Monday, April 30, 2018

media update: April

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  38


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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  13


1. Gabriel Dropout vols. 2-3 by Ukami

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  42


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

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

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

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


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


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

Monday, April 02, 2018

media update: March

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  30


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  8


1. Citrus vol. 7 by Saburouta

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

3. The Prince and the Dressmaker* by Jen Wang

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

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

6. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond

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

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

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

10. Rin-Ne vol. 26 by Rumiko Takahashi

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

12. Gabriel Dropout by Ukami

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 TOTAL SO FAR:  33