Author Archives: Diana

Diana’s Best (and a few of the Worst) of 2016

It’s that time of year again—the time when we reflect on all the things that have happened this year, all the things we’ve read and watched and played, and decide what we loved and what we…didn’t love. This has been an odd year all the way around, full of political strife, natural disasters, and the deaths of some of our most beloved pop culture icons–David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, and Gene Wilder, and so many others. But while 2016 has certainly had its share of horrible moments, there have also been some great moments, particularly in pop culture. Here are some of my favorites (and a few not-so-favorites):

I didn’t make it to see as many films as I would’ve liked to this year, especially given that we have an annual pass since my husband works for a company that owns and oversees a lot of the major theaters in the area. And while we have watched a lot of movies this year, we’ve mostly watching movies that weren’t new. So, with that disclaimer, here are the best movies of 2016 that I’ve seen–

This is an odd entry for me, because I’ve long had superhero fatigue. I’d generally rather Sam and the Little Jedi watch the superhero films while I’m doing something else or while I am elsewhere. But I watched this one, because Ryan Reynolds, y’all. I’m quite glad I did, because the movie was irreverent and amusing, poking fun at all the things I’ve gotten tired of seeing in those other movies while being one of those movies.

The Witch.
This one is going to be contentious, but…I loved this debut from Robert Eggers. It was dark and moody, with an extraordinary amount of tension building up to those rare witch sightings. Just the right amount of monster, really. And while the film seems simple on the surface, with a small set and cast, there is quite a lot of complexity in the subtlety of that simplicity.

Most Anticipated Movies I Haven’t Seen Yet: 
Star Wars: Rogue One
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Hidden Figures

We did watch quite a bit of TV this year. It’s an easy thing to pick up and put back down, and I tend to enjoy long, more involved stories (I also tend to read a lot of series books). We kept up with some old favorites–some of which have only improved (ahem, Game of Thrones, I’m looking at you, since you almost lost me last year), while others didn’t do so well (looking at you, Walking Dead, since I’m still reading the comics but have only seen the first episode of the show this season).

Stranger Things.
Netflix once again proved that it can churn out a well-conceived and well-developed show with the Duffer brothers’ Stranger Things. The show functions as both a love letter to the culture of the 1980s and a fresh take on sci-fi horror, and I’m more than excited about the upcoming second season.

I came to this one a bit late, when the show was about to air its penultimate episode of the season. But I could not look away. My husband and I watched the first 8 episodes in about two days–a feat not unusual for me but definitely for him, as binge-watching is not his forte. The HBO reboot of Michael Crichton’s 1980s directorial debut offers a fascinating perspective on our ever-developing anxieties and fears about technology and artificial intelligence.

Orange is the New Black.
This might have been my favorite season of the Netflix show. It was certainly the most nuanced and the most emotional, with astounding performances from its cast as the characters dealt with parenting from prison, emotional abuse and sexual assault from staff members, the effects of solitary confinement, and the brutalities of life in a for-profit prison.

Black Mirror.
The 3rd season of the show, released through Netflix, churned out several solid episodes. The anthology format continues to serve the show well, with “Man on Fire” and “Hated in the Nation” being two of the most haunting episodes I’ve seen throughout the entire run of the show.

Biggest Disappointment:
Penny Dreadful.
It makes me sad to put this show under my biggest disappointments of the year in TV, but the series finale (which was not billed as such until after it aired) left a lot of questions unanswered and shoe-horned endings for many of the shows’ most interesting characters. The season had actually been quite a strong one, with Billie Piper giving a spectacular performance virtually every week, but the finale was an unforgivable error in the show’s history.

I did a lot of reading this year–a *lot.* I’m still reveling in my post-graduate-school-freedom-to-read-things-for-pleasure, and books have been a welcome distraction from the various looming political crises during what turned out to be a rather traumatic election year.

The world-building here is enormous and complex, the art is beautiful, and the story is dark and haunting. Not for the faint of heart–in addition to an incredibly dense story, the content is sometimes truly horrifying, with extreme violence and sometimes truly terrible characters. The comic is female-dominated, with almost no male characters, a refreshing take on a vengeance quest as Maika Halfwolf, a fugitive and former slave with a literal demon inside, works to avenge the murder of her mother.

East of West:
This is a comic I came to late in the game, having just read the first 5 volumes last week, but damn if it isn’t one of the best things I’ve read. As with Monstress, the world-building in East of West is extraordinary, a huge part of the comic’s overall success. All things considered, the alternative history of the comic is a fascinating comparison to our current political climate. And this comic may have my favorite incarnation of the four horsemen of the apocalypse–certainly of Conquest and Famine–actively working to end the world.

The Wolf Road:
Beth Lewis’s post-apocalpytic landscape is a fitting landscape for the haunting, bleak tale of 19 year old Elka as she comes to terms with the true identity of the man who raised her. Elka runs from her home in the deep woods after finding out that Trapper, who she has come to think of as a father, is actually a wanted murderer. Elka’s journey is both a literal journey and a metaphorical one, down the Wolf Road and back to herself.

The Star-Touched Queen:
When handsome and mysterious Amar offers to marry Maya, a raja’s daughter whose horoscope has declared her cursed, Maya’s world is turned upside-down. She finds herself in a place full of locked doors, married to a kind but mysterious husband, queen of a land that doesn’t quite seem to obey the laws of the physical world. The story is heavily influenced by Hindu myths, and the tale is a lovely one.

The View from the Cheap Seats.
Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and I particularly enjoy his shorter works. I was excited to finally get my hands on some nonfiction from him, and I was not disappointed. The book collects essays, lectures, and various other musings on everything from the craft of writing to classic horror films to the comics industry.


Binge-Worthy TV: Marcella

Earlier this week, I noticed that Netflix had added Marcella, a show featuring Anna Friel (who I LOVED as Chuck in the all-too-short-lived series Pushing Daisies) and that Friel was the show’s title character AND that she was playing a detective searching for a murderer… Well, obviously I knew I’d have to watch this show. I’m always on the lookout for shows with badass female characters — and there’s a bonus if those shows involve crime-solving, because I love a mystery.

And if there’s one thing that this show has, it’s mystery. Marcella is a British crime procedural, written and directed by Hans Rosenfeldt (The Bridge). The 8-episode first season was added to Netflix shortly after it finished in mid-May, with audiences able to stream the show beginning July 1.

Anna Friel as Marcella

Anna Friel is Marcella

The show follows Marcella Backland (Friel), a retired detective who has spent the past decade at home raising a family. Marcella’s husband Jason (Nicholas Pinnock) has just left her, and in many ways her personal life is crumbling. Meanwhile, the signature of a serial killer who has been inactive for many years resurfaces. And so Marcella decides to return to work as a homicide detective and to search for the killer as she also deals with her personal life.

I have to admit that I think the show’s plot is a bit too formulaic at times, but there is enough complexity in the show’s subplots and enough strong acting that I didn’t find it distracting. Friel is a wonder to watch, giving a nuanced performance as Marcella’s obsessions spiral. She is often unlikable — volatile and obsessive, disregarding all sorts of not just rules and regulations but ethical and moral quandaries. She has a penchant for ruthlessly pursuing suspects, and she neglects to share pertinent information about the case with her fellow officers and superiors (like that she has started having blackout moments caused by extreme stress, and that one of those blackouts involved a fight with her husband’s mistress, who turned up dead).

The show also excels in its structural oddities, forcing us to do our own work to suss out the murderer by introducing us to a fairly large-sized cast of characters all at once rather than suspect by suspect. Marcella’s blackouts also add a layer of complication–we don’t see what she does, but we know that she is sometimes violent. The relationship between Marcella and Jason vacillates, both of them confused and confusing one another, both of them suspects.

And that’s really the other thing I like about the show: Everyone is a suspect, and everyone is guilty. The question is really not whether they’re guilty, but to what extent and of what, exactly.

Internet gossip suggests that the show will get a second season, but that has not yet been confirmed. Here’s hoping, because as Friel has gone on record as saying in regards to her character: “the world is changing, rightly so, and we’re maybe having the attention and the spotlight is being put on to women. It’s about time, isn’t it?”

Binge-Worthy TV: Stranger Things

When Netflix dropped Stranger Things on July 15, I knew I’d have to at least give it a try. The show featured Winona Ryder, who I haven’t been able to get enough of since watching her refuse Christian Bale’s Laurie and embrace Gabriel Byrne’s Professor Bhaer in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women, and even better, it looked to be a little bit sci-fi, a little bit horror, and a little bit 1980s.

I wasn’t wrong, either.

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Summer of Sandman: Favorite Places

Gaimain’s Sandman series is built as much in image as in word, the artistic renderings of characters and places adding texture and depth to the story–as is the nature of a good comic series. And the material is what Gaiman and the artists excel at: constructing fantastical worlds.

We are always aware of *where* we are in the series. Setting matters, and it’s exquisitely rendered. Sometimes, the space is terrifying: it’s the depths of Hell or the worst of nightmares. But sometimes it’s beautiful, intoxicating, and uncanny. Here are some of my favorites in the series:

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

1. Fiddler’s Green.
Fiddler’s Green is both a place and a person (you’ll find him as Gilbert on my list of favorite Sandman characters).  As a place in the Dreaming, Fiddler’s Green recalls the maritime folklore of a place for sailors, a beautiful, pastoral resting place for those who’ve sailed the seas.

2. Dream’s Library.
As a book lover, there are few things in the world of the Dreaming that have more pull for me than Dream’s library. Inside the library are all of the books that have been dreamed but never written, and they are cared for by Lucien. I’d love to pick a cozy chair and just read and read and read.

3. World’s End: A Free House.
In the frame story for World’s End, travelers are drawn to a mysterious inn and, like Chaucer’s Canterbury travelers, they begin to tell tales. The inn itself is a sheltering place during reality storms–this one ushered in by the death of one of the Endless. The array of people and the old-world feel make this one of my favorite spots in the series.

4. The Boarding House.
In The Doll’s House, the second Sandman collection, we spend much of our time in a boarding house with an eclectic set of inhabitants: the dream vortex Rose Walker, Gilbert (aka Fiddler’s Green), the Havisham-like Chantal and Zelda, Hal (who is both the landlord and a nightclub performer), and Barbie and Ken. The boarding house works as a way to bring together a diverse and fascinating set of characters.

5. Faerie.
We don’t actually see much of Faerie, but what we do see is beautiful. It’s largely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Titania as its queen and gift-giving as its currency. Like the best of faeries, the realm and its inhabitants are magnetic and dangerous.

6. The White Horse.
In 1389, Dream met a man named Hob Gadling who swore never to die . The White Horse became their annual meeting place. We see the place change, take a few new names, and eventually deteriorate, reminding us of the breadth of the story and the longevity of the enigmatic Hob.

7. Dream’s Castle.
Dream’s throne room is beautiful—and so is the rest of his home. It’s guarded by a gryphon, a wyvern, and a hippogriff, and it is the heart of the Dreaming. Like its owner, the castle is but an aspect of dreams, if a beautiful one.

8. Death’s Apartment.
Death is perhaps the most human of the Endless, and though we don’t see her domain, we do see her apartment. Yes, Death has an apartment. There’s a floppy hat collection, goldfish named Slim and Wadsworth, and a big comfy couch. It sounds a lot like a place I’d want to have coffee.

9. Barbie’s Dream World.
Barbie is one of the residents of the Boarding House. Later in the Sandman run, in the collection A Game of You, the rich fantasy world that Barbie creates in her dreaming takes front and center. Barbie’s dream world is a fantasy land threatened by the villainous Cuckoo and inhabited by some of the most interesting characters in the series.

10. The Soft Places.
Soft places are spots where the boundary of dreaming and waking are malleable. They are places where Marco Polo can encounter inhabitants of the Dreaming, where historical figures meet dream figures and nothing is terribly certain.

11. The House of Mystery.
The House of Mystery is both in the Dreaming and the waking world, somewhere just north of Louisville. The architecture of the house and its interior change from time to time. It’s the home of Cain, and it sits close-by The House of Secrets, the home of his brother Abel.

12. The House of Secrets.
The House of Secrets is the domain of Abel, and like his brother’s home, it exists both in the Dreaming and the waking worlds. The house moved itself to the other end of the graveyard where The House of Mystery sits, and the two houses are mirror images of one another.

13. The Garden of Forking Ways
This is Destiny’s realm, and we’re not there often—but when we are, it’s phenomenal. Blind Destiny walks the labyrinthine paths of the garden continually, and there seems to be no end to its paths.

Summer of Sandman: Favorite Stories

The trouble—and delight—of the Sandman comics is how many stories they hold. I don’t just mean that there are the original 75 comic issues and several spin-offs and additions to the series. I also mean that there are a lot of *stories* in there. There are many characters in the series, many plots running here and there, doubling back or halting at varying times.

That may just be the nature of a series which has, for its main character, an embodiment of Dream. For what are dreams but stories? And Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller who was supported by a lot of masterful artists, producing texts that are dizzying and not unlike the TARDIS—bigger on the inside than the outside.

With that caveat, here are 13 of my favorite Sandman stories. I’ve mostly chosen stand-alone story issues, and when I’ve chosen a large story arc I’ve chosen the volume rather than a single issue, so there’s somethings here that you can read even if you’ve Never Read Sandman (hint: Go read Sandman!). They’re more-or-less grouped by publication to make things easier.

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

Sandman covers by Dave McKean. Collage discovered at The Book Wars

1. Issue 8, “The Sound of Her Wings.”
This is very early in the series, and it’s where everything began to fall into place, I think. We’re introduced to Death, here, and she’s somehow more cheerful than Dream. She’s beautiful, and she’s comforting–but she’s also a bit spooky.

2. Issue 18, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats.”
This one is just really quite fun. Murdery fun, in that same way that cats always seem to be a step away from killing you but are too cute to do it. It’s part of the collected volume Dream Country, the third collection in the series–a of stories totally independent of the series’ overall narrative.

3. Issue 19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
In the same volume is this gem. Shakespeare made a deal with Dream: in exchange for inspiration, Shakespeare would write two plays for him. The first of these is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in Gaiman’s tale we see Shakespeare put on the play for an audience that includes Titania, Oberon, and Puck—it is a gift from Dream to Titania.

4. Issue 29, “Thermidor.”
This story is another in a volume of single-issues stories, Fables and Reflections, the sixth collection in the Sandman series. In this story, Lady Johanna Constantine saves the head of Orpheus and ends the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution in the process. It’s a dark tale, but a very good one.

5. Issue 31, “Three Septembers and a January.”
This is the mostly true story of a fellow named Joshua Abraham Norton, the only Emperor of the United States. Gaiman based the issue partially on Norton’s life. The story showcases the rivalry between Desire and Dream and, in doing so, underscores the damage that Destruction’s departure caused. It is also collected in Fables and Reflections.

6. Issue 38, “The Hunt.”
This is a sort-of folktale, also collected in Fables and Reflections. An old man tells his granddaughter a story that happened many, many years before. The story concerns a young man who decided to find the beautiful daughter of a Duke after obtaining her portrait and what happens on the way. This is a fascinating one, full of subtle underpinnings in both language and art.

7. Issue 50, “Ramadan.”
This is a tale that made my heart ache, it’s so beautiful. We’re in Baghdad, and the city is a glittering wonderland. The Caliph offers the city to Dream in exchange for its preservation; and like all deals with Dream, like all magic, in fact, there is a cost. “Ramadan” is a fantastic ending for Fables and Reflections.

8. Issue 55, “Cerements.”
This is the final of the tales told by travelers in World’s End, the 8th of the Sandman series. The collection is situated within a frame story–travelers have been driven into The World’s End: A Free House, one of the inns that provides shelter during reality storms. The story is told by Petrefax, who is from Litharge—a city of death that provides multi-cultural burial and death sacraments. His is a tale of tales—he relates three stories he heard during burial rites and rituals, and it works extremely well as a build-up to the final issues of Sandman.

9. Endless Nights, “The Heart of a Star.”
This is from an off-shoot of the original series, a book that Neil Gaiman and various artists collaborated on to write a story about each of the Endless. “The Heart of a Star” is Dream’s story; it is also one of the earliest stories in the Sandman universe. Dream is in love with a star, Killalla, who he brings with him to a meeting in the cosmos. The story takes place sometime just after the universe became habitable, and it allows us to see the beginning of Dream’s rivalry with Desire.

10. The Dream Hunters.
This volume is actually an addition, published three years after the original Sandman run. It is the tale of a Japanese monk and a fox spirit, and it is breath-taking.

11. The Doll’s House (Issues 9-16 collected)
This is the second volume in the series, and it’s where I think the story really begins to find its voice and presence. This collection is held together by Morpheus’s search for the dreams that left during his absence and his efforts to quell the dream vortex that threatens all of Dreaming.

12. A Game of You (Issues 32-37  collected)
Barbie is a divorced woman with a crumbling fantasy world. In the wake of the dream vortex, the Cuckoo is now threatening Barbie’s dream life. The Cuckoo is a monstrous creature, and her antics threaten to spill into reality. And although most people seem to like this one the least, I love it perhaps the most of all the collections.

13. Brief Lives (Issues 41-49 collected)
This is one of my favorites of the collections. It features Delirium on the page more than any other story, and she’s a personal favorite. This is also where we first meet Destruction, the prodigal brother who left the Endless. Delirium enlists Dream to help her search for Destruction, and the quest is both surprising and enlightening.