Book Review: The Sisters Grimm # 4 – 6

Title: Once Upon A Crime; Magic and Other Misdemeanours; Tales From the Hood
Author: Michael Buckley
Year of Publication: 2007; 2007; 2008
Series: The Sisters Grimm
#: 4, 5 & 6
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 4.25; 4.28; 4.28
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3; 3; 3

A Few Spoilers are Inevitable

This review covers books four to six of The Sisters Grimm series. I’m your reviewer for the day, and if I sound a tad automated, it’s because I’m too tired to be witty.

*Puts on Damon Salvatore voice*

Once Upon Crime finally lets the sisters, their grandmother and the whole Scooby Gang out of the miserable little town that is Ferryport. They head to NYC, which is where the Faerie Kingdom holds court (duh) for the purpose of saving Puck’s life (he was injured by the Jabberwocky in the previous book). While they’re there, they fall headlong into the assassination of Puck’s father, Oberon, King of the Faeries. No prizes for guessing who the prime suspects are!

Literally the only interesting thing to come out of this book in the long term is the fact that Sabrina comes face to face with her mother’s legacy involving Everafters, finally allowing her to make peace with her family’s history to some extent for the first time. She basically ends up finding it difficult to hold on to her bigotry so hard when her mother was obviously an active supporter.

A supposedly funny subplot in Once Upon A Crime is the way Puck, while incapacitated in his healing cocoon (a large and smelling eggplant like structure that floats around) picks Sabrina to be his chosen guardian – instead of his fiancee, whom they discover when they reach the Faerie Court. Sabrina finds the cocoon disgusting and embarrassing, and she has to deal with the fiancee’s anger on top of everything else.

I get that this is supposed to be some kind of love triangle, but all I saw was a pair of pre-teens being catty to each other over a boy. Don’t we have enough stories of this sort flying about in the world already? Buckley tries to do a good job of writing in defences against casual and/ or internalized sexism in his stories, but they just keep creeping in!!!

[Honestly, this is a theme that will only get more pronounced as we progress through the series.]

Magic and Other Misdemeanours once again deals with a series of thefts – of magical objects, as well as a discriminatory campaign against human residents of Ferryport, who are being pushed out of their homes, jobs and lives by any means possible – courtesy of the new Mayor, the Queen of Hearts.

Baba Yaga – a crazy witch who lives in a house on legs and fits every stereotype of the ugly, scary witch there ever was – makes an appearance. Puck continues to be hyper and over the top, acting like he’s seven or eight, even though his feelings for Sabrina are actually making him grow older.

The resolution to the mystery was sad in both senses of the term. It was saddening, and it was pathetically sad at the same time. After all the mystery and tension and so many plot twists and blind alleys, the final reveal is a complete letdown.

In terms of plot development for the series overall, Magic and Other Misdemeanours holds its own. In fact, the entire Sisters Grimm series just feels like an endless row of dominos falling over – one after the other, and with each precipitating the next.

Tales From the Hood is, I suppose as close to a personal favourite as this series is ever going to get from me. That’s because it has my favourite character from this book – Canis, aka The Big Bad Wolf – at the centre of the plot.

I think part of what makes Mr. Canis so interesting is that – at this point in the series – he stands out amongst the characters. It’s been six books. We (especially those of us who binge read the series) know these characters so well, that all the quirks that started out as endearing are now extremely annoying. The characters dutifully fill in their assigned roles –

Charming is all blustery and he hates them and he gets in their way a lot, but he ends up helping save the day in the end. Puck is mischievous and a trickster and very, very GROSS. He also has his moments of maturity, but not nearly enough of them. The three little pigs were too much to write, so two of them got written off the series (TV Show style), and now there’s just one Little Pig. He’s caring, has a heart of gold, yada yada yada.

The Queen of Hearts is evil. So’s Rumplestiltskin and a bunch of other people. In fact, they’re so evil, that they’re black-and-white, cardboard caricatures of what evil fairy tale villains look like.

Disney called. They want their Standardized Villain Mould (TM) back.

Canis though, is a character with layers to him. He’s on a constant anger management schedule. He spends most of his time meditating. He can turn into a rabid wolf. He has a split personality disorder, and now that he’s put on trial in Tales From the Hood, it’s up to his lawyers (the Scooby gang) to prove that Canis is innocent because it was the other personality that did it.

I like Canis, and I’m not just saying that because I might not be entirely sober right now. I’ve always been fascinated by powerful forces of nature kept under strict restraint, lest they get free and wreak havoc.

Oh, and I appreciated the re-telling of the story of Red Riding Hood. Points for ingenuity and subversion of tropes and all that. Points off for a tale within a tale that could have been a LOT less convoluted.

The Sisters Grimm occupies a little niche all by itself in the children’s fiction market, and while the first three books were passable, the next three represents the perfect transition stage from acceptable to holy-***-everything’s-going-to-hell mode.

What I’m trying to say is they’re worse than the first three, and yet nowhere as bad as the last three.

Next Review: Aftertaste by Namita Devidayal

Next in this Series: The Sisters Grimm # 7 – 9 by Michael Buckley

 

Book Review: The Blackcoat Rebellion #1 – Pawn

Title: Pawn
Author: Aimee Carter
Year of Publication: 2013
Series: The Blackcoat Rebellion
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.80
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2

SO MANY SPOILERS

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Plot Description: Kitty Doe lives in a world where everyone takes a test at the age of 17 which evaluates their worth in society. She receives a 3, rather than the average 4 on her test. Just when she thinks she’s doomed to a life of menial work, she’s whisked off to be a doppelganger for the Prime Minister’s dead niece, Lila Hart. As Lila Hart, Kitty is supposed to help stop a rebellion against the current regime – a rebellion Lila had secretly been fostering.

Disclaimer: I didn’t want to read this book, but it was lying around at home and I was starved for options. Since I was going into this book with no expectations whatsoever, I actually ended up pleasantly surprised at times.

It was only after I started reading YA almost exclusively that I came across the phrase “TSTL” (too stupid to live). And that’s precisely what first comes to mind when we see Kitty Doe stealing an orange and hoping she’ll be shot on sight for theft. The idea gets even more ridiculous when you realize that her boyfriend, Benjy is with her, and she’s putting both of them in danger. The writing is vague and disconnected even here, at the beginning, and this really doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

After escaping from the Shields and relinquishing their orange, Kitty and Benjy discuss her options. With that particular brand of clear thinking apparently omnipresent in sixteen year olds, Benjy proposes to Kitty, because this means they won’t be separated. Thankfully, she has the sense to turn him down, because she’s afraid being married to a 3 will hurt his ranking chances when he takes the test.

Kitty decides to go speak to Tabs, a local prostitute who has been trying to recruit her. Benjy is dead set against this. And while Benjy seems to be speaking purely from prejudice, I agree with him because I don’t think Kitty really understands what it means to be a prostitute. The way she talks about it gives me the impression that she thinks the worst thing about prostitution is having to sleep with strange men. She doesn’t sound like she understands the physical danger involved, or the lack of choice that will end up haunting her with every step she takes. She certainly didn’t know Tabs was recruiting her because Tabs would get a cut of her pay.

“You’re my girlfriend,” he said roughly. “I don’t want those pigs touching you.”

Okay, Benjy, I know you’re sixteen, but you can’t build your life around a girl. Like, seriously. Also, possessive much?

Before she leaves, Benjy asks her to sleep with him. I don’t really know what to make of that, but it makes me a little uncomfortable. Kitty tells him that it’s better for her prospects if she’s a virgin, and then he tells her he should be her first.

Why? I know it’s hard for your sixteen year old love-crazed brain to comprehend this, Benjy, but plenty of people who are in love are never each other’s firsts. And you don’t really get to decide who should be someone else’s first. You can want Kitty to be your first, sure. Similarly, she’s the only one who gets to decide who she wants to be her first.

Kitty tells him he’s always going to be her first because sleeping with anyone else won’t count, and she breaks up with him for a month – until he knows what his ranking is going to be.

Prostitution is illegal in Kitty’s country, but since it’s the ‘oldest profession’ in the world, and since many of the highest ranking men in the country frequent these clubs, a blind eye is turned. Since she’s young and still a virgin, her virginity is auctioned off – starting with a thousand gold pieces and ending at thirty thousand. That’s more than she would have made as a sewage worker in ten years, and she’s amazed at the idea that anyone would spend that much for one night with her. Kitty’s naivete is once again starkly obvious, since she doesn’t seem to have understood that what was being bid for wasn’t her – not her as a person, but just the fact of her virginity. She’s very much still a child here, because the idea that prostitution can sometimes dehumanize the people working in that field isn’t something she’s completely recognizing.

This is the point at which I set the book down and momentarily wish that this was what this book was really about – the story of a young girl who begins to gradually understand the world through her life as a sex worker – her journey from innocence and naivete to maturity, if you will. It would definitely have made for a better plot than that of the real Pawn. But I guess that’s not what real YA literature is looking for.

I wished this because even though prostitution is not the subject matter of Carter’s book, she introduced it all the same, and then trivialized it. In another review I read, the reviewer described the prostitution sub-plot as a gun that wasn’t loaded, and I think this gun shouldn’t have been brought into the picture and then portrayed as inconsequential. Kitty leaves the club not realizing the exact nature of the bullet she just dodged, and I think a lot of younger readers would have ended up doing the same. Prostitution and virginity auctions are not, after all, some myth conceived of in Carter’s precious fictional dystopia. They exist in the real world, and have a lot of real world dangers and connotations attached to them. Treating the subject as a convenient plot device and reducing it to prejudicial stereotypes is not okay at all.

Okay, that was intense. And it’s only now that the real plot kicks off.

In short, Kitty is made to stand in for the PM’s dead niece, as a cover up for her death. Lila is a bit of a Princess Diana figure – she’d been going around saying things that were technically treasonous, and had acquired a vast following among the common people through her charisma and charm. A lot of time is devoted to describing Kitty’s eleven days of training to replace Lila, and in this time, the rest of the family is introduced. There’s Celia, Lila’s mother. Augusta, Daxton’s mother and the matriarch of the Hart family. There’s Knox Creed, Lila’s fiance. And Greyson, Daxton’s younger son and sole surviving heir.
This is where Pawn becomes a confused piece of writing, and having read the sequel – Captive – I can tell you it doesn’t get better. Pawn has a lot of things going against it. For one thing, it’s a chip off the old Hunger Games block, and derivative as such. For another, it suffers from less than sympathetic protagonists. With the exception of Knox and Greyson, even the auteurs of the rebellion are motivated by selfishness. Celia is out for power and revenge. Kitty’s heroism is impulsive and inconsistent. She’s as confused about her motivations as can be – oscillating wildly between sympathizing with the downtrodden and helping the autocrats in order to save Benjy’s life.
The confused storylines don’t help Pawn’s case. Plot twist is piled on top of plot twist, and one ends up disliking all the characters on principle. Carter seems to care more about shocking the reader and keeping them guessing than on good writing. As a result, by the time it is revealed that the real Lila Hart is still alive, one gives up.
Pawn was greatly evocative of a Meg Cabot book on similar lines – the Airhead trilogy, where a smart girl’s brain is transplanted into a supermodels body. (Spoiler: Airhead also revealed that the original owner of the body was still alive.) These books seem eager to appeal to the everygirl reader while reaffirming the idea that a heroine needs to be conventionally beautiful. It’s a sad attempt at having one’s cake and eating it too, and undermines the lesson that physical beauty isn’t the be-all and the end-all.
The book ends with an action filled showdown between Kitty and the matriarch – Augusta Hart. Where she was previously unable to assassinate Daxton, Kitty now shows herself capable of killing when Benjy’s life is at stake. With Augusta out of the way and Daxton still in a coma, it seems like the perfect moment for the rebellion to take control. This opportunity is, however, wasted in favour of a set up to a sequel that honestly seems unnecessary.

Next: The Blackcoat Rebellion #2 – Captive

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
Year of Publication: 1985
Series: N/A
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99 
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

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Plot Description: In a dystopic world ravaged by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases, infertility is the second biggest problem faced by what once used to be the United States of America. The biggest problem is the Religious Right, although they probably don’t see it that way.

Offred, the eponymous protagonist, is a part of one of the Gileadean empire’s greatest schemes to combat infertility – that is to say, the imprisonment of women of child bearing age and their subsequent induction into sex slavery as Handmaids. The Handmaids are surrogates to the infertile wives of rich and powerful (and ever fertile) men deemed worthy of this shot at reproduction.

This review falls smack dab in the middle of my reviewing of the Shifter series, which is, incidentally also set in a universe where women are controlled for reproductive purposes.

Offred provides a first person narrative voice that is muted and numbed in tone but unceasingly rebellious in its content. Her thoughts shift from scene to scene the same way one would flip through a book one has read too many times already. And while her memories may not make for a pleasant book, it’s a compelling one all the same.

Sometimes she isn’t in the mood for the really tough parts, so she might read to you from a different, only slightly less horrifying scene. This gimmick, in my opinion, works well for the empathetic reader, because by the end of the first chapter, you’re dreading hearing Offred tell her story just as much as she dreads telling it.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been marked down both as feminist dystopia as well as speculative fiction. I find these classifications incredibly stupid for one particular reason: Both terms refer to a vague and distant future filled with horrid things that may or may not happen, and this is a singularly inaccurate way of describing The Handmaid’s Tale. 

This book is Contemporary like nobody’s business. Look around you, and you’ll see the events described in this book happening on a large scale, systemic basis somewhere or the other in the world. Sex slavery? Saudi Arabia has perfected it to the extent that their diplomats feel it’s NBD to be practicing it* carrying on with it in their embassies to foreign countries. 

* These guys don’t need to ‘practice’ sex slavery anymore, because they’ve got it down pat.

Regulation of human rights of women with regards to reproduction? The State of Alabama tried to terminate a woman’s ‘parental rights’ to her foetus. On grounds of chemical endangerment of said foetus. Because she wanted an abortion

Between the Planned Parenthood Bill and the rising prices of female contraception everywhere, there really shouldn’t be much doubt as to whether there’s a call to increasing regulation of female bodies, should there?

The fact that male politicians continue to legislate female bodies (on the basis of arguments that sound like they came out of a Insult and Dehumanization Randomizer) whilst carrying on with their often hypocritical personal lives merely holds a mirror up to characters like Commander Fred. I’m talking about those people who are literally half a step away from instituting a Gilead involving morally legitimized surrogacy cum sex slavery whilst maintaining that prostitutes are still a necessity because “men like variety”.

Patronymics (the handmaids are stripped of their original names and named after the man they now belong to – E.g.: OfFred, OfWayne, OfWarren, OfGlen), victim blaming, male privilege, and systematized rape culture. All of it exists in the extremely non fictional here and now.

(What are our surnames but patronymics after all?)

And the Religious Right is everywhere. ‘Which religion?’ is an irrelevant question. All of them. And they’re all always Right. And the one thing they all seem to agree on is woman’s rightful place (or rather, the lack thereof) in the universe.

Ookay, point made. Rant over. The next rant observation has to do with the other reviews of this book on Goodreads. In hindsight, I suppose it shouldn’t have been surprising that The Handmaid’s Tale has a wildly polarizing effect. For one thing, the style of writing doesn’t work for everyone. Some think it’s inconsistent to juxtapose Offred’s everyday monotone (submissive, quiet, repressed) with sentences that suddenly end with “The Commander is fucking.” Others just found it too distracting.

The other notable thing about the reviews is that on the one hand you have reviewers who – like me – see in this book a very accurate description of the world around us today (and possibly read dire warnings of the book eventually coming true). Others are quick to denounce the book as the most speculative of speculative fiction, and state categorically that “Time has not been kind to Margaret Atwood’s vision.” [As I’ve already stated, I firmly believe that the latter lot are completely wrong.]

Something I grappled with quite a lot was my inability to understand why all the characters were so subdued. It wasn’t possible, my brain reasoned, for human beings raised in lives of independence and freedom to bend their knees so easily.

Throw a frog into boiling water and it will hop out immediately. Drop it in ordinary water and slowly bring it to boil, and the frog will cook in it and die without realizing what is happening to it (until it’s too late).

Besides, that’s basically what happened during the Holocaust anyway.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautifully nuanced book that looks at all aspects of life under the patriarchy. It looks at the impact on the Handmaids – simultaneously the objects of revulsion and hope by the rest of the community and on the Wives – considered Failures because of their inability to conceive and set aside. It looks at the Young Men who are both considered ineligible for wives (and by extension Handmaids) as well as forbidden to masturbate by religion and on the Daughters fated to grow up to be Somebody’s Wife. The book even takes pity on the Husbands who seem to have it all, even Husbands like Commander Fred who wrote the system only to find, too late, that he’d robbed himself of the twin pleasures of intimacy and variety.

Motherhood is one of the central themes of the book – Offred is a mother to a lost child who is now someone else’s daughter somewhere else in the city. She is also expected to be a mother again – only for a while, only for nine months – and she hopes for this as well. Except a new pregnancy means something different to her than the first one had – it’s freedom from the threat of exile, protection from a variety of punishments, and sadly, a hunger for approval, like a dog hungers for its owner to recognize that it has been a good dog. (This makes quite a lot of sense, because in addition to the fact that she’s a sex slave being forced to bear children, it’s also important to note that the real mother of any children born to her would be the Commander’s wife.)

The book’s real ending depicts an academic conference at least a couple of centuries into the future, adding additional context in a manner reminiscent of the found-footage genre of horror movies. And as with that genre, the reader finds themselves stepping out of an intensely engaging personal narrative of horror into a disorienting context where characters who are centuries removed from the book’s subject remark upon those past events in a lighthearted manner.

After I was done reading, I compared notes on the book with the friend who recommended The Handmaid’s Tale to me. We were specifically talking about which part of the book made us feel the most physically nauseous. For her, it was the scene where Offred and her fellow inmates at the Rachel and Leah Re-education Centre are made to repeatedly chant “It was your fault!” at a new girl who had recounted her story of having been gangraped at the age of fourteen.

For me, it was the moment Offred realizes that the government’s move to remove women from full citizenship made her inoffensive husband happy, not sad. She has lost everything, she thinks, but he has gained instead. Everything that was hers is his now, and she too, is his.

Next: Shifters #4 – Prey