Thursday, December 5, 2013

CBR V Review #53: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward

“It's a sad reflection on society how many people are shocked by honesty... and how few by dishonesty.” 

I'm on a play reading kick lately, I think because my SPTs reminded me how very few things I've actually read/seen, especially of late.  This was not a first read for me - I've read plenty of Noel Coward, and this was one of them I had read in the past.  However, it's been a lot of years, and I remembered next to none of it.

Coward has a brilliant way with witty dialogue.  It never feels like he's trying too hard to be clever, but the repartee is always sharp.  This play is the story of an unfortunate, though comedic, series of events set off by a seance in the house of the Condomines.  Charles Condomine wants to research a character for a book, and hopes that watching Madame Arcati perform a seance will give him the right vocabulary for his protagonist.  What he doesn't account for, however, is that the seance not only succeeds in connecting him, his wife, and his guests with the spirit world, but manages to bring his first wife over to the side of the living - with Charles the only one who can see or hear her.  Events unfold amusingly from then on.

I'm not a huge fan of reading plays, actually, because they are almost never as good on paper as they are in action.  That's by design - plays are written to be staged, the words given life by performers.  Reading them is a colder experience, even for an actor.  However, I simply don't have the time and funds to see quality productions of everything, so reading them tends to be a lot more accessible.  This is a fun read, especially because Coward's wordplay is always so enjoyable.

CBR V Review #52: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? by Edward Albee

I'm going to put this out there to start with - this play is most decidedly not for everyone.  The central issue at hand is the protagonists affair with a goat.  If that's a problem for you, just stop now.  If not, then enjoy the incredibly written play in all its complex awfulness.

Martin and Stevie have an incredibly happy marriage.  Neither has ever been tempted to cheat, something uncommon in their social circle.  They have a son, Billy, whose sexuality is an adjustment for the couple, but not something terrible.  Martin is at the top of his game as an architect.  But something is set to ruin everything.  After distractedly ruining and interview with his best friend, Ross, Martin confesses he's having an affair with a certain Sylvia, who, it turns out, is a goat.  He's in love with his wife, but he's also in love with Sylvia.  Ross writes to Stevie to tell her of Martin's infidelity, and the play is, in the main, a reaction to this news.

This play is so sharply written.  In such a short span, the relationship between Martin and Stevie is established as interesting, dynamic, and real, and it makes it all the more heartbreaking to see them fall apart in the aftermath.  I appreciate that Albee paints Martin in a sympathetic light.  Bestiality is not something we, as a culture, have any sort of sympathy or understanding for as a sexual choice (and I'm down with that, don't get me wrong).  But Martin isn't some degenerate pervert in this.  He's a man, in love, and confused by how and why that is.  Making Martin not a monster makes it an interesting story.  Albee makes him hard to hate the way you would expect to, and that's to his credit.

Stevie...Stevie is magnificent, and a character I am dying to play someday (I'm too young to have a 17 year old son, thank you very much).  The way she casually breaks objects while more pieces of the story come out is genius.  She has such fabulous snark about the way she handles her pain and her rage.  And she makes the point you have to wonder at as an audience - how can you possible prepare for something like this?  In the long list of things you can possibly imagine going wrong in a relationship - cheating, sexual identity issues, lying, alcoholism, screwing the babysitter, etc - who includes fucking a goat on that list?  I'm going to hazard a guess of very few people.

This play is brilliant and dark, like much of Albee's work.  I highly recommend it, if you can handle the subject matter.

CBR V Review #51: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

“How little we know, I thought, of the people we live amongst.” 

I picked this one up because I thoroughly enjoyed People of the Book, another of Ms. Brooks books.  This seemed a good subject matter for her - historical fiction, localized to one little English town.

Year of Wonders is about the plague, and the havoc it wreaked on one little village.  Based on true events in the village of Eyam, we follow Anna Frith through the death and decay of 1666.  An infected bolt of cloth brings the disease to the town, leaving all kinds of destruction in its wake.  It's a tale of survival, despair, catastrophe, and above all, hope.  

Anna is a wonderful character, trying to continue to cope and be useful as the world crumbles around her.  Helped by the assistance of the local reverend and his delightful wife, Anna tries to help the community survive the crisis.  It shows how low some people were brought, capitalizing off the misery of others, panicking in grief and laying blame at the wrong feet.  But it also shows how good can still shine through the darkness.

I feel like I should have more to say about this, but I really don't.  It's a beautifully written piece of historical fiction, sometimes incredibly hard to read, but always worth it.

CBR V Review #50: Just My Luck by Rosalind James

Yes, yes, *another* volume in the Escape to New Zealand series.  And the last, it would appear, as Ms. James has started publishing another series that I have no interest in.  Regardless, this is very much like its predecessors - All Black rugby player falls in love with ex pat.

In this case, the story is about Nate, new skipper for the ABs (you'll remember Drew from the first book was the previous skipper, and he retires in this volume).  His serious focus is tested by the beautiful and interesting Canadian, Allison.  Her interest in extreme sports, and Nate, keeps his mind occupied on something other than the game at hand.  They aren't the only romance in this one, though.  Ally's roommate (and Kate from the first book's sister) Kristen and another AB teammate, Liam, also have a blooming romance in this one.  Honestly, they have a relationship I liked more and I wish these were two separate books instead of meshed into one.

Ally and Nate's primary issue is his lack of ability to commit.  His focus on his career takes precedence over his feelings for her, and I'm glad when she gets sick of it and moves on (though of course he learns his lesson and makes it up to her, etc).  Liam and Kristen are more interesting.  She's a model gorgeous woman with a recent divorce who is incredibly gunshy about men.  This makes sense, since she's used to only being wanted for her looks.  Liam is a recovering alcoholic who has gone down a long, hard road to become the man he is now.  The way he warms her to him, and that they grow to love one another is lovely.  I wish I could have spent more time watching that unfold instead of Ally and Nate.  And Liam's proposal, and general courtship, is so beautiful.

Another great addition to a series I'm sorry to see the end of.  Hopefully she'll write more of them someday.  I love being transported to New Zealand and living with these characters.

CBR V Review #49: Dark Witch by Nora Roberts

“You can’t just hope for happy endings. You have to believe in them. Then do the work, take the risks.” 

My adoration of Nora Roberts should be well known around here by now.  I actually pre-ordered this book so I could have it the moment it was released.  She is my favorite romance novelist, hands down, and I love when she mixes fantasy into her usual romantic formula.  As an added bonus, we get Ireland in the mix, which makes it the perfect trifecta for my enjoyment.

The story, and the series (yup, another trilogy - LOVES IT!), is set up with an opener set in the past.  A powerful witch, Sorcha, and her children have their lives disrupted by a dark witch, Cabhan.  Sorcha sacrifices herself and passes her powers onto her three children, knowing that someday the circle will be complete and they'll be able to banish the evil man forever.

That brings us to present, and Iona Sheehan uprooting her life to move to County Mayo and cousins she's never met, Branna and Connor O'Dwyer.  The siblings recognize Iona immediately for what she is - the last of the circle, the third of the original powers.  Each of them has gifts and animals associated with them, passed down from the original three siblings: Iona has a horse, Branna, a hound, and Connor, a hawk. The two start training Iona, knowing she'll have to up her magical abilities to be useful.  In the meantime, Iona gains employment at the stables of Ashford castle, working under her inevitable love interest, Boyle.  Also introduced are the love interests for the others in the circle, as that's how Nora always sets things up.

I enjoyed this book a lot, though the ending let me down a little.  You know there is no way they are defeating Cabhan in book one - he's the central conflict of the series.  So the rush to the battle at the end feels anti-climactic.  You know they aren't going to win, and also that they can't lose that badly because none of the main characters is going to die, especially not when most of their relationships have yet to develop.  So the drop off at the end was a bit much for me.  Still, a good read, with a solid set up for the rest.

I look forward to picking up the rest of the series as it is released.

CBR V Review #48: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

“I suppose a fire that burns that bright is not meant to last.” 

SPOILERS AHOY!  I'm putting that out here loud and clear.  This is the final installment of the Divergent series and I am going to talk about it with spoilers because...because I am, that's why.  I have feelings.  So once again, I say SPOILERS!SPOILERS!SPOILERS!


This kicks off where the last book ended, with Jeanine defeated, Four's mother in charge, and the factions a hot mess.  This is the only book told from dual perspectives - we shift between Four/Tobias and Tris, which I'll talk more about later.  Tris and Four venture outside the fence, as instructed by the video played at the end of the last book, and discover what I expected all along - the world outside exists, and their city was an experiment.  However, where I figured it was a purely social experiment, it turns out that it's a genetic one - there has been a war, and genetic modifications were at the heart of it.  Instead of racial tensions, or gender, or sexual - this is a world where genetic purity is key, and the infrastructure of society is based upon a class distinction dictated by what's been done to your genes.  Tris' divergence, it turns out, is a sign that her genes have corrected themselves through the generations and she is now pure.

Of course, this type of class tension is really no different from the faction tension Tris just escaped.  And a girl like that doesn't know how to avoid championing a cause, so she jumps right into the fray of this one.  Her involvement is supported later when the home she knew is threatened by the messed up society she's walked into.

I'm torn on how I feel about this book.  It's not as good as its predecessors for a variety of reasons.  Much like Collins did with Hunger Games, this trilogy moves from a set world into a larger one, and into larger issues, in the concluding volume.  I think both book suffer a bit from the widened scope.  I enjoyed the factions and how they interacted - this abandoned that almost entirely to focus on the gene war, and I had no investment in that.  The shifting narrative also occasionally left me cold.  I like being inside Four's head - he's a wonderful character - but the bouncing back and forth lost me every now and then.  I'd sometimes have to remind myself who I was with in a given chapter.

And the ending.  I'm sure the ending is the make or break point for most fans of the series.  On the one hand, I don't think it's necessarily the "wrong" choice for Tris to die a martyr.  What happens more or less makes sense, and it ups the stakes to have that kind of real sacrifice.  At the same time...after all the things she endures, and the things her divergence makes her able to overcome, it almost felt cheap to let her get shot to death.  More than that, after all Four has survived, having him try to live life without her seemed just a little too cruel.  I have a hard time with books that kill the protagonist, whether it makes narrative sense or not, and this is no exception.  So while it's not a *bad* ending, per se, it's not satisfying for me.

The movie is coming up, and I'm interested to see what changes from book to screen.  I'm slightly less excited now that there's an end, and it's this, but I'll still go see them. And I still recommend the trilogy to anyone, but with the caveat this last volume isn't necessarily going to please everyone.

CBR V Review #47: The Second Chance Cafe by Alison Kent

“Don't look to where you've come from. Look to where you're going.”

This is yet another book I picked up for a dollar, courtesy of the awesomeness of Amazon.  This, however, was a bit more successful than the others I read.  The writing was a little more refined overall, and the characters felt a little more real.

This book is about Kaylie Flynn and Tennessee Keller (seriously, these names only exist in the realms of romance books).  Kaylie returns to the house that was her foster home after years away, wanting to open a special cafe and make her deceased foster parents proud.  While baking brownies and setting up shop, she also hopes to find some answers about her past - how she ended up in the system, who her father was, and where both of her parents wound up.  Spicing up the mix is her sexy contractor, Ten Keller, a local boy with his own family drama.  Kaylie finds love and family in unexpected places as she builds herself a new life.

I don't have a lot to say about this one either, although I thoroughly enjoy the fact that in between chapters there are brownie recipes.  It adds a nice touch to include them; also, I love to bake and will probably try them out at some point because brownies are delicious.  Kaylie has a lot of baggage to work through, and there are times I wish that she were getting some kind of professional help.  I'm glad she finds a supportive partner in Ten, but still.

This is another book that's volume one in a series, but I might pick up more of these.  I'm fairly certain the next one will be about two of the secondary characters established in this one, and they might be interesting to read about.  I'd also like to check in and see how Kaylie and Ten are doing!

CBR V Review #46: Sandkings by George RR Martin

As an avid reader of Game of Thrones, I was excited to read something Martin wrote outside of the world of Westeros.  I was not disappointed.  This award winning novellette is totally fucked up in exactly the way you would expect from Martin, and it's delicious for that.

Simon Kress is a sadistic douchebag who likes to keep pets that are terrifying or evil in some way.  He comes back to his planet from an off world trip to find his piranhas have eaten each other and goes in search of a new pet to amuse him and his friends.  He finds a new shop, and a new pet - insect like Sandkings.  These are creatures that build communities with their own colored kind and can be made to war against each other.  They also have a complex form of religion, where their caretaker becomes a god to them.  This sounds ideal to Simon, who does not need the store owner's advice to make sure to take good care of them.  Simon denies them food and forces them to wage terrible wars against each other.  Eventually, he pays the price, Outer Limits style.

You know from the outset that Simon is going to pay for what he does in some terrible way, and Martin doesn't disappoint.  Far from it.  In his usual insane and barbaric way, he drags out Simon's fate in what is a suspenseful and terrifying little novellette.  It's a really solid story, and a must for people who enjoy Martin, sci-fi, and people getting what comes to them.

CBR V Review #45: Ex on the Beach by Kim Law

One of the side effects of me waiting so damned long to catch up on my reviews is that I cannot remember everything I wanted to say about what I read.  This is troubling in this case because I gave this book 2 stars on GoodReads and can't for the life of me remember what I didn't like about it.  It's pretty average romance novel fare.  Andie runs a wedding business, ironic since she starts it after she's left at the alter by Mark.  The big socialite wedding Andie needs to be a success to pay the bills features her ex as a groomsman.  Hijinks ensue, with make up sex, mixed up feelings, and repaired bonds of many kinds.

Honestly, I wish they had spend more time on Andie's family than on her and Mark.  She has a terribly fractured relationship with her workaholic mother, and there's a rift between mom and the aunt Andie adores.  This figures into the story, but I found those relationships more interesting than the one at the center of this narrative.  I like family dynamics, and a lot of this was explained away quickly.  I would have enjoyed a book centered on their relationships.

It was a fairly forgettable book, obviously, but not a bad one.  I don't think I'll venture to find the more in the series (this is listed as Book 1). I only paid a dollar for it, and I got my money's worth.

CBR V Review #44: Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.” 

Scaramouche is an old, fabulous text. It tells the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a lawyer raised in nobility who ends up influencing the French Revolution.  After the murder of his friend in an incredibly one sided duel, Andre finds new purpose in life, taking up his friend's political mantel.  Andre finds himself shifting personas to accommodate his new influence, but he is forever driven by fury at the noble who murdered his friend, and the inequality of the system.

I picked this book up for one reason only - the fights.  I'm big on stage combat, and studying combat in general, and this was highly recommended to me by my fight family.  Andre, later in his story, becomes an incredible fencing master.  As such, it's an interesting text to read from the perspective of someone who studies swordplay. Sabatini knows his stuff, including the rules of the duel.

The book itself drags a bit at times, but much of that has to do with the style of writing, which is a product of the period.  However, the story is a good one, with an interesting narrative and a cast of solid characters.  The twist at the end is not entirely a surprise, at least parts of it are not, but it makes sense to go where it does.  There's a *lot* of political discussion here, as is necessary when your book is set in a revolution.  Some of it was lost on me, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't interest someone else.

This is a hard one to recommend because it's not something everyone will be into.  But I enjoyed it.