Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Escape Artist

The Escape ArtistThe Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Meltzer’s in general, but his presidential-themed novels are unique because of the way they balance neat historical facts with action-packed adventure. So when I heard he was coming out with a new, similar-but-different story, I bought The Escape Artist the first week.
The book is about Zig, a mortician with the tragic but important job of putting the military dead to rest, who–because of fate and Plot Bunnies–stumbles upon a deadly conspiracy that reunites him with Nola, a girl with a similarly tragic and horrible backstory who reminds Zig of his dead daughter. The book, while ostensibly a mystery-thriller, is mostly about grief and death, and how people handle it differently.
And…it’s just ok.
Death shows up in so many forms in this book that you could write a college essay on it without even trying too hard. It’s everywhere. And while that’s a good theme, the poignancy of the (many) tragedies doesn’t balance well against the actiony drama, in my opinion. I just struggled to like it and to get through it.
It retains a dash of that historical information that I like so much about his other books, but it is way less important to the story and therefore feels just like random tidbits that are tossed in because Meltzer thought they were cool (and often, they are!). The mortician’s work is very interesting, but the nature of an adventure is he can’t spend much time doing his regular job. Without spoiling anything, I can say the plot falls into a trope that I find really frustrating in mysteries, where things end just a little too pat and tidy to be believable, and that takes away from the excitement of the story. I also didn’t like the incredible brevity of the chapters, which were often maybe just three pages long. It was hard to get invested in the characters, as we flipped back and forth among them, when we had so little time with each initially.
Don’t let this discourage you; Meltzer is a fine writer and his ideas here were fresh and interesting. They just didn’t add up to much for me–maybe I saw the rabbit up the magician’s sleeve.

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Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (Hercule Poirot, #10)Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to read a mystery written in a different era—the “rules” of a mystery are so different now. The differences range from little things (no editor would allow Poirot to ponder that he’d like to speak to someone and then have the person appear in the next sentence without a transition) to big things, like I’m fairly sure no modern mysteries are written as a straightforward conversation with one person after another.

And yet, Christie is the champion of murder mysteries for good reason. While I struggled sometimes with the old-style format, she definitely kept me guessing, and I definitely did not see the ending coming! I had most of the same information as the hero Poirot, and yet he maintains his reputation as a sleuth with an incredible mind.

This was the first Poirot Christie mystery I’ve read, and it was a grand adventure, if a bit stuffy.

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Review: Lost Solace

Lost SolaceLost Solace by Karl Drinkwater
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In space, you are all alone—unless you have a hacked military AI to keep you company as you explore a strange ship.

Lost Solace is dominated by just two characters: Opal, a tough escaped space marine with lots of secrets, and her ship, which Opal has named Clarissa. This is a clever plot that shrinks the vastness of the decisions into something individual.

We don’t know much about the situation as the story opens: there’s a girl, a ship, and a weird, misshapen, alien ship floating near a black hole. And Opal is crazy enough to jump on board. The story chases down dark hallways full of creepy crawlies, dashed away from the space marines in close pursuit, and meanders down to find secrets against a ticking clock.

The aliens were my favorite: juicy and unique, haunting and definitely run-away-worthy. I struggled a bit with some of the sentence structure and grammar, though that may be because of the author’s Britishness against my American ear. By the end, I liked the plot a lot, but in the middle it sagged a little and some things that seemed obvious to me as the reader took too long for the very clever Opal to piece together. The action in the last act is truly top-notch, though, and I’m glad I stuck with it!

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We Need More Goodness (and Less Happytime Murders)

My husband giggled when he turned on the video trailer for the new Melissa McCarthy movie The Happytime Murders. He may have laughed once or twice while it played. Me? I didn’t. I went to bed angry.

(Here’s the trailer if you want to see how you’ll feel about it.)

That trailer filled me with a rage I did not expect, and it took me two days to formulate why I was so viscerally upset.

Here’s what I finally decided: I want there to be some scrap of positivity, of decency, of just sweet-natured happiness left in the world.

For me–and many others–the Muppets in general represent that kind of cheer. Sure, bad things happen sometimes, but even the “bad guy” characters aren’t really always that bad, and the Muppets are kind, compassionate, funny, and just generally nice. They are wholesome. They are good.

But we’re in an era of “grimdark” right now. The Happytime Murders is totally in line with a lot of other cultural moments right now: it’s gritty, it shows the seedy “truth” to our happy Muppet-esque characters, it goes out of its way to dirty and otherwise shit on that wholesome goodness.

Some people are into that, I guess. But I am wholeheartedly NOT.

My real-world feels particularly “grimdark” lately, and all the media I consume seems to lean grimdark even if I don’t want it to, and I can’t turn on the news without hearing yet another terrible thing that shows that there just isn’t much wholesome goodness in the world. I’m already tired and gross and brought low by the cumulative weight of all of this real stuff—why in the hell would I want to throw down like a pig in the sty and get even dirtier?

This might seem inconsistent when you realize I wrote a zombie apocalypse book. Isn’t that also a way of making things darker than they really are?

But no, I wrote a book that’s as funny as it is scary, and gets downright goofy. You can make zombie decisions! How can that ever be taken seriously?

But other movies have taken “tortured” looks at childhood loves and you don’t hate them?

First, how do you know I don’t? Second, okay, I do count Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as one of the pivotal movies from my childhood.

(Let’s just take a minute to appreciate how adorably stupid and straightforward that movie trailer is… )

And yes, murders and scary things do happen in that. But you know what? Every single cartoon character in that movie acts in a way that is completely consistent. Bugs is a lighthearted asshole; Mickey and Minnie are in love. They are still who they are. There’s no need to show any seedier underbellies than what already exists in their toon world. And it’s a great movie and a hilarious comedy!

What I want is more goodness.

My favorite movie so far this year has been The Greatest Showman.

It is admittedly not the best movie ever made. The elephants are a little rough and animated, the story is pretty obvious from the trailer alone, and it can seem a little hokey, sure. It’s watered-down and probably not all that closedly hewn to the real story of P.T. Barnum, and glosses over some aspects of how the “freaks” were treated.

But it is pure. It is so pure and wholesome and sweet. It has incredible music, colors, and light, and it just a wonderful, happy, uplifting movie. I felt good when I left the theater. (I definitely can’t say that after watching Infinity War.) It was so incredibly nice to feel good for a change, to feel like the world wasn’t such a bad place and that it’ll all work out okay in the end.

I want more of that.

The Happytime Murders can go flush down a toilet where they belong.

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Review: Do I Make Myself Clear?

Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well MattersDo I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters by Harold Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Questions for Mr. Evans’ editor:
1) How intimidating was it to edit a book about quality writing? That must have been a great deal of pressure! The horror, had you let slip an errant comma! So I’m sure you paid quite close attention to the book. Which leads me to ask…

2) How hard was it to deal with someone so pugnacious that he collected, for years, sentenced he found abhorrent solely so he could one day combine them into a book to tell people they were so very wrong? I get it, they are good examples to illustrate his points. I am just guessing at the type of person Evans must be to have that kind of intensity.

3) can you explain to me why you would let Evans write a book about writing—presumably targeted to those who don’t write and/or read well—with such high-minded jargon? I mean, I’m a pretty consistent reader, and I’m a writer and editor—what I’m saying is I know words, and yet the “expensive” 10-dollar words Evans used caused even me to pause. If I didn’t read it easily, how could you expect the non writer to breeze through that horrible introduction?

4) How did you ever let the man publish so much political dreck? Honestly, it’s a problem. If he had wanted to write a book about politics and his opinions, he should have done so. But he didn’t. He wrote about writing, and I wanted to read about writing, so why is so much of the book NOT about writing?
Think of it this way: if you pay for a basketweaving class, would you get annoyed if the teacher spent most of the class droning on about how much he hates a particular pizza joint? Of course you would! That’s not why you’re there and he’s wasting your time.
See, editor, I think easily a third of this book is unnecessary political sniping. I want that shorter book, not this one.

That’s why I had to bail on this book. I can’t even tell if there is good advice in it. There very well may be, but it’s not really a book about writing. It’s a book about one man’s snobbishness, vanity, and dislike for the current political situation. It’s bloated and… well, not particularly clear.

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Thoughts on Pepper Potts and Why She Needs to Stop Being a Nag

Warning: Mild Avengers: Infinity War spoilers from the first 15 minutes of the movie. Scroll past Pepper and Tony when you’re ready.

 

Avengers photo from http://therealstanlee.com

 

Maybe it’s just because the trailer for Incredibles II came right before our showing of Avengers, but one thing in the movie really struck me wrong–the way women, primarily Pepper Potts, harass their (stronger, super-er, more impressive) boyfriends/fiances/love interests.

Pepper Potts is by far the worst offender. When we first see Tony and Pepper,  Tony is going on about wanting to have a baby with Pepper. She tsks him away, pointing to the arc reactor on his chest and asking him when he is going to stop.  When a wizard opens a magic portal in Central Park and insists Tony Stark has to go somewhere right now to save the world, Pepper’s first thought is to tell Tony not to go. When Tony misses their dinner reservation because he is off doing some super-heroism, Pepper is nagging away on the phone as Tony cringes in sadness as the signal fades out.

But why? Why hasn’t Pepper accepted that this urge to protect the world is just part of who Tony is? She has been with him the longest. She has risen in the movies from employee to CEO of Stark Industries, been rescued and worn the suit. Iron Man is an integral part of Tony’s life. How can she claim to love Tony if she can’t accept that this is part of who he is?

Sure, she doesn’t have to like it. And I get the writers threw in that call as a heartstring-tugging moment to let Tony be a bigger, more impressive, more self-sacrificing hero. But come on, Pepper. You’ve got a lot going for you. If you didn’t like this part of Tony, you could have left.

This is my same problem with the Incredibles‘s Frozone. Yes, that “I am the greatest good” line is pretty funny, but I’m really disappointed to see it continued in the newest movie (at least, according to the trailers). It bothers me, a lot, that Frozone and Mrs. Frozone (who we never even see on screen!) can’t sit down like reasonable adults and talk this out. Why can’t he be sitting down to dinner, and then the wife looks out the window, sees the giant attacking robot before Frozone does, and hurries to help him get dressed? Why can’t she insist he move faster before that robot destroys her azaleas? Why can’t she be supportive of his activities outside the house?

What I would like to see out of at least some female supporting characters is…support. In other movies, we get firefighter wives who cook a meal for the whole fire house, or triumphant military wives who are proud to be able to see their men off to war, or boxers’ wives who go moment-to-moment through the fight afterward with their man, patching him up for the next go or whatever. They may not like the danger, but they understand that this is important to their spouse so they do what they can to make it happen.

Where is that for a superhero movie?

I think it’s missing because of cultural norms. Thanks to Victorian America, we have this concept of separate spheres: the man’s place is outside the home, the woman’s place is in it. Women are constantly trying to “snare” a man, to “trap” him and “hold him back” with marriage. That ball-and-chain gag depicts the relationship; it’s gross.

We should be beyond that. We live in a two-income world, where relationships are supposed to be decided based on love and mutual interests. And relationships are supposed to be based on trust and understanding. Something like understanding when the motivation of your partner is to run toward danger rather than away from it.

I do have one example that gets it right. In the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher, Michael Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross–basically a holy crusader who is always being called to danger at a moments’ notice, often with wizard Harry Dresden. He has a passel of kids and a wife, Charity. Charity does not like Harry much; she doesn’t like the dangers her husband gets in with Harry around. She doesn’t quite trust Harry. But she trusts her husband and his calling 1000%. She supports him in everything. Her fear and anger at Harry is turned into something formidable; she’s one of only a few humans who can scare Harry Dresden, and he’s fought vampires and werewolves. But for her husband? She is understanding. She helps out. She is a great spouse and an excellent role model.

I want to see more Charity Carpenters in superhero movies. I want the women, even those who are “just” supporting characters, to have nuanced, good relationships. Because the nag thing is a tired trope.

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Review: The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater

The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on CraftingThe Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater: Essays on Crafting by Alanna Okun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I gobbled this book up. I heard an interview with the author and went home and immediately bought it, which I never do, and then the second it came in I put aside my other books and gobbled. It is a book I didn’t know I needed.

It is alternatively poignant and funny, and I felt the author’s feelings right there beneath the page. I love the footnotes.

There are a lot of resources from sciencey folks telling us that crafting is good for mental health, but this is spoken here directly from the crafter. That gives the message a vividness and a relatablity that made me feel not alone.

It’s one of the themes that echos throughout the book: oh, you like this too? How wonderful, let’s be friends! And because I am the most crafty person I know, this book made me ache for a crafting community, or just a person like the author in my own life. But I know I am Not Alone, and that may be enough.

I do have two complaints:
1) the title, taken from one of the essays, makes this seem like a book about boys/love/grief. It is not. It is about crafting and its place in our lives. A better title, poached from inside another essay, would have been Unfinished Objects (UFOs).

2) There is not a single pattern or craft suggestion in it! A missed opportunity, because now that I’m done I want to make a thing and have to go find an idea all my own somewhere else.

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