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.

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
  • 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!"


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.

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?


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!


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


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.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

"Ha'Penny," by Jo Walton

The Corpse: Lauria Gilmore, a prominent actress who inconveniently explodes right after landing a part in a controversial retelling of Hamlet.

The Gumshoes: 

Viola Lark: A talented actress who's coerced into completing the mission Lauria started before she got blown to high heaven.

Inspector Peter Carmichael: A depressed inspector who's not sure how many more cases he can solve for superiors who hold his darkest secrets over his head.

The Suspects/Secondary Characters:

Lady Russell, a.k.a. "Siddy": Viola's Communist sister who may have gotten herself in too deep.

Devlin Connelly: an Irish revolutionary with a literally explosive backstory (yes, I'm going to keep doing bomb puns).

Jack: Inspector Carmichael's lover who resents having to hide their relationship, even as he understands why they have to.

Normanby: A racist, fascist, wife-abusing murderer - and Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The Word: I don't normally read sequels right after their original books. I like to give myself time to read other things and keep from burning out on (or through!) an author's novels too quickly. However, after reading and raving about Farthing to my family members, both my mother and grandmother started racing through the books so I took on the second book in order to keep up with the discussion.

Ha'Penny takes place only a few months after the events of Farthing. Normanby is now Prime Minister thanks to his murderous machinations in the previous novel, and he's already started to exploit the fears of the populace in order to bring fascism into England. And most of the nation seems willing to follow Normanby's lead.

Inspector Carmichael learns otherwise when he's called to investigate an explosion in a London suburb that killed a prominent actress and her male companion. Incriminating paperwork in the woman's house suggests the victims were trying to build a bomb before their amateurish efforts literally blew up in their faces, but who were they working for? And will they try again?

Meanwhile, stage actress Viola Lark is preparing for her performance as the Danish Princess in a gender reversed staging of Hamlet when her estranged sister Siddy contacts her for the first time in years. Worried at the desperation in her sister's voice, Viola agrees to meet - and winds up coerced into an anti-government plot to kill Normanby and Hitler during the Fuhrer's visit to England. Viola's just the person they need to plant a bomb in the theatre while Hitler watches her show.

Viola, born to an eccentric and politically diverse aristocratic family (closely modelled on the real-life Mitford sisters), left her upper-crust origins behind to pursue a life on the stage. In that way, she's much like Mrs. Kahn from Farthing - a blueblood who renounced her birthright in order to pursue her passion. Viola is a little less sympathetic than the generous-hearted and idealistic Lucy, but her character arc is just as interesting. Viola doesn't give a damn about what's happening on the continent. She thinks the stories about the concentration camps are rubbish and the politics have nothing to do with her. She's just an actress - she wants to read and perform and receive applause. That's all. The world's too big for anyone to really change it, after all.

Yes, Viola is a fairly selfish person. She lives in her own little sphere and resists (understandably!) the pleading diatribes of the conspirators who fall over themselves trying to explain their good intentions, even as they regretfully admit they'll have to "silence" her if she doesn't comply. And yet, her own observations as she assists with their plans slowly clue her in to the fact that the world is not okay, and hiding in one's dressing room only makes it easier for monsters to seize power. Even if, when she actually meets Hitler face-to-face, she discovers she "instinctively [likes] him."

The novel also sees the return of Inspector Carmichael, who's grown remarkably world-weary in the few short months since Farthing. Much like Viola, he's forced to participate in political machinations he finds extraordinarily distasteful. Now that his superiors (including the Prime Minister himself) know he's gay, he's a tool who has to dance to their tune if he doesn't want his private life with his lover Jack exposed to the public. Horrified at the thought of being their puppet indefinitely, he plans his early retirement - even as he works to protect the loathsome Normanby from a murderous plot.

While Ha'Penny has an engaging plot peppered with vibrant characters, it still suffers from "middle-book-itis." It doesn't really go very far or do very much, other than solidify the set-up for the third and final novel, Half a Crown. It doesn't even have a mystery, not really - we learn pretty early on that the inexperienced Lauria did herself in. It also takes every possible opportunity to throw the word "ha'penny" into the narrative, just in case we forgot the title of the book. It would make a pretty entertaining drinking game if you had some mulled cider, a rainy day, and a few hours to kill.

Thankfully, what it lacks in plot it makes up for in the exploration of its theme: the distance between a person, their intentions, and their ultimate actions. Viola's conspirators are all blusteringly well-intentioned, and we, the readers, cannot help but support their hatred of Hitler and the Nazis. However, they're willing to bomb a crowded theatre and coerce an innocent woman into being their accomplice - is this right? Meanwhile, Viola has to reconcile her knowledge of her sisters as girl she grew up with, with the understanding of who they are today - her sister Siddy is disturbingly willing to sacrifice Viola to serve her own ends, and another sister is married to Himmler (yes, that Himmler) and seems blithely oblivious to the Third Reich's atrocities.

While not quite as page-turningly-exciting as Farthing, Ha'Penny is an entertaining and thoughtful successor that only raises my expectations for the final book in the trilogy.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Midsummer Moon," by Laura Kinsale

The Chick: Merlin Lambourne. A famous lady inventor.
The Rub: She's dumb as a post at anything that isn't mechanics. How will she cope?
Dream Casting: Alison Brie.

The Dude: Ransom Falconer, Duke of Damerell. A high-handed duke who must protect Merlin from evil French spies who want to kidnap her for her inventions.
The Rub: Unfortunately, after "accidentally" having sex with her, protecting her becomes a whole lot more complicated.
Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy.

The Plot:
Ransom: Hey, I'm here to save and protect you!

Merlin: What are you wearing?

Ransom: ... a hat.

Merlin: Mercy me, a hat! How exciting! I've never seen a hat before, what is it for?

Ransom: Huh. I somehow find your utter ignorance of everything somewhat arousing! *accidentally eats Magical Salt* Now it's completely arousing!

Ransom and Merlin: *knock boots*

Ransom: Crap. Now we have to get married!

Merlin: Why?

Ransom: Well, you might be pregnant.

Merlin: Doesn't the stork bring babies?

Ransom: Wow I am already regretting this a LOT. And yet your baby behaviour is so inexplicably erotic!

Merlin: I don't want to get married! I don't want to make babies! I want to stay up all night and eat candy and play with my toys--I MEAN INVENT MY FLYING MACHINE.

Ransom: No! Bad Merlin! GO TO YOUR ROOM RIGHT NOW!

Literally Every Other Character: Hey there, we're totally interesting and have really intriguing backstories but go ahead and focus the story around the Teletubby and her babysitter. We'll wait.

Evil French Spies: *kidnap Merlin a lot*

Ransom: *rescues Merlin a lot*

Merlin: *falls into a coma, wakes up with amnesia*

Literally Every Other Character: ... really? You'd rather read about AMNESIA than us? When we have secret lovers and acrimonious divorces in our pasts? Oh well. There's no accounting for taste.

Ransom: *recuses Merlin again*

Merlin: Okay I'll marry you now! How do we petition to stork to bring us babies?

Ransom: ....hoo....ray....

Romance Convention Checklist:
  • 1 Romance-Aiding Pet (a hedgehog)
  • 1 Condiment-Induced Deflowering
  • 1 Infantalized Heroine
  • 2 Flying Machines
  • Several Barrels of Gun Powder
  • 1 Bout of Fountain Sex
  • 5 Infinitely More Interesting Supporting Characters
  • Several Evil French Spies
The Word: I will hand it to Laura Kinsale - her heroines are a varied bunch. Some are practical, some are romantic, some are stone-cold bad-asses, and others are emotional and compassionate. Unfortunately, with Midsummer Moon, I spun the Kinsale Heroine Wheel and wound up with Helpless Baby Duckling Woman.

Our heroine, Merlin, is a wide-eyed, chipmunk-cheeked, oblivious dithering idiot of a woman who is (allegedly) a genius at physical engineering and a sleep-deprived six-year-old at literally everything else. Perhaps the author intended her to be an Absent-Minded Professor, but she wound up closer to Nell, instead. And of course, the novel presents her as the Cutest Widdle Special Snowflake, rather than a woman with severely stunted social, interpersonal, and self-preservation skills thanks to an abusively isolated upbringing that is only barely hinted at.

Our hero Ransom Falconer, named in the ancient English tradition of picking two random words out of the dictionary, is a duke/government agent who has been sent to protect Merlin because one of her inventions has attracted the notice of Evil French Spies. His task is to figure out what Merlin's trying to invent, and protect both it and her from falling into Evil French hands.

Ransom makes his own task (among other things) much harder when he accidentally ingests Magical Sex Salt and winds up despoiling Merlin (twice!) on her dead uncle's bed not five minutes later. This contrived coitus-causing condiment is never explained nor mentioned again. But that makes sense - why write Ransom as an Irresponsible Rake when you can just give him a magical potion that makes him one for three pages? Then he can go back to being your Man of Honour Hero without taking any pesky responsibility for his actions. The magical salt made him do it. Right.

Adding a crank of Creepy Pepper to this Gumbo of Stupid is the fact that Merlin clearly has no idea what's going on while it's happening, giving us a scene that reads pretty darn close to statutory rape.

See, this is why you don't have sex with children. If your partner is incapable of understanding what sex and its consequences are, you're doing it wrong. And if you write a heroine who talks like a baby, thinks like a baby, and fiddles with her lower lip like a baby, it's going to look really creepy when your hero fucks that baby.

Anyway, Ransom recovers from his, uh, sodium-induced boner to realize he's been an Exploitative Dick, so he decides to kidnap Merlin so she can continue to work on her inventions under his supervision and protection.

The novel picks up a bit at this point, because Ransom's family members are also in residence, and each one of them is about a billion times more nuanced, colourful, and interesting than our main pair. How could Laura Kinsale write women as complicated and interesting as Ransom's politically-minded sister Blythe, or his dramatic opera-singer ex-sister-in-law Jacqueline, and decide to make Professor Honey Boo Boo the heroine instead?

Yeah, I absolutely despised Merlin. While she's not quite as unbearable as Olympia from Seize the Fireat least that book acknowledged Olympia was an idiot once in a while, whereas Merlin's utter incomprehension of language, social conventions, adult behaviour, and advanced reasoning is depicted as Just So Precious by everyone in the novel. Merlin acts like a child - and the other characters coddle and treat her like one, which makes her burgeoning relationship with Ransom come off like Regency Lolita.

The secondary characters are pretty much the only reason I didn't DNF the novel. The main conflict between Ransom and Merlin is that Merlin's determined to build a flying machine, which scares the utter bejesus out of Ransom because he's so terrified of heights he's never even visited the second floor of his own house. Merlin tries to work on her machine, Ransom tries to talk/force/trick her out of it, Merlin gets angry, Ransom whines and apologizes, then tries a dirtier trick - until Merlin winds up kidnapped and has to be rescued. She gets kidnapped (and subsequently rescued) a lot. Because she's about as sharp as a bowling ball.

Their relationship is founded on Ransom constantly saving or easily tricking Merlin away from the danger she constantly puts herself in, and that is the last kind of romance I care to read about. I grew out of the Babysitters' Club books when I was in elementary school.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Three Little Men in the Wood"

So there's this widower and this widow, see? Bonding over their shared experience of dead spouses, they decide to get hitched, with the widow promising to treat the widower's daughter even better than she treats her own.

You can just imagine how that turns out. The widower's daughter bathes in milk and drinks wine for about a day before her stepmother gets tired of being Not Evil and starts right in on the child abuse, while her own daughter remains free to bathe in and drink any bizarre combination of popular beverages she fancies.

Where is the widower in all of this? NOBODY CARES.

Anyway, during a blizzard, the stepmother gives her stepdaughter a paper cloak and crust of bread and orders her into the woods to fetch a basket of fresh strawberries.

Stepdaughter: "But why? They're not even in season--"

Stepmother: "Because I'm trying to kill you, obviously."

Stepdaughter: "Well, then. That makes sense."

The stepdaughter wanders off into the cold, because really, what choice does she have? She comes across a little house inhabited by three dwarves, and asks for shelter. After warming herself, she returns the favour by sharing her crust of bread with the dwarves and doing some housekeeping.

While's she's outside shovelling the walk, the three dwarves convene.

Dwarf #1: "Man, her life sucks, and she seems like a nice gal. I know! I'll make her grow more beautiful every day!"

Dwarf #2: "I'll make it so that gold drops out of her mouth every time she talks!"

Dwarf #3: "I'll arrange it so she'll marry a king!"

As a bonus, the stepdaughter uncovers strawberries while shovelling the walk, and takes those back to the house.

Meanwhile, the Stepmother's real daughter becomes jealous, because she's ugly and hateful and smells of sour milk after a lifetime spent bathing in nonpasteurized dairy products. So she wanders into the woods herself looking for the same result, but when she finds the dwarves' house she acts like a spoiled little turd.

Dwarf #1: "Man, that girl is a hot-ass mess. I'll make it so she gets uglier every day!"

Dwarf #2: "Is it just me, or does she smell like bad cheese? I'll make it so that toads jump out of her mouth every time she talks!"

Dwarf #3: "I'll make it so that she dies a miserable death!"

Dwarf #1: " Dark. I like it!"

Dwarf 2: "Oh, Number Three, you're so bad!"

So now the Stepmother has even more reasons to hate her stepdaughter, so she sends her stepdaughter ice fishing. Because if it doesn't kill her, she'll still be cold and bored for a few hours. Fortunately for the stepdaughter, a King wanders by and, intrigued by her superb ice-fishing skills, takes her home and marries her.

A few years later, after the young Queen's delivered of a fine baby Prince, her stepmother and stepsister decide to come visit, and the Queen lets them in for some unfathomable reason but quickly regrets it when the two women throw her out a window and into the river. The stepmother then puts her daughter in the Queen's bed instead, wrapping her up in a sheet.

King: "Why can't I see my wife? And why does the room smell like mayonnaise left out in the sun?"

Fake Queen: "I'm on my period!"

King: "ENOUGH SAID! ... wait, why are there four and a half toads in the room now?"

Stepmother: "Every woman menstruates differently, my King. Some get cramps, some spontaneously belch out toads..."

King: "RIGHT-OH! I'll just go hunting until your orifices stop emitting blood and amphibians!"

Thankfully, the real Queen doesn't die - she turns into a duck (as one does). With much quacking and flapping of wings, she conveys her troubles to a servant, who fetches the King. The spell is quickly undone (I guess people turn into ducks all the time on that river), but what to do about the evil step-relatives and their incredibly short-sighted plan?

The King approaches the bedchamber and asks, "Hey, if I really wanted to punish someone, how would I do it?"

Fake Queen: "Ooh! I know! I know! Drive a bunch of nails into a barrel, then roll the criminal down a hill in it!"

King: " Dark. I like it!"

Stepmother: "Oooh, you're so bad!"

22 Toads: "Ribbit! Ribbit!"

Unfortunately for the step-schemers, that's exactly how they wind up punished. And the King and his Queen lived happily ever after.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Child Abuse
  • Attempted Child Murder
  • Attempted Queen Murder
  • Rudeness towards Dwarves
Points For:
  • Helpful Dwarves are like celebrity deaths: they come in either 3s or 7s. 
Points Deducted For:
  • Seriously, where was the girl's father this whole time? He's never seen dying or running away or anything. 
  • An evil stepmother who clearly has no sense of followthrough or longterm planning. Seriously how long would she have been able to fool the King that her cheese-scented daughter was really his wife?
And the Moral of the Story is: Don't fuck with dwarves.

Rating: Two Helpful Dwarves out of Three. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Once Upon a Blogger: "The Twelve Brothers"

So there's this King and Queen, see? And they have twelve sons, with another bun in the oven waiting to bring it to a baker's dozen. However, the King's sick to death of boys at this point.

So he tells his Queen, "Let's just be honest - dudes suck. Sexism is real and with our society's outdated patriarchal norms, if we have a daughter, I'll have to murder our 12 sons and make her the sole heir just to even things out. It's only fair."

Queen: *gasps* "MISANDRY!"

But by this point, the King's already fitted out a special room in the castle with twelve pre-built boy-sized coffins, just to prove he's serious, singing, "Who run the world? GIRLS! Who run this mutha? GIRLS!" under his breath.

To protect her sons, the Queen orders them to hide in the forest and wait for her to raise a flag on the day her baby is born. If it's a boy, she'll raise a white flag and they'll be able to return. If she has a girl, she'll raise an overly-symbolic red flag, and the boys'll have to run for the hills.

Unfortunately, 12 days later, the Queen raises the red flag, dooming the boys' futures.

12 Princes: "OMG, women suck!"

Prince #1: "We should totally murder any women we come across! Because they SUCK so much!"

Prince #5: "Even better - let's sign a Lady-Murderin' Pact!"

12 Princes: "HUZZAH! This totally won't bite us in the ass later on!"

Ten years later, their sister the Princess figures out she used to have brothers (the room with the 12 empty coffins was kind of a giveaway) and goes into the woods to find them, eventually discovering her youngest brother (Benjamin) tending their cottage.

Princess: "Hey! I'm your sister!"

Benjamin: "OMG, and you don't suck!" Benjamin is overjoyed to re-discover his baby sister, and so are his 11 brothers - once he tricks them out of their Lady-Murdering pact. Because murder is terrible and everything, but breaking a pact is even worse!

So all the siblings live happily for a while in their cottage (and the Princess's parents never seem to notice she's missing, despite the fact that her dad was willing to butcher his other children in order to enlarge her inheritance), until the Princess fucks it all up because women suck. While in the garden outside the cottage, she spots 12 lilies and plucks them, hoping to make a tasteful centrepiece. However, the moment she does so, the house and garden disappear, and her brothers turn into crows.

12 Crows: "Caw, caw!" (translation: OMG, women suck!)

Random Old Expository Woman: "WTF?! Why'd you pick those magic flowers? You've cursed your brothers forever!"

Princess: "This is literally the first I've heard of this!"

Random Old Expository Woman: *rolls eyes* "Women!"

Princess: "What can I do?"

Random Old Expository Woman: "If you remain perfectly silent and never laugh for 7 years, your brothers will be cured, but if you so much as chuckle before those seven years are up, they'll all die!" *vanishes in a puff of smoke*

So our faithful Princess zips her lips and holes up in a tree with some late-career Adam Sandler DVDs for five of those years, until a King and his hunting party pass by. The King falls in love with the Princess and marries her, and for the next two years is creepily happy with a wife who never talks or laughs. However, the Princess' mother-in-law is hella creeped out and nags her son about it so much he agrees to have his wife burned at the stake just to shut her up (women, am I right?)

Coincidentally, the seven years run out just as the Princess is being lit on fire, so her twelve brothers become human again in time to rescue her and for some reason the King is okay with not-burning her anymore and people live happily ever after for no reason.

Not Suitable for Children:
  • Sexism
  • Child murder
  • Child-Flower Murder
  • Lady-Murdering Pacts
  • Shade-Throwing Mums-In-Law
Points Added For:
  • The Princess having to save the Princes - even if she manages it by literally doing nothing but not speaking.
Points Deducted For:
  • Like, yay King for valuing his daughter, but at the expense of murdering his other kids? What the hell?
  • The Princess is blamed for literally everything despite being responsible for nothing
  • So ... do those 12 brothers keep up their lady-murdering pact, like, indefinitely? How many unlucky women dropped by their dude cottage before their sister happened by?
And the moral of the story is: women ruin everything.

Rating: 7 unjustly exiled brothers out of 12.