Friday, March 29, 2013

"Rainbow Boys," by Alex Sanchez

The Protagonists:

Jason: A basketball star with an abusive home life, even though he's dating a girl he can't stop thinking about guys. Does this mean he's gay? Who can he ask?

Kyle: Accepting of his sexuality but still closeted, he can't decide which is harder: coming out to his family, or helping Jason, the love of his life, decide whether he's gay or not.

Nelson: Out and proud (although still bullied), he's in love with Kyle, even though Kyle just wants to be friends. He feels like a third wheel and just wants to find a boyfriend and have hot sex. Is that so hard?

The Secondary Cast:

Debra: Jason's girlfriend, who is less than understanding about Jason's confused sexuality.

Shea: Nelson's lesbian BFF, who grows increasingly tired of listening to Nelson constantly complain.

Jack and Jose: The two school bullies currently on probation for assaulting Nelson.

Angst Checklist:

  • Why do I keep dreaming about hot dudes? I HAVE A GIRLFRIEND.
  • I'm in Love with a Straight Boy
  • I'm In Love With a Boy Who's In Love with a Straight Boy Who Is So Obviously Not Straight
  • Parental Disapproval
  • Condoms and HIV
  • Bullying
  • Homophobia
  • Eating Disorders

The Word: I found a hardcover edition of this book at a library sale and picked it up for one major reason and one minor, rather silly reason.

Major reason: I'd heard a lot about Rainbow Boys and how it was a ground-breaking early YA novel dealing with LGBT teens.

Minor, rather silly reason: That's a teenage Matt Bomer on the cover as Jason!

Originally published in 2001, Rainbow Boys examines the reality of being gay in high school. It begins when popular jock Jason, who's been worrying about his sexuality for a while, comes to a Rainbow Group meeting for gay teens. He chickens out, but not before meeting Kyle (a closeted academic who's been in love with Jason since forever) and Nelson (a flamboyant and openly gay teen who is, unfortunately, in love with the oblivious Kyle).

The novel is more character- and issue-driven than plot driven, but the characters are all so interesting, and the issues are discussed with such humour and honesty, that Rainbow Boys never became boring or  preachy. Jason has to deal with the fact that he might be gay, but who can he ask or talk to about his feelings without everyone finding out? It certainly doesn't help that his father is an alcoholic and homophobic abuser.

Kyle, meanwhile, has accepted the fact that he's gay but has to deal with coming out to his parents. How will his parents react - especially his father, who is continually ragging on him to be more masculine and take up sports, and disapproves of his friendship with the openly gay and effeminate Nelson? As well, Kyle has an enormous crush on Jason and despite wanting to help him with his sexuality, doesn't want to be seen as coming on to him or taking advantage.

Nelson is the only openly gay of the three characters - and has garnered the nickname "Nelly" as a result. I appreciated that Sanchez doesn't make him an object of pity, nor does he make his sexuality the be-all and end-all of his character. Nelson suffers from homophobic bullying, true, but he also nurses an unrequited crush on his BFF Kyle, worries about his body image (resulting in frequent binge eating), and struggles with his feelings for his absentee father.

That being said, the language seemed a shade on the juvenile side - the characters are all seventeen and up, and yet sometimes their thought processes and dialogue seemed more appropriate for thirteen- or fourteen-year-olds. For instance, the characters talk about kissing their pillows or their hands when thinking about their crushes - none of the characters actually masturbate (although masturbation and erections are discussed in dialogue).

This is especially odd since the novel does have sex scenes (two of which involve a character giving or receiving oral sex), that manage to be respectful and accurate without being graphic. It seemed off that a novel willing to explore characters having gay sex (including irresponsible, unprotected sex) seemed unwilling to depict a character doing more than kissing his hand and falling asleep after reading an issue of Honcho magazine.

When it comes down to it, though, Rainbow Boys is a sweet, intelligent, and engaging novel about gay teens that still holds up.

"Rosemary and Rue," by Seanan McGuire

The Protagonist: October "Toby" Daye. A private eye and a Knight in the service of Duke Sylvester of Shadowed Hills in a world where the human and faerie realms intersect. She's trying to rescue his kidnapped wife and daughter when she is captured and turned into a goldfish.
Her Angst: Returned to human form after fourteen years, she lives a miserable, despairing existence separated from the faerie friends she shuns and the human fiancé and daughter who reject her.

The Secondary Cast:

Devin: A former lover who works as a sexually exploitative Fagin to a house of changeling runaways. Toby inexplicably still finds him attractive.

Tybalt: A Cait Sidhe - a powerful faerie who is the King of Cats. He of course "hates" Toby, which means they will be hooking up soon in a couple of books. Take my advice and think of him as played by Matthew Goode.

Connor: A selkie who was Toby's first fumbling teenage love, before he went and married the batpoop insane Rayseline. He still totally wants to hook up with Toby, though. His marriage is only political.

Sylvester: The powerful Duke of Shadowed Hills and Toby's liege. Genuinely cares for Toby, even after she rejects the faerie world.

Luna: Sylvester's awesome wife, who still loves and adores Toby like a daughter despite how Toby failed to rescue her and Rayseline.

Rayseline: Sylvester and Luna's daughter who has been rendered extremely unpleasant and also Batpoop Insane by her kidnapping fourteen years ago. Is married to Connor.

Urban Fantasy Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Smart-Alecky Loner Heroine with a Sad Past
  • 3 Variously Magical Love Interests
  • 14 Years as a Goldfish
  • 1 Estranged Daughter
  • 1 Estranged and now Batpoop Insane Daughter
  • 2 Adorably Street-Tough Orphans
The Word: This review is probably going to be a little unfair.

Why? Because ultimately, I don't like Urban Fantasy. There, I've said it. I've read a few urban fantasy titles over the years, mostly for my work with The Green Man Review, but I never really found myself connecting with any one title. In fact, the only series I remember reading more than one book of was Kelly Armstrong's Women of the Underworld series - and that may have been because I got the first six books for free because I worked for Chapters at the time.

Now, at first I simply thought that I just needed to find the right author, the one with the perfect writing style to suck me in.

I tried Patricia Griggs. I tried Lilith Saintcrow. I tried Karen Marie Moning. I tried Kelly Armstrong. And now I've tried Seanan McGuire.

But the fact of the matter is - the genre is not my cup of tea. Not that it's a bad genre, just that the tropes common to the genre are ones that simply do not connect with me. I find the Smart-Alecky Loner Heroines who are always popping cutesy one-liners boring and interchangeable. I prefer emotional stories with gorgeous language over action-heavy stories with minimalist language. I don't like thrillers or romantic suspense either - for similar reasons. 

And I honestly get annoyed with and exhausted by stories where the heroine is constantly getting hurt and accumulating layers upon layers of injuries until they're one tumble away from a full-body cast by the climax of the book - and they're miraculously fine by the next book because MAGIC. 

So - Rosemary and Rue. It came so highly recommended by a lot of respected sources, but I felt the same way reading as I have every other Urban Fantasy I've tried. Bored. Annoyed. Uninvested.

October "Toby" Daye is a changeling (half faerie, half human) private eye who has an adorable daughter and a loving fiancé and is just TWO DAYS AWAY FROM RETIREMENT so of course she's caught by the two evil faeries she's been tailing and is turned into a goldfish (for reals). 

Fourteen years later, the spell dissolves and she returns to a world where her life, as she's known it, is over. Her fiancé and (now grown) daughter believe she ran out on them and want nothing to do with her. She has no identity and no way to hold down a mortal job. Hurt and despairing, she turns her back on the faerie world and her friends and lieges within it, refusing to deal with the community that ruined her life.

That is, until an old faerie friend of hers, Evening Winterrose, is brutally murdered - but not before leaving Toby a voicemail. Listening to it puts a curse on Toby that forces her to hunt down and discover Evening's killers - with magically fatal consequences if she doesn't comply. 

Props to Seanan McGuire - the worldbuilding for Rosemary and Rue is amazing. I loved the idea of faeries living in the real world and having their own fiefdoms and queendoms and territory wars. The idea of Toby having a liege to report to, and authorities and rituals to kowtow to while doing her job was interesting. 

However, the story itself and the characters within it are less interesting. Toby is rather frighteningly obtuse for a private eye - it takes her the entire book to realize the old flame who pimped and continues to pimp teenage runaways is evil. Shocker, right? And of course we have a bunch of Bad Boy Love interests who leave little to no impact - the Cat King dude is my favourite but we don't see a lot of him, the Seal Boy is a married chump, and as for Devin - oh, right. HE'S A FUCKING PIMP OF TEENAGE RUNAWAYS. And Toby is TOTALLY FINE with that. 

There were good elements - again, the worldbuilding was interesting and I liked some of the secondary characters, but the basic elements of Urban Fantasy were a huge turn off. 

If you're like me and don't care for Urban Fantasy - Rosemary and Rue is not going to change your mind. If you do like Urban Fantasy, you may wish to read another person's reviews and get a second opinion from a reader who appreciates the genre more than I do.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

"Me Before You," by Jojo Moyes

The Protagonist: Louisa Clark. She loses her job as a cafe waitress at the worst possible time - with her father's job in jeopardy and her sister's desire to go back to school, her family needs her income. So she interviews for and miraculously gets a job as a caregiver to a quadriplegic man. Good news, right?
Her Angst: Right - until she finds out her client plans on killing himself in six months and she's been hired to keep him from checking out early. But how she can convince this man not to check out at all?

The Other Protagonist: Will Traynor. He used to be a successful London financier with a penchant for rock climbing, cliff-jumping, and stunt diving - until a motorcycle accident left him unable to move.
His Angst: Now he's trapped in a life he didn't choose, and while he's promised his mother to wait six months before making his decision, he's already made it. Or has he?

Secondary Cast:

Camilla Traynor: Will's wealthy magistrate mother. While outwardly cold and snobbish, she will do anything to improve her son's condition.

Treena Clark: Louisa's younger sister, who was always considered brighter and more successful, until she dropped out of university after getting pregnant. Now hopes to return to school.

Nathan: Will's personal nurse, who sees to Will's more intimate medical needs and helps out Louisa with her plans to save him.

Patrick: Louisa's inattentive, fitness-obsessed longterm boyfriend.

Steven Traymor: Will's philandering father. In love with another woman, but he feels he cannot leave his family while his son is still ill.

The Word: I don't often cry while reading books. I sniffled while reading The Fault In Our Stars and Code Name Verity, but I find I very rarely have extreme emotional reactions while reading books. And yet, I cried while reading Jojo Moyes' novel Me Before You, which I picked up as an ARC at BEA 2012. But the tears were worth it - Me Before You is a stunningly powerful novel packed with warmth, humour, sadness, and light, and one of the best books I've read all year.

The first few chapters of this book seemed so disappointingly predictable. Our protagonist, Louisa Clark, is a feckless 26-year-old screwup with an eccentric taste in clothes who, after losing her job at a cafe, miraculously lands a high-paying six-month contract position as a caregiver to a wealthy quadriplegic man. And of course the quadriplegic man - Will Traynor - is rude and unkempt and Emotionally Walled-Off and Can't See The Good In Life.

While reading this first chapter, I was certain I had this book pegged right up until the very end. Louisa is the Screwball Heroine whose Sweetness and Light will cure Will Traynor of his depression and they'll roll off into the wheelchair-accessible sunset. On top of that, this novel is about a subject that makes me very uncomfortable: assisted suicide. As Louisa discovers early on, Will wants to take his own life but has promised his mother to give it another six months, so Louisa's efforts to work with Will come with a definite deadline.

However, I kept reading, and was rewarded. First of all, the novel does not shy away from the more gruesome details of quadriplegic life. The constant pain and infections, the medical risks, and the innumerable tests and medications and procedures and equipment that are (and will always be) required to maintain the bare minimum standard of life for Will. Will's not just a man in a funk. He is rarely physically comfortable and his entire life as he'd known it is gone forever. The novel does not gloss over his condition and it deals with the issue of whether his life is worth living with respect for both sides of the argument.

Which makes it all the more powerful as Will and Louisa slowly start to connect. Me Before You examines the limitations people have in their lives. For Will, his limitations are physical and immediately obvious. For Louisa, her limitations are mental, emotional, and social. Louisa has low expectations of herself because she comes from an impoverished, lower-class background and believes she's not cut out to enjoy things like classical music, foreign films, or difficult novels, so she's never tried them. Thanks to a traumatic experience in her past, she's also never travelled away from her own village.

Will, formerly an extremely active athlete, world traveller, and businessman, is appalled at how small Louisa's life is. Annoyed by her constant attempts to cheer him up, he challenges her in turn to stray from her comfort zone and try new things. Louisa, very reluctantly, accepts - but only if Will will help her. Watching them both warm up to life again is one of the chief pleasures of this novel.

Moyes' character development is spectacular. Will and Louisa seem so cliched in that first chapter, until the novel examines their environments, their families, their interactions with others. Louisa's family shares this frustrating, loving, cramped, crazy dynamic that feels completely genuine and also explains so much about Louisa's personality. Will could have been a harder character to nail down since the novel is told almost entirely from Louisa's point of view - but he is simply marvellous. He's clever and sarcastic and charming and sexy. He's never turned into a symbol or an object of the plot.

And finally, the writing hits all the right notes in regard to tone. It's clever and cheerful, but not in such a shallow way that it can't convey the novel's more serious periods (and there are quite a few), and it doesn't sacrifice the story's inherent warmth and emotion. This novel kept pulling me along with sharp, insistent tugs - until I found myself finishing the novel at 9:00 pm on a Saturday after spending nearly all day frantically reading it.

Me Before You is a beautifully-written, emotional novel about love, the many forms it comes in, and the unforeseen, circuitous routes it can sometimes take. Read it with a big mug of tea and a box of tissues.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Black Powder War," by Naomi Novik

The Primary Cast:

William Laurence: Captain of the dragon Temeraire and his crew. Tasked by the British Aerial Corps with retrieving three important dragon eggs from the Sultan of Istanbul.

Temeraire: A rare Chinese breed of dragon known as a Celestial. Wants to help Laurence fight Napoleon - and improve the lot of British dragons.

The Secondary Cast:

Granby: Laurence's second-in-command. Used to resent Laurence for gaining a dragon (since he's been waiting years for the potential honour), but now they are fast and loyal comrades.

Lien: The albino Celestial dragon companion to the deceased usurper Prince YongXing. Rendered alone and friendless thanks to her master's death, she'll go to any lengths to obtain revenge against Temeraire and his companions.

Tharkay: An aloof, half-Asian interpreter and guide who is hired by Laurence to safely lead him across the desert to Istanbul. Accustomed to racism, he acts a bit like an untrustworthy asshole to compensate.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

  • 3 Dragon Eggs
  • 1 Vow of Revenge! 
  • 1 Untrustworthy King
  • Several Feral Dragons
  • Hundreds of Stolen Cows

The Word: When we last left stalwart Captain William Laurence and his beloved dragon Temeraire, they had just uncovered and dismantled an insidious plot to overthrow the Emperor of China (the events of Throne of Jade).

Set in an alternate universe where the Napoleonic Wars are fought with dragons, Laurence and Temeraire are eager to return to England to continue their fight against Napoleon's advancing forces. Before they can do so, however, they receive a sudden change of orders demanding they travel to Istanbul to collect three soon-to-hatch dragon eggs the British government has purchased at incredible cost.

After an arduous overland journey through the desert, Temeraire and his crew arrive to discover the Sultan is no longer willing to part with the eggs, claiming the enormous sum of gold sent in payment never arrived. The whole situation is extremely suspicious - especially since the Sultan's newest advisor is none other than Lien, the dragon companion to the disgraced (and now thankfully deceased) usurper prince from Throne of Jade. Lien wants revenge for the death of her prince, and she's willing to side with Napoleon to do it.

The same enjoyable elements of Novik's writing are all here - gorgeously-depicted settings, Regency humour, stellar worldbuilding. That being said, the plotting of Black Powder War was rather uneven. Instead of a focused, overarching plot, the novel takes on a linear, episodic structure as Laurence and Temeraire leap into and out of the various fires and frying pans that lie between China and Britain. While each episode is entertaining in its own way, I might have preferred some central organization as to what this particular novel Was About apart from Temeraire and Laurence Not Dying As Expected.

That being said, the conflict between Temeraire and Laurence about dragons' rights flares up in this novel, leading to some interesting dialogue. In Throne of Jade, Temeraire learned that China allows dragons to choose their own companions and occupations, learn to read, and even own property. Thanks to this, Temeraire is no longer completely satisfied with the British way of running things and anticipates creating great changes in human-dragon relations once he returns to England.

Laurence, while he ultimately agrees with the Chinese treatment of dragons, fears Temeraire's revolutionary expectations are naive and ultimately disruptive to the war effort - but doesn't know how to express this without crushing Temeraire's spirit. I really appreciated how Novik examined both points of view - Temeraire is smart and well-intentioned, but still extremely young and naive. Whereas Laurence, while he is slowly adapting bit by bit, is very much a traditionalist who views social change with suspicion.

When it comes right down to it, Black Powder War is a perfectly enjoyable addition to Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. However, as a stand-alone book in its own right, it lacks a certain focus.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"Teeth," by Hannah Moskowitz

The Protagonist: Rudy. When his parents drag him to a godforsaken island for a miracle cure for his brother, Rudy finds himself (almost) the only teenager on an island of sick people.
His Angst: He does form a bizarre friendship with Teeth, an actual merman who lives by the island - until he discovers Teeth is trying to save the very fish that are keeping his brother healthy.

The Secondary Cast:

Teeth: The result of a horrifying union between a woman and a fish (for reals), he was abandoned in the water and makes his way as best he can. Devotes his life to saving the fish from being taken by the creepy fishermen - even though his quest causes him immeasurable torment and pain.

Dylan: Rudy's little brother, who is slowly recovering on a steady diet of magic fish - but will he ever be well enough to do without them?

Diana Delaney: The only other teenage girl on the island, who is kept housebound by her mother. Loves books. She and Rudy start hanging out.

Ms. Delaney: Diana's cruel and thoughtless mother who keeps her daughter inside - and is the perpetrator of even worse crimes.

Angst Checklist:

  • I'm trapped on an island of misfit toys
  • Rape
  • Child Abandonment
  • Freedom
  • The Price of Health and Longevity
  • Caring for a Sick Loved One
  • The Importance of Family

The Word:
Rudy used to be an only child - then his parents had Dylan. Then Dylan developed cystic fibrosis. Then Dylan started dying.

After exhausting every possible medical resource, Rudy's parents somehow discover a mysterious island that is home to a rare species of fish with miraculous, inexplicable healing properties. Desperate to save Dylan, Rudy's parents uproot them all to live on the island with its strange, reclusive community.

Three months later, Rudy's 5-year-old brother, on a steady diet of the magic fish, is recovering at a miraculous rate, but his condition is too unstable to risk returning to the mainland. Rudy feels trapped, and resentful, and guilty for feeling resentful since the fish is the only thing keeping his brother alive.

Still, Rudy cannot wait until he graduates and can leave the cold, dank, isolated island far behind. He's the only teenager apart from the strange, bookish Diana Delaney, who is kept housebound by her controlling mother.

That is, until Rudy meets a merman - an actual fishboy who's been stalking the island, whose name is Teeth. Teeth's story is not a Disney tale. There are no singing crabs or magic kisses - just an outcast, tormented boy-fish hybrid who considers himself the protector of the magic fish the islanders keep devouring. Teeth constantly battles the fishermen and wants to free the magic fish from being eaten forever.

Strangely enough, a painful, prickly friendship based on mutual loneliness builds between them - even as Rudy feels conflicted about the magic fish. He understands Teeth's desire to protect them, but they're keeping his brother alive. They're helping him get better. What is Rudy supposed to do?

Teeth is a dark, visceral, gripping read about dealing with illness and the cost of miracles. As Rudy discovers,  the island's fishermen get away with horrific crimes against Teeth because they're the only ones who know how to catch the fish. As well, the fish's healing properties only last as long as the sick person keeps eating it - which means sick people who come to the island can never leave. And can never stop eating the fish.

Is a miracle worth it, if obtaining it requires the terrible suffering of another person? Is long life still desirable if it's a long life spent trapped on an isolated, stormy island? Moskowitz's fast-paced, razor-sharp novel touches on all these questions, testing and examining them through the warped lenses of both Teeth's and Rudy's perspectives, while ultimately demonstrating how there are no real answers.

Moskowitz demonstrates a remarkable skill for quick, brilliant character building. Rudy is a terrific, well-realized character - lonely and angry and guilty, he loves his little brother Dylan even as he blames him for having to uproot his whole life. Everything revolves around keeping Dylan alive. Rudy knows he needs to protect Dylan, whatever the cost, but he's still not sure how involved he's supposed to be in his brother's life, and how much of a life Rudy is allowed to have. His interactions with his parents feel bruised and real - they clearly love him, but Dylan's life is always in the balance.

Meanwhile, Teeth is a frustrating, heartbreaking character, wonderfully realized with only a few jagged brushstrokes. Alone, abused, and abandoned thanks to monstrously selfish people who should have protected him, he's built his own family, and his own identity as their stalwart protector.

The worldbuilding is functionally minimalist, and extremely effective. I normally don't like minimalist worldbuilding, but it works for this novel - Moskowitz creates a believable island community, but one that is essentially cut off from the rest of the realistic world, the world of governments and rules and taxes. It's like being in a fairy tale, only it's an entire island community that is asleep, oblivious to its own selfish, ignorant dependence.

I raced through this book in mere days, desperate to learn more about Teeth, more about Rudy and Dylan, and how it would end, even as it hurt. In the original Little Mermaid story, every human step the mermaid took was said to have felt as if she stepped on knives - and yet she learned how to dance in order to please the prince. That is how I felt reading Teeth - even though every page hurt, even though every chapter brought more heartbreak, it just kept me reading faster and faster. This was my first Moskowitz novel, but it won't be my last.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Follow My Lead," by Kate Noble

The Chick: Winnifred Crane. A noted scholar, she published many well-received works under a male pseudonym, and hopes that revealing her secret will grant her membership to the Royal Historical Society.
The Rub: No one believes her claims of genius - so naturally going on an ill-planned, hair-brained wild goose chase will convince them!
Dream Casting: Laura Carmichael.

The Dude: Jason Cummings, Duke of Rayne. His life is all perfectly planned as a responsible duke. Now all he needs is a wife.
The Rub: Nothing like having to babysit a Mad Scholarly Heroine to remind one of how important responsibility is!
Dream Casting: Eddie Redmayne.

The Plot: 

Jason: Here I am, just minding my own business. I can't wait to live my perfectly ordinary, uninterrupted life!


The Historical Society: Pics or it didn't happen.


Society: Deal! Jason, make sure she doesn't kill herself.

Jason: Sure, but she seems like a perfectly ordinary person to me -


Jason: By yourself? ARE YOU CRAZY?


Jason: You are a moron - and I am inexplicably turned on by that! Let's go!


Jason: What?


Jason: Now hold on just a minu--


Jason: OMG, woman, will you slow the fuck down--


Jason: Well, okay --


Jason: You're kind of a sociopath.


Jason: Nothing. Oh look, it's your cousin George.

George: 'Sup. I'm evil now. *is defeated*

Jason: I'm going to nobly step out of your life now, so you won't lose your independence.


Jason: Wait, what? No! That was a bluff! You were supposed to realize you loved me all along!


Jason: So you are a sociopath.


Jason: True. Let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 TSTL Heroine
  • 1 Red-Headed Hero! 
  • 1 Awful Cousin
  • 1 Drunk Aunt
  • 1 Nervous Tick (Locket-Pulling)
  • 1 Inconveniently Deceased Parent
  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 3 Gold-Digging Ho's

The Word: Have you ever read one book that is just so glorious and amazing, that you keep reading the author's newer books, even as none of them quite manage to measure up?

Follow My Lead, as it turns out, is this sort of disappointing book. Its hero, Jason Cummings, Duke of Rayne, was a royal Asshat in the previous novel. Fortunately, five years hence, he has matured considerably into a responsible chap who is still somewhat uncertain about his future prospects beyond Being Dukely and Marrying a Sensible Girl.

While on the way to the Royal Historical Society (of which he is a member), Jason literally runs into our heroine, Winnifred Crane, who is also determined to enter the Society's hallowed halls and claim membership, on the basis that she is the author of a series of brilliantly-received historical papers written underneath a male pseudonym.

When her controlling cousin George influences the Society against her, she makes a wager with the Society and her cousin involving her ability to prove the provenance of one of the Society's famous paintings by travelling to Switzerland. Jason is asked by Lord Forrester, the President of the Society, to escort Winnifred to her ship to Calais to ensure that no one tries to sabotage her before she leaves England. The errand goes smoothly - until Jason spots Winnifred abandoning her cousin and her chaperone to board a different boat. He boards the ship to find out what's going on,  is bonked on the head by an overenthusiastic sailor, and wakes up on a ship bound for Germany instead.

As it turns out, Winn's letters of proof are actually in Nuremberg - she just told everyone they were in Switzerland in order to throw off pursuit. Jason is understandably outraged at Winn's deception and utter foolishness - but some part of him still feels an irresistible urge to protect her and see her wager through to the end. And so begins their roadtrip romance.

So, here is my MAIN problem with this story - it's a Baby's Day Out Romance. As explained in my review of Ravishing in Red, a Baby's Day Out Romance is when an infantalized and ignorant heroine is released from her bubble and inflicted upon the Real World, and our hero spends the entire book frantically following her to keep her from killing herself out of sheer stupidity.

Winn is that infantalized and ignorant heroine. Don't believe me? Let me list the ways:
  • She is continually described as a "little sparrow" because of her comically petite stature
  • The speech tags most associated with her dialogue are "squeaked" and "huffed"
  • She intended to go to Germany, BY HERSELF, knowing only written Renaissance German
  • She believes herself immune to Social Ruin, Rape, Exploitation, or any of the possible consequences of travelling female and alone in 19th century Europe because she's reached the haggard old age of Thirty
  • Is partly in this mess because she's spent fifteen years being too much of a ninny to tell her cousin George she doesn't want to marry him
  • In protecting her, the hero receives a concussion, is robbed of his money, is effectively abducted, gets punched in the gut, nearly starves, nearly freezes to death, and contracts dysentery. I'm dead serious.
Our entirely unsympathetic, blithering idiot heroine larks about Europe, determined to "have an adventure" after spending thirty years in a library - but her "adventures" involve making Ridiculously Stupid Decisions (like fleeing one city with neither their money nor their luggage) that the hero has to clean up after. She's also disturbingly cold, oblivious, and selfish - she cannot comprehend that her actions have consequences for other people, and fails to comprehend the feelings of others. For example, Jason is kidnapped, assaulted, and robbed because of her deception with the boat, and Winn whines about how he fails to see "her side" of the situation. 

I appreciate the attempt to depict an unconventional Regency setting (Germany and Austria), and the plot itself is interesting (if a little top-heavy and complicated) - but when the plot revolves around the heroine being a Complete Moron that the Wise, Exasperated Hero has to babysit, I lose all interest.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Epistolary Identities and Perspective: Similarities between "Gone Girl" and "Code Name Verity"

HOLD UP. Before you starting reading this essay, I need to warn you that the post contains extremely detailed and important spoilers for both Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Both these novels are excellent, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend you read them first before reading this commentary. Believe me, the joy of surprise is pretty important to how you read these novels (at least for the first time). If you've already read them, or don't care, read on. But you've been warned. 

In terms of actual story and tone, Gone Girl and Code Name Verity couldn't be more different. Gone Girl is a twisted, contemporary thriller about a truly disturbed married couple. Code Name Verity is a heart-tugging historical YA about a unique friendship between a lower-class pilot and an upper-class spy.

However, the plots of both novels depend on the use of epistolary narratives and the manipulation of perspective to fuel the element of surprise and the theme of identity.

In fact, their narrative structures are nearly identical. The first halves of Gone Girl and Verity rely on the epistolary narratives of one of the protagonists - with Girl it's Amy's diary and with Verity it's the story Queenie writes down for her Nazi interrogators.

Both of these written narratives are intrinsic to the reader's perception of the protagonists' identities. The first words Queenie writes are, "I am a coward." Her narrative, despite the occasional sharp jab of gallows humour, is fraught with guilt, fear, and shame. She is a collaborator, after all. The other tortured prisoners mock and spit on her as a traitor, for trading her eleven wireless codes for the return of her clothes and a warm blanket.

Throughout the first half of Verity, the reader has to reconcile Queenie's personal account of her daring escapades with the cowardly result. For all her cheeky wit and ambition, when faced with real conflict, with real torture, Queenie cannot measure up. Through Queenie's writings, we see a reckless girl who is, at heart, unprepared for the true darkness of war.

In Gone Girl, Amy's innocence and naiveté in the face of a darker world also come through in her writings. Her diary entries detail her headlong tumble into love with her husband Nick, as well as her struggle to maintain her optimism as lay-offs, financial troubles and relocations strain their marriage and turn Nick into a stranger. She just wants to make her husband happy. She just wants them to be a family again. So why is Nick suddenly becoming violent with her?

However, the second halves of the novels both focus on the deconstruction of these initial narratives - as well as the false identities they create. Oddly enough, both novels achieve this with the introduction of the perspective of a believed-dead character who turns out to still be alive. In Gone Girl, we realize Amy has faked her own death in order to frame her husband. In Code Name Verity, we discover Queenie's best friend Maddie survived the plane crash that brought them both to France, and is aiding the French Resistance.

These sudden changes in perspective pose an important question: who were these initial epistolary narratives written for? Initially, we're to believe they're for the protagonists themselves, for their own mental survival and well-being.

However, the second parts of these novels indicate otherwise. As a not-dead Amy reveals in Gone Girl's second half, her entire diary is a ruse, meticulously researched to correspond with important dates, and left in a place where the police can easily find it. Brilliant, sociopathic Amy intentionally uses the social construct of diary writings to create an irrefutable condemnation of her husband - after all, why would Amy lie in her own diary? No one else is supposed to read it!

Amy's mere existence reveals the lie behind her epistolary identity. She's not the naive, optimistic, sheltered victim with an abusive husband as depicted in her diary - instead, she's a monstrously vindictive genius with both the will and the intelligence to punish those who scorn her in truly horrifying ways.

The second half of Code Name Verity is a little more uplifting - well, okay, not uplifting. Queenie dies, after all - and at Maddie's hand, to protect her from being maimed and dragged off to a concentration camp for experimentation. However, after Queenie's death, Maddie gets her hands on her written confession.

Only then do we discover Queenie's true identity - that of Lady Julia Beaufort-Stewart, or "Julie," as Maddie calls her. Just as Amy's diary was an intentional construction intended to fool the police, so was Queenie's "cowardly" confession intended to fool the Gestapo, delay her execution, and help the Allies. Those eleven wireless codes she gave up in return for a sweater and a blanket? Fake. The names and locations of the airfields in her reminiscences? Made-up and incorrect. Those weird lined passages and strange combinations of letters and numbers at the start of every chapter? Codes allowing the Resistance to sneak past Nazi security and take over the prison.

This reveal is the essential emotional gut-punch behind Code Name Verity - that Lady Julia Beaufort-Stewart is the absolute opposite of a coward. She not only sacrifices her freedom, her physical comfort, and ultimately her life for the cause - but also her integrity, by creating such a convincing epistolary identity of a weak, cowardly collaborator that even her fellow prisoners mistreat her. She preys on the Nazis' belief that women are too delicate for true warfare, while remaining utterly true to herself and her country until the very end.

The subtext beneath Queenie's confession is also extremely poignant - for the Nazis, she frames her narrative with her "cowardly" intention to stay alive. However, once Maddie reads through her confession with new eyes, she (and the reader) recognize through Julie's use of metaphor, symbolism, and tone that Julie did not and probably never intended to survive the ordeal. While the military information she provides is worthless, her depictions of her friendship with Maddie are true, and the paradigm shift is truly tearjerking. Her retelling of the best years of her life were not written for her own comfort - but for the comfort of those she knew would be reading this confession after her death.

It truly is fascinating how two very different novels use the same narrative device and story structure to tell two very different stories.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

"Code Name Verity," by Elizabeth Wein

The Protagonists:

Lady Julia Lindsay MacKenzie Wallace Beaufort-Stewart: A young, pretty Special Operations Officer who is captured by the Nazis after landing in France. Under threat of torture, her hand-written confession forms the basis of the novel.

Maddie Brodatt: A young woman from Northern England and an aspiring pilot who helps ferry planes for the war effort - and people as well. She befriends Julie and winds up flying her for some of her missions - including her top-secret one to France.

Secondary Cast:

Jamie Beaufort-Stewart: Julie's brother, who becomes a pilot for Special Operations even after losing most of his fingers and all of his toes after being shot down.

Anna Engel: The secretary to the Nazi interrogators who supervises Julie's confession.

Von Linden: The head Gestapo interrogator who tortures Julie into confessing even as he becomes curiously invested in the incredibly personal tales she relates.

Angst Checklist:

  • Captured by the Nazis
  • Feminism
  • Um, Nazis?
  • Personal Culpability in a Combat Situation
  • Helloooo, Nazis!
  • The Power of Friendship
  • Did I mention NAZIS?
  • The Definition of Courage

The Word:

The novel opens on the bleakest of situations: our first protagonist, captured as an Allied spy, is sitting at a table in a Gestapo prison in Nazi-occupied France. She has already had to endure horrific tortures at the hands of her Nazi interrogators, and in order to stave off further torture, has finally agreed to relinquish her secrets.

But she will be doing it in the manner of her choosing - as a written narrative, penned in her own hand.

Surprisingly, she doesn't begin with her own story, that of the foul-mouthed aristocratic genius with a gift for languages and dramatic flare - but the story of her best friend (and the novel's second protagonist) Maddie, a working-class Jewish pilot who joins the British war effort to realize her dream of flying planes. If not for the war itself, these two girls, from two radically different backgrounds, would never have met, much less become best friends.

The genius of Code Name Verity comes from the number of levels the narrative operates under. On one level, we experience the burgeoning friendship of Maddie and the protagonist (nicknamed "Queenie") amid the stress, struggle, and camaraderie of the war effort. Even as their careers take increasingly disparate paths (Queenie joins Special Operations, Maddie becomes a pilot for secret missions), they share this staunch, unbreakable human connection.

However, the narrative never lets us forget that Queenie is writing all of this under duress, and is betraying her country in doing so in order to prolong her life by a few more days. At the same time, she also knows her death is inevitable so her narrative is a last chance to have her voice heard and her existence acknowledged - even as she is giving up the names and locations of airfields, she's couching them in situations and memories that are dear to her. It's fascinating stuff.

Structurally, Code Name Verity reminded me a lot of Gone Girl in its use of perspective, point of view, and Queenie's text within a text, and how much stories change when the point of view changes - and this is where the novel's true genius lies. The story itself is interesting and full of historical detail, with some excellent characterization and development between our two heroines. However, while reading this first half of the novel, I started feeling worried because it wasn't living up to the hype. I mean, it was a solid and enjoyable story, but it wasn't Life-Changingly Amazing.

However, slightly past the halfway mark, Wein flips the narrative rug out from under us, and honestly, the surprise and the joy of discovery are so sweet and so integral to the enjoyment of this novel (as least as a first-time reader), that even I won't spoil it, and I SPOIL EVERYTHING. Suffice it to say, both parts of the novel come together to form a brilliantly constructed and beautiful picture of bravery, cowardice, suffering, joy, and friendship.

If you're a WWII buff - particularly in regards to the airplanes and their pilots - read this book.

If you love YA novels with strong, fascinatingly developed female characters - read this book (and if you don't - get the hell off my blog).

If you love clever plotting, epistolary narratives and well-laid surprises - read this book.

If you love crying in a fetal position because your heart has been torn out - um, good for you. You should also read this book. Even if you don't love that, you should read this book, because the first three points I made totally make up for this last crying-ball one. Believe me. This is an excellent novel that combines cerebral, intelligent plotting with aching emotional resonance.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

"The Last Hellion," by Loretta Chase

The Chick: Lydia Grenville. A successful journalist, she's pursuing a story against a notorious pimp - all the while secretly writing a popular romance serial.
The Rub: When a boorish aristocrat interferes in her investigation - and continues interfering - she has trouble reconciling her growing feelings for him with her desire to remain independent.
Dream Casting: Scarlett Johansson.

The Dude: Vere Mallory, Duke of Ainswood. Acquiring the dukedom only after the deaths of nearly all of his male relatives, Vere refuses to handle his ill-gotten responsibilities and devotes himself to debauchery and indulgence.
The Rub: When a girl punches him in the face, he decides to follow her around in order to get back at her ... yeah, that's it... not because he's starting to like her or anything...
Dream Casting: Jared Padalecki.

The Plot:

Vere: OMFG, every dude in my family is dead and now I'm a Duke! Obviously I must drink and debauch my pain away!

Lydia: Oh no! An evil procuress is ruining the lives of prostitutes in London and no one cares! Obviously I must pursue her and write a scathing inditement of her in my paper!

Vere: Oh look, a woman driving recklessly! Hello little lady, allow me to mansplain why getting into an argument with a lady-pimp in a slum by yourself is bad idea...



Vere: My mansplaining powers have failed me! Why?! I know! I'll keep popping up in her life and bothering her with my devil-may-care hotness!

Lydia: Yeah right, like that'll work....

Vere: Bother bother bother bother! *shirt is slightly unbuttoned* Bother bother!


Vere and Lydia: *make out*

Vere and Lydia: Wow! I liked that way more than is probably good for me!

Vere and Lydia: Hey! That's my line!

Lydia: Let me deflect this sexual tension with the asinine idea of a horse race for my hand in marriage!

Vere: *gets hurt*


Vere: Yay!

Lydia: Now let's clean up that house of yours! And deal with your grief issues! And rescue your wards!

Vere: ....less yay.

Lydia: *literally does everything* Now we can be happy!

Vere: Well that was easy! HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • Too Many Dead Male Relatives
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)
  • 2 Foolish Wards
  • 1 Loud, Slobbery Dog
  • 1 Ill-Thought-Out Horse Race
  • 1 Buttcheek Birthmark
  • 1 Secondary Romance 
  • 2 Prequel Bait Characters (Dain and Jessica)
  • 1 Surprise Papa Drama

The Word: The best cure for a jaded romance reader is Loretta Chase.

I, much like our hero Vere, had become rather cynical of late, especially in regards to romance novels. The last couple of romance novels I'd read had been silly, stupid, and shallow by turns, to the point where I was wondering why I bothered with the genre at all outside of a few trusted authors. As it turns out, I just needed to pick up that One Special Novel to revive my love of the genre.

Vere is, indeed, the Last Hellion of the vaunted Mallory family. Born to the fourth son of the Duke of Ainsworth, Vere finds himself with the ducal coronet after a decade of family tragedies swamps the male members of the line - finally culminating in the death of Vere's beloved nine-year-old cousin, Robin. Losing Robin is the straw that breaks this angsty camel's back, and he flees to pursue a life of indulgence and debauchery, convinced that he, too, will inevitably succumb to the Mallory curse.

Meanwhile, our heroine Lydia Grenville is pursuing a brilliant career as a successful journalist - using her wit, her gumption, and her pen, she crusades of behalf of the city's poor and downtrodden, and seeks justice for those who would exploit them. Chief among those is Coralee Brees, a notoriously violent procuress. When Lydia spots Coralee abducting a young woman off the streets, Lydia leaps into pursuit - nearly running Vere and another bystander over.

Vere interrupts the inevitable confrontation in his boorish way and attempts to silence the furious Lydia with a kiss. Lydia responds with a surprising uppercut that sends Vere ass over teakettle.

Vere is both intrigued and outraged - as news of his hilarious defeat at the hands of a woman spreads all over town, he decides to pursue Lydia with the intention of humiliating her in kind and recovering his manly reputation. Lydia is none-too-pleased by this sexist pig's attempts to insinuate himself into her investigations, but neither of them count on the instant attraction that flares up between them.

Loretta Chase proves that, so long as one uses deft plotting and expert characterization, even such disparate elements as a self-indulgent misogynist hero, a career woman heroine, pimps, runaways, secret butt birthmarks, and horse races can all come together in a deliciously enjoyable novel.

Yes, our hero is a dyed-in-the-wool womanhater, convinced that females can never strive for true equality with man - but with Chase's characterization, Vere's road to enlightenment is thoroughly entertaining. Ten long years of constant grief have taken their toll on him and he sees no point in caring about the future - until he starts caring about Lydia's. As his motivations morph from trying to best her, to trying to protect her from her own fool actions, to protecting himself from the feelings she elicits, Vere grows and changes in a wonderful and believable way.

However, as a character, he still pales in comparison to Lydia. What a fantastic heroine! A righteous journalist who, despite being a woman, is not only successful in her field but respected by her peers in said field and is financially independent due to her own efforts. Who is not afraid to get her hands dirty and knows how to defend herself. While there were a few moments in the novel (particularly towards the end) that veered dangerously close to TSTL territory, Lydia consistently proves herself to be ferociously competent at nearly every endeavour she set her sights on.

While attracted to Vere (rather in spite of herself), Lydia refuses to give in to temptation because doing so would jeopardize everything she's worked so hard for. Yet as she and Vere continue to meet and clash, she finds it harder and harder to convince herself that he's as selfish and jaded as he puts out - as does Vere, who begins to realize that ignored responsibilities have a way of coming back to bite you on the ass.

While Vere and Lydia get into some enjoyable spats, Chase populates the cast with some solid secondary characters, many of whom are recurring. Dain, the Lord of Scoundrels himself, plays a major  role without succumbing to the saccharine tendencies of most Prequel Bait characters. Bertie Trent - Dain's imbecile of a brother-in-law - also makes an appearance and, in an astounding turn of events, redeems himself as a character and winds up in a secondary romance, to boot!

Honestly, nearly everything about this novel works - the pacing, the characterization, the utilization of secondary characters and backstory. I had a bit of a niggle about the villainess, Coralee Brees - sometimes it felt as if the author couldn't decide how much to play up her villainy. One moment, she'll be described as this mastermind madam who's never been caught, who cuts up her victims' faces and throws them in the river - and the next she's depicted as being too stupid and simple-minded to hatch a truly diabolical revenge scheme. Sometimes it seemed as if the story wanted to portray her as a legitimate threat but not so much of a threat that the protagonists wouldn't be able to defeat her easily, and it just came across as inconsistent.

The novel also shoehorns in a wholly unnecessary Surprise Papa Drama subplot at the end, and that plus the depiction of the villainess dips this novel just below an A+ grade. It didn't really contribute anything to the story and it just seemed to bloat the novel past the already-satisfactory ending.

Otherwise, though, The Last Hellion is an excellent and entertaining romance with one of the strongest, most competent historical heroines I've come across. I definitely recommend it.

The Weekly Wanting (23)

I've been a little behind in my Weekly Wantings. Don't know why - just haven't found my books that catch my interest. Thankfully, this week we have two.

After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story, by Michael Hainey
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Cover Snark: Instagram'd book covers need to stop.
The Story: When the author was six, his journalist father died - apparently of a heart attack. However, as an adult, the author discovers the details of his dad's death don't hold up, and he goes on a journey to find out what really happened.
Why I Want It? There was a two-page spread about it in Entertainment Weekly, and it just sounded so incredibly fascinating - as the author examines not just his father's life as a journalist, but also his mother's life and how she recovered from the tragedy to raise her sons alone. 

Genre: Non-Fiction
Cover Snark: Choke on this apple, mofos! 
The Story: Snow White. As a bad-ass Western. 
Why I Want It? See above. See, also: Why Catherine M. Valente is fucking awesome at everything.

What books are you eagerly wanting this week?