Incredibles 2 / ****

i2Pixar has, in recent years, been a victim of its own success, to no small degree. When your studio launches with a nearly uninterrupted streak of greatness, and then takes a break from some (pretty good but not great) sequels to release Inside Out…well, you’re not making things easy for yourself. And then Incredibles 2 makes things even harder, by being a very long-awaited (14 years!) sequel to one of Pixar’s most beloved films. In other words, there’s almost no way it could possibly live up to the expectations set for it.

And in some ways, Incredibles 2 definitely suffers from the comparison. From a plot perspective, Incredibles 2 is functional, but not much more, following Helen/Elastigirl as she gets the chance to fly solo as a hero for a bit, while dad Mr. Incredible has to take care of the kids. Are you thinking, “wait, did they really revisit one of the most hoary and painful tropes of an 80’s sitcom?” Oh yes, they did, and does it feel weirdly dated and out of touch with anything approaching modernity? Most definitely. (Yes, The Incredibles is clearly set in an alternate 60’s era, but that doesn’t make this plot thread any better.)

That’s a bit of a creaky foundation on which to build a movie, and while the rest of Incredibles 2 works and holds together, there’s just not much there. Incredibles 2 so often feels like a bunch of half-constructed threads and ideas tossed together to make something that works and delivers a movie, there’s no substance to grab onto. Every time the movie seems to be coming up on some central thesis, some universal theme, it gets distracted and wanders off. There’s a central villain called the ScreenSlaver who worries about people living through their devices and screens; there’s Bob and Helen’s marriage adjusting to the shifting roles they each have; there’s the change in society as supers fight for recognition; there’s Violet’s efforts to date…on and on, and none of it ever coalesces into something focused and trenchant.

But for all of that, you can see the rating I gave Incredibles 2, and that’s because as empty as it might be, none of that keeps it from being as much fun as it is. Oozing style in every frame (Bird’s embrace of the 60’s retro, mod style is a joy, and suffuses the whole movie), anchored by great vocal performances, and delivering action sequences to die for (more on those in a moment), Incredibles 2 is a popcorn movie done right; there’s not much to chew on, but there’s no big flaws, and style to spare.

And, oh man, are there those action sequences. Brad Bird has long had an eye for fluid, inventive action sequences that leave your jaw dropped – look, for instance, at his incredible (heh) work on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, especially that closing parking garage sequence. Bird’s mind incorporates all of the moving parts in a scene, all of the abilities, and weaves them together in dazzling, creative ways that are a joy to watch. In an era saturated by superhero movies that shoot every fight the exact same way, Incredibles 2 reminds you that superhero fights should never be the same, and can flow together in mind-bending, wild ways. (The best aspect may be Bird’s use of a minor superhero who can create dimensional portals, an ability that Bird finds new uses for constantly and inventively, leaving me in awe of how creatively he paired them against each new opponent.) More than that, there’s the way Bird helms them, giving us long, fluid, moving shots that follow the action seamlessly, allowing the audience to take it all in and just keep up with it.

Look, Incredibles 2 isn’t the original, and it’s not going to be in the top tier of Pixar films. It’s a bit empty, from any thematic perspective, and under the surface, it does its job and not much more. But as stylish summer spectacle, it’s a joy to watch, and reminds you of what a gifted director Brad Bird is when it comes to giving us that spectacle. Set your expectations right, and you’ll have a blast.

The short film: As per tradition, there’s a short film attached to Incredibles 2; this time, it’s the beautiful and heartfelt Bao, about a Chinese woman who’s surprised when one of her dumplings comes to life as a little baby. Bao is incredibly sweet and simple; without a line of dialogue, it tells a story of parenting and motherhood that both draws on Chinese tradition and taps into something universal and beautiful. There’s a sharp swerve about 2/3 of the way through the film, and one that hit me hard in the heart for a variety of reasons. I loved it; it’s sweet, funny, and gets at something that hits a bit close to home these days.

IMDb: Incredibles 2 | Bao

Vacation Reads: Part 4 (The October Country / Jane Eyre / Re-Reads)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each. This will be the last in the series, covering my last couple of reads and including some brief capsule reviews of some re-reads I did.

the-october-countryRay Bradbury’s The October Country is often held up as the closest Bradbury ever came to doing a horror anthology, and while not every story here is a dark one, there’s no shortage of nightmares here. There’s “Skeleton,” in which a man becomes horrifying aware of the bones within his body and becomes convinced that they’re trying to take over his life; there’s the surprisingly nasty ending of “The Man Upstairs,” in which a young boy becomes convinced that the lodger living upstairs in a vampire; and there’s “The Small Assassin,” about a possibly murderous infant, and a story that has one of the nastiest last lines in memory. In other words, there’s plenty of darkness here, and while Bradbury isn’t going to be mistaken for the full-fledged horror of a King or a Barker, there’s some wonderfully dark, Gothic material here.

But more than that, there’s the imagination and heart that Bradbury was so known for, and no story better unifies those ideas than the wonderful “Homecoming.” A favorite of Neil Gaiman’s (and the influence on Gaiman’s world is evident), “Homecoming” tells the story of a family of monsters – vampires, ghosts, and more – coming together for a family reunion, all told from the perspective of the one “normal” child in the family. It’s sweet, heartbreaking, and ends on an optimistic and heartfelt note that made me smile. Or take “The Emissary,” about a young boy, confined to his room because of sickness, who experiences the world entirely through his roaming dog and the visitors he brings home – a story that opens with wonder and heart, slowly turns to heartbreak, and then becomes terrifying. And that’s not all – once you add to the collection some stories that show off Bradbury’s rich sense of humor – the elderly woman who refuses to die in “There Was an Old Woman,” or the ridiculous satire of trend followers that is “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” – and you have a wonderful collection that reminds you what made Bradbury so special. Rating: **** ½

492864909As an English major, I’ve always felt a bit bad about the fact that I had never read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It didn’t help that I knew – or, at least, I thought I knew – most of the story already, having absorbed it through references, parodies, English classes, and other books (most notably Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, which is a must read for any literature fans out there).

Of course, I should have known better; stories, of course, are not about what they’re about, so much as they’re about how they go about it (to paraphrase the late, great Roger Ebert). And while I knew a lot of the basics of Jane Eyre‘s plot, what I didn’t know about was the book’s assured, confident narration throughout, turning Jane not into a passive participant in her own life, not into the socially conscious protagonist of a Jane Austen novel, but into someone unique and complex – a woman who demands to set up her own life and be beholden to no one, a woman not defined by her looks but by her mind, a woman who dedicates her life to others who are in need of help, without regard for what it does for her social standing. The argument that Jane Eyre is an early feminist work is an easy one to make, but that doesn’t make it any less valid; Jane is a complex, enjoyable, intelligent, witty, and kind-hearted character, but one who feels fiercely independent and well ahead of her time.

For all of that, I still struggled with Jane Eyre at times; it features that most romantic (the literary movement, not the emotion) of traits: bloat and verbosity. The book has a tendency to belabor things sometimes, with dialogue scenes particularly tending to go on for a bit. In general, there’s a sense that Jane Eyre could probably lose about 10% of its words and improve greatly, but that’s not the fault of Brontë, who was merely writing in the service of her times, and whose book suffers the same faults as some other iconic works. On the whole, though, Jane Eyre lives up to its reputation, feeling groundbreaking and interesting, and giving us a lead character for the ages – one that feels relevant and compelling even now, after so many years. Rating: **** ½

And finally, some brief thoughts on some re-reads I did over the vacation, each of which I’d give an easy five stars, for very different reasons:

  • As I mentioned in my review of The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly’s novella “The Fractured Atlas” (featured in his anthology Night Music) is worth re-reading before you pick up that book. But it’s also a novella worth reading for any fan of horror. Composed of five separate stories, all of which flow together in different ways, Connolly’s novella tracks the history of the titular occult manuscript back for hundreds of years – and the mysterious forces it unleashes around it. From shadowy figures to nightmarish creatures in drains, from faceless children to demonic soldiers, Connolly’s imagination has rarely been allowed to roam this freely, nor has it allowed itself to go this dark. Indeed, the fourth piece of the novella, entitled “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” is perhaps the most frightening thing Connolly ever wrote – and that’s not something you say lightly. I’m a Connolly fan anyways, but if you’ve ever been curious, you could do far worse than starting with this incredible piece of horror. Just don’t go in expecting something too light and fluffy.
  • J. Zachary Pike’s Orconomics is one of the best review copies of a novel I ever received – a book that wasn’t just “good by self-publishing standards,” or “better than I expected,” but honestly, truly, legitimately great. There’s no small amount of Terry Pratchett here, but Pike succeeds by using Pratchett not as a pure model, but as an inspiration. Yes, he crafts a fantasy world that closely mirrors our own in many ways; yes, he uses the plot of his novel to satirize elements of modern society (in this case, the inflationary bubble caused by investment capital, as well as RPG video game tropes – yes, he does both of those, and does them both ably). But Pike does it in a way all his own, interweaving humor with rich character depth, social commentary with fantasy action, delivering great comic prose that can shift to heartbreak when you least expect it. That Pike gets compared to Pratchett is no big deal; that he holds his own in that comparison, and delivers one of the richest, funniest, most satisfying pieces of fantasy I’ve read in years – well, that’s no small thing. (I’ll have more to say about Pike when I finish his long-awaited second book, Son of a Liche, within the next few days. Short version: it’s every bit as good, if not better, than Orconomics.)
  • What is there to say about Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that hasn’t been said before? It doesn’t matter that I’ve read this book a dozen times or more; it doesn’t matter that, between the book, the TV version, the film, the computer game, and especially the radio series, I could all but recite the story and most of the gags. Every time I open Adams’ pages, I find myself caught up in his weird, hysterically funny world, and I laugh anew as though I’ve never read it before. Even now that its familiarity has dulled its impact among fans, it’s easy to forget how revolutionary this book felt – and still feels, after so many years. Its imagination is incredible, its comedy is hilarious, its writing is sharp and trenchant, and its plotting surprisingly tight. There’s a reason it casts such a long shadow over the world of humor and science-fiction.
  • I think I’m supposed to hate J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye now – or, at least, I kind of expected to. Yes, I loved this book in high school, when I empathized so much with Holden Caulfield’s feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger at the world, and disdain for the hypocrisy of the people around him. But I expected to find him whiny and mopey as an adult…and instead, couldn’t help but have my heart break for him all over again. Maybe it’s the way that Salinger’s rambling, easy prose so accurately captures the tumult of emotions that comes with adolescence; maybe it’s the constant sway of emotions that nails the feelings that come with depression and anxiety (I say, from experience). Maybe it’s just the constant sense that the world is broken, and that the innocent need protecting, and that justice isn’t being served – a feeling that hits home all too well. But whatever the case, The Catcher in the Rye worked for me as an adult every bit as well as it did as it did in high school – maybe more so. It’s hard to think of another book that so accurately captures the feelings of adolescence and the pain of depression so universally, even though it’s inextricably linked to a place and time.

Amazon: The October Country | Jane Eyre | Night Music | Orconomics | The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy | The Catcher in the Rye

Vacation Reads: Part 3 (The Big Book of Hap and Leonard / City of Thieves / The Stone Sky)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51jtwhbpfllI’ve been advocating that people read Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series for a long time, so it’s nice that The Big Book of Hap and Leonard has come out to give me a simple way to let people try the series on for size. A compilation of two earlier collections – entitled, respectively, Hap and Leonard and Hap and Leonard Ride Again – the collection contains two full novellas (Dead Aim and Hyenas), a half dozen short stories, a comic book script based off of one of the stories, an “interview” between Lansdale and his two creations, and an essay by Lansdale explaining the origins of some of the books and the characters. That’s a ton of great material, but honestly, even if all The Big Book of Hap and Leonard contained was the two novellas, it would still be a must buy. The fact that there’s so many other pieces, and so much demonstration of Lansdale’s versatility – a couple of variations on locked-room mysteries, a heartbreaking tale of adolescent cruelty, a brief vignette about the passing of time, and more – is only icing on the cake.

There’s no one who writes like Lansdale out there – no one who can match that rapid-fire Texas banter between Hap and Leonard, no one who can move so effortlessly between light comedy and horrifying violence, between human cruelty and earnest kindness. Maybe that’s what keeps me reading the Hap and Leonard series; yes, they’re incredibly well-written; yes, they’re frequently hilarious, and they make me laugh out loud so often; yes, I love these characters. But more than anything else, there’s a heart to Hap and Leonard that’s undeniable. These are mysteries, but they’re mysteries that refuse to flinch from the unspeakable things that humans do to each other, and the reasons we do them – and that’s no small thing. That Hap and Leonard both do what they do partially because they refuse to not fight the good fight…well, there’s something I love about that, and about Lansdale’s refusal to let racism and hatred win the day. Rating: *****

1971304Long before he became famous for helming a small, independent TV production named Game of Thrones, I knew David Benioff’s name as an author. His first novel, The 25th Hour, quietly floored me when I read it (prior to its superb film adaptation by Spike Lee). And yet, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, until recently. And having read it…well, I’m not sure it was worth the wait.

Set during the siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves tells the story of Lev, a young Russian Jew who’s stayed in the city to prove that he’s a man and to defend his hometown. After he gets arrested for breaking curfew, though, he and a fellow prisoner get sent on a fool’s errand: find a dozen eggs for a powerful general, who needs them for his daughter’s wedding.

So far, so good. There’s a lot to love about Benioff’s setup for the novel, which allows him to engage in some dark commentary about war, human nature, survival, and so much more. (The ending to the egg saga is a cruel twist of the knife that, in many ways, is the best moment of the book.) And there’s little denying that Benioff’s sense of time and place are carefully and beautifully constructed. There’s an incredible sense of cold that permeates City of Thieves, a sense of starvation and desperation that’s impossible to ignore. This is a land under siege, but it’s also a Russian land, with all the stoicism and dark humor that comes with the territory.

And yet, for all of that, City of Thieves left me cold so often. Maybe it was the overly contrived, screenwriter-y tics of Lev’s companion Kolya, who so often felt less like a person and more like an author’s construction of quips, sexual commentary, and literary theory. (The ongoing plot thread about Kolya’s favorite Russian writer is a prime example of this, turning into something that felt like a movie’s shorthand for getting into the head of a character, rather than a real thing someone would do.) Then there’s some of the plot mechanics along the way, most notably a game of chess that couldn’t be more foreshadowed and set up without neon lights and arrows involved, and once again feels less like a genuine moment and more like an absurd screenplay idea.

I didn’t hate City of Thieves; the mood and setting of the book are absolutely phenomenal, and there’s no shortage of small little moments along the way that are almost perfect in their simplicity (again, that final moment in the ongoing story will stick with me for a long time, as will the general’s last lines in the novel). But the more Benioff constructs his plot and story, the more obvious the seams are, turning the book into something that betrays its best moments in favor of big, silly, bludgeoning obviousness. Rating: ***

31817749Fantasy series are notoriously hard to end. How do you do justice to whatever big, world-changing events you’ve been setting up, but also provide some sort of closure for your main characters? In other words, how do you balance the macro and the micro – a problem anywhere in fantasy, but one that goes double in the ending? And that was something I was even more worried about when it came to The Stone Sky, the final volume in N.K. Jemisen’s incredible Broken Earth trilogy. Could Jemisen stick the landing on one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in years, if not ever?

Did she ever.

Part of what’s made The Broken Earth such an effective series is the way it’s never lost sight of the personal stakes in all of its saga. Yes, this is a story about a civilization wracked by terrible devastation – devastation that comes along regularly and horribly. Yes, it’s a story of magic users – orogenes, in the parlance of the series – who can control the tremors of the planet, but can also wield that same magic as the most devastating weapon imaginable. And, yes, as becomes clearer and clearer during The Stone Sky, it’s the story of how all of this happened – how humanity may have doomed itself.

But for all of that – and make no mistake, Jemisen’s overarching story is incredible – it’s also always been the story of a mother who is worried about her daughter. It’s the story of a social class that has been rejected for centuries, and who are starting to realize that there is no future for them unless they stand up and demand to be treated as human beings. It’s the story of a young girl who’s realizing the flaws in her parents, and her desire to fix all of the pain and suffering that she and others like her have suffered. It’s the story of how we must sacrifice ourselves for the future, and more intimately, how parents must give and give until there’s nothing left if they want to leave behind a future for their children.

In other words, Jemisen mixes the macro and the micro seamlessly, allowing the two to comment on each other and reflect back and forth, linking the fate of the planet to the fate of this mother and daughter, each of whom is on their own path to wisdom and cataclysmic choices. But it’s also a story about the communities they have built along the way, and the way our friendships can shape us and define us and change us – often for the better – and how trying to survive the world alone is so often a fool’s errand.

All of this sounds vague, I know. But the fact is, for all of the rich lore and the world-building and the twists and the science-fiction that sneaks in and the fantastical elements, what made me love The Stone Sky was that it had all of those elements, and still chose to focus on its characters first and foremost. And by the time The Stone Sky ends, every one of the million small choices Jemisen has made along the way become clearer and clearer, working towards the messages and themes of the books. Even the often-questioned decision to write in second-person, whose purpose started to become clear in the second novel, becomes crystal clear by the end of book three, leading to an unexpected emotional wallop.

That the series can do all of that while also telling a story of the fate of the planet, a war against nature itself, generations of conflict, science-fiction plot threads, and the nature of magic – my cup runneth over. I loved this book, loved this series, and am excited that there’s more Jemisen waiting for me to jump into. Rating: *****

Amazon: The Big Book of Hap and Leonard | City of Thieves | The Stone Sky

Vacation Reads: Part 2 (The Last Days of Night / The Woman in the Woods / Into the Wild)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

the_last_days_night_coverIt’s not as though I wasn’t aware of the intense rivalry between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla – one can hardly exist on the Internet without knowing the deep love that Tesla gets as an underappreciated, neglected genius. But for all of that, I didn’t know all that much about the actual relationship between the two men before reading Graham Moore’s surprisingly gripping, vivid historical fiction The Last Days of Night. Using at its focus the legal battle over the light bulb, Moore gives us portraits of Edison, Tesla, and George Westinghouse, following the legal struggles over the future of the light bulb and the various claims of ownership of that idea.

Moore’s smartest move in telling this story is his choice of protagonist: lawyer Paul Cravath, hired by Westinghouse to help defend his claims of ownership. While the focus on Cravath tends to keep our sympathies with Westinghouse over Edison (a sensibility echoed by the book in general), it allows Moore to explore each of these men though the eyes of another party, weighing each of them for their strengths and their faults. As Moore himself seems to conclude, the men are so different, with their different strengths and weaknesses, that they neatly complement each other, with each filling a critical role in America’s development into an electricity-based country. And even if Moore’s sympathies are clearly against Edison, that doesn’t keep him from humanizing him in interesting ways towards the end of the novel, nor does it keep him from finding the flaws – and strengths – of each of these key figures.

The Last Days of Night serves as a solid legal thriller, but its primary interest is bringing this period of time to life. That focus generally serves the book well, even if it leads to some uneven subplots and some lackluster sections of the book (I never really cared about Paul’s love life, and some late-book revelations about a fire in Tesla’s lab felt tacked on and irrelevant in the way they were handled). Indeed, the book often is in service to its history more than its characters, and Moore’s background as a screenwriter often shows through, with more focus given to character’s dialogue and actions than ever fleshing them out.

And yet, none of that stopped me from absolutely tearing through the book, or from being fascinated by the research that went into it or the stories being told. If Moore takes a couple of liberties here and there, and if the book stumbles whenever it gets away from this court case, I’ll take it if it gives me a book this compelling and satisfying, both as a piece of historical fiction and as a novel. Rating: **** ½

the-woman-in-the-woods-9781501171925_hrI’ve raved enough about John Connolly on this blog that you should know how I feel about him: that his writing is stunning and poetic; that his horrors are unmatched, unsettling, and terrifying; that his plotting is strong, but his characters are even better; that, in short, he’s one of the best writers working today in the thriller OR horror genres, and that you should be reading him. So is it any surprise that I loved the latest entry in the Charlie Parker series, The Woman in the Woods? No, it’s not. But the fact that it’s one of the best in the series – if not the best – is no small thing. How many series continue to get better and better as they go? How many series keep improving and topping themselves? How many times can you say that the 16th entry in a series is its best? And yet, here we are.

The plot, as usual, is deceptively simple-sounding: a long-buried woman’s corpse is discovered in the woods, and Parker is asked to help discover her identity and see to it that she’s laid to rest. More importantly, though, he’s asked to discover what became of her child, because it’s evident that this woman gave birth not long before she died. But Parker is not the only person on this trail, and the other party is leaving a trail of butchered dead in its wake as it hunts down the lead.

The Woman in the Woods does more with the overarching Parker mythology than most, making it a hard book to recommend to non-fans. Indeed, from conversations about The Backers to the health status of Angel, from references to the list of names from The Wrath of Angels to the ongoing questions about Parker’s daughter, The Woman in the Woods is partially about the way in which Parker’s story is continuing in the background, without his knowledge. (What’s more, The Woman in the Woods has heavy, heavy connections to The Fractured Atlas, a knockout horror novella from Connolly’s previous short story collection, Night Music; it should almost be required reading for those interested in The Woman in the Woods.)

But even if you didn’t know about Parker’s ongoing saga, The Woman in the Woods delivers everything I love about John Connolly and then some. Are there vague, supernatural horrors that constantly lurk just beyond the edges of the page, suggesting more than is ever confirmed? Is there beautiful, poetic prose that muses on the nature of reality and morality without ever becoming pretentious? Is there the effortless blending of comedic beats and very funny dialogue with the dark tone of Parker’s universe? Is there an unflinching look at the darkness and violent inherent to humanity, and the constant grappling with the question of how we can fight such evil? Is there’s compelling, effective plotting that unfolds carefully and inexorably? There’s all of that and more.

(There is also the ongoing story of Louis’s attack upon a truck emblazoned with the Confederate flag, a story that seems to upset people as “political” as opposed to “justified” and “funny,” which I found it. Also, any suggestion that this felt forced doesn’t consider what it might be like to be a violent, dangerous black man who has been oppressed and dealt with hatred throughout his life who finds a chance to send a message. Nor does it consider that perhaps racism and hatred shouldn’t be viewed as “political” so much as “intolerable,” but hey, you view the world as you want. For me, the fact that an Irish writer gets to the dark heart of American culture and hatred so much better than most Americans says far more about us than it does the author.)

Look: by now, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved a John Connolly book. It’s beautifully crafted, it’s surprisingly funny, it’s genuinely terrifying, it’s unputdownable, it’s richly detailed and fleshed out. Its characters are brilliant and complex, its plotting satisfying, its mythology rich, its world unnerving and yet instantly recognizable. It’s another brilliant entry in the best thriller series in existence, and you should be reading it. Rating: *****

into-the-wildI’ve long heard that I should read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, often held up as one of the great pieces of nonfiction of the 20th century. The story of Christopher McCandless, who decided to get away from civilization and live on his own in the woods – and his subsequent death of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness – has grabbed hold of something in the public consciousness. Does McCandless represent something universal – a desire for simplicity in lives, and a retreat from the complexities and horrors of modern life? Or is it the story of a spoiled kid who thought he was a survivalist and died a pointless, stupid death that meant nothing except being another example of people who don’t respect the wilderness they profess to love?

The answer, according to Krakauer, lies deeply in the former. Krakauer’s bias here is undeniable, and indeed, Krakauer wrestles with his own attitudes toward McCandless as part of the narrative (more on that in a moment), but there’s little denying that he’s got a lot of empathy for McCandless and what he was trying to do. McCandless viewed himself as a modern descendant of Thoreau, one who saw through the issues with society and its complexities, and longed for a more natural existence, free of the encumbrances and hypocrisies of the modern world. And as Krakauer depicts him, from the elided depictions of his home life (in which much is implied, but would not be confirmed until McCandless’s sister came forward with her own memoir) to his writings, McCandless was painfully, incredibly earnest, espousing his beliefs without a hint of irony or condescension. There’s little denying that, in his own eyes, McCandless respected the wilderness and wanted its simplicity for his own life.

There’s also little denying, though, that it’s hard to read Into the Wild without Krakauer’s bias covering everything. From the overly lengthy closing (including the new afterword) arguments as to McCandless’s poisoning to his multi-chapter story of his own efforts in the wild, Into the Wild is inescapably Krakauer’s take on events, and that can get frustrating. The aforementioned two chapter story of Krakauer’s own Alaskan trip, for instance, is far too long, getting away from the story of McCandless for so long that one starts to wonder if this book is really just about Krakauer. And the arguments for McCandless having been poisoned, while thoughtful and persuasive, feel again too long, as though Krakauer’s feelings about the story rely on how people feel about McCandless.

Because, make no mistake, there’s a lot of dislike for McCandless out there, and a lot of feelings that his death was largely self-inflicted and the result of his own failings – which, in turn, led Krakauer to argue so vehemently in favor of McCandless’s death being an accident, and through no fault of his own. The truth, I think, is somewhere in the middle; yes, McCandless was young and naive, and there’s little denying that there’s something appealing and intrinsically understandable about his goals. But even in Krakauer’s depiction, he’s also a young man who thought he could survive on his own, who thought it would be easy and natural to do that, and cared nothing for the advice of others – and went out there deeply unprepared, despite warning after warning. Is there something tragic about that, something sad about the way this dream failed? Undeniably. And when Into the Wild taps into that, it’s an effective, powerful book; it just gets less so the more Krakauer forces himself and his readings into the narrative. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: The Last Days of Night | The Woman in the Woods | Into the Wild

Vacation Reads: Part 1 (Space Opera / The Boy on the Bridge / Abbott)

For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.

51b-76sogglIt would be hard to talk about Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera without mentioning Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (a debt Valente acknowledges in her afterword). After all, both are science-fiction books that serve more as comedic works than something serious; both orbit around humanity suddenly discovering that they’re no longer the only life in the universe; both follow human representatives as they make their way into a very strange universe; and both even feature a wise guide to interactions that’s universally adopted and beloved. Both even have the same issues, in which the plot often feels like an afterthought tacked on to tie together the lunacy of the rest of it.

It’s to Valente’s credit, then, that Space Opera finds its own voice and emerges from Hitchhiker‘s shadow to become its own thing, even as Adams’ DNA is evident throughout. Inspired by Eurovision, of all things, Space Opera revolves around an intergalactic music competition in which new races are invited to compete to prove their own sentience. After all, if you can’t produce art, can you really be said to be sentient?

That’s a great hook for the novel, and it gives Space Opera some heft, allowing it to meditate upon the power of art, the way music is all about emotional connections and pain, and so much more. But in the end, Space Opera is a comedy, and it’s a genuinely funny one, one that’s often as funny for the way in which it talks as it is the elaborate gags being set up around it. (That being said, my favorite gag in the entire book is the slow realization of what persona the robotic race has adopted to communicate and aid the humans.) I had some issues with Valente’s writing – she has a tendency towards very long sentences, anchored by too many dependent clauses, that have a way of losing the reader – and her plotting is occasionally so loose as to be nonexistent. But there’s a lot of fun to be had here, and the fact that the books holds its own in the comparisons to Adams is praise enough. Rating: ****

41il3qwezjlI was a fan of M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, but I wasn’t sure that what we needed was a prequel to that book. Did we really need a story about how we got to the zombie apocalypse that Gifts plunged us into? Luckily, The Boy on the Bridge turns out not to be the story of how we got there; instead, it’s the story of the first expedition that sets out into the wilderness – an expedition whose vehicle we stumble across during Gifts. In other words, yes, technically it’s a prequel to Gifts, but it’s more of a second story in that same universe, one that unfolded more or less parallel to the one we already knew.

In some ways, that holds back Bridge, as the characters slowly come to realizations that we’ve already made about the effects of the disease and how it’s transmitted. Thankfully, Carey avoids that sort of dramatic irony where he can, instead, letting the books play off of each other, with our knowledge supplementing the events of Bridge and deepening our understanding of why things are happening. That also allows Bridge to play out on its own terms, rising and falling not as a companion to Gifts, but on its own terms.

That can make Bridge frustrating, though, because of how much Carey seems to be mirroring Gifts and using it for structure. Once again have a divided group of survivors out in the wilderness; once again, we have an outcast within that group (this time, it’s an autistic young man instead of an infected girl); once again, we have a lead scientist who’s not trusted by the rest of the group; and once again, there’s the rift between science and the military. It all can seem a bit familiar, to be sure. Luckily, Carey makes the characters strong enough, and their interactions different enough, that Bridge feels like a companion, and not a rehashing, of Gifts. In other words, it’s a way of exploring some of the same big themes – knowledge versus morality, compassion versus fear, community versus isolation – in a different story. And if it doesn’t quite give you the perfect ending of Gifts, there’s still a satisfying conclusion here, one that recontextualizes what we know from the first novel and gives us something more. I prefer the first novel, but fans of Gifts will find much to enjoy here, and a generally satisfying read – just one that you may want to read with some distance from its predecessor. Rating: ****

unnamed-22I’ve raved about Saladin Ahmed’s writing – especially his magnificent swashbuckling fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon – enough over the years that it should be no surprise that I made a decision to follow him wherever he went. And while I’m a bit disappointed that he seems to have paused his career as a novelist for now, the fact that Ahmed is writing comics hasn’t hindered his abilities one bit, at least not based on the evidence given by Abbott, a limited series story written by Ahmed and illustrated by Sami Kivelä. Set in 1970’s Detroit, Abbott follows its titular character, reporter Elena Abbott, as she investigates a series of strange killings that finds her dipping into a supernatural mystery involving dark forces, mystical hippies, occult rituals, and much more.

Ahmed has pushed himself out of his comfort zone to create a protagonist utterly unlike himself – an African-American bisexual woman – but shows how to do it right, making Abbott not a symbol or an archetype but her own unique, idiosyncratic person first, one shaped by all of those things but not pigeonholed by them. Abbott is a great protagonist – funny, outspoken, intelligent, dangerous, and fiercely independent, and I’d be lying if I didn’t finish this five-issue run disappointed that this was all I had of this character – I’d read her for years, easily. (Ahmed has hinted on Twitter that he’s not done with the character, and I hope that’s true.)

But equally part of this series is the way it uses its setting and characters to flesh out its story – the choice to make this a 1970’s story is no errant, thoughtless choice. It allows Ahmed to interweave relevant issues of the time – racism, police brutality, class warfare, the control of the media by the wealthy – into his story effortlessly, making Abbott not just the story of this mysterious case, but about this moment in America’s history. (Any resemblance to current day America are, of course, coincidental, and not depressing proof of how little we’ve changed, despite our pride in how “evolved” we are on these issues.)

And did I mention that it’s also a great story of occult powers, demonic entities, and supernatural conflict? If there’s a knock on Abbott, it’s that I wish it was basically one issue longer than it is; there are aspects of Abbott’s role in all of this that feel rushed and underexplained, and that goes doubly when it comes to the final conflict, which feels a little underdeveloped (even though the artwork, paneling, and pacing give it an incredibly satisfying and riveting feel that I can’t forget). But none of that should hold you back from reading Abbott – it’s an absolute treat from a writer who I’m glad to have back in my “to be read” stack, no matter what his current medium. Rating: **** ½

Amazon: Space Opera | The Boy on the Bridge | Abbott

Terrifier / ****

terrifier-posterA bit of context is probably worth noting, before I jump into my review of Terrifier: I saw Terrifier as part of a double feature with a movie called Side Sho. Side Sho was, to put it plainly, truly horrible on almost every level – badly lit, badly acted, badly written, badly staged…well, you get the idea. And so there’s some chance that my enjoyment of Terrifier could well be a rebound situation – where I was just so happily surprised to see a competently-made movie that I enjoyed it more than it deserved.

But really, that same idea could go for most of Terrifier, which has no real right to be as entertaining as it is. The premise couldn’t be more hackneyed: college girls out for a Halloween night’s fun end up stalked and attacked by a sadistic clown. Blood and gore and suspense follow. You get the idea. There aren’t any real surprises here in plot terms, other than a general nastiness of tone that pushes it beyond a more traditional slasher into something grimier and a bit meaner. Writer-director Damien Leone isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here; he knows what his audience is looking for and delivers the goods, providing all of the requisite scares, stalks, and kills.

No, what made Terrifier so much fun wasn’t what it was about; it was the way it went about it all. Much of the credit has to be given David Howard Thornton, who plays the malicious, psychopathic Art the Clown. Thornton is a professionally trained mime, and his training shows through, allowing Art to express himself at all times without ever saying a word. It doesn’t hurt that Thornton’s default face for Art is so unsettling and angry, but it’s the overemphasized emotions that make Art really engaging to watch – and even (very) darkly funny. Thornton made me laugh during Terrifier, and what’s more, did it so that my laughs felt effortless, and nonetheless came with a sense of guilt about laughing at these horrible moments. It all makes Art a compelling villain, something all slashers need, and something all the more difficult to do when you’re just giving the audience a silent malevolence without explanation. That Art pulls it off, injecting the whole film with a black comedy that works and never feels forced – well, that went a long way towards making Terrifier as enjoyable as it was.

The rest goes to Leone, who does great work on a limited budget, giving everything a sharp visual flair, bringing out great performances that feel natural, and pacing his film perfectly, giving the audience what they want without ever turning overly nasty. (There’s one major exception to this, and you’ll know it when you see it; it’s a scene that feels much, much nastier than the film around it, and ends up feeling a bit excessive and out of place from the final product.) The whole thing ends up being a gem of a modern slasher. No, it won’t change your life, and it doesn’t do much new, but it does the genre right, bringing out a sense of dark humor and a lot of style, and that’s more than enough.


Midnight Duets, edited by Robert Swartwood / ***

downloadAuthor’s note: Midnight Duets is a collection of three novellas, each co-written by a different pair of thriller writers. I bought it some time ago, but it’s no longer available; at this point, you have to buy each of the three novellas separately. As a result, I decided that it would be better to write each of the novellas as a separate review…and that was before I found out that the third novella was F. Paul Wilson and Sarah Pinborough’s A Necessary End, which I had already read and reviewed earlier this year. (I wasn’t a giant fan.) So what’s below are some short, more capsule-style reviews for the other two novellas. Short answer: even as a collection of three novellas for a cheap price, I don’t know that I’d recommend the collection, and that might go less for buying them individually.

Robert Swartwood and David B Silva’s Walk the Sky, is, at first glance, a Western. We open with two men on the run after the questionable death of a mayor’s son, only to have their flight interrupted by the appearance of a very strange boy, followed by a crew of armed men who tie them up. A good start, and one that grips the reader’s interest quickly, right? And Walk the Sky unfolds nicely for a bit, plunging the reader into a strange Western town said to be under persecution from the Devil himself – a fact that our “heroes” realize all too well.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Walk the Sky is a zombie story in some ways, but one that’s more focused on humanity and its evil tendencies towards each other than in the hordes of undead (although that’s not quite what you get here). And the first half of Walk the Sky is enjoyable and solid, unfolding at a great pace and constantly changing in front of you. It’s when the broad Native American shaman stereotypes enter the story that things fall apart, as characters are given knowledge and techniques in a deus ex machina style that only gets worse when action sequences start unfolding, followed by an ending that feels overlong and scattered. It’s fun enough in the early going, but there’s definitely a sense that it all falls apart in the second half. Rating: ***

It wouldn’t be unfair to say, as some have, that Christopher Golden and James A. Moore’s Bloodstained Oz sometimes devolves into an “edgy” take on the tropes everyone knows and loves from The Wizard of Oz. We start on a similar note – tornadoes in Kansas during the dust bowl years – and while the story this time has Oz coming to Kansas, rather than vice versa, there’s still a scarecrow, and a lion, and a tin man – they’re just mostly nightmarish and twisted, with vampiric tendencies and horrifying incarnations.

And yet, as a purely pulpy, nightmarish tale, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that Bloodstained Oz works pretty well. You’re not going to get great character depth here; these are archetypes, and the plotting is thin, at best. (Even now, I’m still confused as to certain elements of the story and what they were doing there.) But what you get, in exchange for letting those things go, is some genuinely great scares along the way, and a display of horrific imagination that definitely worked for me. From malevolent porcelain dolls to silver vampiric entities, from a nightmarish take on the Tin Man to some surprising takes on Oz staples, Golden and Moore approach their story with ghoulish, twisted glee. Bloodstained Oz isn’t a great story – I’m not even sure that it’s all that good. But as a piece of nasty, violent pulp horror, it’s got imagination and style to spare, and sometimes, that’s exactly what a good piece of horror needs. Rating: *** ½

Amazon: Midnight Duets | Walk the Sky | Bloodstained Oz