Sunday, May 31, 2009

Green Man Review Update

To those who are interested in fantasy as well as romance, my review of Laini Taylor's Dreamdark: Silksinger appears in this week's edition of The Green Man Review.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Critic's Attitude

This is the follow-up to my previous post, The Author's Attitude. My last post turned out to be very long and very satisfying to write - I vented my own anger at being sniped at by authors who didn't care for my reviews, and I also explored my own insecurities when being criticized for my writing. It's easy to point out the absurdity of someone trying to contradict another's opinion. I'm not the first to comment on how writers flip out over reviews and I won't be the last.

A harder topic to discuss would be the Critic's Attitude, and the responsibility a critic has when reviewing a book, because critics have two large and seemingly impenetrable defenses against backlash - Free Speech and Free Opinion. Namely, "I have the right to write whatever I want" and "I have the right to feel whatever I want." I support these rights and believe every human being should have them, but sometimes people can be so busy slavishly clinging to the defense of these rights that they're blind to the ways these rights can also be abused.

Writing is power - both for the author who can transport the reader to a wonderland of imagination, and for the critic who can persuade, cajole, warn, and sway readers around to her way of thinking. As a certain superhero's mentor once said, "With great power, comes great responsibility." You have an immense amount of power as a critic - but while you are entitled to write whatever you please, you also have to take responsibility for what you've written and the affect it can have on other people.

There was a discussion on Katiebab's Babbling About Books page a few months ago about a reviewer who was told that publishers didn't want her to review their books anymore (and therefore didn't want to send her any more ARCs) because authors thought her reviews were insulting and unprofessional. The initial response was "a publisher's denying a critic because they write negative reviews! INJUSTICE!" but as the situation was revealed at greater length the discussion evolved into "what constitutes unprofessional?" Was this just another situation where the meaning of unprofessional was defined by an upset author who thought the critic was a big meanie for hurting their poor little literary baby? Or was this a case where the authors and publishers considered the critic's reviews - reviews that were published on an established review site (instead of of a personal blog) - unprofessional because she used exaggerated and aggressive language for comedic effect instead of focusing on strictly reviewing the work?

This was a difficult argument and one I couldn't easily pick a side for. I, for one, love using creative language in my negative reviews (I once described a terrible book as "the literary equivalent of a sack of burning cat hair"). Coming up with what to say for a negative review makes up for having to read a terrible book in the first place. My intention isn't to hurt the author, but to vent my own frustration and anger and disgust and displeasure at reading something that truly failed to engage me.

But is there a right way and a wrong way to review? While I still believe there are no "wrong" opinions, I do believe that there are wrong ways to express those opinions - ways that defeat the point of reviews in the first place. But these ways aren't as clear-cut to me as my objections to author responses - in many ways the lines are blurred, because the definition of "insulting," "unprofessional," or "threatening" varies depending on the eye of the beholder. As mentioned in my previous blog post, many authors feel threatened or insulted by reviews simply because they are negative.

I think when it comes to the responsibility of a critic, there isn't so much a list of rules to follow rather than a mantra, a motto, that a critic should bear in mind when they set out to review something. To me, that mantra is:

Sounds simple, doesn't it? I can almost hear the chorus of "duh"s.

But consider what you aren't doing, by reviewing - and only reviewing - a book (and only a book!):

Just as it's a big no-no for an author to take a review personally - you shouldn't make a review personal. Under no circumstances should you critique or make fun of an author's appearance, secondary profession, family, political affiliations, sexual preference, religion or personal life in your review. I repeat: You are reviewing a book. Everything else about the author is irrelevant. Now, that doesn't always mean that comments about what an author does outside of the book you are reading have no place in a review at all - for instance, if the novel goes into great detail about, say, horse breeding and you find out the author grew up raising horses on a ranch and you want to mention that, that doesn't sound too bad to me, because you are using that to explain the book. That you are reviewing.

You are allowed to critique and point out the bad things you think the author did with the book that you are reviewing, but anything else should be off limits. For instance, my review for Fern Michaels' Fool Me Once (I linked to it above with, uh, the "cat hair" comment) is one of the most vehement I've ever written, because I honestly believe that book is an appalling waste of wood pulp and ink. In my review, I'm very passionate and adamant about how much I hate the book - I consequently say that Fern Michaels has bad characterization skills, a poor grasp of the proper definitions of English words, and a ridiculously awful sense of pacing - as they relate to her creation of the book. That I reviewed. If you read the review, you will notice that I do not mention anything about Fern Michaels that does not relate to the book. I don't accuse her of being an obese overweight failure who lives alone with her dogs. I don't surmise that she writes her books with the blood of innocent Christian babies. I don't even accuse her of having morning breath. Because that's not my job as a reviewer.

Similarly, as a critic you have a responsibility to recognize the difference between hating a book and hating an author. In all likelihood, you haven't met these authors in person and consequently have no idea what kinds of people they are. You shouldn't hate Johanna Lindsey because she wrote a book you didn't like. However, if she runs over your grandma with her minivan, well, then I guess it's open season but that's not very likely and it won't involve your responsibilities as a reviewer.

This point ties into the conflation some critics make between hating the art and hating the artist that I mentioned above. I recently got into a discussion with a commenter on my blog over the letter grade of one of my negative(ish) reviews. The commenter insisted that I should have given the book a worse grade than I did, that I shouldn't be "afraid" to grade lower, and that as a reviewer it is my job to "punish" the author - as this commenter put it, the author "obviously" must have realized what she was doing wrong with the book, and that for her "mistake" she should be "punished for her own good" so that she can "learn her lesson."

It disturbed me that there are critics out there that hold to this idea. Just as an author sometimes needs to be reminded, "It's just a bad review, dude," as a critic you should remember, no matter how much you may have hated a book - it's just a fucking book. It wasted a few days of your time - it didn't murder your father and rape your mother. The author who wrote this book violated no governmental laws (grammatical laws? Whole different story...) and isn't subject to criminal prosecution.

Passing judgement on the author is not your job. Why? Because! You are reviewing a book. That task entails reading a book, identifying what did or didn't work for you and expressing your opinions and feelings in an articulate manner. While some authors may definitely read your negative review and take it as a literary spanking, that is not your purpose. You are not writing this review for the author. You are writing this review for yourself and your readership - the intention behind your reviews should never involve the author's reaction or feelings. This should be the case even if the review is positive, because ultimately you don't write a positive review because you want to make an author feel good or because you like an author - you write a positive review because you liked the book. Simple as that.

Continuing on that note: you, as a critic, are free to suggest that your readers buy a book you enjoyed, or refrain from buying a book you disliked. Your status as a book critic gives you the opportunity to suggest what action to take for or against a book, depending on how you reviewed it. But remember, (say it with me now!): You are reviewing a book. Anything outside that book you are reviewing is entirely, completely, and unarguably outside your perview. You are not entitled to initiate or request that actions be taken for or against the author based on your opinion of their book.

This means you should never threaten an author or encourage others to do so in your reviews. Most reasonable critics know this and believe it goes without saying, but I feel it's necessary to explain how the mistake of forgeting a book critic's basic function (Hangman! Y_ _ _re rev_e_ _ _ _ _ b_ _ k) is what eventually leads to the review that crosses a line. And even then it's less clear-cut than the faux-pas an author can make - authors or concerned readers who think they should comment or take action against a review that they believe is truly offensive and threatening might feel helpless against the seemingly unassailable walls of Free Speech and Free Opinion. But in the same vein, an author who stands up for a review they dislike - how objective are their objections to the review?

It's a thorny tangle, but ultimately I think both authors and critics, writers both, need to remind themselves of their responsibilities. In the author's case, she needs to remember that she is responsible for the books she writes - not other people's reviews or other people's feelings, so it isn't her place to try and "correct" them or to insult them for expressing an opinion that differs from her own. Similarly, the critic needs to remember that she is responsible for reviewing a book, and that she should restrict the subjects she discusses in her review to those with direct relevance to the book.

As I wrote this, I opened another window and checked out Dear Author, one of my favourite websites - and discovered they posted something similar (dang?). Feel free to go and check that out, too.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Author's Attitude

Over at the All About Romance Blog, I came across a story about how an author in Russia managed to successfully sue a critic who'd given his book a bad review. He claimed that the negative review gave him health problems and caused his family mental anguish, and was awarded $1000 by the court. Cue "In Soviet Russia, Book reviews YOU" jokes. The blog entry continues to discuss not only the dangerous precedent this could set, but both the responsibility a critic has when writing a review as well as an author's responsibility when responding to reviews, which prompted me to make a post of my own.

I've encountered examples of bad behaviour on both sides of this issue - the author's and the critic's. Granted, I have more experience with the bad ways authors can react to reviews, but recent comments on my blog and others have shown me that a critic has a responsibility to maintain a certain attitude as well. I was going to do both the Author's Attitude and the Critic's Attitude in one post, but the Author's part turned out to be way longer than I expected, so the Critic's Attitude shall come later.

The Author's Attitude:
I can tell you first off that, yes, I have received negative responses from authors (or "anonymous" people who take my reviews suspiciously personally). In almost every case, they follow the same pattern of knee-jerk behaviour that demonstrates that, for the most part, the biggest objection they have to my review is that it is negative. So allow me to offer a guide (based on my own personal experiences of the responses I've received) to authors who read reviews they disagree with:

A critic can hate your books without hating you. In most cases, the critic has never met you and never will. Critics don't know what you look like, or how you walk your dog, or how you like to chew on pencils before you write with them. They are not reviewing you, they are reviewing what you write. Furthermore, a negative review does not demonstrate the critic's intent to hurt you, nor does it encourage others to do so. To put it plainly, a negative review is not, by definition, a personal attack on you. That's not to say that some few reviewers don't abuse their right to free speech, but in the vast, VAST majority of cases, a negative review simply means a critic didn't like your book. It doesn't mean they think you are a terrible human being and want to burn down your house and kick your dog.

From a writer's perspective, I'll admit that my first reaction to negative criticism is to feel angry and hurt. That's perfectly understandable. But give it a few days. Letting some time and distance come between you and reading that review should give you a sense of perspective. You can still think the critic is dead wrong about your writing, but after a few days (and some chocolate and comfort reading, heh), you can come back to yourself and remember that bad reviews, like rejection letters, are just a fact of life.

From a critic's perspective, I can tell you that I don't hate any of the authors whose books have received low grades from me. When I go to RWA Nationals, I'm not going to spit in Fern Michaels' face or punch Susan Mallery in the throat or push Barbara Pierce down a flight of stairs. They're probably very nice people. Not to mention they are authors who love to write romance - and that's something we have in common. ^_^

This ties into responding to negative reviews as if they are personal attacks - many authors who answer negative reviews try to give a little "tit for tat" and attack the critic right back, by insulting their occupation, fashion sense, appearance, or any other aspect of their personal life that is totally and completely irrelevant to their review. Do not do this. This makes you look like a jackass, because you will be the one making this argument personal, not the critic.

From a writer's perspective, I've felt petulant and childish over negative criticism. I shared a writing class once with a goth dude who wore eye-liner, studded boots, and a smelly black trenchcoat. I disliked him. I remember thinking when he gave me a negative criticism about one of my stories - Oh yeah? At least I don't dress like a fucking vampire. But I didn't say so - why? Because he was criticising the pacing of my story, not how disgustingly clean and colour-coordinated my outfit was. If I'd said my comment out loud, I would have looked like the idiot, not him.

From a critic's perspective, I had an author (or at least an "anonymous" letter written by someone who took my negative review as personally as the author would) snootily comment about my "little job filing books at a library" (I was briefly a materials processing assistant for my university library, as mentioned in my bio on the Green Man Review page), and I could almost picture him/her smirking at the audacity of such a peon reviewing their work. Riiiiight.

This is one of the most irritating faux-pas you can make in a response to a negative review, and also one of the most irritatingly common. Almost every very single negative response I've received has included this argument. A lot of the time it involves the previous faux pas of getting personal with the critic by insulting the fact they haven't been published yet. Authors often, however, imply that since the critic is not a published author, the author's writing is so superior to the critic's own that the critic is entirely unqualified to offer a negative opinion of it.

The main error in this argument is that it is fundamentally hypocritical. While unpublished drudges are pathetically unworthy of reviewing your books - you don't have any objection to them buying and reading your books. If you divided the world's population into Published and Unpublished, the Unpubbed would outnumber the authors tens of thousands to one. If the only people allowed to read books were published authors, well, authors would be making even less money than they already do. And no author wants that. The more readers, the better!

Basically, belittling your critic for their lack of published work preaches the idea that "anyone and everyone should read my books - but unless you're published you should keep your big mouth shut." Let me tell you, when authors engage in public spats with critics and use this argument, the general public tends to react badly. I dunno, I guess they have a problem with an author who wants their readership but doesn't think their opinions matter.

News flash: every single person who reads your book is qualified to review it. The only things a critic needs are: 1) first-hand knowledge of your book gleaned from personally reading it, and 2) the ability and means to express his or her opinion of it. Because that's what reviews are: opinions. Of course, it certainly helps the casual reader if the critic has some writing ability because then the opinions are fun to read and simple to grasp, but a publishing credit is not the sole indication of writing ability.

Hell, you'd think authors would prefer the writers of their negative reviews to be unqualified - if critics were truly bad writers, they'd have a harder time conveying their dislike of the books and thereby convincing other people they suck! It's hard for an author to maintain a position that their work is above the opinions of the vulgar masses when they are selling their work to the vulgar masses.

From a writer's perspective, I will readily admit that I've felt the knee-jerk impulse to prove my superiority over a critic of my work. In one example, I had a writing class with an older woman whose writing I thought was terrible. Poorly plotted, typos all over the place, and so grammatically incorrect I initially wondered if English was her second language (it wasn't). The first time the group sat down together to critique my work, I was strongly inclined to ignore everything she had to say. "What could she possibly offer?" I scoffed (inwardly, thank God). "She can't even write, herself! I'm ten times the writer she is, how dare she!" But I had to realize a lot of her comments made sense and improved my work - her skills as a writer weren't necessarily indications of her comprehension skills as a reader.

From a critic's perspective - well, I think opinions are opinions, and the critic's job is to express those opinions, and I get antsy with authors who think they hold the velvet rope to the club where "truely qualified" critics get to slam their work. Because, consider it this way - have any of you come across an example of an author questioning the qualifications of someone who praised their work? Thought not. I'm guessing the "truly qualified" club is really a party of one (the author herself, as her own worst critic, natch).

And now we have what comes after the author's accusation that the critic is unqualified - the amazingly original conclusion that the critic writes angry, stupid, wrong things about your work because they are secretly jealous of you and want you to be as miserable and dissatisfied as they are. If the previous argument is arrogant and hypocritical, this argument is just plain childish. Think of the Gretchen Wieners character from Mean Girls - the one who "apologizes" for making all the other girls feel jealous of her. And that's what it is - accusing an opponent of jealousy is the high school Mean Girl argument: it makes you look conceited and immature. Again, like all the other arguments, this is a defense mechanism. Understandably, the author wants to save face and invalidate the critic's argument by suggesting the critic has an alterior motive that makes the author look better in comparison. But it doesn't!

From a writer's perspective, I don't have much to say on this argument. I've never thought that people who criticised my work might be jealous. I've just never thought that way - then again, I was the kind of girl who was picked on by the Mean Girls, so maybe that's it.

From a critic's perspective, I hate this argument. Why? Because essentially it's an expression of the old adage, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. Those who can do neither, become critics." It's a belief held by artists of all kinds - writers, directors, painters - that the life of a critic is a cold, pathetic existence. That critics are lonely, untalented losers. That being a critic isn't a choice or a vocation, but the dreaded last resort for bitter, unsuccessful wannabes. I will tell you this up front, right now: I love being a critic. I chose to be a critic. I've had my book reviews in (e-)print for five years now, and I get paid nothing for my blog or my work at The Green Man Review. I do it because I love it, not because I'm spiteful, not because I want the authors who were published before me to suffer, and I hate people who imply that I do. I'm a writer who loves to read and loves to tell people about what I read and thanks to the Internet I get to do it!

I also love reading other people's reviews - comparing notes between what I think and what another critic thinks, learning new perspectives, learning what narrative elements work for me and what doesn't. I've learned so much over the last few years, I can honestly tell you that I believe my work as a critic has made me a better writer, overall.

Why? Ultimately, because it doesn't make a difference. That's not to say I don't appreciate the work that goes into writing a novel (oh God it's so much work), but the amount of work put into your novel isn't relevant to the review. The critic reviews the final product, and the final product is what matters. Think of it this way - I'm sure the lighting technicians and costume designers worked their butts off on the set of Gigli, but that doesn't make that movie any more entertaining to watch.

From a writer's perspective - I can understand the frustration. My novel's taken an age to get off the ground. I fully understand an author's disappointment and anger when the novel they've spent eighteen months crafting is torn down by a review that takes four hours to write. But telling the critic how long it took does about as much good as banging your head against a wall.

From a critic's perspective, how is the knowledge of how hard you worked on your novel supposed to affect my review? How am I - how is anyone, really - supposed to tell how many months and years were spent crafting each sentence, polishing each line just by reading the book? The answer: You can't. Not just because it's physically impossible unless you have one of Sylar's psychic powers, but also because everyone writes differently. Some authors take weeks to write a novel - others take decades. To some, beautiful writing and wordplay come easily, while to others it's an exacting task - when the end products are two novels full of beautiful writing, how is one different from the other based on the amount of difficulty involved?

Many authors, when responding to negative reviews, want to support their opinion that their books are awesome by mentioning all the positive reviews their books have already obtained. I once received a snide little note from a YA author saying, "I'm sorry you didn't enjoy my novel - I guess everyone has different tastes. All these other reviewers and teenagers and fans loved it."

The first question that comes to my mind with this argument is - if all these people loved your book, why the hell do you care that one critic doesn't? It's baffling - so many people supposedly love your work, and yet one negative review not only annoys you, but annoys you enough to make you go out of your way to contact them and inform them in no uncertain terms that you are Lit-Rah-Chur Personified. Methinks the author doth protest too much.

Also, this kind of response carries the implication that since the (alleged) majority of reviewers loved your work, the negative critic's review, by being in the minority, is somehow incorrect, biased, or any of the other excuses mentioned above. "Gee, I'm sorry - I must have missed the Universal Critic Memo that told me to love your book unconditionally!" Critics don't get together and decide how to review a book - a critic's review is based on individual opinion. There's almost always going to be one or two people who dislike a book - which again leads me to wonder, Why are you whining about ONE bad review?

From a writer's perspective, I can somewhat understand the temptation of contacting the few bad reviews when everyone else has been positive. It's the drive to have the perfect score, the 10 out of 10 (even with the French judge on the panel), the universal rave. You think, "Everyone else has loved my book except for this one person - maybe they just need a little push, a little reminder, a little explanation. Everyone else fell for my book so easily - surely one little e-mail can tip the scales?"

However, from a critic's perspective I can tell that this doesn't work. From the receiving end of these backhanded responses, I can say that it makes you look arrogant, hoping to intimate a reviewer with superior numbers. It feels like literary peer pressure - "everyone else likes my book, yeah, it's all the rage right now, you don't want to be the one loser geek on the Internet who doesn't - you'd be a total square." All I can do is reiterate that a critic doesn't base their opinion on others - they base it on themselves. Telling them that other people like your book isn't the way to convince them.

I currently publish reviews on two websites - this blog and the e-zine Green Man Review. Since both are unpaid gigs (although GMR staff get free books, hurrah!) and the all the reviewers at Green Man are volunteers, this provides endless excuses for authors to sneer how, "Anyone can be published on the Internet." This argument isn't limited to those who post reviews on the Web - basically any critic who gets a response somewhere along the lines of "No one reads your dinky little journal/small town paper/newsletter/quarterly review, anyway" is a victim of this argument.

My response to this is similar to the argument above - if my publication/website/journal etc. is so tiny and unnoticed, why do you care so much? Your vehement response only undermines your insistance that nobody reads our reviews and what we write doesn't matter - because, obviously, it matters to you - making you care enough to send us an e-mail stating how much you don't care.

From a writer's perspective - well, I'm still a little baffled. While I might tell myself that a publication that panned my book is not worthy of attention, I don't understand where one would acquire the motivation to actually write to them and tell them they're unworthy of attention.

From a critic's perspective, it all comes across as sour grapes. "What? You won't praise my book? Fine, I don't care - nobody reads you anyway." Which leads me to my final and most important advice to writers:


I know, I know - after a ginormously long post about what not to do in an author response, this is my last one? Well, I guess I felt like I had to provide examples of why responding to negative reviews is almost always a guaranteed author FAIL before flat-out telling authors not to respond to negative reviews.

From a writer's perspective, I can tell you that there is very, very little, next to nothing, that you can do to change a critic's opinion after they have read your work. During critique sessions, I argued my point until the cows came home but it couldn't change the fact that what my writing tried to convey just didn't succeed when it mattered.

From a critic's perspective, I concur - once I finish a book, my opinion's pretty much set. I can also tell you that responding in an insulting, negative fashion really isn't going to make your case, either.

You don't need to be an Historical author to understand that a negative review is not the same as calling someone out. You are not honour-bound to challenge a negative critic to a duel. You know what they say about authors who don't say anything about negative reviews? Nothing. Not a thing. Zip. There's a saying, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt." One negative review of your book might convince a few people not to buy your novel, but getting into a messy rant with a critic can do far worse damage because it attracts a lot of attention that almost never reflects well on you.

You do not look weak, you do not look conquered, you do not look cowardly for not responding to a review. Ignoring a critic does not mean the critic "wins" - because it's not a battle! The purpose of a critic isn't to stop books from being sold, but rather to suggest books they like while at the same time explaining why they didn't like the books they panned.

For every critic who pans your book and supposedly costs you readers, there's a critic who loves your book and actually gains you readers who might not have thought to try you before! Authors, I think we all know why the critics who write rave reviews don't receive childish, thoughtless responses like this, responses that are beneath you. Reviews are a fact of life for an author, and you get the good with the bad - the worm with the apple, the rain with the sunshine. You can't slam the negative critics for being critics and doing their job while embracing the positive critics for doing the exact same thing.

Tune in tomorrow (hopefully), for the second half of my long-ass discussion of reviews, when I take a look at the Reviewer's Attitude.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I'm on Twitter!

Yup. I finally signed up. There I can post little things that don't need an entire blog post - such as how I react to novels as I read them, what's interesting about the world today, and other things. Eh, I like it. I'm under AnimeJune - so go look for me there, if you dare!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

It's not Cheating! Also: I hate Pirates

Not really.

Not when you take time to think about it.

I mean, what's really the most damaging about a huge TBR pile? Okaaaay, it's big and takes up a lot of space. I can see the problem with that. Really, I can.

So I made a vow not to buy any books until the RWA Conference.

But - but just think about it. My vow really shouldn't count when it come to authors who I already know are good, because right after the RWA Conference and in the years to come their books are going to end up on my pile anyway. And besides - who knows when their books will go out of print! Then I'd never find them!

Really, my vow should only count towards books by authors I don't know - those are the ones that are totally killer to the TBR pile, because 1) I might end up hating them, or worse - 2) I might end up loving them only to discover they have a MASSIVE BACKLIST.

I mean, I shouldn't have to wait until July to pick up:

I mean, giving my severe Baloghaholism and my raving reviews of all these other authors, it's only inevitable they would end up the TBR anyway, right?

Right? I mean, and since these authors all have backlists, and all of the other TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE TIMES FOR BUYING LOADS OF BOOKS I've done over the last year, it's really just good planning to go out and buy an iRewards membership, right? RIGHT??

So yeah, just reiterating that my no-book-buying vow only concerns books by authors I haven't tried yet.

So Kate Noble, Jennifer Ashley, etc. will just have to wait until RWA Nationals. Doesn't that make the most sense?

ALSO, I felt I should bring this up, given the recent posts giving by Happily Forever After and Ramblings on Romance regarding the DESPICABLE, INEXCUSABLE, DOWNRIGHT SCUMMY book pirating (the unsexy, scurvy-ridden, rape-happy kind of pirating, not the virtuous, smooth-chested sexy Johnny Depp pirating) of romances, that










WHY? Because I truly adore these authors' writing and I know that most authors make diddly and I know that they deserve every penny because they work hard over months and years to make a book I thoroughly enjoy for a week.

If you download books illegally, don't bullshit yourself by thinking you're sticking it to the Fat Cats because most authors MAKING FUCKING BEANS.

If you pirate romance novels, don't bullshit society by saying "books should be free for everybody (oh, and Hugs and Kisses End Wars)" - how would you fucking feel if your employers just stopped paying you because they felt the service you provide in YOUR job isn't worth any money?

If you rip off novels from filesharing sites, don't bullshit me by saying you're strapped for cash. There's a little thing called a USED BOOK STORE, or a LIBRARY BOOK SALE, or, for fuck's sake, there are magical things called LIBRARIES WHERE YOU CAN GET YOUR BOOKS FOR FREE WHILE THE AUTHOR GETS PAID SO EVERYONE WINS.

If you take books from the internet WITHOUT PAYING FOR THEM, you're not only a THIEF, you are a LAZY, CHEAPSKATE THIEF who thinks $12 a YEAR for a library card is TOO DAMN MUCH.

There endeth the rant.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Untouched," by Anne Campbell

Alternate Title: Uninteresting

The Chick: Grace Paget. Penniless and recently widowed, she's drugged and kidnapped by brutal thugs and wakes up on a secluded country estate, where she's informed her task is to entertain and pleasure its imprisoned occupant, the supposedly insane Lord Sheene.
The Rub: Lord Sheene's "guardian" Lord John informs her that if she can't lure Sheene into her bed by the end of the week, her days are numbered. And Lord Sheene, thinking she's his uncle's spy, wants nothing to do with her.
Dream Casting: Zooey Deschanel.

The Dude: Matthew Landsdowne, Marquess of Sheene. After catching a brain fever at the age of fourteen, Matthew was declared insane by his grasping uncle Lord John, who then gained control of the Landsdowne fortune. Ever since, he's kept Matthew imprisoned on an isolated estate and bribed unscrupulous doctors to maintain Matthew's lunacy.
The Rub: After failing to escape for a third time, Matthew realizes that Grace's enforced presence on the estate is his uncle's attempt to get him to surrender and accept his captivity. He doesn't want to give in and let his uncle win, but Grace is just so darn pretty!
Dream Casting: Chuck's Matthew Bomer.

The Plot:
Grace: Wh-what? Where am I?

Filey and Monks: WHORE.

Grace: Won't somebody help me?

Matthew: Wow, you're pretty - I mean WHORE!

Grace: You have to let me out of here!

Lord John: WHORE.

Grace: I'm not a whore!

Lord John: Well, you are now!

Grace: FINE, I'm a WHORE.

Matthew: No you're not! I love you!

Grace: Oh, now you believe me. Crap, I love you, too.

Grace: *escapes* *arranges rescue*

Matthew: You rescued me! I love you!

Grace: I love you too - but WE CAN NEVER BE.

Matthew: ......WTF.

Grace: This novel needs about twenty pages of last minute conflict - just run with it!

One Year Later

Matthew: Enough of your martyring! We're getting married!

Grace: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Virgin Hero

1 Lady with a Tarnished Past

1 Evil Uncle

2 Evil Henchman

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

1 Extreme Comfrey Allergy

Several Slutty Dresses

1 Vicious Rape Attempt

The Word: I picked this book up because the hero sounded intriguing. I'm used to romance heroes being totally oversexed Dukes of Slut, or at least Gold Medalists in the Orgasm Olympics, but with Anna Campbell's Untouched (her second novel after Claiming the Courtesan), our hero's not only a virgin, but a man who has been isolated from women and society in general for eleven years. Frankly, I thought having an isolated hero who has to learn about women for the first time to be a great idea, so I picked up Untouched and gave it a try.

The novel opens just as our heroine, Grace, wakes up from a drugged sleep to find herself strapped to a table. She overhears two thugs coarsely describing her physical assets. One of them paws her a bit, but is warned off by the other, who says she's intended for the marquess. The marquess of whom? Where is she? How did she get there? To Campbell's credit, this opening scene is a grabber for how legitimately frightening it is.

Overhearing the thugs (named Filey and Monks), Grace discovers they believe her to be a prostitute. While on her way to be a poor relation in her cousin's household, she made the mistake of wandering off when her cousin didn't show up at the coaching inn, and consequently got lost. Coming upon her alone in a bad part of town, the thugs assumed the worst, captured her and forced laudanum down her throat.

And now she's strapped to a table. After the thugs leave the room, a beautiful man enters who turns out to be Matthew Landsdowne, Marquess of Sheene. Her pleas for help are met with biting sarcasm, although he does release her from her bonds and treat her with a certain brusque kindness.

It turns out Matthew is as much a prisoner as she is. When he was fourteen, he contracted a brain fever that left him briefly mentally incapacitated - which gave his grasping uncle Lord John an opportunity to have him legally declared insane in order to establish himself as Matthew's guardian and control his estate. Matthew's been imprisoned on this estate ever since, watched over by the vicious thugs, but nevertheless kept alive because his death would cede the title, wealth, and lands out of John's control.

After Matthew's third escape attempt failed spectacularly, his uncle offered to send Matthew a prostitute in order to make him more malleable and accepting of his situation. Therefore, Matthew is convinced that Grace is not only a whore, but a spy in his uncle's employ and wants nothing to do with her. As much as he desperately desires a woman (and the beautiful Grace in particular), he thinks touching her is tantamount to letting his uncle win.

However, as they are both trapped on the estate, they slowly develop feelings for each other. Despite Matthew's insistence that he's mad, Grace sees that he's actually a rather kind, gentle, and intelligent man who's learned to make the most of his situation. Similarly, Matthew finds it increasingly hard to hold onto his conviction that the shy, soft spoken, and trembly Grace is actually a seasoned harlot. It certainly doesn't help that the two are always watched by Filey and Monks who report back to Lord John. And both protagonists soon realize that if Grace doesn't fulfill the whore's job for which she was kidnapped, Lord John will have her killed and replace her with another.

As dark and interesting as this story sounded, I ended up disliking this novel, because the narrative was fueled by four romance tropes I despise, namely 1) a martyr doormat crybaby heroine, 2) hyperbolic language, 3) oodles and oodles of bloated useless sex scenes, and 4) a convoluted plot that can't withstand its own weight.

I'm not saying the narrative doesn't provide a reason for Grace to be afraid, be very afraid. I wasn't bothered by the fact that she's perpetually victimized in this book - rather I was bothered by her whinging, martyr attitude which is half the reason she remains perpetually victimized. If Grace had a motto, it would be, "It's My Fault."

She blames herself for everything. Grace used to belong to a wealthy, titled family but was cast out when she eloped with a fifty-year-old man when she was sixteen (um, ew). She uses this one foolish choice as an excuse to blame herself for everything that goes wrong with her life, her loved one's lives, Matthew's life, etc. It's her fault her brother died in a senseless duel (they'd been out of contact for years, but her elopement surely damaged him so emotionally that he had to turn into a spoiled rake who slept with another man's wife), it's her fault her emotionally manipulative husband's business failed (because she was a bad wife who shouldn't have married him in the first place), and it's her fault Matthew can't give her an orgasm on the first try (because she should have remembered she's a dry frigid eloping failure). I mean, COME ON.

Her belief that she is to blame for everything that's ever gone wrong in the world EVER means she's burdened with an incredibly irritating martyr complex that convinces her she doesn't deserve to have anything nice happen to her, and that anyone with an ounce of intelligence or sense would do well to kick her in her treacherous ovaries and piss on her prostrate body.

As for Matthew - in the first draft of this review, I didn't even mention him, which says a lot. For a character I was expecting to be different and unique, I felt m'eh. He feels a lot of righteous anger and has some justifiable martyr issues of his own after his uncle cruelly punished the people who tried to help him escape the last time, but I didn't really understand what his isolation and imprisonment had contributed to his character. He certainly has no problem speaking to or being around Grace (other than the enormous and constantly tumescent problem in his pants), and his behaviour seems unchanged when around people as opposed to being alone. I didn't buy this and I subsequently wasn't that impressed by him.

On that note, I couldn't really understand the development of the romance, particularly since Anna Campbell describes nearly all of their interactions as being in a haze of crazy uncontrollable lust. Yes, this is one of those romances where the protagonists think with their genitals first, only to conveniently find out later that their hearts are in the same place. In nearly every scene together both Grace and Matthew struggle with the hornies, every moment of which is lovingly described with disappointingly overwrought writing. Everything is throbbing and shredding and rending and burning and tearing and branding and pounding and searing and banging and blazing between them I was surprised neither suffered a stroke.

Basically, Matthew and Grace spend so much time wanting to bang the other I couldn't really see where the love part came in. And they have sex a lot. I've mentioned before my distaste for romances where there are nonstop sex scenes that contribute nothing to the story. Untouched is a prime example. Each sex scene is fully described, each sex scene (except the best one, where Matthew cashes in his V-card) is THE MOST GLORIOUS MIRACLE OF TWO BODIES JOINED, each sex scene flings the protagonists onto a CELESTIAL PLANE OF STARS AND LIGHT (accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra perhaps?), and it got boring really quickly. Did we need all those scenes? Back-to-back???

My eyes nearly rolled up in my head on page 252 where they have fabulous world-changing sex, then immediately afterward Grace decides to try oral and they end up have sex again, and the scene right after is when they wake up and decide to have more sex! Every time is fully described, and since every time is the MOST GLORIOUS MIRACLE etc., there's nothing that any of these three scenes contributes to the story. At all. So we have a 12-page span in the book where nothing happens. GAH! I'm sorry, but trying another position does is not a useful plot point we need to know!

Finally, my last huge complaint about the story is the flimsiness of the central plot - Matthew's confinement. Even though he's confined and constantly guarded 24/7 and isn't allowed to talk to anyone so that he can't prove his sanity - he's still allowed to contribute scientific articles to journals and other botanists under a different name! Who delivered these letters? Why did Lord John allow this? How come Matthew never bothered asking for help in his articles? Matthew obviously has contact with the outside world, so I found it hard to understand why he wouldn't use such communications in an effort to gain his release.

There was also the plot point of Lord John having to keep Matthew alive in order to retain control over his fortune - why? I mean, he's kept Matthew completely out of the public eye - no one's seen the poor chap for eleven years. What was there to keep Lord John from having Matthew quietly killed and simply pretending he was still alive? Who would be there to know the difference? It certainly seemed an awful lot of bother to try to keep Matthew in a prison while at the same time maintaining his will to live.

Now, there were some good points to the book under all the bad. I thought the scene where Matthew loses his virginity was evocatively and realistically portrayed - both with his inexperience and Grace's frustration. I also enjoyed the scene where he uses scientific exploration to discover how to please Grace in return. What a sweetheart! And as much as I disliked the constant lusting after each other the protagonists endured, I appreciated its depiction in Grace and how she has to come to terms with lusting after a man when she still can't quite understand what all the fuss with sex is about.

Mostly, though, I found this book both exaggerated and dull. The story was convoluted, the emotions overplayed, and the romance buried under hyperbolic depictions of glorious-marathon-special-combo-move lovemaking. Better to leave this novel Untouched.

Monday, May 18, 2009

"Fast Women," by Jennifer Crusie

Alternate Title: Secretary
The Chick:
Eleanor "Nell" Dysart. Barely recovered from the destruction of her twenty-two-year marriage, she needs a job, any job, so she accepts an offer to work as a secretary for a detective agency - even though the place is a dump and the sexy senior detective is hell on wheels.
The Rub: Nell immediately starts fixing up the place - and falling for her stick-in-the-mud boss. However, she was the control-freak secretary to her now-ex-husband, too. Is she just repeating her old mistakes?
Dream Casting: Julianne Moore.

The Dude: Gabriel "Gabe" McKenna. He only means to hire Nell until his old secretary, Lynnie, recovers from her strained back. However, his temporary secretary bumps herself up to permanent status by uncovering evidence that Lynnie was embezzling - and older evidence that his dad might have helped cover up a murder.
The Rub: His sexy secretary clearly isn't happy being just the secretary, and takes delight in poking her nose in where she doesn't belong. Can he keep her from interfering in his investigation of his father's dealings - which involve her former in-laws and friends?
Dream Casting: Adrian Pasdar.

The Plot:
Gabe: I need a secretary!

Nell: I'll be your secretary! I can make coffee!

Gabe: That's great.

Nell: I can clean up the place and discover evidence of perfidy!

Gabe: That's fantastic.

Nell: I can repaint your walls and change your furniture and redesign your business cards ...

Gabe: HELL NO.

Nell: I can also rock you like a hurricane in the bedroom.

Gabe: Hell yes!

Nell: ... while redesigning your business cards anyway.

Gabe: But - but...

Nell: *almost killed by murderous fiend*

Gabe: Fuck it - I'm whipped. Let's get married!

Nell: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Dognapping

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

4 Cases of Muuuuuurder

2 Attempted Muuuuurders

1 Romantically Lacklustre Ex

1 Romantically Lacklustre but Really Nice Ex

Several Orders of Vinegar-Flavoured Fries

1 Ugly Couch

1 Set of Hidden Diamonds

Several Sets of Kooky China

1 Frozen Corpse

The Word: Jennifer Crusie novels are like my absolute favourite breakfast food: the Belgian waffle. They look light and fluffy and sweet and delicious - and they are, but they're also surprisingly filling and satisfying. Jennifer Crusie writes romance with substance - and while I don't always enjoy the substance (like Getting Rid of Bradley which was so-so and Anyone But You which was m'eh), I enjoy reading about heroes and heroines who have more going on than "Can I Find the Love of My Life?" but whose problems are still relevant to the developing relationship.

Nell Dysart's life is still a wreck a year and a half after her twenty-two-year marriage to Tim Dysart went up in flames. She spent two decades running her husband's successful insurance agency from behind the scenes, until her husband decided that he didn't love her anymore - divorcing her on Christmas day. While she still owns half of the agency, she has no job and no idea what went wrong.

To show "no hard feelings," her in-laws, the Dysarts, set up a job interview for her with their favourite detective agency, run by Gabe McKenna. It's a successful agency (both Gabe and his cousin Riley are constantly overworked), but the office is falling to pieces and the prospect of becoming a successful office manager again wakes Nell up a bit from her depressive numb funk.

However, her new boss is hard-as-nails, and determined to change nothing about the office. If it was good enough for his dad (who started the agency), then it's good enough for him. He couldn't care less if the furniture is rickety or the carpets threadbare - his clients don't care and neither does he. He makes it clear that Nell is just a secretary, and a temporary one at that. Nell, however, knows what she's doing - within a week, she discovers her predecessor embezzled thousands of dollars from the agency, and a car title that suggests Gabe's dad was in on something shady with the Ogilvie and Dysart law firm.

Jennifer Crusie surprises with a romance in which the hero and heroine are perfect for each other, without their relationship necessarily being perfect. They fight - a lot. It's both good and bad for them, and it's this fine line that fuels the storyline. As one of the secondary characters points out, there are two types of people in the world - those who kiss and those who are kissed, i.e. those who act and those who are acted upon. Both Gabe and Nell are characters who act, and are used to being in control. Both were the Alphas in their previous marriages, and aren't used to compromising. Thus, their battles both damage and strengthen them, and are both painful and necessary.

Nell discovers Gabe's a tougher cookie than she expected. He's unwilling to lie back and let her run the office while he sticks to detective work, the way her ex-husband did with insurance. However, once her awesome managerial skills are flushed out into the open, she no longer has to pretend to be "just the secretary" and let Gabe take all the credit - something that eventually poisoned her marriage when her husband started believing she was just the secretary. With Gabe, she has to wage open warfare to get her opinions heard - but because it's open warfare, she no longer has to hide or disguise how capable she is, and this helps convince herself that she's not and never was "just the secretary."

Gabe, meanwhile, is a character who is pathologically opposed to change. The first scene between Gabe and Nell is hilarious because the office is literally crumbling around them (during their interview alone, Nell manages to break a chair, tear a hole in the carpet, crack a window and break the blinds), yet Gabe vehemently opposes any attempt to change anything. He's too busy to fix or update anything himself, but hates the idea of someone else mucking around with what's his, because that would undermine his own sense of control. However, his interactions with Nell make him more flexible, more adaptable, and bring him out of his rut-thinking.

It's a catharsis for both of them, a much needed challenge to remind them both of where their strengths lie. At the same time, however, as their romance blossoms, they have to tackle how their battles at work overlap with their battles at home. This leads to a fear of repeating their previous mistakes since they are both people who endured bad marriages to people they worked with. Gabe's father married his secretary, and their epic amounts of bickering eventually drove them apart. Gabe's delightfully nutty ex-wife was his secretary as well, and while they share a warm and loving friendship, their marriage didn't last, either. Nell, meanwhile, worries that her attempts to run Gabe's business are really an attempt to regain the same type of life she lived with her ex.

But while Gabe and Nell work out their problems, there's also an incredibly complicated pretzel of a mystery to solve and a stellar cast of multifaceted secondary characters. And oh, those secondary characters. Exes and soon-to-be-exes are often demonized in romance novels to make the protagonists look better, but Jennifer Crusie doesn't fall into that trap, and this novel demonstrates an understanding that you can be a bad spouse without necessarily being a bad person, or at least, a completely bad person.

Along with the Nell-and-Gabe-Mystery-Hour, the plot also gives some time to Nell's ex-sister-in-law Suze and the inevitable decline of her marriage to Jack Dysart, which is mesmorizing in its human complexity. Far be it for me to explain all the details of their relationship (and it is complicated, hoo boy), but while Jack does come out of the experience as the moral inferior, the novel doesn't slack in its portrayal of why Suze married Jack and how their marriage thrived initially. There are realistic reasons for the dissolution of their marriage and it isn't a one-sided deal. Jack is an asshole, but he isn't a monster and Suze wasn't a horribly misled naif in marrying him in the first place.

The same goes for Nell and her realization about her relationship with her ex-husband, Tim. At the beginning of the novel, all she feels is confusion and rage at how everything fell apart, with a lot of blame going on Tim, but as she develops with Gabe and learns more about herself, she develops more insight into what went wrong with her and Tim and - le gasp! - it wasn't all Tim's fault. There's a lovely and poignant scene near the end of the book where Nell reveals to Gabe that her marriage to Tim wasn't a mistake - she loved him and he loved her, and both of them were responsible for why it didn't work out, which was why they weren't the right people for each other - whereas Nell and Gabe are. Both of these hard-headed characters learn how to fight for what's important - as well as the more difficult task of when to give in and compromise before losing what really matters.

With Fast Women, Jennifer Crusie demonstrates how injecting realism into relationships in romance doesn't jeopardize the fantasy aspect. A lot of lesser romances imply that once the hero and heroine are together that they'll never fight (except in "humorous" ways where the woman always wins) or bicker or resent or occasionally hate each other and will always be sunshine and lollipops. By the end of Fast Women, there's no doubt that Nell and Gabe are made for each other - not because they're going to be all smiles all the time for the rest of their lives, but because they've demonstrated that each is strong enough to withstand as well as give in to the other.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

What a wonderful world we live in!

Hugh Jackman is back in theatres.

America has a black president.

And a Joss Whedon show - despite icky initial reviews and terrible ratings - has been renewed for a second season!

All is right with the world.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My Fantastic and Amazing (and yes, Long Overdue) Choir Tour Blog Post!

Hey, readers.

Well, I've been gone for a week, I wrote three reviews, came down with a pretty serious head cold (which is still having its wholly unromantic way with me with a nasty chest cough), and I hunted for some jobs, but now it's finally time for the descriptions of my travels in British Columbia with my university's Mixed Chorus.

For my newer readers who are unfamiliar, I'm a member of my (former) University's Mixed Chorus, and I couldn't ask for a greater group of (musical) friends. We have two concerts each year (a Christmas concert and a Spring Concert), and we always follow that up with a week-long tour where roughly half of us go on the road and sing in various small towns. It's always lots of fun and full of running jokes and gags, and it's always the highlight of my time spent with the choir. Feel free to catch up the posts of my last two tours.

Anyway, I entered this third tour with a different mindset. With my first tour, I had no idea what to expect and I was completely blown away by all the games, traditions, and shenanigans that went along with all the singing. My second tour, I was so crazy excited thanks to my first experience that I exhausted myself trying to be constantly social and got tired and depressed halfway through. While I obviously did recover and still had a great time, I did regret the time I spent wishing tour was over so I could sleep, so I made a promise to be Positive - Positive - Positive this time around with No Complaining (yeah, that didn't work, but it did help).

Day 1 - Pajama Day! Our City to Golden, British Columbia
This year, I decided to be on Moving Crew - something I'd never volunteered for before (we need Moving Crews for all of our concerts, not just Tours, to move our risers and equipment from the University to wherever we're performing), so this meant I had to get to the University an hour earlier. We already had to leave early (8 am) because the drive to Golden was to be the longest of Tour - a whopping seven hours. We even had to have an extra rehearsal the day before because we would have no time to rehearse in Golden by the time we arrived.

Anyway, I managed to get there on time because I went to our Choir's Social Convener's house for a Tour kick-off party and sleepover. Ironically, I got less sleep during that party than any night during tour. I dragged my huge-ass luggage onto a public bus and shot straight to the university and helped move stuff - stuff that was heavy. What can I say? I have weak arms and a low pain threshold and there was lots to be moved, but I managed.

Once everything was packed, we gathered in the circle for the Hora (a circle dance we do every time before we take off for another location, for luck) and realized we were missing a person. Tour organizers had made it very, very clear we couldn't wait for anyone once it was 8:00 am (especially since all choir people were supposed to be at the University by 7:30). Turns out someone forgot to set their alarm and their promised ride was asleep - but thankfully the choir people are all wimps and we waited for him to arrive anyway, ha.

Then it was off to Golden! I got on the bus that was later dubbed the Disco Stick (after Lady Gaga's song "LoveGame") and the other bus was named She-Rah, Bus of Power. I made sure to talk to people and not just read - I was as determined as last year to be social and not stay in my comfortable shell of reading or watching movies by myself. At the same time, I also planned to accept the times when I'm going to be by myself (at times where there are other conversations I just can't join or everyone is asleep or doing their own thing) and to accept that it's okay to be alone sometimes and that it doesn't mean I'm reverting to being a hermit (this was a huge fear last tour and made me quite sad). I learned how to play Hearts with some of the guys and went from Worst to Second-Worst at it.

More than one guy turned out to have packed reading or game materials decorated with photos of scantily-dressed woman ("scantily" meaning - a star was thoughtfully placed over certain body parts), which caused no end of discussion, and another member's DVD collection was deemed to be pornographic (as a joke - with the example of The Virgin Suicides - "Its about virgins," said one Bell Ringer. "Hot.").

We took a lunch break in Calgary, which was a lucky thing since I ate my pre-packed bagged lunch for breakfast since the host of the Tour Kick-Off Party didn't have anything in his house (to be fair, what food would you buy right before you're going to be gone for a week?). And then it was off again! The social conveners assigned all the Secret Pals, and I discovered my Secret Pal was the same person who'd had me as a Secret Pal on my first Tour. To newer readers, every Tour people are assigned Secret Pals - other people in choir that you have to give funny tasks to, in return for little presents and clues as to who you really are. It helps people socialize and get to know other people in choir.

By the time we reached Golden, British Columbia, I wasn't feeling too well thanks to a convergence of bad luck, chief among them a huge headache (I'd have to learn to get over this, since I'd have a huge headache nearly every day of Tour), so I wasn't much up for exploring Golden, which turned out to be a mistake because it's a beautiful town. Like so many small towns seem to do, it had a specialty candy store (curse my nut allergy!), and also a tiny bookstore and theatre (which already puts it miles ahead of Three Hills, Alberta), and even feeling sick I was drawn in to the romantic small town idea. I'd love to live in Golden - it's like a jewelbox situated smack in the middle of a valley surrounded on all sides by mountains, and gets lots of tourists who come in for skiing at Kicking Horse.

The people in Golden were so nice - they even commissioned a cake that had an edible photo of us on it! During dinner, two choristers already had Secret Pal tasks to perform - one recited a poem about their socks and the other showed the choir how to eat an onion. The performance went well, although we didn't have a room to stay in during intermission so we stayed outside, which was pretty chilly in velvet dresses and high heeled shoes.

After the performance came the billets. Billets were always a stressful worry for me on my last two Tours - I like meeting new people under certain conditions, but sleeping in a strange person's house and using their bathroom always seemed squicky to me and there was always the threat of nut allergies. However, I lucked out this tour. In Golden, we had a cheerful elementary school teacher with a huge house high up on a hill with a gorgeous view. Thanks to a miscommunication she didn't know about my nut allergy beforehand, but since she was celiac and had a godson with a nut allergy she knew how to deal with allergies. I showered in the evening and had a good night's sleep.

Day 2 - Golden to Kamloops
My billet partner and I (and two other choristers who billeted with us) woke up to my favourite breakfast food of all time - waffles (gluten-free waffles, but still delicious waffles) and strawberries. Yum! Truly, our billet was very nice and helpful - she even gave us some extra gluten-free food for a chorister's celiac boyfriend who'd had to stay at a hotel where the breakfast was bagels, cereal, and toast. Usually billets give us a bagged lunch, but we learned beforehand this one couldn't because as a celiac she wasn't sure she could give us a good lunch.

We arrived at the elementary school in Golden to pack our stuff into the busses. I discovered some of the choristers who couldn't find billets had stayed in the hotel (such as the Celiac Boyfriend). One of them had forgotten his suitcase - no, wait - he'd looked at the suitcases unpacked from under the bus last night and said his wasn't there.

Turns out it was, and the Tour Managers had had to drag it along with them (not fun). In retribution they covered the suitcase with ducttape with a special message written from the suitcase to the Forgetful Owner (ex: "WHY DID YOU SHUN ME?? I LOVE YOU!!") on it, and with the Forgetful Owner's name written on it in big colourful letters.

Meanwhile, I received a Secret Pal task to say "I've always wanted to be a pool boy" to as many people as I could (six of them would turn out to have a puzzle piece I could use to complete my puzzle). I got a lot of strange looks completing this task, but really - people on Tour should expect people to say weird things. I also gave my Secret Pal his first task - to make some glow-in-dark jewellery from the kit I sent him in return for a clue.

We then had a hora, where many people did their new Secret Pal tasks. My billet partner and friend gave her Secret Pal a little book called "My Pretty Kitten," with a message explaining he had to read it. Without her knowledge, he changed one word in his reading of the story. Guess which one. I'd thought my Billet Partner was pretty diabolical until she revealed her Secret Pal had come up with it on his own. Other people were publically shamed by the Tour Managers (i.e. sprayed with a water spritzer) for forgetting binders or shoes or suitcases. Then it was back on the bus to Kamloops!

We arrived in Kamloops, a beautiful city that immediately supplanted Golden and Three Hills for the place Where I Want to Live Later. It mixes the gorgeous scenery and intimacy of a smalltown with the population and amenities of a city (Chapters and Cineplex! Whoohoo!). I could so live there. It makes where I live look so dull and flat. We took a half-hour break at Riverside Park, half of which I spent waiting to use a public bathroom (using the bathroom on the bus is never a good idea - you need a weird old-school Secret-Garden-esque key to get in). The other half I used to walk down to the riverside (it has a beach, and parts of it are slow enough to swim in during the summer) and look at the vast numbers of Canada geese and ducks swimming and walking about with little fear of humans.

Back on the bus, we drove to the church we were to perform in to practice and be assigned our billets. I gave my Secret Pal a clue when he showed off the necklace he made, and I got a clue for completing my own Secret Pal task. In an interesting turn of events this year, for this and our next billet, we were to go home with them for dinner, come back for the performance, and then return to the billet's house to sleep. During our last two Tours, we always had a group dinner and went home with our billets after the performance. This year, however, it was different. Better in some ways - this way when the performance and moving crew are finished, I don't have to scramble to change and drag my luggage behind me. Rather, we go to our performance in our formal dress with only a binder and that's how we leave. Worse in others - the group dinners were always fun and an opportunity for people to perform their public Secret Pal tasks.

Good thing, though, in Kamloops I had a wonderful billet. A university professor and his elementary teacher wife took my billet partner and I in to their absolutely lovely house. We were given a small guest room with a floor-to-ceiling window facing a tree covered in tiny birds, and then we shared delicious tea with them and had a wonderful conversation about books. They had a huge DVD collection of BBC period pieces and novel adaptations and Masterpiece Classic productions and I had such a great time. The husband was from South Africa and the wife and her mother were Holland, and they were all such fountains of information. Their house is higher up on the mountain than others, so I got some great pictures of the view from their balcony.

After a good performance, we came back, showered, and fell asleep - we were extra tired because by then we'd moved to BC time so while it felt later to us, at least we'd get an extra hour to sleep in the next morning.

Day 3 - Beauty and the Geek Day! Kamloops to North Vancouver
My billet partner and I woke up and we had a wonderful breakfast - soft boiled brown eggs with freshly-sliced white toast to dip, and more tea. Today was Beauty and the Geek Day, and I had my costume all picked out - purple knee socks, grey pleated skirt, frumpy blouse, striped tie, my spare glasses (with thicker frames) and weird hair. Too bad today we had a school concert and had to wear jeans and our choir t-shirt to that! *facepalm* I wore most of my costume underneath my choir stuff. With our luggage, we were all driven back to the church where we performed, and I was given a toy duck and the task to write a story about him. In turn, I gave my Secret Pal a packet of foam crowns with the task to crown himself and one prince and princess later on.

After that, we had a school concert which is always fun - and I saw my Secret Pal wearing his crown, ha ha. Afterwards, I had to help Moving Crew, but then I skipped out early to get on the Tour bus and change quickly into my Geek duds. We performed a hora - my Secret Pal completed his task - and got back on the bus to hightail it over to North Vancouver.

There were no billets today, instead we had a group sleep in the gym of Simon Fraser University. Dropping off our stuff was fun - why? Because I had to drag my huge-ass suitcase (it holds my sleeping bag among other things) down something like four or five sets of stairs. There was even the "ramp of fail" - a ramp adjacent to a staircase that led to a platform from which you could exit only by stairs. Brilliant. After dropping off our stuff, a chorus alumnus gave some of us the tour of the place. It was absolutely beautiful because spring comes a million times earlier to BC than it does where I live (we just had light snow - YESTERDAY IN MAY). However, SFU itself is made of giant grey concrete - our tourguide agreed that it would look pretty dreary once winter came and took all the natural colour away.

At the potluck supper provided, I read my story (my tiny duck goes on a killing rampage), we finished supper and went to our performance. It was a difficult one - the church was very small so getting all the risers and bell tables in there was a trial, not to mention it was blistering hot to sing inside of and everyone got so crazy thirsty some volunteers opened the kitchen so we could get water. When we went back to the University, I ended up showering in the sink because the SFU showers have NO CURTAINS OR DOORS OR BARRIERS OF ANY KIND and I felt way too embarrassed to be that public. So the sink and a crick in my neck it was!

All things considered, I slept very well in my sleepbag on the hard ground.

Day 4 - Super Hero Day! North Vancouver to Victoria
Woke up bright and early and changed into most of my costume - I wore bright blue leggings under a black skort and a spangled star shirt. Overtop all of this I put my jeans and choir hoodie because we had another school concert today. Covertly, I gave my Secret Pal another task (he had to quack at people to collect three plastic ducks) then lugged my suitcase up those four or five sets of stairs back to the bus.

Breakfast was food scavaged from a grocery store by the super thoughtful Tour Managers - granola bars, fruit cups and juice. While eating mine, I heard my Secret Pal quacking frantically for his three ducks. Ha!

We had another school concert, which we had to cut short because we had to make the ferry to Victoria. The school was nice - they even sang their own theme song back to us. Great weather, too - I swear, we went to BC during the perfect week - every single cherry tree was in full pink blossom everywhere we went. After that, it was a quick hora with no Secret Pal stuff and back on the bus, where I changed into my full costume as Galaxy Girl - including black fingerless gloves, dangly star earrings, thigh-high boots, and blue hair extensions. On the way to the ferry, I found out we still had to wear our choir shirts because Bob wanted a picture of us on the ferry. Well damn.

We arrived well on time for the ferry's departure and the bus drove us all onto the ferry. I was excited because I heard this was the right place and season to be spotting orca whales, but no luck. It was a huge ferry with several decks, and an interesting place to be, especially to me who hadn't seen the ocean in person since Ireland in 2003. Well, when we finally took our group picture on the ferry deck (and sang a 15-minute, unannounced African medley to befuddled but hopefully entertained passengers), we could take off our hoodies and be in our costumes, finally! I looked like a freakin' harajuku girl. I'm sure a few people were weirded out (but not that many, I mean, it was BC). I also got a tiny saxaphone and a Secret Pal task to have a guy serenade me on it.

It was gorgeous on the ferry - I took lots of great pictures as we chugged around dozens of tiny islands. I was a little sad to go back on the bus. But now we were in Victoria, on Vancouver island! We set up in a highschool and were divided amongst our billets (even though this was only day 4, this would be our last billet). My billet partner and I went with a retired library assistant with a celiac husband who lived in a hundred-year-old house one block from the beach. I wondered at our billeting, but I suspect it's because my billet partner and I represent the ultimate conglomerate of food allergies (combined? No nuts, shrimp, pork, or dairy), so it's easier to set us up with people who already have to deal with stuff like that.

There were two rooms set up for us - I was gracious and let my billet partner pick which one she wanted to sleep in turned out to be a bad decision because it meant I had to sleep in a cot in the craft room with a spinning wheel and a loom, *lol*! It wasn't too bad, and we had time before dinner to explore the rocky beach by the billets house - we could see mountains in the distance, we explored a few tidal pools and saw tiny snails and mussels. After supper we were driven to the high school to perform and I was struck by how beautiful all the houses in Victoria were - people still paint houses turquoise and fushia there and plant flowers wherever they can. My city never feels that green or pretty - the new suburbs near my house are all different colours of beige stucco.

The performance was very weird for me - for this (and the previous) performance I just felt so uncontrollably sleepy! I had to focus and pinch the skin between my fingers because I felt like I was going to drop off completely and screw up the song! I just wanted the concert to be over so I could go home and sleep. I was dead on my feet by the time we got back - but no! I had to shower first! And the only working shower in the whole house was a tiny one in their basement surrounded by concrete flooring. After that unpleasant experience I could finally go up to the craft room and drop off to sleep.

Day 5 - Be Your Billet Partner Day! Victoria to Comox
Neither I nor my billet partner were much up for trading places for this theme day, so we just traded hoodies (that have our names on it) and that's was that. Breakfast was waffles - lots of waffles. Odd that both the billets had had celiac people served waffles for breakfast. Still - yummy, and enough of them to make me forget the terrible freezing basement shower experience.

Off we went, back to the high school, to perform our last school concert. We had to change the line-up a bit, partly for time, and partly because we were performing for high schoolers this time around and not little kids. Thanks to a mix-up the Victoria folks didn't provide the bagged lunches they'd said they would, so the hora was again cut short with no Secret Pal tasks allowed, to allow us time to make a stop somewhere else for lunch. This meant I couldn't have a guy serenade me on my sax just yet - although I did slip my Secret Pal his flower crown with the order to be a "happy flower."

After a long drive, we stopped in a little place called Coombs, a weeeird place that had a little carnival-esque strip mall of sorts, with bizarre statues of giraffes and buddha and swans scattered in random places. A bunch of choristers, including me, bought greasy but good sandwiches and burgers from a little shop by the giant random statue garden - and we spotted an eagle (I caught it on tape).

After that, it was on to Comox, where we prepared for that most interesting and illuminating of all Tour nights - Hotel Night. For one night on Tour, the choir beds down in a hotel, which usually means that after the concert people have little parties in their rooms, or go out to bars and restaurants to dance and have fun - once we give a good performance, of course. We set up in a what was apparently Pamela Anderson's old high school, and had a delicious roast chicken supper provided by volunteers. During supper, one of our Social Conveners had to write a romantic poem about each male chorister - and she made them both dirty and funny! I didn't have time to have someone serenade me with my tiny sax, but oh well. At the concert, I sang completely off-book (without my music) to make sure I stayed awake and alert throughout, and it worked.

Then - it was Hotel Night! Navigating last year's Hotel Night seemed easier because the bars were an hour's walk away, so most people stayed in their hotel rooms or wandered out in large groups. This year? Not so much. In these situations I'm a bit of a social ramora - I tag onto the largest social group and see where it goes. I bought a little something for our Main Tour Manager, because honestly this was one of the hardest Tours to organize, then followed other people from hotel room to room. There was a bit of a snag when one room was completely emptied thanks to a noise complaint (according to one chorister who works at a hotel, usually they warn people but this time they just emptied the room), so people started keeping it down after that.

I eventually followed some people to the bar adjacent to the hotel. While the proprieter warned us that since most of us were already buzzed (I was rather flattered to be included in the group, despite being as sober as a nun) that the cut-off point would be sooner rather than later, we ended up staying there rather late. A live band was playing and got some choristers (including a social convener) to go on stage and sing with them - and our social convenor rocked it out! She was amazing! More choristers started coming to the bar, and I tried to enjoy myself, but I was a little unsettled. I tried dancing with people on the dance floor, but I feel older than everyone else (I'm not that old, though -_-;;) and less attractive and a terrible dancer so I kept feeling like a dork, and not in the fun way. In hindsight it seems ridiculous that I felt that way - I'm not a supermodel, but I'm not badlooking, and I'm definitely not an old hanger on. But that's how I felt at the time.

Eventually, a townie tried to pick me up (for the very first time! This Tour was all about the social milestones), and I was creeped out by it. He didn't do anything particularly egregious (I could barely hear him over the music, anyway), but I was so unused to that sort of situation that I felt threatened and stood next to some big, strapping, male choristers (and eventually had one of them walk me back to the hotel) to keep him away. By that time, most choir people had either migrated over to the bar or were involved in their own private amusements, so I decided to go to bed. It was about 1:30 am. There was a part of me that wailed that I was antisocial and should have stayed out later and made an effort, just as there was a part of me that said I had made an effort and was now uncomfortable and should go to bed and just accept that the night was over. That made it a little better.

Day 6 - Rainbow Brite Day! Comox to Vancouver
I didn't sleep too well thanks to a loud AC machine in the hotel room, but was otherwise way brighter and cheerier that morning than a lot of people. Today was Rainbow Brite day, and each section had to wear a different colour. I, being Soprano II, had to wear red - I couldn't find any red pants but I wore a red t-shirt and jumper. One of my friends in the Baritone (Yellow) section went all out - he wore yellow shirt, pants, toque, yellow mittens, a fluorescent yellow scarf, and shoes covered in yellow electrical tape.

Breakfast after Hotel Night is always delicious - we had it at the hotel. Some people managed to complete their Secret Pal tasks, but I missed out again because we had to hit the road to catch the ferry that would take us to Vancouver. Oh well!

We arrived in plenty of time to do some shopping. I caved a bought an adorable little stuffed black bear because it was only five dollars. This ferry was smaller (maybe because it wasn't a main one to Victoria), and super-windy. Weirdly, standing or lying still, the sun was wonderfully warm, but standing up and walking (especially towards the front of the ship), it was super windy and cold! I kept at it, though - I really wanted to see if I could see an orca whale, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity. Sadly, it was not to be.

We arrived in Vancouver for a special day. We had no performances today. None. Our previous engagement cancelled on us, so our Tour Manager had to work double-time just to get us a place to stay. She managed it, because she is AWESOME, but there was no point in trying to find us someplace to sing because there was no time to advertise, so we had a day to rest in Vancouver. Before going to the church we would sleep at, we were dropped off at Granville island to explore. I went and saw the children's market, one of the best toy stores I'd ever seen. They had different sections for different types of toys - stuff animals, puppets, wooden toys, TV-tie in toys, craft materials. It was awesome!

My billet partner and I explored some of the art galleries - I found an artist whose work I liked, but was currently too expensive and delicate to take home with me (and now I've forgotten the name like a dum-dum - Tricia Avissa something). Vancouver is a beautiful city, although in a different way than Victoria. Victoria is old-school - bright colours and beautiful cottage-y houses and old-fashioned looks. Vancouver is very postmodern, glass and steel and warped metal new-agey stuff. I prefer Victoria, but to each their own. After that, we got on the bus and we packed all our things away in the very nice church that allowed us to sleep there, and went exploring. I followed the Tour Manager and some other people to find a place to eat, and we had a very nice time at Earl's, sipping cocktails. Other people went to bars to see the Canucks hockey game.

After that, we went back to the church, but I didn't feel finished yet. I didn't want to tell my parents I'd been to Vancouver but saw only an Earl's, so I went out with the other Assistant Tour Manager, thinking she was leading a group of people around Vancouver. It turns out she wasn't - it was only her and two other people who were way more adventurous than me. I tagged along for a while to get some pictures but eventually just wanted to go back, but I didn't want to go alone. They had their own plans though, so eventually I jumped ship because I figured it was safer to walk seven blocks alone in the dark in a strange city than it was to walk, say, ten blocks alone in the dark in a strange city.

I got back in time to change into my pyjamas and play "Apples to Apples" (a funny card game) and "What if?" (a funnier question game) with people, and had a much better time than I had gadding about Vancouver in the dark. Once again, even though I had no mattress, I slept really well in my sleeping bag - maybe because I was having such a good time.

Day 7 - Hawaiian Day! Vancouver to Clearwater
Woke up bright and early. Heard "The First of May" (today was May 1st) by Jonathan Coulton for the first time, and resolved to buy one of his CDs. I wore a sarong and my skort and a flower necklace today, but that was about it.

After everyone was awake, we made a hora that was very long thanks to the number of people who needed to complete their tasks. I finally got a serenade on my tiny sax and my Secret Pal did a puppet show with the puppets I'd given him earlier. For breakfast, our Tour Managers drove us to a Safeway and said the choir would reimburse us $5.00 a person for breakfast, so buy what you like - I got chocolate Poptarts and chocolate milk, heh. Breakfast of champions!

For Hawaiian day, someone taped a cardboard hula girl to the bathroom door on our bus, and named it after a certain bell-ringer's mom (said chorister's mom had been the traditional butt of many jokes this Tour). We arrived in Clearwater after that. Nothing particularly special happened today, but I resolved to enjoy it and enjoy singing as much as I could.

Day 8 - Clearwater to Hinton (Skit Night!)
The folks at the Clearwater school who let us have a group sleep there also gave us a good breakfast, yum, which we needed to get up our strength for Skit Night. This year I finally decided to write a skit (about the nefarious origins of some of our songs), and I spent most of the time on the bus giving myself severe handcramps copying several copies of the script by hand to give to my actors.

Our lunchbreak came in a town that had actually rejected our offer of a concert in their town, oddly enough. Thanks to the nearest restaurant having just gone out of business, most people lined up at the A&W, which took a while, believe me. It was worth it to see the incredulous looks of the manager every time he came out of his office and continued to see a line that was three miles long, *lol*.

We arrived in Hinton, where we learned we'd be having our last concert (and Skit Night and Group Sleep) in a church - which weirded some people out, given the material that usually goes into our skits on skit night, *lol*. The people at the church were really nice and provided GREAT food - some delicious soups before the concert (including a sumptuous Acadian chicken soup) and cheesy nachos after the concert. The last concert was a resounding success, and afterwards many people cried - it was the last concert of Tour, after all. Some people weren't coming back - either because they didn't have the time or were moving or some other reason, so the last performance is always really poignant.

After the last performance came skits - including the annual Bell Skit performed by our Conductor and handbell ringers, in which everybody always dies. There were skits that spoofed the difficulty of our songs, and the arduous signing of tour programs (everyone gets a program that everyone's signed, kind of like a yearbook - and every year there's a "fake" program for "Tim Tomlinson" - who's not a real person, but it's funny to read the people who don't know this and figure they can't remember him so write bullshit things like "had a great time! see you next year"), and musical performances. It was a blast - my skit came rather late in the program, so I was worried some of my actors might be a little too inebriated by that point, but it just made it funnier! They said all their lines correctly, and our Assistant Conductor (who didn't drink) nevertheless hilariously ad-lipped his lines! Then our conductor gave a lovely heartfelt speech, people started crying, and the night winded down (at 5:00 am, and we had to be out the door by 8:00 because the next day was a Sunday and people would be coming to Church!).

Day 9 - Hinton to Our city
So endeth the Tour - everyone woke up and, unshowered, loaded themselves back onto the bus to drive back to Our City. Most people slept - no one really got that much sleep on skit night. However, by the time we got back to our City, I resolved not to let another four months go by without contact. That's what always got me down about the end of tour before - it would be another four months before I'd see these people. But not this time. I would keep in touch, by hook or by crook.

This tour, more than my previous two Tours, seemed to whizz by so quickly. I couldn't understand it. But I think it's because I enjoyed this tour more than any other. A lot of this came from my determination to volunteer and help people and put myself in more positions to do things and socialize, rather than the other years where I sat back and latched onto other peoples' socializing. This was also a year where I accepted the lulls in activity as natural lulls and not as a failure of my ability to socialize. As a result, I was more flexible and enjoyed myself more. Tour is such a great place, because Choir is filled with all sorts of great people.

As you can probably tell, it's also tradition for my tour posts to be incredibly rambling, but there you go. Maybe years from now I'll go back and rewrite my tour posts into something more structured, but not now.