27 May, 2012

Review: Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris

Harris is not a gifted writer. Her skill lies in her plotting and her ability to keep you interested in the next twist her road will take. Unfortunately Sookie spends large portions of Deadlocked driving in circles.This isn't to say you should skip Deadlocked, but there are some larger-than-Harris flaws in this one. Can we open with the big one?

Harris has always had a somewhat complicated racial world view - in fact this blogger has already summed that up nicely. Harris goes for broke in Deadlock. Alongside her usual quiet bigotry she highlights the character of Palomino - a vampire with "caramel" skin and "cornsilk" hair. Later in the book she has a character toss out the phrase jungle-bunny in an attempt to emotionally affect KeShawn Johnson. He (of course) is above such things. In a world where a black woman of superhuman strength and experience would permit herself to be named after a pony, I suppose we can allow for KeShawn's tolerance.

Deadlocked sums up some of the troubling aspects of the series. While Sookie doesn't dump vampires for their abusive ways, she does begin to examine her choices. Unfortunately Deadlocked is a character dump. The time spent with vampires isn't the engaging run through their soap opera ways that we're used to. Vampires come and go through Deadlocked without really capturing your attention. High stakes vampire drama seems like an afterthought to the real focus. Fairies. Ok, not really, but the addition of her fairy heritage is where (in my opinion) Sookie's story went to pieces. Deadlocked is full up to here with fairy. (I think we're fairly clear of them for the final book as Deadlocked seems to set the stage for their removal.) But vampires and fairies and werewolves, oh my. Everyone and everything makes an appearance in Deadlocked. If a character isn't included, they're contemplated. Relationships we don't care at all about are lingered over and remarked on. People take her to brunch. Sookie cooks half a dozen times for half a dozen occasions. She describes everything about her days in mind-numbing detail. She wonders what a flash drive is and understands a Reader's Digest reference. By the end of Deadlocked Sookie has closed the door on most of her past. She's walked away from most of the distractions the first eleven books brought her to refocus on the things that mattered to her in the first one. I think it may be a misdirection. My money for book 13 finds Sookie dead and sleeping with the angels, all of whom will undoubtedly be hard bodied sex machines who can't resist her small town ways.

25 May, 2012

Review: Rainshadow Road by Lisa Kleypas

Just... no.

As much as I loved Christmas Eve At Friday Harbor I disliked Rainshadow Road.  If this were a debut book I'd probably like it more. I'd say the author shows promise. I'd say it was flawed but likeable. As a new work by Lisa Kleypas, I have to go with Oh Hell No. While maintaining the early Loveswept vibe of her first Friday Harbor novel Kleypas has decide to take a giant leap into the paranormal pond for no apparent reason at all. It doesn't serve the story. Look, to explain why we are going to have to spoil most of Rainshadow Road. If you're planning on reading it stop here and come back when you're done. I'll wait. It's a blog, there's no time limit.

Spoiling on - our heroine has a dysfunctional relationship with her sibling after a health scare causes her parents to stop using their brains and enable her younger sister for the rest of eternity. Young Lucy discovers that when in the grip of strong emotion (Carrie) she can transform glass into something living and beautiful. No scorpions or boa constrictors for our delicate heroine - the wrongs of her life are reshaped into birds and butterflies. So, of course, she goes into glasswork for a living. After all, there's nothing like dropping thousands of dollars into materials and watching it fly out the door during a mood swing. Except that doesn't happen. Lucy's glass-ventures are relegated to minor events and disposable items. She loses a drinking glass here and there, orgasms require new window panes as they flutter into the sky. (Talk about wondering if it's worth the work. No thunderstorm sex for her.) Lucy has a few magic realism dreams and she makes a window that changes with her moods. That's pretty much it. Her glass abilities do nothing to advance the plot beyond the dream giving her a reason to be further entwined with our local winemaker, Sam.

We know Sam from the last book. Now he talks to plants and heals withered ones with a brush of his fingers. He doesn't make a vine forest, have plants shoot needles into foes or do anything interesting. The only reason he has a magical ability is so he can bond with Lucy and believe her crazy story about the magic window dream. He has a withered transplanted vine in the garden that won't bloom until - well, let's leave some mystery. (You already know, right?) OK! So if you remove all of the magic from the book you're left with an underdeveloped plot that could have been omgsogood if it wasn't for the time wasted. One of Sam's brothers is heading for the altar. The other is recently divorced and diving into a bottle. Because of his dysfunctional past Sam is all about not actually sleeping with women (so tired of that one) and only having casual sex. He chases Lucy like a dog chases cars and has the same reaction to catching her.

Lucy has a live in boyfriend that quickly reveals himself to be sleeping with her sister, Alice. Without getting into whose name is on the lease territory, Kevin (the cad) informs her that Alice is moving in so she has to get out. Lucy goes for a long bike ride and a good cry, where she briefly meets Sam. She will continue to briefly meet Sam until she ends up living with him in the worst case of plot convolution I've seen in a good long while. Lucy moves into a boarding house. She is good friends with the owners and their biker gang buddies. (She created a special window for the Biker Church.) Lucy gets in car accident and breaks her leg. (Here I need to disclose recent personal experience with an injury very like Lucy's, except I detached my foot from my ankle because I am gangster like that.) Of course she will go to Sam's house to recover, this man she has met twice. She can't return to her actual home because the owners are too busy to help. She can't fly her parents in because that would be... logical? Despite having been hit by a car neither her insurance nor the inevitable lawsuit appear to extend to in home care. She can't take the biker gang's offer of assistance because Sam hates the very thought of it. Repeatedly. For no reason. Vintage Schwinn bikers = good. Motorized bikers = bad. Even though the bikers have protected her in a bar, fixed her car and otherwise been good to her, Sam commands her to not even consider their help and takes her home. Again, for no apparent reason but that the plot demands proximity. There is a lot of this. Kevin asks Sam to date Lucy for no reason other than the opportunity for Sam to demonstrate his honesty and Lucy to later brag on it. Things happen for reasons that have nothing to do with probable real world human reactions and everything to do with the demands of the inorganic plot.

Further annoying me is the way the broken leg is handled. Having just spent a fair amount of time doing things like crying on the floor in frustration over my inability to swing my leg into my walk in shower stall, I found Lucy's mobility (and libido) completely ridiculous. Sam carries her about like she's a handbag without any strain on him or pain for her. That's not how it goes. Lucy has no daily physical therapy. She has a fairly normal life except for being couch bound and carried up or down stairs (!) by Sam the wonder man. Her showers are conducted by sitting on a plastic stool (no stopping at the medical supply store) after Sam wraps her leg in plastic. There's no leaking, no itching, no swelling or other daily concerns of a serious injury. The jostling of everyday life means an adjustment in her ice packs instead of a throbbing discomfort that damages her ability to think. When they eventually have sex it doesn't even slow her roll. Heck, Sam even gets her a new bike a few short months (weeks?) later. (Good luck flexing for the peddle without some PT, Lucy.) My ability to suspend belief took a complete hike.

Lucy is the kind of heroine you want to climb off the cross already, and Sam is the sort who never met a hair shirt he couldn't don. They will probably be very happy together but I couldn't root for them. There was no developed conflict, no true stakes. They fell in love because they were both single. They spent time together so we could have a book. This is a love story with zero calories and all the pages of the books you love!

24 May, 2012

Review: Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

From the exceptional cover design to the last page, I loved almost everything about Yes, Chef. I loved it's honesty, I loved it's style, I loved the unique life it describes. Holding me back from outright glee were some minor construction problems and Samuelsson himself. He is such a complicated man. I have so much compassion for him yet his honesty also leads me to impatience. There is a myth that one can have everything in life. The thing about everything is that you can't have it all at once. In Samuelsson's case he has had the work ethic, the family support, the drive, the charisma, the intelligence - but he is an absolutely (spoiler alert!) horrible father. Yet his honesty makes him the most charming failure of parenting I've read about in a long time. At the same time he ignores his own child, Samuelsson mentors others. He has a strong desire to bring African Americans into the world of fine dining. He believes in diversifying the upcoming kitchen crews and showcasing Harlem as the convergence of color and culture it has always been. He is a a fascinating person to read about.

With all the honesty Samuelsson eloquently brings to his life story, he has a blind spot. This is a man who feels safest in the kitchen, who has a flight response to emotional damage. Samuelsson has emotions I don't think he's even labeled yet. For all he has overcome, there is much lying in wait for him. What to make of such a conflicted individual? While sponsoring scholarships for relatives in his native Ethiopia and working with the youth of Harlem, Samuelsson also abandons his only child. How will she read this book, as an adult? What will she make of his revelations? Inside is a portrait of a young man who was plucked from impossible odds to land in a safe and loving home. Fortunate enough to find a calling when his first dream died, he applied a single minded focus to achieving it. But this man who is so clear in the dynamics of a kitchen family is adrift in his own. His love for his child is clear, his conflict obvious. But both are presented in terms of himself, and only himself. He didn't want to be "that guy" who fathered an out of wedlock child, so he kept her a professional secret. His career had to come first, but if it had derailed (he claims) then he would have been present in her life. He paid his child support diligently (after his parents insisted) but never called, never wrote. He discussed her life with her mother, but not with her. There were no gifts. Until she was 14, her father was not accessible in any way. When she confronts him, he says he just didn't know how to find the words, how to make the time, what to do. So he didn't.  He is proud she has seen him as a success, proud he was able to introduce her to Kanye West, ready to take responsibility now and face her anger because he prides himself on being able to take the heat. The heat is over. His daughter is a young woman. At the end of the book he lists all of the things he has to be thankful for. It's a list both personal and professional. It's not brief. It doesn't contain his child.*

In the first 2/3 of the book Samuelsson's story is linear and focused. He knows who he was and why he made the moves he did. He talks with love and insight about his family and himself. In the last 1/3 of the book Samuelsson founders. His unresolved emotional conflicts are exposed. The book jumps about in time and becomes less concise. While powerful, it is obvious that these are parts of his life that are in progress, still being weighed and cataloged. Unable to ask if his own parents abandoned him, unable to face what abandoning his daughter really meant, Samuelsson leaves a document of explanation for her if she is able to see it. When his birth mother was dying she used the last of her strength to seek medical attention for her children. His father was in parts unknown. A man can be great without being famous. A man can be great without being perfect. Marcus Samuelsson is a great man who has (and will) impact many lives in positive and meaningful ways. Yes, Chef is completely worth reading. I say go ahead and pre-order it.

*I read this book in ARC form. I hope she's added before publication.

23 May, 2012

Things You Could Watch: The L.A. Complex

Ok, two television reviews, two CW shows. I know what you're thinking, but I am not a pro-ana tween. In fact, it has been so long since my PTA days that I never saw a single episode of Felicity or Dawson's Creek. My tweendom involved Phoebe Cates. I blame her for my occasional dips into the CW now. Ok, not really. But I do blame specific actresses, because there are women I will follow anywhere. (Oh hai Jewel Staite.)

After five DNF reads in a row I fired up the TiVo and drowned my sorrows in The L.A. Complex. On the surface The L.A. Complex is a completely disposable show doing a paint by numbers DeGrassi style underbelly of entertainment bit. Really, it's pitching to the choir with me. I appreciate a nicely done soap as much as I suspect that the entertainment world is filled with soul killing narcissists who would have mirrors embedded in their shoes if only the light didn't disturb setup. Under the surface The L.A. Complex is pretty much what it was at first glance. It's plot twists are telegraphed, it's characters neatly fill an Edgy Casting 101 class. What made me go a fourth episode (and has me all in till the finale) is an honesty in the script coupled with some exceptional performances. Jewel Staite is ripping the role of Raquel apart. It's up there with Kudrow's deeply uncomfortable (but far too mannered) Valerie Cherish. While an element of discomfort remains, Staite goes in a completely different direction. Her Raquel is all internal rage and frustration. She knows how talented she is, knows how the clock ticks in Hollywood, but by going against her own instincts her career is deader than Johnny Chase's in the early seasons of Entourage. Raquel will claw her way back to the top if she can just find a place to grab. (Note to Raquel - if they offer you Dollhouse, don't take it. That show is a rapetastic mess.)

The rest of the cast is a mishmash, again Degrassi style. You've got the Hot Young Star, Connor. His mommy didn't love him enough and he self harms just to feel something. See, you don't care about him either. We can just move on. Abby, Illegal Immigrant (cough, young Raquel) is a confused mess. Will she strip? Will she act? Will she sing? Will she sleep with the entire cast in the first season? I don't care and neither will you. She's fine, but she's basic. Abby spends a lot of time with Nick, the unfunny comic. Nick's story arc is learning to get out of his own way, plunder the lives of those around him, and cast off the compassion for his fellow humans that will eternally block him in Hollywood. They cast a James Franco type that is so James Franco it required a script nod. Joe Dinicol is a better actor than Franco but the role is going nowhere fast. Actually, the rest of the cast is such a jumble that we should just skip ahead to the other standouts.

Benjamin Charles Watson does a great job with the oh so out there Gay Black Man. He's working with an underdeveloped role while playing off the cliched P. Diddy style world surrounding him nicely. Some of his choices are absolutely absurd (A remote B&B? Really, Tariq?) but Watson is giving a great vulnerability. He's suggesting almost a young James Baldwin as he takes the world around him in and tries to process a place for himself inside it. His counterpart, Ice-T/50-Cent OG with a record rapper Kaldrick is a perfect foil. Andra Fuller develops real charisma out of an unstable character. You've every reason to dislike Kaldrick (and the heavy handed statement he is a human stand in for) but Watson and Fuller are probably going to break my heart.

Also winning me over is an absolutely perfect performance from Aaron Abrams as washed up child star Ricky Lloyd. Give him and his agent their own show and I am there. The L.A. Complex is the sort of show where vomit means still having to ride the city bus. You aren't broke in a giant Manhattan apartment paid for by your Oxford educated boyfriend - you're fishing through other people's trash for recyclables. I can forgive it the broadcast plot twists and straight from central casting characters for the sheer quality of half it's stars. (The other half can go to just about any other CW show on the schedule without my shedding a tear.) It's the sort of show where you know the stripper is going to be a porn star long before she's a backup dancer, but her desperate plea for support gets you anyway. Add Chelan Simmons to the list of actors to watch in The L.A. Complex. This is a footnote show - the thing you never watch and years later can't believe all this amazing talent was in. I'm just going to view it now. I'm hipster like that.

Edited to add - after writing this I decided to see how Staite views the role and googled up some interviews. Click for the best.

21 May, 2012

Review: A Night Like This by Julia Quinn

Smythe-Smiths,  I adore you.

Quinn writes firmly in Regencyland. She's not interested in layering on the historical accuracy. Where she excels is light comedic romance with well conceived side characters. You don't read a Quinn book solely for the hero and heroine, you read it for the ensemble cast. Few authors can pull this off without sliding into slapstick. There's something reminiscent of Alcott in Quinn's best books. If anyone ever markets Little Women With Land Sharks they need to tap Quinn for the job.

In this second book of the Smythe-Smith series we pick up independent of the first but in the midst of it's conclusion. Daniel has returned from a three year duel induced exile to find his best friend involved with his sister. Daniel left a slightly spoiled but basically good man and he returns as someone much older. He is not haunted by his experiences, but he is informed. Which will be needed since he has set his sights on his cousin's governess. Anne has made some unwise choices in her youth which led to her own exile from the rich and entitled. Of the two, I liked Anne better. Daniel has a strong sense of family and a realistic self importance (without being overbearing) but he doesn't quite spark for me. I never fully engaged with Daniel, although I liked him.

Anne has the clearer eyes. She cannot afford to lose her job (and thus her safety) because Daniel won't stop flirting with her. She makes every effort to avoid him, but Daniel is still the oldest son of a privileged family. What he wants to do, he does. Anne's inability to shut him down encourages his pursuit, even as he realizes it's not in her best interests. Anne knows that a few choices made differently would make Daniel's interest in her fairly acceptable. Those choices belonged to a younger woman, a woman she can't admit to being. Quinn places the bulk of A Night Like This firmly in her area of strength. When the focus is on family (Daniel, Anne's, the Duelist's) the book glides. The children Anne oversees squabble appropriately. The adults meddle in appropriate ways. Late in the book is where A Night Like This hits a few wrong notes.

Anne and Daniel both have stalkers. For the most part, this is handled exceptionally well. Until it isn't. I don't think the final chapters are poorly written, there is just a bit too much for my taste. Anne's stalker has a viable reason for his actions. I believed him just as I believed the actions of her parents. Unfortunately Quinn doesn't believe him. As a result she gives the stalker a secondary motivation that I couldn't buy. It was a step too far. Without that additional motivation, I would call this one a complete home run. A Night Like This is still a great read. If Quinn decides to move forward a generation, I hope Anne is the matriarch chosen.

*PS - While I love the colors chosen for this Cinderella cover, I have to question the model's balance. Either her legs are exceptionally long or she's about to take a facer in the mud. Unstable ground, spike heels, long skirts and that leg extension? Tragic. 

06 May, 2012

Review: The Proposal by Mary Balogh

Recently I read an awesome quote, and I think it's one I am going to live by. Kurt Busiek is one of my favorite graphic artists. If you haven't checked out his Astro City, you absolutely should. If you hate graphic novels, comic books, or works with illustrations or any kind, you can still enjoy his sage wisdom.

Busiek Rule 1: Don't buy books you hate in hopes they'll get better. Buy books you like. If the bad books get better you'll hear about it. - Kurt Busiek

And thus, I break up with Mary Balogh. 

The Proposal is not a bad book. It is a book of missed opportunity. Balogh builds a wealth of back history for the characters and then does nothing with it. All of their conflict is internal and unrelated to either that history or each other. Major sources of pain or conflict in their life are swept aside. I knew I was in trouble on when the annoying friend of the heroine is first seen by the Duke and he thinks to himself (as everyone in this book always thinks - to themselves and at great length) that this 34 year old woman has really let herself go.

"She also carried too much weight upon her frame, and most of it had settled quite unbecomingly beneath her chin and about her bosom and hips. Her brown hair had lost any youthful luster it might once have had" - The Proposal by Mary Balogh, Page 43

Really? That's what middle aged dukes spent their time thinking about? Mind you, this character is being set up as selfish, needy, tiresome and social climbing. But my god, she's FAT? Well. The heroine obviously deserves better companions. I'm not sure why. At this point in the book she'd little to recommend her. Toward the end I knew I was done for the series. Our hero (spoiler alert) has gone to war after a falling out with his father, a falling out reconciled only on his father's deathbed. Their once close relationship was ruined by his young stepmother after she attempted to seduce him. He ran off to war. His father eventually died. His stepmother continued to manipulate all around her. When this predator haltingly apologizes for her actions he dismisses it with a blithe "It was my choice". There are tons of these moments. A huge build up to a possible scandal is averted by a bizarre (and frankly unlikely) save from another character. Issues of class are largely brushed aside even as they are used for the main wedge between our alleged lovers. I say alleged because Gwen and Hugo are so tepid in their emotions that I was left uncertain if their first sexual encounter was even enjoyed. I'm not one for the sex scenes (a reason for my long standing Balogh love) yet I generally leave knowing if the principals would do it again. I frankly thought we were headed for one of those It Gets Better speeches from the hero. Instead, after a few chapters, I ascertained that Gwen was perfectly happy with how things had gone.

Hugo was equally confusing. He has fallen for Gwen because she is the heroine. Hugo dislikes the aristocracy in principal, he openly states his main reason for wanting to marry is being able to get sex at home, and he - wait, let's back up. I don't care enough about Hugo to keep discussing him. I am so tired of romance discussing whores and brothels and paid sex like the people paying were forced to do so. The sex trade was alive in the past as it is alive today. Real women, real children, real people are used to feed it. Objecting to the sex trade on a matter of principle makes me respect the hero. Participating in the sex trade because he is a product of his time makes me accept the hero. Sneering a bit at the women who work it while worrying about how paying for sex makes him look is a quick route to hero hatred for me. Hugo is a plain spoken man who honors daily labor. He should honor women forced to make a living off men like him. At the least, he should recognize them as people.  He doesn't. He thinks of them as slightly shameful and rather inconvenient. He is a hypocrite of high order. 

I don't know. There is plenty to enjoy in The Proposal. I was held back from doing so by excessive ruminations and a feeling of excessive cliche. Balogh is launching a new series of largely disabled heros with The Proposal. Given the way she handles the heroine's racehorse fragile ankle I am not sure I care to see what she does with her blind or crippled veterans. Hugo carries Gwen around like a package. Being carried is not such an easy feeling, nor is it so easily achieved. I wonder if the disabilities of the others are going to be so lightly worn? Further, there is a casual insult to her treatment of Gwen. At one point she is carried downstairs so she doesn't miss the company - no tray in her room for Gwen! After a brief conversation, she is given a tray in the drawing room and the party removes to eat. Gwen is refused the comfort and privacy of her room but not fully included in their evening. To what end? Moments like this make me wary of Balogh's next work. 

02 May, 2012

Review: Comic-Con Episode IV A Fan's Hope by Morgan Spurlock

Never having attended SDCC nor having watched a Morgan Spurlock film, I might be bringing a different perspective to this. My viewing party consisted of a child, a SDCC 2007 attendee who has comic connections and myself. I left the film having no desire to ever attend SDCC. The 8 year old said "Did you buy this? Because as a rental, OK, but if I bought this I would be mad." Anger isn't the emotion I'd have but it's definitely not a film I will watch again. Spurlock has decent pacing, his technical work is good, the art direction is appropriate. On the scale of competency, the film scores. In content it is a little more problematic. There is nothing in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope to challenge any preconceived notions one might have about the comic world.

Statements by the chosen elder statesmen aren't challenged. When McFarlane said the only thing he looks at in a portfolio is the quality of the art my viewing mate laughed. Apparently they once skipped a portfolio review because McFarlane would only meet with people willing to relocate to Phoenix. No feedback without commitment to potentially accept an offer. (Artists don't routinely relocate, either.) Now McFarlane is a busy guy. How he runs his business is his concern, but the documentary frames his statements as ones of accessibility. Like other aspects of the film, there is a lot more to the reality of SDCC.

Spurlock focuses heavily on Chuck from Mile High Comics as a way to illustrate that the con has moved far from it's roots. Chuck's been in a hard business a long time. That doesn't make him the most interesting person to base a large section of the film on. In fact, most of the participants seem chosen for being fairly dull and fitting a geek mold. There is the collector who stores his mid range figures in a gun safe, the lovers with a suffocating dynamic, a young artist who wants to be discovered instead of making something happen, it's a mishmash of expected figures. If I were not already immersed in the geek world, I certainly wouldn't join it on the basis of the film.

With such rich subject matter Spurlock could have addressed issues of accessibility inside the con itself. The most interesting character is a young black soldier. He is the most prepared, the most professional, and the most talented. He is given too little attention. Issues relating to race are completely ignored. Issues relating to women are barely mentioned. A short aside about cosplay women "forgetting their pants" is the only time gender is raised. The staff working the event go uninterviewed. I feel like Spurlock wasted an opportunity. The material underlying Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope is so rich. There is so much for a documentary to say about this culture, this collision of commerce and cult. Spurlock didn't say any of it. If you believe Comic-Con to be a collision of misfits and moneymakers, then Spurlock has you covered. Right down to Joss Whedon, master marketer, decrying the raiding of his fellow geek's pockets.

Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope won't offend you. It won't enlighten you. It won't do much but make you glad you're not those dudes. And hey, Frank Miller looks pretty sober in it.