Kate Holds Court

Accept No Substitutes.

CBR #11: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

All parents — at least, the ones in my house — dream bright dreams for their children. “Maybe she’ll be an executive chef when she grows up. And she can teach other chefs on t.v. Like a nicer Gordon Ramsay,” we say hopefully, after she’s trashed the kitchen for the third time in a week while making herself a favored meal of French toast and hot chocolate. “I’ll bet he’ll be an architect,” we speculate, after we battle for an hour before we FINALLY drag his ass toward his homework and away from Minecraft, where he has been hard at work building a four-story complex with balconies, diamond floors, spires, a zombie jail, and a teleportation device. We don’t say, however,  “Maybe he’ll grow up to perpetrate mass murder on seven of his high school classmates, a beloved teacher, and a cafeteria worker who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This is the situation in which Eva Khatchadourian, the prickly and embattled narrator of Lionel Shriver’s unflinching exploration of the dark side of motherhood, finds herself. Eva’s son, the titular Kevin, is in prison for doing all these things and more, and it’s up to Eva, in a series of soul-baring letters to her estranged husband, to excavate her own conscience and figure out where it all went wrong.

Eva herself is quite a piece of work, alternately self-flagellating and insistent that, gee, the damn kid just came out that way. And the evidence is strong that Kevin was a little shit from day one. On the other hand, Eva has been ambivalent about motherhood from the start, and her husband, the steadfastly obtuse Franklin, is no help at all — he yells at Eva for dancing while she’s pregnant (it could hurt the baby!) and turns a blind eye to her very real concerns as Kevin’s behavior grows increasingly alarming. In her narrative, Eva relentlessly, almost clinically, lays out for Franklin the way her love for her family (which eventually expands to include the sweet, passive, and not terribly bright Celia) wars constantly with her resentment for all of them, and her guilt because she knows that deep down, she and Kevin aren’t all that different — maybe he’s just more honest about who he is.

Although Eva constantly references other high school mass murders, at times reciting them like a litany, Shriver really isn’t all that interested in theorizing about why such atrocities happen. It’s clear that if Eva is to be believed, Kevin has never been precisely “normal,” whatever that means. Instead, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a character study of a very unhappy woman who believes that she deserves to be unhappy, and maybe she does, but maybe she doesn’t, and her hate is a form of love and her love is a form of hatred. Through Eva, Shriver takes you on a powerful, haunting journey. Whether or not it’s a journey you’ll be glad you took is another question entirely.

CBR Reviews #8 and 9: A Grace Burrowes Two-Fer

Gareth, Lord of Rakes and Andrew, Lord of Despair by Grace Burrowes

Oh, to live in Grace Burrowes’ Regency England. This is a magical world where the aristocracy’s finest specimens of masculinity are, to a man, well over six feet tall, with all their hair and all their teeth. They are careful stewards of their wealth, which is considerable. Despite what the historical record might suggest, they bathe frequently, and instead of smelling of whiskey, the stables, or their own stinky sweat, they rather have about their persons the pleasing scent of bergamot or cedar. In the boudoir they are both talented and considerate; they like to cuddle almost as much as they like to swive. They not infrequently, although not always, have wildly anachronistic names (cf. Gayle — Gayle! — in Burrowes’ The Heir). They often have surprising talents and abilities, which may range from efficiently managing a brothel to performing an external cephalic version during the delivery of breech twins during a blizzard. They are affectionate. They are handsome. They are kind.

But they are tortured — oh, so horridly tortured! — with grief, crushing guilt, or some malign combination of the two. And the only one who can end their torment is the most unlikely woman in the world…

Look, I laugh because I love. Burrowes’ books are my crack; she’s one of a handful of writers on my auto-buy list, and after having gobbled up most of her backlist, I can honestly say that I’ve never regretted a purchase. Her books represent a warm escape from the rigors of everyday life, and it’s one I welcome, repetitive plots, anachronisms, and all.

But I can still laugh just a little, can’t I?

Which brings us, after an unconscionably long hiatus, to this week’s two books — the tales of two brothers who are haunted by a long-ago boating accident. One of them has dealt with his guilt by becoming a rake; the other has dealt with his guilt by retreating to the Continent and becoming a rake. Ladies and gentlemen (although, I suspect, mostly ladies), I give you two of the recent protagonists of Grace Burrowes’ Lonely Lords series: Gareth and Andrew.

At the beginning of his novel, the eponymous Gareth (Lord of Rakes) finds himself faced with a prim, pretty, and economically distressed spinster named Felicity Worthington who has come to him with a bold, nearly unthinkable proposition: Her cousin Callista, the proprietress of a popular, somewhat high-end House of Ill Repute, has gone to her eternal award, and has willed the brothel to Felicity, with the proviso that Felicity must learn everything — and I do mean everything — about running the place within ninety days. Furthermore, she can only gain this education at the hands of one of two men — her choice. One is a notoriously evil bounder and cad. The other is Gareth.

Hoping to save Felicity, a decent woman, from the undesired attentions of the aforementioned bounder/cad and also from penury, Gareth — to his credit, reluctantly — begins Felicity’s erotic education.* He also finds himself falling arse over teakettle in love, as well as increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of Felicity scuttling her own reputation, as well as that of her innocent younger sister, by taking the reins of a whorehouse. Also, mysteries remain, not the least of which is why Callista left the place to Felicity to begin with. And who is the mysterious Lord Holbrook, who has suddenly appeared in town and taken a remarkable interest in Felicity’s family? Could he have his own designs on the young proto-madam? Finally, there’s the matter of Gareth’s guilt over the events surrounding that horrible accident, which took his grandfather, father, older brother, and fiancée, leaving him with a title he didn’t want and a life full of regret. Can he forgive himself in time to save Felicity and her sister from unspeakable danger?

Gareth: Lord of Rakes is vintage Burrowes, full of pragmatic, feisty, forthright women and emotionally unavailable men whose heads are lodged firmly up their bergamot-scented asses. I devoured every word like a starveling at the Country Kitchen Buffet and, without even pausing to belch, promptly turned my attention to the sequel, Andrew: Lord of Despair.

Andrew’s story picks up several years after Gareth and Felicity wrestle their HEA to the ground (come on, that’s hardly a spoiler). Since his beloved older brother’s wedding, Andrew has spent his time whoring it up on the Continent, writing home only infrequently. Notably, in between wenches he has somehow found the time to pick up some mad obstetrical skillz, as guilt-addled young lords bent on drinking and screwing their way across Europe did back in the early nineteenth century. This will eventually be important to the plot.

Among those pining for his return is Felicity’s younger sister, the improbably-named Astrid. Andrew and Astrid have a bit of a history; before she made her come-out, she and Andrew had a spectacular make-out, although he considerately stopped short of Ruining Her For Marriage. Andrew has always loved her from afar, although he considers himself unworthy of her or any woman’s affections as a result of his actions during the aforementioned boating accident. For her part, Astrid loves him, too. However, she finally got tired of waiting for him to respond to her letters, so she married another man — Herbert, Viscount Amery — who conveniently dies just as Andrew is returning home. What’s not so convenient is that Herbert has left Astrid flat broke and pregnant.

Even worse, someone apparently has it in for Astrid — subtly poisoning her, pushing her down the stairs, etc. Suspicion immediately falls on the new Viscount, the cautious and reserved Douglas, who is also the legal guardian of Astrid’s as-yet-unborn child. To protect Astrid and the child from danger, Andrew offers marriage…but can he do what both of them want and offer his heart?

Andrew is a bit unusual among Burrowes’ works in that the couple gets married about midway through the book, and we get to see them weather a challenging few months of newlywed life. (Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight — a much lighter read — is the only other one I can think of. Wait a minute — Nicholas: Lord of Secrets, too, I guess. And maybe Darius? I honestly don’t remember.) It also features the only instance I can recall (in Burrowes) of flat-out bad sex between the hero and heroine, when Astrid, angry with Andrew for being cold and withholding, refuses to allow him to, um, take her over the top. It’s actually pretty icky and uncomfortable.

Eventually they get things sorted out, figure out who’s trying to kill Astrid (and why), and live happily ever after, but by the time I finished the book I thought Andrew was kind of a tool and that Astrid had put up with a lot more than she should have. I liked Astrid well enough, although between this book and Gareth, she does (spoiler!) display a remarkable penchant for getting herself kidnapped and placed in mortal peril. That’s the price one pays, I guess, for walking among the Mortal Gods of Burrowes’ Regency.

By the by, the next book in the series is all about the mysterious Lord Holbrook, whose attentions to Felicity and Astrid gave Gareth such fits. I’m not sure I altogether buy this guy as a ladies’ man:

Siegfried? Or Roy?

Also, Regency gents didn’t wax their chests.

He looks like Siegfried, or maybe Roy, to me. Nevertheless, David: Lord of Honor is the next book up on my TBR pile.

*I know what you’re thinking here, and I assure you, this isn’t porn. Really! There’s an actual plot and everything!

CBR Review #7: Everyone Wants to Be Me or Do Me: Tom and Lorenzo’s Fabulous and Opinionated Guide to Celebrity Life and Style

My stars and garters. That title is a mouthful, isn’t it?

Super-fabulous fashion bloggers — and newlyweds (mazel tov!) — Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez surely need no introduction to most readers. At their eponymous website, TLo (as they are affectionately known) regale their legion of fans, aka the “Bitter Kittens,” on a daily basis with photographic evidence of celebrity style tragedies and triumphs, with accompanying snarky commentary. This is the pair who invented the coveted WERQ designation and first referred Johnny Depp as an “elderly gay wind chime,” an appellation the perfection of which has never since been exceeded, nor is it likely to be.

He doesn't look THAT old

Behold: An Elderly Gay Wind Chime.

They admonish deluded ladystars “Girl, That’s Not Your Dress” and encourage the gentlemen on the red carpet to “Willis It The Fuck Up,” i.e., emulate Bruce Willis looking particularly dapper at some summer event or other. One or both of them apparently has a background in fashion, and their commentary is usually as insightful as it is funny. In fact, I usually visit their site several times a day, especially during awards season, when (if I’m lucky) there will be a Lupita Nyong’o or SWINTON sighting for me to ooh and ahh over. (Their analyses of Mad Men from a style viewpoint are also not to be missed — check their site this summer for those.)

Bow down, bitches

SWINTON in Alexander McQueen (I think).

I’m a fan, is what I’m saying. But I’m — surprisingly enough — not a particular fan of this book, which retains the snark but dispenses with the knowledgeable fashion analysis and commentary that lift their site into the stratosphere, far and away above the “WHO WORE IT BEST?” columns in the likes of People and Us. Instead, they train their sights on the celebrity machine, and carefully explain the care and feeding of a typical celeb — how he or she becomes famous, behaves while famous, and tenaciously clings to fame. The result is a fitfully entertaining screed, devoid of the very things that make their site unique.

I mean, they have their moments, particularly when they’re talking about the courtship/marriage/BABY JOY phases of celebrity. Who else but TLo could get by with observing that “Stretch marks can mean the difference between a seven- and eight-figure salary sometimes,” or pontificate as follows:

No celebrity is going to go through the dreary, mundane motions of the adoption system. And besides, it’s only going to give her so much press in the long run. Signing documents in lawyers’ offices does not a fabulous photo op make. No, the very best thing any celeb can do is buy a nonwhite baby from another country, preferably in Africa, since that’s where all the hot, trendy babies are coming from at the moment. And it makes a much better backdrop for pictures. Lots of cute little camis and cargo-shorts ensembles to wear for the mother-to-be. She would be advised, however, to not sport any major logos for these pictures. A Louis Vuitton backpack next to a mud village might make a fabulous editorial for Vogue, but it’ll make any star look like an asshole.

Yeah, TLo’s wit runs acid from time to time. You’ve also got their trenchant observations about celebrity naming conventions, to wit, “They name it [the baby] after their latest project, whether it’s an album or a movie. Note: If non-celebs did this, there would be children named ‘Assistant Vice President of Marketing, Mid-Atlantic Region Jones.'” (Both funny and true.) But then, they spend an alarming amount of time discussing what one could consider non-news, like the fact that many celebrity “romances” are cooked up by studios to sell projects. (Wait a minute, you mean Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgård weren‘t involved in a passionate fling [with one another]? — Hold me. My faith in humanity has been shattered.)

But a hundred and eighty pages of snark with no informed commentary is sort of like eating a full meal of whipped cream without touching the cheesecake beneath (to say nothing of the steak you passed up earlier). TLo are incredibly funny, but they’re also incredibly smart and knowledgeable about fashion and about the ways fashion influences culture. The “funny” is on full display here; the other, not so much, and I missed it! I wanted to see them deploy their razor-sharp wit in a take-down of Stella McCartney’s latest crime against humanity frock and to revel in their enumeration of all the things the Divine Lupita does right in situations like this:

Yeah, that's a WERQ

Lupita Nyong’o WERQs a red cape

In short, I am a Bitter Kitten indeed, and I want more. Fortunately, TLo’s web site is still going strong, and they haven’t succumbed to the temptation to throw their best stuff behind a paywall. And I’m not sorry I shelled out the $$ for the book, if it means that they’ll continue giving it away for free.

So there you have it. We’ll call it a deal: The Bitter Kittens buy the book, and TLo will continue providing us hilarious commentary on spectacles such as the Miss Universe National Costume presentation. And to whet your appetite, I will leave you with this:

Netherlands 2013

She has tulips growing up her shins.

As TLo themselves would say: Amen.


CBR Review #6: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Don’t you love it when something is just as good as you remember it being?

I’ll expound on that happy thought in a minute, but first, some housekeeping.

1) I know I’m behind on my reviewing. What can I say? Life happens. (Sigh)

2) If you haven’t had the opportunity to read my review of CBR #5, Patience Bloom’s Romance Is My Day Job, you can find it here. Remember: If you want to buy a copy, please click through to Amazon from the CBR site, so that any proceeds can benefit cancer research.

3) I just peeked at my stats, and it looks as though I’m getting page views from the United States and…Malawi. How cool is that? I’m not aware that I’ve ever met anyone from Malawi, but  to my unknown African friend(s): Greetings! Welcome! I hope the weather is better there than it is here!

Let us proceed.

So you know how you reach a certain age and you start revisiting things you loved back when you were young, and you find it…lacking? Like, you can see where eleven-year-old you thought it was the bomb diggity…maybe…kind of…but now, cynical and jaded adult-you sees how ridiculous or poorly written/drawn/acted or unrealistic or pointless the entire affair is? And then you think, [Deity of Choice], adulthood SUCKS BALLS, because back when I was eleven I was enthralled by this shite, and I loved being absorbed in this particular world, and in fact it got me through some very difficult times, but now that I’m [redacted] years old I can see how crappy it really was, and I’m torn between loyalty to the author/artist/actors for giving me hours of enjoyment, defiance (“No, seriously, Sweet Valley High was fucking FABULOUS!”),  and face-scalding SHAME for having had such rotten taste when I was a tween.

That’s why it feels so. damn. good to find a book that actually stands the test of time. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is as good now as it was when I read it in fifth grade; I always find something new to appreciate in Louisa May Alcott’s juveniles; and Susan Howatch’s family sagas, to which I came earlier than most, remain great fun. To this list I can confidently add Ellen Raskin’s Newbery-winning The Westing Game, which I discovered in 1979 and finally re-read the day before yesterday. If you, too, loved it in fifth grade, don’t be afraid to revisit it. This is an awesome book.

For those of you who haven’t gotten around to it yet (and why not?), The Westing Game relates the adventures of sixteen people (some singles, some families, none related) who are offered space at a too-good-to-be-true rate in Sunset Towers, a swanky new apartment building, and are subsequently informed that they are the heirs of the paper-products magnate (and owner of Sunset Towers) Samuel Westing, whose death is announced early on. All they have to do to win the (eye-poppingly enormous) inheritance is solve the mystery. What mystery? Well, they kind of have to figure that out too.

The group is broken into teams of two unrelated “players,” and at the start each team is provided with an envelope containing several apparently random words and a check for $10,000. And that’s all. As the teams work together to solve the mystery (whatever it is), they must face disasters both natural and unnatural; personal crises — most of them turn out to have some connection with Westing, which they may or may not be willing to disclose, or in fact even realize; the vagaries of the stock market; and the occasional strategically-placed bomb. Meanwhile, it quickly becomes apparent that someone off-stage is pulling the strings in this particular show. Could it be Sam Westing himself…from beyond the grave?

As the Westing heirs puzzle through this, um, puzzle, they get to know one another, and everyone — from a wheelchair-bound teenaged birdwatcher to a Chinese bride without a word of English to a snobbish society matron to an ambitious judge to an energetic secretary who shouldn’t even be there in the first place — must learn to trust themselves and one another, and to discover and declare who they really are. Everyone has a believable character arc, and everyone ends up a winner, in one way or another. (But only one of them will be Sam Westing’s true heir.)

What can I say? If you loved this book before, you’ll probably love it still; when I read it, I remembered much of the broad outline, but was surprised at how much I picked up while reading it as an adult that I missed as an 11-year-old. If you’ve never had time for it before, go forth and read! Come for the intricate plotting; stay for the lively dialogue, clever wordplay, and rich characters. You won’t be disappointed. You, too, may strike it rich who dares to play the Westing game.


Greetings, Blog-Friends! Just wanted to let you know that two new reviews are up at Heroes and Heartbreakers:

First, Grace Burrowes makes us cry…and cry…and cry in The MacGregor’s Lady, the third installment in her Victorian-set MacGregor Trilogy.

Then, M.D. Waters makes us gasp (and stay up all night reading) in her exciting new novel Archetype.

Both are perfect books to read during a snow day, by the fire, under a quilt, with hot chocolate to hand and a kitty sitting on your feet. Happy reading…and be sure to let me know what you think in the comments!

(If you decide to purchase either of these books, I encourage you to click through via the Cannonball Read. If you do that, a percentage of the proceeds will support cancer research. Here, I’ll even make it easy for you: Archetype; The MacGregor’s Lady.)


CBR Review #2: River of Dreams by Lynn Kurland

Lynn Kurland is nothing if not consistent. The three (to date) trilogies that constitute her Nine Kingdoms series all begin exactly the same way: A poor but beautiful woman with no affinity for or trust in magic reluctantly embarks upon a dangerous but extremely important quest. Her companion, whom she initially mistrusts, is a mysterious man of surpassing physical splendor with a tragic past who is secretly a powerful mage and who is also secretly royalty. The two embark upon a journey fraught with incident (typically, everyone is kidnapped at least once), during which it is revealed that the woman is also secretly royalty. This is news to her, however, as her friends (most of whom are mages, royalty, or both) have been concealing her past from her and her very existence from the wider world, for her own safety, for most of her life.

River of Dreams continues the story (begun in last year’s Dreamspinner) of beautiful but poor and magic-averse Aisling of Bruadair, who has been charged by a mysterious factor to go in search of a hired gun to save her kingdom, the name and in fact even the very existence of which she is forbidden upon pain of death to disclose. A tall order, to be sure. Fortunately, she has teamed up with Rùnach, the handsome royal elven mage who is still healing in mind and body after a dire event that killed half his family, scattered the survivors to the four winds, tore his magic away, and left half his face covered in a web of scars. Rùnach figures out quickly enough where she’s from, as does pretty much everyone else they encounter, making everyone’s initial insistence on secrecy something of a head-scratcher.

In any event, in River of Dreams Aisling and Rùnach are running hither and yon about the Nine Kingdoms, spending time with royal elves, royal dwarves, and Rùnach’s evil father’s ex-girlfriend, the much-feared but actually rather amusing Witch-Woman of Fàs. Rùnach discovers a mysterious book of spells. Aisling learns that she may be more powerful than she or anyone else could possibly imagine. Everyone they meet figures out pretty much immediately where she’s from and what she’s about. No one bothers to tell her, reasoning that it’s better if she figures it out for herself. For her own safety, or something. I’ve said it many times before, but if the characters in Kurland’s books actually talked to one another, the books would all be like fifty pages long.

I will say that I liked River of Dreams a lot better than I liked Dreamspinner. Aisling is less of a passive ninny here than in the previous book (although she’s still not nearly as sharply-drawn or interesting as Morgan or Sarah, the heroines of the previous two Nine Kingdoms trilogies). Kurland adds some nice touches, including an enchanted book of paintings and a magical steed who very definitely has a mind of his own. Old friends from previous trilogies turn up, as well, so if you’ve been following events in the Nine Kingdoms, you’ll want to read this book just to stay on top of the action.

Best of all, Rùnach actually declares himself to Aisling, and she actually seems to be considering his suit, although there continues to be a bit of that “But you’re elven royalty and I’m nooooobody” to which Kurland’s heroines tend to be prone. They even — brace yourself, gentle reader — kiss!

– Which actually makes this one of Kurland’s racier Nine Kingdoms books to date. Now, I applaud her commitment to keeping her books PG-rated; I like that I can share these books with Mini-Me without blushing. (Unfortunately, due to the complete absence of talking cats or Aaron Rodgers, Mini-Me hasn’t been all that interested in this series so far. I keep hoping she’ll come around.) And I fully agree that everything doesn’t need to be Heaving Creamy Bosoms This and Pulsating Rock-Hard ManRoot That. But as with previous books in this series, I’d love to see a little more heat. Despite Rùnach’s insistence on his love for the fair Aisling, I never bought them as more than friends.

On the other hand, Rùnach is an elf, and Aisling is — well, that would be telling. Maybe they don’t actually have TEH ICKY SECKS? Maybe their passion is consummated mind-to-mind in the aether, amidst the starlight and the music of the spheres? What do I know, anyway?

Well, I know this: Readers who have been faithfully following Kurland’s Nine Kingdoms series should definitely pick this one up. Readers who are new to this world should instead check out Star of the Morning, the first volume in the series, and see whether it’s to your taste. And everyone with an eleven-year-old daughter (or son, for that matter) with an interest in fantasy fiction should share these books with the kids, because there’s absolutely nothing objectionable in them, and the chaste romance will be just enough to make a tweener swoon.

Art, History

Meet Jane.

Meet Jane.

Recently, my friend Nancy posted a Challenge to Facebook:

Filling Facebook with art. Click “Like” and I will assign you an artist. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know his or her work; just Google the artist and choose an image you like and post it on your wall with this message.

“Sounds like fun,” I thought, so I clicked “Like” and waited for my assignment. Shortly thereafter, Nancy assigned me the great American Impressionist Mary Cassatt — I didn’t ask, but I assume it’s because she (Nancy) has read umpty-million of my FB posts about Hoot and Mini-Me, and she thought I would appreciate an artist whose work focused so much on mothers and children. Or maybe she just thought I would like Cassatt in general. In either case, I did like Cassatt — very much — and settled on this painting:

Face the Day

Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child

Read the rest of this entry »


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