Book Reviews

Book Review: Church of Marvels

I don’t usually do book reviews (bad librarian) because if I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it, while if I LOVE a book, I find it difficult to be snarky. Snark-less is not a status I’m particularly comfortable with; however, I’m willing to power through it so I can tell you how much I love love LOVE Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels. (But please note that since this is Leslie Parry’s first novel, I’m basically obligated to despise her at least a little bit.)

cover art for the book Church of Marvels

Just last month you could have quoted me as saying “The novel is dead” (you can seriously start throwing rocks at me any time and I won’t blame you at all; I got a huge eye roll from my mom for those words of wisdom). I need novels to be engaging, the characters believable, and the prose beautiful. I’m not opposed to genre fiction, but soooooooooooo much of it seems to be writers plugging different names into the same plot (this conversation between Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro is the most perfect article about genre I’ve ever read: Anyway, my point is, I’m looking for a long-term commitment with a novel. I want to think about it for a long time after I’ve read it, what it means, which were my favorite parts. This book? Check, check, and check.

I’m going to avoid spoilers as much as possible, so I’ll keep plot details brief. There are three intersecting stories: that of Odile, a former carny trying to find her twin sister after losing almost everything in a fire; Sylvan, a night-soiler searching for the origins of a baby he finds while shoveling shit (really); and Alphie, a woman locked in an asylum because of her overbearing Italian mother-in-law. The only complaint I have with these three characters is that Sylvan is at times way too nice/likeable to be believed, but maybe that’s just my cynicism speaking.

The secondary characters are excellent. I DARE you to tell me you wouldn’t be terrified if you met the Signora in a dark alley. Though she is dead before the book begins, the mother of Odile and her sister Belle, Friendship Willingbird Church, is in the running for biggest badass in literature (also best name). Case in point:

“My mother was fearsome and beautiful, the impresario of the sideshow; she brought me and my sister up on sawdust, greasepaint, and applause. Her name—known throughout the music halls and traveling tent shows of America—was Friendship Willingbird Church. She was born to a clan of miners in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, but ran away from home when her older brother was killed at Antietam. She cut off her hair, joined the infantry, and saw her first battle at the age of fourteen. In the tent at night, she buried her face in the gunnysack pillow and wept bitterly thinking of him, hungry for revenge.”

There are more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. This is basically the modern, feminist version of Dickens; I kept thinking of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, though that’s not really a perfect comparison. One of the characters collects teeth. TEETH. That’s straight-up a page out of Miss Havisham’s book. At a certain point, you’ll get to a major plot twist and everything will make so much more sense.   There were several plot twists which made me re-read the paragraph multiple times because I was thinking, “Fuck, does that mean what I think it means? Wait, really? How did I miss that???”

Most of the novel takes place in the seedy underbelly of turn-of-the-century NYC (thank CHRIST b/c I’m really tired of hearing about rich people, Downton Abbey), but all of it is described with completely lovely prose. There is a brothel located at the end of a giant whale skeleton. And consider how beautiful this description of tigers being burned ALIVE is:

“The tigers were the first living things she saw. They were galloping down toward the shore, their great legs springing through the sand, cloaks of flame rising from their backs. She waited for them to howl, but they were silent. She didn’t even hear the sound of waves breaking over their bodies as they thrashed blindly into the sea.”

It’s seriously been AT LEAST a year since I’ve read a book I liked this much, the last one I can recall being Octavia Butler’s Kindred (don’t talk to me about Fledgling, though). There’s some fantastic exploration of identity and disguises and healing. But you don’t have to take my word for it…because this novel speaks for itself:

“His early life, he thought, was like the slow flip of photographs: the images were too sparse and sporadic to make any sense together, but each was so vivid that whenever one flickered to his mind, he was startled by its intensity. How could certain visions like these remain so luminous, and yet he had no recollection at all of what had come before or after?”

Please read this book so I can freak out (further) about it.

Blogging 101

Nobody Expects the…

I was reading One Little Library’s post The Best of 2014 (So Far!) on her favorite books of 2014, which gave me inspiration for this post. Some of her favorites are ones she didn’t think she would like (Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest, for example, which sounds like a fun read).

So I thought for today’s Blogging 101 task, I’d make a list of some things I have expected to hate, but have actually enjoyed quite a lot this year:

  1. Battlestar Galactica: science fiction tv show about humanity’s struggle to survive after sentient robots attack.

I didn’t necessarily expect to hate this show, but didn’t expect to get so sucked in by the plot and characters. There’s a lot of sci-fi that is just a vehicle for phallic spaceships exploding, but this isn’t one of them. BSG is a really intelligently written show that uses its sci-fi premise to offer social criticism and make you very uncomfortable. You will probably be extremely upset that Starbuck is a fictional character if you watch.

  1. Hanging out by myself in public places.

I have a lot of down time between many of my shifts, but it’s not worth my time/gas money to drive home. As a result, I’ve been spending a lot of time in sandwich shops reading, eating, and/or watching bad movies. It’s been quite pleasant to sit in a corner while people make me food and expect minimal human interaction. Even though I would still rather sprawl at home on the couch with no bra.

  1. Wolf Children: anime about a woman struggling to raise her half-wolf children after their father dies.

Guys, I am really not someone who enjoys anime. It usually just confuses me endlessly, but Wolf Children was a lovely movie about loss, family relationships, and establishing an identity independently (spoiler alert: there are also wolves. And children). I find Hosoda’s films highly imaginative but grounded in the deep emotional connections between characters. Plus there’s some beautiful animation going on in his movies.

  1. Kindred by Octavia Butler: science fiction novel about an African-American woman in the 1970s who is thrown back to the early 19th century to guide her plantation-owner ancestor.

I find sci-fi is very hit or miss for me, so even though I’d heard great things about Octavia Butler, I was skeptical about picking up this novel. I’m so glad I gave it a chance—one of my favorite books of any genre now. Kindred is so action-packed and absorbing with some very unsettling observations about race and gender in both the past and the present. No matter how disturbing this book became, I couldn’t put it down until I knew how it ended.

  1. Enlightened: tv show about a woman trying to change her life and the corporation she works for after having a huge meltdown on the job.

Cheating because I didn’t expect to hate this show, but I did read a lot of negative reactions towards Laura Dern’s character, which put me off watching. I ended up loving her character, who is extremely flawed but stubbornly optimistic. I didn’t expect a show about a woman having a mid-life crisis to seem all too relevant to my own life, and for the writers to basically send a giant “fuck you” to corporate America. Added bonus is the appearance of Luke Wilson in this series, who is aging extremely well.

  1. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart: pretty much the contemporary YA version of King Lear.

I don’t read a ton of YA fiction (too much angst—been there, done that), but I wanted a nice light summer read. While I suppose it didn’t end up being nice or light, it was a lot of fun to read and kept me in suspense until the end. Much more carefully and intelligently written than many other YA novels out there.

  1. Iron Sky: bad movie about Nazis who colonize the moon post-WWII.

I didn’t expect to hate this movie, but I didn’t have high hopes for it. The premise sounded like it could either be brilliant or horrendous. With its hyper-awareness of its own absurdity and surprising amount of snide political commentary, it’s definitely one of my favorite bad movies now.

  1. The Walking Dead: I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’re familiar with this show. If not, it’s a tv show about zombies.

I just started watching this show, and I’m enjoying it so much more than I thought I would. It’s really disgusting, which is somewhat problematic because I’m usually eating when I watch tv. That being said, it’s not (quite) as much about blood and guts as I thought it would be, though I’m not sure how much longer I can keep watching without becoming totally repulsed by the human race as a whole.

  1. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: comedy tv show.

Kind of cheating again because I couldn’t think of any reason I wouldn’t love John Oliver’s show. However, I do love it more than I thought humanly possible, especially this clip from his latest episode:

What about you?

Have you been pleasantly surprised by anything that you initially thought would be terrible? Or maybe you’ve gone back to something you hated the first time and loved it the second time around.

Ha, I’ll hate you a lot if you say this blog. 🙂

Blogging 101, Film Reviews

The Visitors: Qu’est-ce que c’est?

The Film:

The Visitors

Where to Watch:


The Premise:

A 12th-century knight and his servant attempt to return to their own time after being transported to the 20th century.  Hijinks ensue.

The Uncondensed Version:

This movie is so weird, guys.

It starts out with Sir Godefroy travelling to marry his fiancée, Frénégonde, after saving the King of France; however, en route he encounters a witch.  Instead of killing her, he brings her back to the castle to burn her.  I’m not really clear why.  Possibly so the people will at least get to enjoy the entertainment of a public execution.  Or maybe medieval knights were way bigger believers in habeas corpus than I realized?  Either way, this turns out to be a really bad idea.  The witch drugs Godefroy so that he believes his fiancée’s father is a bear and kills him.  You can be sure that wedding isn’t happening now.

In an effort to change these events, Godefroy asks a wizard to send him back in time.  Because I guess even though witches practice dark magic, wizardry is perfectly acceptable to the typical medieval knight.

a man with a long white beard proclaims "Time is a mountain, pierced by many hidden tunnels."
Seriously, you’re going to trust this guy with your life?

The wizard makes everything much worse by, in fact, sending Godefroy and his servant, Jacquouille, to the 1990s.  There, Godefroy encounters his descendant, Béatrice, who looks EXACTLY like his fiancée.  There were, in fact, a few times when I thought she was going to become her own great-great-great (etc.) grandmother, which was so uncomfortable.  Don’t sleep with your ancestors.  That is the first rule of time travel.  (It’s okay…nobody breaks this rule in The Visitors, but it comes pretty close.)

Béatrice, for her part, spends the majority of the film thinking Godefroy is her long-lost racecar driver cousin.  So she is usually trying to reintroduce him in polite society, which equates to cleaning up his messes.

a man in a flowing white shirt declares "A fine man, this Robespierre."
One of many cultural misunderstandings.

I don’t want this to be the longest entry ever and I would like to leave plenty of space for me to rant, so suffice it to say Godefroy keeps trying to find a way back to the 12th century for the rest of the movie.  I think there were a lot of puns and general archaic language I didn’t understand.

Finally, one of the wizard’s descendants gives Godefroy a potion that will take him back to the past.  Godefroy and Béatrice share a moment in which they proclaim how glad they are to have met each other.  I SERIOUSLY DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY SHE WAS GLAD TO MEET HIM.  HE JUST FUCKED EVERYTHING UP.  I was also having a major Kindred (Octavia Butler) moment and thinking that this is why you’d never want to actually meet your ancestors:  you don’t want to know all of the awful, screwed-up things they have done, no matter how normal or even honorable they were considered at the time.

two men in medieval garb unravel the toilet paper in a public bathroom
They are basically cats in terms of the ability to fuck with EXACTLY what you would prefer they leave alone.

The end was pretty funny, though.  Jacquouille switches places with his descendant, who’s a huge jerk, and manages to stay in the 20th century with his girlfriend.  I felt (appropriately for this blog) it was a bit of a Pink Panther ending.

Meanwhile, Godefroy returns to the 12th century, kills the witch, marries Frénégonde, and everyone lives happily ever after.  Well, everyone besides the witch, that is.

The Critique:

I think I’m used to the kind of time travel movie where you have to learn a heartwarming lesson about yourself and/or the importance of family.  Probably the influence of too much Disney/Back to the Future.  Sooooooooooo I was pretty much expecting Enchanted in French, but also Monty Python.  OKAY, FINE, I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT.  But Godefroy didn’t learn anything from his whole time-travel escapade, and that upset me.

a man in chainmail armor commands "Bow down before me, and I shall be clement"
Maybe the only lesson here is that a 12th-century French knight will act like a dick in every century.

And I couldn’t help thinking Jacquouille’s got it right in this situation.  I suppose no matter what time you are from, you would probably want to get back because it’s full of the people, geography, and worldview you are familiar with.  But I don’t know, if you could live in a time and place in which you are less likely to die of the plague or an infected splinter or whatnot, wouldn’t that be appealing?  Wouldn’t you at least take some penicillin with you?

There’s apparently a sequel as well as an American remake (of course), but I’m not sure I’ll add those to the bucket list.  They both look so very painful.

The Rating:

Small Pink PantherSmall Pink PantherSmall Pink Panther3/5 Pink Panther heads

Sorry every film I review seems to be a 3/5.  Just remember the bell curve, okay?