Friday, April 18, 2014

"A Long, Long Sleep," by Annie Sheehan

The Protagonist: Rosalinda "Rose" Fitzroy. An heiress who wakes up after spending 62 years in frozen stasis.
Her Angst: Her entire life as she knows it is gone - her parents and friends are dead, and the world has changed in unfathomable ways. Her enemies, however, may still be alive...

Secondary Cast:

Xavier: Rose's childhood friend and first love. Rose met him as an infant, but as her parents put her back into stasis, their ages soon started to match up.

Bren: The boy who accidentally wakes Rose up from her frozen sleep, and one of the few friends she makes in this uncertain future.

Otto: An alien-hybrid boy who attends school with Rose and Bren, he commiserates with Rose on their shared weirdness and outcast status.

Mr. Guillory: The CEO of Rose's parent's company - a shady character who is not happy that this pretty popsicle has stolen his company out from under his nose.

Angst Checklist:
  • Being an Outcast
  • Scientific Ethics
  • Underperforming in School
  • I Changed My Boyfriend's Diapers At One Point - But That's Not Creepy, Is It?
  • Child Abuse
  • Self-Hatred
  • Corpse Robots
The Word: I checked this book out from the library after reading an effusively positive review of it from the Book Smugglers. However, I found myself supremely annoyed with the novel and its protagonist. And yet - the ending turned the book around for me, and made me question my own reaction to it.

In this futuristic re-telling of Sleeping Beauty, 16-year-old Rosalinda Fitzroy wakes up from stasis to find a strange boy giving her mouth-to-mouth (the CPR kind, not the non-consensual sexytimes kind). To her horror, she discovers she's woken up 62 years in the future. Her wealthy parents bought a state-of-the-art stasis tube for Rose's protection and preservation, but died in a helicopter crash before they could thaw her out or tell anyone about her whereabouts. For six decades, her tube has been mouldering in a forgotten subbasement of her parents' condo.

Now she's awake, with a serious case of freezer-burn, and has unexpectedly inherited her parents' enormously powerful company, UniCorp. As Rose struggles to adjust to a strange future, grieve her deceased parents and boyfriend (a neighbour boy named Xavier), and tentatively develop friendships with the boy who woke her up (Bren) and the classmate who relates to her (Otto) - someone else isn't happy about her reappearance, and would just as soon put her back to sleep. Permanently. 

For the majority of this book, I hated Rose. She was a cowering, snivelling, useless, foolish, self-loathing, doormat martyr of a heroine who stumbles around around in tears whining about how worthless she is while the men in the story tell her she's pretty and take care of her. She's ignored by her foster parents, exploited by her guardian Mr. Guillory, and attacked by a corpse-robot (for reals) and she has to be squeezed like a lemon before she'll even tell anyone she's unhappy or, you know, in mortal danger. What a moron. I couldn't stand her.

But then we start getting into her backstory. I suppose it is a kind of a spoiler, but for the purposes of my review I want to address it, so you've been warned.

I initially thought Rose was put into stasis for her own protection, or because her parents were hiding a high-tech secret life from her, but the answer was far more mundane, and saddening, than I'd anticipated: Rose's parents used stasis to abuse her. Wealthy and entitled, her mother and father would bring her out of stasis to play at being parents with birthday parties and champagne breakfasts and shopping trips - then put her back in whenever she acted out, or disobeyed, or parenting actually got hard.

They weren't interested in having actual offspring. They wanted a permanent child to worship and obey them. And when it looked like she was growing up, despite their most dedicated efforts to keep her childlike and cowed, they left her in the toy chest for good.

The ordinariness (in a sense) of this explanation, and the surprisingly clever way it was slowly unravelled throughout the story, saved this novel for me. Even the most melodramatic and portentous science fictional technology can and will be misused by petty, small people to solve their petty, small problems.

And it (finally) explains Rose's behaviour to a tee. Her intense dislike of herself, her tendency to shoulder blame for every bad experience, her refusal to complain about mistreatment or point fingers at people who are hurting her, it all makes sense because she's been raised to believe her life deserves to be put on "Pause." As much as I dislike Rose as a protagonist, she's a realistic reaction to trauma and abuse. It's also more than a little fascinating to watch Rose's painstakingly slow realization that she even was a victim of abuse.

I still didn't like this book. The heroine was just too passive and whiny for me - but, looking back on my experience reading this novel, that was more due to my own reading preferences than a literary failing on the novel's part. Rose's character is well-developed and realistic. The narrative doesn't push her too far or end her story with a too-soon love interest (which is nice, because her entire relationship with Xavier squicked me the fuck out). The science-fictional setting was detailed and rounded out - almost too detailed, with a lot of elements that weren't completely relevant to the story.

As a book about the insidious nature of emotional and parental abuse, A Long, Long, Sleep was clever and detailed. I didn't like it because, frankly, I don't like reading modern/futuristic fairy tale retellings where the heroines are further victimized. But to each their own. Consider your own reading preferences - if yours are anything like mine, I'd steer clear.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"Nowhere But Home," by Liza Palmer

The Protagonist: Queen Elizabeth "Queenie" Wake. A shiftless chef whose temper has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count
Her Angst: When her latest termination leaves her with no job or home, she's forced to return to the insular, gossipy Texas small town of her childhood to regroup. The same town that was happy to tar her and her sister with the same slutty brush.

Secondary Cast:

Merry Carole: Queenie's sister, who remained in North Star after getting knocked up and abandoned at 17 by Wes, one of North Star's privileged sons. She runs a hair salon, and her son is quarterback of the football team.

Cal: Merry Carole's adorable and big-hearted 15-year-old son. He's earned the town's approval for his football skills, but struggles with how his loving mother is still slandered as the town whore.

Everett: Son of one of the ruling families of North Star, and the love of Queenie's life. However, he never acknowledged their relationship in public and chose to marry a girl from a "suitable" family instead. He still loves Queenie, but his oh-so-important "responsibilities" prevent him from making it public.

Laurel: North Star's resident Mean Girl and the woman Everett married (then divorced!) instead of Queenie. Has an understandable dislike of Queenie.

Whitney: Another Mean Girl who wound up marrying Wes. She has never stopped tormenting Merry Carole - for a secretly painful and personal reason.

Wes: A member of one of North Star's better families, he and Whitney seem like the perfect couple - although their mutual dark secret prevents them from being truly happy.

Piggy Peggy: A vicious and obsequious bully who runs the North Star gossip mill at the behest of Laurel and Whitney.

The Word: Reading Nowhere But Home was like eating a donut. Maybe a whole box of donuts - I scarfed my way through the warm, delicious sweetness, even though I knew while I was reading it that it wasn't very good. Even then, I couldn't quit until I licked the last trace of glaze off my fingers.

Queen Elizabeth Wake ("Queenie" for short) has spent the last ten years living out of a suitcase, moving from town to town, cooking at restaurant after restaurant, until her smart mouth gets her fired and she has to move on. She loses her latest job because she yelled at a customer who put ketchup on his eggs. A frustrated and defeated Queenie moves back in with her sister Merry Carole in their hometown of North Star, Texas, to get her bearings and rethink her future.

North Star holds nothing but bad memories for Queenie - as the daughters of the town slut, she and Merry Carole were labelled as little better than trash. For Queenie, the last straw came when the love of her life, North Star royalty Everett Coburn, chose to marry the girl his parents picked out rather than acknowledge their secret affair. Everett is still there when she returns - good news? He's divorced and still loves her. Bad news? He still wants to keep it on the down-low.

Nowhere But Home works, I think, because of a potent (if imperfectly-mixed) combination of past scandal, present drama, and climatic build-up. For instance, Queenie's sister Merry Carole finds herself in an awkward position when the illegitimate son the town shunned her for becomes North Star's star quarterback. Will the Church of Texas Football force townsfolk to accept Merry Carole again?

Or how about Queenie's new job? In order to pad her savings as she works things out, she accepts a gig at a local prison cooking last meals for death row inmates. In so doing, she regains her faith in southern comfort food (smoked brisket! Chicken fried steak!), even though she's never comfortable with who she's actually cooking for.

It's all juicy, fizzy drama. So what's the downside? Well, the writing isn't that exceptional - quite the opposite, actually. The writing is simple, workmanlike and often repetitive. You can't turn a page without a character flushing, dabbing at their mascara-black tears with a handkerchief, or collapsing into sobs at the drop of a hat.

As well, for all the deliciously tense build up Palmer develops with the multitude of secret sins bubbling beneath North Star's surface, the novel stumbles with the ultimate pay off. I felt a lot of the conflict resolved itself disappointingly easily. In fact, the majority of those Big Secret Reveals end with, "Oh that? Everyone's known for years!" Thanks, Small Town Hive Mind stereotype. Way to suck the wind out of a dramatic moment.

And finally - I couldn't sympathize very much with Queenie's love interest, Everett - the Poor Little Rich Boy whose family honour is just soooo important that he can't be with her in public. There's a revelation towards the end that sort of explains why he behaved that way towards Queenie as a teen, but it doesn't explain his preference for secrecy as an adult. His "be my secret mistress, boo hoo you don't understand my responsibilities" bit at the novel's start cast him down several pegs in my estimation, pegs he never really makes back. I kept hoping Queenie would toss him over and find someone better.

So the novel doesn't really stick the landing, and the writing (or at least the writing that doesn't involve lovingly-described fried Southern food) isn't anything to shake a stick at, but I suppose this is one of those novels where the addictively enjoyable journey is worth the sub-par destination.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

"Can't Hurry Love," by Molly O'Keefe

The Chick: Victoria Schulman. A penniless (and notorious) widow with a young son, she hopes to use the cattle ranch she's just inherited to rebuild their lives.
The Rub: After being an emotionally fragile failure all her life, does she have what it takes to follow through on her dreams?
Dream Casting: Sandra Bullock.

The Dude: Eli Turnbull. Generations ago, the cattle ranch used to belong to his family, until Victoria's ancestors took it away. He's grown up trying to follow through on the family grudge.
The Rub: He should hate Victoria for getting the land that should be his - but could she be worth giving up decades' worth of enmity?
Dream Casting: Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot:

Victoria: I know you wish this land was yours and not mine, but can we work together?

Eli: LOL NO. *sells cattle*

Victoria: Fine! You're fired!

Eli: ...I am strangely okay with that decision. We should make out some time.

Victoria: Sure! So long as you don't mind that I'm turning the ranch you wanted into a spa!

Eli: Wait what?

Victoria: And for the architect, I've hired the mother who abandoned you to the tender mercies of your drunk father when you were eight!


Victoria: And my cute fatherless boy also looks up to you!


Victoria's Bitchy City Friends: Hey did someone order Last Minute Antagonists?

Victoria: Eep.

Eli: Hot Cowboy to the Rescue!

Victoria: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Widow Heroine with Low Self-Esteeem
  • 1 Angry Cowboy
  • 1 Generations-Long Grudge
  • 1 Romance-Enabling Child
  • 3 Pregnant Mares
  • 1 Bad Mum Turned Good
  • 1 Secondary Romance (between Celeste and a hot Viking contractor!)
  • 1 Questionable Uncle
  • 3 Vicious Frenemies
The Word: I've discovered I haven't burned out on romance. I've just burned out on bad romance, on unoriginal romance, on so-so romance.

Because from the very first page of Molly O'Keefe's second novel, Can't Hurry Love, I fell right into the best parts of enjoying romance - the drama, the tension, the banter, the emotion, and the writing.

The sequel to Can't Buy Me Love (which is equally awesome sauce), this novel centres on Luc's achingly desperate sister Victoria. She was the leader of New York high society - until her husband committed suicide rather than face the consequences of his Bernie-Madoff-style embezzlement. Penniless, friendless, jobless, hopeless, Victoria crawled back to Texas with her young son in order to build a better life with the cattle ranch her father, Lyle Baker, left her in his will.

The only problem? She owns the ranch, but Eli Turnbull, the ranch foreman, was willed the cattle - and he's furious. After working under Lyle Baker for years, he expected to inherit the land that used to belong to his family before the Bakers bought it up. Having his ancestors' land pass into the hands of yet another Baker is just another log on the fire of the Turnbull/Baker feud so he repays the favour by selling the cattle - rendering Victoria's property useless (no cows = no income to support the ranch).

When Victoria confronts him on this, he impulsively kisses her and when he takes it too far, she fires him. Unfortunately, this does nothing to douse their passionate mutual attraction.

Both characters are so nuanced and real that their fears and insecurities bleed across the pages. I love me some drama, and O'Keefe dishes up the best kind - the drama that springs from vividly realized characters confronting powerful conflict. Victoria spent her life being abused, punished, and lied to by the people who were supposed to protect her, and she internalized it all. It's delicious to read her come into her own as she decides to turn her ranch into a first-class spa - but she has to struggle every step of the way against her instinctual mistrust in herself. Eli is a little more grounded - until the mother who abandoned him when he was eight years old shows up in his life again, hoping to rebuild the maternal bridge she burned, splinter by charred, damaged splinter.

The past is a weighty thing in Can't Hurry Love - almost physically weighty. Victoria's spent the last couple of years bowed near to breaking beneath the strain of her guilt and self-hatred. Eli, meanwhile, has struggled beneath the pressure of his family's anger. As Victoria decides to turn the ranch into a spa, and Eli uses his newfound freedom to pursue horse breeding, it looks like they might be able to leave their heavy baggage behind. But when they give into lust and engage in an affair, their fear of history repeating itself threatens their attempts to strengthen the relationship.

See what I mean? Drama. These are vibrant, visceral characters and Molly O'Keefe's gorgeous writing draws out their pain with lavish, layered brushstrokes. But it hurts so good.