12.29.2010

Rebecca

There is a reason why, when you mention Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier to certain people, their eyes light up and their lips purse into an "oooh" before they tell you just how wonderful a book it is... but refuse to go in to anything vaguely plot-specific if you have not yet read it. These people will only say limited things when pressed, opting for phrases like "I don't want to say too much" or the always infuriating "you'll see." At most, they might quote its famous opening line: "Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again." This is usually accompanied by self-satisfied smiles, as one might observe on the cat who got the cream, and then they will sit back to purr over the memory of reading the book now that the discussion is clearly over, for nothing more will be said when it comes to specifics.

Forgive me, then, for my purring, but Rebecca is a reading pleasure that simply must be experienced to be understood. I first read Rebecca in high school after having my first encounter as described above. Because the person in question was a girl I always held in high regard, I allowed her appreciation to push me into picking up the book... and I don't believe I set it down until I had finished. I found it left me breathless as it surged forward with twists that other "suspense" or "mystery" novels look upon with deep, covetous envy. I loved it and joined the legion of "oooh"ers who simply would not say too much.

The downside to sitting in silent appreciation and not discussing the plot of a novel means that it's entirely possible to forget certain details. The horrifying realization that I had actually forgotten the exact ending of Rebecca came upon me a little less than a month ago. Now I realize that perhaps this is to do with the fact that Rebecca's true genius lies in crafting a scene and pervading atmosphere, but I knew the only thing to do was to re-read the book. This is exactly the thing many readers wish for... the chance to read a favorite book again "for the first time," though my reading was always accompanied by a familiarity of tone and scene. Eventually, the facts came back to me and the ending was once again remembered, but having started, there was no way to stop. Only the intervening holidays allowed me to set the book down at all... allowing me the supreme joy of reading the last half while snowed in to my parents' home, a blizzard raging outside that demanded I do nothing except drink tea and turn pages. Who was I to defy the elements?

The very basic storyline concerns an unnamed narrator recounting events that occurred as she was still a very young woman, though just how much time has passed between those events and the telling can't be all that long. Without family or any other means of support, she had taken as job as a companion to a rather boorish American woman and together they were in a hotel on the French Riveria when they met Maxim de Winter, a wealthy English widower who is not terribly interested in grand socializing, particularly with the older American woman, but who takes a quiet though immediate interest in our narrator (even though the reason for this is rather a mystery to her). After two weeks of car rides and luncheons (during which the American woman has been ill), the narrator's employer decides they should leave for New York straight away; with the thought of never seeing Mr. de Winter again in her mind, the narrator impetuously rushes to his room to say goodbye -- and instead, he suggests they marry. After a quick and quiet wedding and an Italian honeymoon, he takes her back to his family's estate, Manderley, and the story really begins as the young narrator struggles with her inadequacies in filling the role of lady of the estate, particularly under the ghost of the first Mrs. de Winter, Rebecca. Maxim almost never speaks of her and the narrator is too scared to raise the issue, though the rather spectral housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, is only too willing to speak of her beloved Rebecca, a charming and beautiful woman who did everything well and was apparently beloved by all. Rebecca was drowned a year earlier in the bay during a squall, but the narrator is always aware of Rebecca's presence in the house and her own inability to live up to such a perfect predecessor.

It's pure, undistilled tension as you really connect with the fears and insecurities of the narrator. It's also filled with twisted, tortured relationships and long, beautiful descriptions of gardens. It's those detailed passages that really capture the emotions coursing through the book -- the loneliness, isolation, fear, and longing. This reading will likely kick off a Daphne du Maurier reading kick on my end... as winter is the perfect time to curl up with something dark and suspenseful.

Seriously, though, it's brilliant.

I don't want to say too much... but you'll see.

12.23.2010

Hector and the Search for Happiness

When dealing with a topic like happiness and a quest to discover how to "achieve" it or to compile a list of lessons that might help others be happy, a sense of whimsy is more than a little appreciated. Thank goodness that Hector and the Search for Happiness has this in spades. Told with a narrative tone befitting a fable for adults, Francois Lelord's novel was originally written in French and is a European best-seller. Now we Americans (who pride ourselves on the whole pursuit of happiness thing, at least in theory) have the ability to learn from Hector and his many lessons as he travels the world to learn what makes us happy.

This is how Gallic Books summarizes this novel:
Hector is a successful young psychiatrist. He’s very good at treating patients in real need of his help. But many people he sees have no health problems: they’re just deeply dissatisfied with their lives. Hector can’t do much for them, and it’s beginning to depress him.

So when a patient tells him he looks in need of a holiday, Hector decides to set off round the world to find out what makes people everywhere happy (and sad), and whether there is such a thing as the secret of true happiness… Narrated with deceptive simplicity, its perceptive observations on happiness offer us the chance to reflect on the contentment we all look for in our own lives.

This is a pretty accurate description of the basic plot, even if it neglects to mention just how amusing things are. I could almost hear Stephen Fry narrating the general story as we went along, that's the kind of tone it struck. Despite Hector's obvious intelligence, he was a little naive as he went along, taking an approach as a child might to studying adults and figuring out what made them tick. I particularly enjoyed an early moment in the book where Hector asks his girlfriend whether she's happy and she starts to cry and asks if he's leaving her. Desperately backpedaling (without any clue as to what he's said wrong), he insists he's simply trying to determine what makes people happy and so he starts keeping a list of truths, most of which actually do apply to just about everyone. The particular amusement that comes with Hector, a successful and intelligent therapist, is the fact that simple facts of life become great truths, and everyone could do well to remember little things when faced with over-complicated situations. He travels from "his own country" to various places, including the country of More (gee, one guess as to what country *this* might be) and notes that people in More aren't any happier because they have more... in fact, they tend to be even less happy than people in other countries where they have less, but might reprioritize their values. It's not that Lelord ever tries to beat us over the head with anything (I imagine that depending upon what each individual reader values, one would notice ample evidence supporting certain things or a lack of focus on others), but instead he seems to phrase these truths about happiness in as abstract a way as possible without being totally inaccessible.

Lelord's small novel will indubitably charm any reader with a sense of humor, as will Hector himself. Genuine and full of a honest openness, Hector and the Search for Happiness will not have you reassessing the things that make you happy, but will probably make you appreciative of the fact that you didn't have to travel all around the world and survive Hector's ordeals to learn his lessons... indeed, you probably know them already, though you may not have distilled them into such simple truths. I might avoid giving this one as a gift to anyone who is trying to figure out just what makes them happy (as Hector comes off as a bit dim and clueless at times, and one would hate to inadvertently imply something to the person on the receiving end, though Hector is always lovable if not always conventionally "moral"), but most literate people will find Hector a charming fellow and well worth the quick read.

12.19.2010

The Towers of Trebizond

"'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

So begins Rose Macaulay's The Towers of Trebizond, a quietly compelling and incredibly amusing story of various English expats traveling in Turkey. Having completed the novel, I find that it's actually surprising how many elements of the story can be captured in this single opening sentence. The dominant present of aunt Dot, the bestowing of a crazy camel, the question of being beholden to others, the Anglican mission. It might seem like a somewhat strange book for a modern reader, but I must say that I found myself oddly captivated by it.

Laurie is our narrator, a young woman without much direction of her own... and not much money, either. She's traveling with her aunt Dot (who, naturally, foots the bill) and their current focus is Turkey. Aunt Dot is seeking to write a book about Turkey (and indeed, everyone they know these days seems to be writing a book about Turkey) with a focus on the plight of women. Laurie will draw the accompanying illustrations while Dot discusses how miserable these Muslim women must be in their current state. The book, however, is a secondary concern, as Dot's true goal in this expedition is to be an Anglican missionary, converting Muslims to the Church of England (again, with particular focus on women). Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg is also accompanying them on their journey, as Dot feels a priest would be a necessary addition to a missionary group, and while Dot and Father Hugh don't quite see eye-to-eye on everything, they all go forth, arguing about who has to ride the camel (which belongs to Aunt Dot and which might be going slowly insane). Laurie recounts their various travels from city to city, encountering acquaintences and exploring on her own. There's certainly a melancholy air to Laurie, more about which one gradually uncovers as the novel goes on, and there's also a rather interesting view of religion expressed by one who has always had it apart of her life and yet who isn't totally convinced of its necessity or even her place within a church should she wish to believe.

As a bit of an Anglophile, this unconventional and casual (yet quite knowledgeable) discussion of the Church of England is certainly interesting... particularly given how ludicrous the overall missionary role is when clearly is ragtag band will get nowhere with any locals. The really captivating part, though, is how much the narrator is struggling with her own religion. I wouldn't necessarily call this book religious in any way (as it's not trying to persuade the reader to any understanding), but it certainly is an articulate account from one who wants to believe and yet has sincere questions. Even more poignant is Laurie's other major struggle (and it isn't giving anything away to simply note that it is, indeed, romantic in nature). The Towers of Trebizond draws you in and catches you unawares -- suddenly, one is completely wrapped up in this odd little volume, a novel that clearly belongs to another time but still possesses timeless concerns and emotions.

There are incredibly funny bits to it all -- I expected Aunt Dot to be a kind of Auntie Mame and while she is not that, she is still a ridiculously amusing aunt without any intention of being so. The total distrust of foreigners is ratcheted up in these particular places where everyone is suspected of being a spy for everyone else. The camel is a riot -- alternately suffering from insanity and amorous moods -- to the point where one almost laments the fact that transportation these days is not quite so independently minded. Almost. The sudden emergence of random people in strange places is delightful -- indicative of the world becoming smaller and the way particular places become trendy. And any reader can understand the idea of certain types of literature rising up to be all the rage, so the fact that everyone seems to be writing a Turkey book, often at the deliberate expense of others, becomes a fascinating background.

I don't quite know what mood you should be in to pick up this novel for prime enjoyment, but I do hope you select it with an open mind and the desire to simply be absorbed in a story that is (most likely) far beyond your immediate life. Drizzly afternoons with tea (aka something that feels just as English as Laurie) strike me as an excellent setting. As a character, Laurie might not do anything wild and adventurous, but I can assure you that her quiet and deep observations will always stay with me. Indeed, the whole of The Towers of Trebizond will stay with you long after you have finished reading it as you think on its contents and what it is that you would consider your own coveted lands, even if they only live on in memory.

12.18.2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand is, without a doubt, the most charming book that I've read all year. Thought-provoking without being pushy, softly complex without being overwhelming. Helen Simonson's delightful novel focuses on a quiet English country village and the complications that result when both small and large changes start to creep in. Edgecombe St. Mary is comprised of named cottages, a Lordly estate, a members-only club, and a reluctance to change how life has been lived for years... so it's a particularly interesting turn of events when one of the members of the community who would be least likely to endorse change winds up involved with a number of minor signs of progress that feel like enormous issues for everyone else.

Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) is a widower and leads a fairly quiet life where the big event of his week might be a round of golf. While he was born in India (his father, also an army man, was stationed there), Major Pettigrew has lived in Edgecombe St. Mary for most of his life and his family is well-respected in the village. He puts a great deal of stock in both personal and family honor, though that being said, his only family now consists of his son (a London high-flier that his father can hardly relate to) and a small handful of extended relations (his younger brother's family). At the opening of the novel, Major Pettigrew has just received a call alerting him that his younger brother has died of a heart attack, so the Major isn't quite thinking straight when he answers the doorbell, dressed only in his dead wife's tattered housecoat. At the door is Mrs. Ali, the Pakistani woman who runs the village shop where locals can purchase small odds and ends between visits to larger shops in the nearby town. Having only intended to fetch the newspaper money on behalf of the ill paper boy, Mrs. Ali becomes the Major's unlikely caretaker that morning when she assumes charge of the light-headed fellow.

Once given this opportunity to sit and converse, they discover that they share a large number of things in common, including a love of reading, and the Major finds that staging casual run-ins with Mrs. Ali in the weeks that follow is topping his priority list. Well, at least it vies for the top spot with retrieving a family heirloom from his brother's widow (an old and valuable hunting rifle, one of a pair that the two brothers were given by their father on his deathbed, with the intention to reunite them one day). At the funeral for his brother, the Major's son turns up, engaged to an amazon-like American, and giving more than a hint that if they were to sell the two valuable guns now (aka cash in on the son's presumed inheritance early), they'd make a killing. Disappointed in his son's lack of reverence for the guns (that have meant perhaps too much to the Major himself), he stubbornly attempts to forge through with his own hope of simply reuniting them, not fully processing what the other gun must have symbolized to his younger brother (whose family is under the impression was always a bit slighted in favor of the elder). The major struggles to hold on to the things he has cared for in the past, yet they seem to slip away as he spies a very new love growing in his heart and the question of how much the past matters in favor of the future is a question never absolutely stated but certainly implied. So how much can he keep with the old traditions while embracing new opportunities at living his life? Even if the Major is rather old-fashioned by modern standards and is often bemoaning the manners of the young, Major Pettigrew and Mrs. Ali find themselves becoming town gossip... and not in any kind of charitable way. Aside from the obvious mixed-race-couple issues, there's also the fact that she's a shopkeeper (working class, you know) and her dead husband's Pakistani family expect that she'll give up her shop to the newly-arrived nephew. As a result, she'd be absorbed by the husband's family, "taken care of" in a way that essentially requires her to give up her independence. And then there's this issue of the rather surly nephew's somewhat mottled recent-past and his newly appeared love-child. On top of all this, the town itself might be seeing a drastic change as the presence of surveyors suggest the local lord might be selling land to offset the costs of owning a manor house, turning their sleepy town into a snooty estate community and poorer members of the community might be squeezed out. With fascinating religious and racial issues coming to surface, this once-sleepy town is sure to be shaken up... and the Major is quite surprised to find himself on the opposite side from where he's been all his life.

Major Pettigrew jokingly refers to himself as "an old git" when speaking with the younger set, though the reader will surely love him off the bat. His humor is sharp and biting (which one can see might have been a problem as it pertains to raising a somewhat insecure son), though his moments of being flustered at confrontations are quite genuine. He's very real and complicated, struggling to deal with his budding mixed-race relationship, his apparently selfish son, and his finally receiving recognition from the lord of the manor just as the village depends upon him to take up the case against the new construction. He grasps and clings at ideas, flustered as they slip off and he has to reconsider his position on a number of fronts. Simonson creates incredibly real scenes of cringe-worthy awkwardness that anyone can recognize from family politics. A large number of characters in this novel (aside from the Major and Mrs. Ali) are people that the reader would love to smack upside the head, but Simonson is such an excellent writer that even they can sometimes have their redeeming features. Background characters rarely feel one-note, populating this small town with very real prejudices and concerns. So many protagonists pretend to evaluate themselves and change within a novel, but Major Pettigrew's assessment of his own desires and the struggle to reach new understandings are very believable, making him even more lovable as a slightly flawed but clearly well-intentioned man. Mrs. Ali, too, has her own internal struggles that are quite poignant, but the real stand-out character is the Major in this love story for those who thought they were past the age where one could experience such grand emotions.

I know I've given a lot of detail here, so it might be odd for me to note that one of the things I appreciated about Simonson's novel was the fact that every detail seemed just enough and the reader was never overwhelmed with excess. Scenes were painted perfectly and while there is a lot going on in this supposedly-sleepy town, I never felt as though Simonson had lost the thread of a storyline in favor of another. My heart swelled and fell along with the Major and Mrs. Ali... and now that it's available in paperback, I'll be urging many friends to pick it up. I certainly hope you enjoy Major Pettigrew's Last Stand as much as I did -- it's truly a gem for those of us who cling to our romantic notions in a changing and sometimes heartless world.

12.15.2010

Ivy and Intrigue

Are you a Lauren Willig fan? Need a Pink Carnation fix for the holidays beyond The Mischief of the Mistletoe? Check out Ivy and Intrigue: A Very Selwick Christmas, a short and sweet little novella (or perhaps really just a longish short story?) posted on Willig's website that offers a Christmas glimpse at the ones who started it all -- Amy and Richard (along with the modern-day Eloise and Colin). Originally serialized for posting, the story features events that would fall after The Masque of the Black Tulip, but not before The Deception of the Emerald Ring in the whole Pink Carnation chronology. It's only a handful of chapters, following the original couple through a bit of marital miscommunication. While happy on the whole, each one has become increasingly concerned as a result of some small grumblings from the other that running a spy school doesn't have the same thrill as being an actual spy -- and each of them yearn a bit for the old days. Amy is worried that Richard resents her for playing a role in his unmasking as the Purple Gentian and Richard is worried that Amy feels her time in the field was far too short, cut off as a result of marrying him. It's something every nearly-newlywed couple goes through, I suppose... the questioning as to whether or not you've held back your spouse in their spy career.

Needless to say, things will be solved to Pink Carnation satisfaction and along the way, we get to interact with a number of favorite characters. If you missed Amy's not-quite-stealthy-but-still-quite-effective ability to bash people over the head, you'll be quite pleased, indeed. It's short and sweet and a nice little dose of holiday cheer -- though if you're reading The Mischief of the Mistletoe this season, you might hold off and save Ivy and Intrigue for next year's holidays. Just the same, it's always fun to revisit characters (and I feel like I actually remembered who everyone was as a result of Mischief), so fans of the series will certainly be amused.

http://www.laurenwillig.com/diversions/novella/averyselwickchristmasprologue.html

12.10.2010

The Imperfectionists

So... I'm telling you now that my sudden and vehement dislike of Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists is totally irrational and cannot be defended with any argument that paints me as a level-headed reviewer. Up until approximately five pages from the end of the novel, I would have given this a three-and-a-half-out-of-five star review... not necessarily because I enjoyed every single moment of the novel, but because I thought it was an interesting look at the fascinating and rather endangered industry of newspaper publication.

Then a dog was killed and I'm sorry, but I immediately experienced a flash-back to my six-year-old self, uncontrollably sobbing because a story I was reading started with the drowning of a kitten. It's a horrific, staggering moment and I started to worry that I might actually cry into my scarf, standing on the subway in rush hour, attracting covert glances from other winter-clad commuters, while some child in a stroller would stage whisper, "Mommy, why is that lady crying?" Thankfully, I held it together, but my ability to enjoy any part of the novel had vanished.

My significant other laughed at me when I said this, then realized I was serious, but I yield to you the same points I yielded to him. Yes, I understand that the author didn't actually kill a real-life dog. Yes, I understand that the killing of the dog is supposed to be a horrific and heart-breaking moment (even if it's totally unnecessary). No, the act of killing the dog was not itself described, but rather, simply the fact/means of it stated. But because it was in there at all, my opinion of the book plummeted and I just cannot recommend this to anyone in good conscience. You see what I mean? It doesn't matter for me that up until then, I was thinking mildly positive things about the work. I know this is ludicrous and I know that I can read about people dying without batting an eyelash. Kids can die and I wince (like any normal person), but there's just a line a writer can't cross for each one of us and mine happens to be furry. I'm a terrible, unacceptably biased reviewer and I'm sorry.

The Imperfectionists, aside from being a novel where a dog is murdered, focuses on the employees of an English-language newspaper based out of Rome. The newspaper in the present day is clearly failing, but the employees trudge on, putting out the paper every day under increasing amounts of stress. Told in a series of snapshot stories that each focus on a different person, the stories weave through their lives to show private agonies and professional failures. There's very little happiness here (though perhaps a few small victories are recounted) as we read about the editors, publishers, and reporters that have had their lives changed by the paper. It covers the entire lifespan of the paper -- from its founding after World War II to its modern-day closure -- and while most of the characters live in the present time, there are short glimpses back at the lives of its previous employees.

While reading The Imperfectionists, I found myself recalling Joshua Ferris's And Then We Come to the End, another novel that follows several employees of a company that's going under. Even before the dog incident, I would say I far preferred And Then We Come to the End, and I'm betting that Rachman had read that one. Ferris is a far better writer than Rachman, who I felt relied rather heavily on the emotions stirred simply by the facts of the situation -- the decline of newspapers (which most, if not all, literate people are somewhat saddened by) and job loss. The writing itself seemed on the more positive side of mediocre (inoffensive? passable?), but still made me feel that this novel was overwhelmingly over-rated in the praise I've seen bandied about.

What The Imperfectionists *does* have is the benefit of being set in Rome. Having been in Rome a few months ago, I was pleased by the frequent mentions of specific places and neighborhoods, which allowed me to remember the twisting streets and odious traffic. I was surprised no mention was made of vespas. Given that this is a novel where it's clear things will Not End Well, it's to be expected that the tone will be relatively serious -- though there are several funny moments, even if they are often of the black humor or cringe-worthy variety. These are not happy people, by and large, and the turmoil in their lives both inside and outside of the office reflects this. A large number of tragic things happen in the course of the novel (tragic things are, after all, much more newsworthy than happy things), though they usually consist of what would be private gossip and never something printable (save for a few individual deaths). Children die, relationships are shattered, betrayals are engineered, and tempers are lost... the last item happening practically on every page. There's a pervading sense of loss... lost leads, stories, and profits... lost loves, friends, and children... lost innocence, lost opportunities, and lost dreams... and, of course, lost jobs.

Unless you're the wallowing type, I wouldn't recommend this for anyone who's recently lost a job. Nor would I really recommend this as a great "set in Italy" novel, though I did enjoy the conjuration of the city. And, it might go without saying, I wouldn't recommend this to those who are overly-sensitive to violence against animals. (It really just comes in out of the blue, folks. I'm not this crazy all the time.) If you have none of these problems and you can overlook the so-so writing, then I hope that you enjoy the novel, as it shows a certain amount of promise on the part of Tom Rachman. (Though perhaps I'm thinking that because the novel's already been optioned by Brad Pitt and that certainly can't hurt one's career.) The Imperfectionists inspires thought (even if I can't quite call it "thoughtful") and has glints of wry humor that keep the reader afloat in this portrait of a declining industry... I just wish the loyal, harmless dog would have made it to a really nice farm where he could chase rabbits.

12.08.2010

Dracula

Bram Stoker's Dracula is one of those classics where everyone is familiar with the story, but many people assume they can survive without reading the actual book and simply scrape by with movie adaptations. This is simply not so, my friends. Dracula is a fantastic literary creation and to only be "vaguely" aware of the basic story is to cheat yourself out of a magnificent tale. If you're sick of sparkly vampires, then return to the granddaddy of them all... and he'll show you that real vampires are not covered in glitter, sensitive, or interested in redefining "vegetarian." They're devoid of souls and they are rather intent on killing/stealing your girlfriend.

This is my second reading of Dracula and it was even better than I remember. If you haven't yet had the pleasure, I'll do a very quick summary. The novel is told from several perspectives through a variety of means -- mostly diaries/journals with the occasional letter or telegram tossed in to ratchet up the suspense value. Vampires, beautiful women, blood, death, insanity! It's awesome.

Unlikely as it may sound, it all starts with a business trip. Jonathan Harker is an attorney who has traveled to Transylvania to assist some Count with an international real estate transaction. Sounds fairly boring, right? (Well, aside from the fact that in the late 1800s, any kind of big travel experience is major.) Of course, it's somewhat disconcerting how all these villagers keep crossing themselves when he explains where he's going or they try desperately to dissuade him. Huh. Weird. (http://beatonna.livejournal.com/#entry_140802">See the first Hark, A Vagrant comic here.) Upon arrival at Castle Dracula, Harker is totally unaware that his host is undead; Dracula just seems to keep crazy hours... and there don't seem to be any servants... and they only seem to talk at night... and soon Harker realizes he's a prisoner. Hmmm. Something fishy's going on here. Finally, when Harker sees his host crawling up the side of the castle, his growing suspicions explode into full on freak-out. His journal entry cuts off after he makes an attempt to escape (and after an encounter with three beautiful woman who clearly want to drain him of his blood and perhaps more), so we're left to wonder for a while as to what became of our somewhat dim-witted fellow.

We then switch the focus of our story over to Mina Murray and Lucy Westenra (aside from this small diversion about a ship that arrives with only a dead captain strapped to the helm and a ship's log that suggests something was killing them off one by one... but surely that can't have any play in our main story, can it?). Lucy and Mina write back and forth about their lives and loves. Mina is engaged to Jonathan Harker (and is starting to get concerned when his letters drop off) and Lucy's juggling suitors before receiving three marriages proposals in one day from three friends -- though she accepts the last, Arthur Holmwood. The men remain friends, though Dr. John Seward (who heads up a lunatic asylum) and Mr. Quincey Morris (a brave American) are still in love with Lucy and hover about while Lucy seems to be falling more and more ill. Even a visit from Mina only does Lucy a little good before Mina receives word that Jonathan is in some foreign hospital and she runs to his bedside. Mina, reunited with Jonathan, marries him while abroad (otherwise it wouldn't be seemly, don't you know); meanwhile, the big guns are brought in to figure out Lucy's mystery illness -- Dr. Van Helsing arrives with a crazy theory that he refuses to tell anyone about until it's too late.

Vampires.

Or rather, Dracula. The man (still a man?) himself was on that cursed boat where the crew was picked off one-by-one and now he's on English shores. It's up to Van Helsing, Lucy's grief-stricken suitors, Mina and Jonathan to put a stop to the blood-sucking monster (and Lucy, btw)... but will they be able to succeed without sacrificing yet another of their own?

That's all fairly simplistic, but one of the best parts of this book is watching everyone run around, wondering what could possibly be wrong with Lucy, while the modern reader fights the impulse to shake them all... but of course, how could the characters possibly know? It took this novel to essentially define an entire category of supernatural being so that we would all know the signs. Obviously, Bram Stoker didn't invent vampires, and even Count Dracula himself is based on the

Dracula is one of those books that proves a novel's merit does not always rest in some big reveal. You can know the ending and still have a wonderful experience with just the telling of the story. Every modern reader knows what's going on, and yet the book is still fabulous. It's full of thrills and chills and adventure. The multiple formats allow for perspective shifts that actually add something to the story rather than take away (to the point where it's almost disappointing when everyone is collaborating towards the end so everyone knows what's going on). The female characters are a bit wimpy (except for the lady vampires who nearly ravish Harker) and I find it hard to believe that Mina's excellence is so exemplary that the man fawn over her as they do, but so it goes. It also seemed a bit too easy to dispatch of Dracula the way they did, but I guess any ending would be somewhat unsatisfactory when it ends with the mega-vampire biting the dust. Still, the majority of the novel is a delightful and ridiculous ride. If you haven't read it, you're in for a treat and if you're like me and have read it... well, there's nothing wrong with going back for another bite.

12.02.2010

The Mischief of the Mistletoe

Mischief of the Mistletoe is the latest adventure in the Secret History of the Pink Carnation series and this time, it's a Christmas romance! For those looking for the usual Lauren Willig fare, you'll find that this installment comes up a bit short, though it's still an amusing holiday read. Normally, Willig bounces between the historical love story that occupies a single book and the modern storyline that ties all the books together, but this time we simply have the love story without cuts to modern counterparts. Perhaps to make up for that, we have an intense reliance upon characters featured from previous books (and if you're like me, you might need a cheat sheet to remember who is who) coupled with a return to events from previous books to get another perspective on events that have already unfolded and match up some secondary characters.

Arabella Dempsey is used to being a wallflower... she's used to being passed over and ignored, though it still hurts when the young man who had previously been flirting with her shows his true colors and marries her much-older, wealthy aunt. As Arabella had served as her aunt's companion for years, it was always assumed that the aunt might eventually adopt Arabella and so leave the girl her money -- and while Arabella isn't exactly a London debutante, it would certainly help, given her father's poor health and three younger sisters to care for. With financial and romantic dreams crushed, Arabella makes a hard decision -- she is going to teach. She gets herself a position at Miss Climpson's institution for young ladies and accepts that her social position is getting even lower for it, but whatever helps feed the family, right? Of course, what she doesn't count on is running into Reginald (aka "Turnip") Fitzhugh, a young man whose sister attends Miss Climpson's and who literally knocks into her and drops a Christmas pudding on her foot. He doesn't remember that he's already met (and danced with) Miss Dempsey, and probably wouldn't remember this encounter either, except that she chases after him with the forgotten Christmas pudding... and then she nearly has it stolen from her by some ruffian. Turnip helps Arabella to her feet yet again and when they discover that the muslin wrapping has a secret rendezvous time written in French, well... let's just say that Turnip won't be forgetting Arabella's name now as they make plans to figure out what plan is afoot. While Arabella assumes it's a young lady making plans to meet a lover, Turnip thinks there might be secret spy goings-on (after all, he may not be allowed to spy for the Pink Carnation, but he certainly tries to deflect attention with his outrageous wardrobe). They may not think they're getting any closer to solving the mystery, though they themselves seem to develop a certain closeness... but can social circles be overcome by the magic of Christmas puddings?

It's a cute little romance, but quite honestly, the main storyline doesn't touch on the weird part. The thing is, Arabella's best friend is... Jane Austen. Um... yeah. I understand that Mischief of the Mistletoe is influenced by Austen's unfinished manuscript, The Watsons, but it's a little distracting to have Jane Austen as an actual character. I know, I know, fiction can do all kinds of things, but there's something about using Austen that just isn't cricket. It's one thing to attempt to finish an manuscript, it's another to involve the lady herself. Willig is quite delicate in her treatment of Austen, though, and doesn't really do anything out of character. Most of her meatier dialogue is modeled from her letters, and otherwise she's simply being a good friend to Arabella, engaged more in observation than any direct intervention.

Fans of Willig will be amused at this small diversion and I will give Willig immense credit for the fact that her next real novel will be published in January 2011. So if this felt thin, we don't need to wait long for another new read. Quite impressive, really, considering that while this is certainly shorter than the usual book, it's much more than just a silly side story! So Happy Christmas and enjoy the pudding (or don't, as descriptions of it here hardly make it seem like a truly appealing treat).

11.30.2010

Tears of Pearl

Let me say that the main reason I keep reading Tasha Alexander's books is that I feel she takes particular care with her main character's ability to have complicated emotions. What keeps me coming back for more, quite frankly, is not the mystery part of her plot (which is often a bit coincidental and is always quite complicated -- though that's not always a bad thing). It's only sometimes the historical setting (oddly, I preferred her ability to convey a sense of time and place in her earlier works, whereas here I kept having The Aviary Gate flashbacks with this one). The best part of her novels, as far as I'm concerned, is Lady Emily's ability to struggle with feelings that make her a unique heroine for this particular mystery/romance/historical fiction genre. (Okay, and sure, there's a bit of her hunky love interest, Colin, tossed in there, too.)

The first book in the series, And Only to Deceive, opened on a young widow, Lady Emily Ashton, who barely knew her husband and came to fall in love with him only after his death and her investigation into the circumstances surrounding it. Not only did we have the fact that she was coming to care for him when they could no longer have a real romance, but she became aware of just how much he loved her and yet had never really expressed it. Alexander doesn't shy away from exploring the tangled (and often bittersweet) side of things in Emily's personal life. Thankfully, even though Emily has finally married Colin Hargreaves, things don't simply fade into happily ever after, though Colin himself does fade a bit into the background in this book, which is a bit of a disappointment. Sure, they're completely smitten with each other as they take off for their honeymoon and they repeatedly tumble in to bed, but there's also the fact that in a time without contraception, Emily's independence is somewhat in jeopardy should she become pregnant. Books don't often explore the potentially negative sides of this "blessed" event when it's in a stable and good relationship, but Alexander is aware that things are a bit more complicated than that in real life.

Tears of Pearl is set in lush Constantinople, at the beginning of Emily and Colin's nice, long honeymoon... but the reader shouldn't be all that surprised when they're embroiled in a mystery right off the bat. The storyline is dumped into their laps on the train (a surprisingly abrupt and graceless introduction, which is rather uncharacteristic of Alexander, I thought) and involves a British diplomat with a tragic past and an even more tragic immediate future. He traveled the world with his family in tow until one horrific night when his Turkish wife was murdered and his young daughter kidnapped. He managed to protect his son, Benjamin, but then spent the rest of his life seeking leads in hopes that his daughter, Ceyden, might still be alive (as she was likely sold into slavery). This story comes out in a rush when Colin and Emily sit next to this man, Sir Richard, on the train to Constantinople... only to then have him collapse from an apparent overdose of medication. Unsurprisingly, Colin and Emily (especially Emily) take interest in his situation. He repays their kind attention by getting them invited to an opera performed at the sultan's palace and even though the ending of the opera itself is altered to create a happy ending, the event ends with the murder of a young woman from the harem. Have you guessed who she is? Yep. It's Ceyden, the long-lost daughter, and with harem politics the way they are, it's anybody's guess who did this.

Emily, meanwhile, has actually gotten semi-official approval to work with Colin in situations when a feminine hand is required for his missions... like, say, when someone needs to do some interviews of harem-members. Emily gets wrapped up with several interesting characters (including the mother of the sultan, the sort-of-step-mother of the sultan, a young converted Christian desperate to escape the life of sin in the harem, and a very shifty eunuch) while Colin is off investigating other things that seem more official (read: boring), and so Emily wanders a lot of Constantinople on her own (though she's often accompanied by her honeymoon-crashing friend). During all this wandering, Emily notices that she's particularly prone to nausea while taking boats across the Bosporus. Hmm. Whatever could cause nausea in a woman who's been married a few months?

Emily's lengthy and difficult musings on the possibility of having a child were fascinating, because she was willing to admit that she might not be ready for this. She already enjoys a remarkable amount of freedom for any woman of the time -- but with a baby on the way, surely life would change. It would start with being coddled as a pregnant lady by her friends, family and even her loving husband -- and then she'd most likely have to stay close to home to be with a child. So much for rambling all over the world and assisting Colin on investigations. It's not like Colin is putting this pressure on her (though she sees his suspicious and hopeful glances), but Emily starts panicking about what a baby would change. In short, even if she might eventually want a baby, she doesn't feel ready yet and while this depth might not be uncommon in other genres, it's a unique and humanizing detail here, for a heroine whose life has not been full of easy emotions. In the usual historical mystery series, women always seem so ready for that inevitable child and somehow he/she is integrated into her life and the life of her adventuring husband with ease... or a series ends. Hm.

So even if every bit of the novel wasn't a delight for me, I am at least delighted that Tasha Alexander is one of the few writers these days who is staying true to her characters and allowing them the luxury of exploring complicated emotions. It means that I'll keep marking the paperback release of each of her books and I'll eagerly read to see how Emily grows as a character and tackles interesting issues (and mysteries, too).

11.25.2010

Keturah and Lord Death

My stumbled-upon discovery of Keturah and Lord Death is a prime example of why I appreciate online sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing. Without the suggestion that somehow worked its way into my line of sight, I might never have heard of this gem... and given its title, I certainly wouldn't have picked it up. The first thing you need to do is get over the title, which is dreadful, but once you get to the story itself, you'll be enchanted. Keturah and Lord Death is, essentially, a fairy tale. Written by Martine Leavitt, it opens with a narrator being begged to tell a fireside story that meets all manner of requirements... and so she tells them this, the truest story she's ever told.

Keturah is sixteen years old when she wanders into the woods near her town, following the white hart that the lord of the manor has hunted for many years. It was only curiosity the drove her on, until she realized she was hopelessly lost. After three days without food, water, or sleep, Keturah waits for Lord Death to come to her. He offers her the chance to trade another's life for her own, but she refuses, even when he insists it will hardly matter, as plague will soon decimate her town. Knowing she must somehow save her people, Keturah tells Lord Death a story... a story of a love so pure that it conquers even death. She refuses to tell him the ending unless he lets her live for another day. He agrees and goes one step further -- if during the course of the following day she can discover her true love, a love like that in the story, then he will not claim her life.

The story feels as though it was conjured directly from Grimm's Fairy Tales, where everything has a slightly spooky and yet fascinating air. The added romance element tugs at your heart-strings, yet Leavitt still manages to make this a story about true love where there is still an element of choice. There's also the acknowledgment that one person's happy ending might leave some very broken hearts in its wake. Keturah is a strong heroine, struggling to learn her own desires and help decipher the wishes of those around her while she still has time to help them with their own futures and dreams. Her focus might be on saving the town from the potential plague, but she occasionally trips up in her desire to save herself... terribly human qualities that show she is not some infallible creature, but only one who means well and perhaps has a greater perception of what it means to have life.

The thing that keeps me from giving this book five stars is the fact that I wish Keturah had been able to do a little more on her own when it came to dealing with Lord Death, whether that was manifested in wit beyond her one trick of delaying a story's end, or determining a way to trick Death out of giving up one more thing through a bet or chance. Keturah relied heavily on asking Death for things to add in to their bargains and it would have been nice for there to be a bit more agency on her behalf. She managed to speak up and revitalize the town, but in the end, everything had to bow to Death. The story was suffused with a light eerie quality (so those who dislike spooky stories need not fear this one) and I appreciated the ending, which doesn't tie things with a neat ribbon and yet still leaves one quite satisfied. Keturah and Lord Death is an incredibly fast read, and yet I am immensely grateful that this lovely tale crossed my path.

11.21.2010

Firelight

In this fresh and sensual take on being who you are and following your heart, Firelight is the first YA novel from romance novelist Sophie Jordan. Jacinda is a draki -- descended from dragons and capable of manifesting into human form, but her draki within longs for more flight and freedom than her pride allows. Those Hunters who track dragons do not know about their true nature and ability to shift into human form, which is their race's greatest secret and protection, and yet their way of life is constantly threatened. (Jacinda's own father was likely killed by Hunters, having disappeared years before.) Jacinda is under close watch because she is the first fire-breather in generations and her life has practically been mapped out for her. Slated to mate with the pride leader's son and hopefully breed more fire-breathers, Jacinda is already chafing from the restrictions of pride life when her ability to have any say is threatened after a close-call with hunters nearly has her captured. And she would have been captured, too, if the young hunter who ultimately caught up with her would have given her away, but for some reason he lied and let her go free. The pride will not be so forgiving, though, that she broke the rules and put herself in jeopardy... and Jacinda's mother decides that they should flee rather than let the pride dictate Jacinda's life.

The thing is, it's easier for Jacinda's mother and twin sister to give up life in the pride, even if Jacinda is the one whose life and liberty is most threatened. Her sister, Tamra, never manifested and her mother let her own draki die so Tamra wouldn't feel alone. (Evidently by refusing to manifest or by being in a dry location, one's draki can die and one becomes totally human.) When their mom decides they should settle in a desert, she does so with the knowledge that the climate will help Jacinda's own draki die, but Jacinda is unwilling to let go of what she believes defines her true self. Integrating with human society comes easily to Tamra (and when Jacinda can stop moping, she does notice how she hasn't seen her sister this happy in years), but Jacinda is having trouble enough with the draining climate when she sees him -- Will Rutledge, the boy all the girls in school want who happens to be the young Hunter who let her go free. Immediately her draki stirs and she practically manifests right next to her locker. I don't think it takes deep thought here to realize just how attracted to Will Jacinda is, and Will appears to feel the same, as he is drawn to her like a moth to a flame (no fire-breathing dragon jokes intended).

Naturally, as in all situations where the hunter and the hunted fall for each other, there are complications, but things certainly sizzle between Jacinda and Will. Jacinda is complex (though a bit whiny) and Will is a fairly standard example of the blank-canvas leading man. Thankfully, he gains a little complexity as we go along and the ending of the novel will likely improve upon this, too, as the storyline takes a twist. Jacinda does not wish to betray the secret of her race to Will, even if she's convinced he's different from his family of Hunters, though she isn't the only one with secrets to hold onto. Meanwhile, his cousin suspects Jacinda isn't all she claims... and we can hardly forget the pride who would obviously want the only fire-breathing draki back in their protection. Many folks have noted that there are obvious points that this world set-up shares with werewolf stories (shape-shifting, pack dynamics, etc.) and yet I still enjoyed Jordan's telling.

What I mean is that this may not be the most original storyline (doomed lovers from rival groups, etc.), but a romance novelist would be the first to tell you that as long as you have compelling characters, your readers will be carried along with you. It's certainly the chemistry between Jacinda and Will that keeps you going in Firelight, but the ending leaves readers with a real curiosity to find out if the lovers will be able to overcome the many obstacles to be together. It isn't great literature, but it's great fun. I devoured Firelight in a single day and I imagine any other reader would feel the same compulsion to gobble this down. Jordan's romance instincts will serve her well in the YA genre and this is definitely one of the most sensual (without being explicit) YA novels that I've read in a while.

11.13.2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

Normally, I'm a big fan of David Sedaris's work, but I'm growing more and more worried that he's tapped out his abundance of ridiculous family-related stories and, thus, has lost some of his ability to make me laugh out loud while simply retaining small chuckle inducing capabilities. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is his latest endeavor, which veers completely away from his habit of producing semi-personal anecdotes and instead focuses on his keen observational skills. This interesting little collection of short stories feature talking animals, interacting just like humans who seem beastly in light of such a comparison, but I wasn't really all that delighted with the whole.

I had heard of David Sedaris for a little while before I actually read any of his writing. He came to read at my college (which was an incredibly well-attended event) and when he signed my book, he wrote, "so nice to finally meet you!" It's pretty easy to gobble up his stories, but I tried to go slowly. I think my favorite piece (which still has me gasping for breath each time I read it, I'm laughing so hard) is "Six to Eight Black Men" about various Christmas traditions across the world, though a close runner-up is "Repeat After Me," which is incredibly touching as well as funny. There are so many stories, though, that stick in my mind, and so I'm usually one to chat up just how wonderful a writer Sedaris can be. I was a little disappointed by When You Are Engulfed In Flames, but chalked it up to the fact that Sedaris has practically settled down into a quieter life -- which makes for less funny antics even if his keen insight is as sharp as ever. So now we have Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and I'm fairly certain that this is his attempt at producing something that has nothing to do with any vaguely personal story... and I find myself wishing I had just spent the time re-reading one of his earlier works.

The general idea is that Sedaris took animals and put them in very human situations that seem to highlight just how dreadful human actions can be by assigning them to animals. The first story was my favorite, I think -- a cat and a baboon at a hair salon, the baboon grooming the vain cat and them gossiping about others. Irritatingly, though, I read this story in the bookstore and so started to look forward to everything, and then wound up a bit disappointed. Other stories tackle single observations or issues. There's a couple of birds recounting a not-very-funny experience from their travels which paints them in a rather racist light. A squirrel and a chipmunk date until they run out of things to say, but when the unsuitable relationship is forcibly ended by the chipmunk's family, she always thinks rather fondly of that romance. An Irish Setter discusses his marital problems and infidelities, wishing that he might seek out another mate but ultimately returning to his mixed-breed wife. A healthy rat blames a sick rat for his own illness by suggesting he's not being positive enough, then gets injected with AIDS. A self-righteous stork rants to her baby (because your kids are always an appropriate audience for your adult issues) about another stork's parenting skills, which only emphasizes how the self-righteous stork is neglecting her own baby.

The observations on the terrible things that humans do in every-day interactions are clever, but I just suppose I didn't need this to be an entire book. It felt like it dragged on and yes, Sedaris is smart in linking things together, but it means things are somewhat one-note. The concept is a bit strange to start with and things continue to be strange. In a usual Sedaris story, there's some progression and often some kind of conclusion... but here, I feel as though a single, somewhat sad observation was made on humanity each time and simply left there. It's not that I need my humor to be light and fluffy, but I would prefer some variation in tone. This is probably my least favorite Sedaris book. Had it been written by someone else, I might not be so harsh on it, but I expect great things from David Sedaris and this just feels like a let-down.

11.12.2010

Book Lust To Go

If you are someone who is acutely aware that one's time on earth is limited and, as such, you cannot possibly read everything... well, then Nancy Pearl's wonderful Book Lust series of books might not be for you, unless you're also capable of being ruthlessly selective in the face of multiple fascinating options. If you are, however, like me and constantly add books to your fantasy "to read" list, daydreaming about the many hours spent in delight with a variety of books that might have no bearing on your greater purpose in life (save for the enlightened joy of one's soul), then I'll bet that you've already gotten your greedy hands on at least one Nancy Pearl book and this is just more fuel for the fire.

As if we all didn't have a long enough list of books to read, Book Lust To Go provides a fascinating collection of titles for the armchair traveler in all of us. Of course, that's just the issue here... folks who are likely to adore recommendations from Nancy Pearl are the exact people who will already have long lists of books (and who are also likely to make comments like, "Oh, but she didn't include __!") and this new abundance of titles only has the merit of at least being tidily centered around one topic (though one of the great benefits of this series is that it is very good at sorting books by subject matter). Nancy Pearl readily admits that she does not like to travel in person, but she's always eager to take off on a literary journey with the safe distance a book provides. There are also those of us who simply cannot afford to be jetting off to every exotic locale that charms us, and so the price of a paperback is a much less costly alternative. We may not get to bring home the photographs, but we also know we'll be coming home in one piece, no matter what adventure we embark upon. Pearl, then, provides us with a whole host of books that we've never even heard of (and allows us moments of joy when we're able to concur, "Oh yes! That book was excellent!" on the rare occasion when our own meager reading has overlapped with her extensive knowledge). Of course, there's always the danger that reading a book about a particular place will stir an even greater desire to visit that location in person... but that's just a risk you'll have to accept.

The book is organized, unsurprisingly, by location -- though my favorite little sections were those which had no specific location in mind, but rather, a mindset or a novel type. Some such charming sections include: Explorers, In the Footsteps of..., It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, So We/I Bought (or Built) a House In..., and Making Tracks by Trains. For those familiar with any reading that focuses on a journey or a new location (and this need not be actual travel literature), these categories are staples and yet I cannot remember coming across a truly good list that endeavored to group many titles together. I was charmed by the fact that Pearl does not steer clear of mysteries and certain romances -- for quite honestly, writers of those genres tend to create incredibly vivid descriptions of places as well as people and as a result, they can make for some of the best venues for armchair travel. The only slightly frustrating bit to Book Lust To Go is that there isn't a really thorough index in the back of the book which lists absolutely everything -- authors, titles, and such. I suppose in a list of books, it might be asking too much for yet another list (though honestly, I would think this would be *particularly* useful in a book that is, essentially, a detailed list), but I would have found it helpful (especially when I wanted a specific location or was paging through and realized she had mentioned an author twice and I wanted an easy way to find out what the first mention had been). It might simply be something that didn't make the ARC, of course... along with an explanation for the world maps in the front of the book, which I assume will be labeled with arrows or something in the final product.

I imagine the most useful way to read this book is sitting in front of your computer so that you can immediately look up every title that catches your fancy and then add it to your queue or cart. The disconnect here is that it's increasingly less useful to have a book like this in actual book form -- online book communities have largely taken the place of such lengthy recommendations and it's pretty easy to find lists of similar titles. I know that whenever I consider buying a book online, I'm almost always going to look on goodreads.com or librarything.com to check and see what other people have said about it or what the average rating might be. Of course, the only thing I can really say here is that those forums are great for the casual kind of word-of-mouth buzz, but there is something comforting in getting a recommendation from a "professional" like Nancy Pearl, someone who has spent spent his/her life reading and reviewing books. Her lists are fabulous and include many modern titles as well as some classics and/or out-of-print titles that deserve a resurgence in popularity. If you're a book lover who takes pleasure in carefully detailed locations in a book and you're looking for some excellent recommendations (or if you're like me and you don't need any, but you can't help but solicit more), then you're sure to find something to delight in Pearl's collection. The next time I'm seized with the desire to visit a particular location, I think it's quite likely that my first impulse (well, after I indulge my imagination and visit Orbitz to check flight prices and see how unrealistic a real trip might be) will be to pull down Book Lust to Go and see what titles Pearl recommends that will at least whisk my imagination away to my desired locale... and all without transferring conditioner into tiny little FAA-approved bottles.

11.10.2010

Blameless

Well phooey. I loved Soulless, I really quite liked Changeless, but I just wasn't pleased with Blameless. It was missing some spark that the other two had in spades. Part of it has to do with what I felt was an unnecessary location change and part of it had to do with Alexia herself, who had the opportunity to be a stronger and more interesting character (aka just staying as she was) and Carriger opted not to take the story in an interesting direction for the sake of a tidier ending. If you haven't read the second book in the series, Changeless, then stop reading this review now if you hope to have the ending of book #2 unspoiled.

In Changeless, we learned that a mummified preternatural had a shocking range for the whole nullifying supernaturals thing, thus reducing any supernatural in a certain radius mortal. This provided Alexia etc. with the surprising information that preternatural bodies seemed to keep their soul-sucker/curse-breaker abilities when mummified -- good thing that no one knows how the Egyptians mummified folks. Should word get out, though, surely renewed efforts might be made to relearn this trick and at that point, Alexia becomes worth more dead than alive. Alexia was able to dispose of the preternatural mummy, thus returning her husband's old clan (who were in possession of the offending mummy) back into their usual werewolf selves, but her personal life took a significant hit when what should be a happy event (the discovery of her pregnancy) turned ghastly. Her husband raged, insisting it couldn't be his, as immortals could no longer procreate. He flew off the handle and Alexia was forced to abandon Scotland post haste.

Maybe I'm crazy, but I thought this was a *fantastic* cliffhanger ending. It made me feel that Gail Carriger was really being faithful to the true natures of her characters (and hence, my anger at the end of Blameless). Of *course* Conall Maccon might flip out and overreact when faced with information that suggests his wife was unfaithful if everything he's ever known about supernatural reproductive capabilities is true. What made it truly awesome, though, was that he was so venomous in his denunciation of her. His language towards the woman he is supposed to love was completely horrifying. I loved the dramatic position it put Alexia in at the beginning of Blameless. She has a loyal band who believe she's telling the truth and what they have on their hands is a miracle indeed (even if they know next to nothing as to how this is possible), but Lord Maccon is initially convinced of her infidelity (even if we all know he'll realized the truth soon enough) and his complete and utter overreaction is unforgivable. It's awesome.

Once he's been completely sauced for a few days (quite a feat for a supernatural), Lord Maccon was bound to come around and realize that his Alexia would never cheat on him, but the damage is done and eventually he'll need to figure out how to get her back, if that is, indeed, possible. Alexia, meanwhile, would simply seek refuge in the home of her friend, Lord Akeldama, but apparently Lord Akeldama and his drones have completely disappeared. So Alexia takes off for Italy and we begin to suspect all new things of Floote's capabilities and what services he might have rendered for Alexia's father. Italy turns out to be a colossally bad decision on several levels (sure, the Templars will protect her, but they'll also want to use her and experiment a bit with her) and unsurprisingly, the main action of the book has to deal with escaping their clutches (while still surviving vampire attacks, as a price has been put on Alexia's head by the vamps). Back in London, Professor Lyall is trying to hold the pack together (and fighting off challengers who would see Lord Maccon in a precarious position) while simultaneously attempting to sober up the Alpha and drum some sense into his head. Lyall is also almost entirely alone in trying to figure out what plots are afoot that would drive Lord Akeldama into hiding.

What results from the London intrigues is a wonderful plot twist... but then everything goes wishy washy in Italy. It's spoilers from here on out, folks, so consider yourselves warned.

In London, the storyline about Biffy is actually quite excellent -- Biffy is one of Lord Akeldama's drones who is kidnapped by the potentate. Lord Akeldama flees the city (or at least goes into deep cover hiding) as he's clearly being threatened and yet we assume he's doing something to get Biffy back and not just relying on poor stretched-thin Lyall. Just when it appears that Conall and Lyall have rescued the chap... Biffy gets shot. The only choice is to let him die or try to turn him into a werewolf (though as a drone of Lord Akeldama, clearly he hoped to be a vampire). The twist here is really quite wonderful, and yet this doesn't make up for the inconsistency in Alexia's actions and lack of imagination with regards to that plot ending.

Alexia does manage to achieve one thing with her trip to Italy -- she finds the proof she needs to prove the baby is Conall's. Preternaturals cannot tolerate the presence of other preternaturals to the point that no preternatural female has ever been able to carry a child to term. They inevitably miscarry and the only way preternaturals can pass along their abilities is when males procreate with human females; and preternaturals always seem to "breed true," thus resulting in preternatural babies. The key here is that they can procreate with humans which doesn't quite qualify when Lord Conall Maccon is concerned, even if he is, essentially, human when touching Alexia. But because of his supernatural state, a preternatural and a supernatural procreating would create a child with some soul, so the child is not a preternatural. Alexia finds an account of a preternatural/vampire offspring known as a "soul-stealer" which is apparently even more fearsome than a preternatural. It could be interesting, but it's all terribly convenient. Ah well.

Truth be told, my real issue is this: I feel that Carriger did not properly keep to Alexia's character with the ending of this novel. In England, Conall publishes a public statement insisting that Alexia's child is his and in Italy, Alexia ends up inadvertently finding this out (a little unlikely, but fine). She bursts into tears (hormones, whatever) and when he shows up later on, she forgives him with the only "stipulations" of that forgiveness hinging on gifts. Alexia, our proud and strong preternatural, completely forgives her husband for saying horrifying things to her face and completely doubting her word and trust... and she does this so easily, with the gifts being only, really, a bit of humor? I'm sorry, but I was hoping Carriger was a better writer than this and could have seen the possibilities that come with Alexia refusing to forgive Conall (at least for now). To me, this shows that Carriger herself is too in love with Conall and is willing to forgive him anything, but quite frankly, for the way Alexia is established, I would assume that his error was far too extreme to simply be forgiven on the spot. It's not like his agreeing to purchase her requested items are a serious factor here and we know it, so I won't make any irritating comments about her being bought off, as we know it's not true. Alexia simply misses her husband and is willing to forgive him... but I honestly believe her character up to this point would see her as too stubborn to just give in. It's more than the public humiliation, it's the fact that he immediately assumed she'd been unfaithful and didn't even try to entertain the possibility of trusting her before flying off the handle. HIS character held true, but Alexia's yielded as soon as she might get her husband back. I was expecting her to appreciate his apology but refuse to return to him on principle. Clearly, this was a major issue for me and rather ruined the novel on the whole, even if I thought things were a bit dull anyway (at least for Alexia in Rome).

It's all quite unfortunate, as the novel was perfectly passable up to that point -- amusing, even if not quite as great as the first two. This hasn't turned me completely off of the novels, but I really do hope that Carriger returns to something delightful in book four or I'm going to think she's quite lost the fresh sparkle that charmed me so much in Soulless.

11.05.2010

Changeless

The second installment of Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, Changeless, is a fine sequel to an excellent beginning. Lord Maccon has married Alexia Tarabotti (despite her being very headstrong and half-Italian) and the now Lady Maccon is learning just what it is to be the Alpha female of a pack... and still deal with her damned Scottish husband who means well, but is either under her petticoats or nowhere to be found. With her marriage giving her a certain level of propriety (an unmarried lady, apparently, just wouldn't cut it), Alexia was offered a place on Queen Victoria's Shadow Council (as England's preeminent preternatural), which means she argues weekly with the potentate (a rogue werewolf) and the dewan (a rogue vampire) over supernatural matters concerning the crown and greater English populace. It certainly helps that her husband is the head of the BUR when it comes to gathering information, but still, no one really tops her dear friend Lord Akeldama and his host of fashionable drones.

While London has a reasonably tolerant atmosphere towards supernaturals, it doesn't mean that everyone is delighted with them (as evidenced by the last book where scientists with a radical bent were intent on wiping out most supernatural creatures) and so the question of a way to fight/control supernaturals is always buzzing about... most particularly after a period of time in which all of London seems inflicted with some kind of normalizing effect that renders werewolves unable to change and vampires incapable of showing fang. This is highly unsettling, indeed, but perhaps more unsettling for Alexia is the fact that her husband takes off for Scotland to figure out the source of this normalizing (and deal with a few matters pertaining to his old pack) without so much as a by-your-leave! And with a full regiment of werewolves camping on her front lawn, to boot!

Unsurprisingly, Alexia ends up following her husband, though she comes with a large train of hangers-on including her best friend Ivy, her husbands top claviger Tunstell, her annoying sister Felicity, and a French milliner/inventor named Madame Lefoux who appears to be flirting outrageously with Alexia even if we can't quite be sure whose side she's on. Alexia is learning all kinds of new things about her husband, including his past history, what made him leave his old Scottish pack, and his political beliefs... but it won't be politics that ultimately prove the most shocking reveal for this couple. Admittedly, the big reveal of the ending is rather predictable... but the response to it is certainly not and makes for some excellent drama. Thank goodness Blameless has been published already so you can immediately reach for that to see what happens next.

If you liked the first book, you're almost guaranteed to enjoy the second, if only because it provides more Alexia and Lord Maccon, though I'll note that it's not quite as delightful (as it no longer as the new and fresh feel of the first). There's also more Professor Lyall, who might be my favorite character, though Lyall has to hold down the fort while everyone else seems to skip off to Scotland. Madame Lefoux is an interesting character (though I doubt Carriger is risque enough to do anything truly fascinating with her) and I assume we'll see more of her, if only because Lady Maccon will need a somewhat more mobile female sidekick than Ivy, though I feel like Madame Lefoux keeps getting knocked out at inopportune moments. Hm. This is, however, another fun installment of the series and it's well worth the read if you got a kick out of the original.

11.02.2010

Soulless

Well, there's certainly no shortage of paranormal literary fun out there these days, and for those of us who haven't abandoned the genre quite yet, I am here to let you know that there are still some creative reads out there. I'm a little late to the gamAdd Imagee on the "Parasol Protectorate" series, which kicks off with Soulless, but ever since seeing the fun steampunk cover a while ago, it's been on my to-read list... and the contents are far more entertaining than the cover.

Alexia Tarabotti is soulless. It's not that she's cruel or mean or anything... she simply has no soul. This state manifests itself in a complete inability to dress with style (even if she can precisely imitate a fad, there's just no flair), a very methodical and scientific thought process, and the ability to neutralize supernatural creatures upon direct contact. You see, in this alternate 19th-century steampunk world, vampires and werewolves have been integrated with society (or at least they have in certain countries) and while there can be some tensions, Britain enjoys a rather progressive view on the matter of supernatural races. Of course, that doesn't mean that society is any less rigid on the truly important matters -- like a ladies' reputation, the proper apparel for a carriage ride, and a gentleman's assets (including his human versus supernatural state) as they reflect upon his eligibility as a suitor. Alexia is one of the very rare beings known as a preternatural, which earns the epithet "soul-sucker" from vampires and "curse-breaker" from werewolves. Unlike other paranormal hypotheses which would suggest such creatures lose their souls, in this world, it is a person's excess of soul that allows them the ability to survive the change into an immortal creature, should they make such a choice. (Otherwise, it seems that an excess of soul can lead to becoming a ghost upon death, which is not a permanent situation, as ghosts eventually get a bit batty as they fade away.) Alexia's touch would negate the supernatural abilities, rendering the supernatural mortal (no fangs, claws, or special final-death rules apply)... or resulting in an exorcism for a ghost should she touch its corporeal body.

The fact that Alexia is soulless, however, is not what makes her a bit of a societal outcast. That fact can be attributed to the fact that her father was unfortunately Italian (rendering her complexion unfashionably dusky), her nose is too large, she is a total bluestocking, and she doesn't give a fig for the usual feminine obsessions, though she does like more meaningful gossip. Her mother remarried when Alexia was young and so Alexia has two very silly sisters (the Misses Flootwill) to provide her very silly mother with some solace for the fact that her eldest was deemed a spinster at age fifteen. Alexia had long since resigned herself to this fact (and indeed, never minded in the first place) and so when some kissing occurs in the course of this novel, she's completely unprepared and has no idea what should be done about the matter. (More on that later.) Alexia does, at least, have two good friends on her side: Miss Ivy Hisselpenny has an atrocious taste in hats but is Alexia's only real girlfriend, and on the immortal side of things, Alexia has entered into the good graces of Lord Akeldama. Lord Akeldama is the most fashionable vampire in London -- a useful fellow to know should one need to know anything about anyone, as the young men who serve as his drones might appear to be silly, foppish dandies, but they are in actuality a most effective information-gathering network.

When the novel opens, Alexia is quite rudely attacked by a vampire who has no idea what Alexia is (otherwise he should not have tried something as foolish as an attack on a preternatural) and when the situation leads to some grappling and Alexia eliminating said vampire, Lord Maccon shows up to investigate. Lord Conall Maccon is a supremely eligible bachelor, despite being both Scottish and a werewolf; not only is he the Alpha of his pack, but he is the head of a government agency entrusted with supernatural matters. He's boorish, stubborn, gorgeous, a good two hundred years Alexia's senior and constantly at odds with our heroine... such strong emotions unsurprisingly lead to impressive passion (hence the kissing mentioned earlier). Lord Maccon manages to keep her name out of the papers with regards to the vampire incident, but nothing is quite so easy as it seems and before long, Alexia is mixed up in their concerns over randomly appearing and disappearing vampires that has Alexia becoming deeply involved in the supernatural worlds.

Gail Carriger is really quite fresh, witty, and charming -- and one can really only value that after enduring a few instances of writers who simply *try* to be fresh, witty, and charming, but fail. Her sense of whimsy is delightful and she revels in ridiculous situations. Alexia, meanwhile, muddles through them with... well, not grace, exactly, but she does at least retain her humor. While she doesn't have much self-esteem when it comes to her appearance, Alexia Tarabotti has no question about her own capable intelligence and ability to suss out any problems that come her way. Coupled with insatiable curiosity and a refusal to admit that something interesting might not concern her, Alexia is sure to be a fantastic heroine for many books to come. Soulless is one of those books that is rather perfect for my Nook, as I finished the first book and immediately purchased, downloaded, and began to read the second (and the third, for that matter, once I finished the second). I challenge you to resist a similar temptation -- when you finish Soulless, just see if you don't immediately consider how to best get your hands on a copy of Changeless. Do yourself a favor and have it waiting.

11.01.2010

Bright Young Things

Anna Godbersen sets her latest series at the end of the roaring twenties, a time of prohibition and loosening morals when everyone who wanted to be anyone flocked to New York City. Cordelia and Letty are no different -- two girls from Ohio convinced that they're bigger than their small town. Cordelia is practically forced into marrying her high school sweetheart after being caught doing things with him that no good girl would do before marriage, spurring her decision that it's time for the girls to leave. They skip the reception to hop on the only train that goes direct to New York City and so begin their epic adventure. Letty (who ditches her last name and re-christens herself "Letty Larkspur") has stage aspirations and while she might be naive, she has the vocal talent that just might make her dreams come true. Cordelia, meanwhile, simply appears to be supportive of Letty's plans and doesn't confide in her friend that she believes she has figured out the identity of her father: the notorious bootlegger Darius Grey.

After a night on the town and a loud fight, the girls get kicked out of their hotel for unmarried women on their very first night and go their separate ways. Letty is taken under the wing of a cigarette girl who invites her to live in a small apartment with her and two others, and even manages to secure Letty a steady job while Letty circles newspaper audition ads that she hasn't the courage to go to. Cordelia shows up at Dogwood, Darius Grey's estate, on the night that he's throwing himself a birthday party... and after tricking her way in, is welcomed with open arms by the father who always missed her (even if her new half-brother isn't exactly thrilled with her appearance). Cordelia befriends Astrid, her new brother's girlfriend, and Astrid proves to be a young woman who has grown up privileged, though the situation has always been somewhat precarious as her mother goes through husbands rather quickly. Bright Young Things entwines the stories of these three young women, destined to play a role in each other's lives, and sure to live quite an adventure before "one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead."

I'll admit that since I haven't read The Luxe and its series, I wasn't quite sure what to expect -- yet Bright Young Things exceeded whatever those expectations were. Godbersen's ability to create a historically sound atmosphere makes for a charming read, as what New Yorker hasn't imagined the bygone days of the 1920s? It's full of jazz and illegal liquor, of course we've imagined it (even before Boardwalk Empire helped us with the details.) As a result, it's a great time period for a series, particularly one that doesn't seem fixated on just providing the point-of-view of the wealthy. Letty's storyline is a touch more realistic (including the struggle to make ends meet and naive notions dashed in dramatic ways), whereas Cordelia is whisked off to luxury and a Montague/Capulet family feud, realized a bit too late for her romantic nature. Astrid, meanwhile, deals with the many sides of both wealth and romance -- which makes her come off a bit one-note in the beginning and she develops depth as we go. Astrid's presence is a little surprising at the start -- though one assumes she'll be folded into the main story and come to know Letty and Cordelia. Her position as girlfriend of Cordelia's new half-brother and Cordelia's new best friend is an interesting role, particularly as her friendship with Cordelia seems very situational. As a result, she remains a bit of an outsider, allowed her closeness with the absence of Letty, and so the next books will likely play upon her tenuous bond.

The three girls are all unique in situation and attitude, though I hope we don't lose the perspective that's placed on the less-than-upper-crust scene. The glitz and glamour might be with the high society types, but the peek at how the rest of us might have lived is quite fascinating indeed (and certainly bears a resemblance to young adults of the modern day, just out of college and floundering around in the big city). As the first in a series, Bright Young Things certainly shows promise and while that whole "one would be famous, one would be married, and one would be dead" is ridiculously over-dramatic, it does certainly have the reader guessing as to the fate of each girl.

10.31.2010

Beastly

Beauty and the Beast comes to modern Manhattan in Alex Flinn's Beastly. When rich and popular Kyle Kingston chooses to embarrass a werido classmate at a school dance, he realizes that he's tangling with magic just a little too late to save himself. The weird girl is really a witch who curses Kyle to life as a beast unless he can find a girl to love him within two years. His famous (and famously handsome) newscaster father essentially banishes his newly horrifying offspring to Brooklyn and Kyle gives up on any hope of breaking the curse. Instead, he changes his name to Adrian, becomes obsessed with his greenhouse of roses, spends all his time watching the world go by from the top story window or from a magic mirror left by the witch, and lives like a recluse with only his blind tutor and the Colombian maid for company. He's set to live out his days in this pattern, reading books and hiding from the world, until one night when he catches a drugged-up thief in his greenhouse. In exchange for his life, the junkie offers his daughter, Lindy, to the beast. When Adrian looks at the girl through his magic mirror, he recognizes her as a smart scholarship student from his old school and believes she might be his last chance at breaking the spell... plus, anyone would be better off away from a father willing to trade his daughter to some kind of monster. Adrian prepares for Lindy's arrival... and unsurprisingly to everyone except Adrian, she's not exactly thrilled to be there or have anything to do with her new jailer. Don't worry, though. This is paranormal romance. Love will blossom as sure as the roses.

If you know the Beauty and the Beast story, you know the outcome here, but Beastly's appeal rests in the modern setting with updates aplenty. While banished to Brooklyn (and as a Brooklynite, I suppose I could take offense at this, but whatever, it's better here anyway), Kyle/Adrian's world expands through the internet and between chapters, the readers sees a "transcript" of chats that he participates in with other magically afflicted individuals (including a mermaid looking to become human, a frog that needs to get kissed, and so on); unsurprisingly, it reads like many teenage chat room transcripts though perhaps that's what makes it a refreshingly different addition (though they don't go on for ages, at least, unlike most teenage chats). The reader gets to see selfish Kyle become thoughtful Adrian, a kid who devours books and comes to care about those around him, focusing on their needs and ultimately yielding to Lindy's request to return to take care of her father. His transformation is somewhat unbelievably quick, but Flinn does a nice job of capturing Kyle/Adrian's feelings of isolation without wallowing in it. I did like the fact that Kyle recognized New Yorkers will pretty much ignore anything, so he can wander around a little bit without eliciting too much suspicion. I also rather appreciated that Flinn made some follow-up observations post-happy-ending-transformation where Lindy actually was somewhat uncomfortable with her new handsome boyfriend, given that it would spur her own self-esteem issues.

Flinn makes the injecting of the fairy tale into the real world look easy-- and while critics might argue that this requires some extremes of reality (an ultra-wealthy father to provide a brownstone/castle for his beastly son, a junkie father willing to trade his daughter for his own life, etc.), one might also point out that fairy tales themselves are geared towards rewarding those who do deal with extremes. Most of the deserving souls in fairy tales are poor or otherwise downtrodden... or are wealthy folk who need to appreciate what truly makes one rich (and very little is magical in the middle class). One rather uncomfortable detail is the blind tutor, whose handicap is unintentionally likened to a curse that can be lifted... it makes the tutor come off as someone who isn't whole and needs to be fixed. It's hard to make a perfect transition of all fairy tale details into the real world, I suppose. a

All in all, Beastly is a pleasing little volume whose value rests primarily in the idea of it all. It's a quick read -- and anything longer would have certainly been to its detriment -- and it's a sweet little amusement. It's slated to be made into a movie (released March 2011), but the trailer suggests significant alterations were made to the details. In the end, though, no matter how the little things change, it's a tale as old as time... (Sorry. I had to.)