Saturday, August 16, 2014

"The Naturals," by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

The Protagonist: Cassie Hobbes. A teenage girl with an astounding ability to profile people who is recruited by the FBI to help solve cold cases.
Her Angst: Her mother was murdered and the killer was never found - could the FBI help her find out who did it?

Secondary Cast:

Michael: A preppy trust fund kid capable of reading people's emotions.

Lia: A bratty Asian punk girl who's a human lie detector.

Sloane: A hyperactive blond capable of memorizing data and analyzing patterns.

Dean: A brooding loner who, like Cassie, is an expert profiler.

Agent Locke: One of the FBI agents who helps train the Naturals in reinterpreting evidence.

Agent Briggs: The head of the Naturals Program.

Angst Checklist:

  • Dead parents
  • Overprotective Italian families
  • Child neglect
  • Child exploitation
  • Child abuse
  • Serial killers
  • Victimization of women
  • I embody serial killers for a living - but, like, not in a creepy way
The Word: Cassie has a gift. Thanks to her mother's training, she can look at people, assess their details, and successfully determine their backgrounds and guess their future decisions. Cassie also has a curse. Her mother - who travelled the country using her profiling skills to pose as a psychic - was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant when Cassie was twelve, and she's never truly gotten over it. 

Now seventeen, Cassie's approached by a mysterious boy who leaves a business card from the FBI. The FBI has started an experimental program that involves recruiting teenagers with raw, miraculous crime-solving gifts (dubbed Naturals) to help solve cold cases. A human lie detector and an emotion reader count among their recent recruits. Cassie agrees to join the program - partly to help people, but also to look for a chance to use FBI resources to find her mother's killer. 

As Cassie starts practicing her abilities and getting to know the deeply weird, deeply troubled fellow Naturals in the program, a mysterious serial killer with ties to Cassie's past starts stalking prey closer and closer to the Naturals' home base, making it difficult for Cassie and her pals to stay uninvolved.

I was hooked on The Naturals from beginning to end. It has an original and highly interesting concept (teenagers hired by the FBI to solve cold cases) that's backed up with a well-developed setting, entertaining background details, and razor-sharp pacing. The nature of the "Naturals" (teenagers with preternatural detection skills) also provides oodles of angst and dark pasts to go around. None of these teenagers developed their abilities in the happiest of environments, but it is incredibly fun to watch how Cassie and Dean determine a stranger's personality just by looking at her parked car.

That being said, the author doesn't spend time developing all these characters equally. Cassie is a wonderful and unusual protagonist. Despite being taken in by her father's loud and affectionate clan, she has trouble connecting to people, always feeling one step removed from the ability to return the love they lavish on her. She worries that she's too broken by her tragedy to love anyone back. Michael and Dean, the two other points of the novel's standard-issue Love Triangle, also get some backstories, but the other members of the team don't get much more than an introduction and a few scenes to air out their unique quirks. But there's every chance we'll get to learn more in the sequel.

There's also some pretty graphic violence - and sadly, it's all directed against women. Women are constantly victimized in this book. And while I realize that it's common enough in serial killer narratives to be a cliche, I wish the author had tried something different. Finally, while the big reveal is a nice surprise, it doesn't really hold up when put to severe questioning.

All told, however, The Naturals is a whip-smart, incredibly fun and original YA mystery.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 5: The Louvre, the Moulin Rouge, and the Contiki Clap

Our first full day in Paris was our free day to sightsee - but not before we all got in the bus and drove to the Eiffel Tower for our Contiki group photo. On the way, we had a very entertaining ride around l'Arc de Triomphe. It's known as one of the world's most dangerous roundabouts, and a common joke is that it's so dangerous no insurance company will cover a car accident that occurs in it.

Once we drove through it, we understood why. We watched from the relative safety of the tourbus as cars jammed into each other and brave citizens on narrow scooters darted through every available space like minnows, proper lanes be damned. I saw at least one motorist on the side of the road angrily scribbling his insurance information onto the hood of another man's car.

Once our picture was taken, roughly 70 percent of the group signed up for the Fat Tire bicycle tour of Paris, and the rest of us (myself included) decided biking in 30-plus degree heat through a crowded foreign city where most of its native motorists instinctively hate you was a terrible idea. 

Today was the day I was going to be a social traveller. I knew the main bits I wanted to see, but I wasn't as invested in seeing everything in Paris as I was in London. So I teamed up with Trudy, Franco, Romio, Anthony, Sophie (the roommate), and Michael and headed for the Louvre. After safely dodging two urchins offering the Charity Scam, we made it to the "secret door" of the Louvre our tour manager pointed out to us:
Ooooooh, secret.

There are several lines at the Louvre. There's a line just to get in, and then a line for tickets, and then an uncomfortable shuffle through a crowded lobby before you get to the actual art. That side entrance there? To the left of the glass pyramid? That lets you skip the first line. 

Once we got tickets, I discovered the main members of our group were only there for the "Mona Lisa Dash" - which involves buying a ticket, rushing straight to the Mona Lisa, snapping a picture, and leaving. Which is the stupidest, most wasteful, tacky tourist thing I ever heard. I'm being fairly hypocritical, since in England I rushed through the 1000-year-old Roman Baths like a flaming racoon was chasing me just so I could see the Pump Room at the end. But still. What's the point of saying you went to the Louvre if you only saw one thing in it? Hell, the Louvre is a palace - the ornate ceilings alone are works of art.

I get it - there's so much in Paris to see and only so little time. And no one's capable of seeing everything in the Louvre in a couple of hours. So we walked through the Italian art wing, past the Winged Victory statue which I had never heard of before that day because I am a philistine. I refused to crowd in to see the Mona Lisa. I got a glimpse of her from the end of the room, and looked at all the dozens of other perfectly awesome paintings instead. I didn't take too many pictures - it's not the point, really. You can Google Image practically everything these days. BUT, I did snap some of the funnier religious paintings:
The Prophet of Sass. Work it! "Jesus is coming and he is fierce!"
The "Sears Portrait" of Virgin Mary scenes. "Have you finished the picture yet?" They just both look so bored and depressed.
Baby Jesus does not give a fuck. "Peace be with you, or whatever."

At Mikey's urging, we also explored some Greek and Roman sculpture, which was lovely - got to see the Venus de Milo. After that, the group decided they wanted to get some lunch. I was torn - I wanted to be social, but I definitely wanted to see more of the Louvre before I went home. So I compromised - the others were planning on seeing Notre Dame after lunch, so I told them I'd stay at the Louvre for an extra hour (and secretly eat a granola bar) and meet up with them there.

I spent that extra hour in the French art wing. That seemed appropriate. Lots of David, understandably. I was blown away by the enormous Coronation of Napoleon painting, and really fell for this self-portrait of Marie Antoinette's favourite painter and her daughter:
I have a particular fondness for realistic portraits that demonstrate emotions we can still relate to hundreds of years later - such as loving one's mum. 

It was only after I left the Louvre and wandered into the gift shop (bought magnets and a notebook) that I realized one of my favourite sculptures, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss by Antonio Canova, was part of the Louvre, but by then I had no time to go back in and find it. Oh well. I'm not well-versed in classical art, but I've always loved that sculpture - it's so dynamic. Plus the Cupid and Psyche myth is the prototype for the fairytales Beauty and the Beast, The Raven Prince, and East of the Sun, West of the Moon

From there I decided to walk from the Louvre to Notre Dame. This required strolling along the Seine in the sunshine, past the (soon to collapse) lock bridge, past sellers of antique and secondhand books, jewellery, artwork, and souvenirs. I overpaid for a bottle of ice water because I couldn't understand the water seller and bought a compact mirror from one of the kiosks. The only thing marring this idyllic afternoon was my foot, now smarting with a vengeance.

I managed to hobble my way (barely) to Notre Dame. 
Sophie the Tour Manager said there'd be no line - that was not true. But the line moved quickly, and just as I neared the front, the rest of my group arrived! 
Notre Dame was amazing, and I really wanted to linger for far longer than my group did, but my foot was hurting and I knew it was time to quit (after kneeling and saying a prayer for my mum, first). I bought a simple wooden rosary (the Swarovski crystal ones made me feel guilty) and all of us shared a few cabs back to the hotel - and I just caught a glimpse of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company as we passed by.

Back at the hotel, my roommate and I just chilled in the room. Honestly after all that heat and walking, it was nice to just rest, nap, and read a book in a cool, quiet room for a few hours. 

After that came the Moulin Rouge!

Now ... the Moulin Rouge was an altogether different experience. We were led into an enormous red-upholstered dining room and theatre and wedged into tiny tables - the space between the tables and the next row's railings were so narrow all the waiters had to crab-walk sideways. And of course I found myself wedged in between a metal railing and the Abominable Australian. 

While the lounge singers on stage went through songs so well-known and digested they were practically musical jello, my compatriots and I tried to eat off-tasting smoked salmon, decent steak, and a chocolate dessert without elbowing each other in the face. The staff provided us with two bottles of wine and a pitcher of water - I finished off the water in short time. I was suddenly terribly thirsty, and my throat was starting to hurt. 

The service at the Moulin Rouge was terrible. I had to ask four times, from four separate waiters for more water, and was ignored or lied to. Sophie (Tour Manager) managed to steal us one off a cart, and we made short work of that, but it wasn't nearly enough.

Then the waiters dropped off a bottle of Champagne, the dining room darkened, and the show began. The Moulin Rouge show is a burlesque, and it's very crazy and campy and random. Basically, gorgeous French women in showgirl costumes come onto the stage and dance through bizarre scenarios or skits while lip-synching to French pop songs. Either they'll all be topless, or the Three Obvious Starlets will be topless and the rest of them will wear diaphanous tops or jangling necklaces to make them look topless when they're really not (like Neytiri from Avatar). There were about a dozen male dancers as well (with an Obvious Hero sporting a square jaw straight out of a 1940s Marvel comic), but none of them removed so much as a stitch of clothing. A shame.

The scenes and skits were thus: pirate men seducing topless pirate women through dance, the patriotic can-can with a flexible but disappointingly fully-clothed male dancer doing high-kicks backwards and forwards, a 1940s boogie woogie number, an Arabian Nights number, a Kentucky derby number involving female jockeys in thongs leading real miniature horses around the stage, and a finale involving enough pink feathers to give Cher an aneurysm. I can only assume that Vegas showgirl performances are similar.

Of the two acts that stuck out to me, one was an Aztec Human Sacrifice number where a nubile girl was delivered up to the topless priestess by two topless guards in enormous headdresses. She stripped down to her nude thong, and as she did so, a clear swimming pool began to rise out of the stage. A clear swimming pool full of what looked suspiciously like live pythons. The girl dove into the pool, swam around the snakes provocatively (paging Dr. Freud), then Britney Spears'd herself a python necklace and climbed out of the pool to astounded applause.

The second was a circus number with a ballerina, a Conjoined Twin number (two girls wearing one dress), and a chorus line of topless female clowns. You read that right - topless female clowns. They wore the conical white hats and what I can only describe as the French lingerie version of saggy clown pants with suspenders. So if you're in the mood for the weirdest sex dream ever, this is the show for you.

In between the skits, a husband-and-wife tumbling act, a three-man tumbling act, and a French comedian would come out to give us a break from all the sequins.

I enjoyed the show, in a distant way, but I was distracted. I have a weird immune system. I don't get colds as frequently as other people do, but when I actually catch one, it hits me like a fucking freight train. And this cold struck me about five minutes after the show began. Within ten minutes, I developed a throbbing sinus headache, an overflowing runny nose, and I couldn't stop sneezing. I ran out of water and kleenex, folded as I was between an immobile iron railing and the Loudest Fucking Australian Ever, and unable to escape, I had to resort to snuffling and dabbing at my nose with the disintegrating remains of my table napkins.

When the show finally ended, I couldn't go out with the rest of the group to the Irish Pub directly next door (O'Sullivans). I'd planned to, I'd looked forward to it, but by the end of that show, I was a (likely contagious) wreck. Horrifically disappointed and embarrassed, I was the only girl to limp back to the bus and then the hotel. 

So maybe I had two low points on this trip - my 45 minutes at Westminster and this wretchedly painful and sleepless night, where I tossed and turned and imagined all the fun drinking shenanigans I was missing out on. My youngest sister (who's gone on numerous Contiki tours) describes this as the "Contiki Clap" - there is always one sick person on every Contiki tour who will spread their disease to several other people. In this case, I likely caught it from Meagan the Floridian Nurse. At least my cold caught me after London and allowed me to enjoy the Louvre.

Monday, August 04, 2014

I see London, I see France, Day 4: Crossing the Channel

Today, everyone packed their bags, ate their last English breakfast, packed everything onto the bus, and headed to Dover to catch the ferry to France.
There we ate some lunch, exchanged our pounds for Euros, and settled in on the enormous ferry. I spent most of the ride chatting with Lisa, Melissa, and Megan (a nurse from Florida who was sick with bronchitis) while suppressing my vague seasickness - but one of my tour mates won 70 pounds when he used his last pound coin in one of the casino machines!

As we drove through the French countryside (pockmarked by small villages, each with a sharp church steeple poking up into the sky), Sophie tried to give out the details for the Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome extensions for those on the tour who'd paid to tack extra days onto their trips - but she kept getting interrupted by the Australian. I won't say his name, but I dare say most of my tour mates who are reading this will know who I'm talking about.

He was big, bluff, Australian, and utterly obnoxious. How obnoxious? Even the other Australians disliked him (and a few found his Australian accent "off" or "funny-sounding"). His voice sounded like a foghorn designed by the Devil to punish hungover people, and he insisted on interrupting all of Sophie's announcements to make jokes lame enough to make dad-humour feel relevant. He'd already been to London before - and Amsterdam (he has family there), and couldn't stop himself from shouting his own recommendations and corrections and additions to Sophie's run-down of Amsterdam. Over and over.

Whenever he caught on to his own annoying behaviour, he'd chirp, "Sorry 'bout that. I'm an arsehole!" and treat this admission as a cleansing of the slate so he could start over again in his unbearableness.

Soon enough, we entered Paris, and that's when I felt my first stirrings of anxiety - not very much, but still. Paris is a very different-looking city from London. It's twisting and busy and hot and rife with graffiti. It also didn't help that the Contiki hotel (the Ibis Clichy) was this bland, rectangular structure set in the middle of nowhere. If I had to compare hotels, the London one beat the Paris one by a long shot - better looking, better location, better breakfast - not to mention the Ibis room only had two electrical outlets (thank God I packed a power bar). While the availability at the Imperial allowed me the luxury of a single room, we all got twinshares at the Ibis, and a bunch of the girls played magical chairs with their room keys so I wound up with a different girl - who turned out to be a very nice girl named Sophie (not the tour manager) from Australia who was enjoying a Contiki tour before meeting her friends for a month in Greece.

I also felt a little more anxiety about eating in Paris than I did in England, oddly enough. The "fanciness" of Paris food, as well as my uncertain French communication skills, made me much more nervous about what I was eating. And when we all sat down to eat at the Paris hotel, I wound up learning two of the coolest-seeming girls on tour also had fatal nut allergies and felt no compunctions about eating the bread at all. One of of those girls, Christina, actually experienced one of my absolute worst allergy nightmares - she remembers having an anaphylactic reaction in China after leaving her EpiPen in her hotel room and her tour guide had to rush through Shanghai rush hour to get it in time.

I can't imagine being so blasé about it, but I suddenly felt very ashamed of my food-avoidance issues. Not ashamed enough to actually try any bread or croissants or pastries in Paris, but enough to feel guilty and stupid about it.

Anyway, after an uncomfortable supper, we all got on the bus for the general tour of Paris.
Like Napoleon's tomb! Is was indeed fascinating to discover how planned and symmetrical a lot of classical Paris is.

After the tour, we were all dropped off by the Eiffel Tower. Now - I couldn't really care less about the Eiffel Tower. It's nice to look at, but that's about it. But I was determined to be social in Paris since I was far less interested in the city than my tour mates. I would just go along with what everyone else wanted to do.

Thankfully, I wound up with a cool group of women who did not want to wait two hours in line to go up the Eiffel Tower (thank God, what a waste of time). They bought ice cream, squee'd a bit about being in Paris in July in front of the Eiffel Tower, and we all sat in the grass looking up at it, waiting for 10:00 pm when the tower lit up and sparkled. Men came up every couple of minutes or so offering wine and cigarettes to sell. Afterwards, we shared a cab ride back to the hotel - but the cabbie dropped us off at the top of the avenue, a completely unrecognizable location, so we experienced a bit of an adventure as three girls trooped through the dark looking for our hotel. But find it we did, and I dropped off to sleep.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 3: London Hobbling

Day three of our trip was the "free day" in London. Nothing was scheduled except for the West End show at 6:45pm. We were free to sightsee however we pleased in the meantime, and Sophie gave us all London maps and Tube guides and had us circle the important spots we wanted to get to. Sophie and Jan took some of us onto the tour bus to drop us off at important places.

I tried to rest my foot as much as I could the night before (by ... not walking in my sleep), but the moment I stepped off the tour bus at Westminster, pain shot up my right foot. Yowch! I could barely rest any of my weight on it. It felt like I'd hurt a bone. I started to limp, than hobble, past the Houses of Parliament, towards the bridge I would have to cross to make it to the London Eye.

Not pictured: my painful foot.

I tried to stay cheerful. It was a beautiful day, I was surrounded by beautiful, iconic buildings, and so what if I was walking slowly? But the voracious traveller in me was determined to see ALL THE THINGS. I didn't want to take time out of my day to rest or see a doctor and as I was unfamiliar with pretty much all injuries caused by physical activity (due to me shunning it most of the time), I had no idea what to do. I asked a couple of questions to my Twitter followers on my phone and limped towards the Eye.
A very, very, very long walk.

I made it to the Eye, realized I'd only paid for the "regular" ticket and not the FastPass, looked at the 40-minute wait in the hot July sun and went, "Oh, HELL no." Several pounds lighter, I skipped the line thanks to my advanced pass and boarded the London Eye immediately.

I freaking loved the London Eye. Yes, it's a very touristy thing to do, but it's not as cheesy to me as, say, going up the Eiffel Tower because the whole point of the Eye is to look out over the city of London from 360 degrees. It's an excellent and creative way to see the city, and for a pound they'll give you a handy circular map that points out all the buildings you're seeing. It's about a 30-minute ride, perfectly timed.

Once I had one and a half working feet back on solid ground, I hobbled back to the bridge towards Westminster Abbey. My Twitter followers recommended rest (nope), ice (nope again), or wrapping it up in an ace bandage (okay!). I tried to Google the nearest chemist but the closest one was a kilometre's walk away, due to all the crazy-old and famous buildings getting in the way.

I loved my time in England, but if I had to pick a low point, it was probably the next forty-five minutes I spent in Westminster, hobbling in circles trying to find a cross-walk (hint: it is never where you want a crosswalk to be), ultimately deciding to nix Westminster Abbey due to a 30-minute line, and limping towards the nearest Underground station. I was by myself in an area I didn't know at all, where I couldn't walk very quickly or without pain, and had no idea what to do next. But still - I felt frustrated and angry, but not anxious, panicked, or depressed. Huh.

After a convenience store clerk's terrible directions led me on a laborious, failed trek to find a Boots, I decided to take a page from the Little Mermaid's book (the Hans Christian Anderson version). I'd simply walk through the pain. I wasn't going to miss London (particularly the parts I'd already paid for in advance). I wasn't going to die. I could always stay in bed during the Paris part. So I descended back into the Underground and took the train to the Tower of London.

Which turned out to be the best decision ever. A little background - I work with case managers in disability insurance, and a big part of their job is determining if the claimant is legitimately too ill/injured to perform their job, or whether they just hate their current situation too much to put up with pain they'd normally be able to. 

As it turned out, I was the latter - the moment I approached the enormous fortress of the Tower of London, the throbbing in my foot faded to a mere annoyance. I'll be honest - I was extremely ignorant of the Tower of London before I actually visited it so I didn't know what to expect. I certainly hadn't expected this gigantic walled edifice with towers (both authentic and rebuilt in the 19th century) and moats and a medieval palace. It's even more surreal and impressive since it's surrounded by ultra-modern skyscrapers such as the Shard and the Gherkin. 

I had a blast at the Tower. I cannot recommend it enough. Despite being there at the height of tourist season, I discovered it's such a large attraction that there weren't too many lines for anything except for the Crown Jewels (which I skipped - I'm not spending 40 minutes in the sun just to see sparkly things). 

I explored the medieval palace originally built for Edward the First, I saw the preserved graffiti of various prisoners (lots of Jesuits, Elizabeth I's tutor, and a man tried for witchcraft) and the Traitor's Gate. Also went into the torture tower (because of course I did) - my favourite replica was the Scavenger's Daughter, which functions as the opposite of a rack. You make a man fold himself into a ball then put an iron hoop around him and screw it tighter and tighter.

Another thing I learned? The yeoman warders actually live at the Tower with their families. Bit of a shock to see a modern deckchair and flower pots by these beautiful stone buildings just beyond one of the major walls. Some of the residences are actually on the green, with only a single chain and a sign to indicate they're off-limits to visitors. I can't imagine living at such a popular attraction, but then, it's still technically a functioning prison and the home of 2.5 billion Euros' worth of jewellery. 

Eventually, even the joy of exploring a royal palace couldn't keep the pain of my foot at bay any longer, so I walked outside, bought a whole mess of fish and chips (the chips liberally doused in brown malt vinegar!) and ate it next to the Tower in the hot sun. Blissful - and probably the meal I enjoyed the most out of the entire trip. 

I saw everything except the actual tower of the Tower of London - the White Tower, and while I felt a bit sad about that, I wanted to see more of London before the West End show. I limped back to the Underground and rode the train to High Street Kensington station. I should also note that I loved the Underground - so convenient and easy. And a billion times more accessible and visible than Paris' Metro. 

At High Street Kensington station, I found a Boots! I bought an ace bandage - then realized I had no scissors to cut it with. I dragged myself five more blocks to Kensington Park and finally, to Kensington Palace.


Kensington Palace was where Princess Victoria lived, and is the official London residence of Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I'm still baffled as to why no one has bothered to write a sitcom around this idea with a fictionalized Royal Family. But whatevs! 

There are four historical routes through the palace - the Glorious Georges through the King's Apartments, William and Mary's life together in the Queen's Apartments, a tour through Queen Victoria's life, and a section dedicated to the fashions of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. I enjoyed it (particularly the Victoria parts), although the part of me that was expecting the building to be kept up in the Georgian style was disappointed. I was rather hoping to walk in and pretend I'd time-travelled back to Victorian Britain but only certain parts of the palace were kept that way. The rest is a museum - and an excellent, well-organized one, but no longer a palace. It certainly made me want to rewatch The Young Victoria, though! 

When I go back to England (and I will!) I'll be sure to explore what looked like fabulous gardens, but once I made it out of the gift shop (bought: a classy key ring, the souvenir guidebook, and a history book on the Georgians), I knew it was time to drag my excruciatingly painful, blister-ridden feet back to the hotel in time for the show.

I made it with 15 minutes to spare. Some of my tour mates decided to skip the show (even though it was already paid for in the tour price), but for me, a guaranteed two and a half hours sitting down sounded like heaven. The show was Mamma Mia, and honestly where else can you book 50 tickets only a month in advance? The only things remarkable about it were a scene where the heroine's boyfriend is forcibly stripped down to his skivvies (and the whole theatre squealed like the studio audience for Saved By the Bell) and the actor who played Bill's horrific excuse for an American accent. But I got to sit down, the music was nice, and I was in good company. 

During the intermission, I made friends with Lisa and Melissa (from Scarborough!) and Christina (from Long Island). After the show, I decided (again...) not to go out to the bar because I was completely exhausted and a bit worried about what state my feet would be in when I woke up again. 

Saturday, August 02, 2014

I See London, I See France, Day 2: A Nice, Warm Bath

Slept pretty well at the Imperial - almost too well. Had to get up early, and barely made it in time for breakfast. Thankfully, the Imperial serves "English Breakfast" - which is protein, protein, protein, raaaarrrr bacon and eggs and beans! Hell yes! None of this stale pastry and fruit nonsense.

After gulping down a tiny cup of tea, I left for the bus. True to my sister's word, many of my tour mates slumped against their seats in a fug of evaporating alcohol fumes, just as many from jet lag, and several Australians from both. Poor Sophie tried to get us to try a "speed-dating" exercise where everyone on an aisle seat switched seats every two minutes to sit with someone else, but no one was having that. We settled for introducing ourselves with alliteration - I impressed the group by announcing myself as "Enigmatic Elizabeth." Go go English degree!

Before leaving for our day trip to Somerset, Sophie had our Dutch driver, Jan, drive us around the sights of central London as she explained their significance and dropped interesting facts. Like how everyone confuses the Tower Bridge for London Bridge. And how Londoners actually have to pay to drive their cars into the City part in order to ease congestion. Pictured above is the infamous laughingstock of the London skyline - the skyscraper dubbed the "Walkie-Talkie" with the curved glass front that actually set fire to cars and rugs on the street opposite and now has to be covered with a tarp/screen thing.

After the tour, we set out for Stonehenge. I wound up paying to see it, because there was only one tour bus so it was either pay to see Stonehenge or wait on the bus for two and a half hours until we left for Bath. The air was pleasantly cool, overcast without being rainy, and the stones were lovely, but not the most interesting things in the world. They're mainly fascinating because we still have no real idea who built them and why. I spent most of my time there making Spinal Tap jokes and judging which of my tour mates were cool enough to get the reference. Apparently a practising Druid was there that day, but I missed her while I was staring at irrelevant doodads in the giftshop (do I want a sparkly pink pen that says Stonehenge on it? Nope).

After a quick bite to eat at the Stonehenge cafe, it was back on the bus to Bath! This was what I had been waiting for. I shivered with impatience as the bus lumbered through the increasingly beautiful and sunny English countryside. We would only get three hours in Bath, and I had to make those hours count. Sophie handed out extremely helpful maps before we arrived.

By the time we got there, the clouds had cleared up completely and the trees parted to display a glorious, golden city bathed in sunshine.
Seriously. The entire city is a Unesco Heritage Site, and the main architects who designed the city hundreds of years ago used soft, yellow Bath stone - and so now you can't build so much as a gas station without using it, in order to preserve the view.
Soooooo pretty. While Sophie went in to the Roman Baths to secure our booking, we were left to wait in the courtyard in front of Bath Abbey - a splendid church with fascinating carvings of Jacob's Ladder on the front (complete with carved angels climbing up to heaven). Sophie recommended we make use of the 45-minute audio tour of the baths, but I was having none of that. I had three hours to stuff with as much Georgian-Regency goodness as I could! I whisked through the Baths, enjoying the statues and the 1000-year-old paving stones and the murky green water everyone was warned away from as it was untreated and likely contained Ye Olde British Diseases.
The secret ingredient is kryptonite.

I did taste the waters, from a special treated fountain, and found it tasted like a warm pocketful of spare change. Unsurprising. After that, I caught a glimpse of the Pump Room (now a restaurant, but also the setting for many a Jane Austen adaptation) and from then on - it was time to explore.

I traipsed over as many of the golden cobblestones in my flat, unsupported sandals as I could. The air echoed with laughter and bird calls - a peddler was selling bird whistles by the marketplace. I bought the cheap plastic kind you fill with water, but he also sold the weird U-shaped whistles you put on your tongue. When you go "shhhhhhh" it makes a chirping sound! My foot started to ache but I had no time to slow down. Using Sophie's map, I made a bee-line for the Jane Austen Centre.
Yes, the Jane Austen figurine is fake, but the footmen who open the door for you are real! It was all set in this narrow house that would have been very like the one Jane Austen and her family lived in. Of course, Jane Austen wasn't very happy in Bath, and did most of her writing in Chawton (where the major Austen museum is), but Bath is a setting in many of her novels (like my personal favourites Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) and also home to the Jane Austen Festival in September. They showed a video of it in the reception room as I waited for the presenter, and it looked like a lot of fun.

I raced through the exhibits, trying to take everything in. I gazed at the dresses, tried on some bonnets, and even saw the new waxwork sculpture of Jane that had been sculpted using forensic science, portraits of her siblings, and first-hand descriptions of Jane from her relatives' letters. Half of the giftshop was given over to "I Heart Darcy" rubbish (I like the guy well enough but he's insanely overhyped and besides have you never heard of WENTWORTH?), but I bought a lovely teacup and saucer, a leather bookmark, and a book on all the real estates used as settings for Jane Austen adaptations.

I felt a bit guilty in Bath, even as I was enjoying every minute of it, because I felt I couldn't afford to spend too much time on any one thing for fear of missing something else. After this, I ran (limping now, because my foot hurt) through the grand Georgian Circus. It's a bit startling to see cars parked in front and potted plants in the gardens. Yes, people actually live here - although from what I can gather the cost is astronomical. 
Next, on I went to the Royal Crescent. The beauty of this city is simply overpowering. The glorious Crescent looks out over a verdant lawn, with trees and hills and fields in the distance. Several tourists and locals were lounging about and picnicking on the green. 

On the way back, I stopped at the Georgian House on Number 1 Royal Crescent, but I didn't have time for the tour - just for the gift shop, where I snagged several postcards containing more stunning photographs of the city than I could ever hope to take. 

I had one more stop before meeting up with my group - there's a special bookstore that was recommended to me by a fellow blogger, Ana S. of Things Mean a Lot. A magical bookstore. And I knew I couldn't visit Bath without seeing it - Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights, listed as one of the U.K.'s best independent bookstores.

You guys. It was like a miniature Willie Wonka's - only with books and no child maiming! 
Set inside this beautiful little house, it was so charming and beautiful and well-organized - with personalized recommendations, a staircase wallpapered with Tintin cartoons, and a cozy little reading room on the second floor (right next to a shelf with Mr. B's World Cup reading list). Their website boasts a TON of author events, book groups, recommended reading lists, book subscriptions, and something called a Reading Spa (THERE IS CAKE INVOLVED). It made me want to live in Bath, which would probably be only slightly less expensive than regularly flying from Canada to Bath to see the store again! 

Of course, one doesn't just visit a famous bookstore and not buy anything - so I bought two books. Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge (because she's a British author) and a hardcover of Jane Austen's Persuasion (my own copy is a public domain eBook) which takes place in Bath and is my favourite of her novels. For an extra pound, they wrapped my books! 

The adorable red wax seal survived the trip home, I'm delighted to say. I still haven't opened the package. To be honest, I'm waiting until the tape dries out and I can safely unwrap it in one piece and KEEP it. 

What a delight! I clattered down the cobblestones of Bath under a blue sky with a beautiful brown-paper-wrapped-package under one arm and shopping bags in the other, listening to bird calls both real and fake. I met up with my friends in front of Bath Abbey once again. Anthony remarked on the address of the Jane Austen Centre (Gay Street and Queens Square) and said it was a perfect missed opportunity for a gay bar.

Sadly, it was time to go, and I hauled my exhausted self back onto the bus for the long drive back to London. After storing my things, I decided it was time to be social, so I paired up with Trudy (another Canadian), Franco (from the Philippines), Anthony, and Mikey to look for a place to eat. Unfortunately, most of the bars were packed because - who knew? - it was the World Cup final! Thanks to a misunderstanding, I got separated from Trudy and the others and wandered disconsolately back to the bar closet to the hotel. There I met some of my American tourmates from Arizona. I ate some of their fries but really wasn't in the mood to order a whole meal, especially as there weren't many seats.

I wound up standing at the bar, watching the World Cup final with three strangers who, while not unkind, knew each other much more than they did me and so unintentionally excluded me. But since I didn't want to walk back to the hotel by myself at night (with a foot I could barely put any weight on at this point), I forced myself to watch the entire, incredibly boring, World Cup final match. Football, it just isn't for me. 

After that, I was more than ready to sleep. 

I See London, I See France, Hope I Packed Enough Underpants! Day 1

I bet you can tell how incredibly mature I am.

Two weeks ago, I went on a trip to London and Paris with a Contiki tour. In case you aren't aware, Contiki is a tour service aimed at 18-35 year olds and offers a variety of different tour options all over Europe, North America and Asia.

I've wanted to go to England for most of my self-aware life - my mum, in an attempt to make sure her Canadian children didn't just absorb pervasive American culture as a matter of course, raised us on a steady diet of Canadian and English literature, television, and history. And as for Paris - uh, well, I really enjoyed reading Madeline. So I booked the week-long tour exploring two of the biggest and most important cities in Europe, and hoped the structure of a tour and the presence of like-minded travellers my own age would help stave off the worst of my anxiety.

I flew to Heathrow and took my suitcase onto the Underground. No anxiety yet. Looking out the windows, I could see all the little houses and lines of laundry, and to my dazzled eye, it was all charming because they all looked British! At least compared to the blocky, identical beige stucco houses of the Canadian suburbs I'm used to.

The Contiki hotel (the Imperial) was clean, professional, and utterly nondescript, but had excellent WiFi and a very convenient and gorgeous location, close to Bloomsbury Square and the Hotel Russell, an establishment with an intimidatingly beautiful Gothic facade in the front and ordinary red brick in the back. I was surprised (and somewhat relieved) to discover I'd been given a single room instead of a twinshare.

I had a few hours before I was due back at the hotel to meet with my Contiki Tour Manager and my tour mates, so I walked around the area. It was definitely touristy - hotels and black cabs and double-decker busses everywhere, and kiosks selling anything large enough to stamp the Union Jack on. Nary an English accent to be heard. And yet, I was surrounded by marble columns and red doorways and wrought iron, and nearly every building I passed had some sort of plaque or sign indicating it as the birth/living/working/death-place of some famous British person. I went ahead to the Contiki headquarters nearby and bought advance tickets to certain London attractions (the London Eye and the Tower of London). I also caught the tail-end of a very bizarre poetry reading at Bloomsbury Square.

Back at the hotel, I joined up with the tour and our lively Tour Manager, Sophie. Willowy, brisk and wry, she gave us the run-down on the rules of the tour before we went into the hotel dining room for supper. Still no anxiety, and I managed to eat well, although I skipped dessert.

That's where I first met some of the awesome people on the tour - such as Mel, who works in a biscuit factory in Australia. Somehow this work involves arguing with robots, which someone clearly needs to use as the premise for a hilarious animated musical. I also met Lauren from Michigan, two girls from Winnipeg celebrating their high school graduation, and Anthony and Mikey from Toronto, freshly engaged. Anthony had apparently wanted to rent a private pod on the London Eye to propose to Mikey, but demurred upon learning such a service cost 500 pounds.

The tour group was a pretty good size, around 50 people. It was small enough to remember almost everyone's faces if you ever got lost, but big enough to allow you to avoid the annoying people without isolating yourself. Lots of slender, tanned Australians in flip-flops and filmy tops. Two South African girls. Some Americans, some Canadians.

After dinner, Sophie took us on a walking tour of Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus. It being a Friday night in July, the city was packed to the gills. There were lots of neon lights, billboards, and casinos. It reminded me quite a bit of Times Square in New York albeit with more classical architecture. There was even an M+M World there. Seriously - who travels halfway around the world, paying thousands of dollars, to visit one of the most historic cities in Europe to eat M+Ms?

I was particularly excited to see the electric billboard in Piccadilly - one of the most recognizable landmarks from my favourite Christmas movie, Bernard and the Genie!

On the way back, Sophie offered to show us certain bars and clubs. A big aspect of Contiki (at least for the younger people) is drinking and pub crawling. My sister (who's taken quite a few tours and is currently dating a gentlemen she met through Contiki) told me to expect many of my tour mates to sleep off these effects on the tour bus the next morning. I was eager to be social on this tour (or at least eager to try being social, which was why I wasn't travelling alone), but I'd barely slept on my red-eye flight and knew I'd be going to Bath the next day, so I decided to head straight back to the hotel.

I hadn't experienced so much as a tickle of my usual travel anxiety or depression, but I figured the shoe would drop tomorrow when the shock wore off and the jet lag kicked in.

Monday, July 07, 2014

"The Raven Boys," by Maggie Stiefvater

The Protagonist: Blue Sargent. A non-psychic in a family of gifted seers, her own gift is the ability to amplify already-existing magic.
Angst: When some rich white dudes want to find a sleeping Welsh king, she sees an opportunity to be an active participant in an adventure instead of a passive supporter.

The Secondary Cast:

Gansey: It's tough out there for a rich white dude. Hopefully, finding this dead rich white dude with magical powers will finally make people take me seriously. If you need me, I'll be sulking about how unfair life is in the renovated factory I bought and turned into my own personal Batcave.

Ronan: Grrr! Ronan angry! Ronan mean! Ronan miss his dead dad! Feelings scare Ronan! LOVE RONAN!

Noah: I am shy and quiet and I pet people's hair and this makes me endearing for some reason.

Adam: I'm the Poor One. But I work hard! And I don't take any charity! I ... you gonna eat that? No?

Angst Checklist:

  • Magic
  • Poverty
  • Child Abuse
  • Being Dead
  • Daddy Issues
  • Whiny Rich People
  • Ravens
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Good Way
  • Aunts who are Weird in a Bad Way

The Word: I didn't like this novel.

Let's just get this out of the way. I realize this novel and its characters (*cough* its male characters) are beloved in the YA blogging community in general, but me? I just didn't get it.

Our protagonist (sort of...) is Blue, a non-psychic from a family of psychics whose main source of income comes from dropping Cryptic Hints That Prove Relevant to the Plot Later On - which becomes pretty convenient as the book continues. Is it bad character development if they're written as people who spout random dialogue and have no background or motivation?

Anyway, Blue's helping her visiting aunt Neeve in a ritual to identify people who are going to die in the next year in an old graveyard (as one does), when she spots the future ghost of a boy wearing the uniform of the nearby Aglionby prep school. Blue's never been able to see ghosts (past or future) before, and Neeve tells her this means she might be the one who kills him. Or he might be her true love. So easy to get those two confused. The future ghost identifies himself only as Gansey.

Meanwhile, the actual Gansey turns up in the next scene, and he and his Raven Boys (nicknamed so by the resentful town for the raven emblem of their school) are searching for an ancient Welsh king who's buried somewhere in Virginia because hey we're all white dudes and crazy rich (except for the Not Rich One), so why not?

They're set up a bit like a boy band, where every Raven Boy gets his own accessories (relevant female protagonist sold separately). You have Batman With Parents (Gansey), Tim Riggins (Ronan), Pigpen (Noah), and The Not Rich One Who's Slightly More Interesting (Adam). Fate (or convenient plotting) has them meet up with Blue and her Phenomenal Not-Psychic Powers and they all jump into the Mystery Machine Gansey's broken-down Camaro because ancient Welsh kings aren't going to wake themselves.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this book - too many, which is my main problem with The Raven Boys. Hear me out. There's so much Deeply Important Magical Nonsense crammed into this one book that it was impossible to stay interested or invested in any of it. Alfred Hitchcock once explained the concept of the MacGuffin: the MacGuffin is something that matters very deeply to the characters of a fictional narrative and very little to those reading or watching that narrative. We, the reader, care about the MacGuffin when we start to care about the characters who are pursuing it.

The Welsh King is The Raven Boys' boring-ass, meaningless MacGuffin because, in a novel stuffed with dream thieves, psychic hotlines, aunts who might be evil (on a good day?), magic mirrors, corpse roads, secret ghosts, mysterious father murders, grape juice scrying and baby animals, there is precious little time spent developing the actual characters, much less their gossamer-thin reasons for caring about a mythical wish-granting European monarch.

The characters are defined by one or two attributes apiece, cherry-picked for their YA-lit popularity - Ronan is Angry (and hot) because of his father's mysterious death. Adam is Independent (and hot) because he refuses to take his friends' charity to leave his abusive father. He Will Live Life on His Own Terms and Without Handouts - unless you're a magical wish-granting king. Then it's totally cool. Handout away!

The author tries - there are some marvellously insightful passages here and there, in between the untidy heaps of supernatural window dressing. But there's simply not enough.

And then there's Gansey. This privileged little asshole is the "hero" of our story and the one "destined" for Blue. He really is Batman with Parents - all the wealthy ego-stroking manipulativeness, none of the understanding of real-world misery. He lives in his own refurbished factory/Batcave. He decides to call Blue "Jane" because her real name is weird, but throws a stink eye at anyone who calls him by his real name (Dick, appropriately enough).

He's dedicated his life (and the lives of his friends) to finding this Welsh King because his amazing wealth and privilege is such a horrific burden to his dreams of being The Specialest Snowflake. It's so much harder to be recognized as a brilliant individual when you're busy tripping over all your daddy's money. He drives an old, beloved, broken-down Camaro to show you that he's deep - unless the road is rocky, in which case he'll just fly his sister's helicopter (for reals). If only his life could be more like Adam's, then people would value his accomplishments and his life would have meaning. Yes - Adam, who works three jobs while getting daily beatings from his trailer-trash father.

Why the hell should I give a shit if Gansey finds that damn Welsh King or not? You see what I mean about MacGuffins?

And don't even get me started on Blue. Seriously, don't - because I shut the book with only the haziest of impressions of her character. She was - nice. I guess. Didn't get in the way too much. She and Adam were cute but she's "obviously destined" for Gansey.

Honestly, if the contents of this book had been stretched out over a trilogy, with enough character development and build-up and layers and interaction in between, The Raven Boys could have been as good as the Fionavar Tapestry. The book's well-written and cobbles together an interesting mythology. As it was, I was overwhelmed by the fantasy aspects and underwhelmed by the human ones.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Wonderful Musician"

So there's this Musician, see? And he's farting around in a forest, lonely and bored, so he decides to play his fiddle to attract a companion.

He plays his fiddle, and an appreciative Wolf appears, asking if the Musician can teach him how to play the instrument.

Musician: "Um, you're not really my type." So the Musician tricks the musically-inclined wolf into trapping his paws beneath a rock, and the Musician continues on his way.

He plays a bitchin' song on his fiddle again, hoping for company, and a Fox appears, asking for musical training.

Musician: "Oh come on now. Seriously?" So the Musician ties the Fox to a bush and flees.

Because the Musician has no clear grasp of actions and consequences, he plays his fiddle in the woods again and is frustrated when a Hare appears. He subjects a third animal to non-consensual bondage and continues through the forest.

By this time, the Wolf has freed himself, and rescues both the Fox and the Hare while following the asshole Musician's trail.

Unfortunately, by the time the vengeful animals track down the Musician, his music has finally attracted a human companion - a woodcutter with an axe. The entranced Woodcutter chases the animals away, while the deluded, racist, jerk face Musician sidles off into the sunset.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Animal Cruelty
  • Douchebag Musicians
Points Added For:
  • All those animals just wanted to learn how to play the fiddle! 
  • Now I'm thinking about those animals starting a band - and now I'm angry that this didn't happen!
Points Deducted For:
  • WTF is up with that jerkface Musician? Couldn't he have just said no when the animals asked for music lessons?
  • Also, if he wanted a human companion in the first place, what the fuck is he doing playing his fiddle in the middle of the forest? Instead of, oh I don't know, a town or a village or a karaoke bar or something?

Rating: Two fiddle-playing mammals out of ten.

"The Lady's Secret," by Joanna Chambers

The Chick: Georgy Knight. She works her fingers to the bone as an assistant to a theatrical troupe - even though the blood of an earl runs through her veins.
The Rub: A chance to prove her true parentage comes up - but it involves dressing as a boy and waiting hand and foot on a super-hot aristocrat.
Dream Casting: Gwyneth Paltrow, circa Shakespeare in Love.

The Dude: Lord Nathan Harland. A cultured dandy who discovers, to his cautious delight, that his mysterious valet is secretly a woman in disguise.
The Dude: Even as he means to toy with her, he discovers he's starting to love her - in earnest.
Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy

The Plot:

Georgy: I need to find evidence of my parents' marriage! I'll disguise myself as a valet!

Nathan: What an awesome valet you are! Your neck rubs are oddly erotic and for some strange reason I'm cool with that!

Georgy: *caught taking a bath*

Nathan: OH THANK GOD YOU HAVE BOOBS. I am TOTALLY cool with that. But secretly.

Georgy: *caught breaking into Nathan's friend's study*

Nathan: I am less cool with that.

Nathan and Georgy: *knock boots*

Nathan: Cool cool cool.

Georgy's BFF: OMG, you totally ruined a lady.

Nathan: Not cool! Let's not just throw silly words around!

Georgy: *leaves in heartbreak, almost gets killed by Crazy Murderer*

Nathan: OMG, Georgy, don't ever leave me, lets get married and have gender-norm-defying babies!

Georgy: Cool!

Nathan: HOORAY!

Romantic Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Heroine In Pants
  • 1 Bout of Gay Panic
  • 2 Actual Gay Dudes Who Are Occasionally Panicked
  • 1 Evil Mum
  • 1 Awkward Erection
  • 1 Carriage Accident
The Word: Full disclosure, Joanna Chambers and I are Twitter buddies. I bought a copy of her novel thanks to a great review and because I followed her on Twitter, but - then I kind of forgot about it. It's harder to remember the books I have on my Kobo since they aren't staring at me every day the way my aggressive paper books do.

Anyhoo - Georgiana "Georgy" Knight and her brother Harry have spent the better part of their lives trying to prove their parents were married. Their mother was a humble actress, but their father (now deceased) was the younger son of the Earl of Dunsmore. When the eldest brother died, the title should have fallen to Harry, but all evidence of their parents' scandalous marriage had been hushed up years ago by their disapproving grandfather, so the earldom went to a cousin instead. Then their mother was murdered by an anonymous cutpurse mere hours after applying to the Dunsmore family for help.

Harry's continued their search for legitimacy since then, but now he knows they have to be discreet about it. The impostor Earl of Dunsmore clearly can't be trusted.

While Harry's searching the countryside for parish registers, Georgy seizes an opportunity to infiltrate Dunsmore's household when she learns his close friend, Lord Nathan Harland, is looking for a new valet to accompany him to Dunsmore's for a house party. Posing as a man, she gets the position, but serving the sophisticated Lord Nathan proves to be more of a challenge than expected. The duties of her position bring her into shockingly close proximity with him, and Nathan is an extremely intriguing, attractive man with hidden depths.

I love clotheshorse heroes. Nathan is someone who puts a lot of care (or else hires an expect willing to put a lot of care) into how he looks, as well as someone with an appreciation for beautiful things. Not because they are valuable - but because he likes to look at them. Like his valet George. He finds out about Georgy's true gender quickly enough (albeit not before he gets a confusing boner during a neck massage) and then he becomes fascinated by the mystery of her deception.

Of course, Nathan is a very privileged character, and Chambers makes pleasingly dramatic hay from the distorted power balance of the master/servant (in disguise!) pairing. Nathan is initially interested in Georgy as an object of mystery, an object he feels entitled to puzzle out and manipulate because a) she's a servant and b) she's a lying servant. However, he soon starts to care about her as a person, someone of worth. But Georgy isn't a fake valet - she performs all the same tasks and duties, and now Nathan has to reconcile how much he cares about her with what he's made her do and see in her line of work. Which is quite interesting. It doesn't resolve in any serious way (Nathan doesn't really come to care about any of his other servants), but it's an interesting dynamic.

Chambers' writing style is simple and elegant, describing the sumptuous luxury of Nathan's lifestyle (and Georgy's servitude in it) with clean, beautiful phrases. However, the villain is clearly telegraphed from the beginning, and the "twist" at the end even more so. I also felt Nathan and Georgy missed a few opportunities to go deeper (emotionally) into the power dynamics of their relationship. Otherwise, though, The Lady's Secret is a charming romance with an interesting cross-dressing twist.