Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review: It Devours!

It Devours! It Devours! by Joseph Fink
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At some point, I'm going to need to pick up the printed collections of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast transcripts to increase my exposure to this weird and wonderful world. As for this second full-length novel from Fink and Cranor, it's another delightfully macabre tale, this time dialing up the Lovecraftian horror and highlighting the balance between science and faith and how opposites may often attract. It Devours! boasts a better, more cohesive, and more memorable story than the first novel, and thankfully doesn't require reading that first novel in order to enjoy it. This one, I'll be more easily able to recommend to customers at the Stanford bookstore, no problem.

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The Last Jedi: Mr. Johnson's Magnum Opus

***NO SPOILERS FOR THE LAST JEDI, BUT SPOILERS FOR PREVIOUS STAR WARS FILMS ABOUND WITHIN. YOU'VE BEEN WARNED.***

"Let the past die. Kill it if you have to."
-Kylo Ren

"This is not going to go the way you think!"
-Luke Skywalker

Two years ago, I saw The Force Awakens and fell in love with it, declaring it J.J. Abrams' magnum opus. I hereby make a similar declaration to The Last Jedi as the magnum opus for writer-director Rian Johnson. Though quite outside his wheelhouse - Johnson being better known for harrowing and/or psychologically involved episodes of Breaking Bad, or the convoluted time-traveling mob thriller Looper - Johnson has no problem ably taking the reins from Abrams on this eighth episode of the Star Wars saga. Actually, though, if he does have a problem, it's a problem with meeting viewers' expectations - expectations which, especially of the predictive fan-theory variety, he makes it a point of burning down and dancing on the ashes like there's no tomorrow. And along the way, it's a long, though incredibly action-packed, ride.

*Tom Holland Spider-Man voice* Hey everyone.
*Andrew Garfield Spider-Man voice* Hey, how ya doin'?

I can't remember much of Looper, to be honest, and those Breaking Bad episodes Johnson directed were some of the darkest that show ever did - except maybe "Fly," which was more blackly comic than anything else. So while I was expecting Johnson to give us a darker and more dangerous Star Wars movie, which he did, I certainly didn't see it coming when he jacked up the humor game almost right from the start. Not that Poe Dameron's not enough of a jokester already - he's clearly got a Han Solo personality, which explains why General Leia is so torn on whether or not to respect or chastise him at all times. But seriously, the way he makes his entrance in this movie is so Guardians of the Galaxy-grade funny that it makes me a really grateful fanboy knowing that Abrams et al. reversed course on the initial plans to kill him off so quickly in The Force Awakens.

A great relationship in this GIF, though I'm of course rooting for canon StormPilot on the romantic front.

It's a good thing that Poe gets a ton more screen time for Oscar Isaac to really show off his chops in places where he's not a despicable creeper (Ex Machina) or spending most of his time hospitalized (his upcoming role in Annihilation.) Poe's screen time comes up in this movie, but there are a few other underused characters who don't get that benefit. Chief among them, of course, is Phasma. Though Gwendoline Christie makes the most of her role, she still gets only about five minutes at most in the whole damn movie, and to be honest, Delilah S. Dawson's Phasma novel kinda ruined her character for me, painting her as less a badass and more a dirty coward pretending to be the dictionary definition of "cold steel fish." Maz Kanata, whom we all love because of her wisdom and her take-no-prisoners attitude and her more than passing resemblance to Edna Mode and Hetty Lange, gets only a glorified cameo on a hologram call in this movie - a supreme disservice to Lupita Nyong'o that I sincerely hope Episode IX rectifies. Maybe they'll rewrite that movie so that the role initially meant for Leia, now obviously unfulfillable by her due to Carrie Fisher's untimely death, will go to Maz instead? God, I hope so.

Pictured: we the fans when they actually give Lupita something to do.

There's also Snoke, who's extremely underwritten and even more impossible to take seriously as a villain in this film now that we actually get to see him and he wears a silly Goldmember-looking bathrobe while sitting on his throne. But after watching this movie, I have to conclude (without spoilers, of course) that Snoke's underwritten nature is entirely by design, because there's truly a Bigger Bad out there than this guy whose motivations and characterization remain pancake-flat.

Yeah, you, Snokey, you ridiculous half-melted Trump statue, you.

Most of our returning faves, though, deliver beautifully on the character development front. Finn gets to raise his badass game and runs a sort of co-lead on at least one mission with young maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, who's quite the fangirl in character and out from what I understand.) Leia, in her final film appearance, finally shows us how strong with the Force she is, stronger perhaps than anyone else in Star Wars history. I mean, sure, Force lightning and telekinetically stopping blaster bolts is all well and good, but the feats Leia pulls off in this film have to be seen to be believed. Luke too, though he starts out in this movie, of course, as a serious Knight in Sour Armor, unwilling to help Rey learn the ways of the Force because he fears her incredible strength. Given the history this movie reveals between him and Kylo Ren, I don't exactly blame him...but I still do wish he would've tried a little harder, a little sooner, to help Rey and take some steps towards redemption for his own failures. And of course Kylo Ren. I admit, I despised him after The Force Awakens, but over time, a couple of my Kylo-fan friends, Ginny and Sam (both being in the minority, of course), showed me a few good pieces of evidence that he wasn't as irredeemable as he seemed, and hopes that he would start fighting the good fight - if not in this film, then at least in the next. Incidentally, both of my friends have also gotten me shipping Reylo right alongside them. Hashtag #SorryNotSorry, but the tension between these two, especially with their unusually strong Force bond, is palpable - and adds to the movie's humor sometimes, to the point where Sam theorized that Rey was really talking to Ben the whole time, not villainous Kylo, and that Ben's got a bad, bad case of dissociative identity disorder - which, if even remotely true, would make him more sympathetic, I think.

Also, though I'm a Rey fanboy for life, I identify way too much with Ben too. Like me, and like Ezra Miller's Flash, they need...friends.

Shipping-wise, though, I confess myself disappointed. Even though I knew going into this that Rian Johnson had all but stricken down the possibility of there being a major romantic storyline, it's still sad to me that neither of my ships (both of which I've become a passenger on between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though I didn't ship either of them while watching the former for the first time) set sail at all. Hell, both of them feel like they've been mercilessly torpedoed, and the one that Johnson pushes in this movie kinda damages it by giving them exactly the scenes that could most easily have been cut down because they slowed down the otherwise stellar pacing. But then again, I felt like Olicity was irreparably sunk on Arrow a couple years back, and that's changed for the better by now! There's still one more episode in this sequel trilogy, so I have to put my trust in J.J. Abrams to do my ships right the way Johnson didn't.

That said, though, Johnson delivers so much on the experience with this movie, it's not even funny. The funny, as mentioned above, is there, as is the high-stakes awesome. Leia gives us some, Luke gives us some, and we get a surprise cameo or two. There are so many terrific action scenes that had my entire theater (an IMAX one, so you know it was filled with at least a hundred fans) screaming and swearing and cheering that I quickly lost count. I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one had my bestie Speedy declaring to the entire theater, and I quote, "I. AM. DECEASED!" The real genius of Johnson's action scenes is, you know how they go maybe a full minute before they really take off, and yet it's still so immensely satisfying when they do go - a sort of predictable unpredictability, which is basically the theme of The Last Jedi along with the dimming of hope, the tiniest of sparks being enough to potentially resurrect said hope, the stubborn refusal of self-redemption, and the aforementioned dancing on the ashes of fan theories. Let's just say that Luke's first action in the movie is pretty emblematic of all those themes, so when you're done laughing at the sheer unexpectedness of it all, keep it in mind and it'll really help your mindset going forward for the next two and a half hours or so. Two and a half hours of several plotlines running about 5-10 minutes at a time, but (with the exception of the stretched-thin Canto Bight casino storyline) terrifically tightly paced. Sure, Johnson sacrifices a bit of scientific credibility - the whole movie takes place in the span of maybe about 36 hours and yet has a lot of extremely quick hyperspace jumps across almost the entire galaxy and then some. But just as in any of the other movies, where the whole "lightspeed" concept clearly has to be faster than the actual speed of light by a factor of at least ten in order for the story to work, it's only too easy to park your brain at the door as needed.

On a final note, the movie's visual effects are perhaps the most top-notch yet. Like The Force Awakens, practical effects are favored wherever possible, and lend a certain hokey charm at times - the much-ballyhooed porgs, for instance, which are extremely obvious in their animatronic artificiality, but lose none of their cuteness for it. (Though I'd rather have a pet vulptex, to be honest. They're the coolest creatures Lucasfilm ever gifted us and they don't get enough to do, gorrammit.) The CGI is consistently the best of any of the films - the prequels' CGI having not aged very well (particularly Attack of the Clones, and to a lesser extent The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith) and the current era's work having quite a few spots of unintentional failure, like the Force Awakens Rathtars or Rogue One's terribad Tarkin face - but The Last Jedi visual effects are of incredible quality. (Zack Snyder, you better be taking notes. You too, Abrams. Can't let Rian Johnson beat you in this department too, now can we?) And there's one scene in particular, a mindscape-type sequence that owes a hell of a lot to Divergent, that you'll love more than any other if only for its unsettling nature.

The Last Jedi hopefully won't prove to be the sequel trilogy's peak, but it shatters expectations so powerfully that it earns nothing short of an A+ from me, and leaves me in hopes of finding that balance between my own light and dark sides going forward. Perhaps better than a certain someone who deserves better and will probably only get done justice by fanfic writers.

Good day, fellow fanpeople, and may the Force be with you.

Till next time, Pinecones...

#FeedTheRightWolf
Remember: Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Review: Long Way Down

Long Way Down Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even after greatly enjoying Reynolds' take on Miles Morales, I've found myself sleeping on his bibliography for quite a while. Thanks to Long Way Down, I have another reminder that I should pretty much not be sleeping on said bibliography. Though very different in style from Miles Morales, especially since it's a novel entirely in verse as opposed to prose, this book is no less unforgettable and thought-provoking and an authentic look at the experience of a black teen boy. Inner-city life in all its grittiness is on full display here, a life governed by three rules - no crying, no snitching, and revenge. Maybe not so much the middle one, but the first and last are absolutely rooted in toxic masculinity, and Will's following them all to the letter because it's all he knows.

Until he leaves this life and steps into the elevator. In the elevator is a world where time slows to a crawl, the ghosts of Will's past jump in to haunt him and hotbox the joint with everyone infinitely smoking, and this waking nightmare (or perhaps just plain a nightmare) turns into a sort of gangland, magical-realist-influenced Christmas Carol...or does it? Such is the genius of Reynolds, who tells a complete story even when he leaves it with one of the most open of open endings. And normally open endings piss me off, but this one, it made sense, one hundred percent, leaving the ultimate outcome open to interpretation as Reynolds did.

Though it's a slim hope, I do hope that everything comes up Will eventually in this universe.

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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier by Mark Frost
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm sure this 150-page Final Dossier contains a few spoilers for the 18-episode Twin Peaks revival, but I couldn't really tell, and in any case, it was a pretty good read. Not as in-depth as The Secret History, of course, and certainly a lot less historical-conspiracy oriented, but for its deep dive into what happened to a lot of popular characters in the 25-year-plus gap between the original series and the revival, it was fairly engrossing - and, at the very least, did eventually bring about some kind of resolution to "HOW'S ANNIE?!?!?!?!" I guess David Lynch, even if he fought tooth and nail, failed to prevent the answers from coming to light. Thank God for Mark Frost, in that case.

Someday, I'll be able to complete my journey through Twin Peaks and finally watch the revival. That day might be a long ways off yet, but it'll come. I promise.

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: Moxie

Moxie Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By now, of course, I think it's pretty plain that the infamous Kirkus review of this book was...pretty misinformed in its suggestion that Moxie somehow promotes not "real" feminism, but empowerment through gender segregation. Nope nope nope. Just feminism, straight up, as only our heroine Vivian can serve it. Girl power and punk music and smashing the patriarchy, with a glowing recommendation from Amy Poehler as if you didn't need another reason to read this book? What's not to love?

And as for the idea that guys are excluded from this narrative and/or all painted as sexist pigs and rapist monsters, well, clearly that Kirkus reviewer must've glossed over Seth's character entirely. Seth ain't perfect, and his social blindspots do have a way of wreaking havoc and creating conflict from time to time. Most of the time, though, he's a damn good role model for all male-ally feminist dudes. (Sure, it's a low bar to clear, being respectful to women just because it's goddamn right, but Seth clears it with a pretty flying leap, I think.) And when he's the love interest to such an engaging and fundamentally good protagonist as Vivian, well, you've got the recipe for one of the most shippable ships I've ever seen in YA. In between the serious issues that Vivian has to take on with her school's systemic sexism, their romance makes a great counterpoint. Awkward, as can be expected, but sweet and real, and you gotta love how Mathieu makes sure they never, ever so much as make out without both giving and receiving consent.

Sexism is the main social issue this book tackles, but it's not the only one. We get a few allusions to race relations too, and sexual orientation. Not much, but it's a nice tip of the cap from Mathieu to remind us all that there's not just one problem, and that society can always benefit from being more inclusive.

While Moxie is my first Jennifer Mathieu book, it's absolutely not going to be my last. But her other books now have to live up to this extremely high standard - can they? It'll be quite the challenge, especially given that I read this book in one sitting. It's that good.

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Review: Flashfall

Flashfall Flashfall by Jenny Moyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After taking part in a BBTC chat with author Jenny Moyer in anticipation of this book's sequel, I realized I had to read the original for the first time - a book that somehow managed to fly under my radar, probably because of how YA dystopians are supposedly dead thanks to overexposure from the likes of Divergent, The Maze Runner, Red Queen, etc.

Flashfall, however, feels like a still-pretty-fresh spin on the genre, combining elements of The Maze Runner - solar-flare-induced apocalypse, lots of monsters in underground tunnels and the like - and Arclight, particularly in terms of this book also boasting a weird light barrier between the sheltered world and the broken remains of the world beyond.

The story itself treads fairly familiar ground, but its real strength is the characters, particularly Dram and Orion. They're tough, both of them, and of course they're in love, but I never once feel like they're in love just to satisfy the typical requirements of a YA novel. Their relationship feels genuinely sweet, and I'm honestly terrified that because I love them as a couple, the sequel is going to sink this ship in the worst possible ways.

But I'm going to read the sequel, hopefully soon, and if I don't enjoy it as much as I did this book, I'll be very surprised.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Trigger warnings for this book: miscarriage, slut-shaming, rape.

I was lucky enough to acquire the ARC of this book in a trade, and I've since passed it along to one of the team leads at the Stanford bookstore, who's quite the Seraphina fan, enough to have made that book one of her official Staff Picks. Tess of the Road, it's quite a different kettle of fish than Hartman's previous two fantasy tales, and while I give it the same official GR rating, it's really more of a 4.25, if not a 4.5, than Seraphina or Shadow Scale were. While Tess has a way of rambling over its not-inconsiderable 500+ pages, and builds up to a strangely abrupt ending that doesn't feel like an ending at all, the character of Tess herself, and her interactions with a variety of other characters on the road (and also Seraphina from time to time), proves extremely endearing and supremely sympathetic.

Perhaps the strongest selling point of this book is its feminist take on the fantasy genre. Especially when it comes to sex-positivity, because one thing that Tess of the Road reflects from our world is the absolutely ridiculous preoccupation with sexual "purity," and particularly that of women, while men are expected to "sin" repeatedly and often and that's just the way nature goes, or so the culture of this world (the human culture, that is, not so much dragon culture) and ours would have you believe. Religion is greatly to blame for this problem, with so many references to St. Vitt and his Biblical-style admonitions. Not to mention how women are so repeatedly taught not to enjoy sex, ever, while men are told they have a basically saint-given right to do whatever the hell they will with a woman's body (and, during scenes when Tess takes on a male persona, the guys she winds up traveling with at one point actually set up a fund to relieve "Tes'puco" of his virginity. No joke.) And, on a related front, how does consent figure into this warped-as-hell dynamic? The answer...probably won't surprise you, but it'll leave you feeling pretty down and wishing to all the saints that you could use this book, literally, to beat some sense into those who would uphold the patriarchy.

This book was a very good, very thought-provoking return from Rachel Hartman. I imagine it'll be a hit when it comes out early next year, but again, be warned - it's not for the faint of heart, this book.

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