25 December, 2012

Review: A Kiss For Midwinter by Courtney Milan

Merry Freaking Christmas, indeed.

In what shocks no one ever (assuming they read my reviews) A Kiss for Midwinter gets high marks from me. I love what Milan does with the emotional life of her characters. In this case she's taken a character that bored me silly in The Duchess War and reinvented her as a fascinating person. Lydia is one of those determinedly happy people. All the glasses are half full all the time and if they're not she'll figure out a way to use shorter tumblers. She's fond of everyone, looking as she does on their brighter side. Everyone but Jonas. When Lydia looks at him she can't maintain her facade of blithe cheer. Jonas knows a bit more about Lydia than she's comfortable with.

Jonas I loved from the beginning. He's the gruff medical character that ends up (eventually, not in this novella, but traditionally) grumbling about his bum leg as he's pulled from his bed in the wee hours to attend yet another odd medical crisis at the local estate. This is that guy, 40 or so years earlier. From the moment he tells Lydia she's the eleventh best looking girl in town I knew who he was. (I know a Jonas or two and that's how their brains work.) He wants a wife and he wants that wife to be Lydia. He needs her determined cheer and her ability to draw a gauze curtain over life's harsher realities. Jonas is a man who faces reality too clearly, too often. A touch of whimsy would serve him well.

For most authors, telling you all of this would spoil the novella. For Milan, that's just the opening pages.  Learning why Lydia avoids Jonas, watching Jonas teach Lydia that his opinion of her is not the one she made up in her head, all these things, are still ahead of you. Milan packs enough detail into her leads for a full length novel. Adding in a subtle (and very holiday appropriate) theme about the transient nature of established traditions, Milan brings Christmas in as more than just a seasonal setting. Times are changing in Victorian England. They're changing what people do and how people think. For Lydia the challenge is to stop acting happy long enough to really be happy. For Jonas, it's to accept (as every doctor must) that some things are beyond his ability to repair.

23 December, 2012

Review: Deck The Halls With Love by Lorraine Heath

I think Lorraine Heath and I just broke up.

There's nothing seriously wrong in Deck The Halls With Love. The hero was once interested in the heroine but stopped chatting her up because he felt obligated to make an offer of marriage to someone else. He's free, she's not, can these crazy kids get back together? Of course they can. Deck The Halls With Love is a classic novella in the sense that you know exactly what's going to happen. Storms lead to shelter which lead to sexy times which leads to... You've read this before, except you haven't.

It's a shame, because the bones of Deck The Halls With Love are good. If the heroine was engaged to an interesting man instead of a transparent (and rarely seen) fortune hunter then we could have had a book. As it is, the hero was really into her but honor demanded he marry another (who called off the wedding) and now he wants her to call off a wedding she's not really that into. Even then, we could have had a book if anyone truly cared about honor. They don't. Mild spoiler here - the heroine is due to be married in just a few weeks. The hero makes a public proposal. Everyone shrugs and toasts them. Sure, the heroine just told the former groom she wasn't going to meet him at the altar after all, but who knows that? Fortune hunter dude hasn't had time to process the information, much less make a public announcement or discuss it with her family. You'd think someone in the crowd might point out that she's already engaged. Or ask what happened to the other guy. Or something.

A mildly pleasant and fully predictable novella with a few eye rolling moments isn't enough to break me up with a favorite author. What may have killed it for me and Heath comes later, with an excerpt from the final Lost Lords of Pembrook. It opens with the heroine's brother selling her off to a room full of men under the uncaring eye of the hero. This isn't presented as something he struggles with, something odd for him or something morally repellant. It's just what you do sometimes. You're broke so you sell off a sibling. Of course our hero decides she's so touchingly innocent (unless she's a great actress, of course. Can't have him think well of her) that he will inexplicably demand that she be his. In fact, she should be delivered to his house the next day via UPS. Wow. How can I not want to know more about this couple? He's ok with treating women like livestock, she might be too dim to know she's being sold. Will they make it work? I think you're going to have to find out without me.

21 December, 2012

Review: The Lady Most Willing by Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway

In this unconnected follow up to 2010's The Lady Most LikelyQuinn, James and Brockway continue the conceit that this is more than a collection of novellas. Where it worked well in the former, it's less successful in The Lady Most Willing. Unlike the prior collection, the stories fail to flow into one tale. I struggled to finish the book. Changes in character that might be forgiven in a grouping of shorts stood out strongly when presented as part of a whole. Adding to my boredom was no real sense of suspense. Here are the couples. Watch them pair off. Four men, four women, an engagement every few chapters.

In the first tale we meet the obligatory duke and his future duchess, the mistakenly kidnapped Catriona Burns. This was the most captivating of the couples, despite being as instantly forgettable as the rest. Catriona becomes our narrator, despite not being the actual narrator of the book. It's a shock when she abruptly departs at the next chapter heading. Now our heroine is Fiona of the ruined reputation and passive aggressive acceptance. This isn't quite the Fiona we think we've gotten to know, nor is her suddenly malicious sister Marilla the same desperate girl we've been reading about. (Where did this strong dislike between the sisters come from?) Instead of two very different girls tolerating each other it's open dislike with a veil of civility. Marilla switches from overly eager young colt to vengeful nemesis. I liked the new version of Fiona but I didn't understand her. The new Marilla I'll get to later. (Catriona is now reduced to ducal snuggle sessions.)

Fiona spends most of her tale in sexual longing. Or not. Honestly, my initial interest in her quickly turned to page skimming boredom. (Everyone thinks I'm a whore. Let's have sex.) There was some weird subtext going on I didn't quite grab hold of or care enough to unearth. Fiona, thought to be sexually open is actually the victim of unwanted male desire. As a result she's repressed her natural desires. Faced with a spoiled young sibling, she carefully guards her inner passions so they cannot be detected. (Sensing a theme?) Of course this leads to sex in the stables. Because that's what this character would do when faced with something she wants. (I liked Fiona better when she was throwing the hero over and planning an independent life.)

Our not so final heroine Cecily has an abundance of everything. Blessed with face, fortune and indulgent parents she has been waiting for The One. Of course she finds him in less than a second. Meeting her hero's eyes as she leaves a carriage, Cecily is certain he's the man she's meant to wed. There is so much going on with Cecily that I don't know where to start. I don't believe at love in a glance, I think it requires at least a conversaton. A women with Cecily's options and experience deciding to seduce a man with a love them and leave them reputation was a hard hurdle to jump. Add in her later qualms about whose place it is to make the first move and Cecily just annoyed me. Toward the end of her story she started to reclaim my attention but it was too late, the book was done. And this brings me to the fourth heroine, Marilla.

I had serious problems with the presentation of Marilla. Is she a woman making the most of an opportunity? Is she a hateful bitch determined to ruin her sister? Is she an underage seductress playing games far above her experience? Is she a sensualist used to indulging herself? Marilla has only one consistent aspect to her character. The other women dislike her. The other men (save her hero, presented as no prize at all) hold her in mild contempt. Every woman in the book is given a sympathetic viewing but Marilla. She's fairly young, she's ambitious, she wants to have fun and she wants to marry someone who will indulge her. During Fiona's story she's malicious, but for the rest of the book she's misguided and impetuous. Because she is obvious in her desires and open in her goals, the other characters strongly dislike her. This rather made me dislike them. It's not that Marilla was so likeable. None of her faces were sympathetic. In a book where each character's personality quirks were explored and explained, only Marilla was freely disdained. Her happy ending is a father figure of a husband. I had issues.

The Lady Most Willing was far from the worst book I read this year. If the shorts were sold independently I'd say grab Catriona's chapters and forget the rest. Since they come as a bundle, you'll have to decide for yourself.

*In reviewing my former thoughts about The Lady Most Likely I discover that a homophobia ran through it not unlike the homophobia on display in Eloisa James recent short Seduced By A Pirate. I need to quit Eloisa James. We're not good for each other.

16 December, 2012

Review: Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet

It's rare I'm actually angry when I finish a book. Fourth Grave Beneath My Feet seriously pissed me off. Not only am I done with the series, I'm done with Darynda Jones as an author. She's on my don't-for-the-love-of-self-ever-read-this list. While I suspected it in Third Grave Dead Ahead, Fourth Grave underlines it, wraps it in a pretty package and sticks a bow on the top. Jones has taken what was an irreverent and interesting world with a strong voiced heroine and reduced it to an abuse fetish. If women who love dysfunctional abusive jerks are your thing, Darynda Jones is writing for you.

In the last book Charley was beaten and left for bait by her lover, Reyes. Her father also set her up as bait in order to protect his other daughter and the bitch stepmother that made Charley's childhood hell. In both cases Charley is physically harmed by a man who is supposed to love her, then left for dead. As Fourth Grave opens Charley is suffering from PTSD (for about a minute) and dealing with the emotional fallout of the previous events. Mostly by chasing after Reyes and being totally up for it. She shows some token anger at her father (who also spends part of this book shooting her) but quickly forgives him as well. Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot. Bar. Be. Que.

No, Jones is not foxtrot kidding me, she's completely serious. Reyes controls Charley, misleads her, withholds vital information from her, threatens to kill her family (again!) becomes furiously angry at her when she asks questions or doesn't act on knowledge she doesn't have, gives her the silent treatment and deceives her. Charley cries and apologizes for not understanding him enough. I don't know why. Almost all of the book is Charley trying to understand poor, poor Reyes or wanting to have sex with super hot sexy Reyes. Reyes is an abusive homicidal ass. He leaves Charley high and dry over and over. She can't talk to his friends or his family. He doesn't even want her to know where he lives. He wishes Charley would just man up and quit sniveling because if she did she'd be so special.

Screw that. If I want to read about a woman being gaslit by an abuser with a savior complex I'll read the paper. I simply don't believe that if Charley takes enough physical and emotional abuse from Reyes and others she will become a better person. I no longer care about the heaven versus hell underpinnings of the story. The interesting characters have been sidelined in favor of more abuse dynamics. Charley is abducted by a bank robber and fantasizes about sex with him after he duct tapes her to a chair in an abandoned building. Charley mistreats a man who has (literally) been to hell for her and is always there for her. She treats with the most contempt the man who is the most considerate. Charley is ill. I can't watch the train wreck any longer.

Adding to my discontent is the inconsistent components of the other characters. Amber is 12. we are supposed to believe that this 12 year old girl kept a traumatizing and life threatening experience secret from her mother, whom she is close to. We are also asked to believe she finds Reyes attractive and finds overhearing relations between Charley and Reyes stimulating instead of embarrassing, disgusting or appalling. Like Charley, anything female of any age surrounding this abusive ass must be up for it, despite the unlikely age component involved. Cookie, her mother, places fighting demons above her child's safety. I can't even address Charley's father in this limited space so let's move on to her neighbor, Peri. Demons are possessing people who can see auras. Peri sees auras. Demons are surrounding Charley's life and looking for access points. Peri has access to Charley and is in her life. Demons never possess Peri, choosing bodies from other states instead. There is no longer any logic to Charley's world. People make choices to serve the story and for no other reason. Even seeing the dead has been shuttled to the side as an afterthought and a page filler instead of a way to drive the narrative forward. Jones gives every appearance of dragging the main points of the story through as many books as the market will bear. There is no end in sight for the reader. I'm disappointed that a series of such promise has devolved into an unpleasant experience.

11 December, 2012

Review: The Duchess War by Courtney Milan

*My reviews of Courtney Milan books are so very boring. "I loved this book. OMG this author. Read it because wow." (How many ways could a fan girl fan if a fan girl could fan girls? I don't know. I'm high on Sudafed.) Anyway. Courtney Milan. New Book. Commence raving. 

The Duchess War is a thing of beauty. How you feel about it may depend on how you feel about other Milan books or what you look for in romance. I'm drawn to character studies. I want broken people feeling their way through a broken world, and Milan gets that. Her characters are not heroic by birth or destiny, they are heroic by choice. In The Duchess War we meet Robert and Minnie. Both are working through the legacy of their parents. I found Robert the more interesting of the two, but it's Minnie who is  the more powerful.

Robert is the image of a man he has defined as a monster. Being his father's son has shaped him more than any other aspect of his life. Robert's life of emotional rejection and economic privilege has led him to embrace radical political views. He is not an unthinking agitator. Robert has taken pains to minimize the effects of his work on those around him. His goal is to unravel the system he believes sheltered his father and allows men like him to escape retribution for their crimes. Everything about him is a reaction to something else. His intense loneliness is a reaction to his parent's rejection and his subsequent rejection of their values. It's a greater self awareness that makes Robert more socially enlightened than his peers. If his father had embraced him, Robert could well have been a carbon copy of his sire. Without a rejection of his father's values, Robert can't make sense of his place in the world. Because of his mother's inclination to extremism, Robert's life as a radical made sense. I believed he would become this person, that he was this person. He may have frustrated me at times, but he didn't ring false. Robert is emotionally guarded to the edge of self harm.

Minnie is no different. Where Robert has embraced radicalism as a rejection of his father, Minnie has embraced conservatism. Her views may mirror Robert's, but her life does not. Having experienced the darker side of fame, Minnie craves security. Economically and emotionally, Minnie is in a precarious situation she knows she cannot sustain. When she meets Robert she's on the edge of a life changing move, one that she believes will lock down the secure box she's created for herself. Robert doesn't undertake any of the typical Hero Knows Best actions of the genre. He is the catalyst that causes Minnie to really look at the path she's forced herself down and consider if it ends in the victory or ruin. Strategy is a theme that runs through The Duchess War. Both Robert and Minnie lead carefully considered lives, perhaps too considered for their own benefit. I found them completely believable as a couple. The difference in social station and reveal of Minnie's past was also smoothly resolved in a way that felt plausible and true. The only off note may have been a scene between Robert and one of his father's victims. (While it granted Robert an understanding he needed, it felt incomplete. The topic was larger than the scene, but may be revisited later.)

I put Courtney Milan in the top ten, perhaps top five, of writers working in the genre today. She's on the front edge of hot trends (bad sex, virgin hero, Victorian social change) while working with time tested romance elements (family relationships, strength in partnership, issues of honor). It's too soon to say where The Duchess War will rank in her entire body of work but if it's not near the top I can't wait to read what beats it.

07 December, 2012

Review: The Importance of Being Wicked

*I've been off being all medical again, because everyone needs a hobby and reviewing books doesn't have the same flair as recreational use of anesthesia. 

Oh Miranda Neville. We should be a perfect match and yet I find myself turning you away. I admire you so. While I was reading The Importance of Being Wicked I found myself thinking how well done it was, what a refreshing idea this or that aspect of the story was. It was so polite. I didn't want to leap into the pages and shake a bitch or weep into a cotton hankie while urging them to value themselves more. It was all the admiration in the world and none of the emotional passion. This means it's not you, it's me? Or something?

Doesn't help. Let's move on. Your cover is eye catching. I hate it. It's got this shade of dyed red hair seen clutching early bird special menus coupled with a red and rust palette straight out of fall. Her tomato red dress, the crimson chaise, it's a big yawn. The title is fine. I totally want a gig naming Avon romances, except I don't drink. Avon titles are the things you come up with after a long night of partying, the punchy humor that begs for high fives. But they work. They move books and they're memorable.

The Importance of Being Wicked has nothing to do with Oscar Wilde slash (sigh) and everything to do with a Duke. (Can we just move on to pretend kings? All these dukes. I expect Julia Quinn's next book to be You Only Duke Twice featuring a widowed duchess choosing from six lovely dukes. Maybe she's been widowed twice but runs away with an earl. Crazy stuff. Or wait, it could be The Duke Of The Month Club! Our heroine has one year to choose from an assortment of dukes reaching their majorities! A free YA suggestion. It's a gift. Holidays. You know.) Thomas The Duke comes from a long line of men who marry rich women. His dad screwed that up, so Thomas wants to get back on track. Caroline is the completely broke widow housing his teenage bag of cash. Enter hijinks.

Actually there are hardly any hijinks. Neville does a great job with Caroline. Impetuous and bad with finances, she's the girl who never wants to leave the party. As long as she's hosting, people love her. With the food and wine on offer the artistic community she adores will fill the silent corners of her home. Caro wants to have fun and forget when the bill collectors come round. She's always one step ahead and two bits short. Mostly this is her ex husband's fault. Disappointing, but it's a time honored truth that a widow in want of finances is rarely to blame. Thomas The Duke is super interested in family honor, almost as much as he is in refilling the family coffers. When the bright and beautiful butterfly of Caroline crosses his path he wants to forget everything and follow her.

It's a classic set up. Neville gets deeper into the motivations and causes of the characters than most authors bother with. Caroline is alternately frustrating and delightful. Thomas is a little less clearly drawn but he's a character that can't communicate emotionally so there's that. Problems are generally addressed and worked out leaving the conflict one of putting two lives together, not finding authorial reasons to keep them apart. What kept me from connecting to The Importance of Being Wicked was the sheer amount of sequel bait it held. Here is a character, here is a ton of background, here is a different character. Rinse and repeat. So many side threads are left unresolved. I got tired of waiting for a player to factor in a meaningful way or have their own storyline summed up. The canvas felt too infinite, the players too multiple. This one is a friend but also a nemesis, an enemy but also maybe a relative, a thief but also maybe.... my patience wore out. Tell the story you are telling me. Don't lay the case for a different one. I stop caring about what we have when I'm constantly told what I'm getting. The product placement may be skillful, but it's not necessary to the tale.

Overall, my admiration for The Importance of Being Wicked overpowered my weary rejection of it's chorus line. If you like Tessa Dare or Julie Anne Long I think Miranda Neville will fit the bill nicely.

28 November, 2012

Holiday Boxes: Ipsy vs Birchbox

In the food boxes I valued novelty over value, but in the beauty boxes it was the absolute reverse. Ipsy was my choice for gift giving here. Each month is several full sized products in a small cosmetic bag. (I might have a bit of a bag problem, so this conceit really spoke to me.) I don't wear cosmetics very often so I didn't try these out on myself. I sent trial boxes to a girlfriend and got her thoughts. Ipsy was the clear winner. Ipsy is not a consistent box - some of the selections are limited in availability and others depend on the beauty profile the recipient fills out. Here's a look at a sample Ipsy box from Break The Sky.

Where Ipsy has some mild differences in their boxes, Birchbox appears to have a feast or famine mentality. My friend's sample box was definitely on the small and skimpy side. Birchbox is more of a grab bag service than a consistent sampling. Every subscriber is randomly sent one of ten or more possible combinations. With Ipsy, I'm sure my recipient is going to get a few decent sized products each month. With Birchbox it could be a granola bar and less cosmetics than you score walking past a Sephora. Modern Mommyhood had a pretty nice box this month. Fabulous But Evil liked hers as well. Fontenot Four was also pleased with her selection. It's possible our sample month of Birchbox was bad luck but there just wasn't enough in it to justify giving it as a gift.

27 November, 2012

Holiday Boxes: Cravebox vs Love With Food

What do you get someone really hard to shop for?

This year I decided to jump on the sample box craze and give gift subscriptions to a few sample services. I've given two Love With Food subscriptions so far with one of my recipients already ordering five more gift subscriptions for people on her list.  The concept behind Love With Food is that each month you purchase a box a meal is donated to a hungry child. (Charitable chowing?) I'm about three months into my own subscription and I'm a huge fan. Generally I like everything in the box save one item. Since I'm fairly picky food-wise that's a great track record. Unfortunately since it's food, we always eat it before I remember to take any photos. Wisconsin Mom takes great pictures but likes the Love With Food program far less than I do. She's looking at it as a dollar value box instead of a curated culinary experiment box. If I was adding it up the same way I might agree with her, but I'm just wanting a small monthly treat for my recipients.

If you're looking for a larger payout, Cravebox is probably for you. While Cravebox doesn't offer gift subscriptions, I was curious enough to try them out for myself. Most of the Cravebox reminded me of the boxes we'd get at the food bank when I was a kid. Dollar for dollar, it's a better value but the contents were pretty common. MsMommyHH6 loved hers. The printed cards gift certificate to Walgreens was worth twice the cost of the box, so I can't call it a wasted trial. I'm not sure I'd give anyone a gift subscription if Cravebox did offer them. Canned green beans and gravy powder don't really say culinary excitement to me. (I do wish Love With Food was occasionally more ingredient focused. Ready to eat seems to be their concept, which is smart branding but hard to keep fresh and exciting.)

11 November, 2012

Skyfall: Needs More Bond

*Yes, I know the Fleming novels are very different from the Broccoli vision.

I love Bond films. Love. Them. They're campy enough that you don't have to take the politics of the thing seriously while realistic enough to evade B movie tedium. Daniel Craig is a fine actor. He's attractive. On paper, this should be great. On the screen, Craig is playing Generic Action Hero instead of James Bond. He's going for a realism that the Bond films can't support. (Tony Stark is a better James Bond than the Bond of Skyfall.)

Right up to the point where the aging retainer whisks someone into a cave I was thinking this Bond owed way more to Batman than to Bond. He's dark, he's moody, he has an artfully placed tombstone of his beloved parents. Give the guy a cowl and call it a day. Instead of having an aging Bond face his Peter Pan complex squarely, Skyfall goes with Get Off My Lawn Bond. He's out to prove that his franchise's 50th anniversary means that the old ways are the best ways. This Bond doesn't need technology, he just needs experience. (No really, this Bond is more into his vintage car than the latest cool gadgets. I know. Believe me. Also, Loki wants to be captured? You don't say.)

If you take Bond out of its cartoonish villains and super evil seductresses, you force the audience to make ethical choices about Bond's actions. Craig's Bond comes across as a date rapist. From the island woman he ignores in bed (with mild contempt) to the Bond Girl lead, Craig seems less a lover and more a customer. Let's go with a mild spoiler and examine Bond Girl # 3 in the film. Bond identifies her as a victim of the sex trade. Sold around age 12, she's put herself into the control of a madman in an effort to escape servicing endless numbers of men. Now living in a level of fear she tells Bond he cannot comprehend, she is desperate for deliverance. Later that evening Bond sneaks (naked) into her shower for the obligatory sex. Bond Girl # 3 has no agency. She is not there for any purpose other than to sleep with Bond and deliver the men in the plot forward. She does not seduce Bond, nor does she offer sex prior to his appearance. The sex between Bond & Bond Girl # 3 is not joyful, it is a bill she must pay to potentially escape relentless terror. Afterward, in the grand tradition, she pays dearly for that frantic gamble.

Skyfall does offer a Bond Girl worthy of this Bond's respect and charm. (The question is why she's interested in him.) Naomi Harris (as Eve) sets the bar for Bond Girls. In fact, if Skyfall had taken a real risk and killed off Bond so Eve could become 007, I'd have cheered the film on. She was a far better Bond (seductive, daring, dangerous, amoral, and effective) than James Bond himself. By the end of the film we've learned her true place, and it isn't one that involves code names. Also keeping me from giving up on Skyfall was an absolutely brilliant Bond Villain. Javier Bardem completely understands the lines between campy and creepy that Bond Villains walk. It is Harris and Bardem that deliver the true Bond film moments. The rest of the cast seems plucked from Generic Suspense Film 101. Beautiful effects and sets can't repair the damage done by a Bond who leaves one wondering what right he has to run amok in other people's countries.

08 November, 2012

Review: Chaplin A Life by Stephen Weissman

Despite it's flaws, I loved this book.

Charles Chaplin was a complex man. His life story is a compelling one. From a child among many in London's poorhouses to the single most famous man in the world, Charles Chaplin walked a unique road. No one (save perhaps his brothers) knew what it was like to be Chaplin. No one ever will.

Weissman undertakes what could easily have been a tedious conceit in his approach to biography. Chaplin is placed on the couch, his childhood explored and analyzed in the context of his work. While Weissman is at times repetitive, on the whole this offers a fresh look at the man inside the costume. The author's respect for Chaplin's talent is deep. He discusses both the early life of the family and the influences the boy carried into adulthood. From early stars of the London stage to lessons in the family home, Charles Chaplin was a born mimic who absorbed all then refashioned it into the new media. He was a genius in the true sense of the word. Viewed through Weissman's eyes, Chaplin's film works are recreated scenes from his life. Coogan flips his pancakes as The Kid in a facsimile of Chaplin's own home. The streets they walk are replicas of the streets Chaplin walked. He is a stand in for young Charles in multiple ways.

My complaint is that for all it's length, Weissman wraps up too soon. His book is not so much Chaplin, A Life as it is Chaplin, A Career. The author is interested only in Chaplin's childhood as it is explored in his films. (The book ends shortly after Chaplin leaves Keystone.) Weissman spends small amounts of time on Chaplin's life in exile and his later films, but his heart belongs to the pre war era. As a reader I enjoyed the author's insights into Chaplin's professional process and longed to see them applied to his private life as well. What drove Chaplin's possibly self destructive personal choices? How did his broken relationship with his parents alter the choices he made with his children? What did exile from multiple homelands mean to him? These, as well as his professional partnerships outside of the Keystone years, are passed over. As a starting point, Chaplin, A Life is well worth reading. It would be a shame, however, if a reader left the book thinking they'd experienced the sum of the man.

07 November, 2012

Unexpected Trips Though The Rabbit Hole

"I'm actually quite the bigot, you know." - said by no one, ever.

While I'm a huge fan of the well examined life, it's even more critical for an author to consider the role of bias in their work. An author may add a passage meaning to illuminate a certain point, then discard the context that the passage was illuminating. An author may have a personal ax to grind and be unable to separate it from her fiction. A few sentences tossed into a book can permanently color the reader's view of an author's entire brand.

It's important to speak out for your beliefs, but free speech is not speech free from consequence. Years passed before I picked Brenda Joyce back up after the The Prize. I've never really been able to take Linda Howard seriously since she used Burn to discuss her Randian beliefs about wealth. (I've also switched Howard from a purchase to an infrequent library read. I'd hate to increase her wealth and force her to pay all those burdensome taxes.) One of the things that drove me to read m/m romance in the 80's was an inability to tolerate yet another homosexual character used as an easy villain stereotype. In Eloisa James latest novella Seduced By A Pirate, she has a few throwaway lines that damaged her brand for me.

"Griffin had come to loathe the very mention of the first Viscount Moncrieff, a repellant beast who had slavered at the feet of James the First. In Griffin’s opinion, he received the title of viscount as a direct payment for personal favors of an intimate nature. His father had never liked that suggestion, though there was a bawdy letter upstairs from the king that confirmed Griffin’s impression." - Eloisa James, Seduced By A Pirate

There is no point to this mention of the first Viscount other than to establish that Griffin hated hearing about his ancestry. Nothing about the Viscount factors into the tale and he is never mentioned again. Why then, must the first Viscount be repellant, and a beast? Why did he slaver at the feet of James the First? If the point is to illustrate how Griffin felt about his heritage or about men who gather riches through words (he gathers his own through theft) why does the first Viscount have to be bisexual? Why does young Griffin assume this man he dislikes was involved in an intimate relationship with the king? If the letter confirms Griffin's beliefs, then the belief existed before the letter. If the belief is not predicated on the letter, how did Griffin form it? Does repellant slavering beast  automatically mean homosexual activity to young Griffin? How did he integrate that belief into his career as a pirate, given the relationships between some career sailors? We don't know. The only introduction of homosexuality in Seduced By A Pirate is the passage above. If it drives nothing about the character, what is the point of it's inclusion?

And thus an author's brand is damaged.  I don't think Eloisa James is a blatant bigot. I do think she has assumptions and norms derived from her culture that she hasn't critically evaluated in the context of reader response. This is totally cool. You can't write everything with an eye to who you may offend. What you can do is evaluate if what you're writing is necessary. Do these words add to what you're building or detract from them? Is this passage moving things along, illuminating what you want it to illuminate, or is it removing your reader from the reading experience? For this reader, it was hard to separate the author from her authorial choice.

06 November, 2012

Review: The Man With The Money by Lynn Raye Harris

* As I write, Amazon is selling this in MMP for $1.58 or in Kindle for $3.44. Keep telling me about the cheaper e-books, Grandma. I love that story.

Lynn Raye Harris won a random purchase from me with a little game I like to call Author Making A Rational Comment About Reviews. (I always expect a lot of entrants, but generally it's just one or two.) I went for The Man With The Money for it's Katrina afflicted heroine. Cara has a pretty complicated background. In fact, I found her background far more interesting than Jack's, which was a shame because Jack was the focus of the book.

As a former fan of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, made to order writing is familiar to me. Here Harris seems to be working under an odd set of restrictions. Jack is the obscenely wealthy head of an overly successful (generational money?) family haunted by violent dysfunction. He's furiously angry at his older brother for deserting the family and furiously angry with himself for not doing the same. I felt like Harris didn't care for Jack much, nor could she reveal enough of his life to make him work as a tortured hero. Having to save so much of his back story and current motivation for other authors hindered the story's development. Luckily, Cara picked up some of the slack.

Cara is working at a casino in Europe when an altercation with her boss forces her to flee. On the run with Jack, Cara finds herself trapped. (Well, not really. As she finally tells him she could easily go to the American Embassy. As well, running away with Jack isn't going to do her much good outside of the immediate circumstance since her boss is fully aware of her identity and family situations.) Taking advantage of a holiday from the obligations of both their lives, Cara and Jack turn danger into destination travel. Cara is used to paying her own way. Jack is the typical throw money at it Harlequin hero. He offers her the payday of a lifetime to accompany him to his brother's wedding. Soon we're in comfortable territory as the Pretty Woman story plays out in it's normal pattern.

On the copyright Harlequin thanks Harris for her contributions to the story and I had to agree. Cara often seems to be fighting the box she's been placed inside. I felt like there was an interesting long form contemporary heroine trying to get out. (Something along the lines of Sugar Daddy by Lisa Kleypas.) The Man With The Money was a pleasant read, if not a compelling one. (The only real issue I had with it  occurs toward the end. Cara didn't strike me as a women who would keep Bobby Gold in her life, no matter what the power dynamic became.) The Man with The Money had moments of freshness in a familiar frame. I'd like to try something from Lynn Raye Harris that is completely her own invention.

05 November, 2012

Review: Seduced By A Pirate by Eloisa James

* Note, this may have been the short included in the print version of The Ugly Duchess. I'm so annoyed by the prospect of buyers getting even less value in an ebook that I can't be bothered to ascertain exactly which title they tossed in the MMP. Either way, it's now for sale as a short.

Eloisa and I are breaking up. I probably have one or two books left in me, but the writing on the wall seems pretty clear now. Everything I disliked about The Ugly Duchess is magnified in Seduced By A Pirate. (More than a sister story, Seduced By A Pirate could almost be a synopsis.) Where Sir Griffin Barry was a thug for most of The Ugly Duchess, here he was always a pirate with a heart of gold. Pity the poor press ganged boy who sees no way out but to rebel against his moral father by embracing immorality.

Let's pause for a second. Griffin is a 17 year old member of the landed gentry (Or is it nobility? Griffin seems to have gotten a title upgrade.) when he is taken by a press gang. Right. Assuming Griffin keeps silent about his identity, he then becomes a pirate because his dad spent too much time at work. Griffin doesn't want to be a servant of the people, he wants to rape, rob and pillage. (If you only read the short, you'll think Griffin was freeing slave ships and changing lives his whole career. Not so much.) We will give James her Hollywood Pirate and move on.

Griffin returns home with a full pardon and a wife he married through parental arrangement. His wife has spent the last 14 years denying her sexuality, so she's a virgin. (Hermetically Sealed Heroine alert!) When Griffin returns she sensibly explains to him that she's economically sound and interested in dissolving their marriage. She's failed to do so over the last decade and a half under the assumption that he'd get himself killed and there'd be no need to bother. Griffin says he'd rather get laid and five sentences later she's up for that too. Seriously. "I want a divorce. / I want you. / Ok, then." Apparently one look at Griffin's super muscled pirate build is all she needs to go from frigid to frothing. Phoebe (whose name he doesn't even know) instantly switches to concerns that she's not enough for her recently returned spouse. Will he desire her? Is she still pretty? Can they do it on the floor right by the front door as soon as he gets home?

By the end of the day they're pledging their love for each other. Approximately 10 hours from "Who are you?" to devoted beloved. (It takes Insta-love to new levels.) Along the way Griffin finds out he actually likes his dad and his dad arranges for him to become a judge, or a magistrate or some sort of thing. Because when your son has been a pirate for 14 years with nary a letter home of course your first thought is handing him a gavel. Wait, did I forget to mention his sisters? Yes, Griffin also has sisters that he has ignored. He tells himself that sending his pirate money home was buying their freedom from the sort of arranged marriage he suffered. I'm sure, given a few more pages, they'd have been just as forgiving as Phoebe and Griffin's dad. It's that kind of tale.

Closing out this short novella are not one but two epilogues, each with a baby nicely tucked inside. So you get a baby. And YOU get a baby. And Griffin gets his virgin wife. Let the HEA'ers abound.

03 November, 2012

Just Send It To My Kindle

*See this dude? He's in charge of your e-book settlement. 

I started to write this as a fairy tale, but there are only so many poison apples a girl can take. Did you get the email about the publisher's settlement? Did you read the fine print? Here's the deal. You may, God willing and the creek don't rise, get thirty cents back for each book you purchased during The Agency Wars, currently designated as April 2010 to May 2012.

If you purchased your books from Amazon, do nothing.

If you purchased your books from Sony, fill out a quick form with a personalized settlement number that better not have gone to your spam folder.

If you purchased your books from an independent retailer like Books On Board, you are so screwed.

Please fill out this form with the ISBN of each book, with plenty of repetitive data entry for each title, then file the claim, then submit proof of purchase. When you get about 30 books into the process the claim form will randomly delete all your work and require you to begin again. You might be wondering what a proof of claim is. Good luck on that, because that's for you to figure out. Maybe you can screen cap your receipts and upload them. If (like me) you find books listed as refunded that weren't, you're out of luck. This is absolutely a principle of the thing issue because the time it's going to require is absurd.

Things I have learned studying two years of receipts - under Agency my book spending changed dramatically. I went from over $70 a month to less than $20, sometimes none at all. Favorite authors have fallen by the wayside through no fault of their own. I went from buying most of my books via independent retailers to buying all of my books from Amazon. I stopped buying hardcover entirely.

I should have bought everything at Amazon and given Big Six the same screw you they gave me.

29 October, 2012

Review: A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

Isn't the cover for A Notorious Countess Confesses perfectly seasonal? While I love the warm tones, I don't know that it fits the characters. This is one of those Vicar meets Courtesan books. (He's Jesus, she's Magdalene, can two crazy kids from such different backgrounds make it work?) I mean, look at her face and posture. She's thinking "As if" while he's working on his best Fabio moves. I think he's whispering something like "You promised we could!" At least they have heads. With a crop treatment the gripping hand would turn menacing. Taking the story out of it, it's well done.

But back to our Magdalene. This is the seventh novel in the Pennyroyal Green series and my first Julie Anne Long. I enjoyed about 85% of it, putting her on par with Eloisa James. In fact, I enjoyed Long's style so much I was halfway through the book before I realized she'd named her lead couple Adam and Eve. (I got over it and kept reading.) Long does a great job with Adam's uncertainty. Instead of a fire and brimstone vicar he's a man of doubt doing the best he can to muddle through. While the world of Long's Pennyroyal Green is absolutely wallpaper historical, her depiction of a conflicted man of faith rang very true. Likewise, the inhabitants of her fictional town are appropriately hypocritical. I had a little more trouble with Eve. I'm getting rather tired of famous courtesans who've barely had sex at all. In Eve's case, she's had two protectors and a spouse. A woman does not become a legendary courtesan without a nightly rate. But we will give Eve her backstory. There are plenty of readers who will balk at any number.

Eve has decided to live a respectable life, now that she's widowed. (With a fairly small living from her dead husband's estate and a number of financial responsibilities it seems unsustainable. I gave her that too.) While she could return to her former life, she wants a new one. While Eve is ready for a fresh beginning the village is already familiar with her past. Who else for Eve to turn to but the town's moral center? Adam isn't just a local boy made holy. He's the town heartthrob. Despite being of a lower financial status, Adam is the subject of many a local girl's hopes. His well attended sermons are dissected and discussed among the single girls. I found the relationships between Adam and Eve, between Eve and the matrons, between Adam and the girls plausible. The relationship between Eve and the girls made me roll my eyes. With nothing in common beyond their age, Eve is soon giving advice on men to them. This advice is rather modern. Be yourself. Make him treat you like a queen. Confidence is beauty. Eve has seen the darker sides of men. I think she'd lead with other aspects of the male / female power dynamic but if she's still a romantic who am I to argue?

85% of A Notorious Countess Confesses was a pleasure. Early in the book Eve tells Adam she has serious control issues. She makes the choices in her life, not the men. Eve's number one statement to Adam is about self determination and self direction. This is a key aspect of her personal security. Of course the HEA blows that all to hell. Adam not only disregards this, he treats her like a child while he does it. 90% of those reading A Notorious Countess Confesses will find the ending jaw droppingly romantic. Adam covers all the bases. He makes a public stand that couldn't leave anyone in doubt of his emotional stake. Eve is thrilled. I'm thinking she had a head injury somewhere along the way because the Eve from the front of the book would see right through this. I don't want to spoil the ending. Let's use a completely different example to illustrate the point. Suppose your lover invites your mother to live with you. And maybe your mother in law. Without asking you. And let's suppose both of them are out of work and emotionally needy. I'm guessing you might have feelings about that. Feelings you might express loudly, amid the slamming of a lot of doors. Because if you wanted your mother and mother in law as housemates, you could certainly arrange that yourself. As Eve is neither stupid nor completely illiterate, Adam's end of the book assumption that he knows best in all things made me crazy. Fortunately for him, he'd banged the brains right out of Eve so she found it charming. I give these crazy kids six months.

27 October, 2012

Review: A Royal Pain by Megan Mulry

I'm going to classify this one as ChickLit rather than Contemporary Romance. While there is a relationship at the heart of it,  A Royal Pain is more Bronte's story than a story of Bronte and Max. Bronte was an interesting contradiction. She sees herself as rejecting elitism for popular culture. In fact, Bronte is more elitist then those against whom she rebelled. She works in an office where the boss either sends you home when you feel emotional or pops open a bottle of booze to soothe the afternoon away. She goes to parties where she meets the 10% (if not the 1%) and spends her free time studying Hello!. Bronte is already leading a life the average Contemporary Romance heroine aspires to.  A Royal Pain is the story of how Bronte learns to chill out and enjoy herself.

Max is a different story. He shows up where he's supposed to and does the things expected of him. He's not too good to be true, but he is too compliant to be understood. Where Bronte is a ball of disjointed emotion, Max is a calm and steady force forward. As a couple, the dynamic works. As a reader, I never understood why Max chose Bronte in particular. He goes all in on Bronte effectively at first sight. In the past it has been Bronte committing the sin of planning the wedding before dessert arrives, here it is Max doing so. He is sure Bronte is the woman for the rest of his life based on very little real world experience.  Bronte consistently lets Max down emotionally, yet he maintains his surety that she is his correct partner. I can understand Max wanting someone open, someone professionally successful but emotionally chaotic. I had trouble with him accepting Bronte in particular. "She's fun" isn't a great HEA recipe.

Bronte and Max both have parent issues. I would have liked to see Max's explored a bit more and Bronte's a bit less. (ok, Bronte's a LOT less.)  Neither family presents a real challenge to their union, most of the issues between Bronte and Max arise from Bronte's erratic choices and Max's inability to communicate. I liked Bronte on her own more than I liked her with Max. Their relationship seemed less like a completion of Bronte than another achievement in her portfolio. If I'd understood why Max was so invested or if Bronte had made more than token efforts on their relationship it would have worked more for me. Overall, A Royal Pain is a fun read and absolutely worth picking up.

24 October, 2012

Things You Should Listen To: Wussy

Alright, so that's not a Wussy song. Here's the problem. Chuck Cleaver is my Barry White. He writes the most romantic damn songs you've ever heard then sings the hell out of them. (This weekend I saw Wussy open for the Afghan Whigs and sharing air space with Chuck Cleaver was exactly as I thought it would be.) In my personal reality, Chuck Cleaver is one of the biggest rock stars in the world. If I had internet startup money, it's Chuck Cleaver who'd play my events. But the Ass Ponys broke up. And then there was Wussy. I have struggled with Wussy. I love them on paper but it's been a dysfunctional musical relationship for me. 

I love Lisa Walker's voice. Lisa Walker writes great music, this is in no way me not appreciating Lisa Walker. I don't look at Mark Messerly and think Randy Cheek should be standing there. I'm ok with musical transitions. No one wants to work in the same office for their entire life. Except. When Chuck Cleaver is singing, I want to hear Chuck Cleaver. I feel the same way about Lisa Walker. If Wussy went all Outkast and started releasing two disc albums where they each do their thing, I'd buy the hell out of that. Here is a Wussy song that is mostly Lisa Walker singing. See? Mad talented. 

Where I have issues with the vocal mix on the albums, the band on stage is sublime. Everyone should see Wussy as many times as they possibly can.  This is the band your kids will be asking you about when you're old. "You went to WHAT show? In a world with Wussy???? Lame."  Don't be lame. 

23 October, 2012

Review: The Cross In The Closet by Timothy Kurek

I have to give it up to Kurek's marketing team.  They 50'd me into The Cross In The Closet. It seemed like everyone was talking about it so I decided to buy it. (Not my best idea.) How do you review the book and not the author when the book is about nothing but the author? Under the guise of advocating for the gay community, Kurek has written a book about himself. He is an exhausting companion. In desperate need of an editor, The Cross In The Closet takes a meandering path through Kurek's psyche. (I think part of what attracted me to The Cross In The Closet is that I used to know this guy. And a few like him, if less ambitious.)

Kurek doesn't set his bigotry aside through education, he reinvents himself as something he isn't - a gay man. Telling his friends and family of his new sexual identity, Kurek begins living what he thinks is an authentically gay life. This leads to Kurek writhing in self loathing while everyone else gives him cookies. You'd expect that finding out someone put you through the emotional wringer for their own gratification would lead to serious recriminations but (with the exception of Kurek's sister in law) the people in the author's life think it's just awesome.  While the denizens of the book are compelled to stroke Kurek's ego the reader is not. Whether is it Kurek feeling all super smug for letting someone who sexually repulses him feel him up or Kurek comparing teenagers drinking lattes to dropping a six pack at an AA meeting (the teens all avoid the coffee?) The Cross In The Closet is all Kurek, all the time.

An editor might have shaped this into a more cohesive (and less self serving) tale of a misguided mission, but Kurek appears to be going it alone. The book wanders. Basic errors of word choice (most often involving homophones) further distance the reader from the text. Most of this memoir comes in the form of quoted text, yet the speakers share very similar speech patterns. Without distinctive idioms or pacing to indicate natural conversation paths the quotes appear to be fictionalized or paraphrased. This leads the reader to doubt the veracity of the whole. The overall impression is not of a man so moved by discovering his own shortcomings that he radically changed his life. It is of a man at loose ends who saw others writing stunt books (he mentions Kevin Roose in passing) and decided to write a My Year As piece. While he calls it The Experiment, the reader is hard pressed not to cynically view his actions as being content motivated. Without much context (hey, you all know who they are, right?) Kurek decides to cold call Westboro Baptist under the guise of reaching out. He tries to manipulate his way into their world through the same methods he used successfully in the gay community - lying. When faced with hostile suspicion he goes for mentioning their recently born baby. Because that is not creepy at all. If I lived in an us against them mentality and a stranger showed up at my door talking like he knew me and referencing my newborn I would totally embrace him. After that fails Kurek again pretends to be gay. He might not have been able to infiltrate Westboro, but he can certainly show how much he loves them and all his fellow men by... I just can't. (Proverbs 14:5 dude)

I grew up around the gay community. I grew up around fundamentalists. I should have been a sympathetic audience for this book. It's a feel good moment for those who want to believe that the differences between the two can be easily overcome but The Cross In The Closet is little else. Kurek is not Tim Wise for gay people. I was repulsed by a section where Kurek, who has asked a good friend to play the role of his partner, lets things get physical. He lovingly details his revulsion then gives himself another cookie for allowing his friend that moment of joy. I lost all sympathy for the author. Using another person for your own ends, letting that person develop a hopeless emotional attachment to you and then praising yourself for giving up a kiss? Take the male / male dynamic out of it (and thus the martyr aspect) and you've got an old as time dynamic as distasteful as it is transparent. While those in the book are moved to tears by Kurek's Lady Bountiful turn, I was not. Given context and shaped by an uninvested eye The Cross In The Closet might have made an excellent book. We'll never know. Worth reading for a look at how privilege operates through the underlying assumptions Kurek makes and his framing choices, but not a read I can recommend.

*Note - I put my short review up first as I wanted to consider the tone of this long review. As I say above it is difficult not to review the author in this context. While engaged in an exchange with a commenter who felt The Cross In The Closet deserved bonus points for Kurek's intent (and his not being a racist hate monger) Kurek chose to obliquely weigh in. Thus relieved of any considerations of tone, I didn't take another editing pass at this longer opinion. Kurek may choose to consider today's timely DA piece - his PR team is doing excellent work on his behalf, work he can easily undo.

20 October, 2012

Guest Review: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm vs Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George

This (Turtle in Paradise) is one of the best books I ever read. I liked the nicknames and I think that they have some interesting ones. It's so cool. It's about a girl named Turtle and her mother is like, a maid? And she works for one person who didn't like kids so Turtle had to be sent to her mother's old home - which is Curry Lane - with her cat, Smokey. She meets her mother's sister's family and then first they are really mean - especially the oldest boy whose name is Beans - and then in the end they become friends. Archie, who was about to be engaged to Turtle's mother, but right before they came to get her back home again Turtle found treasure. Archie took the treasure, Turtle's share, cause her and Beans and Pork Chop, Somebody Else and Somebody Else all found treasure so they all had to share it, but Archie took her share of the treasure. Then he rowed off in a boat and that was the end of the book. Archie only took Turtle's share so they spent the rest on ice cream. Turtle's mom was with Turtle's grandmother so Turtle stayed in Curry Lane because it was a home. I think people should read this book.

Now this book (Tuesdays at the Castle)  just sucks. That's my review.

Ok! I tried to read it a bunch of times but I couldn't get past, like the first chapter, because my eyes hurt when I read a boring book. My eyes REALLY hurt so I knew it was a really boring book, and I didn't really pay attention to it because my eyes hurt. This kid in another class tried to read it and she said it sucked. She tried to read it because she thought it would get better by the end but it just got worse. I told her I KNOW,  it made me feel like I had pink eye!!! Just because it's a Sunshine State Reader doesn't mean you should actually read it! It's about a girl who lives in a castle and when the castle is bored - like me reading this book -  it makes new rooms with secret passages. She had all these rooms and all these passages because she couldn't just have a million doors so she went through fireplaces and stuff. She went through a fireplace to get a room that was like a giant bounce house room and also had to climb vines to get to a potion room and uh, yea. That's all I could pay attention for. Read the other book because this one sucks.

- Guest Review by Smidge, age 8

14 October, 2012

Review: Frankenweenie by Tim Burton

When is a homage not a homage? When it's a pastiche.

Frankenweenie is a mess. Tim Burton needs to admit he's not only a member of Suburbia, he's one of it's biggest boosters. (His outsider card is hereby revoked.) With works like Ed Wood under his belt, being different is Burton's catchphrase. Frankenweenie is clever, visually arresting and a deep reenforcement of the stereotypes that turn kids into outsiders. (Burton hugs the status quo so hard I wondered if charges would be filed.) For a movie aimed at kids, Frankenweenie does a great job of perpetuating tired bigotries.

Young Victor is a quiet boy, preferring his dog to the company of other children. Deeply artistic, he finds creative outlets in science and stop motion animation. His father worries he might be... weird.  Of course Victor's mother reassures him that nothing is wrong with the lad. He's perfectly normal. But she goes along with the father's plan to hold Victor's scientific interests hostage unless he agrees to play a sport, perhaps even baseball like that nice boy Toshiaki? Victor's concession to his father's quiet unease results in the death of his beloved dog and the beginning of all future events. (Victor never blames his father for the accident, nor does his father blame himself. That's for the audience to do.)

Toshiaki covers all the points on the Asian character bingo card. He speaks in an erratic and assumed accent, slurring difficult English words (while voiced by an adult Brooklyn born actor). He's slant of eye and sly of nature. Good at baseball and fond of giant turtles, Toshiaki is a top student with a video camera always at hand. His faithful (and much dumber) fat friend Bob is on hand to take the risks so Toshiaki can best Victor in the science fair. When Bob breaks a bone his even fatter mother marches her cat-eye frames into the school to take down the science program. (Fat kids have fat overprotective mothers. It's a rule.) The Eastern European science teacher explains to the small minds in the small town (modest homes at modest prices!) that his goal is to expand his students minds as he cannot expand theirs. Victor's parents exchange knowing sighs as the teacher is promptly fired. Which means it's time to deal with the women. (I'd move on to talking about the black students, but the school hasn't one.)

Victor's neighbor and implied future love interest Elsa is here to show you how a young lady properly rebels. Elsa is soft of voice and sullen of manner. She may question the wisdom of lit candles in her hair but faced with male authority Elsa performs. She sings her wobbly song of patriotic love to the townspeople so they may admire how cute her fire hazard presentation is. When faced with danger she screams for help. I can't pick on Elsa. From the science averse butch gym teacher to the Weird Girl (Burton doesn't even name her. Weird Girl has a bit more backbone than Elsa but ultimately fails to hit the heroine mark. She's a pretty princess who believes the future can be foretold in cat feces.) all of the women in Frankenweenie lack the ability to save themselves. The closest we get is Victor's mother. After pacifying her husband, baking cookies, reading romances, vacuuming and offering Victor a choice of homemade breakfast goodies, Victor's mom spends a few moments fighting off monsters by her husband's side. And that concludes our look at female heroics in Frankenweenie.

In the end only Victor's reanimated pet corpse can be suffered to live - because he made it with love and therefore it's worthy. The other reanimated corpses were tainted by the lack of purity in their hearts, their desire to best Victor creating monsters. (Whatever. It's a boy and a dog story. I get it.) Further keeping Frankenweenie from reaching the mark is a confusing sense of place. The kids use large reels of film or Super 8 cameras, but also talk about running computer models. Victor's house is a love letter to late 60's fads and tableware, but the school's textbooks have removed Pluto from the list of planets. The mothers stay home in their wide skirts while the men march off to work. When the heck are we? There is much to admire in Frankenweenie on a visual level but I was kept from engaging in the story. I was unsatisfied by the message of love over ambition, devotion over determination. There's no need to make space on the dvd shelf for Frankenweenie, but you may wish to buy the inevitable Art Of  for your library.

05 October, 2012

Review: Delusion In Death by J.D. Robb

*The world does not need another In Death review. I understand that.

I've been comfort reading after the trauma of breaking up with a few favorite authors. Delusion In Death is number 503 of Nora Robert's popular futuristic crime series and... ok, it's really only number thirty-something. Robb is good about including background detail for new readers without so much detail that long time readers feel bogged down - with one exception. Eve. Put her childhood to rest. Please.

I understand a background as dysfunctional as hers never leaves but at a certain point you've got to just get on with getting on. Each entry to the In Death series occurs in a very short interval of time. Because of the major changes in New York to Dallas Robb is still tying off loose ends with Delusion In Death. Stop already. Where Eve's issues were once compelling and fresh, they've become tiresome. I don't know how new readers would take to Eve without a full background (my guess is just fine) but long time readers have had it. Take away Eve's dysfunction and you still have strong procedurals with interesting side characters. Several successful tv shows have been launched off the same dynamics. People like this stuff. Go with it. Less dead parents, more Morris. Or someone. (But not Dr. Mira.) Oh, and if you tell us who the candy thief is you'd better end the series. (I personally believe Eve eats her own candy in a trance while contemplating how NY became so full of epic crazies that even Batman couldn't keep up. Otherwise she'd keel over in a hypoglycemic event before chapter two.)

Right, so THIS time the epic crazies are New Yorkers. (I live in God's Waiting Room so the idea that a pack of lunching New Yorkers would suddenly turn and eat each other's faces without any visible motivation was completely plausible. Possibly even mundane. If I was Eve I'd tell the owner they should've honored the Early Bird coupons at lunch (because lunch is earlier than dinner) and wrapped the case. Eve never even looked at that angle, which is pretty lucky since diner discounts were not the motive. It doesn't matter much what the motive was. People read In Death to visit with the crime solvers more than criminals. Stuff happened, here's why. What makes In Death a comfort read is the respect. Respect for the reader, respect for the characters, respect from Eve for the dead. Death isn't fawned over. It's a horrible thing, done by horrible people. Even if the victim is a horrible person, it's not right.

Too much romantic suspense is rooted in misogyny. Women chained to things, women skinned alive, women trapped in cages, women running for freedom only to be cut down. Women stacked like cordwood in a fictional charnel house. Here are the women, let's kill a bunch of them and be sad. It's sick. It's not what I read for. Some of my formerly beloved authors are becoming tough reads. In the world of Eve Dallas women are murdered, but men are too. Victims are often saved and when they are not, they are mourned. It's not the begging cries of terror she lingers over but the satisfaction of justice done. The books close with the satisfaction of knowing she's built a solid case that should see a conviction. I never saw The Silence Of The Lambs. I stopped reading horror more than a decade ago. To everyone their fiction, and in mine I want less time in the minds of sadists and sociopaths. I want more time in the minds of people trying to live ethically, even when faced with impossible situations. Delusion In Death was a great chapter in the series but more importantly it didn't make me feel sad when I ended it. I felt entertained, relaxed and ready to read again. There's not enough of that going around lately.

27 September, 2012

Review: Haven by Kay Hooper

Let's face it, the Bishop / SCU series is played out. I think Hooper knows it too, which explains why Haven reads like a reboot. From the cover art to the content, the series is positioned as light horror / suspense instead of light paranormal romantic suspense. I kind of enjoyed Haven, it was an easy read. There was some third wall stuff going on when one character remarks that they seem to spend a surprising amount of time in small towns with sordid serial killer secrets at their heart. (As a city girl I've never found small towns anything but forebodingly creepy but I too must acknowledge the concept is getting tiresome.)

There's something unfinished about Haven, a feeling that it's still in progress. When you get to the final pages Hooper offers a cast of characters listing abilities and earlier book appearances. Except the previous book appearances are listed for only one character. This is the sort of meticulous (non) attention to detail that sends Haven skidding off the rails for me. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the TSTL characters are, um, TSTL and therefore die. I appreciate Hooper trying to set up something fresh with her popular paranormal FBI crew but it feels a little Friends of Superdog to me. I don't want to cut back and forth between characters I've liked to establish that these characters belong with them. If the romantic element is removed then I want to read about core characters solving crimes. Develop their lives, move them forward. Don't relegate them to side roles where they act concerned and offer explanatory speeches to new readers. (This is what derailed Iris Johansen's Eve Duncan series long before the atrocity of Bonnie.)

Haven has twin sisters who aren't twins. They're just identical siblings. One is the light, one is the dark, both are low level psychics with something very bad in their past. I found the hidden event completely plausible but everything stemming from it irritatingly absurd. (Without spoiling the book, we will just say my buy in on that aspect was 0%.) There's a bad guy preying on the town and with only three main male characters figuring out who it is isn't exactly a challenge. Your choices are Red Herring or Absurdly Easy To Spot. What isn't clear is why AETS is the freak he is. Either Hooper is planning on breaking out her undying evil force plot from an earlier book (I dearly hope not) or she forgot that most suspense books end up giving the killer's motivations. Generally, it goes beyond I Hate Chicks. Sure, not always. Most of the time, though.

So, there's no romance. There's no suspense. There is light horror and a body count, plus a large dose of victimized girls in abject terror. The psychics are pretty useless, except when they need a sudden burst moving the plot along. The complacency of AETS is inexplicable, as is his agitation when the missing sister returns home. There's no payoff in the long lost family angle either. Emma greets Jesse back like she went out for milk but had to go to the store across town. There's no heat in Haven, not of anger or of love. It's a smooth ride to the finish, enjoyable and easily forgotten. As a library read, a waiting room book or a beach burner it's fine. Haven is truly average. Which makes me sad. I like Kay Hooper. I like her way with paranormals. I wish she'd either get over this series or rethink the light horror focus. I am bone tired of reading about mutilated women, I need something else to hang my hat on if we're going to insist on writing about them.

26 September, 2012

Things You Should Listen To: The Devil You Know by Rickie Lee Jones

The first CD I ever bought (not the first item of music, that would take us back to LP's and 45's) was Rickie Lee Jones' The Magazine. I didn't have a CD player. I didn't even have the hope of having a CD player. When the compact disc hit it was an artificially expensive format requiring a serious investment in hardware. This was an aspirational purchase. It was a promise to myself that someday I would be the type of girl who'd listen to Rickie Lee Jones on expensive stereo equipment. (As it happened, I gained access to a CD player that very week. I never looked back.)

I can't make you love Rickie Lee Jones. I recognize that she is forever associated with slouched hats and doomed affairs in the hearts and minds of many. Having followed her entire career believe me when I say The Devil You Know is among her best work. This is a covers album. It's also a fairly predictable and shop worn selection - her answer (perhaps) to Rod Stewart's American Songbook. It's a different side of Rickie. There's a gravity to her voice which brings Billie Holliday to mind. She's weary. The girl has grown into herself. There's a moment in The Weight where she makes a sound, just a bit of an Ahh. Within that addition you can hear a resigned fatigue. The sort you quickly stifle before it drowns you. Give her a chance to win you over. For a moment, be the girl who listens to Rickie Lee Jones on outrageously expensive sound equipment.

(What I really want now is a duet between Rickie Lee Jones and Victoria Williams. File that in my dreams next to Joe Jackson recording with Perry Farrell.)

25 September, 2012

Brian Kozicki 1965 - 2012

The Coolest Thing I Ever Gave Him

Brian Kozicki wasn't a woman-hating asshole.

Maybe that seems like a low bar, a gimmie in the hurdles of life. For a man in Brian's chosen profession, not being a woman-hating asshole was a goddamn miracle. (I shouldn't focus on that. Brian was so many things that not being misogynist is only a tiny part of the picture.) If he'd climbed mountains or bred pygmy goats you'd marvel at a life lived in pursuit of a passion. And Brian was deeply passionate about his interests. (But goats and mountains weren't among them.) He loved his family, his community and his chosen life. He was a passionate advocate of literacy. He was a man who believed the least among us had the same value as the most. He was a man who tried to live his values. Mostly, he succeeded.

To use a tired comparison, he was a bear of a man. Sentimental, loudly dressed, eager for a laugh or a good natured argument, Brian embraced people in all their diversity. He greeted his friends with huge hugs, then said goodbye the same way. He could be so full of cheer that it was impossible not to smile. (He wasn't always happy, none of us are.) Happiness was a goal he worked toward. Given a choice, he chose joy. If Brian couldn't fix his own problem, he'd work on yours. If you didn't have one, he'd tell you about someone else's so you could work on it together.

Most of the time, Brian picked up the check at meals. "It's a business expense." (It wasn't.) He always apologized after complaining, even when the problems were huge. He didn't want to bring you down, enough about him, back to you. I loved making him laugh. His face would light up when you surprised him. He welcomed people like he'd been waiting all year for just that exact person to walk in the door. Brian treated a five year old with a dollar the same way he treated a hipster with hundreds. He was as passionate an advocate for his wares as Steve Jobs was for Apple. "Just look at this!" he'd exclaim. "I'm going to give you this because you have to see it!" If you loved it, he'd beam. If you hated it, he'd be just as excited. At least you gave it a shot. That's what Brian always wanted, a shot. 

Brian owned a comic store. He owned a comic store in boom years, in bust years and in between years. His dream of a large multimedia arcade wasn't meant to be, but it would have been my favorite place ever. He once introduced me to Paul Lee by saying Paul would love me, when normal protocol is to treat the artist as the main event. I think, although I could be wrong, that it was Paul Lee who drew Brian into Batman as a bartender. It made sense. Brian loved to talk as much as he loved to listen. The counter was his natural habitat. He could talk me into any book, any restaurant, any person. When I'd get annoyed and write irritated letters to editors he'd call and offer me a book signing. Manchester's own, featured in a new tirade. 

There were three things Brian never got me to do. The first was disc golf. The second was work the shop. The third was joining him for SDCC. For years he tried to tempt me. (Did I want to have dinner with Mark Hamill?) He'd bring me signed things from Kevin Smith or Jason Mewes. "Look what you missed!" followed by "Look what you missed again!" and eventually "What's wrong with you!?!?!" He'd say "You should go. We'd have a great time. Kevin Smith would love you!" 

Brian died at 46. This is ridiculous. I am writing this a full month since his death but less than twelve hours since I found out he's gone.  The world needed Brian. It needed his enthusiasm. It needed his passion for education in whatever guise it came. When I first met Brian I saw or spoke to him several times a week. Then I moved away. Then I had kids. Then I had cancer. Then I had it again. Over the years a few times a week turned into a few times a year. Each time, each conversation, was one of laughter and joy. (Even the ones about chemo.) Listen, I know this was filled with cliches. This wasn't an original thought or an innovative page. This was a very long way to say something very small. 

I want you to meet my friend Brian. You'd really love him.

24 September, 2012

Review: Sweet Talk by Julie Garwood

I didn't utterly hate it, so there's that. If there is a literary equivalent of easy listening, this book is it. Snoozey McSnoozerson with a side of sleepytime. The writing is simplistic, the characters defy belief, the twists and turns of the plot are nonexistent. This is a bad guy. This is a bad guy too. Here's another bad guy over here. Here they are, all caught. Wait, that bad guy as well. You know what would have rocked this book and set the plot on fire? If our heroine Olivia had actually been wrong about something. Preferably the Ponzi scheme she was chasing down, but really, anything.

Olivia has cancer as a kid and meets three other girls in an experimental drug program that.... doesn't matter at all to any other aspect of the plot. The cancer exists just to show that her family is a bunch of bad guys except for the ones that aren't. Olivia is convinced, without any evidence, that her father runs a massive Ponzi scheme. She's rerouted her career into a field she thinks will help bring him down. Her aunt is convinced as well and urges Olivia forward as the Only One Who Can Do It. (Olivia has serious martyr issues.) Ok, what if Olivia had been wrong? What if Grayson (our hero) proved that Olivia's father was innocent and Olivia had simply transposed her justifiable resentment into criminal conspiracy? It's absolutely ok to despise parents that don't turn out to be mastermind criminals. Really.

But whatever, Olivia is never wrong. She's working on her dad's case, her day job at the FBI, and as an attorney for children caught up in the court system (although she doesn't go to court, she seems to mostly drive them to safe houses.) She gets shot three times and has sex a few days later, even though the surgery is touch and go. She taunts men with popsicles like she's a sexually abused tween and buys groceries for her shut in neighbors. She's rich as hell, so when she gets shot her aunt's staff comes to clean and restock her home while a personal chef caters weekly. Yet at the start of the book she's pinching pennies, skipping meals and worrying about her income. Olivia likes her men temporary and her sex whenever it's offered. Don't call her for a month? We're cool. Two weeks? Why worry about it. Olivia has no emotional needs at all. She's a giver, a pleaser, a servant to her serfs. I was really hoping they'd shoot Olivia in the head so a second heroine would appear. Look, she steps in to handle her lover's nephew's school bullying problem in a completely illegal and unlikely manner for no plot reason other than yet another example of her goodness. Come on. I don't care how many kids she works with in court, you don't walk into someone else's life and stitch their problems up in twenty seconds.

Grayson isn't much better. He's an FBI agent, single parent, home remodeling landlord, investor, investment type who is well known in the socialite circles. When it's revealed early on that Grayson knows Olivia's aunt no one asks how. Her aunt is surprised, she didn't know they were acquainted - and that's it. Olivia doesn't ask questions. The aunt doesn't ask questions. Grayson acts like a teenager with his first erection through most of the book, not the seasoned adult he's presented as. He does a lot of Ricky Ricardo posturing and has a miracle life where there is no paperwork involved. Grayson foils an attempted kidnapping and murder? It's all good. Let's hand the bad guys off to the team and hit the sheets. His work consists of taking a few phone calls and slapping the occasional cuff on. Wait, he can also engage in some low level police brutality with no complaints from any law enforcement and shoot people dead without having his gun held for an investigation period. Grayson is Olivia's perfect match in doing what he wants and being The Only One Who Can. Serving a time critical search in another state? Local can't get through those tricky old locks, but Grayson and his partner enjoy a good night's sleep then fly in to save the day in seconds!

Look, there's nothing objectionable about Sweet Talk. I didn't really want to DNF it at any point. It's a great read for a day you're sedated on cold meds and can't follow anything complicated. Turn the brain off and enjoy. It's unoffensive and smooth but it isn't good.

21 September, 2012

Review: Lord of Temptation by Lorraine Heath

Hated it. Hated it so much I had to stop 75 pages in and rant. Hated, hated, hated it. And I love Lorraine Heath. From any other author, Lord of Temptation would have hit the DNF pile without regret. From Lorraine Heath I had to struggle on in the belief that surely it would get better.

It did not.

Lord of Temptation is full of weary shortcuts that sketch in concepts  rather than paint portraits of real people. I didn't believe in any of these characters. Our hero is well detailed in my prior rant. He's a pirate captain and a lost lord and the sort of man who thinks of women as prey. Heath attempts to counter balance his creeptastic ways by having him passively take a few beatings and spend a lot of time thinking about what a creepier creep he'd be if not for our heroine's magically attracting ways. Our heroine is 85% social convention adherent and 15% sex positive adventurer. She's the sort of girl who can say things like "Look, I know I agreed to marry you, but five minutes ago I was banging that guy I told you I wasn't into like a shutter in a storm. Let's still get hitched, okay?" After she and her fiance work through that epic moment of truth and arrive on the morning of their wedding she asks him to stand up for her while she marries someone else.  Because it would be good for her reputation. Since I was desperate to like anyone in this novel, her refusal to be a consistent character (unless stunningly self absorbed was the object) irked me. Granted, her fiance doesn't love her but it's still all kinds of tacky from a woman who has already embarrassed the man half a dozen other ways.

My nickname for the hero, The Pirate Stalker, was more apt than I could have predicted when I first applied it. He spends more time thinking about how he usually leaves women, how when he is done with them he just disposes of them, than he does the heroine. Sleeping with the heroine is high on his list. Not having the heroine change him is right up there too. This was the sort of book where the hero spends 90% of his time whining about how the heroine is trapping him with her magic vagina. She wants things he doesn't. In real life we call that irreconcilable differences. In Romanceland it often means they haven't sexxed their problems away yet. So they have at until they do. Compounding my inability to care about this shallow pond is the unrealistic sibling relationship. In the prior book three young boys escape certain death and vow to return for their revenge. They plan their return for ten years out (legally dead at seven, but never mind that). This book resumes events two years after the return. The three brothers are still emotionally estranged, if cordial. This leads Heath to write some truly ridiculous scenes. Tristan (the hero) barges into his brother's Rafe's office (after a two year gap) to demand information on the heroine. Rafe tells him he has a nephew and Tristan is like, ok, cool, so about my question? These men are so far apart that even the news of a child isn't transmitted between them but they can barge in and out of each other's homes without challenge? Later Tristan does almost the exact same thing to his other brother. "Hi, give me what I want. Ok, bye." Whose life works like that?

You can't even cheer on the side characters. The Pirate Stalker has his own stalker, a deluded young woman determined to chain him to her side on the basis of nothing. He refuses her to her face and continually shows preference to another. Of course she steps forward and claims he is her lover. Then, scant pages later, she sits in public, in society, openly, at his surprise wedding where she is easily subdued by a whisper. Her eyes open and she realizes she's been ignoring the man for her all along. Since said man is willing to move past years of deluded thinking and a false accusation of seduction, I suppose she's right. Mental, but right. This is the sort of shortcut plotting that passes for depth in Lord of Temptation. I'm fighting to give the book two stars when I do my Amazon review because there are truly worse books out there, I just don't think Lorraine Heath wrote them. If you're looking for escapist sexxy times 1978 flashback pirate pages, Lord of Temptation is for you. It was absolutely not for me.