Friday, March 22, 2013

#CBR5 Review #13: Hellblazer – Original Sins by Jamie Delano

(With art by John Ridgway and Alfredo Alcala)

And so I have officially completed a quarter-cannonball and reached the halfway point of my goal of 26! Albeit, most of the books I have reviewed in the past few months have been Shakespeare plays and/or graphic novels, which typically don’t take all that long to read. In any case, here I am to keep that theme going with yet another graphic novel:

Original Sins in the first volume of the “Hellblazer” collection, and is made up of the first nine issues of the comic series, all focusing on the character of John Constantine, as he works his way through the world of demons and dark magic. You may be familiar with the movie, Constantine, with Keanu Reeves as the demon-killing hero? Well, in the original literary source material that is these novels, Constantine is British as British can be. And also dresses just like Castiel the angel in “Supernatural”… And to be honest I really can’t see that as a coincidence, as a lot of the things that occur within this first volume really remind me of different episodes or situations from the show. I mean, the first short tale alone has Famine mixed with Bugs all over it, so it’s obvious that the books influenced the show in some way or another. The difference, however, being that “Hellblazer” is far less sanitized than the CW network program, and certainly isn't for a youth demographic, and that’s really not a bad thing.

As for plot, it would be hard to explain in detail, as quite a lot occurs within each distinct section of Constantine’s story. But in essence, each issue of this volume follows Constantine as he faces a different demonic or paranormal threat, along the way losing friends, and learning more and more about two oppositional sides of a large dispute between the strict religious movement known as the Pyramid of Prayer, and a circle of hell known as the Damnation Army. The issues that directly connect to one another with characters and storylines (ie, those about the Pyramid of Prayer group) are definitely the strongest, and it soon becomes clear that this is one of the big threats or conflicts that will predominate the rest of the series.

What I enjoyed about this book is simple: The monsters and the demons. Then again, I absolutely adore anything that takes these celestial notions of angels and heaven and demons and hell and twists them into something new: the fight between “good” and “evil” which is really just subjective shades of gray fighting shades of gray. Because of that, I didn’t even really mind the movie all that much, to be honest, though when push comes to shove, I find this original concept of John Constantine to be incredibly engaging and I just want to know more about him, where his moral compass points, and what things in his twisted past he is hiding from.

There were, however, a couple of hiccups I found in reading this volume. Particularly, the very “episodic” feel of the whole thing. Yes yes, I understand that it is a bunch of separate issues strung together, but there is a bit of disconnect when you just go from start to finish without any real breaks. This also makes some stories frustrating and confusing, because as soon as you start to see some over-arching story or idea taking shape, the pace quickly turns to something new that seems (at least at the moment) unrelated to the big idea. But how are we to know for certain this soon in the series?

At the end of the day, I really want to know more about John Constantine, and I want to know more about the Pyramid of Prayer and what it’s really trying to do. In that way, Original Sins becomes an intriguing taste as to what you may be in for if you continue the ride into Constantine’s life, and you just know that an overriding idea is going to be front and centre with some real shape real soon. But at the same time, you wonder if you really want to know about all the ins and outs of Constantine’s life, as you can tell from the get-go that he lives in a dark, warped world that leaves plenty of carnage behind at every turn… But I guess it’s just for each of us to decide whether or not we want to take a step further down into the demon’s lair. For myself, however, I think I’d like to take another glimpse or two into this world, as Original Sins peaked my interest just enough.

[And be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read Group Blog]

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#CBR5 Review #12: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent is the second novel in the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth. And I hear that Divergent is soon to be adapted into a film? Well that might be interesting… In my head I sort of pictured the protagonist, Tris, to be just like Taissa Farmiga in “American Horror Story”, which (in my opinion) would be some swell casting. But then, for some reason I totally disregarded the fact that Four is 18 and imagined him as an only slightly-younger, somewhat beefier, Sherlock-y Benedict Cumberbatch. The character’s inevitable relationship made this a tad inappropriate, depending on how you see things (and no, I don’t consider that a spoiler, as you can see their relationship coming from a mile away). That being said, this series is made for young adults, and as such, there is inclined to be some not-strictly-necessary romantic aspect. If you are within that target demographic, however, you would absolutely love this book. If not, you might get a little annoyed at some parts, though all in all it’s still quite an enjoyable read.

Here’s what Insurgent is all about (and if you haven’t read the first novel, Divergent, yet, and don’t want anything to be spoiled for you, I’d suggest turning back now):

Insurgent follows Tris, Four, and other members of the different factions in the aftermath of the simulation-induced attack on the Abnegation sector of the city at the end of the last novel (wow, if I hadn’t just read this book I would have no idea what that sentence was even trying to get at). Tris is quite shaken by everything that has occurred, considering how when we last saw her she had just witnessed her parents die, and shot one of her friends in the head. Despite this, however, she wants nothing more than to know the truth about why the Erudite leaders chose to set the Dauntless soldiers upon her peaceful old section of the city.

Throughout the course of the novel, we follow Tris and those who accompany her (at times) as they essentially jump from faction-to-faction, and even spend time with the factionless members of society, trying to learn more about the situation at hand, and deciding where exactly is safe for them to stay while things both settle and threaten to detonate once more. Within all this moving around, plans are made regarding how to deal with Erudite, the factionless are seen starting to band together, the ties of families are tested, more and more Divergent members of society are becoming recognized, and Tris and Four fight about the secrets that they are keeping from one another, all while Tris keeps putting herself into (somewhat needlessly) dangerous and reckless situations.

What’s good about Insurgent is that it constantly keeps you in the dark, with only brief glimpses as to what the hidden truths in the strange city are. Because of this secrecy, you want to keep flipping the pages to find out what exactly is going on. The first-person narrative on the part of Tris also aids this, as she desperately tries to grab hold of the fleeting facts around her to figure everything out: she wants to know, so we want to know. The series itself is also quite creative in its setup of the city and the different lives that are seen within each of the distinct factions; it is especially enjoyable to get a taste of what life is like within each of the different compounds as the characters move between them throughout the course of this novel, which we didn’t really get in the first one. Furthermore, some of the secondary characters that were only there as tools for brief moments in Divergent became more complex and developed in Insurgent, and thereby more effective (I’m talking, Uriah, Marcus, and even Tris’ brother, Caleb, who I can’t help but picture as Colin Morgan in “Merlin” for some unknown reason).

Despite all these good points, however, there were some definite flaws that I found while reading this novel, which sometimes made me exhausted or roll my eyes. Some of this is due to the fact that I found Insurgent to lack some of the spark that was in the first novel of the series. What made Divergent so strong was the strength that Tris found in herself after suppressing it for so long, and yet in this one, Tris starts to fall apart and, dare I say it, become a little whiny. That’s not to say that Tris doesn’t pull through when she really needs to, but it takes a lot of push for that to happen. I know, she just went through some serious trauma and is likely to space out a bit because of this, but much like how Mockingjay fell short of the other books in “The Hunger Games” series, when your greatest asset is the strength and action of your young heroine, it is probably a bad idea to let all the activity of your subsequent novels to occur around her, while she spends a lot of the time passed-out or sleeping (I mean honestly, Katniss, can’t you stay awake for more than a couple of hours at a time any more?). Tris also starts to rely too heavily on Four to know what to do and to keep her together, and I do realize that this is a young-adult novel and so there is likely to be some naive young-love involved, but I started to get a little tired of the two of them after a while; the situation around them is incredibly tense, and so they start to bicker and won’t listen to one another, yet Tris continues to yearn for Four at basically every turn, and I’m sorry, but I get bored of hearing about the “warm-ache” that you feel whenever you kiss him, darling.

At the end of the day, however, I recognize that I am a bit older than the target-demographic for this series, so the “you think you are such a wallflower, but really you are the most special of the snowflakes, and this totally special guy has nothing but eyes for you” stuff rolls right off of me. Besides that, however, I still liked this book, and am inclined to read the next (and last?) one of the series, because of the skill with which Veronica Roth leaves cliffhangers and questions at every turn. If nothing else, Insurgent knows how to keep you flipping, and has some pretty interesting ideas and thoughts presented throughout. I’d especially recommend reading it if you like novels with strong young girls making choices for themselves and learning all there is to know about all their different dimensions.

[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read 5 Group Blog for more reviews]

Monday, March 11, 2013

#CBR5 Review #11: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

A girl that I know told me that she felt like she was reading a really old, historical episode of “Gossip Girl” when she read Measure for Measure, what with all the scheming, slut-shaming, and blackmail of these high-status people. Not to mention, the fact that it tries so hard to be serious, and yet, there is something missing and so cheesy about the ultimate resolution that it pushes the whole thing into a melodramatic mess of “are you kidding me right now?” I never thought I’d hear Shakespeare being related to “Gossip Girl”, but the more I think about it, the more the sentiment seems pretty on-point. I know, I know, I sound like I simply hate Shakespeare, what with my many not-so-great words on him lately, but this is not the case; in fact I absolutely love certain works of the Bard! But these days, he’s becoming more and more hit-and-miss for me. And this? This was a miss. Let me explain:

Measure for Measure is often categorized as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” in that it is not strictly a comedy, nor a tragedy, and I can definitely understand the problem that lies in this (then again, Hamlet is often considered a problem play as well, and that I don’t quite get). Measure for Measure is set up to follow the standard plot and resolution of Elizabethan comedies, but it is simply not funny, and the characters fall too far from being likeable enough to allow for their downfalls to be considered tragic. In fact, I found this play to be a bit misanthropic in its distrust of rulers and divine forces, the two-faced natures of those who appear to be loyal on the surface, the conflicting feelings regarding human sexuality, and the idea that the downfall of each gender is the other.

The play itself follows the strict rulings and dealings of a judge, Angelo, who is left in charge of the Vienna government while the Duke, Vincentio, is away for other diplomatic business. Little does Angelo and his supporters know, however, but the Duke is actually just disguising himself as a friar, so as to see how his people and city act when they feel as though his watchful eye is not upon them.

Angelo becomes entangled in a cruel plot against a young man named Claudio, as Angelo’s strict adherence to law does not recognize Claudio as being legally married to his wife. Because fornication outside of marriage was illegal at this time, Claudio is to be sent to death. This results in Claudio’s sister, Isabella, trying to reason with Angelo, only to find that he wants to blackmail her into sleeping with him in order to save her brother. Isabella, however, feels that losing her virtue and bearing that mark for the rest of her life would be worse than losing her brother. Fortunately for Isabella and Claudio, the Duke (still disguised as a friar) is made aware of these plots, and this begins trick upon trick being planned to stop Angelo’s hypocritical morality from reigning free in the city. Of course, due to the fact that the play follows the comedic formula of the Elizabethan age, many marriages come to pass as the play wraps up: some happy, some not as much, but marriages nonetheless.

If I’m being honest, those neat little closings are becoming a bit tiring on me, even if some of the couplings were less desirable than others. But the thing that killed me most about reading this play was the fact that it sets itself up to be a comedy, and yet it is not funny. There is no clever play on words or banter; in fact much of the sentiment throughout is spoken with a cold cruelty. On the other hand, you wouldn’t want serious subjects like those that are found in Measure for Measure to be taken lightly, but despite being serious subjects, it is almost as though they are not treated seriously enough. The Duke wanders around listening to his slanderers in a silly costume, and matters are resolved with ridiculous ploys.

Maybe I just a have a problem with problem plays. Maybe the notion of “problems” is the theme of the work to begin with? Whatever it is, I did not find the language to be all that enthralling in Measure for Measure, and that is often the big draw that I find with Shakespeare’s work. But more than anything, the play didn’t leave me with a very good feeling. In fact, it felt a bit cheap for some reason that I’m not sure I can even fully explain to myself…

[Be sure to check out the Cannonball Read 5 Group Blog for more reviews]