Thursday, February 28, 2013

The February Round-Up!

Wow, this month sure went quickly! Almost like it had fewer days than every other month! *rim shot*

*February Winners* 
The Diviners, by Libba Bray. Fantasy, Historical, YA. A+
Pros: Gorgeous setting, lyrical writing style, snappy dialogue, fantastic heroine, great premise! Cons: All that greatness plus an enormous pagecount makes this a physically heavy book. So there's that.

Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman. Fantasy, Historical, YA. A+ **Joint review with Foz Meadows**
Pros: Excellent concept, great magic system, well-drawn heroine, swoony romance. Cons: Some of the world-building is a little too far-fetched.

*February Dud*

You Can't Hurry Love, by Christine Ridgway. Romance, Contemporary. D
Pros: A few laughs here and there. Cons: Manipulative Dick Hero, woo-woo psychic powers out of nowhere, utterly contrived plot.

*Best of the Rest*

The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman. Fantasy, Fiction, Short Story Collection. B+
Pros: All solid stories set within the same setting along a chronological time period. Cons: One or two of the stories don't really go anywhere, but that's about it.

To Catch a Bride, by Anne Gracie. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: Interesting setting (at first), strong and practical heroine (at first). Cons: Nothing gold can stay - also, insensitive portrayal of barren women.

Altered, by Jennifer Rush. YA, Science Fiction. D+
Pros: An interesting mystery with original clues. Cons: Silly sci-fi plot, over-objectified teenage man candy, lame-ass wish fulfilment heroine.

Never Lie To a Lady, by Liz Carlyle. Romance, Historical. DNF
Pros: Excellent setting and detail, complex character backgrounds. Cons: Overly-complex backgrounds, boring characters, hero is inexplicably and melodramatically angsty, too many details not enough plot or emotional investment.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Altered," by Jennifer Rush

The Protagonist: Anna O'Brien. Raised in backwoods New York with her workaholic single father, she likes to help out with his important work...
Her Angst: ...experimenting on four super-hot super-powered guys in the secret lab in his basement. Four super-hot super-powered guys who are not very pleased about being locked in that secret lab.

Secondary Characters:

Sam: The Super-Mysterious Love Interest One. He's so mysterious!

Nick: The Angry One! But he's got a Tragic Past!

Cas: The Dumb Blond! He's so cute but so stupid!

Trev: The Nonthreatening Bestie! He knows all of Anna's secrets!

Connor: The leader of The Branch, the super-shady outfit that funds Anna's father's research on Operation Hot Abs for Science.

Riley: Connor's second in command, who tracks the escaped subjects of Operation Hot Abs for Science.

Angst Checklist:
  • Absent Parents
  • Free Will
  • Gee, Could There Be Ethical Implications to Keeping Hot Boys In Cages?
  • Gee, Could There Be Ethical Implications to Being In Love with a Hot Boy I Help Keep in a Cage?
  • Who's Your Mama Drama
  • Abs For Great Justice
  • Identity and Memory
  • Mad Science!
The Tweets: I Live-Tweeted this little masterpiece here.

The Word: Well, I don't know what I really expected with this book. I picked up the ARC at last year's BEA because the idea of a heroine dealing with Hot Boys In a Science Lab sounded interesting.

And I pretty much got exactly that - Hot Boys in a Science Lab. And nothing else.

Anna is just an ordinary, everyday girl with a Mysteriously Dead Mother and a Secret Science Lab in her dad's basement. Imprisoned in that basement are four Desperately Hot Amnesiac Boys who have undergone genetic enhancements at the orders of Daddy's Totally Not Shady Organization, known as The Branch. 

Anna helps take care of the boys, who are being groomed and altered to become either a) super soldiers or b) the World's Most Expensive One Direction Cover Band. We have Trev - the Non-Threatening Happy One. Cas - the Dumb Blond One. Nick - the Angry But Damaged One. And finally, Sam - the Extra-Mysterious Love Interest One. Anna has been in love with Sam for five years and inexplicably reconciles this really well with the fact that she helps keep him and his bros in cages and doses them with happy gas once a week in order to perform non-consensual tests on them.

But it's all good because she also bakes them cookies and gets them library books. You know, almost as if they were people.

Everything changes when two head honchos from The Branch arrive with a small army of minions to take the boys away because this latest stage of the project is shutting down. Anna is distraught, and suspects the honchos are up to no good - but since her morality radar doesn't so much as beep at the idea of Underage Boys Being Experimented on in Glass Boxes, it's hard to tell whether her fears are legit or she if just doesn't want strangers taking her living Ken Dolls out of her Barbie's Dream Science Horror Basement.

However - surprise! Sam's not as helpless as they assume and he brutally kills eight minions before breaking the other boys out. Anna's dad grows a conscience in three seconds flat and helps them escape, and orders Anna to escape with them. Of course, Anna is still in True Love with Sam, so nothing as pesky as the mass murder of eight people will dim her Speshul Feelings for him, so she flees into the night with Happy, Dopey, Angry, and Love Interest.

There are a few glimmers of originality in this story, I'll admit. Apparently, before Anna started helping her father in the lab, Sam escaped a bunch of times and had to have his memory (and the memories of his bros) wiped each time, but not before leaving a series of clues tattooed and scarred on his own body (and on the bodies of his bros!) that indicate the coordinates of safehouses, the contact information of potential allies, and even the location of hidden evidence that might be enough to buy Happy, Dopey, Angry and Love Interest's freedom. These sorts of clues kept up my interest in the story, but only barely.

Because honestly? This book was like one, big, stinky pile of stale fan service. Oh gee, the boys have clues literally written on their abs that only Anna with her keen eyesight and a UV flashlight can detect?  Boys who all (with the exception of Angry Nick) adore and want to protect Anna because, hey, in between being drugged and gassed and poked with needles and having their memories erased and their rights infringed upon - she made them cookies! That counts for something, doesn't it?

None of the boys have any serious character development beyond displaying Their One Personality Trait. The Dumb Blond One makes Dumb Jokes. The Angry one acts Angry. The Happy One is Anna's sexually nonthreatening Bestie. Their abs and glutes have more dimension then their personalities do.

This all would have been bad enough if Anna had been anything more than the most empty and passive of Placeholder heroines.

Unfortunately, she's not. She spends the vast majority of this book tagging along with the boys and doing whatever they tell her to while trying desperately not to get shot at. She has no ambitions because leaving would mean spending a life without her Precious Boys. She has no moral identity until the plot demands it - she was happily complicit in the boys' imprisonment for five years and the book never examines this nor does she feel a shred of guilt for it. She makes no decisions, performs no actions that are not ordered, influenced, or motivated by a man - either the boys or her father

And guess what? She is one of only three female characters in the entire novel, and the other two get shot in the head mere pages after their introductions, and one of those is a minion who isn't even named.

The characters are empty ciphers for Blatant Wish-Fulfillment, the sci-fi worldbuilding is laughably shallow, and while the clues and puzzles are slightly clever, it's not enough to support an entire novel, much less a series!

If you like the idea of the Mad Science of Frankenstein and The Bourne Identity mixed with the troubling gender dynamics of Twilight, then this is your book.

If that last sentence terrified the living crap out of you, than do what I wished I'd done - and avoid this novel entirely.

"To Catch a Bride," by Anne Gracie

The Chick: Ayisha Machabeli Cleeve. After living on the streets of Cairo for six years before being found by the hero, she should jump at the chance to go to England and live in comfort as the long-lost granddaughter of Lady Cleeve. Shouldn't she?
The Rub: She's actually Lady Cleeve's illegitimate granddaughter - the legitimate one legitimately died years ago.
Dream Casting: Jennifer Lawrence.

The Dude: Lord Rafe Ramsey. When he learns just how unimportant he is in his brother's plans for the earldom's succession, he decides to fly off on a wild goose chase to find a long-lost aristocrat's daughter.
The Rub: Once he finds her, he starts imagining he might actually have a future with her - but will she take a reckless layabout like him?
Dream Casting: Matt Bomer.

The Plot:

Hero's Brother: Hey, hurry up and father my children with this special lady I handpicked for you so that my barren wife and I can take them away from you and raise them ourselves!

Rafe: Oh, yeah, I would, except it's five minutes to Run Away to Egypt o'Clock. *flees*

Ayisha: Oh no, an Englishman's showing an old picture of me! Better steal it back! *is caught*

Rafe: Yay! Come to England with me!

Ayisha: No.

Rafe: But we have cookies! ...and no thugs who are still hunting you in order to sell you into white slavery.

Ayisha: Okay, deal. Let's just get on this boat with no more drama, shall we?

Rafe: Crap! I've got the plague!

Ayisha: *nurses back to health*

Rafe: Crap! Pirates!

Ayisha and Rafe: *murder a huge-ass amount of pirates*

Rafe: Crap! Your grandma found out you're the daughter of her son's slave-mistress and she doesn't want you anymore!

Ayisha: *runs away*

Grandma: Just kidding!

Rafe: *finds Ayisha* Caught you, again!

Ayisha and Rafe: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Cross-Dressing Heroine
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)
  • 1 Slightly Less Bad Brother
  • 1 Barren BFF 
  • 1 Barren Sister in Law
  • 1 Barren Baby BFF Epilogue (of course)
  • 0 Barren Baby Sister-In-Law Epilogues
  • 1 Deadly Fever (Unsexy Variety)
  • Several Snooty British People
  • 1 Relationship-Aiding Pet
  • 1 Plucky Relationship-Aiding Foster Child
  • 1 Gold-Digging Teacher
  • 1 Morally Ambiguous Grandma
  • 1 Pirate Attack
The Word: To Catch a Bride starts out on a strong, if slightly contrived note - our hero, Rafe Ramsey, is the younger brother to the Earl of Axebridge. After ten years of marriage, his brother has been unable to sire an heir, and so Rafe is expected to settle, marry, and perform that task for him. Instead, Rafe decides to embark on a Random Quest on behalf of one of his Granny's old friends rather than face his impending responsibilities.

The quest is this: years ago, old Lady Cleeve's son hied off to Egypt with his wife and daughter, where they apparently all died of plague. However, evidence (and a sketch of a young girl) has surfaced indicating that his young daughter Alicia might still be alive somewhere. Rafe's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to head to Cairo and find this girl - who hopefully hasn't been sold into slavery yet.

The good news is, the girl in the picture, who goes by the name Ayisha, is not a slave. The bad news? She's had to live on the streets for six years and has a much-deserved yearly subscription of Trust Issues to show for it. When her parents both died of plague when she was thirteen, opportunistic robbers broke into their house in order to find Ayisha and sell her on the slave market. She's spent the past six years disguised as a boy in order to hide from them - and, okay, so while I don't really understand why the same street thugs would keep looking for One Random White Girl for six years, I do get how living as a boy on the streets of 19th-century Cairo was probably safer than doing it Single Lady-style.

Rafe and Ayisha eventually meet - but neither is what the other expects. To Ayisha's surprise, Rafe is not a vulgar white slaver looking to buy and sell flesh. To Rafe's befuddlement, Ayisha refuses to come to England with him, even when he promises that nothing but wealth and comfort and a loving grandmother await her.

When Ayisha's true gender comes to light - and the thugs who've (inexplicably) hunted her for six years discover who she is, she has no choice but to accompany Rafe to England, even though she's still hiding a secret that could destroy her future and her budding relationship with Rafe.

As I've said, the novel starts out strong. Ayisha's no fool - she's an excellent tough heroine with a strong practical streak, and Rafe's interesting enough despite his questionable motivations at the beginning of the novel. Sadly, most of this goodness leaches away as the book progresses.

The story sails away from everything that's unique about it around the same time Rafe and Ayisha's boat sails away from Cairo. Gone are the interesting side characters like street-thief Ali and lusty surrogate mother Laila. Gone are the interesting gender and character dynamics. Rafe settles into the Unintentionally Insulting Male Who Doesn't Understand Why He Needs To Express His Feelings role like he was born to it, and street-smart, cynical Ayisha morphs into the Ever So Slightly Unconventional But Giggly Innocent Who Is Loved By All heroine without so much as a whimper of protest. And of course we have to have a Relationship-Aiding Kitten and some Snooty British People to make this as blandly similar to every other historical romance as we can possibly make it.

To Catch a Bride isn't terrible, but it isn't terribly interesting, either. The hero and heroine aren't particularly memorable and their adventures leave little impact. There aren't any real villains with understandable motivations. Everything seems rote and predetermined - sure, romance novels follow a formula, but the best writers can work with the formula's strengths by employing strong characterization, sharp dialogue, and evocative writing to ensure that even though the destination is a foregone conclusion, the journey is still entertaining.

And, well, the only things that really stand out in this story are the troubling depictions of barren women. There are two infertile characters in this novel - Ayisha's surrogate mother Laila whose husband divorced her for barrenness, and Rafe's sister-in-law who has been unable to produce an heir to the earldom in ten years.

Laila is actually quite an interesting character at first - an open and earthy woman who misses a "good man between her thighs" and deals with her childlessness by taking in stray orphans and generally being a decent person to everybody. She eventually marries an Englishman who's "gone native," and it's lovely - until you find out a few years later she - supposedly just by magic - had three kids with him, including twins. This bothers me for a number of reasons - mainly because, early on in the book, she's portrayed as a character who has made her own destiny and built her own family from the people she cares for. Magically giving her biological children at the end of the novel promotes the very troubling idea that adopted and foster children are somehow just not perfect enough for the HEA - no, she has to have "real" children and then her life is rainbows and cherries!

Similarly, Rafe's sister-in-law is depicted as so desperate for a child that she almost tried kidnapping a village baby, so her husband "got worried." It was at his wife's urging that he made the bargain with Rafe's prospective fiancee that any children of their marriage would be turned over to him and his wife. The novel also places an unnecessary and frankly offensive focus on how plain and "horsefaced" the earl's wife is, with the hero referring to her as "horsey" more than once. Why did the novel have to call attention to her physical looks and emphasize how plain she was? To me, it seemed like an attempt to show just how much a "failure" she was as a woman - unable to have kids and ugly to boot - and how "amazing" the earl was for continuing to remain loyal to such an incomplete picture of femininity.

These final scenes left a bad taste in my mouth, with the idea that children (that is, biological children) are so fundamental to a woman's mental health and happiness that one cannot have a true HEA without them and their lack can lead to immoral decisions.

Despite the strong start, original setting, and (initially) original heroine, this novel doesn't quite measure up.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"The Red Garden," by Alice Hoffman

The Word: I'm always a fan of Alice Hoffman, so you should know right now that I leap into every Hoffman novel with an enormous bias towards her.

On that note - of course I really enjoyed her latest story collection, The Red Garden. Like her previous book Blackberry House, The Red Garden is a collection of dreamy, otherworldly and romantic stories arranged in a chronological timeline and all centred around the same location - the small town of Blackwell, Massachusetts. The stories range from the town's founding in the 1700s by Hallie Brady ("The Bear's House") and proceed up until the present day ("The King of Bees").

"The Bear's House" opens the collection in spectacular fashion with the story of Hallie Brady, a woman determined to make her own way in the world. When her con artist husband and a few desperate families follow him into the woods of Massachusetts only to be stranded during a fierce winter, Hallie helps them to survive and build shelter using only her wits, her refusal to die - and the surprising assistance of a black bear. When the bear finally meets its fate, it's buried with reverence in the Bradys' garden, and in each of the following stories, characters remark on the particular redness of the soil and the plants that grow in it.

"Eight Nights of Love" takes place a generation later, as a suicidal widow recovers her love of nature when John Chapman (yes, Johnny Appleseed) wanders through town and helps plant the apple tree that will later come to be known as the Tree of Life.

That tree comes in handy in "The Year There Was No Summer," as it's the only tree that continues to blossom when snow and frost continue to grip the town in the June of 1816. When a local child goes missing, her sister solicits the help of some nomadic horse traders to help find her, and uncovers desires and dreams she never knew she had.

"Owl and Mouse" is a rather brief tale about a girl running away from the life that's expected of her, who meets a world traveller in Blackwell who is slowly going blind due to an illness contracted in the Amazon. Despite his encroaching disability, he plans to return to South America, and our heroine goes to some interesting lengths to try and convince him to stay put.

"The River At Home" takes place after the Civil War, when a young war amputee and a suicidal widow (I'm sensing a trend here) form a bond when they both spot the town's infamous child-ghost at the Eel River.

"The Truth About My Mother" jumps ahead to the 20th century. A young mother takes her daughter and flees from New York after poisoning her abusive husband. In order to find work in Blackwell, she has to leave her daughter in another town and pose as a single schoolteacher. However, her clever daughter finds a way to reunite with her mother and heal their family with the help of a lovelorn farmer.

"The Principles of Devotion" focuses on the much-younger sister of the previous story's protagonist. When her older sister dies, her pet pug is so overcome with grief that it refuses to leave her gravesite and the heroine deals with her own grief and impossible dreams by caring for it.

"The Fisherman's Wife" is easily the most fantastical story of the bunch. A young reporter arrives in Blackwell during the Depression to research the local folklore, and is attracted to the rumours surrounding the mysterious, strange and beautiful new wife of the local curmudgeon. In order to rescue her, he must first believe her story, and as a result his worldview is forever changed.

"Kiss and Tell" deals with a young woman struggling with her sexuality in 1945, when the town's annual Founders Festival hires some casual actors to help with their festivities with so many of the town's men and boys fighting overseas. Through the use of some of Hoffman's trademark magical coincidence, she discovers that sometimes things work out for the best when one least expects it.

"The Monster of Blackwell" tells an interesting update of the Beauty and the Beast tale - as a deformed teenager hides out in the woods of Blackwell and befriends the town beauty. Rumours surface of a terrible beast living in the woods - but little do the townsfolk know that real monsters can hide their ugliness far more effectively.

After that, comes my personal favourite story in the collection, "Sin," as a bullied local Blackwell girl befriends an unconventional, beautiful newcomer and her single mother during the summer of 1961. Thanks to a vividly flawed protagonist and a surprising twist at the end, this examination of female friendship and the many ways in which it can go awry stands out from the whole collection.

"Black Rabbit," however, was a little confusing and meandering. Two brothers grow up as two peas in a pod - one the troublemaker, the other the loyal brother who cleans up his messes. When the troublemaker decides to skip town in order to dodge the draft, the loyal brother drives off in a rage and winds up in an accident - and as a result loses all memory of his brother or their lives together.

"The Red Garden," the penultimate story in the collection, concerns a young woman who left Blackwell to pursue her education who is forced to return when her mother becomes ill. She never really connected with the townsfolk during her childhood, but when she finds a mysterious bone in the family garden that has only ever produced red plants, she learns the value of her roots in the community.

The story collection ends with "The King of Bees," in which a boy encounters and escapes death so many times that he gives up on the idea of a future, even as his father grows ever more strict in an effort to protect his future. The resulting feud fractures their relationship, until the boy, as an adult, returns to his father's deathbed and discovers that death means different things to different people.

The use of a singular setting, with each story following in chronological order, is a marvellous and highly effective narrative device in The Red Garden. Most of the protagonists are descended from or otherwise related to the previous protagonists, and the events of one story can ripple through history to impact later tales. For example, the little girl who drowns in "The Year There Was No Summer" morphs over time into the local legend of the Apparition, a child-ghost who appears to later characters and serves as a coveted role in the annual Founders Day play. Or how the place Hallie Brady named Dead Husband's Meadow becomes Husband's Meadow a few generations later - and Band's Meadow a few decades after that.

The most important unifying aspect, however, is the red garden itself, and how even green beens will turn rusty when planted in its soil. Most of the stories feature characters who, for vastly different reasons, dedicate time towards growing and weeding and observing it. I loved how the garden and the town of Blackwell itself functioned as an axis around which all the different stories revolved.

However, I have to say I do prefer Alice Hoffman's longer works. Her stories are beautiful, whimsical snippets, but because of the brevity of the medium, the characterization can seem a bit sudden (and that's a generous adjective, at least in regards to the weaker stories in this collection). Characters and events turn on a dime - and while this sort of thing happens quite a bit in Hoffman's novels as well, there she has enough time to develop the characters and the setting and the themes so that these narrative About-Faces feel like genuine Hasty Decisions Based on Pre-Established Character Traits and less like This Is Literally What They Need To Do For the Plot Of This Story To Work.

That being said, The Red Garden is an entertaining and gorgeously-written short story collection.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x01 and 2x02: War! Ugh! What Is It Good For? Drama, Plot and Character Development!

Two years have passed since the end of season 1, and apparently we have a Huge-Ass War going on. Matthew is fighting in that Huge-Ass War, and it is dirty and explode-y and horrid. When he finally gets some leave time, he decides to return to Downton Abbey to mend fences and oh yeah, introduce his Fiancee Who is Obviously Not Doomed to his relatives.

Meanwhile, back at Downton, Grantham is being a Big Whiny Baby about how he's not allowed to go play in the Huge-Ass War with all the other kids on account of him being Hella Old.

While delighted at Matthew's return, Grantham, Cora and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet still ship Mary/Matthew pretty hardcore - as does Mary, who has just returned from London. Of course the reunion is Super Awkward, with:
  • Mary negotiating the World's Most Painful Friendzone with Matthew
  • Grantham bragging about being made a Colonel of the North Riding Volunteers, which means he can traipse off to France with all the other lucky lads! Isn't that great?
  • and two random bitches who show up to distribute white feathers of cowardice to every hot guy not wearing a devastatingly sexy red coat - including William, the footman. 
Meanwhile, Matthew's fiancee, Lavinia Swire, who is nervous and mousy and Not At All Going To Die, spends her evening completely oblivious to the fact that Everyone Hates Her (including Carson, the butler, who's convinced she's a gold-digging ho who's only out for Matthew's title - completely ignoring how his Widdle Mistress Mary got dumped last season for being Precisely That).

Downstairs, Bates returns from attending his mother's funeral with some interesting news. He ran into his Crazy Wife Vera at the funeral and so it looks like he might finally be able to divorce her and marry Anna. Anna is thrilled and Bates is thrilled and they talk about hotels and babies until they are cockblocked by Ethel. Ethel is the new maid and she is horrible. I get the feeling she's supposed to be Sympathetic because she thinks The Class System is Over and Being a Servant Is Dumb - but saying those things while you are currently employed in service is not a sign of higher intelligence. She's also lazy, mouthy, and whiny as a delightful bonus.

To give you an indication of how Awful Ethel is - she's so awful that when O'Brien Very Obviously tricks her into humiliating herself in front of Them Upstairs, everyone downstairs and up has a good laugh and O'Brien gets off scot-free despite not covering her tracks at all.

However, because there are clearly not enough Horrible People On Screen as it is, Bates' Crazy (Hot!) Wife Vera shows up out of the blue, and since she used to be Catherine of Aragon, you know she means (Crazy) business. Turns out Bates inherited a whack of cash from his dead mum so Crazy Wife Vera wants to be his Crazy Wife again - and she's got a hot, smelly sack of blackmail to fling at both Lady Mary (for sex-murdering the Rapey Turk in season one) and Anna (for moving the corpse) if Bates doesn't comply. How did she figure this out? Did she just shake the Crazy Wife Phone Tree?

So Bates abruptly quits, breaking Anna's heart and earning himself a Hefty Dose of Aristocratic Shouting from Grantham - but not to worry! Mrs. Hughes, that sly cat, intentionally eavesdropped on Mr. and Mrs. Crazy Wife Vera through the grate.

Matthew returns to the trenches and runs into Thomas, who's still working with the medical corps. They have a pleasant chat, with Thomas sharing the news from O'Brien's letters - and let us all take a moment to acknowledge how adorable it is that Thomas and O'Brien have kept in touch all this time. They aren't ALL about the Evil Plots, y'all!

Thomas finally decides that he has had Quite Enough Of this Shit and goads a German sniper into shooting his hand, wounding him just enough to get him sent home from the front and leave him a sexy scar that requires a classy black glove. On her end, O'Brien manipulates Cora, who manipulates Grantham, who manipulates Dr Clarkson into getting Thomas transferred to a posting in the village hospital. Thomas fans can rejoice and Thomas haters can all take a step to the left because he was at the front lines for two years before he checked out. Two years watching his comrades take Ironic Bullets to the Head Right After Making Snarky Remarks. As far as I'm concerned, he's earned his Scarred Hand Ticket home.

A few other random Subplots of Note:
  • Sybil goes off to be a nurse. Also, Branson the Irish Socialist Chauffeur is Officially Into Her. 
  • Mrs. Patmore learns her soldier nephew was executed for cowardice and she cries. And everything is Horrible when Mrs. Patmore cries. 
  • Isobel discovers Bad-Ass Mutha Violet has been feeding Dr. Clarkson bullshit illness stories about her servants (like William and Moseley) to spare them from being drafted into the war effort. 
  • Moseley later tells Dr Clarkson that his "lung ailment" is a Totally Real Thing, so Please Don't Send Me To War. He then cements his status as a Cowardly Jackass by hitting on Anna not two minutes after Bates' departure. What a dick.
  • William joins the war effort because Patriotism! and similarly wants Daisy to be his girlfriend, a request Daisy cannot turn down because, apparently, Patriotism! 
  • Edith goes to work driving a tractor for the same farmer Isobel saved back in season one, and they make out because It's Edith and Why the Hell Not. They are caught by his wife, who looks like she regrets letting Dr. Clarkson pump dropsy-goo out of her husband's heart with a needle. 
So there's another dinner, and it's also Super Awkward for different reasons:
  1. Grantham finds out his Colonel appointment is honorary, and he mopes and whinges about how envious he is of the "real men" who are allowed to fight for their country - at least those are the words he manages to sneak past the HUGE ASS SILVER SPOON OF ENTITLEMENT in his mouth. 
  2. Mary's paramour, The Bear Knight Sir Richard Carlisle is there, and he is pretty much the Older, Self-Made Dude Version of Mary. He's crazy-rich, sufficiently handsome and he doesn't parse words and he makes me hate Lavinia Swire even more because at least Mary put in an effort to find someone on her romantic level. Matthew is fooling nobody with Totally Happy To Be Alive Lavinia. 
  3. Grantham's Bitchy Sis Lady Rosamund also arrives, and inflicts her opinion on everyone, and we all know how well that turned out in season 1. 
  4. Since both William and Thomas are no longer employed at Downton, Carson has to ask Grantham's new shell-shocked valet Lang to sub in as a footman during dinner and it goes about as well as you'd expect - with sauce down Edith's dress and Carson collapsed from a Fake Hollywood Heart Attack. Nice job, Lang. At least O'Brien likes you.
Mary visits Carson as he's convalescing and vents about her Boy Troubles. Carson advises Mary to just tell Matthew that she still loves him because he is Carson and He's Too Old For This Shit. Mary goes over to Matthew's house to do just that when --

A wild Lavinia Appears! 

Lavinia uses GUILT TRIP! 

...It's Super Effective.

No Flu Symptoms Here Lavinia is just so prettily and innocently in love with Matthew that Mary just can't pop her delusional little bubble and she flees without saying anything. What the hell, Mary? I mean, I get it - Matthew left you because you were a Delightfully Selfish Brat in season 1 and I understand that you're trying to behave like a Less Than Horrid Human Being now but there is a TIME and PLACE, Mary. TIME AND PLACE.

Besides, Mary's Bitch Aunt Rosamund catches Bright Future Ahead of Her Lavinia being shaken down by Carlisle so she's clearly not as Perfect or Boring as she seems.

Mary is further discombobulated when Carlisle proposes - in a very dashing and honest way, I must admit. He essentially says they make a great team and they could do awesome things together, and it's a pretty forthright and respectful way to propose, especially to someone like Mary. Mary responds to this amazingly well considering how close to she came to flinging herself at Matthew, and tells him she'll have to think on it.

Meanwhile, at Dr. Clarkson's village hospital, Thomas and Sybil have been helping out a young, hot soldier named Edward Courtenay who is recovering from gas blindness. Edward is not adapting to his blindness well, but he finds an unexpectedly empathetic and soulful companion in Thomas. Like, for reals. Thomas acts like an actual emotional human being around Edward and it is beautiful and perfect. 

But like all perfect things on Downton Abbey, it's shot down by an idiot - Dr. Clarkson tells Edward they're to ship him off to a different hospital because Dr. Clarkson's is for Serious Ills Only and Edward is now perfectly healthy except for, you know, his Total Lack of Vision and Mental Stability. Edward responds to this threat by killing himself and Thomas cries. And it is AWFUL and I love him and I'm starting to wonder if Thomas weeping after getting kicked in the junk by love is going to happen every season premiere.

In season three, Thomas adopts a puppy but Edith runs it over with her car.

However, Edward's death does convince Dr. Clarkson, Sybil, and Isobel that their community is seriously lacking in convalescence hospitals - that is,  places that help soldiers focus on getting better rather than simply Not Dying At This Exact Moment. Sybil and Isobel think that Downton Abbey, with its hundreds of unused rooms, could be just the ticket - but they'll have to get through Grantham and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet first!

Things I Liked:

  • Thomas and Edward forever!
  • Sybil learning to cook so she can be a nurse
  • "I hate Greek drama, where everything happens off-stage" - Bad-Ass Mutha Violet, about Mary returning in time to meet Matthew's fiancee
  • "I suppose looks aren't everything." Violet, about Lavinia.
  • O'Brien bonding with the shell-shocked Lang, and her own backstory
  • Bates' proposal to Anna.
  • Mrs. Patmore feeding leftover crepe suzette to the dog instead of to Ethel. 
  • The fact that Mrs. Hughes, and therefore Carson and eventually Grantham, find out about Bates' Crazy Wife Situation within that same episode instead of wasting time chasing red herrings.

Things I Didn't

  • Dr. Clarkson being the Worst Doctor of All Time. Declaring someone unfit for combat without seeing them? Tossing out a blind dude without looking into his mental state? Where did you get your medical degree, the Ponds Institute?
  • Ethel. You voluntarily decided to perform certain duties in return for wages - so stop acting like you were forced into service with a gun to your head!
  • Moseley not taking the hint from Anna
  • Grantham being a whiny bitch because he can't go explode people in France like everyone else
  • Lavinia. Ugh.
Final Remarks: This episode was pretty stellar in showing just how far everyone's come from season 1 - O'Brien's more sympathetic, Mary thinks of other people first, Thomas makes a real emotional connection, and both Edith and Sybil discover something they're actually good at on their own merits. Okay, so Lavinia is a Complete Waste of Space and there are a few too many subplots for my taste, but  otherwise, an excellent beginning to the second season!

Seven Romantically Lacklustre Rivals Out of Seven

Sunday, February 17, 2013

"You Can't Hurry Love," by Christie Ridgway

The Chick: Giuliana "Jules" Baci. As head of the family winery business, it's up to her to make the tough decisions for the good of the family, all the while avoiding the former love of her life, Liam Bennett.
The Rub: This last resolution becomes impossible when Liam reveals the details of their secret teenage wedding - which they never broke off.
Dream Casting: Lauren Graham.

The Dude: Liam Bennett. The calm, collected, and responsible Bennett brother,  he discovers Jules' presence in his town after ten years away is driving him crazy. Clearly, he and Jules need to face this tension head on if they want to have any sort of future for themselves.
The Rub: In everything he does, he can't help but compare himself to his selfish, womanizing dad, and wonder if he's turning out just like his old man.
Dream Casting: Ryan Phillipe.

The Plot:

Jules: Oh no! My apartment burned down!

Liam: GREAT! Now you can live with me!

Jules: WTF, no.

Liam: Really? Even though you never bothered to annul our secret marriage after ten years?

Jules: Fine, I will!


Jules: Whose idea was it to base our winery's entire future on a ridiculous piece of advertising?

Allie: The same people whose idea it was to force Stevie to arrange the wedding of her ex-boyfriend and the woman he cheated on her with!

Jules: Wow, if I stopped to consider these plotlines like a regular person, I'd realize we are pretty terrible, cruel, and selfish sisters. Good thing this UNSTOPPABLE SEXUAL TENSION with Liam takes up all my free time!

Liam: Let me take you down Memory Lane - with my Memory Penis!

Jules: Wow, I missed being bossed around by a man who acts like he always knows better than me, especially in regards to my own sex drive and my platonic dealings with men who are not him! I'm sorry I didn't trust you!

Liam: And I'm sorry I abandoned you after you miscarried our baby because of Daddy Issues I refuse to explain in detail!

Jules: Good enough for me! Let's get back together!

Random Villain: But I haven't threatened your lives yet!

Liam: We good?

Random Villain: *arrested* Yup. Have a good day, y'all!

Liam and Jules: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Secret Wedding
  • 0 Secret Divorces
  • 1 Case of Daddy Issues
  • 1 Cutesy Magical Wedding Wine
  • 1 Cutesy Magical Wedding Cottage
  • 2 Cutesy Magical Wedding Ghosts
  • 2 Redundant Prequel Couples Who Won't Go Away
  • 1 Attempt to Screw The Problem Away
  • 1 Completely Unnecessary Last-Minute Stalker Villain
  • 1 Random Psychic Power
  • 1 Secondary Romance
  • 2 Bad Karaoke Songs
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)
This Novel was LiveTweeted HERE

The Word: You know, I think one of the most frustrating things is picking up a book by a favourite author and having it be terrible. Not "m'eh," not "below their usual standard," I mean so unbelievably stupid and awful you temporarily forget why you liked their other books in the first place. And while chewing through this book, you feel a little guilty because both you and the author (who gave you ARCs of the entire trilogy) expected you to like it.

And I hated it. Christie Ridgway, you are fabulous and you've written some of my favourite contemporary romances but please don't read this review. This book was not your best.

Or anywhere near. To be honest, the two previous novels in this series (Crush On You and Then He Kissed Me) weren't quite as good as I'd hoped, but they came nowhere near the rushed contrivance of the final novel.

The basis of the trilogy is that three sisters - Jules, Stevie and Allie - have given themselves a year to save their family Napa Valley winery after discovering on their father's deathbed that he ran it into the ground with mismanagement. In the first novel, the youngest sister Allie suggested turning the winery into a wedding destination in order to boost profits, and so far it's going relatively well. While their finances are still terribly shaky, they have more of a leg to stand on than they did a year ago.

You Can't Hurry Love deals with the final, oldest Baci sister, Jules (short for Giuliana), right after her apartment goes up in flames, along with most of her possessions. She and her assistant/temporary roommate Grace (who just got out of an abusive marriage) now have nowhere to live and Jules realizes that shacking up in the family farmhouse with her happily-married Prequel Bait sisters is not an option. Things get even worse when Liam Bennett shows up and offers assistance.

Jules and Liam Bennett - the eldest brother of a rival winery family - Have a Super-Passionate Past That Evidently Didn't End Well. Jules has been avoiding him with Theatrical Obviousness for the previous two novels. Liam sees Jules' situation as the perfect time to deal with the Unbelievably Horny Elephant in the Room between them - because he's one of those brilliant guys who believes having sex with a problem enough times will make the problem go away.

And, because Liam turns out to be a Manipulative Asshole, he forces Jules' hand by revealing their Dark Secret - they secretly married ten years ago and never bothered to get a divorce. Worse - when they married, they toasted each other with the Tanti Baci Winery's blanc de blancs. What's that? Oh, it's a Cutesy Magical Wedding Wine (for reals) and Jules' sisters have discovered that no couple in the last fifty years who toasted their marriage with that wine has gotten a divorce.

Against Jules' wishes, they've pimped that romantic legend all over town as PR for their winery so of course Jules and Liam cannot get a divorce now, or at least not until after Tanti Baci's Poorly-Explained Mass Wedding Stunt at the end of June. And - obviously - they also need to pretend to be happily married until then. Think of the winery!

Of course. That all makes sense! Just like how two people who hate each other and want nothing more to do with each other somehow never bothered to divorce in TEN YEARS.

The sheer contrivance of everything in this novel is my biggest beef - nothing happens organically in this story. Everything occurs randomly! Or by surprise! Or because the hero or heroine weren't paying attention despite how completely out of character that would be! Or just because! Every plot development smacks of authorial intent to create a specific situation or reaction, instead of letting it emerge from the characters' motivations and decisions.

Liam's getting too close to Jules too quickly? Let's bring in two Random Characters who we haven't met before and won't see again who Oh-So-Conveniently happen to know Liam's Dad's Dark Secret and choose that exact moment to drop that bombshell in Liam's lap.

Jules is afraid of emotional connection after enduring a broken marriage and miscarriage? Drop in a Random  Character with no previous presence in the trilogy who just gives Jules her Random Baby to look after so that the infant's "strangely wise" face can reawaken Jules' maternal instincts.

You've created this running mystery of a hidden Tanti Baci treasure and you need it found by the third book? Just give the secondary romance heroine an out-of-the-blue psychic power and have her find this rare, sought-after plot device in under a minute.

Need a bit of action and suspense to force Jules and Liam back together all the more? Let's bring in Grace's Abusive Husband and have him openly approach and introduce himself to the protagonists, and let's have the protagonists not freak out or call the police or tell Grace despite the fact that Grace has been Jules' roommate for months. That way we have a nice Quickie Villain on hand.

On top of the utter falseness of the plotting, we have two Prequel-Baiting Couples who bloat the storyline with their utterly unnecessary and obnoxiously saccharine Wedded Bliss whenever they're not acting like Meddling Matchmakers, two tropes I absolutely despise.

Plot contrivance and annoying tropes aside, I just plain didn't like the hero and heroine or their romantic dynamic. Liam is controlling and patronizing and spends the majority of the novel bossing Jules around because Daddy Knows Best. He's also extremely jealous and possessive, to the point where he punches another man in the face (secondary romance hero Kohl Friday) just for having his hand platonically on Jules' arm. I found this particularly unsettling since the secondary romance heroine is a victim of domestic violence. So when her husband gets uncontrollably angry at her and resorts to force, it's horrible and a crime. But if the hero gets uncontrollably angry at Jules and resorts to force - it's heroic and primal. Excuse me?

The relationship doesn't look any more appealing from Jules' POV. Despite Liam only being two years older than her, she describes their initial teenage courtship with a creepy teacher-student vibe. Disturbingly, she recounts how often she "threw herself" at Liam with the full force of teenage passion, only for "patient, tender" Liam to "tame" her wild ardour. In fact, she reveals the reason they finally eloped to Tuscany at eighteen was so that they could finally have sex! Because Patient, Tender, Daddy Knows Best Liam knows that sex should be reserved until after marriage!

Yes, how dare a female character have a high sex drive. Thank goodness she had this abnormally patient twenty-year-old boy to keep her slutty, whorish urges at bay until they could be joined in holy matrimony - right before he abandoned her to deal with his Daddy Issues. What a dick.

Spare yourself the brainache and avoid this stinker.

Downton Abbey 1x04: The Soap Hits the Fan

Thomas Vs. Bates; Anna Investigates
So remember last episode, when Bates caught Thomas nicking a bottle of wine? He still hasn't told anyone except for Anna - while Bates explains that he doesn't want to be responsible for anyone losing their job, Anna suspects Bates is full of crap, because he is.

So it sucks to be Bates when Thomas enlists O'Brien's assistance, woos Daisy with his Sexy Gay Wiles, and accuses Bates of stealing the wine first, backed up by O'Brien's and Daisy's false testimonies. Carson thinks Thomas is full of crap, because he really is, but with Bates unable to defend himself, he can't dismiss it out of hand. Thankfully, Daisy experiences a change of heart and recants, finally realizing that Thomas is queerer than a three-dollar bill not the nice man he seems to be.

Unfortunately, the experience forces Bates to admit that he's been working at Downton under a lie: while not a Drunken Thief now, he totally was one Back In the Day and even did time for it. He offers his resignation, but Carson decides to postpone accepting it until he knows all the facts.

Chung-Chung! It's here that Anna goes all Law & Order: Servant Victims Unit. She knows there must be more to Bates' story and refuses to let him be dismissed for it. When she gets the chance to go to London (to accompany Mrs. Patmore for her eye surgery), she searches out his regiment and his mother to suss out the details. The good news? Bates didn't really steal that regimental silver and pretty much everyone in the army knows he was taking the fall for his crazy kleptomaniac wife. The bad news? Because Bates confessed, he still went to prison for it. The badder news? Bates' wife Vera is still very much alive, and still completely insane, as we will all find out to our detriment in season 2.

The Problem with Hiring a Socialist
Meanwhile, upstairs, Lady Sybil had grown keen on politics and has been attending rallies and speeches with the Irish Socialist Chauffeur, Branson. When Grantham forbids her from attending further political demonstrations, she lies about where she's going (including to Branson) and has Branson drive her to another one anyway. When the rally devolves into a riot, Sybil is injured and has to be rescued by none other than Matthew Crawley, who literally just happened to be there right at that moment because as a polite British gentleman he is legally obligated to be Exactly Where He Would Be Most Useful.

Sybil is returned to the bosom of her family but has to stop just short of holding her breath and stomping her foot to keep Grantham from firing poor, blameless Branson just on principle. Matthew, meanwhile, receives a hero's welcome - particularly from Mary. After a delightful sexual-tension-soaked conversation of innuendos, Matthew proposes. While Cora is delighted - since this will kill the Who Inherits Downton? and Mary Sex-Murdered a Turkish Diplomat! birds with one stone (preferably an antique, square-cut one in a white gold setting!) - Mary is still unsure.

The Sex-Murdered Turk Rides Again
However, Mary's not out of the woods yet. The whispers about her sex-killing shenanigans have become Full-On Rumours coming from none other than the Turkish ambassador himself. Bad-Ass Mutha Violet is appalled when she finds out the truth and tears a strip off Cora when Cora admits her complicity in moving the corpse. However, she later apologizes and bows to Cora's gumption and know-how in protecting her family.

While visiting London, Mary receives a call from Evelyn Napier (the lovely and charming Viscount's heir from the second episode) who wanted to tell her in person that he wasn't responsible for her current social shitstorm, because he is Literally Too Nice For This Show. Instead, he reveals that Edith was the one who informed the Embassy.

Mary takes this news surprisingly well, but she doesn't feel right about marrying Matthew without telling him about the Sex-Murdered Turk first.

A Hot Cross Bun in an Edwardian-Era Oven
Cora then ruins everyone's subplots by miraculously becoming Pregnant Again. This confuses but delights Grantham and throws the Inheritance Issue back up in the air.

It also complicates Mary's situation with Matthew, whose prospects are now entirely dependent on the gender of Cora's Late In Life Baby. Grantham's bitchy sister Lady Rosamund advises Mary to delay giving Matthew an answer to his proposal until she can be sure he'll remain the heir to Downton, because Lady Rosamund knows Mary don't want no scrub.

Conversely, Bad-Ass Mutha Violet thinks Mary should accept Matthew's proposal immediately so as not to seem a Gold-Digging Ho - adding that Mary can always change her mind later if Cora's baby turns out to be a boy. Mary, unwilling to be dishonest to Matthew or to herself (since she really doesn't know if she'd be happy married to a scrub), can't give Matthew an answer, which only confirms his belief that she only wants his title.

However, the pitter-patter of entitled aristocratic feet in Downton is not to be - O'Brien overhears Cora and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet talking about hiring a new lady's maid and incorrectly assumes that Cora is planning to fire her. Stewing with rage for the entire episode, she finally snaps when Cora asks O'Brien how long it takes for a lady's maid to settle into a new establishment. Unable to ignore what she interprets as an obvious insult, O'Brien leaves a piece of soap next to Cora's bath. She regrets her rash decision, but not in time to stop Cora from slipping on the soap and miscarrying the son Grantham's always wanted. Whoops.

The Garden Party to End All Garden Parties (and Subplots)
And, of course, ALL! THE PLOTS! are more or less dealt with (if not resolved) during a fabulous garden party:

  • Gwen the Redheaded Housemaid finds out she got the secretary position she applied for - cue an Adorable Three-Way Hug between Gwen, Branson and Sybil!
  • Isobel warns Branson that Under No Circumstances Should He Fall In Love With Sybil Because It Won't Work Out For Anyone Involved - and you can imagine how well that works.
  • Mary revenges herself on Edith by chasing off Sir Anthony Strallan, who had been planning to propose to her.
  • Mary then gets a taste of Karma pie when she is dumped by a tearful Matthew for failing to choose him when it really mattered.
  • Thomas quits Downton Abbey, and nobody cares since they were planning on firing him anyway.
  • Daisy apologizes to William for acting like such a twit under Thomas' Gay Love Spell.
  • O'Brien, already guilt-ridden to begin with, discovers Cora was looking for a new lady's maid for Bad-Ass Mutha Violet and wasn't planning on firing O'Brien at all. 
  • Bates and Anna are back to square one since Bates' Crazy Wife is still alive, if MIA
  • Oh, some Archduke guy got shot and now there's a war.

The weird thing is, I heard that this first season of Downton Abbey was intended as a stand alone miniseries that only became a television series after it proved to be so popular, but these last few minutes of the show leave so many threads dangling in the wind I find it hard to believe a second season wasn't already in the works.

Minor Subplot Roundup:

  • Grantham sends Mrs. Patmore to London to have sight-restoring surgery. She returns looking like a rock star in pimped-out shades.
  • Grantham borrows Matthew's sassy cook Mrs. Bird while Mrs. Patmore is away, and Daisy attempts to taint Mrs. Bird's food to keep the Crawleys from preferring her cooking over Mrs. Patmore's. 
  • Thomas is caught stealing again when Moseley walks in on him lifting Carson's wallet. He then  quits to join the Army Medical Corps with Dr. Clarkson before Grantham can fire him - but not before Thomas burns every bridge he's ever had with his coworkers by acting like an asshole about Cora's miscarriage and making fun of William's dead mum for no other reason than he's a shit. But it could be worse - in the original storyline, Thomas was set to be killed off in the finale. Instead he lives to be a shit for two more seasons and counting! Hooray! 

Swoony Moments:

  • "If you really like an argument, we should see more of each other." Matthew to Mary, in what is probably the sexiest British come-on ever
  • Bates: "Go to sleep, dream of a better man." Anna: "I can't, because there isn't one."

Oh, Snap! Moments
  • "Put that in your pipe and smoke it!" Bad-Ass Mutha Violet to Isobel, taking her to school for the last time of the season.
  • William raging on Thomas after Thomas makes fun of William's dead mum. 
  • "He has a right to know how his countryman died - in the arms of a slut!" Edith to Mary, about blabbing about Mary's sex-killing powers to the Turkish Ambassador. 

Other Remarks:
As you might have guessed, I watched this first season of Downton Abbey from the PBS episodes on my DVR - hence why there are four enormous episodes instead of the seven regular-length episodes. And it really showed - I mean, I get why PBS initially broadcast them that way, because they had to fit them into their schedule, but the result is that the episodes occasionally feel rushed and overstuffed.

Still, I really enjoyed this season. It explored so many different characters, and it didn't bother to make them all likeable. Thomas, of course, is my favourite male character but Mary is a particularly fascinating female character. A lot of people dislike her for her behaviour in this first season, but I felt nothing but empathy. She's a fierce spirit with a strong independent streak - raised in privilege, while at the same time kept slightly apart from it by virtue of being a woman.

Her frustration at not being able to inherit Downton or her mother's money, her envy of Lady Rosamund's wealthy widowed status, and her ambivalence towards Matthew - it all explains her so well. She hates the idea of having her life dictated by others. She wants to marry Matthew - but at the same time, she resents that society feels she has to do it. How can she live her life the way she wants to without supporting or buying into the societal rules that have restricted her for so long?

I can't wait to start Season 2!

Rating: Ten Bars of Soap Out of Ten!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

"The Diviners," by Libba Bray

The Protagonist: Evie O'Neill. When misusing her secret psychic powers gets her exiled to live with her uncle in New York City, she sees it as a perfect opportunity to live the high life she's always dreamed of.
Her Angst: A killer is stalking the streets of Manhattan, and when Evie's curiosity gets the better of her, she learns there's more to this world than meets the eye.

The Other Protagonist: Memphis Campbell. As an errand-boy for a local crime boss, Memphis composes poetry in his spare time and tries to keep his family together as best he can.
His Angst: He used to have a magical ability to heal people - but it vanished after turning on him. Now his brother's showing signs of being psychic.

The Secondary Cast:

Will Fitzgerald: Evie's uncle, who owns a museum of supernatural oddities. Used to work for the government. Has a Shady Past.

Sam: A street thief with the mystical ability to avoid detection who allies himself with Will and Evie in hopes of tracking down his mother.

Mabel: Evie's friend and penpal, who is the mousy daughter of socialist revolutionaries.

Jericho: Will's loyal teenaged assistant. Shy and awkward, he takes a shine to Evie, oblivious to the fact that Mabel is crazy about him. However, there's more to him than meets the eye...

Theta: A chorus girl for the Ziegfield Follies. Possesses a dangerous and quite possibly fatal power that keeps her from making real connections with anyone - except Henry, her closest friend.

Henry: A young piano player and composer with the power of walking through dreams.

YA Angst Checklist:
  • I Just Want to Drink But It's Illegal for Everyone
  • Bobbing My Hair
  • Bright Lights, Big City
  • I Can't Believe I Have Magical Powers and My Life Still Sucks
  • I Definitely Chose the Wrong Stockings for Raiding A Cemetery
  • Interracial Relationships
  • Rape
  • Dead Siblings
  • Religious Fanaticism
  • The Spirit World
The Word: It's 1926, and 17-year-old Evie O'Neill is too big for her small town of Zenith, Ohio. Not only because of her outsize personality and conviction that she's made for flashbulbs and stardom, but also because of her unique ability to read a person's secrets and memories by holding an object of theirs. One night, after downing too much gin at a party, she unleashes her talent in an effort to impress people and winds up accusing the town golden boy of impregnating a chambermaid. When the boy's furious family threatens to sue the O'Neills for slander, Evie's exasperated parents ship her off to New York City to spend a few months with her reclusive uncle Will until the scandal dies down.

To Evie, it's the perfect punishment - escaping dull Ohio for the bright lights of NYC under the dubious supervision of an absentminded academic uncle? What could be better? At first, life is every bit as exciting as she imagined. She reconnects with her penpal, Mabel, meets Will's awkward teenage assistant, Jericho, and befriends Theta, a glamorous chorus girl who seems to know all the town's hottest spots. Sure, she has to work part-time at her uncle's failing Museum of the Supernatural (locally known as the Museum of Creepy Crawlies), but that's a pretty small fly in a pretty large jar of ointment.

On the other side of the city, Memphis, a young numbers runner for the local crime lord, tries to keep his family together even as his younger brother, Isaiah, starts exhibiting a talent for precognition and prophecy. Memphis, himself, used to have a paranormal talent for healing until it betrayed him in the worst of ways and he worries about Isaiah being dragged into that kind of pain.

But all is not well in New York City. A sinister figure known as Naughty John is stalking the streets, claiming very specific victims and leaving their bodies posed with supernatural symbols on them. The police come to Will for his paranormal expertise and Evie gets involved, too - discovering not only that her talent actually has a practical application outside of drunken party tricks, but that other people in New York have secret powers, too.

Libba Bray's The Diviners is a fiendishly entertaining and epic fantasy novel that manages a near-perfect balance between humour and horror. Bray creates a fascinating period piece peppered with gorgeous detail (cloche hats! Gin! Egg creams!) but doesn't do so at the expense of character development. Evie dashes to and fro with the flawlessly charming rat-a-tat delivery of a champagne-sozzled screwball comedienne, but beneath the firecracker dialogue churns the insecurities of an uncertain girl with relatable motivations that transcend her time period.

Despite its enormous length, the story speeds along at a frantic clip, fuelled by vibrant dialogue, an engaging mystery, and an enormous ensemble cast of teenage characters who all manage to contribute something necessary to the narrative. I gnawed through this addictive and thoroughly enjoyable doorstopper and never once felt the story slacken or encountered a plot device or character that felt unnecessary.

Also, despite the massive scope of The Diviners, Bray keeps most of the romance pretty low key. While two male characters are very obviously being moved into position to make up a love triangle in the next book (Sam and Jericho with Evie), all three characters remain independently developed and individually likeable. While there was a moment of Insta-Love between Memphis and Theta that bothered me (because Insta-Love bothers me on principle), it doesn't take up enough of the storyline to become a full-fledged annoyance.

The Diviners is an expertly-written, engaging, and creative historical YA paranormal that calls to mind Chicago, Supernatural, and even X-Men. While it may take a while to read (because it really is a massive tome), you'll enjoy yourself for every minute.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Downton Abbey 1x03: Everyone Hates Edith

Isobel vs. Violet, Round One:
This episode opens with Isobel being her usual insufferable know-it-all self as she diagnoses her butler Moseley with a skin condition and proceeds to raid Dr. Clarkson's medicine cabinet without his permission, because by this point the whole village knows that Dr. Clarkson is her bitch. She is somewhat put out when she runs into Bad-Ass Mutha Violet some weeks later, and Violet correctly determines the still-itchy butler is instead suffering from a simple rue allergy, a condition easily solved with gardening gloves instead of illegally-obtained narcotics. Point goes to Bad-Ass Mutha Violet.

Meanwhile, Bad-Ass Mutha Violet approaches Matthew to see if he can use his legal expertise to find a loophole in the entailment that ties Cora's money to the Grantham title. Matthew is almost as good at law as he is at Looking Handsomely Guilty, but unfortunately the arrangement is airtight. At least he has Looking Handsomely Guilty to fall back on when he admits to Mary that he's unable to secure her the inheritance she deserves.

This serves two purposes: firstly, Matthew truly sympathizes with Mary's plight and in so doing gains an insight into her character and how frustrated she is by the constraints society has placed on her gender; and secondly, he finally grasps the significance of his inheritance and goes to Lord Grantham to learn more about his new duties.

Downstairs, Thomas discovers naive footman William has a crush on Daisy and sweet-talks Daisy out from under William's nose because Thomas is a shit. A conniving, petty, devastatingly handsome shit. Poor Daisy refuses to see Thomas' true nature. Mrs. Patmore tries to explain the homosexual birds and bees to her, from "you're not the girl for him," to "he's not a ladies' man," to "he's a troubled soul," but not as far as "he likes penis, you daft git."

Daisy's having a hard enough time as it is - turns out she partially witnessed Cora, Mary, and Anna shifting Pamouk's dead, rapey ass out of Mary's bedroom. She has no real understanding of what she saw and no idea how to tell anyone, but if anyone can wrest a secret from a perp, it's O'Brien.

Mind Over Marriage
Speaking of Dead, Rapey Turks - Cora learns that rumours are starting to circulate in town about certain death-by-sex shenanigans and she exerts more pressure on Mary to find a husband before these whispers start taking on more substance. Mary resists, because she is stubborn and horrible but also Surprisingly Sympathetic - she's dreadfully aware of how boring a society marriage would be even as she knows her chances outside of high society are just about nil.

So they invite Sir Anthony Stralland over to dinner - a neighbouring bachelor who is wealthy but, as Robert admits, "practically my age and dull as paste." Mary ignores him all through dinner in favour of flirting with Matthew, but Edith strikes up a lively conversation with him. Edith makes the mistake of gloating about her success to Mary, whereupon Mary remembers that she is Horrible and promptly abandons Matthew to snare Stralland away from Edith just to prove that she can. Mary comes to regret her stunt when Matthew leaves in a huff and treats her with cool, detached politeness for the rest of the episode.

Isobel vs. Violet, Round Two:
Isobel and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet butt heads again over Downton Village's annual Flower Show. Isobel is quite impressed with Moseley's father's roses, and is shocked to learn that he's never won the Grantham Cup for Best In Show - the honour has always gone to Bad-Ass Mutha Violet's roses. Every. Single. Year. She confronts Bad-Ass Mutha Violet with this, suggesting that Violet has only won because everyone is terrified of her of her status in town. Violet is offended and insists she's always won because her roses have always been better, but as she takes a long, hard, look at the competition and discovers she's about to win for the Umpteenth Year in a Row, she announces Moseley Senior's name instead and hands him the trophy.

Point still goes to Violet, because although Isobel was right, Bad-Ass Mutha Violet was damn classy about being wrong.

She Who Laughs Last
So, in case you haven't noticed, Edith Sucks at Life and Cannot Have Nice Things. No fewer than five characters express pity over Her Situation in this episode - Matthew ("She's barking up the wrong tree"), Isobel ("I hope there's a right tree for her someday"), Bates and Anna, and finally Cora (who admits Edith has "fewer advantages than Mary").

Of course, Edith's Situation is that she's Slightly Less Pretty than Mary, which in TVLand apparently means she's fit to ring the bells of Notre Dame and not much else. O'Brien capitalizes on this when she brings Daisy to Edith in hopes of sussing out what Daisy witnessed about Mary's sex-killing shenanigans. Edith finds out the truth, all right, and after an entire episode of Mary's ill-treatment and everyone else's offensively patronizing pity, she wreaks her vengeance by writing a tell-all letter to the Turkish Embassy.

Minor Subplot Roundup:
  • Anna is Totes in love with Bates - and tells him! 
  • Gwen and Lady Sybil hie off to have Secret Job Interviews only for their carriage to break down on the way back.
  • Branson, the new Irish chauffeur, is a Socialist interested in women's rights. He's even got pamphlets! 
  • Mrs. Hughes reconnects with an old flame but ultimately decides to stay at Downton and clean up after Thomas' messes. 
  • Carson discovers the cook, Mrs. Patmore, is going blind and has been for some time when she confuses salt for sugar when preparing a dessert. 
  • Thomas is caught stealing wine by Mr. Bates, and realizes he'll have to go on the offensive to keep Mr. Bates from nailing him (at least in that way).
Oh, Snap! Moments

  • Violet humming a jaunty ditty after skewering Isobel's hasty diagnosis of Moseley
  • Violet and Isobel trading barbs. Isobel: "I take that as a compliment." Violet: "I must have said it wrong.
Swoony Moments:
  • Bates taking food up to Anna while she's sick in bed.
  • "You're a lady to me, and I never knew a finer one." Bates to Anna.

Final Remarks:
Episode 3 was particularly busy - along with all the major plotlines, we had a lot of little itty bitty side stories going on at the same time, as mentioned above. I enjoyed the progress of Anna and Bates' romance, and well as Matthew's growing involvement in the estate. All in all, however, I felt the most sympathy for Edith. I realize her petty jealousy and insecurity are as much to blame for her dismal romantic prospects as her plainer looks, but I'd feel that way too if I had to spend all my days under the same roof as Lady Mary.

Rating: Four Scathingly Revelatory Letters out of Five

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Downton Abbey 1x02: A Rapey Turk In the Bed Is Worth Two In Someone Else's Bed

In this second episode, Stranger Bitch Matthew is still being an unintentional Dick to his butler, Moseley. As Moseley explains to Bates, Matthew does everything himself, leaving Moseley to do nothing except watch the man dress. To which Bates hilariously replies, "I'll tell Thomas. He's jealous enough already."

Which makes me think,

a) You can't really blame Thomas. Everyone who watches Downton Abbey would like to watch Dan Stevens getting dressed, and

b) If your sexuality is already widely known enough to be a common joke by the second episode, the closet you live in must be made from the same material as Wonder Woman's jet.

While all that's going on, Cora catches O'Brien ranting about Stranger Bitch Matthew and castigates her, which arouses O'Brien's ire. O'Brien is like the Hulk of Machiavellian emotional manipulation - you wouldn't like her when she's angry. True, you wouldn't like her most of the time, but when she gets angry, bad things happen. Soap-related bad things.

Matthew is invited to dinner again, whereupon Mary uses a Greek myth to metaphorically compare Matthew to a sea monster. Which either means Mary is not willing to wed Matthew to settle the inheritance, or she's a huge fan of certain types of Anime.

Downstairs, Thomas enthrals Daisy by showing her how to dance the Grizzly Bear.

Outstandingly Heterosexual.

Yeah, Daisy, the next time Thomas tells you he likes dancing with bears, he's not talking about the Berenstein kind.

Bad-Ass Mutha Violet is having problems of her own. Isobel (Matthew's mum) decides to volunteer at the Grantham-endowed village hospital, run by the semi-competent Dr. Clarkson who is inexplicably okay with letting complete strangers like Isobel peep in on all the patients in their various states of decay and undress. Isobel, having been a nurse and a doctor's wife, starts suggesting various progressive treatments for certain patients, treatments Dr. Clarkson is very nervous about performing because he really is only semi-competent and probably knows it.

Bad-Ass Mutha Violet (who is president of the hospital board) takes Isobel's involvement as a power-grab and bursts in, Metaphorical Edwardian Muskets Blazing, to stop the whole thing - just as Dr. Clarkson is draining goo out of a farmer's heart per Isobel's orders and it totally works. Bad-Ass Mutha Violet's attempts to oust Isobel are temporarily cast aside in favour of Not Vomiting. Her discomfiture is compounded by Grantham's decision to make Isobel the chairwoman of the hospital board alongside Bad-Ass Mutha Violet, presumably because Old Lady Catfights are a time-honoured British pastime.

While all this is going on, we have a bunch of entertaining but ultimately irrelevant Subplots:

  1. Carson's being blackmailed for his Dark Past as a Vaudeville Entertainer. Carson's solution is to act like he's had to wear Wet Underpants all day
  2. Gwen the Housemaid reveals she's studying to leave service to be a secretary
  3. Daisy's nursing an enormous crush on Thomas
  4. Bates impulse-buys an Edwardian-Torture-Machine to correct his limp, and while I'm glad he eventually throws it into the river, I'm worried about the environmental effect his leg-juice-tainted machinery will have on the local wildlife. 
  5. Edith makes a sincere effort to woo Matthew by taking him sightseeing, but fails because she neglects to compare him to a kraken. 

But enough of that - it's time for a hunting party! Dogs! Horses! Hot men in red jackets! At Mary's behest, Cora invites Mr. Napier, the son of a wealthy viscount, to attend. Mary's got her eye on Mr. Napier as Prime Husband Material - that is, until she meets Mr. Napier's friend, the Turkish Ambassador Kemal Pamouk, who is there to represent Turkey at the conference. He's also just foreign enough to be incredibly hot. She consequently spends the rest of the evening acting like a rude bitch to both Napier and Matthew in favour of Pamouk. However, when Pamouk tries to make out with her, a frightened Mary rebuffs him and leaves.

Mary isn't the only one infatuated with the ambassador - when Thomas first spots Pamouk entering the abbey, he turns to Carson and asks, "Is he mine?" Oh Thomas, there's no need to call dibs.

As it turns out, the only person at Downton Abbey with worse gaydar than Daisy is Thomas, who makes a pass at the unfortunately-heterosexual Pamouk and winds up on the wrong end of the ambassador's blackmail stick. In exchange for Pamouk's silence, Thomas leads him to Mary's bedroom.

Pamouk swaggers inside and basically coerces Mary into sex in a scene that is Not At All Romantic and instead Extremely Awful. He ensures Mary that he "will leave her a virgin for her husband" but he clearly has not done the requisite stretches and warm-ups for such hymen-dodging tomfoolery and winds up dying mid-coitus of PlotDevice-itis.

Everything after this is Terrible because poor Mary blames herself for everything and has to endure her mother's slutshaming for the rest of the episode as Cora, Mary and Anna wrestle the dead, rapey Turk back into his bedroom on the other side of the house to prevent Mary's vagina from causing World War I.

The Downton Girls are successful and the death is ruled an accident. Mary continues to feel Awful, even though the situation isn't her fault. Even more Awful is the fact that there's almost nothing and no one in the narrative to tell her this situation isn't her fault because it's the 1920s and Life For Women Sucked Back Then. The only one to give her any support at all is Carson the butler, who tells her "Even a butler has his favourites." Awww....

Oh Snap! Moments:

  • Lady Mary horse jumping in a side-saddle like a BOSS.
  • "When it comes to cousin Mary, she's quite capable of doing her own flinging, I assure you." - Matthew, regarding Mary's marriage prospects.
  • Thomas' "jealous, much?" look to the maids as he escorts Pamouk to his room.
  • "Sometimes we must endure a little pain, in order to achieve satisfaction." - Pamouk to Mary, ostensibly about travelling to Turkey.
  • "An Englishman would never dream of dying in someone else's house - especially someone they didn't even know!" - Violet

Other Remarks:
Honestly, while the episode was scandalous and interesting, the plot that did not involve the Rapey Turk was pretty slim. And, honestly? I really despised the Rapey Turk plotline. It carried the odious whiff of an attempt to Bring Mary Down a Peg. Look at Mary! Flirting with the rakish ambassador instead of being polite to the Nice Viscount's Son and Matthew Crawley! Let's punish her by having that rakish Turk exploit and humiliate her and tarnish her reputation. I can't really get behind that.

Rating: Seven Edwardian-Limp-Correctors Out of Ten

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Downton Abbey 1x01: The One With the Unknown Schmuck

So Downton Abbey kicks ass. We all know it. We all love it. And, in my mind, nothing exemplifies what makes the series so great as its very first episode.

Once upon a time, there was a Ship of Dreams named The Titanic that struck an Iceberg and dragged Leonardo DiCaprio, a huge-ass blue diamond, and the two heirs to the Yorkshire estate of Downton Abbey down to their watery graves.

Robert Crawley, the current Earl of Grantham and owner of Downton Abbey, is in a difficult situation now that his cousins and heirs' souls have wafted to an afterlife comprised of clapping politely during Kate Winslet's dream sequence. His estate is entailed, and so, according to Jane Austen's Law, everything has to go to a male relative, bypassing his three daughters completely.

It is super-awkward because his money isn't actually his - it's his American wife Cora's money. Grantham married her to shore up his estates' finances but very fortunately fell in love with her a year after they married and dear God Julian Fellowes, when are we going to get that prequel already?

So Grantham and Cora are Totes Happily Married Now but Cora is Less Happy about the fact that her money will not go their daughters but to some Unknown Schmuck.

Robert has three daughters - Mary is the eldest and terrible. We know this because she doesn't want to go into extra-strength mourning for dead Patrick Crawley on account of him being her fiancĂ©. Edith is the middle child and is also terrible, but people thinks she's more terrible because she's less hot. She was in love with Patrick Crawley but while she fell out of the same Beautiful Tree as her sisters, she hit a few too many Unconventionally Beautiful Branches on the way down. Sybil is the youngest and so it falls to her to make blandly nice comments about everything in an unexpectedly husky voice.

The inheritance situation is so dire that Grantham's Bad-Ass Mutha Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, actually teams up with Cora to see if they can combine their Outspoken Feminine Powers to convince Grantham to break the entailment - i.e., separate Downton Abbey and the money from the earldom and allow Mary to inherit the loot and the Unknown Schmuck to inherit the title.

Meanwhile, Downstairs:
So while all this is going on, the Crawleys have a bunch of people living in their basement who are paid to serve their food and eavesdrop on their conversations.

We have Carson, the Conservative Butler, and his work wife Mrs. Hughes, the house keeper. Beneath them are O'Brien, Cora's lady's maid and quite possibly The Devil; Thomas, the snarky first footman who is a shit and I love him; William, the other footman who is Not a Shit, but Less Interesting; Mrs. Patmore, the cook who is redheaded and yells a lot; Anna, the head housemaid and All-Round Decent Human Being; Gwen, the maid who is redheaded but doesn't yell at all; and Daisy, the scullery maid and Human Punching Bag.

All these servants are discombobulated when Grantham's new valet Mr. Bates arrives and they discover that his Leg Don't Work Because of the War but he's Totes BFFs with Grantham So It's Cool. Everyone on the staff (except Anna) proceed to take a collective dump on his head because they think they'll have to work harder around Bates because he's not physically capable of doing all of his tasks. Thomas and O'Brien despise Bates especially because Thomas was gunning for the Valet position and O'Brien is his evil BFF.

Ducal Shenanigans:
Suddenly! A Hot Duke appears! The Duke of Crowborough, to be exact, who invites himself to Downton as a prospective suitor for Mary. All the servants line up to greet His Grace, and O'Brien reveals herself as The Devil by kicking Bates' cane out from under him and embarrassing him in front of EVERYONE.

Mary is delighted by Crowborough, because he is Hot and a Duke, and so allows herself to play silly games with him like Let's Sneak Into The Servants' Quarters to Steal Incriminating Evidence. Crowborough's flirting comes to an abrupt end, however, when Grantham ultimately decides that he cannot ruin Downton by breaking the entailment so Mary will only get a Very Nice Settlement when she marries instead of a Grotesquely Enormous Settlement.

Crowborough eases his disappointment by making out with Thomas the Hot Footman, who'd told him about Mary's possible inheritance in the first place in the hopes of becoming Crowborough's valet and Secret Boyfriend for Ever and Ever. Crowborough tanks Thomas's Secret Gay Wedding plans, and when Thomas makes a clumsy attempt to blackmail him, Crowborough reveals he stole Thomas' cache of ducal love letters during his interlude with Mary and promptly sets them - and Thomas' aching heart - on fire.

And that is when I know that I love Thomas and that he's my favourite character despite that fact that he is a shit. He kept the Duke's love letters! He tied them with ribbon! Poor Thomas.

Meanwhile, after months of O'Brien and Thomas making an ungodly stink below stairs about how incompetent Bates is, Grantham finally hears about it and decides to let Bates go. Bates knows he will likely not be able to find another position after this with his infirmity and he CRIES in his room ALONE. Thankfully, Grantham changes his mind at the last minute and begs Bates to come back. And everyone is happy.

Except for Thomas, because he got dumped.

The Unknown Schmuck:
There's still the plotline that some stranger bitch will be inheriting Downton to get through, and that stranger bitch turns out to be Matthew Crawley, a middle-class lawyer from Manchester.

He finally arrives at Downton with his mother Isobel Crawley and despite being reasonably handsome, is unreasonably oblivious and rude and his poor mother spends practically the rest of the episode apologizing for him.

He and Mary are Destined To Be and we know this because they spend almost as much time catfighting as he spends being Unintentionally Awful to his new butler, Moseley.

And finally the episode ends with Mary learning that Cora and Bad Ass Mutha Violet both want her to consider marrying Matthew to secure her inheritance. Welp.

Oh Snap! Moments:

  • O'Brien kicking out Bates' cane.
  • Bates passive-aggresively offering to let Mary and Crowborough search his room after catching them in the servants' quarters, provoking a guilty Mary to utter the line:
  • "I always apologize when I'm in the wrong - it's a habit of mine."
  • Crowborough's surprisingly thick pelt of chest hair (I'm sure Thomas agrees)
  • When Thomas pokes fun of Moseley's unenviable position of butler to Matthew Crawley, only for Bates to ask him why he tried out for that position first.

Best (Un?)Intentional Gay Pun:
"After all, one swallow doesn't make a summer." Crowborough to Thomas, indicating he was just a fling. Yes, I know this is a legitimate British expression, but coming right on the heels of Crowborough macking on Thomas' face I can't help but wonder if there was a second meaning.

Or maybe I'm just gross.

Other Remarks
One thing I liked about this episode is that Bates is quite the ambiguous character for a while. His Sainthood is fully polished by seasons 2 and 3 but here, at least in this first episode, he's allowed to be an unknown element who could portend good or ill, and the concerns the staff have about his ability to contribute to the team are perfectly reasonable.

Rating: Five Spiteful Cane-Kicks Out of Five!