Molly Templeton's blog

My colleague Suzi Steffen and I have long disagreed about which Scott Westerfeld series is better. Suzi votes for his Midnighters books, about a group of teens in Bixby, Okla., who are awake for midnight’s magic hour, when clocks freeze but those born at midnight can move freely (if warily; strange things lurk in the midnight hour). I’m for the series that starts with Uglies and is set in a distant (and distantly post-apocalyptic) future in which everyone has an operation, at the age of 16, that turns them gorgeous — and idiotic.

The question might be moot, now. Westerfeld’s latest, Leviathan, is the first of a series — and you’d do well to know that going in, as nothing on the cover suggests that it’s not a standalone. Leviathan takes place in a world where things went a little differently around Darwin’s time. In England, he discovered DNA and figured out how to play with the threads of life, crossbreeding creatures and developing a biology-based military. England is Darwinist, but on the continent, the Clankers have control; in Austria-Hungariy and Germany, people travel in many-legged machines and rely on engines and guns for their defenses. And, of course, their offenses, which quickly come into play when a certain duke is murdered.

Leviathan is a ripping yarn, a classic-feeling adventure story that never forgets that its characters are trucking about their days precariously close to death. In Austria, Alek, the (fictional) young son of Archduke Ferdinand, is on the run from his own countrymen after the murder of his parents; he’s tearing across the continent in a walker, putting his own hours of training (at walker-driving, swordplay and the like) into immediate and dangerous practice. In England, a young Scot by the name of Deryn Sharp is also in hiding, but right out in the open: She’s joined the military (disguised as a boy, of course; this is alternate history, but some things are just the same) and found a place on the Leviathan, a great beastie of an airship that’s part zeppelin and part whale. Bees, bats, hawks, glowworms, hydrogen sniffers and humans are just some of the creatures that are part of the Leviathan's floating ecosystem.

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v.

Oh, internet.

Look, folks, do you really think the V remake is anti-Obama propaganda? Does it not seem slightly more likely that the idea of lovely alien visitors who promise universal healthcare is just, well, the result of a heavy hand on the part of the show's creators, who are beating the audience about the head with Timely and Important Commentary on Life, the Universe and Everything?

But wait — I'm getting ahead of myself. There's one thing the new V definitely is, and that's getting off on a slightly wobbly foot. The premiere didn't waste any time: By the end of the hour, we know for sure that the aliens are reptilian under their borrowed human skin, and that they're not the nice, giving, slightly creepy but generally harmless visitors their leader, the gorgeous Anna (Firefly's Morena Baccarin), claims they are. They've got sleeper cells all over the world! They're making passports and torturing humans and violently breaking up meetings of those who disagree with them!

V really wants to be relevant. Like, really, really relevant. So relevant they went a few steps too far, at least for me. Right away, a plane falls out of the sky in New York City, its pilot limply parachuting down behind. And did I miss a caption, or did the visitors arrive on a Tuesday — a gorgeous, warm fall Tuesday? Thanks, guys. Your 9/11 references weren't obvious enough already. Like virtually everyone has pointed out, Battlestar Galactica had a lot of post-9/11 relevance. It also had a reasonable degree of elegance, and sometimes a dollop of subtlety. V is opting to take the broader route, the more familiar route, the simplified route. It's a little weird how straightforward and simple this show seems, coming from the same network that gives us the puzzle that is Lost.

But all isn't aggravating or lost. Sure, the harsh camera angles are disconcerting (though I've got a bit of a theory about the sharp, strange angles, which often result in eerie eye-lights that glimmer narrowly in characters' otherwise impenetrable eyes: Lizard Cam!), and some of the dialogue is downright leaden. Did they actually make Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost's fantastic Juliet), as suspicious FBI agent Erica, deliver a cliché-riddled few lines about how her son must be running off to hang out with the Vs because his father left? Yes. Yes, they did.

But Mitchell rises above (as does the eerily calm Baccarin, and Morris Chestnut as Ryan Nichols, a man whose past is rapidly catching up to him). Mitchell can deliver even the tiniest line with wit and humor; listen to the many layers she gives to the word "No" when her partner (Alan Tudyk) asks if he can drive. In one word, she illuminates the relationship between them, the power structure, the familiarity. Even with the clunky, exposition-heavy lines, she gives Erica a down-to-earth quality that contrasts nicely with Baccarin's alien beauty, the boyish greed of Scott Wolf's hungry reporter, Chad Decker, and the bland blandness of her son, Tyler (Logan Huffman), who meets a hot V and is totally sold on their message of love and giving and connection and, y'know, taking over the world and such. Like io9's commenter, I would like the show to hurriedly throw Tyler under a bus, but I doubt we're going to get that wish: He's got to stick around to add some extra drama to Erica's newfound role as a V resister, and to court the youth vote — er, I mean, the younger viewers.

I think there's enough here to make V worth watching, but it feels like watered-down sci-fi, layered with familiar images as if the creators hope that will make it more palatable to a non-genre viewer. The speed with which the pilot zipped through the introductory material was interesting — there's no uncertainty as to whether these aliens are in fact reptilian and murderous — and it means we can dive right into the resistance and, hopefully, some character-building. More badass space technology, less whiny teenagers, OK?

The number of things I haven't found time to blog about in the last few months — hey, it's Best of Eugene, and a girl only has so many hours in the week! — is nearing moderately frightful but not yet epic proportions. I think it's time for a Catch-All Catch-Up Post. It's cleansing for one and all! And when it's over, I can feel free to write about Wordstock and the men's basketball team without guilt!

MFNW!

Three days of music and debauchery! OK, mostly music. The last night of the fest, we loved The Brunettes, with their delicate and quirky percussion — at one point in a song, there was a sort of round of percussion that involved more tiny clicking and clacking instruments than I can remember — sweet harmonies and generally grand use of the kind of expansive instrumentation that makes the stage look like a third-grade music classroom exploded in the general vicinity. The levels of sheer charm were through the roof.

We tried to watch Youth Group next, but after the Brunettes, they felt a little plain, and the delicious cocktails at Clyde Common were calling to us. Intermission, with French fries!

And then there was The Get Up Kids' show. I'm not sure there are many other people still willing to admit their love for the Get Up Kids, but I'm one of 'em, even if the band did play "Mass Pike" like it was the musical equivalent of an ex who shows up at a party and who you're supposed to be "friends" with — but you really just don't want to be in the same room with the person, out of some squirrelly blend of residual love and maybe embarrassment that you once felt like you did.

It's an emo band, OK? I can use tangled relationship metaphors. I should use tangled relationship metaphors.

After that show, we watched Frank Blank for a minute, but there'd been some confusion in the program about whether the show would be Frank Black or Grand Duchy, and the hopes were for Grand Duchy. Sorry, Frank. And sorry, Beach House, whose gorgeous compositions, while swoony — the way "Gila" goes from a moody "Oh, oh, oh" into an uplifting and unintelligible wash of vocals nearly gives me goosebumps — had a weirdly hollow feeling. Or maybe that was just us, tired and sore-footed. We'll try again next time.

MusicfestNW is awesome.

BOOKS!

Earlier in the fall — which is, at the moment, pretending to be summer, but I'm not fooled — I read two very different books by Oregon authors, but never had the chance to review them in the paper:

Tattoo Machine by Jeff Johnson (Speigel & Grau, $25) is subtitled Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life In Ink. Are there actually any tall tales here? Hard to say. Johnson, as the Mercury put it, "writes like he isn't afraid of being arrested." His stories of life in a Portland tattoo shop are bawdy, speckled liberally with horrifically colorful images (and equally colorful language) and, despite his tendency to front like a certain kind of badass, keenly observed and funny as shit. Things I learned from Johnson include the meaning of the word "flash," which tattoos are best for covering other tattoos, and various bits of tattoo-world slang that's so specific, I kind of felt like Johnson was telling secrets. His anecdotes are sometimes about customers (the more batshit, the better) and sometimes about himself (ditto), but there's a gruffness to his voice that seems built of equal parts pragmatism, genuine warmth and a particular kind of storytelling that's part one-upsmanship and part enjoyment of the weird forms life takes. Johnson does tend to write about women like we're actually some strange other species, but if you just take that as part of his schtick, it gets less distracting.

The Bell at Sealey Head is by Oregonian fantasy writer extraordinaire Patricia A. McKillip, whose books I've been reading since I was pretty small. Her stories often feel familiar, like I've heard them before, dressed up in other trappings or wrapped in a careful disguise. This one takes place in a seaside town, Sealey Head, where a bell tolls with the sunset each night. To Gwyneth, a merchant's daughter, the bell is a source of endless inspiration for stories, which she shares with her siblings and with Judd Cauley, who's taken over his family's inn since his father lost his sight. Their town is small, and most everyone knows everyone else, from the horse-obsessed suitor who's after Gwyneth's hand to the old lady in Aislinn House, a decaying place on the edge of town that has a pretty interesting secret.

And then a stranger comes to town: Ridley Dow, a scholar who wants to solve the mystery of the tolling bell. Naturally, his presence stirs all kinds of things up; naturally, McKillip winds his tale in with the strands of Judd's life in the inn, Gwyneth's life as a writer and the life of a maid in Aislinn House who's more familiar with the building's secrets than most. Sealey Head is a lovely read, written with McKillip's reliably graceful, gentle and image-laden prose, but it feels a bit slight and a bit familiar. The layers of story, and Gwyneth's variations on the story of the bell, are nicely pieced together, but at the end, when story becomes more important than ever, the book seems to simply settle into a quiet finale without binding all the pieces together into a satisfying whole. It's a bit of a trifle, this one, not as touching or as deep as McKillip can be when she's at her enticing, engrossing best.

TELEVISION!
GODDAMMIT, DOLLHOUSE. Let's talk about your failings, shall we?

Oh, Joss Whedon.

See, last week I was going to write a post called "Dollhouse is Not Going to Hold Your Hand Anymore." It was going to be a post about how the show's season premiere, while it didn't live up to the fantastic potential of the first season's unaired 13th episode, "Epitaph One," had a lot of promise. It pretty much threw the viewers into the river and expected that we could damn well figure out how to swim —  a tactic that works for some of us, who like having to work out what's changed, what's the same and which direction we might be headed in this time. Things had clearly progressed without us, and Whedon and his team expected us to keep up.

Where we seemed to be: Echo (Eliza Dushku) is remembering things, kind of. Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is working for the 'house — kind of. Everyone's a little suspicious and rattled, especially Dr. Saunders, the active also/once known as Whiskey (Amy Adams), whose grasp on herself and reality was gradually turning fragile.

The episode's basic plot was a mostly throwaway thing involving an arms dealer (another Battlestar Galactica alum, Jamie Bamber), but it still mattered in that it showed us that Ballard was somehow working for the Dollhouse while being a client — being paid in Echo's time, maybe? Things, this episode showed, are tangled and complicated, particularly where Dr. Saunders is concerned; she's having strange conversations with Boyd (Harry Lennix) one minute, and scaring the shit out of the creepy genius Topher (Fran Kranz) the next. She's falling apart. And then she's gone.

It was the scene with Saunders and Topher that had me; she's so cracked, so lost, so trying to form her own world out of the one he, as the Dollhouse's programmer, has given her. And she's aware but not; she knows she's not Dr. Saunders, but she doesn't know, or want to know, who she is. This one dark, incredibly strong scene managed to pack all the show's weirdness about identity and malleability and power and control and half a dozen other things into precise bits of dialogue between two characters who clearly could use some more exploring.

It was so promising. It was so complicated. And then it was over, and Saunders was driving away — Acker on the way to Happy Town, though I think she's supposed to be back later this season. The premiere dropped in one interesting scene with a well-intentioned senator, Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisof, from Whedon's Buffy and Angel), who wants to figure out what the deal is with the Rossum corporation, the Dollhouse's parent company, so we've got a new guy outside the house to balance out Ballard's involvement within. It all worked, in a slightly uncomfortable and appealing way.

And then there was tonight's episode, "Instinct," which put us right back at monster-of-the-week-with-a-small-side-dish-of-intrigue.

Spoilers ahead; click here to continue!

So I'm still recovering. STILL. Sleep schedule thrown off. Ears hearing things funny. And Friday? Friday is to blame for a lot of this.

(Thursday went like this.)

Friday was another late start; I feel like I just saw The Arctic Monkeys at the McDonald, so I skipped their Wonder Ballroom set, even though skipping all the Wonder Ballroom shows made me feel like I wasn't entirely really at MFNW; a lot of those sets were highlights of last year, particularly Les Savy Fav, a band I would really have liked to see again this year.

But at 9 pm we planted ourselves, not for the last time, at Berbati's Pan, where Say Hi were already playing when we arrived. "I don't know any of these songs!" my companion said. I recognized a few, kinda sorta — at least "Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh," for sure — but for the most part the live Say Hi experience is very different from the record; live, the band is a three-piece, playing stripped-down and adjusted versions of Eric Elbogen's one-man-band compositions. You might think more people wouldn't make for simpler versions of the songs, but in this case, they did.

Since this was a Barsuk showcase — something I didn't realize until a friend mentioned it in a text message; clearly my powers of observation were at full force — Say Hi was followed by another Seattle act, Rocky Votolato, who I describe as an "act" partly because while he was playing alone in Portland, I'm reasonably certain that last time I saw him, Votolato was playing with a full band. It was a homecoming show in Seattle in April 2007, and it was the reason I went back and gave a few more listens to Makers — which I'd liked, but not entirely fallen for; I sometimes think Votolato's singer-songwritery tunes are bare and gorgeous and catchy, and sometimes think they don't quite stretch as far or stand out as well as they could — and finally picked up a copy of Suicide Medicine. The show came at the end of tour; on "Suicide Medicine," Votolato sounded like his voice might go out at any moment. And that, according to this recording, that was only the seventh song of the night.

This show was a bit mellower, but no less charming, despite my inability to shake the feeling that, with his slicked-down, longish-in-back hair, Votolato looked like an untrustworthy drifter in a certain kind of dated road movie. But he played a good mix of songs, a cover or two, and both the songs I so wanted to hear.

And some jackass behind me talked the entire way though "Suicide Medicine." Hence, the title of this post: DUDE, SHUT UP. I know there are a lot of bands at MFNW, and that you won't care about every one. I know that I, too, talk to my friends during bands I'm not into. But when there's one dude on stage? And he's not playing very loudly? Get the hell away from the people who are clearly standing near the stage because they want to see this guy.

Thus ends your extremely cranky public service announcement for Friday.

Keep reading: Sunny Day Real Estate and The Thermals are up next!

You know what's hard to come by during Musicfest NW? Time. Time to do anything like, say, blog. There's plenty of time to stand around impatiently as the band before your favorite band seems to play forever and you're stuck sweating and trying to sip a beer slowly, but when Frightened Rabbit goes on at 12:30 in the morning (in theory) and you, as a result, sleep in so late you almost miss lunch, well, shit, my friends, you run out of time.

What isn't hard to come by in this town is a surprisingly high number of people who look vaguely familiar. I got a familiarity nod from at least two random dudes last night; I think I smiled at someone I didn't actually know at least once or twice. Everyone looks like someone else. Except this one really tall guy at the Frightened Rabbit show. He was his own man.

Thursday, in brief:

• I skipped The Helio Sequence in part because I was bitter that James Mercer was no longer the opening act; Dr. Dog was. I got enough Dr. Dog at Pickathon, thanks; that's just not my cup of tea. I do slightly regret this decision.

• Tu Fawning: Portiscarnival. (Look, "Portishead" already seems like a really random line of syllables, and thus I think Portiscarnival is perfectly reasonable as a description.) This is not in any way meant as an insult. There are catchy slivers jabbed into the Tu Fawning sound, but mostly it's too arty for that, too disconcerting and strange and occasionally really pretty. And fascinating. The festival writeup desribed Tu Fawning as "Never boring, and at moments inspired," which sounds a bit like a backhanded compliment, but I don't think it is. The band's music isn't the sort of thing you get attached to, but a thing you experience; it elicits a response more intellectual than emotional, except when it suddenly pings a heartstring or two.

• We Were Promised Jetpacks: Young, slightly burly Scotsmen with energy to spare. Like seemingly every Scottish band, they have a song about keeping warm (this one's called "Keeping Warm," and there's a Frightened Rabbit song called "Keep Yourself Warm," and I swear there's also an Idlewild song on the topic). WWPJ's fairly conventional guitar-centric indie rock felt like the kind of thing you need to know before you see them, so that you're bringing your own memories and associations to the songs, of what they call to mind when you're listening to them at home alone in the dark or barreling down the freeway on the way home from a show. But even as a first listen, they were promising. And charming, too. Darn Scots.

(I did not see Girl Talk at the Roseland because I saw Girl Talk on Wednesday at the McDonald, and I do not think I've recovered yet. But it was a delightful sweaty, sticky mess of Bananarama! Metallica! Mary J. Blige! Journey! Cyndi Lauper! Kelly Clarkson! Eight thousand other songs you barely have time to recognize! Girls with glowsticks and dudes with headbands! Don't like this tune? Wait 30 seconds; it'll change. And then change again.)

• The Twilight Sad proved that not all Scottish bands are unbelievable charming. The band plays reasonable, dense, heavily Joy Division-influenced rock, light on dynamics and high on repetition, but as a live act they lacked stage presence. They also overran their time, and when you're waiting to see a band that goes on after midnight, you sometimes run out of patience. I was getting there.

• Frightened Rabbit: This is the third time I've seen Frightened Rabbit in Portland, and it made me a touch nostalgic for those earlier, less crowded Holocene shows. The trouble with seeing a favorite band in a festival setting is that you have to share them with people who don't really care, who are just there because they read an interesting description in the program or who came with a friend (of course, you also wind up being that person at another show or several). It changes the audience dynamic in peculiar ways. This crowd seemed to like the Rabbit well enough — and they were certainly just as good as they have been, even without singer Scott Hutchison's solo acoustic version of "Poke," which hushed everyone in Holocene last November — but the show lacked the charged atmosphere their shows have had before.

But to be fair, the band's been touring on Midnight Organ Fight for ages, and Hutchison mentioned from the stage that they've finished (I believe) their follow-up. If they seemed a tiny bit less invested in the old songs, the ones they've been playing for ages and ages now — if Hutchison was rarely sticking to the recorded vocal melodies, instead dancing around them, mixing things up — it's understandable. The show was sort of a tease, I think: Two new songs and a sense of impatience. More, now, please.

Tonight: A vicious lineup pits The Jealous Sound and Sunny Day Real Estate at the Crystal Ballroom against Say Hi and Rocky Votolato at Berbati's Pan. I think Rocky's gonna win this fight, at least where I'm concerned, but so long as I make it to the "official afterparty" with The Thermals, I'll be more than happy.

PS: The Portland Mercury's End Hits blog's Twitter feed (technology, you're making me use too many words) speaks truth about Frightened Rabbit: "The only thing that could make this Frightened Rabbit show better is if people danced on the Dante's catwalks. Like an emo sinferno."

Literary Arts has announced the finalists for the 2009 Oregon Book Awards, and five of them are particularly local: Miriam Gershow, Debra Gwartney, Bonnie Henderson, Barbara Pope and Leslie What are all among the finalists for this year's awards. (Perennial finalist Deborah Hopkinson of Corvallis has already won; her book is the only contender in the children's category.)

I've read three of the fiction finalists and ... well, that's a tough field the judge has to choose from. To see the complete list (with links to EW reviews of several titles), click here.

What's that saying? Oh, right: Better late than never. Listen, I've been thinking about this series' ending for a month. Solid. OK, not solid. But a lot. It's a triumph of bleakness, and that's kind of putting it lightly. Shall we talk about it, fellow BBC-watchers?

(Previously, on EW! A Blog: Day One | Day Two | Day Three | Day Four)

Here there be spoilers. Almost nothing but spoilers, really.

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