Sunday, March 31, 2013

Young Adult Book Death Match

                                    Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)      The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)    Hearts at Stake (The Drake Chronicles, #1)

Because of an inordinate amount of stress and busyness in my life of late, I’ve been gravitating towards Young Adult fiction which when done well, is great for truly escaping into a story.  I’ve read three young adult books/series in the last couple months that have filled this escapist function quite well but with varying degrees of success and satisfaction.  Just for shits and giggles I thought I’d analyze the why of my differing reaction to the books – a contrast and compare if you will. 
The three books/series I’ll be discussing and my reviews are:

The Drake Chronicles by Alyxandra Harvey: Book 1, Book 2-6

These books fell out that I loved Seraphina, really liked The Drake Chronicles and liked The Diviners but with some serious reservations.  

In my opinion Seraphina brought everything to the table.  It is set in an interesting and developed world with a society that felt real despite the fact that many of the denizens were dragons in human form.   You could remove the fantastical elements and it would still work as a story but the inclusion of dragons and their very “other” natures, gave the book that something special and original.  The story was complex and interesting with the large-in-scope elements that will carry the series being balanced by the more focused and personal mystery at the heart of this book.  Despite being the first in the series the book never felt like set-up though it did a thorough job of introducing the world, the characters, and the major issues.  And it was a story that swept me away and engrossed my interest.  Probably most important to me were the extremely likeable, relatable, well developed protagonist and the rest of the cast which all provided their own unique characters to the puzzle of the story.  The book incorporated elements of multiple genres including fantasy, mystery and romance and above all it had a sense of humor.  It managed to have real drama and serious conflict while also being light-hearted and laugh out loud funny in parts.  Of the three this was the gold standard from which to compare the other two.  It was pretty close to perfect for the type of book it was.  

The Drake Chronicles was the second most enjoyable reading  experience but it could not have been more different than Seraphina.  If Seraphina was a 10 course meal served in a tastefully appointed candlelit dining room, the Drake Chronicles was a salad of spring greens with balsamic vinaigrette served on a plastic table at an outdoor cafĂ©; decidedly less formal and filling but still pleasant.  And also easy to gobble down quickly.  The Drake Chronicles primary strengths were its delightful, if less thoroughly developed, characters and it’s fast paced narrative splashed liberally with humor.  There were teenage humans and teenage vampires and a lot of snogging and preternatural romance and of course over-the-top plots which you don’t want to question too hard or they might crumble and confess all their shortcomings.  The difference between this series of books and other offerings (cough *Twilight*) was that these books had fun with it all and were peopled with characters that I would LOVE to hang out with.  All the women/girls were strong, independent, and could kick-ass and all the men loved them that way.  So while it’s easy to say that these books don’t have the “literary merit” that Seraphina has; they certainly don’t have the weight; I’m not sure the accomplishment is any less significant or impressive. 

Which brings me to The Diviners.  Like Seraphina, the Diviners combines elements from several genres and works to set up an ambitiously epic storyline that will be spooled out over a series of books.  But it doesn’t do so with quite the finesse that Seraphina does, primarily in balancing the requisite set-up that must be done with the story at the heart of this volume.  Like The Drake Chronicles it employs multiple character perspectives but it does so a little wildly, and it was therefore less effective and focused than the Drake Chronicles and not as personal and engaging as Seraphina which has a single narrator.  The real problem however is that, despite all the great things it does with story and mood, it has some of the most god-awful annoying characters I have ever encountered.  And even though we spend copious amounts of time in their company and in learning their back story, they never seem entirely real. So despite the fact that it is definitely a more sophisticated and weightier novel than any of the Drake Chronicles, I have the controversial opinion that The Drake's was the more enjoyable read.  Now I am notoriously (in my own mind:) picky about characters and am particularly critical of female characters, and being able to engage or relate with the characters is the single most crucial factor, 9 times out of ten, in determining how I feel about a book.  So the fact that I would love to hang with Lucy of the Drake Chronicles even though she’s a particularly obnoxious 16 year old and yet spending even three pages reading about Evie O’Neill made me wish that the big bad in The Diviners had succeeded in eating her, was the crux of how I ranked my enjoyment of these books.
So is there one particular element in a book that is make it or break it for you?  Anybody else out there who can be reduced to a ball of incandescent rage by a character in a novel especially when that is not the intention of the author?  Which brings up the writing craft of character development.  I don’t doubt for a second that if I tried to write a character they would be insipid and full of contradictions and generally horrifying, so I’m fascinated by how authors create their characters and if they know beforehand exactly how the character will come across?  Libba Bray obviously knows that Evie is selfish, arrogant, vain and obnoxious but she obviously still likes her because she made her the heroine.  Indeed many readers seem to have no problem liking and/or engaging with Evie.  So what makes my reaction (and a few other readers) so different?  I compare Evie to Lily Bart from House of Mirth who is also selfish, arrogant, and vain and yet I sympathized and related to her immensely while not entirely liking her.  What’s the difference?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Diviners by Libba Bray

The Diviners (The Diviners, #1)The Diviners by Libba Bray
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Listened to the audio version produced by Listening Library. Narration by January Lavoy.

This book had popped up several times on my radar of late; it looked like a lot of fun and was getting some good reviews. Plus I’ve been on a roll with good young adult books of late so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

The Diviners is a little bit epic. It’s a mish mash of genres, mostly falling under the speculative fiction label; it has a bit of horror, mystery, thriller, and historical fiction. It is set in 1920’s New York and has a pretty large of cast of characters headed up by 17 year old Evie who is sent from Ohio to stay with her Uncle Will after a scandal involving her strange ability to read people’s secrets from their possessions. In order of prevalence, the rest of the primary cast is:

Memphis Campbell: A good hearted Harlem numbers runner who, as a child, could heal people miraculously but who now protects his little brother who has some strange abilities of his own. He wishes to be a poet like Langston Hughes.
Theta: A dancer at the Ziegfield Follies, also has some strange abilities and shares a dream with Memphis.
Jericho: Will’s ward with a mysterious past and, inexplicably, a thing for Evie.
Will: Evie’s Uncle who runs a museum of the occult and is a scholar on the subject.
Sam: A con artist who weasels his way into a job at Will’s museum because he’s got a mysterious vendetta and also, you guessed it, some strange abilities. Inexplicably, he also has a thing for Evie.
Mabel: Evie’s penpal /friend who lives just upstairs from Will’s apartment. Has a thing for Jericho.

And that’s just the main characters and doesn’t include anything about the big bad. The book’s mystery kicks off with a gruesome and ritualistic murder which has implications that may lead to an apocalypse. It is hinted that the only folks that may have a chance to stand up to the evil that’s coming are, you guessed it, those with strange abilities, collectively called Diviners.

I am really conflicted about this book.

As may be apparent simply from the synopsis and list of characters, this is a pretty immense and ambitious book with a relatively complex story that, despite being rather baggy, was still interesting and enjoyable. It is mostly just set up for what will likely be an epic series of books but the back stories and tangential plots are all still interesting so I didn’t mind too much that the narrative could have been tighter and flowed better. The writing is well done and a definite mood is set with the creepy bits being truly creepy and scary. There is plenty of humor as well which helps balance the darker elements of the book.

Unfortunately, while I could overlook the novel’s lack of focus and flow there were a couple of problems that interfered pretty heavily in my reading (listening) enjoyment
The first one I would say is relatively minor though it was really annoying to me: the excessive use of flapper slang and the awkward way it and 1920’s trivia were shoe-horned into the book. This is especially egregious and noticeable in the first third of the book but it’s a problem throughout. It’s like Bray had a list of “well known things and places associated with the 1920’s” that she had to include and instead of incorporating these subtly into the creation of setting she just slathered them on top. It was jarring, awkward, generally unsuccessful in “setting the scene” and excessive. And if Evie said ‘pos-i-toot-ly’ one more time, I was going to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court to make sure this abomination of a word was banned from ever being revived as slang.

The major issue I ran into with this book was the characters. I had a really hard time engaging with some of the characters and, in fact, came to violently dislike Evie. She annoyed me so much that I had to occasionally just turn the book off and take a break. Because Evie is the most prominent perspective character and, if anything becomes more prominent in the final third of the book, being actively irritated by her was a pretty big obstacle to engaging with the book. She’s selfish, shallow, thoughtless, vain, self-involved, arrogant, materialistic, and obnoxious. Bray tries to make a case that there is more to her than meets the eye and that her party girl exterior is there to mask inner woe. But it really didn’t work for me…at all. I want to stress that I didn’t feel this was a case of the author doing a bad job creating a realistic person; Evie was believably a 17 year old girl; she is just not someone I would ever want to spend time with…ever. Even if I was closer to 17 in age Adding insult to injury is that Evie is installed as the object of desire in a developing love triangle with two of the male characters which I initially liked, but their inexplicable lack of judgment where Evie was concerned effected how I felt about them as well.

I also wasn’t that crazy about Theta though the dislike was much milder. In one of the first scenes where we get her perspective she walks into a Follies rehearsal an hour late and justifiably is scolded by the stage manager, she responds by putting out her cigarette in his coffee. That’s just wrong to mess with someone’s coffee and seriously bitchy and well I think it’s quite clear I would have made the worst flapper ever. Rebellious scorner of authority I am not. Theta did grow on me a bit as we learn her backstory but there was also the WTH moment of Memphis and she falling in lurve out of the damn blue which undermined both characters for me. As an aside, Theta wasn’t helped by the fact that the narrator chose to read her with a Mae West-esque voice. Ugh.

The two characters I actually identified with the most, Mabel and Will are provided with the least amount of development and Will is undermined by the end of the book because he lets his 17 year old, very obnoxious niece (Evie) start bossing him around and judging him. Grow a pair Will and lock that kid in her room for the foreseeable future please! At the very end of the book Mabel seems to be getting set up to be “used for nefarious purposes” by a handsome guy in her parents circle which doesn’t bode well for my enjoyment of future books.

So the characters were a bit of an issue for me if that isn’t abundantly clear. I may be one of the few to have this reaction however as I’ve read other reviews that have described Evie just as I have above but then say what a great character that made her. Unfortunately for me, characters are probably the single most important element of a story and if I cannot identify or engage with them I get really cranky. If you are similar you might have some issues as well.

I guess I had a few things to say about this one:). So, will I continue with the series? I think I will try. I am curious about the story and where it will go and I actually like the character of Mabel enough to see if she is developed more in future books. I do dread having to spend more time with Evie however and am hoping she becomes more of an ensemble character rather than the heroine of future books.

I will also take a minute to recommend the audio which was overall really excellent with the exception of my nitpick about Theta’s voice. The number of characters she had to voice was impressive and she did a fantastic job with all but Theta in my opinion.

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Thursday, March 28, 2013

How the Drake Chronicles by Alyxandra Harvey took over my week
I started reading The Drake Chronicles, a six book series by Alyxandra Harvey, a week and a half ago.  I closed up book number six last night. Part of that was right books, right time – I was really needing a good escapist read that didn’t involve a lot of cognitive calisthenics.  The Drake Chronicles really fit the bill and I enjoyed getting caught up in the Drake Family drama.  Rather than review each book in turn I thought I’d do a short synopsis of each book – 2-6 and then write a little about what I particularly liked about the series.  My review of book one can be found here – Hearts At Stake.

First, an overview: Apparently book one was meant to be stand alone but I guess it was popular enough that an idea was hatched to turn it into one of those romance series where each sibling and their partner in love are focused on in turn ala the Bridgertons by Julia Quinn.  But this trope disappears by book five and it is stated that book six is the last despite that there are eight siblings in the Drake family (poor Marcus, Duncan and Sebastian).  I’d be interested in Alyxandra Harvey’s inside scoop on how and why things developed the way they did.  A couple inklings I had were 1) she seems to prefer to write from the female perspective and since 7 of the 8 drake siblings are male that might have thrown a barrier and 2) she may have wanted to move the books out of the romance focus and back into supernatural adventure with a side of romance. This is all to say that the series as a whole is a bit of a mess but this really didn’t interfere with my reading enjoyment.

Blood Feud:  Logan Drake’s the brother who likes to dress like an 18th century pirate and is all charm.  Isabeau was turned into a vampire during the French Revolution and is part of a mystical tribe of ass-kicking vampires called the hounds.  Their mission is to keep Montmartre and his hoard from kidnapping Logan’s little sister and to wreak a little vengeance on Isabeau’s behalf. 

Out for Blood:  Quinn’s the devilish brother who firmly believes he’s the prettiest and is rather popular with the ladies.  Hunter Wild is a vampire slayer attending vampire slayer high school, aspiring to be an agent in the vampire slaying league - Helios Ra.  Hunter needs Quinn’s help to investigate a mysterious illness plaguing students at Vampire Slayer High.

Bleeding Hearts:  Yay! Lucy’s back though this book is ostensibly about Christabel, Lucy’s bookish cousin and Connor Drake, Quinn’s twin brother who leans more towards computer geekery then collecting ladies’ hearts.  They discover an unrecognized tribe of vampires called the Na Foir who are causing all sorts of mayhem.

Blood Moon:  At one point Lucy asks Nicholas “What’s Wrong” to which he replies “Everything but you,” which aww…. and also, he ain’t kidding.  Things start to really go crazy for the Drake family as vampire tribes from all over the world gather for the historic Blood Moon meant to install Ma Drake as queen and Solange’s strange behavior escalates big time.

Blood Prophecy:  We find out what’s wrong with Solange and we get even, sort of, with the folks who kidnapped and tortured Nicholas in Blood Moon. This book is a total mess and has a strangely fizzled ending but I still enjoyed spending time with Lucy and the Drakes. 
Things I really enjoyed about this series:

1)   The humor:  This is really key for me. Too much angst and earnestness especially in a novel about vampire teenagers in love will have me grinding my teeth in record time.  These books have got a lot of great snarky banter and never take themselves too seriously.
2)   The characters:  Alyxandra Harvey has a gift, one that I think sometimes is rare, of creating characters that are easy to love and identify with even when they are 16 year old girls who tend to all be brain damaged (I know I was at that age).  Lucy Hamilton is by far the favorite who, in every way, lightens up each scene she’s in but I can honestly say there wasn’t a perspective character that I did not like.
3)    Different perspectives: I really enjoy books that have alternating perspectives and Harvey, for the most part, does this well, though books 2-3 are weighted heavily toward the female perspective chapters.
4)   The pace:  These books keep you rolling without stop or even slowing.  Chapters are relatively short which keeps the pace snappy and insures that you don’t get trapped too long in a perspective chapter that isn’t your favorite (I would say Blood Prophecy is the only one that struggled with this for me).
5)    The language:  The language is often poetic and there are some really beautiful comparisons and passages that will surprise you from time to time.  Her dialogue is pretty great.  She is also one of the best writers of steamy make out scenes that I’ve ever read – she gets the feelings and sensations all right without it coming across as anything but romantic. 

Final Verdict for the whole series: 3.75 out of 5 stars.  It’s incredibly fun and addictive reading especially if you’re in the mood for some escapist brain candy.  I think the fact that I devoured the whole series in a week and a half illustrates the appeal of these books. 

Have you read the Drake Chronicles?  What did you think? One thing I struggle with after an obsessive read like this is what to follow it up with – any suggestions? 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Hearts At Stake by Alyxandra Harvey

Hearts at Stake (The Drake Chronicles, #1)Hearts at Stake by Alyxandra Harvey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last week was stressful at work and included 2 roadtrips and teaching a 6.5 hour workshop on Saturday.  By rights, I had laundry and chores and errands to run on Sunday but I was burnt out and needed to unwind. 

Enter Hearts At Stake by Alyxandra Harvey which I curled up with around 2:00 pm and closed with a satisfied smile at 7:30 pm.  It was just what I needed at just the time I needed it.

If this book were a food it would be cotton candy. Fluffy, sweet, addictive and went down well in one sitting. Afterwards you may not feel terribly full and there may be a bit of a toothache but you have memories of an enjoyable indulgence. What I mean to say is that it is a light page turner that it in no way took itself seriously and which had characters I surprisingly didn't hate.  Sure, you don't want to think too hard about elements of its plot and its world-building because there are holes trucks can drive through and none of the characters really venture beyond the shallow end of the pool but it was a lovely way to pass a Sunday.

The story, such as it is, is told from the dual viewpoint (in alternating chapters mostly) of Lucy and her best friend Solange Drake who is about to turn 16 which in her family means simultaneously turning into a vampire.  What with living in a family of vampires and being the first female born vampire (in this world vampires can be born as well as turned) in centuries you'd expect Solange to be a highly engaging and interesting character.  However, I found her incredibly blah, and, for me, Lucy stole the show which was extra surprising because she really should have been annoying with her loud, brash, bossy personality.  She was unexpectedly awesome and really I think made the book for me.  I did occasionally get annoyed when I had to move into a Solange chapter but the author cleverly keeps the chapters short and moves things right along so it never became a huge obstacle to my enjoyment.  Lucy's romance is cliched as all get out, but still manages to be charming and fun.  Solange's romantic adventures on the other hand seemed more of an afterthought and had little to no development.   

Life-changing literature this ain't but if you need a little escapist candy that won't tax the brain too hard this is just the ticket.  It is the first in a series and I have already gone and picked up book two.  I'm not sure whether the enjoyment will continue as each book in the series shifts perspective to a new Drake sibling (there are 8 siblings all together).  Since much of my enjoyment in book one was Lucy, I really just wanna read more about her and the Drake families adventures from her perspective.  I embark upon book 2 with trepidation.

Have you read Hearts At Stake and if so what did you think?  How do you feel about candy reads?  What's the best detox candy read you've ever read?

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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Seraphina (Seraphina, #1)Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since I can no longer make any claims toward being a young adult and, in fact, have a depressingly strong claim on middle age, I often have a conflicted relationship with Young Adult novels.  I still remember with great fondness all the fantasy YA-ish novels I read in my formative years and am always interested in trying to recapture the feeling those books (The Narnia Chronicles, The Hobbit, The Belgariad etc...) gave me.  The pure storytelling and adventure they offered.  However being.. ahem...more middle-aged then not, I find I also need the book to have characters and relationships with some depth and reality to them and storytelling that doesn't make my brain die a little.  It's rare for me to find such a book but Seraphina definitely fits the bill!

Seraphina lives in a world reminiscent of renaissance Europe but humans share this world with an intriguing species of dragon which, can exist in their true dragony form, but can also fold themselves into human form. A 40 year truce between the two species has kept things relatively peaceful but conflict bubbles just under the surface.  Most humans and dragons have never learned to like each other and in many cases tolerance is razor thin.  Some reviews have indicated that this state of affairs was unbelievable, that 40 years should have been enough time for feelings between these two groups to simmer down but I compare it with the country I live in (U.S.) where varying degrees of racism, even to the point of hatred, are still common 50 years after the Civil Rights movement.  I felt like the larger conflict of the book was very similar to the issues of racism and I had no problem believing that humans, at least, could be this paranoid, hateful and ignorant.

Seraphina is a young and very talented musician who has some pretty enormous secrets which have kept her isolated her whole life and made her a practiced deceiver. She knows that isolation is the safest place for her but like all of us she yearns to have a place in the world, to be understood and accepted. In what is perhaps  a subconscious pursuit of finding that place, Seraphina accepts a position as assistant to the Court Composer of Goredd. Against her better judgment, this position along with her intelligence and curiosity begin to involve her in court mysteries and intrigues.

I’ve kept the above synopsis purposefully vague because I think discovering this book for yourself is a pleasure not to be missed. The world Seraphina lives in is complex and imaginative and it sucked me right in. Seraphina herself is the guide and she is a fantastic protagonist – funny and clever, self-loathing but proud as well. She is a fully formed and very real person who gets waspish when she’s tired and stressed but generally is extremely compassionate and kind. All the characters in the book are suitably well drawn even if we don’t get to know them as well as Seraphina.

It is the type of book that has everything – drama, comedy, adventure, mystery, romance – and all balanced remarkably well.  It's very witty throughout which ensures that it doesn't take itself too seriously but the drama gives it a heft and depth which allowed me to become more emotionally involved.  Seraphina's romance is accomplished perfectly; slow and steady and based on a developing acquaintance and real compatibility. I also love that Seraphina's rival for her love-interest's affections is a pretty amazing character as well and not some caricatured witch who the reader can dismiss as unworthy. 

To sum up: This filled my little 14 year old heart with gladness while giving my 40 year old brain some great stuff to chew on.  It's a lovely imaginative book that I didn't want to end. I do worry about where it will go in future installments as some of the plot elements that made this such an absorbing read have been resolved but I will definitely be waiting to snatch up the sequel when it is released.

 The narrator for the audio book, Mandy Williams, was really excellent.

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The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O'Malley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is books like The Rook that remind me why I love to read. I listen to several book podcasts and read a number of book blogs. I inhale any best of the year and recommended reading lists I can find. I go to the library every weekend. So while nowhere close to all-knowing about the book industry, I do pay attention to books. And yet I had never heard of this book until I stumbled across it on a “recommended reads” shelf at my library (thanks Seth at Ames Public Library!). There are so many creative talented authors, writing creative books that even if you make an effort to keep up with the buzz on books, there is always the opportunity to just stumble upon a gem. The world of books is like Aladdin’s cave of wonders know..the booby traps.

The Rook attracted me immediately with the cover which is dramatic and quirky and very British looking (there’s an octopus and a rabbit!) and with the blurb which begins:

Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self. She quickly learns that she is a Rook, a high-level operative in a secret agency that protects the world from supernatural threats. But there is a mole inside the organization and this person wants her dead.

British Secret Service with a supernatural twist? Amnesiac protagonist with a huge mystery to unravel? Sign me up!

Much to my delight, The Rook delivers on these early superficial portents of awesome. For a debut novel, I thought everything was very deftly done. The plot and mystery zooms along and sucks you in while also divulging all the interesting exposition and details about The Checquy, the secret agency referred to in the blurb. This is accomplished by sections of the book focusing on “new” Myfanwy Thomas and her adjustments to the life of which she has been dropped in the middle, interspersed with detailed letters and background left by the “old” Myfanwy Thomas explaining about the organization and the warnings she had been given about her imminent betrayal and personality wipe. The two types of narrative twined together pretty naturally and rarely got in each other’s way. This is the second book I’ve read this year that makes use of an amnesiac character as a device to spill out lots of description about a complicated world without it seeming awkward (the other is Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny). For me, this device obviously works remarkably well as I liked it in Nine Princes as well.

The reader sees everything through the eyes of the “new” Myfanwy Thomas and we get plenty of opportunity to get to know her well. The reader remains relatively removed from most of the secondary characters but Myfanwy is such a fantastic character I didn’t mind. Also through the letters we get to know the “old” Myfanwy quite well which leads to sympathy and lends a sense of poignancy and weight to resolving the mystery of her erasure. Despite this and a few other more serious moments, the overall tone of the book is light and fun and very, very funny. The humor is snarky and sarcastic and sometimes made me laugh out loud.

To sum up: A fun, funny, action/adventure, thriller, mystery, with supernatural elements, a fantastic protagonist AND it’s the first in the series. It has well drawn characters and a complex plot but never takes itself too seriously. I wavered between 4 or 5 stars but settled on 4 as I did have a few nitpicks with it and a little more depth would have kicked it up a notch. But overall, yay for random library finds!

P.S. Edited to add that one little clever thing that I loved in the book was that the American Branch of the Checquy is called Croatoan.  Having grown up spending many summers on the Outer Banks of North Carolina which involved many trips to see the Lost Colony play, I immediately laughed in appreciation at this.  For those who don't know, a colony of early settlers disappeared from the North Carolina coast with the only evidence of why they disappeared being the word Croatoan carved into a tree in the middle of the settlement.  Mystery solved!

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Thursday, March 14, 2013

Vampire Empire: The Greyfriar by Clay and Susan Griffith

The Greyfriar (Vampire Empire, #1)The Greyfriar by Clay Griffith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Downloaded from Audible. Narrated by James Marsters

Synopsis: In the Vampire Empire, free humans have been pushed out of the more northerly climes of the world and are living in a monarchical and steam-punkish society in the warmer areas of the planet (vampires apparently like it cold). The humans are close to initiating a second war with the vampires in order to reclaim their historical homelands. Princess Adele is heir to the throne of Equatori, the Human empire, and is on one last publicity tour of the northernmost reaches of her kingdom before her political marriage to a prominent American politician, when it all goes horribly wrong.... Amidst all the chaos that ensues, she encounters the Greyfriar a mythical human folk hero who has become legend by fighting and killing vamps in the heart of their northern empire. He's also got a couple little secrets.

I've been quite excited about starting this book for a couple of months; the story looked like a potentially fun romp and James Marsters (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame)was narrating. In the end I wouldn't actually call it fun or rompy necessarily but it is jam-packed with action starting practically on page one. Adele very quickly meets the fabled greyfriar but almost as quickly falls into vampire hands. There's a lot of confused scrambling back home at the news of her abduction with introductions to her blowhard fiance Senator Clark and her teacher/enigmatic magic guy Mamaru (no idea how to spell this name since I listened). The story is bloody and violent and there are many descriptions of dire and gruesome fight scenes.

Despite all this action and adventure, it took me quite a while to get into the book. I probably didn't start developing any appreciation until Adele escapes from London to Scotland. This is roughly 2/3-3/4 of the way through the book. I felt like I didn't start to get to know the two protagonists until this section of the book when the story slows down a little and lets us and the two characters spend some time together. Most of the secondary characters in the book are either incredibly unlikable or one dimensional or both and we spend a lot of time with them through the first 3/4s of the book getting the world set up and all the players in place. It felt very shallow though at the same time quite full of itself. Once we reach Scotland we start to get some true character development and we get more analysis, through Adele's changing perceptions, of both the vampire and human societies and she starts to realize that all is not black and white.

Some things I did appreciate finally. That the authors didn't take the relationship too fast, that Adele's perceptions of the world shifted in a pretty natural way and that this sets up an interesting conflict for her in future installments, that the imperial humans and the vampires are pretty much equally awful but in different ways.

One final critique, that I feel pretty bad about because I'm a fan of James Marsters, and I'd heard lovely things about his narrational powers but I was not overly impressed with the narration. I think the narrator really needed to be British - Marsters reads the book in his own American accent which does not fit (accept, of course, for the Americans). And the accents he does do are quite frankly, weak at best. The book seems like it would be quite a challenge to narrate as it has so many accents: British, Scottish, French, American, Japanese, Indian and uh... folks descended from the British (I think) but have been living in Egypt for the last 100 years.

By the end of this wild and kinda bumpy ride I decided I liked it. I think if the book had stopped before the turning point I mention a couple paragraphs up I would have given it 2 stars and likely not gone on to read the rest of the series. Now I'm intrigued enough to see what the sequels will bring. I do hope they replace Marsters on any future audio but if not, I'll pick up the books.

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Doctor Who - S. 1 Favorite Episodes

 The difficulty in picking favorites from a Doctor Who series is that with only 13 episodes, they often all offer something significant and move the story arc or characters along.  But I’ve given it the old college try.  Here’s Series 1 :

 Ep. 1 – Rose

This inaugural episode is a nice set-up for all that is to come.  It introduces all the major players in a natural way, and sets up the tone of the show (an outer layer of silly and goofy but with a chewier , meatier interior).  The show let us know that while in many respects it’s a kids show,  it won’t pull punches with scenes showing kindly Clive being killed and conversations revealing the Doctor’s more intense side like when he tells Rose he can feel the Earth’s rotation.  It gave me and Rose the chills! Christopher Eccleston is, of course, awesome and inhabits the Doctor immediately. 

It has some good funny and classic lines: “Nice to meet you, Rose. Run for your life!”; Rose: “If you’re an alien why do you sound like you’re from the north?”  The Doc: “Lots of planets have a north.”

And do you think the Doctor comes back to tell Rose that they could travel in time as well as space knowing that would clinch it for her? Father’s Day suggests otherwise but I wonder…

Ep. 6 Dalek

This episode is significant because it introduces those of us new to Who to a classic Who villain – the Dalek.  It is also significant in establishing that the Doctor, despite appearances, is pretty messed up inside.  His losses during the Time War come rushing to the surface with the first “Exterminate” and he wars with them throughout the episode.  Doctor #9 is a damaged soul and Chris Eccleston plays him beautifully.

Rose also gets some development – we witness her bravery and her innocent compassion.  This episode illustrates why Rose is important to the Doctor - he needs her youth and heart to balance out the darkness by which he is being consumed.  

Some other thoughts:

  • Doctor Who is unapologetically “rah rah Brittania” and this is one of the first eps  (but not the last)where American’s are portrayed in a less then flattering light – arrogant, greedy, presumptuous, morally bankrupt.  Not that we yanks don’t deserve a some criticism but it makes me a little squirmy:)

  • We get some pretty strong language about how the Doctor feels about Rose, in fact -  Dalek: “What use are emotions if you won’t save the woman you love” this is probably the least coy this show ever gets on the subject.  Of course the Doctor doesn’t confirm or deny this statement, just agrees to let the Dalek free in order to save Rose.

Favorite moments:  The Doctors response to the Dalek; Rose being trapped “Sorry I was a bit slow” and her desperate plea to him that it wasn’t the Doctor’s fault and that she wouldn’t change a thing; the Dalek’s  identity crisis, it’s realization that it is contaminated;  the scene between Rose, the Dalek and the Doctor as the Dalek feels the sun -  Rose: “It’s not the one pointing a gun at me” … “It’s changing. What about you Doctor, what the hell are you changing into?” Doctor: “Oh Rose, they’re all dead” – this scene is manipulative but great acting all around that truly sells it Dalek: “Are you frightened Rose Tyler?” Rose: “Yeah” Dalek: “” ; The exchange between Rose and the Doctor as she tries to convince him to take Adam along. 

Ep. 8 Father’s Day

I actually have mixed feelings about this episode because in most ways it’s a very difficult episode for the character of Rose.  Not just emotionally difficult for her but difficult as a viewer not to want to shake some maturity into her.   It’s difficult to watch.   But it’s this central struggle that makes this such a key episode: for establishing and helping Rose grow and for revealing some truths about Rose and the Doctor’s relationship.  It also introduces the character of Pete Tyler and completes Rose’s little family circle.  As mentioned above I really like Rose’s family and the inclusion of them pretty heavily into the show so it’s good to finally meet Pete.

By this point in the series, the Doctor is pretty smitten with Rose.  Not necessarily in a romantic sense (though if you ask me…) but definitely wrapped up in her, dependent upon her.  And she shows her youth in a big and very believable way.  I’ve heard viewers call Rose a Mary Sue but for me she doesn’t even come close.  She’s a very believable 19 year old and while the Doctor may treat Rose as if she were perfect that’s because for him, she is, at this moment in his life. 

So basically I love this ep because of all the juicy emotional stuff and character development into which you can sink your teeth.   Some favorite moments: Rose uncomfortably wheedling the doctor, trying to sound casual, about going to see her dad; the scene in Pete’s apartment where Rose, again uncomfortably tries to play like everything is cool while the Doctor glares at her and then the conversation after; the scene in the church when Rose and the Doctor come back together; the scene where Pete realizes who Rose is and the scene where he realizes he’s dead in the future; the scene where Pete realizes what he must do and reveals that the Doctor was trying very hard to avoid the ultimate solution.   

Ep. 9 The Empty Child

Doctor Who does “to be continued” episodes really, really well.  This is the first and one of the best.  It’s a great story set up with a bit of alien tech falling in London during the World War II blitz and causing all sorts of havoc.  The child, Jamie, stalking Nancy and the Doctor is seriously creepy and affecting.  The character of Nancy and the actress playing her are great.   “And I want to find a blond in a Union Jack.  I mean a specific one, I didn’t just wake up this morning with a craving.”

The real joy of this episode is the introduction of Captain Jack.  All the interactions between Rose and he are 6 tons of fun.  “Sorry there was Hello twice there. Dull but you know thorough.” – an addlepated and overwhelmed Rose.

Ep. 10 The Doctor Dances

“The world doesn’t end because the Doctor Dances.”  The flirty banter between Rose and The Doctor before and during their transport onto Jack’s ship; The Doctor and Jack’s… charged …interactions.  The denouement of this is emotional and dramatic with an unexpected twist.  The Doctor’s joy at being able to save everyone “Give me a day like this, just one day” “All that weapons tech in the hands of a hysterical 4 year old looking for its mummy”  The final scene when the doctor remembers how to dance.  The healing continues.  “Jack (about the Tardis) - Much bigger on the inside – the Doctor (about Jack) You better be”

Ep. 13 The Parting of the Ways

Religious Daleks ! The Doctor is going through some pretty heavy emotional stuff in this episode - he thought the sacrifice of his people was worth it only to find out that the Daleks live on.  As usual Christopher Eccleston is great revealing the emotional weight underlying the Doctor’s usual wackadoodle demeanor.   There’s a great moment in the TARDIS after rescuing Rose that he just leans into the door motionless for moments as the Daleks scream “exterminate” outside.   He thought he was done with that but it turns out he isn’t

The Doctor and his companions are always best when up against impossible odds and this episode delivers.  We have a lot of bravery and sacrifices being made, and Rose convincing Mickey and Jackie that if she can’t help save the Doctor and save future history then her life is meaningless. The Doctor has shown her a better way to live life and she is distressed at not being able to go down fighting.  She ends up saving the day and wiping out the Daleks so the Doctor doesn’t have to go through it again. 

The Doctor’s tenderness towards Rose is everywhere apparent in this episode: his dramatic declaration that he will rescue her and the big hug when they reunite, his affectionate appreciation that it never occurred to her to run away.  And of course his sending her away so she’ll be safe, not being able to bear sacrificing her as well as all the others.   His dismay at what she has done, what he has put her into a position to do.  Rose saves the Doctor here, in this instance, but it’s clear that she’s been saving him all series. 

This episode kind of encapsulates everything I love about the series:  the doctor’s wacky bravado balanced by the damage he has taken over his eons -long life; the relationships, complex and real;  the big questions; the action; the supporting characters being awesome and kicking ass. 

So many moments to love but a few that I especially like:  the Doctor’s hologram turning to her “Have a good life.”; Jackie bringing the big truck  “What are you Doctor, Coward or Killer?” “Coward, any day.”; Yay, Jack is saved;  the kiss, the stroking;  “That’s right, I sang a song and the Daleks ran away.”

And finally “Before I go, Rose I just want to tell you that you were fantastic.  Absolutely fantastic.  And you know what?  So was I.”  Couldn’t have said it better myself.  Bring on David Tennant!

Whew!  Series one was really stellar!  What are your favorite episodes or moments from series one?  Do you think Rose is a Mary Sue? Anybody have Chris Eccleston as their favorite Doctor?