Black Heart, Holly Black: Book review

Buried in the acknowledgements in the back of Black Heart is what might be the key to Holly Black‘s success. She writes (slight paraphrasing): “I have to thank my husband, who once again let me read the whole book to him out loud.”

That’s right: having a husband is the key to a woman’s success. Just kidding! I mean the bit about reading the whole book out loud. That’s kind of neat, right? The only people who read whole books out loud are the people who get paid to narrate audiobooks. But I think it explains why The Curse Workers trilogy, which concludes with Black Heart (at least I assume it’s a trilogy – trilogies are how YA series are mostly pitched and sold. So maybe there’ll be a fourth book. I have no idea), has such a distinctive, polished, convincing voice. Because Black read the whole book aloud, to someone else. It really pays off.

So. In this series magic is real, and most people with magic powers are criminals – mobsters, con men, killers. Cassel Sharpe is the youngest member of a family of “worker” lowlifes (worker is Black’s term for anyone magic) who’s been roped into using his rare magic ability, the power to transform anything into basically anything else, for the FBI. And of course it turns out the feds are as ruthless and untrustworthy as the worker mafia Cassel is also tied up with. “Between a rock and a hard place” comes somewhere close to describing this kid’s dilemma.

Cassel, bless his melodramatic moody teenage heart, is dealing with some heavy stuff. But The Curse Workers books are not hard hitters. That is not meant as a bad thing! This series is a noir thriller dressed up as young-adult fantasy: it’s sexy. It’s gritty. It’s readable. Please, television executives who are totally likely to pay attention to all the things I say: make a TV series about these books. It’d be Veronica Mars with magic. And I have to wrap this up now because I’m having heart palpitations at how awesome that would be.

Previously: White Cat, Holly Black/Red Glove, Holly Black


Pitch Perfect: Movie review

Pitch Perfect

Musicals, all of them, benefit a lot from their music. Not just because it wouldn’t be much of a genre without music. Song lends them an emotional shortcut: Instead of all that patient careful build-up, you just get a couple of big swelling numbers to do the heavy lifting for you. Pitch Perfect is very dependent on these kinds of shortcuts. If you took all its music out, it might be a pretty unremarkable movie. But there’s a ton of a music in it. So it’s not!

(Sidenote: The ultimate movie-musical-that-seems-great-at-first-because-of-its-music-but-later-you-realise-it’s-total-crap? Rent.  The Chris Columbus version. First time I saw that I was like “THIS IS AMAZING,” but later after I listened the shit out of the soundtrack and re-watched it I was like… this.)

Actually Pitch Perfect wouldn’t be that unremarkable because it has Anna Kendrick in it and Anna Kendrick is pretty terrific. (If you’re not convinced of her terrific-ness, please please watch her sing “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” when she was like seven. LIKE WOW.) She plays Beca, this character who is kind of a butt except for the fact she’s played by Anna Kendrick. Beca is “alternative” because she wears earrings and eyeshadow and hates everyone for no reason and she super wants to be a DJ in Los Angeles, except her dad is forcing her to go to an awesome college for free to get a sweet education for free. Oh he’s a monster.

To fill the time between boring college and DJ superstardom (worth adding, to underscore how cruelly unreasonable Beca’s father is: He makes this deal with her where she only has to go to college for a single year and then he’ll bankroll her move to LA. Boy is he just awful), Beca sulkily joins an all-girl a capella group called The Bellas. Their leader is this uptight snot called Aubrey (Anna Camp, very pretty but too old to play college), who butts heads with Beca because they have different musical visions and can they resolve them before the big singing championship in New York and if this is all sounding a lot like an extended episode of Glee that is an astute observation because this is basically Glee: The Movie and they even go to Regionals.

Not, I rush to add, that comparisons to Glee are a bad thing. Yes, in 2012 Glee is pretty much a pop-culture punchline, but back when Glee was good it was really good, and Pitch Perfect shares a lot of those really good elements. Its characters are arch, its LOLs sharp and many (thank screenwriter Kay Cannon, who cut her teeth on 30 Rock, for those), and its soundtrack really is great. If the mark of a good musical is that it makes you want to start singing, Pitch Perfect is a good musical.

Pitch PerfectThose musical numbers and the witty one-liners really do a good job at disguising the fact there’s not much to the story. This is a very standard teen movie arc: Beca goes to college, meets a cute boy – Jesse (Skylar Astin), a member of the rival all-boy a capella group the Treble Makers – faces some obstacles, alienates cute boy via contrived drama, then overcomes obstacles and pashes cute boy. (Spoiler alert, I guess, if you’re an idiot who’s never seen a movie before.) There’s some trying-a-bit-too-hard-to-be-meta references to teen classics like The Breakfast Club, but mostly they just serve as reminders about how formulaic Pitch Perfect is.

It doesn’t really matter it’s formulaic, though, when the formula is so much fun and sold so well. Especially by Rebel Wilson, who is doing her usual Rebel Wilson schtick playing “Fat Amy” (if you want to see Rebel Wilson not doing Rebel Wilson, see Bachelorette: it’s good) but doing it with every bit of energy she has. When I say she dominates every scene she’s in, it is absolutely literally seriously-I mean-this not intended as a lame fat joke. She’s rad. And she deserves all her Hollywood fame and Zac Efron kisses.

(Also: If you’re wondering what Freddie Stroma‘s been doing since he played Hot Blond Kinda Douchey Guy in Harry Potter 6, he’s now playing Super Hot Blond Kinda Douchey Guy in Pitch Perfect. So now you know!)


The Song of the Quarkbeast, Jasper Fforde: Book review

Jasper Fforde Song of the QuarkbeastJasper Fforde’s many, many book series remind me of that image of the kid playing several games of chess at once in the park. Thursday Next is still ticking along, Shades of Grey apparently has a second entry coming out some time in the future, and I assume Nursery Crimes is still alive somewhere in the dusty back corners of BookWorld. In addition to all that is his young adult series The Last Dragonslayer, which continues the story of the world’s most capable teenager Jennifer Strange in its second instalment, The Song of the Quarkbeast.

Fforde’s plots are never standard: Here, Jennifer’s magical employment agency Kazaam is pitted against its archrival Industrial Magic as a devious king of one of England’s Ununited Kingdoms plots to gain control of the rising supply of Big Magic. (Like always with Fforde, it makes perfect sense as you read it, mostly.) Laid in around the awesome plot silliness is awesome just-for-the-sake-of-it silliness – Fforde never imagined an odd joke he didn’t like, and his skill at weaving them into his stories is something to behold.

Quarkbeast‘s predecessor The Last Dragonslayer was maybe more inventive, but it suffered greatly from its too-hastily-tied-together ending. Part 2 doesn’t have this problem – Jennifer’s many and crazy problems are drawn together, resolved with a satisfying flair that makes you keen for more. Fingers crossed Fforde isn’t too distracted by all his other worlds to return to Jennifer’s soon.