Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The October Round-Up!

Happy Halloween, folks! I'm writing my October Round-Up a little early this month, if only to get it out of the way to leave more room for NaNo'ing come November! And here are the books I read and reviewed over the last 31 days:

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman. Fiction, Historical. A
Pros: Absorbing moral debate, well-developed characters, magical setting. Cons: Slow pacing.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Cathrynne M. Valente. Middle Grade, Fantasy. A
Pros: Endlessly creative setting, excellent characterization, gorgeous wordplay. Cons: Uneven pacing, occasionally cluttered language.

Zombies Vs. Unicorns. Anthology Review. YA, Fantasy, Horror. A-
Pros: The zombie stories. Cons: The unicorn stories. And Justine Larbalestier's commentary.

Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott. Fantasy, YA. B-
Pros: Intricate alternate world, gripping actual plot. Cons: Infodumps out the whazoo, irritating characters.

I Kissed an Earl, by Julie Anne Long. Romance, Historical. B-
Pros: Self-aware heroine, intriguingly complex financial storyline, strong writing. Cons: Heroine is a loathsomely spoiled idiot for the majority of the book.

*October Dud* Seize the Fire, by Laura Kinsale. Romance, Historical. D+
Pros: Conflicted hero, some serious dramas. Cons: Boring, sluggish pacing, and the most stupid, useless, crybaby heroine in existence.

Who knew a Laura Kinsale book would wind up a dud? How was your month, reading-wise?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

"Cold Magic," by Kate Elliott

The Protagonist: Cat Hassi Barahal. An orphan raised in the household of her aunt, uncle and cousin Bee, she just wants to blend in and avoid getting involved in radical politics between the lower class and the princes and mages.
Her Angst: Her life plan is shot to hell when her "beloved" aunt and uncle bind her in marriage to a Mage House to spare their own daughter - who, in turns out, has magical powers the Mage Houses are perfectly willing to kill for.

The Secondary Cast:

Bee Hassi Barahal: Cat's crazy-annoying cousin who acts like a chihuahua who was force-fed espresso beans. Also has possibly world-saving magical powers. Sucks to be the world!

Andevai Diarrisso Haranwy: The powerful but young cold mage tasked with marrying the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter in order to secure her powers for his Mage House. Too bad he marries the wrong girl instead!

Chartji: An American troll solicitor. For reals.

Roderic: Cat's Surprise!Brother! Revealing any more would spoil it.

Angst Checklist:

  • My Cousin is Ferociously Irritating But Everyone Seems to Like Her for Some Reason
  • Self-Identity
  • Independence
  • Human Rights
  • The Industrial Age
  • My Relatives Sold Me Into Marriage
Fantasy Checklist:
  • 2 Surprise! Magical Powers
  • 1 Surprise! Sibling
  • 1 Poor Farmer's Son With Surprising Magical Strength
  • 1 Destroyed Airship
  • Two Trolls
  • 1 Dimension into the Spirit World
  • 1 Pack of Magical Cats

The Word: Cat Hassi Barahal is the orphan niece of an illustrious family that's fallen on hard times. For the first few chapters, she attends university with her bouncy, perfectly beautiful and monstrously annoying cousin Bee. The world she lives in is divided by unrest - the continent of Europa is split into hundreds of puzzle pieces ruled over by spoiled princes and powerful Mage Houses, who are in turn threatened by the advent of the Industrial Age and the radical democratic notions of the increasingly rebellious populace.

Cat's personal world, however, is thrown into turmoil when a young mage from the powerful Four Moons House abruptly arrives and demands Cat's aunt and uncle honour a contract they made years ago promising the eldest Hassi Barahal daughter in marriage. Cat, being two months older than Bee, is promptly handed over to a total stranger in marriage and is told to make the best of it. Her new mage husband Andevai is, of course, arrogant, vain, pig-headed, and Inexplicably Handsome in the way of all Obvious Love Interests.

Too late, Cat realizes her aunt and uncle tricked the Four Moons House into accepting her in place of their own daughter, who has an innate magical talent the head Mage wants. Cat is then forced to flee when she overhears the head Mage ordering her new husband to kill her, in order to free him to marry Bee.

While on the run, Cat comes to learn more about the world, the tyranny of the petty princes and Mage Houses, and her own secret heritage and innate magical talents.

Confused? Well, the first 150 pages of this novel are nigh-incoherent - full of confusing staging, stilted dialogue, contrived situations, and screamingly annoying characters (can Bee just go away? Forever?), with piles and piles AND PILES of clunky exposition inexpertly wadded into every nook and crevice. I'm talking about telling over showing, "As You Know Bob*" Dialogue, and just plain infodumping, where our heroine presumably stares off into space while she relates pages of history to the reader that ultimately have nothing to do with the story at all.

I'm not kidding. It's like every character is on the Tourism Board for their particular tribe or clan or country and are incapable of introducing themselves without also listing their country's historical battles, natural resources, and cultural holidays. It's disappointing, because the worldbuilding in itself is interesting and original - an alternate universe in which Rome crumbled before it could become a driving cultural force, leaving Europe and Africa a mosaic of cultures and traditions. The majority of the worldbuilding is easily conveyed by the organic interaction of the characters with the setting.

Thus, the blatant infodumping is entirely unnecessary, which makes it as offensive as it is puzzling. I've read Kate Elliott before - her Crown of Stars septet was amazing and managed to convey an intriguingly gender-bent medieval society without reams and reams of lectures. So why does she go completely overboard overexplaining everything here? Is it because this book is more targeted towards YA readers? Because teenagers need to be talked down to and hand-held through the harder bits?

That being said, the story does start to pick up steam around the time Cat hooks up with her Arrogant, Vain, but Inexplicably Handsome hubby - basically, once the story starts being about Interesting Things That Are Happening Right Now and less about Less-Interesting Things That Happened a Thousand Years Ago To The Ancestors of Minor Characters. To Elliott's credit, once the plot gets going, it's pretty hard to put the book down. She's a master of description, setting, and suspense. However, even when the story is chugging along at full pace, the writing style still seems juvenile and even a little corny, at least in regards to the overwrought dialogue and the characters' behaviour.

It's difficult for me to truly summarize my reaction to this novel - while on the whole, I enjoyed reading it and thought the ideas and the setting were interesting, I felt enormous swathes of dialogue and exposition could have easily been cut and I couldn't really get invested in any of the characters (except perhaps Andevai - he is Inexplicably Handsome). I felt torn between Raging Frustration and a compulsive urge to turn the next page.

So I loved it - and I hated it? Ultimately, I think I loved it because Kate Elliott writes ferociously addictive set pieces and conflicts - and hated it because the author wastes so much time stopping to explain things when she could instead be writing more ferociously addictive set pieces and conflicts. Hopefully this might thin out in future books, such as Cold Steel (which is already on my TBR).

I'm just saying - most people start reading epic fantasy when they're still in their teens. Give teen readers the benefit of the doubt.

You can purchase Cold Magic here.

*As You Know Bob dialogue is when two characters talk about things they both already know for no reason except to inform the reader.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (17)

It's Weekly Wanting time - and probably the last one in a while. November's starting, and with it, National Novel Writing Month. I'm going to be writing up a storm so I can't say how consistently I'll be able to blog over that time. I'll try - but. 50, 000 words. 30 days. It's anyone's guess.

Genre: YA, Contemporary, Magical Realism
Cover Snark: Lens flare! LENS FLAAAARE.
The Story: A girl in a small town deals with the realization that she's a lesbian by sending her complicated thoughts and feelings out to the passengers of the planes that fly above her house.
Why I Want It? Small-town setting. LGBT plot. The one-two punch of rave reviews from both The Booksmugglers and the gals of Forever Young Adult! How could I not want this?

What books are you guys eagerly wanting this week?

Monday, October 22, 2012

"I Kissed an Earl," by Julie Anne Long

The Chick: Violet Redmond. A spoiled, petulant debutante with an inflated sense of self-worth, when she suspects her MIA brother Lyon might be a pirate, she bribes her way onto the ship of the man hired to track him down. Piece of cake!
The Rub: "What do you mean I have to eat hard tack and peel vegetables and earn my keep? Isn't my Pretentiously Wild-Spirited and Secretly Clever Presence payment enough?"
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.

The Dude: Captain Asher Flint, Earl of Ardmay. An American-raised bastard-turned-sea-captain, he was raised to the rank of Earl by the King and gifted with a vast estate - but if he wants the fortune to maintain said estate, he will have to find and capture an infamous pirate named Le Chat.
The Rub: The crazy mess of a woman who's stowed away on his ship will do everything in her power to thwart him - but she also has information on Le Chat that he desperately needs.
Dream Casting: A younger Liam Neeson.

The Plot:

Violet: I am bored and wealthy! FATE! GIVE ME PURPOSE!

Random Extra: Hey all these random facts about this random pirate remind me of your missing brother, Lyon!

Violet: TO THE SEA! *bribes her way onto ship*

Flint: WTF.

Violet: Hello, peasant. Where's my feather mattress? What time are cocktails? Why is there no shuffleboard equipment on deck?


Violet: But I'm so Fiery and Clever! Even when I'm outmatched by almost everything and entirely due to my own poorly-planned decisions! Don't you find me charming?

Flint: NO.

Violet: But I'm gorgeous and rich! How is that possible?! We could work together to find and save Le Chat.

Flint: You mean find and capture and/or kill Le Chat.

Violet: Let's cross that Sibling-Killing Bridge when we come to it.

Giant Storm: *arrives*


Flint: OMG, you really ARE a moron!

Violet: But this time I did it because I'm in love with you!

Flint: I am inexplicably turned on!

Shipboard Storm Sex: *is had*

Flint: I'm off to kill Le Chat!

Violet: Please don't!

Flint: Well, since you asked nicely.

Violet: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 1 Missing Brother-Turned-Pirate
  • 1 Evil Pirate Captain
  • 1 Good Pirate Captain
  • Several Tidal Waves
  • Hundreds of Peeled Potatoes
  • 0 Mustard-Flavoured Weevils

The Word: Much like my reaction to Seize the Fire, I found that while Julie Anne Long's writing is as ornate and lyrical as it ever was, the stupidity and selfishness of her heroine prevented me from truly enjoying the book.

I Kissed an Earl is fourth in the Pennyroyal Green series, one that deals primarily with the feuding families, the scandalous Everseas and the snobbish Redmonds. The series started with The Perils of Pleasure (good), Like No Other Lover (very good), and Since the Surrender (dumb but charming).

Violet Redmond is spoiled and bored, and has garnered a bit of a reputation around Pennyroyal Green for being a crazy hot mess - her highlight reel includes an attempt to throw herself down a well after an argument with a suitor.

At a party in town, however, she overhears speculation about a nefarious pirate named Le Chat who has been attacking and sinking English merchant ships. Due to certain details regarding his nickname, the name of his ship, and his apparent resemblance to Violet's brother Jonathan, Violet begins to suspect Le Chat might be her older brother Lyon, who went missing ever since his heart was broken by Olivia Eversea.

Surprisingly, no one in her immediate family is willing to take her suspicions seriously (throwing oneself down a well for kicks can put a damper on one's trustworthiness). So she does what any pampered, spoiled rich girl would do - pay someone to break the rules for her. She bribes her way on to the ship of Captain Asher Flint, a man recently named an Earl by the King in return for capturing Le Chat and bringing him back to face justice.

Flint is, shall we say, less than pleased to discover a Too Stupid To Live heroine stowed away on his  ship. A TSTL heroine who immediately demands better food and a better room, and proceeds to explain how he's inferior to herself because he works for a living.

Violet is not as bad as, say, Olympia in Seize the Fire. For one thing, she's a (somewhat) better fleshed-out character who is smart in her own way but has never been given an appropriate outlet for her passions and intelligence in her stifled life in Sussex. I get it, she's sheltered, she's repressed, she's not going to know certain things, but it's like the book itself can't decide what type of Crazy she is. Parts of the story imply that she can't help being nuttier than a fruitcake because Her Heroine's Heart Is Too Big For Sussex! But there are just as many aspects of the story that suggest she acts like a hot mess on purpose because she gets off on the attention. And I found I really had no sympathy for the Paris Hilton of Pennyroyal Green.

To her credit, she does develop more understanding and intelligence as the story goes on - particularly in regards to the interesting mystery surrounding Le Chat and why he's sinking all those ships. She is someone who's been cosseted and sheltered, and she's quite aware of that, so she does need to start at the bottom, character-wise. However, she never stops pulling stupid, contrived stunts - the difference is that later in the book, instead of doing it because she's a bored prat, she's doing it because she's in love. So that makes it better?

Flint was somewhat less developed - not surprisingly, since the vast majority of the novel's POV is told from Violet's skewed perspective. A fatherless bastard, Flint was saved from rootless poverty as a child by Captain Moreheart - a man who was recently killed by Le Chat when the pirate captured and sunk his ship. Revenge fuels Flint even more than his desire for a family.

Most of the delicious tension in his relationship with Violet comes from them being completely at cross-purposes about Le Chat. Flint wants to bring Le Chat to justice for murder and theft (and also for the King's reward), while Violet wants to save him, since if Lyon is attacking and sinking ships, he must be doing it for some higher purpose. However, Violet needs Flint's ship, and Flint needs Violet's inside info on Lyon, so the two have to stick pretty close together while maintaining a pretty cat-and-mouse game regarding their intentions. Admittedly, most of this is pretty entertaining.

That being said, I couldn't really invest myself in either of the characters, although Julie Anne Long's lovely, insightful writing style tried its very best. I Kissed an Earl is not a terrible novel. It had a genuinely entertaining piracy subplot, good writing and description, interesting hero and heroine tension. However, the romance itself never fit into place for me. Protagonists should definitely screw up and make mistakes, but the romantic plot should emerge organically from a variety of decisions and factors. The story's sole existence should not rely on a character's stupidity.

You can purchase I Kissed An Earl here.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Weekly Wanting (16)

Hey! It's time for another Weekly Wanting! And by that I mean - I finally got my ass off the couch and stopped being super lazy about them. My bad.

Unspoken: The Lynburn Legacy, by Sarah Rees Brennan
Genre: YA, Paranormal.
Cover Snark: No snark, actually. This is a lovely cover!
The Story: An amateur sleuth in a small British village finds a new mystery to uncover when a mysterious aristocratic family moves back into town.
Why I Want It? I was a little ambivalent about the reviews at first (particularly the part where the heroine casually hears voices in her head all the time), until - as is becoming pretty usual for me - the Booksmugglers raved about it. Well, then I'm pretty much sold.

Genre: Fantasy, Horror.
Cover Snark: Eau de Poisson - by Chanel.
The Story: Selkies, and the men who love them.
Why I Want It? I've always been particularly fascinated by selkie stories, that of men or women who can turn into seals. And this one is written by the fabulous Margo Lanagan, an author I'm definitely going to have to read more of.

And that's it! What books are you eagerly awaiting?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Light Between Oceans," by M.L. Stedman

The Principal Cast:

Tom: A war veteran still troubled by the horrors of war, he hopes the isolation of working a lighthouse will calm his spirit. The addition of a passionate and fiercely loving wife disrupts his peace - but in a good way.

Isabel: The deaths of her brothers in the war taught her to grab life and love however she can - it results in her marriage to Tom, and also her decision to keep a baby that washes up on their island.

Hannah Roennfeldt: Her marriage to an Austrian earned her the townsfolks' enmity, and the mysterious loss of her husband and new baby at sea earns her their pity - but hope springs eternal.

The Secondary Cast:

Ralph: Tom's coworker who sees him once every three months on the supply boat.

Violet and Bill: Isabel's parents, whose heartbreak at the deaths of their sons is eased by the arrival of their new granddaughter, Lucy.

The Word: The story centres around Tom and Isabel, a lighthouse operator and his wife who are the sole occupants of the isolated south Australian island of Janus. While they love each other and have grown to love and appreciate the strange, magical isolation of Janus, their attempts to populate the island have resulted in miscarriage after miscarriage.

Two weeks after Isabel's third pregnancy results in a stillbirth, a boat washes up on shore, carrying a dead man and a living baby, wrapped in a woman's cardigan. Tom's duty is to signal to shore, write it in the log books, alert the authorities, but Isabel, in a moment of desperation, stays his hand. The child's most likely an orphan, she says. The mother probably drowned. An orphanage is no place for a child. This is obviously God's will.

Tom loves Isabel and knows the toll her miscarriages have taken on her. So, with deep misgivings, he remains silent. They bury the body of the dead man and pass the child off as their own, naming her Lucy. But as years pass and they finally get shore leave, they discover the moral fantasy they built around Lucy was only that - a fantasy - and that their actions ruined the life of a tragic young woman.

The novel's central debate is on the importance of rules and morality, and the spectrum of thought and action in between. Tom, an emotionally-scarred veteran of the First World War, clings to the letter of the law in order to forge some form of order out of the chaos of life, but finds it difficult to accommodate human frailty and feeling into his rigid code. Isabel, meanwhile, lives for emotion and impulse - but quickly finds herself rewriting the rules to support her own desires.

I love how beautifully the author describes the lonely island of Janus, and the solitary work of maintaining the lighthouse. She aptly conveys how easy it is to use that isolation to build one's own moral framework - it's convenient for Tom and Isabel to assume Lucy is an orphan and that they rescued her when there's no one to gainsay them. Once they return to the mainland, however, they are forced to realize that even in isolation, they are connected to other people and that their decisions have far-reaching consequences.

A secondary theme is also the importance of human life, and how its addition or removal from a family can have long-standing effects. It's not only Tom and Isabel who come to embrace Lucy as part of their family - but Isabel's parents do, too. Grandparenthood enlivens them again, and allows them to move on after the death of their sons in the war. But the author allows us into the heads and lives of Lucy's birth family, as well, and how her disappearance affected them. With whom does Lucy belong?

It would be easy to dislike Isabel as a character, especially in the novel's second half as she retreats further and further into the willfully blind belief that she's only looking out for Lucy's bests interests. However, Isabel and Tom are so fleshed-out and intimately described that it's impossible to hate them. One can hate their decisions and their weaknesses, but not them. While Tom receives the lion's share of the POV, those secondary passages into Isabel's consciousness depict such a strong, sudden, fierce love she has bottled up inside of her, just waiting to be unlocked.

As it stands, The Light Between Oceans is a fantastic book. The pacing is swift and enjoyable (particularly in the novel's second half as the suspense builds), the characters are fascinating, the central theme thorny and ripe for book club discussions. It manages a near-perfect balance between flashy drama and thematic substance.

You can purchase The Light Between Oceans here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Anthology Review: "Zombies Vs. Unicorns"

The eternal question - zombies or unicorns.

Actually, it's not so much an eternal question as one that can be answered fairly quickly - unicorns.

Unicorns. Peter S. Beagle owns. Zombies are also gross and I'm not generally interested in their stories. 'Nuff said.


But I'd received a number of suggestions to read this anthology after I read both a zombie and a unicorn romance, only for both to suck various decaying/sparkly nether regions.

The anthology is edited by Holly Black (team unicorn) and Justine Larbalestier (team zombie) and was built on the premise of WELL WHY THE HELL NOT? They then proceeded to rope in a flock of supremely talented YA authors to contribute interesting stories for one or the other supernatural creature (and in one case, both).

My reactions are as follows:

"The Highest Justice," by Garth Nix (a.k.a. "The One With Both a Unicorn and a Zombie In It")
The Plot: A princess calls upon the legendary unicorn protector of her kingdom to avenge the murder of her mother, with unpredictable results.
The Word: This was a nice enough entry into the anthology - well-written, with a genuine creep factor (the zombified remains of the princess' mother factor into the revenge). However, it seemed a little too low-conflict for me, as the unicorn promptly and quickly solves all the princess' problems as they arise, with little to no effort required on the princess' part. B

"Love Will Tear Us Apart," by Alaya Dawn Johnson (a.k.a. "The One with the Gay Indierock Zombie")
The Plot: A high-functioning zombie teenager falls in love with a troubled zombie hunter with similar taste in music - but will the Eaten People in his past destroy their budding relationship before it even begins?
The Word: This was a fantastic story - firstly, because we get a zombie's point of view. Secondly, because thanks to a well-developed premise, our zombie is still capable of cutting and hilarious commentary (even if the virus ate away the part of his brain that tells him killing people is wrong). The story is tense and enjoyable, even if the violence at the end seemed a shade too over-the-top. A

"Purity Test," by Naomi Novik (a.k.a. "The One With the Unicorns In Manhattan")
The Plot: A homeless teenage girl in New York City is recruited by an unprepared unicorn to help him save a herd of baby unicorns captured by an evil wizard.
The Word: I loves me some Naomi Novik, and I never even knew she wrote YA! This story is pretty fluffy, but it's saved by the practical human heroine and her hilarious dialogue with Belcazar, the unicorn who wouldn't know a virgin if it bit him on the butt. A witty send-up of fantasy tropes set in modern Manhattan. B+

"Bougainvillea," by Carrie Ryan (a.k.a. "The One with the Zombie Pirates")
The Plot: In a world destroyed by zombies, our heroine is the daughter of a governor who's managed to keep their tropical island self-sufficient and zombie-free thanks to his strict rule - but at what price?
The Word: I've never read Carrie Ryan before - I skimmed over glowing reviews of her books (like The Forest of Hands and Teeth) because I was never that interested in zombie stories. I'm not a big fan of horror or dystopias - I'll read them, but I've never been interested enough to seek them out. I might have to change that - "Bougainvillea" is one of the best stories in this collection, a subtle, complex, layered tale that flashes back and forth in time as our heroine, Iza, reflects on how her father's quick-thinking reaction to the zombie apocalypse saved a number of lives - but also irreparably damaged his family and changed him into a man she no longer recognizes. A+

"A Thousand Flowers," by Margo Lanagan (a.k.a. "The Unicorn Story That Redefines the Definition of Horny")

The Plot: A hapless young man finds a unicorn in the woods who leads him to the unconscious body of a ravished princess, and he's then blamed for her rape. Later, the princess's midwife/jailer realizes the case wasn't as cut-and-dry as it seemed.
The Word: This story totally sucked me in with its gorgeous, poetical language and beautifully weird plot (as Lanagan demonstrated in the short story "Singing My Sister Down," she's aces at Gorgeous Language and the Beautifully Weird). The plot twist is fairly obvious (and also totally spoiled in the editors' foreword), but the story is clearly meant to be enjoyed for its marvellous description and uncanny, magical setting. A gem. A+

"The Children of the Revolution," by Maureen Johnson. (a.k.a. "The One with the ZomBabies")
The Plot: A stranded American teenager in Britain is hired by a Famous Unnamed Celebrity to babysit her flock of adopted children for a night, provided she abides by very specific childrearing instructions. Ha, that'll work.
The Word: Maureen Johnson is an author I'm more familiar with from Twitter than from reading her books, so I was eager to try this one. Ignore the fact that it uses the age-old Protagonist is Doomed By Defying Basic Instructions plot - "Children'''s real charm comes from the zany humour and sharp satire of celebrity eccentricity - where this time, a celebrity's gonzo cult religion and odd life choices have terrifying, and terrifyingly funny, connotations. A

"The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn," by Diana Peterfreund (a.k.a. "The One with Unicolts")
The Plot: A devout Christian girl with a hidden gift for attracting and hunting unicorns (which in this universe are violent and man-eating), rescues a baby unicorn from drowning and starts taking care of it, against her better instincts. This causes her to question whether unicorns are really evil and if they can be tamed.
The Word: This story left me feeling I should have read Peterfreund's books first (she has a series about killer unicorns, Rampant and Ascendant), and not in the good way. The heroine keeps referencing "what happened last fall" every other page (a mysterious event that resulted in both her first kiss and the deaths of her cousins), and the ending is completely open ended. I felt like this was a prologue to something and it does not work very well as a standalone for those unfamiliar with her work. C+

"Inoculata," by Scott Westerfeld. (a.k.a. "The One with Half-Zombies")
The Plot: Our heroine, along with various children and a few adults, have spent the last 4 years since the Zombie Apocalypse living within a fenced-in farming compound, eating crops and canned food while zombies groan behind the fence day and night. When she discovers a way to inoculate oneself against the infection, but at a steep price, she has to decide between risk and freedom, or safety and stagnation.
The Word: This had an interesting but not-entirely-developed plot, but that may just have been due to the story's length. I enjoyed the theme of freedom but at the cost of one's humanity, but I felt the characters made their decisions very cavalierly and there weren't really any real consequences for that choice. B

"Princess Prettypants," by Meg Cabot (a.k.a. "The One where Unicorns Fart Rainbows")
The Plot: Our heroine gets a unicorn for her birthday and uses it to get revenge for herself and her classmates.
The Word: I've never read Meg Cabot before, but I don't think I'm missing anything. The weakest story in the collection, the story is a shallow construction of first world problems and sitcom stereotypes - the most heinous of which is the heroine's Homeschooled Sidekick who is of course Super-Christian, super naive, and unable to dress herself. After reading the gripping and profound stories that came before, I thought Cabot's story seemed ridiculously superficial and lame - like an episode of Saved By the Bell that accidentally popped up in my DVR next to episodes of Game of Thrones and Call the Midwife. D

"Cold Hands," by Cassandra Clare (a.k.a. "The One With The ZomBoyfriend")
The Plot: In a town where the dead are prone to coming back to life, our heroine uses this curse to her advantage when her boyfriend is murdered by his uncle.
The Word: I liked the setting in this book (which was contemporary but with a feudal political system of dukes and princes and such), and how the zombies had come to be accepted (or not) in the town's community. That being said, the plot itself seemed a little abrupt and oversimplified - but the ending does leave one with a nice little chill. B

"The Third Virgin," by Kathleen Duey (a.k.a. "The One With the Life-Sucking Unicorn")
The Plot: An immortal unicorn whose horn has healing properties spends centuries searching for true virgins - the only people who are capable of communicating with him. When he becomes addicted to the darker side of his powers, he hopes the next virgin he finds will be able to do what he can't - end his life.
The Word: This was an odd, dark little tale. The unicorn is such a desperately lonely figure, who's only capable of communicating with a very rare type of individual. He spends most of his life searching for one, but as he succumbs to his hungers (saving life gives him a high, but taking one gets him a stronger one), he wonders if he's worthy of companionship or compassion anymore. I liked this take on it, even if the ending is a little unclear. B+

"Prom Night," by Libba Bray (a.k.a. "The One with Mum and Dad Zombies")
The Plot: The teenage heroine is a cop (and a Zoroastrian!) in a broken-down society run entirely by children and teenagers - after the adults (who were the most susceptible to the zombie virus) were driven out.
The Word: This beautiful and hauntingly sad tale was surprisingly moving - especially considering there's only one zombie depicted in the entire story and he's quickly dispatched. The story is subtly and movingly told, of teenagers playing adult roles in an attempt to pretend the world isn't broken, while at the same time trying to hold tight to some of the traditions of adolescence while they're still able to celebrate them (like the town-organized Prom Night). A

Altogether, the grades are B, A, B+, A+, A+, A, C+, B,  D, B, B+, A. All in all, Zombies Vs. Unicorns is an excellent anthology with a wide variety of stories and protagonists.

And ... honestly ... the zombie stories got most of the highest grades. I never really pegged myself as an end-of-the-world person. I like dark stories, but I do prefer happy (or at least stable) endings, and I never thought I'd get them with zombie stories. Who knew? That being said, most of the unicorn stories held up as well.

If you're a fan of supernatural stories and desire an introduction to a whole slew of incredibly talented authors, do give Zombies vs. Unicorns a try.

You can purchase Zombies vs. Unicorns here.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

"Seize the Fire," by Laura Kinsale

The Chick: Olympia St. Leger, Princess of Oriens. Born and raised in exile in Britain, she's at the mercy of her evil uncle who seeks to marry her in order to secure the throne for himself.
The Rub: She has a plan to introduce democracy to Oriens to prevent further terrible monarchies, but to do that, she'll have to place her trust in the famous Captain Sheridan Drake - who has some dark secrets of his own.
Dream Casting: Kristen Schaal.

The Dude: Sheridan Drake. The famous war hero returns from the Navy to discover his deceased father bankrupted him and left his own fortune to be dispensed of at the discretion of his ex-mistress - who happens to hate Sheridan's guts.
The Rub: When an incredibly gullible princess sitting on a priceless jewel collection comes to him for help, he figures separating her from her gems will be easy pickings - but what if she separates him from his heart?
Dream Casting: Wes Bentley.

The Plot:

Sheridan: OMG I HATE THE NAVY, THE OCEAN, AND EVERYTHING! *tries to kill commander, trips an saves everyone*

England: HOORAY!

Olympia: Please help me save my country from the oppression of monarchy!

Sheridan: Please help myself to your jewels? Don't mind if I do!

Olympia: Hey, while you do that, why not introduce democracy to the sailors on our ship! *sparks mutiny* Why not reveal Sheridan's secret identity to a totally trustworthy sailor whom I've never met! *nearly gets shot* Why don't I start screeching about my jewels in front of some escaped convicts? *nearly gets raped*

Sheridan: Wow, you totally fell out of the Stupid Tree and hit every branch on the way down. It's a good thing you're hot.

Sheridan and Olympia: *stranded on desert Island*

Sheridan: Now I love you.

Sheridan and Olympia: *rescued and on board a ship*

Sheridan: ....and now I don't. Because I'm dark and damaged and stuff. Why don't I develop a mental illness, just to make things more interesting?

Olympia: Now it's time for me to fix you!

Plot: *Pirates* *White Slavers* *Possibly Gay Sultan BFFs*

Random Villains: *kidnap Olympia*

Olympia: Never mind. Back to being helpless until I'm rescued!

Sheridan: Hey look I'm suddenly rich now for no reason and your kingdom doesn't want you anymore, also for no reason. Let's hook up!

Olympia: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Antihero Hero
  • 1 Evil Ex-Mistress
  • 1 Unscrupulous Servant
  • 1 Case of Body Issues
  • 1 Case of Daddy Issues
  • 1 Unfortunate Shipwreck
  • 1 Desert Island Romance
  • 1 Somewhat Incongruous Penguin
  • 1 Band of Pirates
  • 1 Case of Hand-Waved Plot-Propelling PTSD

The Word: I honestly never believed I would be typing the following words, but, I disliked a Laura Kinsale novel and thought it was horrible.

My safe, comforting worldview has been shattered. There's some things in this world that you think are just indisputable facts: Snow falls in winter. A full moon comes every 28 days. And Laura Kinsale novels are awesome.

That belief lasted until I read Seize the Fire, an inexplicably boring and haphazardly plotted mess of a novel.

Naval Captain Sheridan Drake is a famous war hero - entirely by accident. When his crazed attempt to murder his incompetent commanding officer during a sea battle results in him accidentally saving the fool's life and the lives of his shipmates (for reals), he is knighted and his name hailed across the nation as a brave selfless hero. Too bad he's completely broke - thanks to his apparently insane father who left him a demonically booby-trapped house while placing his fortune in a trust ruled by his manipulative ex-mistress, Julia.

Olympia is the princess of the tiny nation of Oriens, but she has lived her entire life in genteel exile in England after her despicable uncle murdered her parents. She has spent her twenty-four years of life stewing in self-loathing and French philosophy with her governess, Julia (yes, that Julia) and when she discovers her uncle is about to petition the Pope to marry her and seize the throne (consent-optional), she pays a call on the one man she knows will aid her in her plight - Captain Sheridan Drake. Surely, this glowing paragon of manhood will help escort her to Oriens to introduce democracy to her loyal subjects, or at the very least to Rome so that she can prevent her marriage by asking the Pope nicely.

Now, you might think Sheridan would be the harder character to like, as he immediately decides to fleece the plump little princess of her crown jewels and leave her in the lurch. Except not. As Sheridan rapidly comes to learn, Olympia is a breathtakingly stupid and obnoxiously pathetic heroine who is Literally Terrible at Everything except for crying, biting her fist in terror/misery/self-loathing, and almost getting Sheridan shot in the face. Poor Sheridan has to spend the next 500 pages of this massive book babysitting, protecting, getting waterboarded for (!), and Not Boning 160 crybaby pounds of narrative deadweight.

The sheer number of times Olympia almost gets Sheridan killed would be funny if she wasn't such a self-rightous TSTL dimwit about it. I hated Olympia - I thought her one of the worst and most useless heroines I've ever read. She never develops any spine, intelligence, or even any ambition beyond the incredibly shortsighted one of bestowing democracy upon everyone she meets. Once she has a protector her desire to free her people slips into the background. What does she want to do with her life? What does she do in her spare time? Who is she beyond this chubby, whinging, constantly complaining mess of a person? Her "kindness" and "purity" are supposed to be the Polysporin to Sheridan's Scraped Knee of Angst, but otherwise Sheridan seems to like her mainly because her breasts are the only things more impressive than her tear ducts.

Of course, most of the romantic progression involves Sheridan yo-yo'ing between Total Adoration Despite Being a Dark, Damaged Dude and treating Olympia like a turd in order to push her away from him because he's a Dark, Damaged Dude. You can imagine how quickly this becomes repetitive in a 583-page novel.

The thing is, the whole structure of the novel is a hot mess. The plotting is like a suitcase packed by an absentminded traveller - the type who forgets crucial items, only to shove them in at the last minute, one on top of the other, even though they don't really fit. The characterization of everyone except for Sheridan is atrocious, as their storylines are picked up and dropped, seemingly at random - Julia Plumb, for example, is depicted as a villainess even though she's only "on screen" for one chapter, in which she acts quite concerned and surprised. The only reason we even know she's a villainess is because Sheridan explicitly tells us how evil she is. Or Sheridan's father, who's mentioned in the initial chapters as a madman fascinated with pranks and booby traps, until his character and his impact on Sheridan is abruptly abandoned, never to be mentioned again except in passing.

In the last act of the novel we have, without any previous development of such plot points: the sudden insertion of severe and constant PTSD into our hero's character description, an entirely random violent past, an aristocratic dandy sidekick who appears 20 pages from the end and serves no narrative purpose whatsoever, a nonsensical misunderstanding that ensures the hero has a massive fortune by book's end, and an ambiguous Arabian Sultan who is apparently crazy in love with Sheridan until he's abruptly written out of the plot.

The thing is, Kinsale's written whackadoo plots before - evil cults, poisoned shellfish, kidnapped bulls, oral sex lessons from Catholic priests, white ninjas, and magic-sword-eating sharks, to name only a few. The thing is, in those cases she developed those ideas so that they made sense as one read them within the context of the story. She didn't just cram them in with no notice or precedent.

And it's just as likely that those plots appeared believable because they were populated by realistic, well-realized and sympathetic characters. The characters and their motivations and anguish felt real, so their adventures seemed real as well. In Seize the Fire, Sheridan's backstory is too vastly complicated to take very seriously (his previous positions include naval captain, harem slave, jewel thief, death goddess assassin, and gigolo - not making this up), and, as mentioned before, Olympia is such a pathetically incompetent twit that I had no empathy for her or her travails.

Laura Kinsale's writing is solid enough, but with such a randomly plotted storyline and dippy characters, there's just no reason to go on. Seize the Fire is all noise and no substance.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Things to be Thankful For!

Well, it's Thanksgiving here in Canada, and I'm here celebrating with my family - but I haven't forgotten about you, readers.

I've been angsting over some mild health issues, a bit of a creative drought, and the fact that I'm currently reading a Laura Kinsale book that *gasp* isn't very good, but I felt now was a good time to look over and remember all the things I'm thankful for:

  • I'm thankful for this blog - which I've maintained for eight years and with which I've accumulated a steady stream of readers. I've honestly never maintained any project for this long, so it's kind of surprising, but I like how it's kept me focused and turned me into a more insightful reader.
  • I'm thankful for my books - so many of them to read! And so little time!
  • I'm thankful for my excellent city library, which has been simultaneously saving and sucking my money with its wonderful selection and frequent booksales.
  • I'm thankful for my wonderful parents - they helped me get my new computer and I'm staying with them over the long weekend and it's been such fun!
  • I'm thankful for my new computer, which is lovely and totally NOT a piece of crap. Once I get a good enough idea to write on it, I'm going to be a writing machine.
  • I'm thankful for the slew of great blogs I've been reading and following - keep up the great work! 
So what are you guys thankful for this wonderful season?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

The September Round-Up

Well, dear readers, I am currently writing to you on my brand-shining-new MacBook. No more PCs for me! Learning to use a Mac for the first time since 1997 is pretty slick, especially since the modem doesn't make those beeping, screeching noises anymore! Progress!

Hopefully having a computer that isn't a rattling jalopy of a piece of crap like my previous Acer will inspire me with new stories and ideas - and all in time for NaNoWriMo next month, too!

With another month around the corner, it's time to go over what I read in September:

*September Winner!* The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. Historical, LGBT, Fantasy. A+
Pros: Gorgeous language, relatable hero, swoon-romance. Cons: Hero a little indecisive. Novel loses confidence in the middle.

A Season to be Sinful, by Jo Goodman. Romance, Historical. A+
Pros: Fantastic mystery, developed characters, delicious slow-burning romance. Cons: Some slow pacing, a few confusing scenes.

Origin, by Jessica Khoury. YA, Science Fiction. C+
Pros: Interesting themes, colourful setting. Cons: Unbelievable insta-love romance, ridiculous ending.

What's Left of Me, by Kat Zhang. YA, Science Fiction/Alternate Universe. C+
Pros: Interesting concept. Cons: Piss-poor worldbuilding and repetitive pacing.

The World According to Garp, by John Irving. Classic, Contemporary. C
Pros: Fascinating exploration of themes of gender, sexuality and art. Cons: Very long and boring, "tell over show" writing style.

*September Dud* 
Lord of Ice, by Gaelen Foley. Romance, Historical. DNF
Pros: Saucy heroine (only at the beginning). Cons: Uninteresting and unoriginal plot, violent hero, "Innocent" Heroine used as Tylenol for Man Pain.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

"The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There," by Cathrynne M. Valente

The Protagonist: September. A year after she saved Fairyland, she's more than ready to escape Nebraska and the stress of the war and go back - so when she sees a magical boat flying across the prairies, she seizes her chance.
Her Angst: Fairyland is slowly losing its magic thanks to Halloween, the shadow September gave up in the previous book, who is kidnapping shadows to live in her kingdom. Can September really go to war with someone who is essentially her other half?

Secondary Cast:

A-Through-L's Shadow: Timid, shy, and retiring - A-Through-L's shadow helps show September how Fairyland-Below and the released shadow-magic works.

Saturday's Shadow: Extroverted and loud where the real Saturday was quiet and shy, his presence disquiets September and forces her to evaluate her feelings for the real Saturday.

Halloween, a.k.a. the Hollow Queen: September's shadow, who has decided that being free and independent is far better than being some passive lightless doormat - and now she wants all the other shadows in Fairyland to feel the same.

The Alleyman: Halloween's invisible henchman who steals the shadows from the people in Fairyland-Above and brings them down into Halloween's kingdom.

Angst Checklist:
  • Growing Up
  • Dealing with Parents Fighting Overseas
  • The Right to Independence
  • The Periodic Table of Teatime
  • Developing Empathy
  • How Awesome Is It that All My Clothes Have Feelings?
  • The Shadow of the Boy I Like Is Kind of a Dick
  • First Kisses as Currency
The Word: In the previous book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, our heartless heroine September saved Fairyland by defeating the evil Marquess hell-bent on destroying it. During her adventures, however, she was forced to relinquish her shadow in order to save a young Pooka.

In the much-anticipated sequel, September has been waiting a whole year in Nebraska, washing pink and yellow tea cups, reading with her mother, listening for news of her father on the radio - and looking out across the horizon for the Green Wind to take her back to Fairyland. When she spies two magical figures speeding across the prairies on an inconceivable boat, she chases after them, trips, and lands back in Fairyland, a few years after her last heroic exploits.

But all is not well in Fairyland - and September is partially to blame. As it turns out, the shadow she parted with (who has since named herself Halloween) has declared herself Queen of Fairyland-Below and has started kidnapping the shadows of Fairyland's other inhabitants with the help of a terrifying, invisible figure named the Alleyman. The loss of shadows means the loss of magic in Fairyland-Above (where they now use Magic Ration Cards not unlike the food ration cards September's family uses), and September knows she has to fix this. So off on another adventure she goes!

Similar to the last book, September's travels take her on a linear path through some spectacularly imaginative examples of worldbuilding and wordplay, as she meets characters both new (such as the hysterical Duke of Teatime and his wife, the Vicereine of Coffee), old (Gleam, September's faithful talking lamp), and sort-of-old (A-Through-L's and Saturday's shadows, kidnapped by Halloween).

The concept of shadows is the novel's unifying plotline and it's fantastically developed. As September discovers, shadows have their own unique personalities, derived from the feelings and traits their casters suppress in themselves. Halloween, for example, is a less-inhibited and less responsible version of September, Saturday's shadow is far more impulsive and outgoing than the real thing (often to an alarming degree), while Ell's shadow is more timid. However, something all the separated shadows have in common is the desire to be free to live their own lives and adventures. If September finally finds a way to restore Fairyland to rights, will she be able to condemn them all to passive enslavement once again?

What I especially enjoyed about this installment of the series is that even amid all the magic and whimsy (quite a lot of whimsy - if your tolerance for tomfoolery is low, this book will exhaust you one chapter in), Cathrynne M. Valente still manages to explore and develop the character of September in a realistic and understandable way. She is no longer a heartless child - now thirteen and on the threshold of adolescence, September finds herself torn between her childish habits and her newer, stranger urges of maturity. Her greater capacity for empathy influences her to make certain choices that the September of a year ago would not have made.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is an endlessly inventive and creative novel - but it's definitely not a quick read. It's the type of book written for those who love language as much as they love story. If you're the type of reader who reads for fast-moving plots and doesn't care one way or the other about word play or imaginative semantics, you might find Fairyland's pacing slow and frustratingly cluttered. However, if you're like me, and you love language and poetry and clever phrasing, you'll find the novel a double treat.

You can purchase The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There HERE.