30 August, 2013

Review: The Arrangement by Mary Balogh

Some books permanently change the reader / author relationship. Having loved Mary Balogh since her earliest days I half-heartedly defended her previous disability themed books but still cringed when she announced The Survivor's Club series. There are authors that do disability well, and then there's Mary Balogh. Her disabled characters are more Matt-in-Downton-Abbey than Harold RussellThe Arrangement is the second TSC book. In some ways it's more successful than The Proposal. (I mean, I finished it without rage reading.) Here Balogh is concerned with a blind hero and a destitute heroine.
Vincent Hunt is a golden god of a man. He's also blind. He has recently acquired an unexpected title and musical ability. That's pretty much all you need to know about Vincent. Despite tons of backstory describing him as a take charge problem solving man of action, Vincent undergoes a radical personality change once blinded. His dependency extends past the physical into the emotional. His family coddles him so he runs away to pout about it. Enter Sophia, the poor relation with a comedically unkind family. Sophia is kept at home in her small village by a domineering aunt and social climbing cousin. I couldn't stand Sophia. She's one of those women who climbs on the cross and frantically smacks anyone trying to help her off it. She is a martyr of the highest order. She's also the only one in Vincent's life (he feels) to see past his blindness and into his soul. He doesn't care if his peers tell him she's not pretty (and it would be far more interesting if she wasn't). He's drawn to her voice and her innate goodness. Vincent's right hand man and alleged close childhood friend distrusts her so that seals the deal and they hitch up.
At this point I'm not certain what offended me more in The Arrangement. There is so much to choose from. It was readable and it had some lovely touches so it's going to do well with people that can set aside the problems of one note characterizations, family dysfunction, class reinforcement and random violence. Balogh asks us to believe that Saint Sophia the Self Effacing is the only person in Vincent's life that would think to put up a guide rope for his walks. Farmers have used guide ropes for blinding weather conditions since we first made animals sleep outside the house. Either everyone in Vincent's life is insanely dim or... ok everyone in Vincent's life is insanely dim. I can't come up with a second choice. Sophia presents a multitude of ideas to expand Vincent's limitations, ideas that were in place for a few hundred years prior to her arrival and yet unexamined by anyone else. But let's step beyond Sophia's innovations and Vincent's all encompassing blindness.
Remember Sophia's living situation? The family that refused to let her leave the home and then cast her out to starve? Them? Vincent encourages Sophia to resume ties with not only that crew, but also the extended relatives that couldn't be bothered to meet her. Vincent has such a large loving family that he wants Sophia to have a nest of self interested vipers to balance things out. So she does. She takes her toxic extended clan, people who left her to starve, and she embraces them. Saint Sophia the Self Effacing accepts their misdeeds and presents a clean slate to everyone. Well, almost everyone. She can't quite forgive the one who called her ugly, so Vincent arranges to beat the ever loving crap out of the guy. Nothing says "I love you" like domestic violence. (Um, spoiler alert. Sorry.)
The first half of The Arrangement is stronger than the second. Sophia doesn't really get her sainthood rolling until after she meets Vincent's friends. Characterization is stronger before Sophia is demoted from new friend to care coordinator. The relationship between Vincent and his childhood friend / devoted companion disappears once he reenters the forced world of The Survivor's Club. Whatever personality Vincent held apart from his disability is dominated by their insistence on telling us who he is despite Balogh showing us someone different. A truly bewildering dynamic between Vincent and another member of the nobility is tossed in for no apparent gain beyond pathos. It's like a same sex relationship that isn't. You'll know it when you get there.
Vincent and Sophia began as strong characters finding their way through temporary challenges. They ended as a typically Inspiring Couple made of pity and pathos. Without Sophia's guiding hand everyone else in Vincent's life (including Vincent himself) would have failed to make commonsense changes to adapt his home to his life. Without Vincent's massive cash infusion Sophia would have been forced to sex work or starvation. Luckily, they end up together and a merry band of misfits toasts their eternal union. Even the childhood friend comes around. Oh, and his mother cries. Happy tears, naturally. I just took an aspirin and moved on to the next book.
*This review was first posted at Love In The Margins

26 August, 2013

Review: It Happened One Midnight by Julie Anne Long

Caucasian man in right profile with dark hair wearing a white shirt unbuttoned and hanging on his elbows, stands behind a red haired woman in a green historical dress staring outward and leaning slightly left. His arms hold her left arm and right shoulder lightly.It Happened One Midnight would be far more enjoyable as a single title than as an entry in the Pennyroyal Green series. Eight books in I don't care at all about the missing Lyon or the weary Olivia. Every mention of either character detracts from the story. That's a shame because Lyon has an actual purpose this time out.

Jonathan Redmond is Lyon's less paternally satisfying sibling. After multiple disappointments Father Redmond is cracking down on Jonathan in an attempt to mold a child he can approve of. The shadow of Lyon's absence keeps him from seeing Jonathan clearly. Cue inevitable father and son clash. Enter Thomasina, (hereafter Tommy) our heroine.

Tommy is a woman with a mysterious background. (This review is long enough without exploring the holes in it.) She may or may not be a courtesan. She's searching for the security of marriage while keeping her eyes open for other revenue sources. Jonathan brings her into his start up as an investor. Of course Jonathan and Tommy find there is more to each other than they realized. (Duh.) There's a subplot about child labor but the main focus is on Tommy and Jonathan's banter.

Overall It Happened One Midnight is a satisfying romance of the light history variety. Characters are varied enough to provide interest and appear to have lives outside of the time spent in Tommy and Jonathan's orbit. While there are no real surprises neither are there serious offenses. Yet It Happened One Midnight became a rant read for me in it's closing pages. It's not about the numerous errors I understand the finished book contained.


If you believe that one of the purposes of genre fiction is to uphold or undermine cultural norms what are we to make of the choices here? Tommy is the bastard daughter of a Duke and the courtesan he allegedly loved. The Duke rejected Tommy at birth yet her mother raised her to revere him, going so far as to claim if she were ever in need The Dukester would step up and assist. (I'm not sure who is needier than an infant, but Tommy's mom isn't the first woman in history unable to accept he's really not going to pay child support.) Tommy goes on to have a horrific childhood complete with near death events. Still she believes, because the child inside her has nothing else.

While Long gives Jonathan the opportunity to confront and insult the Duke, she gives no such moment to Tommy. Tommy's father left her to die. When confronted by Jonathan he confirms his belief that working class children are expendable. Tommy's father is a completely reprehensible person. I felt no sympathy for Tommy's father. He knowingly works children to their death. He knowingly abandoned his own child not once but twice. Why should I (or Tommy) care for him?

Long treats Father Redmond differently. Tommy and Jonathan are both given opportunities to condemn his actions. Despite Redmond being a present and loving father in the past, his current pain is tearing apart his relationships. It is bizarre that he is given more condemnation than Tommy's absent father. Both Tommy and Jonathan threaten Redmond with his greatest fear - losing another child. At this point I expected Long to give Tommy's father an unlikely change of heart through his friendship with Redmond. It would have been unlikely and predictable but Long laid the groundwork for it.

Instead the book closes with Tommy and the Duke estranged. In the book's final pages Long has Tommy return a family keepsake to her father with an encouraging note. It is this encouraging note that moved It Happened One Midnight from the A minus to the Low Middle B grade on my reader report card. In having Tommy urge her father to "be brave" Long wants the reader to believe emotional cowardice is the root of his parental rejection. In doing so she places Tommy's life in a separate category from the other children the Duke would condemn. I don't think Long is making a class superiority comment so much as one of family solidarity. This incredibly toxic message is showing up in too many historical books this year. Our heroines are returning to abusive families and begging for emotional connections. This is not a happy ending, this is a recipe for disaster.

16 August, 2013

Review: The Heiress Effect by Courtney Milan

My abiding love for Courtney Milan books is well documented. You should know that I have neither objectivity nor credibility on this subject. (Which means you should totally read every Courtney Milan review I ever write because the breakup is going to an epic bit of room clearing.) ANYWAY. The Heiress Effect. The book she didn't really want to write. Ok, that's probably not true. I'm fairly sure CM wanted to write The Heiress Effect as much as she's wanted to write any of her books in the Brothers Sinister series since she's self publishing and therefore not beholden to contracts, Everything about The Heiress Effect indicates an author wanting to push the edges of the genre out just a bit farther and squeeze more interesting people in the box. Our core couple, Oliver and Jane, are a fairly typical lead. Oliver is of noble blood but moderate birth. He's the stuck between two worlds kind of guy busy figuring out what price is too high to pay for his ambitions. I liked him fine. Jane is desperate to protect her family but constrained by limited legal rights. They should just kiss and get married already so we can move on to the secondary romance.

 Ok. FINE, That's not fair. Oliver and Jane do not suck even a little bit. Jane is a woman of outlandish attire and complete social failure. Oliver is a man of painful exactitude. In each other they recognize kindred spirits, people constrained by the demands of their lives to wear social masks. I loved them, they rock. Jane gets extra points for refusing to take a man willing to accept her when an outsider would claim that's the best she can get. Oliver and Jane, super awesome. But wow, the secondary romance. I need to not spoil it but I need to tell you everything about it in extreme detail. There is a minority character who clearly sees the limits racism put on his career and daily life. There is a disabled character who refuses to accept the limitations others confer on her because of her medical constraints. These crazy kids meet and save themselves. Push a couch under me because I'm swooning.

But wait! You also get the voting rights movement, same sex attracted characters who are neither saints nor sinners, class turmoil and complicated family dynamics. Now how much would you read this? (If Oliver's sister doesn't bat for the home team and hook up with Obvious Childhood Friend I will be so sad. I'm pretty sure Obvious Childhood Friend is actually going to hook up with Jane's Friend instead, though. Wait! What if Jane's Friend and Oliver's Sister are... yes kids, I'm shipping the secondaries.) I'd love to give The Heiress Effect an unqualified endorsement but I can't. The side story of Anjan and Emily is so strong that it occasionally overpowers Oliver and Jane. I don't want to leave Emily to find out what Jane is doing, although when I do Jane is perfectly interesting in her own right. My other caveat is a scene where Emily stands up for proper pronunciation that makes sense from a class and ethnicity perspective but was an eye roller from a reader perspective. I also feel completely unqualified to judge Anjan's family dynamics or Emily's understanding of them. Is she correct? Is this stereotypical? I have no idea. Let me know after you read it.

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

11 August, 2013

Review: Cat Vs. Human by Yasmine Surovec

There are plenty of cat lovers in my life. I am not one of them. (Some of my friends have to be avoided during sweater season.) Cat Vs Human is a popular site I was unaware of until I saw this book in Kinokuniya. From the cover I wasn't sure if it was for cat lovers or cat phobics. The answer is yes.

As a proud member (but not active participant) of Team Dog most cat humor eludes me. Less than 1 in 10 forwarded cats move me to anything other than an irritated click of the delete key. Imagine me sending you random captioned photos of old sneakers. Sneakers on my laptop. Sneakers unlaced and strewn on the floor. Sneakers sitting on a windowsill. Sneakers everywhere a sneaker shouldn't be, doing what they do best - which is not much for me. For the cat immune, that is internet life. One long pile up of people admiring various used shoes for reasons you can't emotionally comprehend.

Cat vs Human does an excellent job of appealing to both camps. Surovec is obviously Team Cat till she dies, but she has a fair understanding of the non afflicted. Her cartoons focus on the adorable cat themes without ignoring perplexed non cat loving partners. This is a quick breezy read slightly more filling than All My Friends Are Dead. As gift books go this is better than most. It's pretty age appropriate for teens or bosses. Giving it will either signal that you accept their insanity or that you can embrace something they love. Either way, it's a pretty solid win. (I've got to launch my Sneakers vs Cats tumblr, I think that's going viral fast.)

07 August, 2013

Double Review: The Sweetest Dark and The Deepest Night by Shana Abe

*If you haven't read Abé's earlier Drakon books there will be mild spoilers in this review. Read on with that in mind.

Shana Abé moved her Drakon series to young adult and it's taken me time to catch up. While book two is stronger than book one (and neither is free of all the issues I had with her romance series) overall I prefer this take on her girls who turn to smoke and dragons. We left the Drakon rebuilding their ruined world in an attempt to curb extinction. In The Sweetest Dark that appears to have been a futile endeavor. Jumping forward to WW1, Abé focuses on a young orphan whisked away from London and into an exclusive boarding school. Here our Littlest Princess meets the requisite young lord and the silent groundskeeper.

Eleanore (Lora), Armand (Mandy) and Jesse begin an uneasy relationship (cue dramatic drum roll) destined to change all their lives! The Sweetest Dark is a languid read. It hits all the notes of the orphan amongst the privileged as it slowly acclimates readers to the world of the Drakon and the place these three hold within it. (The companion novel, The Deepest Night is a much more action driven read.) Abé has made multiple adjustments to the Drakon universe to fit the YA market. Both books hint at sexuality more than they explore it. Jesse is almost ridiculously understanding of Lora's age and Mandy's actions. If Jesse was black he'd be the book's Magical Negro as his primary purpose appears to be filling out the triangle and imparting wisdom. It's a shame that Abé leaves him underdeveloped as it's been a long time since a character perceived as mute has been a romantic lead. She has also toned down her Fated Mate fetish. While still drawn to characters who self describe as Alpha and whose actions are excused as beyond their rational reason, the relationships between Jesse, Mandy and Lora do not skirt the edge of abuse as found in Abé's romantic genre series.

Lora is largely passive for The Sweetest Dark. In The Deepest Night she is actively controlling her life. Where the flaw of the former is a lack of action the flaw of the latter might be an excess of it. Events happen at a rapid pace, with barely a breath between them. England is at war and Lora is ready to fight it. This is not a conflict with nuance. Lora is Team England. It's her or them and she consistently chooses them. The brief interactions she has with German soldiers give her no reason to examine if her actions are the right ones. She is the weapon. They are the target. I found the scenes behind enemy lines the weak point of the book. There is a point where Lora's lack of regard for her own life is meant to feel significant but (given her near suicidal state for much of our time together) seems only expedient. As well,  this section of the book includes a quick introduction of a Gay Predator from Mandy's past. I'm incredibly tired of the only representation of a same sex attracted person being negative. The point this blink-and-you'll-miss-him stereotype makes could easily be presented through other means. It's a regrettable flaw in an overall excellent read.

While I tend not to respond to YA as a category, Abé has done an excellent job in taking the best parts of her romance series and molding them into a YA read with a powerful female lead. The characters read age appropriate overall. Late in The Deepest Night they seem matured beyond their years, but not their experiences. The reader is surprised to realize Lora has a year of schooling left to complete. Although the events of the war and her past make us ready to launch her fully into adulthood, the demands of the series require that she remain a schoolgirl. Depending on your tolerance for alcohol as a casual beverage this series could be read anywhere from fourth grade up. I'm looking forward to the next book.

02 August, 2013

Things That Happen

In the last ten days I have been distracted by life.

Two different couples announced their engagement. Two people died prematurely, (one quite young). Between the flights and the dresses and the tears and the toasts I've pushed everything aside.

Something I'm excited about has come from this brief hiatus. A number of blogger / reviewers I enjoy talking to have decided to join together for a joint reader space. I'm going to run reviews there before I run them here. This shouldn't (once we get rolling) make much of a difference but I hope you will look in on the new site as well.

As soon as it's live, I'll link it. My first posts there (and later here) will be new books by Long, Balogh and Milan as well as an examination of asexual reading. I'm hoping that this challenges me to examine my reading choices in the same way that I examine authorial choice. That's my hope - that I can still write completely ill thought and unprepared reviews while piggybacking onto a group of more considered thinkers. It's worked this far in life.

In the meantime, I'll be looking at Shana Abe's young adult series next week as well as some graphic novels I've been kicking around the book bag. I'm also thinking about privilege and paranormal - which might be a bigger bite than I care to take at the moment but we will see...