Wednesday, August 31, 2016

media update: August

Another blisteringly hot month, another meaty media update!

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 ever, your mileage may vary.


1. And I Darken by Kiersten White:  Lada and her brother Radu are given by their father to the sultan of the Ottoman empire as political collateral.  Lada dreams of revenge, but things get complicated when she falls in love with the sultan's son.  I'm not ordinarily big on political fiction, but I enjoyed this book because it was unusual for a YA novel in that the heroine is both ugly and mean.  (There was another unusual facet, but it's a spoiler, so I can't share it here.)

2. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware:  Still traumatized by a recent break-in at her home, journalist Lo Blacklock jumps at the chance to take a gig reporting on a luxury cruise.  But one night in her cabin, she hears a scream next door, and rushes out onto the veranda just in time to see a body fall into the water.  She immediately reports the incident, but all of the passengers and crew are accounted for, and there's no sign that anyone was ever in cabin 10.  Is Lo losing her mind, or did something really happen?  Not nearly as compelling as the author's previous book (In a Dark, Dark Wood, which received one of my rare double star ratings), but still a nifty little mystery.

3. A Time of Torment* by John Connolly:  When Jerome Burnel intervened to stop a homicide, he inadvertently made himself the target of some very bad people, who proceeded to ruin his life.  He goes to private investigator Charlie Parker with his story, and Charlie agrees to look into it, which puts Charlie in the crosshairs of a reclusive community that really, REALLY hates outsiders.  Connolly's books have been hit or miss the last couple of years, but this one (despite a couple of florid passages) is a definite hit.

4. The Beauty of Darkness by Mary E. Pearson:  This is the final book in the Remnant Chronicles trilogy, so I can't review it properly lest I spoil its predecessors.

5. You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott:  Devon is a gymnastics prodigy whose parents, Kate and Eric, have high hopes that she'll make it to the Olympics someday.  But when an unexpected death rocks the community, Kate is forced to take a closer look at her life and what she's willing to do to ensure her daughter's success.  I didn't like it as much as I thought I would, but I will say this: Megan Abbott sure knows how to write about teenage girls in a realistic way.  (See also The Fever and Dare Me.)

6. I'm Thinking of Ending Things* by Iain Reid:  I really don't want to spoil this book, because I think the less you know about it going in, the better.  It didn't end as well as I would have hoped, but I still decided to give it a star because parts of it made me so tense I was actually nauseated.  It would make a fantastic movie.

7. The Telling by Alexandra Sirowy:  Lana is devastated when her stepbrother Ben is murdered.  But then the body of Ben's girlfriend is found, and more bodies start popping up, some with bizarre links to stories Ben had told her.  I loved the author's previous book The Creeping, but this one was a bit disappointing, largely because I figured out where it was going pretty early on.

8. Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris:  Grace seems to have it all: she's beautiful, she has a gorgeous house, and she's married to a handsome and rich attorney who adores her.  But why does Grace keep backing out on hanging out with her friends, and why is her purse completely empty?  The writing can be a bit choppy and the ending seemed very rushed, but it's still a diverting read.

Side rant: I am so freakin' tired of every single psychological thriller in the last few years being compared to Gone Girl and/or The Girl on the Train.  It's almost never accurate (seriously, I can think of ONE book in the last three years where that comparison even came close to fitting) and it's fucking lazy to boot.

9. Harmony* by Carolyn Parkhurst:  Tilly is a 13-year-old girl with emotional problems that nobody seems to be able to diagnose; she's smart as hell, but prone to things like repeatedly touching her head to the floor of a restaurant and making inappropriate comments.  (On page 6, she's telling her father that she's going to suck his cock.)  Desperate for help, her parents take her and her younger sister Iris to Camp Harmony, a place run by a child behavior expert named Scott Bean, but will it be a place of healing or make things even worse?

Carolyn Parkhurst's novel The Dogs of Babel was one of my ten favorites of all time until relatively recently, so I was anxious to get my hands on this, and it did NOT disappoint.

10. Watching Edie by Camilla Way:  Edie and Heather were friends in high school until one terrible night wrenched them apart.  Now Edie is living alone with her baby daughter, and just when it seems she'll collapse under the strain, Heather reappears in her life.  At first Heather is a huge help with the baby, but Edie begins to wonder if Heather's intentions are completely benevolent.  A compelling psychological thriller, and bonus, not a SINGLE blurb (out of 11!) on the back cover mentions Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, which (as you can tell from my mini-rant above) is a huge pet peeve of mine.  (The Amazon page for this book, however, makes the dreaded comparison.  Sigh.)

11.  Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard:  Married couple Mark and Maggie are taking a road trip to visit his parents, but things are strained from the get-go.  Maggie is still traumatized by a recent mugging, and Mark's patience is wearing thin.  When Mark and Maggie are forced to stop at a remote hotel due to a major storm, things manage to take an even sharper turn for the worse.  It's good, but it was REALLY mismarketed.  The inside cover and several reviews made it sound like a thriller, but it's not.

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 84


1. Playing Dead : A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud* by Elizabeth Greenwood:  The author made an offhand remark to a friend about faking her own death to get out of her student loans.  The comment spurred her interest in the world of "pseudocide", and this fascinating book covers everything from people who believe Michael Jackson is still alive to the author's trip to the Philippines, where she successfully faked her own death just to prove she could. 

2. I Live Inside: Memoirs of a Babe in Toyland* by Michelle Leon:  The subtitle says it all!  I was lucky enough to see Babes in Toyland live in the mid-90s, and this brought back some good memories and spurred a downloading spree.

3. True Crime Addict by James Renner:  The author became obsessed with the case of Maura Murray, a college student who wrecked her car and disappeared immediately afterwards.  Don't read this if you want closure, since she's never been found, but it's a pretty solid read.

Side note:  I plucked this at random off the library shelf because it sounded interesting, so I was pretty surprised to see that I'd chosen a book in which a potential pseudocide factored so heavily since I'd just read #1 on this list the week before!

4. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo* by Amy Schumer:  An entertaining collection of essays ranging from the hysterically funny to the decidedly not, like the heartbreaking chapter about the two women who were shot and killed during a showing of Trainwreck.  (Actually, although there are certainly funny parts, I'd say it veers more towards the serious; there are also chapters about the nonconsensual loss of her virginity, an abusive ex, her father's battle with MS, and her mother's affair.)

5. Presto! How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette:  The magician talks about how his mounting health problems (including a systolic blood pressure over 200, which: JFC!) forced him to finally make drastic lifestyle changes.  There's one breathtakingly delightful line in which he says that Donald Trump's hair looks like cotton candy made of piss that I will think of every time I see Trump.  (Hopefully not much after the election.  Please, God I don't believe in.)

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 16


1. Say I Love You vol. 15 by Kanae Hazuki

2. A Silent Voice vols. 5-7 (final volume) by Yoshitoki Oima

3. Saga* vol. 6 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

4. Kaze Hikaru vol. 24 by Taeko Watanabe

5. Attack on Titan: Before the Fall vol. 8 by Ryo Suzukaze and Satoshi Shiki

6. Dark Night* by Paul Dini and Eduardo Risso

7. Food Wars!* vol. 13 by Yuto Tsukuda and Shun Saeki

8. So Cute It Hurts!! vol. 8 by Go Ikeyama

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 12 graphic novels and 50 volumes of manga


1. The Bronze:  Despite being injured, Hope (Melissa Rauch, best known as Bernadette on The Big Bang Theory) won the bronze medal in gymnastics at the "Olympics" (it's not actually called that, no doubt due to trademark issues, but it's very obviously supposed to be the Olympics) and has been coasting on her fame ever since.  She wears her team jacket everywhere so nobody can miss her, cons people out of free meals and pot, and treats her sweet (if enabling) father like crap.  In short, she's an asshole. When she gets a lucrative offer to train a new contender, Hope takes it, but finds it hard to share the spotlight.  Occasionally quite funny, especially a particularly, uh, creative sex scene.

2. Eye in the Sky*:  A planned drone strike to take out terrorists in Kenya goes awry when a little girl chooses the worst place possible to sell bread.  Very tense, and as you'd expect from a cast that includes Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, and Aaron Paul, the performances are excellent.

3. Kung Fu Panda 3:  Meh.

4. Short Term 12:  Grace (Brie Larson) works at a residential facility for at-risk teenagers.  She's good at her job, but not so great at maintaining an emotional distance from her charges.  The story isn't anything you haven't heard before, but the cast is great.

5. Demolition:  After his wife is killed in a car accident, Davis (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes a bit unglued, taking solace in destroying things and writing deeply personal letters to a vending machine company.  An interesting character study.

6. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice:  We had pretty low expectations for this movie, and they were certainly met.  Wonder Woman was cool, though.

Side note: How many fucking times do we need to see Batman's origin story?  WE ALL KNOW.  Jesus, when the dude pulled out the gun to kill Bruce's parents (I am not even bothering with a spoiler alert, because like I said, we all know this story already), G-Vo said "Wait...wait for it...yep, there goes the pearl necklace!  Aw, shit, Martha!"

Side note #2: Thomas and Martha Wayne were played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan, aka Negan and Maggie from The Walking Dead, which was just REALLY odd.

7. The Boss:  After spending time in prison for insider trading, entrepreneur Michelle Darnell (Melissa McCarthy) tracks down her former assistant (Kristen Bell) and convinces her to start a new company with her.  Started out pretty good, but turned into a mess by the end.

8. Kubo and the Two Strings**:  Accompanied by a sarcastic snow monkey and a beetle samurai, Kubo embarks on an epic quest to find a magical suit of armor.  Absolutely stunning stop-motion animation from the geniuses at Laika, combined with terrific voice acting and an alternately exciting and touching story, made this a perfect afternoon at the movies.

Side note: if you're interested in this movie, I would highly recommend catching it as soon as you can, because it's not doing so hot at the box office and will probably leave theaters soon.  If you miss out, it's still worth watching on DVD, obviously, but it really is worth experiencing on the big screen.

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 73


1. Glory (full album) by Britney Spears:  I am not ashamed for my love of Britney and I never will be as long as she keeps putting out quality bops like this one.  (We do not speak of Britney Jean in this household.) My favorite track is "Man on the Moon", possibly because the melody reminds me so much of "Way Back into Love" from Music and Lyrics.  (I'm no music expert, though, so I'm going to run it by trained musician G-Vo and see if he agrees.) 

Monday, August 01, 2016

media update: July

How do you do, fellow kids?  I've got an extra-meaty media update for you this time around, thanks to blazingly hot temperatures and two long weekends.

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 ever, your mileage may vary.


1. American Girls* by Alison Umminger:  15-year-old Anna is sick of her home life, so she steals her stepmother's credit card and runs away to Los Angeles to live with her actress sister Delia.  Anna winds up researching the Manson girls for Delia's boyfriend's movie project and crushing on the teen star of a shitty TV series.  Sharp and funny, and unlike a lot of (non-dystopian) YA novels, the author seems to have actually spent some time around teenagers.

2. Security** by Gina Wohlsdorf:  Manderley Resort is a luxury hotel that's getting ready to open for business, but somebody doesn't want it to ever open its doors, and the staff is getting murdered one by one.  Tense and exciting; it would make one hell of a movie, and thanks to several "split screen" passages, Brian De Palma would be the ideal director.

Side note:  according to some of the reviews on Amazon, the aforementioned split screen passages are unreadable in ebook format, so you might want to pick up the hard copy instead.

3. The Girls* by Emma Cline:  Near the end of the 1960s, lonely teenager Evie Boyd sees a group of girls in the park and is struck by how free and happy they seem.  She befriends one of them and finds herself caught in a Mansonesque cult.  Along with Sweetbitter, this was one of the most hyped novels of the year; unlike Sweetbitter, this one actually deserved it.

Side note:  the fact that I read two books in one month inspired by the women in Charles Manson's cult is strictly a coincidence.

4. Shiny Broken Pieces by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton:  This is a sequel to Tiny Pretty Things, so I can't review it lest I spoil its predecessor.

5. Among the Wicked by Linda Castillo:  Chief of Police Kate Burkholder grew up Amish but left the order.  She gets a call from a sheriff's department in New York asking her to go undercover and infiltrate an Amish settlement that might have been involved in the death of a teenage girl.  She agrees, but the can of worms she opens up might be a fatal one.  All of the books in this series have been good, and this one is no exception.

6. We Could Be Beautiful by Swan Huntley:  Catherine West is super rich, but her life feels empty.  Then one day she meets a handsome older man named William, and they begin a whirlwind romance.  It turns out that his parents and her parents were friends many years ago, but when she tells her mother, who has Alzheimer's, that she's dating William, it doesn't go well.  As time goes on, Catherine begins to wonder whether William is the man of her dreams or something more sinister.  I enjoyed it, although the fact that Catherine isn't a very likable narrator prevented me from giving it a star.  Also, it should have ended two chapters earlier than it did.

7. Dear Fang, With Love by Rufi Thorpe:  After 17-year-old Vera suffers a psychotic break, her father takes her on a trip to Lithuania, where his grandmother grew up, and learns a few things about his family in the process. 

8. The Hatching* by Ezekiel Boone:  The world is understandably horrified when a new breed of spiders starts snacking on people.  A delightfully creepy thriller that is best read with a can of bug spray nearby.  I swear to God, I got up while reading this to get a drink and there were two (small) spiders in my sink and I freaked the fuck out.  Those bitches got washed down the drain right quick!

Side note: this ends on a cliffhanger, so if you're a completionist, you might want to wait until the next book is out before starting this one.  (I don't know if there will be more than two books.)

9. Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon:  Alex Dale is a journalist working on an article about coma patients.  While doing an interview at the hospital, she discovers that one of the vegetative patients is Amy Stevenson, who was attacked 15 years ago in a notorious case, and Alex is determined to figure out the truth of what happened to Amy.

10. The Last One** by Alexandra Oliva:  While competing in a reality show set in the woods, Zoo (as the producers call her) gets separated from her teammates.  Because they're cut off from the outside world, none of them realize that the outside world has been ravaged by a pandemic, and when Zoo finds evidence of the devastation, she assumes it's a trick being played by the producers.  All she wants is to get home to her husband, and her ignorance of the truth will either save her or kill her.  A clever premise, expertly executed; it's my favorite novel of the year so far.

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 73


1. You'll Grow Out of It* by Jessi Klein:  A collection of hilarious essays ranging from the author's loathing of the term "ma'am" (1000% agreed; Southerners exempt) to discovering the joys of porn and Anthropologie (not at the same time, though that would make an interesting RedTube clip that I would definitely watch).

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 11


1. A Silent Voice vols. 2-4 by Yoshitoki Oima

2. Fight Club 2 by Chuck Palahniuk, Cameron Stewart, and Dave Stewart

3. Idol Dreams by Arina Tanemura

4. Rin-Ne vol. 21 by Rumiko Takahashi

5. The Ancient Magus' Bride vols. 4-5 by Kore Yamazaki

6. Sex Criminals* vol. 3 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

7. My Love Story!!* vol. 9 by Kazune Kawahara and Aruko

8. The Demon Prince of Momochi House vol. 5 by Aya Shouoto

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 10 graphic novels and 42 volumes of manga


1. The Night Before:  Three friends (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, and Anthony Mackie) have spent the last several Christmases together getting stoned and being goofy, but now that they're older and have adult responsibilities, they decide this Christmas will be their last.  Of course, things go awry.  An excellent cast (which also includes Michael Shannon and Ilana Glazer) is completely wasted on a terrible, mostly unfunny script.

2. The Boy:  Greta (Lauren Cohan) is a young American who takes a nanny job at a secluded estate in the English countryside, only to find out that her charge is actually a doll.  Of course, she's like LOL WTF, but she figures it's easy money, so she decides to stick around, and shit goes sideways.  A decently creepy little flick, and bonus points for not ending on a super lame jump scare like basically every other horror movie in the last 15 years.

3. Green Room*:  Desperate for cash, a young punk band agrees to play a gig for a bunch of neo-Nazis.  But when they stumble upon a dead woman, they find themselves in a standoff with a group of thugs and their leader (a supremely creepy Patrick Stewart).  It's extremely tense and well done, but MAJOR WARNING: this has some of the most viscerally disturbing gore I've seen in a movie in a LONG time.  Like, "peek through your fingers while moaning in horror" disturbing.

4. Only Yesterday:  Taeko decides to take a vacation from her life in Tokyo and spend some time on her grandmother's farm in the country.  While she's there, she thinks back on her childhood and wonders whether she's made the right choices in her life.  As you'd expect from a Studio Ghibli film, the animation is beautiful (if a bit dated; it's from 1991) and it's charming, but it's extremely slow and I imagine most kids would be bored to tears.  (Though, to be fair, I don't think it was made FOR kids, but I could see someone picking this up on the strength of Studio Ghibli's name and being disappointed.)

5. Zootopia*:  Despite her size, plucky bunny Judy Hopps manages to become a cop.  She's assigned traffic duty during her first day in the force, but a string of missing animals might wind up being the case that will make everyone take her seriously.  The trailers for this were absolutely awful, so our expectations were very low, but it turned out to be really charming and funny.

6. The Adderall Diaries:   Steven Elliott (James Franco) is working on a memoir about life with his abusive, supposedly deceased father.  But when his father pops up at a reading, thus screwing over Steven's book deal, Steven becomes obsessed with the trial of a software engineer accused of killing his wife.  Oddly compelling, even though there isn't much to it.

7. London Has Fallen:  Terrorists assassinate the British prime minister in hopes of taking out all of the world leaders that will attend the funeral, and Secret Service agent---uh, Gerard Butler, I don't remember the character's name---will stop at nothing to protect the president.  Jingoistic, loud, and stupid, but it had some decent action.

8. Lights Out:   Rebecca has been estranged from her mother Sophie for a long time, but when her little brother Martin calls to tell her that a malevolent entity is in their house, she's determined to stop it.  A perfectly adequate little chiller. 

Side note: we saw this in a theater we don't usually frequent, but boy is THAT gonna change, because they put in reclining armchair-style seats, and oh my god, the COMFORT.  I'm amazed that none of us fell asleep!

9. Kill Zone 2:  A Hong Kong cop and a Thai police guard team up to take down a human organs trafficking ring.  I wish they'd let Tony Jaa kick more ass in this---seriously, would you keep a racehorse in a veal pen?  Let the man rage!---but it still had some great action scenes.

10. Gods of Egypt:  There have been times when G-Vo and I watched a notorious critical flop and then been pleasantly surprised; this was not one of those times.

2016 TOTAL SO FAR: 65


Despite positive buzz, I never played Borderlands, because first person games tend to make me puke and/or get a migraine.  But when I heard that Telltale Games had put out a Borderlands game, I knew it would be safe because none of their games are first person.  I also knew it was a must-play, because every Telltale game we've played has been top notch, and Tales from the Borderlands (PS4) was no exception.

In Tales from the Borderlands, you alternate between two characters.  Rhys is a corporate shill who's trying to get promoted, and Fiona is a con artist who's always on the lookout for her next big score.  When Rhys hears rumors about a Vault Key (used to open vaults containing priceless treasure), he and his friend Vaughn set out to find it, which brings them into contact with Fiona and her sister Sasha; complications (and hijinks) ensue.


- The script is terrific: funny and dramatic by turns.  And Telltale Games always does an amazing job at making their games accessible to people, even if they're not familiar with the source material, like me.  Of course, if you ARE familiar with the source material, like G-Vo, you'll probably enjoy it even more.

- The voice acting is perfection.  There's a reason Troy Baker (Rhys) is in pretty much every video game these days: he's the best in the biz.  He's reunited here with Laura Bailey (Fiona; they were also in Persona 4 together) and Ashley Johnson (Gortys; she was the Ellie to his Joel in The Last of Us).  I can't think of a single voice performance in this game that was bad or even unremarkable.

- The soundtrack is really good, featuring both an original score and licensed tracks.

- I liked the inclusion of a lesbian couple.

- It made me tear up twice.


- It froze up a couple of times, including (oddly enough) during the ending credits.

- Uh, that's it, really.

 If you're a fan of Telltale Games' style, you'll no doubt like this too.  I give it 8 Vault Keys out of 10.