TV Recap and Review: Daytime Divas – Pilot

Title: Pilot
Show: Daytime Divas
Season: 1
Episode: 1
Sidereel Rating (Average): 4.17
Sidereel Rating (Mine): 5

Based on: Satan’s Sisters by Star Jones

Notes: Series Premiere

Cast:

  1. Vanessa Williams – Maxine Robinson
  2. Camille Guaty – Nina Sandoval
  3. Tichina Arnold – Mo Evans
  4. Chloe Bridges – Kibbie Ainsley
  5. Fiona Gubelmann – Heather Flynn-Kellogg
  6. McKinley Freeman – Shawn Robinson

Series Description: In a spoof of The View, and with former The View co-host Star Jones as executive producer, comes Daytime Divas. The show is about The Lunch Hour, a daytime talk show led by Maxine Robinson, long time news anchor and journalist. Her co-hosts are Nina, a Pulitzer prize winning war correspondent with secrets in her past, Mo, a stand up comedian who can be unscrupulous when it comes to getting ahead, Kibbie, a former child star struggling with addiction and Heather, a former pageant queen and devout Christian. Maxine’s adoptive son (and biological nephew) Shawn works with as a producer on the show.

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Vanessa Williams as Maxine Robinson

Plot Highlights: Maxine and Mo clash on air about a joke made at Maxine’s expense. Mo worries that Heather’s husband may be abusing her. Mo is having an affair with her PA, Leon. Maxine goes into a coma during a routine facelift procedure, something Shawn quickly spins as minor throat surgery. Leon the PA wants to take their relationship to the next level, but Mo dumps him. Nina and her husband Andrew find out that that they cannot have children. Nina and Shawn turn out to be having an affair. In Maxine’s absence, the other co-hosts vie for Maxine’s “left chair.” Brad and Heather argue about their daughter Ella (who is trans). Leon blackmails Mo, resuming their relationship and getting a promotion. Mo finds Maxine’s medical records and blackmails Shawn into giving her the “left chair.” Kibby falls off the wagon and is nearly arrested. Maxine wakes up during the airing of the show and decides to delay announcing the details of her recovery.

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From L to R: Tichina Arnold, Chloe Briges, Camille Guaty and Fiona Gubelmann as Mo, Kibbie, Nina and Heather.

Phew. Who’d have thought that one episode would have so much happening in it?

The episode does a great job of introducing the characters and displaying their various quirks – as if the Lunch Hour introductory sequence alone wasn’t enough to do that. And while the drama falls neatly into the requisite spaces, plenty of space is also reserved for a WHOLE lot of depth. In essence, Daytime Divas is The Lunch Hour plus the dishy backstage deets.

The show opens with Maxine cancelling her appearance at a corporate retreat because: “It’s a boy’s club. I refuse to be paraded around as the token female in a leadership role.” There is no doubt that she’s a diva, through and through – as she walks from her office to the set, she’s seen telling a costume designer to take a jacket out of rotation because she’d already worn it once six months ago. She then goes on to tell the woman to have the jacket wrapped up so Maxine could give it to her cleaning lady as a birthday present. Maxine also seems to have an ongoing rivalry with Oprah that Oprah probably knows nothing about.

Full disclosure: I’ve already watched multiple episodes of this show. Yes, I know the pilot just aired, but I work in closed captioning and subtitling, and we often get new movies or TV shows before they begin airing. Interestingly, this is also how I ended up watching the currently airing final segment of Pretty Little Liars several months ago. (That’s right, I know who A is. No, I’m not telling – I’ll get sued.) But I digress. My point is, I already know this is a very good, very solid show. It’s the whole reason why I decided to start tracking it in my personal capacity as a fan. And while the pilot is a very good representation of what the rest of the show is going to be like, I assure you it gets even better from here.

Having watched other episodes in this season is a major reason why I’m already in love with Shawn Robinson. McKinley Freeman does a great job portraying a sensitive, yet professional young man who is in tune with the needs of a show like The Lunch Hour (especially considering the kind of co-hosts it has). Shawn loves his mom, he also puts his duty to her above everything else. When Heather (catchphrase: “Modest is hottest”) complains about the temperature being too cold, he matter-of-factly calls for nipple covers for her without missing a beat. After Maxine goes into a coma, Shawn is at the hospital dictating a press release when the doctor informs him that he can go in to see his mother. He gestures for the co-hosts to go ahead, and goes back to the press release. When the next episode airs, Shawn chooses to direct the episode from Maxine’s hospital room. With everyone else, Shawn is grounded, responsible and professional; in moments when he’s alone with his mother – or with Nina, he’s emotionally vulnerable.

The first scenes from The Lunch Hour depict a swimsuit segment because Maxine feels it an appropriate way to kick off swimsuit season. Kibbie feels that it will be empowering for women to feel comfortable in their own skin. Mo thinks that the sight of Kibbie in her swimsuit is going to jump start a generation of eating disorders.

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“Hey, hey, careful. They’re real.”

Like with Mo and Kibby clashing over the swimsuits, on air, the co-hosts constantly interrupt each other as they argue their diverse perspectives. None of them can be said to be one-dimensional stereotypes. For instance, Heather worries about being modest and insists on praying all the time, finds it offensive when people take the Lord’s name in vain, and is promoting a book that Kibby sarcastically calls “The Subservient Wife.” [“It’s “The Fulfilled Wife,” Heather snaps back.] At the same time, she furiously defends her daughter Ella to her husband, insisting that the Lord made her the way she was, and the Lord doesn’t make mistakes.

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Heather with her children Savannah (L) and Ella (R).

Maxine has sort of taken Kibby under her wing, encouraging her to stay off the drugs and alcohol. Kibby is chirpy, cheerful and deeply sensitive, and Maxine’s coma affects her more than anyone else (with the obvious exception of Shawn.) In a hilarious scene, all the co-hosts end up at the hospital and claim they’re there to visit Maxine, when in reality Nina was visiting Shawn, and Mo and Heather came exclusively to make a play for the left chair. Only Kibby turns up because she actually wants to visit Maxine, and is visibly confused when Shawn asks her if she’s here for the chair too. An encounter with her mother also makes it clear that Kibby is still trying to escape a long standing abusive relationship.

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Kibby and her girlfriend Nick.

Heather is a budding fashion designer, and models her own design in the swimsuit segment. When Maxine, while promoting it, mentions that the swimsuit is inexpensive as well as stylish, Nina jumps in with a comment about sweatshop manufacture and child labour, causing Heather to snap back about the unions having “ruined” manufacturing in the US. Nina is pretty standard fare, but she’s also the character I relate to the most on this show. It’s only her affair with Shawn and the news that her husband Andrew is infertile that begins to set her apart.

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Nina and Shawn after Maxine’s accident

Mo Evans does the most to challenge Maxine’s authority and place her outside her comfort zone. She is the most confrontational and unapologetic of the show’s cast, and the opening scenes have Mo making a joke about Maxine’s age (she claims that she slipped on Maxine’s vagina, referencing pelvic organ prolapse). She’s been having a sexual relationship with Leon, her PA, but is disinterested in emotional connections, as is evidenced by the fact that she promptly dumps Leon when he asks to take their relationship to the next level.
Mo gains evidence of Maxine undergoing cosmetic surgery and blackmails Shawn with it to gain the “left chair” position, but loses out to network representative Jason Abel’s demand that Nina take that position. This does nothing to deter Mo, who takes the seat anyway, physically unseating Nina in the process. But her abrasive demeanour doesn’t prevent her from reaching out to those she cares about.
Her complete control over her sexuality is something else I love about Mo. “If you don’t know how to talk dirty, don’t talk at all,” she tells Leon while they’re in the midst of boning. “But don’t stop.” Mo sex is loud, raunchy, questionably ethical exhibitionist sex, and she does it while watching a video of herself going viral.

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“Alright, y’all. Stay beautiful, stay black. Except for the white people. Please stop trying to be black.” – Mo doing stand up.

Body image is constantly referenced in Daytime Divas. Maxine Robinson’s “brand” includes the notion that she’s never had any cosmetic surgery done, but in the course of the pilot it becomes clear that this is patently untrue. Maxine’s lie, which could be seen as being hypocritical, is placed in context in the aftermath of Mo’s viral joke about her age, as she talks about how men at her age are referred to as “distinguished and wise,” while she’s going to be seen as “irrelevant, old and foolish.” But Maxine’s arguments do ring a bit hollow, and it is clear that she has internalized these ideas about appearance to a certain degree when she body shames Mo.

Daytime Divas also addresses race both explicitly as well as in the low key, subtle ways that matter more. A shot of the production team reveals a row of black women. Maxine calls out a man holding a roll of blue gel, reminding him that they have black ladies on camera, and that he should know better than that. (I had to do some research on this one: Color gel is explained here, and this article discusses the nuances of lighting with dark skinned subjects.) When Shawn tells Jason Abel that he wants to put Mo in the left chair, Jason tells him to put Nina instead, because Mo is too “urban.” The conversation is punctuated with a lot of awkward, forced laughter on part of both men, with Shawn attempting to disguise his distaste (“Oh, you did not just say that”), and Jason being obliviously entitled. (Reference: Stop Calling Black People Urban)

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Shawn and Jason Abel

As far as comedy goes, Daytime Divas is gold. This show flawlessly combines the vapidity associated with being a diva with the immense depth and multidimensionality associated with being a human being. Whether it’s Heather and Nina arguing about the economics of textile manufacture while dressed in swimsuits, all the women arguing while standing over Maxine’s comatose body in the hospital, or the show ending in fisticuffs on air, the over the top nature of this show does not fail to elicit laughs.

Next Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #3 – Queen

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Book Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Title: Equal Rites
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: Discworld; Witches
#: 3; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spoilers for a whole bunch of Discworld books.

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Plot Description: Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

“You’ve given the world its first female wizard,” said the midwife. “Whosa itsywitsy, den?”
“What?”
“I was talking to the baby.”

Terry P. started his Discworld series off in an extraordinarily ambitious fashion. After investigating the philosophy and mechanics of magic, creation, astral planes and Rincewind in The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, he now moves on to gender roles as they might pertain to magic.

The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.

Witches and wizards, being as powerful as they are, generally do not have leaders. As far as the wizards are concerned, the Archchancellor of Unseen University is regarded as “first among equals.” And among the witches, Granny Weatherwax is the most highly regarded of the leaders they didn’t have. And in Equal Rites, both Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle agree on one thing: Women are witches, and men are wizards. It cannot be any other way.

“Female wizards aren’t right either! It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”

“There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”

“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They’re no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don’t let on it ever happened.”

Contemporary gender studies would probably discuss this in terms of gender roles and socialization. Boys are encouraged to grow up with a particular mindset, girls with another. Boys who may show inclinations classified as feminine are pushed – or punished – away from them. Likewise with girls who show masculine inclinations. Granny Weatherwax’s reference to “jommetry” echoes something my mother believes – that men have brains better suited to logic and mathematics, and that female brains are better suited to emotional or empathetic fields. Wizards’ magic is “out of the sky” – a parallel can be drawn here to physics; while witch magic is out of the ground. It’s no coincidence that more women gravitate towards biology. No coincidence that in my home state, more women are successful in becoming doctors, and more men in becoming engineers. [Those are the only two acceptable career options in my home state.]

This state of affairs puts Eskarina Smith in the position of having to challenge two sets of gender roles. Ultimately, it makes her better at both witch magic as well as wizard magic. Her unique position enables her to see both kinds of magic without the blind spots that inflict older witches and wizards, which is how her abilities eventually trump theirs.

That being said, Terry P. has no pretensions as to which side he’s on. There’s no “I’m a humanist” nonsense in Equal Rites, and he’s the first to claim that, yes, all men. “Sure,” he concedes, “maybe not all men are thundering idiots, but, yes, all men are idiots. Maybe not all men are toweringly worthless, but really, the universe and women are just tolerating them.”

She stood up. “Let’s find this Great Hall, then. No time to waste.”
“Um, women aren’t allowed in,” said Esk.
Granny stopped in the doorway. Her shoulders rose. She turned around very slowly.
“What did you say?” she said. “Did these old ears deceive me, and don’t say they did because they didn’t.”
“Sorry,” said Esk. “Force of habit.”
“I can see you’ve been getting ideas below your station,” said Granny coldly.

This may seem like a stretch or an exaggeration, but the comparisons of wizard and witch magic show that while wizards are capable of very flashy magic that can interfere with the very workings of the universe, their primary objective – and this is something that has been repeatedly emphasized throughout the Discworld series – is to refrain from using their magic. The magic of men, if allowed to progress in an unrestricted fashion, will result in complete destruction of the universe. They are therefore not allowed to use their magic except in cases of absolute necessity (like when another wizard or set of wizards have already set about destroying the universe, and need to be stopped.) The wisdom and greatness of wizardry lies in doing nothing, which is why the greatest, strongest wizards do nothing but eat a lot and nap a lot.

The magic of witches on the other hand is perpetually in use. For the most part, witch magic is nothing but knowledge of herbal medicine, gossipping around a pot of tea, and what Granny Weatherwax refers to as “headology.” The witches are perpetual servants of society – they are midwives and healers, dispensers of justice, veterinarians. They tend to the elderly, the ones who have no one else to look after them. They take up the jobs no one else want, precisely because they can be so much more, and their power requires constant reminders of why it’s important to stay grounded.

And yet, social work is only one aspect of their skillset. They understand that magic is not to be used except in necessity, but when that necessity arises, there is no magic seemingly beyond them. The witches in Discworld achieve more – far more – than the wizards ever do. Equal Rites introduces only Esmeralda Weatherwax, but the women from the rest of the Witches series are no less notable than she. Midwifing for Time herself (Nanny Ogg), dragging souls out of the clutches of Death (Granny and Tiffany Aching), ensuring the stability of a monarchy (Granny, Nanny and Magrat Garlick) – and actually ruling it (Magrat), defeating a clutch of evil vampires by possessing one’s own blood before they drank it (Granny), defeating the Queen of the Faeries by Borrowing the mind of an entire bee Hive (Granny again), defeating the Queen of the Faeries for good (Tiffany), complete mastery of time travel (Eskarina Smith)… Perhaps the greatest of all these achievements, however, is the endless coming of age stories – Magrat, Tiffany, Agnes Nitt, and more. These witches see countless young women through the confusion of adolescence, guiding them so they turn out to be strong, confident and independent – young women who are as wise and powerful as their mentors.

It is perhaps very telling that the books about the wizards are collectively titled under the name Rincewind. There could perhaps be no “wizzard” less incompetent than is Rincewind, and yet he is, without doubt, the greatest hero the wizards can have. The number of times he has used magic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He is cowardly, comical, ridiculous. Yet he saves the day, literally every time.

In addition, it is seen that the wizards are incapable of doing anything close to witch magic – they are selfish, lazy and indulgent. This is not out of any innate or biological factor, but more due to the fact that women are, in general, willing to take on both the physical and emotional burdens of life. The witches shoulder the emotional burden of entire villages, while the wizards are completely incapable of even feeding their own selves. But the reverse does not hold true. The witches prefer to stick to non-magical methods…

A couple of wizards with a rather greater presence of mind had nipped smartly out of the door behind them, and now several college porters were advancing threateningly up the hall, to the cheers and catcalls of the students. Esk had never much liked the porters, who lived a private life in their lodge, but now she felt a pang of sympathy for them.
Two of them reached out hairy hands and grabbed Granny’s shoulders. Her arm disappeared behind her back and there was a brief flurry of movement that ended with the men hopping away, clutching bits of themselves and swearing.
“Hatpin,” said Granny.

…but if necessary, witches can do wizard magic, and do it exceptionally well, as is exemplified in Granny Weatherwax’s magical duel with the Archchancellor.

Cutangle stood with legs planted wide apart, arms akimbo and stomach giving an impression of a beginners’ ski slope, the whole of him therefore adopting a pose usually associated with Henry VIII but with an option on Henry IX and X as well.

“Well?” he said, “What is the meaning of this outrage?”

“Is he important?” said Granny to Esk.

“I, madam, am the Archchancellor! And I happen to run this University! And you, madam, are trespassing in very dangerous territory indeed! I warn you that – stop looking at me like that!”

Cutangle staggered backwards, his hands raised to ward off Granny’s gaze.

Granny’s eyes had changed.

Esk had never seen them like this before. They were perfectly silver, like little round mirrors, reflecting all they saw. Cutangle was a vanishingly small dot in their depths, his mouth open, his tiny matchstick arms waving in desperation.

The Archchancellor backed into a pillar, and the shock made him recover. He shook his head irritably, cupped a hand and sent a stream of white fire streaking towards the witch.

Without dropping her iridescent stare Granny raised a hand and deflected the flames towards the roof. There was an explosion and a shower of tile fragments.

Her eyes widened.

Cutangle vanished. Where he had been standing a huge snake coiled, poised to strike.

Granny vanished. Where she had been standing was a large wicker basket.

The snake became a giant reptile from the mists of time.

The basket became the snow wind of the Ice Giants, coating the struggling monster with ice.

The reptile became a sabre-toothed tiger, crouched to spring.

The gale became a bubbling tar pit.

The tiger managed to become an eagle, stooping.

The tar pits became a tufted hood.

Then the images began to flicker as shape replaced shape. Stroboscope shadows danced around the hall. A magical wind sprang up, thick and greasy, striking octarine sparks from beards and fingers. In the middle of it all, Esk, peering through streaming eyes, could just make out the two figures of Granny and Cutangle, glossy statues in the midst of the hurtling images.

Their duel is cut short by the fact that Esk and Simon, a young boy also newly admitted to Unseen University, are in danger. No victor could possibly announced under such circumstances. And yet…

One of the students had earned several awards for bravery by daring to tug at Cutangle’s cloak ….

And now they were crowded into the narrow room, looking at the two bodies.

Cutangle summoned doctors of the body and doctors of the mind, and the room buzzed with magic as they got to work.

Granny tapped him on the shoulder.

“A word in your ear, young man,” she said.

“Hardly young, madam,” sighed Cutangle, “hardly young.” He felt drained. It had been decades since he’d duelled in magic, although it was common enough among students. He had a nasty feeling that Granny would have won eventually. Fighting her was like swatting a fly on your own nose. He couldn’t think what had come over him to try it.

Simon, the other main character, is a brilliant boy with a terrible stutter and an inability to do anything right.

Simon did everything inexpertly. He was really good at it. He was one of those tall lads apparently made out of knees, thumbs and elbows. Watching him walk was a strain, you kept waiting for the strings to snap, and when he talked the spasm of agony on his face if he spotted an S or W looming ahead in the sentence made people instinctively say them for him. It was worth it for the grateful look which spread across his acned face like sunrise on the moon.

As an expert on theoretical magic, however, he far outstrips every fully qualified wizard at Unseen University. Esk and Simon share a mutual attraction that motivates her to save Simon’s life, also saving the entire universe in the process. Together they stare down the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions and return.

Eskarina Smith never appears in the Discworld series again… until I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series. [I seriously cannot wait to start talking about Tiffany Aching.] It is then explained that Simon’s brain was too much for his body to handle, that he became an invalid, his physical illness directly proportional to the brilliance of his theory. Esk’s training as a witch stands out in her decisions to take care of him until his death…

The young Eskarina had met at the University a young man called Simon who…had been cursed by the Gods with almost every possible ailment that mankind was prone to. But because the Gods have a sense of humour, even though it’s a rather strange one, they had granted him the power to understand – well – everything. He could barely walk without assistance, but was so brilliant that he managed to keep the whole universe in his head. Wizards…would flock to hear him talk about space and time and magic as if they were all part of the same thing. And young Eskarina had fed him and cleaned him and helped him get about and learned from him – well – everything.” – I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett.

Simon is apparently presumed dead in the Discworld universe, perhaps killed in a battle that takes place two books after Equal Rites. And by the time we meet Esk again, she has mastered the ability to travel through time, a secret she passes on to Tiffany Aching. After Eskarina, Tiffany is the only student witch to have equalled Granny’s level of skill in magic, and indeed to, have surpassed it, so perhaps it is very fitting that these two women should share a bond.

Next Review: The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: Discworld #4 – Mort (Death #1)

Next in this Sub-series: Discworld #6 – Wyrd Sisters (Witches #2)

Book Review: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Title: The Fiery Heart
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.41
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

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Plot Description: As Sydney’s sister Zoe is assigned as her partner on the Palm Springs assignment, Sydney finds her instinct to bond with her sister warring with her need to keep her new relationship with Adrian a secret. She continues to work towards finding a magical means of breaking the bond of compulsion used by the Alchemists on all their agents, and must keep from making any mistakes that might end with her sent back to Alchemist ‘re-education’.

Although Mead meant for this series to have two narrators from the start, The Fiery Heart is the first book to actually implement that plan. The first chapter takes place from Adrian’s POV, and the POVs alternate between the two protagonists after that.

For someone who’s already read the entire book (twice), the first chapter starts throwing off warning signs almost right away. Adrian’s made a huge impulse purchase on vinyl records, something he thinks is amazing. From here on out, the books take a very serious look at Adrian’s continuing struggle with spirit induced mental illness, which had until now manifested only in the form of occasional fits of poetry.

“Back at my apartment, I indulged in my one daily drink, hoping it would send me to a quick slumber. No such luck. In the old days, it usually took at least three before I’d pass out in drunken oblivion. Now, my fingers lingered on the vodka bottle as I teetered on the edge of getting a refill. I missed it. Badly. Aside from the bliss of the buzz, alcohol could numb out spirit for a little while, and although the magic was a pleasant addiction, a reprieve from it was nice. Self-medicating had fended off a lot of spirit’s negative effects for years, but this new deal was letting it start to gain ground.”

Sydney and Adrian have promised each other that they will both cut down on one unhealthy habit – Adrian’s stopped smoking, and isn’t drinking as much, while Sydney’s given up coffee and tries to eat better. Personally, I would have thought twice before proposing or agreeing to such an arrangement, because Sydney attempting to kick her caffeine addiction is nothing like Adrian going off both cigarettes as well as alcohol. As was first noted in the Vampire Academy series, Adrian deals with the depressive side effects of wielding Spirit by constantly self medicating. As a result, Fiery Heart gives us a picture of someone struggling with mental illness and addiction simultaneously. The more restraint Adrian exercises with regard to his vices, the deeper he descends into his depressive bout.

“My sober resolve didn’t result in inspiration, though, and when five o’clock came around, the canvas remained bare. I stood up and stretched out the kinks in my body, feeling a return of that earlier darkness. It was more angry than sad, laced with the frustration of not being able to do this. My art teachers claimed I had talent, but in moments like this, I felt like the slacker most people had always said I was, destined for a lifetime of failure.”

“I knew these fears eating at me were being amped up by spirit. Not all of them were real, but they were hard to shake.”- Adrian Ivashkov

Adrian’s story quickly gathers pace as he deals with a number of problems – the future of his relationship with Sydney, the fact that he had little to no money, his need to get her gifts, his inability to paint a self portrait for his assignment in college. It’s exacerbated by the spirit he uses – something he usually tries to avoid doing – and manifests as extreme highs followed by severe crashes.

No. No dinner, nothing in public. The thought descended heavily on me as I contemplated our future together. Could we have one? What kind of relationship was this, grasping at these stolen moments? She was too reasonable to do this forever. Eventually she’d realize it was time to let it go. Let me go. I put the cuff links back in their box, knowing I could never sell them and that I was in the full throes of a spirit crash.
It happened with these bouts of magic. I’d barely been able to drag myself out of bed when I’d brought Jill back. The toll of wielding so much life was just too great, and the mind crashed from the high. Well, mine did. Lissa didn’t have these dramatic ups and downs. Hers was more of a steady darkness that lingered with her for a few days, keeping her moody and melancholy until it lifted. Sonya had a mix of both effects.

I never thought I’d end up cherishing Bloodlines more than I do the Vampire Academy series – after all, sequels rarely live up to the expectations we form of the original. But Mead’s sensitive, no-nonsense portrayal of mental illness has made this series far more important to me than the first. Is it exhilarating to watch Rose Hathaway kick ass? Yes. But it is more heart-warming and affirming to find a character you can relate to. Most importantly, a beautiful balance is struck in the process of portraying Adrian’s struggles. His demons are depicted in all of their harsh reality, but through his perspective, the reader is taken smoothly along his highs and lows. What is happening to him seems normal, even when we know that it’s not. Mead’s writing allows the reader to perfectly experience what it’s like, and not once does that experience seem jarring or out of the ordinary. There is never any stigma, and no scene has the effect of ‘othering’ Adrian in the eyes of the reader.

He shook his head. “I tried. I tried to hold out. But when I swing up like that . . . well, eventually the pendulum swings back. It’s hard to explain.”

“I’ve been down before.”

“Not like this,” he said. “And I’m not saying that to be a smart-ass. The way I feel . . . it’s like the world starts crumbling around me. Every doubt, every fear . . . it eats me. It weighs me down until I’m swallowed in darkness and can’t tell what’s real or not. And even when I know something’s not real . . . like Aunt Tatiana . . . well, it’s still hard . . .”

In addition to showing us what it feels like to live with a mental illness like bipolar disorder (which is what Adrian is eventually diagnosed with), Mead also presents to us the experience of visiting a psychiatrist, of receiving the diagnosis, of struggling with the decision to take medication.

I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes. “‘Crazy’ is a term that’s used incorrectly and far too often. It’s also used with stigma and finality.” He tapped his head. “We’re all chemicals, Adrian. Our bodies, our brains. It’s a simple yet vastly sophisticated system, and every so often, something goes awry. A cell mutation. A neuron misfiring. A lack of a neurotransmitter.”

She addresses some of the nitty-gritty details, like the importance of speaking against the stigma, and the fact that dosages often require adjustment before they can properly take effect.

Some of the most heartwarming passages involved Adrian agonizing over the decision to take the medication, and whether it was the right thing to do. He carries internalized stigma, an aversion towards prescribed medication. He also worries that he will no longer be himself, no longer be able to do brilliant things in art, in philosophy, or with Spirit.

“Is it going to ‘stabilize’ me so that I don’t feel happy or sad? So that I don’t feel anything? No! I don’t care if they’re dangerous. I’m not giving up my emotions.”

“No one’s taking away your emotions. It’s what I said before: We’re all chemicals. You’ve got a couple that aren’t at the right levels. This will adjust them, just as a diabetic would correct their insulin. You’ll still feel things. You’ll be happy. You’ll be sad. You’ll be angry. You just won’t swing unpredictably into such wild directions. There’s nothing wrong with this—and it’s a hell of a lot safer than self-medicating with alcohol.”

“This is going to kill my creativity, won’t it? Without all my feelings, I won’t be able to paint like I used to.”

“That’s the cry of artists everywhere,” said Einstein, his expression hardening. “Will it affect certain things? Maybe, but you know what’ll really interfere with your ability to paint? Being too depressed to get out of bed. Waking up in jail after a night of drunken debauchery. Killing yourself. Those things will hurt your creativity.”

“I’ll be ordinary,” I protested.

“You’ll be healthy,” he corrected. “And from there, you can become extraordinary.”

With so many dysfunctional and downright abusive relationships being romanticized in contemporary YA fiction, it’s refreshing to see how healthy Sydney and Adrian are in dealing with all of their problems. A large portion of that credit goes to Sydney, whose foremost qualities continue to be her pragmatism and sensible nature. But Adrian’s kindness and compassion are on display in Bloodlines, in a way they never were in VA. His love for her, his willingness to try, to fight anything, even himself.

Two new characters are introduced in The Fiery Heart – Zoe Sage, Sydney’s younger sister, and Neil Raymond, a handsome English dhampir who attracts the attention of the younger girls of their group. Zoe Sage is stiff and cold towards the gang, and disapproves of the extent to which Sydney immerses herself in group dynamics.

“Speaking of priorities . . . have you ever thought that maybe what you’re doing with Ms. Terwilliger isn’t appropriate?”

I flinched, even though I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about magic. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know exactly. It’s just, you’ve already finished high school. You’re here to do Alchemist business, but you seem really into your classes—especially that thing with her. It seems personal too, like you’re just hanging out as friends. I mean, talking about her vacation? It wouldn’t be a big deal if it was just inside class hours, but you’re always doing work for her that doesn’t seem like work. Nothing wrong with wanting friends or social time . . . but you can’t do it at the cost of the assignment. What would Dad say?”

She is in fact a little like the Sydney we met in Blood Promise, and much as I’d like to judge Zoe and call her more uptight and evil than her sister had ever been, I don’t think that’s true. Zoe is young, and has been given more responsibility than she was ready for – partly because her dad wanted her on his side when she testified during the custody hearings. The divorce of Sydney and Zoe’s parents is an important subplot in this book, and clarifies the abusive nature of their father’s relationship with both of them. When Sydney finds out that her father would be coming to see him, she feels exposed and uncomfortable, as though a safe space was about to be violated.

Palm Springs had become a sanctuary for me, in which I tucked away all my secrets—not just my romance with Adrian, but also my true friendship with the others. And, of course, my illicit magic use. I kept all those things well guarded, but just knowing he would be here, in my territory, made me feel as though my entire life had just been exposed.

Both sisters fear him, and the he encourages competition and divisiveness between them, making them easier to manipulate. This book also hints that Sydney’s body image issues don’t stem entirely from her insecurity with respect to the Moroi. During the dinner, her father polices not only his daughters’ meals, but also remarks on the fact that Sydney has gained weight.

“You look like you’ve gained some weight too, so it’s smart to back off.”

I gave him a stiff smile, swallowing the urge to tell him I still fit firmly in a size four. I was just a much healthier-looking four, rather than a slightly malnourished one. Meanwhile, Zoe—who’d been about to set the menu down—quickly opened it again when she heard him rebuke me. She’d probably planned on ordering tempura, one of her favorite dishes, and now feared my dad’s ire over fried food.

Another heavy subject this book tackles is date rape – transposed in context as the drugging of human women by Moroi men so as to drink their blood without their knowledge and consent. More specifically, the fact that Adrian once drank from a human girl who was too drunk to understand what was happening. He confesses to Sydney when confronted, makes feeble excuses before quickly acknowledging that he should never have done such a thing. He apologizes, but doesn’t act entitled to forgiveness. In the end, it is Sydney who excuses his conduct as they reconcile, pointing out that he has changed, that he understands. Considering the gravity of the act, I’m not sure that such easy forgiveness is warranted. Unlike with Dimitri’s abusive actions towards Rose as a Strigoi, there is no defence here that Adrian can legitimately make use of. Dimitri was soulless, monstrous, a different species. The guilt he felt upon being restored was crushing. Adrian has always been the same person, and his act was criminal in every context.

But such is rape culture. We all grow up internalizing misogyny and other forms of bigotry. The more unfortunate of us actually end up acting on that bigotry because society implicitly condones and even lauds such behaviour, even as it explicitly criminalizes it. Ultimately, the best we can do is understand, change, make amends and move on. I think Mead could have handled this problem a little better, but ultimately, my conclusions seem to coincide with hers.

As far as the development of the plot in concerned, this book finally grasps the central conflict of this series by the stem, thorns and all. It also cements the status of the Alchemists as the primary villains, and the fear of “re-education” which has been hanging over Sydney’s head since the beginning of the series finally materialises. It also features scientific advancements in the Moroi world, such as the development of a “Strigoi vaccine”. The darker elements and atmosphere of danger is constantly offset by the light humour that pervades almost every line – Adrian’s habit of quipping seems to be contagious. My favourite line in this entire series has got to be when Adrian deflects an offer of alcohol by picking on Dimitri.

“I can send for some,” said Lissa. She started to turn toward one of the guards at the door, but Adrian waved her off.

“Nah, we’ve got to be all responsible and stuff to deal with the spirit problem, right? We can celebrate later. Besides, Belikov can’t hold his liquor.”

Dimitri looked startled at that, and I had to repress a laugh at Adrian’s deflection.

The romantic entanglements of the younger members of the group are entertaining, and I found myself being more irritated at Zoe when she was being a wet blanket about them, than for her conservative attitude or ultimate betrayal of Sydney.

To say my friends were living a soap opera was an understatement. They almost made my dangerous relationship with Adrian look boring.

The only bright side was that everyone seemed to be in a holding pattern. Trey’s conflicted principles kept him away from Angeline. Eddie’s resolve kept him away from everyone, as did Neil’s. And so long as Neil held true to that stance, Jill and Angeline would have nothing to act on. Maybe it would have been nice for everyone to have some sort of happy ending, but I selfishly had to admit that my life was a lot easier when the drama dial was kept on low.  – Sydney’s POV.

Trey and Angeline, Jill and Eddie, Malachi Wolfe and Jaclyn Terwilliger, Rose and Dimitri, Neil and Olive, Lissa and Christian, and of course, Sydney and Adrian. The book is filled with couples (sadly, 100% heterosexual pairings) and it’s helps maintain those standards that all YA novels everywhere aspire to.

Next: Bloodlines #5 – Silver Shadows

Book Review: Bloodlines #3 – The Indigo Spell

Title: The Indigo Spell
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: Bloodlines
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.43
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Warning

the indigospell.jpg

Plot Description: Having kissed Adrian once, Sydney is now struggling with the realization that she might perhaps return his feelings, even as she continues to follow up on leads that hint towards corruption within her organization, the Alchemists. She also finds herself in danger thanks to a mysterious serial killer witch who is tracking down young magic users and draining them of life and power.

The Indigo Spell begins on a hilarious note:

This wasn’t the first time I’d been pulled out of bed for a crucial mission. It was, however, the first time I’d been subjected to such a personal line of questioning.

“Are you a virgin?”

“Huh?” I rubbed my sleepy eyes, just in case this was all some sort of bizarre dream that would disappear. An urgent phone call had dragged me out of bed five minutes ago, and I was having a little trouble adjusting.

My history teacher, Ms. Terwilliger, leaned closer and repeated the question in a stage whisper: “I said, are you a virgin?”

“Um, yes. . .”

I was fully awake now and glanced uneasily around my dorm’s lobby, making sure no one was around to witness this crazy exchange.

Sydney’s proficiency in spellwork is improving, as is her willingness to engage with her potential for magic. These are two reasons why Jaclyn Terwilliger pulled her out of bed in the middle of the night to help her with a spell. The third reason is her virginity.

This is possibly due to my own personal hang ups, but I hate the idea of virginity holding any special kind of power. It’s a theme that’s inescapable however, turning up in a wide range of subjects from historical virgin sacrifices to modern society’s obsession with virginity.

For one thing, the concept of virginity is highly subjective. We’re given to understand that the historical definition of virginity centres around the heteronormativity of sex – (i.e. where a man, a woman and their respective private parts are involved). This sucks for a lot of reasons – anything that’s not heterosexual is not included, for starters. Even within this narrow definition of sex, one still runs into problems, because people have been using the hymen as the designated virginity marker. And the hymen often… doesn’t exist. Or is lost in ways other than through sex. Or can remain unbroken despite intercourse due to incredible elasticity. In young women, it even shows remarkable healing qualities.

A theory I like more these days is that virginity is more psychological than physiological. If you feel like you’re a virgin, then you’re a virgin.

Whoa, I’ve gotten slightly off track. Bloodlines is not the first universe to attribute magical qualities to virginity, and I don’t doubt that it won’t be the last. Even Terry Pratchett’s Discworld makes allusions to this trope by contrasting the unmarried and virginal Granny Weatherwax against the thrice married and happily promiscuous Nanny Ogg. But yes, the idea still makes me uncomfortable – partly because of the horrendous mess ‘virginity culture’ has become, and partly because I’m afraid it might be true.

Ms. Terwilliger’s spell reveals the location of a powerful witch – one who she worries is going after young witches for their youth and power. Once again, she’s pushing for Sydney to actively learn more magic – for her own protection if nothing else.

On a much lighter note, Bloodlines provides us with happy Vampire Academy cameos in the form of a Royal Wedding (Sheesh. Does there have to be so many of those?) Queen Vasilisa Dragomir is getting married to longtime boyfriend Christian Ozera, and it’s all very cute. Of course, the Queen is still in college, but when you’re a monarch, I’m guessing such mortal concerns go out the window. Sydney is attending the wedding as part of an Alchemist contingent who are there to ensure that they don’t accidentally insult the Moroi by not turning up. Adrian manages to create quite a lot of controversy by asking her to dance – a proposition that horrifies the Alchemists, and shocks many of the Moroi (including – get this – Abe Mazur).

Ha! Got you, old man.

Sydney’s boss implies that she’s got to take one for the team because they don’t want to look ungracious (or repulsed) by declining. And so we get our first Sydrian dance.

Told you it was cute.

He was unconcerned. “You’ll make it work. You’ll change clothes or something. But I’m telling you, if you want to get a guy to do something that might be difficult, then the best way is to distract him so that he can’t devote his full brainpower to the consequences.”

“You don’t have a lot of faith in your own gender.”

“Hey, I’m telling you the truth. I’ve been distracted by sexy dresses a lot.”

I didn’t really know if that was a valid argument, seeing as Adrian was distracted by a lot of things. Fondue. T-shirts. Kittens. “And so, what then? I show some skin, and the world is mine?”

The Sydrian plotline converges neatly with the rogue witch plotline as Sydney and Adrian go roadtripping. Their objective? Track down young women in the neighbourhood who might be in danger and ask them to be on their guard.

Sydney finally manages to track down Marcus Finch, an ex-Alchemist who rebelled and has been in hiding from his former employees ever since. Marcus is the one that finally reveals the secret behind the golden lily tattoos worn by all the Alchemists. The tattoos are made with Moroi blood and have bits of compulsion infused into them, making it impossible for the Alchemists to reveal the secret of their occupation to anyone not already in the know. It also makes them compliant and unquestioning, and might even promote the revulsion for vampires that they all seem to share. The good news is, Marcus has found a way to break the compulsion in his tattoo by means of an indigo coloured ink.

The teenager subplot drags alongside the main plot, being neither so interesting as to catch my attention, nor so boring that I’d completely skip over those parts (which is what happens to me every time something romantic turns up in a James Patterson novel). A love triangle turns into a love quadrangle and eventually resolves itself to mutual satisfaction. Sort of like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but with gender roles reversed.

Mead’s humour and comic timing is as ever on point, which makes the occasional hiccup in her writing style so much more bearable.

It was hard for me to talk. “It’s instinct. Or something. You’re a Moroi. I’m an Alchemist. Of course I’d have a response. You think I’d be indifferent?”

“Most Alchemist responses would involve disgust, revulsion, and holy water.”

The overarching story line continues to be paced off well, with Sydney and Adrian finally taking their friendship to the level of a tentative relationship, and with the appearance of a new antagonist more powerful than any Sydney has faced up until now.

“Are we going to run off to the Keepers?” he suggested.

“Of course not,” I scoffed. “That’d be cowardly and immature. And you’d never survive without hair gel – though you might like their moonshine.”

The Indigo Spell is a comfortable middle ground for a series – ferocious action combined with cheesy and heart warming romance and serious character development. And my favourite parts about the Bloodlines series are yet to come.

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #4 – The Fiery Heart

Book Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines, Richelle Mead

Title: Bloodlines
Author: Richelle Mead
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: Bloodlines (Series sequel to the Vampire Academy series)
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.22
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3

Insert the Usual and Mandatory Spoiler Warning Here

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Plot Description: In this series sequel to Mead’s Vampire Academy series, we revisit the world of dhampirs and Moroi – and the much overlooked human component of this world, the Alchemists. We’re following the continued story of Sydney Sage, a minor but favourite VA character who made her first appearance in Blood Promise, the fourth book of that series.
We’re also following complete fan favourite Adrian Ivashkov, who, broken hearted and looking for meaning in life, is drawn to Sydney as the two of them work on a new assignment together.

I have to admit, when I first heard of the idea of Adrian and Sydney getting together, I was skepticalYou cannot imagine two people MORE different than these twoBut I tried to be open minded, and by the time I got to Book 6, I was Team Sydrian all the way.

The main characters from VA – Rose, Lissa, Dimitri, Christian – barely make an appearance in Bloodlines, which is filled with supporting cast members coming forward to take center-stage. And they each bring their share of secrets and problems to the table, which, as everyone knows, is the recipe for a really good book.

Adrian’s broken-hearted following the end of his relationship with Guardian Rose Hathaway. Sydney, on the other hand, is in a LOT of trouble with the Alchemists – the organization she works for – for her involvement in Rose’s adventures from Last Sacrifice. She’s suspected of having colluded with vampires, and of having developed feelings other than disgust or contempt for them. (Yes, this is a really serious accusation that is levelled amongst Alchemists. They’re all insane.) Although there’s no formal inquiry, Sydney manages to dispel the cloud of suspicion in time to be assigned to the latest Alchemist case in Palm Springs. Her biggest reason for taking on the case was to ensure that her sister Zoe doesn’t get caught up in the Alchemist life, which she will if their domineering father has his way.

The rest of the characters in Palm Springs are Jill Mastrano,  along with her dhampir guardians Eddie Castile and Angeline Dawes. While Jill (Lissa’s half sister) and Eddie were very prominent in VA, Angeline barely got a mention for the first time in a subplot involving the reclusive  keepers in Last Sacrifice.

The important subplots are the ones involving possibly magical tattoos being given to humans, of Sydney’s teacher trying to get her to learn human magic (sort of like Wicca), teen drama among the younger set of dhampirs and Moroi, and Sydney’s relationship with Adrian.

My God, Sage. Your eyes. How have I never noticed them? The colour, when you stand in the light. They’re amazing . . . like molten gold. I could paint those . . . They’re beautiful. You’re beautiful.

– Adrian Ivashkov, Bloodlines

Sydney’s character development kickstarted early on in this universe – right from the moment she was introduced, in fact, although there was no way I would have imagined that she’d come to lead her own series. As an alchemist, she’s been indoctrinated to hate, fear and hold in contempt these ‘unnatural’ and ‘unholy’ creatures – vampires, and dhampirs by association. But since there’s always the greater Strigoi threat to be dealt with, Alchemists have an uneasy alliance with the Moroi. Sydney’s bias and bigotry are evident in her behaviour towards Rose, but by the time we come to the end of the series, it’s evident that she’s beginning to think of them as just a different kind of people – not monsters of the night.

Adrian, on the other hand went from alcoholic party boy to good boyfriend who gave up his debauchery in order to impress his girlfriend. Even if personal change is precipitated in you by another person, it should never stay that way. If the only ever reason why you change is another person, that change is going to fall apart the minute that person leaves, or is taken from you. So it’s kind of a one step forward, two steps back kind of situation that Adrian is dealing with. And to cap it all off, he’s now spirit bonded with Jill.

Yes, the reason Jill is incognito in Palm Springs is because there was an attempt on her life, she died as a result, and Adrian brought her back. The concept of a spirit bond was a lot cooler back when it was two teenage girls who were sharing thoughts. Now it’s a high school freshman (or however old Jill is supposed to be) who has access to the thoughts of a highly unstable grown man. Eek. After Jill is punished for being drunk and then having a hangover the next day, Sydney figures out what’s going on and reams Adrian out.

Jill’s guardian is Eddie Castile, long time best friend and sidekick to Rose Hathaway. Eddie was the only guardian to attempt to protect Jill during the attempt on her life, since all the other guardians were busy protecting the Queen, Lissa. The reason for this is because he’s really in love with her, which is the cue to kick off all of the teen drama and love triangles quadrangles that take place in this book.

I would choose this space in order to rant about the impropriety in Eddie falling for a girl whose initial nickname was literally Jailbait (courtesy Adrian, who else), but hello. This is the series that brought us the great Rose-Dimitri love saga, where they could barely wait for her to hit eighteen before ripping each other’s clothes off. And the age gap in that case is a LOT greater than in the case of Eddie and Jill.

Any age-propriety rants in this universe are just going to fall on deaf ears. So it’s one of my blind spots in this fandoms – one of the things I have issue with but choose to ignore in order to continue enjoying the fandom itself. Other examples include all time fan favourite Damon Salvatore engaging in an abusive relationship with Caroline Forbes in early first season The Vampire Diaries and the subject never being brought up after that storyline wrapped up. Till date, the only sign that something like that ever happened is Caroline’s continued dislike of the guy – despite the fact that one of her best friends is soul mates with him, and her other best friend is his best friend too!

But, this is not a review of The Vampire Diaries. Nor is it a review of the Ezria relationship in Pretty Little Liars, which was pretty outrightly illegal at the start. So, coming back to the final main character of the Bloodlines series – Angeline – let me just say this:

Angeline is the most fun. Ever.

Angeline flushed. “It’s not my fault.”

“Even I know you can’t write an entry on Wikipedia and then use it as a source in your essay.” Sydney had been torn between horror and hysterics when she told me.
“I took ‘primary source’ to a whole new level!”
Honestly, it was a wonder we’d gotten by for so long without Angeline. Life must have been so boring before her.”

– Adrian Ivashkov, Fiery Heart

Angeline has trouble adjusting to civilization because she was raised in a moroi-human-dhampir communeity that felt they were keeping to the old ways by staying in contact with (and reproducing with) humans, unlike current Moroi society. The Keepers refuse to submit to the Moroi monarchy, and therefore must do without the little luxuries of life. I.e. Electricity.

Now, I’m pretty sure Mead drew on many, many stereotypes for her portrayal of the Keepers, but… it’s kind of hard to care about considering it’s not a main plot point. And it makes Angeline REALLY funny because of all things she doesn’t know is considered appropriate or inappropriate in society. (Like random violence and sexual harassment: inappropriate; cheating on class tests: inappropriate).

Angeline provides a fresh voiced perspective on society – all of society, not just the parts with vampires and stuff in it – through her constant questioning of everything. She poses a very important lesson for – (and I cannot stress this enough) – each and every one of us:

Question all the facts you’ve been handed since you were born. I mean, you can’t think out of the box without first seeing the box itself, which is a huge problem when it comes to challenging social norms (like their school’s dress codes) and why and how they came to exist in the first place.

In most cases, when asked to explain the rationale behind oppressive norms and customs, those defending them will have the option to either shut you down – which is what schools do when they hand out detentions; or hide behind stupidity and blind faith. [“Because I said so” type arguments brought out by religious leaders come to mind.]

Two more characters that need to be discussed are Keith Darnell and Jaclyn Terwilliger. The latter is a teacher at the school and the leader of a witch coven who’s trying to recruit Sydney. Imagine the kind of conflict an indoctrinated magic and vampire hater faces when they’re told they have the innate ability to do magic flowing through their veins.

Keith is the subject of a more serious topic – and also the reason why Sydney was so deeply obligated to Rose Hathaway’s gangster father Abe Mazur in VA. Sydney was the only person who knew about her father’s Golden Boy Darnell raping her older sister, and her sister made her promise not to tell anyone. So when Sydney grew up and joined the Alchemists, she did what any sane person would do – took a hit out on Darnell, and used Abe Mazur’s contacts to do it. Keith thinks a random Strigoi attack took out one of his eyes with an arrow. Keith can apparently be very gullible.

The first time I read Bloodlines, I wasn’t entirely impressed with the book. Something about it – the style of writing, the editing maybe? – rubbed me up the wrong way. But my second read this year didn’t pose too many problems in that direction, so perhaps it was the crappy pirated pdf version that was the problem.

It’s a great set up book, establishing Sydney as determined to do the right thing and imbued with a great sense for fairness. It also shows us a side to her that goes beyond indoctrination and machine like obedience, both in her affections for her vampire friends and in her dealings with Mrs. Terwilliger.

Containing much of Mead’s hallmark comedy and teen drama, Bloodlines is a light read that touches on bigger and darker issues to be explored as the series progresses. It’s a must read for Vampire Academy fans, but you don’t really need to know the history of the series in order to pick it up and start reading.

Next in this Series: Bloodlines #2 – The Golden Lily by Richelle Mead

Next Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card

Book Review: The Sisters Grimm #7 – 9

Title: The Everafter War; The Inside Story; The Council of Mirrors
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2009; 2010; 2012
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 7, 8 & 9
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.31; 4.28; 4.39
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 2; 2

SERIOUS AND MAJOR SPOILERS (Especially for Book 9) INCLUDED.
Don’t even think about reading this book unless you don’t care about spoilers. 

Also, REALLY long review. Sorry, but there was a LOT to rant about.

Plot Description: The final three books in this series are darker, edgier, and the plots get more wilder and implausible than ever. To add to this mess, there’s more sexism and problematic plot points, story lines that drag on forever, and TERRIBLE editing and continuity issues.
To summarize, The Everafter War deals with a Civil War between factions led by Charming and the Queen of Hearts respectively. Oh, and the children’s parents are finally awake – which is not the good thing I was hoping it would be. The Big Bad is finally revealed, and while this reveal is impressive at first, I was progressively less impressed and more annoyed by the Master’s plan, motivations, minions… everything.
The Inside Story is a bizarre and completely meta journey through the original book with which the fates of all the Everafters are entwined. Sabrina and Daphne follow the Master through all the fairytale stories as they try to stop the Master from rewriting their story.
The Council of Mirrors features the final showdown/ battles/ curses et cetera et cetera. It also features what was possibly the most random subplot; inserted as the most random plot twist ever, and about which I’m completely conflicted.

While Sabrina and Daphne are finally beginning to show signs of solid character development, the appearance of their parents on the scene kind of sets the whole family back by about ten steps. To be more specific, it turns out the girls’ dad is a controlling idiot who won’t listen to reason, doesn’t consider his daughters’ opinions worth listening to despite everything they’ve achieved so far, and follows a policy of requiring strict obedience. Including from his wife.

Suddenly, the girls’ mother getting involved with the Faerie in NYC is put into greater perspective. She went to great lengths to keep her activities secret even though she was standing up for something she believed in – all because her husband will throw a temper tantrum and ‘forbid’ her from doing things he doesn’t like.

[Full disclosure: The girls’ father is only unreasonable when it comes to Everafters, and that’s because he watched his father die because of them/ at their hands or something else. This, however, does not excuse a grown man for dragging his family out into the woods in the midst of a war, with NO plan, NO money or supplies, and NO agenda except for ‘you’re all supposed to just listen to me’. ]

One of the characters in the book tries a retcon justification for his behaviour by calling him the ‘protector’ of the family. But dude, no.

I think this nonsense about confusing protection (and the affection that comes with it) with the need to control people needs to stop, and it needs to stop NOW. Too many fathers and other kinds of paternalistic figures have justified the most unacceptable kinds of behaviour by claiming that they were acting in the best interests of their dependents. And this is despite the fact that in a LOT of these cases, their behaviour when evaluated from an objective perspective was found to NOT to be in the best interests of their dependents.

Clearly Mr. Grimm isn’t the only person to ever have engaged in such nonsense behaviour, and he certainly won’t be the last… but let’s not confuse protection with control, and let’s not ignore this issue.

From an objective plot perspective, The Inside Story is convoluted and largely unnecessary. It’s clear by this point that the story is being stretched as thin as it can be without it falling apart.

But I won’t deny that The Inside Story was kind of fun to read. It’s every reader’s fantasy to be able to step into their favourite books and get to enact parts of it out – maybe even change stuff around. To suddenly be the star of your favourite show – that’s what this book is all about.

And that brings us to The Council of Mirrors and an end to this whole… experience (for lack of a nicer word). The final scenes of the story involve Snow White – a character who has always been a part of the story without really taking centre stage at any point of it. Her on-off relationship with Charming is one of the running gags throughout the stories. Snow is someone who actively works to shed herself of the damsel in distress tag – she’s a Ferryport self defence instructor, and she refuses to allow Charming’s self absorption to define her or their relationship.

In the final plot, it is revealed that the story of Snow White has been faked – it wasn’t the version included in the original Grimm stories. In the real version, she’s married off to a sadistic and abusive husband, at whose hands she dies. Unable to watch her daughter’s life play out in this manner over and over again, her mother – the Evil Queen – steps in to modify the story and edit the abusive husband out of it (replacing him with herself as the villain instead). Charming, the sadistic Prince’s younger brother, was written into the story as Snow’s love interest, and that was that.

Or it would have been, if Sabrina and Daphne (and the Master) hadn’t crashed through the Fairytale book in which he had been trapped, and freed him. In a final showdown between this man and Charming, (after Snow has been kidnapped and taken away as the guy’s lawful wife – and property), he’s finally overpowered. It took like, a bunch of people to get the job done. And then Snow delivers the killing stroke – and with that action supposedly reclaims her identity and her life.

Heavy stuff, huh. At first I felt it a little inappropriate – introducing such a horrible sub plot into what’s essentially a book for children. But then I remembered that the original tales by the real brothers Grimm had been graphic, gory and ugly.

This evocation of the spirit of the original tales – be it conscious or unconscious – seems to be a theme in the Sisters Grimm series. I was discussing Sleeping Beauty a few days ago, and we were talking about how in the original story, the Prince rapes her in her sleep, causing her to become pregnant and to deliver twins – whilst still asleep. She only woke up when one of the twins accidentally sucked the cursed flax/ needle out of her finger.

At the time, I couldn’t remember where I’d read something similar. At least, not until I began reviewing books 4 – 6 of this series. The girls’ mother, Veronica, is pregnant at the time when she’s kidnapped by the Master along with her husband and put into an enchanted sleep for two years. She delivers the baby while in her sleep – because yes, THAT’S how childbirth works. (I don’t know why he didn’t just throw a stork in there too, just for kicks.)

I mentioned in my review of Books 1 – 3 that I had issues with the subtextual messages being sent by this series. In addition to the conflation of protection and controlling & my issues with this trivializing of subjects like childbirth and murder (remember the juvenile homicidal maniacs from book 2?), I find the way Snow White’s story was resolved extremely problematic.

For one thing, that entire subplot was completely unnecessary to the plot – the homicidal husband was never a part of the Master’s plan – so clearly it was thrown in there because Buckley thought this a masterful retelling of the story on his part. Now, I’ve mentioned that he has managed to that very thing with the story of Little Red Riding Hood earlier.

But whatever worked for that subplot does NOT work for this one. For one thing, trauma is not easily or instantaneously gotten over. If years of training herself hasn’t helped her yet, putting a knife through a man she didn’t even help overpower is not going to do it. Life’s not that easy, and if you’re going to try and make it “realistic” for the kids by including homicidal husband storylines, then you really ought not to pull a last minute cop out and wrap it up neatly in a very unrealistic bow.

The final three books in the Sisters Grimm bring a series that started out promising to a very disappointing (and badly edited) finish. The story was dragged out unnecessarily, and at times, it felt like the only thing keeping Buckley’s universe together was a thin strand of fiction – which is the only thing every character and subplot in this series have in common after all.

Next Review: Bloodlines #1 – Bloodlines by Richelle Mead

Book Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

Title: Aftertaste
Author: Namita Devidayal
Year of Publication: 2011
Series: N/A
#: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 2.96
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Spoiler Alert

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Might I start off by saying that I cannot believe this book has a average Goodreads rating of below 3, when SO MANY terrible books are rated 4 and 5 out of 5 stars?

Plot Description:  The powerful matriarch of a wealthy business family (they sell sweets) has suffered a str0ke, and lies dying. Aftertaste is the story of how her children and her children-in-law deal with her impending death, while also fending off personal troubles of their own. In addition to metaphorical interpretations, the title also directly refers to the theme of Indian sweets that runs through the book in the form of the Todarmal’s business.

The one word I’d use to describe this book is “stark”. Stark as in “stark reality”. Stark as in “stark truth”. Stark as in “stark naked”.

[Note: This has nothing to do with the well known and generally unfortunate House of Stark, located at Winterfell.]

‘Mummyji’ is what she’s called, and that term itself is SO typically Indian – of the way we’ve managed to blend English customs with customs of our own from all over the country. So far, she’d run the family business with an iron fist and an eagle eye on the accounts. They’ve zillions of rupees stashed away in a Swiss bank account – the details of which are known only to Mummyji. Then there’s also the matter of Mummyji’s extremely valuable jewels (emeralds or diamonds or something. I forget exactly which). These too, have been squirreled away with none of the children the wiser to their location.

Mummyji clearly doesn’t trust her kids, and with good reason, because as it turns out, they’ve kind of been waiting for her to die for quite a while now. Each of them for their own personal reasons – her eldest son, Rajan Papa, is in debt to a local money lender. Her daughter, the beautiful yet indifferently married Suman seems hell bent on finding those jewels or die trying. Her other son Sunny – the spoilt brat who’s cheating on his wife, and her youngest daughter Saroj, who’s been estranged from her husband under the weirdest circumstances ever – they all need money from her for some reason or the other.

Mummyji herself is no saint, and as the story progresses, she’s revealed to be a master manipulator, and the ultimate controlling parent – determined to keep her kids tied to her apron strings way after they’ve grown up, gotten married, and, in some cases, had children of their own.

The story explores numerous sub plots as it switches between narrators, including side characters like the largely overlooked and invisible servants of the house, Sunny’s young mistress, and one of Mummyji’s grandchildren, who’s struggling with issues related to his less than heteronormative sexuality. Not many of these sub plots – if any at all – are boring or annoying. Rather than distracting the reader from the main narrative – which is my main gripe with many multiple narrator stories – the subplots combine to make a perfect whole.

What you end up with is a lazy, comfortable Sunday afternoon read that doesn’t pretend to you that life is any less difficult, messy, ugly or complicated than it really is; but makes you feel like maybe you can deal with it all the same.

As long as you take it slow and relaxed, like the pace of this book itself.

P.S.: I haven’t done a very feminist critique of this book because it represents more than half the types of quintessential Indian women you can ever come across. Reviewing it from a feminist perspective is going to require a scholarly article on Indian Feminism, no less.

Next Review: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami