Tuesday, July 31, 2018

media update: July

I had a lovely birthday week!  G and I spent several days in San Francisco and Monterey with his family.  There were some snags along the way (excruciating 9+ hour drive there due to traffic, no laundry facilities in either AirBnB, a few minor injuries/ailments in our group, parking in SF is a biiiiiiiitch), but overall it was a great trip.  Highlights: doing an escape room with G's nephews, SFMOMA, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and---at the risk of sounding sappy as shit---just spending time with my wonderful second family.  Good folks, all of 'em.

It's another big update this month (as far as books go, anyway) because the massive heat wave scorching SoCal meant that I spent as much time indoors as humanly possible.

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. A Guide for Murdered Children* by Sarah Sparrow:  The souls of murdered children enter a purgatory where they take over the body of an adult (called a "landlord") in order to track down the person who killed them and take revenge.  This haunting novel is like nothing I've ever read before, but I have to issue a huge fat warning here: although most of the murders aren't described in graphic detail, the exception was so disturbing it haunted me for days afterwards.

2. When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri:  Katie has always considered herself to be totally straight, but when she befriends a lesbian named Cassidy, she starts to consider other options.  The writing is a tad clunky at times, but it's still a fun and breezy read.

Side note: I kept picturing Ruby Rose as Cassidy while reading this, so if this gets made into a movie and there are any casting directors reading my humble blog, please enjoy this free idea.

3. The Anomaly by Michael Rutger:  Nolan Moore is an archeologist who's gained fame by doing a schlocky webseries called The Anomaly Files.  Going by the reports of an explorer from the early 20th century, they set out to find a mysterious cavern in the Grand Canyon, and it's no spoiler to say they find something bad.  Like Annihilation had a baby with Jurassic Park and then they dosed the baby with LSD.

4. Her Body and Other Parties* by Carmen Maria Machado:  A collection of short stories.  My favorite was "Real Women Have Bodies", in which women start to slowly become invisible, but they're all quite good.

5. Tell Me Lies by Carola Lovering:  When Lucy and Stephen meet in college, there's instant chemistry between them, but to quote Lady Gaga, it's a bad romance.  An interesting look at both sides of a toxic relationship.

6. The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager:  When she was 13, Emma went to summer camp, and three other campers disappeared, never to be seen again.  Fifteen years later, she returns to the camp as an art instructor in hopes of discovering what happened to her friends.  The second book I've read by this author, and it will probably be the last; in both cases, the premise was good, but the execution was seriously lacking, the ending blew, and there was too much "tell, don't show".

7. A Gathering of Secrets by Linda Castillo:  After a barn is burned down and a body is discovered inside, police chief Kate Burkholder is asked to investigate, but despite her Amish roots, nobody in the community wants to cooperate.

8. Bright We Burn by Kiersten White:  This is the final book in the trilogy about a genderswapped Vlad the Impaler, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessors.

9. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata:  Keiko has always had trouble getting by in the world, but when she takes a job at a convenience store, she finds its rules and regulations soothing.  She's perfectly content to let her job define her, but society wants her to do more.  It's very short, but it packs a punch.

10. Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott:  When Kit and Diane were teenagers, Diane confessed a secret to Kit that changed their friendship forever, and they lost touch.  But after a decade, they wind up meeting again unexpectedly when they're both selected for a prestigious research program, and shit continues to go downhill.  It was okay, but I was hoping for better.

11. Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage:  On the surface, Suzette seems to have it all, but she has a secret: her 7-year-old daughter Hanna is a monster, and Suzette thinks Hanna wants to kill her.  The writing style had that stiff feeling that I associate with translated books (though there are no translator credits, so I'm assuming it was originally written in English), but it was still an interesting and creepy update of The Bad Seed.

12. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh:  The unnamed narrator of this novel is so worn down by life that she begins a year of doing almost nothing but engaging in sleep marathons, and she's aided in this quest by an unscrupulous psychiatrist willing to prescribe the pills.  A 3 star book with a 5 star ending.

13. The Cabin at the End of the World* by Paul Tremblay:  Seven-year-old Wen and her fathers, Eric and Andrew, are spending their vacation at a remote cabin.  Wen is catching grasshoppers when a large man named Leonard appears and strikes up a conversation.  They're having fun, but then Wen spots three more strangers walking towards them, carrying homemade weapons, and Leonard says "None of what's going to happen is your fault."  I'll leave off there for fear of spoilers, although I will mention that this was going to be a double star until the ending.

14. How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran:  The continuing adventures of Dolly Wilde, teenage music journalist and self-described lady sex pirate.  The story itself is just okay, but there are occasional gems like this one that really made it worth the read: "A book is a beautiful paper mausoleum in which to store ideas...to keep the bones of your thoughts in one place, for all time. I just want to say 'Hello. We can hear you. The words survived.'"

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  72


NONFICTION

1. Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg:  A memoir about surviving domestic abuse.

2. Little Shoes: The Sensational Depression-Era Murders That Became My Family's Secret by Pamela Everett:  When the author was a teenager and acting out, her father said "I lost two sisters and I can't lose my daughter."  She had no idea what he was talking about, but when she grew up, she looked into it and discovered that she had two aunts who (along with another girl) were murdered when they were children.  The investigation and trial led to a media circus and the conviction of a man who the author thinks may have been innocent.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  19


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Takane and Hana by Yuki Shiwasu

2. Yokai Rental Shop vol. 3 by Shin Mashiba

3. Hungry for You: Endo Yasuko Stalks the Night by Flowerchild

4. Sweetness and Lightning vol. 10 by Gido Amagakure

5. My Solo Exchange Diary* by Nagata Kabi

6. Rin-Ne vol. 27 by Rumiko Takahashi

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  26 volumes of manga and 8 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. Pacific Rim: Uprising:  This sequel is rather light on kaiju action and suffers tremendously as a result.  Aside from a few decent action sequences, it's boring and can be safely skipped.


2. Flower*:  Teenager Erica (Zoey Deutch) makes money having sex with, and then blackmailing, older men.  When she meets Luke, the son of her mother's new boyfriend, and finds out that he was molested as a kid, she decides to get revenge on his behalf.  An entertaining indie flick with some very good performances and one of the best lines of the year.

3. White Girl:  After moving to NYC for college, Leah becomes involved with a drug dealer named Blue, and when he's arrested, she finds herself in possession of his massive cocaine stash.  If you liked Spring Breakers, you'll probably like this too, but honestly, I didn't like either movie much.

4. Blockers:  When they discover their daughters have made a "sex pact" for prom night, three parents decide to stop them.  It had its moments, but I thought it would be much funnier than it really was.

5. A Quiet Place*:  A family struggles to survive in a world where monsters with super sensitive hearing mean that the slightest noise could lead to their deaths.  Tense as HELL.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  61

Monday, July 02, 2018

media update: June

I'm writing this at work after almost two full weeks of vacation and boy am I salted about it!  At least I had a wonderful time; my family, G, and I took a train through the Canadian Rockies and enjoyed ourselves immensely.  Canada is a magical wonderland full of bears, candy, and OTC allergy medication that actually worked for me and I would like to go back please. 

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. The Song of Achilles* by Madeline Miller:  A reworking of the myth of Achilles as told by his friend and lover Patroclus.

2. What I Lost by Alexandra Ballard:  16-year-old Elizabeth has just been admitted to a treatment center for her anorexia.  As she struggles with learning how to eat properly again and realizing how much her mother's skewed view of food has shaped her own, she finds solace in the anonymous care packages sent to her.  But are they from her ex-boyfriend or someone else?

3. Furyborn by Claire Legrand:  The stories of two women, one blessed (or cursed) with all seven kinds of elemental magic and the other an assassin, intersect in this enjoyable fantasy.  It was shelved as YA, but it doesn't read like it; it reminded me of the Tearling novels by Erika Johansen.

4. Pretend I'm Dead by Jen Beagin:  Mona volunteers at a needle exchange site, where she meets a client she calls Mr. Disgusting.  They fall in love, but when things go wrong, she moves to New Mexico in hopes of a fresh start. 

5. When Life Gives You Lululemons by Lauren Weisberger:  After leaving her job as Miranda Priestly's assistant (cf. The Devil Wears Prada), Emily now works as an image consultant.  When the beautiful supermodel wife of a politician is arrested for drunk driving, she swears it's a set up and desperately calls Emily for help.  It's not going to win a Pulitzer or anything, but it's a breezy read that's perfect for the season.

6. How Hard Can It Be?* by Allison Pearson:  Kate Reddy is about to turn 50, and between perimenopause, dealing with her teenagers and unemployed husband, and renovating a money pit of a house, she's losing her mind.  She decides to reenter the work force, and she creates a resume with so many lies that, in her words, it might as well be experimental fiction.  To her surprise, she gets a job at the hedge fund she originally founded many years ago, but needless to say, her complicated life gets even more so.

Kate originally showed up in the author's debut novel, I Don't Know How She Does It, which I read many years ago, and although I don't remember much about it, I do remember really enjoying it.  This sequel is also really good: funny and insightful, and Kate is a terrific heroine to root for.

7. The Woman in the Woods* by John Connolly:  After the body of a young woman is discovered in the woods and forensic evidence shows she had given birth shortly before her death, a lawyer contacts Charlie Parker and asks him to look into the missing child.  Definitely the best Connolly novel in years, although I had forgotten about something that happened in the previous novel and it made me sad when I was reminded.

8. The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong:  Yu-jin is prone to seizures, but he doesn't like to take his medicine because he enjoys the high he gets right before one hits.  But when he wakes up with little memory of the night before and discovers his mother's murdered body, he tries to figure out who's responsible.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  57

NONFICTION

1. Calypso by David Sedaris:  A new collection of essays.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  17

MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Bingo Love by Tee Franklin, Jenn St-Onge, and Joy San

2. Food Wars!* vol. 24 by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki

3. Queen's Quality vol. 4 by Kyousuke Motomi

4. Beauty Bunny by Mari Yoshino

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  20 volumes of manga and 8 graphic novels

MOVIES

1. Molly's Game*:  After her Olympics dream came literally crashing to a halt, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, predictably excellent) moved to Los Angeles and started an underground poker ring frequented by celebrities and high rollers.  Aaron Sorkin wrote it, so the dialogue was sharp and rapid-fire.  Based on a true story.

2. Game Night*:  Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) host a game night at their home every week, but when Max's brother hosts a murder mystery party at his place instead, it turns into something unexpected.  An overlooked little gem with lots of funny lines and an especially good performance by Jesse Plemons as their forlorn neighbor.

3. Maze Runner: The Death Cure:  This is the final film in the series, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessors.  It was definitely the best of the three.

4. Thoroughbreds:  After reconnecting, childhood friends Lily and Amanda hatch a plan to kill Lily's overbearing stepfather.  A bit slow, probably due to the fact it was originally supposed to be a play, but good.

5. Red Sparrow:  After an accident destroys her ballet career, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is recruited by a Russian intelligence agency to serve as a "sparrow", a spy who uses sex to get information.  It's howlingly bad and extremely violent, but honestly, I kind of enjoyed it.  It's the cinematic equivalent of fast food: you should probably not spend any of your precious life consuming it, but you'll enjoy it while you do.

6. Cell:  After a strange cell phone signal turns people into rage-filled zombies, a small band of survivors looks for safety.  Based on the Stephen King novel, though they changed so much from the book that you wouldn't know it.  (King cowrote the screenplay, so I'm guessing he was fine with the changes, but I'm not sure why they were made.)

7. Love, Simon*:  Simon is a teenage boy who's hiding the fact that he's gay.  He starts corresponding with another closeted teenage boy online, but when Simon forgets to log out of a school computer, a classmate finds the emails and begins blackmailing him.  I wish this movie had ended about 5 minutes sooner, but it was still a super sweet movie that left me feeling ultra schmooply, so I'll give it a star.

8. Tomb Raider:  Aside from one decent action sequence, this reboot was dull and full of terrible dialogue.  Skip it.

9. Fifty Shades Freed:  Pretty sure you don't need me to tell you what this is about!  God, it was so fucking bad, even by its predecessors' standards, but adult refreshments helped make it bearable.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  56

Thursday, May 31, 2018

media update: May

This month, I have contenders for both my favorite novel and favorite movie of 2018!

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. You Think It, I'll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld:  A collection of short stories.

2. A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas:  This is the latest in the series, so I can't give it a proper review lest I spoil its predecessors.

3. How to Be Safe** by Tom McAllister:  Anna Crawford is a high school teacher who's just been suspended for losing her temper in class.  While she's home, she's horrified to see a news report saying that there's been a shooting at her school...and that she's the primary suspect.  Even after she's exonerated, people still don't trust her, and the town falls into chaos as people try to make sense of the tragedy.  All too timely, and unfortunately it probably always will be.  My favorite novel of the year so far (and oddly enough, pushing another book about our society's gun obsession out of the #1 spot).

Side note: don't let the synopsis fool you; although it's dark, it can also be quite funny, as in the scene where Anna gets an angry phone call from a man threatening to smother her with dicks and she says "Where are you getting all of these spare dicks?  I could use a few."  Anna's one hell of a good character; she reminded me a lot of Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

4. The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy:  A group of friends, all new mothers, get together twice a week to share their experiences and just hang out.  One of the women, Winnie, is a single mother who's never left her baby Midas (oy) with anyone before, but the others convince her to get a sitter, and then they receive the horrifying news that Midas is missing. Overhyped.

5. The Pisces* by Melissa Broder:  After her relationship implodes, Lucy accepts her sister's invitation to dogsit for an extended period of time.  One night, Lucy is walking down by the beach when she meets a hot surfer guy who turns out to be a merman.  Yes, I know you're thinking of The Shape of Water, but this is sexier, quirkier, and much funnier, and damn does it stick the landing.

6. Ash Princess by Laura Sebastian:  After her mother, the Fire Queen, is murdered and her country invaded, Theodosia is taken captive by the Kaiser and given the mocking title of the Ash Princess.  She tries to cope as best as she can despite constant cruelty, but when the Kaiser forces her to murder an innocent man, she begins plotting a rebellion.

7. Circe* by Madeline Miller:  A retelling of the life of the mythical sorceress made famous by The Odyssey.  I thought this would be a "broccoli book" (i.e. "nutritious" but no fun), but it's really good!

8. Our Kind of Cruelty* by Araminta Hall:  Mike and Verity (who he calls V) have a game they love to play together.  They go to a bar, V starts flirting with a guy, and just as it's getting hot and heavy, Mike angrily interrupts them and then he and V go off and have passionate sex.  But after Mike and V break up, she gets engaged to another man rather quickly, and Mike is convinced she's still playing their game...just an especially elaborate version.

This was one of my most anticipated books of the year, not least of all because it got such a rave review from Gillian Flynn.  Unfortunately, my expectations were too high, but it was still pretty good.  A word of advice, though: if you are the type of person to read the acknowledgements first, even if they're at the end, DO NOT do it with this book!  I sometimes read them first, but I didn't in this case, and man, I was so glad I hadn't. 

9. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner:  Romy has just been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison.  (The reason isn't given until a good chunk of the book has passed, and astoundingly the inside cover doesn't spoil it, so I won't say what she did here.)  While she navigates  her new surroundings, she reflects on the choices that brought her there.

10. The Favorite Sister** by Jessica Knoll:  Kelly and Brett are sisters on a reality show called Goal Diggers, which showcases successful businesswomen.  Kelly is older but new to the cast, with a young daughter; Brett is a tattooed lesbian who runs a successful spin studio.  We find out on the very first page that Brett is dead, but we won't find out how or why until the end.  It's a nasty, savage, catty book (I mean these adjectives as compliments) with a pointed message, and I enjoyed it immensely.

11. The Outsider* by Stephen King:  When the mutilated body of an 11-year-old boy is discovered, all evidence points to the town's popular Little League Coach, Terry Maitland, as the killer.  His fingerprints and DNA match that found at the crime scene, and several eyewitnesses saw him covered in blood and acting strangely.  Just one problem: Terry was out of town with a group of coworkers for a lecture, and not only do his coworkers vouch for him, but he's captured on video asking the lecturer a question.  So who killed the boy?  Well, considering that this is a Stephen King book, it's no spoiler to say it was more of a "what".  Much better than most of his recent work.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  49


NONFICTION

1. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil:  When Clemantine was six years old, she and her older sister Claire fled the massacre in Rwanda and spent the next several years wandering through Africa before being granted refugee status in the US.  They moved to Chicago, and although their fortunes were greatly improved, Clemantine was unable to forget her terrible past.

2. Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture* edited by Roxane Gay:  A collection of essays about sexual assault.  Not cheerful reading, of course, but important.

3. The Trauma Cleaner* by Sarah Krasnostein:  The riveting true story of Sandra Pankhurst, who survived abuse and neglect as a child named Peter, underwent gender confirmation surgery in the early 80s, became a sex worker, and eventually started a successful trauma cleanup service.  This book alternates between Sandra's life story and anecdotes from the job.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  16


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

Believe it or not, nothing this month!

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  17 volumes of manga and 7 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. Batman Ninja:  Batman and his enemies are sent back in time to feudal Japan, where a whole lot of WTF happens.  There are gigantic mech buildings and a huge troop of monkeys that form a bigger monkey and it's all just incredibly weird.  The story is incomprehensible and filled with cliches, but it's beautiful to look at and it's definitely different!

2. Avengers: Infinity War**:  The Avengers team up against their most insidious foe yet in this REALLY FUCKING GOOD flick.  I had high hopes for it because the Russo Brothers did such a great job with the Captain America movies, and they did not disappoint.  It's dark, albeit leavened with some terrific humor, and Thanos is a much more compelling villain than you usually find in superhero movies.  My favorite movie of the year so far.

3. The Disaster Artist*:  When aspiring actor Greg (Dave Franco) meets an intensely weird dude named Tommy Wiseau (an unrecognizable James Franco, who also directed), they wind up making The Room, one of the worst movies of all time but also a beloved cult classic.  It's a funny and entertaining look at how sometimes your dreams come true...just not in the way you expected.

4. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle:  A group of teenagers accidentally get sucked into a video game and turned into its avatars (i.e., the nerd is now Dwayne Johnson and the bitchy popular girl is now...Jack Black).  They have to beat the game in order to return to the real world.  Dumb but fun.

5. Bad Moms:  Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is trying to juggle the demands of her career and motherhood, but she feels like she's doing a terrible job of it until she meets two other moms (Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell) who help her let loose.  I thought it would be funnier, but it has its moments.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  47

Monday, April 30, 2018

media update: April

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi:  Penny has just moved to Austin, Texas to attend college in hopes of becoming a writer; Sam is a tattooed barista with a flair for baking.  After Penny helps Sam while he's having a panic attack, they exchange numbers, joking about becoming each other's emergency contact, and it turns into a serious texting flirtation.  Some really nice, sharp dialogue in this book.  I don't usually read YA novels that aren't dystopian/sci-fi/fantasy, but this one kept my interest.

Side note: this book has one of my favorite covers in a long time.  It's GORGEOUS.

2. The Innocent Wife* by Amy Lloyd:  Dennis Danson has been in prison for over 20 years after being convicted of murder, but a group of true crime fanatics believe he's innocent.  Sam, a young British woman, becomes obsessed with the case and begins writing him, and soon she moves to Florida to be with him as much as possible and help a documentary crew with their film about the case.  Dennis and Sam even get married, but a series of events leads her to start doubting his innocence after all.  It's so good I had a hard time believing it was the author's first book; I'll definitely keep an eye out for her future work.

3. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan:  When his sister Keiko is stabbed to death, Ren Ishida takes over her position at a cram school and her gig reading to the bedridden wife of a politician in hopes of discovering what happened to Keiko.  It sounds like a thriller or a mystery, but it's more of a mediation on grief.

Side note: oddly enough, The Innocent Wife is partially set in the Florida county of Red River, and this book, which I read immediately after TIW, is set in the (fictional) Japanese town of Akakawa, which means...red river.

4. Stray City* by Chelsey Johnson:  Andrea is a lesbian living in Portland in the late 1990s.  Feeling vulnerable one night after seeing two of her exes together, she starts hooking up with a guy named Ryan.  She keeps the relationship secret so as to avoid the judgment of her "gold star" (i.e. lesbians who have never had sex with a man) friends, but then she becomes pregnant and decides to have the baby.  I don't usually cry over books (which is weird, because pretty much everything else ever makes me cry), but the last couple of pages WRECKED me.

5. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman:  When Mikey was a kid, he hung out with a group of other kids that called themselves the Gunners (after a sign in front of the abandoned house where they hung out).  Now an adult, Mikey gets a call that one of his old friends has died by suicide, and he gets together with the others to figure out what happened.  It wasn't bad, but there's a plot point that was so ridiculous that it bothered me.

6. Two Girls Down* by Louisa Luna:  Jamie Brandt leaves her daughters Kylie and Bailey in the car while she runs into Kmart to buy a birthday gift, but they're not there when she returns.  Desperate for answers and not trusting the overworked local police, Jamie's aunt hires Alice Vega, a former bounty hunter, to look into the disappearance.

7. The Elizas by Sara Shepard:  Shortly before her first novel is about to be published, Eliza Fontaine is found at the bottom of a hotel pool.  She's rescued and swears someone tried to kill her, but because she has a history of suicide attempts involving bodies of water, nobody believes her...especially when the lines between her reality and her fiction start to blur.  One thing that really bugged me is that almost every other chapter is an excerpt from Eliza's book, and it is SO SHITTILY WRITTEN that I had an extremely hard time believing it led to a huge advance.  I mean, The Elizas itself is pretty bad, but the novel-within-a-novel is breathtakingly awful.

8. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison:  After getting fired from his landscaping job, Mike Munoz tries to scrape by while dealing with his family and a hopeless crush.  There was a major character development that seemed to come out of nowhere, but other than that, I liked it.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  38


NONFICTION

1. Sister of Darkness: The Chronicles of a Modern Exorcist by R.H. Stavis:  The author, a self-proclaimed nondenominational exorcist, talks about her process and some of her most difficult cases.  I was, and remain, skeptical, but I read it as entertainment and it succeeded on that level regardless of its veracity (or lack thereof).

2. Eat the Apple by Matt Young:  An unusually structured memoir about the author's stint in the Marine Corps and his three deployments to Iraq.  (The title comes from the expression "Eat the apple, fuck the Corps!")

3. Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley:  A collection of essays about everything from a particularly noisy neighbor to the author's porn star uncle.  (Well, technically her mother's cousin, but she refers to him as uncle.)

4. You All Grow Up and Leave Me* by Piper Weiss:  As a teenager in the early 90s, the author had an unusually attentive tennis coach named Gary Wilensky.  Gary tried to kidnap one of his other students, and when his attempt failed, he killed himself.  An engrossing combination of memoir and true crime.

5. A Thousand Naked Strangers: A Paramedic's Wild Ride to the Edge and Back by Kevin Hazzard:  What it says on the tin!

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  13


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Gabriel Dropout vols. 2-3 by Ukami

2. The Water Dragon's Bride vol. 5 by Rei Toma

3. Food Wars! vol. 23 by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki

4. Erased vol. 4 (final volume) by Kei Sanbe

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  17 volumes of manga and 7 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. Lion*:  When young Saroo (Sunny Pawar, in an extraordinary performance) get separated from his brother at a train station, he climbs onto a train and winds up thousands of miles from home.  Eventually, he's sent to an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple.  When Saroo gets older, he (now played by Dev Patel) decides to track down his biological family using Google Earth.  Based on a true story, this movie is compelling and bittersweet.  (And yes, the title is explained, though you have to wait until the very last moment.)

2. Murder on the Orient Express:  When a passenger is murdered on the titular train, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) investigates.  Enjoyable, especially because I had no idea whodunnit!

3. Thelma:  The title character is a college student in Oslo whose long-dormant supernatural abilities are triggered when she falls in love with another woman.  It's pretty good, and the opening 5 minutes were so compelling that I knew I would finish it.

Warning: there's an extended scene involving strobe lights, so view with caution if you have epilepsy or flashing lights set off migraines, as they often do for me.  (I looked away and had to hope there was no important dialogue in that scene; the movie is in Norwegian with English subtitles, and the only Norwegian word I know is tak.)

4. Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay:  Amanda Waller sends the Suicide Squad after a mystical "Get Out of Hell Free" card in this ultra-gory animated flick.

5. The Commuter:  Michael MacCauley's bad day gets worse when a mysterious woman sits across from him on the train and makes him an offer: locate a particular passenger and get a nice payout, or his family will be killed.  Standard thriller fare elevated by an interesting opening and the tastiness of both Liam Neeson and Patrick Wilson (as a cop, no less!  HNNNNGH).

6. Creep:  When Aaron answers a Craigslist ad for a videographer, his client Josef says he's terminally ill and wants to make a video diary for his unborn child.  But as the shoot goes on, Aaron discovers that Josef is, well, a creep.  Tense and unsettling.

7. Black Panther:  Since everybody in the world has already seen this movie, I'll skip the recap!

8. Dead Calm:  After the tragic death of their son, John and Rae (Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman) are spending time at sea when they rescue a man (Billy Zane) escaping from a sinking ship.  They take him onboard, but they begin to regret their decision when the dude turns out to be a psychopath.

9. Downsizing:  Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) undergoes a new procedure to shrink himself to 5 inches tall, which allows him to live in luxury and reduce his carbon footprint. 

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  42


VIDEO GAME OF THE MONTH

(Note:  this review doesn't cover the bonus episode "Farewell", which wasn't included on the disc we got from Gamefly.  We watched it on YouTube afterwards and were glad we didn't pay the $10 to download it, as it was only about an hour's worth of gameplay and didn't really cover any new ground.)

With its unique time-rewinding mechanic, honest depiction of how teenage girls behave and think, and thought-provoking storyline, Life Is Strange was my favorite game of 2016.  So when a prequel was announced, I knew I'd have to pick it up.

Life Is Strange: Before the Storm (hereafter referred to as BTS) revolves around Chloe Price, a teenage girl who's never quite recovered from two losses she suffered: her father died in a car accident only days before her best friend Max moved away and dropped off the radar.  Despite the fact that she doesn't try all that hard, Chloe's smart enough to have scored a scholarship at the prestigious Blackwell Academy.

One night, Chloe sneaks into a concert and gets involved in an altercation.  Much to her surprise, she's rescued by Rachel Amber, Blackwell Academy's golden girl, and the two form an immediate and strong connection.

LOVED

  • Like its predecessor, BTS does an incredible job of creating strong, believable, flawed but endearing teenage girls.  Chloe is angry and snarky, but she's also funny, resilient, and fiercely loyal, and I couldn't help falling in love with her all over again.  
  • Chloe doesn't share Max's ability to reverse time.  Instead, a mechanic called "backtalk" has been introduced in which your dialogue choices can either get Chloe out of a tough situation or make things much worse.  
  • Chloe keeps a journal filled with beautiful art and collages, and it's both fun to read and a good refresher on past events.
  • For the most part, the voice acting is excellent.
  • A wonderful musical score.
  • Getting to know Rachel Amber made Life Is Strange even more poignant in retrospect.  In fact, if you haven't played LIS, I'd recommend playing BTS first for that very reason.
  • LGBTQ+ issues were handled respectfully.  (Take some notes, Atlus!)

LOATHED

  • Probably due to its origins as a downloadable game, the graphics aren't great.
  • Chloe's original voice actress didn't return for BTS.  Her replacement VA was perfectly fine, but the original VA was phenomenal, so she was badly missed.  
  • The voice acting for a couple of minor characters was pretty meh, and one fairly important character legitimately sucked.
Overall, although it wasn't as good as its predecessor, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm is definitely worth your time.  I give it 8 stolen concert tees out of 10.


Monday, April 02, 2018

media update: March

I think this may be one of my biggest media updates ever!  I consumed so many books/movies for several reasons: my workload was slow, so I got a lot of reading done at my desk; heavy rain near the end of the month kept me inside; I took a 2-day staycation; G and I didn't have an "us" video game this month, so we watched more movies than usual; and I finished a surprising number of my Netflix discs.  (It's rare for any of them to pass the 20-minute test!)

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones:  When newlyweds Celestial and Roy are visiting his parents, Roy is arrested for a rape he didn't commit and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  They try to keep their marriage alive, but Celestial finds herself growing closer to her childhood friend Andre.  Beautifully written, but depressing as hell.

2. Zero Day by Ezekiel Boone:  This is the final book in The Hatching trilogy, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessors.

3. The Hunger* by Alma Katsu:  An ultra-creepy and tense account of the Donner Party, with the addition of a supernatural element.

4. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyami:  This hot new YA novel is basically Avatar: The Last Airbender with a few changes.  It's not bad, but I really don't get the hype and doubt I'll bother with future installments.

5. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney:  When Amber Reynolds wakes up in a hospital, she can't move or speak, but she can hear the people around here.  She doesn't know who or what put her in the hospital, but she has her suspicions.  If this had ended a chapter earlier, it could have been really good, but because it didn't, it was just okay.

6. Idyll Threats by Stephanie Gayle:  In 1997, Thomas Lynch moves to a small Connecticut town to serve as their new chief of police.  The body of a young woman is discovered on the golf course, and Thomas had seen her in a compromising position with another man just hours before her death.  Unfortunately, he can't share that information with anyone because he's in the closet, and he was trying to hook up with another man when he ran into her.

7. Gun Love** by Jennifer Clement:  Pearl lives with her mother in a car parked next to a trailer park.  Despite their lack of money and material things, they carve out a decent life for themselves, but the prevalence of guns will lead to tragedy; as Pearl puts it, "In our part of Florida things were always being gifted a bullet just for the sake of it."  It's fairly short, but it packs more beautiful writing and emotion into its pages than books twice its length.  My favorite novel of the year so far; it reminded me of Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.

8. I Stop Somewhere by TE Carter:  Ellie is a teenage girl who fell in love with the wrong boy, and after she's raped and murdered by him and his brother, she narrates from the great beyond (a la The Lovely Bones) as she watches them continue victimizing other girls.  I know it sounds a bit cheeseball, but it works.

9. Idyll Fears by Stephanie Gayle:  Small town chief of police Thomas Lynch returns in this sequel to #6.  This time around, he has to deal with prejudice while trying to solve the mysterious disappearance of a young boy.

10. Exhibit Alexandra by Natasha Bell:  Alexandra is being held against her will in a small room; meanwhile, her husband Marc desperately tries to figure out what happened to her.  I was pretty sure I knew where it was going about halfway through; I was only partly right, but being right at all made me enjoy it far less than I might have otherwise.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  30


NONFICTION

1. The Heart Is a Shifting Sea* by Elizabeth Flock:  A fascinating look at three couples in Mumbai and how their relationships have been influenced by Western culture and traditional Indian beliefs.

2. A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America* by T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong:  An 18-year-old named Marie reported that a man broke into her apartment and raped her; the police (and even her foster mother) didn't believe her, so she recanted, and she was charged with filing a false police report.  Two years later, a serial rapist began terrorizing Colorado, and two shrewd detectives started putting the pieces together.  Not an easy read, but an essential one.

Side note: the title bothers me.  The authors point out that maybe 2% of rape reports are proven to be false, but someone seeing the title might think this is some sort of "they're all liars!" screed, which it most definitely is not.  I almost didn't read it because of that, but when I saw that the authors had both won Pulitzer Prizes, I figured it wouldn't be sensationalist trash, and fortunately it wasn't.

3. I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer* by Michelle McNamara:  Over several years, a man committed numerous rapes in Northern California and then moved to Southern California, where his crimes became increasingly violent, leading to the deaths of ten people.  He seemingly stopped in 1986 without being caught.  The author was a true crime journalist who dedicated her life to finding the perpetrator.  She died while writing this book (it was finished by her research assistant and a colleague), but hopefully her hard work will lead to closure in this case.  Destined to be a true crime classic.

Side note:  I read this immediately after A False Report, and boy, I wish I had spaced them out a bit; too much darkness to take in over the course of a couple of days.  I devoted myself to plowing through some manga and trashy celebrity magazines immediately afterwards!

4. I Am, I Am, I Am* by Maggie O'Farrell:  A memoir about the author's seventeen near-death experiences, from a creepy encounter with a stranger to almost drowning.  It's got a "savor every moment, because you never know what might happen" message without being saccharine or preachy about it.  (The title comes from this Sylvia Plath quote:  "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.  I am, I am, I am.")

5. My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn:  The author lost her father when she was a teenager and her mother when she was 32.  While going through her mother's things, she found old letters and diaries that made her reconsider everything she thought she knew about her parents.

6. I Wrote This Book Because I Love You by Tim Kreider:  A collection of essays, the best of which is about the author's relationship with his 19-year-old cat.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  8


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Citrus vol. 7 by Saburouta

2. Food Wars!* vol. 22 by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki

3. The Prince and the Dressmaker* by Jen Wang

4. Everyone's an Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun:  No, I am not drunk; that's how the title and author's name are spelled!

5. Yokai Rental Shop vols. 1-2 by Shin Mashiba

6. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond

7. Lady Killer vol. 2 by Joelle Jones and Michelle Madsen:  If this series is ever made into a movie, I can totally see Angelina Jolie playing Josie.

8. The Water Dragon's Bride vol. 4 by Rei Toma

9. Queen's Quality vol. 3 by Kyousuke Motomi

10. Rin-Ne vol. 26 by Rumiko Takahashi

11. The Walking Dead* vol. 29 by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard

12. Gabriel Dropout by Ukami

2018 TOTAL SO FAR: 12 volumes of manga and 7 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. African Cats:  A documentary about cheetahs and lions that's a bit darker than most of Disney's nature series, though still nowhere near as horrifying as The Last Lion (not Disney), which traumatizes me to this day.

Side note:  This is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, and at one point he said "lion mother" and I reflexively waited for him to add a "fuckers" at the end!

2. Coco**:  Young Miguel's family hates music, but he wants to become a musician like his late hero, the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz.  Miguel accidentally finds himself in the land of the dead during Dia de los Muertos, so he decides to find his idol and see if he can make his dream come true.  Beautifully animated, funny, and touching, and I cried my ASS off.  After a couple of really mediocre movies, it's nice to see that Pixar still has the magic.

3. Mom and Dad*:  A teenage girl and her brother must fight to survive when parents across the country are suddenly struck by the urge to kill their own children.  A jet black horror comedy that was far more enjoyable than I thought it would be, and Nicolas Cage's manic unhinged energy works perfectly here.

4. Call Me by Your Name:  In 1983 Italy, a teenage boy named Elio (Timothee Chalamet) falls in love with Oliver, the doctoral student who is staying with his family.  Gorgeously shot and the performances are great, but it can be awfully slow and I had a hard time believing that Elio's parents would be okay with his and Oliver's relationship.

5. Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars:  Basically a 90-minute video game cut scene, so take that as a positive or a negative depending on your personal preferences!

6. American Made*:  Loosely based on a true story, this movie is about Barry Seal, a TWA pilot who was recruited to take covert pictures of South American guerrillas and then picked up some side work with the Medellin Cartel.  As G said, it was like a cross between The Wolf of Wall Street and Breaking Bad, and it was quite good.

7. Annihilation*:  A biologist (Natalie Portman) agrees to lead a group of scientists into the Shimmer, a strange area from which her husband barely returned with his life, in hopes of discovering the truth behind its environmental mutations.  Beautifully filmed, with intense sound design and a scene that's honestly one of the most frightening fucking things I've seen in a long time.

8. My Friend Dahmer:  This movie is based on the graphic novel by Derf Backderf, who went to high school with notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.  It's a pretty decent adaptation, though the book was better, so choose that if you only have time for one of them.

9. I, Tonya:*  An enjoyable biopic about figure skater Tonya Harding and the infamous attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan just before the Olympics.  Margot Robbie is great as Tonya, and Allison Janney steals the movie in her Oscar-winning turn as Tonya's stage mother from hell.

10. The Shape of Water*:  A mute cleaning woman at a government facility discovers they're hiding a big secret:  an amphibious creature they want to turn into a weapon.  I expected to absolutely love it because the reviews were so glowing and it won Best Picture, but I think my expectations were too high.  I'd give it a 3.5, but I'll kick it up to a 4 (i.e., starworthy) because it was so beautifully shot and the performances were excellent.

11. Justice League:  In an interesting counterpoint to #10, I had absolutely subterranean expectations for this one but wound up enjoying it.  Sure, it's loud and clunky and stupid, but it's mostly fun.  The highlight was Ezra Miller's wildly entertaining portrayal of the Flash.

12. Pitch Perfect 3:  The Bellas compete for a gig opening for DJ Khaled.  We weren't expecting much because PP2 was so bad, but this was fun!  Sure, there was an excruciating subplot with Fat Amy and her estranged father, but there were some great lines and the songs were good.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  33

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

media update: February

February was quite an interesting and (mostly) good month for me.  They changed my department's job duties yet again, but for once, it was a change for the better!  Although taking claims had its moments, like the time a guy reported that his windshield was broken by a "replica male organ", overall it was tiring and people could be so rude and/or stupid that I was borderline incoherent with joy upon hearing that we wouldn't be doing it anymore.  My new responsibilities aren't exactly exciting, but they're much better than taking claims!  As a bonus, there's plenty of idle time while waiting for work to arrive, so I got a lot of reading done this month.

In other work news, three of my coworkers took early retirement, so today is their last day.  I had a neutral relationship with the mail guy, and the woman I refer to as Big Bang Theory Fangirl (because oh my god she never talks about ANYTHING other than her grandkids or BBT) and I have a mutual loathing of each other, but I'll really miss MP, who sat directly next to me and is one of the nicest people I've ever met.  End of an era.

As far as other things go, my work bestie (who transferred to Arizona a couple of years ago) came out for a visit, and we went to a cat cafe for lots of delightful feline lovin' and then to one of our favorite restaurants for dinner and a chat.  And, of course, Valentine's Day with G was wonderful.

Anyway, on to the media update!  Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. Reign of the Fallen by Sarah Glenn Mars: Odessa is a necromancer tasked with bringing nobility back from the dead, but once she's revived them, they must remain completely shrouded or they turn into a dangerous Shade.  When far too many Shades start appearing, putting the entire kingdom in jeopardy, she tries to figure out the cause.

2. Poison's Cage by Breeana Shields: This is a sequel, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessor.

3. The Other Side of Everything by Lauren Doyle Owens: A Florida community is rocked by the murders of several elderly residents.

4. Brass* by Xhenet Aliu: Teenage Elsie works at a diner in a town that fell apart after the brass mills packed up and left.  She falls in love with a married Albanian line cook and gets pregnant; 17 years later, their daughter Luljeta tries to find out more about her long-absent father.  Sharp and enjoyable.

5. Force of Nature* by Jane Harper: A group of women go on a corporate retreat deep in the Australian wilderness, but one of them doesn't return.  Like Harper's debut The Dry, it reminded me of Tana French, and I loved it.

6. Still Me by Jojo Moyes: The continuing adventures of daffy heroine Louisa Clark, this time in New York City as the assistant for a troubled trophy wife.

7. The Belles* by Dhonielle Clayton: In the world of Orleans, a group of young women has the power to change people's appearances.  Camellia desperately wants to become the Queen's favorite so she can live in the palace, but court life is different than she imagined, thanks to psychotic Princess Sophia.  An interesting premise and some beautiful descriptions.  (I want a teacup elephant.)

8. Night Moves by Jonathan Kellerman: Psychologist Alex Delaware agrees to help his friend, LAPD homicide detective Milo Sturgis, with a weird case:  a faceless and handless body is found dumped inside a family's living room, and they have no idea who the corpse is.  Kellerman tends to be hit or miss, but this one was pretty good.

9. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin:  First grader Zach Taylor survives a school shooting; his older brother Andy does not.  As Zach's parents fall apart, Zach tries to figure out a way to help them heal.  I started this only a couple of days after the Parkland shooting (and it was released the week before the shooting), so it was perhaps not the greatest timing.

10. The House of Impossible Beauties* by Joseph Cassara:  A vibrant, fictionalized account of the House of Xtravaganza, the legendary Harlem ball house made famous by the documentary Paris Is Burning, and the people who created a family there.

Side note: there is a LOT of Spanish in this, and although much of it can be figured out by context, some of it can't, so have Google open if you're not fluent.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  21


NONFICTION

1. Brave by Rose McGowan: The actress and activist talks about being raised in the notorious Children of God cult, coming to Hollywood, and trying to survive in its predatory waters. 

2018 TOTAL SO FAR: 2


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness** by Nagata Kabi: This autobiographical manga covered a lot of topics I've never seen depicted (or depicted realistically) in manga: self-injury, eating disorders, debilitating depression, and coming to terms with one's sexuality.  It was terrific, and I highly recommend it.  A sequel is out in June, and I've already preordered it from Amazon.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  4 volumes of manga and 2 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. Super Dark Times: When horseplay turns tragic, a group of teenage boys tries to cover up the incident. It started strong, but ended poorly.

2. Dunkirk: During WWII, Allied soldiers are stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk, trying to survive until they can be evacuated.  Technically impressive, but I never felt emotionally connected to anyone.

3. Batman: Gotham by Gaslight*: In this animated flick, set in Victorian era Gotham City, Batman tries to stop Jack the Ripper.  It sounds goofy, but it was quite enjoyable.

4. It*: Teenage misfits band together to fight a monstrous child-eating clown in this adaptation of Stephen King's classic.

Side note: I was kind of a goody-goody in school, but one of the only times I ever got in trouble was when I got caught reading this in home ec.  No wonder I still can't cook.

5. The Foreigner: After his daughter is killed in a terrorist attack, Quan (Jackie Chan) sets out to track down the perpetrators.  Much more serious than most of Jackie Chan's work, and not nearly enough action for my tastes.

6. Train to Busan*:  A train trip turns into a nightmare when it's overrun by zombies.  Strangely thoughtful and moving for a zombie flick.

7. The Lost City of Z:  Based on the true story of a British explorer searching for (you guessed it) a lost city in the Amazon, this movie is reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally slow.  I mean, it's not bad, but you could fast forward huge chunks of it and not miss much.

8. Free Fire:  A meeting to purchase illegal weapons goes horribly awry.  Meh; I wanted to like it much more than I did.

9. The Cloverfield Paradox:  Astronauts test a particle accelerator in hopes of solving Earth's energy crisis, but they wind up creating a different type of problem instead.

10. The Florida Project:  Young Moonee and her mother live in a dilapidated Florida motel in the shadows of Disney World.  Although they live hand to mouth, Moonee still manages to find joy in every day with her friends.  I'm not sure why this got so much critical acclaim; although it's beautifully shot and the child actors are good, the characters (with the exception of Oscar-nominated Willem Dafoe as the weary motel manager who tries his best to help the motel's residents) are really goddamn bratty and largely unsympathetic.  Hell of an ending, though.

11. Suburbicon:  An idyllic community in the 1950s is rocked by two events---a home invasion that ends in murder and an African-American family moving in---and the neighborhood is more horrified by the latter than the former.  It tried to do a few too many things at once, but overall it was pretty good; certainly much better than the reviews led us to believe.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  21


VIDEO GAME OF THE MONTH

Shortly before Uncharted 4's release, Kotaku featured a video from the game (for those of you who have played it: the couch scene), and I was so instantly charmed I knew I had to play it.  But I didn't feel like I should do so without playing the others, and it just so happens that G-Vo owns them all!  So I plowed through Uncharted 1-3 in rapid succession, and then I tucked into the fourth, and potentially last, installment.

This is going to be a slightly unusual review in that I don't feel like I should get into the plot, as it might spoil character developments from the previous games, so I'm just going to go straight into the bullet lists.  This review also covers the DLC, The Lost Legacy; if something is specific to one or the other, I'll put (U4) or (TLL).

LOVED

  • Uncharted 4 has the best graphics of any video game I've ever played, period.  The scenery is jaw droppingly good, and some of the little details are amazing too.  There are a couple of parts where you explore houses, and everything from the bedspreads to the bookshelves is carefully designed.  They didn't skimp on The Lost Legacy's graphics either; they didn't even reuse any areas!
  • The voice acting is top notch, as you'd expect from a cast that includes Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Laura Bailey.  A special shout out to Emily Rose, who's not as well known as those previous names but does a fantastic job as Elena.
  • Great scripts by Neil Druckmann (U4) and Josh Scherr (both) that include both funny moments and touching ones.
  • Lemurs (U4) and elephants (TLL)!
  • Exciting gun battles.
  • They're pretty generous with the autosaves, which was a very good thing indeed; see my first item in the "loathed" section.
  • That epilogue in U4...[clutches heart]

LOATHED

  • It's pretty difficult; I bet I died hundreds of times, and that's not an exaggeration.  (Though sometimes it could be really funny, like the time I survived an epic firefight only to fall off a cliff while trying to climb onto a fucking box.)
  • Those exploding mummies can fuck right off.  (U4)
  • There was a fencing section that was so difficult I would have ragequit if I hadn't been so close to the end.  (U4)
  • Although I didn't have any issues with sim sickness for any of the other games in the series, there was a section near the end of TLL that made me barf and gave me a headache.
Although the Uncharted games aren't my favorite type of gameplay, I definitely enjoyed my time with all of them.  Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy both earn 8 pirate coins out of 10.




Wednesday, January 31, 2018

media update: January

(G-Vo, skip the next couple of paragraphs as you've heard this story a million times already.)

Happy New Year!  It started off on a weird note because I got a postcard in the mail telling me that I'd missed jury duty and HAD to come in.  Well, that was alarming, because I never got the original jury summons in the first place!  I wasn't sure where the courthouse was and I don't have a GPS system, so on the first day, I left super early and, despite heavy rain, got there 90 minutes early.  Oops!

Anyway, I wound up being chosen for a civil trial that was expected to last for SEVEN WEEKS.  On one hand, it was a good thing, because I hate my fucking job and it actually pays for jury duty no matter how long you're out, plus the judge and bailiff were hot and the cafeteria was surprisingly good; on the other hand, the drive to the courthouse was a 63 mile round trip as opposed to my usual 7 mile (no, that's not missing a digit!) round trip commute, which was awfully hard on my nerves and car, especially since the trip back home involved driving up a very steep hill in rush hour traffic.  I was dismissed during voir dire by the plaintiff attorney because a family member had been involved in a similar lawsuit, so I only had to do three days.  It was an interesting experience, and I actually wouldn't mind serving jury duty at some point, just not for, you know, SEVEN WEEKS.

Anyway, this is a particularly meaty media update thanks to a few mental health days and time spent cooling my heels during the aforementioned jury duty.

Asterisks denote something I particularly enjoyed or found especially worthy of my time; double asterisks are reserved for the absolute creme de la creme.  As always, your mileage may vary.

FICTION

1. Being Fishkill by Ruth Lehrer:  Growing up with her young mother and abusive grandfather in extreme poverty, Carmel Fishkill always dreamed of something better.  When her grandfather dies and, shortly afterwards, her mother disappears, Carmel thinks she's found a safe haven living with her eccentric friend Duck-Duck (real name: Christine) and her single mother Molly, but unexpected news threatens to upend her newly happy life.

2. The Blinds* by Adam Sternbergh:  Caesura (more commonly known as "The Blinds") is a tiny Texas town filled with people who have had their memories wiped and their names changed.  They don't know whether they were the victims or perpetrators of violence, only that if they leave, they can never come back.  Things are fairly peaceful, but then a suicide followed rapidly by a murder threaten to destroy the whole thing.  Clever and engrossing.

3. The Grip of It by Jac Jemc:  When James and Julie find a new home in the suburbs, they move in despite their misgivings about the weird noises they hear.  (Not much of a) spoiler alert:  they should have trusted their instincts.  This book was creepy enough under the fluorescent lights of a jury duty break room; it was damn near unbearably so late at night during a rainstorm.

4. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn:  Anna Fox is an agoraphobic living alone in the home she used to share with her estranged husband and their daughter Olivia.  She busies herself with online chess, old movies, lots of drinking, and spying on her neighbors across the street...until she sees something she shouldn't have.  Practically every one of my favorite authors (Gillian Flynn, Joe Hill, Stephen King, Ruth Ware...) gave this a rave review on the cover, so I thought it would be fantastic, but nope.  The writing is weirdly stilted and 90% of it is very predictable.  Give it a hard pass.

5. Everless by Sara Holland:  In a world where time is literally money, the rich can live forever while the poor die young.  Jules Ember and her father lived at the royal estate of Everless until they were banished, but Jules returns in hopes of earning enough time to save her father's life.

6. The Forever Ship by Francesca Haig:  Sequel etc.

7. The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen:  When Vanessa finds out her ex-husband is newly engaged, she takes it rather badly.  I'll give this novel credit: unlike #4 on this list, I definitely didn't guess where it was going.

Side note: when the fuck is every psychological thriller going to stop being compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train?  Because, yep, this one mentions those two books on the cover, and I believe #4 did as well.  Obviously I know WHY publishers do it, because those were monster hits, but how long are they going to keep fucking that chicken?

8. Disappearance at Devil's Rock** by Paul Tremblay:  A group of three teenage boys makes a surreptitious late night trip to the titular rock, and one of them, Tommy, vanishes.  His mother Elizabeth is devastated, and then random pages from Tommy's journals begin showing up on the living room floor.  Scary and heartbreaking in equal measure.

Side note:  I'd advise not reading the chapter names as they're awfully spoilery.

9. The Perfect Nanny* by Leila Slimani:  After Myriam decides to return to work after having two children, she thinks she's hit the jackpot when she finds Louise, the (yup) perfect nanny.  But tensions mount as Louise becomes resentful of the family's ever increasing demands.  I read the first chapter at Target and knew I had to buy it; it's probably the most intense and horrifying start to any book I've ever read.

Side note #1:  Oh look, a Gone Girl reference on the back cover!  SHOCKING.  And this book has even less in common with GG than most.

Side note #2:  I know I have at least one faithful blog reader who has a problem with violence against children in media; please do not read this book.  Not as big a spoiler as you would think; the very first line is "The baby's dead", so...yeah.

10. The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor:  When he was a kid, Eddie and his friends had a special secret code consisting of stick figures.  One morning Eddie follows a message into the woods, where he finds a dead body.  Now that Eddie is a grown man, he gets an anonymous letter with a drawing of a stick figure, and he tries to figure out what really happened so many years ago.

NONFICTION

1. Getting Off* by Erica Garza:  The author's account of her addiction to sex and porn.  Brutally honest but not judgmental.

Side note: the first paragraph of the introduction says "My favorite porn scene of all time involves two sweaty women, fifty horny men, a warehouse, a harness, a hair dryer, and a taxicab.  You can put it all together in a dozen different ways and I bet you still can't imagine just how revolting the scene actually is."  I consider myself pretty creative, but WHAT THE HELL WAS THE HAIR DRYER FOR?!?  With great trepidation, I did a Google search with those keywords, but all I got were hits for this book.  The author never mentioned being into, uh, dark web kind of shit, so I can't imagine it was...snuff-y, but I just can't figure it out.  Maybe I'm better off not knowing.

MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. School-Live! vol. 9 by Sadoru Chiba and Norimitsu Kaihou

2. The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

3. You & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis

4. Idol Dreams vol. 4 by Arina Tanemura

5. Queen's Quality vol. 2 by Kyousuke Motomi

6. The Stone Heart by Faith Erin Hicks


MOVIES

1.The Accountant:  Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic accountant who has a side gig working for criminal organizations.  When he's hired to look into a discrepancy at a robotics firm, what he discovers will put his life, and the life of his coworker (Anna Kendrick), in jeopardy.  Good, but a couple of things that were supposed to be big revelations were pretty obvious to anyone who's ever seen a movie or read a book before.

2. Beach Rats:  Frankie is a teenage boy with a hot girlfriend, but he secretly hooks up with older men.  Not bad, but there was no real character growth, and I was distracted by how much one of the characters looked like an ex-boyfriend of mine.

3. Brawl in Cell Block 99:  In order to save his pregnant wife, a man (Vince Vaughn) arranges to be sent to a notorious prison so he can kill a fellow inmate.  Extremely violent and grim, but it has some surprisingly sharp dialogue.

4. The Hitman's Bodyguard:  The titular bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) agrees to watch over the titular hitman (Samuel L. Jackson) until he can testify in court against a war criminal.  Better than expected.

5. Mayhem:  A "rage virus" spreads through a quarantined office complex, and a recently fired employee takes advantage of the chaos to try to get his job back.  Funnier than the somewhat similar The Belko Experiment, but not nearly as good.

6. The Untamed:  This is going to be a tough movie to describe, but I'll try.  Basically, there's a couple in the Mexican countryside with an extraterrestrial creature living in their barn. It can provide unbelievable pleasure, so they let people visit it for sexytimes, but it doesn't know its own strength.  It's like a combination marital drama, horror movie, and hentai.  I wasn't sure what to expect from this odd little movie, but I found myself drawn in almost immediately; it's like porn directed by David Cronenberg.  Only the abrupt ending kept me from giving it a star.

Side note:  although I used the word porn up there as convenient shorthand, this isn't as explicit as actual porn; however, it's about as graphic as it gets without BEING actual porn, so let that be a warning or an endorsement depending on your particular tastes.  Oddly enough, the violence is not graphic at all.

7. Happy Death Day*:  Tree is a college student who is murdered on her birthday by someone wearing a creepy baby mask...and then she wakes up alive on her birthday.  It turns out she's caught in a time loop and will keep getting murdered until she finds out who's doing it and why.  It's like the love child of Groundhog Day and Scream, and I enjoyed it WAY more than I thought I would.  What a pleasant surprise!

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*:  After her daughter's brutal murder goes unsolved, Mildred (Frances McDormand) takes out three billboards accusing the local police force of shuffling their feet.  Excellent performances, and I appreciated that the script didn't go quite where I was expecting.

9. Blade Runner 2049:  This sequel to the iconic 80s sci-fi film is visually interesting but incredibly slow and dull.

10. Tokyo Idols*:  A fascinating documentary about Japanese idol culture and its obsessive fans.  This would make a brilliant double feature with the classic anime movie Perfect Blue.

Side note #1: one thing I found particularly interesting is that idol CDs usually have a raffle ticket in them for a "handshake event", where you can shake an idol's hand and talk to them for a minute.  (Literally; there's a guy standing there with a timer.)  So a lot of fans will buy numerous copies of a CD in hopes of getting some face time with their favorite idol, which of course helps push the album up the charts.  This is one of the reasons that Japan still has robust sales of physical CDs instead of digital downloads.

Side note #2:  It's one thing when an idol is in her (there are male idols, but this documentary focuses on females) late teens or older, but near the end, they showed an idol group made up of little girls, and it was really fucking disturbing watching a bunch of men in their 20s and older fawning over them and saying things like "I like them best when they're not fully developed."  Does Japan have a version of Chris Hansen? 

VIDEO GAME OF THE MONTH

Back in 2015, I played The Evil Within, expecting terrific things because it was created by Shinji Mikami, who made Resident Evil and is therefore nothing short of a god to survival horror fanatics like me.  Unfortunately, although I enjoyed some aspects, overall it was a bit of a mess (see my original review here).  When the sequel was announced, I figured I'd rent it or buy it used someday, but GameStop had it on sale for $25, so I went ahead and picked up a copy.  Boy am I glad I did, because The Evil Within 2 outshines its predecessor and then some.

As the game begins, ex-detective Sebastian Castellanos is grieving the death of his daughter Lily and the disappearance of his wife Myra.  He's drinking heavily at a bar when his former partner Juli Kidman approaches him and tells him that Lily is still alive, but she's being used as "the core" (sorry, kind of hard to explain) by a secretive organization called Mobius.  Lily's disappeared inside an alternate reality called Union, and Mobius needs Sebastian's help finding her.  Reluctantly, Sebastian allows himself to be put under, which enables him to enter Union.  But far from being the utopia that Mobius intended, Union has gone to hell, and Sebastian must confront the monsters within, and perhaps even more terrifying, his own guilt.

LOVED

  • First and foremost, I have to give credit to TEW2 for fixing what I considered to be the biggest flaw in the first game:  they finally made us care about Sebastian.  In the first game, he was such a cardboard character that I never really cared about him, which is not a good thing for any video game protagonist, but especially in a survival horror game.  This time around, you care about Sebastian, and you want him to find his daughter.
  • The monsters are scary as shit, both in appearance (like a giant monster made up entirely of trussed together corpses) and the noises they make.  Props to whoever worked on the sound design for this game, because it's first rate.
  • TEW2 includes one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever encountered in a video game, and considering that survival horror is my favorite genre, that's really saying a lot!  It actually made me a little nauseated.
  • New game plus is a blast, thanks to the addition of a magnum to your arsenal and the fact that you get to keep all of your weapon and health upgrades. 
  • Union is beautifully rendered, with streets that abruptly crumble away into an abyss (shades of Silent Hill) and other areas floating in the sky.
  • Good music, including a very appropriate use of Duran Duran's (well, a cover) "Ordinary World" over the end credits.
  • A sly wink at one of Resident Evil's most infamous lines.
  • It's surprisingly emotional at times; I teared up more than once. 
  • THIS GAME IS FUCKING TERRIFYING.  There were several areas/enemies that freaked me out so badly that I almost didn't want to continue.  It's the scariest game I've played since Dead Space 2.
  • There's a cat in Sebastian's office (which serves as a safe room), and as soon as I saw it, I thought "Oh, great, wonder how and when the cat will be brutally killed?" because god forbid a horror movie/game allow a cat to live.  Surprise...it did!

LOATHED

  • Considering how good the background and monster designs are, the facial animations of the main characters are practically PS2 level, and what's with the super stringy hair?
  • The voice acting is improved from the first game, but still not as good as one might hope. 
  • The story can be a bit convoluted.  I'd recommend reading a synopsis of the first game, even if you played it, before tackling the sequel.
  • There are only a few puzzles, and they're embarrassingly easy. 
  • I'm not a colossal fan of stealth, and there was a ton of it in this game, so you (like me) might get frustrated a few times.  Sure, you can just blow enemies away (well, mostly; there are a few enemies that can't be beaten, so you must sneak around them), but trust me, you'll run into a serious ammo crisis if you get too trigger happy. 
  • Much to my surprise (and dismay), there was an area that switched to first person view, which makes me puke and/or triggers a migraine, so I had to pass it off to G-Vo for that section.
  • It can be REALLY GODDAMN HARD.
  • It crashed on us a couple of times.
  • The cat in Sebastian's office is a good and lovely kitty but you can't pet it why :(
Overall, The Evil Within 2 was a very pleasant surprise.  It's like Silent Hill and Resident Evil had a baby, and although it's not as good as either of those games, it's still very much worth your while if you love survival horror games.  It gets 8 1/2 locker keys out of 10.