Monday, November 30, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Reasons to Be Pretty: A Play'

The Book: Reasons to Be Pretty: A Play

The Author: Neil LaBute

How I Found It: Was assigned a scene between Greg and Steph in my acting class and was intrigued.

The Review: After reading the scene I was given for my class, I had high expectations for this play-- I could really relate to the feelings Steph espoused to Greg, and it looked like an awesome play.

Now that I've read it, I'm not quite sure how I feel. It was good, but not all that enlightening or original. It felt much more cinematical than a play should have-- the scene in the food court, especially, I could picture happening on a sitcom.

The play concerns four people in their twenties: Greg, Kent, Steph, and Carly. We open on a fight between Greg and Steph, a vicious one: Steph has been told by Carly, her friend, about a remark Greg, her longtime boyfriend, made to Kent, Carly's husband, about how she is "regular" compared to another girl. Greg tries to explain what he meant, but Steph won't have it-- she's convinced he meant it as an insult, and maybe he did.

The remark leads to the dissolution of their relationship, and Steph and Greg have numerous confrontations, including an amusing one where she lists all the things she doesn't like about him. The play proceeds to show Greg's life after Steph left him, as he deals with Kent and Carly. Each of the four characters gets a soliloquy where they tell the audience their thoughts on things.

This was one of the problems I had with the play: when in conversation with each other, the characters speak perfectly normally, just like regular humans do. During the soliloquys, however, they become inexplicably elegant. A character that seems dumb as a rock in conversation suddenly spouts these brilliant insights, and it seemed really jarring to me. If there's one thing I hate in works of fiction, it's inconsistencies in characterization.

The play was also really vulgar-- a lot of swear words and scatological humor thrown around for really no reason, other than apparently wanting to be authentic to the sound of twentysomethings today. I mean, I'm not bothered by it, as I'm close to being a twentysomething myself and, yes, I can have a mouth on me when I want to (and when I'm writing), but it didn't need to be quite so excessive.

Overall, I give it a marginal recommendation to readers of plays. I'm interested in more of LaBute's work (specifically In The Company of Men and The Shape of Things) but I hope I'll be more impressed than I was with this one.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dexter in the Dark'

The Book: Dexter in the Dark (third in the Dexter Morgan series)

The Author: Jeff Lindsay

How I Found It: Fan of the other two books in the series; see below.

The Review: This book is notorious for taking the Dexter series down a bit of an odd road, something I believe Lindsay tried to remedy in the fourth book, Dexter by Design. The details I will divulge below can be found in most any review on Amazon, but they might spoil the book for you. You've been warned.

All right, so. That being said. Yes, this book does take the series in a bit of an odd direction, and I'm not sure why Lindsay felt it was necessary. I was bugged by the fact that he felt he had to take it in that direction to make it interesting, but I'm a little more tolerant of the plot element than the normal reader, so I took it with a grain of salt. More on this later.

Anyway, we're onto Book Three and our Dex is into some sticky business. He is engaged to Rita, his "disguise", as part of a misunderstanding that occurred in the second book, though he is willing to get married as part of his disguise. He has realized that Cody and Astor, Rita's children, have sociopathic tendencies like his own, and has promised to instruct them in the morality code taught to him by his cop foster father in order to justify his kills. And he finds himself investigating a series of brutal murders on a college campus.

Bodies are found charred and headless on the university campus, with ceramic bull's heads replacing their own. Dexter is baffled, but disturbed when his Dark Passenger, his name for his murderous urges and the side of him that understands other killers, suddenly deserts him. Dexter is disturbed to find himself next to useless without his passenger, and tries desperately to get it back, manage his wedding, and rein in his fiancee's kids before they give in to their own murderous urges.

Now: the plot twist that so annoyed many. (Beyond here be spoilers, matey!)

Okay, so Lindsay chose to explain Dexter's Dark Passenger by claiming it is a fragment of the ancient god Moloch that has lodged itself into Dexter, rather than being part of Dexter himself and his mental construct. No, the Passenger is a supernatural being that urges Dexter to kill for the hell of it.

The supernatural part, I can deal with, sort of. I'm a big fan of The X-Files and I hang out with the Winchester boys on Thursday nights (Supernatural, for anyone not in the know). What I do have issues with is how Lindsay felt the need to even bring in a supernatural explanation for Dex's state.

Apparently working with a plain vanilla sociopath wasn't intriguing enough for Lindsay, which is a little bit sad, considering it was for the readers, judging by the backlash. I didn't hate the supernatural element, but I can't really say I loved it, either. Dexter turned into a spineless wimp without the Passenger, and I wanted my Dex back.

Other criticisms: Good God with the Rita hatred, already. I mean, he loves the kids, but can he at least talk about her in his head without criticizing her? I think my feminist half was angry at how worthless he found her. My feminist half did applaud Deborah, and Astor wanting to be like her was so cute, but still.

Also, the subplot with Astor and Cody was just a little bit odd. I understand that they'd have sociopathic tendencies after their father's abuse, but it seems like only Cody has them and that Astor is just following along (she still clearly shows emotion; Cody does not). I think I like what the TV show allegedly does better than this representation-- cutting the sociopathic subplot and focusing solely on how Dexter cares for the kids.

Overall, I felt the plot was good, but that certain elements could have been cut (the Moloch business), etc. The concept of Dex without his Passenger was interesting, but the idea that the Passenger was a separate entity outside of Dex was... not. I mostly agreed with the online reviews I had read: the Moloch plot was bad news. I wouldn't say skip the book entirely like most of them advise (I'm just a completist freak), but see how far you get reading and judge for yourself.

Not as strong as the previous two books, but recommended for fans and for people who like mysteries and suspense stories.

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Road'

Seriously, I suck at this. I read Push by Sapphire, the basis for the movie Precious, in the last few weeks, but I'm not sure I want to review it with all the movie hype and my own mixed feelings about it (although I am eager to see the movie). Instead, I will work on my backlog of three reviews! (This is going to get worse every month, mark my words.)

The Book: The Road

The Author: Cormac McCarthy

How I Found It: It was being made into a movie with Viggo Mortensen. Let me repeat that more slowly: Viggo. Freaking. Mortensen. (Yes, I'm aware he's old enough to be my father.)

The Review: So I've never really been a fan of the whole Oprah thing and I haven't followed her book club, but I will admit that I've read this one and White Oleander and I think she (or her staff, whatever) has made some good choices. I do have a couple more of them on my TBR pile, I believe.

Anyway, yes, I was drawn to The Road when I learned the aforementioned Viggo Freaking Mortensen would be playing the main role, the Father. My initial reading of the book got sidetracked, but I read the large majority of the book the night before and the day of seeing the movie (literally crying in the parking lot about twenty minutes before seeing the movie).

The Road is not a very long book, but it is very powerful. It describes a future in which an unspecified apocalyptic event has left most of humanity, or what is left of it, struggling to survive. The book is the story of a man, abandoned by his wife, and his son attempting to "go South" in the search of an inhabitable area.

They walk along the road for miles and miles, constantly running into danger. Thieves could steal their few possessions; they could be killed by bandits; they could run into cannibals. They cannot get wet, or they risk dying in the cold. And always, the father does all he can to defend his son.

There were bits of this book that really, truly got to me, and I'm not sure of why, for some of them. I cried when the father tells his son stories of life on Earth before the apocalypse, and then realizes that his son, born just after the catastrophe, knows nothing at all of the things he describes. I was severely unnerved by an encounter with a thief who steals all the possessions the man and boy have, whom the man leaves, naked and with nothing, on the road, after the boy begs him not to kill him. As mentioned before, I was crying at the end.

This is not an easy book to read-- stylistically, it is, but in terms of the images it presents, it is hard to swallow. A world where there is absolutely nothing but ash and depraved humanity is not a world we would like to imagine.

The movie did a very good job of staying faithful to the book-- since I read most of it very close to seeing the movie, it was easy to tell what bits they'd plucked directly from it. Some scenes were shifted around, sometimes for no discernible reason, but I could understand the need to break up the monotony a viewer would likely complain of if the long traveling sections from the novel were kept in.

The acting was top-notch-- Viggo did a wonderful job portraying the father, and I might just jump on the Oscar-nom bandwagon. Kodi Smitt-McPhee was great as the son, more impressive than I would have expected from a kid.

The book is not very long and can easily be read within a day. I recommend it for fans of post-apocalyptic stories or anyone who wants a story about how much a father will do for his son.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dearly Devoted Dexter'

The Book: Dearly Devoted Dexter (second in the Dexter Morgan series)

The Author: Jeff Lindsay

How I Found It: By reading the first book. I think I'm turning into a Dexter fangirl. Eek!

The Review: 'Kay, first off, can I say how much I loveeee the cover for this book? At least, the cover for my edition, which is pictured here. Squint at it! It's a man, our Dex, knocking on a door holding a bouquet of roses... and a fillet knife. Oh, Dexter.

Yep, our boy's a serial killer who kills serial killers, or people who do bad things to kids, because Dexter loves kids. But when he's not indulging his dark side, he has to indulge his domestic side, in order to not rouse suspicion-- hence his "disguise," girlfriend Rita and her two kids, Astor and Cody.

That is why I love the cover so much-- it represents the dichotomy between dark/domestic Dexter perfectly, plus it's creepy as hell. Why I'm getting wrapped up in cover art, I have no idea. Anyway, onwards and upwards!

When we join Dexter in the beginning, we think he's hunting down his newest victim-- but no, he's playing a game of Kick the Can with Rita's kids, and why? Because his sergeant is on to him, and Dexter is aware that any move he makes under Doakes' nose will lead to him being discovered, something Dexter can't bear. So he has to abandon Dark Dexter and become the Dearly Devoted Dexter of the title, putting on the illusion for Doakes that he is a "family" man rather than something else entirely.

Problems arise when a man is found with literally every bit of him that can be cut off, cut off-- eyelids, tongue, lips, limbs, everything. Most of the police force is sickened, but Dexter's internal radar goes off. He'd like to find this monster, if only Doakes wasn't inconveniencing him. Or if the FBI wasn't.

Because Special Agent Kyle Chutsky has been sent in to deal with the problem, and he's entangled himself with Dexter's darling sister Deborah, who knows what exactly Dexter does as a hobby after the events of the first book.

Not only does Dexter have to deal with his sister depending on him to solve the case, there's also ramifications when his relationship with Rita becomes complicated by a misunderstanding that leaves Dexter at a loss.

A lot of people found this book superior to the first one, mostly because they had problems with the ending of Darkly Dreaming-- that didn't bother me, really; after the English course I'm in and the mysteries we read there, nothing fazes me anymore.

I disagreed with the majority-- while I did like the book a whole lot, I felt this one was slightly less superior to the first book. Since the identity of the killer and his motives are revealed early on in the book, I felt that the suspense was really lacking, and I found it so, so difficult to buy in to Deborah's attachment to Chutsky. She was with him for, what, a weekend and then they were like lovebirds? I was just as confused as Dexter on that front, frankly. I started wondering if Lindsay had to leave stuff on the chopping block at that point.

Also, the killer wasn't actually a killer, which was kind of... is annoying the right word? He was a sadistic bastard, yeah, and it wasn't like the people he was attacking were left with anything resembling a good life, but still. It just kind of bugged me. Although the final reveal of his strategy with the killings was... mind-blowing. What he does to them as he dismembers them is like the height of all sadism, but I thought it was brilliant.

Again, I'm starting to wonder just why I like this series so much. It's kinda disturbing.

The other thing that gave me some problems was the way Dexter talked about Rita in his head. He really cares for Astor and Cody, but he just persists to look at Rita as a means to an end. I know he doesn't feel emotions, but some semblance of caring for her would be nice. I felt like Rita deserved better than him at most points.

Anyway, while I felt bits of the book were lacking, I still really enjoyed it. I know not to read the books so close together, though-- the character exposition on people like Rita, Vince, etc. literally felt copy-and-pasted from the first book. It's usually how it goes with series, but it bothered me a bit here because there was almost no change in diction, nothing. At least try to find ways to vary your character descriptions, yeah?

Recommended to someone who loved the first book or the show (which I'm going to start watching soon; thank God for DVDs). Also recommended to someone who wants a unique perspective or who wants to test their ability to sympathize with an unconventional narrator.

In Which Trai Reviews 'Dear John'

Yet again, two delayed reviews.

The Book: Dear John

The Author: Nicholas Sparks

How I Found It: Saw it in a lot of bargain-book piles and thought the premise sounded good. Movie trailer reminded me I had it sitting in my TBR pile.

The Review: I read The Notebook earlier this year mostly because I wanted to know what the hype was about, and because I was curious about the movie, since I really like Rachel McAdams.

So I read it. And it was "ehh." You could tell it was a first novel-- I know it was supposed to be the story of Noah and Allie and nothing else, but seriously, Lon and Allie's mother felt like freaking wallpaper. They had no purpose other than to scream, "WE ARE HERE TO PROVIDE CONFLICT IN THE PLOT!"

Also, as I've said before, I felt the movie wasn't all that great and poorly acted. I don't understand the praise for all the dramatic scenes-- it just seemed melodramatic, period, to me.

Anyway, enough bitching about how this isn't going to be a glowing "I LOVED THE NOTEBOOK NICHOLAS SPARKS IS GOD" review.

That being said, I really liked Dear John a whole lot. It was depressing as hell, but it packed more of an emotional punch than The Notebook did, at least for me. I cared more about John than I did about Noah, and had the mixed feelings for Savannah that Sparks probably intended, or at least I hope he did. I still think he has issues with secondary characters-- Tim can join Lon as "secondary love interest wallpaper"-- but again, it's basically a two-person story and I could forgive it.

The story: John Tyree was a rebel who decided his life was going nowhere and joined the Army to get himself straightened out. His relationship with his father, whose world revolves around coin collecting, had become strained, and he felt he had few other options.

The Army is good for him-- he quits his bad habits and finds that he is good with the jobs the Army requires him to do. When he returns home for a brief leave, it is to a world his reformed self no longer belongs in.

He first meets Savannah Lynn Curtis when her purse with all her money falls into the ocean at the beach, and he rescues it for her. They strike up a friendship built on conversations and surfing lessons, and the relationship quickly grows into love.

They're about as opposite can be, but John promises to marry Savannah once his tour is over. Savannah promises to stay faithful, but as John's tour is about to end, 9/11 tears apart the world and John re-enlists. Savannah supports his decision with mixed feelings, and eventually sends him the "Dear John" letter with the devastating news she has found someone else, leaving John lost. Adrift from his father and with the love of his life gone, where else does he have to turn but the Army?

There's more to the story, but it's too much to get into here. The plot sounds cliche, but Sparks did things with it I wasn't expecting, especially the resolution between the sort of triangle formed between John, Savannah, and her husband (no spoilers here). Maybe it felt like hand-waving, but it was nicely done and I hadn't been expecting it.

The subplot with John's father was also touching and sad, and it made me cry more than The Notebook (the book; the movie didn't make me cry at all) did. I suppose at this stage of my life it's easier for me to connect to something involving a parent than a longtime spouse. Whatever the case, it was nicely handled and I liked seeing how John gradually learned to accept his father for what he was.

Watching the trailer, I see what looks like differences between the novel and the movie, and I'm hoping they don't take the Hollywood route like they did with The Notebook, punching up the drama and everything, and I'm worried they'll change the ending. Whatever the case, I think I'll like to see how they do it.

I did have a gripe with the book that bothers me whenever I encounter it. Can't a character choose to be a virgin/wait for the right person without some kind of sex-related trauma in his/her past? It bugs the hell out of me that Sparks took that route.

I really did think the book was emotional, well-done, and had two strong, well-drawn lead characters, and I'm at least curious to see the movie version. Liking this one so much led me to purchase The Lucky One, Sparks' other book with a sort of military theme, and I'll read that one sometime soon.

Recommended to someone looking for romantic fiction with a bit of emotional release involved.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

In Which Trai Reviews 'Darkly Dreaming Dexter'

And now for something completely different...

The Book: Darkly Dreaming Dexter (first in the Dexter Morgan series)

The Author: Jeff Lindsay

How I Found It: Was intrigued by the premise of a moral serial killer. No Showtime, so I couldn't watch the show, but decided to read the books.

The Review: Wow. Wowowowowowowowowwwwww.

I can't remember being this freaking blown away or surprised by a book in such a long time. I'm not a mystery kind of girl-- I don't know why, I just never really got into them. I do enjoy Kay Hooper's Bishop/SCU series, and I've been meaning to read more Sherlock Holmes, but dear God did this book grab me by the hair and refuse to let me go.

Since the show's been around since 2006 and the books since 2004, you probably know some semblance of the plot, but let me 'splain, as Inigo Montoya would say. At the age of three, Dexter was taken in by Harry Morgan, a cop on the Miami police force, after a traumatic event Dexter cannot remember. When Dexter begins to show signs of sociopathy in his early teens, Harry teaches him to control his urges, driven by Dexter's mental "Dark Passenger," and channel them constructively: by killing those who deserve it, usually other serial killers, and especially the ones who kill children.

The book would start questionably for some: Dexter hides in the back of a priest's car, half-strangles him with piano wire, and forces him to drive to an abandoned house. You'd think a priest would be an unlikely serial killer, until we see he's killed seven children. Dexter gives him his just desserts, takes a drop of his blood to put on a microscope slide, and then goes on his merry way once he disposes of the body and the car.

Things get complicated when Dexter, a blood-spatter analyst for the Miami PD with a foster sister who's working Vice but wants desperately to get into Homicide, learns that another serial killer is terrorizing the area. A serial killer who does not share his moral code-- but does share Dexter's unique style, which he actually does better than Dexter himself. Dexter is torn between his desire to 'play' the killer's twisted game and his "loyalty" to his foster sister in her efforts to stop the killer and get her transfer to Homicide.

I won't say anything more, but I can't say enough about how much I loved this book. I'm actually a bit disturbed by enjoying a book about and narrated by a sociopath, but at least I don't feel guilty after seeing how many others have before me. I definitely have to tip my hat to Jeff Lindsay, who must've done a hell of a writing job in order to get us to like a serial killer. (Although I think I'm a pushover; I felt for Eric Stoltz during the Grey's Anatomy serial killer arc, and I think my mom started to question my sanity.)

The book was surprisingly original-- a really interesting take on the Rear Window/Disturbia-esque device of the serial-killer-next-door, except here we're supposed to be rooting for the serial killer. It's hard not to. Dexter is witty, does a pretty passable job at imitating human emotions, and kills the people we want to see die.

The one thing I could have done without, though I know it's necessary, was the constant motif of "politics" in the police force-- the proper things to do and not do, as Dexter constantly reminds his sister, Deborah. It got a little tiring after a while, I will admit, and it was a little strange that Dexter was always, always smarter than everyone else. The device of LaGuerta being a completely and utterly incompetent cop was stretched just a little bit too far in the end.

However, those small quibbles don't take away from one of the most original books I've read in recent years. I ran out and got Dearly Devoted Dexter before I even finished, because I knew I wouldn't regret it.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter is very, very, very highly recommended to anyone who's tired of cookie-cutter plots and characters, and anyone who enjoys dark comedy.

My next review, I'm not sure of. For something completely different from this, I might go with Dear John by Nicholas Sparks, since seeing the movie trailer reminded me I have the book sitting on my TBR pile. Until next time, dear readers!

In Which Trai Reviews 'Bright Star'

Reading many, many books for my English class here has backed up my reviewing time, as has my embarkation into the magical world of NaNoWriMo. Without further ado, two reviews for my pretty much non-existent followers!

The Book: Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

The Author: John Keats

How I Found It: Saw the movie, had vague memories of analyzing "La belle dame sans merci", and decided to use Keats for a poetry presentation.

The Review: I am nothing if not a romantic. Seriously, it's pathetic how bad it is. (Though I will admit the movie of The Notebook didn't make me cry-- much as I love Rachel McAdams, it was poorly acted and written. The book did make me cry once, because Alzheimer's is just depressing.) Anyway, love stories are my thing.

Admittedly, I have no clue about Bright Star until I saw a banner advertising it on IMDb. My first reaction was "Pretty costumes! Period piece! Must go!" (Yes, that is my thought process.) I noticed it was about John Keats-- the lives of writers in a movie means it is also a must-see in my book, even if I know barely anything about them.

So I went, and I loved it. It was a beautiful movie, and hearing Ben Whishaw recite "La belle dame sans merci" with Abbie Cornish made me go, "I remember that one!" So I ordered the book and started reading.

Half of the book is Keats' love letters to Fanny Brawne, the girl he loved for three years until his tragic death at twenty-five of tuberculosis. The second half is the poems he wrote during the time he was with Brawne.

Admittedly, a lot of poetry goes over my head. I've tried writing it and most of what I have written in that respect is crap. I did enjoy the poems, but I definitely need to have Sparknotes or something-- the language and imagery is a bit difficult to decipher, at least for me. My mom and I just don't get poetry. However, the poems I could understand were very beautiful :)

The real standout for me in this collection were the love letters to Fanny. One of my favorite books, Possession by A.S. Byatt, involves two poets involved in an affair, and when the man is on his deathbed, he requests his wife burn his personal papers so that posterity never roots through his belongings in search of intimate information after his death, as was done to Dickens. In a similar manner, Fanny Brawne had the letters she wrote to Keats destroyed, though late in life she revealed the letters Keats had written to her.

I can't express how beautiful I thought the letters were. As tough to understand as his poetry might have been, the letters really spoke to me and I could understand them perfectly. Keats describes missing and loving Fanny in terms any of us can understand: "As far as they regard myself I can despise all events: but I cannot cease to love you" (Letter VI). There were about a million passages I loved and wished I could share with somebody. It might sound cliched, but Keats was a passionate man, and it really shows here. The letters were just amazing expressions of his love; it was really a shame he died so young, without a chance to marry her.

I now sound like a pathetic romantic, so I will end my review here. I recommend the book to anyone with a romantic heart, anyone who's interested in poetry from the time period, or anyone who's interested in Keats himself and hasn't yet seen the letters.