Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Wink Poppy Midnight

Poppy is blonde, hot, and very aware of it. She can get whatever she wants and she doesn't care who she has to step on to get it. Midnight is the boy in the love with her. He's everything she isn't: sincere, sweet, and genuine. His goal is to distance himself from her and move on, but she won't let him. Wink is an odd girl from an odd family with lots of children. Her wild red hair, outdated clothes, and lack of normal social graces make her an outsider at school, but no one teases her because she just doesn't care. All three of their lives entwine after Midnight moves right next door to Wink. Poppy gets jealous and tries to torment them, so Wink and Midnight play a prank to punish her that goes terribly wrong. Poppy is missing and no one claims to know where she is. Someone is lying, but who?

Wink Poppy Midnight is hard to classify. It's a mystery and a romance, but it's not clear if it's fantasy or just a contemporary novel until the end. I liked the uncertainty and the unfolding of the mystery little by little. The story is told through the alternating first person narration of the three main characters: Wink, Poppy, and Midnight. They are all vibrant characters that are hiding something from everyone like I suppose we all are. Each of them reveals their inner thoughts and hopes while the others share what they project and how others think of them. The difference between how they are and how they are viewed is one of my favorite parts of the story. On the outset of the novel, Poppy is pretty much insufferable. She's cruel because it's fun and she can get away with it. Her collection of followers do anything she says and affirm her bad behavior. Her favorite plaything is Midnight and she never passes up an opportunity to torment him because he loves her. She shows that she has a heart and realizes how cruel she is being, but does it anyway. By the end, I felt for her very much when she peeled away all her armor.

Midnight seems like a sweet boy who just needs to get over Poppy. He is tired of her cruelty and arrogance, so Wink is a breath of fresh air in comparison. He resolves to get to know her and separate himself from the temptation of Poppy. Poppy views him as weak and pathetic, but he's a nice boy that wants a real relationship.Wink is obsessed with fairy tales and fantasy stories with heroes, trials, and villains. She's the most interesting character in the story. Her whole life has a bit of fairy tale in it. She and her siblings (who she calls the orphans) run kind of wild. They wear outdated clothes, talk about weird things, and aren't afraid to be themselves. They don't care what anyone else think. Poppy avoided her for years after it because clear she was unable to be embarrassed or shamed. Now, she's right in Poppy's crosshairs because of Midnight. Wink believes in fairies and heroes and villains, but she has a dark side too. Through the story, it becomes clear that people don't fit into the flat stock character roles of fairy tales no matter how much she tries to make them fit.

Wink Poppy Midnight flows well through the multiple narratives. Each chapter is rather short, so it seemed to take no time to read. The ending loses momentum a bit, but it's reflective of real life. Real life doesn't always have an explosive ending. Sometimes life just goes on. I was a bit disappointed with Tucholke's Between Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, but she continues to impress with her short story in Slasher Girls and Monster Boys and this book. I will eagerly read whatever she writes next.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Monday, January 18, 2016

Chasing Before

Felicia Ward is still dead, but she's moved on to Level 3. Because of her work, people have been flooding into Level 3 because she broke the Morati's hold on Level 2. She is also reunited with her love, Neil. Together, they move on and immediately find that the records room was destroyed, obliterating any evidence that could help identify the Morati angels. Then the attacks get more frequent, targeting specific populations so the people are helpless. On top of all this, there is trouble in paradise as Neil pushes Felicia away and it becomes clear that they lost some memories from Earth. Can Felicia save Level 3 and fix her love life?

I wasn't a fan of The Memory of After, but I had already committed to review this installment. I figured I should go in with an open mind and I tried my hardest, but so many things caused me to roll my eyes in just the first few pages. Needless to say, I did not finish the book. First, the Morati destroy physical copies of people's records. Why aren't these records corporeal in the first place? If they can choose to make them anything, why not computers that can be backed up? It's incredibly convenient and just weird. Why are the records even needed? It's the afterlife with infinite possibilities. A character in the book even mentions this and it's summarily dismissed as if that's a satisfactory answer. Then, the world's rules are conveniently played with to allow even the most experienced people to die. It was established in the last book that physical harm could not come to people in the afterlife if they didn't think anything would actually hurt them. Suddenly, this is thrown out when the Morati get involved even though they were pretty present in the last book. There were way to many oddly convenient things happening that didn't feel organic or even sensical.

As with the last book, I had problems with many of the characters. Autumn is back since it's the afterlife and she's exactly the same as she was on Earth: way too self involved and invested in making sure she's better than Felicia and putting Felicia down at every turn. What kind of friendship is this? I get that toxic relationships exist, but why doesn't Felicia see how bad this is or at least say something about the horrible treatment? Neil is as sanctimonious and hypocritical as ever. Felicia and Neil have the opportunity to house together, but Neil freaks out and says no. First of all, if he had any self control at all and was actually committed to standing by his morals, living in the same room wouldn't matter. Second, they would nap together all the time on Earth which is totally ok and not sinful, but sleeping side by side at night is somehow evil. He also gets mad at her for not telling him everything, but he doesn't return the favor. He's very annoying, but Felicia insists on making their relationship work and do absolutely everything together than the overly attached girlfriend.

I ragequit Chasing Before when Neil's brother (who is there super conveniently) blackmails Felicia into doing something unforgivably mean to Autumn. This manufactured drama was the last straw. I knew she wouldn't even just say no because her lost memories are worth more to her than pretty much anything else in the whole book. I love Lenore Appelhans' blog and prose in general, but this series is just not for me.

My rating: Did Not Finish

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Memory of After

Felicia Ward died in a car accident and now resides in Level 2, a place where the dead can access their own memories and those shared by others in machines and servers. The vast majority of the residents use these machines and ability to share memories to relive nice, pleasant memories instead of hard ones that would allow them to examine their lives. Felicia is pretty happy with this existence until a girl she's close to unexpectedly relives her death and gets hurt by the malfunctioning machine. Felicia is whisked away in the madness by Julian, someone she would rather not see from her life on Earth. Apparently, she can help with this rude faction of angels called Morati who want to harvest the humans for their energy. Can Felicia help them out and save the humans?

The Memory of After is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed a lot of the concepts: the sharing of memories, the stages of the afterlife, and the faction of selfish angels that are jealous that humans can get to the true afterlife called the Morati. I also liked that people can create things just by thinking about them. Thought is very powerful in this world. If you think you will die or be hurt, you will be even though you are dead. If you think you will be fine, you will be. It seems simple, but it's hard to undo years of conditioning from living on earth. Felicia is an ok character. I like that she is fiercely loyal and unwilling to give up on her friends if there is any possibility that there is hope. Lenore Appelhans' prose is engaging and drew me into the story.

Unfortunately, the book frustrated me in a variety of ways. The afterlife world is based around an odd mix of Christian and Greek mythology. It didn't mesh well with me that angels are totally there as well as the different rivers of the Underworld. The two are like oil and water for me. Having Greek mythological elements without also having anything about the gods was annoying and distracting. I didn't expect it to be quite so religion based even though it's about the afterlife. I don't tend to gravitate towards books like that and it was disappointing to have such an emphasis on it. On Earth, Felicia and her boyfriend Neil are quite religious. I do like that she made her own choices and didn't let him make them for her. For instance, when the church wanted to shame her into signing a purity pledge and she refused even though Neil had signed it. However, she made some mistakes in her past like dating a guy when her best friend was also dating him and running away when she found that same friend murdered. She acted like she literally killed someone and that she was the most morally degenerate person who ever lived. This is one aspect of religion I really hate. Many of them emphasize self loathing and self flagellation after transgressions. The religion and mythos of the world didn't seem to go together and it bothered me.

Some of the the characters were just awful. Julian was a huge jerk even though he has some sort of magnetic connection to Felicia for no reason at all. The freedom fighters in Level 2 didn't care about civilian casualties or using people for their own ends. The Morati were basically a ripped off version of the machines from the Matrix except being addition jealous of humans and bitter that they can't go to the true afterlife. Neil is only slightly better than Julian. His sanctimoniousness makes him insufferable and instead of just refusing when she attempts to initiate any sort of sexual activity, he shames her because of his religion. What a nice boyfriend. Even her best friend Autumn just seemed like her life's work was to be better than Felicia and put her down in passive aggressive ways. There were very few people to root for or even like despite emphasizing morals and religion.

The Memory of After doesn't deliver what I expected. Instead of an interesting afterlife story, we get a weirdly preachy book that fuses Christian and Greek mythology nonsensically with mostly awful characters that I cared nothing about. The only saving grace was the writing I don't really want to read the sequel, but unfortunately I already committed to reviewing it.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Holiday Horror: Krampus

Max hates his extended family and they come over every Christmas for dinner. His cousins always humiliate him; his uncle always hates the food Max's mother makes; and the two families have nothing except their blood relation in common. The only person he really likes of them is his Omi, his father's Austrian mother. Once his heartfelt letter to Santa to fix his family is read out loud by his awful cousins and ridiculed, he angrily tears it up and throws it out the window. Then a mysterious red sac full of gifts arrives at their door and a storm unexpectedly comes in so severe that the power goes out. The families are effectively trapped inside with no light and freezing temperatures. Then a sinister force set on punishing them slowly reveals itself, challenging the family to work together or die.

Krampus is the second film by Michael Dougherty who also directed my favorite Halloween film Trick 'r Treat. This film is a great addition to the holiday horror genre, but doesn't live up to its predecessor. The exposition of the film is a bit lengthy, but it's important to establish the characters, their relationships, and really get us to care about what happens to them. Without this, the film would be lackluster. I love the beginning and its cynical yet accurate view of the holiday season. Bing Cosby croons It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas while people brawl it out over Christmas decorations and present. Max also fights with another students onstage at the Christmas play while his classmates teachers and parents look on, horrified. It captures the Christmas feeling to so many: retail rage and spending time with family you hate. It's clear from the beginning that Max's family doesn't see eye to eye on practically anything; they are opposing on everything from political ideology to how to raise their kids to how they liked the food. Their fights just escalate, undeterred by Christmas or the supposed togetherness of the holiday. After they are attacked by supernatural creatures, they grow closer together and are forced to work together for the greater good. At this point, I like the family enough, but they are all kind of awful. I wouldn't mind if they were dragged off by supernatural creatures and killed. Oma, Max's Austrian grandmother, is the best and most sympathetic character in the film and the only one I would have any sort of emotion if they died. However, I did like seeing a realistic dysfunctional family onscreen and exploring their relationships.

My favorite part of the film is Krampus and his variety of monstrous helpers. Krampus himself towers over everyone with huge horns, hooves, long skeletal fingers, and an eerie human face. He wears a huge cloak to obscure his face most of the time, which is no less imposing or frightening than his visage. His helpers include adorably homicidal gingerbread cookies, horrific toys a la Nightmare Before Christmas, unseen sandworms under the snow, evil snowmen, evil Jack-in-the-Boxes, and other masked creatures. The clown Jack-in-the-Box in particular is the stuff of nightmare fuel as it seeks to devour its prey whole. There is no shortage of creative monsters here. Their design pushes the envelope of what is acceptable in a PG-13 horror film because of how truly creepy and disturbing they are. I love Krampus story: how he is the shadow of Santa Clause and comes in to punish a whole village that has lost the Christmas spirit, leaving one lone child survivor to tell the tale to others. The part explaining this story through Oma's memories changes medium and adopts a monochromatic, stop motion style. The change is beautiful with a dash of Edward Gorey and builds the Krampus mythos nicely.

Krampus is a gleefully sinister Christmas movie that I would watch every year along with Gremlins. The only flaw in the film is that Dougherty clearly pulled back what we would usually do to the characters (as seen in Trick 'r Treat) in order to gain a wider audience and a PG-13 rating. It feels a bit watered down, but makes sense with the ending. That said, I hope it opens up more doors for him and helps pave the way for a sequel to Krampus and Trick 'r Treat.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Holiday Horror: Silent Night, Deadly Night

Billy Chapman has had a hard life. At first, he was a lovely little boy, but frightened of Santa because his supposedly invalid grandfather told him that Santa punishes the wicked. Later that very night, a man dressed as Santa stops him and his family on their way home. Of course his parents are willing to help out, but the man turns out to be a crazed murderer. He shoots Billy's father and then slits his mother's throat after sexually assaulting her while Billy hides in the bushes by the road, praying to be ignored. Billy is understandably traumatized about Santa Claus, but his new guardian who is a Catholic nun believes in tough love and punishment, including forcing Billy to confront his fears. All of this culminates when he's eighteen and working in a department store. Their Santa became injured just before he was needed, so Billy fills the role and has a psychotic break. Can anyone save Billy?

I've heard Silent Night, Deadly Night lauded as the best slasher in history many a time. I was eager to watch it because I enjoy a good slasher and it wasn't quite what I expected. It has many memorable qualities, the first and foremost being that the murderer is both human and the main character. A lot of slashers from the same era focus on killers that are inhuman forces of nature. Billy is quite human with a traumatic childhood. His story is truly heartbreaking and I felt sorry for him, which is unique in this era of horror films. Slashers also typically focus on the final girl who survives after watching all of her friends day usually thanks to her virtuous behavior, but this iconic character is absent here. The first half of the film focuses on Billy's traumatic upbringing from the murder of his parents to the present day where he's eighteen. Besides the original deranged Santa murderer, there is no villain for this part of the film. The orphanage scenes are the most poignant because he had the chance to heal, but due to the misguided efforts of the Mother Superior, he is harmed further. It would have been easy to make Mother Superior into a flat villain that hates children, but she actually believes that severely punishing him physically for relatively small infractions and forcing him to face his fears by making him sitting on Santa's lap is helping him get better. Although her actions are monstrous, her motivations are genuine. This part makes the film much more complex than the usual slasher. When he turns eighteen, Billy is full of possibilities and ready to go on to the next stage of his life. Things go horribly wrong and the past snatches his chance to move on from his past trauma.

The latter part of the film becomes a typical slasher. Billy snaps when he is asked to be a toy store Santa and starts murdering people as an extreme version of Mother Superior's punishment. He first punished his vile coworker for attempting to rape the girl he has a crush on, but he turns around and kills her too. Through his experiences, he associates any sort of sexuality with punishment, as slashers are wont to do. As Billy goes on his murderous rampage, I held on hope that he would be saved in some way, but I knew it was pretty much impossible. Another nun from the orphanage sees the trouble early and tries to help, but it's really too little too late. This part of the film is quite boring, just a blur of blood and breasts with the least amount of character introduction possible for new victims. The acting is pretty uniformly bad except for Mother Superior. The last half of the film just kills it for me. The murdered characters beyond his coworkers aren't even fleshed out enough to really care about like they are in the typical slasher. Any sort of sexuality or nude woman is swiftly punished, which is typically problematic of the time. It started out so well and I was disappointed to see it descend into mediocrity at the end. The ending is predictably left open for sequels, of which there are four.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is half brilliant and half boring. The first half is revolutionary for the time, where we sympathize with the future murderer and main character. The second half is a little worse than every other slasher film because the killed characters aren't established enough to even care about. The music does a lot to heighten the tension and set the mood, but it's the only bright spot in the latter part of the film. I would say it's worth a watch, but not for repeat viewings,

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins