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.

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Magazine Review: Haute Dish Spring 2016

Magazine Review: Haute Dish Spring 2016 edited by Debby Dathe

This pun-titled periodical is the thrice-yearly organ of Metropolitan State University in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  It features the artistic (mostly photography) and literary talents of the students there.  This issue is thin compared to most college literary magazines I’ve seen, and the written contributions short–the longest doesn’t quite make four pages.

Haute Dish Spring 2016

Of the photographs, the one I enjoyed most is Debby Dathe’s “Apprehension”, showing a steep wooded staircase from a kitten’s point of view.  Another good one is “Tulip” by Jeremiah Grafsgaard, a dew-sprinkled tulip blossom about to open; this is placed directly opposite the prose piece “Iselder” by Alyssa Kuglin, which is about recovering from trauma and has tulip imagery.  The juxtaposition of these two pieces is easily the best editorial decision in the issue.

“The Student Body” by Debby Dathe (again!) struck a nerve with its tale of being chosen last in gym class.  But my favorite of the prose pieces was “Evidence” by Gina Nelson, about a person being coached through how to make a screenshot,,,for disturbing reasons.  There’s some poetry too, none of which stood out for me.

This magazine will be of most interest to students and alumni of MSU, and perhaps their family.  But collectors who take the long view might consider these sorts of things as investments should one of the authors represented hit the big time so that their early student work becomes valuable.

Manga Review: Behind the Scenes!! Volume 1

Manga Review: Behind the Scenes!! Volume 1 by Bisco Hattori

Ranmaru Karisu is a couple of months into his freshman year at Shichikoku University, but he still doesn’t know anyone.  A shy, sensitive boy, he’s had bad luck with social relationships in the past and shrinks from the crowd.  Until the zombies attack!

Behnd the Scenes!! Volume 1

It turns out to be an amateur movie shoot with poor security planning, but the director blames Ranmaru for ruining it anyway.  Ranmaru’s used to being blamed for things and spirals into depression.  However, the art crew (the people who handle costumes, props, makeup, backdrops, etc. for movies) club realizes it wasn’t really his fault, and let him sit for a while in their workshop.  It turns out Ranmaru has excellent observation skills when he’s not crowded, and he’s very artsy-crafty.  The leader of the art crew, Ryuji Goda, decides that recruiting Ranmaru for their club is a top priority.

The author’s previous series, Ouran High School Host Club, was very popular and got a live-action adaptation.  Ms. Hattori was very impressed with the work of the art crew on that and befriended one of the workers, which led to the idea for this shoujo manga series.  The main characters’ names are based on those of famous movie directors, which is more obvious with Japanese name order.

The University has four film clubs, but only one art crew, which has to handle many different projects simultaneously.  This allows the manga creator to showcase various aspects of behind-the-scenes film creation, and draw fun costumes.  In the tradition of school club series, the characters are quirky and have different special talents.

Ranmaru is very talented, but he grew up in a family that did not appreciate his gifts (his clan are all macho fishermen) and his attempts to help others with his skills often backfired, so he’s under-confident and prone to fits of self-excoriation.   He’s learning about film production for the first time and is not familiar with the etiquette and procedures associated with the industry.  Fortunately the rest of the art crew is good at picking up on when they need to encourage him.

Goda’s kind of overbearing, and can be a jerk, but is also skilled at his work and a good planner, so he isn’t unbearable.  The rest of their crew is less developed in the first volume, defined primarily by their specialty and/or basic personality quirk.  (“Likes horror movies way too much” for example.)

The family Ranmaru is boarding with may be distant relatives; he’s cooking for them instead of paying rent.  The daughter about Ranmaru’s age is kind of snotty, not wanting to be associated with him in public.  (I suspect a romance subplot coming down the road.)

The final story in this volume has a character LGBTQ readers might be uncomfortable with due to stereotyping.

Overall, a light, interesting introductory volume with decent characters and art.  Fans of the author’s previous series, and those interested in the craft of movies should like this.

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.

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

Movie Review: All-American Co-Ed

The movie starts with chorus girls’ feet and legs kicking behind the title sequence.  Then the camera is pulled back and we discover that the “chorus girls” are all men.  The Zeta Fraternity of all-male Quinceton University are putting on a drag revue.

All-American Co-Ed

Matilda Collinge (Esther Dale) sees a description (but no pictures) in the paper and strongly disapproves.  As president of Mar Brynn Horticultural College, she would never allow such shenanigans on her all-female campus.   Still, enrollment has been falling off, and the college needs something to boost its profile.

Matilda’s publicist Hap Holden (Harry Langdon), a newspaperman, and her niece Virginia Collinge (Frances Langford) come up with an idea.  Rather than only admitting upper-crust girls, this year the college will offer scholarships to twelve young women from across the country who’ve won contests with their produce (who also look pretty.)

As an additional attention-grabber, these scholarship students will be referred to as “likely to succeed” in direct contrast to the loathsome oafs of Quinceton’s Zeta fraternity.  When this dig comes to the boys’ attention, they decide to dress up Bob Sheppard (Johnny Downs) as Flower Queen Bobbie DeWolfe and submit that picture.  Bobbie is chosen, so now Bob must go undercover as his alter ego, to seek revenge for the Mar Brynn slight.  Hilarity ensues.

This 1941 musical comedy has a disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual college life is purely coincidental.”  It’s from a time when “man in a dress” was considered comedy gold all by itself, and then adds some gags.  Let’s face it, Bobbie desperately trying to not be unmasked before “she” achieves her goal leads to some pleasant silliness.  I note that the disguise is helped by fashions of the day giving every young woman linebacker shoulders.

The first few songs are good, but the final agriculture-themed performance just drags on with labored rhymes.

Less good stuff:  There’s 1940s-style sexism, as Virginia declares, “Girls don’t want minds, Auntie, they want a husband!”  One comedic sequence turns on the stereotype of black people being superstitious and a little dim.  And sexual harassment is played for laughs, because it is just so hi-larious when a man is doing it to another man under the impression he’s a woman.

You may not want to watch this one with younger viewers in light of the last thing, or be prepared to remind them that in real life sexual harassment’s not funny.

This was nominated for two Oscars, so clearly has some merit, but it’s a specialty taste.

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

Movie Review: Let’s Go Collegiate (1941)

The Kappa Psi Delta fraternity on the Rawley University campus is abuzz with excitement.  They’re getting a new frat brother and member of the rowing team, Bob Terry, who was a champion stroke at his prep school.  No one’s ever seen a picture of him, but with his help, Rawley might actually win the big meet this year for the first time since 1928.

Let's Go Collegiate

Then Tad (Jackie Moran), fraternity president, bandleader and second stroke on the team, learns that Bob’s been drafted and will be unable to come.  He and coxswain Frankie (Frankie Darro) try to break this news to their girlfriends from the sister sorority Bess (Marcia Mae Jones) and Midge (Gale Storm), who have been planning a huge party to welcome Bob.  They can’t quite bring themselves to let the girls down and are unable to tell the truth before the girls leave.

Frankie and Tad are being driven around by the house servant Jeff (Mantan Moreland) when they spot a strong-looking young fellow hoisting a safe onto a truck.  (It doesn’t occur to them to wonder why he’s doing this.)  They approach “Herk” with the notion of posing as Bob Terry for the duration of the party, buying him off with ten dollars.

At the party, the tall, relatively handsome and outgoing Herk is a hit with the ladies, despite his uncouth speech and mannerisms.  He decides he wants to be Bob Terry some more, or he’ll spill the beans.  Thus Herk must attend classes as Bob, despite having little education, and serve on the rowing team, despite a seasickness problem.  Tad and Frankie are assisted in this by their fraternity brother Buck (Keye Luke), who acts as the rowing team coach’s assistant.

Things get tighter for Frankie and Tad when their respective girlfriends dump them for “Bob”, and their own grades suffer from having to spend their time tutoring Herk.  Worse yet, a couple of overly inquisitive alumni arrive just before the big race, and begin to piece together what’s really going on.

This 1941 film is on my””Musicals” DVD collection, though it’s more of a movie with musical interruptions.  It’s pretty precisely dated because of the peacetime draft (started September 1940) being a plot point.  it’s a lighthearted film with some nice music, and some bits are still funny.  If you like the “wacky scheme that snowballs way out of control” plotline, this is your kind of movie.

I like that Kappa Psi Delta will pledge Chinese-Americans; Buck is treated as an equal by his frat brothers, although there’s a little ethnic “humor” at his expense (and the alumni are outright rude to him.)  Not so good is the treatment of Jeff, who is stuck with the role of comical sidekick and forced to do anything the white students demand of him.  (On the other hand, he’s a lot more honest with his love interest Malvina (Marguerite Whitten), the servant at the sorority house (she gets the “sassy black woman” stereotype.)  Compared to Tad and Frankie, Jeff comes off pretty good.)

And Midge and Bess are depicted as shallow young women who are easily fooled by Herk’s “aw shucks” demeanor–it’s not until the big race that they realize he’s been playing them.

As for Herk himself, he’s a more complex character than he might look.  He’s a bad person, but he seems to genuinely want to learn when he gets the chance, and help the team win.  If only he weren’t so self-centered, Herk might have had a redemption story here..

Treat this movie as a time capsule, and it’s not half bad, but if you are watching it with younger viewers, prepare to discuss some important ethical topics.

Open Thread: Microeconomics

Bad news, I’m afraid.  I will have to retake microeconomics again next quarter in order to graduate.

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

In other news, the next book coming up has been slow going, so the review will take another day or two.

Any good stories out there about economics?

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