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.