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: Vinland Saga Book Seven

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Seven by Makoto Yukimura

Quick recap and spoilers for the previous volume:  It is the age of Vikings.  Canute, King of Denmark and (by conquest) England, needs cash to fund his occupation army.  Therefore, he has engineered an incident to force the wealthy Ketil family into outlawry and seize their lands and property.  Meanwhile, on the Ketil farm, slaves Thorfinn, Einar and Arnheid face the consequences of Gardar’s rampage–Snake and his men are not happy at all.

Vinland Saga Book Seven

Ketil returns home on Leif’s ship, in great emotional distress because of the king’s treachery.  He learns of Gardar’s attempt to rescue Arnheid (Gardar’s wife and Ketil’s slave) and reacts by beating Arnheid mercilessly, despite her being pregnant with his child.

Then Canute arrives with his thegns (top warriors) and fearsome Jomsviking mercenaries.  Ketil rallies the farmers who owe him money, but that and his small band of “guests”, veteran fighters though they may be are no match for the royal forces.

Thorfinn could just walk away from all of this, none of these people are saints or innocents, and he has no more obligation to them.  But his new commitment to pacifism as a way of life means he has to at least try to resolve the situation peacefully.

This volume of the long-running manga is filled with scenes of violence, often quite gory.  There are extended sequences of beatings that are painful to look at.  Rape does not occur on panel, but is referred to, and one character threatens it in an attempt to force consent.  There are numerous deaths, including important characters.

There are some lighter moments, however.  Canute and Thorfinn’s meeting after so many years leads to at least a temporary peace.  And chapter 100, the last of the volume, is primarily comedic as Thorfinn returns to Iceland at long last only to have no one recognize him.  There’s some humor derived from the fact that there’s another Thorfinn about the same age in the crew, distinguished by being nicknamed “Bug-Eyes.”

The legendary scene of King Canute ordering the waves to stop is in here, as the young ruler makes a point about his power compared to God’s.

The art and writing continue to be excellent, so if you enjoyed previous volumes, you’ll like this one.

Manga Review: Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit

Manga Review: Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit by Motoro Mase

In an alternate-history Japan, the government immunizes all children as they enter first grade.  But one in every thousand injection also contains a nanocapsule that lodges in the child’s heart.  and somewhere between age 18 and 24, will activate and stop that heart.  There’s a triple-blind system in place to prevent anyone from knowing just which injections contain the lethal capsules.

Ikigami

But just before the capsule is due to detonate, the name of the person is revealed to a government agency that delivers death notices known as ikigami to the victim twenty-four hours in advance.  One such deliveryman is a bureaucrat named Kengo Fujimoto.

The frame story follows Fujimoto as he joins the Ministry, gets his basic training, and delivers the ikigami.   He’s a bland character, which is deliberate.  He’s drifted through his early life without any particular direction, and wound up in this job more or less through inertia.  Each volume covers two deliveries.

This is where most of the action is, as the actual stories are asking the question, “What would you do if you only have twenty-four hours to live?”  The answers are as different as the victims, who range from brilliant creative types who had their whole future ahead of them through average kids to criminals with nothing left to lose.  There is, of course, a part of the law that punishes your family if you take the opportunity to go on a crime spree, but not everyone is deterred by that.

In the volume at hand, #9, the cases are:

“National Welfare Immunization”  A young woman who became a nurse specializing in neonatal care because she was born prematurely and had to struggle for life, discovers that she is one of the Chosen.  She infiltrates a school where the children are being immunized, and takes one hostage so she can confront their parents about the unfairness of the system.  The doctor doing the immunizations is dealing with his own guilt, as he had personally injected one of the Chosen at the beginning of his career and was his personal physician for years.  Can the situation be defused with only one death?

“Two Fallen In War”  Many years ago, two men met in World War Two, and a series of incidents bound them together.  Now, are those same circumstances repeating with their grandsons?  Questions of fate and intention intertwine.   Surprisingly, incontinence is a key point.

In the frame story, war threatens, and the Thought Bureau is finally concluding their investigation.  Fujimoto must finally confront his misgivings about the National Prosperity Law and the injustice inherent in the system.  He makes a decision, but what will that decision be?

One of the  interesting aspects of the series is that other than the dystopian aspects, the alternate Japan’s culture is virtually identical to our world’s, with the same social ills and crime rate.   In other words, the supposed benefits of the ikigami system are in fact pointless.

This series is marketed to the seinen (young men) demographic in Japan and has some intense violent scenes and generally mature readers subject matter.  One chapter contains an attempted rape.  Parents should heed the “mature readers” label.

Many of the cases presented are tear-jerkers, and intensely dramatic.  The art style is suited for the subject matter.  The final volume is due out in August 2014, but tentatively I recommend this series for fans of dramatic fiction.

TV Review: Bonanza

TV Review: Bonanza

I recently watched a dozen episodes of this classic Western series (1959-1973) on a Mill Creek discount DVD release.  Apparently, some episodes from the first two seasons have fallen into the public domain.  But not the music, so the evocative opening theme was dubbed over with twangy generic “Western” music.

bonanza

Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) is the owner of the Ponderosa, the largest cattle ranch in Nevada.  He runs it with the help of his three adult sons by three deceased wives, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon.)  It ran in an hour-long format (unusual for Westerns of the time) and was more of a family drama than an action show.

The hour-long format allowed the writers to add more nuance and character development to the plotlines, resulting in some stellar episodes.  For example, “The Courtship”, which appears to be the first “Hoss falls in love” episode, moves convincingly from light comedy at the beginning, through romance, to heartbreak at the end.  It was probably even more effective when first shown, as this early in the series, the audience would not have caught on to the “Cartwright Curse” (no woman a main character is attracted to will stay on the show.)

Another fine episode is “Blood on the Land.”  Apparently, the earliest episodes had the Cartwrights be clannish and hostile to outsiders, and this episode was a turning point in the series.  Ben Cartwrights open refusal to let anyone cross his land brings him into conflict with a sheepherder who acts as Ben’s dark mirror.  The sheepherder is just as stubborn and prideful as Ben, and calls him out on his autocratic behavior.  While the sheepherder’s fine words are a cover for his own ruthless venality, Ben does take their message to heart and works on becoming kinder to sttangers.

It’s notable in these episodes how little respect the Cartwrights’ money and power get them.  No one ever toadies or gives way to them on account of their wealth.  When people do show the family respect, it’s because of their high moral character and (especially in Hoss’ case) their proficiency in a fight.

An aspect of the show that has aged less well is the “very special” episodes that deal with socially relevant topics like racism and substance abuse.  Ben Cartwright has some peculiarly 1960s attitudes for a man living in the 1850s.  While the writing of these episodes certainly comes across as earnest, it’s also quite heavy-handed and given to platitudes.  And every so often it exposes the show’s blind spots.  Pernell Roberts is said to have left the show at least partially because there were never any black people in Virginia City unless the episode was specifically about how wrong prejudice against black people is.

Also, many episodes do show the patterns that eventually made the show.so easy to parody.  In addition to the tendency of romantic interests to die or leave town abruptly, if there are two antagonists, one clean-shaven and the other blessed with beard stubble, the clean-shaven one will invariably be uncomfortable with the path of evil and be redeemed, while the stubbled one will be close to pure evil and usually die.

That said, this is fine old-fashioned television viewing.  I recommend picking up the official release if you can, because the theme song is part of the experience.

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