Fiction: “A Countess Below Stairs” by Eva Ibbotson

countess below stairsAfter I finished The Lies of Locke Lamora, I went to the library. And folks, I went to the library a lot this year. A LOT A LOT. I realize I finished reading this book in March and I’m writing this post (in a Word document, because of the no power) on Halloween night, so I can’t talk about 2017 as a whole yet, but so far, out of the 22 books I’ve read to date, 12 have been from the library. That’s actually pretty good for me!

So this is a title I picked up on a whim. I thought it would be cute! It claimed to be about Russia! Why I would be curious about the Russian Revolution I’ll never know, said the girl who got All The President’s Men from the library on the same trip, but WHATEVER. The short answer is: I was wrong on many counts.

A Countess Below Stairs tells the story of Anna, a Russian countess who emigrates to England following the Bolshevik revolution. She and her family are forced out of their home (being of the ruling class), and when she comes to England, she decides to be a maid in an English country house to earn money for the family. Her mother and cousin (or brother? I’m not sure) don’t want her to degrade herself, but Anna refuses to relent.

Anna is also the happiest displaced Russian countess I’ve ever come across, and I watched Anastasia maybe a hundred frillion times when I was a kid. I mean, nothing got her down at all. She is excited to learn how to scrub floors! She entrances everyone who she comes in contact with! The gardener names a new type of rose after her! It’s all very twee.

So she’s been working at Mersham (the English manse) when the owner, Rupert, comes home after being in the hospital following the end of World War I. He is engaged to Muriel, and while he (thinks he) is in love with her, Muriel has also offered to help pay for repairs to Mersham, so that’s cool.

Ooo, want to play When Did Alaina Get Really Concerned About Muriel And This Book Overall? The answer is Page 54, where Robert described Muriel to some of his friends or maybe the butler:

“It wasn’t just that I knew she was an heiress – you know how people gossip in a hospital – but she’s also extremely beautiful. And an intellectual! She has this passionate interest in eugenics.” [p. 54]

Eugenics! Oh – that’s great. Just – peachy.

Let me very clear on this point: Muriel is a Nazi!

great -sarcasm.gif

You guys, I am serious. This was another book I’d bring to the gym to read on the recumbent bike, and multiple times I had to stop pedaling so I could gape and the outright horror I was reading.

Muriel subscribes to the beliefs of Dr. Lightbody, another “believer in eugenics.” Let’s see what he sounds like!:

Briefly, the doctor believed that it was possible, by diet, exercise, and various kinds of purification about which he was perfectly willing to be specific when asked, to create an Ideal Human Body. But this was not all. When his disciples had made of their bodies a fitting Temple of the Spirit, it was also their obligation to mate with like bodies. [p. 91]

Their obligation to mate with like bodies. Hoooly fuck.

Apparently, most of the followers of Dr. Lightbody were female, as evidenced by this snippet of a speech he gives:

“All of us, ladies and gentlemen,” declaimed the doctor, looking round to see if, among the sea of swelling bosoms, there were, in fact, any gentlemen, “have it in our power to acquire – by Right Diet, Right Living and the avoidance of lechery and vice – a body that is flawless and an unsullied chalice, a hallowed temple for the human spirit. Can we doubt that, having acquired it, it is our duty to pass it on to our unborn children and make of this island race a nation of gods? Valhalla is in our grasp, ladies and gentlemen. Let us march toward it with confidence, unity, and joy!” [p. 92-93]

Seriously. This whole aspect of the novel is so gross. I actually looked up when it was written – y’know, maybe, like with the Ian Fleming novels, I can handwave the racist/Nazi overtones by claiming “it was a product of its time”?

NOPE. According to, this book was published in 2007. TWO THOUSAND SEVEN.

So instead, this character choice was made to emphasize how awful these people (Muriel and Dr. Lightbody) are. I can only assume Ms. Ibbotson wanted NO ONE to even THINK of sympathizing with the villains in her novel. Which, fine, great, whatever, but you didn’t need to make them Nazis, Eva.

(This is where some of those “fine folks” chime in and tell me that Muriel and Dr. Lightbody aren’t Nazis because they didn’t belong to the Nazi party as the Nazi party wasn’t fully established until 1918, and also, they just have a fond belief in eugenics, that doesn’t mean Nazis, but actually YES IT FUCKING DOES YOU TWAT NOW GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY LIBRARY)

I mean, Muriel is a horrible person even without her Nazi tendencies. Rupert’s best friend, Tom Byrne, has a younger sister, Olivia. Everyone loves Olivia – she’s a sweet, precocious kid who happens to have a slight limp. Rupert has asked Muriel to make Olivia (“Ollie”) her flower girl in the wedding ceremony, and Muriel agrees. And then, Muriel meets her at the dress fitting:

Muriel seemed not to have heard. Ever since Ollie had appeared in the doorway she had been staring in silent fascination at the child. Now she drew in her breath and as Anna, guided by some instinct, stepped forward and Tom Byrne entered to fetch the bridesmaids, she hissed, in a whisper which carried right across the room:

“Why did no one tell me that the child was crippled!” [p. 155]

Oh, and lest you start to agree with the “fine folks” that you can’t be a Nazi unless you hate Jews, guess what; Muriel does.

Tom Byrne is in love with Susie Rabinovitch. This is Muriel speaking about the Byrnes (probably to Dr. Lightbody):

“And even socially … they entertain Israelites of a kind that would not have been permitted over my father’s doorsteps.” [p. 178]

Susie’s mother, Hannah, sends a wedding present to Muriel, and while we don’t get to read Muriel’s thank-you note in full, we do get to see Hannah’s reaction to it:

Hannah was standing by the window, the letter in her hand. She looked, suddenly, immensely, unutterably weary and as old as one of the mourning, black-clad women in the Cossack-haunted village of her youth. And indeed the hideous thing that had crept out from beneath Muriel’s honeyed, conventional phrases was as old, as inescapable, as time itself. [p. 223]

At the end of the day, Muriel and Dr. Lightbody are just disgusting characters. Here, we see Dr. Lightbody trying to find a costume for the costume ball, and contemplates going as the Egyptian Sun King:

 It was closer, much closer – but there was something a little bit effeminate about the whole ensemble. Not surprising, really – when all was said and done there was a touch of the tarbrush about the Egyptians. [p. 243]

Now, the good news, is that Rupert catches wise to the fact that Muriel is truly awful. He also falls in love with Anna, not knowing she’s a former countess. They have great conversations, and Anna’s optimistic joy infects Rupert.

He also has a bit of a fetish when it comes to Anna’s hair. She wants to cut it in the flapper style, but Rupert doesn’t want her to touch the length of it. One day, he’s in town visiting his solicitor (or whatever) and happens to see Anna go into a hair salon. He immediately runs across the street and confronts Anna:

“I wish to be attractive for your wedding,” she went on pleadingly, lifting her face to his. “Is that a crime?”

“Ah, yes; my wedding.” The word reared up to meet him, banishing the last traces of lunacy. He became aware of René staring at him salaciously, of Elsie, with her mouth open, clutching a towel … “You will be very attractive for my wedding,” he said lightly. “For my funeral also, je vous assure.” He lifted a hand, laid it for a moment on the rich, dark tresses where they mantled her shoulders, then turned it, letting the backs of his fingers run upward against the shining waves. For an instant he felt his touch on her cheek; then he stepped back. “There, that was my ration for all eternity. People have died for less, I dare say.” [p. 263]

I mean, slightly creepy, yet compared to the Nazi of it all, strangely sweet.

In the end, Rupert leaves Muriel – or, rather, forces her out of the relationship by pretending to have mentally deformed cousins, which is also just terrible – and he declares his love for Anna, just as she discovers the family jewelry that was nearly lost in their escape from Russia, so she doesn’t have to be a maid anymore and everyone lives as happily ever after as they can, considering there were Nazis involved.

I still can’t believe that this is marketed as a Young Adult novel. Well, okay, maybe I can. But I can’t believe there wasn’t a single editor along the way who thought to point out that maybe, making the villains Nazis was just on the side of “too much”.

Aaanyway. At least it’s over.

Grade for A Countess Below Stairs: no stars


Fiction: “Alanna” by Tamora Pierce

alannaGood morning to everyone, except members of the State of Maine’s Executive and Legislative branches!

So … the good State o’ Maine is shut down. If you’re on your way up to the state for the Fourth of July weekend, your good news is that the governor deemed state park workers as “emergency”, so you’ll still be able to have your cookout on the beach.

(PLEASE, keep in mind as you travel that any state workers you see out there – state park rangers, state troopers, toll booth collectors – they’re all working unpaid right now, so please, be extra extra nice to them, okay?)

As for me: the people in my entire division were deemed “non-emergency”, so you’re looking at a girl who has an unpaid vacation of indeterminate length on her hands. But instead of bitching about how we wouldn’t even be IN THIS SITUATION if the goddamned APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE had DONE their FUCKING JOB THREE MONTHS AGO, I’m going to look on the bright side: I’ve got some money in my savings account, bills are paid for the month, and I’m probably going to be out for enough time to have some free adventures, so be sure to follow #ShutdownAdventure on Twitter and Facebook to see this week’s shenanigans.

Also: I have no reason to not get caught up with this backlog! So let’s dig in!

Not sure why I requested this book from the library – I may have seen it on a list somewhere about someone’s favorite young adult novels, or who knows why. Whatever reason it was, I requested it from the library and then it came in, so I read it.

Alanna: The First Adventure is, well – the first adventure for Alanna. There are four books in the Song of the Lioness series, and when I was a kid, I read three out of the four. I believe I was in fifth grade when I started reading them, and I’m not sure why I never finished. I may have decided to graduate to “adult” novels that year?

Well, actually – I know it was fifth grade when I started to sneak-read some of Mom’s romance novels she kept around the house, so my tastes probably matured quickly. I know it was seventh or eighth grade when I began reading Sue Grafton, Dick Francis, and John Grisham, so – it was probably a confluence of many events.

Regardless, I know I first picked up the book more than twenty years ago because her name was so close to mine. In classrooms surrounded by Tiffanys and Jessicas, seeing another name so close to mine was novel.

Alanna is the twin sister of Thom – which was another reason I thought the whole series was a shout-out to me at the time; I’ve been friends with Thomas since we were six, so to have a book where two of the main characters could almost be analogues for me and my dear-friend-almost brother? And my analogue was a pretty badass teen, learning how to fight like a dude? I latched on pretty hard.

Anyway. Alanna and Thom are growing up in a medieval-esque society, where the boys go off to be knights and the girls go off to be nuns or something. Not nuns – but they study stuff and don’t learn how to fight or do anything particularly rowdy. Alanna’s kind of a brute as an eleven-year-old, and on their way to their respective new schools, Alanna convinces Thom to go to the convent-thingee in her stead, while she’ll go to knight school as “Alan”.

Alanna/”Alan” makes friends and shows promise as a knight over the years – she works hard, and doesn’t let any tiny bit of failure deter her from her goal. Some of her friends include a thief named George, who manages to get her a horse. She also makes an enemy in one of her fellow trainees, Ralon. A bully, he pummels “Alan” every chance he gets. So Alanna sneaks out of the castle to train with George, and eventually she beats Ralon on her own. Ralon leaves the castle, but not before swearing revenge.

Alanna has magical healing powers (not like Wolverine, though), and when the city is beset by a Sweating Plague, she uses her powers to heal Prince Jonathan when he’s on the verge of death. In doing so, she reveals her gender to her mentor, Sir Myles. The rumor is that the Plague was sent by a powerful sorcerer – not only does it nearly kill (or kill) the sufferers of the Plague, but Healers get their power drained when they attempt to heal the victims. Alanna doesn’t lose any power when she heals Jonathan. But she does suspect Jonathan’s cousin, Duke Roger, who had just returned to court.

Once Jonathan regains his strength, he starts seeing visions of a Black City, which is a city overcome by demons or something. Jonathan enlists “Alan” to go with him – or “Alan” refuses to stay behind, I can’t remember – but both of them go to find out what’s up with the city. At first it appears abandoned, but there’s some big evil living there (Wikipedia tells me its name was Ysandir), and Jonathan and “Alan” combine their powers – but not until after Ysandir reveals to Jonathan that “Alan” is really Alanna. Wisely, Jonathan decides to ignore the fact that his best friend is actually a girl and they both get the job done and defeat Ysandir.

Alanna thinks that Duke Roger sent Jonathan to the Black City on purpose; Jonathan agrees, but believes that Roger hoped that Jonathan would defeat the evil in the city. Alanna thinks Roger doesn’t want Jonathan alive. In the end, Jonathan chooses “Alan” as his squire, even though he knows she’s a girl, and they’re off to the next adventure.

I still recall loving this book when I was a kid. Returning to it twenty-ish years later, it is absolutely written for older elementary kids. It’s almost … pre-YA? It was the first wave of Young Adult novels. (It’s also an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the generation of girls who like swords and fighting – in one chapter, Alanna gets her first period and freaks out. That’s how George learns that Alanna’s a girl!)

I might continue with the series just to see how it ends up. I’ve read on GoodReads that the writing matures with the character, so by Book 4, it should be very similar to today’s YA genre. But even though I’m slightly disappointed with it as an adult, I still agree that it’s an excellent book and series for the right age group.

Grade for Alanna: The First Adventure: 2 stars

Fiction: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

wrinkle in timeGood evening! I’m drunk. Trivia was earlier tonight, and I decided to go with gins and tonic as opposed to Pub Style brew, and … yeah. Good night. We lost, be tee dubs. We got trounced. So next week, I’m definitely going back to beer, because while the quinine in the tonic water may have settled my stomach (which has kind of been upset for an entire week), it did nothing for my intelligence. And my partner-in-trivia will be the first to admit that of the two of us, I’m the brains of the operation (he gets most of the sports stuff. Except for tonight, when we were off on the baseball strike by one year. BUT STILL), and when I’m not operating at 100% … it’s not pretty.  Great Odin’s Raven was not great tonight. We were Mediocre Odin’s Raven at best.

Anyhoodle. I decided, “hey, let me go home and bang out another review, because I’m so fucking behind, and why don’t I pour myself another gin and tonic while I’m at it because why the fuck not?”

… When did I add ABBA’s “S.O.S.” to my iTunes? the fuck?

SO I READ THIS BACK IN SEPTEMBER. I had just read the news about the movie adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, and the amazing casting choices: Meg Murry played by Storm Reid! Gugu Mbatha-Raw (HOLY SHIT I SPELLED THAT RIGHT ON THE FIRST TRY WHILE DRUNK YESI’MAWESOME) as Mrs. Murry! Chris Pine as the missing Mr. Murry! I mean, the Casting Gods really came through on this one.

But that news was in September. And I was staring down the barrel of a flight and then an overnight train back to Maine so I could attend My Dear Friend Sarah’s bridal shower in D.C. (P.S.: Dear Friend Sarah: I want to apologize for my poor time management on that weekend – in retrospect, I should have just traded in both train tickets for JetBlue, but … hindsight. I won’t be making that mistake again. But I also want to thank you for your hospitality.) Anyway, I thought the weekend trip would be a great opportunity to revisit A Wrinkle in Time.

Because I had read this back when I was a kid, and now, all I could remember from it was “tesseract” — mainly because I’d joke that characters on TV shows would tesseract all over the place (see: Alias especially. No wonder I have problems with the space-time continuum!).

A Wrinkle In Time is the first book of a quintet starring Meg Murry, the elder daughter of scientists Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Her younger brother is Charles Wallace, quite precocious at age 5. Mr. Murry has been missing for some time, and Meg is feeling out of place in her family. Meg learns that Charles Wallace has befriended a strange old woman in their neighborhood, Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such a thing as a tesseract, which causes a reaction.

Meg becomes closer with high school student Calvin, who is sweet and feels like an outsider despite his popular status. One afternoon, Meg and Calvin follow Charles Wallace to Mrs. Whatsit’s house, where they meet Mrs. Whatsit’s housemate, Mrs. Who. Their other companion, Mrs. Which, who is pretty much incorporeal, tells Meg and Charles Wallace that the women will help the Murrys find their father.

The strange women help the children tesseract – essentially, jump through a wormhole, or, if you will, a wrinkle in time – to the planet Camazotz, which looks what I imagine North Korea to look like. The inhabitants of Camazotz are regimented in everything: all houses look the same, everyone acts the same, has the same schedule. The planet is run by a disembodied brain, called IT, which can control people through telepathy.

In his escapade, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT, and it takes all of Meg’s strength to overpower IT to rescue both her brother and her father. By being an outcast and, most importantly, by being capable of love – something IT does not have – she is able to rescue Charlies Wallace from IT. The reunited family – Meg, Charles Wallace, Mr. Murry, and Calvin, the newest member – return to Earth and reconnect with Mrs. Murry and the twins. (Meg is the oldest, then there are the twins, and then Charles Wallace. I did forget to mention that up higher, thank you. But — gin.)

Having reconnected with the book, I felt … underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a cozy memory associated with A Wrinkle in Time. Not that I had bad memories – I just had no memories. Growing up, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s other series, about the Austen family. The series included the titles A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish. While I don’t remember anything about the first time I ever read A Wrinkle of Time, I distinctly remember having a nosebleed all over the Curtis Memorial Library’s copy of The Arm of the Starfish, and I’ll bet you ten American dollars that I can go into that library, find that same copy of the book, and find my faded blood still in it. (I wiped it up as best I could.)

My Dear Friend Sarah, however, stated that A Wrinkle in Time was one of her favorite books growing up. So while I still enjoyed my re-read of this book (Amtrak disasters bedamned) and while I’m quite looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation, I’m not sure I’m going to go forward with the series. I might.

I also feel bad that I’m not doing this book as great a service as I could. First of all, I read it seven months ago; and secondofly, while I’m no longer shithoused, or even really buzzed — no, I’m still slightly buzzed. And while I was drunk enough at the beginning of this review to think that drunk!reviewing would be a great idea!, and maybe that’s what’s been keeping my backlog from getting better, in … what’s the opposite of retrospect? In reflection, maybe I should have waited to write this when I was more sober.

But that may have been so far in the future that I may have had to read the book again, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for that.

Grade for A Wrinkle in Time: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Insurgent” by Veronica Roth

insurgentAll right, I’m going to attempt to bang this out as quickly as possible, because I’ve got a wedding to go to and I still have to give myself a mani-pedi. There might be a second review coming out later tonight, because in addition to the wedding, I’m on a deadline for awesome, and if I don’t get X, Y, and Z done before tomorrow, then I’m going to be very disappointed in myself.

Hold up – did I miss The Ten Commandments this year?!  OH IT’S ON TOMORROW THANK GOD

Oh, that also means my friends who are watching Once Upon a Time get a week’s reprieve this week.  Thanks, ABC.


Also: I also realize there’s a movie out for this book in theatres right now. I haven’t seen it – I’m gonna wait for it to show up on Redbox. In addition, there is no way I can discuss Insurgent without getting into significant plot points from Divergent, so if you don’t want to know anything about this series, turn back now, because ahead be sea monsters.  And by “sea monsters,” I of course mean “spoilers.”

Insurgent picks up directly where Divergent ended – with the Abnegation faction in ruins after being attacked by the Erudite-controlled Dauntless; Tris’s parents are both dead, and now Tris, her brother Caleb, her boyfriend Four/Tobias, Tobias’s father Marcus, and a handful of other friends and allies are running to the Amity compound.

Brief note about Four, also known as Tobias: I will be calling him Four. We find out his real name is Tobias in the end of Divergent, and in this book, Tris pretty consistently calls him Tobias, whereas all other characters call him Four. But when I hear “Tobias,” regardless of the fact that I know the actor playing him looks like this


And that I should picture someone like this,

carl weathers

But all I can see is this:

tobias blue himself

So; Four it is.

ANYWAY, the gang is all hanging out in Amity regrouping, and no one trusts Marcus (because he was abusive to Four, dontcha know) and also, Tris is uber depressed at the fact that her parents have died. Aw man, that sounds flippant, and I do not want to diminish the fact that her parents have died because it is important. Tris’s reaction, however, is so Young Adult that I almost can’t stand it.

Essentially, Tris is so despondent over the fact that her parents died for their cause (which isn’t truly revealed until the last fifty pages of the book, bee tee dubs) that she decides she’s going to take every risk imaginable in order to a) die for the same cause and b) join her parents in the afterlife. It takes her half the book (and multiple instances of Death Wish Overload) for her to realize that her parents didn’t die as martyrs to a cause – they sacrificed themselves so that Tris could live. Once that hits her, she’s still all about risks, because she’s a teenager in a dystopian fantasy, but she’s less headstrong about barging into dangerous situations without making a plan first.

The rest of the plot is very jumbled and fast-moving: they make a plan to fight Erudite, but then Amity gets attacked, so they have to escape. They hide out among the factionless for a bit (and find Four’s mother, who thought she had died – surprise!), then they go to join forces with Candor, but then Erudite and Dauntless – who are still working together – break into Candor and shoot everyone with a serum that will control that person from afar, unless that person happens to be Divergent, in which case the serum won’t work and then Erudite will be able to determine who is Divergent, which is very helpful for the Erudite, but not so great for the Divergent, which includes both Tris and Four.

There’s a whole big thing about how the reason the Erudite want to weed out the Divergent is because they are unpredictable in their decision-making. When faced with a problem, Erudites will solve it in one manner, always; Dauntless (sometimes literally) attack the problem, again, in the same manner as any other problem. But Divergent will look at problems from all angles, and make an informed decision using traits and techniques from across the factions. And when you’re planning a coup, individuals who do not react in a predictable manner are dangerous, according to Erudite.

So that’s why the Erudite want the Divergent. And when they start controlling some of Tris and Four’s Candor and Dauntless friends into committing suicide in order to get some Divergent to turn themselves in to Erudite. And of course, when that happens, Tris sneaks out and turns herself into Erudite the next day, because she has a death wish.

Fight fight fight, shooting shooting shooting. In the end, they defeat the Erudite and find the knowledge that they were after, and how it affects the Abnegation and the entire faction program. But that’s a spoiler, and also, I can’t quite remember it because I returned the book to the library a month ago.

Insurgent doesn’t really give the reader time to breathe – it’s all PLOT FIGHT PLOT SAD PLOT FIGHT PLOT PLOT. Every decision that Tris has to make is steeped in importance, and while I can agree that, in the midst of a war (however fictitious), things do happen very quickly, I still think that some space between episodes can let the reader regroup, and react to things.  It was a very quick read, but at times, I felt that it was a little too quick.

So thanks for reading my incredibly disjointed review of Insurgent. Hopefully I’ll be able to manage my deadlines appropriately and we’ll be having a nice Easter treat tomorrow.

Grade for Insurgent: 2 stars

Fiction: “Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins

mockingjayOh man – how the hell am I going to review this book without getting all spoilery? I mean, I managed to read the first two books without getting into too much detail (which, disclaimer: I did in fact reread both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire leading up to Mockingjay, but I chose not to re-review them because hi, it is December 30th and counting Mockingjay, I have four reviews to write, so let’s not rehash old history, ‘kay?). I also read them at the same time that their respective movies were coming out, and I didn’t want to really get into depth with the plot so the movies wouldn’t be ruined for people.

But Mockingjay … I mean, the end of the film saga doesn’t come out until next year, and while I feel comfortable discussing some of the bigger plot points, the ending is super-contentious — both in what happens, and the opinions about the ending (I’m talking about the epilogue here, specifically).

Okay, here’s how I’m going to do this: I’m going to talk about the plot as much as I feel comfortable doing; then I’m gonna discuss in vague terms how I felt about the ending, the epilogue, and the overall atmosphere in the series. And then, I’ll open the comments up for further discussion (not that they’re ever closed or anything, I’m not that person and also I don’t know how to do that). So all of my book-loving friends who have read this book and want to discuss the feels or lack thereof – comments will be open for business.

So Mockingjay picks up a couple of months after the events of Catching Fire. Oh, right: spoilers for Catching Fire. And by extension, The Hunger Games. Caveat lector.

Katniss’s arrow has shattered the arena and Plutarch Heavensbee and Haymitch are taking her, Finnick, Beetee, and the survivors of District 12 to District 13, who are in the midst of planning their rebellion against the Capitol. Because once Katniss blew the arena up, basically the Capitol bombed District 12 all to hell, and it’s only through Gale’s quick thinking that a few hundred inhabitants were able to be rescued. Peeta and Johanna Mason were captured by the Capitol in the aftermath of the destruction of the arena. And as if that weren’t enough, Katniss is dealing with some major PTSD.

District 13 is severely regimented, and she has a very hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. President Coin, the leader of District 13, wants Katniss to be the symbol of the revolution; the Mockingjay. It takes her a while to agree – a part of her just wants to fade into the background. But she manages to negotiate pardons for the remaining victors that were captured by the Capitol in exchange for her likeness as the Mockingjay. Coin and Plutarch try to film Katniss in some propaganda films, but she’s not a good actress.

Enter: Haymitch Abernathy, who has become my favorite character in this series, both movies and books. He takes control of the Mockingjay situation and reminds everyone that Katniss’s power comes from moments where she’s unscripted – volunteering to take Prim’s place in the first Games, singing for Rue, etc. So the team drops Katniss, Gale, and a camera crew in District 8 in an attempt to get raw footage. When the Capitol bombs a hospital, Katniss’s reaction is extremely powerful and the propo (their nickname for the propaganda films) they create captures everything the team had hoped.

Eventually, Haymitch tells Katniss that a small team of District 13 soldiers – including Gale, who has quickly risen through the ranks, clearly having an affinity for soldierdom – has invaded the Capitol in an attempt to rescue the captive victors. Good news! They are successful! Bad news! Peeta’s been “hijacked,” and now he has an uncontrollable urge to kill Katniss whenever he sees her.

This is obviously very disheartening and horrifying to Katniss – the idea that the Capitol has taken almost everything away from her makes her withdraw even more. Prim manages to figure out a way to try to reverse the hijacking, but it isn’t going to completely remove the conditioning. For the rest of his life, Peeta will need to get confirmation that an event was real or not real.

Aaaand I think that’s all the detail I can get into. These events are covered in the first Mockingjay film, so I’m okay talking about these parts in relative detail. Let me scan through the rest: battle battle battle, death, death, sad, deathso much sobbing, and then Panem manages to overthrow the Capitol and Katniss ends up with Peeta.

Now, about those deaths: one of them (and no, I’m not going to say who) was horrifying. A part of me really can’t understand why Ms. Collins decided to have that individual die, because it’s awful. (Obviously, it’s not Peeta.) On the other hand, the last half of the book takes place on a battlefield, These characters are at war, and if there’s one rule of war, it’s that there will always be needless civilian deaths. And needless soldier deaths. War is not easy, and it’s not clean, and not everyone gets out alive. This particular death proves that, but it doesn’t make it any less sad.

There’s a brief moment that I’d like to discuss. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Capitol, it is suggested that the new political power hold a final Hunger Games, this time starring the children of prominent Capitol inhabitants, including the grandchildren of President Snow. The final Games is put up to a vote for the remaining Victors, and if the Victors vote for it, it will go through. I was hoping that Katniss wouldn’t vote for the final Games, but she raises her hand. I’m not sure if it was because she was searching for revenge or some sort of justice, or if she had already decided to do what she ends up doing and was just biding her time, or what, but I had hoped that she wouldn’t vote ‘yes’ because by approving the final Games, it’s like she’s validating the old regime.

Although the more I think about it, the more I’m of the mind that she had already decided on her actions and was just biding her time to throw the new President off the scent.

Finally, I think that brings us to the love “triangle” and its resolution, but I know that there are some definite ~feels about this out there, and none of them are fluffy. *sigh* I had always liked Katniss and Peeta. I liked that Peeta loved Katniss for all of her flaws, and I liked how Peeta made Katniss happy, and a more demonstratively-caring individual — especially when she didn’t realize the power he had over her. And I liked how, as the series progressed, she begrudged him that power less and less.

But now Peeta is, for lack of a better term, broken. Hell, everyone’s broken, but Peeta isn’t even sure what’s real anymore. As for Gale, he had assumed that he and Katniss were endgame (made more complicated by the star-crossed lovers plot Haymitch cooked up during the first Games), and even when it looked like Peeta was out of the picture, I felt that Gale still resented Katniss for her (admittedly confused) feelings. And no one should be with someone who resents them for how they feel.

So yes, Katniss ends up with Peeta. And it’s far from perfect, but while I’m not exactly happy, I’m not exactly mad, either? And let’s face it, you’d know if I were mad.

Where does this leave us? Well – I really enjoyed the series – more than I thought I would, given the atmosphere and worldview of the books. I really enjoy the movies, as well, and feel that they hue closely to the books.

And while I still enjoy Katniss, I am Team Haymitch Abernathy 4-EVA.

Grade for Mockingjay3.5 stars

Fiction: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth


Eagle-eyed viewers of That’s What She Read (or my GoodReads page, I guess) may have noticed that I’ve been reading Divergent since January.  That’s not quite true. I did attempt to read it back in January, but then I ended up going to the library a lot and focused on reading those library books over reading books that I actually owned, so I got to about page 80 and had to put it down and worry about not incurring any overdue fees.  Once I returned Love in the Time of Cholera (and three other books I had borrowed that I didn’t even get to crack open and I had already renewed them twice, and now that my new job [YAY!] is sixty minutes in the other direction from the Portland Public Library, I figured I should just return them all and borrow them from a more local library later), I could go back to the books I had been reading before the Great Library Experiment of 2014 began.

Divergent is the first in another dystopian Young Adult series.  In this universe, humans have been segregated into factions, based on how they interact with other humans: if you value kindness and peace above all else, you would belong to Amity.  If you feel that wealth and self-indulgence lead to wars and other bad things, you’d belong to Abnegation.  Like knowing everything?  You’d belong to Erudite.  Cannot tell a lie?  You’d be in Candor. And if you value courage and bravery, you’d be in the Dauntless faction.

Beatrice Prior grew up in Abnegation, and when the novel starts, she has turned sixteen and it’s time for her initiation test.  (I’d like to remember the name of it, but I’ve been writing this review longhand while on my legally-mandated hour-long lunch breaks [I CAN’T EVEN YOU GUYS – I GET AN ACTUAL LUNCH BREAK! AND PEOPLE FEEL BAD WHEN THEY INTERRUPT IT!], and even when I return home to actually type it up to post it, y’all know I’m still going to be too lazy to look it up, so we’re just gonna not care about actual names, okay?  OKAY.)  She is told that the results of her initiation test classify her as Divergent, which means she doesn’t really fit into a faction, and apparently, it is *~dangerous~* to be labeled as such, but no one really tells her why it’s dangerous, because it’s too dangerous to even talk about? Say whaaaaaat?

So anyway, the sixteen-year-olds go through this Initiation Test thingee, and then they go through a Choosing Ceremony, where they show which faction they are going to go live in by slicing their palm and bleeding on something. I mean, yes, there are specific things on which they bleed, but again — lazy.  For Beatrice, she really has to choose her faction, as Divergent is not a valid option. What I’m unclear on, however, is if the other kids get to choose, or if the results of their Initiation Test Thingee (official technical term) dictate where they’re supposed to end up.  For instance, Beatrice’s brother, Caleb, chooses Erudite in the Choosing Ceremony.  Does that mean that his test told him he should be Erudite?  Or did he just choose to be Erudite because he likes books? Does the Initiation Test Thingee mean anything at all?  (Please don’t tell me if the Initiation Test Thingee means something; y’all know I don’t care that much.)

Beatrice ends up choosing to live as a Dauntless, because she knows she is more comfortable scaring herself shitless by being brave than she is by being self-sacrificing.  There’s a lot of talk in her internal monologues about the difference between being brave and being selfish, and occasionally she comes off as whiny.  But anyway, she travels to the Dauntless Headquarters and meets Four, one of the trainers for the Dauntless initiates, who happens to be a mysterious teenage boy slightly older than her and obviously her intended love interest.

The initiates are divided between those that transferred into Dauntless (i.e., Beatrice) and those that were originally born as Dauntless.  Of the between ten and twenty initiates (I DON’T LOOK THINGS UP ANYMORE), the Dauntless will only take ten. Those that don’t make it are forced to live as factionless, which is essentially homeless.  This creates a horrible amount of competition amongst the initiates – one of the Transfers, Peter, is so mad at coming in second that he actually disfigures one of his fellow initiates to take him out of the running.  (Spoiler alert!: if you don’t like things being stuck in eyes you may want to skip that chapter!)

In the midst of all this mayhem, Beatrice – who renames herself Tris, because why not – comes to realize that she does have innate bravery: she has no fear of heights (which even Four has to an extent), and she strives to be one of the top-ranked transfer initiates, to prove to the Dauntless that those who live and/or grew up in Abnegation have something to offer society. (Oh shit, I should mention: there’s a whole big political unrest thingee going on between Abnegation, Erudite, and Dauntless, but we don’t really get into it until the last hundred pages, so I’m not going to talk about it here because spoilers.)

Tris’s mother comes to visit her on … well, on Visiting Day, and Tris learns that her mother was Divergent.  Her mother was told to hide, and to her, hiding meant living in Abnegation.  Tris was merely told to be careful, so instead she decided to become one of the Dauntless.  However, Tris realizes she has more in common with her mother than she originally thought, and the scene again brings up the political unrest between the factions without actually telling the reader anything about it.

During this time, Tris also begins to fall for Four (that’s a weird sentence), right on schedule.  He doesn’t show Tris any favoritism or mercy in the training, but he does pick her for his Capture the Flag team, as well as let her inside his Fear Landscape (the final test all Dauntless initiates must go through).  Their relationship manages to be romantic without being too sexual, which I found to be different from other young adult novels I’ve read – or, at least, different from what I’ve heard some other young adult novels are like.  I also appreciated that there was no love triangle, but I’ll get to that more in a second.

In the last hundred pages of the book, shit gets real.  I’m not going to delve into it too deeply here, mainly because unlike Citizen Kane (or Breaking Bad, if you’re Al Roker), I feel that this book is still slightly too new to divulge all the plot points so quickly. And let’s face it: most of the actual “plot” happens in the last hundred pages, and that’s not usually a good sign. Let’s just say that, true to any dystopian young adult novel I’ve read (all three of them), there is political intrigue that is hinted at throughout the first three hundred pages that finally comes to a head, and Tris, Four, and their respective families play an important part in how everything shakes out.  There’s some tragedy, there’s some romance, there’s some hope – it’s all very yada yada yada.

So now that I’m not going to talk bout the plot anymore, how did I like it? Well … I don’t know. Wait, I can’t say that – I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I’m left with too many questions – for instance, the city that the novel takes place in is supposed to be a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Chicago (they reference the Sears Tower). How did Chicago – and, presumably, the rest of the world – end up in this state of affairs?  Do the next two books answer this question? If so, I’ll shut up.  But I want an answer to this more than when I read The Hunger Games, because while Katniss tells us in The Hunger Games that Panem is essentially what was once North America, she doesn’t give us any details that hearken back to our time. Katniss doesn’t refer to New York City, or the Grand Canyon, or any other landmarks that we would be able to place within our knowledge of the world, so to me, Katniss’s story must take place in a future far, far away from where we live now.  But with Tris: once she mentions “Sears Tower,” I immediately flash to the building in the opening sequence of Family Matters, or the moment where Ferris, Sloane and Cameron are leaning their foreheads on the glass and staring at the ant people below their feet on their epic day off.  I have references to that image, and that tells me that it’s possible that Tris’s story could happen tomorrow.

(And before I get back to the meat of this, let me just say that after I post the review of the second book I’ve finished and then finish the book I’m reading now, based on the events of two days ago, I am definitely going to be reading The Pelican Brief and The Handmaid’s Tale next. Because clearly, five out of nine Supreme Court Justices believe that Offred had a pretty good thing going for her, and that just makes me really want to read a book where somebody’s trying to assassinate some Supreme Court justices. Unfortunately, I know I’m going to be disappointed in the outcome, but it will make me feel better while I’m reading them, so there.)

ANYWAY.  (Drink!)  Another question I still don’t know the answer to is: what’s the deal with the Initiation Test Thingee? Because Divergent is written from the first-person perspective of Tris, the only experience we have with the Test is through her. But her experience isn’t the norm, because she classifies as Divergent.  So I still don’t know if they are supposed to take the results of the test as their word of God (or whatever), or if they actually have some free will in the matter and can decide to move to another faction.  But if they have free will, then why go through the test? I DON’T GET IT.

Things I may have liked: I appreciated that there was no live triangle involved between Tris and Four, but that instead their relationship was impacted by Tris’s fear and her self-esteem issues.  Wait, that sounded terrible. What I meant was: because she grew up in Abnegation, Tris’s instinct is to not be able to accept compliments (it means she would be vain) or realize that a boy may like-like her.  Because she doesn’t know how to react and appreciate that type of situation, she is adorkably* awkward around Four in the beginning, because she literally doesn’t know how to react to those types of things.  So I was glad that the obstacle to their relationship was Tris figuring out what she wanted from Four and not that she had to decide between Four and somebody else**.

*and by “adorkably,” I mean it’s actually kind of painful. I’m using adorkably in the ironic sense here. Tris is trying too hard to be adorable, so she comes off as adorkable.

** There is a character named Al who likes Tris, but she acknowledges head-on that he has been friendzoned. I could probably write an entirely new essay on the relationship between Tris and Al and how some Male Rights’ Activists may seize on Al’s trajectory*** in the novel and how it could relate to the obvious horror that all men face when they are friendzoned, because clearly (almost supported by the Supreme Court, even!), women really aren’t allowed to make their own choices and must accept all offers of sex from men (wanted or no), but obviously I am not in the mental state to discuss it right now. Also, there would be spoilers involved.

***Those who have read Divergent may have noticed I just made a pun.

Uh, I think that’s it.  The plot sets up the second novel, which I’ll probably pick up at some point. But right now, I need to get the review of the next book I read done, then I need to finish reading the book I’m reading now, and then on to horrible wish fulfillment that will not fulfill me because why would anything work out the way I want it to, the Hobby Lobby people clearly don’t want me to be happy.

Grade for Divergent: 2.5 stars

READ THIS BOOK NOW: “The Jason Jetson Trilogy: JJ” by Jennifer Aqualaney

So I don’t want to jinx anything, but I’ve got a feeling today’s going to be kind of a slow day at work.  I’m getting payments caught up, I don’t have a backlog of emails; basically, the only way my day can get totally boned is if my boss comes in and decides he wants to make my life hell by asking me all sorts of questions and pestering me about my process (because he doesn’t understand accounting, that makes it really fun for me – especially when he asks me why I did something and my response is “because you told me to?”; that’s the best).

Aaaaand I just had to put my headphones on and listen to WCYY online because if I have to hear either “Counting Stars” or “Timber” ONE MORE GODDAMNED TIME I am going to buy an axe and just demolish the shit out of this place.

Okay, neither of those things are things I want to talk about.  Instead, I want to take a few moments (or hours – whatever works with my schedule) and write a post that I’ve been looking forward to writing for a while now.

Two years ago (or so), my friend Jen started talking about writing a book.  She had some characters and stories floating around in her head, and she used me as a springboard.  We’d chat randomly, or late into the night when I’d visit her in Boston, but nothing became real until last March, when Jen sent me a message about a free writer’s cocktail party we could crash, put on by Paper Lantern Lit, an independent publishing company based out of New York that specializes in young adult literature. 

So because part of the cocktail party was a five minute pitch session with actual editors, she polished up a snippet she had written and turned it into a pitch.  I, on the other hand, spent the entire night making awesome business cards and pulling a pitch out of my ass because though I pretend to be a writer, I don’t really specialize in young adult lit.

We got gussied up and were totally the best-dressed there (note to aspiring writers: “free cocktail party” does not always equal “black dress and heels” – there was a lot of plaid in that room).  I got my free drink in exchange for my half-assed pitch, and Jen got a lot of encouragement and even a door prize: a meeting with a publicist towards marketing her book.

It has now been just about a year (HOLY SHIT – JEN – IT’S ONLY BEEN A FUCKING YEAR CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT?), and in that year, Jen has pushed herself to great lengths and amazing depths of motivation, and now, she has realized her dream: she is a published writer.

Three times this year the world stopped for JJ.  Three times he had been wrenched from his path and thrown to the mercy of someone else’s whims.  The Panel, Miguel and Dr. Kim … and Eve.

No more California surf and sun; no more daily routine of taking classes among the other Enchanters, of Mixing elixirs and Moving objects with his Abilities.  No more being a freak, an outcast among outcasts.

He’d found his place.

But for how long?

Meet JJ.  He’s the main character of The Jason Jetson Trilogy: JJ.  He is a young Enchanter living in California, and after his testing and tiering, he starts his freshman year of what we would call high school at the Salem School of Magic in Salem, Massachusetts.  He leaves his family and his best friend (his cousin, Trip) behind to embark on this new adventure, but he’s plagued with fears: will he fit in with this new crowd?  What will happen when his friends learn that he’s actually an Ambidex – an Enchanter with two Abilities?  Where did that bear come from?

JJ adapts in spite of his fears and feelings of inadequacy and quickly becomes friends with Daegen, Ally and Nel.  Typical to any high school setting, there are moments of puppy love, infatuation, and skirmishes with the school bully.  But JJ’s trepidation about fitting in undercuts the first half of the book.

The second half of the book, I don’t want to give away – the back of the book alludes to doctors and a girl named Eve, and suffice it to say he ends up in a hospital.  I’m not going to tell you how, why, for how long, or whether the bear was involved – firstly because I’m trying not to ruin things anymore, but more importantly, I want you to read this book.

Now, Disclaimer Time!  I will not be rating this book for one simple reason: Jen reached out to me as a beta reader, and I helped her edit it.  I feel that rating the book would be like rating a book I helped write, which would be, in turn, rating me, and I didn’t write the book: Jen did.  And she did an amazing job; I just helped with semicolons and brought her mimosas while we watched Extreme Cheapskates.

What I can tell you about the book (aside from the scant plotline above) is that it is refreshing to read a young adult novel from the perspective of a young man.  Aside from Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I have yet to read a young adult novel where the protagonist is male.  In addition to the whole gender thing, I’m sure it’s also refreshing to see that boys have the same feelings of inadequacy that girls sometimes exhibit: does she like me, will I fit in, where did that bear come from?

The most important thing I have to say about Jennifer’s book is this: it is self-published, so you’re not going to find it in your local library.  Yet.

Jennifer currently has JJ available for purchase on – don’t worry, I’ll include the link.  You can purchase it in Hardcover or Softcover, but the best bet is an ebook for $7.99.  You can read it on any reader (iBook, Android/Google reader, Nook) (It appears you can’t download the ePub file to read on your Kindle at the moment; I believe Jen is working towards getting it available on Amazon in the near future), and you’ll always have it in a handy digital form.

It is so important that you buy her book – not just because she’s a friend, and not just because I helped edit the book (because I can tell you, just so everyone knows and doesn’t think I’ve “sold out” [although selling out for Jen would be a worthy enough cause]: I haven’t taken a dime of money towards editing the book; nor am I getting paid for writing this review – I do this out of the goodness of my heart!  [disclaimer: Jen may have bought me dinner a couple of times.  BUT YOU CAN’T CLAIM DINNER ON INCOME TAXES] {God, use parenthetical phrases much, Patterson?}) –

ANYWAY.  It is important that you buy her book because it helps support indie writers.  Jen doesn’t have a publishing company to help her promote her book – this is going to be a grassroots campaign if ever there was one.  Her marketing is through word of mouth, and having friends who will read the book and tell friends about the book, and make that friend want to buy the book so they can tell their other friends about it, and before you know it, this is like Fifty Shades of Gray but with less sex, more magic, and waaaaaaaaaaaaay better-written.

So please – check out Jen’s store and buy her book.  If you like it, leave a review on her Lulu site.  And tell your friends – for the price of a large coffee and a donut, you can buy not just a book, but a chance for an indie writer to make it.

If you like books that look great on your bookshelf, buy the hardcover edition here!

If you like books that look great on your bookshelf but maybe don’t weigh as much, buy the softcover edition here!

If you like books on iPads and other eReaders because you don’t believe in physical manifestations of awesomeness, buy the digital ebook here!

She also has a blog: you can read about her adventure here!