BOOK REVIEWS: Part IX

No Safe Place by Mary Head

no-safe-placeI received a copy of this book pre-release after nominating it for publication through Kindle Scout.

No Safe Place is night and day from The Only One, Mary Head’s debut novel.

Whereas one was a romance that bucked many of that genre’s conventions, No Safe Place is a fast-paced thriller in which graduate student Hannah Cole is taken from her own home — leaving her FBI agent father David and his team to put the pieces together in a race against the clock.

One of this book’s chief strengths is its ability to get us to care about Hannah and David without spending too much time on their relationship. Far too many books spend so much time establishing relationships and timelines that by the time the action gets going, readers have already checked out. No Safe Place does not suffer from this; Head does a masterful job of establishing the particulars, getting us to to care about the principal players, while still managing to get the story moving along.

But Hannah is no damsel in distress; she’s fiercely intelligent and — being the daughter of an FBI agent — she’s capable of taking care of herself and has no qualms about doing so. That in and of itself turns the damsel-in-distress trope on its head and is enough reason to give this book a read.

Along the way, Head treats us to heroes whose flaws are readily apparent and villains who are perhaps a bit more sympathetic than we’re comfortable with. These characters are fleshed out and deep without spending time and space on fluff, allowing readers to take part in a journey that perhaps goes by a little quicker than expected.

A sequel is in the offing, but this book doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. The preeminent plot if wrapped up in a sufficiently satisfying manner, with each bread crumbs left over going forward. And, in Head’s continuing tradition of upsetting established tropes, this universes focuses less on Hannah’s abduction itself and more on the emotional ramifications of it — both during and after.

No Safe Place is a thriller with heart — and a tremendous read.

Rating: *****

Preorder No Safe Place on Amazon 

 

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

the-girl-on-the-trainI’m trying to remember the last time I was so disappointed with a book that was so hyped. Probably the time I tried reading Lord of the Rings, but even that doesn’t feel quite right.

The frustrating thing is, there are passages in which The Girl on the Train is so gripping, so intense, that it grabs hold of you and you can fly through dozens of pages without realizing it. The climactic unravel, satisfying as it is, is the only reason I stuck with this book to the end, because this book suffered from two major flaws.

1) For a book so intense, so psychologically messed-up, The Girl on the Train takes its sweet old time getting going. I understand the need to introduce the particulars, but it shouldn’t take north of the first 50 pages to do so. I almost bailed on this book before things actually started happening.

2) There are no genuinely good characters. I suppose that could be considered a strength — and when I say I need to care about the characters, I say that knowing that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to like them. But none of the protagonists — not Rachel, not Anna, not Megan — are easy to root for; the supporting characters aren’t much better.

There are reasons to sympathize with each of the three women through whom we’re told this tale. Rachel is divorced, unemployed, the victim of of infidelity, and she’s an alcoholic. Megan harbors a secret so heinous, she can’t even let her husband in on it. Anna… well, she and Rachel are far more entangled with each other than she would care to admit.

But all three are also insufferable in their own ways, and if it weren’t for the mystery of what happened to Rachel on the night she can’t remember, if it weren’t for the mystery of what ultimately happened to Megan, I would’ve abandoned this book not quite midway through.

Maybe the upcoming film will address some of these issues — cutting the fat from the beginning would be a huge bonus — but this book really frustrated me because of what it could have been. This had the potential to be an impossible book to put down; this could have easily turned into the best book I’ve read throughout 2016. The ingredients were all there.

But Paula Hawkins meandered her way through the beginning, and she left us with characters who reminded us too much of that friend we all have… the person who has been through entirely too much, which engenders sympathy, but they’re also such exhausting people to be around, for one reason or another, that the sympathy only goes so far.

I did root for Rachel, and Anna, toward the end, but for much of The Girl on the Train, I spent much of my time rolling my eyes at them. There were times where I envied Megan, because she didn’t have to wade through this mess.

But in the end, The Girl on the Train frustrated the hell out of me. What could’ve been a classic begging to be read time and time again instead turned into a maddening cluster of messed up people that you’ll wish would just get over themselves.

Rating: **

Buy The Girl on the Train on Amazon

MOVIE REVIEW: Ghostbusters (2016)

I know I usually do book reviews on this site — this is, after all, a site dedicated to books — but in the interest of geek culture as a whole, it seemed appropriate to share my review of the recently-released Ghostbusters reboot, which also includes my overall thoughts about the state of geek culture. Fair warning, man-babies will not like what I have to say.

Let me start by saying I know Ghostbusters (2016) wasn’t made for me. This isn’t my movie. I had my Ghostbusters movie 32 years ago, with Bill Murray and Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson… this new movie will be for a generation of children (a generation of GIRLS) what the original was for me – and that is a wonderful, momentous thing.dm-oaLsx_400x400

A generation of girls are going to get action figures and proton packs and video games and all of the other stuff I got when I was a child. They’ll get to create the same memories and have the same sense of self-worth that I had as a child because of Ghostbusters. And if some of those girls grow up and go into STEM fields – or become history buffs – ALL THE BETTER.

The new film is not about the fans of the original (more on this later).

Now… I said I loved this movie. And that’s true. But now for the potentially controversial part: I loved this movie more than I loved the original (and I’ve been repeatedly reverent in my love for the original). This film was all kinds of fun (which, really, is the most important thing for a movie to be – enjoyable to watch). The effects are what one would expect for 2016, and each of the Ghostbusters are memorable in their own ways.

Are there issues? Sure, but the same was true with the original (and to be honest, the original has a lot more wrong with it… most of that due to the passage of time and my own maturity). The original Ghostbusters never moved me to tears; for some reason I can’t quite place, this new one did. The original movie still exists; I see the DVD on my shelf as I type this. It’s still great. This new film doesn’t change or negate anything. There can be two separate, fantastic films called Ghostbusters. It is possible.

Holtzmann… man, she steals the show from the second she first pops up on-screen, and she doesn’t stop. She is this relentless ball of energy that infuses even the slower beats of the film, and her mix of fierce intellect, sheer joy, and uninhibited love for what she does make her possibly the highlight of the film. And her badass moment in the big fight scene at the end? OH MY FREAKIN’ GORSH (to borrow from another SNL alum). If Kate McKinnon’s star blows up in coming years, this movie – this performance – will be why.

I love Patty just as much; I consider her and Holtzmann co-favorites. I love Patty’s people-person nature, I love that she’s a history buff, I love that the others just accept her for that. I love that she picked a hearse for their official car (because WHY NOT), I love that she is simultaneously let’s do this and aw, hell no about everything. More than anything, I love how protective she is of everyone (Holtzmann especially), and seeing her save Holtzmann while fighting off a possessed Abby one-handed… I mean, dayum.

I expected a little more from Abby and Erin, but that was solely because of Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig. But we know what we’re getting from them by now, and they are still fantastic in their respective roles. I’ve long considered them the Venkman and Stantz of the group, but could never figure out which was which. But now I see that they’re neither of those; they’re simply them, and they are wonderful. I do, however, want more of their backstory as friends. Maybe in the sequel (and how can there not be a sequel, after that post-credits scene?).

I enjoye2015Ghostbusters_New_Press_161215.article_x4d Kevin (because quite frankly, turning the “dumb blonde” cliche on its head is probably the stupidest thing in the world to be offended over – next to a movie being remade with women instead of men) – not just because of the subversion of the stereotype, but because Chris Hemsworth knocked the hell out of the role. Seriously, Thor’s got some comedy chops.

I’m also enjoying the recent trend in genre fiction of the villain being a representation of the whiny, self-entitled man-baby that’s infested geek culture over the decades. Because really, what better way to highlight the necessity for and the highlights of representation than to pit those heroes against the very thing that despises them? Granted, Rowan can’t sniff Kylo Ren’s jockstrap, but the point of Ghostbusters (either film) was never the villain.

Besides, Loki and Magneto aside, it’s not like the Marvel films are doing that great on villains, either.

Which brings me to the meta portion of the essay: geek culture has a sexism problem. And a racism and homophobia problem, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s focus on the sexism (with the understanding that there’s a lot of overlap, too). Now, I know what you’re thinking: duh. I mean, the reaction to this film when it was first announced is evidence enough of geek culture’s sexism problem.

But it’s far deeper than that, and it’s gone on for decades.

Set aside a moment the concept of taking a long-beloved geek franchise and rebooting it with female characters instead of men. Think back and ask yourself… how many times have you known a girl or woman who enjoyed video games or comic books to be accused of faking it, of only pretending to like something to get attention from guys?

(Side note, guys: get over yourselves. You’re not cool enough for someone to fake liking Halo or God of War to get your attention.)

I’ve seen female comic book fans grilled by their male counterparts about obscure plot points or unknown characters, in an effort to prove that the boys are “better fans” – which is utter bullshit, because no comic book fan knows everything (I sure as hell don’t), and those who say they do are full of shit. Others see that behavior, too, and it makes them not want to take part in the culture. Which sucks, because comic books are awesome and video games are great and genre stuff in general is badass, and I happen to think the more people there are enjoying these things, the better off we ALL are.

Granted, for the longest time, geek media itself hasn’t been terribly welcoming. Female characters who were nothing more than eye candy and/or love interests for the heroes, wearing little clothing and boasting bodily proportions I’m not sure I could replicate with several tubs of Play-Doh. Sara Pezzini from the comic book Witchblade was an amazing, fascinating character on so many levels… but because almost every artist drew her half-naked and in compromising poses, few ever got to see that depth.

But the tide is changing. We’ve had Buffy the Vampire Slayer… and Sydney Bristow from Alias… and Max from Dark Angel… and several other fantastic examples of badass female characters spanning multiple platforms (remember the massive hit and cultural sensation Marvel hit upon when it re-launched Ms. Marvel as a Pakistani teenager?). The fervor for a Black Widow standalone film… for a Captain Marvel film… for a Wonder Woman film… hell, my own clamoring for a Batwoman film…

People were jacked for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice not because of the titular heroes, but because it would be our collective first glimpse of Wonder Woman on the big screen.

And now we have a foursome of women who are presented as tough, intelligent, and resourceful. They take control of their own lives and their own passions, and they don’t belittle each other for it – and not once are they presented for the male gaze. They dress for their job, not to show off skin or curves. They take each other seriously, and more importantly, the narrative takes them seriously.

This is not about alienating long-time genre fans; if the whiny man-babies are that upset over women having an ever-growing place at the genre table, then that’s
on them, not the characters or their creators. It’s not Sony’s fault or Paul Feig’s fault if you can’t handle the idea of female Ghostbusters; it’s yours.

What this is about is welcoming more people to the party. Genre fiction is wonderful in so many ways for so many reasons (I’m proud that I can write and publish genre fiction of my own, with my own badass female character who would fit in nicely in this new Ghostbusters world… even if she might be a bit confused most of the time). Why wouldn’t we want to share these fantastic worlds and characters with as many different people as possible?

And that, I think, is what is best about the new Ghostbusters film: everyone who wants a seat at the table has one. This isn’t just the boys club anymore, and you know what? That’s okay! It’s actually more than okay… and for those 8-year-old girls who want their own proton packs and jumpsuits and yellow goggles and guns to lick on Halloween (well… maybe when they’re older), I say: welcome to the club, have a blast, and don’t let any snot-nosed dudebro ruin your fun.