Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Oracle of Stamboul by Michael David Lukas

oracle of stamboul cover

Eleonora is a little girl with a great destiny. Not only was her birth prophesied, but she's incredibly intelligent, with a photographic memory and a gift for languages. Birds follow her around and animals don't treat her like a normal human being, but like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. When she moves from Constanta to Stamboul with her father, little does she know how deeply drawn into the world of politics and intrigue she will be, going so far as to advise the Sultan on matters of state.

I really enjoyed the first half of this novel. It felt like a child's story, but a very intelligently written child's story that can be just as easily appreciated by adults. I immediately felt like the Sultan and Eleonora were being drawn to one another and couldn't wait for them to meet. The trial of being forced to grow up "normal" when one certainly isn't made me infuriated on behalf of Eleonora and completely engaged in the story. I also loved the fairy-tale-like hints of Eleonora's gifts and the descriptions of Constanta. When Eleonora traveled to Stamboul, I was with her a hundred percent, even though I had to do a major suspension of disbelief to be so.

However, once the book passed mid-point, I felt like the editor gave up and the story lost some steam. Eleonora stopped behaving like a little girl, and it really threw me out of the story. Even stranger was the way adults treated her, which was pretty much like she was an adult woman. It was quite odd--not enough to make me give up on the book entirely, but enough to bother me.

My main problem with The Oracle of Stamboul had more to do with the ending. I'm not going to discuss the ending specifically for fear of spoilerage, but I think it's part of a larger problem in this book, namely that nothing in the story pans out. We have political suspicions that go nowhere, lessons that don't seem to teach anything, signs and portents that predict nothing, puzzles that are never solved, advice that is never given. Eleonora is a Jew but this has almost no bearing on the story, especially after she moves to Stamboul. I could go on. Believe me, nothing in this novel leads anywhere, and the ending is just the cherry on top of the nowhere-going. There are so many disparate elements in this book and none of them are effectively brought together or tied up.

A lot of people have felt "meh" about this book, and I agree entirely. I don't know what or how I'm supposed to think about a book that has no idea what it wants to say, what story it wants to tell. How can you possibly have a book about the destiny of a little girl who doesn't follow her destiny? Does that in any way shape or form make sense as a narrative? I think Lukas has a great writing style and I hope he writes more novels, so I don't want to discourage him; but at the end of the day I wish this book could be rewritten so that it lived up to its potential. As it was I kind of felt like I had wasted my time with it.


Thank you to Harper-Collins for sending me an ARC of Oracle of Stamboul for review!

To see a collection of images from the book, check out my board at PInterest.



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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Married By Morning by Lisa Kleypas

married by morning cover

Musical Notes: "Marry You" by Bruno Mars



Review:

A secret: I'm a total sucker for romances where the hero and heroine fight all the time. I don't know why; in real life, I absolutely hate conflict. But books where a couple expresses their love with petty arguments? That's full of win.

Leo Hathaway and Catherine Marks have been at odds since Marks was hired as a sort of social governess for Leo's younger sisters, Bea and Poppy. Naturally, the pair's constant bickering hides a deep-seated attraction that both are determined to ignore for their own reasons. But after Leo discovers Marks has a secret past (and blonde hair), he starts pushing their relationship in a new direction.

Leo is such a great character. He's kind of studious and creative, being trained as an architect, but also has a dark side (naturally! what would a romance hero be without a dark side, amirite?). We first met him in Mine Till Midnight, where we learned his spiraling depression and erratic behavior were due to the fact that his fiance had died of scarlet fever. In Seduce Me At Sunrise, Leo went to France with his sister, Win, and seemed to calm down a bit. Thanks to his inheritance of an earldom, Leo returned to England as a very eligible bachelor and was loathe to denounce his rakish rep, which only annoyed the uptight Catherine Marks. As becomes clear in Tempt Me at Twilight, however, Leo enjoys annoying Marks far too much.

For much of the last two books, Leo's behavior as a rake has annoyed and perplexed me. I couldn't reconcile the Leo we met in Mine Till Midnight with the one who emerged after he gained the earldom. Somehow, though, Married By Morning resolved this dichotomy in a way that made perfect sense to me. Leo actually went to a much darker place than I had previously assumed, but now he's more or less pulled out of it and is ready to find the love of his life, i.e. Marks.

Married by Morning starts almost at the same time Tempt Me at Twilight ends, with Leo learning Marks is actually Harry Rutledge's--Leo's new brother-in-law--half-sister. Apparently he thought she'd emerged fully formed from someone's forehead, like Athena, but no; at one point she actually had (very irresponsible) parents and was a mini-Marks. Marks drives Leo to distraction and they wind up kissing, something that perturbs them so much they promise never to speak of it. But subsequent encounters between the two only bring them closer together, and the skittish Marks starts trusting Leo. It's only one step from that to her actually being nice to him; and pretty soon they're having teh sex.

Added to this is the complication of the previous earl's wife wanting to take over the Hathaway's house unless Leo marries and fathers an heir by the end of the year. This whole "plot" thing is really kind of unnecessary, but whatever.

st. mark's symbol

For the most part this book is just delightful. I enjoyed Leo's and Marks' battle of wills (great play on words with these characters' names, by the way--St. Mark's symbol is a lion), and as always I loved catching up with the Hathaways. The encounters between Marks and Leo felt like they progressed organically and were entertaining to read. Ultimately, though, I started to get annoyed at Leo because he became über-controlling in the second half of the novel. He wouldn't even let Marks drink her own champagne at one point. Then there was the whole silliness with the plot that made the conclusion drag on. I can understand why Kleypas included the plot, but it could have been better integrated into the story.

Overall though, I enjoyed this book to a surprising degree! It's been so long since I read a historical romance I can say that about, I'm doubly pleased that I picked this up after Meghan from Medieval Bookworm reminded me (via her review) that I wanted to read it.  I can't wait for the next Hathaway book to arrive so I can dig into it. Definitely a worthy entry in the Hathaway family series!



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Monday, February 21, 2011

I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

i will repay cover

Dear Ms. Orczy (or should I say, Baroness):

I enjoyed The Scarlet Pimpernel (who hasn't?) and looked forward to reading this follow-up, especially as it involved new characters and promised more of a romance-driven plot. However, after reading about half of the book, I started to get more than a little pissed at you, and here's why:

I hate Juliette.

I knew I was going to find her annoying after she fainted in the first chapter, and I definitely disliked her after realizing she was an air head in chapter two, but how dare you try to convince me to root for that evil bitch. You see, actions speak louder than words, and the Victorian drivel you threw at me about how she felt really really bad giving Paul Déroulède's name to the Committee for Public Safety after he saved her from a Parisian mob and let her and her maid live in his house for weeks on end failed to convince me that she was justified in her actions. I don't care if he killed her brother; as he explained to her, it was duel and a fair fight for which he'd already made amends. And if Juliette was at all capable of thinking instead of being a shallow brat, perhaps she'd be able to reach the conclusion that, hey, maybe her insane megalomaniac father shouldn't have even asked her to avenge her brother's death. But she didn't, because she isn't. And that's because you wrote her that way. I can never believe that Juliette would act any way other for her own self-interests, and I could never like her.

I could deal with Juliette, however, if she wasn't the "heroine" of this book. Anne Mie is smarter and a better person than Juliette is, but she's not the heroine. Why? Because she's not beautiful. And Déroulède falls in love with Juliette, whyyyy? Hint: it's not because of her sparkling wit. Yes, because she's beautiful! So basically Juliette is an awful person who just happens to be attractive, and Anne Mie is a great person who just happens to be unattractive, and yet I'm supposed to root for Juliette in this scenario and feel like Anne Mie's the villain? In what bizarro world are you living, woman???  I can't help but think of how much better this book would be if Déroulède realized there's nothing rattling around in Juliette's empty head--or soul--and that Anne Mie really was worthy of love, even if she wasn't pretty.

At least the heroine in The Scarlet Pimpernel had brains.

Don't even get me started on Déroulède. At first he seemed pretty awesome, but the fact that he falls in love with Juliette makes him officially too stupid to live. Not to mention that afterward he's all, "Oh, I wonder if I'll ever find out who betrayed me!" Yeahhhh, it's probably the person everyone (and by everyone I mean those who are borderline intelligent and actually care about you, like Anne Mie and Percy Blakeney) has been telling you is untrustworthy, namely the "saint" you're crushing on, helloooo. If Déroulède's such an idealist he should be able to look beyond a person's outer appearance and judge their character, don't you think? But maybe he doesn't think women have inner characters.

So, thank you, Baroness, for reinforcing the stereotype that all a woman needs in life is good looks. I don't know what happened with this book, but I get the feeling you betrayed yourself with the whole Juliette/Anne Mie thing. At the very least, I felt betrayed as a reader. I would tell you to go to hell but there's not much point in saying that to a dead person.

Sincèrement, moi.

Musical Notes: "Better than Revenge" by Taylor Swift





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Saturday, February 19, 2011

3:10 To Yuma Olde Timey Movie Review

3:10 to yuma poster

The original 3:10 to Yuma, starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, was made fifty years before the version most of us are familiar with. The basic premise is almost exactly the same (so much so that Halsted Welles, the original screenwriter, got credit in the 2007 edition, too): struggling "sod-buster" Dan Evans needs two hundred dollars to buy water rights so his farm doesn't go under. Coincidentally, charming criminal Ben Wade has just been arrested and needs to be transported to prison on the 3:10 train to Yuma. Dan is offered two hundred dollars to get him on that train.

Is the 1957 3:10 as good as the James Mangold-directed 3:10? I don't think so, although I have a strong suspicion those who grew up with westerns in '50s would disagree with me. This isn't the 1950s, however, and 3:10 hasn't held up impassively to the passage of time (although it's not as bizarre as some westerns seem now, like Shane). The cinematography is great (and obviously inspired by John Ford) and the narrative is pretty engaging, even though there are still some cheesy parts that made me laugh. One example is the gratuitous theme song that winds its way through the film. Want a clip? Of course you do:



Take that traiiiiiin! What I really missed from this version, though, are the riveting performances from Mangold's 3:10. I am not a Van Heflin fan at all, what is up with that guy? Why does he always play farmers? And Glenn Ford was okay--he showed occasional signs of charm--but for the most part it felt like he was phoning it in. Compare that to three great performances by Russel Crowe, Christian Bale, and Ben Foster in the 2007 3:10, that are so compelling you can't take your eyes off the actors, and one definitely feels the absence.

One thing I did like about this movie more than its remake was the treatment of women. Shocking, no? The female characters in the 1957 3:10 are surprisingly fleshed-out and much more empowered than the women from 2007. While the Bisbee bartender in both films is definitely a sexual object, in the 1957 film she gets much more screen time and has more of a personality. The same thing holds true for Alice Evans. In the earlier film, she even goes chasing after her husband to help him at the end. They don't have major roles in the plot, but they do have roles, which is more than one can say for the women in the contemporary version, who are little more than pretty faces.

Is the 1957 3:10 to Yuma worth seeking out? Not really. It's not a bad movie, but it's not terribly impressive, either. If it comes on TV I wouldn't turn it off, but making an effort to rent it probably won't pay out.



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Friday, February 18, 2011

Schnauzer Saturday

pearl sees you

Pearl sees you. Knows your every thought. Knows you are thinking about getting her a cookie.



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Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Princess and the Penis by RJ Silver

princess and penis cover

Princess Amalia is the sweetest princess in the world. Not only is she well-behaved and innocent, but she's unfailingly kind and she does good works to help the people of her kingdom. That's why, the king reasons, he has to keep her away from all men--to protect her. But one day a gigantic penis slips under his radar and wriggles its way into Amalia's bed.

When I saw this reviewed at Penelope's Romance Reviews, I was like, "No way is this good." But I downloaded it anyway because it was free. To my surprise, this book really was as good as Penelope said it was.

In this super-quick romance, The Penis goes from being a pain in Amalia's rump and her trying to get rid of it/him, to her thinking maybe it/he's not so bad after all, and finally to her escaping her boring fiance for "naps" with the penis. I never thought I'd root for a disembodied penis, but somehow Silver managed to imbue it/him with a heroic personality. There are also entertaining secondary characters, especially the Aunts.

Things I learned from this novella:
  • Don't try to keep your teenage children from dating penises.
  • Naps are good.
  • Always listen to Penelope.
  • Bigger is better.
With The Princess and the Penis, I was expecting something really... well, tawdry. Instead this is a fractured fairy tale that's definitely silly, but also surprisingly sweet. Add in a great ending and I think this is a short story every romance lover should add to their to-read list!



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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

To Have and To Hold by Mary Johnston

to have and to hold cover

Musical Notes: I was on a Taylor Swift kick while I was reading this and thought "Love Story" made a great accompaniment.



Review:

This is a novel that has everything--sword fights! Pirates! Romance! Adventure! Runaway heiresses! Great villains! Daring escapes! Despite the vanilla title and the fact that it was written over a century ago, this book a manifesto on what an entertaining adventure novel should be.

The setting is colonial Jamestown, where Captain Ralph Percy has turned his fortunes from the sea to tobacco farming. One day Ralph decides, on the throw of a dice, that he should marry. Coincidentally, a ship has just arrived in Jamestown filled with fair young (and desperate) maids, all looking for a husband among the far more desperate male populace. Amidst the bawdy, lewd, and completely insane chaos of the women's arrival, Ralph spots one who is a unique beauty. Little does he know how unique she is, even after he realizes she traveled to Jamestown under a false identity.

It turns out Jocelyn, whom Ralph quickly marries, is actually the king's ward and betrothed to his highness' favorite, Lord Carnal. The beautiful and utterly amoral lordship quickly chases his prey down, arriving in Jamestown with a letter from the king demanding her return--and, should she be married, that her husband be put in irons and hauled off to The Tower to enjoy a long imprisonment and possible death.

Jocelyn is tee.are.oh.you.be.elle.ee, but luckily for her, Ralph is the sort of man who looks into the face of trouble and laughs. Laughs, I tells ye!!! Thus ensues many adventures where you will be wondering, "How is Ralph going to get himself out of this? OMG, how is Ralph going to get out of this?!?"

The language of the book is dense--it's written by an Edwardian trying to sound like a seventeenth-century colonist--but still very readable and actually kind of delicious. That and the incredibly visual descriptions really helps to bring Jamestown to life. Add in great characters and you've got a nearly perfect novel.

And now... CASTING CALL!

jonathan rhys meyers

I don't usually "cast" characters in the books I read, but with this one I couldn't stop myself. Lord Carnal is so obviously Johnathan Rhys-Meyers: the beautiful bad boy.

richard armitage

For Ralph, I've decided to cast The Armitage. Why? BECAUSE.

helena bonham carter

As for Jocelyn, I think she'd be charming played by a young Helena Bonham Carter. Even though Carter's roles are usually variations on Crazy Lady, she can play semi-normal people. Just look at A Room With a View (okay, maybe that's not the best example).

Of all the characters, Jocelyn is probably the weakest in terms of likability. She's definitely not a post-feminism romance heroine: she values her honor (read: virginity) above her life, is practiced at sitting around looking pretty, and is described and child-like several times. That being said, though, the woman's also got backbone. By the end of the book, I understood completely why Ralph loved her.

Overall this is a great adventure tale worthy of your time. And if I haven't done enough to convince you to pick it up, check out Melody's great review of it at Edwardian Promenade.

A Note About Indians

What would a novel about colonial Jamestown be without Indians? Not much of one, that's for sure. Going into this book, I was mainly worried about how the Indians would be portrayed from a 1900/colonial viewpoint. The fact that they would be stereotyped almost goes without question, but how and to what extent?

To tell the truth, for most of the book, the portrayal of Indians wasn't too bad. Percy hates them, of course, and thinks they're godless savages out to get him and every other Jamestown settler--but I wouldn't expect any less from a seventeenth-century European. Strangely, he also has friends among the Powhatans (the tribe that interacts most with Jamestown), namely Nantauquas, the brother of Pocahontas and brother-in-law to Ralph's besty, John Rolfe.

Then I came to the ending. The Powhatan chief, Opechancanough, decides it's time to drive the English colonists out and wages war against them. In the midst of the battle, suddenly the Powhatans go from just plain savage to noble savages, facing death bravely; and after the battle is finished, there is only one Powhatan left standing: Nantauquas.

The Jamestown citizens let Nantauquas go (Nantauquas can't die; we love Nantauquas!), but they might as well have killed him. After he leaves the fort, he becomes ghost-like, wandering around the forest like a specter, never interacting with words but only appearing in the corner of Ralph's eye. Indeed, it's as if he's been erased from existence; even Ralph doesn't say the name Nantauquas anymore, only referring to him as "the Indian." Nantauquas is quickly vanishing from memory, or at the very least importance.

So we have the two major stereotypes of American Indians in Euro-American literature and art being played out in this novel: the noble savage and the vanishing race. I can't help but wonder, though, if Johnston is more subversive of this trope than she lets on.  At one point, Opechancanough tells Ralph, "Opechancanough knows that they [English] are good and just, that they do not treat men whose color is not their own like babes, fooling them with toys, thrusting them out of their path when they grow troublesome." We know Opechancanough is being ironical, but the fact that Johnston must have known it too indicates that she at least recognized the racial tensions at the heart of these stereotypes. Which makes me wonder why she eventually capitulated to them. Did she not know what else to do with them? Did she perhaps think she was being original? (yeah right)

Whatever the reason, the treatment of Indians in To Have and To Hold was a blight on an otherwise perfect book. It definitely wasn't enough to make me dislike the book, but it was eye-roll educing. And I still feel bad for Nantauquas.



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Monday, February 14, 2011

Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning

shadowfever cover

Musical Notes: "You've Got the Love," Florence + the Machine



Review:

Mac is back. But who is she, really? Someone inherently evil, whose every action is destined to push the world closer to destruction? Or the innocent twenty-two year old who was a normal human--aside from her rabid fondness for pink--and whose parents always believed the best of her?


Shadowfever is the final book in the Fever series, and I'm more than pleased to announce it does not disappoint. I can't image Moning managing to pen a better conclusion. After the cliffhanger ending of Dreamfever, there were so many unanswered questions and loose plot threads that I honestly expected to not have all my questions answered--and yet, they were.

Seriously--every. Single. Question.

It starts off right where Dreamfever left off, on the cliff where Mac has just killed a beast. We find out almost immediately who the beast really is, and it's a non-stop ride from there. Despite being nearly 600 pages (and you all know my apathy for long books), the story felt like it was flying by. There are several major shockers, especially toward the end of the book, and things are wrapped up beautifully.

the world tarot card

That's not to say everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow, just the major things that bugged me. Other things are left at the reader's own discretion to think about. For example, what was up with the tarot card Mac received? It foretells the end of the journey, where The Fool has made peace with herself and achieved immortality--but I know that because I looked it up, not because it's in the book.

There's also the "Dreamy-Eyed Guy," who's intrigued me since book one, and who has said several times, "Don't talk to it. Never talk to it." Mac assumes he means the dangerous Fae, but does he? I loved the way his story line was brought to the forefront and wrapped up.

And in fact, this is the book where Mac finally makes peace with herself. As she's been growing into her new role in Dublin, she's also been feeling separated from herself, as if there's two sides to her. And, as the quote on the back cover suggests, she's horribly afraid one of those sides is pure evil. If evil believes wrong is good, and there are bits of her inherently evil now, how she will ever know if the path she chooses is right?

As for Barrons, we finally learn what he is... well, kind of. But not specifically. Strangely, though, it doesn't matter so much because we learn who he is. Yes, he and Mac's bickering seemed to drag only to lengthen the sexual tension in the book, but who cares. They're entertaining when they bicker.

I honestly think this is the best book in the entire series and the perfect conclusion to it. It could have been edited down a bit, and Mac was really annoying at the beginning of the novel, but overall it was a compelling, non-stop read. One of those books you have to take a day off of work for, and that you can't stop thinking about after you put it down. When I got to the final page, I was sad to have to leave Mac and Barrons and Dublin behind.

I can't recommend the Fever series enough, or praise Moning enough for being a great writer. And I really want to thank TLC Booktours for sending me this novel to review!

The publisher is offering a book to giveaway! To enter, fill out the form below (if you're viewing this in a reader you may have to go to the actual post).

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Woodland Reflections: The Art of Truman Lowe by Jo Ortel

woodland reflections cover

Truman Lowe is a Winnebago artist from Wisconsin who creates simple, Zen-like sculptures that reference elements of water, air, earth, and fire. They're also deeply informed by Lowe's personal history, that of his tribe, and European art. In Woodland Reflections, Jo Ortel tries to make a monograph about Lowe and his work that looks at his art in the context of social history and modern art criticism, placing Lowe in the larger recognition of Native American literature and art as a genre in the 1970's.

lowe, water origin myth
Truman Lowe, Water, Origin, Myth, 2010. Image c/o Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago.

I feel torn about this book, because a part of me really loved it. I love what Ortel is trying to do and understand exactly where she's coming from. Like Linda Nochlin, she sets out to break apart the typical artist-as-hero narrative and show that Lowe's artistic "genius" is actually the result of a whole host of factors like his family, education, and the time period he was born into. I think we definitely need more books like this and don't want to discourage Ortel, or anyone, from writing another one.

I also finished it with a much greater appreciation for Lowe's art. His pieces are all about ideas, but there's a lot in them that references his personal history--art his mother made, stories his dad told him, and so forth--none of which I could have known without this book. It's interesting that Lowe identifies Michelangelo as his artistic hero, someone whose sculptures were idealized and beautiful. I can see the same interest in the ideal and beauty in Lowe's work.

That being said, the execution of this monograph is pretty wonky. Ortel focuses on subjects that don't seem terribly pertinent or important, and skips over things I wanted, and expected, to get a more in-depth discussion of. Most of the stuff she skips over is, oddly, analysis of Lowe's art! How one can have a monograph on an artist that evaluates his work in the context of contemporary art criticism without detailed analysis of his work, I don't know, but that's what seemed to be going on. We get very detailed information about Lowe's graduate school work, which wasn't terribly good or interesting; a stupid summer job he had "playing Indian" in the Wisconsin Dells during college, and a whole chapter on archaeology. I remain unclear as to why any of this was put in the book, and certainly don't know why Ortel focused on it as much as she did. There are two chapters focusing on themes in Lowe's art--the canoe and water--but these are only a few pages.

I think the main weakness of this book is that Ortel had no central narrative or theme she wanted to convey about Lowe's art. She got lost somewhere in it and couldn't distinguish what was important from what wasn't. She needed a rigid structure to get her point across, not to mention heartless editing. Overall I wound up being disappointed in Woodland Reflections--I thought it was going to be the greatest book ever, but somehow it managed to wind up being confusing. I still think it's worth looking into if you're at all interested in Truman Lowe, though.



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Monday, February 7, 2011

3:10 to Yuma by Elmore Leonard

dime magazine cover

Musical Notes: "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train" (more than a little literal, but it works)



Review:

This short story is what the movies 3:10 to Yuma (one in 1957 starring Glenn Ford, the other from 2007 starring Russell Crowe) were based on, although the only character the movies retained was the awesomesauce Charlie Prince.

Marshall Paul Scallen is bringing in the outlaw, Jim Kidd, to meet the 3:10 train to Yuma and a 5-year prison sentence. As they sit in a Contention hotel room, a certain understanding develops between the two men (if Jim can really be called a man--he's described as looking like a teenager). Yet despite the fact that Scallen doesn't have anything against Kidd--his words--and Kidd is offering him money to let him go, and Charlie Prince and six other men are waiting outside the hotel to gun him down, Scallen still delivers Kidd to the Yuma train.

Why? Because that's his job. And real men do their jobs, yo.

This story is written in a very straight-forward, journalistic style, similar to Earnest Hemingway. That's probably why I got a post-war feeling from it right away. Supposedly the story is set in Ye Olde West, but honestly it could just easily be set in the 1950s, especially with the characters acting like characters from a 1950s movie. I couldn't help but picture Kidd as James Dean in a leather jacket, and Scallen as a so-sober-he's-sarcastic Humphrey Bogart.

The story itself is as straight-forward as the language used to tell it. There is a sense of amorality or existential nihilism in the characters: Scallen is delivering Kidd to the train, not because he believes Kidd deserves to be punished, but basically because that's his job and he needs to be paid. When they talk, he refers to Kidd's "profession" and asks him how much he makes from it, as if Kidd's career as an outlaw is on the same status as Scallen's career as a Marshall. Kidd is almost a more sympathetic character, seeing as how his goal is motivated by more than money (self-preservation, but still) and he evinces more emotion during the course of the narrative.

Now that I've read this short story, I'm even more impressed with the 2007 film (I've yet to see the '57 version). Mangold took this ho-hum tale about Mr. Doesn't Talk Much Marshall fighting a quick gun battle in order to get a pointless job done, and turned it into an epic story of death and Manifest Destiny and really the entire Westward movement. So you can imagine that I was a bit taken aback when I read on Leonard's website that he doesn't like the 2007 film. The short story and the movie really have very little to do with each other, aside from Charlie Prince and a few lines of dialog, but honestly if I was Leonard I would write Mangold a thank you note for taking my work and turning into something freaking brilliant.

So basically, the story's okay, but nothing to hunt down, and certainly nothing compared to the film.



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Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

iron duke cover

Musical Notes: "I Want You So Bad I Can't Breathe," by OK Go



Review:

Steampunk, woe is thee. This is the second steampunk book I've read and the second one that I felt was a let-down, although certainly not in the same way Soulless was. With Soulless, the romance was the only part of the novel I enjoyed; with The Iron Duke, the romance was ridiculous and really spoiled the entire thing for me. Which is a shame, because as an adventure novel, this one was pretty hot, with tons of bigger ideas working their way through the world Brook has created.

Inspector Mina something-or-other is at a ball (whyyyy do these things always start at balls?) when she receives a report that a body has literally dropped out of the sky and landed on the doorstep of England's greatest hero, the Iron Duke. No, it's not the Duke of Wellington--it's Rhys Trahaearn, a former pirate captain who single-handedly tore England out from the grip of the wicked Horde invaders. Rhys becomes obsessed with making Mina "his" almost immediately after meeting her, and meanwhile they have to travel all over the place on air ships to solve the mystery of the dead body.

Neither Mina or Trahaearn are fully realized characters, and their "romance" feels completely inauthentic to the story. If you're looking for the type of book where relationships feel like they develop and progress organically, do not go here. Rhys is consumed with possessing Mina almost from their first meeting, and Mina is equally determined not to let him--as for the why behind either emotion, I have no idea. Rhys becomes completely stalkerish, and yet we're given no insight into his attraction. As for Mina, she was even more annoying--she calls Rhys "immoral," even though there is absolutely no sign of even a hint of immorality about him; she says a relationship between them could not work, but never tells or shows us why; she refuses all sexual contact with him even though she is attracted to him because she had one medium-bad sexual experience with a woman twenty freaking years ago (does she have no sense of curiosity?); and then magically, at exactly the 2/3rds mark, she changes her mind and decides to sleep with him anyway.  And has zero issues.  Except they still can't be together because...? It's like an editor said, "Have them kiss 1/3rd into it, fuck 2/3rds into it, then have x y and z happen, and don't let them get together until the very end because we need to keep people interested."

asian stereotype

If the manufactured romance had been taken out of it, this novel would have been much more successful. I like the world Brook created, which is more of a technological steampunk than a literary steampunk (as we saw in Soulless). It's incredibly visual and also very political. The Horde (whose name was obviously inspired by the Mongol Horde) is described as Asian in appearance, although Brook never comes right out and says this. In the press, Horde are visualized with the same stereotypes that Japanese and Chinese people were in America during WWII, and Mina faces a lot of racism because of her Horde appearance (yet never from Trahaearn or his associates, again no explanation given). There's also an undercurrent of political and social commentary that goes beyond the Horde: at one point the characters discuss how cigars are addictive and bad for your health (don't smoke kids!); they discover a weapon with atomic bomb-like capabilities that political figures want to use to wipe buggers, or "non-pure" humans, off the map (don't commit genocide, kids!); and Trahaearn goes into a rant about how politicians who don't do anything to help their constituents piss him off (don't elect republicans, kids!). There's also something about women being allowed to marry, but that was just confusing and kind of pointless.

When the action scenes were happening, the writing was simply great. There are naval battles, fights with zombies, and riots in the street. Those parts were very exciting and riveting. But it's a long walk to get to these gems, a very long walk through bad editing, extremely awkward sex scenes, and characters behaving in a way that makes no sense except as an obvious convenience to whatever plot Brook thinks she's leading us through. 

Basically, I'm just really pissed the romance sucked. It makes me feel like I wasted my time on this novel; not to mention that the more I think about it, the more I can see massive kraken-sized holes in the plot. If you can read this book in one sitting, you'll probably enjoy it, but don't take a break to think through what's actually happening in it.



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Thursday, February 3, 2011

Twist Your House Challenge



I haven't signed up for many challenges this year, but I couldn't resist It's Not What You Read But Where You Read It, hosted by iHeartMonster. The challenge is to read for one hour in each of the designated places:
  • A place in your house you've never read before
  • A place of commerce
  • Moving
  • Outdoors
  • A place you don't call home
  • Somewhere you probably shouldn't read
  • With another person
My New Year's resolution is to read for fun at least an hour every day, so this fit right in! I was also interested in the recording aspect of this challenge--at first I was planning on doing still photographs, but then I decided to play with time lapse recording and came up with the video you see here. I put the bench in front of my bedroom window when it started getting cold outside, for the express purpose of reading there, but I never did. It gets pretty chilly by the window with no sun (you can see me shivering a little in the video), and I'd really rather go out to a cafe to read anyway. But that will be another video.



If you want to sign up for the challenge, go to iHeartMonster's blog!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

For the Love of Severus Snape

what's not to love?

Note: In this post, I discuss events that occur in the last three Harry Potter books.  I'm going to assume that you've read them, so there are spoilers.

As I argued in Harry Potter and the Book of Double Entendres, Harry Potter is filled with sexual symbolism.  What I left out of that discussion was Severus Snape. Since the last three books are so central to understanding his character, I thought it would be more appropriate to consider Snape on his own in the context of those three books.

Like any teenager, Harry must face anxiety about his sexuality and what kind of person he is through his physical and emotional relationships. But who is the focal point of this anxiety? For whom does he have the greatest unfulfilled desire for connection? Not Ginny, certainly; Harry's biggest worry with her is whether or not Ron will punch him in the face for liking his sister.  Cho Chang was definitely the early focus of Harry's attraction, but he abruptly lost interest in her in the fifth book--where, I would argue, his anxiety over rejection became embodied by none other than Severus Snape.

sexy snape

Snape is most certainly the sexiest character in Harry Potter, but why? He's repeatedly described as being physically unattractive and unpleasant.  And, just as with all the other teachers in Hogwarts, we know nothing of his personal relationships and assume he doesn't have any. However, he is interesting, and we're fascinated by him--because Harry is. This comes to a head in Order of the Phoenix, where they forcibly and repeatedly penetrate one another in an attempt to teach Harry occlumency. The sexual overtones are underlined by small, unconscious actions such as Snape "tracing his mouth with one long, thin finger" whenever he looks at Harry. 

It's no wonder Harry hates his occlumency lessons, as Snape recurrently violates Harry's mind, then berates him for being weak. But what frightens and infuriates Snape more than anything is when Harry reciprocates this insertion, catching a glimpse of Snape's own memories, making him vulnerable and inspiring a feeling of sympathy and camaraderie in Harry that Snape summarily rejects. This isn't the first or last time Harry recognizes a connection to Snape, only to have it turn into a feeling of abhorrence when Snape pushes him away.

For example, in The Half-Blood Prince, further parallels are drawn between Harry and Snape. After a lesson in Defense Against the Dark Arts, Harry fumes about Snape's passion for dark magic until Hermione points out that he sounds exactly like Harry. Meanwhile, unknown to either us or the book's characters, Harry is developing a man-crush on Snape's young alter ego, the Half-Blood Prince. The Prince is helpful, absolutely brilliant, funny, and the best teacher Harry's ever had. The depth of his attachment to the Prince is apparent in his hope that his father is really the Prince, even though logically he knows this can't be the case.

The point in all this is to say that Harry and Snape are not anathema to each other; quite the opposite. They're very similar and instinctively attracted to one another. In The Sorcerer's Stone, Harry is excited about potions until Snape makes it clear the first day of class that Harry's on his shit list. This pattern of constant attraction and rejection is what fosters in Harry his loathing of Snape--other teachers are hard on him and he dislikes many classes, but it is failure in Snape's class and his criticisms that really sting, because Snape is who he intuitively connects to.

But why does Snape repeatedly reject Harry? By the time we get to The Deathly Hallows, Harry burns with hatred for Snape, and with good reason: as far as he knows, Snape has betrayed the trust of Dumbledore and murdered him in cold blood. But like all passionate emotions, Harry's feelings for Snape aren't that far away from their opposite, in this case love. What Harry sees in Snape's dying memories appeases the negativity of the characters' interactions by once again reaffirming their connection and giving Harry the reason behind Snape's rejections.

Snape's objection to Harry is always that he's exactly like his father, James, a man Snape hated. But as Dumbledore points out, Harry is also very similar to Lily, the woman Snape loved. Therefor, to Snape, Harry is the embodiment of the pain and attraction he experienced as a youth, especially as he's the child Lily had with another man, and a living witness to her murder that Snape was indirectly responsible for. Snape is, perhaps, as attracted to Harry as Harry is to him; but he's also repulsed--by himself, his past, and his actions, all of which Harry is a breathing reminder. One might ask why Snape didn't simply choose to ignore this and instead focus on the positives and the connection he might have built with Harry, but his final memories show why he did not. Snape is completely unfamiliar with how to connect with people; not only that, but how to forgive others and himself. So he fell back on something he was more than practiced in, pushing the person he was most attracted to away.

Nevertheless, Snape recognizes that Harry is the only person at Hogwarts who can truly see him. That's why he demands Harry look at him as he takes his final breath. And would Harry take time out from defeating Voldemort to go wandering around the memories of a man he truly hated, or cared nothing for? Would he name his own child after someone he could never understand, call him the bravest man he ever knew (and that's saying something)? No. Harry never hated Snape, even at his angriest moments. Snape's rejection hurt him, and thus Snape became a symbol of Harry's sublimated desire for a connection with an older male figure. The sexual connotations that occasionally appeared with Snape in the context of that desire are, I think, not a sign that their attraction was sexual in nature, but merely one of the many reasons why it was destined not to go anywhere.



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