16 January 2022

Cotillion by Georgette Heyer, 1953

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"One of you shall have her, and my fortune into the bargain"
Such was the whimsical, some would say outrageous, statement of the ageing Mr Penicuik, to the three of his great-nephews gathered around him.
The future of his vivacious step-daughter, Miss Kitty Charing, was thus assured, provided she married one of the handsome beaux now seeking her hand. But Kitty was in no hurry to conclude such a contract. By hook or by crook she meant to go to London, where anything might happen and very often did...
(355 pages)

My first introduction to Georgette Heyer’s works sounds almost like a story from a movie. My friend took me into her favorite used bookstore, a tiny but extremely cozy and welcoming shop down a small cobblestone alley in the oldest part of our ancient Scottish university town. I started pulling old books off the shelves at random, and grabbed an unassuming old book entitled “Friday’s Child”. I flipped to the first page and from the opening lines – a woman asks the young man kneeling at her feet not to propose, and he protests "Damn it - I mean, dash it, Isabella! . . . I haven't started!" – I was entranced. I bought the book, and once I was home I quickly devoured the novel. And then, whenever I was stressed, I’d look up another book or two by Heyer and read the ebook from my library. By this point, I’ve read almost all of her 40+ books.

I’ll be honest, a lot of them aren’t actually that good. And of the best – of which both Friday’s Child and Cotillion definitely classify – there are still iffy elements. All of her Regency books are focused on members of English high society, and there’s a strong layer of classism sprinkled over every tale. However poor a heroine might be, we’re still reassured that she’s of good birth. Men might be philanderers, but as long as they’re only chasing after lower-class, supposedly easy women – referred to most commonly in the books as “bits of muslin” – then it’s not a big deal as long as they stop when they fall in love with a “quality” woman.  There’s arguably some misogyny as well, though to be honest I think Heyer does a fabulous job of crafting strong, independent heroines within the context of the time period her books are set.

All those issues aside, I’ll be honest: Cotillion is one of my favorite comfort books. I’ve reread it at least three times since I discovered it two years ago, and I always come away from it with a smile on my face. I love both Kitty and Freddy, and their arranged betrothal may be cliché but it’s such a fun premise. Freddy is such a refreshing male lead, so different from most Regency heroes. He’s a dandy, obsessed with fashion and clothes, and not particularly quick-witted or athletic. But he’s an extremely kind-hearted, practical man who is too decent to ever cause a scandal. He basically agrees to the fake betrothal because Kitty starts crying and he doesn’t know what else to do to make her stop. It’s so cute watching him grow more attached to her as they spend time together throughout the book. As for Kitty, while I don’t love her quite as much – she’s more of a stock Heyer heroine – I do still enjoy watching her fumble her way through high society. One of my favorite scenes in the book is watching her drag Freddy around London to look at all the historic buildings and museums. I laugh every time I read the bit where they go to an exhibit of Ancient Greek statues which are missing their heads and he's disgusted to have been ripped off, because he had to pay full price even though the statues are defective.

As for the other characters, cousin Jack (the one Kitty originally hoped would propose) is one of those people it’s fun to hate. Freddy’s sister Meg, whom Kitty lives with in London, is a pretty good character. I’m not a huge fan of the subplot where she’s flirting with Jack while her husband is traveling, though. Freddy’s parents are delightful, and don’t get enough screentime. His other cousins are a hilarious study in character work. And the remaining characters are honestly very annoying. There’s an entire subplot that becomes very dominant in the later part of the book that I barely liked the first time, and that I now skip over entirely when I reread the book, which entirely revolves around the boring characters. It’s a shame, because if it were better then this book would be even more perfect. 

What can I say? Warts and all, I love this book. I’m sure I’ll revisit it many times again in the future, and I’m so glad I discovered Heyer’s books by chance that rainy day in early 2020. And now I’m feeling the itch to reread Friday’s Child again!

20 December 2021

Hunted by K. M. Shea, 2021

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Ever feel like you don’t belong?
Try being a hunter living with werewolves. I’m the definition of “doesn’t fit in”. I’m not Pack, but I’m not the enemy, either.
I struggle to survive among werewolves who are stronger and faster than me, and are competitive enough to break a bone or two for the sake of “fun.”
Greyson, their alpha, is the worst of them all.
Blatantly relentless and twice as deadly, Greyson rules the Pack and expands its territory even though it’s already the largest in the region. I just wish he’d stop interfering with my life. He’s got enough trouble of his own with his incomplete mate bond, but he’s made it his hobby to tease and test me at every opportunity.
Doesn’t my life sound fun?
When wolves from surrounding packs start mindlessly attacking the innocent humans in our city, Timber Ridge, everything changes.
Werewolves don’t turn feral without reason. Which means someone is making this happen, and they’re targeting our Pack.
I don’t like where this is going, but how am I supposed to stop a feral wolf outbreak when I’m just one hunter? Can Greyson and I set aside our differences to see the Pack through this?
(322 pages)

This is the first book in a new series that’s set in the same world as two of Shea’s other series, Hall of Blood and Mercy and Court of Midnight and Deception. They’re both fun, fluffy supernatural series that feature political intrigue, dry humor, and intriguing worldbuilding. They’re all also romances, but the romance is not the “point” of the books or the only focal point of the narrative. I really appreciate this balance, and I’ve grown to love this quirky world full of magical beings alternating between grand conflicts and inane bureaucracy. I’ve been excited for this latest series since I found out Shea was planning another story in the world, this time focused on werewolves, and if Hunted is any indication this series is going to be just as much fun as the other ones.

Let’s start with the less positive, just to get it out of the way. This book is not subtle. There’s a scene at the end of it where some new plot twists are introduced, and I had already predicted every single one of them. I was occasionally frustrated (especially in the second half) by how clueless Pip was about everything and by all the small hints and foreshadowing Shea dropped when I’d already long since figured things out. I also thought the relationship between Pip and Greyson wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been. Pip is bitter that he was brought in to replace the previous alpha, who’d been a paternal figure for her, but besides being mentioned once or twice this doesn’t seem to really factor in to her relationship with him. She constantly claims to dislike him, including in her internal dialogue, but she never gives any concrete reasons or seem to find him anything worse than honorable-but-annoying. I’d have loved to see her take actual issue with him, perhaps morally disagreeing with his leadership style or decision-making or something. This was done really well with Killian and Hazel in the Hall of Blood and Mercy trilogy.

Now to the good. For starters, it’s fun. I had a great time reading it and never got bored – a true feat, since I read it on a plane. I usually get bored doing anything on a plane. I love the wry sense of humor in all of these series, mixing the dramatic supernatural stuff with mundane human stuff. Some of my favorite scenes were the ones where Pip was working in the welcome center for her town, wrangling the tourists seeking werewolf mementos and the werewolf women stalking Greyson with equal aplomb. I also love the scenes where she’s planning to defrost frozen pizza or trying to bully her mean, overweight cats into taking their medication. It adds such a great human dimension to the story.

I also like the angle on adoption that Shea takes here. Pip was adopted by a werewolf couple in the Pack when her first parents died, and they have now also passed away. Pip has inherited their house, she’s still treated like a Pack member even with her parents gone, and there’s just generally a baseline treatment of adoption as “real” family even past the point when her parents aren’t there to actively advocate for her anymore. This is done without taking anything away from Pip’s heritage as a hunter, or her memories of her earlier childhood, and watching her grapple with feeling alone in the world – not really a hunter, not quite a werewolf – was honestly one of the most fascinating things in the book. It mirrored a lot of the things I’ve heard from friends who were transracially adopted and what I read when we were adopting my younger sisters. I love seeing this treatment of adoption and exploration of its complications, especially when most books in this genre would likely have taken the “easy” path and treated Pip’s werewolf parents like temporary foster parents who didn’t matter once they were dead  - completely ignoring the complexities of her identity. 

All in all, this was a lot of fun. I’m glad I had the chance to read it, and I’m looking forward to seeing things continue in the sequel!

13 December 2021

Questions about A Christmas Prince 2: A barely coherent rant

Here's the context for what you're about to read. When The Christmas Prince 2 came out on Netflix in 2018, I was in the throes of studying for my December exams. After I watched it during a study break, my feverish mind kept jumping off of my macroeconomics textbook to focus on the important questions: the logical issues with the world of The Christmas Prince.  I opened up Blogger, made a post entitled "Questions about A Christmas Prince 2", and threw all of my thoughts onto the page stream-of-conscious style. This rant periodically pops into my head once or twice a year, and it always makes me laugh to read it back over, so I thought it would be worth putting it out into the world. I make no promises about the accuracy of my statements about how the economy works, because after another two years of study I've concluded I still know nothing about the field. But anyway, hope you get some laughter out of it.


How has her father never been to Aldovia before now?

Why does Emily's play get shut down? Surely they have a backup generator for power, and besides that all they need is permission from the people who own the building to use it. The workers don't own the building, do they? Anyway, why are the school workers striking? Surely most of their wages are fixed by contracts and they get to teach rich kids so their work is not really impacted?

Why is the strike so sudden? Usually there's a lot more negotiation before they jump into striking, and something that the workers actually are holding out for. Rebelling against a fiscal policy action as a whole doesn't make much sense.

I can't believe they talked to some random striker and he was the key to everything. What are the odds that he would have exactly the information they needed to figure out what's going on? And how come no one else thought to check up on this at all, besides the one guy who didn't really do it?

I'm not even going to talk about the absolute stupidity that is the idea that one person can have stolen enough money from the economy to single-handedly cause a recession. Or the idea that they could do that and not be noticed.

Why is the economy in such bad shape after just a year? Four financial quarters is not nearly enough time for all the king's changes to have taken effect. An increase in government spending can actually even result in a short-run recession before the stimulus takes effect (since a decrease in consumption spending necesssary for increased investment can result in decreased production in the short run), so without the theft it could have been that they just needed to wait a while to see the results. Also, giving a huge amount of money + Christmas bonuses out willy-nilly is almost certainly going to result in WAY too sharp a spike in the price level. Inflation will be a nightmare and exports will almost halt. Plus they'll have to swing back down at some point after this fiscal and monetary expansion, and there will be a hard recession.

What sort of communist country is this, anyway, where the king can personally pay everyone's wages? If the bad guy's company really did do the work they were paid for, then why are all the Aldovian workers who didn't do anything entitled to these big payouts? If they did do the work, then why is the government the one paying them? Was the Aldovian government really that close to going bankrupt that they couldn't pay for the work they hired people to do? It seems like either there was some gross financial error in the public works planning or the money was stolen directly from the government coffers, which should have been really easy to check.

On a financial document I saw that they are on the euro. If they're in the EU, why are they so focused on only using domestic producers? The whole point of the EU is to allow for easy trade and strong competition. Is the king going to push for Aldexit next? If all the money weren't going into the pocket of that one guy, I don't know if I'd have even had an issue with them using international companies to do the work. Assuming, of course, that those companies were cheaper and more efficient, which does seem suspect for something like local infrastructure construction.

If they are on the Euro but not in the EU, then they are most likely operating on a fixed exchange rate.


At this point in my rant, the mention of a fixed exchange rate reminded me of the exam I was actually supposed to be studying for and I switched back to studying.

12 December 2021

The Twelve Dancing "Princesses" by S. R. Nulton, 2019

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Portia is a girl with a problem. Several, actually. The first, and possibly most important, is that she's been cursed. Luckily, she has 11 other people to keep her company. Too bad they can't ask anyone for help. And they are going through a lot of shoes while waiting for rescue.
Eric is a man with a mission. He needs to find his sister and he'll stop at nothing to do so. But what happens when he gets sidetracked helping 12 missing women? And how do you help someone without them knowing? Because these girls are bound and determined to keep anyone from finding out what's going on. Too bad he can't just ask them outright.

As I've documented quite thoroughly with my review choices over the past year, I'm a big fan of fairytale retellings. After devouring as many as I could get my hands on for a long time, I've started to become a bit pickier. I'm drawn to the retellings of the stories that haven't already been told a million times, or the most unique retellings of the more common ones. My usual rule of thumb is that the more famous a story is, the more boring I'll find its average retelling - just because I'll have read so many others that play with similar tropes.

Somehow, Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of the few "big" fairytales that doesn't quite fit that rule. While famous, it's not adapted as frequently as its counterparts, probably because of the ridiculous number of characters. And the retellings I do find are very rarely shadows of each other. The challenge of this story is so great that each author comes up with a unique angle from which to attack it.

All that to say, I'm probably biased but I had a lot of fun with this book. I know that on an objective level it's not a great book - I kept mixing up some of the girls, and the romance was a bit too insta-lovey for my usual tastes - but I got so wrapped up in the plot that I forgot about it for the most part.

It took me a while to remember all the ins and outs of the book's backstory, especially as I was reading it out of order. I still don't know if a couple of the minor characters were references to other books, to be honest. But that wasn't a huge deal. And it was fun finally getting a book from Eric's point of view after following three of his sisters in some of the other books. I liked him as a character, even if he was slightly too generally-perfect-soldier-guy for my own tastes. As for Portia, she was great. I loved being in her head when she was confusing all of the people around her. Her tendency to get lost in thought mid-conversation then pop up with some completely random comment made me laugh (and only partially out of recognition of my own tendencies).

Perhaps what I liked the most about the book was the way it tackled the difficulty of needing to flesh out twelve main characters (as well as the men around them). It's genius, really: Nulton made having a one-note personality part of the curse. Literally. As the curse gets worse, each girl becomes more and more extreme with a single trait until it becomes very easy to tell them apart. Portia is ditzy to the point where she can't keep track of conversations even when she tries, another girl begins to mimic others so much that she loses her own personality, some girls get an obsession for water or animals or plants, and so on. It's an easy way to give each character a single defining trait without the reader feeling short-changed.

Looking back, my biggest issue with the book is probably some potential that was wasted. Some of Portia's magic introduced possibilities that would have been very fun (if a bit cheesy) in the romance storyline, but they were basically forgotten later on. And we're told a lot that Eric is too protective of the people he cares about, but that never really seems to get in the way of anything so I'm not entirely sure why it's there.

I read this book on an airplane, and it was the perfect travel read: interesting enough to keep me entertained, light and fluffy enough to keep me in good spirits, and long enough to last a few hours. If you're looking for a 12 Dancing Princesses retelling, you could definitely do worse (though my definitive favourite will always be Jessica Day George's Princess of the Midnight Ball, and Melanie Celliers's Dance of Silver and Shadows is a cute retelling as well!). Do you know of any other 12 Dancing Princesses retellings? If so, put them in the comments below so I can check them out!

21 September 2021

Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames by Lara Maiklem, 2019

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A lyrical and evocative narrative history of London and its people, told through objects found on the banks of the Thames by the city's most prominent mudlark
For thousands of years human beings have been losing their possessions and dumping their rubbish in the River Thames, making it the longest and most varied archaeological site in the world. For those in the know, the muddy stretches provide a tangible link with the past, a connection to the natural world, and an oasis of calm in a chaotic city...
For fifteen years, Lara Maiklem has walked the Thames foreshore, spending innumerable hours peering into the mud for items discarded by past generations of Londoners. The list of things Lara has rescued from the river is long and varied: from Neolithic flints, Roman hair pins and medieval shoe buckles to Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes, seventeenth-century love tokens and discarded war medals.
Mudlarking is the story of the River Thames and its people, told through the objects that Lara has eased from its muddy clutches over the years. Weaving her story through and around the history of the River, from prehistory to the present day, she uses her finds to bring the ordinary lives of long forgotten Londoners to life.
(295 pages)

I moved to London last month. I've been looking forward to this for six months, and it seems like there are a million reasons to be excited to be here. One of the biggest to me, however, is the history of the city. I love the idea that I live somewhere people have been making history for literally thousands of year. I've been fascinated with the idea of mudlarking the Thames since I learned about it several years ago on a VlogBrothers video, and it was one of the first things I wanted to try once I arrived.

That's why I snagged a copy of this book when I was at a bookshop in my first week here. And I'm glad I did. Because Maiklem's love and knowledge of the Thames leaks through every page, heightening my own excitement to discover the history that's "up for grabs" every time the shore recedes. It's a delightfully meandering exploration of some of her favourite mudlarking spots, complete with descriptions of the items she's found in specific spots (and the history she's either researched or imagined for each one). Some of her exploits sound more appealing to me than others - I don't think I'm quite as hardcore as she is as far as miles of mud and fast-moving tides are concerned - but overall I finished the book feeling super pumped to go out there and find some items of my own.

I've only gone out once yet so far, and that was just for twenty minutes. But I found some nails and bits of pottery that lit up my imagination and left me excited for more. The history of London is insane, and I'm obsessed with the idea that the tangible pieces of its past have been left behind in the Thames for me to find them. Mailkem's narrative has enhanced my excitement for this. I just bought her Field Guide to Larking, which I'm looking forward to using to learn how to mudlark myself.