Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fringe 1x16: "Unleashed"

Ugh. Animal-rights activists. A bunch of them break into a lab and release all the animals - including the Big Giant Mystery Animal that promptly kills the irate owner of the lab and one of the unfortunate tree-huggers.

The other three escape in their vehicle but the Big Giant Mystery Animal follows them, tips their car, and butchers them at its leisure.

The Fringe Buddies show up for damage control. Judging by the state of the bodies, the animal is enormous but seems to possess traits from a variety of species - the fangs of a snake, the talons of an eagle, etc. They also note that despite the evidence of four passengers in the car, there are only three bodies. As the evidence piles up, Walter starts acting very twitchy and weird.

So far, no one's able to track the monster, and it kills two Animal Control employees and attacks Charlie when he shows up to investigate - although he manages to escape with only a scratch.

Finally, Walter spills the beans: at one point, he attempted to combine species into a FrankenMonster much like this one, although his attempts all failed. It seems someone must have built on his existing research to create this monster, and for the first time, Walter feels actual guilt for the repercussions of his irresponsible Mad Science Shenanigans.

Things worsen when the ravaged corpses start to swell and explode with growing, wriggling larva - apparently, FrankenMonster's a FrankenMama who impregnates her victims with her scorpion's tail. Victims like Charlie, who gets an ultrasound and discovers he's due to require a FrankenMonster Baby Shower in a matter of hours.

Apparently, the only thing that will save Charlie is an infusion of FrankenMonster's blood, which would cause the FrankenBabies to stop eating him from the inside out. Of course, one would have to find the FrankenMonster to achieve this, and Walter becomes even more frantic to find the monster and reverse the suffering he believes he's caused.

Meanwhile, Olivia tracks down the original lab from which the monster came. Its manager, Robert Swift, insists they only test medications and beauty products on animals. However, eventually he breaks down and admits they created the FrankenMonster, and that the fourth animal rights activist who died at the beginning of the episode was his son, Jonathan. One good thing? The monster's creator (Cameron Delgman) used his own original research to create the beast - he had nothing to do with Walter at all.

Walter, Peter, and Olivia take some Huge Ass Guns and go down into the sewers to lure the highly maternal FrankenMonster with some of her larva. However, Walter locks Peter and Olivia in a nook and decides to kill the monster himself - even though his research wasn't responsible for the FrankenMonster's creation, it could have been. He also swallows a vial of poison so that he might still kill the monster if it decides to eat his Crazy Ass.

Peter and Olivia manage to escape in time to watch Walter shoot the monster down and kill it. Well done, Walter! Walter and Charlie are soon given antidotes for their respective Mad Science Ailments and all is well with the world. Except, well, Walter still feels a bit of a twinge of guilt, but that's hardly a bad thing.

Mad Science:
  • Animal Testing
  • Multi-Species Genetic Creations
  • Monster Babies
Best Death Scene: Jonathan Swift being sucked into the doorway (and presumably, the gaping maw of the FrankenMonster)! 

Mad Science Questions:
  • Walter does not like feeling guilt over the repercussions of his experiments - why is that?
  • What's up with Charlie's Buffy-extra wife? 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Fringe 1x15: "Inner Child"

The episode opens on some construction workers inspecting a building they are about to demolish. Everything seems okey dokey until one construction worker gets a Really Weird Vibe and goes back in. Seemingly by accident, he discovers a secret compartment inside the building and busts in - and finds a pale, hairless, naked child inside.

The Fringe Buddies are called in to examine this feral child in the hospital, who miraculously survived all alone in an almost completely airless environment on only rats and insects. While they are trying to communicate with the child, Olivia gets a phone call - a serial killer named the Artist has resurfaced and killed another victim. The Artist is a killer obsessed with beauty who surgically alters the corpses of his victims to look more attractive, then faxes invitations to law enforcement to the public displays of his gruesome work. The child overhears her conversation and writes down the name "Sam Gilmore" - which Olivia later finds out is the victim's name. So how did this isolated child know it?

Olivia goes back to the child, hoping he can reveal more about who he is or who the Artist is. While there, she meets Eliot Michaels, a social worker, who hopes to take the child to a special treatment facility to care for his particular needs. The child manages to write down an address - unfortunately, the victim the address belongs to has already been captured by the Artist by the time help arrives.

Olivia tries a different tactic - she takes the child to Walter's lab to see if any of his Mad Science Doohickies can help explain how the child is capable of guessing the serial killer's next move. Unfortunately, Eliot isn't happy about it - especially since he's not a social worker, but a member of the CIA's science division who wants to study the child FOR SCIENCE! And since he apparently outranks Broyles and everyone in Fringe Division, what he says goes.

Meanwhile, Walter figures out that the child is an empath - he's capable of communicating with people through their emotions - that's how he prevented the construction worker from blowing up the building, that's how he can track the Artist, and that's how he's bonded with Olivia. Unfortunately, the child seems reluctant to give any more clues - because he's emotionally bonded to Olivia, he knows he'll be handed over to the CIA as soon as Olivia solves the case.

He eventually comes around, however, and thanks to his clues, Olivia is able to track and eventually kill the Artist before he can murder his latest victim. Olivia also squirrels the child away with a loving foster family before the CIA can get to him, allowing Broyles to spin a story about how the child's survival instincts led to his brilliant escape.

While the child is being driven away by his foster family, he seems an Observer on the side of the road - another bald, pale person with psychic abilities. Could it be?

Mad Science!
  • Feral Children
  • Empaths
  • Converting Thoughtwaves into Words
Best Death Scene: There aren't any death scenes except for the serial killer getting stabbed, but the posed corpses of the Artist sure are purdy.

Mad Science Questions:
  • How did the kid wind up in the sealed bunker in the abandoned building? And how old is he really?
  • The kid had a weird look on his face when he passed the Observer - is the Kid an itty-bitty Observer himself? That would explain the psychic powers, the inability to taste much (from eating, you know, bugs for most of his life).

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Hope's Folly," by Linnea Sinclair (Bantam, 2009) - DNF Review

The Chick: Rya Bennton. A security officer aboard the Hope's Folly,  she's determined to protect its Admiral - Phillip Guthrie - from all threats - including a possible traitor on board.
The Rub: She's also idolized Phillip since she was nine years old, which makes objective thinking rather difficult.
Dream Casting: Christina Hendricks.

The Dude: Admiral Phillip Guthrie. In order to help the Alliance against the evil Empire, he has to transport an outdated, malfunctioning ship to a safe haven.
The Rub: He quickly falls for Rya, but he's worried that the age difference and the fact that she's his best friend's daughter will get in the way.
Dream Casting: George Clooney.

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Silver Fox Hero
  • 1 Curvy Heroine with Body Issues
  • 1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
  • 1 Serious Fire (Unsexy Variety)
  • 1 Traitor
  • 1 Mental Collapse
  • 1,339,008 technical terms

The Word: I am a fan of detailed settings, where the environment comes to life because the author has clearly done her research. Unfortunately, with Linnea Sinclair, I've found you can have too much of a good thing.

While I read and enjoyed Games of Command by Sinclair, I was bored to tears by The Down Home Zombie Blues. The endless deluge of technobabble left me feeling lost and distanced me from the story and the emotional relationship.

I had the exact same reaction to Hope's Folly. I made it about 240 pages in before I had to start to skim. Phillip Guthrie is an Admiral of the Alliance - the band of space rebels who hope to overthrow the evil intergalactic Empire run by the dictatorial Tage. Unfortunately, the Alliance is short on pretty much everything - ships, guns, crew members - so Guthrie winds up with an outdated bucket of a starship, a dedicated but depleted skeleton crew, and orders to transport the ship to the protected dockyards of Ferrin.

One of Guthrie's crew members is Rya Bennton, a talented weapons expert whose father was killed in one of Tage's purges. While part of her hopes to avenge her father's death, another part of her is just happy to be working under Phillip Guthrie - her childhood hero and one of her father's best friends. She is ridiculously in love with Phillip, and has no idea that he soon comes to return her feelings. Unfortunately, there's a pesky 16-year age difference, the fact that Rya is Guthrie's inferior, and the problem of two separate space villains and a space traitor who want to either kill or capture Guthrie before he makes it to Ferrin.

Linnea Sinclair is an absolute master worldbuilder, and if you love and are experienced with military science fiction you will probably love this novel to pieces. If you are, um, more of a novice when it comes to sci-fi, this book may very well bore or confuse you.

Jargon. There's a lot of it, along with endless descriptions of military procedure, the ship's design, the different decks, the training of various crew members, and the technology used to control every little appliance on the ship. It's not enough for Phillip to give an order - the author also has to explain what his order means, his history with the crewmember he ordered, the science behind the technology ordered, and the various parts of the ship that the crewmember will pass or deal with in his quest to fulfil the order.

Frankly, I'm not sure how many of these details are ever relevant, and it's rarely entertaining. After two hundred pages muddling through confusing names and details, I only had the barest sketches of who the protagonists were. Guthrie is Old, has a Bum Leg, and is Stressed All the Time. Rya Thinks She's Fat, loves Fondling Guns, and thinks Guthrie is Hot Stuff. I never felt the story let me dig any deeper than that - there were too many details and schematics and technobabble sucking up air that would be better spent on the romance, which moves at an absolute snail's pace.

After about two hundred pages of determined reading, I realized that it was difficult to pick up where I left off because all the technobabble basically read the same to me, and that's when I realized I needed to back away. I skimmed to the end, but nothing really interesting happened.

I would hesitate to call this a bad novel or even a poorly-written one. It is extremely heavy in technobabble, but if you're familiar with science fiction this may very well not bother you as much as it did me. Bear in mind though, if you're not familiar with science fiction, this may not be the book to start with. Or end with. I'm not sure I'll be trying Linnea Sinclair again.

Monday, August 26, 2013

"Just Like Fate," by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young (SimonTEEN, 2013)

The Protagonist: Caroline, a 17-year-old girl who's lived with her grandmother for five years, ever since her parents' vicious divorce.
Her Angst: When her grandmother has a stroke, Caroline has to make a choice - should she stay until the bitter end, or shake it off and spend a few hours unwinding for herself?

Secondary Characters:

Simone: Caroline's BFF, who asks Caroline to go to a party with her three days after her grandmother's stroke. Depending on whether Caroline goes or stays, their relationship encounters a few hurdles.

Natalie: Caroline's estranged older sister, with whom Caroline's always felt at odds.

Teddy: Caroline's understanding older brother, who lives at the nearby Clinton College dorms.

Joel: Caroline's longtime crush - in the "Stay" universe, he comforts her in her grief and the two start a relationship.

Chris: A cute college boy Caroline meets at a party in the "Go" universe on the night her Gram dies.

Angst Checklist:

  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Broken Families
  • Virginity, and the Unsatisfying Relinquishment Thereof
  • Pretentious Music
  • Fate versus Free Will
The Word: Just Like Fate (which was a lovely gift from the SimonTEEN Blogger Party at BEA) is the perfect example of a fantastic premise utterly wasted.

17-year-old Caroline is horrified when her grandmother, with whom she's been living for the last five years, has a stroke. Her body already weakened by a recent bout with cancer, Gram isn't long for this world. After spending three days by her bedside with her various family members, Caroline gets a call from her best friend Simone, imploring her to take some time for herself to relax at a party. Does Caroline stay with her Gram, or does she go out to try and unwind?

Actually, she does both. The narrative gives us two alternate stories - what would have happened had Caroline stayed and heard her Gram's last words, and what would have happened had she gone to the party and missed her grandmother's death entirely. 

The novel hints at some interesting consequences - in the "Stay" universe, Caroline achieves a shaky reconciliation with her estranged sister Natalie and the two renew their relationship. In the "Go" universe, a guilt-ridden Caroline abandons her family and nearly ruins her friendship with Simone thanks to misplaced resentment. 

And yet, the novel never goes further with the idea of these two paths diverging in a wood. There really are no real, solid consequences to Caroline's actions that separate the "Stay" from the "Go" universes. It's a cheat, really - Caroline never really loses or gains anything significant by her decision to go or stay. She miraculously makes peace with every character in both universes by novel's end and even winds up with the same love interest in the 11th hour, which seemed like a huge cop-out. 

The premise seems to be mainly an attempt to shoehorn in two YA romances as Caroline courts a different boy in each universe - the hipster longtime-crush Joel in "Stay," and goofy college student Chris in "Go" - while ultimately winding up with her Twu Wuv in both versions.

It doesn't help that our main character is a mopey, selfish, and thoroughly unsympathetic drip. Yes, in both universes she's grieving the loss of someone very important to her, and teenagers are not known for their emotional intelligence. However, I cringed at her utter self-absorption and how she acts like she's the only one grieving Gram's death. She holds everyone around her to an unfair standard but demands special treatment because her pain is more important. 

She's particularly egregious in the "Go" universe, in which she abandons her mother (whose own mother just died) to live with a father she's never spoken one word to in five years, and proceeds to ignore all her calls for months. And none of these decisions come with any permanent consequences, which only contributed to the novel's unrealistic tone. You can't just treat someone like that and have your relationship proceed as if nothing's happened.

Caroline is also pretty passive and doesn't solve a lot of her internal conflicts by herself because the narrative conveniently drops some easy solution into her lap at every opportunity. So instead, most of the conflicts come from some Random Stereotypical Cheerleader Villains (for reals) and a Big Misunderstanding that's only a misunderstanding because the heroine is a complete moron. 

The premise promised an interesting story about how much a single decision can alter your life and your relationships with the people around you. Instead this novel's ultimate message seems to be that your actions don't matter because life will just magically fix everything for you. In a world where every decision counts, I recommend the universe where You Don't Read This Book.

Fringe 1x14: "Ability"

I'm back to my recaps! At least for the rest of Fringe.

So remember back when David Robert Jones teleported out of his German prison using Walter's OMGWTF Teleportation Time Machine device? According to Walter, he's probably spent the last several weeks depressurizing since the Teleporter demands a pretty steep physical price.

In the present, a sweet old newspaperman named Thomas Avery is handed a 2-dollar bill by a mysterious stranger with gloves. Not long after, the skin on his face starts growing over his eyes, and he dies a screaming, horrible, horrifying death as his skin seals off his entire face, suffocating him and mentally scarring a buttload of onlookers.

Once Walter examines the body, he determines the man was dosed with something that sent his body's scar-tissue-creating skin cells into overdrive, causing them to mistake every orifice on the body as a wound to be healed over. Yes, including the what-what in the butt-butt.

While trying to find out where Jones is hiding, Olivia researches what his Mad Scientist Terrorist Group, ZFT, actually stands for. Turns out, ZFT is an acronym for "Zerstorung durch Fortschritte der Technologie," which translates to "Destruction by Advanced Technology," the title of a self-published manuscript that disappeared years ago. Peter uses his Underworld Contacts to track down a copy of the manifesto, which insists that there's an alternate universe at war with this one, and that the invasion of these Alternate people with superior technology will be heralded by Mad Science Shenanigans. 

Meanwhile, just as the FBI discovers where Jones has been hiding, the dude turns himself in, on the condition that he only speak with Agent Olivia Dunham. Unfortunately, Agent Rapist orders Olivia to raid Jones' Mad Science Lab instead, where another Extremely Stupid FBI Agent dies after picking up a 2-dollar bill and succumbing to the face-eating skin virus. 

Back at HQ, Olivia's ready to speak to Jones, who is looking decidedly ill - his cells are degenerating thanks to his trip through the Teleportation Device. Jones tells her that he's created a bomb full of the Scary Skin Toxin and that it will go off unless Olivia passes a special test. The test involves a box full of tiny lightbulbs that Olivia needs to turn off using the power of her mind. Jones insists that Olivia can do this, because she was treated with Cortexiphan as a child, something Jones confirmed when he had Olivia kidnapped and spinal-tapped in a previous episode. 

Cortexiphan, as Nina Sharp from Massive Dynamic explains, was a drug that William Bell tested on children decades ago to see if he could expand the potential of their mental powers, but after two years with no success, he halted the testing. Olivia couldn't have been involved, because she'd been living in Jacksonville, Florida at the time. So Olivia has Peter help her cheat on the test by rigging the lightbox to turn off the bulbs on its own. 

Well, the joke's on them when Jones tells them where the bomb is and - it's powered by a box of lightbulbs that Olivia needs to turn off with her mind! Whoops. Miraculously, Olivia manages to turn off the bulbs and stop the bomb just by staring at it, and although she thinks it was just a mind game played by Jones, she eventually gets a call from Nina Sharp who discovered William Bell did perform his Cortexiphan trials in Jacksonville, Florida. Jones deteriorates but manages to escape from the hospital, but not before scrawling 'You Passed' on the wall.

Meanwhile, as Walter reads the ZFT manifesto, he notices that the letter "Y" is out of alignment. When he checks with the typewriter in his lab, he notices that its "Y" is also out of alignment - meaning whoever wrote the ZFT manifesto did it from Walter's lab.

Mad Science:
  • A toxin that creates hyperactivity in the skin cells responsible for scar tissue - causing them to speedily seal off every orifice. 
  • Telekinesis
  • Drug testing on children.
Best Death Scene: I'm going to go with the death of the Stupid FBI Agent Kent. Both orifice-filling deaths are delightfully horrific, but the newspaperman was just such a sweet guy that his death was pretty sad. Idiot FBI Agent Kent, who picks up strange materials with his bare hands, has a much more satisfying death - particularly because even an emergency tracheotomy doesn't work - the skin heals right over the tube!

Mad Science Questions:
  • Walter's typewriter has the same squiggly "y" as the manifesto - did Walter write ZFT?
  • Does this mean Olivia's psychic now? 
  • What's this about Alternate Universe Invaders? Are all the Mad Science Shenanigans attempts by ZFT to defend themselves against these Alternates? 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

"The Duke of Snow and Apples" and the End of Aspiration

I've pretty much had the same dream for most of my self-aware life.
To be a writer. Now, being a writer is a pretty easy dream to fulfil. If you put a pen to paper, or set your fingers above a typewriter, and apply enough physical pressure to scrawl or type out words, you're a writer.
....or if you dictate it to your mum because you haven't learned how to write yet - so long you draw all the pictures!

And I did become a writer. I started this blog. I wrote for The Green Man Review, The Gateway, Heroes and Heartbreakers, and even The Huffington Post

My first published fiction piece happened in 2007, when my novella, "My Brother's Own Words," appeared in Cicada Magazine's March/April issue.
It was a professional magazine. They took almost a year to receive, read, accept, and publish my manuscript - and they paid 25 cents a word, which, for a 9,000-word novella, was not too shabby! 

Still, I couldn't quite kick the "aspiring" label off of my efforts. I wanted to be a novelist. Have my own book. My own Amazon and Goodreads page. My own cover. A book that was mine. 

Recently, I took The Duke of Snow and Apples - a novel I'd written a few years ago - out from under the metaphorical bed and gave it a dust-off. I realized that the time we'd spent apart had given me a better perspective on the novel and how to improve it. So, after polishing it one more time, I resubmitted it for the first time in years.

And it got accepted. 


The Duke of Snow and Apples is going to be a reality, thanks to Entangled Publishing! It's going to have a cover, and eventually an Amazon page, and crappy 1-star reviews from people angry that it's priced too high! It's going to be a published novel, and it's going to be my published novel! 

It was almost anti-climatic how it happened. I received the E-mail on my Blackberry - a cheery little yellow envelope icon blinking up at me as I was having my afternoon break at work. I don't know what I was expecting - although I had harboured daydreams of my publishers turning up in a van, showering me in confetti and announcing their intent to acquire my novel by way of chocolate icing tastefully hand-written onto an enormous ice cream cake. 

But believe me, for the last couple of days, I've been happily coughing up accidentally-ingested confetti in my heart

The interesting thing is that this didn't really happen by focusing on accomplishing One Major Dream - but by gradually accomplishing smaller dreams that accumulated and granted me the skills and experience required to tackle the Big Dream. I wanted to be a writer - so I wrote. I wanted to be a published writer, so I volunteered for magazines and started a blog. Using the exposure I got from my blog posts, I turned to contributing to e-zines and literary blogs. And in the process of doing all that, I learned how the publishing world worked, especially in relation to the things I'd already written. 

During NaNoWriMo 2008, I landed on an idea for a novel. A romance novel. A retelling of Snow White - only this time, the damsel was the hero (a footman), and the Prince Charming a spoiled noblewoman. The setting would be very similar to Regency England, but set in a fantasy world where the importance of bloodlines and breeding had a very specific magical purpose. 

So I wrote it. I finished it. I polished it. And I critique-grouped it thanks to the RWA's fantastic Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal chapter. I pitched it to agents (once in person!). I submitted it to contests. It appeared in Dear Author's First Page series. One agent request a partial. A publisher requested a full. 

But somehow, it never happened. There were a lot of critiques and the consensus was that it just wasn't quite good enough. I think the excitement of all the requests followed by all the rejections sapped my drive for the idea. I honestly forget why I gave up on it, but I think my brain was already churning out new ideas and wanted to work on a new project rather than waste the effort on a flagging former project that didn't measure up. 

But sometimes setting a project aside for a while can be a good thing. In the intervening years, the publishing world changed, readers changed, and I changed. For the better, I hope.

Now I can finally scratch out "Aspiring" next to my description. Elizabeth Vail, Aspiring Novelist. It has a nice ring to it.

I haven't heard back yet about a release date, but I'll be sure to keep you guys updated! For now - I'm off to work on another novel! 

"Written On Your Skin," by Meredith Duran (Something, Date)

The Chick: Mina Masters. A beautiful young entrepreneur who makes a living convincing rich young men that she's a harmless blond ditz - until her mother goes missing and the British government thinks she's in on it.
The Rub: She's unable to fully fool Phineas Granville, the man who's looking for her mother, so she might actually have to be honest with him. But can she trust him?
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Phineas Granville, Earl of Ashmore. Recently retired from the spy service, his despised former superior wants him back to help pry answers from a very reluctant witness - Mina Masters.
The Rub: He met her before, in Hong Kong, and he nearly lost his head over her. Can he trust himself not to lose control over her again?
Dream Casting: Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Plot:

Phin: Hello, I'm totally not a spy!

Mina: That's good, because I'm totally not a canny seductress who's only pretending to be an idiot!

Phin: *poisoned*

Mina: *saves*

Phin: Thanks! *flees*

4 Years Later...

Mina: Hey, I'm being unfairly imprisoned by your government! You owe me!

Phin: LOL NO.

Phin's Evil Boss: LOL YES.

Phin: FINE. Wait, you're not stupid!

Mina: Wait, you're not evil! Let's find my mum!

Phin: But now that I love you, I can't put you in danger!

Mina: LOL NO. *uses herself as bait, catches traitor*

Phin: Well ... okay, then. Fine. But will you at least marry me?

Mina: Sure!


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Control Freak Hero
  • 1 Fake-Stupid Heroine
  • 1 Awesome Shampoo Company
  • 1 Evil Boss
  • 1 Eviller Traitor
  • 1 Train Chase
  • 1 Mystery-Solving Locket

The Word: I haven't had a whole lot of luck with Meredith Duran. There's no doubt that she is a magnificent writer, but I just haven't been able to personally connect with her writing style.

I still had Written On Your Skin in my TBR pile, so I decided to see if third time was the charm.

Written On Your Skin happens at roughly the same time as its predecessor, Bound By Your Touch, and it involves Phin Granville, Sanbourne's Dark and Angsty and Possibly-Substance-Abusing Friend.

Four years ago, in Hong Kong, Phin was a spy for England who was trying to find proof that a devious criminal named Collins was selling weapons to Irish rebels. He collapsed after being dosed with hemlock by an unknown accomplice of Collins and rescue came from the last place he expected - Mina Masters, Collins' (supposedly) bubbleheaded stepdaughter. He recovered (barely) in time to flee, but was forced to leave Mina behind to face the consequences of her rebellion.

After the incident with Phin, Mina finally managed to extricate her mother and herself from Collins' clutches and build a life for them in New York. Four years later, her mother goes missing during a visit to England, right around the time Collins escapes from prison. When Mina goes to the authorities she winds up imprisoned "for her own protection" by England's spymaster, Ridland, who believes she secretly knows where Collins is hiding.

Desperate to escape and find her mother on her own, Mina decides to contact Phin and call in the favour he owes her for saving his life. Unfortunately, Phin is now out of the spy game and immediately suspects Mina of being one of Ridland's pawns in an attempt to hook him back into the shaken and stirred lifestyle.

Like Duran's previous novels, the writing style is lush, thoughtful, and thorough. It makes for a fairly leisurely pace as Duran picks apart our protagonists layer by layer through reams of emotionally byzantine dialogue. To Duran's credit, neither character turned out as expected. Based on Phin's brief appearance in Bound By Your Touch, I was expecting Phin to be the dark, messy addict who's hanging onto sobriety by the wispiest of threads. Instead, he's a man so addicted to and ashamed of the absolute control he requires in his life that he occasionally resorts to opium to loosen his iron hold on his own choices - but not to the point of addiction. He's ashamed of the deeds he committed while spying for the crown, ashamed of the cartography skills that landed him his spy gig in the first place, and too ashamed to maintain contact with his dead mentor's innocent wife and daughter.

Mina is the opposite. She refuses to be caged or cowed ever again, and she'll leap at any opportunity, no matter how risky, to protect herself and her mother from the vengeful men of the world. She's a very impulsive heroine, but Duran also makes her informed and experienced so that she never comes across as a TSTL idiot who needs to be saved all the time. However, she is quite a handful before she comes to trust that Phin's a Good Egg.

On the positive front, I connected far more with these characters than in previous Duran books. I loved their witty, evasive dialogues, the intimate description. These are meticulously crafted characters, brought out piece by piece by piece, and my main pleasure from this novel was in learning more about them, and how they fight to negotiate between Phin's controlling nature and Mina's impulsive spirit.

However, on the negative front, I couldn't connect at all with the story itself. Despite the fact that it deals with spies and traitors and bombs and poison, the pacing is ridiculously slow and drawn out. I like character development and dialogue, but there needs to be some external action as well and I found myself frequently bored throughout this book.

Honestly, while I connected much more with the characters in this novel, Written On Your Skin is still very much a mixed bag.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Fringe 1x13: "The Transformation"

J.J. Abrams must really hate planes - because he sure loves crashing them in every single show he makes! This crash occurs when a mild-mannered scientist named Marshall Bowman suddenly starts sprouting claws and spines in an airplane bathroom and emerges as a violent King-Kong-meets-Angry-Porcupine monster.

While investigating the crash site, Olivia has a Dead Boyfriend John Memory Flash looking over Bowman's picture on a list of passengers and realizes the two knew each other, you know, before Bowman became a giant Porcupine.

The Fringe Buddies examine the beast-ified corpse and discover Bowman was dosed with a virus that mutated his DNA - and so violently that he wouldn't have lived long even if the plane hadn't crashed. They also find a strange glass disk embedded in the palm of his hand - the same type of disk they'd found in the DEA agent's hand from "The Ghost Network" episode.

Looking into Bowman's history, Olivia finds out he's (apparently) a banker, and she recognizes another person from her Dead John Memories on his list of clients - a man named Daniel Hicks. She figures that Bowman, Hicks, and Dead Boyfriend John were in the business of selling Traitorous Mad Science Secrets and that Bowman and Hicks were scheduled to sell a weaponized version of the Porcupine Monster Virus.

The FBI rounds up Hicks who insists he's just a regular, run-of-the-mill antiques dealer, until he starts bleeding from the nose, losing his teeth, and transforming into a monster - in a regular, run-of-the-mill way. Totally. Walter is forced to put the guy under a drug-induced coma in order to slow his transformation long enough for him to concoct an antidote - but not before Olivia terrifies Hicks with the threat of non-wizard-induced transmogrification until he reveals the name of the man involved in the Porcupine Monster Virus' sale: "Conrad."

While Hicks is under, Olivia has Walter cut into Hicks' hand and discovers another glass disk. She goes to Broyles, who takes her to Massive Dynamic where she finds Dead Boyfriend John's body kept on life support. Nina Sharp finally spills the beans that John had a glass disk in his hand as well - it's a form of information and memory storage, but it's designed to self-destruct when the host person dies. John's brain is fully dead, but they hoped that by keeping his body artificially alive, they'd be able to preserve the information in his disk - to no avail. Huge chunks of information are missing. Nina agrees with Olivia's belief that Dead Boyfriend John was involved in a Mad Scientist Terrorist Cell, but believes the missing memories might still be in Olivia's head.

And you know what that means! It's back to the Hot Tub Telepathy Machine! Once there, Olivia openly confronts Memory-John, who, contrary to Walter's hypothesis, can see, hear, and speak with Olivia. He reveals that he, Hicks, and Bowman weren't terrorists, but an undercover NSA team tasked with smoking out the real people selling Mad Science Secrets on the black market - people like Conrad, who creates Mad Science Weapons and sells them just for the hell of it. It was likely Conrad who dosed  Bowman and Hicks with his Porcupine Monster Virus when he found out they were NSA. Memory-John can't provide any proof that his claims are true, but he tells Olivia to trust Hicks.

Acting on Memory-John's advice, Olivia has Walter wake up Hicks. Walter thinks he's concocted an antidote that will keep Hicks from monstering-up while he helps Olivia and Peter intercept Conrad's Mad Science Weapons sale. Olivia and Peter show up at the sale in Hicks' place, carrying earpieces into which Hicks can feed them information.

Olivia and Peter meet up with and half-convince Conrad's minion they're the real deal, and he produces the Porcupine Monster Virus and the Official Antidote. Back in the lab, Walter's homemade antidote wears off and Hicks' too busy beasting out to feed Olivia and Peter any more info. Thankfully, the FBI storm in and capture Conrad and his crew before Olivia and Peter are killed.

Now that everything's tied up with a neat little bow, Olivia wants to go back into the Hot Tub Telepathy Machine. Walter warns her that her brain has almost fully cleaned out John's memories by this point, so she likely won't see him for longer than a couple of minutes. A couple of minutes is all Olivia needs - she meets Memory-John at a Memory Lake and apologizes for not trusting him. He wasn't a traitor after all. Memory-John admits he should have told Olivia the truth, but he'd never had time. He gives her his engagement ring and tells her he loves her, and then he fades away for good.

Mad Science:
  • Mutating Viruses
  • Psychic Connections
Best Death Scene: Bowman's epic transformation on the plane. Sure, we don't see him actually die - but you have to admit it was pretty cool.

Mad Science Questions:
  • So, just to be clear - John wasn't a traitor after all? And was that really Memory John? Or John's Ghost? 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

"Counting by 7s," by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Dial, 2013)

The Protagonist: Willow Chance. A 12-year-old genius who loves cataloguing plants and medical disorders.
Her Angst: When her parents are killed, she loses her direction and doesn't know how to regain her zest for life and discovery.

The Secondary Characters:

Dell Duke: Willow's incompetent, sad sack school counsellor. He initially hopes to use Willow's genius to make himself look better, but after she's orphaned, he finds himself (somewhat unwillingly) roped into looking after her.

Quang-Ha: Another patient of Dell's - a rebellious and angry teenage boy who lives in a one-room garage with his mother and sister.

Mai: Quang-Ha's determined, take-no-prisoners sister - and Willow's newest best friend.

Pattie: Quang-Ha and Mai's mother who runs a nail salon, and believes that certain colours are luckier than others.

Jairo: A lonely, unfulfilled cab driver who's inspired by Willow's excitement and curiosity.

Angst Checklist:

  • Obsessions
  • Poverty
  • Foster Care
  • Grief
  • Uncertainty
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Creativity

The Word: Willow Chance is weird.

Very weird.

She has a genius-level IQ. She has a prodigious memory for details (particularly numbers, scientific concepts, and medical disorders). She is a person of colour with white adoptive parents. She's obsessed with the number 7, afraid of germs, and cultivates several rare plants in her enormous jungle of a garden in her parents' yard. She doesn't have too many friends.

And when she's twelve years old, her parents die - suddenly, horribly - and Willow is left alone. Although grief shocks Willow out of her weird behaviours and into a kind of numb paralysis where she doesn't care whether things are arranged by sevens or not, the weirdness manifests itself in the people around her instead - the outcasts and oddballs and misfits who take Willow in, and discover that all their jagged, mismatched pieces fit together in an oddly harmonious, yet utterly unique way.

The novel rests on a solid foundation of well-drawn characters  - before she became an orphan, Willow lived her life exactly as she saw fit. She never hid her desires or her ambitions or her feelings from anyone, and her vivacious, information-hungry presence initially unnerves the supporting characters - like her counselor, Dell, or the other kids receiving counceling, Mai and Quang-Ha.

When her overwhelming grief saps this life-force from Willow, the seemingly-random people around her who have hidden their strangenesses and their impossible dreams and their secret talents away (often for years), find themselves blooming in her presence, as their strange gifts turn out to be just what Willow needs to help move on from her tragedy.

Counting By 7s is weird - and also a celebration of the weirdness that everyone has the potential for.

The main thing I noticed about Counting By 7s was how balanced a read it was. The novel dances between the absurd and the realistic, exaggeratedly comic scenarios and intimate moments of emotional poignancy, deus ex machina developments and plot points that expand outward from pre-established circumstances. And all in an extremely organic, tempered tone throughout the novel. It takes an incredibly deft hand to make all these disparate elements fit together using an array of different viewpoints without coming across as contrived or cutesy.

That being said, there were a few problems with the ending that gave me pause. I get that they were meant to fit into the absurdist aspect of the novel, but without an actual explanation the development made little sense.

Counting By 7s is a sweet, swift read - but a profound and profoundly enjoyable one, for all that.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fringe 1x12: "No Brainer"

The Fringe Buddies get another case when a teenage boy, Greg Wiles, is found dead in front of his computer, his literally-liquified brain in a puddle around his head. He apparently downloaded a huge file on his computer before he died, but the process fried his computer's hard drive.

Pretty soon, another guy's found in a puddle of his own cerebral cortex - a car salesman named Anton. He also downloaded a huge file, and his computer is also too damaged for Astrid to pull too much relevant details off it. Agent Rapist steps in and starts bitching about how this should be a CDC matter and it's a waste of the Fringe Division's resources, but no one takes him seriously because he's an asshole rapist. And also because Walter discovers the virus produces sounds and images that stimulate the brain into electrocuting and melting itself.

Peter calls up one of his Shady Underworld Contacts to see if he can crack the mystery of the Brain-Melting download, and who's sending it. His Shady Underworld Contact can't detect where the virus is coming from, but he can see who's downloading it - someone at Olivia's address, where Olivia's sister Rachel and her 5-year-old daughter Ella have been staying since Rachel's divorce.

Olivia races home to find her niece Ella staring transfixed at Olivia's computer screen - fortunately, the virus-sender (who's watching through the laptop camera) disables his virus before it can do any damage. He just wanted to send a message. Apparently, he's not so forgiving to Mark Rosenthal, whose brain milkshake brings his screaming wife to the yard. Fortunately, the Fringe Buddies finally find a connection between all the victims - they all pissed off (or were related to someone who pissed off) a recently-laid off computer programmer named Brian Dempsey (played by Detective Bellefleur from True Blood).

Meanwhile, Jessica Warren, the mother of the lab assistant whose accidental death sent Walter to St. Claire's seventeen years ago, has been trying to get in contact with Walter, but all her advances have been headed off by Peter. Peter can't imagine Jessica has anything good to say to the man responsible for her daughter's death, and he's worried that Walter's too mentally fragile to handle it.

The Fringe Buddies can't find Brian Dempsey, so they bring in his teenage son Luke instead. Agent Rapist wants to put the screws to him, but Olivia violates his orders and lets Luke go - hoping he'll inadvertently lead them to where his father is hiding. He does. Luke's horrified when he discovers what his father's done, and his disgust - combined with Olivia's sudden appearance - provoke a despondent Brian into killing himself.

Peter, seeing how far Luke was willing to go to protect his father, despite his father's obvious mistakes, finally allows Jessica and Walter to meet. Instead of screaming at him, Jessica only wanted to find out more about her daughter through Walter, and it's a bittersweet but mostly positive encounter.

Finally, Agent Rapist gets all up in Broyles' grill about Olivia's defiance of his orders, and Broyles is having NONE OF IT. Bromance over!

Mad Science:
  • Brain-Melting Computer Viruses
Best Death Scene: Greg Wiles, I suppose? We don't actually see many of the deaths. They're all off screen, and we only get to the see the gooey aftermath. 

Mad Science Questions:
  • Seriously, when is Agent Rapist going to leave or die or turn into a smoke monster already? 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Fringe 1x11: "Bound"

Previously, on Fringe - Olivia was kidnapped and drugged by some Nefarious Men in Black SUVs. In this episode, she wakes up in a creepy lab, where masked men give her a delightfully non-consensual spinal tap. One of those men is Mitchell Loeb, because of course it is.

Back at the FBI, Broyles rouses the cavalry to rescue Olivia, all of which turns out to be unnecessary because Olivia breaks herself out of the Creepy Lab in about five seconds flat because she is fucking AWESOME and SMART. She also manages to steal some specimen vials and buries them in a secret location. Because, again, she is AWESOME and SMART and takes NO shit WHATSOEVER.

Until she is met by a squadron of FBI vans and is shot with a tranq gun again. WTF. She wakes up in a hospital and is greeted by Agent Sanford Harris, who shall ever after be referred to as Agent Rapist - because that's what Olivia had him convicted of, back when she worked as a legal liaison for the Marines. Of course, due to Reasons, his conviction was overturned and he's inexplicably been assigned to evaluate Olivia's performance and the effectiveness of the Fringe Division.

Not that he carries a grudge or anything. I have tolerated a lot of Mad Science Shenanigans for this show but my suspension of disbelief stops far, far short of buying that the FBI would assign a dude to oversee the woman who had him convicted of rape. Objectivity, what's that?

Anyway, because It Is What It Is, Agent Rapist tells Olivia that she's forbidden from investigating the circumstances of her abduction.

At least the Fringe Buddies have a new case to investigate - a world-famous immunologist had a fit while giving a lecture and asphyxiated when a giant, spiny slug forced its way out of his esophagus. Walter examines the slug and determines that it's actually a single cell of the Common Cold Virus, magnified about a bajillion times. Killing an immunologist with the Common Cold - at least the Pattern Peeps don't lack for humour.

Olivia, meanwhile, finds out the immunologist had been recently hired to head a governmental council on epidemics. They track down the government's second choice - but Mitchell Loeb gives him a Giant Cold too (ha!) when their backs are turned and he dies before Walter can design a large enough Cold FX capsule to cure him. The Fringe Buddies begin to suspect the immunologists were killed off to keep them from preventing a Mad Science epidemic the Pattern Peeps might be planning.

However, Olivia's starting to catch on to what happened to her. She recognizes Loeb's shoes from the Creepy Lab where she was spinal-tapped, and even though Agent Rapist has forbidden her from investigating, she still has those specimen vials she'd hidden away - and they match the material Walter took from the Giant Cold.

Olivia goes to Loeb's house to investigate while Peter and Charlie try to tap Loeb's phone to gather evidence against him. Olivia reaches the house and runs into his wife, Samantha Loeb, who's involved in the Mad Science Shenanigans, too. They have a Supremely Suspenseful Tea Party, until Peter intercepts a phone call from Loeb ordering Samantha to kill Olivia before she leaves the house.

But Olivia? She's smart. And awesome. And really pissed about being spinal-tapped - and before too long Samantha winds up sharing the fate of a Spinal Tap drummer. When the apprehended Loeb learns of his wife's death, he's grief-stricken at the loss of his Little Woman (yes I went there) and lets slip that they're involved in some Mad Science War, Olivia's abduction was supposed to save her, and that they had been planning to let her go all along. Which only creates more questions.

Mad Science:
  • Giant Cold Virus Slugs
Best Death Scene: Mrs. Loeb's single shot to the head, just for pure shock value. Her own bullet missed Olivia by inches.

Mad Science Questions
  • Um, Walter invented a freakin' time-travelling teleporter and everyone seems to have forgotten this ENORMOUS MIRACLE OF SCIENCE. WTF.
  • And speaking of unbelievable bullshit, the US government would let a man oversee and evaluate the work performance of a woman who had him convicted of rape? Excuse me? In what universe is that okay?
  • What did Mitchell Loeb mean when he said that he saved Olivia? That there were two sides at war?

Monday, August 12, 2013

"Deerskin," by Robin McKinley (Ace, 1993)

The Protagonist: Princess Lissla Lissar. The only child of the most beautiful Queen and most handsome King in the world, she has a lot to live up to - even though she's forced to live in the shadow of their greatness.
Her Angst: After her mother dies, her evil and grief-maddened father demands her hand in marriage. When she refuses, he attacks her and nearly destroys her.

Secondary Cast:

The King: A disgusting and vile man who takes his dead wife's promise to only marry an equally beautiful woman to monstrously literal lengths.

Ash: Lissar's protective and loyal fleethound who follows her into the wild after her father's assault.

Viaka: Lissar's one true friend while living under her father's roof.

The Moonwoman: The Goddess of the Moon who comes to Lissar's aid, and trains her to be her emissary on Earth.

Lilac: A stable worker who befriends Lissar when she comes to the yellow city.

Prince Ossin: The heir to the Sixth kingdom who would rather work in his kennels with his beloved dogs than dance attendance on princesses at balls.

Word: People warned me about this book when I picked it up secondhand. I, myself, wasn't sure what to make of it, especially after my lacklustre reaction to McKinley's Beauty. Deerskin is about a million times better than Beauty - and also a million times darker.

Deerskin is intended as a retelling of "Donkeyskin" - a Cinderella-esque tale where a fair maiden runs away from a cruel parent and dons an ugly disguise until she wins the heart of a Prince thanks to a ball and a trio of magical dresses. Deerskin, however, takes it in a decidedly darker direction that casts a shadow over traditional depictions of fairytale morality - especially the idea of beauty.

The first part of this novel revels in mounting dread. In a wealthy kingdom, the most handsome King in the world wins the hand of the most beautiful woman in the world. In ordinary fairytales, this would be cause for celebration. In Deerskin, McKinley aptly depicts how their combined beauty does not inspire love in others, but obsession. Their adoring citizens are so fascinated by their beauty and their grandeur that they are blinded to all else, and the King and Queen are just as obsessed with themselves, if not more so.

As a result, the King and Queen's daughter, Lissar, is perpetually overlooked and ignored - when she isn't being forcefed stories of her parents' greatness by their worshipful servants. Then her mother takes ill and dies - but not without an attempt to extend the influence of her beauty from beyond the grave. The dying Queen extracts a promise from her husband that he'll only marry again if he finds a woman as beautiful as she was.

Not long after her mother's death, Lissar notes a change in her father's behaviour towards her - a profoundly disturbing change. However, she is alone in this - her father's subjects are so focused on his magnificence, on his return to his old glorious self from the madness of his grief, that no one pays any attention to Lissar and her growing terror at her father's newfound fascination with her, especially as she starts to look more like her mother with every passing day.

The dread, the disgust, and the dramatic irony build chapter by chapter as Lissar's world closes in around her - until at last her father's sanity breaks and reveals the scalding, hideous ugliness beneath the perfect facade.

What happens to Lissar is monstrous and awful and written in a deeply traumatic fashion. I've heard from several readers who've refused to read this book because of what happens, or who've read it and refuse to read it ever again - even people who love it, even as they admit it's too painful to reread.

The rest of the novel concerns Lissar's escape and recovery - every painstaking, lyrically-written detail. With her identity and her memory shattered by her experience, she essentially has to rebuild herself as a person from the ground up, and this makes for a fascinating, detailed read. Yes, this novel is extremely dark and slowly-paced. Lissar's healing process takes up two-thirds of the book and even by the novel's end, although she achieves a form of triumph, she still lives in pain.

So why read Deerskin? Why bother with it when it's all about doom and gloom and pain? Well, as someone who loves fairy tales, I adored how McKinley expertly picks apart the common truths and tropes of fairytales and turns them over to show their sinister implications.

For instance, fairy tales commonly use beauty as an easy indicator of moral goodness. The evil stepsisters and princesses are always ugly, and thus hated. The good princesses and goose girls are always beautiful, and to worship their beauty is to worship their innate purity and kindheartedness.

In Deerskin, however, the subjects' fanatical adoration for their beautiful King and Queen is empty and shallow, because they are more concerned with the appearance of goodness than the performance of goodness. Lissar sees her own beautiful appearance as a curse - not only because it attracts her father's unwanted attention, but because it impedes the development of her own identity separate from her mother's. When the King declares his intention to marry his own daughter, the subjects blame Lissar, because they cannot allow their perception of the King's perfection to be tarnished.

This is contrasted with the depiction of the Sixth kingdom - the place to which Lissar flees. Lissar's own people sneer at the Sixth kingdom's impoverished, common, countrified ways. They are an ugly, small, backwater kingdom with an ugly, fat, backwater heir named Prince Ossin.

McKinley takes this man and makes of him a Prince Charming in the truest sense of the word - for he is very charming, and very wonderful, in a very un-fairy-tale way. Again, he is not a handsome man - he's overweight, beady-eyed, and rather smelly from spending all day in the kennels with his dogs. He's not even a particularly good prince - he'd much rather go hunting and train pups than handle matters of state. Moreover, he is often perceived by others to be a bad prince because of his looks, his clumsiness, and his political disinterest.

And yet, with his actions around Lissar, who comes to work in his kennels, he demonstrates that he is a good man. He does not rescue Lissar. He does not go to battle for Lissar. He does not kiss her and turn her from an emotionally-traumatized toad into a fully-functional, well-adjusted princess. He is simply there, present and open and practical and honest and overwhelmingly generous with his kindness. These two grow attached the more time they spend together, and the more they share in each other. There is no winning or possessing or rescuing involved.

McKinley creates a gorgeously-written fairytale from the plot lines that fairytales traditionally reject. Despite its slow build and its gruesome subject matter, I would recommend this as an intense and wholly original reading experience.

Fringe 1x10: "Safe"

I hope you've been paying attention, readers, because this episode requires a lot of continuity.

Remember the Kitty Pride machine from "The Equation" episode where the little boy's song-equation powered a machine that allowed Mitchell Loeb (the traitor from "In Which We Meet Mister Jones") to phase his hand through a box?

Well, he and a bunch of bank robber pals have been using that machine (which increases the vibrations of solid objects at an atomic level) to phase into a number of banks to steal safety deposit boxes. When the machine fails while one of their number is still in the midst of phasing through, Loeb is forced to shoot him while the others flee, leaving his corpse embedded in a bank wall. The other robbers aren't too pleased with Loeb's itchy trigger finger, but Loeb doesn't work for them. No, as it turns out, he works for David Robert Jones, the Mad Science Terrorist imprisoned in Germany from the "Mister Jones" episode.

The Fringe Buddies show up at the bank to investigate, hoping to find a pattern in all the places that have been mysteriously robbed. Olivia, to her surprise, recognizes the corpse as Raul Lugo, only belatedly realizing the recognition is Dead Boyfriend John's, not hers. Awkward.

As Olivia and Peter flirt at a bar (adorbs!), they inadvertently discover a pattern in the numbers on the safety deposit boxes that have been stolen - they follow a mathematical equation that Walter frequently uses. Walter realizes that the safety deposit boxes that have been stolen might be his. When Peter was a little boy, it seems, he came down with an extremely rare and deadly form of bird flu. The only person who had successfully cured it died in 1936 - so Walter, you know, did a bit of fiddling around in his lab and created a TIME MACHINE TELEPORTER to grab this guy from the past to save his son.


However, before it could be used, Peter miraculously recovered, so Walter dismantled his MOTHERFUCKING HOMEMADE TIME MACHINE and stored the separate pieces in a random series of safety deposit boxes throughout the state. And guess which boxes have gone missing?


Using the pattern, Peter and Olivia manage to catch the robbers in the act, capturing one while the others escape with the final piece. The captured robber keeps his trap shut during interrogation - until Peter correctly diagnoses the man's tremors and sudden fits as symptoms of radiation poisoning, an unfortunate side-effect of the Kitty Pride machine. In return for medical aid, he gives what fragmented information he can - his boss apparently kept a map of Germany, but was planning to take the machine to a field in Westford.

Olivia realizes there's a place in Westford called "Little Hill" - the code word Mr. Jones used in "In Which We Meet Mr. Jones." Putting two and two together, she and Charlie head out to Little Hill.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Jones kills his put-upon lawyer just as a bright beam of light arrives in his cell and teleports him successfully to Little Hill, where Loeb set up the machine. Unfortunately, Olivia never reaches Little Hill - she's drugged and kidnapped en-route by mysterious men in black SUVs.

Mad Science:
  • The ability to phase through solid matter
  • An honest-to-God motherfucking TIME MACHINE TELEPORTER 
Best Death Scene: I suppose it'd have to be the guy in the wall - even though his death by bullet is pretty pedestrian.

Mad Science Questions:
  • So let me get this straight, Walter randomly created a Time Machine on a whim and this is somehow not a huge freakin' deal?! What gives?! 
  • Who kidnapped Olivia? Was it Jones' people, because he gave his lawyer a picture of her? Or was it Nina Sharp of Massive Dynamic, in order to harvest her remaining memories of Dead Boyfriend John?
  • Peter seems to have had a lot of near-death experiences as a kid - bird flu, a car accident. What gives?

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Fringe 1x09: "Dreamscape"

Over at Massive Dynamic, up-and-coming employee Mark Young is viciously attacked by a razor-sharp swarm of butterflies and leaps out a window to his death in what is probably the worst commercial for Lunesta ever.

Of course, as Walter and the Fringe Buddies discover, there weren't really any butterflies. Mark was dosed with an experimental hallucinogen so strong that his own mind, convinced it was being slashed to death, inflicted the wounds on his body.

Olivia finds more when she receives a mysterious email from her Dead Boyfriend John that leads her to a hidden lab containing crates of live toads - creatures whose venomous skin forms the basis of the compound that was given to Mark. While it helps the investigation, Olivia is starting to get just a wee bit peeved over having to time-share her brain with Dead Boyfriend John's memories, so she demands Walter put her back in the Hot Tub Telepathy Machine from the pilot episode in order to try and purge the rest of Dead Boyfriend John's memories while finding out more about Mark and how he died.

Meanwhile, Peter gads about town with an ol' gal pal of his, who drops cryptic hints about how much Deep Shit he'll be in if he continues to stay in Boston. Peter digs himself even deeper into the Deep Shit when he beats the crap out of his gal pal's abusive husband - sure, he gets the satisfaction of wailing on a guy who beat up his friend, but he also alerts Mysterious Bad Dudes to his presence.

Back in the Hot Tub Telepathy Machine, Olivia explores Dead Boyfriend John's memories, looking for where and how John knew Mark Young. Apparently, Mark was selling Massive Dynamic's Mad Science Secrets on the black market through a dealer named George Morales - with the help of Dead Boyfriend John. Yikes. However, while Walter insists that Dead Boyfriend John's presence in Olivia's head is only a memory, and that he can't actually see or hear her while she's exploring his thoughts - he turns his head and looks at her when she mentions Mark Young's name, which suggests otherwise.

The Fringe Buddies locate and subdue George and try to get him to confess to murdering Mark. However, George is willing to offer something better - in return for protection. George tells Olivia that Massive Dynamic poisoned Mark to make an example of him for anyone else who tried to sell their secrets to outside sources. Before Olivia can pump him for more evidence, however, George is dosed with the venom and as he hallucinates having his throat slashed by Dead Boyfriend John, his own jugular opens up on its own.

So nothing was really accomplished this episode. No one really knows who killed Mark, and while Olivia wants to return to Dead Boyfriend John's memories for more answers, Walter refuses, explaining that Olivia risks catastrophic brain damage if she does so again and he'd like to develop a safer method first.

However, Olivia receives one last e-mail from Dead Boyfriend John - telling her that he did see her in his own memories.

Mad Science:
  • Mentally-inflicted Physical Wounds
  • Fear-Inducing Hallucinogens
  • Memory Exploration
Best Death Scene: Mark Young's death by butterflies. Because no one suspects the butterfly.

Mad Science Questions:
  • So if John Scott can see Olivia in the dreamscape, does this mean his ghost is real, and not just a shard of memory?
  • What sort of trouble is Peter in, especially now that those Mysterious Bad Dudes know he's in Boston?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Fringe 1x08: "The Equation"

Andrew Stockton is driving his son, Ben, from a music recital when he comes across a broken down car by the side of the road. The driver - who's played by Britta from Community! Dun dun dunnnnn! - asks him to check under the hood. He does, and notices a strange interplay of red and green lights on the engine. Suddenly, he's jerked awake by a tow-truck driver - somehow an hour has passed, and his son and the mysterious woman are both gone.

It's up to the Fringe Buddies to solve the case and rescue the kid. All Andrew remembers is watching the red and green lights - and Walter recalls hearing a similar theory, of people using a sequence of  coloured lights to induce a hypnotic, suggestible state. Olivia remarks that the circumstances are suspiciously similar to a number of kidnappings that took place over the last couple of years - where  men (usually scientists, all experts in their field) would go missing, only to turn up weeks later, driven insane and incapable of remembering what happened to them.

In fact - Walter actually knows one of the victims from his time at St. Claire's Mental Hospital - Dashiell Kim, a mathematician who bludgeoned his wife to death after he returned from an unexplained two-week absence. He was the one who initially told Walter the story of using coloured lights to hypnotize people.

But the previous victims were all physicists and mathematicians - why take a child? Ben's father admits that his son and wife were in a car accident. His wife died, but his son emerged from his coma with an inexplicable musical talent. He was even composing his own works. Walter remembers his roomie Dashiell was obsessed with solving a particular mathematical equation, but could never finish it - music is a mathematically-based art, and when Peter converts the numbers to notes, they discover that Dashiell's unfinished equation is the same as Ben's unfinished song.

Meanwhile, in a Creepy Mad Science Basement, Evil Britta/Joanne Ostler (a neurology student who dropped off the grid 10 years ago), is trying to coerce Ben into finishing his composition by giving him hallucinations of his dead mother - and making her die all over again when he's unable to comply. Even in an entirely different show, she's still THE WORST.

Unfortunately, the Fringe Buddies still have no idea where the kid could be. The only way to find out would be to question one of the victims - so Walter, very reluctantly, volunteers to go back to St. Claire's to question Dashiell. Unfortunately, when he loses his temper with the addled Dashiell, he's sedated and put back in his cell by St. Claire's director Dr. Sumner, who believes Walter should never have been allowed to leave in the first place. However, Walter keeps it together long enough to glean enough clues from poor, tormented Dashiell to lead Olivia to the Creepy Mad Science Basement.

Olivia arrives in time to rescue Ben before he's driven crazy, but Evil Britta uses her Hypnotizing Christmas Lights and escapes with the equation, which Ben finished. She meets up with our pal Mitchell Loeb - who is now heart-parasite free - and uses the equation to finally complete a machine that allows people to pass through solid matter. He then does the entire show a solid and kills Evil Britta. Hooray!

Meanwhile, Peter springs Walter out of Crazy Claire's, and we Have A Moment where Peter tells his father how brave he was to face the mental asylum to save a child's life. Awww....

Mad Science:
  • Head-Trauma-Induced Musical Talent
  • Hypnosis with Christmas Lights
  • Music as Math
  • Mathematical Theorems
  • Phasing through Solid Matter
Best Death Scene: Evil Britta getting shot at the very end. Because she's still the worst. She almost Britta'd that little boy!

Mad Science Questions:
  • What is Mitchell Loeb up to?

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Fringe 1x07: "In Which We Meet Mr. Jones"

FBI Agent Mitchell Loeb is being debriefed by Broyles - Loeb was tracking the shipment of illegal goods supposedly being trafficked by a man named Joseph Smith. Unfortunately, someone tipped Smith off and they never found what they were looking for. Before he can complete his report, Loeb collapses. When he's taken to hospital, the surgeon discovers a giant, tapeworm-esque parasite wrapped around his heart.

It's up to the Fringe Buddies to save him - since it's clear this strange parasite slowly constricting Loeb's heart is no natural creature. Walter takes a sample from the creature and discovers a literal code in its genetic code - a repetitive line in the creature's DNA that, when decoded, spells out the letters ZFT.

Broyles admits that the ZFT is a terrorist organization comprised of Mad Scientists connected to the Pattern. A man suspected of being a member of ZFT, David Robert Jones, was recently arrested in Frankfurt and is being held in a German prison - and seeing as Loeb was recently in Frankfurt, investigating Jones, Olivia doesn't think it's a coincidence.

She travels to Germany to question Jones and meets up with a fellow agent and ex-boyfriend Lucas Vogel (the Drunk Uncle from Revolution). Unfortunately, Jones will only see her if she lets him ask a question of Joseph Smith. The only problem? Joseph Smith is dead - as of five seconds ago, when Peter was unable to prevent him from being gunned down by the FBI.

Walter falls back on his signature move, which is to give someone a bunch of drugs and shoot them up with electricity. While Peter is tripping balls on a sedative, Walter attaches his brain to the dead Joseph's and lets the sparks fly. In Germany, Jones tells Olivia that he wasn't the one who infected Loeb. Instead, he suggests that outside forces have manipulated the situation because they're looking for information from Olivia and Jones. Olivia's not convinced - still, she lets Jones have his question. "Where does the gentleman live?" Jones asks. After getting repeatedly zapped, Peter comes up with the words, "Little Hill." Upon hearing the response, Jones provides the recipe for subduing the parasite.

Loeb's parasite is successfully removed - which is a good thing, since as we learn at the end, he infected himself in order to learn the answer to Jones' question. What's Loeb up to?

Mad Science:
  • Heart-Squeezing Parasites
  • Electrical Transference of Thoughts
Best Death Scene: There's really only one death in this episode, but Joseph Smith takes a killer bullet to the head. 

Mad Science Questions:
  • So how many feels, exactly, did you get when Peter called Walter "Daddy" for the first time in probably decades? Hmm? It's for Science, I promise.
  • Walter also apparently experimented on Peter as a child. Welp, there go those feels...
  • What's so important about "Little Hill"?

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

"The Infinite Moment of Us," by Lauren Myracle (Amulet 2013)

The Chick: Wren Gray. An overachieving high school graduate who's excited to attend Emory college, and later, medical school.
The Rub: But is this really her, or the person her parents want her to be? And what will they say when they discover she wants to defer her acceptance to Emory?

The Dude: Charlie Parker. A solitary foster kid who's still trying to acclimate to his loving foster family. He's loved Wren from afar, though.
The Rub: Can someone as perfect as Wren ever love someone as damaged as him?

The Plot:

Wren: I'm tired of this gilded cage of Parental Expectations! I WANT TO BE FREEEE!

Charlie: I'm tired of being the Foster Kid with no future! WREN, I LOVE YOU!

Wren: No way I totally love you too! This is awesome!

Charlie: Cool.

Disapproving Parents: *are disapproving*

Wren: OMG, Charlie loves his family more than me! Not fair!

Charlie: OMG, what'll I do if Wren moves to Guatemala without me?

Evil Slutty Ex: Who's up for some refreshing External Conflict?

Wren and Charlie: We are!

Evil Slutty Ex: Sweet! I'mma ramble on, super-villain-style, about how Charlie and I are so alike, and then I'll try to kill myself. How's that?

Charlie: Cool.

Wren: Psych! I've decided not to go Guatemala! I can be a carefree, independent girl right here in Atlanta!

Charlie: ...could you, maybe, have thought to tell me that BEFORE my super-poor parents bought me a non-refundable plane ticket to Guatemala?

Wren: ...

Charlie: And also HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Good Girl
  • 1 Bad Boy from the Wrong Side of the Tracks
  • 2 Loving Foster Parents
  • 1 Adorable Disabled Sibling
  • 2 Disapproving Biological Parents
  • 1 Evil Slutty Ex
  • 1 Gift of the Magi Ending

The Word: You might have noticed that I've set this novel up with my romance review format, rather than my YA novel format.

Well, it was with a little surprise that I realized Lauren Myracle's newest novel is, essentially, a romance. Just with younger protagonists. Well, a younger hero - historical romances get away with 17- and 18-year-old heroines all the time. But it's all there - the meet-cute, the longing sighs, the Evil Slutty Ex (sigh), the black moment, and rampant sex scenes that won't turn a regular romance reader's head but will likely land YA author Myracle back on the Most-Banned-Author list again.

That wouldn't have bothered me, except for the fact that, as a romance, Infinite Moment is a fairly conventional one. The too-perfect girl from the stifling privileged family. The lonesome outcast boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Been there. Done that.

Wren is on the cusp of graduating - with excellent grades, a spotless record, and an acceptance letter to Emory, the college where her mother works. It's a pretty good life - except it's not Wren's. It's her overprotective, controlling parents' life, to the point where Wren has no idea where her parents' choices end and her choices begin. So, unbeknownst to her family, she's rejected Emory and has signed up for Project Unity, a junior Peace Corps program that will have her teaching English in Guatemala. She's excited, but also terrified at the prospect of disappointing her parents.

Charlie spent years in the foster care system after his mother abandoned him in a garage during a heat wave. He's finally landed in a loving home (including a rambunctious little brother named Dev), and he's determined not to screw it up. However much he's tried to convince himself that love doesn't exist - he knows he's in love with Wren. But does he have the courage to admit it?

It's weird to read this book from the perspective of someone who's read extensively in romance before coming to YA, because I get the sense that this is all supposed to be new ground for YA readers. And I tried to appreciate it from that perspective, but I don't think I fully succeeded. It's odd - the individual parts of this story are good, but the sum of those parts fell short of the mark.

For instance, I loved the characters. I loved the excruciatingly real depiction of Wren's parents - they're not abusive or overtly cruel, but it's easy to see how their well-meant manipulations and behaviours have half-convinced Wren that their love is conditional upon their approval. Wren, herself, is an interesting character - especially as she struggles to identify which beliefs and desires are her own, and which ones have been ingrained by her parents. Her dialogue is fraught with apologies for stepping beyond the margins and thus, further away from her family.

And I appreciated where Myracle was going with Infinite Moment's sex scenes, which are frank and graphic from a YA perspective, while fairly run-of-the-mill from a romance perspective. Having teens explore their sexuality while talking to each other about it honestly was refreshing. However, while I'm more tolerant of Stupid Sex Decisions in romance (home of Secret Babies, Runaway Dukes, and Hoydens in Pants), I am less tolerant of it in a "realistic" YA so when Wren gives the whole "I'm on the pill, no condom required" schtick I nearly pulled a facial muscle with all my eye-rolling.

That being said, the sum of the story itself wasn't much. Just a pair of teenagers in love. While I liked the characterization and some of the supporting characters (with the Enormous Exception of the poorly-drawn Evil Slutty Ex, a selection straight out of Cliched Romance Central Casting), I found I couldn't get behind the story as much. Because, like, they're teens. I felt uncomfortable with how they were already thinking of changing their entire futures and college plans just to be with each other - especially since, as well-developed teen characters, they have Well-Developed Teen Feelings and make Well-Developed Really Stupid Teen Decisions.

I kept waiting around for a more substantial story, and there really wasn't one. It sort of meanders along,  with lots of hugs and kisses and Perfect Understanding Until Conflict Is Required for the Plot, with the Big Question (will Wren leave for Guatemala without Charlie?) looming above them until it's abruptly resolved thanks to the Power of Love. I'm honestly not sure how I would have reacted to this story without my years of romance experience, so feel free to take my review with a grain of salt, but The Infinite Moment of Us has a lot of nice little moments, but falls short of being eternally awesome.

...and if you will permit me two more paragraphs, I'm just going to rant on the fact that the author chose to have an Obviously Unstable Evil Slut Ex as the contrived villain of this piece. Starrla and Charlie had an extremely unhealthy sexual relationship in the past - which I get. It happens. Teens can grow and develop and move on from such things. Except for the fact that Charlie walks away from that relationship smelling like a rose while Starrla is blamed for the whole thing because She's Broken and Damaged. Yeah, don't bother developing her character - just heavily imply she's a Rape Victim as a blanket explanation for all the Stupid Shit She Does. Um, it takes two people to have sex. How come Starrla's sexual choices are constantly compared to Wren's over and over and found wanting while Charlie's sexual choices are never freakin' mentioned?

The only reason she didn't ruin the entire novel is because, well, Starrla isn't really in the novel all that much. She's just there to be this Big Slutty White Trash Boogeyman who'll randomly toss her ratty mane of cheap extensions and provide Cheap Emotional Conflict whenever the protagonists are getting too cuddly.

Fringe 1x06: "The Cure"

In a small town in Massachusetts, a disoriented woman is tossed out of a van and makes her way to a nearby diner. The server, realizing she's in shock and noticing the bruises on her wrists, calls the local police. Suddenly, everyone in the diner starts screaming, bleeding from the eyes, and dying - except for the Mystery Woman, who takes the Mad Science Death Bar up to eleven when her head explodes.

When the Fringe Buddies arrive on the scene, it's to discover that everyone in the diner died of excessive exposure to radiation - and the headless woman, now identified as Emily Kramer, was the source. While examining the corpse, Walter discovers Emily suffered from Bellini's Lymphocema but appeared to be in remission - odd, considering the illness is considered to be incurable.

Olivia asks Emily's physician Dr. Patel if Emily was taking any special medications. Unfortunately, Dr. Patel's in the dark - even he couldn't explain Emily's sudden recovery from her terminal diagnosis. Olivia asks her FBI pal Charlie to see if anyone else with Bellini's was reported missing - sure enough, Claire Williams was abducted from her home. She also suffered from Bellini's, she also made a miraculous recovery, right before she disappeared.

Meanwhile, Walter and Peter discover the source of the cure - Emily's bloodstream was full of microscopic, time-release capsules of radioactive isotopes that kept the disease at bay with regular doses of helpful radiation. However, whoever abducted her injected her with something that made all of the capsules activate at once - turning her into a human nuclear bomb.

Oliva interrogates Ken Williams, Claire's husband, and discovers that Emily and Claire had been taking experimental, untested therapies - their disease is so rare that pharmaceutical companies never got around to making an official drug for it. And guess who helped - good ol' lying Dr. Patel, who helpfully gives up the name Richard Esterbrook before shooting himself in the head.

Richard Esterbrook is the head of one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, is Obviously Evil, and also knows exactly where Claire Williams is. Olivia confronts him, but he's pretty much untouchable, so Peter makes a Devil's Bargain with the folks at Massive Dynamic to spy on him and find his Mad Science Shenanigan lab. Using this information, Olivia and the FBI storm the lab with Walter's hastily-made cure for Exploding Head-itis and rescue Claire. Richard Esterbrook gets arrested and publicly shamed in the media which I guess is better than Rich People Prison but what do I know?

Olivia's been kind of a witch-with-a-B this episode, and she finally reveals to Peter how she shot her abusive stepfather when she was nine years old (whoa, hardcore). He survived and moved away, and ever since, Olivia's blamed herself for all the evil shit he's still alive to do. And because being a Massively Abusive Dickhole isn't enough, this dude pees in her eye every year by sending her a birthday card to remind her that he's still alive (and, presumably, doing Evil Shit). Sure enough, at the end of the episode, she gets that birthday card shoved under her door. Gross.

Mad Science!
  • Big, Bad Pharma
  • DIY Radiation Therapy
  • Human Atom Bombs
Best Death Scene: There really is no way to top an exploding head. The prize goes to Emily Kramer's literal brain burst. But pretty much everyone in that diner went out in gruesome style - with the radiation literally boiling their brains in their own fluid. 

Mad Science Questions:
  • Did Massive Dynamic somehow engineer this whole situation in order to get rid of a competitor and boost their stock? 
  • Seriously, how does Olivia's evil stepdad still know where she is?