Saturday, May 25, 2013

"A Woman Entangled," by Cecilia Grant (Bantam, 2013)

The Chick: Kate Westbrook. The product of a love match between the son of an earl and an actress, she's lived between two worlds, welcome in neither. She's determined to make a splendid marriage in order to improve circumstances for her siblings.
The Rub: Despite catching the eye of a newly-minted baron, she still has unresolved feelings for barrister Nicholas Blackshear.
Dream Casting: Kimberley Nixon.

The Dude: Nick Blackshear. A barrister with political ambitions who hopes to develop the proper social connections to improve his career.
The Rub: Three years ago, he tried to propose to Kate but was rejected due to his lowly status. Now, a scandal in his own family makes any renewal of affection impossible.
Dream Casting: Tom Hiddleston.

The Plot:

Kate: I wish I was a genteel, upperclass aristocrat! Too bad my family's embarrassing and my mother's an actress!

Nick: I wish I was a powerful, successful politician! Too bad my brother ruined my family's reputation by marrying a prostitute!

Kate: Initiate Operation: ASSKISS.

Snooty Relative: Sure, let's acknowledge our connection!

Kate: Mission accomplished!

Snooty Relative: we can help you get work as a servant!

Kate: Mission somewhat less than accomplished.

Kate's Father: Hey Nick, my daughter is taking initiative and trying to determine her own future - clearly a terrible decision! Watch over her! And, if possible, be SUPER JUDGY ABOUT IT!

Nick: Can I continue to have small misunderstandings about her motivations and behaviour?

Kate's Father: All the better!

Kate: Oh COME ON.

Nick and Kate: *kiss*

Kate: This can never happen again, for obvious reasons.

Nick: Totally obvious reasons.

Snooty Estranged Grandmother: *dies*

Kate: Welp, guess we have to have full-on sex now.

Nick: Wait, what? Why?

Kate: Circle of Life!

Nick: Good enough for me!

Kate and Nick: *knock boots*

Nick: Can we get together now?

Kate: Another chapter of angst first.

Nick: ...

Kate: ....and now! Let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Friends-To-Lovers Romance
  • 1 Scandalous Mother
  • 1 Scandalous Sister-in-Law
  • 1 Rejected Marriage Proposal
  • 2 Rather Oblivious, Naive, Self-Absorbed and Judgmental But Still Loving Parents
  • 1 Sudden-Death Sex Excuse

The Word: Few things in life are constant, and those that are, are mostly unpleasant. Taxes. Death. The death of your favourite Game of Thrones character. And the fact that once in a while, a favourite author will write a dud.

Mary Balogh had A Matter of Class. Laura Kinsale had Seize the Fire.

And, it seems, Cecilia Grant has A Woman Entangled.

I should probably clarify right now - A Woman Entangled, Grant's third book in her Blackshear series, is not nearly as terrible as Matter of Class or Seize the Fire. As a romance in itself, it's pretty average. But when compared to Cecilia Grant's magnificent A Lady Awakened and A Gentleman Undone, it's a disappointment.

All the more disappointing because it starts off with such promising themes. Our heroine, Kate, has always yearned for the upper-class drawing-room lifestyle her aristocrat father was born into but cast out of when he married an actress. While her parents' marriage was a love match, their children have reaped the consequences of reduced prospects, social snubs, and sneering looks.

Kate has worked for years to cultivate the manners, appearance, and reputation of an upper-class girl in the hopes of making a splendid match and raising her family back into respectability. When her latest attempt to communicate with her father's family unexpectedly receives a positive response, Kate's determined to use this newfound connection to secure her future and reconcile her father with his family.

However, her father, now a barrister, worries that Kate will be taken advantage of and asks Nicholas Blackshear, a colleague and family friend, to watch over her while she attends society functions. Nick, like Kate, has been struggling to restore his family's honour - ever since his younger brother married a hooker, Nick's reputation, his legal practice, and his political ambitions took a nosedive. He hasn't spoken to his brother since.

 Unfortunately, Nick has been in love with Kate for years but has kept his feelings on the back burner ever since Kate spurned his proposal and made it clear she would never marry below a baron. Awkward.

A Woman Entangled has a great idea - romance is full of socially mismatched protagonists who seemingly don't care what society thinks of them. Dukes and milkmaids. Counts and courtesans. But the stories never proceed far enough past the epilogue to examine the consequences their pairing has on their children and family. Here, the hero's current obstacles stem directly from his brother's HEA, and the heroine has to reconcile her desire for an upperclass life with her love for her actress mother and eccentric siblings - who would never be welcome in that environment.

Despite this great idea, A Woman Entangled has little in the way of actual plot or conflict. Kate and Nick are clearly still attracted to each other, and their increased proximity leads to a passionate kiss - and the rest of the book is spent angsting, bickering and internal-monologuing over this one event and whether or not it will damage their friendship and future prospects.

When I think about it, none of the characters really do anything in this book - they spend most of their time overthinking and whining about their problems. Kate, despite apparently spending years attempting to revive her family's reputation, does little more than look pretty and be extremely polite. Her predecessors were willing to create a fake heir and use complicated mathematical tricks to achieve their goals, so I expected a more detailed plan of action from Kate than "smile demurely at anyone with a title until they offer marriage." Her motivations and goals - and thus, the story itself - seemed half-baked, with no particularly strong focus or structure.

Add to that the fact that the hero is a bit of a hypocrite (he's doing to his brother what Kate's paternal relatives did to her entire family), the protagonists share no chemistry, and the novel's theme seems to be about settling for less and getting used to disappointment when your dream proves impossible. Cecilia Grant's expressive writing style is as lovely as always, but it cannot redeem a tedious, unstructured story.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x06: Uuggghhhhh, REALLY?!

This episode, you guys. THIS EPISODE. If you wanted to know the exact point at which the wheels fell off the bus of this season (if not the entire series), it's this episode. Almost this entire episode was one long uugghhhhh COME ON.

Let's start with the less UGHly parts: Mary is still helping Matthew pop wheelies in his chair, and this worries her fiancé Carlisle for Very Good Reason. His response to this is twofold - first, he tries to poach Mary's Unofficial Stepdad Carson to run his estate once he and Mary are wed, which is a rather sweet move. Secondly, he brings Breathing Normally Lavinia to Downton to distract Matthew's attentions. When neither of these completely works he outright tells Mary that he's not going to put up with her Moony-Eyed Bullshit, especially not now that he has the deets regarding her sex-murdering shenanigans.

Again, this doesn't ruin him for me because a) He's Ian Glenn, and b) He is Entirely Correct about Mary's feelings and she really isn't fooling anyone.

But then the ughhh starts. Firstly, Isobel's back at Downton. Word on the street says World War I is almost over, which means all the soldier patients can soon go home, but Isobel is determined to keep Downton Abbey open to the public so that it can be "useful" - conveniently forgetting that this Isn't Her Fucking House and Other People Live Here.

Seriously, Isobel is the worst. It's weird - last season, she was tolerable and I even kind of liked her because despite her progressive views and take charge attitude, she wasn't oblivious to social mores and had to kick her son's ass to get him to comply with them. In this season, she's turned into an insufferably naive and self-righteous martyr who is very easily tricked by Bad Ass Mutha Violet into abandoning her Downton Cause in favour of an even more Self-Righteous Martyry Project Involving Refugees.

Also, ughhhh, Crazy Wife Vera went to the courts and had her divorce with Bates overturned so they're still technically married. Can't Bates and Anna just buy their quaint little hotel and keep Crazy Wife Vera locked in an attic like Every Other Gothic Romantic Couple Does? Bates goes back to London to see if he can bribe some of the Crazy away, but no dice. He comes back saying his interaction with her went even worse than before.

But this isn't even a fraction of the UGHHHHHHH to come - no, now we must get Assface Mackenzie.

Assface Mackenzie, er, I mean, Patrick Gordon, is a Canadian soldier from the Princess Patricia Light Infantry who got his face blown off and has requested he convalesce at Downton because he "shares a family connection" with the Crawleys. Edith's assigned to take care of him and he spends a solid fifteen minutes making cryptic, illogical hints about how she should recognize him until he finally claims to be Patrick Crawley - the lost heir to Downton who supposedly drowned on the Titanic.

And seriously everything about this storyline is Horrible and Over the Top because Assface Mackenzie is the Worst Liar Ever, his story makes No Damn Sense, and Edith buys it hook, line and sinker because She Is An Idiot.

Apparently he was rescued from The Titanic by Canadians but caught Amnesia (yes, amnesia) which removed not only his memories but his Upper Class British Accent as well. He joined the Canadian army, and conveniently recovered his memories in the same explosion that inconveniently tore off his face.

Now this is a face you can trust.

Seriously? Seriously? Edith runs to tell Grantham and the whole matter is taken Inexplicably Seriously despite the fact that every other character can see past Assface Mackenzie's obvious lie except for Edith, because she's That Desperate, and Matthew, because he needs another excuse to act like a martyr (clearly a genetic trait) about losing both the use of his penis AND the earldom. 

The WORST thing about this storyline is that the writers clearly intended the truth of Assface's story to be uncertain. Assface makes this weird gesture with his fingers that Grantham recognizes. He acts all hurt that none of the Crawleys recognize him - why can't they just open their minds and see past the BLOWN OFF FACE and CANADIAN ACCENT? And when he flees at the end of the episode (once Grantham discovers evidence of a Peter Gordon from Montreal), he leaves Edith the vaguest apologetic note clearly meant to divide viewers as to whether it was for a) being unable to bear his family's doubt or b) being an Awful Liar whose Flimsy Con was Doomed to Fail from the Start.

Except it's not uncertain or ambiguous or unclear because it's a STUPID-ASS STORY. You're telling me he wasn't able to bear his family's doubt and scrutiny FOR THREE DAYS? You're telling me he's desperate to convince people he's a British peer - but not desperate enough to use an ACTUAL BRITISH ACCENT? 

The worst thing about this storyline is that it's completely out of tone with the series up until this point. Yes, Downton Abbey was intended to be soapy and scandalous, but not entirely divorced from reality. Sure, we could expect premarital sex and blackmail and evil wives - but the Long-Lost Amnesiac Heir hails from the General Hospital wheelhouse. Ugh, indeed.

The only other thing worth mentioning about this trainwreck of an episode is that Matthew feels a suspicious tingle in his manparts after All Stats Normal Lavinia returns, but decides to keep it to himself to see what happens - and, oh yeah...


Some Sub Plots I Forgot to Mention:

  • New Hire Jane keeps finding opportunities to giggle around Grantham right after his wife spurns or abandons him in some way. UGH. I mean, she's not a bad character and she's certainly not putting obvious moves on the Earl but it is SO OBVIOUS where they are going with this plotline and I DO NOT LIKE IT. 
  • Ethel (UGH to the power of N) is still getting free food from Mrs. Hughes, but her attempts to reign in her babydaddy come to naught when said babydaddy is abruptly killed in the war. 
  • Thomas - who really hasn't had anything to do all season - decides to get into the black market ration business. Ugh, this won't end well.
  • Daisy rejects being called a war widow and still regrets her part in William's deathbed wedding, feeling she hasn't earned all the sympathy she's getting. Integrity, she has it. 
Things I Liked
  • Daisy sticking up for her morals
  • Bad Ass Mutha Violet and Cora tricking Isobel into leaving Downton
Things I Didn't
  • Pretty much everything else.
Final Remarks: I don't which which is worse about this episode - This Episode, or the fact that it only gets weirder and wackier from this one.

Rating: One Very Badly Burned Con Artist out of Five.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"Last Summer at Mars Hill," by Elizabeth Hand (Open Road Media, 2013)

When Last Summer at Mars Hill came up on Netgalley, I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I'd read one of Elizabeth Hand's story collections before - the exquisite Saffron and Brimstone - and I figured this new story collection would be just as good.

Except it wasn't new - it's a reprint of a 1998 anthology. Alright. No biggie.

It also wasn't that good. While Elizabeth Hand has a deft, er, hand with poetic language and vivid description, the stories in this collection come across as repetitive, turgidly paced, often self-indulgent and at times incomprehensible (particularly her science fiction entries). I found myself frantically doggy paddling towards the end, perpetually splashing but getting no closer to the final page.

Most of the stories have strong autobiographical elements, teenage narrators, and involve a similar story structure - lots of description and set-up at the beginning and a supernatural surprise reveal at the end. Because of this, most of the stories are rather top-heavy - the introductions are all filler and the narrative payoffs aren't worth the wait.

The anthology opens with "Last Summer at Mars Hill," about a pair of teenagers whose respective dying parents find a supernatural cure for their ailments at a spiritualist colony in Maine. However, the cure will last only as long as they remain there. Their parents' ultimate decisions are thought-provoking - but the actual plot and examination of life and longevity doesn't even start until relatively late in the story.

Next up is "The Erl-King," involving a teenage girl and her best friend who run afoul of a mentally unstable former rock star, an insidious evil, and a devil's bargain ticking down to a bloody conclusion. The story is slow to pick up, and hinges on a single exposition-heavy encounter that explains the entire plot in one gulp.

Elizabeth Hand explains in the author's note that "Justice" is one of her most controversial stories. Set in rural Oklahoma and heavily influenced by Greek myth, it follows a reporter trailing the story of a number of wife- and child-murderers who have gone missing. No one has found the fugitive men, but a strange number of mutilated pig corpses have turned up. You do the math.

"Dionysis Dentrites" is the one poem in the collection, a personal piece for the author based on a recurring dream she's had most of her life. Interesting but too brief.

Following that interlude is my favourite story in the collection, the whimsical "The Have-Nots." Told entirely in down-home dialogue from a chatty cosmetics saleslady, she recounts the story of how a downtrodden friend's life is changed - and eventually saved by - a Cadillac owned by Elvis Presley. Weird but delightful and brimming with empathy, it's a much lighter (and funnier!)  story than the rest of the entries in this collection.

"In the Month of Athyr" takes a trip into the seriously weird with a story aboard a space station where gender politics have been twisted almost beyond recognition. The protagonist is a teenage boy whose father brings aboard a genetically-engineered sex slave, triggering an incredibly unpleasant sexual awakening. The story makes so many vague references to other stories and incidents within the same universe that it cannot really stand on its own.

"Engels Unaware" is a deliciously satirical story of how a ruthless and greedy financial corporation (and all of its self-indulgent VPs, analysts, and office managers) destroys itself in the most flamboyantly over-the-top way possible - and all of it witnessed through the eyes of its lowly, mistreated temp, Rebecca.

"The Bacchae" is another tale the author gleefully describes as one of her most hated stories. Following in a similar vein as "Justice" - it draws from another Greek myth to switch gender roles as a strange lunar event causes all the women in the world to target and brutally murder men. The difference between "The Bacchae" and "Justice" is that "Justice" has an actual plot. "The Bacchae"'s meek, nervous male narrator simply grows more and more uneasy until his inevitable senseless demise at the hands of violent, drunk women.

"Snow on Sugar Mountain" melds science and fantasy in an interesting way in a slow and low-key tale about a teenage runaway with the power to shapeshift who seeks refuge with a retired, reclusive, and dying astronaut. It took me a while to warm up to this one, but I did enjoy the payoff.

"On the Town Route" is another story that irritated me with its long, overly-described lead-up to a Surprise Magical Climax Out of Nowhere. Our heroine, Julie, joins her close friend Cass as he drives his dilapidated ice cream truck through rural areas to distribute ice cream to impoverished families. Sounds nice - until summer ends and one of their customers reveals their true, Greek-myth-inspired colours.

The penultimate story is perhaps the least comprehensible in the collection - "The Boy in the Tree" apparently involves biochemically-enhanced autistic dream-eaters who are hired to devour the bad memories of psychologically-scarred people to help them heal. Our heroine - a dream eater - might be inducing these people into committing suicide. Or she might not. Or her doctor has been secretly sleeping with her own brother. Or not! Who knows? Not this reader.

The last story, "Prince of Flowers" is a rather standard tale of supernatural retribution enhanced by a superior writing style. An assistant curator at a museum who likes to steal inventory to display in her own home snatches a mysterious, creepy doll and reaps the horrifying consequences. While the writing and description is lovely - the depth of the story leaves much to be desired.

I wasn't altogether impressed by this collection. A few stories - mainly the ones that employ Elizabeth Hand's sharp humour - shine ("The Have-Nots," and "Engels Unaware"). Some are borderline incomprehensible messes ("In the Month of Athyr," "The Boy In The Tree,"), while others seem merely pointless ("The Erl-King," "On the Town Route").

If you are still curious about reading this (particularly if you adored previous collections like Saffron and Brimstone), I might suggest taking the 1998 edition out from the library first.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x05: A Farewell to British Booty

This episode of Downton Abbey opens with Matthew at the front, stiffening his men's upper lips before the impending battle scene, which provides just enough gunshots and explosions to wake up your dozing male significant other on the couch and confuse the hell out of him about what you are really watching.

Matthew manages fairly well until he runs afoul of an exploding shell - but thankfully, like the lofty aristocrat he has become, he survives by using lower-class William as a human shield.

The feudal system at its finest. 

The residents of Downton Abbey are shocked by this news, and Matthew is quickly transferred to the Downton Abbey hospital to recuperate. Although William's Doughy Innocence absorbed enough of the blast to save Matthew's life, it turned his insides into Yorkshire pudding. Because the British Class System is Horrible, the Obviously Dying William is shipped off to a Hospital for Poor People all the way out in Leeds.

Everyone at Downton Abbey is quick to remark that this development sucks an English Bushel of Dicks - even Thomas, who's been trying to give William the shaft (and not in the fun way) for years.

Enter Bad-Ass Mutha Violet. She confronts Dr. Clarkson, who spews his usual Mostly-Incompetent Nonsense about Fairness until Violet shuts his useless ass down.

Ain't no one mess with Bad Ass Mutha Violet.
Ain't no one.

Violet departs and shakes the Privileged Aristocracy Phone Tree like a screaming toddler until William's transfer orders fall out. William lands back at Downton Abbey, which is awesome, and expresses his dying wish to marry Daisy, which is less awesome. Daisy doesn't actually love William, you see, but was pressured by the meddling Mrs. Patmore to encourage William's attentions because a broken heart would leave him vulnerable on the battlefield - a strategy that obviously didn't work. 

Now that William is little more than a Sentient Bean Bag Chair, Daisy doesn't have much of a choice if she doesn't want to come across as a Horrible Selfish Hag (and I feel for her in this situation, I really do - I hate guiltships), so she agrees to marry William but not without inflicting her godawful Indecisive Mouthbreathing Fish Face on the audience for several scenes.

All the servants show up to the wedding, Daisy is dolled up to the nines, and Bad-Ass Mutha Violet unleashes the Kraken for the second time this episode to ensure the uppity vicar allows William's Make-A-Wish Wedding to go forward. Daisy and William kiss, and William departs into the afterlife, leaving Daisy a literal Virgin Widow. Don't worry folks, she'll be fine so long as she avoids rakes and Greek tycoons for the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, who should arrive at Downton Abbey but Crazy Wife Vera, who found out Bates returned to Downton thanks to a sneaky letter from O'Brien and Thomas. She took all of Bates' money but is still determined to ruin Bates' life because she is so Psychotic even Thomas and O'Brien feel bad for Bates and regret their part in luring her back. 

Since Crazy Wife Vera's determined to leak the story of Lady Mary's Sex-Murdering shenanigans to the press, Mary bites the bullet and spills the beans to her fiancé, the Bear Knight Sir Richard Carlisle. Carlisle takes the homicidal-genitalia news surprisingly well - in fact, he now feels he and Mary can marry on more equal terms after he pulls her fatality-inducing ass out of the fire. However, he makes it clear that there will be no backing out of this betrothal. It's a little menacing and creepy, but it's Ian Glenn and he's irrepressibly charming and the scene of him screwing Crazy Wife Vera over is so incredibly satisfying that I just don't care.

But what about Matthew, you ask? Well, William's lower-class torso protected Matthew from death but unfortunately couldn't save Matthew's spine from injury. The doctor wastes little time informing Lord Grantham that everything below Matthew's waist is lifeless - including, he reveals, Matthew's Baby-Making Booty.

Once Mary finds out Matthew's junk has joined the ghosts of Grantham's previous Two Heirs aboard the Titanic, she rushes to his side to comfort him in his abyss of Extreme Whininess. I know I'm supposed to feel sorry for Matthew, and his injury is still really new to him, but two minutes into his "I'm a useless walking corpse and nobody will ever wuv me" speech and I'm Already Over It.

Walk it off, Matthew. Walk it - oh. 

One good thing to come out of it - he dumps Rings on Her Fingers Lavinia, once he explains the situation of his Dead Booty. Poor Mary and Bells On Her Toes Lavinia share an endearing moment together where they both mourn the loss of Matthew's Upper-Crust Heir-Creating Booty. Still Possessing a Pulse Lavinia, however, insists that Matthew's Spinal Angst Injury won't keep them apart - she's still determined to marry him, Dead Booty or no. "I'll die if I can't have Matthew," says Not At All Foreshadowing Lavina.

Did I Miss Any Subplots? Oh Yeah:

  • Ethel has a baby now. That was fast. I know the chronology of Downton Abbey jumps around, but it seems like she has the gestation period of a guinea pig. She tries to get Mrs. Hughes to pass on her letters about her son to her erstwhile babydaddy, Major Bryant, who could not give less of a fuck if it was a capital offence to own one.
  • Mrs. Hughes hires a new maid named Jane, a war widow with a young child, despite her prejudice against Single Ladies with babies. 
Things I Liked
  • Thomas and O'Brien. They were catty bitches like always, but with a conscience, with Thomas supporting William's final wishes and O'Brien regretting writing to Vera. 
  • Bad Ass Mutha Violet Getting Shit Done
  • Carlisle slapping Crazy Wife Vera's ass to the curb
  • Daisy not wanting a deceitful wedding. You shouldn't have had to do it, Daisy. I feel for you. 
Things I Didn't
  • Crazy Wife Vera having no purpose except to be Crazy.
  • Matthew Angst 
  • William and Daisy Cordially Invite You To Their Make-A-Wish Guilt-Trip Deathbed Wedding Spectacular
  • Irish Socialist Chauffer Branson!  He was a douchebag in this episode, too - he only had a brief scene, but he used up all of his Jackass Points by insisting Sybil needs to make a Great Sacrifice (her family) to achieve True Happiness (his Righteous Irish Socialist penis). 
  • He also implies the recent murder of the Russian Tsar and his children was politically necessary. Gross.
Final Remarks: All in all, this was one of the best episodes of the season. You had some significant and pleasantly over-the-top drama, a character death that made sense, tons of brutal set-downs from Heavyweight Champion Violet and Carlisle, and some thoughtful moral commentary - especially regarding William and Daisy's wedding.

Rating: Ten Emotionally Coerced War Brides Out of Ten

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"Reconstructing Amelia," by Kimberly McCreight (HarperCollins, 2013)

The Primary Cast:

Kate: A hard-working junior partner at a cut-throat law firm and a single mother who is always struggling to juggle her exciting job and her beloved daughter - until her daughter dies.

Amelia: A straight-A overachiever whose resume is stuffed with extracurriculars - until she apparently kills herself after getting caught cheating on a paper.

The Secondary Cast:

Jeremy: Kate's boss - kind-hearted, well-meaning, but oblivious.

Dylan: A mysterious girl at Amelia's school, with whom Amelia develops a special bond.

Zadie: A popular but vicious classmate who inexplicably makes Amelia the target of her rage and jealousy.

Ben: A friend Amelia met online, with whom she's been exchanging texts. However, they've never met in person.

Lew: The new detective assigned to Amelia's case after the first detective takes a suspicious absence.

Sylvia: Amelia's best friend, whose life revolves around constant boy troubles.

Phillip Woodhouse: The headmaster of Grace Hall, the exclusive Park Slope prep school.

Angst Checklist:

  • Secret Societies
  • Suicide
  • Bullying
  • Infidelity
  • Best Friendship
  • Working Mothers vs. Stay At Home Mothers
  • Do I Really Have To Tell My Daughter About Her Real Dad?
  • Teenage Sexuality
  • Ineffective School Policies
  • Jealousy

The Word: The worst day of Kate's life begins when she receives a phone call during an important client meeting at her law firm, telling her that her daughter Amelia has been suspended for cheating. Thanks to work issues and traffic, she's an hour late retrieving her daughter from school - one hour too late. By the time Kate arrives, Amelia is dead after plummeting off the school's roof. The brusque detective on the case declares it a suicide.

Kate is devastated. She blames herself, a single mother, for spending too many long hours at her gruelling job and not enough with her daughter. She thought her daughter was a grade-A student - why would she cheat on a paper? How could Kate not have known her daughter was troubled enough to take her own life?

These questions haunt her, until she receives a mysterious text a month later: "Amelia didn't jump."

Flash back two months, and we have Amelia, gearing up for a new school year at Grace Hall Academy. Now's the time that the school's secret clubs start recruiting new members. Although Amelia and her best friend Sylvia promise each other to give these clubs a wide berth, when overachieving, bookish Amelia is inexplicably tapped to join the popular Magpies, she can't resist going along to see what all the fuss is about.

Reconstructing Amelia is an interesting blend of genres. Half the book is a mystery, told in Kate's wavering, emotionally fragile voice as she tries to piece together what happened, discovering a surprising number of pieces that don't fit - missing coroner reports, malicious texts, half-naked pictures, a hostile school faculty, and the recurring question of Amelia's biological father.

The other half is a YA narrative told, in flashbacks, from Amelia's point of view, as she's subjected to the Magpies' humiliating and arbitrary hazing rituals, which she endures in order to further her new, burgeoning relationship with Dylan, a popular classmate. Amelia discovers new things about herself when she's around Dylan, but is it worth the escalating abuse she takes from Zadie, Dylan's best friend?

Impressively, both sides of the novel braid together nicely to tell an interesting story about mothers and daughters - how well do mothers really know their daughters, and vice versa? Kate feels guilty for how much her job kept her away from her daughter, and later blames herself for not seeing the signs that Amelia was in trouble. Yet her investigation into Amelia's classmates reveals that even their wealthy stay-at-home mothers can find ways to screw up and misunderstand their own children.

That being said, the first half of the novel is pretty slow going - while her motivations and emotions are understandable, Kate isn't quite remarkable or competent enough to carry off the mystery aspect of the novel by herself. What I mean is, she doesn't have a lot of narrative agency. Beyond engaging the new detective and her firm's tech wizard to track down clues, she spends most of the novel navel gazing, waiting by the phone for the professionals to give her more information, or else mucking up the case when she ignores their advice in a moment of emotional crisis. The bulk of her thoughts rests on examining herself as much as Amelia - whether her lifestyle, her professional choices, or the methods she used to cover up her own misbegotten past contributed to Amelia's death. All of this is fascinating stuff, but if you were expecting more of a mystery-detective story, you might be disappointed.

The second half of the novel picks up, and it's very satisfying to watch all the narrative chickens come home to roost. Kate, for all that she's not a very good detective by any stretch of the imagination, is an engaging and sympathetic character. Amelia even more so - especially since her development and awakening arrive tarnished with painful dramatic irony. The strength of the secondary cast is a little more hit-and-miss. Some (like Jeremy and Sylvia) are well-drawn and poignant, while others (particularly the other mothers) are painted with a superficial and stereotypical brush of Wealthy Put-Together Perfection that I thought was a little hypocritical to the novel's overall theme.

I find it particularly appropriate that this review is coming out on Mother's Day, since motherhood and its definition are one of the major themes of Reconstructing Amelia. What makes one a good mother? And does being a good mother mean knowing everything about your children, or will they always find some way to keep part of their lives secret and separate?

Reconstructing Amelia is a moderately entertaining and satisfying yarn with some interesting themes. I could have done with less passivity in Kate, a little more of a mystery element, and, honestly, a little more depth to some of the secondary characters. But otherwise, a solid effort.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

So You're Going to BEA (A Handy Guide)

Book Expo America is only a few (three!) weeks away. All the authors! All the exhibitors! All the events and parties and friends! 

Now that you've registered, half of you may be feeling:

But the other half of you is probably going:

Because BEA is BIG. It is monstrously huge and overwhelming and crowded with lots of people.

Plus, with the cost of registration, flights/transportation, hotels, and walking around money, your budget at the end of the trip is pretty much:

But do you need to worry?

And why not?


Getting There

At BEA, the dress code is business casual. In layman's terms: slacks instead of jeans, comfy shoes instead of neon-coloured sneakers, nothing with holes or tears (artistically-intended or otherwise), all your relevant creases and crevices should be covered, and you're good to go. You won't be turned away at the door if you do otherwise, but remember, Book Expo is a trade show and publishing is a business. People are working as well as playing and dressing appropriately is a sign of respect. 

As for packing tips:

Some things to bring with you that will help on your trip:

1) Comfortable Shoes. Your feet are going to hurt after Book Expo. This isn't a spoiler, but an established fact.
They will hurt whether you wear stiletto heels or sandals woven from the floppy curls of a thousand boyishly shy YA love interests. But the more comfortable shoes you wear, the longer you'll last on the exhibition floor before you inevitably break down and drag your bloody ankle stumps and prodigious Expo swag onto the shuttle back to your hotel. Keep this in mind.

2) A smaller, empty suitcase (I'll explain in a moment).

3) Business Cards - the very best way to keep in touch with your new friends and associates!

4) A data roaming plan from your cellphone provider. Why?

Paying for Wi-Fi at the Javits Center:
It suuuuuuuuucks.
The reception is notoriously bad as well, but it's still better than the WiFi. And believe me, you'll want to keep in touch with your friends via Twitter/Facebook/texting because the Javits centre is a huge place.

5) Handy, portable snacks. Why? Well, with all the wonderful stuff that goes on at BEA, there's really little to no time to leave the Javits and sit down for a decent lunch. Unfortunately:

Food at/near the Javits Center:
Although it doesn't exactly suck, you shouldn't have to pay $8.00 for one slice of pizza unless it's topped with ostrich meat and Terry Deary's delicious, delicious tears. This, Terry, is what's really taking money out of authors' pockets. 

6) A Priority List. You may not want to plan everything, but in order to keep from being overwhelmed, it's always good to make a list of things you really, especially want to see at BEA. Your favourite books. Your favourite authors. The publishers of your favourite books. Where are they? When will they be there? Will you need tickets? The BEA website has very detailed schedules, as will the publisher websites - and publishers will often hand out flyers with giveaway times while you're there. 

Being There

Yay! You made it to the Javits! Now what?

Here's where the previously mentioned Empty Suitcase comes in handy. The Empty Suitcase has two purposes:

1) It stores your swag! Yup - there are places at the Javits where, for a few dollars, you can check your bag for the entire day. Large bags and rolling suitcases aren't allowed on the exhibition floor (and for good reason), but your accumulating ARCs can get heavy. But it's the matter of a few minutes to pop out, empty your goody bags into your checked suitcase, and float back onto the exhibition floor without ever having to leave the center!

2) It ships your swag! If you're like me, and you live outside the U.S. or A Hella Long Way From NYC, shipping your BEA books back to your place of residence can be pricey. Last year, I packed my smaller, empty suitcase inside my regular one and when the time came to return to the Great White North, I put all my swag into both my suitcases and simply checked an extra bag onto my flight. It costs anywhere from $25-$50 to check an extra suitcase - which is still way cheaper than the $100 or more it would have cost to post them. Plus, I didn't have to wait three weeks to glom onto my hard-won ARCs.

Like a boss.

Another thing about being at the Javits Center - you likely won't be there all day for each day.

It's true. Most of the action happens in the morning, although publishers will schedule the occasional galley drops throughout the day. There's a million things to see and do - but eventually you may find yourself at 2:00 in the afternoon with nothing new to see and no interesting galleys or authors scheduled for the afternoon. It's okay to take a break. Rest your feet. Take a nap. Or better yet - go out and sightsee New York!

Behaving There

It goes without saying, but Book Expo can get extremely crowded. That's not necessarily a bad thing, so long as people respect each other and the publishers, authors, business people who are putting this exposition together for them. On that note - my handy list of Do's and Don'ts:

DO Take ARCs -- provided they are being offered. Lots of books in the booths are for display so it never hurts to ask. 

DON'T Take Every ARC - sure, they're free - until you factor in the physical cost of carrying them everywhere and the financial cost of shipping them home and the temporal cost of having to actually read them. What I mean is: don't take ARCs just because they're free. If the cover blurb is only so-so or you hated the author's previous book or the genre is one you tend not to like, don't take it. The people working the booth won't be offended - supplies are limited and this could very well be someone's Holy Grail of BEA Swag. 

I know, it's hard to resist the idea of Free! Books! - but that little greedy voice in your ear isn't doing you any favours.

DON'T Be a Little Bitch About ARCs.
Let's get this out of the way: you are not entitled to ANYTHING at Book Expo America. These galleys, ARCs, free finished copies, and goodies are gifts, separate from the cost of your registration. They are produced for marketing purposes, and supplies are not infinite. 
This means, no, you can't take five copies of a particular ARC in order to host a giveaway on your blog. 
This means, no, you have no right to bitch or moan or complain if the galley drop is late or cancelled or they run out while you're still in line. 
This means, no, ARC-hunting is not a competitive sport and getting more ARCs than anyone else doesn't make you a Better Blogger - it makes you a Braggart, and a wasteful one at that if you're not personally excited about or interested in every single one you snagged. 

DO Be Polite
You'd think this goes without saying.
You'd be wrong.

Remember how BEA's dress code is Business Casual? Let's go ahead and assume that BEA's behaviour code is also Business Casual - as in, people want you to have fun, relax, meet great people and have great conversations, but if you wouldn't be able to get away with certain behaviours at your workplace, you shouldn't try to do so here. 

DO Meet Your Favourite Authors!
You know who fans love running into at BEA? Their favourite authors! You know who authors love running into at BEA? Their fans! It's a match made in heaven!

There are many opportunities to meet your favourite authors - at panels, at their publisher booths, at their breakfasts, at their autographing tables - even sometimes on the exhibition floor, just chillin' (how I met John Green!). It's a great way to introduce yourself and tell them how much you loved their book, and even ask them questions (if there's time - if you're in a long line, please use your discretion).

DON'T Stalk Your Favourite Authors
Keep in mind, though, that authors go to BEA to network and have fun, too. Don't follow them around the exhibition floor unless they've stolen your totebag with your Rose Under Fire ARC inside. If you meet them on the floor but they're deep in conversation with someone else, don't barge in and interrupt. Keep it all in the Javits - if you have to follow them to the bathroom, in a cab, to their hotel room for a chance to talk to them, you've gone too far. 

Last but not least,

Do. Not. Pitch. Your. Book. To. Anyone.

Book Expo America is about Publishing, not Writing. It'd be like trying to sell eggs at a fried chicken expo - BEA is more focused on the finished product. Actual books, and getting them in the reader's hands. I mean, if an editor asks you for a pitch or to submit something, you're a Special Snowflake. But this is neither the time nor the place to pimp your manuscript on your own. You will not make a good first impression. You will only annoy very powerful people in publishing.

And that leaves:

Leaving There
Upon returning home from Book Expo America, take care to perform the following two steps:

Step One

Step Two

And that's about it! Any other questions or tips? Leave them in the comments!

Sunday, May 05, 2013

The Weekly Wanting (26)

Well, it's that time of the week again - time for a Weekly Wanting!

This has been a real roller coaster of a week for me. I'm working on a post about Book Expo America (Do's and Don'ts), I'm working on some articles, and - best of all! - I found out I won a two-night stay at the Library Hotel in New York City! I have always wanted to stay in the Library Hotel ever since I found out it existed - every floor is a section of the Dewey Decimal system, every room pertains to a section of literature - Poetry, Fairy Tales, History - everything about this hotel is about books, books, books!

Of course, staying there would also require Money, Money, Money, and I figured I didn't have enough to stay there anytime in the near future. That is, until I entered their Poetry Contest and won! I haven't decided when I'll go (it's too late to schedule the room for Book Expo America), but I'm still crazy excited!

But on to what books I'm crazy about this week:

Genre: Fiction, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: Icy Dead People.
Story: A married couple go on a skiing trip and are swept up in an avalanche. Although they seemingly survive - when they return to an empty town, they begin to suspect they might not have...
Why I Want It: I really enjoyed Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale, and this novel seems to have a similar concept - using a fantasy device to tell a deeply sympathetic human story. I'm in!

Genre: YA, Mystery.
Cover Snark: That green water does not look healthy to swim in.
Story: A girl goes swimming in a manmade lake over what was once her hometown, and discovers that some secrets may still lie buried beneath the waters.
Why I Want It: I love mysteries about long-hidden secrets, particularly with small-town settings. Plus, I love the idea of a city beneath a lake.

Genre: Historical, Fantasy.
Cover Snark: I'm hunting angels, instead!
Story: Part novel (about a Victorian-era doctor who documents impossible creatures), part imaginary science book about mythological creatures (complete with illustrations!).
Why I Want It: I've seen samples of some of the illustrations and journal entries online, and I'd love to see how creatures like mermaids and angels are "scientifically" explained.

Genre: Historical, Fiction.
Cover Snark: I am a Pirate Cheeeef (oh yes, he is a Pirate Chef!)
Story: A famous chef is captured by a vicious lady pirate and the only way he'll survive is if he continually cooks her fantastic meals using only their regular ship's rations.
Why I Want It: The story sounds gonzo and amazing - pirates and gourmet food! Possibly romance! Swashbuckling and soufflés! Yes please!
Genre: Fantasy, Short Story Anthology.
Cover Snark: I got nuthin' - this cover is gorgeous!
Story: It's a set of short stories all dealing with Cornish folklore popping up in contemporary life.
Why I Want It: I love England and I love magical-realism short stories even more!
Genre: YA, Paranormal.
Cover Snark: Silence of the Cover Art.
Story: When our heroine dies in a freak fall, she becomes a ghost and has to hear other people talk about her - including about how she might have jumped on purpose. Afterlife's a pain until she discovers that whenever someone does think about her, she can possess them and make them do whatever she wants. 
Why I Want It: The concept sounds like something someone could have a lot of fun with, and I'm interested in how they'd deal with a ghost protagonist.

"Fathomless," by Jackson Pearce (Little, Brown; 2012)

The Protagonist: Celia. One of three triplets with psychic powers, she finally discovers her ability to see into a person's past might be useful when she discovers she can help a mysterious ocean girl regain her memories.
Her Angst: Can she possibly keep the ocean girl a secret from both her psychic sisters and the cute boy who thinks she rescued him from drowning?

The Other Protagonist: Lo. An underwater creature who lives in a sunken ship with her sisters, slowly losing her memories of being human, day by day.
Her Angst: She wants a different life than this - but what if getting it means losing her identity?

The Other, Other Protagonist: Naida. A human girl who was torn from her home, stripped of her memory, and transformed into an ocean girl named Lo.
Her Angst: How far will she go to regain her old life?

The Secondary Cast:

Anne: Celia's sister. Can see the future.

Jane: Celia's other sister. Can see the present by reading people's thoughts.

Jude: An adorable musician who almost drowned until Lo saved him, although he thinks Celia did it.

Key: Lo's best friend under the sea, who is desperate to believe their myths that she'll turn into an angel.

Molly: The newest ocean girl, who still remembers enough of her past to prove that the "angels" all the ocean girls worship aren't as benevolent as they seem.

Angst Checklist:
  • Sibling Rivalry
  • Loneliness
  • Magical Twin Powers
  • Magical Triplet Powers
  • Inconvenient Foot Pain
  • My Psychic Power Is Totally Lamer than My Sisters'
  • Dampness
  • Hipster Musicians
  • One of My Personalities Is a Desperate Murderer and I'm Not Sure Which One
The Word: Despite my concern about reading Jackson Pearce after hearing about how slutshamey Sisters Red was, I've always been a fan of The Little Mermaid (both the Anderson tragedy and the Disney film) and hearing that Fathomless would be a modern retelling piqued my interest in spite of myself. Unfortunately, despite the cleverness of Pearce's adaptation, the ending was a silly, undeveloped mess.

Our "mermaid" is Lo - an ocean girl who lives under the sea with her sisters near an unnamed coastal tourist town. Lo used to be human once - all the ocean girls were born human - but her memories of her human life and how the angels changed her into a sea creature are hazy and indistinct. While she loves the ocean and her sisters, she longs for something more, but her kind have only two options. They can wait out their time, grow old, and turn into an angel themselves - or they can charm a human boy into the ocean and then steal his soul by drowning him, which has rarely, if ever, worked.

When a young musician falls off the pier, Lo's newest sister sees this as her chance to try and steal his soul. However, Lo, knowing this attempt will inevitably fail and only kill an innocent boy, has had enough with this tradition and drags him to shore. There, she meets a human girl named Celia, who grabs her arm before she escapes and mutters a name. Lo's human name. A name she's forgotten - along with the rest of her human memories.

Celia is one of a set of triplets who are attending boarding school in the area. Unbeknownst to everyone, she and her sisters Anne and Jane have psychic powers. By touching people, Anne can determine their future, Jane can sense their present thoughts, and Celia can see their past. Celia's always believed her powers are lame - what's the point of seeing someone's unchangeable past? - and has always felt somewhat separate from her sisters, who use their Awesome Powers to scam boys into buying them dinner.

When she touches the strange ocean girl who rescued the musician from the waves, she can see her past - including her name, Naida. Nothing about this strange girl makes sense, so when the paramedics arrive, Celia keeps Naida to herself and is thus mistaken for the boy's real rescuer.

Lo wants to meet Celia again, to see if Celia can find out more about her past - and Celia is also fascinated with Lo/Naida, and the possibility that her powers might not be as useless as she thought. Meanwhile, both girls develop an affection for Jude, the affable, impoverished guitar player they saved from certain death.

The story itself is interesting - and I really loved how Pearce worked the details of the original fairy tale (the false rescuer, the sisters, the mermaid's pain at walking on land, the mermaid's ultimate sacrifice) into a contemporary narrative. I also liked Celia's characterization - imagine having special powers that are still less special than your sisters'! I appreciated how she felt at once left out of her sisters' circle and inextricably bound to them, and how important it was to her to suddenly have something that was hers, just hers, that she didn't have to share with her loving, if controlling, siblings.

However, everything else - like Lo's characterization, the worldbuilding, and the ultimate payoff - were disappointing and nonsensical.

With Lo, once she remembers her human name and memories, her past self of Naida becomes a separate personality from her present mermaid self, which doesn't make a lick of sense and really confuses both half-characters. At the beginning of the novel, Lo wants to become human and know her human identity, but once she gets it, suddenly she's afraid that her present consciousness will have to "die" in order for Naida to get her life back. What? Because of this, Lo's character is only half-developed - her actual desires and motivations are baffling and unclear, especially once Lo and Naida start "fighting" about their future.

Similarly, the worldbuilding is just plain ridiculous. The mystery of the ocean girls' origins permeates the entire novel - who are these ocean girls? Who are the "angels" who took them away from their human lives? And why did they do it? These are the unanswered questions that kept me reading to the end.

Spoiler territory, folks.

The answers are disappointingly silly and undeveloped. It's obvious the "angels" aren't really the benevolent forces the ocean girls believe they are, but I certainly wasn't expecting them to be werewolves. Yes, you read that right, WEREWOLVES. They hunt for girls to render them soulless like themselves - except they have to, er, "stew" in the ocean as mermaids for a certain amount of time first to erase them of all humanity. When a mermaid is completely soulless, she emerges from the sea and turns into a giant, ravenous wolf.

Because wolves have everything to do with the ocean, am I right?

The monsters' payoff in this novel is just so random and shallow. No explanation is given for why a soulless, sea-dwelling creature would suddenly evolve into a completely unrelated, land-based monster who has never had any mythological or folkloric ties to mermaids whatsoever. Why wolves? Why not turtles? Or sharks? Or the Creature from the Blue Lagoon - or something that is in some way related to the ocean since it's a key aspect of THE ENTIRE NOVEL?

Of course, it's all swept under the rug with the half-assed, unspoken explanation of "They're Just Fantasy Monsters, Deal With It." Writing fantasy means you can write your own rules - it doesn't mean you can write without rules and expect the genre label to explain everything. You want to write a story where mermaids turn into werewolves? Fine - just so long as you explain and develop your core concept. Otherwise, how are we to understand the true situation and the stakes involved? Robin Hobb wrote an entire trilogy about how sea serpents are connected to dragons, and it made sense because she wrote about how and why it worked.

Here Endeth the Spoilers.

Honestly, by the end, the over-the-top randomness of the conclusion pulled me completely out of the story. While Fathomless started out strongly with an interesting twist on a beloved tale, it ended up with  undeveloped plotting, confusing characters, laughable worldbuilding, and a needlessly sad and unsatisfying payoff.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

"Some Kind of Fairy Tale," by Graham Joyce (Gollancz, 2012)

The Primary Characters:

Tara: Before she turned sixteen, she wandered into the woods and vanished without a trace. 20 years later, she's back, seemingly unchanged, with one whopper of a story to tell.

Peter: Tara's brother. Now a hardworking father of four, he's forced to revisit the painful past when his sister turns up out of the blue.

Richie: Tara's boyfriend - and the prime suspect in her disappearance. The experience cost him his best friend and his faith in himself - now that Tara is back and his name has been cleared, can he start to rebuild?

The Secondary Cast:

Jack: Peter's teenage son who befriends the uncanny, elderly Mrs. Larwood after accidentally killing her cat.

Vivian Underwood: Tara's psychiatrist, who examines Tara and questions her about her experiences while trying to find an underlying cause for her apparent delusions.

Mrs. Larwood: An elderly neighbour of Peter's with a mysterious link to Tara.

Hiero: The name of the unearthly gentleman who led Tara away from her family and into another, magical dimension.

The Word: Peter is a middle-aged man content with his life. He works as a farrier in a small English village, he shepherds a boisterous clan of children, he adores his loving but frazzled wife, and he continually fixes his falling-apart cottage. His complacent, uncomplicated life abruptly shatters when he receives an astounding phone call on Christmas Day: his sister, Tara, has returned home - after going missing twenty years ago.

Two decades ago, Peter was eighteen, and losing his sister wounded him to his core and destroyed his relationship with his best friend Richie, whom he and his family blamed for Tara's disappearance (Richie was Tara's boyfriend at the time). He's always wondered and worried about Tara - but now that she's actually back...

Tara doesn't look any older than 16 (the age when she disappeared). She wears dark glasses all the time. Worse - she clings to an inexcusable, unbelievable, impossible excuse for her absence for all these years. She met a man on a white horse in the woods, she says, and was carried away to a strange land. She fought to return for six months - but six months in that world turned out to be twenty in this one.

Peter is furious. Their parents are bewildered. And for Richie - now a down-on-his-luck musician - it's one hell of a wake-up call. After years of sleepwalking through life and writing songs about his first love whose disappearance broke his heart, Richie has to confront that girl and the choices of his past, face to face.

With Some Kind of Fairy Tale, Tara's fairy abduction is part of the story without actually being the story. Rather, Tara's miraculous reappearance serves as a fantasy-tinged catalyst for a poignant, thoughtful exploration of growing up and the inevitable passage of time. Peter, while trying to mend fences with Richie, discovers their friendship will never be quite the same since they're no longer stupid teenagers who can get away with drunken shenanigans (although they still try to). His own children are growing up far too quickly for his liking - his daughter Zoe is now the exact age Tara was when she vanished. Yet the novel also looks at characters for whom time has stopped (magically in Tara's case, emotionally in Richie's) and how isolating and destructive that can be.

While the fantastical set-up is entertaining, the novel shines most in its themes, its character development, and its use of perspective. I love novels with multiple perspectives, and here, we have a whole host of colourful, detailed people from both the present and the past weighing in on Peter, Richie, and Tara's shared history. Joyce aptly conveys each character's struggle to accept Tara's story and reconcile that with how they adapted to her absence.

Honestly, the "real world" portions of the book are full of such vibrant humanity, depth and warmth that the "fantasy" portions (Tara's recollections of fairyland) seem paler and shallower in comparison. If you are reading this novel looking for a pure fantasy read, you're going to be disappointed. This isn't really a fantasy novel - it's fiction with fantasy elements. The story hinges on Tara's disappearance - but the hows and whys behind her actual absence aren't really that important. The story is compelling all on its own - even if the ending wanders into bittersweet territory.

I must give a shout-out to The Book Smugglers for recommending this novel, because otherwise I might have passed it by, and that would have been a shame. With its diverse points of view, well-developed themes and rich cast of characters, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is an imaginative, satisfying read.