Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Review: Peter Darling by Austin Chant

4.5 stars

Peter Darling is a beautiful queer fairy tale that is both whimsical and poignantly real. It revolves around Peter Pan returning to Neverland as an adult, taking refuge from the real world where he is forced to live in the body of a young woman named Wendy Darling. Things have changed in Neverland and Captain Hook and the Lost Boys are no longer at war, but Peter resumes his old feud with Hook all the same, only to discover that his old nemesis now evokes a whole other set of feelings.

At the beginning of the book, we see Peter much as one would imagine: he's the boy that never grew up, playing his war games without thought for the cost of his vendetta. As much as I came to love Peter - and the book - I struggled a little bit with this initial third of the story because of the senseless and casual violence Peter inflicts. However, I think this has more to do with me and my sensitivity to violence than the book itself. Hook also reveals to Peter - and thus the reader - something about the nature of Neverland that made the violence much easier for me to bear, allowing me to get lost in the story in a way that I had previously been prevented from doing. Similarly, regardless of how I reacted to it personally, this initial immaturity is essential to Peter's character, and his progression to realising the consequences of his actions - while still maintaining his boyish enthusiasm - was masterful.

The energetic and impulsive Peter is balanced perfectly by Hook's ennui-stricken and world-weary facade, and the relationship between the two was everything you ever wanted from the enemies-to-lovers trope. Both characters are morally ambiguous, and the Neverland here is not the sanitised version of the Disney film, but - as I mentioned earlier - one with real dangers, real violence, and slightly sinister undertones like those in old fairy tales.

Nevertheless, Chant's Neverland is the best kind of fantasy world, the kind that frees us from the oppressive realities of our world, instead of replicating them. There, Peter isn't faced with gender dysphoria, or disapproval, judgement and condescension from his family. Neither must James remember the sorrows of his life in the 'real world' of post-WWI Britain.

This has been a short review - by my standards - but it's very hard to capture the magic of Peter Darling in words. It's rekindled my childhood love of the story, when I would open the copy of the book my great-uncle had given me just to look at the pictures, or when I watched my VHS copy of the animated movie so many times that it eventually unspooled in the video player, breaking them both. But it's added another deeper dimension to the story, and, as far as I'm concerned, Disney and J. M. Barrie can both go home, because Peter Darling is now canon Peter Pan. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Review: Against the Tide by Elizabeth Camden

2 stars

Against the Tide is an inspirational romance with a wonderful sense of place and a good premise, but I was disappointed by the male characters and the presentation of faith.

It takes place in 1890s Boston, where Lydia Pallas works as a translator for the Navy. Desperate to make enough money to buy her apartment outright before she is evicted, she takes on extra work translating Turkish and Albanian for Alexander Banebridge, a friend of her boss', in his attempt to crack the North American opium trade. Bane has dedicated himself to his crusade, and he won't be swayed by his attraction to Lydia, even as he puts her and her job in danger.

If my blurb doesn't sound entirely neutral, that's because it isn't. I really did try to write an blurb that uninfluenced by my opinion of Bane and the other male characters, but it was impossible, so in the end, I just went 'stuff it, I'm going to be talking about it in the next paragraph anyway' and cast some subtle shade. 

The two main male characters - Bane and his friend, Admiral Eric Fontaine, who is also Lydia's boss - both treat Lydia abominably. Bane sweet-talks and manipulates her into undertaking actions of questionable legality for his crusade against opium, trading on her desperate need for money, and when Eric discovers this, he promptly fires her, without any thought about what it will mean for her ability to provide for herself. Having got what he wants from her - translations about shipments of opium - Bane drops her like a hot rock, not even paying her the rest of the money he owes her until many months later. So Lydia is forced out of her home, and into a hand-to-mouth existence working in a bakery. Bane's actions are made worse by the fact that Lydia's upbringing in an orphanage has left her with a need for security and ordered surroundings, and she repeatedly makes him aware of how much she fears sliding back into poverty. It read like a penny dreadful, with Lydia as the poor, waifish heroine, whose fall from grace has a moral about consorting with men and being a heathen. Other elements of the plot also reinforce this Gothic vibe, such as - SPOILER ALERT - Lydia's addiction to opium, and her imprisonment in a isolated estate. 

Throughout most of the book, Bane is the one of the two who is supposedly a committed Christian, while Lydia isn't very religiously inclined (of course, the nature of inspirational romance means that Lydia does become Christian). However, in my opinion, neither Bane nor Eric comes off well as an example of Christian charity, or any positive Christian trait. Yes, Bane's desire to end the opium trade is driven by his faith, but it's mostly to absolve himself of his prior involvement in it, rather than any genuine desire to help others. I'm not very religious, but my grandmother is from the 'whatever you did for the least of my followers, you did for me' school of thought, not the 'cause an innocent woman's downfall and a lot of grief for a lot of people, but don't worry about the ramifications of your actions, because you're a self-righteous Christian man' one. But, you know, po-tay-tos, po-tah-tos . 

As though the whole ghosting-the-heroine-for-several-months wasn't enough, Bane also feels the need to constantly lecture the female characters about how they can save their souls. Other male characters also mansplain Christianity, and I came to resent the way that this was presented as a revelation from moral, Christian men (who weren't really that moral), to women, as though women are inherently immoral or need to have men interpret religion and proselytise it to them. However, while both are inherently gendered and adhere to the virgin-whore dichotomy, I did find it interesting to note the difference between the dynamic in Against the Tide and many other inspirational romances I have read, where the heroine is a pure and good Christian, and must teach the hero the error of his ways. 

But, back to my problems with Bane, he was also a bit holier-than-thou about the whole fight against the opium trade, and did this horrible 'I-told-you-so' throughout Lydia's recovery from opium addiction (when he wasn't evangelising).

At this point, you may well be wondering why I've given Against the Tide two stars, since I've just written a huge laundry list of all the things I *didn't* like (here's looking at you, Bane). But there were elements that I liked, or that worked for me. The naval and opium trade and usage aspects were interesting, well-researched and well-integrated into the story. It's always nice to see a historical romance heroine with an occupation, and I appreciated that Lydia was learned, employed and independent, although much of this is, of course, undercut in the course of the story. Similarly, she is an immigrant, she and her family having arrived from Greece when she was a child. I also admired what Camden tried to do here with having an opium-addicted heroine, even if the religious, paternalistic and moralising undertones meant that it didn't always work for me. Despite my problems with it, the story was also compelling, in that way that Gothic and old-school romances often are.

I have a strange relationship with inspirational romance, as I think many romance readers do. For me, this definitely fell into the 'too much inspie' category, and I wouldn't advise reading it unless you are a hardcore inspie-lover and are totally feeling the gender dynamic (although I'm not sure that inspie-loving gender-traditionalists frequent this small-time, rant-y, feminist blog). If you are interested in giving something of Camden's a go, I have previously read and enjoyed Toward the Sunrise and Until the Dawn, which feature all of the strong points of Against the Tide - strong, working heroine, good sense of place and interesting historical tidbits - without nearly as many pitfalls. 

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Overview: March Reading

The blog's been pretty quiet this last month, because I've been drowning in uni work. I've come up now for a quick breath of air, but I suspect I'll be pulled back down in a week or two. Apologies in advance for that.

My uni commitments also meant this wasn't a very prolific reading month for me. Reading in English also seems to interfere with my ability to slip back into German when I step out my front door or put away my book at the end of a bus trip. Nonetheless, here is my reading for the month, in all its underwhelming glory:

Reading Overview & Genre Breakdown

Books read in March: 14
Books read YTD: 49

Fiction Titles: 13
  • 13 Romance (4 historical romance, 7 contemporary romance, 1 fantasy & 1 mixed anthology)
Non-Fiction Titles: 1
  • 1 Social History/Theology

Since I started this feature in January, I've been playing around with what I want it to look like. The previous months have focused heavily on setting, but I'm not sure that interests anyone as much as it interests me, so I've come up with something new and different this month that I think has better long-term potential (and is less time-consuming so maybe I'll actually get these posts up on time, even if I am busy). Also, if you have any opinions about what you would like to see in these posts, feel free to give me a shout.

Noteworthy Novels

Noteworthy Non-Fiction

Noteworthy Settings

Kick-ass Characters

  • Elle from An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole - Elle is a free woman with an eidetic memory, who goes undercover as a slave to pass information to the Union during the Civil War
  • James Hook from Peter Darling by Austin Chant - not all anti-heroes wear capes, but James probably would if you gave him the chance

From the Internet this Month

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