Book Review: Willow by V.C. Andrews (2002)

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Review 2.2

Wealth. Extravagant parties. Celebrity status. These are things Willow De Beers could only dream of until now. After discovering deep family secrets in her adoptive father’s journal, Willow bids farewell to her North Carolina college town and sets out in search of her birth family amid the ritzy glamour of Palm Beach

In my childhood home, like so many in the mid 90’s, there was a dusty shelf on the bookcase filled with old V. C. Andrews paperbacks. My parents were extremely strict about policing what I watched on T.V., but were much more casual about what I read. When I was around ten or eleven years old, I picked up Flowers in the Attic, and my eyes were opened. It was my first encounter with a book that dealt with overtly sexual themes such as incest and rape, and I had no idea what was happening in the more “adult” scenes. Nevertheless I found that I enjoyed the high melodrama and the continuous cycle of betrayal and forgiveness. All through high school, while I was taking AP Literature and preparing to begin my degree in English, these books were my guilty pleasure.

This past Christmas I had the chance to spend the holidays with my family back in the States for the first time in many years. While I was sitting and catching up with my parents I took a glance at the family bookcase and there they were. The same tattered V. C. Andrews paperbacks I had read and re-read so many times. They had dwindled in number over the years, no doubt lost to garage sales and thrift stores. I was immediately hit by a wave of fond nostalgia, and when I returned to Canada I decided I wanted to revisit V. C. Andrews by reading one of her books that was new to me. On a whim, I chose Willow, which is the first novel in the five-book De Beers series.

Why is any of this important? Because the nostalgia factor here is very strong, and definitely swayed my opinion on the book. If a person who was not previously familiar with V. C. Andrews read Willow, they would probably see it as the most ridiculous and silly kind of smut. But for me, going back into that world was so relaxing. It was like taking my brain off at the end of a long day.

Willow has all of the trademarks that make V. C. Andrews the bestselling author of trashy family dramas. The title character suddenly finds herself dealing with the ritz and glamour of Palm Beach high society. The upper echelons of the upper class are pictured here as if they have been drawn by someone who had only the rudimentary idea of what wealth is. I’ve certainly never run in those circles, but somehow I find 6:00 am beluga caviar feasts as people toast themselves and how fabulous they are a bit far-fetched. Such though is the charm of V. C. Andrews, whose books have always focused on the super-rich and their dazzling lifestyles. Even though this novel is set in 2002, the characters behave as if they are perpetually trapped in some long ago era. The women are shallow and ornamental, the men strutting and arrogant. It’s all just so deliciously silly.

I haven’t said much about the plot, but that’s because the plot is largely inconsequential. What matters is that Willow De Beers is suddenly transported to a life of fabulous wealth and dangerous secrets. How and why she got there aren’t treated with any great importance.

Books like these are impossible to review. Objectively, Willow is terrible. The characters are paper-thin, there is virtually no plot. It’s mere window-dressing, but sometimes the window-dressing can be a lot of fun. I doubt I’ll read the other four books in the DeBeers series, but I’m glad to have read Willow.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Willow here on Amazon or here on Book Depository. And on dusty bookshelves in Midwestern households everywhere.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book vs Film: The Martian

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This is one of the very rare instances where I prefer the film to the book. In no specific order, here is why. Spoilers abound.

The basic plot: Astronaut Mark Watney has been left for dead on Mars after an accident occurs during a sandstorm. He must rely on his wits and ingenuity to survive, while back on Earth a team of scientists work together to find a way to bring him home.

1.) Ridley Scott can be very hit-or-miss, but he is a genius when it comes to science fiction. I say that in full recognition of the lukewarm Prometheus and the oddly disjointed Alien: Covenant. The future presented in The Martian isn’t as high-tech and gloomy as Alien or Blade Runner, instead it deals with technology that is probably not that far off, as well as plenty of tech will be familiar to the average viewer. Scott incorporates the scientific and technical elements seamlessly into the plot. At one point, when Watney is building a hexadecimal communication system, the mathematics takes a running jump to the level that only a computer engineer could understand. Scott wisely decides not to spend too much time explaining how this system works, instead relying on the trusty science fiction fallback of “it works because science”.

Ridley Scott has long ago mastered the art of using practical effects as much as possible, and when he does resort to CGI he deploys it with a skill and grace that other directors should aspire to. After this year’s overly frantic Ready Player One and the abysmal Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, it was a pleasure to watch someone use special effects to enhance a well-told story.

And, oddly enough for Ridley Scott, this film almost has an upbeat feel. Most of which is due to the soundtrack. Speaking of which…

2.) It’s one of my all-time favorite soundtracks. Full disclaimer, I’m currently listening to Earth, Wind, and Fire while drinking a glass of wine on a Saturday night. I have a thing for disco. That said, the disco music, which is mentioned in Weir’s novel as the only thing left for Mark Watney to listen to after his team’s departure, is an inspired choice. The combination of the desolate Martian landscape, the lone and lonely figure isolated on a foreign planet, and the cheerful tunes of ABBA is perfect. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, another film which uses peppy, upbeat music as a background for rather depressing events. Because of this The Martian maintains an optimistic tone despite it’s admittedly bleak subject matter.

3.) Ridley Scott attracts some of the most talented people for his films. Star Matt Damon carries the film on his back. His delivery of Mark Watney is funny and sad and scared and cocky all at once. He definitely earned his Best Actor nomination. Filling out the cast are talents such as Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristin Wiig, Michael Pena, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, and  Donald Glover in a small but hilarious role.

4.) I haven’t talked much about the book yet. This is because, for me, the book didn’t have as great an impact as the movie. I enjoyed the novel, but it was a more straightforward science fiction story. The movie brought a sense of comedy and levity to the difficult proceedings that is lacking in Andy Weir’s novel.

I also feel that technological and mathematical concepts presented in The Martian are more easily understood in a visual format. The novel often feels bogged down in mathematics, and I occasionally struggled to picture what was actually happening as Mark Watney improvises different ways to stay alive on a lifeless planet.

I can’t think of more than ten instances where I’ve truly preferred a film adaptation over the original novel. Even though I have to admit that this is one of those cases, it is only because Andy Weir gave the filmmakers such a great concept in his novel. While I truly enjoyed Weir’s The Martian, I absolutely love Ridley Scott’s film interpretation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go listen to more disco.

Book Review: Haunted Nights edited by Ellen Datlow and Lisa Morton (2017)

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Review 2.1

Sixteen never-before-published chilling tales that explore every aspect of our darkest holiday, Halloween, co-edited by Ellen Datlow, one of the most successful and respected genre editors, and Lisa Morton, a leading authority on Halloween. 
In addition to stories about scheming jack-o’-lanterns, vengeful ghosts, otherworldly changelings, disturbingly realistic haunted attractions, masks that cover terrifying faces, murderous urban legends, parties gone bad, cult Halloween movies, and trick or treating in the future, Haunted Nights also offers terrifying and mind-bending explorations of related holidays like All Souls’ Day, Dia de los Muertos, and Devil’s Night.

 

A book of short stories, all of which center around Halloween and its traditions, may seem like an odd choice for holiday reading. I had originally earmarked this collection for part of my Booktober horror-novel marathon, but the wait list at the library was a lot longer than I had anticipated. Instead I got to enjoy these stories under the glow of my Christmas tree, and it ended up being the first novel I finished in 2019!

Haunted Nights was published by Blumhouse Books, which some horror fans may recognize as the production company behind many popular horror movies such as Grave Encounters, Insidious, and Get Out. All the stories center around some aspect of Halloween or one of the other holidays associated with death and the spirit world. As in any short story compilation, Haunted Nights has its highs and lows but overall, I felt that most of the stories hit their mark and delivered upon the atmosphere that editor Ellen Datlow was striving for.

Ranging in length from twenty to forty pages, the short stories in Haunted Nights are great for a short reading session. The stories vary from the bleak and depressing “All Through the Night” to the delightfully creepy “Sisters”. My favorite was probably John Langan’s “Into the Dark”, which reads like the script for one of the found-footage horror films I’ve come to love and expect from Blumhouse.

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I read scary novels all year round. I would definitely recommend Haunted Nights as a kick-off to the Halloween season. This would be a great book to curl up with on a windy October night while you’re home alone.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find Haunted Nights here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!