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: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

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

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

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.

Movie Review: Cleopatra (1934)

Movie Review: Cleopatra (1934)

It is 48 B.C., and Egypt is having a bit of a civil war.  Cleopatra (Claudette Colbert) and her brother Ptolemy both want to be the ruler.  The regent Pothinos (Leonard Mudie), who finds Ptolemy easier to control, exiles Cleopatra to the desert, then negotiates with Julius Caesar (Warren William),  representative of Rome.  Cleopatra has managed to get herself smuggled back into the city, and makes her own appeal to Caesar.

Cleopatra (1934)

While Caesar likes Cleopatra better than he does Pothinos, he is more fascinated by her offer of not just Egypt’s wealth, but India’s as well.  They soon become lovers, and Caesar takes Cleopatra back to Rome with him, planning to divorce his wife and marry Cleopatra so he can become ruler of both Rome and Egypt.

Alarmed by Julius Caesar’s ambitions and worried that he is too strongly influenced by the foreign queen, prominent Romans conspire, and eventually assassinate Caesar.  Cleopatra is forced to flee back to Egypt.

In Rome, Caesar’s buddy Marc Anthony (Henry Wilcoxon) has quickly used his oratorical skills to gain favor, much to the envy of Caesar’s nephew Octavian (Ian Keith).    A misogynist, Marc Anthony thinks it will be easy for him to trick Cleopatra into becoming his captive, despite the warnings of his faithful friend Enobarbus (C. Aubrey Smith.)

Cleopatra, however, has shrewdly realized that Marc Anthony is actually a repressed hedonist.  She gets him aboard her barge and plies him with fine wine, rich food, jewels and dancing girls.  It works, and Marc Anthony becomes besotted with Cleopatra, accompanying her back to her queendom.

There they are visited by the sly King Herod (Joseph Schildkraut) who is allied with Octavian, and turns the lovers against each other with paranoia.  Before this can bear deadly fruit, however, the impatient Octavian declares war.  Marc Anthony’s bold response to this wins Cleopatra’s heart for real.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true for Marc Anthony’s legions, who desert to Octavian rather than rebel against Rome.  Even Enobarbus is forced to repudiate Marc Anthony by his principles.  Marc Anthony puts up a valiant fight using the Egyptian troops, but it is no use.  Soon he and Cleopatra are trapped inside her palace.

Cleopatra tries to bargain with Octavian to leave Egypt if he will spare Marc Anthony’s life, but he’s having none of that.  Only Enobarbus’ reminder of the honor of Rome keeps Octavian from violating her peace negotiation immunity then and there.

Returning to the palace, Cleopatra discovers that Marc Anthony mistook her envoy for a betrayal, and committed suicide rather than surrender.  As he passes away, the lovers reconcile.  Cleopatra then commits suicide by asp herself, the invading Romans finding her dead upon her throne.

This is another Cecil B. DeMille film, this one produced just as the Hays Code came in.   The stranglehold was not so firm yet, so some pretty risque images made it into the film, especially in the scene on Cleopatra’s barge where she seduces Marc Anthony.  Dancing girls in leopard skins having catfights, yowza!  The sets and costumes are really nice with an Art Deco feel, and almost make up for the lack of color.

Cleopatra is the star of the movie, and Claudette Colbert shines in the role.  She has little actual power, and must rely on the men around her to get things done.  So she uses her sex appeal and wealth and psychology to manipulate those men into doing her bidding.  Cleopatra throws herself wholeheartedly into this endeavor, allowing herself to truly fall in love with Caesar and then Marc Anthony.

But it is all for the sake of Egypt, and Rome will not have Egypt be anything but a vassal, so it all ends in tragedy.  There are references to the Shakespeare plays here and there.

As always with the DeMille films, this is a highly romanticized version of history, but it’s a great movie.

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