Veronica Mars: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

thousand-dollarFrom the back cover:
Ten years after graduating from high school in Neptune, California, Veronica Mars is back in the land of sun, sand, crime, and corruption. She’s traded in her law degree for her old private investigating license, struggling to keep Mars Investigations afloat on the scant cash earned by catching cheating spouses until she can score her first big case.

Now it’s spring break, and college students descend on Neptune, transforming the beaches and boardwalks into a frenzied, week-long rave. When a girl disappears from a party, Veronica is called in to investigate. But this is no simple missing person’s case. The house the girl vanished from belongs to a man with serious criminal ties, and soon Veronica is plunged into a dangerous underworld of drugs and organized crime. And when a major break in the investigation has a shocking connection to Veronica’s past, the case hits closer to home than she ever imagined.

Review:
I have been a fan of Veronica Mars from almost the beginning. I tuned in about midway through the first season, after reading about the show on the sadly now-defunct Television Without Pity website, and vividly recall how it quickly became appointment television, and how absolutely riveted I was watching the season finales for the first and second seasons. I mourned the show when it was cancelled, and when a friend forwarded me the link to the Kickstarter campaign for the movie last spring, I was practically delirious with squee. Finally, a few weeks ago, I went to see the movie (after pre-ordering tickets the minute they were available, naturally).

I admit I was a little disappointed the first time through—ninety minutes just wasn’t enough time to flesh out both relationships and the case—but I did like it more upon a second viewing. The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line continues the story from where the movie leaves off, and while I was a little unsure at first, I was soon won over by the characterization and the luxury of more time to spend with these characters, inhabiting their world.

A couple months have passed since the events of the movie. While Keith has been recuperating from his injuries, Veronica has been manning Mars Investigations, not that any challenging cases have come along. When a college girl in Neptune for spring break goes missing, however, a representative from the city’s chamber of commerce comes to the Mars family for help, since Sheriff Lamb’s inactivity on the case is resulting in canceled reservations and the loss of tourist revenue. Veronica’s ensuing investigation feels a lot like an episode from the third season of the show, from her dorm room interrogation of one suspect, to her tried-and-true drunk ditz routine at a party full of suspects. When a second girl with surprising ties to Veronica goes missing, things get even more complicated.

I thought the case was reasonably well executed, and the personal stakes for Veronica were intriguing, as well. Dialogue for all characters was great and easy to imagine in the actors’ voices; I even giggled a few times. I’ve seen some reviewers complaining about the book being written in the third person, saying that it lacks the same feel as the series, but I found plenty of internal contemplation from Veronica that read just like the show’s voiceover narration to me. (I can only imagine this will be even more true in the unabridged audio version, read by Kristen Bell. I bought that, too, and plan to listen to it very soon.) Plus, we’re able to get some insights into her thoughts that she might not even narrate, like this nice quote about Wallace: “There weren’t many people in this world who would let you be vulnerable and still believe you were strong.”

Speaking of Wallace, another complaint I’ve seen regards the lack of Logan in this book—he’s on an aircraft carrier thousands of miles away, so it only makes sense—but I actually welcome it. The movie put their relationship front and center; now it’s time to focus on Veronica’s other relationships. To that end, we get several really nice scenes involving Mac (who’s now a technical analyst for Mars Investigations), Wallace, and Keith. There was just enough Logan to my reckoning.

I did have one complaint of my own for a while—two if you count that nobody caught Gia Goodman being referred to as Gia Goodwin. I wished we saw Veronica embarking on an even bigger case, like actively working to expose the corruption at the Sheriff’s Office or to find out who was responsible for the hit and run that injured her father and killed Deputy Sacks. However, I eventually realized that there actually was a big plot on the go—bringing Keith around to the idea that Veronica is doing what she’s meant to do (as opposed to being safe, well paid, and bored as a New York lawyer) . The ultimate resolution here is extremely satisfying, and I find myself very excited at the notion that the two of them could really function as full-fledged partners on a future case. More Keith is always a good thing!

Currently, only a second book in this series is guaranteed, and it has neither a title nor publication date at present, though Rob Thomas has promised more Logan. I suppose it goes without saying that I really, really hope for more beyond that. Give the diehard fans an inch, and they’ll ask for a mile!

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 8

By Joss Whedon, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

Because I’ve spent so much time and energy in the attempt to quantify why and how Season Eight lost me, I find myself sorely tempted to dismiss this final volume with a simple “meh,” but I suppose I can summon one more burst of effort.

This volume comprises the last five issues of Season Eight (#36-40) and also includes a fun Riley one-shot by Jane Espenson called “Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin.” When last we left off, Buffy had turned down sex-spawned paradise to return to this dimension and help her friends fend off the demons that poured in once her mystical boinkage with Angel created a new universe. Then Spike showed up.

As usual, the arc actually starts off pretty well. We see how Angel was convinced (by a talking dog who gets some great lines of Whedon dialogue) to take up the Twilight cause, and some of how Spike became involved. (Please note at this point that Spike has just apparently read Buffy’s name in the newspaper, where she is labeled a terrorist. This will be relevant in a moment.) Now with Buffy and the others, Spike says that “the seed of wonder,” the source of all magic in the world, can stop all of this. And it just so happens to be in the Sunnydale Hellmouth, guarded by the revived Master.

So everyone goes there or maybe they were there already. I have honestly lost track. Anyway, Twilight is very displeased that its parents have abandoned it, and while Buffy and friends are ostensibly protecting the Seed, Twilight possesses Angel and makes him attack Buffy. Long story short: Giles attempts to kill Angel with the scythe, but it’s absolutely hopeless and Angel breaks his neck (just like Jenny Calendar). Buffy, mad with grief, has just had enough and she breaks the seed, severing the connection between this world and magic. Willow, who had possibly been making some headway against the attackers, is promptly stripped of her powers. Though I often criticize Georges Jeanty’s art, Willow’s expression at this moment is some of his best work.

Issue #40 picks up four months later and largely serves to set up Season Nine. Buffy is crashing on the couch at Dawn and Xander’s San Francisco apartment, working in a coffee shop and routinely dealing with confrontations with Slayers and Wiccans who feel that she betrayed them. Dawn has gone back to school and Xander has once again found gainful employment in construction. Giles left everything to Faith in his will (ouch!), including a London flat. She is also apparently the only one willing to care for a catatonic Angel, which I think is pretty awesome. Given their affinity, it makes perfect sense that she’s the one willing to forgive him when no one else can so much as even look at him.

So. Here are the things I disliked about all of this:

1. I swear sometimes that Whedon is actively trying to get me to hate Buffy. In issue #31, she confesses her love for Xander. In issue #34, she boffs Angel. In issue #36, she is still glowy about that, despite the havoc that ensued. “You gave me perfection and you gave it up. That’s not just the love of my life. That’s the guy I would live it with.” Um, did you forget the 206 girls he killed to get to that point? I can buy Faith’s actions so much more easily than Buffy’s because though she forgives him, it’s not like she’s forgotten all that he’s done.

As if this weren’t bad enough, in issue #37 Buffy is talking with Spike and begins daydreaming about making out with him. A throwaway comment suggests that perhaps this is a remnant of Twilight mind control, and I hope that’s true. I’m not suggesting that Buffy is usually virtuous or that she doesn’t make some impulsive choices when lonely, but holy crap. What a horndog!

2. Remember that newspaper that mentioned “terrorist Buffy Summers”? Well, how is Buffy able to resume life in San Francisco under her own name? In a recent Q&A, Scott Allie says “Buffy didn’t become a household name,” but issue #36 sure seems to indicate otherwise.

3. So far, I feel nothing about Giles’ death. It just doesn’t feel real. There wasn’t enough impact or something. Hearing his will helped it sink in more (and he gets a middle name: Edmund), but, odd as it sounds, I want to be sobbing over this, and I am not.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things in this volume. Looks like there’s 3 of those, too.

1. There are some great scenes between pairs of characters. Giles and Buffy have a nice scene and Giles and Xander do, as well. Probably my favorite scenes involve Spike and Buffy, though, because he is pretty frank concerning how disgusting he finds everything.

Spike: Under all that demon viscera, you still reek of him, and that’s not a treat for me—but it can’t be Buffy if she doesn’t bonk the bad guy, right?

Buffy: Snark!

Spike: Comes with the sizable package.

As mentioned, Willow’s grief is pretty amazing, and Kennedy haters will rejoice to learn that Willow soon breaks up with her. Less awesome is the throwaway reveal that Willow possibly loved her sexy snaky mentor, whom she will now never see again thanks to Buffy.

2. The fulfillment of the “betrayal” issue. Back in issue #10, Buffy and Willow went to visit a… seer or something, who shows Buffy a glimpse of herself (a pose that is finally realized in issue #39 after the seed has been destroyed) and says that it’s due to “Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected.”

At first, I was kind of annoyed that the traitor was not conclusively identified, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is quintessential Whedon. Buffy betrayed everyone by boinking the enemy, bringing down demon hordes, and then ridding the world of magic. Buffy and Angel betrayed the new universe they created. Angel betrayed Buffy by killing Giles… Ultimately, I think the prophecy refers to Buffy herself, but it’s kind of neat that it can be interpreted in several different ways.

3. One might not expect a one-shot prequel starring Riley and his wife Sam to be kind of awesome, but this one is. It’s full of great dialogue (and when I mentioned my favorite line to Jane Espenson on Twitter she actually replied!) and reminds us once again why Sam is so fantastic. I think I now want a mini-series focusing on these two as they are occasionally summoned away from bucolic corn-growing bliss to save the world.

So now the big question is… will I read Season Nine?

While there were some things I disliked about earlier arcs in Season Eight, Brad Meltzer’s penultimate “Twilight” arc was the proverbial straw that broke the fangirl’s back, and I resolved to stay away from further Buffy comics once this particular season had wrapped up. Advance press for Season Nine, however, has made me change my mind.

Season Nine just sounds so much more like something I’d want to read (and will be co-written by Andrew Chambliss, who penned my favorite Dollhouse episode, “A Spy in the House of Love”). For example, the synopsis for the second issue begins “Buffy continues her nightly patrols while trying to cobble together a sensible life…” That sounds great to me! Much better than all this big-budget sprawl. And the Angel and Faith companion series sounds like it could be even better!

I may end up disappointed, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to resist.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 7

By Brad Meltzer, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

When I write a review, I do my best to articulate what I liked and didn’t like as clearly as possible. When one is a passionate fan of something, however—as I undoubtedly and unabashedly am of Buffy the Vampire Slayer—such clarity becomes more difficult to achieve. I will do my best to explain my aversion to the “Twilight” arc contained in this volume, but what it really boils down to is that I just don’t like it.

Spoilers abound. Beware.

The volume actually starts off pretty well, with a Joss-penned one-shot called “Turbulence” (issue #31) that finally gets rid of those irksome colorful goddesses for good and contains an amazing scene between Buffy and Xander wherein she reacts to seeing him kissing Dawn by confessing that she has begun to see him in a romantic light. He is appropriately incredulous:

Xander: Yoooou… have feelings. At me.
Buffy: Would that be good?
Xander: That would be great. If it was a bunch of years ago and you actually meant it.

He also points out that, even if her feelings were genuine, once she saw him and Dawn together she should’ve realized that the decent thing to do would be to keep quiet. Honestly, I’m a little bothered by how immature and selfish Buffy is here, but her desperate loneliness coupled by Xander’s rejection might play a part in her actions a few issues later. Xander, on the other hand, comes off as entirely in character; I think he is probably the best thing about the Season Eight comics, actually.

Really, the first 2.5 issues of the “Twilight” arc are pretty good, too. Buffy and Xander explore the extent of her newfound superpowers. Dawn is concerned, pointing out that “you don’t get power for free,” and she is proven correct when Willow’s search for the missing Faith, Giles, and Andrew leads to the discovery of a bunch of dead Slayers. It turns out that 206 Slayers have died since the start of the conflict, and Buffy has inherited all of their powers. She’s understandably pretty freaked out by this. “If I’m sucking their power… it makes me a vampire.”

Meanwhile, the missing trio are being held at Twilight headquarters, where Giles recognizes the enemy’s voice and many hints are dropped concerning what’s going on and Giles’s knowledge of it. “Every Watcher wonders if his Slayer might be the girl… and you’ve had more reason than any.”

The high point of the arc is when Buffy interrupts this conversation to attack Twilight, at which points he unmasks himself. Angel. Buffy’s anger is initially white-hot. “You killed my girls! Two hundred and six girls!” and “Why did you put us through this fucking hell for the past year?!” Angel rationalizes his actions as a way to keep the body count lower than if governments had gotten involved. If he posed as the masked villain and talked of “master plans,” he would distract others who might’ve wanted to take action. Simultaneously, he would focus Buffy and help her superpowers develop.

And here’s where things start to break down for me. What it boils down to is this: by activating all the Potentials, Buffy upset the balance of the Universe. But also, there’s this prophecy (referred to as merely a myth by Giles when he’s accused of not sharing his awareness of the possibility) that a Slayer and Vampire will be used to usher in a new reality of superbeings. Or something. It’s all very vague. When this new reality is established, the old one (and humanity with it) will be discarded. This is what the whole season has been building toward, and it’s just such a disappointment. Ugh.

What I really hate about this idea is that it basically retcons Buffy’s personal attraction to vampires and makes it something that the Universe’s grand plan was engineering. How much of what is happening is free will, and how much is the Universe controlling their actions? Does Angel really believe all this stuff? Or is he essentially possessed? Did Buffy really want to jump his bones so desperately (which she does, in fact, proceed to do) because she’s in a lonely and vulnerable place, or did the Universe make it easy for her to put aside her fury and make with the sexy times?

I also hate how their sexual encounter is treated, with a peanut gallery making jokes about it and many silly panels where they zoom across the sky, bodies entwined, while the world erupts in seaquakes and cyclones. It just looks stupid, but more than that, I think it was done to shock the reader. Is this juxtaposition (NSFW) of imagery and text coincidence? I think not, especially after the whole Buffy/Satsu thing.

The final issue of the arc offers some redemption, with Buffy gradually regaining her focus after sexual bliss and being dissatisfied with the pleasure paradise to which she and Angel have ascended. He is ready to believe in it (and, again, is this really his personal opinion?) and dwell there together forever but she doesn’t trust it and, more than that, can’t be happy in a nirvana while her friends are fighting for their lives. Her exact words are “Fuck evolution,” and, after a brief sad smile to acknowledge what might have been, she and Angel return to help her family fight off the hordes of demons who have invaded “the lower plane.” Willow is suitably pissed at Angel—“What you got coming you better hope never comes”—and then Spike arrives, seemingly with the intent of knocking a bunch of sense into everyone. Yay, Spike!

So, anyway, I just don’t like this arc. I don’t think it was thought through very well, and I don’t like the implications it retroactively conveys upon the events of the series. While I’m airing grievances, I shall also point out that Meltzer gets a basic fact wrong—Faith did not become a Slayer upon Buffy’s death—that no one on the editorial staff was knowledgable (or attentive) enough to spot. Too, Georges Jeanty’s renderings of Faith continue to be extremely ugly. The only way to enjoy her scenes is to just try really hard to imagine Eliza Dushku in her place.

The volume is rounded out by “Willow: Goddesses and Monsters,” another Joss-penned one-shot set before the beginning of Season Eight. In it, Willow takes some sort of magical journey that she originally skipped over in her accelerated path to power. There’s really not a lot going on here, and a lot of the dialogue is supposed to be funny but isn’t, but it’s noteworthy because it’s the first time we’ve glimpsed Tara in the comics.

One more volume to go, and it includes Spike! I never did read the final two issues, so though I am spoiled on one pivotal event, much of it will be new to me. I hope I don’t hate it.

Better Than Life by Grant Naylor: C

From the back cover:
Life just couldn’t have been better—or maybe it couldn’t have gotten worse. Aboard the massive starship Red Dwarf, life was barely happening at all. Holly, the ship’s computer, had gone from super genius to so dumb that even a talking Toaster could hold its own with him. And the only surviving human aboard, David Lister—along with the holographic Arnold Rimmer; Cat, the best-groomed entity in the universe; and the cleaning robot Kryten—was trapped in a game called “Better Than Life.”

At one time Holly could have easily saved them. But right now Holly couldn’t even keep Red Dwarf from colliding with a runaway planet. It looked like Lister might be stuck in the game until he died—or until Red Dwarf was destroyed. Unless, of course, the cheap little Toaster and the cleaning robot could find the way back to reality without killing everyone in the process…

Review:
Every now and then it’s tempting to post a review that consists merely of the word “meh.” This is one of those times.

Better Than Life picks up where the first Red Dwarf book, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, leaves off: all four members of the crew are stuck inside the addictive virtual reality game, Better Than Life, leaving Holly (the computer) alone with only a talking toaster for company.

They do eventually make it out, only to discover that Holly, having followed the toaster’s advice, has increased his IQ to over 12,000 but has decreased his remaining runtime to about two minutes. Oh, and there’s an ice planet headed straight for the stalled ship.

From here on out, the book is basically a sequence of dire perils over which four rather moronic characters must somehow triumph. Lister performs a feat of planetary billiards to knock the incoming planet away, but then ends up stranded on it. As it thaws due to the proximity to its new sun, it’s revealed to be Earth, relegated to garbage planet status by the rest of our solar system literally eons ago. There are flying cockroaches. There is a black hole. There’s a fair amount of scientific explanation for things.

And that’s where the book falters. See, as a show, Red Dwarf is a sci-fi comedy. The science takes such a back seat it’s four cars back. Better Than Life, on the other hand, attempts to be comedic sci-fi, but it doesn’t even manage that, because hardly any of it is actually amusing. Even Chris Barrie’s narration—again, excellent with the voices but a bit dodgy with pronunciation—can’t resuscitate what is essentially an exceedingly dull story. There are a few good moments of characterization, however. I especially enjoyed anything that proved that Rimmer really does care about Lister.

We end on another cliffhanger, with Lister transported to a planet on another universe on which time runs backwards. I can only assume that this is what the later book in the series, Backwards, is about. The only thing is… that one’s not available on unabridged audio and though I did procure myself a used copy, I’m not inclined just yet to expend the effort and time that reading a paper book demands. Maybe someday.

Human Nature by Paul Cornell: B-

From the back cover:
“Who’s going to save us this time?”

April, 1914. The inhabitants of the little Norfolk town of Farringham are enjoying an early summer, unaware that war is on the way. Amongst them is Dr. John Smith, a short, middle-aged history teacher from Aberdeen. He’s having a hard time with his new post as house master at Hulton Academy for Boys, a school dedicated to producing military officers.

Bernice Summerfield is enjoying her holiday in the town, getting over the terrible events that befell her in France. But then she meets a future Doctor, and things start to get dangerous very quickly. With the Doctor she knows gone, and only a suffragette and an elderly rake for company, can Benny fight off a vicious alien attack? And will Dr. Smith be able to save the day?

Review:
Despite the fact that I own about ten of The New Adventures novels starring the Seventh Doctor, I’d never read any of them. It took a .pdf of Human Nature hosted on the BBC website (sadly no longer available) to compel me to finally check one out.

Why Human Nature? Because this novel is the basis for a rather emotional two-parter in the third season of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. I was curious to see how the original novel differs from the televised version (for those fortunate enough to snag a copy of the .pdf before its disappearance, author Paul Cornell does devote part of his endnotes to a discussion of the process of adapting the story for the screen) and also eager to read about Bernice (“Benny”) Summerfield, a companion of the Seventh Doctor whom I have previously encountered only in audio dramas.

The basic gist of the plot is the same in both versions. The Doctor has hidden away his Time Lord essence and is living as a human named John Smith, an unconventional teacher at an all-boys’ school in England on the eve of the first World War. As Smith, the Doctor writes fanciful stories and falls in love with fellow teacher, Joan Redfern. Bliss does not ensue, however, due to a family of aliens that has followed The Doctor and ends up attacking the school. It’s up to The Doctor’s companion to remind Smith of his true identity, and up to Smith to decide whether to remain human and pursue a chance at happiness with Joan or don the mantle of the Time Lord once more and save the day.

The differences are in the details. Why The Doctor chooses to live as a human, for instance. The identity of his companion and her relationship to Smith. The reasons the aliens have for pursuing him. These things don’t matter all that much, but in nearly every instance I prefer the televised version. It’s a much more emotional story—largely because it’s more easy to believe David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor as a romantic lead than Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh—and I sympathized with Smith’s dilemma more when I could physically see the agony the decision was causing him.

Too, boiling the story down to its most essential bits results in a tighter, more coherent tale. The book’s well-intentioned but random attempt at a gay romance is excised, for example, as is Benny’s brief and ill-fated friendship with a suffragette. (If you thought I’d pass up this opportunity to make a “Benny and the ‘gettes” joke, you are much mistaken.) Some of the dialogue in the book doesn’t sound natural, either, like this line from Joan when she’s meeting The Doctor for the first time:

‘Oh…’ Joan closed her eyes for a long, hard, instant. Then she opened them. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Doctor. Is there nothing about you that’s like the man to whom I’ve become engaged?’

I mean, I love me some grammar about twelve times as much as the next gal, but I’m pretty sure I would dispense with it in a moment like that! I do like the detail about her eyes, though.

Complaints aside, there is one thing that the book has that the televised version lacks, and it’s for this one thing alone that the book is worth reading: Benny. I positively adore Benny. She’s brilliant, competent, funny, bawdy, and a bit of a lush. Part of why I love her might be because Cornell based her on Harriet Vane, the awesomely independent and intelligent writer of detective fiction from Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Whenever I snickered whilst reading this book, it was all due to Benny, like this description of a table of women at a beverage tent on some planet’s marketplace:

They looked like they all came from different places, and had clustered together out of the familiar realisation that internal gonads are best, actually.

Her presence gave me something new to look forward to in a story with which I was familiar, and I liked her so much that I am going to try to find time to read Love and War, another New Adventures effort from Cornell that introduces the character. Any other recommendations?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 6 by Jane Espenson: B-

From the back cover:
Twilight and his gainfully employed military units are hot on Buffy’s magical trail—forcing her and Slayers across the globe into hiding. Buffy retreats into the Tibetan mountains to seek aid from the only person she knows who can suppress his true nature—Oz. Since Oz left Sunnydale he’s gained control over the magic that transforms him with the phases of the moon from man to werewolf. If Buffy, Willow, and the legion of Slayers give up their magic, Twilight might lose their scent, granting them a moment of peace, quiet, and tranquility.

Review:
Before I reread the “Retreat” arc, my memories of it went like this: Buffy and friends go see Oz in Tibet; some huge, brightly colored goddesses are involved; and Buffy discovers that she can fly. Weary of unnecessary cameos—although I genuinely do love Oz—and wary of Buffy’s new ability, I didn’t like this much the first time around.

Though it improves upon a second read, it straddles that line between “what I will agree to consider as canon” and “just somebody’s convoluted fanfic.” Obviously, I know that I am just one opinionated fan among many, but what I’m getting at is that some stuff happens that I genuinely like, and some stuff happens that I’m not crazy about.

After their castle in Scotland was destroyed by a magical bomb, courtesy of Twilight’s minions, Amy and Skinless Warren, the Slayers have been looking for new digs. Public opinion is against them, thanks to Harmony’s current popularity, so they find a secluded sort of bunker, shielded by a woodsy magical illusion. Alas, Twilight hones in on this magic and attacks again, causing them to teleport to the one person they know who has successfully divested himself of magic: Oz.

It’s good to see Oz again, don’t get me wrong, but I’d be happier about it if his return hadn’t come after lesser characters like Ethan Rayne and Dracula. He’s settled down with a “mate” and has a child, and one of the saddest things about this arc is how Buffy descends upon his peaceful life, bringing war and death along with her once Twilight tracks them down yet again.

But before that happens, there’s a peaceful lull during which the Slayers and Willow participate in various chants and physical chores designed to direct their magical powers into the Earth. This allows plenty of time for character-building moments and amusing dialogue, my favorite being the interaction between Giles and the baby. Like so:

Baby: Ga!
Giles: Yes, hello, baby.

and

Baby: (steals Giles’ glasses) Gaha!
Giles: Oh dear.

On a more serious note, Buffy finally tells her friends about her encounter with Dark Willow in the future, which prompts some interesting reactions. Willow confidently swears it couldn’t possibly have been her, but meanwhile, Giles and Andrew are suspicious—especially given Willow’s dark methods of obtaining intel—and begin watching her. Also, just as Buffy begins to ponder wanting to connect with someone, and begins to think Xander might just fit the bill, he and Dawn finally get around to smooching. I might be in the minority here, but I like this pairing, especially since they’ve been shown to have developed a very solid friendship. Given her track record, it’s hard to say whether Buffy’s feelings are genuine or if she’s just lonely.

And speaking of Buffy and decision-making, it’s her choices that have ultimately led to a terrible massacre. True, there were no good alternatives, but she’s entirely responsible for bringing ruin to Oz’s tranquil existence, first by making his home a target for Twilight and his minions, then turning its environs into a battlefield, and finally by summoning some local goddesses—those to whom all that poured-into-the-earth magic was actually going—who kill indiscriminately. As with the Xander situation, this is not out of character for Buffy at all—part of why she’s lovable is that, even though she’s special, hers is an extremely tough role that nobody would envy—but it’s pretty depressing all the same.

I also have trouble believing that anyone thought getting rid of magical defenses—which includes the Slayers’ strength—would be a good idea when they are the target of a massive military operation. I suppose there was the chance that it would keep them hidden, but it doesn’t seem like they bothered to fully investigate the ramifications. A scene in which automatic weapons and grenades are passed out is just really weird, given Whedon’s stance on guns throughout the series.

Although I have issues with it, this arc is ultimately better than I remembered. Most of the fallout from Xander and Dawn and Buffy’s superpowers will come in the next volume, which is a plus, but there will be much crack, as well.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor: B

Book description:
The first lesson Lister learned about space travel was you should never try it. But Lister didn’t have a choice. All he remembered was going on a birthday celebration pub crawl through London. When he came to his senses again, he was living in a locker on one of Saturn’s moons, with nothing in his pockets but a passport in the name of Emily Berkenstein.

So he did the only thing he could. Amazed to discover they would actually hire him, he joined the Space Corps—and found himself aboard Red Dwarf, a spaceship as big as a small city that, six or seven years from now, would get him back to Earth. What Lister couldn’t foresee was that he’d inadvertently signed up for a one-way jaunt three million years into the future—a future which would see him the last living member of the human race, with only a hologram crewmate and a highly evolved Cat for company. Of course, that was before the ship broke the light barrier and things began to get really weird…

Review:
Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers retells a handful of episodes from the first two seasons of the BBC sci-fi comedy, Red Dwarf, and provides additional background information on its two main characters, priggish Arnold J. Rimmer and slovenly Dave Lister.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it takes place aboard the mining ship Red Dwarf. Rimmer is a lowly technician—just about the lowest rank on the ship, tasked with things like unclogging chicken soup nozzles on vending machines—and his only underling is Lister. While Lister is in stasis as punishment for smuggling a (pregnant) cat on board, Rimmer causes an accident that floods the ship with radiation, killing the entire crew.

It takes three million years for the radiation to reach levels safe enough for the computer to let Lister out, which triggers an iconic scene wherein Lister wanders around while the computer, Holly, repeats, “Everybody’s dead, Dave,” with varying inflections until the Liverpudlian finally gets it. Holly brings Rimmer back as a hologram, judging him to be the companion best suited to keep Lister sane, and they soon discover that the cat’s descendants have evolved into a highly fashion-conscious civilization, of which only one member now remains. Episodic silliness ensues.

The book follows this basic outline, too, but adds some scenes to flesh out the characters. For example, rather than meeting Rimmer and Lister aboard the ship, we first encounter them on Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons, in a scene in which Lister has stolen the equivalent of a taxi and picks Rimmer up as a fare. We learn that Lister joined the Space Corps solely as a means of getting back to Earth—and purposefully got caught with the cat so that he’d be put in stasis and the journey home would feel shorter—and receive additional insight on Rimmer’s desperation to become an officer. Both benefit from this treatment and emerge as more sympathetic characters.

Not every episode from the first two seasons is represented—Lister isn’t shown taking the chef’s exam in order to outrank Rimmer, for example—but some, like “Future Echoes,” are included almost verbatim. Because of this structure, there’s not so much a cohesive plot as a string of linear events, culminating in the crew believing that they’ve managed to return to Earth. The material, both old and new, provides quite a few giggles, but can also be extremely unfunny, like when Rimmer and his holographic double squabble interminably.

In addition, a few changes have been made that outright contradict the show. The captain, once male, is now female. Although Lister never was able to tell his long-time crush, Kristine Kochanski, about his feelings on the show, in the book they enjoy a month-long fling. There’s no obvious reason for these alterations, but it’s better to think Grant Naylor—the pseudonym adopted by the show’s creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor—made them for some purpose rather than merely by accident.

What this all boils down to is that the content of this book is decently entertaining, though not excellent, and probably deserves somewhere in the vicinity of a B-, which is the grade it likely would have received had I read the print edition. But I didn’t. Instead, Hubby and I listened to the unabridged audiobook read by Chris Barrie (the actor who portrayed Rimmer) and holy freakin’ crap! He was amazing!

Okay, true, Barrie mispronounces the occasional word—“irrevocably” being the most egregious—but his skill in impersonating his castmates is truly incredible. So good, in fact, that I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait until they discover Cat so I can hear Chris Barrie do his voice!” Every single one is great, and though Kryten is perhaps the most eerily accurate, I found myself most transported by Barrie’s take on Lister. Many, many times I forgot that I was not actually listening to Craig Charles in the part.

Barrie’s performance bumps the grade up a notch, and I’d go so far as to say that one should eschew the print edition entirely. He really does bring that much to one’s enjoyment of the book.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 5 by Jane Espenson, et al.: C+

From the back cover:
When Buffy’s former classmate-turned-vampire Harmony Kendall lands her own reality TV show, vampires are bolstered into the mainstream. Humans fall in line; they want a piece of the glitz, glam, and eternal youth bestowed upon these mysterious creatures of the night. What’s a Slayer to do when vampires are the trendiest thing in the world? While humans donate their blood to the vampire cause, Slayers—through a series of missteps, misfortunes, and anti-Slayer propaganda driven by the mysterious Twilight—are forced into hiding.

Review:
The fifth collected volume of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight comics is comprised of five one-shots, four of which are written by writers from the show. You might think that’s a good thing, but it doesn’t always turn out to be the case.

Issue 21, “Harmonic Divergence,” is written by Jane Espenson. Captured on film one evening while snacking on Andy Dick, Harmony becomes an instant celebrity. A reality show—with Clem for a sidekick!—on MTV follows. The show portrays Harmony sympathetically, as someone who drinks from humans but doesn’t do them any harm, and when a Slayer decides to take Harmony out on-camera, it spawns a tide of anti-Slayer sentiment.

It’s true, vampires are a big craze at the moment, but I find this whole plotline—it continues for some time—to be kind of stupid. What’s worse is that George Jeanty seriously can’t draw Mercedes McNab (the actress who portrays Harmony) to save his life. He does no better with original characters, either. At one point the nameless Slayer looks like a middle-aged man in drag.

Issue 22, “Swell,” is not much better. Written by Steven S. DeKnight, it takes place in Tokyo, where Kennedy has arrived to conduct an evaluation of newly promoted Satsu. Meanwhile, Twilight, the big bad of the season, has taken over the San(to)rio Corporation and disguised a bunch of demons as “Vampy Cat” plushies with plans to ship them to Scotland, where Buffy is. Probably this is supposed to be funny, but again, it’s just kind of stupid. Kennedy does offer Satsu some advice about pining for a straight girl, though, and the issue ends with Satsu resolved to move on.

The best story of the lot is “Predators and Prey,” by Drew Z. Greenberg. Taking advantage of the current attitude towards Slayers, rogue Slayer Simone and her gang have ousted the residents of an Italian village and taken over. Feeling responsible as Simone’s former Watcher, Andrew has taken an “ends justify the means” approach to getting intel on her whereabouts, resulting in not only an amusing roadtrip with Buffy, but a lot of growth for his character. Having never earned anyone’s trust before, he’s terrified of losing it, which makes him screw up for the right reasons. Buffy tells him to get used to it, because that’s her family’s specialty. Not only does this issue have some funny lines, it’s actually quite significant for Andrew. Gold star for Greenberg!

The one story penned by someone who never wrote for the show is “Safe,” by Jim Krueger. It stars Faith and Giles, which it earns points for immediately, as they investigate a so-called Slayer Sanctuary for girls who decide they’d rather not fight. The plot is kind of lame, but there’s some good dialogue, particularly from Faith, and some insights into her deep feelings of regret for her early failings as a Slayer. This issue is drawn by Cliff Richards, who does a much better job than Jeanty at capturing the likenesses of the actors. He also seems to have a greater repertoire of facial expressions.

Lastly, issue 25 is called “Living Doll” and is written by Doug Petrie. Dawn has gone missing and Buffy and Xander follow her hoofprinty trail while Andrew tracks down Kenny, the guy responsible for casting the spell on her in the first place. Long story short, Dawn apologizes to Kenny, becomes human again, and spends some quality time with Buffy watching Veronica Mars. (Man, I miss that show.)

While the first two stories are pretty bad, the other three offer solid character moments even though the plots themselves leave something to be desired. I’ve said before that this is something a Buffy fan simply becomes used to, so it doesn’t bother me all that much. I’d probably be happier with a series full of vignettes like these than what is coming over the next couple of arcs.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 4 by Joss Whedon: B

From the back cover:
Buffy Summers unlocked the power of the Slayer in hundreds of young women, but in the future only one Slayer remains. Melaka Fray—introduced by Buffy creator Joss Whedon and artist Karl Moline in 2001—returns to comics in Season Eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When Buffy attempts to solve the mystery of her scythe, she’s propelled into the future, and into the path of Fray. In order to save their worlds, the two Slayers must fight against a threat more powerful than the two of them combined, while back in the twenty-first century, the Scottish Slayer base falls prey to a mystical bomb courtesy of the Biggest Bad—Twilight.

Review:
It’s been a long time since I reviewed any of the Season Eight comics. I’ve been keeping up with the individual issues, but just haven’t felt inclined to reread them when the collected editions come out. I still haven’t liked any arc as much as Brian K. Vaughan’s “No Future for You” (issues 6-10), and somewhere along the way things have gotten so ridiculous that I just refuse to admit/believe that any of these events can be considered canon. Season Eight will be ending soon—the fortieth and final issue is due on January 19 (Buffy’s birthday)—so it seems like a good time to get caught up with reviews and potentially air a few gripes.

Volume four collects issues 16-20 of the series, comprising the Whedon-penned arc “Time of Your Life” as well as Jeph Loeb’s one-shot, “After These Messages… We’ll Be Right Back!” And, actually, this arc is pretty good. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Following up on a message she received while in Japan, Willow concludes that she and Buffy need to go to New York because of some timey-wimey ripple of a future event that’s going to occur there. Once they arrive, a portal opens, sending Buffy two hundred years into the future (and leaving a slavering beastie in her place), into the path of a Slayer named Melaka Fray. Fray, some may remember, once had a comic series of her own and fans were curious how Fray’s future (where there’s only one Slayer) would tie in with the series’ continuity, in which Buffy essentially activates all the potential Slayers in the world.

Fray’s main foe is her twin brother, Harth. A vampire, he’s got tons of minions and has recently been linked to a dark-haired madwoman who speaks in riddles. One assumes this is hinting at Drusilla, but it’s actually Dark Willow, still alive and planning something unspecific with Harth. Stuff happens—my favorite bits demonstrate how the two Slayers approach their job differently—but the basic gist is that present-day Willow reopens the portal and Buffy is determined to go back to her own time, even if it means that Fray and her future will cease to exist. When Dark Willow blocks her way, Buffy stabs her with the scythe.

Now, this is pretty interesting and reads much better when collected all together than as single issues. My major problem with it, though, is that I have no idea what Willow’s motivation was. Why was she working with Harth? What was she helping him to achieve? Vampire dominion over earth? Why would she do that? If I had to guess I’d say that maybe she wanted the future to look as shitty as possible so that Buffy would be determined not to let things turn out like that. But the final page of the arc shows that Melaka and her version of the future didn’t disappear at all. It’s quite a sad end for Willow, all alone and dead on some dingy futuristic rooftop.

Coming off the end of this arc is the fluffy but fun “After These Messages,” in which Buffy has a dream in the style of the cartoon series version of the show that never panned out. It takes place during high school, so Joyce is there, and reminds Buffy of how simple her life used to be. It’s not just a throwaway piece, though, as Buffy gets some advice from Dream Angel that convinces her that she shouldn’t tell Willow about what happened in the future.

If I recall rightly, this is the last arc that I enjoyed, but we shall see. It could be that the others will also fare much better when read back-to-back instead of in monthly installments. Stay tuned!

Naked Heat by Richard Castle: B

From the front flap:
When New York’s most vicious gossip columnist, Cassidy Towne, is found dead, Heat uncovers a gallery of high-profile suspects, all with compelling motives for killing the most feared muckraker in Manhattan.

Heat’s murder investigation is complicated by her surprise reunion with superstar magazine journalist Jameson Rook. In the wake of their recent breakup, Nikki would rather not deal with their raw emotional baggage. But the handsome, wise-cracking, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s personal involvement in the case forces her to team up with Rook anyway. The residue of their unresolved romantic conflict and crackling sexual tension fills the air as Heat and Rook embark on a search for a killer among celebrities and mobsters, singers and hookers, pro athletes and shamed politicians.

This new, explosive case brings on the heat in the glittery world of secrets, cover-ups, and scandals.

Review:
In this second outing for “Richard Castle,” Detective Nikki Heat and her squad are working two cases—one the death of a produce delivery driver and the other the murder of Cassidy Towne, a gossip columnist with scads of powerful enemies. Magazine reporter Jameson Rook has been shadowing Towne, planning to pen a feature on her, so he provides information for the investigation. While leads are followed and the (lamentably somewhat obvious) conclusion pursued, Heat and Rook deal must also deal with the awkwardness resulting from their fairly recent breakup.

Although I definitely enjoyed Heat Wave, the first media tie-in mystery for the ABC show Castle, Naked Heat succeeds more as an independent entity. The characters are less obviously stand-ins for characters on the show, and though large portions of the investigation still remind me of the TV series, that’s not always a bad thing. For example, it’s rare that a mystery novel makes me giggle aloud, a feat that Naked Heat achieved several times (once by way of a Firefly reference).

The main characters really are the chief draw here. The mystery is better than in the prior book—at least, what I can remember of its mystery, which isn’t much—but still involves glitzy types like mobsters and pop stars, which I just can’t care about. A few intense action sequences spice up the narrative, but it also drags in places. The most compelling aspect of the story for me was the detectives’ negative reaction to Rook’s recently published profile of Heat—both because it portrayed her as the star of the squad while marginalizing the contributions of the others and because unwelcome publicity is now hounding her at every turn—and his realization of how his approach to the article affected its subjects. I found his contrition believable.

With this installment, I think the book series has proven itself capable of standing on its own. As I said before, it’s a rare mystery that can make me laugh. Though the book is definitely not without its flaws, at this point I think I can safely say that even if this series bore no relation to a TV show I happen to watch, I would probably enjoy it to the same degree.