My Year In Books: 2015 Book Reviews

Last week I talked about the best movies of 2015. But my followers will likely take more interest in today’s post: the best BOOKS!

Most of these did not come out in 2015, but this is simply a reflection on what I read this year.

Best Humor – The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero

I am endlessly fascinated with the enigma that is Tommy Wiseau – writer, director, and star of the worst movie ever made, The Room. This memoir/semi-biography is told by Tommy’s hapless best friend, and other star of The Room, Greg Sestero. His stories about Tommy’s endless determination and baffling creation of this disasterpiece made it hard to put the book down. This was probably my quickest read of the entire year, because I couldn’t stop reading it. It was like watching a trainwreck….a funny, funny trainwreck.

Best NonfictionPrimal Myths by Barbara C. Sproul

I read a lot of nonfiction, especially about mythology. There are quite a few myth books I could put on this list, but the best one I’ve encountered so far is Primal Myths. It is a massive summary of all the creation myths of the world, and best of all, it includes context. I read a book on Hindu myth earlier this year which was a very poor effort on the author’s part, because she spat out myths at random with no context or deeper analysis than the myth’s literal translation. Primal Myths always offers a few words about the peoples whose myth we’re discussing, and giving some speculation about the symbology and deeper meaning behind them. Which really helps the reader understand what the myth is actually about. Plus, it’s great to have all these creation stories in one place so I can mine them for ideas later.

Biggest Disappointment – The Martian by Andy Weir

I say “disappointment” somewhat lightly, because I did enjoy the film and Andy Weir is an awesome guy. I don’t aim to hurt his feelings or dismiss the fact that he got the public excited about science and space, because that is awesome. But this book was not really a novel. It was a guide for how to survive Mars. Due to all the hype and the fabulous premise, I expected this book to read like a gripping novel. Rather, it was quite obviously a series of self-published blog posts that had been assembled into a book and gained traction enough to become a bestseller…not unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, but at least this was a positive book about science and not badly written erotica! Does this make it a bad book? No. And I try not to diss things simply because they weren’t what I thought they would be. But I can’t deny I was disappointed by the execution of this one.

Book That Lived Up To The HypeHouse of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

Some people claim that this book is pretentious. Some think it’s gimmicky. Some complain that you don’t really get “answers.” I went in knowing that the bizarre nature of Navidson’s house would never be explained, so I didn’t expect an explanation. And really, the book never makes that its primary question. I always got the feeling that what I really should be focusing on is the people, not the house. So it ended rather satisfactorily, for me. I also did not find it pretentious – and I’m very quick to claim that books are so – because every creative choice Danielewski made had meaning behind it. It didn’t strike me as gimmicky. Unfortunately, I’ve heard his other works are more gimmick, less substance, but this book had a lot of genius.

Best Writing StyleCity of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer

I only finished one novella in this semi-anthology – Dradin, In Love. Without a doubt, Vandermeer has one of the most beautiful writing styles of any author I’ve read. I don’t even really care what’s happening in the book – I just let his wonderful language wash over me and maybe some of it will stick. Maybe I can absorb his talent just by reading him! Or at least his imagination, because this guy is one of the most imaginative authors since H.P. Lovecraft.

Best Indie BookEating Bull by Carrie Rubin

I didn’t read many indie works this year, but I felt this book deserved recognition. I promise it’s not nepotism :P Eating Bull really was a great book, with one of the best villains I’ve read in years. It’s a thriller, it’s social commentary, it’s funny, it’s sad, it’s sympathetic. It’s also a pretty quick read, and I found myself scrolling through the ebook on my Kindle app in every waiting room or lunch break.

Best Classic Book – A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

So far, this is the only Dick book I’ve finished in my Dick anthology. Undoubtedly, many of them are better. However, for my first foray into Dick’s work, I found him to be an excellent author who has certainly earned his status as a science fiction national treasure. His writing is crisp and accessible, creating an immersive sci-fi world without getting bogged down in technical details. He created intrigue and tension from the first chapter. And in this book, published in 1970, he basically predicted 3D printing. This book also reminded me of The Maze Runner in some of its plot elements, so check it out if you’re a fan of that series. Next up, I’m reading his The Man In The High Castle, which was recently adapted for Amazon Prime TV.

Best Book On WritingBird By Bird by Anne Lamott and The Well Fed Self Publisher by Peter Bowerman

I’ve tied these, because they offered great advice in two different tiers. If you’re at all interested in self-publishing, The Well Fed Self Publisher is a MUST READ. Peter Bowerman packs so much information into this book that my notes took up half a journal. I basically rewrote the book, because almost all his advice is important. He gets deep into details I never even knew existed before. This book does not tell you much about writing, but should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to be their own publisher. Because it’s obvious how many indie authors out there have not taken similar advice, and they make simple mistakes that cost them an entire career.

Bird By Bird’s advice on the craft of writing was stuff I already knew. But it resonated with my soul as a writer. It came just at the right time, as I was buckling beneath a pile of self-doubt and uncertainty. Anne Lamott and I have a lot in common, in both our anxieties and our worldview, and it’s inspirational to see how she coped with it. How she pushed past her walls and put herself out there, how surprised she was to see someone actually like her work. It reminds me that all great authors were once nobodies with a dream. And they’re just as surprised as anyone when they make it. In the same vein, I’ve finally snagged a copy of On Writing by Stephen King, and that is next on my writing books roster. :) I know, I’m late to the party!

I am currently reading Secrets of The Sands by Leona Wisoker, who is a super cool lady I know from AtomaCon. 36 pages in, and I’m really enjoying it! It has a Prince of Persia vibe that I’m digging.

After that, I hope to read 50 BOOKS in 2016! :O We’ll see how that goes. I’ll try to update my sidebar reading list before January 1st, so you can anticipate what I’m reading.

What did you read in 2015? Love or hate anything on this list? Let me know!

2015 In Film: Hits and Misses

Last year, I had fun writing my response to 2014’s hits and misses from Hollywood. So here I am again, using the same categories to describe what I watched in 2015!

As I said last year, all of these are movies I’ve seen. Most are “big” movies. I’m a pretty mainstream person. And this year, Oscar bait has tanked left and right, so I didn’t miss much.

I did not see as many movies this year as I normally do. Several movies I intended to see in theaters were left off my viewing list because they got bad reviews or I simply never got around to them. This includes Hitman Agent 47, Taken 3, Tommorrowland, Inside Out, Kingsman, Crimson Peak, Pixels, Ex Machina, Chappie, Cinderella, The Age of Adaline, San Andreas, Everest, The Walk, Self/Less, Spectre, The Man From UNCLE, Bridge of Spies, Goosebumps, and The Good Dinosaur. Some (the good ones) are on my HBO queue. But either way, here’s my response to what I did see:

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Most Overhyped MovieFifty Shades of Grey

The source material is notoriously bad. But with trailers suggesting decent actors, tasteful elegance, and a Beyoncé soundtrack, I wondered if the filmmakers molded Fifty Shades of Grey into something more refined.

Nope. It’s actually just boring, and spends entirely too much time showing us Dakota Johnson topless and Jamie Dornan….not. While I never got the impression that Christian Grey is as loathsome as critiques say he is, I did continuously think “these characters aren’t all bad on their own, but they are definitely not right for each other.”

Runner Up: Minions. Not that I’m the biggest fan to start, or the target audience – my Mom likes it and it amuses me enough to accompany her to every cinematic event involving minions – but this seemed phoned in. Not a bad movie, but certainly not deserving several years of hype. The one memorable quality was Scarlett Overkill and her husband having the power couple relationship that I aspire to have!

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Biggest Surprise –  Jurassic Word

After Jurassic Park III, this sequel would really have to screw up to become  the worst in the series (although Terminator Genisys did set new records for how worse you can make an already downtrodden franchise). But none of us expected Jurassic World to be as good as it was, even with the star power of megahunk Chris Pratt. And we definitely did not expect it to become the #1 grossing movie of the year (pre-Star Wars, anyway).

I understand why some people didn’t like it. But World was fun in the best ways. I also love director Colin Trevorrow’s tongue-in-cheek parallels between the plot’s overly corporate management of spectacle versus the existence of Jurassic World itself as a manufactured nostalgia product. And despite the naysayers, I think it’s awesome that Bryce Dallas Howard never took off her high heels.

Runner Up: The Gift.  Joel Edgerton – known for playing, depending on who you ask, a weirdly mustached Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, or young Uncle Owen in Attack of The Clones – makes his directorial debut in this stalker thriller he made for a cool $3 mil. This movie was very simple in execution, which made me realize how bizarrely Hollywood has “trained” my mind with all these popcorn movies. I kept expecting character deaths, major plot twists, or other thriller tropes. But Edgerton never gave us any whoppers or big cinema. He just left us with one eerie question at the end – “You see what happens when you poison other people’s minds with ideas?”

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Movie That Deserves a Rewatch – Mad Max: Fury Road

Last year, I picked Godzilla because it initially underwhelmed me, but I loved it on the second viewing. I single out Mad Max for a different reason – because its brilliance cannot be fully appreciated in one viewing. Amid car chases, explosions, and death cults, this is a movie of great subtlety – from the worshipped V8 symbol on all the steering wheels, to the characterizations, to the incredible editing and directorial efforts put into eye-tracking during action scenes (aka, why you never lose track of what’s happening in Mad Max, but less thoughtful action movies look like an orgy of mechanical garbage candy). It was everything I want in a movie. No nonsense, non-misandrist feminism. Visual spectacle for the casuals, but accompanied with deeper meaning for the film snobs. Charlize Theron being amazing. So grab some popcorn and watch this one a few times in the coming year to fully grasp its scope.

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Biggest DisappointmentJupiter Ascending

I don’t think it was as bad as everyone says it was. The true shame is that the Wachowskis did not gain audience trust, and did not create proper suspension of disbelief. Objectively speaking, “Bees don’t lie” is equally dumb as Wookies, a talking raccoon, “There is no spoon,” and Leeloodallasmultipass. But the audience embraced those films as classics. Something about them grabbed the audience’s attention and made them believe in the story. Jupiter didn’t. Still, it was a visual treat.

Runner Up: Avengers: Age of Ultron. Good things? Vision being a real actor in a costume instead of CGI. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Hulk/Widow. Hawkeye’s home life. Bad stuff? Dream sequences. James Spader wasted on a villain who woke up evil. And what was up with that Thor scene? It was a punishing exhibition of director vision clashing with studio intervention. Although, I am of the unpopular opinion that the first Avengers worked because the Whedon influence was kept to a dull roar. Ultron turned all the characters into walking quip machines, which I HATE about Whedon’s work.

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Best Streaming Find – Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (Netflix)

I should have watched this heartwarming, funny horror flick one a long time ago. Far less scary or gory than I anticipated, Tucker and Dale is ultimately a story about judging people on their appearances. Alan Tudyk is hilarious as a misunderstood redneck, and gets most of the movie’s best lines.

Runner Up: Mr. Universe (Netflix). It may seem odd that a comedy special makes my list, but I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard all year. Jim Gaffigan is a hysterical observational comic, and all of his specials on Netflix are worth watching. And for those who don’t like crude comics, Gaffigan’s jokes are totally PG.

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Worst Streaming Find Exodus: Gods and Kings (HBO Now)

New category for 2015! I don’t think any singular movie made me as bored, angry, confused, and disappointed as Exodus. I love sword and sandal epics. Especially Biblical epics. The Prince of Egypt is one of my favorite movies. But Christian Bale plays the whiniest, most apathetic Moses ever put to screen in a distractingly white Egypt. This movie does to Bible myth what Immortals did to Greek myth – takes a cursory glance at the source material, ganks a couple names, puts all these people in the same room, then heartily chucks the source material out the window.

The only redeeming quality of this three hour borefest is that Ridley Scott attempted to give natural explanations for the plagues and mystical phenomena. But then he spent a disproportional amount of time warping the source story for literally no gain (In most adaptations, Moses kills a man, feels guilty, and flees. In Exodus, Moses kills multiple men, no one ever finds out, it has no consequence; then someone randomly accuses Moses of being a Jew and no one believes it, but he’s still exiled because….rumors?). So if you want a Moses story, stick with The Ten Commandments or Prince of Egypt…because this one certainly isn’t worth watching.

Runner Up: The Legend of Hercules (HBO Now). At least it’s so hysterically bad, that you can have laugh at the awful dialogue, awful cinematography, awful CGI…and then get a little terrified that the studio spent $70 million to make this dumpster fire of a movie. $70 million on what? Where did it go? Drugs? I’m gonna say drugs.

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A Movie You May Have Missed –  Victor Frankenstein

Quietly released over Thanksgiving week to less than stellar reviews, I bet you overlooked this buddy drama with James McAvoy playing the eponymous Frankenstein and Daniel Radcliffe playing the innocent, impressionable Igor. Ignore the reviews. It’s actually a beautiful, interesting film with good performances and chemistry between the leads. An interesting feature of this film is that there was no bad guy – conflict came from moral disagreements between flawed, but otherwise decent people. And unlike most steampunk-lite Victorian films, this used a full color palette instead of blacks and blues. Very refreshing. It still should be in theaters, so check it out this weekend!

Runner Up: The Scorch Trials. The Maze Runner movies are without doubt the best modern YA adaptations we have. Yes, better than The Hunger Games, and miles beyond the Divergent movies. This sequel was certainly different in pacing and environment than the previous effort, but served its purpose as an entertaining and dutiful “middle movie.” I did miss some of the intrigue from the first film, but the omission of bizarre questions and mystery allowed the characters and story elbow room to capture us by their own merits.

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Most Visually InterestingAnt Man

Ant-Man is a perfect representation of the phrase “I liked it.” Not adoration, not love, but like. It was charming. I like Michael Douglas. Paul Rudd has really pretty eyes. But the one thing I did love was the fascinating visuals. The small scale fight scenes were beautiful and interesting to watch, and they made an otherwise forgettable movie memorable. Bravo to the art direction.

Runner Up: Insurgent. The reason Insurgent fails as a story is that 60% of the movie takes place in virtual reality without any real stakes. However, these VR landscapes are pure eye candy.

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Best FilmThe Martian

No contest.  Of all the films I saw this year, this one achieved the most on a cinematic, acting, and technical level (Mad Max would be the Runner Up though). This adaptation far surpassed the book in quality and continues a trend of positive science representation in media. I hope the Oscars don’t snub it like the Golden Globes have. And weirdly enough, this came from the same director who made Exodus. Ridley Scott, I think we have a love-hate relationship.

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Favorite MovieStar Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m calling it.

Why? Because none of the movies I’ve named, even the ones I enjoyed, could possibly take that title. Except maybe my runner up, if Star Wars turns out to be abysmal. It’s not been a very impressive year for film, and frankly, Star Wars does not have much competition for me.

Runner up: Furious Seven. My big dumb favorite franchise with an equally big heart. The Rock drove an ambulance into a helicopter. And Paul Walker and Vin Diesel flying a car through three Abu Dhabi skyscrapers was more entertaining and spectacular than anything in the Avengers. What more do you want? Plus, if you’re not laughing at every line Tyrese says, or  bawling your eyes out during the Paul Walker tribute, you may not have a soul.

What were your hits and misses for this year? Anything you’re looking forward to in 2016? I will probably do a 2016 scorecard prediction in the next post, and then I’ll check back next December to see how accurate I was :)