Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Oracle's Moon—Thea Harrison

Screw pretty. I'd rather be strong. Pretty fades over time. Strength gets you through the bad shit. And that matters, because sometimes there's a lot of bad shit. (3)

Part of Vaginal Fantasy Rewind

Oracle's Moon was the alt alt during its VagFan month. (The alt was Master of None, and the main, Ill Wind, I'll be talking about next Tuesday.) The theme for the month was djinn. Oracle's Moon is actually the fourth in the Elder Races series, but even though the completionist in me was screaming out to start from the beginning, the stories are not continuous and I haven't had as much of a glut of time lately.

Grace Andreas's life was on track. Until she was in a car accident with her sister and brother-in-law, an accident that left Grace critically injured and killed her sister and brother-in-law. Now, she's inherited her sister's power as Oracle, and she's also inherited her 4-year-old niece and 9-month-old nephew. Bogged down with student loan bills, medical bills, household bills, with a bum knee, and no real method of income, Grace is struggling. Things get a bit better when a djinn, Khalil, takes an interest in her. At first Grace is frustrated with his almost constant presence, but she gets more and more used to him, especially when he serves as protector for her and the kids against the other supernatural creatures that are approaching her to get information from the Oracle. Then, of course, they get it on. Because reasons.

Towards the beginning, it felt like a BIG info dump. Now, maybe that's because it's the fourth in the series, and the first three cover the info so it's really meant to be a review. Either way, it almost made me want to just skip that whole set of pages. The biggest problem I have with it is a bunch of names in one paragraph; an abundance of information I'm usually okay with, but tons of new names at once I find too much to keep track of.

I appreciated at the beginning how Grace corrected Khalil's possessiveness and commands. He did a lot of telling, which made sense for his character because djinn don't entirely understand human customs and acceptable behavior. But about halfway through, she stopped doing that. Ugh.

Completely unrelated to anything in the plot or character, every time Grace's sister's friend Katherine mentioned her kids, Joey and Rachel, all I could think about was Friends. Seriously, this book came out well after Friends, and nobody made the connection? Or maybe Katherine just really loves Matt LeBlanc and Jennifer Aniston? To be fair, though, who doesn't?

Obviously they're going to fall in love. The relationship, though, is based on more than just lusty feelings (which is sometimes all it takes in books like this) but is also based on mutual admiration for their respective feelings of adoration and protectiveness towards the kids. I found that attractive as well. There are few things sexier to me than men who dote on children. But I don't necessarily think that's the basis for a great, long-lasting relationship. I realized during this book what my problem is with a lot of romance books: I don't love romance-y romance. Perhaps it's the pragmatist in me, or a leftover from my stoic, outwardly unemotional father, but demonstrable, syrupy, gushing displays of love just make me want to roll my eyes. There's a point where Grace has already admitted to herself that she loves Khalil, and then across the span of something like five pages she "falls in love with again" for four different reasons. Just ugh. Shoot me in the face.

The ending was so anticlimactic. I even wrote a note: "What an abrupt, shitty ending." After the reveal that it was Brandon Miller and the anti-Elder Races faction who were trying to get rid of the Oracle, it was just like, "And then they collected twelve people and they went to trial." No battle? Nobody fought back when they were captured? Nothing interesting happened there? A bit disappointing. That was only one of several throwaway moments that could have been extraordinary.

Oh boy. This book was pretty graphic, both with respect to sexy times and even down to definitions of sexual organs. Harrison loves the word "distended" to describe all sorts of body parts. And because Khalil is a djinn, he doesn't actually have a human, tangible body unless he chooses to, so there's a point where he and Grace are being...intimate, but he's basically just a cloudy haze. And parts of him are all over her at the same time.

Ultimately, though, it was just okay. I'm not really going to remember it. Except for maybe the tentacle handsy thing...I'll probably remember that...quite a visual.

Fourteen down!

The ladies didn't talk about Oracle's Moon during the Hangout because it ended up being the alt alt, but it's hilarious as always nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Desperate Duchesses—Eloisa James

"Just look at her," the duchess said. "She carries that head with all the jaunty air of a tavern maid."
"It must be Judith and Holofernes," Roberta said. "Under the circumstances, Judith looks rather cheerful, don't you think?"
The duchess strolled over to the picture. "Actually, I think she looks rather drunk. Don't you think she looks tipsy?"
"I believe that Judith first brought Holofernes some wine," Roberta said. "Before she took off his head. Though I would hate to cast disparagements on the artist's skill, her drunken aspect might have to do with the fact that her eyes do not appear to be level."
"Her face is also remarkably rosy."
"Probably the hard work," Roberta pointed out. "I would guess that it takes a strong arm to sever a man's neck." (26-27)

Part of Vaginal Fantasy Rewind

Roberta St. Giles is the daughter of a poetry-writing, courtesan-loving marquess. Unfortunately, that reputation is not doing her any favors in the old romance department. Luckily, she falls in love at first sight while at a ball, with the Duke of Villiers who is a notorious rake. But staying with her father is not going to get her anywhere, so Roberta takes off to London to stay with a duchess who is a very distant relative, Jemma, in hopes that Jemma can put Roberta on the right path. Things get a bit complicated when Roberta meets Damon, the Earl of Gryffyn and Jemma's brother, who admires Roberta and doesn't want to see her naively fall prey to Villiers. Spoiler alert: Roberta ends up with Damon, because she realizes that one glance at someone maybe isn't the best basis for a long-lasting relationship.

Whew! I lost a little bit of momentum there, but I'm back! As Felicia said in the Hangout, this was a month of "smut-tastic historical fiction." This was the main book when Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake was the alt. I quite enjoyed this one. Kiala had talked a lot about Eloisa James throughout the Vaginal Fantasy Hangouts, and I finally read A Kiss at Midnight (another James book) a bit ago to get a taste, completely forgetting that I had this one coming down the pike on VF Rewind. But I'm glad I read both of them.

I wrote very few notes while reading this because I was engrossed in it. While I initially found Roberta a bit inconsistent—she seemed rather whiny at the beginning, but then went down into servants quarters during a ball?—it became clear that her interactions with her father are understandably quite different from how she was as a general character. I found her bold and intelligent, and appreciated that she wasn't just inherently awesome at interacting with children because she's a woman. But I did love her interactions with Damon's son Teddy.

Even though I liked Roberta fine, Jemma was definitely my favourite.

When Damon offers to help Roberta learn to kiss so that she's prepared for notorious rake Villiers, I instantly flashed back to my favourite scene from one of my favourite movies as a teen, John Hughes' Some Kind of Wonderful. There's a scene where the male lead, Keith—an auto-mechanic nerd in love with the popular girl—finally gets a date with said popular girl. His best friend, Watts—a tomboy who is secretly in love with Keith—offers to help him practice kissing because he will obviously want to be prepared to blow this girl away with his kisses. But she doesn't know what she's in for, because his kiss blows her. Now that I think about it, this book mirrors that movie in a lot of ways, because in the end, Keith realizes that he doesn't even know the popular girl and she's not how he imagined she was. No, who he really loves is, spoiler alert, Watts. (I totally wrote this before I rewatched and Bonnie even mentioned John Hughes!)

I agree with Kiala in that I loved the chess subplot, with the games between Jemma and her husband, as well as Jemma and Villiers. I appreciated that Jemma was a master chess player, and really an overall strongwilled and independent woman, during a time when women were still considered property. And as Felicia said, I also saw shades of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde (one of my favourites).

As Veronica said, I enjoyed that Damon had a lot of the same aspects that we love in romantic leads (funny, caring, etc.) without being a creepy alpha male. Also, I'm a sucker for a father to a small child, and Damon had that. The kind of blundering but loving way that he cares for Teddy, when during that time it was more common for people of this echelon to farm that work at, was endearing.

I really enjoy Eloisa James' writing style. (She has an impressive pedigree.) The back and forth between romantic leads has been on point for both of her books that I've read. Unlike many romance books, hers seem to be written with no need for alpha alpha males (repetition intended). While they may occasionally get caught up, the ladies have a lot of agency and control in the relationships, even if they may be a bit inexperienced. The sexy scenes are romantic and steamy, without some of the coercion or power shift that we sometimes see in historical romance books. As Kiala says, James' books are "written for smart, sexy ladies." I didn't love everything about it—HATED the epilogue, as did the VagFan ladies—and in the end felt kind of neutral about it. But I do want to go and read further in this series now, because I was intrigued by the relationship between Jemma and Beaumont, her husband. I wanted to see where that ended up, and was sorely disappointed that I didn't find out during this book.

Thirteen down, nineteen to go.

Watch the Hangout on Desperate Duchesses AND Nine Rules to Break...

What was your favourite scene from a teen romance movie when you were younger?

Monday, July 6, 2015

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride—Cary Elwes with Joe Layden

The film has literally millions of devotees. They know every line, every character, every scene. And, if they'd like to know a little bit more about how their favorite film was made, as seen through the eyes of a young actor who got much more than he bargained for, then all I can say is...as you wish. (10)

In this autobiographical memoir, Cary Elwes talks about the process and people involved in the making of The Princess Bride, in which he played the doting farm boy turned dashing pirate Westley. With lovingly remembered stories of Andre the Giant, and hilarious anecdotes from the set with some true comedic giants, Elwes keeps a reader's interest from start to finish.
First, let me say, Cary Elwes is still so dapper. Although I LOVE The Princess Bride, I think actually the first thing I saw him in as a child was Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Not normally a film for a child, you'd think, but I loved it. I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing him later in one of my favourite shows, Psych

Anyway, I had just finished listening to the audio commentary for the movie that Hank Green and his wife Katherine did as one of the perks for the 2014 Project for Awesome, and they mentioned how they read this book to prepare. It just so happens that the very next time that I went to the library, this book was up on a stand near the front door, so it felt like the right time to dive into it. And boy, was it. I read this in one sitting.

As a nerd about these kinds of things, I truly appreciated how the book was structured. It's chronological, basically, and also includes interjections in text boxes along the sides of pages from fellow cast and crew related to the particular topic. This seems like a small thing (but always kinds of irks me about biographical content) but the photo section in the center was actually between two chapters rather than smack dab in the middle of one. When that happens I always struggle with, "Should I look at the pictures and get distracted from the content that I was reading, or should I skip ahead and finish the chapter and come back to the pictures?" I did not have to deal with that conundrum on this one!

It really added to the story to be able to see those interjections from other cast and crew. Sometimes they just added another perspective to a story about someone else that Cary was telling, but there were also moments when he was talking about his own anxiety related to playing Westley, and then you get to read Rob Reiner's input, which is basically like, "Cary had no reason to be anxious. He was great. I can't think of anyone else who could've been our Westley." Just lovely.

On that note, it was really refreshing to read something like this and realize that, although The Princess Bride has become a huge cultural touchstone, when they were making it Cary was in his early twenties, and wasn't really well known, and thus had a lot of uncertainty and anxiety surrounding the whole project. This was especially true for him because the book was such a childhood favourite of his. It's refreshing to know that even actors, even people who are part of something so beloved as The Princess Bride had moments of doubt. Wallace Shawn felt the same way because he was convinced the entire time that they actually wanted Danny DeVito for his part, and so had that in his head the whole time they were filming, constantly convinced that he was just about to be fired. Stars: They're Just Like Us.

There were some lovely, heartwarming stories about Andre the Giant. I feel like everything I've ever heard about Andre is incredibly positive, about how nice of a guy he was. Cary talks a bit about some philosophical conversations he had with Andre, about how it must be tough to always be noticed and not ever be able to just blend in, and the way that Andre responds to him is so enlightened and guileless.

It must be such a great feeling to have been part of something that is important to so many, that is such a cultural icon, that has so many quotable lines, and moreover that everyone involved still seems incredibly proud of to this day. And I was so glad to feel as though I took that journey with Cary while reading this book. If you're even a little bit of a fan of The Princess Bride, or even of the various people involved in the making of it, I highly recommend you run, do not walk, to pick this book up.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Days of Blood & Starlight—Laini Taylor

Freaky chick, you say?You can't imagine.I am priestess of a sandcastle in a land of dust and starlight. (41)
Akiva's wretchedness was a gnawing thing. It was taking him in bites and he felt every one—every moment the tearing of teeth, the chewing gut misery, the impossible waking-nightmare truth of what he had done. (7)
Once upon a time, the sky knew the weight of angel armies on the move, and the wind blew infernal with the fire of their wings. (161) 

I read the first book in this series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, for my Vaginal Fantasy Rewind and LOVED it. So I was both anxious and wary to start this sequel.

Following the events and reveal at the end of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, Karou is trying to come to grips with her recently-remembered past life as the chimaera Madrigal. She is living in Morocco with the White Wolf, Thiago—the being who sentenced her to death during her past life. Thiago managed to carry many of their people away from battle in thuribles, and Karou is working with him to help rebuild the chimaera armies (one slow tooth necklace at a time) so that they can fight for their existence against the angels. Until, that is, Karou realizes that Thiago is not interested in protection, he's only interested in revenge and death. He's also biding his time until she trains his spy, Ten, to kill Karou. Meanwhile, Akila, along with his brother Hazael and his sister Liraz, are back to their old work as part of the angel hordes, again trying to eradicate as many chimaera as possible. At the moment, Akila and his siblings are the only angels who recognize the existence of the remaining hole in the sky which would allow them to invade Earth, but when their evil uncle finds out about it, he decides to take advantage of the Earth's adoration of angels and invade.

There are some great "secondary" characters in these books. Zuzana is one of my favourite characters of all time. She's feisty and defensive in all the ways that a best friend should be. When she and Mik go looking for Karou and find her and then help her build chimaera even though they're slightly terrifying...heartwarming. Also, the relationship between Zuzana and Mik is disgustingly adorable, in the best way. Akila's brother, Hazael, was great comic relief. Here's a quote that's an example, when he's talking to his sister, Liraz: "Are you saying you don't love me?" Hazael asked Liraz. "Because I love you, I think." He paused in contemplation. "Oh. No. Never mind. That's fear." (14) Hilarious. I'm not ashamed to admit that I got a little teary when he died, and then Karou couldn't do anything to bring him back.

There were also some big issues that were tackled in this book, under the guise of the story. Things like the presence of war as a result of fear towards a people who is different from your own, what really separates us (even among different types of chimaeras, particularly those who are carnivorous and herbivores). Nothing felt preachy or overbearing, but the bigger causes for this seemingly neverending war between the angels and chimaera were questioned.

Taylor is fantastic at the tease. She'll almost reveal something in Morocco, and then take you across the universe to where the angels are for a chapter before going back and letting you know what happened. Great writing and editing on that front.

I learned a new word: caravansary, which means an inn, usually with a large courtyard, specifically designed to accommodate caravans. (Makes logical sense once you think about it, but I'd never heard the word before.)

While I thought this was a well done sequel and enjoyed that it's more about building up to what I'm sure will be some sort of culmination in the next book, there were more points where I was disappointed by the happenings than in the first. Perhaps the biggest problem that I had was the attempted rape scene, where Thiago attacks Karou. It just felt so needless. I understand that Karou had to get rid of Thiago's essence in order to install Ziri in that body, but I think there are other ways and threats to Karou that would have accomplished the same end. I also think that Karou's reaction is exactly what people expect of attempted rape victims: that they will fight to the death to prevent the violation. In some cases this is true, but it also is a big problem with respect to the definition and understanding of rape as a whole. I may be reading too much into this, in that it's fiction, but I've been thinking a lot about the portrayal of rape in fiction and the realities of rape since reading Jon Krakauer's Missoula.

Even with my dislike of that specific aspect, I'm looking forward to reading the next book in this series because it's so beautifully written and unlike anything I've ever read before.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Truth According to Us—Annie Barrows

My entry, luckily, was randomly selected through Random House's Read It Forward. I think it was when they had the game where you find the hidden beach balls strewn across their site, and each beach ball represented one of eight "beach reads." It was a fun game, AND I won a book! Win-win!

In the summer of 1938, Layla Beck is forced by her father to take a job with the Federal Writers' Project, and is assigned to a small town in West Virginia to write their town history. She boards with a zany family called the Romeyn's; in fact, the story is narrated by Willa Romeyn, who is the oldest daughter of the family at twelve. (We get letters and viewpoints from other characters from the third person, but when in the first person, we're hearing from Willa.) Before Layla arrives, Willa is living happily with her sister, Bird; her father, Felix; her aunt Jottie; and her twin aunts, Mae and Minerva. In this summer, Willa is starting to realize how the other people in town view her family, and the complicated family history that lies beneath the surface. Layla also gives us alternate insight into the background of the relationships of everybody in this very small town, and history about the Romeyns that Willa's not party to.

[Coincidentally enough, the very first book that I added to my "Want to Read" bookshelf on Goodreads as soon as I joined was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (which I still haven't read).]

This slice-of-life book was just what I needed at the time that I read it. The story was much more about the characters and relationships than anything else, which is sometimes so refreshing to read. No need to create a completely different world with different mechanisms and worldbuilding; there are plenty of opportunities to create good stories out of the materials that are already present in our world. The thing that makes these kinds of books so powerful, to me, is that you feel so much more invested in these people as a result. I felt Jottie's pain, and just wanted her to once be able to catch a break; I raised my eyebrows at Felix's behavior, and his lack of attentiveness to daughters who clearly worship him; I understood Layla and her sheltered existence, who ultimately comes to understand an experience entirely foreign to her before her arrival in Macedonia.

The structure of the book—with traditional chapters, as well as chapters dedicated to letters written—was very conducive to gradually uncovering this family secret that has been looming for over a decade, as well as introducing us more to characters like Layla, who served most as a way to get information that we would never have gotten from Willa. Willa, as the ostensible narrator of the piece, provided us with the viewpoint of a burgeoning citizen and family member, recently attuned to the idea that perhaps there are things about her family that she does not know—an especially irksome situation for Willa, considering the rest of the town seems to know everything she does not. While she's been a member of the community her whole life, she's just now discovering that there may be more to it than she realized, and also starts asking the "big questions" of life. Layla as the outsider provides us with a fresh, and somewhat spoiled perspective of this incredibly small, working-class town. Having never struggled for anything in her life as a senator's daughter, and though she starts out as a bit of a whiner, Layla takes on the mantle of town historian with a sense of pride, determined to write the truth (albeit slightly exaggerated at points) rather than the puff piece that the town council would prefer. Layla reminded me a bit of Anne Shirley: overdramatic and at times naive, but ultimately well-meaning, well-intentioned, and earnest.

Jottie rounds out the trio of narrators, as the matriarch of the Romeyn family. Robbed as a young girl of the boy that she loved (Vause Hamilton), she must also live with the tension between her brother Felix, who was Vause's best friend. In a cycle of punishing each other for transgressions real and imagined, but mostly related to unspoken feelings about Vause's death, Jottie and Felix have an easy relationship on the surface, with tension not far beneath. Jottie represents for the audience the long-time resident of Macedonia, knower of many secrets, with not only the family history, but also the experience and the connections (good or bad) to all of the residents. She can't seem to escape the spector of Vause Hamilton, and the perceptions surrounding the whole ordeal from the townspeople. Although I'm sure she gets much fulfillment out of raising her nieces, she seems stuck. Who hasn't felt that way? Just another way that the Romeyn family is eminently relatable, despite the fact that their story takes place over seven decades ago.

Although I sometimes consider it a cop out (*cough*Harry Potter*cough*), I enjoyed the epilogue and thought it was lovely. It made it easier to say goodbye to this family that I had grown with for five hundred pages.

There are some great truths about relationships in general in this book. At one point, Jottie is chatting with Willa about love and her particular interests, and Willa remarks that she's just looking for "someone who makes everything funny and interesting, even doing nothing." Jottie nods and replies, "Some people can just stand in an empty room and make it seem like the center of the world." What a beautiful sentiment. Who isn't looking for that? It's with poignant and simple moments like these that The Truth According to Us shines brightest.