Fiction: “Seduction in Death” by J.D. Robb

seductionAs I was finishing up The Witches, I realized I wanted something a little lighter for my next reading fare. While I was still reading silly little romance novels at home, that genre still isn’t something I feel comfortable reading in public – especially since I don’t read them on my Kindle app. (Or don’t, for the most part.) So I went with the next best thing to a cheesy romance novel: a crime novel with some romance! Also known as, the next book in the J.D. Robb Eve Dallas series.

This book’s villain is actually a team of two: two young, affluent white male geniuses who never got women in high school or college, so they turned to meeting women under pseudonyms online – and really obvious pseudonyms to the modern day reader; I’m talking about John Keats, or Byron. Poets from the Romantic period that people in 2058ish (when the series takes place) might not be as familiar with as we are right now. But they entice a lady via their online profiles, and then when they go out on their first date, they roofie the girls, and then, after they’ve consented (while incapacitated, so, no, consent wasn’t part of the discussion), they inject another drug into the girl’s bloodstream which causes her to have a heart attack mid-orgasm, and die.

Yet another reason why I’m still single.

No, but for real: many well-meaning people have said to me, “Alaina, why don’t you try online dating?” And while I was just as hesitant prior to reading Seduction in Death, this certainly doesn’t help. (Although at least I’d give myself enough credit to know when someone’s masquerading as John Keats or something to figure out they’re lyin’.)

Look, one of my formative influences is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And in episode 8 of season 1, “I Robot, You Jane,” Willow dates Malcolm, and the relationship is all online. Malcolm also turns out to be a demon, but that’s neither here nor there. This conversation between Buffy and Xander, however, completely explains my reservations:

Xander: I mean, sure he says he’s a high school student, but can say I’m a high school student.
Buffy: [duh] You are.
Xander: Okay, but I could also say I’m an elderly Dutch woman. Get me? I mean, who’s to say I’m not if I’m in the elderly Dutch chat room?
Buffy: I get your point. [realizes] I get your point! Oh, this guy could be anybody! He could be weird, or crazy, or old, or … he could be a circus freak! He’s probably a circus freak!
Xander: Yeah, I mean, we read about it all the time. Y’know, people meet on the ‘net, they talk, they get together, have dinner, a show … horrible ax murder.
Buffy: Willow … ax murdered, by a circus freak. Okay, okay, what do we do?

PS, this conversation? aired back in 1997. It’s stuck with me for almost oh god I just counted twenty years. Just because Dude posts a picture of himself, how do I know it’s really Dude? I have trust issues up the wazoo! There is no way I am going to be able to trust anyone, no matter how well-meaning they may be.

holy shit next year is the 20th goddamned anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So anyway, Dear Well-Meaning Friends: stop suggesting I try online dating. Don’t quote to me the magnificent Carrie Fisher, who said “stay afraid, but do it anyway.” As much as I admire her (and god, do I ever), and aspire to her level of life-living, when it comes to that avenue, there are Things I (clearly) need to work on (probably via talk therapy), and until those Things have been Worked, online dating will be a no-go for me. And I’m okay with that.

oh god how will i be able to trust a stranger in talk therapy i’m probably going to assume he’s a cannibal and welp there goes that plan

hannibal-season-2-episode-12-hannibal-chair

SO ANYWAY. (I probably should have waited to write this until I was a little less scatter-brained, but I am way behind on blog posts and Hamilton Tickets [who I’m puppy-sitting again] is asleep on my feet and not jumping on me, so I’m going to take advantage of the quiet and my awakeness to get at least one post done.)

There really isn’t much else to talk about plot-wise. If you read these books to keep up with the budding romance between Peabody and McNab, they ended the last book on the outs, but they’re back together by the end of this one. Eve and Roarke are still very tight and in love, and seriously, I’ve said it before and I will continue to say it until it’s no longer true: I love their relationship.

“Eve.”

“Don’t.” She held up a finger at Roarke’s quiet tone. “I don’t want to talk about that now. I don’t ever want to talk about it, but I especially don’t want to talk about it now. And if anybody had listened to me when I said she and McNab getting tangled was going to screw things up, we wouldn’t have to talk about it, would we?”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’re talking about it.”

“Oh, shut up.” [p. 73]

The only other dogears I made in the book all detail the villains’ attitude towards their victims. They’re rich, well-educated, assholey white boys who are killing women because women never paid them attention while they attended their genius schools. It’s exactly as horrifying and probably indicative of actual attitudes as you can imagine. And we’ve all had a rough week, month, year – even though J.D. Robb / Nora Roberts wrote these characters back in 2001, I don’t want to bring any more negativity into this week if I can help it.

Grade for Seduction in Death: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Mistress of Rome” by Kate Quinn

mistress of romeAfter the much-welcomed violence break that was The Intern’s Handbook, I found myself picking up Mistress of Rome, another book I had purchased at that trip to Barnes & Noble. This title is the first in a series named on Goodreads as The Empress of Rome series – so, spoiler alert for who survives, I guess?

The main character is Thea, a slave in the Pollia household in Rome. Thea is the personal slave to Lepida Pollia, the spoiled daughter of the house. One day, the family goes to watch the gladiators, and Lepida uses Thea to bring love notes to the reigning champion gladiator, Arius. Except that Arius falls for Thea, and their romance blooms over the course of the season. When Lepida realizes that Thea has ‘stolen’ her gladiator, she abandons Thea to the streets.

Thea then gets purchased by a benevolent master who trains her in the art of singing and entertaining. He names her Athena, and she becomes the most sought-after singer for the season. She catches the eye of Paulinus, son of Marcus Norbanus, who married Lepida Pollia after the death of Paulinus’s mother. So now Thea has come back into Lepida’s circle, and Lepida’s envy of Thea hasn’t ceased one iota in the time that’s passed. That envy only grows exponentially when Domitian, the emperor, becomes enamored of Thea to the point that he makes her his mistress.

This book was basically a soap opera set in ancient Rome. The author helps us out by putting the cast of characters and the sects they fall into on the last page of the book, and it’s interesting that some of the characters were real people. But I wouldn’t read this book expecting to take away any actual Roman history. Seriously, it’s a soap opera.

Because Thea got pregnant by Arius but didn’t tell anyone, and her son, Vix, lives on the estate of her master. Just before Thea takes up with the Emperor, Domitian threatened Arius with death, so Arius had to escape Rome and ended up on the estate of the Emperor’s sister, who hates Domitian. So he hides as a gardener and befriends this slave kid that also escaped at the same time, named Vix. And it’s not until Thea comes to see Vix that she realizes that Arius is alive, but he’s also – GASP! – the gardener.

Then Lepida schemes to make herself the Emperor’s mistress, and apparently no one cares that the Emperor is a vicious, violent man intent on breaking the women he sleeps with. When Domitian finds out about Thea’s son, he decides to take Vix in exchange for Thea, and then there’s a plot between Thea and Arius and about forty other people to finally kill the Emperor.

The story is fine – if you like soap operas. I used to love All My Children, but as I was saying to my mother yesterday when The Young and the Restless came on (seriously, I’m not at home during the day, I forgot that soaps still existed) that if I found old clips on YouTube or something, I’m amazed at the dialogue, because it all sounds improvised. Like, how did I watch this for so long? Anyway, the characters are interesting, the story keeps the tension up so you get propelled along with the plot, but overall I thought the book was eh.

One thing that was jarring until I got used to it: the author switches the narration and point-of-view. A lot. We start off with Thea being a first-person narrator, but then halfway through the chapter it would switch to a third-person omniscient. There is a break halfway through the chapter, so don’t think it switches mid-paragraph or anything. But then the next chapter might start off with Lepida’s first-person narration, and then go back to third-person. It’s an interesting way to get into both characters’ heads, but it also makes me wonder why that couldn’t be accomplished by sticking with third-person narration the whole way through?

Oh well. Here’s the thing: when you look at it as an interesting soap opera set in a different time, place, and culture, the whole thing holds up. I read it quickly, so it definitely didn’t bore me. If I find the next book in the series at the library, I’ll probably pick it up. I don’t think it’s something I’ll buy again (sorry, author!), but we’ll see how the rest of the series goes.

Grade for Mistress of Rome: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Diamonds Are Forever” by Ian Fleming

diamonds are foreverOh god – it’s finally happened.  I’ve procrastinated on reviewing a book so long, I can’t remember what it’s about. And I can’t even watch the movie to remind me, because I know it’s not going to be anything near to how the book is. Also, I’m writing this review longhand during my breaks at work, to type it up later, and my copy of the book is currently residing on my kitchen table, so I’m doubly screwed. This will be fun.

Note From the Future:
I actually did a not-too-shabby job remembering the plot. I’m super proud of me, you guys.

Diamonds Are Forever is James Bond’s fourth outing in the 007 series, and this time, he’s investigating diamond smugglers. MI-6 knows of a smuggling pipeline, but they don’t know the termin…uses? Terminii? Oh shit, what’s the plural of terminus? The beginning and the end; MI-6 doesn’t know the beginning or the end of the pipeline. They do know that the pipeline stops off at a jeweler’s in London before heading over to the US, and M assigns Bond the job.

Now, M realizes that Bond is most likely going to get mixed up with some American gangsters, and according to M, American gangsters are the worst type of people to get mixed up with. M gives Bond explicit instructions on how to deal with these American gangster types, and the advice pretty much boils down to “keep your fucking mouth shut, James, don’t be a fucking jackass,” and I’m pretty sure we all know how well Bond is going to listen to M.

Basically, James Bond’s relationship with M could be described thusly:

M: hoe don’t do it
Bond: [does it]
M: oh my god

Before his first day on the job is over, Bond has: made contact with Tiffany Case (oh, Ian Fleming — at least this name has a backstory to it); told her his real name (dammit James); and implied that he’s interested in moving up the ladder, all of which are against M’s explicit instructions. (dammit James!) The next day, he’s smuggling some diamonds across the Atlantic (how, you ask? Why, stuck in some golf balls, what else?), and being told by the Vice President of Diamond Smuggling (you all know how this works – it’s too late in the game for me to look anything important up, so fake names they’re gonna be) how to collect his pay for the job: Bond has to drive from New York City to Sarasota Springs on Sunday, and bet $1,000 on a specific horse in a specific race. As a scheme goes, it’s all rather clever – Bond will get his money, but not from one avenue of the gangster ring, and ostensibly on the up-and-up. Well; however “up-and-up” betting on the ponies can be considered.

So since Bond doesn’t have to be in Sarasota until Sunday and it’s Friday in this timeline, he heads out to grab dinner with Tiffany Case, because she’s a girl and he’s James Bond and it’s not a mission unless he gets to sleep with a woman. And let me tell you, as tragic backstories go? Eve Harrington doesn’t have anything on Tiffany Case. Tiffany Case’s story even has the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end. I also don’t really want to get into it because it opens up a whole can of misogynistic worms, and let’s just say that Ian Fleming really wants us to believe in the healing power of James Bond’s boner.

Note From the Future:
I get into it later.

As Bond’s going to meet Tiffany, he finds he is being shadowed by a shadowy figure of shadows. In fact the figure grabs him!:

‘All right, Limey. Take it easy unless you want lead for lunch,’ and [Bond] felt something press into his back just above the kidneys.

What was there familiar about that voice? The Law? The Gang? Bond glanced down to see what was holding his right arm. It was a steel hook. [p. 63]

At first, I think it’s Buster Bluth. But then, at the same time Bond recognizes him, I remember what happened in Live and Let Die and I realize – it’s Felix Leiter! I love Felix! I’ve loved him since Goldfinger (the movie) and I’ll love him until I die. I mean, Moneypenny’s great and all, but she never survived a shark attack and now has to go around with a hook for a hand.

Anyway, Felix has left the CIA because the CIA doesn’t want Captain Hook in the field, but he doesn’t want to be benched, either. He’s now working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency (does Al Swearengen know about this?!), and he’s investing the … Jeweler Gangster People. (I’M NEVER LOOKING IT UP, GUYS). Felix knew exactly which horse Bond had to bet on, because that’s the horse and the race that’s always fixed. Felix wants to know if he and Bond can work together, and Bond agrees to a point. They drive up to Sarasota and bribe the already-bribed jockey, only this time he’s to not win the race.

Long story short (TOO LATE), because I’m falling asleep sitting up: Bond’s horse loses, so he doesn’t get the rest of the money the Jewelry Gang owes him. The Jewelry Gang orders him to fly out to Vegas and play five hands of blackjack at a certain table in a certain casino at a certain time. (Tiffany Case’s day job? Blackjack dealer.) Bond wins his money, and then against the orders of the Jewerly Gang, he goes and plays some roulette. He’s not surprised when he gets kidnapped the next day and taken to an actual ghost town, where the head honcho of the Jewelry Gang beats him to within an inch of his life. Tiffany Case sees Bond’s broken body, and decides she’s had enough, so she takes him to the train station (?) where they steal one of those pushcart thingees, and they’re trying to get back to Vegas but the Jewelry Gang Leader has a fancy old-timey train and he attempts to catch up to Bond and Case, but Bond manages to flip the switch on the rails and send the train flying into a crevasse. Bond and Case get on a ship back for London (after flying to New York – I don’t want you to think there’s a boat from Las Vegas to London) and they manage to escape a final attempt on their life while being on a boat, and Bond has successfully figured out where the diamonds go so he’s a bona fide hero.

I have no idea if this is what the movie’s like. I haven’t seen it, and it’s not on Netflix, so … we shall see.

Some quick things I wanted to point out, and then I’ve got to go to bed:

I wasn’t kidding about the misogyny in this book. I wouldn’t say it’s rampant, but there are points in here where the attitudes towards women were just horrifying. Tiffany Case is the daughter of a prostitute (I think – Tiffany’s mom may have become a prostitute after Tiffany was born) and when Tiffany was a young girl she watched her mom get gang-raped – I think? Or was … y’know, I guess I actually should look this up, because this seems like a crucial character point. Okay, according to Felix Leiter, Tiffany’s mom ran a brothel, but when she stopped paying the protection racket the gangs had cooked up, the gangs came in and ransacked the place and then each took a turn with Tiffany, who was only sixteen at the time. So when I say that Ian Fleming wants us to believe that Bond’s Boner heals all wounds, he really really wants us to believe that. I mean, did you really have to make your only female character have such a tragic background that Bond can “fix”? You couldn’t have picked any other tragedy that could have befallen her? You had to make the heroine a survivor of gang-rape, didn’t you, Ian Fleming?

I mean, the overall attitude is horrifying – and yes, I know, this was written in the 1950s, attitudes were different back then. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t still find them offensive.

For instance, Felix is describing one of the members of the Jewelry Gang thusly:

“He’s been in trouble all over the South, what they call a ‘little habitch’ as opposed to a ‘big habitch’ – habitual criminal. Larceny, mugging, rape – nothing big.” [p. 90]

NOTHING BIG.  Jesus.

Even some of the descriptions of mundane events or thoughts get that attitude painted on them:

His mind full of lush dreams, the man on the motor-cycle bumped his way as fast as he could across the plain – away from the great thorn bush where the pipeline for the richest smuggling operation in the world started its devious route to where it would finally gush out on to soft bosoms, five thousand miles away. [p. 9]

Whenever I read a Bond novel, I try and discuss Bond’s humanity. In this outing, I feel that there was so much plot going on, Bond’s character development took a backseat in order to allow the plot to machinate forward. There is a lovely discussion between Bond and Case discuss their attitudes of marriage and children, and we see a glimpse of a Bond who might want to settle down – but not until long after his espionage days are over.  For Bond, the job comes first – and letting a woman into his life would be more dangerous than his day job.

Grade for Diamonds Are Forever: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Divergent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade for Divergent: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Banker” by Dick Francis

Good lord, I finished this book weeks ago. And then between reading two other books, staying abreast of Fall TV (OMG VAMPIRE DIARIES WHY DO YOU BREAK MY HEART SO), occasionally posting some classic movies taped off of TCM to Movies Alaina’s Never Seen under the Insomniac Theatre heading, and oh yeah, working, eating and sleeping, it’s been difficult for me to find the gumption to review this title.

And the worst part of it all is that I know that, once I start writing this (as evidenced here), the words will just pour out as always, I’ll read it through a couple of times quickly, then hit the ‘post’ button, go to bed, wait until tomorrow and then update again.

But now I’m sitting in the midst of Hurricane Sandy. I thank my lucky stars that the house in which I’m living comes equipped with a generator, so not only am I caught up on Vampire Diaries (DAMON AND ELENA go on another ROAD TRIP? IS IT THURSDAY YET?!), but I’ve also killed off all the Conan episodes, and now I’m working through Elementary, which honestly? I’m still not sure I like.

What I know I like is Dick Francis. And it surprises me, a bit, that for an author I claim to love, and for an author whose entire collection I own (save for a non-fiction title and the ones he wrote in partnership with his son following his retirement), I don’t read him very often. The last title of his I read was back in March of last year, when I flew out to California.

Hmm. I just realized I’ve lit a candle in case the generator fails, but then I remembered that my landlord has an oxygen tank and signs everywhere that say “No Smoking.” Candles don’t count as smoking, do they?

Okay, back to the book. Banker is a very important title to me, for two reasons. Number one — it was the first title by Dick Francis I ever read. Seventh grade was a very formative year for my reading habits. I distinctly remember trying to muddle through both A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Three Musketeers, all because of those ridiculous* Disney movies that were released that year, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court [WITHOUT looking it up: the titular Kid is the same kid that grew up to be one of the American Pie kids] and the Disney-fied version of The Three Musketeers*, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen, and Chris O’Donnell.

*This is not a ridiculous movie. It is a kind of hilarious and, in many cases, awesome movie. I haven’t seen it in forever, but I still remember being disappointed that the movie didn’t follow the plot of the book entirely. Also, sidebar: how awesome is Tim Curry as Richelieu?

So I was struggling with those novels, and honestly, couldn’t retain anything of what I was reading. I knew I wanted to stretch my wings when it came to reading, but I didn’t know where to turn. In seventh grade, on the cusp of thirteen, what I really wanted to read were my mother’s romance novels, but back then, Mom didn’t think it appropriate for a thirteen-year-old to read of heaving bosoms and throbbing manhoods. (Note: it is never appropriate to refer to those in that terminology. Call ’em like they are, people.)

So one library trip, Mom suggested to me the Dick Francis titles, because “they’re all about horses.” I started reading Mr. Francis at the same time I started reading the Sue Grafton series, and both were deemed appropriate for pre-teen Alaina. I’m still not sure if Mom had ever read those, but apparently “this book has horses. Girls like horses” was good enough for her. Sex? Never. Violence and, in the case of Bolt, cruelty to animals? Yeah sure, okay. [See this, Mom? This is my tongue, firmly in my cheek. Love you!]

Okay. So I went over to the ‘F’-author section in mysteries, and picked up Banker. The other reason this title is so important to me is this: I have to read series in order. I am — dare I say it? — anal about making sure I’m reading a series in the correct order. Whether it be the Kinsey Millhone (and what’s easier to follow than the alphabet?), Stephanie Plum (okay, using numbers in the title is cool too), Sookie Stackhouse, V.I. Warshawski, Gregor Demarkian — even the dreaded Kay Scarpetta. I find out the order and I stick to that order, because the order is meant to be followed.

What Dick Francis does that none of the above titles do is he creates different protagonists for nearly every book. There is no particular order — you can pick up (almost) any Dick Francis title, and you don’t have to worry, “Oh no! Am I reading this out of order? Which one comes first?”

Having said that, there are a couple of internal series. At one point, he creates an ex-jockey named … Sid Halley, I think? I’d look it up, but I don’t want to get off the couch, and also, Sandy took out the Internets (WHY SANDY WHYYYYYY), otherwise I’d Google it. So anyway, Sid Halley is now a private investigator with a mechanical hand (LIKE LUKE SKYWALKER), and there are I believe three books about some of his cases. There’s also a two-title series with a protagonist whose name escapes me, but I know that they are Break-In and Bolt, in that order. So if you want a series, go for it!

But anyway, because I’m anal, and even though I recognize that Dick Francis doesn’t necessarily hold with continuity through his titles, I need to put order in there somewhere. So when I first went through his catalog, I read them alphabetically.

The first title alphabetically is Banker. And since I’m fast approaching my thirtieth birthday next year (and listening to No Doubt’s Return of Saturn over and over again, appropriately enough), I’m undergoing a severe bout of nostalgia. Hence, Banker.

So. What’s the damned book about?

The title refers to two different things: Number one, it refers to the narrator and protagonist, Tim Ekaterin, who is a financier for Ekaterin Bank in London. One day, Tim accompanies some of his department friends to Ascot, where Calder Jackson, an acquaintance, is a horse whisperer of sorts. Calder claims that he has healed one of the runners, Sandcastle, and that he is a fine example of a horse. So fine, that one of the friends bets everything on Sandcastle. Everything. Luckily, Sandcastle wins, and everyone rejoices. As the man has effectively made bank on Sandcastle, Sandcastle is also considered a Banker.

After a phenomenal season, Oliver Knowles wants to buy Sandcastle and put him to stud, and he contacts Ekaterin Bank for financing. Everything goes well — until the foals being born to Sandcastle’s mares are born deformed. Suddenly, Sandcastle — the supposed greatest horse in all of England’s racing history, certain to breed fantastic foals that will carry on the stud’s fantastic legacy — is labeled a failure, and Oliver could lose his entire stud farm.

Tim investigates, and learns that Sandcastle was most likely tampered with. He learns with the help of his pharmacist friend Penny that Calder Jackson may not be the faith healer that he seems to be.

After having read nearly all of Mr. Francis’s novels over the years (though intermittently, lately, so my accuracy may be off), I feel that Banker‘s action is a bit slow to start. There are quite a few characters and all are introduced, there is a romance with an unavailable woman that is both sweet and heartbreaking, there are some sidelines about potential monkey business going on in the bank that may not really go anywhere. But the other piece of the puzzle is that the mystery spans three years’ worth of time, from when Tim first sees Sandcastle at Ascot, to the purchase of the horse into stud, to the first round of foals being born and the following investigation. With that span of time, it makes sense for the action to be slower, but I wish that the pace had been more even throughout.

Well. This entry took me longer than I thought (an episode of Elementary and two episodes of The Daily Show), and while I only have one light on in the apartment, I’m feeling guilty with the storm going on, so I’m going to save this Word document until we get the internets back.

To all my friends on the East Coast: I’m thinking of you. I know Maine got off fairly lightly when it comes to the wrath of Sandy, so please let me know in some fashion that y’all are all right.

And to my friends elsewhere: stop with the Grease jokes, I’m begging you. They are old and tired — much like Danny Zuko nowadays.

Grade for Banker: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Up In The Air” by Walter Kirn

When I finished How to Read Literature Like a Professor, I needed another Lunch Break Book. (I’m considering creating a tag/category for it, but honestly, I’m just too lazy.) My big bookcase was almost — almost packed up; all that remained were a couple of random titles and the Patricia Cornwell series (because … *shiver.* But guys, why are you surprised that not only did I pack them, but I then moved them into my new apartment? Seriously – have you all missed the memo about me being a masochist?) Anyway, this was one of those random titles, and I liked the movie when I watched it for Oscar!Watch (hence, the buying of the book in the first place), and I don’t know; it was another “HEY THIS WILL WORK” book.

First and foremost, I did not realize how different the book was going to be from the movie. Not much from the book survives into the movie. Oh boy — how am I going to explain this without spoiling both the book and the movie? I mean, should I do that, I think I win the title of Queen Spoiler, but believe it or not, that’s not a title I’m looking to have.

Okay, I think I figured it out. I’m going to do movie first, even though I haven’t seen it in two years. George Clooney played Ryan Bingham, a corporate Joe that’s made a name for himself in “Career Displacement Services” (or something), which essentially means he fires people for a living. But what he really jives on is his frequent flyer miles. Bingham spends nearly 20 out of 24 hours of every day either on a plane or in an airport, hotel, or rental car. He is speeding towards his goal of ten million frequent flyer miles, and the luxury that comes with it.

Until, that is, he himself is told he will be outsourced in the near future. Rather than firing people in person, the company he works for has decided to go with video-firings. Bingham feels betrayed, because this is happening just before he gets to his ten million mark.

In the novel, Bingham is hell-bent on getting to the one-million mark, but before his boss finds his resignation letter. He is over the whole firing people thing, and has a few different irons in the fire for the future: he has written a book, similar to Who Moved My Cheese?, a short missive that will inspire the masses towards individualism and achievement; he proposes to a mentor a line of merchandising and classes on the subject of his mentor’s teachings; and he’s angling for a position at the aptly-named MythTec, a consulting firm that is never quite explicated in the text. While all of this is going on, his little sister is getting married in Minnesota, he meets a woman on a flight to Reno who intrigues him — right up to the part where she practically stalks him.

What this book attempts to do, and almost succeeds, though in an oblique way, is — as one of the quotes on the back of the book state — show us that, by pursuing our goals, we may lose sight of who we are as people. I’m sorry — there are an awful lot of clauses in that sentence. Bingham is so focused — as I said, “hell-bent” — on earning his millionth mile that he loses part of his compassion. His other sister asks him to buy a flight for a bridesmaid with some of his miles; with the deadline fast approaching, he refuses, because his goal is more important than his family. He’s determined that that final mile is his reason to live — he doesn’t even want to fly anywhere on them, he just wants to achieve the status and then donate the miles to a children’s hospital, which could use them for sick kids and Make a Wish Foundation wishes. He has fake relationships in ‘AirWorld;’ people he sits next to on flights become his neighbors, his cohorts, his confessors. There’s an interesting passage where he asks some guy who’s frequently on CNBC about a stock mid-flight, and CNBC-Guy gives him some great advice. Bingham’s touched. But then that night, Bingham’s in a strip club with a client and sees CNBC-Guy getting a lap dance. It throws him, because AirWorld personalities become completely disparate from RealWorld personalities.

I liked the book. I couldn’t tell you right now if I’d ever read it again, but I like it enough to not sell it back to give it the chance. I do know that I want to rewatch the movie, and see if I can catch more differences, but damn Redbox and Netflix for both not having it readily available.

Which is why I’m rewatching Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows right now. (And all I can think while watching it is: Poor Lane.)

Grade for Up in the Air: 2.5 stars

Fiction: “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens

So, I have a confession to make. I am very proud of the fact that, while I majored in Business Administration & Finance, I minored in 19th Century British Literature (a.k.a., English). And I’ve read a lot of 19th Century-era British novels – I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I’ve read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre multiple times, I … well, I have enjoyed Thomas Hardy in the past, Mayor of Casterbridge notwithstanding. And don’t get me started on the myriad of times I’ve read Dracula.

So here’s the thing — I have, somehow, managed to not have ever finished a Charles Dickens title before now.

How is that possible? Well, somehow, through high school and college, I always managed to … bypass it. We didn’t read A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year at Brunswick High, I may have skimmed the majority of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (don’t tell Ms. Van Orden), I read three hundred pages of Bleak House (but then I watched five out of the six episodes of the BBC miniseries — I stopped watching after Esther agreed to marry Jarndyce, and I didn’t want to see her break his heart when she left him for her sea captain), and when we read Hard Times in that summer class I took, I literally couldn’t read the book because my glasses had broken. Like, lenses falling out of the frame. I literally could not read it. Last year I tried to read Oliver Twist, and I gave up forty pages in. Or was it David Copperfield

So. Congratulations, Great Expectations, for being the first Dickens novel I was able to finish! And thank you, Gillian Anderson, for making me want to read it so I could enjoy your portrayal of Miss Havisham.

The narrator of Great Expectations is Pip. He was raised by his older sister and her husband, Joe. He grew up in a poor blacksmith’s forge, and everything was going as well as could be expected until his fake uncle, Mr. Pumblechook (not making that up), visits the house and tells the family that Miss Havisham would like a boy.

What that means is that she would like a male companion to play with her adopted daughter, Estella. Because see, Miss Havisham was left at the altar, and ever since then, she has been alone. Well, except for when she adopted Estella, of course. Anyway, Pip comes over and immediately falls in love with Estella at the tender age of 10. And Estella is a right little bitch to Pip, but apparently, Pip likes that. And then Miss Havisham binds Pip to Joe as a blacksmith’s apprentice, and Pip gets sad.

Fast-forward a few years, Pip is about eighteen, I’d wager, when Mr. Jaggers, the attorney (yes, the attorney, shut up, this is my review) comes to tell Pip that he’s been given “expectations” — a large fortune with an allowance, in order to become a gentleman. But there’s one binding part to his contract: he cannot ask or learn who is benefactor is, until such a time as the benefactor decides to reveal himself. Or herself.

Because of course, Pip assumes that Miss Havisham set him up with money to make him a gentleman so he can marry Estella. Because Pip is, first and foremost, a romantic.

So Pip goes to London and becomes a gentleman, all the time trying to leave his poor past behind so he can become a gentleman so he can marry Estella, but —

OH SHIT I skipped something. Damn it! These whole expectations bit, I made a big deal, and then I totally forgot. Fuck, this is bad reviewing. Like me telling a joke: “Oh wait, back up, I forgot to tell you the cowboy rode a blue horse.” Fuck. Anyway, seeing as it’s really fucking important, I have to back up to the very beginning. Can I say ‘fuck’ more?!

So the first scene of the book is six-year-old Pip hanging out in the graveyard with his dead parents and this escaped criminal comes up and when he learns that Pip lives with a blacksmith, he wants Pip to bring him back some food and a file so he can get out of the leg manacle. Pip, being scared out of his wits, does so. And then the criminal gets captured again.

Okay. So, Pip goes along, gets into debt because that’s what young gentlemen of means did back then, collects his allowance, and pines after Estella. Around the time he learns that Estella is to be married to a real jackhole, he also learns who his benefactor is: that criminal he helped when he was a kid.

See how that all turned out? But wait — there’s more! He decides that he doesn’t want to have all that fortune (his expectations) because they were bestowed upon him by a hardened criminal, but he also doesn’t want to just cut the criminal out of his life. So he and his friend Herbert (not making it up!) come up with a plot to get the criminal out of the country, but the plot gets foiled and — spoiler alert! — the criminal dies in prison. Sorry.

Pip goes back home, finds Joe and rekindles their friendship, and then runs into a widowed Estella after Miss Havisham almost dies in a fire, and there’s a chance they could reconicle. So, not quite happily ever after, which I’ve heard is about par for the course with good ol’ Mr. Dickens.

Wow. I just realized that I totally did a shitty job of recapping this classic novel. I’m sorry — the fact is, it was really hard for me to finish this. Truth is, I started reading it back in January, but when I went to Annapolis, I left it behind because I was reading the cloth-covered hardback version, and I didn’t want my book to be the deciding factor on whether I checked my luggage or not. So I brought some paperbacks and called it good. When PBS finally aired the BBC miniseries with Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham, I picked it up again. And then it took me an interminable five weeks to freaking finish it. Good lord, when I read Vanity Fair four years ago, I read that 900-page novel in three weeks while I was taking classes. Lousy Dickens.

I have to say that I think the BBC miniseries had the best death scene for Miss Havisham. She truly died in a fire, whereas in the book, she goes up in flames but then gets really badly burnt, but lingers for a bit. It’s more maudlin and not full of self-pity whatsoever.

Anyway. I liked it, I guess? For a book that I really wanted to finish so I could move on to something else, but didn’t have the energy or wherewithal to? And to be honest, I’m kind of speeding through this review because apparently, I am REQUIRED to watch a movie called Hobo With a Shotgun before I go to bed. So, check out the sister blog at moviesalainasneverseen.com for that particular review.

Grade for Great Expectations: 2.5 stars