Category Archives: Terrible Reviews

An American’s Guide to Canadian Food: (or, Don’t)


So we’re back from a week-long vacation in Canada.

I could write about how different the culture is there (spoiler alert: not very, actually, outside of the average person being slightly more friendly than I’m used to. I could write about the absolutely beautiful country. (SO MUCH GREEN.)

But at the moment — maybe because I’m returning to home, and by extension to normality — I’m a little preoccupied with food. Partly because we had to visit the grocery store and buy food that we’d be preparing ourselves for the first time in a week. Partly because, since we hadn’t been preparing our own food for a week, that meant we’d been eating exclusively in restaurants — i.e. eating like garbage. But mostly because — to put it bluntly — food in Canada is weird.

To loosely quote John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, they have the same stuff over there that they have here, but it’s just there it’s a little different.

And look, I’m not a foodie or anything; even typing that word makes me feel like a pretentious tool. I have no doubt there are intricacies at play here that I am oblivious to. That’s okay. Like any good American, that won’t stop me from voicing my displeasure.

That’s right, displeasure, because just one week was enough for me to get sick of some of this stuff, so I can only imagine what it must be like living there full-time.

There are three primary offenders: Poutine, Donair (or donairs? I’m not even sure) and Dulse (which looks and sounds like it should be spelled with a “c” but it isn’t because this is Canada and they don’t care about such things — they can’t even decide on a national language for goodness’ sake).

Let’s start with the least offensive: Poutine.

Image result for poutine

Poutine is actually delicious, even if it doesn’t sound like it would be at first: you take standard-issue French Fries, smother them with gravy, and melt a bunch of cheese over the top of the whole thing. Why this little treat hasn’t caught fire in America is beyond me. It’s salty and satisfying and indulgent and sits in your stomach like a brick after you’ve eaten it: comfort food of the highest order.

But it’s still annoying, because like anything good, it’s saturating the culture. Poutine is everywhere, from burger joints to fancy restaurants to food trucks and everything in between. Well, you might say, french fries are everywhere in America, isn’t that the same thing? Yeah, sure, if chihuahuas and Great Danes are the same thing. But you can’t compare poutine to french fries like that, because french fries are adaptable: you can put them on a plate, toss them in a cup, funnel them into a newspaper fan, whatever. Poutine comes exactly one way: on a plate, and anything else is a catastrophe.

Which means that the poutine you get at, say, McDonald’s, comes served pretty much the same way as it might at a classier joint, which has the effect of making you feel like a schlub for ordering it in a classier joint. Let’s also point out that having a runny, slimy food like this available at a fast food place totally defeats the purpose of eating at a fast food place, because poutine is not a food that can be eaten quickly or cleanly or when time is any sort of factor. Try and eat poutine with your lunch combo when you’re running late and you will arrive back to work doused in gravy (which, I dunno, maybe that’s your thing, in which case, Canada may be for you).

Also, nobody knows how to pronounce it, which may be an issue in your reading at this point. I’ve heard it as poo-TEEN, poo-TAN, poo-TEN, and that was all by family members living in the same household. (Again, to Canadians I say — get on one page when it comes to language.)

In short, delicious, but so ubiquitous you’ll be tired of it after a day.

Then, there’s donair, or donairs.

Image result for donair

Donair seems to be a concept as much as it is a thing. (By the way, it’s pronounced like “donut” except instead of a donut, you have donair — and that’s where the similarity ends.) Because you can go to places (usually sandwich shops, but often, strangely, pizza places) and order donairs, but you can also find “donair sauce” on store shelves and in recipe books, and in the same way, “donair meat”. “Donair meat”, by the way, is not the meat of a donair (some rare Canadian beast) but rather meat for a donair. What type of meat is it, then? This is the question that, when you ask it (and well, I think, you should ask it) a Canadian will look at you oddly and reiterate, “it’s meat that goes in a donair”. This happens to be a thing Canadians just do, on a lot of subjects, not just donairs. You ask them a question and get a circular answer. (“Where is the cave?” “It’s in Saint Martin.” “Where’s Saint Martin?” “It’s down by the caves.” When you look at them oddly, they just look at you oddly right back until one of you apologizes (usually the Canadian, because if there’s one thing they do well and fast, it’s say “sorry”).

Anyway, the meat is tangy and salty as meat should be, but the sauce that they pair with it is creamy and sweetish — almost like a tzatziki sauce, but way sweeter and not at all herby. Actually, it feels like it would go really well with a donut, so maybe I was wrong about donuts and donairs having nothing in common but the letters. (Canadians will insist that this clash of sweet-n’-salty is delightful, I will counterargue that it is confusing, but then I don’t understand “trendy” or “daring” food combinations like “jalapeno peppers with chocolate sauce” or “half-cooked mice with a spritz of maraschino cherry”, so I dunno, maybe I’m not hip enough to play this game.)

You slap the “meat” and the “sauce” together with some tomatoes or peppers into a toasted pita, and bam, that’s a donair. In other words, it’s basically a weird gyro sandwich. Except I didn’t know this, so the first donair I had was in pizza form, which might be adding to my overall confusion about the whole thing.

Sidenote: I think I can be forgiven, though, because the conversation went something like “hey you should try some donairs” and I was all like “what’s a donair” and they were like “Pizza Delight has good ones” and I said “okay but I still dunno what a donair is” and they said “let’s go.” (I’m not sure if that’s an all Canadians thing or just a my wife’s Canadian family thing.) When we got to the restaurant I ordered the first thing I saw that said “donair” which happened to be a donair pizza. I ate it. It was weird. Not bad, and not something I’d order again. Just weird. So when I asked them if donair is just a pizza topping they said “well no, that’s just a pizza with donair toppings,” and when I asked well what’s a donair they said “they don’t just serve donair here.”

Then, later in the week, one of our hosts brought home some donair fixings and made up basically a sauceless pizza topped with donair meat to dunk in donair sauce. This I ate, and it was slightly better than a “donair pizza”, but it did nothing to aid my confusion about donairs. I didn’t fully understand what a donair was supposed to be until I got back to America and googled it.

In short, when a Canadian tries to tell you about an exciting food they want you to try, do your research first.

Third, and most offensive, is Dulse. Do not make the mistake, as I did, of associating “dulse” with “dulce”, as they are not the same thing, and the fact that they seem to have the same root is a bug, not a feature, of language.

Image result for dulse

Dulse is seaweed.

That’s all. It’s seaweed. They dry it out and salt it, and then they eat it. Like potato chips, but horrible. It’s somehow simultaneously crispy and chewy, tough and brittle, all at once. You put it in your mouth (your first mistake) and the edges of it immediately flake off and melt to the inside of your cheeks and gums, while you have to keep working the main “leaf” like a piece of jerky. It tastes like fermented fish urine, which it basically is, because it’s seaweed.

I pointed out to the Canadian who tricked me into eating dulse that it tasted, in fact, exactly as you would expect dried-out seaweed to taste, and she responded, “no, it tastes like dulse.” My inclination was to argue the point by asking her what, exactly, dulse was, but the donair incident was fresh in my mind so I just smiled and refused another piece.

To fully explain how bad it tastes, here’s a little anecdote:

My wife’s grandmother picked up a bag of it in Market Square in Saint John. Very excited about it, too, she was. As it turns out, Saint John is a tourism stop for cruise lines sailing in the Northeastern U.S. and Canada, and a cruise ship happened to be in port that day — so the square was flooded with tourists. Mostly Americans, so I didn’t feel quite the fish out of water that I usually did.

Anyway, she was offering me a bit of dulse and I, not wanting to appear rude, was (tentatively) accepting it, when a pair of nearby Americans asked her, “what’s that?” (They looked sixty or so, with matching visors. Sweet little old ladies.) “Dulse,” my grandmother-in-law replied cheerily, around a mouthful of the stuff. “A Canadian delicacy. Want to try some?”

I was just working my way through my first (and only) piece, the fish-pee taste slowly spreading across my tongue. Apparently, the expression creeping across my face didn’t deter them, so they said “sure” and took a piece. Two seconds later, one of them said, and I quote, “nope, that’s coming out,” and spit it RIGHT ON THE FLOOR, while the other rushed to the nearest stall to purchase an overpriced Pepsi to wash the flavor out.

My grandmother-in-law watched this with a chuckle like she’d played some great prank on all of us, all the while stuffing the horrible purple stringy stuff into her mouth.

You can buy this stuff by the bag, if you want, but I also saw it in spice form: a tiny, roll-of-quarters-sized tube which you could sprinkle over your steak or your breakfast eggs. You know, for when your food has that “fine, but not enough fish-pee” quality about it.

To sum up: avoid.

At any rate, these are only three of the most visible food faux-pas on display during my week in Canada. I’m sure there are others, and possibly worse ones (though if there’s something out there worse than dulse, I want it caught and shot).

I will reiterate: if you’re going to try a new and exciting food while on vacation in Canada, do your research first.

Thank goodness I’m back in the states, where we have NORMAL food.

Image result for krispy kreme burger


Terrible Reviews: Spoiler-Free Thoughts on “Solo”


Solo!

Here’s a few non-spoilerific thoughts on the new movie. Not that you need them.

I mean, you could basically write your own review of the thing without even seeing it at this point, right? You look at reviews for The Last Jedi and it becomes pretty clear to you that people decided to hate it or love it often for reasons entirely outside of what happens on film, and I’d wager the same could be said for Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Something-something jaded review here.

Blah-blah-blah overdone tropes here.

Yadda-yadda cashing in on nostalgia here.

You can say all of those cynical things, and you’d probably be right. The onslaught of Star Wars since the new saga was announced several years ago has gone from a refreshing shower to an outright deluge and now, maybe, probably, to a stagnating pool of scummy water that the waterlogged soil can’t drain away anymore. They’re putting out a new film a year, and the new films are formulaic, even if they’re sometimes clever (or maybe TOO clever) about how they thwart those formulas. (I’ll circle back to that.)

I mean, you could say the same for Marvel’s offerings, too, only more so — they’re dropping more than a movie a year, after all.

It’s true, though. The tropes are overdone. Young Han is cocky and brash, the cyborg partner is plucky and sassy and slightly malfunctional, the mentor is grizzled and grumpy and disapproving … on and on down the list. And the franchise is no doubt cashing in on nostalgia, more so I think with Solo than with Rogue One. Han Solo, after all, is basically the most universally liked character from the original trilogy, and his untimely (or all too timely, depending on your point of view ) sendoff in The Force Awakens left some fans wanting more. Everybody loves Han, so let’s give them more Han. More is better, right? Right???

Put aside all that. The problem with the recent slew of movies and people’s reactions to them is a failure to meet the movies on their own terms. Star Wars Owes You Nothing, after all. And loading down a film with expectations — be they positive or negative! — is a good way to short-circuit an objective viewing of a film. (“xxx will never measure up to the original” is a common refrain, here.) You saddle that donkey with all your personal hopes and dreams and “I woulda done”s, and it’s no wonder the thing drowns before it gets halfway across the river.

Meet the movie on its own terms, though, and it’s fine. No, not awesome. No, not terrible. It’s fine. Han is, appropriately, cocky and brash, as we expect. His mentor, as we expect, is grizzled and grumpy. And his assorted cohorts are equal parts swindlery, wise-cracky, and heart-of-goldy. It’s all fine.

But what it ain’t is a necessary addition to the series. There’s nothing, in other words, in this two-and-a-half hour adventure that you can’t live without — no revealed knowledge, no breathtaking secret that changes everything we thought we knew about the galaxy’s favorite scamp. You end the movie in the same place as you started it — knowing that Han is a swaggering, boastful nerf-herder headed to Tattoine for a rendezvous with destiny.

Which is sort of the curse of the prequel, really. You already know how the story ends, the adventure is in getting there — and for me, the problem is that there’s nothing really shocking along the way. Han starts the movie as a thief, and, well … he ends it as a slightly more jaded thief.

Problem is, there’s nowhere to be surprised in there, not really, except for a couple of (actually rather lovely) reversals that are really only delays on the payoffs you know are coming. Han tells us in the original series how he won the Falcon — how much do we gain by watching it happen? The argument can be made that we’re better off when we get to fill in the details ourselves rather than being led around by the nose, the way this film seems to do. “Look here at this thing you already suspected, isn’t it nifty?” “And this, you knew there would be something like this in the story; well, here it is.” “Yep, the Falcon has always broken down at inopportune times but it always comes through in the end; why wouldn’t it do the same when it’s new?”

In that way, then, Solo is less about telling you a new story and more about affirming things you already know.

Here’s the thing, though: affirming your suspicions is a thing this movie does really well. The performers are all excellent in their roles (Daniel Glover’s portrayal of Lando, in particular, is bloody inspired), the story clips right along at that breakneck pace Disney has decided Star Wars should run at (seriously, I watched A New Hope after TFA came out and it’s basically comparing a teenager on a Saturday morning to a spooked cheetah), and the visuals and the action sequences are just beautiful.

Is Solo a life-altering piece of cinema? Hell no. But it ain’t a bad way to spend a few hours and a few bucks.

 


Terrible Reviews: The Avengers, Infinity War (On Protagonism)


There’s a lot to be said about Infinity War that can’t be said without spoiling some of it. Based on the state of my local movie theater on Sunday morning at 10:30, it’s a little hard to swallow that anybody with a serious interest in seeing the movie hasn’t already seen it, but surely these people must exist.

I have thoughts that must be thought about the movie, though, so here’s the obligatory warning: here there be spoilers.

Furthermore, in the interest of not turning this post into a 3000-word monster, I’m going to break it up. Here, then, is the first installment. With extra spoilers.

On Protagonism:

Let’s get one thing clear: the movie is a thrill-ride. It’s hard to look away (and harder still to walk away, for example when your six-year-old in attendance has to go to the bathroom for the third time just when you feel yet another climactic battle looming) for fear you will miss something, and miss something important. The film is eminently watchable.

But from a narrative perspective, I found myself getting frustrated. Every time you start to settle into the groove with one of the bands of heroes (and the fact that there are multiple bands of heroes is maybe the first indicator that trouble is afoot), you have to cut away for an update on the other bands of heroes. There are at least three — and sometimes four — groups of heroes doing different things in different places until the final battle. And this is a Marvel movie, mind you, in full swagger, using every tool they’ve honed over the last ten years — every subgroup is rife with internal conflict between its members, cheeky one-liners, and hilarious deadpan.

In short (too late!), as an audience member, I am fatigued with protagonists. Who am I supposed to root for and identify with? Banner and his performance anxiety? Thor and his abs? Stark and Strange trying to out-Alpha each other? Captain America and his beard? I’ve seen almost all of the movies at this point, and each of these characters is lovable, so I want to root for all of them — but there just isn’t time. Because the cast is huge and the plotlines are tangled and far-reaching, the film is paced like a coked-out cockroach skittering for the sugar bowl. You can’t identify with a protagonist, you barely have time to recognize them in their shiny new duds (seriously, it’s like every superhero gets a costume upgrade in every sequel) before the movie is shuffling you off to the next thing like an overbooked tour guide. Character development? Forget about it. There are no less than a dozen heroes here — it’s enough work just to remember who’s doing what.

Very frustrating.

Until you shift your perspective.

There’s no consistency to be found amongst the heroes. Some are all business while some crack wise, some concoct elaborate schemes and others wing it. The movie even seems to shift in tone based on who you’re following at the moment. No, the consistency comes from the bad guy.

Related image

Lurking behind everything that happens is the swollen, ill-proportioned face of Thanos. And once I realized that this movie is pulling a fast one on the audience, I became much more sanguine in my thinking about it.

Thanos is the villain. He’s also the protagonist of the movie.

Thanos hogs the screen time. Thanos has all the character development. Thanos chews on the scenery for every shot he’s in, and thanks to the magic plot devices, he’s literally hiding around every corner. Thanos, in other words, takes the hero’s journey in this movie. Every twist and turn that happens in the movie is centered not on the Avengers — a kicked anthill is as frantic and as useful as they seem to be in the movie —  but on Thanos.

He hears a call to action when his home world is plunged into strife, and goes on a quest to deliver the same peace to the entire universe (just, you know, not in the way we’d prefer). He meets a mentor character who helps him in his goal (Red Skull, we hardly knew ye!) He and his band of villains have all the try/fail cycles. (Didn’t get the time stone there, didn’t get it there — third time’s the charm.) He has to make sacrifices to meet his goal. And the final victory brings him within an inch of his life.

Thanos is the protagonist of Infinity War. And the filmmakers know this: in the closing credits, where we usually get the grim but reassuring message “The Avengers will return,” we get instead “Thanos will return”. That’s not just a cheeky jab to drive home the stake in the hearts of all the Loki fanboys (and fangirls. And the fanboys/girls of Spiderman. And Groot. And Black Panther. And and and YOU GET THE POINT). It’s an acknowledgement that this movie is not about what — or who — you thought it was.

Once you’re down with that, the movie becomes a lot easier to digest, narratively speaking. The quest we’re on is Thanos’s, and the Avengers — legion as they may be — are but speedbumps on the residential suburban street leading to the eradication of half the population of the universe. Our favorites are cannon fodder — occasionally seriously inconveniencing the real protagonist, but ultimately never really standing a chance. Which is the posture of all the villains in every other Marvel movie to date.

I’ll point out that this trick of the light only works because the filmmakers have pulled the cinematic bait-and-switch of turning the Infinity War story into two movies. When Thanos receives his comeuppance, as he must in the next chapter, Thanos’s current arc, which is riding the hero’s trajectory, will come crashing back down to reality.

But once you engage with the movie on its own terms (and failure to meet a story on its own terms is basically the biggest source of strife, not just in Marvel movies, but in any cinematic universe — I’m looking at you, butthurt Star Wars fans), it starts to make a lot more sense.


Terrible Reviews: Black Panther


black_panther_head

Black Panther is probably the smartest movie Marvel has made yet.

We saw it the other night. I’m writing this knowing that my review is going to be terrible, because I loved the movie so much. It’s too much fun, it’s too well done, it’s too socially savvy, for me to give it a thrashing. I spent most of the movie grinning like a maniac. So rather than “The Good, The Bad, The WTF,” I’ll just focus on a few points that the movie executes like an olympic figure skater on uppers, hopefully without spoiling too much.

So here’s what’s awesome about it.

black panther GIF by Marvel Studios

The Characters

The film is beautifully cast with characters to love, and to love to hate, all around. Sterling K. Brown turns everything he touches to gold. We didn’t even know he was in the movie when we bought our tickets — and he’s just a minor part. Here you’ve got the likes of juggernauts like Forrest Whitaker, playing a damaged prime minister type; Angela Bassett, the widowed queen and mother to the new king — and these, again, are only the supporting cast.

If you don’t leave the theater loving Shuri (Letitia Wright) and quoting her (“What are THOOOOOOOSSSSEEEEE??”), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t leave the theater conflicted as hell over the fate and the idealism of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger (horrible name but fantastic villain), there may be something wrong with you. If you don’t pump your fist and grit your teeth every time Danai Gurira’s Okoye puts the smack down on some hapless dude, there may be something wrong with you.

Of course, the titular Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is dashing and conflicted and awesome. He’s believable and sympathetic, and he anchors the picture admirably. But the standout really is the supporting cast; especially:

The Women

Okay, so Black Panther is the figurehead, but the movie is less about the single superhero and more about the network propping him up. Of course, they can’t call the movie Black Panther’s Support Group, but trust me when I say that the real heroes of this movie are the women. Shuri is the Q to the Panther’s James Bond: her inventions have BP on the cutting edge of keeping bad guys down. His first lieutenant, Okoye, doles out enough beatdowns on her own to deserve her very own film. And his mother, the former queen, is the glue holding her family — and the country — together in the face of a series of national crises.

They don’t just support the hero, they do virtually all of the heavy lifting. If not for the women, the Panther would be beaten, killed or captured in the first twenty minutes, movie over.

black panther trailer GIF

But what’s refreshing about the way this movie treats its women is that there’s not a single moment of condescension or disbelief that the world of Black Panther works in this way. Of course Shuri is the head of technology in Wakanda; why shouldn’t she be? Of course Okoye is the first lieutenant — just look at her fight. (There’s a fantastic moment where one of the male warriors realizes he’s about to have to fight with Okoye, and he is visibly shook.) There’s not a whisper of any futzing about with the “but she’s a girl!” nonsense — from the people in the immediate circle, anyway — they just are what they are.

The Villain

So it’s sort of an understood rule in storytelling that a good villain can’t be a mustache-twirling, take-over-the-world evil bastard in black. The villain has to be sympathetic, their drives must make sense, there must be an element of there but for the grace of God go I. Every character, and every villain, is the hero of their own story, after all.

But unlike most movies, this villain is particularly problematic. Because if you flip the script around, and imagine that the story we follow is not the story of T’Challa, but is instead the story of Killmonger (god, what a stupid name), the story works just as well — just with a different ending. Killmonger’s goals are entirely sympathetic, and are particularly troublesome for T’Challa: so much so that the king actually has to change the way he thinks about the world.

Killmonger fights for what he knows to be right. He’s a villain only because of the forced perspective the film gives us. That’s good storytelling. And Michael B. Jordan’s performance is really something to behold.

The Social Side

It’s hard to read about the movie without hearing about the social commentary, but what I really love about Black Panther — why I think it’s Marvel’s smartest movie yet — is that the commentary is less sledgehammer, more dagger in your ribs. It’s so easy for movies “with a message” to come at you, guns blazing, with everything but a flashing neon THIS IS IMPORTANT marquee over the screen. Black Panther doesn’t do that. In fact, if you prefer your superhero movies divorced from social commentary, it’s entirely possible to enjoy Black Panther just as much. The meta level is just another layer in a billionty-layer cake of goodness: ruminate on it if you like, ignore it if you don’t. The movie will be just as sweet either way.

But assuming you’re like me and you don’t mind — you actually prefer — to think about what a story is trying to tell you, here’s a taste: Wakanda isn’t a backwater country in deepest Africa. It’s America. Technologically advanced beyond every other nation, yet mired (and maybe even hamstrung) by archaic traditions and religions. Turns a blind eye to the suffering of untold millions across the world in the name of self-preservation. Righteously nationalistic.

Then: the nation finds itself in turmoil when an outsider unseats the king and threatens to blow up the status quo. The second half of the movie is about the power struggle and the existential question of whether the country and its people must adhere to tradition and law or whether they must do what they believe is right.

So … yeah. Let me not spoil things any further.

The Verdict

Look, I love a good superhero movie. I even enjoy a bad superhero movie (I’m looking at you, Batman vs. Superman, which I did not hate). But even a guy like me, who theoretically cannot get enough superhero movies, is sort of suffering from superhero movie fatigue these days. Pretty soon we’ll be on our 5th Spider-Man reboot and Netflix will be launching its original series about Wolverine’s cousin’s daughter’s step-sister. It’s hard to ignore that Marvel is milking the current cash cow for all it’s worth.

But this is a movie worth getting milked over. It’s not just a good superhero movie, it’s a great superhero movie — and a darn good movie, whether it’s about a superhero or not.

black panther marvel GIF

Do yourself a favor and see it.

Final verdict: Five out of five cooler-than-you salutes.

All images are obviously the property of Marvel.


Terrible Reviews: Otherworld


Here’s a book with a concept you’ve heard before: *a video game that’s realer than real life.* Do Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller freshen it up or drag its corpse behind the jalopy for a few cheap miles? Let’s find out!

Otherworld (Otherworld, #1)

Summary:

We’ve got this immersive VR world created by a shadowy company literally called “The Company” (which is an attempt at a joke every bit as disappointing as it seems) and piloted by this Elon Musk-ish figure. Owing to recent advances in technology, the game — which was failing monetarily — is rebranded and re-opened as a virtual reality world-substitute — an “other world,” GET IT? — for people suffering from disabilities who are otherwise unable to function in the real world. Of course, to open such a venture on the large stage requires lots of beta testing, and since living, breathing human test subjects are difficult to come by and legally problematic (the technology might-or-might-not kill people in the real world when their avatars die in the game world), The Company opts to make its own human subjects by staging accidents that send hapless victims into comas, and then administering chemical cocktails to keep them locked-in.

(If that sounds a bit mustache-twirling and far-fetched, well, just buckle in.)

The novel centers on Simon, a protagonist you’re going to hate, but not, I think, in that love-to-hate-them way. (More on that in a moment.) He’s enchanted with the idea of the Otherworld game but becomes obsessed with it when his kind-of-but-not-really girlfriend, Kat, becomes one of The Company’s victims and finds herself trapped in the game. His quest to save her and blow the lid off The Company’s secrets leads him through the immense and twisted Otherworld.

Critique (not exactly constructive):

I’ll keep my spoilers vague, since this book is fairly new, but much like my other recent read (Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties), the overwhelming feeling I’m left with is: meh. Otherworld is a softer take on The Matrix, a harder take on Tron, and it wants to be a gamer-geek’s take on The Hunger Games. The setup is fine, the premise is good; it just never seems to deliver in any satisfying way.

The biggest problem: the characters are a let down. The protagonist, Simon, is a jerk of the highest order. Not a jerk that you love to hate, a la House or Frank Underwood or Loki, but a jerk who you really wish would just go away. He’s rude to absolutely everybody he encounters in the real world with the exception of Kat, the girl who makes the mistake of giving him some attention (naturally, he’s completely in love with her). And there’s no good explanation for this ball of hate rolling around in his guts; he’s the child of fabulously wealthy parents whose only complaint is that his parents don’t pay attention to him. So he goes out sunbathing on his lawn in the nude to make his neighbors angry, knowing they’ll call his mother at work (…really?) to kick up a fuss. The authors want him to be an anti-hero, but he’s really just an a-hole.

His love interest, Kat, seems at first like this tough, troubled girl — you know, that elusive Strong Female Character type — but after the first third of the book, she’s relegated to the damsel in distress. Simon chases her into Otherworld, but there she’s just a mirage; always just out of reach, just out of sight. Further, upon reflection, I’m not sure we see a genuine interaction between her and another character in the book. She hangs around with some people Simon hates (yeah, I know, that narrows it down exactly zero) and seems like she might be dating some deadbeat (when she could have Simon, the … not deadbeat?), but don’t worry — she’s playing a long con, and they spend the final fifth of the book kissing every chance they get. Often when it’s totally inappropriate. (It’s gross.)

Their love story, by the way, is as ludicrous as you could hope. Never mind the ridiculous flippance and disdain Simon flings at everybody else he meets or the fact that Simon tells us, again and again, that he’d destroy all of Otherworld and everybody (real people, too!) living in it for her. They’re literally driven apart by an evil stepfather. I just … yeah. I’m moving on.

The continuity is suspect. Simon and his crew flit from one locale to another with no explanation of how they did it or how long it took. Sure, they’re in a video game so the rules could be bent, but there’s also very much the sense of — much like your average video game — okay, here’s the ice level, here’s the desert level, here’s the jungle level. At one point, Simon gets whipped away from his companions and beamed, Star Trek-style, to the other side of the world to die. But before long, one of his companions finds him. How? Don’t ask, she just does; and just in time to save him from certain death, besides. How fortuitous!

And of course, there’s the issue that most of the book takes place in the game world. Well, what about your body in the real world? To its credit, the book deals with this issue on the one hand — every time our hero wakes up in the real world, he finds he’s soiled himself and he’s starving. (Somebody in the real world even gives him diapers to help himself with this problem, which is actually pretty funny. But because he’s a class-A jerk, he doesn’t bother using them so that he can deliberately run around smelling of urine and feces.) But at the same time, he is somehow able to dip in and out of the game for days at a time, and his physical body is never found, never disturbed. This beggars belief.

Then, there’s the ending. Without spoiling it, the ending is a non-ending; a straight cliffhanger leading into the next book (as yet unreleased). Not a resolution to the conflicts opened by this book, but a continuation of them. Wholly unsatisfying.

Finally, I don’t know who the book is really aimed at. The premise and execution have a decidedly YA flair to them — Simon is of high school age, after all, going on a grand (virtual) adventure so save the (virtual) world. But the tone of the book is not at all YA. The main character’s thoughts and speech are littered with profanity, and it’s regularly intimated (and here and there outright stated) that Otherworld is a haven for orgies and all manner of devilish perversions. Not that I have a problem with that stuff, but I’m not sure a YA novel is the right place for it.

Verdict:

So — is the book any good? Well, despite my laundry list of complaints, I didn’t hate it. To be fair, I don’t think I liked it all that much, though it did tickle my geek-bone well enough to keep me turning the pages. And this concept alone is entertaining enough to me that I’m willing to dip my toes in just about any waters that explore the idea. The novel does try to explore some themes about the dark side of human nature. But it’s a bit like tossing frogs into boiling water rather than trying to cook them properly. There’s no wading in, there’s no gradual transition; we just find ourselves in the midst of cannibals and gladiators. The end result is less “oh, wow, that’s deep” and more “what the hell am I reading?”

Still, I can’t help feeling like *Otherworld* is trying to ride on the coattails of some other recent successes *cough Ready Player One cough* rather than trying to forge its own way. It’s a decent enough bit of escapist literature (and goodness knows we need that these days), but that’s about all it is.

The verdict: Two out of five smelly, peed-in pants legs.


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