Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Manga Review: Cells at Work!

Manga Review: Cells at Work! 01 by Akane Shimizu

It’s red blood cell AE 3803’s first day on the job.  She’s just delivered her first package of oxygen to the outer limbs, and is about to take a package of carbon  dioxide back to the lungs.  Unfortunately, she gets caught up in a pneumococcus invasion.  White blood cell U 1146 is on the job with his teammates, but one germ manages to escape into the bloodstream.  The two cells meet up later as RBC gets lost on the way to the lungs, and WBC decides to escort her back due to the current danger.  But they may have fallen into a deadly trap….

Cells at Work! 01

Educational comics are a great way for kids to learn the basics of a subject and be entertained at the same time.  In this Osmosis Jones-like manga, (originally published as Hataraku Saibou) the subject is the cells of the human body.  The various kinds of cells are personified, and we see them at work in various crisis situations.  After the pneumococcus chapter, there are stories about pollen allergies, influenza and scrape wounds.  While RBC and WBC appear in each chapter, different cells also get the spotlight.  Memory cells that remember ancient legends, T-Cells that go from weak “naive” cells to “effector” killer T-cells, and many others.

The educational system for cells appears to be inadequate, as AE 3803 needs to have the functions of cells explained to her as they’re encountered.  U 1146 is a veteran germ fighter who often comes across as scary when he gets the urge to kill.  No clean zap guns for this guy, he stabs intruders to death with a short knife, as do the other white blood cells.

As you might expect, this does mean a lot of blood is spilled, and some parents might feel uncomfortable having their middle-schooler read the series.  We learn nothing about the human these cells are inside in this volume.  Thankfully, there’s no fanservice beyond the female red blood cells wearing shorts.

There are some nice monster designs for the germs, and translation notes in the back.  This series would make a nice gift for the budding biology student, and is a decent read for folks who just want to refresh their memory on the functions of cells.

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth

Book Review: Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

When George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a lad, his father Mad Jack often told him tales of the vrykolakas, immortal beings who fed on the blood of the living.  Now he’s nominally a student of the university at Cambridge, where a young woman has been found murdered and drained of blood.  As both the world’s greatest living poet and England’s greatest expert on vampires, Byron feels that he is the best person to undertake an investigation.  After all, he must also be the world’s greatest criminal investigator!

Riot Most Uncouth

This new mystery novel is loosely based on real life poet and romantic figure Lord Byron (1788-1824).  It blends some actual things that happened (Byron really did have a bear as a pet to thumb  his nose at Cambridge’s “no dogs in student housing” rules) with a fictional murderer on the loose.

Byron makes a fun narrator; he’s vain, self-centered and often drunk enough to miss important details.  On the other hand, he’s fully aware that he is not a good person and is reasonably honest about his character flaws.  We learn the circumstances that shaped him, including his abusive father and being born with a deformed leg–but it’s clear that Byron could have made much better life choices at any time.  Some people may find him too obnoxious as a protagonist.

The neatest twist in the plot is that there are two private investigators that claim they were hired by the murdered girl’s father, who are not working together…and in a mid-book flash forward we learn that the father doesn’t know which of them he actually hired.

Bits of Lord Byron’s poetry are scattered throughout, and are the best writing  in the book.  A word about the cover:  the Photoshopping is really obvious and a bit off-putting.

As mentioned above, Byron’s father is emotionally and physically abusive, there’s a lot of drinking and other drugs, gruesome murders (the corpses are lovingly described), on-screen but not explicit sex  scenes, and some profanity.  Period racism, sexism (Lord Byron himself is especially dismissive of women) and ableism show up in the story and narration.  The ending may be unsatisfying for some readers–Lord Byron has odd standards of justice.

Recommended for Lord Byron fans, and historical mystery readers who don’t mind a protagonist who is more flaws than good points.

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

Book Review: Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic edited by David Sklar & Sarah Avery

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic

This fantasy anthology has a dual theme, as indicated by its title; magic as transaction, and magic while traveling.  The former theme brings to mind the classic Faustian bargain story, and the preface mentions that the editors got a bushel full of them, only a few making the cut.

There are eighteen stories, nine for each theme, divided into groups of three by subtheme, such as “Bad Roads.”  Most of the stories are new, but some have been previously printed.  Some standouts include:

  • “Ghost Diamonds” by Scott Hungerford.  A woman and her niece discover that compressing  crematorium ashes into a diamond allows calling the ghost of the deceased.  But they aren’t the only ones who have made this discovery, and someone’s been switching the ghost diamonds with fakes.  But why?
  • “Across the Darien Gap” by Daniel Braum.   A guide attempts to take a hunted woman through the rain forest between Central and South America.  His two-dimensional thinking may doom them.  This one has been made into an episode of Psuedopod, a horror podcast, and is now being lengthened into a book.
  • “Only a Week” by Joyce Chng.  This one might actually be science fiction, set in a futuristic Chinatown.  A courtesan seeks to regain her youthful beauty, but the medicine has side effects and can be taken only for one week….
  • “And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear.  A courier must cross the postapocalyptic Southwest to deliver vital supplies.  But a deal she made years ago is coming due.  Can Harrie finish her delivery with the devil himself in the way?

There’s a good diversity of protagonists, and both happy and sad endings.  A couple of stories are perhaps a little too cliche, but the quality is generally good.

Unlike many small press books I’ve read lately, the proofreading is excellent.

I would recommend this book to fantasy fans in general, and modern fantasy fans in particular.

Book Review: Native Silver

Book Review: Native Silver by Blake Hausladen

This is a sequel to Mr. Hausladen’s Ghosts in the Yew and will contain some spoilers for the earlier work.

Native Silver

Prince Barok has brought the sleepy backwater province of Enhedu from a shameful place of exile to a thriving young nation in little over a year with the help of his wife Dia, alsman (head servant) Leger and former bodyguard Geart.    Meanwhile, the Zoviyan Empire is crumbling as its Exaltier, Barok’s father, is weakening and the remaining sons jockey for position.

There’s no time to rest on laurels, as Enhedu’s enemies are already within the country, striking a terrible blow, while Barok’s own plans have much of his support elsewhere.    Even as the Zoviyan Empire suffers from the multiple schemes of its various leaders, an even worse threat is rising from a place long forgotten.

Good news first:  this volume is much improved over the first.   Surprisingly, one of the ways this is done is by introducing more first-person narrators with multiple points of view.   While this technique did not work well in Ghosts in the Yew, here it’s easier to tell the narrators apart.

Also, there is less of the piling up of bad traits to indicate who we should see as a bad person.  Most of the opponents seem more like actual people, even the ones who have had their personalities wiped by magic.

There is less lull time, with the plot moving forward in almost all sections, and short time skips over quiet periods.  On the other hand, this makes some events seem a bit too rushed.  The magic system takes a much more prominent place in the story, which makes the Hessier (who were nigh-invincible in the previous volume) less of a threat, and a new super-Hessier variant is introduced.

There’s not a lot of time spent on recaps, so readers who had not read the previous book may be more confused than not.

There are many illustrations, the most useful of which are several maps making it easier to follow the action.  (The deluxe edition of this book comes with color maps–recommended for collectors!)  The reproductions of hand-written letters are less helpful, especially for readers with weak eyesight.   Once again, this volume could use a glossary, and since many new characters are introduced, a dramatis personae.

The author is unafraid to kill characters off, some dramatically, others abruptly or off-stage.  This includes main characters.

One nice touch; the Zoviyan Empire is misogynistic, while the ancestral Edonians treated women much better, but it’s pointed out that “The Edonians worshiped their women, but they did not listen to them.”  Our protagonists are better at that last bit, and may survive where the Edonians did not.

There are some spellcheck typos, which is a shame in an otherwise professionally produced small press book.

I can recommend this volume much more than the first in the series, and if the author continues to improve at this rate, the next volume should be well worth it.

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