Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," by J.K. Rowling

The Protagonist: Harry Potter. The mistreated nephew of Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, he sleeps in a cupboard under the stairs and wears nothing but cast-offs from his spoiled cousin Dudley, until he gets a mysterious letter in the mail inviting him to the magical school of Hogwarts.
His Angst: "Harry, yer a wizard." Also, everyone wants to kill him.

The Secondary Cast:

Ron Weasley:  Harry's loyal, comical BFF. From a large, impoverished, but loving family.

Hermione Granger: A persnickety, bookish, type-A personality student who quickly befriends Ron and Harry.

Dumbledore: The benevolent but mysterious headmaster of Hogwarts.

Snape: The Potions professor who holds a (possibly deadly?) grudge against Harry Potter.

Voldemort: Evil Wizard Extraordinaire. Hates Harry and goodness in general.

Angst Checklist:

  • The cupboard I sleep in is full of spiders
  • The magical school dorm I sleep in is full of ghosts
  • The Most Evil Person In Existence keeps trying to kill me
  • My parents are dead and I'm not even Batman
  • Passing Potions is a bitch
  • Overcoming fears
  • Moving on from tragedy

The Word: I hadn't originally put this on the list for my ReRead rollout, but due to some carelessness on my part, when I went off to stay with my parents for the Christmas holidays, I packed only one book (the one I was currently reading - Ami McKay's The Birth House).

I normally never pack only one book, because I am absolutely paranoid about running out of books to read, regardless of where I am at the time.  I was a little self-conscious about how much I was already packing because I was staying with my parents for more than a week and I anticipated bringing quite a bit of additional stuff back home with me (which I will be, thanks Mum and Dad!).

So I only packed one book, which I finished about two days in. What to do, what to do? I then realized the bookshelf in my old bedroom still had the entire series of Harry Potter books on it, so what better book to add to my Rollout?

The story is already pretty well-known thanks to the series' phenomenal success - boy meets evil wizard, boy defeats evil wizard with baby love powers, boy repeatedly defeats evil wizard with increasingly higher stakes and losses.

But does it hold up when one goes back to it? Well, once you've read the entire series, it's impossible to truly go back to the first book and repeat the experience of reading it for the very first time, before you knew why Sirius Black was so important or why Snape persisted in saving Harry's bacon despite obviously wanting to bang his mum.

However, as a first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (which is its real title, none of this dumbed-down Sorcerer's Stone bull crap), does such an excellent job of conveying a fully-realized, yet whimsically absurd world. Despite its brief length (at least compared to the gargantuan later books), Philosopher's Stone conveyed an environment, an atmosphere, a community of wizards and witches that instantly hooked me. While the story was certainly interesting, ultimately it was the worldbuilding that entertained me the most about this first book and kept me coming back for more.

The worldbuilding of Harry Potter succeeds because it's a perfect combination of fantasy and familiarity. It takes the whimsical aspects of wizardry and magical objects and mythical creatures and conveys it all through the familiar framework of a year at an English boarding school with houses, dorms, prefects and professorial politics. Rowling also imbues the story with an emotional honesty that transcends the fantasy setting. Harry falls into the world of wizardry not because of an innate curiosity for magic but because it is a world into which he is welcomed, for the first time in his life.

In this first book, he is still a little unsure of his place in this world, as indicated by his experience with the Mirror of Erised. In the mirror he sees himself surrounded by his biological family, and becomes obsessed with this impossible idea of what could have been. It takes Dumbledore to pull him free of the mirror's enchantment and show him the importance of friendships and bonds in the here and now. I've always seen this as a message to the book's readers as well. Harry's past and that of his parents and their allies is a horrific tragedy, and it's easy to wonder what kind of life Harry might have had if none of this had happened, but the point of the story is that there is no going back, there is only forward.

And forward it shall be. Having read the first book, I don't think I can just walk away without reading the entire series over again. Not all at once, mind - I'll still read other books on my TBR, but I'll alternate with more of Harry Potter's adventures.

Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone merits an

Saturday, December 29, 2012

"The Birth House," by Ami McKay

The Protagonist: Dora Rare. When local midwife Miss B asks Dora to help her with her practice, Dora is hesitant to render herself even more of an outcast in her tiny, conservative Nova Scotia town.
Her Angst: Both Miss B's livelihood and the health of the women in Scots Bay are threatened by the arrival of a high-handed, condescending obstetrician who wants to rid the town of midwives for good.

The Secondary Cast:

Marie Babineau, a.k.a. "Miss B.": The elderly local midwife. Despite the fact that she's personally caught most of the babies in town for decades, many of the residents superstitiously avoid her - when they don't currently require her services.

Aunt Fran: Dora's wealthy and narrow-minded aunt - however, Dora learns firsthand that overly righteous Fran doesn't always practice what she preaches.

Dr. Thomas Gilbert: A condescending, malicious, and misogynist doctor on a mission to mansplain the process of childbirth to everyone he possibly can. Most definitely not related to Anne Shirley's Dr. Gilbert.

Bertine, Sadie, Mabel, and Ginny: The four town women who befriend Dora and support her as she takes over Miss B's practice.

Archer Bigelow: Dora's crush and eventual husband. Not a Good Man.

Hart Bigelow: Archer's older brother - shyer and more reserved, he continues to look out for Dora even after she marries Archer.

The Word: I had to read this novel way, way back in university for a Comparative Literature - Women's Studies course, and I enjoyed the novel so much that I held on to it. I always planned to read it again, in a setting where I didn't have a deadline, but I never got around to it - that is, until I read Ami McKay's second book, The Virgin Cure, and was less than thrilled with it.

So, for my ReRead Rollout, I decided to go back and try McKay's debut novel that I'd loved so well to see if it held up as well outside of the classroom. Thankfully, it did!

The Birth House takes place in the early years of the twentieth century, in the tiny little Nova Scotia town of Scots Bay. Our teenaged protagonist, Dora Rare, gets roped into helping the town's midwife, Miss B, who starts teaching her the ways of herb usage and folk medicine as they help the town's expectant mothers. The two are threatened by the arrival of Dr. Thomas Gilbert, a fancy, high-handed obstetrician who opens an expensive maternity home in the area.

Dr. Gilbert is a pretty nasty character who looks down on Miss B's "quackery" and promotes the superiority of male-dominated medicine for childbirth. He markets his services like a product, one that's all the better for being "official" and expensive, and pretty soon many of the oblivious husbands in the area begin to insist their wives have their babies at the maternity home instead of coming to Miss B and Dora for help. Dr. Gilbert's arrival sets off a furious, quiet war between the women and men of Scots Bay.

Part of the reason I enjoyed this novel so much is that it offers powerful, thought-provoking themes along with well-realized characters and human drama. Too many "lit fic" novels let their message take over the story, transforming the characters into passionless ciphers who behave in ways that support the message rather than in recognizable human ways. Here, I felt for all the characters at the same time I was entertained by the novel's central theme.

Dr. Gilbert is very obviously depicted as the novel's villain, and his maternity home is a cold, clinical, impersonal place where babies are "extracted," still wheezing from the chloroform administered to their mothers. This is contrasted sharply with the communal, comforting nature of the homebirths Miss B performs.

Ami McKay takes a risk with this depiction since, in this day and age, hospital births are fairly common. However, she wisely focuses the novel on the gendered aspect of the contrast. It's not so much that obstetricians are worse than midwives - rather, it's about how Dr. Gilbert presumes to enforce how women have children when he clearly has no respect for women, and how that symbolizes the oblivious male attempt to control an event that is innately feminine. Dr. Gilbert repeatedly endangers his patients by mistaking their legitimate fears and concerns for "hysteria" - if he cannot find a scientific explanation on hand for it, then clearly the female is being silly and male science must save the day.

This bleeds over into the general theme of women's reproductive rights as Dora treats a wide spectrum of women - from exhausted women whose husbands want another baby to survivors of repeated sexual abuse. This message is conveyed all the more potently thanks to the vivid characterization and gorgeous writing style told from Dora's point of view as she comes to learn more about the women of Scots Bay.

I enjoyed this novel fully as much as I did the first time. Stellar characterization, excellent historical detail, and pertinent themes wrapped in a rich, evocative writing style. If you're a fan of historical fiction that still maintains a contemporary relevance, look no further than The Birth House.

You can purchase The Birth House here.

Monday, December 24, 2012

I'm over at the Booksmugglers today!

I'm over at The Booksmugglers today for their annual Smugglivus celebration - whereupon I reveal myself as the President of the Secret Society of Evil Ladies Bent on World LadyDomination

Go forth and read, minions! 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Beauty," by Robin McKinley

The Protagonist: Honour, a.k.a. "Beauty." The daughter of a wealthy merchant, she struggles with being brainier, less proper, and less beautiful than her two older sisters.
Her Angst: When the family fortunes suddenly wane, and her father runs afoul of an angry Beast in an enchanted castle, Beauty has to sacrifice her freedom in return for her father's life.

Secondary Characters:

Grace: Beauty's older sister. Gorgeous but depressed after losing the love of her life in a shipwreck.

Hope: Beauty's second oldest sister. Also gorgeous. Married to Gervais, a blacksmith.

Gervais: A blacksmith and originally one of Beauty's father's employees. Marries Hope and proved to be of invaluable assistance when their fortunes waned.

Beast: A mysterious, furry figure who lives in an enchanted castle. Supposedly a love interest.

Lydia and Bessie: Two invisible servants who help tend to Beauty during her stay. The longer she stays at the castle, the easier it gets to hear and understand them.

Angst Checklist:
  • Living in reduced circumstances
  • Being uglier than one's sisters
  • Family responsibility
  • Forceful Invisible Servants Who Keep Trying To Make Me Wear Slutty Clothes
  • Reading books that don't exist yet.
The Word: I remember when I first read this book as a young teen, I thought it was a good story, but it ripped off the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast far too much. Smart-alecky enchanted servants? Beast giving Beauty a library? Sure. Right.

At least, that's what I thought until I picked up this novel again for my ReRead Rollout and realized that  it was originally published in 1978.


Ah well. For some reason (probably because Beauty and the Beast is one of my favourite fairy tales), I held onto this volume. In the interim, I've read dozens of reviews praising McKinley's books, but I never got around to buying or reading anything else of hers (except for Deerskin, which remains on my TBR, as yet unread). So I decided to reread this YA novel again and see if I could understand what all the fuss was about.

Beauty is a good book, but in the end, I may end up damning it with faint praise. 

The novel starts by diving into Beauty's life and history. A solid third of the book goes by before we see a glimpse of an enchanted castle or illegally-obtained rose. Beauty (whose childhood rejection of her given name "Honour" left her with her current annoying nickname) lives with her widowed merchant father and her two beautiful sisters, Grace and Hope. Formerly wealthy, the family loses their standing in a matter of weeks when their father's fleet is devastated by storms, pirates, and other misfortunes. Forced to auction their mansion and their more expensive belongings, the family packs up and departs inland, to a small town where Hope's new husband, Gervais, has secured employment as a blacksmith. It's a decent place to live, provided one stays out of the enchanted forest nearby.

After the family spends some time adapting to their reduced circumstances, their father gets word that some of his ships miraculously returned to port, and he decides to return to the city to sell them and settle some of his affairs. Before he leaves, he asks his daughters if they'd like him to bring anything back from the city. Beauty's two sisters jokingly ask for pearls and jewels, but Beauty asks for rose seeds instead, so that she may plant them around their cottage and spruce the place up a bit.

However, their father returns burdened with impossibly wealthy gifts and an impossibly terrible choice to make. As it turns out, on his way home, he got lost in a storm and took shelter in a mysterious castle. On his way out, he thought nothing of plucking a single rose bud from the castle's miraculous garden to bring back to Beauty. However, the moment he removed it, he was confronted by a terrifying, howling Beast who demanded his death in return for the desecration of his garden and hospitality. When their father begged for his life, the Beast relented - saying he would let the man go free if his daughter Beauty came to the castle in his place, and of her own free will. 

Their father has a month to decide - in one month, if Beauty does not go to the castle in the enchanted forest, the Beast will come for him instead. Beauty, against her family's wishes, stubbornly insists on meeting the Beast's challenge. When she arrives, however, she finds neither the castle, nor its Beastly inhabitant, are as frightening as they seem.

First, let's list the things I liked about the story. Robin McKinley has a lovely writing style, and I quite liked the main character of Beauty. While everything post-rose-theft follows the fairytale pretty closely, the development of Beauty and her family members are where most of McKinley's revision occurs. Beauty is not actually beautiful (at least in her own eyes), but bookish and awkward. Her two older sisters are not vain, spoiled, or frivolous and Beauty's father does not willingly offer his daughter in his own place. As Beauty deals with being under the Beast's curse, she learns to understand herself as an independent being, rather than as a sister or a daughter. 

That being said, while I appreciated how McKinley took the time to develop Beauty as a character and explored the dynamics of her family and upbringing, the narrative strength and detail of the novel's first third did not carry over into the rest of the novel - i.e. the Beast part of the novel. The Beast's character is disappointingly underdeveloped - in fact, he's barely outlined at all. We never even learn his name, who he was as a person, his personality, beyond a tossed-off explanation at the very end. He's an object, a plot point, and that annoyed me and weakened the novel. How are we to understand why Beauty falls in love with him if we don't even know who he is? So he makes sad eyes at her and lets her read in his library. Okay. So what? He's also keeping her a virtual prisoner. We're going to need more than sad eyes and the occasional line uttered with heart-rending anguish to understand him as a character and how he relates to Beauty. 

As well, the magic in the book isn't very well explained either. It's vague and undefined until a hasty last-minute explanation - much like the Beast. The last half of the book seemed, well, unnecessary. It follows the original fairy tale so closely (and with about as little embellishment). We already know this part of the story - why not develop it the way Beauty's history was developed? Why not explain it from the Beast's POV? Why is he dying? Why does he suddenly heal? How has he overcome his curse to remain inwardly human? 

The whole point of rewriting a fairy tale is to explore it from a new angle, or to build something fresh upon the foundations of an older story to impart a new idea or message, and I feel the novel sort of gave up on this halfway through. It's not that this novel wasn't entertaining, or even that it was poorly-written. It just could have been more. It was a novel that started out strong but ultimately left me dissatisfied.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

"Fitzpatrick's War," by Theodore Judson

The Protagonist: Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce. A talented young engineer with a knighthood for bravery is delighted to find himself noticed by the powerful and influential Fitzpatrick in his quest for glory.
His Angst: Robert finds his loyalty tested as Fitzpatrick's quest for glory promises to wreak untold devastation on the surrounding nations.

The Secondary Cast:

Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick: A charismatic, brilliant, driven individual who seeks to unite the world under one banner and culture. However, one cannot make a World Domination Omelette without breaking a few tens of millions of eggs.

Charlotte Raft: A possible agent of the mysterious Timermen who falls in love with Robert and decides to be his wife. His beliefs factor very little into her decisions.

Sir Jeremiah Truth Hood: The leader of Fitzpatrick's armies. An upright and religious man, like Robert he also comes to regret his actions committed at his commander's behest.

Pularski, a.k.a. "Buck": Fitzpatrick's hulking bodyguard, who hides a deeply moral soul as well as a talented green thumb. He much prefers tilling beautiful gardens and growing flowers to carrying out Fitzpatrick's murderous orders.

Dr. Murray: A member of the mysterious Timermen society, the only people on the planet who still possess electrical power and outerspace travel. Because of this, they unofficially rule the planet and can easily manipulate any power player to their whims - including Fitzpatrick.

Zimmerman: A nefarious member of Fitzpatrick's secret police force with no capacity for human empathy whatsoever.

Science Fiction Convention Checklist:

  • Countless Zeppelins
  • 1 Bioengineered Race of Locusts
  • 2 Secret Police Forces
  • Several Flocks of Biological-Warfare-Mosquitos
  • A network of Evil Big Brother Satellites
  • 1 Secret Evil Racist Society
The Word: With my ReRead Rollout, it was bound to happen sooner or later - but  Fitzpatrick's War, a novel I read and enjoyed some time ago, did not quite live up to my first experience reading it.

The reason I enjoyed it is still present (in the novel's unconventional formatting), but this time around the cleverness of the narrative framework can no longer disguise how tedious, boring, and repetitive much of the novel is.

The story is a little complicated to describe, but I'll try: Fitzpatrick's War is framed as the personal memoirs of Sir Robert Mayfair Bruce, a soldier in North America circa 2490 A.D., in a nation that has been reduced to a warmongering, steam-powered, Neo-Victorian society in the wake of a global disaster in the 21st century that stripped the world of all electrical power. America, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, and a number of other nations have all united into a mega-nation known as the Yukon Confederacy.

But the story's gimmick is also the fact that this is a "special anniversary edition" of Sir Robert's memoirs that have been edited and annotated by an obsequeious little university professor exactly 100 years later. Sir Robert's memoirs have, since their publication, been deemed a slanderous text, and thus the novel is full of "helpful" (and hilarious) footnotes that explain, elaborate on, and "correct" Robert's treasonous and deceitful allegations.

The reason Robert's writings have been discredited is because he alleges that the legendary national hero Fitzpatrick (of whom Robert was a companion) was not the glorious, noble figure that Official History paints him as, but rather a megalomaniacal tyrant whose actions were manipulated by an insidious secret society.

Still there? Okay - so most of the story involves how Robert, a talented commoner, comes to be included in the inner circle of Isaac Prophet Fitzpatrick, a privileged boy expected to inherit the title of Consul of the Yukon Confederacy. Robert is initially dazzled by Fitzpatrick's attentions and the privileges and promotions this association wins him, but slowly comes to realize that loyalty to Fitzpatrick comes at an ever-higher moral cost.

This is all good stuff, and the personal politics of Fitzpatrick's War are a treat to read (especially when compared to the point of view of the memoir's future editor), but the novel doesn't really have enough of this.

In many ways, Fitzpatrick's War reminded me a lot of Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. Both authors pay such meticulous attention to their settings, imbuing them with endless detail. The world Judson creates is so complete and detailed - the societies, the geography, the history, the politics, the weapons, the military ideology, and their steam-powered technology.

However, like Solaris, all this detail cuts into the time used to tell the actual story. Despite the unusual and creative setting, the plot of the novel (how one man is completely and utterly corrupted by power) is hardly new and would have suited a much shorter story. In many parts of the novel (most especially during the Yukon Confederacy's assault on the Chinese), the inundation of detail is simply too much. I really didn't need to know exactly how many platoons there were, the descriptions of the different weaponry they carried, and which members carried which guns. In many places Fitzpatrick's War felt like reading a history textbook - lots of detail and information but no narrative. I found myself skimming many passages.

Again, the parts of the novel that involved around actual human interactions and politics were, for the most part, interesting. All the characters had interesting roles to play - however, the one woman in the story (Robert's wife Charlotte) is such an Insufferably Smug Morally Superior Manic Pixie Dream Wife that I just couldn't stand her. It's not that I don't understand her character, and how she was supposed to shock Robert out of his staid ways and get him to embrace open-mindedness, but she could have been dialled down way more, at least if the author wanted us to interpret her as a realistic character rather than a moral-spewing cartoon.

Is this novel terrible? Hardly. It's still well-written with a splendid eye for detail. It's also very interesting to have a novel with two points of view - Robert's and the "Official Historical Account" of the future that aptly demonstrates how official history is written by winners. If you're a fan of military sci-fi, steampunkish settings, and alternate histories, you might very well enjoy Fitzpatrick's War. If you are more a fan of politics and human characters, you should probably look elsewhere.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Re-Read Rollout: The Villains of "The Secret Pearl"

For the second book in my Re-Read Rollout, I chose The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh. This was my first novel by her and it immediately cemented me into a serious fan of her work. Not all of her books have been great, and none have managed to impress me as much as this one, but they've all been consistently good. I can always expect thoughtful themes, interesting characters and great atmosphere in her books.

Since I already reviewed this novel, I decided that, for this ReRead, I would focus on a particular aspect of this novel that really grabbed me.

In The Secret Pearl's case, it would have to be the villains. In a genre where villains tend to be as big, loud, and flaming as the protagonists' passions, the antagonists in this novel are so incredibly subtle, fascinating, and even sympathetic.

There are three main antagonists to the hero and heroine's happiness in this novel: Adam's half-brother Lord Thomas Kent, Fleur's cousin Matthew, and finally, Adam's wife, Sybil.

Lord Thomas Kent is perhaps the least developed of the three - an asshole just for the purpose of being an asshole. When the hero, Adam, went off to fight in Waterloo, he was grievously injured and thought dead for the better part of a year. During that time, Lord Thomas inherited the dukedom - as well as the attentions of Sybil, Adam's intended.

All was well until Adam returned, miraculously alive, rendering Thomas a mere "Lord" again. Although Thomas and Sybil were betrothed by that point, Thomas no longer saw any reason to honour his agreement with Sybil and split for the continent, leaving her pregnant with his child.

In many ways, Thomas isn't really an antagonist. He doesn't really oppose Adam or Fleur in any of their endeavours - the only reason he really returns to the estate is to twist the knife in Adam's back and wrap Sybil around his little finger once again just to see if he can. He's more of a catalyst - his presence heightens emotions in Adam and Sybil and allows Matthew a way into Adam's houseparty.

He also serves as a warped mirror to enhance Adam's heroic nature by comparison. While Thomas and Adam shared a happy childhood together, Adam grew to accept his responsibilities while Thomas continually shirked them. The Thomas-Sybil-Adam triangle brilliantly displays this - while Thomas enjoyed all the pleasures of an affair with Sybil, Adam shouldered all the consequences - namely, a heartbroken, embittered wife and his brother's illegitimate child.

Matthew is next - in many ways, he's a standard villain: a wealthy man with considerable power and influence who is unnaturally obsessed with the one woman who refuses his attentions, to the point of framing her for murder and theft to force her into marrying him. Matthew is an interesting character because he's so calculating, controlled, and devious that the menace in his interactions with Fleur is entirely verbal. He's a nonviolent villain - aside from one forced kiss, his reputation and his power are enough to keep Fleur compliant.

The tension between him and Fleur is even more potent because he never does act on it - the suspense and Fleur's terror of him all derive from the potential of what he can do. Fleur never hits him, physically resists his advances, or runs from him - in her mind, there is no point in doing so. As a justice of the peace, he can chain her in fetters and drag her home whenever he pleases. Therefore, it's a delicious agony to watch their many outwardly civilized and polite dialogues regarding whether she will consent to be his wife or bare her neck for the noose.

However, Sybil's characterization leaves both Matthew and Thomas in the dust. Honestly, she's one of my favourite romance villainesses ever and a highlight of the novel. You hate her at the same time you pity her. She's a victim as much as she is an aggressor - probably even more so. She truly and passionately fell in love with Thomas while Adam was MIA, oblivious to the fact that Thomas saw her merely as an attractive accessory to the dukedom he'd unexpectedly inherited. When he found out she was pregnant, he abandoned her - leaving her forced to marry Adam or face ruin.

Their marriage subsequently curdled into bitter acrimony - in part because Sybil chose to believe Adam purposefully sent Thomas away to keep her for himself, and in part because Adam (in a mistaken attempt to spare Sybil's feelings) decided not to correct that assumption.

Unlike Matthew or Thomas, who are more stereotypically evil, Sybil's antagonism is depicted as the result of moral weakness rather than a conscious choice. As Adam reflects near the end of the book, if Sybil's life had been pleasant or happy, she might have remained a sweet-natured person for all of her life.

Much like Thomas is seen as an evil comparison for Adam, Sybil is a dark reflection of Fleur. Both Fleur and Sybil were dealt monumentally crappy hands by fate. However, while Fleur fought to rise above the tragedy of her circumstances and attain peace of mind regardless of the cost, Sybil chose to wallow in her misery, becoming indolent, selfish, and embittered, carrying on mindless affairs while refusing to let Adam touch her.

Yes, Sybil is a terrible person, but it's hard not to pity her when the foundation of her character lies on such desperate unhappiness. Because of this, she's interesting and memorable. She's a fully-fledged character rather than a mere obstacle, and her conflicts with Adam and Fleur add layers of complexity to an already detailed storyline.

If you are a fan of complex, angsty historical romances or would like to try one of Mary Balogh's novels, I implore you to try The Secret Pearl. You won't regret it.

The Weekly Wanting (20)

It's time for the Weekly Wanting! I'm still in the middle of my Re-Read Rollout but that doesn't mean I can't find new books I want to read in the new year!

Genre: Romance, Historical.
Cover Snark: In the days before Ye Old Wonderbra...
The Story: A penniless bohemian falls in love with the wealthy, upright Duke courting her cousin.
Why Do I Want It? I haven't been reading as much new romance lately, but a joint review from Dear Author convinced me - plus I quite enjoyed The Wild Marquis. On top of that, it's a Wild Heroine Meets Staid Hero romance, which I personally love.

Genre: YA, Paranormal.
Cover Snark: As Directed By Alfred Hitchcock.
The Story: A teen psychic (one in a family of psychics) and a rich prep school boy team up to find a sleeping king in a small Virgina town.
Why Do I Want It? Well, I wasn't interested in this story at first, mainly because I was put off by Stiefvater's arrogant and condescending remarks on book reviews (unless she writes them, of course). And also because I'd heard m'eh-to-average things about her Shiver trilogy. But honestly so many people have been raving about this book and I love small towns, psychics, and prep schools, I figured if I had to start on one of her books, it would be this one.

Genre: YA, Contemporary
Cover Snark: Psychedelic!
The Story: Gabe, a popular local DJ, runs into trouble when some of his brutish classmates find out he is trans*, a gendered male born in a female body.
Why Do I Want It? I'm always interested in good LGBTQ stories, and the buzz for this has been just stellar. Plus, I really like the idea of a Pump Up the Volume-style story where Gabe is able to the person he's always believed he is on the air, even while the people at his school still think he's a girl named Elizabeth.

What novels are you guys eagerly awaiting this week?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

"Anne of Green Gables," by Lucy Maud Montgomery

The Protagonist: Anne Shirley. An unloved orphan girl who is finally adopted by a pair of elderly siblings to help on their farm - until she finds out they'd meant to adopt a boy instead.
Her Angst: While they decide to keep her anyways, can Anne overcome her incorrigible upbringing (and equally incorrigible red hair) to make them proud of her?

The Secondary Cast:

Matthew Cuthbert: An incredibly shy, tongue-tied farmer who is terrified of social interaction, especially with women and girls. Anne, of course, is the miraculous exception.

Marilla Cuthbert: Matthew's unmarried sister. Initially appalled at receiving a girl instead of the boy they'd asked for, she intends to raise Anne up the proper way - although her idea of what's proper changes drastically the more she learns about Anne.

Diana Barry: Anne's bosom friend and kindred spirit. Nice gal, but she can't hold her booze.

Gilbert Blythe: A popular boy from Avonlea who earns Anne's undying spite and unwilling fascination when he mocks her hair.

Josie Pye: A bitch.

Angst Checklist:

  • Red Hair
  • Being an orphan
  • Perpetually being teased about having red hair and being an orphan
  • Exacting vengeance upon those who make fun of one's red hair and orphaned status
  • Learning to use one's imagination without accidentally poisoning people
  • Learning to use one's imagination without accidentally drowning oneself
  • Getting crunk on currant wine
  • Living without puffed sleeves
  • Adapting to life when one's future doesn't go as planned
LiveTweeted it! Here on Storify

The Word: Really, for the first book of my Re-Read Rollout, what other book could I have honestly chosen?

Anne of Green Gables is the story of my life. Not only in the sense that I have always felt Anne to be a kindred spirit (in imagination, intelligence, and the inability to shut up), but in the sense that it is the book that's influenced so much about my outlook on life, literature, and my personal vocation of writing. I honestly cannot remember the first time I read this book (I still have the MacMillan Little Classics edition I was given as a child, along with Heidi - a book which prompted me to try and toast cheese in the microwave), but I don't think there will ever be a time when I do not think about it.

As it is, Anne of Green Gables is a book that holds up just as well to adult reading as it does to childhood reading.

Our story begins when two elderly siblings - rigid old maid Marilla and her reclusive brother Matthew - decide to adopt an orphan boy to help out on their farm, Green Gables. However, when Matthew drives to the train station, he discovers the orphanage sent them a little girl by mistake: a scrawny, red-headed chatterbox named Anne who survived the first eleven years of her life using her wits, her overactive imagination, and precious little else. 

In the time it takes to drive back to Green Gables, Matthew (an intensely shy and passive man) is so enchanted by Anne's zeal, enthusiasm and delight that he insists on keeping Anne despite Marilla's consternation. However, even Marilla is not immune to Anne's nattering charm, resulting in five years of episodic, yet wholly entertaining adventures.

I love this book. I love pretty much everything about it. Anne is constantly observing and sharing her observations, and while she helps to create a detailed picture of the community of Avonlea that embraces her, her interpretations of these observations paint a fascinating interior portrait of herself for the benefit of the reader.

Anne is such a perfect character because Lucy Maud Montgomery allowed her to be imperfect. While kind-hearted, intelligent, creative, and honest to the point of oversharing, Anne has significant flaws as well - she's vain, lazy, hot-tempered, self-absorbed, careless, and envious. Anne is developed - her actions are supported by well-established motivations and result in significant consequences that change her as a character. For instance, she's not the smartest girl in school because she's a Mary Sue who has to be because she's the main character. She's the smartest girl in school because she studies her ass off in order to beat out the boy who humiliated her in class. To me, that's way more satisfying than if she'd just been naturally awesome.

One thing I realized on this particular re-read is that the book is about Marilla almost as much as it is about Anne. Every time Marilla reacts to Anne's equally-frequent triumphs and scrapes, we learn more about her character. Anne speaks aloud the things Marilla has always secretly thought, and Anne's scrapes force Marilla to remember her own childhood foibles and romantic entanglements. As a result, Marilla embarks on her own emotional journey as she overcomes her terror of attachment and learns to acknowledge, accept, and finally articulate her love for Anne. 

And of course, there is Matthew - the shy, sweet, and secretly brave old man who falls for Anne within the first ten minutes of meeting her. Despite his deep discomfort with confrontation, social interaction, and attention, he manages to intercede on Anne's behalf in his own quiet, stubborn way. 

Anne of Green Gables engages both the brain and the heart, which is why it continues to entertain me as an adult reader in a way that, say, Little Women can't. Yes, the deeply sentimental scenes and vignettes are still as powerful as ever, but one can also enjoy Montgomery's wry, witty writing style, excellent sense of setting and pace, and her sly social subtext regarding the role of women in society. 

Anne of Green Gables is my true Desert Island book.