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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Books I Read: May - June 2017

 
The Book of Goodnight Stories by Vratislav Stovicek 
(reread)
 
I got this book a long time ago because I had it as a kid and I wanted my kids to have it. There are 365 stories, one for each day of the year, although a lot of them are multi-parters, and each day is only about 250 words.

I have fond memories of this book, but on the re-read, it started becoming hard to get through. The stories I remember as a nine-year-old weren't as full of whimsy and wonder. The tales weren't diverse and magical. They started getting samey (right around August, I believe) and it's not as much a compendium of fairy tales as I thought. Some are downright strange. There are no paragraph breaks and little dialogue. I wonder if I returned to my nine-year-old self, reading this volume for the first time, I'd feel the same way. I don't know the answer to that, but I do understand now why my kids haven't cracked it open.


Astonishing X-Men, Volumes 1 & 2 by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday
 
Comic books. Is there anything they can't do? Joss Whedon's applies humor and heart-wrench, the same as any other work, to another group of motley misfits with superpowers and lack of understanding. And it works. It works so well. You don't have to know more than a periphery of X-Men lore, but it helps. There's past history--like where Colossus is and Emma Frost's backstory--that's hard to understand if you only know the MCU. But that's why fan wikis are around. All the Whedon wit and charm is there. It feels like the best Buffy episodes.

Every panel of art is beautiful and makes you think, whatever John Cassady was paid, it wasn't enough. At times I felt like I wasn't paying enough attention to the panels so I was sacrireligizing the work. Some of them look like they should be wallpapers. However it does suffer from a common sickness of "too much content" in an image to tell what's going on and too many spreads.

The writing is not all it's cracked up to be. I always wonder how much the studio dictates and how much the writer does. I always imagine the studio's saying "you gotta refer to this, this, and this that happened fifty issues ago" and "you gotta bring your characters to this point by issue 25 because that's when we have our big crossover tie-in" and "Wolverine's getting a six-issue run with some new title we're trying to promote so don't write anything with the most popular and interesting character for six months." There are plot threads that cease developing, like a mutant cure, and the Breakworld aliens.

Nonetheless, this run is beautiful. It's all beautiful.


A Street Cat Named Bob: How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets by James Bowen

I discovered this book when the trailer for the movie came out. I love cats, but you rarely see them in movies -- they're difficult to train. And if you do see them, with terrible CG. But then I discovered it was based on a book.

When I was in middle school, I went through a phase where I read every book, fiction or non-fiction, about cats that my library had. The Cat Who Came For Christmas, A Cat Named Norton, The Tiger on my Couch (cat psychology), books by Lilian Jackson Braun. As such, I expected much the same thing. Except this had something a little different--the cat was "owned" by a homeless heroin addict. Well, as it turns out he's not so homeless, and doesn't really "own" the cat. But he is a busker and has to deal with making his living around that sort.

I didn't expect much from the writing style, given the protagonist's background, but he actually pulled off something eloquent and interesting. I've mentioned in reviews of a few past memoirs how the author hasn't lived long enough or interesting enough to fill out a complete book. This one has. And it's nice to see that same kind of masculinity exhibited by Newt Scamander in real life. It's cozy and it's heartwarming without being schmaltzy. And it feels like a real-life "a boy and his X" story.


Kingdom Keepers I: Disney After Dark by Ridley Pearson

I barely finished this one. Thirty-three percent through and I was speed-reading just to get to the end. I really should have just stopped, but the idea sounded too good not to follow through, like Kingdom Hearts. But it's not worth your time.

The concept is ideal for any Disneyphile-evil lurks in the park and five kids have to stop it, going on rides after close and exploring cast member tunnels and doing all the things you're not allowed to do. Walt Disney World goes from a place of joy to a battleground. Anyone who's been to a Disney Park at least once should be intrigued.

But you shouldn't. It's so poorly executed and poorly written. Like it was a rush job. The characters have no depth. They don't even get the depth of stereotypes. No one has a personality. I could not tell you the difference between the two girls of this five person team. And they're barely in the book as it is. Anyone who's not the "team leader" gets barely any screen time. The two other boys are "the big guy" and "the computer guy" but "the big guy" occasionally feeds information about computers and "the computer guy" acts weak and nerdy. No one has internal goals or distinguishing characteristics. Power Rangers had better characterization.

The story is all event. And they throw in some BS about how these kids are "holographic cast members" and that gives them the ability to be in the park after it closes. This is a thing that doesn't exist in the park, and I had to try explaining to my kids five times. It's rooted in science but acts like magic and has no rules around it. It just happens. Once they're in the park, they have to do some lame The Da Vinci Code style sleuthing, because Walt Disney knew that his movies were going to come to life and imprison the guests in dungeons down below. That's a sentence I just said. This fetch quest accomplishes its job of filling out pages by making every obstacle the same--you get on a ride, the ride malfunctions, but you succeed anyway without any lasting consequences. Goalposts are never pushed back.

Kids deserve better than this. The only highlight is seeing the things you saw in Disney World, and only in the "hey I remember that" way.

This is no Percy Jackson or Wimpy Kid. I did not care whether the characters lived or died. And there were too many of them anyway. In addition to the Team of Five, there are two girls with ambiguous motives but the same non-personality, an Imagineer mentor, and "the adults who know nothing". The author can explain the Utilidor under the park, but not why these kids matrix-jump into their holograms when they fall asleep nor how that works. That's like Benedict Cumberbatch doing the mocap for Smaug, then going to sleep and finding himself IN the film. It feels like the author was writing to a deadline or to the specifications of investors and focus groups. Pick up a Travel Guide instead.


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

It's a long one, but it's good enough that you don't tap your foot. After reading this I now have better knowledge and understanding of the New Testament. Furthermore, despite being an atheist, this book brought me closer to embracing becoming a Christian and identifying Jesus Christ as a philosopher to follow. It'll never happen, but it got me closer.

Since there's nothing in the bible about Jesus between when he's born and when he's the prophet, this book helpfully fills in the gaps. And it's all from the perspective of Biff. They start from the beginning when the two boys meet, as Jesus (called Joshua in the book) is doing a trick for his younger siblings of killing a lizard, then putting it in his mouth to resurrect it (he's only four or so). The nice thing about this scene is that it's a gatekeeper for any fundamentalist who can't take a joke. And that's important because, well, look what I said in the first paragraph.

The book leads us all the way around Roman-occupied Jerusalem, and keeps (as far as I can tell) historically accurate. Although that's hard because cultural records from that era are spotty at best. But there's never a dumbing down or overly-smartening the text. It's a fine adventure, fine to read, and has diverse characters. Characters whom you care what happens to them. It's the story of Jesus accepting his position as the son of God, but not getting the answers on what to do with it. So he goes on a journey to find those answers, and meets the three wise men who sought his birth. It's from these people he learns the blend of Western and Eastern philosophy he uses to become the orator we all know and love.

So yes, even though it's long, it's worth your time. Especially if you need something non-heavy that's not a romance or mystery.


Tender Wings of Desire by Colonel Sanders

Needs more chicken.

Okay, so this is a free novella put out by KFC for Mother's Day, as a "thank you" to all the hard-working moms who bring dinner home in a bucket sometimes. This must have been the most bizarre bit of marketing that didn't involve goat sacrifice or racist tweets.

The problem is, this book is played straight. It's a basic Victorian regency story about a high-class woman conscripted to marry. She runs away from her English mansion and becomes a waitress in a pub, working for a tough-talking but heart-of-gold barmaid. She falls in love with one of the patrons, a sailor. But the cover is Colonel Sanders embracing a suburban mom holding a fried chicken leg. So you can understand my confusion. I mean, it's CALLED "Tender Wings" and there's not even so much as a drummie within. I think it takes place before fried chicken was invented, if that's irony for you.

I was expecting something more tongue-in-cheek, something with more humor. Because come on, the whole concept is ridiculous. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it just turns out that the beau she falls in love with is named "Harland Sanders", and we only learn that through a letter calling him back to America for his "chicken empire"? I guess it's too subtle for me.

But it's competently written. More than I expected for a free eBook coming from one of the lesser fast food chains (seriously, I haven't seen a KFC around my parts for years. The nearest one is twenty miles from my house). I have fond memories of KFC -- my mom WAS the person bringing it home for dinner on nights she couldn't cook (although she didn't read bodice rippers). So, just like the food this place delivers, my expectations were met.


Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart

Hannah Hart should not exist.

Her presence in the world defies natural order to things. Because there is no way a woman from this background--a background of foster families, drugs, mental illness, international fame, fundamentalist parents, schizophrenic parents, self-harm, social services, and such and so forth--becomes as positive and optimistic and a generational leader as she does. There's no universe where that computes.

Like I've mentioned before, I get apprehensive around memoirs by people under thirty years old. You never really know if their life is interesting enough for a whole book. But I had no doubts about Hannah Hart.

I watched Hannah in her early days. She only ever released little tidbits about her life in her videos. She was attracted to Scarlett Johanssen in one, that she was emancipated from her parents in another. It set up a bizarre puzzle for viewers. But little did I know this was no five hundred piecer. This was a two-thousand. With no border. And it's all Persian cat faces.

This book answers the questions of that mystery. But there's so much to unpack that you never truly understand it all (which is the sign of a good book). None of the terror that must have been present in Hannah Hart's life comes through in her videos. So how can she function as a human being?

As far as the book itself, her talent extends to the written word. It's full of wit and humor, but also pathos and drama. There is sufficient ups and downs that it's never tonally consistent. But that's a good thing, because the palate is always cleansed and the meal never takes too long to cook. Hannah goes from talking about being homeless to how to be a good traveler. It'll leave an impression on you.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson 
(unfinished)

I'm just not in a place to be reading non-fiction history books right now. Let alone history books that are doorstops. Like I've said before, my writing has suffered in the last year because I'm not reading books that excite me and inspire me to write. I need to read books in my own genre and this is not one of them. Just how much detail does this book need? Do I need to know every little particular? Do I need to know what the captain ate for breakfast? Was that part of the u-boat attack?

Maybe there is a story behind the Lusitania but I'm not sure it needs to be this many pages. I was hoping for something like Unbroken but there isn't a main character to hang a hat on. It feels very much like the author is spitting back research, not creating a narrative.


Unsoul'd by Barry Lyga

The main character is SUPER unlikable. He's a douchebag that fucks multiple women, is vulgar, lazy, does stupid adult things. There's a lot of sex, to the point of being porn-like. And the things he does don't justify the ending.There's an underlying technique of "is this actually all in his mind?" that distracts from the text.

The central idea is "what if a down-on-his-luck author actually did make a deal with the devil for a bestselling book". The problem is that this is a character book. And the kind of character who would make this deal is a douchebag. Like if Stephen King drank a Jekyll-and-Hyde potion and all we saw was Hyde. Sad to say, Barry Lyga is no longer one of my favorite authors. I probably wouldn't have finished it if it hadn't been so short.


Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

I sought this book to learn more about the monomyth and a "formula" for a winning story. This book has that, but it's important to be a filter and not a sponge when reading it.

I heard of this book from an Imgur post when Blake Snyder died. It laid out the steps of every top-grossing Hollywood movie. (This poster applied it to Frozen.) I'm always up for anything that makes writing easier so I kept it favorited until I had a chance to really break it down.

But there's more to this book than just "the formula". It's also making sure that you have everything needed to sell a script. Like log lines, a catchy title, and things that don't matter so much in the book-writing world.

And the biggest reason you need to be a filter is that this guy makes claims that he's made hundreds of thousands in residuals, been in the industry long enough to know the keys failures and successes, like he's Ron Popeil selling a juicemaster. He's been called "Hollywood's most successful spec screenwriter". The problem? Check out this guy's IMDb page. His claim to fame is Blank Check which was harshly lampooned by The Nostalgia Critic. Second place? Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Occasionally he uses, as examples, older movies and movies I've never heard of. I would think if you want to be successful, you want to keep your case studies as current and outstanding as possible.

So this makes you think "why should we listen?" The answer is because, sometimes, people are better at teaching than doing. And while there are flaws in the technique, the content is solid. Well, I don't know if it works or not, but if you're wise, there's things inside that I believe can help you with writing.


Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff 
(unfinished)

I reached 63% before I decided to stop. Many times in the past, I would have told myself to keep going just to finish it. But that was the old me. Each time I picked it up, I'd sigh and look at how much more I had to go.

The anthology format doesn't work for me. It usually doesn't. The racism part is what intrigued me. I heard about this book from Scalzi's big idea, and the excerpt hooked me in. Lovecraft monsters + the soft racism of Driving Miss Daisy. I love that genre-mixing. But if you came to this looking for Cthulhu, you'll be disappointed. There is little horror and the social commentary becomes its own character, overshadowing the already shadow-thin cast therein.

They aren't interesting enough for me to want to continue. True, they have more depth than just "they're black", but I also couldn't care whether they lived or died. Maybe it's because of the format. Each story focuses on a different person in this family that's connected to another family of cultists. None of them are distinct or sympathetic enough. The writing style is blah too. Descriptions of physical environments are mechanical and go on too long. The author describes each step a character takes instead of summarizing it.

The big idea is great. It just needed to be executed better. Needed some condensing or editing to give more pressure per square word. But I look forward to seeing Jordan Peele's take on it.


Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Fantastic. Beautiful. It reminds me of Wren's Quest by Sherwood Smith, one of my formative books. It's what I wish Diana Wynne Jones had written like. My only quibble is that the style is functional to the extreme. You won't find any beauty of prose here. But in my opinion, that's a good problem to have. It keeps tension high and still uses vocabulary to keep you in a world (like "sparrowgrass" for asparagus).

It's a version of Shrek for the intellectual. Less in-your-face and fart joke-laden. More for those who've read original versions and appreciates guilty pleasures. People who like "Into the Woods". Plus all the characters are likable. The most negative part is the predictable ending. Not that you know what's going to happen (you do), but you're bored waiting for it to play out.

But I gave it five stars. However, those looking for twee elfin phrases will be disappointed.
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