October 23, 2014

Review: Cruel Beauty

Cruel Beauty
Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At another review site I visited recently (and I'll be hanged if I can remember which one), this book was briefly mentioned as one of several retellings of the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast."

I haven't run across another such book as yet, but it would have to be damned good to top this one.

This is a lovely reinterpretation of the fairy tale, with an imaginative setting, great characterizations, and lush prose. It's also a sort of alternate-world fantasy, with a pantheon of Greek gods and myths that are one step removed from our own--see this book's retelling of the Pandora tale as an example. But there are layers here, as you discover throughout the book: layers slowly peeled back to show that neither the setting nor the characters are as they seem. It's a wonderful testament to the author's skill and control of her story.

The book starts out with a humdinger of an opening: "I was raised to marry a monster." Nyx Triskelion was indeed brought up to do just that, and this marriage is (ostensibly) the only hope of saving her kingdom and her people. This fate, which she has known about since the age of nine, obviously engenders a great deal of resentment, both towards the father who bargained with a demon and consigned one of his twin daughters to marry said demon (with the incongruous name of the Gentle Lord), and towards Nyx's sister Astraia, who will live the normal life Nyx will be denied. This plays into the book's title (Cruel Beauty). Nyx has, as she says, "poison in her heart," and this turns into a major plot point.

For a young-adult book, there are some very grown-up themes here. One is realizing there is good and bad in us all, and this doesn't make us monsters; it makes us human. Another is fighting for love and against one's fate. It all adds up to a lovely story, and you should read it.

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October 13, 2014

Sailing the Ocean Blue Two

A perfect capper to the previous post, via John Oliver.

"Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again"

This is what we should be celebrating today.

And this is the reason.

There's also this to think about.

That would be rude, to say the least. 

And then there are always asshats who are dragging their feet and missing the point. (I usually don't link to Townhall, but I couldn't resist sharing this columnist's colossal stupidity. There isn't enough cheese in Wisconsin to go along with this whine.)

This poem, found here, sums it up very well. 

"You Say, Columbus With His Argosies"

You say, Columbus with his argosies
Who rash and greedy took the screaming main
And vanished out before the hurricane
Into the sunset after merchandise,
Then under western palms with simple eyes
Trafficked and robbed and triumphed home again:
You say this is the glory of the brain
And human life no other use than this?
I then do answering say to you: The line
Of wizards and of saviours, keeping trust
In that which made them pensive and divine,
Passes before us like a cloud of dust.
What were they? Actors, ill and mad with wine,
And all their language babble and disgust.

~Trumbull Stickney

So: Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day! 

October 7, 2014

They All Fall Down

This is the Ninth Circuit Court's decision striking down Idaho and Nevada's gay marriage bans, issued today.

Judge Reinhardt, who wrote the decision, evidently has something of a sense of humor; one of his footnotes, on page 21, reads:

He also states, in conclusory fashion, that allowing same-sex marriage will lead opposite-sex couples to abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in extramarital affairs, take on demanding work schedules, and participate in time-consuming hobbies. We seriously doubt that allowing committed same-sex couples to settle down in legally recognized marriages will drive opposite-sex couples to sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. 

Which made me both laugh out loud and shake my head at the stupidity of such an argument. As if many opposite-sex couples weren't already doing all those things.

There's also a very interesting concurring opinion, written by Judge Berzon, starting on page 50 of the 95-page document. He argues that not only do "these same-sex marriage prohibitions fail because they discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," but because of "impermissible gender classifications," based on "the baggage of sexual stereotypes."

The opinion is quite long, but well worth your time. Hopefully, this will apply to all the other states in the Ninth Circuit....which means that my home state of Arizona will have to wave its discriminatory little amendment bye-bye.

About damn time.

September 28, 2014

Review: Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning
Dead Reckoning by Mercedes Lackey

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a most peculiar little book. Genre-wise, it's a young adult zombie steampunk horror western, five disparate tastes that you wouldn't think would blend together at all. It's to the writers' credit (the authors are old pros Mercedes Lackey, author of the seemingly endless Valdemar series, and Rosemary Edghill, also known as eluki bes shahar, author of the vastly superior Hellflower science-fiction trilogy) that it blends as well as it does. Still, sometimes I got the feeling that they pulled several popular genres out a hat and flung them against the wall, just to see what would stick.

The hero/ine is Jett Gallatin, born Philippa Sheridan, riding West in search of her twin brother, lost in the aftermath of the Civil War. Jett is disguised as a man. And not just a man--a gambler, cardsharp and gunslinger, to boot. She binds her breasts to hide them, although I couldn't help wondering how she hides her periods (maybe that's why she wears nothing but black) and the fact that she can't pee standing up. Oh, and she rides a black STALLION! (Do Lackey and Edghill know how many stallions react to the presence of a menstruating woman? Although Nightingale does a number of atypically equine things--so much so that I half expected him to be some sort of werehorse and was rather disappointed when he wasn't. Given this story, were-beings would have fit right in.) She's rather traumatized by what she calls the War of Northern Aggression, and makes snarky cracks about damnyankees throughout. This is problematic, to say the least--did she not realize just what the Rebs were fighting to preserve? There were abolitionists way back then, you know. She'd have made a much stronger character if she'd acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Lincoln had some justification for his war, even if her family's plantation burned down.

(Oh wait. Her family's plantation? In Louisiana? That's definitely the eight-hundred-pound cotton gin in the room. After all, we can't admit that our hero/ine's family owned slaves, now can we?)

(As you can maybe tell, I didn't like Jett much.)

The book opens with a pure cliche scene--the lone gunslinger riding into a dusty, remote Texas town looking for someone, and stopping at the saloon. Then, just as Jett is about to draw down on Mister Trouble, the temperature drops 50 degrees and the zombies (which Jett conveniently recognizes because she's from New Orleans) come crashing into the room. They're stinking and decaying, but they're a bit more lively than your usual classic zombie--they're actually wielding weapons. Jett escapes by the hair of her stallion's tail (which is why I thought Nightingale might be more than just a horse) and the two of them gallop wildly off into the night.

After this we're introduced to the other viewpoint characters, Wapeshk Wakoshe, aka White Fox, and the fabulous Honoria Verity Providentia Gibbons. The former is another cliche, a white boy raised Indian, and a poorly characterized one at that. Truth be told, the book could have done without him altogether. But Honoria, aka "Gibbons," to my mind, could have and should have been the star of the show. She's an eighteen-year-old scientist, inventor and suffragette, driving across Texas in an early steam-powered car she designed, built and named the Auto-Tachypode! (That name is so delicious.) She is blonde, curvy and blue-eyed, but everything else about her--her pugnaciousness, her scientific mindset, her insistence on logic, her rejection of the traditional feminine roles of the time (because of her mother's death in childbirth and her father raising his only child to have every advantage a son would have had) turns that cliche on its head. She's just great. When the book opens, she's driving across Texas by herself, searching out and exposing the charlatans, con artists and snake-oil salesmen of the era.

Then, as the three protagonists come together, Gibbons is drawn into the mystery of Jett's and White Fox's zombies. At first she insists they don't exist, and when she realizes they do, she tackles the problem from a scientific point of view, trying to figure out how they were created and how to kill them. (Which turns out to be--spoiler!--a high-pressure stream of salt water shot from the Auto-Tachypode.) The plot is rather convoluted, but in the end the zombies and their creator, the right cunning semi-insane Brother Shepherd of the Fellowship of the Divine Resurrection, are blown to holy hell by a combination of gunpowder and Gibbons-created nitroglycerin, leaving a huge smoking crater where their lair used to be.

At that point, the three go their separate ways, although Jett reckons she'll see Gibbons again. I certainly hope not; I've had quite enough damnyankee-in', thank you. Now, if another book were to focus on Gibbons' pursuit of science and charlatans, I would gladly read it. Otherwise, no.

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September 26, 2014

Review: Splintered

Splintered by A.G. Howard

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is another book that I simply could not finish. I gave it the old college try, getting almost halfway through before I stopped, looked at the book, and thought, "I don't give a good goddamn what happens to these people, or how Alyssa solves her problem."

When I feel like that, I know it's time to give it up. I have way too many books sitting unread on my nightstand to waste my time on something like this. However, I didn't hurl it against the wall, mostly because I think plenty of people would like it; it's just one of my idiosyncrasies that I didn't.

For one thing, the setup was really good. Alyssa Gardner, the great-great-xx-granddaughter of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, starts the book by trying to fight the insanity she thinks runs in her family; it landed all her female ancestors in asylums, including her own mother Alison, and she is dreadfully afraid she's next.

Only thing is, she's not insane at all; Wonderland really exists, and Alice and Alyssa herself really did go there. So she sets out to find it again, to undo the mysterious curse placed on her family, starting with the original Alice, and save her mother from upcoming electroshock treatments she fears will cause irreversible brain damage.

All well and good. Alyssa is smart and determined, and Jeb, her best-friend-who-she-secretly-wishes-was-more, seems to be a decent, caring sort. It's when the two of them (because Jeb saw her going through the looking-glass, and like a complete knucklehead, followed her in) hit Wonderland that the story begins to fall apart. Despite a few modern touches and distinctions, it's basically a retelling of the original story. We already have that. And it's way too surreal and disjointed for me; I'm sorry, I've got to have a bit of logic in my fantasy.

Even the arrival of Morpheus, the cobalt-haired, dangerous "netherling" (AKA the Caterpillar) who runs the place, wasn't enough to save the story. That said, I'm sure other people will love it. I just couldn't connect with the story and characters, and have moved on to something else.

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September 23, 2014

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Miss America Pageant (HBO)

Watch this. This is an absolutely wonderful takedown of the Miss America Pageant. John Oliver should win a shitload of Emmys next year.