Book review: Clockwork Prince, Cassandra Clare

Clockwork Prince, Cassandra ClareClockwork Prince is Cassandra Clare’s sixth book, on top of a heap of her fan-fiction, so by now we know what kind of writer she is. More importantly, she knows what kind of writer she is, and Prince is laden with her hallmarks: zippy banter; (borderline pretentious, questionably necessary) literary quotes and references adorning every other page; irresistibly beautiful but tortured bad boys to entice the plucky heroines.

It’d be so easy to write Clare’s books off as florid trash – and they are certainly floridly trashy – except there’s something about them that just works. Even when the dialogue sounds more like something from a contemporary teen drama than 19th-century Victorian London, you keep reading. Even when the stakes of the plot seem to have nicked out for a cigarette break (a long one), you keep reading. Even when Clare tosses in yet another “They almost kissed but something interrupted them”-style, super-melodramatic cliffhanger… yeah.

(Minor spoilers ahead for Clockwork Prince‘s prequel, Clockwork Angel.)

The “clockwork prince” of the title is Mortmain, a shady fellow with ties to London’s Downworlders – Clare’s collective term for vampires, werewolves, warlocks, and other supernatural riff-raff. He had a hand in the mysterious birth of Tessa Grey, who’s grown up to learn she can take on anyone’s physical appearance, though she’s still yet to discover the true origins and nature of her power.

In Angel, Tessa fell in with London’s Shadowhunters, particularly the handsome but emotionally unavailable Will – a character delivered straight from the Cassandra Clare Factory for Devastatingly Handsome But Emotionally Unavailable Male Leads – and his kind-hearted best friend Jem. In Prince, the trio is tasked with uncovering Mortmain’s dastardly master plan, which apparently involves building menacing robots to kill all the Shadowhunters.

The Shadowhunters spend most of their time gossiping about Mortmain, yet strangely, he never appears in the book named after him. It means there’s never any real threat to Clockwork Prince – no jeopardy. Sure, there’s a subplot about mean Shadowhunters wanting to kick Tessa’s allies out of their headquarters. But there’s never any sense that anything bad will actually happen, and the book kind of shuffles to a close without ever really challenging its characters. In the last few pages I expected something shocking to jump out and ruin everything. It doesn’t.

The problem, I guess, is that Prince suffers from classic “middle instalment in a trilogy” syndrome. It’s a bridge between the origin story and the grand finale, without much to prop it up on its own.

But I doubt that will matter much to Clare’s ardent aficionados, who read these books for one thing: sex. And there’s plenty of that. Sexual tension runs high between Tessa, Jem, Will, and all the supporting characters – conveniently, Shadowhunters’ mores are way more relaxed than those of their Victorian peers. There’s love potions and secret weddings and nighttime trysts and more and more and more and more till the book practically throbs in your hands.

It is ridiculous. And yet, I will keep reading.

Previously: Clockwork Angel, Cassandra Clare


Movie review: Young Adult

Young Adult

Young Adult is not the zany black comedy suggested by its trailer (which, by the way, basically spoils the entire movie, so you should probably avoid it. Here’s the link!). This is a dark, twisted-and-not-in-that-cute-Hollywood-way portrait of a disturbed woman, but it’s a portrait that doesn’t say enough about its subject.

(Light spoilers ahead.)

The trailer does get the basic plot right: beyond-beautiful Charlize Theron is Mavis Gary, the author of a failing series of young-adult novels who returns to her hometown to reclaim her high-school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson), who’s now married with a kid.

Soon after arriving in Mercury, a sort of Everywhere/Nowheresville that could stand in for pretty much any small town in America (or Australia, for that matter – the strip mall/fast-food landscape looks the same), Mavis encounters Matt (Patton Oswalt), a former classmate who was brutally beaten and crippled when he was at school. The two bond – who doesn’t love connecting with friends of the jocks who terrorised you as a teenager? – even as Matt tries to talk Mavis out of her ridiculous plans with Buddy.

The problem with Young Adult is that when I ask myself “What is this film about?”, I can’t really come up with an answer. “Continuing to behave like a high-schooler well into your adulthood has bleak consequences.” And… that’s it? The plot doesn’t move beyond that premise; it’s not thoughtful enough to be a character study, too sour to be a comedy.

Mavis sneers at pretty much everyone who enters her field of vision, but I didn’t dislike her because she’s so unlikeable. Unlikeable characters are fine in principle, and it’s not like I hated her: she’s best when her powerful sarcasm is turned up to 11, scoffing when a date boasts about travelling in South-East Asia and rolling her eyes at a stranger’s baby (strangers’ babies are the worst). Nor would Young Adult have been better if Mavis had experienced some vague redemption – that would’ve been way worse, actually – but unlikeable characters still need to offer some reason for us to follow them, and Mavis doesn’t.

She doesn’t feel complicated as much as she feels disparate; she’s mentally ill and an alcoholic and there’s a late reveal about an adolescent miscarriage that probably fuelled her present-day miscarriage, but none of it gels, and some her characterisations are just obvious (the bit where she looks over a chart used to teach autistic kids about emotions, then she remarks that she doesn’t feel any. CLUNK). There’s too little sense of Mavis and what her regular life is like, or how a bitchy high-school prom queen even became a writer in the first place.

(There’s a vague implication Mavis writes young-adult novels because she’s stuck in permanent adolescence herself, which I emphatically reject, and it suggests screenwriter Diablo Cody is pretty ignorant about YA as a whole. It’s not just Sweet Valley High these days.)

It’s not just Mavis who’s so oddly drawn: what is Young Adult trying to say about small-town America? Should we share Mavis’s contempt for Mercury and her classmates who stayed behind? Or come away believing that even escaping your past doesn’t guarantee you’ll escape mediocrity? I have no idea.

Director Jason Reitman offered a better portrait of a stunted adult in Up in the Air. Watch that instead.


Book review: Dreadnought, Cherie Priest

Dreadnought, Cherie PriestCherie Priest’s novel Boneshaker, the first instalment in her series The Clockwork Century, went heavy on the steampunk and the zombies. You might assume its follow-up, Dreadnought, would do the same, but by doing so you’d make an ass of u and me.

Sure, Dreadnought has elements of steampunk (walking robots appear right at the beginning) and zombies (which appear right at the end), but this is, ultimately, the story of a woman on a train.

Said woman is Mercy Lynch, a no-nonsense nurse working in a Confederate hospital during the Civil War. She learns her father is dying, which raises two problems: first, she hasn’t seen him since he ran out on her and her mother years ago; second, he lives all the way on the other side of the country.

But Mercy is weary of the gore she bandages up every day, and grieving the recent death of her husband, and so embarks on the long journey – travelling via dirigible (hey, another steampunk element!), then riverboat, then train. And what a train! The Dreadnought is a formidable Union war engine, loaded with weapons, carrying a mysterious cargo in the front and an even more mysterious cargo in the back.

Dreadnought is set in the same universe as Boneshaker, and features a handful of the same characters, but it’s a remarkably different novel to its predecessor… which is not a flaw! Once you adjust to Priest’s languid pace – it takes Mercy forever to finally board the eponymous Dreadnought – it’s a pleasure to read.

The American Civil War isn’t my favourite historical period, but Priest mostly makes it interesting – “mostly” because there’s still the odd infodump that I skipped over. The dry, oh-so-American tone is pitch-perfect, though the book’s greatest achievement is Mercy herself: she’s strong and capable and smart, and the best, most memorable thing about Dreadnought.

There is one thing the book is lacking: a map of the US, or at least all the states Mercy passes through on her journey. Most of the time I couldn’t picture her location in my head. My apologies, America, for not knowing exactly how all your states fit together.

Previously: Book review: Boneshaker, Cherie Priest


Book review: Bossypants, Tina Fey

BossypantsHere is what I was asked a million times (literally) last year: “Hey have you read Bossypants? Now have you read Bossypants? When are you going to read Bossypants? You should read Bossypants right now. Why haven’t you read Bossypants yet?!”

Like, god, I get it, sheez, I need to read Bossypants already. So I did. (It’s such an easy book I finished it in a day. So there’s really no excuse for not having read it. Why haven’t you read Bossypants yet?!)

And it’s great! Is it really necessary to point out that this is a smart and funny book? We all know Tina Fey is a smart and funny woman. We’re all fans of 30 Rock and Mean Girls and Mom Jeans here. (Right? If you answered “No”, GTFO.)

She’s an attractive woman, too, but it feels weird pointing that out for a couple reasons. First: would you point it out in a review of a male comedian-writer-actor’s book? Why must a woman’s achievements still be framed around her appearance? Bossypants is a pretty explicitly feminist ((Important note!: “Feminist” is not meant to imply “Overbearingly feminist”!)) book, and Fey raises a lot of questions like these, mostly arguing that institutionalised sexism exists less because everyone is a misogynist and more because it goes unchallenged too often.

The other reason it’s weird to point out Fey’s attractiveness is that she doesn’t seem comfortable with that label. The book is so rife with references to her physical flaws – 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is the personification of all those neuroses – that it’d feel like she was exploiting the “I’m so not attractive!” thing, if it didn’t read so genuinely. It’s startling to come to the chapter in Bossypants that documents Fey’s discomfort at photoshoots (fame isn’t as eternally glamorous as everyone makes out?!), and even more startling when she name-drops her own pubic hair (famous women have that?!).

But even as she’s writing about herself there’s an impression that Fey is very guarded, unwilling to open herself up completely for us. There is a genuine sense of her personality revealed in Bossypants, but there’s also a sense of the “real-life” Tina Fey lurking off the page, unseen and unrevealed.

Which is fine! Since when is Fey obliged to offer a reality TV-style, warts-and-more-warts expose of every aspect of her personality? Instead, Bossypants is more akin to a really great stand-up show, in book form. There are a lot of LLOLs (that’s literal laugh-out-louds) in there.

And, unexpectedly, the best and funniest bits are Fey’s recollections of her off-camera life: her awkward formative years, her early dabblings in improv comedy (I admire her unironic, earnest, heartfelt passion for the form), her experiences with marriage and motherhood. I say “unexpected” because much is made of the book’s anecdotes about Alec Baldwin and Oprah and Sarah Palin and who have you, and they’re interesting, but they’re not what makes the book.

So what I’m saying is: why haven’t you read Bossypants yet?!


Movie review: The Muppets

The Muppets

Surely there is no one in the world who hates the Muppets. Is there anyone in the world who hates the Muppets? No one in the world hates the Muppets.

But plenty of people don’t care about the Muppets – not really care. People who know their names, and remember the gang with fondness, but don’t think about them much. People like me! The Muppets never went away, because the internet keeps everything going (all those Muppet video parodies went viral for a reason) (at least till everyone got sick of them), but they lost what I guess you’d call relevance.

This isn’t surprising: the Muppets are relics of childhood. You watched their TV show(s) and their movies (even the ones where they all played characters from classic literature for some reason) as a kid. Till recently their last (theatrically released) movie was 1999’s a-bit-of-a-hash Muppets from Space. So it’s a bit like reuniting with an old friend to see them again in The Muppets – note the definite article in the title, declaring this is the big-screen outing that will make them pop-culture fixtures again.

The Muppets

Leading man Jason Segal, who also co-wrote the screenplay, throws himself at the film with charming, catching energy. He plays Gary, a small-town American whose brother Walter (performed by Peter Linz), is a muppet; lower-case “m”, because although Gary is unmistakably Henson-esque he’s not one of the Muppets, though he’s been obsessed with their TV show since childhood.

Gary and Walter travel to Los Angeles to visit the famed Muppet Theatre with Mary (Amy Adams, adorable as always), who’s been dating Gary for 10 years. She’s hoping for a marriage proposal but her relationship with Gary is stuck firmly in platonic territory, thanks to his attachment to, and dependency on, his muppet brother.

Arriving in LA, the trio discovers the Theatre has become a derelict wreck, slated for demolition by oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper, whose character is evil because this whole film is anti-capitalist propaganda for children). Gary tracks down Kermit, a recluse since his separation from Miss Piggy, and convinces him to reunite the Muppets and put on one last show to save the Theatre.

The story then works out exactly the way you think it does, with a lot of celebrity cameos thrown in.

But that predictability is okay, because the movie is really, actually funny. The gags are silly and warm, and it’s all so goofy and earnest, and that suits the Muppets perfectly – thank god no one thought it’d be necessary to inject any sass or irony or heavy reliance on pop-culture references. (That said, there are a couple of things that are going to date this movie bad, including a chicken-clucked rendition of Cee Lo’s ‘Fuck You’ and cameos from Selena Gomez and, randomly, the fat kid from Modern Family.)

Aside from the classic ‘The Muppet Show Theme’ – that’s a great bit of music, isn’t it? It rivals The Simpsons‘ theme tune for its chaotic energy – there’s some terrific original numbers, many of them penned by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie. The standouts are the super-catchy ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ and ‘Man or Muppet’ (whose performance is accompanied by one of the movie’s best surprise cameos).

It’ll give you the warm and fuzzies – warm and Fozzies? – to watch Kermit and Piggy and Gonzo and the rest together again. The Muppets‘ biggest achievement is the nostalgia is arouses.

But that’s maybe its biggest problem, too: this film wants to make the Muppets relevant again, but it attempts to do so by reminding us that the Muppets used to be relevant. There’s a lot of scenes where everyone sits around reminiscing about the Muppet heyday that won’t mean much to viewers – especially really young viewers – who aren’t as enamoured with these characters as Segal is. Sure, by the time it ends there’s no question that the Muppets were awesome. But the film doesn’t do a great job convincing us they’ll be awesome again, or that they deserve to be.

But it’s not like you’ll leave with the sense that they’ll never be awesome again. It won’t be a shock if the Muppets return to TV with a new variety series in the next couple of years. And there, in a format that’s their natural heartland, where all the characters can be properly re-explored instead of trotted out for brief appearances, they might really earn their place in modern pop-culture again.


Book review: Red Glove, Holly Black

Red Glove, Holly Black

The best argument against the existence of the supernatural is this: if all that stuff was real, someone would exploit it for profit. (There’s a great xkcd comic about it.) In Holly Black‘s series The Curse Workers, magic is real – and it’s exploited for profit.

Curse workers – those who possess the ability to alter memories, invade dreams, transform one thing into another, or other fantastic powers – rule New Jersey’s organised crime. Think The Sopranos with magic, but instead of a focus on Tony Soprano our hero is Cassel Sharpe, the youngest member of a worker family tangled up with a powerful mob syndicate.

White Cat, the first Curse Workers instalment, detailed Cassel’s discovery of his place within his family and the worker world. It was a great book, honestly, but felt light-weight despite its heavy themes – high on set-up, low on plot. But! All that establishment in White Cat means we know the rules coming into its sequel Red Glove, freeing Black up to get into the meaty stuff. And she gets right to the meaty stuff.

(Some spoilers ahead for White Cat.) …