miscellany #1

Due to a seemingly never-ending illness, I haven’t had the wherewithal to write the in-depth essays I’d like to (I have several sitting, half-formed, in drafts)–but I have still been reading.  So here are some capsule impressions of what I’ve finished lately.  This is not an exhaustive list; I read a lot of forgettable crap that doesn’t even bear mentioning for good or for ill.  These are just a few of the more recent things I’ve read.



I wasn’t sure how to feel about this book, not right away.  I appreciated Novik’s lush, descriptive style, particularly of the eerie and menacing Wood; this antagonist is both a place and an amorphous concept, reaching out wherever it can to consume and corrupt anything in its path.  This, along with the magic system, were the most enjoyable parts of my reading.  Unfortunately, the stuff that really sticks to my bones, narrative-wise, are characters.

Initially, the premise seems like a Beauty and the Beast thing: a forbidding man (referred to as ‘the Dragon’, though he’s actually just an asshole wizard) comes to town every so often, snatches up a girl, and takes her away to his tower for ten years.  The protagonist, Agnieska, is messy and clumsy and not particularly skilled in anything aside from just generally fucking things up, so she feels pretty safe that she won’t be picked–not with Kasia around.  Kasia, her bestie, is one of those girlsuprooted who was born blessed, with looks, skills, grace, etc.   Everyone’s pretty sure that she’s the one the Dragon will choose; in fact, she’s been raised to expect it.

I’ll let you take a second and guess who the Dragon whisks off to his scary tower.

First two guesses don’t count.

Unsurprisingly, the Dragon lives up to his stereotype–he’s rude, cold, condescending, and just a huge dickweed all around, and never for any good reason, either.  Of course he & Agnieska get it on before we get out of this story, but that’s way later.  Before that, it’s all glares and tantrums and overturned dinner trays for the both of them.

There’s also a weird rape-y atmosphere in the beginning that culminates in an actual attempted rape.  Despite all word to the contrary, Agnieska is terrified that the Dragon will try to lay hands on her, and while part of his Jackass Routine does include such physical menacing as grabbing her by the chin and shoving her down on her bed, nothing untoward (or nonconsensual) occurs between them.  The Prince, however, tries to take advantage of Agnieska within about five minutes of dropping by for a visit.  This is a narrative problem for about ten pages; then it’s uneasily shoved aside for the rest of the story (there’s even a late moment when it seems like Agnieska might have to marry this dumb fuck).

All of this to say: I didn’t find anybody here very likable.  Agnieska is all right, and she grows (ha ha) on me towards the very end, but if I was someone who judged books by their first 50 pages I would have set this thing aside post haste.  The Dragon is a straight-up dick, with few vulnerabilities to recommend or understand him; Agnieska further doesn’t care to try (not that I expect she would–even as their ~romance~ slowly emerges, he still doesn’t treat her very kindly).

The rare thing about this book is that I enjoyed it most when it was NOT focused on its characters, but rather on its world and how the characters used their magic to shape it.  Magic here is based revelation, honesty, and redemption; the most powerful spells are borne from the scribbled notebook of a legendary Baba Yaga-type character.  They’re intuitive, organic, and based on elemental, intimate connection–both between the people casting and the person / thing upon whom the spell is cast.  It’s truly interesting, and compellingly described.  But would I want to hang out with any of these people after the story’s done?





God damn it, I really enjoyed this fucking book.  I say that angrily because it operates on so many completely irritating high fantasy tropes.  First, all the characters speak like expats from Shakespeare (thee and thou and so on) and that, combined with the overly laborious nomenclature, made the prose a little bit of a slog sometimes.  Second, and far worse, was the usual fixation on ‘dark’ as ‘ugly’ and ‘fair’ as ‘beautiful’.  Maia, the protagonist, is frequently denounced for his gross dark goblin skin, particularly as compared to the otherworldly beauty of the pure-blooded, white-skinned, pale-eyed and fair-haired elves.  It was just a little too basic.

Furthermore, the references to homosexuality are both steeped in tragedy and horror–first, there’s a man who loved another man but had to convict him for the murder of his abusive wife, and who is referred to even by the protagonist as suffering from an ‘unnatural’ love.  Then there’s Csevet, Maia’s secretary, a male elf who had an obvious fear of / grudge against one particular member of the imperial court.  When this fear was first suggested, goblinI thought, ‘I bet this guy tried to rape him’ and LO AND BEHOLD, Csevet eventually launches into a detailed, FIVE PAGE STORY about that very incident (which includes being set upon as a ‘fox’ by ‘hounds’, i.e., the lord and his men).  SO.  GROSS TO THAT.

HOWEVER, Maia is extremely likable, and despite those incidents above, the story is far from the gritty grimdark everyone is horrible all the time ethos present in some other fantasy series I could name (coughs).  The premise centers around the sudden death of Maia’s entire immediate family–his father, the Emperor, plus Maia’s older half-brothers–via mysterious and absolutely not accidental zeppelin explosion.  As a half-goblin undesirable with a mother that Maia’s father hated, Maia was exiled to some nothing swampy town for all of his life and raised by his drunk bastard of a cousin.  Nobody, Maia least of all, ever expected that he would ascend to the throne.  But then, as mentioned, everybody dies!  So he’s shuffled off to the imperial court, far from everything he’s known, and among people who look at him and mostly think 100 percent shitty things.

Maia perseveres, though, despite the fact that he has no idea how to behave and very few lights to guide him. He survives conspiracy, social missteps, and betrayal, all while struggling to maintain the sense of self instilled in him by his beloved mother. The best part of this book is how it seems, on its face, to be another journey into gritty grim misery–but in fact, it’s a journey towards compassion and forgiveness. Maia stands fast to his own perspective, even as it clashes with all of his advisers’ opinions. He entertains new ideas, he feels empathy for the people who hurt him, etc. It’s refreshing, to be honest, since so much of SFF seems fixed on battering readers with the idea that the world–even the worlds we dream of–is the worst possible place, populated only by the worst possible people doing the worst possible thing at any given moment. Maia, and the narrative itself, reject that idea. No, things aren’t perfect. They’re not even good. But it’s important to keep trying, anyway.



Oooh, this was good. My favorite contemporary writer is Lorrie Moore, and a lot of what I like in her is present in Hempel, too. Biting humor, poignant phrasing, characters who are difficult but sympathetic. Many of the stories are extraordinarily short–one is just a few sentences–but they’re all worth your time.

Animals feature prominently in these stories; one of the most affecting pieces for me was ‘At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom’, about a woman who ladles adoration onto her cat and dog. Interspersed between scenes of care for these animals–a birthday party for the cat, medication for the dog–are bits of jarring information about animal life–more precisely, animal suffering–throughout the world. These are visceral, intrusive thoughts, evoking images of animals in labs, in meat farms, in the wild. I won’t quote them or be more specific than that. They’re a dark, livid thread that weaves through the woman’s head, affecting her deeply, hobbling her ability to exist in the world at all. It’s a tough read, but it MOSTLY succeeds–the very last scene, the one that both physically and mentally brings the woman down, splashes over onto the cheap side of things (and involves a dog), feels more emotionally manipulative than the brief images that came before it. It’s affecting, though. The prose is precise, careful, cerebral.

‘Tumble Home’ is the longest story in the collection, and it’s framed as a woman’s long letter to a man she loves. She’s writing from a psychiatric ward, which would normally put me on edge, but her experiences are drawn with care and sympathy. There are no fetishes here; no exploitation. The story is gently heartbreaking, an account of a woman trying to find a meaningful avenue back to some definition of ‘real life’. Some passages I particularly liked:

“Are you wondering why a person who is already small would want to make herself smaller? That should become clear. Not everything I know is something I want to see.”

“I am so suggestible. When Chatty asks if I am hungry, I say, “I could be.” I would try to become the woman you wanted without even knowing I was trying. As it is, I am barely the woman I am.”

The narrator confesses things in her letter, most importantly her emotions–or lack thereof–surrounding her mother’s death. She relates episodes in Paris, conversations with friends, etc. She peppers the letter with questions, rhetorical and actual, about what’s happening to her or what’s happened or what will happen. It’s the kind of psychological toothpick chewing that you get stuck in when you’re, well, stuck. Hempel’s prose makes it compelling instead of inaccessible navel-gazing, though, and that’s true throughout this collection.


I’ll be real–I didn’t even finish this one.

A girl wakes up, beaten and bloodied and barely alive. She has no memory of what happened, or of anything else, including her own name. She starts going by ‘Water’ as she slowly recovers in the hospital. Meanwhile, there’s a guy named Jesse who’s constantly in her orbit because he’s the son of one of the doctors treating her. Jesse knows all about Water, all about what exactly happened to her, but ‘to keep her safe’, he doesn’t want to tell her the truth. Never mind that this strategy has worked for precisely no one, ever, in the history of narrative. Especially not crime novels which feature relentless eastern European gangsters as the antagonists.

Premise-wise, it’s not the worst; amnesia is cool. Young women battered within an inch of their lives by (as we discover) violent Russian stereotype mob bosses are less cool. Everything in this story is trying real hard to be a sharp-edged noir potboiler, but it just doesn’t work. The narration switches between Jesse and Water; Jesse’s chapters are largely in the past, whereas Water’s are mainly in the present. Jesse is an insufferable caricature of a man’s man. Likes cars, gruff, stoic, has few other identifiable traits. He works for a garage that gets caught up in doing business with aforementioned shady Russian guys, one of whom has a beautiful young wife that he slaps in public & dresses up in diamonds. Gross, and also yawn. And also gross. Water is this girl, of course, and Jesse falls in love with her, of course.

Water’s chapters are less irritating and more just boring. Just interminable stretches of her lying in bed, then doing chores for the lady who takes her in–there’s no sense of danger for her throughout much of the book, even though all players involved in her suffering are clearly still alive and still within very close proximity. She sees Jesse ALL THE TIME. I’m sure this eventually amounted to something, but I. I just didn’t care. The writing is not good. The characters are not good. It’s a no for me.



I don’t know about this book. For almost 20 of the 55 chapters, it just barely skirts godawful. Then, there are a few turns, a few improvements, and by the end it’s still a middling experience but it’s rescued itself from being a complete wash. The story centers on a woman named Celaena, known as Adarlan’s Assassin, one of the greats, boss of all bosses, etc. She’s introduced in dire circumstances: captured, enslaved, forced to work a mine in deplorable conditions. She and the other slaves are regularly whipped, malnourished, and in general exposed to all the usual sort of depravities you’d expect. So, understandably, our girl is not that thrilled when she’s plucked out of the slave mines and given an opportunity for freedom that essentially means yet more slavery. The prince of this evil empire, a guy named Dorian, has chosen her to be his champion for a tournament his father is putting on. If she wins, she’ll have to serve Evil Empire for six years before she earns her freedom. Sounds like sort of a raw deal, but it’s the only deal on the table, so she ultimately takes it.

From there, we’re whisked off to the Evil Empire’s glass palace (as suggested by the title), and Celaena becomes embroiled in the relationships between Dorian and his father, Dorian and Chaol (captain of the guard–the honorable, lawful good handsome guy as foil to Dorian’s rakish, neutral good handsome guy), her floor and a bunch of evil symbols, etc. She also encounters a bunch of courtly ladies who want to get in Dorian’s pants, and of course begins instant rivalries with them, because other girls are untrustworthy bitches, don’t you know? Celaena ruminates on this after she meets Nehemia, a visitor from one of the Evil Empire’s mostly conquered nations:

“After [some unexplained experience involving an assassin group in the desert that I assume was comprised of woman, but we are told nothing, so who knows], she’d sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agenda and power of her own.”

Now, to be fair, Celaena does eventually get over herself with regard to this prejudice. She and Nehemia become true friends, and the evolution of that relationship is one of the most interesting bits of this book. Even so, this toxic attitude is never really examined or questioned; why is her distrust reserved for girls when it was a bunch of imperialist men that fucked up her country and captured her and enslaved her and tortured her for years? Eh? EH? A fair case could be made that she (being an assassin, after all) shouldn’t really trust ANYONE, but that’s not what the story chooses to focus on. It’s just silly.

‘Silly’ is a big problem for this book. I did enjoy a few scenes–the very last fight has good energy to it, and the mythology of the weird secret evil lurking in the castle is kinda compelling (I’m always compelled by weird secret evil), but overall the writing quality here is … not great. For example:

(a description of Celaena’s eyes)

“Up close, though, these warring hues were offset by the brilliant ring of gold around her pupils.”

” […] she’d dashed into the bathroom to deposit the contents of her stomach.”

“The notes burst from her fingers, staggering at first, but then more confidently as the emotion in the music took over. It was a mournful piece, but it made her into something clean and new.”

(while playing pool)

“She first screamed at the ball, then took the cue in her hands and bit down upon the shaft, still screaming through her clamped teeth.”

In order: overwrought; overwrought (just say ‘vomit’ JUUST SAY VOOOMIT); vague; what the fuck, man. The writing is often both too much and too little. Information is repeated constantly; we hear about Celaena’s past again and again, but always in the exact same set of thinly detailed terms. These references don’t advance her backstory, they only serve to reinforce what we’ve already been told–padding, basically. When scenes try for poignancy and emotional resonance, as in the piano quote above, the emotions at stake are too blurry to get your hands on. The piece is mournful, but it makes her feel new–how does that bridge happen? How is the piece mournful? What is it about? How does it sound? What does it evoke in Celaena, exactly, and how does this also move Dorian (who walks in on her)?

Dorian and Chaol are every romance novel pair you’ve ever read about. Playboy prince who wants to make good vs. dutiful guard captain who wants to STAY good (inherently troublesome since he works directly for Evil Empire). Nehemia is halfway interesting, and to be honest, Celaena isn’t 100% bland, either. She takes a lot of people down, she’s legitimately good at what she does, and she has a pretty strong moral center for a supposedly amoral assassin. I didn’t like this book enough to buy the next in the series–the writing is just too messy, and Celaena isn’t quite interesting enough to make up for it, unfortunately.



OK, this book was pretty charming. I’ve read the Gemma Doyle trilogy, and while I felt that series suffered from quite a few problems, Bray does have some skill with language and characterization (with sensitivity to complex historical forces as represented in fiction, not so much). I was a little wary because this is another historical fantasy, but fortunately there are no uncomfortably exploitative characters here (I mean, not yet, anyway). It’s set in the roaring 20s, and the protagonist, Evie, is a straight up Thoroughly Modern Millie–or, she wants to be. She has the power of psychometry (the ability to tell truths about people after touching their personal possessions) and she gets sent away to the Big City when this little party goes awry one night. So much the better–Evie is excited to get out of her ho-hum town and make a name for herself. Unfortunately, her plans are complicated by the emergence of a dreadful serial killer, a force of darkness who loves ritual murder and Bible-flavored portents. Only Evie and people like her–that is, Diviners–can stand against him.

A boy named Memphis is the deuteragonist; he once had the power to heal, but no longer, though he still gets fucked-up dreams. He looks after his brother Isaiah (who has some Stuff Going On as well), spends time running shady errands for a shady club owner, and generally tries to keep out of trouble. As with Evie, he’s a likable character, sympathetic and interesting. Everybody here is pretty likable, aside from the horrific murderous spirit unleashed by some anonymous, ill-advised Ouija time, of course. Memphis befriends a chorus girl named Theta with troubles (and powers) of her own, while Evie goes to live with her stuffy Uncle Will and his–assistant? protege? Science experiment?–Jericho. Jericho’s a scholarly type, withdrawn and serious, and of course totes attracted to Evie. There’s the beginning of the usual love geometry trouble here, because Evie’s BFF likes Jericho, but he’s clearly into Evie, as is the roguish thief, Sam. Because there’s always the Upright Guy and the Bad Boy in these things, you know, it’s a law somewhere, I think.

Happily, the story focuses primarily on the mystery at hand, both with regard to the murders and to the revelations of everybody’s Weird Secret Power. Ultimately, it’s mostly Evie who does all the work (Jericho helps) in taking out the villain, which felt a little unsatisfying. Though Memphis and Evie do cross paths, they don’t really come together in any significant way. This disappoints because it feels like that’s what the story was going for–i.e., a slow unveiling of all the players involved, their abilities, their relationships, and then how those powers / circumstances would intertwine against this menacing evil. However, only Evie has a major role to play, in the end, and I was left a little cold by that. The last few chapters foreshadow a sequel, so I hope that means we’ll get a little more of everybody and how they might all work together in the second round.

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Review #6: Gamer Girl, by Mari Mancusi

pander pander pander pander

I’m just giving up on a schedule for these reviews! THEY WILL HAPPEN WHEN THEY HAPPEN. Anyway.  I had seen this book around some time ago–maybe while reading another review site, maybe in Amazon’s frequently misguided recommendations list–and scoffed at the summary.  I had thought about acquiring it for this blog, but the book was fairly new at the time and I just wasn’t willing to shell out 16 bucks for a likely mediocre story that I would finish in 1.5 sittings. But then some twitter friends mentioned this thing and brought it back in my memory.  I tried to see if the library had a copy–no dice.  But Amazon had plenty of used copies for almost nothing, so I went ahead and bought one.  I did end up reading the whole thing in about 1.5 sittings, and it fulfilled all of my wild dreams of mediocrity, too. The basic plot is this: Maddy Starr (sighs) moves from awesome big-city Boston to lame-o suburbia after her parents divorce.  She has to live with her fussy Grandma and attend a whole new school full of ‘Aberzombies’ (sighs again). Any time a book about high school includes the phrase “They pretty much rule the school,” you know you’re going to have a problem.  A character utters this deathless proclamation less than twenty pages into this book—right after it’s carefully established that Maddy is Not Like Those Other Girls.  She wears goth clothes!  She doesn’t shop at American Eagle! She is Very Cool and Alternative, okay. My issue here is that characters like this attempt to relate to ‘non-conforming’ teenagers, to kids who are outcast, lonely, and nerdy.  But here’s the thing.  After Madeline comes down for her first day wearing her Hot Topic ensemble (and that’s not a sneering joke; that’s actually how she describes her style), her Grandma flips out and forces her to change into a sweater emblazoned with unicorns.  It’s a fashion statement that Madeline utterly rejects, because wearing mom jeans and a unicorn sweater is strange, it’s old-fashioned, frumpy and awkward.  Unlike her Doc Martens and plaid skirt, it’s not cool.  Because Madeline, despite being framed as unusual and out of place, is a very cool girl.  She dresses differently than the other kids at her new school, but it’s a matter of chocolate or vanilla, not vanilla or bacon-pineapple-bone dust swirl.  H&M and Hot Topic are different brands, but they are both selling to the psyche of the average American teenager.  Dressing like Avril Lavigne is a statement of self, but it’s not one that’s going to ensure you have no friends at lunch time.  Wearing a unicorn sweater, though?  That, especially in this narrative world, is a death sentence. Drawing a sharp distinction among social groups is common practice in stories set in a high school.  Plots tend to focus on the conflicts among different stereotypes, though the categories shift over time (for instance, I’ve seen a number of modern high school stories that include ‘bloggers’ as their own clique).  I don’t actually find anything wrong with this; you can milk some great satire out of it (i.e. the much beloved Mean Girls).  But there’s no satire here.  The major issue I take with this story is that it just reads as so horribly disingenuous.  It reads as someone desperately pandering to a very specific kind of nerdy alterna-teen.  For instance, when a teacher asks if anyone’s read the class assignment:

“I did, nerd that I am.  Not that I’d needed to.  I’d read the play four times over the last three years and had seen both the 1968 movie and the way-cool Leonardo DiCaprio/Claire Danes modern update.  There was just something about the tragic love story that really spoke to me.”

Is this how sixteen year olds talk?  Think?  I’m feeling doubtful.  Most of Maddy’s inner monologue comes off as inorganic, as the product of someone who’s trying to appropriate a shallow idea of youth culture (which, as we know, is ever more centered on ‘nerdy’ pursuits anyway). A complete lack of depth permeates the entire book.  Maddy’s enemies are a shadowy, ill-defined clique of people referred to as ‘the Haters’ (seriously?), comprised of a couple of hot, rich girls who receive zero development and two dudes.  Dude one is a sexy guy named Chad, for whom Maddy nurses a star-crossed crush.  Dude two is an arrogant, nasty bully named Billy, and he spearheads pretty much everything unpleasant that happens to Maddy throughout the story.  He engages in over-the-top harassment, like Super Gluing her locker shut, drawing unflattering pictures of her, shoving her to the ground, and calling her ‘Freak Girl’.  The guy is a little obsessed, to be honest. So Maddy’s school life is terrible.  She takes comfort only in her manga and in the new Fields of Fantasy game her father gave her as a birthday present—an obvious and fairly clear analogue to WoW.  While adventuring online, she meets a gallant roleplayer guy who calls himself Sir Leo and happily tanks quest mobs for her (later, he slow walks around the town and praises her elfin beauty).   She starts a manga club; she enters a drawing contest at the local library; things look up.  She even discovers that her RP buddy is local to her!  But WHO COULD IT BE. A less compelling mystery there never was.  You’ve probably guessed it based on what I’ve told you already.  Hint: it’s the most obvious, least surprising choice. Everything about this pandering pile of nonsense is obvious and unsurprising.  Billy is so stereotypically villainous that I’m surprised he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl maniacally at every turn.   What’s his motivation?  A minor humiliation at the start of the book, in which Maddy’s Grandmother revealed that she knew him when he was but a wee, bed-wetting lad.  Everyone laughs about it, but the incident does nothing to upset the social structure or cause any real damage in any way.  Yet it apparently fuels Billy’s daily desire to see Maddy brought low.  Chad doesn’t agree with Billy’s actions, but he’s too much of a coward to do anything about them (until a heroic moment near the very end of the book, of course). None of these interactions or relationships are carried out with a single shred of thoughtfulness.  Chad, as you’ve already surmised, is Maddy’s mystery knight.  Personally, I think it would have been much more compelling if the bully was the gallant online hero, because that would then force a reconciliation between his shitty offline behavior and the weird Nice Guy persona he’s built on the Internet.  I kept hoping that this would happen, but, as with everything else here, I was disappointed. And that’s the crux of it: I like the premise of this book.  I’m in favor of stories about shy nerds and their online pursuits; I’m in favor of stories that cater TO shy nerds.  But not stories like this.  This isn’t a book; it’s marketing.  It’s the product you’d get if you sat a bunch of adults around a boardroom table and asked them what they think the kids are into these days.  There’s no genuine exploration of motivations or intentions; nobody is more complicated than they seem to be.  And, as I’m sure you all know — because you’re either there right now or you were — teenagers are pretty goddamn complicated. YA deserves better than this.  Teenage girls deserve better.  It’s just depressing, honestly.

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Thinly Developed Dystopia Theatre, pt. 1 (Review #5, Shatter Me; Tahereh Mafi)

probably one of the most attractively worthless covers ever

probably one of the most attractively worthless covers ever

Hey folks, GOOD TO SEE YOU … I think one of my issues in running a book review blog (aside from reading far more than I would ever have time to review) is that I always feel the need to write HUGE essays about whatever books I actually decide to use in a post, hence that monstrous examination of Elixir down below (has it really been almost a year … ow).  In the interest of committing more and myriad thoughts to digital paper, I am going to try … not … doing that.  Thus, here is a quick (maybe) review of a  ‘dystopian’ YA books that I recently swallowed and then coughed up, hairball-style, onto the carpet.

SHATTER ME, by Tahereh Mafi, is first.  I need to tell you that, like most YA fiction, this cover is ridiculously misleading.  If you go into this book knowing the blurb info, which sells it as a cross between The Hunger Games and the X-Men, you might be expecting an Emma Frost type of character and atmosphere from this cover–this girl, while slender, looks healthy, confident, and … I don’t want to say ‘stylish’, as that dress looks kind of like a cream puff, but you can tell that’s the vibe the designers wanted.

The actual protagonist is a severely malnourished, broken, frightened wisp of a young lady named Juliette.  She’s locked up in a mental asylum, not because she’s insane, but because she has a special power that makes her dangerous to the general public.  Physical contact with her causes extreme suffering that quickly results in death; she’s basically Rogue, except without the temporary transfer of someone’s abilities in addition to their life-force.  Juliette’s life is pretty awful: she’s rarely fed, and what she’s given barely qualifies as food, she is isolated, she is dirty.

She’s also ridiculously aggravating.  This book is written in the first person, which is fine; first person is wonderful for establishing a unique character voice, and Mafi tries to do just that through a variety of stylistic/visual text quirks.  Many very silly people have read this book and described the prose with words like ‘beautiful’ and ‘poetic’ and perhaps even ‘lilting’, but all of those terms imply that there’s some kind of sensible rhythm happening here, and that is just a plain falsehood.  Slogging through this book’s idea of narration is like being in a locked room with someone who cannot stop wailing, WAILING incomprehensible things about butterfly dust and glass shards and pieces of the sky for five fucking minutes.

“I close the world away.  Lock it up.  Turn the key so tight.

Blackness buries me in its folds.


My eyes break open.  Two shattered windows filling my mouth with glass.”

WHAT DOES THIS EVEN MEAN?  Later on, there’s a scene between Juliette and the primary love interest, Adam, who also happens to be a soldier in the Oppressive Regime that’s currently going around oppressing everybody.  He’s been ordered to TAKE HER TO HER CHAMBERS by the primary antagonist, who is also a love interest (and a psychotic rapist, but we will get to that), inexplicably.  Juliette spent some time in a cell with Adam earlier, thinking he was just another prisoner, and so at this point she’s feeling understandably a bit betrayed and confused.  Adam is trying to tell her that he’s one of the good guys, but when he lifts a hand to convey some arcane sign language to that effect, Juliette thinks he’s about to strike her.  The problem is that the scene reads like he DID strike her–the narration goes like this:

“I didn’t think he’d be the one to hurt me, to torture me, to make me wish for death more than I ever have before.  I don’t even realize I’m crying until I hear the whimper and feel the silent tears stream down my face and I’m ashamed so ashamed so ashamed of my weakness but a part of me doesn’t care.  I’m tempted to beg, to ask for mercy, to steal his gun and shoot myself first.”

This reads like someone is getting their shit jacked, DOES IT NOT?  This is Juliette’s reaction to Adam putting a finger to his lips because there are goddamn cameras in the room.

Look, I understand what Mafi is trying to do.  She’s trying to present the internal life of someone with severe instability; someone who has suffered so badly at the hands of the Oppressive Regime that she can hardly function.  I get that.  But there are better ways to do this, ways that don’t involve peppering your text with gimmicky, repetitive cross-outs and prose that does not actually give you any indication as to what the fuck is going on.  There are a lot of crossed-out sentences in this book.  It’s like reading an FBI dossier, for God’s sake.  Again, I know the intent–she’s trying to suggest that Juliette is so divorced from her sense of self that she constantly censors her feelings, even in her own head, but tricks like these should be used gently, lovingly.  The reader is beaten around the ears and face with Juliette’s mental state at every turn, to the detriment of the actual scene.  I only need to read about how Juliette thinks everything will be OK if she doesn’t move or how much she wants to vomit once.  After that, I get it.  She’s in a bad way.

I can grant that the style might appeal to some.  It’s common to mistake piles of attractive words that are placed in close proximity to one another as ‘poetic’, even when the sentences they form don’t actually make much sense.  It’s a trap that a lot of writers fall into, myself included.  Reading this book is like watching someone fall into that trap over and over again, for me.  But that’s not the only problem here.

First of all, the worldbuild is about as thin as tracing paper.  Juliette offers us a brief explanation of a world that fell into sudden environmental chaos, maybe (92 degrees in winter?!  Welcome to Memphis, Tennessee, honey).  There’s about two paragraphs early on dedicated to how food doesn’t grow, animal life is scarce, people are dying, etc.  I should note that I have no idea of where anyone is at any given time; presumably somewhere in a ruined America?  Anyway, some guys called the Reestablishment are running the joint now, and they are, predictably, not very nice.  There’s not really any examination of Oppressive Regime’s overall motives and goals; they just shout at people, execute rebel sympathizers, and have nice meals in their offensive luxury domes, blah blah–all the notes  you’d expect an Oppressive Regime to hit, basically, without any details to make them personal and unique to this world.

Warner is the guy in charge of this particular branch of Oppressors’R’Us and he is super obsessed with Juliette.  Rape-ily obsessed.  Every interaction between them suggests that he is moments away from pushing her down and forcing himself on her, and he only does not because of the whole killer touch thing.  Here’s the saddest bit: of all the characters in this narrative, Warner alone is imbued with more than one or two personality traits.  Adam’s only characteristic is his abs, according to Juliette, and our protagonist herself doesn’t do much but break down on every page–interspersed, of course, with moments of feisty rebellion directed at Warner. Mafi saw fit to complicate Warner’s emotions and position just enough so that he can be viably placed as another romance option, despite the fact that his sole goal is to control Juliette’s life and use her as a super-hot weapon of mass torture and destruction.  He has something going on with his mother, you see.  He’s really desperately in love with Juliette, too, even though he forces her to TORTURE AND ALMOST KILL A TODDLER (what) in one scene.  Nothing Warner does is acceptable on any level, yet it’s very clear that Mafi wants the reader to feel badly for him–she’s even writing a full novella from his crazy-ass perspective, tag-lined ‘SHE WILL CHOOSE ME’ (gurk).

Again.  I like creepy dudes.  Creepy dudes are great.  But there should not be a Team Creepy Dude, and there is.  This book culminates with Warner nearly full-out raping Juliette, because, CONVENIENTLY, both Warner AND Adam are immune to Juliette’s powers (not toddlers or random soldier mooks, though.  They are fucked).  Juliette permits Warner to get handsy so that she can gain access to the gun in his vest pocket and shoot him, and he gets her up against the wall with her thighs around his waist just before she pulls the trigger (don’t worry, HE SURVIVES).  What’s worse–Juliette feels an electrical charge between them as this is going on.  WHY.  STOP.

The X-Men element is introduced in the last part of the book and it’s stupid; it’s basically Xavier’s Underground School for Gifted Children and I am sure it will form the foundation for the follow up, because naturally this is a trilogy.  I am going to go lie on the floor now.

TOMORROW: The Last Princess, another entry into the world of pseudo-dystopian YA fiction.

Rating: Half a can, because the writing is OK when it actually makes sense!  The premise is also not inherently awful; it just has no flesh to it (much like the protagonist, haha, see what I did there).  P.S. to writers everywhere: creepy obsessive dudes are awesome.  Creepy obsessive dudes who are actually significant in the story’s love geometry?  NOT AWESOME.

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Review #4: Elixir, by Hilary Duff

it's not poisonous, it's just boring

it’s not poisonous, it’s just boring

HELLO AGAIN.   I’ve been reading and reading and reading, but there’s a difference between passively consuming a book and taking the time to think up barbed insults about how much it sucks, so.  Ideally I would like to discuss a book a week, starting now, but let’s see how that goes.  Anyway, here is the long-promised (but doubtlessly not awaited) discussion of Elixir, Hilary Duff’s sad attempt at YA supernatural womance. Yes, you read that correctly–this book was written by that Hilary Duff, a.k.a. Lizzie McGuire, who, like many products of the Disney channel, has gone on to market herself in any way imaginable.  She acts (kind of), she sings (sorta), she has a perfume (naturally) and, most recently, she’s decided to dip her toesies into the lucrative well of YA fiction.  However, lest you imagine this shimmering pop star sitting in front of a laptop and typing merrily away, keep in mind that the book’s title page–though not the cover itself–notes that it was written with the help of one Elise Allen.  In interviews, Duff framed the relationship as a series of fun and cozy back-and-forth sessions, and that might be true, but I’m willing to bet that Ms. Allen did most of the heavy lifting.  The book is terrible either way, though, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

The cover suffers from the pervasive, apparently mandatory edicts set forth by Twilight: dark background, bright, often floral object in the center.  The effect isn’t unappealing, it’s just nothing new.  These covers promise interest, mystery, and intrigue, but what they deliver–without fail–is insufferable banality.  Duff’s case is no different.

Clea Raymond stars in this tale of a privileged white girl who, despite being only seventeen, has been to more places, accomplished more feats, and worn better clothes than the average, say, Hollywood starlet?  For while Clea is not an actress, she certainly lives like one.  She’s on a Paris dance floor in the book’s opening pages, having a panic attack.  She gets some fresh air and calms herself with her special iris pendant, given to her by her late father–his disappearance and presumed death a year prior are the causes of her stress. Sort of an interesting start, yes?  Not stunning in its freshness and originality, but I’m of the mind that a story doesn’t need to reinvent the plot point in order to be compelling.

Ultimately, good stories are about conflict, and the most interesting conflicts are about the troubles we have relating to our world and to each other.  It’s the way that picture is painted that makes a story worthwhile, and I have to say that this book is the equivalent of a particularly talent-challenged kindergartener’s crayon drawing.

The writing itself is serviceable.  It’s not particularly evocative or tactile; it doesn’t try to say much beyond the scene itself; it’s just there, doing a job, going home at five ‘o clock.  There’s an attempt by Duff-Allen to give Clea the sassy ‘voice’ common to young lady protagonists by interspersing some hip colloquialisms here and there, but for the most part the authorial voice reads not like a vulnerable 17-year old but like a worldly woman in, perhaps, her mid-twenties.

Coincidentally, Ms. Duff is also a worldly woman in her mid-twenties. Coincidentally, Ms. Duff is also a ridiculously wealthy jet-setter who is loved and pampered by everyone in her immediate proximity, much like Clea.

Her father was a prominent surgeon, archeologist and professor, and her mother is a powerful politician, a Senator with Clinton-like clout (but much more respect and affection from the masses).  Actually, pretty much everyone loves Clea and her family all of the time.  They are paragons; they are shining beacons of morality and kindness.  Much is made of the missing father’s charitable work–in fact, he disappeared while working with impoverished communities in Chile.  He’s just as famous and appreciated as Clea’s mother, due to his discovery of several ancient phials of … nothing.  All this nothing will be important (and by important I mean ‘used as the dull centerpiece of this dull-ass story’) later, but let’s return to our golden heroine for a moment. You may have gathered by now that Clea shares a number of traits with her creator.  This girl is a Mary Sue of the highest order; she is textbook self-insert.

Now, listen: I’m the last person to think that author avatars are a bad thing.  I actually find the frothing anti-Mary Sue movement to be tedious and tiresome, especially since many of its proponents tend to veil their internalized misogyny with diatribes about ‘exposing’ these types of characters in various published media (the canon_sue community on LJ is a cesspit of this type of thinking).  There is nothing inherently wrong with using yourself as a character, and, indeed, I hold with the notion that all characters contain elements of the person who created them.  We are vast and contain multitudes, etc. Here’s the thing, though.  Many times, when novice (or just not very good, as in the case of Ms. Duff) writers use themselves as templates for their protagonists, they give in to the temptation of a little–or a big–makeover.  The character becomes a glossy, cardboard vision of what that writer might like to be, or, worse, of how they already see themselves.  This is problematic because no one is without flaws.  And, honestly, even if you did manage to find somebody flawless, you wouldn’t want to read an epic saga about that person, would you?

Flaws are what make people interesting and relatable.  If a character has no failings, no vulnerabilities, no insecurities or odd quirks and never, ever makes a poor decision, then I can’t sympathize with them, because to me, that character has no root in humanity. Besides all of that, it’s just goddamn annoying.  Clea is perfect and talented to the point of frustration.  She’s seventeen, but she’s already self-assured, confident, and classy–in contrast to her best friend, Rayna, who is portrayed as an irrepressible (read: irresponsible) wild child (read: slut) that Clea must look after with an exasperated, indulgent smile on her face.  Indeed, Clea relates to almost everyone in her life this way.

She has a best guy friend named Ben who is willing to open any number of veins for her (and who is, of course, secretly in love with her) and a maid named Piri who fusses and clucks over her at every available opportunity.  Ben, at twenty, has a doctorate, speaks “more languages than is humanly possible, and knows something about pretty much everything” — being generous, that means he must have graduated high school at age twelve.  That’s only a year after the world’s youngest doctor. Is anyone in this book a real person?  No, sadly not.  

Piri suffers the most from this sense of unreality, and she’s probably the most discomfiting character in the story, even worse than the inevitable Stalker Boyfriend who shows up a bit later.  She’s Hungarian, hailing from a little village know as Stereotypia, and her main purpose (as far as I can tell) is to serve as comic relief.  Because it’s hilarious to have a foreign maid who stuffs you with dessert and speaks solely in superstitions.  You think I’m kidding, but here’s an example:

“What happened in there?” Piri asked.

“I’m fine!” I called.  “Just a bad dream.”

The door flung open.

“A bad dream?” Piri tsked with alarm.  “Someone walking over your grave.  Wear your clothes inside out today; turn your luck around.”

She stared at me, waiting for me give the absurd superstition its due respect.”

C.f. also throwing cups of water in Clea’s wake for good luck and sitting in the presence of a baby, etc.  This ain’t cute, especially not since Clea treats Piri with the same affectionate condescension as she does her BFF, Rayna.  Every time the text references one of these traditions, there’s always a follow-up line from the narration about how kooky and crazy that ol’ maid is, with her funny foreign ways.  It’s the laziest, cheapest kind of writing: when good humor employs stereotypes, it’s to show a point, or reveal something hidden that the stereotype glosses over.  Here, Duff-Allen rely on broadly understood generalizations (i.e., that foreigners are weird and have weird customs) to characterize Piri; they give her no other traits or shades of depth.

Not that anyone here is from the deep end of the pool, anyway.  As the excerpt implies, Clea’s been having some nasty dreams.  They depict her–or someone like her–in another life, and they usually end with other-her dying unpleasantly.  She’s been having these ever since her father passed away, with nary a clue as to why or how to stop them.    That is, until she returns from the Paris adventure and loads up some photos on her computer.  Y’see, despite being seventeen, Clea is also a world-famous photojournalist.  The description of how she interacts with the camera made me physically cringe:

Quickly I yanked off the cocktail dress and hells and pulled on a pair of silk long johns, my favorite jeans, a turtleneck, a thick pullover sweater, a hoodie, and a knit beanie hat.  No gloves–gloves form a barrier between me and the camera; they break our connection.

Oh, okay.  That’s hella deep, Ms. Duff, almost as much as this winning description of a photograph itself:

He seemed wrapped in his own thoughts. His mane of dark, tousled hair, chiseled cheekbones, and thick eyebrows were stunning, but some inward pain twisted his eyes and mouth away from beauty and toward something more difficult and profound.

Something like what, Ms. Duff?  Could you maybe be a little more specific here, instead of throwing out words that state an emotion rather than show it?  Lord have mercy.  Listen, folks.  The truth is that beauty and profundity are both essentially empty words, because everything has different ideas as to what is beautiful and what is profound.  From the description, we can tell that he has a typically attractive face, but what exactly is profound about his pain? What kind of pain is it?  The pain of loss?  The pain of loneliness?  The pain of an unwisely eaten piece of cheese?  Who the fuck knows.  It’s just more laziness from this dull Duff-Allen duo.

Anyhow, the dude in question is Sage, a fella who appears mysteriously in the background of every photo that Clea’s taken while on her recent globetrotting excursion.  He literally lurks at the edges of every frame.  Clea at least has the good sense to be a little freaked out by this, though of course she’s drawn to him, can’t take her eyes off of him, blah blah blah.

Cutting to the chase: Sage is an immortal, made so by the Elixir of Life.  If you guessed that’s what used to fill up the empty vials Clea’s dad found, you get a prize (look under your seat).  Ben and Clea eventually track him down in Chile, where a bunch of stupid crap happens.  Nameless bad dudes try to kidnap Clea, Sage saves the day, they end up having ~alone time in a cave, etc.  Matters eventually curdle/culminate in another tracking mission, this for a woman named Magda Alessandri, who has some kind of connection to the Elixir and may also be Shakespeare’s Dark Lady and whatever the fuck else. They track this woman to Shibuya and eventually find her, a desiccated and bitter old woman who really hates Sage for breaking some set of rules that surround the Elixir’s keeping and use.  I would enumerate them for you, except that I just don’t care.

So Magda is nursing a five centuries’ old grudge against Sage, which gives the narrative a convenient reason to infodump all the ‘mystery’ on Clea, as Magda is pretty sure that the truth is going to make Princess Perfect upset.  It’s revealed that, in a past life (roundabouts the sixteenth century), Sage was part of a Society that protected the Elixir, and that past-life Ben was a greedy asshole who wanted in on that shit–but could not be in on that shit ‘cos he was poor and lol classism.  Past-Ben, a dumbass named Giovanni, tried to boast about knowing Sage and the Society to some of his thug friends, who in turn did what thugs do and busted up the place.  The narrative is quick to paint past-Ben as an unwitting victim of thuggishness, but come on–if this kid is so smart, shouldn’t he possibly have enough foresight to realize that if you dangle a diamond in front of a criminal, he is most likely going to leap at that rock the first chance he gets?  I mean, really.

Soo the thugs go in there and break everything, and they aren’t too kind to past-Clea, either. Everyone dies, except for Magda and Sage; Magda because of an enchantment done by her ‘mystic’ mother, Sage because the thugs tested the Elixir out on him (for, again, some reason).  The potion does what it says on the tin, and Sage eventually gets his revenge on the douchebros who killed his people.  But, of course, he is now also immortal and–AGAIN, FOR SOME REASON–has locked himself into a terrible, eternal cycle in which he is fated to meet all of Clea’s incarnations throughout the years, love them, and then do nothing when she is inevitably brutally killed.

I remember this kind of cycle as a plot point in the manga Angel Sanctuary, except in that story it actually made something like sense, because Setsuna’s constant gory death/rebirth was meant to be a punishment from Powers that Be.  There doesn’t seem to be any Looming Badness here; it’s just … the potion made you immortal, now this girl you know is gonna die all the time for it.  Not even you.  Just this girl.  That you know.  OK.

The only way to break this circle of love is for Sage to do some kinda ritual that severs his soul from his body and kills him for-ever, plus also puts him in hellish purgatory, plus kills his dog (not really, but that’s what it seemed like).  He’s gonna do it, of course.  For true wuv.  I haven’t said much about Sage, I realize, but there isn’t much to say that I haven’t already written before about every other dude of his kind.  He’s dark, he’s tormented, he’s a little creepy in the intensity of his fixations.  Like everyone else in this assemblage, he’s also not particularly developed.  I can’t even say he’s that offensive, because he isn’t present enough to offend.  He’s just Edward-lite, I guess.

So does he?  Well we never know, dear reader!  The book ends with Sage kidnapped by the aforementioned baddies, who are part of the modern-day version of the Society; they call themselves the Saviors of Eternal Life or somesuch.  There’s another group at large named Cursed Vengeance; I’m not really sure what their deal is (aside from raiding in World of Warcraft, as the name implies).  The book ends with Sage taken and Clea numb with the angst of it all.  We don’t know where he is or what these Savior folks are gonna do with him, but, luckily, there was apparently a law passed that all YA books have to be trilogies, at the very least, so there’s another installment coming in October.  Personally, I hope the guy killed himself.

One final note: there’s a passage early on that discusses Clea’s fan-tastic photojournalism career, and much is made of how she sent out her portfolio under a pseudonym so that no one would give her jobs just ‘cos of her famosity.  I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t some less-than-sly reference to the book itself.  Trust me, honey, we all know you got this deal because of your name.  I’m not judging you because you’re a pop star.  I’m judging you because this book sucks.

Rating: half a coke can.  Aside from the travesty that is Piri’s character, it’s too bland and poorly realized to cause real insult–aside from the meta-textual insult that pretty much anyone with a wad of money can put a book out, but that’s a universal truth that cannot be fairly laid at Ms. Duff’s feet.

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Review #3: This Gorgeous Game, by Donna Freitas

by the time I finished reading this, I felt just like the girl pictured here

This Gorgeous Game, by Donna Freitas; Frances Foster Books

HEY WOW HI AGAIN.  In a perfect world I would write at least one review a week, but in a world full of holiday obligations and D&D and teaching and World of Warcraft, sometimes that’s just not possible.  Of course, the other hindrance here is that most of these books ARE just items I’ve checked out from the library, which means that if time runs out and I haven’t sat down with them yet, they have to go back–and then I procrastinate more, because it’s much easier to discuss a work when you have the thing on hand.  I have a lot of silly-ass books to write about for you, but I really wanted to take a minute to discuss this book that I read earlier in the fall.  On the surface, it shares a lot of traits with the kinds of teen lit that’s currently popular: the protagonist is an ordinary, sweet-natured young girl who attracts the intense attention of a handsome, older, more powerful male figure.  The man, much like his fellow teen lit men, never lets the protagonist have a moment of peace.  He texts her; he writes her letters; he asks for constant meetings; he is jealous and possessive.  The plot, like the plot of many books that surround this one on the shelf, mainly deals with the relationship between these two figures: unsure female and aggressive male.

Here’s the difference, though, and it’s key: this book does not for one second imply that what’s happening in its pages is anything close to romantic or normal.

The main character, Olivia, is 17 years old and an aspiring writer.  The story begins when she wins a short story contest judged by a man she idolizes, a Catholic priest and best-selling novelist named Father Mark.  Father Mark is young (but, given that she’s a teenage girl, he’s still twice her age), charismatic and popular.  He wields almost unassailable power over Olivia and her town (where everyone is Catholic) as both a clergyman and a celebrity; he’s even a professor, teaching at the local Catholic-affiliated university.  Father Mark is both an archetypal villain and hauntingly reminiscent of paranormal romance heroes; he exists in a bastion of unquestionable authority built by his multiple privileged offices.  Like the ‘heroes’ in teen lit romance, he doesn’t like to take no for an answer and fighting back against him is so difficult that it’s easier just to give in, or to resist passively and hope that he eventually goes away.  But neither Father Mark nor those heroes ever get bored of their target.

Olivia is initially ecstatic, which adds another layer of difficulty in questioning Father Mark’s motives: she loves this guy.  She’s read his novels, she idolizes him, and, at the outset, he is quite pleasant and charming.  He compliments her writing and offers to work personally with her on improving her winning entry.  She’s excited about this prospect and about the fact that, as a 17-year-old, she’ll be enrolled in his exclusive workshop next semester at the university (that being the contest prize).

However, excitement soon turns to unease, as Father Mark hounds her for more and more face time, demanding that she honor his requests above those of everyone else in her otherwise very normal and pleasant life–she has two best friends and a budding relationship with a guy who’s written as being truly nice.  While all of these people wonder a little bit at the time spent with Father Mark, it’s largely in a bemused and accepting way; again, he’s a celebrity, he’s a priest.  He’s helping her.  They don’t question it, and for a while neither does Olivia.

It’s important to note that this is a very short book–barely over 200 pages.  The first-person narration is taut and grows more tense with Olivia’s burgeoning anxiety as she realizes what kind of person Father Mark is and his true intentions towards her.  The scenes are mostly centered around either their direct interaction or, later on, her efforts to avoid that interaction, with a few scenes of her family and friends mixed in.  A particular scene in the later half of the book underscores her feelings of helplessness: Father Mark invites himself over to her house for dinner, and all of the other secondary characters are there, including her best bros and several nuns from her (surprise: Catholic) school.  Father Mark charms everyone at the dinner table while Olivia sits there, sick with dread and wanting him to leave.  The only person who notices her discomfort is one of the nuns, a character who was noted as not being too impressed with Father Mark from the get-go.  It’s this character that eventually encourages Olivia to speak the truth, but at this point in the story she’s just not ready yet.  The scene includes a discussion of the scandals that have plagued the Catholic church and everyone’s indignant agreement that their religion and its practitioners are unfairly maligned.

Several reviewers of this book wrote that they felt frustrated by Olivia’s perpetual inaction; by the fact that, until the end, she does basically nothing to preserve herself from Father Mark’s psychological abuse.  I admit I felt frustrated, too, but I also think this was the narrative’s intent: imagine sitting at a dinner table with your abuser while everyone you love praises him AND decries those who question his primary office of authority.  I don’t know about y’all, but I would feel pretty goddamned silenced, and I think that was the effect Freitas wanted to achieve.  She wanted the reader to feel Olivia’s helplessness and despair, and trust me, you do.  The prose is unsparing about Olivia’s mounting fear and disgust, all of which culminates with a scene in which she reads a story he’s written for her.

The book is interspersed with quotes from and allusions to letters written by Thomas Merton, an actual priest who lived in the 1960s and fell in love with a young girl that he was meant to be looking after.  A phrase from those letters is where the book got its title, and Father Mark uses the historical account as the basis for the story he asks Olivia to read.  Keep in mind that Olivia’s had this manuscript on her for a good number of pages and has been steadfastly ignoring Father Mark’s increasingly frenzied demands for feedback.  When she finally does work up the courage to pick up the thing, every horrible worry she’s had about Father Mark is confirmed–he’s cast her as a girl who loves a priest, and himself as the priest who loves her back, and the story functions as an implicit demand for her to acknowledge and reciprocate his feelings in real life.

Reading it is Olivia’s breaking point.  She calls together her best friends and the boy with whom she actually WANTS a relationship and shows them everything: not just the story, but also the mountains of letters he’s sent her over the relatively short course of their association.

Her friends are shocked, but the proof is undeniable, and their shock quickly turns to supportive anger on her behalf.  It’s not stated what actual consequences Father Mark suffers–the book’s last few pages focus on the start of Olivia’s regrouping, on her efforts to heal from this and move on, which I think is appropriate.  Father Mark’s punishment isn’t the point; the point is that he did something deserving of punishment and everyone needs to be aware of it.

I should note that this is most definitely not a book all about the corruption and evil of Catholicism.  It’s very obvious that the author is Catholic herself and that she doesn’t hold the faith responsible for the sins of its followers.  I think the discussion in the dinner scene was simply meant to further underscore the immense agency that Father Mark wielded over Olivia and over everyone else in that room.  If there’s a criticism there, it’s not to suggest that the Church is full of evil pedophiles, but rather to remind Catholics that vigilance rather than indignation is a better response to these accusations.  Furthermore, although this book is positively harrowing to read, it’s not explicit in any way.  Father Mark’s abuse is mental, which is, again, one of the hardest types of abuse to prove, even though it’s just as damaging, and it did make me think of the mind games that the male leads in stories like Twilight & Swoon & Wings and so forth play with the female protagonists.  Father Mark’s obsessive focus on Olivia–and his maudlin anger when she puts forth even a shade of resistance–has a very Edwardian quality, and I’m not talking about British history.

I feel like this is a book that teen girls, especially Twilight fans, need to read.  They need to read this and see the parallels.  Father Mark isn’t a supernaturally strong, murderous vampire; his power comes from perfectly earthly sources, which honestly makes the plot much more frightening than the average paranormal book.

That said, This Gorgeous Game isn’t perfect.  Any character who’s not Olivia is thinly realized, and that includes Father Mark, who functions more as an ominous, overbearing presence rather than a real person.  But, to me, this is another flaw common to teen lit, in that the male protagonists are often shallowly drawn–they do these creepy things, but there’s no substance as to why, there’s no psychology for their motivations, no explanation for their choices.  I didn’t have an understanding of why Father Mark was such a predator, either, but at least this book definitely cast him in the predatory role rather than trying to sell his behavior as the actions of a lovelorn prince.  I found myself forgiving the less developed aspects of the story due to its tight, breathless writing and the sincerity and strength of its message, which was ultimately this:

It is neither okay for a man to stalk a woman to distraction nor, MOST IMPORTANTLY, is it her fault.

Next on the docket: We return to the land of ridiculousness with Elixir, Hilary Duff’s depressingly soulless attempt at YA supernatural romance.

Rating: 3 coke cans.  It’s a quick, unsettling read, and one I NEVER WANT TO EXPERIENCE AGAIN.

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Review #2: Swoon, by Nina Malkin

the smoke is probably from marijuana

the smoke is probably from the weed everyone constantly tokes

Swoon, by Nina Malkin; Simon Pulse (the teen imprint of Simon & Schuster)

When my buddy space coyote suggested I take a look at this regrettable creation, I remembered that I actually had an ARC of it lying around in my car. Now, as I’m sure all you savvy folks know, an ARC is an Advanced Reader Copy, i.e., an often uncorrected proof that is nonetheless bound and looks pretty much like how the book will appear in stores (except, I’ve noticed, the back of an ARC tends to include details about the company’s promotion plans for the book.  This one apparently had quite a blitz when it was released last May, including a book trailer that I need to track down because those are always hilariously awful).  I’m telling you this because it’s possible that some of what I discuss here has improved in the final copy.

But I really doubt it.

Swoon starts off with a scene between the protagonist, Candice–called Dice–and her cousin, Penelope–called Pen–messing around near a tree where a hot, dangerous guy just happened to have been executed a couple hundred years earlier.  Yes, everybody in this book has ridiculous nicknames.  Even the town itself, for which the book is titled, goes by a nickname; Swoon is short for Swonowa, which only a keen-eyed falcon or someone who sadly read it multiple times (like me) would catch, since almost no one calls it that except, like, the local news station.  I have a feeling that Malkin only imposed the snappy nickname rule onto this town and its people because it lets her get away with calling the love interest/murderous asshole ‘Sin’ instead of ‘Sinclair’, which then allows for many wink-wink nudge-nudge references about what the protagonist and everyone else ever would like to do to him (sadly, beating the shit out of him and leaving him for dead is not on the list).   Malkin characterizes the town as a tightly-laced, whitebread, upper-crust Protestant community, squarely at odds with hip, edgy, Jewish New York transplant Candice.  I don’t have a problem with the fish-out-of-water angle here, though, and in fact the story of why Candice ever even came to this town is one of the only semi-interesting parts of the story, mostly because it’s only hinted at until the very last chapters.

Until then, the reader only knows that Candice’s parents left her in a well-appointed house and mostly to her own devices in the ‘burbs because Some Bad Shit went down back in NY and they want her to ‘recover’.  Of course (of course), Candice’s mother works for a high-powered magazine and her dad is an actor, so they’re largely absentee, except for a disturbing scene in which Candice’s mother and her friends try to go all cougar on Sin while bubbly-ing it up.

That doesn’t happen ’til Sin gets a body of his own, though, and for the first half of the book he’s contained within the body of Dice’s cousin, Pen.  Pen’s possession by Sin is the climax of the very first scene, and it’s something that semi-psychic Candice suspects, but doesn’t immediately confirm.  I can forgive this.  I can absolutely forgive not knowing what the fuck is going on and having no idea how to handle it.  Dice’s vision offers her a glimpse of what happened at that tree so long ago, but she doesn’t yet have enough information to reasonably assume that this dead guy’s spirit has leaped into her cousin’s body.

Thing is, when the truth of the matter becomes abundantly clear, Candice hems and haws and pretty much takes for fucking ever to do something to actually help Pen.  In fact, her choices work against Pen, because Candice’s vague psychic skills allow her to bring out Sin’s personality simply by touching her cousin.  In other words, she consciously and continually enables Sin’s possession of Pen for a significant part of the book, simply because she’s attracted to the way Pen behaves when Sin’s in control: lusty, carefree, elegant and cruel.

Let me just restate that very plainly so we all know what’s happening here.  Getting her rocks off by way of mysterious colonial boy is more important to Candice than the fact that said mysterious boy is literally mind-raping her cousin, controlling her cousin’s body, and having her cousin engage in acts that the narrative tells us she would never otherwise do.  For instance, an early scene depicts a group of characters hanging out in a lake.  Pen is flirting chastely with her crush, when all of a sudden Sin’s personality takes over and she takes it to the next level, diving under the waves for some watery oral.  But, you see, Sin’s special power is that his charisma affects everyone in his immediate vicinity, so pretty soon the whole lake is a writhing teen orgy.  Writhing orgies are a theme in this book.  They are, in fact, the main theme.

Candice feels the pull of Sin’s power, too, and so here you might say–well, Dice is under the influence.  That’s why she’s making the totally dickish and slightly sociopathic choice to aid and abet this creepy motherfucker instead of kicking him to the spiritual curb right away.  Because Sin’s not merely inciting harmless, sexy fun–Possessed-Pen comes up for air and keeps the boy’s head down, between her legs, and she almost fucking drowns him.

You see, folks, Sin is out for revenge.  He hates this whole town and everyone in it (it’s conveniently still entirely populated by the families that settled the area back in the day) because they wrongly convicted him for murdering his fiancee.  His brilliant revenge scheme, as the aforementioned scene suggests, is to whip up everyone into a Bacchanalian death-frenzy at any opportunity.  And here’s the kicker: even after Sin works his death-sex magic during a dance at the old folks’ home that results in a terrible fire which injures many and kills two, Dice is still in love with him.

The narrative spares very little sympathy for Pen.  Dice makes a few noises about how she feels badly for what’s going on and she does eventually realize that maybe she should probably exorcise Sin’s spirit from Pen’s body, but she doesn’t get to stepping on that until we’re almost 200 pages into this mess.  The whole character and situation of Pen depresses me more than anything, honestly; she hardly gets a chance to be whoever she’s supposed to be, as she’s possessed by page 10 and then continues to be Sin’s victim even after Candice does a ritual that makes him into a golem.  Sin sleeps with Pen right away, taking her virginity and then ignoring all her calls.  What was his purpose in this?  Why, to make her into a nymphomaniac by giving her the greatest orgasms of her life, ensuring that she would constantly chase even the DREAM of a Sin-given orgasm, thus making her an agent of both her own and the town’s destruction.  I wish I were writing with hyperbole here, but I’m not; there’s a passage where Pen explicitly states to Candice that her reckless sexual behavior is directly correlated to her experience, never to be repeated, with Sin.  How does Candice feel about the way Sin victimizes Pen, a girl who is described by the (first-person, mind you) narrative as ordinarily sweet, easy-going, demure and gentle?

Eh, she feels a little bad.  But not bad enough that she puts a rush on the whole spirit banishing thing.  Late in the story, matters are grave enough that Sin’s lust-and-craze-ifying powers indirectly induce Lainie, Pen’s mother, to literally go off the rails–she drives her car off of a bridge, on the way, we’re told, to the man with whom she’s having an affair.  The news prompts this from Dice:

“Lainie was a human being, someone I loved; she was tight-roping between life and death because of the boy who was my blunder.  This was Sin’s fault, and by extension mine, yet desperate as I was to put things right, it didn’t seem as though I was up to the challenge.” (294)

Nice words, bro (okay, actually, the words are extremely grating, but we’ll get to that in a minute), but where’s the action?  The truth is that Candice never makes a choice that isn’t completely self-interested.  She waited to exorcise Sin because his presence and personality, even as a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT, thrilled her.  She made him a golem’s body rather than banishing him outright because she wanted to keep him around, even though he is a MIND-RAPING, BODY-THIEVING SPIRIT.  She lets him use Pen as a plaything and she never honestly takes action against Sin until the time is personally right for her and her feelings.  Because it’s so hard.  Because she’s ~*so in love with him*~, for no legitimate reasons that I can discern.  He’s described as attractive, but other than that, there’s nothing going for this kid.  Malkin imbues his dialogue with formalized, old-fashioned charm (he refers to Dice as his ‘drowsy thrush’), but it’s clear from the reader’s perspective that this charm is sociopathic.  He turns it on to butter people up before tearing them down, and to keep Dice in particular in his thrall.

And you know what? Honestly, if Dice were depicted as a girl of weak will, as a person who through events in her life or just genetics happened to be susceptible to insane-yet-attractive ghost men, I … okay, I’d still be pissed off that she lets him get away with essentially torturing and raping her cousin for the entire book, but at least it would make a shred of sense.  But she’s not.  Malkin attempts to portray Dice as savvy, wise, even, and certainly far more aware of her surroundings than anyone else in Swoon.  Dice is not a fool.  She’s Seen Things, man.

But she is; she is completely a fool.  She lets Sin wreak havoc on the town, lets him pursue justice for a crime committed in literally another time period, and the narrative justifies this because apparently all of these characters are exactly like their ancestors.  The real culprit, for instance, is the ancestor of one of the fathers in the town, the white-trash, sleazy guy who bullies his wife into leaving him and treats his grown daughter (one of Dice and Pen’s friends, called Marsh) like a slave.  There are implications of worse abuse, as well, which is not surprising, given that Sin’s fiancee was raped and then murdered.  But that’s something else contradictory about this book: the real antagonist here is this father, both his past and present versions, but he’s a complete outsider to this town!  Marsh’s family is the poorest of the cast; her home is broken, her life is not cushy and soft.  She’s the real oddity, because even though Dice is all sassy New York up in your fussy New England ways, she’s still filthy fucking rich.

And yet, despite being just as spoiled and entitled as anyone in Swoon, Dice (and the text itself) drips with condescension for them.  After Lainie’s accident, Pen loses it, as one might expect.  She rails against her mother for betraying their family and then she rails against Sin, rightly blaming him for the current state of affairs.  She says that she loved him, and that she thought he loved her.  Sin coldly responds that she’s nothing more than a tool, that she is ‘insignificant’.  Pen slaps him, which is just about the SOLE REDEEMING MOMENT IN THE BOOK, except not really, because Dice should be up there wailing on him for talking like that to someone who is supposed to be her best goddamn friend!  In the lines that follow, Dice expresses yet more weak remorse over the state of things, saying that she ‘tried to do right by [Pen], keep her from harm’ (300).  Really?  REALLY.  And what part of letting Sin occupy Pen’s body at all once you knew what was happening falls into the category of ‘keeping her from harm’?  In what fucking universe is that okay? Oh, right, NONE OF THEM, except the fucked-up YA lit universe in which ALL THINGS ARE PERMISSIBLE IN PURSUIT OF A HOT BOY.

Ugh, just.  Fuck this book, seriously.  As if all the horrible themes and messages weren’t enough, Malkin’s writing ranks up there on the list of Most Annoying on the Goddamn Planet.  She tries to create an authentic ‘voice’ for Dice with lines about denuding sumptuous rides of genetic material (i.e., ‘getting out of the car’) and thudding prose that’s obsessed with alliteration to the point that reading the book for too long actually gave me a headache.  I do appreciate the effort to write lively prose–certainly there’s a lot of tactile description and a focus on the sensuality of a given scene (kind of necessary when half the book is about people boning each other), but the style is so fucking grating that it ultimately feels disingenuous and artificial.

So finally, finally, Candice decides she’s had enough.  She gives Sin a big speech about she’s let him ‘go over on this town because on a certain level [she’s] enjoyed it’ (378), how nice.  How nice that you think you’re so much better than the people who are currently looking after you, i.e. Pen’s family.  Look, I’m all about sticking it to The Man and Suburban America and everything, but I don’t think inducing death-orgies and ruining a perfectly nice girl’s life for revenge/entertainment is exactly the way to go.

Sin calls Dice out on her privilege in a counterpoint that feels hollow when it should be cutting, because his main argument is that she can’t win against him because she hasn’t ever lost anything.  But, ah, dear reader, this is not true, and so we are finally told why Dice was forced to come to this comfortable, safe and infuriatingly edge-free community–she and her best friend cooked up an ill-advised love potion full of rose petals, perfume and prescription drugs and at the end of the night only one of them woke up alive (hint: it wasn’t the best friend).

So, you see, Dice DOES have what it takes to banish Sin, despite the fact that she is, in fact, every bit as coddled and cared for as the average Swoon resident.  And she does, finally, banish him, though between Sin’s cutting take-down and the last ten pages, it’s revealed that he also loves her and that through his association with her he’s re-grown his soul or something.  Despite doing nothing but manipulating her and destroying the lives of everyone around her, I mean.

Dice sends him away and the ending is supposed to be melancholy and bittersweet, but, readers, all I felt was supreme relief that this offensively gooey pile of words masquerading as a legitimate novel was over.

One final thing: this book is really graphic.  There’s a scene of Sin spanking Dice into orgasm (in a corn maze, of all romantic places) and many other descriptions of gettin’ it on and doin’ drugs like cool kids do.  I’m not trying to pearl-clutch here, but I wouldn’t recommend it for younger teens.  Well, I wouldn’t recommend it for ANYONE, ever, but you know what I mean.

Next time, a book that’s actually worth the paper it was printed on, YAY!

Rating: One coke can.  Malkin skates around addressing the seriously problematic events of this book in her narrative and she does occasionally achieve a decent turn of phrase.  In the end, though, this book simply reinforces the common YA trope that hotness of a boy trumps whatever crimes he commits, and the protagonist’s willingness to let him do as he will–combined with her nails-on-chalkboard ‘voice’–make her shallow and unlikeable.

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Review #1: Wings, by Aprilynne Pike



Wings, by Aprilynne Pike; HarperTeen

I’m sure we’ve all noticed this, but it seems like every YA supernatural/fantasy book that’s been published within the past couple years or so shares a packaging design style with the Twilight series: single bright images (flowers or half a full-lipped face, or, in this instance, petals in water) surrounded by dark backgrounds.  The effect of this style is dramatic and attractive, but it’s gotten so rampant as to be cliche–I’ve even noticed that several publishers are rifling through their YA archives and repackaging old works in this style (c.f. the recently re-released works of L.J. Smith, who will probably show up here at some point).  But, while these books share design elements with Twifail, not many of them have the dubious honor of a blurb from that series’ author front and center on the cover.  I knew when I saw S. Meyer’s glowing praise on this book that I was in for a treat.  Which is to say, I knew I was going to hate it until I died.

Wings is about an orphan named Laurel (HAHA GET IT IT’S A FLOWERING PLANT … okay, I can’t rag on Pike for this too much; achingly appropriate names are a common fantasy trope and I’m certainly guilty of this offense), a young girl whose story begins after about a hundred pages of stilted, bland exposition and oblique references to the ‘reveal’ of the story (LOL SHE DRINKS SPRITE BECAUSE SHE’S A FAERY GUIZ).  For about the first third of the book, nothing out of the ordinary happens; Laurel moves to a new town with her mother and father and starts attending public school after having been home-schooled for most of her life.  However, there are clear cues throughout that Laurel is ‘different’ from her mundane peers: she doesn’t eat meat, she has flawless skin, she never washes her hair (yet it remains perfectly clean and buoyant); she’s essentially the living embodiment of a magazine ad, and the text even makes reference to the supermodel-level of her physical beauty.

If you’re sitting there and thinking, gee, this story places an awful lot of weight on appearance, then you’re starting to understand the seedlings (trying to keep with the plant theme here) of my rage.

Laurel meets and makes friends with a boy named David, who is, commendably, an actually nice guy, though–like every other character–a bit bland.  He’s faultlessly supportive, attractive, and intelligent, but I guess that’s better than the OTHER stereotype of YA fantasy fiction, Mr. Stalking Is Love.

Oh wait.  He’s here, too, in the form of Tamani, a mysterious boy that Laurel meets when she returns to her family’s old property for some alone time.  You see, just when Laurel feels like she’s starting to fit in, a giant flower sprouts out of her back and puts a real damper on her social life, especially because she at first thinks it’s a cancerous tumor.  Not that she would ever see a doctor about a possible tumor or anything; Pike has neatly avoided having to deal with the situation in a reasonable fashion by making Laurel’s adoptive parents into doctor-hating holistic healing hippies.

Tamani reveals what everyone with even a fraction of a working brain cell has already sussed out by now: Laurel, like him, is a fairy.  Her childhood home is on a plot of land that houses a gate to Avalon, the fairy realm, and that’s why she had to grow up among humans–so that she could protect it, and become its legal inheritor upon her adoptive parents’ death.  Except then they fucked it all up and moved, which has caused the fairies to flip out trying to befuddle everyone who comes to see the land in order to keep it from being sold.

Tamani adds that he’s been watching Laurel for basically her entire life AND that, though she doesn’t remember it, they were best bros before she was given over to live a human’s life.

Here’s my problem with Mr. Stalking is Love and his comrades: it’s not that I hate the character trait in and of itself.  I have no problem with the inclusion of creepy dudes in a story.  I love creepy dudes.  What I don’t love is how the narrator never acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that the stalking behaviors are problematic.  Tamani’s comments about watching her since she was taken in by her adoptive parents are coupled with narrative description that emphasizes his desire for Laurel, which to me is just a sparkling cocktail of creepy.  Laurel is thrilled and flattered, of course, and also seems pretty unfazed when she questions him about the glittery smears he left on her arm the next time she sees him and he responds that they are fairy jism.

I’m not making this up.  The story couches it as innocuous because Pike conceives of fairies as plants: female fairies ‘bloom’ (hence the back-flower) periodically, and when male fairies are in the presence of a blooming female, they produce pollen.  Which is to say they become aroused and ejaculate on her. You can put it any way you want, Pike, and it is still going to be skeevy, because that’s what’s going on.

And, again, it’s not these events in and of themselves that disturb me.  It’s that they go unexamined by the text.  Laurel is just kind of like ‘Oh, okay’ when Tamani explains his embarrassing glitter-jizz and the narration treats it as just a funny ha-ha, refusing to explore the weird and threatening sexual dimension that this male/female mechanic implies.

I’d like to tell you that Tamani is the story’s biggest problem, but he’s not.  Like Twilight, almost nothing of real import happens until the last forty-odd pages, which are crammed with incident and what passes for ‘action’ in Pike’s deathless, blunt-edged prose.  You see, the fairies have failed to befuddle the latest prospective buyer for Laurel’s old house, and the deal is almost set to go through.  This turns out to be a greater problem than anyone imagined: David and Laurel discover via some reckless investigating that the buyer is actually a troll, a.k.a. Public Enemy #1 to the fairy race.

The trolls are described as misshapen and ugly; reading their descriptions kind of reminded me of how warp-spasms are described in Irish epic poetry–eyeballs bulging, wrongly jointed limbs, etc.  One of the trolls is so grossly proportioned and so mentally frail that she’s referred to as little more than a dog, an image reinforced when Tamani shoots her dead later in the narrative.  Not that you’re meant to feel any pity for these guys or anything.  They’re uniformly evil, and their vile natures are directly related to their hideous exteriors.

The specific argument that Tamani puts forth is that trolls are evil because they’re asymmetrical.  Conversely, fairies are uniformly good because they’re symmetrical, and humans can go either way because we are sometimes symmetrical and sometimes not.  Yes, indeed, this world’s entire theory of moral character is based on whether or not you were born to look like a supermodel.  If that doesn’t inspire your gag reflex, then you and I are probably not going to get along.

This book’s underlying messages are even MORE insidious than Twilight’s.  The book DIRECTLY equates beauty with morality and ugliness with vice.  Trolls behave badly out of self-loathing for their deformed bodies and they cannot be reformed, no matter how hard the poor beautiful fairies try.  There is no gray area.  There are no characters who question or complicate this dictum.  Mix this absolutely reprehensible message with the already problematic situation of Tamani’s stalk-lust and you have a veritable cauldron of disquieting and downright offensive suggestions for teen girls.

Love the beautiful, for they are surely wholesome and kind.

Hate the ugly, for they surely mean you harm.

Submit to your boyfriend, because he only wants to protect you.


Rating: Half a Coke can.  The only thing that keeps this thing from dipping into the negatives is that the secondary female character isn’t portrayed as a heinous bitch–though she’s also barely there–and that ‘fairies as plants’ isn’t a terrible idea, just a terribly executed one.  By the way, I’d really like to meet the professional reviewers who complimented this writer’s prose.  I would like to meet them and I would like them to share with me their obviously prodigious drug stash.

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