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.