Bunnicula by Deborah Howe & James Howe

Read: 21 April, 2015

This is a small chapter book intended for early readers. I read it to my four-year-old son. We found the human characters to be rather ill-defined and boring, though I suppose that’s to be expected. The story is really about the three pets in the house – Harold, dog and narrator; Chester, the suspicious and excitable cat; and, of course, Bunnicula himself, the rabbit.

In a delightful twist on the classic vampire tropes, Bunnicula doesn’t drink blood from people, but rather sucks the juice out of vegetables. My son found this absolutely hilarious, and spent about a week trying to suck all the juice from tomatoes, tangerines, and even a zucchini.

Chester’s antics as he tries to prove that Bunnicula is a vampire were quite funny and we both had some good laughs. Things turned rather dark, however, when Chester failed and decided to try to kill Bunnicula instead. I was worried that this would disturb my son, though thankfully he was more focused on Harold’s efforts to save Bunnicula, and was glad that all three animals were able to (mostly) be friends by the end.

All in all, we quite enjoyed the book. It name-dropped a lot of other books that we then got to talk about (Treasure IslandDracula), it had a lot of funny moments, and the premise of a vegan vampire was just absolutely charming.

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The Dresden Files #12: Changes by Jim Butcher

Read: 23 March, 2015

The story is meant to start with a punch as the opening scene has Dresden receive a call from Susan in which he learns that a) they have a daughter, and b) she’s been taken. Unfortunately, the “secret child out of left field!” plot has been done so often that what should have been shocking was more eye-rolling.

I feel like if a major reveal like this is going to happen, there needs to have been some clues (even if they weren’t seen as such at the time) leading up to it. The girl is something like eight years old, that’s eight years of Susan keeping a perfect secret and never acting strange. At the very least, some of this could have been retconned, with Harry suddenly making sense of some odd comment or behaviour that took place between novels. The way it’s done here, however, just feels like a cheat.

Thankfully, though the cheat is rather central to the plot, it’s the only real criticism I can offer. This book ramps up the danger and brings about several showdowns that have been building up for the better part of the series.

One reviewer complained that we never really fear for Dresden’s safety any more because he’s just become so incredibly powerful. And that is true to a certain extent. I mean, he still struggles, and his tasks are difficult, but he spent the better part of the final showdown wearing what amounted to invincibility armour.

However, I think that there are two factors that balance this out. The first is that we are continuously introduced to even more powerful enemies as Dresden works his way up the supernatural food chain (not to give away too many spoilers, but everyone’s favourite one-eyed deity makes an appearance in this book). The second is that the danger to Dresden has shifted (and did so in a very clear way back in Death Masks). It’s not the safety of Dresden’s physical body that is keeping me at the edge of my seat, but rather the safety of his self as he makes impossible choices in order to get all that extra power.

Besides which, I’m not sure this series could have held my attention if he was still just fighting local werewolves and the odd rogue wizard. The early books were very formulaic, and seeing Dresden meet and beat the same kinds of dangers over and over again would have quickly lost its luster. A good series knows to ramp up the stakes, shake things up, and force the main characters to either change or break. And I think that Changes does this beautifully.

Speaking of changes, I mentioned to a friend after I finished Turn Coat how funny it was that the series had entirely dropped the whole “Wizard P.I. with an office” bit it had ridden so hard in the early books. In fact, I couldn’t remember Dresden’s office having been brought up at all in several books, and wondered why he was bothering to keep up the rent now that he’s a Warden and that all his clients have his private number, so to speak. So, of course, Butcher heard me and responded, and I got a little chuckle out of that (largely due to his perfect timing).

(SPOILER COMMENTS: I had a few problems with the book that require spoilers. The easiest to deal with is the ending, which was a really good cliff-hanger that I hope pays off properly in the next book, but just kept dragging on as Butcher couldn’t seem to just stop writing. It was a shame, and I felt it reduced the impact of what would otherwise have been a very satisfying close (satisfying if the payoff in the next book works, of course).

There was a colonialist undertone to the book that didn’t quite sit well with me. I mean, Dresden literally dresses up like a Conquistador to go kill Mayan gods, and there’s a bit in there about how this will free the Mayans from the evil of their gods, and that all hit a little too close to the rhetoric that justified the wholesale genocide of aboriginal peoples. Sure, everything had a neat explanation in the context of the book, but oof! It came off really tone-deaf.

Which leads me to my last bit. The series started off with an undersmell of sexism that has, off-and-on, gotten better. Here, however, women and little girls are tortured and killed for the purposes of giving Dresden his manly manpain. Again, it’s a narrative cliché that has been done to death, and that has reinforced structures that cause real-world harm. While I certainly found the story very compelling, and it’s satisfying to watch Dresden evolve through the choices he makes, it would have been nice to try something a little different for once.)

I also wanted to make a little note on James Marsters’s reading. For a while after I had a baby, I had to do the bulk of my reading through audiobooks because free hands are so hard to come by with little ones around. And while I’ve mostly transitioned books like the Dresden Files back over to paper copies now, I’ve stuck with audiobooks for this series through the sheer pleasure in listening to Marsters’s performance. While it’s still absolutely wonderful, I noticed that he was doing more unique character voices for this book. It was largely fine, though a bit odd since the narrative structure of the series has Dresden relaying the story to us (in other words, it’s not Murphy speaking, but Dresden telling us what she said), so the individual voices don’t really fit in such a context. But that’s easily overlooked and not very important. The problem I had in this book is that a few of the voices, Mrs. Spunkelcrief (Dresden’s landlady) in particular, were very jarring. In her case, the voice sounded sufficiently like Mickey Mouse to put the audiobook production team in danger of a trademark lawsuit. It was only for a small handful of characters, and they were characters who got very little narrative time anyway, but I found it off-putting.

To wrap up, I thought the book was great, and it really shook things up and I look forward to seeing how the changes play out in the next book.

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The Undead and Philosophy edited by Richard Greene and K. Silem Mohammad

Read: 17 December, 2012

When I reviewed Game of Thrones and Philosophy, I complained that the book was just out to explain philosophical concepts, and it’s tie to the ostensible subject rested solely on using a few names and events for illustrations. In The Undead and Philosophy, on the other hand, the subject matter is much more integrated in the articles – each chapter using the Undead to discuss things like issues of personhood, or the relationship between desires/impulses and civilization.

In some cases, it worked really well and I felt that my consumption of the Undead genre was enriched by the thoughtfulness of the article (such as “Heidegger the Vampire Slayer: The Undead and Fundamental Ontology” by Adam Barrows). Others were just uninteresting. And still others were simply hilarious – such as the article that argued that zombies are giant erections with vagina mouths (“The Undead Martyr: Sex, Death, and Revolution in George Romero’s Zombie Films” by Simon Clark).

I can’t really think of the right audience for this book. I think that anyone with an interest in philosophy will either already be familiar with all of the concepts or will be able to find a much better introduction. Zombie and vampire aficionados may well be enriched by some of the new perspectives, but I don’t think it’s worth the price of the whole book. Maybe this is just one of those books that libraries were made for.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Read: 12 August, 2011

Robert Neville is alone, completely alone in a world overrun by vampires.He is alive, but he can’t figure out why he bothers.

I enjoyed the recent movie with Will Smith – mostly because I read into it far more than any of its creators intended. When I talk about the movie with others, it’s like we saw entirely different movies. Mine was a subtle commentary on racism, or perhaps our relationship with the mentally ill. My movie featured a brilliantly executed unreliable narrator and one of the best ironic endings I’ve ever seen. What other people saw was yet another mindless monster flick.

I Am Legend the novel is everything I saw into the movie, only better.

Neville is a fantastic character. He’s going nuts, making stupid mistakes, and drinking himself silly. But it’s never frustrating, and I never felt that I just wanted him to shut up and get on with things. That’s because Matheson has perfect timing, he never allows Neville to wallow for too long.

The sense of isolation and loneliness is palpable. As I was reading, I could really feel Neville’s despair. This makes the story creepy and even terrifying without ever resorting to monster-in-the-closet gimmicks. Quite the opposite – the vampires’ inability to wake during the day give Neville the advantage. He can scavenge safely during the day and then simply wait out the night in his house-come-fortress. The vampires are never the source of terror, the loneliness is.

This was one of the best, most perfectly executed books that I’ve read in a very long time. I highly recommend it for any fans of science fiction, distopian fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, and horror fiction.

NOTE: The copy I was reading was a first printing and had a truly creepy portrait of a young Matheson emerging from the shadows on the back. Yikes!

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Dracula by Bram Stoker

Read: 7 February, 2010

I took a course during my university career on Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by a heavily accented Ukrainian woman with very little qualification in the subject other than personal interest. The class structure was very informal. We had a reading list, but the syllabus included notes for each book where watching the movie would be a suitable alternative. Dracula was one such book, although the syllabus stipulated that only one version would be acceptable.

This was the same year that I was taking Victorian Literature and Colonial Literature, both courses assigning full length novels on a bi-weekly basis. I read so much that I got eye-fatigue and had to wear glasses for the rest of the year. I read so much that one of the professors (the Victorian Lit one) apologized to my mother at graduation. If I could lessen me reading load by one book, all the better.

I’m glad that I took advantage of the movie option because  I was so harried by schoolwork at the time that I was reading far too superficially – skimming to intake just enough for the tests but not enough for enjoyment. So I was able to approach the book a few years later with a clean impression and all the time chance and nature give us.

I didn’t realize from the movie or pop culture that the book is written entirely in letter, news articles, and diary entries. In the story, this style is explained when one of the main characters collects all the story’s fragments from the other characters and compiles them chronologically (so that they can examine and compare what they know so far about the story’s baddy). It’s done wonderfully, adding a sense of realism to the story.

The epistolary style is rarely done well. With the more usual narrative style, characterization is easier to fudge. But when characters are given their own voices, it suddenly becomes much more obvious if the author fails to give them unique personalities – or, just as bad, tries to differentiate them with the use of cheap gimmicks. But Bram Stoker pulls it off perfectly, making Dracula the single best example of the multiple narrator style that I’ve ever seen.

I really can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this book. It’s brilliantly written, the plot is interesting, the characters have depth, the suspense is maintained, and there’s an actual ending (something of a rarity among those easily-distracted Victorians). Other than a few points of plot, it’s really nothing like any of the pop culture we’re all familiar with.

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Night Watch #2: The Day Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 19 December, 2010

During a battle with a powerful witch, Day Watch witch Alisa is drained of all her power. She is sent to a children’s summer camp to work as a councillor while she recovers and, there, falls in love with a young man. Everything seems to be going well until her powers start to return and she realizes that her lover is a witch with the Night Watch!

In Night Watch, we got to see how the Others on the side of the light operate. Now, we get a glimpse into their enemy organization, the Day Watch.

This was a great addition to the series! I really enjoyed how the Dark Others were presented. They aren’t evil, per se, they are just approaching life and relationships differently. In fact, I think that many people would agree with their individualistic philosophy. Lukyanenko did a great job of making the two sides distinct, with thoughts and motives that are diametrically opposed, while at the same time making them eerily similar. I think it’s a mark of a master writer to be able to convincingly write about a feud between two enemies while convincing the reader that both are entirely justified.

As with Night Watch, the book is composed of several short stories that don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with each other. But by the end, it becomes apparent that each has actually been building up towards a particular climax, that every seemingly unrelated event has actually been part of the leaders’ strategies. Again, it’s truly impressive how Lukyanenko is able to pull this off without it ever feeling contrived. The climactic reveals are truly revealing, and not in a cheaty way.

The setting is wonderful. It’s a magical world laid over our own modern day one, and this is done very creatively. But most impressive is how very Russian the magic system is! There is little natural limit to what the witches can do, something that would be a recipe for Mary Sues in the hands of most other authors. But here, the use of magic is restricted by a complex hierarchical bureaucracy. It’s like something straight out of Brazil!

And, as a fan of Russian music, I’ve been having a great time trying to match up the translated lyrics with the original songs.

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Night Watch #1: The Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Read: 12 May, 2009

Anton Gorodetski is an Other, a person with magical abilities. In his world, Others come in two types: those who belong to the Light and those who belong to the Dark. These two sides are in a sort of cold war against each other, each polices the other and ensures that neither breaks the terms of their uneasy truce.

Night Watch is arranged in three parts, each an independent story in which Anton must solve a mystery and encounter the Dark Ones. The great twist of the third story is, of course, that the events of all three are actually all related, part of a great plot, and Anton must make an impossible choice that could either save the world or destroy it.

The novel is unmistakably Russian. The magic system, not to mention the model of the truce between the two factions of Others, is ruled primarily by bureaucracy. The sense of humour, too, is fundamentally Russian – as are the character personalities, the descriptions, and even Anton’s final decision at the climax of the novel. All are so adorably Russian.

The bureaucracy makes the magic system interesting. While the magic system itself could allow for limitless power (something generally considered a no-no in the Fantasy genre), the bureaucracy keeps the amount of power any one individual can hold in check. It’s a very unique (and uniquely Russian) solution to a common problem in Fantasy stories.

I found Night Watch to be a delightful novel. It was funny, it was interesting, it was suspenseful, clever, and so very very Russian (can I say this enough?). I highly recommend it for fans of the Fantasy genre (especially the subgenre of Urban Fantasy), as well as any Russia-aficionados.

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Vampire Chronicles #3: The Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

Read: 26 August, 2008

In some ways, I’d say this was the worst of the three. In other ways, I think it was better than The Vampire Lestat. The story was more interesting, certainly, but the writing style was fragmented and annoying.

I think that Rice is much better at writing in the third person. That being said, the whole multiple narrators thing was infuriating. Every time I’d get really into one narrative, she’d rip me away and into a story I wasn’t all that interested in. This was especially true near the end where novel kept bouncing back and forth between Lestat’s experiences with Akasha and Marahet’s legend of the twins. I desperately wanted to hear more about the twins and I would read those bits ravaneously. Then, I’d be thrust into Lestat’s whining: “I love Akasha, she’s evil, I love her, she’s evil, I’m tempted by blood, I love her, she’s evil, mmmm, she’s so tasty!” Booooring.

This was made doubly frustrating because it was a good opportunity to explore whether or not Akasha was right. Lestat is never tempted by her plan. He is only tempted by her – even then, though, I never really got the feel that he loved her (beyond how tasty her blood was) until after she had died and he had to mourn. In fact, most of the arguments characters brought up against her plan were as irrational as the plan itself! “But but… it’s so mean!” No one mentioned the simple fact that Akasha’s world wouldn’t work and that she herself was proof! As a female, while still human, she had ordered the torture of Mekare and Maharet. So why does she think that all other women would be all nice and friendly? As a vampire, she was commanding the mass slaughter of all men – proof in and of itself that women would be just as capable of genocide, if they had the chance, as men! But does anyone bring this up? Of course not.

Rice also seemed to experience with syntax in a really annoying way. “With leather straps they’d been bound […] Naked to the waist they were.” It breaks up the flow and is just a pain to read.

There were also inconsistencies between this book and The Vampire Lestat. For example, the final portion of Lestat describes the concert, which would have meant it was written after the book it was included in was published. If we assume this was added later, that would have meant that it had to be written right about the same time as The Queen of the Damned. Despite this, Lestat never mentions Jesse at the concert (instead, it has an anonymous biker jumping on stage). Considering how important this becomes, it should have been mentioned – if only as “and then a really nice looking red-head jumped on stage!”

And, finally, the names annoy me. Why would two women with names as Egyptian-sounding as Mekare and Maharet name their daughter something as Semitic-sounding as Miriam? Why would someone from Sumeria be named Akasha, which clearly has Indian roots? Why does Enkil’s name not fit phonetically with Egyptian names? If names had been chosen a little more carefully, it would have made this whole series a great deal more readable.

I did enjoy it, though. I know I’m complaining a lot, but it was an okay read. I thought the climax was very well handled – or, at least, the resolution was worth trudging through all of the novel’s flaws. I do think Jesse should have gotten a whole lot more page time, though. In fact, I would have liked to have had it all written just from her perspective and put as a “secret file from the Talamasca vault” or something like that. It would have made the multiple narratives more credible since she would have had her reason to collect data, while Lestat seems far too concerned with his own problems to have cared enough even to have bothered with the others.

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Vampire Chronicles #2: The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice

Read: 14 July, 2008

Overall, I’d say that this was a good book. It wasn’t fabulous, but it passed the time in an entertaining way. It didn’t provide all that much food for thought. Despite the near-constant philosophical ramblings, I found that most of them contradicted with my own observations far too much to be thought-provoking (for example, one character explains that mortals will believe just about anything other than a supernatural explanation, preferring even the most ridiculous natural explanation – never mind all the talk about finding a good parking space being a “gift from god” or all the “real haunting” TV shows one sees on television). I do think that I liked it better than Interview With a Vampire, but that might just be because Interview was a bit of a disappointment after having seen and loved its movie.

The writing itself was fairly strong – not great, but better than average. There were some parts where present tense was used, despite the bulk of the novel being in the past tense. This wasn’t done for any discernible purpose and it made those passages seem awkward.

I did take some issue with the narrative voice. For one thing, the start of the novel had a completely different tone to the rest. There’s some half-hearted attempt to explain this, that Lestat is so old and has lived through so many linguistic eras that he switches between them from time to time. All well and good except that the voice of the first couple pages is never used again. All that explanation stuffed into the story when Rice could have just as easily re-written the first few pages to match the tone of the rest. Not to mention the fact that the voice of the first few pages was incredibly annoying, to the point that I considered not reading on.

My other major issue with the narrative voice is that it is very similar to the one used in Interview With a Vampire. There was no distinct personality showing through as I have seen in so many other novels. The Vampire Lestat was a novel best written in first person, and that was a good choice, but in terms of skill, Rice ought to have stuck to third person instead. This became even clearer during Armand and Marius’ narratives. If I put the book down and picked it up again later, I could easily forget who was telling that part of the story. It’s forgiveable in this case because of the plot – that Lestat is re-telling the stories he’d been told in the past. So it’s conceivable that he is re-telling them in his own way. But this doesn’t excuse the likeness of Louis’s and Lestat’s stories.

There was also a bit of sexism present, as in Interview With a Vampire. Female characters are given very little page time. In this book, there is the added discussion about how female vampires are unpredictable or mad. That being said, however, the narrators of Interview With a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat are both male and it is a character who makes the statement about female vampires. I am willing to accept that the sexism of these novels is from the characters and not the novel itself, especially since Claudia and Gabrielle both seem to be strong and independent (in mind, though Claudia, of course, is completely dependent in other ways) woman with clear and consistent goals. In many ways, I’ve found those two (with the possible addition of Eleni) to be more interesting than Louis, Lestat, Armand, or Marius. It’s a shame they don’t get their own stories (or maybe they do? If anyone reading this review knows of a Rice book where any of these three gets their own story, I’d love to know which one).

And my final complaint is with the names. I’ve never heard a French name like “Lestat.” Just saying it, it doesn’t sound French at all, even if the final T is pronounced (which would be a no-no in modern French). I don’t know where Rice got it from, but I personally think it was a very poor choice. It killed my suspension of disbelief every time it came up because I would try to say it in French, as I do with Louis’s name, and it just wouldn’t work.

I loved the inconsistencies between Interview With a Vampire and the Vampire Lestat. I also liked that the explanations in the Vampire Lestat for questions that had been left unanswered fit well into a separate narrative of their own. This was something that had bothered be in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The subsequent novels attempted to explain away a lot of what had happened in the first, and this killed the jokes and made the subsequent novels feel like they were mostly there as additional material rather than stand-alone books. This was something Rice successfully avoided.

P.S.: What’s the deal with Typhon? Why is the name Set never mentioned? If anyone knows, I’d love to hear it!

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Vampire Chronicles #1: Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice

Read: 26 June, 2008

Overall, I did enjoy the book. I just found it disappointing in several ways. My first complaint is that the timeline was rather fuzzy. We are told at the beginning that the story starts in the 1790s. He then says that two hundred years pass before going to Paris, which really doesn’t make all that much sense. I know that part of the whole point is that Louis survives by being so self-absorbed that he doesn’t really notice the time flying by, but it would have been nice to have some indication of how much time has been passing. I would have liked a better sense of the change in eras rather than the “and everything was the same because my life sucks, boohoo” that we ended up getting.

The book was definitely a page-turner, but I felt vaguely disappointed whenever I did turn the page – especially in the first fifty or so pages. I think it’s mostly because I enjoyed the movie so much and people have been telling me for years about how wonderful the book is. So I came to it with such high expectations that it couldn’t possibly have lived up to them.

Louis’s whining got on my nerves a bit. Most of the time, it was overshadowed by my interest in the plot so I didn’t notice it. But there were passages that just went on and on about how terrible it is to be a vampire and how damned he is and how he doesn’t know if God exists and so forth and it made me just want to smack him and tell him to get over it. I think that Lestat says it best at the end of the movie where he tells the interiewer that Louis always did whine a lot.

Speaking of the interviewer, I was very disappointed by that part of the book. Having an interviewer was a great opportunity for a dialogue between the reader (using the boy as a surrogate) and Louis – an opportunity that Rice misses. Instead, the boy is just an annoying disruption in the first portion of the story, completely non-existent for the second portion, and only came back at the very end for the punchline. It’s as if the entire set up of an interview was just so that the boy could deliver the “final lesson” to the reader or something. Don’t get me wrong, the punchline was good and I’m glad it was there, but it shouldn’t have been the only reason for the boy’s presence. There was wasted opportunity there and I can’t help but feel let down.

Other than that, though, I did enjoy it. I liked the abusive boyfriend kind of angle to it. Claudia was a great character. All in all, I’d say that it’s a great page-turner for a lazy afternoon, but not much more than that.

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