Sunday, April 28, 2013

"The Mockingbirds," by Daisy Whitney

The Protagonist: Alex Patrick. When she wakes up in a stranger's dorm with no memory of what happened, she realizes she was too drunk to give consent.
Her Angst: Her school, Themis Academy, is infamous for being more focused on how their students appear decent than actually ensuring that they are, so who can she turn to for justice?

Secondary Characters:

T.S.: Alex's best friend and roommate. Is Awesome. Stands up for Alex and insists she seek justice for what happened to her.

Casey: Alex's older sister, now in college. Also Awesome. She founded the Mockingbirds back when she was at Themis to help students that the faculty ignored.

Maia: Alex's other friend, and a fierce debater. Serves as Alex's student advocate in her Mockingbird trial against her attacker.

Amy: The current leader of the Mockingbirds.

Martin: A member of the Mockingbirds, and a friend of Alex's. Although he wants to be something more, it's against the rules for a member of the Mockingbirds to get involved with someone whose case is ongoing.

Angst Checklist:
  • Date Rape
  • Vigilante Justice
  • Victim Blaming
  • Ineffective School Discipline
  • Homophobia
  • Conflicts of Interest
  • Awesome Girl Friends
The Word: I was clued into this book while reading a post over at Stacked about YA novels about rape and sexual assault. The premise of the Mockingbirds drew me - a girl who is date-raped at an elite prep school seeks restitution with the help of a Secret Society of Student Justice. It made me think of The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks. It made me think of Veronica Mars. Plus, with the Steubenville scandal still over our heads it seemed like a pretty relevant story.

However, it wound up being a bit of a let down.

Piano prodigy and high school sophomore Alex Patrick wakes up with a killer hangover in the dorm of a boy she doesn't know with no memory of what happened and two condom wrappers in the garbage bin. Sick and ashamed of herself for apparently acting like such a slut, she can barely bring herself to divulge the details to her best friend T.S. and her older sister Casey. Thankfully, T.S. and Casey are Smart Awesome Ladies who realize that Alex likely didn't consent to her impromptu deflowering - and Alex's slowly returning memories confirm this.

But what can she do? Discipline at her elite boarding school, Themis Academy, is a joke - no one's willing to jeopardize the school's reputation by even acknowledging that its students are capable of wrongdoing, and Alex refuses to go to the police or tell her parents. That's when Casey suggests that Alex go to the Mockingbirds.

Themis Academy's open secret, the Mockingbirds are the school's undercover law enforcers who punish the crimes that the faculty pretends don't happen. Unfortunately, what sounded like a bad-ass secret society of vengeful smart-alecks on paper is more boring in execution - the Mockingbirds are more like Law And Order: Teen Court. They serve papers. They determine court hearings. They have three separate but equal branches. 

And you'll figure it all out as you read it, because all the Mockingbirds take an incredibly long time laying out their entire organization in meticulously dull detail. I realize vigilante justice isn't a healthy or admirable thing in the real world - but the Mockingbirds go to such extreme and unsolicited lengths to show Alex and the reader that they have checks and balances and regulations that all the excitement about the story quickly shrivels up and dies. The Mockingbirds spend more time explaining what they do than actually doing things

And even with the Mockingbirds' excruciatingly detailed system, they harbour a lot of skewed perspectives on justice. For example, before she joined, one of the Mockingbirds was held down while a girl tried to carve the word "Queer" onto her back with a knife. She went to the Mockingbirds, who gave her attacker a trial that didn't actually result in anything since her attacker graduated days later. When asked why she didn't go to the cops, she said the trial had already made her point.

Except now a psychotic homophobic bigot with an Exacto knife went off to college consequence-free to harass and attack more people because her victim would rather "make a point" with a silly school-trial. Um, nice job? 

And when it all comes down to it, the Mockingbirds really aren't that relevant to the story. The actual story is how Alex recovers from her rape and learns to enjoy music and boys again, and the Mockingbirds themselves have little to do with that. Their only real contributions to the story are a channel through which Alex can "press charges" against her rapist without her parents finding out, and some mild romantic conflict as one of the Mockingbirds, a science geek named Martin, develops feelings for Alex but technically isn't allowed to put the moves on her while her case is ongoing. 

The novel shines when it focuses on Alex's trauma and recovery. Some people think of date-rape as "diet rape" or "not rape-rape," but Alex suffers immensely from her assault - she rearranges her whole schedule to avoid her rapist at school, and loses weight because she can't even sit in the same cafeteria with him. Her fears come to a head in a chillingly effective scene when she's forced to re-enact a rape scene from a play in class, a scene that also demonstrates the school's oblivious inability to discipline its students. 

Ultimately, though, The Mockingbirds was a bit of a drag. Over-justified, over-explained, the Mockingbirds are little more than a distracting and tedious gimmick intruding on a genuine story of recovering from assault.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

"The Lies of Locke Lamora," by Scott Lynch

The Main Cast:

Locke Lamora: An orphan with a mysterious past, he possesses a brilliant intelligence and a near-supernatural ability to cause mischief. Now the leader of the Gentlemen Bastards, he uses his skills to fleece the aristocracy of their misused wealth.

Jean Tannen: The son of wealthy merchants who perished in a fire, he was recruited into the Gentlemen Bastards for his prodigious, instinctive fighting ability. Now Locke's right-hand man, he fights for the Bastards with a pair of hand-axes known as the Wicked Sisters.

The Secondary Cast:

Calo and Galdo Sanza: Twin brothers who serve as wingmen in Locke's schemes. Recruited by Father Chains, they helped train Locke and Jean in the ways of the Bastards.

Bug: The Gentlemen Bastards' current apprentice, recruited by Locke. What he lacks in impulse control he makes up for in resourcefulness.

Father Chains: A priest of the (possibly heretical) god of thieves - and the founder of the Gentlemen Bastards. He recruits orphans with special talent to train and educate them to be the best thieves the world has ever known.

Don and Dona Salvara: An immensely rich aristocratic couple who are targeted by the Gentlemen Bastards for their con game.

Capa Barsavi: Camorr's King of Thieves. He united all of Camorr's criminals under one banner and established the Secret Peace with the city's Duke: so long as no one robs the aristocracy or the Duke's law enforcement, the Capa and his thieves are free to pilfer from the merchant and middle classes beneath the Duke's blind eye and lax hand. Of course, this means Locke and his Bastards have to be especially careful the Capa never finds out about their plots.

The Grey King: A mysterious figure with possibly magical powers who has returned to wreak vengeance upon Capa Barsavi for an unknown insult - and he's willing to use force to obtain Locke's assistance.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Evil Mage
  • 1 Magical Animal Familiar
  • Several Orphans with Mysterious Pasts
  • 1 Really Awesome Cake
  • 1 Garden of Magical Blood-Drinking Glass Flowers (for reals)
  • Several Fake Moustaches
  • Several Hungry Sharks
  • 1 Duplicitous Priest

The Word: What I particularly loved about reading Lies of Locke Lamora is that it uses traditional high fantasy storytelling (which I already enjoy) to tell an unorthodox tale in a slightly skewed setting. Camorr, the city-state that Locke and his clan call home, is not based on Medieval England, but rather Venice - with its canals and its slums and its beautiful spires.

Moreover, this novel has no quests to complete or powerful magical artefacts to obtain or epic wars to fight. Instead, The Lies of Locke Lamora uses repeated flashbacks and character detail to create the story of a brilliant con.

Locke Lamora and his gang, the Gentlemen Bastards, are the best con artists Camorr has ever seen but is too embarrassed to speak of. They are so good, they repeatedly steal enormous sums from wealthy nobles despite a Secret Peace between the authorities and the Capa (king of thieves) that forbids them from robbing the aristocracy. As well, they also have to convince the Capa and their fellow gangs that they are just a humble street band that can barely steal enough to make ends meet.

At the beginning of the novel, Locke and his conspirators set out to cheat a wealthy aristocratic couple out of tens of thousands of gold crowns with an intricately-constructed lie involving foreign wars, expensive brandy, and a lucrative smuggling operation. Locke's plans are knocked awry when the Grey King, a mysterious interloper with powerful magic and designs upon the current Capa's position, decides to "recruit" Locke into his own schemes, consent-optional. Somehow, Locke has to balance his obligations to his Capa, keep the Grey King at bay, and maintain his current con without getting caught or killed.

On top of all that, Lynch braids the present drama with frequent and in-depth flashbacks into the Gentlemen Bastards' origins - how these orphaned children became, with the help of a resourceful and duplicitous priest, the cleverest, best educated, most experienced, and luckiest band of ne'er-do-wells Camorr has ever seen.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is pure pleasure from beginning to end. You want your doorstopper fantasy with amazingly detailed settings and cultures? You've got it - and all of it conveyed organically (and addictively) through the story itself instead of in infodumps. You want your fiendishly clever Oceans 11-style con artist adventures? It's all here - disguises, set-ups, fake accents, misdirection and gloriously improvised malarkey. You want your detailed, damaged characters with intricate backstories? Done - the story breaks for several interludes into the characters' pasts as they learn their trade, and each interlude always carries some relevance to the larger story so that it never feels like it's distracting from the main narrative. Witty dialogue? In spades - as long you don't mind it heavily-laced with expletives (which I don't!).

The Lies of Locke Lamora is an enormous novel, bursting at the seams with detail and dialogue and adventure. While it can take a while to work up to the actual plot line, much like how I felt about the similarly-doorstop-sized Diviners, not a single page feels wasted.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x04: I See London, I See France, I See Ethel's Lack of Underpants!

This fourth episode of Downton Abbey opens on a note of special deliciousness - Isobel Crawley arrives late at Downton to discover that everyone, upstairs and down, has rearranged the hospital schedule to include everyone Except For Her. Isobel, who spent all of last episode Drunk With Power, doesn't take it well, to say the least, and confronts Cora to unleash a torrent of Passive Aggressive Classist Whining ("I suppose I can't call you unprofessional since you've never held a profession in your life!").

Cora, delightfully empowered, responds thusly:

Isobel, now simply Hungover With Power, stamps her foot and actually threatens to join the Red Cross efforts in France if she isn't "better valued."


Don't let the hand-crafted 18th-century heirloom doorknobs hit you in the ass on the way out! Isobel huffily leaves for France, hoping French people respond better to Obnoxious Guilt-Tripping.

Isobel's departure is a relief, but unfortunately, we still have Irish Socialist Chauffeur Branson - who has inexplicably retained his position after attempting to throw liquid garbage on a general last episode. Apparently he Super-Dooper-Pinkie-Promised Carson he'd never try any sort of protest again. Sybil, despite spending the entire last episode pleading with Branson Not To Do Anything Stupid for Irish Freedom, is suddenly annoyed that Branson will no longer be performing increasingly horrible and self-righteous stunts. Perhaps she's realized that without his Irish Socialism, he's just a chauffeur with an attitude problem.

Branson, however, swears to Sybil that he won't leave Downton until she agrees to run off with him. Unfortunately, Mary partially overhears part of this conversation and she and Sybil get into a Tiff over it - although Mary ultimately promises not to tell anyone so long as Sybil promises not to do anything stupid. Which isn't really a promise at all, since Sybil promising not to be stupid is like Bad-Ass Mutha Violet promising to mind her own damn business. It ain't happening. 

Mary's got other problems, however - as she relates to Grantham, Richard Carlisle proposed and she intends to accept. Yes, he totes tried to blackmail Roses In Her Cheeks Lavinia, but it's a hard world and he's got lots of money so - m'eh. Gratham, along with Literally Everyone Else On the Show, still ships Mary+Matthew and insists that Mary write to Matthew to tell him the "good news."

Matthew gets this "good news" at exactly the wrong time, right when he and William have to go on patrol. They promptly run into some German soldiers and are declared Missing In Action. Nice job, Mary! 

Grantham receives a telephone call with the news, but decides not to share it with anyone except for Edith because he doesn't want to panic the household until they have better information, temporarily forgetting what show he's on. Indeed, the entire downstairs knew about Matthew and William's MIA status before the phone even rang. Get with the times, Grantham! 

Still, things are looking pretty grim - so why not some better news? Mrs. Hughes catches Ethel and Major Bryant boning in a spare room and fires Ethel on the spot! Hooray!

Meanwhile, Thomas receives a letter telling him that Bates is working at the Red Lion Inn, and makes the mistake of repeating said news to O'Brien out loud and in a public space - it takes all of five seconds for the news to go from Daisy to Mrs. Hughes to Carson to Grantham. Grantham heads out to the Red Lion himself and apologizes to Bates for the harsh way they parted ways, and asks Bates to return to Downton. Bates accepts. 

Sybil tells Branson about her conversation with Mary, and Branson proceeds to act like the Completely Selfish Asshole we all know him to be. He tells Sybil that she's in love with him (gee, thanks for clearing that up!), that her family shouldn't be more important to her than he is (because he stands for Irish Socialism, obvs), and takes a big smelly dump on her choice of nursing career ("serving drinks for randy soldiers"). I wish Mary had wound up overhearing this conversation too because I'm sure nothing would have gotten him Actually Fired faster.

Minor Subplot Roundup:

  • Mrs. Bird, Mrs Patmore, and Daisy start a soup kitchen for homeless soldiers until O'Brien rats them out - thankfully, Cora more than approves just so long as they use food paid for by the Earl and not the Army.
  • Moseley starts toadying and ass-kissing at the Big House in the hopes of scoring the vacant valet position - he buys a fancy new shoe horn just in time for Bates to return to swipe the job right out from under him.
  • Thomas acts like a dick towards Daisy to pay her back for blabbing about his Bates news, but gets Told Off by Dr. Clarkson. He and O'Brien suspect Bates of tattling on them, and O'Brien promises revenge. 

Thanks to Grantham forgetting about How His Own House Works, by the time the house throws their concert to entertain the convalescing soldiers, everyone (including Mary and Cora) knows about Matthew and William's disappearance. Mary is barely holding it together and even Major Bryant's magic show can't comfort her. That's understandable - Major Bryant's best trick was getting Ethel to Disappear! (ba-dum-bum!)

Mary gets up to perform anyway, and Matthew shows up in the middle of her number and it is Heartrending and Wonderful and Not At All Surprising except for the fact that Matthew Can Sing.

The only thing that can spoil this moment is the return of Ethel - who's pregnant. OF COURSE.

Things I Liked:
  • Isobel's ignominious departure.
  • Moseley and Mrs. Bird acting like besties
  • No Lavinia at all
  • Ethel's ass getting fired.
  • Edith's and Mary's unlikely kindnesses to each other.

Things I Didn't:
  • What is it with everyone forgetting about eavesdroppers at Downton Abbey (looking at you, Thomas and Grantham)?
  • Daisy's inability to produce a non-frazzled facial expression.
  • Not nearly enough Bad-Ass Mutha Violet
  • Branson's increasing feats of Douchebaggery
  • Ethel's womb-spawn. Uggggh.
Other Remarks: This was a bit of a so-so episode. There was a lot of character inconsistency required to move the plot forward - like Sybil suddenly wanting Branson to continue protesting despite her worries of the previous episode, or how O'Brien seems like an improved person when dealing with Lang or Cora until she chastises Thomas for not pursuing revenge against Bates. The best part of the episode is the ousting of Isobel, but that happens at the beginning. The rest just feels like filler. 

Rating: Six Ass-Kissing Valets out of Ten

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Film Review: "42: The True Story of an American Legend"

Baseball is my all-time favourite sport. My friends like hockey. My parents and sister like football (the actual kind you use your foot with, in Europe). But me, I love baseball.

I should probably be clear - I don't watch baseball. I don't have a favourite team. I don't follow the stats and couldn't name you a famous player beyond Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Sammy Sosa.

Nah, baseball is my favourite sport because baseball inspires my absolute favourite type of sports movies. Don't bother me with your Mighty Ducks or your Rudys or your Wimbledon.

Give me The Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, Rookie of the Year, A League of Their Own, Field of Dreams.

You can keep Moneyball, though. Yeah, let's make a movie about baseball! Only we'll take out all the baseball scenes and just show people arguing about MATH. Brilliant!

There's just something about baseball. The hats and the hotdogs and the peculiar limitations of the game that allow each player to face an entire opposing team on their own as the lone heroic batter, as well as coordinate as a group when working defensively. It's the American Dream, where the game lets you be an individual as well as part of a team.

These aspects of the game help structure the plot of 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic that came out last week. Jackie Robinson (played to perfection by an electric Chadwick Boseman), is hired by Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to eventually play for the Brooklyn Dodgers as the first African-American in major league baseball.

At first, he stands alone at the plate. Half his teammates don't want to play with him and the other half worry that the constant racism he's subjected to will make him an emotional liability. And through it all, Jackie has to endure it silently. From the very beginning he's expected to serve as an example for all potential African-American athletes - any fighting back on his part would only serve to demonstrate that Negro players are unstable, violent, and unfit for major league sports.

However, Robinson is a talented player - he bats .625 and steals bases from under the noses of gimlet-eyed, bigotted pitchers with the rakish grin of Robin Hood. Robinson spends the first half the film proving himself as an individual player - then spends the second half proving he's part of the team, as his teammates start to respect, defend, and play alongside him - or else get traded to Pittsburgh if they fall short of the mark on the moral yardstick.

Chadwick Boseman carries this movie on his shoulders and he makes it look easy, which is a good thing, because the second most important character in this film is also the film's greatest liability. Harrison Ford, defiantly mumbling every line after gargling it in the wad of phlegm in his throat, portrays Rickey without an ounce of subtlety. He's there to wield that Moral Yardstick and rap it against as many racist knuckles as possible while regurgitating Bible quotes and inspirational slogans. His performance is jowly - does that make sense? As if he has more physical old-man jowls around his face than he actually does. He utters every line with an expression that indicates you're expected to hear authoritative folds of aging flesh softly slapping together in agreement or wobbling with fury. Unfortunately, with Ford, it only makes him sound like he's perpetually choking on a chicken bone.

The baseball scenes are excellently paced and shot, and the supporting players (particularly Nicole Beharie as Jackie's wife Rachel and Alan Tudyk as Uber-Racist Phillies manager Ben Chapman) perform admirably. However, the tone of the film too closely follows Harrison Ford's performance - there are several moments where the too-obvious emotional manipulation reveals the man behind the curtain trying to pluck at my heartstrings.

At least two child actors are called in to demonstrate How Our Actions Influence The Next Generation and a dogged string and clarinet section are quick to interject with This Scene Has Historical Significance music. I dislike it when a movie pulls me out of the experience by making it too obvious why its particular pieces and scenes are arranged a certain way. We get it, Racism is Bad, but movies are meant to be magic - we don't want to see the hand inside the puppet or the strings on the flying saucers.

42 is still a brightly shot, well-paced movie with crackerjack sports scenes, a solid supporting cast, and a charismatic lead. If you can tolerate some over the top moralizing, Ford's masticated line reads, and some overt emotional manipulation, you're in for a pleasant trip to the ballpark.

Friday, April 19, 2013

"Black Silk," by Judith Ivory

The Chick: Submit Channing-Downes. With her husband dead and his illegitimate son contesting his will, she is left alone and penniless with nothing to do - except deliver a mysterious black box to her husband's former ward, the infamous Earl of Netham.
The Rub: The Earl wants nothing to do with the box, and, impossibly, sees her loving husband as a cruel despot. Submit's attempts to understand him pull her closer and closer into his orbit.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Graham Wessit, Earl of Netham. Currently embroiled in a lawsuit in which his dirty linen has made him a public laughingstock, he has no desire to revisit past humiliations when the wife of his former guardian Henry tries to make him accept something that is clearly a final attempt from his guardian to shame him.
The Rub: His guardian's widow is unnervingly young and pretty - and, impossibly, she loved and adored her husband despite their age difference.  Graham then begins to see changing her mind about Henry's true nature as a delicious kind of challenge.
Dream Casting: Ioan Gruffudd.

The Plot:

Random Crazy Girl: Graham Wessit made my babies!

Graham: LOL NO.

The Court: And yet you're such a public Duke of Slut that we're going to believe her!

Graham: Wow, slutshaming a dude! Progress!

The Court: BTW, Submit, your illegitimate stepson's contesting your husband's will so we're going to tie up all your funds.

Submit: WTF.

The Court: Except this one box full of porn, to be delivered to Graham Wessit!

Submit: WTF. Okay - here's your porn, which is totally not my husband's porn, because there's totally some non-skeevy reason he would keep this porn and not tell me. Right?

Graham: No porn for me, thanks!

Submit: Take the porn!

Graham: No!

Submit: TAKE IT.

Graham: NO.


Graham: Let's have tea instead!

Submit: What? Oh, fine, whatever. Dammit! Why can't you be as sleazy as everyone says you are?

Graham: Why can't you let me kiss you and tell you that I'm falling in love with you?

Submit: Despite my condemnation of everything you purportedly stand for I can't stop coming to visit you, rummaging through your private drawers, and secretly writing about your exploits!

Graham: Aw, that's so sweet - wait, what about that last part?

Submit: Oh, BTW, I'm going to go marry this boring dude because my love of writing has made me independent.

Graham: LOL NO.

Submit: You're right, that was a stupid idea. Let's get married then!

Graham: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Inconveniently Dead Husband
  • 1 Inconvenient Inheritance
  • 2 Genially Neglected Children
  • 1 Unstable and Yet Miraculously Not-Evil Mistress
  • 1 Box o'Porn
  • 1 Inconvenient set of Crinolines
  • 1 Secret Authoress
  • 1 Cuckolded Husband
The Word:
I first read Judith Ivory after a recommendation from Jessica of The Hypeless Romantic. I adored The Proposition (a gender-reversed retelling of My Fair Lady), and appreciated Untie My Heart (even though my personal distaste for the relationship dynamics in that novel  kept me from wholly enjoying it).

With my third outing with this remarkable author, I've returned to my fangirl phase.

Graham Wessit, Earl of Netham, is the perfect Rake - one part Unsatisfactory Childhood, one part Disapproving Guardian, mix with two parts Scandalous Past and one part Ennui. He lives his life as he sees fit and actively cultivates his coal-black reputation.

After Henry Channing-Downs, Graham's former guardian, dies, his widow tracks Graham down to deliver a particular black box Henry bequeathed to him in his will. Submit Channing-Downs is desperate to hand the box over and discover why her husband kept it all these years - but Graham is just as desperate to refuse it. They both know what the box contains (although this revelation is painfully recent in Submit's case): exquisitely-rendered pornographic paintings.

Submit has no idea why her husband held on to those pictures, and hopes Graham's answers might vindicate Henry, a man she loved dearly despite their 50-plus-year age difference. However, Graham has an entirely different view of Henry that doesn't mesh at all with hers: that of a cold, self-righteous, and rigidly logical curmudgeon who made his adolescence a torment. Despite - or rather, because of their differences, Graham and Submit can't escape their fascination with each other.

They also share a major thing in common: both are currently embroiled in legal battles. For Graham, a sixteen-year-old girl whom he's never met accuses him of impregnating her and files a paternity suit. Half of society believes Graham should face justice, the other half support him (while smirking behind their hands), but everyone believes him responsible.

Meanwhile, with Submit, her recently deceased husband's illegitimate son William is contesting the will that leaves her the marquess' entire fortune. The suit effectively ties up all the Marquess' funds, leaving Submit penniless and vulnerable to William's efforts to coerce a disadvantageous deal out of her.

Above all else, Black Silk examines the power of perception - how one is perceived, and how one perceives oneself. Not only do Submit and Graham struggle to reconcile their entirely different perceptions of Henry, but Graham's forced into an excruciatingly public identity crisis. Thanks to the paternity suit, his scandalous exploits are not only dragged through the courts but lampooned in The Rake of Ronmoor, a popular serial written under a nom de plume. The glare of society's magnifying glass forces Graham to reevaluate his life choices but he's no longer sure he knows how to separate his own judgement from that of society's.

Black Silk is a fascinating and gorgeously written romance - and a highly unorthodox one. Despite the book's enormous length, Graham and Submit don't even share a kiss until more than 80% through the novel. Their development is subtle and slow - while Graham is more than eager to physically express his affection early on, Submit is such a quiet, low-key, repressed character. She values logic, and fairness, and reason, and Graham has to chip away at several layers of reserve to reach her emotional awakening.

Part of her fascination with Graham stems from how Graham refuses to fit into any one category. He's not a misunderstood bad boy, he's not a saint, but he's not a villain - and he refuses to see other people in similarly black-and-white terms. For example, he continues to support William financially (even though he's suing Submit), because Graham sympathizes with him and does believe that Henry's will was cruelly unfair. And yet he'll offer to let Submit live in his flat on a whim. He expresses affection for her, but continues to live with his married mistress, Roslyn (who is crazypants but awesome and not a bitch, amazingly). Submit finds herself falling deeper and deeper in her quest to understand him and pin him beneath some concrete definition.

And honestly, as long as you're fine with a slower pace, Judith Ivory's prose is breathtaking. Not only with the lyrical writing style and the beautiful way she focuses on minute but lovely details, but her use of repetition and visual metaphor. For instance, Ivory pays a lot of attention to Submit's crinolines - the enormous hoops under her skirts that keep everyone else at a distance, in much the same way that her firm but reserved manner keeps anyone from getting too close.

Black Silk is an amazingly beautiful, original novel that remains unabashedly romantic despite being downright merciless towards tired romantic tropes.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

"Kiss the Morning Star," by Elissa Janine Hoole

The Protagonist: Anna. It's the summer after her graduation, and her best friend Katy convinces Anna to go on an epic Jack Kerouac-inspired roadtrip in an effort to restore their friendship and their faith.
Her Angst: Anna's still recovering from her mother's death, she worries about leaving her grief-stricken father alone, and wonders what it means if her feelings for Katy go beyond mere best-friendship.

Secondary Cast:

Katy: Anna's best friend, with whom she's trying to reconnect after distancing herself out of grief.

Anna's Dad: Formerly an eloquent and enthusiastic preacher, now he's a near-silent recluse.

Pastor Shepherd: A zealous and slightly over-the-top pastor who encounters Katy and Anna on their roadtrip.

Seth: A cute member of a travelling rock band who Anna develops feelings for - but are they stronger feelings than the ones she feels for Katy?

Angst Checklist:

  • Recovering from the Death of a Parent
  • Depression
  • Religion and Faith
  • Does God exist? 
  • Did we just accidentally kill those people with our car? 
  • Bears, and Not Being Eaten By Them
  • Relationship Drama is Ten Times Worse when It Occurs While You're Tripping Balls on Acid
  • Exploring Sexuality
  • Jack Kerouac - Prescient or Pretentious?

The Word: Although it's been a year since her mother died in a tragic house fire, our protagonist, Anna, is still caught in a choking, listless depression. The fire not only killed her mother, but it destroyed her home, her family's church, the vocation of her preacher father, and her own faith in God. She's been living more or less in a fog until the summer after graduation, when her best friend Katy convinces her to take a road trip with her, based on the Rucksack Revolution epitomized by Jack Kerouac in his novel, The Dharma Bums. As an afterthought, Katy adds another goal to their trip - to rediscover proof of God's love.

The vast majority of things that could go wrong on this trip, do go wrong, and Anna spends most of the book Freaking Out Over Everything. But that's essentially the novel's point - Anna needs to Freak Out, to wake up, to rejoin the land of the living. Through this, she reevaluates her priorities, her faith, and her growing feelings for Katy.

Katy strays pretty close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory as the unconventional BFF who has to poke and prod and pester Anna into trying new things (drugs! Tattoos!), but the novel allows her to be selfish, wildly irresponsible, and more than a little nuts. She's not Anna's guardian angel - she's there to protect and look out for Anna, but Anna comes to remember that she's supposed to protect and look out for Katy, too.

Kiss the Morning Star is a slim yet potent novel. Using exquisitely-chosen language, the author balances the novel's themes (Kerouac and religion) in a subtle and extremely effective way. The influence of Dharma Bums affects the narrative through how the characters interact with the text,  but not in such a way that excludes those people (like me) who've never read a word of Kerouac.

The religious aspect of Kiss is just as effectively handled. At the beginning of the novel, Anna has rejected the religion she was brought up in. There is no road-to-Damascas moment. Anna doesn't end the book singing in the church on Sunday. Rather, the novel demonstrates that Anna's problem isn't her refusal to believe in God, but her refusal to believe in anything, for fear of having it taken away. The novel examines how Anna softens, not towards her former faith, but towards the idea of faith, in a way that demonstrates the power of God's love while side-stepping the requisite preachiness.

That being said, the novel is not without flaws. The pacing of the novel can be clunky - the ending, in particular, felt uncertain and abbreviated and left some pretty important threads dangling. I also wished we had seen more of Anna's dad - he wasn't much of a character until the very end and then as quickly as he develops importance, he's written off. But all in all, Kiss the Morning Star is a beautifully-written and entertaining examination of grief, faith, friendship, and love.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x03: Head Bitches In Charge

Yes, dear readers, I know it's been a while (more than a month!) since the last Downton Abbey recap. It turns out I missed recording an episode on my DVR, so I worked to get the second season on DVD. I picked it up today, and now we're back!

So, since the last episode, Downton has been turned into a convalescent home for wounded officers and the transition isn't going smoothly. Isobel is ruffling feathers like it's an Olympic sport by assuming the title of Head Bitch of Downton and repeatedly Guilt-Slapping Cora and Grantham whenever they object to her measures. It's almost impressive how Completely Hateful she manages to be while Selflessly Championing Injured Soldiers.

O'Brien comes up with a solution and suggests that Cora hire Thomas to manage the day-to-day affairs of the hospital while playing strictly for Team Cora. Thomas, bemused, wonders why O'Brien should care that Isobel is running roughshod over Cora, since that used to be O'Brien's favourite pastime. But O'Brien has regrets, you see. Soap-related regrets. And she won't allow Cora to be humiliated by anyone, anymore. Character development!

Thomas accepts the job, of course, since it involves Stomping Through the Front Door Like a BOSS and openly bitching at Carson.

Sadly, things aren't going too well for Anna. She's still Bates-less - until she catches a glimpse of him in the village while out on an errand. Mary uses her contacts (i.e. Carlisle) to find out Bates is now working at a pub called the Red Lion. As we discovered in season one, Bates is a recovering alcoholic, so the fact that his Crazy Wife Vera has forced him to work in a pub is particularly painful. Anna confronts Bates and offers to be his mistress, but Bates has been working on an exit strategy. Crazy Wife Vera is also Crazy Cheating Wife Vera and once Bates gets proof of this, he can divorce her. Sounds like a plan!

Irish Socialist Chauffeur Branson, meanwhile, is finally called up to the War Effort, but decides he'll conscientiously object by going through all the medical exams and training only to quit on the first day like a Self-Righteous Jackass. However, his dreams of being a Pretentious Attention Whore are dashed when a previously undiagnosed heart murmur bars him from service. He settles for being a whiny butthole with Sybil instead, because he is Terrible. He is also Completely Wrong about the consequences of the Russian Revolution.

Meanwhile, Aunt Rosamund and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet team up to dig up dirt on The Picture of Health Lavinia based on the argument Rosamund witnessed between her and Carlisle in the previous episode. Rosamund may be Terrible, but she and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet are so entertaining as Catty Bitch Detectives in this episode that I'll give her a rare pass. Turns out, Future Looks Bright Lavinia was the whistleblower behind a huge insider-trading scandal involving her uncle and a bunch of other politicians. She leaked the deets to Carlisle, who ran the news in his paper, and Rosamund figures the only reason Not Doomed Lavinia would do such a thing is if her and Carlisle's respective uglies had been formerly introduced.

Rosamund and Bad Ass Mutha Violet eagerly encourage Mary to dump this mess in Matthew's lap in order to win back his affections and shoot down Still Alive Lavinia's chances, but Mary decides to be a Classy Broad and talk to Fully Vaccinated Lavinia to learn her side of the story. No sex was involved, as it turns out, only a father's debt, so Mary keeps her mouth shut around Matthew. More character development!

Minor Subplot Round Up:

  • Mrs. Patmore and Lang share an insightful conversation about the real, gritty experience of war - until Lang goes and spills the beans about how her nephew was shot for cowardice in front of all the staff like an ASSHOLE
  • Ethel begins a flirtation with an impressively-mustached officer named Major Bryant. Says Edith: "No one tucks better than I do!" A line which made me wonder when she'll make Bryant put the lotion on his skin.
  • William proposes to Daisy, and Mrs. Patmore all but forces Daisy at gunpoint to accept, because William's manbaby heart won't be able to survive the war if his desires are thwarted in any way. 

Everything in the episode comes to a head when Downton hosts a dinner party for a visiting general in order to show off the hospital. Dr. Clarkson, in a rare burst of competence, refuses to allow Isobel to hog the spotlight and credits Cora as co-Head Bitch in Charge. Branson volunteers to be footman so that he can dump garbage over the general's head to prove he's an Insufferably Moronic Rebel, but his plans are thankfully thwarted by Carson and Mrs. Hughes. Lang has another PTSD freakout so Carson has to give him the boot.

And finally, in one of the episode's sweeter moments, Edith is singled out for praise by the General, as unbeknownst to and unlike everyone else, she'd managed to be cheerful, generous, and helpful to all the soldiers without making a Big Fucking Deal about it. Everyone raises a glass to a long-deserving Edith. Hurrah!

Things I Liked:
  • Thomas' Swag (watch out Carson!)
  • Edith getting her due - FINALLY
  • Learning Bates isn't sitting on his hands doing nothing about his Crazy Wife Vera
  • Mary being a Classy Broad who refuses to play dirty for Matthew's heart
  • Rosamund and Violet as the #1 Catty Bitches Detective Agency
  • Major Bryant's Moustache
Things I Didn't:
  • Literally Everything Isobel Says and Does
  • Lang blabbing about Mrs. Patmore's nephew
  • Branson being a Flamboyantly Whiny Attention Whore
  • Lavinia. Still. Ugh. 
  • The increasingly awkward William and Daisy Guiltship - and Mrs. Patmore's involvement.
Other Remarks: I was really impressed with this episode - Edith pulled on her big girl panties and got noticed for it, Mary's efforts to be Less Horrible succeeded by leaps and bounds, Isobel got put in her place and Thomas got promoted to Sergeant (er, acting Sergeant). The unifying event of the General's dinner tied up the disparate plot threads nicely, even if I was a little surprised to see Lang depart so soon. Almost everyone was completely reasonable in this episode - which, of course, means the episode could have done with a little more drama. 

Rating: Three Footman Freakouts Out of Four

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Weekly Wanting (25)

Another week, another Weekly Wanting - I swear, I'm going to try and be more regular about these posts.

Genre: Fiction, Mystery, Thriller.
Cover Snark: The only thing better than a Big Ol' Face on the cover, is Half a Big Ol' Face on the cover.
The Story: When a teenage girl apparently commits suicide by jumping off the roof of her exclusive Park Slope prep school, her successful attorney mother decides to find out what really happened - and uncovers a wealth of secrets.
Why I Want It? The story sounds amazing - plus I'm a sucker for stories with prep school settings. I read a review of it in Entertainment Weekly which called it "the new Gone Girl" - which I hope means it's as clever and twisty as Gone Girl without being quite as obsessively creepy.

Genre: YA, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Deceptively cutesy cover looks like it's for a fluffy YA contemporary romance. Involving umbrellas.
The Story: Actually, A Corner of White is about a fantasy world that lies parallel to the real world, in which colours are dangerous entities capable of killing people. A boy from that world looking for answers accidentally ends up contacting Madeleine, a girl from the real world who is also on the run from her past.
Why I Want It? The story sounds AMAZING and weird (even if the cover is COMPLETELY deceptive and inappropriate), plus it's been positively reviewed all over the place, including The Book Smugglers. Although most of the reviews do admit that people either love it or hate it. No middle ground.

So what books are you wanting this week?

Saturday, April 06, 2013

"The Killing Moon," by N.K. Jemisin

The Primary Cast:

Ehiru: Gujaareh's top Gatherer - a priest who collects people's dreams while sending them into a peaceful afterlife. He is devoted to his calling and trusts his superiors implicitly - but what if that trust is misplaced?

Nihiri: A young apprentice Gatherer who has been in love with Ehiru for most of his life. But when his master starts acting strangely and their priesthood turns against him, whose side should he take - the priesthood's, or Ehiru's?

Sunandi: An ambassador from the nation of Kisua who is investigating corruption among the highest levels of the Gujaareh nobility.

Fantasy Convention Checklist
  • 2 Morally Shady Superiors
  • 1 Ultra Complicated Magic System
  • Several Devoured Souls
  • 1 Bro-Verging-On-Actual-Ro-Mance
  • Several Rounds of Politiking
The Word: Now, I'm a fan of N.K. Jemisin. I really enjoyed the first two novels of her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series (and appreciated how the final one ended even though it was still a hot ass mess). She has a deft hand with world building, female characters, gay characters, and Hot Immortal Sex God characters.

The Killing Moon, while not as romantic as the Kingdoms trilogy, nevertheless creates an immersive experience in an extremely original fantasy setting. The story takes place in the kingdom of Gujaareh (based on ancient Egypt): a kingdom of peace, honour, and plenty. All of its citizens are cared for, there are no conflicts or major crimes, and all but the most serious illnesses and injuries can be easily cured.

All of this is thanks to the unique magic of the priesthood of the Dreaming Goddess, Hananja, and more specifically, the sect of priests known as Gatherers. Gatherers are capable of siphoning dreams from people and converting them into magic for healing and stability - all the while shepherding their charges' souls into a blissful afterlife. While Gatherers frequently visit the elderly and the sick who willingly give their dreams to their country in return for a joyful death, they also serve as Gujaareh's judges - by eliminating criminals and those deemed corrupt.

But what if the priesthood itself becomes corrupt? Sunandi is an ambassador-cum-spy for the neighbouring kingdom of Kisua who is in Gujaareh to discreetly investigate the mysterious death of her mentor and several other contacts who all look to have died (rather unpleasantly) in their sleep. Conveniently enough, once she uncovers some pretty shady info about Gujaareh's Prince, she receives a nocturnal visit from Ehiru, one of Gujaareh's most dedicated Gatherers, as well as his devoted apprentice Nihiri.

Ehiru believes wholeheartedly in his vocation as a Gatherer and takes it extremely seriously. He doesn't understand why people fear his sect - Gathering is painless and even the corrupt are ushered into a joyful afterlife with their Goddess. However, when his intended target wakes up before he can do the deed and accuses the priesthood of being used as political assassins, Ehiru cannot brush off those accusations lightly. He decides to delay Sunandi's judgement until he gets more information - and in the process, Sunandi, Ehiru, and Nihiri all get more than they bargained for.

While I connected intellectually with this book, I had a hard time connecting emotionally with it. The world building is intense and extremely dense (particularly in the first few chapters of the book), and I found myself flipping to the Entirely Necessary Glossary at the back of the book to figure out what they were talking about.

As well, the worldbuilding, while intricate, seemed a bit uneven - some aspects of the magic, traditions and settings were extremely detailed, perhaps more than they needed to be (in the sense that these aspects weren't really relevant to the immediate storyline), while other aspects were barely touched on, leaving, if not plot holes, than some pretty cumbersome questions that were never answered.

As for the characters, while they were solid, believable, and relatively likeable, I didn't feel they were as fleshed-out as they could have been. Sunandi is described as this incredibly competent spy but she continually makes monumental errors and rash, emotional decisions. Nihiri is a bit one-note - an aggressive, reckless youth who is wildly in love with Ehiru. Ehiru is probably the best developed of the three - devout, righteous, certain in his vocation even as he grows increasingly uncertain about his superiors and their motives in directing his vocation.

All in all, while The Killing Moon was enjoyable and creative, it didn't really "click" with me as an emotional reader. If you love original fantasy elements and excellent worldbuilding, however, I would definitely recommend it.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The March Round-Up!

March is over, Lent is over - bring on April and Spring! I am currently making plans to attend Book Expo America again this year - including the BEA Blogger Con! Home to see as many of you as possible in NYC!

But enough about that - here's what I read last month:

*March Winner*

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes. Fiction, Contemporary. A+
Pros: Marvellous characters, profound slow-burning romance, balanced tone. Cons: First chapters are a little predictable.

*March Dud*

Follow My Lead, by Kate Noble. Romance, Historical. C
Pros: Unconventional Regency setting. Charming hero. Cons: Boring top-heavy plot, TSTL ninny heroine.

*Best of the Rest*

Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein. YA, Historical. A
Pros: Excellent twist, well developed heroines, great historical detail, emotional ending. Cons: Bit slow to start.

The Last Hellion, by Loretta Chase. Romance, Historical. A
Pros: AMAZING heroine, great writing and plotting. Cons: Villain is an inconsistent cartoon.

Teeth, by Hannah Moskowitz. YA, Fantasy. A
Pros: Effective setting, heart-tugging characters, thought-provoking themes. Cons: Some unresolved issues. Uneven ending. Extremely dark.

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik. Fantasy, Historical. B+
Pros: Dependable world building, nice character development, excellent historical detail. Cons: Meandering plot. Middle-book-itis.

Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez. YA, Contemporary, LGBT. B+
Pros: Good pacing, well-drawn characters and themes. Cons: Writing style is skewed a little young.

Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire. Urban Fantasy. C
Pros: Excellent world building, original characters. Cons: Boring plot, reactionary heroine, really obvious villain.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The Weekly Wanting (24)

It's time for a super-sized Weekly Wanting Post! I read a lot of blogs for the last couple of weeks, and found a lot of interesting books to add to my library list! 

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy
Cover Snark: Cross-stitched awesomeness.
The Story: Over three decades, a multigenerational family deal with strife and conflict - all the while with superpowers!
Why I Want It: I love family dramas when written well, particularly when they deal with multigenerational conflict - and the superpowers are just an awesome bonus. Credit goes to Entertainment Weekly for bringing this novel to my attention.

Genre: YA, Mystery

Cover Snark: Hot Biceps for Justice
The Story: A soon-to-retire teacher starts a program in eighth period where students can come and talk about anything. No expectations, no judgements. It's all going well - until one of the participating students disappears, and it looks like someone else in Period 8 might be responsible.
Why I Want It: I'm finding I actually quite enjoy dark YA if it comes with a mystery element. Plus, Forever Young Adult's review mentions it has a cast of thousands, something I really enjoy in novels. More characters = more stories and more drama.

Genre: Mystery, Alternate History

Cover Snark: I got nuthin'.
The Story: Set in an alternate universe in which England made peace with Hitler, the social and political group who orchestrated this peace attend a house party where one of their own is murdered. One of the guests (whose Jewish husband is being blamed for the crime) must find the real killer before time runs out for her family.
Why I Want It: It's been recommended loads of times, but one last mention from The Book Smugglers clinched it! I like the idea exploring an alternate history - and the fact that it takes place at a classy house party just makes it that much more interesting.

Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy
Cover Snark: Absolutely gorgeous, and fully in keeping with the series.
The Story: More of September's adventures in Fairyland as she develops as a person.
Why I Want It: Have you not read the reviews of the previous two books?

Genre: YA, LGBT
Cover Snark: Gorgeous use of light, shadow, and stained glass.
The Story: A boy struggles to remain true to himself and take care of his three brothers even though his religious community ostracizes him.
Why I Want It: A lovely write-up from The Book Smugglers brought this novel to my attention. I found I've been really interested in well-written LGBT stories. I only hope the religious element is sensitively handled. I really hate it when religion is made into a cheap villain ALL THE TIME.

Genre: YA, Historical
Cover Snark: Big Ol' Face.
The Story: Rose Justice, a pilot for the Allies, is shot down and captured by the Nazis and sent to a concentration camp - where she meets a truly memorable cast of characters.
Why I Want It: I adored Code Name Verity (Wein's previous novel about Awesome Lady Pilots), so I am completely down with this one, provided I can get over the heroine's rather silly name (Rose Justice? REALLY?).

What books are you wanting this week?