Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Girl On Book Action Podcast: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer

Hello again, cupcakes, as promised we have a podcast for you. This month we're discussing the Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities Edited by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer.

Links (kindly hosted by

Oh and here is the link to the author I mentioned in the podcast: Kelly Barnhill.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Top and Bottom Books

Well, my dear pumpkins, it’s the end of an era here at Girl on Book Action.  Out of the blue (or so it might appear) we’re no longer giving you weekly reviews.  As a send-off, here are my top five best and worst books of the last 20ish months (click the title in the headings to jump to my reviews).  What's that? Wren said we were giving our top three with some honorable mentions?  That can't be right...

The Good (ranking reflects the order in which I thought of them, not some sort of antiquarian idea that any of these are better or worse.)

      1.      The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I don’t really think there is much more I can say about this novel and the impact it has had on my life and my imagination.  I’ll likely continue to re-read it at least once a year for the foreseeable future.  It would take a herculean effort to supplant this book's deep-rooted hold on my heart and the only real contender is Kiernan's next novel, The Drowning Girl: A Memoir. The review is admittedly not one of my best, but you really should just read the book and see for yourself how amazing it is.

     2.      Under the Poppy by Kathe Koja

There are moments when this novel comes back to haunt me in a pleasant sort of way.  The characters are still alive inside my mind and I remember their tragic beauty with great fondness.  I also still love how it feels like it has a supernatural current in its depths, but it’s not at all a supernatural story.  While I might not re-read it as obsessively as I do The Red Tree, I imagine I'll be returning to this one again in the not-too distant future, as well.


3.    The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

I had a really hard time picking which one of Valente's novels to put in this list, but I think that my review of The Habitation of the Blessed is probably the most coherent (the others might have too much unadulterated gushing).  I think this book is probably also the most challenging of hers that I've read so far and deserves so much praise and love.  Although, if you're just getting started on Valente, I would probably suggest you read Palimpsest first.  It's still breathtakingly beautiful, but maybe just a touch more accessible.  Either way, I love her books and more people need to read her stuff (so that I can discuss with someone!  I still have lots of tea!).

4.  All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

My last review on the blog and for a book that touched my heart with its combination of bleakness and hope.  Since I talked about it recently I won't write a lot here.  I think the review speaks for itself and if you haven't checked out Bear's work I once more want to encourage you to do so.  Everything of hers that I've read has been great, so unless you hate good, imaginative writing, you really can't go wrong.

5.  Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

I know what you're thinking, I just wrote a top five list and I'm including two posts about the same author.  I have two reasons for this repetition.  The first is that Rosemary and Rue is a very good novel.  The second is that I selfishly think that my review of it is one of my best pieces and as much as this list is about books I've read it's also about what I had to say about them.  Of course, I'm in a similar position to what I already said about the sequel to Feed, which is to say that I haven't yet picked up the second October Daye book.  Rest assured, I aim to remedy that...just as soon as I can.  Anyway, Rosemary and Rue was great fun and you should read it if you haven't already.

Honorable mentions: Mauve Desert by Nicole Brossard, Feed by Mira Grant, Frostbite by David Wellington.

Y'know, it's no easy task picking these tops and bottoms.  In going back over everything I've read for the blog I realized how many good books I've had the pleasure of immersing myself in.  I've really tried to narrow it down to stories that have left some sort of mark on me, the ones that haunt me and call me back to them again (re-reading has been in short supply with the reviewing schedule, sadly).  Alas, they were not all gems.

I think this is the worst book I read in my time writing reviews for GoBA.  Somehow, that also makes this my favourite piece.  I really sunk my nails into this one and I think my gleeful spite for its ridiculous badness makes for an eloquent, funny read.  Also, I got to use the word “uncouth" (twice!).  For all its flaws I think it serves an important lesson in how not to write a novel.  In retrospect, I'd also say that in some ways it carries on the family tradition, since Bram's prose wasn't exactly worthy of praise either (and I feel so strongly about this fact that I refused to read and review the original Dracula and got our good friend Din to do it instead - clicky to go to her awesome review).

Oh, Stephen King. I've come to the conclusion that maybe I just don't like your style.  When I set out to read the whole Dark Tower series, I was excited - gunslingers! alternate universes! a quest to reach a mysterious tower! - all of these things led me to believe that I would thoroughly enjoy these books.  Well, The Drawing of the Three nearly broke my resolve.  I very nearly abandoned my own quest to reach the end of these novels.  Alas, I've prevailed regardless of this obstacle and I'm still determined to finish the last few books.  They can't possibly be worse than this one, although they continue to disappoint.

      3.      Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Like father, like son?  Every so often I think about this book and it makes me angry.  The main character is such a jerk and he really doesn't deserve anyone's attention, ever.  On the whole, this book was extremely disappointing, especially since I'd heard mostly good things about it before picking it up.  Even now I feel my hackles going up, so I best move on before someone gets hurt.

4. The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

Ugh.  This book.  I know it's not high literature, but it was so, so aggravating.  I still don't see why reading historical romance novels means subjecting myself to such anti-feminist tripe.  I don't want to root for the meek, dutiful wife character.  I want be on the side of the strong, independent women, the ones who dare to make a play for power, even if they are unsuccessful.  Okay, deep breath, I'm not going to go on another lengthy rant - I did that in the review, which I think is one of my stronger ones.  Funny how the terrible books bring out the best reviews.

5. The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

Another recent review.  I'm still gnashing my teeth about the incessant whining that happened between the cover of this book.  Oh, Lestat, I mourn for your charming ruthlessness, you were never meant to be such a whiny jerk.  In my heart, I will try to remember you as you were, in your prime in Interview with the Vampire.  I bet it's somehow Louis' fault that you turned into such a wretchedly boring whiner.  Damn him!  Damn him forever!  Umm, I mean,...uh just go read my review.  I'm going to go weep into my tea for all the wonderful anti-heroes who have been ruined in the course of authors trying to make them into likeable creatures (I'm looking at you, Dracula: The Undead).  I don't care what Wren says about Interview with the Vampire (the movie), all these irritating whiny vampires need to go sit in the sun for a few hours.

Honorable mentions (or maybe not-so-honorable mentions): Fathom by Cherie Priest, Monster Island by David Wellington, and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

So, there you have it.  Nearly two years distilled into one short post.  I'm looking forward to giving your much-assaulted eyes a rest (reading these walls of text must have been very hard on you).  Of course, now I'll be assaulting your ears with my harpy's voice.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Top and Bottom Movies

The Best and Worst of the Last Two Years. Written & Directed by Me.

As you may have seen yesterday, Doomwench and I have decided to take the blog into a more audible, less paragraph-y and most importantly: less weekly format. That's right, we'll be putting our brands into cattle of podcasting (though I suppose also into the fire of podcasting).

In the meantime, we thought we'd write up a quick summary of the best and worst things we'd seen and read over this nearly two year endeavor. This turned out to be more difficult than we thought. We had decided on 3 good, 3 bad and a few honourable (and dishonourable) mentions. instead I bring you my top and bottom 10 movies, these are in no particular order, because it was hard enough choosing without having to rank.

The Good, of all the things I've seen over the last few years, these were the most...palatable:

Bluebeard: My introduction to the incredible Catherine Breillat, whose cult I now lead.
Sita Sings the Blues: A gorgeous independent film made in one woman's basement.
X-Men First Class: The movie that shocked me the most by how good it was, despite all my apprehensions.
Ink: Another low budget movie that managed to rock my socks.
Captain America: What's this, a movie about one of the most tedious Marvel characters demanding I love it?
Red: A flick about retired spies that managed to be the best action movie I've seen in ages. Plus, lets all purr at Karl Urban.
Rashomon: Believe every bit of the hype.
Frankenstein: Once again, Branagh's ego is pushed aside enough to make a fantastic film. Well. Almost.
Moon: Where I learned who Sam Rockwell is and a great deal about his backside.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Terry Gilliam can still make a killer flick, when did I say he couldn't?

The Bad, while I had my palate widened to enjoy tons of new and odd movies, not every experiment is going to give favourable results. When they were bad, they were very, very bad:

Splice: Sexist, simplistic AND a third word that begins with "s"? I'm in. Unfortunately.
Bram Stoker's Dracula: This is based on one of the most boring classic books I've ever been force fed. What could possibly be wrong with the movie?
Priest: Doomwench is still doing penance for making us see this one.
Offspring: I make a lot of jokes about my love-hate relationship with horror...but this one really hurt.
Inception: Why Chris Nolan? I thought we were friends!
The Wolfman: Why can't I just enjoy a movie about Benicio del Werewolf?
The Men who Stare at Goats: All-star claptrap.
Clash of the Titans: An abysmal movie that made for one of my favourite reviews.
House of the Devil: Oh! My heart! The wasted potential.
Daybreakers: C'mon vampire movies, cowboy up. Wait. No. Then we had Priest. Do SOMETHING anyways.

Oh and strictly to mess with Doomwench, my honourable mention:
Interview With the Vampire: Which was great, I don't care what she says.

So there are the top and bottom 10 percent of the class (give or take). If you haven't been following this blog until now, they might not be a bad place to start browsing!

Next time I see you I'll be in your ears!

And as a last aside: while my the Ten poster is an excellent gag cover, it's a movie I didn't get around to reviewing that is a fine comedy.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Stunning Announcement

Announcement! Oh, the announcement!
We are so very, very tired.

Doomwench: Dear loyal, stunning readers, dearest sunflowers,

Wren: Our little cupcakes, even.

Doomwench: Things at Girl on Book Action are changing – dramatically. After many months of posting twice a week, Wren and I are...well, tired.

Wren: Also: tired of being productive and writing a review a week (life is so hard).

Doomwench: This week, we will be reminiscing about past reviews, highlighting what we thought were the best and worst books and movies we’ve brought to your attention. After these posts we will be switching to a once a month podcast format. I know, you’re sad that you’ll only get one dose of us a month, but you’ll get to hear our voices!

Wren: Plus: Say goodbye to massive walls of text.

Doomwench: The first podcast, in which we tell you all about The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities will be available to assault your ears next week.

Wren: Followed by a Halloween Spooktacular in October (which will be totally different than the monster-fest that this blog usually is).

Doomwench: Now, both Wren and I are creatures of habit, so you’ll likely still get the occasional review from each of us. I for one still intend to finish my quest to read The Dark Tower series and I’ll definitely still share my thoughts on that. As part of the change in format, you may also start seeing some changes on the site in the coming weeks. Just a general decluttering and some further organization. A good fall cleaning to prepare us all for a long, cloudy winter.

Wren: Because winter is coming, Doomy.

Doomwench: Well yes, for once it's ACTUALLY coming. We've loved entertaining you with our massive text wall and hope all of you enjoy our podcasts.

Wren: Which will be much easier to consume while doing the dishes or on the bus. So enjoy our self-congratulatory retrospectives this week and have a look back on Wednesday next week for the podcast.

Drawing courtesy of Doomwench
Doomwench: I’m sure that your listening habits will be just as loyal as your reading habits have been. Thank you!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Girl on Book Action: All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5851-6


It begins with Ragnarok, the end of all things, the battle between the Children of the Light and their tarnished brothers and sisters.  But in Valdyrgard, three survive: the least of the Valkyrie, a valraven to be her steed, and the Grey Wolf whose betrayal sparked the final battle.  And because they still live, Valdyrgard is a very long time dying.

More than two thousand years later, Muire still walks the streets of Eiledon, the last human city, while her valraven hides in a distant valley.  But the Grey Wolf has come hunting in Eiledon.


My Thoughts:

I don’t know much about the Valkyrie or Norse mythology.  What I do know, I’ve mostly learned from retellings.  When I read the Nibelungenlied (an early medieval Germanic tale that features a Valkyrie), I felt sorry for Brunhild because Siegfried tricks her out of her powers and she ends up married to the weakling Gunther (wait, you haven’t read the Nibelungenlied?  What’s wrong with you?).  Anyway, suffice to say I’m no expert on the topic, but that didn’t make Bear’s treatment any less effective.

What I loved most in this novel is the combination of technology and magic, how they both exist and neither cancels the other out.  I can't say that I've read a lot of stories where these two things are so intertwined (actually, I can't think of another one off the top of my head). Regardless of magic and technology, the world is ending, destroyed by its inhabitants.  The planet is toxic.  The setting, the culture and the sense of doomedness (is that not a word? How about Doomwenchedness?  No?  Hmm, well, I say they should be! But I digress...) almost overwhelmed me.  I walked away from this book feeling humbled.  Bear’s vision and story-telling ability are breathtaking.  I almost feel speechless.  I'm in awe.  There is a level of complexity to this world and it's presented with subtlety and grace.  At no time was there a huge info-dump and details were never thrown in my face.  Things were revealed at a pace that felt organic, showing as much through implication as through actual facts.  The world-building isn't heavy-handed, but it gives you what you need when you need it.

Muire is not a character you necessarily like.  I did feel sorry for the situation she's in even though it's really her own fault.  Her redemption lies in knowing that she only has herself to blame.  While she isn't exactly the happiest person in town, I never got the impression that she was whining, just filled with understandable regret.  I felt like the characters were kept at a distance though, which wasn't a problem.  One shouldn't be close to angels, shouldn't identify with them, really.  Of course, the character I liked best is (you can probably guess)...Grey Wolf.  He was tragic and beautiful and everything I always love (surprisingly he doesn't die).  Kasimir was pretty amazing, too, both in his natural state and in the steampunky incarnation.  The relationships between the characters are painful and gorgeous and very real.  Love in this world is an exquisitely agonizing bond.

The story evolves and it's as much about the dying world as it is about the characters and their struggles.  People trying to hold onto a little bit of land that isn't completely destroyed and the lengths to which they are willing to go to keep the whole planet from succumbing to the toxicity unleashed on it.  At the end, the novel is about making difficult choices and being willing to live with consequences.

I think the only thing that left me feeling a bit disappointed is that in this well-portrayed, rich world we never got to see the part of town that belongs to the upper class.  There are references to its opulence and the very great divide between those with a lot of money and those without, but its never "on-screen" to show the disparity and highlight the difficulty of living in the poor parts of the city.

A minor complaint if I ever had one.  In closing, let me say what I've said way too often already, but will repeat regardless - whenever my ban on buying books ends, I'll be picking up more of Bear's novels.  You may interpret that as a glowing endorsement of her stuff, which is to say, you should be running out to buy her books now and then gloat at me to make me suffer.  That's only fair.  Go on, immerse yourself in the heartbreaking streets of Eiledon.  I dare you.  And if new takes on Arthurian legend are more your cup of tea, you should check out my thoughts on Bear's excellent Blood and Iron.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. Directed by Andrew Adamson & Written by Ann Peacock, Andrew Adamson, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely (gasp).

Preconceptions: Oh the Chronicles of Narnia, you and I have so much baggage. I originally picked the series out to have read to me because it had a flying horse on the cover. What followed was a period of forcing various adults in my sphere to read them over and over again. They really had it all, magic, smart little girls, powerful witches and fantastic creatures (in a lot of ways my tastes haven't developed much since then). I was delighted to discover the BBC series, which beautifully (for the time) adapted the series into live action. I lived, ate and breathed this series. A few years later, I was dealt a crushing blow: the Narnia books were religious propaganda. Oh sure, it's easy to say that it's so thinly veiled that I shouldn't have been surprised, but, in my defense, I was 6. See:
Many, many years later, I realize that this was a fairly innocent allusion and that I should be able to enjoy the story in its own right...I mean it still has all the things I love. And in my rational, daytime brain, I do, besides there are plenty of other less wholesome stories alluded to. But my guts and basic responses don't seem to have been able to quite get past it. Of all the well meaning charades that adults played with me as a kid, CS Lewis' is one of the few that stayed with me.

So yeeeeah...baggage might be a mild word for my feelings towards Narnia. Lets say baggage car. Or maybe cargo barge. Yeah. I feel cargo barge towards Narnia. Given my various (and doubtless irrational) feelings towards the series, it's a surprise I haven't gotten to the new movies sooner. I hadn't even heard much from other fantasy fans about them. A bit of digging turned up the fact that they've been a huge box office success, which made it even more odd that I'd heard so little about them. I was more than a little curious.

General Review: I can't think of many times that I've seen so much money wasted on shoddy visual effects. Seriously, nearly two hundred million dollars (figures pulled from the internet aether so take them well salted) and they couldn't make a CG beaver look real. And this movie does not get a pass for trying to be cutting edge and stumbling, because the Lord of the Rings came out several years earlier with half the budget. And it wasn't just the beavers (who had the most interaction with the human cast), but all the CG looked fake, poorly blended and utterly without style. I know I don't normally start with the set dressings, but it's hard to get past them.

The sets and locations were tedious. The vast arctic tundras looked like my street after a few days of snow (alright, with slightly less vomit and urine). The springtime wonderland might as well have been the cardboard cut-outs in a pre-school play about food groups. I don't know how this lot: Adamson (director), Ford (production design), Gracie (Art Director) and Brown (Set Decoration) managed to turn all that cash into this boring and faux looking dreck, but it must have been a team effort (which is why I wanted to call each and every one out by name). Sure, I can see Narnia coming off as a bit stuffy, as the book was published in the 50s. But it wasn't the subject matter (fairly well behaved English children) that made the movie dull, it was the directing. We were in a barren, unimaginative landscape populated by barely animated finger-puppets. I might have mixed feelings towards the series, but it deserved a better artistic handling than this.

Alright, alright, lets talk about something else....but something else I also didn't like: the White Queen. That might be a touch unfair. I liked the direction they were trying to take with her, making her more of a Celtic-looking, barbarian queen. Doing that fits in nicely with the whole Pagan vs Judeo-Christian thing going on in the story. Unfortunately, Tilda Swinton and the costuming were just plain bad. Swinton was just a bloodless as her surroundings. I got zero seduction, rage or violence out of her. She wasn't scary or inviting. Even the rather terrible CG characters were more lifelike. Oh and the costumes didn't help one bit. They were wince-worthy and so ugly that it was hard to watch her attempt to swan around in them. The giant collar on her snow queen couture was particularly hard to take. Barbara Kellerman (the White Witch in the 1988 BBC series) might have been a bit of a ham, but at least I got what she was going for. And, honestly, her more refined furs and gowns ended up looking more savage than the "Clan of the Cave Bear rejects" costuming we ended up with.

I have some (extremely) grudging praise to give. The kids were all alright, Georgie Henley (as Lucy) was fairly adorable and carried the comedy from the book. James McAvoy was also passable as Mr. Tumnus (though watching him try to pretend that he had goat legs was painful). And the voice acting as a whole was okay, particularly (not a surprise) Liam Neeson. But no one managed to do more than get their heads above the water as far as wowing me.

I'm not sure why this has enjoyed the success it has. There just wasn't much to it. A modern remake of the Narnia books has an opportunity to do something gorgeous and sweeping. This was hemmed in and can't even be called standard. All seeing this has done is made me want to re-watch the BBC series and see how well it holds up. I doubt I'll be bothering with the rest of these and I highly suggest you don't bother with this, even as a fan.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice
ISBN: 0-394-53443-3


As the novel opens, Lestat, having risen from the earth after a fifty-five years' sleep, and infatuated with the modern world, presents himself in all his vampire brilliance as a rock star, a superstar, a seducer of millions.  And, in this blaze of adulation, daring to break the vampire oath of silence, he determines to tell his story, to rouse the generations of the living dead from their slumbers and to penetrate the riddle of his own existence.


My Thoughts:

Okay, so the actual blurb goes on for three more paragraphs outlining the whole novel - too long and sort of boring, if you ask me.  The bit I used says enough and who doesn't know about the vampire Lestat?

I can't rightly tell you what motivated me to read this book after my lukewarm feelings for Interview with the Vampire.  It was likely a combination, of "Hey my sister lent this to me ages ago" and the nagging feeling that I really do need to make an effort to read every vampire novel, no matter how dreadful.  Oh, and it's famous, so that's gotta count for something, right? At least I can now return this to its rightful owner and clear up some shelf-space.

Now, it wasn't utterly horrible, but alas, alack and well-a-day, there sure was a ton of whining, especially in the first 200 or so pages.  I liked Lestat the ruthless killer.  I don't like Lestat the whiner.  Listening to him go on about how "Oh, no one ever loved me," and "Life never gave me anything that it didn't immediately take away," and "Oh woe is me, I'm going to break all the rules and piss everyone off and then whine and moan about how alone I am" got really old, really fast.  Even when he embraced what he was it was as an act of defiance, not because he truly was coming to term with being a vampire.  Gone was the cold-hearted Lestat of Interview and here was a more impulsive, active version of Louis.  But hey, at least he calls Louis a filthy liar for the things he said in the previous book.  Way to state the obvious, the obvious being that first person narrators are unreliable.

Qualms about Lestat's metaphorical "de-fanging" aside, I really enjoyed the setting - Paris in the 1800s was beautiful and romantic.  I loved the focus on art and artists.  The atmosphere kept me reading when all I really wanted to do was throttle Lestat - "oh everything is meaningless, but at least we have beauty."  Also, I suspect his philosophical moaning would have appealed to a younger, less jaded Doomwench, one that still believed in the power of art and thought that being surrounded by other passionate artists could make a difference.  Current Doomwench is fully aware that she will never have a coterie of crazy artist friends, so at least she won't have to listen to a lot of angsty raving (being a hermit has its advantages).

Umm, where was I?  Right, the setting.  Lestat's time in the theater and living in near poverty as an actor with his crazy violinist Nicolas was definitely one of the better parts (even if it included a fair bit of whining).  A highlight of the Paris years was going into the crypt in les Innocents to meet the vampire coven (I won't go into detail to keep from spoiling it, but it was good).  The histories of Armand and Marius each add some perspective to Lestat's worldview and make for decent foils to his impulsive character.

I guess the story overall was interesting enough, and the explanation of the origins of the vampires was not the usual one.  And origin stories really are pivotal to our understanding, so the importance of this myth to Lestat and some of the other vampires made them very human.  While I was trudging through this novel I was also reading a non-fiction book about vampires, specifically the evolution of the vampire with a close focus on some of Anne Rice's work.  The author of that book made a good point about the change in Lestat's character from being an evil rogue in Interview with the Vampire to being a whiny, deeply emotional fellow in his own book: it's hard to keep vampires evil when they have become so human.  They aren't the monstrous Other anymore, instead they are the point of identification (this is a really crude paraphrase of Milly Williamson's thoughts in The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy).  I personally find this problematic, but that's why I'm writing a thesis.  Let's get back to reviewing a book, shall we?

Ultimately, I think I missed the proverbial boat when it comes to reading these novels. When I was 18 I probably would have fallen in love with the florid prose and the continuous angst, but now I hover between bored and annoyed.  Lestat is just too perfect - he's a golden boy who gets everything he wants and if things look like they might get too tough there's a new source of greater power for him.  No matter how badly damaged he is in battle, he doesn't die and he continues on, whining about rules and how things never go his way (when things always go his way).  I'm left disappointed, because he doesn't grow as a character, not really, and neither do the other vampires, regardless of how much time Rice spends describing how they have to adjust to each new age or perish.  I believe it's best for everyone involved if I halt my perusal of The Vampire Chronicles here, at a point where most people will say the books are still good, rather than forcing myself to go on to the "lesser" novels.  Now, I'm off to find a palate cleanser.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Lo

Lo. Directed & Written by Travis Betz.

Preconceptions: I spent some time last week beefing up the Netflix queue in hopes of getting a few more flicks (of the non-Breillat persuasion) that I felt a touch more strongly about (as much as I'm sure you're enjoying my "meh" series of reviews). In my rummaging I found Lo, a short, low budget romantic comedy (uuuugh) with demons (you see where my interest was piqued). Now in the past I've been almost entirely unimpressed with the mixed genre horror I've seen (right down to being the only person in the universe who didn't like Shaun of the Dead), and my feelings on romances have been well documented. I figured, best case scenario I'd find something to love in this type of movie and worst, I'd have something constructive to moan about.

General Review: Doing the old genre definition on this movie would be extremely difficult. In a bit of post-game internet flipping, I saw a number of sites try to properly peg this down. Over-all, it really is a romantic comedy, but it does have a pile of horror set dressing and sensibility to keep it from being unpalatable to romance detractors such as myself. The basic plot breaks down like this: Justin (Ward Roberts) is trying to save his girlfriend April (Sarah Lassez) from hell. He summons the demon Lo (Jeremiah Birkett) using the spell he's found in a book owned by April. While Lo certainly wasn't without flaws (don't worry, I'll get to them) it really was rather good, and it's a flick I think a lot of you readers out there will enjoy. It manages to be funny and romantic, while occasionally squicking me out the way a good horror should. There were more than a few goods laughs and some pretty disturbing stuff as well. Naturally, of the three elements, the romance is by far the hardest sell for me, but I bought it. I enjoyed the story of April and Justin's awkward love and his bumbling quest to save her.

My main beef is that, somehow, this unique idea manages to lean too heavily towards the derivative. It's clear that Betz is a fan of both Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi. Not bad people to emulate when trying to get the mix he was shooting for, but I felt more than once that I was watching the Ash (Evil Dead) and Anya (Buffy) love story. That and we had a singing green demon, in a sequence that was funny, but very much pulled from the pages of Angel. I wish that the characterization had been more original because that's all that was keeping this from being an original, interesting experience. A stronger voice that belonged more to Betz would have driven this movie from being good to something really spectacular.

The set and make-up were great. I was expecting another movie like Ink , where they used heavy CG to make the setting and characters otherworldly. I was completely off base, Lo was done almost entirely with practical effects. The demons were guys in (excellent) make-up and the set was an empty black void, with Justin sitting in a magic circle. We occasionally watch re-enactments of parts of Justin and April's relationship as a deliberately low-end stage play. Despite the minimalist set, I never felt bored or trapped. Part of this is probably due to the impressive pacing. Lo is only about 80 minutes and it gets in, makes its point, and gets out again. None of the time is wasted or padded. My only complaint, visually, was the demonic book. I'm more than willing to suspend disbelief and play along that Justin can understand it, but it simply didn't look good. The cover, with its vein-y eye was cheesy and the drawings inside of the Ikea "summon your own demon" ritual wasn't much better. Going for the standard antique novel with unreadable (to the audience) writing would have been less distracting and more effective.

There was a definite range in the skill of the performances. Jeremiah Birkett was superb as the demon Lo. He was funny, intimidating and otherworldly. Sarah Lassez was good, but not great. She was lovable and awkward, but as I mentioned earlier, she was too much like Anya and not enough her own character. While Ward Roberts sold the love story, I didn't buy his "geeky outsider" impression. Besides being a little too handsome, his nerdiness was too much a caricature. Quite a bit too much rapid blinking and stuttering for my tastes.

Despite my complaints, I think it's a fairly sure bet you'll enjoy Lo. While its flaws might keep it from being the best thing I've seen in the last couple of months, they don't keep it from being a fun watch. It manages to mix quite a few genre elements together successfully and not alienate my unsophisticated palate. I'm actually surprised I haven't heard more about this in horror nerd circles, because it is so good. So you may be hearing it here first, but who else's opinion do you really need, shoo-shoo, go rent it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Girl on Book Action: 13 Bullets by David Wellington

13 Bullets by David Wellington
ISBN: 978-0-307-38143-9

All the official reports say they are dead – extinct since the late ‘80s, when a fed named Arkeley nailed the last vampire in a fight that nearly killed him.  But the evidence proves otherwise.

When a state trooper named Caxton calls the FBI looking for help in the middle of the night, it is Arkeley who gets the assignment – who else?  He’s been expecting such a call to come eventually.  Sure, it has been years since any signs of an attack, but Arkeley knows what most people don’t: there is one left.  In an abandoned asylum she is rotting, plotting and biding her time in a way that only the undead can.

Caxton is out of her league on this case and more than a little afraid, but the fed made it plain that there is only one way out.  But the worst thing is the feeling that the vampires want more than just her blood.  They want her for a reason, one she can’t guess; a reason her sphinxlike partner knows but won’t say; a reason she has to find out – or die trying.

Now there are only 13 bullets between Caxton and Arkeley and the vampires.  There are only 13 bullets between us, the living, and them, the damned.


My Thoughts:

If you've been following along for a while here at Girl on Book Action, you're likely familiar with the name David Wellington (this is the fourth book of his that I'm reviewing).  After my lukewarm feelings about Monster Island I abandoned his zombie books and turned my attention back to read the sequel of Frostbite called Overwinter.  And now I've finally turned my attention to the books that originally caught my eye, the vampire novels.

And what he did in this book took me back to when I first read Frostbite.  The excitement I felt at seeing a tired werewolf story transformed into something new and yet oddly traditional, picking up strands of the myths that are buried beneath the detritus of Hollywood.  Sure, the vampires in 13 Bullets are nothing new, but they are constructed on aspects of the myth that don't often get explored in popular vampire fiction.  For example, vampires in this book are products of suicide - afflicted with a curse before their deaths they will not rise as undead unless they kill themselves.  All the usual antidotes (garlic, crosses, holy water) are ineffectual against these monsters.  The only way to kill them is to destroy the heart, easy enough, right?  But when these vamps are full up on blood their skin is basically impregnable.  Yeah, they are tough and they are vicious and they are ugly.  No sparkles here.  No whining about living for eternity either.  Just bloodlust.

Facing one of these beasties is no fun and Arkeley bears the scars of his encounter (most noticeably some fused vertebrae, although his not particularly charming personality might also be considered a nasty scar).  Caxton collects some, too.  In the course of the book, a lot of people come face to face with the vampires and a lot of people die as a result of the encounter.  The injuries Arkeley and Caxton suffer really just mark them as lucky.

I have to admit that when Caxton turns out to be a lesbian I was put on guard.  I expected her sexuality to be an excuse for voyeuristic girl-on-girl scenes, so I was pleasantly surprised when these didn't materialize.  Although her girlfriend's art work made with menstrual blood was a bit of a cliche (seriously, I am not kidding).  Overall though, the relationships were believable and nuanced, not just caricatures, placeholders or shock-value items.

Caxton was an alright protagonist.  She was flawed and at times weak (almost too weak on occasion.)  For someone who is thrown into this impossible situation and has to start hunting vampires, she did a decent job of coping.  And by the end she'd earned my (somewhat grudging) respect (a few hysterical choices here and there almost soured me on her, we all know how I feel about hysteria).

The plot was well-crafted, revealing bits and pieces at a pace that kept things appropriately mysterious and interesting.  Caxton and Arkeley find clues and do some detecting and people get attacked in a way that moves the story along at a good clip.  I was never bored or wishing for gratuitous vampire attacks to shake things up.  A few sections were genuinely creepy - slight spoilers coming up - like the investigation in the village where every single person had been killed by the vampires.  The idea that this little town was completely empty, a ghost town, somehow really got under my skin.  And then there were other bits that, while unnerving, just they were there for shock-value, like the posing of the bodies in the hunter's lodge, the bones piled in the kitchen to turn it into some sort of mausoleum.  These things didn't really add anything to plot. The idea that one of the vampires was also a crazy serial killer was overkill - and here the slight spoilers shall end.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel and the take on vampires (which is my primary interest when I read these books - how are the vampires portrayed?).  Off the top of my head this is one of the few books I've come across recently that's done a good, scary vampire.  Nothing at all glorified or pretty, just grotesque, powerful monsters, with mouths full of shark-like teeth, big ears and hypnotic eyes.  If you're looking for vampires that definitely don't sparkle, you should check this out.  While 13 Bullets freshens up a tired myth, there were quite a few cliches in here and they began to grate on me (especially the menstrual blood art).  I'm used to Wellington's work being lighter on the trite cliches.  In the end, though, I'm definitely going to read the other three vampire novels Wellington has written - as soon as my seemingly never-ending ban on buying books ends (it would end faster if I wasn't constantly buying books anyway, damn those trips to the used bookstore!).