Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Three Unfortunate Events Book Reviews

Years ago, while visiting my friend Love, her son gave me a copy of A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snickett.  He loved the book and wanted me to love it as well.  I refused to accept it but I promised to read the books.  Then I forgot.  I forgot to read it because there were already so many books to be read.

Then a couple of years ago, my son gave Rob the first book in A Series of Unfortunate Events and I was reminded of a promise I made to Dash, my friend’s son.  So I finally read the book and I thought it was cute but I didn’t immediately fall in love.  I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would think it would make a good movie because it’s certainly not a cheerful story, as the series title clearly suggests.

Eventually I got around to reading the second book, borrowing a copy from the library and last year I read the third book but apparently forgot to write a review.  Last month, I breezed through the next two books.

I know I’m not alone in loving the narrative voice of these books and I can see why they are so popular with children.  The story reads like it is being told orally, with “Lemony Snickett” interjecting asides and comments, warning the reader that bad things will happen and that things are only going to get worse, even inviting the reader to put the book down now, read a less sad book, and other quirky things that all add up to a fun read.

The reader needs these to make what would otherwise be a bleak series of books to read a little fun.  The Baudelaire orphans are shuffled from one place to another, inevitably followed by Count Olaf who, in the first book, tried to marry the eldest of the children, Violet, so he could take control of their inheritance. 

These books are dark, the way traditional fairy tales are dark.  The adults are foolish in the extreme, not unlike the adults The Little Prince and Milo in The PhantomTollbooth meet in their journeys.  That the children are able to outwit or at least stand up in the face of seeming endless bad luck.  It is their undying hope and the relationships with one another that also add a lightness to these stories.  You care about the children, obviously, and want to see them live happily ever after, as one would in any good fairy tale.  In the meantime, however, you have to suffer along with them as they go from one unfortunate circumstance to another.

Children readers will learn in spite of themselves because of the interjected comments from the narrator and, sometimes, through the characters.  For instance, in The Wide Window, their new guardian Aunt Josephine is a grammarian so she corrects mistakes and her corrections serve as an amusing way for children to pick up some language skills.  And what parent doesn’t want a child to pick up an education while reading something that is actually fun to read?  As for the dark, even grim, humor, this is not unique to this series and, while some may find it strange, children’s appreciation for the macabre didn’t end with Grimm’s Fairy Tales and will continue to touch something essential in the psyche. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike—A Dark Place by Gischler and Lee

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Spike—A Dark Place is a graphic novel by Victor Gischler and Paul Lee.  The events take place sometime after BtVS S8.  The adventures begin on the dark side of the moon, hence the title, and things quickly spiral beyond Spike’s control.  As is typical of his character, however, he does manage to maintain his cool, or loses it when it is most convenient in several well drawn fight sequences.  But is it a gratifying read for the die-hard Buffy fan?

Frankly, you’d have to be a die hard to find much pleasure in this attempt at keeping the story alive.  Spike does occasionally say some things that are spot on familiar but so much so that I’m positive they are derivative rather than original.  (Okay, I did like the V C Andrews reference.  One point to the writer for that.)  When Spike meets Morgan, a succubus who has her own agenda, one event leads to another and, when the graphic novel is finished, Spike is pretty much where he belongs in the scheme of things. 

If you haven’t been keeping up with the Buffy-verse and don’t know what Spike has been up to, you may be somewhat confused at first.  You’ll be even more confused if you haven’t read BtVS: S8.  This book simply isn’t meant to be read without some context and that is, in my opinion, its greatest weakness.  It relies too much on what should be known and doesn’t bring much new to the table.   I don’t know if this is intentional but there are elements of a ‘segue’ story arch in this book meaning that it reads as if the writers were trying to get Spike to a particular place physically, emotionally, narratively, so that they could get the story where they want and need for it to be.  When done brilliantly, the reader won’t notice.  When done well but only adequately, the end result is evident but still somewhat gratifying.  This graphic novel was good but not good enough for me to go out of my way to buy it and if I don’t want to own something that has to do with a character I love in a series I love then I can’t help but feel it failed at some fundamental level.   Not even the artwork, which is good but not as good as I’ve seen in other Whedonverse books, is enough to inspire me to purchase this book.  Oh well.  Maybe next time.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin

A Storm of Swords by George R R Martin is the third book in the Song of Ice and Fire series which I am only reading because I am impatient for the next season of Game of Thrones to begin.  I swore I wouldn’t do this to myself—read an as yet unfinished series of novels—but then I started watching the show, and I was hooked enough to want to read the next season’s book before the season aired.

And as if knowing that there are two more books not yet published, apparently HBO has decided to break book 3 into two seasons so Storm of Swords will fill both seasons 3 and 4.


But good call on HBOs part because holy cow a lot happens in this book.  If you’ve seen the previews then you know who survived the second book/season.  I am trying to avoid spoilers in this review and if you haven’t watched the show and you are waiting for the remaining books to be published before reading any of them, stop reading this review now.  There’s only so much I can do to protect you from spoilers.  It’s okay.  This review will be here when you have finished reading the third book.  I promise.

Seriously, stop now and I pinky swear promise.

Okay.  Now that I have that out of the way, back to my review.

Holy cow, a lot happens in this book!  Just when you think someone may be safe, they aren’t.  Just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.  Time and time again, what I expect to happen doesn’t.  I honestly expected Joffrey to rape someone in particular but he doesn’t.  I’m glad he doesn’t, frankly.  Still, what does happen to him isn’t as gratifying as I would have liked. 

I really want him to suffer suffer suffer.

Let’s face it—he’s a hateful character and the worst thing that could happen to him would still be too mild because you really want horrible things to happen to him.  Really, really horrible things.

They don’t. 

Moving on.

I know a lot of people don’t like Danearys but she’s really coming into her own.  She is becoming a stronger leader with every turn of the page.  Her story line, however, is fairly dull.  It has to be, if you think about it. Her character’s motivation is narrow—reclaim the throne.  She’s slowly moving towards Westeros to accomplish this.  And her dragons are getting bigger but are not yet big enough for her to ride.  So she just keeps inching along, becoming a stronger woman, a stronger ruler, a stronger character. 

There are other characters who likewise grow on you as their story lines nearly converge.  Arya nearly meets up with Brienne and Jaime but that doesn’t quite happen.  Disappointing, to say the least because the relationship between the Jaime and his escort is delightful and I want to know that Arya has someone looking out for her who has her best interests at heart.  Brienne is rather one dimensional as a character but her interaction with Jaime is fun to read.  He becomes more interesting, albeit not too layered in his purpose.

The most intriguing story lines remain with Tyrion at the center.  Sansa continues to be a bit foolish, a product of her society, constantly romanticizing things in spite of how ugly reality can be.  Shae is mostly "off-stage" with Tyrion desperately trying to protect her even as his father constantly manipulates everything and everyone around him.  Tyrion is not always clever enough to stay a step ahead, however, and his situation spirals into so much suffering.  I was scared for him.    

How scared?  Well, I broke one of my cardinal rules and I skipped ahead to skim one of his last chapters to make sure that he would be okay.  Seriously.  I never ever do that.  But I simply couldn’t bear the not knowing.

And you know what?  That part of the third book won’t even make it to the third season.  Most of the third season will probably be focused on Jon and his being assimilated by the Wildlings.  He and Bran nearly cross paths but that doesn’t happen.  Interestingly, Samwell comes into his own as a character and some other minor characters come along for the ride.  I kinda love that because you don't really expect him to become pivotal.

There there's Arya.  She is so young, and so scared, and I adore her.  I adore everything about her and her story.  Her sister occasionally frustrates me and I worry over her but Arya doesn’t usually make me worry because she has a survivor's instinct even if it means doing things that are anathema to her role as the daughter of a king and queen.

One of the things that especially interested me in this book is the role of the direwolves.  Arya is separated from her wolf, having sent her away to save her life while Sansa’s was killed. Both girls are removed from their home, their loved ones, and isolated by circumstance.  Jon, Bran, and Robb have their wolves but things happen and the connection between master and direwolf is evident most blatantly in Bran’s experiences while serving as a metaphor for the other two.  (Rickon doesn’t make much of an appearance at all and I can only assume he will be more involved in the story in the next book.)

While reading these books, pay attention to the direwolves.  I anticipate Arya's will return to her eventually.

The use of dramatic irony anchors much of the story.  Because the reader knows things the characters do not—like Arya is alive and Jon Snow is not a traitor to the Night’s Watch—I found myself drawn more deeply than I think I would have been otherwise.  With so many different plot lines occurring at the same time, often overlapping one another, it can become confusing and when reading a story line that is less compelling than another, there is a temptation to skip ahead.  (Yes, I know I already confessed to having done precisely this but I only skimmed, then went back and read the chapters leading up to the later one before reading it from beginning to end.  I may skip and skim but I don’t skimp.)  However, Martin is a master at keeping these various threads so tightly woven that skipping even one chapter is simply not an option.  Even a less stimulating part of the story proves to be meaningful in other parts of the novel. 

I’m pretty sure, given the previews and the story arch, where season 3 of Game of Thrones will end.  It makes perfect sense that they would choose to spread this one book over 2 seasons. I can’t imagine what they would cut to make it fit into one. I can’t even imagine what they could cut.  I only wish I didn’t have to wait two more years to read the next book.  But I shall because I can resist that temptation so long as the entire set of books has not been published.  I don’t know how well I’ll resist the temptation after the seven books are published.  I can’t make any promises at that point and I’m pretty much guessing that, regardless of where the television show is in the books, I’ll be blissfully speeding through however many books remain at that time.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel is a graphic memoir with elements of meta-writing in which the author brilliantly layers in passages from psychiatric texts, letters between her parents from their courtship, and allusions to the past that she seamlessly weaves into a single personal meaning.  Ultimately, this memoir serves as a follow-up to her previous graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic in which she explored her relationship with her father. 

This memoir, as the title suggests, focuses more on her relationship with her mother; but it also explores her relationships with her therapists and her lovers.  It doesn’t take a Freudian to recognize that she is seeking in her other relationships the things she never received from her mother.  In coming to terms with the voids in her primary relationships, Bechdel is delicately candid.  Never so self-protective that she becomes emotionally careful, she is always self-aware and conscious of how her choices in her writing may affect her loved ones.  In this she shows both compassion for her own honesty and an empathy for those who my read her truth through a filter of their own understanding.

I wasn’t sure this memoir would stand up well because I adored her previous memoir so very much.  The way she used literary allusions to inform and enhance her story, how she plays with the linear through the use of flashback, and layers her own truth with her father’s--all of these elements added up to a dazzling piece of literature.  That she created a memoir that was evocative and literary was brilliant enough; but that she did all of this in a graphic memoir is all the more remarkable.   Needless to say, I couldn’t help but wonder if she could do it again.

She did. 

Bechdel's relationship with her mother is complicated; also, it is unquestionably full of love.  She is able to recognize what was missing even as she tries to understand why her mother was unable to meet her needs as a child.  It is her willingness to be honest without needing to blame that makes her memoir a pleasure to read.  When she quotes from other sources, or interjects references to Virginia Woolf, Donald Winnicott or even Dr Seuss, it all has a reason to be there.  Not a single panel is wasted and all of them are beautifully drawn.

Bechdel is brilliant.  She blows me away every time.  I love this book and hope that she will find more stories to tell.  I’d read anything she publishes.   

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