Review of the Week–Wonder Boys

Apologies for my late review this week–technically I guess I’m not even on schedule, because it’s now NEXT week already. I just haven’t gotten out to see many movies recently or had much to talk about in the way of TV shows. That said, I did recently finish reading the first book on my reading list for the upcoming grad school semester–so I figured, why not? I’ll talk about this. It’s Wonder Boys, published in 1995 by one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon.

Wonder Boys features an ensemble cast of characters all living in a college community in the Pittsburgh area. Middle-aged writing professor Grady Tripp is struggling to finish his latest novel, “Wonder Boys”–thousands of pages long and no closer to ending. One fateful weekend, with a literary festival taking place on campus, his life becomes entangled with that of one of his students, the quiet and troubled James Leer. Together with his longtime friend and editor Terry Crabtree, Grady and James embark on a series of increasingly ludicrous misadventures in their quest to understand each other and their writing issues. But how much of what James tells Grady is actually true? And what even is truth anyway?

Okay, I’ll start by being honest–Wonder Boys isn’t my favorite Michael Chabon book. The first book of his I read was Summerland, and the second was The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, both of which have grounds in alternative universe, relatively out-there fiction which I really enjoy. This book is way, way more grounded and talks about what could easily be a real-life situation, something that I’m not as crazy about. I read my books to escape from reality, not be reminded of it. So on first brush I wasn’t that thrilled about the premise of Wonder Boys. It reminds me a lot of something like Catcher in the Rye, or if you want to go with a movie comparison, The Big Lebowski: a story about the darkly comical misadventures of its clueless characters, who contemplate in their own warped yet wise way the meaning of life in general and what their purpose is. Most of the characters are chronically lost and can’t seem to do anything right, which also works its way into their existential troubles as writers–something I can totally identify with. In fact, this book is pretty much written about writers and the demons and doubts they often face. So in that respect, I actually can get behind it pretty strongly because it represents that kind of thing very well.

And it is funny. I won’t lie. It’s not your typical ha-ha type funny, but more of a just ludicrous misadventure and series of one farcical mistake after another strung together in a weekend that’s about as bad as it can possibly be for all the characters involved. It more or less ends happily though (or at least with the promise of a light at the end of the tunnel), so that’s something! Like I said, if you like down to earth, seemingly pointless wackiness in the nature of what the Coen brothers like to do, this is probably a book you’d really enjoy. Especially Grady Tripp, with his dry and cynical wit, reminds me a lot of someone like Bill Murray in any given Bill Murray movie–somebody who just rolls with all the stupid, crazy things that happen around them while keeping a perfectly straight face, accepts it all, and moves on. Definitely a black comedy, but a comedy nonetheless.

One of the main points the novel brings up is how a writer’s actual life can relate to and give meaning to their story, and honestly I’m not sure how I feel about this. When Grady learns that most of the things James has told him about his background were lies–including that his parents are very much alive and not dead–it makes him question whether anything he’s read in James’s manuscript has value. Up to this point it had seemed to parallel James’s life, but when that is revealed as a falsehood, he struggles with whether it invalidates the story or not. The question is largely left unresolved and up to the reader to decide. But that’s just one example of how Wonder Boys tackles all the struggles writers, and creators of anything really, face from time to time. I can certainly relate to feeling lost and directionless with writer’s block, not being able to finish something I started, and the frustration that leaks out into the rest of life because of it. So if you’re not a writer, will you appreciate this book as much? Maybe not. But it could still be compelling.

And that’s the other thing about Wonder Boys–despite the fact that I’m not sure if I’m crazy about the story as a whole, I can’t deny that it’s very, very well written for all of the reasons I’ve already described. There’s well-crafted, believable characters who act like real people would, and such vivid descriptions of setting and emotions that you can’t help but be in awe of an artist like Chabon. While I may not like it as much as his other books, it’s definitely just as good from a writing standpoint. Everything makes sense and comes together nicely in the end, and overall the narrative reflects the chaotic, nonsensical messiness of real life, and the things both bad and good that can come out of it–including that sometimes, starting fresh is what you really need.

My Rating: 7/10

I can’t say that I’m personally ecstatic over reading Wonder Boys, or that it’s my favorite Michael Chabon book, but I have to admit that it’s an extremely well-written novel and worth a read for people who enjoy the kinds of themes and ideas it puts forward. I can definitely understand why it would be part of a college curriculum, and I look forward to dissecting all the elements of story that make this such a fine example of fiction. It’s also nice to know that someone else out there feels the same as me when it comes to difficulties in writing and understands them, especially such a big-name author. It’s not quite my cup of tea, but still definitely worth a read if you like fine literature.

Review of the Week–The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever

Once again, I find myself this week with the distinct pleasure of reviewing a book written by one of my fellow young authors–this time, an intriguing collection of short stories that might keep you awake at night. Let’s talk about The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever, the first published work by K.C. Hamby!

In this collection of three short stories, the author examines several of the primal fears that make up our human nature, tackling subjects from the pain and consequences of mental illness, the cruelty of people to others, understanding tragedy, and of course simple, deep, psychological terror. The unsettling but fascinating stories are told from three very different points of view: a young girl with a teddy bear unaware of where the real monsters in the world come from; an old-fashioned southern gentleman about to learn the true meaning of fear; and a suffering high school student battling her inner demons. But all examine the pure, unvarnished truth that disturbing things can and often do happen in life, and the many and varied ways in which we try to cope with them.

I’ll break down the stories one at a time here to make my thoughts flow a bit easier.

“The Button-Eyed Teddy Bear” was probably my favorite story of the lot. It was simple, direct, and to the point, confronting us with an obvious but still heartbreaking scenario of a young girl afraid of imaginary monsters, only to lose her parents to a real monster–a human being–who breaks in and kills them. The way the story was written I think perfectly encapsulates the point of view of a small child, with lots of exclamation points–I like to think children think only in exclamation points anyway–and a simple sentence structure. It also plays on that common childhood fear of darkness and monsters under the bed, something we can all completely relate to. And for those who have experienced similar tragedy, that too. I suppose the way it ended should have been obvious, but I wasn’t sure what kind of horror to expect here, so it still did take me a bit by surprise. And like I said, the naive question posed at the end just tears your heart out like it would in real life. Very effective emotional play.

I didn’t enjoy “Johnson Mansion” nearly as much–not just because the subject matter was a bit out of my grasp (plantation-era south), but also because I keep feeling like I missed something here that would make me understand the end result a bit more. I mean, I get that old people can be creepy sometimes, and the story definitely does convey that, but was witchcraft involved? Or was it just the narrator’s own inner turmoil coming out in some way? I wish there was a bit more evidence of either of these things to point us in some concrete direction, and in the end I’m left not sure what to think. I feel like this had the potential to be really good on par with something like Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher”, but it fizzled out a bit when I wasn’t sure what happened. I think I probably missed something really obvious and that other people might get more out of it than I did, but it was my least favorite of the three stories. Not that it was bad, certainly! It just didn’t work for me the way the others did. I wish it had been a little longer for sure to really build up the suspense and horror aspects.

Now “Eat, Drink, and Be Mary”–that was truly horrifying. I also think it’s the most timely and culturally relevant of the three stories given that it tackles mental illness. Having never suffered from severe mental distress, I can’t say I know what it feels like, but I can’t help but think the agony and anguish felt by the main character, Mary, is probably exactly right. Problems that serious can be completely overwhelming, not to mention the fact that high school isn’t exactly the most healthy social environment in the first place. The alienation, anger, and self-loathing Mary feels is something I think a lot of us can relate to. Maybe not the murderous personality change, but still. I think it’s somewhat of an allegory for the inner battle that mental illness often causes in people, and how difficult it can be to hang on and maintain one’s sanity when you feel no one cares or wants to help you. This was very reminiscent of a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”-type story, and was appropriately suspenseful that up until the end I wasn’t sure whether Mary’s dominant or inner psychotic personality would prevail. This kind of incident is a tragedy I think we see repeated so often in the world today, and makes some good points about how to approach someone with these issues and what kind of culture is healthy or unhealthy for people who may be more sensitive to it.

Okay, so I liked all the stories in varying degrees. But I think the real thing The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever has going for it is how well the author encapsulates the points of view of three vastly different characters/narrators and gives them each their own entirely believable surroundings, reality, and personality. Even something as far removed from my experience as an 1800s southern gentleman was written with such attention to detail that I couldn’t help but be drawn into the stories and feel for the characters in my own way. I think that kind of skill is a rare gift, especially when coming from such different short tales, and it’s definitely the primary strength of the book itself.

My Rating: 8/10

There’s no reason why, if you like good short fiction, you shouldn’t pick up The Button, the Fire, and the Worst Day Ever (and you can really easily on Amazon!). You can read it in one sitting, it’s highly engrossing, and covers a variety of times and places that ensure pretty much any reader can find a story that probably speaks to them. Its focus on mental illness, trauma, and horror is done both tastefully and entertainingly enough that I couldn’t put it down until I was finished, and the strength of characterization is really excellent here. I see great things in the future for this author, and look forward to reading more of her work!

Review of the Week–Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle

Sorry my review is so delayed this week–I’ve been a bit busy with everything on my plate at this point. But never fear, I’m back! At least for now. And you know what else is back? Everyone’s favorite movie monster, Godzilla, in a brand-new anime movie. Yes, the sequel to the pretty darn cool Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is here, so how does it stack up to the first chapter of the story? Yes, I know I’m a few weeks behind the times here, but still. Let’s check out what’s going on in Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle.

In the aftermath of Planet of the Monsters, Haruo Sakaki and his band of alien and human soldiers find themselves stranded on Earth, cut off from their orbiting colony ship when Godzilla devastated their fighting force. But they’re quickly captured by descendants of the original humans who lived on earth thousands of years earlier and have been living under Godzilla’s reign, and still using a nanometal material made from Mechagodzilla–a robotic drone created by the Billusaludo to fight Godzilla that was lost and presumed destroyed. Embarking on a quest to find this weapon that might finally give them the tools they need to take down Godzilla once and for all, the force discovers that while Mechagodzilla is indeed gone, its remnants have self-constructed a massive city over the millennia full of firepower to bring down the monster it was designed to kill. But when the battle to retake the Earth from Godzilla presents Haruo once again with a critical choice, will he be willing to sacrifice his own humanity, and that of his men, to achieve his goal?

As I stated back in my review of Planet of the Monsters, this new Godzilla trilogy has a lot of promise in spite of a few flaws–anime Godzilla still looks super-sweet in this new installment, and while I’m disappointed not to see the actual Mechagodzilla appear, the concept of Mechagodzilla City and what’s going on there was, I have to admit, pretty cool and very original. That’s what I love most about this series–the originality of combining old-school Godzilla with all the futuristic sci-fi mayhem and bleak, apocalyptic symbolism that’s going on here is really awesome. Plus, did anyone catch that not-so-vague Mothra reference here? Maybe we’ll see some classic monster grudge matches at some point after all.

And speaking of that–I’m sure we probably all saw it coming, but the enigmatic alien Metphies finally revealed to Haruo the name of the monster that destroyed his own world in the film’s climactic moment: none other than the three-headed, lightning-spitting dragon King Gidorah. Oh yeah, baby! That’s what I’m talking about. The promise of a Godzilla-Gidorah fight in the third film was just the kick City on the Edge of Battle needed to keep me on the edge of my seat until the next installment drops. Given the scale of power we’ve seen Godzilla reach at this point in these movies, that battle is going to be EPIC.

But enough about that–I guess we have to talk about the topic at hand, right?

Sadly, despite all my hype for it, I have to say that in many respects, City on the Edge of Battle falls short of the bar established by Planet of the Monsters. There’s a whole lot of talking, exposition, and walking around, but precious little in the way of consequential action until the film’s last 20 minutes or so. Part of what made the first movie so special to me was the innovation of using all the high-concept sci-fi stuff in a Godzilla story, and a second film with pretty much the same stuff just can’t compare to the sheer newness of that idea. So there’s that working against the film right off.

As for the plot twist…huh. Well, I can’t say I expected the Billusaludo to be the aliens who turned on their human allies first. With their whole plot to let themselves and everyone else be absorbed by the nanometal to increase its power, and let it overrun the Earth in the process, humanity would essentially be trading one master for another. It also brings up the whole debate about whether it’s necessary to become a monster in order to defeat a monster like Godzilla–a sound but hardly revolutionary morality play. Also, is it just me or did this movie feel really derivative of, like, everything else anime to anyone? It just got a little ridiculous to see Gundams attacking Godzilla, that’s all I’m saying.

There’s also not much here in the way of character development–most of the people in the movie stay more or less static, while Haruo’s only meaningful growth comes in the final ten minutes when he realizes that his rather bland love interest’s life is at stake. It just kind of falls flat to me. I think the movie could have done a lot more to lay out the essential inhumanity of the Billusaludo’s plan and how horrifying it could be if taken to its logical conclusion. Basically, the moral of the story here is that there are lines even Haruo won’t cross to beat that which he hates so much–a big turnaround from the really Captain Ahab vibe I got from him in the first movie, and which I liked a lot more than the traditional hero type we’re starting to see in him. I mean, there’s nothing WRONG with it. It’s just really bland and blah to me.

Overall, City on the Edge of Battle just feels like somewhat unnecessary filler that someone felt was needed to bridge two chapters of an otherwise epic saga. It tried to do a lot of things and go in a lot of different directions and didn’t end up doing any of them very well. It’s the typical sequel doldrums at work again, and while it’s certainly not the worst Godzilla movie I’ve ever seen, it didn’t do enough to recapture the pure adrenaline and novelty of its predecessor. While Planet of the Monsters felt like almost a retelling of a classic novel at times, this film is basically an action movie: big, bombastic, and loud. That’s about all. Well, for about half of it. Probably less.

My Rating: 5/10

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle retreads a lot of the ground established in the first movie in this anime Godzilla series–some of it very solid–but the problem is that it doesn’t add anything suitably interesting to the narrative and seems only to serve as a vehicle to get to the third chapter. There was a lot of setup work done here that could end up paying dividends later on, but as a standalone this movie was kind of a let-down from the previous installment. In summary, the upcoming third movie has a lot of heavy lifting to do to recover the same sense of wonder and pure entertainment I felt upon seeing Planet of the Monsters–this second part in the trilogy, while not all bad, is most likely to be the forgettable, somewhat regrettable chapter in the saga.

Review of the Week–Mission Impossible: Fallout

There is definitely a such thing as a franchise being taken too far–Pirates of the Caribbean and The Fast and the Furious are just a couple of the myriad examples that spring to mind. But it seems that others just get better with age. That’s at least what in my experience has happened with the Mission: Impossible movies, but how does the most recent (and if word is to be believed, the final) installment stack up? Let’s take a look at Mission Impossible: Fallout.

In this sixth Mission: Impossible movie, IMF agent Ethan Hunt once again steps up to save the world after a terrorist group called The Apostles (the remains of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation‘s Syndicate) steals three plutonium cores out from under him in a mission gone wrong. Faced with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, Hunt, along with his usual-suspect gang of fellow IMF operatives and joined by CIA assassin August Walker and the ever-mysterious Ilsa Faust, is forced to join forces with former Syndicate head Solomon Lane to stop the plot. But with the rest of the CIA suspicious of his motives and members of the team hiding their own agendas, Hunt finds his past colliding with the present as everything he cares about is put on the line in what looks to be his final battle.

Billed as the pinnacle of the Mission: Impossible series, Fallout certainly doesn’t disappoint in the action department. From skydiving from 20,000 feet to what seems like an endless car chase/gun fight through London and even a helicopter duel in the mountains of Kashmir, this movie keeps you on the edge of your seat until the clock runs out–literally. There’s plenty of the standard Mission: Impossible fare we’re all familiar with at this point, with death-defying courage, brilliant gadgetry and planning, and just a hint of dumb luck factoring into almost all the admittedly amusing and thrilling action sequences. At almost two and a half hours long, I never once looked at my watch–although I will admit it was exhausting. If nothing else, Fallout definitely won’t bore you. Some have called it the best action movie of all time–personally, Mad Max: Fury Road still takes the cake for me, but this one’s pretty up there, too.

In addition, Fallout goes to great pains to connect all five movies before it in constructing a narrative of Ethan Hunt’s devotion to saving the world from itself, and whether or not his duty is misplaced. While the movie is pretty much a direct sequel to Rogue Nation (in my opinion by far the best Mission: Impossible film), there’s a ton of call-outs to everything from the very first movie to Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation,  and Mission Impossible 3. All in all, things get tied up pretty nicely. Mainstay characters like Benji Dunn and Luther Stickell return in fine form, as always, though the absence of Jeremy Renner’s Brandt did sting a bit, and of course the relative newcomer Ilsa, played by Rebecca Ferguson, turns in another great performance. In Brandt’s place we got Henry Cavil as Walker, an implacable, stone-faced tank of a man whose total dedication to his mission and shoot first, ask questions later attitude conflicts directly with Hunt’s focus on the well-being of his people. I’ve never been a huge Henry Cavil fan, but he’s passable here simply because he looks imposing and doesn’t say much–although he does serve as a reality check to the film, poking fun at all the IMF’s ridiculous schemes like masks and whatnot. I sort of wish Sean Harris’s Lane had a bigger part in this movie after being such a great villain in Rogue Nation, but what he does contribute is again fantastic. Now there’s a guy who’s plenty menacing.

As for franchise star Tom Cruise, he still doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all even after six movies, and still manages to convincingly portray Hunt as a man who’s willing to do whatever it takes to save the world, but isn’t willing to sacrifice the people he cares about to do it. I mean, let’s be honest: you kind of have to take the fact that the things that happen in Mission: Impossible are completely ludicrous and move past that to really enjoy them. Nowhere was that more apparent than in Fallout, where the characters repeatedly admit to making things up as they go along. There was even a fair amount of really convincing pathos in Luther’s choked-up explanation of Ethan’s past, Ilsa and Hunt’s mutual but unacknowledged attraction, and the reappearance of Hunt’s former wife Julia at the climax of the film as she helps her ex-husband save the day one more time and tells him about how he’s made her a better person–plus the bad guys’ quest to remake the world in a way that they think will be better than the messy, chaotic status quo. It’s all pretty much here.

I will say, though, that the decision to reveal Walker as the double-agent and true villain of the film was kind of heavy-handed and immensely predictable. I mean, gee wiz, who would’ve thought that the sole new face on the team would end up being the faceless mystery villain? Um, me. And how it was so telegraphed not even halfway into the film with Walker lying to his CIA boss about what happened was way too obvious for me. It would have been a lot more effective had things waited until closer to the end for that turn to happen–or better yet, get rid of John Lark and just make Solomon Lane the villain again. What’s wrong with that? Also, the White Widow’s character, while interesting and definitely entertaining, was strange and felt incredibly convenient and out of place in the film when you look at everything else going on.

My only other complaint about Fallout is that, while I did thoroughly enjoy it, it just didn’t quite reach the heights of pure entertainment joy as Rogue Nation did. In this installment, the writers were clearly going for a story with a little more weight and meaning to it, and it’s reflected in the darker, heavier tone of the movie. While I don’t think this was a detriment–quite the opposite, in fact–it lead to me just not having as much fun with this one. But it’s still easier better than a lot of the previous installments, including Ghost Protocol–say what you want about that movie, but in the end its plot makes very little sense. Speaking of which, though–how the hell did Ethan Hunt and the IMF get so totally played by the Apostles in the beginning? Everyone abandoning the plutonium and going straight to help Luther–especially when they knew he was bullet-proof!–seemed like total amateur hour to me and a mistake that these professional agents would never have let happen. So the premise of the entire movie seemed a stretch of credibility, and if you look at it that way, maybe the entire movie shouldn’t even have happened. But I digress.

My Rating: 8/10

Mission Impossible: Fallout isn’t the best Mission: Impossible movie, but it’s definitely second-best in my book, and that still makes for a fine movie. If this is indeed to be the end of the franchise in its current form, the cast and crew succeeded in sending it out with a pulse-pounding bang that combined humor, heart, and nonstop action in what was overall a pretty convincing if imperfect package. That’s good enough for me, folks.

Ask A Writer #10

Hello everyone! I apologize for the rather lengthy absence from this column, but I’ve finally gotten around to another entry. Here’s a pretty cool question from another one of my fellow writer followers on Twitter.

@_carmenadams_: Here’s a question: what is a genre that you don’t normally write in but would like to experiment with one day?

This is very interesting, and tough to answer without writing a whole novel on the subject because I’d ideally want to end up being able to write any genre you could name. That to me would make me a pretty accomplished writer, and I feel like one of my eventual goals in being a creative. But to give a shorter answer, one genre in particular that I’d really like to experiment with, and have thought a lot about, is that of horror.

One of my all-time writing idols is Stephen King, and as I’m sure I don’t have to tell you all, he’s one of the masters of the horror genre. I really admire the skill it takes to create stories like he does that spook and scare people in that way, and that explore such morbidly fascinating topics like death, psychology of a mind falling apart, and the destructive and self-undermining nature of humans and their relationships. In fairness, I also find his books very entertaining in addition to scary, and I’ve never been so frightened that I have to put one of his books down (unlike my parents!). I’m sort of proud of that fact. I’ve tried to adapt that sense of attitude into some of my own works, with mixed but I think mostly positive results.

That said, true full-on horror is something I’m not sure I completely have a handle on. I’ve more recently become somewhat educated in the genre of transgressive fiction thanks to some fellow writer friends, and have learned that the horror genre is substantially more diverse than I had previously believed. But what scares people is much more difficult to determine, I find, than what makes them laugh or have fun, for example. The wild variation in what people find frightening, plus the elements of horror that can violate the norms of most other fiction, is something I find interesting and yet highly challenging. I’m truly intrigued, especially considering that some of my favorite movies of all time–The Shining, Alien, The Thing, and others all fall within the umbrella of horror. A much more recent example would be the film Annihilation, where the point isn’t so much outright scaring people as making them uncomfortable and disturbed. The fright is much more low-key and slow to build rather than blood and guts and random jump scares (which I find somewhat tacky, to be honest), and I’d like to be able to construct something like that.

I actually have had an idea for a horror story in the back of my mind for some time, but just haven’t been able or ready to act on it. I read a medical article at one point speculating about the possibility of a head transplant–that is, taking a living person’s head, brain and all, and transplanting it onto a new body if their current one is dying from a disease or other damage. I was really creeped out by the thought of sticking a head on a new body, a la Frankenstein, and how some thought that was medically advisable when others clearly did not. I’m not sure if I made it up or actually read it n reference to that story, but I remember seeing something where someone said such a transplant could create a madness in the mind the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Just think about it: your brain having to adjust to controlling a new body that has its own systems, sensations, and possible issues, and the extremely unlikely (but fictionally fascinating) possibility of some kind of lingering soul in the body fighting with the new mind attached to it. There’s a lot of ways you could go with this, including just sticking to factual medical problems or some kind of spiritual crisis or psychosis, and I find the whole concept really interesting. But as I said, I haven’t felt confident enough to act on it yet.

In addition, and upcoming work of mine that’s sci-fi based could also have some degree of horror involved in it. As part of the world-building for that novel, I’ve been considering the creation of fictional alien species and trying to make them as antithetical to everything we would consider normal, functional life as possible to make them truly alien and, well, a bit frightening. I suppose some horror techniques could come in handy in writing that story, so I’m open to learning more.

In conclusion, I’d love at some point to attempt to write a horror story, even if it’s just a short story (which I have separate troubles actually making happen), and it’s on my short list for sure! And I continue to be grateful to my awesome writer friends who have shared their thoughts on the techniques involved and further my education in the genre.

Review of the Week–Ant-Man and the Wasp

Howdy y’all! I’m back!

I don’t know about you, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been kind of getting me down lately. The last couple movies have tackled some pretty heavy stuff, and I’ve been really feeling a desire to lighten things up a bit. So in that spirit, look no further than the latest installment in the MCU, Ant-Man and the Wasp!

In the follow-up to 2015’s Ant-Man and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang–formerly the shrinking superhero Ant-Man–is under house arrest after going renegade in the events of Civil War. Having hung up the costume for two years and focused on taking care of his daughter, Lang is pulled back into the world of superheroics by a vision of Janet van Dyne–the former superheroine Wasp, long believed to be dead. Joined once again by scientist Hank Pym and his daughter Hope–who now suits up and fights crime as the new Wasp–Lang embarks on a journey into the mysterious Quantum Realm to rescue Janet, but runs into complications in the form of a gang of criminals after Pym’s technology and a new super-powered villain, the Ghost. This time, Lang can’t go it alone, and it’s up to Ant-Man and the Wasp to team up and save the day.

I expected Ant-Man and the Wasp to be some lighter fare than your standard Marvel movie–not that they’re not all fun in their own ways, but still–and be sort of like a goofy buddy-cop superhero movie, much like how the original Ant-Man was a heist movie with superheroes. And for the most part, I pretty much got exactly what I thought it would be. There’s plenty of laughs here for the taking–I guess that’s the benefit of having a bizarre power like shrinking and growing–and it makes for some pretty cool fight scenes, too. I have to say, it’s nice to watch a Marvel movie where for once the fate of the universe isn’t in the balance and we can just enjoy some wholesome, good-old-fashioned fun. This is why I have a respect for the Adam West Batman of the 1960s–they acknowledge that the whole premise of costumed people running around saving the day is inherently ridiculous, and don’t hold back on that account. Basically, if you liked the first Ant-Man, you’ll probably like Ant-Man and the Wasp–but on the flip side, if you didn’t it’s more than likely that you probably won’t see anything here that will change your opinion. I’m still not sure how Ant-Man fits into the Marvel universe as a whole. Sometimes I think it’s just a joke property and a sideshow to lighten things up, which is fine–but then it gets drawn into big, complicated and heavy events like Civil War and Infinity War and I don’t know what to think. That post-credits scene certainly was a sobering one (sorry, not spoiling that part!).

Anyway, one thing that certainly was an improvement over the first movie was the villain–can we really call Ghost a villain? She was just driven by a desire to survive and right the wrongs that were done to her, and she didn’t want to take over the world or anything. She was just willing to do whatever it took, including murder, to ensure that she lived. That’s pretty relatable as far as Marvel bad guys go, so I’m calling that a win. I guess you could lump Foster in there with her too, and he was even more relatable because of his obvious moral scruples about what they were doing and the father-daughter bond they shared.

On the other hand, Sonny Burch and his gang of thugs weren’t nearly as well developed–aside from their greedy, generic motivations, which I guess is pretty realistic as far as that goes, they were just clowns meant to be Ant-Man and the Wasp’s punching bags. Not much to say there. Oh, and of course the side characters were pretty static but entertaining, especially the odd-duck FBI man Jimmy Woo. All in all, who really developed in the film? I can’t say anyone specifically. Even Hank Pym, despite various hints at his misdeeds in the past, kind of gets let off the hook for the most part and avoids serious consequences. So that’s not so great. It doesn’t really detract from the movie, but it doesn’t add to it, either.

The most stand-out character in the cast was easily Evangeline Lilly as Hope, who was a natural sliding into her role as a costumed hero. I’m really glad this happened because as it is, Marvel is short on female heroes, and especially ones with such a genuinely powerful backstory and compelling reasons for doing what they do. I was also happy to see her character expanded on from the previous movie, where she didn’t really do much outside of providing tech support for Scott. And of course I still like Paul Rudd in the lead role–let’s face it, he’s a pretty easy guy to like. Sometimes I’m not entirely sure that I can really see him in the role of a skilled crime fighter (especially without so much as a montage showing him and Hope training together, like, ever), and the focus of this movie on the family-friendly, cutesy side of his character didn’t necessarily help me with that. I mean, in fairness, his daughter is adorable and he’s great with her, but he just sometimes seems too soft to be a superhero. But I digress.

The only thing I truly had a huge problem with in Ant-Man and the Wasp was that the writers, multiple times in the movie, committed one of the cardinal sins of storytelling: the exposition dump. When you introduce a new character, your first approach shouldn’t be to simply have that character give a ten-minute spiel about why they’re so important. Showing, not telling, is key in a well-written story. So instead of having Foster just talk about his work with Pym, or have Scott go on and on about his house arrest or former hero training, why not actually show it? Or just maybe hint at it through dialogue and let the audience figure it out for themselves. Ugh. I’m sorry, it just drove me crazy.

My Rating: 7/10

While not necessarily one of Marvel’s stand-out movies, Ant-Man and the Wasp is perfectly serviceable family-friendly entertainment that will keep viewers engaged and amused throughout. I still think I liked the spunk and edge of the original Ant-Man film better, but this was a pretty good follow-up that plants the characters much more firmly within the Marvel universe. It may be a bit too light-hearted and sappy for some, but it was in the end exactly what Marvel billed it to be: a palate-cleanser between the massive halves of the Infinity War saga, and one that makes you smile nonstop along the way.

Review of the Week–Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Much like last week’s review, some of us have been eagerly awaiting the release of this next movie. Me, not so much. But I figured I might as well go to see how it did anyway. We’re being visited by another blast from the past, and in this case the emphasis is heavily on the “blast” part. Welcome to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom!

Maintaining the time jump from the first film in the series, Jurassic World, the world is three years out from the disaster of the revamped dinosaur park Jurassic World on Isla Nublar, where once again the creatures broke free and caused chaos in the streets. As a volcanic eruption on the island looms and the dinos face extinction, Claire Dearing and Owen Grady are once again roped into returning to the fallen park and evacuating as many animals as possible–including Blue, the last living velociraptor. Rescuing the dinosaurs, it turns out, was the easy part: the so-called “rescue” was actually just a profiteering mission meant to auction off the dinos as living weapons to the highest bidders, including a brand-new genetically engineered monster called the Indoraptor. Claire and Owen therefore have to contain the situation as best they can, and stop things from spinning out of control and leading to a problem that can’t be undone.

First off, let’s recognize something here: just as Jurassic World was basically a remake of Jurassic ParkFallen Kingdom was pretty much a simple redo on the second movie in that original trilogy, The Lost World. I happen to hold the rather unpopular opinion that The Lost World was actually the best of the three because it took what was basically a rather dull and predictable special effects bonanza and turned it into a pretty fun action-adventure. This same sort of thing is what Fallen Kingdom wanted to do with its predecessor, and in some ways it actually succeeded. I wasn’t a huge fan of Jurassic World simply because I’m not a huge fan of its source material: I was much more interested in and sympathetic towards Fallen Kingdom because I was a fan of where it came from, and in fairness it mimicked The Lost World pretty well up to a point. The story was almost beat for beat the same, substituting the San Diego theme park for a secret illicit dinosaur auction–an interesting twist, but not so different as to really raise my eyebrows. Oh, and look–they brought back the genetically-altered weapon dino from Jurassic World! Except it’s, umm, smaller and even more unstable now! Great idea! But seriously, where was the originality in this movie?

I firmly maintain that some of the changes to the script in Fallen Kingdom served no real purpose other than to make it stand out from the previous installments, or to provide red-herring plot twists that may have excited some moviegoers, but when you think about them don’t actually matter to the story at all. In The Lost World, it doesn’t take a volcano blowing up to get mercenaries interested in taking the dinosaurs. It’s all corporate greed, and really that’s all the motivation you truly need. It’s totally believable, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Oh, but you need to obviously one-up what’s come before, so INSERT GIANT VOLCANIC ERUPTION HERE. Brilliant!

Seriously though, it was sort of laughably ridiculous to have Chris Pratt be able to outrun a volcano. Uh-huh. That would totally happen in real life. Oh, and can someone tell me what the point of the little girl to the story was? I thought the twist where it turned out she was a clone was kind of interesting, and it gave Claire and Owen an ally to work with on the inside once they got to the mansion, but really, how was it relevant to the overall story? In my view, the only reason was to give the two main characters a convenient out to say they didn’t have anything to do with dinosaurs being released to roam the Earth again. And that’s disappointing. Wouldn’t it have been much more meaningful and impactful to have, say, Owen release the dinos–if only to save Blue? Or Claire, because she just couldn’t bear to let them all die? And then they have to directly deal with the consequences. Nope, let’s just give that honor to Random Character #1, who probably won’t show up in the next film–conveniently removing any kind of accountability, and therefore interesting character development, from our heroes. Cool.

Look, I know I’m bellyaching a lot here, some of it probably unfairly. Honestly, I liked Fallen Kingdom a lot more than I liked Jurassic World. But that still doesn’t mean it was a great film. However, the acting was a bit better. I liked the fact that Claire, and by extension Bryce Dallas Howard, was given a bit more to work with in this movie by becoming a much more badass sort of environmental activist and showing off her animal smarts than the helpless, high-heel-wearing damsel in distress she was in Jurassic World. So that was nice at least. Chris Pratt was entertaining as always, but still he fell into the same trap that I noticed in the first film where I just didn’t see him letting his authentic acting chops out. He’s best in roles where he can be funny and witty and the lighter side of things, and in these movies it feels like he’s trying to fit into the stone-faced, macho-man action star role that’s just not him at all. Am I typecasting, or being stereotypical? Maybe. But it just doesn’t feel right. In a truly good piece of casting, I should feel like the character could only be portrayed by the person who played them. I feel like Owen Grady could have been just about anyone in Jurassic World and it wouldn’t have mattered, and Fallen Kingdom did little to change my mind. I think Pratt might have been a little more fun to watch in this one, but again, I questioned his casting. The other characters were pretty much unimportant set dressing, easily discarded and easy to forget.

One thing I will say about Fallen Kingdom though is that it finally, FINALLY introduced some actual stakes into the Jurassic Park franchise. One of the things that’s always bothered me about these films is that while it’s certainly a spectacle to see dinosaurs running amok, at the end of the day it really doesn’t matter. The dinos are trapped on an island, they can’t hurt anyone outside of that, and that’s the end of it. There’s no real-world consequences there–unless you count the T-Rex’s brief foray into San Diego in The Lost World. But even that was a feint that was quickly put back in the box by Jeff Goldblum and company. As Ian Malcolm (nice cameo, by the way!) so accurately points out at the end of the film, this time there is no taking things back. The dinosaurs are loose on the world for good and all, and humanity is going to have to learn to coexist with these prehistoric creatures if they want to survive the new age. I suppose the true gravity of the situation remains to be seen in the sequel, but I’d be very interested to see Claire and Owen trying to deal with a world where dinosaurs are destroying human civilization in the next movie. Perhaps that kind of vision is just wishful thinking, though.

My Rating: 6/10

Don’t get me wrong: Fallen Kingdom is an improvement on Jurassic World–but not by much. It tweaks the generic formula of the franchise slightly and adds some interesting, real-world stakes to the conflict between humans and dinosaurs, and is without a doubt engrossing and fun to watch in the moment. But in the end, a sore lack of attention to detail and a plot ridden with red herrings and predictable callbacks to old films makes it unable to escape from the shadow of Jurassic Park’s past. There’s just not enough original thinking in these movies to keep me interested by them, and in the end, I think Fallen Kingdom is doomed to be yet another example of a big-budget blockbuster that played it way too safe and sought to relive past glories, the the detriment of its future.

Review of the Week–Incredibles 2

Well, I know that a lot of you out there–and myself as well–have waited for the release of the movie I’m reviewing this week for 15 years, and I’m happy to say that for the most part, we were well-rewarded for our patience. It’s time to grab your favorite superhero costume (but preferably one without a cape) and take a look at Incredibles 2!

Pretty much ignoring the large gap between films (you can check out my thoughts on the first one here), Incredibles 2 starts off right where the first movie left us, with the Parr family engaged in battle with their latest supervillain threat, the Underminer. When their attempt to apprehend the bad guy goes south, however, it turns into yet another public relations disaster for the government, resulting in the Superhero Relocation Program being shut down and the family out of options. But as luck would have it, they’re approached by a wealthy philanthropist and superhero fan who wants to make heroes legal again–with Helen, a.k.a. Elastigirl, leading the charge. As Bob struggles with adjusting to being a stay-at-home dad and sitting on the sidelines, Helen campaigns for superhero rights until she encounters the Screenslaver–a shadowy figure using hypnosis technology bent on keeping supers illegal for good. Screenslaver’s evil plans end up putting the entire family in jeopardy once again, and once again they only way they’re going to stop him is by joining forces–and making some new friends.

Right off, I have to say that Incredibles 2 does a great job recapturing the fun and spirit of the original movie. The magic is definitely still there, and it even adds a few new quirks by introducing other supers outside the Parr family (other than Frozone, who still remains a major fixture of course), and taking some shots at other elemental tropes of superhero culture. Just like the famous “no capes” speech in the first movie, I thought some of the ideas put forward here–like a cost-benefit analysis of superheroes–was both humorous and made a lot of sense when you think about it. Once again, Incredibles 2 challenges some of our preconceived notions about heroes in a way that DC and Marvel just don’t do. The idea that Elastigirl should be the face of the superhero rights movement because her power set is far less destructive than that of her husband or children was something I’d just never thought about, but is perfectly logical. Hats off once again to director Brad Bird for having the vision to talk about these things.

On that subject, I loved how the female characters took center stage in Incredibles 2 as well. Sure, in The Incredibles all the characters got their moment in the spotlight, but let’s face it, it was a male-dominated film, with Bob and Dash being the primary characters of note. The roles were interestingly reversed in Incredibles 2, with Bob being forced to sit out and hold down the fort at home while Helen got the lion’s share of the action scenes. Given all the controversy and conversation today about the treatment women receive in society, I thought a movie focused on female characters–especially female superheroes, who don’t get as much attention as they should–was quite timely and well-done. It even tackled the sometimes-controversial issue of the stay-at-home dad, too, and I really understood Bob’s struggle with being happy for his wife while also feeling a bit left out and abandoned. But the good news was he really pulled it together in the end. It would have been too easy to just say Bob was a failure of a parent until Helen came back to clean up his mess and save the day, but instead we saw him really put in the extra effort to become just as effective a parent as she was. Nice to see the harmful stereotypes avoided in this case, on both sides.

While Helen was pretty much the central character of the film, Violet also got plenty of time in center stage after only being a truly effectual hero for about half of the first movie. We saw a lot of personal growth in her character in Incredibles 2 and I liked it a lot. She’s more confident with her powers, but still faces the same personal issues after her love interest Tony gets mind-wiped and she’s back to square one with him. The whole incident brought her and Bob closer together, and I thought it was a nice touch too. The first movie built her hero confidence, and this movie built her human confidence. I just thought it was very well handled and another nice touch.

I will admit that I had some issues with the movie, though–one of them having to do with characters. Does anyone know why Dash was in this movie? Like, at all? I don’t think I can name a single truly significant thing he did to move the plot forward, except for maybe steal the Incredibile, which anyone could really have done. With all the growth the other characters got in the film, I was really hoping Dash would get thrown a bone at some point, but he seemed curiously left out of the main storyline, barely got to show off his powers, and appeared to be pretty much an inconvenient afterthought who just got dragged wherever the action was. It was a little disappointing. I mean, come on: the baby got more screen time than him! Although granted, Jack-Jack’s wild powers gave the story the hint of absurdity and levity that it kind of needed.

This was a much darker movie than The Incredibles really, but of course not so dark that you wouldn’t want kids to see it. It’s still a family film, but the themes are a lot headier and the goals set higher than the first movie–and I’m sorry to say that at times Incredibles 2 buckles under the weight of everything it was trying to do because it was just trying to do way, way too much. The one ball I can really target as being dropped here was the villain. Compared to the larger-than-life, gleefully evil fanboy villain Syndrome from the first film, Screenslaver failed to live up to my expectations and just wan’t anywhere close to as compelling or interesting. Part of this was because the bad guy lacked any kind of genuine connection to the main characters–a condition for forming the most meaningful antagonists in my view. Otherwise, why should the audience care about them when they’re just an obstacle and not a person, too? The idea of creating a villain that could be anyone, anywhere, at any time was an interesting one, but as DeVoe from The Flash Season Four could probably tell you, it just doesn’t work out in practice when you don’t have a face for your bad guy. Audiences can’t connect with that.

And can anyone explain the evil plan here to me? I kind of understood the broad strokes, and as the movie’s going on you certainly aren’t compelled to think about it too much, but afterward it made less and less sense the more I picked it apart and the logic crumbles under scrutiny. The reveal of Evelyn Deavor as the true face of Screenslaver wasn’t even a surprise to me–I saw it coming a mile away and I bet everyone else did, too–and she didn’t have enough personality to really make me care anyway. It was just a very meh part of the movie. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a story is only as good as its villain. And compared to Syndrome’s over-the-top but brilliantly simple plan from the first film, Incredibles 2 failed to live up to my lofty expectations.

My Rating: 7/10

Maybe I’m rating it a little harshly here, but the fact is I just wouldn’t want to rewatch Incredibles 2 over and over again like I do the original movie: it’s a little too ambitious and bites off more than it can chew, and a few elements of the story just fall flat on their face upon closer scrutiny. That said, I think the creators of the film were deliberately trying to go all-out and top themselves, and in other aspects (like the strong female leads and discussion of family issues), it succeeded in following its predecessor’s footsteps and improving upon them. I wouldn’t say Incredibles 2 is necessarily incredible, but it’s still pretty good, and if you liked the first one, odds are you’ll think the follow-up is a pretty fun ride worthy of the name.

Review of the Week–Arrested Development

Hi everyone, and welcome to another Review of the Week column! My apologies for skipping last week: it’s a busy time of year for me, and I haven’t been getting out to see new movies or had nearly as much time to check out new TV shows as I’d like. That said, I finally managed to finish something the other day, and I decided I could finally talk about it with all of you. It’s a full review of one of my favorite sitcoms (and overall TV shows) of all time.

NARRATOR VOICE: It’s Arrested Development.

Arrested Development focuses on the Bluths, a wealthy family of California socialites who face a series of scandals on their way to financial ruin, from shady business dealings to political missteps and even “light treason”. The series follows Michael, the middle child of the family and the only one close to a responsible adult in the bunch, as he deals with the various schemes and slip-ups of his mother and father, his two brothers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and his own son and niece as the family careens its way from catastrophe to catastrophe and he struggles to keep them all together.

To look at Arrested Development properly, I think you have to break it down by eras of the show—for those unfamiliar, it ran on Fox for three years before being cancelled in 2006, and was then revived by Netflix in 2013 for a fourth season. Since then, the fourth season has gone through a re-release in 2018, along with the first half of a new fifth season this year as well.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way…

Let’s just get one thing straight right now: Seasons 1 to 3 of Arrested Development are pure comedy gold. I don’t say that very often because comedies are so hard to objectively evaluate. You can talk all you want about what makes them funny and how closely they adhere to the established “rules” of comedy, but someone else may just not find them funny. But in a lot of ways I think this show blazed some new trails in sitcoms that other shows eventually followed and has set trends, but still remained unique on its own. The narrator who regularly points out contradictions to the audience and breaks the fourth wall with his explanations of the conflicting Bluth family schemes are dry, witty, and always hilarious. The characters themselves are wacky, loony, and perversely awful for the most part, but that’s what sets Arrested Development apart from old-school sitcoms like Happy Days: the laughs aren’t based on good people getting into unfortunate situations, they’re based on bad people getting their comeuppance from making poor decisions. And even still, you want them to succeed. You like them, even in spite of yourself, for their flaws—of which there are oh so many—and the fact that they’re just so funny. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, and at the oddest and most random times they’ll show flashes of humanity that prove they’re not just caricatures, but real people after all. There’s some genuinely uplifting moments in the show overall, even if they’re sparingly interspersed with many more cringe-worthy ones.

In addition, this show isn’t just going for cheap laughs. The humor is intelligent, earned, and comes from some impressively complex storytelling. I mean, to have this much stuff going on at the same time, for it all to make sense and allow viewers to keep it straight, and for things to converge at times as humorously and perfectly as they do, requires a genius amount of simplicity mixed with thoughtful writing, and I can really appreciate that. The story plays on simple human qualities like greed, selfishness, and self-esteem, and takes them in complex and wild tangents that usually come together at the last minute with hilarious consequences. Nothing happens by accident. Every event is important and carefully calibrated to matter within the context of the larger story. Arrested Development is very much a thinking person’s comedy, and the beauty of it is that except in a few cases, the characters themselves usually go on their way never realizing anything went wrong or was amiss—but we as viewers know, and their continued obliviousness is one of the most charming features of the show.

I could go on all day talking about how much I love the characters in the show too, because they’re all acted so perfectly and all so indispensable—the performances are pitch-perfect, and no one character could be cut out without the audience feeling their loss. Which was why Season 4, when it was originally released, was such a huge disappointment to me—only one character per episode? What is this? Where are my Bluths? I understand that the showrunners were trying to spice things up by doing something different and focusing on each individual character and their own development alone, but without the other characters it just didn’t work. There was no one to temper their own flaws and rein them in, and no familial interplay or verbal sparring that was the trademark of the original series and brought out most of the humor. It’s like some of the humor was still there, but the heart and soul of the show that I loved was gone.

Personally, I hated it. I told everyone I knew to ignore it. Which is why I was so happy to hear Season 4 had been remixed and rereleased this year so as to feature all the characters together again. And to be fair, despite some choppy editing and a few times where I got a little confused about the story—that narrator really had to work overtime—Fateful Consequences was much better than the original season. And to be fair, the brand-new Season 5 was also an improvement as it brought all the Bluths concretely back together again and took the show back to its roots somewhat as the family members struggled for control of their company and with their own internal power dynamics.

Still, though, I had some issues with it. The new seasons, in my opinion, just haven’t quite recaptured the deep yet harmless fun of the original series. The storyline has gotten so convoluted at this point as the writers keep feeling the need to outdo themselves that every episode now requires a recap at the beginning to explain what’s already happened. The side characters have lost some of their charm—sure, the old ones like Lucille 2 and Barry Zuckercorn are still great, but the new ones like Rebel Alley and Herbert Love distinctly failed to impress as I question their roles and importance to the story, as well as their humor value. They’re just not that funny. The whole show has started to buckle under the pressure of so many narratives and motives clashing that it’s begun to fold into itself and spiral down the drain of self-questioning its own relevance. It’s too in its own head, and I can barely even follow it anymore. The aging of some young characters like George Michael and Maeby also hasn’t helped—they can’t help that they’re getting older, but some of their childlike innocence that made the early years so charming has started to wear off, and they’re acting just like the depraved adults now unfortunately.

I’m also somewhat upset about the treatment Michael’s character has gotten recently—starting in Season 4, it seemed like there was a real effort by the writers to bring down Michael to everyone else’s level because they deemed him “too good” to be a realistic person. Let’s be clear—Michael was far from perfect, but compared to the rest of his family he was the classic comedy straight man, and the long-suffering fundamentally good guy we were all rooting for. As his respectable straight man role sort of evaporated and more of his own bad qualities were brought out—and those of his son as well—I started to feel like the core of the show, which has always been Michael’s attempts to do right by people and his loving relationship with his son, has been put on the rocks, and not in a good way. If you were looking for ways to make the show funnier, I don’t think that trashing the few actually likeable characters is the way to do it. Overall, I guess you couldn’t say there’s a ton of character development either. Arrested Development sees the Bluth family members change in various subtle ways, but they always fundamentally remain the same and usually revert to their old ways in times of crisis. The development part of the equation really comes into the changing power dynamics in the family—who’s on top in this particular episode or season and what they do with the power they’re given. The whole narrator’s breaking of the fourth wall thing isn’t for everyone—even in shows like House of Cards that make extensive use of this gimmick, it tends to get old after a while, and I’m feeling like Arrested Development is no exception. In summary, it feels like the show just isn’t aging well with time, and maybe a definitive ending sooner rather than later might be called for.

My Rating: 

Seasons 1-3: 9/10

Seasons 4-5: 7/10

While it’s stumbled a bit since its 2013 reboot and lost some of the simple brilliance and charm that made it what it is, the fact is that Arrested Development is still a very funny, very influential show, and it continues to be better and funnier than most other things on TV. You have to admire the writing skill that goes into crafting these complex storylines, and creating characters that are so fundamentally unlikeable and yet so human that we love them anyway—or just love to hate them.

Ask a Writer #9

Welcome to another “Ask a Writer” blog post! Today I’ll be addressing a question posed by a certain hot and vivacious redheaded friend of mine from Twitter having to do with character and story creation. She asks:

@J_L_PIPPEN: Do you find that some negative and positive events and experiences in your life have affected or changed the relatability of your writing? For example having something happen to you that changes the way you understand or describe your characters?

The short answer is absolutely, yes. The longer answer is a bit more complicated, and while the fundamentals of my story and characters probably haven’t changed in significant ways due to my own personal experiences–I try to keep reality out of my fiction if at all possible!–there are a couple of characters and plot elements that I have changed based on what’s been happening in my life recently, and not so recently.

Those of you who know me well probably have a sense that I’ve struggled a lot with my self-worth and self-confidence for my entire life, probably to the point where I could be classified as having some form of depression. I’ve never called it that because it feels disingenuous to people who really have crippling depression they suffer with daily, which isn’t what I have. Most of the time I’m fine. But there will be days, sometimes several in a row, where I’ll feel down and hopeless and alone and question why I bother writing or even getting out of bed in the morning. These things usually pass quickly though and I’m back to being all right again. I’ve never felt the need to seek professional help for it–until last year, which let’s just say was a pretty rough one for me personally. I was stressed and depressed to the point where I felt like I just needed someone to talk to–and it did help. Truly. I’d advise anyone who’s feeling that way to do the same.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve always been good at, from a very young age, is that when I’m stressed or angry or sad or depressed or anything like that at all, I tend to mask how I’m feeling with humor. I make jokes, other people laugh, and I feel better about myself. I’ve more than once been compared to fictional characters like Hawkeye Pierce from MASH–who in fairness probably is a lot like me. And from what I’ve learned over the past several years, a lot of people who are professionally funny for a living are some of the most unhappy, tortured souls alive. It’s sad, but true. RIP Robin Williams, for one. So I identify with them in a way.

Those feelings of inadequacy and not belonging and the humor I conjured up to protect myself and hide what I was really thinking served as my initial inspiration for the character of Jack Ferguson–for those of you who don’t know, the hero of Camp Ferguson and more recently the sequel, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back. I embellished a bit because I wanted the contrast to be more stark here. At first glance Jack is everything I wish I could be, as he’s super-smooth, cool, and likable–if somewhat clueless and mischievous–and above all, supremely funny. He dishes out the vast majority of the funny lines in the series and is an expert prankster. Over the course of the story, though, you start to see through the cracks in Jack’s seemingly bulletproof armor–he had an unhappy childhood in and out of numerous foster homes, and never knew his parents save for a traumatizing meeting with a father who didn’t want him (I assure you, IN NO WAY a reflection of my life!). That encounter started him down a spiral of self-loathing and self-destructive depression which he only managed to overcome by entirely reinventing himself as a happy-go-lucky, carefree practical joker with no depth to him at all–the only way he wants other people to see him because he thinks no one would like him anymore if they knew the truth. In a way, he’s still self-destructive, just in ways that seem light-hearted and fun, as he focuses on cracking jokes and making people like him, and cares nothing for academics or traditional measures of success in life. You start to get a sense that he was always an outcast and isn’t quite as popular as you think he is. He reacts to the slightest bit of responsibility with disdain, disgust, and outright rebellion. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with him, if they could get him to sit still and focus long enough or stop him from accidentally brainwashing them into mindlessly liking him from the mind magic that’s leaking out his ears.

Jack is my occasional struggle with depressive feelings taken to extremes, and a lot of what went into creating him are things that I’ve felt for my entire life. My more recent experiences have certainly helped though, especially in terms of Jack’s rejection of authority in the second book–I’ve never seen myself as a particularly good leader, and am much more content to work as part of a team rather than head it up. Again, looking at extreme reactions, Jack rebels against the notion that he’s special and has some responsibility to bear because deep down, he doesn’t want to be special–he just wants to be accepted and “normal” like everyone else. It’s something I’ve always felt too, but am just starting to get over and accept as part of who I am. Needless to say I’m much happier for it at this point–but Jack still struggles on. It’s kind of the whole point of his character arc, but I don’t want to give too much away right now. So I wouldn’t say those things have changed Jack much, but they’ve definitely deepened my understanding of him as a character and people in general who face these kinds of issues.

I’ll also give you an example of something recent that absolutely did change my story: the whole concept of the “Resistance” movement, especially among women and politicians. I don’t want to make this post about politics, so please don’t make it that. But from the first moment that thousands of women took to streets across the nation to march in the past year or so, I was fascinated by this new drive people seem to have found and the revived language and imagery of things from history like the civil rights crusade or the women’s suffrage movement. My work in progress, Jack Ferguson Strikes Back, was beginning to be outlined at the time, and was going to be all about how the scouts of Camp Prospero deal with a new leader who’s actually a competent, genuinely evil villain with plans that could hurt a lot of people. Compared to their previous boss and bad guy, who was mean, intolerant, and cruel, but in the end a bumbling moron who wasn’t a truly credible threat, the new scoutmaster would require an entirely different approach, and probably wouldn’t stand for the public campaign of undermining and insubordination that the old one had. She’d be much more likely to follow through on her threats and crack down viciously if necessary to keep the scouts in line. With current political discourse focusing a lot on subjects like the violation of societal norms, budding authoritarianism around the world, and resistance to both these things, I conceived of a scout-lead resistance movement against the new scoutmaster–an idea that’s ended up forming the backbone of the story.

As I’m still in the process of writing, I’m not sure how deep into the well of resistance imagery I want to go–I mean, it’s all over the new cover I drew for the book. Do I want to go in all the way and have my characters start an underground Free France-type organization? I sort of did that with the creation of the resistance group the Bunkhouse Boys (which also existed prior to this story in my fictional world). Do I want something less formal, like a bunch of people meeting around a campfire? I’m trying to figure that out in a way that’s organic, but maybe also entertaining and a bit funny while still being tasteful and respectful of the theme. But resistance is definitely going to be a key theme of the book going forward.

On the same subject, the large numbers of women speaking out today about their poor treatment in the workplace and otherwise gave me a push into making my main female character Tessa a bit more of an outspoken feminist. Sure, she’s had those tendencies ever since she was first introduced in Camp Ferguson, but the sequel sees her taking this activism to a whole new level as she becomes the default head of the Camp Prospero resistance–a job which brings out a new kind of social justice warrior side to her character that plays nicely with the no-nonsense, confident, and fair attitude she’s always had. She’s usually the one who offers the contemporary social commentary in the story that keeps its fictional characters and events in touch with what we’re seeing right now in the news, and I think she’s quite a good fit for it. It’s brought new depth to her as well that I think she needed, and I feel really good about being able to bring to an already strong female character.

I hope this has given you a little insight into how more current events may have shaped my characters and writing! I don’t think you should ever be afraid to work the real world into your fiction in general–it just makes it more real to the audience and will make you seem relevant. Go for it!