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.