A couple weeks ago, I promised to recap the first book in Jillian Larkin's The Flappers series, titled Vixen. I found the book on a recent trip to the thrift store and of course, it piqued my interest. As I stated in a previous post, I've been wanting to do a book recap on this blog for quite some time but didn't really have a book that I would say drove me to want to do weekly recaps. My original choice was going to be Jessica Sorensen's Death Collector series. I've only read the first book in that series, but it was enough for me to start thinking of the stereotypes and tropes of the goth culture that is prevalent in much of modern entertainment. I was set to recap Ember X once I released Descent, but given the eras and subject matter of my own Birthrite series, The Flappers series interested me a little more at this time.
Before I begin, Vixen is set in 1923 Chicago. Here is the book's synopsis:
Jazz... Booze... Boys... It's a dangerous combination.
Every girl wants what she can't have. Seventeen-year-old Gloria Carmody wants the flapper lifestyle--and the bobbed hair, cigarettes, and music-filled nights that go with it. Now that she's engaged to Sebastian Grey, scion of one of Chicago's most powerful families, Gloria's party days are over before they've even begun... or are they?
Clara Knowles, Gloria's goody-two-shoes cousin, has arrived to make sure the high-society wedding comes off without a hitch--but Clara isn't as lily-white as she appears. Seems she has some dirty little secrets of her own that she'll do anything to keep hidden...
Lorraine Dyer, Gloria's social-climbing best friend, is tired of living in Gloria's shadow. When Lorraine's envy spills over into desperate spite, no one is safe. And someone's going to be very sorry...
Now why are you doing this?
Because I think it's important to "stand upon our desks" (quote from my favorite Robin Williams movie, Dead Poets Society). I think that book recaps can be an interesting way of looking at a popular piece of literature and gaining more insight to how the world, history, and other aspects of life are viewed by the general populous. A great example would be Jenny Trout's Recaps of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Will you be harsh?
I'm usually harsh when I read so there are times when I probably will be. Though I do try to be fair and combine the positive with the negative. And harsh doesn't mean I hate the book. In fact, when it came to Jessica Sorensen's Ember X (The Death Collectors, #1) there was actually much I did like about the book. My main bitch was with the characterizations. Same thing with Vixen (The Flappers, #1): there are things I'm liking and things I'm finding problematic.
Lastly, if you're going to put your work out there, it's fair game for discussion.
But people should get trophies and praise just for showing up and stuff.
I still don't understand why you have to do it.
Because this is my blog and you're in my house. I'm drunk on the power.
So now that we have all that clear, let us proceed.
Since the prologue is extremely short, I'm going to recap chapter 1 along with it.
We begin this story with a mystery character of sorts and a rather cryptic, though very intriguing, description of what is taking place. And it goes a little something like this:
She didn't feel like wearing a garter tonight. Her gold-beaded dress, cascading in waves of crystalline fringe, covered the intersection between her sheer stocking and bare thigh.
She slipped her right foot into one of her two-tone Mary Janes, her left into the other. The thin black straps went across her ankles, the silver buckles tightened with a pinch.
From the munitions strewn across her vanity, she carefully selected her weapons and placed them in a gold mesh evening bag: vamp-red kiss-proof lipstick, silver powder compact, tortoiseshell comb, ivory cigarette case.
She stared into the mirror. Everything was perfection: green eyes smoldering, cheekbones rouged and accented, lips outlined and plumped. Tonight, even her skin shimmered with something almost magical.
As she dabbed a final drop of perfume into the crease where her shiny bob skimmed her neck, she decided the garter would be necessary after all. Of course it would.
And then, before snapping her bag closed, she added the small black handgun.
Now she was ready.
Thus far, I am very intrigued. Who is this mystery person? An assassin/hitwoman for the mafia? Someone who's part of an undercover sting operation? A young prostitute? Or maybe just someone who has been wronged and is pissed off as hell?
Ms. Larkin has my attention, so let us continue.
After the prologue, we are then given a title page to what is Part 1 of the book. Part 1 is titled Speak Easy and beneath the title is an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote from "The Off-Shore Pirate" in the 1920 edition of the Saturday Evening Post:
"What's the word, doll?" One dark eye blinked at them.
Gloria opened her mouth and froze. This was the moment she had practiced endlessly in front of her bedroom mirror: saying the secret password to be admitted into the hottest speakeasy in Chicago. So what if it was the first time she'd ever snuck out of her house, lied to her parents, or been in the city alone? Not to mention that her dress - which she'd bought only the day before - was so short that one gust of wind could turn her from flapper to flasher like that.
Gloria then freezes under the pressure and gives him the wrong word. In return, the bouncer tells her to scram. She then turns on Marcus (who apparently was the one who gave her the wrong password and insists it was correct when he came here last). We also learn how ridiculously good-looking he is (blond, golden boy looks) and the nature of his and Gloria's relationship (three parts brother and sister to one part sexual tension - a healthy, balanced equation for an male-female friendship).
After Gloria yells at Marcus, he offers to take her home and she considers. We get more insight into what a good girl Gloria is and how this is the first time she has ever done anything daring or wrong. But determined to not be her 'good girl' self, she knocks on the door and asks the bouncer for another chance. He starts to shut the slit on her again, but she pouts (because it always works in the movies) and asks him to give her a hint, which he eventually agrees to do. Now, I'm not sure how likely this would have been in the time of speakeasies, but Gloria needs a way of entering somehow. And I will say that sometimes an author does need to bend the 'supposed tos' a little. Otherwise, not too much would happen in a story if every last rule was followed. So I'm willing to let this slide. Who knows, maybe the bouncer thinks she's cute. It's possible.
The bouncer gives her the hint:
"It's a dirty deed you're too young to do."
Marcus immediately knows what it is and starts to say it, but the bouncer (aka The Eye) states that Gloria has to be the one to say it or he shuts them out forever. Gloria racks her brain and recalls a note her best friend Lorraine had written her earlier of how her lab partner was caught in the school restroom at the dance with the captain of the football team. With her face turning red, she guesses the password as barney-mugging, a dirty 1920s slang word for sex. As it turns out, that is the password, and she and Marcus are let in. We are also told the name of the speakeasy in question: The Green Mill.
After that, there is a section break followed by a pretty brilliant first line:
It was as if she had walked right into the rebel side of heaven.
One thing I will give the author credit for is her description of the venue. In fact, up until this point, she gives really good detail about the characters and setting without going overboard. However, she loses at least one point after that by what follows:
She had never felt so out of place. At Laurelton Girls' Preparatory, she was the president of the Honor Society, an example for the rest of the girls. But here, Gloria was that poorly dressed, unwashed foreign exchange student from wherever - Arkansas, maybe - whom nobody bothered to eat lunch with.
Now, that could have been another great passage looking at Gloria's character and how out of place she feels in a speakeasy. The comment about the dirty foreign exchange student "from Arkansas" doesn't sit well with me, though.
"Oh, but that is how they thought back then," I hear some say. "They weren't very enlightened."
That might have described parts of society back then, sure. In fact, based on the gems I've seen on the internet, it most certainly describes parts of society today as well. But everybody? No, and here's why I say that:
- It was established in an earlier paragraph that Gloria had to study for a European history exam. Meaning, she and her peers are likely very aware of countries and cultures outside America.
-study abroad programs between American and Europe did exist in the 1920s (and if Gloria is the bright student she's described as, I'm certain she's heard of them).
-In many old movies I've seen, the foreign exchange student is usually the "hot tomato" all the young men are after.
- Many of the era's fashions were imports from France (Coco Chanel and Paul Poiret, for example)
- Many popular film stars of the time were actually not American. For example: Greta Garbo (Sweden), Rudolph Valentino (Italy), Charlie Chaplin (England AND also had Romany blood), Max Schreck (Germany), and Antonio Moreno (Spain). Several films of early Hollywood also took place overseas.
- America was just out from a little WORLD event called The Great War (known today as World War I)
Now, I understand that perhaps the author is trying to portray Gloria's sheltered, snobbish, and limited view of the world (I also tried googling 'foreign exchange student from Arkansas' just to make sure that maybe this wasn't a quote from a film the author might have been playing at...I found nothing, but if anyone can correct me on this, please do). But due to the reasons stated above, it just didn't work for me. Unless Gloria is living under a rock, she's likely heard of countries outside of the states. Sheltered doesn't necessarily equal completely naive.
To me, all that line does is feed the negative stereotype of everyone from bygone times being nothing but a bunch of narrowminded dumbasses (and supposedly this author is a fan of the 1920s? Great, so insult everyone from that time and lump them all into a negative stereotype) which is a stereotype that frankly I'm sick of seeing in these types of books. About as sick as I am of the negative stereotyping of goths in much of modern entertainment.
Another place where the story starts to lose points with me is that once they enter the speakeasy, Gloria and Marcus immediately lose each other.
Now, I've seen my share of old movies, talked to people who lived decades ago, read books written during bygone eras (including the 1920s), etc. and one thing that is almost always common is that despite women gaining more independence during the 1920s, men were still quite protective of the women in their lives, whether she was a girlfriend or wife, a sister, a friend, a cousin, etc. Therefore, in a place as seedy and potentially dangerous as a speakeasy, I would think Marcus would make certain that Gloria's well-being is at the forefront, especially since they supposedly have a brother/sister type of friendship. I guess its possible they could lose each other if its really crowded, but anytime I've been somewhere extremely crowded with a friend (at a concert or in a club, for example) and it was only the two of us, we make certain the other is in plain view and that we do not get separated (and we have cellphones to contact each other if in the event that would happen, which in 1923 they did not have...therefore getting lost in the 1920s left you a lot more s.o.l. than you would be today).
With that said, at least a couple things have been established thus far:
- We're supposed to believe that Gloria is scholarly and well-read even though she's apparently unaware of life outside the U.S. (despite taking a European history class and living in a time when study abroad programs did exist and several famous film stars and designers were from overseas).
- Gloria has shitty friends.
While our girl is wandering alone during her first time in a speakeasy (seriously, WTF Marcus??), she asks the waiter for some water. He hands her a teacup (and being that it's a speakeasy, we know he did NOT give her water) and she downs it, feeling the sharp, burning sensation of the alcohol sliding down her throat. It is then she remembers that one of the reasons speakeasies exist is so people can illegally drink alcohol. So she starts to feel the effects two minutes later and stumbles about the club while trying to fit in. Then, she watches the all black jazz band and is immediately entranced by the piano player, particularly his hands. He catches her stare and she tries making her way to the front of the stage. Unfortunately, she stumbles into a flapper named Maude, who is apparently the queen bee of the Chicago speakeasy scene.
Of course, Maude and Gloria have an exchange:
She fingered a lock of Gloria's hair. "But Rapunzel here better let down her hair somewhere else next time. Somewhere far, far away. Tu comprends?"
"Oh no!" Gloria's hands shot to her head. The inconspicuous French twist - which she'd obsessively secured with only a million bobby pins - had come undone, and her long, wavy locks were loose. She may as well have showed up wearing her gray and white high school uniform and called it a night.
Gloria frantically heads toward the powder room. On the way, she notices a group of men who appear to be gangsters, and immediately recognizes Carlito Macharelli, the twenty-one year old son of one of the mobsters who owns The Green Mill. Their gazes meet right before she stumbles into the powder room to fix herself (and feels the room spin from the alcohol she ingested). She then stumbles back out to the bar where she continues listening to the band. It is here she meets Leif, the bartender, and immediately feels she can trust him. This is another passage in which the author does a beautiful job with descriptions of the setting and characters.
Gloria and Leif have a rather friendly exchange, though he could tell right away that she is a speakeasy 'virgin.' She misunderstands him, thinking that by "virgin," he means that he could tell she's never had sex. Then this happens:
"Just because I'm new doesn't mean I'm a virgin!" she said, raising her voice as the blasting music came to a sudden halt.
A roar of laughter rose from the crowd. Gloria felt her face grow hot. Would people notice if she crawled under the bar stool? She couldn't have felt more humiliated.
Leif decides that faux pas has earned her a free drink. That is also when he informs Gloria the name of the band's piano player: Jerome Johnson. Then a sharply dressed man comes up behind her and orders her a dirty martini. She tries to play it cool but fails dismally. Gloria's dismal failure at flapperdom here is actually quite a realistic portrayal of a young female venturing out for the first time in any era, really. The exchange between her and the man is also very well written. During this exchange, we find out that Gloria forgot to remove her engagement ring. We also find out that she is engaged to Sebastian Grey III, one of Chicago's most eligible bachelors and proclaimed leader of Prohibition's "Dry Camp:
...he condemned speakeasies and all they represented: flappers ("floozies"), bootleg liquor ("Satan's H2O"), black jazz ("voodoo tom-tom witchery") and yes, barney-mugging (well, Gloria and Bastian avoided this topic altogether).
Of course if he were to see her now, the engagement would be called off. She quickly removes the ring and tries to drink her martini but begins to feel insecure all over again.
She runs to a dark corner (because Marcus still hasn't been able to locate and catch up to her even after her virgin guffaw that everyone else heard) and wishes her best friend Lorraine was there.
Suddenly, Gloria felt a wave of body heat beside her. She didn't dare turn around, but she didn't need to. Somehow, she knew exactly who it was.
Of course, it's the band's piano player, Jerome. She is almost breathless (over his hands) but then scolds herself for being attracted to him.
What had gotten into her? This was a strange man she was thinking about. A black man. She was white; she was engaged; she was--
"Why weren't you dancing?"
She was startled by his earthy, rich baritone voice. "What?"
"My music not good enough for you to dance to?"
Then she hears Marcus's voice and turns around. He asks her:
"Glo, where the heck have you been? I've been searching all over for you!"
Really? And if you're hoping for at least an explanation to how they were separated, well it remains a mystery for the ages. Even if Marcus said something to the effect of "Sorry, I saw someone I knew and thought you were right behind me," at least that would have explained things a little and showed more of a concern for Gloria's well-being. You know, his best friend.
I don't know, the impression I got of their separation was that it was nothing more than an easy way for Gloria to find trouble at the club. Now, there's nothing really wrong with that, had it been executed a little differently. In fact, off the top of my head, here is another way the author might have been able to make this happen:
Gloria and Marcus enter the speakeasy. Marcus sees people he knows and Gloria - having never been in a speakeasy before - sticks close to him. While she's with Marcus and his friends, she notices the jazz band and the piano player and wants a better look. She excuses herself to go to the powder room. Marcus offers to accompany her and stand outside the door, but she politely declines. Marcus is reluctant but agrees (again, bending a 'supposed to' in order to allow some action to happen). This still would have given Gloria opportunity to watch the jazz band, bump into Maude, stumble to the bar and meet Leif, have her exchange with Jerome, AND have Marcus claim he's been looking all over for her.
It would have made more sense, AND redeemed Marcus's character a little. Apparently, he's supposed to be a bit of a cad, but even cads have some redeeming qualities. At least when it comes to someone they might actually care about. Now, he just comes across as an asswipe.
Anyway, I digress. Marcus and Gloria leave the club, but not before she sees Jerome talking to who she refers to as a gorgeous black woman. She also feels an inner shift within as she and Marcus leave to the sound of the song. Marcus even tells her she seems...different (probably setting us up for what's to come). The author also leaves us with some beautiful imagery:
But even as she climbed the steps back to the street, the faint cascade of the first notes followed - "All Alone," a tune Gloria knew well. She found herself humming along as Marcus draped her coat over her shoulders. The melancholy music warmed the night air, and she could tell that something had begun to shift inside her, something unstoppable. Her life felt brighter now, more valuable than before. Even the piano seemed to be playing just for her.
That end passage is awesome, except there doesn't seem to be any continuity with Marcus having Gloria's coat. Ah, well. Moving on.
So, what has been established so far?
- Gloria is supposed to be scholarly, though certain passages suggest a different scenario.
- Gloria has shitty friends.
- I can't decide whether Marcus is an asswipe or just plain stupid. Or both. We shall see.
- One negative stereotype already: people prior to the 21st century were dimwitted and ignorant to everything.
- The author does have a talent for setting a scene and introducing characters. Hopefully this will end up being a decent read.
That is all for now. See you back here for chapter 2 where we are introduced to Clara.