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?