Reviews Rant

**kicking this out the door because it took too much of my night for me to not hit publish, despite it’s weird transformation from an intro to the ruin reviews category to a rant about how i don’t find reviews useful? ah well. got to promote some critiques i like.**

I understand there are individuals who spend much of their time writing masterful previews, and post them to their websites and other platforms online. Popular opinion tells me reviews are for the potential consumer. I agree with the statement, in spirit, but the reality is foggier than we care to admit.

Previews are shoveled copy, glorified copy, from people who received free copies or otherwise have a personal or professional connection to the author. (Wait ‘til he hears about blurbs!)

I can complain goodreads reviews suck, and you as a reviewer can – rightly – say what I’m reading is far from an actual review. But these are what’s available to me or the average person when we’re thinking over a purchase offline or online.

Popular opinion is that spoilers are bad. Again, I’ll agree with the spirit. Problem is: spoilers require context, or they’re not spoilers.

I can tell you a dog dies in I Am Legend, but that won’t prepare you for the gut punch. SpOiLeR wArNiNg it’s the best example of Shoot The Dog I’ve ever witnessed, and truth be told, I don’t care to see a better one because I’ll need those tears when a loved one eventually dies.

The proof is in the pudding, er, the proof is in the execution. *Something Happens* could only pique my interest. Relating to other media in other mediums can only demonstrate your eye for art.

Consider this a critique of reviews. I don’t like what I see and I have an idea about how to express my thoughts on the media I consume. It’s going to be amateur; It’s going to referential; It’s going to be what I wish I saw as the top review somewhere.

//

If you’ve read this far, yes, I understand I’ve complained about reviews like a big dumb. When the mood strikes I write playful ire directed at whatever. Reviews, or previews, are fine. They are a necessary evil and I deeply appreciate anyone who bothers to write one.

Obviously I prefer critique over reviews for purchase decisions and the post coital dysphoria-like feel after I finish a book/show/movie/game.

Here are three of my favorite critiques.

DigiBro – The Asterisk War
Explanation Point – Sword Art Online Abridged
Folding Ideas – Suicide Squad

Those blank 5⭐-putting people? I’m watching them with both eyes. Somethin’s wrong with them folk.

The Shack (2007) Highlights

Recently I’d done a review (sorta?) of The Shack by WM. Paul Young. If you’ve read that much larger post, you’d understand I have a lot of thoughts about the book, and thus highlights. The early chapters had many paragraph-long sweet spots. After chapter five these disappear, sadly.

Below will be examples of the good, the fun, and the bad.

The Good

I’ll applaud his thoughtful observation on snow day culture, because here in Ohio, we just ended the snowy season ourselves. The moral latitude he lays – don’t harm children – is one we should all agree with. Humbling yourself is a concept new to me. There’s a couple good reminders that responsibility is power and that it shouldn’t be abused. Topped of with a libertarian’s nightmare – no rules?

There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations, performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules. And unlike illness, it is largely a corporate rather than individual experience. One can almost hear a unified sign rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview. All those affected this way are united by a mutual excuse, and the heart is suddenly and unexpectedly a little giddy. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other. Everyone understands and shares in this singular justification, and the sudden alleviation of the pressure to produce makes the heart merry.

Even commonplace activities become extraordinary. Routine choices become adventures and are often experienced with a sense of heightened clarity.

It seemed that all who spoke, regardless of their point of view, were deeply affected by the situation. Something in the hearts of most human beings simply cannot abide pain inflicted on the innocent, especially children. Even broken men serving in the worst correctional facilities will often first take out their own rage on those who have caused suffering to children. Even in such a world of relative morality, causing harm to a child is still considered absolutely wrong.

You don’t play a game or color a picture with a child to show your superiority. Rather, you choose to limit yourself so as to facilitate and honor that relationship.

Relationships are never about power, and one way to avoid the will to hold power over another is to choose to limit yourself – to serve.

Lies are a little fortress; inside them, you can feel safe and powerful. Through your little fortress of lies you try to run your life and manipulate others. But the fortress needs walls, so you build some. These are just justifications for your lies. … Whatever works, just so you feel okay about the lies.

Paradigms power perception and perception power emotions. Most emotions are responses to perception – what you think is true about a given situation. If your perception is false, then your emotional response to it will be false too. So check your perceptions, and beyond that check the truthfulness if your paradigms – what you believe. Just because you believe something firmly doesn’t make it true. Be willing to reexamine what you believe. The more you live in the truth, the more your emotions will help you see clearly.

[Law] grants you the power to judge others and feel superior to them. You believe you are living to a higher standard than those you judge. Enforcing rules, especially in more subtle expressions like responsibility and expectation, is a vain attempt to create certainty out of uncertainty. … Rules cannot bring freedom; they have only the power to accuse.

The Fun

Every so often the The Shack likes to have a fun poke at itself. God “borrowing” a recipe from the main character’s dead relative and feeding it him is a strange mixture of levity and macabre. From left field, he focuses on something else which gave me a laugh.

And although I’ve never smoked, the stoner logic of “if anything is important then everything is important.” is not lost on me.

“It’s a recipe I borrowed from your own great-great-grandma. Made it from scratch too.” She grinned.

Mack wasn’t sure what “made it from scratch” might mean when God was saying it and decided to leave well enough alone.

If anything matters then everything matters. Because you are important, everything you do is important.

The Bad

Eye roll inducing; everything is all so very convenient. It’s a story, yes, but it doesn’t have to be a badly told one. These next sections ought to have been left out for having sewn the seeds of doubt in this/the reader by giving the main character metanarrative-sight far too late into the book. Kind of a mood killer.

“Obviously you know about my daughter’s fascination with waterfalls and especially the legend of the Multnomah princess.”

Papa [God] nodded.

“Is that what this is about? Did she have to die so you could change me?”

“Whoa there, Mack.” Papa leaned forward. “That’s not how I do things.”

“But she loved that story so much.”

“Of course she did. That’s how she came to appreciate what Jesus did for her and the whole race. Stories about a person willing to exchange his or her life for another’s are a golden thread in your world, revealing both your need and my heart.”

“But if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here right now…”

“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t even assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

“Actually that’s a relief. I couldn’t bear to think that my pain might have cut her life short.”

“… My love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” Papa [God] said with a wink. “I used your choices to work perfectly into my purposes. There are many folk like you… Who end up locking themselves into a very small place with a monster that will ultimately betray them, that will not fill or deliver what they thought it would. Imprisoned with such a terror, they once again have the opportunity to return to me.” …

“So you use pain to force people back to you?” It was obvious Mack didn’t approve.

Afterthoughts

These highlights weren’t necessarily intended to make you want to read the book yourself. There’s very little to find here. But what was, is gold.

The Shack (2007)

My initial impression “this must be a popular book.” was based on the number of blurbs on the back cover, the front cover, and the first three pages following the cover. And “THE #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER” along with “OVER 20 MILLION COPIES SOLD”. However, I suspected The Shack was not going to be a fun read.

Here’s the first paragraph of the back cover.

Mackenzie Allen Philips’s youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted during a family vacation and evidence that she may have been brutally murdered is found in an abandoned shack deep in the Oregon wilderness. Four years later, in the midst of his Great Sadness, Mack receives a suspicious note, apparently from God, inviting him back to that shack for a weekend.

Yes, while digging through the bins of my local Goodwill Outlet, that paragraph stuck out enough for me to buy. (One of four I bought that day.)

No, I didn’t enjoy the first five chapters of The Shack, but for a reason you may not expect: Mack’s The Great Sadness twisted my stomach, made me feel uneasy. It was such a deep hurt. His hollowness is the sort that artificially ages a soul by decades.

Perhaps because I didn’t pick this book off the shelf of a library or a bookshop I didn’t anticipate the harsh 90° turn into religious fantasy. I couldn’t help but feel “Oh, we’re doing this now? Oh-kay.”

And technically, I had the exact same reaction to the Children of the Corn (movie, 1984) when the corn slightly parted to allow Burt through. The transition from reality to a new reality was so much punchier.

In the context of a horror movie the juxtaposition of what’s happening and what ought be possible is the scare. The kind of environmental transformation in Chapter 4 – snow melting from grass in seconds and animals gathering – doesn’t happen in real life. I don’t think the writer considered this because of his own religiosity.

Even worse, if a few key events in The Shack were rearranged, you could pull a Final Fantasy 8-esque fan theory: Maybe after Mack slips in the driveway and cracks his head in Chapter 1?; Or maybe after the car crash on his way home from the shack in Chapter 17? Instead, he falls asleep. As it stands, The Shack is a religious fantasy with only a soft out, at best.

A weird criticism: there’s too much winking. I’m not going to go back and read it a second time to count, but if someone has a digital copy, could you get a count for me? On second thought, I’ll save you the time: Too many. That’s how many.

And it’s done by God, mostly. Usually to soften a verbal lash to Mack. Here’s an example. –

“… My love is a lot bigger than your stupidity.” Papa [God] said with a wink.

There’s tons of that! – Little stings to break up the dialogue. The length is ~78K words because God convinces Mack of every metaphor-ladden latitude first try. Given Mack’s attitude in the early chapters this a total surprise. He transforms from …

“So where are you? I thought you wanted to meet me here. Well, I’m here, God. And you? You’re nowhere to be found! You’ve never been around when I’ve needed you – not when I was a little boy, not when I lost Missy. Not now! Some ‘Papa’ you are.”

… To …

Mack settled back in his chair, surveying the view from the porch. “I feel so full!”

[Says God:] “Well, you’ve eaten most of the scones.”

“That’s not what I meant.” He laughed. “And you know it. The world just looks a thousand times brighter and I feel a thousand times lighter.”

… And I can tell you after reading, yes, this character change is as jarring as it reads.

Stranger still, that second passage is before God leads Mack to Missy’s hidden grave and berates him into forgiving his child’s murderer. Unconditional love wins out against homicide of your loved ones? – another weird turn I wasn’t sure belonged. I was afraid in that moment: “Is Mack not going to lead the police to the grave when he gets back to reality?” (He does.)

Ooooo, but there’s a hidden spice throughout the story. Did the writer truly intend to give Mack these sick fourth wall knocks? They ought to have been deleted, because immediately after my eyeballs crossed them I was skeptical of everything God said for a couple pages each time.

“But if she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here right now…”

“Mack, just because I work incredible good out of unspeakable tragedies doesn’t mean I orchestrate the tragedies. Don’t even assume that my using something means I caused it or that I needed it to accomplish my purposes. That will only lead you to false notions about me. Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

“Actually that’s a relief. I couldn’t bear to think that my pain might have cut her life short.”

Brief aside – Did you know you can break a hammer with a nail? Tempered steel tools are great because you can hit things really hard provided there’s a wide surface area. The head of a nail works great with this. However, if you smash the tip of the nail, the head of the hammer could explode because the force is concentrated in such little area.

Mack was so on point he smashes the hammer. It stunned me. Because, yes, in terms of meta-narrative, “… If she hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here right now…” is, yeah, that’s why you’re here at all. I think you’re supposed to leave the snark in the drafts? (He says without a trace of self-awareness.)

Once Mack gets to the shack, dialogue takes over and we don’t get many of his thoughts without the omniscient God 1 (capital-G God or “Papa”), God 2 (Jesus), or God 3 (Holy Spirit) stepping in. In short bursts early on there are entire paragraphs of quality observation. Below is an example.

There is something joyful about storms that interrupt routine. Snow or freezing rain suddenly releases you from expectations, performance demands, and the tyranny of appointments and schedules. And unlike illness, it is largely a corporate rather than individual experience. One can almost hear a unified sign rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview. All those affected this way are united by a mutual excuse, and the heart is suddenly and unexpectedly a little giddy. There will be no apologies needed for not showing up to some commitment or other. Everyone understands and shares in this singular justification, and the sudden alleviation of the pressure to produce makes the heart merry.

Even commonplace activities become extraordinary. Routine choices become adventures and are often experienced with a sense of heightened clarity.

I want the entire book to sing to me in this way. But alack and alas, it’s not so.

(If you want more good/fun/bad examples, read this post.)

Several hours into the book there are two almost twist endings that I did not appreciate. After the Dragon Ball Z hyperbolic time chamber style nap, Mack is on his way home. He is brutally t-boned by a drunk driver running a red light.

If the book were formatted better (i.e. having employed a masterful blank page so I wouldn’t know the outcome immediately?) perhaps this would have been heart-stopping? But it wasn’t, and I was annoyed the character was almost assassinated after a weekend with God.

The second almost twist, he wakes up, and fears he has lost his memory. Of course he was fine after a couple days in the hospital. But don’t fuck with me like that! He alone had been gifted, if nothing else, the whereabouts of his daughter’s grave.

Pardon me if I’m overreaching in my critique, but there is no justification for a double tragedy fake-out in this book. In fact, The Shack will be going on my list of Stop at Episode X for this stunt. Read until the end of Chapter 5 and close the book.

Dammit, I was hooked by the premise; I wanted God’s conversation with Mack to be the how’s and why’s of his daughter’s murder to end The Great Sadness. A poor example of a Come To Jesus Moment was not on the itinerary.

The Shack gave me plenty of questions to ask myself to discover more about my lack of religiosity, but the book’s conclusions were in no way any help. All of this writing and most of my pondering was done after the book was closed.

And as I close the book I notice the ladybug on the front cover has two dots on it’s wings, not five.