Lauren’s Go-To Reads: Actual Influences

I have books from childhood that I love and books that I constantly reread. This list consists of books that have impacted my actual life in big ways. Continue reading

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Book Betrayal: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender

Between the fall of 2016 and the summer of 2017, I read a number of trashy YA novels for stress relief. Kale, My Ex, and Other Things To Toss in a Blender marked a breaking point for me; after reading that mess, I decided to stop altogether.

Before hitting my limit, I picked up a book called Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer at the Seattle Library. Right away I noticed similarities between the book cover and the film Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst; the publisher had gone to great lengths to mimic Sofia Coppola’s rock-and-roll palette.

Though the title seemed pretty self-explanatory, I scanned the book for more details.

This was the back cover:

Image result for marie antoinette serial killer

This, I thought, looks AWFUL.

I checked it out immediately.

I should mention that I love serial killers. Not, like, in real life. And NOT the twist-ending-it-was-actually-a-demon kind. Serial killer literature – with actual human serial killers – is my ultimate guilty pleasure. The best books make me paranoid and antsy. The worst make me laugh. I almost like the second kind more – nothing like an unintentionally hilarious serial killer mystery to get me through the night!

I expected Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer to lean toward terrible. Sure enough, the book opened with Marie Antoinette’s ghost murdering a young girl!

Are you KIDDING!? I thought. She’s also an IMMORTAL GHOST!? Immortal ghost books form one of my favorite subsets of serial killer lit. I’ve had some hilarious times reading sexy Jack the Ripper novels.

But anyway.

The first few pages of this book had me cheering. I couldn’t wait to keep laughing.

Things did not proceed as I expected.

After the gruesome murder, the book introduced its protagonist, Colette.

Colette had befriended the popular crowd early in her high school career. She tried to maintain the illusion that her family was as rich as theirs.

Ugh. Really? CLASS DRAMA? GET BACK TO THE MURDER.

The book kept returning to Colette’s friendship with Alpha Bitch Hannah. Through reconciling with an old friend and working out her feelings with the popular betas, Colette realized how toxic her friendship with Hannah had become.

That really got to me.

When I picked up this book, I was in the process of ending a friendship. That phrase implies an active choice and a clean break when in reality there were multiple epiphanies and unacknowledged hurts. There wasn’t a clean mutual break. I didn’t write this person a Dear John letter about my need for independence. Through our interactions – and some of her inaction – I realized a person I’d invested a LOT of time and energy in did not care about me. At all.

I kept having moments while reading this book where I would go, “Colette, just dump her! Just dump- Oh…”

Hannah and Colette had a surprising number of positive interactions. Hannah would do something kind only to demean Colette a few pages later. Most of the time, Colette dismissed her own hurt feelings. She told her other friends some version of, “Nobody’s perfect. Everybody has flaws.”

“All people are flawed,” her friends agreed, “but you get to decide what you’ll put up with.”

I’ve forgotten almost every detail of the book but that one line.

The book goes even farther, extending the theme of toxic friendship to Marie Antoinette herself.

(This goes into spoiler territory. Ye be warned.)

The mysterious ghost turned out to be Marie Antoinette’s best friend, the one who led Marie and her family to be executed. In the book’s climax, Colette essentially acts as a corporeal mediator for a centuries-long ghostly dispute.

I wiped tears away as I read. Was I SERIOUSLY CRYING? Over a GHOST SERIAL KILLER NOVEL? WHAT WAS MY PROBLEM?

Colette put the ghosts to rest, ended her friendship with Hannah, and followed her tour group back to the States. I should mention Colette had a cute French love interest who helped her with her ghost quest. I wasn’t all that fond of him; Jules, the French tour guide, seemed like the focus group answer to “What do the teens like?”

I expected Colette and Jules to exchange lofty promises of fidelity over long distance.

Not so.

Colette bid farewell to Jules, reflecting that their relationship, though temporary, was both valuable and worth remembering.

WHAT KIND OF MATURE NOVEL DID I JUST READ???

cute shrug

Converted by same-sex “Oklahoma”

A good adaptation can change your mind about a play.

To put a twist on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival retooled “Oklahoma” as a queer romance featuring multiple gay, transgender, and gender-nonconforming characters.

Pairing
Bobbi Charlton and Tatiana Wechsler as Aunt Eller and Curly McLain

I won’t be able to watch straight “Oklahoma” ever again. The same-sex interpretation makes a lot of sense – barely any of the original text had to be changed to fit the f/f and m/m romances. In some cases, the original jokes become even funnier; one notable scene has the townsfolk shocked to learn Gertie Cummings married a MAN. Director Bill Rauch exhibits a keen sense of humor, advising actors to lean into the pronoun changes and other absurdities.

By abandoning historical accuracy, OSF’s production explores a fantastical world where same-sex attraction is a nonissue. This decision makes the now-homophobic Jud all the more frightening. His handsiness with both Laurie and Curly (and each woman’s subsequent discomfort), along with his description of burning down a farm after catching two girls together, threatens the accepting idyll of the Oklahoman townsfolk.

Before this, I hated “Oklahoma.” I scorned the original film, unimpressed by the supposedly “groundbreaking” musical.

I enjoyed the 5th Avenue Theatre’s 2012 attempt more, but that production still had problems. While casting a black man as Jud gave new energy to the material, Jud’s murder at Curly’s hands added a bleak ending to the thin story.

OSF’s “Oklahoma” strikes a balance: it retains the perky innocence of the original without leaning away from the horror angry men can bring. In fact, the same-sex interpretation boosts a fairly weak script, strengthening a once-tired classic for years to come.

“The world is changing,” cowgirl Curly says in the second act, “and we gotta change with it.”

I couldn’t agree more, so today I switch teams.

I’m Pro-klahoma and proud.

 

(You can catch “Oklahoma” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland Oregon now until October 27.)

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee: Why I Only Lasted 9 Pages

I hate historical fiction, but I’ll read historical books that try their damnedest to be interesting.

If a book adds a serial killer, say, or some girl power, I’ll come sniffing around.

Under a Painted Sky caught my interest.

Two women of color become unlikely allies and go on the lam together?

Disguised as boys?

And they meet and fall in love with cowboys!?

I had this EXACT fantasy in the fourth grade!

The book starts out in medias  res, which I like. I prefer to get right to the action.

And WHAT A START:

They say death aims only once and never misses, but I doubt Ty Yorkshire thought it would strike with a scrubbing brush. [….] Does killing a man who tried to rape me count as murder?

WOW. SOLID beginning! I know just enough to want to know more. Until…

My mind wheels back to twelve hours ago, before the world turned on its head….

YOU’RE ALREADY LOSING ME, STACEY.

You mean to tell me you’ve just warded off an attempted rape by killing your attacker and your FIRST thought is to reminisce about the morning? I AM NOT CONVINCED. Any interest I had in the murder is dwindling.

Sammy, our protagonist, remembers being angry with her father that morning.

I strapped on the Lady Tin-Yin’s violin case and glared at my father, who was holding a conch shell to his ear. I thought it was pretty when I bought it from the curiosity shop back in New York. But ever since he began listening to it every morning and every evening, just to hear the ocean, I’ve wanted to smash it.

All right, we’re back on track. Sammy is mad at her dad and I want to know why. Is this a depression symptom? Does he lay around listening to the shell all day? I’d be mad, too.

Noisily, I stuffed a tin of peppermints into my case for the children’s lessons, then proceeded to the door. Unlike Father, I kept my promises. If a student played his scales correctly, I rewarded him with a peppermint. Never would I snatch the sweet out of his mouth and replace it with, say, cod-liver oil. Never.

Wait… Is this something you would actually do, Sammy? Is this a joke? Is this something your father would do? I don’t know enough about either of you to guess. Then again, we’re only two pages in.

Finally, Sammy gives some hint as to why she’s angry with her father:

“You said we’d move back to New York, not two thousand miles the other way.” New York had culture. With luck, I might even make a living as a musician there.

Wait a minute… Did you…not realize…where you were moving? I’M NOT CLEAR AS TO THE SITUATION. I’m imagining this girl traveling 2000 miles in the opposite direction thinking she’s headed to New York. And that makes me feel some REAL UNCHARITABLE THINGS.

Okay, we’re only on page 2. I’m sure I’ll get more context later.

Oh, it sounds like Sammy’s father moved to California for the gold rush. That gives me a LITTLE more information. But Sammy’s not having it – she leaves the house.

I want to jump in and mention that there’s an 8-hour time skip between this passage and the next. I mention this because I MISSED THE TIME SKIP, which greatly influenced my reading of the next passage.

Anyway, 8 hours pass and Sammy is walking home when she smells smoke. She runs home and finds her father’s store burned to the ground. Stacey Lee simultaneously describes the store as an ashy ruin and a wall of heat. I’m not sure what’s going on.

I would like to mention that, at this point, we’re only on page 4.

On page 5, a background character drops this bomb: Sammy’s father is dead.

This is where the time skip might have helped me.

I read this and thought, “SHE WAS JUST TALKING TO HIM TWO SECONDS AGO,” when, in reality, it had been 8 hours.

Then I realized that didn’t help the situation.

The father appears ONCE for TWO PAGES before he DIES. Oh, excuse me, BURNS ALIVE. And this in a novel that opened with a murder. TOO MUCH IS HAPPENING.

Sammy feels stabs of guilt:

I shuddered and then my chest began to rack so hard I could scarcely draw a breath. Smoke engulfed me, thick and unyielding, but the awful truth rooted me to the spot: after I’d given my last lesson of the day, I’d dawdled along the banks of the dirty Missouri, throwing stones instead of coming home directly.

Did you? Because I remember a fight between you and your father followed by the announcement of his death and NOTHING ELSE.

Oh, Father, I’m sorry I argued with you. I’m sorry I left with my nose in the air.

A little guilt is understandable, even without much context for the rest of their relationship.

Were you remembering that when the smoke robbed you of your last breath?

That’s a bit dramatic…

You always said, Have patience in one moment of anger, and you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.

Oh, he ALWAYS said, that did he? I wouldn’t know; I only knew him for TWO PAGES.

My temper has cost me a lifetime of sorrow. And now, I will never be able to ask your forgiveness, or see your kind face again.

This. Is. Too. Much. We are only 6 pages into this novel. There’s not enough context for me to understand this relationship and not enough room for me to process what this death means to the protagonist. This whole premise feels beyond rushed.

The next chapter opens with several townspeople gossiping about Sammy:

“She’s been standing there over an hour,” a man muttered to another as they passed by.

COOL IT, BOOK. WE’RE ON PAGE 7.

The townspeople say some other horrid, racist things that STILL DON’T FEEL EARNED. Frontloading angst is a STRATEGY, but it’s not working for this book.

Sammy makes this reproach:

Fly, you crows. My father was not a spectacle. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He was my everything.

I WISH I HAD KNOWN HIM FOR MORE THAN TWO PAGES.

Things get far worse from here.

Sammy describes her astrological sign; she mentioned it once earlier, but now she goes into more detail:

A child born in the Year of the Snake was lucky. But every so often, a Snake was born unlucky.

“This is always true of Snake children…except when it’s not.”

Mother died in childbirth, a clear indication that my life would be unlucky.

OF COURSE SHE DID.

To counteract my misfortune, a blind fortune-teller told Father never to cut my hair, or bad luck would return. In addition, she said I should resist my Snake weaknesses, such as crying easily and needing to have the last word.

…did he do it? Have you been growing out your hair ever since? ARE THOSE YOUR ACTUAL WEAKNESSES? HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THIS ASTROLOGICAL DIAGNOSIS?

Enough of that; time to introduce Sammy’s would-be-rapist:

“‘Tis a shame about your daddy,” said a familiar voice. Our landlord, Ty Yorkshire, shook his head.

I immediately pictured Norm McDonald as Colonel Sanders. Solid association.

When was the last time a book I read featured a Southern villain? Why do I have a bad feeling about this all of a sudden.

Oh no…I remembered. Now I can’t get Kady Cross out of my head!

“My best building, too,” he said in his rapid speech that caused his jowls to shake.

Oh. So not a fancy Southern drawl, as I assumed.

“Sometimes you roll snake eyes.”

I gasped. He knew my Chinese lunar sign?

This is what did me in. I can’t deal with stupid heroines. Still, I thought I could do one more page.

Scanning page 9, I found Sammy by the river about to throw herself in.

SUICIDE. ON PAGE 9.

This is way too much drama for me to care about. So long, female friendship. Thanks for nothing, historical fiction. See you never.

Books as Desserts: A Bakery Case of Genres

I have to credit Claire for this idea: she called Georgette Heyer romances “little fluffy pastries” and I, of course, took it a step too far.

I have strong opinions about books and dessert. Like dessert, different genres of books inspire my praise or rouse my ire. I scream the same epithets when someone brings cobbler to a potluck that I use when an acquaintance recommends a historical thriller.

All of us can be as picky about books as we are about pastry.

Here is my personal take on genres and the desserts with which they correspond.

Historical nonfiction = scones
Dry and unsatisfying.

Science fiction = durian ice cream
Pretty weird and not for everyone.

YA romance = Costco sheet cake
I used to be able to eat a lot of it, but now it makes me sick.

Mysteries = cupcakes
I love trying unique flavors, but even those can be a bit boring.

Social science books = donuts
Whenever these are offered, I devour at least three.

Magical realism = chocolate
I want to try every single variety, especially the foreign ones.

Memoir = cheesecake
When I pick the right flavor, nothing satisfies me more.

Children’s lit = muffins
Comfort food.

Historical fiction = cobbler
I refuse to consume this unless there are interesting ingredients.

High fantasy = gummy candy
Much more my brother’s’ speed than mine.

Christian fiction = fruit salad
Everyone pretends to like it much more than they do.

Theology = pumpkin pie
One bite and I’m good for another year.

Classic literature = rice pudding
I can appreciate it more as an adult.