Thursday, October 08, 2015

"Starship Troopers," by Robert A. Heinlein

Starship Troopers is my dad's absolute favourite book of all time by one of his favourite authors of all time. So of course I had to read it for my self-imposed Parental Book Club.

But I was worried. Yes, Heinlein was part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, but this novel was released in 1959 and I thought it would be dated. I'd overheard discussions about his allegedly stilted language and stiff characters  (especially the female ones). It certainly didn't help that certain rabidly conservative groups in the sci-fi community revered this novel for being "simple" sci-fi that focused on action rather than "agenda."

I opened this book with such lowered expectations, it shouldn't be a surprise that Starship Troopers overcame each one of them easily.

This book was nothing but surprises - the vast majority of them pleasant.

The novel follows the military career of Juan "Johnnie" Rico from the point when he joins the Terran Federation's Mobile Infantry (MI) in the 22nd century. Johnnie joins the army on little more than a whim and discovers the military is far tougher than he gave it credit for - especially once war breaks out with the Bugs, a race of super intelligent insects operating under a hive mind. However, over the course of the book, Johnnie not only falls in love with the job, but the man it's turned him into.

My first busted preconception about this book was that it would be simple and apolitical. WRONG. This book is all about politics. In the future, only Citizens (people who have successfully completed a term of military service) are allowed to vote or participate in politics. You can volunteer for the military whenever you want, and the military has to accept you (regardless of sex, age, race, religion, or ability), but then it's up to you to sweat and toil and earn your franchise. If you wash out or resign, you don't get another chance. Ever.

Sure, Heinlein is conservative, and this set-up would do nicely as the dystopia for one of today's YA novels, but you can definitely understand his reasoning - the only people who have the right to vote for society are the ones who've volunteered to put society's needs ahead of their own. The contrast between Johnnie's lifestyle before joining the military with his life after neatly outlines the novel's definition of power: Johnnie was born to a wealthy, privileged Filipino family but had no voting rights and a father who'd already picked out a career for him. He gains his power after joining the military - by choosing his own path and rising on his own merits. In this case, the power to vote is a symbol of Johnnie's autonomy.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the novel's diversity - at least comparatively, for the time period it was published in - with a Filipino hero and a cast that includes hispanic, African-American, and Japanese characters. That being said - while women are apparently "superior pilots" in the future, we only see, like, two of them, and then very briefly.

Did I agree with all the politics? Um, nope. There's a cringe-inducing chapter devoted almost entirely to the Usefulness of Corporal Punishment and how Psychology is Ruining Kids Today that made me want to shout at the teenagers to get off my lawn. And this novel takes a very cynical view of human existence that suggests that morality is a disguised survival instinct and that humans are innately savage, violent monsters.

Preconception number two: this would be an action book. Wrong again - you can blame this one on the terrrrrrrible film adaptation. There's maybe a handful of action scenes, and they're all brief. Heinlein's preferred style is to introduce the reader to a fight and then skip ahead to focus on who won, because the action isn't what's really important. Most of the novel is dedicated to military life in between combat - the training, the technology, the relationships and the social structure. Heinlein's take on the military is an extremely positive and compassionate one. The novel toes a fine line between being pro-military and being pro-war, but it manages that balance pretty well.

I went in expecting a stilted, vaguely-out-of-touch story and wound up sucked into a compulsively-readable, thought-provoking political sci-fi work. I should have known better - they don't give labels like "Golden Age of Sci-Fi" to chimps.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

"Carnival," by Elizabeth Bear

Carnival's plot is wildly and enjoyably convoluted, but I'll try to convey the gist: Michelangelo and Vincent are two diplomats (and former lovers) from the Old Earth Coalition Cabinet who seek an audience with the Parliament of New Amazonia, a planet that's managed to remain independent. On the surface, the two men are supposed to broker an alliance. Secretly, they've been sent to discover the source of New Amazonia's miraculously clean energy and claim it for the Coalition. Unfortunately for them, the powers that be in New Amazonia have their own ideas.

Old Earth and its allied planets are under constant pressure from the Governors - a manmade race of artificially intelligent beings programmed to maintain ecological balance. Part of that balance includes population control and resource distribution - the Governors will go into Massacre Mode and start culling if a planet's population gets too high or if the environment starts to decline. The tyranny of the Governors has forced the Coalition to adopt a desperately expansionist philosophy: the more planets they colonize, the more space and resources there'll be to go around, which means fewer excuses for the Governors to intervene. On Coalition planets, resources are tightly controlled, and neither mediocrity nor nonconformity are acceptable.

The Coalition's societal structure is twelve kinds of fucked up, but we quickly learn New Amazonia's freer way of life isn't automatically better. In New Amazonia, women are the ruling class while men are second-class citizens categorized into two camps: "stud" males who have to earn their status by performing gladiatorial challenges, and "gentle" (gay) males who are permitted to be servants and artisans.

Carnival is a clever and intricate science fiction novel about the many ways in which different societies fail to live up to their ideals. The novel encourages you (at least at first) to view the Coalition as the soulless aggressor, but New Amazonia has troubles of its own. Both societies feel they have the science and the history to back up how they've structured their worlds, but their vast generalizations leave swaths of people out in the cold.

It helps that all three protagonists (Vincent, Michelango, and New Amazonia's Lesa) teeter on the edge of being outcasts in their respective societies. Vincent and Michelango have to officially hide their homosexuality from their superiors (the inability to reproduce is seen as a waste of resources), while Lesa rages that her soft hearted, intellectual son will soon be forced to give up his studies because of his gender. While all three are strongly influenced by their environments, due to their outcast status, all three are clear-eyed enough to spot the flaws in their ways of life.

Carnival also asks: should one accept one's society's inevitable inadequacies to preserve the peaceful status quo, or should one risk death and sacrifice to form a better society - even if that society will eventually wind up failing somewhere down the road as well?

Carnival isn't perfect (it can be incredibly difficult to keep up with all the double-triple-quadruple crossing and double blinds going on), but it uses unique settings, nuanced characters, and fantastical set-pieces to ask deeper questions of the reader.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

"Tapping the Dream Tree," by Charles de Lint

So I'm back to reviewing!

Sort of!

Basically to get myself back in the habit of both reading and writing critically, I'm going to go back to reviewing books - although I might be briefer than I used to be.

I've recently moved back in with my parents, and to while away the hours I started an impromptu Parental Book Club, encouraging my parents to submit books or authors they've always loved and always wanted me to try.

Which is what got me reading Tapping the Dream Tree. Charles de Lint is one of my mother's favourite authors, and she thought this collection of stories would be the perfect appetizer platter to introduce me to his unique brand of urban fantasy.

And to be honest - it was rather refreshing. I burnt out on urban fantasy pretty early after one-too-many novels about a Tough Heroine with a Mysterious Parentage who wears a Leather Jacket and Disrespects Authority and is in a Love Triangle with Two Equally Hot and Morally Ambiguous Magical Boyfriends.

De Lint's stories have a different, folkie, down-to-earth tone, inspired by Celtic and First Nations folklore. Most of them take place in or around the fictional town of Newford, with a revolving cast of recurring characters. Most of the protagonists are artists or musicians - people who, while not explicitly magical, are still open enough to the world's mysteries to be pretty chill about the magical stuff that inevitably goes down. I really enjoyed this - none of the stories get bogged down in "What do you mean magic is real?!" denials or overwrought explanations about rules or worldbuilding. Whether it's a fairy-powered internet search engine, a Ferris Wheel of alternate universes, or the ghost of the teenage free spirit you sacrificed for a happy adulthood, the drama comes not from confronting magic, but from accepting and learning from it.

What I enjoyed the most about these stories is that although characters might reference events from other collections or novels, I never felt lost or left out because I was a de Lint newbie. Tapping the Dream Tree is an effective Charles de Lint taster - each story is a satisfying standalone that still drops delicious hints about his pretty impressive backlist. I may have to try one of his novels, next.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

"Little Men," by Louisa May Alcott

Yeah, sequels are rarely as good as the original story.

I could pretty much end my review of Little Men (the sequel to the classic Little Women) right there, but despite the fact that Little Men is nowhere near as interesting or well-written as the book that came before it, it is still a remarkably interesting book for its time.

Little Men chronicles the adventures of one year at Plumfield Academy, the school Jo and her husband Professor Bhaer founded at the end of Little Women. You'd think this would be interesting, and it sort of is, and it sort of isn't.

Plumfield is home to 14 students, plus Jo's sons Rob and Teddy (yes, his name is Teddy Bhaer). Four are the main(ish) characters - Nat, former urchin and violin prodigy; Demi, Meg and John's bookworm son; Tommy, the rascally troublemaker; and Dan - the bad boy street kid with a dark past. Yes, ladies, we have been mooning over angsty brooders for more than a century.

Five of the other boys are vague characters who mainly serve as comic relief or mild antagonists (Jack, Stuffy, Franz, Emil, Ned). Three are the token "special" kids (Dick has a crooked back, Dolly has a stutter, and Billy is mentally disabled) who are mentioned very rarely and never without some combination of the adjectives "poor," "feeble," and "valiant."

Strangely enough, the "quadroon" student Jo and Fritz boasted of so smugly at the end of Little Women is nowhere to be found. Suspicious, that.

Lastly, two of the students are girls - Daisy, Demi's twin sister, and "Naughty Nan," who is AWESOME. More on that later.

The main reason this book didn't work for me was the youth of the characters. While the main children are comparable in age to the March sisters at the start of Little Women, they act much younger. Perhaps this is due to the fact that they reside in a school environment where they are constantly reminded that they're children, while the March sisters had to grow up rather fast to survive while their father was away.

Alcott also wastes an awful lot of scenes chronicling the cutesy fan-servicey adventures of the March sisters' children, most of whom are under the age of 5. Lots of tears, chubby fists, and baby talk. Imagine reading a Facebook friend's posts about their two-year-old, only instead of a post, it's like 40% of a novel. So most of the episodes read as very childish.

Little Men, as a whole, feels strangely directionless. It's "a year in the life," separated into little episodes and vignettes, with no real goal or point. The closest the novel comes to an arc is the Bhaers' attempt to tame Dan - a defiant and obviously troubled boy who wants help as much as he fears to ask for it. The Bhaer's conflicting hopes and fears for Dan (hope that he might be brought around, fear that his violence might affect the other children) are powerful, as is Dan's slowly unfolding trust for them. It's the strongest subplot in the novel, and I honestly wish we had more of it.

On the positive side, Plumfield gives Alcott an excuse to rhapsodize at length about how best to educate boys and girls, and her ideas (considering her time period) are bold, progressive, and feminist. For instance, a huge emphasis is placed on individual study - some kids learn at different paces, and that's okay! Rote memorization will not help a young, eager brain to learn (rather laughably, mentally handicapped Billy's backstory is that he literally studied so hard his brain gave out). As well, Alcott preaches a balance between book learning and practical, hands-on knowledge (the boys are encouraged to explore and collect their frogs and snails and puppy dog's tails).

Even better, Jo decides to make Plumfield co-ed by inviting local girl "Naughty Nan" to board with them and study with Daisy (who's at Plumfield to be close to her brother). Jo theorizes that having boys learn alongside girls will encourage them to moderate their behaviour and respect women more. FANCY THAT.

Alcott also demonstrates many feminist themes in her treatment of Daisy and Nan. Daisy fits the more conventional model of Victorian femininity - she's gentle and sweet, loves to cook and clean and pretends to mother her dolls. Nan is the wild child - running and racing and challenging the boys, voraciously interested in science and the outdoors. Neither child is shamed or depicted as the "bad one" for what they want out of life. Nan is "naughty" because of her behaviour, not because of her desires.

Oh, and did I mention? Jo sees Nan's interest in science, biology, and medicinal herbs and encourages her to study to be a DOCTOR. IN 1871 NEW ENGLAND. Because JO MARCH-BHAER IS AWESOME. I just about flew up out of my chair reading that part.

So while Little Men doesn't tell as interesting of a story as Little Women did, it's still a fascinating look into the mind of a 19th century feminist and her idea of what the ideal school would be like. While some of her ideas and themes are problematic when seen in a modern context (especially her depiction of disabled people), the amount of stuff she got right is still encouraging.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Learning to Love "Little Women" Again

There are three stages to reading Louisa May Alcott's Little Women.

Stage One is when you read it for the first time because your mother bought it for you, usually around the ages of 12-13, and you love it. Because there's Jo - who's awkward and a tomboy and a writer and likes books just like you! And has sisters who love/annoy her, just like you! And has a totally cute next door neighbour who she loves and this is where the comparison ends because you would TOTALLY marry Laurie, what the HELL were you thinking, Jo? He's rich and half-Italian and a musician and looks vaguely like Christian Bale! Instead she marries some random old dude (HE'S FORTY) with a beard that you just KNOW is worse than Laurie's terrible Rejection-Goatee from the movie. 

Also, Amy is the worst and Beth is weird.

Stage Two is when you read it as a smart, sophisticated, cynical intellectual (between the ages of 19-23) because you remember loving it as a kid, and are surprised by how much you hate it. Good Lord, did you actually love this novel at one time? Everything is sugary and preachy and condescending, and a March girl is always sewing or darning something in literally every scene ever. That's Beth over there, embroidering a handkerchief as Amy falls through the ice. I'm almost positive Meg managed to tat some lace while she was wearing high heeled shoes and sipping champagne like a godless harlot while Laurie looked on in Righteous Patriarchal Disapproval. This time around, you can only stand about a hundred pages of Marmee's cheesy moralizing, creepy Beth with her broken doll hospital and Foreshadowings of Death, and Amy being The Literal Worst before you slam the book shut and write the novel off as something that just doesn't age well.

Stage Three is when you pick it up again in your late twenties. Partly for nostalgia. Partly to make a few more jokes at its expense (for you haven't completely outgrown your cynical I'm So Clever phase). This is the stage where you stop pausing to point out the things that haven't aged well (it takes place in the 1860s, remember) and rediscover the parts that remain stunningly timeless. When you read it as a girl, you loved and remembered it primarily as a book about girls, and as a Cynical Teen you couldn't even read past the girl part. It's Stage Three when you rediscover what this book has to say about women.

In case you are unfamiliar or would like a reminder, Little Women is about four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March) who live in genteel poverty in 1860s New England. The first half of the novel deals with the sisters and their mother (Marmee) eking out a living on their own while the March patriarch is off serving as a chaplain in the army. With their male anchor away at war, these five women work tirelessly together - not only to support themselves financially (both Meg and Jo work full-time jobs), but also emotionally.

Poverty is a big issue in this novel, and during Stage Two, I dismissed this first half as a simplistic sermon on how "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." During Stage Two, I saw the Marches as this judgy family that repeatedly hammered home how much better they were then those Godless Immoral Rich People because they relied on their Pure Christian Love and not filthy, filthy lucre.

Reading in Stage Three gave me a completely different interpretation. It wasn't, "We Don't Need Money Because We Have Twu Wuv." The Marches don't have a choice between poverty and wealth. They're poor, full stop. It's not about how being Poor makes them Better, it's how they struggle and fight to be Better despite being Poor. A good chunk of the novel's first half deals with the girls battling the incursions of envy, greed, despair and bitterness that come from being poor. Especially Meg. One of the details I missed during previous readings was that the March family used to be rich, and Meg, as the eldest sister, has the clearest memories of what their lives used to be like before disaster struck. This informs so much of her character - her conflicted feelings about wealth and status continually influence her life and her eventual marriage, and Alcott portrays these feelings as natural without slighting Meg's ultimately virtuous character.

The second half of the novel deals with the girls growing into women, mustering and altering their lives' ambitions, and learning how to deal with the men in their lives. While I recognize the book is a product of its time, I was nevertheless astounded and delighted by the strong and amazingly relevant themes about feminism and art I took away from this novel. Marmee trains all her girls to be independent - to value hard work, to develop useful skills, to maintain a moral compass, with or without a husband. She'd rather her daughters be happy old maids than unhappy wives.

Meg learns that even a happy marriage has hiccups (hilariously still-relevant hiccups) that need to be resolved with open communication and understanding. My favourite scene is when Meg, a new mother, has to be cajoled into letting her husband John look after the kids because she deserves some personal time. Imagine that.

Jo's storyline remains my favourite, and now that I'm an author, too, it's great fun to recognize how little has changed about being a writer. Jo struggles with the morality of writing immoral garbage (gasp! Genre fiction!) because the pay is good, handles an editor's notes on her manuscript, reacts to conflicting reviews (GoodReads would destroy her), and learns that life has to be lived before it can be written about.

Moreover, now that I've reached Stage Three, I actually understand why Jo doesn't go for Laurie.

SURPRISE: Laurie's a Bit of an Asshole.

Little Women is all about girls growing up, and Laurie and Jo's bromance perfectly demonstrates the distinction between friendships formed in childhood and adult romantic relationships. Mature romantic relationships require a bit more than simply Liking Someone a Lot, and to say this in a Victorian novel?  This is huge. Jo and Laurie are brilliant friends, but they're both rambunctious and impulsive and bring out the impulsiveness in each other. It's hilarious when they're kids because it gets them into entertaining scrapes, and their siblings and relatives are always close at hand to yank them back when they skirt too close to the cliff's edge. But as adults, anything more than friendship between them would be a hot-ass mess.

I get it now. Great job, LMA.

One of Jo's most important lessons in her artist's journey comes when the simple story she writes to deal with Beth's illness and death winds up phenomenally more successful than all her sensationalist gothic fantasies put together. Writing something true will ultimately resonate more with readers than writing something that's merely clever. Imagination is important, but the stuff that you write has to have an emotionally honest foundation to stick around long enough in people's minds.

That's what I got from Little Women - when I first read it as a child, I revelled in discovering a young heroine who was so much like me. Reading it now as an adult, I feel the same way - I just relate more to second-half Jo, who struggles with her writing and her sisters' successes and wonders what she's going to do with her life and what choices she needs to make to speed up the process. Once I put down my Horn-Rimmed Glasses of Irony, I rediscovered the emotional truth of Little Women that's made it such a perennial favourite.

If you haven't read Little Women in a while, maybe it's time to pick it up again. The results just might surprise you.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

How I Learned to Wake Up and Smell My Laurels

You've probably heard the expression, "resting on your laurels." It means to milk a singular success instead of going out and succeeding some more.

But is there the opposite of that expression? "Downplaying your laurels"? "Hiding your laurels in a tasteful floral arrangement"? "Those aren't really laurels, that's just a Christmas wreath you stole from the sales rack at Target"?

Last August, I actually won some laurels I'd been searching for my whole life. My debut fantasy-romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, was published by Entangled Romance. And for one hot month I was wearing 100% laurel-woven tunics and eating laurel salad and drinking laurel smoothies.

I'd done it, I was an author. I had reached the Mount Olympus of artistic achievement, and it was time to drink ambrosia, abduct Greek maidens and commit incest in a variety of impractical animal forms with the other mighty wordsmiths who had come before.

And yet, the more time passed, the less I believed in what I had done. It wasn't that I stopped bragging (although I did, because the world kept turning after I achieved Literary Immortality and I'm not a dick). It was that my brain started reverse-bragging.

It's one thing to not brag about an achievement because it's not relevant to the current conversation.

It's another thing to retroactively dismiss a legitimate achievement. Some months after Duke came out, when people asked about my book, I'd talk about it - and then I'd find myself apologizing. Adding some sort of explanation to it. Just to make sure they didn't get the wrong idea.

"Oh, I had a book published - but it's only in ebook form."

Or, "My book came out - but it didn't sell very many copies. My mom bought a lot."

Or, "My book was published by Entangled - you've probably never heard of them."

Or, and this makes me really kick myself, "I do have a book out - *apologetic smile* - it's a romance."

Let me back up for a moment. I grew up as one of those quirky kids who, despite not being an habitual liar, was always afraid of being thought a liar. I've always been paranoid of people not believing me. It's resulted in a pathological reluctance to take sick days ("what if my boss thinks I'm faking?"), return retail items ("what if they think I actually wore it?"), or demand refunds ("what if the malfunctioning coin-laundry company thinks I'm trying to scam money from them?").

For some reason, when I told people I was an author, it felt like I wasn't telling the truth. Or at least, the whole truth. I wasn't really an author. Entangled was a small publisher, and they probably published everybody. My book was only a step above self-published. It was a nobody book at a nobody publisher - what the hell was I doing, telling people I was an author? Susan Elizabeth Phillips is an author. Robin Hobb is an author. I'm just a schmuck.

What the hell? Why was I thinking those things? Why was I downgrading my achievements in front of people who asked about my book?

First of all - Entangled is a fantastic publisher with a rapidly growing reader base and a diverse stable of authors. They do not accept "just about everybody." I would know - I interned there for over a year. I read their slush pile. And their best authors sell tens of thousands of copies.

....and, okay, I didn't make it that far. But I checked my sales stats and I know as an empirical fact that I've sold more copies than my mother could possibly justify buying. Which means that strangers I'd never met - of sound mind (hopefully) and of their own free will - liked the idea of my book enough to buy it and read it. And a lot of them liked it and wrote great reviews! That means something!

Moreover, when I attended the Words in 3D Conference in my hometown this weekend, I was strongly reminded just how tough it can be to break into publishing. People who have been writing their whole lives and have slogged through hundreds of writer's cons and writing groups and author seminars are still fighting for that dream.

At my workplace, I had someone from a different department reveal to me they've been trying to write and publish a novel for ten years. AND I STILL FELT EMBARRASSED, like I had cheated on a test and won the scholarship that the struggling genius working two jobs should have received.


Wow, I am a schmuck.

Hubris can be fatal and arrogance is unattractive (unless you're a sexy, swarthy Duke with a dark past, of course!), but everyone needs to have pride in something. And maybe pride needs to be nurtured.

I don't know why I've felt this way about my book. Maybe it's because I'd dreamed for so long about Becoming An Author, and embellished the Ultimate Glory of that Achievement in my mind for so many years. When it finally happened and Hugh Jackman and Channing Tatum failed to materialize at my door on a tandem bicycle holding my You Did It! Trophy, I suppose that caused my brain to tell me that I hadn't really "made it" yet.

This is sort of true. Publishing your first book isn't the end of the road - it's just a super awesome rest stop where you can replenish your self-confidence and creativity. You're never going to reach that "Made It" plateau where you can stop and the world's accolades will just come to you. When I was a teen I just assumed once a publisher took on your first book they were contractually obligated to publish you forever, like a Random Penguin imprinting on its mother. You were now an Author, and your publisher had only to bask in your radiance and provide offerings of royalties and deckled page editions. This is not true. Like, at all.

No one likes a braggart, and I'm not supposed to rest on my laurels. But I need to remind myself every now and then to smell the laurels. To remind me they're real. That I did win them. That I worked really hard and had a lot of fun and was rewarded. That I am special and talented.

I am an author. I was published. I even made royalties! But now it's time to get back to writing.

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Guy in Real Life," by Steve Brezenoff

Okay, so I'm going to start this review with two warnings:

Warning the First: I had no interest in reading this book, no desire to pick it up at all, and the only reason I did was because it's FYA Book Club's April pick. So I may have gone into it with a bit of resentment at being "forced" to read it.

Warning the Second: I ended up skimming this novel sometime after the halfway mark.

But guys, this book sucked.

It starts out with an interesting idea - after black-clad metalhead Lesh gets grounded by his parents for coming home drunk from a concert, he gets suckered into signing up for a World of Warcraft-style MMO by his nerd friend, Greg.

Lesh initially signs up as a meathead orc warrior at Greg's behest, but is soon bored - until he decides to create a female elf healer because the avatar reminds him of a new girl at school that he can't get off his mind. Of course, it's not long before Lesh realizes that other players treat him differently when they think he's a girl. But for some reason, he really enjoys embodying a female character on a vast fantasy adventure.

Meanwhile, the girl he's crushing on, Svetlana, is an anti-social artist who's heavily invested in tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons gaming. She starts hanging out with him when she realizes he can help her shake an infuriatingly persistent (and unwanted) suitor, but starts realizing there's more to him than meets the eye.

Doesn't this sound good? Nope. I decided to make a list of the things that annoyed me - and it's a long one.

1. This book isn't finished. It throws out a bunch of ideas like so much spaghetti at a refrigerator, but it doesn't stick around to clean any of it up or explore it in any depth. Lesh's adventures as a female character, Svetlana's attempts to keep her D and D club at school from being disbanded, Lesh's fracturing relationship with his truly hateful "friend" Greg, and Svetlana's increasing disgust and frustration with unwanted male attention - none of it gets resolved in a meaningful way. Maybe the real ending will come out in a future DLC?

2. Svetlana is primarily treated as Obsession!Bait. Almost every major male character in the novel is obsessed with her. There's family friend Fry, who becomes increasingly violent and bullying towards her (and her friends!) when she refuses his advances. There's Abraham, who quits the D and D club because ... she dates someone else, thereby refusing his advances. There's a Creepy Online Stalker who targets her and sends her weird gifts because he confuses her for the character Lesh plays online (for reals). Her storyline is focused almost entirely on how all these dudes are obsessed with her and make decisions of varying levels of inappropriateness because she turns them down. I forgetting someone? Oh right - LESH, who's SO obsessed with her from the very first minute that he creates a lookalike avatar of her so he can pretend to be close to her. HOW IS THAT OKAY? The novel never explains this theme - if all these men are irrationally fixated on this one girl, what makes Lesh the "good" one? His plot line is like the G-rated online version of that Buffalo Bill dude from Silence of the Lambs.

Long story short - the most important female character is reduced to a damsel who's constantly beating off hordes of angry thwarted males with her 12-sided die.

3. The actual gamer characters in this book are almost uniformly awful, cliched, shallow, bigoted turds - and the book never explores or deals with it. Yes, some of them need to be turds. This novel's main (if poorly-handled) theme is on sexism in gaming. It's about a tough-looking rocker dude who enjoys playing as a delicate lady elf, but discovers that playing a female character inspires other gamers to behave like total asshats.

Except - Lesh never explores deeper than, "Man, that sucks." Take his "friendship" with Greg - a venomous douchenerd who spits homophobic slurs like a malfunctioning sprinkler. I would have liked to see Lesh actually internalize what Greg says and realize that it's not okay. I would have liked to see him tell Greg off, stand up for himself and reveal Greg for the bully he is. Except - it never happens. Greg throws a mild hissy fit when he finds out Lesh is a G.I.R.L. (Guy In Real Life - get it?) and then vanishes from the novel completely. No resolution. No exploration of theme.

And the depictions of almost all the gamers (with a few exceptions with Svetlana's D and D crew) are laughably stereotyped. They're nerds who are good at math who hunch over their screens with bad posture and bad skin, their hands poised like claws above their keyboards. The only thing missing is a pair of taped-up, thick-rimmed Coke bottle glasses to settle the depiction of gamers firmly back in the 1980s.

4. The description of the MMO itself makes no sense. First of all, the author inserts truly laughable attempts at epic fantasy to describe the world of the game. Brezenoff is no Tolkien. He's not even a Tracy Hickman. Moreover, there are a number of "questionable" events that happen in the game - for instance, poor Lesh gets molested and drenched in beer by a pack of dwarves and needs to be rescued. Um, I'm sorry - are there fantasy games out there where avatars are allowed to rape or sexually assault other player characters? Who would design a game like that?

I get the sense Brezenoff is attempting to highlight the sexism that female players often endure in gaming - but instead of focusing on the very real, very common ways girls are ostracized in games, he decides to make up some exaggerated, cartoonish bullshit that would NEVER HAPPEN in a popular MMO because no game dev in his right mind would put a rape feature in his game unless he wanted to endure a billion lawsuits.

5. Our two main protagonists barely spend any time together.
Seriously, even if the rest of the book had been fine, Guy in Real Life would still have fallen flat because its two romantic protagonists barely talk to each other. Sure, Lesh obsesses over Svetlana all the time, but Svetlana has her own life, and their scenes apart are far more numerous, important, and interesting than their scenes together. I still don't understand what they have in common or how their romance works - and ultimately the whole stalker storyline muddies the waters even further.

My opinion? Avoid this sloppily-plotted, creepy, and ultimately pointless novel in favour of novels that aim for a higher level (ha!) of story telling and theme structure.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

"True Pretenses," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Lady Lydia Reeve. A genteel lady whose family has traditionally held a high political interest in the town of Lively St. Lemeston.
The Rub: Now that her father's dead, her skittish younger brother  is content to let that interest lapse in order to pursue his own desires. And Lydia has no money of her own to maintain her family's influence.
Dream Casting: Isla Fischer.

The Dude: Asher Cohen, a.k.a. "Ashton Cahill." A Jewish con artist on the run with his brother and partner in crime, Rafe.
The Rub: Rafe is tired of their life and wants to go straight, so Ash needs to concoct a truly lucrative swindle to give Rafe safer life options than the army.
Dream Casting: Mark Ruffalo.

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 1 Inconveniently Dead Parent
  • 1 Stolen Baby
  • 1 Plot-Propelling Urchin
  • Several Fake Names
The Word: You know what time it is? TIME FOR ANOTHER ROSE LERNER NOVEL! To set next to In For a Penny, Lily Among Thorns, and Sweet Disorder, we have True Pretenses.

Our novel opens on two brothers, Ash and Rafe, in the midst of escaping after a successful swindle. Orphaned, impoverished, and Jewish, they've eked out their outcast existence through theft, trickery and clever con artistry. However, Rafe (the younger brother) has tired of the game and wants to go straight. His protective older brother, Ash, reluctantly agrees, with one caveat: they must perform one more swindle, to set Rafe up properly for his new life of law abidance. 

Ash travels on ahead to the town of Lively St. Lemeston (the same setting from Sweet Disorder) and discovers low-hanging fruit ripe for the plucking: Lady Lydia Reeve. Her highly political father, Lord Wheatcroft, held a heavy interest in Lively St. Lemeston before his sudden death, but his son Jamie now balks at the idea of continuing the tradition. Lydia's determined to hold onto their family's interest until her brother comes to his senses, but the only funds at her disposal come from a trust that will only be released upon her marriage. 

I'll be honest - the set-up to this novel doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It's kind of confusing - at first, the brothers plan to offer Lydia access to her trust through a sham marriage to Rafe (in exchange for 3000 pounds) but then Ash wants Rafe and Lydia to marry for realsies because they're so cute together and it'll keep Rafe out of the army. What?


Thankfully, before that ridiculousness can happen, Rafe and Ash get into an argument that ends with their estrangement, leaving Ash to offer himself to Lydia instead. The plot is probably the weakest part of the novel, and the weakest of all Lerner's novels to date. After the initial set-up, the rest of the book is virtually conflict-free until the too-sudden Black Moment at the end. Ash and Lydia get along famously about 99% of the time, with the other 1% devoted to depressing self-examination. 

So why did I keep reading? Despite the fact that there is relatively little drama between Ash and Lydia, their individual characters and habits are fascinating - Lydia's, especially. She is very much a conservative, devoted to maintaining the traditions of the past, suspicious of change, and almost pathologically afraid of showing weakness or negative emotion of any kind. At the beginning of the book, her methods of expression are all but muzzled by her refusal to utter anything that might possibly reflect badly on her father or brother. She has been raised to cater to the needs of others while repressing her own. It becomes a relief to talk to Ash, someone who cannot judge her since his social status is virtually nonexistent.

Ash is a more nebulous character, but perhaps that's intentional. His Jewish identity is important to him (sex with random ladies is a worry because how does one explain the lack of a foreskin?), but otherwise, he's afraid to define himself as anything other than "Rafe's brother." Finding and committing to an identity is a new experience for him. He's a con man without an emotional off-switch. His success at conning developed from his ability to empathize with and draw closer to the rubes he fleeced, leaving him incapable of trusting other people's emotions - and his own, least of all. Does he really enjoy Lydia's company? Or is he just desperate to be liked, because likeable people get what they want? The only emotional stability he's ever preserved is his love for Rafe, and without him, he's adrift.

The enormous status gulf between Lydia and Ash is also entertaining as it allows for a thorough examination of privilege. Ash was no Dickensian urchin - his past involves theft, graverobbing, fencing, and sex work. The contrast between the protagonists is especially potent because their childhoods were superficially similar - both Lydia and Ash were motherless children unfairly thrust into parental roles over their younger siblings. However, the vast difference in their upbringings and environments invites interesting comparisons, most especially in how they've learned to lie to other people.

At the same time, even as Lydia's pampered upbringing is contrasted and compared, her own feelings of dissatisfaction, grief and loneliness are not invalidated just because she's wealthy.

While True Pretenses is not the strongest of Rose Lerner's novels when it comes to plot, it's still a refreshing, pleasantly entertaining read.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

"White Cat," by Holly Black

The Protagonist: Cassel Sharpe. The only non-magical dud in a family of curse workers, he ought to be able to live a normal life.
The Rub: His family's magic might not run in his blood, but their propensity for mischief does.

Secondary Characters:

Phillip: Cassel's oldest brother. A body worker for the Zacharov crime family.

Barron: Cassel's second oldest brother, a luck worker who dated the only girl Cassel ever loved. How's that for luck?

Sam: Cassel's boarding school roommate and eventual, reluctant partner-in-crime.

Lila: The daughter of the powerful Zacharov crime family, and Cassel's best friend - and murder victim. Cassel's family was forced to hide the evidence to protect them from mob vengeance, but Cassel can't quite get her out of his mind.

YA Trope Checklist:
  • Unattainable Female Love Interest
  • Screwed Up Parents
  • The "Normal" Best Friend
  • Private School Angst
The Word: Why have I never read Holly Black before? This is obviously an unconscionable oversight, and shall be corrected immediately.

With a few deft strokes, Black creates a rich, vibrant world that is like our own, but not quite. Everyone wears gloves. People carry enchanted pieces of stone around their necks to protect them. And almost everyone at Cassel Sharpe's boarding school holds him under suspicion due to his unsavoury family connections and mysterious sleepwalking.

In this world, magic (or "working") was outlawed along with alcohol during Prohibition, and like Prohibition, outlawing magic didn't make the workers disappear - it just made them all outlaws. The world is now riddled with massive magical crime families who can make people forget things, lose at craps, or fall in love - for the right price. And God help you if you can't pay it. All it takes to work a curse is skin-to-skin contact - that's why everyone wears gloves in public.

Cassel Sharpe, our hero, goes through life haunted by three facts: 1) he comes from a family of magical criminals and con artists, 2) of that family, he is the only one with no magical talent, and 3) he is a murderer. Three years ago, he killed Lila Zacharov - his best friend, first love, and the daughter of the Zacharov crime boss. Even worse, he has no idea how or why he did it, but his worker brothers rallied around him to cover it up and protect the family from Daddy Zacharov's vengeance.

However, when he starts experiencing powerful, dangerous dreams involving a white cat demanding he remove a curse, Cassel begins to wonder if his understanding of those three basic facts - hell, of his entire reality - is all that it seems. But to do that, he will have to dive into the worker underworld despite having no powers of his own.

The world building in this novel is so fresh and interesting. The idea of magic users forming this immensely powerful criminal underground is fascinating and opens up so many narrative possibilities that the author takes full advantage of. Not only that, but the magic itself is cool - there are dozens of different types of workers, and each one experiences a particular type of "blowback" when they overuse their magic. Memory workers forget things, death workers develop necrosis, emotion workers lose emotional stability, that sort of thing.

The underground aspect adds a sly subtlety to our teenage hero, Cassel. Despite being magic-less, he's still inherited his family's con artistry and he has trouble trusting people without analyzing how they fit into a particular con or plot. He's intriguing but also tragic - because he trusts himself as little as he trusts other people. He murdered his best friend three years ago and he still has no idea why, only that there must be something in him, something hidden, that made him do it. What if it wakes up again?

I don't want to give anything more away, because half the fun of this original, addictive novel is the sense of discovery as Holly Black continually stirs more delight into this potent stew of con men, magic, lies, politics, and family drama. I've never read a full-length Holly Black novel before, but White Cat will not be the last. Not by a long shot.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Three Princes," by Ramona Wheeler

The Protagonists: Lord Scott Oken and Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke. Two princes from different nations under the mighty Egyptian Empire, they are also secret agents for the Pharaoh.
The Rub: When reports reach Egypt that the Nation of the Four Corners (the Incans) are working on rocket technology, Mikel and Scott are sent to see how viable this project is.

Fantasy Trope Checklist:
  • Alternate Timelines
  • Double-Crosses
  • Magical Bond Animals
  • Obviously Evil Monarchs
  • Royal Intrigues
The Word: Three Princes is the most beautifully-written utter waste of time you'll ever read. 

The concept is original and intriguing - the novel's set in an alternate history (circa 1877 or thereabouts) where the Egyptian Empire never ended, but instead grew and thrived to become the dominant world power thanks to the successful marriage of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Egypt is now a wide-spanning and mostly benevolent commonwealth, with only a few rebellious areas left (like the Osterreich empire, ruled by Victoria and Albert!) to threaten the world's safety. 

The characters sound diverse and interesting - Lord Scott Oken, a minor prince from the Egyptian province of Scotland, is a spy for the Pharaoh. His mentor, Professor-Prince Mikel Mabruke (from Nubia), has retired from information-mongering - but both are called back into action by the Pharoah's wife. The Incas, it appears, are working on a scientific project to travel to the moon, and Egypt wants someone trustworthy to travel to South America and see a) if it could work or b) if it could be a threat. 

What follows is a dreadfully slow, narratively hollow, but gorgeously-described imaginary travelogue as Mikel and Scott slowly and cheerfully make their meandering way from Memphis to Tawantinsuyu, by way of several decadently-appointed airships. A luxurious attention to detail is lavished upon their expensive accommodations, their entertainments, the profusion of bare-breasted South American women, and the bizarre technology of airships (cyclists and trained albatrosses are involved) - and almost none on the actual plot, conflict or character development. 

Wheeler stretches out a short story's worth of plot to a 350-page novel, and doesn't waste any of the precious, precious filler (like pages of description devoted to guest room furniture lovingly carved to look like naked ladies) on developing any of the characters beyond the most basic, repetitive strokes. Lord Oken likes sex with ladies. Mikel likes making witty comments to mask his inner pain. Secondary characters pop out of nowhere and make jarringly huge and sudden decisions for no reason, and with no context or development to explain the outlandish choices they make. The novel's main antagonist, for example, is present for maybe ten pages (out of 350) and behaves like a Disney villain who's survived a meth lab explosion. There is no rhyme or reason to his behaviour - or to why anyone follows him or takes him seriously. 

Neither does Wheeler sacrifice completely relevant scenes of frolicking dogs, babies and guinea pigs (for reals) to develop her own plot threads. A mention of a Queen Victoria-led conspiracy involving orchids and bizarre religious cults goes nowhere, and the vicious attack on Mikel at the beginning of the novel that can't possibly be coincidence - turns out to be mere coincidence and is never mentioned again. Um, okay.

I kept reading and waiting for the plot to pick up because Wheeler is a genuinely fantastic wordsmith - her worldbuilding and her grasp of setting and culture are astonishing and beautiful. Her evident talent and skill makes the appalling lack of a plot in this novel an even greater frustration. If you're interested in reading about two friends going on an expensive and largely uneventful exotic vacation, this is the book for you. If you actually require story, substance, conflict, or coherent drama of any sort in your fiction - you'd best look elsewhere.

Three Princes is an empty, self-indulgent non-story wrapped up in beautiful writing.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

December in New York, Day Four: Marc Chagall, Miracles, and Mo'Pain

At 5:00 am on the morning of our final day in NYC, I was woken up by the ringing of my hotel room's phone. I picked it up, blearily thinking the hotel must be on fire, only to have a stranger with an accent start screaming at me, "Who is this? Who's calling? Who's in the room with you?" Um, hello, you called me, terrifying creeper! The fact that he kept asking, "Who's in there with you?" made me terrified I was going to be robbed (since I'd sleepily responded, "No I'm alone.").

I called the front desk, who discovered the call was internal (the call was coming from inside the house!), and I realized it was likely another guest who thought he was calling the room of his travelling companion. That didn't really explain why he didn't just hang up right away when he realized he'd called the wrong room - did he think I was hiding his friend in my closet? Did he think I was some one-night stand who'd picked up his friend's phone?

Tired and shaken, I later joined my mum for breakfast and explored the Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the hotel - it converted into a dimly-lit bar after 4pm but in the mornings it was light, airy and comfortable. We both regretted not exploring it earlier.
Afterward, we went for Sunday mass at St. Patrick's cathedral. That was kind of a wash - the whole cathedral, inside and out, was swathed in scaffolding and tarps for their massive renovation project. It felt like having mass in a parking garage - however, we did have the lovely consolation prize of having the mass performed by a cardinal (Cardinal Dolan, who waved to us after!). I felt strangely tense and weepy through the whole thing - again, I was going through some tough stuff that year and was not on the best terms with God. But at least Mum enjoyed it.

We returned to Madison and Vine - the Library Hotel's companion restaurant - for brunch. I had eggs benedict, and while I devoured the eggs, bacon, and hollandaise sauce, I hadn't recovered the confidence to try the English muffins. I've grown more wary of bread products over the years, which makes absolutely no sense since I've eaten bread my entire life without an allergic reaction. But anxiety doesn't really listen to logic.

After that, we took a taxi to the Jewish Museum - set in the astoundingly pretty Felix M. Warburg House - to see the Chagall exhibit. Mum is a huge fan of Marc Chagall and her enthusiasm swept me up in the artwork as well. We also explored the Art Spiegelman exhibit there - his work is exceptional, but often disturbing.

We finished off the day with a long, long, very long walk from Central Park to the hotel, 50 blocks of walking during which we were accosted by a would-be rapper named Mo' Pain who sold us his demo CD. I was intimidated (and as it turns out, being approached by aspiring rappers in New York is actually a popular tourist scam), but Mum was charmed and gave him $10. He whipped out a sharpie to sign the CD. "Who should I make it out to?"

Mum: "Meg."

Mo'Pain: "How do I spell that?"

Me: "..."

Mo'Pain: "That's a sexy-ass name!" When we admitted we were from Canada, he said he was a huge fan of Drake. Scam or not, it was at least a very memorable experience and Mum now has a CD of questionable music as a very special souvenir. We also passed by (intentionally) bloodied PETA protesters who were screaming at the customers of Bergdorf's before we finally made it back to the hotel.

We had time for a brief, relaxing cup of tea before the town car arrived to take us back to the airport. We'd reached the end of our trip, and the only exciting thing to happen afterward was when I really thought I saw Paul Rudd enter the first class lounge. He had rumpled hair and thick-rimmed glasses - plus he'd just hosted Saturday Night Live so he would have been in NYC at the time. It was one of those blink-and-you'll-miss it miracles that I'm still doubting myself over. Did I see Paul Rudd? Or was it just an extremely lucky man who looked like Paul Rudd and could afford first class?

We'll never know. Even as I write about this trip more than a year after it happened, it still seems fresh in my mind. Maybe I remember it all so well because it was a truly magical Christmas trip, at a truly magical hotel. Or maybe I remember it because I'm only recently back from my second trip to NYC with my mum where we stayed at the Library Hotel - another adventure I'll try and recount to you before the year is up. I promise.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The Winner's Curse," by Marie Rutkoski

The Protagonist: Kestral Trajan. The daughter of Valorian's most celebrated general, she's under extreme pressure to either marry or enlist in the military. Her life is hard.
The Rub: But not quite as hard as those of the slaves she owns. Awkward.

YA Tropes Checklist:
  • Parents Who Just Don't Understand
  • 1 Poor Little Rich Girl
  • 1 Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks Chains
  • 1 Airhead Best Friend
  • 2 Underappreciated Musical Talents
  • 1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival
  • 2 Villains Who Want to Bang the Heroine
  • Love Made Me Do It
The Word: I underestimated this novel. Blame it on the woozy, swoony prom-dress cover. Poor little blond girl in a ball gown, whatever shall you do? What love triangles shall you muck up? What doorways will you adorably trip through to be caught by the hero? This cover is terrible, no doubt about it. However, The Winner's Curse pulls fewer punches and hides sharper edges of commentary than I would have guessed. 

Kestral is the pampered-but-unsatisifed daughter of a successful Valorian general living in the occupied Herrani capital city. Ten years ago, the warlike Valorians conquered the artistic, sophisticated Herrani and the survivors of that war now work as slaves in the houses they once owned. 

While out walking, Kestral accidentally winds up at the slave auction, where a slave named Smith is being sold. Intrigued by his spirit and misery that seem to mirror her own, she defies her better judgement and purchases him at an exaggeratedly high price. Despite being remarkably snarky, defiant, and disobedient for a slave, Smith (whose real name is Arin) becomes almost like a friend to Kestral, as they each learn more about each others' people. 

However, unbeknownst to Kestral, Arin is an agent for the underground Herrani revolution working to overthrow the brutal Valorian yoke and restore Herrani freedom once and for all. Can these two crazy kids overcome their teeny tiny ideological differences?

I was quite impressed by the way this novel handled slavery. Kestral is depicted as someone who, while uncomfortable when confronted by the realities of slavery, continues to benefit from it. Ideologically she recognizes that slavery probably sucks, but she can't imagine a life without it and often catches herself ignoring or downplaying it in order to make herself feel better. When we live in a world where fruit is picked by underpaid migrant workers and sneakers are made by child labour and iPods are assembled by starving factory workers - are we any different?

When Kestral's freed nanny-slave Enai dies, Arin mocks her grief by demanding if she even knew who Enai's real family, real children were. Kestral doesn't - she was too afraid to even ask. I appreciated that the author never made the heroine a naive saint who was always good to her slaves. People who contribute to an abusive system still possess the capacity for individual good, and the capacity to eventually wake up and overthrow the abusive system. But that capacity doesn't whitewash their flaws. 

I also loved that Kestral wasn't a super-heroic Katniss character who is miraculously adept at scaling walls and killing bad guys. Instead of being a warrior, she's a strategist - an underused role for women in YA. I really appreciated this - she uses her power in more subtle and original ways.

Rutkoski uses a deft hand that highlights points of insight without getting mired in rhetoric, and the story moves swiftly and smoothly, but I could perhaps have preferred a little more depth to the worldbuilding and the history. Instead, the author uses coding (the Valorians are Romans, the Herrani Greeks) to do her worldbuilding for her, and that felt like a cheat.

All in all, a surprisingly solid read.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

December in New York, Day Three

(Sorry for the lateness, I've been very lazy - I now have a second trip to New York with my mum to write about so I'd better hurry and catch up!)

For our third day in New York City, Mum and I started out bright and early for the Morgan Library and Museum.
For NYC-bound book lovers, the Morgan Library is not to be missed, because, well, it's a fancy mansion filled with zillions of books! Piermont Morgan was a fanatical book collector and his massive library was on full display, along with exhibitions on Edgar Allen Poe (including some of his original notes), Charles Dickens (we spotted the original manuscript copy of A Christmas Carol), clay Sumerian seals (a surprise exhibit that utterly enchanted my mum), and Queen Elizabeth I's letters.
The main library was absolutely breathtaking - three stories of leather-bound books stretching to the exquisitely-painted ceiling in tightly-packed shelves protected by iron grates, interspersed with stained glass windows and an enormous tapestry, and well-lit displays of rare illuminated manuscripts and jewelled Bibles. This museum was all about the power of books and authors and the devotion of those who love them. Is there anything more powerful than reading a sentence that was hand-inked by a monk half a millennium ago?
A true reader's paradise. And that's not even mentioning the gift shop! Once we were finally able to pry ourselves away from all that literary luxury, we dined at the Morgan Library's top-notch cafe - where the ham and cheese sandwiches came on fresh-baked brioche with hot mustard aioli. New York museums don't mess around with the grub.

After the Morgan, we wandered down to Rockefeller Center to see it in daylight. The streets were so massively crowded the police had to set up barriers around the sidewalks just to prevent people from being accidentally pushed out into the street. The area around the Christmas tree and the skating rink resembled a turned-over anthill.

We made a few aborted attempts to shop in the area but were scared off by the savage crowds at Michael Kors and the dead, glassy eyes of parents entering their second hour waiting in line to get into the American Girl store. Instead, we skipped back down to some quieter side streets, where we found a nice, quite Coach whose flock of bored, nattily-dressed attendants were all too eager to wait upon us. Mum bought me a pair of presents there, under the promise that I not open them until Christmas morning.

We returned to the hotel after that, far too exhausted to even contemplate finding an appropriate restaurant for dinner. We stayed in, instead, and snacked on celery, cheese, and Prosecco at the Reading Room before heading off to our second Broadway show: Kinky Boots.
Billy Porter was astounding in the lead role - charismatic, gorgeous, confident in heels with a killer voice to round out the whole package. The other drag queens were equally talented. Mum was convinced some of them were women dressed as drag queens, until she read the playbill and discovered they were all named Trevor and Kevin. It takes major cahones to perform a jumping split in a string bikini in front of a live audience without damaging yours. Less good was the rather milquetoast while male protagonist who got a few too many solos about how unsatisfying his life is. The biggest surprise of the night came when Mum bought me a soundtrack and it turned out to be signed by Cyndi Lauper herself!

After the show, we shared cocktails in the dim Bookmarks Lounge at the top of the Library Hotel. Three days down, one more to go!

Friday, January 02, 2015

Reread Book and Film Review: "A Little Princess," by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For my last reread pick, I went with a book from my childhood - A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

While I remember enjoying it at the time, I always loved The Secret Garden more. This was for a number of reasons. First, Garden was pretty much Jane Eyre for kids and I was all over that. Think about it - the moors, the orphaned narrator, the dark angsty lord of the manor, secret damaged relatives locked away somewhere in the house. Also, Garden inspired an obscure Mandy Patinkin musical with an absolutely mesmerizing soundtrack which strengthened my devotion still more.

Finally, even as a young adult I recognized that Garden's Mary had more of a definite character arc than Princess' Sara. Mary starts her book as a pampered brat, then grows to appreciate the environment and the people around her. Sara, meanwhile, is a preternaturally kind, thoughtful, and compassionate child and, well, remains one throughout the book. At the time, I thought she was a little bit dull, even as the story itself was deliciously melodramatic and interesting.

However, reading it again as an adult gave me a little more insight. In case you're not familiar - A Little Princess is the story of Sara Crewe, a little girl adored and cosseted by her rich, silly father who sends her to school in England where she is further adored and cosseted by the headmistress, Miss Minchin. However, when her father abruptly dies after losing his fortune, Miss Minchin shows her true colours and forces the now-penniless Sara to work as a servant alongside Becky, the school's mistreated scullery maid.

If Secret Garden was Jane Eyre for kids, then Little Princess is the Book of Job. The book is not so much about how her character changes, but how her character endures in the face of hardship. Despite an extremely pampered upbringing, Sara isn't spoiled or unkind. She's always thinking of others and using her imagination to solve problems - she still does this when she's forced to live in an attic, with little to eat and under constant derision from almost everyone at the school, but it's just so much more difficult. Some of these scenes, even for me as an adult, were legitimately heartbreaking. In a lot of ways, Sara reminded me of Anne Shirley (of Green Gables) - another youngster who used her brilliant brain to escape a loveless initial upbringing.

As much as I adore narratives about flawed characters redeeming themselves, I think I've underestimated stories of Genuinely Good People who struggle to maintain that goodness despite dire obstacles.

A Little Princess also shines a pretty bright and painful light on privilege. A lot of this comes from Sara's friends Lottie and Ermengarde who attempt to maintain their friendship with Sara after her fall from grace. Most of their interactions end with Sara using her imagination and willpower to pretend her situation is better off than it is in order to make her friends feel more comfortable about her change in circumstances.

As often as I tried to remind myself that these two were upperclass children with no frame of reference for poverty, some of their interactions with Sara were excruciatingly awkward to read. In one scene, Ermengarde sighs that she wishes she was as thin as Sara - her starved orphan attic-dwelling bestie. Yeah, that's awful, but it's kind of the point - FHB points out how even the most well-meaning wealthy person can be utterly oblivious to the suffering of others.

Of course, with all that realness, there's also a fair about of delightful fantasy and melodrama - loving descriptions of expensive doll clothing, diamond mines, bad investments, intuitive Indian manservants, and mischievous monkey sidekicks. Reading it felt like eating my cake and my vegetables at the same time.

Once I finished the novel, there was really nothing else to do but watch the 1995 film adaptation, directed by Alfonso Cuaron (better known for his work on Gravity, Children of Men, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

There are a lot of things this film does right - the sumptuous visuals, the creative cinematography, and the gorgeous music, to name a few. The actress who plays Miss Minchin is flawlessly cast (Eleanor Bron), and you might recognize Sara Crewe's father as Sir Davos from Game of Thrones (Liam Cunningham).

While I was irked at them moving the setting from England to America (and from 1888 to 1914), some of the changes added interesting layers - particularly the casting of scullery maid Becky as African-American. That added an extra visual and contextual oomph to just how Becky was the lowest of the low in the school's social hierarchy.

That being said, all this goodness melts away the moment the actress playing Sara (Liesel Matthews) opens her mouth. Oy. While the visuals and the music for this movie are beyond compare, the acting and dialogue are laughably ham-handed, a stampeding bull of overacting through the exquisite china shop of FHB's original story. The underage acting in this movie is just awful.

The film's biggest deviation from the source material lies in the ending (mild spoilers). In the novel, Sara's father dies of a brain fever after learning he's been ruined. It's his guilt-ridden business partner who tracks Sara down and rescues her from drudgery to atone for fooling around with her father's money. In the movie, Sara's father is still alive - albeit mustard-gassed into amnesia. He conveniently recovers his memories in time to save her from the police (long story).

Unlike many others, I didn't take issue with this change. Both endings are equally, outrageously melodramatic - plus the film avoids the vaguely classist ending of the novel by having the Crewes adopt Becky. In the book, Becky remains a servant - albeit Sara's better paid, better fed servant. Appropriate to the politics of the time in which the novel was written, FHB always maintained a boundary between the torments of Sara (an upperclass girl forced into a servant's position) and Becky (a member of the servant class in her natural sphere who simply has the misfortune of a cruel employer).

The only real beef I have with the film (other than the acting), is the fate of the horrid Miss Minchin. The film takes an outlandishly childish and nonsensical turn with her cosmic punishment, showing us that this educated, well-connected woman of means has been reduced to a chimney sweep's assistant in a matter of a few weeks. A fate which makes absolutely no damn sense. If you really want to see Miss Minchin suffer, read the book, in which her humiliation is far more realistic, far more searingly personal, and thus much more delicious.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Reread Review: "Prince of Midnight," by Laura Kinsale

Thank God this book didn't suck.

I mean it. My last draws from the Kinsale Deck were major duds - Seize the Fire and Midsummer Moon were sloppy messes involving morally-questionable heroes exploiting/babysitting infantalized pouty-lipped heroines. I was starting to wonder if I'd simply grown out of Kinsale's particular style, so it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked my favourite of her books, The Prince of Midnight, for my month of rereads.

Thankfully, no, it didn't suck. My original review is here.

I still loved both protagonists to pieces, but I did wonder at why I loved Leigh so much. She really isn't a very competent heroine, not really. She never becomes a talented rider or swordswoman, she fails in a lot of her endeavours - hell, her original plan to track down the Prince of Midnight to avenge her family is pretty insane. So why did I love her, while I hated Merlin and Olympia for being useless basket cases?

Well, I think the main reason is because this book (and more importantly, the hero) acknowledges the heroine is flawed, instead of passing off her mistakes and weaknesses as cutesy little quirks. Also, despite the fact that she was raised as a gentlewoman and thus has very few practical martial skills, she still managed to tramp her way all over France and back again, risk every danger, put her back to all sorts to work, over and over again to achieve her goal. Regardless of how often she fails. That's kind of awesome.

Also, her role in the story isn't to be the swashbuckler. S.T. Maitland is the swashbuckler. S.T.'s glory hasn't dimmed one watt in the years since I last read this novel, although my understanding of his nuance and his complicated relationship with Leigh has grown. At the end of the novel, Leigh calls herself S.T.'s anchor, and it just fits so perfectly. S.T. is passionate and romantic and desperate - and a bit of a flibbertigibbet. He needs to be daring and dashing because he can't imagine anyone loving him if he's not. Leigh is practical and focused, so she can keep him grounded - just as he frees her from her crushing grief with his free-spirited flirtations.

The Prince of Midnight is a rich, madcap novel that gives us a grounded, layered romance in the midst of a rollicking, insane, coincidence-laden plot. I highly recommend.