Thursday, November 13, 2014

"Half a Crown," by Jo Walton

Principal Cast:

Inspector Carmichael: Now the Watch Commander (head of England's secret police), he does the government's dirty work - while secretly smuggling Jews out of fascist Europe. How long can he keep this up?

Elvira Royston: A lowly police sergeant's daughter whose connection to the Watch Commander has raised her to the status of debutante. Her secure status can be taken away, however, especially by the Watch Commander's enemies who want to bring Carmichael down for good.

The Word: Well ... this is awkward. Jo Walton's trilogy, which started with the brilliant Farthing, continued with the good-but-not-great Ha'Penny, has now ended with a ... splat.

Half a Crown takes place in an alternate 1960. Hitler is still alive, England is a fascist state, and life sucks for the Jews everywhere. In slightly better news, the vile Prime Minister Normanby was permanently disabled by the bombing at the end of Ha'Penny and now people are questioning his right to rule. Unfortunately, the folks doing the questioning might be even worse than Normanby is.

Meanwhile, Inspector Carmichael - the trilogy's main protagonist - is head of the Watch, England's version of the Gestapo. The nastier Powers that Be think he's firmly under their thumb, but in truth, Carmichael's been secretly using Watch resources to smuggle Jews out of Britain and Germany. Meanwhile, Carmichael's adopted niece Elvira (the daughter of his murdered partner Royston) accidentally winds up on the wrong side of a street riot and Carmichael's political enemies decide to use her as leverage to take down Carmichael.

Unlike the first two books, there isn't really a murder mystery component here. Carmichael's already got his fingers in every pie that matters just by being Watch Commander. Unfortunately, the plot meanders all over the place and is mainly about how England's plight couldn't possibly get any worse - until the end when everything magically resolves itself. Walton does too good a job demonstrating how prevalent fascism has become in England, so when the sudden ~*Happy Ending*~ appears, it makes absolutely no sense and ties up everything in the neatest and silliest bow you could possibly imagine.

If you don't mind spoilers (seriously) - Elvira asks a young Queen Elizabeth II to please make the fascists go away and to release all the Jews. And the Queen is like, "Sure, complete stranger whom I've met for the first time today, why not? Shut it down, you guys! Fascism is over!" And England's like, "Cool." An out-of-nowhere deus-ex-machina speech from a fictionalized version of a real-life monarch immediately solves all the issues that Walton's set up over three books. Really. REALLY. It's a Disneyfied ending that seems wholly out of place - and wholly unworthy of the nuanced horror setting Walton developed.

I suppose you could say she wrote herself into a corner where any positive ending would have seemed like a cheat, but it could have been accomplished far less ham-handedly than it actually was. A disappointing conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

"Crazy Thing Called Love," By Molly O'Keefe

The Chick: Madelyn Cornish, a.k.a. Maddy Wilkins, a.k.a. Maddy Baumgarden. A popular daytime television host.
The Rub: When her show wants her to do a project with reviled hockey thug Billy Wilkins, she can't reveal that he used to be her husband without dredging up their painful history.
Dream Casting: Michelle Monaghan.

The Dude: Billy Wilkins. A violent, almost-washed-up hockey player who's lauded (and hated) for the fights he frequently starts on the ice.
The Rub: The opportunity to go on his ex-wife's show seems too good to be true - can he clean up his act and win her back?
Dream Casting: Jeremy Renner.

The Plot:

Billy: Violence solves everything! *starts hockey fight*

NHL: No it doesn't.

Maddy's show: Hey, want to do a makeover series?

Billy: Yay! Makeovers solve everything!


Surprise Niece and Nephew: Hey, our mother's dead and our aunt's abusive. Let's lie! Lying solves everything!


Maddy: I find your total incompetence with life suddenly relatable.

Billy: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Pair of Reunited Exes
  • 2 Angsty Plot Moppets
  • 1 Evil TV Producer
  • 1 Swarm of Paparazzi
  • Several Flashbacks
The Word: It didn't take long for Molly O'Keefe to secure herself a spot as one of my favourite authors. Two books into her hockey-star (or hockey-star-adjacent) trilogy and I was hooked. Now we're onto the final book. Maddy Cornish, a daytime television host in Dallas, was a friend of the heroine from Can't Hurry Love, and freaked out when she ran into Billy Wilkins - a hockey friend of the hero of Can't Buy Me Love - at a party at the end of the last book.

Madelyn Cornish has spent the better part of a decade making a name for herself in daytime TV. She built her career from the ground up - losing weight, straightening her hair, and changing her name to distance herself as much as possible from her humiliating past.

Her humiliating past comes back to bite her in the ass when her show's producers suggest they do a "Makeover" segment on her show for Billy Wilkins, a washed-up hockey thug known more for his violence on the ice and time spent in the penalty box than his actual plays. The producers think the prospect of turning this burly, scarred toad into a burly, scarred prince could boost their ratings.

Unbeknownst to her employers, Maddy used to be Mrs. Billy Wilkins. She and Billy married extremely young, but Billy's exploding hockey career ended up sweeping all of Maddy's own emotions, goals, and ambitions under the rug in favour of Billy's. After a few miserable years of that, Maddy divorced him and fled with what little identity she had left. She's terrified that any resurgence of feelings towards Billy will destroy the independence she's gained.

Billy, meanwhile, has hit rock bottom. He's ruined his own reputation with his violent antics and now no one wants to play with him. The only light in his life is the miraculous opportunity to make things right with the only woman he's ever loved - his Maddy. Could he use this makeover to change himself into the husband she deserves?

Billy and Maddy make an interesting pair - Maddy's terrified of her feelings, while Billy is nothing but feelings - mostly rage and self-loathing. As Billy dives headfirst into the makeover segment in order to win his ex-wife back, he has to change how he sees himself (as someone worth loving rather than a human punching bag) in order to improve himself and impress Maddy. Meanwhile, Maddy has to learn how to love someone and invest in their life without sacrificing her own.

Of course, O'Keefe doesn't make this easy and drops a number of bombshell plot lines that force our couple through the emotional wringer in a number of delicious ways, slathering on the angst and the high drama with skill and gusto. The reason I continue to gobble up her books like catnip even as I lose patience with other romance writers is because of her continued commitment to meticulously-developed characters. With her gorgeous turns of phrase, she give her protagonists colourful inner lives that reveal their neuroses and fears without becoming boring and navel-gazey. So when melodramatic things happen, I find myself turning the pages faster and faster because I need to know how her characters will react.

Crazy Thing Called Love is no different. A marvellous addition to Molly O'Keefe's growing canon.