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Grace & Frankie: Season 1
Grace & Frankie: Season 1
Price: $29.98

4.0 out of 5 stars I'm not without cheer. I'm a little down., February 7, 2016
This review is from: Grace & Frankie: Season 1 (DVD)
Grace is a polished, sophisticated WASP who formerly ran a cosmetics company. Frankie is a socially-conscious hippie who teaches ex-cons to paint. These two women have absolutely nothing in common...

... until their husbands declare that they are leaving their wives in order to marry each other. Yes indeed, "Grace and Frankie Season 1" is the old tale of faithful wives dumped for someone else.... but in this case, it's further complicated by a bisexual twist. And while this clever little comedy has a few bumps in the road, it also has a staggeringly talented cast and a mixture of irreverent wit ("Have you ever wondered if Ben and Jerry make more than ice cream together?") and bittersweet family drama.

During a group lunch, Grace (Jane Fonda) and Frankie (Lily Tomlin) are flabbergasted when their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston) reveal that they are divorcing their wives. Apparently the men have been having a clandestine affair for the past twenty years, and now they want to get married. Needless to say, both the women are devastated, and their kids (who take after their parents in various ways, and have their own array of issues) are shocked.

Grace moves into the former couples' jointly-owned beachside house in order to get away from the world and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, only to find that Frankie is also crashing there. While the women initially get on like matches and dynamite, their shared loss and grief (plus a nightlong peyote trip on the beach) prompts them to try being roommates at the beach house. But not only do they have to deal with their grief and anger, but the daunting task of reinventing their whole lives as septuagenarians -- learning how to date in the 21st century, trying to get jobs, and occasionally dancing on bars.

Meanwhile, Robert and Sol are trying to get used to THEIR new life as an open same-sex couple, which is somewhat complicated by Sol's continuing closeness to Frankie, and their struggles to plan their forthcoming wedding. And their kids aren't quite sure how to handle this situation -- after all, if their fathers had been cheating with women, there would be ("no cake!") no celebrations of their relationship.

In some ways, "Grace and Frankie" hits on a lot of familiar notes for a comedy -- the woes of dating, life after divorce, odd-couple conflicts, family strife, etc. But it takes a different tack from the usual. The women in question are in their seventies, have been married for four decades (and expected to be so until they died), and they're only divorced because their husbands turned out to be having an affair. Yep, this is a bit different from the usual dreck churned out by the networks.

... and yet not only does "Grace and Frankie" handle these very touchy, tough subjects, but it manages to be both funny and poignant without losing its grip on either emotion. It knows how to make you root for these characters even as you giggle at Frankie's inability to turn her new Mac on.

A lot of the credit for this goes to the cast -- Fonda, Sheen, Tomlin and Waterston are all phenomenal actors who bring a lot of charm, energy and complexity to their characters. Though all of them seem like fairly stock characters (uptight yuppie, aging hippie, closeted prissy lawyer), they all struggle with every step they make and every new experience. Perhaps the biggest problem is... well, Sheen and Waterston don't have an ounce of sexual chemistry, but Tomlin's pleasantly flaky hippie and Fonda's beautiful yet brittle matriarch make up for that.

But don't let that description keep them from sounding absolutely hilarious -- all of them have unique comic timing, from the dry (Sheen) to the adorably frenetic ("My joints are SUPPLE!"), and it's always fun to see the two ladies romping around through the town in each other's clothes, stealing cigarettes and going to bars. Even some of the subplots are gutsplittijngly funny (Brianna adopting a dog and trying to peddle organic lube), although a few (Coyote trying to find his birth mother) don't really seem to go anywhere.

But the funniest aspect is the writing, which tends to be snappy and clever ("Anyone who can do this is a powerful witch." "Well, I can do it." "I rest my case"). There's a lot of wacky situations (the most awkward sex scene outside of "Twilight") and embarrassment, but the series never quite descends into slapstickiness... except for the scene with the pink rodeo penis. That was kind of silly.

One thing that was a bit perplexing was the bisexual erasure. While Robert is hinted to be wholly gay and has few regrets, Sol is pretty clearly indicated to be bisexual.... and yet everyone refers to the two men as homosexual, including themselves. Perhaps it's an age thing (since bisexuality is less acknowledged in the older generations), but it's a bit perplexing.

"Grace and Frankie Season 1" is not only a delightfully funny series ("Does he smell like a cat?"), but a poignant tale of older women having to reinvent their lives when things don't turn out as they expected. Fun, weird and a little sad.

Kiss of the Damned [Blu-ray]
Kiss of the Damned [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Joséphine de La Baume
Price: $12.99
22 used & new from $5.69

4.0 out of 5 stars Romance of the night, February 6, 2016
Ever since Anne Rice's first novel came out, vampires have become creatures of elegance and romance -- all roses, wine goblets, sensuality and twilit marble mansions.

"Kiss of the Damned" seems to be for those who love such stories of "moral" vampires who live lives of beauty and love, which gives this slow-moving character drama a dreamlike quality. Director Xan Cassavetes has created a truly lovely piece of work, misted over with half-light and soft voices, but the denouement definitely leaves something to be desired.

Young screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) meets a beautiful, exotic woman named Djuna (Josephine de La Baume), and instantly falls in love with her. At first, she seems shy of getting too intimate, and soon reveals why -- she's actually a vampire. But when they sleep together, she ends up drinking his blood and turning him into a vampire.

Paolo quickly moves in with Djuna, and the two of them begin a moonlit romance that can last for all of eternity. But then Djuna's sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) comes to stay with them for a week -- and her mind games and reckless blood-drinking throw their lives into turmoil. As Djuna introduces Paolo to the local circle of vampires, led by the actress Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), Mimi begins destroying their romance.

In many ways, "Kiss of the Damned" is a rather cliched vampire romance -- a vampire loves a mortal so much that she turns him so they can be together forever. Some lip service is paid to how awful it is to be rich, hot and immortal, but there aren't a lot of real problems. And oh yeah, the admirable vampires abstain from human blood.

But Xan Cassavetes wrings every last drop of sensuality from her movie. Every scene is draped in a misty, almost dreamlike atmosphere, as though time is slowing down for us as it is for Paolo. Lots of lovemaking and quiet conversations, and rooms filled with eerie pale light in the absence of the sun. When something nasty happens -- such as the most gruesome burning-in-the-sun scene EVER -- it stands out like a bruise.

However, the denouement is lackluster. It feels like Cassavetes didn't know to handle the web of manipulations that Mimi had spun, so she took the easy way out. It's beautifully filmed, but... it leaves you thinking, "Really, that's it?"

Though their characters' love blooms a bit too fast, Ventimiglia and de La Baume have a fragile, sweet chemistry, as if they're still fumbling their way into a relationship. It's rather sweet. Husky-voiced Mouglalis -- who is not in enough English-speaking movies -- is a stately vampire matriarch who finds herself manipulated.

And Mesquida is a cruel, vindictive little girl in a beautiful woman's body; she doesn't care who she hurts or destroys, as long as she gets her way. Blood, sex or control -- if Mimi wants it, she will destroy those around to her get it.

"Kiss of the Damned" is a rather cliched vampire love story, but it wears the cliches with elegance and beauty -- and it all leaves me hoping to see more from Xan Cassavetes.

Star Trek The Next Generation - The Complete Second Season
Star Trek The Next Generation - The Complete Second Season
DVD ~ Patrick Stewart
Offered by Ultimate_Discounts
Price: $21.94
22 used & new from $16.83

3.0 out of 5 stars Fate. It protects fools, little children, and ships named "Enterprise.", February 6, 2016
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
The first season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" was a complete mess. So the next season had to be much better, right?

Well, yes and no. "Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2" was a definite improvement, especially since it lost much of the stifling smugness of the debut season... but it still wasn't terribly good, especially since it disposed with the likable Dr. Crusher in favor of the prickly sneering Dr. Pulaski. It has some truly classic, beautifully-written episodes ("Q Who," "Elementary Dear Data"), but it also suffers from some staggeringly awful ones ("Up The Long Ladder," "The Outrageous Okona").

Since Dr. Crusher has vanished without a trace (don't worry, she comes back), the Enterprise welcomes a new doctor, Dr. Pulaski (Diana Muldaur), who turns out to be obnoxious, condescending, demanding and picks on Data (Brent Spiner) for fun. She also arrives just in time for Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) to inexplicably become pregnant, after being essentially raped by a ball of energy. Much drama ensues.

Among the other adventures the crew has: Geordi (Levar Burton) accidentally creates a self-aware hologram; a deaf ambassador is left helpless when his assistants are killed; a dying scientist wants Data to help him achieve immortality; an aging virus threatens Pulaski's life; a destructive computer virus runs rampant through the ship; Data befriends a young child from a self-destructing world; a future version of Picard is found adrift, having survived the Enterprise's destruction; and Riker gets jabbed by a toxic thorn that triggers a clip show.

There are some staggeringly awful episodes in this season, such as "The Outrageous Okona" ("If you put funny teeth in your mouth, and jump around like an idiot... that is considered funny") or "Up The Long Ladder" (a ham-handed and irrational sermon on abortion, rife with grotesque Irish stereotypes). The show hadn't yet fully shaken off that first-season ridiculousness and preachiness, even though the quality of the overall season is substantially better.

... and yet, it also contains some staggeringly excellent classics, such as "The Measure of a Man" (in which Data must fight for his rights as an individual, rather than a piece of property) and "Q Who" (Q throws the Enterprise across the galaxy, warning them of a terrifying alien threat that is coming for them).

In other words, the second season of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" tended to seesaw wildly in quality, swinging between the sublime and the ridiculous. One thing was certainly improved -- there was greater depth and intelligence in these stories, and an increased awareness that moral and ethical issues do not (and should not) have an easy answer. Even the trickster Q reveals that he has more dimension and depth. Yes, there are some lapses (Riker killing his clones in "Up The Long Ladder"), but most of the time we have deeper examinations of the Prime Directive, the nature of artificial life, and so on.

Most of the other episodes are... okay. Neither brilliant nor staggeringly bad, they have the Enterprise crew embarking on some solid one-off episodes that puts them up against Klingon sleepers, a computer virus, diplomatic problems, and so on.

It also succeeds in making the characters much more likable -- Picard has softened considerably into a more paternal figure, Riker's youth is explored somewhat, and we see more of what shaped Worf into the Klingon he is today. But the greatest development is to Data -- he continues to branch out with the eagerness of a child, from the idea of having a "grandfather" to his continuing interest in Sherlock Holmes. And of course, he ceases to be just the token android, and instead must present himself as a sentient individual with rights.

And of course, there is Pulaski. I can only assume that the writers thought she would be like Leonard McCoy from the original series, with her prickliness, irreverence and aversion to transporters. But her traits are so exaggerated that she just seems condescending and demanding, without any warmth or redeeming characteristics. And her almost-obsessive picking on Data is like watching someone repeatedly kicking a child.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 2" is a vast improvement on the first season, but it was not yet the brilliant show it would later become. It's certainly worth watching, but some of the episodes should definitely be skipped.

Mistborn: Secret History
Mistborn: Secret History
Price: $4.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The tale of the Survivor, February 5, 2016
[WARNING: This novella (and the review covering it) effectively gives away most of the important plot points for Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn trilogy, so it will be both confusing and a letdown if you read it without having read the trilogy. Seriously. Warning. Turn back, here there be monsters.]

Typically when a character dies, they... well, disappear. They might end up coming back to life, or returning as a ghost... but typically, they just vanish from the narrative. But such is not the case with Kelsier, a legendary figure from Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn trilogy -- while this character dies, he refuses to just fade into the afterlife, and instead embarks on a strange otherworldly quest that centers on a pair of feuding gods.

As the story opens, Kelsier is killed by the Lord Ruler and finds himself in a misty otherworld between the mortal realm and the "Somewhere Else." He refuses to simply pass away -- and with the reluctant help of the god Preservation (whom he calls "Fuzz"), Kelsier manages to make it to the Well of Ascension. But while the Well renders him immortal and keeps him from fading into the afterlife... he also is trapped inside it. Indefinitely. So it's not much better than actual death.

But when Vin releases the Well's power... things actually get even worse. The god of Ruin is released from his prison, which will allow him to slowly unravel Preservation and subsequently destroy the entire world. There's no way of stopping Ruin, but a man stubborn enough to not die even when he's dead isn't going to give up. So Kelsier -- who has also been freed -- sets out on a quest to contact his still-living friends, and to find some power in the world to hold back the destruction of his entire world.

"Mistborn: Secret History" isn't so much a sequel as it is a sidequel -- it takes place at the same time as most of the Mistborn trilogy, and occasionally Kelsier's quest overlaps with the stuff that Vin, Elend and Sazed are doing. But though his goal is the same, most of his story branches out in another direction, especially when he learns of the true nature of the "gods" and that there are actually many worlds out there. Apparently nothing expands your mind like dying.

But even as he weaves in his multiverse mythology, Sanderson keeps "Mistborn: Secret History" closely tied to the original trilogy. Readers of that trilogy will know what ultimately happens, but he manages to throw in some surprising twists near the finale. In fact, it leaves you wondering if Kelsier will eventually pop up later on.

One of Sanderson's talents is that no matter how bleak the story, he writes robust, detailed prose that moves swiftly, with haunting descriptions ("fingers made of spirals of unwound, misty strings") and a light sprinkling of humor (“You tried to rescue a boatful of people from a fire by sinking the boat, then claiming, ‘At least they didn’t burn to death'"). But the darker stuff is skin-crawlingly eerie, especially when Kelsier first catches a glimpse of Ruin, and the terrible ruination that slowly unravels the entire world.

Few characters have earned their nickname like the Survivor -- even when Kelsier dies, he refuses to die. His stubborn determination proves to the strongest force in "Mistborn: Secret History," but his bittersweet love for his dead wife and his protectiveness of Vin give him vulnerability. Fuzz and Ruin are equally fascinating characters -- one is a slowly-dying deity whose crumbling mind can't even remember his past brilliant plans (“I was killed long ago, when I made the decision to break our promise"), and the other a cruel force of unswerving entropy.

"Mistborn: Secret History" is a must-read for anyone who has read and enjoyed Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn trilogy -- a fast-paced, intricate novella that shows that for the Survivor, death is not the end. Here's to more of Kelsier's story.

The King In Yellow: Roads Classics (Classic Reads)
The King In Yellow: Roads Classics (Classic Reads)
by Robert Chambers
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.75
28 used & new from $4.56

4.0 out of 5 stars The shadows lengthen in Carcosa, February 5, 2016
Human beings are fascinated by that which causes madness in us. Why would the Internet have pretty much memeified Cthulhu if we weren't?

And one of the most tantalizing bringers of horror and madness is "The King in Yellow," a collection of Robert Chambers' short stories that are loosely tied together by a mysterious play of exquisite horror. The horror stories compiled here are some of the best classic horror that can be found, full of the tattered decay of the unseen and the spellbinding magic that mere words can only hint at... and the problem is that the second half of the collection is just not as interesting.

The first four stories are all tied together by "The King In Yellow," a play whose story and characters are never really explored beyond a few snatches of song and some descriptions of the world where it takes place ("... twin suns sink into the lake of Hali... I saw the towers of Carcosa behind the moon"). It speaks of horrors ("the Pallid Mask") that are hinted at more than explained, and the mysterious King In Yellow, a mysterious personage in "scolloped tatters." And it is written with exquisite beauty and horror -- one character laments: "Oh the sin of writing such words,--words which are clear as crystal, limpid and musical as bubbling springs, words which sparkle and glow like the poisoned diamonds of the Medicis!"

The brilliance of this conceit is that Chambers leaves almost everything to the reader's imagination. He plants a few hauntingly beautiful, unnerving images in the reader's mind ("Carcosa where black stars hang in the heavens"), and lets us imagine something so exquisite yet nightmarish that it could drive someone mad.

These four stories include:
*When young Hildred Castaigne is recovering from a severe head injury, he reads "The King In Yellow." As his sanity spirals out of control, he encounters a similarly crazy "Repairer of Reputations," and begins to believe he is the last scion of the Imperial Dynasty of America.
*Alec visits his old friend Boris (who is married to the woman Alec loves), who has discovered a mysterious liquid that can turn anything organic into a beautiful marble.
*A religious young man is pursued by a mysterious stalker, and haunted by the horrors he has seen in "The King In Yellow."
*An artist struggles with his affections for his lovely model and the pursuit of a grotesque watchman, only for the infamous play -- which he has on his bookshelf for some reason -- to seep into their minds and poison them.

These stories are absolute perfection, both horrifying and lyrically exquisite, especially since merely reading it can cause reactions from nightmares and illness to outright craziness (down to declaring oneself to be king of America). The problem is... well, the remaining stories do not have that quality. They're still good and often beautifully written ("The name of Sylvia troubles me like perfume from dead flowers"), but after Chambers horrified and mesmerized us, it's kind of a letdown to encounter stories that don't really do either.

These stories include a guy who falls in love with a beautiful young Breton noblewoman, little realizing why their love is impossible; a series of interconnected drabbles with personified abstracts like Love and Truth; an artist has some conversations with a scrawny cat, and eventually tries to take her back to her mistress, Sylvia Elven; a tale in the Franco-Prussian War, where an artist's life is wrecked by the impending German attack; and a pair of romances among young artists in Paris.

Chambers' writing is still sublimely lovely in these stories, and they do have some overarching themes that run through almost every story -- many of the protagonists are artists or close to artists, and there is a lot of yellow, a lot of flowers, and some names that keep recurring in different places (Sylvia, Hastur). But somehow the last two romantic stories just fall kind of flat, especially when death and horror aren't brought into them -- the prose is pretty, but a little too commonplace ("Her face was expressionless, yet the lips at times trembled almost imperceptibly").

Eerie, beautiful and ghastly, "The King In Yellow" collects stories that hint at beauty and horrors that the human mind can't even grasp -- and if he had filled the entire book with these, it would have been perfection. As it is, the first half is sublime, the second is merely okay.

Stars Above: A Lunar Chronicles Collection (The Lunar Chronicles)
Stars Above: A Lunar Chronicles Collection (The Lunar Chronicles)
by Marissa Meyer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.69
34 used & new from $8.45

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tales of Luna and Earth (some spoilers), February 4, 2016
The Lunar Chronicles are a series with lots of complexity and history -- whether the characters are from Earth or Luna, they have a lot going on in their lives. So it only seems natural that Marissa Meyer expanded her science-fiction fairy-tale series with "Stars Above," a collection of her short stories that fill in all the gaps of the characters' pasts -- and though readers of her series will know where each story goes, every one is a gripping little tale that fleshes out the wider story.

Each of the stories focuses on a character -- some major, some supporting -- in the Lunar Chronicles universe, but several years before the events of the main series. They're in roughly chronological order, beginning with "The Keeper," and Michelle's struggle to care for and hide the Lunar princess in the basement of her farmhouse. Then there is "Glitches," where a small cyborg child is brought to live with her new stepfamily, only to be stranded with a cruel, bitter stepmother and bratty stepsister.

And then there are stories for other characters -- Z, a boy torn from his family and forever altered into an elite, wolfish soldier for the Lunar Queen; Carswell, a wealthy young boy whose schemes and con games are interrupted by compassion; Cress, a young "shell" whose ingenuity causes her to be exiled into space; Winter's regret over the use of her gift prompts her to vow not to use it again, with terrible results; and Kai brings his beloved android to a simple mechanic's shop, with life-changing results.

There is also "The Little Android," a bittersweet tale based on "The Little Mermaid," where a robot falls in love with a human. And there is a new novella called "Something Old, Something New," a tale taking place after the end of the series. Cinder and her friends reunite on Scarlet's farm for a very romantic occasion, and the cyborg has the chance to finally come full circle to where her journey began.

It goes without saying that "Stars Above" is a collection that should only be read after one has finished the rest of the Lunar Chronicles, because it effectively gives away half the twists that take place in the series -- including the ending. While the novels are a complete story unto themselves, these short stories allow Meyer to fill in the cracks between her stories, exploring the characters at pivotal, life-changing points in their lives. For some, it's simply finding a new place in life. For others, it's being physically transformed into something new -- a cyborg or a wolf-man.

One or two of the stories are a bit lightweight ("The Mechanic" is simply Kai and Cinder's first meeting from HIS point of view), but most of them have a wrenching quality at their heart. Most of these tales -- except for Carswell's, and the series' coda -- are stories of loss, pain, death, alienation and the cruelty of Queen Levana, in one way or another -- and Meyer's sleek, detailed writing creates some scenes of true horror (Winter being forced to carve up her own face) or spellbinding beauty ("But she was already vast and bright and endless").

And it does help flesh out the characters even more, especially when they focus on a character who is either very internalized (Ze'ev) or doesn't appear much in the flesh (Michelle, Scar's grandmother). Cinder in particular is explored as a clumsy, amnesiac child who is offered little but scorn, slowly growing from her initial depressed blankness into a clever child who finds a niche where she belongs -- and her brief appearances throughout the stories allow us to see her grow in strength and confidence.

This collection also has a few sample chapters from Meyer's forthcoming book "Heartless," which is based on Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books. It follows Catherine, the daughter of a bombastic Marchioness, who bakes a set of lemon tarts shortly before a royal ball.

Best read after the rest of the series, "Stars Above: A Lunar Chronicles Collection" expands the characters' backstories, adding new richness and depth -- and providing a solid, satisfying coda to the series. Clever, bittersweet and beautifully written.

The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)
The House of Mirth (Signet Classics)
by Edith Wharton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $4.95
51 used & new from $2.32

5.0 out of 5 stars Mirthless "House", January 24, 2016
America and Europe of the 1800s were stiff, gilded, formal place, full of "old" families, rigid customs and social transgressions. Especially for women.

And nobody chronicled them better than Edith Wharton, who spun exquisitely barbed novels out of the social clashes of the late nineteenth century. "The House of Mirth" is one of her darker stories, where scandals and lack of conformity trigger a tragic downward spiral for a vibrant woman.

Like most not-so-rich women, Lily Bart is on the prowl for a marriage to keep her in luxury and affluent circles. What's more, she has a rapid intellect and striking looks, but she is also a habitual liar who defies society's strictures (she gambles and smokes). Her only friend is Lawrence Seldon, but she is determined not to marry for love alone.

Unfortunately, her schemes and plans start to collapse -- her adoring suitors either aren't rich enough, or her independent spirit sends her off. Her desperation becomes even more intense as she finds herself in the thick of a scandal, spun up by a malicious society matron to cover up her own affair. With her reputation in ruins, Lily's life spirals down into a new life of unemployment, poverty, and the final tragedy.

Edith Wharton always paid a lot of attention to a woman's restricted life in the Gilded Age, and how scandals, unconventionality and society's hypocrisy could ruin them. But "The House of Mirth" pays more attention to this than most -- it's a bleakly realistic story, unflinchingly showing Lily's slow descent into miserable loneliness.

Despite that, Wharton's writing is pure flowering poetry with a knack for evocation ("Her small pale face seemed the mere setting of a pair of dark exaggerated eyes"), and has a sensual quality with all the descriptions of silks, plants, soft light and luxurious mansions. And she vividly portrays the upper echelons of New York society at the time -- affairs, gossip and gilded salons -- as well as the restricted lives of women

But Wharton is just as capable of describing the darker, sadder world that Lily falls into ("... blurred the gaunt roof-lines, threw a mauve veil over the discouraging perspective of the side streets"). Sedoesn't pull any punches with the tragic finale, which has a distinct air of inevitability about it -- no fairy-tale last-minute save by a Prince Charming.

Lily starts out the book as a glimmering satellite of society, who can be rather selfish and cruel, but who nevertheless gains some sympathy because she just doesn't deserve everything that happens. The cruel, glittering society of the time had no room for women who stood outside the lines, and Lily's slow downward spiral is an illustration of this -- she's driven into miserable poverty and drug addiction. Lovely.

"The House of Mirth" is anything but mirthful -- it's the study of a woman's slow downfall, and the cruel society that left her friendless and disgraced. Haunting and vivid.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: (Boxed Set)
The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: (Boxed Set)
by Patricia C. Wrede
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.50
46 used & new from $18.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Fractured fairy tales, January 24, 2016
Fairy tales and high fantasy have their own tropes -- wizards, witches, princesses, dragons and princes coming to the rescue of damsels.

But none of them will ever look quite the same after reading Patricia C. Wrede's "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles: Dealing with Dragons / Searching for Dragons / Calling on Dragons / Talking to Dragons," bringing together four charming little fantasy stories. Wrede cleverly pokes fun at all the things you've come to expect from princess tales, including the now-cliched rebellious princess trope.

"Dealing with Dragons" introduces Princess Cimorene, youngest daughter of the king of Linderwall. Like most medieval tomboys, Cimorene is considered rough, unseemly and stubborn -- she wants to fight with swords and learn magic. On the advice from a magic frog, she goes out in search of a dragon to be housekeeper for. But when she's not sending away valiant knights, she's dealing with some very troublesome wizards.

"Searching For Dragons" picks up when the dragon Kazul goes mysteriously missing. Cimorene is, unsurprisingly, very concerned about this and wants to find her. Enter Mendanbar, a young king as unconventional as Cimorene -- not to mention in need of a wife. But even though he goes along to find Kazul, with wizards and laughter all around, he'll find that he's much more interested in Cimorene.

"Calling on Dragons" skips ahead to when Cimorene and Mendanbar are mrried, and Queen Cimorene is pregnant. All is right, right? Wrong. Magic is vanishing in the Enchanted Forest; the king's sword has been stolen. To combat the troublesome wizards, Morwen the witch teams up with Cimorene, Kazul, Telemain the Magician, and a rabbit called Killer.

"Talking to Dragons" skips ahead even further, to when Daystar is sent off by his mom Cimorene with only a magic sword. Poor kid -- he has to help King Mendanbar escape from an evil wizard's spell, without knowing that Mendanbar is his father. He teams up with a hot-tempered firewitch, Shiara, a dragon, a lizard, and a rather annoying princess. Can Daystar clue in before all is lost?

One of the best things about "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles" is that it is a pretty decent high fantasy story -- the first book is easily the most enchanting, but the three sequels are also still pretty amusing. But while telling its own story, it's gently poking fun at the sort of things you find in these sorts of stories -- princesses, dragons, fairy godmothers and magical swords -- and how they're typically used.

And Wrede's writing matches this plot nicely -- quirky and clever, with a slightly British bent ("Oh bother!") and plenty of humorous dialogue ("If they'd simply done what they were told, they wouldn't be here." "Still, turning them into slabs of stone forever seems a little extreme"). Perhaps the biggest problem with the series is that the third book is rather weak at times, and the dragons are somewhat less prominent in the fourth.

Since the Rebellious Princess is pretty standard now, it's fun to see one that doesn't whine much, even if she likes all sorts of things that aren't princessy (magic, fencing, cooking cherries jubilee). So her sensible approach to getting her own freedom is quite delightful, especially since it shows that she doesn't need a man. She has one, though -- and Mendanbar is a good love interest, quirky and pleasant enough. There's also a solid backing cast, including Cimorene's son in the fourth book, the cat-keeping witch Morwen, and the friendly dragon Kazul.

Fractured fairy tales, dragon politics and melting wizards can all be found in "The Enchanted Forest Chronicles," a charming little quartet of quirky fantasy books.

The Complete Vampire Chronicles 12-Book Bundle
The Complete Vampire Chronicles 12-Book Bundle
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $74.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Children of the blood, January 24, 2016
Except for "Dracula," the Vampire Chronicles are probably the most influential story about vampires ever written... although since some of the works influenced are Anita Blake and "Twilight," that's not always a good thing.

And like vampire fiction itself, "The Complete Vampire Chronicles" (which is no longer complete, with the publication of "Prince Lestat") is a severely mixed bag -- some of the books are absolutely brilliant, some are middling, and some will leave you goggling in horror. While it begins with three spellbinding classics of vampire passion and pain, the books slowly slip in quality as the series goes on, climaxing with the fanfiction-like grotesquerie of "Blood Canticle."

"Interview with the Vampire" and "The Vampire Lestat" begin the story by introducing readers to the mopey vampire Louis and his maker, the flamboyantly arrogant Lestat. Rice follows them through the centuries, from their human lives to the first dramatic days of vampirism, of the sensuality and loss that filled their days, and to the current day. "Queen of the Damned" follows these stories with a mesmerizing epic, where the vampire queen of old wakes from her millennia-long slumber, and begins a terrifying rampage across the world. The key to stopping her lies in a pair of ancient vampire witches.

And then... Rice started careening off the path. "The Tale of the Body Thief" has Lestat encountering a strange man who can switch bodies, and allows him the chance to be human for awhile... except the body thief doesn't want to give it back. And in "Memnoch The Devil," Lestat encounters the devil.... no, really... and goes on a tour of creation with him to convince him to defy God alongside him. After that came a slew of vampire "memoirs," wherein the characters of Armand, Pandora, Marius and a heretofore-unknown vampire named Vittorio were explored.

Then we lurch back to the present day, with "Merrick" interweaving the Mayfair witches into the Vampire Chronicles, with Louis asking an alcoholic witch (whose breasts are detailed a little too much) to contact the spirit of his "daughter." Finally, Lestat encounters the wealthy Quinn Blackwood, who is haunted by a terrible spirit and in love with one of the Mayfair witches, who will ensnare the vampires in a strange quest to find the Taltos. And no, that won't make any sense unless you've read the Mayfair Witch trilogy.

In a series spanning nearly thirty years of publication, it's inevitable that this series would have massive ups-and-downs. The first two books are nearly perfect, lush and hauntingly passionate, and the third is a slow-burning epic that spans the globe and all of human history. Unfortunately, the books that follow were not able to maintain the same quality -- "The Body Thief" struggles with many bizarre or disgusting moments, and "Memnoch the Devil" is a pretentious mass of dull pseudo-spirituality.

One thing that can't be denied is that throughout most of the series, Rice's prose is pretty lush and even intoxicating; she brings alive the humid, flowering beauty of New Orleans, rock concerts, the labyrinthine streets of old Europe, and the deserts of ancient Egypt. Her writing is at its best when it lingers on historical things, whether it's the events of the past encroaching on the present, or a simple memoir of an immortal life lived. Though the stories of some of the "memoirs" are rather thin, the writing makes them more enjoyable.

Unfortunately, even the writing deteriorates in the final trilogy of books, and the interlacing of the Mayfair witch stories causes the stories to become almost like bad fan-fiction. The final indignity is Lestat's overnight transformation into a slang-slinging weirdo who wants to be a saint, and falls in love at first sight with Rowan Mayfair.

It is worth noting also that the publisher -- presumably for the same reasons as the rearranged Narnia Chronicles -- did not release these works in publication order, but in chronological order. So rather than opening with "Interview," the collection opens with "Pandora" and proceeds to "Vittorio" before settling on Rice's first novel.

"The Complete Vampire Chronicles" (minus the most recent book) is a series of lush settings, vampiric loves and plenty of historical detail. However, the vacillating quality means that the omnibus is best suited to those fans who love all her vampire books.

by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
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4.0 out of 5 stars For he is many, January 24, 2016
This review is from: Legion (Hardcover)
At some point, a lot of people believe they have an imaginary friend. But what if you had dozens?

That's life for Stephen Leeds, the unique protagonist of "Legion," a story very different from everything else that author Brandon Sanderson had yet written. Instead, this novella is more of a blend of quirky urban fantasy and science fiction, although at times the story feels kind of like a dry run for a potential new series. It also has a protagonist who is literally accompanied by a merry band of imaginary friends.

Stephen Leeds is known as "Legion": he has many different "aspects" that he hallucinates, each with valuable skills and knowledge that allow him to do almost anything. One is a deductive genius, one is an elite soldier, one is a linguist, and so on. This gives him the skill sets of every person he sees, allowing him to be a rather unique problem-solver for those who can afford his services.

Then a woman named Monica approaches him with a very odd mission: find a scientist named Balubal Razon, who has somehow developed a camera that can see back in time. Now he's gone to Jerusalem to find out if Jesus Christ truly existed (although how he would know where EXACTLY Jesus was at any given time is never really explained). So Stephen, Monica and the various aspects set out for Israel. But soon they find that locating Razon isn't their only problem, because a dangerous terrorist group also wants his camera.

Brandon Sanderson is a writing machine who seems to brim over with fascinating new ideas, so it's not surprising that "Legion" feels like the springboard for another series, should he choose to pursue it. Of course, it also doesn't feel entirely over at the end -- he wraps up the main plot about the camera, but there's a running subplot about Stephen's ex-girlfriend that is never concluded or even explored that deeply.

In the meantime, Sanderson's writing is brisk and swift, with plenty of dryly-humorous conversations between the "legion" of aspects ("I'm not a hallucination. I have state-of-the-art stealthing equipment") as Stephen works through the whole thriller plot. Fortunately, the story is never subsumed under the antics of those aspects, and Sanderson peppers the tale with enough bloody explosive action and mystery to leave J.C. satisfied.

But the real draw here is Stephen and his aspects -- it's kind of fun to imagine this guy talking to his invisible friends, who really act like actual people with quirks and dry humor. There's the the elegant elder Tobias, quirky Audrey, hardcore soldier J.C. ("he had the eyes of a killer. Or so he claimed. Perhaps he kept them in his pocket"), and plenty of others. Stephen serves as the long-suffering straight-man whose life is perpetually complicated by the possibly-imaginary people who surround him.

While "Legion" feels like a single chapter in a much, much larger story, this novella is a solid little offering by a consistently excellent author. Here's to more Stephen and his possibly-not-imaginary friends.

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