Thursday, October 01, 2015

"Carnival," by Elizabeth Bear

Carnival's plot is wildly and enjoyably convoluted, but I'll try to convey the gist: Michelangelo and Vincent are two diplomats (and former lovers) from the Old Earth Coalition Cabinet who seek an audience with the Parliament of New Amazonia, a planet that's managed to remain independent. On the surface, the two men are supposed to broker an alliance. Secretly, they've been sent to discover the source of New Amazonia's miraculously clean energy and claim it for the Coalition. Unfortunately for them, the powers that be in New Amazonia have their own ideas.

Old Earth and its allied planets are under constant pressure from the Governors - a manmade race of artificially intelligent beings programmed to maintain ecological balance. Part of that balance includes population control and resource distribution - the Governors will go into Massacre Mode and start culling if a planet's population gets too high or if the environment starts to decline. The tyranny of the Governors has forced the Coalition to adopt a desperately expansionist philosophy: the more planets they colonize, the more space and resources there'll be to go around, which means fewer excuses for the Governors to intervene. On Coalition planets, resources are tightly controlled, and neither mediocrity nor nonconformity are acceptable.

The Coalition's societal structure is twelve kinds of fucked up, but we quickly learn New Amazonia's freer way of life isn't automatically better. In New Amazonia, women are the ruling class while men are second-class citizens categorized into two camps: "stud" males who have to earn their status by performing gladiatorial challenges, and "gentle" (gay) males who are permitted to be servants and artisans.

Carnival is a clever and intricate science fiction novel about the many ways in which different societies fail to live up to their ideals. The novel encourages you (at least at first) to view the Coalition as the soulless aggressor, but New Amazonia has troubles of its own. Both societies feel they have the science and the history to back up how they've structured their worlds, but their vast generalizations leave swaths of people out in the cold.

It helps that all three protagonists (Vincent, Michelango, and New Amazonia's Lesa) teeter on the edge of being outcasts in their respective societies. Vincent and Michelango have to officially hide their homosexuality from their superiors (the inability to reproduce is seen as a waste of resources), while Lesa rages that her soft hearted, intellectual son will soon be forced to give up his studies because of his gender. While all three are strongly influenced by their environments, due to their outcast status, all three are clear-eyed enough to spot the flaws in their ways of life.

Carnival also asks: should one accept one's society's inevitable inadequacies to preserve the peaceful status quo, or should one risk death and sacrifice to form a better society - even if that society will eventually wind up failing somewhere down the road as well?

Carnival isn't perfect (it can be incredibly difficult to keep up with all the double-triple-quadruple crossing and double blinds going on), but it uses unique settings, nuanced characters, and fantastical set-pieces to ask deeper questions of the reader.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Tapping the Dream Tree," by Charles de Lint

So I'm back to reviewing!

Sort of!

Basically to get myself back in the habit of both reading and writing critically, I'm going to go back to reviewing books - although I might be briefer than I used to be.

I've recently moved back in with my parents, and to while away the hours I started an impromptu Parental Book Club, encouraging my parents to submit books or authors they've always loved and always wanted me to try.

Which is what got me reading Tapping the Dream Tree. Charles de Lint is one of my mother's favourite authors, and she thought this collection of stories would be the perfect appetizer platter to introduce me to his unique brand of urban fantasy.

And to be honest - it was rather refreshing. I burnt out on urban fantasy pretty early after one-too-many novels about a Tough Heroine with a Mysterious Parentage who wears a Leather Jacket and Disrespects Authority and is in a Love Triangle with Two Equally Hot and Morally Ambiguous Magical Boyfriends.

De Lint's stories have a different, folkie, down-to-earth tone, inspired by Celtic and First Nations folklore. Most of them take place in or around the fictional town of Newford, with a revolving cast of recurring characters. Most of the protagonists are artists or musicians - people who, while not explicitly magical, are still open enough to the world's mysteries to be pretty chill about the magical stuff that inevitably goes down. I really enjoyed this - none of the stories get bogged down in "What do you mean magic is real?!" denials or overwrought explanations about rules or worldbuilding. Whether it's a fairy-powered internet search engine, a Ferris Wheel of alternate universes, or the ghost of the teenage free spirit you sacrificed for a happy adulthood, the drama comes not from confronting magic, but from accepting and learning from it.

What I enjoyed the most about these stories is that although characters might reference events from other collections or novels, I never felt lost or left out because I was a de Lint newbie. Tapping the Dream Tree is an effective Charles de Lint taster - each story is a satisfying standalone that still drops delicious hints about his pretty impressive backlist. I may have to try one of his novels, next.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Little Men," by Louisa May Alcott

Yeah, sequels are rarely as good as the original story.

I could pretty much end my review of Little Men (the sequel to the classic Little Women) right there, but despite the fact that Little Men is nowhere near as interesting or well-written as the book that came before it, it is still a remarkably interesting book for its time.

Little Men chronicles the adventures of one year at Plumfield Academy, the school Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer founded at the end of Little Women. You'd think this would be interesting, and it sort of is, and it sort of isn't.

Plumfield is home to 14 students, plus Jo's sons Rob and Teddy (yes, his name is Teddy Bhaer). Four are the main(ish) characters - Nat, former urchin and violin prodigy; Demi, Meg and John's bookworm son; Tommy, the rascally troublemaker; and Dan - the bad boy street kid with a dark past. Yes, ladies, we have been mooning over angsty brooders for more than a century.

Five of the other boys are vague characters who mainly serve as comic relief or mild antagonists (Jack, Stuffy, Franz, Emil, Ned). Three are the token "special" kids (Dick has a crooked back, Dolly has a stutter, and Billy is mentally disabled) who are mentioned very rarely and never without some combination of the adjectives "poor," "feeble," and "valiant."

Strangely enough, the "quadroon" student Jo and Fritz boasted of so smugly at the end of Little Women is nowhere to be found. Suspicious, that.

Lastly, two of the students are girls - Daisy, Demi's twin sister, and "Naughty Nan," who is AWESOME. More on that later.

The main reason this book didn't work for me was the youth of the characters. While the main children are comparable in age to the March sisters at the start of Little Women, they act much younger. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they reside in a school environment where they are constantly reminded that they're children, while the March sisters had to grow up rather fast to survive while their father was away.

Alcott also wastes an awful lot of scenes chronicling the cutesy fan-servicey adventures of the March sisters' children, most of whom are under the age of 5. Lots of tears, chubby fists, and baby talk. Imagine reading a Facebook friend's posts about their two-year-old, only instead of a post, it's like 40% of a novel. So most of the episodes read as very childish.

Little Men, as a whole, feels strangely directionless. It's "a year in the life," separated into little episodes and vignettes, with no real goal or point. The closest the novel comes to an arc is the Bhaers' attempt to tame Dan - a defiant and obviously troubled boy who wants help as much as he fears to ask for it. The Bhaer's conflicting hopes and fears for Dan (hope that he might be brought around, fear that his violence might affect the other children) are powerful, as is Dan's slowly unfolding trust for them. It's the strongest subplot in the novel, and I honestly wish we had more of it.

On the positive side, Plumfield gives Alcott an excuse to rhapsodize at length about how best to educate boys and girls, and her ideas (considering her time period) are bold, progressive, and feminist. For instance, a huge emphasis is placed on individual study - some kids learn at different paces, and that's okay! Rote memorization will not help a young, eager brain to learn (rather laughably, mentally handicapped Billy's backstory is that he literally studied so hard his brain gave out). As well, Alcott preaches a balance between book learning and practical, hands-on knowledge (the boys are encouraged to explore and collect their frogs and snails and puppy dog's tails).

Even better, Jo decides to make Plumfield co-ed by inviting local girl "Naughty Nan" to board with them and study with Daisy (who's at Plumfield to be close to her brother). Jo theorizes that having boys learn alongside girls will encourage them to moderate their behaviour and respect women more. FANCY THAT.

Alcott also demonstrates many feminist themes in her treatment of Daisy and Nan. Daisy fits the more conventional model of Victorian femininity - she's gentle and sweet, loves to cook and clean and pretends to mother her dolls. Nan is the wild child - running and racing and challenging the boys, voraciously interested in science and the outdoors. Neither child is shamed or depicted as the "bad one" for what they want out of life. Nan is "naughty" because of her behaviour, not because of her desires.

Oh, and did I mention? Jo sees Nan's interest in science, biology, and medicinal herbs and encourages her to study to be a DOCTOR. IN 1871 NEW ENGLAND. Because JO MARCH-BHAER IS AWESOME. I just about flew up out of my chair reading that part.

So while Little Men doesn't tell as interesting of a story as Little Women did, it's still a fascinating look into the mind of a 19th century feminist and her idea of what the ideal school would be like. While some of her ideas and themes are problematic when seen in a modern context (especially her depiction of disabled people), the amount of stuff she got right is still encouraging.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Learning to Love "Little Women" Again

There are three stages to reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

Stage One is when you read it for the first time because your mother bought it for you, usually around the ages of 12-13, and you love it. Because there's Jo - who's awkward and a tomboy and a writer and likes books just like you! And has sisters who love/annoy her, just like you! And has a totally cute next door neighbour who she loves and this is where the comparison ends because you would TOTALLY marry Laurie, what the HELL were you thinking, Jo? He's rich and half-Italian and a musician and looks vaguely like Christian Bale! Instead she marries some random old dude (HE'S FORTY) with a beard that you just KNOW is worse than Laurie's terrible Rejection-Goatee from the movie. 

Also, Amy is the worst and Beth is weird.

Stage Two is when you read it as a smart, sophisticated, cynical intellectual (between the ages of 19-23) because you remember loving it as a kid, and are surprised by how much you hate it. Good Lord, did you actually love this novel at one time? Everything is sugary and preachy and condescending, and a March girl is always sewing or darning something in literally every scene ever. That's Beth over there, embroidering a handkerchief as Amy falls through the ice. I'm almost positive Meg managed to tat some lace while she was wearing high heeled shoes and sipping champagne like a godless harlot while Laurie looked on in Righteous Patriarchal Disapproval. This time around, you can only stand about a hundred pages of Marmee's cheesy moralizing, creepy Beth with her broken doll hospital and Foreshadowings of Death, and Amy being The Literal Worst before you slam the book shut and write the novel off as something that just doesn't age well.

Stage Three is when you pick it up again in your late twenties. Partly for nostalgia. Partly to make a few more jokes at its expense (for you haven't completely outgrown your cynical I'm So Clever phase). This is the stage where you stop pausing to point out the things that haven't aged well (it takes place in the 1860s, remember) and rediscover the parts that remain stunningly timeless. When you read it as a girl, you loved and remembered it primarily as a book about girls, and as a Cynical Teen you couldn't even read past the girl part. It's Stage Three when you rediscover what this book has to say about women.

In case you are unfamiliar or would like a reminder, Little Women is about four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March) who live in genteel poverty in 1860s New England. The first half of the novel deals with the sisters and their mother (Marmee) eking out a living on their own while the March patriarch is off serving as a chaplain in the army. With their male anchor away at war, these five women work tirelessly together - not only to support themselves financially (both Meg and Jo work full-time jobs), but also emotionally.

Poverty is a big issue in this novel, and during Stage Two, I dismissed this first half as a simplistic sermon on how "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." During Stage Two, I saw the Marches as this judgy family that repeatedly hammered home how much better they were then those Godless Immoral Rich People because they relied on their Pure Christian Love and not filthy, filthy lucre.

Reading in Stage Three gave me a completely different interpretation. It wasn't, "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." The Marches don't have a choice between poverty and wealth. They're poor, full stop. It's not about how being Poor makes them Better, it's how they struggle and fight to be Better despite being Poor. A good chunk of the novel's first half deals with the girls battling the incursions of envy, greed, despair and bitterness that come from being poor. Especially Meg. One of the details I missed during previous readings was that the March family used to be rich, and Meg, as the eldest sister, has the clearest memories of what their lives used to be like before disaster struck. This informs so much of her character - her conflicted feelings about wealth and status continually influence her life and her eventual marriage, and Alcott portrays these feelings as natural without slighting Meg's ultimately virtuous character.

The second half of the novel deals with the girls growing into women, mustering and altering their lives' ambitions, and learning how to deal with the men in their lives. While I recognize the book is a product of its time, I was nevertheless astounded and delighted by the strong and amazingly relevant themes about feminism and art I took away from this novel. Marmee trains all her girls to be independent - to value hard work, to develop useful skills, to maintain a moral compass, with or without a husband. She'd rather her daughters be happy old maids than unhappy wives.

Meg learns that even a happy marriage has hiccups (hilariously still-relevant hiccups) that need to be resolved with open communication and understanding. My favourite scene is when Meg, a new mother, has to be cajoled into letting her husband John look after the kids because she deserves some personal time. Imagine that.

Jo's storyline remains my favourite, and now that I'm an author, too, it's great fun to recognize how little has changed about being a writer. Jo struggles with the morality of writing immoral garbage (gasp! Genre fiction!) because the pay is good, handles an editor's notes on her manuscript, reacts to conflicting reviews (GoodReads would destroy her), and learns that life has to be lived before it can be written about.

Moreover, now that I've reached Stage Three, I actually understand why Jo doesn't go for Laurie.

SURPRISE: Laurie's a Bit of an Asshole.

Little Women is all about girls growing up, and Laurie and Jo's bromance perfectly demonstrates the distinction between friendships formed in childhood and adult romantic relationships. Mature romantic relationships require a bit more than simply Liking Someone a Lot, and to say this in a Victorian novel?  This is huge. Jo and Laurie are brilliant friends, but they're both rambunctious and impulsive and bring out the impulsiveness in each other. It's hilarious when they're kids because it gets them into entertaining scrapes, and their siblings and relatives are always close at hand to yank them back when they skirt too close to the cliff's edge. But as adults, anything more than friendship between them would be a hot-ass mess.

I get it now. Great job, LMA.

One of Jo's most important lessons in her artist's journey comes when the simple story she writes to deal with Beth's illness and death winds up phenomenally more successful than all her sensationalist gothic fantasies put together. Writing something true will ultimately resonate more with readers than writing something that's merely clever. Imagination is important, but the stuff that you write has to have an emotionally honest foundation to stick around long enough in people's minds.

That's what I got from Little Women - when I first read it as a child, I revelled in discovering a young heroine who was so much like me. Reading it now as an adult, I feel the same way - I just relate more to second-half Jo, who struggles with her writing and her sisters' successes and wonders what she's going to do with her life and what choices she needs to make to speed up the process. Once I put down my Horn-Rimmed Glasses of Irony, I rediscovered the emotional truth of Little Women that's made it such a perennial favourite.

If you haven't read Little Women in a while, maybe it's time to pick it up again. The results just might surprise you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Learned to Wake Up and Smell My Laurels

You've probably heard the expression, "resting on your laurels." It means to milk a singular success instead of going out and succeeding some more.

But is there the opposite of that expression? "Downplaying your laurels"? "Hiding your laurels in a tasteful floral arrangement"? "Those aren't really laurels, that's just a Christmas wreath you stole from the sales rack at Target"?

Last August, I actually won some laurels I'd been searching for my whole life. My debut fantasy-romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, was published by Entangled Romance. And for one hot month I was wearing 100% laurel-woven tunics and eating laurel salad and drinking laurel smoothies.

I'd done it, I was an author. I had reached the Mount Olympus of artistic achievement, and it was time to drink ambrosia, abduct Greek maidens and commit incest in a variety of impractical animal forms with the other mighty wordsmiths who had come before.

And yet, the more time passed, the less I believed in what I had done. It wasn't that I stopped bragging (although I did, because the world kept turning after I achieved Literary Immortality and I'm not a dick). It was that my brain started reverse-bragging.

It's one thing to not brag about an achievement because it's not relevant to the current conversation.

It's another thing to retroactively dismiss a legitimate achievement. Some months after Duke came out, when people asked about my book, I'd talk about it - and then I'd find myself apologizing. Adding some sort of explanation to it. Just to make sure they didn't get the wrong idea.

"Oh, I had a book published - but it's only in ebook form."

Or, "My book came out - but it didn't sell very many copies. My mom bought a lot."

Or, "My book was published by Entangled - you've probably never heard of them."

Or, and this makes me really kick myself, "I do have a book out - *apologetic smile* - it's a romance."

Let me back up for a moment. I grew up as one of those quirky kids who, despite not being an habitual liar, was always afraid of being thought a liar. I've always been paranoid of people not believing me. It's resulted in a pathological reluctance to take sick days ("what if my boss thinks I'm faking?"), return retail items ("what if they think I actually wore it?"), or demand refunds ("what if the malfunctioning coin-laundry company thinks I'm trying to scam money from them?").

For some reason, when I told people I was an author, it felt like I wasn't telling the truth. Or at least, the whole truth. I wasn't really an author. Entangled was a small publisher, and they probably published everybody. My book was only a step above self-published. It was a nobody book at a nobody publisher - what the hell was I doing, telling people I was an author? Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author. Robin Hobb is an author. I'm just a schmuck.

What the hell? Why was I thinking those things? Why was I downgrading my achievements in front of people who asked about my book?

First of all - Entangled is a fantastic publisher with a rapidly growing reader base and a diverse stable of authors. They do not accept "just about everybody." I would know - I interned there for over a year. I read their slush pile. And their best authors sell tens of thousands of copies.

....and, okay, I didn't make it that far. But I checked my sales stats and I know as an empirical fact that I've sold more copies than my mother could possibly justify buying. Which means that strangers I'd never met - of sound mind (hopefully) and of their own free will - liked the idea of my book enough to buy it and read it. And a lot of them liked it and wrote great reviews! That means something!

Moreover, when I attended the Words in 3D Conference in my hometown this weekend, I was strongly reminded just how tough it can be to break into publishing. People who have been writing their whole lives and have slogged through hundreds of writer's cons and writing groups and author seminars are still fighting for that dream.

At my workplace, I had someone from a different department reveal to me they've been trying to write and publish a novel for ten years. AND I STILL FELT EMBARRASSED, like I had cheated on a test and won the scholarship that the struggling genius working two jobs should have received.


Wow, I am a schmuck.

Hubris can be fatal and arrogance is unattractive (unless you're a sexy, swarthy Duke with a dark past, of course!), but everyone needs to have pride in something. And maybe pride needs to be nurtured.

I don't know why I've felt this way about my book. Maybe it's because I'd dreamed for so long about Becoming An Author, and embellished the Ultimate Glory of that Achievement in my mind for so many years. When it finally happened and Hugh Jackman and Channing Tatum failed to materialize at my door on a tandem bicycle holding my You Did It! Trophy, I suppose that caused my brain to tell me that I hadn't really "made it" yet.

This is sort of true. Publishing your first book isn't the end of the road - it's just a super awesome rest stop where you can replenish your self-confidence and creativity. You're never going to reach that "Made It" plateau where you can stop and the world's accolades will just come to you. When I was a teen I just assumed once a publisher took on your first book they were contractually obligated to publish you forever, like a Random Penguin imprinting on its mother. You were now an Author, and your publisher had only to bask in your radiance and provide offerings of royalties and deckled page editions. This is not true. Like, at all.

No one likes a braggart, and I'm not supposed to rest on my laurels. But I need to remind myself every now and then to smell the laurels. To remind me they're real. That I did win them. That I worked really hard and had a lot of fun and was rewarded. That I am special and talented.

I am an author. I was published. I even made royalties! But now it's time to get back to writing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Guy in Real Life," by Steve Brezenoff

Okay, so I'm going to start this review with two warnings:

Warning the First: I had no interest in reading this book, no desire to pick it up at all, and the only reason I did was because it's FYA Book Club's April pick. So I may have gone into it with a bit of resentment at being "forced" to read it.

Warning the Second: I ended up skimming this novel sometime after the halfway mark.

But guys, this book sucked.

It starts out with an interesting idea - after black-clad metalhead Lesh gets grounded by his parents for coming home drunk from a concert, he gets suckered into signing up for a World of Warcraft-style MMO by his nerd friend, Greg.

Lesh initially signs up as a meathead orc warrior at Greg's behest, but is soon bored - until he decides to create a female elf healer because the avatar reminds him of a new girl at school that he can't get off his mind. Of course, it's not long before Lesh realizes that other players treat him differently when they think he's a girl. But for some reason, he really enjoys embodying a female character on a vast fantasy adventure.

Meanwhile, the girl he's crushing on, Svetlana, is an anti-social artist who's heavily invested in tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons gaming. She starts hanging out with him when she realizes he can help her shake an infuriatingly persistent (and unwanted) suitor, but starts realizing there's more to him than meets the eye.

Doesn't this sound good? Nope. I decided to make a list of the things that annoyed me - and it's a long one.

1. This book isn't finished. It throws out a bunch of ideas like so much spaghetti at a refrigerator, but it doesn't stick around to clean any of it up or explore it in any depth. Lesh's adventures as a female character, Svetlana's attempts to keep her D and D club at school from being disbanded, Lesh's fracturing relationship with his truly hateful "friend" Greg, and Svetlana's increasing disgust and frustration with unwanted male attention - none of it gets resolved in a meaningful way. Maybe the real ending will come out in a future DLC?

2. Svetlana is primarily treated as Obsession!Bait. Almost every major male character in the novel is obsessed with her. There's family friend Fry, who becomes increasingly violent and bullying towards her (and her friends!) when she refuses his advances. There's Abraham, who quits the D and D club because ... she dates someone else, thereby refusing his advances. There's a Creepy Online Stalker who targets her and sends her weird gifts because he confuses her for the character Lesh plays online (for reals). Her storyline is focused almost entirely on how all these dudes are obsessed with her and make decisions of varying levels of inappropriateness because she turns them down. I forgetting someone? Oh right - LESH, who's SO obsessed with her from the very first minute that he creates a lookalike avatar of her so he can pretend to be close to her. HOW IS THAT OKAY? The novel never explains this theme - if all these men are irrationally fixated on this one girl, what makes Lesh the "good" one? His plot line is like the G-rated online version of that Buffalo Bill dude from Silence of the Lambs.

Long story short - the most important female character is reduced to a damsel who's constantly beating off hordes of angry thwarted males with her 12-sided die.

3. The actual gamer characters in this book are almost uniformly awful, cliched, shallow, bigoted turds - and the book never explores or deals with it. Yes, some of them need to be turds. This novel's main (if poorly-handled) theme is on sexism in gaming. It's about a tough-looking rocker dude who enjoys playing as a delicate lady elf, but discovers that playing a female character inspires other gamers to behave like total asshats.

Except - Lesh never explores deeper than, "Man, that sucks." Take his "friendship" with Greg - a venomous douchenerd who spits homophobic slurs like a malfunctioning sprinkler. I would have liked to see Lesh actually internalize what Greg says and realize that it's not okay. I would have liked to see him tell Greg off, stand up for himself and reveal Greg for the bully he is. Except - it never happens. Greg throws a mild hissy fit when he finds out Lesh is a G.I.R.L. (Guy In Real Life - get it?) and then vanishes from the novel completely. No resolution. No exploration of theme.

And the depictions of almost all the gamers (with a few exceptions with Svetlana's D and D crew) are laughably stereotyped. They're nerds who are good at math who hunch over their screens with bad posture and bad skin, their hands poised like claws above their keyboards. The only thing missing is a pair of taped-up, thick-rimmed Coke bottle glasses to settle the depiction of gamers firmly back in the 1980s.

4. The description of the MMO itself makes no sense. First of all, the author inserts truly laughable attempts at epic fantasy to describe the world of the game. Brezenoff is no Tolkien. He's not even a Tracy Hickman. Moreover, there are a number of "questionable" events that happen in the game - for instance, poor Lesh gets molested and drenched in beer by a pack of dwarves and needs to be rescued. Um, I'm sorry - are there fantasy games out there where avatars are allowed to rape or sexually assault other player characters? Who would design a game like that?

I get the sense Brezenoff is attempting to highlight the sexism that female players often endure in gaming - but instead of focusing on the very real, very common ways girls are ostracized in games, he decides to make up some exaggerated, cartoonish bullshit that would NEVER HAPPEN in a popular MMO because no game dev in his right mind would put a rape feature in his game unless he wanted to endure a billion lawsuits.

5. Our two main protagonists barely spend any time together.
Seriously, even if the rest of the book had been fine, Guy in Real Life would still have fallen flat because its two romantic protagonists barely talk to each other. Sure, Lesh obsesses over Svetlana all the time, but Svetlana has her own life, and their scenes apart are far more numerous, important, and interesting than their scenes together. I still don't understand what they have in common or how their romance works - and ultimately the whole stalker storyline muddies the waters even further.

My opinion? Avoid this sloppily-plotted, creepy, and ultimately pointless novel in favour of novels that aim for a higher level (ha!) of story telling and theme structure.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

"True Pretenses," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Lady Lydia Reeve. A genteel lady whose family has traditionally held a high political interest in the town of Lively St. Lemeston.
The Rub: Now that her father's dead, her skittish younger brother  is content to let that interest lapse in order to pursue his own desires. And Lydia has no money of her own to maintain her family's influence.
Dream Casting: Isla Fischer.

The Dude: Asher Cohen, a.k.a. "Ashton Cahill." A Jewish con artist on the run with his brother and partner in crime, Rafe.
The Rub: Rafe is tired of their life and wants to go straight, so Ash needs to concoct a truly lucrative swindle to give Rafe safer life options than the army.
Dream Casting: Mark Ruffalo.

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 1 Inconveniently Dead Parent
  • 1 Stolen Baby
  • 1 Plot-Propelling Urchin
  • Several Fake Names
The Word: You know what time it is? TIME FOR ANOTHER ROSE LERNER NOVEL! To set next to In For a Penny, Lily Among Thorns, and Sweet Disorder, we have True Pretenses.

Our novel opens on two brothers, Ash and Rafe, in the midst of escaping after a successful swindle. Orphaned, impoverished, and Jewish, they've eked out their outcast existence through theft, trickery and clever con artistry. However, Rafe (the younger brother) has tired of the game and wants to go straight. His protective older brother, Ash, reluctantly agrees, with one caveat: they must perform one more swindle, to set Rafe up properly for his new life of law abidance. 

Ash travels on ahead to the town of Lively St. Lemeston (the same setting from Sweet Disorder) and discovers low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking: Lady Lydia Reeve. Her highly political father, Lord Wheatcroft, held a heavy interest in Lively St. Lemeston before his sudden death, but his son Jamie now balks at the idea of continuing the tradition. Lydia's determined to hold onto their family's interest until her brother comes to his senses, but the only funds at her disposal come from a trust that will only be released upon her marriage. 

I'll be honest - the set-up to this novel doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's kind of confusing - at first, the brothers plan to offer Lydia access to her trust through a sham marriage to Rafe (in exchange for 3000 pounds) but then Ash wants Rafe and Lydia to marry for realsies because they're so cute together and it'll keep Rafe out of the army. What?


Thankfully, before that ridiculousness can happen, Rafe and Ash get into an argument that ends with their estrangement, leaving Ash to offer himself to Lydia instead. The plot is probably the weakest part of the novel, and the weakest of all Lerner's novels to date. After the initial set-up, the rest of the book is virtually conflict-free until the too-sudden Black Moment at the end. Ash and Lydia get along famously about 99% of the time, with the other 1% devoted to depressing self-examination. 

So why did I keep reading? Despite the fact that there is relatively little drama between Ash and Lydia, their individual characters and habits are fascinating - Lydia's, especially. She is very much a conservative, devoted to maintaining the traditions of the past, suspicious of change, and almost pathologically afraid of showing weakness or negative emotion of any kind. At the beginning of the book, her methods of expression are all but muzzled by her refusal to utter anything that might possibly reflect badly on her father or brother. She has been raised to cater to the needs of others while repressing her own. It becomes a relief to talk to Ash, someone who cannot judge her since his social status is virtually nonexistent.

Ash is a more nebulous character, but perhaps that's intentional. His Jewish identity is important to him (sex with random ladies is a worry because how does one explain the lack of a foreskin?), but otherwise, he's afraid to define himself as anything other than "Rafe's brother." Finding and committing to an identity is a new experience for him. He's a con man without an emotional off-switch. His success at conning developed from his ability to empathize with and draw closer to the rubes he fleeced, leaving him incapable of trusting other people's emotions - and his own, least of all. Does he really enjoy Lydia's company? Or is he just desperate to be liked, because likeable people get what they want? The only emotional stability he's ever preserved is his love for Rafe, and without him, he's adrift.

The enormous status gulf between Lydia and Ash is also entertaining as it allows for a thorough examination of privilege. Ash was no Dickensian urchin - his past involves theft, graverobbing, fencing, and sex work. The contrast between the protagonists is especially potent because their childhoods were superficially similar - both Lydia and Ash were motherless children unfairly thrust into parental roles over their younger siblings. However, the vast difference in their upbringings and environments invites interesting comparisons, most especially in how they've learned to lie to other people.

At the same time, even as Lydia's pampered upbringing is contrasted and compared, her own feelings of dissatisfaction, grief and loneliness are not invalidated just because she's wealthy.

While True Pretenses is not the strongest of Rose Lerner's novels when it comes to plot, it's still a refreshing, pleasantly entertaining read.