 (as an “emancipated minor” –though we already knew she was pretty young). Other supporting characters are back and developed in more depth as well –not surprisingly, Cole, Donnie, Monica, McIntire and his chief goon Michael (and more surprisingly, TV newswoman Karen Ibanez). Also, we learn that our setting is a city in upstate New York (a character comes “up from Albany,” an expression that wouldn’t apply to New York City, which is down the Hudson from there, but would to cities built in the higher ground above the river valley). Jeter has kept his moral vision and standards of literary quality here. Again, there’s no sex, and bad language is restrained. Action fans who felt that the first novel was light on violence (several people die there, but in only two parts of the book) will get more of it here, and Kim will be an active participant in more of it. Her development into someone who can both psychologically and physically handle that, as Jeter presents it over the course of the two books (rather than overnight) is believable. But again, the violence is handled tastefully, with no wallowing in gore for its own sake.

I didn’t have any issues with plot credibility here, and the pacing and developments are excellently crafted to keep a high level of suspense and tension, again building to a very powerful climax. Jeter imparts a lot of obviously well-researched information about guns and ammo, explosives, body armor and other technical equipment that adds verisimilitude without being info-dumped in in such large doses that it takes away from the movement of the story.

Kim’s a heroine I think many characters can relate to in her moral quandaries, even though they involve extreme situations most people don’t face –because, as she muses at one point, everybody, or just about everybody, at times has people who, at one level, they might like to kill, and figure the world would be better off without. The moral possibilities Jeter is using action-adventure fiction to explore are possibilities, or temptations, that confront us all.

One of the greatest strengths of these books, IMO, is the brother-sister relationship between Kim and Donnie, which is genuinely beautiful and touching (and a two-way street of caring and emotional support). As an only child, I never had a sister; but if I’d had a big sister like Kim, I think I’d have counted it an enormous blessing!

Author: K. W. Jeter
Publisher: Self-published, available through Amazon, only as a Kindle e-book at this time.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Wild

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“Wild at heart”

While certainly not your typical action-heroine film, it’s hard to argue this falls outside our broader remit: movies about strong, independent women who strive physically to overcome the odds, even if in this case their opponent is more internal than anything. Witherspoon and Dern both find themselves nominated for Oscars thanks to their performances here, and it’s the kind of obvious portrayals that the Academy loves. A woman, Cheryl (Witherspoon) spirals down into a morass of depression, casual sex and drug addiction after losing her mother (Dern) to cancer, only to find herself while walking eleven hundred miles up the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave up to Washington State.

It’s a deliberately fractured narrative, beginning with Cheryl’s removal of a damaged toenail, then dropping back in time to her arrival at the motel from where she’ll start her hike, with here aim being “to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Immediately, her unsuitability for the trek is apparent, as she can barely lift her pack, and she manages only a couple of miles the first day and contemplates quitting. She perseveres, and as she marches on, remembers at semi-random, incidents from her life that brought Cheryl to this point: her divorce, shared moments with her mother before the diagnosis, etc.

I found the literal journey more interesting than the (likely too obvious) metaphorical one, perhaps because it has some personal resonance. Back at college, I set off on an overly-ambitious month-long solo trek around Europe, having never been outside the country before. I almost packed it in the first night, when my carefully-planned accommodation in Denmark fell through. But I persevered too, and it turned into one of the best months of my life, so I can relate to the transforming power of independent travel. On the way, she meets people good and bad, has experiences both miserable and ecstatic, and achieves a goal that’s much about the journey as the final destination. It’s beautifully shot, capturing the loneliness and splendour of the great outdoors, though never shies away from the negative aspects: I’m not sure if I finished the film with a desire to hike the PCT, or having crossed it firmly off my bucket list. Likely the latter, for we do not camp well. Our idea of “roughing it” involves a hotel which does not offer free wi-fi, so the prospect of having to filter water from a fly-blown puddle to survive is kinda deal-breaking.

There’s no doubt Witherspoon goes for it, putting everything out there on a project which appears to have been a labour of love for the actress. But I found Cheryl a largely unlikeable character, one whose problems are almost entirely of her own making, which left me struggling to empathize. Admittedly, I’ve been fortunate enough never to have to endure the loss of a loved one, with all my immediate relations still very much alive, so I can only imagine the impact it might have. This is where that fractured narrative perhaps works against the film, since there’s little sense of X leading to Y. One second, Cheryl is negotiating a tricky stretch of terrain; the next, she’s shooting up heroin in a dingy motel room. Obviously, it’s all connected, and I certainly respect the performance, yet this never fully engaged me as I hoped.

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée
Star: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae