Fiction: “Alanna” by Tamora Pierce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade for Alanna: The First Adventure: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Pirate Bride” by Shannon Drake

Pirate BrideOn my trip to My Dear Friend Sarah’s bachelorette party, I had brought A Wrinkle in Time and Killing Orders to read, between the bus, plane, train, Metro, and train rides to get from Portland, Maine to Montgomery County, Maryland and back. But on the Sunday morning of the party weekend, we all trucked out to WonderBook, where Sarah used to work, and I stocked up on I think, six books? to bring back home. The Pirate Bride was one of those titles.

I had read Beguiled by Shannon Drake ages ago, and found it meh. I had forgotten I had found it meh until I just went back and read the review of it I had written seven years ago. I did remember, quite clearly, that Beguiled was just an interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty story. In the interim between Beguiled and The Pirate Bride, I also learned that Beguiled was part of a trilogy which looked at other fairy tales (I think – I know the first, Wicked, is supposed to be analogous to “Beauty and the Beast”). (Also, Shannon Drake is apparently one of the pseudonyms of Heather Graham. I have not read anything by Heather Graham, but if you like her and also like historical romances, you may want to give Shannon Drake a chance.)

So, here’s the bad news about The Pirate Bride: I can’t remember a lot about the plot. Not only because I read it so long ago, but also, I actually started reading this on the train ride back home to Boston, and … well …

Okay. I’m an idiot. It looks like I alluded to my transportation debacles in the reviews of the past two books, but let me be quite clear about what happened, for posterity.

When I learned of Sarah’s bachelorette party, I looked up transportation options, because while my car, Bruce, is an amazing piece of machinery, he was nearing 150,000 miles at that point and one trip to D.C. and back was more than enough for him. Of all the alternatives I could find – plane from Portland, bus to Boston and planes from Boston, overnight trains between Boston and DC – the cheapest option was actually the last: overnight trains from South Station to Union Station and back. So I booked those, and then got the official invitation which extended the party to Friday, so I canceled my incoming train and got a voucher (because of course they were non-refundable) and bought a one-way flight from Boston to Baltimore. I kept my return train trip, however.

The party ends, and Sarah drops me off at Union Station with all my things – including a bottle of Neuro Sleep, which I like to call my “Sleepy Time Drink”, because I’m an asshole. My train is scheduled to pull out a little after 10 p.m., and I should be hitting Boston around 8, bringing me back home to Portland in time for 11 a.m. I settle in for a long ride, and crack open The Pirate Bride to see if I can hasten sleep.

Well, the good thing about the book is that it kept me awake. And for some reason, something kept me from imbibing my Sleepy Time Drink – I’m not sure what it was, but I decided not to drink it. Good thing, too – because when the train pulled into Trenton a little past midnight, our train was stopped “due to police activity on the track”, and given an indefinite delay.

I don’t think Amtrak ever announced why we were stopped, but I found out on Twitter. The night before, at the party, all our phones had gone off because of the bomb found in SoHo (most of the other attendees of Sarah’s bachelorette party were visiting from New York). Well, the night I was going home – on a train – was the night of the bombs discovered in Elizabethtwo stations away.

We remained in Trenton for almost two hours.

We were finally told that we were going to pull forward to the next station (Metropark), at which point we were all to disembark, and there would be buses to take us to either Newark or Penn Station, whichever one we needed to get to.

Buses never showed. We disembarked around 3 a.m., and for over an hour, I had to listen to old white dudes wearing Giants jerseys shout into the void, “WHERE’S THE BUS?!” and then get angry when buses didn’t automatically appear at the sound of their voices, because they’re old white guys and have never been denied anything in their entire life.

There were also the people who tried to make a case that the lack of buses was the result of Democratic leadership in the White House, and that if a certain Cheeto’d Fiasco (this was pre-Access Hollywood tape, be tee dubs) got elected this wouldn’t happen. Sure. How’s that workin’ out for ya, chump? Do you have buses now?

At about 4:30 a.m., I had two women approach me, one of which had scoped out cabs to Newark. We eventually Uber’d over to Newark Station (which is an even longer story) where we caught the PATH to Penn Station. They went on their way, because they were from the city, and I busted through the LIRR and New Jersey Transit to finally find Amtrak, where I learn that the train I was supposed to be on (had I actually waited for the buses to take me to Penn) had pulled out.

It was now 6:30 a.m.  I had been awake since 10 a.m. the previous day. I was dehydrated, and hungry, but also didn’t dare eat something for fear of it upsetting my stomach. I had not napped on the train; nor had I slept standing up, because there were IDIOTS in front of the bus area at Metropark who were CONVINCED that HILLARY CLINTON was the reason WE DIDN’T HAVE BUSES TO PICK US UP, and also one of the women I Uber’d with was someone who had an OPINION ON EVERYTHING, and as I was on the PATH train with her and listening to her have VERY IMPORTANT OPINIONS on the fucking REDSKINS, of all things, I was suddenly completely overwhelmed with the feeling, I just want to go home.

I HAD WATCHED THE SUN COME UP IN FUCKING JERSEY, I AM DONE WITH HAVING ANYONE’S SHIT

And then, the Amtrak guy tried to tell me I had the wrong ticket.

distaste

maaaaaay have lost my shit.

hanni jumpy.gif

“It can’t be the wrong ticket! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A WRONG TICKET. THIS TICKET is the ticket I had when I boarded the train in Washington at 9:30 last night, and this is the same ticket I had when Amtrak forced us off in Metropark to wait for buses that never came, I just Uber’d from NEWARK, of all places, and I need to get to Boston, and you, motherfucker, are getting me on the next fucking train north, or so help me GOD, I will end you!”

He shut up and got me a ticket.

When I finally got back into Bruce the Car in Portland to drive home, it was raining, and the traffic wasn’t going as fast as I wanted to, and this was an honest-to-god actual shot of me in the car on I-295:

alana 2

I finally made it home, took a shower, called my mother, and was asleep by 3 p.m. I passed out – not slept, passed out – for five hours, and still managed to sleep that night to go into work the next day.

And that’s the bare bones story! There is more detail I could put in, but I won’t! Namely because you probably don’t care, also I want to save it for my memoirs, but mainly because I’ve procrastinated on reviewing this book long enough.

The Pirate Bride is a stand-alone romance novel by Shannon Drake – there is nothing before it, and nothing after it.

The pirate in question is Red Robert – who happens to be Roberta. Or Bobbie, to her friends. When Bobbie was a kid, her parents were murdered by the evil pirate Blair Colm, so Bobbie grew up determined to take her revenge. One day, she and her crew captures Logan Hagerty’s merchant ship, and Red Robert decides to hold Logan for ransom. As they engage, Logan learns that Robert is a lady pirate and they come to an accord. But then they get shipwrecked on a deserted island and that’s where their romance truly blooms. Until the pirate Bobbie had been searching for all her life shows up with his crew, and Logan decides he’s going to kill him for Bobbie but Bobbie still wants to kill him herself —

I’m sorry. I feel like I’m doing a disservice to you, my readers, because I do not recall the details of the book. I just read through my dog-eared pages and I cannot remember why I dog-eared any of them. (Well, except one – someone reels off at the beginning of a chapter, “Outgunned, outsailed, outmanned, out … blasted!” and in my head I heard George Washington talk about the British taking Brooklyn and needing a right hand man.)

All in all, it’s a very formulaic historical romance – boy meets girl, girl is a pirate, boy admires girl’s chutzpah, boy and girl get shipwrecked, boy and girl fall in love, boy vows to kill girl’s enemy for her, girl gets mad, bad guy dies in the end anyway, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Eventually, I’ll read it again. I do remember that I read nearly half the book before the train stopped in Trenton, and I found the characters charming enough to keep me awake.

And I am never taking an Amtrak past Boston ever again.

Grade for The Pirate Bride: 2 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Witches: Salem, 1692” by Stacy Schiff

the WitchesMerry Christmas Eve! Let’s spend the time between now and the annual live-tweet of Alaina Watches Die Hard, The Best Christmas Movie In History, No I’m Serious, Don’t @ Me, by discussing a) a book I finished reading six months ago, b) about witches. So, completely the wrong holiday. Whatever; deal with it.

As you can tell from the title of the book, Ms. Schiff’s research attempts to find out what exactly led to the events of the Salem Witch Trials. She goes through the years 1690 through 1694 in deep detail, focusing on each family of Salem and their interactions, and discussed how political and interpersonal relationships could have led to exacerbating the situation with the witches.

The first quote I dogeared (and then transcribed into a Word document, because this was a library book and I didn’t want to incur six months’ of overdue fees just to be able to quote things afterwards) speaks to the mystery still attached to Salem:

Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our [nation’s] first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. [p. 4-5]

For as many details there are in the book – and there are plenty – there are no true, definitive answers. The source materials Ms. Schiff draws from are incredibly deficient – family diaries, incomplete court testimonies, and the biased opinion essays of pastors and preachers related to the trials.

While the bewitched commanded a rapt audience for much of a year, their voices are lost to us. Their words come to us exclusively from men who were far from thorough, seldom impartial, and not always transcribing in the room in which they heard those statements. They mangle and strangle the voices of the accused; they are equally inattentive to the accusers, not all of whose statements they committed to paper. [p. 12]

I think everyone here must be aware of the basic plotline of the Salem Witch Trials: young girls start acting weird and accusing other women in town of being witches and using their witchcraft against them, everyone believes them, and at the end of it all, nearly twenty residents were executed after being found guilty of witchcraft. In fact, everything the collective consciousness knows about the Salem Witch Trials most likely comes from our reading of The Crucible when we were in high school. But The Crucible was a parable Arthur Miller used to expose the hypocrisy and hysteria surrounding McCarthyism, and should not be considered a historical artifact, regardless of the fact that Mr. Miller used the names of actual Salem residents for his characters.

Ms. Schiff attributes the cause of the Salem Witch Hysteria to many things, including a general distrust of women, an incredibly oppressive religious atmosphere, and a contagious psychological disorder. Sadly, we will never know the true root of the issue, as that is lost to history. Thanks, Puritan judges and other people back then who didn’t realize they should really WRITE THINGS DOWN.

Relatively early in her narrative, Ms. Schiff discusses the attitudes towards the women involved in the Witch Trials. She points out that this is one of the few times in history where the actions are directly related to the actions of women:

History is not rich in unruly young women; with the exception of Joan of Arc and a few underage sovereigns, it would be difficult to name another historical moment so dominated by teenage virgins, traditionally a vulnerable, mute, and disenfranchised cohort. [p. 131]

Additionally, she discusses the power surrounding these women, and how the mysticism of witchcraft increased that power:

The wrinkle with Salem’s infernal onslaught of 1692 was that both the spirited victims and their oppressors were predominantly female. And in a New England first, women’s voices proved so commanding that the spectral testimony of two dead wives could prevail in court against an articulate, Harvard-educated minister. [p. 145]

Think about that: this is a period of time before the United States Consitutiton was even a thought. Alexander Hamilton and George Washington hadn’t even been born. The concept of “innocent until proven guilty” hadn’t been put forth yet. So our modern concept of a “trial” is not even closely related to what occurred in Salem. In Salem in 1692, a judge could accept the “testimony” of deceased women over that of a minister who had graduated from Harvard. That is a crazy concept to wrap one’s head around.

The accusations of witchcraft and witchery flew throughout the town, and created an oppressive atmosphere that centered on a form of gaslighting: fingers pointing at nearly every citizen of Salem, accusing them of witchcraft, and using previous actions as specious proof of interacting with the Devil:

For weeks the women had been stretched on the most pernicious of psychological racks: You are not what you think you are, they were hectored; you are what we think you are. [p. 235]

The biggest piece of new information regarding the Salem Witch Trials was actually a supposition or extrapolation: Ms. Schiff proposes that the cause was a form of mass hysteria, known as conversion disorder, where physical symptoms can arise following an emotional or mental crisis:

Where the seventeenth-century authority saw the devil, we tend to recognize an overtaxed nervous system; what an earlier age called hysteria we term conversion disorder, the body literally translating emotions into symptoms. [p. 386]

The witch hysteria began in the house of Samuel Parris, with his daughter Betty and her cousin Abigail Williams. Samuel Parris was the pastor of the town, and one of the more religious ones they’d had in town for a while. (Which is hard to believe, seeing as how Puritan the whole area was.) As Ms. Schiff states,

Hysteria prefers decorous, sober households, where tensions puddle more deeply; it made sense that the Salem minister wound up with more witchcraft victims under his roof than anyone else. [p. 387]

So what would have been the inciting event that caused the mass hysteria? Possibly puberty – I mean, think about it. The two girls in Parris’s household that started the whole thing? Were 9 and 11. And in that type of oppressive religious atmosphere, who’s to say what emotional trauma may have been caused by a religious interpretation of changing bodies? Or even having a thought that went against what had been taught for years upon years? After all,

It would have been easier at the parsonage to have a vision than an opinion. [p. 388]

We will never know what really happened with the Salem Witch Trials – the causes of that trauma have been lost to history. We can only make assumptions and attempt to decipher the few documents from that era that still exist, and recognize that whatever was written down, was written from the points of view of extremely religious views and interpretations. But we can’t forget the Salem Witch Trials, or even attempt to ignore it. While the cause may have been conversion disorder, the unfounded persecution against a minority that led to the deaths of innocents was still the result.

The Salem Witch Trials endure in American history “not only as a metaphor but as a vaccine and a taunt” [p. 413]. We as a people use the Witch Trials any time someone feels unjustly persecuted. But instead of using it as a label, or a crutch, we should use it as a reminder: we have done this before. We have pointed our fingers, as a society, at fellow citizens and deemed them guilty of crimes that were not proven. We killed innocents out of fear of the unknown. That era is not a time we should hope to return to. We should look to that era as a warning of where we’ve been, and how far we’ve come, so as to not slide.

Grade for The Witches: Salem, 1692: 2 stars

Fiction: “What a Pirate Desires” by Michelle Beattie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OH SHIT WAIT I ALMOST FORGOT SOMETHING

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

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

Grade for What a Pirate Desires: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Grade for The Blind Assassin: 2 stars

Fiction: “The Intern’s Handbook” by Shane Kuhn

intern's handbookSo at this point in the fall, I’ve read, what, six books classified as either historical fiction or pulp fiction, full of femmes fatale and other assorted strong female characters, both actually strong and finger-quote “strong”? Well, if you know me like you think you know me, then you know it’s time for a VIOLENCE BREAK

will crying HANNIBAL

Actually, here’s what happened –
– I finished reading The Favored Child at work and didn’t have a backup to get me through the rest of the day. So I scoured my Want-to-Read page on Goodreads, came up with a quick list, and this title was literally (both actually and figuratively speaking) the only one that Barnes & Noble had in stock when I went there on my lunch break.

[Sidenote: the same thing happened to me today, and again, Barnes & Noble had fuckall in stock. Dear Barnes & Noble: WHERE THE FUCK DO YOU STOCK MICHAEL LEWIS?? I want to read The Big Short before I see the movie, and you apparently don’t have a “generic” non-fiction section, so, fuck off.]

[Although while I was there, FUN STORY: I was searching the history and biography section, and this family comes up and asks one of the clerks where they can find the biography of Alexander Hamilton. Yeah, the one that Lin-Manuel Miranda read that inspired the hit Broadway show. And the clerk apparently forgot that while yeah, the biographies are [[or SHOULD BE]] sorted alphabetically by last name of the subject, Alexander Hamilton is kindof a big deal right now, thanks to that same Broadway musical, and it’s probably on an end-cap somewhere.

GUYS. A biography of a FOUNDING FATHER is a BROADWAY HIP HOP HIT. I love everything about this, and I’m uber-jealous of anyone who has seen it. I WANT TO SEE THIS SO BADLY BUT I’M NOT IN NEW YORK.

Anyway, long story short, I found the book before she did because I have a tumblr and I’m a theatre nerd and apparently she didn’t know that Hamilton is only the biggest original musical on Broadway since, what? The Book of Mormon? Which I also haven’t seen?]

[Part of me is dying to know what Addison de Witt would think of Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Knowing Addison de Witt like I think I know Addison de Witt, I think Addison de Witt would be horrified at how strongly Hamilton makes him feel feelings.

“Finally, after all these years of slogging through reprehensible retreads of family fare designed to prey on our nostalgia — all glitz and glitter, with cloying melodies in keys that will burn out a soprano’s voice faster than the blowing out of a match — The Great Broadway has been a morass of shiny traps for tourists without discerning tastes.  A disheartening lack of substance has plagued our fair city and, for those like myself who live within this world we call ‘theatre,’ we have inhabited a veritable wasteland for far too long.  But no longer shall we dwell in the darkness; with Hamilton, we return to the light.”

Mr. De Witt will, however, frown upon the #Ham4Ham free performances.

“As much as I applaud the spark with which Hamilton has ignited the citizens’ desire to ‘take in’ a Broadway show, I feel the — ‘Ham for Ham’ [[ed. Mr. De Witt’s face is contorted in pain at having to write that]] performances are beneath his talent. They are merely an opiate for the fevered masses, and while I am one of those so enamored of Mr. Miranda and his charisma, I wonder whether he realizes that these free performances are eroding the intrinsic value of his mainstage show.”

So in case you haven’t figured it out by now, apparently this is going to be one of those reviews where I ramble about almost anything else that isn’t the book this is supposed to be about because SPOILER ALERT, I read this two months ago and it was rather … forgettable? Sorry, Mr. Kuhn.

Addison de Witt wouldn’t review The Intern’s Handbook.

“Violence as a metaphor for life experience has become unbearably cliché and beneath the conceit of using unpaid interns as assassins. Overly wrought and underdone.”

Okay, I’m done now. I promise.

(I also promise to watch All About Eve at some point this week.)

OKAY, SO THIS BOOK.

This book stars John Lago, an intern. Except he’s not really an intern – he’s an Intern: a member of an elite assassination squad. This shadowy organization picks up orphans from bad childhoods and trains them to be masters of espionage. When they get hired to take out  someone, they send in one of the Interns, because in a large corporate structure where no one trusts anyone on the hierarchy, no one can even remember what the intern looks like, let alone accuse the intern of anything.

This is the tale of John’s Last Job Before Retiring (at the tender age of almost 30 – cry me a river, John Lago). One of the partners of Bendini, Lambert & Locke ** is suspected of selling out protected witnesses to the highest bidder, and it’s John’s job to get close to the partners and figure out which one it is.

To get out of the intern basement, John cozies up to a paralegal in Bendini’s office, named Alice. When John learns that Alice is actually a federal agent undercover, investigating the same guy, John has a decision to make: can he finish the job and keep Alice out of it, or will he have to kill her too?

There’s also a subplot about John’s upbringing and who his parents are, and overall, the plot was kind of meh. The violence was okay, and I did really like the parts where the author explores the conceit of this novel as a handbook for new Interns: a How-To Manual, if you will. This was a fine lunch break book, but I won’t be breaking the bank to buy the sequel.

The asterisks: ** : John Lago makes a deal in the beginning of the book about throwing references to his favorite movies throughout the Handbook, because apparently he’s a big movie buff. If that’s true, then I really have a lot of catching up to do, because I think the only reference I got that wasn’t clearly spelled out was that Lago (or Mr. Kuhn, whoever) clearly stole the name of the firm where John interns from  — well, The Firm.

Look, the book was fine. It wasn’t great; it wasn’t transcendent or anything. It was a lunch break book: something to pass the time until you returned to your desk. If you like reading to pass time and Barnes & Noble has it in stock, it won’t hurt to pick it up? But maybe try your local library before plunking down actual Hamiltons for it.

Grade for The Intern’s Handbook: 2 stars
Grade for Addison DeWitt Reviews Hamilton: ∞ stars(because we all come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. if we don’t blow them — who will?)

 

Fiction: “The Favored Child” by Philippa Gregory

Favored ChildFor my long-time readers (all — two of you, probably? Hey, raise your hands if you’ve been here since the New Moon rant, give me a headcount up in here!), you may remember when I read Wideacre. My review of Wideacre was actually the second time I read the book – or attempted to read it; my review here was merely the first time I read it after the blog’s inception.

For my newish readers, a brief synopsis of Wideacre – BUT ALSO, and possibly more importantly:

Both of these books, Wideacre and The Favored Child alike, have some very sensitive issues that could pose as triggers. I will be discussing some of these events, and those events include incest, rape, and overall violence.

And now, an impartial synopsis of Wideacre:

The setting: Georgian England; specifically, the feudal town of Acre and the landowner’s home, Wideacre. The Laceys have lived on Wideacre for forever, and the siblings Beatrice and Harry are brought up to take their separate tracks: Harry to run the land, and Beatrice to be married off to someone who will take her away from the land. Well, Beatrice has a strange obsession with Wideacre, and the idea of being away from it drives her to terrible lengths, including quasi-contracting with the farmboy, Ralph, to kill her father so she can take over the land. When she realizes that even when she shows her potential in farming the land to amazing success she will still be married off, she finagles herself into getting herself pregnant. Twice.

by her brother.

Yup. That’s a thing that happened. Twice.

SO ANYWAY, she lies to her family about her daughter’s parentage and Harry and his wife, Celia, raise the daughter as their own. Then Beatrice gets knocked up again and this time while she’s married to Dr. John MacAndrew, and the son they have they name Richard. Except John, being a doctor, knows that when babies that are born earlier than anticipated are actually full-term, somethin’ ain’t right. That leads to Beatrice discrediting John and sending him to England’s First Rehab Centre to get him out of the way, and also, all her lies have made the land stop growing stuff and Ralph comes back and kills her for being awful.

Well, I tried to keep that succinct and impartial, but clearly, Wideacre ruined impartiality for me. When I first read Wideacre, while I didn’t like Beatrice – mainly because she’s also the narrator, so we hear all of her horrible decisions and horrible thoughts – the suspense of what the fuck is she doing WHAT the FUCK IS going on  wait don’t y’all know back then that you didn’t FUCK YOUR BROTHER kept me reading to the end. I was curious to see if Beatrice would get her comeuppance. When she did, I was satisfied.

Because I am a crazy person when it comes to reading series, however, I realized that there was a piece of me that wanted to continue to read the series – because like all historical romance fictions, this one is a trilogy. I attempted to reread Wideacre back in 2009, and the result of that was the review I’ve linked above. I actually couldn’t get through the book a second time, because at that point, the curiosity had gone. I knew how it ended, I knew what would happen; there was nothing left for me to discover in it.

That did not however, stop me from purchasing the next two books in the series, The Favored Child and Meridon.

So earlier this fall, I was on a big historical fiction kick. And one night, I was scanning the shelves of my bookcases and I don’t even remember making the conscious decision to start reading The Favored Child – I think it was my brain making the decision for me, because six years should be long enough to overcome that particular trauma.

The Favored Child concerns itself with Beatrice’s children, Julia and Richard. Julia is our narrator this time around, and Celia and John MacAndrew have sheltered both children from their horrible history. Richard and Julia are raised as cousins, not siblings. Richard will inherit Wideacre with Julia (per Beatrice’s will), and both will run the land together.

It quickly becomes clear to a reader that’s familiar with Wideacre and Beatrice that the children became split particles of Beatrice’s personality. Julia is kind, and has an affinity for the land, and a generosity towards the town of Acre; when Beatrice was running the land and everything grew and was prosperous, she exhibited those traits as well. Richard, however, is manipulative, violent, and driven with a thirst for absolute power: Beatrice at her worst.

When they were truly children, believing themselves to be cousins and nothing else, Julia and Richard would play at being married. They had it in their head as a secret plan to fight inflation that they would marry and run the land together. As Julia grows up and starts to see some of Richard’s more vile tendencies, she moves away from that dream.

A winter in Bath helps as well – during her time there, she meets and falls in love with James Fortescue, who falls right in love back. They become engaged, and when Richard hears the happy news, he immediately becomes dark. The sowing of the fields goes swimmingly, and Julia is imbued with Beatrice’s magic (I should note: the townsfolk believed that Beatrice’s affinity with the land was actually magic, and that Julia’s inheritance of that affinity makes her the favored child) and embraces Richard upon his return from school a tad more amorously than maybe she should have. But remember, they thought they were cousins, and while that’s frowned upon by most normal, common sense people in this epoch, back then, it was kind of okay.

Except Richard took Julia’s kiss as a silent acknowledgement of Julia’s love for himself, not her fiance, and the next morning, Richard rapes Julia in the summerhouse.

Julia then becomes pregnant, because in this world, one good poke is all it takes, apparently.

Julia writes a letter to James that she wants to meet and explain, but Richard intercepts that letter and tells James that their engagement was all a farce, that Julia was actually in love with Richard, and that they were to be married.

Julia and Richard are then married by a captain on a boat to make the pregnancy legitimate. When they tell John MacAndrew and Celia of their plans, their parental figures are horrified, because they’ve known all along – just as the readers who are familiar with Wideacre have known all along, and have I mentioned yet again that dramatic irony is my favorite irony? – that Julia and Richard are SIBLINGS, AND NOT COUSINS.

And instead of accepting the annulment and dissolution offered by John MacAndrew and Celia, Richard decides to … pretend to go along with it and then murder them in what appears to be a stagecoach robbing.

This leaves Julia under his thumb without an avenue of escape. But Ralph has come back, and he remains loyal to Beatrice and Beatrice’s magic.

So look, spoiler alert, Ralph kills Richard, Julia has her baby, but then leaves her with the band of gypsies because Wideacre is poison. Julia’s last narration is a letter she writes to James, informing him of what happened to her and to search out her child, Sarah.

The Favored Child controlled me in the same way that Wideacre did when I read it the first time: my curiosity kept me reading. I had no intention of putting the book down, and I think it helped that Julia was a much more sympathetic character than Beatrice was.

And look, this is probably going to stir up some controversy, so let me see if I can rationalize some things out. Beatrice is a great example of an actual Strong Female Character, in the way that “Strong Female Character” should be used. She was passionate about many things, she refused to give up on her dreams, she would achieve her goals by any means necessary. She was intelligent, she was brutal, she was maternal, she was lustful, she was wicked, she was brilliant. She experienced doubts as to whether the path she was choosing was correct or not, but she overcame them and made a decision, and all those decisions were towards her end goal.

I did not “not like” Beatrice because she was essentially a villain of her own making; nor did I think she was too aggressive in going after what she wanted. I didn’t like Beatrice because I found I couldn’t empathize with her. Maybe, if I had come from the perspective of someone who truly had to fight for what they wanted in spite of being told “no, you can’t have that” over and over again, simply because of who I was – a woman – I may have had more empathy. But I’ve also never had such powerful goals as Beatrice did. The strongest I’ve ever wanted anything was a job outside of retail, and it wasn’t my gender keeping me out of that – it was the economy and the fact that “managing over twenty people in a multi-million dollar department” didn’t apparently translate to “yes, I really just want to answer phones and make spreadsheets, and yes, I can do that, please let me try.”

Beatrice’s goals were constantly challenged, by Society, by the Patriarchy; by common sense. But she knew what she wanted and by gory, she was going to get it. I just couldn’t empathize with her because I could never, not in a million years, even consider doing some of the things she ended up doing.

Whereas Julia was more of an innocent, and unfortunately, more of a victim; instead of taking life by the horns and controlling it through her sheer force of will, Julia found that a lot of her life happened to her rather than because of her. Julia also had less … drastic thoughts than Beatrice did. Julia also operated with less knowledge than Beatrice – Beatrice knew exactly what she was doing when she seduced her brother multiple times in order to become pregnant with the squire’s heir. Julia had no idea Richard was anything other than her cousin. Her innocence aided my empathy towards her. Also, Richard was an incredible asshole the entire time, and that may win the Award for Biggest Understatement of the Year.

I don’t want anyone to walk away from this review thinking that I find it easier to empathize with female characters when they’re victimized, because that’s not true – I find it difficult to empathize with female characters when they feel that incest and murder are the right paths to take, time-period be-damned.

Holy shit, I wrote a lot about this book, and I feel I could do more, but I may end up talking in circles and also, it’s almost midnight. So I leave you with this:

I liked The Favored Child more than Wideacre. I will probably read Meridon at some point. I feel that both of these books are worthy of more discussion, but I also don’t want to belabor any points. There’s a lot to pull apart in both of these novels about feminism, feudal society, right and wrong versus shades of gray … but I don’t really want to spend my Dissertation Energy on these.

I’m saving that for something else.

Grade for The Favored Child: 2 stars