Finally, Outlander!

A Review of Outlander (episode 1), created by Ronald D. Moore and based on the books by Diana Gabaldon

Starz, 2014

Outlander

by REBECCA, August 13, 2014

Battlestar GalacticaY’all, I have been dreaming of seeing Outlander on the big screen since I first read Diana Gabaldon’s book circa the turn of the century. Like many fans, I approached news of Starz optioning it with the mixture of hope and trepidation that always attends beloved adaptations. Would they cast it right? Would it evoke the same feelings of the book? What if I hate Claire and Jamie onscreen? Knowing Ron Moore, of Battlestar Galactica fame was at the helm made me hopeful, though, because he has such a great track record with sprawling, epic stories, of which Outlander is certainly one.

But, like many fans . . . I don’t actually have TV, much less Starz. Rather than watching episode one, “Sassanach” when Starz put it up for free viewing last Saturday, then, I waited until I came to visit my parents (who do have Starz—and a large TV) to watch. But now I have, so, though I’m late for the game I’ll be goddamned if I don’t talk about it. In list form. Because . . . mostly it’s just stuff I liked.

Most importantly, for me, I really liked Claire (Catriona Balfe). She was capable and brave and spunky without seeming like she had a chip on her shoulder. She seemed wise and mature, which she’s supposed to be, but still with a sense of humor.

I didn’t love Tobias Menzies as Frank, Claire’s husband. Since he and Black Jack Randall are played by the same actor, I really wanted someone who, as Frank, looked really appealing and cultured, and to me he looks like a villain as Frank, too, making his transformation into Black Jack less striking. He did a good job, though, and, most importantly, Ron Moore was smart to spend the meat of the first episode developing their relationship so that it will be understandable why Claire wants to get back to her own time.

OutlanderJamie. We didn’t see much of him, but he’s clearly Jamie-ish. Sam Heughan definitely looked the part and seemed to have Jamie’s tender youth and bravado pretty much sewn up. Also, you know, extremely handsome. Still, Jamie makes me slightly concerned about the cheese-factor . . .

My problem with the episode is actually a problem with genre. Diana Gabaldon’s book is not really a romance novel. It’s sweeping historical fiction at the center of which is a couple. But it’s often shelved in the romance section (I learned the embarrassing way in high school) and spoken about in terms of the romance genre. The character of Jamie isn’t actually the problem. The problem is that when viewed in romance terms, Jamie’s character has become a huge romance cliché: the strapping, red-headed 18th-century Scottish agitator who speaks with a brogue, threatens to throw women over his shoulder (in a nice way . . . ) and has, for the times, relatively progressive gender politics. It’s practically a staple now, nearly twenty-five years after Gabaldon wrote the book. So, I worry that simply by virtue of presenting Jamie faithfully, Outlander will verge into cheeseball territory.

OutlanderOf course, I would still happily watch a cheesy, romantic version of Outlander, but I don’t think that really does justice to the complex drama of the books, and it makes me a tidge worried that Starz won’t get the extra-literary viewership that it will want to justify renewing the show.

Okay, but aside from the tragic problem of Sam Heughan’s attractiveness and chest muscles, I thought the episode was great. Maybe this was a testament to my parents’ TV, but the long, sweeping shots of Scotland . . . that shit looked amazing. I loved the way the 1945 scenes were shot with a muted palette and dim or washed-out light; it makes the gorgeous natural colors once Claire goes through the stones really pop.

OutlanderThe music was gorgeous (not that I’d expect anything less from Bear McCreary, who also did the music for Battlestar), as was the cinematography. And I can already tell that I like the pace Ron Moore has chosen. It’s lingering, like Gabaldon’s books are, but not plodding. It meant that we got the great scenes of Reverend Wakefield’s housekeeper reading Claire’s palm, and the quiet moments of walking and driving around Inverness. The episode did a great job of establishing Inverness as a respite after the war—a safe place for Claire and Frank to reconnect after a long absence—which made it all the more shocking when Claire was ripped from it. Good show!

Scotland Decides 2014I am a little freaked out to see that Starz is splitting the first season, though, with episodes 1-8 running through the end of September and then going on hiatus until after New Year’s. I guess it’s good in that it will stop me from sitting in front of my computer staring and wishing I was in Scotland. Sigh. Also, I love that a show about independent Scottish clans will be airing simultaneous with the Scottish independence referendum (September 18).

Anyhoo, I was pleasantly surprised and cannot wait to snuggle back into the familiar world of Outlander! Did you see it? What did you think?

5 Reasons I’m Provisionally Enjoying Star-Crossed (and a few reasons I’m not)

A Review of Star-Crossed, created by Meredith Averill

The CW, 2014

Star-Crossed

by REBECCA, April 10, 2014

Star-Crossed, as the title suggests, is a science fiction Romeo and Juliet. Ten years ago, in 2014, an Atrian starship crash-landed in a small town in Louisiana. Six-year-old Roman (Romeo) takes shelter in the shed of Emory (Juliet) when the shooting starts, and they form a bond in the few minutes before soldiers rip them apart. After a bloody battle, the Atrians are interned in a camp called the Sector. Now it’s 2024 and, as the result of an integration program that has long been in the works, seven teenage Atrians are going to begin attending a human high school, to test whether Atrians and humans have the potential to integrate.

romeo-and-julietSo, I’ve mentioned before how much I generally loathe adaptations. There is NO reason why this needed to be an overt Romeo and Juliet—in fact, it really hampers what Star-Crossed can do by telegraphing what are going to be the major issues and stakes of the show. I will say it again. I just do not understand why people cut off narratives at the knees like this?! In the case of Star-Crossed, it seems likely that either the CW thinks sci-fi is low art and needed a little cultcha or that they worried that sci-fi would turn off their core teen female audience unless they very overtly announced that it would be a romance. Either way, it was a stupid move. Also, can we please agree that, in 2014 (and definitely in 2024), Romeo and Juliet is really not the only text that comes to mind when we think about people from different worlds whose social situation dictates that they not be together. In fact, it’s become something of a cliché at this point—a story that’s concretized into utter predictability. So, yeah. WHAT THE?

Tami-Julie-friday-night-lights-4533494-2560-1920More bad news. Emory, played by Aimee Teegarden, aka Julie Taylor from Friday Night Lights, has the unfortunate fate of being a really boring character. No idea why they’re writing her like this when most of the other characters are more interesting, but Emory is completely blah and has no real chemistry with Roman, or with Grayson—yeah, sorry, they’re going with that whole love triangle thing, at least for a little while. (Grayson is played by Grey Damon, also from Friday Night Lights, and another character, Zoe, is played by Dora Madison Burge, who played Becky on Friday Night Lights, so while you’re thinking how boring Emory is, what a bad actor Grey Damon is, and how much makeup they’ve slathered on poor Zoe, you can just close your eyes and think of how good Friday Night Lights was).

That bad news aside, Star-Crossed has, so far, been a pretty enjoyable watch, if you go into it eyes open. I mean, it’s a CW show, so. Here are a few reasons I’ve enjoyed the first eight episodes.

1. Civil Rights Conversations. The morning the Atrian 7 start school with the humans their bus pulls up to the school where there is a mass of protesters who harangue them and throw things at them. It’s a citation of the morning the Little Rock 9 enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957.

Little Rock 9 star-crossed

As in any aliens-landed-on-earth tale, there are people who believe that the Atrians are a threat to earthlings, those who are fascinated by their culture, and those in between. Emory and her best friends, Julia (a delightful Malese Jow, who played Anna on The Vampire Diaries) and Lukas (Titus Makin Jr. who was one of the Warblers on Glee) are excited to befriend the Atrians, but there are many who antagonize them from the beginning. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but, to my mind, any show that is having explicit conversations about the ways that fear of the unknown leads to prejudice, which leads to violence, which leads to retaliation, which leads to war, is succeeding, at least in some small measure.

The Atrian 7 disagree about what integration means, too. There’s one scene where the Atrian 7 are lectured about how they have to be a model minority, which some embrace and some revile. Roman, at one point, thanks Julia and Lukas for helping him and Lukas replies “We minorities have to stick together,” and Roman says, “You guys are minorities?” (they’re non-white); Lukas replies, “Before you got here.” So, there are some useful conversations going on, and I hope things will get more complicated as the show goes on.

2. The Atrians! Once you get over the fact that the Atrians look exactly like humans except for their tattoo-like birthmarks and the fact that they are all OVERLY ATTRACTIVE, the Atrian 7—well, we only know four so far—are pretty delightful characters. Roman (our Romeo) is played by Matt Lanter, who I’ve never seen in anything (though he did play Edward Sullen in a satire of Twilightesque movies that apparently exists?) but who I find strangely compelling. No, not just because he used to be a model. There’s something natural and straightforward about the way he plays Roman, which turns a character that would otherwise be chokingly goody-two-shoes into one who seems mature and interesting.

Teri & Drake

Teri & Drake

Sofia (Brina Palencia) is the wide-eyed, human-loving optimist who wants to make human friends because she doesn’t fit in that well with the Atrians. Teri (Chelsea Gilligan) is her opposite. She’s a fierce, badass fighter who doesn’t take any shit. Her mother is the leader of an Atrian splinter group that is willing to use violence to overthrow humanity. Last is Drake (Greg Finley), a bruiser who wants to be tough, but isn’t quite sure where his loyalties lie.

3. Plants. The Atrians’ main sources of power, as well as their main weapons, are plant-based, and one tribe of Atrians is particularly skilled in that regard. Cyper, for example, is a plant that can both heal and kill, and if humans found out about its properties when mixed with Atrian blood, they’d kill for it. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I’ve decided that this was inspired by the centrality of herbs in Romeo and Juliet. Even if it’s not true, it’s an interesting choice.

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 10.40.18 PM4. Pansexuality! In a show that is based on Romeo and Juliet and, therefore, pretty much tells us who the main romantic drama will concern, we learn that Atrians are pansexual, which at least opens up some possibilities for the plot going forward. I mean, we were all pretending that Roman and Drake were together anyway, right?

5. Star-Crossed. Come on. That’s actually a really excellent name for a show that is about Romeo and Juliet and aliens who came from SPACE! (I can’t think of a fifth thing that’s actively good.)

SO, have you all been watching Star-Crossed? What do you think? Do the good things make up for the dopey CW-elements, or will these violent delights have violent ends?

Obsidian, and Some Thoughts on the Genre of Paranormal Romance

A Review of Obsidian (Lux #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Entangled Teen, 2011

Obsidian Jennifer L. Armentrout

by REBECCA, February 11, 2013

characters

Katy Swarz: thoughtful book blogger Katy doesn’t take shit, but can’t quite resist Daemon, even when he’s shitty

Daemon Black: the infuriating and handsome alien boy asshole next door, Daemon is wary of Katy at first, but then drawn to her

Dee Black: Daemon’s twin, she and Katy are fast friends and she runs interference between Katy and Daemon

hook

When Katy’s mom moves her to rural West Virginia the summer before senior year after her dad dies, all she wants is to make some new friends, write her book blog, and recover. So, of course she would move in next door to aliens caught in an epic battle between cosmic good and evil. And of course one of those aliens would be an overly attractive shithead who breaks her laptop!

genre!

Katy’s world has been small lately. After her father died, her mother withdrew into herself and started working all the time, leaving Katy alone a lot. Katy started a book blog that lets her reach out and connect with people, and she’s poured all her energy into it. She’s chill and a bit shy, but smart and confident, so when she realizes that her next door neighbors are teenagers her own age she decides to make nice. Her first meeting with grouchy-pants Daemon sets the tone for their relationship: he’s overly attractive, obnoxious, condescending, and (of course) convinced that Katy is attracted to him (which, of course, she is).

Onyx Jennifer L. ArmentroutDaemon’s sister, Dee, is a sweetheart who befriends Katy right away. However, something weird happens every time Katy goes into town with Dee or tries to sit with her at lunch in the school cafeteria; people stare at them and seem hostile toward one or the other of them for no reason that Katy can tell—after all, she doesn’t even know anyone. One night, though, Katy is attacked outside the library and Daemon comes to her rescue with . . . special powers. Finally, he and Dee can’t keep their secret anymore: they are aliens and whenever they use their powers around a human it leaves a mark on that human that their enemies can see from far away. The only way to protect Katy from the enemy? Guess. No, I’ll wait. Yes, you’re right: it’s for Daemon to never leave her alone and vulnerable.

And thus unfolds a familiar romance/action plot line: Katy and Daemon frustrate one another, but are drawn together in the face of a common enemy.

I have been meaning to read Obsidian ever since I met the lovely Judith and Ellen from I Love YA Fiction at BEA this year, because it’s the book that made them start blogging. Now, one of my favorite things about talking to friends who care as much about books as I do is that sometimes we totally disagree. So, I’ll admit it, I approached Obsidian with great trepidation simply because the genre of YA paranormal romance isn’t my usual cuppa. But I just couldn’t resist a book that inspired some of my favorite people to start blogging (and that has 4.4 stars on Goodreads), so I dove in.

It was fun to read about Katy’s book blogging and I can totally see how it would be the inspiration for Judith and Ellen! But, alas, that’s about all I liked about Obsidian.

Let me be clear: I think that probably for folks who really enjoy the genre of YA paranormal romance, Obsidian will do the trick. It has a not-totally-unreasonable plot, some legitimately developed characters and fun secondary-characters, a not-overdone setting, sexual tension between Katy and Daemon that lasts for the whole book (that’s a thing people like, right?), a nice mom, and it’s a series. Also, it isn’t badly written at all—the prose is totally serviceable. So, all that (along with the many, many positive reviews I’ve read) suggests that Obsidian is the kind of thing that people who like that kind of thing will like. You know?

With or Without You Brian FarreyBut, if I didn’t already know it, Obsidian really showed me that the genre isn’t to my taste. And so I’ve been thinking about what, precisely, is the very thin line that divides “paranormal romance” from books that I do like. I enjoy a good romance plot, for sure, including several I’ve reviewed here: With Or Without You by Brian FarreyJust Listen by Sarah Dessen, The God Eaters by Jesse HajicekThe Scorpio Races by Maggie StiefvaterDaughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Leave Myself Behind by Bart Yates, etc. And I definitely have no problem with the paranormal, as the above list will certainly testify.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone Laini TaylorSo, what’s the difference between a paranormal romance and a book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which contains a paranormal romance? The biggest difference, for me, is that in paranormal romance (as in its mother genre, romance) the central goal of the book is to tell the story of two people entering into a relationship with one another and chronicling the obstacles to the success of that relationship—a success that is, by virtue of the genre, guaranteed. A book like Daughter of Smoke and Bone definitely has a romance plot, but it’s much more than just a backdrop against which the romance plays out. That difference, though, is, for me, the difference between a book that I enjoy and one that I find pretty boring. Daughter of Smoke and Bone or The Scorpio Races or Leave Myself Behind are larger than their romance plots—their scope is bigger and their stakes are higher. In a paranormal romance, the largest stakes are in the relationship between the two main characters—even when there is a cosmic alien battle between good and evil. This is to differing degrees, certainly, and some paranormal romances (and series) are more intricate and detailed than others. In Obsidian, though, if you took away the romance element you wouldn’t be left with anything; the conceit of the book is generic and flimsy without it.

Hush, Hush Becca FitzpatrickAgain, I don’t mean this as a critique of the genre—far from it. Genre conventions are powerful predictors of taste, though, and readers who like a genre like it because of its conventions, not in spite of them. I’ve realized, in reading Obsidian (and other paranormal romances, like Hush, HushNevermore, and Fallen), that one of the conventions of the paranormal romance genre that I dislike in particular is the way that love or attraction are abstracted (metaphorized?) as an otherworldly connection. By this I mean that often in these books our protagonist (usually a girl) sees a boy she thinks is attractive and feels drawn to him for reasons she can’t explain. I’m annoyed by the resulting tendency of these books to equate attraction—that is, being physically drawn to someone—with love. (Note: hey, friend, I can explain why you feel drawn to him . . .)

In Obsidian, for example, Katy finds Daemon super attractive, but she cannot stand his personality (with good reason, because he is a grade-A jerkface). She wants to make out with him; she feels warm and flushed whenever he’s near; she thinks he smells good. Katy: that’s called being attracted to someone. But in the genre conventions of the paranormal romance, attraction—lust—(a totally normal part of life) is transmuted into an-inexplicable-force-drawing-us-together-across-time-and-space-that-must-surely-be-meaningful.

And part of me kind of thinks that the genre of YA paranormal romance in particular developed out of a resistance to portraying teenagers as lustful, preferring, instead, to render lust meaningful and, thus, romantic. Because the only real difference between feeling drawn to someone because you want to bone them and feeling drawn to someone because they are secretly connected to you by a werewolf mating bond . . . is genre.

Southern Gothic Delight: A Density of Souls

A Review of A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice

Pan Books, 2000

A Density of Souls Christopher Rice

by REBECCA, February 6, 2013

characters

Stephen Conlin: Branded “FAG” at the start of high school, Stephen is a tough cookie!

Meredith Ducote: Stephen’s former best friend who turns popular mean girl (for a little while) but has troubles of her own

Greg Darby & Brandon Charbonnet: Stephen and Meredith’s childhood friends made villainous by age

Jordan Charbonnet: declared too perfect for his own good by a college girlfriend, Jordan and Stephen make an unlikely couple

hook

Once, as kids, Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon were inseparable, playing on the streets of their New Orleans neighborhood. As they start high school, though, Greg and Brandon become popular football players, Meredith becomes part of the in-crowd, and Stephen is bullied for being gay by people at school, including his ex-friends. Five years later, after high school, Stephen has a new life and hasn’t spoken to Meredith, Greg, and Brandon in years. When a shocking explosion kills multiple people in a New Orleans club and a series of violent events unfold, the former friends find themselves forced back into each other’s lives.

worldview

Lafayette CemeteryOh, Southern gothic, I love you so! I first read A Density of Souls when it first came out in 2000, which was my senior year of high school. I’d never been to New Orleans at the time and—I can’t lie to you, friends—really I only picked it up because Christopher Rice is Anne Rice‘s son and I was curious about what craziness Anne Rice’s kid would spew out. But, though I picked it up with impure intentions, I loved A Density of Souls within the first ten pages. I am such a sucker for a story about intense childhood friendships that go awry, and these friendships definitely go awry.

Stephen is the main character, here, though we get chunks of others’ stories (including Stephen’s mom as a young girl). After high school, Stephen lives with his mom (his dad killed himself years ago), goes to school, and has begun dating. He’s made a life for himself despite being tormented in high school. One night Stephen is at a bar with a friend when someone blows it up. As if shit’s not hard enough, right Stephen!? Anyhoo, this act sets into motion a series of events that brings Meredith back into Stephen’s life and introduces Stephen to Jordon Charbonnet (such great New Orleans-y last names!), Brandon’s older brother and bona fide overly-attractive person.

New OrleansThe tone of A Density of Souls is what I most appreciate about it. When I say it’s a Southern gothic, I mean more in the Truman Capote sense than in the William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor senses of things. That is, this isn’t a gloomy, sinister creepshow. Its Southern gothicness is subtle—more about manners, pathos, and family secrets, drippy trees and dirty water. And it’s delightful. I think a lot of people would put Christopher Rice in the “guilty pleasure” camp, in that his writing is . . . unapologetically lush. But I think it’s beautiful, as long as you like that sort of thing. I mean, I hate to make the comparison, but in a way, his descriptions of New Orleans do really remind me of mommy Rice a bit, in that they caress a New Orleans that they both obviously love.

“Beneath a sky thickening with summer thunderheads, they rode their bikes to Lafayette Cemetery, where the dead are buried above ground. The four of them flew down Chestnut Street, their wheels bouncing over flagstones wrenched by the gnarled roots of oak trees. They passed high wrought-iron fences beyond which Doric and Ionic columns held up the façades of Greek Revival mansions, their screened porches shrouded in tangles of vines” (3).

what was this book’s intention? did it live up to it?

Christopher Rice (and I say this having read all of his books except his most recent, which, frankly, looks uninteresting to me) is fascinated by writing about the way the secrets we protect most fiercely have a way of erupting into our relationships and either ruining them or strengthening them. His thesis across four books seems to be that if a relationship is worth anything then it can absorb your deepest, darkest secrets, and if it crumples under their weight then it wasn’t worth much to begin with. I feel pretty comfortable endorsing that calculus. Right? Anyhoo, A Density of Souls is a story about the different ways those secrets affect the relationships in Stephen, Meredith, Greg, and Brandon’s lives.

Rice is a legitimately good writer, and his evocation of interpersonal dynamics in only a few lines of dialogue works particularly well for this book, which is pretty short and manages to tell a number of stories, but isn’t at all dense. In that way, it is very un-Anne-Rice-esque and reminds me more of a Breakfast at Tiffany’s or something.

“After three weeks of seing each other, at just the moment when Stephen felt he had written enough love poetry to hand Devon a stack of messy loose-leaf pages, Devon showed up at his house one afternoon and announced that Stephen was a ‘cold, emotionally withdrawn person suffering from only-child syndrome,’ and their relationship was over. He offered evidence. ‘A week ago we went to see a movie. Before the movie you purchased a pack of Dots. You consumed the entire pack without offering me any. In the middle of the movie, I rose and went to purchase my own pack. When I sat down, the first thing you asked me was, “Can I have some Dots?”‘

Devon paused, allowing his indictment to settle over Stephen. In response, Stephen picked up a copy of Reports from the Holocaust by Larry Kramer off the nightstand and hurled it at Devon’s head. . . . Stephen received a memo printed on the stationary of the Tulane University administrative office where Devon was working part-time. RE: Your Emotional Issues . . .

Stephen did not call Devon. Instead, he delivered a case of Dots to the door of Devon’s dorm room” (114-115).

DotsAll the interconnections among people strengthen the feeling that Rice evokes of an inescapably, at times claustrophobically, tight-knit Garden District, and sets the scene well for the backstories of Stephen’s mother and the Charbonnet family.

A Density of Souls is great story-telling against the well-wrought backdrop of contemporary New Orleans. I made my mother read it when we were in New Orleans together a few years ago (you know, for thematic resonance) and she really enjoyed it, too. So, there you have it: an intergenerational two thumbs up!

readalikes

The Snow Garden Christopher Rice

The Snow Garden by Christopher Rice (2002). The Snow Garden is Rice’s second novel and I really like it also. Set on a college campus, two close friends realize that although they were immediately drawn together they each have reinvented themselves in an attempt to leave dark pasts behind. When a professor’s wife dies in a car accident one night, it threatens to expose an intricate web of lies that has captured both friends.

The Secret History Donna Tartt

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992). One of my all-time favorites, this is set on a college campus, but feels like a boarding school. I write about The Secret History and a ’90s series that totally rips it off HERE.

Mysterious Skin Scott Heim

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim (1995). A beautiful, intense book about what it means to excavate your own secrets, especially when you’ve hidden them from yourself. Awesome movie adaptation by Gregg Araki, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

procured from: bought, long ago

Favorite New Show? White Collar!

5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

White Collar

by REBECCA, January 21, 2013

For a few years, Netflix has been recommending White Collar to me and for a few years I’ve summarily dismissed the recommendation. My logic: “You know what’s boring? White collar crime.” But, through a series of (frankly uninteresting to anyone but me) circumstances, I found myself deciding I’d give the pilot a whirl, just to prove to Netflix that they were wrong. That, while, sure, I love me some Law and Order SVU and some Bones and some Lie To Me does not mean that I’m a sucker for any procedural show with a unique premise and a set of codependent partners.

Boy howdy, was I wrong. Turns out, I am a sucker for a smart and unique show with codependent partners, which White Collar definitely is. So, to save you from making the same mistake that I did and, thus, depriving yourself of a true joy, I present to you: 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Watching White Collar!

1. Expertise & Monomania! Holy hell, is there anything that delights me more than people who know a shitload of super-specific information about a lot of things and a single-minded drive to pursue those things? No! (Or, at least, nothing that’s any of your business.) So, the premise of White Collar is that Neal Caffrey (played by the delightful Moby Dick final chaseMatt Bomer)—expert art forger, counterfeiter, thief, confidence man, and all around freaking charmer—cuts a deal with the FBI to be released from prison (he’s already escaped once, NBD) as an expert consultant in the white collar department. He’s partnered with agent Peter Burke, who put him in prison in the first place. The point? Neal is an expert in all things associated with forging, art, counterfeiting, breaking in places, stealing things, puzzles, and math. He can forge the Mona Lisa, signatures, and any piece of identification you can imagine.

But, just as interestingly, Neal is an expert at reading people. He is immensely charming and can tell what people want and what their weaknesses are. It doesn’t hurt that he is distractingly handsome and dresses really well. (Seriously, though, he’s the kind of handsome—not so model beautiful that it’s ridiculous and smiley enough to be super engaging—that I can’t imagine having to deal with it on a daily basis. Like, I wonder if Matt Bomer’s boyfriend is ever trying to tell him that, like, he put too much chili powder in the stew and instead finds that he’s just been staring at Matt Bomer’s face, not having noticed that forty-five seconds have gone by?) As the show continues, Neal’s many and varied expertises keep revealing themselves. Seriously, it’s goddamned beautiful to watch (just make sure you’re not feeling like a failure when you start watching).

2. A Married Couple Without Kids! Peter Burke and his wife Elizabeth (Tiffani Thiessen, aka Kelly Kapowski from Saved By the Bell in a charming turn) have been married for ten years and have no kids. Why does that matter? Because it’s one of the few portrayals on tv (at least that I’ve seen) of a couple who have a great relationship where they actually care about the details of each other’s lives as opposed to being bored with each other, cheating on each other, or only caring about their kids’ lives. They’re pretty cute together, and not in a gross, schmoopy way. Elizabeth runs her own party planning business but she’s also super into hearing about FBI stuff; she often gives Peter insights and likes to talk through cases, and she’s smart, so it’s charming. Anyway, I didn’t notice for the whole first season how rare (and refreshing) it is to see a couple that is crazy about each other (and their super cute dog!).


white collar 3. Odd Couple In Love!
Speaking of couples in love, Peter and Neal totally adore each other and the show delights in how much they respect, admire, and infuriate each other. Peter (played by Tim DeKay, who I loved in Carnivàle) was the agent who pursued Neal for years and eventually put him in jail, and it’s clear that he respected the hell out of Neal as a brilliant criminal. When Neal was in prison, he sent Peter birthday cards and other such cheeky things. From the moment they start working together, it’s obvious that Peter is absolutely delighted by Neal, both professionally and kind of like a little brother. Neal clearly feels genuine affection and respect for Peter. Peter admires Neal’s charm, intelligence, and ability to always land on his feel; Neal admires Peter’s honesty, principles, and dependability. They are the perfect odd couple and goddammit it is delightful to watch their relationship develop. This is the definition of a buddy-buddy homosocial partnership (think Supernatural, but without that whole . . . brothers thing).

White Collar Mozzie4. Nerd Power! White Collar is definitely a show that celebrates the nerdy, from science to obscure historical factoids. Sure, many of the nerds in question are overly attractive, but not my favorite nerd. Enter, Mozzie (Willie Garson)! He’s Neal’s oldest friend and is brilliant, well-read, and nerdy! He has a penchant for wine, cravats, hanging out at Neal’s house, and clever turns of phrase. In combination with Neal, he’s devastating in a number of areas. Like, I think between the two of them they could probably topple governments or steal the entire contents of the Louvre.

When I first started watching White Collar, I thought it was a superficially fun show that kept me intrigued because of all the above. However, after a few episodes, I started thinking that it was a really smart show, in terms of writing. In each episode, there is a crime/scheme that Neal and Peter need to solve (that’s the procedural part). As such, each one is a little mini-mystery, like most procedurals, but unlike many shows of the whodunnit variety, White Collar‘s crimes are often much more complicated and smarter. These are elaborate schemes by criminals of Neal’s ilk, so it’s often as delightful to see the criminals’ intelligence as it is Neal’s. But it isn’t just the plots that are smart, it’s also the writing. One of my pet peeves in television writing is when characters don’t have properly differentiated voices (vocabularies, knowledge sets, syntaxes), but White Collar definitely delivers. Mozzie, in particular, has an awesome voice and backstory. You know a show’s writing is good when you don’t even notice it for a few episodes.

5. A Conflict Of Interests! One surefire way to create persistent and natural dramatic tension is to have characters who share one goal or interest, but have essentially conflicting interests in another area. The reason Neal wanted to be let out of prison (and treasureescaped in the first place, as we learn in the first five minutes of the pilot, so I’m not spoiling anything) is because his ex-girlfriend left town and he wants to find her. So, alongside the cases that he works with Peter, Neal is also trying to solve the mystery of where she went. Then, in later seasons, he has even bigger personal . . . pursuits. This makes for a really awesome dynamic: Peter trusts Neal intrinsically as it concerns his expertise, and adores him as a person, but knows that very expertise could allow Neal to try and escape or perpetrate schemes under his nose. Neal, on the other hand, has obligations and desires that force him, again and again, to choose between them and his loyalty to Peter. It’s all very dramatic!

White Collar seasons 1-3 are available on Netflix now.

Snow White and the Huntsman: More Axes & Birds, Less Talking

A Review of Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders

By REBECCA, June 15, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

Some weeks ago, my sister and I were having coffee and generally bemoaning the state of the world, and we decided that a great way to fix everything would be to go to the movies. We both had the same brainwave: ooh, let’s go see the Snow White movie that’s out; you know, the awesome looking one with Thor, where people turn into birds, Kristen Stewart is gritty and mournful, and Charlize Theron ridiculously doubts her beauty! We made plans to meet up on our street (we live four doors apart) for the 10.30 show that night and self-medicate with escapism and butter flavoring.

When we got to the theatre, I bought the tickets from the automated machine so that I didn’t have to talk to anyone, like I always do, we got our popcorn, and my sister and I settled in for what would surely be a pathos-drenched treat complete with beauty of all stripes. What’s that? You see where this is going? You are correct, the more fools we.

Instead of this:

Snow White and the Huntsman, Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

We got this:

Mirror Mirror Julia Roberts, Lily Collins

Now, don’t get me wrong: I like Breakfast at Tiffany’s more than most, and Lily Collins was pretty charming and has great eyebrows and I imagine she’ll do a good job as Clary in the Mortal Instruments series. But, COME ON!?

Not this:

Snow White and the Huntsman Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth

But this:

Mirror Mirror Julia Roberts, Lily Collins

I was doubly saddened by the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad Mirror Mirror (god, why is there no comma!?) because I generally love director Tarsem Singh. The visuals in The Cell were totally amazing, and The Fall is one of my favorite movies (I love Lee Pace so much). But, sadly . . .

Not this:

Snow White and the Huntsman

But this:

Mirror Mirror

So, of course, you can understand with what utter delight my sister and I went and actually saw Snow White and the Huntsman the other day! Quelle relief!

I found Snow White and the Huntsman to be that rare fairy tale re-telling that actually provides an interesting armature to prop up the familiar storyline. I was excited to watch the world that housed this story unfold, and it was peopled with good characters who didn’t make fools out of themselves.

Queen Ravenna Charlize TheronCharlize Theron as Queen Ravenna. She was a great mix of effortless beauty and total grotesquerie. My biggest problem with her (and a HUGE pet peeve of mine in general) was that her British accent was so bad. Not as bad, mind you, as Julia Roberts’ was in Mirror Mirror, but still distracting. I just felt like there could have been a fix for this—like, make her be from some imaginary land where they have garbled accents or something. Or work on it more and overdub. Something. Otherwise, though, she was pretty awesome.

Snow White Kristen StewartKristen Stewart as Snow White. I am a Kristen Stewart supporter, especially a The Runaways, Speak style Kristen Stewart, and I thought she did about as good a job as could be done on what I might nominate as the character most devoid of personality in all of literature. Snow White is a character famous for being pretty and nice, so basically the most boring person you’ve ever met. In Snow White and the Huntsman, she is a little grittier and has a lot more spine, but hasn’t been simply transformed into a warrior princess.

One thing that both my sister and I agreed was that we wish there had been more dialogue in the film, because the near silence of Snow White and the Huntsman’s adventures added to the lack of substance in their relationship. It’s not insta-love, since we know that they share a journey, but we don’t see any reason for the Huntsman to care for her except that she has the proverbial good heart, which is, in fairy tales, the only quality that female characters really possess besides beauty to make them appealing—you know, because it means that they’re nice to children and animals and always see the best in people, which is a real draw for fairy tale dudes who act like assholes. In any case, Snow White has been locked in a cell since her father’s death when she was a child, so without some dialogue to show us that she has substance, the character seems a touch unrealistic in her appeal. But I thought Kristen Stewart really pulled it off, adding elements of tortured resignation and awkward desire to Snow White. And, bonus, her accent was pretty decent.

Chris Hemsworth The HuntsmanChris Hemsworth as The Huntsman. I found Chris Hemsworth pretty hilarious as Thor, but haven’t seen him in anything else because no one would go see The Cabin in the Woods with me so I missed it, and I haven’t seen The Avengers yet (sad). I found him intensely likeable, though. That tormented, guilty, I’m-actually-totally-transparent-but-that-means-I’m-honest thing really worked for him. He’s not annoyingly heroic, nor did he attempt to temper the fairy tale hero role with charmingly-played ineptitude. He was an attractive, dirty, unintrusive follower, and I liked him.

The supporting cast was also good. My favorite was Sam Spruell as Ravenna’s grotesque and vaguely incestuous brother. The seven dwarves included the likes of Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, and Bob Hoskins, so they were totally solid, even though there are a few stereotypically buffoonish moments.

Snow White and the HuntsmanMost impressive, I thought, were the aesthetics of the film. It managed to be fairy tale-esque, with its flocks of birds flying above a twisted and magical forest, but still retain the grit of villagers starving under the reign of Queen Ravenna and the grime of the Huntsman’s drunken and guilty journey.

There were a few silly moments, some pat dialogue, and a little more spelling things out than was necessary, and some hilarious shots of skinny-legged Kristen Stewart looking like a twelve-year in her cut-off gown over leggings and knee-high boots. Overall, though, I was pretty delighted by Snow White and the Huntsman.

What did you think? Tell me in the comments!

Too Old for Angels, part 2: It’s Fantasy Enough That They’re Angels; Don’t Make Them Super Hot, Too! — A Discussion of Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Welcome back to Part 2 of our Discussion of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Part 1 is here.

Tessa!

I agree that this discussion will certainly be less fraught than our first one (thank goodness).

image, we collect bones and love it @tumblr

I was mainly interested to read Daughter of Smoke and Bone for the same reasons you were:

Prague = total awesomeness (plus there aren’t that many YA books set out of the US, London, or Paris, so that’s a plus).

Smoke, bone, teeth, feathers = sinister in a way that convinced me I wouldn’t be reading another iteration of the “look, I’ve just discovered that [fill in unusual/preternatural quality or ability] I once thought made me an outsider and unlovable actually make me highly desirable in this new context” plot. Not that there aren’t really good, exciting examples of it—I just could tell this would be something different.

Monsters = always make a book better. Every single time.

And mostly I loved the book.

Okay, angels.

I actually really like this coverI am, in general, totally with you. I haven’t read Fallen (although I just put it on hold at the library because now I’m curious), but I did read Hush, Hush and Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick (the cover is sparkly and I was desperate). I was tricked into liking Hush, Hush because it was so dark into thinking the angel thing was ok. But then Crescendo cured me of that thinking because it was terrible.

But, BUT: I didn’t have a problem with the conceit of angels in Daughter of Smoke and Bone. And I think the difference was how poorly developed the mythology of angelism was in Hush, Hush and (I imagine) Fallen—so that rather than just “persons who can fly,” or another kind of supernatural creature (like vampires or werewolves), the only thing about them is either an issue of goodness (they’re good and attractive, or, *shocker* they’re surprisingly not-good and attractive) or an issue of fallen-ness (where “fallen” could easily be simply a metaphor).

The only other angel experiences I have are:

um, look at this golden and wingéd gentleman . . .

1. Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, where Meg’s twin brothers Sandy and Dennys accidentally transport themselves back to biblical times and meet up with Noah, an arc, and a bunch of seraphim and nephilim, which I enjoyed (but angels weren’t the main characters; also, having no bible-learning, I could never remember which were which).

2. A little show I like to call Supernatural (now available on Netflix instant!). Do you watch it? So, in season 3 all of a sudden the plot gets way cosmic and there are angels of the lord. When this plot arc began I rolled my eyes and was like, “uggh, get your religion out of my delightful genre-show.” However, I ended up totally digging it because angelic righteousness, the show makes clear, is the ultimate moral ambiguity. SPOILER ALERT: there is one episode in which Sam and Dean are tasked with trying to stop a witch from summoning a demon that would threaten the balance of power on earth. Worried that they are running out of time, two angels tell them to leave town because they’re going to smite it—several thousand people will die, yes, but it will (they assure us) be better in the larger scheme of things. Dean, righteous in his own mission to preserve humans at any cost, will have none of it. END SPOILERS. Anyway, Supernatural is delightful and that plot arc a really interesting treatment of angels, which could have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

For me, what set the angels in Daughter of Smoke and Bone apart was that a.) angels were another species of supernatural creature, as were the “monsters” and b.) there was, therefore, a lot of backstory about what it is to be the species of supernatural creature called “angel.”

The question of age is really interesting: are we too old for angels?

Maybe. I think that the idea of a romantic hero who is stunningly attractive, possesses a body honed by the fight to vanquish evil, and who has even a whiff of spiritual righteousness is enough to make anyone over the age of 25 feel resentful, inadequate, and suspicious (or is that just me?).

So, in that way my suspicion of an angel for a romantic hero fits your two strikes: “perceived nobility/idealisticness” and “too much goodlookingness.”

1. Perceived nobility (often of a religious nature). Yeah, I think a lack of moral ambiguity stinks up most angel stories. However, I didn’t think that about Daughter of Smoke and Bone—I, like you, thought that the perspective was balanced enough (given that Karou is on the side of the monsters and Akiva has to earn his place in the story) that Akiva didn’t feel too goody-goody-for-god. Of course, it remains to be seen in the rest of the series if Akiva is tokenized and the rest of the angels are, indeed, morally unambiguous.

2. Supergoodlookingness. Do you think this tendency is just a holdover from the mainstream romance genre that makes authors/readers want characters who are immensely good looking? I feel like the trend in many of the heterosexual supernatural romances published in the last few years has been to have the human female protagonist  be average-looking, or have one great quality (beautiful eyes) but be otherwise unnotable, and have the supernatural male protagonist be supergoodlooking. This otherworldly beau, due to his supernaturalness, sees something in the soul of the human protag and loves her for her insides.

So, that’s wish-fulfillment of a type I’m sympathetic to (who wouldn’t rather avoid risking rejection and just hope that someone can see into their soul?) and is certainly better than requiring all female characters to be stunningly gorgeous, like in the movies.

Still, it seems to me that it undercuts the necessary message “you are more than your looks” by substituting a kind of ethical reward-system: if you have a good heart, are generous, etc., then someone (gorgeous) will notice that goodness and you don’t ever have to put yourself out there—just sit tight and wait for it. So, whatever ground was gained by the shift in the female protag’s superficial qualities is lost to passivity. But I digress. Because Karou is also supergoodlooking. If every young adult book that features a male angel could be made into a film and half of those angels could be played by Viggo Mortensen and the other half by Michael Wincott, I would go see every single one of them three times (are you listening, Hollywood? That’s, like . . . $2,000 just from me).

In other news, I had a totally different problem with ONE element of the book than you did (albeit for not dissimilar reasons). I agree that Karou-Akiva turned a little average-paranormal-romance for a few minutes, but I was fine with it mostly, because of the unique locations, the story of the monsters’ world, and Karou’s own social issues.

The snag for me was that I really don’t like origin myths in novels. SPOILER ALERT: For that reason, I was disinterested in the back story that builds Akiva and Madrigal’s love story. I know that when we learn of Karou’s relationship to that story it’s supposed to link in and make me care about it, but I didn’t much—I could have done without their entire love story. END SPOILERS. The thing about origin myths (and it’s borne out in Daughter of Smoke and Bone) is that they’re nearly always predicated on precisely the kind of unambiguous binary thinking that you object to in angels (good vs. evil). Since they generally grow out of one culture’s desire to understand itself in contrast with Others, there is always a naturalized good and bad. Or, even when they concern nature, it’s a nature of binaries (i.e., not nature): the moon vs. the sun; the sky vs. the sea, etc. Further, I find that most of the time when authors put origin stories in their novels those stories come (whether the author intends them to or not) to act as organizing metaphors for the novels. So, when Akiva and Madrigal swap their culture’s origin myths it’s quite difficult to avoid applying those same myths to the cultures themselves, which is overly simplistic and doesn’t construct storytelling as the complex tool we know it to be.

So, there you have it. Are we too old for angels? Probably so. We shall have to resign ourselves to the sad probability that if someone hyperbolically good-looking descended from the heavens and felt magnetically drawn to us then we would likely think they were a creep whose beauty meant they’d gotten everything in life easy. Ahem, unless Viggo Mortensen and Michael Wincott are reading this right now, in which case: I live in Philadelphia. Follow your magnetic attraction (apartment #2, side entrance).

Finally, did you see that Daughter of Smoke and Bone has been optioned for a film?

Meet us back here tomorrow for the conclusion of the discussion! Part III is here.

So, would you would want to be the object of an angel’s affection. Or maybe you already have been! If so, tell us in the comments and I’ll email you a special prize.

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