Saturday, September 29, 2012

"The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller

The Protagonist: Patroclus. When he is banished from his homeland by his unloving father, Patroclus is sent to another land to be fostered and befriends the crown prince, Achilles. Before long, their friendship develops into something more.
His Angst: However, it is clear to everyone that Achilles is destined for Greater Things - even if it comes at the cost of his own life.

The Secondary Cast:

Achilles: Son of a god, fated to be the greatest warrior of his generation, he has lived his entire life believing he is destined be immortalized in history - but how he'll leave his significant mark on the world is still in question.

Chiron: A sober and dedicated centaur who trains and educates Achilles and Patroclus as teenagers.

Thetis: Achilles' mother - a powerful sea nymph who has lofty ambitions for her son and sees Patroclus as a demeaning obstacle to those ambitions.

Agamemnon: The general of generals of the Greeks during the Trojan War - as well as a bully and a pig who resents Achilles' fame and cocky attitude.

Breseis: A young woman captured as a war-prize during the Trojan War, rescued by Patroclus and Achilles, and kidnapped by Agamemnon - sparking Achilles' withdrawal from the fight.

Odysseus: The cunning, wily King of Ithaca who is sent out to find Achilles and enlist him to fight in the Trojan War.

The Word: The Song of Achilles tells the story of the events leading up to the Trojan War, from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles' male lover. In many narratives of the Trojan War, Patroclus' character is often given the shaft (and not in the good way), most especially in the Brad Pitt film Troy, in which he was rewritten as Achilles' cousin. That sound you hear is me, plucking the tune from Deliverance on a lyre.

However, Patroclus' viewpoint adds so many different layers and dimensions to a familiar tale - through his eyes, the novel is a romance, an examination of the nature of fame and immortality, and the importance of maintaining one's own identity and principles despite being surrounded by socially superior peers.

Patroclus is perfectly average in every way, which is a nice thing to be in modern times but in Ye Olde Hyberbolic Greece, in the age of heroes and deities and demigods and monsters, he's a bit of a limp noodle and a huge disappointment to his kingly father. When he accidentally kills another boy while defending himself, his father strips him of his princehood and sends him away to be fostered in another kingdom.

There, Patroclus meets Achilles, who is his polar opposite - golden, gorgeous, talented, and beloved by all. Born of a union between a human king and the sea-nymph Thetis, Achilles has been raised beneath the banner of a prophesy that foretells him becoming the greatest warrior of his generation. Despite being almost unbearably privileged, Achilles is generous and kind-hearted, and the two of them become friends, and then inseparable lovers.

And that's when that bitch Helen runs off with Paris and ruins everything. As the Greek kings assemble their armies to go to war against Troy, Patroclus and Achilles realize that this is the war Achilles is fated to become the greatest warrior in. There's only one catch - when Thetis reluctantly shares the rest of the prophesy, she reveals that Achilles is also destined to die during the war.

Patroclus is appalled - why not stay home then, avoid the war, and live to a ripe old age in obscurity? And yet, that is not an option in this version of mythic Greece - where the gods are present and their blood flows in countless half human descendants. Achilles is half-god, and yet immortality is denied him - the only way to access that godly part of himself is to strive towards the only immortality a human can attain: glorious fame in battle, that will be sung long after the battle is over and the bones are buried.

So Achilles and Patroclus sail to Troy with the rest of the Greek army - and with Achilles' doom hanging over their heads.

Part of the reason why I enjoyed this novel so much is the fact that it's narrated from the viewpoint of the story's Xander. Now, if you're unfamiliar with the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer (FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WATCH IT. IT'S ON NETFLIX), Xander was the one character who remained a magicless, regular human being through all seven seasons - because of that, he was the character through which the magicless, regular human being audience could access and express their feelings for the show, because his viewpoint was theirs.

Patroclus is the Xander to Achilles' Buffy. Patroclus is no one special - he's not great at fighting, he's not descended from a god, he's not brave or particularly cunning or even handsome. And yet, he is an intelligent observer (a common trait in Xander-characters) - and can interpret the events going on around him in a way that is accessible to the reader.

Because he has no stake in achieving any sort of glory, Patroclus' observations show a keen insight into the nature and ultimate emptiness of fame. He sees the death, rape and destruction of the war. He witnesses how petty and vengeful the assembled kings become if they feel their fame (and thus their immortality) is threatened, and how little their honour means in the greater scheme of things. He also knows the joy that comes from sharing a life with Achilles, and despairs that it isn't enough to keep Achilles from pursuing his destiny.

The romance between Achilles and Patroclus is another fantastic element to the story. Despite Achilles being phenomenally blessed in all ways, their relationship never feels unequal. Achilles adores Patroclus, passionately and devotedly, and their homosexuality is never a huge source of conflict. They get a few side-eyes, but the biggest opponent to their relationship (Achilles' fiercely protective mother, Thetis) reviles their love because she believes Patroclus is disgustingly inferior to Achilles, not because Achilles is in love with a man.

As well, the writing in this novel is simply gorgeous. Poetic while still accurate and readable, it gives a suitably epic cast to the story while still maintaining the private, humming tension of intimate scenes. Even the characters with smaller roles (like Odysseus and Chiron) are given hints of depth and backstory to illuminate their presence in the narrative.

For me, The Song of Achilles was a fantastic book, a near perfect package - great characters, beautiful language, a sweeping romance, and even a hint of fantasy. If you are at all a fan of Greek myth, The Song of Achilles is a worthwhile read.

You can purchase The Song Of Achilles here.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

"What's Left of Me," by Kat Zhang

The Protagonist: Eva. In a world where people are born with two souls, she is the "recessive soul" who was supposed to fade away and leave her sister Addie, the "dominant soul," to live her life as a normal human being. She didn't, and she and Addie have been pretending to be only one person.
Her Angst: No one can know she exists, or else both she and Addie will be shipped off to parts unknown by their tyrannical government.

The Secondary Cast:

Addie: Eva's soul sistah and the one who can control their body. She'd rather fly under the radar and live a normal, unnoticed existence.

Hally/Lissa: Schoolmates of Addie/Eva who hide the fact that they're a hybrid - even though they long to find more people like themselves.

Devon/Ryan: Hally/Lissa's brothers - Devon is silent and introspective, Ryan is open, shy and friendly.

Kitty/Nina: Addie/Eva's roommates at the cruel psychiatric facility they're shipped to when their condition becomes public.

Dr. Lyanne: A doctor at the psychiatric clinic who sincerely believes she can help hybrids reintegrate into society.

Mr. Conivent: A nasty employee of the government who helps round up hybrid children and deliver them to the psychiatric clinic for testing and treatment.

Angst Checklist:
  • Personal Identity
  • Sisterhood
  • Sharing
  • Institutionalized Racism
  • Medical Ethics
  • Sticking It To The Man
The Word: I was excited to start reading this book since I'd heard a lot of positive hype - and, to be fair, I read this book fairly quickly, eager to see what happened at the end.

That being said, I felt What's Left of Me was an example of a brilliant idea with faulty execution.

In an alternate universe, all human beings are born with two souls within their bodies. These two-souled beings were known as hybrids. However, the history our protagonists have been taught is that the nations ruled and populated by hybrids eventually descended into chaos and insanity, and only the Americas managed to free themselves from destruction during the American Revolution by eradicating hybrids from society and closing their borders.

In the Americas, everyone is still born with two souls, but usually by the time a child reaches the age of ten, one soul grows more dominant and the other one harmlessly and peacefully fades away, in a process called "settling." Those who do not settle by this age are taken in hand by the government and sent to shady psychiatric institutions where, more often than not, they are never seen again.

15-year-old Eva hides a secret - she is not supposed to exist. The "recessive soul" to her sister Addie (the "dominant soul"), she was supposed to fade away, and Addie/Eva's refusal to settle by the usual age ostracized and nearly bankrupted their family as they spent years in and out of hospitals trying to "cure" their affliction. For the good of their family (especially their declining brother Lyle who suffers from kidney disease), Addie and Eva have pretended to have settled for three years.

After three years of inactivity, Eva has lost all control over their shared body and is little more than a paralyzed ghost haunting Addie's mind, but she tells herself that it's better than not existing at all. That is, until they're approached by the new girl at school, Hally, who reveals she's secretly a hybrid (her sister soul is named Lissa) and that she can help them hide in plain sight and teach Eva how to move again.

Addie's afraid of jeopardizing their tenuously safe existence, but Eva is so hungry and desperate for the power to move, to live again that she insists. Addie finally consents and they spend more and more time with Hally/Lissa as well as their older hybrid brothers, Devon/Ryan. However, when disaster strikes and their condition is exposed, Addie and Eva are forced to learn the hard way just how "benevolent" their country's anti-hybrid society really is.

Let's start with the good, because there are a lot of interesting facets to this story. First of all, I loved the relationship between Addie and Eva, the push-and-pull, the power dynamic. As someone with sisters, I would seriously go batshit insane if I had to share a skull with one of them and never have any privacy ever, but the two-souls concept allowed for a fascinatingly new examination of sisterly relationships.

I loved how loving and fractured their relationship was - especially with the guilt Addie harbours over being the "dominant" soul who's capable of moving their body and being recognized in society and having a life while no one even acknowledges that her sister exists (not even their parents). I loved how Addie didn't have to set the plot going by visiting Hally/Lissa at their house. She controls their body, she could have ignored Eva's pleas and lived her life in peace and safety, but she didn't. That sacrifice adds so many layers and facets to their relationship. At the same time, I understood their frustration when they disagreed over how to act or move.

That being said, the rest of the novel is really frustrating - partly because some aspects of this novel are so good.

In regards to the central concept, the questions kept building up as I read the novel: what's supposed to be good about being a hybrid? What are the advantages? What can they do that one-souled people can't? Because even by the end of the novel it still sounded like having two souls is a major inconvenience compared to having only one. How do the two souls have lives? How do they choose postsecondary education if one wants to go into Arts and the other into Science? What happens when one soul falls in love with a man and the other soul falls in love with another man? And what about their partners' extra souls?!

And the worldbuilding for this type of society was just as frustratingly vague and nonsensical. For instance, why do parents even bother giving both souls names if they expect only one soul to make it? How do they even identify both souls in a newborn? Do they care when the recessive soul disappears? Do they mourn? Is there a social event, some sort of funeral for this sort of thing? If they don't care, why? How do they accept that one of their children will always be doomed to a premature death?

Again - these questions spring from the fact that Kat Zhang is working with a very original and fascinating story concept. There are so many directions to write about and explore with a concept like this, and I think that's where my dissatisfaction with this novel comes from. The novel has a brilliant idea - and it's put to use as mere window dressing to a standard dystopian adventure about a self-righteous teenager fighting The Evil Authority. Yup, the authority is just plain evil because it believes in the black-and-white "Hybridity is Bad" mindset - even though the story never gives a satisfactory explanation of how hybridity is good.

As for the novel's other features, the writing styles demonstrates some effort at writing lyrical prose, and while I sincerely appreciate that since I loooove lyrical writing styles, in some cases this results in cumbersome or confusing passages. For instance, there's a scene where Eva describes having a rubber stopper slammed into her windpipe - and for a few moments I kept reading to figure out who had attacked her like that, until I realized it was a poorly-integrated metaphor for her sudden silence.

That being said, What's Left of Me was still a quick read - part of that might have been my quest for answers, of which there were very, very few. I suspect many of the answers are being saved up for future books, a theory I deeply resent. I understand the need to save suspense and mystery for future novels, but a first book should still resolve and answer certain obstacles and problems, and I dislike first novels that explain nothing and leave open-ended conclusions in order to manipulate people into buying the next books.

Ultimately, though, my main beef with What's Left of Me is that it could been so much more, but it isn't.
Disagree? You can purchase What's Left Of Me: A Hybrid Novel, here.

The 260-Page Drop and Skim: "Lord of Ice," by Gaelen Foley

I've had a bit of a weird reading experience with Gaelen Foley. Her debut novel, The Duke, was a marvel.

Her second novel, Lord of Fire (the one where our Spy Hero poses as a Sex Cult Leader and hosts orgies in a cave in his basement in order to learn state secrets), was cray-cray but still incredibly entertaining, with some good dialogue.

This third novel - had nothing. Nothing. It wasn't terrifyingly bad, but it offered absolutely nothing new, and it traded on tropes that were undeveloped.

The novel opens with a painfully obvious prologue that's meant to spell out the entire plot -  an Evil Viscount is going bankrupt, so he murders his alcoholic war veteran brother in order to get at the fortune of his illegitimate niece (the daughter of their older, deceased brother and his mistress). Unfortunately, the 50,000 pound inheritance is signed over to the girl's name, so the Evil Viscount will have to murder her, as well, to get his hands on the money.

An Evil Viscount wants to the kill the heroine - got that?

So the Sex Cult Spy guy from the previous book (Lucien)? Turns out he has a twin brother, Damien, who fought in the "real Army," so to speak, leading to their eventual falling out. Damien is suffering from some pretty severe PTSD, where dreams, loud noises, and bright lights can set him off and make him believe he is back in Spain. He's been hiding out at his newly-bestowed estate when he learns that a war buddy of his has been murdered, but not before he named Damien as the new guardian to his ward in his last will and testament.

Meanwhile, our plucky future murder victim heroine Miranda is currently studying Angst and Resentment at St. PedoBear's School for Molested Orphans. While she dreams of her neglected guardian riding up to take her away from the awful living conditions, she also secretly works as an actress with a local theatre troupe to save up money and an escape plan.

It is as an actress on the stage that Miranda first gains the attention of Damien, who has ridden over to collect his new ward but stopped to catch a show first. Damien supports local theatre, y'all! Damien is immediately attracted to the Hottest Woman in the Room (Miranda), and Miranda is immediately attracted to the Hottest Man in the Room (Damien). And I am bored with both of them.

Damien, who has been avoiding women and liquor since his last PTSD-induced mental episode in Lord of Fire, figures one quick bang can't hurt, and he waits outside the theatre to sexually harass and force a kiss on Miranda despite her repeated and vocal rejections. But she likes the kiss so it's okay!

However, at this point of the novel Miranda is an entertaining, intelligent, and saucy creature so she makes a break for it once Damien turns his back to summon the carriage. Unfortunately, she runs into a pack of suspiciously-organized thieves and vagrants. Damien rides to her rescue, but the conflict induces his PTSD (which is depicted in this novel as a kind of mental lycanthropy that Damien can sense coming and warn people away from), and he ends up throat-ripping a bunch of dudes to death with his bare hands, MacGruber-style. Miranda, showing admirable intelligence and restraint, runs like the dickens.

Then next day, Damien shows up at St. PedoBear's to pick up Miranda and is appalled to learn that a) the school won't take care of her anymore because she's failing the required courses of Being Molested and Being Young Enough For the Pedophile Reverend and b) she's the very same actress he ripped throats for the night before.

He adapts and agrees to take Miranda with him to meet his family, but Miranda's no longer willing to leave - she realizes that once she's gone, her young friend Amy will become the star pupil in the Being Molested course. She plays along with Damien until they arrive at a nearby inn and then attempts to flee back to the school, with the idea of snatching Amy and hieing off with the travelling theatre troupe.

Damien catches her, though, and forces the teary Miranda to confess her matriculation in Child Abuse. He storm the school in true Kick-Ass Hero fashion, busts the reverend and saves the kiddies - earning Miranda's love and admiration and effectively killing off the interesting aspects of her character.

See, before this, Miranda's quite an entertaining heroine. She's innocent without being naive, naughty without being childish. She handles situations practically and she shares some hilarious dialogue with Damien. However, once he brings down St. PedoBear's, the story rather explicitly transforms her into a different character entirely, as if by magic:

"She felt so strange. A quiet, womanly acquiescence settled over her with a willingness to set aside her childish ways; her tinselly, adolescent dreams of theatrical fame; and all her angry, headstrong willfulness. Instead, she would accept this strong, just man's rule, as though his very gentleness had already begun to tame her."

A more wall-banging paragraph I've never read. So, in one paragraph, Miranda gives up her dreams, career ambitions and cleverness in favour of the "more noble" ambition of Being Loved. Damien, after seeing only one performance, asserts that Miranda only acts so that she can confuse the applause with affection. You know, not because she's good at it (which she is), or because she enjoys it (which she does). Because The Man knows best.

Thus, in one paragraph, Miranda morphs from an interesting character in her own right into yet another Blankly Virtuous Heroine with No Self Esteem whose sole narrative purpose is to soak up the Hero's Dark Man Pain like a human Paper Towel of Lurve. In her new role as the Quicker Angst Picker-Upper, she basically spends the entire novel trying to get into Damian's pants while simultaneously believing she is unworthy to even pop the first button on his Lofty Aristocratic Fly.

The main obstacle, if you can call it that, is Damien's poorly-written and developed PTSD. At one point, Miranda tries to wake Damien up from a bad dream and he nearly strangles her to death. This, rather understandably, leaves Damien nervous about entering into a relationship. When Miranda asks Damien's bro Lucien for advice, this interchange happens:

[Miranda:] "But what happens if I approach him and he turns dangerous again? I told you what took place at the hotel. He could have killed me already."

"Stand up to him, girl," he said heartily.

Really, truly. If Damien, a 200-pound Alpha Male, tries to choke the life out of Miranda again, she should just stand up to him. Yes. That makes perfect sense.

And the rest of the book continues in this dreadfully boring and unoriginal fashion. It almost seems as if the author was working off a checklist of things that Have To Be In A Romance. The heroine marvels at all the luxury while feeling herself to be a poor, unloved orphan. The hero's family members are all unconditionally accepting. The heroine's ex shows up and makes an ass of himself for no reason and then disappears never to be seen again. The Evil Villain develops an unhealthy attraction to the heroine - again, for no real reason but to make him Even Eviler. Damien's PTSD magically disappears.

I gave up around page 260 when it wasn't even camp enough to be entertaining - it just felt rote. Skimming ahead, I was pleased to note I missed a last-minute conflict where Damien has to return to the front because Napoleon's escaped from Elba and Miranda whines about how selfish Damien is to choose his country's safety over her - the same last-minute conflict that occurred between the protagonists in the last book.

It wasn't only the fact that the novel was boring that made me frustrated - but the fact that all the overused tropes that bothered me in this book are so. Damn. Prevalent in romance. I've already whittled down most of my romance TBR to already-proven romance favourites and a very few interesting-looking new titles, but books like Lord of Ice almost make me want to give up on the whole genre.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

"The World According to Garp," by John Irving

The Protagonist: T.S. Garp. Raised by an independent-thinking single mother, he wants to be a successful writer when he grows up.
His Angst: Well, he becomes a writer, and his works are published, but what is the nature of success? And how does his writing affect the rest of his life?

Secondary Cast:

Jenny Fields: Garp's mother. An asexual with no comprehending of lust and no patience for social or sexual norms, she cuts her own unique path through life, child rearing, and writing - and becomes revered as a noted feminist because of it.

Helen Holm: Garp's wife. A talented English professor, she loves Garp, even as she sometimes wonders if she plays second place to fiction in Garp's heart.

John Wolf: Garp's publisher - respects his work, even as he sometimes has to play dirty tricks in order to sell it successfully.

Roberta Muldoon: Formerly a football player for the Philadelphia Eagles, this transgender woman tracks down Jenny Fields thanks to her feminist reputation and becomes one of Jenny and Garp's closest friends.

Ellen James: A young girl whose rape and disfigurement as a child sparked a controversial and fanatical feminist movement. A fan of Jenny Fields' work and Garp's writing, she wants to be a writer, too.

The Word: I'm sorry I've been away from the blog so long - I've been reading a book.

A very long book.

A very long and ultimately boring book. I picked this one up because it's the favourite book of a friend of mine, and the next choice for our book club.

Essentially, The World According to Garp is a bildungsroman - a coming-of-age story or fictional biography of a single protagonist (who, frequently, grows into an artist). David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is one. Jane Eyre might even be one, since the novel follows her through her abusive childhood and her years at school before she even meets her Mr. Rochester.

Bildungsromans are, I've found, large on character development and short on plot, but, as a linear recounting of a life, this is more or less expected. The story tends to be rambling and episodic, everything eventually leading to the character's success or death (or both!).

Now, if I love or relate to the protagonist of a bildungsroman, I love the novel (hence why David Copperfield and Jane Eyre are among my favourite books). If I don't love the protagonist, or if I'm apathetic - I don't.

Such is the case with The World According to Garp. The novel recounts the conception, birth, and life of T.S. Garp, the artistically-inclined son of an asexual feminist nurse who conceived him with the dying, lobotomized technical sergeant under her care. The novel follows Garp as he studies at the prestigious Steering School (where his mother is the nurse), takes up wrestling, travels to Austria, and explores and develops his desire to write and be a writer.

The novel does explore some fascinating general themes - I struggled through the periods detailing Garp's writer's block at the same time I was struggling with my own. I liked how his stories and novels all came with a powerful autobiographical influence, to the point where his wife, Helen, flat-out refuses to read any more of his novels because she can't bear to see how much of their life he's put into the pages. Reading up on John Irving on Wikipedia, this in itself seems to be pulled from Irving's own life and writing style, as several elements in his life appear in Garp and his other novels (for instance, like Garp, John Irving never met his own father, who died during World War II).

I also appreciated the exploration of feminism and gender roles, with all their advantages and disadvantages. Jenny Fields, Garp's mother, never identifies herself as a feminist until other women do after reading her autobiography, and the women's movement that rallies around her is as powerful and inspiring as it is narrow-minded and short sighted. Perhaps the scene that best indicates this is Jenny's eventual funeral, from which Garp is barred because it's women-only. Thus Garp has to dress in drag in order to infiltrate his own mother's memorial service, and the reactions to his unmasking reveal so many of the different approaches to feminism, both positive and negative.

As well, I loved how Garp essentially lives unselfconsciously as a househusband who cleans house, cooks meals, and raises his children while his wife Helen goes out everyday to work. This is never a source of angst for him, and believe me, Garp has many opportunities to angst in this enormously long book.

Finally, I adored the character of Roberta Muldoon, a transgender woman who used to play professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles and becomes Garp's closest friend. She embodies an essential conflict of gender - she identifies as female, even as she worries that some of her proclivities, impulses, and actions (particularly when it comes to using her impressive brute force to defend Garp and his friends on a number of occasions) are too male.

That being said, the writing style completely put me off. It's written in a very "telling" style, from an omniscient, future narrator. It reads like commentary, not description. As a result, I felt like I was hearing everything secondhand, like I was kept at a distance from the story while someone else made all the observations for me. Because of this, I never felt particularly invested in any of the events or characters, and by the 356th page, I just wanted the book to be done. Reading can truly be a tedious exercise when you don't particularly care about the characters or what happens to them.

I finished for the sake of Book Club (and to maintain my standing as the Only Member Who's Read Every Pick), but by the end of the novel, I was relieved. In a sense, The World According to Garp is very much like experiencing someone else's life - it's long, convoluted and detailed, and intermittently fascinating, but every interesting event is heavily couched in the tedious everyday minutia of living.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (15)

Yes, yes, I know I've been a little late on my Weekly Wantings, and for that I apologize - but, to be fair, there hasn't been a whole lot that I've added to my wishlist lately.

Genre: YA, Contemporary.
Cover Snark: This cover is giving me Smell the Glove vibes. You get a cookie if you get the reference.
The Story: A popular girl takes a vow of silence after her gossip leads to a hate crime.
Why I Want It: The reviews I've read have all been so interesting. First, I think the concept is fantastic - I love the idea of a popular girl taking responsibility for her failings and taking measures (however drastic) to fix them, and I like how in the process she finds out how words really matter and who her real friends are.

And that it's for now! What books are you eagerly Wanting, Weekly?

Saturday, September 08, 2012

"A Season To Be Sinful," by Jo Goodman

The Chick: Lily Rose, a.k.a. Lilith Rose Sterling. An aristocrat by birth and an orphan by fate, she survived on the streets by instructing gutter children, until her interference in what looks like the robbery of a nobleman gets her grievously injured.
The Rub: The nobleman takes her to his own home to help her convalesce, but she knows that any relationship with him will only risk the anonymity she's used to hide from a monster in her past.
Dream Casting: Jessica Chastain.

The Dude: Alexander Henry Grantham, Viscount Sheridan, a.k.a. "Sherry." When a young woman tackles him and takes a knife wound meant for him, he takes her and her orphan charges under his wing.
The Rub: As he learns more about her past, he starts to realize they have more connections in common than they thought - dangerous connections. Can he risk bringing them to light?

Dream Casting: Matt Bomer. 

The Plot:

Lily: Look out, guvnor! *shanked*

3 Urchins: Pay up, dirtbag!

Sherry: Well, crap. Here, have my doctor and my house.

Lily: I am highly suspicious of your kindness!

Sherry: Well I find your suspicion strangely appealing!

Lily: Just FYI, you'll have to wait through 200 pages of us talking before you get anywhere.

Sherry: Sounds good to me.

Lily: CURSES! I am undone by your bottomless understanding and compassion!

Bad Guy: Hey guess what I was an evil dude to BOTH of you!

Lily: Expose him, but don't kill him.

Bad Guy: *comes back anyway*

Lily: Fuck it, just kill him!

Bad Guy: *dies*

Lily and Sherry: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 3 Plot-Propelling Orphans
  • 1 Surprise!Shiv Attack
  • 1 Deadly Fever (unsexy variety)
  • 1 Surprise!Parent
  • 1 Amicable Mistress
  • 1 Awesomesauce Godparent with Convenient Societal Connections
The Word: I was beginning to get a little worried about Jo Goodman. I have seriously loved some of her books - like The Price of Desire and If His Kiss is Wicked, and yet, I was supremely annoyed by Tempting Torment and bored to tears with Never Love a Lawman.

Perhaps the distinction has to do with setting. Torment and Lawman are both set in America (although Torment is a mix of Regency and post-Civil War American rather than a true Western like Lawman), and maybe Goodman's attention to detail grows dull when her attention falls on details that don't interest me at all

Or maybe the first two books I mentioned simply play by a formula that is my personal brand of literary heroin, and A Season to Be Sinful falls into the same category: that of a rakish but ultimately noble hero who comes to heal, support, and rescue a supremely competent yet horrifically damaged heroine.

Viscount Sheridan, known as "Sherry" to his friends and associates, is leaving the theatre with his mistress when an altercation breaks out and he is thrown to the ground by an unknown assailant who winds up stabbed for his trouble. Sherry emerges from the incident shaken but unscathed. Days later, when he's about to depart for his country estate, Sherry is accosted by three street urchins who demand money for a surgeon to help the woman who wound up stabbed - by him, they think.

Sherry summons his personal physician and comes to the aid of the woman, the urchins' mentor, who is now in the grip of a deadly fever from her infected knife wound. Sherry is intrigued by the fact that the young woman, in her brief moments of lucidity, speaks with an upper class accent. He is further moved to help her by his growing suspicion that she took a blade that was meant for him. Sherry, it appears, has only recently retired from a secret double life, but that doesn't mean his enemies aren't still punching the clock.

When Sherry moves to transport the woman (Lily) and the three boys - Pinch, Dash, and Midge - to his home, Lily's not sure what to believe or who to trust. Still effectively in hiding from a monster with a gentleman's name who inflicted years of brutal torment upon her, Lily does not believe that men like Sherry perform kind acts without expecting something in return, and yet her repeated attempts to provoke his anger or reveal his perfidy come to naught.

Just like my two previous fave books of hers, the joy of A Season To Be Sinful comes from observing how Lily's emotional defenses melt by deliciously slow inches - and Sherry's too. He's a very reserved man, one who's worked hard not to call attention to himself after his mischievous youth ended in tragedy, but the more time and affection he invests in Lily and the boys, the more open and laughing he becomes.

And the boys! The three urchins could have been annoyingly cutesy plot moppets, but Goodman gives them character, distinct personalities and some truly hilarious dialogue. They do help move the plot along, but it comes about organically. They are not constantly underfoot doing randomly idiotic things in order to force the hero and heroine together. They are characters in their own right, with their own forms of agency who move and are moved by the decisions of others.

And through it all we have Jo Goodman's marvelous dialogue from her preternaturally articulate characters. I used to be irritated by the pacing, but I've grown accustomed to it and now appreciate the slow-burning tension and meticulously revealed secrets. Jo Goodman is also the absolute master of showing instead of telling, and her languid pacing allows her to paint a gorgeous, romantic picture without ever resorting to clunky and obvious exposition. That being said, if you like swift-paced reads, you might not be so enamoured with Jo Goodman's writing style.

As for me? I loved it. Another reason to keep Goodman on my Autobuy lists.

You can purchase A Season To Be Sinful here!

Monday, September 03, 2012

"Origin," by Jessica Khoury

The Protagonist: Pia. Born in the hidden scientific community of the Little Cambridge Research Facility after five generations of breeding and experimentation, she is the new face of the human race: invincible, immortal, and perfect.
Her Angst: Trouble is, she doesn't feel perfect - she feels stifled and lonely. And what are her creators - her scientist "aunts" and "uncles" - hiding from her about her origins?

The Secondary Cast:

Uncle Paolo: The head scientist of Little Cam. Responsible for Pia's upbringing and education, he trains Pia to believe that she is the next necessary step for the human race, a next step that needs to be preserved, maintained and controlled - at any cost.

Uncle Antonio: Pia's favourite Uncle, he loves and supports her, even as he expresses a mysterious unease with the direction her training is going in.

Eio: A boy from the Ai'oa tribe of South American natives who live near Little Cam, who befriends Pia. He shares her sense of not-belonging - after all, he's only half Ai'oa. His father, whom he refuses to name, is also a scientist in Little Cam.

Ami: Eio's younger foster sister. Mischievous plot moppet and conflict-bait.

Angst Checklist:
  • Finding a Place to Belong
  • Discovering Your Parents Aren't Perfect
  • Discovering Your Parents Are Not Only Not Perfect, But Evil Scientists
  • Morality within Immortality
  • Science vs. Religion
  • Science vs. Morality
  • Science vs. Outright Evil Science
  • Kittens!
  • Killing Kittens! For Science!
  • Insta-Love
The Word: Pia is perfect in every way. She knows this because she's been constantly reminded of this fact for seventeen years by every scientist in the secluded research facility of Little Cam, located deep in the Amazon rainforest. The result of generations of genetic and biochemical testing and an experimental drug called Immortis, Pia has heightened senses, sharper reflexes, a flawless memory - and an eternal lifespan. That's right, Pia is immortal - she will not age past twenty and her skin cannot be pierced. She is the reason for Little Cam's existence and its greatest scientific success.

The only person who tells her differently is her Uncle Antonio who tells her that "perfect is as perfect does" (thank you, Rainforrest Gump), all the while significantly wincing and grimacing to indicate he Knows More Than He Lets On.

The first few chapters of this novel are genuinely intriguing, particularly the descriptions of life in Little Cam and the Amazon rainforest setting. Everyone on the staff, from the head scientists to the laundress, is referred to as "Aunt" or "Uncle" by Pia. Each scientist has their own lab and specialty, and Pia learns from all of them and assists in their experiments. However, Pia is only permitted to study scientific and mathematical subjects (literature and history are forbidden), there are no world maps on the site and no one is permitted to mention city names or geographical locations. Pia's never been allowed outside Little Cam and has no idea where Little Cam is.

For all of her seventeen years, Pia has been studying to become a scientist in her own right and join the Immortis team in order to help engineer more immortals like herself. Even though she's still a teenager, she's terrified of the inevitability of outliving everyone she knows and being left alone, and believes helping to create a perfect, undying human race is the only way to avoid this.

Of course, all that changes when a storm-toppled tree leaves a hole in the electric fence around Little Cam. Pia's curiosity gets the better of her, and not five minutes after crawling into the outside world, she runs into a devastatingly hot native boy with washboard abs and sky-blue eyes.

Naturally, Pia's infrequent adventures outside of Little Cam with the Hot Boy (named Eio) and his fictional Ai'oa tribe clue her in to the fact that Creepy Unexplained Things are Afoot at Little Cam and that her scientist Aunts and Uncles may be paying a higher price for Pia's immortality and special abilities than she initially believed.

My first problem? The Instalove. Gross. Nothing says True Love like a hormonal, isolated teenager falling for literally the first boy with abs she's ever seen! The fact that their adventures occur over the span of a week, ending with undying, eternal love makes so much character sense. Right.

Secondly, don't even get me started on the theme of the Special White Girl being "chosen" to save a tribe full of brown people.

Thirdly, the characters - Pia and Eio. Pia did have some depth - I appreciated how alone she felt in Little Cam, how scared she was of the idea of being alone while everyone grows old around her. I liked how goal-oriented she was and how determined she was to keep learning in order to achieve that goal. That being said, her world-weariness at being immortal seemed contrived and unrealistic, considering she's still the youngest person in Little Cam, has never encountered death, and hasn't outlived anyone yet. I also got annoyed really quickly with her goopy InstaFeelings for Eio and her constant waffling. Once she falls for Eio she seems to lose all her drive and her self-confidence in her own intelligence.

And I had far less understanding for Eio. I thought he was an emotionally manipulative prick who is constantly objectified by the narrative - he's apparently allergic to wearing shirts and his exoticism is always overplayed. He's frequently referred to as "the wild jungle boy," who lives as one with the trees and the monkeys with his uninhibited shirtlessness.

I might have tolerated the Instalove a little more if it wasn't constantly used as an excuse for both characters to act like complete fucking morons. Pia makes dozens of flat-out ridiculously stupid decisions because of Eio, and Eio has an unintentionally hilarious scene where he nearly kills himself trying to climb an electric fence to get to Pia, repeatedly shocking himself over and over because he just loves Pia too much - or at least too much to stop, use the brains God gave a butternut squash, and formulate a plan that actually works.

As to the novel's themes, while I appreciated the exploration of morality and ethical responsibility with regards to scientific experimentation and research, I thought the battle between Cold Hard Emotionless Science and Loving Homegrown Spiritualism was way too obvious and black and white. The storytelling itself is also exaggerated, ham-handed and almost cartoonish in places - I'm sorry, but the minute an absentminded scientist "accidentally" creates ants that "thirst for human flesh" but keeps them alive FOR SCIENCE! - the story loses all realistic credibility with me.

Everything was just a little too exaggerated for me with Origin - the Instalove, the Instantly Evil!Scientists, the purely good and spiritual natives, the man-eating ants (for reals). There are some good ideas here and some excellent scenic description, but not enough realistic characterization or emotional depth to hold my interest.

Disagree? You can purchase Origin here.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The August Round-Up!


FALL! My favourite season! Everything smells like smoke, the leaves turn brilliant colours and I become inexplicably excited. Let's hope this helps recharge my creative batteries. I'm backing away from fiction writing (at least on any particular project). This month, I'll focus on worldbuilding and plotting the idea I'm still holding on to, and doing writing prompts from Twitter.

As for books, I read the following:

*August Winner!* A Precious Jewel, by Mary Balogh. Romance, Historical. A
Pros: Unconventional characters, particularly the hero. Lovely writing. Cons: Hero is an ass and heroine is a martyr for much of the novel.
Sex with the Queen, by Eleanor Herman. History, Nonfiction. A-
Pros: Excellently paced, lots of details and scandals. Cons: Author's attempts to inject romantic conjecture into the nonfictional narrative fall flat.

Tigers in Red Weather, by Liza Klaussmann. Fiction, Historical. B+
Pros: Excellent changing perspectives throughout the years, nice details, interesting story. Cons: A little bit of "Rich People's Unhappy Lives" Syndrome. 

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Stephen Galloway. Fiction, Historical. B
Pros: Detailed setting, subtle characterization, strong female protagonist. Cons: So very definitely NOT a happy fun-times feel-good book.

Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. Fiction, Contemporary, Book to Movie. B
Pros: Mmmm, chocolate! Beautiful writing too. Cons: Very unclear themes at the end. Super-creepy villain.

The Girl Most Likely To... by Susan Donovan. Romance, Contemporary. B-
Pros: Layered characters, nice backstories, emotional beginning. Cons: Lots of male entitlement, too little romantic conflict, plus a total whackadoodle deux ex Real!Father ending.

Not Proper Enough, by Carolyn Jewel. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: Lovely writing, excellent depiction of setting. Cons: Booooooring as hell. No actual plot.

*August Dud* Kingdom of Gods, by N.K. Jemisin. High Fantasy. C-
Pros: Solid writing, decent conclusion to trilogy. Cons: Plot is all over the place, scattershot characterization, slow slow slow pacing.

Ravishing in Red, by Madeline Hunter. Romance, Historical. DNF
Pros: It looks like the story gets better after 100 pages. Cons: Those first 100 ages really aren't worth it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas. YA, Fantasy. DNF
Pros: Um, it's got a nice cover? Cons: Cliched writing, cliched love triangle, cutesy inconsistent mass-murdering puppy-saving heroine, no subtlety or complexity at all (which makes me cringe whenever it or another review brings up the WHOLLY UNFOUNDED Game of Thrones comparison).