Fiction: “Ross Poldark” by Winston Graham

ross poldarkOh, good – another book from the library where I only wrote down the characters’ names. (*eyeroll*) I swear to God, Alaina …

Well, okay. This one will be quick, then.

There is a BBC television series (currently airing on PBS) on the Poldark series of novels by Winston Graham. I had never read them or watched any episodes of the series, but I had put the TV show on my Prime watchlist. And one summer day, I was loading my arms up with books to read and saw one of the books on the shelf, and as luck would have it, the first book in the series was also there, so I checked it out.

Here are the notes I made on the characters in the book:

Ross Poldark: Captain from Cornwall, who fought in the Revolutionary War (for the British), came back to run his derelict farm.

I cannot remember if Poldark was an army or navy captain; I think navy? And he didn’t just come back to run the farm – he came back because the war was over, he wanted to return to a normal life, and he hoped to wed his neighbor Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Ross’s girlfriend before the war; [Poldark] came back to find her engaged to his cousin.

Leslie whaaaat

Elizabeth thought Ross had died in the war. Because remember, this is the Revolutionary War – there ain’t no telegrams or anything. And because this is the late 1700s and women couldn’t be independent, she did the next best thing and get herself engaged to Ross’s cousin (because also, there aren’t a whole lot of people around).

Francis Poldark: Marries Elizabeth; childhood friend of Ross; gambler.

So Francis, if I remember correctly, was a bit of a dick. He grew to be very jealous of the friendship between Elizabeth and Ross, even though Ross made no attempt to drive Elizabeth away from Francis. Elizabeth and Francis have a child, whom is doted on by Elizabeth; but Francis either wants Elizabeth to have another child and she’s not ready, or Francis’s dickishness just explodes everywhere … I can’t remember, but he’s not cool. Also he’s a gambler and nearly bankrupts the family.

Demelza: The waif Ross adopts/conscripts into service as his maid; quick to learn, devoted to Ross – becomes his wife.

One day, Ross goes to the nearest village to purchase something or maybe sell something, and he meets Demelza, a young, teenaged waif who was getting into trouble in some way. When he stops her from whatever it was she was doing, she says her only option is to return to her Da, who will beat her. He takes Demelza back to his house (he has two servants, who are terrible and lazy) and turns Demelza into a jack-of-all-trades scullery maid and servant. Over the years (because this book really does cover a few years), Ross and Demelza become attracted to each other, and they end the book married.

Verity: Francis’s sister, good friend to Ross and Demelza

Verity visits Ross a lot when he first returns to Cornwall and his land. She lives with Elizabeth and Francis, and wants to make sure Ross doesn’t isolate himself after Francis’s marriage.

Captain Blamey: The captain Verity falls in love with, who accidentally killed his first wife while he was drunk

*snickers* Captain Blamey … oh man, that’s a nickname I need to keep in my back pocket…

Verity also spends a lot of time at Ross’s house because he sort of understands the romance between Blamey and Verity. Make no mistake, he’d prefer that she didn’t love him, because he doesn’t trust Blamey not to fall back into alcoholism and he worries about Verity’s safety, but he understands the attraction between the two people.

Charles Poldark: Ross’s uncle, Francis’s & Verity’s father

I think Charles dies in the novel? I think? There was also some sort of bad blood between Charles and Ross’s father, but it’s dispensed with quickly.

Jud Paynter and Prudie: Ross’s servants

When Ross returns to his land, it’s been in the hands of “caretaker” Jud and his wife Prudie. They are terrible people, in that they are completely lazy and give no shits. When Ross comes home the house is a decrepit mess, with I think only one horse and no crops to farm? He spends a lot of time fixing up the place and whipping Jud and Prudie into shape. Adding Demelza into the mix helps to inspire Prudie to at least mediocrity.

Jinny & Jim: lovebirds who worked in the mines, later married, and lived on Ross’s land; Jim gets caught poaching and goes to jail for two years.

The biggest “plot” in the book is Ross getting the ol’ family mine started up again. He hires some people, including Jinny and Jim, to help mine the copper (or was it tin? *checks Wikipedia* Copper. A copper mine). When Jim wants to marry Jinny, Ross offers to let them live in an old cottage on his land rent-free (essentially, “you work for me, now because I provide housing you can’t leave.” CAPITALISM) (tone it down, Patterson, this was written about miners in the late 1700s, communism is still a red herring at this point).

But in order to get food, Jim poaches on some hoity estate and gets caught. Even after Ross vouches for Jim in court, Jim still gets sent to jail for two years. At the end of the book, Jim is still in jail.

And those are all the notes I took. No quotes, nothing else. Overall, the plot of the book was very … like, “slice-of-life” stuff. How can I explain this …

Instead of telling a single story – or maybe one primary story with a few B-plots – Ross Poldark tells the goings-on of one man over the course of a few years. Some stories escalate and resolve, some stories are just brief vignettes, and others don’t even resolve in the timeframe we’re watching.

And that’s okay, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. It wasn’t quite a picaresque novel (where instead of a plot with a through-line throughout the novel, the novel is a series of adventures starring a low-class individual [typically a thief or some other rogue] and the character doesn’t undergo any development), but it felt like it at times. However, characters do develop, Ross and Demelza especially.

I’ll probably watch the TV show (eventually, at some point), and knowing me, I’ll probably pick up the next book in the series, but it’ll probably be a while. I guess I was hoping there’d be a little more suspense or action than there was, that’s all.

Grade for Ross Poldark: 1.5 stars

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Fiction: “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne DuMaurier

my cousin rachelI picked this book up at the same time as An Untimely Frost. I was perusing all of the tables of paperbacks, as quickly as I could – when I go to Barnes & Noble on my lunch break, I really only have half an hour to spend, because driving to and from there eats up about fifteen minutes each way, thanks, traffic! – and at first for some reason I thought this was a previously-unpublished novel by Ms. DuMaurier? But apparently I thought Daphne DuMaurier only wrote two novels (Rebecca and Jamaica Inn), and didn’t realize she was as prolific as she was.

Because I love Rebecca so very, very much, I bought the book, and began reading it when I returned home from My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower.

My Cousin Rachel is set in an unknown time period, most likely mid-to-late 1800s in the Cornwall, England area (the southwestern-most tip of Great Britain). The book is narrated by Philip Ashley, adopted ward of his cousin, Ambrose Ashley. Ambrose takes Philip in after Philip’s parents die, and Ambrose raises Philip according to what he feels is best – sends Philip off to school (Eton, I think), then on Philip’s holiday he comes back and tends to the estate. Ambrose never feels like he needs to marry to have give Philip a feminine influence; his neighbors, Nick Kendall and Nick’s daughter, Louise, satisfy Philip and Ambrose’s social needs.

As Ambrose ages, his doctor recommends traveling to warmer climes in the winter. So Ambrose winters in Florence for a couple of winters. And then, one winter, Ambrose doesn’t come home: he has fallen in love with a widowed contessa, Rachel Sangalletti. Philip feels betrayed; he’s shocked that his love for Ambrose isn’t good enough to sustain Ambrose any longer.

Then, Philip receives a strange letter from Ambrose. Ambrose is ill, and all of a sudden, somewhat paranoid. He complains of terrible headaches, but comments that Rachel is tending to his needs. A second letter arrives later that summer, wherein Ambrose tells Philip of Rachel’s lawyer and friend, Rainaldi, who recommends a doctor for Ambrose to see.

Philip becomes evermore anxious and distrusting of the care Rachel is providing, and with Nick’s blessing, Philip travels to Florence to rescue his cousin. But when he arrives, Ambrose has been dead for a couple of weeks, and Rachel has fled the villa.

Heartbroken, Philip returns to Cornwall. He learns that Ambrose never updated his will, so Philip will still inherit the estate when he comes of age (turns 25). A few weeks after that, Philip receives a letter from his cousin Rachel – she has arrived in Portsmouth, and she wishes to meet Philip and see the estate before settling herself in London.

Philip invites her to the estate, as it is the only proper thing to do. He is resolved to hate her immediately, and relies on the kindness of Nick and Louise to ensure the estate is presentable. Philip spends the day of Rachel’s arrival canvassing the acreage, determined to not see her.

(I’m sorry that paragraph is so dramatic compared to the rest of the review – I’ve been listening to classical music to a] keep my concentration on this and b] I had a headache earlier and classical music can help, but The Ride of the Valkyries just started playing and apparently it’s making my word choice just as bombastic. I HAVE NO REGRETS [except the shouting, Alaina, ssshhhh].)

But when he meets Rachel after dinner, he is charmed by her quiet graces. She is very grateful to Philip’s hospitality, and seems to be devastated by the loss of Ambrose. Philip realizes he was acting immature, and resolves to be nicer to Rachel.

As his affection for her grows – and Christmas nears – Philip goes into the village, and removes the grand pearl necklace that belonged to his mother from the Ashley security box. Philip gives the pearls to Rachel, and she is enamored of them. But at the party where they both present Christmas presents to the estate staff, Nick and Louise comment on the necklace. Nick asks Rachel to be sure to return the necklace the next day, to have it returned to the bank. She readily acquiesces, with no hard feelings. Philip is hurt, and claims to be the rightful owner of the necklace and he’s all, I do what I want! And Nick reminds him not until April when you turn 25, boy

Then Philip finds a last, lost letter among Ambrose’s belongings that Rachel brought from Florence, in which Ambrose sounds the most paranoid of all the letters. He outright accuses Rachel of embezzling money to buy things, and he also suspects she’s poisoning him.

Philip must decide who to believe: Rachel, who is incredibly sincere and guileless, or Ambrose, the guardian he trusted over everything else.

I was not drawn to this novel as much as I was to Rebecca. I also don’t know if my attraction to Rebecca stems from the movie, which I watched first, or if because the narrator of Rebecca is a nameless female (save for “Mrs. De Winter”) so that it’s easier for me to fall into her story than Philip’s. It also might be because Mrs. De Winter is so innocent and naive, whereas Philip has many moments of suspicion and paranoia, that I see more of my own instincts in Philip than Mrs. De Winter, and therefore are more likely to find escapism in Mrs. De Winter’s tale than Philip’s.

(Also, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t have a Mrs. Danvers, and that’s a liability.)

I also watched the movie when it was released on Redbox late last summer. It stars Sam Claflin as Philip and Mrs. Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, as Rachel. I know the movie did not stray too far from the book. I also know that the movie didn’t rewrite the ending of the book (unlike Rebecca, and yes, I still blame the Hays Code and no, I still don’t know if I prefer the movie or the book). But that’s about all I can say about it, because it was one of those Redboxes that I threw on and then got bored or looked at my phone and did other things and basically tuned the whole thing out.

It looked pretty, though. And again, it did not stray from the book, so, yay faithful adaptation?

If you like psychological thrillers, you’ll probably like My Cousin Rachel, even though it’s not really “thrilling”. As you read, you need to decide: is Rachel a victim of circumstance, paranoia, and perception? Or is she a black widow? After reading it and watching the movie, I’m still not entirely sure of my decision.

Grade for My Cousin Rachel: 3 stars

Fiction: “Silent in the Grave” by Deanna Raybourn

silent in the graveI had heard many great things about the Lady Julia Grey mystery series – from the Fug Girls’ Afternoon Book chats, from other readers, all sorts of places. But damned if I could ever find a copy of them. I think I had the first one out from the Portland library when I still lived there, or maybe it was during that weird six months where I worked at that horrible office, but if I had checked this out at that time, I returned it unread. And god forbid that the Yarmouth library had this title in stock.

But good news, everyone! I was shopping at Bull Moose – record store of my heart, that has also expanded to DVDs, games, and bless them, books – and a hardcover copy of Silent in the Grave, the first Lady Julia Grey mystery, was on sale. And not only was it on sale, but it was on sale for $2.97.

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Now, the hardcover is heavy. It’s like, 500 pages. And I wanted to start reading it before going to My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower, but I also didn’t want to be carting around a 500-page hardcover book through airport security or on the Metro. I started reading this for real when I returned to Maine, and I read it super quick.

Lady Julia Grey is a widow in Victorian England. We know she’s a widow, because the first paragraph in the book reads:

To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor. [p. 13]

Edward dies shortly thereafter, for all appearances, of stroke or seizure. Edward had not been well, either, so while it is a sad turn of events, it wasn’t completely a surprise. Brisbane was invited not as a guest to the dinner party that was going on, but because Edward had hired Brisbane to investigate a threat Edward had received. While the doctor declares Edward’s death due to his longstanding heart condition, Brisbane tries to convince Julia that Edward was murdered. She dismisses Brisbane out of hand and tries to get on with her mourning.

About a year later, Julia finds one of those threatening notes left for Edward, and she starts to think that maybe Brisbane was right. Julia seeks Brisbane out and attempts to hire him to find her husband’s killer, but he rightly tells her that too much time has passed since the death for any evidence or trails to exist.

But that doesn’t stop Lady Julia! She does her own investigating, and asking the doctor some questions, and also there are gypsies and –

Look, again, sadly, this review is going to suffer for my lateness and lack of note-taking. I know I did not bother to take notes on this book because I own it and thought by skimming through the book when it finally came time to review it, I’d be able to be fine with it? But I’m writing this at almost 11 p.m. on the Tuesday night before I have to go back to work after a six-day Christmas break and I really don’t feel like re-reading a 500-page novel again just so I can do a decent job reviewing it.

Note From the Future: I maaaay have started writing these reviews like, three at a time, and then posting one a day. I’m posting this today because I’m back to having four reviews in the can, so to speak, and that’s a good amount to have able to post, so – new year new me maybe this book blog backlog can be eradicated before the Oscars!

So I’m not going to talk about the plot – mainly, because I can’t remember much of it, and what I can remember, I’ll spoil the ending for you, and I don’t wanna play you like that. Instead, I’m going to tell you the emotions I remember and some other things.

First, Brisbane is a curmudgeon. A handsome curmudgeon, but a curmudgeon nonetheless. He is short with Lady Julia, and he tends to exasperate her, but later he introduces her to Hortense de Bellefleur, a patron-slash-mentor of sorts to Brisbane. A former courtesan, she delights in her newfound friendship with Lady Julia, and Julia responds in kind, not caring about what other people in society may think. Hortense also tells Julia that one of the factors for Brisbane’s prickliness is that he suffers from – well, we’d call them migraines, in common parlance. Can’t remember what they call them in this time period, and while I will look up the name of Brisbane’s courtesan friend, I’m not searching through the pages to find the euphemism for migraines.

Julia also has some ties to gypsies – a band of gypsies used to park on her father’s land when she was a teenager, and one of her maids or housekeepers is a gypsy. Somehow Julia is concerned that the gypsies may have been involved with Edward’s death, which leads her and her brother to disguise themselves to sneak into a nearby gypsy camp, where she discovers Brisbane boxing and also he’s fluent in Romany and when he discovers her there he gets super mad and also super protective and oooohhh, I see what you did there, Ms. Raybourn, it’s Next Love Interest Time!

I realize I’m sounding super facetious, but at this point I think I’m mad at myself more than at the book. I know I loved the book – much like when I skimmed the reviews for a couple of previous books, I’m shocked at how many people on Goodreads hate this book, but I enjoyed it. I thought the romantic elements between Lady Julia and Brisbane were great – a nice, slow burn, which I enjoy wholeheartedly. There’s also a subplot with Julia’s brother, whose name escapes me, and how he managed to steal a raven from the Tower of London and now the raven lives with Julia. There’s also Julia’s entire family, the Marches; her father is a Shakespearean nut, and all of the family members are named from Shakespeare characters. There’s a lot, and again, not looking it up, but I enjoyed that part of it.

I really did like this book. Unlike what some commentors on Goodreads thought, I didn’t think the multiple plotlines distracted from the story. I think this does something similar to the Lady Emily mysteries I’ve read: you have a strong, independent, almost-headstrong widow who’s determined to get to the bottom of something, but because she’s a Lady of Quality, she can’t devote every last second to mystery-solving. There are going to be subplots. Let’s face it; we all have subplots going on in our lives, we can’t devote every single second to the main action. In some cases, we may not even know whether the main action really is the main action.

The only page I dogeared in the entire novel was page 55, where Julia reminisces about her courtship with Edward. I felt that, through this paragraph, I felt akin with Julia:

I was not like the other girls; I had no frivolous conversation or pretty tricks to win suitors. I had forthrightness and plainspoken manners. I had a good mind and a sharp tongue, and I was cruel enough to use them as weapons to keep the cads and rogues at bay. As for the young men I might have liked to partner me, I was far better at repelling than attracting. I did not swoon or carry a vinaigrette or turn squeamish at the mention of spiders. Father had raised us to scorn such feminine deceptions. Like my brothers, I wanted to talk about good books and urgent politics, new ideas and foreign places. But the young men I met did not like that. They wanted pretty dolls with silvery giggles and empty heads. [p. 55]

Heeelloooo, Alaina! Like, FOR REAL. I do not know how to flirt. I am bad at it. I can’t tell when dudes flirt with me, which leads me to think that dudes aren’t flirting with me, which is also fine. But seriously: aside from literally screaming my head off at the sight of a garter snake (ask my sister, it happened, I’m ashamed but also, not apologetic for my actions), that paragraph could be describing one Alaina L. Patterson.

Again, that’s not the only reason I liked the story, and encourage y’all to read it given the chance. But it’s nice when a reader can truly relate to a character.

Grade for Silent in the Grave: 4 stars

Fiction: “An Untimely Frost” by Penny Richards

untimely frostI spent one of my lunch breaks in early May at the local Barnes & Noble, looking for something to read. I was flying to D.C. to visit My Dear Friend Sarah for her baby shower, and I have a bad track record with bringing library books on trips (it was My Dear Friend Sarah who had to mail me back the copy of Amsterdam by Ian McEwan I had left at her house when she and I went to the midnight showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest). So I wanted something to read that I wouldn’t get pissed at if I accidentally left it behind somewhere.

I was scanning the mystery shelves, and this was displayed face out, I think. The tagline says “Solving crimes is not a dress rehearsal…”, and look at me, not complaining about ellipses!

(sigh. I have a friend who texts rarely, but when he does, he always ends his sentences with ellipses. Like, “sounds fun…..”. NOT THAT WAY, IT DOESN’T! It sounds like you’re eye-rolling at me, and that just adds to my anxiety about people not wanting to hang out with me. JUST HIT THE PERIOD ONCE, DUDE, THAT’S ALL YOU NEED)

(Also yes, this is the same person whose vehicle has been abandoned for at least an entire year at this point.)

(And yes, since I first saw the vehicle as abandoned on January 3, 2017, I am most definitely preparing to Jerry Maguire the shit out of that vehicle for an anniversary present of sorts.)

(wait, let me be crystal clear: an anniversary present for the car, not for the friend. If a friend can’t return a “merry christmas” text then maybe the texting friend should just keep the DVD collection of The Grinder for herself)

ANYWAY. The back of the book said this:

In 1881 Chicago, the idea of a female detective is virtually unheard of. But when famed crime buster Allan Pinkerton opens his agency’s doors to a handful of women, one intrepid actress with her own troubled past is driven to defy convention and take on a new and dangerous role …

Oh god, those ellipses again. But seriously, the mention of the Pinkertons sealed the deal for me buying the book. Every time I see anything about the Pinkertons, I hear Al Swearengen growling about the Pinkertons and get all happy.

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(Deadwood, guys – you have to watch Deadwood. And also The Grinder. But definitely Deadwood.)

I read this over the weekend-ish of My Dear Friend Sarah’s baby shower. I remember reading a chunk of it on the Red Line into D.C. and back, because the day after the baby shower, I visited the International Spy Museum and checked a thing off of my bucket list:

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I TOUCHED THAT MOTHERFUCKER. I am not kidding or exaggerating: I have loved that car longer than I’ve loved any man. My father can attest: I asked for a miniature version of that car every Christmas from the age of 10 to the age of 17. There were substitutes, but never the real thing.

So when the gift shop had this:

it's coming home with me

— you bet your ASS I took it home with me.

But the book! Right. So Lilly Long is married to Tim Warner, who’s an asshole. He takes all her money and hits her a couple of times, and then leaves her. She attempts to find him in the local pub, but while there, she learns that not only does he owe for drinking and gambling, but he’s also racked up a debt with a couple of prostitutes.

Lilly returns to her actor’s quarters with the rest of her troupe, Rose and Pierce, who took her in after her mother died. While reading the paper, Lilly learns that Pinkerton’s is looking to hire women detectives, and Lilly gets it into her head that she’s going to join the agency and become a detective. She manages it, by dressing up as three different types of women (spinster, flirt, etc.) and going to three different interviews. She reveals her disguise at the end of her second interview and Allan hires her on the spot.

Her first case sends her to rural Illinois – a preacher and his family have disappeared, and the owner of the house wants to sell it but can’t until they have the permission of any remaining family members. So she heads out to Vandalia to find out what happened to the preacher man.

Well, she stirs up shit, that’s for sure. As soon as the residents learn why she’s there, they clam up and refuse to talk about anything. Lilly sleuths on her own, actually runs out to Heaven’s Gate (the preacher’s house, and also, the name of that cult that all killed themselves on my birthday in the late 90s, so – subtle, Ms. Richards) to see if she can find any clues.

Meanwhile, there’s this dude following her around: a boxer with a bit of an Irish accent, he calls her ‘colleen’ which throws her back right up – Colleen was the name of one of the prostitutes her ex-husband frequented – and Lilly tries to avoid him at all costs. But he has a habit of showing up at the most coincidental of places – like, when a runaway horse and cart were careening down the main drag right towards her, or when she got herself locked into the attic of Heaven’s Gate …

SEE THAT’S HOW YOU USE ELLIPSES, to add to the suspense! Not just as regular punctuation! I swear to god

So that’s about all I remember slash can talk about without getting spoilery. This was a cute mystery with absolutely no stakes. Any sense of suspense was resolved very quickly. You never for one second thought Lilly was in any real danger.

What kind of ticked me off was that the boxer I mentioned? We don’t learn his name – Andrew Cadence McShane – until p. 247. This book is only 258 pages long. That’s – that’s not the best use of suspense.

So overall, I’m rating this 2 stars. However, I am going to read the next book, because the paperback gives the first chapter of the next book, and it looks like the next book is going to have the Fake Married Trope be a big part of Lilly’s next case.

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Grade for An Untimely Frost: 2 stars

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 Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam” by Chris Ewan

Good Thief's Guide AmsterdamOh, good – I did not take notes on this book before returning it to the library! All I did was take a single picture of a quote I wanted to talk about, but that won’t make sense without context, Alaina! This is … this is going to be great. Awesome.

So hey, this was a book I read! I actually grabbed The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris first, and then when I got home from the library and checked the Goodreads I learned that Paris was actually the second title in the series, so I had to return Paris so I could check out Amsterdam because I cannot do something out of order.

Seriously, I’m going to have to crib from a handful of Goodreads reviews and maybe the Wikipedia page, because I remember the premise, but neither the plot nor characters’ names. Excellent reviewing, Alaina! Thank goodness this isn’t your real job!

The narrator of our tale is Charlie Howard. He is a writer of suspense novels, starring a cat burglar. Oh, Charlie is also a “reformed” cat burglar, and by “reformed” I mean “can’t really come back to England because he’s wanted by Scotland Yard maybe.” He is in Amsterdam, attempting to finish up his next novel, and he has phone conversations with his editor, Victoria, who is back in London and apparently believes that Charlie looks like his author dust jacket photo. I remember this, because that phrase is not only in the summary on the back of the book, but also in dialogue.

One night, Charlie gets an email through his publishing website that is cryptic, but asking for Charlie to pull a job. Because yes, Charlie is still actively burgling when he gets a job inspiring enough. He’s like Poirot, but instead of solving crimes, he only commits the crimes that intrigue him. He meets some dude in a café, and the dude asks Charlie to steal two monkey figurines for a tidy sum of 20,000 Euros. Charlie declines, because his gut tells him something’s fishy about this whole deal.

However, Charlie changes his mind and accepts the job. Why does he change his mind? Because if he didn’t, there’d be no plot. Charlie finds the monkeys and is about to deliver them to the person who hired him when two dudes run up the person who hired him and then Charlie finds the person who hired him beaten nearly to death in his apartment.

(There’s more there, and I know I’m doing a bad job explaining this, but it’s been a while and I’m mad that I didn’t take good notes, knowing I’d be writing the review months later. Ugh.)

So then Charlie gets framed for the attempted murder. And there are additional people searching for the monkeys. It’s like The Maltese Falcon, a bit, but kind of comic about it.

The one quote I thought about enough that I took a picture of the page (I was at the gym, I think) is the following brief excerpt of a conversation between Charlie and his lawyer:

“Is there more?”

I just looked at him.

“Very well, you don’t have to tell me. You don’t look or sound like a killer – any fool can see that. But not answering their questions, that could create problems.”

“Can’t I take the fifth, or something like it?”

“Of course you can. But you have to ask yourself how that will help your cause. Your aim is to convince them you didn’t slay the American, surely.” [p. 76]

Uh … Charlie isn’t American. And the crime occurred in Amsterdam. So … the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution wouldn’t be something that Charlie could use.

(Looking through the Goodreads reviews of this book, I’m struck by a) the number of reviews that complained about the lack of copy-editing, and also b) the fact that this Fifth Amendment reference is the only one I really caught? I’m usually really good at that type of shit, I must have been off my game. But I’m assuming that this reference is also a product of lesser editing, because, dudes – the Fifth Amendment is not a universal thing.)

Okay. Y’know, for not remembering a lot of this, I think I did okay. Overall, I enjoyed the book; it was a quick read, Charlie is a bit of fun and entertaining enough to move the story along, and didn’t catch any serious problems with the writing. The ending feels like the ending of a Poirot novel, so, if you don’t like monologuing or scenarios where the detective details the entire plot to a sitting company of rogues, you may be disappointed in the book.

But at some point I’ll re-check-out The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris, and I’ll make sure to take better notes at that time.

Grade for The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Dirty Love” by Andre Dubus III

dirty loveMerry Christmas! And if you don’t celebrate, Happy Monday or whatever!

Dirty Love was another book during one of my many library binges this year. For reals, I know I bitch about the Yarmouth library (a lot, and I only feel slightly bad about it), but I’ve never left the library empty-handed. In fact, I usually take out six books at a time, and then only finish two during the first three week period. Then I renew the other four, and at the end of the renewal period at least one book is going back unread and the other two are going back late.

I’m pretty sure that the only reason I picked this off the shelf is because of the title, so, four for you, Andre Dubus III, you go Andre Dubus III!

Andre Dubus III also wrote The House of Sand and Fog, which was turned into an Oscar-nominated film that I have not watched, starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Shoreh Agdashloo, whose name I love to pronounce. Also, she’s fantastic. However, I have not read The House of Sand and Fog, so I have no idea what it’s about.

Fun Fact!: I went into my office a few weeks ago to get a book for my mother to read, and I found a copy of The House of Sand and Fog on my bookcase. I have no idea where that came from, or when I purchased it. Although now that I think about it, I may have taken it from the remnants of the huge yard sale we did this summer … but regardless, while it wasn’t as weird as that time my Dad found six Silence of the Lambs posters that he claims I purchased and I have no memory of doing so, it is still a tad weird.

SO ANYWAY. Dirty Love is a series of short stories-slash-novellas, and each deals with a romantic relationship and the downsides of all of them. It’s so heartwarming! Merry Christmas, everyone!

The first story, “Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed,” tells the story of Mark Welch’s divorce. Mark is a project manager, and he’s been married to Laura for a long time. They divorce because Laura has fallen in love with Frank Harrison, Jr., but Mark is still living in the apartment over the garage.

From what I recall (because remember, I read this in April, it’s been a while, I said I was going to get better at this, clearly I lied), the meat of this story comes from the character deep dive we do on Mark. The story is told from Mark’s perspective, which means the salient points flow through Mark’s head, kind of like a stream of consciousness. So it starts off with the current problem Mark’s dealing with, but then he’ll remember something from years before, like this gem of advice from his former mentor:

“Your problem is you’ve subscribed to the wrong motivational theory. That’s what big sisters do. They believe everyone has their heart in the right place at the right time and all you have to do is point them in the right direction. Wrong. People are naturally fucking lazy. They’d rather lie around all day eating, fucking, and scratching their balls. That’s why pricks are needed, my friend. It’s called micromanagement and it works.” [p. 22]

And Mark took that work advice to heart, and let it bleed into his personal life. HOO BOY, did HE make good choices!

Here’s what I’ve learned from micromanagers: they are GREAT at getting involved with everyone else’s shit, but they are COMPLETELY INCAPABLE of managing their own. And Mark Welch is an excellent example of that in literary form.

And he used that micromanage-ey trait when he first met Laura, as his realtor:

But there was something so accepting about this woman [Laura] who had sold him his condo that he was soon inviting her into it, the sun low over the water. Mark distracted by the gold in her hair, her deep green eyes, her high cheekbones and straight clavicle, and he liked how she wanted to hear about him, his job and his boyhood, but not like she was interrogating him or sizing him up. There was a calm to her, a passivity he could only do one thing with – to take it in his two hands and begin to shape, then manage her as he saw fit. [p. 79-80]

Let me be clear: Mark is an asshole. But – like with many assholes – sometimes, what they say has a ring of truth to them. For instance:

[…] the sounds of a television in an open window somewhere, baseball again, the Red Sox, and he was a good athlete in high school, fast enough to play in college though he did not for he knew he was not good enough to play behind that so what was the point? It wasn’t practical. It wasn’t the logical thing to do, and he is so tired of logic, so tired of managing every last detail of each and every day, and how sweet to let go of the wheel and let someone else drive […] [p. 49]

As someone who, for the longest time, kept her focus on the practical choices and rarely deviated down a spontaneous, frivolous path, that paragraph stung, a bit. However, my Type A control won’t even let me think of passing the wheel to someone else. (When Beyoncé asked all the women who’re independent to throw our hands up at her, you bet your ass I threw mine the highest and hardest. Not that she could see, but still)

And then, going back to Mark’s assholery (which Word recognizes as a real word, go me!), there’s this moment where his lover, Lisa, pisses him off about something and he grabs her wrist:

“Fuck you.” A flame flares up behind his left eye, the back of her knuckles sliding away like a snake’s head, and he is on his feet, the plastic chair sailing out away from them, the clatter of it on the neighbor’s roof before falling though Mark’s eyes are not on it but on Lisa Schena’s, her wrist locked between his squeezing fingers.

“What gives you the right to do that, huh? What?

“Let go of me.” Laura’s words, not this woman’s, but they come from her mouth like some memorized lines from a script written before any of them were born. [p. 68-69]

YES ALL WOMEN. #MeToo

The second story in the book is “Marla.” It’s about Marla. Marla’s a curvy, overweight woman who is slightly obsessive about her body image (as all curvy women can be). She’s never dated before, and she works at a bank. She meets Dennis, who’s got a bit of a dad bod, I guess? My notes from when I finished the book note that Dennis is also “curvy”, so I’m going to go with it. Dennis is a fictional character, what’s he gonna do, yell at me for using a feminine descriptor? Go fuck yourself, Dennis.

Anyway, Dennis flirts with Marla at the bank and she agrees to go out on a date with him. And they keep dating, to the point where she moves into his apartment. The problem in this story is that Marla can feel herself slipping away from herself slowly as she goes through the relationship. First, Dennis always showers immediately after sex, which gives Marla a bit of a complex. She moves into his apartment, and finds herself always watching the movies that Dennis wants to watch. Dennis gets up from the table after dinner and immediately washes the dishes, like, he can’t wait five minutes to talk before those dishes need to be cleaned. Marla talks to her friends about the relationship, and she’s confused; after all, this is her first one. At first it’s nice that he dotes on her and she feels that they’re in love, but at the same time, she recognizes that he is subsuming her sense of self, and she’s letting it happen, because they’re in a relationship.

Remember when I said I was independent? While I may be curvy and neurotic like Marla, and yes, I haven’t really dated, but as nice as the dude is? This story will never happen to Alaina. And yes, this story did hit a bit close to home at times.

MOVING ON. Third story, “The Bartender.” I didn’t take many notes on this one. The titular bartender is Robert Doucette. He’s married to Althea, who is expecting their first child. Robert bartends at an oceanfront hotel (I’m gonna call it the Seafarer, but I’m 83% sure I’m wrong). He flirts with the waitresses, but he does so as a front; he considers himself a failed poet. He went to college for an English degree, and hoped to write poetry. He considers his bartending a failure, and he keeps searching for people to appreciate him.

He remembers advice a former teacher had given him about a poem Robert had written, in which the poem deals directly with Robert’s adolescence and his hopes of escaping his hometown:

That poet-in-residence had told Robert he should start looking at other people instead of expecting everyone to look at him. [p. 155]

So obviously, Robert totally learned his lesson.

Over the summer, Robert has an affair with Jackie, a waitress at the bar. Althea discovers the affair and gets so upset (I think she may also fall?) that she suffers a placental abruption. Robert races to the hospital to learn that the baby is born early.

The final story is also the titular story, “Dirty Love.” “Dirty Love” concerns itself with Devon, an 18-year-old high school dropout who lives with her Uncle Francis. She dropped out of high school when a video of her blowing her boyfriend was posted on the internet and her father found out.

Uncle Francis is in his 80s and a widower. He’s a former teacher, and also a former drunk. His wife, Beth, loved him dearly but also nagged and complained at him and his drinking in an attempt to force him to be better. He tries to tutor Devon in-between her shifts as a maid at the Seafarer in the hopes of getting her to college, but Devon doesn’t have any ambition to that.

At night, Devon wades through the misery found on ChatRoulette (though it may have been named something different in the book), and meets Hollis. They chat and have conversations, and she tries to hide her late-night conversations from Francis because she doesn’t think he’ll understand.

At one point, Charlie, Devon’s father, visits Francis and wants to have Devon come home. But Francis doesn’t want that to happen, because Devon’s being there has given Francis something to do in his retirement, and he feels useful for the first time in a long while.

“Dirty Love” ends with hope. I couldn’t spoil it if I wanted to, because I can’t recall the exact ending, but I know Devon leaves Francis with the intent of escaping her roots. Whether that will end up like Robert’s attempt or not is left up to the reader. But speaking of independence, this quote from Francis stuck with me:

[…] for if he’s learned nothing in all his years he’s learned that, that from our first gasps for air till our last, we simply want to be left alone to do what we want to do when we want to do it, and because this is rarely the case we crave oblivion in any way it presents its dark, sweet self to us. [p. 287]

You, me, and Greta Garbo, Francis.

Overall, I liked the four stories; I thought they were very well-written, and offered four different perspectives on romantic love and the pitfalls therein. I’m a little proud of myself for finding this after Valentine’s Day, because this feels like something I’d try to read around that time and really depress myself; but I didn’t, so, inadvertent progress, or something.

Merry Christmas!

Grade for Dirty Love: 2.5 stars