Monday, 24 February 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three

The last we saw of Buffy Summers was of her taking the bus out of Sunnydale to some unknown destination, after killing her vampire-boyfriend Angel to save the world. As you do. Season three opens showing her working as a waitress under an assumed name. But it's not long before the weirdness follows her and sends her home to face up to the consequences of the season two finale.

Back at Sunnydale, Xander, Willow and the others are trying to fight off the vampires without the leadership of the Slayer. This season addresses the relationship between Willow and Xander. First, Willow fancied the oblivious Xander, and then, once Willow got herself a boyfriend, Xander started to feel jealous. Things have come a long way since we first met these characters, and whereas once I would have been happy to see them get together, now I really didn't like seeing them sneaking smoochies whenever they got the chance. Poor Oz! And poor Cordelia. Still, in one way, I'm glad that the inevitable is out of the way now. Although I don't hate Xander's character, I think Willow deserves so much better. Her relationship with Oz survives their cheating. Xander and Cordelia's does not. (I said before, it was never going to last.)

Some new characters are introduced for season three, most notably Richard Wilkins III, mayor of Sunnydale, an apparently genial, fatherly chap who happens to have some nefarious plans of his own. And Faith, the second slayer (Kendra's replacement) a rebellious, angry young woman who is out of control. Faith is played by Eliza Dushku, who I first encountered in Dollhouse, and I observed at the time that she has a very Buffy-ish look to her. I now think that's no coincidence: they are two sides of the same character, Buffy the light, Faith the dark. Faith is how Buffy could have turned out if she didn't have the support from her friends and her mother to keep her grounded, to give her a strong sense of morality. Buffy's conflict with Faith (which could perhaps be interpreted as a conflict between the different sides of her own nature) and the fight to keep the Mayor from transforming into a giant snake monster, is the main plot arc through season three. Because it concerns new characters, it didn't emotionally hook me so much as the story with Angel in season two, but it was entertaining and satisfying to watch, especially in the finale in which the entire graduating class of Sunnydale High join forces to fight the evil (including flaming arrows, because flaming arrows are always awesome.)

I've always thought of Buffy as a high school series, but as Buffy is sixteen at the start of her story, and each season takes place over the course of a school year (like Harry Potter), the show must grow up and move on, like its characters. Season Three finishes with Buffy and co's graduation from high school, and their preparations for university. I felt sad that Willow, after receiving offers from Harvard and Yale, as well as Oxford, decided to study at the local Sunnydale college, but it makes sense in story terms. How could you have a show where each member of the Scooby gang is in a different state? Not to mention the intricacies of filming the series on location. Better to keep them at a fictional college, and build the set to suit the story's need.

There are some marvellous individual stories within season three. I particularly liked "Band Candy," in which students sell chocolate bars to raise money for the school band, and everyone who eats it acts like an irresponsible teenager again. Principal Snyder was both hilarious and creepy acting like a kid, whereas Giles was hilarious with a tough London accent, in a tight t-shirt instead of his usual tweed. This was surprisingly pleasing - and Buffy's mother Joyce certainly thought so, as we discover later on with much hilarity (although I don't think Buffy would share the amusement.) I loved the moment when she confronted Giles about her mother, and he walked right into a tree with shock.

This season also introduces Sexy Evil Vampire Willow, from a parallel dimension created by Cordelia's wish that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. Willow has certainly gained a new confidence in this season, with her relationship with Oz, and new-found interest in witchcraft. (I do fear for her in her witchery, however. I've noticed hints that she might be getting in over her head. Foreshadowing for later seasons perhaps?) Alyson Hannigan must have had so much fun playing Willow as a psychotic vampire, with echoes of Drusilla from season two. "Bored now!" She was so entertaining to watch, and as an added bonus, she comes back in another episode to really shine, acting opposite her usual timid, bookish character.

After Giles breaks the Watchers' rules, he is sacked from the Watchers' Council and replaced by Wesley, a younger, Gilesier Giles. It's quite uncanny to watch the two together (simultaneously wiping their glasses with handkerchiefs during an awkward moment.) Wesley is Giles with all the book-knowledge and none of the experience, full of ideas about authority and rules and orders, and not much clue about actually dealing with vampires. Or slayers. Or teenagers in general. All the Watchers seem to be English, all upper-class and probably Oxbridge-educated. Do none of the American universities give a doctorate in Watching? Quite remiss of them, don't you think?

As you could probably predict (considering he has his own TV show) Angel does not stay dead for long, and is the cause of the greatest plot twist yet. After coming back from the dead, his own, good self, and nursed back to health by Buffy, it doesn't take much to turn him evil again: Faith splatters him with blood, and some creepy ninja-dude appears, and boom! Angel is the bad "Angelus" once more. Faith and Angel capture Buffy, chain her up and prepare to torture her. Then we get this marvelous exchange:
Faith: "What can I say? I'm the world's best actor."
Angel: "Second best."
He was acting all along! How's about that for a shocking moment! Wonderful, so unexpected, my favourite moment of the series so far.

I knew Angel wasn't around for all of Buffy, and so many times in season three, it looks as though he and Buffy are going to split up, that he's going to leave town, that they won't see each other again. But it takes the entire season for him to actually get his act together and go! It's not that I dislike them as a couple. I want Buffy to be happy. But if he's going to go, can't he just stop faffing and go? He breaks up with Buffy, finally, a couple of episodes from the end, and this time it actually does seem final, with harsh words spoken and a broken heart, but he sticks around to help defeat the Mayor's evil plan before disappearing into the night at the end of the season finale. I think we've seen the last of him for a while. I believe Angel runs parallel to Buffy from now on, although I don't have the DVDs for that. Is it essential viewing to make sense of Buffy, or can I muddle along without it? I think Angel's an OK character, but it's Buffy, Willow, Giles and the others that I'm really interested in.

Favourite episodes:

6. Band Candy: In which all the adults act like teenagers and Giles gets together with Buffy's mother.
9. The Wish: A very dark It's A Wonderful Life episode, with Xander and Willow as vampires.
13. The Zeppo: In which Xander feels excluded from the vampire slaying, has his own adventures, and we see just snippets of what would ordinarily be the "main" plot.
14-15. Bad Girls/Consequences: In which Faith goes off the rails, and tries to drag Buffy along with her.
16. Doppelgangland: Welcome back Sexy Evil Vampire Willow!
17. Enemies: The one with the big plot twist.
18. Earshot: In which Buffy can hear everyone else's thoughts.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Attachments - Rainbow Rowell

It looks like I'm the last book blogger to read and review Rainbow Rowell's debut novel, Attachments, so I'll try to keep it short. The plot is simple: Lincoln, IT and systems security man at a newspaper office, is responsible for reading any emails flagged as potentially inappropriate sent from company addresses. It is 1999 and the world is still getting used to the internet, and personal emails from company accounts are a definite no-no. Not that this stops Beth and Jennifer! Their names keep popping up again and again, and Lincoln knows he ought to send them a warning, but they are just so likeable and funny that he can't bring himself to do it. And then he realises he's falling in love...

I admit it: I loved Attachments because I'm nosy. Aren't we all? Who can honestly say they've never stalked an ex on Facebook, or spied on twitter-conversations between people we like. Half of Attachments gives that same feeling that we, like Lincoln, are privy to something personal between friends. Like Lincoln, we get to know Beth and Jennifer through their emails, which reveal them to be people who are a lot of fun to hang out with, sharing their relationship and family woes, quirks and insecurities, and a deep abiding friendship.

To my surprise, it was Lincoln that I found myself relating to the most. All three characters are about my age (28) but it is he who has moved back to his mother's house, is in an unsatisfying job, quiet and a bit nerdy and still not over a relationship that ended many years ago. It was part painful, part reassuring to see myself in this character, putting into words the fear that's always in the back of my mind.
"I think I missed my window," he said.
"What window?"
"My get-a-life window. I think I was supposed to figure all this stuff out somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-six, and now it's too late." 
And of course, Lincoln finds out through the course of the novel that it's not too late at all. He's a really lovely character, thoughtful, kind and well-liked by anyone who comes into contact with him. He befriends an older employee in the staff room and enjoys listening to her stories about her dogs, shares his lunch with her and helps her move house. He prefers nights in playing Dungeons and Dragons to nights out partying, and buys violet-patterned bedsheets instead of something more manly, because he likes violets.

Lincoln doesn't need to see Beth to know he's in love with her: her emails to Jennifer are full of fun, kindness and her sense of humour. And occasionally they mention "My Cute Guy," who she has seen about the offices, but whose identity is unknown. On the first mention of this mysterious stranger, I crossed my fingers that he might turn out to be Lincoln. When he did, I may have let out a girly squeal. Their romance - if you can call it a romance when the characters don't interact for most of the book - is really heartwarming and sweet, and I really enjoyed watching it play out towards its conclusion.

If you're looking for a chick lit novel for people who don't like chick lit, let me recommend Attachments. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Shine, Shine, Shine - Lydia Netzer

 This is the story of an astronaut who is lost in space, and the wife he left behind.

It took me a while to decide whether or not I was going to like Shine, Shine, Shine. Though quite easy to read, written in a simple, rather Alexander McCall Smith-esque prose, the narration feels quite detached: telling, not showing, although in a deliberate, dreamy way. I wouldn't class this as a science fiction novel so much as a love story set in the very near future. It is realistic but occasionally surreal - both characters experience visions that could be prophetic or could be hallucinations, literal pictures of metaphors explaining their world.

It is specified early on that Maxon and Sunny's son is autistic, and it is clear that he shares traits with his father, who is a brilliant scientist but whose mind needs a formula for every human interaction. A lot of the story takes place in flashback, and at first I found it very hard to relate to the characters. Maxon is a being of logic rather than emotion, though he is curious and eager to learn. (I heard Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation's voice in my head for him.) His conversation is stilted, his humour falls flat, and I wondered at first why he had ever married Sunny. Could it really be love? Their interactions seemed so awkward and uncomfortable. The dialogue with Sunny about why he thinks it is time for them to have a baby made me feel quite uncomfortable. But Shine, Shine, Shine is a novel of gradual revelation; as it fleshes out their history and characters, I came to realise that these two unusual people were made for each other, that their love is touching and all-encompassing, even if not easily expressed, and they are really a beautiful couple.

To all appearances, Sunny is a fairly ordinary suburban housewife, expecting their second child when Maxon blasts off into space. Then something happens, and she makes the decision: no more pretending. The layers are stripped away to reveal a quite extraordinary person. Every aspect of her identity is called upon at once: as daughter, mother and wife - her mother is dying, she is expecting her second child, and her husband is in space - but what does it really mean to be Sunny Mann? How does she reconcile how she appears to the world with who she is inside?

Shine, Shine, Shine has a somewhat open ending, not giving you definite answers on what happens next. The present situation is not what this novel is really about, so much as the people involved, what made them and brought them to this point. Instead of answers, we are shown one of Sunny's visions, which, like Sydney Carton's at the end of A Tale of Two Cities, may or may not be taken as truth, but which end the novel on a note of hope. I recommend Shine, Shine, Shine to fans of The Time-Traveller's Wife: even if you find it a bit difficult to get into at first, it's worth sticking with it to the end.

Favourite Quotes:

"What, do you want to put pinholes in me and screw a bulb into my brain?" she said...
"I don't think I would need pinholes," said Maxon... "I think you would just shine."

How do we love each other? We love each other like naked children in a strange jungle, when every stump turns into and ogress, each orchid into a lump of maggots. We didn't say, 'I love you,' just as we didn't, after a day of wandering, lost in the trees, turn to each other and say, 'We are the only naked children in this jungle.' Everyone else was just a jaguar or a clump of dirt.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sunday Summary: Weather, Werewolves and Manic Pixie Dream Girls.


If 2013 will be forever remembered as the year we had no spring, then the winter of 2014 will be chiefly remembered for its storms and floods (at least here in the UK. I understand the USA has been experiencing freak snow.) Last weekend I had made plans to stay with my sister just outside London, but the weather forecast was not good. I'd booked myself a late evening train, and all the reports pointed towards having to cancel. However, when I left work on the Saturday night to find it dry and a bit windy, I decided to risk travelling, and aside from a bit of rollercoaster-tummy on the ferry, I had no trouble getting to my destination (though my train time had been altered, causing a bit of confusion, in order to accommodate a couple of extra stations.) I got to her flat just after 10PM, where she was at the ready with copious amounts of curry and her Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD. She has befriended the staff at her local Indian restaurant/take-away, and ended up with a whole load of freebies "so there's enough for everyone." How many of us did they think would be eating?

In actual fact, the weather stayed fine the whole time I was in London: a bit cold, a bit drizzly, but OK, though the Thames was horribly flooded between Kingston and Richmond. I met up with friends on the Sunday and they pointed out where the cycle path usually was, and the road. All were underwater, with a car parked in the river with a council notice stuck to its back windscreen (probably saying: "your car is getting wet, please move it.")

And now... the weather:

I thought we'd got off quite lightly on the Isle of Wight, but yesterday, various friends posted photographs on Facebook of some of the coastal towns' flooding, particularly in West Cowes, where the high street was underwater all the way up to Sainsbury's (which is a bit of a walk from the seafront and the ferry terminal.) Apparently the military were helicoptered in to help out. Checking the local news site, I've also just found out that Ventnor Undercliff is being evacuated due to landslides. I've been unaffected by it all, as I live in the centre of the Island and uphill.


One of my Christmas presents was a gift card for Foyle's, so I travelled into London with my sister on the Monday morning, before heading back home via a shopping trip to Southampton later that day. I'd planned to spend it on The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey and Attachments by Rainbow Rowell, but astonishingly, I couldn't find either of these titles in the famous five-storey bookshop. Not that it was too hard to find something else to spend my voucher on: eventually I settled on The Explorer by James Smythe, which I remembered seeing reviewed on Ellie's book blog, and Dream London by Tony Ballantyne, which was an impulse buy. It is brand-new to me, but looks bizarre, unsettling and fascinating. I bought The Girl With All The Gifts in Waterstone's on Oxford Street (the little one in the Plaza, which I like better than the one with the funny Twitter account; it has a friendlier atmosphere, I think) but could not find Attachments in any of the big stores in either London or Southampton. Not to worry, though, as there was a copy back on the Isle of Wight.

Since I've lost both my local HMV and Blockbuster, I have to do my DVD-buying whenever I get the chance. I'm especially disappointed in the loss of Blockbuster for boxsets - there are so many series I want to watch, but don't want to shell out £20 or so if I don't know if I'll like them. I found the first series of Battlestar Galactica in HMV for £6.99, and a second-hand season one of Heroes in Southampton's CEX. (Now, why don't we have a CEX on the Island? It is needed.) Both of these are things I've been curious about for a while, and did not mind spending just a little more than it would have cost to rent them. In the meantime, I've been continuing watching Buffy and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

What I read:

Last week I read through two decent but underwhelming teen novels: Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher, and Severed Heads, Broken Hearts by Robyn Schneider. I'd read Pitcher's My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece (or, more accurately, let David Tennant read it to me when I had a migraine) and was very impressed, but unfortunately Ketchup Clouds didn't live up to expectations. I couldn't figure out how old the narrator was supposed to be: her voice came across as much younger than the events she was reporting. I suppose this is fair enough: she must be between fourteen and sixteen, an age where childhood and adulthood sit very uncomfortably together. The cover story alluded to a girl haunted by a terrible secret, but the plot focused more on the run-up to the tragedy than its aftermath, and though beautifully written, it was a storyline that didn't really interest me.

Severed Heads, Broken Hearts is a very John Green-esque coming of age story, funny and affectionate, but unfortunately spoiled for me by the awareness of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Last year, the Internet got quite indignant about Manic Pixies, declaring them to be a sexist portrayal of women, that they appear only in relation to men and don't get to tell their own story. I don't necessarily agree with this argument: characters look different from the outside than from the inside. If Cassidy, or Alaska Young, or Margo Roth Spiegelman were the protagonists, rather than the love interests, would that in itself stop them from wearing the "Manic Pixie" label? Can you think of any characters who could be "Manic Pixies" if they were shown from another perspective? I wonder if even my beloved Anne Shirley would come across that way, if her story was told from the perspective of Gilbert Blythe. Jeane from Sarra Manning's Adorkable is an interesting version of the character, as the narrative switches between her point of view and the boy's. Also, are there Manic Pixie Dream Boys? Augustus Waters springs to mind. And let's not forget all the supernatural creatures in the form of a teenage male, who are seen only in relation to a teenage girl. An Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creature is very different to a vampire, werewolf or faerie narrator who happens to have a girlfriend. Does this mean there is no place for the trope? Nine out of ten times, when I think analytically about tropes, it enhances my reading experience, but occasionally it ruins it. Cassidy Thorpe is a textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and though I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, the controversy of the trope made me enjoy Severed Heads, Broken Hearts a lot less than I might have done a year ago.

Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf has been sitting on my to-read pile for a couple of years, so I decided that if I was going to read it, I should hurry up about it. It is very dark - perhaps not surprisingly for a book about a man who turns into a ruthless killer once a month! My preferred version of the werewolf legend is when the person and the wolf are pretty much separate - and that the wolf looks like a wolf, not a weird hybrid. The Last Werewolf uses the hybrid version, which extends into narrator Jake's human life as well. He cannot compartmentalise his human and wolf selves, so he's developed a very nihilistic worldview to cope with his changed nature. So he kills people every month: he has come to terms with this in order to survive. The Last Werewolf is bleakly philosophical, darkly poetic; not always a pleasant read, but it's good to have another version of the werewolf legend to compare with the Lupins, Ozzes and Elenas.

Though I wouldn't call myself a Tom Hiddleston fangirl, I do like him a lot as an actor and a person. He's been acting in Shakespeare's Coriolanus recently, which I haven't been lucky enough to see, but the Twitter-talk about it prompted me to read the play. As is often the case with Shakespeare, I was blown away by how applicable this story of ancient Rome still is today: the tragedy of a powerful man whose fatal flaw is his underestimation and disdain for the ordinary folk. This isn't one of Shakespeare's plays where every other line is a famous quotation, but it does include the words "to fob off" (exactly as one would use it today) "thwack" and "sprightly."

Friday, 14 February 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Two

I'm assuming I'm the last person to watch Buffy, but in case I'm not: spoilers.

After the first couple of episodes, I quite enjoyed the first season of Buffy as a series of one-off monster-of-the-week episodes. Season two is where it really kicks off. Its opening wasn't promising: the first episode looked like textbook How Not To Sequel, showing the vampires attempting to bring back the Master from the dead, the villain Buffy defeated at the end of the previous season. I didn't love the Master - he was cheesy and somewhat irritating, certainly not a strong enough villain to be the Big Bad of all of Buffy. I was relieved when this story came to nothing, serving mostly as an excuse for Buffy to find closure (which she did by smashing the Master's skeleton into dust with a hammer.) With the Master out of the way, the obvious next villain must be The Anointed One, a seriously creepy child who is leading the vampires. Or so you'd think.

Enter Spike. From the minute he screeched his car into Sunnydale, I knew that this series was never going to be the same again. I knew who he was immediately - I remembered all my friends loving Spike from the first time around, but didn't see what the appeal was. Of course I didn't. I only saw pictures. But as soon as he struts onto the scene, even with his vampire-face on, and an accent that is supposed to be London, but wobbles, Spike exudes a sort of villainous charm, the Lestat to Angel's Louis. In his first episode, Joss Whedon subverts our expectations in his characteristic way, when Spike effortlessly destroys the Anointed One at the end of his very first episode. This is not someone you want to mess with. Nor is his girlfriend, Drusilla, who is quite mad: part a malevolent River Tam of Firefly, part Helena Bonham Carter as... well, any of her roles, and all very sinister indeed.

Season two is where the main characters start to find success in love. A new character is introduced: Oz, a musician and in the year above them, who upon seeing Willow becomes utterly "Who is that girl?" Likewise, I fell head-over-heels in love with Oz: he's cool and laid-back and utterly adorable, and it made me very happy to see Willow get over her unrequited fancy of Xander and pair up with Oz. They are quite possibly the cutest couple ever. And then Oz becomes a werewolf. I've had a soft spot for decent people who become werewolves ever since Remus Lupin, and so I was utterly thrilled to see that my favourite new character got this plot - even if the werewolf is basically a man in wolf mask and a hairy suit. (It beats most CGI werewolves these days.)

Meanwhile, Xander starts sneaking secret smoochies with... Cordelia?!?! The mean-girl queen bee who has nothing but contempt for Buffy and her friends, and particularly Xander? I wouldn't quite say that theirs is a Benedick and Beatrice relationship, but it is certainly a fiery one. (It'll never last.)

But most important is Buffy's relationship with Angel, which is consumated half-way through the season. And then, everything changes, Whedon-style. Buffy's good vampire boyfriend is gone, turned into a sadistic monster, the worst of all the vampires. WHAT? I had absolutely no idea that this was going to happen, and was both upset and awed. The story's not meant to go that way. And I love it when a story doesn't go the way it "should."

I expected Angel to be reformed soon after his tranformation, and spend the rest of the season angsting over what he'd done. His actions in the episode "Passion" proved me wrong: not only does he murder Giles' new girlfriend, Miss Jenny Calendar, but he tucks her body up in Giles' bed, leaving a romantic rose-trail up the stairs. So much crueller to Giles - and agony for the viewers to see Giles look so happy knowing what he is about to find. This is not a little blip on Angel's record, Whedon tells us. Broody good Angel is not in there any more.

Season two introduces Kendra the Vampire Slayer - Buffy's replacement, because she "died" at the end of the season one finale, if only for a minute or two. This poses the question: is this "only-one-slayer" business all messed up forever now? When Kendra dies (she lasted longer than I expected, but not past the season finale) will she be also replaced, in a continual line of two slayers forever (unless another one dies briefly and revives, again, and then there were three?) These things bother me. 

Who would have predicted at the beginning of the season that the Big Bad would not be the Master, nor the Anointed One, or even Spike and Drusilla, but handsome, harmless Angel? Congratulations Angel, you have character! You have depth! Shame Buffy has to kill you because you're about to bring about the end of the world. But wait! Willow may be able to magic Angel's soul back into him. My idea of the series' tragic ending would be that Angel would turn back to good at the exact instant that Buffy staked him. (Yes, I know he gets his own series later down the line, but dead doesn't always mean dead in this 'verse. I mean, c'mon, vampires!) As if that wouldn't be tragic enough, once more, Joss Whedon tweaks the narrative just enough to make it even more devastation. Angel gets his soul back... but Buffy still has to kill him to save the world. Deliberately and in cold blood.

I have said it many times: Joss Whedon feeds on his fans' (and characters') pain and anguish. Season two just confirms this... and I've a horrible feeling that it has only just begun.

Most Memorable Episodes. (I'm not sure "favourite" is the correct word any more.)

4. Inca Mummy Girl: In which Buffy's exchange student turns out to be an Inca Mummy.
6. Halloween: In which halloween costumes change their wearers.
7. Lie To Me: In which Buffy is reunited with an old classmate, who is too interested in the vampires.
11. Ted: In which Buffy's mom gets a new boyfriend, who is not as nice as he seems.
13-14. Surprise/Innocence: In which Buffy turns seventeen and sleeps with Angel, who turns evil.
15. Phases: In which Oz is revealed to be a werewolf.
17. Passion: In which Angel proves what he is capable of.
19. I only have eyes for you: In which an illicit romance with a tragic ending is acted out again and again at Sunnydale High. Points deducted for wasps.
21-22. Becoming: The season finale, in which everything hurts and nothing is OK.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season One

As I've mentioned before, I have spent the last seventeen years inexcusably ignorant of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, despite being a nerdy teenager at the time it was originally aired. I saw a few episodes, and listened to my friends rave about it, but it was never a show I went out of my way to watch. Even when I'd been introduced to Joss Whedon's other work: Firefly, Dollhouse, Doctor Horrible and The Avengers, Buffy didn't really appeal. I've never been a big fan of vampires. Yet slowly I was won over, and eventually borrowed the boxset from my best friend. I wasn't convinced right away, but I've learned from experience that Joss Whedon's series tend to start grabbing my attention from round about the third episode: in this case, the episode with the witch cheerleader, who turns out to be the cheerleader's mother who's done a body-swap with her daughter, trying to relive her glory days. 

I confess, I'm not a huge fan of the "chosen one" trope, and am still a bit confused about how and why Buffy is the designated Slayer: what is so special about her, that no one else can do the job? Several other characters have been able to effectively wield a pointy stick. Is she naturally abnormally strong, abnormally skilled? She is an awesome fighter, sure enough, but it's clear that she does a lot of rigorous physical training to get that way. When we first meet Buffy, new student at a new school, she is already well aware of her destiny before she ever met Giles, or any other "Watcher" to tell her what she needs to be doing. How did she discover this? What would happen if someone else wanted to battle vampires, without being a "chosen one?" Who chose Buffy and how did they let her know? These are the things that irritate my brain, but for the most part I just put this aside and enjoy the show. And by this point, yes I am enjoying it very much. There is an overriding story arc about one particularly powerful vampire known as The Master (no, he is not nor has he ever been  a Time Lord) and among the monster-of-the-week stories, series one builds up towards a prophesied confrontation between the newly-restored Master and the Slayer.

But for me, at least in series one, it's not the vampire-slaying stories that interest me so much as how the 
events affect the characters. Buffy, her classmates Willow and Xander and their school librarian by day, Watcher by night, Rupert Giles, make an excellent team. I like Buffy a lot more than I expected: she is very human, flawed, yet likable, tough but vulnerable. She is, in short, a sixteen-year-old girl, but one with a huge responsibility. Willow is simply adorable, and her unrequited love for Xander is rather heartrending, because he sees her as just a friend, someone who's been there so long he's kind of forgotten she's a girl. I see parallels to Ron and Hermione in their friendship, possibly because I'm reading
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince at the same time as watching Buffy. But I think Willow can do much better than Xander.*

Xander is far too interested in Buffy, and at times displays unattractive signs of "nice guy syndrome,"
but Buffy has eyes only for Angel - who, as a vampire, is her sworn enemy. Oh, teenage romance woes, how I don't miss you! I knew about the Buffy/Angel love story from the start, and did not relish it, yet it was well done. Yes, Angel can be a bit brooding and introspective, but at least he doesn't sparkle. This is more than the standard teen romance between a human girl and an Interchangeable Magical Boyfriend Creature, because Buffy's purpose is to destroy ALL the vampires, adding a deeper level of conflict. It's not the greatest love story of all time, but it's moving and handled well.

I often enjoy the stand-alone monster-of-the-week episodes more than the vampires themselves: let's face it, The Master is an incredibly cheesy villain, and I found him rather irritating - an over-acting Voldemort. Still, the final episode's confrontation was very satisfying; it was an emotional roller-coaster of an episode. After spending eleven episodes getting to know Buffy, experiencing her highs and lows, her vampire-slaying and her longing for a normal life, who could fail to be affected by her overhearing the terrible prophesy. "I'm sixteen years old. I don't want to die." 

Favourite episodes:

3. "The Witch" - the one with the body-switching cheerleader mom. Episode 3: the one where I started really getting into the series.
6. "The Pack." - The one where Xander and some school bullies get possessed by hyenas and the bullies eat the school principal. This series suddenly took a very dark turn.
8. "I Robot, You Jane." - The one where Willow uploads a demon onto the internet. Hilariously dated, so bad it's good.
9. "The Puppet Show." ARRGH VENTRILOQUIST DUMMY NO! In which Joss Whedon takes a classic horror trope and turns it on its head, playing with all our expectations. Not for the last time.
10. "Nightmares." In which everyone's worst fears and nightmares come to life. I cried.
11. "Out of Mind, Out of Sight." The one with the invisible girl. 

*Interesting that I'm having these thoughts right now. The internet tells me today that J. K. Rowling now wishes she'd paired Harry and Hermione together, that Ron and Hermione wouldn't actually have been good for each other. Perhaps my comparison is not so mad after all...

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Sunday Summary: First book splurge of 2014

My Precious...

January always feels like a long month financially, after the Christmas spending, presents and food. No matter how careful I think I'm being in December, somehow I always find my money stretches thinner after Christmas. Up to this point, my book-buying consisted of one children's book, second-hand, while I worked my way down the to-read pile and rereading old favourites. But Friday was payday. I fell in love with the new Lord of the Rings hardbacks as soon as I saw them, and figured that as my paperbacks have been read so many times that they're falling to pieces, replacing them with nice hardcovers would be a good investment. Payday fell on Friday this week, and I took myself down to Waterstone's. On taking the books to the till, I then discovered that Waterstone's were having a 20% off weekend - an added bonus!

This was going to be the end of my book-buying for now, but somehow my feet led me to The Works, who were filling their shelves with new stock after a big clearance. Lo and behold, the first thing I saw was a book on my wishlist - and the second thing I saw was another book on my wishlist; one that several people have given rave reviews of recently. Both were on the 3 for £5 offer, and it did not take me long to find a third title that caught my fancy, saving at least £15 on the full retail price. Evidently this weekend is the time for a good bookish bargain.

What I've been Reading:

One of the heroes of 2013 was Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield, who spent a large chunk of last year aboard the International Space Station. His autobiography, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is an inspiring read and a fascinating insight into what it takes to be an astronaut: a lot more than merely having good brains and an interest in space. Hadfield is revealed to be ridiculously determined, having started planning for a ridiculously unlikely career from a very young age, but also wise and well-balanced, working hard to become an astronaut and go into space, but not making that his only purpose. It's astonishing how much you need to know, because when it's just you and a couple of other people in a spaceship, no one else can step in, your survival depends on your attention to detail, quick thinking and a wide range of skills. (An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth also brought home how completely improbable the storyline about Howard Wolowitz going into space was in The Big Bang Theory. It doesn't work like that, chaps.) But Hadfield's book is not just about space travel: as is suggested by the title, it is full of wisdom that can be applied to everyday life even for those of us who are destined to keep our feet on the ground.

Pretty Girl Thirteen is the story of Angie, a teenage girl who returns home after being missing for three years, with no memory of anything that has happened. This is part page-turning thriller, and part an exploration of someone trying to go back to living a normal life in the aftermath of a catastrophe. What marks Pretty Girl Thirteen as different is that Angie's lost memories are due to Dissociative Identity Disorder, which I'd never come across in fiction before. As it's a condition I'm unfamiliar with, I'm not sure how accurately it is portrayed in the novel, but it was an enlightening read, if sometimes striking me as feeling a bit supernatural. The brain is a very complicated thing. Although Pretty Girl Thirteen contains traumatic subject matter, it wasn't a particularly distressing read, due to Angie not having any memories of her missing three years. I read through this book in a single sitting on my day off.
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