Friday, December 31, 2010

An End Of the Year Love Letter

obligatory lolcat

To say au revoir to 2010, I decided some authors who made my year worthwhile deserved a shout-out. 

Jim Northrup--You had me at "Microsoft blue sky" and "Wisconsin nice."  You rock!

Simone Elkeles--I love your style of romance and how you bring what could be stock characters and situations to life.

Konstantinos Staikos--The Great Libraries may be the greatest book ever. OMG, I love you for writing this.

Leanna Renee Hieber--How could I not love someone who puts Snape, ghosts, and Persephone into her novels?  I couldn't. Not, that is.

Kelly McNees--Please keep writing books!  The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott brightened my entire April.

Paula Marantz Cohen--Combining art, literature, and Jack the Ripper into a totally atmospheric and readable book?  I didn't think it could be done but you did it and gave me a whole new perspective on Henry James.

Kelly Creagh--Thanks for writing an atmospheric, Gothic romance perfect for reading on crisp fall days.

Dick Francis--You're the greatest!

Karen Marie Moning--What would life be like without Barrons?  I don't even want to imagine.

Chloe Neill--Still haven't gotten over the whole Ethan thing, but I'm sure I'll forgive you eventually.  Maybe.

And to all my readers, thank you for helping to make this blog what it is today, for all your book recommendations, for reading with me and chatting with me.  Have a great 2011!

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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Kelly Creagh Interview

kelly creagh

Today I'm very pleased to have Kelly Creagh, author of Nevermore, stop by for an interview.  Nevermore was one of my favorite books of 2010, so I was happy when Kelly took some time out of her super-busy schedule to answer a few questions I had about the book.

1.      Varen is such a great character! Did you base him off anyone (Severus Snape, for example ;)?
Varen was and is a blast to write. He’s so complicated and conflicted. I didn’t base him off of Snape, per se. Since Snape is one of my all time favorite characters, he may very well have had an influence on my writing but I didn’t set out to create a character like Snape. Actually, Varen was loosely inspired by a real person I knew who always wrote in purple ink.

2.      Nevermore is an incredibly visual book.  Were you inspired by anime or comic books when you were creating the "look" of the novel?
I was mostly inspired by my own memories of high school as well as my current surroundings. Nevermore is based in a semi-fictional Louisville, though the city is never mentioned by name. Trenton is based off of my own high school and Varen’s neighborhood is based directly on Old Louisville, which is one of the nation’s largest preservation districts. Another huge influence was the imagery in Poe’s works, especially in The Masque of the Red Death and his poems Dream-Land and Ulalume. I took as much as I could from Poe’s works when constructing the dream-world aspects of the novel. This includes the characters found in this realm, like the Nocs and even Reynolds.

3.      It's pretty unusual to have a heroine who isn't bookish in YA novels.  Were you worried about readers being able to connect with a character who didn't read?
I didn’t worry about that at all, really. I was just writing about the person who was in my head. In many ways, Isobel led the way in the story and Varen too. I always know I’m doing something right when the characters take over and it begins to feel as though I’m taking dictation rather than composing. I think that even though Isobel isn’t the biggest fan of literature, she is still relatable to avid readers and reluctant readers alike. It was actually very fun to create a main character who was popular, coordinated, spunky and a little different than your normal YA heroine. When I began writing Nevermore, I didn’t know much about cheerleading at all but I knew that Isobel loved to cheer and I knew that it was one of the most important things in the world to her. So that meant I had to go out and learn everything I could about cheering. This included sitting in on a practice session. I also watched documentaries on cheering and read coaching manuals. I was never the athletic type in school but it has gotten to the point where I’m such a cheerleading fan. It’s such an intense sport and it takes so much energy, resilience and bravery—which are all of the qualities I could hope for in any heroine!
creagh quote

4.      Why do you think Edgar Allen Poe and his work is so appealing, even after more than a hundred years?
I think Edgar Allan Poe remains so popular because of the nature of his work. So much of what Poe wrote about focuses on what happens after we die. This is unknown territory that will never ever cease to be intriguing. Poe’s brand of horror is more about the mind and less about gore and shock. That’s not to say that he hasn’t mixed in his own fair share of slashing axe-through-the-brain terror. But bloodshed in Poe’s works is never gratuitous. And really, what turns out to be so unsettling about his stories is the psychology behind the mayhem.

5.      Where are we likely to see Cemetery Sighs on tour? ;)
Right now the band is enjoying the success of their hit single, Emily Not, Not Gone, which you can download from my “Extras” page. Stay tuned to my website and blog for any updates about their music, appearances and future albums.

6.      What would you say the theme of Nevermore is?  Are the other books in the series going to have the same theme?
I never set out to write a novel with a specific theme in mind. If I had to pinpoint the theme of Nevermore, I would say that it has a lot to do with acceptance of differences and also not judging things on face value alone.  The theme of the sequel will be different. The story gets much darker.
creagh quote 2

7.      Reynolds is supposed to visit Poe's grave one day every year.  Have you tried to catch him in the act?
The Poe Toaster is a real person who visits Poe’s grave every year on Poe’s birthday. “Reynolds” is the name Poe was calling out just before he died. As far as I know, I am the first author to connect the two into one character. And I have seen the person known as the Poe Toaster! In January 2009, I went to Baltimore with a few of my friends to witness the rite and I was lucky enough to catch a quick glimpse of the toaster. In January 2010, the toaster did not appear at Poe’s grave. It has been the only time he has failed to show in the 60 years the ritual has been documented. I can only hope that he will return in 2011! Be sure to google him on January 19th to see if he came!

8.      Will there be any new characters in the next book?
Yes. But that’s all I’m willing to say!

9.      Will Varen ever graduate from high school?
;) I can’t answer that one without giving too much away.
creagh quote 3

10.     Are there any plans to adapt Nevermore into another medium--graphic novels, TV, movies?
Wouldn’t that be awesome? I have to admit, I would LOVE to see Nevermore adapted to film. Whenever I write, the stories in my head play out like movies in my mind's-eye. So I think it’s only natural to want to see how it would really appear on the big screen. Not only that, but how cool would it be to watch the Nocs come to life?
Right now, there is no movie or graphic novel adaptation planned. Perhaps sometime soon, though!

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

flutterby swords cover

Tang dynasty.  Princess Ai Li runs away from her soon-to-be husband after learning he's a traitor.  But how will she get back to her family when her fiance, Li Tao, controls the entire province with his huge army?  That's where Ryam the Barbarian comes in.

The setting for this book is extremely unusual for a romance novel.  Most are set in nineteenth-century London; this is set in eighth-century China.  Eighth-century freaking CHINA!!!  I should have been geeking out with the awesomeness of it all, but it felt disappointingly un-exotic, and that was really my biggest problem with the book.  In every respect other than the setting, this is your typical romance novel.  And honestly, if you switched the setting around to, say, medieval Europe, it would be almost exactly the same book.

Ryam and Ai Li meet at a lonesome inn.  He's starving and alone, and trying to make it back to his comrades who may or may not be hanging out in "the desert region."  Ai Li shows the scary ghost barbarian a kindness by sharing her rice with him; a few paragraphs later, Ryam rescues Ai Li from some of Li Tao's troops.  Trust!  Love!  Solidarity!  Ai Li convinces Ryam to help her trek across empire to Changan, the capital, where her family lives.  Throw in a stint of sword practicing and suddenly they're crawling all over each other.  But Ryam worries that Ai Li's powerful father will ever accept a poor soldier such as himself for a son-in-law.

The story itself was okay.  Ryam is some sort of Goth, I'm guessing, although his origins are never spelled out.  Nor are we ever given a good explanation as to how and why Ai Li can speak his language.  What language exactly are they speaking?  Latin?  And why in the world would a Tang princess educate herself on how to speak a barbarian language?  I'm sure she'll need that for her future as dutiful wife number one.

I think my enjoyment of this novel was colored by the fact that I'm a huge Jade Lee fan.  She's the only other author I know of who writes romances set in China, and her books make me feel like I'm actually in China.  Her Chinese and European characters have a whole cultural history working through their backgrounds that they have to reconcile, and it makes their relationships feel very authentic.  With Butterfly Swords, I wasn't even sure where Ryam was from, let alone got a sense of his cultural background and how that differed from Ai Li's.  The two characters did have chemistry, but I found myself wondering why Lin made Ryam "European" when a Chinese character would have done just as well and probably would have made more sense.

This novel was okay, but took way more time to read than the story warranted.  Maybe Jeannie Lin will improve as she writes more, but for right now I'd rather just re-read something by Jade Lee.

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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Inception Movie Review

ZOMG you guys, did you know labyrinths are like one of my personal symbols?  And that the first paper I got published was about labyrinths???  Well, it's true.  I love labyrinths.  Also, I know way too much about them.  So imagine my unholy delight when I watched Inception, which is really all about labyrinths.

Leonardo di Caprio, aka Cobb, is a freelance thief who steals secrets from people's dreams.  One day he and his partner, the rockin Joseph Gordon-Levitt, are hired by a Japanese businessman named Saito--not to steal an idea out of someone's head, but to implant it.  This is much more complicated than what they usually do, so they have to take their subject into a dream within a dream within a dream, and eventually even beyond dreams.

Sound confusing?  It is.  Let's focus on something that makes sense:  the dream worlds are based on labyrinths.  The first clue that this is the case is the name of Ellen Page's character, Ariadne.  In the labyrinth myth, Ariadne is the daughter of King Midas, and one of the few people who know the secret of the labyrinth Midas created as a prison for her half-brother, the Minotaur.  Theseus was sent to Crete to be food for the Minotaur; but fortunately, Ariadne fell in love with him and taught him the dance of life and death that would carry him to the center of the labyrinth.  She also gave him a gold ball of thread and a ball of pitch.  The pitch Theseus threw into the Minotaur's mouth to keep the monster from chomping bits out of him; the twine he used to guide himself out of the labyrinth, like Hansel and Gretel following breadcrumbs.  Theseus then grabbed Ariadne and sailed for home, but abandoned her on a deserted island for reasons unknown.  Once he reached his home port, Theseus immediately started partying, drinking, and teaching all his friends the labyrinth dance; meanwhile, his father was committing suicide, in despair because he believed Theseus dead.  You see, Theseus forgot to switch his ship's sails from black to white to signal his success before he ported on Delos.

At first, it seems obvious that Ariadne the character is Ariadne, the mythical figure, and Cobb is Theseus.  But is this really the case?  It's interesting that Ellen Page's character is the architect of the dream worlds, the one who designs them.  In the myth and creation of labyrinths, the architect is unique and celebrated--the Cretan labyrinth, for example, was designed by Daedalus (the same inventor who created the wax wings), and was heralded as a work of artistic genius.  Of the four ancient labyrinths written about by Pliny the Elder, three of them have known, celebrated architects.  Even though Ariadne can navigate the labyrinth, she can't see it in its entirety--that privilege is reserved for the architect and one other--the king who orders its construction.

I think the answer in regards to whether Ellen Page is that Ariadne or not is that she is, but she also isn't.  And Cobb is Theseus, but also not.  That's because there are two labyrinths, two architects, and two Theseuses.  The first Theseus is Fischer, Jr., the person whom Cobb is supposed to be implanting with an idea.  His Minotaur is his father, and the king in this case is Saito (the golden room at the heart of his dream world suggests an association with King Midas, and the dream worlds are built at his order).  But there's another labyrinth within Fischer, Jr.'s labyrinth, this one created by Cobb.  His Minotaur and Ariadne are both his wife, Mal (considering that in French mal means evil, it's interesting Cobb's French wife allows this nickname).  The first time Cobb traveled into the heart of his labyrinth, called Limbo in the movie, Mal was his Adriadne, holding a spinning top representing the spinning dance of the labyrinth.  The second time, Ellen Page his Cobb's Ariadne, and Mal is the scary Minotaur he has to face; but just as Theseus abandons Ariadne before he returns home, Cobb abandons Mal before he wakes from the dream world.

Finally, Cobb is Theseus because he travels into Limbo to rescue Saito and Fischer.  In the French Gothic cathedral labyrinths like the one at Chartres, the cannons of the church would reenact a dance every Easter of Christ's Harrowing of Hell, in which He traveled to the center of the labyrinth to rescue the souls of the Old Testament prophets from Limbo, and led them out of the labyrinth and into heaven. 

What does this all mean for the cliff-hanger ending of the film, where the top continues to spin, leaving us uncertain about whether or not Cobb has escaped Limbo?  Significant to the scene is the presence of Professor Miles, played by Michael Caine, because just as there are two Theseuses and two Ariadnes, there are two kings.  Saito is the first and the Professor, Mal's father, is obviously the second.  In an interview Caine stated, "If I'm there it's real, because I'm never in the dream. I'm the guy who invented the dream," just as King Midas invented the labyrinth. 

But if Cobb is out of Limbo, why does the top keep spinning?  If the spinning top represents the spinning labyrinth dance that Ariadne taught to Theseus, then one can imagine that the dance is continuing to be performed, even once Cobb is out of Limbo.  Like Theseus' father, the viewer waits for a definite sign that Cobb has made it out of the labyrinth alive; and, deprived of that signal, we fear he is forever lost.  But the dance of the labyrinth is the dance of life and death; and now that Cobb has conquered his Minotaur and abandoned Mal, he is not either/or, but both.

Obviously you don't need to know all this useful (read sarcastically) information to enjoy the movie--it tells an excellent, suspenseful story all on its own.  But the filmmakers also have clearly done a lot of research into labyrinths and layered their meanings, symbols, and myths into the film in a very interesting way.  If you haven't seen Inception yet, I highly recommend it!

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Favorite Not-Holiday Movies

la confidential still

Like most people, I enjoy watching particular movies during the holidays.  Unlike most people, however, I've never watched holiday movies during the holidays.  I didn't even realize this until one year when my friend and I were talking about holiday movies (my friend was a film major so movies were our main topic of conversation).  She asked me what my favorite holiday film was and I replied, "Probably LA Confidential." 

My friend: "What?  LA Confidential isn't a holiday movie."

Me: "Part of it takes place during Christmas and it was released at Christmas.  Isn't that enough?"

APPARENTLY NOT.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, there are actually films whose whole plots center around the holidays.  Considering I didn't even know what A Christmas Story was until my 20's, and still have yet to see It's a Wonderful Life in its entirety, it's probably not much of a surprise that I was clueless about that. 

Huh.  Well, whatever.  I do have my "holiday" movies--even if some people might not consider them holiday movies per se--that I like to watch to cheer me up.

The Movies:
  1. LA Confidential--Nothing like a little murder, prostitution, and shoot-outs to put a person in the holiday spirit!  Seriously, I think this might be the best holiday movie ever.  Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce are enough to put anyone in a cheery mood.
  2. Kate & Leopold--This is a very charming movie that gives me the warm fuzzies.  Why can't men like Leopold actually exist?  Why?!?  Also, I'm a huge Liev Schreiber fan just because of this film, and Hugh Jackman is arguably the sexiest man alive right now.
  3. Harry Potter--I kind of go into Harry Potter glomania during the holidays.  I read the books, I watch the movies... I seriously consider buying a DA t-shirt or a snitch necklace.  And again, there are Christmas scenes in the movies, so why aren't these considered "holiday" movies??  Honestly, these rules make no sense.
  4. Little Women--The only scenes I ever remember from this film involve snow, food, and singing, so CLEARLY it must be a holiday movie, amirite?
  5. A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All--Okay, that thing about me not liking any holiday movies was a lie.  I actually do like A Colbert Christmas.  I like it so much I watch it even when it's not Christmas.
I guess the point of all this is *ensue heart-warming wrap-up* that what really matters when it comes to Christmas movies is how they make you feel.  If a movie makes you feel cheerier, kinder, and better about the world in general, then it can legitimately be called a holiday movie!

Do you have any non-holiday movies you like to watch during Christmas and New Year's, or are you a straight-up holiday movie person?

And before I forget...

Merry Christmas!

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Perfect Novel

woman reading by kuniyoshi

Does aesthetic perfection exist in the modern world?  Does it matter?

When I read a book--or watch a movie or TV show, for that matter--I'm looking for perfection.  I've always looked for it, ever since I was a kid, in both my work and others'.  Obviously perfection is very rarely achieved, which is why I give out so few 5-star reviews, even when I like a book.  But what does it mean to be perfect?

To most people, perfection in the arts is an abstract concept, something unattainable and unquantifiable.  But some cultures have very definitive ideas of what perfection is, and do nothing but try to achieve it.  The Greeks, for example, literally formulated perfection in music and made it illegal to play anything but "perfect" musical harmonies in public.  They also applied perfect proportions to the human body and architecture that became so endemic in Western art that they're used constantly without anyone thinking about them or guessing at their source.

According to Aristotle, who gave the oldest known definition, perfection means either total completeness, being the best of its kind, or something that has achieved its purpose.  For example, a circle is the perfect form because it's complete within itself--that's why heaven is often depicted as a circular form in medieval and Renaissance art.  Or a steampunk novel could be perfect if it's the best of its genre. 

Perfection is also a paradox, because it doesn't only mean perfection as such, but is often confused with excellence and carries connotations of beauty and grace.  Since the Renaissance, philosophers like Vanini have argued that the greatest perfection is imperfection.  If something is complete, it can't be improved upon; but if a work of art is incomplete, it invites the viewer or reader to fill in the blanks by using their imagination, making the viewer a part of the piece.  It is also invites progress, which is imperative for the development of technology.  Personally, I agree with Vanini--some of the best books I've ever read are ones that didn't give me all the answers.  And I enjoy it when a good author takes ambitious chances with a story, even if the results are imperfect.

Considering their interest in Classical art and philosophy, it's no surprise that Renaissance artists like Vasari and Alberti, and humanist philosophers like Petrarch, developed an interest in achieving aesthetic perfection.  They set forth values with which to judge perfection in the arts and distinguish it from mere excellence.  A perfect work is judged as a whole work, not a just a part, and is a conjunction of many elements.  It requires not only talent but skill to create, and shouldn't be the sole value by which the piece is evaluated.

For myself, I would also add balance.  I don't necessarily agree with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away, but that the more elements are in a work, the more balance they require.  It's easier to achieve perfection with simpler forms because there's less to harmonize.

What is your definition of perfection?  Do you believe perfection is something writers and artists should strive for?

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Return to Paradise by Simone Elkeles

return to paradise cover

When last we saw Caleb Becker, he had just gotten out of a year in juvenile detention for hitting his sister's best friend with a car while driving drunk.  Returning to Paradise, Illinoise, he discovered his mom was addicted to prescription meds, his sister was emo (the horror), and the girl he'd run over--well, he was kinda into her.  But then Caleb decided he'd had it with his hometown and--extended metaphor alert!!!--exiled himself from Paradise.

Now the boy with the black fire tattoo is back.  Only, wait--no he's not.  He just has to go through a summer program to scare teens into not drinking and driving, which doesn't take place in Paradise.  But lo! The girl he hit with his car, Maggie, is in the program, too!  What an amazing coincidence.  God must really want these two people to be together.

This book is the follow-up to Leaving Paradise, which I liked but had some problems with.  Take those problems and magnify them times what-the-heck-is-going-on-here, and you have this novel.  It was all just a little too convenient--Caleb just happens to run into Maggie in the program, he just happens to return to juvie, where he just happens to talk to his old cell mate, who just HAPPENS to have valuable words of wisdom, and on and on.  Furthermore, the story doesn't really have any sort of narrative arc--it feels like it hits the restart button several times, and doesn't have a climax at all.  Instead, it meanders episodically and little repetitively.

The main characters, Caleb and Maggie, were difficult for me to connect with and their voices weren't very distinct.  Elkeles' style is to have one chapter told from the heroine's perspective and one from the hero's, alternating through the whole book.  Usually the characters are each very unique and it's easy to tell them apart, but here I had to remind myself who was "talking" a few times.  The motivation behind their actions was never very clear, but it got worse in the second half.  For example, they are both super-understanding with their parents, who act insane; but when it comes to being tolerant and communicative with each other, Caleb and Maggie do a major fail whale.  But hey, if they actually talked, the book would be, what, fifty pages?

I did like the supporting characters in the novel, such as Lenny, Trish, and Julio; and in fact I wish that the book had been about them instead of Caleb and Maggie.  Even though it's called Return to Paradise, Caleb doesn't actually return to Paradise until the novel is over half-over!  By then I reeeeeally felt like the book should be wrapping up, not just starting to get to the point.

I also feel like Elkeles' novels are becoming a little formulaic (you're shocked by this development, I'm sure).  Caleb is essentially the same, doesn't-feel-like-he-can-do-any-good bad boy that we saw with Alex in Perfect Chemistry and Carlos in Rules of Attraction.  And the wet kissing scenes are getting to eye-roll level now--honestly, what if Spiderman kissed Mary Jane upside down in every. single. movie?  It would be ridiculous!

I'm not saying I'm giving up on Elkeles, but this book did not work for me.  It felt very manufactured and thrown together.  Hopefully that won't be the case with wet kissing scene number three--I mean, Chain Reaction.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Disgust & Desire, Pride & Prejudice

Lizzie and Darcy
A few days ago, Jessica from Read React Review had a great post on the philosophy of sexual desire.  In one part of the post, she talks about how sexual desire is dependent upon revulsion and disgust.  To share a quote Jessica had in her post:
[S]exual desire depends on the idea of a prohibited domain of the disgusting. A person’s tongue in your mouth could be experienced as a pleasure or as a most repulsive and nauseating intrusion depending on the state of relations that exist or are being negotiated between you and the person. But someone else’s tongue in your mouth can be a sign of intimacy because it can also be a disgusting assault.1
As Jessica pointed out, you see this played out metaphorically a lot in romance novels.  But I would say it's really exemplified best in Pride & Prejudice, which is arguably the source for at least half of the romantic fiction plots ever written.  I'm not referring only to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy--their initial dislike for one another that eventually turns into admiration and (spoiler alert! Seriously, will you read the book already?) love has become a trope of literary romances--that's obvious.  But take, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett.  Mr. Bennett supposedly can't stand his wife, yet he somehow managed to father five children with her?  HMM.  Or Charlotte and Mr. Collins, who seem to develop a relationship of mutual disgust fairly quickly.  Or do they?  Certainly Charlotte is attracted to Collins for the freedom from her parents he represents, if nothing else.  Happiness in marriage may be entirely a matter of chance, as Charlotte proclaimed, but the major sexual relationships in the book appear to rely on a balance of attraction and repulsion, both on the part of the characters and the reader's impression of them.

Interestingly, I don't believe this dichotomy is present in Austen's other novels, definitely not to the degree of Pride & Prejudice.  Marianne may eventually become disgusted with Willoughby, but they don't wind up together.  Neither Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, or Anne from Persuasion, or Emma Woodhouse ever seem to work up more than annoyance for their various romantic other halfs.

Is the push-and-pull of revulsion and attraction what makes Pride & Prejudice Austen's most famous novel?  I do think that it helps make the relationships seem more "real" to the reader.  It's really surprising to me (though I don't know why) that Austen was able to intuit that dynamic and integrate it so seamlessly into the plot of her novel.

Can you think of any other Austen relationships that have a digust/desire component?  Are there any writers who can beat Austen at her own game?

1William Ian Miller, An Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.137.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Ass Hat Says Popular Authors Are Terrible Writers

ass hole

Scibbles McPenname, whose work of stunning literary genius was publised eight years ago and bought by four people--not including his mother--says that the work of uber-popular authors like Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown is utter crap.  Scribbles sites an excessive use of commas and genre tropes in the calling out of these paperback superstars.  When asked which authors he does admire, he brought up several dead people and his old college professor.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

Richard Hannay is in London and BORED.  As we all know, that's a sign the shit's about to go down, and it does:  a spy breaks into his flat and tells him some far-fetched story about a plot to kill a major political figure and start a world war.  At first Hannay's like, "Crazy dude is crazy!  But I'll keep him around because he amuses me."  After a while, however, he starts to think maybe there's something to what the spy says.  One afternoon he comes back to his flat and finds the spy dead, and then he's sure the spy was right.  Thanks to some clues, Hannay heads to Scotland with the evol Germans and the police both on his trail.

This is a great, very quick (if you're not writing a gazillion papers *cough*), entertaining read.  The political machinations and assassination plot are utterly nonsensical, but it doesn't matter in the least because that's the MacGuffin.  All one really cares about is following Hannay on his adventures through Scotland and watching as he outwits everyone.  It's easy to see why Hitchcock adapted this book to film twice--it's suspenseful, fast-paced, full of great landscape, and thoroughly enjoyable.

And Hannay is really the linchpin of the story--appropriately, since he is the narrator as well as the hero.  He's an outsider in the UK, coming from south Africa, but so incredibly smart and quick-thinking that one would probably never even notice.  Yet I think his status as an outsider is a major element of his character: it makes him a liminal figure, able to travel between poor cottages to wealthy drawing rooms with ease.  More than ease, actually--he doesn't seem in any way constrained by a sense of class or self-identity pertinent to the surroundings that would make him hesitate to take on a role or depend on someone's good grace. 

If you watched the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of this and enjoyed it, you have to read the book--it is soooo much better.  And to sweeten the deal, it's free from Project Gutenberg.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A Christmas Carroll by Leanna Renee Hieber

midwinter fantasy cover

In which the author Leanna Renee Hieber endeavors, in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put her readers out of humour....

When we last left The Guard--a group of seven people who keep the "Whisper-world" and "real world" separated--in The Darkly Luminous Fight for Persephone Parker, everyone had lost their powers but was happily paired up--even Michael and Rebecca.  But how?  Why?  A Christmas Carroll explains exactly that.

I have to admit I came into this story with two major biases:  one, I never liked Rebecca that much.  I was totally okay with her being pathetically in love with Professor Alexi forever.  And two, even if she did fall in love with someone else, I couldn't see it being with Michael.  Alexi is the leader of The Guard; Elijah is the class clown; and Michael is just... the nice guy.  Nice. Safe. Boring.  Could someone who had carried a hopeless torch for Alexi for nearly her entire life really ever be attracted to someone like Michael?  I was doubtful.

Hieber, however, managed it.  She convinced me Michael was romantic hero material and that he and Rebecca belonged together in one hundred pages, and she did it in a way I never would have expected.  Á la Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Rebecca and Michael are taken on journeys into their respective pasts by their recently deceased friend and colleague, Jane.  Along the way they have a chance to repair the past and start anew in the present.

This isn't a perfect book--for about the first half I felt like I kept waiting for the story to start, and the conclusion was so sweet I thought I might have gotten a cavity--but it succeeds in its central purpose.  And I continue to be impressed by Hieber's writing.  Michael and Rebecca spend very little time together in the course of the narrative, which seems antithetical to a romance; but Hieber uses it as a creative way to bring them together. 

She's also writing much more lyrical prose than I recall from her earlier workTake the first sentence from the prologue, for example:  "Three spirits murmured to each other, standing in the luminous Liminal that separated the waiting Whisper-world from the dazzling, drawing light of the Great Beyond."  That's a lot of alliteration!  The entire story isn't that heavily poetical, but it does set the tone for the rest of the narrative.  Hieber is clearly expanding her repertoire on how to tell a story, not just what to tell, and overall I found it very effective.

I would definitely recommend this novella to anyone who likes the Percy Parker books, and am looking forward to seeing what the author does with her next novel!  Thank you so much to Hieber for sending me a galley copy of this anthology to read.

And if this review has confused the heck out of you, I suggest you pick up The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy ParkerImmediately.

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Fragment Friday: A Christmas Carroll

Fragment Friday is a weekly meme hosted at Book Chic, where you read an excerpt from either your current read or one of your favorite books and post it on your blog to share with others! It's a fun way to learn about new books or to hear a sample from a book you're dying to read.  Go to Book Chic to post your own fragment!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Movie Review

Girl with the dragon tattoo poster

After watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I think I'm beginning see the appeal of the novel (which I haven't read).  It has everything you could possibly want in a thriller--a down-on-his-luck reporter.  Femme fatales.  Nazis!  Reclusive millionaires!  Serial killers!  Creepy portraits of beautiful women á la Laura!  Deviant sexual behavior!  And a happy ending.

Mikael Blomkvist is the last true investigative reporter in the world, but tangles with a corrupt corporation that's too big for him and winds up losing all journalistic creditability, not to mention receiving a prison sentence for libel.  Depressed and unemployed, he accepts a sketchy job on a remote island, searching for the killer of a girl who disappeared over 40 years ago.  Meanwhile, a Goth with amazing research skillz, Lisbeth Salander, is obsessed with Blomkvist and winds up helping him catch the killer.  Did I say help?  This guy couldn't find a tree in a forest.

There's a lot of rape and abuse in the movie, and it is very disturbing, but weirdly the film doesn't wind up being depressing.  I think this is because of how the story is resolved--both of the women involved can and do fight against their attackers, and all the characters get their just reward in the dénouement.  It leaves one with the sense that no matter what terrible experiences one suffers in life, there's the possibility of moving forward and starting anew.  In that sense, the story is very cathartic.

The actor who plays Blomkvist, Michael Nyqvist, has a strange sort of Mulder-eque appeal.  Despite his pockmarked face and hairy beer gut, I could believe Lisbeth might sleep with him.  Maybe.  Although I never understood her obsession with him--perhaps she's intrigued by the fact that he's a completely honorable person.  When he wore metallic pants in the Australian Outback, though, it kind of threw me.  Honestly, dude, you sleep with a twenty-four-year-old and suddenly you think you're a rock star?  Reality check: no way.  Further reality check: metallic pants in the Outback are totally impractical.

Lisbeth, meanwhile, is totally kick-ass.  She literally does everything in this movie--if it wasn't for her, Blomkvist wouldn't have even gotten the job on the island, let alone everything that came afterward.  She's also the only original element of this story.  Without Lisbeth, the reporter, reclusive millionaire, and serial killer would seem pretty cheesy and predictable.  It's Lisbeth's character that mixes it up and makes it seem more authentic than it is.  I'm definitely interested in finding out what happens next with her character.

This is unequivocally a movie for adults only, but I don't think there's any reason not to watch it.  There are very graphic scenes, but I didn't feel as if they were gratuitous or glamorized what was happening.  And besides that, the film told a good story with excellent visuals from start to finish.  I definitely recommend watching it if you're at all interested.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Eat Pray Love Movie Review

eat pray love poster

Over Thanksgiving, I watched Eat Pray Love with my mom.  I'm not a huge fan of memoirs, so I never had any desire to read the book; but the movie has several cute guys in it, and who doesn't love Julia Roberts?

If you've been living under a rock for the past few years and have no idea what the book's about, it's the true story of Elizabeth Gilbert, who was in her early thirties and lived in New York with an awesome baker husband and a sweet writing career.  At the start of the movie, she meets a wrinkled medicine man who tells her she'll lose her husband and all her money, but come back to visit him in Bali, and regain her money.

After Gilbert returns to New York City, girlfriend starts freaking out.  I'm pretty sure she starts having a mid-life crisis, because all of a sudden she HATES her husband, who seems adorably devoted to her, and really her entire life.  So, she files for divorce.

But this doesn't help Gilbert feel better.  Before you can say, "Holy crap that play is awful and I really hope she's not the one who wrote it," Gilbert is hooking up with a rebound boy toy, an actor who stars in one of her plays.  If there's a better cure for the post-divorce blues than James Franco, he wasn't in this movie.  Yet STILL, Gilbert continues an emotional tailspin.  After much emoting to her best friend, she runs away to Italy, India, and Bali for a year.

Who hasn't wanted to run away from all the crap in their life?  God knows I have.  This difference between Gilbert and the rest of us, however, is that Gilbert actually did it.  With a generous advance from her publisher.

Before that, I thought the movie was a little pretentious.  After Gilbert headed off to Italy, it definitely improved, even though I still found it difficult to connect to Gilbert's character.  She seemed a little, how shall I say... self-involved?  Emotionally needy?  Honestly, if you want to find out what it's like to live without a boyfriend, that's a relatively easy problem to solve.  Trust me on this one.  I've never had a problem with eating food, either, so the whole thing in Italy with, "Let's congratulate ourselves for eating without counting calories!" kind of made me want to scratch her eyes out. 

Furthermore, Gilbert keeps meeting people with real problems--a man whose wife left him because of alcoholism, a teenage girl who is being forced to marry someone she doesn't like, a woman who is an outcast in society because she dared to divorce her husband who beat her--yet never seems to think to herself, "Hey, compared to these people I kind of seem like a childish crazy person who doesn't have any perspective or knows how to deal with a modern existential crisis and appreciate what she's got."  Which is weird, because that's what I kept thinking the entire time.

I also kept expecting her to hop into bed with every single man who crossed her path, but she didn't.  This was more confusing than anything else, because I thought that was her major problem to begin with?  But fear not, eventually Javier Bardem saves her with his excellent Brazilian accent.

This movie isn't terrible, although it is definitely a hard-core chick flick.  Travel stories are always fun.  I don't want to make too much fun of Gilbert (too late) because you never know, someday I might have a complete breakdown and go haring off to some foreign country, myself.  But I can't help feeling, because of the way the movie was framed, that none of this would have happened if the medicine man would have kept his mouth shut.  That, combined with the fact that there's not much explanation for Gilbert's mood once she returns to New York, made the whole thing feel like a phase. 

I didn't want to read the book before I saw the movie, and now I definitely don't.  But I can see the appeal of such a story to women of a certain age and class whose lives are filled with ennui.  No matter what motivated her to do it, Gilbert's travels are an adventure not just of place but of the heart, and no one can resist that.

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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Soundtrack for Our Dystopian Future

Arcade Fire is a band known for their complex production and thematic albums. 2007's Neon Bible was seen as a biting indictment of the Bush administration. Win Butler, the lead singer of Arcade Fire, said their latest album, The Suburbs, is a love letter from the 'burbs. But I see it more as dystopian YA literature gone musical.

Take, for example, the video for the title track, directed by Spike Jonze (above). The video features teenagers bumming around what seems like your typical, middle-class suburb (it was actually filmed in Austin, Texas), until empty houses and the puzzlingly strong presence of law enforcement hint that this isn't contemporary reality, and all is not well in this world. The lyrics support Jonze's interpretation, too: "When the bombs dropped we were already bored... Sometimes I can't believe it."

Track five, the catchy "Rococo," is almost universally thought to be about hipsters and how they really don't know what the hell is going on despite their painfully laid-back-and-ironic dress code. Yet if one reads it in reference to the art period Rococo--where the wealthy French aristocracy teetering on the brink of revolution commissioned playful paintings about love and sex--the song seems more of a warning against living in luxury while the world is torn apart around you, all because you can't be bothered to educate yourself beyond your own daily existence: "The modern kids... will eat right out of your hand/using great big words that they don't understand.... They seem wild/but they are so tame." Rococo (the word, not the song) is often interpreted to mean something along the lines of a decorative shell in French, and indeed the kids in Arcade Fire's "Rococo" are the vanguard of a culture that's nothing but a shell, with no life behind it with which to bring meaning or consequences to the kids' actions.

The interactive video for "We Used to Wait" takes the viewer to his or her hometown street and destroys it with a mushroom cloud-like accumulation of hundreds of trees, nature taking back a settled landscape. Both "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Upon Mountains)" talk about the death of wild places, dreams, and the imminent demise of their protagonists. Take this set of lyrics from "Half Light II":

Though we knew this day would come
Still it took us by surprise
In this town where I was born
I now see through a dead man's eyes

One day they will see it's long gone...

And, in the band's blog, the latest post contains a link to the Georgia Guidestones, a Stonehenge-esque monument inscribed with instructions, in several languages, on how to recreate civilization after the apocalypse (one quote from the Guidestones I just have share: "Prize Truth-Beauty-Love-" and books!?!).

I'm not a huge reader of dystopian YA, but I can see The Suburbs working as the soundtrack to Stephenie Meyers' The Host or The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Furthermore, Anaraug, who is very knowledgeable about such things, says that two of tracks reference William Gibson's Sprawl Anthology, which is a series of dystopian novels. But Arcade Fire's Suburbs talks about growing up in the suburbs even among its destruction, which gives the album a distinctly YA flavor of dystopia.

Do you know of any other bands or artists who have incorporated dystopian literature into their work?


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