Fiction: “A Scot in the Dark” by Sarah MacLean

Scot in the DarkFirst: this is not a remake of the classic Peter Sellers – Inspector Clouseau romp, A Shot in the Dark. But if you haven’t watched that movie, you should. (It stars George Sanders! He’s fantastic in everything!) This is the next book in Ms. MacLean’s Scandal & Scoundrel series, the first of which was The Rogue Not Taken. The link between the two books is Alec Stuart, Duke of Warnick. Alec was the Scottish rogue who would race King and I think may be the one who performed the ceremony where King married Sophie? He wasn’t in Rogue much, but he’s the main character here.

Alec is actually like, the 17th Duke of Warnick, the previous line of Warnick Dukes expiring in quick succession. As part of his inheritance, Alec learns he is the guardian of a maid who is living in one of the ducal apartments in London. And she’s just gotten herself into a spot of trouble.

(Not an unwanted pregnancy; Ms. MacLean doesn’t truck with that type of historical romance — at least, not that I’ve read.)

Lillian Hargrove had an affair with an artist, Derek Hawkins, who is, to put it bluntly and in terms that both of my Dear Friends Emily and Sarah will immediately recognize and laugh about: a dipshit. (shit, what the fuck was Derek’s last name …. oh thank god it wasn’t Hawkins)

(for a second I thought College!Derek’s last name may have been the same as the character in the book, but it wasn’t! Hooray, I’m not telling tales on the internet!)

Anyways. Derek Hawkins asked Lillian (Lily, to her friends, of which there are few) to pose nude for a painting that would only be displayed for Derek’s eyes. And, because Lily thought they were in love, she disrobed. And then he told her that not only was it going to be displayed in a museum, but also, it was going to be the Primary Work at the London Art Exhibition (or whatever, the book is literally by my side on the couch, but I’m not going to bother looking up the proper terms for both of those things; you get the jist).

Now, in 1834, Proper Ladies did not Pose Nude for Artists. It was Simply Not Done. And especially not single, unwed Ladies. If the painting is displayed, Lily will be ruined, because no eligible man would dare marry a maid who had all her bits* displayed in a painting.

*I don’t think it’s all the bits. If I remember the description correctly, she was laying on a couch with her backside to the artist. I think.

So Alec has to come to London to get Lily married off before the painting is displayed. Well, first he tries to get Derek to marry Lily, and because Derek is a dipshit, he absolutely refuses. Then Alec pulls rank and says that Lily can only receive her funds or dowry or whatever if she finds someone willing to marry her before she turns 24, which is in nine days, and also the day the painting is displayed. Lily hoped to run out the clock, earn her pension, and move to the Continent and escape London completely.

Alec and Lily are now in a race against time, and also a battle of wits. Lily wishes to remain independent, as she’s still raw after learning how badly Derek treated her. Alec just wants to be rid of his problem so he can return to Scotland. But, as typically happens in these types of novels, they develop an attraction to each other.

I like Sarah MacLean’s novels because her characters have personality. Lily is a MASTER at passive-aggression. To wit, her choice of dress to wear when Alec tells her she needs to make a good impression at this fancy ball where there will be tons of eligible dudes:

He was not a man who noticed fashion, but this particular dress would not be unnoticed. It was a gold and bronze monstrosity, with skirts that filled the staircase and sleeves that dwarfed her. […] As though that weren’t enough, gold and bronze seed pearls were sewn into the skirts, arranged in little echoes of the canine form, and the bodice — impressively fitted despite Lily having had mere hours to adjust it to her form — was covered in ornate gold fastenings, each a different dog — spaniels and terriers and bulldogs and dachshunds. [p. 110]

And Alec’s equally canny, because he forces her to go to the ball like that. Ha!

Lily is also a very lonely person, in that she didn’t have many friends growing up. Even during this crazy time, she doesn’t have anyone to turn to. In the house where she was living when Alec first came to London, she had her room put closer to the servant’s quarters so she could hear other people in the house have conversations. So when she meets Seleste, one of the Soiled S’s (and Sophie’s sister) at the ball she’s almost surprised that Seleste wants to be her friend. But as the novel continues, Seleste becomes someone Lily can rely on, and it’s great! Women being friends!

Having said that, I doubt their friendship passes the Bechdel test, but you know what, I don’t care. I’m going to imagine all of the conversations they have after the book ends and just be happy about it.

The romance between Alec and Lily is contentious and bantery – just the way I like it. He keeps trying to convince her (and himself) that London sucks and Scotland rules. He even attempts to convince her that Burns is a better poet than Shakespeare – which, whatever dude, Burns has his place, but it’s behind Shakespeare.

This leads to a scene that has been popping up in a surprising number of romance novels I’ve been reading lately – the Oral Sex In A Carriage Scene.

… there has got to be a better euphemism for that. Please hold.

Road Canoeing. Giving The Driver a Tongue-Wagging. Buttering an English Muffin. Taking the Crumpet For a Drive.

… … … I am so sorry.

ANYWAY. That happens, but leading up to it, this exchange occurs:

He stroked her hand, his palm running over hers, his fingers tracing the dips and valleys of her fingers, until only their fingertips touched, before he once again took her hand, lacing their fingers together tightly.

“Palm to palm,” she whispered, and he heard the barely-there teasing in her words. The reference to their earlier discussion of Romeo and Juliet.

He should let her go. He meant to.

He didn’t mean to say, “The only part of the play that’s worth anything.”

He didn’t mean to look at her, to find her too close and still infernally far away. He willed himself to move. To sit back. To release her.

And then she whispered, “Let lips do as hands do.

“Fucking Shakespeare,” he cursed. [p. 172-173]

Firstly: the meeting between Romeo and Juliet is not the only part of the play that’s worth anything. Mercutio is the best character and his Queen Mab and death speeches are quite good and excellent vehicles for acting. Secondly, Romeo and Juliet is only “romantic” until, like, Act III.

And thirdly, that’s pretty hot, using Shakespeare to flirt. And so we come to another #ProTipForDudes:

If you’re in a relationship with someone who loves Shakespeare, and your normal, everyday conversation tends towards the bantery, pop-culture reference-ey type, and one day your girl is talking a lot and while she’s cute about it, you need her to shut up for a second, all you need to do is say, “Peace! I will stop your mouth!” and then kiss her. I can’t speak from personal experience, but I do know it works for Benedick and Beatrice, and they have one of the greatest relationships of all time, so …

Anyway. I liked the book, and will continue to read pretty much everything Sarah MacLean puts out. If you like romance novels that take place in the 1800s with women with agency and personalities, please give Ms. MacLean a try.

Grade for A Scot in the Dark: 3.5 stars

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Fiction: “My Cousin Rachel” by Daphne DuMaurier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade for My Cousin Rachel: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam” by Chris Ewan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is there more?”

I just looked at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiction: “Her Royal Spyness” by Rhys Bowen

Royal SpynessI follow Go Fug Yourself / @fuggirls on Twitter, and occasionally they’ll have a post called “Afternoon Book Chat” where people post comments about the books they’re currently reading. It’s great! And one afternoon, a whole bunch of people were raving about the “Her Royal Spyness” mysteries. Everyone was saying it’s so cute, and a fast read, and etc. etc.

I was intrigued! I went to Goodreads, and found out the first title in the series. (Shoulda known it was Her Royal Spyness, but that seemed almost too easy?) Then I went to the Yarmouth library’s website and … learned that they have almost every other title in the series, but not the first one.

What. Why. What.

So I look for a link to request an inter-library loan on the website. No dice. Nowhere within the website is there a link to the inter-library loan program. There is a link for “purchase request,” which makes me sad. But then I remember that Yarmouth is one of the richest towns in southern Maine and I also pay taxes, so fuck it, I request that the library purchases the book.

Like, three days later I get an email: Your request has been fulfilled. And I’m all impressed that they sent someone out to Barnes & Noble to buy a book just for me!

donald hearts.gif

When I go to pick up the book – it was an inter-library loan from the Portland Public Library.

What. Why. What.

WHY DON’T YOU JUST HAVE A LINK TO THE INTER-LIBRARY LOAN PROBLEM I MEAN GOD I’LL BET YOU COULD GET A PROGRAMMER TO FIX THAT FOR YOU POSTHASTE

Anyway.

Her Royal Spyness is the first in a series of quasi-“cozy” mysteries starring Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie (known as Georgie), thirty-fourth in line to the British throne. She lives in a drafty Scottish castle with her brother, Rannoch (known as Binkie), and Binkie’s wife, Fig. Fig is trying to set Georgie up with a suitor so as to a) get her settled and b) out of the castle, and being fiercely independent, Georgie instead pretends to go visit friends in London and stay in the residence there.

The book takes place in the early 1920s…? (*checks the wiki*) Yes, the late 1920s – this is before King Edward VIII abdicates to be with Wallis Simpson and well before WWII. It’s still considered inappropriate for a young lady to be living in London unescorted; hence, the lying. Plus, Georgie’s cousin – the Queen – would most likely order her to be a lady-in-waiting, which is really just ‘waiting’ to be married off to some other obscure royal relative, and Georgie wants no part of that.

Georgie moves into her brother’s London residence, but because she ran away, there are no servants to make sure there’s food in the house or fires lit. She manages to fend for herself, including through the assistance of her good friend Belinda, an up-and-coming fashion designer. Georgie and Belinda go to quite a few parties, and Belinda hopes to see Georgie set herself up with a lover or three before the season’s out.

Georgie does have a few bantery exchanges with Darcy O’Mara, a titled (but penniless) peer who happens to be Irish Catholic – apparently making him inappropriate for someone of Georgie’s stature to ‘pal’ around with. (I think. I’m recapping this by the seat of my pants, to be honest – I read it back in March and, as evidenced by the first few paragraphs, was a library book, so it’s not like I can go back to the bookshelf and skim to make sure I’m remembering it correctly.) And every time Georgie thinks she likes him, something happens to make her suspect him for something.

Like, a dead body in her house.

Gaston de Mauxville visits her and Binkie in their house (once Binkie return to Town on business) and claims he has a letter from Georgie and Binkie’s father, giving de Mauxville Rannoch Castle to settle a gambling debt. And one day when Georgie comes home, the dead body of de Mauxville is lying in Binkie’s bathroom. And of course, Binkie is made to appear the chief suspect.

Meanwhile, Georgie needs to make money. When Fig tells her Binkie’s coming down to London and asks Georgie to make sure the servants get everything ready … there are no servants, because Georgie lied. So she goes about and gets everything ready and realizes that she could advertise to wealthy nobles as a maid whose only job is to open houses for the season – removing dustcloths, washing windows, turning the heat on, etc. So she starts a maid service and makes a few pounds without Binkie noticing.

There’s also Tristram Hautbois, a third-rate noble (again, I think, I’m going off my scant notes here) who Georgie used to know as a form of stepbrother or something? But they hang out a lot together and Georgie enjoys his company. Darcy O’Mara is part of Tristram’s group, and each gentleman warns Georgie about the other.

Look, I know I’m doing a bad job of reviewing this book. After reading it so long ago, I didn’t take a lot of notes regarding the details and intricacies of the plot. I didn’t jot down any quotes from the book, either. But what I can tell you is that Georgie is delightful, her courtship with Darcy is delightful, Binkie and Fig are stereotypes but no less delightful, and when Georgie finally gets her visit with the Queen, the Queen asks Georgie to attend a house party where the Prince of Wales will also be in attendance, and would Georgie be so kind as to keep an eye on His Royal Highness’s paramour, Mrs. Simpson?

I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next book. (To keep myself out of trouble with the Yarmouth Library, I’ve ordered it off of Amazon as an early Christmas present to me, from me.) And I promise I’ll do better with its review.

Grade for Her Royal Spyness: 3 stars

Fiction: “The Apprentice” by Tess Gerritsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had killed a man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pectus excavatum,” he said. [p. 124]

Sadly, no one mentioned what his Patronus was.

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

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

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

Thanks for coming out

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

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

Hannibal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem.

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

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

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

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

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

As for The Apprentice? Eh — C+.

Grade for The Apprentice: 3 stars

Fiction: “Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho

veronika“Goodness, Alaina, this sounds like a cheery little thing. What on earth could have made you want to read something like this?”

“First of all, Little Miss Opinionated, let me remind you that I have read a lot of books in my day, and every once in a while I can appreciate when a book tells me in its title what the story is going to be about. Second of all, the copy I had was a total of 210 short, well-spaced-out pages, so I read it in like, a week. And thirdly, it’s a master work of literature. No other factors were used in my decision-making when it came to deciding to read the book.”

[Spoiler alert: Sarah Michelle Gellar also starred in the film adaptation, and, much like Gillian Anderson, I’ll watch Sarah Michelle Gellar in anything. And before y’all get on your high horse about Buffy and how she was awesome in that, yes, I agree with you, but I’ve been a fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar since she was the original Kendall Hart on All My Children. I remember when she got Erica all riled up enough to stab Dimitri with a letter opener! Basically, when it comes to Sarah Michelle Gellar, step off, I’ve loved her longer than you.]

I am constantly competitive with myself. I keep records of what books I read in what month (which comes in handy now, seeing as how I couldn’t remember if I had read this in March or February, because it takes me for-fucking-ever to review books now, for stupid reasons) per year, dating back to before this blog. So I’m constantly playing a game with myself when it comes to reading: have I read more books in [MONTH] than I did in [MONTH] last year? How many books had I read by this time last year, and have I passed that mark?

At the beginning of March, I had finished my ninth book in 2016 (Live and Let Die), coming in under the wire thanks to February 29th. Compare that to 2015, on March 1st, I had only completed 4 books. And because I wanted to get a head-start on 2016, hoping to finally achieve that elusive, 50-title goal, I picked a couple of short books in March in an attempt to pad out my head start.

Wandering through the shelves of the Yarmouth library, I found this title, and was very encouraged by the thinness of the book. Plus, I could almost do a That’s What She Read-Movies Alaina’s Never Seen tie-in, if I wanted to. (I decided I didn’t want to, because I actually did watch the film [it’s on Netflix right now!], and it matches the book’s plot very well. It wouldn’t provide the same delight as my Tie-In with Moonraker did.)

As an added bonus, I had downloaded a spreadsheet years ago about the 1,001 books to read before you die, and Veronika Decides to Die was one of them. Another checkmark earned!

The story takes place in Mr. Coelho’s native Slovakia. Veronika is 24 years old, and she decides to commit suicide, as there is no joy to be found in her life now, or in the future. I didn’t take a picture or copy the quote before returning the book to the library, but her reasoning was– actually, I’m going to quote the film, because it might be actually lifted from the book, but even if it wasn’t, it’s an excellent summary:

“Well, let’s see. After you decide that I’m depressed, or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? Well I know hundreds of people on them and they’re all doing just fine. Really. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants, have dinner with my parents and persuade them I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. And one day some guy will ask me to marry him. He’ll be nice enough. That’ll make my parents very happy. The first year we’ll make love all the time, and in the second and third less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding onto jobs, paying mortgages; it’ll keep us on an even keel for a while. Then about ten years into it he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and I’m too tired. And I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress… myself. We’ll get past it. A few years later he’ll have another one. This time I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know because somehow kicking up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days sometimes wishing my kids could have the life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine. Really.” [Veronika Decides to Die, 2009 [via imdb.com]]

Well, neighbors call on Veronika when she’s in the midst of her pill-induced overdose, and when she wakes up, she’s in Villette, a state-sponsored insane asylum, put there by her parents in an attempt to get her help. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Igor (not making it up), tells her she was in a coma for two weeks, and also, the overdose created a heart condition, and now she only has one week to live. And no, he won’t release her from the asylum so she can overdose again; she needs to be monitored.

Basically, the whole thing is a sham: Dr. Igor only told her that she was dying so she could learn how wonderful life is: to treat every day she has on Earth as a miracle, and to inspire her to live life to its fullest. And it takes a while – Veronika finds a piano in a sitting room and remembers how much she wanted to be a pianist, but her parents and her lack of risk-taking turned her into a stable librarian instead. She first reconnects with her passion through music.

She also realizes that, while in an insane asylum, no one will give a second thought about her if she starts to act “crazy” – in other words, telling people what she thinks without filtering her thoughts, or acting out violently; those acts have no consequence, because she’s already been labeled “crazy” by her placement in the asylum.

And as she realizes that, she gets back in touch with her “true” self – the self unfettered by Society.

[Veronika] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian.

“I should have been crazier.” But, as it undoubtedly happens with some people, she had found this out too late.  [p. 94-95]

This quote resonates with me, because I too find myself wishing, occasionally, that I had been crazier growing up. But Society pressured me into playing Life extremely safe: my focus was entirely on being financially stable. I transferred to a state school because a) it was more affordable, and b) it offered a better education. In accounting. And now, ten years after graduation, I am finally using my degree and enjoying it – in a government job, the epitome of risk-averse. After all, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes.

And now, where I’m facing a future where I no longer need to assure my financial stability and can start working on a personal life, I don’t even know where to begin to break myself out of my shell. Because that, to me, would mean I would need to be ‘crazy.’ And I don’t know how.

ANYWAY, enough about me. In the end, Veronika falls in love with Eduard, another patient who only begins to speak after he and Veronika share a connection, and together they escape the asylum. Dr. Igor ends the novel with an entry in his diary where he admits that someday Veronika will eventually see another doctor, and that doctor will tell her that her heart is perfectly healthy; but until she does, she will treat every day as a miracle. Which, every day is, really.

In short, it’s not as depressing as the title makes it out to be, and if you like novels with a philosophical bent, you would probably appreciate this.

The movie, however, tells the story just as nicely, plus stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, and Professor Lupin plays Dr. Igor, so that’s nice too.

Grade for Veronika Decides to Die: 3 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll take it.

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

Grade for The Big Short: 3 stars