Wednesday, December 30, 2015

media update: December

Good riddance to 2015!  It wasn't the worst year of my life by a long shot, but it still had far more than its fair share of crap: my dad was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, my brother had serious health issues of his own, work sucked, and my friend M's sweet cat Sonnet, who I loved like she was my own, had to be put to sleep.  Oh, AND because 2015 wasn't sucky enough, it gave me a parting shot yesterday when I slipped on an acorn in the parking lot at work and rolled my ankle.  I had to go to urgent care and get it x-rayed.  Fortunately it wasn't broken, but it's badly swollen and bruised all to shit.  Neat!

On the plus side, some of the happier moments in 2015 included finding out that my dad was officially in remission, fun trips to Las Vegas and New Mexico, and G-Vo and I celebrating 11 years (!!!) together.

Anyway, this is a little early but I don't think I'll be finishing any books or watching any movies tomorrow, so as long as I'm sitting here sulking about my ankle, I figured I might as well post this.  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.


1. Dark Shimmer by Donna Jo Napoli:  A beautifully written retelling of Snow White from the stepmother's point of view.

2. A Madness So Discreet* by Mindy McGinnis:  After being raped and impregnated by her father, Grace is committed to an asylum to hide her secret.  She catches the attention of a doctor who recognizes how smart she is, and they fake her death so he can take her to a different, kinder asylum.  She begins serving as his assistant at crime scenes, but her past keeps threatening to catch up with her.  It took a few chapters to hook me, but once it did, I really enjoyed it.

3. Through the Dark by Alexandra Bracken:  A collection of novellas centered around the author's Darkest Minds trilogy.

4. The Killing Lessons* by Saul Black:  Two men go on a killing spree, murdering women and leaving seemingly random objects inside of their bodies.  Troubled homicide detective Valerie Hart is determined to stop them, even if it kills her...and it might.  Very dark and disturbing, but almost impossible to put down.

5. Need by Joelle Charbonneau:  Kaylee is desperate to find a kidney donor for her brother before it's too late.  When she learns about a new social network called NEED that promises to grant any request in exchange for completing a small task, she thinks it's the answer to her prayers, but NEEDless (hurr hurr) to say, the network isn't as benevolent as it seems.  Good premise, but the execution was lacking.  Read Natsumi Ando's similarly themed manga series Arisa instead.

6. Their Fractured Light by Amie Kaufman and Meagan Spooner:  This is the final installment of the Starbound series, so I can't give it a proper review lest I spoil its predecessors.  It was pretty good.

7. What She Knew by Gilly Macmillan:  Rachel is taking a walk in the woods with her eight-year-old son Ben, and when he asks if he can run ahead, she doesn't see any problem with it.  But Ben disappears, and Rachel finds herself under intense public scrutiny.  Decent.

8. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay:  In this intensely creepy novel, Merry's older sister Marjorie has begun exhibiting signs of schizophrenia.  But when doctors aren't able to help Marjorie, her parents turn to a priest for help, and in turn, the priest contacts a production company to do a reality TV show about the exorcism.  Suffice it to say that things go badly. 

2015 tally: 90


1. Troublemaker* by Leah Remini:  The actress talks about her life as a member of Scientology and how she finally got out of it, and hoo boy, she does NOT pull any punches.  She doesn't just spill the tea, she hurls it, and most of it lands squarely on Tom Cruise's face.  Leah Remini has more balls than a juggling act, and this is a juicy, fascinating read.

2. Girlvert by Oriana Small:  This memoir about the author's life as a porn star (under the name Ashley Blue) is truly one of the most depressing fucking books I've ever read.  It's not bad, but I felt like I needed an IV of Xanax while reading it.

(Disclaimer lest anyone think the above review is "sex shaming": in general, I have nothing against pornography made for and by consenting adults, though a few of the more extreme genres are problematic to me on a feminist and/or "that will cause you damage" level.  However, she talks about a porn director/costar choking her so hard during a scene that she thought she was literally going to die, the STIs she was constantly ravaged by, terrible relationships, and some other things that are too gross to share, so no, it was not an uplifting read.)

3. True Porn Clerk Stories by Ali Davis:  The title says it all!  It's a pretty funny read, and I could relate to a lot of her "bad customer" stories.  (Though I worked at Blockbuster and we obviously didn't rent porn, certain types of customers are endemic, like the "I returned those ten titles in the drop box after closing so you couldn't rent them out before the next day anyway so you need to take off the $20 late fee or I'll complain to corporate and they'll give me a free gift card and I hope you get written up because the customer is always right" type of fuckwit.  Yes, I'm still bitter, so FUCK YOU, Mr. Kroyer!)

2015 tally: 27


1. Ajin vol. 6 by Gamon Sakurai

2. Say I Love You vols. 10-11 by Kanae Hazuki

3. So Cute It Hurts!! vols. 2-4 by Go Ikeyamada:  Yes, this title has double exclamation points in it too, like #5 below.  Must be a new trend.

4. Rin-Ne vol. 19 by Rumiko Takahashi

5. My Love Story!!* vol. 6 by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko

6. Food Wars!* vol. 9 by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki

7. Step Aside, Pops** by Kate Beaton

2015 tally: 83 volumes of manga and 21 graphic novels


1. The Final Girls:  Max has been unmoored since the death of her mother, famous 80s scream queen Amanda Cartwright.  When she's asked to attend an anniversary screening of her mother's most famous movie, Camp Bloodbath, she reluctantly agrees, only to find herself and her friends drawn into the movie and fighting its killer.  A very clever meta movie.

2. Furious 7:  The crew reunites to stop a nasty (but extremely sexy, since he's played by Jason Statham) dude who's out for revenge and a warlord who wants to get his hands on a computer program that can track down anybody in the world.  The dialogue is ridiculous and filled with every cliche in the book, but there are some great action sequences, tons of man candy, the American film debut (I think) of legendary Thai ass kicker Tony Jaa, and a sweet tribute to the late Paul Walker at the end, so it wasn't a complete waste of time.

3. Ant-Man*:  When cat burglar Scott Lang breaks into Dr. Hank Pym's house, Dr. Pym sees a golden opportunity to turn Scott into Ant-Man in hopes of saving the world.  It's a lot of fun, and Paul Rudd is always a treat to watch.

4. American Ultra*:  Aimless stoner Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) works in a convenience store and daydreams about publishing comic books and marrying his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).  But when a woman walks into his store and says something very strange to him, his world turns upside down.  The less you know about this movie before watching it, the better, so I'll say no more except that it's well worth watching.

5. Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny*:  In this bizarre flick from 1972, Santa Claus' sleigh gets stuck in the Florida sand.  What's he supposed to do now?  Well, summon a group of kids and then tell them about Jack and the beanstalk, of course!  And then get rescued by a white rabbit driving an antique fire truck.  Make no mistake, the star I'm giving this is not in any way a reflection of its quality, because it is godawful.  But we saw the live RiffTrax version (well, a simulcast, anyway; the gang was in Tennessee and we were in SoCal), and we all laughed really fucking hard.  Bonus points for the short films at the beginning, including a real headscratcher in which Santa tells a couple of kids about...monkeys.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens**:  I don't want to say anything about the movie's plot/characters lest I ruin it for someone who hasn't seen it yet, so I'll merely say that it was a really fun throwback to the classic trilogy and I enjoyed it immensely.

7. Cooties*:   After a virus caused by tainted chicken nuggets turns their students into bloodthirsty zombies, a group of teachers bands together to fight them.  It's so funny that it made me wish I'd waited to post my "best movie lines" list.  (One of my favorites:  "I'm giving you kids an F...for fuck you!")  My only complaint, and it's not a minor one, is that the ending is very unsatisfying.  The alternate ending on the DVD was a little better.

8. Tangerine:  When Sin-Dee finds out that her pimp/boyfriend Chester is cheating on her, she goes on a mad tear trying to find Chester and the woman who stole her man, dragging her reluctant friend Alexandra with her.  It's an interesting character study with a surprisingly sweet ending, and considering that it was shot on an iPhone (really!), it looks pretty good.

Side note:  According to IMDB, one of the reasons this got an R rating is "strong and disturbing sexual content".  Unless Netflix sent me an edited version, I have no idea what they mean by disturbing sexual content (though it was definitely strong), so don't let that scare you off if you're otherwise interested in this movie.

9. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation*:  Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his friends try to take down a shadowy syndicate.  This was a really fun installment in the series, thanks to tons of exciting and innovative action and a particularly enjoyable performance by Simon Pegg. 

10. Self/less:  A terminally ill billionaire finds out that for a mere $250 million, he can have his consciousness transplanted into a new body.  (And what a body it is, since it belongs to Ryan Reynolds!  No offense to Ben Kingsley, but MAJOR upgrade.)  But, of course, it's not as easy as it initially seems.  It's a pretty good sci-fi thriller, but it wasn't as visually stunning as I thought it would be, seeing as it was directed by Tarsem Singh.

2015: 107


1. "Gentlemen Take Polaroids" by Japan

2. "Lucky Number" by Lene Lovich

Friday, December 18, 2015

best of 2015: movies

And now it's time for my final "best of 2015" list.  Just a few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2015, but that's when I first saw them.
  • Aside from the first two movies listed, these are in random order.
  • And, as ever, your mileage may vary. 

1. Gone Girl:  When his wife Amy disappears on their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne finds himself under intense scrutiny by the media and the police alike.  The book by Gillian Flynn is in my top 10 of all time, and David Fincher is one of my favorite directors, so I had high hopes for this adaptation...and I wasn't disappointed, because it's fantastic.

2. Nightcrawler:  Lou Bloom (a magnetically creepy Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate for work, so when he learns about the lucrative industry of selling footage to the local news, he buys a cheap camcorder and a police scanner and heads out on the streets.  Dark, disturbing, and really goddamn good.

3. The Skeleton Twins:  Maggie is just about to take a huge handful of pills when she gets a call saying that her estranged twin brother Milo tried to kill himself.  When he gets out of the hospital, she asks him to move in with her and her husband for a while, and they begin to tentatively repair their relationship.

Jesus Christ, this fucking movie.  Holy shit.  There's one scene that rang so true and hit home so hard that I actually wept in recognition.  And Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, as you might expect, are terrific.  Not for everyone, but the people it IS for will most likely love it.

4. Ex Machina:  Caleb works as a programmer for Bluenote, a wildly successful search engine.  He's chosen to visit the secluded estate of his boss and evaluate the A.I. capabilities of Ava, a beautiful robot, and see if she can pass the Turing test.  At no point was I able to predict what was going to happen, which was a rare treat.  Clever and thought-provoking.

5. Star Wars: The Force Awakens:  I don't want to say anything about the movie's plot/characters lest I ruin it for someone who hasn't seen it yet, so I'll merely say that it was a really fun throwback to the classic trilogy and I enjoyed it immensely.

6. Spy:  Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) works as a handler for hunky CIA operative Bradley Fine (Jude Law).  When a mission goes awry, Susan is sent into the field.  It's hysterically funny, and Jason Statham shows surprising comic chops.  I'd like to see him do more comedies, and also more nude scenes.  (Not that he has any in this movie, but goddamn do I wish.)

7. It Follows: After a sexual encounter turns seriously weird, Jay finds out that she's being stalked by murderous apparitions that nobody else can see. It's incredibly creepy, and some moments had me white knuckling the armrest in the theater. It's also more clever than the typical horror movie, and led to some spirited discussions between us about how we would try to outsmart It.

8. Wild:  Completely unmoored after her mother's death, Cheryl Strayed (an excellent Reese Witherspoon) decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself.  I loved the memoir, and the film adaptation did it justice. 

9. The Book of Life:  Manolo and Joaquin are long time friends who are both in love with Maria.  But something happens that I won't spoil, and Manolo has to travel to the land of the dead to make things right again.  This beautifully animated movie was much better than expected.  Bonus points for having a strong anti-bullfighting message, too.

10. Inside Out:  Riley's life is turned upside down when her family moves to San Francisco, and her anthropomorphized emotions battle for control.  A surprisingly honest look at the feelings of an adolescent girl, with plenty of humor as well (including a very sly joke about bears), and since this is a Pixar movie, you better have tissues handy. 

SEEN IN THE THEATER:  The Imitation Game, American Sniper, It Follows, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Trainwreck, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (live RiffTrax version), Star Wars: The Force Awakens

MADE ME CRY (OR AT LEAST TEAR UP):  The Imitation Game, The Skeleton Twins, American Sniper, John Wick, The Boxtrolls, The Book of Life, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Big Hero 6, Interstellar, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, About Time, Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion, Cake, Inside Out, Trainwreck, Mad Max: Fury Road, When Marnie Was There, Insidious 3, The Final Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens


SICKEST/MOST HILARIOUS SIGHT GAG OF THE YEAR:  A zombie's portable "snack" in Dead Rising: Watchtower.  I don't want to get more specific lest I spoil it, but trust me, you'll know it when you see it.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

best of 2015: fiction

And now it's time for my favorite novels of 2015!  Just a few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first published in 2015, but that's when I read them.
  • Aside from the first four titles listed, which were definitely my four favorite novels of the year, these aren't in any particular order.
  • G-Vo, don't read the descriptions for 1, 6, and 7.
  • And, as ever, your mileage may vary.

1. Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll:  When she was a teenager at an elite prep school, something very bad happened to TifAni FaNelli (yes, that's how it's spelled).  She reinvents herself as Ani and lands herself a terrific job and a gorgeous fiance, but the past keeps threatening to destroy everything.  It's so good (there's one chapter where I basically forgot to breathe, and I'm not exaggerating; I don't remember the last time a book made me that tense) that I'm naming it my favorite book of the year even though the ending was confusing and a bit unsatisfying.  Still, if you're looking for a compelling read that you'll probably tear through in record time, look no further.

Side note: when we were in New Mexico for Thanksgiving, we stopped at the library and I noticed this book on the shelf, so I recommended it to G-Vo's sister.  She checked it out, and when we stopped in a store to look around, she sat down and began reading it.  When G-Vo and I returned to her, she looked up and said, "You evil, evil woman."  She finished it after we'd gone back to California and texted me to say how much she loved it.  I'm telling you, once you start, be prepared to put just about everything else in your life on hold until you finish!

2. Dietland by Sarai Walker:  Plum Kettle is an overweight woman who spends her days answering mail for a teen girls' magazine and dreaming of the day she can finally afford weight loss surgery.  Then she receives an unusual proposal: the heiress to a weight loss empire, who feels guilty about how she got her fortune, offers her $20,000 to undergo a series of challenges.  Meanwhile, a secret group is taking out people they consider dangerous to women, and Plum starts to wonder if the two things are connected.  Sharp, subversive satire that's so assured it's hard to believe it's a debut novel.  I thought the diet drug called Dabsitaf (read it backwards) was a bit too forced, and I still don't know why the porn star had to get murdered when the reasons she was IN porn to begin with were pretty well explained (this is not a spoiler; the first time you ever hear about her in the book is when she gets killed), but if you've ever wanted to read a feminist version of Chuck Palahniuk, look no further.  It's fucking great.

3. Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter:   Rich trophy wife Claire and her sister Lydia have been estranged for over twenty years.  When Claire's husband Paul is killed during a robbery gone wrong, the sisters reconnect and try to come to grips with their past, but there are some very nasty skeletons lurking in the closet.  I don't want to say more lest I spoil this book, but goddamn is it a CORKER.  Good luck getting anything else done once you start reading this.  Warning, though: even by Karin Slaughter's standards, Pretty Girls is extremely disturbing, so caveat reader.

4. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware:  Nora is a writer who's a loner and likes it that way.  When she receives an invitation to an old friend's "hen do" (bachelorette party to non-Brits), she really doesn't want to go, but she feels obligated.  It's being held at a creepy glass house set deep in the woods, and tensions among the group build to the point that Nora begins making plans to leave, but...well, I don't want to spoil it.  It's the kind of clever, excruciatingly suspenseful book that makes you want to call in sick just so you can read it in one sitting.  Clear your schedule before you start.

5. Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: After her husband is murdered, Darlene falls into a deep depression that she alleviates with crack. One night, she is lured into a bus with promises of a better life working on a farm called Delicious Foods. But it's not remotely what it seems, and when she fails to come home, her young son Eddie goes looking for her. I wasn't sure what to expect from this novel, because I thought (and still do) the title sucked and the fact that crack cocaine narrates some of the chapters was goofy, but I gave it a try because of the reviews, and I'm glad I did. It's brutal but beautifully written, my heart never stopped breaking for Darlene and Eddie, and the chapters narrated by crack are actually some of the best in the book.

6. The Three by Sarah Lotz:  On a day that comes to be known as Black Thursday, four planes crash simultaneously.  Only four people survive: three children and one woman who dies shortly afterwards, leaving behind an ominous phone message.  Some people think the children are miracles, but others think they're signs of an impending apocalypse.  One thing's for sure, though: there's something wrong with them.  Utterly fascinating; I had a very hard time putting it down.

7. Day Four by Sarah Lotz:  People are enjoying their cruise aboard the Beautiful Dreamer until things go completely to hell on (yup) the fourth day.  A woman's body is discovered in her room, norovirus rages through the passengers, the communications system goes down and the engine dies, and the medium who was hired as the feature entertainment might not be the sham everybody thought.  It's like The Shining on a cruise ship, and it's absolutely gripping.  I'm just glad I didn't read it before my cruise last year, or I probably would have canceled!  (Note:  this is a sequel of sorts to The Three, which I didn't realize until I was halfway through this one.  You could read them out of order as this stands on its own very well, but I wouldn't recommend it as I think some foreknowledge of The Three would have added immensely to my enjoyment and understanding of Day Four.)

8. The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig: Four hundred years after a nuclear apocalypse, children are only born in pairs. One twin, the Alpha, is always perfect; the "Omega" twin always has a deformity. Omegas are branded when young and sent away to refuges or orphanages. The Alphas want to get rid of the Omegas, but there's a catch: when one twin dies, the other immediately follows. It's the first in a trilogy (but it's not YA, believe it or not), which is good because I want more.

9. Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin:  Bored barista Jess jumps at the chance to work for an Oscar winning composer.  She thinks she's got it made, but the job isn't as cushy as it initially seems, so she quits to work for an actress instead.  Things are looking pretty good until her estranged mother decides to pay an extended visit.  Sharply drawn and very funny.

10. All the Rage by Courtney Summers:  Romy was sexually assaulted by the son of the town sheriff, and nobody believed her.  She drags herself through life in a daze, but when a classmate goes missing, she thinks it may be connected to her assailant, and she has to decide whether she can continue to keep silent.  A really powerful, beautifully written, searing indictment of rape culture.

Friday, December 04, 2015

best of 2015: nonfiction

The year is slowly drawing to a close (and good riddance), so I figured I'd start posting my "best of 2015" lists.  A few notes before I begin:

  • I think these were all first released in 2015, but even if they weren't, that's when I read them, so they belong on this list.
  • Aside from the first title listed, which was by far my favorite, these aren't in any particular order.
  • If anything comes along between now and December 31st that belongs on this list, I'll update accordingly.
  • As always, your mileage may vary.

1. Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall:  While on vacation, the author returned to his hotel room to find that he'd missed several calls from family members.  He feared that his mother, who had been battling cancer for many years, had taken a turn for the worse, but the news, although not what he expected, was just as bad: his father had been diagnosed with ALS.  When the burden became too much for his mother to shoulder alone, he moved back home to help.  I know it sounds unbearably depressing, and it can be, but more often it's brutally honest and profanely, mordantly funny.  (Example: During a phone call with his long distance girlfriend, she complains about not being able to use a treadmill at the gym and he says "Well, my dad's arms don't work, and I had to clean shit off his balls.")  If you've ever had to take care of a terminally ill loved one (raising my hand here) and you don't mind swear words in practically every sentence, you have to pick this up because it will be a tonic for your soul.  I could have done without the chapter in which he and the housekeeper dream up violent punishments for the family's messy cats (though they don't actually hurt them), but everything else is golden.

2. Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation by Adam Resnick:  A hysterical collection of essays covering everything from traumatic porn discovered as a kid to desperately wandering through Disney World.  I was reading this in the break room at work and started laughing so hard that people wanted to know what was so funny.  Great stuff, and I love this quote on the back from Chris Elliott:  "He's basically our generation's Norman Rockwell, if Norman Rockwell had ever painted a woman sucking off a horse."  (Yes, this is a reference to the aforementioned porn.)
3. Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado: The author discusses living in poverty and rails against a system that seems to keep people there. Blisteringly funny and all too true. 

4. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip by Kevin Brockmeier:  In third person, the author remembers his experiences in seventh grade, from friends who inexplicably turn against him to booby trapping his lunch to catch a thief.  I think pretty much anyone could relate to this book, but especially if you came of age in the 80s.

5. Fat Girl Walking by Brittany Gibbons:  The author discusses her life, ranging from her unusual childhood (including an unfortunate use of Scotch tape) to her current role as a body image advocate.  It's refreshingly candid and often uproariously funny.

6. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola:  A very well-written, thoughtful memoir about the author's struggle with alcoholism and how she tried to redefine herself once she was sober.

7. Voracious by Cara Nicoletti:  Part cookbook and part memoir, this is about the author's favorite books and the food contained within.  It's very charming, with lovely watercolor illustrations, and it brought back lots of great memories of some of my favorite books too.  Props for not spoiling Gone Girl, too.

8. Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson:  In this new collection of essays, the author discusses everything from her love of taxidermy to her struggles with mental illness.  It's not as funny as its predecessor (Let's Pretend This Never Happened), but it's definitely more important.

9. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs:  Robert Peace was born in poverty, but thanks to brains, a bit of luck, and a lot of willpower, he managed to get into Yale, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.  But after he graduated, he returned to his hometown, where he got tangled up in the drug trade that would eventually lead to his death.  The author was one of Robert's roommates, and this book is both a tribute to his friend and an incisive look at whether we can ever truly overcome the circumstances into which we were born.

10. Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding:  This book about Japanese food will make you ravenously hungry, so be prepared to head to your nearest Japanese restaurant immediately upon finishing it.