Review: Jar-Jar Binks Must Die

Jar-Jar Binks Must Die, Daniel KimmelIt’s ever been the assumption that those who write, direct, and act in Science Fiction films are slumming it — that Serious People don’t do SF, and SF is not for Serious People. Daniel Kimmel’s Jar Jar Binks Must Die is a collection of his film reviews that show the reader what happens when you assume.

SF is not the hokey, campy snooze-fest that people dismiss it as being, contends Kimmell. Okay, there’s actually more than enough camp to go around, but this collection urges us to look beyond it and take in the deeper conversations SF creates through seemingly unbelievable stories.

Is The Fly (1958) about a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong, or is it actually a romantic tragedy about the problems smart people face? Are those aliens as they seem, or do they represent a bigger idea (healers, evil empires, corrupters)? And who is more human in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the astronauts or HAL 9000?

Nerd alert!

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan, albeit in a more modern sense: I’ve watched entire swaths of Star Trek and Farscape, and enjoy authors like Mary Shelley and Kurt Vonnegut.

My one foray into classic SF — the bulk of Kimmel’s focus in Jar Jar Binks Must Die — is 1954’s Them!, known in my family as “The Giant Ant Movie.” It’s the lightest of the films discussed in the book, but it’s still about some tough concepts:

  • Authorities should follow scientists’ orders because only scientists can handle things properly
  • The general public should be kept in the dark when scientists deem information is “too dangerous”
  • What unknown dangers have been created by atomic bombings?
  • The world has become so unsafe and unpredictable that we don’t know what to be sure of anymore

Still think SF is brainless fluff?

Recommended watching

Jar Jar Binks Must Die begins in the 1950s (the acknowledged heyday of the SF genre) and skips around through the decades, wrapping up in 2000 with the stinking poo that was Star Wars: Episode I.

It’s doubtful I’ll ever become a Science Fiction super fan (no 2001: A Space Odyssey or Planet of the Apes, thank you), but Kimmel did leave me with a list of films I’ll definitely check out:

  • Things to Come (1936)
  • It Came from Outer Space (1953)
  • Happy Accidents (2001)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
  • The Andromeda Strain (1971)
  • 28 Days Later (2001)
  • Planet 51 (2009)

Kimmel’s book reads quickly, but don’t let that fool you — it’s packed with thoughtful reviews of films from every decade and from under every rock.

Whether you like Science Fiction or not — and possibly even more so if you don’t — Jar Jar Binks Must Die is a fantastic overview and dive into the genre.

Come to the Dark Side, readers. We have great films.

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Review: Eyes Like Stars

Eyes Like Stars, Lisa MantchevThe Théâtre Illuminata is as old as time itself. Its inhabitants are magical, held together by the words their creators wrote, and bound to the theatre by The Book.

Bertie lives in the theatre, but she is not truly a part of it. She is an orphan, left on the theatre’s doorstep by the mother she can’t remember. Her life has been marvelous but strange, and her latest escapade has left her on thin ice with the theatre’s inhabitants.

Now she has just a few days to prove she can be valuable to the theatre, or she will have to leave. With four excitable fairies and a dashing pirate on her side, Bertie is sure she will succeed.

But there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her philosophy, and not every member of the theatre wants her to stay.

A bit of a let down

I’ve had Eyes Like Stars (first in author Lisa Mantchev’s Théâtre Illuminata series) on my radar for some time. And who wouldn’t? It’s a series set inside a magical theatre where every character in recorded history lives and performs.

The characters are fun, particularly Bertie and the four fairies. I like the combination of written characters and mythological shadows, and I liked the glimpses Mantchev gives of the theatre’s inner workings — right down to the squabbles between the prop master and set designer.

Beyond that, though, I was a little confused. I felt like I was dropped into the middle of a story and not given proper context to help me understand Bertie’s world. There’s obviously a heavy dose of magic involved, but I had a hard time understanding and believing the world building.

It’s likely many of my questions are answered in the series’ next two books, but right now I can’t see myself working up the interest to check those out.

Overall Eyes Like Stars is well-written, entertaining, and provokes a certain amount of deeper thought. At any other point in my reading it might have been irresistible; this time, though, it just couldn’t hook me.

Anyone read this series? What do you think of it?

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Review: The Cantor Wore Crinolines

The Cantor Wore Crinolines, Mark SchweizerHayden Konig leads a charmed life. He’s a fantastic detective, rich, the organist and choir director at St. Barnabus Church, and has the best-looking wife in three counties. Yet he remains discontent.

The one thing Hayden wants most in the world is to be a famous noir detective writer like his hero, Raymond Chandler. He even buys Chandler’s old typewriter in an effort to capture some of the man’s inspiration. The effort is less than successful.

It’s not like he has much time to write anyway, what with the new priest scheduling a last-minute Candlemas Evensong and the three bodies turning up in recently-auctioned foreclosed homes.

Clues are slow to turn up, but when they do they point directly at the Blue Hill Bookworms, an exclusive book club whose recent trashy mystery novel read shows remarkable similarities to the real-life crimes.

Can Hayden find the murderer, prepare the choir for Candlemas, and find time to finish his opus?

Ridiculous and wonderful

My Mother-in-law has talked about this series off and on over the years, and when my birthday came around a couple weeks ago what did I find in the mail but a copy of The Cantor Wore Crinolines, the 12th in author Mark Schweizer’s The Liturgical Mystery series.

The of St. Germaine, North Carolina is similar to many small towns throughout the south, filled with odd characters and restaurants with punny names (the local bakery is called Bun in the Oven).

Hayden is a great guy and a good detective, but a god-awful writer. The reader is “treated” to excerpts from his noir novel throughout the book, and I don’t know how Schweizer could have made his character a worse writer. For example:

Her lips were fleshy and wanting in that kind of way that lips get after eating Hunan spicy beef with Szechuan peppers, extra hot, with enough monosodium glutamate to exacerbate water retention and cause lips to be as plump as a couple of meal worms. I thought about lunch.

I can’t even. And this is Hayden at his best — his novel gets worse the more you read.

That’s my only complaint, in fact. At first it’s fun to read Hayden’s excerpts, but they happen just a little too frequently and rapidly devolve into drivel so bad I simply started skipping those sections. I felt like they distracted me from Schweizer’s real story, which is well-written and enjoyable.

Although the novel is 12th in the series (the first book is The Alto Wore Tweed, in case you’re interested), I never felt lost. Schweizer’s homey writing style had me hooked quickly, and his world building was complete enough that I never felt like I was missing something.

There’s a little of everything in this novel: a well-crafted mystery, snobby book-clubbers, obnoxious clergy, and gossiping, over-enthusiastic townspeople. What’s not to love?

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State of the Blog: June 2014

State of the blogNormally these nerdy numbers updates happen every three months; unfortunately in March I totally spaced, so this State of the Blog is for all my reading since the start of the year. Dig in!

The basics

  • Books read since January 1: 30
  • Pages read: 10,238
  • Books reviewed: 28
  • Books not enjoyed: 3
  • Books not finished: 3
  • Library books: 5
  • Audio books: 1
  • Re-reads: 1

Genre breakdown

  • Fiction: 17
  • Non-fiction: 13
  • Fantasy: 8
  • History: 10
  • Memoir: 1
  • Mystery/Thriller: 7
  • Paranormal/supernatural: 5
  • Young adult literature: 4
  • Gender: 2

Reading challenges

  • The Mount TBR Challenge: 4/12
  • Reading Outside the Box: 2/4

I’m not as far along as I’d hoped I’d be halfway through the year, but so far so good. Check out books and reviews here.

Some thoughts

  • By this same time last year I’d read 53 books. I attribute this dip to a combination of spending more weekends with friends and marathon-watching Lie to Me and Bones.
  • My move to a bigger town this previous December has given me access to a larger library system, but the branch nearest to me is fairly small. I’m trying to figure out how to plan inter-library loans.
  • I gave short stories another try by reading Aimee Bender’s The Color Master. It was a bit of a disaster.

Looking ahead

  • I got a whopping 12 books for my birthday! I’ve already devoured one and am eeny-meeny-miney-mo’ing my decision for what’s up next.
  • I’m heading to the Carolinas with my mom in late July; I’m looking forward to taking in some historical sites, visiting the spa, and spending time with the wonderful woman who raised me.

How’s your reading going this year?

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Review: Heads in Beds

Heads in Beds, Jacob TomskyFresh out of college with a degree in Philosophy, Jacob Tomsky wasn’t exactly what you’d call hireable. After a few stumbles he ended up at the bottom of the food chain as a valet parker for a luxury hotel in New Orleans.

Some would call his rise through the hospitality industry meteoric; Tomsky is more likely to refer to it as a super nova (or at the very least a black hole).

From supervising housekeeping departments to managing the front desk at a Manhattan hotel, Tomsky has spent more than a decade checking you in, parking your car, eating your leftover room service, giving you wake-up calls, eating M&Ms out of your minibar, and generally sucking up in exchange for tips.

Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality is both a guidebook to and critique of the industry, a mix of humor, horror, and tips for getting what you want as a hotel guest.

A great start

I loved the first half of Heads in Beds. Tomsky’s tone is conversational, irreverent, and unflinchingly honest.

Even though hospitality can be a brutal industry, the New Orleans hotel at which Tomsky began his career was obviously run by (mostly) competent, nice people. Tomsky’s obviously an intelligent guy, and by simply paying attention he was able to advance.

But a terrible ending

I lost interest pretty much as soon as Tomsky moved to New York. The hotel is grubby, his co-workers and bosses are pricks, and he spends the second half of Heads in Beds griping about how much he hates the industry.

He’s given a couple “outs,” a couple chances to fly the coop and do something different, but instead he stays where he’s comfortable — and miserable — all the time using the “All I can do is this” excuse.

I’m not interested in reading a book written by someone who so clearly hates what he does. And I can’t even muster up any sympathy because Tomsky does it to himself.

Read the tips, skip the story

My favorite parts of Heads in Beds are when Tomsky shares insider information about ways to get better service.

I don’t really care about getting a complimentary bottle of wine, but it is nice to know exactly the steps to take when there’s a problem with your room, as well as what’s going on in the staff’s head during any given situation. It makes it easier for me to put myself in the other person’s shoes.

Unfortunately those tips are few and far between, and mostly involve greasing palms (not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing; merely that it’s not really a secret that money gets you better treatment). Beyond that it’s mostly Tomsky bitching about upper management, unions, shitty customers, and how totally lame his job is.

Interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, but not something I’d read again.

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