Saturday, December 13, 2014

December in New York: Day Two

Friday morning, we ate a relaxed breakfast in the Library Hotel's comfortable Reading/Breakfast room before going out to explore. The weather was cool, but only on par with a brisk Canadian spring, so we had no issue walking everywhere.

Opening my mouth the day before had released me from my misery - I felt anxiety and twinges of sadness and panic here and there, but I allowed myself to experience it and it passed through me instead of building up, so I was able to enjoy myself infinitely more. Mum and I spent the morning poring over the elaborately-coiffed dolls in the Lord and Taylor windows, posing next to the New York Library Lions, comparing the candy version of the Empire State Building to the real thing, and goggling at the absurdly high-tech window display at Macy's (which involved holograms, animatronics, green screens, and sharp metal Christmas trees that transformed into stars).

The first time I ever visited New York, I succumbed to the "I'm in a movie" feeling, being surrounded by so many recognizable landmarks and buildings - so being in New York in December felt like being in one of those cheesy, wonderful Christmas films. All of a sudden, I was excited again by bright lights and toys, enthusiastic sidewalk Santas, and smiling doormen in suits who opened every door.

Macy's was pretty shameless in its Christmasness, indoors and out, but when you're the Macy's on the 34th street (where that "Miracle" occurred), you have a reputation to protect. We rode old-fashioned, clacking wooden escalators from floor to floor. We didn't get into Santaland - the line was (unsurprisingly) insanely long - but the glimpses we saw convinced us that Christmas at Macy's was Serious Business.

After that, came the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I'd already been, so I let Mum take the lead. We walked into (and then quickly out of) an unsettling exhibition of Balthus' fixation on underage girls and cats before exploring the section of religious art - I quite enjoyed the enormous nativity scene. We avoided sculpture (Mum had just gotten back from Rome the month before, and was "completely sculptured out") so we instead shifted our focus to a fascinating exhibition on musical instruments. We walked through the evolution of the flute, the guitar, and the harp - we even saw a "cross harp" which is an X-shaped instrument composed of two slanted harps. God only knows how many hands you'd need to play it.

As much as we loved the artwork and the instruments - we loooooved the gift shop. There is nothing like the Met gift shop. We both bought beautiful gifts and souvenirs, and I managed the rather impressive feat of buying my mother a massive art book on instruments with her own discount card, while she stood ten feet away, without her finding out.

After that, we broke for lunch at the Museum's cafe. And wow. The museum cafes in NYC do not mess around - none of this reheated soup and sandwich cafeteria nonsense they have back home. My chicken soup had quail eggs in it, with Yukon gold potato chips, and Mum discovered the best-tasting espresso outside of Italy itself.

After that, we returned to the hotel to relax. And I mean relax. I mentioned the Library Hotel's narrow corridors and hatbox-sized rooms, but not how the hotel compensates for that with their plush, impeccably comfortable Reading Room. Cozy furniture, soft music, free coffee and snacks (with Prosecco and cheese after 5pm!), it was the perfect place to curl up and read after a day of adventuring. It had none of the sanitized, transitory air of a hotel lobby. New York City is amazing, but it's intense and often overwhelming, and the Reading Room was an oasis of calm where one could pass time without feeling like they were wasting it. On those other, horrible New York trips, where I spent hours glumly hiding out alone in my hotel room, I really could have used a Reading Room like the Library Hotel's.

We had supper at the hotel's restaurant, Madison and Vine, which was somewhat less than appetizing (Mum ordered spinach on the side, and was served enough spinach to give Popeye a stroke), and then dashed out into the rain to the Shubert Theatre to see Matilda the musical. While it was snowing in Canada, it was only raining here, but enough to leave us quite washed up and bedraggled by the time we squished into our theatre seats.

Worse, we wound up sitting in front of a tribe of unmannered hillbilly rubes who talked during the entire show. And I mean the entire show, not just a wee bit too long after the curtain rose. Their uncultured patriarch performed quite a soliloquy about spilling his frozen margarita down the front of his pants and "freezing his boy parts" (direct quote). The only possible explanation is that the parents assumed Matilda was a "children's show," and only worthy of their children's attention, despite the fact that they must have paid upwards of $500 to take them all out to see it.

And they would have completely ruined the evening for me and my Mum, if Matilda had not been absolutely amazing - the clever set design, the brain-twisting lyrics, the stellar performances quite drowned out (most of) the complaints about Mr. Hillbilly's genital hypothermia. Both Mum and I were blown away by the energy and the music and the magic. I was so happy - my first Broadway experience (Book of Mormon with Josh Gad and Andrew Rannels) was everything I could ask for and I wanted it to be the same for Mum, and it was!

The musical version is quite a darker beast than the American film adaptation. Murder, child abuse, telekinesis - it's the same events played out in the book and suggested in the film but put under a different focus. While still child-friendly, it has an edge to it I really enjoyed. The actor who played Miss Trunchbull (a drag role), was absolutely phenomenal - from celebrating her long-ago hammer throwing victory with a triumphant ribbon dance to tossing a student out the window by her braids (one of the most delightful instances of stagecraft I've ever witnessed), Miss Trunchbull was a formidable villain.

And the soundtrack? I've already listened to it from start to finish about a hundred times since. And here ended the second day of our NYC trip.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

December In New York: Day One

I sort of have a love-hate relationship with New York City.

My first trip to New York (for RWA Nationals 2011) was everything a prairie kid with a love of 1940s musicals and cop shows could ask for. My first ever Broadway show: Book of Mormon with the original cast. I wandered goggle-eyed through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fed a pretzel to the world-weariest pigeons I'd ever seen, tramped through Central Park without a map.

The second time I went, for Book Expo in 2012, was a carriage-horse of a different colour. I had my first brush with serious anxiety. Suddenly, I felt alone, and scared, and New York morphed into this grey, claustrophobic labyrinth of strangers, garbage-strewn alleyways and bedbug-infested corners.

I figured that was a fluke, but when I returned in 2013, it escalated. I had a full-on panic attack on the train ride from Newark to Manhattan. My worry about my food allergy evolved into a massive phobia that restricted my diet to bananas and yogurt. I felt depressed despite being surrounded by hundreds of women with the same interests as me.

I came home from that last trip at midnight and stayed up three hours more to wash my laundry, vacuum and disinfect my luggage, and painstakingly inspect everything I brought home with me for parasites, bugs, or dirt of any kind. And it took a full week after that before I could eat comfortably and go to sleep without inspecting my sheets. By the end of that trip, I was convinced you couldn't get me to return to New York City if you put a gun to my head.

So why the blog post? Well, it's been exactly a year since the time I got over that fear and returned to the Big Apple for one of the most memorable Christmas seasons of my life.

After the last two disastrous trips, what could possibly tempt me back to that squalid, insect-infested island? A hotel. A very special hotel.

The Library Hotel. A glorious, boutique hotel blocks away from the flagship branch of the New York Public Library, it boasted plush reading areas, exceptional service, literary-themed cocktails, rooms based on library categories, books in every room - and one hell of a high price tag. And in April 2013, I won a two-night stay there thanks to their haiku contest on Twitter.

And even then, I almost didn't take them up on their once-in-a-lifetime offer, until my dearest mum decided she would come with me, as part of a combo Christmas-birthday celebration, to celebrate December in New York with me and keep my anxiety at bay. 

Day One

Mum and I few out on a Thursday. We arrived in Newark and grabbed a cab just in time to hit rush hour traffic in the Holland Tunnel, which chewed us up and spat us out close to the Garment District. Mum marvelled over the small shops dedicated to only zippers, spandex or tassels (a whole shop of tassels!), while we passed a deli with a sign that read, "We cure our own brisket ... and our chicken soup cures everything else!"

When we reached The Library Hotel, we discovered it wasn't only full of books - it was shaped like one. Like an enormous hardcover volume of brick, it has a wide front and an extremely narrow side. In all else, the Library Hotel exceeded expectations - but not in actual physical size. We manoeuvred our bags through the tiny entrance and to the narrow front desk and up the cramped elevator to our, uh, compact rooms (my room was Poetry because I won the Poetry contest, and my mother's was Dramatic Literature).

However, despite the lovely hotel, my anxiety was a hardy beast, undeterred by rapturous TripAdvisor reviews and designer soaps. It was determined to reach out its long, cold fingers and find every little fissure of doubt in my "perfect" trip and widen them into flaws impossible to ignore. The threat of bedbugs. The possibility of allergies. The incredible expense, and the pressure to enjoy everything, absolutely, all the time or else all that money would be wasted.

It followed me out into the street as Mum and I followed the stream of people exploring the Christmas lights on Madison and Fifth, the enormous tree at Rockefeller Plaza. We had to hold hands and walk single file through all the crowds. The Cartier building was done up like an enormous gift with glowing red ribbon and shining panthers climbing up and down the building. Harry Winston was covered with glittering diamonds (Mum actually knocked on the door to inquire about the enormous emerald pendant in the window - "10 million dollars," the attendant replied). Another building had an entire Advent calendar projected onto its face, and yet another jewellery store was encircled by a giant, gem-encrusted serpent.


And yet, that first night was a bit of a nightmare. Depression is a bit like a snowball rolling downhill - it accumulates. First I felt miserable, than I felt miserable because I was miserable because this was Christmas! In New York! And it had cost so much money! We finally paused to sit down after exploring FAO Schwartz - and I had to tell Mum the truth. I cried. I remember feeling so ashamed. Mum and spent so much time and money and effort to get me here so I could have my dream trip and I was so ungrateful and broken and selfish because I couldn't enjoy it.

But actually talking about it, about my fear and sadness, felt like loosening a pressure valve. Mum admitted she was scared, too, and that she felt the same way on her first days in Paris and Rome. New York City at Christmastime is far different from our hometown in Canada. We were still transitioning. We were still adjusting. We would feel better tomorrow. Sometimes, when you're feeling scared or pressured or sad, it can help just to be reminded that the feeling is temporary and will go away. And one should never allow oneself to feel pressured to enjoy anything.

I found the first of many Christmas presents that night: Mum and I walked into a store called the Art of Shaving, where I found a luxurious badger hair shaving brush and high-quality shaving soap for my dad (one year later, he's still addicted to the stuff, which he has to buy through Sephora now since Art of Shaving isn't in Canada yet).

Thursday, December 04, 2014

"City of Dragons," by Robin Hobb

Reviewer's Note: This is going to be a little different from previous fantasy reviews, simply because I read this book a bit of a while ago, and I wasn't able to review it due to work, NaNoWriMo, and general Life Stuff.

So I'm running on memory!

So the first book of this series, Dragon Keeper, didn't wow me, but Dragon Haven blew me away with how easily it fixed the problems with the first book, advanced the plot, and developed the characters. My expectations were pretty high for City of Dragons.

Unfortunately - it's a bit of a filler book. Scratch that, it's entirely a filler book. The plot moves forward a couple of inches, but otherwise, it's entirely a set-up to what is presumably the final book in the quartet, Blood of Dragons.

The dragons and their keepers have finally reached the fabled Elderling city of Kelsingra. The only problem? A wild, uncrossable river stands between them and their destination, and the only dragon who has successfully crossed it is Heeby, the first dragon to master flight. If the other dragons want to reach the city and unlock its secrets, they'll have to force themselves to learn to fly or remain trapped on the rain-drenched shore. This is especially difficult for the arrogant, intractable dragon Sintara. Her first attempt to fly ended very badly and she's too proud and vain to admit that she's terrified of trying again.

Another issue arises regarding the fate of Kelsingra. Alise wants to preserve the Elderling city exactly as it is, to research it and finally discover the secrets of the Elderlings and why they disappeared. On the other side of the issue, Rapscal and some of the other keepers want to actually use the city and its contents rather than protecting it like a dead relic. On top of that, once the existence of Kelsingra becomes publicly known, it'll only be a matter of time before treasure hunters descend to try and wrest it from their grasp to sell it piece by piece.

Hobb also grooms more characters to become future antagonists (such as the Duke of Chalced and Alise's Evil Gay Husband Hest) and explores more on the theme of female sexuality, but otherwise, the story doesn't progress terribly far. I'm still looking forward to the final book, but perhaps my expectations will be more tempered this time.
B

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

I'm Late! I'm Late! Drive-By Reviewings

Okay, my bad.

I fell a little behind on reviewing. Okay, a lot behind. For several reasons, some of which weren't my fault but most of which totally were.

I was promoted to a new position at work (the day job), I've become (officially!) an editorial assistant at Entangled (a second job), I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and I discovered obsessively-absorbing role-playing video games.

The result: not a lot of time or inclination to review. After a stressful day of new-job training and reading manuscripts, I was more in the mood to explode darkspawn and romance knights in Dragon Age (which I will also be reviewing soon!). Now that NaNo is over and I have a bit more time on my hands, I'm just in time for my Annual Re-Reading Month.

But for now, let's recap the books I did read in October and November that aren't super-special enough to merit their own reviews:

Just Listen, by Sarah Dessen.

Yes, I finally read my first Sarah Dessen. From what my YA-focused blogger friends tell me, she's kind of the First Lady of Contemporary YA.

My first impression wasn't wholly strong - her language seemed too bare and simple for my taste, but she slowly and surely hooked me in so by the midpoint, I was pretty strongly invested in her heroine.

Our protagonist, Annabel, is someone incapable of speaking her mind for fear of hurting others. She experienced a terrible trauma at the end of the previous school year, but she can't tell her family - with them so focused on her older sister's recovery from an eating disorder, and her mother's history of depression, she can't bear to add to their burden or risk undoing her mother's progress. But the truth is eating her up inside.

The novel is all about truth-telling, and believing you're important enough to be heard, and Dessen aptly conveys how difficult it is for Annabel to speak up for herself and put herself above (or at least on the same level as) others. The novel has a deceptively simple start that reveals itself as more layered later on. However, it wasn't a perfect book. I felt the romantic interest's obsession with honesty was a little over-the-top and unreasonable, even with the novel's theme, and the treatment of rape and rape victims seemed a bit simplified by the novel's end, but otherwise, I understand where Dessen's fans are coming from.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton.

I had to read this novel for the FYA Bookclub, and let's just say this book sparked a lot of ... debate. And by debate, I mean rage.

The story explores three generations of women all leading to Ava Lavender, a girl born with wings. The story meanders along through unreliable narrators and magical realism - Alice Hoffman levels of magical realism. Spells, ghosts, girls with bird parts, all that jazz.

Walton is a splendid writer, and 90% of the novel is fine, if unfocused and a bit derivative. The ending, however, absolutely kills this novel - spoiler and trigger warning: the climax (not the conflict, but the climax) of the novel comes when Ava is brutally raped and mutilated by an obsessed stalker. And all of her family's  problems are solved by how they rally around and care for her.

Nothing in this novel - not the story, not the tone, not the theme - suggested or fit with a brutal rape. That event doesn't fit organically within the plot at all. Moreover, the rape is used as a disgusting plot device to better the lives of other characters, not the actual victim. Ava's character doesn't change or progress. In fact, she recovers and gets a boyfriend within the span of the epilogue and gets magical new white wings FOR SOME REASON. WTF. Mindbendingly stupid and offensive garbage.

Please, please, let's not make Magical Rape a trope.

Ravishing the Heiress, by Sherry Thomas

I'm still a general fan of Sherry Thomas, and this novel wasn't terrible, but that's about it.

This novel - wasn't terrible. It was interesting enough but it didn't grab and wow me like her earlier novels. Our heroine, Millie, is a merchant-class heiress whose parents arrange for her to marry a debt-ridden earl named Fitz. Millie falls for Fitz immediately, but discovers Fitz is deeply, passionately in love with another woman - someone he now has to give up in order to save his family from ruin.

Fitz ... does not take this well. He's such a flamboyant ass about what a terrible SACRIFICE he had to make by marrying Millie, that Millie spends the next six years of their marriage keeping her feelings under wraps and allowing him to pursue his various emotionless, extramarital flings. However, when Fitz learns that the former love of his life is now widowed, he plans to leave Millie to set up a household with his ladylove - but not before "fulfilling his end of the bargain" and giving Millie a baby.

There were certain things I liked - Fitz finds it difficult to reconnect with his former love as he slowly comes to understand how meaningful the last six years of marriage with Millie have been to him. His attraction to Millie grows out of their deep and abiding friendship rather than instant lust. But their actual romantic development is remarkably spare on the page, and Millie is almost pathological in her emotional repression (not that I can blame her). It was a pleasant and even a relatively original romance, but I feel the romance was lacking.

The False Prince, by Jennifer Nielsen

Here was another extremely-hyped novel that just underwhelmed me. Sage is an orphan who's picked up off the street along with two other orphans by an unscrupulous, obsessed noble determined to save his nation at any cost.

The nobleman reveals that the king, queen and crown prince were recently poisoned by an unknown party. The truth of their deaths is not publicly known yet, but once it gets out, their nation's enemies will waste no time in taking advantage of the political chaos. However, if another viable heir to the throne is discovered in time, the crisis may be averted. The noblemen chose orphans who best resembled the long-lost second prince who was supposedly killed by pirates years before, and he plans to train them to impersonate the kingdom's last heir. The most convincing fraud will accompany him to the capital - but the other two will become dangerous loose ends.

None of the characters here were particularly interesting. Sage was kind of a smarmy know-it-all, and the "twist" near the end of the novel had me rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of it. The novel was just boring from beginning to end and there's not much else I can say about it - I read it a while ago and nothing else remained memorable enough for me to recall today.

And that's it for now! More reviews to come later.

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.
C

"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!

Maddy: NO THEY DON'T.

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

Billy: OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD--

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.
A

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Untold," by Sarah Rees Brennan

The Protagonist: Kami Glass. A budding investigative reporter whose sleuthing uncovered the fact that her town is full of resentful sorcerers waiting for a good excuse to come back into power.
Her Angst: She has no true idea who's a sorcerer and who's not, and no longer knows who to trust. On top of that, Jared is giving her the cold shoulder for breaking their magical bond.

The Secondary Cast:

Jared: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who deals with this by being a dick to everyone. He's supposed to be attractive for some reason?

Ash: An entitled, navel-gazing, self-absorbed whiny loser with low self-esteem who nevertheless finds healthy ways to deal with his issues and other people. Why is he not the hero?

Angela: Kami's best friend who's coming to grips with her crush on Holly.

Holly: Friend to both Kami and Angela, who's struggling to come to grips with Angela's sexual orientation - and maybe her own?

Lillian: Ash's mum, Jared's aunt, and official Head Bitch In Charge of Sorry-in-the-Vale. Determined to hold on to her crown by any means necessary.

Rob: Ash's dad, Jared's uncle (?), who's determined to return sorcerers to power and make the humans of Sorry-in-the-Vale his rightful serfs.

YA Angst Checklist:

  • I Know Way Too Many People Who Are Suddenly Okay With Human Sacrifice
  • Child-snatching
  • ANGST ANGST ANGST
  • Why can't all these people see I'm acting like a Giant Tool because I'm starved for Love?
  • Emotional Independence
  • Bad Moms

The Word: I'd heard the hype about Unspoken, but I didn't truly get it until I opened the book and fell headfirst into a richly layered gothic fantasy that's serious, but not too serious to take itself too seriously. If that make sense. It used time-tested YA tropes, but in a fresh, self-aware way that made them entertaining instead of tiresome.

Needless to say, I was excited about the sequel. Untold picks up where Unspoken left off - that is, In A Very Bad Place. Kami's investigations from the previous novel uncovered the fact that the Lynburns are sorcerers and her town of Sorry-in-the-Vale is riddled with other magic-using families. Even worse, Rob Lynburn (Jared's uncle, Ash's father) had been secretly recruiting these local sorcerers in order to forcibly return the town to the Old Ways - the human-sacrifice kind.

So on top of coming to grips with the fact that people she's known her entire life are suddenly okay with murdering people, Kami has to stop Rob and his cronies from fulfilling their promise to sacrifice a human on the Winter Solstice to solidify their rule over the town. This means Kami and her friends have to team up with Lillian Lynburn, who stands in opposition to Rob - not because she opposes the murder of peasants, but because they are her peasants and that's rude. Yeah, Lillian's the worst.

I did enjoy this book, really, but it does suffer from a pretty severe case of middle-book-itis. It's heavy on character development, and really, really light on plot. The book layers on the description and the internal monologuing and the angst, but most of the novel is just a countdown to the Solstice.

Oh, and angsty tantrums from Jared. So many angsty tantrums. I put up with Jared in the previous novel because Kami was such a strong character and didn't put up with his pressuring. At the end of the previous novel, Kami actually severed their magical bond because she was (rightly) terrified about what it was doing to her emotional health and independence. Well, that action sends Jared spiralling into an insufferable, whiny, self-loathing angst-spiral for the rest of this damn book and I just couldn't stand him. He spends a good 70% of the novel being a total asshole to people who care about him while crying that "nobody wuvs me, I am so dark and unwuvable and broken, I cannot handle the feels!"

GET OVER YOURSELF, JARED.

The novel beats the dead horse that is Jared's Tortured Feels over and over, but at least other characters (like Ash and Holly) also get some spectacular development. Untold spends time examining the pieces on this particular chessboard rather than making any significant plays, but thankfully (most of) the characters (who are not named Jared) are interesting and multifaceted enough to hold my attention.

Yeah, it's a middle book, but it keeps a firm enough hold on the reigns to keep me excited for the final novel.
B

Thursday, October 02, 2014

"The Game and the Governess," by Kate Noble

The Chick: Phoebe Baker. A former debutante forced into servitude when her father was swindled of his life savings by a con artist the Earl of Ashby refused to prosecute.
The Rub: Now she lives as a governess, in the very house where the Earl is visiting. Will her hatred rise up to consume her?
Dream Casting: Chloe Sevigny.

The Dude: Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby. He thinks he has it all because he's an awesome person, but his best friend thinks it's because he's a privileged asshat. Naturally, he decides to make a wager at it, switching places with his secretary friend.
The Rub: Being a secretary is hard. Who knew?
Dream Casting: James McAvoy.

The Plot:

Ned: What?! Are you really saying the reason everyone loves me, caters to my every need, and waits on me is because I have money and power?

THE ENTIRE WORLD: YES.

Ned: Oh. Be my wife?

Phoebe: Despite my 5-year-long hatred of you and disgust for privileged aristocrats and the fact that you literally lied to me about everything, I inexplicably agree!

Ned: HOORAY!

Phoebe: ...hmm, maybe it's because of all your money and power.

Ned: DAMMIT.

Romance Convention Checklist:

  • 1 Asshat Hero
  • 2 Sequel-Baiting Dudebros
  • 1 Desperate Sequel-Baiting Countess Who Gives Us NO CLOSURE AT ALL
  • 1 Poisoned Blackberry Tart
  • 1 Random Murder Attempt

The Word: Okay, so I kind of fell off the Kate Noble fan wagon after the awful Follow My Lead. Revealed is still one of my favourite romances, but the rest of her novels never really lived up to the perfection of that one. However, I was quite intrigued by the plot of The Game and the Governess and thought I'd give her another try.

Lucky Ned, Earl of Ashby, has it all - he's one of the wealthiest men in the country, he's handsome, healthy, and a sure hand at cards. However, when his best friend/war buddy/secretary John Turner calls him on his privilege, Ned gets all butthurt. Turner, who has been pleading with Ned for years to lend him the money to help his family's mill, says the only reason Ned is "lucky" is because he's an earl. Ned, who's refused to lend Turner the money because ... mills are boring and working for a living is stupid, believes it's his naturally cheerful disposition that grants him Lady Luck's favour, and John has only his sourpuss personality to blame for his own misfortunes. Yeah.

Turner decides to turn it into a wager. The two are headed to a small English village neither has visited in decades to sell off Ned's mother's property. Turner proposes they switch places - Turner will pose as the earl, and Ned as the secretary - for two weeks, and in that time Ned has to win the romantic favour of a noble lady in spite of his "lowly" status. If Turner wins, Ned owes him 5000 pounds. If Ned wins, Turner loses his family mill. Yup - Ned's the hero of this novel.

They arrive at the house, and Ned's eye is caught by the whippet-thin, stern-faced governess of his host's children. Unbeknownst to him, this governess, Phoebe Baker, harbours a deep grudge against the Earl of Ashby. Years ago, Ned discovered his previous secretary was embezzling from him and he chose to cover it up rather than lose face, leaving the thief free to swindle Phoebe's father of his inheritance and drive him to suicide. Phoebe's reconciled herself to her reduced circumstances but she wants nothing to do with anyone associated with the Ashby house.

So, what was good about this novel? Noble does an excellent job examining privilege. Ned is an ass, and the narrative both acknowledges and commits to this and uses it to develop his character. Ned thinks the wager will be easy, he'll just use his abundant charm on the ladies, but his tried-and-tested moves blow up in his face - and the narrative doesn't only imply his earldom made womenfolk more receptive. It also suggests his high station could have scared women who would ordinarily have resisted his advances. I loved that aspect, and I loved that Ned had to really start thinking about consent and willingness and the enjoyment of his partners.

So what didn't I like? Pretty much everything else. Phoebe's an impractical Mary Sue who turns down an offer for five hundred pounds because she's become a "better person" in poverty than she was as a sheltered gentleman's daughter. Um, it's money - not a time machine. You're not magically going to turn back into a Terrible Person the moment you float above the poverty line. I also didn't buy her romance with Ned at all - it happens far too quickly, with almost no real development, and it skirts most of the thorny issues that ought to keep them apart.

More than anything, however, I hated this novel's pacing. Was it written under a really strict deadline? This novel reads like it was taken out of the oven fifteen minutes too early, still raw in the middle. The ending is laughably rushed - it introduces a murder plot that's barely solved a few pages later, we don't get to see anyone's reactions to Ned and Turner's switcharoo, and Phoebe overcomes her five-year-grudge and the horror of being lied to within the span of one page. Even more egregious, the secondary romance between Turner and a desperate countess, a romance that took up precious time that the primary romance sorely needed, turns out to be a ridiculously blatant cocktease for the sequel.

This novel is nothing but build up until a shoddy last-minute resolution.
C