31 December, 2011

Review: A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant

Dude, I totally hated this book. I know everyone and their mother loved it. I struggled to finish it for a month and only brought it home as an end of 2011 resolution, complete with live tweets. Grant and I, we're just going to quietly settle the bill and agree not to share a Taxi. To explain why is going to require spoilers. Lots and lots of them. Don't read this review unless you have already finished A Lady Awakened or have sworn off reading books. Maybe both. I am thinking of you here.

Grant can write, her talent isn't in question. I can see Grant writing a book I would rave over as people are raving over this one. The problem is after finishing A Lady Awakened I don't think I'd pick up a second title. I hate books where I spend a lot of time wondering why. Why doesn't Martha want to live with her family? Why is Martha willing to have sex with a stranger for a month when she clearly despises it? Why is Theo ready to have sex every possible moment? Why does he return to sleep with a women so disinterested that her contempt causes him impotence? There are so many WTF moments in A Lady Awakened and the answers shift about like sand. Martha doesn't want to live at home because she just doesn't want to. Then she doesn't because she earned her home in her 11 months of marriage. Then she doesn't because the heir is a creepy rapist and her school will close. Then she totally wants to give the house up because the creepy rapist has sons. Creepy rapist is going to sign an agreement (oh, well then!) that will give his wife and kids rights to the house and he (after an intervention by the neighbors explaining that they don't like him) will abandon that family. In what year?? How is that binding on him, rational of him, or even slightly likely? Plus, Martha is claiming her child is the rightful heir, obviously (if she is willing to give up the property) it is not - so why wouldn't he seize on that tidbit? It is a bucket of WTF. Things happen because they have to happen for the story to happen not because the people (as brilliantly drawn as they are) would be likely to do these things.

Take Theo. Some chick he doesn't know approaches him and offers a small fortune for sex (which he never claims) so he says hey, why not? I will give him that. I will even give him being willing to cheat a neighboring landowner simply on the say so of a widow. When Theo shows up, it's as close to rape as consensual sex can be. She not only dislikes sex she ruminates to herself on how disgusting the male body is when compared to a female one. (Gaydar! Our heroine is either asexual or lesbian. Oh wait, all this falls away later when we discover she does like the male figure and secretly self pleasures thinking about it. WTF?) Ok, so long story short, Martha had a year of bad sex and her answer to that is to deny herself any physical responses so she can maintain power and control in her life. Because of course the rational choice of a woman embarking on a month of sex is to make it as unpleasant for herself as possible. Anyway, she says awesome things to Theo like "Are you done yet?" and he discovers a new world in impotence. But hey, his word is his bond, so back in the saddle he comes. WTF? He's attractive, 26 and not exactly destitute. There have to be options that don't involve fraud and pseudo rape!  (I asked others their view of Theo's actions. The response was "Is it science fiction? Because that's not happening in this world.")

Through unsatisfying sex they discover social crusades, invent collective farming and fall in love. (No, they pretty much do.) Martha resolves to make him a better man through the careful nudging of female approval, as though this poor simple minded man needs only her warm regard to change. In her defense, apparently she is right. Suddenly Theo is roofing homes and building economic safety nets. Also, he vomits when someone implies he'd rape a disabled teen - seems a bit extreme, but maybe he has a sensitive stomach. The disabled teen has a perpetually pregnant mother. On one occasion Theo slips and calls Martha by her first name in front of the woman. Martha is distressed and shocked so naturally she turns to the woman and says hey, I heard my brother in law raped you. (Martha, WTF?) For most of the book this woman is portrayed as stressed beyond her ability to cope, her children neglected by her fatigue and her home in utter disarray. Suddenly we discover she has a loyal and caring husband, a childhood sweetheart who lets her take the lead in life and who puts her cares above his own. So why are his kids neglected? Why is his wife overburdened? She grew up in the community so why does she lack support? If it is because of a rape 16 years ago why does that same community suddenly rally for the aforementioned intervention with the brother in law? See all the Why we've got going on?

Martha, who considered offering this woman cash for her unborn child, never puts anything together. A woman who keeps a mentally disabled child arising from rape is going to sell you her son so he can be lord of the manor? How do you think that's going to happen? How is her husband going to be down with that? Martha's rationale is that obviously the woman has too many children to handle already and will be glad to lighten her load. Martha goes from unsympathetic to evil in one musing. Class issues, she has them. Luckily Martha changes her mind because Theo finally teaches her to like sex! All it takes is him asking her to tie him up and they're off to the races. Is this a new convention? From I-can't-stand-you-touching-me to let-me-blow-you-baby all with one carefully placed stocking? Now we have the inevitable failure to communicate as estate-free Martha finds Theo has fled from her lack of love. Because telling him you've decided to marry him would have made too much sense. Obviously Martha's control issues have overridden her planning personality. Faced with no estate and a return to her family, Martha is saved by Theo's determined return.

I gotta wish him luck. God only knows what Martha's going to come up with next. That chick has crazy eyes.

28 December, 2011

Review: Shatner Rules by William Shatner and Chris Regan

What do you say about William Shatner that hasn't already been said? Revered or reviled, Lionized or devoured, he is an American institution (all while being Canadian). At a certain point I wondered what Shatner would say about himself. (Disclosure; I've read books by Nichelle Nichols, Jimmy Doohan and George Takei.) I approached Shatner Rules wondering if Shatner is a deeply misunderstood man or a raging egomanic with an improper understanding of his talents.

The answer is yes.

 He's sort of a less destructive Charlie Sheen. When he yells winning, you get the idea that it requires others to be losing. After going after (almost) all of his former costars for various reasons (they were not the stars, they are fame whores, etc etc) he then claims all their hard feelings are born from their own imaginations. He's apologized for any imagined slights (as opposed, I imagine to the ones in the book) and moved on. Why do they still feel so angry? If I loved the guy and he talked about me the way he does his ex costars I'd have to rethink it.

There's a lot of that who-could-possibly-know faux innocence to Shatner. He invites Henry Rollins to the same event as Rush Limbaugh and expects everyone to make nice. (Why would there be a problem there?)  Rollins handles it with incredible grace, but the fact that Shatner never gave it a thought shows a lot about his personality. Discussing the absolute brilliant cover of Common People he did with Joe Jackson, Shatner takes several swipes at Joe. While ending with an acknowledgement of Jackson's utter genius, he leads with a ton of negativity in front of the praise. I imagine this is just how Shatner operates. It's not the most effective way to make friends.

So. Does Shatner think he is a brilliantly underrated performer who does not deserve the mocking he's graciously borne over the years? Absolutely. He is not entirely wrong. Shatner has a serious work ethic that demands the best he can offer from himself and others. Shatner has created multiple memorable characters in a career where people are lucky to produce one. He delivers what he is hired for, no matter what that might be. Shatner is a pro. His musical attempts are often better then he has been credited for. They are not, however, even close to his own assessment of them. The contradiction of William Shatner is that both sides are right. He is a charismatic and professional talent. He is also far from innocent of the various charges lain at his feet. In the end, Shatner Rules is an illuminating look at both sides of the man, the side he prefers to see and the side he unwittingly reveals. I am absolutely a fan.

23 December, 2011

Review: Don't Kill the Birthday Girl by Sandra Beasley

Love this cover. I think I was almost 2/3 of the way done before I really looked at the little cupcake decoration. It's clean, it's eye catching, it relates to the contents. I have no complaints at all on this one. The book is great too.

While I expected to dislike Don't Kill The Birthday Girl I loved it so much I should marry it. I live in in area where fake food allergies are common and yet I am all too familiar with real food allergies. If I throw a party I know at least two children will arrive with special instructions and an EpiPen but six more will have mothers standing by to explain their allergies as the so called allergic children graze openly on forbidden foods. Sandra Beasley finds this as infuriating as I do. Describing food dislikes or sensitivities as allergies endangers the truly allergic. Sandra Beasley is one of those so endangered.

Almost completely free of self pity, Beasley intersperses important information about the recognition and rise of true food allergies with anecdotal tales of life as a fragile child. With the impatience of anyone restricted, she longs to be normal. Sandra would rather eat what you're eating than draw attention to a myriad number of ingredients that can kill her. She doesn't feel a little queasy or get a headache after encountering an allergen - she goes to the hospital. Addressing the facts of food allergies calmly (that peanut allergy is not an airborne danger but touching someone with a hand that touched peanuts could be serious) Beasley offers insight into the current wave of food fear. Often amusing, at times frustrating, her goal to lead as normal a life as possible makes a great memoir.

21 December, 2011

Contemporary Challenge Review: Georgia Bockoven VS Sandra Hyatt

I used to read category romance extensively. Over the years I found myself reading less and less category, then less and less contemporary until finally I was almost exclusively in the historical niche. I've given myself the pointless challenge of rediscovering category books and contemporary romance. Harlequin had a major sale recently and I took the opportunity to buy a number of books from Twitter hashtag suggestions. I found that I read a category romance in about an hour, perhaps 90 minutes. That's got to kill the authors. I know they spend a lot more time on these books than I do, but there it is. Since they're quick reads for me, let's look at them in pairs.  First up -  If I'd Never Known Your Love by Georgia Bockoven versus Lessons In Seduction by Sandra Hyatt. (Spoiler's Ahoy)

I gather that the premise of the Everlasting Love line is that you've got one shot at couplehood. I used to read the (formerly Silhouette) Desire line voraciously, so I was more familiar with that framework. The Bockoven book left me curiously flat. I understand this is a three hankie classic read, but it didn't hit me emotionally. I admired how it was done without connecting to the characters. The lead is a woman who married her childhood love only to lose him. The book focuses almost exclusively on her. She is either fighting to get her husband back, remembering her youth with her husband (a bad boy gone good) or trying to move on with her life. This is an oddly idyllic setting for a pretty dark tale. The husband, a former foster child, falls into the lap of her farm family. After soaking up their good values and warm hearts, he builds a life with the heroine. He is oddly (and almost unrealistically) capable at relationships. The warm family is the type that can drop everything to support her when things go south, and her financial situation is extremely solid. This is a woman who can expect to be caught if she falls down. Even as she moves on with her life the safety net is extensive and intact. It undermined the well paced story of her struggle to find her missing man. All of her desperation is focused on the fact of his loss, little is spent on the day to day effects. In a sense, she saves him at the expense of all else. As a young woman, she wants to save him from his past. As an adult, she wants to save him from his fate. Children, careers, all else is secondary to her need to support him. When a new man enters her life there isn't anything left of her to give. He's certainly her type - he needs to be saved as well. I found this more of a character piece than what I consider a romance, although it was absolutely a genre book. I was frequently frustrated by the heroine even as I empathized with her. The topic is certainly fresh and authentic - hostage taking as a business is too common in many failed nations.

Hyatt's book was the complete opposite. While still a complete fairy tale, this story of a working class girl and an overburdened prince felt more real than the truer-to-life Bockoven book. Hyatt's limo driver is moonlighting from her higher profile day job as a way to keep her father's employment secure. Her hot and cold boss is a workaholic young heir to the throne trying to fit finding a wife into his already overbooked schedule. While this is also a tale with a shared childhood, it is not a reunited lovers story. The couple's attraction is as adults, their development is more moderate. She isn't seeking so much to save the prince as to remind him how to have fun. He has given away so many pieces of himself to responsibility that he has forgotten who he is.  Her swinging between irritation with the man and awe of his status reads smoothly. Despite the less realistic premise I connected more with the leads of the Hyatt book than the Bockoven. In both cases, I was reminded what a quick read a category romance is. these books can be fit between other demands, read in a lunch break or two. Neither demanded my full attention, there was a small cast of characters and a very focused plot to resolve. The lack of complexity  was part of the appeal to me in the past - I actually did read these on retail lunch breaks. I'm not sure if I will rediscover my love of the short form contemporary romance, but I have absolutely renewed my appreciation for their complexity. Simple is hard.

15 December, 2011

Review: The Duke Is Mine by Eloisa James

Oh, Eloisa.

Well. I like the cover.

That sounds brutal, doesn't it? I really liked the book too. In fact I loved the book, I adored the book, I was raving about the book, except when I wasn't. There is a definite pea in this novel, and I was princess enough to find it irritating. Let's make a list of the wonderful things about The Duke Is Mine.

* Olivia has body image issues that are not papered over by a makeover, a weight loss or a new corset.

* Duke the First is the best special needs hero since Pamela Morsi wrote Simple Jess.

* Duke the Second reminded me of a number of engineers I know. His inability to process or recognize emotions easily was spot on perfect.

* The sibling dynamic between Olivia and her sister was real, touching and true.

* This book should have been epic. People should read it.

Now the sadness. Some of the character names are nonsensical. One, maybe. Two or three and you've lost me. A Justin Bieber tribute. A family of Bumtrinkets. Olivia loves limericks and scatalogical humor. A dog is named for the the heroine of Winning The Wallflower. How do I take the main characters seriously if we're going to move in and out of farce? Any of these elements are fine, but bundle them together and it's a different book. The balance of whimsy and weight slipped around too often. Toward the very end of the book I was ready to forgive all. At a strong emotional point the book took a sudden turn for single act theater. Olivia is placed in mortal danger by a slapstick troupe. Why? So we could work in the Princess and Pea plot with a side car of emotional realization.

If coming to understand what you feel for someone required having a near mortal event most hospitals would offer weddings. They don't. The entire I didn't realize how much I loved him / her until they were bleeding to death in front of me thing is played out. I'm tired of reading a book while mentally ticking off how many pages we have until one of them is abducted, shot, suffocated, drowned, diseased - oh the list goes on. It's like there is a how-to-unite-your-couple-guide somewhere detailing the exact degree of peril needed to trigger emotional response. Adding to the frustration is knowing the emotional catharsis could have been provided by the events already underway. The Duke Is Mine felt like channel surfing between Masterpiece Theater, Comedy Central, and Lifetime Docudramas. Someone needed to grab the remote and make a decision.

14 December, 2011

Review: The Best Of Archie Comics by Various

I'm going to suggest this one as a stocking stuffer. If you're American, you're already very familiar with Archie and his eternal triangle of Betty and Veronica. If you're not, consider Archie our TinTin. (Yes, yours is better, I know.) Generations of American kids have grown up reading Archie and he has reflected a fairly conservative view of American culture back at them. From Josie and the Pussycats to Sabrina the Witch, Archie has introduced a number of long lived franchises. (Right down to the novelty single.)

Coming in at $10 USD this paperback is a great introduction for a tween reader or a trip down memory lane for an older one. While the curation of the volume is excellent, everyone who reads it will feel something was left out. (I'm a Jughead fan, myself.) From showing the limitations of the early gags (how many times can Archie give Veronica poison ivy?) to the weird soapy feel of it's current titles (Our abusive boyfriend Moose in anger management?) this paperback offers something for almost anyone on a gift list. Too often these retrospectives come as highly expensive hardcovers with their own slipcased and number collectibility conceit. The Best of Archie Comics is a thick pulp paperback perfect for folding in half under your bed. (Maybe I'd be rich if I'd carefully preserved all the Pep Comics I acquired in my youth. Instead I read them to shreds. I think Archie would want it that way.)

13 December, 2011

Review: Winning The Wallflower by Eloisa James

Lately I have enjoyed James' novellas more than her longer format books. Winning the Wallflower continues this trend. At the current selling rate of 99 cents, this short might be underpriced. It's a great value. Some readers may wish for a longer story as the file included long excerpts from other books. I'm a strong believer that the value of a story isn't in how long you take to tell it but how engaged the reader is in the telling. I was completely invested in Cyrus and Lucy.

Lucy is a wallflower through choice and circumstance. As a tall heroine when the fashion is for the petite, she has some self esteem issues. Adding to that, she lacks wealth. While her parents would prefer to marry her to someone of higher status, her father accepts the offer that comes his way. With her eyes on her shoes, Cyrus Ravensthorpe seems like more than Lucy could have hoped for. Attractive, charming, and slightly scandalous (not in his person, but in his parents) Cyrus is using his money and charm to ease their way back into society. A well placed bride is a necessary step, with Lucy being the most attractively bred. An unexpected windfall makes Lucy's mother rethink the betrothal. Lucy isn't so sure. Once she raises her eyes from the floor, Lucy realizes that while Cyrus answered most of her hopes, he didn't fulfill any of her dreams. As her confidence increases others look at her differently, especially Cyrus. Freed from the clever conceits of the upcoming release The Duke Is Mine, James writes to her strengths. Keeping her plot tightly centered on two people looking at each other with new eyes she delivers an excellent romantic tale. Absolutely worth the time, brief as it may be.

12 December, 2011

Review: Tina's Mouth by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki

There is absolutely nothing wrong with giving a pre-order as a gift. I think (if the release date is close enough to the holiday) that it extends things. It creates a little epilogue to the season. Tina's Mouth is being released (or re-released?) on January 3rd, so that's great timing. Or terrible timing if everyone is in their post holiday belt tightening phase. Either way, I almost passed up an advance copy of this book because of the marketing. (I'm glad I reconsidered.) Remember a few weeks ago when I was joking that any graphic novel written by a non-caucasion gets compared to Persepolis? Yes. That joke isn't funny anymore. As a bonus, the main character here is American, so they also throw American Born Chinese out as a reference. I totally missed a career in marketing.

If You Like Indian Food, You Will Love Tina's Mouth! Or perhaps Look Out Bollywood! Tina Is In Town! Maybe even Like Maus, But Without The Genocide! It's so hard to choose. How do you market a graphic novel without highlighting that it is by a non-caucasian and that other non-caucasions have written successful books too?  I mean, you could focus on the story but that's just crazy. Who wants to read a coming of age story about a young teen girl caught between societal expectations and her own emerging sense of self?


Everyone does?

Maybe marketing wasn't for me after all. Good thing I took this high paying blog job. Moving on - Tina's Mouth is the tale of a young teen who is assigned the task of keeping an existential journal. I was a young teen once, and I was really into existential texts. I think there is a certain kind of girl who runs from Glamour into the waiting arms of Camus and Sartre. Both ask What Kind of Girl Are You? but only one includes a handy picture guide to self hatred. Setting aside the conceit that Tina is writing to a dead philosopher, this is a classic tale. Tina has lost her best friend, she isn't sure she fits in, everyone seems really into boys and who is she going to be, anyway? Examining the rise (and fall) of her high achieving siblings, Tina takes steps toward her own self definition by becoming engaged in school activities. This leads her to new people and new experiences.

While depictions of drug use, booze and (off camera) teen sex might freak a few parents out, let's be real about what our kids are exposed to. (I can tell you right now which tweens of my acquaintance will be flying like kites very soon.) Tina suffers some self induced and externally induced humiliations without turning them onto herself. It is not her fault her first kiss has been co-opted into a school sanctioned assault. Tina stands up for herself and her personal boundaries. Tina takes very identifiable teen experiences and uses them as the building blocks for her eventual self discovery. It's easy to tell kids to be true to themselves, it's harder to show them how to figure out who they are. Tina is a great role model and a great read for tween to twenties.

10 December, 2011

Review: Unraveled by Courtney Milan

You know, I could try and review Courtney Milan's Unraveled. Who would I be kidding? We all know I have been teetering on the edge of full on fawning for this author. I have now fallen completely over the edge. Is it a perfect book? Probably not. Is it an exceptionally excellent book featuring the epic romantic hero Smite? Yes. Yes it is. It's also $3.99 and what you should be reading instead of a review about it.

I swear I will get back to real reviewing tomorrow. Honestly. In the meantime, please appreciate my charter membership in the fan club. (Smite is mine, bitches. Mine.)

09 December, 2011

Spending Your Money: Yanni Cheese by Karoun

Brazilian Beach Cheese by meoskop
Brazilian Beach Cheese, a photo by meoskop on Flickr.

Technically, this is neither Brazilian Beach cheese nor Karoun's Yanni brand Grilling Cheese. The photo was taken at Lollapalooza so it is actually Brunkow Cheese out of Wisconsin. Brunkow isn't available near me but grilling cheese changed my life. Seriously. If you are thinking about giving someone a holiday basket with odd culinary delights, please get them some grilling cheese. It's easy to find the sheep's milk based Halloumi, but I find that too salty. The cow milk based Yanni (and Brunkow, if you're lucky) is amazing. This cheese cooks like a meat. Put your grill on medium, soak the cold cheese for a few minutes in your choice of spices (I like olive oil, red peppers and garlic) grill for a few minutes, die and go to Heaven. (It's ok, Heaven can totally wait. They will just kick you back when you finish chewing.) Be sure and tell your lucky recipient how to prepare it, because this would be a waste if sliced and put on crackers. Thank me later, I have to go grill some and get back to my book.

08 December, 2011

Here A Duke, There A Duke, Everywhere A Duke, Duke...

Snow White's First Clue by meoskop
Snow White's First Clue, a photo by meoskop on Flickr.
I am on Duke Overload. I closed the final page on Eloisa James Winning The Wallflower and thought if I see one more Duke, even Mr. Nukem, I would scream. I realize that the Duke has become the go to guy for Romanceland, he is the Greek Billionaire Tycoon of UK set novels. (Look what's happened to the Greek economy. We are experiencing an epic ducal bubble.) Why is The Duke currently so prevalent? Is it an ultimate power grab? I don't understand it. Why would our heroine want to be a Duchess? Wouldn't she know some seriously unhappy women already holding that title? A wise heroine only needs to consider the Devonshire family tree to know that a satisfying life is not a Duke away. Now our heroines are choosing between multiple Dukes.

It rather makes my head hurt.

The Duke is a creature of entitlement and power. He has wide ranging responsibility and has been raised in an isolated chamber. His world view is one of insular concerns and privileged assumptions. Even when our Duke is carefully grown outside the petri dish of his breeding and catapulted to the higher realm, his concerns are not our concerns. When I read about someone's patrician features or evidence of nobility hidden beneath the dirt of their lowered circumstances I wonder what our problem is.

Do you not know any rich people?

I know a great number of them. For every absolutely wonderful person there are a thousand more. Maybe two thousand. Conversations among the socially concerned and wealthy in America are enough to make you stick a fork in your brain. The deep divide between worthy people and unworthy people is a thin veneer on the ingrained class and racial biases of many of the elite classes. When all you have is knowing you are better than someone else, you say stupid things (like Newt Gingrich's epic assumption that poor children have no work ethic). When you tell me your hero is a Duke I see Newt, I see Trump. When her refined breeding cannot be denied, I see Paris Hilton or Ivanka. (Actually, Ivanka looks she'd be fun to spend an evening with. That said, I don't see her leading a rally against the anti-semetic clubs of the Palm Beaches.) Romanceland is full of compassionate conservatives. I just don't buy it because I know them. Everything changes when it goes from the abstract to the concrete, from giving the Haitian maid a bonus to your son marrying her.

Romance used to examine class with a little less awe. Maybe it still does and I've had a bad run. I do know I have read books this year with the heroine picking coins out of mud (still with her delicate bones speaking to her better beginnings) and starving brothers and desperate times. It just seems the noise of eugenics and class is getting louder. There's a passage in an upcoming book where the hero muses he can't be understood. No one of his current class can comprehend where he came from and no one of his former class could comfortably walk in his current one. Why then are we so eager to embrace the highest most exclusionary class of all? I don't think birth equates worth or wealth opportunity. Too much wealth is toxic. Too little is toxic.

Give me a Magistrate over a Duke.

07 December, 2011

Promotion: Agony / Ecstasy edited by Jane Litte

This is largely a comment free blog. Most people who have something to say do so via Twitter or email. I'm completely fine with that. Low comment ratio equals low spam attraction and an absolute dearth of trolls. (Not that I am in any way troll-phobic. While none of my best friends are trolls, there are members of my family who identify as troll-curious.) On the one hand, I enjoy the low profile way to express longer opinions. On the other hand, I don't hold giveaways.  It's a quandry. Especially with the release of Jane Litte's Agony / Ecstasy collection.

I enjoy Dear Author and I know Jane worked hard on this anthology. I'd buy it and review it, but I don't care for erotica (as we know) and I really don't care for BSDM. I'd hold a giveaway for it, but the same applies. So what to do? I do know this blog gets read, I see the traffic and I know what brings you by to see what I'm thinking about. I could pose a clever question like "Is this a book for you? Tell me why!" The problem is that you would and then I'd know. I really don't want to know. If I was interested in your erotic preferences I'd be sleeping with you. (No easy solution, I know.) If I solicited a guest review, I'd have to read it. The obvious answer is just to walk away from the entire thing.

Where is the ecstasy in that? The agony may be clear, but the ecstasy is lacking. Here is my solution. I will give an electronic copy of Agony / Ecstasy to someone who is not you. Or someone who is you. Either way. You're going to have to comment and I am going to have to read comments. (There's no way for us to get around that.) I'm going to run the contest for one week. I will pick one random winner and one winner who made me laugh. If you're the same person (or there is only one comment) you can choose the second winner. Random enough? I think so. Well then. If you're interested in the hybrid of me having comments (agony) and you getting free stuff (ecstasy) tell me why this book should be sent to the person you'd like it sent to. Clever promotion idea? Sad sob story? Entertain me and Jane Litte's collection will entertain you. (Or not. It's kind of what puts the Dom in random.)

06 December, 2011

Review: The Wild Marquis by Miranda Neville

Sometimes I like a publishing house and I can't recall if I like a particular author in that house so I will just buy their books anyway. Sometimes I like a particular blogger so I will try an author she seems crazy about. Miranda Neville as a perfect blend of both. I would have automatically purchased several of her books if Agency Pricing hadn't kicked in and made me seriously reconsider how I was spending my book dollars. (My Avon purchases are down about 80%, just to name one publisher.) After some consideration I decided this was the Miranda Neville book most likely to appeal to me. (Although I bought this at full agency, Avon is currently running a sale. The book may be as low as $2.99, check your vendors.)

I'm not a Miranda Neville fan. That's okay. It's good to know things about yourself and post Agency Pricing it's good to know I don't have four or five of her books TBR'd on my shelf. I can see why people are raving about her so I'll break down what did and didn't work for me. In The Wild Marquis she brings together two damaged people from (seemingly) different classes. The Marquis has been couch surfing since his deranged father threw him out. With his father dead, he has (for some sort of martyr reason) continued his estrangement from his sister and equally deranged mother. Oh, and everyone else in his family. On the other side, Juliana is trying to make a go of her book business after the murder of her husband. Juliana collects books for rarity, not content. Their world's collide when Cain decides he has to restore a lost book to the family library. (Just go with it.) Soon they are immersed in the world of auctions and antiquities and accidentally solving her husband's murder.

Juliana is a weird hybrid. Raised mostly in seclusion (In fact, both of them spend way too much time giving noble motives to their absolutely horrible families. It's a subtext of the story that neither can see their own family flaws, just the others.) then marrying into the middle class, Juliana has somehow adopted the upper classes morals but the middle classes inferiority complex. I wasn't sure exactly who she was. Juliana reminded me of this girl I knew when I was a teen who would try to seduce men by fondling the stick shift of her car and licking her lips while giggling. (Pretty much all you have to do to seduce a willing guy is say "Hey, let's have sex now.") Unlike that girl, Juliana isn't sure if she wants to follow through. She wants to have casual sex with Cain, but not be his mistress. She wants to be free from promises, but have his fidelity. Juliana is all about the mixed message. She also deliberately sets out to sabotage a client for Cain's benefit, while holding her professional integrity tightly. I didn't get her at all.

Cain, on the other hand, has had some horrible accusations made against him by his father the nutjob. Since everyone believes he's morally bankrupt, he moves into a brothel and makes his life work the care and feeding of old hookers. (A decent way to spend your life.) He also has a weird grey area where he has a long term mistress with sons - she dies and the sons are raised by her friend (who becomes his housekeeper) until they are old enough to work, and thereafter they become his employees. It wasn't a greying of class areas so much as a complete confusion of them. Suddenly, through Juliana, Cain discovers that he really likes collecting books. I don't understand why. Both of them have come to book collecting in a harmful manner, both have the right to have negative associations with book collecting. Yet both of them decide the book is the thing.

I don't have any problem with the plot, resolution, or pacing of the story. All of my concerns with The Wild Marquis involve characterization. I spent too much time asking why characters were doing (or not doing) things and too little just going along for the ride. As an example, in one scene Juliana falls over trying to insert a birth control sponge. Why? Who did she ask about birth control? If it was her husband, why isn't she proficient in it's use? If it was after her husband, how did she come by the information? Did she read it in a book? She's already established that she is pretty ignorant of the erotic market. There were too many moments in The Wild Marquis like this. I'm not a reader who deals well with "because they did" unless the story is yanking me along too fast to examine it.

What did work for me was the skill of setting. Neville is great with place and time, she sets up original components in an old frame. Her plots are obviously considered, her characters are fairly diverse. If you don't roll your eyes at a heroine stroking a book jacket and cooing about how soft and slick it is, her sex scenes are in line with modern books. I feel like Miranda Neville could write a book to really grab me but I didn't walk away from The Wild Marquis wanting to know more about anyone in it.

04 December, 2011

Review: Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House by Meghan Daum

I've had this one kicking around for awhile. I share the same disease as Meghan Daum, that of house envy. (There is nothing wrong with my home.) Since I was a child I've looked at other houses and thought "If I lived there I would be happier." It's led me to move across the country, across town, down the street. At this moment I can tell you three places I'd rather live and the prices on each, but I won't be moving again. (It's a property tax thing, I can't afford to move even if I downsized.) I understood what Daum's book would be about just from the title. So why didn't I finish it in a timely manner?

Life would be perfect if this was a slightly different book. While I totally identified with both her wanderlust and her desire to invent herself into a person she isn't, there wasn't much past that point to hold me. I read the first third quickly, then set the book down for months. Something brought it to mind and I sought it out again only to stop before finishing it. Today, while going through some notes, I realized I'd never completed the book and found it, bookmark intact. I had stopped six pages from the end. That's not a great sign. While I enjoyed the time I spent with Meghan, we weren't meant to be together.

It's interesting, there was a lot of buzz for the hardcover release (which had what I think was a terrible cover) and not as much for the greatly (visually) improved paperback. The Kindle version uses the hardcover image. In classic Agency fashion, the going rate (if not list price) for the paperback is lower than the Kindle version. (Way to kill those impulse buys, guys!) So perhaps my preference in cover design is completely off the market. Granted, the paperback cover is a little Mod, a little Retro, but the original cover was very Christian Inspiration to me, which the the book could not be further from. I wonder how the book feels? Does it cover shop and think it's sales would be everything if it only had a gatefold?

02 December, 2011

Review: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

This book was sold by it's cover. I had no idea who Mindy Kaling was. I don't watch her show. (I'd heard conversation about Matt & Ben but assumed it was a Tony & Tina's Wedding type thing.) This is a book selling cover. Love the tones, love the pose, love the title, love the composition. (Great design, cover dude. Take a victory jog.)

I found I loved this book. Mindy Kaling is walking a comedy tightrope here - self deprecating without being self pitying, self aggrandizing without coming across as overbold. She's trying too hard in all the right ways. There's a bit of the charmed life to Mindy, but she knows it. There's a lot of the serious work ethic to Mindy and she knows that too, even as she downplays it. A slacker doesn't finish and produce a two woman play much less a serious college degree.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is part memoir, part humor, part celebrity vanity project but it is completely enjoyable. This is up there with David Niven's Hollywood books. She's not burning any bridges or settling any scores, she's just telling you a few amusing stories over drinks in a stylish lounge. Kaling's stories are so compelling that one drove me to Google. After reading about a People photo shoot (in a land where a size 8 is anything but very slender) I had to see the photo that resulted. If I liked the book with no investment in her career, then this would be a home run gift for fans of The Office: American Edition.  (I seem to be reading quite a few Crown Archtype books lately. Nice job, marketing and acquisition. Get your sneakers out too.)

30 November, 2011

Review: Once Upon A Winter's Eve by Tessa Dare

Although I didn't really love it, I happily recommend Once Upon A Winter's Eve. Tessa Dare is an author I keep having suggested to me. Like Miranda Neville, once I sampled her I realized she wasn't for me. Readers who love Tessa Dare absolutely adore her and I certainly see why. This short and currently crazy cheap novella shows off her strengths. (Avon is publishing her Spindle Cove series but the novella is from Samhain.) Serving more as an introduction to her Spindle Cove concept than an isolated tale, Dare is obviously working on a world populated by unconventional heroines and quirky side characters. (This is not my row so I rarely hoe it.)

Through the eyes of Violet Winterbottom (really) we view the residents of Spindle Cove. In short time we meet a pair of twins (one an amputee) a female medic, a family running a general store despite their useless and abusive father, a famous arms manufacturer and, well, other people. (We meet a lot of people.) We also learn about Spindle Cove. Believed from the outside to be a place for ruined girls to knit cat covers, it's actually a female empowerment camp. Or something. It's very small town feisty, our Spindle Cove. If you like that sort of thing you will really like it.  If you don't, you'll appreciate the care she's taken for consistency of character and place. As a short, Once Upon A Winter's Eve didn't totally work for me. I appreciated it far more than I enjoyed it, but that's not to it's detriment. This is an excellent way to sample Tessa Dare without ponying up the Agency entry fee. 

29 November, 2011

Books I Cast Aside: Erik Larson And David King

I have read far too many WW2 books. I know about Hitler's dog, Hitler's niece, Churchill's second cousin twice removed and the American position on all of it. I've read things I can never remove from my brain (blocked the title out, white cover, Ukraine, lost village memoir, highly recommended except for ever sleeping again) and things that made me roll my eyes. I get obsessive about certain time periods and WW2 appears to be one. It probably has something to do with the epic death toll on all sides of my family. Anyway. I'm a sucker for a WW2 book. I'm also a sucker for books that contrast different realities. Erik Larson set the benchmark for this style of non-fiction with The Devil In The White City. Now I wish he hadn't.

Too many books since then seem to be walking the same ground in a different field. I currently have a ten book nonfiction backlog due to the bottleneck created by two such books. Despite both of them dealing with WW2, I am moving on. They've kept me from other books for far too long. David King's Death In The City of Light would be an exceptional book if he edited half of it out. It's daily life in occupied France, it's a serial killer preying on desperate Jewish refugees, it's a police procedural, it's an exhaustive look at an investigation. Unfortunately it's also about Camus, Sartre, Picasso and their crowd. It's just too much. Our party people add nothing to the narrative and it's exhaustive detail is not well served by the breaks the reader takes to discover Simone was moody. I want to finish this book so much that I just started skipping all the sections with the artists. It was still overloaded. King has a fantastic book in here, but it's not the one that went to press. People with more patience for info dumps and backtracking expository will adore it. I'm shelving it for that rainy day where excessive ruminations appeal.

The other log in my book jam is Erik Larson himself. A look at the society and diplomacy around pre Pearl Harbor Germany? Well hell yea! Except it's boring. Don't get the wrong, the political stuff is interesting, the man on the street stuff is interesting, but the subtext of Martha Dodd is troubling. Every attempt is made to portray her fairly and sympathetically. Which is sort of a problem. She would be all over TMZ if she were alive today. A woman who parties with the German government, considers dating Hitler and goes on to end her days as an expatriate? Wanted in America for spying on behalf of the Soviets, not wanted by the Soviets, she let her high ideals (such as they were) lead her to a fairly unpleasant life. Judgement was never Martha's strong suit be it politics or men. If I had approached this book as a look at Martha, perhaps I would enjoy it more. If I hadn't tried to read it at the same time as Death In The City of Light I might be raving about it now It too is being shelved for a rainy day where I feel more tolerant of her foibles, less annoyed at her willful indulgences. After all, this is probably seconds away from becoming a Tom Hanks film.

28 November, 2011

Review: A Midsummer Night's Sin by Kasey Michaels

Meet Puck. (He's not named after the really appalling MTV Real World character, but that guy pretty much ruined my ability to take anyone named Puck seriously as a romantic lead.) His mom has a Shakespeare jones and his parent's aren't married (allegedly, I have my doubts) because his aunt had Down's syndrome so his dad married her instead. So Puck has been running about being charming in Paris when he decides to return home and be charming in England. That was sort of interesting. Puck mixes blackmail into his charm under the they-deserve-it doctrine. Sadly, Puck is only charming for a few pages. His debut into London Society is also his swan song.

Puck converts from charmingly cold hearted party animal into caring righter of wrongs. at the party he meets first time bad girl Regina and discovers her cousin has been abducted. It's pretty obvious by who. And why. And, of course, it's one of those things that only really upsets our wealthy leads when it's happening to white folk. We're going to have to go with a spoiler here - the kidnapped cousin may or may not have fallen afoul of white slavers. It happens here! In London! To white people! Yes, everyone is most surprised. And it happens without care or notice to poor people! Who'da thunk? Of course the slaver is the baddest of the bad, the most ickiest dude, of course he's the slaver, how could they not have seen, etc? Here's the thing. While there is nothing good about slavery, being outraged over the white kind but not the black kind (our Puck nobly tries to rescue a white woman that completely forgets about the trade in general) doesn't read well. Let's give our characters that they only consider white slavery the really bad kind. Why is the slavery guy a horrible guy? Why wouldn't he just be a guy for profit who doesn't share their outrage at transferring slavery to white guys? (It's even pointed out that white slaves are less profitable than black ones unless they can be used for fresh virginal nookie). Look, Kasey Michaels does a decent job with it, I'm not faulting her for trying to tackle it in a realistic way or any of that. I'm just saying that omgz-he-is-so-bad slaver boy is an easy stereotype when her own characters tacitly condone non-caucausian slavery. Ugh. Let's move on from this comma overload.

So. Regina. Missing cousin, drunken mom, mixed family heritage (in the money sense not the color sense) meets Puck, party boy with a moody older brother and unmarried parents. They try to find her cousin, they have a fair amount of sex, they move on with their lives. All in all, it was better than Beau's story and I'm going to read Jack's but I wouldn't stay up late on the night I bought it. Or maybe I would. It's better than the review implies, I just can't get past the mixed slavery messages going on. If Michaels hadn't included the flashback to Puck's youth, I think I would have liked it much more than I did.

25 November, 2011

Review: A Lady's Lesson In Scandal by Meredith Duran

Meredith Duran is an interesting writer. She strikes me as a cross between Judith Ivory and Mary Balogh. Like Balogh, her books are often character studies where little happens externally. Like Ivory, her characters are quite realistic. In A Lady's Lesson In Scandal a lost child is recovered and given the Pygmalion treatment. But her childhood in poverty has made her stronger than the hero, not weaker. Simon has been raised in financial comfort but emotional poverty. As a result, he has found himself with few survival skills outside of his charm. A classic example of meeting the very low bar set for him, Simon keeps his depth hidden. Nell's hard earned need to read people before they strike out allows her to see there is something beneath his surface charm.

I'm surprised to find I have very little to say about Nell and Simon. I very much enjoyed their story. It's definitely on my short list for best books I read this year. (Maybe it's the broken ankle?) The issue of class was executed very well, as Simon's revulsion gives way to a realization of his own petty biases. Nell's anger at her change in circumstance, her refusal to relax her guard and her inability to refute her origins all ring true as well. A Lady's Lesson In Scandal is filled with the sort of small moments that make a character more than a momentary diversion. Nell absolutely found her way into my heart and if she wants Simon, she should have him. I hope there is a sequel in the works. At the book's close we are left with more questions than answers about Nell's separation from her family. It reads like a complete story, but one that leaves the reader wishing it had a few more chapters. If you missed this when it came out, hunt it down. It was absolutely worth the time.

23 November, 2011

Review: The Other Guy's Bride by Connie Brockway

I'm not sure why both iterations of this cover have a dark haired heroine when she's clearly described as blonde. She's blonde enough to turn her hair red with henna, so the double brunette action doesn't really work. I'm willing to give them her height on the second cover (she's tall, with a big nose) since the dress is pretty sweet. Anyway, on to the content. The Other Guy's Bride just misses epic status. It's a good, possibly great, but it's not a book of the year and it should be. It could have been. It's annoying that it isn't. (Ok, it probably will be for some readers.) You should buy it, it's decently priced and a great Indiana Jones-esque adventure tale. Except when it isn't. Let's jump the big hurdles first, ok?

 Haji gave me great hope. A non white character who isn't following someone around out of servile gratitude, a character that others acknowledge faces racism, a character presented in exactly the same manner as a white character... until the end. In a move that absolutely killed me there is a last chapter push for Haji to give up the race card. Yes folks, the problem isn't xenophobic colonialist white folk operating from a place of privilege, it's Haji being oversensitive. Just no. No, no, no. No. I will give Haji being unable to accept his place in the heroine's family, I will give Haji making mistakes as a child from his own assumptions, I will NOT give Haji needing only to stop looking for racial slights where none exist. Just no. Not today and especially not 100 years ago. Mildred can be racist, it's okay. Mildred is marrying a racist, therefore she is unlikely to be socially progressive.

My next stumbling block involves our power couple, Gin and Jim. I don't know about you, but if I have been kidnapped by slavers and trudged through the desert for four days while facing the continual threat of rape, all I can think about is losing my virginity to the first white man that shows up. And really, if I have been tracking my kidnapped love interest waiting for a chance to save her I am absolutely not going to wait one second more for sex. No need to put getting away above getting it on! No villain ever escaped binding ropes nor had their compatriots unexpectedly return! Baby, it's nookie time. We can run afterward. (This threw me completely out of the story. We went from epic read to wtf read in a few pages.)

The final stumbling block is a lack of clarity for events. Jim lays his history out as such - his mother died when he was four and his father remarried. That wife died in childbirth. His father died when he was fourteen and his grandmother brought him to meet his ten year old brother who was the only bright spot in his subsequent life. Later in the book his brother (Jock) talks about how Jim acted around Jock's mother. Wait, isn't Jock's mother dead? Did she die in childbirth after Jim's father died? Did she remarry? How did  Jim have time to meet her if it was his father's child? If she did remarry, why did she still live with Jock? Where is Jock's stepfather? (I think that Brockway forgot she'd killed off the stepmother.)

There's also a completely unneeded secondary villain who seems to serve no purpose other than beating Jim up. He comes and goes but seems like an abandoned subplot or a shoe that never really drops. He's set in place to cause mayhem, but the mayhem doesn't materialize. It's a shame, he might have been a more interesting foil for drama than the slavers but it's a minor thing. Let's get back to the big things. Gin, our heroine, is completely believable. She's a trouble magnet, the accident prone girl in a family of adventurers, the romantic in the midst of scholars. Having been sent away for her own protection she's spent her life trying to live her parent's dream in a quest to prove herself worthy of her last name. Gin is a woman so busy trying to please others that she's forgotten how to please herself. She's also not small, dainty or delicate of feature. Gin is a powerful woman chasing the wrong dreams.

Jim isn't chasing any dreams at all. He starts the book as a complete wimp. He's run away from his inheritance, he's run away from his disapproving family, he's run away from romantic rejection, he is due for a complete reinvention of himself. The man he becomes is an opportunistic mercenary who goes where the highest bidder beckons. He's devoid of dreams, devoid of ties and content enough with his martyrdom to passively accept the hand his grandmother played when he was young and stupid. He's cut from the "better off without me" cloth. He's floating through life waiting for it to end, while fighting to stay alive. Like Gin, he has no idea what he really wants. This is a great dynamic. There are strong secondary characters. The book largely dodges many colonialist pitfalls (although there are also lazy Nigerians who take advantage of situations) and spreads it's character flaws to all colors. The racist white Colonel is mostly overworked and understaffed, the frightened troops are burnt out and ready for home. Everyone in this book is operating from a place of real conflict and realistic motivations. If Gin and Jim were just a bit older, a bit wiser, this would have been an epic read. As they stand, it's a very good one.

22 November, 2011

Review: Snag Films Meets Who Is Harry Nilsson

Ozy and I have been spending way too much time together lately. I was tired of everything he had to offer. I was sick of his games, I'd heard most of his stories and didn't care to hear the others. We needed something to take the edge off. Luckily, I found SnagFilms. Sometimes you just need a new app and SnagFilms was free. After a very short commercial for Goldman Sachs (what?) I was able to watch a film that's been on my Guess I Should Watch That Since People Keep Mentioning It list. I'd intended to watch Hype! but Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) popped up. Reminded of it's existence I decided to give it a go.

Suppose Christopher Guest decided to make a new film and it was inspired by a late night viewing of Forest Gump. At first it seems like a complete put on. Here's the critical piece of information you need to understand the rest of this. I had never hear of Harry Nilsson in my life. Wait, you need two pieces of information. I have spent my life as an avid fan of 60's and 70's music, right down to Leo Sayer. I am conversant with Popsicle Toes and Put The Bone In. Plus punk. And funk. Also, disco and prog. I get around. So. This guy comes on who looks vaguely Monty Python meets Late Night Local TV and he segues into a clip of Dustin Hoffman sadly saying that some guy named Harry Nilsson had died. A person in the audience shouts something - maybe it's no - but it means he expects his audience to know who this dude is. Dustin helpfully tells me it's the guy who sang Midnight Cowboy's theme song. Got it. Ok, some session musician? Cool. Wait, he wrote One Is The Loneliest Number? Is that a picture of him with The Beatles? John Lennon is saying the guy is his favorite artist? What? Right down to having Eric Idle chatting after some guy with so much Botox that only his tongue moves when he laughs, this thing was playing like a fake. Except it wasn't.

I have spent decades in record shops, in flea markets, in garage sales, in people's parents basements. I have touched albums people haven't thought about since they were released and I've never come across Harry Nilsson? This tells me two things. The first is that obviously Nilsson lovers hoard the albums like jealous lovers. The second is that I am ignorant. Ignorant as the day is long and twice as uneducated. After I accepted that this story wasn't fiction and none of these pictures were photoshop, I set about understanding where he fits into the musical landscape. The answer was everywhere. In Nilsson's erratic catalog I heard influence being handed off to artists as diverse as Tom Petty and Bruno Mars. Even Cee-Lo has either heard this stuff or heard something from someone who has. Parts of it are as godawful as any 70's creation and parts of it could be recorded tomorrow. Yoko Ono and May Pang both eulogize Harry. (That takes a minute to process all by itself.)

The documentary is wonderfully understated. Harry Nilsson was a train wreck. A very slow moving one. Like Lennon, he abandoned one child only to become Father Of The Year for the next. Like Lennon, he's got an ex wife who sees him as deeply flawed and damaged and a widow who reveres him. Like Lennon, he has a great cause in his life and is willing to sacrifice parts of his career to it's pursuit. Like Lennon, he hangs out with Beatles. He is like the slightly kinder, much softer version of his friend. Complete with deserting a child as he was deserted and never really getting that he's done that. Cuddly Toy may not be a Mr. Pindommy's Dilemma, but the Nilsson catalog proves to be both utterly familiar and bizarrely new. Alternating between "He wrote that?" and "He wrote THAT?" I was amazed. I think Nilsson was far less clever than the film presents - there is an element of dogged work ethic that erodes the narrative of simple genius. It makes it all the more impressive.

19 November, 2011

Review: Everybody Loves Our Town by Mark Yarm

Of course it's Kurt. It's still a great cover. Kurt turning away from the adulation he has sought says everything you need to say about him. Even the audience seems uncertain about their evening. Are we enjoying ourselves? Is it okay to enjoy ourselves?

Once, quite a few years ago, I was sitting in a bar attached to a small nightclub waiting for a show to start. I can't remember who was playing. After a while, it blurs together like a merry-go-round with a few bright moments standing out. So we're waiting for this band and a big screen is playing music videos. (It's what they did, once upon a time.) I'm in Connecticut with a girl from Indiana. I don't know why she's there. She hates concerts, music and those who play instruments. (I know she arrived suddenly and in some emotional distress so I assume I already had the tickets and just took her along instead of leaving her in my apartment with my razor blades. Go with it.) There we are, two friends. A Blind Melon video comes on and we both sigh. I say (truthfully) that I saw Hoon play shortly before he died and it's a damn shame. She says she didn't know I was a fan of Shannon Hoon. She wishes she'd known. We could have gotten together.

At this point I have known this girl close to a decade but we don't discuss music. She tells me she and Shannon grew up together. The Very Bad Things that happened in her life happened while she was in that scene. (None of it involved him.) Her brother worked for Axl Rose's parents. She was in the center of a number of music circles and I had known her for years without knowing a thing about it. The rest of the evening was a fascinating conversation we never repeated. None of it mattered to her. These were the people she knew and the things they did. It was exactly the same as the people I know and the things they've done. Why would I mention any of it? Who cares?

This is the brilliance of an oral history, when well done. Everybody Loves Our Town is exceptionally well done. If you've read this far and wondered why I told you about one night in a bar in the 90's, then it won't be the book for you. If you're wondering what she said to me, what I said to her, you will adore Everybody Loves Our Town as much as I did. This is the definitive history of a time and a place that affected a generation of young adults. (Stuck in a small town after growing up in a big city, it was Andrew Wood's voice that reminded me escape was possible. He was already dead.) Hearing the participants tell their story in all it's overlapping contradictory nature is like that bar conversation in the 90's. Free from music theory, free from obvious editorial direction, Mark Yarm lets the reader sit back and enjoy the conversation.

Starting when everyone is young and stupid (as we were all once) and moving through the Very Bad Things that always happen (when you go from young and stupid to slightly older and not much brighter) and then to the bright morning of After (where you realize you grew up somehow), Yarm tells the story of a specific scene with universal meaning. As close as you can come to a bar conversation with each of the participants, Yarm's oral history has all the power of Patti Smith's Just Kids. I hope it does just as well in the market. I recommend pairing this book with a basic knowledge of the Seattle sound and a viewing of Pearl Jam: Twenty. It will remind you your youth was never misspent, it was squandered on things you still love. (And if we're ever in a bar I might tell you my Kurt Cobain story, but I'm afraid the Shannon & Axl stuff isn't mine to reveal.)

11 November, 2011

Review: The Beginner's Guide To Rakes by Suzanne Enoch

People are not happy with my Amazon review of this one, but I have to stand by it. Diane is bat-shit crazy. By any yardstick you care to use, she is dangerously unhinged. Oliver at first seems to be fairly balanced, if a walking STD but by the end of the book you see why these two crazy (and I do mean crazy) kids are together. I've seen a number of reviews focus on the title, completely ignoring the insanity contained within. Look, I like Suzanne Enoch but she's a roller coaster of an author. When she's good, she's very very good and when she's bad, well, Sweet Jesus. I got over the whole conflating I-95 with the turnpike thing in her West Palm Beach series, I got over half of the Adventurers Club, but I have no idea where we go from A Beginner's Guide To Rakes. Suzanne, it's not you but it is definitely, absolutely, positively Diane.

Ok, so let's spoil this one. There is no way to adequately represent how much Oliver needs a restraining order without doing so. When we meet Diane she is determined to open a gaming club. As a respectable young widow who lost everything to her dead husband's gaming ways, she has decided to turn the tables and become the house. Since her business partner has turned up dead, her solution is to blackmail a former lover (Oliver) into loaning her tens of thousands of dollars and training her (all female but not whores) staff so she can realize her dream. Forget the incredibly slender thread of blackmail she has. Forget that Oliver KNOWS she is a master forger. Just go with the fact that he will be blackmailed. Oliver knows she's a master forger because after her husband's death Diane forged all the non-entailed property deeds into her name. (Keep in mind, the rightful heir is the villain of this book. How DARE he want his family property after Diane suffered a bad marriage to his brother? All of that is hers!) Ok, so Crazy-pants Criminal is our heroine and Walking STD is our hero. (He's one of those guys who pulls out of one chick while thinking about banging another in a few minutes. How tedious of these women who want to be treated like actual beings instead of a vessel for his pleasure. How histrionic of them.)

Still with me?

So Diane has her all female gaming club in the renovated downstairs of her stolen home with her blackmailed ex-lover living upstairs. Diane hates Oliver. HATES him. (Dead bunnies in the bed hate. Shredded clothes dipped in her own blood hate. Crazy hate.) She hates him because after two great weeks in bed a few days after the death of her husband he left her. She carries a gun in her pocket, she is so angry. She checks drawers to make sure a gun is always at hand. She threatens to shoot him to get her money. A few days later after some flirty action, he kisses her and walks from the room. So she does what any bat-shit crazy heroine would do. She shoots him in the back. Which everyone treats as normal. Of course you would. Never mind infection, never mind lack of antibiotics, never mind that she is bat-shit crazy, who wouldn't shoot a guy after a kiss? Duh! It's not like it slows Oliver down. No infection, no disability in movement, no discomfort wearing his clothes - within two pages he is his old agile un-shot self. Now he checks the rooms for guns before dealing with her, so her staff keeps threatening to shoot him.

Soon Diane needs more money. When faced with a blackmailing bat-shit crazy gun-toting criminal who hates you, the obvious solution is to pay her to bang you. But not just bang you, Oliver has a whole romantic escapade planned. He left her high and dry after their two week fling because he was beginning to love her. Oliver, this isn't love, this is STOCKHOLM SYNDROME! Run, dude! Run fast and far!! Even worse, this book is sequel bait. We're going to meet more of the ladies in the gaming club and their psycho self justifying boss in later books. By the time Oliver breaks through her ceiling for sex (while the club is open, the hell?) I'd lost any concern for him either. Benchley, the rightful heir of the house is not the bad guy! Trying to get his property returned is not evil! Toward the end of the book Enoch seems to realize this and hastily makes Benchley a slimy gambler who blackmails our loving couple. It's a bit late. I can't even get into the society matrons demonstrating on the steps and being bought off with a charity version of Diane's successful Ladies Night, much less her tour of White's. I'm as much a fan of Romanceland as the next girl, no stickler for historical accuracy when a good tale is spun - but c'mon, son!

This book was one long WTF for me. It might be a brand killer, I have to sit and think about it for a time. Enoch and I, we had some good times together. We had some bad times together. But we've never had bat-shit crazy times before. I never want to read about Diane again, if this is the launch of a series I'm probably going to have to sit it out.

06 November, 2011

Review: The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne

That is a cover only it's mother could love, and she's lying. So much has gone wrong. From the colors to the fashion to the font and the hands - it's just a crying shame. I loved this book. I hate to see it go all ugly duckling in the packaging. First of all, our hero is not a Duke. He isn't the lost son of a Duke, the unexpected 15th cousin of a Duke left standing after an outbreak of the plague or a Duke impersonator. Our Hawker is a straight up street rat with no apologies about it. I don't understand the publishing fascination with bloodlines. Once you establish 'rich' I'm just as happy to have my fantasy tale happen without a Princess. Think about Paris Hilton for a moment. She's had all the advantages money and ducal connections can grant. Now think about her siblings. Or her parents. Right. We're done here. (I am sure all the Hiltons are perfectly lovely people, smart as whips every one.)

So back to Hawker. He's a spy of course, because all of Bourne's characters are in some fashion involved in the Napoleonic Wars. (In a good way!) It's easy to do the French Revolution wrong. We've all read the books. It's muddy, you meet Wellington, French Royalists are good, French Loyalists are bad, the English walk on water and everyone make a run for the Dover coast. (Sorry, I fell asleep for a second.) Bourne's world is a more complicated one reflecting the true nature of people. Hawker isn't sure why he's loyal to Britain, he just is. Owl, his enemy counterpart, believes as completely in France. The difference between Justine and most French Loyalists is that she never changes her mind. What she is fighting for is the right of self determination. She is not blinded by the failings of an individual leader, her focus is on the goal of freedom for her nation. It's easy to see why Hawker doesn't hold that against her.

Bourne has a downright Walt Disney (the man, not the logo) gift for setting an atmosphere. When her characters are in France, they're in France right down to the smell of bread in the air. When they're in a cramped enclosure, you'll throw the blanket off your feet to take the squirms off. While The Black Hawk is a story fans have been calling for after every one of Bourne's books, readers have met Owl before. In The Forbidden Rose she makes her first appearance in Hawker's life. That appearance (as well as other events from his life) are revisited seamlessly in The Black Hawk. Never feeling like a rehash, several events we already know from his life are illuminated as we discover the details of hers. As with all Bourne's books, not every detail is answered. Some things, as we discovered in earlier books, are meant for later. There is more than enough here to satisfy, as two people who never had childhoods eventually find the way to their futures.

04 November, 2011

Review: Marzi by Marzena Sowa & Sylvain Savoia

This is one of my favorite graphic novels ever. I absolutely loved Marzi. With that said, let's get on to the complaining part of this review. I really don't understand what Vertigo is doing with this coloration. The military boots, the angry child, the bunny being ripped apart - this cover says Maus meets Poland. I expected the kid to spend time starving in a ditch, clubbed over the head by the military or something. Instead Marzi is a sunny (mostly) coming of age story filled with the tiny moments that define a child's life. I know a 7 year old that is reading it cover to cover and enjoying every second of it. Look at this alternate take. While the cover is still pretty combative, it's more inviting. This says Read Me, I Might Be Interesting. Vertigo's cover says Give To Unicef. Since Marzi never really spends any time with the military at all, I'm not sure what the point of having her surrounded by combat boots is. Yes, she grew up under communism, yes her father participated in the strikes, but this volume involves a lot of sunny days at the farm and laughs with her friends.

Savoia is a gifted graphic artist. Her ability to capture expression in spare lines is fantastic. Even in a black and white review version her art brings the story to a new level. While Sowa is telling her tale out of time (events don't happen in order) the art is consistent, allowing a reader to easily bridge the gaps. I know Marzi is going to get compared to Persepolis or Fun Home. This is lazy marketing. Marzi is closer to Yotsuba than it is to either of those works. (It's just like Fun Home, there is a lesbian involved! It's just like Persepolis, it's not in America!) Obviously, Marzi is not as lighthearted and absurdist as Yotsuba. I make the comparison to denigrate the other comparisons. It rings true. Early on there is a moment where Marzi complains of shopping for toilet paper. If you buy it, people will know you use it. People will be aware you have a toilet in your home! I know plenty of children who share this same sense of embarrassment. This is the real strength of Marzi - by taking the extraordinary events of her life (having to stand in line on toilet paper day) and mixing them into the universal experiences of many children, she makes it identifiable. This is a wonderful volume, and I hope more follow. Perhaps with happier covers.

31 October, 2011

Review: Until There Was You by Kristan Higgins

Take a good look at the dog. Check out the expression, the tilt of the paw. Does that look like a dog who believes this couple is going to make it? I have to disagree with him. while Posey (What!) and Liam have some seriously screwed up relationship dynamics, both of them lack the self esteem needed to expect more. I didn't dislike Until There Was You. I enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately I never really liked Posey or Liam so it was hard to root for them together. I found aspects of their resolution wildly unrealistic, with other parts incredibly predictable. (So predictable that when one plot point appeared to have gone in a different direction I wanted to cheer for the author's good judgement. Luckily, I'd misplaced my pom-pom.)

Posey works at her family's kitschy German diner when she's not working at her thriving salvage business or dropping by her secret boyfriend's house. In a family full of tall buxom blonde beauties (except for her gay Vietnamese brother) Posey is a short, slender (if she doesn't eat every few minutes she will pass out) dark haired waif. Because she is not her cousin, Posey hides in the background and takes everything to heart. While she allegedly found her spine one sordid night in high school, Posey doesn't use it very often. Her dream man has always been Liam Murphy. Never mind that Liam refuses to use her preferred name, never mind that Liam never looked at her twice, never mind that Liam was an architect of her teenage downfall, Liam is the man for her. Because he is hot and he was nice to a kitten once. Really, that's enough.

Pity poor Liam. He could have been an interesting character. He is an overprotective father, a widower, a victim of PTSD and OCD with the self esteem of a gnat. Women fall in his path and offer to disrobe at his every glance. He met his dream girl in high school, married her, lost her, and has returned home to raise their child. Despite this golden girl dating him, marrying him and having his child, Liam secretly thinks she might not have loved him. Because he is unloveable. Liam is a bit of a black hole when it comes to emotional need. (That's a theme here, Posey's best friend has a disturbing dynamic with her own adopted son.)

So. The return of Liam and the recognition of Posey. Except it's more like the return of the Liam and the any-port-in-a-storm of Posey. Fleeing the aggressive attention of other women, Liam is attracted to Posey's pretense of disinterest while Posey is just grateful to have sex with him. Liam rarely opens up to her, almost never meets her needs and generally acts like a guy who might be on the spectrum. Posey loans her hateful cousin cash, keeps her secrets from the family, lays herself out like a doormat for anyone to wipe their feet on, and endears herself to Liam's kid. You can see why the dog has a headache. Still, I did like Until There Was You. Lacking in surprises it may be, but it's a great comfort read for a cold day. Nothing happens that can't be solved by five minutes of conversation. (I mean that sincerely, all problems in the novel are ultimately resolved that way.) Unrealistic construction projects are executed, adoption issues are breezily overcome, orphaned children move on readily. There is no baby in the final chapter, at least not for Posey and Liam. In fact, Posey is far more stable than some other Higgins heroines I've read and no one is required to give up their day jobs. If you overlook some flaws, there's a lot to enjoy here.

26 October, 2011

Missed Sale: Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing By Judy Blume

This is a story of unavailability. I have probably purchased this book five times in my life, between my own childhood and the assigned reading needs of others in the family. I don't begrudge Blume her continued income from her work, she deserves it. So a sixth purchase wasn't the issue. In fact, the school loaned each child a copy of the book so if things had gone as planned, I wouldn't have needed to buy it at all.

When do things go as planned?

First, there was a scooter accident that left the kid assigned to read this book with two broken arms. Then there was a ridiculously mundane fall that left her parent with a broken leg. We needed an ebook and we needed it fast. The library only had an audiobook on offer. The teacher wasn't thrilled, but we were in negotiations. Unfortunately, the audiobook required a Windows computer to operate. After looking for the book on Kindle (no) or Sony Reader (no) or Nook (nuh-uh) a google search was performed for alternate vendors.

Guess how many "free" download options came up? You've got it. Over the weekend the child in question read a perfectly formatted (better than most I have purchased) copy of the assigned reading. The book was read on an iPad carefully propped up upon a pillow and pages were turned with the edge of a pinky. So why was I frustrated? I was frustrated because of the absurdity of the situation. Publishers are turning away income at a time they really need it. If an expertly formatted copy of the book can appear on "free" download sites, why can't it appear in stores?

24 October, 2011

Things Found In A 2nd Grader's Backpack

Things My Found In My 2nd Grader's Backpack by meoskop
 a photo by meoskop on Flickr.
This seems an appropriate photo for a brief lapse in reviewing. Since the household currently has three broken bones for two people, there will be a short recess. I'll be back as soon as the Vicodin wears off - it shouldn't be long. I only filled half the prescription.

19 October, 2011

Retro Review: The Prize by Brenda Joyce

God almighty I hated this book. It wasn't just my bitterness at the untimely end of the Francesca Cahill series, it was the blatant racism, the TSTL heroine and the right out of 1979 hero. There was just about nothing I liked going on. Don't believe me? Let's take a look back to October of 2004. (I'm here. It's okay. We can do this together.)

According to the enthusiastic foreword, Brenda Joyce has been convinced to return to writing the "kind of books her fans love" about times when "men were men". This requires that I be exceedingly bitter and retract everything I've said about Joyce growing into her talents. (If this new direction corrupts her Cahill novels I’m going to have to Take Action.)  Not only is The Prize a step (way) back to her early days of heroines loving men who abuse them, it’s filled with pointless mayhem, bewildering character motivations and out and out racism. 

The racism falls in the form of our heroine’s best, best, bestest friend, Tillie, the slave. (To my mind, this is always dangerous ground because the act of owning someone negates the open give and take of friendship, but I’m willing to allow for it.) Tillie’s husband is deeply concerned that the plantation is placed up for sale, and the slaves as well. Tillie is worried our heroine isn’t getting enough to eat at the expensive boarding school. (Tillie alternates between patois and proper speech, but she never does learn anything about birthing babies.) After our heroine COMPLETELY FORGETS the danger facing her best best friend Tillie for five long months, Tillie welcomes her back with open arms, concern for her well-being, and (by golly) a good meal. Later, when our heroine’s blatant idiocy has trapped them in a fire fight, with Tillie’s husband most likely dead, it’s our heroine who occupies Tillie's mind because that’s the kind of best friends they are. The kind where you have to protect this sheltered delusional nitwit or spend the rest of your life being raped and beaten by whoever owns you next while your children are god knows where. 

Don’t despair! Our heroine is about to fall hopelessly in love (for no apparent reason) with a cold, violent pirate driven to destroy her entire family. Ok, well, of course she tries to shoot him first, but then she freely offers him no strings sex because how can you NOT love a guy who is busy causing the death of countless others? And really, later you’ll find out it’s all because his baby sister was ‘killed’ and his father was beheaded by your uncle during an Irish uprising. It’s hardly his fault. I mean, his mother got over it, his brother got over it - someone had to be scarred for life!! Though his brother is in love with you, (apparently solely because you know how to let a guy bang you senseless and not even leave a buck on the pillow the next day) he is going to fight to help you save said cold thuggish pirate dude. Barely affected by learning of his six year affair with your aunt, whom you bravely comfort because you are Warm and Good, or of his tossing any skirt that walks by because it is Just Sex, (he totally gets by with the “I banged her and thought of you because she is nothing and you are virgin-like” crap) you offer yourself for misuse again and again against the day that - will it come? Could it come? Yes! One day he will stop trying to kill the man who killed his father and give their country estate to the son who tried to murder him and rape you so that the British will stop fighting the War of 1812 or something like that. Who the hell knows. Not Tillie - she’s too busy trying to keep off the auction block to figure your cracker asses out.

16 October, 2011

Review: All About Seduction by Katy Madison

Katy Madison has my complete attention. 

We're pretty much two for two here. It's interesting to see each generation of authors dust off and shake out the older stories. Katy Madison successfully went after the gothic with her last novel, Tainted By Temptation. This time around she's going with the pimping husband and a sidecar of Shanna.  (Lorraine Heath just took this one on as well, almost redeeming it in the process. Initially, I thought Katy Madison was failing hard in comparison. As All About Seduction continued, I realized she was taking a different but equally successful route to a new look at this tired tale.)

Madison moves her infertile husband and his socialite wife to the Victorian age, offering her more social mobility to work with. Instead of the standard convention of this plot line (the heroine being offered her true love on an adulterous platter) Caroline is faced with a house party of men to choose from. Madison steps away from fantasy to truthfully explore the horror of the heroine's situation. Caroline tries to seduce men as repellant to her as her spouse. Of course there is a man who interests her. Through her relationship with Jack, Caroline slowly reclaims her sexuality. (Jack gets one of the best lines in the book, debunking the 'magic pole' theory of restoring a woman's sexual interest.) After 15 years of rape, Caroline is hardly ready to get wild. Jack is one of her mill workers, saddled with the sort of dysfunctional family many will find relatable. His dreams of becoming a self made man crushed, Jack is willing to risk his own life to be with Caroline.

Despite a slow start, I enjoyed All About Seduction and expect Katy Madison to eventually find her way to my must buy list. With well constructed class differences and a truthful look at the repressed rage of the purchased bride, All About Seduction made good use of this unpopular plot. The ending is a bit neat,  yet Madison lays the groundwork well enough to render it plausible. In this she does surpass the Heath book's wedding-during-birth even as she falls just short in totality. How many authors can stand up to a direct contest to Lorraine Heath? (If I were Madison I'd take the second place with pride.) Of course, the self made ex-husband is a horrible person with a horrible past but it doesn't feel gratuitous. To drive Jack and Caroline to the place they need to be emotionally for this mismatched infidelity to occur, an extreme villain is required. Caroline's family is not as heartless as she assumes, simply distanced by a classic case of the mousy wife in the abuser's trap. Jack's family is weak in a way I personally recognize. They resent his desire to elevate himself from poverty even as they long to improve their own situations. It's an old story, told well here. 

I'm not sure what's next for Katy Madison but I'll show up to find out. Unless it's a harem novel. (Don't dust that one off, it's hopeless. Some plots can't really be redeemed.)