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