‘Kushiel’s Chosen’ by Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel's_ChosenWe can all agree that I am a big fat nerd for reading Kushiel’s Chosen. This series is practically a byword for geekdom — a fantasy series that incorporates angels, alterna-medieval politics, espionage and S&M. There are pirates, courtesans, dashing warrior-priests who have sworn (and forsworn) vows of chastity, women with startling beauty and unique eyes, and plots to overthrow a kingdom’s rightful rulers.

In short, it’s pretty much as amazing as it sounds.

There’s a lot going on in Kushiel’s Chosen, but I’d just come off a spate of YA fiction, and the main theme that stuck with me was the relationship between Phedre and Joscelin. Spoiler — at the end of Kushiel’s Dart, these two crazy kids finally admit they’re in love and they bop off to Phedre’s newly-discovered country estate, where presumably they live very happily for a period of several months and, for lack of a better term, boink like bunnies.

However. Then Phedre decides she needs to re-enter Naamah’s service, i.e., take “patrons” again. This is highly consistent with her character — she genuinely enjoys her work, has affection for many of her patrons, and satisfies her own needs through her service. She views her work as a vocation, a calling, something she was uniquely created to do.

Naturally, Joscelin has a problem with this. There’s a very dramatic point where he sulks off to conduct a vigil in the rain for hours, while Phedre wanders around generally rolling her eyes and explaining to her bodyguards that she can’t possibly be expected to knock any sort of sense into Joscelin’s thick skull. There’s a lot of guilt and misunderstanding and general awfulness that results in Phedre and Joscelin being separated.

What separates their relationship from most in fiction is that neither of them are being asked to choose between two lovers. There’s not a blond and a dark-haired man, one brooding and one not, vying for affection. Phedre’s choice is truly between Joscelin and herself, something she views as central to her identity. Her feelings for Melisande, though overwhelming at times, have nothing to do with love — she recognizes that her attraction for Melisande is driven by her sexual desires, and her feeling that she was created to serve certain sexual proclivities. Melisande represents both the god Phedre serves and her own identity. She’s the Shadow, where Joscelin is the Animus.

It’s also worth noting that neither of them ever states that they can’t live without the other. They want to be together, they don’t want to be separated, and it’s clear to the reader that they are better together — an indomitable team. But Phedre and Joscelin are incredibly strong, complete people on their own. There’s none of the threatening death or destruction or whatever else if they can’t be together that characterizes so much romance. If one of them were to die, or if Joscelin were to decide he couldn’t be with Phedre…the other would move on, sadder, grieving, perhaps lesser, but eventually moving forward despite that loss.

There’s also never a question of whether Phedre loves Joscelin or not; it’s whether her love for him is worth compromising herself for, and if so, how much. And she doesn’t have a lot of time to think about it, since she’s running for her life through much of this book.

Joscelin faces a similar choice. He’s already forsworn several of his vows for Phedre, and informs her bluntly of the impact on his psyche — he’s not even sure who he is anymore. He knows he loves her, but he also feels called to help a marginalized group of people (known as the Yeshuites), perhaps to achieve redemption. He is not my favorite character, but I appreciate his desire to dedicate himself to a worthy cause when he’s not sure where else to turn.

He redeems himself in the end, anyway. His ability to admit he was wrong enables Phedre to meet him halfway, and their entire reconciliation is imbued with a maturity I don’t often see in other novels. Their relationship is full of pretty much everything you would want: chemistry, devotion, and a pragmatic view of what it actually is going to take in order for their relationship to work for both of them.

Of course, all of this is largely beside the point, as most of Phedre’s adventures involve her and only her. She’s usually surrounded by men, but they typically are not required to rescue her. She’s almost pushed to her death by a would-be rescuer, in fact, and betrayed several times by men she thought she could trust. There’s an army at one point that Phedre commands whose numbers are required, and Joscelin is required for physical strength at one crucial moment. However, the elaborate plots, diplomacy and long-term politicking Phedre masterminds ultimately save the day.

November 24, 2015 at 12:42 am Leave a comment

‘Fates and Furies’ by Lauren Groff

Fates and Furies Cover ImageFates and Furies has hit the book world like a storm. It’s not Lauren Groff’s first novel, nor even her first critically acclaimed one, but it seems to be the one destined to put her on the map of great contemporary writers.

The conceit is this: Lotto, a young bottled water heir, is wasted at a party two weeks before his college graduation and proposes to Mathilde, a woman whom he has just met. They get married, and somehow, against all odds, manage to stay married. It’s difficult to explain more without spoilers, but they live a fairly ordinary life until Lotto becomes wildly successful.

The first half of the novel is told from Lotto’s point of view; the second, Mathilde’s. Each half tells the story of a marriage from different perspectives, that of the contented white male and that of the supposedly angry white female.

Groff was on NPR a while ago talking about how it’s about feminine rage, in the great tradition of Madame Bovary. Perhaps this is a flaw in my own personality, but I did not read either Madame Bovary or Mathilde as especially rageful. Determined, yes. Ferocious, yes. Leonine, perhaps. But angry? Eh.


November 17, 2015 at 12:47 am 1 comment

Cookbook Review: ‘Apples for Jam’ by Tessa Kiros

apples-for-jamIt’s not often we write about cookbooks on Literary Transgressions. (Um, we never have.) This is probably because there is usually very little “literary” about cookbooks and the most transgressive they get is offering you a way to combine a full package of butter with three kinds of chocolate to create something utterly decadent that you can now no longer live without.

All the same, both Kate and I are cookbook lovers and foodies, so it seems appropriate that we spend a few column inches, as it were, sharing our favorites from time to time. And one of my all-time favorite cookbooks is one I have fondly nicknamed “The Impenetrable Cookbook”: Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jam.

Now, you might be wondering, why do I call it impenetrable if I love it so much? Because this beautiful volume is organized not by meal or food type or protein or even country of origin — it is organized by color. If this sounds slightly insane, that’s because it is. The overall color of any given dish is fairly debatable, i.e. do you put lasagna in red or yellow? Do you put chocolate chip cookies in brown or white? Do you put a fruit salad under green or red or orange or purple or yellow or…what?! The idea of organizing an entire cookbook according to this incredibly subjective way of seeing the world is hardly one with the user experience in mind.

BUT. It’s also a beautiful way to organize a cookbook. (more…)

November 12, 2015 at 8:15 am Leave a comment

‘Sacré Bleu’ by Christopher Moore

sacrebleuIn attempting to describe Christopher Moore’s novel Sacré Bleu, the best I could come up with was a string of keywords: nineteenth-century Paris; imaginative fiction; art history; fanboy; murder mystery; blue (color). Lots of blue.

In the most basic sense, Sacré Bleu is about a couple of guys ineptly investigating their good friend’s suicide in the French countryside and eventually stumbling onto a fantastical conspiracy that has spurred on creativity and invention for millennia. This plot is enriched by the fact that the suicidal friend is Vincent van Gogh and one of the guys investigating is Henri Toulouse-Lautrec who, despite his artistic talents, is perhaps not the best person for the job. Something is rotten with the color blue and our heroes are going to figure out what. (more…)

November 5, 2015 at 2:31 pm Leave a comment

An alternative scene in ‘The Selection’ by Kiera Cass

the-selection-kiera-cass-largeScene: A fancy-schmancy bedroom in a palace. There is a canopy bed and tons of lace, but few personal effects lying around. America Singer, a lovely young girl with fiery red hair, is sleeping soundly when, slowly, the door opens and Aspen, a young man with pitch-black hair and stunning green eyes, enters the room. He shakes her awake.

AMERICA: Aspen! You shouldn’t be here! They’ll kill you!

ASPEN: I can’t take it anymore, Mer. I’ll die if I have to be apart from you for another second.

AMERICA: Oh, Aspen.

A throat clears. Aspen and America visibly start as they see me, the reader, standing in the doorway with a disapproving look on my face. Aspen, true to form, immediately leaps up and draws a sword (I assume?) as America freezes in terror.

APEN: Who are you? How did you get in here?

ME: Just the reader, young man. Just the reader. I’m having trouble believing this scene.  (more…)

November 3, 2015 at 12:11 am 2 comments

‘The Hour I First Believed’ by Wally Lamb

130166I found myself reading this book about the Columbine shooting at about the same time there was a mass shooting at a school in Oregon. While surreal to read a story about the motives and internal lives of mass killers during the aftermath of a similar shooting, that context added a depth, I think, to this reading experience that otherwise might have been lacking.

Caelum Quirk, a high school English teacher at Columbine, happens to be in Connecticut dealing a family emergency when two students execute one of the most truly terrifying acts of violence in recent history. His wife, Maureen, is not so lucky — she happens to be in the library when the shooting begins, which those well-versed in Columbine history will know was the scene of most of the deaths. Maureen hides in a cabinet to escape, silently saying rosaries, trying not to breathe audibly, and scratching a note to her husband on the inside of the door, so if she is killed, he’ll know she was thinking of him.

It is horrifying. (more…)

October 27, 2015 at 12:01 am Leave a comment

On National Novel Writing Month and appreciating novels

nanowrimo-posterAh, autumn. The falling leaves. The freshly sharpened pencils. The scarves and boots. The crisp back in the air. And, for many, the maddening crunch of writing the next great American novel.

Held every November, National Novel Writing Month is billed as “30 days and nights of literary abandon” wherein participants have thirty days to write a full novel. Or the draft of one anyway.

One of my favorite things about National Novel Writing Month is how it forces participants to stop and seriously contemplate the creation of a novel. I think for readers (and book bloggers in particular), it is easy to get so wrapped up in the reading and the critique of novels that we often forget just how hard they are to create. It’s no mean feat to sit down and create something entirely new. And, once you do that, it is even harder to go back and edit that something new into something readable. (more…)

October 22, 2015 at 2:11 am Leave a comment

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