Monday, 31 December 2012

TV Miniseries Review: The Pillars of the Earth

Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Director: Sergio Mimica-Gezzan
Year Released: 2010
Running Time: ~60 minutes per episode
Episodes: 8
Status: Complete; followed by World Without End
Classification: MA
Genre: Historical drama

Based on Ken Follett's book of the same name, The Pillars of the Earth is a historical saga set in the 12th century, with the action kicking off upon the death of Henry I's son and the ensuing succession crisis between the king's daughter and nephew. The series is a veritable soup of players and plots. After the first episode, I rubbed my hands together in glee at the promise of meatiness and soapiness to come.

The drama centres on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Knightsbridge. It is a project started by Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), continued by his sons Jack (Eddie Redmayne) and Alfred (Liam Garrigan), and supported throughout by Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen, who you may remember as 2005's Mr Darcy). Making life hard, however, are the evil, power-hungry bishop Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) and the evil power-hungry Hamleigh clan, who want the priory's resources for themselves. These villains must also contend with plucky noblewoman Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and her brother Richard (Sam Claflin) in their power struggle over the lands of Shiring.

It's hard to describe the plot in any more detail without spoiling it all, so I'll leave it at that. I think, however, that you get the idea that this drama is a knotty plotty thing. I really enjoyed that – it was fun seeing what would happen, where things would go next, how one event would affect another and so on. It's the kind of show where half the fun lies in guessing the twists and turns.

Another pleasure is the cast, but for me it was mostly because I was able to cry “hey, it's that guy!” at almost everyone who walked on-screen. Some characters were distracting, but I'll admit this is probably entirely my own fault. For example, shallow old me had my attention diverted by stupid thoughts half the time Jack appeared – I couldn't decide if he was too pretty and whether he was creepy or mysterious. Also somewhat cringe-inducing was his method of seduction, which involved talking about architecture and then suddenly swooping in for a kiss. Though he was a “good” character, I wasn't sure if I liked him. By far the most distracting though was David Oakes as the vile William Hamleigh. The actor bears an uncanny resemblance to weedy shy guy Bret of Flight of the Conchords fame and there were many times I'd see William's horrible rape-y actions and clutch at my proverbial pearls, thinking “Brett would never!

Left: David Oakes; Right: Bret McKenzie
I just had to show you the two of them, brought together by the magic of MS Paint. The resemblance is uncanny, I tell you. Uncanny!

That aside, there are some (legitimate) problems with the drama, and these mostly involve characterisation. The good characters are clearly good and the evil ones are clearly evil; a few greyer characters are thrown in the mix, but they're only side characters. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – after all, sometimes you want to watch something where you can just cheer for the good guys and boo at the baddies. In this case, however, it detracts from the quality of the show overall. The villains are so determinedly villainous that some of the conflicts seem contrived and repetitive: while watching, I struggled with trying to remember exactly why certain (good) characters were so hated and why the villains would go to such lengths to make them suffer. Also, Willaim Hamleigh attacks Knightsbridge so many times that you come to dread the scenes where this happens. The battles also seem to blend in with one another. By the second last episode, everything becomes pretty predictable and (spoiler alert) the baddies get their comeuppance (hurrah!).

Another nitpick involves historical accuracy and general sense-making, which this drama sort of lacks. Most prominent is the character of Aliena, who, though likeable, embodies the modern “action girl” beloved of our times. 12th century class and gender norms don't really seem to matter for some reason. Further, the means by which Aliena comes into money really beggars belief. Still, this is a nitpick, so it's not a major issue but I'm sure it'd put some people off.

Oh, another thing that might annoy people is the supernatural element (in terms of visions, etc), but this aspect remains sort of ambiguous in terms of whether they're “real” or not and they're very minor. There are also some sex scenes and nudity, though they aren't nearly as gratuitous as in other shows (lookin' at you, Game of Thrones).

I enjoyed this miniseries. It looked good and it was fun and it was full of plotting and drama. Worth a go if you're feeling in the mood for something rich and historical and a wee bit trashy.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

(On another note, HAPPY NEW YEAR!!)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Book review: 50 Shades of Grey

Book Review: Fifty Shades Trilogy
  1. Fifty Shades of Grey
  2. Fifty Shades Darker
  3. Fifty Shades Freed
Author: E.L. James
Year Published: 2011
Genre: Erotica, Romance

To a friend who asked us to do this review.

After some long months, I have finally finished the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Yay for me.
There is a reason for the long months. I had to force myself to read it. This trilogy is what it is, fan fiction. Written by someone who got lucky. If you have read 50 Shades and you love it, good for you and you might want to stop reading this review. If you haven’t read it, most likely you are thinking the same thing as I did before I read the trilogy. “I want to know what the fuss is about but I know I will not like the book”. 
Yes, you will be very, very disappointed.  

Then again I’m not a romantic person, I don’t like erotic books and I’m not a big fan of female writers.  Also I cannot tolerate poor writing. Your thought might be different. (I know, E.L. James' first trilogy be nice. I won't. I will be truthful and blunt, pay back for wasting those long months.)

The story centers on Anastasia Steele. She meets the rich, handsome Christian Grey. They basically hit it off from the start. What she doesn’t know is his troubled past and his ‘demands' in the bedroom.

Nothing happens in these books but sex! I wish I could have put that more delicately. I know it's a erotic book (although no one told me how erotic it is) but at least have some kind of storyline. Anything to keep the book interesting. There are parts of the trilogy where problematic situations arise but none are centered in the main story except for Christian's and Ana's sex life. The only thing worth noting is Christian's past and why he is the way he is... (*cough*a creep*cough) ... which was dragged through 3 books!!! By the end, his issues weren't even solved.

What I really dislike about 50 Shades is the'character development.' Anastasia  for example. She is meant to be a nice, innocent average girl. Of course every guy in the book is in love with her. That is typical in most romantic novels. What makes Ana annoying is from a college graduate, her IQ drops to 'ooo I love Christian Grey. Christian this and Christian's butt that.'. (Must have studied Christian Grey 101 in college). The only thing she develops is how to be irritating. Not to mention she does things purposely to annoy Christian just because she can. After her defiance she will beg for forgiveness and wait for her 'punishment'. Its a vicious cycle that repeats throughout the books.
Christian is no doubt much more complex. However besides from a whole lot of Ana describing his past and problems, he remains pretty much the same... (A controlling sex addict.)

On that note, am I the only girl on the planet who thinks Christian Grey is an extremely troubled person and if you were to pull his boundaries too far he will snap and ‘kill’?

The writing. Definitely not the best. This is the author's first novel so I won't go in depth with the repeating of words and the horrible attempts of steaming up the more erotic parts of the book and failing. (But like I said, I don't like erotic books so this might be me being biased..... I highly doubt it though).

One last point I have to make. 50 Shades is written in Anastasia's prospective so everything that runs through her head goes on the pages of the book. I have never read such a (lack of a better word) stupid girl's mind before. I understand she is meant to be young and naive but most people grow out of it. E.L.James has tried to give Anastasia some sort of selfless personality but she then lets it get lost in the story. Let me put it this way. Anastasia, being a average girl is meant to be relatable to the average female audience. I pray that there is nothing of me that resembles Anastasia Steele and I stress that Ana is NOT the typical average female!

Don’t read Fifty Shades of Grey. It is not worth anyone’s time unless you want to read something brainless. This craze will blow over and hopefully a ‘good’ book will take its place as the must read very soon…. Please…. Very soon….

Terri's Rating: 0.5/5

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Book Review: Virgin with Butterflies

Title: Virgin with Butterflies
Author: Tom Powers
Year Published: 2009 (originally 1945)
Genre: Adventure, General and literary fiction

(I apologise in advance for the length of this review.)

Look at the cover.

Just look at it.

When a dear friend pressed Virgin with Butterflies into my hands, I knew I held something special. Sure, virgins are a dime a dozen when it comes to fiction, especially when paired with the words “bride”, “mistress”, “boss's” and “billionaire's”, but here we have a virgin who is not defined by a man. Here we have a virgin who sits – as a queen – with a bunch of man-butterflies as her subjects (admittedly, it may seem that “butterflies” is a euphemism for men, but at least they're not men who own her). Upon flipping the book over, I discovered that the blurb only added to the book's mystery – the heroine is described as a blonde (!!) who collects rich men and has (magic?) butterflies that warn her when danger approaches. How could I resist?

I had two hopes: either the book would be hilariously bad or surprisingly good.

In the end, it was just so-so.

So what's it about? Well, at the brink of WWII, a down-to-earth American gal helps out a visiting Indian prince in a bar fight. For some reason she then accompanies him as he flies around the world selling jewels. In the process, she is admired by many men and receives many gifts. That's it. It's never explained why the heroine agrees to go in the first place, especially since she seems so surprised about it all and I can only assume it was because she wanted to be safe from the petty criminals who attacked the prince. It doesn't make sense, but there you go.

The narration is done in a really casual first person. Just imagine those old black and white American movies where a woman goes “so I says to Darlene, I says” and you'll have a pretty good idea of what the entire book reads like. I'm not entirely sure what to make of the heroine. She has the Mary Sue-esque trait of being obliviously but obviously gorgeous and every man she meets comes to admire her in one way or another. Still, she's somewhat likeable, being good and kind and decent. She's also practical and surprisingly culturally sensitive, but the thing that stands out is how simple she is.

Her cluelessness at times almost beggars belief, especially when it comes to how she even gets to flying about with the prince in the first place. She's a grown woman, not a child, and I can't quite decide whether she's irritating or charming or both, for instance, when she says things like “some other Japanese that sure was no gentlemen, they came over to a place that's called Pearl Harbour and they blew it right up. And they oughtn't to of done that, so there was a war.” (p78-9 for those playing at home).

For a book that was written in the 40s, it's pretty non-racist. In fact, I'd probably go so far as to say it's almost the opposite, promoting cultural and religious tolerance. There's a number of racial stereotypes, but they're fairly mild and apply equally to everyone, including the British, who say things like (p159) “Quite a bit of a neat show, what?” and so on. The worst of it is probably the depiction of the Sudanese king, who is shown to value a sewing machine above several sacks of gold, because somehow no one had ever thought to sell him another sewing machine or something. Be ye warned.

As for the actual story, it's not very well told. The narration jumps back and forth in time, and the main plot of travelling is further interwoven with a story about the heroine's family – namely her brother's arrest and her uncle's evilness. While such a style of storytelling might have worked with a different narrator or writer, it's just annoying here. All the jumping about destroys suspense and serves only to baffle and disappoint. The narrator will mention some future ~exciting event~, and then when we actually get to the ~exciting event~, it's just glossed over or blandly described. It's almost like watching a movie and realising that you've already seen all the good bits in the trailer. The style matches the heroine's character, so I guess the heroine just isn't a very good storyteller.

The same goes for the descriptions. The heroine visits many exotic locales, but it feels like the countries are name-dropped rather than explored. The worst part I can pinpoint is the non-description of an Indian temple on p169: 
“Well, it's no use trying to tell all about it, because if anybody's been to the movies enough you don't have to describe nothing much. They know what it looks like. And that's just what it did.” 
This is after the temple is described as “a huge big church with no windows and no pews and no Stations of the Cross or anything”. Thanks for that, narrator!

In summary, I didn't really enjoy this book. If you were thinking of reading this for the lulz, you'll probably be disappointed for the most part. If, however, you really enjoyed the excerpts I posted, then you'll probably find it very funny indeed. Personally, I found it a little on the boring side, the poor story outweighing what lulz there is. The heroine's voice is easy to read and there's a good sense of her character, but I can't decide if she's annoying or sweet and at any rate, the story and its telling aren't the greatest. The cover and title are the best thing about this book and they (along with the blurb) are misleading – other than the Indian prince, I can only guess at who the other heads are supposed to be. And FYI, the titular butterflies refer to stomach flutters (how disappointing, am I right?). I had maybe been hoping for some kind of mystery story where the heroine, by reason of her virginity, can control some magic butterflies that are actually spirits of men and she must escape pursuers who want the butterflies for their own nefarious purposes or something. But yeah. I was wrong. Still, take my dismissal with more than a grain of salt, for though I say there isn't much to this book, I have somehow managed to write this freaking essay on it (with quotes, no less).

Alex's Rating: 2.5/5

Monday, 26 November 2012

Movie Review: Breaking Dawn Part 2

Title: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2
Director: Bill Condon
Year Released: 2012
Running Time: 115 minutes
Classification: PG-13
Genre: Urban Fantasy, Romance

In the final instalment of the Twilight series, we say goodbye to Jacob's abs, Edward's sparkles and Bella's... Bella. At this point, no one's going into this film expecting cinematic brilliance, and indeed you'd be wasting your money if you had hoped this film would be “good”. For “fans”, of which I am one, Breaking Dawn Part 2 holds a number of delights/horrors; there's a big battle sequence, creepily CG'd Renesmee and Aro's laugh to look forward to. All in all, the quality here is fairly similar to the previous movies, and after four others, Breaking Dawn Part 2 gives us a sweet finish to the whole ordeal.

Breaking Dawn Part 1 (2011) ended with Bella (Kristen Stewart) being turned into a vampire by Edward (Robert Pattinson) after almost dying giving birth to human/vampire hybrid demon child Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy). We also saw Jacob (Taylor Lautner), the loser of the love triangle, “imprint” on Renesmee (kind of like falling in love, but without the creepiness, honest, because he'd never do anything like that at least not until she's legal).

In Breaking Dawn Part 2, Bella becomes an awesome vampire filled with awesome (and Kristen Stewart does look good in this movie, if you're into that), and then there's some stuff about not-telling her father, and some stuff. A vampire sees Renesmee and thinks she's a vampire, and since making children vampires is illegal, said vampire runs off to report the “crime” to the Volturi (powerful Italian vampires). As the Volturi are coming, the Cullen family recruit a bunch of X-men (only some of whom are racially stereotyped) to act as “witnesses” to prove their innocence.

The plot is pretty ridiculous and the first half or so of the movie is incredibly boring. It doesn't seem like anything is really happening, just a bunch of people standing around having conversations and it drags. Yet incredibly, it also feels rushed; we jump from scene to scene and Bella's narration is used to bridge them in a way that feels like lazy storytelling. At least the scenery looks good. I guess.

And then there's Renesmee.

(Now, there has been many an internet rant about the issues here, so I'll just stick to the movie problems.)

First, there's the whole skeevy imprinting thing mentioned above. Bella's outrage upon discovering it is pretty much token and it's the only objection that comes up in the movie (hey, it's what happens in the book). On the plus side, Jacob and Renesmee's relationship is never overtly depicted as “romantic”, unless you count the flash-fowards and some meaningful looks shared between the two that can so easily be (mis)interpreted (in my cinema, there were groans and awkward laughter during these moments, so there you go).

Second, Mackenzie Foy's face is CG'd on every actress that plays fast-growing Renesmee. And it's like.... why? Why would you do this? Why? It was creepy as hell, especially since it wasn't done very well (picture a CG-d face, semi-floating on another head, drifting slightly – just slightly – to give the impression of occasional no-chin and uncanny valley realness). Considering how well they CG'd Bella during her pregnancy and how people aren't idiots and can tell when a character is the same character despite changing actors, I just don't understand. On the plus side, it was so off-putting that it kept me awake throughout the sluggish first half.

The creepiness isn't helped by the fact that Renesmee has no discernible personality. I suppose this isn't really her fault: she doesn't really get to do anything and is often just in the background. The way she “communicates” - that is, by touching people and flashing images in their minds – comes across as some kind of brainwashing technique, and to me, she could've just as easily been an innocent child as an evil demonic creature in the guise of an innocent child. But hey, this made me enjoy the film more rather than less.

So things pick up in the last part, when the Cullens & co. confront the Volturi and their cronies. If you've read the book, you'll know how anticlimactic the climax is, and the movie manages to put a twist on it that is, dare I say, rather clever. Though it's not as epic as its soundtrack would lead you to believe, it is action-packed and unexpectedly violent. I was riveted the whole way through. It's easily the best part of the movie, barring Aro's strange laugh (see below), and for me it was totally worth watching the first half to get to this.

I can't see this movie being enjoyable for someone who isn't invested one way or another in the Twilight franchise. If you're not a fan, don't bother; if you are fan, you'll be seeing this film regardless of its reviews. Breaking Dawn Part 2 is arguably the best of the lot, but that's not saying too much. The story is what it is, the acting is so-so and the quality of the CG varies. Still, I was surprised by the whole battle sequence and I must admit that the movie overall was pretty entertaining, even if for the wrong reasons. It's certainly not a great series of films, but I couldn't help but feel a pang of nostalgia when the credits rolled, reminding us that non-Charlie humans once existed in the Twi-verse. And now, as the franchise comes to a close, everyone has the happy ending they were waiting for.

Alex's Rating: 3/5
(for non-fans, probably 2/5)

Monday, 19 November 2012

Book Review: Runemarks

Title: Runemarks
Author: Joanne Harris
Year Published: 2007
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

Marked by a rune on her hand, Maddy Smith has been shunned by the villagers of Malbry for all her life. As a child, she finds a friend in the traveller One-Eye, an Outlander who teaches her to use magic – a dangerous art connected to the old gods and condemned by the Order. Now One-Eye asks fourteen-year-old Maddy a favour: to go into World Below and retrieve a mysterious object. Little does Maddy know that there are others after it too, and so her great adventure begins. The plot is very intricate and to reveal more would be to spoil it.

Set five hundred years after the End of the World, the novel draws heavily from Norse mythology (though whether it's a fresh take or a bastardisation of the source material depends on your tastes). In fact, so much of the mythology is appropriated that it can be difficult to follow, hence the included maps and list of characters. I myself found it a bit overwhelming, despite having some familiarity with the tales (translation: the main thing I remember is that Loki once turned into a lady-horse and did it with a man-horse and then gave birth to Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse – but this particular story isn't included in Runemarks). The narrative often seems to progress rather slowly, mired by the history of its setting. It's worth getting through though as the book only gets better the further you read.

The world and magic system are interesting and the characters work well as an ensemble, but what you'd really read this book for is the plot. There are many different characters with many different motivations and it was interesting to see how their plot-lines intertwined with one another. Best of all is the adventure. There is always something happening and new places to be explored. The journey to a certain place (near the end of the book) was particularly gripping, taking a darker turn than I had anticipated. Though it's an epic tale that fits in one book, not everything is completely tied up and there is a sequel, Runelight.

Though I was distracted by the abundance of semicolons early on, the writing itself is generally smooth and easy to read. I found that I wasn't particularly invested in the (early mentioned) history of the world to begin with, since it was quite dense and since I didn't quite care for anything or anyone yet. On this note, the shortness of the chapters was a real help to me in getting me through the history-heavy parts, making them seem less daunting. Another problem I had was in the frequent shifts in point of view (which itself was occasionally omniscient but mostly read like third person limited) – shifts which sometimes happened between paragraphs. There were two or three times I wasn't sure whose head I was in, and these moments took me out of the story and were jarring enough to leave an impression. This problem also disappeared as I got near the end.

Runemarks is a good YA fantasy, especially for those who want something epic in scope but one book in length. It was hard for me to get into at first, but I was glad I kept reading. While the world-building elements can be quite heavy-handed at times, these elements are woven into the story and the book certainly delivers on the adventure front. The way the plot wraps up is also very satisfying.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Book Review: Florence & Giles

Title: Florence & Giles
Author: John Harding
Published date: 2010
Genre: Historic, Gothic, Horror

The cover of Florence & Giles resembles the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. Just like the poem, it successfully delivers the same eerie gothic vibe to the reader.

1891. In a remote New England mansion lives 12 year old Florence and her younger brother Giles. Florence spends her time reading in secret, against her uncles’ will. At night she sleep walks the dark old corridors and has a recurring dream where a mysterious woman threatens her younger brother.
What thought to be dream becomes a reality to Florence who begins to witness strange phenomena when the children’s second governess, replacing the first who died a terrible death, arrives. She becomes certain the mysterious woman in her dream is the new governess and must find a way to protect her brother from harm.

The best word to describe Florence & Giles is eerie. It flows throughout and makes friends with horror. This book is narrated by Florence. The author did well in translating a protective 12 year old thoughts and actions into words. Simple language is used with made up words only a 12 year old would create.

The first couple of chapters explain the closeness of the siblings and Florence's talent for hiding when reading. The eeriness does not start till Florence’s dream is explain by the appearance of the new governess. Florence starts to see things she can’t explain and no one will believe her.

This novel is a good read. It has the perfect mixture of horror without gruesomeness. It is much more than a straight forward child verse evil governess.
From the beginning, there is no doubt the governess is hiding something but nothing out of the supernatural. Nothing to fear. But the further I read, the more the governess scares me.
There is a battle between Florence and the Governess, good versus evil until the end. The end is when everything makes sense. It explains why the governess is there, why she wants to harm Giles and why Florence is the only one who sees the truth.

The end is when the horror is realized and is, I think the scariest part of the novel. Then again I don’t read horror or gothic books. I get scared easily when it comes to the supernatural. There is nothing bad I can say about this novel. The pace was perfect, the characters written well and the depth of Florence belief is solid.

Florence & Giles is worth a read. It is a horror, gothic novel and will scare you and maybe even make you see things in the mirror that are not really there (or are they?). The twist in this novel might be typical, but it is still captivating enough to hold attention and provide indication that horror comes in different forms. 
A must read.

Terri's Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book Review: The Last Dragonslayer

Title: The Last Dragonslayer
Author: Jasper Fforde
Year Published: 2010
Genre: Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Comedy, Young Adult

Jennifer Strange is the fifteen-year-old acting manager of Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. Though once a noble calling, magic has gradually been fading from the Ununited Kingdoms and its practitioners are now reduced to delivering pizza and unblocking drains. Life is not easy for Jennifer: the use of magic is heavily regulated, sorcerers are a volatile lot and work is hard to come by. But it's only when a sudden resurgence of magic coincides with a prophecy of the death of the last dragon that the trouble really starts.

The Last Dragonslayer is a delightful read; it's fun, fast and doesn't take itself too seriously. There is a generous dose of humour throughout the book and I found myself rereading sentences at times out of pure glee. Literary and scientific allusions fly thick and fast and modern life is satirised, including big business and the cult of celebrity. For this reason, adults can find much to enjoy in this book, despite it being written to a younger audience. Fforde's brand of funny may be a bit “cute” for some, but I found it right up my alley.

The world is like an alternative version of ours and its history and magic system are quite detailed and interesting. Unfortunately, this results in a few info-dump/talking heads scenarios, in which things that you might have guessed are explained quite thoroughly and the action is slowed right down (hopefully, this means that sequels The Song of the Quarkbeast and The Return of Shandar will reap the benefits of past exposition). And yet despite this extensive world-building, I found that there were sometimes gaps in the descriptions – for example, in one scene, I had assumed the only people present were Jennifer and the King's men until a lady suddenly faints; in another I spent most of the time wondering where the Quarkbeast had got to. These are very minor complaints though, quite possibly caused by my own lack of imagination.

Given how early the dragon stuff is mentioned, I was impatient for the plot to progress more quickly than it did. Can't say I really minded though, since I enjoyed it the whole way through. For some reason, I had expected something a bit more epic, which this really isn't. It's more of a light-hearted adventure, best read for its prose and its quirks, rather than the plot as such.

Needless to say, I really liked this book; the world and its magic were peculiar in a clever yet mundane way and I thought it was really quite funny (though of course, humour is subjective and Fforde's may just be the sort to set your teeth on edge). It's easy to read and accessible to anyone. Recommended for fans of Harry Potter and Terry Pratchett and anyone looking for a light and witty read.

Alex's Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Book Review: Coastliners

Title: Coastliners
Author: Joanne Harris
Year Published: 2002
Genre: General and literary fiction, Drama

Following the death of her mother, Mado returns to her childhood home in Le Devin, a tiny island off the French coast. After ten years away, she finds that the generations-old rivalry between the two island communities - Les Salants and La Houssinière - remains strong. Morale is low in Les Salants, for it has suffered repeated floods while La Houssinière thrives with growing tourism. Cue a mysterious stranger, plans to revive Les Salants and some father-daughter tensions and the stage is set for drama.

The evocative atmosphere is the most memorable aspect of the book. Descriptions of the dunes, the beach and island life suffuse the novel and you get a great sense of place. Strangely and disappointingly, while Mado is a painter, there are virtually no descriptions of her craft. If you've read Chocolat (which in my opinion is better), you'll have an idea of what you’re in for. Like Chocolat, the male love interest is a handyman drifter character and you have a small community whose personal dramas give meat to the main plot.

Many scenes in the book are just comprised of various conversations between the villagers. They're all pretty much introduced at once, and though it's hard to keep track of them initially, you catch on. Le Devin is inhabited with many colourful personalities, and for me, they walked the line between flawed-yet-loveable characters and flat stereotyped placeholders (thankfully I still liked them). The main character, Mado, is largely easy to relate to, but sometimes her feelings and motivations are left kind of vague, which is vaguely frustrating. Whether you like the characters will be a fairly subjective matter, albeit one which contributes greatly to whether you'll enjoy the novel.

I had thought this would be a breezy kind of read, but it's actually the kind of book where everything just plods along until the end, when suddenly things happen. The ending feels rushed, as if the author suddenly realised she had to tie up all the family drama plotlines and had only a limited number of pages in which to do so. All those "reveals" made me feel like I was reading a mystery, which maybe this was. While things are ~resolved~, I wasn't completely satisfied as the outcome seemed like a bit of a cop-out; further, I would have liked certain aspects, such as Mado's relationship with her father, explored in greater depth. The rushed ending makes me disinclined to accept that it's ~supposed to be ambiguous~.

Coastliners is the kind of book you'd read when you're looking for something comfortable and easy, something relaxing to pass the time. The writing is smooth and the environment appealing. While the plot and the characters can feel somewhat shallow at times, the entire thing is suffused with a great deal of charm, making it a pleasant experience overall.

Alex's Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Book Review: The Demon's Lexicon trilogy

Title: The Demon's Lexicon, The Demon's Covenant and The Demon's Surrender
Author: Sarah Rees Brennan
Year Published: 2009-2011
Genre: Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Action, Romance

I wanted to like this series. I really did. The reasons for this are twofold: first, not one, but two of my friends liked and recommended it; second, I've lurked on the author's blog and she seems really funny (those recaps!) and nice (as far as I can tell from my observations as a creepy internet lurker). In the end, however, The Demon's Lexicon series just wasn't really my cup of tea, though I can see why it might appeal to others.

The Demon's Lexicon introduces us to the Ryves brothers, Nick and Alan, who have been running from evil magicians their entire lives. Enter Mae and Jamie, two siblings from Nick's school who suddenly find themselves in need of magical help. Various kinds of fighting ensue. The novel is told from Nick's point of view, which was not a particularly fun place to be. I mean, I get that he has an unfeeling sort of personality, but some variant of “Nick didn't care, but he did it because he thought Alan might like it” pops up on every other page and I got fairly sick of being told about this over and over again. I couldn't really get into the plot either (despite heaps of action), nor could I bring myself to particularly care about the characters. The last third of the book, however, took me by surprise. At this point, all the various sub-plots come together in a really interesting way and I finished the book relatively quickly. While I enjoyed the ending (the book works as a standalone, thankfully), I wouldn't have read the sequels had I not already borrowed all three books.

In The Demon's Covenant, we have a continuation of the adventures of our intrepid four as they continue to oppose evil magicians (but I won't say anything about the plot because spoilers). I was actually a little disappointed that we weren't in Nick's point of view any more (given the ending of the last book), but oh well, Mae's point of view proved to be an easier read (replace “Nick didn't care...” with various metaphors and similes). The plot meanders more than in the previous book, and I wasn't really ever sure where things were going, or if they were going. Though I wanted to like Mae, the fact that she (minor spoiler alert!) dates/befriends her brother's bully – despite Jamie openly hating him and despite Mae seemingly loving Jamie the most – rubbed me the wrong way. As with the previous book, I didn't find myself compelled to pick this up again after I'd put it down. Then boom. Another great third act.

The series finishes with The Demon's Surrender, told now from the point of view of Sin, a relatively minor character from the previous books. At this point, I was getting a bit bored of the whole “Market people vs. magicians” conflict, which seemed to move sideways rather than escalate (if that makes sense). Still, I found this book to be the easiest to “get into” out of all of them. The writing seems more balanced and I also found Sin to be more likeable than Nick and Mae. Coincidentally, this is also the book in which all the romantic sub-plots become fleshed out, though it did seem a bit contrived at times to have Sin present while the other couple talked about their relationship. On this note, I also didn't buy Nick's “romance”; it felt like something was missing between the previous book and this one (not in a good way) and I couldn't make the jump. At any rate, the conflict and action are better paced in book three, with major events happening in the middle rather than just at the end. The ending itself is fairly satisfying too.

As far as YA urban fantasy goes, this series is pretty original (no vampires or werewolves). The demonic aspect of Brennan's world was really interesting and the books were at their best during the times they explored this. However, I wanted more world-building from this series. It's set in Exeter and London, but I didn't really get a sense of place other than the general “urban” kind of feel and the occasional landmark name-drop. The same goes with the Goblin Market and the world of the magicians in general. While these were described in a fairly detailed way, I could only get a superficial impression of what they were. Given that all the action occurs in these places (no hopping around cities to save the world), I would have liked more depth.

My other main problem was that this was a character-driven series and my failure to bond with the characters doomed me to diminished enjoyment. Despite the changing narrators all having different personalities, there's a same-ish quality to the writing – for example, the occasional quirky hook of a sentence or pretty turn of phrase, the same kind of descriptions and so on. In other words, since the writing style is similar in all three books, what didn't work for me in the first book also didn't work for me in the second and third. Worse, I couldn't even root for the villains, as they all felt a bit two-dimensional. This, for me, diminished the tension in the books even further.

Now for a bunch of even more subjective nitpicks/comments. First there is the humour: there's quite a bit of it, it is funny, but it feels a bit like internet humour and it was therefore a strange experience to be reading it a book (see the author's website for examples of said humour). Second, while some might find the many t-shirt slogans mentioned (eg. “Romeo and Juliet Wouldn't Have Lasted”) to be a particular treat, I personally found it distracting since I could not help but think of the Author Appeal. Third, included on p206 of The Demon's Covenant is my personal berserk button: arterial blood is described as dark (seriously, is this a thing now?). In all honesty though, these won't annoy you unless you have a (read: my) specific set of stupid pet peeves.

I'm sorry I didn't like this series as much as I wanted to, I really am. This was probably my own fault, since I started the series after my YA urban fantasy craving had passed. The premise is unique, the dialogue is snappy and the way the endings came together was well done every time – there's plenty to like. But I felt had to push my way through this series, I didn't really care about anyone, and it was just not to my (subjective) taste. My recommendation, if you want to give this a shot, is to read the first book and see how you go from there: if you like it, great, go read the next two. But if you don't, then I'm betting you won't much like the others – in which case, just go watch Supernatural or something to get your brothers-fighting-supernatural-forces fix instead.

Alex's Rating: 2.5/5

Friday, 19 October 2012

Movie Review: Holiday in Handcuffs

Title: Holiday in Handcuffs
Director: Ron Underwood
Year Released: 2007
Running Time: 86 minutes
Classification: Unrated
Genre: Romance, Comedy, Drama, Family (?)

Though its title is suggestive of a buddy crime caper (or kinky sexytimes, if you will), Holiday in Handcuffs is actually a romcom produced for TV by ABC Family. Now, while I am quite tolerant of happy crappy Christmas movies (and indeed enjoy them much more than I should), this film has the distinction of being the silliest Christmas movie I have ever seen. Ever. It's utterly ridiculous and makes absolutely no sense. And yet, if you can manage to bring yourself down to its level, you'll find that it does quite nicely as a brainless fluffy diversion.

The plot is basically this: waitress Trudie (Melissa Joan Hart) gets dumped by her boyfriend on the eve of a family Christmas trip, so she kidnaps David (Mario Lopez), a random handsome customer, so that she can present him to her family as her boyfriend. Just let that sink in. The premise is so dumb and so unbelievable that you have to wonder how it got past the development stage. I mean, they try to insert some level of realism, having David protest his kidnapping and all, but the reasons for his failure to escape are very contrived: Trudie's family believes his “help me I've been kidnapped!” thing is all a joke and (spoiler alert!) when he somehow manages to get a phone, he calls his horrible snobby girlfriend (of course) instead of the police. Further, unlike a real person, David accepts his predicament all too easily – it would not have been hard for him to overpower his petite female captor, take her car, whatever. His objections are token at best. It's almost like he wants to be kidnapped or is otherwise unusually dim. So yes, the whole basis of the movie made no sense whatsoever.

Even so, it's possible to enjoy the movie even while raging at its stupidity. This can be mostly attributed to Sabrina Melissa Joan Hart as a very 90s-styled Trudie. She's the unglamorous loser of the family and it's easy to identify with and root for her. Add to this her painterly aspirations and I was totally on her side. She's such a hot mess that you can almost buy the the fact that she'd kidnap David in the throes of a nervous breakdown, so props to her for that. David, on the other hand, is a bland and smiley sort of fellow who's just there to do whatever the plot requires of him, and since the plot requires him to be a dumbass, he's not particularly believable as a successful human being.

Still, Hart and Lopez look cute together, and since this is a “family” movie (there's a bit of sexual innuendo, albeit decipherable only to corrupted adult minds), the troubling nature of their relationship is blatantly ignored in favour of a “bickering couple” dynamic. Further, Trudie is so harmless and likeable that David's continued imprisonment becomes more and more implausible as time goes on. Normally, one might assume that the film is trying to do something clever here, like explore the nature of Stockholm syndrome and so on, but no. The movie doesn't deserve the credit of your analysis, so don't waste your time (and yes, I realise the irony of saying that as I type my review).

The latter half of the movie treads more familiar romcom territory, with the leads bonding and Trudie's “perfect” family revealing how dysfunctional they really are. Sure it's a bit cliched, but I was always entertained (...perhaps in no small part because I often thought about what I would do if I were in David's place). Overall, the film is funny and highly watchable, ultimately delivering on the happy ending that you watched it for in the first place.

Long story short, if you're looking for a pleasant and brainless Christmas movie, you can do far worse than Holiday in Handcuffs. Despite its absurd premise, it has that warm, comfy quality that you get from hot chocolate and a soft blanket. I can see myself rewatching this when I get into a Christmas mood. Make no mistake though: Holiday in Handcuffs is too silly and too stupid to be a “good” movie, but also too charming to be written off completely.

Alex's Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Movie Review: MirrorMask

Title: MirrorMask
Director: Dave McKean
Year released: 2005
Running Time: 101 mins
Classification: PG
Genre: Adventure, Fantasy, Drama, Family

A dark artistic fantasy world.
MirrorMask follows 15 year old Helena. She stumbles into a fantasy world and embarks on a mission to find the Mirrormask to save the kingdom and to find a way home.

The storyline is the traditional lost kid in another world believing it is all a dream. Very ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’.
What makes MirrorMask unique is its artistic story telling, designs and the distinctive eeriness of music used. Written by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean the movie has a darker tone then a normal kids film.

Note: Neil Gaiman is a well known science fiction/fantasy writer. His books include American God, The Graveyard book and the graphic novel series The Sandman. If you enjoy his books, you will definitely like MirrorMask.
Dave McKean is a renowned artist and has collaborated with Neil Gaiman before on The Sandman series. His art work is unmistakable and it is his designs which make the fantasy world come alive.

The plot is self explanatory. The delivery of the storyline is intertwined perfectly with the mind game art technique used by McKean.
The entire movie is dim. Our world looks like a cloudy day before a storm while the fantasy world is covered in a sandstorm colour. The fading visual images in the fantasy world allow a dream like appearance. Kind of like submerging something in dusty water where you can see it, but not clearly.   

The creatures of the fantasy world resemble normal animals but yet are so unique you will have trouble placing them. (Besides from the Giant Twins, of course. They are definitely not from this world.)
Music is used wisely. Most of the music played in the background has a soft beat that I have never heard used in any other film. (Then again I have not seen every movie on the planet.) There are a lot of chiming noises. It makes the atmosphere feel more spiritual and even restful. The most memorable song would have to be Close to you played while Helena transforms into the Princess. I personal hate this song but the way this song is delivered in this particular scene, it hypnotised me as the magical dust did to the Helena.

However MirrorMask is not for everyone. It runs slower with no bright colours or happy singing to keep the more easily distracted audiences amused. So if you like your happy la la, bright colour singing children’s film, you may not enjoy MirrorMask.

I highly recommend this movie to anyone who has always wanted to have an adventure. MirrorMask not only takes you on an adventure into another world, but will open your eyes to a place where dreams are lost, books have thoughts and where the darkness is alive. It is the mixture of art design and storyline that makes this movie brilliant.

Terri’s Rating: 4/5