Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," by J.K. Rowling

The Protagonist: Harry Potter. The mistreated nephew of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, he sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs and wears nothing but cast-offs from his spoiled cousin Dudley, until he gets a mysterious letter in the mail inviting him to the magical school of Hogwarts.
His Angst: "Harry, yer a wizard." Also, everyone wants to kill him.

The Secondary Cast:

Ron Weasley:  Harry's loyal, comical BFF. From a large, impoverished, but loving family.

Hermione Granger: A persnickety, bookish, type-A personality student who quickly befriends Ron and Harry.

Dumbledore: The benevolent but mysterious headmaster of Hogwarts.

Snape: The Potions professor who holds a (possibly deadly?) grudge against Harry Potter.

Voldemort: Evil Wizard Extraordinaire. Hates Harry and goodness in general.

Angst Checklist:

  • The cupboard I sleep in is full of spiders
  • The magical school dorm I sleep in is full of ghosts
  • The Most Evil Person In Existence keeps trying to kill me
  • My parents are dead and I'm not even Batman
  • Passing Potions is a bitch
  • Overcoming fears
  • Moving on from tragedy

The Word: I hadn't originally put this on the list for my ReRead rollout, but due to some carelessness on my part, when I went off to stay with my parents for the Christmas holidays, I packed only one book (the one I was currently reading - Ami McKay's The Birth House).

I normally never pack only one book, because I am absolutely paranoid about running out of books to read, regardless of where I am at the time.  I was a little self-conscious about how much I was already packing because I was staying with my parents for more than a week and I anticipated bringing quite a bit of additional stuff back home with me (which I will be, thanks Mum and Dad!).

So I only packed one book, which I finished about two days in. What to do, what to do? I then realized the bookshelf in my old bedroom still had the entire series of Harry Potter books on it, so what better book to add to my Rollout?

The story is already pretty well-known thanks to the series' phenomenal success - boy meets evil wizard, boy defeats evil wizard with baby love powers, boy repeatedly defeats evil wizard with increasingly higher stakes and losses.

But does it hold up when one goes back to it? Well, once you've read the entire series, it's impossible to truly go back to the first book and repeat the experience of reading it for the very first time, before you knew why Sirius Black was so important or why Snape persisted in saving Harry's bacon despite obviously wanting to bang his mum.

However, as a first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (which is its real title, none of this dumbed-down Sorcerer's Stone bull crap), does such an excellent job of conveying a fully-realized, yet whimsically absurd world. Despite its brief length (at least compared to the gargantuan later books), Philosopher's Stone conveyed an environment, an atmosphere, a community of wizards and witches that instantly hooked me. While the story was certainly interesting, ultimately it was the worldbuilding that entertained me the most about this first book and kept me coming back for more.

The worldbuilding of Harry Potter succeeds because it's a perfect combination of fantasy and familiarity. It takes the whimsical aspects of wizardry and magical objects and mythical creatures and conveys it all through the familiar framework of a year at an English boarding school with houses, dorms, prefects and professorial politics. Rowling also imbues the story with an emotional honesty that transcends the fantasy setting. Harry falls into the world of wizardry not because of an innate curiosity for magic but because it is a world into which he is welcomed, for the first time in his life.

In this first book, he is still a little unsure of his place in this world, as indicated by his experience with the Mirror of Erised. In the mirror he sees himself surrounded by his biological family, and becomes obsessed with this impossible idea of what could have been. It takes Dumbledore to pull him free of the mirror's enchantment and show him the importance of friendships and bonds in the here and now. I've always seen this as a message to the book's readers as well. Harry's past and that of his parents and their allies is a horrific tragedy, and it's easy to wonder what kind of life Harry might have had if none of this had happened, but the point of the story is that there is no going back, there is only forward.

And forward it shall be. Having read the first book, I don't think I can just walk away without reading the entire series over again. Not all at once, mind - I'll still read other books on my TBR, but I'll alternate with more of Harry Potter's adventures.

Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone merits an

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The Birth House," by Ami McKay

The Protagonist: Dora Rare. When local midwife Miss B asks Dora to help her with her practice, Dora is hesitant to render herself even more of an outcast in her tiny, conservative Nova Scotia town.
Her Angst: Both Miss B's livelihood and the health of the women in Scots Bay are threatened by the arrival of a high-handed, condescending obstetrician who wants to rid the town of midwives for good.

The Secondary Cast:

Marie Babineau, a.k.a. "Miss B.": The elderly local midwife. Despite the fact that she's personally caught most of the babies in town for decades, many of the residents superstitiously avoid her - when they don't currently require her services.

Aunt Fran: Dora's wealthy and narrow-minded aunt - however, Dora learns firsthand that overly righteous Fran doesn't always practice what she preaches.

Dr. Thomas Gilbert: A condescending, malicious, and misogynist doctor on a mission to mansplain the process of childbirth to everyone he possibly can. Most definitely not related to Anne Shirley's Dr. Gilbert.

Bertine, Sadie, Mabel, and Ginny: The four town women who befriend Dora and support her as she takes over Miss B's practice.

Archer Bigelow: Dora's crush and eventual husband. Not a Good Man.

Hart Bigelow: Archer's older brother - shyer and more reserved, he continues to look out for Dora even after she marries Archer.

The Word: I had to read this novel way, way back in university for a Comparative Literature - Women's Studies course, and I enjoyed the novel so much that I held on to it. I always planned to read it again, in a setting where I didn't have a deadline, but I never got around to it - that is, until I read Ami McKay's second book, The Virgin Cure, and was less than thrilled with it.

So, for my ReRead Rollout, I decided to go back and try McKay's debut novel that I'd loved so well to see if it held up as well outside of the classroom. Thankfully, it did!

The Birth House takes place in the early years of the twentieth century, in the tiny little Nova Scotia town of Scots Bay. Our teenaged protagonist, Dora Rare, gets roped into helping the town's midwife, Miss B, who starts teaching her the ways of herb usage and folk medicine as they help the town's expectant mothers. The two are threatened by the arrival of Dr. Thomas Gilbert, a fancy, high-handed obstetrician who opens an expensive maternity home in the area.

Dr. Gilbert is a pretty nasty character who looks down on Miss B's "quackery" and promotes the superiority of male-dominated medicine for childbirth. He markets his services like a product, one that's all the better for being "official" and expensive, and pretty soon many of the oblivious husbands in the area begin to insist their wives have their babies at the maternity home instead of coming to Miss B and Dora for help. Dr. Gilbert's arrival sets off a furious, quiet war between the women and men of Scots Bay.

Part of the reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it offers powerful, thought-provoking themes along with well-realized characters and human drama. Too many "lit fic" novels let their message take over the story, transforming the characters into passionless ciphers who behave in ways that support the message rather than in recognizable human ways. Here, I felt for all the characters at the same time I was entertained by the novel's central theme.

Dr. Gilbert is very obviously depicted as the novel's villain, and his maternity home is a cold, clinical, impersonal place where babies are "extracted," still wheezing from the chloroform administered to their mothers. This is contrasted sharply with the communal, comforting nature of the homebirths Miss B performs.

Ami McKay takes a risk with this depiction since, in this day and age, hospital births are fairly common. However, she wisely focuses the novel on the gendered aspect of the contrast. It's not so much that obstetricians are worse than midwives - rather, it's about how Dr. Gilbert presumes to enforce how women have children when he clearly has no respect for women, and how that symbolizes the oblivious male attempt to control an event that is innately feminine. Dr. Gilbert repeatedly endangers his patients by mistaking their legitimate fears and concerns for "hysteria" - if he cannot find a scientific explanation on hand for it, then clearly the female is being silly and male science must save the day.

This bleeds over into the general theme of women's reproductive rights as Dora treats a wide spectrum of women - from exhausted women whose husbands want another baby to survivors of repeated sexual abuse. This message is conveyed all the more potently thanks to the vivid characterization and gorgeous writing style told from Dora's point of view as she comes to learn more about the women of Scots Bay.

I enjoyed this novel fully as much as I did the first time. Stellar characterization, excellent historical detail, and pertinent themes wrapped in a rich, evocative writing style. If you're a fan of historical fiction that still maintains a contemporary relevance, look no further than The Birth House.

You can purchase The Birth House here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm over at the Booksmugglers today!

I'm over at The Booksmugglers today for their annual Smugglivus celebration - whereupon I reveal myself as the President of the Secret Society of Evil Ladies Bent on World LadyDomination

Go forth and read, minions! 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Beauty," by Robin McKinley

The Protagonist: Honour, a.k.a. "Beauty." The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she struggles with being brainier, less proper, and less beautiful than her two older sisters.
Her Angst: When the family fortunes suddenly wane, and her father runs afoul of an angry Beast in an enchanted castle, Beauty has to sacrifice her freedom in return for her father's life.

Secondary Characters:

Grace: Beauty's older sister. Gorgeous but depressed after losing the love of her life in a shipwreck.

Hope: Beauty's second oldest sister. Also gorgeous. Married to Gervais, a blacksmith.

Gervais: A blacksmith and originally one of Beauty's father's employees. Marries Hope and proved to be of invaluable assistance when their fortunes waned.

Beast: A mysterious, furry figure who lives in an enchanted castle. Supposedly a love interest.

Lydia and Bessie: Two invisible servants who help tend to Beauty during her stay. The longer she stays at the castle, the easier it gets to hear and understand them.

Angst Checklist:
  • Living in reduced circumstances
  • Being uglier than one's sisters
  • Family responsibility
  • Forceful Invisible Servants Who Keep Trying To Make Me Wear Slutty Clothes
  • Reading books that don't exist yet.
The Word: I remember when I first read this book as a young teen, I thought it was a good story, but it ripped off the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast far too much. Smart-alecky enchanted servants? Beast giving Beauty a library? Sure. Right.

At least, that's what I thought until I picked up this novel again for my ReRead Rollout and realized that  it was originally published in 1978.


Ah well. For some reason (probably because Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite fairy tales), I held onto this volume. In the interim, I've read dozens of reviews praising McKinley's books, but I never got around to buying or reading anything else of hers (except for Deerskin, which remains on my TBR, as yet unread). So I decided to reread this YA novel again and see if I could understand what all the fuss was about.

Beauty is a good book, but in the end, I may end up damning it with faint praise. 

The novel starts by diving into Beauty's life and history. A solid third of the book goes by before we see a glimpse of an enchanted castle or illegally-obtained rose. Beauty (whose childhood rejection of her given name "Honour" left her with her current annoying nickname) lives with her widowed merchant father and her two beautiful sisters, Grace and Hope. Formerly wealthy, the family loses their standing in a matter of weeks when their father's fleet is devastated by storms, pirates, and other misfortunes. Forced to auction their mansion and their more expensive belongings, the family packs up and departs inland, to a small town where Hope's new husband, Gervais, has secured employment as a blacksmith. It's a decent place to live, provided one stays out of the enchanted forest nearby.

After the family spends some time adapting to their reduced circumstances, their father gets word that some of his ships miraculously returned to port, and he decides to return to the city to sell them and settle some of his affairs. Before he leaves, he asks his daughters if they'd like him to bring anything back from the city. Beauty's two sisters jokingly ask for pearls and jewels, but Beauty asks for rose seeds instead, so that she may plant them around their cottage and spruce the place up a bit.

However, their father returns burdened with impossibly wealthy gifts and an impossibly terrible choice to make. As it turns out, on his way home, he got lost in a storm and took shelter in a mysterious castle. On his way out, he thought nothing of plucking a single rose bud from the castle's miraculous garden to bring back to Beauty. However, the moment he removed it, he was confronted by a terrifying, howling Beast who demanded his death in return for the desecration of his garden and hospitality. When their father begged for his life, the Beast relented - saying he would let the man go free if his daughter Beauty came to the castle in his place, and of her own free will. 

Their father has a month to decide - in one month, if Beauty does not go to the castle in the enchanted forest, the Beast will come for him instead. Beauty, against her family's wishes, stubbornly insists on meeting the Beast's challenge. When she arrives, however, she finds neither the castle, nor its Beastly inhabitant, are as frightening as they seem.

First, let's list the things I liked about the story. Robin McKinley has a lovely writing style, and I quite liked the main character of Beauty. While everything post-rose-theft follows the fairytale pretty closely, the development of Beauty and her family members are where most of McKinley's revision occurs. Beauty is not actually beautiful (at least in her own eyes), but bookish and awkward. Her two older sisters are not vain, spoiled, or frivolous and Beauty's father does not willingly offer his daughter in his own place. As Beauty deals with being under the Beast's curse, she learns to understand herself as an independent being, rather than as a sister or a daughter. 

That being said, while I appreciated how McKinley took the time to develop Beauty as a character and explored the dynamics of her family and upbringing, the narrative strength and detail of the novel's first third did not carry over into the rest of the novel - i.e. the Beast part of the novel. The Beast's character is disappointingly underdeveloped - in fact, he's barely outlined at all. We never even learn his name, who he was as a person, his personality, beyond a tossed-off explanation at the very end. He's an object, a plot point, and that annoyed me and weakened the novel. How are we to understand why Beauty falls in love with him if we don't even know who he is? So he makes sad eyes at her and lets her read in his library. Okay. So what? He's also keeping her a virtual prisoner. We're going to need more than sad eyes and the occasional line uttered with heart-rending anguish to understand him as a character and how he relates to Beauty. 

As well, the magic in the book isn't very well explained either. It's vague and undefined until a hasty last-minute explanation - much like the Beast. The last half of the book seemed, well, unnecessary. It follows the original fairy tale so closely (and with about as little embellishment). We already know this part of the story - why not develop it the way Beauty's history was developed? Why not explain it from the Beast's POV? Why is he dying? Why does he suddenly heal? How has he overcome his curse to remain inwardly human? 

The whole point of rewriting a fairy tale is to explore it from a new angle, or to build something fresh upon the foundations of an older story to impart a new idea or message, and I feel the novel sort of gave up on this halfway through. It's not that this novel wasn't entertaining, or even that it was poorly-written. It just could have been more. It was a novel that started out strong but ultimately left me dissatisfied.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Fitzpatrick's War," by Theodore Judson

The Protagonist: Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce. A talented young engineer with a knighthood for bravery is delighted to find himself noticed by the powerful and influential Fitzpatrick in his quest for glory.
His Angst: Robert finds his loyalty tested as Fitzpatrick's quest for glory promises to wreak untold devastation on the surrounding nations.

The Secondary Cast:

Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick: A charismatic, brilliant, driven individual who seeks to unite the world under one banner and culture. However, one cannot make a World Domination Omelette without breaking a few tens of millions of eggs.

Charlotte Raft: A possible agent of the mysterious Timermen who falls in love with Robert and decides to be his wife. His beliefs factor very little into her decisions.

Sir Jeremiah Truth Hood: The leader of Fitzpatrick's armies. An upright and religious man, like Robert he also comes to regret his actions committed at his commander's behest.

Pularski, a.k.a. "Buck": Fitzpatrick's hulking bodyguard, who hides a deeply moral soul as well as a talented green thumb. He much prefers tilling beautiful gardens and growing flowers to carrying out Fitzpatrick's murderous orders.

Dr. Murray: A member of the mysterious Timermen society, the only people on the planet who still possess electrical power and outerspace travel. Because of this, they unofficially rule the planet and can easily manipulate any power player to their whims - including Fitzpatrick.

Zimmerman: A nefarious member of Fitzpatrick's secret police force with no capacity for human empathy whatsoever.

Science Fiction Convention Checklist:

  • Countless Zeppelins
  • 1 Bioengineered Race of Locusts
  • 2 Secret Police Forces
  • Several Flocks of Biological-Warfare-Mosquitos
  • A network of Evil Big Brother Satellites
  • 1 Secret Evil Racist Society
The Word: With my ReRead Rollout, it was bound to happen sooner or later - but  Fitzpatrick's War, a novel I read and enjoyed some time ago, did not quite live up to my first experience reading it.

The reason I enjoyed it is still present (in the novel's unconventional formatting), but this time around the cleverness of the narrative framework can no longer disguise how tedious, boring, and repetitive much of the novel is.

The story is a little complicated to describe, but I'll try: Fitzpatrick's War is framed as the personal memoirs of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a soldier in North America circa 2490 A.D., in a nation that has been reduced to a warmongering, steam-powered, Neo-Victorian society in the wake of a global disaster in the 21st century that stripped the world of all electrical power. America, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and a number of other nations have all united into a mega-nation known as the Yukon Confederacy.

But the story's gimmick is also the fact that this is a "special anniversary edition" of Sir Robert's memoirs that have been edited and annotated by an obsequeious little university professor exactly 100 years later. Sir Robert's memoirs have, since their publication, been deemed a slanderous text, and thus the novel is full of "helpful" (and hilarious) footnotes that explain, elaborate on, and "correct" Robert's treasonous and deceitful allegations.

The reason Robert's writings have been discredited is because he alleges that the legendary national hero Fitzpatrick (of whom Robert was a companion) was not the glorious, noble figure that Official History paints him as, but rather a megalomaniacal tyrant whose actions were manipulated by an insidious secret society.

Still there? Okay - so most of the story involves how Robert, a talented commoner, comes to be included in the inner circle of Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, a privileged boy expected to inherit the title of Consul of the Yukon Confederacy. Robert is initially dazzled by Fitzpatrick's attentions and the privileges and promotions this association wins him, but slowly comes to realize that loyalty to Fitzpatrick comes at an ever-higher moral cost.

This is all good stuff, and the personal politics of Fitzpatrick's War are a treat to read (especially when compared to the point of view of the memoir's future editor), but the novel doesn't really have enough of this.

In many ways, Fitzpatrick's War reminded me a lot of Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Both authors pay such meticulous attention to their settings, imbuing them with endless detail. The world Judson creates is so complete and detailed - the societies, the geography, the history, the politics, the weapons, the military ideology, and their steam-powered technology.

However, like Solaris, all this detail cuts into the time used to tell the actual story. Despite the unusual and creative setting, the plot of the novel (how one man is completely and utterly corrupted by power) is hardly new and would have suited a much shorter story. In many parts of the novel (most especially during the Yukon Confederacy's assault on the Chinese), the inundation of detail is simply too much. I really didn't need to know exactly how many platoons there were, the descriptions of the different weaponry they carried, and which members carried which guns. In many places Fitzpatrick's War felt like reading a history textbook - lots of detail and information but no narrative. I found myself skimming many passages.

Again, the parts of the novel that involved around actual human interactions and politics were, for the most part, interesting. All the characters had interesting roles to play - however, the one woman in the story (Robert's wife Charlotte) is such an Insufferably Smug Morally Superior Manic Pixie Dream Wife that I just couldn't stand her. It's not that I don't understand her character, and how she was supposed to shock Robert out of his staid ways and get him to embrace open-mindedness, but she could have been dialled down way more, at least if the author wanted us to interpret her as a realistic character rather than a moral-spewing cartoon.

Is this novel terrible? Hardly. It's still well-written with a splendid eye for detail. It's also very interesting to have a novel with two points of view - Robert's and the "Official Historical Account" of the future that aptly demonstrates how official history is written by winners. If you're a fan of military sci-fi, steampunkish settings, and alternate histories, you might very well enjoy Fitzpatrick's War. If you are more a fan of politics and human characters, you should probably look elsewhere.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Re-Read Rollout: The Villains of "The Secret Pearl"

For the second book in my Re-Read Rollout, I chose The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh. This was my first novel by her and it immediately cemented me into a serious fan of her work. Not all of her books have been great, and none have managed to impress me as much as this one, but they've all been consistently good. I can always expect thoughtful themes, interesting characters and great atmosphere in her books.

Since I already reviewed this novel, I decided that, for this ReRead, I would focus on a particular aspect of this novel that really grabbed me.

In The Secret Pearl's case, it would have to be the villains. In a genre where villains tend to be as big, loud, and flaming as the protagonists' passions, the antagonists in this novel are so incredibly subtle, fascinating, and even sympathetic.

There are three main antagonists to the hero and heroine's happiness in this novel: Adam's half-brother Lord Thomas Kent, Fleur's cousin Matthew, and finally, Adam's wife, Sybil.

Lord Thomas Kent is perhaps the least developed of the three - an asshole just for the purpose of being an asshole. When the hero, Adam, went off to fight in Waterloo, he was grievously injured and thought dead for the better part of a year. During that time, Lord Thomas inherited the dukedom - as well as the attentions of Sybil, Adam's intended.

All was well until Adam returned, miraculously alive, rendering Thomas a mere "Lord" again. Although Thomas and Sybil were betrothed by that point, Thomas no longer saw any reason to honour his agreement with Sybil and split for the continent, leaving her pregnant with his child.

In many ways, Thomas isn't really an antagonist. He doesn't really oppose Adam or Fleur in any of their endeavours - the only reason he really returns to the estate is to twist the knife in Adam's back and wrap Sybil around his little finger once again just to see if he can. He's more of a catalyst - his presence heightens emotions in Adam and Sybil and allows Matthew a way into Adam's houseparty.

He also serves as a warped mirror to enhance Adam's heroic nature by comparison. While Thomas and Adam shared a happy childhood together, Adam grew to accept his responsibilities while Thomas continually shirked them. The Thomas-Sybil-Adam triangle brilliantly displays this - while Thomas enjoyed all the pleasures of an affair with Sybil, Adam shouldered all the consequences - namely, a heartbroken, embittered wife and his brother's illegitimate child.

Matthew is next - in many ways, he's a standard villain: a wealthy man with considerable power and influence who is unnaturally obsessed with the one woman who refuses his attentions, to the point of framing her for murder and theft to force her into marrying him. Matthew is an interesting character because he's so calculating, controlled, and devious that the menace in his interactions with Fleur is entirely verbal. He's a nonviolent villain - aside from one forced kiss, his reputation and his power are enough to keep Fleur compliant.

The tension between him and Fleur is even more potent because he never does act on it - the suspense and Fleur's terror of him all derive from the potential of what he can do. Fleur never hits him, physically resists his advances, or runs from him - in her mind, there is no point in doing so. As a justice of the peace, he can chain her in fetters and drag her home whenever he pleases. Therefore, it's a delicious agony to watch their many outwardly civilized and polite dialogues regarding whether she will consent to be his wife or bare her neck for the noose.

However, Sybil's characterization leaves both Matthew and Thomas in the dust. Honestly, she's one of my favourite romance villainesses ever and a highlight of the novel. You hate her at the same time you pity her. She's a victim as much as she is an aggressor - probably even more so. She truly and passionately fell in love with Thomas while Adam was MIA, oblivious to the fact that Thomas saw her merely as an attractive accessory to the dukedom he'd unexpectedly inherited. When he found out she was pregnant, he abandoned her - leaving her forced to marry Adam or face ruin.

Their marriage subsequently curdled into bitter acrimony - in part because Sybil chose to believe Adam purposefully sent Thomas away to keep her for himself, and in part because Adam (in a mistaken attempt to spare Sybil's feelings) decided not to correct that assumption.

Unlike Matthew or Thomas, who are more stereotypically evil, Sybil's antagonism is depicted as the result of moral weakness rather than a conscious choice. As Adam reflects near the end of the book, if Sybil's life had been pleasant or happy, she might have remained a sweet-natured person for all of her life.

Much like Thomas is seen as an evil comparison for Adam, Sybil is a dark reflection of Fleur. Both Fleur and Sybil were dealt monumentally crappy hands by fate. However, while Fleur fought to rise above the tragedy of her circumstances and attain peace of mind regardless of the cost, Sybil chose to wallow in her misery, becoming indolent, selfish, and embittered, carrying on mindless affairs while refusing to let Adam touch her.

Yes, Sybil is a terrible person, but it's hard not to pity her when the foundation of her character lies on such desperate unhappiness. Because of this, she's interesting and memorable. She's a fully-fledged character rather than a mere obstacle, and her conflicts with Adam and Fleur add layers of complexity to an already detailed storyline.

If you are a fan of complex, angsty historical romances or would like to try one of Mary Balogh's novels, I implore you to try The Secret Pearl. You won't regret it.

The Weekly Wanting (20)

It's time for the Weekly Wanting! I'm still in the middle of my Re-Read Rollout but that doesn't mean I can't find new books I want to read in the new year!

Genre: Romance, Historical.
Cover Snark: In the days before Ye Old Wonderbra...
The Story: A penniless bohemian falls in love with the wealthy, upright Duke courting her cousin.
Why Do I Want It? I haven't been reading as much new romance lately, but a joint review from Dear Author convinced me - plus I quite enjoyed The Wild Marquis. On top of that, it's a Wild Heroine Meets Staid Hero romance, which I personally love.

Genre: YA, Paranormal.
Cover Snark: As Directed By Alfred Hitchcock.
The Story: A teen psychic (one in a family of psychics) and a rich prep school boy team up to find a sleeping king in a small Virgina town.
Why Do I Want It? Well, I wasn't interested in this story at first, mainly because I was put off by Stiefvater's arrogant and condescending remarks on book reviews (unless she writes them, of course). And also because I'd heard m'eh-to-average things about her Shiver trilogy. But honestly so many people have been raving about this book and I love small towns, psychics, and prep schools, I figured if I had to start on one of her books, it would be this one.

Genre: YA, Contemporary
Cover Snark: Psychedelic!
The Story: Gabe, a popular local DJ, runs into trouble when some of his brutish classmates find out he is trans*, a gendered male born in a female body.
Why Do I Want It? I'm always interested in good LGBTQ stories, and the buzz for this has been just stellar. Plus, I really like the idea of a Pump Up the Volume-style story where Gabe is able to the person he's always believed he is on the air, even while the people at his school still think he's a girl named Elizabeth.

What novels are you guys eagerly awaiting this week?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

"Anne of Green Gables," by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Anne Shirley. An unloved orphan girl who is finally adopted by a pair of elderly siblings to help on their farm - until she finds out they'd meant to adopt a boy instead.
Her Angst: While they decide to keep her anyways, can Anne overcome her incorrigible upbringing (and equally incorrigible red hair) to make them proud of her?

The Secondary Cast:

Matthew Cuthbert: An incredibly shy, tongue-tied farmer who is terrified of social interaction, especially with women and girls. Anne, of course, is the miraculous exception.

Marilla Cuthbert: Matthew's unmarried sister. Initially appalled at receiving a girl instead of the boy they'd asked for, she intends to raise Anne up the proper way - although her idea of what's proper changes drastically the more she learns about Anne.

Diana Barry: Anne's bosom friend and kindred spirit. Nice gal, but she can't hold her booze.

Gilbert Blythe: A popular boy from Avonlea who earns Anne's undying spite and unwilling fascination when he mocks her hair.

Josie Pye: A bitch.

Angst Checklist:

  • Red Hair
  • Being an orphan
  • Perpetually being teased about having red hair and being an orphan
  • Exacting vengeance upon those who make fun of one's red hair and orphaned status
  • Learning to use one's imagination without accidentally poisoning people
  • Learning to use one's imagination without accidentally drowning oneself
  • Getting crunk on currant wine
  • Living without puffed sleeves
  • Adapting to life when one's future doesn't go as planned
LiveTweeted it! Here on Storify

The Word: Really, for the first book of my Re-Read Rollout, what other book could I have honestly chosen?

Anne of Green Gables is the story of my life. Not only in the sense that I have always felt Anne to be a kindred spirit (in imagination, intelligence, and the inability to shut up), but in the sense that it is the book that's influenced so much about my outlook on life, literature, and my personal vocation of writing. I honestly cannot remember the first time I read this book (I still have the MacMillan Little Classics edition I was given as a child, along with Heidi - a book which prompted me to try and toast cheese in the microwave), but I don't think there will ever be a time when I do not think about it.

As it is, Anne of Green Gables is a book that holds up just as well to adult reading as it does to childhood reading.

Our story begins when two elderly siblings - rigid old maid Marilla and her reclusive brother Matthew - decide to adopt an orphan boy to help out on their farm, Green Gables. However, when Matthew drives to the train station, he discovers the orphanage sent them a little girl by mistake: a scrawny, red-headed chatterbox named Anne who survived the first eleven years of her life using her wits, her overactive imagination, and precious little else. 

In the time it takes to drive back to Green Gables, Matthew (an intensely shy and passive man) is so enchanted by Anne's zeal, enthusiasm and delight that he insists on keeping Anne despite Marilla's consternation. However, even Marilla is not immune to Anne's nattering charm, resulting in five years of episodic, yet wholly entertaining adventures.

I love this book. I love pretty much everything about it. Anne is constantly observing and sharing her observations, and while she helps to create a detailed picture of the community of Avonlea that embraces her, her interpretations of these observations paint a fascinating interior portrait of herself for the benefit of the reader.

Anne is such a perfect character because Lucy Maud Montgomery allowed her to be imperfect. While kind-hearted, intelligent, creative, and honest to the point of oversharing, Anne has significant flaws as well - she's vain, lazy, hot-tempered, self-absorbed, careless, and envious. Anne is developed - her actions are supported by well-established motivations and result in significant consequences that change her as a character. For instance, she's not the smartest girl in school because she's a Mary Sue who has to be because she's the main character. She's the smartest girl in school because she studies her ass off in order to beat out the boy who humiliated her in class. To me, that's way more satisfying than if she'd just been naturally awesome.

One thing I realized on this particular re-read is that the book is about Marilla almost as much as it is about Anne. Every time Marilla reacts to Anne's equally-frequent triumphs and scrapes, we learn more about her character. Anne speaks aloud the things Marilla has always secretly thought, and Anne's scrapes force Marilla to remember her own childhood foibles and romantic entanglements. As a result, Marilla embarks on her own emotional journey as she overcomes her terror of attachment and learns to acknowledge, accept, and finally articulate her love for Anne. 

And of course, there is Matthew - the shy, sweet, and secretly brave old man who falls for Anne within the first ten minutes of meeting her. Despite his deep discomfort with confrontation, social interaction, and attention, he manages to intercede on Anne's behalf in his own quiet, stubborn way. 

Anne of Green Gables engages both the brain and the heart, which is why it continues to entertain me as an adult reader in a way that, say, Little Women can't. Yes, the deeply sentimental scenes and vignettes are still as powerful as ever, but one can also enjoy Montgomery's wry, witty writing style, excellent sense of setting and pace, and her sly social subtext regarding the role of women in society. 

Anne of Green Gables is my true Desert Island book. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

The November Round-Up!

Well, November was a pretty good month for me. I'm just coming off a week's much-needed vacation, I finished my NaNoWriMo novel (well, I made it to 50,000 words anyway), and I made a plan for my December (My Re-Read Rollout!). And besides all that, I managed to read a few books! Here's the breakdown of my November reads:

Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant. Fiction, Historical. A
Pros: Excellent period detail, thoughtful Catholic themes, engaging characters and conflicts. Cons: Pacing is a little slow.

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor. YA, Fantasy. A
Pros: Excellent worldbuilding, compellingly ambiguous themes, excellent writing. Cons: Kind of a bummer book.

Beguiling the Beauty, by Sherry Thomas. Romance, Historical. A-
Pros: Gorgeous writing, intriguing themes, exquisite period details. Cons: Asshat hero, heroine is a bit of a doormat in the latter half of the book.

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone, by Kat Rosenfield. YA, Contemporary. A-
Pros: Lush writing, good suspense, excellent setting. Cons: Inconsistent characterization.

When the Duke Returns, by Eloisa James. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Bubbly writing, good description, swift pacing. Cons: Future Couples hog too much screentime, hero is a selfish ass.

The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay. Fiction, Historical. C
Pros: Good period detail, lovely writing. Cons: No real plot, cop-out ending.

Crewel, Gennifer Albin. YA, Science Fiction. C-
Pros: Creative world-building idea, solid writing. Cons: Inconsistent heroine, misogynist gender themes, slutshaming, ridiculous love triangle.

The Blessed, by Tonya Hurtley. YA, Fantasy. F
Pros: I'm still a Catholic after reading it! Cons: Inconsistent worldbuilding, abysmal pacing, a total lack of plot until the last third, nasty unsympathetic protagonists, gratuitous violence against women, and misappropriation of Catholic religious elements.

"Crewel," by Gennifer Albin

The Protagonist: Adelice Lewys. While born with a miraculously powerful ability to weave the fabric of reality, her parents have taught her to suppress it to avoid calling attention to herself.
Her Angst: Unfortunately, the government finds out about her powers and proves willing to do just about anything to control it for themselves.

The Secondary Cast:

Amie: Adelice's little sister, who is captured by the Guild after their parents try to protect Adelice from being taken away.

Enora: Adelice's Spinster mentor - a genuinely nice gal, with some pretty dangerous secrets.

Maela: Adelice's superior, and an insanely power-hungry villain who may or may not be anger-banging her personal assistant.

Erik: Maela's personal assistant, who may or may not be getting anger-banged by her, all the while trying to love-bang Adelice with his eyes. Love Interest #1.

Jost: The head valet of the Coventry, assigned to care for all the Spinsters. Gruff, but kind - and fully aware of the Guild's evil ways. Love Interest #2.

Cormac Patton: The leader of The Guild, who has a definite thing for underage girls.

Pryana: Adelice's training-mate-turned-enemy, thanks to Maela's machinations.

Loricel: The Creweler - the one Spinster capable of creating (rather than just re-weaving) raw matter. Without her, their world is toast, and she's not a spring chicken anymore.

Angst Checklist:

  • My Parents were Murdered and Then Written Out of Existence
  • Two Boys, One Love Triangle
  • Literally Everything Bad That Happens Is My Fault
  • Gender Roles
  • The Needs of the Many Versus the Needs of the Few
  • Caring For Your Appearance and How That Automatically Makes You a Terrible Person
  • Dystopian Futures
The Word: I really wanted to like Crewel. It seemed to have such an interesting story - in an alternate world, the fabric of reality itself is maintained and woven by powerful women known as Spinsters, and every girl who demonstrates potential for weaving is taken away at the age of sixteen to train in the Coventry to help maintain the ordered nature of their world.

Unfortunately, Crewel turned out to be a dud for two major reasons. Firstly, it tries way too damn hard to be The Hunger Games. Secondly, for all of its colourful attempts to present gender roles in an interesting way, it only ends up solidifying sexist ideas. 

In the dystopian world of Arras, Adelice Lewys returns home after being tested for Spinster abilities, unwilling to tell her parents that she failed. Not that she failed to prove herself a Spinster - but the very opposite. She failed to hide the amazing weaving skills her rebel parents have trained her to repress since childhood, and she can't bring herself to tell them that the Guild will soon be coming to take her away.

Which turns out to be a monumentally stupid decision, since once the Guild shows up, her parents resist and her father winds up murdered. Captured and sedated, Adelice is dragged off to the Coventry against her will. 

As Adelice quickly learns, the Spinsters and the Guild can control the very weave of reality itself, and they use this phenomenal cosmic power to make life harder for just about everyone in existence. Not only can they kill people from a distance (by "ripping" their threads), but they can rewrite people's very identities. Revolution is impossible because Spinsters can even "spot" treasonous thoughts because they cause a person's thread to change colour. Even though Adelice has the potential to be an incredibly powerful Spinster, she has no desire to play God or by the Guild's rules. 

Now, all of this would be lovely and exciting, except that the storytelling in Crewel is incredibly derivative of its literary predecessor, The Hunger Games. See if any of this sounds familiar - Crewel has:
  • A cloyingly innocent little sister character whose safety guarantees the protagonist's compliance
  • A beloved dead father figure to inspire the protagonist's rebellion against authority
  • A government-sanctioned team of stylists whose leader becomes a friend who also harbours rebellious leanings
  • A love triangle between a charming but untrustworthy diplomat and a damaged, rough revolutionary. 
  • A voracious and tacky media machine for which the protagonist is forced to primp and pose in gowns to promote the party line. 
As well, I found the gender dynamics of Crewel were incredibly troubling and hypocritical, even though the unfair treatment of women seems to be a major theme of the novel. The society of Arras is incredibly repressive towards women: girls are segregated from boys and held to high "Purity Standards." The only jobs available for women are as as secretaries, teachers, nurses, and factory workers. In fact, most people in society want their daughters to become Spinsters, since it seems to be a far more powerful and influential position than any woman could expect otherwise. 

And yet, almost every female character other than Adelice is either a) a shallow twit who cares only about make-up and clothes, b) an evil power-hungry slut, or c) a victim. 

Every woman who is depicted as ambitious, as wanting more than what the male establishment allows her to have, is not only written as a villainess, but as a sexually aggressive and/or promiscuous one. Maela is the main baddie - a violent and unstable psychotic who apparently keeps Erik (Adelice's Love Interest #1) as a sexual plaything while secretly wishing to be the wife of Cormac Patton (the President Snow leader of the Guild). 

Second to that is Pryana. Pryana - without actually doing anything evil  - is depicted as evil and inferior to Adelice because she uses men's physical attraction to her to gain power for herself, such as when she dances and flirts with (gasp!) ugly, old, fat men at a social function while Pure Heroine Adelice only dances and flirts with thin, young, hot boys. Oh, and Pryana likes shopping, clothes, and looking hot! TOTALLY EVIL, right?

Because Adelice, our heroine, is such a fine, upstanding individual. So selfless, so caring. So in love with burly, rebellious valet Jost, who tragically lost his teen bride and baby daughter to the Evil Guild of Evil. Yet when our Selfless, Caring Heroine discovers her Super-Special-Spinster powers don't involve time-travel, her first thought is relief because if she had the power to go back in time and save Jost's family, she's not sure she'd be able to do it. 

I am dead serious. Adelice, our heroine, is glad that she doesn't have the power to go back in time and save her OWN family, because it would also mean she would have to save THE WIFE AND BABY of the boy she has a crush on. Really. REALLY. TOTALLY SELFLESS HEROINE, right?

But what about the Spinsters? They have the power to control weather, transport matter, rewrite existence, and even read people's intentions in the colours of the threads. Surely there must be a girl-power reason that all Spinsters are women? There is! As Adelice discovers, the (entirely male) Guild only chooses to train women as Spinsters because women are more easily controlled

I almost threw this book at a wall.

I am not even kidding. That is seriously the book's worldbuilding. Women, apparently, are chosen to be Spinsters not because only women have this power but because women are just naturally more easy to manipulate than men. Just dangle some diamonds and Colin Firth DVDs in front of their faces and they'll do anything, am I right ladies?! Women won't care that they're murdering people or ripping entire societies out of existence so long as those hot baths and foot rubs keep coming! 

Do yourself and your ovaries a favour - avoid this misogynist Hunger Games rip-off. 

You can purchase Crewel here. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

December is: AnimeJune's Re-Read Rollout

December is fast approaching, I won NaNoWriMo (three days early, hollah!), and it's the time to relax. With Advent upon us and Christmas approaching, it's definitely a month to take comfort in the things that really matter to you.

It's the month where I spend time with my loving, wonderful family, watch comforting Christmas movies on a wide spectrum of cheesiness, laugh at all the terrible-awesome Christmas episodes of my favourite TV shows, and cuddle up under blankets while snow flutters down outside.

I decided that this year, December would also be a month of comfort reads. I have a huge TBR, which I compulsively add to every chance I get, so I often can't justify going back to re-read something when I've got a mountain of new reads to explore. But that's really not fair. Whenever I read something really wonderful, I shouldn't just let it moulder on a shelf and never read it again.

So come December (once I've reviewed Crewel), I'll be doing entirely re-reads, with select titles from different genres. If I've already reviewed the book, I'll write a post on whether it's held up, the important themes and ideas I derived from it, and other interesting things the author has written. If I haven't had a chance to review it on my site before - well, then I totally will.

The list is as follows - I've chosen a major title from each genre to read, and a secondary title to read if there are still December days remaining on the calendar.

The Classic Title:
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery Seconds:
A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

The Literary Fiction Title:
The Birth House, by Ami McKay
Gentlemen and Players, by Joanne Harris

The Romance Title:
The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh Second:
Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie

The YA Title:
Beauty, by Robin McKinley
The Greenstone Grail, by Amanda Hemingway

The Fantasy Title:
Fitzpatrick's War, by Theodore Judson Second:
The Innkeeper's Song, by Peter S. Beagle

The Gamechanger Title: (i.e. the book I didn't really like at first, but want to reread now that I've read and loved the author's other books)

Private Arrangements, by Sherry Thomas

"The Virgin Cure," by Ami McKay

The Protagonist: Moth "Ada" Fenwick. Born in the slums of New York City, she longs for a life of luxury, ease, and comfort. But how far is she willing to go to achieve that? When she's 12-years-old?

The Secondary Cast:

Dr. Sadie: A female physician who treats the members of Miss Everett's brothel, but once Moth arrives, she fears she is enabling the lifestyle more than protecting the victims of it.

Mae: A young courtesan-in-training who recruits Moth into the service of Miss Everett's brothel. While ostensibly in Miss Everett's employ, she's not averse to making a little something on the side.

Alice: A naive fellow courtesan-trainee who befriends Moth, even as Moth worries about Alice's dreams of finding true love and marriage in the service of a brothel.

Cadet: The young man-of-all-work for Miss Everett's brothel - both Alice and Moth have crushes on him.

Mrs. Wentworth: Moth's first employer, to whom she's sold as a ladies' maid by her mother. Kept a virtual prisoner in her own home for "embarrassing" her husband, she has since gone insane and cruelly abuses Moth.

Mr. Wentworth: Mrs. Wentworth's absent husband, whom Moth runs into at the brothel. While she initially sees this as an opportunity to revenge herself upon his hateful wife, her schemes go predictably awry.

Mr. Dink: The kindly owner of a carnival sideshow who offers Moth part-time employment as a display girl while she's training at Miss Everett's.

Theme Checklist:
  • Poverty
  • Prostitution
  • Gender Roles
  • Talking Trees
  • Sexuality
  • The Concept of Virginal Purity
The Word: This was a book I had originally decided I wasn't going to review - why? Because I really didn't know how to. The Virgin Cure is a superficially entertaining novel with some interesting period detail and lovely writing, but little to no plot structure. Even by the end of the novel, I couldn't figure out what the book was trying to say.

I picked this one up primarily because I really enjoyed McKay's debut, The Birth House, when I read it in university. The Birth House was a deft novel exploring gender roles and the importance of childbirth  in early 20th century Newfoundland when a male obstetrician declares war against the local midwives. 

I was expecting similarly awesome feminist themes in The Virgin Cure, especially since the author reveals she based one of the characters, Dr. Sadie, on her own great-great-grandmother.

Our main character is Moth, the 12-year-old daughter of a Gypsy fortuneteller who lives in the slums of New York City in the 1870s. She and her mother live in abject poverty, which leads Moth to decide that she will do anything it takes to garner a life that has a featherbed, a roaring fire in the grate, and two pug dogs at her feet. As the narrative indicates, slum-child Moth is no innocent to the ways in which women are used and abused, so her willingness to do "anything it takes" has a larger scope than one initially thinks.

Before she can properly formulate any plans to run away to make this fortune, her mother abruptly sells her into the service of a wealthy recluse named Mrs. Wentworth. Her mother's choice doesn't seem entirely cruel: as a lady's maid, Moth will have decent food and shelter as well as regular wages. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wentworth is also completely insane and monstrously abusive. When Mrs. Wentworth's punishments culminate in coming after Moth with a pair of shears, Moth escapes with the help of the butler and a stolen piece of Mrs. Wentworth's jewellery. 

Unfortunately, she arrives back at her old house to find that her mother has already left for parts unknown, leaving Moth to fend for herself. After spending some time begging and (unsuccessfully) thieving, she is eventually befriended by a pretty, well-dressed girl named Mae, a recruiter for Miss Everett's Infant School, an exclusive, high-class brothel. Moth sees this as her ticket to obtaining that feather-bed-and-pug-dog life she's always wanted, even though her misgivings grow as her training proceeds. 

The Virgin Cure serves as an examination of the types of employment women took to survive by themselves in the 1870s. Through Moth's eyes, we see women as fortunetellers, beggars, shoplifters, bakery assistants, hot corn girls, maids, cooks, prostitutes, courtesans, and sideshow acts, with Dr. Sadie standing at the very apex as a successful woman doctor, and she is still shunned by high society and her wealthy family for her choice of profession. 

While the period detail and the examination of courtesan life is fascinating and highly entertaining, the novel really has no plot other than Moth's eventual realization that, hey, prostitution is a pretty nasty business, maybe I should earn my living elsewhere. After that Captain Obvious Epiphany, the ending is a disappointing cop-out that conveniently does away with the usual consequences that would follow Moth's actions, leading to some inexplicable and contrived developments that serve to give Moth a picture-perfect happy ending that makes absolutely no sense. 

It also muddles the general themes. McKay perhaps does too good a job describing the grinding despair of slum life and the hopeless state of female employment versus the risky-but-regulated luxury of courtesan life, so Moth's eventual decision to reject prostitution seemed unrealistic. McKay spends most of the book describing how these women had to get these sorts of jobs because they didn't have any other choices, because society didn't give them any other options, because the alternative to working was starvation and death. In the scenes where Dr. Sadie tries to talk Moth out of prostitution, even Dr. Sadie has to acknowledge that the other options available to Moth (workhouses, charity boarding houses) cannot compare to what the brothel offers.

Moth actually choosing the possible eventuality of starvation and death over prostitution seemed a curiously old-fashioned idea, the idea that death is preferable to the loss of physical innocence. And the novel cops out of even that  - she miraculously obtains outrageously successful non-whorish employment afterwards as the inconceivable cherry on top of the Implausible Sundae. Moth is depicted as morally superior to the girls who choose to make their living as courtesans - but that message is undermined by the fact that Moth, thanks to the Magic of Plot Contrivance, has an Honest and Unrealistically Lucrative Job waiting in the wings for her. 

Those other girls at Miss Everett's, or the hot corn girls, or the professional housebreakers or the put-upon maids, none of them have the option to join Mr. Dink's travelling circus (for reals) - so why are they seen as Less Special than Moth? Again, the ending of this novel seemed incredibly old-fashioned - old-fashioned in the literary sense, following the tradition of 19th century novels where the heroine who chooses Pious Poverty over Sinful Luxury has her virtue rewarded by the narrative with a miraculous job, or a lost-lost relative come to claim her, or a forgotten fortune to keep her in non-slutty linens for the rest of her days. 

The surprising appearance of such fairy-tale morals in an otherwise soberly realistic novel surprised me, and weakened the novel's ultimate impact.

You can purchase The Virgin Cure (not THAT way, you pervs!) here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

"Beguiling the Beauty," by Sherry Thomas

The Chick: Venetia Fitzhugh. When the arrogant Duke of Lexington condemns her as a scheming beauty during a university lecture, she decides to seduce him in disguise in order to prove him a hypocrite.
The Rub: She's in for a dilemma once she falls in love with him - will he still love her and be able to see beyond her staggering beauty once he knows who she really is?
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Christian de Montfort, the Duke of Lexington. The first time he sees Venetia Fitzhugh, he falls in love with her beauty, only to hate himself for it once he apparently learns he true character.
The Rub: While he comes to love his anonymous baroness lover aboard the ship Rhodesia, he can't quite shake his obsession with Venetia.
Dream Casting: Christian Bale.

The Plot:

Christian, Age 19: Wow, Venetia Fitzhugh's a looker!

Mr. Townsend: Too bad she's a terrible wife! Remember me as a flawless, faithful, totally trustworthy husband.... *kills himself*

Christian, Age 29, at Harvard: Wow, Venetia Fitzhugh's a gold-digging tart!

Venetia: *LE GASP!* Wow, what a prick! I shall revenge myself by seducing you!

Venetia and Christian: *anonymous veiled sex!*

Venetia: Wow, that backfired spectacularly.

Boat: *docks in England*

Christian: Marry me!

Venetia: Wow, look at the time! *flees*

Christian: *researches* She was Venetia the whole time? Wow, what a gold-digging tart!

Venetia: I love you, you moron.

Christian: Wow, I am a moron. Let's be happy together!

Venetia: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
  • 1 Secret Identity
  • 1 Inappropriate Harvard Lecture
  • 1 Monumental Case of Misogynist Sour Grapes
  • 2 Dead Husbands
  • 2 Cases of Sequel Baiting
  • 1 Awesome Stepmum
  • 1 Sexy Cruise
  • 2 Romantic Fossils
The Word: Oh, Sherry Thomas. You're like Mary Balogh. I will never not like your books (except that first one which I did like, I just didn't connect with, but it's one I should probably reread now). And I did enjoy this book, even though the hero is kind of an asshole.

Venetia Fitzhugh is hot. I mean super hot. Spontaneous-marriage-proposals-from-strangers hot. Our 19-year-old hero, Christian, the Duke of Lexington, takes one look at her during a cricket match and is immediately obsessed with her. Unfortunately, his infatuation is thwarted by the fact that she is married. A few years later, he runs into her distraught husband Mr. Townsend in a club. Mr. Townsend confides in Christian how his marriage to Venetia has ruined him, and he kills himself shortly thereafter.

As Mr. Townsend's enormous debts to jewellers come to light, Christian, in probably one of the most epic cases of Sour Grapes ever, convinces himself that Venetia Fitzhugh is a greedy, callous gold-digger who uses her beauty to snare men. When she marries an incredibly wealthy older man when her mourning period is scarcely over, this only cements her tawdry whorishness in Christian's mind. 

But he's still obsessed with her. And this makes him hate her even more - even though he's never even spoken to her in person.

Nice guy, right?

Venetia, with two unfulfilling marriages under her belt and a comfortable income, has no idea who the Duke of Lexington is until she sees a flyer for a lecture he's giving at Harvard University. Venetia and her sister-in-law Millie are in the United States in order to keep Venetia's sister Helena occupied and supervised. Helena, it appears, has been carrying on an affair with a married man and her family hopes to keep scandal at bay by keeping her an ocean away from her lover and throwing other eligible men in her path. Eligible men like the Duke of Lexington, an influential scientist (I quite enjoy how many of Sherry Thomas' heroes are scientists and mathematicians). 

During the lecture, however, Christian is speaking about the evolutionary purposes of beauty and decides to use Venetia as an unnamed example of how a beautiful woman can still be welcomed in society despite her obvious slutty man-ruining ways. Venetia, present at the lecture, is horrified and humiliated. She decides to get her revenge by proving Christian a misogynist hypocrite (which shouldn't really be all that hard) and books a ticket on the same boat home as he, under an assumed name and a veil, intending to seduce him.

However, their romantic encounter does not go as planned. Venetia finds it liberating to interact with a man unaware of her physical beauty, and discovers that Christian is actually a charming, intelligent chap when he's not busy blaming women he can't have for his boner. Christian, for his part, loves Venetia's scientific interests and sense of humour, and most especially, for how her presence makes him utterly forget about his obsession with Slutty McGolddigger. 

But what will happen when the ship lands in Britain?

Okay, so as you can probably tell, I wasn't a huge fan of Christian at the beginning. However, the ultimate hypocrisy of his beliefs (his anger at women relying on their beauty leading him to think the very worst of Venetia because of hers) is not lost on the reader or on the heroine. He's still a fascinating character and the progression of his relationship with Venetia is intriguingly layered. Sherry Thomas's clever writing turns the cliche of love at first sight on its head. It's clear that Christian's initial obsession with Venetia is just that - obsession. One-sided, narrow-minded and ultimately selfish, it has everything to do with Christian's sexual gratification (or lack thereof) and nothing at all to do with Venetia's thoughts, interests, or feelings. Christian's obsession with Venetia and his love for the Baroness (her alias) are two different things that Christian has to reconcile with as the story progresses.

That being said, I rather wish Venetia had been a bit stronger of a heroine. I appreciated how she defended herself, how unselfconscious she was of her looks, how confident she was in her own character, and how she refused to kowtow to Christian's opinion of her. At the same time, however, once she falls in love with Christian she becomes rather meek and cowardly, terrified of losing his esteem once she's obtained it. She comes into her own at the end, but it's a little sudden.

Barring that, with the use of thoughtful themes on beauty and obsession, some excellent writing, period detail, and secondary characters, Beguiling the Beauty is a solidly enjoyable read.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

"Days of Blood and Starlight," by Laini Taylor

The Primary Cast:

Karou: A teenage girl as well as the resurrected soul of Madrigal, the chimaera who dared to love a seraph, Karou has now rejected that love and lives in shame of it. She's become the chimaera rebels' new resurrectionist to atone for her crimes - even as she starts to doubt their new, ultra-violent tactics.

Akiva: Horrified at his complicity in the destruction of the chimaera (done in wrong-headed revenge for the death of his chimaera beloved), he knows Karou will never forgive him - but he'll still do whatever he can to protect the chimaera from the seraph emperor's forces.

The Secondary Cast:

Zuzana: Karou's awesomely cool human BFF. With rain or shine, or burning Moroccan deserts,  or possible man-eating monsters, or evil angels ... she'll still be there to have Karou's back!

Mik: Zuzana's totally smitten violinist boyfriend.

Thiago: The glorious leader of the chimaera's surviving rebel forces - and the man who initially murdered Madrigal when he caught her and Akiva together. Although he acts like he'd like to kiss and make up. Awkward.

Ziri: A former friend of Madrigal's, he becomes Karou's ally. More than a little in love with her, when he gets the chance to prove his undying loyalty, he takes it - in a spectacularly surprising fashion.

Liraz: Akiva's half-sister and fighting partner. Initially a loyal soldier to the cause, with Akiva's help she comes to see that their emperor cares nothing for their lives if it means more glory for himself.

Hazael: Akiva and Liraz's humorous and light-hearted brother. A comic relief who can actually hold his own in a fight.

Jael: The seraph emperor's creepy, bloodthirsty, scar-faced, super-rapist general brother. Well that sounds promising.

Angst Checklist:

  • War
  • Genocide
  • Sexual Assault
  • I'm totally responsible for the massive genocide of my people so I'm not allowed to be happy or have nice things, ever.
  • How to Make Friends and Influence Seraphim
  • My boyfriend is willing to cross deserts to marry me, how can I best use this to my benefit?
  • Wolfheaded Bitches Be Crazy
  • I have to Friendzone my former murderer, how awkward is this going to be?
  • Flying is still awesome
  • Promoting Peace and Hope during Wartime
  • Recovering from Grief
  • Forgiving Transgressions

The Word: Previously, in Daughter of Smoke and Bone...(which I highly recommend you read first)

Karou was a teenager studying art in Prague by day and collecting teeth for her loving family of monsters by night. While she'd grown up knowing her horned father-figure Brimstone loved her, he refused to tell her anything about her heritage or the mysterious tattoos on her hands.

In the novel, she wound up stumbling upon a millennia-spanning war between monsters (chimaera) and angels (seraphim). She discovered that she had, in fact, been born a chimaera named Madrigal, but had been murdered for falling in love with Akiva, a seraph. As it turns out, Brimstone had secretly resurrected her into human form with his magic, in order to preserve the hope that monsters and angels could one day give up their war and live in peace.

However, before Akiva and Karou could figure out who she really was, the seraphim armies (using Akiva's inside information) stormed the chimaera capital of Loramendi and razed it to the ground - with all of Karou's family (Brimstone included) inside.

And now, for Days of Blood and Starlight...

Karou is devastated by the annihilation of Loramendi and her chimaera family, and tormented by her unwitting culpability in it. To atone, she puts her Brimstone's training to good use by becoming a resurrectionist for the remaining chimaera forces, a person capable of collecting a dead chimaera's soul and reattaching it to a new body. She spends her days slowly rebuilding rebel leader Thiago's soldiers into newer, stronger bodies - using her own physical pain to summon the powerful magic.

The Karou in this book is a much darker, sadder creature than the protagonist of Daughter of Smoke and Bone. For the first several chapters, she's so deeply mired in guilt and self-hatred that she can't even bring herself to reach out to her former chimaera friends, who now suspect her as a traitor, or question Thiago's increasingly brutal tactics. While she hasn't entirely forgotten Brimstone's ultimate dream of peace, she has no idea how to breach the topic without confirming everyone's suspicions that she's an angel-loving traitor.

For the first half of the book I wondered if we would ever see a glimmer of that fierce, clever Karou again, but Laini Taylor doesn't let us down. Karou's character development parallels that of the land of Eretz - after so much suffering and death, can anything as brave and beautiful as the idea of peace bloom again?

And without spoiling too much, let me just say, thank God for Zuzana and Mik. This book would have been hideously depressing without them.

Akiva, meanwhile, rotating on his own guilt rotisserie for his complicity in the destruction of Loramendi and his unwitting betrayal of Karou/Madrigal, returns home with his siblings, Hazael and Liraz, with the intent to stir rebellion against the seraph empire from within. While they attacked him in the previous book for his pro-chimaera ways, Akiva's siblings slowly start to realize that the seraph Emperor's thirst for conquest will not be satisfied by the extinction of the chimaera, and there's no telling how many more seraph lives he'll gladly funnel into the war machine to get what he wants.

While this book maintains the gorgeous use of language and original world building of its predecessor, Days of Blood and Starlight does suffer a little from Middle Book Itis. Things are almost unrelentingly bleak and difficult for our protagonists from beginning to end, the pacing drags in places, and while it does further the storyline and set up an excellent plotline for the next (final?) book, when all is said and done, not too much physically happens in this novel until the very end.

That's not to say that nothing happens, but Days of Blood and Starlight is a more introspective novel. Our characters spend more time analyzing and reacting. Akiva and Karou now fight for opposing sides, and as each side tries to up the stakes in bloodier and more horrific ways, our protagonists wrestle with the gruesome and conflicting ethics of war, and wonder if either side even thinks about peace - or only about victory.

As you can probably tell from reading this review, Laini Taylor has written an incredibly dense fantasy epic. The lavish settings, the mythology, the expanding cast of characters, the world-building, the backstories and character histories and drama - even in a book where "not too much physically happens" there is still so much going on that you can't help but be dazzled by it. Days of Blood and Starlight is an intricately-developed, gorgeously written follow-up that carries the story forward and promises even more to come.

You can purchase Days of Blood and Starlight here.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (19)

It's time for the Weekly Wanting, folks! This week was a surprisingly fertile one for books that caught my interest, as this longer than usual Wanting post will demonstrate.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism.
Cover Snark: Teen Angst Now Comes with a Swimsuit Competition
The Story: Our heroine, who dreams of becoming a professional swimmer, is rendered an outcast by her near-magical ability to force people into revealing unwanted truths in her presence. 
Why I Want It: The story sounds so interesting - what would you do if your mere presence made people uncontrollably start TMI'ing around you? What would it be like to be friends with or hang out with someone with this power? And what secrets will she wind up finding out? Unfortunately, looks like I'll have to wait until March 2013 to find out.

Genre: YA, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Perfect book for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.
The Story: Teenager Adam Strand is so very bored with his life that he's killed himself 39 times - even though, inexplicably, he keeps coming back to life afterwards. It'll take something truly special to make him appreciate life and the bonds of connection that come with it.
Why I Want It: Well, mainly because the idea sounds a lot like Groundhog Day. That being said, the blurb does make Adam out to be an obnoxiously selfish ass so we'll have to see if the creative story and good writing will counteract that. (Released February 26, 2013)

Genre: Historical, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Old-School is the Best School.
The Story: Valente takes on the Russian folktale of Koschei the Deathless, with a nuanced, modern twist. 
Why I Want It: Cathrynne M. Valente. See: In the Night Garden, Cities of Coin and Spice, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland. Case closed. (Already released)

Genre: YA, Fantasy.

Cover Snark: This cover looks so radioactive I think I got cancer just from saving this image to my computer.
The Story: Our hero has been invisible his whole life thanks to a curse his magician grandfather cast on his mother. When he finally meets a girl who can miraculously see him, life's peachy - until his grandfather re-enters his life and the magical poop hits the fan.
Why I Want It: Magic, wizards, teen romance, and David Levithan. That's a match made in heaven if I've ever heard one. (May 7, 2013)

And that's it for this week! What books are you guys eagerly wanting?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

"The Blessed," by Tonya Hurley

The Protagonists:

Agnes: Even though her suicide attempt fails, this naive Catholic schoolgirl still holds out hope that true love exists. But why is she drawn to this strange church during a hurricane?

Cecilia: An underground musician who's left to drown in a puddle and wakes up in the hospital with a strange new purpose. Just don't let her go near any open iron maidens, she's super clumsy. You can get stigmata from those things!

Lucy: A venomously awful and self-centred socialite who's made a living out of being famous for being famous - until she finds out who her real friends are when she accidentally overdoses at a club. Wait, no, I was wrong - she's venomously awful and self-centred throughout the book and spends most of the story trying to make everything about her.

The Secondary Cast:

Sebastian: The book's Hot Male Mentor and designated Catfight Lightning Rod, Sebastian escaped from a psych ward to find our three heroines and inform them of their destinies - in the slowest and vaguest way possible.

Dr. Frey: An eeeevil psychiatrist whose motivations and allegiances remain unclear for the entire book. His villainy's demonstrated by his desire to, uh, prescribe the proper treatment and medication for mental illness. Apparently treating mental disorders should be left up to Jesus. It says a lot about this book that his weapons of choice against our heroes are logic and medical reasoning. If logic is an enemy to your story, you need to look at your book, and look at your writing choices.

Angst Checklist:
  • Help! I'm a Vicious Celebutard surrounded by other Vicious Celebutards!
  • My Music Is Too Pretentious for Regular Clubs Therefore I'm Broke
  • I Tried to Kill Myself for Attention but All I Got Was the Opposite of Attention
  • Psychiatry is the Devil. Literally.
  • Catholic Churches are losing ties to their roots, I mean where you can find a decent parish with a functional iron maiden anymore?
  • Hot Abs for Jesus
  • Sex dreams in which you die violently that are still hot
  • Sex dreams only without the sex and lots of trippy imagery
  • Sex dreams only with no sex and no dreams where you bash your head into mirrors, fall into iron maidens and set your hair on fire. Uh, the way Jesus intended.
  • Heroism is for suckers, unless you do it in over-described fabulous wardrobes
Tweet It! My livetweets reading this hot mess are Storified here.

The Word: I spent about 4 hours figuring out how to write this review. How best to convey the utter disgust and rage I felt reading this terrible, offensive, insane-in-the-membrane book. I must have stopped and started a dozen times. Finally, I decided to keep it simple, and let the madness flow out of me naturally.

I was actually excited to read this book, if you can believe it. As a practising Catholic who is also writing a novel about saints for NaNoWriMo, I thought this book (which I picked up at BookExpo America) would provide the perfect creative inspiration.

I was wrong.

Our three "heroines" (and I use that term extremely loosely) all wind up in the ER on the same night after their Darwinian attempts to remove their defective genes from the YA Heroine gene pool failed - Agnes tried to kill herself to spite her mother and her ex-boyfriend, Cecilia the pretentious-preachy indie musician drunkenly drowned in a puddle, and professional famewhore Lucy accidentally overdosed at a club.

While convalescing, they each mysteriously receive a strange bone chaplet with a unique gold charm on it that draws them to a run-down church in Brooklyn.

Now, in a decently-written YA, this would start the plot going and lead these heroines on a journey to find out who they really are and what their purpose is. However, that would require writing and developing a female character deeper than the layer of dust this book will soon acquire at the Used Book Store. And why do that when it's so much easier to describe their designer outfits or the expensive furniture and accessories in their bedrooms?

To save on having to give the protagonists enough character development to motivate their own choices, the book has the heroines do things because they mysteriously "feel" that they should, or because a vague force compels them to make uncharacteristic decisions.

It's thanks to these inexplicable plot contrivances that our booze- and pretension-addled heroines wind up in a decrepit old church where a Hot Mysterious Male Mentor Figure named Sebastian awaits. Because he is a Male Person with Abs, it takes about five minutes before all three of our heroines are venomously catfighting for his attentions.

And that's pretty much the book. All these girls do is snipe at each other, fawn over Sebastian, and find new and Catholic-inspired ways to hurt themselves.

No, really. The Blessed is aggressively, offensively stupid for a number of reasons - the vapid and unpleasant heroines, the grotesque random violence, the wonky plotting, the overly-vague and half-assed world building, and the amateurish writing larded with unnecessary adjectives and speech tags.

Worse, The Blessed fails because nothing of note really happens for the vast majority of it. Sebastian waves his arms around and makes a lot of open-ended and non-specific statements about finding a destiny, and it takes him until nearly the very end of the book to reveal what the cover artwork, book marketing, and back cover blurb already did: that the heroines are the reincarnations of the Saints Agnes, Cecilia, and Lucy.

So for the first 300 pages of this book there is no conflict, there is no explanation, there isn't even any development of the very, very slight supernatural plot.

For 300 pages, we have to read about how three hateful girls fight over a man, slutshame each other, and brutally self-harm themselves during a Random Religious Ecstasy (not making this up) in a church during a hurricane without any real reason for why they're there and why we have to read about it.

Even by the end, the worldbuilding is laughably threadbare - Agnes, Cecilia and Lucy have to save the world by doing, uh, good stuff, and by fighting the evil people who are hunting them, er, because they're just evil. What, were you reading this book hoping to learn something?

Plus, if one of the girls dies, the whole world is screwed. Because it's not like there are literally hundreds of other saints waiting in the wings. Or, you know, Jesus. He's usually on hand for these world-ending events. Unless, of course, the author just pilfered random bits of Catholicism without grounding it in any sort of internal logic or actual research. Gee, wouldn't that be offensive?

Honestly, The Blessed is just a heinous mess of random unpleasantness strung together with pseudo-Catholic-hipster pretension. It's ugly and convoluted and disorganized and violent and pointless. It portrays girls as glitzy objects of ridicule who are destined to be brutally victimized. The narrative has no established purpose until the very end and even then it cannot conclude it.

I suffered this book so that hundreds of thousands of you could be spared. Don't let my miraculous sacrifice be in vain.

Avoid this book, in memory of me.