Writerly TV: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You may or may not be aware that we just passed the 10th anniversary of the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that, despite its silly name, is often considered by both fans and critics to be one of the greatest shows of all time. I admit, I held out on this show for a while. I saw the original movie, and it was terrible. So although the show premiered while I was still in high school, and although I had friends who watched and loved it, I didn’t think it would be for me. I wasn’t really into teen shows, and I wasn’t into vampires.

Years later, after graduating college, I got a job working the graveyard shift at a hotel. It. Sucked. But one day, as I ate “lunch” at 4:00 p.m. while preparing for work, I turned on the TV. My options were limited. But eventually, my channel surfing paused on a show that looked interesting. The dialogue was snappy and smart. The characters seemed interesting. And holy whoa, suddenly there was kung-fu. While snarking.

After a few minutes, I was hooked. Buffy became my daily get-ready-for-work show, and even though I started watching mid-season 5 (A WEIRD TIME TO START THE SHOW, LEMME TELL YA), I eventually figured out most of the back story and mythology. Using powers of mind control I have still never been able to replicate, I convinced my fiance (now husband) that this show was not too girly for him, and he joined me in my addiction. We watched through the end of season 6, then started from the beginning as the reruns cycled back around. We caught up just in time to catch the final season as it aired. I remember watching the series finale in his parents’ basement, a month before our wedding. We had gone out for the evening on some sort of wedding-related activity, but demanded that we return in time for Buffy. IT WAS QUITE IMPORTANT. (BTW: DVRs are a good invention. I appreciate them quite a lot.)

So what’s the deal with Buffy? Maybe you heard it was awesome, and watched a few episodes of the first season, then gave up. I wouldn’t blame you. (Okay, I would, but not a lot.) The first season was working with a low budget and a big concept. The effects are awful. The season-long Big Bad is campy. And it followed a monster-of-the-week format featuring creatures that were often just plan weird.

I am fully aware that this is not from Season 1. And of who the monster is. But you have to admit, this gif still sums up the problems of Season 1 pretty well.

It. Gets. Better.

Buffy really starts to come into its own in Season 2, when it started to embrace serialization and season arcs a bit more. It also dared to go a bit darker, which helped immensely. And as the show matured, it grew bolder, took bigger risks, told broader stories. Not all the seasons are perfect — every one has a few stinker eps — but even Buffy at its weakest is better TV than many shows at their strongest.

The strength of Buffy is not in its kick-butt action sequences (although the karatepires are indeed awesome). It’s the characters, and how they evolve over whatever length of time we get to spend with them. Characters we meet as villains become heroes, and heroes become villains. Characters with superpowers fail, and characters with no powers triumph. They are constantly growing and changing, making mistakes and learning from them. More than anything, they feel real. While Buffy Summers is indisputably the main character, her friends, family, allies and nemeses all get fully fleshed out. They each have their own struggles and arcs and amazing development. If you want to know how to make an audience invest in side characters, or how to make each and every character the hero of their own story, this is the show to watch.

Additionally, Buffy remains one of the best shows for witty banter, ever. The writing is sharp and tight, somehow managing to perfectly blend humor and darkness, tragedy and levity. It’s a serious show that deals with serious issues, but it’s also hilarious and silly. Its emotions are real and raw, but it balances them with moments of unexpected lightness.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not just a show about a girl slaying vampires, or kids developing superpowers. It’s a show about growing up, finding yourself, making mistakes, facing challenges, and developing the relationships that help define who you are. Yes, there’s monsters and action and magic, but if that’s all it was, it would be no different than the dozens of other shows with that M.O. There’s a reason Buffy is the bar all the others aspire to. There’s a reason it’s considered great, and not just lumped in with all the other “vampire shows” or “teen shows.” It uses a supernatural setting and fantastic conflicts to tell stories we can all relate to. It takes character archetypes we think we know — the cheerleader, the homecoming queen, the book nerd, the bad boy, the comic relief — and turns them on their heads, exploring how these people are the archetypes, but are also so much more.

For writers, I think it’s a fabulous study not only in character development and banter and story arcs, but also in the unexpected. Buffy never shies away from going to the places we don’t anticipate. It takes the tropes and forms we’ve come to expect, acknowledges them, and then takes them in a new direction. It also is an excellent example of not letting setting take over story. Lots of times, especially in paranormal stories, it’s easy to make the main conflict “THERE ARE VAMPIRES/ZOMBIES/WEREWOLVES/ETC AND THEY MUST BE STOPPED.” And that’s it. But with Buffy, while there is often a Big Bad that must be dealt with, much of the conflict is internal, as the characters struggle to overcome personal obstacles and relationship struggles and existential crises.

I could go on forever about Buffy and all the reasons it’s amazing, and about why it’s an excellent tool for writers — especially if you’re writing paranormal, but really, it can apply to anything. But I think I’ve made my point. If you’re still over there thinking, “I just don’t like vampire shows,” then you’re about where I was back in 1997. Maybe you need to wait six years, then stumble onto a rerun and watch them out of order. Maybe you need to be bored and in the mood for something action-y on Netflix. Maybe you just need to be told one more time that it’s awesome anyway.

Or maybe you’ll never watch it, and will never really understand what you’re missing, and will always kind of wonder why it keeps showing up on “Best of” lists. And you’ll always think those of us who feel so very passionately about it are a tad wrong in the head. Perhaps we are.

But if you come over to the dark side, we have cookies.

Also, if you have watched the series already — or if you are on the fence, and don’t mind a few spoilers — this tribute to the series is fantastic.

Review: Dare You To by Katie McGarry (@KatieMcGarry @HarlequinTeen)

I don’t know if you remember, but I really loved Pushing the Limits by Katie McGarry. It was the book that made me admit I liked reading contemporary. It was a weird realization — I was pretty sure that if there were no explosions or dragons or magic or aliens, it probably wasn’t the story for me. But nope, that’s not true at all. I loved Echo and Noah, and the beautiful, bittersweet romance that developed between them. When I heard there were going to be sequels, I was excited, but nervous that Katie would go in and introduce more drama and tension for this couple that, in one book, had enough drama and tension for a lifetime.

I needn’t have worried. Dare You To follows one of PTL’s secondary characters: Beth. And this created a whole new set of worries. Beth was an interesting character in PTL, to be sure, but did I want to read an entire book about her? She wasn’t really all that likable.

But ultimately, I decided I trusted Katie. If she could make me love contemporary, surely she could make me love Beth.

The Plot (from Goodreads)

If anyone knew the truth about Beth Risk’s home life, they’d send her mother to jail and seventeen-year-old Beth who knows where. So she protects her mom at all costs. Until the day her uncle swoops in and forces Beth to choose between her mom’s freedom and her own happiness. That’s how Beth finds herself living with an aunt who doesn’t want her and going to a school that doesn’t understand her. At all. Except for the one guy who shouldn’t get her, but does….

Ryan Stone is the town golden boy, a popular baseball star jock-with secrets he can’t tell anyone. Not even the friends he shares everything with, including the constant dares to do crazy things. The craziest? Asking out the Skater girl who couldn’t be less interested in him.

But what begins as a dare becomes an intense attraction neither Ryan nor Beth expected. Suddenly, the boy with the flawless image risks his dreams-and his life-for the girl he loves, and the girl who won’t let anyone get too close is daring herself to want it all…

My Thoughts

When I started reading Dare You To, I was a tad on the worried side. Like Pushing the Limits, the story is told from two perspectives. We open with Ryan, and I was not too fond of him. He seemed exactly like the type of guy I steered clear of in high school. So I wasn’t sure I’d want to spend an entire book with him.

Then we moved to Beth, who was every bit as abrasive and argumentative and damaged as she was in Pushing the Limits. She made bad decisions and was self-destructive and harsh, and I was concerned.

But I knew from PTL that Katie McGarry is adept at taking characters from uncomfortable situations and making them punch me right in my tear ducts, so I persevered. It didn’t hurt that Dare You To was told with the same flowing, evocative prose that caused me to devour Pushing the Limits in just a couple days. And it wasn’t long before I was completely swept up in Beth and Ryan’s story, rooting for characters who I didn’t even like in the beginning. Soon, the pages were flying by, and during the times when I had to reluctantly put the book down for things like parenting and housework, Beth and Ryan stayed with me.

The verdict? I think I loved Dare You To even more than Pushing the Limits. It tugged my heartstrings left and right, made me smile and gasp and cry. By the end, I was completely in love with Beth and Ryan, as well as much of the supporting cast. Yes, there were moments when I wanted to throttle both of them (especially Beth), but only because they stayed so very true to themselves, and sometimes real people do things that are throttle-worthy. But most of the time, it just wreaked complete and utter havoc with my emotions, in the best possible way.

This book is a bit…ahem…hotter and heavier than PTL, and also manages to go a bit darker, a bit more dangerous, a bit more raw. It takes all the things I adored about PTL and amps them up, but in new and refreshing ways. It’s a fabulous follow-up to Pushing the Limits, but will also stand just fine on its own if this is the first of Katie McGarry’s books you’re trying. I will say, as with Noah in PTL, some of Ryan’s inner monologues can begin to smell a tad like Roquefort (read: cheesy), but I was sucked into the story enough that I didn’t care. Dare You To kept me blissfully engaged from beginning to end. If you enjoy emotional, butterfly-inducing YA contemporary romance that doesn’t shy away from some heavy issues, I recommend Dare You To wholeheartedly.

Film Review: The Great Gatsby (from someone who isn’t a fan of the book)

I have a confession to make, and some of you aren’t going to like it.

I…didn’t really like the novel The Great Gatsby.

Wait, no. Those words are in the wrong order.

really didn’t like the novel The Great Gatsby.

I know, I know, I’m supposed to like — nay, love Gatsby. It is, quite literally, The Great American Novel. I love to read. I’ve always been a book person. Book people love this book. My friend Kelly wrote a lovely blog post on exactly why I’m supposed to love this book.

But I do not love this book.

So when I saw it was being made into a movie, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was less than enthused at the prospect of revisiting this story I kind of hated. On the other, I adore Baz Luhrmann’s directorial style (Moulin Rouge is one of my favorite movies, ever ever ever), and the cast was phenomenal. So while buzz built and the bookish world worked themselves into a frenzy, I sat in the background quietly, figuring I would probably catch it on Blu-Ray, just so I could see if director + cast made up for my aforementioned story issues.

Besides, sometimes movies are expensive and I am poor. And if I chose to see Gatsby and that somehow meant I couldn’t see Iron Man 3 or Star Trek Into Darkness…well…

But, as it so happened, I was out for dinner with friends the night Gatsby premiered, and they asked if I wanted to go see Gatsby with them after dinner. I gave the reasons why I couldn’t — I had no money, I didn’t like the book, I hadn’t planned on seeing it…and they turned around and said it would be their treat, and they hadn’t read the book and therefore I was allowed to hate it, and wasn’t I just morbidly curious to see if I disliked the movie as much as the book?

Well, when you put it that way.

By the way, I have some fabulously awesome friends, who do things like offer to treat me to a movie I have warned them I may hate, just so we can spend more time hanging out. They make me a happy hobbit.

So, how did it measure up, given my feelings toward the source material, and my artistic feelings about the actual way the movie was made?

Let’s start with the positives. I still adore Baz Luhrmann’s style. I realize he is a very love-him-or-hate-him director, and that the way he tells stories can be a bit…

In a Baz Luhrmann movie, you’re going to get garish colors, anachronistic music, characters that are more caricatures, and some dizzying camera work. If you’ve seen Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, or even Strictly Ballroom, you probably know this. Gatsby is no different, and while I may not love the story, I do love the way the story was told. It’s not necessarily true to how the story is told in the book. It’s overly stylized and energized. But personally, I like that.

Then there’s the acting. Now brace yourself for a bit of a shock, but I have recently learned that there are people in the world who do not like Leonardo DiCaprio.

I know. Just let that sink in for a minute.

To be clear, I am not one of them. My feelings toward him are all positive. They have been since his Romeo + Juliet and Titanic days, and have only grown fonder since films like Inception and The Departed. And Gatsby was no exception. He did a great job portraying the titular obsessive billionaire, in turns charming and creepy. This probably won’t be the role that finally lands him his elusive Oscar, but for me, he was the character I enjoyed the most on the big screen.

I tend to have mixed feelings about Tobey Maguire in most of his roles. I feel like he tends to do a better job than I expect (so maybe I need to raise my expectations), but he’s pretty much never the actor I picture in my head when I think about a character (Ahem. Peter Parker, anyone?). Likewise, he was not who I imagined when I pictured Nick Carraway. But to be fair, I’ve never had a solid mental picture of Nick Carraway, because he is such a passive character (more on that in a bit). So no actor would have made me think, “YES. THAT IS EXACTLY RIGHT.” I think the best I could have hoped for from Nick Carraway is that I didn’t utterly despise him. And that’s…about what I got.

In other roles where I have seen Carey Mulligan (Doctor Who, Never Let Me Go), I have always found her to be lovely and sweet, but also sad. She carries it in her eyes, and even when she’s playing a generally happy character (like in Pride and Prejudice), it always seems to me that she’s got some sort of hidden melancholy that motivates her. This is actually perfect for Daisy Buchanan, who on the surface is a vapid and flippant trophy wife, but underneath is full of sadness and regret. My feelings about the character aside, I thought Mulligan’s portrayal of her was perfect.

The supporting cast — Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, Isla Fisher as Myrtle, Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker — all embodied their roles perfectly. For me, the acting was the other major highlight of this movie.

As far as an adaptation goes, Gatsby is close. There are changes, obviously. There are always changes, and I learned long ago that true book purists are never happy with film adaptations, because they always change something. I didn’t think the changes hurt the overall tone and message of the story. But there are others who disagree. Movie Nick Carraway is in a sanitarium after his encounters with Gatsby have concluded, whereas in the book, he is merely the narrator, and it is never implied that he became a morbid alcoholic afterward. And while all the big elements of the ending are the same, one thing is added that changes the tone of the scene. And of course there are other changes, scenes missing, subplots and subcommentary eliminated. But again, this didn’t bother me.

Now let’s get into my issues, which are not so much movie issues as book issues. And my opinion is unpopular, and I know that. I know the book is a commentary on the elusiveness of the American Dream, capitalism, idealism, truth, and love. It’s well-written. It’s intelligent. Cognitively, I know all these things.

But the reason I don’t like it is that even in satire and social commentary, I need characters I can root for. Or at the very least, character. But Gatsby gives me none of this. All of the characters are despicable, and do despicable things. Gatsby is charismatic and charming, but also dishonest, deluded, and obsessive. Daisy is effervescent and empty, and ultimately abhorrently selfish. Nick is in turns passive and enabling to the point of utter frustration. I can’t get behind any of the main characters, and the supporting cast is, at the very best, only slightly better (and often times much worse).

It’s not that I can only like stories with likable characters and a fluffy plot — hopefully you know by now, that’s not it at all. But I need balance in a story. If the story is peppered with examples of humanity at its most vile, selfish, and shallow, I need at least a few moments of beauty and compassion and generosity to balance it.  And Gatsby has always been lacking in this area. It does it consciously, wrapping the ugliness of the characters’ souls in glittery packages, so that the reader can see the blackness under the beauty.

The movie actually attempts to soften the blow a bit. Gatsby wasn’t as destructively obsessive. Daisy wasn’t as harmfully selfish. Tom wasn’t as  loathsome and wicked. The characters are humanized just a bit — mostly through the charisma of the actors themselves — but it’s not enough to make me want to ever give them time out of my life again. I don’t want to spend time with these people. I don’t want to sympathize with them, and I don’t care when bad things happen to them. And if I’m going to read a book, or watch a movie, I want to care. I want to invest a part of myself in the story.

Gatsby has never given me an opportunity to do that. I knew this going in, and I was curious to see if the movie would change that. It did, to a certain extent. I liked it more than the book. But that’s like saying I like stuffed mushrooms a little more than sauteed mushrooms. Really, the problem there is I don’t like mushrooms. And although I love me some cheese and breading, the underlying problem that keeps me from enjoying it is that under the coating of things I enjoy, it still tastes like mushroom. And that’s my issue with Gatsby. It tastes like mushroom. Glittery mushroom.

Ultimately, I’m glad I saw The Great Gatsby. It confirmed that this simply isn’t my kind of story, and it never will be, no matter how lovely the writing, the colors, the costumes, the direction. I can enjoy the way the story was told, but I don’t enjoy the story. There are many who do, and I don’t begrudge them that at all. Enjoy art, in whatever form you prefer. If you believe Gatsby is the greatest novel ever written, or that the film adaptation is brilliant, more power to you. The beauty of art is that it’s subjective, and there will never be anything everyone universally agrees is great. There are people who despise Van Gogh, who loathe Harry Potter, who think Citizen Kane is a snooze-fest and Mozart was a hack.

And that is fine. Because I’m over here in the corner, stuck in my unpopular belief that Gatsby…is just not that great.

Review: Poison by Bridget Zinn (@HyperionTeens)

I discovered Poison by Bridget Zinn in a bit of a different way than I discover most books. I noticed a flux of updates on Twitter about helping spread word about an author’s debut, because she couldn’t do it herself. Curious, I followed one of the links, where I learned Bridget’s bittersweet story: she had finally achieved her dream of publication, but hadn’t lived to see it. Bridget died of colon cancer in 2011.

But her story continued, carried on by her family, friends, and colleagues. The reading and writing community banded together to promote Bridget’s book, a lighthearted fantasy about an assassin and a magical piglet. Bridget’s story, combined with my own love of fantasy, pushed this book up to must-read status for me.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Sixteen-year-old Kyra, a highly-skilled potions master, is the only one who knows her kingdom is on the verge of destruction—which means she’s the only one who can save it. Faced with no other choice, Kyra decides to do what she does best: poison the kingdom’s future ruler, who also happens to be her former best friend.

But, for the first time ever, her poisoned dart . . . misses.

Now a fugitive instead of a hero, Kyra is caught in a game of hide-and-seek with the king’s army and her potioner ex-boyfriend, Hal. At least she’s not alone. She’s armed with her vital potions, a too-cute pig, and Fred, the charming adventurer she can’t stop thinking about. Kyra is determined to get herself a second chance (at murder), but will she be able to find and defeat the princess before Hal and the army find her?

Kyra is not your typical murderer, and she’s certainly no damsel-in-distress—she’s the lovable and quick-witted hero of this romantic novel that has all the right ingredients to make teen girls swoon.

My Thoughts:

Poison is different from most of the fantasy I’ve read, either YA or otherwise.  It’s lighthearted and whimsical, and never takes itself too seriously. I’ll admit, my personal preference normally trends a bit darker, but Poison was a fun read that kept me smiling from beginning to end.

From the first few pages, it becomes clear that Poison is a different type of high fantasy. It’s not Lord of the Rings. It’s not even The Princess Bride. Don’t let this scare you, but if I had to find something to liken it to in tone, I’d probably have to pick…A Knight’s Tale. Yes, that terrible Heath Ledger movie. (That I kind of love anyway. Shh, don’t tell.) It’s got that same mix of medieval setting with modern language and humor, and though the stakes are high, the situation never really feels truly dire, because that’s not the tone of the story.

Kyra isn’t the most likable heroine I’ve ever read, but she’s fun. As the Master-Potioner-turned-attempted-assassin, she doesn’t really turn the trope on its head, but she gives it a refreshing spin. She has her share of cleverness, but also isn’t immune to the semi-regular embarrassment that comes with her not-so -developed social skills. But she doesn’t go SO far into the land of the socially inept that it becomes strange that she catches the eye of the Good Looking Guy. Whose name is Fred, by the way.

Fred is a fun character. Yes, he does arrive on the scene as Good Looking Guy, but he quickly displays a carefree and quirky personality that won me over. But the real star of the story, in my opinion, is Rosie the Magical Piglet.

You know a story is going to be fun when there’s a magical piglet involved.

Together, Kyra, Fred, and Rosie search for the princess, thwart bad guys, and endeavor to save the kingdom. There’s magic in the from of witches and potions, but no sweeping, glittery spectacles. There’s road trips and sword fights and court intrigue, but with none of the grittiness that normally accompanies these things in fantasy. Part of me missed the grit (seriously, I think this was the best fed and least financially challenged group of fantasy travelers I’ve ever encountered), but grit would have clashed with the playful tone of the book.

Poison is a fun, frolicking adventure that enjoys making its readers smile and laugh.  The pages turned quickly, and the plot kept me engaged from beginning to end. If you’re looking for something fun, friendly, and full of whimsy, check it out.

Review: The Eternity Cure by Julie Kagawa (@jkagawa @HarlequinTeen)

Received an advance digital copy from NetGalley for review.

I was a huge fan of Julie Kagawa’s The Immortal Ruleseven though I was a little hesitant at first. Vampire dystopian? Really? Haven’t both those genres been beaten to death with the redundancy stick, resurrected into genre zombies, and then been decapitated with a sword dipped in the blood of a dead horse?

But then I read it, and I loved it. Julie Kagawa’s fluid prose, her complete willingness to dive into the nitty gritty elements of her world, and her unique spin on both the vampire and dystopian genres won me over almost immediately. So when I saw the sequel, The Eternity Cure, was up for review on NetGalley, I requested the heck out of it.

Okay, so you can really only request one way, and there is no way to make an emphatic request, but if there was, I would have done it. I would have strenuously requested.

(NetGalley: “Oh, you strenuously request? Then we’ll take some time and reconsider.”)

I’m getting away from myself here. LET’S TALK ABOUT THE BOOK.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Allison Sekemoto has vowed to rescue her creator, Kanin, who is being held hostage and tortured by the psychotic vampire Sarren. The call of blood leads her back to the beginning—New Covington and the Fringe, and a vampire prince who wants her dead yet may become her wary ally.

Even as Allie faces shocking revelations and heartbreak like she’s never known, a new strain of the Red Lung virus that decimated humanity is rising to threaten human and vampire alike.

My Thoughts:

The Eternity Cure picks up a few months after The Immortal Rules leaves off, after Allie has left behind her human friends – including Zeke, the human boy she had grown to love – at Eden, the last remaining vampire-free city. Now she’s using her sire bond – a psychic link with the vampire who created her – to track Kanin, and it leads her to her former home, where she encounters a new, deadly plague, as well as some faces from her past she thought were gone forever.

Just like in The Immortal Rules, Julie Kagawa does not shy away from the ugliness of her world. These vampires are not glamorous (even the glamorous ones have an ick-factor), and the world they rule is beyond grim. This is a series where I never feel complacent and I never assume that a character is safe simply because they’re important. She keeps the tension high and the action intense from the beginning through to the end, and just when I thought I might get a break — she’d raise the stakes again.

Some of the secondary characters in The Immortal Rules come front and center in The Eternity Cure, which was awesome. We get to spend a good chunk of time with Jackal, the vampire prince who we last saw staking Allie and throwing her out a window. He returns, dark and snarky as ever, and walks an impressively fine line between villain and reluctant hero. Like all the best villains, he is layered and complex, and is true to himself above all else.

Kanin is also back, and I love him just as much as I did in the first book. I am a sucker for the strong, noble, self-sacrificing type – provided they are not sappy and patronizing – and Kanin fills this role perfectly. He is unwavering in his morals and convictions, and they drive every action he makes, but he is also a man who has made many mistakes, and realizes they come with a price. I cannot say enough good things about his character. There should be more Kanins, both in books and in life.

Zeke and Allie both come into their own a bit in this book. In The Immortal Rules, so much of their relationship was hindered by secrecy. Now, they each know up front who the other is, and have to decide whether or not to come to terms with that. I enjoyed both of them, and appreciated their increased honesty, and the closeness that came from it. I also liked seeing Allie embrace her humanity a bit more, and seeing Zeke really examine his beliefs, instead of just accepting what his father believed. There was good growth from both of them.

As far as the plot, I think I’m becoming a bit immune to plot twists, because I watched everyone freak out about the twists in this book when it was released, and none of them really surprised me. BUT! That didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book in the least – just because I suspect something is coming doesn’t mean I enjoy watching it unfold any less. So I can’t comment on how surprising or satisfying the twists are. What I can say is that the plotting is tight, the action is prevalent, and once you get to the twisty parts – she pulls no punches. NONE. AT ALL. I begin to wonder if she’s even heard of pulling punches.

The Eternity Cure is a solid follow-up to The Immortal Rules, filled with intense action, thoughtfully developed and varied characters, and break-neck pacing that will keep you turning pages well into the night. Just make sure to keep the light on, because here, there be monsters.