Rustkiller, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

34932417I get a lot of requests to review books by various authors, but Dean F. Wilson is one of those that I’m most excited to hear from – when I get a Wilson book, I know I’m going to get solid writing, rich worldbuilding, interesting characters, and just a crackling good story. And that all goes doubly for Wilson’s recent Coilhunter Chronicles series, which takes the steampunk trappings of his Great Iron War series and brings them into the Western genre, with absolutely fantastic results. And, as I’d hoped, Rustkiller (the second book in this series, after introducing the character in The Great Iron War and giving him his own book with Coilhunter) is great – even better than the first, and a just plain great read on every level.

Mind you, it helps that the Coilhunter Chronicles have such a great protagonist – a bounty hunter named Nox, known as the titular “Coilhunter” (“coils” being the currency of Wilson’s post-apocalyptic world). The Coilhunter is a ruthless, take-no-prisoners sort of guy – think a combination of Batman and John Wick, and you might end up with the character Wilson’s created, complete with complex motivations and a yearning for justice that takes its form in lethal bullets and captures.

In other words, you’ve already got a great antihero. And you’ve already got a great world – the unsettled Western frontiers of a war-torn landscape, a place where people go because they’re opting out of a violent world torn apart by war and strife. All you need is a good story, and as usual, Wilson delivers. The plotting here starts out simple enough, with the Coilhunter encountering a young pair of siblings on their own, and trying to help them. Things spiral out from there, and Wilson turns his focus to the Clockwork Commune, a sort of junkyard populated by wound-up, self-running machines which rip apart anything that comes into their realm, all in the hopes of finding some machinery for their self-replicating world.

The result is a ton of fun; Wilson uses his short chapter lengths perfectly, constantly giving you the need to read “just one more” at the end of every one, pulling you along in a cavalcade of tension, suspense, and great action. As usual, the writing is fantastic, evoking that Western drawl despite all of its steampunk and science-fiction trappings, but best of all is the way that Wilson brings his characters to life, as ever. That goes most for Nox, whose fatalistic worldview is tempered by his desire to help those in need, but it’s equally valid in the case of the young siblings, whose motivations, drives, and needs don’t feel like stock “children in peril,” but something more interesting, all the way up to a brutal choice they’re forced to make.

These books, more than anything else, are fun – they’re exciting, inventive, well-written, and just plain great. They’re pulpy but satisfying, action-driven but character-rich, and enjoyable enough that you’ll rocket through them. And they’re all standalone stories, giving you a great sample of Wilson’s work in the hopes you’ll come back for more. And you most definitely should.


Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, by Patrick DeWitt / ****

“I will try to be happy, you think, and your heart and chest feel a plummeting, as in the case of the hurtling rollercoaster, and your heart wants to cry and sob, but you, not wanting to cry, hit yourself hard in the center of your chest and it hurts so much but you drive on, your face dry and remaining dry, though it had been a close call, after all.”


I picked up Ablutions: Notes for a Novel based largely off of my love for Patrick DeWitt’s second novel, The Sisters Brothers, an offbeat Western written with exquisite craft, a wry sense of humor, and a beautifully realized tone that recalled the great True Grit by Charles Portis. Ablutions is DeWitt’s first novel, and it shows; it lacks the narrative thrust that kept The Sisters Brothers moving, feeling more like a series of character sketches and moments than it ever does a true novel. What it has, though, is DeWitt’s superb writing, keeping you reading for the way he crafts a phrase and considers the emotional heft and impact of every word.

In some ways, in fact, the episodic nature of the book only helps the writing to soar all the more. Narrated by a nameless bartender in a seedy bar on the outskirts of Hollywood, Ablutions is a cavalcade of broken souls – alcoholics, junkies, has-beens, never-was’es – and that might include our narrator as well. The book takes the form of fragmentary observations and anecdotes, often introduced with the reminder “Discuss”. But what that fragmentary nature robs of narrative pleasure, it adds in the ability to find the profound moments of everyday life, such as this knockout observation with one patron:

“He drinks double vodka tonics from the well and becomes animated when describing a stunt or special effect from the latest Hollywood blockbuster. When he insists you see these movies you tell him you do not like the genre and he asks what other kinds there are and you say there are the slow ones and foreign ones and your personal favorites, the sad ones, and he blinks and says that there are two types of people: Those who want to cry, and those who are crying already and want to stop.”

And even when not finding beautifully realized moments, DeWitt’s prose has a way of getting to emotional truths in a haunting way, from the moment of crushing pain I opened this review with to this aftermath of a misbegotten night together between two lost souls:

“Now she is crying and you are shivering and it is time to go home and if you had a watch you would snap your wrist to look meaningfully at it but she dabs at her face and says she wants you to come upstairs and share a special-occasion bottle of very old and expensive wine and as there is no way not to do this you follow her through the dusty lobby and into the lurching, diamond-gated elevator and into her cluttered apartment to scrutinize her furnishings and unread or improperly read paperbacks, and you wonder if there is anything more depressing than the habitats of young people, young and rudderless women in particular.”

Yes, DeWitt’s prose is beautiful, and more than equal to the offbeat, haunting narration of The Sisters Brothers. But for all of that, Ablutions often feels more like an exercise than a true novel, and a sometimes tedious exercise at that. It’s a portrait of addicts and broken souls, and that’s a story a lot of authors have done, and DeWitt doesn’t bring much new to the table apart from his writing. How much you enjoy Ablutions will, then, entirely hinge on your ability to savor DeWitt’s writing and the way he uses his prose to craft emotions out of the unlikeliest situations. It’s a book for those who love language, in other words, and others may be less likely to appreciate it. If you’re in that camp, I can’t recommend highly enough The Sisters Brothers, which is everything I like about Ablutions and more. But for those who enjoy writing as a way to create sketches that add up to something more, there’s something beautiful about Ablutions that I liked far more than the sum of its parts.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell / ****

9780307947475In some ways, I wish I had read Karen Russell’s short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove before I started reading the stories and work of George Saunders, because there are so many times that I couldn’t help but compare the two writers. Both are writers who eschew the literary pretensions that come along with so many modern “literary” writers, instead dabbling in magical realism, horror, and other fantastic elements. Both are dryly funny, mixing satire and odd humor with more thoughtful content. Both write beautifully, crafting exquisite phrases and fascinating descriptions that make their stories more satisfying than many whole novels by lesser writers.

And yet, the Saunders comparison hurts Vampires so much because of the fact that Saunders is, quite frankly, better at stories than Russell is. Take the title story, which follows a pair of vampires as they navigate their centuries-long relationship. It’s an offbeat story, with imagination to spare, but falls back into the cryptic, symbolic, vague ending so popular with “literary” fiction. That problem haunts the similarly promising but ultimately frustrating and irritating “Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979”, in which a young man seems to be getting messages from the cosmos via a swarm of seagulls…and nothing else ever becomes clear or meaningful. And while “Proving Up” opens with a science-fiction take on the Homestead Act and the way we all find meaning in our possessions and property, the ending doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of the story before it, and left me wondering what I was supposed to get out of it.

And yet, some of the stories are pure joy. “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” is a hilarious riff on sports tailgating, one that finds spectators cheering the “Food Chain” game, hoping against hope for the underdog krill to finally devour whales, all as the narrator gradually reveals more and more of his own personal history. There’s also the gleefully weird “Barn at the End of Our Term,” in which a number of former American presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses in a country barn for no apparent reason. Both of these stories steer into their absurdity, embracing the anarchy and silliness and letting the richness come from not only the weird world, but also from the way Russell keeps it grounded in her characters. In similar ways, there’s “Reeling for the Empire,” which follows a group of Japanese girls who have been drafted into silk production for the Empire…by means of turning into silkworms. The result is fascinating and incredibly strange; yes, it’s ultimately a little overlong, and feels a little aimless, but the imagination and writing are superb. Best of all is “New Veterans,” the story of a massage therapist who’s assigned to help veterans returning from the Middle East conflicts. What starts as the most grounded and plausible story takes a surreal turn early on, and ends up becoming a thoughtful, complex meditation on memory, healing, pain, and regret, all while managing to be a story about a very vivid tattoo whose realism becomes unsettling.

I want to be clear – I liked a lot about Vampires in the Lemon GroveYes, I couldn’t help but compare the collection to another author, one whom I love. And yes, it might not help that the collection’s weaker stories are in the first half, setting things off to a lackluster opening. But the more I look over the contents, the more I find to like about the collection. Moreover, the fact that Russell is so open to genre fare – to fantasy, to science-fiction, to magical realism – that’s no small thing. Yes, I’d like her to lose her most “literary, New Yorker” tendencies. But there’s a lot here to enjoy, and I’ll definitely try on more of her work for size.


I, Tonya / ***

i_tonyaLet me open this by saying that I have pretty profoundly mixed feelings on I, Tonya, a film that I sort of loved and hated in equal measure. A sort of meta-biopic of Tonya Harding that features duelling (and contradictory) narratives from various players, fourth-wall breaking, and a desire to look back at this story that was one of the foundations of the 24-hour news cycle we’re stuck with today, I, Tonya is undeniably ambitious, surprisingly funny, and never boring. And yet, at the same time, there’s often a sense that it’s a film on the verge of spinning out of control, with wildly clashing tones, constant (and grating) musical choices, and characters that are so over the top as to be cartoonish. And yet again, there’s an argument to be made (that I first heard articulated by Genevieve Koski of The Next Picture Show) that, in many ways, all of that is the perfect form for a movie about Tonya Harding: loud, brash, contradictory, a little grating, but technically ambitious and overachieving, and unafraid to be itself, no matter what.

That contradictory batch of feelings echoes for me all the way through the film, down to the performances. On the one hand, you have Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan as Harding and Gillooly, both playing older versions of themselves reflecting back through their own lives, and altering their performances to match the version of the story they’re in. When the film focuses on the two of them, it’s fantastic; the two of them bring out nuance and complexity in characters that have been so often reduced to caricature by the media, and the added dimension of having them reflect back lets us see how the incident and its aftermath impacted their lives. (And enough good can’t be said about both Robbie and Stan, who are phenomenal; the film demands a lot of them, and they rise to the occasion, playing their roles like chameleons that match whatever scene they’re in.) But then, on the flip side, you have Allison Janney and Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s mother and Gillooly’s friend/Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn, respectively. Both are superb in their roles, but the film turns both into absurd cartoons, robbing them of anything except over the top dialogue and one-note writing that hammers away at the impression they’re supposed to make. Janney is awful and cruel and vicious; Hauser is idiotic and clueless and delusional. And both do a fantastic job in their roles, giving their all and making their scenes great, but there’s a sense that both roles are so absurd and one-dimensional that they grate, especially in contrast to how well the film handles Harding and Gillooly.

But couldn’t you argue, you could say, that the film is so clearly subjective – so clearly focused on the perspectives of Gillooly and Harding – that those roles should be cartoonish? In other words, what we’re seeing isn’t a caricature of these people; it’s how Harding and Gillooly saw them, since we don’t get their side of it? There’s an argument to be made there, I think (although it doesn’t take into account the way that Janney seems to occasionally enter into the film as a narrator herself); similarly, you could use some of that to deal with some of the film’s other excesses. Most notably, I’d say, is the film’s constant, incessant soundtrack of classic rock standards; it often comes across as a film without any confidence in its audience to get the emotional vibes it’s trying to convey. On the other hand, could you argue that they reflect the soundtrack that Tonya wants to put onto her own life, and the soundtrack of her memories? Maybe so.

But the more I think on I, Tonya, the more I think the film’s execution simply doesn’t work, no matter how much I feel like I love what it was trying to do. I love that the film digs into Harding’s working-class roots and makes it clear that the narrative of her being a white-trash thug comes from a media snobbery; at the same time, the film’s portrait of her roots is often every bit as condescending and sneering as that of the people it’s criticizing. I admire the way the film takes on Harding’s abusive life, often showing it brutally and unflinchingly; at the same time, it often jars horribly with the film’s glib tone, and sometimes feels as though it’s being played for laughs when it shouldn’t be (most notably with Janney’s horrific Mommy Dearest). And more than anything, the film feels smug and can’t let anything be left to subtlety. (A scene that reflects this in miniature: there’s a late film shot that finds Gillooly remembering the day the media moved on. In the background, you can just make out that his TV is showing the Nicole Simpson crime scene – a nice, subtle touch. Which the film then hammers home by shifting camera angles to make sure that you can’t miss it, all but foregrounding it.)

I can see why I, Tonya is so popular and well-received. It’s undeniably funny and entertaining, and its goals are fascinating. I love the meta-take on the biopic, and I love the way the film strives to match its content to the stories being told and the people telling them. But it’s a film that also gets exhausting, whose smugness is irritating, whose condescension gets wearying, and whose mashup of tones often doesn’t work and leads to uncomfortable clashes. And most of all, it’s a film that sometimes isn’t sure what it wants to be: a revisionist take on Tonya Harding, or a broad comedy? A fourth-wall-breaking piece of metafiction, or a cartoonishly absurd recapping of a famous incident? It’s a film that I can see why people like, and won’t begrudge them for their appreciation, but just ultimately didn’t work for me that well.


Phantom Thread / *****

phantom-thread-alternate-poster-6-620x916There are essentially two ways I could review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread. I could be incredibly brief, saying that I needed time to think this one through, and that much like Anderson’s The Master, it’s a film that doesn’t lend itself well to instant analysis; it’s designed to let you sit with it, unpacking it over time and turning it over in your mind. The second approach to reviewing it, though, is to do what I’m going to do: to think out loud, to process Anderson’s fascinating, complex, nuanced, layered film in waves, and do my best to unpack everything that makes this film so incredible. (Behind the scenes note: as I’ve written this review, my star rating has gone up, as I’ve talked myself more and more into how much of a masterpiece this film is.)

Echoing really no other Anderson film as much as The MasterPhantom Thread isn’t what your expectations are telling you it is. It’s not even the film you’re going to think it is 20 minutes in. On the surface, this is a period drama set in the 1950’s, following a demanding, difficult, idiosyncratic fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he strikes up a relationship with a quiet, sweet waitress named Alma (relative unknown Vicky Krieps, who holds her own against Day-Lewis – not a small feat). Added into the mix is Woodcock’s close relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows her brother’s moods, needs, and requirements intimately, and enables/tolerates/assists him as needed. And from that – and the film’s lush, rich textures and costumes – you might feel like you’re getting a period romance drama, something sweet and heartfelt.

But that’s not Phantom Thread, which buries its jagged psychological edges in manners and moods, focusing on the power dynamics between these people in subtle ways, and refusing to spell out any of its subtext until the closing minutes, and even then, only barely. It’s a film about a fraught, difficult relationship between a difficult man and a loving woman who wants to make him happy; and yet, simultaneously, it’s a critique of the arrogance of genius, which thinks that it deserves the freedom to be obnoxious and cruel. It’s a comedy of manners, but one with a far more unusual (and kinkier, to some degree) view on the thing. It’s a love story, but a deeply unconventional one, focused on the way these two people love each other and yet demand control over their relationship and over the other party. And ultimately, though it gives us answers in a wildly unconventional way (one of my favorite film memories of the year is feeling the crowd react nearly physically as they realized exactly what the nature of their relationship was becoming near the end of the film), it does so in a way that feels both right for the characters and ultimately on a human level, getting at something more universal than you’d expect for a movie about such unusual needs and desires.

And yet none of that conveys how frequently, constantly funny this film is, giving you laugh out loud line deliveries, comedy from loudly buttered bread, and so many superb lines of dialogue conveying irritation that I have days worth of new things to say to my students. It doesn’t convey the richness of every performance (yes, of course Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible as Woodcock, bringing out the humanity of this man as well as his genius, making his black moods both understandable and repellent, and evoking both strength and weakness as necessary. But how great is Vicky Krieps, slowly letting us realize that Alma is far from the submissive, meek woman we think she is, and holding her own in this struggle for control against Lewis, all while doing so little physically? And then there’s Manville, who gets so many of the film’s great lines, playing the cold observer trying to navigate between the two) and how deeply human and complex the characters become thanks to those performances. And more than anything, it doesn’t prepare you for Anderson’s direction and cinematography. From the way he brings every driving sequence to life as an excuse for Woodcock to cut loose to the haunting depiction of a fevered hallucination; from the deep discomfort of a horrible wedding to a silent battle across a New Year’s Eve gala; from the silent moods of a breakfast table to an angry confrontation over a dinner gone wrong – somehow, Anderson films them all in incredible ways, drawing out the tension, the psychological moods, the uncertainty, and the beauty of every moment, delivering a richness that can’t be conveyed in words.

Because Phantom Thread truly is a relationship movie. Not in the sense we so often use it – where we watch two people fall in love over time – but in terms of being a movie about how people relate to each other, and how those connections shift and evolve over time. We understand both why Alma loves Reynolds and why he’s so difficult; we see the appeal of Alma but also know why Reynolds gets so frustrated; we empathize with the difficult line Cyril has to walk. And maybe better than any other director alive right now, Anderson knows how to direct in a way that lets his actors draw out those connections without spelling them out, using great acting to explore bonds and deep issues in a natural way. That he also backs it with sumptuous visuals and bravura sequences is, I think, icing on the cake. It’s a film that’s funnier than you expect and darker; it’s both more entertaining than you’d assume and more complex; it’s both easy to watch and thought-provoking enough to leave you pondering it for a great long time afterward. It is truly a remarkable film on every level, a dazzling masterpiece that keeps revealing more layers to me as I think on it, and a film that reminds you why we should count ourselves lucky to have Paul Thomas Anderson working as a filmmaker today.


Snow Week: Family Viewings

As mentioned in my last post, we had an unexpected week break from school and work around here, and when you’re trapped in a house with children, you don’t always get the chance to watch the movies and shows you might really be wanting to see. Luckily, we got to watch some good movies and shows anyhow, even given the family restrictions. Once again, in the interest of time, I kept the reviews shorter than usual.

lego_ninjago_movie_ver2_xlgThe Lego Ninjago Movie is undeniably the weakest of the Lego films so far, but, then again, when your basis for comparison is the amazing The Lego Movie and the surprisingly great The Lego Batman Movie, is falling short of that bar that surprising? What’s more disappointing, though, is that it lacks the rich emotional hooks of its predecessors. Yes, there’s an interesting story about a father who abandoned his child, but The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t really invest in that story the way The Lego Movie was about growing up, or how The Lego Batman Movie found resonance in isolation. Moreover, The Lego Ninjago Movie doesn’t use its great cast all that well, essentially wasting a number of great voices (including Kumail Nanjiani, a favorite of mine, as well as Jackie Chan and numerous others). And yet, for all of that, I had a blast watching it, simply because, whatever it lacks in depth and emotion, it makes up for in silliness and absurdity. There’s a reveal early on in the film about an “ultimate weapon” that had me in tears not only the first time, but every time it was brought back. And then there’s Justin Theroux as the film’s ostensible villain and deadbeat dad, swaggering through everything with a cocky voice, impeccable comic timing, and all the best lines. Is The Lego Ninjago Movie anywhere near as good as the movies that came before it? Not even close. But did I laugh really hard throughout it? Oh, god, yes. Rating: *** ½

mv5bmtuxmjizodi0nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk3oti2mdi-_v1_uy1200_cr10706301200_al_I’m a huge fan ofLemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, a gleefully dark and Gothic children’s series that dabbles in literary allusions, rich symbolism, postmodernism, and black comedy in equal measures, all while spinning a complex story about coming to terms with a lack of answers in the modern world. That may sound pretentious, but it’s hard to convey just how rich and fascinating the series is, all while still being laugh out loud funny, clever, and just a joy. All of which is to say, I wasn’t sure that it would be easy for an adaptation of the works to capture all of that tone and magic. And yet, somehow, Netflix’s take on A Series Of Unfortunate Events is a treat, through and through, capturing the tone of the books perfectly while also diving into the series complicated plotting and weird postmodern touches. There’s little way to talk about the series without talking about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as Count Olaf (and numerous variations of that character), and rightfully so – Harris makes Olaf menacing while also bringing out the absurdity and comedy of the show, turning an incredibly complicated role into a treat that works. (It’s a fine line to walk, making Olaf’s disguises convincing enough to work while also remaining obvious to us, and Harris straddles that line effortlessly.) For my money, though, Patrick Warburton is the show’s secret weapon, playing Lemony Snicket himself as a wandering Greek chorus and delivering Snicket’s gleefully dark narration in a dry monotone that makes it all the funnier. Add to that a trio of strong performances by the Baudelaires, and the involvement of Daniel Handler (the author behind the Snicket pen name) to adapt the story and his mythology into something manageable (as well as possibly correcting some repetitiveness that cropped up in the first few books in the series), and what you get is a blast. It’s wonderfully silly while keeping the dark themes and worries of the book, captures that sense of hopelessness while keeping everything tongue in cheek, and giving us a visual feast of Gothic touches that brings this bizarre universe to life. I couldn’t be happier with the adaptation (with the possible exception of some slow patches that are as much due to the books we’re covering and less with the adaptation itself) and am already excited as could be for season two (coming in March!). Rating: **** ½

100395A few years ago, I went to see Paddington after hearing that, yes, despite how dire it looked, how bad it seemed, it was truly a charming, wonderful little film – a verdict I wholeheartedly agreed with. Now comes Paddington 2, which may be even better than the first – it’s funny, it’s charming, but more than that, it’s a welcome tonic of positivity, hope, and humanity at a time when we all seem to be rejecting those things. Like the first, Paddington 2 is a gentle, earnest affair; there’s no snark, no winking double entendres going over the head of kids, no pop culture references to keep people on their toes. (The only movie reference in all of Paddington 2 is to a Charlie Chaplin film, and that’s the kind of thing I can get behind.) Instead, it’s the story of a young bear who thinks that we should be kind and appreciative toward people, and that if we look for the best in people, we will usually find it. Indeed, most of the plot of Paddington 2 revolves around Paddington’s desire to buy a present for his Aunt Lucy, who raised him from a cub. Mind you, that storyline ends up with Paddington in prison after taking the fall for a cunning thief (played by Hugh Grant in a wonderfully ridiculous performance), where he deals with the surliest of cooks (Brendan Gleeson, predictably great). Once again, director Paul King manages to make his film earnest and positive without ever being simplistic or overly sappy, letting his message come through without ever turning it into a “lesson” film. How? Much of it comes from his command of the tone, which is winningly silly throughout (with a lot of inspiration from silent comedy); what’s more, King once again brings more visual flair and imagination than you’d expect, drawing on Wes Anderson at times to turn a tour of London into a trip through a pop-up book, or a dazzling montage of days of cooking into one continuous shot. The result is pure joy throughout – it’s very funny, very sweet, and absolutely works, no matter your age; there’s something wonderful about a children’s film that wants to be about human experiences and kindness, and that goes doubly at a time when such qualities are in short supply. (That the film is set in post-Brexit Britain and features such a casually diverse cast and numerous comments about immigrants bettering themselves is, I’m sure, no accident.) In short, it’s a true treat, and a movie that genuinely made me feel a little better about a world that could produce it. Rating: *****

IMDb: The Lego Ninjago Movie | A Series of Unfortunate Events | Paddington 2

A Slew of Snow Week Reading

When you get stuck in the house for an unexpected week of snow days – and, more importantly, when you don’t have any grading or planning that you need to do – that just means it’s time to catch up on your reading. But, given that I read a lot over those days, I’m defaulting to some shorter reviews for this batch. After my reading post today, I should have a quick roundup of some family viewing I did over the days as well.

51qwwmse4bl-sx316-sy316Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson have both written some books that I really enjoyed on their own, so the idea of them collaborating seemed like a promising one. And, indeed, there are some interesting ideas at play in A Necessary End, a book set as a disease spread via insect bites has begun to wipe out much of the population of the planet. Set after the plague has already spread throughout the globe, A Necessary End starts off well, following a journalist as he tries to track down the origins of the plague, and tracking his wife’s attempts to reconcile the plague with her own fervent religious faith. But as the book goes on, you can’t help but feel that it should have been shorter, or maybe even a series of connected short stories. There are plotlines that feel entirely unnecessary (I’m thinking mainly of a revenge-driven man desperate to punish those he feels are responsible for the death of his family), and ultimately, it all feels like a book designed to explore how we grapple with the disconnect between science and faith. That’s rich, promising material, but A Necessary End doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, giving us an interesting final scene but otherwise spinning its wheels throughout, tossing out odd moments and details that don’t add up to enough. There are some interesting threads here, but it feels like something that’s far too long – and considering that it’s less than 200 pages already, that’s not great. Rating: ***

ATWQInspired by the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events (more on that later), I decided to finally jump into All the Wrong Questions, the second series by Lemony Snicket. (Technically, yes, “Lemony Snicket” is the pen name of Daniel Handler, but given how idiosyncratic and fleshed out Snicket is, it’s worth keeping the pen name as the creative force.) Comprised of four volumes – “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”“When Did You See Her Last?”“Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, and “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” – the series features all of the wordplay, literary allusions, skewed narration, and great writing that you came to expect from Snicket’s Unfortunate Events. But while that series was Handler’s efforts to capture the tone of an Edward Gorey illustrationAll the Wrong Questions finds the author moving into the realm of hard-boiled noir, complete with rapid-fire one-liners and dialogue, femme fatales (femmes fatale?), double-crosses, and more. Snicket/Handler makes the transition look effortless, keeping his dryly cynical tone intact while making the twisty detective tale work. The subject matter, too, finds Snicket changing tack; rather than the distant observer of the Unfortunate EventsAll the Wrong Questions is about Snicket at age 13, working with a chaperone assigned by his secret organization, and trying to figure out what’s going on in a dying town named Stain’d-by-the-Sea. There’s a villain working behind the scenes, a mysterious statue that everyone wants, a librarian named Dashiell who’s trying to get information out to the people, and a lot of adults who are absent/useless in any meaningful way, leading the young people of the town to band together to solve disappearances, thefts, and even murder. Each of the All the Wrong Questions books stands alone, but they work best as a single story, as clues overlap between the books, characters develop, and you gradually realize how each of these cases connects into a larger master plan. 61uokarjc2lAnd it all comes together in a fantastic way, with Snicket making a decision that justifies the series’ noir tendencies and finds the series, in much the same way its predecessor did, diving into morally gray and uncertain territory.  In other words, it’s a worthy successor to its predecessor in every way, and I can’t recommend it enough; once again, Handler shows how tone, smart writing, and clever craft can be accessible for young audiences and adults alike, all without ever feeling condescending or pandering. Rating: *****

A side note: I also read a companion book to the series entitled File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents, which feels like Handler’s homage to Encyclopedia Brown books. 13 mysteries, with the solutions left to the end of the book. They’re a lot of fun, with at least one solution being laugh-out-loud funny; and, as you’d expect from Snicket, there are some fun hints throughout, with multiple red herring solutions tossed into the final section. It’s a fun read, if fairly inessential, but if you’re a fan, you’ll enjoy it. Rating: ****

23208397Ben H. Winters came to my attention with his incredible The Last Policeman series, which followed a policeman struggling to stay true to the cause of justice as the world around him ended. Fascinating though that was, it pales in comparison to the ambition of Winters’ Underground Airlines, which is set in a modern-day America in which the Civil War was never fought, and slavery still exists. (To get in front of the obvious critique: yes, there’s something problematic, to be sure, about a white author taking this on, but Winters approaches his material honestly and thoughtfully, and his responses to such critiques have been strong and admirable.) And, as the title implies, there’s still an underground movement to get slaves out of the Hard Four (the four states which still have legal slavery) – a task made more complicated by the way the country, and indeed, the world, has tried to adjust to the presence of this evil still existing in our world. But rather than giving us an easy hero, Winters instead gives us Victor, an escaped slave who’s now working for the government, tracking down other escapees. That’s morally rich territory, especially as we come to understand what drives Victor, and Winters makes the most of it, filling Victor with internal loathing, questioning, and uncertainty. As you might expect, Winters uses his alternate history as a way of commenting on racism and separation in our modern world, from low-class labor and wages to isolated communities given no support by government – in other words, totally outlandish ideas with no relevance whatsoever. (Sigh.) Winters does all of it while giving the book the momentum and structure of a tight thriller, complete with double agents, espionage, organizations within organizations, and more. But what really haunts about Underground Airlines isn’t the plotting; it’s the glimpse at a world that’s depressingly similar to ours, where slavery and racism are legal and tolerated, where races are subjugated through policy and governance, and where people are forced to serve against their own interests. If that doesn’t hit home to you, well, you’re luckier than I am. Rating: *****

Amazon: A Necessary End | “Who Could That Be at This Hour?” | “When Did You See Her Last?” | “Shouldn’t You Be in School?” | “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights?” | File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents | Underground Airlines