Thursday, June 27, 2013

Battle of the Books!

There comes a time in every book lover's life when you pick a book off a shelf and ask yourself, "Didn't I just read this last week?"  Sometimes the answer is "Yes.  This is just the new cover on the paperback edition, stupidhead," but sometimes the answer is "No, it's just that publishers think that every fantasy fan, young adult, new adult, or historical fictionista want to read the same books."

Is it just me, or do 97.65% of YA books have vampires or werewolves or fairies or something in them now?  Are actual teenage boys are so foreign to our teen sisters that they can only think of them as a different species?
Why do all* historical fiction novels show a woman (or two) in a period-piece dress from the collarbone down?  (My current theory is that women did not have heads before 1919.)
Do all* New Adult covers need to have two white people not-quite-kissing?  ("Not kissing" pretty much sums up my late teens and early twenties, so perhaps this is spot on.)
*not really ALL, but a lot.

It's no wonder my brain gets confused.  Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I have more books than is remotely normal.  I don't always have problems getting them straight in my head.  But there does come a time where I have to sigh, shake my head, and say, "It's been done before and it wasn't good then.  I doubt it will be good now."  I'm certain I have dismissed possibly good books just because they bore an unfortunate resemblance to another lackluster book. How can we bookaholics possibly know which books we should pick up next?

In order to make the confusion its own reward, I have decided to start a semi-regular series of entries:  The Battle of the Books.  These will be single-match, sudden-death fights between two similar books.  Why?  Because I'm far too lazy to create a March Madness-style bracket.  Besides, it's not exactly fair to compare a 2013 steampunk novel to a classic Neil Gaiman, or Lord of the Rings to David Copperfield.  After a while, it would just be a list of "Books Enjoyed by Wandering Meander."

A couple of ground rules in these matches:
1.  The books must have different authors.  Comparing Gaiman's American Gods to Neverwhere might be fun for me to read, but it's not exactly a useful comparison.
2.  The books cannot be from the same series, even if written by different authors.  Eg, "Alex Archer" of the Rogue Angel series is a pen name, not a real person, which allows different authors to write the stories under the same name.
3. The books must be from the same genre or sub-genre.  Steampunk is a sub-genre of SF/F.  So is Alternate History.  However, I wouldn't compare Boneshaker to 1632, but I might consider comparing it to The Iron Duke
4. Whenever possible, the books should have similar plots or backgrounds.  There are a lot of Tudor novels out there, but comparing The Autobiography of Henry VIII to The Irish Princess just doesn't seem fair. 

Now, for the competition.  How can I decide which book walks out of the ring - so to speak - as the champion, and which just walks out of the ring?  I will compare the two books on the following criteria, award 1 point for each victory (or it can be a tie, in which case zero points will be awarded):
1. Main Character
2. Supporting Cast
3. Worldbuilding
4. Pacing
5. Plot Development
6. Plot Resolution
7. Style/Use of Language
8. Cover Art (Tiebreaker only)

Why am I doing this?  Because it's fun to make pointless comparisons.  Because that way I can review two books at once.  Because I feel like it.  Because sometimes you want to know which book to read -and sometimes you find out that two books are equally good in different ways.

The first Battle of the Books will be:

Tarnished by Karina Cooper versus Kiss of Steel by Bec McMaster

Want in on this and want to write your own?  Have a Book Battle you'd like to propose?  Let me know. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Just Stay Classy: Book Reviews and Baseball Umpires

 Some days it seems like you can't open a book-related webpage without seeing some brouhaha between an author (or their agent) and a reviewer.  Simply searching for "authors behaving badly" brings up some amazingly cringe-inducing stories - agents attacking book bloggers, authors deciding to "defeat the bullies" by revealing pen-named reviewers' personal information.  It's a mad, mad world out there.

Then there's baseball.  While not quite as gentlemanly as golf (minus Happy Gilmore) or something like polo, there is a a decidedly dignified mien to the game.  When someone scores a run, they don't jump into the stands to have fans hug them.  When someone makes a great defensive play, they don't taunt the offense.  There is no "home run" dance.  You don't get put into a penalty box for being unnecessarily rough and a fan doesn't go to a game expecting to see a brawl. 

Of course, there are moments where the dignity of the sport goes straight out the window.  There are brawls between teams (usually just a small handful of times per season), and there is always the chance that a tough play can lead to a far more common occurrence: Umpire-Manager Arguments.  It's usually a grown man in a baseball hat screaming into the face of another grown man in umpire padding.  Sometimes the uniformed man (the manager) just goes back to his dugout, red faced and cursing, and sometimes they have to take the long walk back to the clubhouse.

What make a difference in these situations? 


It's a small thing, really, but generally speaking the manager can scream and curse and make an absolute idiot of himself - so long as he leaves the umpire himself out of his tirade.  "That call is [bleep]!  This game is going [bleepity bleep]!  He's clearly [out/safe]!  What the [bleep] is [bleeping bleep bleep] out there?"

If that little word, "you," enters the tirade, the manager can expect to spend the rest of the game off-field and, fans can expect to see this:
This is usually the point where the opposing team's fan freak out in delight.

What does this have to do with book reviews?  

For reviewers:
1. When reviewing a book - or anything, really - keep in mind that you are reviewing the book and not the author.   If the phrase "the author is" enters your review, take a step back and ask "Do I really need to say what I'm about to say?"  (If the phrase "The author is" is followed by something along the lines of "keenly aware of the complex politics of the region" then you're probably okay.)
2. Remember that no matter how bad you think a book is, there is a very real person who put a lot of his/her time into the work, and who might read the review.  You can find fault, but try not to be a jerk.
3. At the same time:  Be honest.  Did you not like the characters?  Then say so - but say why.  Was the setting unbelievable?  If you can, say how to improve it.  Was the plot unconvincing?  Point out the flaws - using your spoiler tags liberally.

For authors:
1. Toughen up.  I know this is a hard one.  Consider this a bad performance review - one that won't go into your permanent file.  No one likes hearing that they're flawed, but if you internet-punch the reviewer, that will definitely live forever. Remember:  Nobody who wants to read your book is going to be put off by one bad review.  Trust me; I have never shelved a book just because it had one - or many - bad reviews. 
2. Think of it as free amateur critiquing.  The reviewer said the book had "head jumping"?   Reread your book looking for examples, or ask a friend to help. People want to read a good book as much as you want to write one.  Take the opportunity to improve yourself.
3. NEVER initiate contact.  The person might be saying how your romance novel set during the Thirty Years' War is actually a communist propaganda work sent from the alien overlords to make us all become vegetarians.  Unless this is true - in which case please send me a link because that sounds awesome - don't get involved.  There's nothing the internet loves more than a meltdown, and once you've proved that you will respond, however minimally, unfortunately there are people who will goad you into a full Amy's Baking Company-style freak-out.

Just stay classy, people. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Book Review: The School for Good and Evil

Title:  The School for Good and Evil
Series:  The School for Good and Evil (Book 1 of 3)
Author:  Soman Chainani

“The first kidnappings happened two hundred years before. Some years it was two boys taken, some years two girls, sometimes one of each. But if at first the choices seemed random, soon the pattern became clear. One was always beautiful and good, the child every parent wanted as their own. The other was homely and odd, an outcast from birth. An opposing pair, plucked from youth and spirited away.”
This year, best friends Sophie and Agatha are about to discover where all the lost children go: the fabled School for Good & Evil, where ordinary boys and girls are trained to be fairy tale heroes and villains. As the most beautiful girl in Gavaldon, Sophie has dreamed of being kidnapped into an enchanted world her whole life. With her pink dresses, glass slippers, and devotion to good deeds, she knows she’ll earn top marks at the School for Good and graduate a storybook princess. Meanwhile Agatha, with her shapeless black frocks, wicked pet cat, and dislike of nearly everyone, seems a natural fit for the School for Evil.

But when the two girls are swept into the Endless Woods, they find their fortunes reversed—Sophie’s dumped in the School for Evil to take Uglification, Death Curses, and Henchmen Training, while Agatha finds herself in the School For Good, thrust amongst handsome princes and fair maidens for classes in Princess Etiquette and Animal Communication.. But what if the mistake is actually the first clue to discovering who Sophie and Agatha really are…?

Wow.  This is a hard book for me to review.  Not because the book was bad, but because I'm not honestly sure what I thought about it.  On the surface, this book is exactly my cup of tea.  I friggin' love retold fairy tales, I generally enjoy books that play with their genre, and I"m never above an enjoyable YA/Middle Grade romp. 

The storyline is clever - a school where student learn how to be fairy tale heroes and villains - and the setting is rather well-crafted and interesting.  I mean, it's not Doctor Zhivago or War & Peace (not that I've read either of those yet), but it's a fun adventure through fairy tale lands.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Let's break down the characters.  Sophie, the beautiful I-deserve-to-be-a-princess brat, is far and away the most non self-aware, selfish character in all of YA Fantasy.  I don't think I've encountered a character that inspires more loathing and disgust.  To be fair, I'm reasonable certain that's what the author was going for.  Agatha is clever,  practical and somehow endearingly self-doubting.  She isn't exactly a strong character, but she's miles ahead of Bella of Twilight fame and it's much easier to root for her than anyone else.  I guess I can't exactly complain about the characters, but it isn't exactly like watching Jean Valjean struggle and overcome.  Heck, it isn't even like watching good ol' Harry Potter find the place he belongs.

There is a certain amount of pseudo-alliances that are made and shifted throughout the story, and while overall the plot isn't exactly hard to follow, there are many scenes throughout the book where I had to wonder:  Why is this scene here?  What are we trying to accomplish?  How does this advance the story and/or characterization?  The author has certain turns-of-phrase and ways of describing a scene that convey a lot of action but left me unclear what exactly was happening.  Many of these scenes left the narrative muddy in my mind, as if I wasn't exactly sure where the book was heading.  (Another review said the audiobook is fantastic, so perhaps it's that I'm just a sloppy reader...)  At certain points, I wasn't sure that the targeted 8-12 year-old audience would be able to keep up.  Maybe it's just me.

There is "romance" in the story, and I cannot emphasize the quotes enough.  Just like any fairy tale, the romance is placed here deliberately as a plot point:  princesses must fall in love with princes to get a happy ending.  The author, just like Agatha herself, treats this as a sort of silly necessary evil, while poking gentle fun at all the characters who treat love as a graded exam.  It's there, sure, but it's not exactly driving anything. 

In the end, as the balance and line between Good and Evil bends and twists, I was excited if not particularly entranced.  I wasn't sure exactly how the book was going to turn out, but through dumb luck I had managed to guess a big reveal long before it was made in the story - and such a reveal actually raises as many questions as it answers. 

To sum up:  I rather like the idea, and the author made the characters both as reprehensible and as snarky as he intended.  The setting and setup are both executed well.  The narrative passages can get a little murky, but most people shouldn't notice it.  The ending definitely leaves plenty of space open for the sequel to be great.  As a bonus to people reading the paper book, there are pretty illustrations at the beginning of each chapter and as end papers.  I'm almost certainly going to be looking for the sequel.

4 Stars!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book Review: Habits of the House

Habits of the House by Fay Weldon
Series:  Love & Inheritance  (Book 1 of 3)
Rating:  3 Stars

Blurb: As the Season of 1899 comes to an end, the world is poised on the brink of profound, irrevocable change. The Earl of Dilberne is facing serious financial concerns. The ripple effects spread to everyone in the household: Lord Robert, who has gambled unwisely on the stock market and seeks a place in the Cabinet; his unmarried children, Arthur, who keeps a courtesan, and Rosina, who keeps a parrot in her bedroom; Lord Robert’s wife Isobel, who orders the affairs of the household in Belgrave Square; and Grace, the lady’s maid who orders the life of her mistress.

Lord Robert can see no financial relief to an already mortgaged estate, and, though the Season is over, his thoughts turn to securing a suitable wife (and dowry) for his son. The arrival on the London scene of Minnie, a beautiful Chicago heiress with a reputation to mend, seems the answer to all their prayers.

Thanks to the surging success of BBC's Downton Abbey (aired on PBS here in the US), there has been a boom of books taking place in the late Victorian/early Edwardian era.  Since I am going through Crawley withdrawal, once I found out about this series - written by a writer of Upstairs, Downstairs no less - I had to get my hands on it.

The first thing I noticed was the immediate parallels to the Upstairs, Downstairs characters, as well Downton Abbey.  We start with the servants going about their jobs while bad news is about to be delivered to the family.  The very next thing I noticed was how long it took that news to actually get delivered.  The book felt like a setup to a television episode, but the actual "[item] is going to cause dramatic tension in the story arc" scene was several chapters into the book.  There was lots of description about who was in the house, and what they were doing, and why they felt how they felt about the other characters, but none of it was especially engaging.

When we finally get to the "financial concerns" described in the blurb, a decent chunk of the book has passed while only about two or three hours in book-time.  I started wondering, based on the amount of pages remaining, if the book was going to take place in two book-days.  The pacing remains somewhat herky-jerky throughout the book, some chapters covering one hour, and others jumping weeks or months at a time, but it rarely drags quite as much as it does in the first few chapters.

The plot line has been done before - Edith Wharton did it first in The Buccaneers.  It has since been repeated:  by marrying an American heiress, an English noble family hopes to reestablish their financial solvency.  Romance writers make this a rosy plot, Wharton made it about shattered illusions, and more recent authors have made it something in between.  Weldon goes for the in-between plot as well.  Given what the blurb says, there are no real shocks in store for any reader.

Now, the characters.  I have to admit that I didn't love any of them, at least not at first.  The Earl and his family have squandered all of their money and scorn the people who are saving them:  first their financial advisor (because he's Jewish?) and then the disgustingly wealthy American family (because they aren't proper English nobility/gentry).  The daughter is self-righteous, and the mother is a bit of a hypocrite.  The Earl himself gambles and makes stupid decisions, while the son has a martyr complex.  "I have to marry a wealthy, pretty heiress who suits my personality and keeps my life interesting but I want to marry my mistress even though she's screwing my former friend."   When the O'Brians showed up, I hoped for a fish-out-of-water type character to root for, but was ultimately disappointed.  Not even the servants have a good root-for-me candidate among them, and I've even completely forgotten their names.

It seems like most of the characters have some sort of secret or "interesting" backstory but only the Americans' were actually meaningful in any way.  These secrets and plots weren't exactly enough to redeem an otherwise bland book.  The ending feels wrapped up hastily and most problems get the "deus ex machina" treatment.  

The story is not a waste of time, and I plan on reading the sequel.  But for hardcore historical-fictionistas, you might be disappointed.  If you're dying for a Downton Abbey fix - anything at all will suffice - this is probably the book for you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

All I Need to Know about England I Learned from Midsomer Murders, Part Two

To continue an earlier post, here are more things I've "learned" about England through the BBC series Midsomer Murders.

1. The English will never move away from the place they call home, even if it's a crime-ridden hellhole.
Some of these towns seems like they have a population of only a few hundred people - if that.  When 5% of a town gets murdered every other month, I would probably move away to save my life.  Despite the sky-high murder rate, no one seems too concerned.
People don't even alter their habits when someone turns up dead.  "Oh, my neighbor and his wife were murdered?  We were involved in some sordid event last year?  I should probably walk around in this dark forest by myself at night."
Yep, looks perfectly safe to me.

2. There is no sensation-hungry, national news corps in England

When then-candidate Obama ordered a dijon mustard on his sandwich, the American conservative media crapped their collective pants.  "He's an elitist!  His condiments prove it!"  When Romney stumbled over his tongue and made his infamous "Binders of woman" quote, the liberal media acted as though he had confessed to operating a sex ring.  "He's out of touch with mainstream America!  He objectifies women!"

But when dozens of people are murdered in one otherwise bucolic, middle-class county?  Not a peep from the English media.  Barnaby doesn't have to fend off a swarm of photographers trying to get pictures of a brutalized body.  Ever.  Even when they are in the middle of a picturesque field.  Or a lovely public forest.  Or in someone's perfectly manicured backyard.

Does England just not care? 

3.  99.9% of England is white.
I think I saw an Indian woman in the background during the Midsomer Book Festival episode.  Other than that, England is just full of white men and women who desperately want to murder the crap out of one another.

She's hidden in this shot, but I think the Indian woman is behind the aging hippie.

4. No matter how dissolute or incompetent someone is, they always have a beautiful garden.
It's somewhat amazing to me how, even when planning to murder one (or two or three or more) people,  English murderers and would-be murderers always have a lovely front door, usually framed by roses or some other picturesque climbing plant.
Probably the home of a murderer.

5. England doesn't protect against unlawful search or seizure.

Barnaby and Troy did this all the time in the first few series.  Home owner-suspect not home?  Just let yourself right in.  At one point they almost got electrocuted because they were in a place they weren't supposed to be.  Did they get fired?  No.
Of course, there is no media in England, so who can the victim go to in order to rouse the public?

Don't mind us.  We're just going to break into your house.

6. If you put an English murderer in a dark room, they will confess to everything, in great detail.

You just have to arrest them for murder and then stare at them.  They'll tell everything.  To think:  American cops have been doing it wrong all these years.
An English murderers greatest fear.

Check out the series.

Book Review: Project 17

Blurb from book:

High atop Hathorne Hill, near Boston, sits Danvers State Hospital. Built in 1878 and closed in 1992, this abandoned mental institution is rumored to be the birthplace of the lobotomy. Locals have long believed the place to be haunted. They tell stories about the unmarked graves in the back, of the cold spots felt throughout the underground tunnels, and of the treasures found inside: patients' personal items like journals, hair combs, and bars of soap, or even their old medical records, left behind by the state for trespassers to view.

On the eve of the hospital's demolition, six teens break in to spend the night and film a movie about their adventures. For Derik, it's an opportunity to win a filmmaking contest and save himself from a future of flipping burgers at his parents' diner. For the others, it's a chance to be on TV, or a night with no parents. But what starts as a playful dare quickly escalates into a frenzy of nightmarish action. Behind the crumbling walls, down every dark passageway, and in each deserted room, they will unravel the mysteries of those who once lived there and the spirits who still might.

I'll confess that when I picked this book up, I had no idea that Danvers State Hospital was a real place.  The thought of breaking into a doomed asylum is creepy enough.  It's even creepier when the place is/was real, and it looks like this:
Could this place get creepier?
 (Photo credits to,,, and any others that might have been mis-credited.)

The story starts off as all horror stories do:  Gang of teenagers get together to do something stupid and/or illegal.  They are a mixed bag of personalities and set both angry and sexy-times sparks off one another.  Then it gets dark and the creepiness factor slips in.

The characters are a mixed bag of personalities and even though they don't seem to be a peas-and-carrots group, it's advertised rather plainly that, ahem, "romance" will happen.  It goes on throughout the book, but these little instalove passages take away from the real point of the book:  The Tragic Creepiness.
Creepy abandoned bed.

As the Scooby Gang explores the premises, more of the history is revealed:  barely-marked graves for the deceased and forgotten patients, horrifying-sounding treatments, young lives that decayed into despair and death.  On top of the human cost (read: waste) of the hospital, there is the tragedy of the impending property destruction of a historical landmark.  Patient's records and forgotten belongings are scattered throughout the building, and when the hospital is flattened, all trace of their lives spent in the overcrowded halls will be lost to posterity forever.  This unavoidable erasure of all these lives gives the narrative some emotional resonance.  All of the protagonists are at a crossroads, each wasting their owns lives voluntarily.

There are a few moments that genuinely made my heart beat faster, but for the most part this book is more shudder- than panic-inducing.  The Shining it is not.

Peeling paint, shattered ceilings and suicide-prevention bars...

All in all, the book gave me a few chills, and made me ponder the lost history of the now-demolished buildings, but I can't say that it's going to stay in my mind as anything particularly special.  Very readable, and a short time commitment.

3 stars!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Teaser Tuesday: Project 17

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Title:  Project 17
Author:  Laurie Faria Stolarz
Page 81

I look, too.  There's a watercolor picture tacked up, the edges all curled and yellow with age.  It's of a girl with dark stripes of hair and gigantic purple eyes.  The twisted part is that the girl is missing chunks of herself - like, she only has one arm, half a set of hips, and she's missing her mouth entirely.  She doesn't have any feet, and someone's torn her heart right out - you can see the tear marks in her chest.
"It looks kind of like me," Mimi says.

What are you reading today?

Book Review: The Boleyn King

The Boleyn King (Goodreads)
Ah, the Tudors.  Is there any more fertile ground for the imagination?

For all of us Tudor-addicts out there, Laura Anderson has created her debut novel about a "What if" scenario:

What if Anne Boleyn had managed to give Henry VIII the son he wanted?

Certainly this premise isn't too far of a stretch.  There probably isn't a Tudor fan out there who hasn't wondered the exact same thing.  Fortunately for us, Anderson actually applied butt-to-chair and pen-to-paper long enough to give us a full-length novel, the first in a proposed trilogy.

(Review might contain minor spoilers)

I'll confess that it didn't take me long to get hooked on the story, but it took me somewhat longer to relate to the characters.  It's immediately apparent who Elizabeth and William (apparently "Henry IX", according to the back of the book, though I don't think he's called that a single time in the narrative) are, but it took me longer to understand who Dominic and Minuette were, and their connections to the royals.  Certain characters aren't as prominent as you would expect, like Anne Boleyn herself.  At first, I was hopelessly adrift in this new Tudor world.  Henry VIII is dead, but many of his real-life victims were now alive.  By the simple yet momentous act of having a son, history was radically changed.  

Not only was the historical framework and scenario a bit confusing at first, but it took a while for the book's trajectory to really make itself apparent.  At first I thought it was going to be a whodunit with a potential murder at court, but then it seemed to be a find-the-conspiracy.  Just when I was convinced I 'got it', the conspiracy drifted away for a bit of Franco-English warfare.  Other historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots make their appearances - or at least mentioned.  Some well-known relationships still exist (like the Robert Dudley-Elizabeth flirtation), but other should-be familiar figures seem unimportant.  Throughout all the plot paths, all four of our protagonists are trying to find love.  By the end of the book, I was at least intrigued by all the storylines, even if I was more engaged by the find-the-conspiracy one.

Given the age of the characters (late teens and early to mid-twenties), it's not surprising that this book has a decidedly young adult flavor.  For the record: this isn't a flaw.  Some of the best-written books I've read in the past few years have been YA.  However, when you're accustomed to the ruthlessness and danger of Henry VIII's court, it's somewhat harder to get on board when the story focuses a great deal on a 17 year-old king's lovers, or if a fictional maiden will get the love she wants from the man she deserves.  Eventually, I was reluctantly shipping certain couples and hoping for a happy ending, but cold reptilian heart takes a great deal of convincing to truly care about most written romances.

I think the low point in my perception came when the four protagonists get together and decide to solve the conspiracy mystery.  Honestly, this is what I thought of:
Don't mind us.  Just going to solve a mystery...

So, if I was confused by the plot, the setup, and I didn't truly care about the sweetly blooming love stories, then I what did I like about it?

Honestly, this would have been a solid three-star book had it not been for the final chapter.  I assumed I knew exactly where the story was going and who the culprit was - wasn't it so obvious?
No it wasn't!
Anderson throws a curve ball or two in there so well I just did not see it coming.  It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but it altered my perceptions so much of what was really going on that I'm now desperate to see what happens.

All in all, round up to 4 out of 5 stars.  A decidedly solid debut once you get past the initial chapters, with a bang-up ending.

Looking forward the sequel.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Why Oliver Twist is an Ineffective Protagonist

In a half-arsed effort to be more cultured, I decided to read Oliver Twist this week and then compare the book to the Roman Polanski movie.

For the person who has never heard of Dickens in general or Oliver Twist in particular, here is the quick summary:  Orphaned as a newborn, innocent and gentle Oliver Twist finds his way among London thieves and pickpockets, only to find a chance of happiness and family with morally upright benefactors.  Since this is at least a small plot in almost every Dickens book ("morally wealthy and poverty-stricken urchin finds social redemption with charitable middle/upper-class person"), to differentiate this book from all the other adorable protagonists:  Oliver Twist is the one where he says "Please, sir, I want some more."
Wide-eyed, sweet-faced urchins are Dickens' specialty.  If you didn't know that, you do now.

Oliver Twist is considered a classic, and rightly so.  However, I'm 90% convinced that this isn't because of Oliver himself.  This is the book that created the Artful Dodger, the boy-king of the pickpockets who dresses as nicely as can be managed in men's clothes that are far too big for his frame.  (Ah ha, I see what you did there, Mr Dickens.  Symbolism.  Well played, sir.  My high school diploma has come in handy.)  For you 80s kids out there, this is the book that gave us a dog who wears sunglasses and sings Billy Joel songs in New York.
The Artful and the Dodger.  Awesome hat and a cool soundtrack.  Thanks, Mr. Dickens!

This is the book that gives us Fagin, the overlord of the street thieves, who by turns is paternal and generous, only to become vile and threatening.  He rescues boys (and a few girls) from starvation on the street, only to make them into pickpockets, removing forever any possibility of having a "normal" life. 
Fagin, in his crazier mood.

That being said, it's clearly the surrounding characters that made this book the hit it was.  Why do I say that?  There are a few things that I noticed that make Oliver himself a less-than-driving protagonist.

1.  Almost no agency over his own life
I know what some people are going to say:  "But Oliver is a kid.  This book is about how society can corrupt the youngest people and how as such, they are not really guilty."  To an extent, I agree with you.  Dickens was trying to make a point about the "justice" in the justice system.  I get it.  From a literary standpoint, though, can you say you'd rather read a book about pure-as-the-snow Oliver Twist, or about the Artful Dodger, a thief who knows exactly what's going on and makes his own choices about what he will do - even if his adult masters override him sometimes.
Here comes some passive voice which describes our protagonist (I hesitate to say "hero"):  Oliver is farmed out to a baby farm. At nine years old, he is sent to the workhouse.  He is almost apprenticed to a horribly chimney sweep before he is apprenticed to a milquetoast coffinmaker.  After choosing to run away (the first CHOICE he's made), he is drafted into a thieves' gang.  He is arrested and then is rescued by Mr Brownlow.  He is kidnapped back into the gang.  He is sent to rob an old woman with wretched Sykes.  He is shot and once again, is rescued.
There are probably more examples.  It seems like there are only a handful of times where he makes a genuine choice rather than allowing the tide to carry him where it will.  The first time is when the coffinmaker's older apprentice is twitting him about his mother.  Oliver completely loses his sh*t and beats him up.  The fallout from this fight gives him the impetus to run away.  The next time he really shows some spine is when Sykes is trying to force him to break into a house.  He begs not to be forced to rob the house, but is threatened and finally shoved through the window anyway.
Everything that happens to him happens to him.  I felt bad for him while reading, sure, but pity does not a good protagonist make.

2. Lack of "screen" time
For the first half of the book, give or take, the audience follows poor Oliver around, watching him suffer more and more from either neglect or cruelty.  Yet somehow, he manages to retain his goodness and innocence through it all.  Somewhere along the way, I think even the author got sick of his saccharine goodness.  After the ill-starred robbery, Oliver sort of disappears from view, only popping up now and again to have other, more interesting characters comment on how good he is.  Blech.
From the robbery on, we are told about Nancy, a grown street urchin who feel guilt over condemning Oliver to a life of crime.  We are shown - finally - how Sykes really is a douche-canoe.  We learn what Fagin and his adorable gang of urchins is up to.  We see a pair of star-crossed lovers struggle and finally unite.  The bumbling beadle makes a precipitous match.  The bullying apprentice gets in over his head with a life of crime.
Oliver pops in from time to time, usually to say something sweet to Miss Rose, or to pine over the meaningless death of a fellow from the parochial baby farm, but for the most part, he's just the catalyst for a whole lot of fallout for everyone around him.
It's not a good sign if your protagonist can be off-screen and the book progresses meaningfully.

3. No growth, i.e. character arc
Oliver Twist starts off the novel as an innocent, beaten down by circumstances, fighting to be treated kindly.  He is moral, despite having next-to-no religious experience and righteous examples to follow.
He goes through many travails.  What do these experiences do to him?
Oliver is an innocent, formerly beaten down by circumstances, but now being treated kindly.  He is moral, has religion in his life and has righteous examples to follow.  Also, he's the long-lost son of his benefactor and has an aunt/sister figure and money.
So everything really works out for Mr Twist.
But he doesn't really change.
Please don't think that I wanted Oliver to become a hardened criminal; that isn't why people pick up a Dickens novel.  However, when a protagonist's core character is essentially unchanged by the experiences, the story loses some of its punch.
Other people grow.  Nancy (poor, poor Nancy...) decides, despite years of being a street thief and a criminal's consort, that pulling others into it is wrong.
Rose, knowing that her sketchy background would taint the man she married, decides that his love is true enough that he won't regret his decision.
Even Mr Grimwig - who's barely in the book for ten pages - learns that the poor are not necessarily bad, and that good ol' Oliver might actually be worth the air he breathes.
But Oliver?  He's born a saint and he passes through "The End" as a saint. 
If you want an interesting protagonist, make sure they are changed by the experiences they have.

Now, here are the subtle changes made in Roman Polanski's movie:
1. Keep Oliver on the screen.
The whole "Rose" storyline was completely cut out.  It didn't matter, since Rose only appears about 60% of the way through the book and was really just there to be a paragon of virtue.  The story focuses on Oliver and what can he do, and why.  (This alone doesn't make him a more interesting protagonist, but it does make the overall story better.)
2. Show Oliver making decisions for a reason.
Of course, the tot is still a moral innocent.  You can't change that without changing the story.  By removing the "Rose" storyline, the robbery now took place at the only established rich person's house:  Mr. Brownlow's.  When Oliver protests the robbery, you know it's because he feels an obligation and affection for the resident, not because he's a mascot for the Forces of Good.
3. Give the interesting characters more screen time.
When you have Ben Kingsley in your movie, use him.  He can take the dumbest roles and make them awesome.  I'm fairly certain the last scene was inserted just to have Ben Kingsley do some Acting.  Have the Artful Dodger do things - like "dodging" people - rather than pulling mean ol' Noah Claypole (coffinmaker's apprentice) back into the story in the eleventh hour to cause a stir.  Show Nancy and her plight - trapped between the murderous Sykes and her conscience.  By removing non-essential storylines, the director was able to make a stronger storyline.

Despite my criticisms, Oliver Twist is a classic for a reason.  It's just a shame that Dickens' villains and secondary characters tend to be more interesting to read about than his protagonists.  If you read this book, make sure you read it for the overall story, the dichotomy of kindness and cruelty, the plight of the poor and the ineffectiveness of charity.  You'll read about a protagonist; you just won't read about a hero.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

All I Need to Know about England I Learned from Midsomer Murders

A few months ago, I started watching the BBC series Midsomer Murders.  Of course, given that the show is about a bajillion episodes long (and each episode about 90 minutes long) I haven't exactly watched all the episodes. 

The show takes place in the seemingly peaceful English county of Midsomer and follows the cases of the great Chief Inspector Barnaby (played by John Nettles).  I say "great" because I don't think there has been a single case where Barnaby was wrong.  He always manages to figure out 'whodunit' within 90 minutes, often saving the life of yet another victim in dramatic fashion, when he realizes that something seemingly banal was actually crucial evidence.

After a while the episodes start blending together and you can start patching together what is going to happen and who the culprit will be based on the circumstances surrounding the case.  Of course, I know that this is TV, but it's terribly fun to make ridiculous generalizations about real places based on fictitious events.  So, without further ado, here is a [probably incomplete] list of "true" things about the English countryside:

1.  There are shockingly few happily married couples in England.
From what I've seen, there is only one consistently happy couple in England:

Sure, Joyce can't cook her way out of a wet paper bag, and Tom is constantly leaving her alone in restaurants/pubs/parks because he has to go check out yet another murder, but they actually seem to like one another.
There is a little addendum to this point:
1b.  If you see a happy marriage, one of them is either a murderer or about to be murdered.
In one particularly cheerful episode, a young engaged couple gets married, only to have the bride murdered.  On her wedding day.  In her dress.  In another episode, one couple looked like the picture of a cheerful couple.  Turns out the wife was completely nuts and was murdering people all over the place.  Best part?  The husband figured it was her, but didn't want to have Mrs. Crazypants put back into the Crazyhouse.  (Yes - BACK into the Crazyhouse.  That was where they met.)

2.  Having a hobby is life-threatening. 
I don't know how many times Joyce has tried to take up a hobby only to stumble over a dead body.  Watercolor group on the green?  Trips on dead body.  Helping restore an old canal tunnel? Almost crushed by collapsing roof, finds room of dead skeletons.  Takes part in amateur theater?  Man killed on stage.

3. Every town has at least two of the following:  a rich and eccentric noble family, a greedy merchant, a ridiculously specific festival, and/or someone or something with an incredibly sordid history. 
Forget the slums of major cities.  Forget the quirkiness of places like Portland, San Francisco, or New York. All the weirdos are in the English countryside.  Madison's Naked Bike Ride?  Completely normal compared to how important Bell Ringing is in Midsomer.  Also, the Picturesque Village Award.  And the county-wide Cricket Tournament.  Or the Fluffiest Badgers Trophy (okay, I made that up).
There are titled families in this series - though at the rate they keep dropping, I'm not sure how many of them can possibly be left.  They are usually involved in SOMETHING, but are more frequently the victims rather than the murderers.  I think the nobility takes the prize for Most Dysfunctional Families.  Probably not something to cheer about.
As any good American knows, money is only good thing in the world.  (Please detect sarcasm there.) Which is why I'm surprised that the rich merchants are usually a step away from being a Dickens villian.

4.  Having kids in England is probably a bad idea.
I suppose this is related to the dysfunctional marriage bullet above, but from what I've seen, anyone under the age of 25 has one of Four roles to fill:
- Finder of dead body (this is the best option)
- Murder victim
- Murderer
- Cully Barnaby
How Cully has escaped being stabbed for this long, I'll never know.  She, like her mother, is always in the wrong place at the wrong time with the way wrong person, but seems to get by without a hair out of place.
Except for the scene from this image, apparently:

5.  Pretty women are almost universally bad news.  If they have long hair, they're committing adultery with someone (or they have in the past).
If a woman walks on the screen in a sexy outfit and heels and her last name isn't "Barnaby,"  she's probably a criminal, a thief or a murderer.  Long hair = adultery.  
This isn't to say that there are no pretty women in this show.  There are.  The actress who plays Cully is very attractive.  But if the first thing the characterization tries to show is that "this woman has sex appeal," she's either going to bite in within a few minutes or steal someone's inheritance.

I don't want anyone to think I don't enjoy the show; I really do.  There is a sort of overall story arc, but you can really watch the episodes in almost any order.
Midsomer Murders, Series 1. 

Seen any other shows with quirky logic all their own?

All I Learned About England,,,Part Two

Fun Term: Wandering Meander

Way, way back when I took geology class, I learned a term:  Wandering Meander.  Google doesn't seem to know what I'm asking about, but I promise it's a thing.  A wandering meander is moving body of water that courses back and forth across its floodplain - sort of like the river equivalent of a snake.  Here in Wisconsin, there are tons of these streams and rivers.
This behavior, this inability to pick one course and stick to it, is what leads to the creation of ox-bow lakes, among other things.  They are very common geological feature that makes some amazing scenery.

I love seeing these meanders along roadways.  They always look the same to me, but they're always undulating a little bit.  Exaggerating this turn here, cutting that bank there.  Over [geological] time, they can utterly change the landscape around them.

Sort of reminds me of a song from Pocahontas...