26 July, 2011

Review: The Real Duchesses of London by Lavina Kent

 You know that Alanis Morissette song? The one you never liked but they played forever? The one that made "going down on him in a theater" sound like an even worse idea than it did before? (Honestly, did you hear her wail about public sex as anything but a mark of her desperation?) It's back and it's moved to London. I won't tell you which book it takes place in, but given that the other trots out the equally tired canard of the heroine only being able to relax enough for orgasm if she's bound to the bed, I am a bit afraid what book three will bring. Would a long series be forced to explore autoerotic asphyxiation?

That's my hesitation with The Real Duchesses of London. The premise of novellas based on the love lives and cat fights of a group of women is delightful. In fact, an episode in Linnette, The Lioness is one of the best scenes I've read in ages. The romantic conflicts are equally satisfying. The concept of their fame is a bit underdeveloped, I could see them having more street recognition, but still very engaging. For the price, they're a good length as well. Much as I enjoyed them, the sex seemed a bit forced by the end of Episode 2, as though part of the formula is for each heroine to have her own sex twist. I'd rather have cut half the sex and doubled up on the cat fights. Reading about one of the heroines being proud of her accomplishment (ie, swallowing) made me roll my eyes. That may just be me but if it's you too, be aware.

All of that said, I'd still recommend both. I did enjoy the twisted tale of friendship between the women and would have bought the third book immediately upon closing the second. While not perfectly sublime reads, they are original and fun. A great length for a lunchtime read and a good introduction to the author. In episode one, Kathryn is dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage and her husband's loss of sexual interest since the event. For Lavinia, the problem is one of emotional interest. The return of her childhood love leaves her wondering if trust can be renewed.

For romance, I'd give the nod to Episode One. For catty enjoyment, I'd have to go with Episode Two. Either way, I don't think you'll go far wrong. (Just skip the theater that night, because at least one of them Oughta Know)

25 July, 2011

Review: My Father At 100 by Ron Reagan

I love this book. Flat out love it.

Let's get the politics out of the way first. I was not a fan of Reagan as a President. I think a large part of our failing economic situation today is a direct result of his True Believers perpetuation of ill conceived faith based economic policies. When he talked about his America I wanted to drag him to my America for a session of Compare And Contrast. This made my interest in reading My Father At 100 pretty darn low. (On the other hand, I respect the hell out of Ron Reagan. Your father is the most revered conservative icon since ever and you've consistently got the fortitude to calmly say "Well, I don't agree.") Back to my point - the cover of this book does not say Portrait Of An Icon it says My Father At 100. I've never respected the former president more than I did at the close of Ron's ruminations on his father's life.

Partly a biographical sketch, partly an examination of the father and son dynamic, partly a love letter, My Father At 100 isn't shy about saying "Well, I don't agree." Ron leaves the myth making behind yet - through his detailed examinations of his father's flaws - the strengths are exposed. Reagan was a diplomatic man. He did not encourage the level of hostility his worshippers have embraced. He was a man with a vision and the determination to see it through, even if that vision was hopelessly rose colored. Reagan was a man who strove to overcome his own limitations through hard work. If 99% of success is just showing up prepared, his move into politics becomes less surprising.

Ron explores his father's childhood, Ron Sr's troubled relationship with his own father and their strong family values. The picture that emerges is of an imperfect man that I simply didn't agree with. Ron's father being an iconic American is secondary to the man that Ron reveals, a man I might have liked to sit and talk with about things not related to Communism or Economic Policy. Ron Jr and Sr could not have been farther apart. Born of different generations, inclined toward different politics, one a cynic and the other a pie in the sky idealist, the two men are held together by a core honesty, a willingness to speak their minds. My Father At 100 was truly a rewarding read.

23 July, 2011

In Which Baby Moves On

# 6 and I by meoskop

When you travel, any number of unexpected events will take place. I regret to inform you that Baby and I have had a parting of the ways. I decided to take both the Sony PRS-350 and Baby, the Sony 505 on the road. (Ozy stayed home. It was better that way.) Baby and I have spent a lot of time together. We've been in hospitals, we've been stuck overnight at airport gates, we've even hung out on the beach. None of this was Baby's fault. 

If we're honest, it was all about the touch. 
Ozy (the iPad) has me used to instant response. I don't have to coax him, there's no waiting for the menus to align or the time to be right. Ozy is ready to go when I am. Baby's older. You know how it is, he needs to psych himself up before he can perform. Just checking his SD card takes a few minutes. I don't judge. PRS-350 may not have as responsive a touch as Ozy, but touch it has. I learned it takes a different stroke to get the response I was looking for. We can work with that.
Once I figured out the PRS-350's personal kinks there was no going back. The stylus was simple to use for on the go note taking or file annotation, the touch screen felt far more natural after using an iPad, the weight was considerably less awkward to hold. PRS-350 and I are together now.

I'm afraid Baby didn't take it well - we had an incident involving multiple rebootings, but I think he's recovered. It's not like I sent him into the cold, just into my tween's backpack. He's living the high life of YA fiction these days and even dipping into the occasional emerging reader title. (His new owner has to share with others.) While the PRS-350 is sharper screen and a lighter hold than an iPad, I am still using Ozy for my primary needs. The PRS-350 has a long lag time when deleting notes or bookmarks, and the touch screen occasionally requires multiple swipes. Overall, I still feel Sony has the best dedicated e-reader on the market, even if they seem determined to throw that market away. So, PRS-350 has a permanent place in my handbag and a new piece of my heart. One day I might even figure his name out. PRS-350 seems too formal, like a bad Spielberg college film. 

*If you're wondering, the above was taken with a very cheap Nikon in the late summer afternoon at Stockholm's Tivoli Grona Lund. It's views are amazing.

22 July, 2011

Review: Waking Up With The Duke by Lorraine Heath

* Note, Waking Up With The Duke will feel cluttered with characters if the reader hasn't read the prior books in the series. I think you can read Pleasures of a Notorious Gentleman as a stand alone, and it would enhance Waking Up With The Duke.

My biggest disappointment with Waking Up With The Duke is the resolution of Ainsley's mother's relationship. I really think she could have carried a full book of her own. Granted, the 48 (ish) year old heroine isn't a big market but so much of her history was left unexplored that I think it would have been accepted. Sad faces aside, there is a lot to love in Waking Up With The Duke.

Heath starts by giving Ainsley, the brother who always does the right thing, a personal tragedy. In a drunken driving episode he has crippled his cousin and close friend. In the ensuing emotional aftermath, his cousin's wife Jayne lost her child. These are events neither Jayne nor Ainsley can forgive him for even three years later. From here, Heath takes one of my least favorite romance plots and turns it inside out. Jayne's husband wants Ainsley to knock Jayne up. Cause, you know, cousins is close enough for horseshoes in the inheritance game.

I've always hated the husband as pimp plot. Ten or twenty years ago it wouldn't have involved a DUI but a gay spouse. It wouldn't have been cousins, it would have been brothers. Heath takes some of the ick factor out of this tried and true situation by changing those small details first. Then she addresses the issues of consent and coercion as it applies to all parties, offering a look at the emotional costs of sperm donation via a month of sex. I respect the sympathy she makes the reader feel for all parties involved - but I was regretful that Ainsley is let off the hook toward the end. Also, Jayne's belief that holding a child is the most magical of magical moments needed a sharp reality smack later in the book which does not arrive. (As women writing for women why can't we also show that motherhood is not always easy, even with wanted children or good mothers. Birth is not a short track to bliss. Bonding is not always instant, birth pains are not so quickly dismissed, especially before the epidural.)

Heath delivers a high angst level as Jayne and Ainsley ricochet between the emotional blows they deliver to themselves as well as those delivered by her husband. Toward the end of the book Ainsley's mother is forced to choose between her own lost love and her mysterious younger lover. Unfortunately most of her resolution takes place away from the reader - Leo's background is not revealed nor is the triangle properly dismantled. Through this series I have found the emotional honesty of Ainsley's mother sometimes more compelling than that of her sons. It is she I am most sorry to say goodbye to, as much as I loved the individual books.

19 July, 2011

Review: The Taming of the Rake by Kasey Michaels

Kasey Michaels can be hit or miss for me. (I'd say it's about a 70% success rate.) This new series, The Blackthorn Brothers, starts off strong. The Taming of the Rake sets up the series premise - three brothers raised in the aristocracy as the bastard sons of their father and his wife's sister. The boys are raised in their father's household with warmth and all the care given legitimate children. Regrettably, this has lead Beau Blackthorn to think his bastard status won't matter to the Lady Madelyne. He is very wrong.

Fast forward a number of years and Madelyne's sister, Chelsea, needs a husband fast. Her brother has fallen under the spell of a religious zealot and her sister is too involved in her own life to care. Chelsea sees Beau Blackthorn as her escape from marriage to her brother's spiritual leader. Being the direct sort, she walks right into his house and demands they elope. Problem is, Beau hasn't seen her since he was rejected by her sister. Chelsea, not being the sort to take no for an answer, soon has him on the road and headed for the altar.

Most of the action in The Taming of the Rake takes place as they hurtle from one destination to another, with events repeatedly redirecting them. Chelsea isn't terribly likeable, but if you accept that she is supposed to be a bit of a shrew (and much better than Madelyne) it's easy to warm to her. The set up for the brother's background is as original as the relationships between Chelsea's family members. I found The Taming of the Rake an enjoyable and light read that left me interested in the next two books. Unfortunately a secret hinted at in the close of The Taming of the Rake leaves me concerned. The premise of these men as bastards and the relationship between their parents is unique. I'm afraid there will be a last minute reveal of their legitimacy, some sort of being thought a bastard builds character moment that will undermine it all. I hope I'm wrong. This was a breezy read and a solid start to the trilogy. If you like Kasey Michaels at least as often as I do, it's worth checking out.

17 July, 2011

Review: Evil Genius by Patricia Rice

I don't like this cover. I don't like it a lot. To me it sort of says late 80's sexcapade, something by Jackie Collins or Harold Robbins.

The top is fine, and if the bottom of the book was a solid color it might work, but the girl throws it right in the hopper for me. Someone stop her before she plucks again - that eyebrow is barely hanging on. I'm thinking the brow issue might explain why she's holding a hank of hair in front of her face. Try and get your hair to sit like that without assisting it. Go ahead, I'll wait. I mean, if it's long enough. Right, it doesn't. That's got to tickle the nose and fatigue the elbow. But whatever, it's the contents that count.

I wanted to love Evil Genius but it made me like it. The price point is fantastic, it's a comfortable amount to pay for a read and the book itself delivers more than that in value. My quibbles were stylistic and quibbley. (Is quibbley a word? It totally should be. I'm inventing it right now if it isn't.) Evil Genius is mostly in the first person. Every so often we take a quick trip to the third person to see what's motivating our heroine's sister, the Evil Genius in question. That would be fine if we needed to know what EG is up to, but we largely don't. If the reader had the same lack of knowledge about EG's actions as the heroine does the story wouldn't suffer. Because of that the effect is like a commercial interruption in the middle of your favorite show. It doesn't matter if the commercial is entertaining, it's not the main event. My other quibbley point involves Ana herself. She's two girls in one. Ana is a mild introvert with a bit of a complex about her parents, and Ana is also Angelina Jolie on an endorphin high. It doesn't really work for me that this kick ass confident chick is also this insecure hermit. Yes, she shows her kick ass bona fides off early in the book so they are not a complete surprise, but they still don't sit comfortably on her shoulders. The conceit is that their mother, Magda, has raised all of them to be unique and powerful individuals through a system of benign neglect. I could never really buy into it.

All of those quibbly quibbles being set aside, Evil Genius was a very enjoyable read. There are some great moments in Evil Genius (same kind of car as your daddy, bitch) and some red herrings (Sean) coupled with a nice mix of high and low stakes mysteries. A little more resolution for The Man In The Attic would have made the book an even stronger read. (He's the Charlie to her Angel). I actually did find I liked Evil Genius enough to hope for a sequel. The short synopsis might go something like:

Ana, a kick ass heroine who dreams of being a quiet mouse, finds her cover of domesticity blown when her young sister arrives at the door. When EG is followed by another of their many siblings Ana realizes it's time to reclaim her ancestral home. Unfortunately, it's already been claimed by a mysterious man with little interest in her family problems. Ana must solve the murder of a Senator's aide, uncover a money laundering cartel and still get her sister to school on time. Can she do it all and still get dinner? Only with the help of her friends. 

Or something. I dunno. I don't write book blurbs. I just say cranky or fawning things about books. It's so hard when a book is just sitting there being a good read. What do you do with a good read? I guess you just buy it and move on.

14 July, 2011

Review: For I Have Sinned by Darynda Jones

Hey, did you know you can get this short for free?

Neither did I. I'm going to blame jet lag. If you can find it gratis, go pick it up. For I Have Sinned is sort of like Julia Quinn's epilogues - much better if you've read the book and super short. The paid version comes with three excerpts (one for each book in the series) so if your only option is paying the buck I should tell you the file size is deceptive. This story runs about 30 pages.

But I liked it, you could like it too. I'd buy another, so there you go. I love the art style they've chosen for this series. It's strong, it's visual, it's chick lit without the cloying artificial aftertaste. I appreciate a well designed cover almost as much as a terrible one. (There's a book coming out in August with a cover that makes me think "first anal experience" instead of "historical wallpaper". You'll know it when you see it, trust me.)  So, nice visual. Alright - can we move on to the spoilers now?

The story itself is scant but engaging. A woman finds herself in Charley's room (You may recall Charley is The Grim Reaper. The. Singular. That's the story they are sticking with, one girl for all the dead of the world.) so there's no question that our narrator is dead. The dilemma is how did she die and why? Here is where the spoilers come in. No really, they do. Stop reading this, go read For I Have Sinned and then come back or something. It's thirty pages. I can't help but give away the entire plot if we talk about it.

I hate it when you make me hurt you. Fine, but don't cry about it later. I told you there would be spoilers and spoilers there now are. Our heroine has died of juvvie diabetes. I LOVE THAT. Type 1 diabetes is a nasty piece of work. It's not Wilford Whatshisname on television explaining how the government can pay to send supplies to your home, it's continual slow damage to a kid's entire body. It's a nasty vicious beast. Having her die of such a common cause is a nice change of pace from psychos in car accidents. What isn't a nice change of pace is Baby Fever. Jane Austen, were she writing today, would probably have something pithy to say about babies and romances. "It is commonly believed that a story in need of extending..." or something like that. Whatever, I'm not Austen. Look! It's a baby! Who can hate a baby???

I'm getting to the point where a baby in a short story or an epilogue makes me adopt the slow clap tone of voice "Oh. A baby. I hoped there would be a baby. This story really needed... a baby." Can't people just buy a puppy? Puppies are cute. Who can hate a puppy?

12 July, 2011

A Month In Books

I spent the past four weeks traveling by various methods, completely unconnected. No phone, no iPad, no laptop, just a number of books and a lot of sightseeing. 

I had preloaded a number of reviews for this blog, but I thought it might interest you to see what three weeks of reading looks like for me. In addition to magazines, I read the following. I won't review all of these, as I don't review everything. 

The Sony PRS-350 really outperformed the Sony 505 on the road. I think Baby's getting kicked to the curb. You'll have to forgive the lack of formatting, I'm still unpacking.


11 July, 2011

Review: The Girl's Guide to Homelessness by Brianna Karp

I wanted to like this book. Actually, I wanted to love this book. Sadly, Brianna Karp has done the unforgivable with The Girl's Guide to Homelessness. She has forced me to defend Fox News.

"Baby, you can't watch this. This is Fox News. It's not real news. No wonder " Duh. I grabbed the remote from his hand before he could hurl it in Nancy Grace's monologuing face. "How about we try a little CNN?" - Brianna Karp, TGGTH, 2011.

The most obvious problem is that Nancy Grace is not an employee of Fox News. If Nancy Grace is speaking, they are already watching CNN. The second is her tone. Her lover is making an error in his ignorance that she can make all better through her higher knowledge. Except she's wrong. So she's adopting this arch silly boy my culture let me show you it pose on a topic she knows nothing about. This isn't a small error of fact, this is proof of fiction. I don't doubt she and her lover watch television news.  I do doubt the truth of Brianna Karp's presentation of her life. She is simply too victimized and too noble and too good and those around her are too flawed and too evil and too everything else. As we used to say on the playground, "Get off the cross. We need the wood."

Karp takes pains to show how much better she is than every single soul she knows. When her trailer is towed after a written warning, she is not at fault. She had a verbal statement from the local manager that the written warning was simply corporate's posturing. Nothing to worry about! The little boss has said the big boss is all smoke! When her lover has a child with another woman, that woman is at fault for improper planning. When she has her own unplanned pregnancy*, the other woman is still at fault for manipulating her lover through their now present child. If only her lover had listened to her it would all be different! She knew what a problem that woman would be! (Insert her diatribe on how women don't appreciate men after they give birth and the good men she's seen wronged by crazy hormonal new mothers as a result. Oh yea, she goes there.) Her unemployed, cheating, unmedicated lover was just too sweet to see it. Wait a few pages though, he turns into a heartless monster who leaves her to die in the snow. Better to freeze than disbelieve, I suppose.

Karp starts off strong, but what begins as a journey into housing uncertainty (even she agrees she is not fully homeless) becomes a long list of ways she has done everything right only to be cruelly betrayed. This is a personality type I am more than a bit familiar with, so here Karp sets my BS meter off again. For example, the reader is supposed to believe that she is doing everything she can to change her situation, but Karp continually redirects money into nonessential areas.  She also prides herself on not using programs meant to assist her into stable housing, because those are for people that need help, not people like herself. (Yet she's willing to pursue Walmart for money after her illegally parked trailer is legally removed from their property. Go figure. She is absolutely one of those 'it's the principle of the thing' types.)

I felt tired after spending time with Karp. While the problem of homelessness and housing uncertainty is very real in America, Brianna Karp doesn't offer much to the reader's understanding of either. I believe a memoir from the other people in her life would illustrate a very different tale of a young life going wrong, and for that she has my compassion. What she doesn't have is my endorsement. If her goal was to change one person, she's changed me. I have often tried to explain my mother's propensity for hoarding with the line "She probably has the wrappers from her first trip to McDonald's." Now that Karp has used a similar phrase I will have to move on. I never want to be accused of lifting from her material.

*I find a great deal about this unplanned pregnancy and the subsequent loss of her child troubling. If true, she shows herself to be a deeply damaged woman. If not true, she shows herself to be the same. No matter which way the reader decides the truth lies, the result is a fervent hope that no child is placed in her care. It is an uncomfortable judgement to make about a stranger, but it is an extraordinary series of events the reader is asked to accept.

08 July, 2011

Review: BBC History Magazine

 But wait, you might be saying, this is not a book. It's not even an e-book. You're right. I can't deny that BBC History Magazine is, by it's own admission, not a book. It occurred to me that some readers may not be aware of this really outstanding publication. It seems like a lot for the American reader to spend on a magazine, I know. I take advantage of the Christmas subscription rates. December often brings a sharp reduction. (The normal digital price hovers around $7 USD, the paper issue around $8 USD.)

Yet this is one of the very few things I still purchase in paper format. Without fail, without question, without blinking at price fluctuations when I did not have a subscription. For the price of an Agency paperback I get hours more of enjoyment. I listen to the podcast as well, but never before reading the issue cover to cover. Sometimes, rarely, I disagree with BBC History utterly. Challenged on an article referring to Native Americans as 'Indians' the Letter Column asserted that 'Indian' was the correct (indeed preferred) American term even citing the Bureau of Indian Affairs as proof. Let's just say it's not as simplistic as it was made out to be.

Those sort of quibbles aside, BBC History consistently offers excellent and engaging history made completely accessible. Want to know what the streets of Tudor London smelled like? They've got you covered, right down to why it was bad but better than the Seine. Wondering if the Roman Occupation was all that? Britannia has a defender in BBC History. If I had to give up an expenditure in my entertainment budget, this magazine would be one of the very last items to go. We don't have an American magazine of this caliber, obsessed as we are with WW2 and the Civil War. A magazine that would delve into King Philip's War or the Trouble With Trumans? Not easy to find, and often slanted to a certain political point of view to boot.

If you've a magazine of the same quality as BBC History, please recommend it to me. If you've never checked out BBC History hit their website up to sample the wares.

03 July, 2011

Review: It Happened One Season by Mary Balogh, Stephanie Laurens, Candice Hern, Jacquie D'Alessandro

Anthologies don't get much respect. I've read some fantastic shorts, (Edith Layton and gingerbread, oh my god. I don't remember the story but the gingerbread and his aversion to it was so evocative that it's never left me.) some not so fantastic shorts and some dogs. I'm still attracted to them. I want this to be awesome, because the premise is awesome, but it's not. It Happened One Season is made of average. It's not bad, none of the stories caused me to storm off in a huff. It's not great, there's no gingerbread moment here.

I think the story that might stay with me belongs to Candice Hern, but for the wrong reasons. She's done one of my favorite things - the Regency Heroine With A Disability - but she's done it with some tedium. Phillippa has a pronounced limp and Nat has PTSD from the war. The problem is that Phillippa is perfect. Patient, understanding, gracious, pretty, it goes on and on. She's also disabled and that is her only interesting personality point. Her disability is mentioned, dwelled on, discussed, reiterated, it's a giant neon sign in the reader's face that obscures all else about this couple. I give Hern huge points for it, but by the time they dance awkwardly to the cheers of society I was ready to break Phillippa's other hip.

Stephanie Laurens is turning out some great shorts. (I'm not into her full length books of late so it confuses me.) Here she has hit another triple, if not a full home run.  Jacquie D'Alessandro gets a little complicated. Her hero feels responsible for the death of her heroine's brother while the heroine, Penelope, has lost her position as a governess due to an affinity for classical sculpture. While the tale of a women trying to survive on the fringe is welcome, Penny gives it up in about half a second when Alec sweeps in to rescue her. From there it's Alec's weird guilt, let him allude to it and Penny's independence, let her abdicate it. I thought it was going to be epic but D'Alessandro blinks. Alec isn't going to be relating a friendly fire incident in these few pages. (It's good but not great.) Mary Balogh brings her usual style with a damaged widow and the impatient soldier who fell for her on a battlefield far away. Theirs was the most satisfying on the romance front, but it's a familiar path for Balogh and it felt a bit familiar. Overall, I wouldn't go Agency pricing for this one. Anthologies trade for pennies after a few months, It Happened One Season is unlikely to be an exception.