Fiction: “The Rogue Not Taken” by Sarah MacLean

rogue-not-takenI had every intention of getting back into this a couple of weeks ago. But a couple of weeks ago the entire world turned upside down, and I kind of feel like the British troops did when they were run out of Yorktown – stunned, disheartened, and slightly confused as to how this all even fucking happened.

However, fear not: this is not a politics blog – even though I have had the occasional tangent down that dark alley. But my promise to you, my dear reader(s), is to maintain this blog in the same way I always have: poorly, with non-sequiturs and tangents, and only rarely discussing the actual plot of the books I read. And that’s a promise I won’t break.

So this is the third out of currently six “silly little romance novels” I’ve read thus far in 2016. Fun Fact!: I both began and finished reading this book while in the middle of reading The Witches. Y’ALL FORGOT THE WITCHES WAS GONNA BE A THING, didn’t you?! Don’t worry – it’s still coming up. Next, in fact. It’s, uh … it’s a Thing on its own.

I’d read a lot of good press about Sarah MacLean’s romances – that the heroines she wrote about were intelligent women with their own agency and a generous dash of snark, and that the romancing itself was very hot. I have to say, the press was actually correct in that respect. Now, pardon me while I quickly skim through the book to remind myself about the plot, because I read it in July.

(Another Fun Fact!: I was going to review this a couple of days ago, while I was puppysitting Hamilton Tickets for my parents [[oh my god i don’t think i’ve talked about Hamilton Tickets on here GIVE ME A MINUTE THIS WILL BE A TREAT]], but the book fell out of my laundry basket on my way downstairs and it was left on my deck outside for 24 hours [I live on the second floor and my entrance is through an open-air deck], wherein the book got rained on. But let’s take a moment to thank Avon Publishing for their stellar choice of cover material. The cover is only slightly warped, but the pages inside are STILL DRY.)

[[After My Sister’s Wedding, Mom and Dad got a puppy. Her real name is Ginger, but Hamilton Tickets is shaping up to be an excellent nickname (Thanks, Alaina’s Dear Friend Sarah!). Also, my goal in mentioning Hamilton Tickets is to get this picture to come up when people google “Hamilton Tickets”:

20160807_153327

LOOK AT THAT FAAAAAAACE SHE’S SO PRECIOUS]]

Okay, Alaina – the book. Talk about the book.

The Rogue Not Taken is the first book in the series “Scandal and Scoundrel”: each book in the series deals with gossip rags published and read among the ton, and while I think each subsequent book deals with a tertiary character from the last book in the series, I don’t think it will be like other romance series where each book deals with another member of the same family. I’m not sure, to be honest; the second book in the series was only recently released, so I’m not 100% sure what the pattern will be.

So in The Rogue Not Taken, we are introduced to the Talbot sisters: a family of five girls who rose to prominence when their parents purchased a title. The ton gets all mad because they don’t like upstarts who purchase titles; they only approve homegrown blue-bloods. Sophie, the youngest Talbot, keeps to herself and stays out of the gossip rags – unlike her sisters. And the story starts when her temper gets the better of her, and she pushes her brother-in-law into a goldfish pond after discovering him boinking someone else at a party.

In a spontaneous moment, she decides to leave London and return to her childhood home in Cumbria. But because this is 1833 and not 2013, she can’t exactly take an Uber there. So with the last of her pocket money, she hires a footman away from a carriage and disguises herself as said footman and hitches a ride on said carriage and rolls right into trouble.

Because she’s an unchaperoned young woman not fooling anyone in her footman’s clothes. And the carriage happens to belong to a dude whose name is, hand to God, “Kingscote.” He goes by “King.” Alaina is Never Making It Up. He is a bit of an asshole, at first – he’s heading back to his hometown (which is just outside of Sophie’s hometown, because coincidence is prevalent in silly little romance novels) because his dying father wants King to come back home and accept his responsibilities as duke. Or marquess. Whatever title King doesn’t want to do. I know he’s not an actual king.

See, King and his dad had a falling out, because years ago, King loved a commoner, and King’s Dad disapproved of the match, and when King’s Dad ran the girl off of the estate, the coach she was in careened her to her death, and King blames King’s Dad for it and that’s why he’s returning home reluctantly. Also, he’s vowed to never marry and the line ends with me and all that jazz.

(This is the second book I can recall where this is a major plot line. Spoiler alert!: they always change their mind.)

When he finds out that Sophie’s going in the same direction he is, his first assumption is that she’s trying to trap him into marriage – much like her sisters did with their husbands. But all Sophie wants to do is return to Cumbria, open a bookshop, and meet up with her childhood sweetheart Robbie and hope he’s still unattached. (Spoiler alert!: he’s not.)

King attempts to leave Sophie to her own devices, but she sells his fancy curricle wheels behind his back to get some money for a ticket on the mail coach. When King finds out, he goes after her (for the wheels, definitely not because he thinks he likes her, we’re only 100 pages in at this point, he hasn’t recognized what that feeling is yet). But when he gets to the mail coach, the passengers are being robbed at gunpoint, and Sophie actually gets hit. It’s a non-critical hit, but a hit nonetheless.

Can I just take a minute and praise this plot? First, let me point out to you the pun in the title: The Rogue Not Taken = “the road not taken.” This is a book full of road trip hijinks! Where the heroine takes a bullet! Unfortunately, the road trip aspect involves a lot more romance and no Hamilton karaoke, so it’s not exactly like an Alaina Patterson Road Trip™, but it’s still pretty hijink-ey. (The other part of the title that makes it almost a pun is that King is a rogue who is unattached – i.e., not taken. Geddit?)

I’m sorry. I don’t know why I didn’t trust you guys (are there more than one of you? Sometimes I wonder…) to get the pun in the title. I’m a bad person.

King takes Sophie to the nearest village and the doctor saves her, and then King feels responsible so he agrees to take her back to Cumbria. To keep an eye on her. Definitely not because he thinks he’s falling in love with her, dudes don’t do that.

Also, if you like heroines who don’t believe they’re pretty and heroes determined to prove them otherwise (see The Deception of the Emerald Ring), it becomes a theme between Sophie and King.

King eventually brings Sophie to his childhood home and introduces her to his father. We learn that the grudge King bears his father isn’t fully deserved, and Sophie and King work towards declaring their love, when Sophie’s family barges in and comes up with a cockamamie plot to trap King into marrying her, against Sophie’s will. She loves him for him and not his title or fortune, but her family doesn’t see it the same way.

There’s an obstacle in – not even the third act, it’s practically the denouement – but it’s overcome quickly. Again, the obstacle arrives in the last fifty pages, so it’s a quick descent to the happily-ever-after.

The banter between King and Sophie is great throughout the book, and the romance is quite steamy, and practically modern compared to some other novels I’ve read. (Stephanie Laurens’ next book in the Cynster series, A Rake’s Vow, I’m giving you this face right now:)

angry-kuzco

So I’m definitely adding Sarah MacLean to my list of authors where I must read every thing she’s ever done, because I really liked it. Even if “King” is a really stupid name for a dude.

Grade for The Rogue Not Taken4 stars

Non-Fiction: “Bonk” by Mary Roach

bonkOkay, I’m going to try and bang this one right out. (thematically-appropriate puns for the win!)

Picture it: I’m getting ready to drive to D.C. for Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Can Photograph My Sister’s Wedding. And I know I’m going to stop occasionally for food, and since I’m going to be alone, I intend to bring a book with me to read at the table. I don’t want to bring Alexander Hamilton – it’s way too big. The other book I was currently reading at time was What a Pirate Desires, and that cover would have surely inspired conversations that I didn’t want to have. Namely, I was using the drive as an escape from talking to people.

So I wanted a book that a) I owned, because I have previously left library books at someone’s house accidentally, which then caused that person to mail my library book back to me so I could return it (thanks Sarah!), b) was small enough to fit in my purse without weighing a metric ton, and c) interesting enough that I would actually read it on the road.

And Bonk was what I found. I know I bought it a while ago because of its subtitle: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. But I definitely brought it with me on my trip this year because the cover was innocuous enough that no one would give it a second thought:

13260023_10103038137759429_5957718949831094081_n

No one said a word to me aside from “More coffee, dear?” The answer to which was, “Can I get it to go? Thanks!”

Oh, I know why I bought this – I just looked through the book to find Mary Roach’s credentials, and I saw via the hand-written “$7.50” on the inside cover that I bought this at one of my trips to the Harvard bookstore – probably my first trip, where I bought Mildred Pierce. And that would have timed when I had Showtime and was into watching Masters of Sex, the story of Masters and Johnson and their human sexuality study. See? I’m not a pervert, I’m just curious!

And Mary Roach is, above all, curious. Other books she’s written before and since Bonk include: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (which I’m pretty sure I’ve seen on My Dear Friend Emily’s bookshelf, seeing as how she originally went to school to become a medical examiner); Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal; and her most recent, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans At War.

Additionally, Ms. Roach does not describe herself as a scientist: I just perused her website and her list of credentials are all her published books and magazine articles; not a single doctorate among them. As a writer who is immersed in her subject the same way I immersed myself in Hannibal – I know the subject inside and out, but I was not one of the creators of Hannibal, just an observer – she is able to write about these subjects in an amazingly accessible way.

Look, I read a lot of books – my book blog backlog as proof positive of that. And of those books, a fair amount end up being non-fiction. And there have been some non-fiction books which were written by people within that field, and the communication tends to get murky because I think the author doesn’t realize s/he should be writing for outside the industry. A perfect example of this is Michael Lewis and The Big Short: Mr. Lewis worked on Wall Street. He dealt with stocks and bonds routinely. So when he went to talk about the housing market crash, he knew what all of those terms meant, because he was within the industry. And while he made valiant attempts to explain those terms within the book, it wasn’t until Adam McKay and the movie did it visually that I was able to say, Yes, I kind of get this now. (I still don’t, and would direct anyone who wants to understand that subject to the film, because it did a really great job.)

But when I read Mr. Lewis’s Moneyball (sidenote, I’m rereading it now – GO CUBS GO oh my god they won the World Series I am still in shock and crying about it), you can tell he is using his statistical background and applying it to baseball, and he doesn’t have the language of baseball because he wasn’t in baseball. Therefore, I find Moneyball more accessible and understandable than I did The Big Short.

For Ms. Roach, as the only industry she is in is writing, any topic she puts her mind to will be like when Mr. Lewis tackles baseball: she’s not in the industry, she doesn’t have the language; therefore, she will make every attempt to explain the terms and concepts to make the concept accessible not only to her, but to her readers as well.

And I appreciated that, reading about Masters & Johnson’s penis camera while eating Momma’s French Toast Breakfast at the Tewksbury, Massachusetts Cracker Barrel.

NOTE FROM THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: Hi, Readers! Thanks for sticking with me through my digressions. Now, look: this book is not a how-to book on sex; it gets into some serious sciencey discussions.  And I’m going to talk about the book now, and that is going to include some strong language: I’m going to be bringing up female genitalia, orgasms, and all sorts of stuff that you may not feel comfortable reading about in a Cracker Barrel. So if you don’t want to know about this or feel that it’s inappropriate to talk about, go ahead and skip to the last paragraph. It’s cool. But I wanted to warn you before you were knee-deep in a paragraph about female masturbation without notice. Cheers!

Masters and Johnson is where Ms. Roach begins, which is an excellent starting point: Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson began their research on human sexuality in the 1950s; prior to that, sex and the science behind it was definitely not an appropriate topic of study. The first season of Masters of Sex attempts to show the difficulties Bill Masters had in getting his study off the ground, but then the show veers into interpersonal relationships and while the show is good, don’t watch it for science, okay? In order to study what actually happens, physiologically, to a woman when she orgasms, they patented a penis-camera: essentially, a vibrator with a camera in it. That discussion leads Ms. Roach into the sex machine industry, where she ends up at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco:

The Center for Sex and Culture does not court the curious passerby. No sign is posted on the outside of the building or inside the entryway. It is a nonprofit in a plain brown wrapper. Eventually, you notice the street number, 298, on a window near the door. There is an intercom with a buzzer labeled CSC. When you ring it, a voice says simply, “Hello?” forcing you to announce that you are HERE FOR THE SEX-MACHINE EVENT. [p. 54]

Ms. Roach’s curiosity leads her through a number of topics: Does the distance between the clitoris and vagina affect the strength of a woman’s orgasm? Does orgasm increase fertility? Is surgery the answer to impotence? How can we diagnose and help low female libido issues?

What fascinates me is how the stigma of talking about sex – even in purely scientific terms – has caused our complete lack of education on these points. And I’m not even talking about abstinence-only programs and how we educate our teenagers on sex directly influences how they will approach sex when they’re old enough and how belief structures fit into all of that. I’m saying, we were able to put a man on the moon within ten years of Jack Kennedy saying we should do that, but we have yet to know definitively how a woman approaches sexual arousal, because we think it’s private and shouldn’t be studied, and who knows how many women could have benefited from that study?

Here’s an example: in Chapter 10, “The Prescription-Strength Vibrator,” Ms. Roach meets with doctors who are trying to find solutions for so-called “sexually dysfunctional women.” I say “so-called” because I don’t want a man to tell me what’s considered sexually dysfunctional to me as a woman; I am not discounting a woman’s sense of being dysfunctional in that department. But she brings up a theory: if a physical symptom of arousal is increased blood flow to the clitoris, and increased blood flow can also be caused by manual stimulation, would increased masturbation lead to increased arousal for a woman during intercourse? Ms. Roach emails this question to a professor of gynecologic oncology, who then refers her to Maryann Schroder, a licensed sexology at the University of Chicago.

“You have posed a very interesting question,” she said. “It hasn’t been studied, if you can believe.” She reminded me of what happened to the last person who got involved with masturbation as a beneficial activity: Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. Former President Bill Clinton dismissed Elders after she suggested, in a World AIDS Day speech, that masturbation was something that “should perhaps be taught.”

“Can you imagine if I tried to get funding for a study that had masturbation in the title?” And then, quite unintentionally, Dr. Schroder delivered the ultimate masturbation-research sound bite. “Masturbation,” she said, “is a touchy area.” [p. 209]

WELCOME BACK, Readers who skipped the sex talk but also missed the best pun I’ve ever seen in print!

I really enjoyed this book. Ms. Roach is a wonderful writer, who does not shy away from stigmatized topics, and infuses her research with humor. She’s incredibly welcoming and accessible in her writing, and in non-fiction, that is a huge bonus factor. I highly recommend this book – even if you’re not going to ironically read it in a stereotypical Southern breakfast environment, while escaping from a family wedding (NOTE: I went back, I have the pictures to prove it) – and look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Roach’s back catalogue.

Grade for Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex: 5 stars

Fiction: “Sex Criminals” Vol. 1, by Matt Fraction / Chip Zdarsky

sex-criminals-vol-1I had seen this graphic novel advertised on the interwebs, and I found a used copy at Bull Moose one day. I was familiar with Matt Fraction – he wrote the Hawkeye series I started to read (and have yet to find a library version of the next volume, what the hell, Yarmouth Library), and this series was touted as a comedy with heart.

I should probably explain two things before digging into this. First of all, this book is DEFINITELY Not Safe For Work. Secondly, this book is named “Sex Criminals” because the lead characters are two consenting adults who have sex and then commit crimes. I want to emphasize that this book does not detail sexual crimes.

Finally, I’m writing this while watching the Cubs play the Giants in Game 3 of the NLDS. I want to extend my sympathies to Red Sox Nation, and I’m hoping I can finish this entry before the end of the game. (How mad was I when I found out the game wasn’t scheduled to start until 9:30 EST? SO MAD. I have to go back to work tomorrow, you guys! The good news I have about that is I’ve already put tomorrow’s outfit in the bathroom and my purse and shoes are already by the door – I shouldn’t have any reason why I couldn’t hit the Topsham Starbucks on tomorrow’s commute.)

Okay. So, the graphic novel stars Suzie, who learned when she was a teenager that when she orgasms, time stops. Like, the world is frozen, but she can run around and do stuff, including yell at her mother and pet tigers at the zoo and just really wonder what the hell is going on. She calls it “in the Quiet,” and she’s all alone in the quiet until she meets Jon.

Jon is also able to enter “the Quiet” when he orgasms, except he calls it “Cumworld,” after the porn shop he frequents as a teenager – and when I say “frequent,” I mean “visit the bank across the street from the adult toy store, rub one out in the public restroom, then run across the street to the porn shop undetected.”

Jon works for BankCorp, which is the bank Suzie’s father worked for until he got in the way of another banker on a day the markets crashed. Suzie’s father got caught with a bullet or pushed out a high-story window – either way, he died, and Suzie’s mother was really unable to take care of herself or her daughter. When Suzie started asking normal teenage sex questions, her mother dismisses her curiosity. So Suzie starts doing her own research, and ends up in the library.

Flash-forward to now: Suzie still works at the library, but the bank is going to foreclose on it. (Rutting bastards – how dare you foreclose on a library!) She meets Jon at her Save the Books Party, and their first date lasts almost three full days. They keep hanging out, and then Jon comes up with a brilliant idea – why don’t they use The Quiet to pay off the library’s debt? By having sex in public, and then taking small amounts of money from various banks?

And that works really well — holy Jesus, we’re only in the third inning still?! (I just looked up – I shouldn’t have looked up. This game has gone for almost an hour and a half and we’re just in the third?! Crap. I am going to be One Tired Alaina tomorrow morning.)

ANYWAY, before the Giants scored, I was going to say that Suzie and Jon’s plan works very well – until the Sex Police get wind of what they’re doing, and show up on the day of their big heist.

Because yes, there is a shadowy organization of others who can enter The Quiet, and they’re trying to stop Suzie and Jon from doing what they’re doing. What hasn’t been revealed yet is their motive or reason for being.

Being a graphic novel collection, this was a very quick read for me – although to be honest, I think I started reading it the weekend of my sister’s wedding because I left the book I was reading in my car or something, and I was so tired that week that it still took me a couple of days to read it. Normally, I can read a graphic novel compilation in a night. But dammit, Kid, your wedding wore me out.

I recommend it. The plot is definitely something I’ve never read before, the characters are great, and the art is gorgeous. Just keep in mind that it is truly rated M for Mature and Not Safe For Work – it’s not just words that are dirty, here. Entire chapters of the story take place at a porn store. And it’s a graphic novel. That means visuals.

Grade for Sex Criminals, Vol. 1: One Weird Trick: 4 stars

Fiction: “What a Pirate Desires” by Michelle Beattie

pirate-desiresLet me paint a picture for you for the next few books I have to review:

As attempted over the past few years, once April came around I found myself drifting towards an American History book. Conveniently, I had received Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton for my birthday. So I dug into that 900-page monstrosity. And as interesting as the story of the ten-dollar founding father is, that book is not very portable. I mean, if I had the hardcover edition, I could use it as a doorstop.

Neither is it easy to read in bed. A habit I cannot break is reading in bed. And when reading in bed, book weight is important to keep in mind. Because let’s say I had fallen asleep while attempting to read Alexander Hamilton: there’s a good chance the book could have fallen right on my face. And my sister was getting married at the end of May – I’m pretty sure she would have killed me if I had to have pictures taken with my nose in a sling.

So while I read Alexander Hamilton at work (and at the gym – which led to a lot of funny looks), I turned to silly little romance novels to fall asleep to, because they don’t weigh enough to possibly deviate my septum should I pass out and drop my book on my face.

(I also turned to a more portable book to read while on the Escape To DC, i.e. Operation: Pick Up My Dear Friend Sarah In D.C. So She Could Photograph My Sister’s Wedding, a.k.a., Hashtag Adventure. But that was a fun read too.)

Well – What a Pirate Desires was a three-dollar find at Bull Moose. Normally, my romance novel preferences lean towards Regency society; looking back, I really don’t think I’ve veered from that theme in almost seven years of blogging about this genre. So “pirate” is actually quite a different step out of my wheelhouse. Look, Dad, I’m still broadening my horizons! (Even though I’m pretty sure that isn’t what he meant by that.)

So – why pirates? Uh, guys? I love pirates. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was my favorite movie for quite a few years. I celebrated International Talk Like a Pirate Day for many years running. I brought an actual jar of dirt to work on Halloween one year to ward off rogue kraaken.

Once Upon a Time was an okay show; then they added Captain Hook to the cast, and it became a fantastic show. Hoo boy, did he immediately jump up the list of Alaina’s Pretend Boyfriends. For an entire season and a half, he usurped Daniel Craig/James Bond from the list! I know! That’s horrible!

Don’t worry, guys: Daniel Craig’s back on top. (giggity) And while Captain Hook is still extremely easy on the eyes, his character has been completely assassinated, I think. I mean, look: one of my bulletproof kinks – a surefire storytelling trope that will get all of my emotions firing on all cylinders – is the idea of a bad guy reformed for the love of a girl. And I’m not talking about any Manic Pixie Dream Girl shit; I’m talking about He Was the Villain Or At Least Misguided But This Woman Makes Him Feel Things And Now He Wants to Be A Better Dude. Damon Salvatore on The Vampire Diaries is one of the best examples of this – until those writers RUINED IT by making Damon Elena’s sire so when they finally consummated their relationship there was this aura of “she’s only doing it because he’s her sire and it’s what he wants so now she has to want it too” – it took all of her agency out of the equation.

And Captain Hook was on his way to being the next example of the Love Redeems trope, but they completely took away his struggle – after the Neverland arc, the entire rest of his narrative has been to act as the catalyst for Emma’s growth. And while that’s not unimportant, it effectively revoked Hook’s piratical nature. WHY WOULD YOU REMOVE HOOK’S PIRATE SHIT (that is not a typo)

Uh, okay. I … I apologize. I did not realize I had so many unresolved ~feelings about Once Upon A Time‘s narrative choices. Huh.

SO ANYWAY, since I wasn’t getting swashbuckling in visual forms of media, how about a book?

What a Pirate Desires tells the story of Sam Steele, formerly Samantha Fine, until an evil pirate named Dervish destroyed the ship she and her family were on; her family were unable to escape with her. After a horrible time being enslaved by a racist rapist on a Caribbean plantation, she escaped with one of the asshat’s ships and became a pirate, masquerading as a male captain, on the lookout for revenge against Dervish.

Sam Steele crosses steel with another pirate captain, Luke Bradley. He also seeks revenge against Dervish, and he doesn’t really want to join forces with Sam, but as usually happens in romance novels, her “fiery spirit” or whatever “entrances him” and he slowly comes to realize that he lurrves her.

There really wasn’t anything more than that. I really liked that the lead female character was the pirate, and of her own free will, not that she was Stockholm Syndrome’d into becoming a pirate, or that she was a normal maiden who happened to be kidnapped by the pirates and then falls in love with the pirate captain. In her piracy, she was very successful and had the utmost loyalty from her all-male crew.

OH SHIT WAIT I ALMOST FORGOT SOMETHING

TRIGGER WARNING: past rape
When Sam escaped from Dervish’s attack only to land at that horrible plantation, the plantation owner did rape her. It happened in the past so we the reader do not get the chance to relive it (thank goodness), but it happened and it was a formative influence for Sam. Wanted to put that out there in case anyone else might want to read this.

Oh, and after all that blathering up there about the “Love Redeems” trope, that wasn’t really present in this story – Luke never felt that he needed to become a more worthy man in order to win Sam’s love. They were just two pirates with an accord. So I shall continue to explore literature and other TV to find this trope again, because it is one of my favorites and I needs it like cake.

Grade for What a Pirate Desires: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

blind-assassinThe Blind Assassin was … well, I don’t know what it was. It’s been so long since I decided to read it that I can’t remember why I wanted to read it anymore. Maybe because it would have been a valid Lunch Break Book while I was reading Just Like Heaven. Maybe because The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books but I was feeling guilty for not reading anything else by Ms. Atwood. Maybe it’s because I own the book but hadn’t read it yet.

Regardless, I decided to read it, and … ended up finishing it in entirely too long a span of time – one month, to be exact. (She says, writing a blog post about a book she finished in April.)

Full disclosure: this is the fourth time I have attempted to write this review. I am not sure I am up to the task. It’s a dense book with multiple points of view and styles, and I have been trying very hard to not give away spoilers. I’m going to try and just … word-vomit this all out at once and move on, and if in another ten years I look back because I think I want to read The Blind Assassin and hope that my review will remind me of what it was about … sorry, Ten Years From Now Alaina, you were never a good reviewer to begin with, and what did you expect?

So, generally speaking, The Blind Assassin is the story of Iris and Laura Chase. They grew up in Port Ticonderoga, Ontario, the daughters of a button manufacturer who made a name for himself prior to World War I. Laura is a sheltered child, and as we’re learning of her story through Iris’s remembrances, it’s hard to say if this perception is accurate.

At a company picnic, Iris and Laura meet Alex Thomas, a Socialist who is passing through Port Ticonderoga. He gets involved with a riot and the girls hide him in the attic for a spell; both girls fall in love with Alex a bit. Shortly after, the economy turns and the button factory deals with many losses. In an effort to remain afloat, Iris’s father sells the button factory to shirt manufacturer Richard Griffen; he also gives permission for Richard to marry Iris at the same time. Iris’s father’s health declines quickly into alcoholism, so Laura is sent to boarding school to get her out from under Iris’s feet.

Iris grows miserable in her arranged marriage. The only bright spot is the birth of her daughter, Aimee. Then Richard sends Laura away for what appears to be no reason. She is sent to a sanitarium and no one will tell Iris what happened. The assumption is that Laura and Alex Thomas were having an affair and Laura’s fragile mind couldn’t keep up the secrecy. Alex joins the forces in World War II, and after Laura learns of Alex’s death, she steals Iris’s car and drives it off a bridge, killing herself.

The death of Laura Chase is actually the first thing we learn when we begin reading The Blind Assassin; we hear Iris’s remembrance of that day, followed immediately by Laura’s obituary in the paper. Then, we jump into a few chapters of he novel-within-the-novel, titled The Blind Assassin and written by Laura Chase; Iris had it published posthumously.

 

The Blind Assassin that Laura Chase wrote stars two anonymous lovers: the man is in hiding for something, moving from flophouse to flophouse; the woman is in a strained, unhappy marriage to a rich man. In-between bouts of lovemaking, the man tells the woman a science fiction story about a blind assassin. As we read Laura’s novel within Iris’s remembrances, we are led to believe that Laura and Alex are the anonymous lovers in the story.

There is a lot more to the story – both Iris’s and Laura’s. But the fact of the matter is – it has been so long since I read this that the details are no longer fresh in my mind. Additionally, I feel that if I talk about it more or get into more depth, some key notes in the story would be lost and spoiled for a new reader.

What I can say is, while I appreciated the style in which Ms. Atwood told her tale, I find that I will most likely reread The Handmaid’s Tale before rereading The Blind Assassin. I’m also interested in reading more of her truly science-fictioney novels, so as soon as I find those, I’ll pick them up from the library.

Ms. Atwood is an amazing writer; The Blind Assassin won’t be one of my favorite books, that’s all.

Grade for The Blind Assassin: 2 stars

Fiction: “Just Like Heaven” by Julia Quinn

Just Like HeavenJust a heads-up: this is the first “silly little romance novel” out of four I’ve read so far this year. My average for the past couple of years has been two, max. I do not have an explanation as to why I’m suddenly picking up these things left and right; something to do with escapism, maybe? I mean, in the past six months, I have helped my family with my sister’s bridal shower, bachelorette party, and wedding, and after each event I have found myself withdrawing from social interactions. After the wedding, I didn’t really talk to any of my friends or make plans to do anything for about two weeks after? Maybe three? I spent time in my apartment watching Netflix and taking naps. And this isn’t the first time I’ve done this – after the Christmas Party last year, I started looking at Caribbean vacation deals that were cheap for one person (spoiler alert!: there were none. Goddamn double occupancy!), because all I wanted to do was escape.

And for the first time in a very long time, I found myself escaping in the books I was reading. Some of the “silly little romance novels” are quite silly – wait till you hear the one about the Lucius Malfoy-look-alike who enjoys light bondage! – but ever since March, I have been reading two books at a time: one of these historical romances at home, and then a Lunch Break Book I could bring to work to read on my lunch break without getting weird looks from the woman who always asks what I’m reading now.

(Not that I think she’d judge me; I just don’t feel comfortable reading romance novels in public. Don’t therapy me.)

So sometime in late March I felt the need to pick up a romance novel, and my choice came down to two things: 1) the way the back cover described the plot (which I’ll get to in a minute), and 2) the fact that Goodreads told me it was the first in a series.

And look, I know that while 99.9% of all “silly little romance novels” belong to a series of some sort – whether a trio or a quartet, or even, in the case of Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane series or Stephanie Laurens’ Cynster series (hey guys, remember that shit show?! I sure don’t!), more than 10 titles to its grouping – you usually never have to read them in order. I get that; I do. Does it make me feel weird to know that I’m reading a series out of order? Hell yes! Do I do everything I can to avoid that feeling and just start with the first book in a series as much as possible? Hell yes!

Here’s how the book cover is written:

Honoria Smythe-Smith is:
A) a really bad violinist
B) still miffed at being nicknamed “Bug” as a child
C) NOT in love with her older brother’s best friend
D) all of the above

Marcus Holroyd is:
A) the Earl of Chatteris
B) regrettably prone to sprained ankles
C) NOT in love with his best friend’s younger sister
D) all of the above

Together they:
A) eat quite a bit of chocolate cake
B) survive a deadly fever AND the world’s worst musical performance
C) fall desperately in love

It’s Julia Quinn at her best, so you KNOW the answer is …
D) all of the above

Being unfamiliar with Julia Quinn’s writings, I couldn’t really attest to that last D), but I was willing to give it a shot. I mean – the girl’s name is Smythe-Smith, and the dude’s last name is Holroyd, so clearly Ms. Quinn is aware of my Rule of Y (“never use an ‘I’ when you could use a ‘Y’ instead). Also, the world’s worst musical performance? I don’t think so, unless Honoria and Marcus also attended that Third Eye Blind show at Merrill Auditorium back in 2010 with the WORST opening band I have ever had to sit through – actually, I didn’t sit through it, I went out into the lobby and ordered a second tequila. Straight. They were that bad. They were so bad, I couldn’t tell you who it was; I tried so hard to block it from memory. They were even worse than Longwave, the middle band that opened for O.K. Go back in 2009 (p.s., shout out to Google for telling me when these shows were because my memory is terrible with dates).

But also, there’s cake?! Sign me UP!

Marcus was indeed best friends with Daniel Smythe-Smith when they were lads, and Honoria tended to trail after them like a mosquito – hence, the nickname “Bug.” When they were older, Daniel got into some trouble that I can’t quite recall and he had to shove off to France – but not before getting Marcus’s promise that he (Marcus) would look after Honoria in Daniel’s absence.

Flash-forward to the beginning of the story, and Honoria runs into Marcus unexpectedly. She is shopping with her friends and gets caught in a downpour, and Marcus offers her temporary shelter in his carriage. Also, he has cake. And it’s not like Marcus is a stranger offering cake; she knows him, so it’s safe to get into his vehicle!

Honoria is on the hunt for a husband – not because she feels the need to succumb to matrimony, but because she’s currently in the Smythe-Smith Quartet, and every year they put on a musicale. I don’t know why there’s an extra ‘e’ on the end of that word. But also, apparently this musicale is mentioned in Ms. Quinn’s other series, related to the Bridgertons. Anyway, once one of the female cousins gets married, she doesn’t have to perform in the musicale anymore. So, in an effort to get herself noticed by Gregory Bridgerton, Honoria steals a small shovel from the house where she’s staying and digs a mole hole in the hopes of making it look like she twisted her ankle in it and needs his assistance. This would have worked splendidly, if it wasn’t right next to Marcus’s property, and he comes upon her just as she practices her fainting. And then he steps into the mole hole, spraining his ankle.

Honoria walks him back to his manse, at which point he has to cut his boot off of his foot because his ankle has swollen so much. He accidentally slices his leg, which then gets infected – because remember, y’all, this is a historical romance; it takes place in 1824. When Honoria learns that Marcus has locked himself in his mansion by himself (he’s an orphaned Earl and doesn’t really have a lot of friends now that Daniel has absconded to France), Honoria grabs her mother and the two of them go and save Marcus, including cutting out the infected tissue of the wound.

Now, I’ve read a few historical romance novels, but I’ve never seen one where a woman is able to pretty much do surgery on the hero. So I really appreciated the novelty of this.

During his recuperation, Honoria steals him a treacle tart so the cake theme continues. Honoria’s mother tells Marcus that they wouldn’t have come if Honoria hadn’t insisted, because they’re not really related and it’s improper for an unmarried woman to be in the same house as an unmarried man. And Honoria learns that Marcus interpreted Daniel’s plea to keep an eye on his sister as “interfering with the dudes who tried to court Honoria.” Marcus’s reasons were always that he didn’t think those dudes deserved Honoria; never did it cross Marcus’s mind that he wanted Honoria for himself. Honoria also comes to realize that her feelings for Marcus are more than brotherly love. Their declaration of love comes after a veritable comedy of errors.

I can’t tell you how much I liked this book. In fact, it’s probably going to be the first “silly little romance novel” I’ve read here that I’m going to rate 4 stars. For one thing, I really appreciated that Marcus was not a rake. Not that I have anything against rakes, but it was very refreshing to have the male character not be in need of reform in any way. He’s a respectable member of society; in fact, great mention is made of his being quiet and solitary. He hasn’t had a lot of affairs, he’s not trying to marry for money, he’s not a spy, he’s not a secret twin. He’s just Marcus.

Same with Honoria – she has a loving family and while she’s looking for a husband at the beginning of the book, it’s not because she’s trying to escape from something or move up in society – she’s just trying to get out of her family’s musical quartet, and also, it’s a thing women had to do back then.

I also appreciated that the relationship between Marcus and Honoria was built out of a long history together. There were no obstacles of personality to overcome, no secrets that needed to be got over – and no, I’m not counting the whole “Marcus keeps an eye on Honoria by intimidating her potential suitors” as a “secret.” They just know each other so well, that it paves the way to a romance between them quite nicely:

“I like the rehearsals. Especially now that all of my siblings are gone, and my house is nothing but ticking clocks and means on trays. It’s lovely to gather together and have someone to talk to.” She looked over at him with a sheepish expression. “We talk at least as much as we rehearse.”

“This does not surprise me,” Marcus muttered.

She gave him a look that said she had not missed his little dig. But she did not take offense; he had known she would not.

And then he realized: he rather liked that he had known she would not take offense. There was something wonderful about knowing another person so well. [p. 242]

Their banter together was adorable; and if there’s one thing that gets me every time, it’s banter.

“You will have a terrible scar.”

He smiled wryly. “I shall wear it with pride and mendacity.”

“Mendacity?” she echoed, unable to contain her amusement.

He cocked his head to the side as he regarded the huge wound on his leg. “I was thinking I might set it about that I’d wrestled with a tiger.”

“A tiger. In Cambridgeshire.”

He shrugged. “It’s more likely than a shark.”

“Wild boar,” she decided.

“Now that’s just undignified.” [p. 206]

And finally, and probably the most important part – they all value dessert above all other foods.

But just before he turned to greet her, she turned in the opposite direction, and he could have sworn he heard her mutter, “Blast it all, I’m getting an éclair.”

She drifted off, weaving her way through the crowds. Marcus watched her with interest; she seemed to know exactly where she was going. Which meant that if he’d heard her correctly …

She knew where one could get an éclair. [p. 276]

I don’t know – I found this book so refreshing. It’s the first book I’ve read in this genre in at least a few years where the drama originated from internal forces rather than external, and there was no deception in any measure happening between the two main characters. It was just … cute? and happy? and escapist? But I enjoyed every word of it?

PS guess what I found in my bookcase: the second book in this series. boo. yah.

Grade for Just Like Heaven: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Apprentice” by Tess Gerritsen

ApprenticeThis was one of the last books I got from the library before beginning my huge (and as of yet, incomplete) task of trying to read the Ron Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton. And for every disappointment the Yarmouth Library gives me, I get at least one-fifth surprise: they actually had the next book in a series I wanted to read.

(Does the Yarmouth library even participate in inter-library loan? Because seriously, their lack of shit is getting quite ridiculous.)

(Also getting quite ridiculous? The amount of time that spans between my reviews. But we’re not going to talk about that.)

The Apprentice is the second book in the Jane Rizzoli series by Maine resident, Tess Gerritsen. Of note, The Apprentice marks the first appearance of Dr. Maura Isles, so if y’all want to start reading this series because you love the TNT classic Rizzoli and Isles … I still suggest you read The Surgeon first, because The Apprentice takes a lot of its plot from the first book.

To be honest, I didn’t realize it had been so long since I’d read The SurgeonAs I got into The Apprentice, I found I needed to go back to my original review of the first book to hopefully fill in some gaps.

And Reader? Did I ever. But I’ll get into that in a bit.

In The Surgeon, Rizzoli goes after a serial killer that bonds their female victim to their bed, performs a hysterectomy on them while they’re still conscious, and then slits their throat. At the end of that novel, Rizzoli is able to save Dr. Cordell from The Surgeon and have him arrested, but not before Rizzoli is terrorized by him a bit.  The Apprentice begins with The Surgeon, William Hoyt, in jail, but there’s another individual running around Boston, and he’s graduated to couples and necrophilia.

The FBI is called in to the investigation, which gets Jane’s back up. She feels that she’s more than capable of handling the investigation; as the case wears on, she finds that her fears aren’t unfounded, as the FBI agent, Gabriel Dean, consistently shows up to crime scenes either before her or just behind her; in addition, he withholds information from her to suit his purposes.

But it’s not just Dean affecting her and throwing her off her groove: the once-cocky, overconfident detective was shaken to her core after The Surgeon. She returns to her apartment after a long day’s work at the crime scene, and before she locks herself in behind three different, extra-strength deadbolts and locks, she canvasses her rooms, gun drawn.

She dropped her head in her hands, feeling as though it would explode with so much information. She had wanted to be lead detective, had even demanded it, and now the weight of this investigation was crushing her. She was too tired to think and too wound up to sleep. She wondered if this was what a breakdown felt like and ruthlessly suppressed the thought. Jane Rizzoli would never allow herself to be so spineless as to suffer a nervous breakdown. In the course of her career she had chased a perp across a rooftop, had kicked down doors, had confronted her own death in a dark cellar.

She had killed a man.

But until this moment, she had never felt so close to crumbling. [p. 94]

See, Carol K. Carr? THAT’S how you create a strong female character! Instead of scoffing away the weakness she feels, Rizzoli gets mad at herself for showing weakness. That’s different! This adds layers!

So in the end, it turns out that the new killer is an apprentice of The Surgeon (see? see?), and Rizzoli and Isles gets their man, and The Surgeon escapes and kidnaps Rizzoli in revenge but she turns him into a quadroplegic so everyone wins! Except the Surgeon, but if you count “being alive” as “winning,” even he gets a participation trophy.

Some funny / weird / important things I want to just quickly throw up here before I get into my rant:

Here’s a scene with Dr. Isles’ mentor, whose name I did not write down:

He picked up a disarticulated rib, arched it toward the breastbone, and studied the angle made by the two bones.

“Pectus excavatum,” he said. [p. 124]

Sadly, no one mentioned what his Patronus was.

“Hey, Rizzoli,” [some detective] said.

“Hey, Mick. Thanks for coming out.” [p. 26]

THAT IS SO BOSTON I CAN BARELY EVEN. I MEAN, that phrase was immortalized in one of the best movies of my generation, The Boondock Saints:

Thanks for coming out

Finally, because reasons (this is from the diary of Dr. Hoyt, the Surgeon):

I tell them about my visit to San Gimignano, a town perched in the rolling hills of Tuscany. Strolling among the souvenir shops and the outdoor cafes, I came across a museum devoted entirely to the subject of torture. [p. 295-296]

Hannibal?

Okay, so – when I went back and re-read my review of The Surgeon, I was appalled. Not by my lack of review – even I’ve gotten used to this. No, it was something I said:

What rubbed me the wrong way in a couple of places was what I felt to be over-the-top feminism. Now, before I go too far, let me explain my personal stance on feminism: yes, it sucks that women make sixty cents for every dollar that men earn in the same position (blanket statement). Yes, it sucks that women are always being portrayed in the media as sluts, whores, and sexual objects. Yes, it sucks that women are rarely recognized for their intelligence and reasoning skills. Do I find myself fighting the status quo and the media machine due to those portrayals? … eh. Not really. Because I am aware of those portrayals, and they are portrayals I’ve seen all my life, and because I know that the media machine is now a near-unstoppable male empire of testosterone and jackassery, I’m going to spend my time fighting for things where I know I can make a bigger difference. Like, attending the Rally to Restore Sanity, or writing that comedy pilot that finally portrays people like ordinary people and not stereotypes. (Me, October 2011)

I was appalled at myself. I could not believe that I was once that naive and … and so fucking blasé about feminism and portrayal of women in media and … UGH!! Alaina!! How could you?!

Because look, I don’t know when (or if) my stance on feminism changed, but goddammit, I am a proud feminist. I demand equal pay for equal work! I demand that media begin to recognize that in our beloved media — well, fuck, no one’s said it better than Stella Gibson from The Fall:

The media loves to divide women into virgins or vamps, angels or whores. Let’s not encourage them. [The Fall, series 1, episode 3]

So I read my review of The Surgeon, and I am so sorry, Five-Years-Ago-Me. I’m sorry that your innocence was taken away, I guess. In the time since I’ve written that review, I’ve expanded my media presence, and a direct result of that has been seeing how many different ways women are portrayed (or not portrayed) in media.

From the past two weeks’ worth of sportscasters consistently touting the men who helped support the women winning the gold over the women themselves (see: the Chicago Tribune, who, while admittedly they were most likely attempting to call out the wife of a Chicago Bear, could have at least included her name in the headline), to all the shit that was poured out over Paul Feig DARING to reboot Ghostbusters with – gasp! – women in the roles?!, to – god, to JUST ABOUT EVERYTHING. How about Marco Rubio not thinking women should be allowed to choose to have an abortion when her fetus tests positive for Zika, a virus that causes severe birth defects and, in some cases, has been fatal for those infants? WHEN DID MARCO RUBIO GET A UTERUS AND THEREFORE ENTITLE HIMSELF TO HAVE AN OPINION AS TO HOW A WOMAN SHOULD MANAGE HER OWN BODY

Ahem.

(Please note, I’m not saying all women who are pregnant that, sadly, get infected with Zika should abort; I’m saying it’s their choice to do what they want with their body, not Marco Rubio’s – OR ANY MAN’S, FOR THAT MATTER.)

(Hi, somehow my tiny little book blog became a political hotbed. I AM SORRY. I’LL GET BACK TO HANNIBAL JOKES SHORTLY. DON’T @ ME.)

Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. I don’t want women to have more rights than men; I just want us to be allowed to have the same rights as men. The right to vote for who I want without having to explain myself, or to justify my choice. The right to have autonomy over my own body, the same as a man has autonomy over his body. The right to be called by my name and not my title, unless my title is how I choose to be acknowledged. The right to have the media portray my story, and not portray me as the Sidekick, or the Side Piece, or the Victim, or the Vamp. I am complicated. I am more than a trope. I want to see media portrayals that show all facets of women, and don’t just boil her down to a Strong Female Character.

I want to have media recognize that yes, she is the first Simone Biles, and not the next Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. Fuck off, media.

Anyway. I apologize most of all to you, Feminist Character From The Surgeon Whose Name I Wrote Down As “Women’s Crisis Center Lady [Sarah].” You keep fighting the good fight, from inside your paper home, and I’ll keep fighting mine, out here in the Internet trenches.

As for The Apprentice? Eh — C+.

Grade for The Apprentice: 3 stars