Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #159: So B. It by Sarah Weeks

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Weeks, I like a story about society’s lovable outcasts as much as the next person. Forrest Gump, for instance, is one of my favorite movies. Conversely, however, I don’t like feeling as if my emotions are being manipulated, and that is the impression I got from your novel, So B. It. Heidi, our narrator, has a mother who’s mentally disabled. She knows only 23 words, goes by the name So B. It (making Heidi, Heidi It), and is not fit to raise Heidi on her own.

How does Heidi grow up to be a relatively normal and well-adjusted child, though, despite her genes making that a miracle in its own right? An agoraphobic woman by the name of Bernadette cares for them. How does she pay her bills, as well as theirs, when she’s incapable of leaving the apartment, even to help Heidi, who’s like a daughter to her? From what I remember, Weeks never bothers to answer that.

What’s important is Heidi grows up with a mentally disabled mother, and an agoraphobic woman who handles the motherly duties that mother cannot. In Chuck Lorre’s hands, this would make for the perfect sitcom, which I think I would prefer to this more serious take on it, given the unlikelihood of such a living situation working out.

Especially when Bernadette allows Heidi, who’s only 12 years old, take a cross-country trip on her own, which isn’t even legal at her age, which Bernadette is aware of when she decides to give in and let her go. She can barely scrounge up enough money for Heidi to afford the cab she plans on taking to her destination after she gets off the bus. Not to worry, though; Heidi can get by with a string of luck that I’m fairly certain is, more or less, mathematically impossible.  At first I thought she was some sort of Rain Man, given what her mother’s like, but her “luck” was not limited to counting and the like, so there went there went that hypothesis.

No, Heidi is just unbelievably lucky… until she isn’t any longer, and her “luck” is seemingly passed on to someone else. In short, were it not for her “luck,” which is what helped her acquire the money for the bus, and Bernadette not being against child endangerment, Heidi’s journey to figure out the meaning of her mother’s word “soof” would’ve ended before, well… before she could say “soof.” The journey itself, once you get past that, makes for a nice enough little story, but that is a lot to get past. I couldn’t. Then again, maybe you can, and if you think so, then go ahead and read it. I see no reason why you shouldn’t like it.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #158: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

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First, let’s discuss the pros of Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. Besides his own graphic novel, Cages, and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman on the movie MirrorMask, Dave McKean’s illustration style has never been more perfectly suited for a project. Arkham Asylum is a madhouse, and McKean’s seemingly haphazard art reflects that. Likewise, the story, though maddeningly brief, is just as dream/nightmare-like. Readers could extract any number of deeper meanings from what takes place during Batman’s tour through the facilities he himself has populated.

In another sense, however, these are also its failings. Continue reading

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #157: Dexter’s Final Cut by Jeff Lindsay

In order to allow myself the freedom to adequately express the purely vitriolic reaction I had to what I had thought – and hoped, as I worked my way through it – was, in actuality, Dexter’s final cut, I will not hesitate to throw spoilers around in this review. Those who didn’t soldier up to and through that final season of Dexter, so much like the Vietnam War in that there was no winning, only PTSD flashbacks, as well as those who have not yet read Dexter’s Final Cut, count your blessings (for they are many) and either choose the blue pill or continue reading if you need extra encouragement to willingly choose that blissful ignorance.  Continue reading

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #156: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

[UNSET]I’ve twice been a runner-up, for the Cannonball (fourth place) and the Double Cannonball (second place) both, and I vowed I would not let myself come up short once again. No one was going to beat me to that illusive Triple Cannonball, least of all without a fight.

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So I put my nose to the page and read like a fiend. Naturally, I don’t mean that literally. I’m not legally blind. Nor am I a fiend. I’m only partially wicked. But I’m sure I didn’t need to tell you that. At least not the part about me not being legally blind; some of you might think I am a proper demon, or at least a troll, from having read my reviews thus far. If that is in fact true, it comes as no surprise to me, as it’s happened quite a few times in the past.

I’ve gotten maybe a dozen messages total in response to my various reviews on this blog, and all but a couple were of the negative variety, with the positive ones coming mainly from one user who mentioned enjoying my more scathing reviews. Though, with the wealth of reviews I’ve posted, my critics seem to have quieted down some, likely moved to silence by the endless stream of wrongness.

However, I didn’t do this for fans, I did it because, prior to 2013, it’d been years since I’d read with the same voracity as when I was a kid. These 156 books are more than I read in the 4+ years between graduating high school in the summer of 2008 and the start of this year. Heck, it’s only 29 fewer books than I’ve read the rest of my life, according to Goodreads.

I did it because it’s not often I get the chance to contribute to a good cause, since I rarely have any money to give. A Triple Cannonball likely won’t mean three separate donations to Lil A’s college fund, but in the event that that is how it works, I thought I might as well go all out. Maybe I would even inspire others to read more; I believe popcultureboy mentioned being pushed a little when he and I had an informal race to be the fourth to reach the full Cannonball.

Lastly, I did it because, despite my reading habits in the preceding years speaking to the contrary, I love reading, and wanted to share that love for reading with others as best I could. Oh, and I also won’t deny a small part of me just wanted to win, and now I have! Continue reading

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #155: Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

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I move that Manic Pixie Dream Girls be redubbed Stargirls. The titular character of Spinelli’s novel Stargirl (formerly known as Susan) sings people “happy birthday” at lunch with her ukulele, cheers for the opposing team as well as her own, creates photo albums for children she doesn’t personally know to give to them when they grow up, arrives at the school dance on a bike covered in sunflowers, etc. She belongs in the State Home for Manic Pixie Dream Girls.

But I knew it was only a matter of time before she found the boy brain damaged enough to fall in love with her brand of mentally ill. Heck, I was succumbing to her charms a little myself; MPDGs are like drugs, in that they’re alright in small doses, yet once their love is your drug, to quote Ke$ha, and you’re high on them 24/7, it gets to be too much. I could put up with Stargirl when she was just the quirky side-character. Then she became Leo’s love interest, successfully torpedoing that.

The rest of the book then functions as an in-depth look at the dark side of the MPDG. I don’t know whether or not that was intentional on Spinelli’s part, but it’s what I took away from Stargirl. Her efforts to be “normal” late in the book were Stepford Wife level creepy.

I guess I should be thankful that, in the end (SPOILER ALERT!)… Leo breaks thing off with Stargirl. Except he also unleashed her on the unsuspecting masses, as she skips town soon after having one final fling as the town MPDG. I’m sort of afraid to read the sequel and see what horrors happened once she moved her MPDG show elsewhere… (END SPOILER ALERT!).

That being said, the only logical conclusion to her story is someone having her committed, and so I’ll still read the sequel in the hopes that it happens. It most likely won’t, because, to quote Ben Folds, hope is a bastard, a liar, a cheat, and a tease. Kick its backside. It ain’t got no place in stories like these.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #154: The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

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I’ve read 41 Stephen King books, and none are more simplistic or convenience-driven than The Eyes of the Dragon. King explains in the afterword how he wrote it for his young daughter, but didn’t want to dumb it down and question her intelligence; unfortunately, he seems to have done exactly that, as each plot point hinges on a moment that caused me to ask “well, now isn’t that convenient?”

Even the best stories have some elements of convenience. Breaking Bad’s detractors will be quick to point out dozens of them in the show’s run, for instance. The Eyes of the Dragon goes beyond the necessary amount, however. If everything hadn’t happened just so, the story would’ve ended before it even began.

Once again, I’ll admit that this could be said of most stories. In the screenwriting course I took at Pitt, my professor defined a plot point as something that must happen in order for the plot to continue on. Isn’t that all it’s guilty of then, following normal story conventions, you ask? Yes and no.

The sort of moments I’m taking issue with are the ones where everything comes together way too nicely for me to buy it as mere coincidence, such as the role that Peter’s dollhouse comes to play later on in the book. I can’t buy that everything would slot into place so perfectly.

In addition, it’s not an overly complicated story. Flagg seeks to run Roland’s kingdom to ruin. To do so, he must first get Roland out of the way, and he does so by poisoning him and setting it up so the weaker-willed of Roland’s sons will become king. The rest of the book is then about how and when his treachery will be uncovered and him punished. That’s about the gist of it.

Strong characters could counteract the negative effects of so simplistic a plot, but no one, save Flagg himself, stood out to me. The only thing that did was, as usual, King’s writing itself. Even when the story he’s telling isn’t that impressive, King tends to do an above-average job of telling it, and The Eyes of the Dragon is no exception. With that in mind, I can really only, in good conscience, recommend it to people who are already fans of his work.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #153: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

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My problem with this is the same as the one I had with Brandon Sanderson’sAlcatraz series, which is that I don’t think it was as clever as it thought it was. Of course it’s not going to have a happy ending. The series is named A Series of Unfortunate Events. What else would you expect? You don’t need to keep reminding us that things are going to keep going wrong in the life of the Baudelaire children. That much is understood from the first page.

Likewise, I could do without the forced cleverness, such as the definitions we get on seemingly every page. Just stop and get on with telling us their (tragic) story already. After a while, I hoped it would actually go the way of an Alacatrazbook, with the story going against what the narrator’s been telling you all this time. That would have been unexpected; this not having a happy ending is not.

To its fans, I apologize, but I’ll stick with the movie starring Jim Carrey. With that, I can at least appreciate how devoted Carrey is to his role, and the overall look of the film.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #152: The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure by Jack Handey

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Of course Christopher Moore is reading this. It’s said authors write what they like to read, and The Stench of Honolulu definitely shares the same absurdist bent as Moore’s own books. It reminds me a lot of Moore’s Pine Cove novels, without a doubt his most out-there work.

Separating Handey from Moore is that Moore, as absurd as he can get, likes to stay at least somewhat rooted in reality and some form of logic, if only just internal logic, whereas in The Stench of Honolulu, anything goes. Handey’s career was built upon one-liners, and this book, in essence, is him hopping around randomly from one one-liner to another.

At numerous points, his narrator even stops the flow of the “narrative” for what amounts to, literally, just a list of jokes that are only barely related to his so-called plot. In one case, the narrator thinks up ways of murdering his friend, culminating with this hilariously convoluted plan:

Find a big rock stuck in the ground. Convince Don we need to move it. Don wrenches his back trying to lift it. We go back home, where he gets hooked on pain pills. He robs a drugstore to get more pain pills, and during the robbery shoots himself in the foot and needs even more pain pills. He overdoses and is rushed to the hospital. On the way, the ambulance is involved in a wreck, and Don wrenches his back even worse. He is able to flag down a cab. The cab driver has back problems, and when he sees Don he thinks Don is making fun of him, and shoots him.

That pretty accurately sums up the entire novel. It’s just Handey riffing around a basic plot and set of characters.

Sometimes, in rare moments, your thoughts and emotions and desires crystallize into pure thoughtlessness. The Eastern swamis can achieve this, and so can some checkout clerks. And as I gazed down at the rock, that’s what happened to me.

Everything’s just a set-up for another punchline. Luckily, though, they’re funny enough that I didn’t mind. And if you laughed at the above excerpts, then you probably won’t much mind either.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #150-1: Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1 & 2 by Bryan Lee O’Malley

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Due to the local libraries only having the first two volumes, this was as far as I could get into the series for now. And, so far, all I’m getting out of it is an urge to rewatch the movie. The video-game/anime aesthetic works wonders in the film, thanks largely to Edgar Wright, while comics are ill-equipped to showcase such frenetic action. During any of Scott Pilgrim’s fights, I had to slow down considerably just to follow what was going on.

On top of that, between Edgar Wright and Bryan Lee O’Malley, Wright is the better writer. If Wright had written Scott Pilgrim, it could’ve been something special. At the very least, I wouldn’t have had an utter dislike for practically every character in the comics. Either by virtue of the script, the direction, or the acting, Wright’s versions of the O’Malley’s characters managed to be questionable, yet still moderately likable.

Whereas in the comics, I’m basically rooting for Scott to fail, for Knives to get her revenge upon him, etc. But I should probably read further before I start making blanket statements such as these. So… to be continued.

Travis_J_Smith’s #CBR5 Review #149: The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1 by Charles M. Schulz

Try as I might, I cannot think of what to say about the The Complete Peanuts, Vol. 1. There’s a great deal I want to say, but putting it all together is presenting me with quite the challenge. Having been a writer in some form for most of my life, I’m used to staring at a blinking cursor surrounded by white space, yet I cannot recall ever being this stumped. So unsure of how to proceed that my only recourse is to ramble on about that in the hopes that it’ll knock me out of my funk. I can’t say it’s working so far, as I still am unsure how to approach this review.

Do I spend it beating myself up over not “discovering” these comics sooner, Peanuts just one of many Sunday comic strips, the movies watched yet only vaguely recollected? Do I whine about this being the only volume available from my local libraries, my luck once more giving me the literary cockblock, much like when the University of Pittsburgh Book Center was missing The Drawing of the Three, yet had every other book in The Dark Tower series in stock? Do I marvel at how prolific Schulz was, The Complete Peanuts up to 19 volumes and counting, each one over 300 pages with three strips per page? Or maybe I remark on how comparatively adorable these early strips were, with Charlie Brown and company the cutest group of misfits you’re ever bound to come across, at least in the world of comic strips? Continue reading