Thursday, October 31, 2013

"This is W.A.R.," by Lisa Roecker and Laura Roecker (SoHo Teen, 2013)

The Protagonists:

Madge: When her sister is murdered by a member of the privileged Gregory family, she decides then and there that she'll do whatever it takes to make the Gregorys pay. And she won't let anything, or anyone, stand in her way.

Rose: As the daughter of the Club's event planner, she's always been treated as a member of "the help." When the only girl who treated her decently is murdered, she volunteers to help Madge and her friends serve the Gregorys their just desserts.

Sloane: A shy girl who's had to cheat and lie to hide the fact that, well, she's dumb as a post. But she's not too dumb to help concoct a revenge plan against the Gregorys.

Lina: With neglectful parents, tattoos and an uncertain sexuality to boot, she's definitely the "troubled" member of the revenge group.

The Secondary Cast:

Willa: A kind-hearted free-spirit whose death by drowning was passed off as an accident, despite being a champion swimmer.

James Gregory: The pampered and favoured grandson of the Club patriarch, James can get away with anything. But did he really get away with murder?

Trip Gregory: James' twin brother and the family's black sheep.

The Captain: The club's lecherous, crazy-wealthy, and untouchable social king. Cross him, and you might find yourself fired, evicted, or deported!

Angst Checklist
  • Revenge
  • Privileged White Dudes
  • Teenage Sexuality
  • Accepting that You're Stupid
  • Alcoholism
  • General Insanity
  • Date Rape
The Word: At the Hawthorne Lake Country Club, money can buy you whatever you want - even a get out of jail free card. Everyone at the Club saw golden boy James Gregory get into a boat with Willa Ames-Rowan - and come back alone. It doesn't take much to put two and two together when Willa's drowned corpse is dragged out of the lake a few hours later.

But no one messes with the ultra-rich, ultra-powerful Gregory family, headed by the Captain. Witnesses are paid off or driven off and everyone is eager to forget and go back to their tennis games and martinis.

Except for four girls - Rose, Lina, Sloane and Willa's sister Madge. All four of them had a special connection to the free-spirited Willa and share a burning desire to finally give the Gregorys what they deserve: much needed revenge. They just have to come up with a plan, and figure out what really happened that night.

Perhaps my reaction to This is W.A.R. is a little unfair - after all, it's impossible for me these days to read a teen revenge story without comparing it to the sublime Burn for Burn series. But This Is W.A.R. was just a sloppy, unpleasant, and disconnected read.

Firstly, there is a thin line between a flawed character and an unlikeable character, and all four girls toe that line. The novel never digs much deeper into their issues than the average episode of Degrassi, so we don't get the nuance and humanity behind their flaws - we just get their flaws. Rose is too pathetic to take seriously, Lina is cruel (and a racist), Sloane's whole deal is that she's a rare "dumb Asian," and Madge is a borderline murderous sociopath. Oh, and every single parental figure is a colossal failure. According to this book, being rich automatically makes you a terrible person incapable of empathizing with other human beings. That's pretty much the extent of this novel's exploration of class distinction.

The plot is also unevenly structured and aimless. None of the girls' revenge plans take much brainpower, nor are they very effective. Their actions don't have realistic consequences. And the book sets up so many plot threads that it doesn't pay off - a waitress refuses a Gregory bribe, and yet nothing happens to her until she randomly becomes a villain; one of our heroines is date raped, and this event is never referred to again; the Gregory brothers have a tragic past which fuels the murderer's entire motive, and yet we never learn what that past is.

The book's theme is also confusing, if not outright hypocritical. This is WAR is all about privilege, and how easily the wealthy can get away with reprehensible behaviour. And yet, apart from Rose, our protagonists are all wealthy and privileged - and get away with some pretty reprehensible behaviour! Sure, none of them are as wealthy as the Gregorys, but their perspectives still come from within the Bubble. There's a couple of token maid characters who help out the girls, but they only get a few appearances, and apart from one brief scene of shallow introspection, none of the girls pause to reflect on how hideously rude and entitled they are to the Club staff.

In Burn for Burn, we did have one privileged character (Lillia), but her perspective was countered by the different points of view from the lower-class Kat and the socially-outcast Mary. In WAR, the novel's perspective is overwhelmingly privileged, three-fourths of it coming from angry Poor Little Rich Girls who steal their daddies' money to act outside the law. Colour me unimpressed.

There is literally nothing that This is WAR does that Burn for Burn doesn't do better. Read that book instead!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"To Have and To Hold," By Patricia Gaffney (Penguin Reissue)

The Chick: Rachel Wade. A convict who's just been released from a ten-year prison sentence for the murder of her abusive husband.
The Rub: She's saved from returning to jail when she's hired by a local viscount - who has seduction in mind even as he holds her freedom in his hands.
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.

The Dude: Sebastian Verlaine, Viscount D'Aubrey. A bored and debauched viscount who's looking for a challenge, any challenge, to amuse him out of his apathy.
The Rub: When he encounters an emotionally frozen woman charged with the murder of her husband, he sets out to untangle her secrets for his own entertainment - until he realizes he's far out of his league.
Dream Casting: Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot: 

Sebastian: I'm bored.

Local Magistrates: Oh hey look, we're about to send a convicted murderess back to prison because the convicted murderess job market is in a freefall these days.

Sebastian: SOLD! ... I mean hired.

Rachel: ....

Sebastian: I hope you like sex! Because we're totally going to have that at some point!

Rachel: Fine.

Sebastian: I totally mean it! Because I love sex. And you have to do it or I'll fire you!

Rachel: *shrug*

Sebastian and Rachel: *nonconsensual funtimes*

Sebastian: ....that was less fun than I expected.

Sebastian's Douche Bros: 'S'up dude! Let's shag girls and get wasted! Whooooooooo!

Sebastian: OMG I am a terrible person who's accomplished nothing with my life! *falls into depression*

Rachel: For pete's sake, snap out of it.

Sebastian: But now I love you! For reals! And I will prove it with puppies and sexy baths and fully consensual lovemaking!

Evil Conspirators: Too bad Rachel's going back to prison!

Sebastian: LIKE HELL SHE IS!

Random Character From a Previous Novel: Hey look guys, a random letter that completely excuses Rachel of any wrongdoing!

Sebastian: Let's get married!

Rachel: Okay! Yes!

Sebastian: HOORAY!

Vine Review

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Bored Little Rich Boy
  • 1 Strong-Yet-Damaged Heroine
  • 1 Bitch Maid
  • 3 Asshole Friends
  • 1 Puppy Gift
  • 1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)
  • 1 Spurned Mistress
  • 1 Incestuous Sister out of Freakin' Nowhere
  • 1 Sexy Bath

The Word: I've spoken up about rape in romance before. I do not like it Sam I Am, I do not like Rape Eggs and Ham. I do not like it in McNaught, nor in this Bonnie Vanak I got.

But ... I'd heard a lot about Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, a classic romance from the '90s that's recently been reissued in eBook form. However, several reviewers that I trust (or at least whose reviews are enjoyable and comprehensive) reviewed it positively, despite its controversial plot line that has the hero raping the heroine. After finding out it was on sale from Kobo, I nabbed it and decided to see for myself.

And, you guys, I loved this book. Even with the rape scene and the hero's behaviour towards the heroine in the beginning. I'm normally someone who despises abusive heroes and rapes in romance - so why did I still enjoy this novel to the extent that I did? And moreover, how did I still buy the romance between Sebastian and Rachel?

Well, I think one difference is that the narrative does not support the hero's actions at all. At the beginning of the novel, Sebastian is very clearly a jaded, cynical, selfish and manipulative cad. Growing bored with his luxurious life, he turns to debauchery and mind games to entertain himself. When he drunkenly agrees to serve as a magistrate to the village on his property, he hears the case of Rachel Wade, a woman picked up for vagrancy. Even better - she's only just been released from a 10 year prison sentence for murdering her husband a week into their marriage.

Intrigued by Mrs. Wade's indifferent numbness to the world around her (especially the prospect of being sent back to jail for the "crime" of not finding work), he hires her on as his housekeeper in order to toy with her implacability and eventually seduce her.

I was able to tolerate this plotline because the narrative refuses to frame any of these actions in a positive light. Sebastian is a cruel child with a stick and Rachel is the anthill he's eager to poke in order to see how its insides work. The narrative never ascribes any secret selfless meanings to Sebastian's choices, or offers up any Abusive Childhoods to blame for his failings. Moreover - the heroine is fully aware of what Sebastian intends, even though she knows her employment with him is the only thing keeping her from returning to prison.

And, yes, he rapes her. Whitney My Love portrayed Whitney's rape as a punishment that Clayton took a wee bit too far because he's Just Such An Overwhelmingly Passionate Manly Man. The Lady and the Libertine enforced the idea that it wasn't rape because the Hero Had a Secret Heart of Gold and also the Heroine Liked It. In THATH, however, it is clearly depicted as rape - despite the fact that it's not violent and Rachel physically acquiesces. It's an intense and interestingly written scene, because it's so clear that while Rachel physically capitulates to save her job, she mentally, emotionally, and spiritually resists Sebastian's attempts to get under her skin.

The reason I could tolerate Sebastian's behaviour is that his horribleness is the point of the story and something he learns to recognize as his character develops. Sebastian's attempts to play at being evil help him realize what evil really is as he discovers more about Rachel's past, as he finds out there is nothing he can do to her that she hasn't already endured, survived, and recovered from. As a result, while he pursues Rachel to find out more about her - he only finds out more about himself, and it's not pretty. Sebastian's epiphany (i.e. that he's a shitful person) is a mesmerizing scene that makes the entire book. For the rest of the novel, Sebastian struggles to pull himself out of the jaded rut he's found himself in and defeat his boredom by pursuing meaning, rather than distraction.

And Rachel - wow Rachel. She is such an amazing and complex character. When we first meet her, she is a bare husk of a person, pared down to the essential drive of surviving in the moment. There is no past, there is no future, there is only existence - but as she spends more days in freedom, she slowly expands the limits of her perception.

I loved the parallels between Sebastian's and Rachel's development: they both struggle to break free from their habitual ways of thinking. Of course, Sebastian's limited life is due only to his own selfish indulgence whereas Rachel's was forced upon her (and the "mystery" of who really killed her husband ... isn't really a mystery), but they both have to break free of their comfort zones and I appreciated how their characterization dovetailed.

And really, Patricia Gaffney's writing is exquisite. She has a gift for cutting into her characters' thoughts and intentions and picking them apart with careful thoroughness - and I think that's how I could never truly hate Sebastian. Because I knew him too well, and I could see how hard he tried to change in the second half of the novel.

There are probably lots of people who still won't like this novel because of the rape element, and they are more then entitled to. The first half of the novel is meant to be excruciating - and your enjoyment of the novel hinges on how well the second half convinces you that things can be different.

For me, the brutally objective portrayal of Sebastian in the first half, coupled with the gorgeous writing and characterization in the second half, sold me on this novel, and on Patricia Gaffney's awesomeness. It's refreshing to find awesome new romance authors while I'm still struggling with my apathy with the genre.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The 167-Page Drop: "The Postmistress," by Sarah Blake

So - why did I pick this book?

Good question. It had an oh-so-fancy literary-ficion title, and that so classy old-fashioned-looking cover, with its crinkled paper and faded, dried rose!

It lured me in with an interesting time period (1941) and a drama-proof setting (small town Massachusetts and London) and the promise of secrets and, presumably, a postmistress who does something interesting.

Ha! Lies.

The 40-year-old postmistress in question (whose name I have already forgotten) starts the book off in fantastically creepy form by going to her gyno to have him check her, uh, PO box and write a doctor's note declaring her virginity. She has a crush on Harry Vale, a regular visitor to the post office in their tiny town of Franklin, MA, and is convinced that all men prefer to have their women's hymen-status notarized.

Her doctor is royally creeped out by this, but her move inexplicably works. Hooray! This is the most original and interesting thing to happen in this whole novel!

In the same town, a young orphaned woman (whose name I've also forgotten!) moves in with her new husband, Will Fitch, who is the town's new doctor (not the virginity-officiating one). Unfortunately, thanks to Daddy Issues, Dr. Fitch has an incurable case of Mangst (Man-Angst) and when a patient dies in his care, he abandons his wife like a selfish asshole to volunteer his services to the victims of the London Blitz. In London. While his friendless, orphaned, pregnant wife is left to wallow in her misery back home. What a prince.

There he meets Frankie Bard, an American journalist in London who works for BBC radio, broadcasting stories of London's suffering across the Atlantic in an effort to galvanize the United States into joining World War II.

And that's about it. Although the historical details are well developed and the writing is gorgeous, there is little to no plot. I found myself halfway through the novel, still somehow convinced that I was reading the introduction, still waiting for the inciting incident to happen. By more than halfway through, all the events still seemed so unconnected, so unimportant, and so boring.

I wouldn't say it was a terrible novel (I did learn some new things about the Blitz, and how legitimately awful it must have been for the people living in London during it), but honestly, historical details and pretty words mean less than nothing if there isn't a solid plot or story to hang them on. Or at least a story that occurs before the 167 page mark.

Return to sender!

Monday, October 21, 2013

"Trial By Desire," by Courtney Milan (Harlequin, 2010)

The Chick: Lady Kathleen Carhart. While hiding beneath the guise of a flaky society lady, she secretly saves women from their abusive husbands.
The Rub: Her estranged husband unexpectedly returns - right when she's hiding the battered wife of one of his bros.
Dream Casting: Rose McIver.

The Dude: Lord Ned Carhart. A young aristocrat who went to India to atone for his feckless youth and gain control over his depressive moods.
The Rub: He's back in town, but his wife threatens his tightly-held control over his emotions.
Dream Casting: Tom Mison.

The Plot: 

Kate: Now that we're married, can we have sexytimes now?


Three Years Later

Ned: Sup. I'm back. What's with the cold shoulder? I abandoned you for three years, refuse to have sex with you or touch you, and ignore everything you actually say because I'm only thinking of your comfort.

Kate: You're a moron. *hies off to save ladies*

Ned: Wow! You save ladies for a living! Clearly I've come in at just the right time to do everything for you and save everyone because I'm a dude!

Kate: I am inexplicably unoffended by this. Proceed!

Day: *is saved*

Ned: Oh bee tee dubs, I have depression but I've decided to trust you now because I feel like it.

Kate: Awesome! Happy ending time!


Romance Convention Checklist
  • 1 Estranged Married Couple
  • 1 Super-Capable Heroine
  • 1 Hiding-His-Damage Hero
  • 1 Mental Illness
  • 1 Malfunctioning Pistol
  • 1 Abusive Misogynist Villain
  • 1 Twitchy Cart Horse
The Word: This was an interesting novel to read because there was an enormous gap between how much I loved the heroine - and how incredibly annoyed I was with the hero.

The novel opens with our hero, Ned (who we previously met in Milan's debut novel Proof by Seduction) abandoning his wife of three months to battle his personal demons in India. 

His abandonment devastates his new bride, Kate, and leaves her with a whole host of trust issues and a burning desire to prove to herself that she's more than just a wife to be laid aside like an accessory. So ... she becomes a Battered Woman Saver, secretly using her wealth and status to spirit away abused wives and give them new lives and identities in America.

For reals. Her newest case is her friend, Louisa, Countess of Harcroft. Her husband, the Earl of Harcroft, is a vicious abuser who has already started threatening their infant son, Jeremy. Louisa's husband's high rank and her baby being his heir make this Kate's toughest case yet, and she can't afford to make a mistake.

So, of course, this is when Ned decides to make his glorious return - three years after deserting his wife to fart around in India. And did I mention he and Harcroft used to be bros? Kate (who is hiding Louisa and her baby on her property) obviously can't afford to trust Ned with her secret. 

I was consistently infuriated by Ned in this novel. We're clearly meant to empathize with him more than Kate because, as we soon learn, he suffers from bouts of terrifying clinical depression. Which sucks because, well, it's the 19th century and people hadn't even identified it as an illness yet, much less developed treatment for it.

I tried to empathize with Ned, really I did. I understood his dedication to physical activity and why he was constantly challenging himself and creating intentionally uncomfortable environments in order to keep himself mentally alert. I also understand that depression is something that only the sufferer can really deal with. Unfortunately, the bulk of his condition more or less translates into the common hero angst of, "I can't be near the heroine because she makes me feel the powerful Man Feels that are too manly for her delicate female sensibilities!"

His own capacity for empathy is breathtakingly shallow. He shows up after three years and spends much of the first half of the novel befuddled at Kate's anger with his past absence and present refusal to do the nasty. Can't she tell that he's only protecting her from his Big Bad Man Feelings? Can't she tell, magically, that he's doing all of this for her own good?

I understand that the running emotional subplot of this novel is Ned's realization that Kate is her own awesome heroine, doesn't need rescuing from him and that he doesn't have to be Big Strong Hero Ned around her, but he never really loses that condescending vibe - especially with his patronizing attempts to emotionally manipulate her into trusting him.

Kate, on the other hand, is pretty freakin' awesome. She's a gallivanting Lady Batman who saves abused women while hiding her true identity beneath the veneer of an airhead debutante. Of course, the downside of that veneer is that even the people close to her believe she's too delicate and flighty to participate in intellectual discussions, and her loneliness is starting to consume her. I loved her character and her conflict and also her refusal to put up with Ned's ridiculous angst.

All in all, Trial By Desire is kind of a middling novel - it's got a good set-up with a strong heroine, but a condescending and oblivious hero coupled with inconsistent pacing and a strangely anticlimactic ending.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Fire with Fire," by Jenny Han and Siobhan Vivian (SimonTeen, 2013)

Our Protagonists:

Lillia: Since winning Homecoming Queen, she now has to weather the brunt of her frenemy Rennie's anger - and now her friends want her to go after Rennie's crush Reeve to score two revenge birds with one stone.

Kat: College applications are coming up, so this girl from the wrong side of the island will have to clean up her act if she wants to get into Oberlin.

Mary: While watching Reeve suffer after the events of Homecoming feels good, she worries that she'll never be fully able to recover from what he did to her. Does this mean more revenge is required?

Secondary Protagonists:

Rennie: While temporarily ousted from the top of the Popular Girl Heap, she refuses to take her de-crowning lying down. And first on her Shit List is her former BFF Lillia.

Alex: A pretty decent, super-rich and super-hot guy who has an enormous heart-on for Lillia - but might have a side-crush on Kat. Drama!

Reeve: Jar Island's resident Bad Boy refuses to slow down - even after breaking his leg during Homecoming. But he may not be as confident (nor as remorseless) as he seems.

Bette: Mary's artistic aunt, with whom she lives on Jar Island. She's started acting strangely - burning strange candles and casting spells.

Angst Checklist:
  • The consequences of revenge
  • The eternal appeal of Bad Boys
  • Mental Illness
  • Fake Relationships That Become Real Relationships
  • College Applications
  • Dealing with Grief
  • Rape
  • Female Friendships
  • Forgiveness
  • Paranormal Twists!
The Word: In Siobhan Vivian and Jenny Han's utterly addictive and enjoyable Burn for Burn, our heroines Lillia, Kat, and Mary sought vengeance against their high school tormenters. By the end of the novel, they'd managed to rob Mean Girl Rennie of the Homecoming Queen crown, lace bad boy Reeve's drink with liquid Ecstasy, and destroy a good portion of the gym when Mary unexpectedly pulled a Carrie.

However, there's no rest for the revenging. Reeve ruined Mary's life when they were kids, but even though he's now lost his football career and his college scholarships thanks to his drugged-out accident at Homecoming, he refuses to acknowledge any remorse for the pain that he's caused. Then Mary discovers a surprising secret: Reeve's got a crush on Lillia. 

Mary and Kat concoct the perfect plan - Lillia will seduce Reeve, win his heart, and then smash it into a million pieces. However, the more time Lillia spends with Reeve, the more she discovers he's not (entirely) the total asshat he appears to be. Rennie, however, has now turned against her former BFF Lillia, and doesn't hesitate to make her new hostility known. 

Revenge is still an important part of the novel, but in Fire with Fire, the focus is more on the consequences of vengeance and on moving on from the pettiness of high school. Kat and Lillia are looking at colleges now, and as they prep for their admissions essays and extracurriculars, the teenage conflicts of yore seem relatively small potatoes. Mary, meanwhile, has to contend with the psychic powers (for reals) she unleashed at Homecoming, new powers that may or may not be connected to her aunt Bette's increasingly irrational behaviour. While the "twist" is pretty easy to guess, the hints and nudges are integrated well into the story and contribute to a pretty spectacular climax.

Fire with Fire isn't really a paranormal YA, though - it's more a contemporary YA....with a light paranormal glaze? It's more about female friendships and growing up and moving on from crappy experiences. All three protagonists have tragedies in their backgrounds that they don't know how to move on from (Lillia's rape, Kat's dead mother, Mary's suicide attempt) and those parallel nicely with the high school crimes they're working so hard to avenge.

Fire with Fire, I'm happy to note, loses none of its momentum from Burn for Burn. It's equally heartfelt, funny, insightful, and crazy-addictive as our three heroines pursue their friendship beyond mere co-avenger status, develop crushes on boys (of both the right and wrong kind), and wonder about their respective futures. I love all three heroines - they're each so different, so interesting, and bring their own dynamic to the trio.

Narrative-wise, Fire doesn't really stand on its own, but it's not meant to. It reads more like an extension of Burn for Burn, and I think all three books (including the finale, Ashes to Ashes) are meant to be structured as a single enormous story broken into three pieces. Fire maintains nearly flawless pacing as it ramps up the excitement and tension from the first novel, while also introducing new themes and characters. It's a fluffy guilty revenge-y pleasure - but with substance. And forethought. And awesomeness.

In case I haven't made this clear enough already, I adored Fire with Fire. A lot. As much as (if not more than) Burn for Burn. I cannot recommend this series enough. Awesome heroines. Deep themes. Delicious soapiness with interesting commentary. Also, psychic powers. long do I have to wait for Ashes to Ashes?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

"In This House of Brede," by Rumer Godden (2005, Loyola Press - originally 1969)

Our Protagonist: Phillipa Talbot, recently Dame Phillipa of Brede.
Her Angst: After forty-two years of being a free-thinking, powerful and successful careerwoman, can she truly fit in with the humble poverty of monastery life?

Secondary Characters:

Abbess Catherine: The newly elected leader of the monastery who discovers that along with inheriting the previous abbess' duties, she's also inheriting the possibly disastrous consequences of the previous abbess' mistakes.

Dame Agnes: A traditional, scholarly sister who distrusts Phillipa's vocation and thinks she won't last as a nun.

Dame Cicely: A recent novice with a gorgeous voice and a surprisingly powerful vocation - but how long can she keep up such perfect devotion?

Dame Veronica: A melodramatic, prideful, spiteful, and all-round terrible nun. Essentially the worst.

The Word: When I announced that I was reading In This House of Brede, one of my followers complimented me on my eclectic reading style. Well, in this instance, don't thank me - thank my mother. This is one of her absolute favourite books and a yearly re-read during Lent, so I finally decided to read it and see what all the fuss was about.

What plot there is centres (mostly) around Dame Phillipa - a woman who discovers her religious vocation at forty-two and leaves behind a brilliant career and an office full of dumbfounded employees to become a humble postulant in Brede, an English monastery. There, she is both welcomed and viewed with suspicion - how well will she be able to adapt when her fellow novices are 18 or 19 years old?

Plot isn't really too important in In This House Of Brede - most of the novel is comprised of loosely-connected episodes that help to illuminate and examine the everyday life of Benedictine nuns - as well as the vocations, doubts, conflicts, and joys involved in their lifestyle. Dame Phillipa is only one of a host of wonderful women whose stories we get to explore.

And honestly? It's surprisingly addictive and enlightening. Most of the conflict is internal, but everyone involved (with maybe one exception) is such a genuinely good person. However, they're nuns, not saints - capable of cattiness, pride, deception, and spite. The novel examines the difficulty of pursuing a vocation despite doubt and family opposition, the stresses of restrictive communal living (which can even result in romantic feelings), and how best to balance worldly needs against spiritual needs. More than anything, In This House of Brede delves into the "use" of monastic life - how "useful" is it, to lock oneself away from the world to pray?

Godden writes with a conversational word-on-the-street style that frequently bundles and compares various opinions at once. It can sometimes get convoluted with the way it jumps back and forth in time and quotes numerous different people (the prologue is particularly tangled), but once you grow accustomed to the writing style, it creates such a detailed and multifaceted view of a lifestyle that is frequently stereotyped but rarely understood.

That being said, if you're not religious, will you still be able to enjoy House of Brede? I'd like to say yes, tentatively - the way learning anything new about a rarely-explored way of life can be enjoyable. However, if you actively dislike religion or religious aspects in fiction then House of Brede will obviously not be the book for you.

However, if you've ever been curious about how cloistered nuns live, I doubt you'll find a better novel than In This House of Brede.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

September Round-Up!

September was a weird month for me. I didn't read as much as I wanted to - in hindsight, I think my decision to recap some awesome shows turned into a much more time-consuming endeavour than I'd anticipated, and it kept me from reading and blogging about books as much as I had wanted to. And this is a book blog (primarily). So less recapping, more reading from now on!

*September Winner*
Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell. YA, Contemporary. A
Pros: Lively and relateable heroine. Great examination of creative process. Hilarious skewering of fandoms. Cons: A wee bit on the long side. Love interest is great - but maybe a little too perfect?

*September Dud*
The Burning Sky, by Sherry Thomas. YA, Fantasy. D
Pros: Interesting concept. Cons: Utterly cliched execution, Mary Sue heroine, implausible set up, lacklustre magical worldbuilding. 

*Best of the Rest*

The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancy. YA, Science Fiction. A-
Pros: Fantastic heroine, strong concept, interesting themes, entertaining romance. Cons: Plot is a bit unfocused, too much depressing navel-gazing.

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein. YA, Historical. B+
Pros: Well-written, great themes and use of storytelling. Cons: Emotionally distancing.

One Perfect Rose, by Mary Jo Putney. Romance, Historical. B
Pros: Protagonists are refreshingly reasonable, happy people. Cons: Cliche-laden. Silly ghost ending.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

"Thieftaker," by D.B. Jackson (Tor, 2012)

The Corpse: Jennifer Berson. The young daughter of one of Boston's wealthiest citizens, she's found dead in an alley after an anti-Parliament riot.

The Gumshoe: Ethan Kaille, professional thieftaker and semi-secret conjurer.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:

Abner Berson: Jennifer's father, and the head of one of Boston's most prominent families.

Cyrus Derne: Jennifer's fiance, who can't explain his whereabouts during her murder.

Mister Trevor Pell: A young minister with spellcaster's blood who is sympathetic to Ethan's magical investigations.

Sephira Pryce: A criminal queenpin who masquerades as Boston's first and most respected thieftaker. She does not take kindly to Ethan nosing in on her usual clientele.

Ebenezer Mackintosh: An anti-Parliament rebel prone to inciting violent riots against Parliamentary representatives.

The Word: Ethan Kaille works as a thieftaker in pre-Revolutionary War Boston. It's a risky living, made riskier by the fact that he's a conjurer - an aspect of himself he keeps (poorly) hidden thanks to widespread fear against magic users. And Sephira Pryce - Ethan's popular and much more ruthless competitor - ensures he never lands the truly wealthy clients.

Until Abner Berson, one of Boston's richest landowners, asks Ethan for help. His young daughter Jennifer was murdered on the night of a deadly riot against Grenville's Stamp Act. Berson would like Ethan to recover a priceless brooch that was stolen from her corpse - but what he really wants is to find out who killed her.

Against his better judgement, Ethan takes the job, and it doesn't take long to discover why Berson hired him: Jennifer was killed with magic. And the conjurer responsible really doesn't want Ethan interfering in his plans.

Juggling genres can be a tricky thing, but Thieftaker does an admirable job. Jackson combines a relatively unusual historical period with a sparingly-developed fantasy element. I enjoyed how the novel briefly explored both sides of the American colony situation and mined the natural conflict of that period for tone and drama. Broad, efficient strokes are used to describe and explain Ethan's powers and their influence on his circumstances in a way that develops him and the world around him without cluttering the storyline or slowing the pacing - a common flaw in crossgenre mysteries.

That being said, the interesting setting and magic worldbuilding are used to tell a fairly straightforward mystery that grows more repetitive as Ethan pursues the case despite escalating opposition. The mystery itself - as well as the revelation and payoff at the end - seem pretty small potatoes in comparison to the other things that Ethan and his allies have to deal with, but perhaps as the series progresses both aspects of the narrative will be able to balance out.

Thieftaker is a solidly-paced whodunnit with a lot of interesting window-dressing. Provided the author can learn to balance the different genres a little better, the rest of the series looks promising.