Friday, January 31, 2014

From The Appendices: "The Phantom of the Opera" Explained (Part 1/2)

Not pictured: any mask actually worn
by the Phantom at any point
Earlier in January, I watched a recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom of the Opera" with a friend who had no great love for the musical. She knew the songs, but didn't understand the story. Naturally, it was my responsibility to ruin redeem it for her.

If you don't know POTO, dear reader, this post from the appendices is for you. And if you do know it... I'm sorry for what I'm about to do to this great classic.

For the record: I have indeed read the original book by Gaston Leroux, which is less about misunderstood serial killers and more about French detectives and Persian expats.) I'll eventually do a book grump for the 1990 novel Phantom by Susan Kay. I've memorized the recording from the original Broadway cast, starring Sarah "Dating The Composer" Brightman and Michael "I Was Actually A Comedian Before This" Crawford. I've seen an off-Broadway performance in D.C., as well as the 2004 film starring Gerard Butler (a handsome albeit tone-deaf actor, perfectly suited to play the role of a hypnotically entrancing singer with a face like a partially decayed eggplant)

The specific performance which sparked this irreverent summary is the 2011 show recorded at the Royal Albert Hall. It's a beautiful performance that is remarkably well filmed, by the way, and I highly recommend watching it at the link.

Please note: the following summary is written purely from memory, and may be entirely inaccurate. Students writing papers on the book should not consider this a valid source of information, especially since it is not the book but the musical being discussed.


CLACK! goes the auctioneer's gavel, auctioning off various relics of the glory days of opera. Chief among them is a dusty old chandelier, which has some vague hints of a ghost story attached to it. Don't worry if you miss the details; we're about to get all of them. The fact that it is Lot Number 666 is entirely coincidental. Don't think about it too hard, because when the lights come on, it's time to do the time warp!

It's Paris, 1881, and we're about to enter the fabulous world of the opera house (because it's actually New York, 1986, and we are all about fabulous.) After one too many incidents, the owner of the Paris Opera House Opera Populaire is selling it off. From now on, the usual problems of showbiz (flouncing divas, dwindling attendance, dead bodies falling onto the stage) belong to Mssrs. Firmin and Andre.

(Wait, what was that last part?)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Death of the Google+ Comment Monster

It was brought to my attention that, while I thought that the commenting system had been set up so that anyone could leave a remark, the Google+ Monster had in fact been barring the gateway, snarling and slavering at anyone who dared to approach.

I have now, to the best of my knowledge, slain the Google+ Monster. Alas, over the course of our battle, I had to sacrifice the existing Google+ comments. Thank you to everyone whose comments are now lost; I have the email notifications saved, and I treasure them.

If all goes well, from now on anyone can leave a comment, not just Google+ members. You can even leave anonymous comments if you like. Please let me know if you have any problems.


Series Review: "The Orphan's Tales" by Catherynne M. Valente

The first half of The Orphan's Tales,
subtitled "In The Night Garden"
In the gardens of his father's palace, a lonely prince discovers an orphan girl whose eyelids are dyed black with the density of mystic writing upon them. One by one, she tells him the stories written there. She begins with a Prince much like her listener, one whose youthful adventure ends--and begins--when he kills a goose, only to learn that it was the transformed daughter of a barbarian Witch.

The wrathful Witch accuses the Prince with the secret history of her people, killed by his own father. Her tale winds back through generations, to the realm of the Stars, and then finds its way back to the Prince's own beautiful mother. Stricken by his father's sins, the Prince sets off on a quest to make amends and revive the dead goose-girl. 

Soon his own quest is entangled with a score of others: of astrologer bears from the frozen North turned human and feeble, of the vengeance taken for the murdered Snake Star, of the tree that grew ships for fruit, of the saint who nursed the last griffin ever hatched. There is always another story, another legend, another thrilling tale. With each story told, another line of text disappears from the orphan's eyelids.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review: "Revelation Space" by Alastair Reynolds

The first book in the Inhibitor Trilogy
Humanity has entered interstellar space to find itself strangely alone. The galaxy is littered with life-supporting planets and the ruins of alien civilizations, but of extant peers--none.

Dan Sylveste is singleminded to the point of monomania in his pursuit to understand the extinction of the alien Amarantin. As he gathers evidence that the birdlike race achieved starflight before their demise, his research team mutinies. Meanwhile, the ghostly simulation of his dead father taunts Sylveste with the secrets he has hidden.

Aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, Triumvir Ilia Volyova has a quest of her own: to find a cure for the virus which slowly dissolves her Captain. The computer program containing the memories of Calvin Sylveste may have the answer. But a spectral entity lurking in the ship's weapons cache works against Volyova, driving her fellow crew members mad and twisting the ship to its own sinister purpose.

Ana Khouri, an assassin-for-sport on the planet Yellowstone, is blackmailed by the mysterious Mademoiselle into taking an illegal commission: to find and kill a man who has not paid to die. Haunted by the phantoms of her soldiering days, and the far more literal phantom of the Mademoiselle implanted in her brain, Khouri searches for her target--Sylveste.

Across the vast realms of space and time, the three converge on the planet Resurgam, where the Amarantin race died. And where, if they are not very careful, humanity will soon follow.

  4 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Revised Rating System

Several of my dear readers have mentioned a wish for a more detailed rating system. Let's give it a try! The goal is to provide a better idea of a book's contents to potential readers, and to explain the degree to which I do or do not recommend it.

These are some of the categories I've come up with, based on how I judge books while reading them. (This applies to fiction only.)
  • Complexity of Writing -- how advanced the language of the book is (a relevant question when discussing YA lit in contrast to general fiction)
  • Quality of Writing -- how effectively the author uses language to tell a story, regardless of complexity
  • Strength of Characterization -- which may need to be broken down into protagonist/antagonist, in some cases
  • Logic of Plot Development -- whether the protagonists make the plot happen or whether they're just along for the ride; whether the story relies upon coincidences and gimmicks
  • Evocation of Setting -- is this a book of talking heads, or does the author set the stage? Have they done their research? Do they worldbuild?
  • Emotional Engagement with Reader -- frankly, do we care?
  • Mental Engagement with Reader -- does the book stretch the reader's worldview, does it challenge us in any way, do we remember it long after the book is done?
  • Effectiveness of Pacing -- my most common cause for grumping
  • Resolution of Conflict -- my second most common cause for grumping
Hopefully this will be more helpful to people who want to know if a book is for them. Some of these categories will be more important to certain readers than they are to others.  If I slam a book for its terrible pacing and logic, but the reader only cares that it has a high score in emotional engagement, they can make that judgment for themselves. I'd also like to include general content notes about violence, animal abuse, sexual assault etc., as well as my usual side comments about diversity and the Bechdel Test.

I'm interested in hearing feedback on these categories. Dear reader, if you have a suggestion for a rating category, or a refinement upon these notes, please feel free to leave me a comment at the bottom of the post!

(P.S. Soon will direct here! Hurrah for simplicity.)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Speedreading and the Hunger for Stories

Many comments I hear from you, dear readers, fit one of two templates:
  •  You must go through books like, wicked fast!(or)
  • I can't believe how many genres you read, don't you have a favorite? 
I do read quickly. Very quickly. I finished the 350-page Ship of Fools in less than a day (although that was a rereading.) I can't quite take in a page in a glance, but I'm close. Unless the text is very information-dense, I read by paragraphs rather than by words or even sentences.

I burn through books at the speed of light. Then I find myself at a loss. That's where reading in many different genres come into play. Once I've plowed through all the books I can think of that I would like to read, I still need to have a book cracked open. I read over breakfast, on break at work, or in the terrible stretch between 2:00 and 4:00 AM when I wonder if the universe really exists. Like an addict, I continually need a story in my mind. Otherwise I get a little shaky.

This is the point at which I begin to scavenge. If I have a roommate, their books become fodder for the story-furnace inside of me--regardless of subject or genre. (People who have traded out their physical books for Kindles make terrible roommates, IMHO. What, have you no consideration for other people and their book-borrowing habits?)

With one pair of roommates, I read a lot of hard sci-fi. From their predecessors, I borrowed contemporary fiction, anthropological texts, and Orson Scott Card. There came a time in college when all I had left unread on the shelves were the cowboy Christian romances... and given time, I read those, too. (Then I made a lot of snide remarks about six-foot-two men with very white teeth, and fiery-yet-inwardly-broken women who smell like either violets or fresh bread, depending on the author.)

There are still certain genres I'm slow to take off the desperation shelves. As has been made clear by these reviews, I'm hungry for rich characters and emotionally engaging tales. I don't find much "story" in mysteries or crime dramas. (Also, bland dude protagonists lurk there.) I don't have the intestinal fortitude to consume bosom-heaving romances. I'm extremely iffy about nonfiction unless it has a narrative; memoirs and books about orchid thieves are great, but texts about What's Wrong With America's Economy are going to stay where they are until every other book in the world has rotted into wood pulp.

Overall, though, my preference for any particular genre is mostly trumped by my desire to avoid boredom. I'm grateful for all the recommendations you send to me, dear readers, even the ones for which I don't write proper reviews. I'm always glad to have new stories to read.

All of this is to say that I've begun tracking my reading history, which I'll be updating over in the sidebar. In 2011, I hit one hundred books by the end of April. We'll see how long it takes me this time!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: "The Innkeeper's Song" by Peter S. Beagle

"There came three ladies at sundown," as the old song goes, searching for the wizard to whom each owes her life. Dashing Lal fears nothing and needs no one, but her oldest and only friend has summoned her with visions begging her help. Nyateneri arrives with a soldier’s stride and a trio of assassins on her own trail, but she too has heard the call and come to rescue him. As for Lukassa, well--she was dead a very short while ago, and remembers nothing but the wizard’s spell that raised her, like a turnip from a garden.

In a barren country far from home, the three race to rescue their master from his own renegade apprentice. But the secrets they keep from one another could break their fragile alliance. It adds up to a whirlwind of magic and secrecy, and a world of trouble for Karsh the innkeeper, who rues the day they ever darkened his door.

  3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

Friday, January 10, 2014

Review: "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell

 When Cath leaves home for her first year of college, she's not ready for change. She already has everything that she needs: a loving father, a twin to be her guaranteed best friend, and twenty thousand hits on her fanfiction about the popular Simon Snow series.

But Wren doesn't want to be Cath's other half anymore. For the first time in her life, Cath is alone, living among strangers. She doesn't know where the dining hall is. Her new roommate is too loud, too pushy, too attractive. Her professors think fanfiction is plagiarism.

Not to mention the presence of boys--ones made of flesh and blood rather than paper and ink. Boys in her classes, boys in her room, boys she can't control with a few taps on a keyboard.

When will Cath have time to finish her fanfiction with all these changes getting in the way?

  2.5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)