The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

Why Did John Carter Fail?

john carter movie poster red

I watched John Carter for the first time (on Disney+) and had some thoughts.

Film buffs like to talk about John Carter. The movie was supposed to be a big new franchise for Disney, but it became a famous bomb.

I don’t think it was poor marketing. Good word of mouth can outdo mediocre advertising and reach. That’s what happened with War Horse and The Greatest Showman and The Blind Side and the new Jumanji and especially Iron Man — no one expected much out of superhero movies after the Incredible Hulk and Fantastic Four duds.

I don’t think it was a lack of star power. I don’t go to see movies to see actors. In fact, I’m more likely to avoid a movie because it stars an actor I hate (e.g. Brad Pitt, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Cera, Shia LaBoeuf). I prefer no-name actors because that makes it easier to lose myself in the story. Little harder when Tom Cruise is playing Tom Cruise and not the character he’s supposed to. Well-known crew names might pique my interest, but more often than not, it’s a stamp of unoriginality. A James Cameron film’s gonna James Cameron.

I don’t think it was that the budget got overblown with reshoots. Creative accounting makes it so no movie gains a profit anyway, so budget is a nebulous thing. And Andrew Stanton isn’t a first-time director, just a first-time director for live-action. He made Finding Nemo and WALL-E. Talent like that can’t be squelched by a slightly different medium.

I think it failed because it’s story that’s a hundred years old.

edgar rice burroughs - john carter of mars - First Edition - AbeBooks

Since the John Carter books were written we’ve had Star Trek, Star Wars, The Black Hole, WALL-E, District 9, Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, E.T., The Martian. Even Plan 9 From Outer Space has had some influence on “off-Earth” science fiction stories.

Don’t Blame Mars

I know I said before that I didn’t believe it was marketing, but I think there is some truth that movies based around Mars do poorly (e.g. Mission to Mars, Mars Needs Moms). That’s why they left the “of Mars” off and we got just a guy’s name (more like a phonebook entry than a movie title).

Doom Eternal secrets: Mars Core maps and locations guide - Polygon

But Mars is not necessarily a black spot. Total Recall, The Martian, and even Doom (the video game) take place on Mars.

The problem comes from treating Mars the same way H.G. Wells treated it in War of the Worlds a hundred and twenty-three years ago. Back then people weren’t 100% sure there wasn’t life on Mars. Astronomers thought the canals on the planet were water-filled (but this turned out to be false). The whole point of War of the Worlds is Great Britain going “what if someone tried to colonize us?” The queen had taken a dump on nearly every country’s coast at this point, so there was storytelling to mine with the fear of invasion by a bigger bully. And the best candidate for that invader was a species off-planet.

But now, Mars doesn’t hold the same sway. It’s like a neighbor house you thought was haunted, but then you sent in someone during the day and they said it’s just a boring house. Truth is like toothpaste–you can’t squeeze it back in the tube.

John Carter' production finds Mars vistas in Utah landscape - The Salt Lake  Tribune

It’s easier to say that movies set in a desert do poorly. I know it’s an automatic turn-off for me that few movies pull me back from (Mad Max: Fury Road succeeded in that). Deserts have nothing. You wouldn’t want to be there, you wouldn’t want to explore them. Even applies to non-science fiction movies, like Hidalgo and Sahara.

Just Because Tarzan Worked…

Time is not kind to intellectual property, especially adventure and science fiction stories. This is because A) what thrills and excites one culture or era may not do the same for another. For example, compare our movies to India’s or China’s or France’s. Stories are reflections of the time and culture they live in.

According to Wikipedia, John Carter was in development hell since the 1930s, so Hollywood recognized the cinematic-ness of the Barsoom stories and/or the success of the Tarzan franchise. Too expensive, too unfilmmable, too fantastic. But they still wanted something epic to be the next Star Wars or Last of the Mohicans. Here’s the thing: if you’re in a relationship and you keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together, maybe it’s just not going to work out. Maybe you should turn your eyes to something that will work and focus on that.

Some stories seem to be timeless, like A Christmas Carol, Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, Alice in Wonderland. The earliest book I’ve read is Aesop’s Fables (590 BC). Simple children’s stories with clear themes and interesting characters (usually animals). Even Edgar Rice Burroughs’s other book series, Tarzan, remains an often-recreated movie and story. So why shouldn’t we try to movie-fy the other wildly popular book Burroughs wrote?

Tarzan: 5 Ways The Film Changed The Animated Story (& 5 Ways It's The Same)

Well, a few reasons. One, Tarzan didn’t go right from one-hundred-year-old book to tentpole movie. Tarzan’s been reimagined and reinterpreted since its inception, like Batman or Robin Hood or King Arthur. From silent movies, stage productions, radio programs, to the “Weissmüller era” (where Tarzan became the pop culture character he is now), then television series, cheesy movies that starred Bo Derek or Christopher Lambert or Margot Robbie. And then there’s the Disney film. It’s never left the public consciousness. Meanwhile, no one’s thought about John Carter.

Two, remember I just said “reimagined and reinterpreted”? Tarzan’s source material has… some issues. It was written by a white American male. In 1912. Taking place in Africa. Starring a white male. Often set against indigenous African tribes. Who is secretly a British lord. Learns superpowers from apes. Then becomes their king. So to get from a guy who proudly declares he’s a “killer of cannibals & black men” to a Disney film, there has to be some steps in-between.

Hollywood Should Bury Tarzan And The Legend of Racism | HuffPost

The same goes for John Carter, a story rooted in a world brimming with “white man’s burden” and colonialism and women who still couldn’t vote yet.

And Now… A Lesson From Indiana Jones

Indiana Jones succeeded because it was based on the movie serials of the 30s and 40s where intrepid heroes race around the world after some maguffin (e.g. Doc Savage, Gunga Din, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Secret of the Incas, Allan Quatermain). In 1981, the people who saw those serials as 10-year-olds were in their sixties now. And nostalgia bites hard. But this time, they boiled out everything that was stupid or boring–the long waits between episodes, the cheesy sets, the lack of a sense of real danger, the poor acting–and maximized entertainment and humor. It’s like the Mario sports games: they remove the boring stuff and leave the fun and craziness.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) - IMDb

Then in 2008, they made Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No one told Hollywood that the world had moved on from Indiana Jones. Everyone who remembered the old serials was dead. All that was left were the ten-year-olds who had seen the original in the theaters, and on VHS, and video games, and played it in the backyard, over and over and over, were the adults. We never stopped being exposed to Indiana Jones. But what did Hollywood deliver?

The same ol’ same ol’. They weren’t piggybacking on old serials anymore. They were piggybacking on Indiana Jones. Trying to make us nostalgic for the cold war with Russians and the nuclear scare. Marion (who Jones had a questionable relationship with) comes back from the first movie, and now he Indiana Jones is a deadbeat dad. And his son’s an obnoxious thief who seems like he’s just out of the diner in Back to the Future. Also aliens.

Instead of compensating for the march of time, they gave us the same thing, forgetting twenty years had passed. That tastes had evolved. That stories had evolved. But they gave us the old junk repackaged with CGI.

John Carter Isn't the Worst Film Ever Made

What does any of that have to do with John Carter? I bring it up because there’s very little new here. Some cities at war, alien tribes, a coliseum, a few flying vehicles. Even while watching I said to myself “oh, another action scene”. I literally cannot tell you who John Carter is. Whereas the Avengers all have their own unique personalities and philosophies. Everyone is distinct.

John Carter is just a basic Superman. He’s doing right because he believes it’s right, which is another thing that rubs me the wrong way, in that colonialism “I’m coming into your yard and fix all your problems because I’m ‘more advanced’ than you.” That would be like me going to Detroit in a mech suit and yelling “We going to war, my bitches!”

That's Right, Japan Has Created A Real Life 4 Ton Mech Robot

Todays good adventure stories are The Fast and the Furious, King Kong, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, Toy Story, Pirates of the Caribbean, and lots of superhero stories like Harry Potter and Batman and anything Marvel. Some take place in fantastic worlds, some are down-to-earth, but they’re never about wanting a crown or conquering a world. They’re about stopping bad people in power from doing bad things.

The best way to describe John Carter is Conan the Barbarian crossed with Avatar (in fact, Disney+ even recommended Avatar after I was finished). And I didn’t like either of those movies. Both of them have stories that have either static characters or a story that’s tedious, overused, and cliched, even in our time.

Conan led the way to a lot of cheesy clones like The Beastmaster and He-Man. Avatar was overhyped and over-marketed with the promise of being the next Star Wars with four more movies inbound. Where are those other movies, James?

The best these movies have now is a cult following. And that’s who John Carter is for–a cult audience. One with niche interests (like old stories, desert warriors saving princesses, old-style aliens, etc.). A movie seen fifty times by as many people.

The movie ended up getting a final grade of “mixed reviews”. Which seems about right to me. There is an audience for this movie, but it’s not a majority audience.

JOHN CARTER EXPERIENCE IT IN IMAX 3D MARCH 9 mammal film

Is Belle the Protagonist of Beauty & the Beast?

belle beauty and the beast profile

It’s just a fun thing to noodle Disney movies and story-telling tricks, especially where Disney’s concerned. Because Disney and Pixar are fantastic story-tellers.

I’ve done it with The Little Mermaid (“Is Triton the protagonist of The Little Mermaid?“) a few times (actually I’ve made a lot of posts about Disney). This time I was thinking about Beauty and the Beast. Gonna do it the other way this time.

So the movie frames Beast as the deuteragonist (or relationship character), Gaston as the antagonist, and Belle as the protagonist. She’s the first character we meet (if you don’t count the prologue). We spend the most time with her. She’s even dressed in a color no other character wears. We’re meant to identify with her. She’s the one who wants something.

“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere. I want it more than I can tell.”

-Belle (Beauty & the Beast – “Belle (Reprise)”)

Nothing subtle about that.

“I WAAAAAANT!”

The protagonist should be the one who faces the central conflict. The one who has to accomplish a goal set at the beginning and sticks to it until the end. The antagonist is the person who puts obstacles in front of the protagonist. That’s Gaston–he wants to marry her and turn her into a domestic popping out kids.

The relationship character helps the main character on their journey, maybe imparting some wisdom on the way. This character embodies the theme. Clearly, the theme of Beauty and the Beast is “true beauty comes from within”. This is where these roles start to fall apart.

The way I identify a protagonist is I ask myself “who’s the one that changes the most from beginning to end?” In The Hunger Games, Katniss was content to live under the Capitol’s thumb, never caring for anyone but her family. But when they come for her sister, it gets personal. She grows more rebellious and more compassionate through the novels. Harry Potter gains confidence and maturity as he accepts his place in the big chess game everyone’s set out for him. And some PTSD as the trauma of each book embeds in his adolescence.

Beast is the one that changes the most, both literally and figuratively. And that’s his story goal besides. Beast doesn’t want to change, but he knows he has to or he’ll stay ugly forever. But, in the way, you’ve got years of solitude and telling himself that “they’re right about me, why should I prove them wrong”.

Belle has the vague goal of “wanting more”… like every Disney Princess in that time period–Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella, Aurora, Alice.

Does Belle change? A little. When Beast saves her, Belle is about to turn around and ride back home, leaving him to die in the snow and be eaten by wolves. Why shouldn’t she? He was a monster toward her. He kidnapped her father. But she changes her mind.

She realizes he could have let her go, but he put his neck on the line to save her from the wolves. It would have been quite “beastly” to leave her to die–no skin off his nose–but he reflected on his reaction, regretted it, and came back to make amends. So he can’t be that much of a monster. Not totally. So she takes him back to the castle and tends to his wounds

How did she get him back on the horse? He must weigh as much as two football linebackers.

The problem is we don’t know whether she would have left him in the dirt before. She doesn’t seem the type to kill the spider to save the butterfly.

Her willingness to compromise is demonstrated when she sips the oatmeal from the bowl after seeing Beast having trouble with the silverware. Did she ever show an unwillingness to compromise before? No, I don’t think so. She was always presented as selfless and sympathetic and logical and fearless.

And kind to animals. Here she is, feeding a sheep.

So she changes a little. Does that mean she’s the relationship character? I think so. To Beast, at least. Does that make Beast the protagonist? I think so. And that makes Gaston the antagonist to… Beast? Not really. At least not until the ending.

This is why Beauty and the Beast is a great movie. Gaston is Belle’s antagonist at first. Then Beast is Belle’s antagonist. And Belle is Beast’s antagonist. It’s a fantastic triangle.

Another possibility–Belle’s a pinball protagonist, like Charlie Bucket and Bilbo Baggins. She raises her hand to “accept the call”, but she’s basically bounced around from one perilous situation to another. She doesn’t start the story or move it along, she just reacts and gets dragged along by others. In the game of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is not a player, she’s the ball.

Does that make her like Applejack in The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000) (basically a “John Henry” pastiche)? This is a story where two flim-flam artists (their names are literally Flim and Flam) throw down the gauntlet of their mass-produced cider against Applejack’s hand-crafted (but low in supply) cider. What Flim and Flam produce tastes like crap and they’re run out of town. And Applejack’s friendship lesson?

“Dear Princess Celestia. I wanted to share my thoughts with you… I didn’t learn anythin’! Ha! I was right all along!”

But Belle’s not a deuteragonist and not a sidekick. She’s not supporting the protagonist, although it may look like it. It looks like she’s helping Beast towards his goal, but she doesn’t know it. She has a story and she has an arc. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be crying at the end, clinging to Beast’s body. The problem is her end doesn’t match her beginning. She starts with “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere” and ends up imprisoned in a castle with a monstrous beast. I guess she gets adventure, but not like she asked for. So if she doesn’t get her “I want”, maybe she gets her “I need?”

disney princess warriors belle kickboxer
And what she needs is to KICK SOME ASS!

But the movie never demonstrates that what she needs is to “look beneath the surface” or “learn to love someone for what they do, not what they look like”. It’s never apparent that this is a fatal flaw or personal obstacle to be overcome. (In fact, it’s Gaston’s flaw.) Nonetheless, this is a lesson she needed to learn and she learns it.

It’s not like Ariel or Aladdin or Simba who go through some profound changes. For the most part, she’s the same Belle that started the movie. Whereas Beast has gone through some profound differences. In fact, he’s learned traits from Belle–like selflessness and sympathy (or at least eliminating the un-Belle-like traits, like anger and brooding and cynicism and self-loathing).

So I don’t know if Beast is the protagonist in Beauty and the Beast. But I’m pretty sure that Belle is not. And I’m quite certain that neither of them is the antagonist. They might be each other’s for a brief time in the story, but Gaston is definitely the bad guy.

The Books I Read: July – August 2020

bookshelf books
Part of Your World: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

So there’s this “Twisted Tale” series from Disney books that’s essentially all about screwing the heroines out of their happy ending and making the story “what if” instead. I don’t know why Disney’s trying to do this. To reach a mature audience you have to make everything grimdark and miserable? The first series was villain-focused with works like “The Beast Within” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then a YA adventure of Disneyland crossed with “they only come out at night”. I hated all of them passionately.

I did not hate this.

In fact, I kind of like it. It’s like a Twilight Zone sequel to “The Little Mermaid” — what if Ariel lost? The writing feels more gothic and less modern, more ornate and unnecessarily lengthy (probably because someone’s trying to make a word count). But the story stays moving.

It lacks the sense of Disney whimsy that makes the first one magical. Sebastian’s now an old fuddy-duddy, not a wise-cracking crab. Scuttle is senile and has a grand-daughter. Ariel is world-weary and jaded by her experience. But maybe that’s plausible, given these characters didn’t get a “Happily Ever After”. It’s made for adults, but lacks the Disney joy. Like Disney’s characters continued by Hans Christian Andersen.

A big flaw is that the world-building cribs the Disney movie and the fairy tale. The author picks and chooses from both (like turning into sea foam or immortal souls, but ignoring the “walking on knives” or the prince treats her like a pet), and sometimes that canon comes into conflict. It retcons some plot points and isn’t explicit about where the cut-off for the timeline is.

Basically, the key moment is that Scuttle doesn’t fly by the window where Ursula/Vanessa is singing and see that she’s really the sea witch. However, Ariel still somehow gets to the boat to confront Ursula. But I guess she’s too late? Then there’s a big Ursula vs. Triton battle (not in the book) and she wins, polyp-ifies Triton, and becomes Eric’s wife. But she wipes everyone’s memories so they don’t remember mermaids, and everything’s back to status quo. And now Ursula is starting to invade human lands.

Except…

Ursula never wanted to rule the human world. She wanted to rule the sea. She doesn’t give a flying fish about humans. Why would she? There’s more power in the oceans than one tiny human kingdom. She wants that trident and that crown. Eric is just a big dumb meathead means to an end. Ariel is a pawn for greater rewards (i.e. a contract that ropes Triton into sacrificing his crown for his daughter) and revenge for… something (the movie doesn’t say).

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. She’s a Faustian villain, a vehicle for Ariel to make a deal with the devil to learn the hard lesson that she shouldn’t let her desires lead her into reckless decisions.

But this is Ariel’s story. It’s an adventure and a redemption arc and it paints Ariel with an empowering brush. Ariel has had years to learn the consequences of her actions, to deal with the loss of her father, her role as Princess of the Sea, leaving the one she loved behind. It means Ariel and Eric take time to establish a relationship as they figure out what to do about Ursula. It was a satisfying follow-up to the original movie and I want to read more from the Twisted Tale series.

In reality, if Ariel did lose to Ursula, the sequel should be about her getting a lawyer and learning contract law.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

This did not have enticing beginning. It starts with a prologue and poetry and description and other shit. Not something happening or an intriguing event. It didn’t pull me in.

But I kept reading and I’m glad I did. This is a story about a woman raising herself in nature. (And almost by nature.) She’s one of those white trash families in the bayou: alcoholic father, living in a shack in a swamp, hillbilly, thick accent, tobacco-chawin’ types that has too many kids, like “Cletus” in The Simpsons. But this one’s played straight. Very straight. Basically her whole family abandons her by the age of ten and somehow she manages to survive.

At its core, it’s a coming-of-age book set in the deep south with the climax being a court trial. (Why do I keep finding these “To Kill a Mockingbird” remixes?) It takes place in two time periods. About 75% of the content is a survival story (a little reminiscent of “Island of the Blue Dolphins”) about how she managed to live alone in the swamp as a ten-year-old and not go crazy or starve to death. (Along with life and love and bullies and other things that come with growing up in 1952.) The other quarter is a murder-mystery trial taking place in the present (which for them is 1969).

Two big things stood out to me. One was the poetic descriptions. You really get a feel for how Kya embraces nature. She lives in it, soaks in it, it becomes her and she becomes it. She lives there so long she is symbiotic to nature. Very focused on the beauty and power of nature. If you like poetry, you’ll like this part.

But when it comes to any plot elements that involve anyone other than Kya and the marsh, it drops into cliches. There’s the teenage bully, the truant officer, the football quarterback. Classism, racism, and sexist asshole redneck archetypes. Anyone other than Kya sounds like a video I watched in health class.

It’s not my favorite book, but it’s a great book. It’s not for everyone, but this thing’s been on the NYT Bestseller list for years now. It’s got nearly a million ratings on GoodReads. So go read the reviews by people who can write them better than me.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

I thought it was a better read than the first book. It’s slow to start, but then really gets exciting.

The first act is a combination of “aftermath from the first book” and “setup for this second book”. And there are times the narrative starts to wax poetic about fame and power and metahumanism that it starts to sound like one of the vlogbrothers videos (though these are tough questions and deserve attention). But then the plot busts open and you get invested in what’s happening.

I guess part of that is that there was time set aside to build up the characters. Each one is distinct and likable in their own way. I think it’s improved by having multiple characters’ POV instead of just the one (who got a little millennial-obnoxious after a while).

Once again, we’re talking sequel so if you read the first book, you know if you want to read the second. But take comfort that the second improves on the first. I think Hank Green took what he learned, applied it, and the effects are palpable.

Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

So it’s hard to write a review of this book without being biased. I’ve been watching her since she was a pig-tailed nostalgia chucker and stayed following through Disney film criticism, Transformers film theory, obsession with musicals, and Hugo nominations. She doesn’t release material often, but she’s never disappointed. So as I read it, I tried to be objective in my evaluation–if you’d never heard of Lindsay Ellis, what would you think of this book?

Ellis has described Axiom’s End as “Stranger Things” meets “Arrival” (the good one with Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, not “The Arrival“). Personally, I think it’s more like “E.T.” meets “Independence Day” with an infusion of “Beauty and the Beast”/”Phantom of the Opera”-style plot (you know, those stories where an emotionally unavailable anti-villain and a warm-hearted girl fall in love even though it’s wrong and would never work). The external story is about xenophobia and protecting a group of refugee aliens from bounty hunters with technology way beyond our own. The internal story is about the relationship between the main woman and her alien companion.

The beginning is good at “show, don’t tell” and that’s tough for a beginning, because you want to get backstory out there without being infodumpy, but you’ve got to do it expediently or the plot can’t start. Then it gets complex. Way more complex than I expected from someone whose most popular video is about Disney’s Aladdin. (but I guess this went through 26 drafts, so it makes sense. In software development, we call that “feature creep”.) Good, hard science about time dilation, political machinations, and Dyson spheres. One of the major motifs in the book is language (par for the course when dealing with aliens), and that gets tricky when you’re trying to remember who’s who in the alien world–what is a “similar”? Is Esperas a name or a term? How is Cefo related to everyone again?

And here’s what I didn’t expect: it’s a love story that’s not a romance. Like a “hurt/comfort” fic? For all those “comp titles” I mentioned before, the real root of the plot is basically 2007’s “Transformers” by way of Carl Sagan or Isaac Asimov. An aimless young adult makes contact with an alien soldier from a space war galaxies away. And that war’s coming to Earth. It’s evocative of a fan fiction that got blessed by the blue fairy and turned into a real boy for being so good.

A lot of the reviews describe it as “fun”, but I don’t know if I’d call it that. The complexity turned me off, because that reeks of hard science fiction, which I’m not a fan of (too much research, not enough characters). But I would like to see the sequel, because I want to see where the girl and the alien’s relationship goes.

We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby
(unfinished)

It’s a collection of essays (I think they’re gleaned from her blog) about regular life stuff. You know: dating, work, money, The Bachelorette, eating ice cream in bed. The first thing I thought was “Damn, that’s witty. I wish I could write like this.”

The second thing was “I don’t think this is for me.”

The writer is a single woman. She wants to get married… except she shaves her head, is overweight, is thirty-six years old (but looks older — her admission), has to wear adult undergarments, only graduated high school, works as a receptionist at a vet clinic, can’t have children (I don’t mean infertile, I mean she can’t physically run around a yard after a toddler), and is lazy (see aforementioned eating-ice-cream-in-bed, plus her own admittance that “marriage is hard”). So… what exactly is it you bring to the table?

Yes, you have obstacles in your life that make for an interesting memoir… but I’m wondering if some of these problems aren’t brought on by your own decisions (or lack thereof). She was in poverty, but now her spending habits are ridiculous (to make up for lost time, she says). She hates cats, but takes home a kitten that no one wants and clearly hates her. And she ends up taking care of it. And it still hates her.

But I also wonder if I’m not in the right place for this, mentally, with everything going on (i.e. waves hand to everything).

The story of shitting herself from bad Burger King on the side of the road in front of friends from bad Burger King with the story of how her father died. Her alcoholic absent father with dementia. While also dealing with her mother, both of whom had to be put in a home by her when she was eighteen because she was born late. I can’t deal with that right now.

Or I’m not the target audience at all. This might be for the “loves-The-Kardashians-non-ironically” types. Those who embrace Lizzo. Trying to convince Facebook you’re living a luxurious life. But lacking ambition or drive to achieve something. To leave the world a little better than when you found it.

The Women In the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
(unfinished)

Historical fiction about a set of German women friends living through the war in Nazi Deutschland. It’s evocative of “The Sound of Music” because it starts with fancy rich people enjoying their privileged lives and then it all goes to shit when the invasions begin. Some of them try to do something about it, some are just trying to survive, but everyone suffers.

And that’s the problem: I’ve seen this story before, dozens of times. The horrors of war. Yes, I get it. Nazis are bad. Everyone’s son or husband dies. And this volume offers nothing new. Maus, War Horse, The Book Thief, Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank, Inglorious Basterds, Slaughterhouse Five, Number the Stars. I get it, World War II was bad. You are bringing nothing new to the table. It’s a by-the-numbers “suffering in war” story.

And the time-jumping, I just don’t see the point of it. The book shifts around multiple perspectives, multiple places (all German places I’ve never heard of), multiple time points. And there’s no reason for it that I can see, neither style nor substance. Why confuse us? What does the story gain that it couldn’t from a straight start-to-finish narrative. You’ve already told me who survives so what “message” does your “medium” present?

It just wasn’t flipping my cookie, so I moved on.

Straight on Till Morning: A Twisted Tale by Liz Braswell

It maintains some of the similarities of the other “Twisted Tale” I read. There’s a definite strong slant on morphing these “damsels in distress” into “strong female characters”. The fortunate thing is that they keep their personalities (relatively) while doing this. Wendy is still a proper Englishwoman who overthinks things and talks a lot.

It plays fast and loose with the canon, cherry-picking from the book and movie (like Wendy’s house is here, but the jerk-mermaids are also here). It takes a while to actually get to Neverland, and when you do, it’s not as imaginative as I thought it could be.

It gets real sludgy in the middle. Clearly the author is trying to make a word count, and when you’ve got a basic quest plot, there isn’t a whole lot that happens to change the character or affect them personally. Hook is also a letdown, as he’s portrayed as sad-crazy, not funny-crazy.

It’s not disappointing, but it’s not blow your socks off. Take it this way–even the best of the direct-to-video Disney sequels were only middlin’, with thin plots and uninventive story paths.

And it cops out on the Indians.

Mary Poppins Returns (to Grief Counseling)

mary poppins returns poster

So I watched Mary Poppins Returns recently. I don’t think it’s as good as the original — nothing could be — but the songs are good. It’s more of the same — you can tell it’s matching beat for beat — but its source material is so good its hard not to smile once.

One thing that didn’t make me smile was the character development. And this movie’s been out for more than a year so this is nothing but getting something off my chest.

sad michael banks

I thought a big part of the movie would be about Michael Banks’s dead wife. The trailers and commercials made it look like this was the big crux that the family had to get over. But no, Michael sings one song about it, then it’s forgotten until three-quarters through. Then the kids sing a song to him (not even a song, a reprise) and suddenly it’s all better. He just realizes that his wife’s not dead, she lives on in her children and oh, how everything’s hunky dory again. Like it never happened.

I’m bothered by this because I know if my wife died I would NEVER get over it. Not even if I remarried. My new wife would always be holding a candle to her, always under comparison. That’s a thing you can’t help if you marry a widower–that old wife is always going to be part of the picture. You can’t not talk about it. She was such a big part of your life it can’t be avoided.

mary poppins returns children

And I think it’s insulting to the audience to gloss over that kind of thing. I imagined “The Place Where Lost Things Go” was a song Mary Poppins sang to Michael, counseling him that his wife’s not really dead, just “lost”. Temporarily. (Some might say that’s just as glossing, and that’s valid, but I think the sentiment is sweet as it’s Mary Poppins trying to heal Michael’s wounds, something you wouldn’t see the strict, no-nonsense Mary Poppins doing.) He actually does get sung the song, but it’s by his kids, and it’s in a room full of people. And he gets over it way too quickly.

Not to mention that the climax of the movie has bugger all to do with this internal struggle. The whole movie reads more like the books, where it’s just a bunch of fun adventures into imagination and no one really learns a lesson by the end. No one’s redeemed and changes to character, if they do happen, happen storybook style with no period or process. It imagines humans simply, not complexly.

bye grave

Coco’s Stupid Anti-Piracy Message Ruins Coco

coco family movie poster

I saw Coco this weekend. Good movie, emotionally comparable to Up. Seems predictable though (even my eight-year-old told me she’s sick of stories where someone good turns out to be someone bad e.g. Frozen, Toy Story 2, Up, Monsters, Inc., Wall-E, Toy Story 3, etc.) But there was a thing that bothered me — a thing that ruins the movie experience (besides the four year old behind me who can’t shut up and shouldn’t have been taken to a movie if he can’t stay quiet).

Before the movie, three people from Pixar are standing outside and talking about how they made the big shot where they feature the Land of the Dead and how many animators it took and how many layers and so on and thank you for seeing our movie in the theater. The whole thing is a thinly-disguised attempt to dissuade pirates. A little less harsh than those dark blue/scary font short films.



Problem is, it’s not better. For one thing, this is going to do nothing to discourage piracy. If someone’s going to steal the movie, they’ve already done it. This is punishing the people who paid to see it. It’s like those “Click It or Ticket” or “Stop Senior Abuse” bumper stickers. Well, I was going to smack around an elderly woman today, but after seeing that bumper sticker I’m reconsidering it.

Second, you just ruined the best shot in the movie. I’d seen glimpses of it from the TV, but nothing that equals its grandeur, more like seeing a thumbnail. But then they put it on the big screen in their little vignette, and now its ruined. I don’t have any context to it, so I can’t appreciate it in its natural setting. Now I’m A) anticipating the shot B) instead of thinking how cool this looks I’m thinking about how they made it.

And now I’ve ruined it for you.

Come on, Pixar, you’re better than this. You KNOW how to make movies. I figure some bigwig production executive said “hey, you need to record some anti-piracy message. Make it personal so it doesn’t sound threatening. Or transparent. Or effective at all.” It’s like when they ruin reality TV with bumpers and commercials for shows. Example, a voiceover for “Dancing with the Stars” says “Whats-his-face has a shocking surprise that makes the judges heads turn.” And while the voiceover is going, they show him on an elephant or a unicycle. Totally ruins the suspense, the angle, and most of all, the need to tune in to find out. Idiots.

Disneyworld 2: The Reckoning

walt disney world sign

I just came back from Disneyworld, my second vacation there in two years. Most of my comments about that time are unchanged. Didn’t do much new this time around. Even stayed in the same resort (the Grand Floridian). Unfortunately, we went in the time between when they announced a huge amount of changes, but they’re all under construction. The only stuff of note that I didn’t do last time was the new Pandora land.

The Na’vi River Journey itself is pretty, and the Flight of Passage is a nice upgrade to my beloved Back to the Future: The Ride. But I have a huge criticism – they have no stories. Nearly any other ride in Disneyworld, there’s some kind of narrative to it, some kind of goal, or at least a mystery. In Haunted Mansion, you start in a dark and silent house, Madame Leota holds a séance, and then the ghosts start partying. Peter Pan’s Flight tells the sequence of the movie. Even the riverboat has the captain telling you about his time as a boy in Missoura.

But in River Journey, you just go down a river. You see some non-terran wildlife (that responds well to blacklight). There’s an impressive animatronic at the end, but… it doesn’t say anything. What’s his context here? He looks nice, but what’s that song he’s singing? Does it have a purpose? At least E.T. thanked you for riding.

Same with Flight of Passage. It’s framed around you attending a tourist attraction to “avatar” into someone riding on one of those dragons, but without that, all you do is look at pretty CG views. They give you a faux-motorbike to ride on, but you don’t even see your dragon’s head in your view. It’s style without substance, like eating frosting without any cake below it. Plus, I can’t reconcile the fact that the whole point of the movie is the exploitation of native peoples… and then the ride is you exploiting native peoples. Reminds me of the Wutai side-mission in Final Fantasy VII.

But like last time, I came back with such an overwhelming amount of positivity in my soul, I wish I could bottle it up and keep it all year long. It’s like going to a place where it’s always Christmas. There’s no Twitter there. No President Trump, no bullying or milkshake ducks or whataboutism. Just good weather and cartoons and dole whips (finally got to try one – yummy!).

Everyone is friendly, even people you don’t expect to be friendly, like the bathroom cleaner (who was singing as he worked and told me to have a good day). No one is mad, they’re all willing to help you. Yeah, you spend a lot of money to do that, but where else do you go to get this kind of feeling. Not South Dakota, not skiing. The only yelling you hear is from overtired babies (which I was having my fill of by the time we left, so there’s that). There’s beautiful architecture and people making candy and things to do while waiting in line and scavenging for short wait times and shops with that one thing. It makes me wonder if I could stay there forever.

There’s that old parable about it being Christmas forever (both Sesame Street and Disney did it), but I wonder what’d be like. It makes me want to work there (even though they’re notoriously authoritarian, but others seem to have a really good time, from cast members to executives). Does anyone know if they need an introverted software developer who doesn’t want to leave Minnesota? Or at least a company that sends people down there for conventions. My dad used to go to conventions once a year, and we got to vacation in those places with him. No company does that anymore.

And I’m trying to figure out how Disney got so good at delivering what they do. How did Walt Disney do all this? Come up with all this? What kind of man do you have to be to be an inventor, composer, animator, artist, businessman, architect, technologist, negotiator, theme park creator, TV show host. Jesus, how much ambition can you have? How did he ever find to do this AND have a family and all the things that are part of normal living. Did he ever have time to take out the garbage?

And not only that, but to be so inspiring that generations of people both still embrace your work AND continue it. Now Disney’s got dozens of little Disneys continuing all the things Walt started because they want to. Because it gives them the same joy they got as kids. My primary purpose as a writer is immortality. I’m hoping that my stories can carve a little sliver into someone’s heart, so that they carry it with them wherever they go. That it shapes them and their behavior. And they pass that onto others.

The Books I Read: September – October 2017

bookshelf books

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

This is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp

In a word, melodramatic. In many other words…

The tone of this story skews so heavily feminine it’s distracting. I’m not saying femininity is a bad thing, but an event like this is going to have a lot of different reactions from different people. It’s supposed to be about a real school shooting, but it’s so cheesy it doesn’t feel real. The narrative is split into the perspectives of four victims in four different situations. One is the ex-girlfriend of the shooter, another is the sister of the shooter, another is that sister’s lesbian girlfriend, and last is the trouble-making brother of the lesbian girlfriend (do you see how relationshippy this is?). Two are trapped in the auditorium with the shooter, the brother is trying to get them out, and the ex-girlfriend is ROTC and running for help.

The sister, who I guess is the main character because she’s the closest to the shooter and has the most to lose, is obsessed with dance. Her dead mother was a dancer. Dancing is the “only time she feels free.” And of course she’s going to Julliard. Maybe it’s because I’m not a dancer, but this feels like such cliched rhetoric. See any dance movie or book in the last ten years. You cannot combine Bowling for Columbine with Step Up. The shooter makes his sister dance on stage, like he’s the Joker. Don’t you want to mix it up a bit and make her want to be an astronaut?

And there’s way too much thinking. Four different narratives + limited amount of time (about an hour) means minute by minute breakdown of each POV. In high-risk situations, there is NEVER this much thinking going on. No thinking about the past or “why does he like her and not me?” high school junk. That all drops when you’re just trying to survive. Even with the wordiness, the lack of detail is appalling. The author never even mentions what kind of gun the shooter has. Is it a rifle? Shotgun? Handgun? Automatic? That’s an essential detail, to know what kind of damage can be done, what the stakes are. I’d venture to say the author didn’t research school shootings, instead opting to make a soap opera around a dramatic event.

There is so much Lifetime-worthy drama cheese it’s embarrassing. The name of the town is Opportunity, and the author never lets you forget it. Lines like “the sky feels endless” and “she looks so beautiful” and kissing a guy during a crisis like at the end of Speed. Is this really your biggest concern with a gunman? Was there kissing going on during Columbine? Because I read that book and no one reported any post-tragedy romance. Add in a nice dose of parent abuse, sexual assault, and all the other things you expect from a “serious” YA novel about “serious issues” that it seems everyone deals with on a CW show. This is not worth your time. Read Columbine by Dave Cullen instead.

wizard's bane rick cook

Wizard’s Bane by Rick Cook
(unfinished)

Boring as hell. I thought it would be a cozy fantasy like A Computer Programmer in King Aragorn’s Court. I wanted to see how you could decompile magic or turn the Council of Elrond into a stand-up meeting. But no, it’s a bunch of walking and walking and nothing happens.

A girl guides the guy through the woods and it’s boring. He only regards the girl for how hot she is, always looking down her blouse. The girl is a bitch throughout, complaining how he doesn’t have the stamina to hike or knowledge about dangerous magic stones. The guy doesn’t regard anything with wonder. There’s dragons and elf kings and magic, and all he’s worried about is being cockblocked. He doesn’t even try to impress her with knowledge of the future.

The only reason I made it to 46% was because it was a short book. But once it decided to take a chapter to tell a story within a story, I was out. I barely cared if the main characters lived or died, you’re not going to pad pages with someone else’s tale.

stephen king shawshank redemption

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King

The book is a straight and true narrative that deviates very little from the movie, plus Stephen King-isms (twangy blue-collar metaphors that seem more at home in the Appalachians than Maine). But the movie is still better. The cinematic-ness adds emotion and removes unnecessary elements. Stephen King can produce material that results in good movies, as long as the makers of that movie are chosen well.

the shamer's daughter lene kaaberbol

The Shamer’s Daughter by Lene Kaaberbøl

This is the cozy fantasy I was looking for. Well, maybe “cozy” isn’t the right word, but it’s well written. Good characters, good conflict, and good setting. Said premise is that “shaming” is the magic here, which really means looking into the subject’s eyes and making him feel guilty enough to confess his crimes. Sort of like Ghost Rider’s “penance stare”, only it’s in Eragon. That’s a solid premise in itself, but the characters are interesting enough to carry it, especially when it becomes a murder mystery and political throne-grabbing.

It reminded me of Far Far Away in terms of style. Maybe that’s the translation at work. There is no slowness (maybe because it’s YA, which also means it’s not too long), and I see potential for storylines in the next sequence. Characters are not douchebags and no one holds an idiot ball, but there are a few trappings, like evil princes and dumb peasants. It’s one of the few books of a series that makes me want to find out what happens next.

writing magic gail carson levine

Writing Magic: Creating Stories That Fly by Gail Carson Levine

Levine is the person who wrote Ella Enchanted. I liked that book so much I wanted to check out her non-fiction book on “how to write”. I thought, by the title, it would have to do with specifically magic and fantasy, but no, it’s writing in general. That’s not a bad thing.

This is one of the better writing books I’ve read. Liked it more than “Bird by Bird” (but that’s not a high bar to jump for me). The focus is on prompts and exercises (i.e. you learn to write by writing). It also never wears out its welcome. Some books emphasize sentence structure and adverb placement — too much nitty gritty. This one doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t. It’s wants you out there and producing.

However, it is definitely skewed toward younger audiences. Middle school and high schoolers will get more out of this book than I did from Stephen King’s “On Writing”.

stephen king danse macabre

Danse Macabre by Stephen King

I was hesitant on reading this, worried it would be out of date. (It’s as old as me!) There have been a lot of… advances? (I don’t know what you’d call them) in horror that no one could have predicted in 1981: slasher franchises going mainstream (e.g. Freddy Krueger action figures), J-horror, psychological horror (like Black Swan), torture porn, home invasion films, indie horror (e.g. The Blair Witch Project), the second rise and decline of zombies. Enough time has passed that now we have meta-horror for all those tropes (e.g. Scream and The Cabin in the Woods).

Nonetheless, much of it still holds up, to my surprise, because it’s really all about roots. And those roots take place in three things–films, TV, and books. It takes examples from timeless phenomenon like B-movie monsters, anthology suspense, and Lovecraft books. Each reflects the time period they were born into. And it’s all delivered with Stephen King’s tight and witty prose (he was still high in these days so his writing is still good). It’s the kind of book that might be assigned in an “Introduction to Horror” college class. Plus, it contains some of the missing biographical elements from “On Writing”.

However, I don’t think it’s required for any horror aficionado. There’s a lot of examples from the 50s-70s that maybe influenced King more that it influenced everybody. Read this if you’re a fan of Stephen King’s style. You get to see him put on his college professor hat. But there are more current books that do just as well.

fata morgana steven boyett ken michoney

Fata Morgana by Steven R. Boyett and Ken Mitchroney

It’s a marathon, but a good one. The story is a basic portal fantasy (a B-52 crew flies into another dimension), but you feel like you’re there: all the detail about the plane, the crew’s lives, how they interact with each other, the equipment, and the war. It got me excited about World War II (there is a lot more detail about World War II stuff than the fantasy world) and balances description with plot.

The fantasy elements are underwhelming. It’s a standard domed city, a flying mechano-dragon, bad guys in the other domed city across the wasteland, the man from the past falls in love with the woman from the future, and so on. It’s all very sixties Star Trek or H.G. Wells “The Time Machine”. Nothing exceptional. Mundane even. I kept waiting for the thing that made the world extra-special and unique.

And I have a hard time believing that any of the crew could help with anything mechanical in this world. It would be like a watchmaker fixing my iPhone. Besides that, some threads don’t go anywhere (like the whole chapter dedicated to the new crewmember’s “story” of his haunted plane), making the book unnecessarily long. I hate when that happens.

The magic comes from the plausible character development. It’s a satisfying read and entertaining, but make sure you can handle some World War II history and mechanics.

john green turtles all the way down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green’s latest. How could I not read? If you’re looking for a remix of “The Fault in Our Stars“, this is not it. It’s not a romance. It takes the romance elements out and focuses more on the character’s disease. Only this time it’s not cancer, it’s compulsion disorder/intrusive thoughts. A mental illness that the main character neglects to resolve.

The primary plot driver is extremely unimportant, so there won’t be a lot of twists and events. What exists is the thin thread of mystery–the lugubriously rich father of an old childhood friend disappears to escape indictment. Our two heroines hope to find him and earn a reward. Our POV character is not the main driver of this story–that’s her friend. But it retains the same peculiarity and quirkiness that Green is good at. It’s closer to Paper Towns, but minus the insufferable pining over a crazy girl. Green also fixes the mistake where his teenagers speak way over their vocabulary range, like college freshman milking every damn page from a thesaurus to sound smart on an English paper (e.g. Augustus Waters).

It’s more of a character study, like “Looking for Alaska” was. In that, the pathology was someone with an unredeemable crush on a real-life MPDG. Her, it’s someone broken by anxiety and mental illness, self-centered (not because of ego, but because OCD does that to a person) and unable to have relationships because of that. Green says that the best thing you can get from books is to “imagine humans complexly” and I think he does just that in a package that’s fun to open.

Will it become a classic? I wish I could say it’s likely, but I wouldn’t believe that myself. It probably won’t make you cry, but it will make you understand. And I think that’s a better achievement.

beyond the castle jody dreyer

Beyond the Castle: A Disney Insider’s Guide to Finding Your Happily Ever After by Jody Jean Dreyer
(unfinished)

This did not deliver on what I wanted. I wanted anecdotes about working at Disney. Stories about dealing with douchebags, cast member affairs, triumph of the storyboard room. It sounds like this woman has worked nearly every job, seen every facet of the company. You’d think there’d be dozens of anecdotes about that. But no. This is more of a self-help book, full of quaint little lessons and morals and life advice.

There are anecdotes sprinkled in, but most of it is stuff you could learn from the IMDB trivia page of any Pixar movie. It’s far more thematically about being the best “you”. And entirely too much focus on “giving yourself to God”. That’s where it lost me–all the strong Christian overtones, saying God wants you to be happy and using Disney stuff to illustrate that. Disney wants you to be happy, because happy people give you money. I’m not under any illusion that Disney isn’t a business. It gives you a lot back for your dollar, but it wants your dollar first and foremost.

I stopped reading when it spelled “Lotso” (the antagonist from Toy Story 3) as “Lostoso”. If you can’t proofread well-enough, especially regarding a Disney term, then I’m done. It’s minor and stupid, but, hey, that’s why they call the camel back-breaker a straw, not a brick.

kiera cass selection

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Oh, boy, where do I start with this one. I’m afraid this might turn into another 5,000 word rant like “Wild” or “The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer” or any of Jackie Morse Kessler

I guess I’ll start with expectations, the blame for which I shall receive none. It shall go to the marketing team and author. The description makes it sound like a cross between The Bachelor and The Hunger Games, which I was fine with. The ceremonies and reality TV part of The Hunger Games was my favorite. I’d like to see what happens when that’s expanded to a whole universe. But the author is doing her best to make it feel like a dystopian YA novel/clone of THG, but it doesn’t get any more savage than a Disney Channel original movie.

The first red flag was all the telling in the first chapter. Exposition, exposition, exposition. Not even infodumped in a clever or interesting way, just *plop* there it is. The universe is described to us like it was a textbook.

And then it’s nothing but cliches. I swear to god, I thought I was reading the Dystopian YA twitter account. Society’s in a caste system that sorts people because of course there is. Her family is poor. It includes a little sister and an overbearing mother. There’s a love triangle between the guy she left at home and the guy society expects her to pair with. There’s rebels and a dictatorship and interviews and dresses and a Cesar Flickerman and my god did this author create anything on her own? I know “everything is a remix” but at least use some unique ingredients (how about The Hunger Games with dwarves?).

For a book about thirty-five teenage girls competing to marry a prince, it’s surprisingly chaste. Like a Mormon version of Survivor. Getting a kiss is like winning the lottery. I would think, in a competition where the prize is you and your family being set up for life with money and power and royal titles, there should be boobs flopping out all over the place.

No one acts plausibly, least of all the main character. She doesn’t want anything, she’s just along for the ride. She doesn’t take action, action happens to her. The only thing going for her is “feistiness” compared to the other snobby upper-class girls. She’s not even really competing with them–she sets herself up as a confidante, but of course, this means the prince likes her best. As a result, there’s no conflict. They’re all trying to help each other, instead of figuring out who your friends an enemies are. It doesn’t even conclude like a normal book. It just ends–there’s no climax, no build-up. It’s like they just cut it off at 300 pages so they could call it a series.

Surprisingly, I’m not depressed that this book got published. I am depressed that readers rated so high. It’s so shallow and cliche. I kept reading because I was waiting for that “more”–that reason it garnered such attention. But it never came. And that’s three hundred and thirty-nine pages of my life I won’t be getting back.

Disney Princes: Aladdin

aladdin kingdom hearts

Aladdin

First Impression: Running from the city guards for grand theft loaf. You’re immediately drawn to his charming smile, his parachute pants, and his pet monkey. One would assume that since he’s stealing bread, like the noble Jean Valjean, he’s not a career criminal. And then he gives said bread to two hungry street urchins with big-ass eyes, giving him a “save the cat” moment and immediately making our hearts lighter.

Appearance: Tom Cruise hair, but M.C. Hammer fashion by way of Abu Dhabi. Two questions: what’s the deal with the fez? (And don’t give me that Doctor Who line.) And where are your nipples?

Intelligence: Aladdin was educated on the mean streets of Agrabah. He learned to hide a razor in his mouth and shank a bitch in the shower. The street smarts overwhelm any other smarts.

Job/Source of Income: Depends on where you catch him. The scale at which he goes from rags to riches would make a black hole blush. He starts as a subsistence thief, only taking what he needs. However, being able to trust what he says is another category entirely. Then he’s the sultan of a city that may exist in Earth’s extreme past or extreme future, depending on which fan theory you read.

Sense of Humor: Pretty good. He’s a friend to all living things. Smug and ruthless, but also lovable and tricky. He’s definitely someone you don’t mind hanging out with.

Critical Fault: Compulsive liar. He’s also the most morally ambiguous of the Disney princes, comparable to Flynn Rider.

Quality of Sidekick: It’s a cute little monkey! And a flying carpet! And an all-powerful genie! And his girlfriend has a tiger! Holy smokes, when they were handing out sidekicks he hit the motherload. (Later he gets parrot-Gilbert Gottfried, so you can’t hit the jackpot all the time.)

Relatability: He always tries to do the right thing, even if he stumbles along the way. His biggest problem is not seeing the forest for the trees, and that might come from his hand-to-mouth upbringing.

Talent: +3 to agility and acrobatics.Speedy and knowledgeable in hand-to-hand and scimitar fighting. Plus a skilled thief. Better at pickpocketing and petty theft than the heist though.

Does he have a name? Yes. It’s even the title of the movie, making him one of the few princes who’s the protagonist in his film.

Disney Princes: Brom Bones

brom bones sleepy hollow

Brom Bones

First Impression: He races through town on a horse (foreshadowing) terrorizing the townspeople, but evoking laughs from his friends. He pops the top on a keg so they all can drink, but also makes sure the dogs and horses get a taste. Talk about a Save the Cat/Pet the Dog moment. One gets the impression that, in this village where how well you can run a farm is valued, Brom is top of the pops. How much consideration he has for the fellows around him is variable though.

Appearance: He’s got the sinewy biceps of Gaston and the silky voice of Bing Crosby and the lantern jaw of a superhero. Might need to update his haircut though.

Intelligence: Above expectations, as one would expect for the musclebound. There’s not much evidence of book-learning, so don’t expect to bring him to Shakespeare in the Park on your date. But one hopes he doesn’t dismiss aspirations of wisdom.

Job/Source of Income: Don’t discount the fact that he’s a blue collar worker. This was a valued occupation in this time of America’s youth. And I fully expect him to make something of himself, if not through who he knows than through hard work.

Sense of Humor: He’s a brute, but he’s jovial. Loves a good practical joke. Problem is, that kind of humor is antiquated. But he can spin a good yarn.

Critical Fault: Good ol’ boy. He’d be the first to dodge a statutory rape charge. It’s not a terribly feminist film.

Dat bustle tho

Quality of Sidekick: This cartoon’s too short for Brom to get a proper sidekick. Everyone in town’s a little bit his crony, so maybe if you lump them all together? Or maybe you can call Katrina Van Tassel his sidekick? Except instead of a toady, she’s playing with his heart? I dunno, I’m reaching here.

Relatability: Hard to judge. The only other female in this short is a stuck-up rich girl who doesn’t speak. So if you’re a sorority sister, consider this an all-points bulletin. On the other hand, he does get into some hapless shenanigans and slapstick, and that’s always good for sympathy.

Talent: Stay close by him to make friends and advance your influence among the little people while you use your money to ensnare the elites. I have no doubt Katrina and Brom went on to control the town after their marriage.

Does he have a name? First and last. Above the median for Disney princes

The Books I Read: May – June 2017

bookshelf books

goodnight stories
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 joss whedon
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.

street cat named bob
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 disney after dark
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 christopher moore
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 colonel sanders
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.

hannah hart buffering
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
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.

unsould
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 blake snyder
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 matt ruff
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 gail carson levine
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.