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.)

15 October, 2011

Review: Holy Terror by Frank Miller

I honestly can't believe the asking price on Holy Terror. MSRP is $29.99 and I don't think I'd buy it for a buck. Here's everything you need to know. "Stunning art can't save this reactionary rage tale lacking nuance or emotional engagement." Also? Phantom Menace had smoother dialogue. This is a propaganda piece in the worst sense of the word. By dehumanizing Al Qaeda's soldiers Miller wants the reader to be comfortable with their slaughter. This version of Al Qaeda is one without explanation. A Muslim's first sip of beer before blowing up a nightclub undermines even their zealotry. In Holy Terror's construct your choices are between murdering violent thugs on 'our' side and murdering violent thugs who are on 'their' side. There is little difference between the two. I have long been a fan of Miller's dramatic art style, his willingness to tackle dark, complex characters and his refusal to sanitize human motivation. Holy Terror is just bad. It fails on so many levels that I am disappointed in Miller for bringing it to market. This is a work that would have been better served sitting in a filing cabinet, unearthed postmortem to show how the author used art as a catharsis while his self editing eye recognized it's failure. Put to that purpose, Holy Terror could have enhanced Miller's legacy. Instead it serves as a disappointment to me and a cautionary tale to others. Without the self awareness he brought to the characters of Sin City or the pointed humor of Martha Washington, Miller offers a shallow work I'd expect to come from Iran's propaganda department. Here, read the Amazon version of this review.

"This one's bad kids, really bad. Visually, it's as stunning as Miller's best work but Holy Terror is an uninspiring fantasy lacking all nuance. While Al Qaeda retains it's name, New York turns into Empire City and the attacks come from deep within it's bowels. (Like a bad taco.) The wooden conversations appear inspired by 1950's serials (or the recent work of George Lucas), the villains ramble on to prove their lack of motivations or redemptions and our heros are too sadistically drawn to root for. Without the charm or self awareness of Sin City's denizens they slash and slaughter their way through the gossamer thin plot. In tone Holy Terror reminded me of an anti-semitic screed with a different ethnic focus. Miller is capable of much, much more than this. Had he put his rage aside, Miller could have offered the definitive book on terror and our need for those who fight it. Instead readers are treated to an outpouring of anger with a side of contempt. His therapy, our cash. The Batman clone is a man who orders Americans killed as easily as he does terrorists. He is somewhere past vigilante. If this were my first Miller book it would also be my last. I'd think, nice artist, too bad about the text. The art is fantastic. Miller's distinct style is put to excellent use in several panels, his anger fueled sketches of elected leaders as ineffective talking heads are among his best work. His signature three color art style is beautifully deployed throughout Holy Terror. Sadly, the story is abysmal. It's tedious, it's repetitive, it's predictable and it's ultimately unenjoyable. Bogged down by it's own strident fury, Holy Terror simply isn't worth owning." 

Frank, what happened to us? Remember in the 90's when it was all love letters and puppy baskets? I can defend your use of sexually aggressive impossibly proportioned women, I can defend the belief that "Sometimes standing up for your friends means killing a whole lot of people" but The Fixer is no Dwight.   I can't defend what is essentially hate speech, even if that hate has solid roots. To emotionally engage with The Fixer you have to accept that his way is the only way, that there is no future beyond slaughter, that sadistic torture and murder are a sane answer to horror. Evil is eternal. There will always be madmen with new and inventive ways to terrorize the innocent. What defines a people is their reaction to it, their recognition of what is and is not decent. There is no depth to The Fixer, no brighter day. His is a world of perpetual war, mutually assured destruction. It's also really boring. 

13 October, 2011

Retro Review: Shadowheart by Laura Kinsale

This one I should probably revisit. In 2004 I absolutely hated it. the market has changed dramatically, the book has recently been reissued (with a weird angry druid cover) and people adore it. In the theme of not changing it up much - here was my take on it's initial release.

If you disapprove of Romance as a genre, you have definitely entered the wrong blog. If you’re not that into homoerotic vampire novels - sit right down. Pop quiz, how many authors have been ruined by the cash cow that was Lestat? I have at least six in my personal bag of regrets. There’s nothing like unexpectedly seeing a new book by a favorite author and then finding out it’s likely to be painfully bad. (I just thought of three more. I have to stop. It’s just - I can’t. I’m sorry, but no. Too painful.)

Laura Kinsale is back after beating writer’s block into submission and she’s got something out that I think is called Shadowheart, but I could be wrong. It’s something heart and likely you don’t care anyway. It’s got one of the greatest opening lines EVER - even better than Lessa being cold - “On plow monday, all the chickens died.” I’m going to start saying that to people randomly. I might want it for a bumper sticker.  I’m picturing saying it to my brother with a very somber intonation just to hear him say “WTF?” in that special sibling way. I can't decide if I hated Shadowheart or loved it - Kinsale took the assassin from one of her early books and converted him to hero. This isn't something I recall seeing much. (Lass Small crashed and burned in the very early 90's, late 80's  with one where she took an abusive ex from a prior book and tried to bring him round) Anyway, pretty standard lost princess and the beast thing but Kinsale decides to mix it up with the beast actually being a beast (no redemption there to be had) and the princess being (unexpectedly) into mild pain and dominance games.

"I'm sorry, what?" 

The thing is it totally worked in the context of the story. Characterization was tight, sense of place was strong, the... see, here's where we go back to "I'm sorry, what?" The princess comes to realize she can love the sociopathic killer and hurt him too, all while bringing peace and modern democracy to her feudal kingdom. Is that a new face of exploration in romance? Are we freeing the "I like it when you hurt me" crowd from their standard roles as discarded mistresses? Does it show he's not sociopathic that he goes all weak in the knees for her Alpha Chick routine? I was like, why did we go here and should we, maybe, you know, leave?

And yet I didn’t. I wonder if this is the new Lestat or if I’ll be using it as an obscure reference to someone else’s book in a decade or so?

12 October, 2011

Review: Bad Boys Do by Victoria Dahl

I've been wanting to talk about this book for a few weeks but I haven't felt very tolerant. The problem of my intolerance has not been for Dahl's excellent book, but for readers of this review. There are things I am very tired of reading that I know others are not. If I say "I am so freaking sick of the man whores already" then I will be approached by the man whore defender. If I say "I have had it to about here with the mousy introvert" the same thing will happen. But I have, I've had it with both of them. Yet I loved Bad Boys Do.

Dahl has done something great with power dynamics in this book. Making our man whore (Jamie) the younger member of the partnership and our mousy introvert (Olivia) the elder, she has shifted the balance just enough for me to be interested. As Bad Boys Do progresses, it becomes obvious that Dahl is upending a few more apple carts. Because Jamie is sexually attractive and works in a bar, no one thinks twice about exploiting him. From women grabbing at his kilt (manskirts are another thing I hate) to his sister pimping him out to draw crowds, everyone expects Jamie to enjoy the attention. What else is he for? Having been told he's a plaything without substance, Jamie is perfectly primed for a sexual predator to take advantage of him.

That's not Olivia. I found Olivia far less interesting. I don't care about her recapturing her power after shaking off domineering parents and an older spouse. I am not that compelled by her as a heroine. She is interesting (for me) only as a catalyst for Jamie's personal growth. It's Olivia who, in the guise of an empowered heroine, further exploits Jamie. Her belief that they are exchanging her professional expertise for his sexual services further erodes Jamie's self confidence. The heat meter in a Dahl book is fairly elevated. She's not an erotica writer, but her characters use sex to further their relationship. I was sorry when they fell into bed (or the hot tub or...) because I didn't want to skim ahead but I so completely don't care about the physicality of the characters relationship that I didn't want to read on either. (I felt a little bit like Jamie.)

Olivia has a realistic and well detailed experience of personal growth but my impatience with her Mouse That Roared backstory kept me from really rooting for her. I don't know why Jamie couldn't find his way to his self worth with someone more personally assured. While the power dynamic was interesting, the required building up of Olivia undermined the emotional components for me. Jamie has to do some pretty heavy lifting in this book. Not only must he disprove the tired belief that men are always up for it, that an endless stream of women is a dream come true, but he also has to be the one who lifts the mouse out of her hiding place. Jamie had it coming from all sides, no one really believes in him but Olivia, a woman he has to help believe in herself. No wonder he breaks.

As in the first volume, Good Girls Don't, the family dynamics are spot on. The unspoken regrets, the emotional assumptions, the burdens of roleplaying - all are expertly depicted in the Donovan siblings relationships. Where I frequently lost patience with Tessa, the compulsive liar and pleaser, (in book one) she shines here. The time table is a bit frantic (Bad Boys Do takes places almost immediately on the heels of Good Girl's Don't) yet her evolution holds together. For me the strength of this series has been the family relationships. I can easily see Victoria Dahl having a Nora Roberts like career on the basis of those alone. After all, I'm coming back for Real Men Will in which the heroine owns a sex shop. A skimmer of sex scenes has no business in a book with that setting, yet there I will be. (Is the sex shop the new toy store? Will all future quirky young business women stock fetish wear instead of trains? Should I even talk about trains and sex shops in the same parenthetical? Probably not.)

03 October, 2011

Apples To Apples: Taking The Sony Reader Off The Table

I'm not going to even talk about the Sony Tablet or the T series reader. I'm going to completely change my prior stance (that Sony is the elegant reader while Kindle is the clunky cousin). I still believe Sony offers a nicer design (so does Amazon, they appropriated it for their new line) and I prefer the versatility of vendors e-pub offers. These things haven't changed. Moves by both companies in the last few weeks changed my buying habits.

Amazon kills Sony at customer service. It's not even close. My aunt's year old refurbished Kindle broke. Amazon's response was to replace her unit with a brand new one. My daughter's three month old Sony PRS-350 had the stylus tip snap. Sony's response was to completely ignore her. We contacted three different customer service points with the issue and only one answered. That one directed us back to the other two non responsive contact points. After three weeks, I went searching and found I could order the replacement stylus (a small thin piece of plastic) for almost 70 USD. Seriously. Over 65 bucks. The unit was 90. We're using a Nintendo DS stylus that Nintendo sent me for free as a thank you for my loyal patronage. Sony didn't respond to an issue we had with her Bloggie camera either. Sony and I have to break up now. I have options, I don't need Sony telling me otherwise.

I sent the PRS-505 to a new home, told the family to use the PRS-350 until it breaks and began carrying the Kindle With Keyboard. Kindle has changed their software to support an easier method for building collections. If they ever tweak the software to allow me to partition my accounts or give me parental controls on the Kindle's abilities to download & view prior purchases, I will be buying three Kindles the next day. Having moved closer to Sony's design sense, Amazon has paired their better service experience with a better visual for their devices. Then they added library support directly to your device. One more tweak and I will take one of each of the above. Ozy and I still hang out together - he flows a PDF with more flair than Amazon (though they're trying). It's the K3 in my handbag, and soon in the backpacks as well.

It's not me, Sony. It was you. And your stylus.

02 October, 2011

Postponed Review: Lord & Lady Spy by Shana Galen

Shana Galen, she's my popcorn girl. She's my reliable not sure what I want tonight read. I just can't get behind this one. Other reviewers love Lord And Lady Spy. They love it so much that even though I can't finish it myself I bought a copy for my aunt. I am possibly the only reader that will ever dislike it. We're discussing Lord And Lady Spy not to refute those reviewers, but to think about Authorial Choice.

Recently Dear Author has seen a few discussions evolve that are (at their core) about Authorial Choice and the reader's willingness to accept that choice or not. Authors have weighed in with mixed results. I've become interested in authors I never would have considered. Authors in my TBR pile shifted to my Do Not Buy list. Authorial Choice is about taste. You can't tell a reader they must like something. You cannot counter a lack of enjoyment with a lecture on historical plausibility.

Which brings us to Lord And Lady Spy. Historical plausibility is pretty much out the window on this one, leaving the reader with the choice to enjoy or not enjoy. Taking the Mr. And Mrs. Smith concept back to Romanceland, Shana Galen sets up an interesting conflict with two spies cut loose from their assignments. Married, yet blind to their shared profession, the challenge is to transfer the attention and thrill that espionage gave them into their life together. Add in emotional distance caused by a miscarriage and Galen has given herself plenty to work with.

Fairly early there is a scene that will be familiar to many - an afternoon with the in-laws. Sophia is stuck entertaining her husband's family, people she doesn't particularly like. (Many women can relate to that dynamic.) Through a series of events the family assumes Sophia is pregnant. When Adrian returns home this is the news that greets him. Sophia does not correct this misinformation and here I make the Reader's Choice to hate her. My exact thought was "What a vicious selfish bitch." I no longer care what Sophia has or has not had happen to her, I no longer care what will or won't evolve for her, I just hate her.  Adrian now believes his wife has been unfaithful, Adrian's family now believes an heir could be on the way and Sophia stands silent. Why should she correct what she never claimed, she thinks. Why should she have to? Why wouldn't Adrian simply know it to be untrue? She wraps herself tightly in her passive aggressive victimhood and stalks out. I want her to get hit by a carriage, die quickly, and clear the path for a heroine to take the stage.

This is an example of a completely valid choice by the author meeting the equally valid choice of a reader. It may be utterly necessary for Sophia to carry her injured pride forward, it may be necessary for Adrian to believe she's slept about. I don't care. I don't want to have him in pain, reacting against her or choosing to forgive her when all she had to do was utter three small words. "It's not true." By keeping her mouth shut she's unleashing emotional pain on herself and those around her. I don't care why she does it. I can't overcome the action. If the hero ultimately forgives, I won't. As a reader, I was unable to set that aside. A book succeeds when it carries a reader past those stumbling blocks, when the author's choices are presented in a way that overcomes the reader objection. For one reader, the heroine should never sleep with her brother. For another reader, the heroine can't be a sexual puppet without repercussions. For this reader, once I think your heroine is a vicious selfish bitch, it's hard to stay with her. Sophia's silence is completely plausible, it's historically accurate and it may be a good choice by Shana Galen for the plot she's crafting. Many other readers had no difficulty with it at all. Sophia and I, we had to break up over it. Amazon is selling it for 90% off for a limited time - for 79 cents you can see how you feel. (I don't mind having paid full price, I try to buy my go-to authors on release day as a show of support.)