31 August, 2012

Review: Midnight Scandals by Carolyn Jewel, Courtney Milan and Sherry Thomas

I don't love this cover. The model's expression is a little angry, a little vacant. I don't know why she's leaning against a wall. Her head being slightly lopped while her skirt is artificially extended reads awkwardly. I like the teal and orange combination. I like the bolding of author names over title. Visually it works in Milan's brand, but I don't love it.

That concludes at least three quarters of my objections to Midnight Scandals, which I hereby rename Doyle's Grange for the BBC miniseries that absolutely must happen. (Someone Kickstater that for me.) Midnight Scandals absolutely begs to be a BBC costume drama. Each of the three stories takes place around a small home (cue Doyle's Grange) on a larger estate. As one era passes into the next the elderly couple from the former generation brush paths with the young couple of the next. How is that not prime time catnip? As a well executed concept the home bridges the gaps between the tales, making them stronger collectively than they are alone. As the authors involved in Midnight Scandals are some of the genre's strongest, this takes us pretty close to perfection.

First up is Carolyn Jewel. Her story of lovers with two unforgivable secrets made me realize I don't read Carolyn Jewel often enough. (Why don't I read more Carolyn Jewel? I'm going to buy her backlist.) Reunited as teens after a disastrous affair with long reaching consequences for them both, her couple have to learn to forgive themselves as easily as they've forgiven each other. I adored the risk Jewel took with her secrets almost as much as the heroine's sister in law. I know that woman. I deal with that woman. Like Portia, I would chew my own arm off to escape her. She does not mean well, she is a toxic bundle of manipulation. 

Picking up the narrative is Courtney Milan. Her couple have only been apart a short period of time, but that time has transformed the heroine. Thrust out of a comfortable life, Mary has grown up quickly. As with all of Milan's tales the challenge is to discuss the dynamics without revealing the plot. I found the situation Mary escapes (or rather, situations) very well drawn. Each had that essential feeling of truth while allowing for the fictional solutions to play out. All of my issues with Mary and John occur in the wrapping up of loose ends but her benevolent villain was perfectly done.

Closing the door is Sherry Thomas. I've really missed her since I switched away from price fixing in e-books and I'm sorry she's caught up in the publisher fight. I look forward to catching up on her backlist when it's properly priced. (I could pirate them, yes. Please don't message me about it. I don't lean that way.) Because I'm not familiar with her most recent books, the characters from them felt like an annoyance instead of an enhancement. This is obviously a story meant to resolve a character from a full length book but without knowing more about them I was waiting for an explanation that never came. Thomas has a great set up in her tale of mistaken identity and second chances. Buying in required accepting that two people could look completely alike (easy) while being unrelated (no problem, happened to me) and sharing very similar names (um, not so much but ok). Her hero and heroine have nothing to forgive each other and little to forgive themselves. While I admired aspects of the other works more the romantic element felt the strongest here. Her couple fell in love in front of the reader, while the others repaired an existing love. 

If the authors want to work off brand, I would love to see a sequel to Midnight Scandals taking Doyle's Grange through the World Wars and into the London Scene. Maybe in reverse order. I think I'd give WW1 to Thomas, WW2 to Milan and the 60's to Jewel. You know, because I'm bossy like that. 

28 August, 2012

Review: The Kid by Charles Chaplin

Unlike most silent films, The Kid is intact. Chaplin restored and personally scored it. It absolutely benefits from this care.

The Kid was a phenomenon, with far reaching implications not only for the industry but for the lives of those involved. Silent films have a lot in common with category romance. In silent films the characters were often unnamed. The audience knew there would be The Boy and The Girl, a name for either was beside the point. The Boy is almost always of a different economic status than The Girl. True Love was at first sight, with the plot hinging on misunderstanding, class conflict, and external forces. The audience expected The Boy and The Girl to overcome all of this on their path to happiness. This deceptively simple framework offered limitless variations. Chaplin's first full length film was The Kid. He had appeared in six reels for other directors but here he had full creative control as actor, producer and director. Everything hinged on this one. I think it's his finest film. While emotional, it's not as manipulative as City Lights. It has statements about class, but they are subtle.

The Kid subverts many conventions of the orphan story. In The Kid Edna Purviance was given a very feminist role. She does not suffer spiritually from her out of wedlock child. She is presented as a respected, talented, admirable woman. The Girl is not brought down by her out of wedlock child. Instead she thrives in life, becoming wealthy and famous. Given a chance to reunite with her child she eagerly takes it. Through the entire film The Kid is presented as a person, not an object. His wishes and capabilities are given as much weight as The Tramp and The Girl. Set aside is The Boy. By his failure to support The Girl he becomes a footnote to her life and his son's. If this were a Harlequin romance, The Girl would be The Boy and The Tramp would be a friend or sister of The Girl who steps up to mother the orphan in her place. It is odd to consider a 1921 film more modern than many 2012 books. I often wonder how the angel sequence played to contemporary audiences. Occurring in the final seven minutes of the film it seems out of place to modern eyes. Did contemporary audiences expect The Tramp to quietly die in the doorway? It's also difficult to put aside the knowledge that the flirtatious angel is 12. (Several scholars have effectively argued Lita Grey's real life relationship with Chaplin inspired Nabakov to write Lolita.) The absolute star of the film is Jackie Coogan. His story is heartbreaking. In fiction, The Kid was abandoned only to find himself continually beloved. In life, Jackie Coogan was at the mercy of those who exploited him. Even during the film he made (as the co star) half the salary of his bit player father and realized none of it.

Silent films are invaluable resources for anyone interested in the history of their time. Aside from showing off different norms of attire they portray what would be acceptable realities to a contemporary viewer. Slanted for humor or effect, they still contain truth. The pay to sleep homeless shelter, The Girl passing out toys and apples to children in the slums. America fell in love with The Kid because Jackie Coogan was heartbreaking and his reality plausible to them. They wanted The Tramp to have his happy ending and they wanted The Girl to get her son back. When I watch The Kid, I do too.

27 August, 2012

Review: Chaplin by Richard Attenborough

The reading slump returned as I tried to slog my way through The Pirate Stalker (not it's real title). As a result, I find myself revisiting some older films. Watching Robert Downey Jr  play Chaplin, I'm struck by how The Tramp is as much a part of our culture as Uncle Sam or Mom's Apple Pie and yet Chaplin himself was a British immigrant exiled from America. He spent much of his life in Switzerland. Chaplin's numerous children and grandchildren live across the world with some choosing English as their third language. There is nothing American about the Chaplin dynasty but our sentimental embrace of a family we cast out. Which is a great segue to the film.

Chaplin the biopic is a mess. It's romanticized, sanitized and fawning. Hallmark would blush at it's naked sentimentality. There are serious inaccuracies and oversights. It's still a fantastic film due largely to the impeccable casting. The focus on RDJ's lead is understandable and well deserved. RDJ so fully inhabits The Tramp that Chaplin himself no longer looks properly like Chaplin. One expects him to resemble RDJ more. It is perhaps the best performance of an actual person ever filmed. It's that good. RDJ encompasses both the mannerisms of Chaplin and our perception of Chaplin into the perfect blend. (Until the last bits of the film. Chaplin in old age is painful. RDJ is hampered by excessive prosthetics and a section of script that's barely watchable.) Because RDJ is so good, the other actors tend to get overlooked.

Just as perfect is Dan Akroyd as Mack Sennett. He captures not only Sennett's seat of his pants opportunism, but also his Canadian-ness, if such a thing can be. He's a genial cutthroat. Paul Rhys is perfection playing Chaplin's brother (and manager) Sydney. Geraldine Chaplin turns in a perfectly heartbreaking interpretation of her own grandmother, frantically crumbling food in an effort to protect herself from a life that's already happened. Maria Pitillo's Mary Pickford shows the sharp mind inside America's Sweetheart and made me long for a Nick and Nora remake putting her opposite RDJ. The film is perfectly cast with actors disappearing into their roles. And yet.

In Attenborough's film Chaplin's affinity for young teens is romanticized. By casting Moira Kelly to play both Hetty Kelly and Oona O'Neill he does a disservice to both women. (The entire presentation of the Hetty Kelly story is problematic when compared to reality.) At it's heart, Chaplin has only two categories for women, mythically pure or deeply damaged. Only Paulette Goddard (wonderfully presented by Diane Lane) escapes this division. The film has Chaplin tricked by a deceitful first wife (Milla Jovovich is appropriately vacant as Mildred Harris). Urged to consider disposing of her pregnancy our fictional Chaplin manfully declares that in his world, you marry the girl. Actually, in Chaplin's world you married the underage girl or charges would be brought. In the film, the blame is on Mildred. So too is blame placed on second wife Lita Grey (the barely seen Deborah Moore). Attenborough prefers to gloss over Lita's falling into Chaplin's world at the age of 12 (or possibly younger) after he cast her as his love interest (the flirtatious angel) in The Kid. Although Grey's version of events has changed several times over the years she is consistent in saying Chaplin urged her to abort and resented their forced marriage. Chaplin's twin problems of avoiding birth control and seducing teens is swept to a mild allusion on the side. It conflicts with the film's narrative of a noble and wounded soul.

As frustrated as I was with the film and as desperately as I wanted to cut both it's last act and it's unneeded fictional narrator (Hopkins) the overall look at Chaplin's world was brilliant. RDJ inspired me to revisit Chaplin after decades spent avoiding his work in favor of lesser known stars. In the brilliance of RDJ (himself a flawed and human man) the brilliance of Charles Chaplin is restored. I went on a week long binge of his work, then his imitators (looking at you, Billy West!) then his contemporaries, only to find myself wishing there were more. Which is sort of like saying Harlequin doesn't publish enough titles.

21 August, 2012

Dude Looks Like A Stalker

"Don't ask me what I think of you / I might not give the answer that you want me to." - Peter Green 

Just a few chapters into a highly anticipated new book I find myself wanting to abandon it. A major issue I have with The Numeric Book and The Series That Inspired It is the toxic power dynamic of the lead couples. Many years ago (when I was reviewing erotica) I realized that reality has no place in getting your freak on. If something is possible, if something is plausible, if something is healthy is irrelevant. Humans are aroused by things that would be toxic to their daily life. I get that. Much like science fiction and fantasy, erotica has it's own physics. Popular literary fiction thrives on dysfunction. The sicker the better. (Raped by your dad? Add a dead cousin and a teen pregnancy! It's all so meaningful!) I've been around a few blocks. Each has it's customs. Which is why this book is making me so sad.

It's all 1978 up in here. Our heroine has a dead fiance. She wants to go cry at his grave because she didn't give it up before he left. She asks around for a fairly safe ship to travel on, seeing as her plan involves boarding it with only her maid for protection. (She's not even planning on a passenger ship. Her faith in her fellow man is really touching.) The ship she's chosen refuses her. The captain tells her he'd like to have sex with her. So she runs off to try every other ship in port. All of them refuse her because the captain has offered double her cash to anyone who does. Since there could be hundreds of ships in port, he could (in theory) have pledged 40,000 pounds to keep her on shore. That's like, 100 million dollars. Ok, so already we're in unreasonable territory. Even if there were only a handful of ships in port, it is insane that our hero would offer up a ton of cash to thwart the travel plans of a women he spoke to for less than five minutes. In that five minute conversation she told him she wanted to go see her fiance and he decided he had to bang her. At this point our hero is an unbalanced rapist creep. Our heroine never gives him her name. He has her followed. He approaches people for information about her. He sneaks into her bedroom to confront her. Her reaction to a man who has stalked her and invaded her home is not fear. She's angry. How dare he thwart her plans! So she's either equally insane or just too stupid to live. If the guy at Hertz refused to rent you a car unless you rocked his world then let himself into your house without so much as knowing your name, I don't think you'd cozy up for a chat. I don't care how great the TripAdvisor reviews for Hertz were, that shit is scary.

Our hero tells the heroine that he wants to bang her omgsobad. However! He will settle for a kiss at his time of choosing on said voyage. But she will be sleeping in his room, of course. Our heroine says "That's a deal, sir." and off to sea she goes. (She thinks only ugly guys rape women.)  Can we back it up a second? A guy she has barely spoken to tracked down her identity, invaded her privacy, restricted her options, showed no respect for her choices and demonstrated serious control issues but he offers her his word and she's good to go? What? In the real world she gets raped and tossed to the fishes without anyone ever being the wiser. In fact, in the real world she disappears from her bedroom then and there. Creepy Stalker Dude is Creepy Stalker Dude in any time period. Instead she slaps him and he sorrowfully takes it. Which proves he's ok. (Oh hi, abuse dynamics. I knew you weren't far behind. What took you so long? The hero and heroine have exchanged at least twelve sentences by now.) Everyone knows a real creepy abusive stalker rapist dude would never tolerate a slap to the face or express conditional remorse. We're all good now!

So at this point in the book we know these things. The heroine finds the hero trustworthy, based on nothing. She's already thinking about how she didn't give it up to her dead fiance so she sure as hell isn't giving it up to this guy, unless she maybe does, but she won't because dead fiance is dead! The hero is thinking he has to bang her like he's never banged anything so he better keep her penned in and get it fast - after she hooks up with fiance guy she's going to cool down and be sexually unavailable. Who wouldn't want to read more? (THIS GIRL!) Ok, I'm not being fair. We also know that the hero has brothers with whom he has a completely inexplicable relationship. The interactions between the hero and his brothers make as little sense as the relationship between the hero and heroine. There is a lot going on in the author's head, but it isn't making it's way to the page. So I'm sad. I'm sad because this favorite author is turning in a wallbanger of a book. I'm sad that the rapetastic stalker hero of the 1970's is back. I'm sad that this romance isn't between two flawed people but between the pheromones of a Magic Vagina and a Conquering Dick. I'm sad because there are days I feel like the only reader who wants my romance to be romantic instead of training wheels for erotica. I'm sad because I'm going to have to slam this book when I rate it and the ensuing outrage is going to annoy me.

Here's the thing about reviewers. We want to like your book. We try to like your book. If you promise me Super Emo Guy but deliver Crazy Eyed Date Rapist, we can't be friends. I have to love myself before I can love your book. Ok then. I'm glad we talked.  I'm going to go finish it before the TruFans realize which title I'm talking about.

15 August, 2012

Review: The Way To A Duke's Heart by Caroline Linden

Yea, go ahead and buy it.

I love almost everything about this book. I like everything on the cover from the color balance to the "Bitch, please" stare of the heroine. Linden finishes her The Truth About The Duke series with the best of the three. (I admit I had my concerns about this one.) Having reviewed both the prior books I decided to finish the series out. I'm so glad I stuck with Linden. In fact, I liked The Way To A Duke's Heart so much I think you should go ahead and start there. Nothing really happens in the prior books that is vital to the third. Look, I'll get you ready. There's this Duke In Waiting named Charlie. He's got two brothers and an inheritance issue. His brothers have tried to help but both of them wised up and dumped the ball back where it belongs. Charlie has had enough time to feel sorry for himself and work on his Daddy Issues. It's crunch time. (That's it. You're good to go.)

Our heroine is an awkward businesswoman on a mission. With her brother considering investment in the latest canal scheme Tessa is off to investigate the legitimacy of this enterprise. Trusted by her family, unable to trust those outside it, Tessa doesn't want to suck up to a charmer in the hotel lobby. Since Tessa might hold the key to Charlie's dilemma, he charms her elderly companion instead. Tessa says ok, whatever, that's cool. I've got books to audit and swamps to slog. You do you, Charlie. I'm busy doing me. Which she does. Sadly for Tessa, Charlie is trying to do her too. (But not that way.) He pretends an interest in the canal investment as a pretext for investigating Tessa's involvement in his dilemma. Continuing Linden's tradition of bucking some time honored Regency conventions it turns out that Tessa is a completely disinterested bystander. She has nothing at all to do with the mysterious blackmailer that's been mucking up Charlie's life. Nor is she willing to be a diversion while Charlie evades his responsibilities.

The evolution of Charlie from sulky party boy to Duke Of Tessa's Dreams is very well done. Both characters know who they are and (more importantly) why they are. Tessa and Charlie offer each other the same thing - someone to take them seriously and hold them accountable. Charlie respects Tessa's intelligence. As a man well aware of his own shortcomings he can easily see the strength in hers. For her part, Tessa has no experience of him. She sees a man well positioned to make changes in people's lives so she expects him to do so. While she guides him toward responsibility he leads her into frivolity. They are well suited to each other and to the plot. It's a nice balance Linden maintains for almost the whole of the book. My only complaint about The Way To A Duke's Heart arrives shortly after The Truth About The Duke is revealed. The truth itself is satisfying in content and execution. The events just following that are a failure for me. In exploring his past Charlie falls into one of my genre pet peeves. "If I had sex with you and you're not the hero / heroine, you completely suck." Yes, Charlie has a Crazy Bitch Ex in his past (as does Tessa) and the CBE briefly becomes the books focus. Handled just a little differently the CBE would have lifted the book from very good to possibly brilliant. As it stands the CBE bogs us down before being swept to the side as Tessa and Charlie get on with the getting on.

If you've been following the series or not, The Way To A Duke's Heart is a fun read. I like Linden's way with characterization. With this book the author moves off my TBR and onto my auto-buy list. (If nothing else, her strong voice knocked Charlie Sheen out of my mind for the entire read. I didn't think that was going to be possible.)

13 August, 2012

Review: Right State by Mat Johnson and Andrea Mutti

Political commentary is hard to do correctly. I'd love to tell you that Mat Johnson has pulled it off but he falls into a familiar pitfall. There is no one human in Right State. These are puppets we've played with before. While obviously coming in from a liberal viewpoint, Johnson isn't that far from Frank Miller's recent conservative ravings. Johnson is gentler and less bigoted but still delivers a book without any relatable characters. There is no one for the reader to walk beside in  Right State. The most sympathetic character is a heavy handed stand in for a point of view. I leave Right State unsure of it's agenda. Nothing here is likely to shed light to anyone else. If you are a conservative Right State will feed your belief that liberals consider you ill educated at best and a racist head case at worst. If you are a liberal it oversimplifies the appeal of the far right political movement. There is a danger in assuming your idealogical opponent to be fundamentally different from yourself.

Ted Akers is a pundit. He speaks passionately for money without deeply believing his own words. He is rhetoric in a suit spreading a toxic point of view for profit. He is, of course, a good guy. No one ever thinks they are the problem. Right State has a strong set up here. Several far right pundits have recanted their past beliefs. Discovering you are part of the problem is not a simple journey to take. Instead of a gradual discovery of his own blindness, Akers is quickly immersed in a full fledged conspiracy. Reluctantly drafted to thwart a death threat against America's second black liberal president (no, Right State is not a futuristic thriller) Akers finds himself surrounded by extras from Deliverance. These undereducated militants consider Ted Akers a national hero.

I want to pause here to refute the easy assumption that the patriot / militia movement is made up of cult leaders and dim thinkers. The election of President Obama may have galvanized them, but it did not create them. I have known sophisticated, intelligent, articulate people who have moved deeper and deeper into these movements over the last fifteen years. To conflate an extreme far right belief with insanity is to underestimate the attraction of this movement. What the KKK was to the 1960's, they are to us today. A plot on the level that Akers is sent to unravel would not consist of one crazed cult figure and dozens of dimwitted followers. While crazed cult figures and dimwitted followers can certainly exist in any party it lessons the impact of Akers awakening to have it precipitated by such a group. It also relegates Right State into a preach-to-the-choir stance. This book will no more reach across the divide than Miller's Holy Terror. This is a shame.

Akers, of course, discovers there is more at work behind the scenes than he realized. The militants are being manipulated by forces high in the opposition party, the party Akers once defended. His disillusionment is as swift as it is brutal. For the reader, it's a bit of a yawn. How much more compelling  would Akers awakening in place have been? How much could Johnson have said about our broken system of shouting if Akers awoke after a successful plot? If the catalyst was not being tossed down the rabbit hole but awakening in Wonderland and realizing the cost? What if the revelations in Akers came from the implementation of the change he advocated for? Right State is a lost opportunity. Johnson tells the story of a man confronting the crazy fringe he inspired. It may be the tale Johnson set out to tell but it is a well worn and cliched one. The fish in this barrel have already been shot. Johnson is better than this material and I hope he takes another shot at our great divide. Right State was all wrong for me.

11 August, 2012

How To Spend Your Money: Waring Pro CC150 Cotton Candy Machine

I don't understand the Ladies Who Refuse Lunch. Why do people eat 100 calorie chemical snack packs when they could have 40 calories of sweet sugary goodness on a stick? I'm sure there's a reason that has to do with blood sugar crashes and refined carbs. Tell me all about it later. Right now I am excited about my latest kitchen toy. After a No Good Terrible week full of Problems I Can't Solve I found myself at Sur La Table. Some people drown their sorrows in sex with strangers. I buy a new spatula. Or a cotton candy machine. You know, like you do.

Commercial cotton candy machines? I've run them, disassembled them, cleaned them, and patronized them. I've never thought a home unit could do more than produce a token puff. The kind (and by kind I mean evil) people at Sur La Table invited me to play around with one of their units. Dude. DUDE! Look at that photo! I used half a tablespoon of sugar! I totally bought it. I also bought a jar of classic pink vanilla spinning sugar by Hammonds. At $9 for a small jar it's 32 cents a serving. The floss sugar Gold Medal puts out is less than 11. On the other hand, you have to store that sugar nice and dry until you've eaten 90 odd sticks of cotton candy. It seems sensible to pay a little more to eat a little less.

I've been playing with the machine a few days running. It's quick to clean and much more fun than most kitchen toys. A cup of table sugar mixed with 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon made a delicious cotton candy but only produced half the fluff of sugar alone. When the flavor mix gets too heavy the sugar builds up in crisp little sticks on the side of the bowl. A good person would crunch it up and respin it, but I have to be honest. I just eat the cinnamon shards outright. (Waring suggests mixing Kool Aid with table sugar. Um. No. Super nasty.) I think later this week I'll mix up a cocoa / sugar base or a ginger / sugar base for some other interesting flavors. In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with vanilla. Nothing at all. (If you're going to throw a carnival in your kitchen I suggest starting with a reversed chopstick. Those paper cones aren't meant for home units. They only pack them in because you've been programmed to think cotton candy belongs there.)

09 August, 2012

Review: The Ugly Duchess by Eloisa James

I suppose instantly forgettable isn't the best way to describe a book I plan to recommend. Here's the difficulty. I read The Ugly Duchess a week ago and had some fourth act problems with it. I decided to wait a few days before writing the review. In the interim I completely forgot what my problems were. I also forgot everything about the book itself. Scanning early reviews didn't trigger any recollections so I read the darn thing again. I still like it and I still have issues with the fourth act.

The Ugly Duchess is a forced marriage of deception tale. Theo is the sort of gawky and insecure young heroine romance loves. She's smart and ready to rebel. Her mother dresses her inappropriately, her guardian taps into her funds. In an effort to impress a young man she admires Theo reveals a caustic way with words. Of course this will (eventually) lead to her finding out the price of those words as she earns her own moniker (and the book gains it's title). Remember ladies, be nice or be silent.

Theo's bank account has been raided by her guardian, the father of our soon to be Duke, James. James must marry Theo to obscure his father's crime. As it happens, James and Theo are already in love yet unaware of it. I'll give Eloisa James that because the portrait of our hero and heroine as young teens is so pitch perfect. Everything is emotional. Everything is unforgivable. Everything is the most important thing to happen to anyone ever. They romp about like the puppies they are, reveling in their new freedom from their parents, eager to grab the reins of their lives. Everything will be different now. Of course, parents are not so easily dismissed. The reins of life can be hard to control. Soon the bubble bursts. Theo is left abandoned, alone but for her mother (she apparently had no friends but James) and her money. She sets herself to rebuilding his estates and repressing everything about herself that James loved. (It defies logic, but there it is.)

James falls in with pirates. At first it's just for the thrill of it but later (when he needs to make things right with Theo) he reveals his true calling was freeing slaves. Because of course it would be. Never mind that when he decides to embark on piracy it's nothing at all to do with slavery. Both Theo and James are afraid to face their true selves, afraid to demand their true lives because of the self inflicted shame they carry. A major theme of The Ugly Duchess is life after parents. Who are you without your parents to appreciate? Who are you without your parents to defy? Who are you when death removes the mirror you've viewed yourself in? For both James and Theo death has been a major force for personal reinvention. We rejoin James and Theo as a couple when seven years have passed. Theo is preparing for her new life as a legal widow. James has had a sudden revelation and returned. Instead of the warm and passionate woman he left, James finds a repressed woman who finds the idea of sex unpleasant.

Here we fall into the fourth quarter abyss. I feel as though Eloisa James loses interest in her books at the close. They either dip into the farcical or speed to the end. Here, when James and Theo reunite as different people with an ocean of life experience and pain between them, is where the story should begin. Here, with no desire for sex or children, with no true excuses for abandonment, in the ashes of their youth, is the meat of the tale. Except it isn't. Theo goes from frigid to fire with haste. It's a high school reunion. The star couple has an Appletini or six and shack up for the rest of the event. The love they had for each other as children is pasted onto the adults they became then used as an excuse to wipe away the intervening years. One moment a character doesn't ever want children, the next they adore babies. One moment the thought of sex inspires self contempt, the next it's bloomers in the bushes. Add to that a closing chapter with the requisite show of brute force in defense of Theo's honor (violence - so hot and manly) and it's like a hundred other books.  Which is a shame. The first 2/3 of The Ugly Duchess is wonderful enough to still make this a four star read for me.

07 August, 2012

Flawed And Fallen Women

I just finished a book I really enjoyed. It was a top read in all respects except one. Almost as unwelcome as the Hermetically Sealed Heroine is the Crazy Bitch Ex. Why can't relationships just not work out? Why does the genre insist that our heroine is special and unique to the hero (or vice versa) while all past relationships were a narrow escape from the cauldron of hell? Shelve your divorce issues, people. Sometimes you don't get married. It's why we have friends we used to fuck instead of shallow graves in the backyard. Sex is not a sacred event that can only be correctly bestowed upon one person. In the case of this book I was really into the hero. His evolution from sulky arrested adolescent to leading man was skillfully done and fully realized. Then his ex shows up. Suddenly, I hate both of them. If you've ever spent time on a legal aid board, poverty skills forum or any other place second, third or fourth wives hang out you know exactly what I am talking about. The current relationship is pure and magical. The past relationship is a succubus draining the life from their innocent and trusting spouse.

In this case, our hero rides off to apologize for a one night stand several years past, thankfully leaving the heroine out of it. The CBE is in an insanely dysfunctional marriage she entered a scant two months after rejecting the hero on grounds of potential poverty. Her parents may have forced her into the relationship and since then she's rarely seen in public. On a trip to London our hero was drunk as a Duke and spent a weepy evening reliving past glories. Along comes the harsh light of dawn and he realizes he just wanted to bang her once. He's out of there and she's on her own. CBE heads back to her husband, never to cross Drunky McDuke's mind again. 

On the other side of the marriage, CBE's husband is wicked crazy. He engages in a three book arc of revenge culminating in a promise to kill the hero if he so much as glances at the husband's prized tea kettle. He's angry, unreasonable, and obsessively focused on his wife (the aforementioned CBE) and Drunky. Our hero has been a pretty stand up guy to this point. He's all about women's rights. He's discovered his own father had a potential CBE that turns out just to be a nice dead lady. (See? Relationships CAN just not work out!) So to this point we're ok. Then it all goes Jerry Springer. Drunky may (or may not) have fathered a child with CBE and CBE has informed her husband of this either to torment him or because she's honest. CBE is sobbingly grateful that Drunky has finally come to rescue her from an (allegedly) abusive husband she fears will kill her. At this point Drunky has had his own life threatened (and certainly turned upside down) by CBE's husband. He's afraid of the guy himself. So he sneers down at her for making her husband the mess he is. How dare she complain when she has a wealthy, titled husband who adores her. She's a celebrated (if rarely seen) beauty with four children. Tend to them and bother him no more. Later Drunky takes a moment to wonder if CBE's husband might really kill her. He thinks it sucks the kid might suffer, especially if it's his, but what can he do? He's famous Drunky McDuke and that other guy is Reclusive Lord Crazy. How can Drunky McDuke do anything for his potential child or baby mama? And why should he? She's obviously a head case who has driven Reclusive Lord Crazy mad with her bitchy ways. Thank god he didn't marry her! 

Our hero rides off to apologize to his family for Reclusive Lord Crazy stalking them after his failure to keep it zipped. Later in the book Drunky stares down at his first (second?) born son with awe and hopes all sons are so beloved. As a reader we are supposed to share Drunky's revulsion for his CBE and Reclusive Lord Crazy. As well, we are supposed to share the hope that Lord Crazy's son is his own. As a person familiar with domestic violence and the ease with which people turn away from it's pleading victims I had a hard time looking at Drunky after that. I'm pretty sure CBE quickly took a header down the stairs leaving Bastardish Son to grow up with a hot and cold father he can never satisfy. Eventually BS will meet a Hermetically Sealed Heroine and the two will go off to their own HEA. That's how things go in Romancelandia. 

I would have thought a hell of a lot more of Drunky if he'd taken the words of a women he once loved (enough to marry) seriously. If he had investigated her safety as carefully as he did his own paternity before coming to a ruling of CBE I'd have forgiven him. The Crazy's may be in a hell of their own making, one they enjoy in the manner of those drawn to these relationships, but she could also be in serious danger. I find it hard to take a man seriously when the life of his former lover and possible child are something to shrug over and walk away from. Maybe that's just me. 

06 August, 2012

Return Of The Hermetically Sealed Heroine

Who started the hymen fetish? Is it the same person who decided all women in a romance who are not the heroine must be subordinate or murdered or evil? Why do we who love books about women hate women so much? (I know, I know, we're all full to the gills with preprogrammed cultural messages. I get it. Still.) I'm having a hard time reconciling a book I recently loved and a book I'm struggling to read  with my love of the genre. I don't know why I am drawn to the authors or stories I am. Why do I read about endless Dukes when I cannot stand the multi generational rich? Why am I forever sympathetic to a parade of doe eyed damsels in my fiction when I don't tolerate them in my own life?

I'm a total hypocrite. I get that. So's my genre.

In the case of the book I am loathing the early set up is a Hermetically Sealed Heroine. The book takes place in Romancelandia with a number of improbable events in a row. I am uncertain if I will read Chapter Two given the events of the Prologue and Chapter One. Our heroine is a former spy chosen from the gallows and trained to perform any action necessary, including whoring for her country. Now discharged, our heroine has been seen with a number of rich men in a number of scandalous costumes. She is considered to be a woman for hire. She wanders into White's, climbs upon a table, partially disrobes, declares herself a virgin, and offers her hymen to the highest bidder. Then she calmly leaves. There are so many things wrong with this. This is so far into Fantasy Land that Romancelandia hardly seems an adequate description of the world this heroine lives in. There is, based on the opening pages, no sexual violence in her world. Women are not raped to know their place, raped to respect their betters, or raped just because they can be. Our heroine is not only Hermetically Sealed (allowing her to cash in her hymen like a lottery ticket) she's also loaded with Magic Rape Repellent.

Think about it. She's been in prison on death row. She's been in war. She's been intimate (but not vaginally) with rich men who are either paying for or believe they can pay for her body. She's infiltrated a zone forbidden to women and offered sex in a group setting of powerful men, yet she has no fear at all of sexual violence. No hesitation. Who is this woman? Where would she come from? How can she even exist? Setting all of that aside she's decided to offer her hymen up for auction in a bid for financial freedom. Who is going to buy that? Unless you're trying to cure yourself of a sexually transmitted disease are you really part of the hymen cult? Who, beyond pedophiles, really belongs to this organization? What kind of man checks a woman out and thinks "Man, she'd be so much hotter with an intact hymen" and in what world is he also unlikely to enforce the social order through sexual violence? Why is the Virgin Whore still a thing? One of the men surrounding her asks why she'd auction it off instead of marry. Who in that room is going to marry her? How does that work in this bizarro world?

She walks out of White's unmolested and I have to decide if I'm going to read on. Genre books have had women in and out of White's like crazy lately. Sometimes they're standing in the rain getting their Lloyd Dobler on, sometimes they're eating in the kitchen as a special I Value Your Feminist Ways treat from the hero. Occasionally they push in the front doors as though they have every right to bring an errant brother / husband / lover/ random man home. They are never met with violence. Because they are the heroine and bad things cannot happen to women endowed with Magic Rape Repellent. Now ex-lovers of the hero? Oh, that is a different story indeed. Since this is long enough, it's a tale for tomorrow. Bring your blankie.