Sunday, March 08, 2015

"White Cat," by Holly Black

The Protagonist: Cassel Sharpe. The only non-magical dud in a family of curse workers, he ought to be able to live a normal life.
The Rub: His family's magic might not run in his blood, but their propensity for mischief does.

Secondary Characters:

Phillip: Cassel's oldest brother. A body worker for the Zacharov crime family.

Barron: Cassel's second oldest brother, a luck worker who dated the only girl Cassel ever loved. How's that for luck?

Sam: Cassel's boarding school roommate and eventual, reluctant partner-in-crime.

Lila: The daughter of the powerful Zacharov crime family, and Cassel's best friend - and murder victim. Cassel's family was forced to hide the evidence to protect them from mob vengeance, but Cassel can't quite get her out of his mind.

YA Trope Checklist:
  • Unattainable Female Love Interest
  • Screwed Up Parents
  • The "Normal" Best Friend
  • Private School Angst
The Word: Why have I never read Holly Black before? This is obviously an unconscionable oversight, and shall be corrected immediately.

With a few deft strokes, Black creates a rich, vibrant world that is like our own, but not quite. Everyone wears gloves. People carry enchanted pieces of stone around their necks to protect them. And almost everyone at Cassel Sharpe's boarding school holds him under suspicion due to his unsavoury family connections and mysterious sleepwalking.

In this world, magic (or "working") was outlawed along with alcohol during Prohibition, and like Prohibition, outlawing magic didn't make the workers disappear - it just made them all outlaws. The world is now riddled with massive magical crime families who can make people forget things, lose at craps, or fall in love - for the right price. And God help you if you can't pay it. All it takes to work a curse is skin-to-skin contact - that's why everyone wears gloves in public.

Cassel Sharpe, our hero, goes through life haunted by three facts: 1) he comes from a family of magical criminals and con artists, 2) of that family, he is the only one with no magical talent, and 3) he is a murderer. Three years ago, he killed Lila Zacharov - his best friend, first love, and the daughter of the Zacharov crime boss. Even worse, he has no idea how or why he did it, but his worker brothers rallied around him to cover it up and protect the family from Daddy Zacharov's vengeance.

However, when he starts experiencing powerful, dangerous dreams involving a white cat demanding he remove a curse, Cassel begins to wonder if his understanding of those three basic facts - hell, of his entire reality - is all that it seems. But to do that, he will have to dive into the worker underworld despite having no powers of his own.

The world building in this novel is so fresh and interesting. The idea of magic users forming this immensely powerful criminal underground is fascinating and opens up so many narrative possibilities that the author takes full advantage of. Not only that, but the magic itself is cool - there are dozens of different types of workers, and each one experiences a particular type of "blowback" when they overuse their magic. Memory workers forget things, death workers develop necrosis, emotion workers lose emotional stability, that sort of thing.

The underground aspect adds a sly subtlety to our teenage hero, Cassel. Despite being magic-less, he's still inherited his family's con artistry and he has trouble trusting people without analyzing how they fit into a particular con or plot. He's intriguing but also tragic - because he trusts himself as little as he trusts other people. He murdered his best friend three years ago and he still has no idea why, only that there must be something in him, something hidden, that made him do it. What if it wakes up again?

I don't want to give anything more away, because half the fun of this original, addictive novel is the sense of discovery as Holly Black continually stirs more delight into this potent stew of con men, magic, lies, politics, and family drama. I've never read a full-length Holly Black novel before, but White Cat will not be the last. Not by a long shot.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Three Princes," by Ramona Wheeler

The Protagonists: Lord Scott Oken and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke. Two princes from different nations under the mighty Egyptian Empire, they are also secret agents for the Pharaoh.
The Rub: When reports reach Egypt that the Nation of the Four Corners (the Incans) are working on rocket technology, Mikel and Scott are sent to see how viable this project is.

Fantasy Trope Checklist:
  • Alternate Timelines
  • Double-Crosses
  • Magical Bond Animals
  • Obviously Evil Monarchs
  • Royal Intrigues
The Word: Three Princes is the most beautifully-written utter waste of time you'll ever read. 

The concept is original and intriguing - the novel's set in an alternate history (circa 1877 or thereabouts) where the Egyptian Empire never ended, but instead grew and thrived to become the dominant world power thanks to the successful marriage of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Egypt is now a wide-spanning and mostly benevolent commonwealth, with only a few rebellious areas left (like the Osterreich empire, ruled by Victoria and Albert!) to threaten the world's safety. 

The characters sound diverse and interesting - Lord Scott Oken, a minor prince from the Egyptian province of Scotland, is a spy for the Pharaoh. His mentor, Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke (from Nubia), has retired from information-mongering - but both are called back into action by the Pharoah's wife. The Incas, it appears, are working on a scientific project to travel to the moon, and Egypt wants someone trustworthy to travel to South America and see a) if it could work or b) if it could be a threat. 

What follows is a dreadfully slow, narratively hollow, but gorgeously-described imaginary travelogue as Mikel and Scott slowly and cheerfully make their meandering way from Memphis to Tawantinsuyu, by way of several decadently-appointed airships. A luxurious attention to detail is lavished upon their expensive accommodations, their entertainments, the profusion of bare-breasted South American women, and the bizarre technology of airships (cyclists and trained albatrosses are involved) - and almost none on the actual plot, conflict or character development. 

Wheeler stretches out a short story's worth of plot to a 350-page novel, and doesn't waste any of the precious, precious filler (like pages of description devoted to guest room furniture lovingly carved to look like naked ladies) on developing any of the characters beyond the most basic, repetitive strokes. Lord Oken likes sex with ladies. Mikel likes making witty comments to mask his inner pain. Secondary characters pop out of nowhere and make jarringly huge and sudden decisions for no reason, and with no context or development to explain the outlandish choices they make. The novel's main antagonist, for example, is present for maybe ten pages (out of 350) and behaves like a Disney villain who's survived a meth lab explosion. There is no rhyme or reason to his behaviour - or to why anyone follows him or takes him seriously. 

Neither does Wheeler sacrifice completely relevant scenes of frolicking dogs, babies and guinea pigs (for reals) to develop her own plot threads. A mention of a Queen Victoria-led conspiracy involving orchids and bizarre religious cults goes nowhere, and the vicious attack on Mikel at the beginning of the novel that can't possibly be coincidence - turns out to be mere coincidence and is never mentioned again. Um, okay.

I kept reading and waiting for the plot to pick up because Wheeler is a genuinely fantastic wordsmith - her worldbuilding and her grasp of setting and culture are astonishing and beautiful. Her evident talent and skill makes the appalling lack of a plot in this novel an even greater frustration. If you're interested in reading about two friends going on an expensive and largely uneventful exotic vacation, this is the book for you. If you actually require story, substance, conflict, or coherent drama of any sort in your fiction - you'd best look elsewhere.

Three Princes is an empty, self-indulgent non-story wrapped up in beautiful writing.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

December in New York, Day Four: Marc Chagall, Miracles, and Mo'Pain

At 5:00 am on the morning of our final day in NYC, I was woken up by the ringing of my hotel room's phone. I picked it up, blearily thinking the hotel must be on fire, only to have a stranger with an accent start screaming at me, "Who is this? Who's calling? Who's in the room with you?" Um, hello, you called me, terrifying creeper! The fact that he kept asking, "Who's in there with you?" made me terrified I was going to be robbed (since I'd sleepily responded, "No I'm alone.").

I called the front desk, who discovered the call was internal (the call was coming from inside the house!), and I realized it was likely another guest who thought he was calling the room of his travelling companion. That didn't really explain why he didn't just hang up right away when he realized he'd called the wrong room - did he think I was hiding his friend in my closet? Did he think I was some one-night stand who'd picked up his friend's phone?

Tired and shaken, I later joined my mum for breakfast and explored the Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the hotel - it converted into a dimly-lit bar after 4pm but in the mornings it was light, airy and comfortable. We both regretted not exploring it earlier.
Afterward, we went for Sunday mass at St. Patrick's cathedral. That was kind of a wash - the whole cathedral, inside and out, was swathed in scaffolding and tarps for their massive renovation project. It felt like having mass in a parking garage - however, we did have the lovely consolation prize of having the mass performed by a cardinal (Cardinal Dolan, who waved to us after!). I felt strangely tense and weepy through the whole thing - again, I was going through some tough stuff that year and was not on the best terms with God. But at least Mum enjoyed it.

We returned to Madison and Vine - the Library Hotel's companion restaurant - for brunch. I had eggs benedict, and while I devoured the eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce, I hadn't recovered the confidence to try the English muffins. I've grown more wary of bread products over the years, which makes absolutely no sense since I've eaten bread my entire life without an allergic reaction. But anxiety doesn't really listen to logic.

After that, we took a taxi to the Jewish Museum - set in the astoundingly pretty Felix M. Warburg House - to see the Chagall exhibit. Mum is a huge fan of Marc Chagall and her enthusiasm swept me up in the artwork as well. We also explored the Art Spiegelman exhibit there - his work is exceptional, but often disturbing.

We finished off the day with a long, long, very long walk from Central Park to the hotel, 50 blocks of walking during which we were accosted by a would-be rapper named Mo' Pain who sold us his demo CD. I was intimidated (and as it turns out, being approached by aspiring rappers in New York is actually a popular tourist scam), but Mum was charmed and gave him $10. He whipped out a sharpie to sign the CD. "Who should I make it out to?"

Mum: "Meg."

Mo'Pain: "How do I spell that?"

Me: "..."

Mo'Pain: "That's a sexy-ass name!" When we admitted we were from Canada, he said he was a huge fan of Drake. Scam or not, it was at least a very memorable experience and Mum now has a CD of questionable music as a very special souvenir. We also passed by (intentionally) bloodied PETA protesters who were screaming at the customers of Bergdorf's before we finally made it back to the hotel.

We had time for a brief, relaxing cup of tea before the town car arrived to take us back to the airport. We'd reached the end of our trip, and the only exciting thing to happen afterward was when I really thought I saw Paul Rudd enter the first class lounge. He had rumpled hair and thick-rimmed glasses - plus he'd just hosted Saturday Night Live so he would have been in NYC at the time. It was one of those blink-and-you'll-miss it miracles that I'm still doubting myself over. Did I see Paul Rudd? Or was it just an extremely lucky man who looked like Paul Rudd and could afford first class?

We'll never know. Even as I write about this trip more than a year after it happened, it still seems fresh in my mind. Maybe I remember it all so well because it was a truly magical Christmas trip, at a truly magical hotel. Or maybe I remember it because I'm only recently back from my second trip to NYC with my mum where we stayed at the Library Hotel - another adventure I'll try and recount to you before the year is up. I promise.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The Winner's Curse," by Marie Rutkoski

The Protagonist: Kestral Trajan. The daughter of Valorian's most celebrated general, she's under extreme pressure to either marry or enlist in the military. Her life is hard.
The Rub: But not quite as hard as those of the slaves she owns. Awkward.

YA Tropes Checklist:
  • Parents Who Just Don't Understand
  • 1 Poor Little Rich Girl
  • 1 Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks Chains
  • 1 Airhead Best Friend
  • 2 Underappreciated Musical Talents
  • 1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
  • 2 Villains Who Want to Bang the Heroine
  • Love Made Me Do It
The Word: I underestimated this novel. Blame it on the woozy, swoony prom-dress cover. Poor little blond girl in a ball gown, whatever shall you do? What love triangles shall you muck up? What doorways will you adorably trip through to be caught by the hero? This cover is terrible, no doubt about it. However, The Winner's Curse pulls fewer punches and hides sharper edges of commentary than I would have guessed. 

Kestral is the pampered-but-unsatisifed daughter of a successful Valorian general living in the occupied Herrani capital city. Ten years ago, the warlike Valorians conquered the artistic, sophisticated Herrani and the survivors of that war now work as slaves in the houses they once owned. 

While out walking, Kestral accidentally winds up at the slave auction, where a slave named Smith is being sold. Intrigued by his spirit and misery that seem to mirror her own, she defies her better judgement and purchases him at an exaggeratedly high price. Despite being remarkably snarky, defiant, and disobedient for a slave, Smith (whose real name is Arin) becomes almost like a friend to Kestral, as they each learn more about each others' people. 

However, unbeknownst to Kestral, Arin is an agent for the underground Herrani revolution working to overthrow the brutal Valorian yoke and restore Herrani freedom once and for all. Can these two crazy kids overcome their teeny tiny ideological differences?

I was quite impressed by the way this novel handled slavery. Kestral is depicted as someone who, while uncomfortable when confronted by the realities of slavery, continues to benefit from it. Ideologically she recognizes that slavery probably sucks, but she can't imagine a life without it and often catches herself ignoring or downplaying it in order to make herself feel better. When we live in a world where fruit is picked by underpaid migrant workers and sneakers are made by child labour and iPods are assembled by starving factory workers - are we any different?

When Kestral's freed nanny-slave Enai dies, Arin mocks her grief by demanding if she even knew who Enai's real family, real children were. Kestral doesn't - she was too afraid to even ask. I appreciated that the author never made the heroine a naive saint who was always good to her slaves. People who contribute to an abusive system still possess the capacity for individual good, and the capacity to eventually wake up and overthrow the abusive system. But that capacity doesn't whitewash their flaws. 

I also loved that Kestral wasn't a super-heroic Katniss character who is miraculously adept at scaling walls and killing bad guys. Instead of being a warrior, she's a strategist - an underused role for women in YA. I really appreciated this - she uses her power in more subtle and original ways.

Rutkoski uses a deft hand that highlights points of insight without getting mired in rhetoric, and the story moves swiftly and smoothly, but I could perhaps have preferred a little more depth to the worldbuilding and the history. Instead, the author uses coding (the Valorians are Romans, the Herrani Greeks) to do her worldbuilding for her, and that felt like a cheat.

All in all, a surprisingly solid read.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

December in New York, Day Three

(Sorry for the lateness, I've been very lazy - I now have a second trip to New York with my mum to write about so I'd better hurry and catch up!)

For our third day in New York City, Mum and I started out bright and early for the Morgan Library and Museum.
For NYC-bound book lovers, the Morgan Library is not to be missed, because, well, it's a fancy mansion filled with zillions of books! Piermont Morgan was a fanatical book collector and his massive library was on full display, along with exhibitions on Edgar Allen Poe (including some of his original notes), Charles Dickens (we spotted the original manuscript copy of A Christmas Carol), clay Sumerian seals (a surprise exhibit that utterly enchanted my mum), and Queen Elizabeth I's letters.
The main library was absolutely breathtaking - three stories of leather-bound books stretching to the exquisitely-painted ceiling in tightly-packed shelves protected by iron grates, interspersed with stained glass windows and an enormous tapestry, and well-lit displays of rare illuminated manuscripts and jewelled Bibles. This museum was all about the power of books and authors and the devotion of those who love them. Is there anything more powerful than reading a sentence that was hand-inked by a monk half a millennium ago?
A true reader's paradise. And that's not even mentioning the gift shop! Once we were finally able to pry ourselves away from all that literary luxury, we dined at the Morgan Library's top-notch cafe - where the ham and cheese sandwiches came on fresh-baked brioche with hot mustard aioli. New York museums don't mess around with the grub.

After the Morgan, we wandered down to Rockefeller Center to see it in daylight. The streets were so massively crowded the police had to set up barriers around the sidewalks just to prevent people from being accidentally pushed out into the street. The area around the Christmas tree and the skating rink resembled a turned-over anthill.

We made a few aborted attempts to shop in the area but were scared off by the savage crowds at Michael Kors and the dead, glassy eyes of parents entering their second hour waiting in line to get into the American Girl store. Instead, we skipped back down to some quieter side streets, where we found a nice, quite Coach whose flock of bored, nattily-dressed attendants were all too eager to wait upon us. Mum bought me a pair of presents there, under the promise that I not open them until Christmas morning.

We returned to the hotel after that, far too exhausted to even contemplate finding an appropriate restaurant for dinner. We stayed in, instead, and snacked on celery, cheese, and Prosecco at the Reading Room before heading off to our second Broadway show: Kinky Boots.
Billy Porter was astounding in the lead role - charismatic, gorgeous, confident in heels with a killer voice to round out the whole package. The other drag queens were equally talented. Mum was convinced some of them were women dressed as drag queens, until she read the playbill and discovered they were all named Trevor and Kevin. It takes major cahones to perform a jumping split in a string bikini in front of a live audience without damaging yours. Less good was the rather milquetoast while male protagonist who got a few too many solos about how unsatisfying his life is. The biggest surprise of the night came when Mum bought me a soundtrack and it turned out to be signed by Cyndi Lauper herself!

After the show, we shared cocktails in the dim Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the Library Hotel. Three days down, one more to go!

Friday, January 02, 2015

Reread Book and Film Review: "A Little Princess," by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For my last reread pick, I went with a book from my childhood - A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

While I remember enjoying it at the time, I always loved The Secret Garden more. This was for a number of reasons. First, Garden was pretty much Jane Eyre for kids and I was all over that. Think about it - the moors, the orphaned narrator, the dark angsty lord of the manor, secret damaged relatives locked away somewhere in the house. Also, Garden inspired an obscure Mandy Patinkin musical with an absolutely mesmerizing soundtrack which strengthened my devotion still more.

Finally, even as a young adult I recognized that Garden's Mary had more of a definite character arc than Princess' Sara. Mary starts her book as a pampered brat, then grows to appreciate the environment and the people around her. Sara, meanwhile, is a preternaturally kind, thoughtful, and compassionate child and, well, remains one throughout the book. At the time, I thought she was a little bit dull, even as the story itself was deliciously melodramatic and interesting.

However, reading it again as an adult gave me a little more insight. In case you're not familiar - A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, a little girl adored and cosseted by her rich, silly father who sends her to school in England where she is further adored and cosseted by the headmistress, Miss Minchin. However, when her father abruptly dies after losing his fortune, Miss Minchin shows her true colours and forces the now-penniless Sara to work as a servant alongside Becky, the school's mistreated scullery maid.

If Secret Garden was Jane Eyre for kids, then Little Princess is the Book of Job. The book is not so much about how her character changes, but how her character endures in the face of hardship. Despite an extremely pampered upbringing, Sara isn't spoiled or unkind. She's always thinking of others and using her imagination to solve problems - she still does this when she's forced to live in an attic, with little to eat and under constant derision from almost everyone at the school, but it's just so much more difficult. Some of these scenes, even for me as an adult, were legitimately heartbreaking. In a lot of ways, Sara reminded me of Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) - another youngster who used her brilliant brain to escape a loveless initial upbringing.

As much as I adore narratives about flawed characters redeeming themselves, I think I've underestimated stories of Genuinely Good People who struggle to maintain that goodness despite dire obstacles.

A Little Princess also shines a pretty bright and painful light on privilege. A lot of this comes from Sara's friends Lottie and Ermengarde who attempt to maintain their friendship with Sara after her fall from grace. Most of their interactions end with Sara using her imagination and willpower to pretend her situation is better off than it is in order to make her friends feel more comfortable about her change in circumstances.

As often as I tried to remind myself that these two were upperclass children with no frame of reference for poverty, some of their interactions with Sara were excruciatingly awkward to read. In one scene, Ermengarde sighs that she wishes she was as thin as Sara - her starved orphan attic-dwelling bestie. Yeah, that's awful, but it's kind of the point - FHB points out how even the most well-meaning wealthy person can be utterly oblivious to the suffering of others.

Of course, with all that realness, there's also a fair about of delightful fantasy and melodrama - loving descriptions of expensive doll clothing, diamond mines, bad investments, intuitive Indian manservants, and mischievous monkey sidekicks. Reading it felt like eating my cake and my vegetables at the same time.

Once I finished the novel, there was really nothing else to do but watch the 1995 film adaptation, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (better known for his work on Gravity, Children of Men, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

There are a lot of things this film does right - the sumptuous visuals, the creative cinematography, and the gorgeous music, to name a few. The actress who plays Miss Minchin is flawlessly cast (Eleanor Bron), and you might recognize Sara Crewe's father as Sir Davos from Game of Thrones (Liam Cunningham).

While I was irked at them moving the setting from England to America (and from 1888 to 1914), some of the changes added interesting layers - particularly the casting of scullery maid Becky as African-American. That added an extra visual and contextual oomph to just how Becky was the lowest of the low in the school's social hierarchy.

That being said, all this goodness melts away the moment the actress playing Sara (Liesel Matthews) opens her mouth. Oy. While the visuals and the music for this movie are beyond compare, the acting and dialogue are laughably ham-handed, a stampeding bull of overacting through the exquisite china shop of FHB's original story. The underage acting in this movie is just awful.

The film's biggest deviation from the source material lies in the ending (mild spoilers). In the novel, Sara's father dies of a brain fever after learning he's been ruined. It's his guilt-ridden business partner who tracks Sara down and rescues her from drudgery to atone for fooling around with her father's money. In the movie, Sara's father is still alive - albeit mustard-gassed into amnesia. He conveniently recovers his memories in time to save her from the police (long story).

Unlike many others, I didn't take issue with this change. Both endings are equally, outrageously melodramatic - plus the film avoids the vaguely classist ending of the novel by having the Crewes adopt Becky. In the book, Becky remains a servant - albeit Sara's better paid, better fed servant. Appropriate to the politics of the time in which the novel was written, FHB always maintained a boundary between the torments of Sara (an upperclass girl forced into a servant's position) and Becky (a member of the servant class in her natural sphere who simply has the misfortune of a cruel employer).

The only real beef I have with the film (other than the acting), is the fate of the horrid Miss Minchin. The film takes an outlandishly childish and nonsensical turn with her cosmic punishment, showing us that this educated, well-connected woman of means has been reduced to a chimney sweep's assistant in a matter of a few weeks. A fate which makes absolutely no damn sense. If you really want to see Miss Minchin suffer, read the book, in which her humiliation is far more realistic, far more searingly personal, and thus much more delicious.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Reread Review: "Prince of Midnight," by Laura Kinsale

Thank God this book didn't suck.

I mean it. My last draws from the Kinsale Deck were major duds - Seize the Fire and Midsummer Moon were sloppy messes involving morally-questionable heroes exploiting/babysitting infantalized pouty-lipped heroines. I was starting to wonder if I'd simply grown out of Kinsale's particular style, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked my favourite of her books, The Prince of Midnight, for my month of rereads.

Thankfully, no, it didn't suck. My original review is here.

I still loved both protagonists to pieces, but I did wonder at why I loved Leigh so much. She really isn't a very competent heroine, not really. She never becomes a talented rider or swordswoman, she fails in a lot of her endeavours - hell, her original plan to track down the Prince of Midnight to avenge her family is pretty insane. So why did I love her, while I hated Merlin and Olympia for being useless basket cases?

Well, I think the main reason is because this book (and more importantly, the hero) acknowledges the heroine is flawed, instead of passing off her mistakes and weaknesses as cutesy little quirks. Also, despite the fact that she was raised as a gentlewoman and thus has very few practical martial skills, she still managed to tramp her way all over France and back again, risk every danger, put her back to all sorts to work, over and over again to achieve her goal. Regardless of how often she fails. That's kind of awesome.

Also, her role in the story isn't to be the swashbuckler. S.T. Maitland is the swashbuckler. S.T.'s glory hasn't dimmed one watt in the years since I last read this novel, although my understanding of his nuance and his complicated relationship with Leigh has grown. At the end of the novel, Leigh calls herself S.T.'s anchor, and it just fits so perfectly. S.T. is passionate and romantic and desperate - and a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He needs to be daring and dashing because he can't imagine anyone loving him if he's not. Leigh is practical and focused, so she can keep him grounded - just as he frees her from her crushing grief with his free-spirited flirtations.

The Prince of Midnight is a rich, madcap novel that gives us a grounded, layered romance in the midst of a rollicking, insane, coincidence-laden plot. I highly recommend.