Why I won’t be seeing the movie If I Stay

If I Stay

I want to talk about If I Stay, the young adult book by Gayle Forman. All 231 pages rest on one question: What would you do if you had to choose?

As in, if you found yourself looking down on your comatose body after surviving a terrible car crash that kills your parents and only brother, would you want to stick around for all the ensuing pain or hightail it out of there?

When I saw a commercial for If I Stay (out Aug. 22) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s (one of my favorite young actresses) character got all weepy saying, “He wrote me a song,” my heart didn’t flutter. I thought it looked dumb and badly acted:

Like, this scene looks boring:

But maybe the book is good, I thought. OK. Nope. Not any better.

If I Stay has the potential to be good, but it’s a hugely overrated book. While wandering the hospital all corporeal and watching her loved ones talk to her broken body, the character Mia debates whether she wants to stay (and live without her family) or let herself die. You figure the author isn’t going to write a book where the message is “life isn’t that worth living,” so you know she’ll probably choose to live — but the point is more to explore the decision and all its implications. After all, who really gets to choose? Probably doesn’t happen all that often.

So she does a lot of thinking, mostly about music and her boyfriend. Her parents were rockers in their day, and her boyfriend has his own band that’s gaining popularity, but she plays the cello. Lame — or at least she thinks so. Most of her recollections deal with her doubts, not about whether her boyfriend Adam loves her but why he loves her. She can’t believe someone so cool would care about someone as plain as her. She doesn’t feel like she even belongs in her own family.

Then Adam shows up at the hospital (back to real time now), and she’s a mess. Seeing him makes her want to live, and that complicates her decision to call it quits. Because romance.

If I Stay is a pretty easy read — and it ends so abruptly you’ll be disappointed (I didn’t realize the 100 pages at the end of my version was all authory, previewy stuff). I wanted Forman to dig deeper into the question of why someone would stay (and what it means not to), but she never did. She never ventured beyond the obvious or connected all the stuff Mia thought about — music, love, family belonging, friendship — back to her final decision in a way that felt like it actually meant something.

And what about the movie line where Moretz’s character cries and smiles and says, “He wrote me a song”? Yeah, that never even happens.

So I don’t know about you, but I’m chalking this one up as another overrated YA book and skipping the theaters.

Grade: D

A land without its name: a review of Tigana

Tigana

They don’t seem like conquerers … They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

I haven’t sat down and read some good, thick fantasy in a while. Tigana was an excellent homecoming — rich in lore without being too fanciful, and hundreds of pages long without being indulgent.

Summarizing Tigana is difficult without revealing the heart of it, and perhaps that’s what gives Guy Gavriel Kay’s language, his story, its magic: Two tyrants, both sorcerers, are vying for domination of the world, but those who have been wronged by them — who have fallen from the grace of their beloved Tigana, a land now cursed so that none can hear its name except those born there (or with magic in their blood) — are gathering together to kill not only he who cast the spell but the other tyrant as well, so that neither shall rule.

This mutinous group, led by the dethroned prince of Tigana, does more sneaking and meddling than war-making, gathering their forces in secret and manipulating the tyrants from afar. Felling one tyrant is difficult enough, so I was eager to see how Kay would go about having them do away with two in a plausible, believable way. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel isn’t riveting, but it is deeply enjoyable in that simmering old way of classic fantasy. Read the language carefully, and you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Kay put into it. Tigana is full of lengthy chapters but never lingers on one perspective for too long a time; it keeps the tension taut by introducing strange new characters and interweaving them into the plot, mounting ever higher the grand and fragile house of cards that Kay is building, all centered around the tyrant Brandin who cursed Tigana and the future of the lands.

The characters surprise you. One who stands for all that is hate and vengeance becomes a symbol of good and redemption; another who vows to destroy her enemy comes to love him. Moreover, a controversial scene in the opening chapters left me uncertain of my feelings about one of the central protagonists and caused me to wonder whether the author was mistreating another character for the sake of scandal, but Kay never let that event tarnish the respectability of either or let it govern their fates.

I only thought one character was done injustice: the tyrant Alberico, who is little more than a two-dimensional, exaggerated villain whose ill deeds and manner lack the complexities of the fellow tyrant Brandin’s.

The others, despite their role in the story — a hindrance or a help to the freeing of Tigana — I cared for equally. The ending is bittersweet: both happy and tragic, with a reveal of a secret that was brilliantly concealed and saved for the final moments. The story ends how you suppose it will, but not how you hoped or predicted.

Kay weaves together many small stories, consequential or seemingly trivial, without losing sight of their place in the conflict that’s brewing or forgetting to convey the sense of time it took for it all to come together — years and years, with the ache of centuries and an unmistakable weariness hanging on each word.

The magic here is old, and trembling, and monstrous. It’s used carefully, for fear of repercussion, which always comes. And it’s not restricted to one form but to many: to wizards who hide their power to save their life, to those who walk in a dream realm at night, to those who heal and others who torment and are crippled by their own sorcery.

That magic is never quite enough to fill you. Tigana leaves you yearning.

Grade: A

Comics you should read: Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

I’ve read a boatload of comic books recently — all excellent — including one manga. Ready for some bite-sized reviews?

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Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

I found this series after watching an episode of Geek & Sundry’s web series “Talkin’ Comics,” and I think it may be my favorite manga ever. Seriously, it’s that good.

My experience with manga is limited (I’m more of an American comics kind of girl), but over the years, I’ve added collections like Fruits Basket and Cardcaptor Sakura to my library. Ranma 1/2 reminds me a bit of the former (both feature humans shape-shifting into animals and are overall endearing), but it stands out for a few noteworthy reasons:

This is an unusually progressive manga. Chinese martial arts wonder Ranma is a boy who becomes cursed so that whenever he touches cold water, he turns into a girl. Vice versa with hot water. His father is similarly afflicted, only he turns into a giant panda. (Aww.) So the romance that ensues between the betrothed Ranma and a dojo owner’s third daughter Akane is interesting because it addresses issues of sexual and gender identity in a very insightful way.

I’m only two volumes in (there are 38 total), but I admire how deep and intelligent the commentary here is even though Ranma 1/2 is also one of the genuinely funniest comics I’ve read. Though Ranma experiences life as both genders, he identifies more with being a boy. Akane is a tomboy herself, so while she’s endlessly pursued by the boys at her school, she’s often the object of criticisms like, “Aren’t you supposed to have more grace?” — often from the brash Ranma, who has no room to talk. The societal rules of the sexes are rigidly upheld by these gender-bending characters just as they’re called into conflict.

Akane and Ranma struggle against the feelings of affection they feel for each other. Some situations are made awkward and strained by the gender Ranma is at the time, but in scenarios where their gender is the same, they feel more comfortable with the events that occur (like seeing each other naked). But both characters understood the worlds of male and female, and that’s what makes their relationship special despite their difficulties relating to each other.

To me, all of us have a little of the opposite gender inside us, and though we might clash with the opposite sex, it’s when we’re able to find a common ground between us on a mental and emotional level that we can communicate and get along.

VIZ Media just started releasing the 2-in-1 Editions (that’s two volumes in one book) of Ranma 1/2 in March, and there are three volumes out now, with a fourth arriving in early September (so each a couple months apart). Although the series itself ended in 1996, I’m excited to follow along with it as each 2-in-1 Edition is released.

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (author) and Fiona Staples (illustrator) 

Saga is one of those rare comics that comes along and blows your mind.

I’m three volumes into this series now, and I’m not sure that there’s a more creatively illustrated or tenderly told sci-fi comic out there than this. Husband and wife Marko and Alana are traveling the stars as fugitives — both have abandoned their posts in the war, and both have come together to conceive a child despite the fact that their planets are engaged in a war that seems destined never to end. Now they’re running with an infant in tow, and the “freelancers” paid to kill them are relentless in their hunt.

Saga has suffered censorship for its sometimes pornographic content (there’s a whole planet named Sextillion and a robot prince whose television head sometimes displays genitalia), but at its core, this is a comic about protecting your family and finding peace amidst bloodshed and violence. Not a page is wasted. Every volume has gripped me, and volume three brought me to tears with a touching moment in its opening pages.

Like Ranma, Saga isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues of sex (including homosexuality and the sexual enslavement of children) head-on — and its female characters are just as capable as its male ones. It’s funny, gross, tactful, and shocking all in one swoop.

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The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer (author) and Steve Lieber (illustrator) 

I fell in love with Superior Spider-Man when I read a hilarious comic where Doc Ock’s mind ended up in Peter Parker’s body to prove he could be the better superhero. My boyfriend gave me The Superior Foes of Spider-Man Vol. 1 as a birthday gift this month, and while it’s more about the “Superior” Spider-Man’s enemies than Spidey himself, it’s just as enjoyable.

This is a villain’s comic. They’re not bad guys who look good from their side of the story. They’re bad guys who do bad things to their fellow crew members and aren’t ashamed about it. You won’t be rooting for them, but you will find getting inside their heads an exotic invitation that’s hard to resist.

A villain’s life isn’t glamorous. The five members of the new Sinister Six (yep, their name is a point of contention) spend more time debating whether to have separate or unisex bathrooms at their hideout than successfully executing criminal heists. And intercrew betrayal is only a group vote away.

The leader of the Sinister Six is Boomerang, a guy who’s had it rough because, well, he goes around wearing a boomerang on his head, fearing the wrath of merciless antiheroes like the Punisher, and meeting the bare minimum requirements of his parole. While Superior Foes is a comedic book — the Sinister Six attempt to steal the rumored living, talking head of a gangster named Silvio Silvermane for most of the first volume — it has its grave moments. Just about every time you think Boomerang has it in him to do a good deed, you’re let down big time.

That’s what makes the series so morbidly fascinating: The Sinister Six are on rails to a train wreck, and it’s hard to look away from the destruction that they cause and the beatings and humiliations that they take. Because maybe — just maybe — they can turn their lives around.

Either that, or finally score that big, devastating win on the side of evil.

What comics or manga are you reading these days? I always need recommendations!

 

A crush gone deadly: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling

The dead girl had had her glimpse of earthly paradise: littered with designer goods, and celebrities to sneer at, and handsome drivers to joke with, and the yearning for it had brought her to this: seven mourners, and a minister who did not know her name.

The Cuckoo's CallingScrew Harry Potter. I believe that J.K. Rowling — or Robert Galbraith, as she’s calling herself these days — can write whatever the hell she wants. Saucy suburbia. Murder mystery. You name it.

Let her explore. Making mistakes is part of the process.

That’s why I’m OK with The Cuckoo’s Calling even though it isn’t her best work. Actually, it’s probably my least favorite. Rowling’s latest novel, which is due for a sequel called The Silkworm next month, is about a beautiful celebrity named Lula Landy who drops to her death out of her apartment window. Everyone says it’s suicide — the girl was spoiled and crazy — except her grief-stricken brother. The only one desperate and willing enough to indulge his delusion is an old family friend and private dick who’s down on his luck, dumped and near-penniless: Cormoran Strike.

Part of the drama involves his unfolding relationship with his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who’s too good for what he can afford but is secretly a nut for Sherlock Holmes-like detective thrills. That keeps her sticking around even though her boyfriend adamantly disapproves of her new, albeit temporary, choice of employment. Strike, moping and living out of his office, is a clever grump who lost his leg in Afghanistan. Robin is a trendy, enthusiastic independent whose emotional swings alternately cause tension and relief between she and Cormoran during almost every minute of interaction (or non-interaction). Comedically, they’re an interesting pair.

But my investment in the actual mystery wasn’t nearly as strong. Instead of it pulling and tugging me in a dozen directions, giving me the pleasure of finding confidence in what surely was the answer and then causing me to doubt myself and blame a different suspect entirely (repeat process), the investigation felt like nothing more than a series of routine interviews with little consequence. I get it. No one really liked Lula. She was shallow and capricious, but few people were good to her, either. Celebrities are very complicated people and yet not at all as deep as we imagine them to be in the afterglow of our daydream fantasies. By extension, we ourselves can come so close to fame only to touch it and then fall back to the regularity of our ordinary, dull lives.

The Cuckoo’s Calling both points out these societal fascinations and flaws and is victim to them: Lula, by the end, almost becomes this martyr figure — and yet nothing in the story convinces me that she really was all that genuine as the characters liked to think she might have been, secretly, behind the flashes of paparazzi and impulsive shopping trips and long-running family spats. She really was selfish. Tragedy just made her look kinder.

Personally, I got over the fascination with idolizing celebrities years ago, and maybe that makes the novel a little more transparent for me. Because Lula was just as genuine as her drug-abusing boyfriend was — really, underneath, “he has a good heart,” his friends said, as he acted rude and obnoxious to everyone around him.

Maybe that’s the point. We never really know these people, and does it matter? To the public eye, they’re composites of news stories, gossip, and scandalous photos. We’re all moving pieces in a drama — the same misfortunes can befall us all, despite our differing fortunes.

I only wish the story compelled me more — laid out the puzzle in plain view so I could see it come together. Instead, the pieces were snapped together in secret by invisible hands. About 70 percent of the way through is when Cormoran finally hints that the investigation is at last adding up to … something. The next 20 percent, he knows the murderer and is collecting the final, incriminating proof. The last 10 percent is the confrontation and resolution. That’s not much of a thriller.

And the murderer? Well, there was only really one logical suspect all along, wasn’t there? No one else had proper motive. Call me disappointed.

A part of me is curious to learn what happens to Cormoran and Robin, these two characters so unlikely to remain together. That’s one mystery that I’d like to see unravel — if only Rowling could give the reader a bigger part.

Grade: C