Sunday, June 30, 2013

"Burn for Burn," by Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han (SimonTEEN, 2012)

The Primary Cast:

Kat: A lower-class girl who's had enough of being the butt of her ex-best friend's nasty numours.

Lillia: A member of the popular crowd who wants to protect her little sister from her own group's increasingly negative influence.

Mary: A mysterious girl who returns to Jar Island after years away to confront the boy who ruined her life.

The Secondary Cast:

Rennie: The Queen Bitch of Jar High who'll do anything to get what she wants - and she's not afraid to cast her former best friends aside to get it.

Alex: A popular football player who seems like a nice guy - until Kat apparently catches him fooling around with Lillia's 14-year-old sister.

Reeve: The school's popular bad boy and a total jackass.

Nadia: Lillia's little sister, with whom she used to have a close bond, until Nadia started lying and sneaking out late at night.

Angst Checklist:

  • The Ethics of Vengeance
  • Bullying
  • Frenemies
  • Suicide
  • Friendship
  • Really Emo Poetry
  • Rape
  • Trust Issues
  • Drugs
  • Sudden Psychic Powers

The Word: Revenge is a dish best served cold - but sometime it's even better when it's shared. In the small but economically diverse community of Jar Island, three girls from three very different backgrounds decide to team up to get payback against their tormenters.

Kat used to be childhood best friends with Rennie - until Rennie became the Mean Girl Queen Bee, threw Kat to the curb, and slandered her with disgusting rumours about her white-trash ways to clean up her own lower-class image. For years, Kat has been swallowing her anger and resentment, but for her senior year, she decides to make Rennie pay.

Unexpectedly, she finds an ally in Lillia - a wealthy girl and Rennie's BFF who, unbeknownst to Kat, is still recovering from the horrific results of following Rennie's lead. Now all Lillia wants to do is keep the same thing from happening to her little sister Nadia, a freshman cheerleader-to-be. When she finds out her little sis got drunk at her first party and spent the night with Alex, a senior boy she thought was her friend, Lillia decides Alex ought to learn a lesson about taking advantage of drunk girls.

Finally, we have Mary, a former resident of Jar Island who was forced to leave under mysterious circumstances when resident popular boy Reeve made her the target of his particularly vicious brand of bullying. Now she's back to stare her former tormentor in the face - and she's not the same girl she was when she left. Not by a long shot.

When these girls discover they all have a beef with a member of the popular clique, they decide to team up, in secret, and take down each member as a group, one by one.

Part of what I love about Burn for Burn is how unexpectedly complex it is, and how much history, setting, and background Vivian and Han convey in a relatively short time without compromising the main plot. Jar Island is a fascinating and diverse setting - with a social strata comprised of summer tourists, impoverished locals, renegade artists and old money families, and all of this confined to an isolated island whose only connection to the mainland is by ferry. Our characters have countless social and economic boundaries to jump across in their interactions with other people.

Nothing in this book exists in a vacuum - everyone has ties to everyone else. I was fascinated by the fact that Kat, Rennie, and Lillia all used to be best friends as children, and how the present-day Kat and Lillia interact from their now vastly different social spheres. Everyone has a background and a motivation - even (perhaps especially) the targets Alex, Rennie, and Reeve, which leads to understandable complications as our heroines have to really consider whether they should go forward with their revenge schemes.

Along with that, the book is excellently paced and addictive, and divides its narrative evenly between all three girls' viewpoints. There is plenty of scandal (both internal and external), important flashbacks, reflections on the nature of friendship, and even a sneaky paranormal element. Our heroines are definitely not perfect or even particularly moral, but they are incredibly charismatic, interesting, and likeable.

If I could find one flaw with the novel, I might wish that the ending was less of an abrupt cliffhanger - but at the same time, I like the idea of the trilogy reading more like one enormous story than three separate ones. Perhaps my opinion on this would be different if I didn't already have the ARC of Fire With Fire from BEA (although I have to wait until September to read it!).

If you're in the mood for a delicious beach read with superior characterization and a fantastically-realized setting, I can't recommend Burn for Burn enough.

"Far Far Away," by Tom NcNeal (Knopf, 2013)

The Protagonist: Jeremy Johnson Johnson. A young boy in a small town who can hear ghosts.
His Angst: The bank is going to foreclose on his family's store and home, but his father is too depressed to even get out of bed. Plus this crazy redheaded girl is getting him into some pretty weird shit.

Secondary Characters:

Ginger Boultinghouse: An inconsistent, unstable Manic Pixie Dream Girl who wants Jeremy Johnson Johnson. For some reason. Is also dating Conk Crinklaw. Maybe?

Jacob Grimm: A lonely ghost who thinks helping Jeremy by tutoring him for university will heal his unresolved issues and let him pass on into the afterlife.

Conk Crinklaw: The rowdy son of the town mayor who inexplicably hangs out with and does favours for Ginger despite the fact that she treats him like hot garbage.

Jenny Applegarth: A frequently-divorced waitress who falls for Jeremy's father.

Deputy McRaven: A cruel and sinister character with an unnatural obsession for Ginger.

Blix: The kindly town baker who is known for his famous Prince Cakes - which are said to make you fall in love with whomever you look at when you eat your first bite.

The Finder of Occasions: The Big Bad - because he, uh, finds occasions?

The Tweets: I livetweeted my reaction to this novel here.

Angst Checklist:
  • My dad's too depressed to parent me unless there's chicken pot pie involved
  • Token Homophobia
  • I Hear Dead People
  • I Don't Understand Why This Teenage Boy I'm Tutoring Is More Interested In Boobs Than Studying
  • Gossip
  • Wild, Crazy Redheads
  • Child Murder

The Word: I could totally do a cheesy pun about how "Far Far Away ... is how far you should run from this book!" but I like to think my blog is slightly too classy for those types of shenanigans.

Instead, let's just say Far Far Away is a cutesy, grating, and poorly-plotted tale that fails from the outset and just keeps getting worse.

Firstly - our main narrator is the ghost of Jacob Grimm (yes, that Grimm), who has wandered the world searching for a way to finish his unfinished business and move on to the afterlife. Upon discovering American teenager Jeremy Johnson Johnson can hear his voice, he decides (for some reason) that his purpose must be to protect, instruct, and constantly nag Jeremy about schoolwork. So yes, this story about contemporary teenagers is narrated entirely in the stilted, exaggeratedly "old-timey" voice of a ghostly adult scholar. Let that one sink in.

Jeremy is barely making ends meet by doing odd jobs around his village of Never Better, since his severely depressed father has not shaved, worked, or left the house in years. All of that changes when Ginger Boultinghouse, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl to end all Manic Pixie Dream Girls, decides to include him in a prank against the town's beloved baker that goes disastrously awry.

While all of this is going on, Jacob Grimm also has to keep an eye out for a mysterious, malevolent entity known only as the Finder of Occasions - who is supposed to be a Big Deal despite sounding like an entry-level position at Hallmark.

For the first half of this novel, there is little to no actual plot. Jeremy Johnson Johnson might as well be made out of Play-Doh for all the initiative he displays. He's just a Good Boy With a Pure HeartTM. He cares for his depressed father without complaint. He does all his schoolwork. He always tries to make the right decision. He has no real desires or motivations of his own beyond being the world's most passive Gary Stu.

Good thing there's the horrifically contrived Manic Pixie Dream Girl Ginger to steer Jeremy down a different path! Ginger's unstable, selfish, and offensive behaviour is probably meant to seem Wild, Untamed, and Adventurous - but really, she's a bullying user with no real character development who asks for favours with one hand while delivering insults with the other.

I might have tolerated her if she'd been a developed character in her own right, but, like most Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she exists solely to serve the hero's story as well as his budding sexual desires with her Wild Untamedness. What's her homelife like? What are her own personal motivations? Not important! She's just there to seem Magically Unattainable so that it's all the sweeter when the hero "wins" her.

Even Jacob Grimm the Haunted House Reject hates Ginger but his attempts to lure Jeremy back to studying come to naught, and we get 150 pages of Jeremy placidly accompanying Ginger on her random escapades while Jacob wrings his ghostly hands and curses the advent of puberty. The novel then takes a sharp left turn down WTF Alley and suddenly we're dealing with serial killers, torture dungeons, child abuse, and pedophiles.

I'm not even kidding. The biggest flaw in Far Far Away is its' wildly uneven tone. For a long time, I couldn't figure out whether this novel was YA or Middle Grade. The simplistic characters with twee names (like Conk, Dauntless, and Burpo), the exaggeratedly odd set pieces, and the immature behaviour of the protagonists suggest Middle Grade. But then we discover the sinister Deputy McRaven who's been following Ginger and making comments about how she "gets around" (she's fifteen!) is in love with her - which suggests YA. Or an episode of To Catch a Predator.

But then there's the fact that McRaven's obsession is never brought up or addressed again beyond a throw away mention that he's now a "laughingstock." Um, I don't know about you, but most people don't laugh at adult male authority figures who harbour obsessive romantic fantasies about fifteen-year-old girls.

And yet, the novel still seems too immature to really be a YA novel. While the story hints at several serious themes (mental illness, parental abandonment, prejudice, homophobia - and did I mention the serial childkiller with a torture dungeon?), it either brushes them under the rug or solves them in insultingly simplified ways. Like how Jeremy's severely depressed father, who was unable to leave his house to pick up his own son from the police station, is magically able to spruce himself up to go on a date with a virtual stranger after knowing her for a day. Or the character who was thought to be the first victim of the serial killer who turns up alive twenty years later for no apparent reason.

I realize that these miraculous events work in fairy tales, but this novel explicitly tells us through Jacob Grimm that the real world isn't as simple as the stories he collected when he was alive.

At the end of the day, the only thing I would categorize Far Far Away as is one hot mess.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Movie Review: "The Heat" (2012)

I wasn't especially excited about The Heat when I first saw the trailer, but when my sister asked me to come along, I figured - why not? I like buddy cop movies. I like Melissa McCarthy and I have occasionally liked Sandra Bullock, in movies that don't involve football. Or people in comas. It shouldn't be that bad.

Well, you guys, I saw The Heat, and I loved it. It gave me feels - and not just any feels. Feminist feels. Bechtel-Test-passing feels.

The film opens on both protagonists doing what they are best at: the tightly-laced analytical FBI agent Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) uncovers drugs and guns in a house her male colleagues have already searched and deemed clean, and wildcard Boston cop Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) takes down a misogynistic john and a neighbourhood drug dealer.

It's that drug dealer who brings Ashburn and Mullins together - Ashburn, gunning for a promotion, has been tasked with tracking down Boston's most notorious drug kingpin, and Mullin's perp is one of his lackeys. Naturally, this means Ashburn and Mullins must work together to solve the case, and in terms of storytelling, it follows the formula of odd-couple buddy cop movies pretty faithfully - first they don't understand each other, then they bond as their partnership becomes more effective, then they royally screw up and lose their superiors' support and have to fix things on their own, and so on and so forth.

It's pretty much just like any other buddy cop movie, with a lot of really effective humour and dialogue, even if the pacing does sag a bit in the middle. And that's why I liked it.

The Heat gave me seriously awesome feminist vibes for several reasons. First off, while the film is full of jokes, absolutely none of them are about Melissa McCarthy's weight. None. Her body size isn't even mentioned, by the good guys or villains. Now, while I'll admit that I've laughed at fat jokes and even laughed at McCarthy intentionally being the butt of fat jokes, it was refreshing to be able to laugh at something else about her for a change - like how her character is a trigger-happy, fast-talking slob who is a weapons violation waiting to happen.

Second, while there is a very light flirtation between Ashburn and an adorably restrained FBI officer played by Marlon Wayans, neither heroine is overtly sexualized. There is a scene in a nightclub where Mullins tries to "sex up" the buttoned-down Ashburn's wardrobe with a pair of scissors and some imagination, but the result winds up cannily parodying the "DIY makeover" trope so common in romantic comedies.

As well, neither heroine is threatened with gendered or sexual violence. They are shot at, tackled, hit, stabbed, sure, but these are pretty standard-issue cop-movie injuries. There are no rape threats. There are no scenes where the villain sniffs the heroine's hair and says he'll have his way with her before killing her. There is a comment where a torturer who likes to use an oyster shucker asks if the subdued heroines would like "their oysters shucked," but that's the extent of it.

Lastly, both Ashburn and Mullins start out the film as pretty unpleasant people. Ashburn is a straight-laced, by-the-book character who is very aware of her own strengths, and thus comes off as condescending, detached, and abrupt in social situations. At the beginning of the film, her director admits he's not sure she's a good fit for the promotion because none of her coworkers like her. She's received dozens of complaints for arrogance and showboating.

Mullins, meanwhile, is extremely vulgar, immature, violent and crass. She lobs insults and profanities at anyone who annoys her for so much as a moment. When the FBI horns in on her case, she spends a solid ten minutes reaming out her police captain in front of the entire precinct and dumps out the contents of Ashburn's briefcase in a childish rage. She's also promiscuous - several times in the film she runs into heartbroken one night stands and she's not shy about letting them down less-than-gently.

And yet, what's awesome about The Heat is that these female characters are allowed to be unpleasant. Hollywood movies have no shortage of heroines who start out mean or nasty - but the healing power of Love and/or Friendship is quick to teach them the importance of opening up, learning to express their feelings, making friends, and smiling more. Hell, look at Bullock's resume - in both Miss Congeniality and The Proposal, she starts out as a lone wolf who does things her own way and is disrespected by her peers, but thanks to learning that Beauty Pageant Contestants are Nice People and Ryan Reynold's Abs Are Magic, she learns the error of her unladylike/ice queen ways.

Of course, both Ashburn and Mullins learn and change in this movie - they develop respect for the others' policing methods, they learn to recognize their own self-destructive behaviours, and they do end up as close friends - but they also don't suddenly become nicer people. At the end of the movie, Ashburn is still as straight laced and confident as ever - and if her hilarious stunts with the villains are any indication, she won't be giving up "showboating" anytime soon. And one of the film's final scenes shows Mullins casually pulling a gun on a nurse in a hospital so she can still talk on her cellphone.

I loved this and the fact that the movie makes us think about this. Yes, Ashburn is disliked by her colleagues for her "arrogance" and "showboating" - but neither of these complaints have anything to do with her skills as a FBI agent, just her behaviour while using those skills. Her colleagues are all men over whom she has authority and the film's first scene involves her chewing out her all-male FBI taskforce for their carelessness in searching a drug den. So her (male) coworkers hate her because she's abrasive, rude, and superior - and yet the Male Authority Figure Who Is Loud, Rude, Abrasive, and Never Satisfied is such a popular cop procedural trope that the movie Last Action Hero made fun of it. In 1993.

The fact is, when it comes to traditional storytelling, male protagonists have to be interesting, but female protagonists have to be likeable. During my time in the romance novel community, I learned that readers tended to be harder on the heroines' behaviour than the heroes' - heroes could get away with being seducers, pirates, kidnappers, convicts, even rapists; while heroines could be dismissed for being merely cold or emotionally distant.

This comes from a deeply ingrained societal expectation that women should be nice. They can do anything a man can do - of course they can - but there's nothing wrong with being polite and respectful about it! And of course men are expected to be polite and respectful, too - but when the chips are down and the clock is ticking and lives are on the line, sometimes a man has to take drastic measures!

When The Heat begins, Ashburn and Mullins are already supremely talented members of law enforcement - they're just not very humble or nice about it. And the film allows them to remain that way. They learn more about themselves, and learn more about each other, and learn to search beyond their own perspective and prejudices - but none of this results in them toning down their personalities or being more modest about their skills or being more polite to their colleagues.

Which is pretty much how their male counterparts in buddy cop movies are allowed to operate. Sure, Axel Foley learned a few things about Beverly Hills, but he never stopped being an arrogant wiseass.

So, as weird as it sounds, the best part of The Heat as a buddy cop movie was that it was just like every other buddy copy movie - with great jokes, hilarious chemistry between the leads, and a fair amount of explosions and flying bullets.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

"Can't Buy Me Love," by Molly O'Keefe (Bantam, 2012)

The Chick: Tara Jean Sweet, a.k.a. Jane Simmons. A fashion designer with a criminal history working for the wealthy Lyle Baker, she agrees to be his fake fiancee in order to manipulate his children into coming home.
The Rub: When Lyle dies, Tara Jean is left to share the business with his son - his very angry, disconcertingly sexy, daddy-issues-riddled son.
Dream Casting: Katherine Heigl.

The Dude: Wayne "Luc" Baker, a.k.a. The Ice Man. An aging hockey player who just wants one more year on the ice to try and win the Stanley Cup - as long as he can convince his team that he doesn't actually have a dangerous head injury.
The Rub: Part of his father's will stipulates he has to stay on the ranch for five months or his destitute sister will get nothing - but the last thing he wants is memories of his father conflicting with his compulsive attraction to his gold-digging fiancee.
Dream Casting: Bradley Cooper.

The Plot:

Lyle Baker: Be my fake fiancee to lure my spoiled children home to roost!

Tara Jean: Sure!

Luc: Why am I here?

Lyle: One last order of Daddy Issues before I croak! Mwahahahaha--*dies*

Luc: You're a ho! Except that you're smart and tough and stuff....

Tara Jean: You're a spoiled brat! Wait, you have actual decency and chivalry and compassion for others?

Luc: Apology sex?

Tara Jean: Just what I was thinking! Hssss! Feelings! They burn! *flees*


Tara Jean: NO!


Tara Jean and Luc: Let's not tell her she's dating a monster. She's in a really fragile state right now. We are such a smart team of good decision makers--

Psychotic Evil Ex Dennis: Hey I'm here with a gun for the Could Have Been Avoided Climax!

Tara Jean and Luc: ... poop.

Psychotic Evil Ex Dennis: *defeated*

Eli, Secondary Character Who Gets His Own Book: At least it's a good climax! And I got to shoot my gun like a badass and everything! Silver lining!

Luc: I can't love you until you learn to love yourself.

Tara Jean: Give me a few days of introspection so that I can show up dramatically at your press conference. ... Ta da!


Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Set of Daddy Issues
  • 1 Set of Mommy Issues
  • 1 Very Bad Dad (Eventually Deceased)
  • 1 Awesomely Fierce Supermodel Mum
  • Several Cows
  • 1 (Possible) Brain-Eating Protein
  • 1 Evil Ex
  • 1 Plot Moppet
  • Several Bags of Candy
  • 1 Cheap Shot on the Ice
  • 1 Very Short Leather Skirt
  • 2 Prequel Baiting Characters (Eli and Victoria)

The Word: I'll admit it - I think I've become burnt out on romances. For a couple of years, I read exclusively romance and over-reading in the same genre left me especially sensitive to tropes that I hate - like the TSTL heroine. The Slutty Ex. The Baby Awakening (where the heroine holds a stranger's baby and realizes Damn I Need to Be a Mother Right The Hell Now). I couldn't just sit back, relax, and enjoy the fluff the way that I used to. And, looking back, the recent romances that I've loved have all confronted or reversed a popular trope in some way.

It hasn't made me stop reading romance yet, but it has made me cagey about trying new authors I haven't read before.

Which is why I must offer thanks to Dear Author and The Hypeless Romantic for their glowing reviews of Molly O'Keefe's novel Can't Buy Me Love, the first in a trilogy about a Dallas cattle ranch.

At the risk of dipping into my inadequate Stefon impersonation, this novel has everything: smart heroines with white trash pasts, alpha heroes with actual restraint, flawed but not demonized supporting characters, evil but still developed father figures. And who's that? Is that Celine Dion? No! It's the hero's French-Canadian supermodel mother who is Fierce and Gorgeous and not depicted as a superficial, unloving aging glamazon!

But let's back up a bit. Our heroine is Tara Jean Sweet, a fashion designer with a Dark Past who singlehandedly saved Baker Leather with her gleefully trampy designs for boots, bustiers, and hot pants. She owes her success and her new life to her boss, professional old coot Lyle Baker. It's because she owes Lyle everything that she's willing to pose as his new gold-digging fiancee in order to trick his estranged children Luc and Victoria back to his Texas ranch before he succumbs to illness/old age/extreme bitterness.

And it works - prodigal daughter Victoria returns to claim her share of the inheritance in order to build a new life for herself and her son. Prodigal son Luc, known as the "Ice Man," is a world-famous hockey player, so he has no need of money and even less need to fulfill his despised father's manipulative schemes. However, he's also nursing a secret head injury that could jeopardize his chances of playing one more year and finally winning the Stanley Cup before retiring, and his father's ranch is the perfect place to hide from the press during the off-season.

There are a lot of reasons this novel works, so I'll focus my review on the two top reasons: the characters, and the plot parallels.

The character development in this novel is simply amazing. These characters are flawed and angry and pathetic and self-loathing and leap to incorrect assumptions, but they are given the backgrounds, development, and motivations to explain the flawed ways they think and behave. Tara Jean and Luc start out at odds (he thinks she's a gold-digging ho, she thinks he's a spoiled Poor Little Rich Boy), even though their deep-seated insecurities are eerily similar.

Tara Jean has no self-esteem to speak of. She's grateful to Lyle for the chance to make a legitimate living, but she has never forgiven herself for her con artist past. She repeatedly describes herself as a "monster," a "poison," or a "frozen desert," and feels unworthy of real relationships. Her self-loathing is serious and deeply-ingrained, and her core conflict rests between her sincere desire to change versus her conviction that she's unable to. That being said, she's a survivor who knows how to put on a good game face, and she refuses to let Luc drive her away from the business she's built.

Luc, for his part, is smart enough to realize when the facts don't match up with his assumptions. He's also observant enough to glimpse the real Tara Jean beneath her Bimbo Barbie facade, so we don't get chapter after chapter of Luc misunderstanding Tara Jean's actions. He simply becomes more and more intrigued by her, which both excites and terrifies her. He also hopes to use her as a distraction from his own impending identity crisis: he operates in violent denial of his doctor's diagnosis that any further injury could handicap him permanently, and he refuses to accept that he cannot play hockey anymore. Because without hockey, who is he? Just the failure his father always predicted he'd be?

I loved Tara Jean, who is a hilarious and deeply empathetic character who, despite her constant guilt and self-recriminations, never turns herself into a martyr or a doormat for other people. However, I adored Luc, simply because he upended all of my own expectations of Violent Athletic Alpha Males. He is a very large and very angry character - he's constantly wrestling with his temper at the cruel hand fate has dealt him (his team lost the Stanley Cup after he was knocked out in the final period of the seventh game of the playoffs). However, he possesses a keen awareness of his rage and the possible effects it could have on his friends and family, so while it creates fascinating inner conflict, it never manifests in threatening or thuggish outer conflict.

The thing is, both Tara Jean and Luc come to sincerely like each other independently of the goals or careers they've focused their respective Angsts on, and their romance develops as each tries to fix the splinter in the other's eye while ignoring the log in their own. However, it's darn near impossible for them to try and heal the other's vulnerabilities without revealing their own, and their respective angsts complement each other nicely.

The dominant theme in this novel is self-worth, and what (or who) determines one's self-worth. Tara Jean, Luc, and even Luc's sister Victoria are all motivated by what they feel makes them worthy of love and their obsession with obtaining or retaining that worth leads them to push away the things that really matter.

This presents an interesting comparison between Tara Jean and Victoria. Both used to be involved with con artists who ruined their lives (Victoria's wealthy financier husband turned out to be a Ponzi schemer, who killed himself when his lies came to light) and both have cripplingly low self-esteem as a result. However, while Tara Jean responded to her crisis by refusing to depend on anyone ever again, Victoria believes her only value is in being dependent. Getting a job is unthinkable - as a 36-year-old former society wife, what skills does she have? Instead, she's convinced the only way she can provide for her son is by collecting on her father's inheritance or marrying another wealthy man. She has such a low opinion of herself that she believes she can only obtain worth by latching on to other people.

This leads to some pretty entertaining pot-calling-the-kettle-black conflicts between her and Tara Jean, but it also leads to the one weak point in the story. When Dennis, Tara Jean's former partner in crime shows up and sets his sights on Victoria (who is all too pathetically eager to believe the flimflam he's selling her), Tara Jean and Luc decide not to tell her that Dennis is a psychotic and violent convict because that would hurt her pweshus widdle feelings too much. They basically try to tiptoe around the issue and handle things behind Victoria's back but it predictably blows up in everyone's faces and makes everyone look really stupid.

Apart from that, Can't Buy Me Love is an excellently-paced romance with intelligent, well-realized characters, wonderful writing, and a hefty serving of emotional darkness. Just how I like it!

Looks like I'm not completely burnt out on new authors after all.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

"Dragon Keeper," by Robin Hobb (Eos, 2010)

The Primary Cast:

Thymara: An inhabitant of the Rain Wilds born with clawed hands and feet, she's an outcast in a society that traditionally abandons deformed children. She's hungry for the chance to prove she's worthy of life and love.

Alise: An absent-minded scholar of dragons and Elderlings who is shackled to a cruel and selfish husband. Her one dream is to be able to study dragons for real, but how far is she willing to go to realize it?

The Secondary Cast:

Greft: A member of the dragon keepers who isn't above using manipulation and mind games to establish dominance.

Tats: A young freed slave who joins the dragon keepers and used to have a serious crush on Thymara.

Sedric: Alise's BFF and, unbeknownst to her, her husband's gay lover. Fastidious, well-dressed and snobby, he wars between his loyalty to Alise and his love for Alise's husband.

Captain Leftrin: The owner of a liveship barge who is hired to accompany the dragons and their keepers. Starts to develop feelings for Alise.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

  • Several Half-Baked Dragons
  • 1 Outcast Protagonist
  • Countless Prequel Character Cameos
  • 1 Enormous Bounty
  • 1 Possibly Mythical City
  • 1 Evil Gay Husband
  • 1 Self-Absorbed, Somewhat Stereotypical, But Not Completely Evil Gay BFF
  • 1 Foreign Invader

The Word: Well, it appears this review will be yet another stop on the Favourite Authors Who Disappoint Me Tour. I'm a huge Robin Hobb fan, and I particularly enjoyed her Liveship Traders Trilogy, so when I heard she was going back to the world of Bingtown and the Rain Wilds for another trilogy, I was psyched.

Unfortunately, Dragon Keeper suffers a lot from repetitiveness, an overabundance of exposition, slack pacing, and annoying characters.

The Liveship Trader Trilogy ended with Tintaglia - the last living dragon - rescuing the surviving sea serpents and helping them prepare for their own transformations into dragons with the help of the Rain Wilds and Bingtown Traders, who provided assistance in return for Tintaglia's promise to protect Bingtown's shores against invaders.

Like big, scaly butterflies, dragons start out as sea serpents and then enter cocoons of mud and shared memories - emerging as dragons the next year. Thanks to an ancient earthquake, the dragons died out, the sea serpents were left adrift, and the remaining cocoons were buried, destroyed, or harvested by ignorant Traders to create liveships.

Was that so hard to explain? No? The author takes every available opportunity to repeat this piece of worldbuilding, over and over again, with different characters and threads of dialogue, until I just about threw this book down in disgust. We get it. It's doubly frustrating for me because I read the previous trilogy, and know this information already, but even to acclimate new readers, the repetition is excessive.

Anyway, this trilogy opens when the triumphant hatching of the new generation of dragons goes horribly awry. The surviving serpents were too old and starved by the time they were rescued to build proper cocoons, and the resulting dragons are either stunted, malformed, sickly, dim-witted, or a pitiable combination of all four. Dragons being an unsentimental species, Tintaglia swiftly abandoned them to pursue other options, leaving the Traders at a loss as to how to care for these expensive, useless, and increasingly aggressive creatures.

Eventually, the Traders decide to move the dragons to a new location - the ancient Elderling city of Kelsingra. But first, they'll need to hire people to tend and feed the dragons - hopefully people with no real social ties or futures.

Enter sixteen-year-old Thymara. As a Rain Wilder born with claws and scales, she should have been abandoned at infancy, but her father saved her at the last minute. While her father loves her, she is still an outcast and forbidden to marry or have children. To her, this job might be her only chance at adventure, wealth, and independence - but she discovers the deformed dragons might be smarter than the authorities let on.

Our other main character is the naive, cutesy and supremely annoying Alise. A bookish, self-taught scholar of dragon and Elderling lore, she married a handsome, wealthy, and Very Obviously Gay Husband to have the money and security to pursue her studies, but - surprise! Her Very Obviously Gay Husband is a ginormous jerk who constantly belittles her and her inability to get an heir off of his very reluctant hetero attempts. Nevertheless, she finally bullies him into letting her travel to the Rain Wilds to research the new dragons - with her Very Obviously Gay Husband's Very Obviously Gay Lover/Secretary Sedric in tow.

While the story seems interesting enough, the novel takes a tediously long time getting to it. The first seventy percent of the novel is spent on fanservice (several characters from the previous trilogy have unnecessary cameos) and set-up - long scenes of Alise's dissolving marriage and Thymara's angst at being an outcast, along with several scenes of concerned parties haggling over what to do with the dragons while repeating the central concept of serpents -- cocoons -- dragons -- liveships over and over and over again. The novel could have easily started when the story did, with the characters' backgrounds fleshed out with flashbacks.

The novel still retains hints of Hobb's mastery of fantasy - original settings, solid worldbuilding, a variety of female characters, moral ambiguity. This is especially true for the latter part of the novel, as the deformed yet still arrogant dragons adapt to the presence of the humans they depend on while humans bicker over what should be done with them.

While this novel was ultimately a disappointment, I'll still hold on to read future books. After all, now that the set-up is over, the second book can be all about story, and Lord knows Robin Hobb has redeemed heinously annoying characters before (I'm looking at you, Malta). If you're a fan of Robin Hobb, I recommend sticking it out. If you're not a fan, it would be better to read The Liveship Trilogy first.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Openly Straight," by Bill Konigsberg

The Protagonist: Seamus Raphael "Rafe" Goldberg. A high school student who's off to spend his junior year at an all-boys boarding school. He also happens to be gay.
His Angst: While he's fine with being gay, he's tired of having his homosexuality define everything about him, so he decides to keep it  on the DL at his new school. But what happens when he develops feelings for a classmate?

Secondary Cast:

Claire Olivia: Rafe's best friend who is not happy to be abandoned in Colorado while he's off in New England.

Albie: Rafe's roommate at boarding school. Weird, sloppy, but a good friend.

Toby: The skinny, openly gay BFF of Albie.

Ben: A huge, taciturn, but surprisingly insightful and empathetic classmate who develops a strong friendship with Rafe - but will it turn into something more?

Bryce: Ben's roommate and close friend who suffers from a mental illness, which reveals the "tolerant" attitude of Rafe's boarding school might only be policy-deep.

Steve: The Alpha Male of the boarding school, whom Rafe initially looks up to. Appears easygoing and tolerant on the surface, but he may not be as nice as he seems.

Angst Checklist:
  • My Parents are Embarassing
  • Sexual Identity
  • One's Identity Apart from Sexual Identity
  • Creative Expression
  • Boyfriends
  • Boys Who Also Happen to be Friends
  • Lying versus Omitting 
  • Homophobia
  • Mental Illness
  • Inspiring Teachers
The Word: This is my first piece of Book Expo swag - I received it from a sales rep from Scholastic during the BEA Blogger Con Happy Hour and I started reading it nearly right away. 

Rafe is tired of being the That Gay Guy. Don't get him wrong, he's fine with his sexuality. More than fine. His parents are crazy supportive of him - with perhaps a little bit too much emphasis on the crazy. They make such a big deal about his sexuality that sometimes Rafe worries that other people in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado see him as THE GAY DUDE first and the actual dude second. 

For his junior year, Rafe decides to attend a boy's boarding school in New England. There, where he can be hundreds of miles away from Boulder, hundreds of miles away from his rainbow-flag-waving parents, he hopes to have an opportunity to get to know other guys as a person and not as a label. However, Rafe discovers the line between being discreet about his sexuality and being back in the closet is blurrier than it sounds - especially once he starts crushing on a classmate. 

Openly Straight definitely raises some interesting questions about being gay and how big a part it plays in a person's identity. Konigsberg does an excellent job conveying how, even in a tolerant community, Rafe still feels set apart because he is gay. He doesn't have any close guy friends. People still make assumptions about him based solely on his sexuality - and even when those assumptions are harmless or positive, they're not based on getting to know him, but on his label as "The Gay Kid." Rafe doesn't have a problem with people knowing he's gay - he just doesn't want it to be the first thing people know about him. 

That being said, Rafe is an extremely privileged character. Sure, he's gay - but he's also white, his parents love him to pieces, he has an awesome best friend in Claire Olivia, and his family is wealthy enough to ship him off to Massachusetts on a whim. The novel does make a few attempts to acknowledge just how well off Rafe is (such as when he encounters closeted kids while on a speaking engagement), but there are many moments in the novel where he comes off as selfish and whiny. Oh, your parents love you too much? How awful for you. Although there's definitely an argument to be made that even gay kids who are accepted still have problems integrating their sexual identity into their everyday identity, I often found it hard to sympathize with Rafe and his revelation at the novel's end seemed too obvious. 

The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the almost-not-quite-romance between Rafe and his classmate, Ben. Ben identifies as straight, but views everyone equally and tries to keep an open mind about everything. His growing and stereotype-defying bond with Rafe, and the honesty with which he expresses himself, depicts exactly the sort of attitude Rafe wants to experience from the world at large - even as Rafe becomes increasingly worried about his own honesty in their relationship. 

While the novel is intelligent and raises a lot of interesting questions, I admired it more than I liked it. As I mentioned previously, Rafe is a bit of a spoiled character and I don't think the narrative does enough to remind us how fortunate he truly is. As well, the writing style is short and to the point - which, while serviceable, is not really a style I personally enjoy. That being said, I definitely recommend it in terms of interesting discussion and an original story.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Downton Abbey 2x07: The Three Douchebagos!

Okay, so this is going to be a slightly less detailed recap of Downton because I saw this episode a fairly long time ago and wasn't able to finish my recap before BEA and various other bloggy posts got in the way.

So the war is officially over, and everyone at Downton is Inexplicably Bummed about it because they are horrible people. This is especially true of the Menfolk.

Case 1: Branson. Branson being an asshole is par for the course this season, but he out-dicks himself in this episode thanks to Sybil's personal epiphany. The war filled Sybil (and Cora and Edith) with the Righteous Fire of Getting Shit Done, but the rest of her family seems content to return to the old days of Paying Sassy Gay Footmen To Get Shit Done For Them.

So Sybil pulls a Princess Jasmine and agrees to run off with Branson. Mary, Edith, and Anna rush off in hot pursuit, and thanks to Edith's Fast and Furious-style driving skills, they catch up to the eloping pair before any permanent damage is done. Branson spouts off a bunch of hot garbage about how if Sybil really wuvs him she ought to burn all bridges with the family that's Loved, Raised, and Supported her for her entire life to be with his Broke Irish Socialist Ass.

Thankfully, Mary convinces Sybil to come back and try to hash it out with the fams, but not before she also gives Branson a highly satisfying slice of Privileged Condescension Pie.

Case 2: Grantham. Remember how the Earl of Grantham wept so many Privileged Manbaby Tears that he couldn't go out to play at war with all the other boys? Now that the war is over, he's switched to weeping Privileged Manbaby Tears that the womenfolk are now too independent to pay attention to him.

Because Cora commits the Heinous Crime of forcing Grantham to Eat Lunch By Himself, he goes out and snogs Jane, the new maid whose son needs a ticket to a fancy grammar school. And it's about as gross as you'd expect, especially since the narrative very obviously blames Cora's "neglect" of Grantham for his attempts to suck face with the help.

Case 3: Sir Richard Carlisle. Now, I've rather enjoyed Carlisle up to this point because even though he's clearly The Villain of this season, he's just been so charmingly open about it. He missteps this episode and bungles an attempt to hire Anna to spy on Mary's comings and goings. Honestly, Carlisle winds up on this list because he was So Obvious about his Devious Plans in this episode when he's been pretty open and low-key about being a ruthless businessman up until now. Naturally, Anna rats to Carson, and Carson turns down Carlisle's job offer, even though it means abandoning Mary.

Honourable Mention: Matthew. Matthew earns an Honourable Mention because even as his actions and choices Ruin Things Even More for the majority of the characters involved, at least his intentions are in the right place.

Last episode, Matthew felt a tingle in his manparts when Not a Plot Device Lavinia returned to prove her non-doomed love. This tingle manifests when Lavinia spills a tea tray and Matthew miraculously leaps to his feet to save her gown. Nothing inspires the manly heart like the threat of stained silk!

Everyone is, of course, thrilled - except for the incompetent Dr. Clarkson who has to cover his ass by admitting he'd kept the other doctors' differing diagnoses to himself because he's a moron.

Matthew celebrates by renewing his engagement to Lucky Lavinia, even though his heart isn't in it. As he admits to Bad-Ass Mutha Violet, since Picture of Health Lavinia was willing to give up her life and marry him as a cripple, he's afraid he'll look like an asshole if he dumps her right after regaining his health. So Matthew gets points for Honour, but as Bad-Ass Mutha Violet rightfully points out, honour is not be enough of a reason to devote fifty years to a person.

Other Subplots I Missed:

  • Bates reveals that the authorities discovered his wife poisoned herself with the arsenic that he bought, right after she wrote a letter to her BFF saying she was in fear for her life. This does not look good.
  • Ethel's attempt to introduce her illegitimate baby to her dead babydaddy's parents backfires horribly. 
  • does Thomas' foray into the black market business when he trades all of his life savings for tainted merchandise.
Things I Liked:
  • O'Brien being surprisingly sweet and sympathetic with Thomas once his plan blows up in his face. 
  • Despite how silly it is, I admired Matthew's attempt to renew his feelings for Hypotenuse Lavinia.
  • Anna and Carson having None of Carlisle's Spying Bullshit
Things I Didn't:
  • Grantham being a Cheating, Entitled, Spoiled Asshole
  • Branson being a Rude, Selfish, Oblivious Asshole
  • Matthew's miraculous recovery - I know I should be happy for him, but it's such a ridiculously soap-opera-ish development.
Final Remarks: This episode merely continues the crazy that the previous episode started, with lots of overblown drama and obvious bungling and every male character going out of his way to act like a dick. I suppose it's better because there's no Assface MacKenzie, but we still had to watch Gratham try and get his 19th-Century Heirloom Mack On. Gross.

Rating: Five cans of fake flour out of ten

Sunday, June 16, 2013

BEA 2013 Swag Post!

Okay, so you've read through my posts about my time at BEA 2013. Now it's time to succumb to the inevitable...

*~super amazing swag post woooo!~*
Behold My Book Expo Booty! 

Yes, these are the precious Advance Reviewer Copies I obtained through various means during Book Expo America 2013. This year, as you may recall, I was determined to be choosy, because I knew it would be Damn Hard to drag these books all the way home (and it was!). So I tried only to take the books I was excited about reading. Because of this, I decided to list my loot in descending order of "Excited About." 

1. Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein (Hyperion, September 2013): I stood in line for a long as time for this, and it was completely worth it! I adored Code Name Verity!

2. The Infinite Moment of Us, by Lauren Myracle (Amulet, August 2013): I picked this one up and got to gush over how much I loved Shine when I briefly ducked out of the enormous Fangirl line. Myracle was super-nice but she repeatedly warned me that this book wouldn't be the same type of thing. Don't care! Still excited!

3. Invisibility, by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan (Philomel, out now): I got this signed at the Autographing tables during Book Expo. I loved Levithan's Every Day, and the concept of this novel (a boy who's cursed to be invisible) sounded interesting.

4. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell (St Martin's Griffin, September 2013): a.k.a. the book I waited The Absolute Longest In Line For. I haven't read her previous novel Eleanor and Park, but this was a novel  where the concept (a girl who's a part of a fandom and writes slashfiction) sounded so interesting I knew it couldn't pass it up.

5. Two Boys Kissing, David Levithan (Knopf, August 2013): This one I found my accident - I knew he would be signing this book, but it was at the same time as another signing. However, on my way out with Awesome Roommmate Emily, we saw he was still signing books and so we got ourselves copies! Two Levithan novels in one day!

6. Survival Lessons, Alice Hoffman (Algonquin, out now): I will read literally everything Alice Hoffman writes - even a rewrite of Wuthering Heights. Plus getting this book meant I got to meet her in person.

7. Cherry Money Baby, by John M. Cusick (Candlewick Press, September 2013): I picked this up at the YA Editor Insight Panel at BEA Blogger Con. The story sounded sudsy and fun - involving a smalltown girl who is happy to be a smalltown girl, until a famous celebrity arrives and throws her life upside down. I'm in!

8. The Universe Versus Alex Woods, by Gavin Extence (Redhook, June 2013): I picked this one up from a huge pile at the Hachette pavilion. Kirkus' BEA guide gave it a spectacular review and the story sounded weird and magical-realismy, which runs right up my alley.

9. The False Prince (Scholastic, out now): They were handing out free copies of this at the Scholastic booth and I remembered how much The Booksmugglers loved it.

10. These Broken Stars, by Amie Kaufman and Meagen Spooner (Hyperion, November 2013): I picked this one up at the YA Editor Insight Panel at BEA Blogger Con, where it was described as Titanic in Space - apparently because it involves a rich girl, a poor boy, and a big honking spaceship crash. That plus positive blogger buzz made me pick it up.

11. Fire With Fire, by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian (Simon and Schuster, September 2013): This was in the goodie bag I received from the SimonTEEN party. After hearing the awesome authors gush about it at that party, I was super excited to read it - of course, I'll have to read the first book, Burn for Burn first.

12. Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, by Kirstin Cronn-Mills (Flux, out): While I was touring the expo floor, I found the Flux booth and had a great talk with the publisher about unconventional YA stories, and afterwards he gave me a copy of this novel, which has been on my Wishlist for a while. Score!

13. All Our Yesterdays, by Cristin Terrill (Hyperion, September 2013): I also found this at the YA Editor Insight Panel at BEA Blogger Con. I wasn't kidding about the amount of swag at that panel. The story sounds a lot like the romantic YA version of Terminator - a heroine in the future visits her past self to stop a friend from inventing something that destroys the world.

14. Tumble and Fall, by Alexandra Coutts (Farrar Straus Giroux, September 2013): I picked up this book at the Autographing tables because the concept intrigued me - the world is going to end in a week, how would teens react to that?

15. The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, out now): They still had tickets for his signing by the time I arrived at the Javits, so I got him to autograph a copy. I wouldn't normally be interested in this book (I read one of his other fantasies, and it bored me), but The Book Smugglers' positive review of it changed my mind.

16. When I Was the Greatest, by Jason Reynolds, (Simon and Schuster, January 2014): This was in my goodie bag from the SimonTEEN party. Jason Reynolds was crazy-charismatic during his interview as he related his adventures in New York City with his artist roommate, so I'm pretty excited to read this novel about three boys growing up in Bed-Stuy.

17. Just Like Fate, by Cat Patrick and Suzanne Young (Simon and Schuster, August 2013): This also was in my SimonTeen party goodie bag! Again - the authors' fab interiew and the great concept grabbed me: the heroine has to choose between staying by her grandmother's deathbed or going out with friends, and the story shows us how each decision would have affected her life.

18. Counting by 7s, by Holly Goldberg Sloan (Dial, August 2013): I picked this up at the Penguin pavilion because it sounded like an adorable story about a girl who comforts herself and builds a new life after tragedy by counting by sevens. Plus, it came with good buzz from Kirkus.

19. Hero, by Alethea Kontis (Harcourt, October 2013): This was an impulse signing - the sequel to Enchanted, which I've been wanting to read for a while. Kontis was signing books at a satellite autographing table because her time had run out but her books had not - and that table was right next to the line for Rose Under Fire. But I'll still need to read the first book.

20. Dear Mr. Knightly, by Katherine Reay (Thomas Nelson, November 2013): I picked this up from a pile at the HarperCollins pavilion because it sounded absolutely charming. A graduate student and Jane Austen fan gets a free education in return for engaging in an epistolary relationship with a mysterious Mr. Knightley. How could I resist?

21. That Part Was True, Deborah McKinlay (Grand Central, February 2014): I snagged this from the Grand Central booth - another epistolary novel, this time between an older woman and her favourite author.

22. The Son, by Philipp Meyer (Ecco, Out now). My Fantastic Roommate Emily gave me a copy of this from the HarperCollins party she went to. A vast, sweeping historical family saga about Texas? There isn't a single thing about that sentence that I don't like.

23. Sorrow's Knot, by Erin Bow (Arthur A Levine Books, November 2013): Another free book from the YA Editor Insight Panel. I was initially turned off by the iffy cover art and lack of a blurb, but the Book Smugglers reminded me that Erin Bow wrote Plain Kate, which was apparently pretty good. Plus the concept of LadyMagic seemed interesting.

24. Someone Else's Love Story, by Joshilyn Jackson (William Morrow, December 2013): This was another bookgift from Emily from the HarperCollins party, about a single mother who falls in love with a geneticist.  It got a lovely review in Kirkus.

25. Who Asked You? by Terry McMillan (Viking, September 2013): I picked this up at the Penguin booth as a lark. Written by the author of Waiting to Exhale, this novel's about a hotel maid who has to look after her itinerant daughter's children. It sounded like an interesting family story from an author I'd never tried before.

26. Love and Lament, by John Milliken Thompson (Other Press, August 2013): This one I got signed in-booth - thanks to another great review in the Kirkus BEA Guide. For some reason, multigenerational Southern gothic stories sound so good to me right now.

27. OCD Love Story, by Corey Ann Haydu (Simon and Schuster, July 2013): Got it in the goodie bag from the SimonTEEN party, about two kids who meet at an OCD support group and fall in love. Intriguing concept.

28. Chantress, by Amy Butler Greenfield (Simon and Schuster, out now): Another pick up from the SimonTEEN party, about a girl whose singing voice has magical powers.

29. Perfect Ruin, by Lauren Destefano (Simon and Schuster, October 2013): Yet another treat in the SimonTEEN goodie bag! Sounded interesting - dystopian setting, murders, teen romance, the works.

30. Lily and Taylor (Groundwood, September 2013): When I was interviewing Canadian publishers, I had a nice chat at the booth for House of Anansi Press and got a copy of their newest YA title, about four kids struggling with the aftereffects of domestic abuse.

31. The Wolf Princess, by Cathryn Constable (Scholastic, October 2013): This was one of the free books given out at the start of BEA Blogger Con. I love the cover and the story has a distinct fairy tale vibe.

32. Heart Like Mine, by Amy Hatvany (Washington Square Press, out now): Picked it up as a lark. An uncertain stepmother has to help her new stepdaughter overcome the sudden death of her unstable mother.

33. The Twins, Saskia Sarginson (Redhook, August 2013): Picked this one up at random because the back cover blurb hinted at ssssssecrets. Plus - twins! Twin ssssssecrets!

And that's it for my swag! I picked up 44 books last year (and I still haven't read all of them!), so I consider this year's catch an improvement - in quality, if not in quantity. Which books are you excited to read?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

BEA 2013, Day Four and Five

Day Four: Friday

I arrived at the Javits on Friday morning to read the news that Jim Carrey - yes, the Jim Carrey - would be dropping by the Book Expo on Friday and Saturday to sign copies of his self-published metaphysical children's book about a sentient ocean wave - unticketed. I could only imagine what sort of madness would result from that and I calmed myself with a cup of peppermint tea and a friendly chat with the awesome NYStacey, a bookseller I'd met back at my last RWA Conference in 2011.

After that, it was off to stand in line for Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire. One thing the majority of previous BEA attendees forget to tell you is that for all the time we spend buzzing through the booths of the Big Six like a swarm of locusts in practical flats, we spend just as much time languishing in line for those one or two books we really want.

And I stood in a lot of lines on Friday. First for the Elizabeth Wein's companion novel to Code Name Verity, and then for the excruciatingly long queue for Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl at the Macmillan pavilion. The line for Wein was pretty extensive, but not as extensive as Rowell's. Babies were born in that line. Presidencies came and went. Organisms evolved. Thanks to a young, tall, put-together blogger I met in line, I had time to sneak out and gush over Lauren Myracle and pick up a copy of The Infinite Moment of Us at the Abrams/Amulet pavilion just next door.

This very put-together blogger (whose name, naturally, I forgot) threw me for a loop in that same line when I asked what courses she was taking in university.

"Oh, I'm thirteen," she said.

Jaw drop. Seriously, someone should have called Chris Hansen and had him set a security detail on her house because she did not look thirteen at all. She was taller than I was!

"But I've been blogging since I was eleven!" she added. Not better. The new generation of bloggers was definitely on the rise and they were starting way earlier than I was. Holy crap, she was born in the year 2000!

Finally, after crawling around the Macmillan booth about six times in line to receive my copy of Fangirl, I was too tired to do much of anything. A quick look at the queue for Curtis Sittenfeld's Sisterland convinced me it wasn't worth it and there was no way I was lining up two hours in advance to snag a copy of Jim Carrey's self-published masterwork (although I did swing by to catch a brief glimpse of him in profile and the back of his head).

So I slogged back to the hotel, dragging my loot of books through the humid, horse-shit-scented fug, praying that I wouldn't catch hoof and mouth disease from whatever I was wheeling my suitcase through when I passed the stables. After a half-hour of rest, reading the first of my BEA swag (Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg, generously gifted to me by a Scholastics rep during the Blogger Con Happy Hour), I packed up and left to do my one bit of sightseeing on this trip - the Intrepid Air, Sea and Space museum.

It was a quick walk from the hotel that felt longer thanks to the broiling heat. Once inside, the ship was pleasantly air-conditioned, and was full of excellent displays of shipboard conditions, maritime history, military history, airplanes, boats, space shuttles, as well as games and replicas for people to play with (including a flight simulator). I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I felt extremely weepy while aboard the Intrepid. My dad is a huge fan of military history. He has a shelf of his favourite war movies and can identify military aircraft on sight. The whole place really reminded me of him and I wished he'd been there to see it. He would have gone nuts in that place.

I should probably admit at this point that my father is not dead or anywhere near that condition. I just really missed him at the moment and wished we could have discovered that museum together.

After the museum, I freshened up a bit and went out to hail a cab to take me to the Farrar, Straus, and Giroux reception, forgetting in my Canadian ignorance that it was Friday afternoon at rush hour in Manhattan. I waved my cute little hand and did a little "Notice me! Notice me!" dance on the curb of 38th and 8th for close to an hour with no luck. I've noticed that other bloggers have made similar suggestions that publishers should organize their parties and get-togethers closer to the Javits because, well, getting a cab at five o'clock at night is a difficult task for everyone. SimonTeen had their party within walking distance and it was both convenient and a good time.

One hour later (!) I'd given up making it to that reception. I finally flagged down a cab after I wandered back down to the deserted Javits Center and decided to go to the Blogger Picnic at Central Park instead. I've never been able to resist visiting New York without seeing Central Park at least once, and it was lovely at dusk. The humidity soaked into the leaves and infused the whole place with that lovely crushed green scent that normally accompanies rain. It was a small gathering but one with a lot of discussion.

At around eight o'clock, the party broke up because their permit ran out, and while a bunch of them headed out to continue their party at a nearby pub, I decided to call it quits. I was tired. I was still hungry. And my check-out time was ten am the next day and I hadn't packed my bags yet.

Day Five: Saturday
Saturday was a day that Emily and I had to organize a little differently - mainly, because although this was our last day in New York and our hotel's check-out time was ten a.m., neither of us was actually leaving until much later in the afternoon. My flight home wasn't until six o'clock and Emily's ride wasn't until the afternoon.

While the hotel watched our bags, we headed back to the Javits for one last hurrah. One last glance to see if there were any ARCs worth snagging. One last opportunity to talk to and interview people in the publishing industry (I did have the chance to speak to Canadian publishers - people at House of Anansi Press, Coachhouse Press, Tunda/Random House Canada).

And one last morning to peoplewatch the publishing industry - the clusters of laughing, triumphant librarians in sensible shoes and floral print tops; the glassy-eyed Power Readers drooping beneath the weight of too many tote bags; and the publicists in gauzy, candy-coloured sleeveless dresses and chunky jewellery who picked their way across the inconsistently-carpeted expo floor in dainty high-heeled sandals as if they'd been beamed down from some interstellar nightclub.

I stepped into the ouroborosesque line for Harlequin's gigantic Teen Reads signing (which included Katie McGarry with Dare You To and Elizabeth Scott with Heart Beat) and just as quickly stepped out of it again - which turned out to have been a wise choice - I found out later they'd run out of books before they ran out of line.

I did indulge one bit of foolishness - on my way out of the Javits, I noticed Jim Carrey's line was swiftly coming to an end. Seeing an opportunity, I latched on to the end of the line and after ten minutes, I scored the chance to meet him face to face, take an extremely blurry picture with him, and score a poster of his book with my name spelled "Elizebeth" on it in black sharpie above his autograph. Not bad, and I didn't have to wait two hours for it!

After that, I bid farewell to Book Expo and all of its crazy madness and returned to the Javitz. Emily's awesome friend Mario turned up to drive them both to Long Island but he found a way to wedge both my suitcases into his Jeep and drop me off at Penn Station. I bid a very fond farewell to Emily with the promise to keep in touch.

The return trip to my hometown was a significantly trickier deal than the trip out to NYC - especially now that I was lugging two suitcases, one of which was stuffed entirely with ARCs. The ordeal began at Penn Station, where I took a two-minute masterclass in Loading Two Wheeled Suitcases Onto a Narrow Escalator By Myself that I promptly failed.

I dragged those precious suitcases through several elevators and onto an underground platform that felt as hot and humid as the inside of a mouth, to the NJ Transit Train, then onto the Newark Airport Airtrain, then through US security and - once I reached Calgary - through Customs before boarding yet another airplane.

Remember how in my BEA Guide  I mentioned that you should be choosy about taking ARCs since they aren't really free in the long run? This is what I meant. I may not have paid for them with money, but I did pay for them in the sheer physical effort and inconvenience involved in hauling them across international borders. My shoulder muscles alone are still paying interest. That being said, my decision to bring them back in my luggage proved to be the wiser choice - one blogger paid USPS to ship her swag home and received a series of late, dented, and half-empty packages instead!

But that was my trip to Book Expo America 2013! I had some amazing experiences, learned some new things, took home some great books, met a celebrity and made at least one Super Amazing Awesome Friend! There really is a lot to be had from going to Book Expo America, and the swag is the least of it. While I may not be going next year, if you are a book blogger or a librarian or a bookseller, I recommend going at least once. It offers a fascinating window into how our gorgeous literary sausages get made.

BEA 2013, Day Three: Mission at the Exposition

The Book Blogger Convention was fun and interesting, but that was only the appetizer for the Big Show.

And Book Expo America is definitely a Big Show.

Thursday was the first official day of Book Expo America. The doors to the exposition floor opened at nine but excited people lined up in front of it long before then.

Inside, the exposition resembled an emergency shantytown built by creative but wildly impractical rich people. Walls of cardboard and plastic and wood and fabric divided the space into a complicated maze of stalls, booths, and pavilions. Believe me, no matter how tired you were, you could lean on nothing. No surface was trustworthy except for the ground - and even that was iffy. Depending on the financial solvency of the publisher operating on that particular square, the floor varied between concrete, astroturf, red carpet and deep shag.

Enormous signs, floating placards and even balloons (!) marked out the pavilions for the larger publishers, while the smaller ones had to make do with booths the approximate size and quality of a junior high science fair display.

Now, the first hour of the first day of Book Expo America can be fairly intense. The mental superiority that separates humans from animals wears especially thin at the prospect of Free Books - while most publishers spread giveaways and galley drops throughout the day, the highest concentration of Free Stuff is in the morning. I'm talking about literal piles of books, three to four feet high, with glossy covers and the future publication date printed in a bright ribbon on the spine.

When nine o'clock rolled around and the doors opened, you might have told yourself you'd be choosy. You might have planned to stroll casually into the area with your colour-coordinated Excel spreadsheet schedule and your printed map of the floor. You might have told yourself you weren't there for the books, but to calmly absorb the buzz and the information and the atmosphere.

But, let's face it, you didn't. At least I didn't. The glare of the florescent lights reflected in the posters for The Hottest Celebrity's Newest Vegan Cookbook combined with the smell of overpriced vending-machine coffee and the slap of my BEA badge against my chest triggered the predatory instinct in my brain and flooded it with adrenaline - for the thrill of the hunt, the spice of competition against my fellow bloggers, booksellers, and librarians. When those doors opened, I raced ahead with everyone else.

Sales reps handed out tote bags like cups of water to successful marathoners - while nervous assistants offered ARCs with outstretched fingers that retracted quickly, as if feeding starving predators who would just as gladly eat them instead. Flyers printed with the dates and times of galley drops flew off the shelves only to disappear and turn up wadded at the bottom of your fifth complimentary tote bag while you repacked your luggage back at the hotel. Business cards fluttered between hands. Publisher catalogues were snatched from displays in a frenzy of greed only to be covertly replaced once the attendees realized they weren't actually books.

The Hachette Pavilion served doughnuts. Several booths offered coffee. Pens. Candy. Lanyards. Bookmarks. Spencer Hill released a flock of Swag Fairies (for reals) wearing sparkly wings who distributed chocolates to the faithful. The pyramid-headed mascot of the For Dummies books wandered the aisles trying and failing to be Not Terrifying.

Yes, that first hour of Book Expo America is pretty much a real-life version of the Hunger Games - only everyone's a volunteer, nobody dies, and we're all going crazy over free stuff that has no actual market value yet.

Okay, so maybe we were more like the people who watched the Hunger Games and wore day-glow eyeshadow and threw up all the time so that we could eat more.

After that first hour, the feeding frenzy instinct died down and I resumed my intended schedule. This year, I intended to be a little more choosy about which books I grabbed and which lines were worth waiting in. Waiting in an enormous line for a book I was vaguely interested in by an author I'd never tried (Kendare Blake's Antigoddess)? Not worth it. Waiting in line for Alice Hoffman, one of my favourite authors of all time? Totally worth it. She has seriously written so many novels that I've loved - including two I would smuggle onto a desert island (The Ice Queen and The Probable Future), so it was such an honour to be able to meet her and abandon all motor function that didn't involve saying the most cliched of fan phrases, "I love your books."

For the rest of the day, I attended some more signings (Brandon Sanderson's Rithmatist, David Levithan and Andrea Cremer for Invisibility) and explored the different booths and publishers. Book Expo is exceptionally good at reminding you of all you take for granted about the publishing industry. Most people tend to think about it in regards to fiction or narrative non-fiction - but there are religious publishers, educational publishers, cookbook publishers, travel guide publishers, art book publishers, comedy publishers. The Bathroom Reader guys had a booth. Reader's Digest had a booth. There are so many types of books that we just forget about - but they all have publishers and editors and sales people.

The crowning moment of Thursday - aside from meeting the Utterly Awesome Alice Hoffman, that is - was meeting Mary Higgins Clark after waiting an ungodly amount of time in line. I've never actually read Mary Higgins Clark, but my Granny is a huge fan. She's as voracious a reader as I am and loves thrillers and suspense novels, so I decided to get her something really special.

As it turns out, the reason Mary Higgins Clark's line was so slow was because she took the time to speak to Every. Single. Person. Mary Higgins Clark was absolutely the sweetest woman and she took the time to tell me how much she loved Canada (especially when she visited Quebec while dealing with her French language publisher) while she signed a copy of Daddy's Gone A-Hunting to my grandmother. I really appreciated that someone who's been writing for such a long time, with a such an enormous fan base, took the time to speak to her fans instead of just handing them a free book and sending them on their way.

At the end of the day, I had two potential parties to attend - the Tumblr Party at Housing Works, or the Penguin Evening with YA Writers at the Barnes and Noble on Union Square. Instead, I wound up having a much more pleasant evening with my Magically Amazing Roommate Emily. We hit up a nearby deli for some quick eats and just chilled out in our hotel room, talking. I seriously cannot believe how well I lucked out with my roommate. Definitely a bosom friend of the Anne Shirley-Diana Barry persuasion!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

BEA 2013, Day Two: BEA Blogger Convention

On Day Two Emily and I woke up early to get to the Javits in time to register for the blogger convention. Thanks to the location of our hotel, we didn't have to wake up that early.

Rolling up to Registration, I collected my lanyard, my BEA program, and my food and drink tickets. As the conference started, attendees were offered pretty spectacular totebags (complete with zippers and beverage holders) and some slightly-less-than-spectacular books - including an aggressively-marketed novel called Catena: Journey to Virginland that my fellow attendees and I were having absolutely none of.

The conference started out well - even though I was starving because the BEA Blogger "complimentary breakfast" turned out to be stale bagels and coffee. Thank God I'd smuggled a nut-free granola bar in my purse. A suggestion for next year, conference organizers: fruit is cheap.

Our keynote speaker was Will Schwalbe, who wrote The End of Your Life Bookclub and worked as editor in chief for Hyperion Books. I'd met him previously at last year's convention during the author roundtable, and his befuddlement at the time as to What Bloggers Actually Did left me less than enthused about what he would present as keynote speaker.

An affable man with rounded edges, he started out with some interesting questions - like, how do bloggers define success? And how does our definition of success differ from the definitions of people elsewhere in the publishing industry? He asked a number of bloggers about this and came up with the answer that bloggers define success by their influence, which made a lot of sense. For a lot of bloggers, it's not all about the numbers or the stats or the pageviews, but by how far one's opinion can travel over the internet.

Because we don't only blog - we grouse on Twitter and Tumblr and Pinterest and message boards about our thoughts and feelings about books as well.

He also talked about engagement - how a few really invested, engaged users is better than a lot of apathetic, uninvolved users. Again, I agreed - I have a pretty small readership and social circle, comparatiely speaking (although it's getting bigger), but we're all really passionate about books and express our feelings about it all the time. It seemed like Schwalbe had done his homework about the blogging community - a refreshing change from Jennifer Weiner, who pulled a Gilderoy Lockhart during her keynote last year and made it all about her (and delayed the following panel to sign copies of her own books).

....but then Schwalbe started to backslide. First, he started by making catty comments about Amazon reviews and Amazon reviewers. Which was when I thought, oh no. Then he started encouraging bloggers  to demonstrate forgiveness and cut people some slack about policing web behaviour. How do you define forgiveness, Mr. Schwalbe? If an author acts like an ass on the internet, am I somehow not allowed to let that influence my decision to not purchase or review their work? Excuse me?

And then his speech quickly dissolved into a paternal shaking of the finger at "snarky, savage" reviews, because "kindness rocks!" It sounded like the clueless teacher trying to sound relevant to a room full of reluctant students - only we're not students and we're not children and it struck a painfully wrong chord to be treated as such. It was an irritating echo of Jennifer Weiner's "Fairy Dust" comment from last year.

The thing is, reviews can and do benefit the publishing industry but they are not for the publishing industry. Reviews are not written for authors, so authors complaining about the style of a review is akin to a person walking into a party they weren't invited to and complaining about the food.

Schwalbe then proceeded to recite, tonelessly and apparently without a shred of irony, the chorus to Natasha Bedingfield's pop song "Unwritten." Really, seriously.

Next up, I decided to go to the YA Editor Insight Panel - because, well, I'm interested in editing for YA, and I'm also interested in the sort of decisions and trends that YA editors have been noticing lately.      On the panel was Cheryl Klein from Scholastic, Deb Noyes from Candlewick Press, Jen Doll from The Atlantic, and Emily Meehan from Disney-Hyperion. Attendees were greeted by a mountain of truly excellent free books coming in (something the Adult Editor Insight Panel apparently did not have) and I also got to meet The Booksmugglers themselves, Ana and Thea!

While the editors did speak of trends, mostly they just sold their books (including one where Marie Antoinette is a murderous ghost). They did mention that subgenres are no longer as strict now - YA's definitely getting into cross-genre books that don't have any strict definition. The editors on the panel unanimously agreed that they were looking for and preferred flawed protagonists. No Mary Sues or Gary Stus. I asked them about romance in YA, and they replied it was a bit of a chicken-and-egg deal now - publishers initially acquired a lot of romance, and as a result a romantic plot line is now a reader expectation for a lot of stories.

While there were a few interesting points discussed, it did seem (as a lot of others have mentioned before me) that it was more of a Buzz Panel, and it didn't really have anything aimed specifically at bloggers or blogging. At least the swag was nice.

After that, I attended the Adult Book Blogging Pros panel, mainly so that I could meet the fabulous Jim Hines and Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches in person. A lot of this panel was stuff I'd already learned - but then, I've been blogging for nine years (yes, nine). Basically, get your voice out there and establish your own style and that will bring in the type of readers you want. My favourite piece of advice from Sarah was let people not like you. Because there will always be people who don't and you can't build a platform around avoiding other people's dislikes.

Mandi Schreiner of Smexy Books (who was also on the panel) advised bloggers to keep it cool when it came to Internet Drama - by all means defend yourself, your close friends and major issues (like Plagiarism), but otherwise, don't get involved in other people's fights if they don't concern you. Internet mobs can turn really nasty, really quickly and misinformation is contagious.

It was at this panel that I realized there were a couple of romance authors who had signed up for the Blogger Con in order to pick the brains of bloggers and find out how to get us to review their books. Honestly, that made me a little uncomfortable, as did a conversation we had about how bloggers shouldn't make their critical reviews funny because it hurts authors' feelings. Sorry, but as I've mentioned before, reviews aren't for authors. You have a critique group and an editor to respectfully analyze your work. Reviews are for readers.

After that came the Ethics Luncheon, hosted by Jane Litte of Dear Author with Richard Newman of Hinch Newman LLP and Professor Geanne Rosenberg of Baruch College. It was a little dry, but thankfully a couple of people from what I like to call the "Tinfoil Hat Table" made it a little more interesting.

The panel members tried to make the session about how bloggers can protect themselves from inadvertently violating American FTC regulations (which consider positive blog reviews of ARCs to be endorsements). So while they were trying to explain that the origins of your review copies should be clearly and conspicuously indicated - the two women seated at the Tinfoil Hat Table muddied the waters with questions like "Why doesn't the FTC go after Fake Mean Reviews?" Um, because negative reviews are not endorsements. This person also started babbling about how she had been asked to join a Cabal of publishers and reviewers who were dedicated to ruining authors they didn't like with negative reviews. Okaaaaay...

The other lady at the Tinfoil Hat Table table who'd claimed to have worked in journalism for many years stated that large newsgroups dodged copyright issues when showing cover art for books by using photographs taken of the books instead of the cover images themselves - which is completely and utterly incorrect. Newspapers don't do that. Entertainment Weekly doesn't do that. It was hilarious but also frustrating because the actual, educated people at the panel were trying to discuss whether displaying a book cover in your review was violating copyright (it isn't - it falls under fair use).

After the Ethics Luncheon, I went to the Blogging Platforms panel, which was an extremely informative and successful panel given by Rachel Rivera of Parajunkee, Stephanie Leary of Wordpress,  Evie Seo of Bookish, and April Conant from Good Books and Good Wine (whose voice, as she'd predicted, was just about shot). There, they explained the differences between blogging platforms such as Blogger, Wordpress, and Tumblr. I came away from that panel with a lot of new information about the different platforms.

Blogger, apparently, is a good starting point for bloggers because it's extremely easy to use and has a lot of options - however, once you have experience and want to branch out with more coding, Blogger's interface can be limited. Oh, and Google also owns everything you write on it. Eep. Wordpress, on the other hand, can be more complicated, but it has greater design options and can easily shift from being hosted by Wordpress to being selfhosted, so a lot of bloggers wind up exporting their Blogger blogs to Wordpress eventually. For now, I think I'll stick with Blogger since it is easier, but I may have to consider Wordpress later.

Next up, I went to Extending the Reach of Your Blog Online, hosted by Mandy Boles of The Well-Read Wife, Malle Vallik of Harlequin, Eric Smith of Quirk Books and Geekadelphia, and Robert Mooney of Blogads. This panel, I thought, was a nice companion to the Blogger Platforms panel because it also spoke of different social media platforms through which to talk about books and promote your blog - like Vine (Twitter but with Video), Rafflecopter, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Pinterest, Spinterest, Triberr, Distillry (how to make sure which of your Twitter followers are "influential" - i.e. have the most followers), and Twiangulate.

After that came the Closing Keynote with Randi Zuckerberg - whose speech was half an hour late because she hadn't brought a working laptop. Not a promising sign when your entire presentation is more about Cool Things On the Internet That Are Tangentially Related to Blogging than Actual Blogging. I took some notes but I don't think I picked up anything I could really use for my own blog.

Finally came the Blogger Happy Hour, where the remaining attendees took their single drink tickets (whoo! Big spenders!) to the bar, around which more swag and free books and book promotions were arranged. Most of the books being given away weren't my thing so I avoided them - and carefully stepped around the piles of (still) unclaimed copies of Catena to speak with other bloggers.

This year's Blogger Convention, barring a few missteps, was a vast improvement over the previous years. There was a greater awareness of what bloggers actually do and a variety of different topics to discuss and learn from - most of which were (or at least tried to be) aimed at how bloggers operate on their own, rather than how bloggers can serve publishers. I liked how most panels had at least one well-known blogger on them, as well as people from other areas of the publishing industry, so we received multiple perspectives on what we do and our impact on publishing.

Mostly, though, I was just glad I survived it enough to speak in coherent sentences with the blogger friends I reconnected with.