Thursday, August 26, 2010


I'm writing this after taking only a few minutes to collect my thoughts on what is probably the biggest YA release of the past few years. Mockingjay brings to a close the events Suzanne Collins began in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. By the way, before I launch in to review this book, which will undoubtedly be absurdly polarizing for its fans (how many times have I used that word this month?), I'd like to point out that there will be spoilers for the first couple of books. Unavoidable, I'm afraid, but you should really have read them by now. Go ahead. They're quick reads. You can finish the whole trilogy in a week without a problem.

Here we go.

Katniss Everdeen has survived the Hunger Games, not once, but twice, and is being torn every which way. She is in the mysterious District 13, the face of a full-scale revolution going on all across Panem. But it's not that simple. Can she really trust District 13? Can she trust Gale? Can she trust anyone?

That's all I'm willing to say, because what makes this novel so great is that it is full of twists. Suzanne Collins has deftly woven the plot to make it look like the entire trilogy was heading a certain direction, then masterfully switched its course. The Hunger Games, and their close-up violence is gone, replaced with a solid, moving war novel. A warning: this series veers more towards the "Adult" side of the YA market, and it goes some dark places that will rattle even older readers. Older meaning adults.

This isn't a perfect, polished story, but that's not what Collins wanted to write. Instead, she has given us a true war novel, delving into the psychological aspects of warfare and not being afraid to showcase some of the innocent lives lost on the sidelines. This is a book full of political manipulation, gray areas, and tough choices. (Speaking of choices, there is a certain one all the female readers are clamoring for. Don't worry, it gets answered, in perhaps the only way that it could.)

Because this isn't a perfect story, it isn't about tying up all the loose ends with a pretty bow. Actions have consequences, and war has repercussions. Anyone who's read Collins's excellent Underland Chronicles (starting with Gregor the Overlander) will know this is one of the themes she stresses. I'm pleased to say she handles it even better here than she did there, providing a truly strong conclusion.

There are a lot of people out there who will hate the ending. And I understand where they're coming from. Certainly it's not what any of us expected. But it's true to the characters and the spirit of the previous two volumes, as well as the confused narrator of Katniss, whose voice Collins absolutely nails. This story has a bite to it, yes, but it provides a bittersweet end to what will surely be remembered as a highlight of YA fiction.

My rating: 10/10

Coming Soon: More stuff. Eventually, after it comes out, The Way of Kings. But it doesn't come out till the 31st, so there might be something else in between.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Classic of the Month: East of Eden

This is certainly the longest Classic of the Month I've ever done here, but don't worry, it's by one of the greats. The book, not the review.

When I started Classic of the Month, it was to see which classics deserve to be read, which ones are timeless and beautiful in their own way. Some books are classics because of the writing itself, like F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, while others are there because of their ability to do something new, like Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. East of Eden by John Steinbeck deserves to be a classic because it tells a classic, familiar story in a new way that will speak to just about everybody.

East of Eden is a beautiful book, one Steinbeck called "the first book." The reason is obvious from the title: if you really want to know the plot, read the first few chapters of Genesis and imagine Steinbeck were writing them. It sounds like a simple exercise, but Steinbeck turns this project into a cyclical epic of both massive scope and intimate characters. The Trasks are all interesting characters, and the Hamiltons, whose story entwines with theirs, are the sort of the people you wish you knew.

This is where Steinbeck succeeds: he creates some of the most vivid and memorable characters of the 20th century. There is Adam Trask, whose life presents the main focus of the novel; Samuel Hamilton, the old man who helps guide him; Cal and Aron, the twins who reenact the story of Cain and Abel; Cathy Ames, perhaps the most vile and horrendous character in all literature; and Lee, the Chinaman who aspires to break free of the stereotypes that have plagued his kind and who knows the true meaning of the word timshel.

Coming away from this book, I felt as if I knew these people, and I didn't want them to leave. The beginning of East of Eden takes some time to crack into, and the book as a whole is a major time commitment, but it is worth every minute. The book spans all aspects of life, the good and the bad, and all the darkest corners of the human psyche. It shows the power to choose to do the right thing, though the way is far from easy. And in simple, conversational prose, Steinbeck weaves a tale that is timeless and true.

In a way, East of Eden is a good companion piece to The Grapes of Wrath. They show different time periods and characters, sure, but they make nice novels to compare and contrast. The Grapes of Wrath is a gritty novel about people trying to overcome what the world throws at them, while East of Eden is about people in a desperate struggle to overcome themselves. Both struggles are timeless, and both should be read by everyone. I cannot say this enough: read Steinbeck if you haven't already.

My rating: 10/10. A true classic.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Love Never Dies, Part Three: Act II

And now we're back after the intermission! My review of Love Never Dies, while only halfway done, has attracted a pinch of negative buzz, most notably from the musical's hate site, Love Should Die (LSD for short, and did I mention they sell T-shirts?). There are a couple of things I'd like to address:

First off, Andrew Lloyd Webber has not been overly polite in talking about Love Never Dies. This doesn't change the music itself, but my opinion of him has lessened. There is no reason to split the fandom in half, each side calling itself the "true phans" of the original. Despite what Webber and LSD say, true phans are the ones that love to watch and listen to the original Phantom of the Opera. Whether you enjoy the sequel or not, the original is still there, and a true phan will still be able to come back to it whenever they're in the mood for some music of the night.

Second, Love Never Dies shouldn't be compared to the original. It's easy for any critic to do so, but no new musical should be compared to a classic, especially the most popular musical of all time. To do so would be foolish and would only make you seriously hate the sequel.

Third, the ambiguity of the original Phantom's ending is gone now. There's no getting past that, and it's kind of sad. But Webber wanted a sequel, and if he didn't want said ambiguity to exist anymore, he's well within his rights to say what happened after. Personally, I'm very 50/50 about the whole thing, because while the original Phantom has a beautiful ending, there was always a slight nagging at the back of my mind as to how the frankly flimsy relationship between Christine and Raoul would last. And this is especially true because Raoul in the original was a very flat character. He sings great stuff, and "All I Ask of You" is still gorgeous (I listened to it again the other day; I told you I'm a phan), but he's not that interesting.

Moving on now, with Act II!
Entr'acte: It's exactly what it says it is, and it does its job quite well. The musical recap of Act I is tasteful, and the main themes soar quite nicely as it seques into the second half.

Why Does She Lone Me?: Raoul is in a bar, drunk and depressed, and asking himself this question. In walks Meg. And you'll never quess who's tending bar. This is a lovely somber piece, but not as infinitely sing-able as the start to the original's Act II (sorry, I said I shouldn't compare).

Devil Take the Hindmost: This is good stuff. Admit it, all of you have been wanting for a long time to hear a Phantom/Raoul duet, and this simple yet tense melody delivers. A fair bit of plot is exchanged amid insults, and the inner aggression is nicely channeled by both of the actors.

Heaven by the Sea (reprise): Nothing to say here that I haven't said before. I know what Webber's purpose is, but the same problems are here as before.

Ladies...Gents!/The Coney Island Waltz (reprise): Just more of the Trio announcing in their bizarre voices, which becomes oddly hypnotic after a few listenings, but is nothing special. A decided "meh" track.

Bathing Beauty: Hoo, boy, how far Meg has fallen. This cute, gaudy piece accomplishes its aforementioned goal in spades, but it certainly is painful to listen to. Especially disappointing after this act's stronger start.

"Mother, Did You Watch?": A very short track. The acting is nicely done by both Girys, and it moves the plot along, but it's got nothing new.

Before the Performance: The longest piece in the show thus far, we have reached the Holy Grail for phans. It's full of homages to the original, providing a nice symmetry for the original's climax, and it does the heart good to hear "Till I Hear You Sing" once more, especially with Christine's "Twisted Every Way" moment from the original.

Devil Take the Hindmost (Quartet): Yep, the song's still great, and the addition of new parts makes for a rich, tense track. I especially like the Phantom's new part, which soars, luscious and full, above the rest of the proceedings.

Love Never Dies: And at long last we arrive at the title track! It is the best the musical has to offer? No, that's "Till I Hear You Sing." Plus, it's been used before, in the period Webber thought he'd never make a sequel. But the piece works best here, and it's clear that this is the song's preferred home.

"Ah, Christine!...": I like this, but it's a bit rushed, especially in a letter at the end. Still, it's great to hear Karimloo inject his passion into the scene, even if he is rather young for the part of the Phantom ten years later.

"Gustave! Gustave!...": More just a string of events to get you to the final track, and while there's nothing particularly wrong with it, it's not all that special.

"Please Miss Giry, I Want to Go Back...": The death of a major character, a kidnapping, a kiss, and not in that order. It's not any "Down Once More" (sorry, I'm comparing it to the original again), but it's got some good emotion in it, even if the Phantom has a stupid line and a certain character takes an agonizingly slow time to die. An unusual way to end this saga of sorts, but this has been an unusual musical from the start.

So, what did I think? The music is really pretty good, with some spots that really soar above other musicals. However, it has the unfortunate fate of following the original Phantom. And it just can't compare. The story is weak, and while the original's was too, it didn't show quite so much. The character changes are interesting, but sometimes not the most desirable things in the world.

Yet... I find Love Never Dies to be a strangely addictive experience. There are some truly beautiful moments, and its reception was nowhere near as bad as LSD would have you think. Someday, after it's come to America, I might find myself seeing it. The truth of the matter is, if it wasn't a sequel, Love Never Dies could be great, something that could stick betten than this one probably will. I honestly don't know how it will do, but it carries the weight of the original around wherever it goes.

But I'll listen to the soundtrack from time to time, whether it continues to be profitable or sinks prematurely, because there's some really good stuff in there.

My rating: 8/10 (higher if I could view it as a separate entity)

Coming Soon: Classic of the Month.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Cool Update from Patrick Rothfuss

Patrick Rothfuss-- you know, the guy who wrote that book everyone really liked called The Name of the Wind and has been working on its sequel ever since-- has just written a great new blog post about his revision process. In fact, he even revises the letter the fan sent him asking about it. Funny stuff, and very revealing.

My favorite part, however, is when he says The Wise Man's Fear is about 4,000 words shorter than The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. And that book (which is almost out, and my most fanboyish side is already drooling in anticipation) is almost 400,000 words long. So when we finally get out hands on The Wise Man's Fear, it's going to be really well edited, and really, REALLY long.

I can't wait till March 1, 2011.

On a side note, I've gotten some interesting and rather negative comments on my posts over Love Never Dies, and I see that this is more controversial than I had even originally thought. Then don't worry; the Act II post is coming soon.

The Writer

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Love Never Dies, Part Two: Act I

Every musical has to start somewhere. No, I'm not talking about the idea process. I'm referring to the actual beginning of it. I don't live in the UK and therefore haven't seen the West End performances of Love Never Dies, but I do have to soundtrack, and I know the story. What does that mean? It means I can go song by song, telling what I liked and disliked. This is gonna be a long one.

But first, the basic framework. It's been about ten years since The Phantom of the Opera, and in that time, a lot's happened. The Phantom was smuggled onto a ship headed for America, and the Girys went with him. Madame Giry and her daughter, Meg, went for their own ends, Meg wanting to catch the Phantom's eye and her mother wanting to get a slice of the Phantom's money. In the ten years, the Phantom and the Girys put their minds to work, creating Fantasma, a "little slice of heaven" on Coney Island. The Phantom is able to walk amongst the world because, let's face it, Coney Island is weird enough that a guy who walks around in a half mask won't get too many second glances.

This isn't enough for the Phantom. He desperately wants to see, and more importantly hear, Christine again, and nothing can keep him from his obsession. So he cooks up a plan to bring Christine to the performance hall inside Fantasma to sing an aria that he's composing. Christine arrives, Raoul and son Gustave in tow, and quickly discovers the true meaning of her invitation. Cue a jealous Raoul (who in those ten years has managed to gamble away his fortune and tried to drink the pain of that away), a confused Christine, and a Phantom who realizes he just may have the ace up his sleeve.

Be honest, Andrew Lloyd Webber's stories were never his strongest point, and Love Never Dies doesn't change any of that. So how's the music?

Prologue: A short intro. Tries to be creepy and atmospheric, but the show's just begun, and the odd choice of characters for the first scene don't help things.

Coney Island Waltz: A great instrumental piece that introduces many of the themes we'll hear throughout the course of the musical. Very smartly orchestrated, and it has atmosphere the Prologue never could achieve.

That's the Place That You Ruined, You Fool!: Same characters as the start, and this short piece doesn't impress any more than the Prologue did. All in all, a somewhat disappointing intro.

Heaven by the Sea: While I understand what this song is intended to do (show how base the visitors to Coney Island are), and it achieves it, it still feels out of place when compared to the rest of the music.

Only for Him/Only for You: I kind of like this one. It's the first glimpse we've ever really gotten into Meg's head, and the duality of it is likeable. It's also not nearly as overdone as the previous piece.

The Aerie: Another beautiful instrumental piece. Where the music is not always winning, the instrumentals are. Nuff said.

Till I Hear You Sing: Oh, Phantom, it's good to see you again! This piece is phantastic, and is surely a show-stopper on all accounts. Magnificent music of the night, one that's worthy of being lumped in with the original. Bravo!

Giry Confronts the Phantom/Till I Hear You Sing (reprise): This one's great too, if only to hear Karimloo soar his way through the melody again. I'd also like to point out that Liz Robertson does a splendid job as Giry.

Christine Disembarks: Not much to say about this one, no real music.

Arrival of the Trio/Are You Ready to Begin?: The trio is weird, and one of the weakest parts of the new show. They annoy me less and less as I go, but their melodies are sung in strange, off-putting voices, and it doesn't fit in too well.

What a Dreadful Town!...: A Raoul piece where it becomes clear how much the character has changed. A very different, mature Webber piece, and it's kind of good for something offbeat.

Look With Your Heart: A Christine and Gustave duet that makes for lovely listening. It's catchy and quite nice. It almost feels like it could be in The Sound of Music. Be sure to listen until the end, because there's a cool nod to the original in the final seconds after the song has finished.

Beneath a Moonless Sky: A Phantom and Christine duet! It's been too long since "Point of No Return." Webber gets across a lot of information in an emotional, soaring way, and it lays the groundwork for a nice twist.

Once Upon Another Time: Really a continuation of "Beneath a Moonless Sky," but it's beautiful. I greatly enjoy listening to Karimloo and Boggess singing together.

"Mother Please, I'm Scared!": Not much of a new piece, but there's a very cool moment when the Phantom and Gustave first meet. Otherwise, forgettable.

Dear Old Friend: This is a fun layered piece, and the veiled hostility is conveyed nicely. It's also a melody you won't really hear before or after, which makes it an interesting surprise.

Beautiful: Look out, there's a quick nod to the original, but it's only a few notes long! And then Gustave sings, and it makes the Phantom realize something, and makes him sing, which is always good. It transitions directly into...

The Beauty Underneath: This is the most polarizing piece in the whole show. You either like it or hate it. Either way, you can't deny that Gustave's part is awkward and for the most part unnecessary, and the song, while it rocks, is a bit over the top, even for Phantom.

The Phantom Confronts Christine: A secret gets out, the Phantom makes a resolution, and Giry overhears it all. All of it's important to have but doesn't really stick out.

So far, we've got a varied set of songs, much more so that the original, and when it works, it works. It's got some incredibly good moments, as well as some that don't fit. But what's my verdict? Now, now, don't be impatient, we still have Act II to get through!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Love Never Dies, Part One: An Introduction

I am a huge phan. For those of you not in the know, that means I love the Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical The Phantom of the Opera, which has been successfully playing for over 20 years on stage. It has gotten a lot of recognition, being perhaps the most popular musical around, and there was even a movie released several years ago, starring Gerard Butler as the Phantom.

Now, Phantom is a phenomenon if ever there was one, and it's a musical I know all the words to. But it had a huge growing process to get to where it is now. Lyrics were changed, songs were shortened, and roles were recast and recast and recast. But the effects have always been phabulous, the music has always been phantastic, and the cultural impact has been more phar-reaching (I know, it's a stretch) than anyone could have anticipated.

For example, every song has a multitude of interpretations, depending on who's involved with the production at the time. Take one of my favorites, "Music of the Night." Michael Crawford's version is vastly different from the version that Gerard Butler sings in the movie.

There is also something quite puzzling I've noticed over the years that I like to call "Phantom Creep." Namely, the disfiguration of the Phantom's face has lessened and lessened over the years. It's still shocking, yeah, but not as grotesque as in the good old days. There's Michael Crawford, and then there's Gerard Butler.

But, although the story is weakish and the characters are flatish, the Phantom excluded, the music keeps it all afloat, and it works wonderfully. On a side note, I'd like to say that Ramin Karimloo is probably my favorite Phantom, which weighs heavily on what will follow this post.

And then I heard that Andrew Lloyd Webber had made a sequel. Set ten years later. On Coney Island. My first reaction was as expected: "WHAT?!?!?" I became rather annoyed at Webber, because, let's be honest, while he had been talking about making one for a good decade or two, I never figured he had the guts to do so. Webber, however, thought differently, saying that the original sort of ended on a cliffhanger. I'm not lying here.

At the same time, I was intrigued, and I set out to get the gist of what Love Never Dies was all about. And I came upon a video of one of the songs from the production, "Till I Hear You Sing." Folks, if you don't click on another link in this post, click on that one. It was enough to persuade me to buy the soundtrack and see what it was all about. Yes, it's Ramin Karimloo himself singing, doing even better than he did with the original, and the song is beautiful.

So, I've now listened to the entire thing a few times, and what did I think? Coming next time, you'll find out.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I gotta admit, the trailers for this movie, the source material for which I sadly haven't read, were enough to guarantee I saw it on opening day. I mean, just look at it! And it's directed by Edgar Wright, the man behind Hot Fuzz! And it's got Chris Evans and Brandon Routh as villains, along with a whole slew of others! And Michael Cera as a somewhat superhuman lead! And... well, just look at it!

Scott Pilgrim lives a happy little life as a bass player for a garage band on its way to some semblance of notoriety. His life is filled with animated excitement, complete with significantly younger girlfriend Knives Chau. But things get spun for a loop when Scott encounters Ramona Flowers. She's the girl of his dreams (Literally. She makes deliveries for using a subspace highway in his head. Don't ask, it's not really that big a deal.), and she agrees to go out with him. Scott quickly dumps Knives, and he and Ramona begin to experience "the L word" for each other.

And then things get spun for a loop again. Scott finds out first via e-mail, then attack, that Ramona has something of a violent past. Namely, seven evil exes who have formed a league to keep anyone else from dating Ramona. Cue energetic fight sequences in the spirit of classic video games!

This is a polarizing movie if I ever saw one. Half the audience in the theater couldn't stop laughing, and the other half barely laughed at all. It depends who you are, really. Or rather, how geeky you are. And I am geeky, I'll be the first to admit, so I had a blast.

The visuals are over the top and unique to a wonderful degree. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a saturated movie in every sense of the word. It's saturated with action, saturated with the visuals, and saturated with jokes, both in the foreground and the background. Combatants flash red when they are on low health. Baddies burst into coins when they are felled. Scott graps a 1-UP icon, saying he's "getting a life."

Scott Pilgrim's sense of fun is contagious. The action is delightful and comic-booky. The humor is ever-present. The acting is purposefully, enjoyably cheesy. The visuals pop like those of Speed Racer desperately wanted to. And it's probably one of the weirdest, most original movies you'll see this year. Do see it, by the way. It's great fun, and perhaps the only film which uses the line, "I'm in lesbians with you."

My rating: 9.5/10

Coming Soon: Ooh, a lot of stuff. But I'm not making any promises.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Desert Spear

Things have changed since the events of The Warded Man. Arlen goes about with Rojer and Leesha, giving the people they encounter methods to combat the demons that rise from the earth after night falls. He is rumored by many to be the Deliverer, the one who will lead humanity in a triumphant conquest over the demons.
Jardir now wields the Spear of Kaji, which he took from Arlen not long ago, leading his people with authority to fight demons in alagai'sharak. He proclaims himself to be Shar'Dama Ka, the Deliverer, the one who will unite humanity under his rule and lead them to destroy the demons in glory-filled combat.

The two most powerful and influential figures in the world are destined to collide, for there can only be one Deliverer. But, as tensions swell aboveground, below lurks a new kind of demon, one whose might is legendary.

Or something like that.

The Desert Spear rather controversially follows The Warded Man. Why controversial? Because Peter V. Brett's debut novel was fantastic, and it left me salivating for more. So I had to read the sequel, but I was afraid of the disappointment sequels usually bring. Let's get this out of the way: Is it as good as the first book? No. Is it still good? Heck yeah.

For about the first third of The Desert Spear Arlen is absent. So are Leesha and Rojer. In fact, the first 200 pages of this sizeable novel are devoted to building up the character of Jardir. Which I have to admit I wasn't exactly looking forward to, since he was a thoroughly unlikeable character in The Warded Man. But Brett makes it work. In fact, the first third is perhaps the best written part of the entire book, and better written than its predecessor. Brett made a bold move in how he started The Desert Spear, but thanks to his bulging, steroid-enhanced storytelling muscles, it made me seriously reevaluate my opinion of him.

In fact, this is probably the novel's strongest point: It fleshes out the characters to an extent where you fully understand the consequences of any interactions they have. Arlen is given an interesting scenario when he must face up to his past, and I enjoyed the growth is provided for his character. Renna, only briefly in The Warded Man, takes on a whole new dimension in this one. The viewpoint count jumps from three to-- I believe-- eight.

Unfortunately, this does have a side effect in that the pace is noticeably slower than its predecessor. The threads this time around are more numerous, and the story takes time to tell. And yet, here's the thing: the characters are interesting enough and the writing is good enough that The Desert Spear is a treat to read. The world, especially Krasia, is fleshed out nicely, which gave me moments of great laughter at the awkwardness of eventual culture clashes.

I have to say, Peter V. Brett set out to write a different book than The Warded Man, and he did so with talent and spirit, providing a nice counterpoint to a strong series starter. While the pace lags in comparison to its predecessor, The Desert Spear is more than worth a read. Seriously, read this series, if you haven't already. You'll thank me later.

My rating: 9/10

Coming Soon: That's a secret.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Thoughts While Writing... About Writing

Well, it's the tagline of the blog, and yet the only real glimpse I give into the mind of a novice, unpublished writer is my taste in books (and occasionally movies). It's time I gave some random thoughts that went through my head recently about writing. This is free-form, and in no particular order. Aren't experiments fun, kids?

I am fascinated by the relationship between story and ideas. Here's my thought: If the ideas come forth the moment you actively think about a story, the chances are the story's good.

I love it when a plan comes together, when it seems the answers to the questions my story raises are actually out there, not waiting to be invented, but instead discovered.

When you have an idea for a story that feels like a mix between The Spiderwick Chronicles and the TV show Chuck, it's time to start writing.

It's a scary moment when you have an idea for a story that seems simple-- but later on it becomes apparent that it really has to do with quantum physics.

Don't ever try to write the 700 page fantasy epic first. I've tried it. Believe me: It will be very rough, and you will want to die.

On another token, don't write a story that takes place simultaneously in three time lines. If such a story rears its head, run like the devil himself is on your tail. Whatever you do, do NOT proceed to map out the story over six books. To do such would be madness.

When your hand cramps from writing, it means the story's getting good.

And lastly:

If you have a vivid dream, it's your mind telling you to get up and write NOW.

Until The Desert Spear review, which should be soon, since I've finished the book,

The Writer