Summer Reads Pt. 2: Sisters and The Book of Bad Things

by Tessa

It’s part 2 of my “books I’ve read this summer about summer” posts! Today I’m covering 2 dece reads for middle schoolers (and other people who read and like books). Unfortunately, both of them won’t be published until the end of August. Which is a great time to read books about summer in order to hold on to that summer feeling.

[Disclaimer: I’m reviewing Advance Review Copies of these books, so between now and when they’re actually published, things could have changed in the book.]

Sisters

Raina Telgemeier

Graphix, 2014

sisterstelgemeier

 

Raina Telgemeier is a godsend for realistic comics lovers who want to read stories about the middle school years. This is her follow up to her first book, Smile, which was about her totally falling on her face/mouth and having to deal with the messy dental aftermath of it for a long time, during her most awkward years.

This one’s about her sister. Actually, spoiler alert, it’s still about Raina and her feelings about her sister Amara. The framing is a road trip that she, her mom, her sister, and her little brother take, going from California to Colorado to visit family, and is punctuated by flashbacks that explain more about how the sisters grew to have their tense relationship, and why Raina won’t sit in the front seat of the van.

The flashbacks have a neat yellow filter on the pages, making it clear that the story is in the past. I wish all of the ARC I saw was in color, but that would be crazy expensive and I understand why it switched to black and white, but I’m glad I got a preview of what the coloring will be like (done by Braden Lamb, who does stuff for the Adventure Time comics!). The past sequences, with the filter, look like yellowed color photos, while the present sequences, and the present sequences capture the color of the late 80s, which is when I think this was set (maybe early 90s?), as does the fashion, of course.

Telgemeier’s writing and drawing makes me feel comfortable, like I’m reading a surprisingly interesting (and long) cartoon in a newspaper. Her family stories have the rhythm of a good sitcom, replete with punchlines and realistically wacky situations. I was so happy to slip back into those rhythms that I wasn’t bothered at first by the arc of the story. There is one scene at the end, though, that packed a big emotional punch, and it’s delivered by Amara. That made me realize that I didn’t know much about her. It’s a function of Raina not being allowed/distancing herself from Amara, so she doesn’t know what her sister is like. But it also leaves much of the book’s story obscuring half of what the book is about. It’s Sisters, not Sister, and it would have been a more powerful book for me if the big realization weren’t related to one sister not really being present in the story except as a mystery and antagonist to the other. This misstep in plotting won’t hurt the book with its core audience, though, and there are many solid scenes in there for fans to savor.

 

The Book of Bad Things

Dan Poblocki

Scholastic, 2014

bookofbadthingspoblocki

A colleague of mine brought this back from… BEA? And when I saw that it was middle grade horror and that SLJ compared it to R.L. Stine, Christopher Pike, and John Bellairs, I gladly took it off of her hands.

I’ve never heard of Dan Poblocki before, but he has written a lot of MG horror. Thanks for keeping the torch alight, Dan Poblocki. But you need to work on your tumblr.

The Book of Bad Things is about Cassidy Bean. She’s part of an exchange program in New York City, possibly part of a social work program, that lets her go and live with rich people in upstate New York during the summer. She’s visited one family, the Tremonts, for a couple summers, but this summer she’s arriving late to Whitechapel because the Tremonts took a while to say that Cassidy was welcome to come.

Something happened last summer to Cassidy and the Tremont’s son, Joey. They went out to the big house where Ursula Chambers, the town hermit lived. She yelled at them, and then later, Joey’s dog died, and for some reason, those two things became connected for Cassidy and Joey. Cassidy blamed herself for having the idea in the first place, and the summer seemed ruined.

Now she’s back with a new journal: The Book of Bad Things, where she writes down her fears and anxieties. Joey isn’t talking to her, and Ursula is dead. All her belongings are being raided by the townspeople, because Ursula didn’t have a family. Then, the people who took Ursula’s things start seeing her. And they start dying.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t afraid to be scary and gruesome. It makes its characters question the line between reality and what they’ve seen in horror movies that feels more sophisticated to me than most horror setups in books for the younger set. Poblocki plays with the ideas of ghosts, zombies, psychic/emotional manifestations, and curses, and the real life scariness of hoarding, anxiety and hurt friendship. Sure, Cassidy’s narration is a bit stiff at times, but she’s a very serious girl, so it fits her. It also never states what race Cassidy is, so it’s possible to read her as black, which is important for many kids.

As an adult reader, I wasn’t terrified, but I can tell that if I had read this when I was a tween, it would have firmly lodged itself in my psyche.

 

 

 

 

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“A World Without Magic or Miracles”: The Sea of Tranquility

A Review of The Sea of Tranquillity, by Katja Millay

Antisocialite Press, 2012/Atria Books (Simon & Schuster), 2012

The Sea of Tranquillity Katja Milla

by REBECCA, January 15, 2014

Though I got an ARC of The Sea of Tranquility more than a year ago, I put off reading it because I was worried it would be one more story of a high school romance that gave the characters past traumas instead of character development, insecurities instead of plot. The blurb sounded intriguing, but like it could go either way:

I live in a world without magic or miracles. A place where there are no clairvoyants or shapeshifters, no angels or superhuman boys to save you. A place where people die and music disintegrates and things suck. I am pressed so hard against the earth by the weight of reality that some days I wonder how I am still able to lift my feet to walk.

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.” (Goodreads)

It turns out, The Sea of Tranquility, Katja Millay’s amazing debut, was everything I was hoping it would be. First off, it’s not a romance, genre-wise—as in, it’s not a book where the narrative arc is set by romantic developments between the characters. It’s good, old-fashioned literary realism that happens to feature teenagers but could just as easily be marketed as adult literary fiction. Told in chapters that alternate between Nastya and Josh’s perspectives, this is a story about how our scars and traumas of the past affect our present.

F5B7633BF84D4E55BB7A4D9FA3BE1B7DBefore she was attacked, Nastya only cared about playing the piano perfectly. When she moves to a new town to live with her aunt and start a new school all she wants is to disappear. She dresses to keep people at arm’s length and, if that isn’t enough, she hasn’t spoken in over a year. Josh’s entire family has died, one by one, and he spends his time woodworking in his garage to shut the world out. Both are buried in worlds of their own making. Josh is convinced that if he lets anyone in he won’t be able to bear it when they leave him. Nastya is eaten up with the poison she feels toward the world and knows that speaking might let it out; and she needs it, because someday she plans to have her revenge.

What happened to Nastya to end her piano career is revealed slowly, petals unfurling throughout the book, and the facts of her attack aren’t particularly important. The point is that it changed her worldview and her voice is boiling over with vitriol and fear. The only way she manages to keep it together is exercise and baking. Every night, when her aunt and all her neighbors are asleep, she runs until she can’t run any more. One of those nights, her run takes her to a garage lit against the night: Josh’s. Slowly, in silence, they learn to be more comfortable with each other, to trust one another when they aren’t able interact with others.

The characterization in The Sea of Tranquility is spot-on. The characters’ circumstances aren’t wholly unique—there are certainly other books about a girl remaking herself after an attack, or about a boy shutting the world out after the death of his family. Still, they are particular in just the way good litfic manages. Nastya is hiding a whole life behind her heavy makeup and her silence and Millay strikes just the right balance between what Nastya reveals to the reader but keeps from Josh and what she lets him know.

At first, Josh’s character seems less complex than Nastya’s, as if he’ll be the proverbial safe-haven character, the warmly lit garage where she can land. But Millay does a masterful job of slowly revealing, as he gets more comfortable with Nastya, who Josh is when he’s not clenched so tight that no emotion can escape. Also, I love anything about an expert, and the scenes about Josh’s woodworking were awesome. The only friend Josh has is Drew, school golden boy with a perfect family and not a care in the world. Though they don’t acknowledge each other at school (to allow Josh to maintain his invisibility), Drew’s family is all Josh has left. Some of the most interesting dynamics occur when Drew is in the picture. Rather than being obnoxious, Drew is hyper-conscious of his picture-perfect life and behaves as if he can bring Nastya and Josh into it.

Little by little, everything that Nastya has slowly built in her new home unravels—after all, its foundations were so very tenuous—and both she and Josh have to face the fact that scars don’t go away. And sometimes, they don’t even heal. The Sea of Tranquility is long for YA (about 450 pages) but it never drags. The prose is beautiful and (one of my favorite things) Josh’s and Katya’s voices sound very different, and both are galvanizing. If you’re in the mood for a piece of beautifully-crafted psychological drama, The Sea of Tranquility is definitely for you. I can’t wait to see what first-time author Katja Millay comes up with next.

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Forbidden Tabitha Suzuma

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma (2010). Lochan and Maya have been acting like parents to their younger sibs ever since their father left. But, now, things have gotten really bad. As their family spirals out of control, Lochan and Maya turn to each other for support and care, and begin to realize that their feelings of love are romantic as well as familial. Can they keep their family together and still have a chance to be together when everything seems to be against them? My full review is HERE.

Made of Stars Kelley York

Made of Stars by Kelley York (2013). Hunter and his half-sister Ashlin have been friends with Chance since they were all kids, but haven’t seen him in a few years. Now, back together, they realize that there are things about Chance they’ve never realized. And they will change everything. Great character-building from a great author. My full review is HERE.

procured by: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Katja Millay’s The Sea of Tranquility is available now.

Movie Review: How I Live Now

A Review of How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald, based on the novel by Meg Rosoff

How I Live Now

by REBECCA

Meg Rosoff’s 2004 novel How I Live Now has been made into a movie and I totally didn’t know about it until five seconds ago. Yay!

If last week’s Ender’s Game adaptation made one big mistake that ended up gutting the whole story, How I Live Now makes small, smart decisions every step of the way. Within the first three minutes, I was completely and utterly sold on the world, the aesthetic, and the characters.

How I Live Now Meg RosoffHow I Live Now is the story of Daisy (Saoirse Ronin), who lives in New York City and has come to England for the summer to stay with her cousins, whom she’s never met, because her father is having a new baby. Her cousins live in a ramshackle old rural house with lots of woods, hills, creeks, and animals, and Daisy quickly falls in love with it, and one of them—her cousin Edmund. Soon, though, war breaks out and the cousins are separated, always trying to escape and come back home, to be together.

Our introduction to Daisy was pitch-perfect and effortless, managing to capture the attitude of Rosoff’s narrative voice, even without using heavy voice over (take a note, Ender’s Game). Saoirse Ronin, bless her, is a magnificent Daisy, never afraid to be nasty and moody, but always with a core of vulnerability. Basically, I would watch her eat cornflakes or, like, do something else that’s super boring, because that’s how compelling she is, as always. Also, she is an accent genius.

how i live nowThe contrast between the hardness of Daisy’s fresh-from-NYC aesthetic and control-freak attitude and the soft, wildness of her cousins’ run-down home, their trips swimming and running through woods and fields is beautifully done. The film captures the beauty and peace of their home in just the right way, so that when the war comes, the audience is as sad to lose it as Daisy is.

How I Live Now doesn’t shrink from showing the grisly moments of the war, either, which elevates it above any concerns I may have had that it would be yet another slick capitalization on YA dystopia-fever. Just like the book, this is truly a movie that thinks about the effects of war, on both the ravaged countryside and the psyches of Daisy and her cousins as they traverse it.

how i live nowIn addition to the beauty of the film, I was struck by its masterful balance of sound and quiet. The credits are very in your face and loud, bopping to the tune of Daisy’s music, and Daisy’s own inner-voices drown out any other silence. The scenes in the country house, on the other hand, are quiet at base, but punctuated by very specific noises—the call of Edmund’s hawk, the gush of a waterfall—that are just as loud as Daisy’s music, but peaceful enough that she doesn’t need the din of those inner voices. There are long stretches of the cousins’ journey back to one another without dialogue, too, and scenes of carnage that speak for themselves.

In Rosoff’s novel, the story is told retrospectively, and though we don’t have much of a frame, the film manages, in addition to dramatic immediacy, to capture precisely the tone of wisdom and dreaminess that would accompany a tale told from a point looking backward. How I Live Now might be my favorite YA film adaptation to date. 

We Don’t Need No Thought Control: Deviant

A Review of Deviant by Helen FitzGerald

Soho Teen, 2013

Deviant by Helen Fitzgerald

by REBECCA, June 10, 2013

Abigail Thom has been living in foster homes and dodging trouble in Glasgow nearly her whole life. When her mother dies, leaving Abigail a mysterious letter, a wad of cash, and a plane ticket to L.A. to go see a father and sister she never knew existed, Abigail thinks that a ticket out of Glasgow may be the only good thing her mother ever did for her. GlasgowWhen she arrives in L.A., though, Abigail quickly realizes that things are more complicated than she could have imagined. In addition to trying to find her place in a new country and a new family, Abigail soon realizes that her new-found sister is has discovered something—something people are willing to kill to keep secret. And now Abigail is right in the middle of it.

L.A.When we first meet Abigail, all she wants is to get the hell out of Glasgow. She’s organized, smart, savvy, and has perfected her “robot mode” over the years—a detached affect that accompanies all stressful or emotional situations. When she gets news that her mother has died, all she really feels is a slight pang of regret for a life she might have led. She’s grateful for the chance to go to America and start over, and excited to meet Becky, the older sister she never knew she had. Becky is rich, privileged, beautiful, and full of life, and from the moment Abigail meets her she realizes how much she’s longed for someone she can feel a connection to.

This first third-or-so of Deviant reads like a gritty contemporary YA. Abigail is a sympathetic character who combines the appeal of a street-smart badass with the vulnerability of someone who has longed for a family and is, therefore, willing to do almost anything to fit in. Her contrast with Becky is particularly poignant, and Helen FitzGerald does a subtle job of showing moments where Abigail sees who she might have been had she lived her sister’s life.

Deviant by Helen FitzGeraldBut then Becky takes Abigail along with a few of her friends as they graffiti the back of a freeway sign, and Abigail realizes that Becky is part of a group that the L.A. media has called vicious vandals. Their stencil is of a group of zombielike teenagers (on the cover), and each time they do it, they tag it with a letter. Abigail is furious, thinking about the trouble she could get in if they were caught, whereas Becky and her friends have powerful parents who can set things right for them. But . . . something seems a bit off about one of Becky’s friends, and Becky is so secretive about what the letters might mean. Abigail is happy to ignore the weirdness around her, though, because she’s so happy to be getting to know her sister. This second third of Deviant starts the mystery percolating.

Finally (no spoilers), things escalate, and Abigail realizes that what Becky and her friends are pointing to with their graffitied letters is larger than she could have imagined, and has the possibility of harming not only her newfound friends but millions of teenagers around the world. Shit gets serious, y’all, and the final third of the book is action-packed and tightly plotted. It also takes on a science fiction shade, but it’s subtle enough that it could be real, which is awesome.

Deviant is a book that’s doing several things simultaneously, and it’s doing them all well! This is a well-plotted mystery that is actually a mystery. Not that I only like books where I can’t figure out the mystery, but many YA mysteries are bit light on the mystery, if you know what I mean. Deviant, by virtue of beginning with a solid, character-driven family story, backs into its mystery, and it’s the better for it. Details from the first part of the book become important to the mystery later, and though the plot is tight, there is a lot of room for things to be filled in later, or for the reader to imagine. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to be the first in a series, even though it read like it was winding up for one. The ending is wide open in a way that seems to set up a sequel, but it isn’t unsatisfying as a standalone, either.

I really enjoyed Deviant and, more than anything, it read like an extremely confident novel. Helen FitzGerald doesn’t overdo any one element, be it character, explanation, or prose style. And, bonus, it’s a really wicked class critique. It unfolds quickly and with panache, and I was definitely left wanting more—I’ll let you decide if that’s a strength or a weakness.

procured from: I received a copy of this book from the publisher (thanks!) in exchange for an honest review. Deviant, by Helen FitzGerald, will be available tomorrow.

What Maisie Knew: Movie Review

A Review of What Maisie Knew, directed by Scott McGehee & David Siegel

What Maisie Knew

by REBECCA, May 27, 2013

In a cinematic landscape that lately seems to be 95% remakes, updates, sequels, and replicas of Swedish movies that were already awesome, What Maisie Knew, an update of Henry James’ 1897 serial novel, had great potential to be more of the same. Instead, McGehee and Siegel’s interpretation is utterly compelling.

What Maisie Knew Henry JamesMaisie’s mother, Susanna, (Julianne Moore as a rock star trying to keep her career alive) and father, Beale, (Steve Coogan as a slick art dealer) separate and get joint custody of Maisie, who bounces back and forth between them. Her father quickly marries her former nanny, Margo (Joanna Vanderham, with a charming Scottish accent and little else to recommend her), in an attempt to sue for full custody. Maisie’s mother retaliates by marrying Lincoln, a bartender who she pays for the privilege (Alexander Skarsgård, with just the right air of distracted sweetness). With these four yahoos trying to juggle Maisie and their own lives, snarls ensue: they miss pick-ups at school, drop Maisie off early,  try to buy her affection with gifts.

But this isn’t a farce, and there is nothing amusing about the mess the adults in Maisie’s life make. Susanna wants Maisie to love her best no matter what she does and is fiercely jealous of anyone else in her life; Beale wants to deprive Susanna of her, but has no time to take care of her himself. More and more, Maisie’s care shifts to Margo and Lincoln, who begin to know each other through Maisie, as well. Julianne Moore is great, as always, with a slightly unhinged, career-obsessed Susanna, who is just lovable enough to appeal. Steve Coogan is slimy as can be and trades women like the art he deals. Margo seems to genuinely care for Maisie, but is a total milquetoast. Lincoln, whose marriage to Susanna is sham enough not to disable him as Margo’s does, is the one who Maisie latches onto, and it’s that relationship that is most enjoyable to watch.

Alexander Skarsgard and Onata AprileThis isn’t a film with the message “isn’t it terrible when children don’t have nuclear families”; it isn’t trying to suggest that children are the most important thing in the world so we should drop everything and devote our lives to them. And that’s very much in its favor. It doesn’t need to point those fingers because the film isn’t about Maisie’s parents at all—the only access we get to them is through Maisie. What Maisie Knew is Maisie’s story, and we often see the world through her eyes, the camera at a child’s height. Onata Aprile is captivating and her performance makes the film. Against the backdrop of her parents’ chaos, screaming, and crying, she is understated and self-contained. What Maisie Knew is a quiet movie, so if you’re looking for a movie packed with grand passions and climaxes, this isn’t it. The film manages, though, to show us the things that Maisie knows—how to play with a toy horse, how to make a sandwich, how to wait, how to fall asleep—and make them beautiful and scary and heartbreaking for us.

5 Reasons You Should Watch Hemlock Grove!

A Review of Hemlock Grove, Season 1, created by Eli Roth & based on the book by Brian McGreevy

Netflix, 2012

Hemlock GroveNetflix debuted its third original series on Friday: Hemlock Grove, a tale of a small town with big secrets. Now, nearly every news outlet and reviewer has panned Hemlock Grove. However, lest you find yourselves without my opinion on the matter, here it is: I TOTALLY ENJOYED IT!

Hemlock Grove is set in a small Pennsylvania town where girl has just been violently murdered—torn apart by . . . is it an animal? a crazed killer? We don’t know. But, in the crosshairs of the rumor mill surrounding the murder are the newly-arrived Peter and Lynda Rumancek, a Romani mother and son who the suspicious town calls filthy gypsies, and the Godfrey family, most notably to-the-manor-born Roman, who uses his beauty to get what he wants (and, when that doesn’t work, his gaze, which compels obedience), his mother, Olivia, the “most beautiful and hated woman” in Hemlock Grove, and his sister, Shelley, a lurching, seven-foot-tall girl who can’t speak and glows with strong feeling. The first murder, of course, is no isolated incident; they are occurring every full moon, giving rise to rumors that it’s a werewolf committing them—and that Peter is the werewolf.

Is Hemlock Grove the smartest, least misogynist, most disciplined, least derivative, and most sex-positive show that’s ever aired? Em, no. But it has a totally awesome opening credits sequence. And here are five reasons why I think Hemlock Grove is totally worth watching.

1. Genre Feast! If you’ve ever read Crunchings and Munchings or met me (or, really, talked to me for, like, two minutes) then you know I am a fool for genre; especially interesting combinations of genre. Well, Hemlock Grove has . . . all of them, really. Its main genre is a kind of horror-light supernatural mystery. It’s a werewolf story, complete with its own set of werewolf lore, from a Romani perspective, and what is probably my new favorite human-to-wolf transformation method. Hemlock GroveIt’s gross and cool and the effects are done really well. Then, there’s the small-town gothic, one of my favorite genres. Hemlock Grove is a creepy place, complete with secrets, cliques, only one high school (which we all know can tip any show into horror!), and an eerie combination of woodland and broken-down industrial wasteland. In addition, there are definite notes of the fairy tale, the 18th-century novel (hello, Shelley, anyone? p.s., she lives in the attic . . .), and good, old-fashioned camp. There is also a bit of a science fiction twist: Godfrey tower, the town’s only skyscraper, houses secret medical experiments, run by the sociopathic Dr. Pryce (yet another nod to classic horror). This storyline is less developed, presumably to keep our interest for season two . . .

2. Binge! Netflix has gotten a mixed response to their experiment of releasing all the episodes of their original programs at once—folks seemed to love what it did for House of Cards and hate what it did for Hemlock Grove. Well, I say, bless you, Netflix, for finally acting on the behalf of people like me who would rather wait a year to be able to watch a whole season of a show at once, rather than wait around week-to-week and watch one episode at a time. Now, the critiques of this strategy are that without the necessity to compel an audience to come back each week, Hemlock Grove writers and producers were not nearly as disciplined with their cliffhangers and structure as they would otherwise need to be. But I really liked the feeling of chugging through all at once, not just because I am a binger, but because many episodes picked up exactly where the last left off, giving it a novelistic  or filmic feeling. Also, it allowed them to avoid one of my all-time pet peeves of serial tv: when the “previously on” recap totally gives away what’s going to happen in the episode based on what clips from previous episodes they show. WHY, for the love of god, has no one solved this problem, yet, I ask you!? But Hemlock Grove doesn’t need to do this, so I was never taken out of the story. It uses flashbacks where necessary, which aren’t the most graceful thing ever, in terms of filmmaking, but totally serve their purpose. And, at thirteen episodes, it was the perfect length for a weekend binge (#don’tjudgeme).

Hemlock Grove3. Depressed Industrial Town! Hemlock Grove‘s setting is a small town in Pennsylvania that used to be home to a booming steel industry, a downturn in which threw the town into a depression, only saved by Roman’s late father, who turned to the biotech industry, but in the process laid off many people in town. This made the Godfrey family many enemies and resulted in huge, abandoned factories and broken-down machinery for bored teenagers to smoke in, have sex near, and search for bodies in. It also created a stark disparity of wealth between the Godfreys and nearly every other family in town, especially the Rumanceks. Roman wears tailored overcoats, does a lot of drugs, drives a fancy sports car, and has perfectly coiffed hair while Peter is scruffy, with long fingernails, vaguely dirty hair, persistent two-day stubble, and grimy jeans. Class, then, is always subtext in Hemlock Grove, and while the show does a shitty job with gender, it’s more savvy in terms of economy. Plus, abandoned industrial shit is awesome-looking.

4. Wacky Casting! One thing that amused me about Hemlock Grove was the fact that its casting directors clearly didn’t give a good goddamn about realism in terms of casting, so the show is kind of accent soup. But it really worked out well (except for Famke Janssen who plays Olivia Godfrey, doing a British accent like she was barely even trying). Peter, played by Landon Liboirin, is charming and not smarmy and doesn’t overdo things, for the most part. I do not know what is in the water over in Sweden, but Roman is played by Bill Skarsgård, another in the seemingly endless line of extremely beautiful children sired by Stellan Hemlock GroveSkarsgård. Like, seriously, I’m starting to think that every time I clap my hands a Skarsgård cheekbone sharpens. Anyhoo, Roman is totally delightful as the mercurial heir apparent: he’s fucked up for sure, and you can see exactly how he got that way. He also does my favorite thing a character can do, which is that he sometimes makes really terrible decisions and sometimes makes really good ones. Because, you know, that’s what people do. Also delightful is first-timer Nicole Boivin as Shelley, who is expressive when not speaking, but also really touching and funny in her voice-overs as she writes Jane-Austen-inspired emails to her uncle (Dougray Scott!). But the you’re-awesome-why-weren’t-you-in-every-scene award goes to the always-amazing Lili Taylor, who plays Peter’s mother. Ah well; maybe next season.

Hemlock Grove Brian McGreevy5. A Real, Season-Long Plot! Hemlock Grove is based on the novel by Brian McGreevy, who also wrote some of the episodes. As such, the whole season was already plotted out for the creators/writers. This is such a good thing, I think, because with so many elements at play (genres, mystery, murder, relationships), Hemlock Grove is a mixture that could quickly have gotten out of hand and turned crazy. And if there’s one thing I will argue to anyone about the show it’s that it does not go off the rails, plot-wise. There are definitely things that aren’t tied up completely or explained fully—possibly because we’ll get more about them in the next season, if they make one—but for the most part, this is a well-plotted show. It’s not particularly tight, which has been a critique of the show but which I found thoroughly enjoyable: this is a show that sits back and stretches its legs, sure the next thing will happen pretty soon, not a show that chases every speck of dust. It’s not particularly invested in action, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t suspense. There is; it comes from having a mysterious plot instead of trying to building a cliffhanger before every commercial break. So, for me, the fact that the show was confident in where its material was going allowed for it to take the long way, something that gave the show texture and mood, even if it didn’t make every second count. I was never bored and I felt like I got the time to get to know the characters.

So, there you have it: five reasons I really enjoyed Hemlock Grove! There are, of course, negatives as well, and it will likely come as no surprise that they’re nearly all to do with misogyny. The show—and I don’t know if this is the book or creator Eli Roth—just can not stop punishing women for having sexual desire, so that’s a total bummer. There is a plot point (no spoilers) that goes Hemlock Grovetotally unacknowledged, but which makes me feel wretched for still liking Roman. Olivia Godfrey/Famke Janssen is a “strong and beautiful woman,” which apparently now is synonymous with a cold borderline sociopath with incestuous tendencies where her son is concerned. I’m so deathly sick of this character (and Famke Janssen seems to play her in 4/5 of her movies). I haven’t read the novel that Hemlock Grove is based on in order to know how much of that is the show’s interpretation of the character. Either way, I want to go on record as providing future novelists/tv and film creators with the following cheat sheet:

It is possibly for women to be strong without being evil; it is possible for women to be evil without being sociopaths; it is possible for women to be strong and evil in ways that are not fixated on their children!

SO, have you watched Hemlock Grove? What did you think? Are you going to watch it? Why or why not? 

Film Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A Review of Beasts of the Southern Wild, directed by Benh Zeitlin, (2012)

By REBECCA, July 23, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Beasts of the Southern Wild for months, now, and I am thrilled to report that it did not disappoint.

The film is based on Lucy Alibar’s one-act play “Juicy and Delicious.” Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis, who was only 5 when she auditioned, and beat out thousands of other Louisiana locals) lives with her father, Wink, on a Louisiana island called The Bathtub, on the wrong side of the levy. Hushpuppy’s mother left years before, and her father (played by Dwight Henry, another first-time actor who happened to own the bakery next to the casting offices where director Behn Zeitlin often bought bread) is ill and drinks all the time. When violent storms threaten to flood The Bathtub, many locals pack up and head out, leaving a small cadre behind, who have to survive in the wake of the flood, which kills animals and plants, and floods their homes.

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and the AurochsHushpuppy narrates the film and both the script and Wallis’ performance are haunting in their emotion and simplicity, as is Dan Romer’s score, which reviewers have compared to a kind of stripped-down Arcade Fire. Guided by her voiceover, we experience the events of the film through Hushpuppy’s eyes: after her teacher tells the children about the aurochs, great beasts trapped under the ice, Hushpuppy incorporates the aurochs into the landscape of The Bathtub, finally identifying as a beast herself in sympathy with them; when Hushpuppy hits her father, we see him fall down, as if the fury and hatred she feels toward him actually have the power to slay him. Beasts is magical realism, then, inasmuch as Hushpuppy’s reality is our access point to this world.

Waterworld Kevin Costner

Waterworld

More interesting, though, are particularities of the film that aren’t magical but are composed from a hodgepodge that seems almost post-apocalyptic: Hushpuppy and Wink putter through the floodwaters in a boat made out of the bed of a blue pickup truck atop floaters, grabbing fish straight from the water for food; they live in ramshackle huts that appear to be constructed of layer upon layer of detritus gathered from their surroundings; in the evenings, they drink and socialize with the other denizens of The Bathtub, eating crabs, shrimp, and crawfish by the bucketful and knocking back liquor as the waters lap their feet.

Despite its overwhelming critical success (it won this year’s Grand Jury Prize in drama at Sundance) Beasts of the Southern Wild has been criticized for what some see as a kind of cultural tourism in which the lives of poor Southerners are exoticized and made magic, rendering them curiosities instead of complex characters. While I recognize the impulse behind this critique, I found the film’s genre—a kind of magical realism meets regional adventure piece—to argue against it. Rather than using Hushpuppy, Wink, and the other inhabitants of The Bathtub to generalize about a group of rural Southerners, Beasts uses the intricacies of the region itself to portray one particular coming of age story. Throughout the film, Hushpuppy works to make her personal mark and archive her existence, drawing her story on the wall of her cardboard box hiding place and speaking it to us in the voiceover: “In a million years,” she tells us, “when kids go to school, they’re gonna know that once there was a Hushpuppy and she lived with her daddy in The Bathtub.”

Beasts of the Southern Wild Hushpuppy and WinkSimilarly, Beasts has also been held up as an example of a director aestheticizing poverty, as the film finds exquisite beauty in scenes dominated by dirty, broken places, and muddy, hungry people. This critique is by no means a new one, and rests, it seems, on the troubling assumption that just because a place is poor it is necessarily immune to beauty. Further, this critique seems to reveal an anxiety on the part of viewers that they might find the suffering of others beautiful, be it Wink’s ever-further protruding cheekbones that catch the dim light like a wood carving in Beasts, or those of the concentration camp prisoners in Schindler’s List. Rather, the cameras of Beasts’ director and cinematographer seem to unfailingly find precisely the beauty of The Bathtub and its inhabitants that makes Wink and the others who stay cling so ardently to their home, despite the attempts of all forces to drive them from it. It is beauty, yes, but a fierce and treacherous beauty that betrays all attempts to control it—a sublime beauty, like the cleaving of the immense glaciers that Hushpuppy imagines frees the aurochs from their icy prisons.

Beasts of the Southern WildNot tourism, then, nor aestheticization, but a kind of joyful tramp—as only children can—through the mud connecting Hushpuppy’s home, her school, a much-maligned rescue center, and a floating paradise of catfish and women that brings Hushpuppy a kind of peace, finally allowing her to return to The Bathtub on her own terms rather than her father’s, a pack of fierce and loving girlfriends around her.

At its most explicit, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a critique of the institutionalized blindness to the populations of certain regions and the hypocrisy of rescue-efforts that value the lives they would choose for those people over the lives those people choose for themselves. More subtly, though, it’s a story of how we make our own homes and our own histories despite—or perhaps because of—the attempts to obliterate them. Does it have moments of sentimentality? Yes. Echoes of other films with innocent or young protagonists? Sure. But Beasts is very much its own movie. I highly recommend Beasts of the Southern Wild, whether you’re in it for its politics, its story, its beauty, or its characters.

 

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