Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Sex with the Queen," by Eleanor Herman

The Word: Okay, so there's not going to be any particularly fancy doodads in this review because it's a bit of an odd duck - a nonfiction history of the lives of adulterous queens.

I first became interested in this book when I read Eleanor Herman's previous pop history tome, Sex with Kings, which was a fascinating, hilarious, and highly entertaining look at the history of royal mistresses.

Much like its predecessor, Sex with the Queen starts the book by dispelling a lot of myths. Kings detailed how being a royal mistress could be a hectic, demanding, soul-killing job, because a mistress's privileges lasted only as long as her king's favour did.

However, Sex with the Queen reveals how being a princess or a queen wasn't much better. Herman gives countless examples of fifteen-year-old girls landing, friendless, on foreign shores to be sold into marriage to repulsive, cruel, homosexual, impotent, stunted, mentally retarded and often insane kings - while battling all of their scheming courtiers and family members, to boot. Herman lists the foibles and fetishes with a thoroughly infectious glee.

However, Queen is somewhat different in tone than Kings, mainly because the sexual politics were so different. While some female rulers (most notably, the freakin' awesome Russian Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) ruled independently while keeping a string of handsome and lavishly-compensated lovers, just as many queenly love affairs ended with the erring royal's death, exile, or genteel imprisonment.

Sex with the Queen, instead, places a lot of focus on romanticism - on miserable women seduced by the opportunity of love and happiness in a court full of mean-spirited, inbred hillbillies. Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (the mistreated wife of King George I of England who had a passionate affair with the Count of Konigsmarck) has a particularly tragic and cinema-ready story.

That being said, sometimes the book plays the romance card a little too heavily, occasionally giving in to purple language and treacly conjecture about the ecstasy these queens experienced in the non-syphilitic, emotionally stable, mentally mature, politically astute, and of course well-endowed embraces of their lovers.

Thankfully, Sex with the Queen doesn't leave out the politics that influenced royal marriages and extramarital relationships. As we soon discover, nations were willing to overlook queenly indiscretions if the results of said affairs worked towards the good of the country. The Russians embraced the German-born Catherine the Great after Csar Peter III died of a stroke (the kind that leaves suspicious bruises around the throat) and tolerated her affairs because her successful policies turned Russia into a significant world power. And Herman reveals two kings who were perfectly content to let their wives and their wives' lovers "make love and policy" since it left them time to pursue hunting and other recreational interests.

There is a fair bit of romanticization and exaggeration in this book, to be sure, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining as hell, a heady mixture of political history and scandalously elaborate dirty laundry.

You can purchase Sex With The Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"Not Proper Enough," by Carolyn Jewel

The Chick: Eugenia Bryant. Back in town to help an awkward but brilliant family friend succeed at the Marriage Mart, she has the misfortune to run into Fenris, the man who almost convinced her beloved (and now sadly deceased) husband to throw her over.
The Rub: Fenris now claims an affection for her - but can the still-grieving Eugenia bring herself to love anyone at all, much less her worst enemy?

Dream Casting: Sophia Myles. 

The Dude: Grenville Foxman Talbot, Marquis of Fenris, a.k.a. "Fenris," a.k.a. "Fox." When he was young, proud, and stupid, he spurned Eugenia and ruined his friendship with Robert Bryant when he married her instead.
The Rub: Now he must fight against two overwhelming obstacles: Eugenia's understandable hatred for him and her love for her dead husband.

Dream Casting: Richard Armitage. 

The Plot:

Fenris: I love you!

Eugenia: I hate you!

Fenris: Does that mean we can't have sex?

Eugenia: Of course not!

Fenris and Eugenia: *SexyTimes*

Eugenia: Still hate you.

Fenris and Eugenia: *SexyTimes*

Eugenia: How many pages until the end of the book?

Fenris: Five.

Eugenia: ... okay I guess this means I love you.

Fenris: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Unfortunately Dead Husband
  • 1 Bitter Feud
  • 1 Magical Gypsy Medallion
  • 1 Prophetic Dream
  • 1 Secondary Romance of Plant Lovers
  • 1 Redundantly-Mirrored Sex Room
The Word: A few days before I started reading this novel (very kindly sent to me in ARC format by Carolyn Jewel), I had a conversation with Kate Elliott on Twitter about books that are "bad" versus books that simply aren't to the reviewer's taste, and how certain types of reviews can conflate the two. Certainly, terribly-written books aren't to anyone's taste, but one can dislike something without it making the book inferior.

I thought of this while reading Not Proper Enough, the second book in Jewel's newest historical series, the sequel to Not Wicked Enough. Is it badly-written? No.

Is it at all to my taste? Unfortunately, no.

Eugenia Bryant is returning to British society after the death of her beloved (truly beloved) husband, Robert, to ensure her young, clumsy friend Hester makes a good match. Unfortunately, she runs into her worst enemy - the Marquis of Fenris. Nothing surprises her more than when the despised Marquis defends Hester from a vocal bully at a social gathering - until Fenris confronts Eugenia and informs her that he'd like to be better acquainted.

It takes a rather absurdly long time to discover just why Eugenia hates Fenris so very badly and by the time we find out, it seems rather silly after such enormous build-up. As a younger man, Fenris fell in love with Eugenia but didn't pursue her because he believed she was too far beneath him, the son and heir of a duke. When his best friend Robert fell in love with Eugenia and courted her instead, Fenris did everything in his power to try and talk Robert out of the unequal match. He ended up humiliating Eugenia and destroying his friendship with Robert as a result.

Older and far wiser, Fenris desires another chance to win over the love of his life - but can Eugenia overcome her hatred for him?

The set-up sounds rather similar to Jewel's earlier novel, Scandal, where the hero begins the novel in love with the guarded, widowed heroine and spends the entire novel wearing her down. And indeed, Not Proper Enough is really one long, loooong physical seduction as Fenris and Eugenia begin an affair while he tries to win her heart in the bargain.

Here is where the "cup of terrible tea" versus "just not my cup of tea" concept comes in. The physical seduction and internal wrangling make up the entire novel, and there is little to no plot other than  Fenris' vague "Win Eugenia's Heart Through Great Sex" plan, and I found myself completely and utterly bored out of my mind. I found the endless physical descriptions and superficial banter dull. Other than the characters' Immediate Concerns (such as Fenris' love of Eugenia and Eugenia's grief from the death of her husband), the story doesn't delve very deeply into the lives and backstories of either character. Nothing really happens in this story and I found myself skimming after 170 pages.

Like Scandal, the romantic progression basically involves the hero begging over and over until at the very last minute the heroine says yes. But in Scandal, the novel explored the characters, their backstories, their non-sexual passions and interests, who they were as people, whereas Not Proper Enough just seemed to skim the surface. In Scandal, their seductions, interactions and dialogue had more meaning and depth because I understood the characters better.

That being said, Not Proper Enough has gorgeous writing and description and an excellent grasp of setting. If one is a fan of erotic long seduction stories, then Not Proper Enough is definitely a superior example. If one is like me, however, someone who is easily bored by sex scenes and prefers more drama, excitement, and intricate character development, then I would suggest you skip this one.

Interested? Purchase Not Proper Enough (A Reforming the Scoundrels Romance) here.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"The Kingdom of Gods," by N.K. Jemisin

The Central Cast:

Sieh: The God of Childhood, eldest of the lesser godlings created by the Three. Despite being alive since existence began, he is lonely and aches for something more, so he befriends a couple of children, an action that has unforeseen consequences.

Shahar: Befriended by Sieh, despite being Heir of the ruling Arameri family - but she is determined to try and rule fairly and justly, and overturn the belief that Arameri are calculating, heartless monsters.

Dekarta: Shahar's distrusted brother. Sent off to become a powerful wizard, he still maintains his connection to his sister - and Sieh.

The Secondary Cast:

Nahadoth: God of Darkness and Chaos. Sieh's father. Loves him, but as the God of change, he cannot protect Sieh from the march of progress.

Yeine: The new Goddess of Balance. Trying to bring the Three back together again - including Itempas, who started the Gods' War.

Itempas: The God of Light and Order. Enslaved his fellow gods and godlings for thousands of years and is only now starting to pay the price for it - but will he ever be forgiven?

Glee: Itempas' daughter by Oree Shoth (the protagonist from The Broken Kingdoms). Manages his business in the mortal realm.

Ahad: A mysterious, bitter godling with painful ties to Sieh and Nahadoth.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Surprise!Magic Bond
  • 1 Wizard Prodigy
  • Several Magical Mask Zombies
  • 1 Impending War
  • 4 Bratty Gods
  • 1 Vengeful God
  • Several Doses of Godly Angst
The Word: This was not the review I thought I would be writing for the final book in N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy.

I adored the first two books - The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. I didn't understand how the third book, Kingdom of Gods, could be so drastically different.

Previously, on The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms:

In this world, there were three major gods - Nahadoth (darkness, chaos, change), Itempas (light, order, stability), and Enefa (twilight, balance, death, rebirth), and their various godling children. Itempas went nuts and murdered Enefa, imprisoned and enslaved Nahadoth and the godlings, and gave power over them into the hands of his chosen people, the Arameri, who, for 2000 years, built an unstoppable empire using the gods as weapons.

In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a mortal woman, Yeine, freed the gods and became the newest incarnation of Enefa, bringing balance and restoring the Three. In The Broken Kingdoms, Itempas (reduced to mortal status as punishment) set about redeeming himself with the help of Oree Shoth and stopped a conspiracy to murder the gods using the tainted blood of demons (god/human halflings).

Kingdom of Gods is Sieh's book - Sieh is the eldest of the Three's godling children, the God of Childhood. He's pretty much the deified equivalent of Peter Pan - mischievous, changeable, playful, cruel and sociopathic on occasion. Lately, however, loneliness has been devouring him from the inside out. While he adores his parents, Nahadoth and Yeine (who's more of a godly stepparent now), he knows he can never be one of The Three - because this particular universe can only support Three. Because of this, Yeine has actually been making tentative moves towards forgiving Itempas and bringing him back into the fold.

Outraged by this, Sieh flees to make mischief in the mortal realm and winds up befriending two children, siblings Shahar and Dekarta. Despite the fact that these children are Arameri (the ruling class who enslaved the gods for thousands of years), Sieh decides to make a friendship pact with them - but when they slice open their hands to make a blood oath, something goes drastically, terribly wrong. When Sieh wakes up, eight years have passed, Dekarta has been banished, Shahar is sixteen and Angsty - and Sieh has, inexplicably, become mortal. And capable of growing up.

Neither Nahadoth nor Yeine can fix or stop Sieh's aging process, and Sieh is still too angry with Itempas (the god of stability and preservation) to ask for his help.  Meanwhile, he discovers the dynamic of his friendship with both Shahar and Dekarta has been understandably and awkwardly changed by the onset of physical and mental maturity (on all their parts).

Now, I've always liked Sieh as he appeared in his minor but crucial roles in the first two books. And I thought it would be interesting to finally have a novel told from a god's perspective (the first two are told from Yeine's and Oree's POVs). However, despite my love of the first two books and my interest in the character, Kingdom of Gods was horrifically dull, disorganized, and inconsistent. If not for my interest in how the trilogy would end, I wouldn't have finished it.

First of all, the time jumps crazily for the first half of the book. One minor thing will happen, then Sieh jumps ahead one year. Then another. Then eight years pass. Then he sort of peaces out for another two years. I can sort of understand that from an immortal's perspective time doesn't mean the same thing, but the result is a plot that remains half-baked and only partially developed for a huge initial chunk of the book. How are we to understand Dekarta and Shahar as characters when we only see them for two pages and BAM! They're suddenly older and more experienced?

Similarly, the entire concept of Sieh's new condition ("mortal-ish?") is never really developed or explained. His physical and magical limitations seem to vanish or appear on a whim - one day he's in danger because he's unable to call magic, then on another he can summon enough power to kill a room full of people because he's in a bad mood.

As well, I think the use of godly POV might have hindered the character development - at least for me. Gods are supposed to be Everything and Nothing - a mixture of different things, complex, and changeable. However, in the first two books, I felt I understood Nahadoth and Itempas more clearly as characters because they were viewed from the perspective of mortals who like to define and identify things. The mortal perspective and projection of personality allowed me to see the two complex immortal figures within a sort of personality framework that allowed them to be more real and identifiable.

From Sieh's perspective, however, he's always changing, all the time, suddenly he's caring, suddenly he murders a roomful of people, now he loves children, now he hates children, now he wants to have sex, now he wants his mommy - he just kept waffling and I never got a sense of him as a character. His only consistent traits were Angst and Loneliness, and those get really old, really fast when the novel is more than 300 pages long with pacing that moves slower than molasses.

Yes, this book was slooooow. So very, very slow. The meandering, episodic, uncertain storyline meant this novel seemed to spend a lot of time doing very little. The plot takes a long time to find its footing, and even when it does, it seems arbitrary. The Big Bad is a totally random, underdeveloped villain who is entirely unconnected with the previous books and whose Master Plan is disappointingly predictable.

Honestly, I don't think I could have been more disappointed. Yes, the conclusion wraps things up in the trilogy in a vague way, but the novel itself doesn't seem very connected with the previous books - it's almost a standalone, a spin-off, that's only distantly connected to its predecessors by the abrupt, violent end.

By all means, if you're a loyal reader and want to see how the trilogy ends, read Kingdom of Gods. But in my opinion, you really don't need to.

Disagree? You can purchase The Kingdom of Gods here.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (14)

So, I went a couple of weeks without a Wanting, for various reasons including Laziness, Business, and Tiredness. Also sadness.

Gave up on my novel this week. Not forever. Just - until I get a better idea so I can start cannibalizing all the good stuff from it into the new one. I just realized I didn't have a very good idea to start with - more like a general theme? I wrote 50,000 words in it thinking the more I wrote the better it would get, but when I actually tried to describe the book to other people who hadn't spent that last several months chugging away at it, I realized it really wasn't going anywhere.

So I'm taking a break from that - but I may be continuing with my Cinderella re-telling. Stronger plot, but now I will actually try some loose plotting instead of just going in half-cocked.

Anyway! Books!

Genre: YA, Contemporary
Cover Snark: Hell to the no with the PDA, yo
The Story: A girl with mysterious scars and a secret past hooks up with a troubled teen with a dark past.
Why I Want It: Well, for the first few months since the marketing blitz for this book began and reviews starting showing up on the blogs, I really didn't want this book, and I couldn't skim through and ignore reviews about it fast enough. It was one part Lame-Ass Vague Cliche Title and one part Lame-Ass Boring Cover and two parts 400 Pages of Stone Cold Bummer Teen Angst Plus Amnesia.
 But then it was reviewed (positively!) by Dear Author and the Smart Bitches chose it for their book club. Can't really argue with endorsements like that. So if I get my hands on a library copy, I'll give it a try. I do like stories that have darkness - I just don't like stories that seem to exploit it for drama or just to be relentlessly depressing.

Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines
Genre: Fantasy, Contemporary (ish?)
Cover Snark: I might casually suggest the Libriomancer start visiting the Personal Hygieniomancer a little more often.
The Story: Our hero is one of a group of people who can pull creatures, people, and objects into the real world from popular fantasy literature. There's also a plot where he does things but really it's the first sentence that's important!
Why I Want It: DUDE. It's Last Action Hero with BOOKS. DON'T QUESTION IT.

And that's it for me! How about you?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"Ravishing in Red," by Madeline Hunter - the 100-Page Drop

I'm losing patience with a certain type of romance.

I like to call this, the "Baby's Day Out" romance.

In the "Baby's Day Out" romance, we have a screaming twit of a heroine who is described or defined by the following characteristics:
  • Foot-Stomping
  • Childlike looks or manner
  • Overweening Sense of Completely Biased Self-Righteousness
  • Inability to Recognize Danger
  • No Law Enforcement Experience
  • Incredibly Susceptible to Sexual Overtures
  • Inability to Accept Rational Advice from the Hero
  • Inexplicable Ignorance of Social Consequences
All of these traits are usually swept under the "Innocence" rug - she's just so pure! So untainted by the ghastly, cynical common sense and self-awareness of the real world! Or, if this romance is a contemporary, she's just "quirky" and "full of gumption."

In the "Baby's Day Out" romance, our innocent marshmallow duckling heroine is possessed by a passionate desire to solve a crime or right a wrong, which she goes about in a typically nonsensical, poorly-planned way that almost always lands her in danger. The Rational, Damaged Hero spends the novel tearing his hair out and desperately chasing after her to keep her from jumping off a cliff.

And in the process she accidentally solves the crime while at the same time her Sweet Maidenly Yet Passionate Virtue pulls the Rational, Damaged Hero back from the brink of Angstville.

That's essentially what I got from the first 100 pages of Ravishing In Red. The heroine, whose name has about six letters it does not need (Audrianna Kelmsleigh), starts the novel in a dark hotel room, unaccompanied, lying in wait for a shady man she's never met (nicknamed The Domino) who left a shadier notice in the Times about information that might help clear her father's name of the scandal that drove him to suicide.

Oh, and she also hasn't told any of her family or friends where she is, but that's okay, she brought a loaded pistol she stole from her BFF.

And that's when our hero (Lord Sebastian) shows up, looking for the same shady man he's never met. Lord Sebastian helped prosecute the case against Audrianna's father, the man whose alleged negligence sent faulty gunpowder to the front and doomed a platoon of English soldiers. Only Lord Sebastian is convinced it wasn't negligence, but a greater conspiracy.

Naturally when he arrives there's a case of Mistaken Identity, but not on Sebastian's part because it's pretty clear to him that Audrianna is about as sharp as a bowling ball dipped in marshmallow fluff.
The same Audrianna who cocks the hammer on the gun she has no idea how to use in order to look more threatening.

Thankfully, Audrianna is one of those irritating heroines who comes with an "Off" switch - her Erogenous Zones. Because she's just so pure and innocent that the most basic of sexual activities sends her into deep mental shock, she is quickly disarmed by an experienced kiss from Sebastian - until the real Domino shows up, Audrianna drops the gun, and accidentally shoots Sebastian in the arm. The gunshot brings all the boys to the yard and Audrianna is promptly compromised.

Audrianna flees to her cousin's Boarding House for Sequel-Baiting Heroines while Sebastian seeks advice from his Family of Angst and Sad Childhoods (crippled war hero brother? Check! Evil image-obsessed mum? Check!). Slowly Sebastian realizes he needs to offer marriage to save both their reputations - only Audrianna bullishly and selfishly refuses because she wants to make Sebastian look bad.

And this is where I tapped out.

I skimmed ahead, however - and was kind of surprised. The rest of the story gets kind of interesting. One of Audrianna's friends has a legitimate capital-S Secret and everyone (including the hero) demands she terminate their friendship, which leads to intriguing conflict. The mystery actually has a decent outcome. Some good drama. The heroine matures.

However, I don't regret DNF'ing it. Life is short. A novel has to start the way it means to go on and those first 100 pages were pretty awful. I shouldn't have to slog through a quarter of the book before it gets good.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Tigers in Red Weather," by Liza Klaussmann

The Protagonists: 

Nick: A strong-willed and enterprising woman eager to explore the world now that the war is over - although she eventually capitulates to her husband's wishes to start a family.

Daisy: Nick's young daughter whose life and goals abruptly change after she discovers the body of a murder victim as a child.

Helena: Nick's weak-willed and despicably envious cousin, whose marriage to a callously abusive movie producer leads her down the path of drugs and delusion.

Hughes: Nick's husband - he still loves his wife, but worries that he's thrown away his last chance to change into the exciting person that he could have been.

Ed: Helena's quiet and unusual son, who takes the lessons learned watching Nick and company cope with life dangerously to heart.

The Word: Tigers in Red Weather is the sort of novel that starts out slow, even depressing, only to slowly pick up speed and become a clever and ultimately satisfying read.

The novel zips back and forth between several dates from the 1940s, '50s and '60s and involves several different point of view. The central character is Nick, a vivacious and free-spirited woman from Martha's Vineyard who spends her summers at Tiger House, her family's stately summer home. Her POV portion of the novel is first, so we see her as a woman excited by the unknown future, by the freedom promised by the end of the war, only to slowly settle for stifling conventionality in order to please her husband, Hughes.

This raw and painful beginning distressed me at first - I am definitely not a fan of How Sad Rich Married People Suffer novels. The last one I read was Motherland and reading that novel coincided with one of the most powerful and terrifying depressive episodes I have ever had in my life, and so I had no desire to read anything even remotely like it.

However, as the novel progresses, the POV shifts to Nick's daughter Daisy, her cousin Helena, her husband Hughes, and her troubled nephew, Ed, and we spend the rest of the novel seeing Nick from different perspectives and at different points in her life, through the lenses of envy, adoration, obsession, and fear.

While the novel skips and jumps over several periods in Nick's life, the focus rests on three particular events - the state of Nick and Hughes' marriage at the end of the war, a hot and tumultuous summer in the '50s when Daisy and Ed discover the corpse of a murder victim, and finally a point in the late '60s where the family reunites at Tiger House to celebrate Daisy's impending nuptials.

As each POV outlines a particular situation, a later chapter from a different POV will fill in the blanks, each character adding their own layer of perspective to Nick's life, marriage, and family. I enjoyed this tactic very much - it kept up the pace of the story and developed the characters and themes in an interesting way. I found myself reading faster and faster as the jigsaw puzzle pieces were filled in, eager to see how a particular character approached and interpreted a familiar situation.

This tactic wouldn't have worked half so well if not for the well-realized, flesh-and-blood characters, especially Nick, who even while being smothered by the upper-middle-class life she once claimed to despise, is a sharp-eyed force to be reckoned with. And her husband Hughes, who is possessed by nostalgia for the man he used to be at the same time as Nick handles her urgent desire for progress, her wish to change into the woman she could be. Theirs is a troubled marriage but, as we discover, not an entirely unhappy or loveless one.

Liza Klaussmann also conveys a lovely sense of setting and time without using oodles of descriptive language or resorting to the hoary, obvious cliches of the time period to indicate the historical setting of the novel. None of this "oh I picked up a random newspaper today and John F. Kennedy is dead!" nonsense.

Tigers in Red Weather is a novel that can be both appreciated and enjoyed. It's got the breezy, mysterious, privileged setting for the beach reader, as well as the subtle character permutations and historical themes for the literature lover curled up at home. While it's a slow burn, it's a burn that lasts.

You can purchase Tigers in Red Weather here.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

"A Precious Jewel," by Mary Balogh

The Chick: Priscilla "Priss" Wentworth. When the deaths of her father and brother left her destitute, she fled to her old governess' finishing school only to discover it was a brothel. Nevertheless, she made do.
The Rub: When she's hired as the mistress to Sir Gerald, she runs the risk of breaking the number one rule of prostitutes: falling in love.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Sir Gerald Stapleton. Multiple betrayals in his youth convinced him that entanglements with women can only end in tragedy. Nevertheless, when his favourite prostitute is abused by another client, he feels compelled to make her his mistress
The Rub: The longer he stays with her, the less he can do without her - but what if she rejects him like all the others have?
Dream Casting: Tom Hiddleston.

The Plot:

Gerald: Hey, Whorekeep, I'll have the usual!

Whorekeep: The Usual's out sick. Try Priss!

Gerald: I like Priss, but she's slightly bruised. Let's make her my mistress!

Priss: SURE!

Gerald: Tend my needs! Do as I say! No backtalk!

Priss: Would you like some hot towels with that?

Gerald: WOULD I! I mean, no! NO! Commitments! Ew! Gross! Unclean!

Priss: So no hot towels?

Gerald: ... maybe one. But I'll enjoy it contemptuously!

Priss: Whatever you think is best!


Priss: Oh crap, I'm pregnant! I must leave after spinning an unlikely tale!

Gerald: But who'll take care of me when I have a cold? Who'll rub my tummy when I have gas? *gasp!* I must be in love! Marry me!

Priss: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Prostitute Heroine
  • 1 set of Mommy Issues
  • 1 set of StepMommy Issues
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)
  • 2 Inconveniently Dead Parents
  • Several Misunderstandings
  • 1 Nice Set of Jewels
  • 1 Awesome and Sensible BFF
The Word: I love Mary Balogh, she's one of my favourite authors and her books have always been consistently entertaining. Because of that, I'm willing to cut her a lot of slack when she uses tropes that would normally get my hackles up.

Hence, my interesting reaction to A Precious Jewel. Sir Gerald Stapleton, the novel's hero, is an open misogynist. Thanks to two (!) mother figures who Did Him Wrong, he's firmly convinced that love is beyond the emotional capability of women (and, to be fair, most men). He has scrupulously avoided commitments and entanglements, knowing they will inevitably end with the woman's betrayal. He refuses to even keep a mistress, preferring to frequent Miss Blythe's Finishing School, an exceedingly genteel and discriminating brothel.

If this were any other author, I'd already be side-eying this novel and checking for the perfect angle at which to throw it at my wall. However, this is Mary Balogh, so I figure she's got a few more tricks up her sleeve.

When he goes to his favourite brothel and discovers his Usual is out sick, he accepts a substitute - a genial, pliant, and cheerfully obedient whore named Priss. Pleased with her ability to submit to his particular tastes, he chooses her for all of his next appointments. After two months, he arrives to find a shaken Priss sporting a nasty bruise on her jaw - an ugly souvenir left by a previous client. On impulse, he buys out her contract and offers her a position as his mistress, and this is where things go awry.

Although Miss Blythe runs a pretty tight ship, Priscilla is delighted at the prospect of becoming Sir Gerald's mistress. She harbours no illusions about the respectability of the position, but she knows Gerald to be young, handsome, courteous, and gentle, and she genuinely likes his company.

Both of the protagonists in this book are pretty unconventional as far as historical romances go, although I felt this unconventionality worked both for and against my enjoyment of the novel. Gerald is an interesting character - but a difficult one to like, at first. He's autocratic, selfish, and oblivious for much of the novel. Priss is also a completely passive heroine. She is just so completely selfless and giving, even on the numerous occasions when Gerald's commitmentphobia causes him to act like a complete turd. I wound up feeling incredibly frustrated with both of them.

However, they are both so interesting and well developed, and their romance works in such a subtle and clever way. In a departure from the vast majority of six-packed genius heroes who abound in historical romances, Gerald is of average looks and average intelligence, and he's painfully aware of how unremarkable he is. This feeds his misogynist fear of commitment - he's so certain that no woman is capable of remaining faithful to him, but part of that is because he believes he truly has nothing to offer a woman.

Priss is, yes, an incredibly passive character, perpetually asking "How may I give you pleasure?" even when her heart is breaking, even when Gerald is being an ass. She cares for and tends to Gerald in a myriad of ways, nursing him through illness, easing his angst-hangovers, and all without a word of complaint. However, Priss' character is founded on endurance, practicality, and making the most of small pleasures - enduring poverty with a smile, enduring the brothel and her daily customers. Her quiet character development occurs when she progresses from tending to Gerald by night and seeking her private pleasures by day, to discovering tending to Gerald has become a private pleasure, and an increasingly important one.

The progression of their relationship is almost a tragicomedy of errors, as Gerald keeps screwing up, underestimating Priss, and treating her callously in an attempt to distance himself before he forms an unwanted attachment - and yet Priss keeps welcoming him at the door, regardless of the hour, asking him how she can give him pleasure. Gerald spends the novel putting up barrier after barrier - only for Priss to slowly and inexorably wear them down until Gerald winds up more deeply entangled than ever.

Did I wholly enjoy this novel? Not entirely. Gerald is a grade-A Asshole several times in this novel (although he's never violent or abusive, and he comes around at the end in a sweet way) and sometimes I wish it was more obvious what Priss saw in him. However, the storytelling is so layered and clever, and the characters so wholly original, human and practical that the very novelty of that in a romance was a treat in itself.

A Precious Jewel is a fascinating and unorthodox romantic read.

You can purchase A Precious Jewel here.

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

"Throne of Glass," by Sarah J. Maas - the 100 Page Drop

I first became aware of this book through other bloggers, and then later at Book Expo America where it was hyped up and down the Javitz Center. Upon meeting the author herself at the Apocalypsies' party, she piqued my interest when she described her debut novel as a retelling of Cinderella, one where Cinderella is an assassin sent to the ball to kill the prince.

I love fairy tale retellings and I love epic fantasies with warrior heroines (I credit a timely introduction to Tamora Pierce in my teens for that one), but unfortunately, Throne of Glass strained my credibility to the point where I had to subject it to the 100 Page Drop (i.e. read the first 100 pages and if nothing's improved by then, junk it).

Our heroine, Celaena Sardothien, isn't just a good assassin - she's the World's Greatest Assassin. Before she could get around to making it official and buying the coffee mug, she was captured at seventeen and imprisoned in a death camp for a year. Unexpectedly, she is dragged from the salt mines and brought before none other than Dorian, the Crown Prince of Adarlan, who offers her a deal.

Apparently his dad (the King of Obviously Evil Imperialist Metaphoria) is looking for a Champion to do his kingly dirty work. Instead of having his Obviously Evil Imperialist HR Department put an ad out on Obviously Evil Imperialist Craigslist, the King read a copy of The Hunger Games and has decided to hold an incredibly elaborate and violent competition to fill the position instead. Prince Dorian thinks Celaena (with her years of World's Best Assassin Experience) would be an excellent candidate and promises that if she wins, she will be granted her freedom after four years of loyal service.

Now, Dorian's dad is Obviously Evil - take-over-the-world, burn-all-the-magic-books Evil. But Celaena's other option is staying in the salt mine death camp. And, I mean, c'mon - salt mines. So dehydrating. So bad for the skin. So Celaena accepts and is transported to the King's palace to train in the competition against a ragtag gaggle of criminals, mercenaries, thieves, assassins and sociopaths.

Thankfully, Celaena's entourage comes pre-equipped with a love triangle - Prince Dorian (Bachelor #1) likes long walks on the beach, dog breeding, flirting with court ladies, and morally struggling with the fact that his father is Obviously Evil. Captain Chaol Westfall (Bachelor #2), Dorian's BFF and captain of the royal guard, likes brooding, snarling, murmuring disapprovingly, and expressing his unrequited love in passionate unseen glances of longing. How do you pronounce that name, anyhow? Chowl? Chail? Cowl?

Now this would all be lovely drama gravy, but nothing in the first 100 pages of this novel made any sense. First of all, I found Celaena's character entirely implausible. We're told that she's an assassin - the world's BEST assassin! - and yet nothing about her worldview, her actions, or her behaviour fits this description. She spent a year of torture in a death camp and not three days later she's whining about the agony of wet shoes. We're told she was So Good at Secretly Assassinating People that only a select few know who she really is, and yet she whines and pouts that she has to hide her true skills during the competition to protect her identity - because she wants more attention.

What we're told about Celaena is completely different from what we're shown. We're told that Celaena killed twenty-three people with her bare hands and a pick axe during her one escape attempt from the death camp, and yet all I see is a whiny, childish, shortsighted, boastful heroine who still manages to be somewhat "innocent." When you tell me that a character has been killing people for money since they were eight years old, to the point of becoming the best at it, to the point of being thrown into a torture-jail for it - I get certain expectations of what that character should be like, and Celaena doesn't meet any of those. She reads more like a plucky, naive thief caught stealing a necklace from some rich lady's purse than a mass murderer who endured torture and slavery.

Moreover, the novel's plot seemed contrived and nonsensical to me. Why throw a complicated, expensive competition to choose your Champion? Why choose from among a group of thieves, mercenaries, and murderers instead of loyal knights and soldiers? Why host the competition and house these thieves, mercenaries and murderers in your own castle? And if you're the World's Best Assassin who's been brought out of a death camp and given weapons, why don't you cut a bloody path to freedom instead of staying to serve the man personally responsible for destroying your home country?

Skimming ahead did not resolve any of my problems with the story. We find out that Celaena loves candy, books and pretty dresses and hates the idea of puppies dying. Dorian and Chaol angst about how incongruously adorable and lovable the World's Best Assassin is and discreetly argue about who'll get to kiss her underneath the Fantasy Mistletoe Equivalent during their Fantasy Christmas Equivalent. Someone's butchering the competitors and stealing their organs. Magical ghosts factor in somewhere. Saving the World becomes a top priority, which only Celaena can do, etc. etc. drop it into Mount Doom, rinse and repeat.

Fantasy novels are supposed to make you believe in the unbelievable. Sadly, I found my sense of disbelief couldn't remain airborne with Throne of Glass - at least for longer than 100 pages.

Disagree? Still curious? You can purchase Throne of Glass here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

"The Cellist of Sarajevo," by Steven Galloway

The Characters:

The Cellist: A musician who decides to defy the enemy forces attacking his city by playing music on the site of a horrific bombing.

Arrow: A female sniper tasked with protecting the cellist from an enemy sniper sent to silence his music and his message.

Keenan: A husband and father who must journey across his wartorn city to get fresh water for his family.

Dragan: A baker on his way to get food who find himself trapped at an intersection by sniper fire.

The Word: This is going to be a difficult book to review.

I usually don't pick up books like this. I go for particular stories. I prefer happy endings, but can also tolerate hopeful endings and even angstily tragic ones (so long as they don't involve Heathcliff). I tend to gravitate towards light stories - or very dark ones that against all odds ends up in the light. In this case, I read this book because a coworker of mine chose it as this month's book club selection, after revealing that she and her family had escaped from Bosnia in the early '90s.

The novel is set during the Siege of Sarajevo, right after a mortar destroys a marketplace, killing 22 people who were lined up for bread. A cellist (an unnamed fictionalized version of Vedran Smailović, a real-life musician whose bravery inspired the novel) takes his cello and decides to play his instrument at ground zero at four o'clock each day, every day, for 22 days - one for every victim. His stark courage inspires the people around him and serves as a catalyst for the three characters whose interwoven stories we read.

The main story is Arrow's, a talented female sniper who is ordered by her commanding officer to protect the cellist. Hers is a character shaped by war and a burning hatred for the men on the hills who send bombs and shells and sniper fire into the city. However, her careful calculations of how the enemy sniper will proceed go awry in a manner that forces her to remember her basic humanity, as well as her motivation for becoming a sniper in the first place.

As well, we read about Keenan, a husband and father who has to travel miles across the city every four days to collect fresh water for his family, risking bombs and sniper fire. However, even as he considers himself a coward, even as he encounters unspeakable tragedy, he is still capable of making selfless choices and preserving his innate decency even in the face of horrors.

Finally, we read about Dragan, a baker on his way to a guaranteed meal who is halted in his tracks by a sniper-guarded intersection. Trying to decide whether or not he can risk a crossing, he runs into an old friend who stubbornly insists on hoping against hope that things will get better.

The unifying theme in all four storylines is that true loss does not come when buildings are destroyed or people are killed - true loss occurs when the stress of warfare causes people to forsake their common humanity, decency and identity. All four characters mourn the loss of the Sarajevo that they knew - a Sarajevo represented by the streets that were bombed, the Opera House that was destroyed, the libraries and banks and schools that were shelled into oblivion. And yet they also represent how the city has survived, with their own small victories of perseverance, hope, and selflessness.

Did this book entertain me? No. It's an incredibly depressing novel, and it's intended to be. This book is full of people who have to check both ways before crossing the street - to make sure they don't get taken out by a random sniper. Where running water is scarce and electricity scarcer still. Where the temptation to turn into as indiscriminate a killer as the enemy you're fighting is deceptively strong.

No, this wasn't a fun book. And it's not one I can easily give a letter grade to because I don't know how to judge it. While well-written, it was also tedious, depressing and repetitive. But perhaps that was the point - because living in an oppressed city under siege can feel that way. Or perhaps that is just how I read it. I will definitely remember this book - but I don't think I'll ever willingly reread it or read something similar to it, at least for a good long while.

That being said, it did make me think, and it actually made me go out and look up the Siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian War for Independence, and the genocides that resulted from it - an area of history I had only been vaguely aware of before. So as a book that expands awareness while at the same time propagating a common (if commonly overlooked) message, The Cellist of Sarajevo succeeds.

You can purchase The Cellist of Sarajevo here.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

"The Girl Most Likely To..." by Susan Donovan

The Chick: Kat Cavanaugh, a.k.a. "Kat Turner." When she was sixteen, she got pregnant and was abandoned by everyone she trusted. Now wealthy and successful, she's determined to prove to everyone how wrong they were about her.
The Rub: Her revenge against the love of her life, Riley Bohland, backfires when she realizes she's still in love with him.
Dream Casting: Elizabeth Banks.

The Dude: Riley Bohland. After belatedly learning he has a son and fruitlessly trying to find him, he's furious when Kat comes back into town to rub it in his face.
The Rub: He realizes he was wrong to drive her away - but how can he win her trust again when he's secretly a million dollars in debt?
Dream Casting: Joe Manganiello.

The Plot:

Kat: Crap! I'm pregnant!

School Principal/Abused Mother/Riley: GTFO!

Kat: Fine, then.

20 Years Later

Riley: OMG, how DARE you take my child away from me!

Kat: Um, he's my child, and you dumped me for a car.

Riley: YOU AN UNFORGIVING, COLD, BABY-STEALING WITCH - and I'm still in love with you!

Kat: Awesome! Hoo-

Crazy Psychotic Ex: Guess what? We're still engaged!

Kat: What.

Riley: We're NOT! ...but I am a million bucks in the hole.

Kat: Excuse me?

Aiden, Riley and Kat's Lovechild: AND I'm going to sulk about your womany lies and make you feel bad for a couple of chapters.

Kat: Are you kidding me?

Abusive Father: Did someone order a climax with a loaded gun? *dies*


Riley: We're good now. Let's have our HEA!

Kat: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Secret Baby
  • 1 Big Misunderstanding
  • 1 Very Bad Parent
  • 1 Inconveniently Deceased Parent
  • 1 Surprise! Parent
  • 1 Count of Stalking
  • 1 Count of Blackmail
  • 1 Evil Ex(-Fiancee)
  • 1 Secretly Enormous Financial Debt
  • 1 Slightly-Less-Evil B & B Owner
  • Several Repressed Memories
  • 1 Crazy Italian BFF
  • 1 Bulletproof Pie Tin
The Word: When Kat Turner, nee Cavanaugh, was sixteen, she discovered she was pregnant, her aunt threw her out of school, her battered mother threw her out of the house in favour of her abusive father, and the love of her life (and babydaddy) Riley Bohland coldly dumped her, all in the same day. She fled her small town of Persuasion, West Virginia, uncertain if she'd ever return.

Twenty years later, she is all set to enact her perfect revenge fantasy. Thanks to a hell of a lot of good luck, she fell in with the right people and managed to build a pretty solid life for herself and her son, Aidan. Recently, having come into an unexpectedly enormous inheritance, Kat decides now's the perfect time to swing back into Persuasion, filthy rich and fabulous, to rub her good fortune in the faces of everyone who turned their backs on her. Oh yeah, and to tell her good-for-nothing high school sweetheart Riley that he'd fathered her child before he dumped her.

The trouble is, somehow Riley already knows about his secret baby, and he's furious with her. I'll warn you - there is a lot of male entitlement at the beginning of this novel, lots of Riley ranting about how Kat "stole" his boy (not their boy) and how Aiden should have been raised a Bohland in the Bohland way, and that Kat's a cold, hard bitch for keeping Aiden from him out of spite.

I'll now take a moment to explain that Riley dumped Kat the night she was going to tell him she was pregnant, and intentionally did so in the coldest way possible, because his daddy threatened to take away his car.

He dumped his girlfriend, the admitted love of his life, for a car. Yes, he was sixteen, but so was Kat, and Riley wastes an absurdly long time in this novel before he bothers to give Kat even the barest amount of slack for choosing to raise her child away from the town where she a) was thrown out of school, b) was terrorized by an abusive father c) was kicked out of her home, and d) placed second behind a car.

Okay, so it's not that bad. Riley realizes he's still in love with Kat, and she him, pretty early on in the novel, and there's a surprisingly tender scene where he sees a picture of his college-aged son for the first time and cries - not just for the years he missed raising his boy, but also for the twenty years he could have had with Kat. And while I did have problems with how everyone (including Kat) initially piled on her for deciding to abandon their faithless asses to raise her baby on her own terms, the novel does slowly, gradually address everyone's shades of grey in that situation as the characters develop.

That being said, while the novel starts out strong, with excellent dialogue, loads of emotional drama, and colourful characters, it slacks off pretty quickly. Riley and Kat realize they still love each other almost immediately, so the remaining obstacles are taken up one by one, relay-style, by Riley's Psychotic Stalker Ex, a Big Misunderstanding instigated by Riley's Psychotic Stalker Ex, Aiden's angst at discovering he's a Secret Baby, Sudden Trust Issues stemming from Kat discovering Riley's a million dollars in debt, a Mildly-Obsessed Baker who decides to blackmail Riley's Now-Ex-Psychotic Stalker Ex to break up a secondary romance, a Completely Ridiculous Secret Parentage Conspiracy Reveal, and finally Kat's Monstrously Abusive Father.

With so many of the issues coming from outside the relationship, the romantic plot felt contrived. There was some nice emotional development by the end but I felt that most of the time that could have been spent on character and romantic development was sucked up by outside drama. And while I do enjoy outside drama, it shouldn't overpower the two characters' paths to love and when they practically start out the novel on the threshold of the HEA, I don't see how much further they can go.

The Girl Most Likely Too starts out strong, has dynamic writing, and deals with some pretty dark issues, but it ultimately left me unsatisfied.

You can purchase The Girl Most Likely To... here.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Book-To-Film Review: "Chocolat," by Joanne Harris

The Protagonist: Vianne Rocher. She and her daughter have lived a nomadic, string-free existence - until they arrive in a small, backwater French town and decide to set up a chocolate shop.
The Rub: Vianne's decision to start her business in the middle of Lent incurs the wrath of the parish priest - can she stand her ground against real authority?

The Secondary Cast:

Anouk: Vianne's six-year-old daughter. Loves her mother and the travelling, but has an imaginary friend named Pantoufle to help with the loneliness of being uprooted.

Pere Reynaud: A rigid and arrogant parish priest who sees Vianne as a threat to his community to be rooted out, no matter the cost.

Armande: An elderly town resident who recognizes Vianne as a witch and befriends her immediately.

Josephine Muscat: A troubled woman sneered at by the town and stuck in an abusive relationship - until Vianne offers her assistance.

Guillaume: A gentle old man who is greatly attached to his old dog, Charley, despite the priest's insistence that caring for a creature with no immortal soul is a waste of time.

Roux: A red-headed member of the travelling river people who set up camp in the small French town, despite the hatred and suspicion of the townsfolk.

The Word: I picked this book up because, thanks to the brilliant Gentlemen and Players blowing my everlovin' mind, I've been trying to read more of Joanne Harris. So far, her books have been pleasant, mouthwatering, with lots of detail - but they never reached the agony and ecstasy I had reading her novel about the politics rife within a boy's prep school.

Vianne Rocher grew up living an itinerant existence with her mother, travelling all over the world, living different lives, working different jobs, yet still hanging on to the family tradition of magic. Vianne's mother read tarot cards, predicted the future, brewed tisanes and made good-luck charms - even as her premonitions grew increasingly dark as her own death loomed closer and closer.

Vianne was raised in a life of change and chaos, and she's lived a similar life with her now-six-year-old daughter Anouk, but the nomadic existence is starting to tire. When she and her daughter move to the tiny French village of Lasquenet and set up a chocolaterie, Vianne sees a potential place to actually settle down. However, when she runs afoul of the rigid and obsessive town priest, Vianne learns that her heritage of change and chaos might be just the thing this town needs.

The novel is told in chapters of alternating viewpoints between Vianne and her ultimate opponent, Pere Reynaud, the priest who grows increasingly unhinged by the defiance and sensuality Vianne and her chocolate shop represent. However, I wouldn't interpret Chocolat as a condemnation of the church or Catholicism - but rather the particular method this priest applies to his people.

Reynaud, who was raised in town but left for his education, holds himself above his flawed, stupid, petty flock and preaches down to them with law, theory, and rhetoric, trying to appeal to the mind. Vianne, meanwhile, is the outsider who wants to belong within the community as a part of them, and with her casual dialogues with them over a cup of chocolate, appeals to the heart and the senses with empathy and compassion. The novel demonstrates how you cannot seek to change the hearts and minds of people by holding yourself apart from them.

In this way, Vianne wins over many of the townsfolk, which prompts Reynaud, terrified of losing control over the town, to take ever-more irrational measures.

As usual, the writing and descriptions are sumptuous, and I quite enjoyed the magical realism (Vianne possesses a mild mind-reading ability which gives her insight). I've found myself comparing Joanne Harris to Alice Hoffman rather frequently (although on average I've enjoyed Hoffman's books more), and here, Chocolat reminded me very strongly of Hoffman's Practical Magic. In both, the magical element is subtle, subdued, and may or may not exist solely in the protagonist's head, but imbues both books with a spice of something special and different.

That being said, I found some elements of Chocolat to be a little unclear and haphazard (particularly the ending and some "shocking" reveals). And despite having much of her POV, I found I had trouble connecting to and understanding the motivations of Vianne.

The Film:  *warning: book and film spoilers ahead*
It's interesting to compare the novel Chocolat to the novel Practical Magic - because I had a similar reaction when watching both of their film adaptations. Both films differed wildly (wildly) from the source material, but the films themselves were so interesting that I enjoyed both versions. In fact, *lowers voice to a whisper* I may have enjoyed the film Chocolat more than the book.

Is it a faithful film adaptation? Oh Hell no. They add stuff, they change stuff. Most of the characters only bear mild resemblances to their literary counterparts - although Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin) remains startlingly faithful to the original.

But is it an enjoyable movie - and does it have a good story on its own? Yes and yes. I could detail all the stuff they change from the book, but then this list would go on forever. Instead, I will speak about the three main differences and how they affected the story and my reaction to the film.

1. Vianne's Origins.
In the novel, there is no real specific reason for why Vianne and her mother, and consequently Vianne and Anouk, keep moving around from town to town and changing their identities. The implication is that it's because Vianne and her mother are witches, as well as an ingrained fear on her mother's part that staying too long in one place will allow "The Black Man" (an archetypal symbol of the church and the authorities) to take Vianne away. We later learn in an almost throw-away scene that Vianne's mother may have actually snatched an infant Vianne from another woman's pram, which gives a wholly different context to their frantic travels.

In the film, Vianne reveals she's the daughter of a French pharmacist and a South American woman who belonged to a tribe of wanderers duty-bound to follow the summons of the north wind and dispense sacred cocoa-themed remedies from town to town. Vianne grew up following the wind and learning the ways of chocolate from her mother, but has trouble continuing that tradition with her lonely, sullen daughter.

To me, I liked this element. Aside from the chocolate-flavoured-Mary-Poppins vibe, I loved the romanticism and  magical realism of this backstory as well as how cleverly, effectively, and efficiently it explained Vianne's motivations, intentions, and the importance of chocolate in her life.

2. The Time Period.
In the novel, the story is set in more or less modern times, early nineties at the earliest. The town of Lasquenet is just such a small, out-of-the-way backwater that it still maintains an old-fashioned, timeless quality. Vianne, who's travelled all over the world, is depicted as a force of modernity in a forgotten town that somehow missed 60 years of social development.

In the film, the story is explicitly set sometime in the late 1950s-early 1960s. The townsfolk are still very much affected by both the world wars and Elvis music is filtering in very slowly (thanks to the town's adorable baby-faced parish priest). I love period pieces so I enjoyed this.

As to why the filmmakers decided to take a modern novel and make it a period piece, I suspect it might involve the suspension of disbelief. Modern audiences (particularly North American ones) might have had trouble believing a modern town would still remain so conservatively religious and socially antiquated that they needed Chocolate Mary Poppins to remind them that breaking Lent isn't the end of the world and that beating your wife is Wrong.

Do I believe there are still towns in Europe and North America that actually are still like that? Definitely, but moviegoers as a whole tend to watch films with an idealistic and naive bent and want to believe that modern society is no longer like this - therefore, it's more comforting to encounter this type of story in an historical setting where the time period can explain it away.

3. The Antagonist.
In the novel, Vianne is opposed in all things by Pere Reynaud, a controlling, arrogant, contemptuous and theologically-rigid priest. It's not just the notion of serving chocolate during Lent that offends him, or that by doing this Vianne weakens Pere Reynaud's iron-clad moral control over the town. Vianne's very presence is the ultimate threat because it's distracting and colourful and indecent and sensuous - Pere Reynaud thrives on control, and Vianne threatens his control over himself. That's not to say Pere Reynaud is a cartoon, but from his POV we can clearly see he is a megalomaniac whose lust for power is so heavily swaddled in religious rhetoric that even he doesn't recognize it. As the novel progresses and he loses more ground, he eventually descends into complete insanity.

In the film, the filmmakers decided to sidestep possible religious controversy by rewriting Vianne's antagonist as the Comte de Reynaud, the town mayor (played by Alfred Molina, one of my favourite actors). In the film, the Comte is very much an antagonist rather than a villain, and a far more sympathetic figure. While he is still arrogant and a bully (the brand-new baby-faced priest is so terrified of him that he lets the Comte "revise" all of his homilies beforehand), his good intentions and his attempts to lead by example are more evident. He genuinely cares about his town and its people but he bitterly resents Vianne's usurpation of his role as authority figure.

Pere Reynaud and the Comte share very little in common, character-wise, beyond a desire for denial - not only of the corporeal pleasures for Lent, but of the truths that are too painful to accept (the Comte hides his heartbreak over his wife leaving him by telling people she is merely "vacationing" in Italy, and Pere Reynaud glosses over the teenage trauma of discovering his mother in flagrante delicto with the parish priest who was his religious mentor).

There is actually one major scene that both antagonists share - in the novel, when Vianne decides to hold a chocolate festival on Easter, an enraged Pere Reynaud finally snaps and breaks into her shop to sabotage her work. After weeks of futile self-denial, Pere Reynaud has a complete mental breakdown at the sight of so much delicious food and he gorges himself, completely abandoning his evil plan, his dignity, and his Lenten fast to shove sweets into his face instead - only to be humiliatingly woken up by his parishioners the next morning, covered in melted chocolate.

However, because of the different ways these antagonists were developed, this scene has a different context in the film. In the novel, Pere Reynaud's breakdown is Vianne's ultimate triumph, it's a glorious chocolate-coated scene of Schadenfreude as he gets his just desserts in the most delightfully literal and public way possible, after which he flees into the night, never to return.

In the film, this scene comes across as tragicomic and sympathetic, a proud man finally admitting to weakness. He's spent the entire film believing he can control, change and better everything if he just believes and works hard enough - only to discover he's just as human and fallible as his townsfolk.

In the novel, Harris uses pig imagery to describe Reynaud's breakdown - he squeals and keens as he eats the chocolate. The breakdown in the novel turns Reynaud into an animal, to be laughed at and hated. The breakdown in the film makes the Comte de Reynaud seem more human - to be sympathized with and forgiven. The Comte is actually saved from public humiliation by the quick thinking of Vianne and the parish priest, who finally gets to give a stirring Easter homily in his own words, and a grateful Comte befriends Vianne.

I actually loved the film's antagonist way more than the incredibly creepy Pere Reynaud. Yes, I'm a sucker for Alfred Molina, and even more of a sucker for redeemed-antagonist storylines.

Yes, I still liked the novel, and acknowledge that the film changed a great deal of the storyline. However, from a purely objective perspective - I enjoyed the film's story more than the novel's.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

The July Round-Up

Another month has come and gone - which means (eep!) I only have one month to go until my deadline! Write write write...But enough about that! What did I read this month?

*July Winner!* Every Day, by David Levithan. YA, Fantasy. A+ 
Pros: Unique storyline, great characters, fascinating exploration of varying teenage perspectives, epic romance. Cons: Ending is a little unclear.

Persuasion, by Jane Austen. Romance, Classic. A+
Pros: Lovely romance, clever subtext, fantastic heroine (my favourite of Austen's). Cons: Some mixed messages.  

The Vicious Deep, by Zoraida Cordova. YA, Fantasy. B-
Pros: Great depiction of Coney Island setting, hilarious hero POV, great family dynamic, strong female love interest ... Cons: ...strong female love interest exhibits strength by doing stupid things. Magical mermaid setting is less well developed. Sloppy and unresolved ending. 

Crazy for Love, by Victoria Dahl. Romance, Contemporary.
Pros: Solid writing, lots of drama. Cons: Hero's serious anxiety disorder is shrugged off, unrealistically. Muddled romantic obstacles.

Wake, by Amanda Hocking. YA, Fantasy. D+
Pros: Heroines' love interests are respectful, nice boys. Interesting gender reversal in the supernatural-creature romance. Cons: Flacid "tell over show" writing style. Cutesy romance. Underdeveloped siren villainesses come close to body- and slut-shaming.

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell, by Chris Colfer. Middle Grade, Fantasy. D+
Pros: Witty dialogue, creative idea. Cons: Lame "tell over show" writing style, over-convenient and nonsensical world-building, pedantic and patronizing tone, overromanticization of villainy.

*July Dud* Sins of a Wicked Duke, by Sophie Jordan. Romance, Historical. D-
Pros: Hero has a wicked-cool snake tattoo on his nipple - and don't worry if you missed the first time it was mentioned, it'll only be referenced again ANOTHER 1,284 TIMES. Cons: Victim-blaming slut-shaming sexually-assaulting hero + doormat "Oirish" Heroine with Fantastic Hair = The Opposite of FunTimes. 

The Heir, by Grace Burrowes. Romance, Historical. DNF 
Pros: Hero and heroine are respectful, sensible people who like to talk out their problems. Cons: Over a hundred pages of talking about their problems without actually encountering any problems! ZzzzZZzz....