Non-Fiction: “The Big Short” by Michael Lewis

Big Short Revise 011316_978-0-393-07223-5.inddSecond on my list of Oscar-nominated titles to read was The Big Short by Michael Lewis. This film was the early front-runner for Best Picture, until it was overshadowed by Spotlight (and rightly so) and sadly, by The fucking Revenant.

No, I will never not refer to that movie in any other way. Go fuck yourself with a bear, Leonardo DiCaprio.

As you can tell by re-reading my review for The Intern’s Handbook, I had wanted to read The Big Short since at least November 2015. I mean, a movie starring Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, and directed by the same guy who wrote and directed Movie of My Heart, Anchorman? And it’s about the housing crisis? Uh … sign me up, because I’m an even bigger nerd than I thought I was? But thanks, Barnes & Noble, for not believing in having a very organized and structured non-fiction section. Although serious thanks do go out to the Yarmouth Library, for having a copy that I could read.

Long-time readers of That’s What She Read will also recognize the author, Michael Lewis. He wrote Moneyball, another Oscar-nominated film which I enjoyed. With Moneyball, I watched the movie first and then read the book, so I was a little surprised – but pleased – when the book wasn’t as linear as the movie made it out to be.

In Moneyball, Mr. Lewis would use one chapter to tell the story of Billy Beane, the manager for the Oakland A’s who, using some new-fangled notion called “Sabermetrics,” was able to turn one of the most languishing teams in the American League into a World Series contender. That same Sabermetrics led the Boston Red Sox to winning the 2004 World Series. But anyway, one chapter would be about Billy Beane and his quest to transform the A’s; the next chapter would either be an in-depth look at another one of the players on the team, or a more detailed explanation about the math and statistical analysis that makes up sabermetrics. Billy acted as our guide, for lack of a better term: we learn about how he uses sabermetrics, we see his goals and his hopes, we see his struggles, and we see his successes. The math stuff falls by the wayside, because we the reader are following a hero on a journey.

The Big Short follows the same pattern, mostly. This time, our hero is a bunch of different Wall Street bonds-men. They interact with the housing market in different ways, but their stories are surrounded by the intricate and, at times, incomprehensible financial functions that all contributed to the housing crash.

I’m going to attempt to see if I can remember the financial stuff, but I’ll get into how I think the film was a better vehicle for understanding this stuff in a minute. Anyway. The housing market was always stable: housing is an actual need for a human, and while there may have been dips and spikes, there was never a crash like what we saw with stocks in 1929. People invest their equity in houses, and those mortgages were the base of the bond economy for decades.

Until someone figured out that they could package mortgages into a bond on its own. The banks would sell the ownership of their mortgages to these bond companies and turn packages of mortgages into a single bond item, called a CDO. A CDO was made up of tranches, which —

Look, I work with taxes all day, and I’ve come to identify myself as a big ol’ nerd. But this stuff is totally beyond my ken. I may have an accounting and finance degree, but that’s because at the time, that’s the only way I could get the accounting degree (thanks, USM!). I took a total of two finance classes: Basic Financial Management, and International Financial Management. They were taught by the same professor, who was a horrible teacher. Made us buy a $150 textbook, told us to read it and do the homework, but never taught from the textbook, and never went over or even collected the homework. The only reason I got a B in Basic Finance is because my graphic calculator had a finance function, so I didn’t have to remember any fancy equations.

And I maintain that the only reason I got a C- in International is because the professor really didn’t want me to have to teach me again. Because seriously, I skipped a lot of classes and flunked at least one test. No amount of studying was going to make me understand puts and libors. So, I do have to thank him for Charlie’ing me out, because otherwise I’d still be in college.

[Puts and libors = the only things I remember from that class. To clarify: just the words, not the concepts. I have no idea what they mean.]

ANYWAY. Mr. Lewis really knows his shit – he worked on Wall Street, after all. So the book is rich with information on just exactly how the Wall Street firms – especially AIG, Deutsch Bank, and Bear Stearns were able to con all of America. The stories about the bankers – Steve Eisman, the individual with the loudest personality, who set out to short the banks to teach them all a lesson about greed, was easily my favorite. (It didn’t hurt that his character was the one Steve Carrell portrayed under a different name.) Dr. Michael Burry, an ex-neurologist who created a hedge fund and then poured all of his clients’ money into his attempt to short the banks, was very compelling as a character, but was in it to prove himself right as opposed to fighting for something.

All of these guys – Eisman, Burry, Greg Lippman from Deutsche – they all decide to short the banks. Essentially, they’re going to spend a lot of money at first betting that the CDOs and other shenanigans the banks have gotten up to are going to fail. The banks laughed at them while they took their money; Dr. Burry’s clients threatened to pull out. But these guys all could tell that a crash was imminent, and when the crash occurred, they won big.

In spite of all the financial stuff which was, admittedly, over my head, the book was a very interesting read. I actually would bring it to the gym with me, and it made my 25-minute elliptical workout fly by. I read because I could understand just enough of the shenanigans to know that they are all fucking shady, and also, the people within the tale were very compelling to read about.

Having said that, I do think the film does an excellent job in explaining all of these financial concepts – and not just because they rely on people like Margo Robbie and Selena Gomez. But they have fourth-wall breaks where, either Ryan Gosling’s character, acting as the quasi-narrator, or maybe one of those random celebrities will take a couple of minutes and use a metaphor to explain one of these concepts. I think Mr. Lewis explained how a CDO is built three times within his book, but once Ryan Gosling’s character used a Jenga tower to demonstrate it, the concept made way more sense. And the concept of trading CDOs was well-illustrated by Selena Gomez and … the guy who was in her scene that I can’t remember.

I really do have to applaud Adam McKay and Charles Randolph on their adaptation of the book: the book is extremely dense at points with hard-to-understand financial concepts, and they were able to turn that into a compelling, human-driven David-vs-Goliath tale that was charming and comprehensible. Even this early in my Oscar!Read – I still have two books to go at this point – The Big Short was my front-runner for winning the category.

I was mightily pleased when it won. Not just because I felt it did the best job adapting its source material into a script – remember, not just the best film whose screenplay was adapted from a different source; the film with the best adaptation of its source material — but most importantly, because now I can say that Anchorman was written and directed by an Oscar winner.

Which makes Anchorman an Oscar-winning film. If only by association, and retroactively.

I’ll take it.

Oh come on — don’t act like you’re not impressed.

Grade for The Big Short: 3 stars

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Fiction: “Room” by Emma Donoghue

RoomThis year for Oscar!Watch, I decided to level up for some unknown reason – oh, wait, do you guys who follow my reading blog but not my movie blog even know about Oscar!Watch?

Every year, when the Oscar nominees get announced, I attempt to see every movie nominated for what I call the Big 8 categories: Best Picture, Best Director, the four Acting categories, and the two Writing categories. I even make a chart and everything to aid in my quest. And every year, I always miss about three or four movies that don’t make their way to Maine in the appropriate time period.

So this year, because Oscar!Watch isn’t hard enough, I guess, I decided to also read the books that were the source material for the Best Adapted Screenplay nominees. I’m not sure why I made that decision; I think it was a combination of realizing that the nominees were all based on books that were readily available (as opposed to an obscure play), and those books were all available at My Local Library (well, almost all – the Yarmouth Library has a disheartening amount of Patricia Highsmith titles, so Carol or The Price of Salt remains elusive – I mean, they don’t even have Strangers on a Train, what’s with that?), and maybe there was also a part of me that, when looking at the titles, said to herself, “I might enjoy reading that anyway.”

I think there may have also been some thought about wanting to discover the One True Winner of this category, because I can guarantee that the Oscar voters don’t take the time to read the books the movies are based on, watch the movies, and then vote based on how well the original source material was adapted into the resulting film. I’m guessing that, when it comes to that category, the Academy members vote for the film they feel was the best written, and it just happens that the source material isn’t original. But I almost want them to vote the first way: see the source material, watch the resulting adaptation, and vote for the movie that accomplishes the best version of their source material.

But regardless of what my intentions were, it was a decision I made, and I was able to read four out of the five nominees. I kicked off the reading session with Room.

I didn’t really have any idea what Room was about when it first came out a few years ago. I know I saw it everywhere – especially Target; I seem to remember seeing a lot of it at Target – but I wasn’t interested enough to pick it up to read the back of the book. (It may have also been a situation like with Water for Elephants, where the back of the book is all blurbs and no plot description. Stop doing that, Publishers! I am not buying your book without knowing what it’s about [unless it’s an author I’m already familiar with]!) I also wasn’t entirely sure if it was fiction or non-fiction. Spoiler alert! It’s fiction.

The story of Room is told by Jack, and we meet Jack and his Ma on his fifth birthday. Jack is our narrator, and Jack and Ma live together in Room. Jack spends his day doing chores, running “track” back and forth across Room, playing “Scream,” a game where he and Ma scream up at the skylight of Room, and watching TV. Jack believes that what he sees in TV isn’t Real, but everything that happens in Room is real.

After Jack goes to bed at night, Ma is visited by Old Nick, who brings them groceries, clothes, and Sunday-Treat: a special object every Sunday, be it candy or a new toy. But Old Nick only visits after Jack is hidden in his wardrobe bed; Jack has never seen Old Nick’s face.

Because the story is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy, there are a lot of jumps the reader has to make to understand what’s really happening. For instance, when Old Nick is visiting Ma, Jack can hear them making the bed’s mattress creak. Jack thinks they’re just pushing the mattress up and down (which seems like an odd game to Jack), but the reader can read between the lines to recognize what’s actually happening.

The reality that Ma has shielded Jack from for the previous five years is this: Ma was a college student and was tricked by Old Nick one day.  Old Nick kidnapped her and locked her in this Room, which turns out to be a soundproofed shed he keeps in his backyard – hence, playing “Scream” in the hopes of being heard: Ma has turned a hope of rescue into a game. Old Nick repeatedly rapes Ma, and Jack is the product of one of those rapes. Ma has done all in her power to enforce healthy habits with what she’s given: because they can’t leave Room, Jack and Ma move the bed around and do aerobics and “run track,” which is just back and forth the length of the room to keep their strength up. They bathe as much as possible, and she makes sure Jack brushes his teeth after every meal. She makes up a grocery list for Old Nick, and she always requests food with good nutritional value.

Ma couldn’t tell Jack the entire scope of their situation, because he was too young to understand. I mean, if you’re a five-year-old who’s been raised to not realize that there’s an Outside, you never want to go Outside. If you think cars that you see on TV aren’t real, then you won’t ask why we don’t have a car, why can’t we go anywhere. It was a coping mechanism for Ma, but also for Jack – he can’t feel bad about their situation if he doesn’t really know what their situation is.

Shortly after Jack’s birthday, Old Nick tells Ma that he’s been unemployed for six months, and the house may get foreclosed upon if he can’t get work. Jack, our narrator, doesn’t understand what that means, but Ma certainly does. If the house is foreclosed upon, Old Nick won’t just let them go – he’s going to kill them. So Ma spends a couple of days to come up with a plan; when she does, she realizes the most important thing is also the hardest: she has to tell Jack about the outside world.

In a harrowing sequence, Jack is able to be smuggled out of Room and is able to jump out of Old Nick’s pickup truck and give a message to some neighbors. The police get involved, and they are able to find Ma’s location and rescue her. Ma is relieved, but Jack doesn’t understand that he’s never going to go back to Room – it’s the only home he’s ever known, what do you mean they’re never going back? What about all the toys and mementos from his childhood?

The rest of the book shows how traumatizing it can be for someone to get integrated into the world when they’ve been isolated for their entire life. Jack struggles a lot to reconcile what he’s only known to the reality: that there are a lot of experiences he’s missed out on, like grandparents, and dogs, and making friends, and cousins, and paying for things at a store.

Ma – or Joy, as we find out her name once she’s released from Room – also has a hard time reintegrating into her world. In the seven years that she’s been missing, her parents have divorced. Her father thought she was dead, and he can’t quite come to terms with the fact that not only is Joy not dead, but she was repeatedly raped, and also, her son is a reminder of his failings as a father: he was unable to protect his little girl. Her mother has remarried, and now Joy has to be nice to a person who has usurped her father’s role as head of the family. Joy also has to alleviate her guilt that she now feels about being too gullible or stupid to have fallen for Old Nick’s trick in the first place.

There’s a lot of emotions going on in the book, and it’s very interesting because again, the entire book is written from Jack’s perspective. Once I knew what the book was about (because yes, I totally read the synopsis on Wikipedia before getting too far into it – I am Harry Burns, after all), I was worried that I’d put it down or the writing style would make it difficult for me to get through.

I read the dang book in three days. I can’t remember the last time I read a book so quickly. I started reading it on a Thursday night – I think it was a Thursday night; maybe it was Friday. Anyway, I started reading it around 11 so I could fall asleep; fast-forward to two hours later, and I’ve read ninety pages and I’m still wide awake. (I think it was a Friday night, because if it was a Thursday I would have been pissed about losing sleep before a workday.) And I was finished with it by that Monday.

How did it compare to the film? I thought the film adaptation was very close to the book. Obviously, it cut some things out, but what they cut out didn’t impact the plot at all. As this was the first book I read in the Level Up project, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but I thought the adapting of the book to the film was very well-done.

(Then I remembered that the author herself wrote the screenplay; so, duh. That makes total sense.)

Also, Brie Larson was totally deserving of her Best Actress Oscar. And I’ve said it before and I know I’ll say it again: it’s a fucking shame that Jacob Tremblay wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for playing Jack, because a) he was phenomenal and b) he acted fucking circles around Leonardo Di-fucking-Caprio. Goddammit.

Grade for Room: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Killing Dance” by Laurell K. Hamilton

Killing DanceI have had this draft saved in my draft folder for approximately ten days. That is how little I want to review it. But my backlog is starting to push double digits, and that’s a thing that cannot stand. So – into the fray I must go.

Because seriously – I am starting to wonder why I continue to read this series. I can officially say: With The Killing Dance, Ms. Hamilton is starting to turn her corner into supernatural erotica, and I am not looking forward to the journey down that road.

So — *pfft.*  Okay. Anita returned from Branson, Missouri (at the conclusion of Bloody Bones), and she is continuing to date both Richard the Shapeshifter and Jean-Claude the Master Vampire. Why is she dating both of them? Because Jean-Claude is making her.

No, really.

See, Anita thought she was falling in love with Richard a couple of books ago — even after she found out he was a shapeshifter. (I keep wanting to call him a werewolf, but I’m 90% sure the term Ms. Hamilton uses is “shapeshifter.” I say “90% sure” because I’m not really sure, but I also can’t be arsed to look it up, even though the book is literally three inches away from my knee right now.) And Jean-Claude has always lurrved Anita, even though she’s a vampire hunter and he’s — well, a vampire. Anita finally admitted recently – maybe as recent as this book, I’m not sure if she mentioned it in previous books, and again: not looking it up – that she is attracted to Jean-Claude sexually. At the beginning of the series, Anita was able to recognize Jean-Claude’s physical beauty, much like I am able to recognize the beauty of, say, Channing Tatum, and not have a single iota of sexual attraction related to seeing his face.

Congratulations, ladies – he does absolutely nothing for me. He’s very pretty, but he’s all yours.

Also, and the real reason why she’s dating both Richard and Jean-Claude: Jean-Claude told her he would kill Richard if she didn’t. Because Jean-Claude sees Anita’s willingness to date “one of the monsters” (i.e., Richard) as a slim chance that she could look past Jean-Claude’s own monster-dom and find her way to dating him. So he has ultimatum’d her into dating both of them, until she can make up her mind as to which one she prefers.

Because there is absolutely no way in heaven or hell that that could end badly.

So in The Killing Dance, Anita is enjoying her time spent with both Richard and Jean-Claude, and she is finding it harder and harder to resist either one of them. But before we dig even deeper into this stupid triangle, the plot must be dealt with.

Anita starts the book by having a meeting with Jean-Claude, another old-as-fuck vampire, and the old-as-fuck vampire’s human servant. The old-as-fuck vampire gave up drinking human blood as a way to try and keep his lady love from leaving him, but all it left him with is a disgusting, decaying body. Because apparently, switching from human to animal blood gives vampires leprosy? And to be clear, it’s not really leprosy – it makes entire limbs rot off and slime away. When Anita meets the old-as-fuck vampire, he’s levitating because he doesn’t have any legs. Because of the Slime Leprosy. It’s really gross.

And I don’t know about this whole “animal blood turns vampires into Slime Lepers” thing; this information has never been brought up before. And also, that’s not how it happens on The Vampire Diaries. Or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although if it were true, it would really turn Twilight into something a bit more interesting.

I mean, what happens to Edward’s sparkles when he’s overcome with Slime Leprosy?

Speaking of Edward, this is a not-so-great segueway into talking about Anita’s only friend, Edward the Bounty Hunter. Edward the Bounty Hunter calls Anita when she’s going out with Richard to let her know that someone has put a $500,000 price on her head, and she’s got to survive the next 24 hours without being assassinated. But she has no idea who would want to kill her, besides the usual suspects, and the usual suspects don’t have the Disposable Boat kind of money. So, she’s at a loss. And what does she do? Not leave town, that’s for fucking sure!

Because Richard is having a crisis with his pack! There are these two members, Marcus and Raina, and they like filming shapeshifter porn, which is just as out there as you can probably imagine it to be. It is not pretty, it is extremely violent, it is not sponsored by Pornhub. (Oh god, I hope my mentioning Pornhub won’t bring people seeking supernatural porn to my blog … because they are going to be horrifically disappointed.)

So on their date, Richard gets called out to the porn shoot to rescue one of his pack members who had been shanghaied into appearing in this film against his will, and Anita has to tag along because she’s the first-person narrator and she doesn’t think it’s a big deal if she shows her face in public with a bounty on her head. While rescuing the meek shapeshifter, Anita displays dominance by vowing to protect … Whatshisname (never looking it up), and now Richard has a power problem in addition to the porn problem.

And Anita still has to go on her date with Jean-Claude the next night, because that’s how everything fucking works. So they go to the opening of Jean-Claude’s new club, SomewheresVille, and Anita lets her guard down for a minute and almost gets iced in the ladies’ room.

So now she’s forced to stay in Jean-Claude’s apartments under the Circus of the Damned until she can accompany Richard to the Killing Dance, where he is finally going to attempt to kill Marcus, the leader of the pack, after many, many, many discussions with Anita and how relatively easy it is for Anita to kill people, versus Richard’s fight for life. But Richard, Jean-Claude and Anita all join forces and are able to share their respective powers between each other, but in the end Anita can’t really face Richard as he shapeshifts, and she goes back to Jean-Claude’s apartment to clean up, and she and Jean-Claude have sex, and so she breaks up with Richard. But then she gets kidnapped by Raina and the rogue members of Marcus’s pack, and it turns out that her assassination attempt was orchestrated by the female human servant of the Old-As-Fuck Vampire (remember him? of the Slime Leprosy?), and it was just an attempt to conquer Jean-Claude’s hold on the City.

So that’s it. That’s the plot. Just as jumbled as they’ve been since at least Circus of the Damned, and it’s starting to wear on me. Not enough to make me stop reading them, mind you; look, at some point, I bought the majority of the novels, so since I own ’em, I’m going to read ’em.

And if I know me like I think I know me, I’ll pull out the next title in the series next January. I’m not sure why I always end up returning to this series in January; maybe it’s because January is already so fucking miserable, I might as well just add an acid-dipped cherry to the shit sundae that is January in Maine by reading the next Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novel.

So, that’s a thing that’ll be happening next year.

Grade for The Killing Dance: 1 star

 

Fiction: “The Deception of the Emerald Ring” by Lauren Willig

emerald ringI told myself I couldn’t have dinner until I posted this, so – let’s see how late I eat tonight!

A very odd thing happened when I finished The Masque of the Black Tulip — I immediately picked up the next book in the series. I mean, you guys should know me by now; it takes me, on average, two years to get to the next book in the series. (Spoiler alert, coming soon!: the second book in a series where I read the first book five fucking years ago.) (And let’s not get into the time that goes between my finishing a book and then posting the review. Two months is not a good thing; especially when, within that two months, I have developed a backlog of ten books.)

(On the plus side, I am killing my book goal for 2016.)

As much as I’ve — not ranted, or even complained — I guess as much as I’ve made a Whole Big Thing about how this series doesn’t return to previously-coupled characters, I went to the next book immediately because of the romance between Colin and Eloise, the modern couple. Eloise and Colin had A Moment during The Masque of the Black Tulip, and then the next day, Colin shunts her back to London with nary an explanation. As he’s pulling away from the train station, he asks her if she wants to get a drink sometime. Eloise quickly acquiesces, but it’s not until she’s back in London in the beginning of this book that she remembers —

— he doesn’t have her phone number.

So I went to the next book so quickly, not to get to know the new couple, but to see how the Colin/Eloise romance fares. Good news! It fares well, thanks to some intervening and cute manipulations of Eloise’s friend Pammy. The next book in the series will cover their first date.

But who are the players in the new historical couple? This time, we meet again — but with greater detail — Richard’s second best friend (in quantity, not rank), Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe. Geoff has been in love with Mary Alsworthy for a couple of books, but only in passing — we’ll hear about him writing a terrible poem for Mary, and his other friends make fun of him, and then the plot continues on. But at the beginning of the historical portion of this book, Mary’s sister Letty hears Mary bustling about in her room around midnight, and there’s a carriage in the alley behind their house, and —

— Mary’s going to elope with Geoff to Gretna Green! As eloping in that day and age was a mark of ill-breeding and overall tragedy, Letty tries to tell the carriage driver to leave, but instead she gets put into the carriage and driven to the hotel where Geoff is waiting for Mary. When Geoff gets into the carriage he automatically starts kissing the woman inside, assuming it’s Mary – and that’s when two loud drunks show up, and Letty is unable to escape.

And that’s how Geoff ends up married to Letty – if he doesn’t marry her, she’ll be ruined, because remember – virginity is the most precious commodity a woman had back then! Neither Geoff nor Letty are happy about the arrangement, but marry they must.

Oh goddammit – I just got stuck in an endless loop of #Ham4Ham videos for about thirty minutes. Dinner, Alaina! Focus on the goal!

Anyway, after the wedding — but before the wedding night — Geoff is sent out on a mission to Ireland to try and stop a revolution spear-headed by the Black Tulip, who escaped at the end of the last book. After finding out Geoff’s deserted her, and with the help of a lot of champagne and some advice from my second-favorite duo, Miles and Henrietta, Letty hightails herself over to Ireland.

In Ireland, we catch up with Jane, the Pink Carnation, and her governess-slash-right-hand-woman Miss Gwen. This is welcome, because Jane is an excellent character that we don’t see enough of. Jane welcomes Letty into the spy-fold, and together they gather more information to be able to stop the Irish Rebellion, which would have brought Napoleon closer to England. (It’s a whole historical thing. It’s interesting, but not enough to get into depth with. My hungry stomach apologizes.)

Meanwhile, Geoff isn’t too thrilled with Letty putting herself in danger – while he’s not happy about being forced into a marriage he never wanted, he also doesn’t hate Letty; nor does he want to see her hurt. As typically happens in a Marriage Before Romance plot, Geoff begins to fall in love with Letty, and his obsession with her sister Mary falls away.

He realizes that Mary was acting all time in order to gain herself a husband, but behind the beautiful mask, there wasn’t anyone real. Whereas Letty, who is plainer and quieter than Mary, shows her emotions and headstrong-ness and can cut a bitch with her wit at twenty paces, and also hides her self-esteem issues behind her sarcastic, self-deprecating style of humor, and —

— huh. That’s — … huh.

Uh, ANYWAY. They fall in love and their marriage becomes happy, because romance novel.

One of the best scenes for Letty is at her wedding reception. Her new husband won’t look her in the eye, and everyone invited assumes Letty was so desperate for marraige that she would throw her sister over for her own beau, and everyone is judgy and awful – and halfway through, Letty realizes that she no longer has to distribute fucks. It’s like, “the gift for coming to my wedding? Were fucks. And oh, look, the gift table is empty, for I have no fucks to give.

Mrs. Ponsonby’s bosom filled with pleased pity. “But for Mary to lose her beau — to you! Who would have ever thought it!”

“Who, indeed?” tittered Lucy [Ponsonby].

Lowering her hand to her side, [Letty] leveled a long, hard look at Lucy […] For over a year, Letty had been forced to endure Lucy’s jabs about her dress, her hair, her clothes, a million little snubs under the guise of being “helpful” to Mary’s younger sister. And since there was nothing she could say without looking a shrew or causing a fuss, Letty had curbed her naturally blunt tongue and let Lucy jab.

Not anymore.

In a voice that sounded strange to her own ears, Letty said, “You’re just upset that you didn’t think of it yourself.”

Lucy’s mouth fell open in an entirely unflattering and gratifying way, and two round pink spots formed on her cheekbones. “Well, I never!”

“No, you didn’t,” agreed Letty, deciding that there were advantages to being ruined. “But it wasn’t for lack of trying. I saw the way you tried to get Lord Pinchingdale out on the balcony at the Middlethorpes’ ball. If you could have stolen him from Mary, you would have in a minute.”

“I don’t know how you can say such things,” […]

“Because it’s true,” said Letty calmly. “You don’t think Mary didn’t realize? She found it amusing. Because she knew you couldn’t possibly be a threat.”

[…] “Young lady …,” [Mrs. Ponsonby] blustered.

Letty lifted her head high and looked Mrs. Ponsonby levelly in the eye, buoyed by champagne and a year’s worth of pent-up indignation. In a voice as quiet as it was deadly, Letty asked, “Don’t you mean, ‘my lady’?” [p. 90-91]

applause

Unfortunately, Geoff wasn’t around to see that. If he had, it would probably been a shorter book, because who can resist someone who can throw that much shade that elegantly?

Speaking of Geoff, it took a while, but the more he interacts with Letty he realizes how wonderful she is; especially compared to Mary. Geoff was one of the people operating under the assumption that Letty was merely trying to trap him into marriage with her. When Letty gets swept up in the spy game and Geoff realizes she has “no talent for dissembling,” he finally realizes that she couldn’t possibly have had an ulterior motive in ending up in that fateful carriage, and his opinion of her softens. Over another couple of weeks (in book-time), he realizes he loves her.

Not only is Letty unable to act or lie, but she also doesn’t believe any compliments that come her way – most likely as a result of always being the quieter shadow to her more classically beautiful sister. So when Geoff tries to tell her she’s beautiful, she really doesn’t believe it:

But Geoff correctly read the slight tightening of her lips, and the way her eyes slid away from his.

“You really have no idea, have you?”

Letty bristled. “I have a mirror. And eyes.”

“And no idea how to use either,” muttered Geoff, before realizing that probably wasn’t quite fair of him.

He looked down into her flushed face, framed with its tangle of hair that alternated between copper and gold in the candlelight, and knew that no number of compliments would convince her. With her sturdy common sense, she would write them off as pure flummery. To a certain extent, she would be right. She would never be a beauty by the accepted standards. Pretty, yes. Even lovely. But she lacked the stateliness and symmetry society demanded of its chosen goddesses.

[…]

“Right.” He raised one brow in an unspoken challenge. His voice dropped seductively. “Then I’ll just have to show you.” [p. 346]

He is finally able to convince her of his love for her about fifty pages later, using the early 19th century edition of the Harry Burns “I Love You” speech:

“That’s where you’re wrong. Perfection may be admirable, but it’s not very lovable.”

Letty’s disbelief must have shown on her face, because Geoff repeated, “Yes, lovable. I love the way all your thoughts show on your face — yes, just like that one. I love the way your hair won’t stay where it’s put. I love the way you wrinkle your nose when you’re trying to think of something to say. I love your habit of plain speaking.” He touched a finger to her nose. “And, yes, I even love your freckles. I wouldn’t eliminate a single one of them, not for all the lemons in the world. There. Does that convince you?” [p. 410]

Please compare that with Harry Burns’s New Year’s Eve speech to Sally:

harry met sally quote

#ProTipsForDudes: This scene. Every time. Speaking as someone who has no idea if men ever flirt with her (“I’m telling you, I have never been flirted at. Men aren’t attracted to me.” “That’s not true, Alaina – you just don’t know when you’re being flirted at.” “Isn’t that the same thing?! If I don’t know it’s happening, is it even happening?” “Next you’re going to ask me what the sound of one hand clapping is, aren’t you?” “Don’t be silly, everyone knows Bart Simpson answered that question twenty-five years ago.”), how about using pop culture references instead? Seriously – tell me I’m your density. Buy me a diary and tell me you like me just as I am. Send me any one of those Hannibal-related Valentine’s I post every fucking year.

But don’t you dare tell me “as you wish” unless you fucking mean it.

[Special thanks to Best Friend Kerri for the above conversation re: flirting, Alaina’s inability to recognize it as it is happening to her.]

The last thing I wanted to mention about this book is just a drive-by name-drop of a Ms. Siddons. This is a reference to Sarah Siddons, the famous Welsh actress of the late eighteenth century. She is also the thespian for whom the Sarah Siddons Award is named, and — hold up, it’s a real thing?! That’s fantastic!

See, the Sarah Siddons Award is named by my number-one Patronus, Addison De Witt, in the opening sequence of one of the greatest movies ever made, All About Eve. Sarah Siddons was a real person; the award was created by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the script. But apparently, the city of Chicago took that idea and ran with it, and now gives out a Sarah Siddons Award every year. Go Chicago! (PS I’m ecstatic to see Bette Davis’s name on that list of recipients.)

So that’s my review of The Deception of the Emerald Ring. And for my concerned readers who are seeing that the post-time on this is nearly eleven o’clock, please be advised: I took an hour break when I remembered I had potstickers in the freezer, so I didn’t have to go out and get food. I ate dinner around 8:30.

I can’t tell when flirting happens, but I know how to find food, so — don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.

Grade for The Deception of the Emerald Ring4 stars

Fiction: “The Masque of the Black Tulip” by Lauren Willig

Black TulipI grabbed this off of my bookshelf in the last week of December for two reasons. One, I wanted to read a book quickly in order to bump up the number of books I read in December, and therefore, the year (spoiler alert! I didn’t make it. By about forty pages). And two, I was looking for something cute and funny and romantic in nature, but I wanted to know that I’d get that from the book that I ended up choosing. And I say that because the last few “silly little romance novels” I started to read all turned sour rather quickly; either the plot became too ludicrous for words, or I just got bored with the characters.

I haven’t given up on them, mind you; they’re on my nightstand under a whole bunch of library books right now. I’ll get to them eventually. And when I do, we’ll all be in for an excellent rendition of The Rant Song; so we’ve got that to look forward to, which is nice.

I also didn’t realize it had been three years since I’d read The Secret History of the Pink Carnation; it feels like I just wrote about it a year ago. So, I decided that it was about time to get back into the series, even if it is only temporary.

In case you didn’t elect to click the link above to my review of Pink Carnation, let me give you a rundown: these books are framed novels, in that we begin and end each book from the perspective of Eloise Kelly, a graduate student who is studying the flower spies of the French Revolution for her thesis. She is helped in her quest for original sources by a descendant of the Purple Gentian, one of the flower spies (along with the Pink Carnation and the more widely-known Scarlet Pimpernel). The descendant is Colin Selwick, who starts off the series kind of surly and protective of his family’s history, but — as typically happens in rom-coms — eventually warms to Eloise. Although, as the modern portions of the stories are told from Eloise’s first-person perspective, we the reader aren’t entirely sure how Colin truly feels; and Eloise definitely voices her confusion as part of her narration.

The action of the story moves between Eloise’s search in present-day and the goings-on of the flower spies and their acquaintances back at the turn of the 19th century. Pink Carnation introduced us to the Purple Gentian, Richard Selwick, through the eyes of Amy Balcourt. Amy is a lovable imp who only wants to join forces with the Purple Gentian. She and Richard fall in love — almost against their better instincts — and they are so damn cute together it’s sickening in the best kind of way.

When I originally reviewed Pink Carnation, I alluded to the rest of the books in the series. In writing these books, instead of returning to the characters we (read: I) fell in love with in Carnation, she instead spins off the sequels to get other pairs together. And while The Masque of the Black Tulip is similar enough to Carnation that I can enjoy it on its own, constantly moving to other couples in the historical section is not enough to keep me reading the books one after another; I need to take breaks in-between. (Mostly.)

That paragraph is convoluted. Basically, the history section of Pink Carnation introduces who we think are going to be main characters in the series (Amy; Richard) and their assorted sidekicks (Miss Gwen, Amy’s governess; Jane, Amy’s best friend; Henrietta, Richard’s younger sister; Miles Dorrington, Richard’s best friend). But in The Masque of the Black Tulip, we focus on Henrietta and Miles and the development of their relationship and eventual marriage. They are also sickeningly cute in an excellent way, though also in a different way from Amy and Richard.

I’ll get back to Henrietta and Miles in a moment, but within the historical part of Black Tulip, we meet sidekicks to Henrietta and Miles: Geoffrey Pinchingdale-Snipe, best friend to Miles and cohort of Richard; the object of his affections, Mary Alsworthy; and Henrietta’s friends, Penelope and Charlotte. So at the end of Black Tulip, we want to see more of Richard and Amy and more of Henrietta and Miles. But in the next book, The Deception of the Emerald Ring, we are diverted yet again to focus on the developing relationship between Geoffrey and Mary’s younger sister, Letty (it’s a long story. Wait a couple of days, I’ll get into it later). So each book is like a spin-off of the one before, and I just want to get back to the original story! Because I know there are shenanigans at the School for Spies Richard and Amy started up after the Purple Gentian was de-masked! And I know there are tons of adorably bantery conversations we could watch enfold between Henrietta and Miles! Come on!

And yes, the entire series has a through-line of the courtship between Eloise and Colin, and that development is doled out in … well, very small portions. Just enough to keep us reading further to see what happens between them. And at one point in Black Tulip, their relationship is just about to go from “simmer” to “hot boil,” and then circumstances intervene and Eloise has to return to London, and that helps to propel us to read the next book, because we just want to know if those crazy kids get together in the end

It’s also possible that I’m being prematurely judgy. I’ve read through the fourth book out of a dozen, so it’s entirely possible that Amy and Richard (or Henrietta and Miles) return with substantial parts in later books. But based on my current perceptions, I’m disappointed in how the series progresses.

Not that that is going to keep me from reading the future titles in hopes of being proven wrong. And again, I’m talking about the series as a whole; The Masque of the Black Tulip is just as delightful as Pink Carnation, and while a lack of Richard and Amy is disappointing, Miles and Henrietta compensate wonderfully.

When Eloise isn’t trying to parse whether Colin’s flirting with her, she’s reading the journals and diaries of Henrietta Selwick, Richard’s younger sister. She has been kept in London during her Season while Richard, newlywed to Amy, has retired to the country to run a school for spies. Henrietta, as many younger sisters in literature do, just wants to tag along and do her part for the cause. Richard’s best friend, Miles Dorrington, has been tasked to stay behind and intercept missives from the War Office. Miles also stops by the Selwick household in town daily to keep an eye on Henrietta.

Miles’s mission is to determine who is acting as the mysterious Black Tulip: a French spy on British soil, ostensibly gathering secrets about the British effort against Napoleon. His prime suspect is Lord Vaughn, who is described as a witter version of Lucius Malfoy(*):

… the gentleman approaching was dressed in a combination of black and silver, like midnight shot with moonlight. His hair carried out the theme, a few silver strands frosting rather than disguising the original black. Henrietta wouldn’t have been surprised if he had silvered them intentionally, just to match his waistcoat ….

… Henrietta noticed the silver serpent that slithered along the body of [his] cane, its fanged head constituting the handle. It was an ebony cane, of course. Henrietta had no doubt that, as he drew closer, the silver squiggles on his waistcoat would also resolve themselves into the twining writhing bodies of snakes.

Silver serpents, for goodness’ sake! Henrietta bit her lip on an impertinent chuckle. That was taking trying to look wicked and mysterious just a little too far. [p. 54-55]

(*): Fun Fact!: I have been reading the Harry Potter books for fifteen years, and no matter what I do or how many times I say it to myself as I write, I can never not write Lucius Malfoy as “Lucious” Malfoy or “Lucien” Malfoy first. I guess, at least I don’t write it “Luscious Malfoy”?

Lord Vaughn takes a liking to Henrietta, which sets Miles’s radar off. He wants to protect her out of honor to her brother. Meanwhile, the Marquise de Montvale is getting rather cozy with Miles (to no avail), and that’s pinging Henrietta’s own radar. The more Henrietta and Miles attempt to protect each other from Lord Vaughn and the Marquise, respectively, the more they realize that they love each other. Of course, there are some obstacles to conquer before they get to their Happily Ever After, but get there they do.

Richard and Amy fell in love under what TV Tropes calls the “Loves My Alter Ego“: Amy meets the Purple Gentian and falls in love with the Gentian, whereas she hates Richard while his mask is off. Until she realizes that Richard is the Purple Gentian, that is. Then everything is hunky-dory and they get married almost immediately.

Miles and Henrietta, however, personify the “Friends to Lovers” trope. At least, that’s what call it; unfortunately, after a brief perusal of TVTropes.org (brief – hah! TVTropes is never brief!), apparently “Friends to Lovers” is too broad a category for this — in fact, “Friends to Lovers” doesn’t actually exist as a trope over there, which is shocking to me.

The closest example I can find is “Relationship Upgrade“: where two people who may have experienced unresolved sexual tension in the past decide to announce their love and become official as a couple. Henrietta and Miles have bantered with each other all their lives and felt protective of the other as near-siblings are wont to do, but never attributed their feelings to actual love; Lord Vaughn and the Black Tulip become the impetus for their relationship to be consummated.

I should note here that yes, The Deception of the Emerald Ring takes a third type of trope for its romantic plotline.

I realize that my review sounds rather negative of the series, once you put all the parts together. But I really do like the series – I can state “this happens in this book, and I wish XYZ would happen in future books” while still liking it. My wanting different or more things from something — in this instance, at least — doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the something. This will be a much different discussion when I read the next Laurell K. Hamilton novel, but when it comes to this series, I’m still interested enough in a positive way to keep reading.

As we shall see.

Grade for The Masque of the Black Tulip: 4 stars