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E. A Solinas "ea_solinas" (MD USA)

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Night of the Demon (1957) [DVD]
Night of the Demon (1957) [DVD]
Dvd ~ Dana Andrews
Price: £7.90

4.0 out of 5 stars It's there, Doctor. It's there!, 11 Jan. 2015
Do you believe in demons? Do you believe that there is a supernatural world overlaid with ours, filled with horrors and wonders that the human mind can scarcely grasp? Well, Dr. Holden doesn't... until he's cursed by a vengeful sorcerer, and has only a few days before a demon messily kills him.

So goes "Curse of the Demon" or "Night of the Demon," depending on which country's edit you're watching -- the British one is a bit longer. It's a hauntingly suspenseful movie loosely based on an M.R. James short story, with the trappings of demonology and witchcraft draped over a solid suspense story. If only you didn't actually SEE the titular demon, it would be one of the best horror movies of the 50s.

Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) arrives in England for a conference on superstition, only to find that his colleague Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) has just died in a bizarre "accident." Harrington was planning to expose Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) as the leader of a cult, and his niece Joanna (Peggy Cummins) believes that Karswell did something supernatural to kill her uncle.

As a professional skeptic, Holden doesn't buy any of this. But when visiting Karswell's estate, he ends up irritating the self-proclaimed witch... and Karswell declares that Holden will die in three days' time.

Holden refuses to believe that he's actually been hexed, but he's haunted by feelings of cold, strange mists, and a mysterious parchment with runic symbols on it. And as the time ticks down to his predicted death, he begins to suspect that Karswell may have actually summoned a demon -- and his only chance of surviving the hex lies with a catatonic murder suspect.

"Curse/Night of the Demon" is a prime example of just doing everything in a movie well. It sounds like a pretty cheesy premise, but director Jacques Tourneur inserts a real feeling of foreboding in almost every scene. Everything is slowly building to a climax, and you're on the edge of your seat, wondering if Holden will open his eyes and realize what's going on before it's too late.

There are some dry patches, such as when Holden discusses demonology and superstition with his peers, although these lend the movie an air of authenticity. But the movie is most effective when Andrews and Cummins are darting through a nightmarish maze of secrets -- consider the comedic yet eerie seance scene, or the haunting moment when the catatonic man is hypnotized.

Andrews is a bit stiff, and not entirely plausible as a scientist. But he's able to hold his own as a grim, steadfast cynic who gradually comes to believe that maybe, sorta, kinda, there are supernatural forces out there. He has amazing chemistry with MacGinnis, who has a fey, jovially evil attitude. And Cummins makes a good counterpoint to Holden as a smart, sensible woman who doesn't discount the possibility.

However.... we should have either never seen the demon (which looks pretty goofy) or only seen it at the very end. This would have left it ambiguous whether the supernatural threat real or whether Holden is being gaslighted by a murderous Karswell. Reportedly the idiot producer demanded that the demon be seen, despite the best efforts of Tourneur, writer Charles Bennett (who said he wanted to shoot the producer), and Andrews. It's a shame, because ambiguity would have made it truly brilliant.

"Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon" (watch the longer British edit) is an underrated, moody little horror gem, which could use an ultimate cut to smooth over its occasional flaws.

Desperate Romantics [DVD] [2009]
Desperate Romantics [DVD] [2009]
Dvd ~ Samuel Barnett
Price: £9.14

4.0 out of 5 stars Tales of the brotherhood, 11 Jan. 2015
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were the rock stars of their day -- revolutionary artists who lived scandalous lives when they weren't painting and writing.

And "Desperate Romantics" bounces merrily between the Brotherhood's artistic and romantic travails, although taking quite a few liberties (and ending rather abruptly). It eventually turns into a bawdy, sexy soap opera full of love polygons that can only end in death and/or heartbreak... and is mainly hampered by the liberties taken with history.

Journalist Fred Walters (Sam Crane) is mesmerized by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood -- naive prodigy John Everett Millais (Samuel Barnett), fiery and religious William Holman Hunt (Rafe Spall), and the wild sexual Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Aidan Turner). He believes in their dedication to beauty and artistic truth... although unfortunately the stuffy artistic community does not.

So Fred tries to help them. First he finds them a model in Lizzie Siddal (Amy Manson), who immediately attracts every man who knows her. Then he helps them gain the patronage of John Ruskin (Tom Hollander), a famous art critic who gradually warms to Millais and becomes his official sponsor.

But as the Brotherhood become celebrated, their love lives take a turn for the insane. Dante and Lizzie begin a passionate, roller-coaster affair that can only end in tragedy, Hunt falls in love with a bawdy prostitute whom he tries to reform into a lady, and Millais finds himself in a bewildering plot involving Ruskin's wife Effie (who is understandably irritated that her husband has never had sex with her).

"Desperate Romantics" is (generously) about 75% about the Brotherhood's love lives (especially Rossetti and Lizzie) and maybe 20% about the travails of their art. Of course, there's a lot of overlap -- all three men fall in love with their models, and inspiration seems to be something they can best find in a woman's face.

The entire miniseries is a big explosive mass of passions -- laughing, explosive fights, graphic sex scenes (especially Dante with just about every redhead he meets) and painting with intense abandon. It certainly puts forth that the Pre-Raphaelites were not very nice people sometimes, but watching them explode their way through staid, stuffy Victorian society is delightful. It's sort of like a period soap opera, but with more sex and classic art.

And the actors all seem to be throwing themselves into it -- Turner is particularly enchanting as a wild, charming libertine who constantly chases the forbidden, and loses interest in it when he's gotten it. Barnett and Spall each have their own unique presence, both as the short-fused religious guy and the virginal naïf, but Turner is clearly the star here.

Conversely, Crane's mild-mannered journalist is a pretty boring presence, and his attempts to chase after the lady-loves of the Brotherhood become skin-crawlingly embarrassing. And Mason, while she gives a pretty good performance, always sounds like she's in desperate need of a throat lozenge.

So what are the downsides? Well, it deviates from history in some ways -- for instance, William Morris is presented as brilliant but bumbling and clueless. And Lizzie's suicide is presented as ONLY being the result of tension with Rossetti, when in fact she had suffered a devastating stillbirth and depression. Oh, and Rossetti dug up her grave seven years after she died, not a few days later.

"Desperate Romantics" is a tale of sex, drugs and classically-influenced art -- and while it fiddles with some important details for the sake of drama, it's a fun, explosive miniseries.

Hellboy 20th Anniversary [Blu-ray] [US Import]
Hellboy 20th Anniversary [Blu-ray] [US Import]
Dvd ~ Ron Perlman

4.0 out of 5 stars Storms and iron, 11 Jan. 2015
Folklore and legend are rich with plenty of ghouls, gods and monsters that fit nicely into the "Hellboy" universe. And "Hellboy: Sword of Storms/Blood & Iron" deals with some of the supernatural nasties in a pair of animated spinoff adventures. These two stories are solid if not brilliant, and they have plenty of Hellboy quips, weird creatures, and a healthy splattering of gore, fire and magic.

In "Blood and Iron," the BPRD is asked to investigate a haunted mansion, and Professor Broom insists that Liz, Hellboy, Abe and himself go on the mission. Though the hype-happy owner is only interested in using the investigation to make money, the place is really haunted -- bluish ghosts drift around, statues weep, and a witches' magic circle is on the floor.

It soon becomes obvious that a pair of harpy-witches are trying to resurrect the evil Erzsebet Ondrushko, a horrendous vampire who was abducting young girls so she could bathe in their blood. Decades ago, Professor Broom defeated her and seemingly killed her. Now with Abe captured by the hags, Liz and Broom are in a race against time to stop the vampire's resurrection -- and even if they succeed, there's still their witch-goddess Hecate, whom Hellboy must somehow stop.

And in "Sword of Storms," first the team ventures into a green, slimy, root-filled underground temple, where they must battle an ancient bat-deity and a small army of Aztec mummies. Then to the main plot -- a history professor receives an ancient scroll that tells the story of the demonic brothers Thunder and Lightning, and a doomed love between a princess and a young samurai. And when the professor finds the samurai's sword -- surprise! -- he gets possessed by the demons.

But when the BPRD is called in, Hellboy touches the sword as well -- and is sucked into a bizarre otherworld full of monsters, ghosts and magical creatures. In the meantime, Abe and Liz are caught in a typhoon that strands them in the middle of nowhere -- and it turns out that dragons are on the way. To save civilization, Hellboy must not only escape from the otherworld of Japenese legend, but also deal with the demons and ghosts....

"Hellboy: Sword of Storms" and "Hellboy: Blood and Iron" are somewhat different beasts from the movies made by Guillermo del Toro -- they have some characters and plots that were from the original Mike Mignola comics, and the art is more reminiscent of those. They're fun additions to the Hellboy mythos, but they do have some flaws in there (the pallid ghostly romance in "Sword of Storms," which is utterly unegaging because we don't know or care about these people).

They are also quite different from each other -- "Sword of Storms" is a very straightforward and simple storyline that travels along two parallel paths, while "Blood and Iron" branches out into multiple storylines (and even goes backward!). And they have plenty of dark facets -- gore, slime, thunderstorms, creepy forests, haunted mansions and the various monsters that arise, ranging from harpies to headless goblins. And the writers do a pretty good job adding in that little humorous edge to the stories as well ("He really likes cucumbers... WHAT IS YOUR NAME?!").

Ron Perlman's vocals make this Hellboy absolutely perfect -- he's sarcastic but good-hearted ("You're lucky we let you be seen with us!"), practical, and usually ends up dealing with all the messy stuff. Doug Jones provides an intellectual slant as the resourceful, mellow fish-man Abe, and Selma Blair has a little trouble bringing the sharp-witted pyrokinetic Liz to life. And John Hurt gets to be the star of "Blood and Iron," where Professor Broom comes face to face with an old nemesis.

"Hellboy: Sword of Storms/Blood and Iron" have a few flaws, but they are solid animated adventures with plenty of monsters and dark twists. Just remember: These are definitely not for kids.

The Scarlet Letter (scarlet A)
The Scarlet Letter (scarlet A)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.68

5.0 out of 5 stars The scarlet letter was her passport, 11 Jan. 2015
When people think of a "scarlet letter," we immediate think of a person outwardly branded for something they have done. Credit Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" for that -- it's an intense, impassioned (if slightly hammy) story of a strong-willed woman in Puritan New England, who is branded for her sins and her love for one weak man.

In the mid-1600s, a passionate young woman named Hester Prynne has been accused of adultery -- she recently had a baby, even though her husband was abroad. Just as damning to the elders is the fact that she won't name baby Pearl's father. Even her estranged husband -- a cold-hearted older man calling himself Roger Chillingworth -- wants to know her lover's identity, but Hester steadfastly refuses to even hint at the man's identity.

We learn early in the book that Pearl's dad is actually the local minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who is wracked with guilt, hallucinations and sickness because of his secret adultery. Chillingworth slowly deduces who his wife's lover was, and begins to scheme revenge on Dimmesdale. Will the former lovers manage to escape their guilt-ridden lives, or will they reveal the truth to everyone?

It sounds like "The Scarlet Letter" is JUST a story about guilt and sin, but it's also a story about love and steadfastness. Hester remains strong and kind throughout her life despite others' cruelty to her, and her love for Dimmesdale and Pearl is what gives her that strength. Chillingworth (symbolic name!) is a cuckold, but it's impossible to like him because of his lack of love -- he loves no one, and lives only for revenge.

And at the same time, Hawthorne reminds us that goodness can overcome your past sins. Hester slowly overcomes the Puritans' loathing for her by simply being charitable, kind, helpful and loving, until eventually her sin is eclipsed by her virtues. On the flip side, Dimmesdale is annoying because of his weakness and cowardice -- I know he's supposed to be wracked with guilt, but he's so pathetic compared to Hester that it's just infuriating.

Hawthorne's writing may take a little while for modern audiences to get used to. It's very 19th-century in style, with staid, slightly stuffy prose gilded with hauntingly poetic moments and intense passion ("Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of its own"). At times Hawthorne's story gets a little... hammy (such as Dimmesdale revealing his "A" burn scar), but the power of his story keeps this from getting silly.

"The Scarlet Letter" is used to describe outward signs of guilt, but Hawthorne's novel is actually about strength and love, and how they can blot out misdeeds.

Hobbit [DVD] [1978] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Hobbit [DVD] [1978] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Orson Bean

2.0 out of 5 stars A hobbit's holiday, 11 Jan. 2015
Fan opinions are divided on Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of "The Hobbit" -- some people love it despite its deviations, some don't.

But one thing is sure: it's a more exciting experience than the old 1970s animated version of Tolkien's classic novel. This is an odd piece -- in some ways, it does follow Tolkien's book fairly faithfully, complete with some of Tolkien's songs interspersed through the narrative. However, the voice acting tends to be awkward, the animation is weird and the elves... the elves look like they just stepped off a spaceship.

Bilbo Baggins is a mild-mannered little hobbit living unobtrusively in Bag End, a conventional hobbit-hole in the comfortably boring Shire. His life is abruptly turned upside-down when the mysterious wizard Gandalf arrives, along with thirteen dwarves (who proceed to take over Bilbo's home). That evening, they reveal their reason for coming: They are seeking a "burglar" to help them retake back Lonely Mountain, a dwarf stronghold taken over by the dragon Smaug.

Whether he likes it or not, Bilbo soon ends up the burglar, and is dragged into elf palaces, goblin traps and even a fateful meeting with the grotesque froglike Gollum. The dangerous road ahead of him draws out reserves of courage and intelligence that few knew he had -- but the greatest danger comes not only from Smaug, but from the armies that congregate near his mountain.

This is only a moderately faithful adaptation of Tolkien's original book -- most of the essentials are here, but quite a few chunks are missing, including and any dwarves or elves other than Elrond, the Elf-King and the thirteen guys following Bilbo. And of course, characters (Beorn or the Master of Lake-town) and important MacGuffins (the Arkenstone) are completely absent.

It's also animated rather oddly -- Gandalf looks like he was carved out of an old tree, Bilbo has a giant curly pumpkin for a head, and most of the dwarves look like garden gnomes. The most baffling aspect is the appearance of the Wood-Elves. Rather than human-like beings of luminous beauty... they look kind of like distended Yodas, with wrinkly bluish skin and almost reptilian extremities. And whenever something dies, the entire screen suddenly explodes into a dizzying kaleidoscopic view...

... which is odd. Apparently killing spiders cannot be shown to children, but showing people or dwarves being set on fire isn't a problem Also, three people who wanted to kill each other randomly become best buds because... I guess the people who made this thought it needed a tacked-on moral lesson about friendship.

However, it is still fairly entertaining if you can get past the incredibly dodgy animation. It has lots of Tolkien's songs woven into the tale, and some nicely atmospheric moments -- consider Bilbo's riddle-off with Gollum, in a cathedral-like cavern swallowed by darkness, murky water and a sense of oozing decay. And they really capture the eeriness of Mirkwood, and the feeling of worn-down hopelessness that overtakes the group.

The voice-acting is a mixed bag -- Orson Bean is quite good as a pensive Bilbo and Brother Theodore is asthmatically eerie as Gollum, while John Huston lends a majestic sense of age and power to Gandalf. However, Hans Conried's Thorin always sounds sort of congested, John Stephenson's Bard has the charisma and energy of a plank of wood, and famous director Otto Preminger plays the Elf King. Interesting choice.

While the animated "The Hobbit" has some charm, the weird animation and strange choices make it... kind of a weird experience. It's a good gateway to Tolkien for young children, but older viewers -- and readers -- may squirm.

by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.89

5.0 out of 5 stars A man made of the dead, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Frankenstein (Paperback)
Everyone has heard of Frankenstein's monster... or at least the Hollywood version, with green skin, boxy head and bolts in his neck.

But the original creature is quite different in Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," which starts off rather slow but builds into a tragic, darkly hypnotic tale about tampering in God's domain, and the terrible consequences that come from it. Also: if you create a new creature out of dead body parts, don't disown him or he'll kill your family.

During a trip across the Arctic, a ship picks up a starved, half-frozen man named Victor Frankenstein. As he recovers, Frankenstein tells them his life story -- especially about how he became fascinated with science, and developed a process to reanimate dead tissue. Eventually he constructs a new creature out of dead body parts, and brings him to life.

But while the creature is intelligent and articulate, he's also hideously ugly. Horrified that he's not beautiful, Frankenstein flees... and has a nervous breakdown. Wimp.

But months later, the murder of his little brother brings Victor back to his home, where he figures out that the creature was involved. And to his horror, the creature now wants a mate. But the loathing between them -- caused by Frankenstein's disgust and the creature's increasing bitterness -- leads to even more tragedy...

"Frankenstein" is one of those rare novels that is almost beyond classification -- it's gothic horror, it's sci-fi, it's a tragedy about scientific ambition that goes where it shouldn't go. Mary Shelley was only eighteen years old when she began writing this book, but she interwove religion, science and a fiercely intelligent knowledge of human nature into it.

Her writing is a bit stuffy at times ("All praises bestowed on her I received as made to a possession of my own"), but that's because it was written in the early 1800s. Despite this, Shelley's writing skills shine in the more horrific moments of the story ("I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs"), and she imbues it with a sense of painful, grimy suspense.

But the complicated characters of Victor and the creature are what really make the story work. Victor is actually a pretty horrible person -- while he's a tragic figure whose unnatural ambitions end up destroying his wife, brother and father, he's also incredibly cruel and callous to the creature because... he's ugly.

The creature, on the other hand, instantly gets our sympathy. He's intelligent and childlike at first, but his ugliness causes everyone to immediately hate and fear him. When him becomes embittered and eventually murderous, you still feel sorry for him.

Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" is one of those few, rare horror books -- it adds a little more of that scientific gothic atmosphere to a classic tale of horror, slime and sorrow.

Insidious [DVD]
Insidious [DVD]
Dvd ~ Patrick Wilson
Price: £3.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Insidiously spooky, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Insidious [DVD] (DVD)
A family moves into a new home, and spooky things start happening. Eventually they realize the truth -- they are being haunted by a malevolent supernatural force.

It's a plot so common that it has become a cliche, but there is still some creative juice to be squeezed from it -- and in "Insidious," it scares the pants off you. James Wan (the guy who gave us the original "Saw" and "Dead Silence") crafts a slow, eerie drift through a ghostly nightmare, which is only flawed because sometimes it feels like he's throwing every single scary thing imaginable into it.

Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) have just moved into a lovely new house with their three children, and everything seems fine.... until their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma, and the doctors don't know why. Then weird things start happening -- Dalton's brother reveals that Dalton sleepwalks through the house every night, faces appear in the windows, and a mysterious specter attacks Renai.

So they do the sensible thing: move to a new house. But then Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) spots a horrifying figure lurking near Dalton's body, and they realize that whatever was haunting them before has followed them.

So Lorraine calls in an old psychic friend, Elise (Lin Shaye); Josh believes that she's just a fraud, but she soon shows that she can detect the Darth Maul-looking creature that is haunting Dalton. It turns out that Dalton's soul is lost in a spiritual in-between zone that Elise calls The Further -- and if they don't save him soon, something terrible will steal his body.

In a lot of ways, "Insidious" reminds me of "Poltergeist" -- a family, a new home, a terrifying ghostly presence that is stalking a gifted child, and a parent who is forced to go into an "in between" death dimension. And like "Poltergeist," this movie takes well-worn ghost story cliches and makes them scary once more... just by doing them really well.

Even before the spooky stuff begins, director James Wan gives the movie an eerie atmosphere. Every scene is full of pale grey light, with lots of empty shadowy rooms and sudden bursts of loud wild sound (including "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," which is terrifying enough). And he gives you the feeling that something is lurking in the corner just out of sight -- something cold and hungry, something utterly merciless. Even worse, it's not alone.

Gradually, Wan builds up a sense of building horror, throwing in glimpses of dead-faced men, gas masks, and finally a venture into the Further itself. This is basically everything that James Wan finds terrifying -- a hellish, eerie dimension filled with the grinning puppet-like dead, victrolas piping eerie music, and a demon who looks like a Darth Maul minotaur. It doesn't sound scary, but it will have you clawing the arms of your chair.

The only problem with the Further is... well, it feels like Wan flung every single scary thing he could come up with into the Further, without much of a plan. It's wildly effective on a visceral level, but it leaves you wondering how some parts of it (the laughing kid, for instance) gel together with Darth Maul Demon.

Sympathetic characters in horror movies are about as common as frogs who can do algebra, so it's refreshing that... well, pretty much everybody in this movie is likable. While Josh seems insensitive at times, it's gradually revealed that there's a reason why he shies away from all things supernatural, and Patrick Wilson really gives a powerful, intense performance as a guy desperate to save his son, yet resistant to what could save him.

Byrne is at the other end of the spectrum -- Renai is crumbling slowly under the constant onslaught of specters and scares, and Byrne captures her raw terror for her family. Shaye and Hershey give solid performances as well... and my only complaint is that the baby is ALWAYS crying.

With excellent direction and a very talented cast, "Insidious" is a haunting ghost story that builds up to visceral, nightmarish terror -- and while the horror seems random sometimes, it's still very effective.

Cruel Beauty
Cruel Beauty
by Rosamund Hodge
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.11

2.0 out of 5 stars Not cruel enough, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Cruel Beauty (Hardcover)
A likable main character can make or break a fantasy novel -- it's the difference between an inoffensive plotless story and "Twilight."

And unfortunately, "Cruel Beauty" is hampered severely by a not-very-likable main character, a cold-hearted villain who is also a sexy woobie, and a fantasy world that is intriguing but poorly-sketched out. While the first half of Rosamund Hodge's debut novel is gratingly predictable, she does manage to introduce some interesting twists in the second half... which are usually railroaded by the romance.

Because of a deal her father struck, Nyx has spent her entire life knowing that she will be wed to the ironically named Gentle Lord, Ignifex, the master of the madness-inducing demons. Unsurprisingly, she hates everyone in her family who is involved in this, including the sister who will be safe because of her sacrifice. And when she is finally sent to her new husband's labyrinthine house, she has just one goal: find a way to kill him.

However, Ignifex rather predictably turns out to be incredibly hot, doesn't hurt her, and doesn't have sex with her. Nyx is left to wander through the house with a mysterious, enchanted young man she calls Shade, who looks exactly like Ignifex. But as she gets to know Ignifex better, she learns that he is being controlled by outside forces -- and has secrets that may be her key to stopping him.

One major problem with "Cruel Beauty" is the setting and background... or more precisely, the fact that it's distractingly difficult to even tell what it is. It seems to take place in a Greco-Romanic society set in an alternate Great Britain, with demons and a covered sky... but Hodge leaves giant chunks of her invented society a mystery, such as the question of whether this is a pseudo-medieval society or not.

Unfortunately, the book's biggest flaw is Nyx herself. She's a fairly standard spunky princess type, but it takes a LONG time for her to experience anything other than seething hatred for anyone or anything. And while it's understandable that she would be extremely angry and bitter... it doesn't make her very likable. While eventually we see some inner conflict and affection for others, the bitter, sour taste continues until about halfway into the book.

She also provides a villain/love interest who is almost as irritating, because he's explicitly mentioned as being a Faustlike creep with a Bluebeard-style room of dead wives... but Hodge keeps softening him up and making him less and less evil, so we won't overlook his hotness. It makes him feel more like a post-Edward Cullen bad boy, trying to convince us of how evil and dark he is... but not really, because he's also hot and misunderstood and tormented.

However, Hodge does have some promise as a writer. Her world, however confusing, is intriguingly unusual in its mix of old English and Greco-Roman influences, and she slashes the story with some excellent-quality horror (Nyx locked in the room of dead girls, or attacked by the singing Children of Typhon). And she throws some intriguing twists into the story, such as a betrayal by someone Nyx trusted.

And while Hodge overloads the story on romance (seriously, how many times will Nyx ogle Ignifex while he's sleeping?), she does manage to produce a fairly decent fantasy story in the book's second half, with a rather shocking act by Ignifex that changes everything. However, the ultimate twists involved with Shade and Ignifex are kind of predictable.

"Cruel Beauty" is not quite a cruel experience, but Rosamund Hodge needs to do some work on her world-building exposition and characterization. Interesting for fans of paranormal romance or twisted fairy tales, but has some serious flaws.

by Sophie Jordan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.53

5.0 out of 5 stars It's in your genes, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Uninvited (Hardcover)
Everything in Davy's life is perfect -- a perfect boyfriend, musical genius and a future at Juilliard. But then she's "uninvited" from her own life... because of the "kill gene."

And Sophie Jordan crafts a rather chilling depiction of a girl whose genetic "destiny" causes a perfect life to come crashing down, branding her a murderer when she hasn't done anything wrong. It's not too hard to imagine a future where the government decides who is going to be a criminal and punishes them ahead of time, which adds an extra layer of skin-crawling paranoia to this story.

On an ordinary day, Davy comes home to find a case-worker waiting for her. From now on, she is to be treated as a criminal -- she has the "kill gene" or HTS, a genetic factor that supposedly turns people into sociopathic mass murderers when triggered. Now though she's never harmed anyone, she's treated as a killer -- her parents consider her "lost," her school "uninvites" her and her old friends and boyfriend instantly turn on her. Only her brother Mitchell still supports her.

She also ends up in a public school with a Cage, where the HTS carriers are kept -- sociopaths, thugs and a pervert teacher. The one in charge is Sean O'Rourke, a scornful bad-boy who is imprinted (meaning he has a tattoo that shows he is dangerous). And after she slaps her newly ex-boyfriend, she's imprinted as well.

Davy's life is rapidly spiraling out of control, now that she has no friends, no future, and no one she can rely on except Sean and Mitchell. But when a bunch of HTS teens decide to kill people at a mall, the government decides to imprison all the HTS carriers in detention camps -- and Davy and Sean find themselves in a special "school" meant to train the carriers... or destroy them if they don't fall in line.

The idea of an inborn "killer" quality isn't a new one. More than a century ago, people had the idea that murder and violent tendencies were passed down genetically, meaning that they could identify people who would become murderers ahead of time. Obviously that isn't how it works, but ignorant, fearful people will desperately grasp onto anything that allows them to blame someone else.

And let's face it, if something like HTS was found, the government would gladly violate people's rights to preserve their "we accomplish nothing, but at least we pretend we're protecting you!" approach. After all, who cares about rights when you have voting soccer moms to placate?

So there's a terrifyingly realistic undertone to "Uninvited," a sociopolitical undertone that makes it seem all too plausible -- people branded as killers who decide "why not?", cold uncaring agents who claim they're doing "God's work," and innocent kids who are presumed guilty and treated worse than actual criminals. That bleak, steely undertone rings out under the entire book, with some wickedly ironic moments (the mistreatment of carriers is justified for the preservation of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness").

You don't often see a dystopian setting as it's created, which is what Jordan creates here -- a nightmare of paranoia and martial law that people gladly accept for the illusion of safety. Her writing is tight and wiry, with splashes of blood and wild emotion. The mayhem starts in little ways -- her parents fighting, the Cage -- but she gives glimpses of the entire country unraveling as Davy's life does, until everything turns into complete mayhem.

There's also a romance woven in here, like in most young adult books. But Davy's growing connection to Sean is not just teen hormones -- they grow from a tenuous, shaky alliance to a strong friendship, with flickers of attraction just as the icing on the cake. Their connection would have been just as striking had they been platonic.

Despite her musical genius and moneyed family, Davy herself is a thoroughly likable Everygirl -- it hurts to see her swimming against the tide of hate and prejudice, as her old life is slowly washed out from under her feet. Sean is a more enigmatic character, but Jordan deftly avoids the usual bad-boy cliches. He's a strong, intense guy with a powerful moral center which no amount of abuse can extinguish.

The ending of "Uninvited" hints at a sequel, which will hopefully show some light at the end of Davy and Sean's tunnel after this bleak, sharp-edged story. A powerful, painfully plausible read.

by Mindee Arnett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.74

4.0 out of 5 stars The secret of metaspace, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Avalon (Hardcover)
For some reason, sci-fi seems to be making a grand reappearance in the young-adult genre. Maybe it's an outgrowth of the popularity of dystopian novels, or maybe it's just from the popularity of books like "Across the Universe."

But whatever reason isn't important, because "Avalon" is one of the more solid examples of young-adult sci-fi -- just a solid space opera that happens to star a gang of teenage thieves, with some interesting tech, corrupt forces and a mystery at its heart. The last third of the book is where it blossoms, and Mindee Arnett brings together all the subplots into a very intriguing conspiracy.

Years ago, Jeth's parents were executed for treason, although he's never been sure why. Now his only goal is to regain his parents' ship from a crimelord named Hammer, who forces Jeth and his teenage gang to steal metadrive ships for him. Once he saves enough money, he and his sister Lizzie will get the Avalon back and leave.

They're in the middle of one such mission when an ITA agent approaches them with an odd request: use the Avalon to infiltrate the dangerous Belgrave Sector and find a lost ship, the Donerail. It's even weirder when Hammer makes the same demand, revealing that a mysterious weapon is on board the Donereail -- and under no circumstances is Jeth allowed to board it.

But they find the Donerail, there are a few people left alive -- and one of them, a teen ITA agent named Sierra, tells Jeth that she has a secret that could shatter the current power structure of space travel. But when the Avalon is stolen out from under him, Jeth ends up trapped between the ITA and Hammer, and discovers the shocking secrets of his parents' deaths, metaspace travel and a child who isn't quite human...

Setting-wise, "Avalon" is a pretty standard space opera -- faster-than-light ships, colony planets, space stations and space gates reminiscent of "Babylon 5's." However, it's also done quite well, without the technical spacey-techy stuff overwhelming the plot and character -- there's some nuts-and-bolts stuff, but the real emphasis is on Jeth and his fiery determination to reclaim the Avalon once and for all.

One of the book's strengths is that Arnett doesn't write this as a teen book that happens to be sci-fi, but a sci-fi book that happens to be for teens. Jeth, Celeste and Sierra would all be roughly the same characters if they were a decade or two older -- and she doesn't shy away from the uglier parts of this corrupt future world. Jeth being savagely beaten by Hammer's goons is one of the less horrifying moments -- think brain implants, starvation, and a screaming corpse melded into a ship's bulkhead.

She also weaves together a solid web of subplots, all centering around the mysterious Aether Project and whatever Jeth's parents were doing in the Belgrave Sector. While all these subplots don't seem connected at first, they end up all being segments of the whole. And she pulls some truly shocking twist out of the bag in the book's final third, turning some of the typical sci-fi stuff (the metadrives) right on its head.

Jeth and Sierra are pretty solid examples of the anti-heroic protagonists -- both of them have done pretty nasty things in pursuit of their goals (mostly stealing spaceships), but they're fundamentally good people. Jeth in particular is a character whose rough life and resentments have left him cynical and determined -- think a teen version of Han Solo, but working directly for Jabba all the time.

"Avalon" is a solid start to a new sci-fi series, and Mindee Arnett comes up with some clever twists on the typical sci-fi setting. Here's hoping for more tales of Jeth and Co.

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