Sunday, March 23, 2014

"The Rook," by Daniel O'Malley

The Protagonist: Myfanwy Thomas. Possessed of paranormal body-altering powers, she works as a "Rook" for the Chequy - a secret organization bent on keeping Britain safe from magical threats.
Her Angst: This Myfanwy Thomas has absolutely no memory of who she is or was - thanks to a betrayal from someone in the Chequy. Is she capable of impersonating, well, herself, to find out who put a hit out on her?

The Secondary Cast:

Heretic: A friendly member of the Chequy court (Chevalier, to be exact) who can contort himself into impossible shapes.

Gestalt: Myfanwy's fellow Rook, who is a single soul born into four bodies and can operate each one independently and simultaneously. Not the easiest person to relate to.

Lady Farrier: The Lady of the Chequy, who can enter and control people through their dreams. She is the only one who knows of Myfanwy's amnesia, and she keeps it quiet to settle an old debt.

Grantchester: A Bishop of the Chequy who can emit gaseous chemicals from his pores. A swinging ladies' man and diplomat.

Alrich: The Chequy's other Bishop, who can only come out after sundown, is ridiculously gorgeous, and doesn't age. He's pretty much exactly what you think he is.

Eckhart: A former soldier who discovered his abilities in adulthood, he's a Chevalier of the Chequy and capable of manipulating metal into different forms.

Shantay: A Bishop from Croatoan (the US version of the Chequy), who can turn her body into metal and becomes an instant BFF with Myfanwy.

The Word: Reading has always been pleasant for me, but there have occasionally been times where, while I've enjoyed and appreciated what I've read, nothing has really connected with me in a way that makes me want to remember it and read it again and again.

I'm kind of grateful for my recent change of reviewing policy (i.e deciding to review only books that I've loved or hated - no more wasting time reviewing "blah" or "m'eh" books) because, well, there have been a lot of "m'eh" books lately. Most of them have been decent, but none of them really "grabbed" me. I miss being grabbed by books.

So it's always a pleasure to read something that absolutely abducts me from normal life so quickly and completely as Daniel O'Malley's The Rook.

At the start of the book, our heroine opens her eyes and finds herself surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. She has absolutely no memory of who she is. The only clue comes from two envelopes in the pocket of her coat, addressed to her and signed by - herself.

As it turns out, her name is Myfanwy (pronounced "Miffany") Thomas, someone stole her memories deliberately, and her previous self knew it was going to happen and prepared accordingly. As the new Myfanwy learns in the letters, she has two choices: she can go to the bank and open safety deposit box number one and find the money and instructions necessary to live the rest of her life anonymously and in comfort. Or she can open safety deposit box number two, find out more about who her body used to belong to, and impersonate the old Myfanwy long enough to find out who put a hit out on her.

After encountering more murderous glove-wearing goons and eliminating them with her just-discovered paranormal powers, Myfanwy chooses Box Number Two. And discovers the old Myfanwy belonged to a secret organization of super-powered people dedicated to protecting Britain from supernatural threats.


Oh, and someone within that organization (known as the Chequy) betrayed her. Neither Myfanwy knows who. Less awesome.

There is seriously so much to love about this book that I almost don't know where to start. Actually - let's start with Myfanwy. Both Myfanwys. Old Myfanwy leaves New Myfanwy a suitcase full of letters explaining her life, the people around her, and the inner working of the Chequy. Old Myfanwy's voice is still very much present in New Myfanwy's life - even if they don't always agree. Old Myfanwy was taken from her parents by the Chequy the moment her powers manifested - and developed serious issues as a result. She was extremely shy, preferred administration to fieldwork, hated using her powers, and was generally looked down upon by the rest of the Chequy as a disappointment.

Thanks to New Myfanwy having no memories of old experiences, she doesn't have the same anxieties and fears - and develops into a far more active, take-charge character, to the astonishment of her coworkers. The interplay between Old and New Myfanwy is fascinating and an excellent examination of how environment and experience can shape a person's personality.

But then there's also the super-secret, super-rich organization of the Chequy with its near infinite resources and the many talents of its employees. Myfanwy is an administrator, which gives her a detailed and hilarious point of view into how everything works - yes, we get the cool details about brute squads and incident containment, but we also get all the red tape, bureaucracy and other highly entertaining mundanities of running a super-secret superhero organization. So there's a lot of action and gruesome deaths - but also a lot of everyday problems like dealing with snarky rookies and awkward Christmas parties. The balance between the mundane and the absurd, the human and the superhuman, is perfect.

O'Malley never falls back on the stereotypical "super-strength, flight, invisibility" standard powers for the Chequy folks, either, instead going for the weird and interesting. My favourites are Myfanwy's ability to alter the bodily functions of others and Gestalt's ability to share a single mind and identity among four siblings.

While this novel can be found in the Fantasy section of your bookstore, this book succeeds by refusing to restrict itself to any one genre. It's got action - but also mystery, with the suspense of an impersonation thriller as Myfanwy struggles to fit in without revealing her amnesia. It's got hilariously awkward office humour, along with supernatural creatures, a dash of political commentary and a skinless Belgian in a fish tank.

The Rook is pretty much an all-you-can-eat literary buffet and I encourage you to dive in, face-first.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

"Ask the Passengers," by A.S. King

The Protagonist: Astrid Jones. As the outsider in a close-knit small-town, she's never been one of the crowd.
Her Angst: When she realizes she's in love with a girl, she fears becoming even more of an outcast.

Secondary Characters:

Kristina: Astrid's best friend, one of the most popular girls in Unity Valley, and a closet lesbian. While she pushes Astrid to be open about herself, she's more in love with the small-town limelight than she's let on.

Justin: Astrid's other best friend and Kristina's beard boyfriend. He and Kristina try to involve Astrid in more activities.

Dee: An open lesbian from another school district, she works with Astrid at a catering company and is love with her - although she wants to get more physical than Astrid is comfortable with.

Ellis: Astrid's little sister, who has totally glommed on to small-town life - including the bigoted aspects.

Astrid's Mum (because she's not worthy of a first name right now): A vain, superficial, gossip-obsessed agoraphobe who cares more about what other people think than how her daughters feel.

Astrid's Dad (ditto): A loser deadbeat who's decided he'd rather "secretly" smoke pot in the attic than be a parent to his kids.

Angst Checklist:
  • Sexuality
  • Peer Pressure
  • Small Town Values
  • Homophobia
  • Racism
  • The First Amendment Right to be a Homophobic Racist Holocaust Denier
  • Gossip
The Word: Although I'd been asked to read this as the March Book for the Forever Young Adult Book Club, this book had already been on my TBR for a while thanks to the feverishly positive reviews from several bloggers I respect. 

When Astrid was nine, she and her her family moved from New York City to Unity Valley - a small town that is small in All Of The Ways - including small-minded. In such a deeply-conservative town glued together by malicious gossip and dusty tradition, Astrid has never truly fit in - even without revealing the secret she's been hiding from everyone. 

And her family is useless - her little sister Ellis has firmly embedded herself in townie life and her superficial, unloving mother Claire is too busy attempting (and failing) to do the same thing to involve herself with Astrid's problems. Astrid's father, meanwhile, has decided to check out of being a father and husband by developing a drug habit. The last thing Astrid wants is to trust any of them with her secret - "tolerant" is how they want to be perceived, not how they really are. 

You see, Astrid's secret is that she is love with a girl - a feisty hockey player named Dee.

Astrid's not exactly scared of being gay - rather, she's scared of being shoved into the "Gay Box."  She's scared of having other people decide who she is and what that means before she has a chance to, which is why she still hasn't told her best friends Kristina and Justin, even though they've been each other's mutual beards as Unity Valley's Homecoming Couple for years. She's scared that "coming out" will irrevocably label and define her before she's really sure who and what she is. Does being in love with one girl make you gay? What if you don't feel this way forever? What if you change you mind? And shouldn't people care that there's more to you than who you're in love with? 

It's a fascinating argument that reminds me strongly of Openly Straight - only I think Ask the Passengers handles the angst of your identity being defined entirely by your sexuality in a much more nuanced way. A.S. King is a master at showing both sides of Astrid's insecurity - on the one hand, she's scared of people making decisions for her. On the other, she's just as terrified of making decisions for herself. 

She'd much rather coast along in limbo with her head down and let the cards fall where they may, but that's just a decision to not decide, and it comes with consequences the same as any other choice. So when Dee pressures Astrid to come out - I can see that she's pushing Astrid on something that should be Astrid's choice, but I also understand that Astrid's unwillingness to commit is hurtful. 

It's really a testament to A.S. King's characterization that Astrid never comes across as wishy-washy or passive as she slowly grows brave enough to decide to decide. Part of that, I think is Astrid's habit of "asking the passengers." To fight her own feelings of being unloved and judged, her favourite pastime is lying on the picnic table in her backyard and sending love to the passengers in the planes that pass by. Her attempt to fight indifference with intentional feelings of love says so much about her, especially when she silently sends love to her family even after they humiliate or ignore her. 

All in all, this was a thoroughly insightful book with an intriguing protagonist.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Sweet Disorder," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Phoebe Sparks. The widow of a freeman, whoever marries her inherits her husband's right to vote - which makes her a target for unscrupulous election agents.
The Rub: Despite her unwillingness to marry again, Phoebe's hands are tied when her sister is impregnated by a callous seducer. Phoebe will need to marry before the next election in order to preserve her sister's future.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Mr. Nicholas Dymond. Tired of the pitying looks from his zealously political family, he agrees to help his brother's campaign by finding a suitable Whig husband for the recalcitrant Mrs. Sparks.
The Rub: Nick's matchmatching hits a speed bump when he starts falling for Phoebe himself.
Dream Casting: Chris Evans.

The Plot:
Phoebe: Even though I'm poor, I refuse to marry again!

Helen: Oops! I'm pregnant!

Phoebe: DAMMIT.

Nick: Even though I'm rich and privileged, I'm going to stay in bed and angst!


Nick: DAMMIT. Well, Phoebe, I found you a sexy baker to marry!

Phoebe: We have sexy baker, we have a sexy baker. Can I get a sexy factory owner?

The Tories: We have a sexy factory owner with a motherless daughter!

Phoebe: You're going to have to up the ante, Nick.

Nick: Uh, uh, um... I HAVE ABS!

Phoebe: We've got abs, we've got abs, can anyone here beat Hot British Abs?

The Tories: Um, our candidate has Racism and White Privilege?

Phoebe: LOL NO. SOLD! To the Angsty Wounded Lord's Son with Abs!

Nick: Yay!

Helen: Except my Secret Baby has a dark past!

Phoebe: Welp.


*several fistfights, bribery attempts, and family shenanigans later*

Nick: Screw it! I'll dump my crazy family for you!

Phoebe: SOLD! To the Angsty Wounded Regular Dude with Abs!


Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Merry Widow Heroine with a Great Rack
  • 1 Bad Husband (Deceased)
  • 1 Surprisingly Decent Brother-In-Law
  • 1 Angsty Limp
  • 1 Scandalous Elopement
  • 2 Horrible Mums
  • 1 Little Sister in Trouble
  • 2 Lacklustre Romance Rivals
  • 1 Excellent Batch of Brown Bread Ice Cream
The Word: Rose Lerner is kind of like the Olympics. Sure, a book of hers only comes out once every two to four years - but when one does, I lose my everlovin' mind over it for two weeks. 

In the small town of Lively St. Lemeston, only freemen are allowed to vote in elections. Our heroine, Phoebe Sparks, is the widow of a freeman - which means whoever marries her acquires that freeman status, and thus the ability to vote. With such a close election coming up, both the Whigs and the Tories see Phoebe as the perfect way to guarantee a vote for their sides: by providing her with a husband. 

Nicholas Dymond, the older brother of Tony Dymond (the Whig candidate), is charged by their mother to interact with Phoebe and find a worthy (and Whig-loyal) husband for her. Feeling depressed and useless since his military-career-ending injury in Badajoz, Nick feels he should at least try to do this much for his ambitious and highly political family. The only problem? Phoebe Sparks, despite her impoverished status, has no desire to get married and repeat the experience she had with her first husband, a newspaper editor. 

Unfortunately, fate forces Phoebe's hand when her teenage sister Helen shows up on her doorstep - desperate, pregnant and unwilling to name the father. The only way Phoebe can acquire the resources necessary to provide for Helen's baby and protect her reputation is by marrying a political party's chosen husband in return for their protection. Nick promises to help her - for reasons that grow increasingly less political and more personal.

Rose Lerner once again provides a thoroughly entertaining and unerringly insightful romance rife with fascinating historical detail and unconventional situations. There is a sharp political divide between the Orange-and-Purples (Whigs) and Pink-and-Whites (Tories) in this town, and almost everyone has a political opinion one way or the other. Phoebe, although politically Whig, has to consider turning Tory if that party offers more security for her fallen sister, and her observations are thought-provoking - even as she worries about the compromises she's making.

Of course, the great thing about Rose Lerner is that not only does she give us great settings and unconventional situations, but she's a master at creating realistically flawed and nuanced characters. Both hero and heroine are Good People, who do Good Things - but they're not above feeling the occasional surge of resentment at having to sacrifice so much for a foolish sibling.

Phoebe is a strident, intelligent, passionate woman who's convinced, thanks to her manipulative mother and unhappy marriage, that such traits make her a shrew and unfit to be a wife. She's constantly struggling between her instinct to storm in and fix things and her fear of being perceived as a crass, interfering harridan. Despite her tendency to shoulder the blame for other people's unhappiness, she never comes across as a hapless martyr.

Nick, meanwhile, isn't just any ol' Angsty Loner Noble With a Limp from Romance Central Casting. His limp is a cunning physical metaphor for Nick's feelings of uselessness and inferiority as the apathetic black sheep in a family of flamboyantly political overachievers. Having grown up with campaigners and double-speak his entire life, he's instinctively trained to say what other people what to hear - and utterly unable to speak for himself.

The secondary cast is also stellar - including star-crossed lovers, racist Tories, gormless bakers, oily election agents, and two of the most brilliantly-characterized Bad Mothers I've ever encountered in romance.

As much as I joke about how I wished Rose Lerner wrote faster, it's worth the wait when each novel she writes invokes such a superb balance between romance, humour and history. Absolutely flawless.