Thursday, August 31, 2017

Now I Rise

Lada Dracul was supposed to be the prince of Wallachia, but she finds herself with no powerful allies and no throne with only backstabbing enemies. She has to depend on herself and just her small caravan of loyal men because everyone else proves to be easily swayed. Radu, Lada's brother, is commanded by Mehmed to become a double agent in Constantinople, the city Mehmed must have according to prophecy. Although he longs to stay by Mehmed's side, he outwardly denounces the sultan and joins the Christian city with his wife. Both sibling faces practically insurmountable tasks and must decide how much they are willing to compromise or sacrifice to get what they want.

I'm not usually a fan of historical fiction, but Kiersten White's writing has sucked me into this world of political intrigue and strife in the 1400's. Lada and Radu are well drawn characters that I root for although their goals are at odds. Lada is still a force of nature even though she's at her lowest point. Her rage is considerable and her vengeance is brutal. I love how White balances Lada's character. She's capable of much violence and strength, but she's still a teenage girl figuring out herself and her emotions. The appearance of her childhood nurse embarrasses her in front of her men and it's a humanizing moment that puts the story in perspective. Lada also still loves Mehmed, but recognizes that Mehmed doesn't value her dreams or accomplishments. She would have to give up everything to be with him and she isn't willing to do that. The moment when she realizes that he wants her to be queen is the moment he exposes himself as being like all the other nobles, only viewing her as a decorative broodmare instead of what she is.

Lada finds herself in the political realm and faced with difficult decisions. When opportunities arise, she must choose to follow people who wronged her family in the past or hold on to that grudge at the expense of her dream. The best thing about her is her love for Wallachia. Although she has many ambitions for herself, her ultimate goal is to save and elevate her country and its people. Along her journey, peasants are saved from starvation and murder. Many of them march with her because of the change she could bring to their lives. Lada must also decide if she will follow the deeply flawed political system that has allowed for so much greed, exploitation of the poor, and the decline of Wallachia or if she will blaze her own bloody path. Without Radu, Lada is forced navigate the niceties of court on her own, where she is lost. She does learn a considerable amount, such as the true weakness in other countries. Every experience, no matter how bad, teaches her how to make the right decisions for her future rule of Wallachia.

Radu, on the other hand, has to compromise his own integrity to be what Mehmed wants him to be. Still smitten with Mehmed, Radu would do anything he asked and discovers that the whole Christian vs. Muslim situation isn't as cut and dry as he would like it to be. While in Constantinople, he discovers the truth of the city: the overwhelming amount poor, the religious fanaticism, and the weathered, almost dilapidated state of the city. Radu is present when the siege starts on the city and works at the side of the people there, forming friendships and bonds, while he simultaneously sabotages their efforts for Mehmed. He and Cyprian form a friendly relationship that runs deeper. I was so excited for Radu to have a romance that isn't completely manipulative and one sided. However, it complicates things when he sympathizes with the people Mehmed seeks to destroy. He witnesses harrowing events and experiences the horror of war first hand. Eventually, Radu must decide if his newfound relationships are enough to turn against Mehmed. Mehmed's perfection started to wear away before Radu even left when he murdered envoys from Constantinople. Radu rationalized it at the time, but he is slowly seeing how disposable lives are to his love.

Now I Rise is even better than And I Darken. The story takes off much faster and I had a hard time putting it down. Both siblings are fighting their own very different wars and White manages to make both of them sympathetic and easy to relate to. The minor characters shine as well, especially Radu's wife Nazira and Hunyadi. Nazira is so clever and skilled that it's crazy. Her love for her wife and her friendship for Radu are shown through her devotion and care. Hunyadi, the man who murdered Lada's father, proves to be a father figure for her who is much better than her own father. She relates to much more than she expected. The end was epic, especially Lada's last letter to Mehmed, and I can't wait for the next book.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Book Mini-Reviews: One Dark Throne and Invictus

* One Dark Throne

Katherine has ascended from being the weakest potential queen to the strongest. Arsinoe found out that her power lies in poison. Mirabella faces the most opposition as the one having the most power. All three sisters vie for a throne because of toxic traditions that call for the death of two of the triplets only to repeat again with their own children when their reign is over.

There's something about this series that I'm reluctant to read it at first, but before I know it I'm halfway through the book in one sitting. The story just grabs me even though there are a lot of plots and main characters to follow. I grew to hate Katherine in this book because she's the only one gunning to kill her sisters, trying to game the system, and pretending to be a poisoner when she's not. I felt for her last book, but my sympathy is gone now Arsinoe makes some pretty terrible decisions this book. Her core is still that strong, practical woman we saw in the previous book who completely expects to die in this fight. Mirabella gets caught up in misunderstandings, but she's the most steadfastly good person in the book. I like all three sisters in their own way. Some are making frustrating decisions and turning against each other, but all the sisters are sympathetic.

The action seems to move much faster since the world has already been established. The sisters' past is seen in more detail as they meet someone they haven't seen since they were taken from the Black Cottage. It puts their reality more into perspective and shows how the traditions of their society have harmed them. The only lacking parts are in the side characters like Jules and Joseph. I didn't really care for their relationship or the overprotective way Jules treats Arsinoe. I will read the series to the end, but it does take me a little while to get into the story.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

* Invictus

Farway Gaius McCarthy has a bit of reputation because he was born outside of time. His mother (from the 2300's) recorded history and fell in love with a Roman gladiator in 95 AD, which of course is forbidden. Facts are fudged so Farway's parentage doesn't come into question. His dream is to travel through history like his mother, who never returned from one of her assignments. Farway's whole world comes crashing down when he fails his final exam and is forever barred from his dream. A less savory man offers him a job to illicitly travel through time to obtain lost artifacts, but it all goes wrong when the girl who sabotaged his test holds one of those artifacts hostage to join their crew. Who is she and what does she want?

I really enjoyed the first half of the book. I love the idea of a world where time travel exists and it's an actual job to go back in time, blend in, and record key events for both historical record and public enjoyment. Even on illicit trips to the past, it's important to have a good engineer to do all the calculations and a good historian who will know what fashion, materials, and language would be commonplace for the time. I wish we could have seen a little more what a typical day in that world would have been, but more time is spent in other times.

Farway and his crew really drew me into the story. While Farway is a bit conceited and annoying, his romances with Priya is adorable and keeps him grounded. Priya is the medic onboard. Her steadfast nature balances out the more flighty and wild people on the crew and I liked her best. I do find it a little annoying that they are already in love when they start so we don't get to see how it developed. Another unspoken romance blossoms between carefree, colorful Imogen and by the numbers Gram. To round out the crew, they have a red panda generally being adorable and getting into mischief. The crew dynamic is balanced and they are really more family than friends.

The second half of the book revealed the mysterious girl's identity and introduced a whole disparate concept to the story that I didn't enjoy as much as everything else. The story was exciting and the characters grew and changed, but that concept just didn't really mesh with everything else for me. I rode out the story and generally enjoyed it, but I probably wouldn't read another book if it were a series. I would definitely read more from the author, but maybe not a science fiction based book.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

All the Crooked Saints

It's the 1960's and Bicho Raro, Colorado is the home of the Soria family, who perform miracles for visiting pilgrims seeking to solve their problems. The miracle process takes place in two steps and many pilgrims are stuck in between them, seeing no way to move on. The family has their own problems while trying to provide housing and food to the pilgrims with bizarre afflictions. Their personal and professional lives are at a stand still and they are fast losing hope, but three cousins, analytical Beatriz, Daniel the Saint of Bicho Raro, and Joaquin AKA rogue DJ Diablo Diablo, hold the potential to make a miracle of their own.

All the Crooked Saints is a book that immersed me in its world from its vibrant cast of characters to the nonchalant magic to the unique cadence of Stiefvater's charming writing. When each character is introduced, the thing they want and the thing they fear are always stated planely. It gets to the heart of the character quickly. The main three cousins are as close as siblings but very different from each other. Beatriz considers herself devoid of emotion because she shares her father's clinical nature and subdued affect. Daniel feels tremendous pressure as the Saint and has been ignoring his emotions for a while. Joaquin is the most wild of the bunch and sets up his rogue radio station on his own, but keeps his illicit dream from everyone else. Beatriz's parents are at a standstill because both process their emotions differently in a way that pushes the other away. They are all cut off in some way, much like their charges.

The pilgrims have come to solve a problem they have not been able to do themselves. The first step of the miracle is the physical manifestation of their darkness. For one woman named Marisita, it's being covered in butterflies and crying so much that they can't fly away. For another, it's being a literal giant, always under scrutiny by others. For another, it's a snake binding her to her sister that only tightens if they try to get away. The family isn't allowed to directly help with their problems or their own darkness will take them over, even worse, which leaves a great many staying in at the house for months. The Soria's don't ever even talk to them, ceasing to even see them as people after a while. The problem comes in when Daniel tries to help Marisita and then is consumed by his own darkness. The way the Soria's have traditionally done things hasn't worked and is finally breaking down, giving the cousins an opportunity to find a new way.

I absolutely love this book. The writing puts magic in the real world as if it's always been there and definitely shows the influence of magical realism. Each character gives us a glimpse into their past without bogging down the plot at all. I loved viewing the world through each characters eyes and seeing beauty in something I ordinarily would not. For instance, Pete falls in love with the desert when I think it's kind of a boring, torturous place to be. I wish this book weren't a stand alone so I could return to the world, but I can see that the story is nicely finished. There is controversy around All the Crooked Saints as Maggie Stiefvater is a white author writing about Mexican culture. I don't see insensitivity or inaccuracies in the book. I felt that there were differing and dynamic views of the characters. People should read the book before labelling it problematic or giving it a low rating. All the Crooked Saints is a beautiful, whimsical novel that shows the importance of communication, connection, and relationships.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, August 28, 2017

Halloween Arrives Early: Adventures in Hollywood Part 3

The last part of the adventure!

* Vincent Price's star

I passed by Vincent Price's star on the Walk of Fame. It reminded me to watch more of his movies during October because I've only seen a few despite how many he has been in and how influential he was as an actor.

* The Beetle House

The Beetle House is a pop-up bar and restaurant celebrating all things Tim Burton. It's booked up through it's run, but walk-ins are welcome in the bar. We only stayed a few minutes to look at the decor, but it was impressive nonetheless. Lots of well done fanart hung on the walls, which are also for sale. It's definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Halloween Arrives Early: Adventures in Hollywood Part 2

More macabre adventures in Hollywood!

* The Museum of Death

I've been meaning to go to the Museum of Death for a while and it's a bit of a mystery because pictures of the inside are not allowed. Although it's rather small, the building is chock full of so many random things about death. The first room is dedicated to serial killer art and correspondence as well as merchandise such as trading cards and plushies and some of their belongings like Pogo the Clown's shoes. Some pieces are as depraved as you would expect, but John Wayne Gacy's were childlike and bright, mostly of himself as Pogo. A room is dedicated to local murders, such as the Manson murders, the Black Dahlia, the Simpson murders, along with other lesser known ones. The amount is shockingly high. Most entries have crime scene photos, evidence, or other related artifacts, like the swastika quilt made by the Manson family.

Both authentic and replicas of execution devices are displayed, such as Kevorkian's and an electric chair. The electric chair is shown with the unwashed clothing of someone killed in it. (Ew.) The mummified severed head of the Bluebeard of France, Henri Desire Landru, whose crimes echo those of Belle Gunness, rests in a glass case. A macabre replica of the Heaven's Gate Cult suicide is displayed (including artifacts from the event) with the countless newspaper headlines and information around it. A small display case was dedicated to the Jonestown Massacre with pictures and newspapers headlines. Random giant photos of rotting hands and cross-sections of brains are shown with no explanation. A placard would have been nice. There's a small nook dedicated to cannibalism, but it was disappointingly small. A poster of Cannibal the Musical (which had practically none in it) took up most of the space and it was void of recent events.

One room was dedicated to funerary practices of different cultures, embalming and preparation techniques and equipment, a collection of mortuary advertisement fans, advertisements for less conventional choices for the body after death, and death photography of the Victorian era. I found this room particularly fascinating because it's interesting to see how people in different cultures and time treated death. An instructional video on how to embalm a corpse plays in the background. An impressive collection of human and animal skulls are displayed that even include elephant and hippo skulls. A room is dedicated to taxidermy and even includes some pets of famous people like Jayne Mansfield. A small hallway is dedicated to celebrity deaths such as James Dean.

The Museum of Death is a collection of interesting, macabre, and gruesome things. Overall, I enjoyed the experience. A couple of things did bother me. First, much of the hallways and in many of the rooms have graphic crime scene photos from many different eras. I was not expecting so much of it and it's the hardest part of the place to handle. I also feel it's exploiting the victims in the photos. My second problem is the size of the place. Every surface has something on it and all the walls are crowded with pictures, placards, letters, artifacts, etc. It's hard to see everything especially when trying to dodge other patrons. Getting a larger building and spacing things out would help. Third, the smell of some rooms wasn't pleasant, probably due to their macabre origins, and only some of the rooms were air conditioned. If you plan to go, avoid the summer. Even with these issues, the Museum of Death is worth the price of admission if you have a strong constitution.

More to come!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Halloween Arrives Early: Adventures in Hollywood Part 1

I trekked to LA with a friend and experienced some spooky things to jumpstart my Halloween season.

* The It Experience

The It Experience is a free haunt on the corner of Hollywood and Vine to promote the new film. The outside is magnificent as if it was ripped right out of the pages of the novel. I made a reservation when it was a first announced and I'm glad I did since the walk-in line stretched around the building and down the street. It now has expanded hours form 11am to 11pm daily until September 10th.

Anyway, now to the actual experience. Georgie leads groups of 7 (our own Loser's Club) throughout the house, urging us in frightened whispers to stay together and not wander off. Our Georgie really roleplayed well and acted like a scared kid for the duration, which helped the atmosphere. The house is creepy with cobwebs and random, dusty artifacts everywhere. Noises from scares in other rooms can be heard as a small preview of what's to come. Pennywise's voice provides the first jumpscare behind a closed door that made me jump. Maps of Maine and other It easter eggs litter the walls. This haunt does something that most don't: it forces you to stay in the room for longer than the times it takes to walk through it. The first room was the scariest to me. Clown statues stood all over with a small coffin in the middle of the room. An eerie music box tune plays and the door opens (with a jumpscare) but nothing's in it. The clown has been in the room the whole time and he reveals himself after some suspense.

The next room shows a TV show taken over by Pennywise with a wholesome host surrounded by children chanting "kill them all." On the back wall, the projection scene from the trailer is recreated as we see the family pictures of Bill and George until Pennywise is revealed. Going to the next room has flickering lights and disembodied hands grabbing at you through a wall. Unfortunately, the hands looked pretty cheesy and fake, but the thought was cool. The next room has three doors to choose from labeled not scary at all, scary, and very scary with Close to You playing in an eerie music box tune and flashing lights come from behind the doors. The walls are papered with missing children signs. The first has a creepy animatronic clown and the second has a real clown jump out. We are led through the final door into a bathroom with guts in a bathtub and skittering cockroaches. (Presumably) Beverly stands in front of a sink screaming as it spews blood, an exact scene from the book. It ends with It in the sewers in one last jumpscare that's broadcasted a little too early and perhaps a little too clearly lit for an animatronic.

Overall, The It Experience is a good haunt that uses the suspense of being in the rooms for an extended period of time to heighten fear. The Georgie actor I saw was excellent, but I saw some videos of other less impressive ones. I love the music that played throughout and I hope it's from the film's score. Pennywise's voice was everywhere, unifying the maze even though a lot of it was just about fear of clowns. My biggest disappointment was that so many of the scares were completely unrelated to the story of It. Other than that, it's totally worth going to especially as a free event.

More to come!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Book Mini-Reviews: A Good Idea and A Poison Dark and Drowning

* A Good Idea

Finley moved away from her best friend Betty in a small town in Maine to go to college in Manhattan, but their friendship stayed intact. They called, texted, and visited during the summer to keep ties. Then Betty goes missing, presumed by most to have committed suicide. Her ex-boyfriend Calder admitted to drowning her, but the confession is thrown out as coercion. Finley returns to the sleepy town to figure out what exactly happened to her friend.

A Good Idea addresses a lot of issues with teenage girls, friendships, misogyny, and the privilege of the rich. First, the town dismisses Betty's possible murder because she was promiscuous and exhibited erratic behavior beforehand as if it absolves anyone else of wrongdoing. The general attitude is that she brought it on herself or they just want to forget anything bad happened. Betty is a complex, flawed character who is not always likeable. She is dramatic with a vintage style and a bold aspiring actress. Finley remembers the irksome parts of her in addition to the parts she loved. Finley makes a huge amount of mistakes on the journey to solve her friend's disappearance/probable murder. Rash decisions include setting fires and slashing tires, but it still serves to remind the town that something happened and no one is doing anything about it.

On the opposing side, Calder is the hotheaded son of the mayor who always gets his way. After Betty cheated on him, he made sure she would never act in high school no matter how good she was, cutting off the one thing that made her happy. Despite all of his privilege, he still acted like a victim and had the support of the community, both enraging things. Another creepy guy is Owen, much older than the teens but that doesn't stop him from having sex with them. I don't know if I'm supposed to like him, but he very much needs to leave these kids alone. I prefered Serena, Finley's kind of girlfriend. I also appreciated the portrayal of bisexuality that's rare to see. The writing was serviceable, but I wouldn't read the book again. The revelations lose their edge once you already know what it is.

My rating: 3/5 fishmuffins

* A Poison Dark and Drowning

Although she knows she isn't the chosen one, Henrietta must play the role so that others won't despair and to save her best friend Rook, who would be turned away as his dark powers keep growing. Rhlem starts a campaign of horror and blood with the promise it will stop if Henrietta is turned over to him. Now that the shield is no longer active, the sorcerers are fighting a losing battle to save England and its surrouding countries from the threat of Rhlem and his cadre of giant monster and minions.

I didn't like A Shadow Bright and Burning very much, but I decided to give the sequel a try. I found many of the same problems with it. While the monster are horrific and impressive, the horror is always pulled back to make it more palatable. Some of the other ones are seen in more detail like Nemneris, who makes underwater webs and ensnares ships to eat sailors. Rhlem leaves notes to turn over Henrietta, but it comes off as super cheesy and juvenile. If he can meet people in their dreams, why not do that instead? Much more creepy and effective instead of Wicked Witch of the West-like. In terms of world building, the fae world still seems tacked on and at odds with the rest of the mythology instead of an intrinsic part of the world.

Henrietta and Blackwood are so much worse in this installment. She never listens to anyone and twists everything to get her way. Blackwood is as vindictive, childish, uptight, and misogynistic as ever. I don't even know why he's there to be honest except to annoy everyone. There's not much to root for here except Henrietta's new witch friend Maria who I would have loved to see last book. As interesting as she is, she's relegated to the background and just seems like Merida from Brave. Rook's situation plays out incredibly predictably and I have no sympathy for Henrietta at all.

More is discovered about the origins of the monsters, but it's accompanied by lazy deus ex machina type weapons to fight them. There's a random revelation about Rhlem that made me roll my eyes. It wasn't even unique in any way. I always have hope for this series' potential and it always disappoints me. I most likely won't read the next installment.

My rating: 1.5/5 fishmuffins

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Devil's Candy

A family has just moved into a beautiful home in rural Texas. Jesse works hard as an artist to support his wife and daughter. Although more interested in metal and dark, original art, he opts to paint butterflies for banks to pay the bills. His daughter Zooey struggles to fit in at school and his wife Astrid is worried about money. While all this is going on, they have no idea about the grisly murder that took place their and how the murderer will obsessively return to do his master's bidding.

When I heard Sean Byrne directed another film after The Loved Ones, I knew I had to see it. The Devil's Candy doesn't disappoint. It starts out as many horror films do with a loving family moving into a new house. This family is a little different than the usual clean cut variety. Jesse has a long hair, a torso full of tattoos, and a love of heavy metal music. His daughter has a tattoo of her own and dreams of playing a red, flying V guitar for a crowd of adoring fans. His wife Astrid has dyed hair and sometimes smokes weed with him to unwind after a hard day. It's so refreshing to see this depiction of a family because people are incredibly judgmental about dyed hair, tattoos, metal music, etc and tend to value them as degenerate or somehow negative. That shouldn't be the case at all especially seeing these things more and more in everyday life. One of the things that annoys me the most is the use of metal music to denote evil. I see it all the time at events like Universal's Halloween event and it never felt true to me. Here, Jesse and Zooey sing along to it together, much to Astrid's chagrin, and have bonded over the music. It even serves to keep the sinister voices at bay for our main villain, Ray. I hope to see more stories like this that go against outdated, traditional ideals.

The forces of evil in the film come in different forms. First is Ray, visually striking in his bright red track suit. He hears the voice of the devil telling him to commit the most gruesome acts of violence, starting with killing his own parents. I felt a bit of sympathy for him because he obviously didn't want to commit these acts, but succumbed to the voices when he couldn't stand it anymore. His main targets after his parents are children, dubbed the devil's candy, and he's shown watching televangelists while he dismembers them. Once he isn't trying to fight against his urges, Ray is completely terrifying, evidenced by how easily he killed the police protecting Jesse's home. The second force of evil is presumably the devil, tormenting both Ray and Jesse with constant whispers that won't quiet unless obeyed. The third comes in a Faustian bargain. The devil's whispers put Jesse into a trance and he paints the most eerie, magnificent paintings of his whole career. Belial Studios, decked out in stereotypical red, offers him the deal of a lifetime essentially at the expense of his family. Jesse steadfastly refuses anything that would put his family in danger, which is rare to see. The different forms of evil assaulting the family and the villain on all sides

The film is visually and aurally amazing, as was The Loved Ones. My favorite scene is a montage that merges Ray's murder and dismembering of children and Jesse's painting. It would seamlessly switch between them and sometimes show both in a split screen. As the montage went on, it grew more and more difficult to discern which was paint and which was blood. It was both macabre and beautiful. The uses of red as evil stand out in interesting ways even though the concept isn't particularly innovative. The music has a wide range, of course with a lot of metal bands such as Slayer, Sunn O))), and Machine Head. One scene features some sacred music by a female Gregorian Chant group, Aurora Surgit. After Zooey is captured by Ray and she's laying on his bathroom floor, a gorgeous version of Dies Irae, a song about the day of judgment, plays while she is figuring out how to escape. The music becomes dramatic and accented as Ray frantically looks for her after she's finally escaped. The music suits the mood of the scene exactly.

The Devil's Candy has aspects of The Loved Ones, but feels completely different. Every aspect from the acting to the visuals to the music is well crafted. I truly felt for the family since their dynamic was realistic and heartfelt. Seeing how much crap happened to them made me genuinely upset me. Sean Byrne has earned my confidence and I will watch any movie with his name attached. Both films are very different than other films in the genre and this one is easily on of the best of the year. I can't wait to see what else he can come up with.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Down Among the Sticks and Bones

Twin sisters Jacqueline and Jillian have parents who never expected the messy reality of having children. They only wanted to compete with their friends. The facade of perfection and fulfilling social expectations are their only motivations. Their mother has no idea how to care for them and calls in their Grandma Louise, who stays as their caregiver for years. The two girls are stuck into two randomly chosen roles: her mother expected Jacqueline to wear frilly dresses, be the proper girl, sit quietly, and stay out of trouble and dirt. Her father, who wanted a boy, expected Jill to be a tomboy with an affinity for sports and less stereotypically girly things. Louise tries to tell the girls to be whoever they want to be, but they feel competition with each other and suffocated by their parents' expectations. One day at twelve years old, they play together in the attic and find a door to another world with more opportunity and more darkness than they ever imagined.

These twins were first seen in Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones tells the story of their lives before any doors and the world that Jill tried so hard to return to. The other world Jack and Jill travel to is called the Moors, which offers them a chance at a new life with a whole new set of problems. Jack (who was always Jacqueline) was jealous of her sister's freedom to be less feminine, get dirty, and run around. Jill was jealous of her sister's beautiful dresses, long hair, and refined nature. This jealousy keeps them from forming a true friendship and keeps them at odds. This new world gives them the chance to be who they truly want to be, but their relationship is no better. Jill chooses to stay with the Master, the cruel vampire ruler of the land, as his doll-like, pampered daughter. Jack chooses to become a mad scientist's apprentice, submitting herself to backbreaking work and science that would turn others' stomachs. Both girls' desire to go after their own interests whether it be stereotypically feminine or not is seen as completely valid. Especially in YA novels, there is a dismissive or outright hostile view towards feminine women and girls with an "I'm better than those other girls attitude." I'm so happy to see an author I especially respect giving validity to differing gender roles.

The latter part of the story focuses mostly on Jack, her coming of age, and her first love. She lives near a village of peasant people and loves every bit of her humble way of life. However, throughout everything, there's an undercurrent of threat. If someone offends her, they might suffer a painful, bloody fate at the hands of Jill or the Master. After one such incident, the people take care what they say around her and keep her at arms length. Everyone except for Alexis, who loves her deeply. They hide the extent of their relationship in public, but Alexis is the only person Jack can truly be herself with. Jill, on the other hand, aspires to become a vampire and be next in line to rule the Moors. Her heart withers until she becomes just as ruthless as the Master she is so obsessed with and views death as an amusement. Their journeys run parallel each other until they meet in a heartbreaking tragedy.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones isn't quite as good as Every Heart a Doorway, but it provides a context for the twins and their dynamic. It's a pretty short novella. Seanan McGuire imbues each page with such masterful writing and detail that it seems much longer. I am eager to read further stories in this series that allow us to get to know those memorable characters better.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Horror Movie Mini-Reviews: Final Destination and House on Haunted Hill (2000)

* Final Destination

Alex Browning is going to France with his high school French class and feels uneasy about the flight. He's already uncomfortable with the concept, but he keeps seeing ominous and darkly ironic things involving plane crashes or the number of his plane everywhere. Safely boarded, he dreams that the plane explodes just after taking off. His ensuing freakout pushes a latecomer, Billy, off the plane plus Alex's best friend Tod, Carter the combative jock, Terry the jock's girlfriend, Valerie one of the French teachers, and Clear the loner. The plane explodes just after takeoff as foretold and everyone blames Alex. After the shock sets in, the survivors keep dying as if death is claiming those who escaped.

Final Destination holds up as a decent film despite the dated aesthetics. The characters aren't really much more than caricatures and the acting isn't very good. However, the kills are unique and small details make the movie more immersive. In this type of film where the novelty is in the kills, the characters just need to be there. Devon Sawa is particularly unlikeable here as the frantic Alex who seems like he's trying to get blamed for the survivor's deaths with his poor decisions. The initial plane crash made me scared to fly and has many different parts to it from chairs detaching and flying through the air to the final explosion. Most of the ensuing deaths are Rube Goldberg machines of doom that slowly build to the inevitable death. I thought the kill would go one way and then it would veer off in another direction. Tod's death had an extra detail in the burst eye blood vessels. I had never seen that before in a movie and it's a detail often overlooked. Valerie's death was a bit over the top and had moments that exceeded logic, but it was damn fun to watch. Valerie's and Billy's were sudden and shocking to give some variety in the deaths and the pacing.

This film has a running thread of humor through the whole thing despite the teenage drama and bloody deaths. I think that's why it's held up. It doesn't take itself too seriously and wasn't afraid to be cheesy. Even the ominous mood throughout the film was so over the top that it became funny. Tony Todd has another iconic role as the delightfully menacing mortician who lays out the rules for them. By the end of the movie, it goes off the rails a little bit. The scene with the live wires looked terrible and ridiculous. The simple concept and unique kills along with its over the top cheesiness make this film a fun watch.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

* House on Haunted Hill (2000)

Stephen Price changes the guest list for his hateful wife Evelyn's birthday party, which is set in a former insane asylum built into a cliff. A group of five strangers arrives along with the caretaker and he offers them a million dollars each if they can survive the night along with guns to make it interesting. Each of them is desperate for the money, so they stay, sealed into the house until morning. They have no idea what the vengeful spirits have in store for them.

House on Haunted Hill is another dated movie with over the top acting and a lot of people don't like it. It's a guilty pleasure for me and despite its flaws, it has unique elements. Geoffrey Rush hams up Stephen with his best Vincent Price and provides most of the humor throughout the film. His dynamic with Famke Janssen as his wife Evelyn is excellent as they trade vicious barbs and blows with nonchalance, as if every couple deeply hates each other. This and the basic concept are the only things this film shares with the original film. The only other decent performance is Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Vannacutt, mostly seen as a silent, threatening ghost. His story of experiemtentation on his patients is much more interesting and creepy than the plot in the present. The cold open is a memorable, gory scene when the patients finally rise up as he's vivisecting another. The rest of the cast, even those who are the "heroes," fall flat.

The scares in the film are well done even if they don't relate to each other. Digging through a giant vat of blood for a friend only to see them across the room proves effective. The zoetrope scene with Stephen trapped in a dizzying room and forced to endure a hallucinogenic trip through the asylums' history is particuarly memorable. That scene had one of the best practical effects with a woman whose entire face is taken up by a toothy mouth. Another particularly eerie one is the security guard's entired face being scooped out, leaving only the top of his skull and his lower jaw. Like Final Destination, the unique kills are more interesting over the paper thin characters. The details inside the house create an eerie atmosphere, contrasting the modern and dilapidated parts. The modern rooms are gorgeous with stained glass and fancy furniture. The rest of it has disturbing sculptures and dead human specimens in addition to the old asylum equipment.

The very ending disappoints with a terrible CGI monstrosity and the death of all the interesting characters. While the ghost doesn't hold up, it is a unique creation that has eerie elements. The post-credits scene shows Stephen and Evelyn's fate, which I don't think was deserved even on Evelyn's part. So much of this film is interesting that it obscures the terrible parts like the house somehow changing the guest list or Taye Digg's line at the end with the worst delivery ever or Chris Kattan's SNL style of acting. This film has a special place in my heart because of the main couple, the haunting imagery, and fun scares and kills. House on Haunted Hill is pure fun. Take the good with the bad and go along with the ride.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, August 21, 2017


Deuce has been living topside in Salvation for months, but struggles to get used to life there. Everything is different from how she should act to the limited freedoms she has and it's difficult to adjust to being treated like a child again. In addition to all this, Fade, Deuce's best friend and Hunter partner, has pulled away from her, leaving her lonely and misunderstood. Stalker is the only other person who knows what she went through and they don't feel the same about each other. Deuce volunteers for guard duty during the summer to protect the farmers while they work. The Freaks have been displaying disturbing behavior that imply a change toward more intelligence, planning, and ability to strategize. Can Deuce help save Salvation while they continue to belittle and discount her point of view?

Outpost picks up where Enclave left off: with Deuce, Wolf, and Fade adapting to life in Salvation. Where the Enclave kept artifacts away from their people to keep them ignorant and afraid, Salvation uses religion to enforce rigid gender roles. Both societies spun the end of the world in their own way to keep fear alive in their people. Deuce, as a kickass Huntress, doesn't fit in because she has survived her society's transition from childhood to adulthood. Reverting back to having no rights or privileges is also weird after surviving in the wild, fighting against Freaks, and making lifechanging decisions for herself. I understand her and feel her frustration except for her "I'm not like other girls" syndrome seen way to often in teen books. She learns to value other women and their different abilities, especially her adoptive mother. This leads to her acclimating to a different type of Huntress: one who not only fights fiercely, but has the ability to love as well.

This installment had more of a love triangle than the first, which annoyed me. Stalker loves Deuce, but she loves Fade. Fade is insufferable as he stays away from Deuce out of jealousy since she's kept her friendship with Stalker. I don't like the weird possessive attitude on both boys' parts that came out of nowhere, which is another toxic teen novel trope. When Deuce and Fade's relationship gets more serious, she still retains her independence. As the book went on, the love drama took less precedence as the Freaks became more and more threatening.

The more intelligent behavior of the Freaks seen underground in the previous book extends to more of them in this book. They use strategy and leave mutilated bodies in a gruesome warning. Emotion affects them as they attacked sometimes out of revenge. Deuce eventually invenstigates their camp and sees an organized society with housing, children, cooking, and other markers of a civilized society. It's also shown that Freaks have children and don't turn humans to make Freaks. They are mutants, not zombies, which disappoints me. I wish this would have been clear in the first book instead of stringing zombie fans along.

Outpost has many good qualities like calling out societies that manipulate their people, rejecting rigid gender roles, and Deuce's journey throughout the book. The not so great parts include the love triangle (so tired), Fade's toxic behavior (rejecting her for no reason and acting possessive), and Freaks not being zombies. I will be continuing the series, but I hope the first two flaws work themselves out.

My rating: 4/5 fishmuffins

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Annabelle: Creation

Dollmaker Samuel Mullens, his wife Esther, and their daught Annabelle or Bee are a happy family up until Bee is tragically run over in the street near their house. Twelves years later, Samuel and Esther generously agree to house six orphan girls and their guardian Sister Charlotte. At first, the girls are pleased with the huge house and its accommodations, but weird things keep happening at night like doors opening and closing and a doll mysteriously appearing randomly. Linda and Janice are the outcasts of the house and prove to be most vulnerable to this supernatural threat.

I hated the first Annabelle movie and I expected almost anything could improve upon it. The prequel/sequel Annabelle: Creation is a better film, but leaves me cold and wanting more like The Conjuring universe does. I was on board at the beginning of the film. The Mullens are an adorable family suddenly struck with tragedy. The orphans are mostly sympathetic. Janice had polio and walks with difficulty, proving to be a source of ridicule for the other girls except her best friend Linda. The other girls are varying degrees of cruel, keeping both Janice and Linda as outsiders to their clique. The girls' acting was all on point, especially Lulu Wilson. I wish some of the other girls were more than just jumpscare fodder, but one of the older girls, Nancy, changes her mean girl ways after being scared by the entity.

The film has a lot of sources of horror, much more than just the creepy doll. There's also the reclusive wife with the doll-like mask who ominously rings a bell, a scarecrow, a literal demon, and a possessed girl (Janice). Each of these could have featured in their own movie. Here, they are muddled and keep the plot unfocused. Considering the title, it felt like the doll didn't figure highly with all of these other things. The demon is the main antagonist and inhabits the doll. This doesn't seem to matter too much when we see its physical form multiple times, tormenting the inhabitants of the house.

The director of this film also directed Lights Out. Not surprisingly, both films have similar problems. The rules aren't well established and only matter when its convenient for the plot. For instance, Janice is being tormented by the demon while it's making huge amounts of noise, opening and closing doors and throwing her to the ground. No one wakes up. This ability to mute sounds doesn't hold true for the whole movie. The demon has shown that the laws of physics don't matter to it, but then it turns around and struggles with doors being held closed and chasing people around. This problem makes it clear that the filmmakers aren't interested in making a cohesive, well built story. They just want a bunch of cool images and scares.

The scares throughout the movie are mostly jumpscares. I find these to be the cheapest type because they require no buildup and rely on involuntary physical reactions to being startled. Some scares were decent with actual suspense like the scene with the pop gun and the scene in the barn with the scarecrow where it's destroying the lights. Most of them were cheap and weren't memorable. I did like the many moments of silence that slow the pace of the movie and allow some space between the scares.

 Although this is an improvement to the terrible Annabelle movie, Annabelle: Creation still not great. While most of the characters are well drawn, the plot is muddled with too many villains, jump scares, and the lack of established rules. Even the concept that this loving couple would want children in the house with a known demon is shaky at best. The only positives of the film are the performances, the one moment of gore, and the look of the film. I guess I should resign myself to watching these mediocre movies since The Conjuring universe shows no signs of stopping.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Odd and True

Trudchen grew up hearing Odette's stories of their mother as a monster hunter and later Odette's own stories of carrying on her mother's legacy. Now that she's grown up a bit, she's not so quick to be fooled by her sister's stories. Because of a childhood bout of polio, Trudchen is disabled and in constant pain. She lives with her aunt after her parents died as did Odette until she abruptly left with no explanation. Odette is back after two years and eager to get Trudchen out of the house and on adventures while Trudchen remains reluctant. The Leeds Devil is terrorizing a town and Odette is convinced they can beat it. Trudchen ends up going, but will she live to regret it?

The book is told in alternating narration between Trudchen in the present and Odette in the past. Trudchen was my favorite character because she was a genuine, nice person being manipulated and lied to by her sister. I felt for her the most and it was clear that her sister didn't really care about her health or wellbeing. Trudchen, being the younger sister of the two, doesn't remember all the hardships of their childhood, but Odette chooses to lie to her and keep her in the dark about their past instead of being honest.

Odette had a hard life and remembers more than she'd like. She tells lies about everything or tells half truths or omits information altogether. I felt for her tragic story, but nothing justifies lying to her sister and whisking her away where she doesn't seem to keep in mind her sister's safety or comfort. Shes seems to care more about her egotistical need to have Trudchen witness her accomplishments than actually building a relationship and spending time with her. Odette, the least likeable, dominates the story with half of the narrative and the dominating aspect in Trudchen's. Trudchen has small moments of independence and power, but it's not enough for me.

Other aspects of the novel are annoying as well. Based on the cover and the synopsis, I expected the sisters to fight monsters and bond over it. Unfortunately, about 200 pages go by without any indication if monsters are just another Odette lie or if they are real. I'm guessing it was for suspense, but waiting for an aspect to show up that I expected to be a fundamental part of the book feels like being lied to, just like Trudchen. Very disappointing. Cy is Odette's love interest. However, he's manipulative, takes advantage of Odette, and doesn't listen to the sisters when they express opinions. Not good characteristics in a love interest. Other than that, the book had some merits, but I found it a huge let down. I would read another Cat Winters book, but if this is going to be a series, I'm done with it.

My rating: 2/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

SDCC 2017: Best Cosplay Part 4

* Luke Skywalker from The Force Awakens - This was a popular costume and this one blew the rest of them out of the water. The robotic hand alone is crazy well crafted.

* Tiny Negan - The most adorable homicidal maniac you'll ever see.

* Brave Little Toaster - This cosplay is not only incredibly obscure, but accurate in almost every detail. He told me the appliances were made out of foam. It looksl like it all stepped out of the cartoon.

* Creepy clowns - I know the one on the left is from Killer Klowns from Outer Space, but I'm not sure about the one on the right. Either way, they're successfully creepy.

* Gamora, Starlord, and Baby Groot - There were a lot of Peter Quills at the con, but this one left the others behind with the props. Gamora had the best makeup of any other and the itty bitty Baby Groot was adorable!

Monday, August 14, 2017

SDCC 2017 Panels Part 3: iZombie

The only other panel I was was iZombie, one of my favorite TV shows. I arrived about 15 minutes late due to the line, but I saw plenty of what's to come from the series. The characters go through some changes in the next season. Blaine's dad Angus will become a regular on the show. I'm excited. He's so sinister and the sarcastically cheerful moments between him and Blaine are delightful. Let's see if either of them will successfully kill each other after so many attempts. Peyton will have more power under the zombie mayor and will spend more time in the court room. Ravi just used himself as a guinea pig, so we'll see how zombie Ravi reacts to the antidote. Clive is adapting to the new world after getting used to zombies existing. Blaine pines for Peyton, but David Anders mentioned that Blaine doesn't actually have any hope in the relationship and will likely continue on with business as usual. Major and Liv will have opposing opinions on how zombies should exist based on their past. Major was part of the zombie military with basically unlimited power while Liv used her power to help people on her own with relative freedom from authority figures. Liv will also have another love interest in the next season. I'm not super happy about this because things are unresolved between her and Major let alone with her new ex-boyfriend Justin and her one night stand with Chase Graves. Her love life seems messy enough without adding to it.

More new developments in the new season include a refugee situation for zombies. There is not enough brains for everyone and I'm sure Blaine and his father will be fighting to fill that need. There will be a Zagat rated zombie restaurant that brings brains "from cemetery to table" called Romero's in a sweet tribute to the father of the zombie film. Zombie scratches are now illegal. An anti-zombie terrorist group called the Deadenders forms and stands against human-zombie fraternization. A clip shown detailed how brains get from the dead person to the tables of zombies. I'm incredibly excited for next season especially since parts of it are very apt for what's going on today in the news.

The stars of the show answered moderator and fan questions. Rose McIver talked about the process for deciding how to approach the brain of the week. She gives into a whim or concept and tries a bunch of different ways to go about it without being afraid of being too campy. There isn't a lot of time for her to prepare for each one and, although I have a few complaints, she does a good job overall. One of her new brains for next season will be a hockey goon. The stars had the most fun filming the Dungeons and Dragons episode, which allowed Major, Clive, Peyton, Liv, and Ravi to interact all at once which is rare. A fan asked about a musical episode and the only ones on board were Rose McIver and David Anders, who has a beautiful voice. Robert Buckley agreed if he could only dance and not sing, but he apparently sings Careless Whispers by Wham! and Rush Rush by Paula Abdul all the time. The others stars were either on the fence or not enthused. Robert Buckley got the lion's share of the questions and talked about wanting to do more scenes that show off his body. The panel was wonderful and I can't wait for the next season of iZombie!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

SDCC 2017: Best Cosplay Part 3

More of the best cosplay I saw this past SDCC!

* Puppet Ash from Ash vs. Evil Dead - This puppet is one of my favorite parts of the most recent season of the show. It was completed created by this man complete with chainsaw arm and magnetic pupils to change the eye color.

* The Flash and Deadpool plus bonus creepy clown - This clown ventured into my photo randomly and made for a memorable moment.

* Game of Thrones ensemble - This group has impressive costumes with attention to detail. They seem like they walked right out of Westeros and it's one of the largest ensemble cosplays I've seen.

* Scar and Maleficent/Star Wars - This maship works surprisingly well and the little details and excellent quality make this cosplay shine. I especially liked the plush Simba attached to Scar's belt.

More to come!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

SDCC 2017 Panels Part 2: Preacher and The Defenders

I braved the extremely long Hall H line to see Twin Peaks, which I missed. I still got to see Preacher and The Defenders which made the 2 hour wait worth it anyway.

* Preacher

Although I came in a few minutes late, the panel was chock full of awesome! Seth Rogan, Ruth Negga (Tulip), Dominic Cooper (Jesse), Joseph Gilgun (Cassidy), Ian Colletti (Eugene), Graham MacTavish (Saint of Killers), Julie Anne Embry (Featherstone), Malcolm Barrett (Hoover), and Pip Torrens (Herr Starr) moderated by Chris Hardwick. Seth Rogan talked about making the show, how complex it is, and how values have changed so it can be on cable TV. Each character was discussed in detail. Dominic talked about how Jesse toes the line between selfish and selfless. While his journey to find god could benefit others, a lot of his actions are very selfish and he seems to easily convince himself otherwise. Ruth talked about Tulip and her distrust of Jesse and the use of his power. Joseph talked about Cassidy's path to redemption and his human moments despite his vampirism. Jesse and Tulip offer him stability and a family that Cassidy wants to be honest with. Graham spoke of the Saint of Killers' motivation and the love for his family. Ian talked about the makeup for Eugene and how hard it is to emote around it.

Seth Rogan talked about The Grail, an all powerful organization, and introduced a never before seen clip of Herr Starr going through a gruelling screening process to join The Grail. It was the perfect balance of violent, unexpected, disconcerting, and hilarious. Audience questions were decent. Seth Rogan talked about how he and Ruth collaborated to create Tulip that make her strong and still feminine and emotional. A weird audience question had Seth Rogan jokingly replacing Dominic and renaming the show Rabbi. Another question about weird fan interactions had Joseph describe when a fan yelled from a balcony that he felt sorry for Hitler (which you would understand if you watched the show). Another fan asked about accents and Dominic based his on Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights. The last question was about pushing the envelope based on what's acceptable on TV. Rogan was shocked at how much they were able to get away with and wasn't really concerned about pushing further. AMC seems to be on board with this show with all of its quirks and weirdness.

* The Defenders

This panel took a while to get going because the moderator, Jeph Loeb, received the Inkpot Award for his contributions to TV as a writer and producer. He was speechless and clearly surprised. Jon Bernthal, who plays the Punisher, came out also unexpectedly and introduced the first trailer for The Punisher series, which looks awesome. What was shown was very violent and a bit darker than the other Marvel shows. The cast and writers for The Defenders came out including Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones), Mike Colter (Luke Cage), Charlie Cox (Daredevil), and Finn Jones (Iron Fist) along with other actors who play more minor characters. They talked about the dynamic between their characters. Jessica brings sarcasm and mocking comments while Luke and Daredevil seem to really hate each other at the beginning. The new villain is revealed to be Alexandra, portrayed by Sigourney Weaver.

I had hoped for fan questions to the stars, but instead, we were shown the first full episode of The Defenders. I haven't seen Iron Fist and I don't really want to based on this show and what I've heard. Those bunch of characters are the ones I cared the least about. Jessica has refused to work anymore until a case catches her interest. Luke returns from jail and sees Claire for the first time in an amorous encounter. Matt has rejected his superhero life in favor of helping disabled clients as a lawyer without Foggy. Alexandra finds out she's dying in anywhere from weeks to months and accelerates a plan that causes a huge earthquake. I'm very intrigued and the episode was action packed and interested, going from character to character seamlessly and not spending too much time with one over another. It's a juggling act to make something like this work and I will watch the whole thing right when it comes out.

One last panel and then back to the usual posts!