Thursday, May 28, 2015

A Wicked Thing

Princess Aurora wakes up unexpectedly after over one hundred years of enchanted sleep as a result of the curse she was put under as a child by a malicious witch. Everyone keeps telling her how much more wonderful life will be for the people now that she's awake, but she just doesn't feel it. The boy who kissed her awake is nice, but she doesn't love him. The fictionalized version of her story where she brings magic back to the kingdom and lives happily ever after with her true love is widespread and rings so false to Aurora. She doesn't know what to do: keep being the royal family's pretty and useless pawn while the common people starve, join the resistance to overthrow the corrupt king, or something else entirely her own?

Right from the beginning, A Wicked Thing just sucks you in. How would you feel if you had been sleeping for a hundred years and some random boy invaded your room to kiss you? Suspicious and violated are my guesses and how I would feel. She has no idea how much time has passed and everyone she loved or even knew are now dead. The beginning of this book is perfect and illustrates how a real person would feel in a fairy tale situation. I was immediately on Aurora's side. Her struggle to make sense of this new world rings true and made me sympathize with her. Her parents practically smothered her growing up and her new family isn't much better, but only because of the strategic benefit of her presence and not because they actually like or care about her. She longs to be free and make her own decisions. Unlike the classic Sleeping Beauty, Aurora isn't a delicate flower of a heroine, waiting for her true love to save her. She's also not an action hero either. She's a conflicted girl mostly just trying to figure out what she really wants and what path will hurt the least amount of people. With no clear cut answers, she spends the majority of the book letting others push her around until things get really dire.

A few things annoyed me about the book. It's pretty slow moving and seemed like the goal was to stretch the plot to make a series rather than just have a good stand alone. Much of the book felt like marking time because it was the same situations: Aurora agonizing about her decisions, then people pushing her around, and Aurora allowing herself to be pushed around. There were way too many love interests and most of them weren't interesting. The majority of them wanted her for what she represented and power, but not because they actually liked her. The evil fairy who cursed her was also largely absent from the book and she's one of the few characters I find interesting. Although I generally liked the book, I'm not sure if I would read the sequel. The ending had a lot of action, but I'm not looking forward to another book were very little even happens.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Prudence "Rue" Akeldama doesn't have much to do in England. Lord Akeldama gives her a dirigible, which she paints like a ladybug and names the Spotted Custard, and charges her with the very important task of bringing new strain of tea from India back to England. Rue assembles a crew including her best friend and fashionista Prim, Prim's academic twin brother Percy, and rakish French engineer Quesnel to aid her in her quest. They encounter a wide variety of unforeseen problems and complications on the way that includes whole new races of shapeshifters, a kidnapped brigadier's wife, culture shock, an ages old rivalry, and, of course, tea.

Prudence is the first novel in the Custard Protocal series that leaps forward years after the last Parasol Protectorate book. The world looks a bit different with frivolous Ivy Tunstell as a vampire queen (and whose hideous preference in fashion actually matters) and the younger generation making their own trouble. The first quarter of the book describes the world and how it stands since the end of the previous series. At first, I thought the old characters seemed to be cartoony caricatures of themselves, but they are being viewed by Prudence who may very well see them that way. When Alexia and Maccon share a private moment seeing Prudence off when she leaves unexpectedly (to everyone else) early, it feels like the real characters again. The novel really takes off after Prudence and her crew leave for India. It's a new setting for the world and I thought the culture, flavor, and sights were well written.

Rue and her best friend Primrose Tunstell couldn't be more different. Rue is a firecracker as she has been since she was a child. She never really grew out of seeing the rules of polite society as frivolous and unnecessary, but she reigns herself in a bit more than as a child. Besides Rue's ability to borrow other supernaturals' abilities, she can also morph her personality to suit any given situation by taking traits from those she knows. I liked this because it's not supernatural; it's just a product of being observant and knowing what attitude is needed for the situation. Rue just has an infection exuberance for adventure and she's fun to read. As much as she seems to dismiss her mother, they have more in common than she's willing to admit. Primrose is easily dismissed as being as frivolous and annoying as her mother, but she is different. She has actually good taste in fashion and ensures everyone around her isn't a fashion disaster. She also is deft at manipulating situations within the bounds of polite society and resolving everything in a civilized fashion. Neither character is exactly like past characters or their parents and provide a breath of fresh air in this new series.

Prudence is a fun steampunk adventure with new characters. Some people thought the resolution of the book was problematic due to imperialism, which it is, but Prudence alone can't fix the problems of one country occupying another. I think she resolved the situation the best way she could have. Overall, Prudence is a worthy successor to Alexia and I can't wait to read more of her adventures.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Where They Found Her

Ridgedale, New Jersey is a quiet town until a dead newborn is found in the woods bordering the prestigious college. The whole town is sent reeling by the senseless tragedy. Speculation abounds, but no one seems to know anything about its origins. Molly Sanderson is a freelance journalist working for the Ridgedale Reader and recovering from a miscarriage and the depression that followed. She is unexpectedly is sent to cover the story and she's shocked at the discovery. The case obviously hits close to home and she is determined to find out who is responsible. Memories from her own tragedy resurface, but her determination doesn't waver. Her investigation will delve deeper than she expected into the town's past and unearth secrets thought to be long buried.

Where They Found Her is a well written and multilayered mystery. It's told from the point of view of three women: Molly Sanderson, the freelance journalist with a recent tragedy; Sandy Mendelson, a teenage high school drop out trying to cope with her drug addled mom; and Barbara Carlson, wife of the chief of police and busy body extraordinaire. All three of these women are fully realized with their own voices and points of view. Molly is trying to move forward from her depression by seeking justice for the dead, abandoned newborn. Her story is the most fleshed out with journal entries and transcripts from therapy sessions interspersed between chapters. She lets her personal feelings drive her and refuses to back away when others try to baby her or deter her. I admire her conviction and  rooted for her throughout the story. Sandy Mendelson is also very sympathetic. She dropped out of school to work so she and her mom could live. Her mom is an erratic and irresponsible drug user and alcoholic. It's sucks to live with her mom, but it's what she knows. Who knows how bad foster care would be. She works tirelessly to provide for her mom. I loved the reveal of her mom. She refers to her mom by her first name and they just seemed like roommates until she offhandedly called her mom. The revelation was shocking and put Sandy's life sharply into perspective: her mom's inappropriate sexual behavior, drug use, and irresponsibility with money. The two seemed the same age, showing Sandy's maturity and her mother's immaturity. I just wanted to shake Sandy and tell her to leave and never look back.

This brings us to Barbara. She's the parent I would hate to encounter. She puts a crazy amount of pressure on her kids to be perfect and doesn't care that they are both close to cracking. Quick to criticize others and put everyone else under great scrutiny, she is super offended if anyone suggests she's doing anything wrong. When her son starts acting uncharacteristically violent, she was quick to blame another mom. Then she brought him in to a therapist and she didn't want to listen to him. Her own preconceived notion of what happened had to be the truth no matter what anyone else told her. It was interesting to see into her head and witness her fall from what she thought was above everyone else. The revelations at the end of the novel directly affected her in surprising ways. Long buried secrets reemerged and just shows that even if something is decades in the past, you can never truly be safe from it. If things had been dealt with back then, a lot of lives could have been a lot better.

Where They Found Her is an engrossing mystery that had me constantly reevaluating my predictions and ended up surprising me. My only criticism is some of the red herrings where so obvious that they didn't even seem worth mentioning. Other than that, I greatly enjoyed the novel. I'm a sucker for a small town with lots of secrets. I would definitely read Kimberly McCreight's next book.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

Monday, May 11, 2015

Penny Dreadful: Season 1

With the second season of the Victorian gothic show Penny Dreadful, I wanted to write a bit on how the first season fared. It's a bit of a mixed bag.

The Good

Victor Frankenstein and his monster

I am always interested in a good retelling of the Frankenstein story. This one starts with an amazing fakeout. The creature seems childlike and good and completely the opposite of the story until the real monster (who aptly calls himself Caliban) rips it apart. Then he starts making demands and such like the regular story. I like that the show seems to say "Yeah, we read the book too." to the viewer and plays with their expectations in cool ways. Both characters are sympathetic and you can see both of their perspectives. Caliban taking residence in a theater is pure gold and presented so many humanizing moments.

Dorian Gray

I initially thought he was a bland character with his aloof and bored attitude at his own sex parties, but he turned out to be very interesting. His conversations with Vanessa are always fun to watch. He takes everything in a reserved manner despite his extreme lifestyle. It was also surprising that his sexual appetites weren't completely heterosexual. Many cable channel shows seem to purposefully stay away from male/male relationships so as to not offend the audience with male nudity while at the same time adding in female nudity at every turn. It's nice to see at least one show not totally focused on the heterosexual male audience.

Vanessa Ives

Vanessa is the most magnetic character in the show. Her attitude is delightfully contradictory. She is severe and totally in control most of the time and then she becomes volatile and dangerous when possessed. Her inner demons put all she has at risk. Arguably the most powerful person on the show, she is clairvoyant, reads cards and tea leaves, and can act as a medium for spirits. I had high hopes for her origin and expected a Jekyll and Hyde adaption, but I turned out to be very disappointed.

The Bad

The Finale

So much set up and NOTHING HAPPENED. If the show was cancelled, nothing would be resolved at all. Vanessa isn't quite cured; Brona is about to be Caliban's bride; and Ethan just werewolfed out on a whole bunch of people with who knows what consequences. The only thing really resolved was the whole Mina/Master Vampire story line.

The Treatment of Vanessa

As I said, Vanessa is my favorite character, but her origin story is awful. She witnessed infidelity as a child, so she "embraced her darkness" and had sex with her sister's betrothed as a teen the day before their wedding. So Vanessa is blamed entirely for the incident and the families never speak after that. It does make sense with the time period, but it put a bad taste in my mouth. Later, she goes insane because of demonic possession (why? probably because of her evil vagina). Then she accepts help form a demon and has sex with it to make her vagina even more evil than it already was. When she finally has the opportunity to have a nice, consensual relationship with Dorian Gray, her evil vagina says no and it's too risky because she would open herself to being possessed again. Why can't she just be happy? Dorian and Vanessa are my favorite relationship on the show and the writers seem very intent on making her miserable and alone in a misogynistic manner. Dorian is kind of evil and can have all the sex we wants with whoever. Vanessa is slut shamed because of the time period and can't even have a semi normal and healthy relationship with someone she actually likes. She only gets gross demon sex because she basically still being punished for a youthful transgression.

So, while the first season isn't perfect, Penny Dreadful is a different show that features classic gothic horror in new ways. I hope this season is a little less hateful on Vanessa and actually resolves some of the plotlines. I'm intrigued by the Elizabeth Bathory character and if Caliban will finally have a mate. We'll see.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Darkest Part of the Forest

Hazel and Ben Evans live in Fairfold, an odd town that lies adjacent to a magical forest. This forest is populated with faeries and supernatural monsters that usually lurk around the corners of human civilization. Chance encounters happen sometimes usually resulting in a person's good luck or death. Hazel and Ben embraced the magical danger as children as they teamed up to battle the monster as a knight and a bard. They also both made up stories about the horned boy in the glass casket in the woods. Nothing awakens him and nothing can even scratch the glass, so he lays there year after year. When Hazel and Ben have quit their adventuring and they view such things as childhood fantasy, the horned boy escapes from his glass prison. Hazel's whole world is turned upside down as she discovers those forgotten or rationalized memories of fighting magical creatures are shockingly real. Can she remember enough of her past to be able to fight in the present?

I've been a huge fan of Holly Black since reading White Cat and she has yet to disappoint me. The story immediately drew me in with the town that is both aware and in denial about the supernatural creatures and forces influencing the town in the periphery. I am a sucker for this concept. It brings to mind Sunnydale from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and New South Bend from Brenna Yovanoff's Fiendish. All of these works have a magnetic quality where the townspeople experience all this craziness, but rationalize it with normal causes. When confronted with the unbelievable reality, they tend to lash out and then go back to their comfortable, normal reality as soon as possible. Growing up in such a forest definitely affects the young people in the area while the adults seem pretty oblivious, only brought out of it by tragedy. The teens in the area are surprisingly normal despite the things they've experienced.

Hazel and Ben are pretty normal. Hazel gets herself into trouble by kissing boy after boy and living life to the fullest despite the consequences. Ben is the angsty artists type because was blessed/cursed by a faerie as a baby to have an exceptional musical talent and feels great guilt over how he has let it get out of control in the past. They are so similar in other ways. Both are boy crazy in their own way and want to find lasting love.  Both of them love each other fiercely, but also try to keep huge secrets to protect the other when it does the exact opposite. I loved reading these characters and their mistakes and blunders powered by their love. I forgave all of their sometimes frustrating mistakes because it came from a good place and they were only doing their best. I especially liked the way Ben was treated. His sexual orientation just was; no explanation or special treatment needed. No one in his life treated him any differently. The other character I loved was Jack, a changeling child all grown up and raised as human alongside the human boy he was meant to replace. The concept alone is amazing and one I haven't seen. Jack acts as the bridge between the two worlds and can't decide which one he belongs in. He has significant ties to both sides and either choice would be a betrayal.

The book is organized in an odd way. The plot isn't really solidified until much later than expected in the novel. The beginning is just establishing the world and exploring into the lives of the main characters. The plot moves forward and then there's intermittent flashbacks to show why characters are the way they are or background on what's presently happening. If you hate stories jumping around, this wouldn't be for you, but I enjoyed it. Things became clear the more the flashbacks happened and it just shows Holly Black's writing skill. The revelations are doled out carefully and bring clarity to the story. I really enjoyed the journey and exploration through Holly Black's unique world. I hope another book is in the works in the same world (because I would be all over it), but it works very well as a stand alone novel. It's one of the best reads of the year so far.

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins