Monday, June 30, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Pack of Ragamuffins"

So there's this Cock, see? I mean a rooster, you dirty birds. So this Cock takes his sweet lady Hen up to a hill to eat a bunch of nuts. But by the end of the day, the Hen is too full to walk back home.

Hen: "Why don't you make these nutshells into a carriage and drive me home?"

Cock: "Why don't you make these nutshells into a time machine and keep yourself from eating so damn much?"

But the Cock knows his access to his Hen's all-white meat chicken breasts will be pretty limited if it he doesn't come up with something. Thankfully, a Duck appears - enraged at the Cock for eating all of the nuts on her hill. She attacks the Cock but gets her ass royally handed to her and winds up hitched to the nutshell carriage in punishment.

While they're driving along, they also pick up a Needle and a Pin who are hitchhiking by the side of the road because they're too drunk to drive themselves (for reals), and eventually come to a stop at an inn whose keeper is kind of a racist, at least against non-human sentient creatures/objects. They bribe the reluctant innkeeper with the promise of eggs from the Hen and the Duck in return for a place to stay.

Of course, the Cock is kind of a dick, so the next morning, he and his Hen eat their egg, stick the sleeping Needle in the innkeeper's towel and the sleeping Pin in the innkeeper's chair and hightail it out of there without paying a damn thing. The Duck wakes up soon after, thinks, "I am not going to jail again for this!" and flies away.

So instead of getting payment, the innkeeper gets slashed in the face by the towel-Needle and jabbed in the ass by the chair-Pin - which doesn't sooth his non-human prejudice one little bit.

Not Suitable For Children:
  • LOL, cocks
  • LOL, nuts
  • LOL, chicken breasts
  • LOL
  • Poultry-on-Poultry violence
Points Added For:
  • The idea of a Pin and a Needle sharing a beer with their local Tailor is just so adorable. Get on this, PIXAR!
Points Deducted For:
  • Dude, while it must suck for the Needle to wake up to find a bloody human face all up in its business, WTF did that poor Pin do to deserve waking up beneath a gigantic human ass?
And the moral of the story is: Cocks are dicks.

Rating: Three inebriated inanimate objects out of five.

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats"

So there's this Mama Goat, see? And she's a single mum to seven little kids, which sounds like a hell of a job. Because Papa Goat is clearly a deadbeat loser, Mama Goat has to go into the forest to get some food, but before she goes, she warns her baby goats to watch out for the Wolf, best known for his scratchy voice and black feet.

This knowledge protects the kids for a while, but the Wolf catches wise to the Mama Goat's warnings and covers his feet in floury pizza dough and swallows an entire chunk of chalk to make his voice sound smoother. Despite the chalk-breath and the feet that smell like pizza, the Wolf is able to fool the little kids into letting him inside their house. Desperate to wash the taste of chalk out of his mouth, he gobbles up all of the helpless kids but the one that hid himself in the grandfather clock. I guess the Wolf never checked there because he's used to checking his time on his iPhone. Who knows.

Anyway, the Mama Goat comes back to find herself six-sevenths childless and is understandably horrified. Learning about the Wolf from the surviving kid, she rushes out and finds the Wolf sleeping off a food coma and what must be a killer case of the meat sweats. Inspired by that one time she marathon'd through the Alien trilogy and season 1 of Grey's Anatomy when the kids were asleep, she slashes open the sleeping Wolf's stomach and six still-kicking baby goats leap out like fluffy, bloody chest-bursters.

Mama Goat apparently also watched The Human Centipede, as she decides to punish the Wolf by surgically inserting enormous, jagged rocks into his abdominal cavity before sewing him back up again. The Wolf wakes up muddled, heavy, and in pain - and when he bends over a stream to drink, the rocks in his stomach cause him to lose his balance, fall in, and drown.


Not Suitable for Children:
  • Attempted child murder
  • Surgery without anaesthesia or patient consent
  • Body horror
Points Added For: 
  • Goat badassery
  • Obedient kids
Points Deducted For:
  • The wolf is able to go to all of these businesses and just buy chalk and pizza dough over the counter. Couldn't he have just gone to a local butcher shop and ordered up a nice set of lamb shanks? Would that have been so hard?
And the moral of the story is: Don't mess with a single mom with a Netflix subscription.

Rating: Six Devoured Kids out of Seven

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "A Tale of One Who Travelled to Learn What Shivering Meant"

So there's this father, right? And he has two sons - a smart, cowardly one and a complete fucking idiot who is only good at, like, opening really tough jam jars and doing any errands the smart son is too chicken to do.

Finally, the father asks his idiot son what he wants out of life, and the son replies, "I want to learn how to shiver!" When a helpful pastor tries to scare the kid and winds up thrown down a flight of stairs for his trouble (for reals), the father banishes his son to his own fate.

So our none-too-bright hero wanders around looking for something to scare the pants off him (since he's too stupid to take them off by himself) and eventually hears of an enchanted castle that has killed all who sleep in it overnight. The King has promised that whoever can survive three nights in the castle will gain the princess' hand in marriage.

Our hero thinks this is a grand idea and spends three nights in a castle stabbing ghost cats, bowling with human skulls and thigh-bones, humping corpses, and beating an undead old man with an iron bar - all without the merest shiver of unease. After three days of the this, the evil spell on the castle gives up in exasperation and the moron wins the princess' hand and becomes a prince.

He's still disappointed at not learning how to shiver, until his much-smarter wife pours cold water and live fish on him.

Not Suitable for Children:

  • Desecration of corpses
  • (Ghost) Animal Abuse

Points Added For:

  • Bowling with human bones!

Points Deducted For:

  • The hero getting into bed with a corpse when he mistakes it for his cousin. Can't decide which part of that sentence is worse.

And the moral of the story is: if you're too stupid to know when to shit your pants from terror, have some free stuff! You're clearly deserving of fame and comfort!

Rating: Three desecrated, burned, hanged corpses out of ten.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"The Truth about Alice," by Jennifer Mathieu

The Main Cast:

Alice: A sorta-kinda-popular girl who is outcast when she's accused of promiscuity and blamed for a popular quarterback's death. Who is the real girl behind the rumours?

Elaine: The most popular girl in school, who believes and happily spreads the rumours about Alice.

Josh: The best friend of the dead quarterback who is the only one who really knows what went on in that car before it crashed.

Kurt: The class nerd who has longed after Alice for years.

Kelsie: Alice's former best friend, who decides to use the scandal to enact her long-repressed desire for vengeance.

Angst Checklist:
  • Slut-shaming
  • Repressed sexuality
  • Bullying
  • Being a Lying Liar who Lies, YOU LIAR (KELSIE!)
  • Best Friends
  • Absolutely Failing At Being a Best Friend (KELSIE)
  • Grief
  • Perception
  • Male privilege
The Word: This novel is what 13 Reasons Why tried and ultimately failed to be: a novel about perception and rumour and how a mixture of malice from a few and ambivalent enabling from many can completely assassinate a normal person's character.

There are two major "truths" about Alice Franklin. The first is that she slept with two guys at a high school party - college boy Tommy and popular quarterback Brandon. The second is that she was sexting Brandon the night he lost control of his car and fatally crashed. All the characters live in Healy, a small Texas football town, and with the loss of its Golden Boy Football Hero, everyone is quick to blame the loner slut from a broken home, turning Alice into a despised outcast.

This novel is told from five alternating viewpoints (with Alice's concluding the book). Each perspective is skewed in its own way, and reveals more about the perceiver than it does the perceived.  I found this storytelling device incredibly effective, as each character's examination of Alice's situation gives them insight into their own lives and problems.

First, there's Elaine, the Queen Bee whose party Alice allegedly double-dipped at, and my favourite character. Her personal history with Alice gives her plenty of reasons to believe the rumours and few reasons to care if they're not true. She's also honest about pretty much everything, even herself and her own blind spots, privileges, and limitations. She's the town Mean Girl and she's pretty happy with her lot in life, and I kind of loved her acceptance of herself.

Next is Kurt, the socially ostracized nerd who's worshipped Alice from afar, and only really gets the courage to reach out to her after she's been tarred and feathered by the rest of the town. Kurt's obsessiveness about her is a little creepy, but his perspective is interesting. He thinks Alice is the closest humanity will ever come to producing a Perfect Human Being, but by actually hanging out with her, he discovers she's more than a fantasy or an Unattainable Hot Girl to stare at.

We also get the perspective of Josh, Brandon's best friend who was in the passenger seat when Brandon crashed his car. While Elaine's and Kurt's POVs paint Brandon in a pretty asstastic light, Josh helps show the other side of that. Brandon still comes across as an entitled, privileged asshole, but he was human. He had friends that he liked and family that he loved - friends and family who are legitimately devastated that he's gone. Of course, Josh is also the source of the story that Alice sexted Brandon the night he was killed - and getting to the heart of that whole mess is the other point of Josh's POV.

Last, and certainly least, we get Kelsie. Formerly Alice's best friend, she abandons her once the scandal breaks to avoid losing her coveted spot at the popular table. That, in itself, would be understandable enough. High school can be a jungle. The further in we get, the more we realize that Kelsie is a spineless, hypocritical, obsessive, venomous little parasite who has secretly resented Alice for over a year for wildly irrational reasons.

If anyone deserves to be the outright antagonist of this novel (other than Brandon, RIP) it's her. Elaine is an enabler, Kurt is blinded by lust/adoration, Josh lies to cover up his own tangled feelings of love and guilt - but Kelsie is really the only one of the four who intentionally hurts Alice out of a desire to hurt Alice. And I kind of wanted her to suffer some really heinous karmic punishment. She doesn't (that's not really the novel's point), but I hated her enough to wish that she did. Hell, I'd read a sequel if it was all about how everyone found out what a toxic social remora she is and shunned her forever.

OTHER THAN THAT, however, The Truth About Alice was an intense, quick read with some excellent characterization.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Woodcutter's Child"

So there's this woodcutter, right? Only he's not a very good woodcutter, because he's dirt poor and can barely feed his infant daughter. Luckily for him, Angelina Jolie the Guardian Angel of All Christian Children drops by and offers to take the child off his hands and raise her in the land of Happiness.

The woodcutter goes, "Sure, why not?" and for fourteen years the girl lives in bliss and comfort.

When the Woodcutter's Daughter reaches puberty, her Guardian Angel gives her a chatelaine of 13 keys to the 13 doors of the land of Happiness. She tells the Woodcutter's Daughter that she's free to open 12 of those doors, but the 13th is forbidden for Reasons.

Having apparently learned nothing from that whole Garden of Eden fiasco, the Guardian Angel leaves on a journey and the Woodcutter's Daughter does exactly what we think she's going to do. When the Guardian Angel asks about the door, she denies everything, and winds up booted out of the land of Happiness and stripped of her voice.

The Woodcutter's Daughter sleeps in a tree and eats wild berries and lets her hair grow out for a while, as one does, before a King wanders into her patch of Desolate Wilderness and falls in love with her. He wines hers, dines her, and weds her, and nine months later she gives birth to a boy.

The Guardian Angel shows up once again, and demands that the Queen confess to opening the 13th door. When the Queen refuses, the Guardian Angel steals her baby, and the mute Queen falls under suspicion of infanticide.

The rumours die down eventually and she gives birth to another boy. The Guardian Angel shows up again, because she's clearly got a fever, and the only prescription is to Abduct More Children. She demands the truth about the 13th door, the Queen tells her to fuck off, Baby Number Two disappears, and the kingdom is once again super suspicious.

The Queen gets pregnant again and the Guardian Angel pops into the royal maternity ward with her baby-snatching sack over her shoulder and the usual speech, "yadda yadda, 13th door, truth will set you free, so on and so forth, baby please?" When she absconds with the Queen's daughter, the Queen's exasperated subjects accuse her of murder and condemn her to burn at the stake.

Only once the flames are licking at her toes does the Queen think, "oh for fuck's sake, I opened that damn door!" Down comes the sanctimonious serial child-stealer from the land of Happiness with the Queen's three offspring in tow.

Guardian Angel: "There now, don't we feel better?"

Queen: "...."

Not Suitable for Children:

  • Child abduction
  • Angels being dicks
Points Added For:
  • The Woodcutter, for finding a more practical way to abandon his child that doesn't involve breadcrumbs or a gingerbread house.

Points Deducted For:

  • If the 13th door was forbidden - why didn't the Guardian Angel just give the Woodcutter's Daughter 12 keys? I mean really. 
  • The 13th door doesn't even open onto anything interesting (just more angel dudes in a holy light). If you're going to make something a sin, at least make it fun, come ON.
And the moral of the story is: If at first you don't succeed, keep stealing babies. 

Rating: One abducted infant out of five.

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Three Spinsters"

So there's this girl, right? This girl is so freakishly lazy that one day, her mother completely loses her shit and beats her so viciously that the Queen, passing by in a carriage, hears her screaming from several dozen feet away.

"WTF lady, chill," says the Queen.

The embarrassed mother lies and tells the Queen that her daughter is addicted to spinning, to the point where her mother can't provide enough flax.

"OMG, calm down," says the Queen, who is also a closet spinning enthusiast. "I have plenty of flax in my castle, your daughter can come and live with me."

The Queen takes the girl to her castle and shows her three rooms full of flax. She tells the girl that if she spins all the flax in these rooms, she'll get to marry the Crown Prince, because being a hard worker is a helluva lot more useful than being able to sleep for a hundred years or run really fast wearing only one shoe. You go, Queen!

Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, this girl is allergic to actual work, so she just sits in one of the flax rooms and cries for three days straight. On the fourth day, she crosses to the window and sees three strange women passing by underneath - a woman with one enormous foot, a woman with one enormous bottom lip, and a woman with an enormous thumb.

The three women look up, learn the girl's predicament, and offer a trade: they'll spin the flax into yarn for her, and in return she'll invite them to her wedding and treat them like royalty. The girl agrees, the three women spin all three rooms in no time flat, and before you know it, the girl's getting married to a prince who is absolutely in love with how ambitious and take-charge and competent his wife is.

The girl does not forget the three spinsters, though, and invites them up to the royal table just as she promised. The prince, less than thrilled with their weird deformities, asks how they got such big feet, lips, thumbs, etc. The spinsters reveal their unique appendages are Darwinian adaptations to spinning, and the prince is so freaked out by it that he promises he'll never make his wife work again - because being industrious and self-motivated and goal-oriented is all well and good - but not if it makes you ugly.

"Sweet!" said the new Princess, who never worked again.

Not Suitable for Children:

  • Child abuse
Points Added For:
  • A surprisingly democratic Queen, who's perfectly willing to marry her son to a complete nobody provided she works hard enough.
  • The Girl, who actually follows through on her promise to the spinsters, and winds up reaping greater rewards than she anticipated. More often than not, protagonists forget their bargains and end up creatively punished - I was pleased by this story's swerve.
Points Deducted for:
  • the Girl gives up on spinning way too easily - it's not like the Queen gave her a deadline, or even asked her to spin it into gold. This story could have gone to worse places, believe me.
  • the Prince is kind of an ass.
And the moral of the story is: with the right friends, you'll never have to work again!

Rating: Eight freakishly-big thumbs out of ten. 

"Dragon Haven," by Robin Hobb

The Primary Cast:

Thymara: While most of the other keepers seem to have bonded with their dragons, hers remains frustratingly arrogant and aloof. Will she ever be able to win her over?

Alise: The pampered dragon scholar starts to get her hands dirty, and finds herself enjoying her life far more than expected.

Leftrin:  This riverboat captain is still in love with Alise - but she's married, and he's got secrets he still needs to keep under wraps.

Sedric: When he drinks dragon blood and becomes bonded to the weakest and slowest-witted of the dragons, he can no longer remain the uninvested, ignorant city boy any longer.

The Secondary Cast:

Greft: The self-styled leader of the keepers whose revolutionary ideas have more to do with grabbing power for himself than improving the lives of his dragons and fellow keepers.

Sintara: A beautiful blue dragon, she refuses to bond emotionally with her keeper. Humans are weak pathetic creatures! What are they good for, anyway?

Carson: A hired hunter who tries to help Sedric adjust to the new changes in his circumstances.

Jess: Another hunter, this one with far murkier intentions towards the dragons.

The Word: You know what's the most powerful feeling I experienced reading this novel? Relief.

I was highly disappointed with the first novel in this trilogy (Dragon Keeper) for more than a few reasons - the gratuitous fan service, the endless repetition of magical concepts from the first Liveship Traders trilogy, and the disturbing characterization of the first two explicitly gay major characters I've encountered in a Robin Hobb novel (not counting the gender-bending Fool from the Farseer books and the random lesbian spear-carrier who appears a handful of times in The Liveship books).

THANKFULLY, none of these issues carried over into this second, highly entertaining, and thought-provoking novel. Seriously - this book fixes all the problems I had with Dragon Keeper. Firstly, no fan service from previous characters - the protagonists are all on their own as they navigate the treacherous Rain Wilds territory to locate the lost Elderling city of Kelsingra. Unbeknownst to them, there is a traitor in their midst who has been hired to harvest dragon parts for the dying ruler of Chalced, who superstitiously believes in their magical curative properties.

There are no more tedious explanations of sea serpents and their cocoons here, either - instead, the story focuses on how, miraculously, the dragons previously dismissed as crippled or mentally deficient are starting to grow and change and improve thanks to their bonds with their human keepers. While several dragons (like the glorious blue dragon Sintara) still try to enforce the idea that dragons are The Rulers of the Earth and don't need humans - it becomes increasingly apparent that maybe bonding with humans is an integral part of the dragon maturation process.

In the last book, I'll be honest, I had serious problems with how the LGBT characters were portrayed. Sedric and his secret lover Hest (Alise's husband) came across as horrific gay stereotypes - Hest was the raging, closeted, misogynist bully who continually criticizes Alise's fashion choices; and Sedric was a mincing fop who spends most of the first novel moaning about getting river mud on his beautiful silk shirts.

However, in this second book, we get a far deeper look into Sedric's motivations. Yes, he's still kind of a spoiled city boy but now it's backed up with actual characterization that goes beyond "Alise's Token Gay Best Friend." When he accidentally-on-purpose drinks dragon blood, he develops a bond with the underdeveloped copper dragon Relpha. Having an innocent creature come to love and depend on him (and being able to psychically feel that trust) forces Sedric to reevaluate his relationship with Hest. Robin Hobb is an expert at introducing insufferable characters only to slowly evolve them over time (see: Malta from the Liveship Trader books).

As well, surprise surprise, we gain three (!) more LGBT characters in the novel who are all distinct, positive characters.

And finally, Dragon Haven also explores themes of sexuality - female sexuality and the rules governing it, to be specific. Thymara, one of the dragon keepers who has been marked with scales since birth, has been told her entire life that sex is forbidden for people like her. She has followed these rules faithfully, and is shocked to discover the other marked keepers have abandoned these rules and have started exploring their sexuality as a rejection of the Rain Wild culture that treated them like despised outcasts.

Thymara can be quite a judgemental character (there is a fair amount of slut-shaming on her part, initially), but her character arc is intriguing. The Rain Wild rules may be prejudicial, barbaric and unfair (breeding amongst the scaled is mainly forbidden because deformed babies are considered a waste of precious resources), but mindlessly defying these conventions without considering the real-world consequences of one's actions is not an appropriate response. Thymara remains celibate (and earns mockery for it), but her motivations for this choice evolve as the book does, becoming a choice based on agency and her ambitions for her future, rather than an unquestioning, meek acceptance of a biased system.

I am really, really glad this book didn't suck. It did the opposite of sucking, actually. It's pretty awesome, actually. Great female characters, complex themes, DRAGONS, and a dash of romance. What more could you ask of Robin Hobb?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Cat and the Mouse in Partnership"

The Story: So there's this Cat, right? And he seduces this Mouse into shacking up with him and they're as Tina-and-Ike a couple as you would expect.

Anyway, in order to spend the upcoming winter living in comfort (and, presumably, inter-species SIN), the two of them procure a pot of fat and hide it beneath the organ in a church, with the intent of saving it for winter.

The Cat, unsurprisingly, is kind of a dick, and so he tells his little rodent hoochie mama that he's been asked to stand as godfather for one of his relatives' kittens. While the Mouse stays at home and irons his Cat-underwear and rakes out his litterbox, the Cat slips off to the church to eat a portion of the fat.  When he comes back, he tells the Mouse the kitten was named "Top-Off."

"Well at least it's not Apple," says the Mouse.

The Cat plays the godfather card two more times, and the Mouse never questions her feline boyfriend's sudden Catholicism nor the likelihood of cats supporting a sacrament that involves dunking them in water. She does get suspicious, however, that the godkittens wind up named "Half-Out" and "All-Out."

The catpoop hits the fan when winter hits, and the Mouse goes to recover the fat only to discover the Cat has eaten all of it. The Mouse calling the Cat on his bullshit is a bridge too far, however, and he springs on her and eats her.

Which, frankly, was the inevitable outcome from the star.

Not Suitable for Children:

  • Abusive relationships

Points Added For:

  • Um, diversity?

Points Deducted For:

  • Seriously what did the Mouse think was going to happen? I mean really.

And the moral of the story is: You can't trust the pussy.

Rating: Three pots of fat out of five.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Frog Prince"

The Story: So there's this king, right? And he had a lot of daughters, but the last one was the hottest of them all. How hot? She was so hot that the freakin' Sun was in love with her, and that dude is the hottest ball around.

Okay, so this princess is hot as hell but she doesn't exactly have a lot going on, because her favourite activity is to play with her golden ball by the cool waters of the castle fountain. Some girls needlepoint. Some play with balls. Get over it.

Anyway, she accidentally drops the ball into the fountain and loses it. So she sits by the fountain and cries, because she's hot as hell, and crying by things usually solves most of her problems. And voila, her tears attract a nearby talking amphibian, who is attracted both to her tears and, presumably, her ball handling.

He offers to get her toy back, but ball-grabbing don't come cheap. He wants the works: a seat at the royal table, a first-class meal, and a slumber party (s'mores optional).

The Princess agrees, but the moment the frog retrieves her ball, she's all, "LATERS, KERMIT LOOOOOOOL" and flees on her longer, human-sized legs.

Naturally, this all comes back to bite her in the ass when the frog hops the long-ass way to her castle and demands payment, pronto. The princess whines and cries, but her sun-attracting hotness has no effect on her Kingly father (thank God). The princess is forced to get the frog a seat, and let him eat off her plate, and she waits on him hand and foot, all the while choking back bile. The frog, for his part, enjoys her humiliation immensely.

Unfortunately, when bedtime approaches, the Princess freaks the fuck out because her sheets have a thread count of a thousand and frog-slime is a bitch to get out of Egyptian cotton and she'd really rather play with her balls by herself. In a fit of rage, she actually grabs the frog and throws him against a wall.

To her surprise, he turns into a handsome prince instead of a green-brown smear on the wallpaper. Turns out he was turned into a frog by an evil witch who totally thought kiss-cures for spells were for chumps. The prince must have some weird masochist thing going on because he's totally still turned on by the hot-as-hell princess who just tried to murder him.

The wedding is arranged, and the prince is reunited with Henry, his beloved servant who locked three iron bars around his heart to keep it from breaking when the prince was frog-ified. Weird. Actually, if this is a regular thing in the prince's kingdom, it kind of explains the his kinky frog boner for pain. Anyway, the iron bars keep breaking during the carriage ride home as Henry's heart rips off The Grinch and grows three sizes at a time.

Awwww. Also, ow.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Animal abuse
Points Added for:
  • A witch NOT making a kiss the cure for her spell. Way to be original! 
  • The King, for not putting up with his daughter's bullshit.
Points Deducted for:
  • The princess winding up with a handsome prince despite being an animal-abusing brat who ultimately learns nothing
And the Moral of the Story Is: Crying can solve a surprising number of problems if you're pretty. 

Rating: Two golden balls out of five.

Once Upon a Blogger: AnimeJune's Summer Project

It's summer! Officially! And with nothing good on TV, it's time for my summer blogging project.

The book pictured above has been with me for most of my life. It's the Complete Illustrated Stories of the Brothers Grimm, and my grandfather gave it to me when I was two months old, on the day of my baptism. Despite my love of all things fairy tale, I've never actually read the whole volume all the way through - yes, it has the classics ("The Frog Prince," "Rapunzel"), but it also has all the weird stories that don't get nearly as much attention.

It's a pretty big book. But summer is a pretty long season. 

My summer project, therefore, is to work my way through this volume, story by story, until I reach the end.

And I also plan to review every story. Hopefully in an entertaining way.

I hope you all enjoy the weirdness! Comments welcome!

"Unspoken," by Sarah Rees Brennan

The Protagonist: Kami Glass. An investigative report-in-training, she's always looking for the next big story to blow wide open, in her small English town.
Her Angst: The return of the infamous Lynburn family looks like the perfect scoop - until she learns she has a secret bond with Jared, the Lynburn black sheep.

The Secondary Cast:

Angela: Kami's ornery BFF who's happy to help with Kami's adventures, so long as they doesn't involve Annoying People or interfere with her naps.

Jared: The "voice" who has conversed with Kami in her head for the better part of her life. The good news? He's real and so are his abs! The bad news - he's real, and knows all of her innermost secrets.

Ash: The cute and helpful son of Lillian Lynburn. Jared's cousin. Genuinely likes Kami, and worries about her connection to his "dangerous" cousin.

Rosalind: Jared's awful mother. Just awful. The worst.

Lillian: Rosalind's icy sister and Ash's mother. Less awful to Jared, but not exactly welcoming, either.

Uncle Rob: Lillian's husband and Ash's dad. The only member of the Lynburn family who's openly loving to Jared.

Angst Checklist:

  • Racism and Xenophobia
  • Class Divides
  • Slut Shaming
  • Rich Hot Angsty Boy Shaming (for MYSTERIOUS REASONS)
  • Relationship Boundaries
  • Awkward Love Triangles
  • My Best Friend Can Literally Read My Thoughts and That Is Not Helpful At All
  • LGBT Issues
  • Child Abuse
  • Jealous Sisters
  • Sssssecretsssss

The Word: Kami Glass has lived her whole life in Sorry-in-the-Vale, a bucolic little English village with roots going back hundreds of years. Despite being born there, she's always been a little bit of an outcast - partly because of her Asian heritage and partly because she regularly holds conversations in her head with an imaginary boy named Jared.

Now hear me out.

More than anything, Kami wants to be an investigative journalist, and sussing out the town's myriad secrets is her life's ambition. She thinks she's hit the jackpot when she learns the town's founding family, the Lynburns (two surviving sisters, a cousin, and their respective sons Jared and Ash) have returned to Sorry-in-the-Vale after a long absence in America. They're rich and live in a mansion. Everyone in town lives in fear of them, but refuses to explain why. And the two Lynburn boys are ridiculously hot, angsty, and mysterious. Kami can't wait to interview them and find out what all the fuss is about.

Hear me out! Just give me a minute!

When Kami runs into angry, mistreated Jared Lynburn, she discovers that he's the boy she's secretly conversed with her entire conscious life. Her imaginary boy is real, and neither knows what to do about their psychic connection, or what it means with regards to the Lynburns' dark history with Sorry-in-the-Vale.

Okay, now, I can see you side-eying this review already. Instant bonds, a Love Triangle with Angsty Angry Loner Boys, a quirky heroine too nosy for her own good. The perfect ingredients for One Hot-Ass Mess of a Book.


Except this book is actually kind of ... good? Amazingly good, even. One of the best things I've read this year, if you want to be specific. Yes, Unspoken trades on a lot of popular YA tropes that have been beaten into glue by previous and less-skilled authors, but Unspoken does it in an incredibly intelligent and self-aware way.

Kami does have an instant bond with Jared, but it's not a source of fuzzy duckling feelings that eschew reality. Rather, their connection is embarrassing and unpleasant and awkward. It's one thing to believe in a "real" imaginary friend - it's an entirely different thing to discover you've placed the quotation marks on the wrong word and you have very little privacy or independence for your own thoughts. Their bond is a source of (rather than a cheap solution to) conflict.

The story is not all about the guys, either. I mean, they're important - the Lyburn boys do live in a decrepit, thunderstorm-prone mansion drenched in sssssecretssss - but the novel spends just as much time with Kami and her friends Angela and Holly. One of the more interesting subplots involves Kami re-thinking her dismissive opinion of Holly as a boy-crazy flirt - thanks, in part, to Jared calling her on her close-mindedness.

Kami is such a dynamic character. I loved her. She's confident and take charge, and refuses to lower her expectations for anyone else. I loved her righteous search for the truth - even as she learns that some truths are ugly and painful and can erode her trust in the social structures in which she's lived her whole life. Even then, she never gives up her trust in herself. Take her bond with Jared - she's fine with using it for their friendship, but it makes the prospect of a romantic relationship deeply uncomfortable to her and she refuses to give in to Jared's pressuring. Yes, she genuinely likes and trusts Jared, but she respects herself enough to set boundaries and stick by them.

In fact, Kami's strength and confidence are the reason Jared doesn't look like a complete asshole in comparison. He's a very angry, broody, demanding character with more than just a few crazy wives locked up in his attic (metaphorically speaking!). He had an extremely lonely and painful childhood thanks to an abusive father and a selfishly uninterested mother, and even his aunt and cousin don't treat him much better.

His bond with Kami is pretty much the only positive relationship in his entire life and it's entirely understandable, from a character development standpoint, why he wants to hold onto it and develop it. But he's very aggressive about the bond, and constantly pressures Kami to deepen it. If Kami had been one of those submissive, doormat characters who treat the hero's Sad Past as a free pass to be an ass (hey, I rhymed!), Jared could have been a horrific character. However, Kami is constantly fighting back with her own strength and forcing Jared to back down and rethink himself, and because of this equal balance, I was able to enjoy and understand Jared more. And even so, I felt his angry tantrums got a little repetitive towards the end.

All of these elements, brewed together, creates a delicious, seething cauldron of Gothic mystery that keeps the reader guessing. Something is definitely amiss with the Lynburns and their connection to the town. However, as Kami discovers, her town is is plenty amiss all on its own. With developed female characters, a great mystery, lots of small-town secrets, and swift pacing, Unspoken is a fantastic addition to my YA bookshelf.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Lady of Persuasion," by Tessa Dare

The Chick: Isabel Grayson. Her greatest desire is to marry a powerful lord and become a "lady of influence" who changes the world with her charity and good works.
The Rub: The man she falls for is a mere baronet, and a lazy one at that. Nothing a novel's worth of nagging won't fix!
Dream Casting: Minka Kelly.

The Dude: Sir Toby Aldridge. Still recovering from the emotional pain of being jilted, he seduces the sister of his enemy and winds up falling for her instead.
The Rub: Toby distrusts his ability to keep women happy - how can he make sure this wife doesn't desert him like his fiancee did?
Dream Casting: Tom Hiddleston.

The Plot:

Toby: Hey there, pretty lady....


Toby: Uh, no...


Toby: *manly wiles* Let's randomly get married!


Toby: Awesome.


Toby: Couldn't we talk this out...


Toby: But....


Toby: But -


Toby: OMG, fine, I'll do it, just shut up already!


Toby: .......yay.

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Lazy Beta Hero
  • 1 Self-Involved Martyr Heroine
  • Crazy Mama Drama
  • 1 Failed Attempt at Election Rigging
  • Several gun-toting thugs
  • 1 Personal Sugar Boycott
  • 1 Secondary Romance (Gray's bro Joss and Hetta the prickly country doctor)

The Word: Our hero, Sir Toby, is in a snit over his fiancee, Sophia, jilting him to marry a glorified pirate who is now the toast of the Ton (the events of Surrender of a Siren). Even worse - Toby's reputation was ruined by her flight when an anonymous caricaturist drew a series of cartoons depicting Toby as a degenerate rake who frightened Sophia off, and that's the version most of Society now believes.

When he sees a gorgeous woman dancing with that same glorified pirate (Benedict Grayson), Toby swoops in and puts the moves on her, only to find out she's Isabel Grayson, Benedict's sister. He toys with her a bit - although he quickly gives up on designs to seduce her in revenge, because he's not an asshole - but winds up impulsively proposing marriage. To his surprise, Isabel excepts.

Toby's a sweetheart. He's a gadfly layabout beta male who's still suffering from crippling insecurity over Sophia's jilting. He's determined to make his engagement and eventual marriage to Isabel work, if only to prove that he can win a woman without losing her. In the process, he makes a lot of promises he doesn't really mean, promises that come back to bite him in the ass once he realizes he's actually in love with Isabel and disappointing her is no longer an option.

The only problem? Isabel is a selfish, sanctimonious, insufferable little martyr who'll only marry a man in (or planning to run for) Parliament - so she can use him as a tool to further her own designs. Her devotion to charities and Righteous Works borders on obsession (she can't eat sugar without thinking of the slaaaaves! The slaaaaves!), she has very little regard for the feelings of the people around her, and she'll piously condemn anything that doesn't have a strictly utilitarian use as being a Frivolous Sin Bought with the Blood of Innocents. Flavoured ice is a sin! Walking sticks are a sin! The Elgin Marbles are a sin! You could have helped starving orphans with that money! 

Isabel's unpleasantness would have been easier to take if the novel had been even a little self-aware of what a self-righteous, mercenary, hypocritical pill she is. She's appalled once she discovers Toby is "not a lord, but a sir." Once they're married, she pushes Toby into running for Parliament so that she can become a "lady of influence." It never occurs to her to ask or care if Toby actually wants to be an MP.

Isabel is a Righteous Activist whose motives are entirely self-serving - she cuddles consumptive orphans to escape the shame of her Crazy Slutty Parents. And had the novel actually examined this aspect of her, I might have sympathized.

But instead, the novel paints Isabel as this Paragon of Innocence, Nobility, and Virtue and Toby spends the rest of the book proving he's "worthy" of her. Toby eventually surrenders and becomes an MP - and it's definitely a capitulation, he still expresses no talent or interest in politics - instead of discovering his own passion. Isabel compromises nothing in her relationship with Toby. It's not really an equal relationship, so it didn't really work.

Man, I could have sponsored a Third World Child for months on the money I spent on this book! Months!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

"Emily of New Moon," Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Emily Starr. A precocious aspiring writer who has to go and live with her mother's family, whom she's never met, after her journalist father dies.
Her Angst: Her new family is very concerned with preserving the "Murray pride" - even if it looks likes Emily cannot possibly live up to the family name.

Secondary Cast:

Aunt Elizabeth: Emily's hard and loveless aunt who insists on running New Moon Farm according to the traditions of a hundred years ago - including candles instead of lamps. Marilla Cuthbert, she ain't.

Ilse: Emily's wild and tempestuous BFF known for her sudden rages and impressive vocabulary.

Teddy: An impoverished neighbour who lives alone with his (quite possibly insane) single mother. Wants to go to college to study art. Also wants to marry Emily.

Perry: The Murrays' impulsive but brilliant hired boy - who aspires to be premier one day. Also nurses a hardcore crush on Emily.

The Word: I've been a huge Anne of Green Gables fangirl since the first time I read it as a child. While I've been working my way through the Anne sequels, I never actually read anything else of Montgomery's. Shame on me, right? So when the Forever Young Adult book club made Emily of New Moon its pick for June, I leapt at the opportunity.

The novel starts with young Emily Starr living in blissful, oblivious poverty with her dying father. When he finally kicks the bucket, Emily learns she is to live with her mother's family - the Murrays of New Moon, the wealthy and prideful clan who disowned Emily's mother when she eloped with an impoverished journalist. The "Murray pride" prevents them from dumping Emily off at an orphanage, but they have to draw names out of a hat to decide who has to keep her. Ouch.

Emily winds up living at New Moon farm with Aunt Elizabeth (a stone hearted tyrant), Aunt Laura (kind but utterly ineffectual) and Cousin Jimmy (a gentle, artistic soul who's been mentally handicapped since he fell down a well as a child - after Elizabeth pushed him!). Despite Aunt Elizabeth's rigid rules, Emily thrives in this new environment and learns to develop her burgeoning writing talent.

In a lot of ways, Emily of New Moon is quite a bit darker and sadder than Anne of Green Gables.
Almost all the adults in this novel are kind of terrible. Emily's Aunt Elizabeth is a selfish, joyless stick with Daddy Issues. Ilse, Emily's BFF who is both a tomboy (gasp!) and an atheist (DOUBLE GASP!) has been utterly neglected by her misogynist father ever since her mother's scandalous disappearance when she was a baby.

Meanwhile, Emily's friend Teddy is afraid to own pets because his psychotic single mother will poison them if she suspects he loves them more than her. All I have to say about poor Teddy and his deranged mother is - watch out if she decides to run a motel.

Emily of New Moon has much more melodrama than Anne (scandalous dead wives, love triangles, elopements!), but a far less cohesive storyline. Neither novel has a plot, per se, and instead both follow their respective heroines from episodic adventure to episodic adventure, developing the characters as they do so. Emily felt less focused, her episodes trivial and often tedious - especially her interminable letters to her dead father. But this could also be because I didn't find Emily nearly as interesting as Anne.

I thought I would like Emily because, as previous reviewers have pointed out, she's more explicitly an artist and a writer than Anne Shirley. She's always imagining and experiencing "flashes" of inspiration, and takes comfort in secretly writing down her angst and frustration with her emotionally barren guardians.

But, well, she's also a huge Mary Sue. Anne Shirley is an imaginative oddball surrounded by (relatively) normal people whose perspectives are changed by interacting with her. Emily, conversely, is a blandly angelic artist surrounded by angsty, damaged, and far more interesting secondary characters. She's not really affected by her environment (remaining obliviously well-adjusted despite a loveless upbringing) and she doesn't affect it in turn (Aunt Elizabeth remains as high-handed as ever, despite years of Emily's puppy-dog eyes).

I had little patience for Emily's extremely mild acts of rebellion. I would much rather have read a story from Ilse's perspective - or Teddy's. Or Perry's! I loved Anne because it was just as much about Anne's flaws (her temper, her vanity, her self-absorption) as her strengths. Emily's little ticks really can't compare to Ilse's rages, or Teddy's mama drama, or even Aunt Elizabeth's repressed paternal memories.

I'll always love Anne of Green Gables, but I found Emily of New Moon utterly forgettable. She was just too precious, with none of Anne's spice or defiance. While the novel wasn't unpleasant, I couldn't really connect with Emily or invest in her storyline, and thus it wound up being a bit of a slog ending with a measles-induced psychic vision that solves a decades-long mystery. For reals!