Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Emma and the Vampires'

The Book: Emma and the Vampires: A Jane Austen Undead Novel

The Authors: Jane Austen and Wayne Josephson

How I Found It: I was asked to review it for Austenblog.

The Review: I have to say that out of all the mashups I've read, this is the only one that has left me wondering why the mashup part was even necessary. Josephson allegedly wrote this at the request of his teenage daughter. It seemed like not much thought was put into what the vampires could do to the story, and the result is a jumbled mess of a watered-down version of Emma with a sporadic sprinkling of vampires.

Basically, the plot hinges on the general idea for most mashups: it's the same as Emma, with vampires thrown in. In Josephson's version, all the gentlemen of Highbury are vampires. Some are vegans, whose eyes are blue; others feast on human blood, which turns their eyes red. Those in need of sustenance are black-eyed. We get hints that Mr. Weston is a vegan, Frank Churchill feasts on humans, and that Mr. Knightley enjoys a tasty aristocrat every once in a while, but explanation of why each vampire chose that particular path would have been much appreciated.

This was my main problem with the work: Josephson did not appear to care enough to establish a mythology. For convenience's sake, every male is the same age they are in the original Emma, and in this world, vampires can bear children, who inherit the gene from their father. This greatly confused me. Some of the many questions that entered my mind:

Did the adult vampires (Mr. Weston, Mr. Knightley, etc.) inherit this gene or were they turned at that particular age? Who would have turned them, since here we are given the impression that vampires turn their brides upon marrying? The only grown hereditary vampire that we see is Frank Churchill, who is described as perpetually twenty-three. I understand that this was in keeping with his age in the original, but it just led to more questions. Do hereditary vampires simply grow up and stop aging at a particular point? Why, then, are some vampires older than others? Why does Mr. George Knightley have the ability to read minds and Mr. John Knightley have the ability to predict the future, whereas Mr. Weston and Frank, for example, are not possessed of any particular abilities? Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Elton are told that their husbands are vampires, but Emma and the rest of the town, while entirely aware of their male neighbors' strange habits, are completely in the dark about this. Is it some ironclad rule that no one except vampire wives can know the "secret"? If it is a rule, then why did it come into existence?

See what I mean? Josephson added the vampires, but he did not offer one iota of mythology behind his take on it, which was extremely irritating. If you're going to add the monsters, you're going to have to give me some kind of explanation about what they can do, how they came to be, and what they can bring to this particular story.

And in this case, the vampires did not bring anything at all. Every time there was a remark about a beating heart, a vampire would silently reflect on his own heart not beating. From my recollection, there were maybe four or five party scenes. Each party scene ended with the participants emerging into the night and--oh, no, a vampire attack! And oh, look, they're attacking Harriet! Keep in mind, this is done at least three times. Why is Harriet so special? The only explanation we are given is that she is "plump." No freesia-scented extra-special-Twilight blood here. The vampires just like Harriet because she's chubby. In fact, there was no vampire threat to any of the other main characters but Harriet, and combined with the easy defeat of the rogue vampires in all the battle scenes, this makes for one boring vampire book.

Josephson felt the need to water down Austen's prose, cutting where he pleased and simplifying the phrases he felt modern young adult readers wouldn't understand (this is very much meant to be a YA novel). I was rather appalled by the inclusion of the phrases "thunderous thighs" and "Mamma's boy". Really? "Thunderous thighs?" In Clueless, maybe, but not in something that purports to be the actual Emma. Some of the abridgments made sense but then would lead to confusion to a reader not familiar with the original--Mrs. Elton's tireless raving about Maple Grove is cut, but she mentions it twice later on, and nothing is done to explain about where that is or what it means to Mrs. Elton. There isn't much of a context that a reader could place it in, either, given that the context was removed and not restored in this abridgement.

The thing was, I never truly felt that the vampires were necessary to the story. Emma itself was so watered down that it started feeling unnecessary towards the end. By the time we got to Box Hill, I was wondering why he'd even bothered putting the vampires in--they don't effect the pivotal events of the story; Josephson only seemed to throw them in after the characters left a party. He was basically just retelling Emma and adding action for no particular reason. I feel the book should have gone one way or the other--either Josephson should have produced an abridged version of Emma, sans vampires, or he should have written his own Regency-era vampire novel, where he would have had plenty of space to expound upon the mythology of his vampires that was not even hinted at here. But of course, that leaves one without the safety net of a built-in network of readers.

Overall, this is one of the more poorly done mashups I've read, and I feel as though Mr. Josephson would have better served Emma by doing a strict abridgment--he managed to keep the spirit of Emma throughout, and if only there hadn't been vampires, it would have been a perfectly serviceable abridgment about on par with the level of cuts you'd see in a typical movie version. From the ending and the cover touting this as a "Jane Austen Undead" novel, I can only assume more in this series are coming down the pike. If someone in your family is into vampire fiction but not Austen and you would like to introduce her to Jane, I would give this one a weak recommendation, with the caveat emptor that if she can understand this version, she might as well give the original Emma a shot.

Monday, August 30, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel'

The Book: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Graphic Novel

The Authors / The Illustrator: Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), Seth Grahame-Smith (Pride and Prejudice plus zombies), Tony Lee (adapter), Cliff Richards (illustrator)

How I Found It: I was asked to review it for Austenblog, given that I tolerate the monster mashup craze more than most.

The Review: I was asked to include that Del Rey publishes this book in the United States, whereas Titan Books does in the UK.

If you're a Janeite, or even if you're not, I'm sure you know about the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies craze by now. I'm sure that many of these mashups were in development before PPZ and were released once it was known there was an audience, but many of them have not had the same success as the original. I'm one of the more accepting of the craze myself, but I still find myself rolling my eyes as more and more books join the fray. Having read this graphic novel adaptation of the work that started it all, it seems like an attempt to join in on the cash cow--one that doesn't seem to have worked quite that well.

So we all know the schtick by now: it's Pride and Prejudice, plus zombies. The original author, Seth Grahame-Smith, worked closely with Austen's text to figure out which parts he felt needed more action--mainly, the parts that he found boring. I can't speak for myself--a few other Jane fans I know and I agree that if you've read the original, PPZ can be quite slow going--but of the (mostly men) non-Jane fans I know who have read it, they all seem to be in agreement that the zombies help them get through and actually enjoy the book. To each their own, one supposes.

The thing is, Grahame-Smith seems to have paid more attention to the original text than the adapter did here. This is the third Austen-related book I've read this year where Elizabeth has been referred to--repeatedly!--as Miss Bennet, when only Jane should be referred to as such. The audience it's targeted to won't even notice, but if the adapter wanted to be taken semi-seriously by Janeites, these things should at the very least be fact-checked. You'd think you could gather that etiquette just from watching a movie adaptation. In an effort to make the speech sound formal after he (from what I could gather) dumbed it down somewhat, Mr. Lee managed to have a glaring etiquette mistake.

As I said, the speech did at times appear to be "dumbed down" (for lack of a better phrase), though most of the recognizable lines seemed to be present. At times, it was clear that this was to make it fit into the speech bubbles; at others, it wasn't immediately apparent why it needed to be dumbed down. For example, "let at last" in the very first sentence about Netherfield is changed to "is occupied again." I would have at least given the readers enough credit to be able to work that one out contextually, but it was not to be. Some scenes from PPZ were cut and led to slightly awkward bridging dialogue (instead of showing Lizzy and Jane playing "Kiss Me Deer", Mrs. Bennet scolds them when they come in dirty, leading to a sentence's worth of explanation as to what "Kiss Me Deer" is, when Mrs. Bennet would have already known this). Also, without chapter breaks, we are left with constant cuts to scenes with the headings: "One Week Later" / "The Wedding of Charlotte and Mr. Collins" / "Pemberley" / etc. The story seemed disjointed and lacked a flow without those chapter breaks and text explaining what had happened in the intervening time.

The graphic novel could also have benefited greatly from being in color--the illustrations were black-and-white and I'm assuming that that decision was made for expense reasons, as coloring can get expensive. However, the black-and-white drawings made it difficult to tell the characters apart--all the Bennet sisters (and even Mrs. Bennet, at one point) looked far too similar; hair color would have helped greatly. (Jane is given dark hair, whereas Lizzy and the rest are, I assume, blonde, but the differences stop there. It was also a slight break from the fanon tradition of Jane being blonde and Lizzy being brown-haired.) Even Darcy and Bingley were becoming difficult to tell apart based on the drawings, and this would most definitely be a hindrance to someone not familiar enough to the original text to know who is speaking. The faces are also only sketchily done once the person is further off, as well, to give the impression of distance, but it was distracting and led to far too much "well, who is THAT?" on my part.

One of the good things about this adaptation is the ability to see all the fight scenes from the original in a more detailed fashion than the original's illustrations. We get to see the zombie battles in all their gory goodness. For this reason, I probably wouldn't recommend this one to anyone younger than 15--reading a description of the violence and gore is different than actually seeing a drawing, albeit a black-and-white one, of it. Anyway, all the bloody scenes well-known to PPZ aficionados are there--Darcy and Lizzy taking down the zombies feasting on Netherfield's servants, Lizzy eating the heart of one of Lady Catherine's ninjas after a battle, Lady Catherine and Lizzy's fight in the dojo, etc. There's also a nice scene, not originally in the novel IIRC, of Mr. Bennet teaching Bingley how to kill "the unmentionables."

Overall, the book receives only a marginal recommendation from me--it could have been much better handled by an adapter who paid more attention to P&P as well as PPZ, and color would have been a great help to those confused by the drawings, myself included. I would recommend this only to those who might wish to see the zombie battles depicted in more detail than we received in PPZ. If you'd like to introduce someone to the mashup craze, however, or to P&P in general, you're better off sticking with the actual Pride and Prejudice and Zombies--or, you know, the actual Pride and Prejudice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'One Day'

The Book: One Day

The Author: David Nicholls

How I Found It: It was mentioned in an article about 15 books to read before they became movies. Given that Jim Sturgess, an actor I love, is playing the male lead, I decided I just had to! The movie, starring Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway, will be out next fall.

The Review: On the night of their college graduation, July 15th, 1988, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew share a bed--they do not have sex, but after some kissing, they lie back and wonder where their lives will go. Dexter is well-off and can get anything he wants in the world, whereas Emma is working-class and self-conscious. Both of them have ideas about what they want to become, and on that day, all of their lives seem to be in front of them.

The problem is, life never turns out exactly as you expect it, and we get to watch how Dexter and Emma's lives turn out, because the idea of the novel is that we check in on the two of them for the next twenty years, always on that same day, July 15th. Dexter ends up working in television, instead of the journalism career he once imagined, and finds himself increasingly drawn to drugs, booze, and women. Emma tells herself she deserves the dull job at a fast food establishment, the unfunny comedian boyfriend--and that she most certainly doesn't deserve Dex, who attracts and infuriates her all at once. Over twenty years, they're friends sometimes and not at others, but the connection between them is always lurking just beneath the surface, waiting to see what it could become.

I don't quite know what to say about this book without giving things away. The author whose style I can compare it to ultimately would be a dead giveaway. I could say how a certain thing made me feel, and that would be a dead giveaway. I'll tread lightly. What I can say is, the reviews touting this as a "feel-good love story" aren't quite true. It's more of a "feel-depressed only-a-love-story-at-times." It's depressing because it really is a reminder that life doesn't always go as planned, and it certainly isn't fair. For someone my age, it's a reminder that life after college is going to be a horribly scary place. I suppose that it did one thing right--it captured the anxiety of not knowing, the aimless drifting when one isn't sure where one wants his or her life to go.

I could relate to many of the emotions in the section about their early twenties, I could relate to Emma wanting someone she couldn't have, I could relate to her self-conciousness. But Dexter and Emma aren't always likable people, just as people aren't always likable in real life. I was invested enough in the characters that I felt happy for them, sad for them, and disappointed in them. Even if the characters aren't likable on occasion (and almost always unlikable, when it comes to Dexter), I still wanted to know what was going to happen, and I kept turning the pages for quite a while in order to find out. The dialogue is great: it's snappy and can sometimes be truly funny; I laughed aloud at a couple points. Nicholls certainly is a good writer, but it's the writing that can be a fault at times in this book.

In theory, the idea of a story taking place on the same day for twenty years is great--I love it, personally. The thing is, though, you can never go beyond that date, to the other 364 days of the year, and that often became limiting. One character would tell another one that they'd talk to them about something the next day, and we wouldn't get to see that happen--only hear it relayed to us during the following year's chapter. It sometimes became clumsy and rather annoying to deliberately leave us on that hook and then just drop whatever it had been at some random part in the next chapter. We would never fully get to see certain things all the way through, only hear about them after. I personally wonder how the movie is going to work on this respect: flashbacks will probably be the way to go, as putting it all into dialogue would be cumbersome.

The romance itself was pretty well-done, but it wasn't really much of a romance as it was a story of two people not really recognizing what was in front of them. They don't recognize what they could be until late in the story, as it is in nearly all of these types of books or movies. We are shown the people in between, the complications, and these people pass in and out of Dexter and Emma's lives as they would in real life. The romance felt believable because neither of them recognized it for what it could become--they're too young to notice it, too self-centered or not self-centered enough.

I really liked the idea of the book, but when I finished, it was with a sense of unfulfilled potential. There wasn't much of a deep message beyond living life to the fullest before the years go by, and that's been done a thousand times before. It was simply a book of snapshots of two peoples' lives over twenty years, and though it did accurately capture different concerns that come up at different times in a person's life, it never really felt all that original. Some plot twists came up and took me by surprise, until I thought about it and realized, yeah, I probably should have seen that coming. The once-a-year device is pretty much the only original thing about the story; the rest is rather formulaic.

And to me, it all unraveled at the end. Again, I really can't say much without giving anything away. Every comparison I'd like to make would be a spoiler. I feel as though I've read or seen too many things recently where my enjoyment has been spoiled by the ending, which either doesn't deal fully with the implications or just doesn't seem fair. That was the case here: the ending really didn't seem fair at all. I'd heard tell that this ending doesn't really work in a book, but that it would work in a movie. I agree that it probably will work in a movie, although I do get the feeling my reaction to seeing it all play out on screen will be the same as my friend's reaction to a movie we watched a few weeks ago: "That was a great movie! But I kind of feel like I want to kill myself now!"

Overall, the book was great until the last forty pages or so. I would like to pretend they do not exist. However, if you're a fan of romances or are intrigued by the setup, it's worth a looksee.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice'

The Book: The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice (previously published as Pemberley by the Sea)

The Author: Abigail Reynolds

How I Found It: It got good reviews from Austen-related sites when it was first picked up by Sourcebooks, and when it was reprinted in a cheaper mass-market edition with a gorgeous cover earlier this summer, I figured I'd take a shot on it.

The Review: Cassie Boulton's main priority is one thing and one thing only: her work as a marine biologist and a tenure-track professor. She isn't looking for romance, especially after her previous relationship was broken off due to her devotion to her work. Yet when her friend Erin wants to go to a local dance in Woods Hole, the seaside town where they spend their summers working, Cassie can't say no. Her ex-boyfriend walks in and Cassie decides to seek a dance partner--but the man she asks refuses her. Erin has lunch the next day with her own dance partner, Scott, whose best friend is, lo and behold, the man who snubbed Cassie, Calder Westing III.

As Erin's romance with Scott develops, Cassie finds herself thrown in with Calder more and more. They have a night of passion one night at the beach, but when morning comes, Cassie isn't sure how to handle their budding relationship and rejects Calder's persistence. She's determined to hide her difficult upbringing as well as a dark secret, and the possibility of not getting tenure weighs heavily on her mind. Time passes, but Cassie finds herself drawn more and more to Calder the more times they see each other. As much as the two of them want a relationship, their families and respective histories could be working against them.

Sound familiar? It's a modern-day version of Pride and Prejudice, though it mostly uses that story for inspiration behind a few key scenes. It isn't a strict modernization, which is nice, as it has become evident from other modernizations that some of the original's elements don't quite work nowadays. I really liked the way Reynolds chose to modernize certain aspects in a believable and relevant way. For example, Erin (comparable to the original's Jane) isn't simply reserved and private about her emotions; she's recently left an abusive relationship that landed her in the hospital, and her trust isn't something she's ready to give. E-mails substitute for letters. Balls are comparable to local dances and Christmas parties.

I very much enjoyed the book for the strength of its characterizations and the chemistry between Cassie and Calder. While it did seem improbable that they would coincidentally meet at so many functions in the beginning, I accepted the coincidence because I wanted to see what would happen between them. Their journey is unpredictable and interesting to follow, as the secrets in each of their pasts are revealed and they are forced to deal with familial issues. Calder's family, almost entirely made up of politicians, is sure to disapprove of Cassie, and his father will do anything to keep them apart, whereas his mother is silent and indifferent after years of repression by her husband. Mr. Westing, Calder's father and the enemy, is an interesting obstacle, though he seemed to have a little too much power as a politician at times and his threats could come off as a bit too much. The Gardiner-esque Crowleys, friends to both Cassie and Calder, were also good characters, although some more information could have been given about certain things regarding them later in the novel. Scott and Erin were a nice beta couple, though there wasn't nearly as much shown of their romance as Cassie and Calder's took center stage, and I did wish for some more details on that front.

As for the romance itself, it is well-written, though there are more than a few sex scenes that get fairly detailed, so buyer beware--this one's not for anyone below 15 or 16! There's plenty of sexual tension, just as there is in Austen, but Reynolds can take it one step further--into the bedroom. Sometimes the scenes got somewhat repetitive, but it was nice to see a relationship that built slowly from casual sex to real intimacy, as Cassie and Calder learn more about each other. Reynolds did a good job of building up the relationship slowly and carefully so that it was believable. They were both characters I liked and cared about, and the book was long enough that it didn't feel like too much crammed into too few pages.

I'd give the book four and a half stars overall; my minor complaints are that not enough information was given on some things in the end, since so much focus was put on Cassie and Calder fighting back against Calder's father. I would've liked to see a little more information on the Crowleys in regards to a specific past incident, as I mentioned before, and while we were given the ultimate resolution of Scott and Erin's relationship, we barely saw them again after that and that felt wrong; I would've liked to see a bit more of them for the book to feel more complete.

I really enjoyed this story and I'm glad to hear Reynolds is working on a sequel involving both a new set of characters and some of the old ones. Reynolds writes "variations" of Pride and Prejudice, and I've bought one of those out of curiosity, since I enjoyed her writing style here and would like to see it applied to an Austenesque work. I'd give this one a big thumbs up and a hearty recommendation to Janeites looking for a good, spicy, romantic story with memorable characters and great writing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

In Which Trai Reviews 'The President's Daughter'

The Book: The President's Daughter (Book One in the The President's Daughter series)

The Author: Ellen Emerson White

How I Found It: I've been becoming more interested in politics-related fiction since I started watching The West Wing this summer, and I was curious to read this once I started reading about the series.

The Review: Senator Katharine Vaughn Powers has a proposition, one she makes to her daughter after a round of tennis: she wants to run for President of the United States. Meg, the daughter, is confounded by this, not sure why her mother would make this decision when she is already away from home enough. Her mother's work has put near-constant strain on her brothers, her father, and herself, and one of Meg's only wishes is that her mother could have been an English teacher or someone with a more "normal" job. But Meg's mother thinks she might be able to win the race for President, and she comes to the decision that she will run.

Since the outcome of the race is pretty much a given from the book's title, I don't know how much more of a summary I can give! A review I read considered the title itself a spoiler, but given that the series wouldn't be much of a series if Kate had lost the race, I don't consider it one. The first half of the book concerns Kate's campaign and the second half concerns life in the White House, with much emphasis in both halves placed on the effect of this life on Meg, her brothers Steven and Neal, and her father Russell.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the books, originally written and published in the 1980s, were revised in 2008 so they could be rereleased with a newly published fourth book that was set in the present day rather than the eighties. I didn't read the 1980s version; I decided to read the modern-day version simply because I think it's a better choice to set it now than to have it set in the 1980s. Many adult readers who'd read the series as young girls seemed to be annoyed that Meg's habit of watching 1980s television was changed to her watching those series on DVD, and that the book's updates included cell phones and texting. I think, though, that some of these updates appeared more effective and easier to believe. Meg's biggest concern over going out in public is that anything she does could potentially become a publicity nightmare for her mother. It's easier to believe the threat posed by ubiquitous cell phone cameras and such than it is to believe, for me, that someone would, say, whip out a huge camcorder. It's more interesting, to me, to read about how Meg feels reading a blogger's opinion on her mother, given that the Internet opens up far more avenues of communication. Meg's concerns about privacy and publicity seemed more valid in the Internet age, and the idea of a woman President is certainly more plausible today.

My one criticism of an otherwise interesting book was that the plotting seemed very thin. Basically, it's about the campaign and White House life and nothing more. Since we know the outcome of the race has to be a win, there's no real suspense, and thus I couldn't truly feel the surprise and shock of the characters. Meg's dating and friendship foibles are nothing particularly original for anyone who's ever watched or read about the offspring of any celebrity, but it was an interesting perspective to show that even a politician's child can have pesky teachers and power-playing friends. Meg's emotions were realistic; from what I understand, the author was in college when she wrote the first three books, so I think that explains it pretty well. I fully believed Meg's teenage voice.

The most realistic aspect of the book, to me, was its centerpiece, Meg's relationship with her mother. The book raises an interesting point; Steven and Neal, Meg's brothers, will simply be known as the children of the first female President, whereas Meg, as the daughter of that President, will always have to live up to something. Meg experiences frustration over her mother's constant absences and insecurity over her mother's beauty, poise, and confidence. While my mother's and my relationship is nowhere near as strained as Meg's is with her mother, I think any teenage girl with a mother will be able to relate to this story no question! Meg and her mother have the same arguments about clothes, boys, and any number of other things that a normal mother and daughter would have, and there's a touching conversation where they wonder if they love or hate each other. Meg's complex relationship with her mother is, I know, a continuing storyline in the series, and I'm eager to see how it develops in the next three books.

The book succeeds, as good speculative fiction should, at considering what the new protocol would have to be for a female President. I was amused at little touches, such as Russell becoming "The First Gentleman" and the exploration of how that affected him. The scenario was very plausibly done and I'm interested to see how life in the White House is presented in the next books.

Overall, I'd recommend this one to any teenager (or a teenager-at-heart adult) looking for an interesting politics-related read, or to someone who's interested in West Wing-esque fiction.