Sunday, March 31, 2013

An Unearthly Podcast: Classic Who Episodes

I've been neglecting this blog a little bit with podcast posts.  There's been a reason for that.  If you're new to An Unearthly Podcast, hold off a little bit (and keep an eye on around noon Pacific time each day).  If you've been following since the beginning, here's a little something to hold you over until what I've been working on comes to light.

TV: Doctor Who Series 1

In 2005, Russel T Davies, longtime Doctor Who fan, was successful in convincing the BBC to do something many fans had been vocally craving for fifteen years: bring Doctor Who back to the air.  This had been attempted once before, a co-production with Universal pictures, which resulted in a poorly received made-for-TV movie.  This would be completely independent of  that original attempt, and as in the past, would be a completely British production.  The show was cleared for one season, featuring veteran actor Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and English pop sensation Billie Piper as companion and star Rose Tyler. Who is back, and to celebrate, I'm going to take a look at the show so far.  This incarnation of the show, that is- it's a little more than I can do right now to review 33 seasons, and besides, the show is different enough to justify keeping them relatively separate.

That's right, I said Billie Piper was the star.  The show was named for the Doctor, but he really didn't become the central character until after Billie Piper left, and it was a gradual process.  There are several reasons for this.  From a storytelling perspective, it's common to focus the story on the character who is not a seasoned time traveler and nine hundred year old (or older) alien.  This allows the audience (who is generally neither seasoned time travelers nor nine hundred years old, although there are some exceptions) to experience things in a way that they can be eased into it and have things explained to them, without breaking the fourth wall or resulting in forced contrivances.

Secondly, Billie Piper was a star with several #1 singles in the UK.  Not only was it a great way for the pop star to live her dream of becoming an actress, it was a great opportunity for the show to introduce itself to a brand new generation that was already in love with the singer.  I assume, anyway.  I didn't learn about her until 2012, myself.  The third reason, which is kind of an extension of the first, the original incarnation of Doctor Who had the same idea: the show was about the adventures of the human companion in strange places, with the Doctor primarily functioning as a randomizing factor, bringing the stars into strange situations to experience.

At least, this idea holds until the second episode, when Rose spends half the episode having a nervous breakdown while the Doctor pretends she doesn't exist.  To be fair, I imagine that's what happens when you pick up a girl who's just had her workplace destroyed by plastic aliens and give her the opportunity to watch her entire planet die before leaving her alone to cry while you go on a date with a tree girl who just called her several synonyms for prostitute.

The Ninth Doctor is a really fascinating character.  For those unfamiliar with the series, every time the Doctor comes extremely close to death, he beats it by regenerating, which gives him a new actor and a new personality.  This is how the same character has been able to survive for 33 seasons when he started out as an old man with health problems.  The Ninth in particular is a fairly recent regeneration at the beginning of Series 1 (you can see him in the first episode examining himself in the mirror for the first time with this face), and he's the sole survivor of a massive time travel war that warped and changed the history of the universe.  The sum of the Ninth Doctor is a shell-shocked Marine who survived firing the last shot of the war, only to find himself surrounded by civilians he feels no love for, struggling with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Except for, you know, having to play superhero for the humans.

Rose... also has a lot to do, although for her it's less “healing” and more “growing up”.  The first episode (aptly titled “Rose”) sets the tone for this character perfectly, when she leaves her injured boyfriend in order to go with this strange man who's dressed as though he's having a mid-life crisis and says he can travel through time.  I disliked this character from the start and it wasn't until this season's finale, “Parting of the Ways”, that I began to develop some affection for her.

That's a good way to describe this season: Self-centered people doing only what they know, go through a transformation into something new.  Rose and the Doctor are the perfect examples of this, with the Doctor losing some of his rage and selfishness and becoming something more alike what he was in the past, with added experience, and Rose learning to care for someone other than herself and not to rely on others to act for her all the time. There are plenty of others, such as the Rastacoricofalipatorian who was ready to destroy the Earth for her own benefit gaining the opportunity to start anew by being transformed into an egg, and con artist Jack Harkness, who after helping the Doctor to save the world has his life saved in turn, twice, and transforms into a hero that would go on to star in his own spin-off, Torchwood.  Rebirths and second chances aren't a stranger to individual episodes, either; the season is peppered with them.

It's parallels like this that helps to make this a truly unique season of an already unique show.  Unusual for the normally episodic Doctor Who, this is a completely linear season.  The first two episodes largely stand on their own, and are essential to setting up who Rose and the Ninth Doctor are.  Episode three sets up a plot device that will make episode 11 possible, while the following two-parter introduces characters that would be essential to that episode.  The next episode, “Dalek” introduces the villain for the season finale, as well as leading directly into episode 7, which sets up plot elements involved in the season finale.  The 8th episode is the only episode so far not to feature into the season plot and, like the second episode, is a growth moment for Rose, building off of themes established in the previous episode.

I'm not going to keep going like this- not only do you get the picture, but the following two episodes remain to this day among my favorite Doctor Who episodes of all time.  These episodes introduce Jack Harkness, a human time traveler and con artist, who inadvertently unleashes medical nanobots unfamiliar with the proper shape of humanity onto the Earth.  This is a grim, horrific tale that started future showrunner Stephen Moffat's climb in popularity which punctuated a bleak story of war orphans with just enough humor to make it Doctor Who.

As for the downsides to this story, well, this is essentially the first season of what is essentially a new show.  This means it's still finding its voice.  As I described to you earlier, neither of our main characters are that likable to start with, and it's only through empathizing with their excitement and sympathizing with their peril that the audience is able to come to like them.  Also in trying to find its voice, Russell T Davies shot a little low for his target audience by introducing farting, laughing, fat, green aliens... that thankfully found their way into a spin-off targeting younger children (starring Doctor Who veteran Elizabeth Sladen) after their three episodes in this season.

The end result of this is a season that combines a lot of great ideas with a lot of cringe-worthy issues that are thrown in your face.  This holds the season back from being my favorite, but it doesn't keep it from being the one I admire most and the one that clearly had the most planning go into it.  Is it the best way to introduce yourself to the show?  As I mentioned, it does feature two of my favorite episodes of the show... but despite that, it might be a little healthier to get into the show after it's found its footing.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

"River of Stars" by Guy Gavriel Kay- Reviewed by Bob Milne

A sequel in terms of setting and history, if not character or plot, River of Stars sees Guy Gavriel Kay return to the Chinese-inspired world of Under Heaven. It's a book that can be enjoyed by new readers as a standalone volume, but one which holds added significance for readers already familiar with the first.

As a fan of Kay's work, and someone who thoroughly enjoyed Shen Tai's journey through the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, I was quite curious to discover how Ren Daiyan's adventures in the Song Dynasty might compare. Aside from a shared history, the two stories couldn't be more different. While the first was a story of an empire at its height, full of luxury, decadence, and self-indulgence, as told through the eyes of a noble young man nearly overcome by his fortune, River of Stars is the story of an empire suffering through its own decline, as told through the eyes of a young outlaw struggling to find his place in the world.

Even if you aren't familiar enough with what has come before to recognize the little tidbits and snippets of news regarding characters and events from Under Heaven, there's a feeling of melancholy here - a sense of remorse for the lost days of glory - that is inescapable. Along with that comes a significant amount of foreshadowing, almost to the point of implying a kind of inescapable destiny on the part of the narrator. Whereas we never really knew what to expect should Shen Tai ever reach the Emperor, we can see all to clearly where Ren Daiyan's choices are destined to lead him. With this second tale, it's less a matter of trying to seize one's own destiny, and more a matter of trying to escape it.

The language here is, once again, beautiful in its poetic flow. It's a heavy story, and not one to be breezed through in a few sittings, but also one that's very easy to become lost in, constantly seducing you into reading just one more chapter. The style is appropriately evocative of the culture, but still retains that literary flair for which Kay is known so well. In terms of narrative, however, River of Stars is subtly different from Under Heaven. There's less immediacy to the tale, and more of an omniscient narrative voice this time around. We still get shifting POVs, often putting us in the heads of characters to whom we become attached only to never see again, but those are interspersed with an omniscient, third-person POV. Fortunately, Kay doesn't rely too heavily on that voice, keeping the story intimate and personal.

As far as the characters go, Kay actually surpasses himself here. Ren Daiyan, as unlikable as he often may be, is a fantastic protagonist. He's a flawed young man who grows and develops significantly throughout the course of the novel. He surprised me on several occasions, committing himself to courses of action that initially seemed the wildest of whims, but which justify themselves later on. Lin Shan, a young woman described at one point as "the clever one, too tall and thin, overly educated for a woman - a discredit, it is widely said, to her sex" is a sort of co-protagonist, one with her own distinct story arc that nicely intersects that of Ren Daiyan. She was one of those characters I expected to drift away from early on, and was pleasantly surprised by how much of a role she had to play in events later on.

Kai Zhen is another of those sympathetic antagonists that Kay crafts so well, a character who is selfish and cruel, but also quite vulnerable and too easily swayed by the women around him. He's an entirely distasteful gentleman that you want to hate, but that hatred is tempered with a significant amount of pity . . . and, at times, even a bit of admiration. Speaking of the women around him, Tan Ming, the concubine who so cleverly escalates herself to becoming his wife, is a richly painted woman of opportunity whose role in the story ends far too soon. Tuan Lungis is another character whom we part ways too soon, but it's interesting the ways in which he touches Ren Daiyan's life at key moments. Sun Shiwei, the assassin who makes such a brief, yet pivotal appearance, is one character I felt was used perfectly - as much as I would have liked to see more of him, the brevity of his role is entirely appropriate to his profession.

I wrote in my review of Under Heaven that I was actually reluctant to read River of Stars, since it was all but unimaginable that an author could manage to capture such lyrical magic twice in a row, but Kay has done just that. It's another long story, better paced than its predecessor, and driven by a slightly stronger protagonist. If it lacks some of the subtlety of the first, it certainly eclipses it in terms of demonstrating how seemingly insignificant, very personal choices can conspired to change the course of history.

Published April 2nd 2013 by Viking Canada
Hardcover, 656 pages

Bob Milne is the blog owner/reviewer from Beauty in Ruins and the author of this review. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a blog meme hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine to highlight upcoming book.

This week's WoW selection is:

Promise of Blood (The Powder Mage Trilogy) by Brian McClellan
Publisher: Orbit
Date: April 16, 2016
Pages: 560

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

It's a bloody business overthrowing a king...
Field Marshal Tamas' coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas's supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces. 

It's up to a few...
Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved...
Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should...

I haven't read a good epic fantasy in ages- and I love books that have gods walk among man. I'm so in.

Monday, March 25, 2013

In Theatres: Oz the Great and Powerful

When you make a prequel of a strong movie that’s become embedded in culture, there are two things you really need to look at.  One is the thematic nature of that piece.  Certain stories have either powerful themes, or a very tropic nature.  Star Trek stories are all about exploring new places with a group of friends.  Star Wars is heavily about the choice between the easy, destructive way, and the struggle to build up.  Frankenstein is about the dangers of playing God and of taking things at face value.  If you don’t take into account these things, you fail the original piece.
The second group of things you need to take into account in a prequel are the solid facts.  A Firefly prequel that ignored the war between the Independents and the Alliance or an X-Men prequel that didn’t show the lifelong friendship between Professor X and Magneto would be completely missing the point.

It is on these grounds that Oz, the Great and Powerful must be judged, in addition to the simpler yet even more important grounds of a good film.  Oz is a prequel to the classic story Wizard of Oz, better known as the first live action colored film.  Unlike its predecessor, The Great and Powerful is not a snuff film, which I suppose ought to be celebrated; if anybody hung themselves in the making of this picture, the editing team seems to have caught it.

Now that you’ve chuckled awkwardly at the morbid humor of a twisted individual, let’s look at the film.  I considered starting with the script, but ultimately, that’s not the first thing you see here.  No, the first thing you see is the actors, and the visuals.  In terms of the acting, while I agree it’s not exactly Oscar-worthy, I do think the acting is exactly what you would expect given that exact cast.  Zach Braff plays JD, a role he’s played in a different setting for years.  I would find it perfectly acceptable if someone stated that Frank’s last name was Dorian, because in fiction both personality and appearance have a strong chance of carrying almost unaltered down a family line.  Rachel Weisz as Evanora and James Franco as Oz were brilliant.  As for Kunis and Williams, I’ll discuss them a bit later, when I talk about the script.

As for the visual style of this film, I’m not a fan.  There’s something to be said about prequels that were obviously made decades after the original.  Sometimes you can overlook it; if the visual style of Star Trek was the primary way in which it deviated from the original, the vast majority of fans would have forgiven that.  Similarly for Star Wars.  That said, the only times where I feel the CGI in this film succeeds is in things that Victor Fleming could never have accomplished in  1939.  Essentially this boils down to things like the magic force field that protects Glinda’s territory, and of course Joey King (another terrific acting job)’s China Girl.

A lot of this has to do specifically with the fact that this is a prequel- or at least, that it’s part of a series.  Wizard of Oz was a film that you could really immerse yourself in the environment, a surreal world in all interpretations, but still one that was solid and real enough to be fantastical and disturbing at the same time.   In other words, it was what even the best CGI would find a real struggle to accomplish.  While the first film was so impossible, yet real at the same time that it drew you in, the way this film kicks off  in the real world with CGI wood pulls you right out, just in time for effects that you need to be drawn in.

As we arrive in Oz, we’re shown to a CGI spectacle.  This is something that would have been far better done decades ago, probably at a higher cost, so it would be passable.  Except that, again, you’re already pulled out by the CGI wood, so your suspension of disbelief is  not ready to find these CGI plants amazing in any way.   Because of this, the first truly awe-inspiring visual of the film is Mila Kunis’s in those pants- but then, her behind is so flat that the scene’s not as awe-inspiring as it could be.

I’ve gotten off topic.  My point is, ground-breaking practical effects were a large part of what made the original Wizard of Oz so magical, it was a major part of the power of the film, and standard CGI that is in no way ground-beaking has no chance at recreating that magic.  There are great visuals in the film, yes, but they’re all later on and they’re all very different from anything the original movie had.  That’s perfectly fine for scenes that aren’t like the scenes in the original, such as the big gathering that makes up the climax of the film.   But when you first appear in Oz, this is a fairly important  issue.

This might be a good time to talk about the atmospheric similarities between these two films.  The Wizard of Oz is a film about a person who is accidentally transported to the mysterious land of Oz, challenged by an evil witch, meets a group of companions, and they travel to a final destination, all the while growing as a person and defeating  the evil witch.   In  this vein, Oz the Great and Powerful gets it.  I’ll say that again: Mitchell Kapner’s story really gets the feeling of the story down.

There’s another part to this, and one that the story’s hands were tied on, a little bit.  While L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other novels are in the public domain, MGM owns the rights to the well-known  film.  This means that  there can’t be ruby slippers, and the Wicked Witch of the West can’t be green-skinned or have two eyes.  Except that this film clearly features the witch as being green-skinned and having two eyes, and she also wears a red outfit, so why she can’t have the red shoes that the audience is clamoring for with that  red outfit is beyond me.

What this comes down to is a conundrum all prequels must face: what questions should be asked, and which ones should be answered.  Since Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly have a ton of mysteries other than maybe how Oz became the wizard (the premise of this film, in case you missed that), it more boils down to keeping things consistent.  You know, the Witch of the East wears ruby slippers and rides a bicycle, the Witch of the  West likes to cackle and owns a broom, flying monkeys.  Several of these are hit, but with how much the Witch of the East is focused on here, ignoring all of these plot points regarding her kind of hurts the value as a prequel.  If Kyoryu Sentai Zyurranger was able to feature a Wicked Witch flying around on a bicycle, I see no reason why Disney couldn’t.

Meanwhile, questions like “how did the witch become green?” are ones that I don’t think anybody ever asked.   Seriously, that was probably the furthest question from anybody’s mind watching the film.  Which isn’t always a problem, but answering that in the gimmicky Disney way that this film does draws other questions nobody asked to mind.   For example, why  do some witches need wands (Glinda) and some don’t (the others)?    Or why is Theodora the only witch that has a natural affinity for one element and a weakness for another?  Again, these are questions that don’t necessarily need to be answered  in a fantasy setting, but by answering other questions that don’t need an answer, you draw attention to these questions.  And nothing hurts your suspension of disbelief like seeing that the most powerful witch’s powers rely on an artifact that she apparently somehow created, even though destroying it saps her powers and reveals the fact that somebody apparently fed her an evil Bible-apple and... why?

I promised I’d talk about Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis (other than her pants and what they contain, anyway).  Both of them do a passable job, but neither are anything really spectacular.   Kunis does her best early on, when Theodora is alone with Oz.  Once Evanora starts tricking her to bring on the “lover scorned” side of her personality, she starts to fall flat.  Even her bursts of rage don’t really fit her.  Considering that one of the biggest roles in Kunis’s career was Jackie on That ‘70s Show, it’s pretty clear that she’s fully capable of both of these.  My inclination is to focus my scrutiny here on the script: the lines are jarring and abrupt, and events don’t naturally lead into one another.  Focusing a little bit more on the character of Theodora and her reactions could really have improved the second Act, as well as getting rid of that godawful apple idea.

Michelle Williams is a little harder to place.  Some of her lines seem almost as though they belong to the original Glinda, but more often she just seems to be a Leia-style Rebel Princess, a young woman who speaks like one.  The juxtaposition of this with “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Glinda is just awkward, and I’m not sure what they could have done to fix this.  Casting an older actress might have helped (although Williams looks younger in the film than she does in her IMDb portrait, so it might have been an intentional youthening), and simply writing her lines to be a bit more consistent might have made the difference.  I could deal with a Glinda who was nothing like the character in the original due to decades’ difference of experience, but this Glinda seems a bit more established, with hints of what’s to come, yet other personality traits that seem to have trouble co-existing with the more regal side of her character.  I’m going to ignore the budding romance she has with Oz at the end of mere principle.

As a film on its own, Oz stands, but doesn’t astound.  The real strength of this film is the climax.  The last Act of this film establishes Magic vs Science as a conflict, something that is hinted at in Act I but never really realized until the end.  Given the nature of certain discussions on the internet, I find it worth noting that Oz, a man who is admittedly not good-natured, idolizes Thomas Edison for his accomplishments, yet it’s not until he discovers a way to be more like Edison that he (and those around him) truly sees himself as a good person.  Tesla fans must hate this movie.

Oz the Great and Powerful is an average film.  It has its strengths and its weaknesses, and in the end they leave something that is worth seeing at times and a little awkward at other times.  I watched this film because it had two actors that I don’t see as great, but do enjoy seeing on-screen, and it delivered on that promise.  If you’re looking for a film that follows many of the rules of the Oz universe without being completely faithful to the little details (though not contradicting them either), you should enjoy this film.  If you’re a casual movie-goer that’s not necessarily in love with Wizard of Oz, then I recommend you leave this film for a rental.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Movie Review: Nosferatu (1922)

Films based off of Bram Stoker's legendary novel, Dracula, have been a mainstay of film for longer than virtually any filmmaker working has been alive.  The 1931 film adaptation starring Bela Lugosi has been remade over a dozen times, and has inspired more sequels and re-imaginings than any story not featuring Sherlock Holmes.  (Perhaps it's no surprise that the one film character to have more appearances than Count Dracula also has more films to a single title, The Hound of the Baskervilles.)  And for years, that was all there was to say about it.  After all, it's not like Bram Stoker's widow sold the film rights to anybody before Universal started work on their version.  And nobody but nobody infringes on Intellectual Property rights, right?

Enter Prana Films, whose ambitions began and, due to a copyright lawsuit, ultimately ended with Stoker's story.  Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, directed by German silent film veteran Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and starring Max Schreck, was to become the first film translating the story of Count Dracula- or rather, Count Orlock- to film.  While Universal would create the Dracula we've come to know and love to hate, a suave, sophisticated Bela Lugosi who charms young ladies into his arms, Nosferatu (Orlock's “secret” vampire name) is instead a monstrous, clawed creature that towers above man and stalks his female victims from a distance like some sort of monstrous peeping Tom.

While anybody familiar with the story can see similarities between Nosferatu and Dracula, one thing I find striking is the fact that there are more differences between these films than the average film and its remake.  While it's impossible to tell if this is because of budgetary restrictions that forced Dracula to more closely resemble the stage play or because screenwriter Garret Fort intentionally distinguished his script from Nosferatu's Henrik Galeen is hard to tell for certain, but at least one scene introducing Orlock/Dracula's penchant for blood that Galeen had added to the story was directly lifted for Dracula.

A large portion of Nosferatu is spent on the ship-bound transit from Slovakia to Germany.  During this time, Nosferatu feeds on the crew, one by one, until eventually the ship's mate goes down into the cargo hold to discover what is making the crew not only ill, but mad.  There, he sees a site that convinces him to jump off the side of the ship: A vampire rising from his coffin.  Not only does this manner work well for a silent film, which attempts to avoid dialogue for obvious reasons, but it also works well for Nosferatu, a being that works much better as an unspeakable horror than he would be if he were led to interact with humans verbally.

The work they've done with Nosferatu himself is really impressive, especially for this time when film making was very much an experimental process.  Almost every shot of Nosferatu is done from low angle, making the six foot three Max Schreck appear to be seven feet tall or more.  The makeup is excellent, and if you've heard of this film before this review you probably know of the excellent shadow work they've done with this “character”.  Perhaps even more unsettling is the way that Nosferatu can clearly be seen in some scenes leering out of the windows in his new home, clearly in lust with the main human character- the one who spends her days reading a novel about the myth of Nosferatu himself.

Rather than use dialogue and interactions between human and vampire, the film uses subtle hints to instill both a feeling of disgust and terror, and a fear of vampires, into the audience.  Rats pile above the ladder that leads to Orlock's resting place, and Professor Bulwar- this film's analog to Stoker's Abraham Van Helsing- teaches classes about carnivorous plants.  As I mentioned above, leading lady Ellen spends much of her time reading a book filled with frightening tales of vampire Nosferatu, which ultimately includes a suggestion for how to kill him.  In addition the musical accompaniment, while not a score in the sense that we know it today, does its best to convey a sense of fear and suspense as the film shows us coffins being carried in the streets as locals die of a “mysterious plague” which we are left with little doubt as to be caused by the Count's late night deprivations.

It is with the eye of a viewer over nine decades past that clear flaws and weaknesses can be seen in the film.  While it is certainly in the right to be without sound, that cannot be ignored in the process of judging and recommending a film- nor can the narration, which is given in a difficult to read cursive font that at times must be paused in order to be properly and completely read.  To a lesser extent, I was amused to find what may be the world's first day for night shot as the sun could be clearly seen shining through the curtains during a seen shot in the hours before sunrise.

If you're a fan of horror in any form, I tend to recognize this film.  The biggest caveat I would add to this recommendation is that if you are a slow reader, you may struggle to keep up with some events, and if you can not bring yourself to watch a silent film, this will not be able to change your mind.  Any film student interested in the history of the film or the arts of cinematography and frightening directing, on the other hand, absolutely must watch this film at least once.

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a blog meme hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine to highlight upcoming books.

This week's WoW selection is:

Omens by Kelley Armstrong
Publisher: Sphere
Date: August 20, 2013
Pages: 320

Twenty-four-year-old Olivia Taylor Jones has the perfect life. The only daughter of a wealthy, prominent Chicago family, she has an Ivy League education, pursues volunteerism and philanthropy, and is engaged to a handsome young tech firm CEO with political ambitions.

But Olivia’s world is shattered when she learns that she’s adopted. Her real parents? Todd and Pamela Larsen, notorious serial killers serving a life sentence. When the news brings a maelstrom of unwanted publicity to her adopted family and fiancé, Olivia decides to find out the truth about the Larsens.

Olivia ends up in the small town of Cainsville, Illinois, an old and cloistered community that takes a particular interest in both Olivia and her efforts to uncover her birth parents’ past.

Aided by her mother’s former lawyer, Gabriel Walsh, Olivia focuses on the Larsens’ last crime, the one her birth mother swears will prove their innocence. But as she and Gabriel start investigating the case, Olivia finds herself drawing on abilities that have remained hidden since her childhood, gifts that make her both a valuable addition to Cainsville and deeply vulnerable to unknown enemies. Because there are darker secrets behind her new home, and powers lurking in the shadows that have their own plans for her.

Oh my goodness- where do I start? I'm adopted and the question of what if always looms large in the back of my mind when it comes to questions about my background. I've never found my family because of the negative possibilites (why would someone put a child up for adoption if the circumstances were good?) but I generally don't expect serial killer bad. But what if?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Giveaway!- "Dreams and Shadows" by C. Robert Cargill

Ugh. I am so sorry I haven't posted lately. I'm still suffering from blogger's-block. But I'm not quite ready to throw in the towel on the blog just yet. So, while I try to get my mojo back, I'd like to post a giveaway for a really cool book that Harper Voyager sent me.

Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargill

A brilliantly crafted modern tale from acclaimed film critic and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill—part Neil Gaiman, part Guillermo Del Toro, part William S. Burroughs—that charts the lives of two boys from their star-crossed childhood in the realm of magic and mystery to their anguished adulthoods

There is another world than our own—one no closer than a kiss and one no further than our nightmares—where all the stuff of which dreams are made is real and magic is just a step away. But once you see that world, you will never be the same.

Dreams and Shadows takes us beyond this veil. Once bold explorers and youthful denizens of this magical realm, Ewan is now an Austin musician who just met his dream girl, and Colby, meanwhile, cannot escape the consequences of an innocent wish. But while Ewan and Colby left the Limestone Kingdom as children, it has never forgotten them. And in a world where angels relax on rooftops, whiskey-swilling genies argue metaphysics with foul-mouthed wizards, and monsters in the shadows feed on fear, you can never outrun your fate.

Dreams and Shadows is a stunning and evocative debut about the magic and monsters in our world and in our self.

Just add your information to the form below to enter (all information is guaranteed confidential and will be discarded once the contest ends) and I will randomly select one winner by Tuesday, March 26th. No multiple entries please-- all multiple entries will be discarded. Open everywhere.

Good luck!

**Contest Closed**

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Waiting on Wednesday

Waiting on Wednesday is a blog meme hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine to highlight upcoming books.

This week's WoW selection is:

The Mist-Torn Witches by Barb Hendee
Publisher: Roc
Date: May 7, 2013
Pages: 336

National bestselling author Barb Hendee presents a dark, fascinating new world and the story of two sisters who will discover they have far more power than they ever envisioned….

In a small village in the nation of Droevinka, orphaned sisters Céline and Amelie Fawe scrape out a living selling herbal medicines in their apothecary shop. Céline earns additional money by posing as a seer and pretending to read people’s futures.

But they exist in a land of great noble houses, all vying for power, and when the sisters refuse the orders of a warlord prince, they must flee and are forced to depend on the warlord prince’s brother, Anton, for a temporary haven.

A series of bizarre deaths of pretty young girls is plaguing the village surrounding Prince Anton’s castle. He offers Céline and Amelie permanent protection if they can use their “skills” to find the killer.

With little choice, the sisters enter a world unknown to them—of fine gowns and banquets and advances from powerful men. Their survival depends on catching a murderer who appears to walk through walls and vanish without a trace—and the danger grows with each passing night.

Barb Hendee has written some great vampire-themed fantasy in the past (both with her husband and by herself), so her name jumped right out at me as I was scrolling through the coming soon list on Amazon. Even better, this new book is centered around witches as the lead characters- I haven't read a really good witch-themed story since Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Underworld series.

Audible Announces NY Comic Con Giveaway

I just wanted to pass this on-- I'll be entering for sure!


Get ready to pack your bags! The Neil Gaiman Presents production of Robert Sheckley’s landmark work of science fiction, Dimension of Miracles, is coming to Audible on March 26th, and to kick off its publication, Audible will be sending one lucky winner and a guest to New York Comic Con! For a chance to win a trip for two to New York City, including round-trip airfare, four-night stay at a hotel and two four-day passes to New York Comic Con in October 2013, visit Sweepstakes will end on April 12, with a winner selected at random later in April.

Blog Tour- Featuring Author Liesel K. Hill

Liesel K Hill's new book, Persistence of Vision, was recently published by Tate Publishing. As part of her blog tour Liesel is stopping here today to talk about her inspiration for her book and how the story sometimes moves beyond an easy definition and genre. 

Science Fiction and Fantasy as Elements

The great thing about science fiction is that sometimes the sci-fi of today is the fact of tomorrow. The Star Trek series was notorious for inspiring inventors, and I truly believe that people are capable of some of the powers I describe in my book, if perhaps not quite so tangibly.

That said, I didn’t set out to write a sci-fi or a fantasy, per se. I just had a story I knew I wanted to write. I didn’t categorize it until later. At first, I called my story a sci-fi, because it takes place in the future with technology our society doesn’t now possess. Then I realized that some hardcore sci-fi fans might take issue with that. It’s definitely not hard science fiction. So, I switched to calling it fantasy.

Eventually I realized what I’d written was a dystopian, so I now call it a dystopian fantasy with elements of sci-fi. That’s a bit of a mouthful, but I think it’s the most accurate description.

As I said, the sci-fi elements include spaceships, superior computers and transportation crafts that are advanced beyond our civilization. Again, I didn’t set out to come up with these things. It was more a matter of a functional need in the story.

The fantasy elements include super-brain powers like Healing and Time Traveling, as well a neurological ties that the collectives use to tie themselves together and super-creepy villains. These elements were more like pillars of the story when I was conceptualizing it.

In reality, my book is a cross-over genre and any book of that kind worth its salt should have a combination of elements from its different hybrid genres, some of which are functional, and others of which are what the story itself is crafted around. 

After all, crafting fantasy and sci-fi worlds is an art. But it’s also a whole lot of fun! ;D

Persistence of Vision

A flash of purple light. A rock formation. Brown boots walking across a room at eye level. Two large hands covering hers. A hand with an ugly black burn on the back. A woman standing in front of a broken lighthouse. Blood on her hands. A whisper of a voice. These are the images that haunt Maggie. 

One afternoon a year ago, Maggie blacked out inexplicably. Now a man with a spiders web tattooed on his eye has attacked her in her home. Things only get more confusing when Marcus, a man she vaguely remembers from her black out, shows up to take her away. Marcus is from the future and is a member of the Brain Chemistry Optimists (BCO). And so is Maggie. 

Her black out was actually a years worth of time she spent in the future, fighting against collectivespeople who have linked their minds together and given up all individuality. The collectives are working to bring down the few individuals left, and Maggie learns that she is supposed to play a crucial role in these efforts. The members of the BCO explain that in battle, her brain was attacked, and she lost all her memories of her time in the future. All she has left are flashes, afterimages, Persistence of Vision. 

Now she must relearn everything about this different world, harness mental powers beyond anyones imagining, and navigate what was once a romance with Marcus. On top of all of that, she begins unraveling the mystery of her lost memory. However, for every answer she finds, it seems that another, more complicated question arises. Will she be able to remember enough to help the BCO?

For more information about Liesel K. Hill you can visit her at the follow links. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

A Local Habitation is the second novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, and her second published novel out of, to date, twelve novels (ignoring her other published works) under two different names. That’s quite remarkable when you realize that, as of writing this, less than three and a half years have passed since the publication of her first novel, and conventional publishing wisdom once held that if an author published more than a novel a year, they would over-saturate their market and alienate their audience by competing with themselves. Stephen King (presumably among other authors that I know less about) challenged this wisdom in the 1980s, at one point publishing 4 successful novels within a single year in 1987, and since then outstanding authors like Seanan McGuire have had their chance.

Most of this has little to do with A Local Habitation, other than the fact that it was published months earlier than it would have been in previous decades, and the fact that it’s led to other novels that I look forward to reading. If you haven’t guessed by now, A Local Habitation is another good book by Seanan McGuire featuring half-human, half-Faerie (specifically, Daoine Sidhe, possibly the darkest-themed Fae mentioned yet in the series) detective, now out of retirement. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as Rosemary and Rue, for a variety of small reasons, but it’s a good sequel, and Toby is one of those characters that you can’t help but want to meet, again and again.

For the past couple of reviews, I’ve been discussing the merits of mysteries of different sorts within novel plots, seeing as how both Talon and Toby are detectives by trade. A Local Habitation is an example of one of those mysteries where putting enough plot elements in the book for it to be solved logically- in other words, making it so that the reader can follow along with the mystery- can result in the reader solving the mystery well enough before the character in question that one can spend the entire novel arguing with the protagonist about it. I suppose this was necessary in the case of A Local Habitation- it’s a Clue style murder mystery that stops introducing suspects right around the time that it becomes clear the mystery needs to be solved. Aaaaand as the suspects are physically eliminated, one by one, and the only ones left are the ones that conclusions have been drawn about… yeah, it’s not too hard to see by that point. Even if I was arguing with Toby that process of elimination is not evidence and it turned out to give her the right answer after all. Still, of the three other facts that needed deducing, I figured them out about five chapters in and waited for Toby to catch up for the rest of the book.

That fact does hurt A Local Habitation‘s ranking, at least compared to its superior predecessor. The predictability of parts of the mystery, and the fact that we didn’t get to learn much more about Toby, make this the lesser novel in a way that feels as though it’s content being a sequel. This was only the second sequel that McGuire had written- or at least, published- so I can’t begrudge it all that much. This doesn’t make for a bad book, but what it does mean is that it doesn’t hold a candle to her other works that I’ve read.

As for the characters, we mainly follow along with returning cast October Daye, star of Rosemary and Rue, and Quentin, a Daoine Sidhe adolescent, along with a host of new characters which of course dwindle as they’re picked off throughout the book. In fact, they’re picked off at such a rate that Conner and Tybalt of Rosemary and Rue are forced to take up the reins of supporting characters within the mystery. While it is nice to see them both again, the fact that neither of them does anything that particularly requires it to be them- other than Tybalt having a conversation with the local cats, that is- indicates that they could have been a pair of original characters, adding depth to the mystery and making the success at catching the culprit a little bit more meaningful, by actually saving a pair of lives. As it is, you get the distinct impression of the police showing up on the scene too late, with not enough to go on, and as a result catching their man too late to do any good but on time to punish them for it. True, the same events could have continued on somewhere else had Toby and Quentin not arrived, but the pickings were pretty slim in Tamed Lightning by the time the story wraps up.

If it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on this novel, it’s true. I tend to come off as nothing but complimentary with McGuire’s work, so when I find a novel with flaws in it, I want to be clear that that’s what they are. It goes without saying that Seanan is a terrific character writer, a subtle plot artist and an extremely vivid storyteller; every time she puts finger to keyboard this is clear. What I want to be equally clear is that, while being a good book by a great author, this isn’t a great book. It’s still better than Timecaster, though- let’s say a 4/5, even though I don’t usually numerically rate novels.

Once again, if you like mystery and slightly morbid fantasy with a hint of action, you’re gonna want to check out Seanan McGuire’s A Local Habitation. The characters- the main ones, anyway- are vivid and fun to be with, the plot is engaging and suspenseful, even if not as suspenseful as it seems to the protagonist who is apparently way too close to the situation to draw certain conclusions- and the action and story are entertaining. Just read Rosemary and Rue first, both because it introduces the characters, and because it’s just a better book.