The Black Witch, by Laurie Forest / *** ½

81w1vtfpdulLike a lot of people, I bet, I was first alerted to the existence of Laurie Forest’s debut novel The Black Witch by an article in Vulture entitled “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter.” The article told the story of how this novel had faced a massive backlash even before its publication, all resulting from an early review accusing the book of being “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read.” The reviewer spent almost 10,000 words excoriating the book for its bigotry and racial views, singling out passage after passage of hateful speech and racially loaded language. From there, the backlash doubled down, resulting in no small amount of trouble for this book, but largely one that was echoed by people going off of this review without reading the book – which, of course, led to a backlash to that backlash, with people rising to defend the book. And so, naturally, I decided that I wanted to read the book for myself, to see where it fell. The answer, unsurprisingly, is somewhere in the middle; this is a book with noble intention, some compelling themes, and an uplifting goal, but an execution that leaves a lot to be desired.

The problem, of course, is that the debate around The Black Witch is mainly about whether or not the book is racist. Every single one of the quotes and excerpts presented by that angry reviewer are correct; there’s no misquoting, no made up material. What’s left out is context, and that matters a great deal – that every one of the characters that says these horrible comments are largely intended to be the villains of the novel, and even when our heroine says these same comments, it is because she knows no better. At its core, The Black Witch is about Elloren Gardner, a young woman who has been raised in a society that sees itself as the superior race in the society – one that talks down to all others, sees other cultures as subservient to them, demands racial purity, and expects the other countries and races to fall into line behind them. But once she goes to college and begins to meet people outside of her small, insular people, she realizes that she’s been lied to – that the things she has assumed all of her life, the things she has believed, are far from true.

What results, then – and this is, in no small way, the best aspect of The Black Witch – is the story of a young woman learning the error of her ways and coming to terms with her own flawed assumptions and beliefs. The Black Witch uses hateful language and loaded terms, no doubt, but it does so in service of a larger goal – to show that hateful beliefs and racial hatred can be unlearned, but only through difficulty. That’s not an unnoble goal, by any means, and I like that the book doesn’t make it an easy shift – it’s a gradual process, one that comes and goes, and doesn’t happen all at once. Even more to the point, I like the fact that the book makes no secret of the hatred she receives from other races, nor makes her more sympathetic unnecessarily; our heroine is a deeply person, but by setting her discrimination in a fantasy world, we’re left wondering if the disgusting rhetoric out of her mouth is factual or simply twisted beliefs.

That’s to the book’s credit, I believe, as is the point that it doesn’t shy away from troubling language in Elloren’s matriarch or some of the other characters. Yes, the book is giving us this language, these beliefs – but we’re not supposed to agree with them. To feel that way would be akin to feeling like we were supposed to side with the Ewells in To Kill a Mockingbird, or hearing Nazi propaganda in World War II novels and feeling that it was factual. And yet, I can’t entirely fault the original reviewer’s reaction – there’s little denying that I went into this book aware that it was intended as a “learning/redemption” story, and that if I didn’t know that was coming, I, too, might turn on the book quickly. It’s a case where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t; if the book doesn’t make Elloren and her family hateful, it’s not honest to the issue, but by not tipping its hand before we realize the fallacies the book is unraveling, it runs the risk of seeming worse than it is.

But here’s the thing: all of that is well and good, but the bigger issue is, The Black Witch is only okay, themes and all. To call the plotting “loose” would be generous; the book barely hangs together as a story, just sort of drifting through its scenario and hoping that the character development is enough to anchor our interest. And it might be, if every character weren’t so annoyingly one note, from the popular girl at school to the “evil” roommate (who of course turns out to be misunderstood). Author Laurie Forest is going for something admirable, but none of the characters really comes to life beyond a single personality trait, and the way they’re all gradually paired off into romantic couplings is less engaging and more eye-rolling. That, however, is better than Forest’s habit in the back half of the book of random flashbacks to major events in an effort to make the story feel more remembered and told. It’s a strange pacing choice that never pays off, and doesn’t help with the already shaggy, loose nature of the book. And, of course, this has to the first book in a series, and so we are barely beginning to get into the story when the book ends on a deeply unsatisfying conclusion, one that’s less a cliff-hanger and more of a “I’ve hit my page count”.

And yet, I really like the theme of The Black Witch, and admire what it’s going for – there’s something compelling about unflinchingly looking at how hard it can be to question what you’ve been taught, and the importance of trusting your own experience, and the voices of others, rather than what you are told by “authority”. (My favorite aspect of this comes as Elloren learns that the best way to truly learn history is to read accounts from every group involved, and embrace the complexities that arise when they conclude.) No, the book itself isn’t that great, but there’s a rich idea there, and a goal that I enjoyed – and something that’s worth reading it on its own terms, to understand that what it’s depicting is the very thing it’s condemning.


The Daily Show (The Book), by Chris Smith / **** ½

9781455565351I can’t tell you exactly when Jon Stewart became unmissable, appointment TV for me. But sometime in the wake of 9/11, as The Daily Show started to become the institution that it did, I found myself going out of my way to never miss an episode, recording every night’s episode onto an increasingly battered VHS tape, and never letting an evening’s show go unwatched. And as the show evolved, I stuck with it, finding it a voice of reason and sanity in insane times, and no doubt shaping my opinion in so many ways. It was funny, yes, but it was barbed, and heartfelt, and thoughtful, and incisive. It was satire in a time that needed it, and at a time where it was easy to feel like an outcast in Bush’s America.

I say all of this at the outset because there’s no way I can give you a review of The Daily Show (The Book) that’s not through the eyes of a fan of the show (and Stewart). If you didn’t watch this show throughout the years, watch it evolve from the snark and condescension of the Kilborn era into the earnest, trenchant powerhouse it became, I don’t know whether you’ll find this book as fascinating and compelling as I did. Yes, there’s something rich about hearing all of these creators opine about the show and its evolution, but there’s no denying that it’s more resonant, more interesting, for those of us who love the show already.

So what is The Daily Show (The Book), exactly? It’s an oral history of the show, one that starts back with the inception of the original series and follows it to the end of Stewart’s tenure, with chapters around almost every major event of the series – the Crossfire appearance, the Cramer confrontation, Indecision 2000 (and 2004 and 2008…), the love/hate tension with John McCain – all of it is covered and more. But what’s more, by making this an oral history with undeniable range, author Chris Smith allows us to hear this all from the people involved, both in front of the camera and behind. What’s more, while Smith undeniably loves the show, he allows people to be honest throughout, whether it’s McCain explaining why he quit going to the show, hearing former correspondents and staff speak with bitterness about their experiences, or diving into some of the show’s controversies (think that infamous Jezebel post about sexism in the show’s staff, or the Wyatt Cenac blowup). Even Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck are allowed to get some digs in, making their points and giving them a chance to respond to the show’s (or Stewart’s) treatment of them.

For all of that, though, this is a history for those fascinating by how a little show on a neglected cable network became a political powerhouse, a launching point for careers, and a series that literally changed legislation and policy with its voice. It’s also a history of what it takes to make a show like this, and how the things that represented The Daily Show – contradictory video clips, correspondent pieces, hatred of Fox News, Stewart’s interview techniques – were first conceived.

It’s also, though, a wonderfully funny book, because these are funny people. From John Oliver and John Hodgman trading jabs about whiskey to correspondent pranks to further evidence that Stephen Colbert is one of the funniest people alive, the book is laugh out loud funny, with these people sometimes unable to restrain their glee and disbelief at the things they did and got away with. And sometimes, it’s a reminder that the show was funniest when it was silliest – stories of Steve Carrell’s wonderful “Produce Pete” character, or how puppets became part of the show, are just as important as the creation of The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

In short, I can’t give you an entirely objective review of this book – I’m too big of a fan, too emotionally connected to these times and these memories to be objective. It’s a bit skewed towards the show’s reputation, I think, and tends to let the questioning voices be overpowered. But as a history of a show I loved, and a reminder of the people that shaped so much of my political and personal views, it’s a blast – funny, thoughtful, compelling, and just a great read. Highly recommended for any fan of the show – and if you’re not a fan of the show…what’s wrong with you?


Four Quick Movie Reviews

392px-animalhouse_posterI can’t help but feel like I would love Animal House so much more had I seen it in the context of its times. I don’t know this for sure, but watching Animal House today makes me feel like, when it came out, it probably felt wild and original, something wholly unlike other comedies and movies. But I can’t view it through that perspective entirely; all I can do is see it through the eyes of someone who’s seen the generations of films it’s inspired, and in that light, it’s hard not to feel like Animal House is more notable for what it inspired than for the film itself. The slobs vs. snobs plotline, the veering between the “real” world and cartoonish silliness and exaggeration, the gleeful anarchy that runs through the film – there’s so many elements here that you know and love, but also have seen done better in years to come. It doesn’t help that Animal House feels SO sloppy throughout – barely a film at all at times, and more a series of interconnected bits. The one big exception to all of this, though, is John Belushi, whose energy and glorious absurd manner is a joy in every second of his screen time, much in the way that someone like Will Ferrell at his peak could infuse scenes with pure comedic gold. But in general, Animal House casts a long shadow, but it’s one of those films that’s less interesting on its own terms than for the films that followed in its footsteps. Rating: ** ½

5lhu4gi8ltkyplti9x2dvftwbrnThe last time I saw An American Werewolf in London, I ended up commenting that it all felt jumbled and sloppy – a weird mishmash of tones that didn’t work always, but when it did, was hard to beat. Maybe it was because I knew the destination and the outcome this time; maybe it was just giving it a fresh viewing. But for whatever reason, just about every aspect of Werewolf worked for me this time, down to the bitter, nihilistic ending. Werewolf feels a lot like an adaptation of a short story than anything else; it feels like it’s basically a single-act story stretched out with some filler along the way (most notably those dream sequences in the beginning, although the scene with the doctor returning the bar also drags), but in general, that focused plot works for the film’s benefit, making it feel like some weird, lean 70’s horror story. And the film’s sheer darkness is surprising but undeniably effective; Griffin Dunne’s role as a literal (and horrific) incarnation of conscience is darkly funny, but keeps plunging the film into darker and grimmer territory. Yes, it sometimes feels like Landis doesn’t quite want to commit to that darkness – he has a tendency to keep conversations light and jokey, and not quite want to look straight at the darkness implied in them – and yet, by the time the film ends, that darkness has taken over, ending the film with a nasty gut punch. And really, that darkness is a fitting element for a genre so fixated around humans giving way to their most bestial and animalistic instincts. As for that dark humor – well, it gives the film a “whistling past the graveyard” feel that works for it. There are some overlong threads, and a little too much padding to flesh out that “short story” feel. But by and large, it worked way better than I remembered, and has a way of feeling like something different from most other horror films. Rating: ****

burnt-offerings-movie-poster-1976-1020243280There’s little denying that Burnt Offerings feels like some weird B-movie inspired by The Shining, despite the fact that it’s actually the other way around (the novel was apparently much beloved by Stephen King, who openly acknowledges it as an influence on his haunted hotel novel). That’s because, at its core, this is a silly B-movie, one with a fairly amazing and overqualified cast (Burgess Meredith, Oliver Reed, Karen Black, and Bette Davis) all hamming it up and having a fun time in this schlocky story of a family that gets a magnificent deal on a once vibrant, amazing house – as long as they don’t mind leaving food out for the old matriarch who lives behind closed doors upstairs. Oh, and the weird dreams. And the dark urges that crop up. And…well, you get the idea. Burnt Offerings is all about what you expect, down to the “shocking” revelation that’s about what you expect it to be near the end. And yet, everyone in it is a seasoned pro, the pacing is solid, the scenes well staged, and the mood really nicely managed – there’s a scene involving Reed playing in the pool with his son, and the way the scene slowly curdles on us in front of our eyes is actually pretty great and effective. Even better is the way the movie never over-explains itself – the way the flowers bloom every time someone bleeds, for instance, or the unexplained nature of so much that happens upstairs. It’s all schlock, but it’s schlock done by a bunch of pros, hamming it up in a fun way and directing with an eye for pacing and oddness. It’s a lot of fun – well worth checking out for any fan of B-horror. Rating: ****

46578-the-entity-posterTurns out, for a movie I’d never really heard of, The Entity doesn’t have a bad reputation. Not every movie gets the acclaim of Martin Scorsese, of all people, much less finding it on a list of his all-time scary films. And for the first couple of acts, it’s easy to understand that reputation, even if the film isn’t perfect. The story of a young single mother (played very well by Barbara Hershey) who finds herself under constant (often sexual) assault by an invisible entity in her house, the film wastes little time in jumping into the horror, and stages each attack with an intensity that works. Add to that the film’s subtext (well, it’s barely subtext at a certain point), which finds Hershey dealing with her abusive childhood and string of flawed boyfriends, all of which might make the supernatural entity some sort of manifestation of her own issues, and there’s a lot of rich material here to go through. Oh, don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a great movie – the assaults don’t always stay on the right line of prurience, and the score is ludicrously bad (basically it’s guitar stings repeated, in rhythm, ad nauseum). But it’s an interesting one, with more depth than I expected…for two acts. And then, in truly spectacular, jaw-dropping fashion, The Entity absolutely explodes into a craptastic, ludicrous, overproduced third act that had me in tears of laughter and undoes every single good thing the movie’s done until then. It’s hard to convey just how bad this final act is on its own terms, but when compared with the solid, interesting film before it, it’s even worse, resulting in one of the biggest jumps in quality I’ve ever seen in a movie like this. (How bad is it? Well, replace all of the interesting psychological concepts of the early going with a giant model house, liquid helium cannons, evil glaciers, and action sequences. In other words, imagine if The Exorcist became a 90’s comic book movie in the final act, maybe?) There’s an interesting movie in here somewhere, but it’s best to turn it off before that final stretch, which torpedoes everything good about the rest of the movie and then some. Rating: **

IMDb: Animal House | An American Werewolf in London | Burnt Offerings | The Entity

The Dark Tower, by Stephen King / *****

This is the seventh full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and GlassWolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”).

In past entries, I’ve done my best to set series spoilers until the end of the review, in their own section. But it’s going to be hard to talk about the final book in an epic series without spoiling some aspects of the books that led up to this. There aren’t any direct spoilers from the other books, but I may end up alluding to or mentioning aspects in them simply as I discuss. So read ahead at your own peril; I’ll have my standard section of book spoilers at the end (in a section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam”), but the other books in the series (save The Wind in the Keyhole) are fair game.

michael20whelan_the20dark20tower20vii_color_coverIt is hard to think of a major series that ends as bleakly, or with as bitter and elegiac of a tone, as The Dark Tower. In a genre so often defined by epic showdowns, haunting sacrificial losses, or heroic final moments, The Dark Tower, in keeping with so much of the series, defies expectations, giving us brutal, pointless deaths, pyrrhic victories, and a sense of loss and weariness so palpable that it’s hard not to find yourself shaken by the experience of reading. None of which should be surprising; after all, this is a book that opens with a quote from Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” (though, if I were a betting man, I would lay no small amount of money that it’s Johnny Cash’s version of the song that inspired the epitaph; that song’s weariness and pain resonates so deeply in this novel, especially in the final chapters). But even with the way that readers have become accustomed to “shocking,” painful deaths in final entries in epic series, there’s little denying the awful, crushing weight of The Dark Tower‘s deaths – a weight that ends up just feeling awful, ugly, and painful, and very far from heroic.

And yet, that all feels somehow right for The Dark Tower, a series that has long defied any sort of norms, restrictions, or rules, to say nothing of easy classification. Much as King would later do with Mr. Mercedes, where he wrote a thriller that was undeniably more of a King book than a standard thriller, The Dark Tower series is a fantasy series written by a man who wants to do his own thing, and to hell with expectations or rules. Yes, there’s no denying that we had expectations for this book – that the Beams would be saved, and that Roland would at last see the Tower which had been his obsession for so long – and King handily resolves both of those stories for us. But more than that, The Dark Tower (the novel here, not the series) also serves as a meditation on endings, on legacies, and on the dangerous cost of obsession.

That, in of itself, isn’t necessarily something wholly new for a final book in a series; what makes The Dark Tower so painful and heartfelt is the way that King turns that look inwards to himself. There’s little denying that this book would be different had King not almost died after being hit by a car, but few of us might have expected that King would write the accident into his own series, letting the books become a window into fears of his own mortality and legacy had he left these books undone. It’s the voice of an author who fears that they haven’t accomplished everything they’ve wanted to, and a man scolding himself for not living up to his potential – and that gives The Dark Tower a rawness that’s hard to look away from. (That King makes his characters hate him so is a fascinating choice, and one that you could write books unpacking.)

But as The Dark Tower draws into its second half, King’s subtext becomes text. The book’s climax is, for all intents and purposes, halfway through the novel. And though the cost is undeniably high, there’s a sense that Roland and his ka-tet have won…and yet, they, like us, feel like the job isn’t complete without seeing the Tower itself. But is there a need to do so? Is there a point in this need for glory and for obsession…or is the journey, and those we meet along the way, the important aspect? That’s a complex idea, and becomes woven into the book’s second half, as Roland pushes through stubbornly and dangerously towards a goal that may not need to be met. And even in this spoiler space, I don’t want to give away the book’s final, vicious turn, which gives us a sense of where King falls on this question…but not without leaving one chance for hope deep down, and a chance for redemption.

Like the rest of the series, The Dark Tower isn’t without its flaws. It’s overstuffed at times, and suffers from the weight of all of King’s foreshadowing and hints along the way (the way it handles the question of Insomnia is particularly…well, “cheaty”, even if it’s acknowledged in the book). But really, I don’t come away from the book thinking about the plot. I think of that heartbreaking, painful tone that echoes throughout. Yes, the final battles are woefully anticlimactic…but that’s because they don’t matter, and the villains are not the true threats. The quest was to save the Tower, and those who fight against the forces of good, in King’s universe, are necessarily weaker and more fallible than the pure-hearted. But it’s the heartbreaking futility of those battles that sticks with me – not the carnage or the awfulness, but the pointlessness of it all, the sense that all of this violence and loss is so often for naught other than glory or selfishness or sheer stubborn pride. And that’s a fascinating, difficult tone to end a series with…but one that haunts. It haunts with the deaths which seem so arbitrary and needless (and brutal emotionally more than physically). It haunts with the loneliness our characters are left in, and the doubts they have about their goals. And it haunts in an author who’s been forced to re-examine his life and wonder if he lived it right.

For me, it’s the emotional impact that makes The Dark Tower such a worthy conclusion for this series. Yes, I love the refusal to give easy answers or placate us with incredible victories; this is a book about loss, grief, obsession, and reflecting on our lives. But the fact that King pulls off this powerful, haunting tone throughout, all while still concluding his story, is no small accomplishment, and gives us one of his best books he’s ever written, in my opinion.


All Things Serve the Beam (MAJOR book spoilers follow) Continue reading “The Dark Tower, by Stephen King / *****”

The Adventure Zone: The Balance Arc

wfpebjnpA few years ago, two friends of mine told me about a podcast that they thought I’d enjoy. It was called The Adventure Zone, and it was a relatively new podcast by the McElroy brothers – at the time they told me about it, only the first 2-3 episodes had been released. Now, I knew of the McElroy brothers – I’d heard of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, their famous podcast, but never gotten around to checking it out. But I didn’t know anything about them – not their humor, not their personalities, nothing. And yet, The Adventure Zone sounded like a great hook – three brothers and their dad playing Dungeons and Dragons together, and just generally being silly and having fun while doing it. And after a little bit of a rough first episode that dragged a bit, I started thoroughly enjoying the show. Oh, it was silly and gleefully childish (the first episode ends with a character convincing guards to not come in by explaining how aroused he is about the man he just killed), but I giggled a lot, and started enjoying the show, slight and silly though it might be.

Cut to nearly three years later – earlier this week, in fact – when I kept refreshing my podcast reader all morning, waiting for the final episode to drop. An episode, mind you, that was over two-and-a-half hours. And as I jumped in (at the first possible chance I got), I laughed, sure…but that silly, goofy, childish podcast? Damned if it didn’t somehow make my room really dusty – no idea how that happened – to the point where it even affected the goofy, big-hearted family recording it.

PetalsWhat happened during those three years? How did this ridiculous, silly, slight podcast become something incredible – not only my favorite podcast of all time, but one of my favorite stories in recent years, and a constant source of joy, humor, and light through good times and bad?

The answer to that is complicated, and to be honest, there’s maybe no single moment that I can point to that nails down that transition. Sure, there’s the “Petals to the Metal” arc, whose multi-episode climax takes the form of a massive Mad Max/Fast and Furious style car race that had my jaw dropped in glee with every new episode over the weeks that it unfolded; yes, there’s some of the reveals in “The Crystal Kingdom,” where it started to become more obvious how deep and complex this story was getting, and just how invested I was getting in these characters; and, sure, there was the astonishing, mind-blowing “11th Hour,” that might still be my favorite arc in the campaign, with an approach that found the boys trapped and learning from their mistakes. In other words, it’s not as though this podcast changed overnight; its evolution was gradual, to the point where it could sneak up on you without warning – and did so, often. But if you really want to understand what made The Adventure Zone turn into something great, you need to understand a little bit about the McElroys.

By the time The Adventure Zone ended, the McElroys’ fame had grown exponentially, to the point where they need far less introduction than they did then. But what you mainly need to know is that the McElroys’ brand of comedy is largely defined by its positivity and welcoming nature. That’s not to say that they’re absurdly cheery or optimistic always; it’s more that they refrain from judging people, indulge heavily in silliness and absurdity, and make an effort to simply be open to the world and those around them. BaseSetThey’re the sort of people who realized they didn’t want their fantasy world to be just straight white guys, and so between all of them, gay characters were introduced of both genders, as well as a trans character, all passing without much more than a remark, and no judgment. They’re the sort of people who did their best to never describe people more than they had to, enjoying the benefits of an audio medium to allow people to identify with characters in whatever way they wanted, and never judging anyone’s as being uncanonical. They’re the sort of people who abandoned a long set-up joke for fear of it being interpreted as cruel or offensive, and found a way around it while being open about both the original joke and why they dodged in. In other words, they’re big-hearted, kind individuals, all of whom have sharp senses of humor, wicked comic timing, and kindness to spare.

And as you might imagine, having people with this level of heart and empathy means that, as the campaign continued, every single person involved found themselves more and more empathetic to their characters and the story. Of course, it doesn’t help that as DM for the campaign, Griffin delivered an absolute knockout of a plot, with no shortage of astonishing reveals, compelling foreshadowing and hints, and a surprisingly long-form game that I’m only now starting to appreciate (now that the campaign is over, I’ve started listening again, and realizing that Griffin started laying seeds for all of this within the first five episodes). But what made The Adventure Zone special wasn’t just Griffin’s Bondingstory, great though it was; it was the way he shaped it around the input from his family, from the critical (Justin’s choice to have Taako not only be gay, but strike up a relationship with a most unlikely choice; Travis’s heartfelt backstory for Magnus; the surprisingly touching revelation of how Merle spends his off time) to the supremely goofy. To say more would be to get into spoiler territory (and yes, there are incredible spoilers for this show, and reveals that I wouldn’t ever want to rob someone of hearing for the first time), but much of the joy came from realizing that Griffin had listened to absurd, silly comments by his family and crafted them into plot threads, shaping his world around them.

In other words, The Adventure Zone was truly collaborative storytelling of the best kind, with Griffin creating a world and turning his family loose in it, and letting them wreak all sorts of havoc. From towns populated by hundreds of Tom Bodettes to cigar-chomping Phandalinheroes named Boy Land, from quests to understand the power of Mexican cuisine to failed youth pastors, The Adventure Zone lived and breathed in its details, and it was there that the show always hooked you in, as the McElroys would cackle with glee over the freedom they had. And then, just when you’d be caught up in an adventure, or cracking up over a turn for the absurd, one of them – and you could never be sure who it was – could hit you with a gutpunch, and you realized just how much these characters had come to life for you, even in such a short time. Yes, I loved the plot of this all, and the craft that went into it – how Griffin could simultaneously keep an overarching plot together while giving them total freedom in the individual arcs – was always astonishing. But what I truly loved was getting to hear McElroys bounce off of each other in every imaginable way, and the joy they all brought to the project.

The McElroys have said that, in some ways, they regret letting this campaign run so long – that it’s made people wonder what sort of form the podcast could take after this, and left them scrambling a bit.But in the end, the length of the Balance arc was the most satisfying thing about it, as we slowly immersed ourselves in this world, and laughed and chuckled and had fun, and slowly – and without realizing it – got invested in it all. That a show that started with such silliness and anarchy could end with me tearing up so many times shouldn’t be possible – but it did.

So, you want to listen? A few pieces of advice:

  1. If you just want to sample a couple of episodes that give you a sense of the show at its best, check out either “The Boston Stunt Spectacular” or the “MaxFunCon Live Episode”. Both are standalone episodes that require basically no major knowledge of the show, and give you a great sense of the characters and the rhythms of the show. They’re also both absolutely fantastic episodes – I’d recommend the Stunt Spectacular and then MaxFunCon, in that order, but both not only have me laughing uncontrollably, but show off both Griffin’s ability to tell great stories and the crew’s ability to mix excitement, comedy, and banter.
  2. If you decide to jump right in – great! But one piece of advice: instead of listening to the full pilot episode, start with episode 1.5, which is a “supercut” of the pilot. I almost bailed on the show the first time I listened to the long pilot; at this point, I enjoy it a lot more, but it definitely drags and takes a long time to get going.
  3. Give it at least four episodes, if you can. I’d say the show starts to really find its comic rhythms and footing in episode 2, and by episode 3-4, Griffin has started to leave behind the D&D practice campaign and get into his own ideas, and that’s when the show truly starts to grow.
  4. Don’t skip “The The Adventure Zone Zone” episodes – they sound goofy and terrible, but if you’re enjoying the series, you’ll love them – they’re a great window into the creative processes that go into the show, and they spoil nothing, as long as you listen to them when they fell or later.
  5. Do skip the episodes with the Flop House crew. YMMV, of course, but I personally hated both pretty deeply – unfunny, uncharming, and really lacking everything I love about the show.

All art, except for the podcast logo, comes from The Adventure Zine, a collection of fanart which was created to raise money for the Facing Hunger food bank. 

Sent for Life, by Jason Turri / * ½

51gc2uq-m6l-_sy346_One of the common issues I’ve started to see among independent authors, especially those on their first or second book, is not knowing how to balance ambition and plotting. There’s a sense sometimes that they think to themselves, Well, I have all of these great ideas – why not put all of them into the same book? But the result is often an overstuffed, jumbled read, one that leaves you wishing that the author had focused on any one or two of the ideas in depth instead of throwing them all into the same book and doing none of them justice.

Such is the case with Sent for Life, Jason Turri’s debut novel, which follows a young scientist as he creates a vaccine for a deadly disease sweeping the world, gets framed for murder, discovers a secret cloning operation, gets told that he’s going to be sent to an alien world, discovers a conspiracy behind that launch, discovers a separate secret plan on that alien world, helps to save that world from a deadly asteroid – and all of this (and plenty more, including a few twists) happens in 300 pages. If that sounds like a lot to cover, well, it is. And every time you think the book is about to dig into a single plot thread, it swerves onto something new, until I really got frustrated figuring out who the plot’s villains were supposed to be, and why it would spend so long on things that it had no interest in paying off.

That world-shaping disease? Barely matters to the book. The framing of him for murder, and the slowly uncovered motivation of the villain behind it? Discarded as soon as the character gets ready to move onto the alien world. And again and again and again, the book jumps from plot to plot. There’s something admirable and enjoyable about a book that’s so ambitious and eager to do so much, but as a reader, there’s also a sense of frustration as you deal with a book that has no idea what it wants to be about. (That even becomes more of an issue as the book randomly breaks from its first-person narration without warning at times, without rhyme or reason.)

Not helping things is that our hero is…well, “flawed” would be putting it mildly, and it’s never quite clear how much we’re supposed to dislike him. If the answer is “a huge amount,” that would be great; between his habit of describing every female in terms of her looks (all are “beautiful” in various ways) and his constant whiny, wheedling pressure for all of them to sleep with him regardless of their interest level, he’s undoubtedly a slimeball. But that’s pretty tame compared to his behavior when he gets to the alien world, where he introduces drinking, drugs, and wet t-shirt contests for his own entertainment among a species that knows none of these things. Far from being funny or endearing, it makes him a fairly repellent figure, and his ego as he approaches basically every situation makes him hard to root for.

There’s some interesting ideas in Sent for Life – any number of which could have made a single really fun book. But putting them all together, and the sheer revolting nature of its hero, really keeps the book from being something I can recommend. I think Turri has great ideas, and he seems like the kind of author who can learn from his mistakes – hopefully he can see the issues with Sent for Life and learn from them in the future.


Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****

This is the sixth full entry in my re-read of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, following my reviews of The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, and Wolves of the Calla (with a side stop into “The Little Sisters of Eluria”). As a reminder, I’ll be reviewing the book on its own terms in the review; after the review concludes, I will be discussing the book’s connections to the rest of the series to come in the section entitled “All Things Serve the Beam.”

Also, this time I’m going to have a special book-only spoiler section called “The Clearing at the End of the Path,” because there’s one aspect of this book that I wanted to discuss at length, but didn’t want to spoil for people who hadn’t yet read the book. (If you’ve read it, you probably know what it is.)


As I approached Song of Susannah in this re-read, I’m not going to lie; I was a bit anxious. Over the years, Song of Susannah has been held up as the nadir of the series – a mess, the point at which the meta commentary became too much, the book where King’s ambition stretched too far. And in some ways, I’ll grant some of those points. There’s no denying that Song of Susannah sometimes feels like too many books in one, nor that it feels…well, weird. And that’s saying something, given how strange this series is already, and how disjointed the books are almost by design. But more than most, Song of Susannah swings for the fences, going between the surreal to the action-packed, from the nightmarish to the esoteric, often without even a hint of a change coming. And that doesn’t even get into the main thrust of the narrative, which somehow has to explain a truly baffling pregnancy that…well, I can’t even begin to explain this one to you, because King doesn’t quite either, despite the number of pages he devotes to trying to hash it all out.

And yet. (Come on. You knew an “and yet” was coming.)

And yet, by god, broken down to its individual pieces, Song of Susannah WORKS. There’s no denying that King’s ambition cranks up dozens of notches here (and I’ll have lots to say about the major one – and the most controversial one – in a book spoiler section below, before I get to series spoilers), but it’s easy to forget how much King has a way of making even the most bizarre and dysfunctional concepts somehow work when you’re lost in his worlds. On paper, most of Song of Susannah shouldn’t work, but as we immerse ourselves into the heart and soul of these characters, and King brings his worlds to vivid, intense life, it’s hard to remember your complaints while you’re carried along.

More than that, Song of Susannah has some truly great scenes waiting for you, most notably a climactic section that may rank as one of the most disturbing, horrific things King’s ever written – no small feat, that. But it makes sense, because King’s horror usually has at least one foot in the real world, one foot keeping things grounded. But in the world of the Dark Tower, all bets are off – there’s no reality to keep it tethered. And what results is genuinely horrifying and disturbing, with some of the darkest, grimmest images I can remember King writing – an ending (setting aside the coda, which I’ll address in those book spoilers) that leaves you dying for more in a great way. More than that, even with the weird, sometimes disjointed approach that finds us sometimes leaping from scene to scene, King retains that command of momentum and pacing that makes him one of the best writers around – and that goes double here, as King barrels us toward the ending of this series.

But maybe what I really love most about Song of Susannah is the way that it makes King’s ambition for this series plain, crystallizing something that’s been a theme for some time. Song of Susannah, in other words, is the book where it becomes most clear that in many ways, this is King’s most ambitious and career-defining work, in his own mind, and that the book is as much as about him as an author as it is these characters. It’s something that’s been a part of the series since the beginning (if you remember, it’s one reason why I advocate for the original cut of The Gunslinger, because it makes King’s evolution as a writer part of the text of the series), and even more so over the past few, as the ideas of story and storytelling has become more and more intrinsic to the plot of the series as a whole. The idea of stories – why we tell them, how they inspire or define us, how they motivate us – is only more and more relevant as the Tower series progresses, and Song of Susannah starts turning that from subtext to text, as characters grapple with their roles in stories that they had no idea they were a part of.

Does Song of Susannah spend alternately too long on some explanations (Mia/Susannah, I’m looking at you) and not enough on others (how Susannah knows the importance of a street preacher, for instance)? Undoubtedly. Does it suffer from “middle book” syndrome a bit, bridging between the setup of Wolves of the Calla and the payoff of The Dark Tower without sometimes knowing how to define itself? Most definitely. And is there a bit of me that resents spending so much time in this penultimate book of a great series on one of its weirdest, most nonsensical plot threads, to say nothing of the fact that most of it is devoted to maybe my least favorite member of the ka-tet? (Again, I’ll get into why in the spoiler section below.) Yup.

But for all of that, so many of the individual pieces of Song of Susannah work so well that I can overlook that. Any book that features that horrific sequence in the Dixie Pig, the fantastic shoot-out, that eerie scene where they meet a sort of god, and our first glimpses at what lays in the blasted lands near the Tower…when your book has all of that and more, I’m okay with the weaknesses, especially because all of them work so well thematically, and they’re so well told. And more than anything, when a book leaves me this ready to jump into the final volume, even after I’ve already read it…well, it’s doing its job, isn’t it?


The Clearing at the End of the Path (book spoilers follow – no series spoilers) Continue reading “Song of Susannah, by Stephen King / ****”