REVIEW: Don’t Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche

So I told you guys that an incredibly generous sales rep at Penguin Random House sent me a bunch of ARCs of juvenile and teen lit to use in conjunction with the book clubs I’m starting. To help their promotion I’ll be reviewing the titles here, and so far it looks like it’ll be pretty easy because Don’t Fail Me Now, by Una LaMarche, was REALLY good.

Dont-Fail-Me-Now-Una-LaMarcheIt’s told in the first person present tense POV of Michelle Devereaux, a seventeen-year-old high school student with a mom that just got put in jail again (for drug use), two younger siblings she’s pretty much solely responsible for looking out for, and a dead-beat dad who left their family ten years ago. Michelle is a champion: she single-handedly protects Denny and Cass, her siblings, keeps them fed, safe, and in school, and does so while keeping up her own grades so that she can get somewhere better. Her mother is a druggie, in and out of prison, and the only other family they have is their Aunt Sam who tries to extort rent from Michelle to keep the kids out of the foster system.

The story really begins when a boy named Tim finds Michelle at work, tells her that his step-sister Leah is her half-sister (the half-sister their father left Michelle’s mom for, before leaving Leah as well) and that Buck (their father) reached out to them because he’s dying and has a family heirloom for the girls. Michelle sees this as the potential “Hail Mary” they need for some extra cash, and immediately launches a family road trip (Leah and Tim in tow) to find Buck in his hospice in California. What follows is a road trip fraught with tension: ducking Child Protective Services and the cops, foraging for supplies, tension between our protagonists, and ultimately, the forging of a new kind of family that defies definition but is stronger than what could be called “normal.”

LaMarche’s story is rough and full of heartache, and it should be. It was pretty much the ultimate in “check your privilege” literature; every time I caught myself thinking that the struggles Michelle and her siblings faced were exaggerated or unrealistic, I had to pause and remember that people do deal with these kind of issues. LaMarche creates a harsh and starkly realistic world for these children, but cushions it with an ultimately hopeful ending for the Devereaux family – an ending I needed after all the heartache I went through with these kids.

If it has a weakness it is that the ending wraps up a little TOO neatly – I felt like there were emotional jumps that happen way too quickly, and certain emotional plots get tied up too perfectly given the timeline of the novel. However, as I said, after the struggles the characters go through during the novel, I find it hard to begrudge them their tentatively happy ending.

This is a great book to discuss themes like family, race, racial privilege, classism, bullying…there’s a lot to mine here (I’m discussing it with a teen book club in a few weeks so I read it with potential discussion in mind). It’s also a great way to talk to teens about what they see in their own futures. I definitely recommend it.

Movie Review: Kingsman

I had mixed expectations for Kingsman: The Secret Service. On the one hand, Matthew Vaughn has done some stuff I really love; X-Men: First Class had a great vintage feel, and Stardust balanced romantic fantasy with light action really well.  On the other hand, I’m still not sure if I can pin down how I felt about Kick-Ass, and Mark Millar as a writer doesn’t really do it for me – I can get behind over-the-top violence, but the way he revels in it can make me uncomfortable.  Plus I really get the feeling that he hates women.

But the trailer looked fun, and my husband was really excited to see it, and it was full of every seasoned British actor that I adore (Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Jack Davenport…), and those things are more than enough to get me into a theater to see a film.

Kingsman

Old Money vs. New Money vs. No Money – The Kingsman Story

I’m glad I did!  I would say I unequivocally enjoyed a solid 80% of the movie.  It surprised me in some ways (there are important female characters! Whose gender is incidental TO their characters! Who aren’t whores or prostitutes!) and was utterly unsurprising in others (the 20% of the movie I hated were the incredibly “Mark Millar”-esque fight scenes, including a gruesome finale set to celebratory music.  Oh yeah, and a really gross, misogynistic, unnecessary endcap).

The story of Kingsman is pretty basic, which lets it get all the cheeky call-backs to James Bond and other gentleman spy movies in that it wants to without feeling overcrowded.  Colin Firth, Mark Strong, and Michael Caine are members of the Kingsmen, a super secret international spy organization that finds itself needing a replacement member, who will be chosen from a pool of candidates as they’re put through a myriad of deadly tests and training.  Taron Egerton, a newcomer as far as I know, plays Eggsy, Firth’s candidate – his father was a Kingsman trainee 17 years ago.  Samuel L. Jackson gleefully plays the villain, the internet billionaire Valentine overly obsessed with climate change, who the Kingsmen must apprehend before he kills every person on the planet (except those who can pay for their Get Out of Jail Free card).  Dancer Sofia Boutella plays my favorite character, Jackson’s second in command, a ferocious version of Lady Deathstrike who has knives for legs. (She’s not only a woman of color, but a disabled woman of color, who can kill you with her feet.  I’m in love with her.)

sofia-boutella-kingsman

KNIVES FOR LEGS. AND SHE IS COMING FOR YOU.

On the whole, it’s very well acted; I was afraid that Taron Egerton, our young hero, would be as generic and charmless as I find Channing Tatum, but once he opens his mouth he’s incredibly charismatic and fun to watch.  The fight choreography is excellent.  Colin Firth gets a really brilliantly staged fight scene that, regardless of how much is real and how much is CGI’d, would be impressive for an actor half his age.

The movie’s biggest fault, regardless of my personal preferences when it comes to violence, is that it thinks it’s got a strong message about the proletariat vs. the bourgeois; the commoners vs. the noblemen, if you will.  The movie wants you to think that it’s about a lower class guy pulling himself up by his bootstraps to prove he’s just as good, if not better, as the upper crust.  And literally, this does happen, but…at the end, our lower class heroes have just assimilated in the upper.  They’ve become better by…being the same?  It gets a little muddled. (Also, in true Millar fashion, the British lower class is populated exclusively by gross red-necks and the downtrodden women they abuse.)  The message is there, but it gets muddled by showy action and scenes that are played for too-obvious jokes.

Kingsman is also INCREDIBLY white, a fact that is more obvious when you realize that the only people of color are the two villains (who are, in their defense, incredibly competent and scary) and bit characters who get one line of dialogue.  Two of the candidates for Kingsman replacement are ladies, and it’s never even a thing – Vaughn couldn’t have thrown in a person of color or two?  I think this also undermines the theme of the movie, since the British upper class is so traditionally white, and we’re supposedly tearing that tradition down in favor of better things.

Movie Review: The Book of Life

Last year was not great for movies, but there were a handful that came out that I thought were really special.  I’m going to take a few paragraphs now to tell you about my favorite, which I also thought was the best movie that came out last year, and one you should see for SO MANY reasons

the-book-of-life-poster

The Book of Life is a story that’s been told before (it’s a hero’s journey with a love triangle and some meddling gods thrown in for good measure), but it is so beautiful and richly conceived that it feels completely fresh.  It’s a framed narrative: a school group goes to a museum and is told the story of a love triangle being steered by the bet of two death gods, Xibalba, Lord of the Forgotten and La Muerte, Lady of the Remembered.  Zoe Saldana plays Maria, the beautiful woman torn between Diego Luna’s Manolo and Channing Tatum’s Joaquin; when Xibalba meddles in order to win the bet, Manolo ends up in the afterlife and must figure out how to return to the land of the living.

The Book of Life is a celebration.  It is bright, and musical, and joyful; the animation is absolutely sumptuous, and the attention to detail is meticulous (the main characters are wooden toys being used to act out the story, so they are animated with woodgrain and pin-jointed limbs).  It was released on Halloween because the story is framed by the Mexican Dia de los Muertos tradition, but it’s not scary – it emphasizes the fact that the holiday is about the lives people lived, rather than their deaths.  The Land of the Remembered is an eternal party, because as long as people remember their loved ones, they live on and happily.

I can’t really emphasize enough how good this movie is – which is awesome because it’s also important.  It’s voiced almost entirely by Hispanic people, with a Hispanic director; it’s not a franchise movie or a sequel; it celebrates a culture other than white or European, and does so respectfully and accurately.  It’s also just plain a whole lot of fun.