Non-Fiction: “A Colony In A Nation” by Chris Hayes

colony nationI’m gonna warn all y’all right up front: this is political. If you don’t want to read about politics, Black Lives Matter, police-as-military force, and other horrible horrible things in our society, wait until my next review – it’ll be a silly little romance novel, with no politics or angst whatsoever.

Now that that’s outta the way…

Chris Hayes is a MSNBC host, the lead-in to Rachel Maddow’s show. I don’t watch MSNBC. In fact, the only time I watched MSNBC in the past umpty-million years was when Maddow claimed she had Drumpf’s tax return. (Spoiler alert!: she didn’t. She had two pieces of paper that showed a small portion of his tax return but didn’t really have any detail. Wake me up when you find the kompromat, Rach.) But I saw Chris Hayes when he was on my news broadcast, The Daily Show, talking to Trevor Noah about this book.

Here’s where I’d link to the interview clip, but the Comedy Central website wants me to log in with my cable provider account and password?! Fuck offffffff, Comedy Central!

ANYWAY. I liked his interview, and I remembered that I liked the interview and the premise of the book when I saw it on the “New and Notable” shelf at the library.

The book is less than 200 pages long, and it’s very well-written. So well-written, I ended up quoting a shit-ton of the book. Soooo, if you don’t feel like either watching an interview (if you can find it on the interwebs) or finding the book yourself, good news! This is practically a Cliffs Notes version.

(Here’s where I normally apologize to the kids who are googling the book title and “cliffs notes” and tell them they’re going to be very disappointed in this, try again, but honestly? This might get your essay done. Please send $35 in a self-addressed stamped envelope to: Alaina c/o That’s What She Read for all your essay-writing needs.)

A Colony In A Nation proposes that there are two justice systems in the United States: one for the wealthy and the white, and a second one for the poor and the black. The book is broken out into five or six parts, each a thesis on its own.

The first section sets up the premise with a real-world experience. Mr. Hayes tells us about the time he accidentally smuggled some pot into the 2000 Republican National Convention.

[…] the police officer who’d found the drugs put my bag on a table and looked at me, as if to say Go ahead and take it.

I figured as soon as I reached out and acknowledged the bag was mine, they’d slap the cuffs on. But when I went to grab the bag … nothing happened. I picked it up.

Kate [his girlfriend], her dad, and I walked into the convention center together. Her father said, amusedly, “You probably shouldn’t do that tomorrow.” [p. 18]

Compare that story to that of Dayvon Love of Baltimore, a high school debater who narrowly escaped being thrown in jail for being in the wrong place at the wrong time:

“I was seventeen years old, it was the day of a debate tournament. I’d won first place, and that night I was catching a bus to go to New York to see a friend.” On his way to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning, Love and his father were pulled over by police. “They say I match the description of someone who stole a woman’s purse.”

The police began to search the car. More cruisers pulled up with their lights flashing. They took Love out of the car and had him stand in the middle of the street. At one point, one shined his police light right into the teenager’s face. “And you heard them ask the woman, you know, ‘Is this him?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ And so luckily I had the presence of mind to think, ‘We had just stopped at the ATM to get the money I needed for my ticket.’ So I explained to them, I said I had just got the money that I needed to pay for my ticket.” Love happened to have the receipt from the ATM; the time stamp corroborated his story. “And luckily they let me get away, but that easily could have went in an entirely different way.”

By “entirely different way,” Love meant being swept into the vortex of a penal system that captures more than half the black men his age in his neighborhood. By “entirely different way,” he meant an adulthood marked by prison, probation, and dismal job prospects rather than debate coaching and activism. If he hadn’t been so quick on his feet, if the woman hadn’t been unsure the police had the right person, everything might have been different. [p. 20-21]

Here’s the premise of the entire book, in four block paragraphs:

There are fundamentally two ways you can experience the police in America: as the people you call when there’s a problem, the nice man in uniform who pats a toddler’s head and has an easy smile for the old lady as she buys her coffee. For others, the police are the people who are called on them. They are the ominous knock on the door, the sudden flashlight in the face, the barked orders. Depending on who you are, the sight of an officer can produce either a warm sense of safety and contentment or a plummeting feeling of terror. [p. 16]

This book makes a simple argument: that American criminal justice isn’t one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes. One (the Nation) is the kind of policing regime you expect in a democracy; the other (the Colony) is the kind you expect in an occupied land. Policing is a uniquely important and uniquely dangerous function of the state. Dictatorships and totalitarian regimes use the police in horrifying ways; we call them “police states” for a reason. But the terrifying truth is that we as a people have created the Colony through democratic means. We have voted to subdue our fellow citizens; we have rushed to the polls to elect people promising to bar others from enjoying the fruits of liberty. A majority of Americans have put a minority under lock and key. [p. 32]

If you live in the Nation, the criminal justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal. [p. 37]

In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty. Police officers tasked with keeping these two realms separate intuitively grasp of the contours of this divide: as one Baltimore police sergeant instructed his officers, “Do not treat criminals like citizens.” [p. 38]

Part II brings the discussion to a natural starting point: Ferguson, Missouri, and Michael Brown. He cites a handful of actual Ferguson ordinances related to policing, including this one:

[…] None of this would have happened if she’d just listened.

Section 29-16(1) of the municipal code of the city of Ferguson, Missouri, codifies this principle. It is a crime to “[f]ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties.” As the Department of Justice would later show, the police much abuse this statute. Ferguson cops routinely issue orders that have no legal basis and then arrest citizens who refuse those orders for “failure to comply.” It’s a neat little circular bit of authoritarian reasoning. [p. 46-47]

But the bigger point Mr. Hayes makes in this section is that this need for obedience to the police state is anathema to our history. As a colony, America proudly resisted being told what to do by Britain.

But as a principle of self-governance, particularly of American self-governance, “do what the cops say” is a pretty strange unofficial motto. This great land of ours, this exceptional beacon of liberty, was founded by men who, to borrow a phrase, refused to comply. Who not only resisted lawful orders but rebelled against the government that issued them. Colonists chased the king’s officers through the streets, caught them, beat them, tarred and feathered them, and wheeled them through town for all to mock and shame. As distant as it may seem now, that’s our national heritage when it comes to “lawful orders.” [p. 49]

Back in the day (i.e., America’s days as a colony), power was held by the pirates and the smugglers who snuck product to the colonists under the nose of Britain’s port authority.

During the pre-Revolutionary era, smugglers created economic activity that caused huge knock-off effects: a cascade of subsidiary industries and cash flow that kept a whole lot of people in the colonies (not to mention lots of business back in merry old England) in the money. The same goes for dealers in, say, Westside Baltimore or the South Side of Chicago or the South Bronx, or northern Maine or eastern Kentucky or South Central Los Angeles. Sure, the drug trade is illegal, reckless, and destructive, but it encourages commerce in places where the legitimate economy produces few jobs. While dealers and “the street” are viewed skeptically, often angrily, they also command status. Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions – the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution. [p. 53]

(John Hancock was a smuggler prior to signing the Declaration of Independence with the largest pen.)

But that talk about the drug trade in northern Maine – seriously. The second district of Maine is still horribly economically depressed, and so many people are turning to the drug trade. And as much as Governor LePage would want us to believe that the majority of drug dealers in Maine are not white (“guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty … half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave”) – from other states (“black and Hispanic people from Waterbury, Connecticut, the Bronx, and Brooklyn”) – i.e., The Colonies — the majority of arrests have been white, native Mainers – The Nation.

*checks watch* 29 more weeks until the next Inauguration Day for Maine. *taps watch, wills it to tick faster goddammit*

Something else Ferguson had going for the it, regarding its racial inequality towards justice: the fact that the City of Ferguson was more concerned about raising revenue by municipal violations than focusing on actual public safety needs. Y’know: quotas.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. [p. 62, quoting directly from the DOJ’s report on the patterns and practices of the Ferguson, MO police department]

I grew up in a relatively sleepy suburban, college town. As of the 2010 census, Maine was 94% white. Brunswick – my hometown – may have been slightly less white when I was in school, but only because the Brunswick Naval Air Base was still active at that time. I grew up in a middle-class family: we struggled at times, but we had a house, two cars, food on the table, and cable TV.

But the Brunswick cops – I don’t know what it was, but Brunswick cops (with a few exceptions) were the worst.

The first time I got pulled over, I was 19 years old. I had just bought my first car – Max, a cherry red 1994 Plymouth Acclaim – and I was driving down Maine Street, heading for Topsham. A car tried to cut me off coming out of a side street, and in my attempt to avoid being hit, I drove through a crosswalk where a pedestrian had just entered my lane. A cop was in the other lane. He pulled a U-ey and followed me, siren blaring. When I pulled over and rolled my window down, I was shaking – from almost being hit, and not knowing for sure why I was in trouble.

The cop – Ray-Bans down, practically chewing on a toothpick and waving his Maglite in my eyes in broad fucking daylight – intimidated the fuck out of me. Gave me a ticket, and because I’d only had my full license less than two years, told me my license would be suspended.

I had just gotten a job in the next town over. There was no way for me to walk to work, so not being able to drive for the entire summer would have ruined me. So I went to court to contest, and in order to get out of the suspension, had to go to the same “defensive driving” course that people with DUIs have to take to get the points taken off my record.

For failure to yield to a pedestrian. All so the cop with the fucking Napoleonic complex (I distinctly remember towering over him when he showed up to court) could fulfill his quota.

QUOTAS, MAN. FUCKING QUOTAS.

*sigh* If you want to hear more about municipal violations and how they can escalate into some high grade, life-ruining bullshit, check out my Pretend Second British Boyfriend John Oliver from three years ago.

For subjects of authoritarian rule, humiliation is the permanent state of existence. “There is the man at the top,” Frantz Fanon wrote of his native Martinique, “and there are his courtiers, the indifferent (who are waiting), and the humiliated.” That’s it. In a colonial system, you can have power and be close to those with power, or you can be humiliated.

Cops – Brunswick cops in particular (and I know I’m probably gonna get some flak for this, but Sharon*, your husband wasn’t a Brunswick cop back in 2002, I’m not counting him) – wield what power they’re given in order to humiliate the governed.

*name changed to protect the innocent

And to bring it all back to Mr. Hayes’s thesis:

But Ferguson’s practices were hiding in plain sight for all to see for years. And in fact, when I talked to people in Ferguson, they didn’t think there was much that special about it. Go to any of the surrounding little municipalities around Ferguson in St. Louis County: Jennings, Florissant, Kinloch. A Washington Post investigation of the municipal court system in the surrounding towns found identical violations across the board.

This is what “the law” looks like in the Colony, where real democratic accountability is lacking, when the consent of the governed is absent or forsaken or betrayed, and when the purpose of policing and courts isn’t the maintenance of safety and provision of justice but rather some other aim. In north St. Louis County that aim is to produce revenue, the same aim of the British Empire’s customs regime in the American colonies. [p. 75]

And here’s what happens when the authoritarian “status quo” gets challenged: the police fight back against the uprising Colonists:

In response to the outrage that poured forth on that summer afternoon, the police of Ferguson and St. Louis County mobilized as if for war: flak jackets, masks, helmets, camouflage, assault weapons, and armored vehicles. Men pointed their long guns at civilians who assembled for peaceful protest. Cops arrested and detained journalists who were charging their phones in a McDonald’s. They fired tear gas canisters indiscriminately. Bands of armed cops in full combat gear chased unarmed, peaceful protesters through the streets with guns raised. [p. 67]

Part III begins with a reminder of the Tamir Rice tragedy – where a twelve-year-old boy was killed by police officers who were dispatched to a public park where report of a black male pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing at people was made, and then killing that twelve-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun. This leads Mr. Hayes to discuss, in part, the notion that the Nation clings to its weaponry in order to maintain order in the Colony.

Today Americans still rely on the gun, the power to kill or injure, to preserve the social order in the most fraught and dire moments. Police know their weapon is by their side if the situation they encounter spins too far out of control and they find themselves threatened. [p. 88]

But he also makes a good, if often-missed point: too often people call the police to handle situations that really shouldn’t be their purview. And, additionally, police officers are not given the appropriate training to be truly effective in those situations.

For instance: you’re a police officer, fresh out of the academy. Let’s say you’re between the ages of 25 and 30. You get a call to a residence because the resident of the house – who is suffering from severe developmental disorders – has found a weapon and is threatening another resident. What’s your training? What should you do as a policeman? The resident hasn’t done anything illegal, but you were called to respond, and you can’t just leave.

We ask police to be social workers, addiction counselors, mental health workers, and community mediators. We wouldn’t hand a social worker a gun and have them go out into the streets to apprehend criminals, but we do the opposite every day. [p. 95-96]

And then, there’s the topic of White Fear. Ah, that fear of the unknown and distrust of people that don’t look like us; the fear that causes people to lock their car doors when they drive through a city, or causes those same people to call the cops when they see a black man in their neighborhood. Or causes a white lady to call the cops on two Native American teens who were merely taking a college tour.

Despite the fact that nonwhite people are disproportionately the victims of crime, the criminal justice system as a whole is disproportionately built on the emotional foundation of white fear. But then, that isn’t surprising. American history is the story of white fear, of the constant violent impulses it produces and the management and ordering of those impulses. White fear keeps the citizens of the Nation wary of the Colony, and fuels their desire to keep it separate. [p. 109]

Also in Part IV, Mr. Hayes discusses in depth the racial bias of the justice system, especially when it comes to the War on Drugs. And here is where I am going to go all capslocky, and I want y’all to know, I DO NOT APOLOGIZE.

So, here’s the thing: in 2016, the State of Maine legalized recreational marijuana by referendum. It allows possession and personal cultivation of the plant – with limits – and sets up regulation for the sale of marijuana to recreational users. Now, here’s the downside: the way the referendum was written, and the way it was put into the law books, practically all the nitty-gritty stuff about licensing, and background checks, and all that shit that we need to ensure it stays legal? I think if the law writers were allowed to enter the *shrug emoticon* for all that stuff, they could have. Everything – and I mean everything – is pretty much TBD.

Enter the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee in the Maine Legislature. For almost 18 months, these seventeen elected officials did a lot of hard work – going to Colorado and Washington, learning how other states worked within the lines to ensure there were safeguards in place to allow medicinal marijuana and recreational marijuana to coexist. They labored over just the right type of taxation scheme to ensure that the State benefits from this. (And in the middle of this, Jeff Beauregard Sessions threw a monkey wrench into the whole affair because he thinks it smells bad, but also, he’s racist, and yes, I’m getting to that).

Flash forward to two weeks ago, when the final version of the bill the MLI Committee wrote – which is 80 pages long, containing numerous regulations for cultivators, products manufacturers, retailers, and testing facilities, and licensing, and reports and studies and DUDES, lemme tell ya, I have read that bill backwards and frontwards about sixty times until Sunday, how did this pot virgin become an expert on pot?! – came up in the House for voting.

And at least three Republican representatives stood up and said that they can’t vote on it, because legalizing marijuana is a bad thing to do, and if we (the people) can legalize marijuana by referendum vote, *gasp* what’s next? Voting to legalize heroin?

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And then they threw out the fact that marijuana is a Schedule One narcotic on the Controlled Substances Act.

Which caused me to run away from my computer (where I was watching the livestream at work) and into the stairwell and post to Facebook the following:

nixon was racist

Because guess what, folks? RICHARD NIXON WAS RACIST AND PRO-VIETNAM WAR AND THIS WAS HOW HE WAS GOING TO CONTROL HIS ENEMIES:

The number of people [over the decades of the DEA] in state and federal prisons serving drug sentences increased nearly 1,270 percent, from 24,000 inmates in 1980 to 304,500 in 2014. Years later Nixon aide John Ehrlichman seemed to offer up a smoking gun when he told a reporter:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did. [p. 111]

MARIJUANA IS ONLY A SCHEDULE ONE DRUG BECAUSE RICHARD MILHOUSE NIXON WAS RACIST

But what happened over the years? Even though studies have shown that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rates, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession and/or use over white people.

EVEN CYNTHIA MILHOUSE NIXON KNOWS WHAT’S UP

[NOTE FROM THE PAST: And now the Maine Legislature is all fucked up, and I’m waiting for veto day to see if the marijuana bill even gets un-vetoed [[because LePage is going to veto it, like an asshole]], and if I have to listen to another twelve months of my friend whose name I am not going to post on the internet for privacy reasons bitching about the fact that he can’t go into a store and buy pot I will LOSE MY MIND.]

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[Note From the Future: holy shit, the pot bill survived the veto.]

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[oh shit, now what do I do?]

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Getting back to White Fear: it’s also known as “unconscious bias” which, thanks to Starbucks, hopefully a lot more people will realize this is an endemic problem in society? [In a way, it’s a good thing it’s taken me forever to get caught up on my blog reviews – look at all the real-world examples I’m able to throw in now!] But what do we do with White Fear – and is there a way to train it out of us?

[…] Imagine that this particular officer, not through conscious racism but through deep unconscious bias, finds himself only in fear of black citizens. […] He is not faking his fear; he is not being disingenuous. But something is deeply amiss.

What is the moral status of that fear? What is its legal status? In the case of a police officer, the practical effect of our collective conception of fear is its transcendent ability to exculpate. If a cop shoots someone because he is angry, he is a murderer. But if he shoots a suspect because he is afraid, he is innocent. Can the law second-guess that subconscious impulse, which the shooter cannot control any more than he can keep his leg from kicking out when a doctor strikes a hammer against his knee? [p. 117]

I mean, probably not. This is America. [Mom, you’re not gonna want to watch that link, okay? Seriously, I mean it, don’t click it.]

Over the decades, communities have tried to make themselves safer and better protected from drugs and crime. Whites and minorities alike have petitioned to have better policing, better programs and more resources to keep people from getting involved with crime.

How’d that go over?

Because control over the machinery of the state in almost all places remained in the hands of an overwhelmingly white elite, a perverse form of “half-a-loaf” legislative compromise emerged during this period. Yes, black citizens, leaders, clergy, activists, and politicians in predominantly black neighborhoods recognized a crisis, and yes, they were demanding solutions. But the solutions they were demanding were full spectrum – more police and more jobs – while the solutions they got were entirely punitive.

In the fight over the 1994 crime bill, the NAACP excoriated the initial draft for its lack of investment in urban communities. The Congressional Black Caucus proposed its own alternative, with $5 billion more in funding for drug treatment and early intervention programs. But Republicans demagogued on the small amount of social spending in the Senate Democrats’ version of the bill, railing against midnight basketball programs as a government subsidy for hooligans. The bill then lost an additional $2.5 billion in social spending, but left in place billions for prisons and a long list of punitive measures.

This process was repeated in statehouses and city halls across the country: black people asked for social investment and got SWAT teams, asked for full employment and got gang units, asked for protection and got “stop and frisk.” White fear absorbed and appropriated black fear. Thanks to what scholars call “selective hearing,” black fear, combined with white political power, produced a state committed to managing and punishing black and brown subjects rather than empowering and protecting them. [p. 124-125]

Real-world example: the marijuana legalization bill I was talking about? If we wanted to truly make it egalitarian, there should have been a provision to expunge the records of all possession and use crimes for those who have been convicted of them, now that possession is partly legal. “Oh, you got busted in 2012 for holding two ounces of pot? Well, now you can hold two and a half ounces of pot legally, bye-bye criminal record!”

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The best the bill does is allow those applying for marijuana establishment licenses to still be considered if the individual does have a conviction “for an offense that consisted of conduct that is authorized under chapter 3 [possession and use].”

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So let’s say you were convicted of possession of marijuana, but don’t want to get into the marijuana biz. That conviction is going to remain on your record, and you will continue to be required to disclose that conviction on employment applications. So essentially, if you have a conviction and you have to get a new job, the only job where that marijuana conviction will not count against you is one in the marijuana industry. How is that fair!? Thanks, half-loaf legislature!

Here’s another example of how tone-deaf people in power are:

[Chris Hayes] asked [the mayor of Ferguson, MO] what he thought was the big takeaway from the death of Michael Brown and the protests for racial justice that had brought hundreds of reporters from around the world to his city.

The mayor didn’t hesitate. “We have to find a way to stabilize housing. There is, all across north St. Louis County, a problem with housing where people only live for a few years. They switch school districts, you know, every year. They move houses every year, every six months. They never really set down roots. We have to find a way to do that.”

I was a bit incredulous: “So you think that is sort of the – that is your takeaway from this?”

“Yeah, the takeaway is we have to find a way to stabilize them here in the community and make them part of it.”

Ah yes, stabilize housing – that phrase was familiar to me, like concerns about vagrants and seediness and orderliness. Stability is one of the things that, in the minds of those within the Nation, define it, compared to the transience of the Colony. I’m sure the mayor really was concerned with making sure his constituents had a stake in the city and felt part of it for the long term. But the subtext was present, too: that it was the denizens of the Colony who were causing problems, and things would be fine if Ferguson could get rid of this disorderly class of squatters who had infiltrated their town. [p. 150]

The above is a good example of “broken windows” policing: broken windows or squalor in a community is apparently an indicator of crime going on in the area. This leads to “community policing,” where the police force in the area are more present so as to build up the safety of the community. However:

The problem with “community policing,” then and now, is that so often the cops being called to enforce community norms are not part of the community. [p. 157]

In a perfect world, the police officers who police your community would be made up of people in your community. But how many times do you see primarily-white officers and policemen responsible for policing primarily-minority areas? Those officers are not part of the community they are policing.

The final part of the book (yes, I’ve finally reached the end) discusses the punitive nature of America’s justice system.

America is a wrathful land. Americans like to humiliate wrongdoers. We like to heap marks of shame upon them, to watch them groan and write beneath their sins, as far back as the scarlet letter and the stocks. We like, in short, to punish. It makes us feel good. By every conceivable metric – prosecutions, duration of sentences, conditions of imprisonment – the United States is by far the most punitive rich democracy. No one else really comes close. [p. 181]

Mr. Hayes goes further, discussing a study made by law professor James Whitman:

In 2003 law professor James Whitman laid out an argument for why the U.S. criminal justice system compares so poorly to those of continental Europe – France and Germany specifically.  […] He comes to a surprising and compelling conclusion: that it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.

In the German and French systems, he explains, punishment long existed along two separate tracks: degradation and humiliation for low-status prisoners and relative comfort and hospitality for high-status ones. The United States, on the other hand. maintained a more egalitarian ethos of punishment (for white people, anyway). Since the American Revolution, we viewed punishment as a great equalizer; no special kinds of punishment was reserved for lords and for peasants. Thus the system of punishment that developed found equality in a race to the bottom: everyone got punished harshly as an expression of a core belief that no man stands above another. [p. 183]

There’s a lot in this short book. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ve taken up enough of your time, and I’m also probably not the person to say it. Here’s what I can say: the book opened my eyes on a lot of things that I was probably blind to, and it certainly doesn’t help that I live in the whitest state in the country (aside from possibly Vermont; I can’t remember which one of us is on top right now). But I promise to do my best to use my white privilege to effect better change, and I encourage anyone who wants to make this country better to read this book.

Grade for A Colony In A Nation: 5 stars

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Fiction: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

outlanderAbout a year ago, Starz premiered American Gods, which was showrun by Bryan Fuller — the same Bryan Fuller who was responsible for a little show called Hannibal. And because I would follow Bryan Fuller to the ends of the earth, I added Starz to my Amazon Prime so I could watch the show.

I don’t know what happened, because I could not get into the show. But it had everything – Bryan Fuller! Ian McShane, formerly Al Swearengen on DeadwoodGillian fucking Anderson! Whatever the reason, it must be the same reason why I can’t get through the book. And I’ve tried to read that THREE TIMES.

When I can finally get through that book I’m sure I’ll rant more about American Gods. Meanwhile, Starz is also the home of Outlander, and I didn’t let my Starz subscription go to waste – over the summer, I rewatched the first season and half of the second season, and also read the first book, Outlander.

I’m not going to get into too much of the plot (she says, hopeful), because I can tell you that the first season does an excellent job of following the book. There are a couple of deviations made for artistic license, but overall I thought the series did a great job telling the story. So if you don’t want to read an 850-page book, you can just watch about 16 hours of television instead.

Outlander is a novel of many genres: it’s got time-travel (sci-fi); it’s got romance; it’s got history; it’s got actual science. It begins in post-WWII Scotland, with Claire and her husband, Frank Randall, enjoying a second honeymoon. Frank is researching his ancestry, and is very interested to learn more about Black Jack Randall, a captain with the English Dragoons. Claire is broadening her nursing education through botany, learning about flowers and plants that have healing capabilities.

One day, Claire goes to visit Craigh na dun – a stone circle similar to Stonehenge, but smaller in scale – and has a weird experience: she hears one of the stones screaming. Her vision begins to blur, she feels faint, and when she wakes up, she is no longer in 1945, but 1742.

Of course, it takes Claire a while to figure that out. Or, rather, it takes her a while to believe it. She is nearly captured by Frank’s ancestor, Black Jack Randall himself, but is rescued of a sort by Jamie Fraser and his clan. And so begins what can only be described as a very well-written soap opera.

(Trust me – I loved it.)

Claire tries to avoid arousing suspicion – which is hard to do, considering her English accent. Using her knowledge of modern medicine combined with her botany learnings, she becomes the new “nurse” (I can’t remember what they actually called her and no, I’m not going to look it up) for the castle. Then Jamie’s cousin, Dougal (Dougal might be Jamie’s uncle, I DON’T CARE) wants to bring Claire along when they collect the rents, which suits Claire fine – she just wants to escape back to Craigh na Dun and try to get back to Frank.

IT’S SO SOAPY, you guys! Because Claire gets captured by Black Jack Randall again! And the only way to save her is to become part of the clan, so she has to marry Jamie Fraser! And that’s hard for Claire, because she still loves her husband Frank! But obviously no one knows about Frank, so bigamy it is! And then she falls in love with Jamie anyway! And there’s —

Okay, but for real, no exclamation points, CONTENT WARNING, there is also rape. Claire is violated by an English Dragoon – who gets killed immediately by Jamie -, but there are further rape threats to her and also to Jamie (by Black Jack Randall). It’s … it’s not pretty, at times.

And sure, it’s supposed to be “a description of the times”, and sure, the 1700s were not great for women and women’s rights, and the book does show … or attempt to show the struggle that Claire has as a “modern” woman, trying to fit in during this backwards time period. For instance, after Claire is rescued from Black Jack Randall the first time, though Jamie is relieved to learn she’s okay, he does feel the need to punish her, corporally:

“I’ve said I’m sorry!” I  burst out. “And I am. I’ll never do such a thing again!”

“Well, that’s the point,” he said slowly. “Ye might. And it’s because ye dinna take things as serious as they are. Ye come from a place where things are easier, I think. […] I know ye would never endanger me or anyone else on purpose. But ye might easily do so without meanin’ it, like ye did today, because ye do not really believe me yet when I tel ye that some things are dangerous. You’re accustomed to thin for yourself, and I know,” he glanced sideways at me, “that you’re not accustomed to lettin’ a man tell ye what to do. But you must learn to do so, for all our sakes.” [p. 391]

And beat her ass he does. Yay feminism! :/

As much as I liked it – and the TV series – there are some problematic themes. Caveat lector.

I like Claire. She’s smart, yet not a Strong Female Character™ – she has flaws, and moments of panic. She does her best to adapt to her new world, and eventually comes to accept the fact that she’s probably not going to be able to return to her normal time. At the end of the book, she and Jamie are sailing off to France, escaping the Dragoons, and trying to figure out how to change history so the Scottish clans aren’t eradicated in the Battle of Culloden.

Eventually – maybe after I get caught up with Better Call Saul – I’ll power through the next couple of seasons of Outlander on my Starz subscription. And I have the next book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber, waiting for me to pick up as well. We’ll see how it goes.

Grade for Outlander: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Gunslinger” by Stephen King

GunslingerEven though I’ve lived in Maine my entire life (save for freshman year at Franklin Pierce College), I’ve never been able to get into Stephen King novels. Love him as a person and as a representative of Maine — and one of my best friends had dinner at his house when he [the friend] was going to school at U-Maine! — but other than Hannibal, I’ve never been a huge fan of horror.

Up until this past year, the only Stephen King novel I’d ever read was The Dead Zone, and the only reason I ever read that was because Sean Patrick Flanery was starring in the USA series based on the book, and I loved Sean Patrick Flanery – he was my favorite Boondock Saint.

So anyway. I’m not jazzed about Stephen King. But then, The Dark Tower movie was announced, starring my second-favorite Next James Bond (after Gillian Anderson or Janelle Monáe), Idris Elba. And I like Idris Elba. And I got more interested in the movie than I normally would have been, because My Dear Friend Sarah was interested in the movie.

But, I didn’t want to go into something blind – especially where Stephen King is concerned. So I put a question out into the universe (y’know – Twitter) and asked whether I should read The Dark Tower.

My Dear Friend Sarah said (essentially), “Yes, you should absolutely read the series, but let me warn you, you’re going to get to a point where you throw one of the books across the room. Don’t let it stop you, pick up the book, toss a shot back, and keep going.”

So with that recommendation – and I’m not being facetious, Sarah tells it like it is, and I appreciate that; if someone knows you well enough that they know you’re going to get frustrated with something, give that person a heads-up! — I requested the first book in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, from the Yarmouth Public Library.

Hoo, boy. Okay. So. *sigh* … how the fuck do I talk about this?

I have no idea what happened in that book.

Thanks to Wikipedia for the below five paragraphs, because seriously, I remember there’s a massacre at a town, and a lot of desert walking, a young paranoid kid named Jake, maybe a spider? and a scene in a mountain that reminds me of the mine car sequence from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but at the end of it Short Round dies.

There’s a Gunslinger. His name is Roland. And he’s searching for a Man in Black. He’s walking through a desert, and stops at this tiny rundown farm, and while he’s there for the night, he tells the farmer about the massacre he caused at the last town at the edge of the desert. The next day he continues on his journey.

Roland rolls into a way station, and meets a young boy named Jake. Jake’s about ten, and he tells Roland how he got there, and apparently he was hit by a car in Manhattan but then ended up at the way station, and it sounds like our universe is parallel to Roland’s, but also maybe it’s limbo or something? Then they defeat a demon in the basement and then Jake goes with Roland on his journey.

They get out of the desert and there’s this succubus in a forest, and Roland saves Jake from it and then Roland sleeps with the succubus so he can figure out what’s going on with his quest. There’s also a pretty substantial flashback to Roland’s childhood, which is not pretty or pleasant.

Then Roland and Jake run into the Man in Black, who says he’s only going to meet one of them on the other side of the mountain. Roland and Jake cross through the mountain, using a handcar. They run into some zombies or something, and then when they get to an abyss where only one of them can cross, Roland sacrifices Jake so he can continue on his journey alone.

He does meet up with the Man in Black on the other side of the mountain, as foretold. The Man in Black tries to convince Roland to give up his quest – which essentially was a revenge killing of the Man in Black – and the Man in Black also tries to tell Roland that Roland’s true enemy is the person controlling the Dark Tower, which they can see on the horizon. The Man in Black deals tarot cards and then there’s a sequence where they go whizzing past different planets, and then Roland falls asleep and when he wakes up the Man in Black has turned into a skeleton, so Roland keeps walking.

The only quote I captured from the book itself (and not from Stephen King’s afterword) is this:

“You asleep?” the gunslinger asked.

“No.”

“Did you understand what I told you?”

“Understand it?” The boy asked, with cautious scorn. “Understand it? Are you kidding?” [p. 174]

You and me both, boy.

So, even while I was reading it, I was checking out Wikipedia. And the Wikipedia page for the book has this as its second sentence:

The Gunslinger was first published in 1982 as a fix-up novel, joining five short stories that had been published between 1978 and 1981. King substantially revised the novel in 2003, and this version is in print today.

And I went, “wait a minute …”

The version I read – the one I got from the library – was published in 1988; an illustrated version of the original 1982 publication.

This entire time – I was reading the wrong version.

CURSE YOU, YARMOUTH PUBLIC LIBRARY!

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Now, there were a couple of cool things I could take from Stephen King’s afterword, which continues to prove that I like him as a person, but not as a teller of stories.

He said this about the process of getting The Gunslinger to completion:

[…] this segment, “The Gunslinger and the Dark Tower,” was written over a period of twelve years. It is by far the longest I’ve taken with any work … and it might be more honest to put it another way: it is the longest that any of my unfinished works has remained alive and viable in my own mind, and if a book is not alive in the writer’s mind, it is as dead as year-old horseshit even if words continue to march across the page. [p. 219]

Damn straight, Stephen.

And this argument brought me right back to … oh god, what was it freshman year, Advanced Reading 101? What the hell was that stupid fucking “English” course we all had to take with Ms. Ring, where we only read two books, one of which was Into the Wild, which I already hated, and she made us use the entire writing process toolbox every time we had to write something? Anyway, this statement gave me flashbacks:

Somewhere inside I know all of these things, and there is no need of an argument, or a synopsis, or an outline (outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses). When it’s time, those things — and their relevance to the gunslinger’s quest — will roll out as naturally as tears or laughter. [p. 224]

SERIOUSLY. Look, I have this “novel” I’ve been “writing” for almost seven years now, and my worry is that it’s just a series of conversations between people and there’s no plot. But since I’m not sure how the story ends (I’ve got options), I’m not about to start outlining the fucking thing. I’ll get there eventually.

And probably, eventually, I’ll try to find the “correct”, revised version of The Gunslinger. Sarah told me it’s worth it, and I’ll give it a shot, but let me be very clear: it’s going to take me a while to work up the will to try again. Because this book was the biggest disappointment of 2017 — at least, in the book-reading department.

Grade for The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger1 star (only for Stephen King’s afterword)

Fiction: “A Scot in the Dark” by Sarah MacLean

Scot in the DarkFirst: this is not a remake of the classic Peter Sellers – Inspector Clouseau romp, A Shot in the Dark. But if you haven’t watched that movie, you should. (It stars George Sanders! He’s fantastic in everything!) This is the next book in Ms. MacLean’s Scandal & Scoundrel series, the first of which was The Rogue Not Taken. The link between the two books is Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick. Alec was the Scottish rogue who would race King and I think may be the one who performed the ceremony where King married Sophie? He wasn’t in Rogue much, but he’s the main character here.

Alec is actually like, the 17th Duke of Warnick, the previous line of Warnick Dukes expiring in quick succession. As part of his inheritance, Alec learns he is the guardian of a maid who is living in one of the ducal apartments in London. And she’s just gotten herself into a spot of trouble.

(Not an unwanted pregnancy; Ms. MacLean doesn’t truck with that type of historical romance — at least, not that I’ve read.)

Lillian Hargrove had an affair with an artist, Derek Hawkins, who is, to put it bluntly and in terms that both of my Dear Friends Emily and Sarah will immediately recognize and laugh about: a dipshit. (shit, what the fuck was Derek’s last name …. oh thank god it wasn’t Hawkins)

(for a second I thought College!Derek’s last name may have been the same as the character in the book, but it wasn’t! Hooray, I’m not telling tales on the internet!)

Anyways. Derek Hawkins asked Lillian (Lily, to her friends, of which there are few) to pose nude for a painting that would only be displayed for Derek’s eyes. And, because Lily thought they were in love, she disrobed. And then he told her that not only was it going to be displayed in a museum, but also, it was going to be the Primary Work at the London Art Exhibition (or whatever, the book is literally by my side on the couch, but I’m not going to bother looking up the proper terms for both of those things; you get the jist).

Now, in 1834, Proper Ladies did not Pose Nude for Artists. It was Simply Not Done. And especially not single, unwed Ladies. If the painting is displayed, Lily will be ruined, because no eligible man would dare marry a maid who had all her bits* displayed in a painting.

*I don’t think it’s all the bits. If I remember the description correctly, she was laying on a couch with her backside to the artist. I think.

So Alec has to come to London to get Lily married off before the painting is displayed. Well, first he tries to get Derek to marry Lily, and because Derek is a dipshit, he absolutely refuses. Then Alec pulls rank and says that Lily can only receive her funds or dowry or whatever if she finds someone willing to marry her before she turns 24, which is in nine days, and also the day the painting is displayed. Lily hoped to run out the clock, earn her pension, and move to the Continent and escape London completely.

Alec and Lily are now in a race against time, and also a battle of wits. Lily wishes to remain independent, as she’s still raw after learning how badly Derek treated her. Alec just wants to be rid of his problem so he can return to Scotland. But, as typically happens in these types of novels, they develop an attraction to each other.

I like Sarah MacLean’s novels because her characters have personality. Lily is a MASTER at passive-aggression. To wit, her choice of dress to wear when Alec tells her she needs to make a good impression at this fancy ball where there will be tons of eligible dudes:

He was not a man who noticed fashion, but this particular dress would not be unnoticed. It was a gold and bronze monstrosity, with skirts that filled the staircase and sleeves that dwarfed her. […] As though that weren’t enough, gold and bronze seed pearls were sewn into the skirts, arranged in little echoes of the canine form, and the bodice — impressively fitted despite Lily having had mere hours to adjust it to her form — was covered in ornate gold fastenings, each a different dog — spaniels and terriers and bulldogs and dachshunds. [p. 110]

And Alec’s equally canny, because he forces her to go to the ball like that. Ha!

Lily is also a very lonely person, in that she didn’t have many friends growing up. Even during this crazy time, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. In the house where she was living when Alec first came to London, she had her room put closer to the servant’s quarters so she could hear other people in the house have conversations. So when she meets Seleste, one of the Soiled S’s (and Sophie’s sister) at the ball she’s almost surprised that Seleste wants to be her friend. But as the novel continues, Seleste becomes someone Lily can rely on, and it’s great! Women being friends!

Having said that, I doubt their friendship passes the Bechdel test, but you know what, I don’t care. I’m going to imagine all of the conversations they have after the book ends and just be happy about it.

The romance between Alec and Lily is contentious and bantery – just the way I like it. He keeps trying to convince her (and himself) that London sucks and Scotland rules. He even attempts to convince her that Burns is a better poet than Shakespeare – which, whatever dude, Burns has his place, but it’s behind Shakespeare.

This leads to a scene that has been popping up in a surprising number of romance novels I’ve been reading lately – the Oral Sex In A Carriage Scene.

… there has got to be a better euphemism for that. Please hold.

Road Canoeing. Giving The Driver a Tongue-Wagging. Buttering an English Muffin. Taking the Crumpet For a Drive.

… … … I am so sorry.

ANYWAY. That happens, but leading up to it, this exchange occurs:

He stroked her hand, his palm running over hers, his fingers tracing the dips and valleys of her fingers, until only their fingertips touched, before he once again took her hand, lacing their fingers together tightly.

“Palm to palm,” she whispered, and he heard the barely-there teasing in her words. The reference to their earlier discussion of Romeo and Juliet.

He should let her go. He meant to.

He didn’t mean to say, “The only part of the play that’s worth anything.”

He didn’t mean to look at her, to find her too close and still infernally far away. He willed himself to move. To sit back. To release her.

And then she whispered, “Let lips do as hands do.

“Fucking Shakespeare,” he cursed. [p. 172-173]

Firstly: the meeting between Romeo and Juliet is not the only part of the play that’s worth anything. Mercutio is the best character and his Queen Mab and death speeches are quite good and excellent vehicles for acting. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet is only “romantic” until, like, Act III.

And thirdly, that’s pretty hot, using Shakespeare to flirt. And so we come to another #ProTipForDudes:

If you’re in a relationship with someone who loves Shakespeare, and your normal, everyday conversation tends towards the bantery, pop-culture reference-ey type, and one day your girl is talking a lot and while she’s cute about it, you need her to shut up for a second, all you need to do is say, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” and then kiss her. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do know it works for Benedick and Beatrice, and they have one of the greatest relationships of all time, so …

Anyway. I liked the book, and will continue to read pretty much everything Sarah MacLean puts out. If you like romance novels that take place in the 1800s with women with agency and personalities, please give Ms. MacLean a try.

Grade for A Scot in the Dark: 3.5 stars

Title: “A Test of Wills” by Charles Todd

test of willsAfter the high crazypants babytown frolics of The Tea Rose, I reverted to form and neglected to take great notes for the next book I read, A Test of Wills.

The Ian Rutledge series is one of the few series that the Yarmouth library owns in its entirety, it feels like. (Y’know, the more I bash the Yarmouth library on here, the more I wonder if they’re ever going to stumble onto this blog and learn how much they disappoint me. Then I remember that they can’t even add an Interlibrary Loan Request button to their website and I stop worrying.) So, phone in hand (to check on Goodreads for the first book in the series), I picked up A Test of Wills because I wanted to start a new mystery series.

I am not sure if I’ll continue with it.

Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard is back on the beat following his tour of duty during World War I. He has been released from the hospital and allowed to return to work, but he hasn’t told anyone that he’s been hearing the voice of a soldier he executed for insubordination mocking him in his head.

That’s … awkward.

Rutledge’s first case is the murder of Colonel Harris of Upper Streetham. Colonel Harris died from shotgun blast while riding his horse that morning. He ventures to the quiet town and starts investigating, with the assistance of Sgt. Davies, the local constable in Upper Streetham. Wherever Rutledge goes in his investigation, he meets resistance from the townspeople – they refuse to answer his questions.

The prime suspect in the murder is Captain Mark Wilton. And here’s where I got confused – because of the Britishness of it all, there were constant references to “the colonel” or “the captain”, and I wasn’t always able to tell them apart. Yes, I know that one was dead and the other alive, but when a third party is talking about an argument the two men had and it’s “colonel” this and “captain” that – I lose track of who’s who.

Anyway, Captain Wilton is engaged to marry Lettice Wood, the ward of Colonel Harris. Wilton and Harris got in a loud argument the night before the murder, and were seen arguing in the lane the following morning. But since Captain Wilton is also the close friend of the Prince of Wales, everyone in town is concerned about the fallout if Captain Wilton were to be named the prime suspect. Can’t embarrass the royalty, after all!

So the townspeople are all pushing Rutledge toward a couple of scapegoats: Hickam, the town drunk. But Rutledge learns that Hickam also suffers from shell shock, and sends him to the hospital to dry out and essentially clears him of all wrongdoing.

Option B is Mavers, the town anarchist. I see Mavers as a better-spoken Gabby Johnson. But he happens to have a shotgun, and he never locks his door.

To add to all this mess, there’s also Catherine Tarrant, Captain Wilton’s former lover. Rutledge learns that she fell in love with a German soldier who later died of influenza, and because this takes place right after World War I, it’s not cool to love a German. She is ostracized from the town’s society. Maybe she was jealous of Captain Wilton’s new love, and maybe she mistook Harris for Wilton?

But then, Rutledge learns that Harris had fallen in love with his ward, Lettice (who I want to be very clear – there is no familial relation between the two of them, Lettice isn’t like a cousin or anything). Maybe Wilton did kill Harris out of jealousy?

Here’s like, the one note I wrote down (after the character descriptions):

Rutledge is sent to Upper Streetham to find out who killed Col. Harris. Everyone suspects Captain Wilton, but everyone hopes it was some scapegoat, like Hickam or Mavers. No one will tell him anything, and he needs his intelligence to suss out the killer. Turns out it was … I don’t know, let’s say Moe.

I wasn’t really taken with the story. Maybe it’s due to the very Britishness of it all, but there didn’t seem to be any strong emotional stakes with the investigation. Rutledge was very diligent, and there’d be the occasional moment where he’d be hearing Hamish and responding to Hamish as if he were really there, but the moment passes, he shakes himself off and he goes back to work. I wasn’t kidding when I wrote “I don’t know, let’s say Moe” did the murder – I can’t remember who actually did it.  I have no idea if the rest of the series is going to be like this (and Goodreads claims that there are at least twenty more books oh god). I might try the next one and see if I like it any better, but if I don’t? I may quit this.

A couple of quotes, then I’m done. This one is Rutledge’s perspective on Mavers (remember, the town anarchist), but it almost sounds like it could be used in a New York Times article about the “forgotten man” (although I’m not sure why they’d crib from a mystery novel, they pretty much just take talking points issued by the White House and refuse to do any real investigative reporting anymore anyway, the spineless asshats):

He’d met men like Mavers before. Hungry for something they didn’t have, and ignorant of how to go about getting it, hating those who had had life given to them easily. Lost men, angry men, dangerous men … because they had no pride of their own to bolster their self-esteem. [p. 90-91]

SERIOUSLY, just shoot Mavers over to Iowa, and NYT reporters will be shitting themselves to get a quote about why they voted for the orangutan who learned how to talk the best words.

(I’m sorry; that’s incredibly disrespectful. I took that a little too far.

I’d like to apologize to the noble race of orangutans for my impulsive words. I did not mean to compare your intelligence to that of … that. You have my utmost respect, orangutans.)

The final quote is from Catherine Tarrant, talking about why she signs her painting “C. Tarrant”:

“Yes, I know, no one expects me when the artist is introduced. Everyone thinks C. Tarrant must be a man. Or one of those masculine women who wear trousers everywhere and smoke strong Russian cigarettes. I’ve considered wearing a patch over one eye and walking about with a trained ocelot on a leash.” [p. 130]

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Well, at least I got to make a reference to the greatest ocelot of all time; that’s worth half a star.

Grade for A Test of Wills: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

Tea RoseAs 2017 continued onward in its quick, Tower-of-Terror-esque descent into madness, I found myself turning more and more often to escapism. I stopped watching TV, for the most part, unless it was The Great British Bake Off or Bob’s Burgers for the umpteenth time. There is so much prestige TV drama I feel I should watch (American Crime Story: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, House of Cards*, any number of BBC historical dramas, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc., etc., etc. – to the point where I almost need to do a TV Alaina’s Never Seen, but I can’t even get through Project X), but I kept sinking in to things that made me feel good.

*Remember, I read this book in August, pre-The Reckoning. I’m sure as shit not starting it now. I’m gonna wait for the last season to come out and y’all else can watch it and let me know if it’s worth getting through the Spacey years to see General Antiope kick ass, but if the fifth season’s not going to live up to my expectations, it can fuck right off.

Here’s how bad the state of the nation is when it comes to Alaina’s Entertainment Habits (please note, this is a very low factor in deciding the overall state of our nation, which is, to put bluntly, fucked): I started to rewatch 30 Rock, but I have fallen out of love with Jack Donaghy, because now when I see Alec Baldwin all I can think of is this –

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and it makes me sad. And a little nauseated.

SPEAKING OF SAD AND NAUSEATED, I was watching Two Weeks’ Notice (do NOT fucking tell me the title of the movie doesn’t have an apostrophe, IT NEEDS TO BE THERE) and enjoying the fuck out of it like normal – I love Sandra Bullock, and Hugh Grant is a fucking delight – and everything’s going well, Sandy’s given her titular notice and Hugh is being so fucking charming, and they’re at the ball and then –

the fucking asshole president is at the buffet.

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Hand to god, I pulled the blanket I was huddled underneath over my head and sang “LA LA LA LA LA” over and over again until the scene was done.

That motherfucker ruins everything he touches. He’s like Midas – fuckin’ wishes he was Midas – but with shit.

CLEARLY, I have not stopped with being emotional. But when it came to reading, I was turning away (for the most part) from mysteries and legal thrillers. I didn’t want to read about terrible things when the world was so terrible. Yes, Silent in the Grave was a mystery, but the characters had a lightness to them that their world wasn’t awful, like it would have been if I had gone with the next Rizzoli and Isles book, or the next Sara Paretsky, or … or whatever.

(Note from the Future: I will also experience this with the new Fall television season, where my favorite shows are The Good Place and … the Dynasty reboot. THE DYNASTY REBOOT, YOU GUYS, IT’S –

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IT’S FUCKING CRAZYPANTS AND I LOVE IT)

Also crazypants? The Tea Rose.

I thought The Tea Rose was going to be a high English melodramatic historical fiction. I was right, and yet so delightfully wrong at the same time.

If you want the Dynasty reboot in book form, then my dears, The Tea Rose is the book for you.

The Tea Rose begins in Whitechapel, London, 1888. Fiona Finnegan is a maid of seventeen years, working at Burton Tea as a tea packer. That is not a euphemism. Her father, Paddy, is a dockworker at Burton’s; her mother, Kate, a laundress; and she has an older brother named Charlie, a younger brother named Seamie, and a baby sister. The Finnegans live modestly, with a tenant in the form of Roddy O’Meara, a bobbie with the London Police Force. They are a very happy family.

Fiona is being courted by Joe Bristow, a “coster” in the market who grew up down the street from the Finnegans. A “coster” is the dude who stands next to the fruit and veg cart in a farmer’s market promoting the merchandise. Fiona and Joe are truly in love, and they become engaged. Fiona is a bit jealous of Millie Peterson, the fancy daughter of a wealthy grocer conglomerate; Millie is a terrible flirt, and Millie feels that she can steal Joe out from under Fiona’s nose.

Paddy is involved in starting a union down at the docks. But Burton doesn’t like the idea of a union, and decides to kill the union leader to kill the unionization talks. THAT SHIT REALLY HAPPENED, NOT JUST IN MELODRAMATIC NOVELS, BY THE WAY. Anyway, Paddy gets pushed off an I-beam and dies in the hospital, surrounded by his family.

The remaining Finnegans now struggle to get by. Joe accepts Millie’s dad’s job offer and takes a new job in the City. When he attends the Guy Fawkes party, Millie gets him drunk and date-rapes him. When Millie tells Joe that she’s pregnant (!), he sadly breaks things off with Fiona because it’s only right and proper to marry Millie and be a father to the baby.

And then the Finnegans have to take a lower-rent room. They move deeper into Whitechapel, and Kate and the baby become sick.

Fiona’s out somewhere – I think she tried to be a barmaid during this time, to earn more money – and Kate hears a ruckus in the hall of the apartment complex. She goes out to investigate, and –

Oh, y’all know that the Jack the Ripper killings are also known as the Whitechapel Murders, right?

So Kate gets murdered by Jack the Ripper –  not because she was a “lightskirt,” but because she was a witness. Fiona’s baby sister dies soon after from malnutrition and illness. Big brother Charlie, overcome with grief, goes to fight in a boxing match to earn money; a few days later his body washes up the shores of the Thames.

It’s now just Fiona and Seamie. She moves into Roddy O’Meara’s flat for a bit. Then she gets it into her head that Burton’s owes her family a settlement for Paddy’s accidental death. She marches herself over to Burton’s and manages to get into the office, where she overhears Burton himself talking his underling, Bowler Sheehan, about how easy it was to murder that union upstart Finnegan. Fiona hides near a conveniently open safe, and when Burton and Sheehan walk into the room, Fiona accuses them of murder and then runs out.  It’s not until she escapes back to Roddy’s flat that she realizes she had a stash of £500 in her fist.

She remembers that Paddy’s brother, Michael, runs a grocery in New York City. Plan in place, she wakes up Seamie, packs up their meager belongings, leaves a vague note for Roddy, and then she and Seamie board a train for Southampton.

Guys – that’s like, only the first third of the book. We haven’t even hit peak crazypants yet.

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I know.

So in Southampton, Fiona attempts to book steerage passage to New York for her and Seamie, but the boat’s full up for two weeks. She befriends a very nice young man named Nicholas Soames, who had booked first class passage for two for himself. He offers Fiona and Seamie room in his rooms, and offers to pretend to be her husband so no one would think twice. Fiona accepts, desperate to get to New York.

The good news is that Nicholas is actually as nice as he sounds. He’s a gay man, escaping from his terrible father who disowned him. He’s also mourning the death of his lover, Henri. He’s moving to New York to open an art gallery (Henri was an artist), and he grows to platonically love Fiona and she him. He’s a genuinely nice guy, you guys! It’s so rare but also very sweet!

[This is probably where you guys are going, “Hey, Alaina, how are you able to remember Nick’s lover’s name? Haven’t you spent the last few book reviews going ‘Man, I suck for not taking notes, this blows, sorry ‘bout this shitty review’?” YOU GUYS – I TOOK NOTES FOR THIS ONE

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I win.]

Fiona et. al. get through customs and Fiona finds her cousin Michael.

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Michael is mourning the loss of his wife through the classic coping mechanism of “drinking all of his problems away and not doing a great job of it.” His grocery has been foreclosed upon, his baby daughter is in the care of the upstairs neighbor, and he spends nearly every waking moment at the pub. It’s … it’s not a great look. Fiona takes her anger out on Michael’s flat, cleaning it from top to bottom and basically making it habitable again. Then she marches over to the bank and asks for a loan to reopen the grocery. She has great ideas, namely coupons and advertisements, but the bank manager thinks her ideas are stupid because they’re coming from a female mouth, and he dismisses her.

But! A millionaire entrepreneur and subway constructor (as in the first subway system, not like a Subway™ franchisee) William McClane overhears Fiona’s great ideas, and when she leaves the bank manager’s office, he goes in, tells the bank to give her the loan, and then goes out and give Fiona the good news.

[My headcanon (because I did not write down that part of the book) is that McClane goes into the office and, like Goldfinger in Goldfinger after Oddjob hat-slices the head off the statute, says something like “I own the bank.”

My headcanon continues that William McClane is like, the great-great-grandfather of John McClane, and John’s dad probably ruined the company and lost all sorts of money which is why his son becomes a cop.]

The grocery store is open and it’s a big hit. I think McClane put an advertisement in the local paper, unbeknownst to Fiona? He did something, and he also shows up after opening night and takes her out on a date. They begin to court, and it’s cute, but Fiona realizes she still isn’t over Joe.

Oh, what’s going on with Joe? Because like a true soap opera, there are multiple plots. Joe never falls in love with Millie. And when he learns that Fiona has disappeared, he tries to figure out where she went, with the help of Roddy O’Meara. When Millie finds out, she gets super jealous, and her anger causes the baby to be born stillborn. I know. When the baby dies, Millie’s father forces Joe to divorce Millie and fires him from the Peterson’s grocery business.

Back to Fiona. She decides that, in an attempt to expand her business, she’s going to develop a tea to sell. She could recognize strains of tea from her days packing it at Burton’s (not a euphemism), and she finds a special tea blender and starts her own proprietary brand, which she calls TasTea.

Let me take a second here and get something off my chest. I fucking hate that name. There is no reason to have that second T capitalized. It looks like shit. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

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Having ranted, I am unable to come up with a better name, I just hate it.

Moving on. TasTea becomes a hit, and she expands her brand, adding new scents and flavors to the line. The tea becomes such a hit, she returns the grocery to (now sober) Michael’s responsibility and sets off to open a series of tea rooms. She purchases a beautiful, old yet rundown building and convinces the owner to sell the property to her, and she begins to fix it up to turn it into the first tea room, named The Tea Rose. Also, there’s room for an art gallery on the second floor, because she and Nicholas are still very good friends.

Meanwhile, she and William McClane have grown very close, and William proposes marriage. She accepts, even though a part of her is still in love with Joe. (Fiona also doesn’t know about Millie’s baby or Joe’s divorce.) William also expects that, once they’re married, she’ll find someone else to run her tea empire so she can move upstate with him and be a quiet married lady with no aspirations. That whole thing makes Fiona choke, but she doesn’t come right out and laugh in his face.

Because William’s son, Will Jr., is about to pull some shenanigans! (Oh, right, William McClane is a widower with a couple of adult children. He’s a lot older than Fiona, but it doesn’t really read.) Will Jr. has Congressional aspirations, and he’s worried what will happen to his career if his dad marries again and this time, to the merchant class. And yes, when I picture Will Jr., I see Paul Ryan at his utmost smarmiest. I hate my head sometimes.

So Will Jr. orchestrates a scandal – he learns that Nicholas sometimes goes to what we would today call gay bars, and organizes a raid, only to see Nicholas arrested. Fiona learns of Nicholas’s arrest, and at his hearing, pretends to be his fiancée so he’ll be cleared of the homosexuality charge. The judge, who is also Will Jr.’s best friend says, “okay, Nick can go, but you have to come back tomorrow and I’ll marry the two of you in my courtroom. If you don’t, I’ll know you’re lying and also that he’s gay, so you’ll both go to jail. Different jails.”

Nick protests, but doesn’t say that’s the stupidest thing a judge has ever done in a courtroom, but only because he didn’t have time to look up the entire history of the court system. Fiona agrees, because how else is she going to save her best friend? This solves everyone’s problems: Will Jr. can now successfully run for Congress because obviously Will Sr. can’t be a bigamist, Nick is safe, and Fiona can continue to grow her empire, unimpeded by a stupid man.

Nick does offer the marriage to be in name only, so Fiona might be able to find someone to love her physically. Fiona won’t hear of it, so they settle into a perfectly platonic marriage.

Meanwhile, what about Joe?? Joe took a small loan from his parents and started a door-to-door vegetable delivery service, so cooks and servants don’t have to spend an entire day to go to the market and stock up on produce that will go bad quickly. His business takes off, and over the years, he has turned it into a very successful high-end grocery store chain – like Whole Foods, but less snobby.

Years pass.

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Fiona’s business has also grown, and she’s responsible for numerous offshoots of **uuggghhh** TasTea. She’s also been investing a good amount of her profits into Burton’s Tea stock shares, in the hopes of becoming majority shareholder and then shutting Burton’s down as revenge for herself and her family.

Nicholas has been … okay. Because I probably didn’t mention it before, he is a gay man. And this is the 1890s. And while HIV/AIDS wasn’t a thing back then, syphilis sure was. In what is undoubtedly the saddest but also one of the loveliest moments in the entire novel (yes, I … I may have teared up, I’M NOT MAD AT ME), Nicholas dies.

Fiona goes over Nicholas’s will to discover … Nick was in line to a dukedom. Or would have been, if his father hadn’t disowned him. But also, Nick owned 30% of Burton Tea’s remaining shares! Which puts her over the majority!

(There’s a minor subplot about how Burton’s was beginning to fail and so in an effort to raise cash, Burton sold a portion of his personal shares to Nick’s Dad, who hid it in an account under Nick’s name… and now they’re the property of Fiona and they can’t get it back neener neener neener, but Nick’s Dad sues Fiona anyway oh this will be bad)

Fiona takes the next boat to London to force Nick’s Dad to drop his suit. With Roddy’s help, Nick’s Dad allows Fiona to retain the shares. (No, I didn’t write down what happened, it’s like the one thing I didn’t write down, leave me alone, read the book to find out).

Fiona marches over to Burton Tea, where there’s a shareholder’s meeting going on. Perfect timing, Fiona! She reveals herself as the majority shareholder and new owner of Burton’s. Burton goes mad and attacks her with a penknife. Roddy and Fiona’s lawyer attempts to catch him, but he runs away.

Fiona heals after a spell in hospital, moves into a house in London and one day, goes to visit the family cemetery. On her way back, she walks to the Thames and starts skipping stones, like she used to when she was a carefree girl in love with Joe. BUT JOE’S ALSO THERE! They meet again for the first time in over ten years, and they learn that Joe’s not married to Millie, and Fiona’s no longer married to Nicholas, and they immediately reconnect and admit that they love each other still, and become engaged again.

And the book still isn’t over! But it almost is, so I’m going to leave the finale to your reading pleasure.

The book is long. Goodreads says it’s almost 700 pages. So, 3,000-word long review aside, I know I left some stuff out. But I wouldn’t be a good reviewer (I mean, I’m not anyway, but you know what I mean) if I didn’t point out a couple of places that stood out to me.

There’s a point in the beginning of the book (heh, beginning, this thing I’m going to quote occurred on p. 106) where Joe is living in the City and Fiona hasn’t left London yet, but they’re separated, and this happens:

[Joe] rose from his chair, stoked the coals, and walked to the loo to wash up. He had to get some sleep. As he dried his face, he looked out of the bathroom window. The London sky was remarkably clear. Stars shown against the black night. He stared at one twinkling brightly. Did the same star shine down on her? he wondered. Was she maybe looking at it out of her window and thinking of him? He told the star he loved her, he told it to watch over her and keep her safe.  [p. 106]

Whoops, I mean this happens. (Sorry not sorry about the earworm, folks)

And then there’s this:

Nick had been stuffing himself with steamed mussels, sopping up their garlicky broth with hunks of crusty bread. [p. 188]

Dear god, do I love steamed mussels. I was reading this paragraph while on the bike at the gym, and I almost cried because all I could taste in my mouth were those little, garlic, winey morsels and I still had like twenty minutes to go and nowhere to get those mussels.

Now, Nick is eating those mussels in Paris, and just above that line, the narrator mentions Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and for about a second I thought that Nick’s Henri was actually Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and I stopped pedaling the bike and did this:

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This book has everything: tea, Jack the Ripper, syphilis, and high melodrama. It’s great to take your mind off the shitshow that’s currently playing on our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

And guess what? It’s a trilogy.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock

Grade for The Tea Rose: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “The Queen’s Poisoner” by Jeff Wheeler

Queen's poisonerI picked this up because I thought it would be similar to The Queen of the Tearling. I was wrong.

The Queen’s Poisoner is a young adult novel, and it takes place in a setting that isn’t exactly dystopian, but certainly not modern society or a utopia. This book deals with royalty as well, but from a different perspective. But most importantly, the protagonist in this story is an 8-year-old boy.

The kingdom is Ceredigion, and its ruler is King Severn. The parents of Owen Kiskaddon are like, duke and duchess? of a province in the northern part of Ceredigion. There’s a war going on, and Owen’s father betrayed King Severn in the Battle for Ambion Hill. As punishment as a form of control, King Severn conscripts Owen into his custody, and brings him back to the royal stronghold of Kingfountain.

Owen is a terribly shy child, and Severn relishes in the fact that he frightens the boy. All the palace’s children eat breakfast at the same time, and Severn would walk around the tables while the children ate, scaring them but also making sure that none of the food was poisoned. (We find out later that Severn has magic, and his power comes from feeding off of fear of others. Breakfast scare time is like, recharging his battery for the day.)

King Severn is also drawn very much as a Richard III figure. I believe he has a bit of a hunchback, and there are rumors that he murdered or sent away his two younger brothers.

Owen’s favorite place to hide is the kitchen. He makes friends with the cook and a couple of other servants. He also finds a bag of “tiles”, which I feel are akin to dominoes. He will spend hours stacking and unstacking the tiles – he uses the motion to help himself think.

One day, Duke Horwath brings his granddaughter to Kingfountan in the hopes that she’ll befriend Owen. His granddaughter, Elysabeth Victoria Mortimer – and yes, you have to call her by her entire name – is quite the chatterbox. Owen doesn’t quite know what to make of her, and basically hopes that she’ll leave him alone if he doesn’t talk. But nope – that just makes her talk more. Eventually, they do become friendly, and Owen is able to bestow upon her the nickname of Evie.

The other person that Owen meets is the mysterious Ankarette. She lives in the tower of the castle, but doesn’t leave. She goes to him in the kitchen one day and befriends him, and teaches Owen how to play Wizr (which I think sounds a lot like chess). She knows Owen is scared of King Severn, and she teaches him confidence and also about some of his abilities. Ankarette also held the position of Queen’s Poisoner; hence the title.

Because Owen is what they call “Fountain-Blessed” – he can have prophetic dreams, or he can see things in water that other people can’t… it’s a power. But Ankarette will take the gossip she hears in the castle and feeds it to Owen in the form of a story that she tells Owen to tell Severn at breakfast the next day. And it’s usually masked in the form of a weird dream – the wolf fell over a waterfall, and when he survived, a fish was in its mouth. But that actually meant to Severn that one of his armies was close to … who knows, I can’t remember. But you get the gist.

Meanwhile, Dickon Ratcliffe is keeping an eye on Owen. Dickon is the head of the Espion, which is King Severn’s band of spies. It turns out he’s actually a traitor to King Severn – oh, shit, spoiler alert. But he’s a bad dude.

Owen and Evie go on a few adventures – jumping into the castle cistern to cool off on a hot day, sneaking through secret passageways – all sorts of shenanigans. After Severn is able to find out Ratcliff is a traitor via Owen’s “dreams”, he rewards Owen by passing the dukedom from Owen’s parents directly to Owen, making Owen duke immediately.

This was … it was weird, to me. There were a number of moments where I wasn’t sure Owen was acting appropriate for his stated age. Meaning, he’d do something that an older kid would do, but then revert right back to a different way of speaking or not speaking at all and cowering behind someone. Now, I’m not near children routinely, and I certainly couldn’t speak to how an eight-year-old is supposed to act (if there’s even such a thing). But … I don’t know, I noticed it and thought it wasn’t consistent.

I also thought Evie was too headstrong for a nine-year-ish-old, but again, I don’t know kids.

King Severn’s heel-face turn also seemed very abrupt. We went through the majority of the novel thinking Severn’s evil, and it turns out he was just misunderstood or projecting evil as a way to shore up his power.

So there you have it. This is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently each book in the series is supposed to see Owen at a different age with a different set of problems. Unlike other YA series I’ve read, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing obstacle that Owen et. al. needs to overcome, so that might be interesting. If I decide to read the next book, that is.

Grade for The Queen’s Poisoner: 2 stars