Random Review: The Swan Gondola

Moulin Rouge, if the Duke had proved a more compelling option. swan gondola

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Orphaned ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt is set to make a few bucks and have a fine summer plying his trade at the 1898 World’s Fair. As entertainers pour into the midway on opening day, Ferret spots a woman whose underthings he once helped secure backstage at his regular theater gig and his plans for romance are set.  Ferret’s pursuit of Cecily unfolds amid the illusory grandeur and outlandish spectacle of The World’s Fair, as he relates the memory of that bygone summer to a pair of elderly twin sisters upon whose home he has crash landed. Big personalities, elaborate descriptions, mystery, magic, and illusion fill every page of The Swan Gondola.

I was beyond excited to read this novel, not only did I receive it as a free ARC from the publisher (my first), it is packed with things I adore. Going to a World’s Fair is on my bucket list, and I am a sucker for fairs and carnivals in general. Historical fiction, the American West, and unreliable narrators are a few of my favorite literary things. The Swan Gondola really delivers on all of these fronts. However, it falls short at perhaps the most crucial point for a story like this: the romance.

The story is driven by the Christian-and-Satine-esque courtship of Ferret and Cecily. He is young, naive, and romantic (though he thinks himself quite the worldly playboy, a fact both amusing and heartbreaking as he uncovers his own nature.) She is one of those scandalous theater women who throws social mores like underwear conventions to the wind and does what she wants whenever she wants. By underwear conventions I mean that most women of the time wore corsets and other garments as a matter of course, not that large groups of people were gathering to discuss underpinnings. His pursuit of her is dogged, and she allows him to lavish her with attention. A wealthy man, Billy Wakefield, who can provide her with opportunities on the stage strategically insinuates himself into their lives and the reader is witness to the slow destruction of the guileless Ferret.

Writing about this, I still think it all sounds pretty great. A lot of it was, but the problem was really Cecily. She’s almost unlikable, and Ferret’s interest in her never seems to progress beyond pure lust. Magic and illusion are major themes of the novel, and love often dances around the line between the two, so perhaps this was intentional. Ferret’s mistaking the illusion that is lust for the magic of love. However, he is so terribly lovable as an almost artless paramour that it’s hard to invest in any love story where you wish the object of his affections would fall off a cliff. Even if she did, you’d still feel awful because he would.

It might seem like I’m giving away the whole novel but really this takes us to about halfway through the high page count, and the back half is just brutal. Still a good read, but it’s going to beat up your feelings.

Where The Swan Gondola really sings are the secondary characters, like the Native American medicine man of fluid gender August Sweetbriar or Cecily’s elderly half-blind witch of a bodyguard, and descriptions of the setting. The Fair, Billy Wakefield’s home and amusements, and the underworld Ferret occupies are each spectacular in their own way and make for some very fun reading. The scaffolding of the novel is beautifully crafted, all of the subplots and scenery. It’s a shame that the main plot lets the rest of it down. Ferret and Cecily’s romance seems over before it began, the titular gondola barely plays a role, and the reader is put through a house of horrors playing on their feelings about a barely-developed romance that spanned less than half the page-count. Ferret’s heartsickness carries it, but just barely.

What does it all mean? Should you read this book? If any of this sounded at all interesting to you, then I’d say yes. It’s really a very good story, and will give you a lot to mull over. It’s a book club book if there ever was one, because it can be interpreted so many ways. Just don’t go in expecting a romance for the ages unless you want your heart pulped and/or to feel ragey.

Chair Rating:



Character Study: Merits of a Maligned Mermaid

Lately I have been watching Disney movies while baby-sitting a ten-month-old and, because he can’t talk yet, I get plenty of time to think about them while stacking block towers and blowing raspberries on his feet. I’ve decided to start a series of Character Study entries based on these thoughts, and my first musing is:

Belle is not a cooler, better, or stronger princess/female character than Ariel.

Hashtag drop the mic.

Hashtag pick it back up. I have to explain why.

Stuff People Say About Ariel 

1. She’s selfish

Uh, she’s a sixteen-year-old girl. They’re all selfish. Even a not-so-selfish one is selfish by non-teenage human standards. Ariel failed to show up for an extracurricular activity organized by her father because she was immersed in her hobby.

For comparison: Belle refused to eat until the middle of the night, then only took a fingerful of gray stuff from the feast the entire castle staff prepared for her while performing a musical number! Merida pestered her mother about whether or not she’d have to get married while her mother writhed in pain, possibly poisoned by Merida herself. Snow White broke into someone else’s house and slept in ALL their beds at once!

2. She left her loving father to make a deal with a witch in hopes of snagging a boy she’d just met

First, she’s still a sixteen-year-old girl. A lot of sixteen-year-old girls do dumb stuff for boys. Even without considering that factor, what Ariel did is still pretty understandable:

Fact 1: From the first scenes of the movie, long before she spots Prince Eric, we know that Ariel is an explorer at heart who desperately wants to check out the world of landlubbers. She sings a whole song about it.


Fact 2: Her father comes into her room and, in a rage, destroys all of the possessions she’s spent years collecting (and takes great pride in)

Up until then, Ariel was just fantasizing about her crush.

Fact 3: Ariel runs away and accepts the only help offered.

That “help” happens to come from a sea witch. Ariel’s a teenage girl fresh off a fight with her father and having her prized possessions destroyed in front of her, meaning she’s not in the clearest state of mind, and she’s being offered the fulfillment of her greatest dream. Maybe her choice isn’t the smartest or most logical, but it just makes her more real as a character. To her credit, she does worry about never seeing her father or sisters again but has confidence in her ability to get a smooch from Eric.

Belle offers herself as a prisoner to secure her father’s freedom, but in doing so she gets to leave a town she hates and fulfill her literary fantasies while wearing fabulous gowns and singing with the furniture.

3. She’s a hipster


Okay, maybe this is a meme and people don’t really mean it about movie-Ariel, but can I just point out that Belle’s whole first song is about how her town is full of friendly assholes baking bread and saying hello every morning and she’s so over it?


Seriously. She calls them “little people.” Condescending much? She escapes that “provincial life” to live in an isolated castle with a temperamental prince and a bunch of servants, which doesn’t seem like an improvement unless one is a snob.

Stuff People Don’t Say About Ariel (But Should)

1. She’s brave

As mentioned before, Ariel is an explorer with a streak of the adrenaline-junkie. She snatches treasure out from under sharks, she leaves behind the comfort and familiarity of everything she’s known for a shot at her dreams, and she’s a daredevil at the reins of a carriage. Belle might read, but Ariel gets out into the world to see and experience things for herself much like a popular princess in recent years, Rapunzel.


2. Ariel has friends

Belle doesn’t. At the beginning of Ariel’s movie, she has Flounder and Scuttle (Sebastian is more of a handler than a friend.) Even when she can’t speak, she charms everyone she meets with her enthusiasm and curiosity. Belle is admired for her beauty but thought to be strange, and she probably doesn’t help matters by being so judgey about the townsfolk. The servants at the castle are anxious to hook Belle up with the prince for their own salvation, so I wouldn’t count any of them as friends with perhaps the exception of Chip.

3. Ariel actually has a lot in common with the guy she marries

Eric and Ariel are both brave, friendly, adventurous, musical, love the sea, and will risk their lives to save someone they care about. Compare that to Belle and Prince Adam, who are both…good dancers? Adam has a lot of books in his library, but I’m guessing by the way it was closed up until he gave it to Belle that he wasn’t reading too many of them himself. Prince Adam was tasked with getting someone to love him because he was a jerk to an old woman, and with a lot of assists from animate objects he manages to marry the most beautiful girl around. What will he act like when she gets old?

4. Ariel has agency

At every turn, Ariel is the engine that drives her story. She discovers her dream guy while out exploring, she saves his life, she makes the deal with Ursula, she tracks down said dream guy and does a darn good job of wooing him without being able to speak. When her dream guy falls victim to a spell himself, she doesn’t give up. She swims all the way out to his wedding ship, even though she doesn’t know how to swim with legs, on the off-chance that she can save him from marrying an evil witch. When the witch turns her father into seaweed and steals his throne, she urges Eric to save himself and distracts Ursula while Eric takes her down. Ariel is not passive or reactive.

In conclusion: you call Ariel selfish, I answer


Random Review: The Tin Princess

Exactly what I wanted to read.


A rather sad cover illustration, but this is the copy I picked up and I prefer this version to the ones that re-imagined the titular character as a blonde with straight hair or worse, left her off in favor of a man.

The Tin Princess by Philip Pullman

Becky Winter is a capable polyglot with a romantic streak, who finds herself swept up in political intrigue after witnessing an explosion. Suddenly the sixteen-year-old Winter is tutor and interpreter to a secret cockney princess, headed from London to a tiny nation sandwiched between Austria and Germany accompanied by a dreamy prince, gruff ambassador and his icy wife, and a dashing detective. The novel’s plot twists and turns through Razkavia’s 19th-century-Bavarian-influenced countryside. Danger, secret identities, and nefarious schemes fill its pages right up to a genuinely thrilling conclusion.

Philip Pullman can always be relied upon to deliver richly detailed, wryly funny, smart historical fiction. I picked this up at the library because I was dying to read something I’d like, and feeling slightly melancholy that The Subtle Knife will never be a movie. I didn’t realize it was a continuation of a previous series, and I got good and thoroughly spoiled on the events of that series while devouring The Tin Princess. It’s a great book: several strong female characters with distinct personalities, men worth crushing on, a richly imagined fictional country, political strategy, and plenty of derring-do. What more could a reader ask for? There are even a couple of nice, not too-soppy romances (one sweet, the other rather steamy.) The only drawbacks were that Razkavia made me miss Germany terribly, and the blurb described Adelaide as “heartbreakingly beautiful” while the book described her as “not altogether pretty.” Really, publishing industry? Men can love women who aren’t supermodels. Promise.

Chair Rating:

A tremendous adventure.

A tremendous adventure.

Random Review: The Stand

Not his best work (but not his worst.)

The Stand by Stephen KingThe-Stand-Book-Cover

After the outbreak of a deadly virus across the United States, what remains of humanity lives among what remains of society. As they band together guided by portentous dreams and intuition, they find themselves locked in a battle for the soul of humankind and each must make a choice. A choice backed by action, what one might call…a stand.

Early in college I went through a phase where I avoided dealing with all the crap that was piling up on my head by reading Stephen King novels. I read everything in the university library instead of going to class, which took me through Carrie, It, Dolores Claiborne, ‘Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, and several more. I had heard a lot about The Stand, and knew people loved it, but I kept thinking it was a John Grisham novel for some reason and I am just not into courtroom dramas (I’m into courtroom comedies like My Cousin Vinnie and Night Court.)

I finally read it in 2012 and, while I see why people go ape over it, I don’t think it’s near the top of the Stephen King stack. It was clear that he was aiming for a Lord of the Rings-scale epic, American-style. Some of it worked like gangbusters: Mother Abigail and Stuart Redman, Larry Underwood’s whole journey, the trashcan man. The tension the author built as the story progressed was almost unbearable by the time Tom Cullen took his solo trip. I think the length of the novel helped with that. There is a good strong vein of story underpinning the whole affair.

However, King loves a sweeping scope and at some point The Stand got out from under him. Randall Flagg came across a bit too campy to be truly frightening, The Kid started as an interesting (and frightening) character but quickly went completely over the top, and Frannie lost all her spark as a personality the minute she teamed up with Harold. Since major plot points hinged on Randall Flagg and Frannie, this hurt the overall quality of the novel considerably.

King has acknowledged that The Stand didn’t turn out quite as he had hoped, but it’s still a solid novel worth reading through despite the high page-count. It just didn’t reach the heights he was aiming for. I’d love to see him try something of this scope again, now that he has more life and many more novels under his belt (no, I don’t consider The Dark Tower an example of a second try.)

Have you read the book or watched the miniseries? What did you think?