Category Archives: romance

The Duke’s Tattoo by Miranda Davis

Well, that was completely adorable. I don’t even mean that in the bitchy way I often mean adorable either. 

The Duke of Ainsworth wakes up one morning after getting rolled by persons unknown with an embarrassing tattoo on his naughty bits. Maybe I don’t even need to write the rest of this review, because that set up is the most hilariously awesome thing to happen to the oft-boring, half-assedly historical genre of the Regency romance since…I don’t know what since. It is a great set up though, and it is not squandered, having set a tone of rank silliness cut with a winking genre sensibility that totally worked for me. 

The Larch:running gag since October 1969

I imagine that if you go in looking for some super historical jibber-jabber about Regency mores and the like, you will be disappointed. Really, though, very few are reading Regency romance for the articles, if you catch my drift, and Davis justifies the far-fetched stuff in a cromulent manner. Prudence, the young woman responsible for the rolling of our titular Duke, is a sensible, modern sort of girl, working as an apothecary in Bath after being shut out of polite society due to the Duke of Ainsworth and her dick of a brother. But, whoops, it was not this Duke of Ainsworth, but his brother. Sorry about the confusion, and about your colorful peen. 

I really enjoyed the interactions between the duke and Prudence, especially in the beginning when it was all grudge match and everyone not knowing that what everyone else knew. Davis manages a prose tone that cuts a middle distance between sounding too modern and sounding too mothballed, and, frankly, I’m jealous of her working vocabulary. I don’t think I’m a slouch on the vocab quiz, and she sent me to the dictionary a couple times. (And not in a shitty, I’m-using-a-thesaurus way either.) A lot of the situations were – how do I put this – pretty stock things that happen in ur Regency romance novel (like the sleeping in the same bed non-sexually trope, which is such an oddment to me) but I thought she pulled them off with grace. The subtle invocation of the duke’s PTSD – he was an infantryman in the Napoleonic wars – made the whole insomnia thing more sensible. 

The third act goes on way too damn long, in a way that made me want to give everyone a wedgie, but especially Prudence. That’s not really unusual though, and the third act avoids much of the descent into sentiment or treacle one finds in many (if not most) romantic comedies. I can’t say I’m surprised by it, given how often it happens, but the way raunch comedies often end in these just weltering affirmations of crushing domesticity still puzzle me (e.g. just about every movie by Adam Sandler, not including Punch-Drunk Love.) Not that The Duke’s Tattoo does this, except in the most expected of ways. I mean, a comedy, a romance, by definition ends with an HEA (or, at the very least, a HFN: happy for now) so I don’t even know what I’m complaining about, or if I’m even complaining.

Maybe it’s just this: like many romance novels, I can imagine profoundly different, and slightly to wholly tragic conclusions to the action – Prudence knocked up in Italy, raising her daughter as a “ward”, or worse; the worse is easy – which may be the point of the whole romance/comedy thing. The old saw goes that comedy happens to other people, while tragedy is personal. The romantic comedy cuts these two things together in a way that rarely works, but it mostly worked here. W00t. 

Tethered by Meljean Brook: An Epistolary Review

Dearest Elizabeth,

I was thinking just yesterday of all the fun times we’ve shared, but especially how many letters I’ve sent you detailing my courtship with my amazing and perfect husband. Of course, not everything was amazing and perfect at first, as I’m sure you can recall. He’s an artist, of all things, and I just can’t abide all that girly drawing. I mean, I work in a male dominated profession, and it’s extremely threatening to me to have a guy hanging around questioning my authority with his feelings and stuff; how will my painting crew ever take me seriously? Certainly years of experience mean nothing when a woman in authority has an artsy boyfriend. I mean, the man uses product. Srsly.

So, Richard and I were hanging around, communing wordlessly using our eyes the way we do, when the most terrible thing happened! The set up is a little confusing, and in truth, even though it just happened I can’t really track the details, but the upshot is this: a college friend of his looked him up on facebook, and then after all the friend requests were sent and accepted, the college friend totally hacked Richard’s account and started posting all this bad stuff! He liked both Nickelback and Justin Bieber using Richard’s account! Who even does that?

Now, you know that Richard is an artist, but he’s also an 3133t h4xor, which, I might point out, is totally gender normative so I don’t even know why I was being so weird about the art thing. Anyhoo, He totally spray-painted some keyboards with camo like in the movie Hackers, and we were ready to roll with our boss plans to rehack the account and give the college douchebag some well earned comeuppance.

the hackers in the movie hackers huddled around a computer screen

Now, at this point in the letter, I believe it is customary actually to detail all the awesome ways we defeated the college douchebag, up to and including fun evil monologuing from the bad guy, but really we just kicked him into the ship’s engine and totally won using our wordless eye-gazing powers. And we didn’t kick him into the engine in a cool way, like when Malcolm Reynolds does it to that one dude after they’ve messed up the train heist for Nisca, but in a way that blows the narrative tension in our big rehacking takedown mission. Also, the bad guy lived on this really sweet sounding dystopian community, but I’m not going to tell you about that either. I’m going to tell you more about my eye-gazing superpowers and how me and Richard really love giving each other matching guns. Actually, he got an air-rifle this weekend and we had a really good time shooting at pop cans, and then we had some mildly kinky sex because I’ve got some real issues with male authority so that means that [letter redacted at this point].

[Still redacted]

[Still redacted]

Phew, that was hot, amirite? I mean, who doesn’t want to hear about how Richard and I have a love that is more love-like than any love that has ever loved before? And how our relationship is such a vortex of perfection that you can literally kick a bad guy into it and kill him? Or possibly I mean figuratively. Words were never my strong suit, and certainly now that I’ve got all this wordless eye-gazing going on, I’m out of practice.

So we launched all zig, we saved the princess, and then we deleted all reference to Two and a Half Men from Richard’s facebook page. Then we went upstairs and [still redacted].

Thanks for being such a great friend. I’m really hoping my next letter, which will be about Richard’s amazing sister, will be much more enjoyable.

Ink by Amanda Sun

 Ink by Amanda Sun has a cool set up: people with the power to make drawings – even calligraphy – come to life, and an unusual setting: modern Japan, with a mostly Japanese cast. Though the main character is a gaijin, all of the other important characters (discounting her aunt, who isn’t hugely important) are Japanese teenagers in a local school. Katie Greene has moved to Japan to live with an aunt after the death of her mother, and is just a couple of months into her time there. Her spoken Japanese isn’t great, though passable, and her kanji is bad. (Which is not a criticism; kanji is hard.)(And, I just quizzed a friend about living in Japan, and about the writing systems more generally, and I’m feeling pretty impressed about how difficult they are to master.) 

I admit I was a little worried about this set up, because while the whole fish-out-of-water, new-girl-at-school trope can be a nice metaphor for more general teenage alienation (e.g. Twilight) or the dislocation of grief (e.g. Mac’s relocation to Ireland at the start of the Fever series after the death of her sister), sometimes this trope can fall into the whole exoticized other thing that’s either lazy at best, or racist at worst. I don’t actually have the background in modern Japanese teen culture to back up this statement, but I felt like Inkavoided this trap, and the Japanese cultural milieu wasn’t played as backdrop or stage-set. The depictions of the city and school systems were matter-of-fact and not romanticized, but with the short bursts of wonder, like the sequence with the cherry blossoms – beautiful! – that runs to a rainstorm and rotting petals in clumps. Foreign cities are sometimes really irritating for the new resident – I can’t read anything - but then they knock you down at the odd moment with their civic power. This book captured that well. 

Katie is occasionally too quickly cognizant of when she makes a misstep – oh no, I just used the familiar, not the formal! or whatever – when I think the slightly later dawning horror of screwing up in an unfamiliar social system might have worked better overall. While the mystery of the magical drawings starts with a pretty tense situation – Katie is eavesdropping on an ugly break-up, by accident – that tension runs out pretty fast into the usual bad boy with a heart of gold and couple other dudes for a triangle-ish situation. Her friends get sidelined equally quickly, going from lifelines to bit characters and plot-expedience-devices. The aunt also exits stage right for the most part. The plot dissolves into a lot of prêt-à-porter angst, never really harnessing the real traumas of Katie’s backstory, and the magic ends up being a little dumb and convenient. 

Which is frankly a crying shame. There was potential here for the magical ink to function as a grief mechanism, a dangerous and seductive escapism into the built-worlds of our desires, and Katie’s attraction to the bad boy could have been an expression of grief-fueled anger, the self-destructive grief tendency made manifest. But, nope. Katie is milquetoast and often drearily stupid, and her love interest’s vacillation between being a douche-bag and dreamy are obnoxiously obvious. Why is he pushing me awaaaaaay? Is it because of his feeeeeeelings? You think? Jesus. Katie should have just gone and made out with Tanaka, because he was funny and straight up. Jun and Tomo can take their angst and stuff it. 

Which, I’ll admit, is my old talking here, and might not be a cogent criticism of a YA novel published by Harlequin Teen. But I’ve been schooled enough in both romance and YA to know that very interesting things can happen in those genres, especially when the dissociation of the paranormal is thrown into the mix. Especially when potent metaphors for the aliveness of writing is the basis. That this ended up being perfunctory and cliche is disappointing – yet another average-yet-special girl must choose between assholes – but it might not actually be surprising, all told, and at least it has a setting that I enjoyed.


from Amanda Sun’s blog



Oh, and one last thing: I received this as an ebook from NetGalley – thank you! – and I was initially confused by the little drawings at the corners of the pages. The first third has these little petals in various formations, and then later a bird, etc. There are also larger pen drawings, usually illustrations of what the various characters were drawing. I did enjoy the full illustrations, which had a drippy, sketchy quality that was in line with the tone. I was perplexed by the smaller drawings – the petals, for example – which didn’t seem to correlate to scene breaks. It wasn’t until halfway through the bird drawings that I realized these must be planned as a flip-book, which is really cool design, one that works beautifully with the themes of the book. Good design that is totally lost in the ebook format. I have embraced ebooks – partially out of necessity, and partially out of expedience – but it behooves publishers to translate this paper-bound stuff to the electronic medium a little better. A YouTube video, an app: something should be linked at the end so we can experience this piece of the book that is just straight up nifty. Alas. 

The Best Man by Kristan Higgins

The Best Man was an idle Netgalley request which I read also idly, over the course of some time. Probably not the best way to read such a thing. The set up and a lot of the characters are very romantic-comedy broad: Faith was left at the altar years before by a dream boyfriend, Jeremy – high school football star, dreamy, caring – when he was outed as gay by his best friend, Levi – wrong side of the tracks, taciturn. She returns home to her screwball small town to keep her dad from marrying a “gold-digger”, which gives her the opportunity to work out her past with the gay ex-fiance and the meddling best man.

Her relationships with the former fiance, now a dreamboat doctor, and the best man, now an honorable sheriff, are the best parts of the book, but especially the former fiance. These three have history and weight behind their relationships, and it was really nice to see the process by which Faith forgave and came to terms with Jeremy. She and Jeremy have the sweetest relationship in the book. Levi was a little too much in the mold of Sam Shepard in Baby Boom, and I bridle at folksy small-town stuff. That’s really a matter of taste though.

The larger cast of characters was less awesome. There are some squabbling grandparents who I think are supposed to be funny in their bickering, but they genuinely seemed to hate each other and had wasted their lives being stuck with one another. That was depressing. Much of the comic stuff fell flat for me, like a series of first dates that ranged from dumb to offensive. Don’t use trans people as a punchline. The gold-digging girlfriend was ridiculous, and the panic about widowed parents beginning to date again was directed in the wrong directions.

So, a fine little bit of frothy small town rom-com with some sweet moments and some really terrible ones.

Eleanor & Park: Alternate Histories

I kind of wanted to jump out of my skin the whole time reading Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – which I did in a single, compulsive sitting – because Eleanor is one of my best friends growing up. One of my best friends now, really, but I knew her back in 1986 too. There are differences. Amy wasn’t nearly as withdrawn, and got into a lot more fights. I don’t think she would ever voluntarily listen to the Smiths either – hair metal was much more the thing – but the fundamentals are all there: the home life, the poverty, the complete and total sense of being stuck and stuck forever. She had big sweaters and a lot of hair and mistrust, and pretty much everyone she knew had earned that mistrust twice. And then a third time, because that was the charm. So many of the details of Eleanor, just little things, made my throat strangle because I knew exactly what they meant, what they were covering for, even if Eleanor herself didn’t. Oh Lord. 

Which is funny, because tonally, this story is a little dopey. I don’t mean that dismissively, more with affection towards my younger self. Eleanor is the new kid in an Omaha high school, and on the first ugly day on the bus, she ends up sitting next to Park. Park’s not an outcast exactly. He’s from the neighborhood, and has those weird, long relationships that neighborhood kids have with even the popular jerks. (When my bff Alicia got into a fight with Olivia, another neighborhood girl, Olivia pulled some dirty shit on me later. But I knew Olivia’s house and her mom, and we’d hang out occasionally if no one else was on the street. Because it’s neighborhood, you know? It’s not like you’re getting out until you figure out how to use the bus system, and even then.) But Park’s mom’s Korean, so even though he’s neighborhood, and his dad is neighborhood, and his grandparents are neighborhood, people look at him and see the only Asian kid for miles. “That’s not even the right kind of racist,” Park deadpans when his friend says something stupid. 

Eleanor and Park fall into a strange, wordless courtship (sorry, hugely dorky word choice there) predicated on comics and mix tapes and never looking each other in the eye. I know, gag. Double gag. But it totally works, because Rowell knows how weird you are, and what a spaz, and how it’s all so embarrassing you’re going to die. How you think that everyone can see that your brain is absolutely covered in ants. And she knows how to write a hand-holding scene that makes me want to freak out. There was this one time, sitting in this boy’s car, where I knew if he didn’t kiss me I was going to die. I was also going to die if he kissed me, and then he did, and the ants escaped my brain and ran all over my skin. Shee-it. 

The middle of Eleanor & Park goes a little slack, I think because the book has an almost claustrophobic focus on the two of them. It’s not that the supporting cast is weak – I think Rowell can pull off some very concise character work when she does it – but, as I said, the focus is pretty tight. I can dig why in some ways – the novel is called Eleanor & Park, and the claustrophobia mirrors the ant-covered feelings of young love – but I think it weakens the motivations. Eleanor’s siblings could be better fleshed out, especially the brother closest to her age. They would have had more of a thing, I think. Her school friends also don’t factor like they should. Also, if you hate eye-gazing and romantic love, you should probably steer clear of this novel. Both those things make me itch, but I didn’t mind them here, fwiw. 

Two things: I don’t know if I would have loved this story if I didn’t love an Eleanor, and if I hadn’t been a kiddo in the late 80s. I don’t know if any of this 80s stuff would figure to someone born in 1986. (Who would be the young adult in the target audience, if my math isn’t disastrous.) Which is not to say that Rowell lays on the 80s with a trowel, not like a lot of half-assed fictions which use referents in lieu of character (cf.The Wedding Singer, et al.) Even then, I don’t know that this difference between the Smiths and Sex Pistols (who Eleanor hates) would mean anything at all. My musical understandings of the era are completely weak – I recently, embarrassingly identified the Guns N Roses album “Appetite for Destruction” as “Welcome to the Jungle” (I know, right?) – but I had enough cousins, ex-boyfriends, older brothers and ambient whatever to know precisely what that all meant, even if I’m shit for titles.

But I did have an Eleanor, and even a Park less so. I had a mid-80s upbringing in a Midwestern town with the same stupid racial and class divisions, with the same stupid neighborhood ins-and-outs. I totally get Eleanor and Park and everyone they know. As a first novel, I don’t think that Rowell is speaking to anything but the choir though; she isn’t explaining the neighborhood lingo to the outsiders. Which is fine in some ways: fuck you assholes for not getting it. But it narrows the audience for sure, and I want to gesture to other book by Ms Rowell, Attachments, which runs this Midwestern claustrophobia with more adroitness and expansion. 

My Eleanor did not have her story work out like this Eleanor at all. My Amy’s young life was hard and unsparing and cruel. So it both hurt and staunched the wound a bit to see an Eleanor find someone like Park. It was like watching an alternate history, one where the neighborhood wasn’t a barrel of crabs who would drag you under just because they were drowning as well. I kind of want to send a carefully folded letter to Ms Rowell (can I call you Rainbow?) with a sloppy, earnest entreaty for her to be my friend? Check this box. Please. I am in love with her for giving my Eleanor a Park. Maybe it’s hopelessly romantic, but it’s absolutely the sweetest thing, and I thank her for it with all my heart. <3

Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances

I went up to the cabin with the best of intentions: a backpack full of books and the will to read them. But, what ended up happening was playing Munchkin, chatting about the local land scandal, and making and eating a lot of food. A very wonderful week, all told, despite the godamn half foot of snow that fell quite prettily down on all and sundry in freaking April, but not a week in which I clapped eyes on much reading. When I did eventually sit down to read, I did hack a bit on my assigned reading, but mostly I slunk off to Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances.

Short stories do much better as distracted reading, and Corsets & Clockwork was the only short story collection in the backpack. I had grabbed it in a mad library rush, but also because I’ve been arguing with the hubby about the state of steampunk these days. I don’t think I’d care much about the genre in a vacuum, but my man has a huge chubby for the entire concept. He doesn’t read so much these days, but I do, so I keep reading and reporting back. I see a decided shift in steampunk towards more romantic sensibilities, which is an interesting shift from the early days of very dudey stuff like Alan Moore and William Gibson. Some of this I think is sartorial: steampunk is very much about how things look, and about ornamenting fetish objects. (Done well, I think it’s also about punk-history, but not everything is done well.) Which is not to say that the sartorial is always feminine, just that romance, as a genre, deals with the body in a way that many genres do not. The clothes make the genre.

Given that Corsets & Clockwork: 13 Steampunk Romances has the romance thing right in its title, it’s not a huge surprise that this collection felt sub-par to me. I’m not trashing romance here, but short form romances can be extremely weak: setting up and knocking down lovers and their cheesy impediments without a lot of thought towards form or function. There’s a reason it’s usually a romance novel, and that reason is that short stories (I think) by their very natures require a concision of characterization and/or a third act snap that romances either a) don’t require or b) actively eschew on a genre level. Sing it with me: not that there is anything wrong with this. After scanning over some reviews, I see that my feelings are out of step with people who are reading these stories as romances. Fair warning, I guess, and if you’re a romance reader primarily, just take everything I say and reverse it. See how even cranks can be helpful? I live to serve.

“Rude Mechanicals” by Lesley Livingston. Despite some goofy names that made me wince – Agamemnon, Quint, Kingfisher for crying out loud - the story of a mechanical girl who acts as Juliet in a shabby Shakespearean troupe to both comic and tragic ends made me smile. Romeo and Juliet is often disastrously misinterpreted, as far as I can tell, run in such a way that those teenaged idiots are somehow noble, when what they are is irrational in a completely different way from their irrational parents. Nobody gets to win, even posthumously, because there is no posthumous win. Anyway, my cranking aside, this was funny and clever and hit who can separate the dancer from the dance in a way I appreciated.

“The Cannibal Fiend of Rotherhithe” by Frewin Jones. This story is where I’m most out of step with other readers, because I hit several reviews that called this one bad, and I would absolutely, without a doubt call it the stand-out of the collection. Frankly, if I hadn’t hit something this bloody weird this early in my reading, I may not have even finished the collection. Beautifully sly narrative voice, fairy tale echoes which are Grimm not Disney, and a half-footed nearly incomplete ending that says more with a gesture than a statement. A rough, horrible fisherman on the Scottish coast captures a mermaid in his nets. The narrator demures as to logistics – one of the many times when the narrator points out something awful and then lets you try to sort it out, horribly – but the fisherman gets the mermaid with child. She dies in childbirth and is discarded, leaving the fisherman to raise a girl with sticky skin and shark’s teeth. She’s a monster with a monstrous upbringing, and her brutal reactions to the brutal world out there – the one that pretends not to smile with shark’s teeth – are raw and ugly and perfect. Even monsters deserve love, even while both the monster and the love are terrifying. I would absolutely seek out more of this writer’s work, in a heartbeat.

“Wild Magic” by Ann Aguirre. Fine, I guess, but somewhat perfunctory, ending in and some day I shall be the queen of all I survey! in a way that makes me tired. A young girl who is the daughter of the ruling class, but, like, gifted with magical powers which are frowned upon – yawn – falls in love with Oliver Twist, even though he might, like, have an agenda. Felt like a preface to a larger work, ending just as the actual conflicts might begin, and in that way, is something of a failure as a short fiction. Not bad, but not interesting.

“Deadwood” by Michael Scott. I liked this up until the ending, which has one of those last minute reveals where the main characters turn out to be actual, historical figures. I’m not even kidding when I say I rolled my eyes and humphed when the main characters introduced themselves with their real names – oh my god, that was the worst. All I’m saying is that you have a short story named the same as this show:

then you should try a little fucking harder, cocksucker. I get that Deadwood is an actual historical place, and that David Milch did not invent it, but this Deadwood is nowhere near as interesting as either the historical Deadwood or the HBO series. That said, before the humphing and eye-rolling – seriously, why the fuck would [redacted] and [redacted] ever be hanging out together? let alone smooching? – the whole post-Civil War company town thing was workable, and the characterizations fun. There are many a fiction I wish ended earlier than they did, and this gets to be one. Ta da!

“Code of Blood” by Dru Pagliassotti. I skipped this one after a couple of pages. I know my track record with stories of the ingenue daughters of the ruling class and their tired rebellions via fucking the staff. (See, for example, “Wild Magic”, above.)

“The Clockwork Corset” by Adrienne Kress. Yet another daughter of the ruling class fucking the staff, but I was charmed by said aristocratic daughter joining the army and trying to pass as a boy for much of the proceedings. The passing-as-a-boy trope is an odd thing in fiction, usually requiring the girl to be both more and less dumb than she is. The ending here is…maybe not unsatisfying, but it doesn’t make work of all the potentials.

“The Airship Gemini” by Jaclyn Dolamore. Fascinating premise in a locked room environment which needs to be a longer fiction. “The Airship Gemini” doesn’t exactly work – there are too many lacunae – but I so seriously want it to, and the ways it doesn’t work are still compelling. A set of conjoined twins, just regular physical freaks – work as a show on a dirigible for magical folk – vampires, werewolves, etc – because freak is freak, but not all freak is the same. A self-serving doctor seeks to separate the girls, throwing the girls into crisis. I loved that the girls have no interest in separation – their connection is fact not deformity – and I loved their relationship with The Lizard Man. I thought the crisis and denouement was confused, but there’s a lot of here here.

“Under Amber Skies” by Maria V. Snyder. I actively hated this story. Set in a steampunky Poland just after the Nazi occupation, it managed to get high and mighty about resisting the Nazis because resisting Nazis might interfere with the romantic bullshit of some teenage girl. Zosia’s father is a mad scientist who has been building farm equipment & kitchen implements when the Nazis take over. Everyone assumes he’s begun making war machines for Poland to be used in the war effort, but he’s been missing for a couple months. Then Nazis try to take Zosia in for questioning. She escapes, and then the story turns into how Zosia’s Polish nationalist mother is evil, and Zosia’s dad would never make war machines despite the fact that we’re dealing with actual Nazis here, and apparently resisting Nazis is evil because war is bad and everyone should be a lover and not a fighter and war is wrong double plus times.

What the actual fuck? I am of the opinion that most writers should avoid Nazis in their fiction unless they are willing and able to take on the most Godwin of all genocides, but here it’s an actual disaster. I get how love is dreamy and wonderful and all, but this kind of judgmental bullshit about how resisting Nazis is wrong because of love, man makes me want to die. This story is stupid and childish and takes the easy way out in situations which are forever and decidedly less than easy. Uuuurrrgh.

“King of the Greenlight City” by Tessa Gratton. Starts out in a very traditional romance vein, where the principles meet cute and discover their magical powers and whatnot, and then builds to a third act OMIGOD which is pretty freaking hilariously subversive. We two are as one…ahahahaha. Sad. :(

“The Emperor’s Man” by Tiffany Trent. Yet another daughter of the ruling class banging the help – someone who actually has an academic placement should write a paper about this phenomenon – but better than my dismissive opening would imply. This is one of those coded histories, with a transported London in a magical setting. I feel like with a lot of these stories there is way too much going on in the weird department. Mixing werewolves, manticores, hard science, alternate history, and clockwork is way, way too much in a story 60 pages long or less, but this was cute and it functioned as a story. The only thing that made me itch was the way science was equated with mysticism. Just because something is an epistemology, does not mean all epistemologies are equivalent.

“Chickie Hill’s Badass Ride” by Dia Reeves. Snappy dialogue and narrative voice in a setting not usually seen in steampunkery. No one writes in the segregated American South, and if they do, they sure as shit don’t write almost light-hearted romps about black children being stolen by tentacled monsters who are easily mistaken for the Klan. I’m not entirely sure this story works, but full freaking points for a story where the casual fun belies a sharper message.

“The Vast Machinery of Dreams” by Caitlin Kittredge. Omg, another good one. I couldn’t even say what happened here, exactly, but the way the total freaking weirdness is held with a hard hard and doled out to the reader in snippets is masterful. A young boy with dreams both nightmarish and juvenile meets a girl who might be a monster, and Lovecraftian hijinks ensue. This is what happened; this isn’t what happened. ZOMG.

“Tick, Tick, Boom” by Kiersten White. Yet another daughter of the ruler class banging the help. Seriously, what is up with this? There is so much of this in this collection, and I am beginning seriously to wonder why it is that our romance lady avatars are all these high-born chickies who are discomforted by their status, and alleviate that discomfort by kissing the low-born? Why am I even talking in terms like this? Low-born? The fuck? I don’t even mean to be attacking this specific story, because it’s fine or whatever, despite the fact I saw the twist coming in the first page, and I don’t think it actually said anything at all. And it deals with political violence in a way I think is deeply lame. Har har, I blew up some people because I don’t like my daddy!

Woo boy, I must be cranky tonight, given how bitchy I’m being. Still though, what is going on here? Maybe it’s just the steampunk genre, and its hazy Victoriana written by (mostly) Americans who have zero clue about how the British class system works, and romanticize it. It’s yet another godamn Lady Diana plate. Yerch. Maybe I’ll come back with a coda some day, but for now I’m just feeling itchy and irritated that the one excellent story about a girl with shark’s teeth tricked me into the rest of this mess. Fine enough reading for the cabin, but back in the everyday I’m feeling much less charitable. Sorry.

Fremdschämen: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

There’s this really great German term, fremdschämen, which means to be embarrassed on someone else’s behalf. Sit-coms are often predicated on the concept of fremdschämen, that squirming feeling you get when people are in untenable positions of their own unconscious devising – Jack Tripper in  eye makeup running some gay panic, or absolutely anything Michael Scott does on The Office. Breaking Dawn – Part 2 manages to ride the edges of my vicarious embarrassment so, so much, not really tipping into fremdschämen into the very, very end. I call this a win as far as adaptions go, really.

It’s hard to sum my feelings about the The Twilight Saga succinctly. Sure, absolutely, this stuff is objectively terrible and completely regressive. But I am not joking in the slightest when I say that the birthing sequence in Breaking Dawn is the scariest fucking thing I have ever read, ever, hands down. Stephenie Meyer is writing from the unconscious part of her brain there, running an electric wire to certain gendered fears, and while Meyer tries her absolute hardest to write away the horror from that sequence, she’s not ultimately successful.

The ending of the book Breaking Dawn ended up being a different, chilling kind of horror to me: a vision of narrative and personal perfection that destroys both personal coherence and narrative unity. “And then we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever.” Gag. But I get Meyer’s desire to run the pearl silk around her earlier panic, somehow to staunch the sting of the entirety of the nightmare she produced mid-book. Which is deeply nutty in a young adult novel about marrying Jesus and living perfectly forever and ever, world without end, amen.

I’ve only read books one and four of The Twilight Saga, but I have seen all the movies, and it’s been a trip watching them on the screen. Twilight is a mess on the screen – not much that works on the page works out loud, and things like Edward’s sparkling or the vampire baseball sequence come off as unintentionally campy.

But you want to hear a crazy thing? Breaking Dawn – the second part anyway – actually works better on screen. The first part, no, they gut (heh heh) the birthing sequence of its alarming resonance, chickening out about Meyer’s bloody awful vision. (Though the coded rape scene of the honeymoon sequence is still funny/terrifying.) But the second half of the book is such a hot mess that it’s hard not to improve on it.

There’s a lot of fan bitching about how the movie people ran an action sequence with a lot of head-popping and fire, but it totally worked. I was so, so disappointed by the book, the way Meyer sets everyone up with their swirling capes, and then everything goes fssst in a Vampire Matlock sequence that is both boring and lame. It ruled to see the possibility for some godamn action in all the squandered potential of the book, even if the sequence went on overlong. The whole action sequence was smartly set up by Alice’s clairvoyance and its possibilities though. It was a departure that saw potentials in the source material that hadn’t been realized.

But the real beauty of Breaking Dawn – Part 2 is in the huge love letter to all the Twifans, from the love scenes between Bella and Edward that end in some kind of nuclear annihilating sunrise, to the dumb parts where Bella reads aloud to Edward, to the page-turning final sequence where the filmmakers invoke all the lost hours the fans of the books have spent freaking out with flashlights under the covers. Breaking Dawn is garbage, but it is the garbage end of so much godamn garbage-y fun for so many people, and the credit sequence that runs a CHiPs-style freeze-frame on every single person ever mentioned in The Twilight Saga kinda brought a tear to my eye. Graham Green! Omg! What are you doing in this p.o.s.?

The part that killed me though – the part that evoked the fremdschämen I started with – was the very end, where Edward and Bella are literally (and I mean this in the original sense of the word, not to mean figuratively) are rolling around in a meadow full of flowers, and she manages to relay to Edward a psychic montage of all the previous movies. OH my GOD. That is the WORST. Fan love letters are just fine, but this is moving into seriously embarrassing territories here. Um, okay, but get a room, guys.

So, this movie was a blast, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but I can’t say it’s anywhere near objectively good. Love letters to swooning girls are few and far between though, so I respect it on that level. Good job, Twilight Saga.

Shades of Milk and Honey: Diversions

I haven’t had a lot of luck with Austen retellings, not that I’ve given them much energy. I’ve given half-heart to some zombie stitching, with ok to terrible results; I have avoided smut recastings; I have thrown within pages various contemporary takes, but loved a couple too. So, when I say I enjoyed this slender Austen-riff, I am actually saying something. However – and you knew this however was coming – I can’t say Shades of Milk and Honeyby Mary Robinette Kowal is more than a diversion: amiable enough, but mostly pointless.

My husband and I went out to lunch today and got into a big argument about fanfiction. He was disparaging something for being fanfic, and I countered: how many thousands of Shakespeare retellings have I both consumed and enjoyed? How many Greek tragedies, folktales and the like? There are absolutely more stories in the world than the 12 or so we get told exist in some freshman writing class by some credulous idiot, but the resonant cultural motifs are a specific bunch, even if they keep changing and morphing. 

Anyway, so, we made up over the idea that it’s not so much the concept of fanfic that he had a problem with, but the fact that the fanfic that was he subject of the argument corrected none of the problems of the source material, and, in fact, introduced more than a couple more. Fifty Shades of Grey is pretty much garbage, not because it’s Twilight fanfic, but because it’s garbage. I don’t love Twilight, while I respect its resonance, but I feel like a fanfic that misses all the inherent silliness of vegetarian vampire chastity porn is a freaking disaster. Twilight works because Bella gets to marry Jesus, not Mark Zuckerberg. 

And, quick aside: I’m not using the term fanfic with any rigor here, or as a knee-jerk indicator of poor quality. And, now that I think about it, the term seems to be used dismissively of women’s fiction more often than of stuff written by men, so it’s possible I’m wrong-footing this whole review by starting with a discussion of the term. Shades of Milk and Honeyis not fanfic in the strictest sense. Sure, the plot probably owes to Pride and Prejudicesome, but then so many plots do. It is set in Regency England, and Austen is probably the best known chronicler of that period, but it’s not like she invented Regency England. 

Jane and Melody Ellsworth are rivalrous sisters whose parents are roughly Mr & Mrs Bennet, but softer. Mrs Ellsworth still has the vapours, but Mr Ellsworth isn’t an entailed dick. Melody is pretty-but-dumb and Jane is talented-but-plain. While the world is decidedly Regency England, there is this tiny bit of magic in the mix – glamour – which is to be our shifting paranormal lens on the rigid gender divisions of that society. Glamour is understood to be a woman’s hobby – good for cosmetic reasons and not much else – but there’s a hot, grouchy male glamourist with whom Jane is secretly smitten. (Secret even from herself, but seriously dude.) 

The whole concept of glamour is a ripe metaphor that unfortunately goes nowhere. It solves some issues with the Regency novel – aha, performing glamour is why all the ladies are swooning – but it has close to zero impact on Regency England or any of the characters. Everyone dismisses the wartime applications – the Napoleonic wars are unfolding, the way they do – but glamour obviously has an impact on a confusingly written dueling sequence near the end. Glamour can record conversations for crying out loud! That absolutely could be a thing with spycraft, at the very least! 

I did appreciate the ways Jane and glamourist dude talked about the craft of art, and I even marked a passage in the now-lost book where glamourist dude growls at Jane for observing the ways he built a specific illusion. The ways Jane takes that to heart and tries simply to experience the illusion without a critical eye felt…felt like something about all this arguing I was doing about retellings with my husband. But, unfortunately, I admired the craft here much more than I enjoyed its heart. 

Shades of Milk and Honeydoes a very, very good job of aping the craft of a Regency novel – it is set beautifully, with attention to detail and character. But it is not actually a Regency novel, and it lacks the snap of Austen’s often cutting observations about the culture she lived in. As a reader, I can only access that snap in Austen’s works through historical research, which makes the cuts less immediate; a joke explained is less funny than a joke that punches known knowledge. Which might be the lack in Shades of Milk and Honey: Kowal doesn’t cut anything about Regency England, which would be a weird thing to do anyway, but then she also doesn’t say anything about the here-and-now.

I don’t actually appreciate the dichotomy between smart-but-plain and pretty-but-dumb all that much, because I think it’s a boring and unrealistic binary, so I think the expression here of that tension is unrewarding. And unrewarding in a way that Austen never hits. Elizabeth is not as beautiful as her sister Jane, but that’s not really a thing, and, in general, Austen avoids all but the tersest of physical descriptions. Elizabeth is said to have fine eyes and dark hair and not much else. So I’m in a place where novels written 200 years ago felt more harshly critical of their societies than ones written in the last decade, which is the weirdest. 

The Nebula nominee I read just previous to this, Ironskin, also recasts the woman-penned 19th Century novel Jane Eyre as to be about looks and not much else, and I wonder what is up with this contemporary attention to the superficial to the exclusion of, well, anything else.  Shades of Milk and Honeyis nowhere near as bad as Ironskinin this, not even by half, but it is still strange that these novels are being lauded as genre stand-outs. Admitting, of course, that I haven’t actually read the sequel here, which is the one up against Ironskin. Still, it is an oddment that glamour is more ornament than architecture, more diversion than statement. I enjoyed being diverted, but I can’t say much else about it. 

Crossed fingers for Glamour in Glass, but…

Red by Kate SeRine: Sunday reads

RED by Kate SeRine has a premise which could have borne some potent observations about storytelling and craft, but opts instead for sight gags and quipping. Which isn’t really a problem, per se, and as the book in my hands on a Sunday afternoon, REDacquitted itself with the right kind of large gestures and hijinks so that I could carry on distracted half-projects without losing the threads. Certainly, in the wrong mood, this squandered opportunity for insight could have rankled. But really, Sundays I’m looking for a Law & Order marathon kind of read, which is precisely what I got. Dun dun.

At some point in the last couple hundred years or so, the denizens of Make Believe were accidentally stranded in the here and now. Tales, as they are called, are functionally immortal, though they can be killed, and can have magical powers as depends on their origin stories. Characters from folk tales, nursery rhymes, Shakespeare plays, mythology – even the Bennet-Darcys make an appearance – all inhabit this secret Chicago. Tess Little was once Little Red Riding Hood, but is now some kind of enforcer for the Ministry of Magic or whatever its called in this here reality. She is paired with Nate Grimm, once and still a Grim Reaper, on a case involving the brutal murder of some Tales. 

Which all sounds very dark and mysterious and stuff, but is actually treated quite lightly. Red’s a quipper and a wise ass, quite impressed with how she wears combat boots and keeps getting hauled in by her superiors for being a loose cannon and all, and a bit annoying as a first person voice. There’s a lot of perp interviews played for comedy, like with a now-prostitute Snow White or a tyrant-chef Caliban, which work as sight-gag and not much else. Caliban is where I felt the lack the most, given how tied up that character has become in post-colonial theory. “You taught me language, and my profit on ’t/ Is I know how to curse”, et cetera. But really, is expecting urban fantasy fluff to take on hardcore racial politics realistic?* 

Anyway, per usual with girl-fluff, it is the stuff about gender politics that resonates the most in this here thing. Red has to go through a usual suspects list of ex-boyfriends in her search for the killer, starting with the Wolf and running down the bed-post notches of bad boys she has been with since he huffed and puffed and blew her down. The sequence with Vlad Dracula is probably the most amusing/insightful, what with the ways vampires have become such hot boyfriends despite/because of their predatory natures. Vlad pretty much comes off as a hot douche, and my apologies for the metaphor there.

And that is interesting cut against her obvious and mostly downplayed love interest with the living embodiment of death. I don’t have the energy to bother with this seriously, but Death tends to be a really mannered dude in fiction: playing chess, being played by Brad Pitt, etc. And that’s the way he is here: the good cop to her bad cop, the bad boy with the heart of gold, the black-eyed smolder, the initially unwanted but finally embraced partner in the detective plot. Again, this book is mostly interested in quipping, so any analysis I’m running is petty half-justified stuff, but I thought the bad boys who are douches run against bad boys who have table manners thing was credible. 

The quipping can get boring though – much of this novel is clumsy, down to the prose – and Red’s motivations sometimes run to the usual romantic crazy. Death boyfriend explains some backstory to her and she goes bananas in a way that makes no sense. I mean, I would go bananas too, but not for the reasons she did, but then I’m slightly irrational when the mate-for-life trope is invoked. I don’t really want to get into this in a big way either, which makes this review a huge reticence on my part to say anything at all. 

A favorite troll comment on a review is “You are reading this too critically” which absolutely burns my ass. Criticism reads critically, motherfucker. But it’s a fair comment here in some ways, because this is sloppy, quipping, half-assed stuff, good for a Sunday afternoon and not much else. I don’t think REDis a disaster – it doesn’t make me angry – but it also doesn’t say much beyond the half-things said in any paranormal: your past is not your future, love is a soul-twinning bondedness, etc. The first I think is fine; the second makes my ass twitch. So, same same as far as these thing tends to go for me. But at what cost? The Law & Order dude would say. 

*That question might not be as rhetorical as I’m making it out to be, now that I’ve typed it, but whatever. Slamming this one book for the larger failures of UF/PNR to address race anything but superficially, if it all, is largely unfair. I think I’m just annoyed because there’s a really obvious entrance here to talk about race, and it’s hugely squandered. Squandered like so many things in a narrative about fairy tale persons made flesh, so it’s just one among many, but a big one. Dun dun.

Nebula Nominees: Ironskin

Retellings of Gothic and/or Romantic classics in this here age of the happy ending are fraught with dangers. Plucky girls are given pluck and beauty, in defiance of people who are oh so jealous of them, and not much else; growling, terrible, inhuman assholes like Rochester and Heathcliff are neutered down to lapdogs like Edward Cullen; and the very worst of all: everything works out in the end. There should be fire and death and blood on the moors. Which is not to say that Jane Eyre, from which Ironskinwas heavily cribbed, doesn’t work out in some ways, just that the ways it works out aren’t facile natterings about Jane’s plainness. 

But, before I let my irritation get the best of me, let me back up. I read this because I’d idly picked it up off a library display last week, and just a few days later, learned it was one of the nominees for the 2012 Nebula Award. I have an equally idle thought of reading (or attempting to read) all of the five before May, but I know my track record when I assign myself homework, i.e. not good. 

Ironskinstarts credibly enough, with a war-damaged Jane Eyre Eliot starting her employ as governess for daughter of the growling and elusive Mr. Rochart. Helen Burns is transformed into Jane’s sister Helen, a sort of Holly Golightly ingenue type. Jane herself isn’t a battered, abused orphan, but a girl who was scarred late in the Great War, a WWI analog, but with the fey this time instead of Germans. Having written all that out, I’m impressed I didn’t dash this book down in the first pages, because put baldly, all of that sucks. (I mean, Jane had a brother Charlie? Bah.) 

All of this, of course, being the problem of being too closely hitched to the Jane Eyre plot, because the first half is decent if you ignore the intertext. I liked the just-after-the-war vibe, all that Lost Generation desperation. I’m maybe not as excited about Jane’s wounded face, impregnated with a leaking fey curse that must be covered with a mask; it felt too much like using an acquired disability as metaphor. Or, that’s not really fair, because Jane’s curse is dealt with okay in the first half. The curse is anger that leaks and affects those around her, and as someone whose main character flaw may be wrath, I appreciated how pissed Jane was, how she struggled with positioning her masks and calming the fires within. 

Jane’s charge is also fey-cursed, but uniquely so: whole-bodied, but with strange, unnatural gifts. Rochart is some kind of artist, always vanished into his tower, and altogether a watered down version of the Romantic psycho. All of the requisite myths are hat-tipped: Bluebeard, Tam Lin, Beauty & the Beast. At a certain point the plot diverges from Jane Eyre though, centering on some high society hijinks and the desire by silly women to be beautiful at all costs, costs that include being a Trojan horse for the fey. Even our plain Jane gets in on the superficiality, but desiring only to be “normal”, not beautiful, because she’s, you know, ennobled by suffering and all that. Rochart feels all bad about his part in the fey business, but it wasn’t really his fault because reasons. 

Jesus, is this what we’re taking from Jane Eyre today? That how women look & their facile desire to be beautiful is a threat to the entire human race? That Rochester was luggage in the thrall of fey beauty – boo hoo I know not what I did? Rochester was an asshole and Jane loved him, and even though both of these things were true, she walked away from him. She was a fiercely moral creature who suffered because of her morality, because love is a bitch goddess who can set your heart for assholes, and not because she was plain to look upon. Godamn does this ending piss me off. 

I think the thing that really gets me is that this whole mess had potential, and I do like how Connolly writes. This Jane’s mid-book revelations about how to manage her anger felt true to me, as did how she worked with her charge. Look, I know much of my anger is about my Jane Eyre, and my feelings of ownership over that text are probably unfair. (Though, of course, comparisons are invited by the obvious intertext; that’s the Faustian deal you make when you hitch your cart to the Romantic wagon.) But even stripping out my irritation with the use of my Jane, all this mask and beauty business was sloppy, badly considered stuff, with a lot of shitty implications if you think about it for, like, 15 seconds. Probably not getting my vote for the Nebula, not that I have one.