27 June, 2013

Review: Lord of Wicked Intentions by Lorraine Heath

This was going to be the book where Heath and I break up, but she surprised me. Which is not to say I recommend the title.

Heath is working with a problematic trope in that the hero (Rafe) buys the heroine (Evelyn) at an auction. (Spoiler alert - he's not secretly a reformer.) Evelyn is believable as a highly sheltered daughter of privilege who is unable to understand that her world changed overnight. It takes her quite a while to get with the program.  Rafe is just plain crazy yet he's far more credible than he was in the earlier Lost Lords books. This is a kid who has been traumatized by circumstances very similar to Evelyn's. Both of them lost their father in one breath and found their entire world altered in the next. Where Evelyn's brother auctions her off without her knowledge, Rafe's brothers sell him without his consent. (This somewhat mitigates that Rafe's actions. In his view he's offering Evelyn more of a shot than he got, making him the good guy. In the reader's view he's telling himself pretty lies about his actions. But again, dude is crazy.) I liked the way Heath presented Rafe and Evelyn. It would be unrealistic for a woman in Evelyn's situation to have more options than the distasteful ones Rafe explains to her. Certainly Rafe could have escorted her to any number of charity homes but then we'd have a different book. So Rafe shows Evelyn her only currency is her body and offers to pay an insanely high price for it. Evelyn realizes he's right and makes her own bed to lie in. she gets her Pretty Woman and they work toward HEA.

Overall, Lord of Wicked Intentions is the best of my least favorite Heath series. However, like the rest of The Lost Lords Lord of Wicked Intentions repeatedly pulls the WTF card. There are errors of time and place that threw me out of the story repeatedly. Early on Rafe examine a wide selection of ornate molded chocolates. That's great, but molded chocolate is late Victorian and this book is not. He could've bought rolled truffles, I suppose, but Heath explains them in a way that strongly indicates molds. Rafe takes Evelyn slumming so she can react with horror at the wretched lives of the underclass.  Nobody wants to be the underclass, not even them. Wretched things do happen when you add lack of options with lack of resources. It's still pretty obnoxious to walk Evelyn through it like a cautionary zoo exhibit. Rafe claims to process a million pounds a night at his gaming house. (I don't feel like doing math, so here's an excellent article on Crockford to explain how ludicrous this number is. Just know the guy would be turning over more than 4 billion a month at that rate.) The heroine runs away for obscure heroine reasons and takes shelter with the hero's estranged family. Because of course their desire to se him happy means they've befriended this unknown quantity and placed her needs above his. (That's the kind of family they are.) It's full of things that require a veritable bungee cord of disbelief. I can't leap off a bridge that has the hero divested of all his belongings and scrubbed naked at ten then has him in adulthood stroking a coin he's held onto since the day of his father's death. (Where did he hide it during the strip and scrub?) Toward the end our hero proves his love by administering a beat down to someone who wronged the heroine at the beginning of the book. He assumed a woman being auctioned off for sex was a whore, we must pummel him now. Because love. And he wasn't the winning bid. And reasons. I don't even know.

I closed the book feeling tired of Heath writing in this era. She's had some great stories to tell but Lost Lords feels like she's more than ready to move on. So am I. Hopefully her next outing finds her back in form because I don't think we've got more than one date left in us. There was enough here to make me come back, but not enough for me to fall in love.

26 June, 2013

Review: She Left Me The Gun by Emma Brockes

I want you to read this book. It's going to win a basket of awards. It's the memoir of the year, for certain. I don't care who writes a memoir this year, Brockes has the top spot sewn up. There are some second half issues and the author occasionally loses her way but it doesn't matter. Because this book is everything. She Left Me The Gun is about the complexity of the mother / daughter relationship. It's about clashes of culture and class. It's about the inability to have cross generational understanding until one of the parties has gone. The questions come too late, the understanding of what we didn't know part of the hole left in the leaving.

Brockes and her mother speak different languages. They come from different countries, homes, classes and times. The thing that holds them together is the parent child bond, something Brockes mother has had to create from whole cloth. I found She Left Me The Gun compelling because Brockes is very clear eyed about her own reactions. She sees where she resisted when her mother would allude to her life. She sees the involuntary judgements she makes on her distant family as she meets them. Brockes is aware that she has not lived the experiences they have, that she is unknowingly shaped by them but apart from them.  There is a passage midway through the book between Brockes and a friend that I think (by it's inclusion) sums her self awareness up.

"Fascists under our bonnet," I say to Pooly. 
"Yeah," she says. "Be grateful you're not the black one."
By the time the third biker pulls over we are so numb to the situation that when he takes his helmet off and turns out to be a woman, with long blonde hair and a weather beaten face, the relief hardly registers. - Emma Brockes

Brockes gets many of the small details right. She understands that she cannot, on a fundamental level, understand. The rules of her world don't apply to those of her mother or her mother's siblings. In the same way that she was a British daughter of a South African woman so too is she the protected child of an unprotected parent. Some gulfs of experience cannot be filled, they can only be bridged. Ultimately, Brockes is writing a letter of love and respect to her mother and in so doing she offers a unique insight to what it is like to be successfully raised by an abuse survivor. Too many memoirs focus solely on  unbroken cycles while the world itself offers far more possibility. 

25 June, 2013

Review: Oz The Great And Powerful

*Having recently taken a number of transatlantic flights, I'm pretty caught up on the selection of B tier movies that are offered to insomniac fliers. They ranged from the surprisingly good to the incredibly awful. And then, of course, there was the Kill It With Fire selection. Which one do you think we're going to talk about? Ha! Trick question! That said, Jack The Giant Killer was surprisingly good and you should see it instead of this complete disaster of a flick. 

I couldn't finish Oz the Great and Powerful. I made it as far as the creation of the Wicked Witch of the West and no farther. I've heard the Wicked Witch of the East is killed off toward the end, which makes perfect sense because Oz is all about killing women. The magic of Frank L. Baum's legacy lies in it's social commentary. He created a world for children with almost entirely female leads and he trusted boys to stay with it. He did not say "Well, this book is for girls and therefore the boys may be excused from the room." Baum wrote about a myriad of women in complex ways (especially given his contemporaries). He wrote about flawed women, shallow women, greedy women, saintly women, naive women, frightened women, brave women, women who were once men. These women have adventures. They rescue others, men included. They expose corrupt leaderships and galvanize others to carry on in their names. They are conventionally beautiful (Ozma) and unconventionally attractive (The Patchwork Girl).

Here is what Baum never wrote. He never wrote about a shallow flawed abusive man with a "good heart" (Lord save us from that life lie) who was the only hope of otherwise capable women. He never wrote about girls turning against their sisters or standing by and waiting for the arrival of a worthless dick holder to create meaning inside them. He wrote the opposite of that. I was cursing through OTGAP long before the Hollywood moment of West turning green with envy for Glinda. The core message of OTGAP was that women are frequently bitches and any sad excuse for a man is better than one of them. Everyone in the film exists to tell Oz (a charlatan and a fraud, as in the book but with the new addition of womanizing) what a good boy he is. He can do it! He can find the tiniest scrap of soul and use it to lead a kingdom to victory over two sisters that just want power and gold. Since Oz also wants power and gold, he likes this message. The hot babe attached to it doesn't hurt either. This is a man who lies to get with women, who plays them like toys and disposes of them just as casually. But when one of those women finds herself engulfed in fury over his lack of sincerity, she is to blame. Her inner evil is revealed. The problem isn't in him, it's in her expecting anything else.

I couldn't watch another frame from the point West drops into Munchkinland to wave some threats around. I don't want to see anyone in this movie in any other movie. I don't want to watch a film anyone associated with this writes, directs or sweeps floors for. Because the problem with Oz, the thing that needed (apparently) to be fixed, is that it's not about a worthless boy and the jealous bitches he has to deal with. Look, Frank L. Baum was a deeply flawed man. He was a racist with colonialist views and genocidal leanings. But he was able to see women as complex individuals capable of great adventures. What does it say that 100 years later one of our major film companies couldn't? Nothing I can discuss without profanity. Do better, Disney. Do much, much better.

11 June, 2013

Holding Patterns

Memorial Day Memories by meoskop
Memorial Day Memories, a photo by meoskop on Flickr.

I'm a few weeks behind on reviews for reasons pictured. (No, that's not my car. That car hit my car.) I'm fine, but the ridiculous aftermath is taking up my time. I should have a few reviews up in the end of June and be back on track after that.

04 June, 2013

Sudden Bondage Doesn't Mean I Love You

Lately I'm seeing a lot of Sudden Bondage. Nothing makes me lose my investment in a story faster than the use of childhood abuse as a substitute for real conflict resolution. If you're not familiar with the concept, Sudden Bondage is the scene where the heroine (or hero, but more often the heroine) ties the partner up with little or no warning (and certainly not fully informed consent) as a demonstration that they are trustworthy. The tied partner usually has a history of abuse, often with PTSD symptoms attached. The dominant partner wants to tie being bound with pleasure instead of having it be bound with pain.

Leaving aside the issues of personal sexual preference and the importance of consent between non-damaged partners, let me explain why Sudden Bondage is so problematic to me in mainstream romance. I get that bondage is trendy right now, but I don't read romance for the sexy-times-rawr, I read romance for the character conflicts. If you take someone who has trust issues, who has an abuse history with control needs and you bind them without consent you don't get the gentling-the-wild-horse fetish that ends up on the author page. You are far more likely to get violence, panic, racing heartbeats, more distrust and an end to your relationship. This person is not going to be thinking "Wow, so hot after all" they are going to be thinking "Oh my god, please stop, don't touch me, I have to get away." You are also unlikely to get the kind of casual we-will-see-what-happens agreement that some characters in romance offer. Your character is wondering why their lover isn't respecting their boundaries. You character is wondering why their lover thinks they have to be cured rather than appreciated. Sudden Bondage tells me you don't understand abuse issues. You don't understand anything about this character point you've decided to use and I will hate your story proactively from that moment forward.

Like any group of people, abused children are not all the same. Some like double dark chocolate, some like vanilla, some like spumoni, some eschew ice cream entirely. Being one myself and having known a considerable number as well, I will say the adult abuse survivor of romanceland generally resembles an actual adult abuse survivor about as closely as a manatee does a mermaid. (Yes, I meant to make the fictional version the manatee. Manatees float dumbly along in the ocean occasionally eating their own waste while mermaids have complex and varied lives. There was a documentary and everything.) In my experience, adult survivors of abuse have many challenges. We don't think like the other kids. We don't have the same needs as the other kids. Our emotional triggers are not theirs. We are also endlessly resourceful. We seek and appreciate fun. We value the human ties and freedoms that we've attained. Respect and consent are not abstract concepts to us. We do not believe in doing things for someone's own good. Put me in a room of people and I go to the ones laughing the most, smiling the most and making the best jokes. Someone beat the crap out of them and then it stopped. It's time to live. It's time to appreciate life.

In fiction the adult survivor is shuttered down into themselves. They cannot form attachments. They do not trust their own instincts. They are trapped in the mental prison their parents built for them, broken until the fictional lover gently leads them into the light. I dunno, man. Maybe this is true of some I haven't meant. Maybe it's true of adults who were in abusive relationships. After years of exposure to some of the most fucked up family situations to walk the planet, I can tell you it doesn't line up with what I've been or seen from kids who grew up and got the hell out. My old man dies and leaves me a vast estate? I'm not gonna cry in my pillow about upholding his mantle. I'm gonna throw a party that makes Puff Daddy look like a cheapskate. My lover thinks they know what I need more than I do? I'm getting a new lover yesterday.

It's obvious to me when a writer approaches abuse from a place of pity instead of a place of experience. Some writers do a great job with abuse from their research and intuition. Nora Roberts is pretty much perfect in her handling of male and female abuse survivors. Courtney Milan does a nice job as well. (No WAY Mark lives in that house, I am still saying.) It's totally possible. But like Brenda Joyce's historical black friends your abuse adult is a stereotype with little rooting in plausible reality. You might want to get that looked at.