Reviews

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Many followers of this blog are probably familiar with A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay. It made several 2015 year’s best lists and won the Stoker Award for best novel. Rightfully so because it is an excellent book.

Merry Barrett, our narrator, recounts her experiences as a child when her sister Marjorie becomes the subject of an exorcism and a reality television show. The narrative alternates between Merry’s memories as an eight-year-old, present-day Merry, and blog entries that focus on the reality show (The Possession) featured on a pop culture website. It’s an acute examination of mental health, religion, celebrity, sexuality…and…well…a hell of a lot of things.

The skill that Tremblay displays mashing all these ideas into a rather short book is impressive. The Barrett family are all fleshed out well. You feel the bonds Marjorie and Merry have with their mother. The growing gulf between father and daughters is a palpable. The skeeviness of Father Wanderly (who suggests the exorcism) adds an uncomfortable layer to the proceedings. The way the television production team ambivalently sexualizes a mentally-ill fourteen-year-old in the interests of ratings will make your stomach turn.

Invariably, as you read A Head Full of Ghosts, your mind will turn to the late, great William Peter Blatty’s seminal The Exorcist. Both books concerns themselves with similar ideas and tread the same thematic grounds. And Tremblay doesn’t shy away from any comparisons, calling out Blatty’s classic by name on numerous occasions. Both mine bundles of psychological horror around the debasement of a young girl. Tremblay, however, plays coy with Marjorie’s possession. Is she actually possessed by a demon? How much can we rely on the memories of a little girl?

Some people like to differentiate the category of horror and thriller based on whether the book has a supernatural element. Is A Head Full of Ghosts horror? Or is it a thriller?

I urge you to read it. Make your own decision. You’ll have a devil of a time figuring it out.

Click the book to buy the book.

A review of Paranormal Parody

Paranormal Parody starring Kristen KakosParanormal Parody is a pretty funny send up of Oren Peli’s found footage horror flick Paranormal Activity. You would be well-advised to watch it (both films, actually), particularly if 1) you enjoyed Peli’s film and 2) you have a soft spot for curvaceous redheads.

For the benefit of the two people in the world who are not familiar with Paranormal Activity, allow me to catch you up. An attractive young couple feel they are being haunted by a malicious spectral being. The rather dim-witted but well-meaning boyfriend buys a camera hoping to catch on film evidence of their haunting and use the footage to… well, I don’t recall what he thought he would accomplish with such footage. In his efforts to help his girlfriend, he seems to anger the spirit, ultimately leading to an expected, yet chilling conclusion.

Movie fans are split when it comes to assessing the quality of Peli’s movie. Personally, I loved the first PA. The scares worked for me, right down to the controversial ending (supposedly suggested by Steven Spielberg). The two leads, virtual unknowns, did a knockout job, even vaulting Katie Featherstone to temporary stardom. Oren Peli has gotten rich with a Paranormal Activity franchise, produced the excellent (and rather spooky) ghost flick Insidious, and produced the disappointing television series The River.

Paranormal Parody stars Kristen Kakos and Benjamin Euphrats as the Katie/Micah couple. Kristen, like Katie Featherstone, exhibits a slightly concealed sexiness that is used to hilarious effect throughout the film (essentially, the demon haunting Kristen is a manifestation of a secret porn past looking to come back to life… see, my reference to her being a curvy redhead has merit). Ben nails the clueless boyfriend role. He’s every bit as annoying and worthless as Micah. Kristen and Ben have nice comedic chemistry that gives the film an added spark.

Any good parody will poke fun at its subject’s flaws for comedic effect while showing obvious regard and respect for the source material. Director C.J. Goodman smartly sends up some of the more egregious plot points and several of PA’s iconic scenes. Ben is obsessed with buying a Ouija Ball (in the original, Micah is obsessed with buying a Ouija Board that pisses off the demon). Kristen wakens at night and stands over the bed for hours (in a chuckle-worthy setup, she keeps trying to stand over him, but he keeps tossing and turning away). Ben dusts the floor with talcum powder that the demon mistakes for cocaine (okay, it is much funnier than it sounds, I promise). Our hapless couple seeks assistance from ghost psychics. Goodman even films several conclusions, and makes hilarious use of an unlikely inflatable doll prop in the movie’s final moments!

It must be noted that Kakos and Euphrats do a solid job… right on par with Featherstone and Sloat. Kristen and Ben even live in a nicer house!

The extras include a rather weird set of interviews with the stars, a pretty decent running commentary, and a funny trailer for the film that is included below.

If you’re a fan of Peli’s original, then you’re going to find enough laughs in Paranormal Parody to make it worth your rental or purchase. It’s only $9.99. Go ahead, treat yourself. You deserve to be amused for 85 minutes!

Paranormal Parody Official Website
Get it at iTunes for $9.99

Ruminations on The Terror by Dan Simmons

The TerrorWay back in the year 2007, The Terror, an alt-history horror novel by SF icon Dan Simmons, was released to (mostly) critical acclaim. It is a despairing book, about a British expedition that becomes stuck in the frozen sea ice of northern Canada where the crew must deal with starvation, scurvy, botulism, freezing cold, and mutiny. Complicating matters even further–the crew is being hunted (and eaten) by a mysterious white monster.

A real spirit-lifter, this one…

Simmons imagines what happened to the  Sir John Franklin expedition, which set out from Britain in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage only to never be heard from again. The construct of the tragedy gives a talented guy like Dan Simmons a massive sandbox for his imagination. Even the most creative-stunted individual can conjure up a whole bunch of terrifying and frightening encounters the doomed crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror might have faced. Having Simmons feeding these types of possibilities into your head… well, that can induce nightmares in a reader (and did so with this one!).

As always with the most horrifying tragedies, it is the against-all-odds heroics that make for the most compelling stories. The book opens after the two ships have become icebound with our primary protagonist, Captain Francois Crozier, speaking to many of his men and walking the ship. It’s a smart bit of writing that establishes many of the important characters, and familiarizes us with the confined spaces of the ship.

Captain Crozier is drawn as a flawed man, stupid and naive with women, a drunk, but he’s also an effective leader who has a remarkable warmth and empathy that gives the novel so much of its emotional pull.  He a pathetic fool during flashbacks to a foolish fling with young noble woman. His friendship with Captain Fitzjames (a fascinating and withdrawn character in his own right) and their quiet support of one another leads to a heartbreaking scene toward the end of the book. Crozier burns with the need to survive, and his gritty determinism resonates throughout, even as the reader basically knows how things will play out.

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Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is an entertaining, vacuous piece of literature that is smart enough to touch on cultural hot topics to make it memorable.

Katniss Everdeen, our sixteen-year-old heroine, lives in District 12 in the country of Panem. Every year, the Capital drafts two teenagers from each of the twelve districts to participate in a “last (wo)man stand” showdown that functions as a cause for bringing the people of Panem together to celebrate, and as a reminder of a yearly punishment meted out to the districts for a vaguely defined rebellion 75 years prior.  When Katniss’s little sister is selected as one of District 12’s tributes, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the games. The second tribute from the district is a baker’s son named Peeta who may or may not harbor real feelings of love for Katniss.

So off to the Capital we go, where the games begin in a controlled outdoor “arena.” Twenty four kids fight it out to the death. The winner receives lifelong acclaim, a big fancy house, and lots and lots of food.

SPOILERS AHOY!

For the past few years, I’ve heard nothing but gushing about The Hunger Games. I’ve never been a fan of YA. Speaking in broad terms, all the YA I’ve read practices the art of convenience, black and white morality, forced love stories, simplistic and cliched characterization, and characters behaving in ways that make you want to give the book a good toss across the room. BUT!!!! But I was promised by friends who claimed to know better that The Hunger Games was not like this, it was good YA.

I have no doubt that YA exists that will rock my socks. Sadly, this book was not it.

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Music Review: “Wondrous Journey, Part 1” by Alex Otterlei

Wondrous Journey

Despite knowing next to nothing about the technical aspects of music, I once again find myself compelled to author another review of the aural arts. I’m driven by a desire to share the good stuff when I find it, even if the best I can do is offer up a piddly “Hey, this sounds, oh-my-God, amazing!”

This time I’m taking up the torch for an eight minute work of symphonic orchestra music written by Alex Otterlei titled “Wondrous Journey.”

First, a bit of a caveat emptor. I’ve known Alex for several years, and during that time I’ve come to become a fan of his music. His work can be thought of in the same milieu as Midnight Syndicate (a comparison I give to provide many readers a point of reference)—symphonic, orchestral, often using electro-synth, and almost exclusively without spoken lyrics. While the Syndicate has created several movie soundtracks, Alex (to my knowledge) has not, though this is something I could see him doing with much success.

“Wondrous Journey” opens with four particularly dark and sudden bursts of music punctuated by a moment of a silence. This apprehension bleeds into a an ominous serious of quick notes that I take to underscore the occasional dread associated with long travel. But the mood lightens and becomes one of wonder as the driving melody leads the listener down a road of beauty and brightness. The last third of the piece is quieter, as we arrive at our first stop, a place of mystery, that the composer promises to share in part 2.

According to the handy composer notes provided by Alex, the style of the piece is symphonic, neo-tonal with a strongly apparent bi-tonal harmony incorporating polymetric and polyrhythmic structures. The lead scale is B Major (various modi) interacting with G minor (aeolian), ultimately leading to the Ab Overtone scale.

Now THAT is the sort of technical knowledge of music that I was referencing in my opening paragraph!

Here is a nifty trailer for the song.

You can buy “Wondrous Journey” for a mere 99 cents from the following:
CD Baby
Amazon

Lana Del Rey — Born to Die, Born to Love

Album cover for Born to Die

Lana Del Rey’s debut album has finally arrived. I say ‘finally’ as the marketing engine behind Del Rey has been working overtime for several months that culminated with an appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Now that the album, titled Born to Die, is here does it live up to the grandiose expectations built by the same machine that landed her on SNL?

Pretty much, yes.

By now, most people know of Lana Del Rey’s recent public image troubles. The internet dropped a load of fetid schadenfreude on Twitter and the blog-o-sphere due to her poor live SNL performances (click through to watch one of them). Inexplicably, celebrities piled on. For example, Brian Williams, the face and voice of NBC news, felt compelled to make fun of her performance in an email to the website Gawker.

All this hub-bub over a nervous woman’s shaky performance piqued my interest in her music. I trawled YouTube to find more. What I found instantly mesmerized me. Her look and sound appeal to my wistful nature. For many of the same reasons I dig the look of the film LA Confidential, I like Lana Del Rey’s persona. Critics bemoan the artificiality of it all. I bemoan the hypocrisy of such criticism. She’s constructed a personality to fit the music. This is the same tactic used by popular acts such as Madonna and Lady Gaga.

I also enjoy the smoky lounge singer voice she affects through most of the album’s songs. If you like the singing of such a voice, then you will like Born to Die.

Having bought into the Lana Del Rey scene, I’d been quite disappointed if the album ended up sucking. I’m not a music expert, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that this album is quite good.

Despite the nostalgic feel many of the songs evoke, there is a strong sense of youthfulness and light mocking peppered throughout. The song “National Anthem” focuses on America’s obsession with wealth. It’s catchy and silly. “Radio” plays like an Avril Lavigne song that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “Lolita” appears to be poking fun at our obsession of youth and pop princesses (though she’s obviously using this same obsession to build her own success).

“Video Games”, the one song you might have heard already (it’s been receiving heavy rotation on the radio), with it’s tickling dreamy harp-sound, is a song of love lost. It is a song of remembering better times. The drum march played in the last half of the song could be thought of as a metaphor that time marches on for all of us.

“Blue Jeans”, one of my favorites, seems to be a straight up appreciation of the 1950s. The lyrics calls out James Dean. White T-shirts. Etc. The twanging guitar intertwined with a slightly bizarre and rhythmic sample gives the old-timey  wistfulness a modern sound.

Way above and beyond anything else, my favorite song is “Off to the Races.” The song is the strongest lyrically, and Del Rey’s range is tested as she moves from husky lounge singer to playful, squeaky ingenue in quick succession.

“I’m your little Scarlet,
starlet,
singing in the garden,
kiss me on my open mouth,
ready for your…”

Okay, maybe I’m colored by coy, flirty nature she sings this lyric, but the song is jaunty and hella fun. Sadly, there isn’t an official video for “Off to the Races”, which leads me to think it’ll never be a radio single. A shame, really, this song beats the hell out of most pop princess efforts we’re fed through the airwaves.

You can listen to the song below.

If you’ve stuck with me to this point in the review, I ask that you watch her sing “Video Games” on Letterman. She owns it. And good for her. Dave asks her if she can come back tomorrow… and the next day.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I must confess that I am pro-Tina Fey. In fact, I find her to be funny, smart, and quite pretty.

Yeah, I said you were pretty, Tina Fey. I know that pisses you off. You coming after me, ya New York City hard ass? I heard your rants and your lectures in Bossypants about your mono-brow, your freaky big toe that curves inward, and the disturbing stories of extra large maxi pads. You exposed the great big lie that are magazine photos. Between mark up artists and Photoshop, anyone can be made to look good. Wigs, make up, and good lighting works wonders for those on television.

You aren’t fooling me. You’re pretty. Deal with it.

I’ve finished reading (technically, listening) Bossypants, so pardon me if I’m feeling a bit empowered. Blame it on Tina Fey. As you might imagine from a person who has both stumbled upon and personally created much of her success, Fey’s force of nature personality jumps on top of the reader and slaps him/her around… especially if the reader is a him.

Bossypants is part feminist manifesto, part joke book, and part auto-biography. Like her NBC sitcom, 30 Rock, much of the material is hit or miss. However, two sections alone make the book worth the read. The first is when Fey answers “Fan Mail”, except that these fan letters are actually asinine anonymous website comments from the chickenshits we all know and love. Her level of snark and cutting humor had me in tears. The second was hilarious story she recounted about her honeymoon cruise.

While bringing the funny, Fey also gives us a peek into her Sarah Palin period, bring 30 Rock to life, her work with the Second City troupe in Chicago, and her adventures at SNL.

Unfortunately, about one-third of the book she dedicates to less interesting subjects. There is a lengthy chapter about just how awesome her daddy is. Heck, even Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels thought he was an impressive man. It’s good material for painting where Tina Fey gets her brains and personality, but in a book where she beats on the feminist drum loudly and proudly, it felt a bit out of place. Also, there is a chapter detailing her appearance. Literally, there is a section about her fat period, her skinny period, her mid-sized period, and on and on. Peppered throughout are non-joking nonsequitors with every last detail of why people should find her unattractive. I recognize that self-deprecation plays a large role in her humor, but I couldn’t find the funny in this case. Perhaps this isn’t a failure from Tina’s writing, just more a personal taste… humor can be so subjective.

The book drifts at times. Is it a self-help book? Is it a feminist bible? Is it an auto-biography? It’s a distraction, but not enough to be much of a bother.

The best part about buying the audio version of Bossypants is that Tina narrates. Tina Fey might not win a Best Actress Oscar anytime soon, but she is one hell of a performer.

Tina Fey is pretty.

She is also a helluva writer.

Bossypants is quite entertaining.

Let the Right One In movie review (original… not the Hollywood remake)

As a horror fan, I’ve been reading issues of Rue Morgue and Fangoria whenever I remember to buy them at my local Barnes & Noble. Both do a great job covering several aspects of the horror field (those being film, fiction, gaming, special effects, and music) and invariably they lead me to interesting horror films that I might not have otherwise heard about through my daily perusing of the Entertainment Weekly pop blog.

For sometime, I’d been hearing about this Swedish film called Let the Right One In. Both magazines proclaimed it to be one of the best vampire movies ever made. Granted, to earn this honor from me would be simple. I can’t say I’ve seen many vampire movies that moved me in any way (no, I’ve not seen Nosferatu). Still, Let the Right One In had better be damn good or my trust in Rue Morgue and Fangoria was going to be permanently dumped in the bin.

The movie is fantastic.

A bullied twelve-year-old boy named Oskar is living in Blackeberg (a suburb of Stockholm) where he stumbles into an unlikely friendship with a mysterious young girl named Eli. Eli, it turns out, has moved in next door with an older man named Håkan. Oskar lives a lonely life with his mother and over time he and Eli form a bond that is both moving and surreal.

The film does something that few horror movies succeed at doing. You care about what is going to happen to Eli and Oskar. Eli, in a sense is a monster and does some horrific things in the movie, but the viewer senses there is more here than just normal vampiric violence. You recognize that these kids are awkward social beings on the verge of adolescence, something all of us dealt with at one time in our lives. They have no family, only each other, yet as kids how can they survive without adults.

Let the Right One In is a quiet film. The dialog is as sparse as the landscape of Blackeberg. There are some truly frightening scenes, plenty of gore, and a final set piece that now stands as one of the most memorable movie scenes I’ve witnessed. The way that the director, Tomas Alfredson, handles vampiric mythology is smart and plays well with the plot.

The movie is derived from the novel of the same name by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I give Let the Right One In high praise. Not only did it overcome my built-in distrust of anything ‘vampire’, it also proved to be an effective horror story about being a lonely child.

Watching Watchmen, not so bad, after all

I’ve known Justin Stewart for a long time. I’m guessing close to ten years. To me, he’s the arbiter of ‘cool.’ He is the only person I know who can wear a pink t-shirt bearing an image of unicorns making…love…and be considered cool for it. So, it was to my detriment that I ignored Justin’s cries for me to read the Watchmen graphic novel over the past decade.

Fair warning–if you haven’t read Watchmen, then read no further. Spoilers abound!

On a personal scale of one to five, one equaling any entry in the Left Behind series and five equaling a genre classic such as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I give the Watchmen graphic novel a solid four.

Perhaps this causes you to cry out in accusatory blasphemy. How can I not give the seminal graphic comic work of all time a five? Watchmen has been called the best graphic novel of all time by Justin Stewart (and many other well-versed comic geeks). It won a Hugo. It’s on the Time list of 100 best novels of the twentieth century. When a book earns that much critical praise, it usually deserves it. Part of me agrees with all this. The intricate plotting, the deep characterizations, and the eye-catching artwork and panel design are all exceptional. Rorschach is one of literature’s great anti-heroes. The narrative tension is unmatched.

But…certain aspects of the novel didn’t gel for me. Most importantly, the comic-within-a-comic story, Tales of the Black Freighter, bored me senseless. I realize its allegorical implications, but here’s a situation of art over form really drowning the genius of the main plot arc. I’d argue here that maybe it’s just too much. There are times when a work gets bogged down in its own cleverness, and I’m afraid Tales of the Black Freighter being included in Watchmen felt like one of these times for me.

Secondly, the giant, genetically-created squid that Adrian Veidt uses to destroy New York is just plain hokie. Even as a science fiction fanboy who enjoys his mutated monsters, the creation and execution of Veidt’s masterplan lost a bit of impact due to this contrived and forced science fiction (or one could argue ‘comic book’) element.

Third, the newsstand bits, or as I like to call them–The Funny Papers: Life on the Streets–did little to enhance the novel’s experience. All the commentary made by these scenes were done so better in the other parallel plot threads.

I found the movie to be superior to the graphic novel. I’ve not been able to reconcile the critical dislike with what I saw on the screen. I easily give the movie version of Watchmen a strong four, teetering to a low five.

Director Zack Snyder excised the three main problems I had with the novel and produced an astounding and smart action movie. The movie isn’t without flaws (the handling of Bubastis, heavy-handed action scene editing, weak performance by Matthew Goode), but much of the critics pans were things that didn’t bother me. Manhattan’s big blue penis wasn’t a giant distraction. In fact, I hardly noticed it (I swear!). The Nite Owl/Silk Spectre II sex scene in Archie didn’t seem odd or forced to me. Rorschach’s narration was on the money and helped make some sense of the dense plot.

This is one of the few times I can remember where I enjoyed the movie version of the book better than the book. Anyone else have the same conclusion? Or am I a regular ol’ Walter Kovacs…a complete anti-social freak who just doesn’t fit in with society?

Don’t answer that.

Flood by Stephen Baxter

The clock is ticking down to the End Times, people. Gather up your family, your pets, a stash of food and water, because when the reckoning comes, you need to be ready.

What shape will the reckoning take? There are many options: nano-virus, swine flu, global warming, zombie outbreak, alien invasion, Cthulu, and others. Stephen Baxter decides to postulate our potential end via an old-fashioned flood. And if Noah thought the flood that hit him back in Biblical times was a ‘big deal’, then he should get a load of the rising waters in Baxter’s Flood.

Flood hooks the reader with a strong opening sequence that introduces and ties all the major players in one action packed set piece. Our protagonists have been hostages at the hands of a militant religious fundamentlist group for five years. An entreprising, wealthy man stages a successful rescue that frees the hostages and brings them (and the reader) into a world in the beginning stages of death by water.

The book focuses on this core of characters as they struggle to deal with the disasters created by the flood. It quickly becomes apparent the water is not going to stop rising and humanity will be pressed close to the point of extinction. Baxter masterfully lets this sense of impending doom seep into the story. There are no last-minute heroics here. Just people dealing with the situation and dying as they’re pushed higher and higher while dry land grows more sparse.

The book is clinical in its detailing of the stages of the flood. These parts are fascinating and frightening. Unfortunately, Baxter keeps us at too far a distance from the effects of the disaster on humankind for the reader to feel true horror, as the plot stays near the hostage survivors who are always cordoned off safely with their wealthy savior. There are also massive time jumps that jerks you out of the current situation and places you ten, fifteen years later with introductions to new characters and settings that make you want to scan through the pages to meet back with the characters you care about. Unfortunately, Baxter has made a decision to skimp on the character development in service of the plot, and I feel it weakens the impact of the book.

Overall, this is a nice work of dark science fiction. I’d recommend it to science fiction readers in a heartbeat.