Tag: review

Grace and Frankie

We don’t watch a lot of television. We might go days without turning the big dumb screen on at all, but when we do our serial narrative tends to be delivered by one of the streaming services.

There are a lot of good shows on there, not all of which involve superheroes*, so it is difficult to fit another one in.

If you do have a half hour slot open in your viewing schedule, can I recommend Grace and Frankie on Netflix?

Grace and Frankie is a sitcom, but it’s a sitcom with some bite. The story follows two women of (as the saying has it) a certain age, wives of two lawyers who founded their firm together. Almost immediately we learn that the two men are gay, and want to divorce their wives so they can be together. The wives end up living in the same shared house on the beach.

While the premise is strong, it’s easy to imagine it being ruined in any number of ways, but Grace and Frankie succeeds because of several important elements:

  • the cast – the main senior characters are all played by amazing actors: Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen and Sam Waterson. While those are the most well-known actors the whole cast is good, and there are frequently guest stars who are very recognisable.
  • the tenderness with which relationships are presented – this is a sitcom (or, perhaps, a dramedy) but the relationships aren’t played for laughs. They are the most important things in the characters’ lives and they are presented seriously.

    And it’s worth mentioning that even though the premise has the two primary characters separating from their husbands in the first episode, we still see how their ex-husbands’ relationship develops as they start their life together. It’s one of the most positive portrayals of a gay relationship I’ve seen.

  • the writing – it’s delightfully witty and keenly observed. The characters have realistic reactions to events and the awkwardness of people not talking about things they need to talk about is pretty intense.
  • the continuity – everyone has changed over the course of a season.

Obviously, the show is not flawless: the half hour form limits how deep they can go into some subjects (although the aforementioned continuity means that they do have large topics); the resolution of some problems can be a bit pat sometimes; and the situations can sometimes be grotesquely absurd.

But it is a really good show. Those awards it has won are well-deserved.

I hope you enjoy it too.

[*] I prefer the more general term “superhuman” but in television they are always heroes.

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Captain Underpants

If you are not a parent of a young child* or have not recently been a young child* yourself you may not have heard of Captain Underpants.

You are missing something.

Captain Underpants is the gloriously silly creation of Dav Pilkey, a superhero invented and given substance by the protagonists of the story, George and Harold.

There are lots of people that, for no good reason that I can perceive, do not like Captain Underpants. It is juvenile, and it contains a lot of toilet humour, and the heroes are subject to a crushingly authoritarian educational regime, but it is also aimed at late elementary school kids (8-10 seems about right) so none of these things seem to be inappropriate to me. The Captain Underpants books are ones that regularly appear on lists of books which parents have asked to have banned from schools. I have not heard of such a request succeeding; librarians generally agree that books that kids like to read should be available.

The thing I like most about Captain Underpants is that the storytelling is ingenious. There are a lot of moments where I, as a storyteller, wonder how the story is going to resolve this time. Pilkey doesn’t cheat with deus ex machina devices: the seeds of the solution are present earlier in the story, but they tend to flower in unexpected ways.

But it’s also funny, and the characters are endearing — even the appallingly ineffectual teachers have their endearing qualities.

Would I recommend these books to adult readers to enjoy without a child? No. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great deal of wit in the books. They’re definitely in the set of “books that parents can stand to read with their kids more than once”.

Which brings me to the film: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie.

I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer I was delighted. It didn’t look exactly like the books but it was definitely drawing its aesthetic from them.

And the film itself does not disappoint. The animation is rich and weighty, with cartoonish moments where they are appropriate. It does a splendid job of bringing the storylines it borrows from the books to life, and preserves the humour of the original stories to a tee. My favourite bit is where the film uses the same story telling device as the books to depict large-scale action scenes, and pokes fun at the fragility of that device. I chortled.

Actually, no: I laughed. I laughed all the way through this film. I was quite buoyed up by it.

I talked about canon in my piece about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, and the film differs from the canonical story in the books. But that’s OK – the change simplifies an aspect of the story which was a tad over-complicated. The result is different but reasonable, akin to the multiple versions of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as it has travelled hitchhiked from medium to medium.

If your kids (or you) are fans of the good Captain then you may well have watched this film already. But if you haven’t, and you’re open to some very silly stories told in a very silly way, then I think you should give this one a try.

[*] probably a boy, truly, although I wouldn’t stop anyone from reading it.

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Raising Steam

Terry Pratchett died earlier this year.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that I picked up Raising Steam, the last main sequence Discworld novel*.

SPOILER WARNING: this post discusses overarching narrative direction for this book. There’s not much in the way of specific plot detail, but your read might be spoiled if you’re not familiar with the book already.

The truth is that every book since Unseen Academicals has felt like the last Discworld novel to me, with a very strong sense of touching as many characters as possible to give them closure. They’ve been much smoother, much less risky for the characters and the world – still worthwhile stories to read, but less exciting**.

Was Raising Steam a return to earlier form?

Terry Pratchett wrote many wonderful books and some of them are among my favourites by any writer. Raising Steam is another high quality book, but it suffers from the same omnibus feeling as the other final novels. There is also an inevitability to the story – the characters are exposed to risk but seem to triumph without danger or loss, or indeed change.

The ending is satisfying, but it doesn’t feel earned: the trajectory of the story is set from the outset and never seems in doubt. Truly can it be said that this book is on rails.

Overall, it’s an entertaining book and fans of the Discworld series will surely enjoy this penultimate chance to spend time with the excellent characters that Sir Terry developed over the decades of his writing, but it’s not as good as his earlier books and I would not recommend it to new readers.

[*] there is one more Discworld novel still to be published, The Shepherd’s Crown, a final volume in the Tiffany Aching series.

[**] and in checking the bibliography I find that the fourth Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight, is the exception to this.

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Unexpected Rain

Unexpected Rain is a science fiction mystery, a thing less common than you would think. According to the author, Jason W. LaPier*, this relative scarcity is one of the reasons Harper Voyager took the book on. That, and it being an exciting and entertaining book with solid worldbuilding and engaging characters.

The story concerns a mass murder and the investigation of that crime. It follows a cop, Stanford Runstom, and the ostensible perpetrator, Jack “Jax” Jackson, who join forces to find out who really killed all of those people. There are spaceships, and space pirates, and all the trappings of a classic ripping yarn but with the thoughtful writing of a more modern tale. The characters have agency, and they make mistakes.

I ended up staying up too late after an exhausting weekend to finish it, and that’s always a good sign for me. I also really liked that the characters were human: they were talkative when they shouldn’t have been, and did the wrong things because of trivial personal reasons.

This is Jason W. LaPier’s first published novel and is available in ebook right now. The paperback is coming out in November.

[*] full disclosure: I know Jason. He works at the same day job that I do, and since we both write and we both have to fit that in around the exigencies of demanding paid employment we quite often talk about writing and other such things. He’s a good bloke.

Also, I should point at my review policy.

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You Can Say That Again

You Can Say That Again by Marcia Riefer Johnston is a toothsome book, ideal for lovers of, as the author puts it, “foibled language”.

I’ve written before about Johnston’s last book, Word Up!, which I enjoyed enormously, and much of the same humour and playfulness infuses this volume.

You Can Say That Again is not a heavy book by any measure – it’s a whimsical collection of tautological expressions, whether they are repetitive noun phrases, duplicative adjectives, or verbose verbs. It’s pointed out that sometimes tautology is appropriate for emphasis or even necessary to make sense, but also that flabby tautology does a lot to put readers off – perhaps even to the point where they abandon reading entirely, what amounts to a fatal to the effectiveness of your words.

The main part of the book is a largely alphabetical listing of these unnecessary doublings, and that is also where much of the humour can be found. Who hasn’t despaired of being asked for their PIN number (or even their personal PIN number)? * As someone with a soupçon of French, I was appalled by “with au jus sauce”, but did not know how duplicative “challa bread” was until now.

Fundamentally, this book appeals to the colossal pedant in me. I very much enjoyed the phrases collected.

Whether you are amused by mis-steps in language, or wish to be alerted to where these faux pas might creep in in your own writing, I would definitely recommend You Can Say That Again.

[*] network NIC card is another one that makes me shudder, but since most folks don’t need to worry about installing such things these days it doesn’t turn up very often any more.

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Wired for Story

I read this book over a few weeks, working my way through it a chapter or a few pages at a time, and using some of its ideas in my outlining and goal-seeking work for Song. Despite mentioning it before, I wanted to post a more comprehensive discussion since it’s an interesting concept for a book which deserves some more specific consideration.

The premise of the book is that neurological research can inform us both about the origins of our deep love for story, and some methods to write more engaging and compelling narratives. There are many bibliographical footnotes attached to the text* which provide citations to support the arguments.

These neurological insights are presented within chapters covering separate aspects of storytelling, from how to make your protagonist engaging (which is not the same as sympathetic, to be sure) to how to keep the reader reading, to common mistakes that naive writers often make when presenting mysterious plots. They’re used in three ways:

  1. to substantiate the chapter structure
  2. to puncture common misinformation about how to write well
  3. to bolster arguments in favour of more effective writing practices

I’m not entirely convinced that Wired for Story really delivers on the promise of neurologically justified writing advice. The neurology is used well when describing the effects of stories – both good and bad – on the behaviour of our brains, but it seems to fall a little short when it comes to deriving writing advice from the technical literature. It’s better to think of the neorology as framing for the writing advice laid out.

Because the writing advice itself is good, to my eye. There is concrete analysis and substantive counsel, as well as helpful checklists which serve as reminders of the book’s content at least as much as definite lists to be followed. There is certainly more here than I can keep in my head at one time, and I am thinking that the chapters would provide a good starting plan for editing passes.

Ultimately, this is a concise and well-organised collection of writing advice, often distilled down into immediately usable gobbets of information. Recommended for what it is rather than for the neurological presentation.

[*] these footnotes are collected in a reference ghetto at the end of the book, which makes reviewing those references in concert with the text quite irksome.

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