Wednesday, January 02, 2019

media update: December

Considering that I've been unemployed all month, I didn't get a lot of reading done!  Turns out that it's harder than it seems, thanks to governmental red tape (despite filing for unemployment after being laid off, I haven't seen a penny yet.  No matter what conservative politicians would have you believe, the government ain't just handing money out willy-nilly; they make you jump through so many fucking hoops it ought to count as cardio), mountains of paperwork, job hunting, and trying to get as much productive shit as possible done while I still can.  But two long holiday weekends in a row for G meant that we watched a lot of movies and, of course, played lots of Red Dead Redemption 2.  (Which, by the way, I review at the end of this entry.)

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.  Fury by Rachel Vincent:  This is the final book in a trilogy, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessors.

2. River Bodies by Karen Katchur:  When Becca returns to her hometown to spend time with her dying father, the discovery of a body unearths old secrets.

3. My Sister, the Serial Killer* by Oyinkan Braithwaite:  Korede's sister Ayoola is gorgeous, popular, the favorite daughter...and she's just killed her third boyfriend in a row.  Korede reluctantly helps Ayoola cover up her crimes, but now Ayoola has set her sights on the man Korede secretly loves.  A sly little treat.

4. Into the Night by Sarah Bailey:  The murders of a homeless man and a movie star seem unconnected at first, but police detective Gemma Woodstock discovers some eerie similarities. Good, but I really wish the author hadn't named a supporting character Elizabeth Short.  It was jarring whenever I saw that character's name in print, because it always took me a second to remember it wasn't referring to the Black Dahlia.

2018 TOTAL:  108


NONFICTION

1. Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction* by Gabrielle Moss:  If you, like me, lived for monthly mall visits so you could hit up B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks and spend your allowance on Sweet Valley High, Wildfire, and Sweet Dreams novels, you will LOVE this book.  It was the nostalgia equivalent of black tar heroin shot directly into my veins.

2. I Might Regret This* by Abbi Jacobson:  After having her heart broken, the author decided to drive across the country by herself in hopes of discovering herself and what she really wants in life.  It sounds like typical navel-gazing bullshit, but it was really funny (as you'd expect from the co-creator and co-star of Broad City) and surprisingly touching.

3. How to Be Alone* by Lane Moore:  A heartbreaking yet hopeful book of essays about learning to be alone, whether you want to be or not.

2018 TOTAL:  30 


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. A Bride's Story vol. 10 by Kaoru Mori

2. No Matter How I Look at It, It's You Guys' Fault I'm Not Popular!* vol. 12 by Nico Tanigawa

2018 TOTAL:  45 volumes of manga and 15 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. The Incredibles 2*:  Superheroes have been made illegal, so Helen and Bob Parr, aka Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, are living in a motel with their three children.  But when an entrepreneur asks Elastigirl to help him restore the public's trust, she leaves Bob to take care of their kids while she fights a dangerous new threat.  Not as good as the original---a tall order considering that's my favorite Pixar movie and one of my favorite movies of all time---but it's still really enjoyable.

Viewer advisory: before watching the opening short, Bao, make sure you have tissues nearby; my eyes nearly slid out of my head.

2. The Meg:  A rescue diver teams up with a group of scientists to help take down a massive shark that was believed to be extinct.  It's pretty stupid, and it takes way too long to get interesting, but it has some good action and Jason Statham in a towel.

3. BlacKkKLansman:  Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer, infiltrates the KKK by phone.  However, he obviously can't attend their meetings, so he sends a colleague to their meetings to pose as him.  Improbably enough, it's based on a true story!

4. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies:  Robin is desperate to be the star of his own superhero movie, but he needs a proper archvillain; enter Slade.  Cute, loaded with Easter eggs, and occasionally quite funny; my favorite touch was Nicolas Cage voicing Superman.  (For you young'uns who might not get the joke: Nicolas Cage very famously wanted to play Superman in a movie.)

5. Mission : Impossible - Fallout*:  Ethan Hunt and his team try to track down stolen plutonium before it's too late.  Lots of really fun action, especially in the last half-hour.

Side note: this series has been a blast from the very beginning.  Could the writers maybe work on the next Bond movie, please?

6. Lizzie: In this somewhat fictionalized take on the Lizzie Borden story, Lizzie (Chloe Sevigny) and her family's housemaid Bridget (Kristen Stewart) fall in love and, well, we all know what happened next.  

Side note: I still find it rather amusing, if one can use that term when talking about two gruesome murders, that Lizzie was acquitted mostly because the all-male jury couldn't believe a woman could possibly commit such a crime. 

7. Mile 22*:  An elite CIA unit tries to smuggle an Indonesian cop with important information out of the country.  This got shitty reviews and made about two bucks, but we really enjoyed it!  It's only 94 minutes long, but about an hour of that is pure action, including a fantastic fight scene featuring Iko Uwais of The Raid fame.

8. The Happytime Murders:  A puppet private investigator and his former partner (Melissa McCarthy) team up again to solve a series of puppet murders.  The idea of puppets being dirty is funny, albeit not unique (cf. Meet the Feebles and Avenue Q), but this movie took a good idea and completely screwed it up.  There are a few good laughs, but it's like sifting through a dog turd to find them.

9. Bird Box*:  When a mysterious force causes people who look at it to kill themselves, Mallory (Sandra Bullock) blindfolds herself and her two children and heads out in a boat to find sanctuary in this extremely tense flick.

10. Venom:  Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative reporter who's recently been fired due to seriously overstepping ethical journalism requirements, gets the scoop of a lifetime when he discovers that a gazillionaire tech magnate has found alien life forms in space.  Unfortunately, one of those creatures, aka symbiotes, takes over Eddie's body.  One of Marvel's rare missteps; it's loud and stupid but rarely entertaining.

11. Never Goin' Back:  Angela and Jessie are best friends who dropped out of high school and now work at a diner.  They're looking forward to a week at the beach, but complications ensue and they need to get their hands on a whole lot of money quickly.  It reminded me of Spring Breakers lite, but I enjoyed it much more.

12. The Predator:  The bloodthirsty aliens return to Earth to track down a traitor who's trying to save the human race.

13. A Simple Favor**:  Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is an excitable young widow who idolizes Emily (Blake Lively), the ultracool mom of one of Stephanie's son's classmates.  One day, Emily asks Stephanie if she can pick up her son after school; Stephanie eagerly agrees, but then Emily never shows up, and Stephanie becomes obsessed with solving the mystery.  A deliciously dark comedy that's much better than the book, thanks to the excellent performances.

2018 TOTAL:  110 (20 more than 2017!  I wonder why so many?)


VIDEO GAME OF THE MONTH

Red Dead Redemption 2 is set in 1899, in a fictionalized version of the United States.  After an attempted ferry robbery goes horribly wrong, the Van der Lind gang, run by the charismatic Dutch, goes on the run.  You play Arthur Morgan, who was adopted into the gang at a young age and sees Dutch as a father figure.  Arthur is torn between loyalty towards his makeshift family and a longing for something more.

Quick note before I get to the pros and cons: although you can't play Arthur as an entirely good guy---he is an outlaw, after all!---you can choose to play him with high honor or low honor, which will greatly affect your playing experience and, in some cases, plot elements.  We chose to play with high honor, so some aspects of this review may not be applicable if you go the other way.

YEE-HAW
  • This is one of the most gorgeous games I've ever seen.  It would be beautiful regardless, but for an open world game to have graphics like this is truly astounding.  The water, the foliage, the mountains, the night sky, the landscapes...just incredible.  More than once I'd stop riding just to admire the scenery.
  • The voice acting is top notch, and I'd go so far as to say that Roger Clark, as Arthur Morgan, gives the best voice performance I've ever heard in a video game. 
  • I don't want to get too much into the plot lest I spoil something, but it's engrossing.  It's like an excellent 70+ hour long movie!
  • In addition to story missions, there are optional side missions you can do, and some of them are really interesting, funny, and/or touching.  My favorites involved rescuing a bumbling wildlife photographer and helping a new widow learn how to hunt so she could survive on her own.
  • I have certainly cried over video games before, and RDR2 was no exception, but this is the only game that has ever literally made me sob.
  • Oh god, Arthur.  ARTHUR.  Arthur is one of the most fascinating fictional characters I've "met" in any medium for a long time; in fact, he's now my favorite male video game character of all time, which is no small feat considering Leon Kennedy held the throne for 20+ years.  Arthur is conflicted, sweet, funny, as talented with a pencil as he is with a gun, and he absolutely broke my heart.  I JUST WANTED MY POOR HOT COWBOY TO BE HAPPY.
  • Speaking of which...well, this isn't really a "yee-haw" per se, but an observation.  I have never, EVER seen such massive, universal thirst for a video game character as I have for Arthur, spanning across the entire sexual spectrum.  Twitter, AO3, and Tumblr are basically just Arthur Morgan appreciation sites at this point, and I ain't angry because I am one of the thirsty flock.

YEE-NAW 
  •  Considering the complexity of this game, it wasn't very buggy, but we did hit a few really irritating glitches.  To name a few: people weren't showing up in a cutscene, ammo kept mysteriously disappearing from one of our weapons even after we'd restocked it, the graphics didn't fill in during one scene so it was all blocky, and a character got caught in a dialogue loop, repeating the same line over and over again, so I had to pick a fight and get killed so it would reset.
  • There are a few scenarios that could be seen as skewing a bit "white savior".
  • The weapon wheel is an obnoxious unintuitive nightmare.  And for god's sakes, Rockstar, WHY can't you just let us choose favorite weapons to stay in the top slots instead of just shoving them in the back somewhere so we have to keep clicking for what seems like forfuckingever to find them?  
  • Sometimes the controls would get a little touchy.  More than once I tried to get on my horse which was RIGHT FUCKING THERE and wound up tackling a bystander instead, which of course led to me being wanted for assault, which of course meant I had to reload my last save and sit there for several minutes while it did.  (The loading times were pretty long, but I'm not listing that as a negative; given the scope of the game, I'm astonished it wasn't even longer!)  I also once accidentally punched my horse instead of getting something out of my saddlebag, and I reloaded again because no fucking way was I going to keep a save where I punched my beautiful sweet baby girl Uber.  (I bought another horse later because it was an Arabian, and as much as I loved Uber, the speed difference was like going from a Honda Civic to a Maserati.  I named that horse Kuro.)
  • There was an encounter which could be seen as making light of sexual assault.  (Note: no sexual assault is ever depicted onscreen.)
  • There's a pretty steep learning curve; it took me at least 10 hours to get comfortable with the interface.  (Not that the goddamn weapon wheel helped with that.)
  • The game autosaves frequently, which is mostly a good thing, but occasionally it will just randomly start to do it at inopportune times.  There were a few scenes whose impact was lessened thanks to the screen going black and a huge "ALERT" popping up.  
  • If you cause trouble, you will very often go into "wanted" status, causing a bounty on your head.  Which is fine and understandable if you're running around beating up innocent people or something...but why in the holy name of fuck did I get bounties on me for shooting back at someone WHO STARTED SHOOTING AT ME FIRST?!?  Even in today's day and age, we don't get in trouble for self-defense, much less back in the Wild West! 
  • Arthur can pay to take a nice hot bath at assorted saloons and hotels, which is great because the dude deserves a relaxing soak!  But WHY CAN'T WE SEE ANYTHING?!?  When he gets out of the tub, the camera stays strictly above his waist.  Come on, Rockstar, you've showed us dongs before; surely you can give us thirsty bitches a nice shot of Arthur's sweet cakes at least.
I enjoyed the first Red Dead Redemption, so I was expecting to enjoy the sequel as well; what I wasn't expecting was to be so addicted to it and so profoundly moved by it.  It now holds a well-earned place in my ten favorite video games of all time.  I'm proud to give Red Dead Redemption 2 nine bottles of miracle tonic out of 10.


Friday, December 21, 2018

UPDATED best of 2018: miscellaneous

UPDATE 12/31:  I guess I should have waited to post this after all, because I finished Red Dead Redemption 2 earlier today!  I've updated my list accordingly.

And now it's time for my final "Best of 2018" list!  A few notes before I begin:

  • These are in completely random order.
  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I first watched/played them.
  • If you've seen me fangirling over Red Dead Redemption 2 elsewhere, you'll probably be stunned that it's not on this list.  Well, there's a good reason for that:  I'm not done with it, and probably won't be by the end of this year, so I don't feel right putting it on this list.  But trust me, unless it takes a monstrous shit by the end, it will wind up on 2019's list.  I do feel comfortable telling you that unless we are forced to make Arthur Morgan do something truly horrific by the end of the game (we're playing him with high honor, but some bad deeds are unavoidable), he will wind up kicking Leon Kennedy out of his place of honor as my favorite male video game protagonist of all time. 
  • Along those lines, if I watch/play something between now and December 31st that belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • Some of the video games I list here are available on multiple platforms; the parenthetical tells you which console I played it on.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.


1. The Punisher:  Frank Castle, aka the vigilante known as The Punisher, stole season 2 of Daredevil from right under Matt Murdock's nose, so I was glad to see him get his own series.  It's superviolent, nasty, and a whole lot of fun, and Jon Bernthal is a perfect Punisher.  (Netflix streaming)

2. The Evil Within 2:  I was pretty disappointed in the first game, but I was able to snag this sequel very cheaply, and it was worth twice the price.  Ex-cop Sebastian Castellanos, still devastated by the death of his daughter and the breakup of his marriage, is contacted by his former partner, who tells him his daughter is still alive...but he'll have to enter a nightmarish world to find her.  The sequel improved upon the original in every single way (including, crucially, making Sebastian a much more compelling character), and as a bonus, it's terrifying as FUCK.  Essential for all survival horror fans, and unless I finish RDR2 by the end of the year, my favorite video game of 2018 by a long shot.  (PS4)

3. The Dragon Prince:  This animated fantasy series follows two brothers, Ezran and Callum, as they set out to return a dragon's egg and restore peace to their kingdom.  We were interested in it because the show's creators worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and although it wasn't as good as that (a tall order!), it was funny and sweet and exciting.  We were glad to hear it got renewed for a second season.  (Netflix streaming)

4. Uncharted 4:  Because this game builds upon the previous ones, I don't feel comfortable giving a synopsis since it might spoil the others; I'll just say that it's as close as you can get to being Indiana Jones in a video game, and it's an awful lot of fun.  Bonus points for snappy dialogue, strong female characters who aren't just eye candy, and the most beautiful graphics I've ever seen.  (PS4 only; The Lost Legacy DLC is included in this endorsement)

5. Life Is Strange: Before the Storm:  If you played Life Is Strange (and if not, why?  It's great!), then you'll remember Max's friend Chloe.  In this prequel, you get to learn more about Chloe and her relationship with Rachel, and it will most definitely break your heart.  Unfortunately, due to a voice actor's strike, Chloe's original voice actress, who was exceptional, did not return, but her replacement was good and it didn't impact our enjoyment of this well-written game.  (Uh...I can't remember which console we played it on!  I rented it from Gamefly but cancelled my membership so I can't check.  It's available on both the PS4 and Xbox One.)

6. Aggretsuko:  Sanrio is best known for its sweet mascot characters like Hello Kitty and My Melody, but they've added a few edgier characters to the mix recently, like clinicially depressed egg Gudetama and Aggretsuko, an adorable red panda office worker who hates her job and blows off steam by...singing death metal karaoke at the top of her lungs.  If you've ever worked in a cube farm, you'll laugh your ass off, and one episode actually made me tear up too.  (Netflix streaming)

7. Twin Peaks:  I was a MASSIVE Twin Peaks fan back in the day, so I was pretty excited when I heard that Showtime had commissioned a third season.  I don't have Showtime, so I had to wait for DVD, and when it finally came out, I binged it over the course of a few days.  I'll be honest with you; it's often boring and confusing and weird for the sake of being weird, but it's got so much fucking brilliance sprinkled in between the crappy parts that it's absolutely worth watching if you're a David Lynch fan.  (If not, my god, stay far away!  This will not change your mind.)

8. Violet Evergarden:  The title character used to be a lethal soldier, but after the war ends, she finds herself working as an "auto memory doll", writing letters for people who aren't able to express themselves the way they should.  The art is absolutely gorgeous, but be warned; there are thorns in those roses, and almost every episode made me choke up at least once.  (Netflix streaming)

9. Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy:  I love superheroes, but found myself in the tiniest minority when I was just about the only person who was underwhelmed by the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  But Telltale Games (RIP) had a pretty strong track record with making me care about properties I ordinarily didn't give a shit about, so I wanted to give this a go, and it was a lot of fun!  (PS4)

10. Red Dead Redemption 2:  I'll be posting a lengthy review of this in my December media update, so I won't do so here; suffice it to say it wound up taking a spot in my top ten video games of all time, and Arthur Morgan did indeed take the crown for my favorite male video game protagonist ever.  This game is an absolutely breathtaking achievement.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:  I am way too OCD to make a list that's not a multiple of 5, but if I wasn't, I'd put the anime series No. 6 here.  It's about Shion, a privileged boy who meets street rat Nezumi (literally "rat" in Japanese) and learns that his life of comfort has come at a terribly high price.  I wanted to watch it because I'd heard that Shion and Nezumi were a canon couple, and as you know I'm all about that shiz, but the anime only offered us a couple of kisses.  The manga is much more accommodating on that front; it's never graphic, but whereas you could make an argument that the kisses in the anime were just friendly or impulsive, the manga gives you no such outs.  Anyway, it's a fun series that probably needed another season to wrap up its complex story, hence its exclusion from the main list.  I still love Shion and Nezumi together, though; they're my current wallpaper.

I also need to mention Over the Garden Wall. In this animated miniseries, two brothers, Wirt and Greg, get lost in a forest and have strange adventures while trying to get home.  Beautiful art that's reminiscent of super old-school cartoons, great voice acting, catchy tunes, and some tears among the laughter.


Tuesday, December 18, 2018

best of 2018: movies

UPDATED 12/31:  I replaced Deadpool 2 with A Simple Favor.


The usual notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I saw them.
  • Keep reading (or not; I'll never know!) after the list for a "stinger".
  • Aside from the first three, which were definitely my first, second, and third favorite movies of the year, these are in random order.
  • I know the year isn't over just yet, so if I see something between now and the end of the year that deserves to be on here, I'll update accordingly.
  • And, as ever, your mileage may vary.

1. 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.  When it was over, G and I just leaned back in our seats and said "Uh, holy shit."

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.

3. Won't You Be My Neighbor?:  A documentary about Mister Rogers and the impact he had on TV and generations of children.  Like a warm hug from the man himself, and take my word on this: have a box of tissues handy.  I cried harder at this movie than any other this year (yes, even Coco) because Mister Rogers was exactly as kind and gentle as he seemed and we need him more than ever and he isn't here.

4. 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.

5. Eighth Grade:  Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) is trying to survive the eighth grade and just get to high school in one emotional piece, but it's not easy.  Occasionally so realistic as to be excruciating, but filled with warmth and compassion; it's like a more humane version of Welcome to the Dollhouse.

6. 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.  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 thoroughly enjoyed it.
 
7. 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.

8.  A Simple Favor:  Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is an excitable young widow who idolizes Emily (Blake Lively), the ultracool mom of one of Stephanie's son's classmates.  One day, Emily asks Stephanie if she can pick up her son after school; Stephanie eagerly agrees, but then Emily never shows up, and Stephanie becomes obsessed with solving the mystery.  A deliciously dark comedy that's much better than the book, thanks to the excellent performances.

9. The Incredibles 2:  Superheroes have been made illegal, so Helen and Bob Parr, aka Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible, are living in a motel with their three children.  But when an entrepreneur asks Elastigirl to help him restore the public's trust, she leaves Bob to take care of their kids while she fights a dangerous new threat.  Not as good as the original---a tall order considering that's my favorite Pixar movie and one of my favorite movies of all time---but it's still really enjoyable.

10. 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.   The woman in front of me was getting hysterical, and I don't mean laughing; I mean I was seriously worried she was going to have a nervous breakdown.  (I saw her in the bathroom afterwards putting on lipstick, and she seemed fine.)


Bonus content!

SEEN IN THE THEATER:  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Annihilation; Black Panther; Avengers: Infinity War; Searching; A Star Is Born

SEEN AT A RED CROSS WILDFIRE EVACUATION CENTER:  Instant Family

MADE ME CRY (OR AT LEAST TEAR UP):  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Train to Busan; The Florida Project; African Cats; Lion; Avengers: Infinity War; A Quiet Place; Tully; Hereditary; Searching; It Comes at Night; Eighth Grade; A Star Is Born; Instant Family; Crazy Rich Asians; The Incredibles 2; BlacKkKLansman; Bird Box

MADE ME NOT JUST CRY, BUT SOB:  Coco; Won't You Be My Neighbor?; Bao (the short that played before The Incredibles 2)

WTF DID I JUST WATCH:  The Untamed, Annihilation, Batman Ninja, Hereditary

MOST TERRIFYING SCENE:  The bear sequence in Annihilation.  Second place: a scene in Hereditary that I don't want to spoil.

BEST SOUND DESIGN:  Annihilation and Hereditary.

BEST MOVIE RUINED BY ITS LAST 20 MINUTES:  Hereditary 

BEST MOVIE THAT I NEVER WANT TO SEE AGAIN BECAUSE THERE ISN'T ENOUGH FUCKING XANAX IN THE WORLD:  Hereditary


Monday, December 17, 2018

best of 2018: manga and graphic novels

A few notes:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2018, but that's when I first read them.  (This is why the list doesn't include long-running series that I'm still keeping up with like Food Wars!, since they've already been included in previous "best of" lists.)
  • All of these are commercially available in the United States.
  • Because there are only five titles listed here, they are in preferential order.
  • I doubt anyone still believes comics/graphic novels/manga are strictly kiddie fare in this, the year of Our Lord 2018, but just in case: I've made a parenthetical note of any potentially objectionable content.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.

1. The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu:  I don't want to tell you what this series is about, because I think the less you know about it going in, the more you'll enjoy it.  I hadn't even finished the first chapter of the first volume when something happened that made me gasp out loud, and every single volume has had at least one "Holy shit!" moment, so try not to spoil it for yourself.  (Strong violence; disturbing themes that I can't specify due to spoilers)

2. 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.  Terrific, and very highly recommended.  (Strong sexual content/nudity; strong language; potentially triggering content listed above)

3. Check, Please! by Ngozi Ukazu:  Eric "Bitty" Bittle loves baking, ice hockey...and his team captain Jack.  Funny and very sweet.  (Strong language; sports violence)

4. My Solo Exchange Diary by Nagata Kabi:  The sequel to #2 on this list is not quite as engrossing as its predecessor, but still well worth reading to see how the author continues her search for self-acceptance and love.  (See #2)

5.  The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang:  At night, Prince Sebastian dresses up in gorgeous gowns and hits the town as Lady Crystallia.  Fearing parental and political censure, he has to hide this side of himself, but he finds an ally in Frances, a talented dressmaker.  A lovely tale of inclusiveness that doesn't feel forced.  (No objectionable content that I can recall)

Monday, December 10, 2018

best of 2018: nonfiction

And now it's time for my favorite nonfiction books of 2018:  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2018, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first two books, which were definitely my favorite and second favorite of the year, these are in random order.
  • It's still a little early, so if I read something between now and the end of December that belongs here, I'll update accordingly.
  • I didn't make a conscious decision to have this list made up entirely of women authors, but I ain't remotely fuckin' mad about it.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary.


1. Feminasty: The Complicated Woman's Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy without Drinking Herself to Death by Erin Gibson:  In a series of essays, the author talks about the ways society completely shits on women, but she still manages to be funny about it; seriously, there's a solid laugh on just about every page.  If I were in the habit of highlighting my books (and, uh, if it hadn't been the library's copy), the interior would be almost completely pink and yellow.

2. 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 thanks in part to her hard work, the alleged perpetrator was arrested only weeks after the publication of this book.

3. 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.

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

5. 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.")

6. 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.

7.  I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson:  After having her heart broken, the author decided to drive across the country by herself in hopes of discovering herself and what she really wants in life.  It sounds like typical navel-gazing bullshit, but it was really funny (as you'd expect from the co-creator and co-star of Broad City) and surprisingly touching.

8. 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.

9. Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction by Gabrielle Moss:  If you, like me, lived for monthly mall visits so you could hit up B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks and spend your allowance on Sweet Valley High, Wildfire, and Sweet Dreams, you will LOVE this book.  It was the nostalgia equivalent of black tar heroin shot directly into my veins. 

10. 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. 

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

best of 2018: fiction

Now that December is here (how though?!?), it's time to start posting my "best of 2018" lists!  A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2018, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first two books, which were definitely my favorite and second favorite novels of the year, these are in random order.
  • I know it's a little early, and I'll have plenty of reading time while I'm unemployed, so if I read something between now and the end of the month that belongs on this list, I'll update it accordingly.
  • And, as always, your mileage may vary!

1. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar:  In 1785 London, wealthy merchant Jonah Hancock is horrified when the captain of one of his trading ships comes back and says that he sold the ship in exchange for a dead mermaid.  Jonah decides to try to cut his losses by exhibiting the mermaid, and it quickly becomes a sensation.  Meanwhile, a celebrated courtesan named Angelica has recently lost her patron, and when Jonah agrees to lend the mermaid to the brothel where she used to work, their lives intersect in unusual ways.  This was fantastic; if you liked The Crimson Petal and the White, I can't imagine you wouldn't like this too.

2. 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.  A blistering look at our society's love affair with guns, and surprisingly funny too.

3. 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 message, and I enjoyed it immensely.

4. 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.

5. Force of Nature by Jane Harper:  A group of women goes 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. Jane Doe by Victoria Helen Stone:  Jane has just gotten a job at an insurance company, where she hopes to catch the interest of Steven, one of the managers.  He takes the bait, but what he doesn't realize is that Jane isn't who she says she is, and she wants revenge.  Smart and nasty.

7. 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.

8. Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough:  Lisa has a secret past that she's tried to keep hidden for many years, but seemingly random incidents start making her think everything is going to come into the light.  An engrossing psychological thriller; it's not nearly as wackadoodle batshit as Behind Her Eyes (seriously, that had one of the most astonishing endings of any book ever), or as good, but I really enjoyed it.

9. 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.

10. Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear:  When a woman's body is discovered, London policewoman Cat Kinsella is called to the scene.  She thinks the corpse looks familiar, but once the victim is identified as Alice Lapaine, Cat dismisses her initial reaction.  But then it turns out Alice is actually a woman named Maryanne Doyle, who had been missing for years...and Cat had always suspected her own father of having something to do with Maryanne's disappearance, which complicates the investigation.  A really enjoyable mystery that reminded me of Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad novels.  (I hasten to add it's not as good as Tana French, which I don't remotely mean as an insult; that's a very high bar!)


Thursday, November 29, 2018

media update: November

(Posting this early for reasons that will become clear by the end of the bulleted list.)

Good lord, what a stressful fucking month.  In general chronological order, here's what happened in November:

  • I had to have some fillings replaced, and my (now ex-)dentist ripped a huge gouge in my face with the retractor.
  • I signed up for Covered California since I'll be losing my health coverage effective tomorrow (see the final item on this list o' shit) and COBRA costs almost $700/month, and that's without vision or dental.  There were several snags and I'm STILL trying to get this shit sorted out.  I wish I had just done COBRA; the extra cost might have been worth saving myself all this fucking tsuris.
  • I was turning left on a green arrow when someone ran a red light at high speed and I came within a red pubic hair of T-boning them.  I managed to drive the rest of the way home without incident and, upon getting out of my car, puked everywhere.
  • My doctor was concerned that I might be prediabetic and/or have thyroid issues.  Fortunately, blood work proved that neither one was the case; my fatigue and hair loss are most likely due to stress.  GEE WHAT COULD I POSSIBLY BE STRESSED ABOUT
  • The mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill happened less than three miles from home.  Obviously mass shootings are a goddamn nightmare and so rampant in the US that I've almost become numb to them, but having one literally so close to home and watching the live footage unfold and listening to helicopters and sirens all night, knowing what was happening, was really heartbreaking.
  • The very next night, G and I were evacuated due to the California wildfires.  (I already wrote an entry about this, so I won't repeat myself.)
  • Also due to the wildfires, my favorite library was closed for almost 3 weeks.  They didn't suffer any structural damage, but they were smoky and needed to be deodorized and cleaned.  As you can imagine, losing access to my library SUCKED.  I didn't even have any backup options as the OTHER two libraries I could have gone were closed for the same amount of time and for the same reason!  This, along with all the other garbage I had to deal with, plus Red Dead Redemption 2 marathons, is why this media update is considerably lighter than usual.  Next month's media update is probably going to be massive because...
  • ...tomorrow is my last day working for the Cube Farm after 19 years of faithful, albeit occasionally grudging, service.  We were told about five years ago that they would be closing most of their locations across the country, including ours.  It seemed like a long ways away until it wasn't.  Although it was far from my dream job, and it certainly gave me a lot of headaches, I was pretty well paid and the benefits were great.  I'm devastated at losing my job, but I am trying to remain hopeful that something better awaits me down the line.  

Anyway, because tomorrow is my last day and I'm going to be a complete fucking wreck, I'm posting this early.  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. Kingdom of Ash by Sarah J. Maas:  This is the final volume in the Throne of Glass series, so I can't properly review it lest I spoil its predecessors.  I'll just say that if you thought Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King had about fifty million endings...

2. Elevation by Stephen King:  Scott Carey has a very strange problem: he's losing weight for no apparent reason, and the scale shows the same number whether he's completely naked or holding dumbbells.  Scott doesn't show any physical changes, and he feels fine, but when the weight keeps dropping, he has to make some hard choices.

Side note: this isn't even 200 pages, but the hardcover costs $20 and the ebook is $8, so I highly recommend getting it at your local library instead. 

3. Alice Isn't Dead by Joseph Fink:  When Keisha's wife Alice disappeared, she thought Alice was dead until she started to see Alice in the background of news reports from all across America.  Keisha takes a job as a cross-country trucker in hopes of finding Alice, but she finds something very sinister instead.

4. Girls on the Line by Jennie Liu:  After Luli ages out of the Chinese orphanage where she's spent most of her life, her old friend Yun offers to help her get a job.  But Yun gets pregnant by a man who kidnaps women and sells them to men desperate for wives, and Luli tries to help her.

5. Girls of Paper and Fire* by Natasha Ngan:  In a world populated by demons and half-animal, half-human creatures, Lei is of the Paper caste, or fully human.  She is taken from her home and given to the Demon King to serve in his harem.  She falls in love with Wren, a fellow concubine, and together they begin to plan a better life not just for themselves, but for their country.  Good world-building and some lovely descriptions, and I liked the fact that it has a lesbian (or bi/pansexual; Lei never defines herself so I ain't doing it for her) protagonist.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  104


NONFICTION

1.  Heavy by Kiese Laymon:  In this memoir, the author talks about his complicated relationships with his mother, food, and growing up African-American in the US.

2. Maid by Stephanie Land:  A memoir of the author's struggle to survive as a single mother making less than $10/hour working as a housecleaner.

Side note: if this sounds interesting to you, you'll have to wait until next year to read it as it won't be published until January.  I found an advanced reader's copy on the donation table at the evacuation shelter.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  27


MANGA/GRAPHIC NOVELS

1. Yokai Rental Shop vol. 4 (final volume) by Shin Mashiba

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  43 volumes of manga and 15 graphic novels


MOVIES

1. A Star Is Born*:  An alcoholic musician (Bradley Cooper) falls in love with a young singer (Lady Gaga), but her skyrocketing fame sends him into a spiral.  Terrific music and excellent performances.

Side note: I saw this in a mostly empty theater (it was a Thursday afternoon and it had been out for over a month by then) and, when I saw that my assigned seat was directly in front of someone else, I gave him a smile and then moved one seat over so I wouldn't block his view, figuring I'd take my own seat back if I needed to.  So how does this fucker repay my courtesy?  BY LETTING HIS GODDAMN CELL PHONE RING EVERY HALF-HOUR, INCLUDING DURING THE FINALE.  EAT A DONG, JERK.

2. Instant Family:  Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) decide to take in three foster children, but it turns out to be far more challenging than they expected.

Look, this is not the kind of movie I would have ever chosen to watch on my own, but Paramount Pictures generously moved their premiere to the Red Cross shelter where G and I were staying during the wildfires, and you know what?  I enjoyed it!  It was predictable and certainly not a must-see, but it had some really funny/touching moments and it took our minds off things for 2 hours.

3. Skyscraper:  Security expert Will Sawyer (Dwayne Johnson) must rescue his family from the world's tallest building.  Dumb and predictable, but entertaining.

4. Crazy Rich Asians*:  Rachel's boyfriend Nick invites her to his best friend's wedding in Singapore, but he's been hiding something from her: his family is insanely rich, and she'll have to win over his chilly mother.  Very cute, and Henry Golding (as Nick) is unbelievably charming.

5. Ant-Man and the Wasp*:  Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is on house arrest after the events of Captain America: Civil War, but when he's asked to help Hope Van Dyne (aka The Wasp) track down her missing mother, he puts on his Ant-Man suit and gets to work.  Lots of fun.

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  97