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.

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Rampaging Hulk, Vol. 2 edited by John Denning

Quick recap:  In the 1970s, Marvel Comics started doing larger magazines for newsstand distribution, most of them in black and white.  One of these was The Rampaging Hulk, which originally featured adventures taking place between the Hulk’s appearances in the first year of his existence.  But then it was renamed just The Hulk and retooled to more strongly resemble the then-hot television series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, as well as now being published in color.

The Rampaging Hulk Vol. 2

This volume continues the run with issues #16-27, which were published 1979-81.  It’s a curious mix of the television series and the comics continuity.  The usual supporting cast is not seen or mentioned outside of a brief flashback to the Hulk’s origin, and a mention of Doctor Strange in the narration.  Nor are there any of the usual supervillains–the closest we get is Rypel, who is more of a Bond villain type that wants to trigger World War Three so his underwater utopia can inherit the Earth.  Most of the time, it’s just Robert Bruce Banner wandering from town to town and getting involved with relatively ordinary people’s problems.  Interspersed with the Hulk smashing things, of course.

The opening story, “Masks”, has Dr. Banner lured from New Orleans (the night after Mardi Gras, just to be different) to the Florida Keys to participate in a wealthy eccentric’s treasure hunt.  Of course, the eccentric has ulterior motives,  The final story in the volume, “One for My Baby…and One More for the Hulk!” takes place in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime crooner tries to get out from under the mob with the help of his new green bodyguard.

This is a real nostalgia blast for me, not just because I read many of these stories when they first came out, but because the writers couldn’t use their usual costumed weirdos to move plots, and thus tended towards topical stories.  Three Mile Island, snail darters, the last days of the Cold War, Native American  struggles, Hare Krishnas…takes me back.

Of course, not all of these stories have aged well.  “A Very Personal Hell” by Jim Shooter has the notorious gay panic scene where Bruce Banner is threatened with rape by a lisping stereotype at the “Y.”  (He saves himself by informing the would-be rapist that he is, in fact, Bruce Banner, y’know, the Hulk, you wouldn’t like him when he’s mad?)

And sadly, the ambitious color usage in some of the stories is completely ruined in black & white reprint–it looks muddy, and some of the captions are borderline unreadable.  Artists like Gene Colan, on the other hand, make it work.

A couple of the stories deal with attempts to cure Banner of turning into the Hulk, or at least lessen the rift between them.  The most striking of these is “Master Mind” in which the Hulk persona winds up in Bruce Banner’s body and goes on a rampage–which could be deadly to the much more fragile scientist.

A couple more stand-out stories:  “Heaven Is a Very Small Place” with great art by Herb Trimpe and John Severin is a sad tale of the Hulk finding a peaceful place at last, only to have the illusion fade.  “Dreams of Iron…Dreams of Steel” has Bruce Banner getting a job at a care facility for children with developmental disablilities (back then the word “retarded” was acceptable, but the shortened form is also hurled as an insult) and the Hulk bonds with an adult graduate of the facility that works at a steel mill.

Recommended with reservations for fans of the 1970s Hulk show and Hulk fans in general–check your library unless you’re a completist who has to own every Hulk story.

Book Review: The A-Z of You and Me

Book Review: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Disclaimer:  I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.  As an ARC, there may be changes between the review copy and the final product.  (In specific, the “book club questions” section at the back was not finalized.)

The A-Z of You and Me

Ivo is in a hospice with kidney failure.   While he is definitely dying, it may take weeks or even months.  To help Ivo keep his sanity, night shift nurse Sheila suggests a game.  Naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet, and telling a story about it.  Ivo starts with “Adam’s Apple” for “A”, remembering how he learned the story of that name, and continuing on to…that would be telling.

Most of the stories pertain to Ivo’s ex-girlfriend Mia (the “you” of the title) and their small group of acquaintances:  Ivo’s sister Laura, her sexy friend Becca, Ivo’s best friend Mal and his other mate Kelvin.   Slowly we learn pieces of their past together and why Ivo and Mia split up.

This is a first novel from British author James Hannah, and has apparently been successful enough in his native land to warrant an American release.  There are some Briticisms in the language used that might require readers unfamiliar with  British culture to check the internet.  Interesting, then, that the title actually works better in American English.

The structure of the novel means that we get dribs and drabs of information as the time frame of Ivo’s memories and his present day experiences in the hospice skip about.  In some cases, we see the consequences of actions well before we learn what the actions were.  Readers who prefer a straightforward plotline might feel frustrated.

Ivo’s made some rather poor life choices; among other things, he’s abused drugs, made doubly unsafe by his being a diabetic.  It’s also clear that his friendship with Mal had become toxic well before Ivo figured this out.  Mal is laddish in the negative sense:  rowdy, immature, rather sexist and casually insensitive to his and Ivo’s girlfriends.  He also enables Ivo’s drug abuse because he can’t quite understand the seriousness of possible consequences.

Mia is a little harder to get a handle on, as we see her through Ivo’s rose-colored memories.  She’s a swell lady, apparently, though perhaps her decisions were also not the wisest.

As a result of previous events, Ivo has been pushing people away–we learn that he’s worked at a garden center for a couple of decades, but never directly see or hear from one of his fellow employees.  Now, at the end, with his world shrunk to the hospice, he has to learn to reconnect.  Even with people he never wanted to see again.

The writing is competent, but I think the story would better suit people who like the slow reveal/not much actually happens sort of contemporary literature.

Content:  In addition to drug abuse, there’s rather a lot of rude language, particularly in flashbacks to Ivo’s teen years.  If you’re new to British slang, you might even pick up some new naughty words.  This is very much a novel about adult concerns, so I would not recommend it below college age.

Overall, this is a decent first novel, which I would recommend to folks who enjoy the idea of telling a story through an alphabet game.

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