29 May, 2013

What's Wrong With This Series?

There is a liberating moment in the Southern Vampire Mysteries where Sookie Stackhouse realizes she doesn't have to live this way. She's been abducted and (yet again) maimed. She stumbles out of a cornfield into a blinding array of headlights. Humans have come to rescue her. The humans she disdained in Dead Until Dark, the humans whose thoughts have driven her to seek out paranormal beings, these humans are also the ones who run after an abducted girl. Over the course of Dead Ever After Sookie examines what she needs from life and who meets those needs. To the anguish of fan girls everywhere, the answer is not an abusive undead lover. Sookie chooses the imperfections of human life and a (mostly) human mate in her search for reliability and security. For me, unlike most, this redeemed what had been a deeply problematic ride.

Eve Duncan is another heroine with lovers vying for a place by her side as she endured multiple assaults and horrors. Even a stone cold series finisher like myself couldn't make it to Bonnie, the allegedly final chapter in the actually ongoing Eve Duncan Chronicles. Humanity wasn't enough for Johansen. She raises her I See My Dead Daughter ante with other paranormal aspects late in the game. What started life as a compelling series rooted in reality became mired in international government conspiracies, super humans and paranormal abilities. The Eve Duncan Chronicles was a total bait and switch. A dominant theme of this, like so many popular romantic suspense series, was mutilated women and children.

In the Charley Davidson series I'm experiencing a blend of both these worlds. Like Sookie, Charley is put through a horrific ordeal with each book. Tortured, beaten, sexually assaulted, Charley never makes it to the final pages intact. People she trusted betrays her. Her lover abuses her and withholds information. Unlike Harris, Jones appears committed to her core couple. No matter what information Reyes has withheld from Charley or what peril he places her in, the omgsohot sex will let Charley forgive him. There is a scene in every book where Reyes saves her from something, giving the swooning reader a chance to excuse whatever Reyes has done or will do to Charley outside of that action. The reader is told how protective and good Reyes is, an abusive past is trotted out to excuse dysfunctional treatment.

Robards, formerly one of my favorite authors, launched her Charlotte Stone series last year. The heroine is haunted by a dead serial killer who she finds sexually compelling despite the living and non criminal man in front of her. I panned the book but readers strongly defended it. There were hints laid that the serial killer might have been innocent. He. Might. Have. Been. Innocent. Maybe. Meanwhile, he was absolutely convicted. He absolutely played creepy mind games with Dr. Stone during their pre-death encounters. After surviving the required near death terror porn experience, Charlotte rejects the living supportive man in front of her for the less than honest dead guy who probably killed girls for kicks in her head. This is past Bad Boy Romance and deep into Toxic Self Destruction.

Remember Batgirl? Daughter of a cop, crime fighter, lover of Robin? In The Killing Joke DC made the controversial choice to break her spine. The Joker raped her and left her for dead. Afterward, she was faced with the long road to recovery. Her mental and physical changes were played out over years of story as she rebuilt herself into Oracle, a chair bound superhero who relied on her mind to perform the tasks her body used to. Barbara underwent a traumatic experience with real effects. She emerged a different but still highly capable woman. She did not start dating the Joker. In 2011 DC made the even more controversial choice to magically heal her and restore Barbara to the cowl as Batgirl. The Oracle, a more powerful character to many, was erased. I had complicated feelings about that (and other choices). DC and I broke up after many, many (many!) years together.

Where are our series with men who suffer unimaginable abuse and are still instantly hot for it? Where are our heroines who lie, abuse, mistreat and rage at our hero but are forgiven via their sad childhood? Why do we want to read about women being broken and men who make their burden heavier? I've lost count of the ways women or children are imperiled in romantic suspense. Girls in cages, books told from the killer's POV, girls buried alive, paranormal heroines having their skin peeled off, rapes and torture abound. Are these empowering because the heroine triumphs over an exaggerated version of real world horrors? Does the failure of the heroine to succumb to life ending injuries reinforce the lie that horror can never happen to us? Does her refusal to demand honesty and support from her problematic partner reinforce the message that wanting this in our own lives is unreasonable? We can be beaten. We can be tortured. We can undergo anything, see anything, and we can soothe Man Pain while we do it. Backwards. In heels. It's an incomplete thought, but it's on my mind lately. Extreme Romance (as DA's Robin terms it) may be on the rise but it's roots have been in romance for years.

On the healthier side of the coin we have both Eve Dallas and the Bishop's Special Crimes series. While women are still injured or tortured on the regular, the heroines are promised healthy and unconditional support from their partners. Women injured in the line of work stay injured. There is very little paranormal instant healing. The men generally support their choices and respect their agency. Most importantly, the relationships are mutually supportive. Past abuse is used as motivation or explanation, but never as an excuse or a free pass. These series are romantic suspense without the self hatred, and they are what I look for when I pick up a series. I wish they weren't so damn hard to find. I wish I knew why we (collectively) want the abuse dynamic reinforced in our fiction. If we didn't, it wouldn't sell.

24 May, 2013

DNF Review: Sins of a Virgin by Anna Randol

Maybe I've burnt out.

Each reviewer has their own personal ARC policy. Mine is that I will review your book if I accept it, but the review might not be to your liking. I will make every effort to finish your book and reserve DNF reviews for purchased items. I try to get all ARC's reviewed within a week of the publication date. I have failed Sins of a Virgin as completely as it failed me. I don't think this one is necessarily Randol's fault. I've been trying to read SOAV for close to a year. I keep stalling out very early in the book. I'm not even really reviewing SOAV. I'm using it to talk about reader reaction.

Madeline is a Secretly Chaste Courtesan who has decided to sell herself to the highest bidder. She hires Gabriel to ensure that the bidder she selects will be able to pay her fee. Gabriel is a Bow Street Runner looking for his sister's killer, some of whom are bidding on Madeline. On paper, this should be a good read for me. I'm okay with the Secretly Chaste Courtesan set up because Madeline is up front about her status (hello, book title!) and her reasons for the auction make sense. Except they don't. This coupled with Gabriel's super moral disapproval derailed me fast and kept me from getting far into the novel.

Madeline has spent ten years working as a government spy because reasons. Despite her service to the government, she is left unable to establish herself properly and therefore makes the choice to auction herself off. Here my reader reaction stops the story from moving forward. How are all these heroines pretending to work in the sex trade without ever suffering a sexual assault? In an age where rape was so common and so hard to prosecute, how are they navigating these men while keeping body and soul intact? How has Madeline worked as a fake courtesan without being tested? This myth that these girls can be trained in seduction, live among men and pass as purchasable goods without being assaulted seems so much in line with the Hermetically Sealed Heroine that I can't turn my mind off. What are we reading when we read about these women? Often (as in another recent DNF read but not this one) the hero is busy obsessing over what a durty durty hurr the heroine is while his employees are inexplicably reacting to her as if she is their better. When the hero realizes she is not a durty hurr and falls to his feet in tearful apology we are supposed to feel... something. Something besides impatience.

On the surface the message of the SCC or HSH is one of redemption. You have misjudged me, you have wronged me, I was not the durty hurr you assumed, but the lost daughter of aristocrats, meant for better things than I have had. As an apology, you may elevate me to my proper status. I shall play Lady Bountiful for your people, who saw what you could not. (If it's true that we read to escape into our privileges, then perhaps my recent problems with these romances has been a misalignment of needs.) I cut my teeth on the romances of the 70's, where a woman wandering alone was a woman moments from a gang rape. While I don't miss the days where love meant a disco floor and an act of violence, I do miss the message that the woman was still loved. At the end of whatever happened to her, she was still worthy. She had value. The hero wanted to be with her for her. She was, as is the core message of romance, enough. So often these days I feel that while the heroine has gotten smarter, stronger, more capable, her actual worth has diminished. He wants her even if she is a durty hurr, but it's ok, because secretly she's not. Even if she's been married before the odds are very good he was gay or impotent or drunk. Even if half the men in town claim to have banged her like a townie against a dumpster, it's all a lie. She is too good for that.

If she's good, what are the rest of us? If the message of the 70's and 80's was Stand By Your Man and As Long As He Loves Me, what is the message of the 90's and 00's? Is Madeline a virgin because she's more deserving than the other girls? Because she's smarter, as though being clever can provide safety from predators? What made her immune from being used in every way a tool is used in a time when she would have been so very disposable? I give Madeline credit for honesty - she has decided to exchange her body for money. She will do whatever she is required to do to meet the goal she's set for herself. I'd like to stick around long enough for Gabriel to tell her to tun off the red light, but I haven't been able to. My brain won't stop asking questions the book can't possibly answer.

23 May, 2013

DNF Review: When You Give a Duke a Diamond by Shana Galen

I've been doing a lot of DNF reading lately. Sometimes I set a book aside and try again. Sometimes I soldier on, carried aloft by the wave of hate reading. It's pretty rare that I hit a book two, three, four times and just say forget it. (2013 has not been a good year for me.) Lord & Lady Spy was the first Galen I abandoned. When You Give a Duke a Diamond is the second.

Meet Juliette. She's famous for being famous. She plays men off each other, collecting their offerings of wealth. She has a scandalous protector who is actually, um, something that gets revealed in the part of the book I didn't read. In the first half he's off the page. Apparently she and two other women are pretending to be his lover. He sets them up with the cash and the flash and they're going to find aristocratic husbands. Because that is the natural outcome of life at the high end of the sex trade. (If the Hermetically Sealed Heroine had a cousin, she'd be the Secretly Chaste Courtesan.) Juliette is divorced yet oddly eager to reenter the matrimonial state. Given that Juliette's ex husband is a scary abusive creep I would've expected her to have some reluctance. Perhaps, with her gift for social climbing, she might have considered actually becoming a courtesan. In that life she would have an escape hatch. But this is a tale where abuse issues are excuses for bonding. Or bondage. We'll get to that.

Juliette meets William in a series of nonsensical events. They aren't just tedious to follow, they don't pass the logic test. William leaves his fiancee on the balcony. When he returns she is missing. Juliette claims the woman has been murdered. There is a bullet in the wall and no sign of dead fiancee. Since dead fiancee has been having extramarital sex (unlike Juliette) no one but her parents worry much about this. William wavers between believing Juliette and repudiating her. They engage in some public scenes where neither of them are terribly lucid. Juliette runs to William (whom she barely knows) for protection from a known threat rather than the men she already has on the string. Once forced into his life, she challenges him at every step with such stunningly tone deaf antisocial behavior that my sympathy began shifting to her ex husband. Juliette wears entitlement like a perfume. Bravado or not, it's shocking when William begins craving her company. Of course, William is a Duke. And Juliette is known as The Duchess, one of the Three Diamonds who are the alleged lovers of the Earl of Sin.

I just typed that. With my fingers. I could insert a lecture on the mine cut diamonds of the pre-1900 era and the frequency of foil backing as a method to improve their appearance, but I will just bow to the De Beers machine and move on.

William has OCD from his abusive father's questionable parenting methods. Rather than act like almost every formerly abused child I've ever known (and I've known plenty) William acts like the Abused Child of Fiction. He cannot be free. He lives his life, despite unimaginable access to power and resources, in the narrow constraints his father dictated. He upholds the order bequeathed to him without question. Having been unloved, he does not form attachments. He is a stern and rigid man. He and Juliette bond over tales of - what is the word for dog murder? Is there such a word? Canineicide? Anyway, they had a puppy and then they didn't and it was their fault for being such bad, bad boys and girls. (Take a moment here to wonder why William didn't buy a litter of puppies to piss on his father's grave daily.) Dead dogs mean I love you. Or something. Soon Juliette is introducing Surprise Bondage to their lives and trying my nerves in new and inventive ways. Someone attempts to rape her. Is it the guy who killed William's forgotten fiancee? Is it Juliette's ex husband? (She not only dismisses that possibility she fails to share  the thought.) I suddenly realized I didn't care. I was more interested in the dead fiancee than either of the people pretending to look for her.

13 May, 2013

Review: Detective Honey Bear by Alex Zalben and Josh Kenfield

I'm a big fan of the curiosity comic. You know, the books that you can't quite believe came out. Sam and Max, the original and revived Angel and the Ape, Cereal Killers... maybe even 3 Geeks. Comics that don't quite fit any particular mold but keep you entertained. Add Detective Honey Bear to that list. I discovered it through a free issue offering on comiXology and immediately ordered the second volume. Apparently this was a 2012 Kickstarter intended to fund three issues, the last of which may or may not ever see print. At two issues for a buck it's well worth checking out.

This is an all ages comic (I know!) with a slight noir feel. It's a send up of the mystery series where the detective drags out the answer with an endless trail of partially false clues before finally declaring the solution. Honey Bear's partner is a step behind him all through the book. Exasperated, overworked and far from stupid, he's forced to play the straight man to Honey Bear's need for drama. Detective Honey Bear has enunciation issues that make sense for the character but may cause a young reader to stumble. I could have done without the obligatory scat joke in each issue, but the younger market loves being repulsed so it's probably a smart inclusion. It's a little bit Scooby Doo, a little bit 1950's television. I was completely charmed. (The kids are still working on figuring out what Honey Bear is saying, but they have trouble with Donald Duck and Carl Banks did just fine.)

11 May, 2013

Review: Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris

I pushed Dead Ever After up the TBR list to answer one question and one question only. "Can 437 one star reviews be wrong?" The answer is yes, yes they can. I liked Dead Ever After as much as any chapter in the Sookie Stackhouse series. Harris is the nickelodeon of popular authors. You drop your penny in and she slowly starts moving. You know what you're going to hear. It's not the smoothest or most polished rendition, but it's reliable and recognizable. Before you're ready she's ground to a halt and everything is silent.

So yes, I think Dead Ever After is not only a fitting end to the Sookie Stackhouse saga but also the only ending (short of Sookie's death) that fits the trajectory of the series. I worried Sookie would never get here, I worried Harris was taking so many side roads she'd get lost, but eventually she worked it out. I could review the book properly, but Robin/Janet has covered most of the points I'd make. I am far more interested in those 437 (and counting) one star reviews, as well as the passion driving down votes of positive reviews.

"To be honest, I would have been more satisfied had Eric kidnapped Sookie determined to turn her against her will"

"He is left emasculated and victimized."

"Like Harris' main character, Sookie Stackhouse, I, as a reader, feel raped, abused, and betrayed."

"I think you got personally offended by your fans LOVE OF ERIC. So you don't want them to be a couple instead you want Sookie to be a narrow minded racist"

"He was the knight on the white horse, always there to protect her."

"but coouldn't she be artificially inseminated and still be Eric's wife???"

"Charlaine Harris KNEW the majority of her fans read this book series because WE ALL LOVED ERIC AND SOOKIE!!! KNEW IT!!! And did she care? No. She just wrote what she wanted. "

Within the series Sookie frequently showed contempt for the Fangbangers. These are humans who hang around vampires hoping to be turned, hoping to be fed upon, hoping that the vampires will fleetingly notice them. Sookie herself is a Fangbanger, something she doesn't initially realize. Her relationships with Bill and Eric are abusive. They pass her around like a party favor. They save her from situations they created. (These situations often benefited them.) Because Eric is written as attractive (George Wickham in The Lizzie Bennett Diaries?) and says pretty things when he needs to, Sookie gives him a pass. On the page Eric is ruthless and power hungry. Other vampires fear him. He sets up multiple controls over Sookie's emotions and person while assuring her he respects her agency. He withholds information. He expects to be her priority while keeping her his option. Eric's power grab is presented to Sookie as out of his control, yet he not only does nothing to stop it he negotiates multiple benefits to himself. Eric ends the book in a position of expanding power while Sookie ends the book having refused to be his piece on the side. She has come to understand which of her relationships are toxic and which are truly supportive. Sookie places a value on herself that she long denied. In doing so she sees the esteem others hold her in. It's a classic coming of age story.

Sookie was never a good match for a vampire. She loves the sun. She wants to do the right thing, even when she doesn't know what that is. She craves family and tradition and shuns political power games. She is a Christian down to her toes. While she is attracted to the novelty of the vampire world it's daily reality repels her. When Sookie takes stock of what makes her happy, where she finds contentment, it becomes clear that the undead can't provide it. Many readers are reacting to this rejection as a rejection of them by the writer. ("She just wrote what she wanted.") I am pleased that what Harris wanted to write was a woman recognizing her own value.

The abusive (but loving) hero is a popular narrative in romance. Readers who respond to it emotionally will excuse away any action by the hero. "He did it for her own good. He was protecting her. He had no choice. He really loves her, though. In the end, he saved her. She is different from those other girls. He just had to find the right person." It is a rare book that examines the psychology and structure of domestic abuse. The common fictional answer is that if the heroine will just love him enough then he will change. Because love is magic. I appreciate that for all her structural flaws (and Harris will admit she has them) she loved Sookie more than Team Eric did. Harris has shown the predator in Eric and Bill all along, it is Sookie and the reader who refused to see it.

09 May, 2013

Review: Dear Girls Above Me by Charlie McDowell

Please don't buy this book.

I mean, you can absolutely buy this book if you so desire. Possibly you have it on preorder right now. I'm sure Charlie McDowell has bills to pay. He would probably be delighted if you ordered this book in triplicate or quadruples or whatever multiple met your perceived needs. I am begging you to wait. Read a sample chapter first. Consider a library hold. If we get the books we deserve, then collectively we've done something wrong and we need to fix it before Dear Girls Above Me bags a series order.

"I tugged on Marvin's leash, trying to pull him inside. He held his ground, staring up at me with his bulging eyes, as if to say, "Oh hells no, I still gotta take a shiiiiit." For whatever reason I picture Marvin's human voice to be that of a middle-aged African-American woman from the South. I probably should have mentioned that earlier. And it's not racist, because he's a dog." - Dear Girls Above Me (Page 6)

This passage occurs 3 pages after I knew I wanted to spend as little time as possible with Charlie McDowell and 274 pages before we were able to say goodbye. It did not get better. McDowell loves his -isms, his earthy humor and his self aggrandizing self deprecation. The overriding theme of this work is crap. I don't mean that as a descriptive term for the relative quality, although I wouldn't argue very hard if it were so applied. McDowell loves crap. His own, his dog's, the building's plumbing. If it's fecal, he's all about it. Record for lit farts? McDowell is on it. He's also about other people having sex. His narrator likes to listen, no matter the sounds. It's ok for him to feel superior to everyone he depicts because he holds himself in the highest loathing. Or something like that. McDowell fails at the ultimate responsibility of a humorist. He isn't funny. What may have worked in 140 characters falls apart stretched to novel length.

This may be the perfect book for you. It's possible I just described your dream read. Please proceed with all haste and purchase Dear Girls Above Me for your very own. Just don't ask me to join the book club.

07 May, 2013

Review: Shadow Woman by Linda Howard

Howard and I had totally broken up. If Picasso had a blue period or Van Gogh a sunflower obsession, Howard has been exploring reconstructed women. Her heroines live under assumed identities, waking up in bodies that aren't theirs, reincarnated after the hero (!) kills them to begin their reinvention. I haven't begrudged her the theme. We broke up over the men. (Death Angel. Enough said.) Howard crossed from Alpha Bond style books to Alpha Hole abuse glorification. We couldn't be together. Enter Shadow Woman.

Let me set the scene. Me. The public library. An hour to kill with a dead e-reader. I decide to hate read Howard one more time, just for the memories. Like that I fell back in love. In Shadow Woman Howard takes the elements she hasn't been able to stop working with and frees them from the cycle of abuse. She still has a heroine with a vague memory she might have been someone else. She still has an Alpha hero who kills as easily as he breathes. The difference between Shadow Woman and her other recent books is so simple, so basic and yet so vital to my reading experience. It's respect. The hero respects the heroine. The author respects the heroine. The heroine is in a situation she chose to be in. She is forced to rely on her own instincts and intelligence to feel her way through a dangerous new reality. The heroine is not reformed or repentant, she is self accepting. This is about her reclamation of her identity as she comes to terms with past events. I kind of loved it.

Shadow Woman not a romance. It is a romantic suspense with the classic Howard elements. A cartoonish disregard for human life, covert groups, government conspiracies, the people who make paranoid people look naive. The hero and heroine don't truly meet until the last pages of the book. Their story is told by his distant concern for her and her struggle to remember him. This is a book about waking up crazy and slowly coming to understand that you are not insane but imprisoned. The heroine's struggle to define herself, to identify the core parts of her personality inside the shell, are the focus of Howard's tale. This is a book that reminds me why I started reading her in the first place. I'm going to pretend the last few years didn't happen and reinvest in Linda Howard. Shadow Woman proves that libraries still have a place in reader discoverability.

04 May, 2013

Review: The Girl With The Cat Tattoo by Theresa Weir

My intention was to love The Girl With The Cat Tattoo.  Other people (people I like and generally agree with) loved it. The cover is absolutely adorable. It's all chick lit and friendly and hipster cool. With a few changes I would have absolutely adored Weir and signed on for her back catalogue. As published, I don't think Weir is for me. I was moved to tweet a few times while reading, here's the first one.

Reading Girl w/ Cat Tattoo. Heroine thinks about taking cat to work. Few pages later, hero suggests it. Concept new. She should flip back.

I have a two per book WTF limit and Weir handily exceeded it. She alternates between grounding her characters firmly in reality and taking them so far into Romancelandia that the reader can't follow. The most egregious examples are a television show segment that would have worked well as a dream sequence but blew the book apart for me instead. It set me up to question everything about the last chapter. (Why would he go? Why would he then do that? How would that work, exactly? Why would the host know? How would the host pull that off? Does that even fit who the host is?) There is, of course, a Bad Dude. When the heroine realizes who he is she is placed in a life threatening situation. At the end of it, the Bad Dude just leaves. He knows the hero and heroine are aware of his transgressions. He thinks he has the evidence they were holding. So he... goes home and I go WTF? Then the hero and heroine decide to have a quickie. And I quickly say OMGWTF? After sex, they traipse off to outfox and shut down Bad Dude. I just couldn't. I get that by Romanceland standards this is hardly unprecedented WTFery. I'm not trying for hypocrisy here. When it was good The Girl With The Cat Tattoo was very very good and when it was bad it was sorta awful.

On the positive side, while this wasn't the first romance I've read that used the animal point of view, it was one of the freshest. The heroine has a cupcake affinity and a cosplay bent. She is very of the moment in her thoughts and interests. The hero was pretty standard issue yet honest enough not to love cupcakes just because the heroine is baking. He's not her only hookup, (although he is the only one after they meet). There is no slut shaming or dude shaming of the prior people in her life. She's young, she's single, and she sometimes gets drunk and takes someone home. Sometimes she falls in love too fast, sometimes she prefers the company of her cat to humans. Melody was well conceived and well executed. I felt like she was a girl I might know instead of a Heroine. I can certainly see why Weir is getting accolades. With less WTF moments I'd be raving about The Girl With The Cat Tattoo, but as it stands I doubt I'll check out Book Two. (Why do all books come in threes now? What happened to the single title? Discuss.)