Tuesday, March 20, 2012

CBR IV Review #10 - Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James

“This is a man in need. His fear is naked and obvious, but he's lost. . . Somewhere in his darkness.
His eyes wide and bleak and tortured. I can soothe him. Join him briefly in the darkness and bring him into the light.”

A DISCLAIMER: This review is of a piece of erotic fiction.  As such, discussion of the sex is relevant and necessary to the review.  If this makes you uncomfortable, skip this one.

Fifty Shades of Grey is, technically, a fan fiction inspired erotic novel.  It horrified me to find out, halfway through this book (which is when the rest of the popular book scene caught up with me) that this book was started as Twilight fanfiction.  I hate Twilight.  A lot.  However, the resemblance to those books is practically non-existent.  I know many people compared the two lead characters to Bella and Edward, but I think that is so far beyond a stretch that it borders on the absurd.  Regardless.

This book is the story of virginal, innocent, recent college grad (she graduates in the course of the book) Anastasia Steele, and multi-billionaire Christian Grey.  The two cross paths when Ana interviews Christian on behalf of her sick roommate, Kate, and their sexual chemistry is evident from the start.  Christian makes a point of putting himself into Ana's life, and eventually the two start an incredibly complicated relationship.  The reason for this complication is Christian's sexual appetite.  He's a Dom, in the most classic sense of the term, and he likes to contract his submissives.  Ana, however, is not exactly great at being submissive, and sex is new to her in the first place.  The two develop something much more significant than a sexual relationship, even though the progression terrifies Ana.

A lot of people objected to this book because of the nature of their sexual relationship.  It's so very easy to cry "abusive asshole" about a Dom if you don't understand the lifestyle (and this book does a very good job of explaining things well, so I don't know how you come away with that impression, but whatever).  The submissive is the one with the real power in a BDSM relationship - they have the power to set parameters, to call a safeword and stop things at any given moment.  The Dom has all the apparent power in the moment, but there has to be a real trust and understanding between both participants for this kind of relationship to function.  Christian works very hard to make sure that Ana has this, even when she gets in her own way and doesn't tell him things.

The sex itself is reasonably well written.  The author seems to have an issue with using genital terminology, which got old fast, but the activities were well enough described.  I find it interesting that Ana never had any marks on her wrist from the times she was bound - or at least not ones that lasted long enough for anyone to notice.  Maybe she has stronger skin.  I HATED every damned reference to her inner goddess, as well as the incredible overuse of the phrase "Oh my."  They are lazy writing tools, employed every time the author couldn't think of something more compelling to say.  I don't need an "inner goddess" in Ana's head to understand her confusion in being turned on by things that a lot of society thinks are "wrong" or "dirty."  Discovering you are kinky is sometimes hard to come to terms with, and I like that it was a struggle for her.

Two other big complaints before I get to another compliment.  First, there is NO FUCKING WAY anyone is as clueless in the world as Ana.  Not having a computer (since she can use her roommate's) I can maybe accept.  Not having an EMAIL ADDRESS?  As a college student?  Impossible.  Every single student of every single college is given one of those these days.  I HATE when books do well on some details and totally blow it on the simple things like this.  I also have some trouble believing, at 22, that she's never been drunk or been kissed (mostly the combination of the two, for someone who doesn't have religious or cultural reasons to avoid it).  But that email address thing killed me.

Other complaint - that ending is THE WORST.  I hate hate hate when the first volume of a trilogy cannot stand on its own, and this has an ending where nothing actually resolves.  You're left with miserable main characters and no resolution - it feels like you go back to square one and then it just ends.  I don't know if I want to read the next book, and making it so I HAVE to makes me want to even less.  End volume 2 on a cliff-hanger - by then you usually have a committed audience.  But let volume one stand on its own two feet.  That ending was a cheap shot.

My last comment will be a compliment because I like to end on a high note if I can.  Christian and Ana, and even Kate, are characters I got attached to, and that surprised me.  A lot of erotic fiction barely fleshes out the characters, so you are reading strictly for the enjoyment of the sexual content.  This had a relationship I was invested in.  I wanted Ana to be honest with Christian, and vice versa.  I wanted them to explore their emotional needs as well as the carnal, and really get somewhere.  I kept picking the book back up to see how they developed, and that is always a good thing.

Like I said, I don't know if I'll pick up the next two volumes of this trilogy, but this is a pretty good read if you're into erotica, or want a little voyeuristic view into a BDSM relationship.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

CBR IV Review #9 - Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta

“I just want it to go back to the way it was."
"It'll never go back to the way it was, Frankie. But you have to make sure it goes forward.”

This book came to my from my BFF, who is a school librarian.  She reads a lot of YA lit for her job and passes some of the better stuff off to me.  For example, she introduced me to the greatness that is The Hunger Games (I reviewed them last year, for those new to this blog that I think no one is reading anyway!).  So when I saw this in the stack of books she was trying to find a new home for, I grabbed it up.  I'm glad that I did.

Saving Francesca is the story of a teenage girl in Australia.  It takes place during two terms of her Year 11, which includes attending a new school and dealing with her mother's depression (this is not a spoiler - it's on the back cover summary).  Frankie's new school is only recently integrated, and they haven't done a great job of making the girls feel welcome.  In addition, Frankie's group of friends from her old school all moved on to a different school, so she's left with some girls that she doesn't really know and trying to find her way and mostly keep her head down.

One of the most important people in Frankie's life is her mother, Mia, a whirlwind of energy and of being your own person.  Frankie has seen this as overbearing in the past, wanting to blend in rather than stand out.  But over the course of the book she starts to see the wisdom in the things Mia always told her.  Part of this is due to the sudden lack of Mia in her life.  One morning she simply does not get out of bed, and she stays that way for quite some time.  As Frankie and her family deal with her mother's problem (or, for much of the book, DON'T deal with it), Frankie starts letting herself become the woman she's meant to be.  She makes friends she didn't expect, find a crush she doesn't want, and starts to really find herself as a person, not just part of a crowd.

This is a really wonderful book on a lot of levels.  First, I love the message it sends to young women.  Frankie is an incredibly normal girl - she wants to blend in, she defines herself by what her friends say, she fights with her mom, she thinks the boys in her school are ridiculous.  But circumstances force her to really develop her own personality independent of those things, and to find the people who let her be who she really is.  Her journey felt very real.  By the end of the book you get the idea that, while there will still be times that she backslides, she's really trying to blazer her own trail.

I also liked the honesty with which they handled Mia's illness.  Depression is something I'm intimately familiar with, and I spent a lot of the book wondering what her catalyst was, and what warning signs the family had missed.  And they address both, in their own good time.  It takes awhile to find out those things, so while I wanted to know immediately, it made sense to not reveal it until Frankie figured it out.  And I love that while Mia makes progress, she doesn't end the book healed.  That kind of depression doesn't go away, but becomes something you learn to live with (some days better than others).  If suddenly it had been a "hey, she's all better now, yay!" ending, I would have been disappointed.  There's hope there, but it's obvious that it won't be an easy road.

This book is peppered with delightful characters, and even though you don't get to know them well (the narrator is Frankie, so we're limited to her perspective) you get a real sense of who they are and what they're like.  I wanted to hang out with Frankie and her friends, and I love being able to connect that way with characters.

Definitely a book I'd recommend, especially if you love YA lit!

Friday, March 9, 2012

CBR IV Review #8 - The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

James Keller: Sooner or later, we all give up, don't we?
Annie Sullivan
: Maybe you all do, but it's my idea of the original sin. 

I only picked up this play for a re-read because a friend of mine is directing it next year, and another friend (who wants to play Kate) recommended that I audition for Annie.  Since it had been a number of years since I read it (I auditioned for Helen in my youth), I felt the need to reacquaint myself with the material before deciding if I was right for it.

The Miracle Worker, for the random person out there who doesn't know this, is the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.  Everyone knows who Helen is, and Annie is the one who taught her.  The play opens with Kate and Captain Keller discovering their child's illness has left her deaf and blind.  The rest of the play centers on young Annie coming to try to teach Helen how to communicate, and how to function, as she has been left to run wild in the house.  Annie's mission is to get Helen first to be civilized and therefore teachable, and then to get her to understand that the letters she is spelling into her hands mean things.  One word will open up the door to what's locked inside.  As you all know, by the end of the play she succeeds in getting Helen to understand the word "water" and as such gives her the gift of communication.

This is a really solidly written play, but it's hard to read, as so much of it is stage direction.  Unfortunately, when you are working on the premise of a main character not understanding speech, it leaves a lot to be translated through physicality.  While the directions are clear, it's still a play that is better seen than read (although I would argue this is true of pretty much every play ever written).  The characters see such lovely growth throughout, and when played by the right people, it's a formidable work.

CBR IV Review #7 - Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George

"Keeping one's hands clean – maintaining one's innocence. Is that not the human way?”

Princess of the Midnight Ball, as you know if you read my last review, precedes the events of Princess of Glass by several years (in story time, not sure in real time and don't feel like looking it up!).  This book is based on the story of the Twelve Princesses, which I will admit I am not at all familiar with.  I studied the Grimm brothers many moons ago for a project, but this tale is not one that I recall.  However, since I had already read Princess of Glass, I knew how the story's basics would unfold.  This didn't really detract from the reading, however, as Day George has such lovely style and creates such interesting characters.

The story, for those who aren't familiar with it, is about 12 princesses (did you guess that part?) who wear out their dancing shoes every night.  The King is mystified as to how they are burning through footwear, as no one has seen the girls leave, and none of them will tell him what is going on.  So he creates a challenge - any visiting prince can marry one of his daughters and become heir to the throne if he can solve the mystery. 

In this telling of the story, the kingdom of Westfalin has just won a rather unpleasant and incredibly long war.  Galen, a young soldier, shows up to the capital to stay with his aunt and uncle, as both his parents perished while on the front.  His uncle, a hard man named Reiner, works as the senior gardener for the King, and Galen starts work beneath him.  This leads him into contact with the young princesses, in particular the eldest daughter, Rose.  Their chemistry is obviously fairly immediately. The story proceeds as it should, with the girls disappearing to their midnight balls without anyone knowing why.  But then the visiting princes start dying as they leave the kingdom, and suspicions arise that the girls are the cause.  The church gets involved (from Roma - again, the kingdoms are based on European countries) and the girls, and Westfalin itself, are in jeopardy unless someone can help them.  It's up to the mysterious young under-gardener to step up and save them all.

I didn't love this as much as Princess of Glass, but I think a lot of that was due to my connection with the characters.  Whereas I LOVED Poppy (and do in this book as well, although she's such a small part of it), Galen and Rose don't inspire the same kind of loyalty in me.  I rooted for Galen, and he was the most interesting character for me, but the dynamic was so different.  Rose...is Rose.  I feel like there was more that could have been done with her character.  She was a little bland for me, and it made it hard to get as invested in her story.  The writing, however, is just as solid and interesting as in the companion novel, and I tore through this book just as quickly.

Something I forgot to mention for anyone interested is that both of these books involve knitting as plot points.  The things that are knit are for protection or other magical uses, and as a nice touch, Day George gives instructions on how to make these projects yourself.  Now, I used to knit once upon a time, but now am only into cross stitching, so I have no idea how easy or not these things are to follow, but I thought it was a nice touch.

Looking forward to more Day George books in the future!  She's definitely made my must-read authors list.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

CBR IV Review #6 - Princess of Glass by Jessica Day George

“I have to keep knitting,” she said in a low voice. “Because I’m the strong one.” 

Princess of Glass is Day George's re-imagining of the Cinderella tale, and it is an excellent one.  The story follows two girls, Princess Poppy and Eleanora/Ellen/Lady Ella, as well as the prince of Danelaw, Christian.  Princess Poppy is visiting Breton (and obviously English based country) to help international relations, which happens to be why Christian is there as well.  Princess Poppy has a somewhat murky history with magic, as she and her sisters were cursed to dance at Midnight Balls for King Under Stone.  That part of the story is documented in another Day George fairy tale story, Princess of the Midnight Ball, which I'm reading presently.  Poppy fills the reader in on the general details as the story progresses, keeping the truth of why she refuses to dance a secret from the others in the story.  She is wary of magic, as she should be, and knows several powerful charms to keep her safe from it, which prove useful later.

Eleanora has fallen on hard times.  Her family, once amongst the nobility, lost their fortune, and then both of Eleanora's parents died.  As such, she was left with no option but to go into the service and work as a maid named Ellen, which she is terrible at.  Her misfortune, however, leaves her vulnerable to the powers of a godmother known as "the Corley" - but things are never what they seem.  While her new benefactress claims to want to help Ellen go to the ball, woo the prince and live happily ever after, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

Christian ends up a pawn in the game, torn between Princess Poppy, who he has developed feelings for that he doesn't quite understand, and this mysterious Lady Ella who appears at the King's balls with such dramatic flair that every man desires her and every woman envies her - but no one knows who she is.

The story is an old one, but told in such a lovely new way that it feels fresh.  You know the glass slippers will play a part, but how they do is both unique and a little terrifying.  The Corley, also, puts a whole new spin on the Fairy Godmother character.  I also think that Ellen is perhaps the most honest representation of the Cinderella character.  She's a little whiny and put upon, and her desperation to return to her "proper" place in the world leads her to make some ugly choices.  That's far more realistic to me than singing happily with birds while you are ignored by a society who has chosen to forget who you once were.

But most interesting to me of all is Poppy.  THIS is a heroine young girls should look up to.  While she had to suffer great trials in her life, she chooses to grow from the experience and by the end of this book, also decides not to be defined by the horrors of her past.  She's the person who leads the charge against the bad magic, and the first one to recognize something is wrong at all.  She refuses to compromise who she is as a person, even if her personality is a little unorthodox for Breton's high society.  She is brave, funny, intelligent, and powerful in her own way and I adored her.

This was a great book, one that was incredibly hard to put down.  I've moved immediately to Princess of the Midnight Ball so I could read more.  I didn't realize until too late that I should have read the two books in the opposite order, but it hardly matters.  While I know how the new one will resolve thanks to reading this one, having Poppy's perspective made me want to know the whole story.  Definitely recommend this book, especially if you love a good fairy tale!

Friday, March 2, 2012

CBR IV Review #5 - Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

“History, in the end, is only another kind of story, and stories are different from the truth. The truth is messy and chaotic and all over the place. Often it just doesn’t make sense. Stories make things make sense, but the way they do that is to leave out anything that doesn’t fit. And often that is quite a lot.” 

This book is a wonderful read, albeit a depressing one.  Set in a private Catholic boys' school in Dublin in 2003, Skippy Dies follows a number of characters through a span of the several months surrounding the titular death of Skippy.  The first scene of the book is Skippy's death (whose real name is Daniel Juster).  From there, we jump back a bit, build to the opener, and then move beyond it to its aftermath.

There are a number of narrator's here, and much like with George RR Martin's books, none of them are really that reliable.  I'm a big fan of unreliable narrators in situations like this, as it heightens the realism.  These felt like very real characters, people that Murray knew well and understood.  Having never attended Catholic school, let alone one for boys, I'm certainly no expert on what that reality is like.  However, it felt real and natural to me.  I'm sure all the adolescent actions of the main characters may grate on some, but so far as I'm aware, that's pretty much how teen boys behave.  The relationships between the group of Skippy's friends, in particular, resonated with me, particularly in the way the dynamic shifts after his death.  

There is one literary device used in this book that I absolutely loathe, and that is run on sentences to simulate free form thought of a character (or in this case, several - Lori, Skippy and Carl are all prone to this).  I HATE run on sentences, and some of these can be as long as a paragraph.  However, unlike in books like Foxfire, which I threw across the room since its entirety was written in that style, Skippy Dies uses it sparingly.  It's like an unpleasant seasoning on a good dish - I'll push through the few bites that are unappealing because the rest is good enough to merit it.

I really only have two large complaints with the book.  One is the use of our sole adult perspective, Howard "The Coward" Fallon.  Much of his story felt superfluous.  I never cared about his relationship with Halley or his crush on Aurelie and I don't feel that any of the time spent on that was worthwhile.  The rest of Howard's story was relevant to both understand him as a character, and understanding a number of important plot points (even if I think it's absolute bullshit that decades later people are calling him "coward" for not doing something incredibly idiotic and blaming him for the fact that someone else got hurt for doing it instead - blame the person who did it and the person who created the situation, not Howard...but I digress).  They could have cut his romantic subplots and it still would have worked (although the Hallowe'en Hop would need a new distraction).

Second objection was the overuse of scientific terminology.  There is a subplot regarding Ruprecht's scientific theories (Ruprecht being Skippy's roommate) and while it is relevant to the story, they delve WAY too far into the language of the theories involved for my taste.  This is not a sci-fi novel and I didn't require intimate knowledge of string theory to get what they were attempting to accomplish.  It was in these sections when I was most likely to put the book down or let my mind wander.

Overall, I'd definitely recommend this.  There is some heavy, HEAVY stuff going on, and if you are sensitive to the darker stuff in here, it might be one to skip.  I can't divulge what kind of things are involved without giving too much away, but you'll realize it long before the story confirms them, so if you are bothered by what you think is happening, just stop reading.  If you can handle it, though, this is a really dynamic read, and very different from the majority of contemporary literature in both themes and style.