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

Advertisements

Fiction: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

queen of tearlingThis is an instance where the library actually came through. They have a table that displays new and notable titles, and The Invasion of the Tearling was on that table back in late April, early May. I picked up the book and learned almost instantly that the book in my hand was the second in a trilogy. I marched over to the Fiction shelves, already cursing the library’s inability to purchase the first book in a series, when, lo and behold, the first title, The Queen of the Tearling, was sitting on the shelf.

Reader, I grabbed it.

Note From the Future: Now, before you grab it, I should warn y’all: while I don’t think this review would be subject to any trigger warnings, this book would be. There are scenes involving sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent, and scenes where rape is discussed. Violence is rampant as well. Even though I liked it, the book could trigger people, so I want y’all to know that up front.

The titular Queen of the Tearling is Kelsea Raleigh. The Tear is a ravaged country, operating centuries after something called The Crossing, where people crossed an ocean to found a better world. (Spoiler alert!: through clues in the text, we are to learn that the world Crossed from is our own! This is a book about the future!)

Since The Crossing, the rulers of the Tear have lived very short lives. I’m not sure what causes the short life expectancy (other than murder – none of the other rulers have died of old age); the Tear is supposed to be a utopia. But Queens don’t live very long. Kelsea’s mother, Queen Elyssa, sent Kelsea away to live with Barty and Carlin Glynn when Kelsea was very tiny, in the hopes of shielding Kelsea until she was of age to take the throne. Meanwhile, Elyssa’s brother, Thomas, was Prince Regent of the Tear, and he was pretty much an asshole. Can’t remember how Elyssa died, but it wasn’t pretty, I’m sure.

The story starts on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, when the Queen’s Guard arrives to bring Kelsea back to New London to ascend the throne. Kelsea is a plain girl, and headstrong, but she frets about being a good leader.

I can’t remember the full series of events that gets Kelsea to New London, but on her camping trip (essentially), she runs into a mysterious Robin Hood-type figure known as The Fetch. The Fetch was familiar with Kelsea’s mother, and says something that a) gives Kelsea faith in her confidence and learning, and also b) gives Kelsea a bit of a crush on The Fetch.

Kelsea had a bit of idolatry when it came to her mother, growing up. She wanted to be a good Queen, like Elyssa. But Kelsea quickly learns that Elyssa was not a great Queen.

During Elyssa’s reign, the neighboring country of Mortmesne, led by the Red Queen, attacks the Tear. And Elyssa’s only chance of survival for the Tear is to agree to a monthly shipment: a number of the Tear population to be sent to Mortmesne, where they will be used as slave labor and, in many cases, worse than slave labor. In Elyssa’s absence, Regent Thomas continued the Shipment, because it means there’s no war and he’s able to remain secluded in The Keep, surrounded by concubines.

When Kelsea arrives at New London, (I believe) she arrives on the same day as The Shipment is scheduled to leave. She stops the Shipment, against the advice of her Guard and other advisors – even when they tell her that a late shipment is cause for invasion from the Mort. She doesn’t care, because she can’t believe her mother would have done something like trade her people for safety.

The story alternates between Kelsea, the Red Queen wondering where Kelsea is, and a couple of other characters. There’s a subplot about the religious aspect of the Tear, a hyped-up form of ultra-conservative Catholicism known as The Arvath, and there are Fathers and a Pope-like figure, and Kelsea doesn’t truck with religion but she kinda has to as, y’know, Queen, so … Father Tyler and the Arvath play a slightly larger part in the second book (which I just finished reading, after Christmas, so … keep an eye out for that review in seven months?).

I had to read the Goodreads reviews (again, my notes are … not great. If I’m going to commit to being bad at this, I have to at least commit to taking better notes and not just jotting down character names and quotes) and … I forgot a lot about this book before reading the second one. I also apparently didn’t get the same feeling from a lot of the reviews, which haaaaated this book. I don’t know, I thought it was okay? People got really pissed that it was touted as a Hunger Games-meets-Game of Thrones and no, it’s not, but I still thought it was interesting.

Other reviews state that since the book is told through third person omniscience that we only see Kelsea reacting to things and not actually experiencing them, but other reviews complain that we see Kelsea thinking about things she’s about to react to first, and, to that I say, make up your mind? Either a character reacts with no thought process so we, the reader, have no idea what led the character to that reaction, or we see each thought racing through a character’s mind leading up to that reaction, which makes the reaction almost an afterthought or some other type of nonentity. You can’t have it both ways, readers! Pick one complaint and stick with it!

Oh shit, I never mentioned the sapphires! So Kelsea begins the story with one sapphire, the Tear Sapphire. I think it may have been one of those things that signify the person’s truly of regal birth? I don’t know. But Kelsea wears one and when she has it on it tries to protect her from shit. Like, it’ll burn when she gets pissed or something. She gets another one from somewhere – maybe the Fetch? – and when she puts the two on together (the jewels are on necklaces) she has super powerful magic. Like, “lay waste to an entire army outpost” powerful. (Oh shit, spoiler alert.)

The Red Queen is an awful person. She uses slaves for everything, including sex. She also talks with a demon or something in a fireplace, and in order to gain power she bleeds children dry. She’s kind of a monster. But she’s obsessed with Kelsea and getting the sapphires, so – next book?

Now, for all of the complaining people did on the interwebs about how stupid Kelsea is, I thought this was pretty smart, to be honest. She’s in the Keep, and getting ready for her bath with her lady’s maid, Andalie, nearby:

Andalie stood in her accustomed spot at the door of Kelsea’s chamber, holding out a clean towel. Kelsea had made it clear that she didn’t require help with her bath (her mind boggled at the sort of woman who would), but still, Andalie always seemed to know when to have things ready. [p. 255-256]

Halfway through her bath, Kelsea is attacked by an assassin. (This act brought a whole bunch of grousing from the Interwebs, wondering where the Queen’s Guard was at that point? They’d secured the area, dude!) And this happens:

“Lady?” It was Andalie. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kelsea replied easily, steeling herself to feel the knife go in. “I’ll ring when it’s time to wash my hair.” [p. 259]

See? That’s … you gotta admit, that’s pretty smart. Kelsea knows that Andalie knows that Kelsea doesn’t need to have any help with her bath, but the assassin doesn’t know that. So that was a signal! I’m sorry I’m Alaina-splaining this, but I thought that was pretty smart for a nineteen-year-old.

And I thought Andalie was a very wise character. She also has a bit of the Sight, but it’s not overused. I really liked this conversation, where Andalie asks Kelsea about her crush on The Fetch:

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

“Not no one.” Andalie grabbed a hang of hair over Kelsea’s left ear and sheared straight through it. “He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”

“So?”

“Did you choose to feel this way for this man?”

“No,” Kelsea admitted.

“One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

“We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.” [p. 352]

It’s like Andalie can look right into my teenaged soul from fifteen years ago! *quickly does math* oh god, twenty years ago. oh my god.

ANYWAY. At the end of the day (or May, when I finished reading this), I did like the book. I liked it enough to read the second book in the series within the same year. I liked it enough to recommend it to a friend for a Christmas present. It’s not quite a YA novel; there are some themes throughout the novel that are pretty violent and icky, and honestly, I’m going to go up to the top of this review and add a trigger warning for the novel, because that should go at the top and not the bottom. It is not as intimate as the Hunger Games trilogy, and while I’ve only read 200 pages of A Game of Thrones, I don’t think it comes close to that epic, either. But I liked it, and I hadn’t read YA in a while.

So, your mileage may vary, but I thought it was good.

Grade for The Queen of the Tearling: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch

locke lamoraBefore I get into the meat of this, AN UPDATE on: THE FRIEND’S CAR

You may not be aware, what with the terror incidents, the indictments, and all the other shit circulating in the news right now, but Sunday night, Maine was hit by a particularly hard windstorm. Gusts over 60 mph, driving rain, and from the southeast direction. Generally speaking, when Maine gets hit with storms, they come from the northeast. (A “nor’easter,” if you will.) But with this one coming from the southeast, it hit trees at particularly weak spots, and … yeah. It was gross.

My house lost power early Monday morning. I’m writing this paragraph just before 8 p.m. on Tuesday night, and I’ve been told I shouldn’t expect power before Thursday. (Thank goodness for generators.) We’ve got an actual state of emergency up in here, so … things are rough.

[NOTE FROM THE FUTURE: I’m posting this entry after 10 p.m. on Friday, November 3. We just got power back a little after 7 p.m. We were without power for nearly five full days. I have done so much reading this week – I also have two reviews stored up to post, so, silver lining, I guess.]

So anyway, on Tuesday, I returned my friend’s call tonight to see how he’s doing, and …. he tells me, that on Sunday night, during the wind storm from hell –

a tree fell on his new car. right through the moonroof.

ironic smirk.gif

Like, I can’t even, you guys. I can’t with this. I just. I am laughing so hard at this, again, some more, five days later. I mean, karma, you guys – CARMA.

I guess the only good news is that this car can’t be abandoned in a parking garage, because he’s payments on it? I just — *sigh* it’s too good. It’s hilarious.

Needless to say, however, I won’t be covering his still-abandoned vehicle with Jerry Maguire VHS tapes anymore. That would be beyond the pale; I’d practically be pouring salt into the wound at that rate.

Okay. So that’s the update. Thank you for indulging me in my “horrible person” persona. And now, a poorly-written review.

When I get bored with the endless circle of Facebook, Twitter, and now, the Washington Post, I’ll check out Buzzfeed. Up until what feels like very recent times, Buzzfeed would occasionally post book recommendations. (Unlike last week, where an actual post is titled “Pick Six ‘90s Foods, Then We’ll Correctly Guess Your Age.” I picked Toaster Strudel, Dunkaroos, Handi-Snacks, Capri Sun, Flintstone’s Push-Up Pop, and Lunchables. Buzzfeed thought I was 22 to 25. I am 34.)

Back in 2015, Buzzfeed posted a list of the 51 Best Fantasy Series Ever Written. I’ve ventured into the fantasy genre on occasion, but never more than a title here or there. I’ve wanted to read more fantasy lately, and so I browsed the Buzzfeed list, and came across the description for the “Gentlemen Bastard Sequence” by Scott Lynch:

Thieves, pirates, and a beautifully planned series of heists that are a delight to watch unfold. This series is not without its share of heartbreak and loss, but the tribulations of its protagonists are tempered with a joyful sense of mischief, cunning, and a fair amount of swashbuckling. Oceans 11 meets Pirates of the Caribbean meets Robin Hood.

DUDES. That is right up my alley! Ocean’s Eleven? Pirates? HEISTS?! I love all of those things! On one of my lunchtime trips to Barnes and Noble, I found a copy, purchased it, and forgot about it – until January, when I needed to read something on the plane from Boston to Vegas and back. The book is over 700 pages long, and I thought it would keep me occupied.

I slept through all the flights. I read maybe sixty pages? It was weird – it was one of those books that felt like it took forever for action and plot to start, but I’d think it was “starting too slow” and look at the page number and found I was on page 145 or something. If I can make it past page 50 I’m in it for the long haul.

So what’s The Lies of Locke Lamora about? Uuhhhh….

Look, I’m sorry: this is a dense book, and there’s no way I’m going to do it proper justice. I read it almost ten months ago. I can give you what details I can remember, but please know I’m not being very good at it. What I can tell you is that if you like fantasy novels (or, really, epic novels) and sarcastic thieves with hearts of gold (or at least plated with it), chances are you’re going to like this book.

The story takes place on the island city of Camorr, which is made up of the thievery class and the rich upper class. There are sects in the thieves as well. When Locke is a little boy, he is sold to Father Chains of the Gentlemen Bastards, and taught to be a thief along with the Sanza twins, Calo and Galdo, and Jean, a young ruffian and excellent fighter. The Gentlemen Bastards grow up to be great Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich through crazy schemes (like, counterfeiting whisky from another island, and then asking for investment money).

Meanwhile, there’s a character known as the Grey King, who has been killing the capos of the thief gangs in Camorr in an attempt to consolidate power. (He is not actually a king.) And the Grey King ensnares Locke into his plot: Locke must pretend to be the Grey King and have a conversation with Locke’s good friend (and boss, of sorts), Capo Basarvi. Well, that plan goes tits-up pretty much immediately, and Basarvi and his family are murdered by the Grey King’s army, and Locke only just manages to escape with his life.

The rest of the book is Locke and Jean going for revenge on the Grey King. They succeed (spoiler alert? I mean, there are more books in the series, guys), but not without losses.

The book also jumps back and forth between present-day and the past, showing us how Locke came to be in the employ of Father Chains and the Gentlemen Bastards, some of their earlier escapades, and other tales.

Locke is a very sarcastic and witty character (after my own heart), but he uses his sarcasm to mask his emotions and seem detached. It allows him to do terrible things when necessary. But always for the good of the Gentlemen Bastards.

It was an interesting story – very dense, and not a lot of magic. There is someone called a Bondsmage, who is able to illusion people to do his bidding – or, actually, the bidding of the Gray King, who is the Bondsmage’s boss. But there aren’t wizards or other races (like Orcs or elves) to deal with – all the characters are human.

I wish I could remember more about the plot (or at least, had internet right now so I could look up the Wikipedia entry), but at the same time …

My Dear Friend Sarah and I had a discussion last year, driving back from New York late at night. I can’t remember how we got onto the topic – I think we started talking about Breaking Bad again and then spoilers – and what came out of that discussion was that she and I read books (and watch TV) differently than I do.

She views authors as telling us a story. And she puts her faith in letting the author develop that story enough to draw her interest. In relation to Breaking Bad, she couldn’t really get over that she was not interested in the story at all. Whereas I let my curiosity take hold and that was what propelled me through the series: I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted to see how the story got there.

When Sarah was growing up, she read primarily from the fantasy genre. Game of Thrones, the extended Star Wars universe, and others. Meanwhile, I was reading Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew, and eventually graduated to Kinsey Millhone and other mystery novels. She was reading books that took you on a journey; I was reading books that led to an answer or solution. And I think that’s why we came at Breaking Bad differently – she wanted a journey to enjoy, but I was looking for the solution.

Don’t get me wrong, I still don’t know how I feel about Breaking Bad, other than that I know I’m never going to rewatch it.

So I struggled reading The Lies Of Locke Lamora a bit – I’m not used to being taken on a journey like this. I think the modern parlance of the characters helped me enjoy it more than if I had been reading Tolkien or something. I’ll probably read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be any time soon.

Anyway. That’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’m sorry I did a shitty job reviewing it, but I’m going to try and get better.

Grade for The Lies of Locke Lamora: 2 stars

Fiction: “Egg & Spoon” by Gregory Maguire

If the theme song isn't stuck in your head, I don't know what you're even doing.

Erica (of NYC Bookworm) and I finished reading Egg & Spoon early last month, so at least I’m within the 30 day mark for being behind.

egg and spoon

Egg & Spoon is the story of Elena and Cat, two Russian girls from very different lives. Elena is the youngest daughter of a very poor family, whereas Cat (short for Katerina) is the daughter of very rich parents who leave her with her very old aunt, Sophie. Cat, Sophie, and the rest of her retinue are traveling to St. Petersburg to meet the prince when their train comes upon a broken bridge that needs repairing, just outside of Elena’s village. Elena, who had never seen a train before, goes to see the spectacle and meets Cat, and the two become … not friends, but they share things about each other and tell each other stories.

One of the stories comes from a book of Cat’s – one about Baba Yaga, the mythical witch. Elena has her own opinions of Baba Yaga, but Kat dismisses them. In return, Cat shows Elena a Fabergé Egg that she and her Aunt Sophie are going to present to the Prince.

Well, one day, they’re sitting in the train – Cat’s holding onto the Fabergé Egg, Elena’s holding Cat’s storybook – and then the train jumps to a start. Cat falls off the train, leaving Elena behind.

And here is where the two characters make the first of many defining decisions. Elena decides to remain on the train instead of running after her friend – because the train is going to St. Petersburg, and now she has the opportunity to ask the Tsar to release her brothers from military duties and return to their home in the village. But instead of identifying herself and her needs right away, she instead decides to take advantage of her physical similarity and pretends to be Kat on the rest of her journey.

Cat, meanwhile, decides to follow the train tracks to St. Petersburg so she can return the Fabergé Egg and reunite with her Aunt. Except that on the way there, she gets chased away from the tracks and ends up in a strange hut that walks on chicken legs with a talking cat and owned … by Baba Yaga.

Now, Baba Yaga is not, at first sight, a hideously scary creature as the fairy tales would have us believe. Erica’s vision of her as Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone is so on point, I can barely stand it. As I said in my tweet to her (which I will now paraphrase because it’s been so long, my tweets during the Tweetversation have disappeared into the ether, only to be discovered five years from now after I get tapped as the next host of The Daily Show), I knew I saw Baba Yaga as something like that in my head, but as soon she said that, it immediately clicked and that’s exactly how I pictured her; I just hadn’t found the right words.

I liked that the plot didn’t devolve into a rote Prince and the Pauper-esque routine. In fact, the way the characterization went, the reader was made to feel sympathy for Elena – think that she was going to be the protagonist, that we were going to root for her journey – but as the book progressed, Elena became less sympathetic: more sarcastic, sullen, and not quickly willing to revert to Elena as opposed to Cat. Whereas Cat quickly became very sympathetic – she worked with both Baba Yaga and the Prince in order to rescue Russia.

Because yes, Russia is dying – there’s a whole subplot about Baba Yaga, the Firebird, an Ice Dragon, and the Fabergé Egg. The Egg is decorated with the above-mentioned items, but halfway through the book the Firebird disappears from the Egg. So then Baba Yaga, the talking cat, Cat, Elena, and the Prince journey up to Siberia and find out that the Ice Dragon has been awake longer than he should be, because Russia’s seasons are determined by when the Ice Dragon sleeps and when the Ice Dragon is awake.

The novel is written in a very specific style – Mr. Maguire definitely holds to the tone of a typical fairy tale or myth story. There are mystical elements – namely, the Firebird – but overall, the story doesn’t descend into a typical supernatural story. I’m not sure whether to put this into a fantasy genre or the young adult genre, because it’s not really either. It was pretty good, however.

Ugh, I have got to get better at this! It’s been so long since I’ve read it that I can’t really compliment it the way that I want to. I’ve been fascinated by Russia since watching Anastasia (no, you shut up, this is my warped childhood, not yours!), and I really liked the descriptions of St. Petersburg and the Ice Dragon. I loved the conceit of making Baba Yaga an anachronistic, humorous version of what Mother Russia should be; I loved the talking cat. I liked the relationship between Cat and Prince Anton, and I liked how both of them wanted to subvert their traditional roles and pursue their own dreams.

Oh my god – I just now realized that if I had been better at this, I would have been able to make a whole analogy between Elena and Cat and Elena and Katherine from The Vampire Diaries. I mean, I haven’t watched that show in two years, but I’m sure I could have made something out of it.

Okay, I’ve now finished watching the fourth season of Bob’s Burgers, and Mad Men returns in a hour and a half, and I have ruined my chances of making deadline on That Thing I Keep Obliquely Mentioning, but rest assured, That Thing is what’s coming up next, and it will be a doozy.

Grade for Egg & Spoon: 3 stars

Fiction: “Redwall” by Brian Jacques

Okay, so I’m going to try and write this in-between my daily tasks at work, because dudes, this program we use?  Super-slow.  I hate it.  I can write entire paragraphs in the time it takes to look a customer up.  Also, the boss is out of the office.  I love when the boss is out of the office, because that means when I do decide to work, I can get all sorts of shit done (for the record, I started writing this at 8:30 a.m.  I’m writing this half of the sentence at 12:55 p.m.  In that span of time, I’ve written about a third of this entry and solved approximately seventeen problems.  I haven’t had lunch yet.  And now the phone’s ringing!).

(1:00 p.m.: Eighteen problems solved!)

If the theme song isn't stuck in your head, I don't know what you're even doing.

I was finally able to finish Redwall on Sunday, and last night Erica and I had our Tweetversation about it.  She liked it much more than I did, which is fine; and I’m not saying I hated the book, the length of time it took me to complete it notwithstanding.  At the end, I found that there was not enough suspense to propel me through the book as fast as I would have liked.

redwall

Redwall is a young-adult fantasy novel, and the first book in a very long series, first published in 1986.  The cast is made up of woodland creatures, ranging from mice and squirrels to stoats and sparrows.  They all live in the peaceful area known as Mossflower, and they live in Redwall Abbey.  Matthias is … for lack of a better term, the “Maria” of this Abbey – he’s a novice, but doesn’t quite fit in.  He has big dreams that don’t fit within the Abbey’s walls.

But then, Cluny the Scourge – a bilge rat with an eyepatch – and his horde of marauders come upon Redwall Abbey, and because they’re evil and pirates and just want to conquer everything (much like Alexander the Great, only more evil and less blond), they decide they are going to attack the Abbey.  Matthias goes against the Abbot mouse and wants to defend the Abbey, much like Martin the Warrior Mouse, the mouse that founded Redwall Abbey.

But Matthias needs the sword of Martin the Warrior in order to truly defend the Abbey!  So he sets off on a quest to find the lost sword of Martin, and along the way he makes friends with Basil Stag Hare, a jackrabbit that talks as fast as he runs; Warbeak, a Sparrow warrior princess; and Log-a-Log, the head of the Shrew Army.

Dear God, I am not making any of that up.

And look, the book is very well-written; I am not denying that.  My main point is that, for me, there was no suspense and there were no surprises.  I knew what was going to happen going into it (SPOILER ALERT: ANDY ESCAPES SHAWSHANK AT THE END OF THE MOVIE) and I’d never read any of it before:

– Young character goes on a quest of discovery: ostensibly to find [the MacGuffin; in this case, a missing sword of a warrior {a totem, if you will}], but ends up discovering his true character;
– He meets interesting people on his journey, who he must either band together with or outwit in order to continue on his quest;
– Meanwhile, the villain shows how he is surrounded by idiots and he has much hubris that we know is going to be his downfall;
– And in the end, the hero defeats the villain, there are a couple of casualties to make the victory bittersweet, but everyone (except for the dead ones) live happily ever after.

I just … I couldn’t get into it.  I read it because I vowed to Finish! Everything!, but if I hadn’t taken that vow and was reading it on my own, I would have put it down.  As I read, I kept wanting to put this on the Murtaugh List:

murtaugh

The Murtaugh List is a list that Ted Mosby makes on How I Met Your Mother, and it is a list of things he’s too old to do.  Some of the items on that list include: get his ear pierced; crash on a friend’s futon; and help a stranger move in exchange for pizza.  I am adding “reading a book involving anthropomorphized mice” to my Murtaugh List.

And again, that’s not a slight to the book.  And, hopefully, not a slight to my imagination.  The book is, again, wonderfully written – I’m just above its comprehension level.  While I don’t want to be too old to read about warrior mice, I couldn’t enjoy it like Alaina at 12 probably would have.  I kept going, “Are they walking on their hind legs or all fours?  Is the sword really that dangerous, or is it more like a splinter?  How do the animals all speak the same language?  Are all hedgehogs drunks, or just Ambrose Spike?  How do they get medals?  Who makes the medals? How did they build the Abbey, were there mouse slaves like in Egypt?”

That’s probably an exaggeration.  [1:57 p.m. – Three more problems solved, but the boss walked in.  Crap.]  I mean, it’s not that I don’t have imagination – I just couldn’t lose myself in this fantasy world where mice could talk.  And I feel like I might have been able to if there was any weight to the story.

[And here’s the part where my boss actually let everyone go home early because there’s a blizzard dumping quite possibly a literal fuckton of snow on the Northeast quadrant, so I hastily hit publish so I could get the fuck out of there, and now I’m finishing this at 9 p.m. and I still haven’t shoveled because it’s cold out there and have I mentioned the possibly-literal fuckton of snow?  I AM SO OVER WINTER I AM NOT EVEN KIDDING]

For me, the characters didn’t have nearly any depth.  And before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I don’t mean to say that the characters weren’t fully-formed within their universe; I just didn’t feel that there were any underlying stakes that propelled the characters forward outside of the needs of the story structure.  (Matthias as the hero needs overcome obstacles in order to fulfill his quest; enter Recapturing the Banner, Defeating the King Sparrow, and Working With the Shrews to Kill Asmodeous.  Or: Cluny the Scourge is the Villain; Therefore, He Must Kill Without Empathy or Discretion.)

Again, these feelings I have towards Redwall do not mean that I outright hate the book; far from it.  If I hated the book, you’d be hearing a whole different rant up in here.  What I’m trying to say is that, for the right reader, the story is going to be fantastic: full of swordfights and different animals working together towards a common cause; enough humor and pathos thrown in to keep the emotions balanced; and a struggle against pure evil.  I just know I didn’t get what I wanted from this book, and I feel it’s because I’ve grown past its age bracket.

That’s not a slight against Erica, who loved the book – she was able to let everything go and she jumped right into the story and fell in love with it.  That’s awesome – I’m very glad you enjoyed the book and want to continue reading the series!  I will not be joining you.  I’ll be at home, playing Donkey Kong 64 and reading about Hannibal on the internets.

(What?  It’s a snow day and HOLY CRAP TEN MORE SLEEPS UNTIL NEW HANNIBAL OH MY GOD)

Erica and I did agree, however, that for a book that focuses on a typical male struggle (hero vs. villain; hero on journey of self-discovery), many of the supporting characters are not only female, but contribute enough to the story that if they were not there, the hero would not have succeeded.  Jess the Squirrel, Constance the Badger, and Dunwing and Warbeak the Sparrows (I might be wrong on Warbeak’s mother’s name, but the book is in the other room and I’m saving my strength to go shovel so I’m not looking it up right now) were all very integral to Matthias succeeding in his quests and saving the Abbey.  It was refreshing to me to read a young adult novel that had a male protagonist, strong female supporting characters, and no love triangle.

HOWEVER.  This brings me to the final point I want to make.  Throughout the book, Matthias has flirted with another mouse, Cornflower.  At the end of the book, after Matthias has defeated Cluny the Scourge and has been named the hero of the piece, the Abbot pretty much gives Cornflower to Matthias as his bride.  And actually, I am going to go get the book for this, because I feel people won’t believe me unless I quote it:

“Now, Cornflower.  Where is little Cornflower?”

The young fieldmouse came.  She stood by the Abbot waiting upon his word.

“There you are, dear Cornflower,” the Abbot smiled.  “A warrior needs a good wife.  You are the beauty that will grace Redwall and rule the heart of our Matthias.  The old gatehouse will be extended into a proper home.  It belongs to you both.  Guard our threshold wisely and well.” [348-349]

WHAT THE HELL.  I almost wish Cornflower had pulled a Princess Jasmine and stormed out yelling I AM NOT SOME PRIZE TO BE WON, but I again have to guess that this book wasn’t written with me in mind.

Tune in in the next six weeks for our next Collaboration – and I do believe it’s my turn to choose.

OH GOD HE'S SMILING AT ME I'M GOING TO BE MADE INTO A VERY FANCY DINNER

Grade for Redwall: 1.5 stars

Fiction: “Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister” by Gregory Maguire

Confessions of an Ugly StepsisterSo, true to form, Erica finished reading this before I did.  I managed to finish it not that far behind.  And then she was the one tweeting at me to get me to talk, because hi, my name is Alaina and not only am I Pinky, but I’m Pinky la procastinatór.

(Um, I should apologize right now for two things: Numero Uno, yet again, if y’all are here from NYC Bookworm, I’m the Jesse Pinkman of the group. [HA! PINKY! *PLEASE* TELL ME THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, VINCE GILLIGAN!]  Numero Dos: I am struggling with a tremendous need to finish Breaking Bad.  I know I can finish season 4 tonight, and then between Netflix and OnDemand I could will — will, watch the series finale at the same time as the rest of the country.  Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to be left behind when everyone else is vomiting over themselves at the fallout.  Uh, anyway.  The reason for the apology: Jesse and Gus are currently in Mexico, and so you might find some Spanish being thrown into my thoughts.)

SO ANYWAY.  Erica and I had a really good conversation over on Twitter — well, as much as 140 characters at a time would allow — and so here is my version of events.  Also, I should mention: I know Erica has finished her review, but I am spoiler-free for that one.

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is written by Gregory Maguire, he of Wicked fame.  The main character is Iris, the younger of the two; her elder sister is named Ruth, and the story begins when their mother, Margarethe, brings them to Holland after bolting in the night out of England.  In order to make ends meet, the women end up working for The Master, a painter in Haarlem who is besieged with indecision: his heart and soul tells him to paint religious scenes, but the economy and demand is for household scenes.  The buyers of art are not looking for religious drama; they wish to put pretty pictures in their homes.

Over the course of a few weeks, the Master paints Iris with some wildflowers.  When she finally sees the painting – because Iris is drawn to the art world, for both inspiration and because subconsciously, she wants to be an artist.  Anyway, when she finally sees the Master’s work, she is horrified – he has painted her to truly reveal her ‘ugliness.’  He plans to use this work to win a commission to paint the wealthy Heer Van den Meer’s daughter, Clara.

Clara, we will soon learn, is to become Cinderella.  True to the fairy tale we all know, Margarethe insinuates herself into the van den Meer household, using Iris as a companion for Clara.  When Clara’s mother dies, after an appropriate mourning period, Margarethe marries van den Meer, and Clara, in increasing fits of depression and almost willful isolation, turns herself into Cinderella.

There is a lot I could talk about — GODDAMMIT NETFLIX, I HAVEN’T DIED, KEEP PLAYING, I’VE ONLY GOT TWO MORE EPISODES TO GO!! — sorry.  Anyway.  I could talk a lot about this book — and in true #Collaborators fashion, I can talk a lot more now that Erica and I have had our tweetversation.  (That’s a word, right?)  But since I haven’t read Erica’s review yet, I’m going to do what I do best – fly by the seat of my pants and talk about the things that interest me.

So tonight, we will have minor discussions on the following two subjects: Dutch art history, and the nature of beauty.

The Dutch Golden Age turned away from religious set pieces and statuary and turned to more mundane subjects.  Still-lifes abounded, and then with Rembrandt and Vermeer, we see more family portraits and everyday scenes.  The Master is a contemporary of Rembrandt and Vermeer, and I’ll be honest, when I first read the book cover years ago, I misread van der Meer as Vermeer, and I was almost expecting a crossover between this book and Girl With a Pearl Earring, which I can guarantee you all that I’ll be reading that book within the next few weeks.

ANYWAY.  The Dutch Golden Age tried to capture life as it truly exists.  Still lifes, portraits, not exemplifying beauty, but just showing life the way it was.  Tour through some of Rembrandt and Vermeer’s galleries online and you’ll see that while they didn’t paint unpleasant subjects, they didn’t necessarily beautify them any.

So the fact that Maguire chose to set his Cinderella story – a story with three characters who are described in unfavorable terms: one evil, the other two ugly – in a time and place that promotes realism in its art?  That is just super significant to me.

Because Maguire does make a big deal out of beauty as a concept.  We learn that Clara is startingly beautiful – so extraordinarily beautiful, that for the greater part of the book Iris believes Clara to be a changeling, not of their world.  Iris is told that she isn’t ugly, but plain.  Compared to Clara, she could be considered ugly; compared to Ruth, she is merely plain.

HOLY SHIT SPEAKING OF UGLY DEAR CHRIST ON A CRACKER WHAT THE FUCK HAPPENED TO GUS FRING THAT IS DISGUSTING

(although it’s not as bad as the Columbian Necktie from Hannibal)

(full disclosure – I almost typed “disgusting” as dis-GUS-ting, trying to emphasize how I would pronounce the word in my horror, but then I realized I’d make a really shitty pun, so I stopped.)

(Breaking Bad, man — what the hell happened to me?)

ANYWAY.  There are other discussions of beauty not linked to art.  There are discussions throughout the book about the consequences of beauty.  And this raises a point: in this day and age, everyone desires to be beautiful.  Speaking as a woman, I am barraged constantly by the ‘ideal’ of beauty, and ways to achieve it.  Makeup, wrinkle cream, diet, exercise, eight hours of sleep every night, drink water, don’t drink water, eat this berry, don’t eat any berries.

Everyone wants to be beautiful.  But what happens when someone becomes beautiful?  Or, what happens to the beautiful people?

The Master says:

“The true consequence of beauty — tell your mother! — is devotion.” [24]

And isn’t that the truth?  What do we do to our ‘beautiful people’?  The plain ones worship them.  We idolize them.  Iris certainly places Clara on a bit of a pedestal because of her other-ness.

Clara says:

“Oh, […] mercy, there is nothing monstrously ugly about [Iris.]  Ruth may be unpleasing, but you are merely plain.  If anything, it’s my beauty that’s monstrous, for it sweeps away any other aspect of my character.” [238]

So true!  For once we assign the category of ‘beautiful’ to anyone, so rarely do we venture to delve further into the character of that individual.  Check out a girl at a party – she’s ‘hot.’  Doesn’t matter if she’s stupid or a surgeon – the only category she receives is ‘hot.’  All other aspects of character get stripped away, for characters fictional and real.

Iris says:

“And what about the kind act, as my mother said?  My mother the crab, the irritant in the oyster, what about what she said?  The small gesture of charity?  Isn’t that sort of beauty more beautiful than any other?” [313]

Because charity is a selfless act – an act to better someone else’s life with no thought of how it would influence their own.  True grace and selflessness is more beautiful than physical beauty – it is a beauty that derives from the soul.

Three more quotes, and then the most esoteric of reviews will be over.  (PS, I can’t believe I’ve watched four episodes of Breaking Bad tonight.  What the hell happened to me?)

There is a minor character that Iris calls the Queen of the Hairy-Chinned Gypsies.  Sue me, but I like to believe that she’s also Carol’s Gypsy Woman.  (“Just like the gypsy woman said!!”)  And she says:

“Beauty has consequence, but I’m ugly as sin, so I don’t care.” [164]

Because who watches the not-beautiful?  Nobody.  And no one strips the ‘plain’ of their character; they are allowed to have other facets.

Something that has nothing to do with beauty.  When Iris apprentices herself to the Master, this is what she feels when she first starts to draw:

She assumes that skill will guide her fingertips, that shapely lines will uncoil out of the pencil the moment she starts.  Surely talent is a thing curled deeply inside, just waiting to be exercised, and at the slightest invitation it will stretch, shake itself, make itself known?

Talent, it seems, is not so insistent. [221]

God, have I felt that and wished that.  So much.  And yet writing remains elusive and hard.

My second-to-last note should hopefully tie a few things together.  Firstly, look!  I learned how to embed Tweets!  (Somedays I still feel super-new to this whole technology thing):

That was originally taken from how Erica interpreted (or, in her own words, ‘over-interpreted’) the front cover.  I admitted I didn’t give it much thought, but much like Maguire’s other works, the frontispiece can give the reader clues as to what happens in the story to readers that pay attention.  Erica interpreted the clues different from my brief glance, and I felt that these tweets tied into that discussion, and, looking back through my notes and quotes I wanted to mention, this line from the Master about his painting of Iris:

“A painting is in the eye of the beholder,” says the Master.  “You could look at the painting of Iris with wildflowers, and you could ask yourself this: Did the Master see me with repugnance, or did he see me with my own beauty?” [180]

And I absolutely love that sentiment.  I love the fluidity of art.  I love that I can look at a painting and see something, and focus on something, and the person I’m with at the museum (or reading the same book) can focus on something else, and he/she can find meaning and beauty in that one thing that I missed, because I was busy looking at this other thing.

And, in true Pinky fashion, let’s talk about one of my ADD moments:

This was a fun adventure, and I look forward to Collaborating with Erica and NYC Bookworm again!

Grade for Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister: 3 stars

(Oh hey, PS: apparently the Disney Channel made a crappy movie version of this book starring Stockard Channing as Margarethe?  If that shows up on Netflix, I smell a tie-in!)

Fiction: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” by J.K. Rowling

And with that, I am complete and up-to-date. Sure, maybe it was a little bass-ackwards with watching Deathly Hallows Pt. II before I even finish reading Order of the Phoenix, but in the grand scheme of things, who cares? The end result is the same: the 2011 re-read and re-immersion in all things Harry Potter is complete.

So. Where do we go from here? What on earth is there still to talk about when it comes to Harry Potter?

1. All the times Alaina cried
Dobby’s death. Harry burying Dobby. Ron coming back and saving Harry’s life. Ron and Hermione kissing (finally). Snape’s death. “The Forest Again.” (I bawled here, and I bawled during the movie theatre. I couldn’t help it!) Fred’s death.

2. The time that Alaina cried that actually surprised her
Percy’s return! For some reason, that just effing hit me this time around.

3. Dumbledore’s a cunning bastard
I think I really liked how it was finally hit upon the fact that Dumbledore was waging a war, but I don’t like how Harry just accepted it and moved on. I mean, yeah, Dumbledore was planning for Harry’s death the entire time, and while Harry thought about it before heading out to the Forbidden Forest, I expected him to go all CAPSLOCKY or something. But then again, Harry experienced a shit-ton of growth during this seventh year, and while he may not have liked it, he went to face his death anyway.

4. Snape’s Memories
In which Alaina finally proved victorious in the “Snape’s Good” discussion. This was the only teary edition of the “I Told You So” dance I’ve ever performed.

5. Dear Steve Kloves: You Suck. Love, Alaina
*ahem*
HARRY WAS THE ONE WHO DECIDED TO TAKE THE DRAGON OUT OF GRINGOTTS, NOT HERMIONE, YOU FUCKER. HERMIONE IS INDEED AWESOME, BUT LET OTHER PEOPLE BE AWESOME TOO.

6. Oh right, that other part where I cried

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” [723]

And so, until the next time: Harry, Ron, Hermione, Severus, Albus, Molly, Minerva, Fred, George, Ginny, Crookshanks, Sirius, Remus: we’ll miss you. And to J.K. Rowling: thank you.

Grade for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: 6 stars