Friday, January 19, 2018

#CBR10 Review #02: Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

Sweet, and a little spooky. Anya's Ghost is a graphic novel that features a short little story about a teenage girl named Anya, who moved to America from Russia at a young age. She isn't doing great in school, and doesn't feel like she truly fits in: she has one close friend named Siobhan, who isn't really all that nice to her, and her mother tries hard to keep Anya connected to her cultural community through church and other families she knows (most notably, a young boy named Dima who is also from Russia, but others tend to pick on). Also, Anya harbours a crush for a popular basketball player at school, who just happens to be dating a beautiful popular girl. Isn't this such a familiar little trope for most YA stories? Well, here's where we get a twist...

While skipping class one day, Anya falls down a well in a park, and meets a ghost of a young girl named Emily, who ends up following her: Anya reluctantly becomes friends with this ghost after she helps with some things at school and with her romantic pursuits. Though you never really know if spirits have your best intentions in mind, do you?

What I love about this book is that it picks up on a lot of typical high school, young adult tropes, but with many pertinent themes within: girls being pit against one another through jealousy and for the attention of boys, friendships that aren't truly meaningful, how quick we are to pick on people for the same reasons we used to be just in order to feel like we now fit in, not knowing the pain going on in the lives of others despite the fact that they look so perfect from the outside, and so much more. There were some opportunities here that could have even been more expanded on, in particular with how Anya reacts to a situation with her crush and his current girlfriend. But doing further with that may have muddied the waters of the real main focus of the story in the end.

The art of this graphic novel is also very clean, and cute looking. In a subdued monochromatic scheme of black and white (with the odd touch of blueish or purpleish gray-tones), the mood presented by the imagery fits what is presented in the story, in particular during the latter portions of the book.

The only minor complaints I would have would really be with the ending of this novel. There is a particular emotional moment between Anya and the ghost Emily, but leading up to this, once we sort of figure out the hitch in everything going on, it plays out pretty simply; I don't want to say it felt "too easy" but... maybe a little predictable after the reveal? It was intense, for sure, but something held me back from being totally immersed at that point. I was also a little disappointed in some of the resolution with Anya's friend Siobhan: she has her struggles too, but she isn't really a nice girl, and a further point about friendship could have really been driven home here. But then again, I'm not the author of this novel, am I? It's not my choice to make!

That said, I did very much enjoy Anya's Ghost: it was quite the respite from the long and heavy other novel I'm currently working on at the moment. And I honestly would have loved it when I was younger as well, because that lonely teenage feeling is oh-so-relatable, but then you also get some fun, and a little bit of creepiness thrown in here too. 

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, January 4, 2018

#CBR10 Review #01: Guardians of the Whills by Greg Rucka

A short and sweet little story to expand on a couple of characters we see all too briefly in the Star Wars cinematic universe: upon watching Rogue One, I immediately fell in love with Baze Malbus and Chirrut Imwe, the two “guardians” of the Temple of Kyber in the city of Jedha. They act like an old married couple, one a little gruff and the other full of mysticism and hope, joining our heros in their quest to bring hope to the galaxy in defeating the empire. But you’ve all seen Rogue One and know this by now right?

Well, given the opportunity to learn a little more about these two characters through Greg Rucka’s Guardians of the Whills, I thought, why not! It’s a short and simple book, with a little bit of action in a small adventure seemingly just before the events of Rogue One. We see Baze and Chirrut in their already long-standing, established relationship, after the Empire has taken some residence in what used to be a holy city of pilgrimage for many. It is a destitute time, with many children becoming orphaned by the actions and violence of the Empire. The main story here therefore revolves around Baze and Chirrut trying to help their friends running an orphanage with survival, as well as eventual escape from the city. Along the way, the two also come in contact with Saw Gererra, who is also trying to find a way to hurt the empire. It left me a little confused because I haven’t seen Rogue One in a while, and can’t remember  if there is the implications that Baze and Chirrut know Saw Gererra or not when they get taken into his base with Jyn and Cassian? Mmm, in any case, it doesn’t really matter I guess.

Ultimately, this is a story about doing what you can: about how small moves and hits can inspire hope and lead to more. And I love that. The overall mood of the book is serious and light: not super complicated and maybe a little simple with a bit of an anticlimactic ending, but really it’s supposed to be a little vignette to show life in the area before they get drawn into the bigger adventure. So, the story itself may not be the most inventive thing, but the main draw here for me (and what was most successful) was just to see a little more of the characters. What makes both Baze and Chirrut great is how they could be simple stock characters, but they aren’t: Baze could just be big and gruff, but we see a softness and caring there. Meanwhile, Chirrut could be just a sterotyped religious image of centered calm and reason, but there is also anger and conflict, and holding on to his faith despite knowing that others around him have faltered in it, yet not judging them for this. It is also these differences between the two that compliment each other so well. I love their friendship and how they work together and care about each other so much, regardless of their slightly different views on some things: it’s their major views of life that matter the most, and searching to do all they can for those who need help.

In any case, this was a short and fun read: a few little messages and tidbits in there, but ultimately nothing too crazy or complex. Still, a good and light way to start off my reading for the year! And as I said before, I love these characters, and wanted a little more of them, which is exactly what I got in the end.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Sunday, December 17, 2017

I Keep Getting Reminded of The Neon Demon (2016) and I Keep Getting Angry

Still Frame from The Neon Demon IMDB page

The scene is set: a young girl, all dolled up lays glassy-eyed and covered in fake blood. The camera pulls out on her posed-but-broken looking body. We are at a photoshoot, where the model is creating a scene of beauty and allure, all while looking as if she is dead. This is a trend I never understood in fashion shoots, the "drop dead gorgeous" scheme as I like to call it. But I guess so long as a woman still looks good regardless of her current state of life, her body can still be used for enjoyment, right? Hmmm... And so I pushed through and watched The Neon Demon (2016), which ended up being one of the worst movies I've seen in a long time. Well alright, maybe "worst" isn't the right word, but it was definitely the most disappointing and irritating. Because here's the thing: there was potential and setup for some good commentary in this movie! All the ingredients were there, but it went in the direction of nothing more than a gratuitous and seemingly self-satisfied mess in my opinion. And since I keep having reminders of this movie come up, I decided to get my thoughts out about it.

The Neon Demon is a film written and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, starring Elle Fanning as Jesse, an aspiring young model who moves to Los Angeles to pursue her career, where she learns just how ruthless this world can be as she rises in the ranks to the scorn of others. The cast is rounded out with the likes of Jenna Malone as Ruby, a makeup artist with an obsession with Jesse, Abby Lee and Bella Heathcote as rival models who know the ropes of the industry, and Keanu Reeves as a seedy motel owner where Jesse is staying. Christina Hendricks also makes a brief appearance as a modelling agent that has interest in Jesse. Overall, it's a capable cast that turns out good performances with what material they are given, but the stand-out for me was Jenna Malone, who is incredibly talented and honestly deserves better than what she tends to get as an actress (more on that later). But for now I will throw out a warning about major spoilers for the film in the rest of my post.

Here's what I was liking about the movie before it started to disappoint: the basic premise had a lot of potential to explore a lot of topics about the nature of the fashion and modeling industry, women as objects, beauty as a commodity, etc. And it does touch on some of these subjects. Notable scenes include those where people have an inkling that Jesse is lying about her age (she is only 16 and shouldn't be able to work without parental consent) but choose to look the other way and still utilize her in sexualized ways, highlighting our obsession with youth and indeed sexualizing girls at younger and younger ages. There is also a scene where Christina Hendrick's character takes one look at a girl in her office and sends her away after making such a snap judgement on her worth based on how she looks, which is a subject that far too many women are aware of: being thought worthless if they are not beautiful in a particular way. There is a scene where a photographer chooses to have a closed set with Jesse posing naked for just him as one of her first jobs, in order for her to work with such an acclaimed photographer, reminding me of all those coming forward now with allegations of sexual assault that thought they had to put themselves in these uncomfortable situations where they are taken advantage of in order to further their careers. There is even a scene where the models at a casting call walk around in their underwear, and they are solely judged on how they look as objects in the eyes of the one man in the room, and are completely disposable. Now, this last one is framed in such a way that I feel the message is getting across: we see the vulnerability of Abby Lee's character, Sarah, as she begins so confident having worked with this designer before, only to be torn down when that which she has to offer is not even looked at and passed on for something new. There is a lot of focus on the face of the designer choosing the models, so it doesn't seem like the intent of this scene is just to leer at young skinny girls parading around in their underwear. I am always highly suspicious of these decisions in movies, and this one could have easily fallen into nothing more than some lingering male gazes (it almost does) but having such a focus on the actual gazing itself happening leads me to see that there was indeed an intention and discussion starting to be made here.

But as soon as these topics started coming up and I became more intrigued, the rug got pulled out from under me in favour of focusing on a hammy and unsubtle "message" for the film. Because what is this film really trying to say? That it's a girl-eat-girl world in the fashion industry. How do I know? Well, because a couple of jealous models literally eat Jesse, that's how. Oh, and because the synopsis on states: "When aspiring model Jesse moves to Los Angeles, her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to get what she has" (emphasis mine). With so many avenues and even scenes within the movie itself set up to say so much more about society, beauty, and gender, that's the overall message you go with? That women will devour each other in order to be successful, while hardly touching on how our competitiveness as females is derived from our larger society and how we are deemed as worthy within it? The film doesn't even present it's message in a clever way, it's an annoying and ham-fisted metaphor through and through, despite an air about it that seems to think that it's being very clever about what it's saying.

Speaking of ham-fisted: the dialogue. The dialogue is sparse, but that which is present is a bit over-the-top. There's a whole scene where the models discuss how lipstick colours are either named after food or sex, and that this also relates to life, asking Jesse if she herself is more food or more sex. It's so corny, and yet could have been such a great segue into the topic of consumption of women like products to buy. Yet instead, it literally just translates from the very beginning into her being yearned after for sex by men and Ruby, but ultimately being literal food for the other models. There is also some hammy monologue that Jesse goes on at the end, seemingly out of nowhere about how her mom always said she was a "dangerous girl" because she knows how she looks and how people look at her. This character shift almost seems to come out of nowhere as if the writers really just wanted to throw this dialogue in and show what a femme-fatal she is, even though it amounts to nothing and doesn't really align with how her character has acted so far: if you want to show how this industry and living here has changed her, there needs to be some development, not just out-of-the-blue right at the end when it doesn't even matter anymore.

Also in terms of the dialogue, Nicolas Winding Refn does have a certain stylistic way about him, that some audiences love while others hate. I know that Drive (2011) was pretty divisive between critics and general audiences, though I personally thought it was pretty interesting. One thing about this movie, though, was the way in which there were long spaces in the dialogue and prompted by the direction that felt a little awkward, but it really suited the relationships in the film. The same thing happens in The Neon Demon, but here it feels super unnatural. Someone will ask a question and it will go unanswered in an awkward space of time for far too long; it was excruciating and no real human being speaks like that, making it feel so weirdly put-on. And not only was the dialogue drawn out, but other sequences as well. These include scenes such as Jesse being painted by a photographer or walking down the runway in strobing lights. Such scenes were all clearly there for visual gratification, and they were indeed quite neat looking, but ultimately went on far longer than needed to appreciate this artistry.

It honestly felt like there wasn't enough in the plot that all these things had to be dragged on for more time than necessary, otherwise there wouldn't be a full run-time for the movie: dramatic pauses between sentences took up a good half hour or more of the time, I swear (not that I was timing them). And not only that, but there were scenes that felt completely unnecessary, as if they were added in an attempt to make the plot and overall situation more complex, but ultimately got forgotten about or didn't really matter in the end. This is most notably seen in any interactions with Keanu Reeve's character, Hank, who runs the motel Jesse is living in as she begins her life in Los Angeles. There is an incident with a cougar getting in the building, which I'm sure is a metaphor for something but I didn't get it. Jesse also has a dream about Hank putting a knife down her throat during the night, but again I don't know what this was supposed to mean given how everything plays out. Finally, Jesse leaves the motel to stay with Ruby one night after hearing what sounds like Hank killing a guest next door, but I really don't know what the purpose of this was despite showing some fear of violence in Jesse, which is a theme all too common in many movies, just watching the young girl hide and whimper. But there were many other reasons that could have been used to have Jesse staying with Ruby, so that whole bit felt very forced and purposeless, again given how everything played out in the end. Which is a shame because I love Keanu Reeves and he could have been given more to work with here, or his character could have had a bigger thematic purpose. But alas, twas not the case.

Finally,-- and this is the big one-- the reason I think this movie bothered me so much was the gratuitousness and seeming self-satisfaction of it all. There was so much going on that felt really unnecessary, but that the creators specifically wanted to include just to be able to see it play out: a feeling of "look how artistic and clever I am with this gruesomeness" which ultimately isn't that clever nor does the payoff seem worth it in the end. I feel this a lot especially when it comes to nudity of women (young women, in particular) and ask if it's really purposeful to have these bodies exposed or is it just for the kicks and leering of the male creators/audience? The "reasons" for these things to happen often seem so cheap and like throwaway lines too, so as I said before, I am always suspicious of things like this getting added to movies. And even here, I mentioned how the casting call for models seemed more focused on viewing the male-gaze itself rather than the women, but those actresses and models were still subject to walk around almost naked on set and filmed as such all day. It's not that I outright disagree with nudity in film, but I do question the choices at times and the true intent behind them.

I am thinking about these things in particular right now, as just two days ago I read Salma Hayek's account of her dealings with Harvey Weinstein, which highlight the trials of coming to make the movie Frida (2002). Hayek claims that the movie about the iconic Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, was almost shut down as Weinstein didn't think her unibrow was sexy (despite being pretty iconic to the historic figure) and pushed to have the inclusion of a sex scene that was not originally in the script: leading up to this, Hayek recounts incidents where Weinstein attempted to get her into the shower for him to watch, so now, this insisting that this sex scene occur with her nude in order to get this movie made --that she had worked on for years-- really seems like just another plot to get her naked no matter what, despite her established refusals to do so in private. It makes you wonder about a lot of other movies too, and what the actors/actresses were forced to do or show in them. I think this series of tweets from user Alan Scherstuhl sums up my feelings on this subject nicely:

Now, this isn't per say jus about nudity, but including things and making actors/actresses perform them when not exactly necessary, or making these bits go on for far too long-- think: the almost 10-minute sex scene in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013). There are things that seem really gratuitous in a lot of films and movies nowadays that just feel like the creator wanted to see them play out in front of them like some weird fantasy, all while pretending that there is some nonexistent "message" or "reason" behind the whole thing. And this brings me to Jenna Malone in The Neon Demon:

Jenna Malone is a very capable actress who I see show up in projects from time to time, but given her skill, I honestly want so much more for her. She's great in everything she is in, even if the role ends up being small (think of her minor supporting role in The Hunger Games trilogy). But here, while the role of Ruby could have been very interesting, the way the story and direction went made me feel uncomfortable for her and what she was required to do for this part that ultimately boiled down to a "predatory lesbian" trope. For example near the end of the movie there is a scene where she is outside washing blood off the sidewalk and watering plants, etc, and she is wandering around shirtless. Why? It's the nudity thing again, there hadn't been anything too much up until this point so you had to include some breast somewhere, right? 

But the most awful part of this movie for me was one scene in particular that involved her working on the makeup of a corpse for a funeral: while doing this job, Ruby starts thinking of Jesse, climbs on top of the corpse, spits in its mouth, kisses it, and masterbates on top of it. Imagine writing that and wanting an actress to act this part out. Imagine wanting to see that being acted out in front of you time and time again, and then later on film. Yeah, I get that it's supposed to make audiences uncomfortable (Or is it? What kind of necrophilia fantasy such as the one mentioned at the beginning in regards to death-fashion shoots does this play into?) Of course, actors/actresses don't need to take roles if they are uncomfortable with what's involved --props to Jenna Malone for being a trooper and going through that all gung-ho--, but we all know that most movies that are taken seriously nowadays involve some kind of sexual content on the part of women, most notably when written by a man. And there are also agents urging people to take part in films, and if one actress doesn't feel comfortable with the part, eventually you will get to one who will do it just for the exposure or experience of working with this person or because they are told they should. Eventually, someone takes part and acts out these bizarre scenes. And hey, if they are comfortable with it, all the power to them, but I'm just suspicious of these things being written in order to be acted out in the first place. It also has to do with the framing, I mean the whole thing is quite on display and in your face in this movie, there could have been a way to do it that didn't seem so... I don't want to say graphic, but maybe more subtle? 

In any case, I started The Neon Demon feeling curious, only to become uncomfortable and angry at how things played out. It felt like this movie thought itself oh-so-imaginative and clever, while ultimately being nothing more than a mess of violence, clunky dialogue, and eye-roll inducing symbolism with an absolutely unoriginal takeaway. It could have been so much more, and the visuals and potential of the premise are quite intriguing, I will give it that. But unfortunately a focus on aesthetic and desire to include specific extended moments led to the actual story being treated in what I feel to be a lazy fashion. 

Does any of this matter though? I'm just one person on here, and I don't plan on watching this movie again. And I do know that I have a tendency to overthink things. But like I said, I keep being prompted to think about this film for some reason, and that leads me to think about other implications that this movie has in relation to our views of women and the film industry in general, which has recently had more of a microscope being put up to it (though not completely). Have you seen The Neon Demon? Do you feel differently about it than I do?

Friday, December 8, 2017

#CBR9 Review #26: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

After finally reading The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, I figured it was time to dive into more Margaret Atwood content! I was looking at Alias Grace but my friend assures me I will love the TV show, so I’m holding off on that one for now. So where to go? Well, the title of The Heart Goes Last kept poking at something in my brain, and so, off I went. It’s as simple as that. And what I got was something very unique and filled with commentary about many different things, but also quite a wacky little setup and adventure in a way. Though, I didn’t love it: because I didn’t love any of the characters therein. For some reason, I couldn’t feel for them, and they seemed almost distant or not truly like real people to me. And perhaps that is part of what is important in this novel, given some of the issues and how they play out: they are the semblance of reality and just the ideas of people while really falling into a lot of unrounded tropes. “That type” of person at face value, if you will. And I do find that if I don’t connect with characters or don’t find them interesting or as if they connect to relatable emotions and personalities, I tend to not fully enjoy a story. It’s not as if this is a bad novel, but definitely not a favourite.

The Heart Goes Last focuses on a married couple named Charmaine and Stan, in the wake of an economic collapse in America. The wealthy remain so, but many people are facing unemployment and homelessness: Stan and Charmaine are living in their car when they see an ad for an experimental new community which provides everything they need, but once they are in, they cannot leave. They eagerly sign up and learn that the setup involves living a normal life in a normal house for a month, and then living and working in a prison for a month, back and forth. The design is derived from experiences utilizing prison labour and does seem to operate smoothly as people share resources and essentially all put in work to ensure that they community continues as it does. But of course, you get the feeling from the beginning that not all is as it seems, as certain “undesirables” are eliminated, only certain types of people and those who appear to follow rules without issue are accepted into the community to begin with, and life continues is a comfortable but strict manner. This unsettling seeming hidden side to the community and prison of course comes to light in what is actually a bit of a wacky situation, manipulated by people on the inside who want the truth out. Overall the plot is intriguing and I was engrossed enough to wonder how it would play out and zip through it quite quickly. Though truth be told it did seem a bit absurd at points, I didn’t totally understand all the inner-workings and economics of the situation, and I wasn’t sure if every part of it was really necessary in coming to the end goal. 

Despite being a little thrown by the overall story and seeming unnecessary or egregious nature of some of it, the novel is thematically very strong. It deals with a lot of subjects in a creative and telling way such as: how we perceive people versus who they really are, the security of being told what to go and how to be versus the freedom of making our own choices, is removing free will wrong if people are happy, how the things people tell us and drill into our minds can still come to affect us years later, etc. Some of the most poignant themes, however, are those that are so relevant to our society right now: one of the biggest ones being institutionalized prison labour that is essentially slavery, as well as how we treat those in prison or anyone who we deem to be undesirable or doesn’t follow the prescribed path. There is also a piece on sexual coercion and how sex can be tied up in situations that lead someone to feel powerless and unable to control the situation. Given what is occurring today with all the sexual assault cases particularly involving powerful individuals, this is a very important topic. However, once outside of these situations in the novel, I did find that the preoccupation on sex and happiness in some of the relationships was perhaps overdone: I’m not saying that sex isn’t important and can’t be a huge factor in relationships but really, that realm is not something I relate to.

I was also pleased to find some commentary and themes regarding sex, violence, and sex robots in this novel. I recently tried to start a conversation in a group chat with my friends about sexbots and some of the areas wherein they can be harmful in a grander scheme, buuuuuuuut this did not go very far as nobody responded to the articles I sent about the destroyed sexbot at a convention and following comments I made (Whoops, complaining about being ignored in my review, this is neither the time nor the place, Lisa!). But anyways, there is some interplay between the concept of these realistic robots and the features that are allowed, versus how this may affect real life or lead to dissatisfaction and a need for new advancements or perhaps even violence in the real world, etc. A interesting topic for sure, and one that perhaps we aren’t even aware of what the repercussions will be at this moment.

And yet, despite the inclusion and presentation of a number of topics that got me thinking, it was almost a little too much at times, and I found one of the most important ones (prison labour) almost being forgotten near the end, despite being so crucial to the setup of the novel and how things progress. But more than anything, I found that some of the themes were really overshadowed for me by the main characters who I did not care for. I mean, it’s not as if I can’t be interested in unlikable characters, but here I found there wasn’t enough to them: the grumpy husband who wants his wife to be more into sex, the wife who just wants to live a happy and picket-fence life  (okay this one I maybe related to a bit in her insistence to pretend like not everything is terrible all the time), the manipulative outsmarting bitch, the guy who just can’t stop cheating on his wife because of a sex addiction, the disfigured woman who just wants to be loved no matter what, the ceo who always gets what he wants no matter the cost. It felt pretty stock and while there were some moments that hinted at something more, it wasn’t enough. The characters didn’t feel real enough for me to empathize with them or even to understand their motivations. Pair that with a somewhat over-the-top story, and it started to run away from me pretty quick in the second half of the novel.

That said, the premise and overall idea of The Heart Goes Last had potential, and some strong themes therein, however a lot of this got overshadowed by a few too many twists that really weren’t that shocking at all. The characters seemed like they were just along for the ride and not in control of anything. Which…. Okay, so maybe that is kind of the point to the whole thing, in relation to the themes of having your role and life decided for you in order to fit into a picture-perfect puzzle with every cog in place. But uuuuh, it wasn’t clear. Maybe I just need some more time to reflect on this. And the pacing of the plot did keep me wanting to know what happens next, I just found it maybe to be a little too forced feeling? Hm. I just don’t know anymore. Things definitely got a bit convoluted in how everything played out in this one, so I guess at the end of the day, it really boils down to a little too much going on in the plot and action, with too little happening in the characters. If only there was a way to pare down one while bumping up the other. All in all, though, not a bad read, just not one that I found to be particularly great.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, December 1, 2017

#CBR9 Review #25: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

(Book #2 in the Stormlight Archive series)

I have been working on this book for about 2 months now: I mostly read at work and it has been busier, also it’s so long, but now I only have one book left for my half-cannonball goal! The next book in the Stormlight Archive series just came out and my cousin actually gave his copy to me for me to read after this one but uuuh…. seeing as it’s page count comes in at 1200+ pages (Words of Radiance at 1087), there’s no way I’ll make it by the end of the year, so it will have to wait until I finish my goal. This preface being said, let’s get on with the book and stop my rambling. (Just kidding, it will continue throughout the review as always! Beep beep!)

Words of Radiance is the second novel in Brandon Sanderson’s expansive Stormlight Archive series, focusing on a number of major characters including Kaladin, Shallan, Dalinar, and Adolin. While the previous novel included a lot of flashbacks and information on Kaladin, this book features more about Shallan and her life leading to the present story being told. While previously these major characters (with the exception of Dalinar and Adolin) had been separate, the end of the first book began to move them together and all their stories, though still with their individual storylines and conflicts, begin to converge directly. It makes things a little easier to follow and see the affects on one another, but the world doesn’t seem any less small than previously.

The beginning of this novel (not unlike the previous one establishing context and backstory) starts a little slow as new roles and dynamics and the affect of the previous novel are settled into. Kaladin begins a new role in the King’s guard, Dalinar faces uniting a torn kingdom after the betrayal of another highprince, and Shallan begins to learn about her abilities as a radiant all while travelling to the wars on the shattered plains to meet up with Jasnah’s royal family. Fortunately, the pace picks up quite a bit until the ultimate climax near the end of the novel, and indeed gets very exciting. There’s a lot going on overall, and the book is fully fleshed out in terms of plot and characters, and I am always astounded at the intricacies and just absolute breadth that Sanderson brings to his stories and world: there’s just so much to it!

I found Words of Radiance to be once again a long but good read with plenty of twists, intrigue, adventure, and just enough magic thrown in there too. I just have a couple of complaints, which basically mirror the exact same issues I had with the previous novel, Way of Kings. They are minor, however, and didn’t really affect my overall enjoyment of the novel, they just made me pause a few times or roll my eyes before getting over it and moving along.

The first issue is that, while impressive, the scope of the novel is really huge. The main characters and plots are honestly enough, and while I sometimes forget the odd name or role of a person or two (such as I do in any epic fantasy like this), it’s not really enough to cause any issue. I do however, find that some parts with minor characters are extraneous. Well, actually, it’s mostly that the book is divided into different “parts” and after each one is an “interlude” with other characters. Some of these are interesting and do tie in quite directly with the overall story, such as the inclusion of Sveth the assassin and Eshonai in the parshendi army. Others, however, at this point have nothing to do with anything: why am I supposed to care about these characters? Maybe they will play a role way later on, but honestly I don’t think I will remember them by then. I know that it’s to show that the world presented is bigger than that which centers on the main characters, and like I said, it is very inventive and impressive, but we already know that the world is larger than these areas and that these actions have a farther reach: we see glimmers of that in the major plots and in countries of origin, etc. These interludes always occur right after something exciting happens in the novel too, not unlike the end of a weekly tv show that wants to keep you hanging on until next week. But is that really necessary in a book to space it out? I read some kind of chapter-ending-cliff-hanger and I want to keep going right now! Don’t make me waste time in what is already a book with a ton of pages that now has even more about things that aren’t per say necessary! (But then, I do know that some people really enjoy these little blips or short story-like things of something different, so who is to say I’m right in complaining about it!).

The other issue I had also comes in the form of world building, and it’s veeeeery minor but still made me stop a couple of times. It’s more or less the seeming arbitrariness of some of the customs and rules at given times. Sure, we are in a different universe and people do things differently all over the world, but sometimes it seemed like these little blips were put in there for no reason than just because. The one that kept coming up repeatedly was the thing about “safehands” for certain women, covering one of their hands at all times after they reach a certain age as a form of modesty. It just kept being mentioned and I was wondering if there was really a purpose to it or would it end up playing a part later? Apparently, not yet. I mean, I could see this as a commentary on certain arbitrary rules we have in our own society in regards to the bodies of men vs. women, ie that male breasts and seen as fine but after a certain age women need to cover theirs even though they have a function of feeding the young. But they even mention women’s breasts and modesty in one part of the novel (an interlude!) so I don’t really know if I can make that claim that it’s a commentary on this: it would make sense but as of now it doesn’t read like it, it just keeps getting mentioned like “don’t forget this is a rule here!” without any payoff so far. I don’t know, but every time I just stopped for a second.

Speaking of arbitrary, sometimes the way certain people act/give orders/act insolent to royalty and get away with it or not doesn’t seem to follow a specific pattern. I mean, this book is largely serious and not goofy like Merlin where his seeming insolence doesn’t really have too many serious effects, but here I feel like Kaladin gets away with a LOT. And yes, he is respected for saving the highprinces but there is still a hierarchy that is brought up a lot, and roles and status are really respected in this world so it almost seems random or out of place at times? Again, this might just be me.

But again, these issues I have are minor compared to the overall flow and enjoyment of this novel, no matter how long it may have taken me to get through. There were little hints coming up in the later parts of Words of Radiance that may indicate an upcoming love triangle, which I am 100% not here for, but we shall see how this is handled and plays out (if at all, though I can for sure smell it in the air). In any case, I will likely kick off next year’s CBR with the 3rd novel in this series, Oathbringer, as I definitely need to find out what happens to the world now, after the daunting conclusion I just finished with.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, November 13, 2017

#CBR9 Review #23-24: Sweet Tooth, Books 2 & 3 by Jeff Lemire

The final 2/3 of the Sweet Tooth series by Jeff Lemire, which started off gloomy but promising: a dark, post-apocalyptic story about a disease that wiped out most of the population, leaving few humans behind, along with all new babies born with animal features. The remainder of the series aims to answer some of the questions posed by the beginning of the series, all while continuing with the grim mood, with glimpses of hope splashed within.

The 2nd book collecting story arcs “Animal Armies” and “Endangered Species”, with the 3rd and final book containing arcs “Unnatural Habitats” and “Wild Game”. We catch up here with the young deer boy, Gus, along with some other hybrid children in captivity after the man, Jeppard, brought him to the military compound. The children attempt to escape, while Jeppard struggles with what he has done to Gus. We also see the scientists trying desperately to find out why the disease began, and what Gus may have to do with it beginning.

The plot that follows is reasonably predictable if you’ve watched/read any post-apocalyptic stories before, but there are still some twists to be found in this story. There is also the inclusion of some religious iconography and Native American spirituality, which takes an interesting turn in revealing the source of the disease. It’s maybe a little fantastical, but there are animal-human hybrids running around, so I like to not be so choosy. There isn’t really a full mapped-out explanation as to what exactly happened and the progression of what happened with the rest of the country at this point, but it’s enough to satisfy and feel like there really is a reason. The big reveal, however, comes pretty early in book 3, so the rest of the story is a pretty predictable showdown and then extensive denouement which maybe lays out the ending a little too perfectly and nicely. I don’t want to say it’s preachy or has a really forced “message” but it almost veers into that territory. Gave me some Jean Valjean vibes in the end there, honestly... but I digress. I do like the expansion on the future world, however, and the hopeful, rebuilding that is presented for this new world emerging due to the events of the series.  I also liked how as the series grew on, the children became more and more capable themselves: sure, they still had help during the major events of the novel, but in the end they needed to make their own choices for how the future would go, as we see in the last few segments of the final book.

I’m still not 100% sure the art style is for me, but it is visceral and gloomy enough to suit the overarching tone of the books. Some of the cover pages for issues included inside, however, as well as different versions added to the ends of the books, are pretty neat. I love all the different takes and styles people will use for the same stories.

Overall, this is an interesting and enjoyable series, if you’re into post-apocalyptic tales, though it may be a little predictable at times. That predictable or typical nature didn’t stop me from zooming through them all pretty quickly though!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

#CBR9 Review #22: Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

Where to begin with this one? In anticipation for the film adaptation of Call Me By Your Name coming out later this year, I chose to read André Aciman’s novel on which it is based. Well, actually, it’s not so simple as that: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see the film at all, for some reason that I can’t really explain. And so, for some reason, I figured that reading this book first would tell me if I wanted to see the movie? I don’t know, it doesn’t entirely make sense, but what I do know is that I did find something here: connections and feeling that I am all to familiar with, yet weren’t so overtly tragic or following the typical “coming-of-age-coming-out” formula that I’ve seen so often. It’s more than anything else, an examination of desire, and how it can affect us so deeply.

The story of Call Me By Your Name is about a young boy named Elio, and the relationship he forms with Oliver, the summer guest of his family’s home in Italy. Elio is immediately drawn to Oliver, but has difficulty expressing this as he is unsure of how Oliver feels about him: he often comes across as cold and distant, and Elio hopes to feign indifference as well, though ultimately their facades start to crack and we see the two grow close. But it’s just for the summer, so what should they make of it, if anything at all?

Overall the plot is pretty minimal here: the book is more introspective, getting all of Elio’s slightest thoughts and daydreams. This works to a great degree in really setting the tone and establishing the idea of what we desire and how we think and how it affects how we relate to others being unsure of what they are feeling as we grapple with our own. It does make certain parts feel a little sluggish, and gets pretty abstract at times, but overall this introspective feel works well. It does also lead to a lot of buildup and tension, which honestly is where the book shone for me: sure, nothing is really “happening” but we get such a close and intimate look into Elio and his desires, and you get a true sense of fear and longing. This is where we encounter such a confusing and yearning back-and-forth between Elio and Oliver: do they like each other? Do they not? Are they indifferent? It may seem like they are just willy nilly playing hot-and-cold, but it’s something that happens so often and I just really connected with the whole thing: those feelings of not being sure what to make of someone or what they make of you, so you feign like it doesn’t matter when it matters more than anything to you. Honestly, the amount of times I leaned back and groaned in pain and recognition of what was happening was a LOT reading this. I often joke with my friends about how I get so frustrated watching movies or reading books where people won’t just admit that they have feelings for each other and pine pine pine, all while I do the exact same thing and when I do actually see the people I have feelings for I just give them finger guns like “hey there demon, it’s me, ya girl!”

Once Elio and Oliver do realize their feelings, there is still a bit of a tug-of-war in wondering if or what they should do. And honestly, them making the most of their time together is beautiful, but I did find that it ran slightly hollow with me, and I would have liked a bit more dialogue between them. Sure, there are unspoken moments, and intimacy that is so telling, but a lot of their interaction does revolve around sexual activity (I mean, I did say that desire is the main point of the novel), and this is even the case with Elio and his female friend Marzia as well. I sometimes would like, okay, now what else? That is not to say that these characters do not care for each other (in fact, Elio makes a point that in their actions he feels as though no one has ever cared for him in the same way, and they truly are intimate together), but I guess a major complaint I have about a lot of media is that it’s hyper-sexualized. Although, given the overall tone of the novel, I’m not surprised, nor is it unfitting, and that’s just a minor personal complaint. But still, I do wish there was perhaps a bit more dialogue or way for us to truly see what was going on with not just Elio, but Oliver as well, and their connection together. When they do speak, there is still something so coded in their language: they are expressing their feelings without really saying it, and they understand each other, but every now and then I don’t quite get what they are saying or getting at. It all adds to the personal and intimate mood, but I did feel out of the loop at one point or another. (Saying something without truly saying it, huh? Reading between the lines… so what did my friend really mean when he drunkenly told me he really needed me to name all of Simon & Garfunkel’s albums for him? Hmmm…)

This little dialogue almost led to what I felt like an inevitable conclusion as the summer ended. But again, that’s kind of the point of them not delving right into it: they knew from the beginning that it was just for the summer and thought maybe they shouldn’t dive in at all. They didn’t want to hurt as much and only focused on the now, not looking to the future. Would they ever really reveal their relationship to others? Likely not, given the circumstance. And so, once again, this wanting to be so close yet still holding at a distance occurs and just adds to the overall aching and yearning quality that really struck me.

At first, I was unhappy, and felt like the whole thing fell apart after all the intense and emotive buildup: and yet, thinking about it more, and coming to try and express my thoughts about it, I get it. I totally get it, and honestly this book had such a soft, but searching feeling resonated in me. I’m a sucker for romance and pining, something I wouldn’t have admitted to myself a while ago. And honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve stayed up late, knowing I should go to sleep but just wanting to take in more and more of a book, just because of what it stirred in me. And so, minor complaints aside, and after some initial hesitation and distaste for how it all played out in the end (to be fair, I once convinced myself that a book “didn’t make sense” with how it ended just because it was sad and I didn’t like how it happened), I did really enjoy this novel. And will I now see the movie? Yeah, I definitely will. Even if Armie Hammer looks older than his character which makes the dynamic appear more skewed, and even if using a Sufjan Stevens song in the trailer is manipulative in how it pulls at my soft little heartstrings.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, October 12, 2017

#CBR9 Review #21: Sweet Tooth, Book #1 by Jeff Lemire

Sometimes, at comic expos I decide that I can wear these deer antlers I have for no reason other than I feel like it. I usually pair this up with my regular everyday clothes (normally some kind of plaid flannel) and on my way I go! The last few times, however, I noticed for sale a comic series by the name of Sweet Tooth featuring a boy with deer antlers wearing a plaid shirt. And I think, "whoa, I unintentionally cosplayed!" Oh hey, I'm actually in that getup in my avatar at the moment, too, go figure! And so, after a long period of time sitting on my wish/to-read list, I finally dive into the first book of the series, by Canadian author Jeff Lemire.

This first book joins together volumes 1 and 2 of Sweet Tooth, with story arcs respectively titled "Out of the Deep Woods" and "In Captivity". The story takes place in a rural, post-apocalyptic America, after an illness has wiped out most of the population, mostly all at once but people continue to get sick as time goes on. The only ones that seem to be immune to the illness are children born after the illness first occurred, but these children all also feature another side-effect which is that they have animal features: some are more animal than human, but they are all human-like creatures with either fur, tails, animal faces, etc. Our story focuses on one young boy named Gus, whose appearance is mostly that of a boy, with deer antlers protruding from his head. Gus lives secluded in the woods with his father, who has taught him how to grow food, tend to medical needs, and essentially survive. His father also has a strong religious bent to him, and this is also reflected in his view about the way the illness has affected the earth, which he has passed on to Gus, and fold him that beyond their woods is nothing but fire and sinners. Gus loves his father, but knows that he will one day be alone, and wants to go out from his woods to see the world beyond. After the inevitable death of his father, the story really begins as Gus is forced to face the world alone, or at least, with the first man who comes along to find him and promises that there is something better out there for young animal children.

The world presented by Lemire is dark and brutal, like many post-apocalyptic stories. While there are the odd little sparks of light, this doesn't do much to balance the overall gloomy feel of the whole thing. There isn't much hope here, or if there is, you can't help but wonder if what is to come will really be much better. Normally too much doom-and-gloom turns me off of things, but there is something so endearing about this small, innocent boy that makes me care for him and want to know more. There is something special about him, and I am sincerely hoping that all the questions that have so far bubbled up in the series get answered at some point later on. Will there be a pay-off in the end? Honestly, what I've read so far has been interesting enough to make me want to continue in order to find out.

I'm not entirely sure if I am a fan of Lemire's overall art style yet, however. Some images I adore, but others I do not. It's a mixed bag, but also not enough to entirely turn me off from the series. The mood of the images does definitely reflect the overall tone of the story, though, so that really works in favor of creating a tense and serious mood to the whole thing.

In any case, I do think I'll continue with this story to dig a little deeper into the mystery of the animal children and the case of Gus in particular. If nothing else, it was a very fast read, and not likely to make me think I wasted my time. It's definitely a different spin on the ever-used post-apocalyptic theme, right now, and it's enough to keep me interested!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, September 28, 2017

#CBR9 Review #20: Holes by Louis Sachar

I remember first reading Holes when I was in the 5th grade; it was always taken out of the library and I had to put myself on the waiting list to check it out. And I absolutely loved it back then. A while after this, the movie adaptation came out, and since then I’ve watched it about a million times (give or take). So I thought, hey, why not revisit it now, after just finishing a different novel, which was so long and detailed? A nice little palate cleanser. And honestly, it’s almost word-for-word exactly the same as the movie, with just a few slight changes. Have you seen or read it? I was shocked to find out that the cousin I work with had no idea what this story was even about! But maybe I was just the right age at the right time when the book/movie came out. Because really, it is more of a book for children or youth, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still valuable.

Holes is about a teenager named Stanley Yelnats IV who is being sent to a reform camp for young boys convicted of crimes; Stanley has been charged with a theft that he didn’t actually commit, he just happened to end up in possession of the stolen items through circumstance. His family always seems to have bad luck, which they chalk up to being due to a family curse placed on them generations before. In any case, Stanley must go to this camp in the middle of a Texas desert, where young boys are told they will build character and learn a lesson through digging a hole in the hot sun every day: five feet diameter, by five feet deep. But that’s just the story on the surface, because of course adventure ensues when a bunch of boys get together, and when Stanley considers that perhaps they aren’t just digging to build character, but to find something lost in time.

We see Stanley grow to form a bond with these misfit, lonely boys, and how people put together in hardship can form strong bonds no matter their differences. We see how the past can affect the future, and how there may be an interconnectedness to everything. Because apart from the present-day story presented, there are two main subplots involving Stanley’s ancestors and the curse that is put upon them, as well as a tragic origin story of a historic outlaw in the area known as Kissin’ Kate Barlow. Seriously, that flashback part in the movie with Patricia Arquette and Dulé Hill always messed me up: “I can fix that,” says Sam the onion man, but can he fiX THIS HOLE IN MY HEART?

Overall, the story of Holes unfolds pretty quickly with just enough detail to paint a visual picture, but nothing too extraneous. The writing is extremely straightforward and blunt at times, and while I understand that it’s a children’s story, it definitely made me zip through bits just because the pacing is so fast. But there is a lot to be said about the themes, if only given a little space to breathe and take time to really consider them, which the pace maybe doesn’t allow without forcing yourself to kind of slow down at times. Two major themes are the importance of friendship and keeping promises, which were the main things I noticed reading this as a child, but there are also deeper implications within the story as well; racism, sexism, criminal justice, poverty and how this can affect every aspect of your life, children getting lost in the system, not knowing the traumas other people have experienced in their lives, and even something seemingly simple but incredibly concerning in regards to people in positions of care that really don’t care at all.

I really do love this story, and perhaps it’s my nostalgia and already present enjoyment of it that made me love zipping through it again now. The only thing I would really want to know more about is what happened to some of the other boys of the camp after the end of the story: what happened to them? Did they just end up back in the system or back into a cycle of crime because of how hard it is to return to a normal life after being branded as a criminal? Apparently there is a sequel novel that features a few of the boys from Stanley’s tent after the events of Holes, which honestly I might be inclined to check out, just because of my curiosity. But in the meantime, maybe it’s time for me to watch this movie again. I mean… Sigourney Weaver’s sassy “Excuse Me?” is pretty iconic.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

#CBR9 Review #19: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Coming in at 1001 pages (before the appendix of magic theory and other information, of course), The Way of Kings may well be the longest individual novel that I’ve ever read. But it’s just the first in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. Which is apparently also tied together with the worlds of Sanderson’s other series (including the Mistborn universe, the first trilogy of which I read earlier this year and loved). And honestly? That’s… a lot. It seems pretty complex and while you don’t necessarily need to read all the series and know all the connections in order to enjoy the series, I just can’t even fathom how one would begin to create such an expansive universe with so many connections and the theories behind it all. That’s super impressive! But, let’s just focus on this one novel here, shall we?

The Way of Kings introduces us to the world of this epic fantasy, which has within it what appears to be the two main factors of any epic fantasy: focusing largely on three major characters, as well as many many minor ones. The three major characters’ lives are connected in some way or another, though not necessarily directly, but I’m sure they will all converge at some point in later novels:

First we have Dalinar Kholin, High Prince of Alekthar, a nation which is warring against a people known as the Parshendi, after the assassination of Dalinar’s brother who had had an interest in the Parshendi people. Dalinar is facing what many think to be a deteriorating mind, but really it is that he is having visions from some kind of mythical being. Dalinar seeks to join the other high princes to work together in the war against the Parshendi, yet has great difficulty doing so and fears betrayal from one camp or another.

Secondly, we have Kaladin, who had once been a solider in the Alethi wars, but was betrayed and made into a slave. He now lives as a bridgeman, who are essentially seen as disposable men within the war, forced to run bridges across plateaus and face the first arrows of any siege. Most bridgemen don’t last long, but Kaladin is touched by something special (and with the help of a little Spren/fae friend) finds the strength to join his bridge crew together into a group of men who want to do more than just survive from day to day or bridge-run to bridge-run.

Finally, we have Shallan, who is not directly related to the wars, but seeks to study with a noted scholar named Jasnah, who is a niece of Dalinar. Shallan does yearn to be a scholar, along with her natural talents with art, but is also on a mission for her family, to steal what is known as a soulcaster from Jasnah: soulcasters are just one of the magical elements in this universe, which are able to transmute one substance into another. Yet while Shallan studies, she comes intertwined with the politics surrounding Jasnah, and also begins to uncover power of her own and senses the coming of something dark. Shallan’s role in this first novel is not as major as the other two, but I can see her coming to play a much bigger role later on, as she uncovers more information about the strange figures and beings she seems to sense all around her, an omen of coming dread and danger in the land.

Much like in Sanderson’s Mistborn universe, there is magic and fantastical elements, but there is also a set of rules and logic to the magic that makes it seem very well thought out and makes sense. I didn’t quite understand everything, but it was logical enough to not get too caught up in it or confused. That’s kind of my feeling about the entire world presented here, actually: there’s a lot going on, so it definitely feels like a full and complete world, but it’s not super bloated to the point of confusion. I mean, there were some names and places I didn’t remember from time to time, as it is indeed a lot of content and very expansive, but I wasn’t quite as lost as I get in some other epic fantasy worlds. The only nitpick I may have about this is that there were some “intermission” parts between main sections of the book that had different characters and locations, some of which were interesting and seemingly important, but others seemed to be quite extraneous. I understand that it’s a part of the worldbuilding, but they still came across as just filler that wasn’t necessary, and in a book this long, well, maybe they really didn’t need to be included at all at the risk of overstuffing the novel’s contents.

Overall, I did quite enjoy this first novel in the series. I may take a little break before hopping right into the next one, as it did take me quite a while to finish and it felt like I was dragging along throughout the middle sections (I did in fact read and finish something else while still in the midst of this one), but ultimately it was an intriguing read that left enough unsolved and set up for the next installment that I am interested to continue.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]