13 December, 2013

DNF Review: Buttercup by Sienna Mynx

The Kindle Sample for Buttercup consists of the prologue and a few sentences from the first chapter. I wish the sample had been longer,  because I don’t know that the prologue is a fair representation of the novel. If it is, then Buttercup absolutely isn’t for me. Having a weakness for both the 1930′s and sideshow life I expected to enjoy Buttercup. Instead I struggled to complete the sample.

When we meet Silvio and Buttercup she is dancing on stage and he is masturbating. (I somehow missed that this is an erotic romance, and not a romance with erotic elements.) For reasons I didn’t understand they progress to a one on one physical encounter. Through his arousal, Silvio reflects on events, events that apparently separated them. Here I was confused. Silvio has “bedded the whore, the virgin, the widow” but he is angry that Buttercup may not have been faithful to him. He’s had to seek her out, indicating they were not in communication, but here she is dancing (and disrobing) for him with barely a word.

Because Silvio is revealing their story between “slick sheens of sweat” it was hard for me to stay interested. It seems that Buttercup did something six years ago that endangered Silvio’s life. Four years ago he got out of prison. Two years were spent with his gang, searching for Buttercup while also trying to forget her. Buttercup is apparently indebted to, and protected by, the carnival she works with. She is such a fantasy figure in this prologue that I wasn’t sure she was real. At the end of the prologue is seems clear that this is meant to represent an actual encounter, not a dream of Silvio’s. I also wasn’t sure of the timeline of past events.

“Buttercup was different than in the past, but she was a girl of barely seventeen and he was a kid himself. He paid it no mind. They had both changed. His mind was on one thing. Reclaiming what was taken from him prematurely.” – Kindle Location 219, Buttercup by Sienna Mynx

I think this passage means she is twenty-three, but I had to read it twice. My initial pass seemed to indicate that she’d been eleven during their prior sexual encounter. I know Sienna Mynx is very popular and Buttercup was suggested to me by several different fans but I didn’t purchase the book. As a set up for an erotic novel, the world of a 1930′s carnival is fresh and original. If I were looking for an erotic read I probably would have been more interested than I was. I needed a contrast between Silvio’s sexual needs and who Buttercup is as a person. Because she felt like a fantasy, and he a stalker, I DNF’d the book and moved on.

10 December, 2013

Review: Frozen directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee

Oh, hey, Frozen, you sure are super, super white! What's that you say? It's the setting? They're pseudo-Scandinavian? Oh. Ok. Except no. I finally get a female focused Disney film that doesn't end in a wedding and what do I do? I ask for more. Why shouldn't I? This is a film for all of our children set in a fantasy kingdom where dignitaries from far away lands arrive to witness a queen's coronation. Why are only some of our children represented? Whatever. Let's move on.

There's a lot to like about Frozen. While I'm not a fan of the musical interludes, I know Disney makes serious money on their soundtrack hustle. There was nothing objectionable here. The instrumental tracks felt stronger than the vocal ones, although I heard kids singing the vocals as we left the theater. Visually the film is beautiful, with some of their best character conception in decades. A Ghibli influence was noticeable in the troll scenes, but not in an intrusive manner. Anna and her sister Elsa were distinct characters with different goals. Having been overprotected by helicopter parents (quickly dispatched), both are ready to face the world. Elsa greets the end of her invisible guardianship with fearful trepidation. Anna greets it with an overenthusiastic need for love and companionship. Both are logical outcomes of their situation.
Snow White, plus size Princess

It's interesting that in a film about fearing female power the filmmakers seem afraid to fully unleash the sisters. While there are villains to overcome and boys to consider and adorable sidekicks to meet (more Olaf, please) overall there isn't quite enough between them. Anna is perhaps too forgiving and understanding. Elsa is perhaps too self sacrificing. While Anna dominates the screen it's Elsa we want to spend more time with. Anna's conventionally quirky exuberance is familiar. She's a bit manic and a lot pixie. Her self confidence and loyalty are engaging, it's true. Elsa is a less common female lead. A reluctant queen afraid to indulge her own emotions, Elsa is a study in externally imposed self containment. The true message of Frozen is ultimately not of sisterhood, but of society's Good Girl imperative.

Elsa breaks out in Diva
When Elsa breaks free of her kingdom to live in splendid isolation she transforms. Joy lights her face, freedom infuses her body, and suddenly she gets a makeover. A free Elsa is an MTV Music Awards Elsa. She spins about and transforms from a beautiful woman into a white, ass-free Beyonce. As a viewer, I think WTF? Meanwhile, Anna is aged by her familial disappointment, a disappointment only more family interaction can heal. (It's a fantasy piece.) Anna is urged to see that everyone is imperfect and only though accepting our flaws can we stand together. Which is an odd message, considering the characters Anna sees as flawed are simply different than her. Add in a lovely piece about the joys of infidelity and Frozen is rolling toward the finale. Elsa sees that shutting the world out can't stop her from hurting them, but embracing it will. Anna takes her beer goggles off and her intrepid guide Kristoff continues to spend questionable quality time with his beloved reindeer.

Fantasia's Thinspiration Fairies
Frozen is a step in the right direction for Disney animation, but I left the film thinking they still have room for improvement. I definitely recommend seeing Frozen in the theater, but I can't unthinkingly swoon. I'd put Frozen near the top of the Princess films, however. This is better than Beauty & The Beast or The Little Mermaid, even if the stakes are far lower. We needed to spend less time tromping through the snow or eavesdropping on the various villains and more time exploring the women at Frozen's heart. This is the rare Disney film that leaves you wanting more than you had and probably asks for a repeat viewing.

09 December, 2013

Review: Get A Horse directed by Lauren MacMullen

Get A Horse is brilliant. Certainly it's not immune to criticism, but the brilliance part is unquestionable. Lauren MacMullen has not only made history as the first woman to solely direct a Disney short, she's also made an important statement about Disney's past and future. This is a love letter to Walt Disney that includes his imperfections.

As a huge fan of Ub Iwerks, the oft overlooked co-creator of Mickey Mouse, I was torn between trepidation and elation when his distinctive style came on screen. Get A Horse has been criticized for it's violence, it's sexism and it's decision to speak more to the adults in the audience than the children. I say way to miss the point. Early Disney shorts were sexist, violent and often racist. To sanitize those elements out of the narrative is to further whitewash history.

By placing the sexualization of Minnie Mouse so blatantly in the center of Get A Horse MacMullen offers the viewer the opportunity to reject it. Minnie's giggling and helpless compliance in her objectification is character consistent. Highlighting Peg Leg's lack of interest in the less attractive (and therefore less valued) Clarabelle Cow shows the dynamic played out in most of the early shorts. Peg Leg Pete is not the misunderstood suitor, he is the rich date rapist. Clarabelle Cow is not a random neighbor, she is the "old maid" who refuses to be pushed out of the party. Clarabelle wants what the smaller, slender Minnie has - male admiration. Minnie's cries for help indicate her higher status. Minnie expects help to be offered and accepts danger as a cost of her privileges. Clarabelle has to elbow her way into the scene, she is only pushed forward if she can absorb a threat for Minnie.

1928's Gallopin Gaucho 
Mickey is scrubbed of the halo that Walt himself despised and returned to his more complex roots. Where modern Mickey wants to be friends, archival Mickey wants a punishing win. And a punishing win is what he has as Pete is subjected to increasingly violent retributions before being removed from Toontown completely. MacMullen deftly plays the old sight gags against modern equivalents to keep the action between now and then going. From Horace's cell phone to timeless gravity gags, Get A Horse offers enough quick cuts to keep the youngest viewer quiet. You don't need to unpack all the slapstick references to enjoy the cartoon. As a viewer well versed in early Disney and slapstick conventions I was enthralled.

Ultimately Walt's Mickey (and this is truly Walt's Mickey down to archival voicing) resumes his place in a newly colorized Toontown. He has no need to walk completely in the modern world. Having ejected Pete, Mickey and his friends plug the hole to resume their idyllic life. In the corner of the final scenes Oswald The Lucky Rabbit pops up to wave. As a cartoon short, Get A Horse was enjoyable. As a tribute to Ub and Walt, it was magical.

05 December, 2013

Review: How Not to Be a Dick by Meghan Doherty

She had me at the title, I confess. How Not to Be a Dick is a book that begs multiple purchases. How many people in your life need this lesson? Really, it could be a blank book you fill in yourself and still seem value added. 

This book was pulled from my hands and passed around the local middle school within moments of receipt. (How Not to Be A Dick is almost certainly sold at Urban Outfitters. Let me Google that… and… called it!)

So, setting aside the clever title is there any value here? I’d argue yes. Covering situations as basic as overindulgence in (ahem) soda pop and as complex as toxic relationships, Doherty offers useful information with a light hand. The clean layout has an early 1960′s feel deliberately borrowed from school primers. Mixing text with illustration, Doherty’s characters trade off situations in an effort to avoid the gendering the advice. Forget all the Fun & Puberty books pushed on tween and teen readers. Far more important than yet another graphic about tampon insertion is a book that addresses social anxiety, setting boundaries and calling out racist humor. 

How Not to Be A Dick is the book that fits multiple gift giving needs. Hipster teen? Dick at work? You’re good to go. And remember these words:

The first rule of not being a dick to others is: Don’t be a dick to yourself. – Meghan Doherty

*This review was originally posted at Love In the Margins.

03 December, 2013

Review: In Love Again by Megan Mulry

In Love Again is the third book in Megan Mulry’s series, The Unruly Royals. Claire, the aloof and married older sister from the earlier books, is now  on her own. Moving to New York to pursue a fresh start, she finds a man from her past. Ben is at a similar crossroads in his life. His marriage has dissolved into a shared disappointment born of mismatched assumptions. He’s drifting through the days, waiting for something to bring him out of his malaise.

Although I have a soft spot for second chance at love stories In Love Again was an uneven read. On the positive side, despite it’s upper class setting, Mulry’s world isn’t composed solely of caucasians. Characters with different ethnic backgrounds are presented not as underprivileged made good, but as individuals from solid, sometimes affluent, homes. They belong in the world they are inhabiting. Ben is Lebanese, with a large and close family. His heritage is neither ignored nor presented as unique. Ben alludes to the potential racism of Claire’s mother in a scene that leads to one of the few awkward moments in In Love Again. Claire hastens to assure Ben that ethnicity isn’t something that matters to her. Ben never challenges her. Claire, who has been appropriately awkward in her grab for the non-racist ring, isn’t required to acknowledge that declaring it doesn’t matter has it’s own baggage. It’s a moment I wanted them to linger over despite Ben’s easy acceptance.

I loved Claire’s insecurities, her defense of stay at home parenting, her tentative steps toward creating an adult life after years of suspending her personhood. I hated how easy it all was. Claire gets the first job she applies for, because of her connections. She is embraced by all of her coworkers, because of her connections. Later she comments on how she’s trying not to lean on this privilege, yet at the same time she’s openly deploying it. I could forgive Claire for continuing to fall through her life if Ben were someone other than Ben. Ben and I, we didn’t hit it off.

There was a sense throughout In Love Again of missing pieces. (Claire’s mother has remarried? Freddie is a liar?) Most of these are eventually slotted into place but Ben remains a stubborn hold out. When we first meet him he’s unlikeable. For reasons rooted primarily in the past and her own low self esteem, Claire seeks him out again. Suddenly Ben is utterly accepting of anything. Even when it’s revealed he has good reason to resent Claire he doesn’t. When Claire repeats a sin of the past, even more egregious in light of her maturity and their past experience, he shrugs it off. When Ben takes Claire away for a weekend and a family member hijacks the night, it’s fine with Ben. Everything is fine with Ben. He wants Claire because he used to want her. He hasn’t anyone else at the moment and Claire is the heroine so they’re meant to be.

The easiness continues as Ben charms Claire’s troubled daughter, introduces her seamlessly to his family, and establishes himself at the center of her life. (He’s also very rude to a waiter. It’s meant to read as passion but it put me back to disliking Ben intensely.) Ben plays guitar to make himself interesting. He doesn’t convey any sense of musical obsession. He doesn’t practice around Claire. He chose his day job to be lucrative but is bored senseless by it. While Claire is reinventing herself and reinvesting her in family (another road easily cleared) Ben is just acquiring Claire. He has six sisters, one with a family member in crisis, but they’re almost invisible. Ben feels aimless.

Late in the book Claire becomes quite angry with her sister in law. An apology is quickly offered but the advice found objectionable wasn’t wrong. This too was a moment that could have shown the family divide but instead was quickly smoothed.In Love Again’s true conflict is primarily off the page as Claire’s ex complicates her life before being speedily dispatched. If Ben had been less unquestioning in his acceptance, if Claire’s interpersonal conflicts had led to her being called out on her own bullshit, I think I would have loved this book instead of liking it. As it was, everyone was a bit too perfect and isolated for me to fully embrace them. Even with these issues considered, In Love Again is my favorite of the series.

19 November, 2013

DNF Review: How to Tame Your Duke by Juliana Gray

“I think she’s mocking her readers” is a surefire way to get me to read a book sample. While I disagree thatJuliana Gray is winding us up, I am definitely not her target audience. In discussing this book on Twitter I found a number of us were more focused on the specifics of an opening scene than on the plot itself.

“Good morning, my dears,” he said cordially. The three ladies jumped in their three chairs. The corgi launched himself into the air and landed, legs splayed, atop the priceless Axminster rug, on which he promptly disgraced himself. Gray, Juliana. How to Tame Your Duke (A Princess in Hiding Romance) (Kindle Locations 151-153). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Pile or puddle? You’ll have to decide for yourself. If you’re laughing at that quote and inclined to read a book where a princess fleeing the murder of multiple family members embraces her “Uncle Duke” with deep affection despite his inability to recall the name of her recently murdered husband, then How to Tame Your Duke is for you. It’s obviously for a lot of people as Juliana Gray is very popular. Based on this sample, Gray is very much not for me.
How to Tame Your Duke follows one of the sisters into drag (my least favorite plot contrivance). This former princess then travels alone to take a position in the household of a scarred war hero. It’s my hope that Gray handles the disfigurement issue in a manner other than How Can You Touch Me When I Am Ugly Now. Of course Emilie is the intelligent one, in the way that book series must have a bookish one to offset the social one or the clever one. Emilie reads Augustine in the original Latin (as opposed to the unoriginal Latin, which was derivative and clichĂ© filled). She hangs out in the common area of taverns with ease, as a German princess would be comfortable doing.

Chew and swallow, Miss Dingleby had always instructed her. A princess does not gag. A princess chews and swallows. A princess does not complain. The wine felt as if it were actually boiling in Emilie’s mouth. Was that even possible? She held her breath, gathered her strength, and swallowed. Gray, Juliana. How to Tame Your Duke (A Princess in Hiding Romance) (Kindle Locations 344-346). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

So now that we’ve established that Princesses Always Swallow, the bar fight can get underway. (Every good princess in drag must be in need of a bar fight, it’s a romance rule.)

“Oh, it’s got a knife, has it?” He laughed again. “What’s that there in yer pocket, lad?” “Nothing.” He raised one hamlike fist and knocked the knife from her fingers. “I did say, what’s that there in yer pocket, lad?” Gray, Juliana. How to Tame Your Duke (A Princess in Hiding Romance) (Kindle Locations 398-400). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

How to Tame Your Duke is the sort of book readers describe as delightful, full of madcap fun, irreverent. I use those buzzwords to avoid  face palm reads. Gray is going to have a long career with ardent fans, but I doubt we’ll meet again.

15 November, 2013

Review: Fast Forward by Juliet Madison

While it had a great premise finishing this book was an absolute slog. Fast Forward is meant for the relative who sends you life affirming cartoons about aging as she sips from her Maxine mug. I wanted Big and I gotFreaky FridayJuliet Madison gives us no one to root for. Meet Kelli, a twenty five year old model suddenly thrust into her own fifty year old body. Nothing makes sense to her, or to us. Eventually the reader understands that Kelli was not shown her future, but one of her possible futures.
Unfortunately Fast Forward is as shallow as Kelli’s twenty something self before it becomes completely enraging. (I admit the enraging aspect was personal in nature and will not enrage most readers. Let’s just say the ending for Kelli’s father held some toxic messages.)  Kelli is unhappy with her less than model perfect figure. While she has not been disfigured in any way, Kelli is no longer lithe. For an up and coming young model this is a disastrous fate. Kelli runs around marveling at the technological changes 25 years has brought, despairing over every less than perfect aspect of her appearance, and waiting to wake up in her 25 year old body. (Spoiler alert: she does.) My first source of major frustration was the way Kelli’s friends and family completely fail her.
“Where’s Grant? I need Grant!” I said, shoving his hand away. “Grant? Who’s … oh, surely you don’t mean Grant, your ex?” “Yes. No! I mean, he’s not my ex!” “Honey, you haven’t had anything to do with him since we started dating twenty five years ago.” William’s expression changed to a frown. “Or, have you?” “Twenty five years ago? But Grant and I … we … he was supposed to propose to me on my birthday.” “Kelli, you broke off your relationship with him, remember?” “I did?” It’s quite possible I’d gone mad. William nodded. “But I proposed and you said yes. And here we are, still happily married after almost a quarter of a century.” Madison, Juliet (2013-02-01). Fast Forward (Kindle Locations 191-198). . Kindle Edition.
Her inability to recall her life is treated by everyone, down to her doctor, as a shoulder shrugging mystery. (Can’t recall half your life? Huh. Here’s your car keys, you’ve got a meeting at three.) Her husband is fairly obsessed with nudge-nudge wink-wink sexting while Kelli recoils at the thought of sex with a stranger. Her children have set up birthday treats that are gendered and self interested. From her mini-me daughter to her (of course) fabulous gay son, Kelli’s kids love her in the distracted way that says she’s on her own. Leaving no cliche unturned, Kelli ends up talking to a pair of psychics. As you do.
Fast Forward’s ending is determined by it’s beginning, not by true character growth. There’s nothing here to suggest that Kelli’s horror with her less than perfect (and oh so old at 50!) appearance is wrong. When Kelli comes to accept herself it is not because she has a deep understanding about body image and our culture, it is because she views her body as the beat up vehicle that brought her to her desired destination. She loves it because she put the miles on it herself. This is a very popular age acceptance viewpoint, but not one I ascribe to. (Resignation is not acceptance.)
My body was a living reminder of my wonderful life. It had done amazing, beautiful things and there was no way in the world I’d prefer to look like a twenty-something perfect beauty with a body untouched by life. Of course, I still valued my appearance, but as I dusted my face with mineral foundation I knew that if I chose not to bother anymore, it wouldn’t make any difference. Madison, Juliet (2013-02-01). Fast Forward (Kindle Locations 3720-3723). . Kindle Edition.
Kelli’s world failed to come alive for me and I’m not sure I’d try Juliet Madison again. 

13 November, 2013

Post Removal

Yesterday I posted a piece on the new Lily Allen video's failure to rise above the racism it was trying to satire. When I wrote it I wasn't aware of Allen's history of racism and blackface via penis. There is no defense for perpetuating that image, whether she created it or simply deployed it. My intention was to update the post reflecting this new information. Upon consideration the positive words I had used in relation to Allen's music no longer apply. I was granting her the assumption of good intentions with a failed execution. As I no longer believe that, I pulled the entire post.  The image is here, along with some tabloid coverage of the twitter war gone racism nuclear.

11 November, 2013

Review: If The Shoe Fits by Megan Mulry

* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.
In the interest of disclosure, I follow Megan on Twitter and have done since before she was published. (Now that I'm reviewing her books she no doubt regrets that.) The beginning of If The Shoe Fits is brilliant. Then the clock strikes midnight. Well, at least for me. I think many of my issues with Sarah and Devon are unlikely to bother other readers.
Sarah James is a Hermetically Sealed Heroine. And yet, I didn't hate her. She was a believable twenty something virgin instead of an improbable one. Having decided she's ready for a fling,  Sarah offers Devon a weekend of no strings sex while they both attend a wedding. The opening chapters are light and fun. Sarah joins the promiscuous world and Devon marvels at the freedom a plain speaking woman holds. I was thinking "I'm going to love, love, love this story" even as I was reading it. Sarah is neither plus size nor thin. She makes casual references to her size without being overly focused on it. As a woman working in fashion, her curvier figure could have been truly annoying (if mishandled) but Mulry wisely leaves it on the sidelines. As the wedding weekend ends, Sarah returns to her everyday life. This is where we start to unravel.
Sarah has handled her sexual awakening well. She is more aware of how she may have been ignoring signals from interested men in her life. She is more aware of what attracts her and what she wants for her future. Devon's response to his emotional awakening is anger. He blames Sarah for his uncontrolled feelings and he lashes out. While Sarah wisely drops him, Devon never really deals with the source of his anger and jealousy. It remains at the fringes of their relationship in a way I wasn't comfortable with. When she should be moving on, Sarah obsesses. Devon's utterly unacceptable actions are excused and reassembled. Sarah's grandmother talks about passion and fire. Devon talks about jealousy and possessiveness. No one talks about domestic violence but what happened between Sarah and Devon is a huge warning sign. Sarah allows attraction to overcome self protection. I badly wanted Mulry to surprise us all with a left turn into a new hero for Sarah. Instead Sarah's secondary love interest turns into a Helpful Friend as everyone on the canvas conspires to reunite this now dysfunctional couple.
Before Devon our Sarah was frank, open and focused. After Devon she's a bit of a mess. She devolves into a weeper who manipulates situations nonverbally. At three different points I wanted Devon and Sarah to just talk to each other instead of everyone else. The passage of time becomes arbitrary. At one point Sarah asks family to come from Paris to London and it takes a week to happen. The family in question is not employed. They could have been there by dinner, or the next day. Without a reason for the delay, without a reason for Devon not to try and contact Sarah, the time frame feels very artificial.
Back on the positive side, the side characters are distinctive and interesting. Mulry has an intriguing subplot started with a sexually ambiguous sibling that is either going to crash spectacularly or make her name in the field. I don't see a middle ground and I can't wait to see how it falls. Family relationships are heavy handed yet also refreshing in their refusal to hit genre conventional marks. There are no villains here, only flawed people finding their way. In that context I could have been moved to root for Devon and Sarah. As the book ends they're happy for now, but I don't think it's forever. Sarah's mired in that first mad love where you excuse anything for another hit of the drug. Devon's doing the bare minimum. He needs therapy, stat.

08 November, 2013

Review: Best American Comics 2013 edited by Jeff Smith

Someday I'll learn to stop looking at The Best American Comics series. As someone who loves comics but has exhausted her patience for violence against women as shorthand for meaningful commentary the series often exhausts me.

Beginning with an excerpt from what I would argue was Alison Bechdel's weakest book and ending with pinups on the moon the 2013 TBAC was the first collection that didn't make me seek out at least one full book. My view may have been colored by the inclusion of Craig Thompson's Habibi, a work I absolutely loathed. Just seeing Habibi in the credits made me set the pre-release copy aside for weeks. (Typing the phrase Craig Thompson's Habibi makes me want to stop writing this review.)

Whatever, we move on. There's a ton of sexualized violence toward women on display. I'm sure it's very profound to visualize the wife as something you can literally dismember to make full use of but haven't we worn that tired song out yet? How many rape fantasies do we really need to commit to paper? I'm starting to think the easiest way to get into TBAC is to depict as much sexual violence as a PG-13 rating will permit. Or go farther, but give them a few milder pages to include.

With Kate Beaton as the cover artist TBAC is trying to have it all ways. Look girls! A book not solely concerned with rape and mutilation! It's true that Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant is always welcome. In this context it seems even more unlike the rest of the field. Eleanor Davis offers a post apocalyptic setting for Nita Goes Home. It's possibly the most interesting of the group as it pits a self indulgent artist against her family of origin. Even as she strives to relate to them she continues to condescend. Their paths have taken them to different realities. Nita, who has the easier existence, is the more mentally fragile. Derf Backderf is included for a few pages from My Friend Dahmer, a book I considered reading but skipped. An exploration of the young serial killer is probably of interest to many readers but I'm not one of them. Backderf uses a style suited to the 1970's in his almost loving exploration of their shared childhood. Let's just say Backderf isn't the only person to grow up with a serial killer and leave it there.

I enjoy much of Laura Park's work, but the included piece, George (about a man who treats terrorism as a hobby) isn't my favorite. It's slight and sometimes clever. It's a moment in time without weight. However, Park is worth checking out as an artist. If you were going to take only one suggestion from this year's TBAC she'd be my choice. I know there are better comics out there, Park is proof. I wish the series would lift it's gaze from the exploitation of women's bodies and produce a collection designed to trigger the mind instead of the traumatic past of a reader.

05 November, 2013

Review: The Sum of All Kisses by Julia Quinn

* A version of this review appear at Love In The Margins. 
Is there such a thing as Eloisa James disease? If there is, Julia Quinn caught a bad case of it. I'm so frustrated by The Sum of All Kisses. We begin in such a fantastic place that I start to think this is going to be my favorite Quinn book ever and we end in such a pile of melodrama that it makes Eloisa's chicken coop scene in When Beauty Tamed The Beast look restrained. Seriously, it's the late night infomercial of melodrama. (Now how much would you believe? Not that much.)
We start off with Hugh, the second son of the very crazy Ramsgate. Hugh was the other party in Daniel Smythe-Smith's duel, (in A Night Like This) leaving Hugh with a ton of baggage and a bad leg. For much of the book Quinn gets Hugh exactly right. He's intelligent, he's capable, he's ambulatory with practical adjustments for his physical stamina. There is the occasional insertion of nonsensical no-woman-will-want-me thoughts but it's initially kept to a minimum. Hugh has a fierce loyalty to those he loves, and he loves Daniel Smythe-Smith so circumstances require him to attend the marriages of Daniel and Daniel's sister Honoria. This obligation places him in close proximity to their cousin, Lady Sarah Pleinsworth. Sarah is equally fierce in loyalty to those she loves which puts Hugh on the wrong side of her before they've even met. Further alienating them is the duel itself causing Sarah to miss her first, and possibly best, chance at the marriage mart.
For much of the book I truly enjoyed Sarah and Hugh. The emotional, dramatic heroine and the arch, cerebral hero are the perfect pair for a dialogue driven novel. Quinn writes realistic sibling relationships and when she sticks to the interpersonal dynamics the book soars.  (The only false note is a sharp scene where Sarah's cousin takes what appears to be a completely unfair shot.  Quinn likes to write with interconnected timelines so I assume this will be explored in the next Smythe-Smith installment.) The exploration of divided and colliding loyalties in the lives of the Hugh, Sarah and the Smythe-Smiths is some of the finest genre work I've read this year. It was love. Until it wasn't.
Toward the third act everything went in the handbasket. Hugh began obsessing over his ugly (CHECK!) leg that kept him from being a real man (No dancing? He loved dancing? CHECK!) and therefore made him ineligible for the love of any woman (CHECK!). There's a scene where his physical infirmity means he cannot rescue her from danger (CHECK!) causing him to consider how much better off she'd be without him. For her part, Sarah goes from never once having kissed a man to being completely up for it on the lawn of her family home. From the first brush of the lips to up the skirts, our girl is full of healthy hunger ready to roll. I sighed. A lot. Not in a good way. Despite my frustration with portions of the injury portrayal, the book still hovered at a high B. Cue the chicken coop. And by chicken coop I mean spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers.
Seriously. Stop reading right here if you care at all about yourself. I mean it. Not another word. 
Ok. I'm not the boss of you. Let's keep going. So Hugh, who has been dealing with this leg for years and is attractive, intelligent and likely to inherit (or have his son inherit) a title has decided his lack of dancing ability makes him damaged goods. Unlike that fat syphilitic guy over there twice his age, but we won't examine Hugh's self esteem issues too closely because his dad is coming to town. In a book almost entirely devoted to the tricky interpersonal workings of family relationships, Hugh has barely had any interaction with his. We meet his brother Freddie early on and establish that he cares deeply for Hugh. So where is he? He's off being gay. Freddie exists as a prop to illustrate the goodness of Hugh and the vileness of Hugh's father. I could write an entire review based on that choice alone, but Quinn quickly distracts me by turning the melodrama up to eleventy.
In A Night Like This Daniel was trying to stay one step ahead of Ramsgate. Ramsgate wanted to kill Daniel because Hugh led him to believe the duel had resulted in Hugh's infertility. Hugh told Ramsgate if Daniel died, Hugh would kill himself and thus end the chance for a child. I expected The Sum of All Kisses to explore the depression that would make this seem a reasonable course of action to Hugh. We don't. Instead we keep dialing the melodrama up until we can't add melodrama no more. In the final few chapters Quinn shoehorns in a frothing at the mouth backstory for Hugh and Freddie that is completely unnecessary. She has Ramsgate drug Hugh, tie him to a bed and contemplate marrying Freddie off and raping his wife. Sarah storms in and frees Hugh. (Further emasculating him? No, arousing him. Because of course.) She then tells Ramsgate if he backs off she will marry Hugh and bear children, on the condition he leaves them all alone.
No really, she does. This is greeted by everyone as brilliant. Sure, Ramsgate is a delusional, violent sadist, but he keeps his word.  Sarah and Hugh should be good. Never mind that once Sarah pops out an heir (or two) there is no reason to keep Daniel and Hugh alive. It's not like Sarah can turn around and un-procreate. Sarah even acknowledges that Ramsgate will have a place at the baptismal font. Because he's family or something. Sarah pats herself on the back for figuring out this oh-so-obvious solution that eluded those poor dumb men and hold Hugh to her bosom so he can sob out his tortured back history. Daddy hurt mommy in bed, never liked Hugh, hates Freddie for being gay, hired sex workers to repeatedly rape Freddie and... he just goes on and on. It's like trying to track down and kill Daniel wasn't crazy enough so Quinn keeps going in case something will stick. But gosh, we're stuck with the guy so we'll have to make nice at family functions or something. (Assuming Sarah is fertile. I don't like her chances if she isn't.)
I couldn't even with the ending of this book. There wasn't enough face palming and WTFing in the world.  Sarah was as reality challenged as the rest of the room. Leaving the whole Same Love Macklemore vibe of the invisible Freddie aside, if you have any experience with domestic violence this "solution" is impossible to buy into. Ramsgate is a murderous sociopathic stalker. How is he going to do anything other than murder Daniel, Sarah and Hugh once a child is born? Why would he risk exposing the focus of his aims to the whims of these failures? Because Sarah would get mad? Because Hugh might kill himself? So what? The guy wants a do-over on the heir front and he doesn't care very much how that happens. He is very not okay with decades of actions proving it. There is no negotiated peace with this flavor of toxicity. I can't go above a C at this point and only the first two thirds of the book are keeping me from D territory. The Sum of All Kisses should have been a wonderful book but it was ultimately unequal to it's premise.

02 November, 2013

Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix) by James Murphy

Since we launched Love In The Margins I've been ignoring you shamelessly. It's the nature of the new, I'm afraid. When I saw this, the best of Bowie's recent videos, I had to come back. Bowie is claiming production costs ran 13 bucks. I'm assuming he paid the crew a bit more than that. Either way it's still an exceptional piece. Bowie's using the projection technique of his Where Are We Now video to create an aged version of his deceptively youthful physical self. It lends him a vulnerable frailty that he may (or may not) feel despite our perception of him as ageless.

Our setting is ambiguous. Backstage at a show? In hospital? A well appointed storage section of the office? There is a physical Bowie, a projected Bowie, a puppet Bowie (or two or three) and our own experience of Bowie blended into the work. Instantly recognizable aspects of his career are set into conflict (or collusion?) while the physical Bowie observes at a remove. Like all of Bowie's best work, the images lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

Someone is dying. Is the aged Pierrot the fearful witness or the diabolical ringleader? The juxtaposition of wooden and human hands against each other offer eerie suggestions of who the perpetrator is. Have they killed the physical Bowie or has he simply abandoned them yet again? The king of reinvention discarding these more recent personas the way he closed the door on The Man Who Sold The World and Aladdin Sane? Or is the physical Bowie musing on what these reinventions have cost him through the years? Has he divided himself beyond recognition until he is trapped and wrestling with the cost?

The final scene is meant to disturb but not to define. Has physical Bowie simply walked away from them, and therefore from us? Is The Next Day the final chapter in a decades long dance of imagery? Has Bowie washed his hands of us all?

28 October, 2013

Review: Who Ya Wit' 3 by Brenda Hampton

* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.
Brenda Hampton’s Who Ya Wit’ 3 makes up the first half of Carl Weber Presents Full Figured Plus Size Divas 5. I have a lot to say about Who Ya Wit’ 3 so I’ll leave the second story of the anthology for a later review. After a number of Kindle samples that didn’t compel me to read more, it was almost a surprise when Brenda Hampton caught my attention. WhileWho Ya Wit’ 3 is part of an ongoing series, I had no difficulty following the storyline. Dez, a forty something single mother of two, is in and out of a difficult relationship with the younger Roc. The respectability politics at play between them seem to impact them more than the age difference.

Dez is very frank with her sexuality. (While the content is low overall, it’s very direct.) Dez is a woman who has sex when she pleases, with whom she pleases. She knows what she wants and asks for it bluntly. Dez also  harshly judges the sexuality of others. Her first marriage ended when her husband was unfaithful, something she is still very damaged by. There is a married character who is serially unfaithful. Dez has an extremely low opinion of him and his lovers. When Dez thinks her son may be considering an affair she blames all three parties. Yet Roc has multiple sexual partners. Dez pursues Roc while he is living with his pregnant girlfriend. She does not consider herself to be trash nor Roc a cheat and neither does anyone around her. The dividing line appears to be marriage.

Hampton definitely keeps the reader engaged. I was completely uncertain which man Dez was going to end up with, or for how long. Roc is unusually in touch with his emotions and expresses them without apology. This is definitely a Bad Boy tale with a bit of Hood Made Good around the edges. Roc swears, gets high and has children with multiple women. He’s also romantic, in touch with who Dez is and emotionally available. The dynamic between Dez and Roc seems pretty toxic at points, but it’s a different toxicity than I’m used to reading. While Roc is obviously the hero of the series I am not sure he’s the hero of Dez’s life.

Having promised a plus size heroine, Hampton delivers. Dez is a size 14/16 who enjoys eating. She considers losing weight when her self esteem is low but is encouraged by friends to worry more about enjoying her life and less about her size. Dez considers herself attractive, as do the men in her life. She has realistic concerns about money. When she has it she spends it and when she doesn’t she scales back. There are no tycoons in Dez’s world. Everyone works for their cash. I found Who Ya Wit’ 3 to be much closer to the working class contemporary romances I’d like to read than I expected from the pitch. Hampton is not an especially polished author but her conversational style works for her story. (It reminded me strongly of Charlaine Harris.) I think I will be back for another book.

18 October, 2013

Review: The Last Kiss Goodbye by Karen Robards

* This review first appeared at Love In The Margins.
Sometimes I self harm. Mostly with books.

I really hated everything about the first Dr. Charlotte Stone book. I wasn't planning on reading another but Suleikha Snyder wouldn't stop talking about ghost sex. (Wait, is it still self harming if I can blame someone else?) The Last Kiss Goodbye is so much worse than The Last Victim. I am completely cured of my Karen Robards fandom. We had some good times together but they are o-v-e-r. Capital O. Underlined. Exclamation points. Freezer full of ice cream. If I could go back to 1981 I'd tell myself to put the book on the shelf and walk away, because this isn't a forever love.

In The Last Victim Robards rolled out a love triangle between a living FBI agent, a dead serial killer and the lovely yet self destructive psychiatrist in peril, Charlie Stone. Although she alludes to his potential innocence, our serial killer (Garland) is still far from a prize. He's crude, thoughtless, dismissive and consigned to hell for unknown reasons. (Assuming he didn't really slice and dice all those women). Charlie falls for him hard on the basis of nothing but his appearance. The Last Kiss Goodbye picks up seconds after The Last Victim's end, launching the team on the trail of another killer.
I will give Robards one piece of credit. She doesn't dwell in terror porn. Robards largely keeps her focus on the investigative team. I wish they were a more interesting group. (Charlie is toxic.) 

Where The Last Victim reminded me of Darynda Jones The Last Kiss Goodbye reminds me of fan fiction. Charlie's entire inner life consists of "He's probably a dead crazy psycho killer but omg he's so hot and I want him he can't leave me omg what if he is in pain?" Because she knows her kink is destructive she leads the barely-there living love interest along in a really distasteful forced triangle of dishonesty. It's not pretty. "You can't control me, dead psycho lover! I will show you!"  Of course, her psycho dead lover totally can control her. So he cockblocks the FBI agent and gets sent (yay!) to hell. Charlie is codependent so she panics and begs him to come back.

If you only do what he can do, you won’t be doing much, she told herself severely. But then she thought, By now, the coffee’s probably cold. So she didn’t want to drink it anyway, and that had nothing to do with Michael at all. - Robards, Karen. “The Last Kiss Goodbye.”

This thought happens during a team meeting on the serial killer who invaded her home a few hours prior. Because what's most important to Charlie is that Garland might miss drinking coffee. This won't be the only time Charlie actively ignores her own self interest  to climb the cross. Besides thinking he's hot and trying to save him from hell, Charlie also stands up for herself.

“You’d want to drive, too, you—you man,” she mouthed, piling a fair degree of venom on that last word. - Robards, Karen. “The Last Kiss Goodbye.”

I mean, wow. You tell him, Dr. Stone. Slow clap for sure. In addition to Charlie's inexplicable obsession with a man who agrees hell is the proper destination for the life he lived, Charlie has to find the second serial killer to target her in so many weeks. (Maybe she needs a new perfume?) Luckily she has a secret psychic friend to phone for vital yet obscure plot clues. Between talking to dead people and phoning a friend Charlie has this investigation on lock! We are also treated to the only other major female character in the book continuing to resent Charlie for incomprehensible reasons. (Because bitches?) After Charlie is inevitably placed in peril at the hands of the killer (gosh, who could have seen THAT coming) it is revealed that her taste in men has always been tragic. Well, there's also a bit in the middle of the book involving a college affair with a predatory professor. That Charlie. She just can't help herself!

10 October, 2013

Review: Daffodils In Spring by Pamela Morsi

* A version of this review first appeared at Love In The Margins.
Daffodils In Spring was a 2011 freebie meant to promote literatureforallofus.org and honor it's founder, Karen Thomson. In fact the cover model strongly resembles a younger idealized Thomson. She doesn't fit the age of any particular character so I think she's there to sell us on reading the story. Inside the cover Morsi tries to graft her Americana style onto urban Chicago with mixed results. I admire almost all of the pieces, but I didn't love the whole. Despite my lack of love a number of elements make Daffodils In Spring worth discussing.
This is a midlife romance, not a late spring fling. It's heroine, Calla, is a widowed single mother who had a happy marriage. There is no undermining of that history. In one of the only direct physical descriptions made, we find out the hero has thinning hair. Landry is not bitter or a player or disappointed in love. He is a hardworking man interested in the heroine and he makes that known. (He is so simply sketched that I did wish for a bit of backstory on him to balance out everyone else's but this is a short novella so we'll let that slide.)
Morsi has written Daffodils very color neutral. There are almost no physical descriptions in the book except for a reference to the "braids and curls" of a teenager with a name (Jazleen) that cues black. This is a book free of skin tone, hair texture and obvious signals. The color of these characters is told in inference. They live in Chicago, where they spend a fair amount of time on their porch steps. Alternative high schools are not an oddity. College is not expected, but is the hoped for result from a long struggle. Women work long hours for low pay. Catching a young man is seen as a good move for a young teen with no future. There are few men on the street. Appearance, church clothes and community are all mentioned multiple times. Everything about this codes to me as white expectation of what black life is. It was a strange fit, this fictional world that was so busy not seeing color even as it cued positive stereotypes up for the reader.
Calla and Jazleen become involved in a literacy program through Landry's urging and discover common ground to build a relationship on. Along the way we discover that Calla is (of course) an accomplished cook. Thanksgiving is thrown as a veritable block party and all is right in their worlds come Easter. I appreciated a late book twist that added much needed and realistic motivation to Jazleen's character but found her personality switches extreme. (She is so self aware by the close of the book that I expected her to suddenly be in her thirties.) Calla and Landry both error on the side of saintly. Calla's son, Nathan, is barely there. He's more of a plot motivation device than a true character.
Daffodils In Spring is an informercial for book clubs that fails to rise above it's mission. It's appropriately priced as a freebie and worth reading as a look at Morsi's style bumped out of her comfort lane. With a little more conflict and a lot more at stake, Morsi could've had something special here. As it stands, it's a good palate cleanser if nothing in the TBR is working out.

08 October, 2013

Review: Art And Sole by Jane Gershon Weitzman

* A version of this review first appeared at Love In The Margins.
Strictly speaking, Art & Sole doesn't fit our concept. That said, if you spend very long in romance circles you will find that shoes are an amazingly frequent topic of conversation. If we made a word cloud, Zappos would dominate. I don't know what it is about the shoe. Cinderella, sure, but most romance heroines obsess on their dresses and rarely mention their footwear. In women's footwear it often seems like the least practical and most painful shoe is the most coveted. While I admire a perfectly painful high heel I don't wear them. I appreciate them as art alone.
Art & Sole is not devoted to wearable shoes. Weitzman has assembled a representative sample of the art commissioned for Stuart Weitzman window displays. It's lovely. This is a true art book, devoid of text. Each page is a carefully photographed art piece inspired by the concept of a shoe. From frosting to needle work to glass to gemstones, each piece inspires you to think what if? What if this were truly a shoe? Would I wear it? Who would I be with these on my feet? Who walks on a bed of diamonds? Why do I think she's the evil one in that tale?
Perhaps shoes appeal to so many because they offer the possibility of transformation. Walk a mile in the other man's shoes. Grab something sensible. Put on your dancing shoes. Become, for a moment, someone other than yourself. The flights of fancy in Art & Sole make it an interesting coffee table book. They offer studies in structural design as well as aesthetics. Some of the shoes appear wearable, despite their lack of function. All of them ask you to imagine the girl who wears them.
At the end Weitzman includes small bios with contact information for most of the 33 artists she features.  I was surprised to see baker Sylvia Weinstock among them. (I was even more surprised by which pieces were credited to her.) This would be a lovely present for a fashion student. I'm having a hard time keeping it intact. Linda Leviton's pages are begging to be removed for framing. Weitzman has pledged her royalties from Art & Sole to charity. October (of course) is for breast cancer research.

06 October, 2013

Review: From Up On Poppy Hill by Studio Ghibli

*Lately I hate all the books. Every blessed one of them. So let's continue our unofficial look at animated women.

From Up On Poppy Hill gets a solid B from me for overall movie quality. I wanted something with the savage weight of Grave of The Fireflies. That's hardly a fair standard. From Up On Poppy Hill raised those expectations because it is set in 1964. The first generation of post war children are coming into their adulthood and everything is changing. Japan is hosting the Olympics. Construction continues at a booming pace. The post-war life is being replaced by a modern Japan. This is pretty huge stuff.

Before we start spoiling everything let me say that the film is beautiful. Studio Ghibli occasionally skimps in the art department. Not here. From Up On Poppy Hill requires multiple viewings from an art standpoint. Characterization is tight and varied. Some of Miyazaki's most beloved stereotypes are left out and the film is stronger for it. The characters feel more modern, even as they also feel true to the time period. The storyline is slight and pulls some emotional punches it really should have landed. This could be cultural. One problem with a film so heavily weighted in a specific time and place is not understanding what the audience may have brought to the viewing. I have no baggage about 1964 Japan, no oral history, no lived experience. There may be resonance I am unequipped to feel.

On to the spoilers. 

From Up On Poppy Hill may be the most feminist work Studio Ghibli has put out. Despite their long tradition of strong female characters this one is the one I would put in front. It's heroine, Umi, is unaware of her own power. She is holding her family together, holding her community together and ultimately holds her school together. She is referred to as a lucky charm or a hard worker, but she herself simply wakes up and handles her life. Umi and her younger siblings live with their grandmother while Umi's mother does a work-study in America. Due to events offscreen Umi has taken in boarders, for whom she cooks and cleans. Umi is also a top student at school with an eye toward the sciences. Every morning Umi sends a message, via signal flag, to the boats in the harbor. Every morning one boy on one boat answers, but she never sees it.

Shun, the boy, is the eventual love interest for Umi. There is a ridiculously melodramatic plot twist where they believe they are siblings. Returning to a friendship, Umi and Shun work together to save a historic building. Where Umi's female centric life is quiet and orderly, Shun's male centric building is chaotic, noisy and filthy. It's Umi's quiet wisdom and work ethic that lead the men to understand victory isn't always gained through making the most noise. This isn't done in a gender conventional way. It's not Umi's pious example against their chagrined response. There is a problem. Umi considers practical solutions and the both genders work toward the goal together. Eventually Umi's mother returns. The mystery of Shun's parentage lies in post war confusion and the need for infants to be properly registered. Shun is the son of deceased friends. Umi's father adopted him but Umi's mother refused to abandon medical school. Shun was placed with another couple they knew.

Let's stop here for a moment. Umi's mother is never shamed for her choices as she would be in a western film. She is presented as a good and responsible citizen. She marries a man of limited future for love. She puts her education above the parental yoke on numerous occasions, even rejecting a child. Umi's mother is a radically feminist presentation of a mother. She has raised a child capable of complex responsibilities. She makes no apologies for her choices. Umi's mother is living her life on her own terms with the full support of her family. But back to our lovers.

Umi, despite idolizing her father, isn't quick to believe this Not My Kid tale her dad laid out on mom. It's 1964 so a DNA test is out of the question. Besides, Shun looks enough like her father that she thinks mom was sold a serious bill of goods. The romance is totally off. Eventually Shun discovers a character witness for all three dead parents and life goes on. Hard work wins the day and happily ever after is assumed by the credits. Despite the slight and familiar tale, From Up On Poppy Hill is mandatory viewing. All the women involved are working, in school, or property owners. There is a purpose to each one's life. Except for Umi's magical hair, the women are portrayed in the same manner as the men.  After the shambles that was Tales of Earthsea I had real concerns for a post Miyazaki Studio Ghibli. While I mourn his upcoming retirement, I am very interested to see where they take us next.

16 September, 2013

Review: A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

While I admired much about Cecilia Grant's debut novel, I didn't love it. A Woman Entangled caught my eye because it promised all the things I love most. Class conflict. Toxic family dynamics. Social climbing beauties. Younger sons. I was ready for Grant to bring it on. Ultimately the experience was the same as our prior hook upA Woman Entangled took me months to finish and left me dissatisfied. (Is there a reading equivalent of bad sex?)  Our heroine, Kate, is a social climbing beauty desperate to reclaim the social status her father's uneven marriage cost him. She alternatively positions her goal as being for herself, or for her father, or for her siblings. It's never for her mother, because everything about Kate's goal is a rejection of her mother's self and that is something Kate would rather not consider. Kate prefers to consider more reader friendly things. Here Kate is reflecting on a potential suitor:

"Perhaps he followed Mr. Brummell’s regimen of a daily bath, instead of the usual cloaking of one’s odors in perfume. Though it was difficult to imagine he paid much heed to any of the Beau’s dictums. Likely he disdained the man for living profligately and then fleeing his debts, if he hadn’t already disdained him for an excessive preoccupation with the trivial matter of personal style. And that was presuming he even knew who Beau Brummell was. He very well might not." - Cecilia Grant, A Woman Entangled

There's no point whatsoever to this passage. Much like the later passages on various Jane Austen books it feels forced and indulgent. A shouting of "Regency Tropes, I am in you!". Beau Brummell never comes up again. He isn't a friend. He's a celebrity that our characters may or may not have followed in the media of the day.

"Perhaps he followed Miss Kardashian's regimen of a daily bath, instead of the usual cloaking of one’s odors in her designer perfume. Though it was difficult to imagine he paid much heed to any of Kim's dictums. Likely he disdained her for living profligately and then fleeing her wedding debts, if he hadn’t already disdained her for an excessive preoccupation with the trivial matter of personal style. And that was presuming he even knew who Kim Kardashian was. He very well might not." Cecilia Grant and Meoskop

I strongly suggest we institute an immediate Kardasian test on the inclusion of historical characters not directly involved in the character's lives. If Kim can wear the shoe, toss it out of the wardrobe.
I wanted to love Kate. She was my favorite character in the book. Kate is so very self aware. She wants a path out of the middle class life her parents value and one back to the life of empty luxury her father left behind. I was frustrated by the resolution of her desires. In the end Kate comes to realize she valued the striving more than the goal itself. As the reader, I can't agree. Kate barely tastes the gilded world she longed to inhabit before embracing the economically cautious one in which she was raised. During that experience she lives at the edges of the family disharmony without fully exploring it's depths. Kate is neither embraced nor renounced. She is unspoken, even when being spoken to. We are to believe that Kate comes to value her open relationship with Nick more than her constrained and conditional one with her extended family. I can get behind that but only if I believe it. Kate goes too quickly from a cautiously shocked kiss under the stairs to a total willingness to have her first sexual encounter in a stranger's crowded home. I found it hard to believe that a woman of her control would so easily cast that aside.

Nick is hungry for status of his own. His life on the edges of the nobility has become painfully difficult following his brother's marriage. Having rejected his brother in an attempt to preserve his own ambitions, he initially castigates Kate for hers. Willing to have sex in stairwells and with casual acquaintances, he harshly judges his brother's wife for doing the same. A woman who fucks you for free is a friend. A woman asking for financial support is a whore. it seems a curious line to draw, but draw it he does. Granted, the misalliance of courtesan and gentry is not to be understated. It is completely authentic to me that Nick would lose status and find his ambitions beyond reach.

Yet Nick is still greeted by old friends. He is still welcomed in many fine homes. We are not shown Nick struggling for clients. We are told he is and invited to watch him wallow. I had the same problem with Nick that I had with his sister Martha in Grant's first book. Why, when his focus has been solely on maintaining the good opinion of Kate's family, would he take her to his rooms? Why would he consider her an unsuitable wife for a man with upwardly mobile goals when she herself is rigidly in pursuit of them? Why would he blame her for having an actress mother yet bring his most important client to that women for instruction? Why? Why? Why? Nick is a straight up whiner. His better moments elevate him to sequel material but he fails to convince me he is not going to disappoint Kate.

A Woman Entangled is likely to have many readers swooning. It's a Masterpiece Theater set piece of a book, hitting all the right marks in all the right order but ultimately leaving me distant and cold. The sexuality is original and important enough to the story development that I skimmed little of it. The reinforcement of family over finance is not seen often enough in the genre, despite my overall dissatisfaction with it's implementation. Grant remains at the edges of my awareness. She is an author I can neither embrace nor dismiss.

*This review first appeared at Love In The Margins.