Saturday, March 31, 2012

Blog Renovations!

No! Don't click away! You HAVE come to the right place!

Yes, I'm still AnimeJune and this is still Gossamer Obsessions. But I decided I'd update the look. Why? Well, because while evaluating my life and goals, I decided I wanted to dedicate more time to my blog. It started out as just a personal thing - it was just something for me, something I did only for myself because I loved reading and venting about what I read.

But I've become part of such a wonderful blogger community and actually acquired a readership. Having this blog helped me strengthen as well as discover my writing strengths. This blog has come to mean a lot to me, and to my writing, so in my re-design, I wanted to:
  1. Make it cleaner and organized and
  2. Give it a personal flair. I wouldn't just pick a template that a hundred other people have also done - hence the lovely Banner, made with my God-given skills with Microsoft Paint and photos of my favourite books and tea cups.

For future blogging, I'm going to look into doing more content as well. Not just reviews - I mean, it'll still be mainly reviews, who am I kidding? But for books that are larger, reviews will be slower in coming, so I'm thinking of participating in memes and also having posts with my favourite bloggers and their blogs, as well as OMG I WANT THIS BOOK BECAUSE OF REASONS posts to get everyone all excited about reading!

What do you guys think of the redesign?

Friday, March 30, 2012

"The Fault In Our Stars," by John Green

The Protagonist: Hazel Grace Lancaster. Suffering from terminal cancer, she's on a new miracle drug that can't cure her, but may offer a few more years. But what's the point of a few more years if death is still inevitable?
Her Angst: The new boy in her Support Group, Augustus Waters, seems to really, really like her. Like immediately. But does she really want to be a tragedy in another person's life?
The Secondary Characters:
Augustus "Gus" Waters: In remission from osteosarcoma. Lives with parents who like to embroider uplifting catchphrases on pillows. Determined to enjoy all the simpler pleasures of existence - like asking out a girl he's known less than a day.

Isaac: Augustus and Hazel's mutual friend from Support Group. Suffering from a rare eye cancer that will eventually blind him.

Hazel's Mum: Stays home to take care of Hazel. Finds every occasion she can to get her family out to celebrate - Bastille day, Hazel's half birthday, Arbor Day.

Hazel's Dad: Loving and supportive, but tends to cry a lot.

Peter Van Houten: The author of Hazel's absolute favourite book, An Imperial Affliction. Lives in Amsterdam. May or may not be a pretentious assclown.

Lidewij: Peter Van Houten's assistant, and all-round superior kind of person.

Angst Checklist:
  • Death
  • Fear of Dying
  • Dealing with Cancer
  • Dealing with Grief
  • Pretentious Assclown Writers
  • Personal Identity
  • Literary Interpretation
  • Living in the Moment
The Word: So can a heart be bruised right after already being horribly bruised? Well, not entirely.
I was still in recovery from when Lauren Myracle punched me in the heart when I picked up The Fault In Our Stars by John Green in preparation for my town's chapter of the FYA Bookclub (I'm a keener!). And perhaps that was why, while I enjoyed this novel immensely and did tear up and sniffle by the end, even emitting a rather embarrassing, sorrowful whine, I didn't actually go as far down the mourning spectrum as to actually sob while reviewing it, as I did with Shine.

But that, perhaps, is due to what makes both books so interesting. Shine, on the surface, has a "happy" (or at least, positive) ending that is nevertheless built on a story of tragedy and ends with a heavy loss for the main characters. Conversely, The Fault in Our Stars is a story with a sad (negative) ending that is built on a story of defiant, insightful joy, with the remaining characters emerging enriched and irrevocably changed for the better on the other side.

Hazel Lancaster has been living under the expectation of death for three years, ever since she was diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer at the age of thirteen. Thanks to a miracle drug, she's been granted a delay, but not a cure. Death has moved out of the immediate here-and-now, but still lingers on the edges of the foreseeable future, leaving Hazel in a kind of listless stasis. Her biggest fear is becoming an emotional "grenade" - a ticking time bomb whose death will only hurt the people who know her. She figures the fewer people she involves in her life, the less pain she'll inflict on the world with her inevitable death.

At her mother's insistence, she attends a bleak Support Group in the basement of a church, and that's where she meets Augustus Waters, a sexy teenage boy in remission from osteosarcoma who believes the opposite of what Hazel does - that people are obligated to leave the world better (or at least different!) then how they entered it. His experience with cancer taught him not to waste time - that same day, he indicates his attraction to Hazel and invites her over to his house to watch a movie. Hazel opens up enough to share her favourite book with him, and they both puzzle over its ambiguous ending. What follows is a beautiful, clever, achingly sweet and heartbreaking romance.

It's interesting to read how two different characters move at such different speeds. Augustus is all over the place, moving at the speed of light, practically vibrating in place as he jumps from idea to idea. Hazel is more hesitant, more introspective. She's very quickly drawn in by Augustus' intelligent humour (so similar to her own, and incredibly funny to read), but still - she doesn't want to be a grenade. She already has to live with being an impending tragedy in her parents' lives (and her relationship with them is so amazingly depicted). And yet, she's swept away by Augustus' energy. And who wouldn't be?

Reading this book brought to mind the other "cancer book" I recently read, I'm Not Her by Janet Gurtler, a book that, while not a bad book, was just relentlessly sad and depressing - which only highlights how strong and inventive The Fault in Our Stars turned out to be for taking such distressing subject matter and building it into a story of such joy and wit, as well as anger, frustration, and grief. By running the full gamut of emotions (not just the PC ones of sadness, bravery in the face of pain, and bereavement), John Green separates the characters from their illnesses. They're not cancer kids (particularly not the Lurlene McDaniel-esque, faultlessly brave and martyr-y capital-C Cancer Kids), they're kids - who happen to have cancer.

The identities these characters have apart from their illnesses is such an important theme in this book - Augustus even points out how the tragedy of cancer is how many of those afflicted with it just retreat from their lives until everything about them is about cancer. Augustus and Hazel's relationship operates in defiance of that - their friendship and romance brings out Hazel's wit and personality and passion for literature. As much as I adore Augustus, Hazel's journey is really the heart and soul of this book as she learns to find and enjoy the "smaller infinities" within the reality of a limited lifespan.

And as for the writing - well. I laughed out loud several times during this book, and the style manages to be both accessible and challenging, but challenging in the good way. Challenging in the way that makes you want to go out and find out about philosophy and science and Swedish hip-hop, not the challenging that makes you feel like a dirty, dirty Philistine. "You must read this much (holds up hand) Kierkegaard to understand this book!"

While The Fault In Our Stars did not bulldoze my heart like Shine did, it it gave it a good, solid whack, while at the same re-igniting my curiosity and joy for the world and all its craziness.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"Silent in the Grave," by Deanna Raybourn

The Corpse: Sir Edward Grey. Nice-looking. Pleasant at parties. Suffered from heart condition. Terrible head for wine - and for poisons.

The Gumshoes: Lady Julia Grey, nee March, Sir Edward's widow. Nicholas Brisbane, Swarthy Mystery Man of Sexual Tension.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:
Sir Simon Grey: Edward's cousin. Slowly dying from same heart condition that afflicted Edward.

Aquinas: Julia and Edward's loyal Italian former-acrobat butler.

Magda: Julia's shifty Gypsy laundress.

Portia: Julia's lesbian older sister. Who owns a very flatulent pug.

Valerius: Julia's medically-minded younger brother. Who owns a very stolen Tower raven.

Renard: Edward's creepy French valet.

Doctor Griggs: Edward's patronizing and antisemitic family doctor.

The Word: "To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband's dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor."

There's not much you can do wrong with opening lines like that. With a story set in 1886 London, Lady Julia Grey's husband, Sir Edward Grey, casts off his mortal coil after collapsing during a party. When private investigator Nicholas Brisbane informs Julia that her husband was in fear for his life and was likely murdered, she angrily dismisses his scandalous accusations. Her husband had no enemies, suffered from a debilitating heart condition since childhood, and his closest family doctor declared his death a natural one.

However, a year later, as Julia is on the cusp of coming out of mourning, she discovers an insidious death threat hidden amongst Edward's things and realizes Mr. Brisbane may have been right. She swiftly seeks to enlist his services, even though the odds of success, a year after the crime took place, are minimal. However, Julia soon learns that sleuthing can be a nasty job, everyone's got a dark secret, and that there is more to the mysterious Mr. Brisbane than meets the eye.

Lady Julia Grey is an engaging heroine. While she's very much a person of her time, and while extremely naive (at least at the start), she's open-minded and intelligent. I enjoyed that this novel was as much about Julia's journey of self-discovery as it was about who murdered her husband, if not more. A self-proclaimed "disappointingly ordinary" member of a prolific family renowned for its mad hatters, Julia's investigation helps her emerge completely from the gray life she led in the strained relationship of her marriage, and also leads her to discover her own propensity to deviate from convention.

Inferior authors would have taken the "eccentric large family" plot device and applied it to the narrative with all the discretion and grace of a shovel of hot manure, but Raybourn deftly weaves the Marches (Julia's family) into the background, to serve as an implicit indicator of Julia's background and behaviour rather than as cheap comic relief or sequel bait.

So what were the dislikes? Well, the pacing. The writing is very descriptive, lovingly so, and in Lady Julia's refreshingly witty and honest point of view. However, probably due to the historical setting, there is a lot of descriptio, and because of that, the investigation tends to move at a snail's pace. The writing style and Julia's observations are often interesting enough that I don't mind it.

However, there are a couple of times when this was just plain frustrating and I wanted Raybourn to get to the point. For instance, there's a scene where Julia and her brother race towards a Gypsy camp in London to intercept a dogged Nicholas Brisbane, a situation in which speed is of the utmost importance, lives are on the line, etc., only now Julia wants to slow down and enjoy the view and describe the children and the music and the smells and how interesting everything is. But lives are on the line. But we get to see Gypsies peddle horseflesh!

Other than that, however, Silent in the Grave is an excellent mystery with well-drawn characters, a marvellous historical setting, real humour and wit, and of course - a mysterious romantic hero in the figure of Mr. Brisbane to drum up enough sexual tension to fuel many more books (Silent in the Sanctuary is next).

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"Ain't She Sweet?" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Chick: Frances Elizabeth "Sugar Beth" Carey. Desperate for cash, when she inherits a mysterious painting from her deceased aunt, she high tails it back to her hometown of Parrish, Mississippi, where she was once Homecoming Queen.
The Rub: Unfortunately, too many people in Parrish remember her none-too-kind teenage antics and are all too willing to kick the queen now that she's down.
Dream Casting:
Elizabeth Banks.

The Dude: Colin Byrne. A teenage Sugar Beth had him fired from his teaching job and deported (!) when she accused him of sexual assault. Years later, he's now a successful author who's made Parrish his home.
The Rub: Now that Sugar Beth is back, he's determined to make sure she gets the payback she deserves - but what if she's more than the spoiled daddy's girl she used to be?Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.

The Plot:
15-Years Ago...

Sugar Beth: Hey, y'all, don't mind me. I'm just the prettiest, coolest, richest, luckiest girl in town and y'all are gonna kiss my ass for ever and ever, amen! Tee-hee!

Parrish, MI: Sure thing, Sugar Beth!

Present Day...




Colin: ... um, that's a little extreme.

Winnie: OMG! How dare you show kindness to a woman who did awful things as a teenager, instead of doing equally awful things back to her like the rest of us rational-minded, wealthy, professional adults! SHE'S GOT YOU UNDER HER EVIL SEX SPELL JUST LIKE MY HUSBAND!

Winnie's Husband: That's not even remotely close to true -

Winnie: STUFF IT! I'm walking out on you because I NEED A SUBPLOT.


Sugar Beth: Awesome! I kind of like being with you too -- wait a minute! NO! YOU'VE GOT ME UNDER A MARRIAGE-AND-BABIES SPELL! HOW DARE YOU!

Colin: ...but it's a nice marriage and babies spell. Plus I'm rich and British. Really, what possible objection could you have?

Sugar Beth: Oh, alright FINE.

Colin: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist

2 Awful Childhoods

2 Very Bad Dads (both deceased)

1 Token Rebellious Half-Niece

6 Bitchy Frenemies

1 Horrendous Prank

1 Unfaithful Basset Hound

1 Very Loving Husband (Deceased)

1 Rather Unnecessary Dead Wife

The Word: After reading Lauren Myracle's mesmerizing YA novel Shine, I didn't know what I could possibly read next that could compare. I was still very much in a sort of mourning - I still thought about the characters. I still do. Seriously, read that book.

But you should also read this book. I unwittingly made the best choice possible when I decided to go with one of my most reliable contemporary romance authors, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I picked a book from an entirely different genre and tone from my last novel. As a result, I enjoyed myself immensely.

While Shine painted a resonant and extremely unflinching portrait of hardscrabble, drug-infested small town life - I still do kind of dig the cozy small town setting in literature. I think it's best to read books from both sides of that equation because I've seen both types of towns in my province and elsewhere. I'll read Lauren Myracle and Jennifer Echols for the bad side, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Jennifer Crusie and Alice Hoffman for the good.

In this case, the town is Parrish, Mississipi, and at one time, Sugar Beth Carey was its queen. Scion of the richest man in town, she was gorgeous, popular, and nigh-untouchable, but also spoiled and cruel, particularly towards Winnie Davis, the school misfit. Parrish's most open and humiliating secret, Winnie Davis was Griffin Carey's other daughter, her mother his acknowledged mistress. Griffin Carey made no secret of how he preferred this family over his legal one, and Sugar Beth dedicated her high school years to taking out all of her daddy issues on Winnie's pride and self-esteem. She also had no qualms using her daddy's status to force everyone else to dance to her tune.

However, all this comes back to bite her in the ass in the present day when Sugar Beth, thrice-married, twice-widowed, once-divorced and now flat broke, creeps back into town to look for a painting her recently-diseased Aunt Tallulah bequeathed to her. Allegedly, it's an undiscovered painting from legendary artist Lincoln Ash, who was rumoured to have been Aunt Tallulah's tragic paramour. If it's authentic, Sugar Beth will be able to sell it for enough money to settle her personal affairs for good.

No one is particularly happy to see her back in town. Certainly not Winnie Davis, who married Sugar Beth's high school sweetheart Ryan Galantine and inherited the entire Carey fortune. Now she is the wealthy, respected social leader of Parrish, and while she longs to wreak some long-overdue vengeance on her high school tormentor, she's also terrified that Sugar Beth's return will reignite the torch Ryan held for her.

Certainly not the Seawillows, the Mean Girls clique Sugar Beth created, then abandoned when she went to college, who have now reformed with Winnie Galantine as their leader.

And certainly not Colin Byrne, the ridiculously pretentious young English teacher whose career was ruined when Sugar Beth leveled false accusations of sexual assault against him (yikes!), who is now a devastatingly sexy, rich and famous author who owns Sugar Beth's childhood home.

Colin, in fact, spearheads the Kick Sugar Beth's Ass effort, since she sets up shop in the carriage house Aunt Tallulah owned next to Colin's property. However, the Sugar Beth he meets isn't the same spoiled girl he remembers: while repentant for her past misbehaviour, she's a stronger, tougher woman, and unwilling take bullshit or back down from a fight.

As you can tell, this novel has enough drama to choke a llama, and I loved every page of it.

I loved Sugar Beth. What a fabulous heroine! She knows she screwed up, she's more than willing to take her justified licks, but she refuses to be a punching bag for people who've had nothing better to do than stew over how bad high school was (*cough*WINNIE*cough*). While the novel doesn't sugarcoat what Sugar Beth did (and she truly did get away with some horrendous behaviour in high school), I sympathized with her way more than Winnie or the Seawillows, especially after a teeth-grindingly painful scene where they team up against her at a dinner party. It's easier for me to understand awful, immature and hurtful behaviour coming from a distraught 18-year-old than from a group of professional, respected 33-year-old adult women who should know better.

But, little by little, Sugar Beth soldiers on and starts to earn the grudging respect and forgiveness of those around her, starting with Colin. Their wisecracks and chemistry sizzle and spark, a perfect mixture of Colin's dry British wit and Sugar Beth's Southern self-deprecation. As well, there are subplots and secondary characters galore, excellent backstories, and a comical dog character that doesn't make me want to watch the scene of Old Yeller getting shot on Youtube.

The only slightly burnt piece on this delicious peach pie of a novel is, perhaps, Colin's sad backstory of a wife who committed suicide. It's an extremely serious subject that's insultingly treated as a token Sad Backstory that had no real, demonstrated impact on Colin's life that wasn't already explained by the other events in his past. It really didn't need to be in there, and felt tacked on.

Otherwise, though, this is a highly entertaining, dramatic and romantic read from the ever-dependable but never predictable Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

"Shine," by Lauren Myracle

The Protagonist: 16-year-old Cat. When a dear friend of hers is brutally gay-bashed into a coma, she decides it's time to come out of her self-imposed exile and try to find out who's responsible.
Her Angst: Due to her own issues, she hasn't spoken to a lot of her classmates or former friends in years, and many of them now have dark secrets they don't want to share.

Secondary Cast:
Patrick Truman: Cat's childhood friend who now lies in a coma after a horrific assault. Fell in with the Redneck Posse after he and Cat drifted apart.

Christian: Cat's older brother, whom she's barely been able to speak to since he betrayed her when he needed her most.

Tommy Lawson: The town rich boy, and the leader of the Redneck Posse. A giant homophobic tool, and responsible for the pain Cat's had to hide for years.

Beef: A member of the Redneck Posse who stood up for Patrick. His future is still a giant question mark ever since a blown knee robbed him of a wrestling scholarship.

Bailee-Ann: Beef's girlfriend, and Cat's former best friend.

Aunt Tildy: Christian and Cat's surrogate mother ever since their own mother died and their father dedicated himself to the bottle. Rigid and responsible but unwilling to rock the boat.

Robert: Bailee-Ann's 11-year-old brother, who suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. This makes him hyper and talkative - especially about other people's secrets.

Angst Checklist (New feature for YA Reviews):

  • Homophobia
  • Sexual Assault
  • Drug use
  • Poverty
  • Family ties
  • Depression
  • Overcoming one's circumstances
  • Social Anxiety
The Word: A young gay teen is beaten, strung up to a gasoline pump, with the nozzle jammed down his throat. The words, "Suck this, faggot" are scrawled on his chest. His name is Patrick Truman, and the members of his small, backwoods North Carolina town of Black Creek are shocked, of course. So terrible. What a tragedy. But the sheriff seems convinced the now-comatose Patrick was attacked by a rowdy group of out-of-towners and doesn't feel the need to investigate further.

Due to her own trauma, our heroine, Cat, let her close friendship with Patrick fall by the wayside years ago, but this tragedy spurs her to find out who's really responsible for this hate crime. To do that, however, she will have to come out of her shell, make peace with her ghosts, and confront the friends, family members, and enemies she left behind when she retreated from the world due to her own pain.

This book was - how can I be objective? A miracle. A masterpiece. It got under my skin and dug tunnels into my heart, flooding me with empathy for everyone in this book. Readers, I read this book in 24 hours. I started it at 5:50 in the morning before I had to get up - I almost called in sick to work. I sneaked peeks while I was on the phone. I counted the seconds to every coffee break. Read it at stoplights. I fell asleep reading it (thankfully didn't lose my page!) and I finished it at 6:00 am the following day.

It's not only a mystery. It's a coming of age novel. A healing novel. Cat is forced back into the world to find justice for her friend, even though it's not the easiest transition. As you can guess, Black Creek is not a squeaky-clean wholesome-livin' small town full of kooky characters (and I'm so guilty of loving that trope, you have no idea). It's a backwoods, narrow-minded community rife with poverty, drop outs, and drugs. Cat's investigations drag her through filth and hope, as she uncovers the secrets in the lives of her friends, family, and peers, all of whom are fighting for a piece of sunlight, just enough to see them out of the darkness of their lives.

I loved the heroine. I loved how she dug her way out of her own pain and saved herself while saving Patrick. I loved that she was naive, and frightened, and emotional, but willing to ask the hard questions and learn the difficult answers anyway. I loved that she doesn't just come out, solve the crime, and retreat back to her world of books - during her investigations, she works to rebuild a lot of burnt bridges, even if it means accepting the flaws in other people.

If I had to pick one thing that didn't quite fit (at least at first), it would have to be the character of Jason, who ends up being a love interest for Cat. At first it felt odd - because the central story doesn't really require Cat to have a love interest and it felt tacked on, like she had to have one because it's a YA novel. But even this aspect is eventually explored, and by the end of the novel made perfect sense.

I put this book down with an ache. An ache for the characters - for Cat and, perhaps especially, for the antagonist. I won't spoil anything, but I cried for this character, quite literally, which is a rarity for me. It doesn't mean I haven't been moved, emotionally, by books (I wouldn't read, otherwise), but it's very rare for it to affect me so emotionally that I have a physical reaction to it. I believe I've only physically cried over four books - I Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, Otherworld: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams, and this book.

I put this book down with an ache for a beautiful novel, now finished, knowing I would have read something else, something that would inevitably be different. But one joy remained - the opportunity to write a review of this profound, emotional, heartbreaking, time-devouring novel, and get you all to read it.

"The Hunger Games" - Film Review and Analysis

Well, I saw The Hunger Games - in a full theatre, popcorn and pop, the whole nine yards. To review it, however, I feel like I have to review each aspect of the film individually, because even 12 hours later, it's still hard for me to examine the film as an artistic creation independent from the novel itself. When you watch a film that's based on a book you've read and enjoyed, you're not exploring, you're waiting - for that one scene, and then the scene after that, and then for that special character's appearance. I watched this movie differently because I'd read the book and remembered it so well. WARNING: FILM AND BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD.

The Adaptation:
Honestly? Full marks. In terms of overall accuracy to the source material and conveying it in an understandable way, the film did an excellent job. What pieces were cut from the film, like Madge's character or Peeta's prosthetic leg, made sense and didn't detract or distract from overall story (honestly, Madge never had a huge impact on the series, and Peeta's fake leg is much like Luke Skywalker's fake hand - mentioned once and then never again). What scenes were added contributed to the story and to its place as first in a series (more on that later). A.

The Katniss:
Also very good, which surprised me, since Jennifer Lawrence was easily the weakest link in the acting chain in X-Men: Gay Mutants In Love. Lawrence underacts and plays it close to the vest, which is in keeping with Katniss' character. Katniss isn't a screamer or a maker of speeches - she's private, she's introverted, and she's focused. Jennifer Lawrence embodied her perfectly. A

The Peeta:
I'm sorry, Josh Hutcherson, but you are really, really silly. He's not a terrible actor, and Hutcherson does a decent job when he's playing it up for the Capitol audience, but his serious acting just can't compete. It's not even about how he overacts, but more like the tone he sets with his character is off. He acts like someone in a far less perilous situation - like a person who wants to win the Boston Marathon, whatever it takes, not someone who's fighting to the death with a bunch of other kids. The audience actually erupted into unintentional laughter at the scene where Katniss finds him all painted up at the stream. C

The Gale:
He's pretty and not annoying, which is all that was asked of him for this movie, really. A

The Supporting Cast:
A mixed bunch, to be honest. Haymitch was decent but not outstanding. Elizabeth Banks channeled Bette Midler from Hocus Pocus for most of the movie as Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz was excellent as Cinna - but his portrayal also raised a lot of questions about Cinna's character and his motivations, and why he works for the Hunger Games if he clearly doesn't support them.

Every other kid in the Hunger Games (especially the Careers) was terrible. I mean, just awful. Similar to Peeta, they didn't set the right tone. There's a scene where the Careers are chasing Katniss, and the way they acted wasn't menacing at all. It felt like they were going to corner her and tease her about her jacket and throw beer cans at her like a bunch of hicks. They were acting like bullies when they should have been acting like predators. When they murder the tribute who starts a fire (off-screen, of course), afterward, they're giggling and snarking like they TP'd her house. With a film already hampered by a PG-13 rating, it was up to them to pick up the slack and inject some legitimate menace and suspense into the film, and they failed royally. C-

The Love Triangle:
One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the ambiguity surrounding Peeta and Katniss' relationship. We think Peeta is faking his love for Katniss for audience support, so Katniss goes along with it, maybe starting to feel the real thing, if only a little. The big discovery at the end of the novel is that Peeta's feelings for Katniss are actually real, and his heart is broken when he realizes that Katniss is still very much ambivalent. Granted, the subtlety of their relationship would be tough to translate onto the big screen, but the film still failed on that score, and I think it failed especially with the viewers who haven't read the books, because at least we know what they're trying to do.

Firstly - the whole background between Katniss and Peeta with the burned bread was really clumsily filmed. In a recurring flashback, it's raining, Peeta sees a sad Katniss lying against a tree and throws a loaf of bread at her. It lands in a puddle. She never picks it up. Discussing this past in the cave, she never mentions her family's starvation or how important that bread was to her, just that Peeta gave it to her. While the books' readers would understand, I think the new viewers would just be puzzled as to why this was such a big deal.

Secondly, while the film tries to imply that Katniss is fabricating feelings for Peeta, it's not followed up on, and there's no scene at the end where it's established her feelings for Peeta are not exactly on the level. I understand to some extent that that is a subtlety that just can't be easily filmed, and it looks like they're jettisoning that whole ambiguity and going for the full I-Love-Two-Guys thing that only slowly developed in the books. But while I may understand it, I don't like it. C.

The Extra Stuff:
By extra stuff, I mainly mean, the introduction of other points of view. While books can have a first person POV, movies are pretty much entirely 3rd person, with a few incredibly rare, artsy exceptions. With The Hunger Games I loved it - it still followed the story, but it gave us something new to look at and think about. My biggest frustration with the Hunger Games trilogy is how, with Katniss' limited POV, we end up missing a lot of the important rebel actions, but here we get a taste of it, in five important ways:
  1. Seneca Crane's scenes. As the Games go on, we see the head Gamemaker managing the game with his crew. He's a producer, and he's producing a television event, and it's fascinating to watch how he manipulates the board and why. I would have liked to have seen how he censored or tampered with Tribute footage to ensure it toed the Capitol party line, but it was still interesting watching the very Truman Show-esque manipulation going on behind the curtain.
  2. The commentators: Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci set a very satirical tone as cheery commentators for the Hunger Games, and serve as an incredibly effective Exposition Device to explain things to the newbies without intruding on the story.
  3. Haymitch's wheelin' and dealin': Haymitch manages to smuggle in medicine and food to Katniss during the Hunger Games. We never see how he does this in the novel - again, Katniss' limited POV. In the movie, however, we see him negotiating, making alliances and coming out of his shell in order to get Katniss and Peeta the items they need. This was great - we actually got to see how Haymitch could interact and sell himself to other people, and just how far he was willing to go out of his comfort zone to help his tributes.
  4. The rebellion scene from District 11: While we don't get the bread-gift scene in the film, we do watch as members of District 11 lash out against the Peacekeepers in a violent uprising as a reaction to Rue's death. I don't think this happened in the books, but it was an excellent early indication of the significance of Katniss' actions. I was also caught by the racial symbolism - both District 11 tributes are black, and District 11 is shown to have a higher black population than the Capitol or District 12, and the Peacekeepers eventually put down the rebellion with high-pressure water hoses. I wondered if this was an intentional invocation of Civil Rights Movement imagery.
  5. President Snow. In the first novel, he's more an impending menace than an actual one, but here, we get scenes of him voicing his concerns about Katniss and the significance of keeping the districts under control. I liked this - it gives Katniss' actions a far-reaching impact that connects the Hunger Games to the rest of the series. It also clearly establishes Snow as the central antagonist even if he only meets Katniss is person once.
Overall, these scenes were an A.

The Violence:

Of course, the hardest aspect of this adaption is doubtless the violence. It is a story about teenagers killing each other - but it is also a story written for and aimed at teens. Recently, outrage erupted over the MPAA's decision to give the anti-bullying documentary Bully an R-rating for profanity - thereby barring the film from the very audience (school-age adolescents) it had been expressly intended for.

So I get the PG-13 rating for The Hunger Games - it would hardly be fair to adapt a film from a book beloved by teens and make them unable to see it without their parents. However, let's just say I'm really glad the MPAA has never had anything to do with books.

In this case director Gary Ross uses the tried-and-true Walt Disney method for gruesomely dispatching villains in a family-friendly way: imply, imply, imply. During the scenes of the most intense violence (the initial scene at the Cornucopia) he uses lightning-quick flash-cuts and a jittering camera to give us a sense of violence without showing it. We see weapons slash down, we see the resulting corpses and splashes of corn-syrup blood, but we don't see any of the blows or weapons connect with an actual person.

For the most part, it works. The Cornucopia scene was based on mad chaos and mob mentality in the novel, and the swift, jagged editing of the film's scene gives us that tone while disguising the gore at the same time. The three most disturbing deaths in the actual movie are:
  • Glimmer's death by Tracker Jackers (props to the Foley artists for mastering the perfect sound effects as Katniss pries the bow out of her enemy's swollen, dead fist)
  • Rue's death by spear (the only time we actually see the bloody results of a weapon connecting)
  • Random Tribute's neck-snapping at the hands of Cato (this by far got the biggest audience reaction)
These choices in deaths are interesting because - in both the novel and film - these deaths aren't just gory, they're important. Glimmer is the first person to actually die as a result of Katniss' actions. Rue is the most tragic death, the death of an innocent. Random Tribute's death very clearly established Cato's character and bloodthirstiness as Katniss' most immediate antagonist. The fact that these deaths got special attention definitely shows an understanding of the source material.

With one noticeable and disappointing exception: Cato's death (which is one of the most disturbing in the novel) is reduced to a pale rip-off of Scar's demise from The Lion King. I get that they couldn't show him getting slowly eaten over a nine-hour period, but his death is meant to have an impact, and they could have found a better way to imply that then with the very quick and superficial death scene he does receive. He also gets an out-of-character moment of self-awareness before his death that didn't ring true and seemed manipulative. B+

Overall? I had a good time. I don't think it was my favourite movie of all time, but it was interesting and it did the novel justice. Even now, I still can't pin down how it works as an independent movie, so I don't think I can review it just as a film. What do you guys think? Comments are open!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Tiger Eye," by Marjorie Liu

The Chick: Delilah "Dela" Reese. A skilled metalsmith vacationing in Beijing, she is talked into buying a mysterious riddlebox at a local market by a mysterious old woman.
The Rub: The box releases a powerful warrior cursed to serve her every whim, but can he protect her from assailants who also want the box - or who have a personal vendetta against Dela herself?
Dream Casting: A younger Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Dude: Hari. A tiger shapeshifter cursed into eternal servitude by an evil Magi, he is bound to Dela until the end of her days, regardless of either of their wishes.
The Rub: While Dela is kind to him, his experience tells him it's only a matter of time before the temptation to command him grows too great.
Dream Casting: A younger Keanu Reeves with flashy highlights.

The Plot:

Wise Old Chinese Woman: Buy this mysterious box!

Dela: Sure! What could possibly go wrong?

Hari: *poof!*

Dela: SWEET!

Hari: I am cursed to serve you hand and foot, shall I commence sexual stimulation while wearing an expression of total and profound disgust?

Dela: Wow, not so sweet.

Assassin: Die, oh tiny blond one!

Hari: Here, I'll defend you!

Dela: Oh no, let me defend you! For as a seven foot tall trained warrior with 2000 years of experience, you are far more susceptible to pain and injury than an unarmed blonde woman!

Hari: After 2000 years of torment, your insane and unreasonable Mary Sue Martyr tendencies are strangely appealing!

Dela: Let's get out of China!

In America...

Three Hot Sequel Baits: Hey Dela! Let us protect and cherish you, in a totally platonic and angsty way!

Hari: I am totally cool with this - they are clearly destined for future novels.

Dela: SWEET!

Hot Sequel Baits: Someone's trying to kill you - because someone used one of your artsy knives to kill a child!

Dela: WHAT?! Someone used a SHARP METAL BLADE that I fashioned into an item EXPRESSLY DESIGNED FOR CUTTING AND STABBING THINGS to do just THAT? My world is falling apart!

Antagonist #1: *kills self*

Hari: Well that was easy!

Antagonist #2: *gets eaten*

Dela: Yay! More time for love scenes!

Antagonist #3: Despite having no build up or true motivations and only sporadic appearances throughout the novel, it turns out I'm your big bad! Watch as I tell instead of show you what happened to me because I'm obviously just a narrative plot device whose motivations remain pretty sketchy!

Dela: *kills herself, thereby killing villain, achieving Martyrdom Singularity*

Hari: Good thing I have Last Minute Never Explained Resurrection Powers!

Dela: *revived* HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 McGuffin Curse

2 Suspense Subplots

1 Fiddler BFF

3 Shapeshifters

1 Evil Magi

2 Dead Gang Leaders

1 Use of The "Love Fixes Everything" Cure-All

3 Pieces of Hot, Angsty Sequel Bait

The Word: It's always interesting when one finds a favourite author, because no matter how awesome an author and some of their books are, everyone has their bad days. All books aren't created equal. It's even more interesting when it comes to evaluating a favourite author's series, and how the quality degrades or evolves from the first book onward.

I started on the eighth book of Marjorie M. Liu's Dirk & Steele series, then moved on to the ninth. They were both excellent paranormal romances, and this comes from a gal who does not often enjoy paranormals. So I thought I would see where the series started, and went to the very beginning with Tiger Eye, and was intrigued with the result.

Dela Reese, an artist with the psychic ability to manipulate metal, is vacationing in China when an old woman convinces her to purchase a mysterious, beautiful riddle box. Soon after, she is attacked by a malevolent stranger but she escapes. Back in her hotel room, she manages to open the box and is astounded when a super-hot, 7-foot-tall man-genie with awesome highlights appears.

Okay, so he's not technically a genie, just a tiger shapeshifter (hence his crazy striped hair) cursed by an evil Magi to serve whomever opens his box, but that's close enough. Hari has endured 2000 years of torment as a slave, bodyguard, hired killer, and very reluctant lover to a parade of cruel, bloodthirsty masters, and he expects Dela to be no different.

Dela, however, is appalled at Hari's curse and all-but-literally clasps the poor, tormented mankitty to her bosom. All bosom-clasping is put on hold when another mysterious assailant tries to kill Dela - with a dagger she herself designed. With Hari's help, they escape, and Dela calls her pals at Dirk & Steele (the world's only Secret Magical People Detective Agency) to help them out of this jam.

I'll be honest and flat-out say that Tiger Eye was not to my taste. It had an interesting setting, a solid mystery, and beautiful writing, but dull characters and superficial characterization. Dela just plain annoyed me. I felt I was being told she was a tough, independent, smart character while being shown that she was a naive, inexplicably innocent and easily-bruised Mary Sue whose only flaw is Caring Too Much. When she learns that one of the weapons she forged was actually used in a crime, she acts all appalled and surprised - while I kept thinking, if you hate violence so much, WHY DO YOU MAKE WEAPONS FOR A LIVING? There are a MILLION other things you could do, artistically, with metal!

I also felt her romance with Hari was very simplistic. She is literally the only person who has ever been kind to Hari in the entire 2000 years of his imprisonment, and before you know it love bounds in on heavy tiger feet and they're both perfectly in sync by the halfway mark. The attraction is very much of the "you are pure kindness and light," "you are pure bravery and sacrifice bound up in angsty pain I will heal with my pure kindness and light" variety. Again, it's not badly written, it's just not to my taste at all.

It makes the rest of the book pretty dull in terms of romantic development. What relationship obstacles they have seem token and easily brushed aside. Ultimately, they're too busy fending off assassins and bantering with the Three Sequel Baits (three hot dudes from Dirk & Steele who are friends with Dela) to really worry at or build on their relationship past It's True Love. As for fantasy elements, they're okay but the flaws show here and there - mostly in the presentation of the novel's main antagonist, a cartoonish, sketchily-drawn villain.

What interests me about my reaction to Tiger Eye is that it seemed, to me, to be very conventional. While the language reveals burgeoning amounts of the linguistic grace Liu would put to good use in later books, the use of language and the plotting and the development of the romance was very derivative, and even cheesy. All the hallmarks of a standard paranormal starter are there - copious amounts of exposition, hot super-powered angsty manfriends fated for their own sequels, obvious plot threads left tantalizingly dangling by novel's end.

But when I think about it, it makes sense. An established, successful author can take more risks, be more creative and defy more conventions because she already has a demonstrated regular readership. Someone just starting out with a series would still be required to be original and creative (of course!), but I think maybe they're expected to follow the more established "rules" of what's popular and desired in their genre because they're just starting out, and have to hook an entirely new pool of readers who have no prior experience with them.

Take it from me, though, when I say that her series has nowhere to go but up from Tiger Eye.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Re-Read Review: "Five Quarters of the Orange," by Joanne Harris

The Protagonist: Framboise Simon, nee Dartigen. For six years she's been living under her married name in the same small village she was forced to leave as a child under tragic circumstances.
The Rub: When greedy relatives threaten to expose her true identity to the villagers, she's forced to revisit the events that led to her exile, with the help of a cryptic diary/recipe book written by her harsh, neglectful, but ultimately inscrutable mother.

The Secondary Cast:
Mirabelle Dartigen: A war widow left to raise three wild children. Uncommunicative, stern, harsh, and yet not unloving, she suffers from terrible migraines and blackouts.

Cassis: Framboise's older brother. He introduces her to the German soldiers exchanging information for black market merchandise, and it's his son and daughter-in-law who harangue the older Framboise to hand over the album.

Reine-Claude: Framboise's beautiful older sister. She has a serious crush on Tomas Liebnitz, but being a pretty, docile girl in a German-occupied town comes with its own hazards.

Paul Hourias: Framboise's shy, constant, stuttering friend - both when she's young, and when she's old. As older people, he becomes her ally against a slick huckster trying to scare away her business.

Yannick: Cassis' son, and Framboise's nephew. Owns a restaurant with Laure that isn't doing well - he hopes that his grandmother's album of recipes and secrets will improve their fortunes.

Laure: Yannick's awful wife - desperate to revive her career, she'll go to any lengths to take the album for herself, and she's not afraid to play dirty.

Tomas Liebnitz: A charming, amoral German soldier who operates a blackmail scheme in Les Laveuses in order to secure better conditions for himself and his friends.

The Word: It's been some years since I last read this book. It was a Christmas gift from my Nana, back when I was immature enough to resent being gifted with literary fiction because I saw it as an attempt to "improve me" and get me read "grown-up books" that weren't fantasy, science fiction, or romance. I always read them but they usually came off like University-assigned reading - frequently pleasant but rarely strong enough to penetrate through to my true interest. However, I remember enjoying it enough to keep it on my shelf.

When I was older, however, I discovered and read Gentlemen and Players by the same author, and was absolutely blown away. Truly, its cover is pinned to the small corner of my mind where "The Classics" are, reserved for the books that weren't just good, but transcended good. The Holy Grails for which every reader keeps reading. So I impulsively decided to re-read Five Quarters of the Orange to see if it measured up.

Five Quarters operates within two stories and time periods - one takes place in the present day, where the elderly, widowed Framboise operates a small, but successful gourmet restaurant in her small childhood village of Les Laveuses. She works under her married name, hoping no one will recognize her as the daughter of the infamous Mirabelle Dartigen, a woman held responsible for a horrific tragedy that occurred there 55 years ago. The only clues to what really happened lie in Framboise's own memory and an album of recipes and secrets her mother bequeathed to her upon her death. However, Framboise's nephew and his appalling wife want to use the album to further their own careers, and Framboise must re-examine the events of the past and her mother's closely-held secrets.

The second story takes place the summer before the tragedy, with a nine-year-old Framboise and her siblings Cassis and Reine-Claude learning to adapt to their mother's migraines and erratic behaviour now that their father is dead. It's World War II, and Les Laveuses is under German occupation. Desperate to tag along and be included in her older siblings' adventures, Framboise finds herself involved in a seemingly harmless arrangement with a charming and rebellious German soldier.

Honestly, the setting drew me in more than the characters. Joanne Harris is very like Alice Hoffman in this way - the setting of Les Laveuses is as much a character as anyone else in the story. Due to their mother's illness and general bad temper, Framboise and her siblings spend most of their time as far away from the house as possible, running in the woods, fishing in the river, picking berries and mushrooms and sharing secrets up in the tree house. When they are in the house, we get mouthwatering depictions of their mother's cooking, which is the one true legacy she managed to pass on to Framboise.

In the modern story, the picturesque village setting is tainted by the forced addition of modernity, as a boisterous and hostile fast-food chain sets up across from Framboise's quiet eatery and starts (intentionally?) scaring away business.

Character-wise, the older Framboise, steeped in memory and regret and hindsight, was more understandable to me than the younger Framboise. The nine-year-old character is very believable, to be sure, but a lot of her story emerges due to her childish cruelty. Realizing her mother smells oranges before the pending arrival of a migraine, Framboise starts smuggling the fruit into the house (even going so far as to sneak pieces of orange peel into her mother's pillow) so that she can spend more time outside without supervision while her mother is bedridden. This increased freedom sets up the story and creates a devastating and fascinating ripple effect that the older Framboise discovers while going through her mother's album, but if you know anyone who is prone to migraines or chronic pain you will not like the younger Framboise one bit.

Again, though, much like Alice Hoffman, Joanne Harris knows how to balance tragedy with joy, with her beautiful writing. Even though the events during the German Occupation irrevocably changed and damaged Framboise's life, there is room and more for some happiness and meaning to seep back in. Life goes on, and while her mother's album helps Framboise understand the hard, enigmatic woman who was her mother, it also helps her better understand her own life and priorities.
While it didn't have the same life-destroying awesomeness of Gentlemen and Players, Five Quarters of the Orange is still an excellent book, full of secrets, gorgeous description, delicious recipes (I want to try the one for raspberry liquor!) and a great story.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"On the Way to the Wedding," by Julia Quinn

The Chick: Lady Lucinda Abernathy. The plainer friend of the beautiful, accomplished Hermione Watson, Lucy's used to being overlooked, so she has no problem helping Gregory Bridgerton win Hermione's hand away from an unsuitable paramour.
The Rub: Lucy has no problem, that is, until she starts to fall in love with Gregory in the process.
Dream Casting: Laura Carmichael.

The Dude: Gregory Bridgerton. He's always known that he'll be able to identify his One True Love on sight - and he does! It's Hermione Watson!
The Rub: But what's a man to do when his One True Love doesn't return his feelings? Get help from her BFF - her surprisingly witty, kind, graceful, lovely BFF...
Dream Casting: Charlie Cox.

The Plot:

Gregory: Some day my prince - er, princess will come, someday I'll find my love...

Shaft of Light: *falls on Hermione Watson*

Hermione: Why, hello -


Hermione: Cool. I'mma go talk to anyone else as far away from you as I can get.

Gregory: *heart crushed*

Lucy: Easy, tiger. Let me give you a few tips.

Gregory: Okay!

Lucy and Gregory: *love training montage*

Hermione: Hey, guess what! I just got compromised by Lucy's brother so now I'm heading offstage since I've rendered myself irrelevant to the storyline! Byyyyyeeeee!

Gregory: ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME? I suddenly want to make out with a random person in a jealous rage!

Lucy: I like the sound of that!

Gregory and Lucy: *le kiss*

Lucy: BTW I'm secretly in love with you. But I'm ten minutes late for my evil-uncle-arranged marriage to my future gay husband! Ta, darling!

Gregory: Wow, now I'm secretly in love with you. Back off, evil uncle and future gay husband!

Evil Uncle and Future Gay Husband, respectively: Cool.


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Missed Love At First Sight

1 Evil Uncle

1 Daaaaark Secret

1 Use of Bondage (non-sexy variety)

1 Secret Gay Fiance

1 Raging Annoyance of a Little Sister (GO AWAY, HYACINTH)

1 Love of Bacon
The Word: Before we move on to the body of the review, let's have a little Bridgerton Recap:

Book 1: Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-Ah, Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh-Eh, Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-ee-Oh, Duke Is Stutterin'.
Bridgerton: Daphne
Grade: B+
Pros: Angst, nice heroine. Cons: Hero's motivations are sketchy at best.

Book 2: "I Like My Women the Way I Like My Father - COVERED IN BEES!"
Bridgerton: Anthony
Grade: A-
Pros: Excellent use of themes, better use of story structure. Cons: Beautiful heroine who refuses to believe she is beautiful - a turn-off for me.

Book 3: An Offer from a Gentleman (my favourite in the series)
Bridgerton: Benedict
Grade: A
Pros: Subtle beta hero, lovely fairy tale premise. Cons: Benedict's mum is okay letting her son's mistress serve her daughters? Really?

Book 4: Rakish McCryingOnTheInside and Penelope NosyGossip-BodyIssues.
Bridgerton: Colin
Grade: B
Pros: Good humour, interesting conflict. Cons: Lame pay-off for over-hyped Bridgerton character. Heroine is too cutesy.

Book 5: How To Terrify Your Family, Seduce a Man and Tame His Demon-Spawn Children, All In Three Easy Steps.
Bridgerton: Eloise
Grade: B-
Pros: Interesting hero and hero issues, relateable (somewhat) heroine. Cons: While relateable, heroine is still ANNOYING beyond all reason. Also: demon-spawn children.

Book 6: My Best Friend's Girl
Bridgerton: Francesca
Grade: B+
Pros: Friends-to-lovers conflict, believable love-at-first sight story. Cons: Wishy-washy heroine.

Book 7: Don't Read this One, or, How a Crazy Manic Pixie Dream Girl Gets Everything She Wants While Everyone Works Around her Crazy.
Bridgerton: Hyacinth
Grade: C-
Pros: It's written in grammatically-correct English. Cons: You'll want to set the heroine on fire.

So On The Way To the Wedding already begins on a high note for the simple fact that it's not Hyacinth's book (although *sigh* she does make a number of ill-advised appearances). As well, Hyacinth's book and the comments of my friendly Tweeples lowered my expectations to such an ebb that I was actually pleasantly surprised by this novel. While it's still not Julia Quinn's best (that remains An Offer from a Gentleman) it is a far lovelier tale than Hyacinth's hot mess of a tale.

Gregory, the youngest Bridgerton son, has always believed in true love - how could he not? Lightning already struck 7 times in his family, so it's reasonable to assume it could happen an 8th time. He's convinced that he'll immediately know The One on sight, and until that time he's content to live a privileged, irresponsible, rootless existence eating sandwiches at his siblings' fancy parties.

It is at one such house party that he meets The One: Hermione Watson, the darling of the ton. However, despite Gregory's determined advances, Hermione - gasp! - doesn't appear to share his feelings. However, he gains an ally in Hermione's (slightly plainer) BFF Lucy Abernathy. Lucy is a veteran observer of the various types of "true love" crushed by Hermione's innocent indifference. Having recently discovered Hermione's inappropriate fondness for her father's secretary, Lucy is now quite invested in herding Hermione's heart towards a more socially-equal subject, and she agrees to help Gregory win Hermione's hand in marriage.

Of course, nothing does go according to plan in a Julia Quinn novel. Thankfully, Quinn saves the histrionic drama for the third act and builds the first and second on the layered, believable protagonists and their (thankfully!) angstless blossoming romance. Lucy is a wonderful heroine. Rational, ordered and pragmatic (perhaps a little too much for her own good), her romantic and sexual awakening is sweet and realistic. Despite her growing love for Gregory, she needs to build and develop her own needs and desires and priorities before she's able to reach out and take a risk.

Gregory's character is more subtle. He was never really much of a presence in the earlier books - he was usually a child or away at Eton. In fact, both he and Francesca feel like the Odd Bridgertons Out, simply because so many of their siblings (including *sigh* Hyacinth) make a point of popping in and out of each other's books, whereas they do not - Francesca, in fact, is never referenced again after her own book. But Gregory actually feels like the Odd Bridgerton - born ten years after the youngest of his brothers, he never had the close brofest Anthony, Benedict, and Colin had. And his upbringing (realistic for 19th century England) kept him from wholly connecting with his sisters as well.

While his character, as a whole, left less of an impact on me than Lucy, the motivations for his personality and lifestyle are sound, believable, and surprisingly undramatic - and I always appreciate well-adjusted characters whose foibles are simply theirs, and not a result of a traumatic accident or shady past.

That being said, the third act does veer a little into Crazytown, but on the whole, it's a pleasant drive to Crazytown. The pressure (however silly and far-fetched the dramatic "twist" is) puts the character development both Gregory and Lucy have undergone to excellent use and their reactions to their predicament are entertaining and romantic (for the most part - Gregory loses points for a stunt involving hand restraints and a toilet).

On the whole, however, On the Way to the Wedding is a surprisingly quiet note to end an eight-book series on. Unlike most other romance series, Julia Quinn did not save the last book for the angstiest, darkest, or most mysterious character. She doesn't reveal any shocking revelations about the Bridgerton family. In fact, most of the Bridgertons keep their happily-wedded noses out of this story (barring the occasional throwaway reference) a fact for which I am very grateful. I'm not sure exactly why, except for his age, Gregory was left for last. Either way, it was a perfectly pleasant novel, and a nice addition to an overall entertaining series.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"Mockingjay," by Suzanne Collins

The Heroine: Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire - a.k.a. "The Mockingjay." Due to her actions in both of her Hunger Games, she is now the face of a revolution that could finally topple the tyranny of the Capitol.
Her Angst: Her face, unfortunately, is more important than her actual actions - her handlers are more concerned with keeping her in the limelight than actually having her fight or help.

The Secondary Cast:
Gale: Katniss' right-hand man and a highly-ranked soldier in District 13's war with the Capitol.

Peeta: Currently in Capitol custody, probably under torture, thanks to the rebels' failure to rescue him from the Quarter Quell.

President Alma Coin: The leader of District 13, she's willing to use Katniss as the figurehead of the rebellion, but she's got a personal agenda of her own when it comes to the war and the future of Panem.

Prim: Katniss' sister - now training as a medic to help the rebel cause.

Finnick: One of the former victors of the Hunger Games to survive the Quarter Quell with Katniss. While definitely an ally, he's still recuperating mentally and physically from his ordeal.

Johanna: Another former victor. Mayor of Bald Crazy-Through-Torture Town.
The Word: I didn't like this book.

No, I didn't like this book - and the strong start of The Hunger Games is partly to blame. The first novel created a heroine of such strength and determination, that it made her lack of agency in this book that much harder to swallow. I was less tolerant of the flaws of this book because I knew how good it could be, and was frustrated when it wasn't.

District 12 is in ruins after being firebombed by the Capital, and Katniss is now living in District 13, the "secret" district that rebuilt itself underground after being nuked by the Capital years ago. The people of this district, however, are ready to come out of hiding and end the rule of President Snow once and for all - and they want Katniss to be the Mockingjay, the face of the revolution that everyone in the world instantly recognizes.

And I have no problem with that. The actual worldbuilding in The Hunger Games trilogy is pretty shaky - its strong point has always been how it explores the social aspect of government-sanctioned violence. In Mockingjay, Katniss' image is just as important as it was in the first book, as footage of her fighting Capital troops can stir up the people when released to the media at the correct moment. It also means, however, that Katniss' handlers are eager to put her in the spotlight but loathe to send into her into actual danger.

This would be fine if this was just the introduction of the novel, but the first, oh, 70% of Mockingjay is a) Katniss being moved to a strategic point and acting like a good obedient puppet (albeit one with angsty thoughts), b) something going drastically wrong, ending with a minor character dying in a ridiculously over-the-top way, or c) Katniss doing something stupid and winding up in the hospital for pages and pages after, and the cycle restarts anew.

The remaining 30%, of course, is a wildly inventive, fast-pasted, gratuitously violent and heartbreaking climax that, if you've carried any emotional investment at all for any of the characters, will tear you inside out. If only the lead up to it was less sluggish and boring. And if only Katniss had more control over it. Much like Catching Fire, Katniss is removed from the majority of the major action in the novel. Until the last third of the novel, it still felt like the real story was happening off-screen and we just had to experience it third-hand from Katniss' handlers.

And through it all, Katniss is just trying to keep the pieces together. In the case of Mockingjay, I think the realism Collins tried to impart onto her narrative actually hindered how I enjoyed the book. Katniss deals with repeated traumas in a very understandable and realistic way - she is put through the physical and emotional and psychological wringer. She is butchered and burned and cut up and abandoned and frequently suicidal and witness to countless atrocities.

But the constant pressure lends her character a note of tedium. I wondered who she really was when she wasn't busy reacting to something awful. The one time she is asked to make a significant choice about Panem's future (near the end, with her vote being the deciding one), she goes with a choice that made me instantly lose all respect for her. I wondered, Is this the person she really is? and realized I still wasn't completely sure.

BUT WHAT DOES THIS BOOK DO RIGHT? Well, for starters - the love triangle. I have very shifty, Twilight-fail-created feelings about love triangles. Too often, they involve either a) a girl, the Perfect Guy, and the Obvious Asshole or b) a girl, the Perfect Guy, and A Nice, Decent, Well-Adjusted Guy Who's Just Not Bad/Vampirey Enough.

But Gale and Peeta are two of the best-developed love interests I have come across in fiction. Neither of them is the obviously wrong or obviously right choice. They both come from different worlds and upbringings and contribute their own unique takes to the world. Gale is the revolutionary. Peeta is the diplomat. Honestly, Gale has the balls to force a change in the horrid status quo, but Peeta has the smarts and social far-sightedness to make that change stick. Gale is the lifelong friend. Peeta is the obstacle turned ally.

And finally, they both love and (more importantly!) respect Katniss. There's refreshingly little dick-waving or "YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE" moments. I really enjoyed that. Neither of them tried to force the issue or guilt Katniss. And I have to say, while I agreed with Katniss' ultimate choice, I really, genuinely liked both boys as independent characters, not just as love interests.

Okay, so I didn't really like the experience of reading Mockingjay. It was tedious and frustrating for the most part, and the ending, while cathartic, seemed a little rushed and random. However, as the final entry in the series, it's a fascinating endpoint. The trilogy as a whole is a creative and engaging examination of cultural morality, social media, organized violent sports, and how good intentions in the wrong hands can lead to bad ends.

Mockingjay by itself: C+

The Hunger Games Trilogy: B+

Saturday, March 03, 2012

"Unveiled," by Courtney Milan

The Chick: Lady Anna Margaret Dalrymple, a.k.a. "Margaret Lowell." When her father is exposed as a bigamist by an opportunistic fifth cousin, she and her brothers lose their social status and their ability to inherit, leaving them penniless bastards.The Rub: This same fifth cousin seems to be the only one in the world who believes Margaret has personal value, independent of family or wealth.Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Ye Shall Tread Down The Wicked, For They Shall Be Ashes Under the Soles Of Your Feet Turner - a.k.a. "Ash Turner." He finally gets the chance to exact vengeance upon the duke who abandoned his family to poverty when he discovers the peer's secret first marriage.
The Rub: His vengeance unexpectedly winds up hurting the one woman he's come to care for the most.Dream Casting: Rob James-Collier.

The Plot:

Old Duke: LOL, I'm dying, I don't care!

Margaret: I DO.

Ash: Wow, you're hot. We should date.

Margaret: Wait, what? NO.

Ash: But I respect your mind!

Margaret: No!

Ash: But I'm secretly illiterate and all torn up and angsty over that fact!

Margaret: ... okay!

Richard, Margaret's Asstastic Brother: Hands off my sister!

Ash: Wait, WHAT? ... actually I'm pretty cool with that.

Margaret: Yay!

Ash: But I'm still going to get the dukedom and condemn your brothers to a life of impoverished bastardy. They deserve it, you see, because they picked on my brothers in school and I would do anything to protect my brothers.

Margaret: But that's what I'M doing!

Ash: No no no - trying to protect your brothers is silly and sentimental because your brothers are ignorant and hurtful.

Margaret: ... so are yours!

Ash: Yes but MY brothers get sequels. So as you can clearly see, my problems are more important than yours. Let's get married!

Margaret: No thanks.

Richard: BTW, Margaret, we're only filing for our own legitimacy, not yours, because otherwise we'd lose everything!

Margaret: FUCK THIS NOISE. Take the Dukedom, Ashy! Let's get married!


Margaret: ... but you still have to be nice to my brothers.

Ash: Crud.
Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Revenge Plot

4 Inconsiderate Brothers

1 Very Bad Mutha (deceased)

1 Fairly Good Mutha (also deceased)

1 Very Bad Dad (still alive, for the nonce)

1 Secret Disability

1 Bout of Sex in a Closet

The Word: The book starts shortly after the hero utterly ruins the heroine's life - and ends up redeeming it, in the process.

The hero, Ash Turner, blames the death of his sister and his brothers' poverty and sufferings on the selfishness of the Duke of Parford and his weak, spoiled sons. When he discovers the Duke secretly married his mistress as a young man years before publicly marrying his current one, Ash gains a twofold vengeance when he exposes the Duke's bigamy to the ecclesiastical courts - it renders the Duke's despised sons illegitimate and unable to inherit, and it leaves Ash (the closest legitimate relative) as the legal heir.

However, the Duke of Parford also has a daughter, Lady Anna Margaret. Thanks to Ash's exposure of her father's first marriage, she was stripped of her title, outcast from society, and abandoned by all her friends. Because of that, Margaret is determined to do whatever she can to help her brothers' quest to convince Parliament to restore their legitimacy. When Ash travels to the Duke's country estate, Margaret stays on in the guise of a nurse to the ailing Duke - partly to protect her father from any attempt on Ash's part to inherit sooner, and partly to spy and gather intel she can pass on to her brothers, to convince Parliament that Mr. Turner is an unfit addition to the House of Lords.

Her plans go awry when Ash spots her and is instantly attracted. An intelligent, intuitive businessman who made a fortune in India, Ash has learned to trust his instincts above anything else. He sees Margaret and immediately intuits that she is a woman of substance, and starts treating her as such as he tries to seduce her.

Ash's method of seduction is clever as well as sweet. There is a twisty, reversed aristocrat-commoner vibe between the two of them. Margaret is accustomed to the life of a peer, and has been raised to believe that names, wealth, and titles are emblematic of one's worth as a person - so she is very disturbed when Ash continues to pursue her and find value in her despite the fact that he knows nothing of her name, family, or history. Because of that, she discovers her own strengths and talents only after losing everything she initially thought was important about herself.

Ash is an equally interesting character. Thanks to a learning disability, he relies on his personality, confidence, and quick wit to conduct business, but at the same time he is taunted by his shortcomings, torn by the belief that his proud, brash face is all he is capable of offering to the world. This increasingly comes into play when he interacts with his university-educated brothers - he paid for their educations in order to make up for the privations they endured as children, but as a result, he feels isolated and inferior around them.

Honestly, the only real problem I had with this novel was the continuation of the revenge plot. As I've stated before in other articles, there is a thin line to walk when writing a vengeful hero or heroine. I mean, most romance novels ultimately tell us that Revenge is Wrong and we should just Forgive and Love Everybody, but it all boils down to how far the hero takes it and why he's pursuing this revenge in the first place. Ultimately, I didn't buy it with Ash:
  1. He's already wealthy as sin and his brothers are already provided for.
  2. He doesn't even respect the prestige that comes with a Dukedom ANYWAY, so why is he screwing up so many lives to get one?
  3. His revenge creates a LOT of collateral damage for people who either didn't hurt him (Margaret and her mother) or only in the most petty of ways (he's essentially ruining Margaret's brothers' lives because they were mean to his bros in HIGH SCHOOL)
  4. He continues to actively try and ruin the Dalrymple's lives EVEN AFTER HE KNOWS WHO MARGARET IS because he'll just marry Margaret which will totally fix her life because protecting his brothers is an important and righteous man-problem but Margaret protecting her brothers is a weak and sentimental woman-problem.
Yes. I had a LOT of problems with how the revenge plot got dragged out to the very bitter end, but otherwise, this was a thoughtful and beautifully written novel. I loved the author's inversion of the master-servant, aristocrat-commoner trope. I enjoyed her ambiguous characterization (particularly Margaret's family - who aren't the good guys in any real shape or form but they're not evil, either). I particularly loved Ash's intellectual seduction of Margaret - I'm growing increasingly tired of novels where the hero's seduction amounts to little more than the hero sexually harassing the heroine despite her protests until she inevitably gives in, but Ash courts Margaret on an emotional and mental level that was very chivalrous and incredibly sexy.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

New Month, New Plans, New Projects

Dearest readers,

Thank you for putting up my with my reading slowness. I have been trying to bring my reading speed back up to snuff, with limited success.

In project news, I have put my gender-reversed Snow White retelling in a box under the bed, metaphorically-speaking. It's had its run, I wrote it both as a Regency romance and as a YA, but it kind of flamed out and I'd like to work on other projects and come back to it when the passion does.

In other news, I have registered to attend Book Expo America and its accompanying BEA Bloggers Conference! I've just heard so much about how awesome it is from The Booksmugglers and Katiebabs and The Story Siren, on top of the fact that I looooooove NYC, on top of the OTHER fact that the registration is like a million bajillion times cheaper than RWA National, ON TOP OF ALL THE OTHER FACTS that it's about all genres of books, I decided to go!

I registered for both and, most recently, bought a ticket to the Children's Book and Author Breakfast when I found out it's being MC'd by Chris "I Wrote TV Pilots, Children's Novels, and Coming-Of-Age Movies While Filming Glee No Big Deal" Colfer, John "The Fault In Our Stars Looks Really Good, Especially Because The Plot Doesn't Revolve Around a Crazy Unattainable Manic Pixie Dream Girl" Green, and Lois "I Cried So Hard When The Dad Put The Baby In the Cardboard Box In The Giver" Lowry. Eeeee! So excited!

So that's what you missed with my life. I'm off to go read Mockingjay.