30 January, 2013

Spoileriffic Review: One Good Earl Deserves A Lover by Sarah MacLean

*Since we're diving deeper into the book I thought the step back would be a more fitting graphic than the cover. 

A few days ago I suggested you preorder Once Good Earl Deserves A Lover, read it at midnight and meet me back here to discuss where I thought it fell apart. I can only show you the path, I can't make you walk it. If you're reading this without having finished One Good Earl  that's on you, kitten.

With everything I loved about OGEDaL this is not a cliche free book. MacLean deals with the logistics of a girl who wears glasses so well that I forgave that girl being an intellectual. (The details of Pippa trying to tie a mask to her face won me over.) While I'd love to read about vision impaired heroines without their defective eyes conferring intellectual power, I get that this stereotype is hardly negative. But still. Smartacles. The magic of myopia.

With all the Pippa Middleton / Prince Harry shipping in the zeitgeist it took me a moment to get past our leads being Pippa and a tall charming redhead. It certainly didn't hurt that Cross was also an intellectual. (Say what you will about Harry but he's never been known for scholarly prowess.) I appreciated how Pippa dominated the book. Cross was well represented but it's Pippa that drives the story and dictates the action. She never becomes a passive passenger in her own story. The human relationships were (with some exceptions) well defined and realistic. I believed the divide between Cross and his family, as well as the interactions between Cross and his partners. I appreciated MacLean leaving Cross and his sister estranged. It was truthful and appropriate. What was neither was the distance of Bourne. I found his exclusion completely implausible. It's one thing for Cross to conspire with Pippa, it is another thing for his partners to do so. Events escalate to the point that the partners spend 19 million in company funds (300,000 plus pounds converted to modern pounds) without consulting or informing him. (The 19 million spent made little sense. This was a feel good resolution that didn't hold logically. It also put the owners - and thus Bourne -  into business with men they didn't wish to entertain.) Aside from the financial aspect, Bourne is invisible in his own family life. He is a prop used to support the HEA from a prior book instead of a realistic character.  This is Bourne, he likes to bang Penny now - as though there is no other purpose to his existence. Send your prior characters on a tour of Europe if you're going to write them out of their own lives.

Cross and Pippa have a nemesis in rival club owner Knight. Of course Knight has a daughter. Since Pippa has two men on her string you know we're going to end with one of them marrying the girl. It's unlikely, unrealistic and unbelievable. It weakens the overall story when characters not destined to be sequel bait pair off like animals on an ark. There is no need for Knight (or his daughter) to bag an aristocrat. Late in the book events also weaken the portrayal of our extra earl. It's understandable that Pippa would build a plan requiring the full cooperation of a recently rejected lover. It's less understandable that he would comply. Marrying him off to Knight's daughter undermines the only simple explanation for his eager compliance. We needed more characterization of his friendship with Pippa to understand what appears to be an inexplicable willingness to comply with her desires. "Hi, I'm not going to marry you. It's really sweet of you to offer to marry me even if I'm pregnant or just desperate, and I totally adore how you're keeping the offer on the table, but would you come help me win the man I want instead?" What makes him agree? Nothing but the needs of the plot.

One aspect of the book I I really enjoyed was Pippa's frank acceptance of human sexuality and lack of disdain for sex workers. Pippa struggles to understand who would choose such a life (and if they would). I felt MacLean was having it both ways when Pippa tells a prostitute that there is no shame in the word, then tells the hero she cannot condone the life. On the one hand, a heroine refreshingly free of slut shaming. On the other, nod to conservative reader expectation. When the prostitute flips on Pippa she has a wonderful defense of her actions that again, is adjusted to reader expectation by her regret at having wronged our Pipster. I'm conflicted in my feelings about this aspect of the book.

I'm not at all conflicted about the final pages. Cross has his last minute revelation. He runs down the street to make the church on time where he finds Pippa in the foyer instead of walking down the aisle. A public proposal follows, and a babylouge ties it off in a bow. This part of the story couldn't be more cliched if it starred Hugh Grant. Pippa has called off her wedding. Why is she at the church? If not Pippa then at least her family is aware she has jilted an earl and will be subject to extreme public scrutiny. Pippa is sporting a bruised face and a blackened eye. Someone around her (oh, I don't know, Bourne?) might have feelings about her appearance. Someone might suggest (her mother?) that society is going to assume the earl beat her and thus she canceled the wedding or that her father beat her for canceling the wedding. Either way, bare faced Pippa hanging out at the church is going to create unwarranted and unsavory rumors for someone. I didn't believe that she'd appear or that she'd hang out in the lobby. Far more likely that Pippa would be at home or at the wedding breakfast (where her appearance could possibly be explained). Pippa is in the church only to facilitate the cinematic staging of her proposal. In a book so deeply concerned with logic and intellect it doesn't hold together. Plus, babylouge. So, so sick of babylouges.

I still loved One Good Earl Deserves A Lover. Books, like people, don't need perfection to be worthy of affection. We can embrace them and see their flaws simultaneously. MacLean owns me for her next release and probably two or three after that. If there's an author / reader version of reality show immunity, she's got it.

18 January, 2013

Review: One Good Earl Deserves A Lover by Sarah MacLean

Emotionally, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover is absolutely fantastic. Epic. Sheer greatness. Best Book Of The Year material. Critically, One Good Earl Deserves a Lover has substantial flaws. Much like Jennifer Ashley's book The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie reader investment overcomes the structural problems. I was so engaged in the story of Pippa and Cross that I forgave the book everything. In Pippa we have an educated woman free of the cultural bias authors generally ascribe to educated heroines. Pippa does not rebel against conventional femininity nor does she require anyone's defense. She is accepted by those around her. Pippa is not disdainful of people who think differently than she. This is an intellectually curious woman with difficulty understanding and processing emotional cues.

Pippa uses information as a shield against embarrassment, a way to mimic the conventional behavior that seems so alien to her. By studying the strange world most people inhabit, Pippa can move confidently within it. This brings her to Cross, a business partner of her brother in law. Pippa is marrying a perfectly nice man, a man she wants because he wants her. Pippa is aware her interests do not mirror those of conventional society. She is grateful to have found a man who honors her unique qualities. In the interest of conducting herself properly as a wife, Pippa seeks to understand human sexuality. This is a common beginning for historical romance - the naive heroine in need of a sexually experienced tutor. MacLean tweaks the plot by pairing her ingenue with a celibate. Cross is also a prodigy. Where Pippa is emotionally unconnected, Cross is attuned to the way emotions dictate human behavior. He understands and categorizes it the way another might their personal library. What is a mystery to Pippa (human sexuality and attraction) is an open book to Cross. He shares her interest in science as well as her inability to stop thinking critically about the world surrounding him. Where Pippa labels herself as odd, Cross labels himself as continually inadequate. The difference between them is larger than age or experience. It is built by their extended family. One is embraced, the other was rejected. Pippa has never before had a need to decode human interaction. Cross has always been forced to look outside his home for warm appreciation.

Because the emotional strengths of One Good Earl Deserves A Lover outweigh the structural weaknesses I'm going to run a second review after the book's release. It will discuss the dissatisfactions I had with the framing of Cross and Pippa's courtship. I'm splitting the review because I strongly recommend One Good Earl Deserves a Lover and believe it should be read without spoilers. Pre-order this one, read it at midnight and come back on the 30th to see what I have to complain about. All you need to know before you crack the cover is that MacLean has written a celibate hero, a strong female lead and an emotionally satisfying resolution. Enjoy it, for tomorrow (or in two weeks) we quibble.

17 January, 2013

Review: Cravebox Teen Time

Oh, patriarchy. You never change. 
Before the holidays I briefly touched on Cravebox. Normally I wouldn't revisit the topic. After all, this is a book blog. If I turned it into a consumption blog you'd either endlessly read about my handbags or be grossed out by an examination of Victorian medical practices. (Both of which would be epic, now that I consider the matter.) We're back at Cravebox because I decided to give them one more try. Cravebox and I are breaking up. We are never, ever, ever getting back together. (You go talk to their friends.)

Last month Cravebox offered a Teen Time box with the description: "Being a teen girl can be kinda hard. Finding them cool stuff just got easier. We at Cravebox think girls deserve their own space… and their own stuff. That’s why our creative curators thought “outside the box” to find fun, girl-friendly discoveries to put into a box, just for them." 

I don't know why I expected anything other than what arrived. Maybe it was the words "outside the box" or perhaps "girl-friendly" instead of "gender normative mandates". I thought they might have chosen an upcoming young adult fiction title, coupled it with craft or club items. You know, some gender marketing, some "outside the box" acknowledgement that a growing teen girl needs to be shown that she is more than her sexuality. (I must have been drunk. I really have no defense.)

The Teen Time Cravebox arrived with an inspirational card I'm too depressed to quote from. More of the same about unique challenges and adventures. Being a teen sure is hard, but Cravebox is here to help. First up, a razor. Now that you're leaving your prepubescent years behind you'll want to erase as many traces of that as you can. While you're shaving, you can chew gum. Teens chew gum, because food makes you fat. (I actually have no issue with the gum.) Don't blow bubbles! This is chewing gum and your new hot pink Mary Kay gloss might smudge. 

Now that you're clean shaven and smacking those pink lips, it's time to address the rest of you! That's right - your hair. With the enclosed moisture mousse you can address all those nasty split ends you might have earned playing sports. Well groomed hair is a must for teen success. It's almost as important as clear skin, which is why Cravebox gives you a bottle of Vitamin E. You might have your skin under control but acne scars reveal a time when you didn't. Scars, burns and blemishes - Vitamin E has you covered. And that's it. Four products reinforcing the media message of your visual inadequacy and a pack of gum to chew your insecurities away. (Give mom a hug!)

Cravebox, they're just a bunch of crazy radicals. Radicals who totally know how to find cool things for teen girls struggling with questions of worth and identity. If you'll excuse me, I'm going to buy mine a gift from Think Geek

11 January, 2013

Review: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Occasionally a book comes along that catches every reviewer's eye at once. Maybe it's the marketing, maybe it's the theme, sometimes it's random chance. In the case of Back to The Good Fortune Diner it's the promise of a non-caucasian lead in a traditionally caucasian line. Vicki Essex is an author in the right place at the right time. Essex is also a talented writer. Ultimately, I think she's better than her book. I'm going to give Diner it's small town beats dirty big city vibe because that's a fetish. It's not my fetish, but the topic of message coding in this theme is more than I care to get into with this review.

I'm also going to give Diner it's simultaneous embrace and rejection of education - no I'm not. It was very problematic for me. The racism in the book was another stumbling block. For much of the story we have an interesting tale of two culturally different people learning to communicate with each other as adults but then it takes a sharp turn. The book couldn't sustain the weight of the material. Ultimately, it feels very After School Special in it's quick presentation and smooth resolution. A secondary romance felt it should have been the focus of (or a sequel to) the book. Finally, the brother and sister duo at the heart of both relationships felt completely wrong for their age. Whew. Let's unpack some of that.

Age before anything - Daniel and Tiffany are highly educated professionals in their mid to late thirties. both are so deeply enmeshed in their parent's possible view of them that they cannot see themselves. I felt their age was driven by the author's need to reunite her high school couple (Chris and Tiffany) through his teenage son. Drop everyone's age seven years, make the son a nephew, and all my issues with this part of the story evaporate. The emotional conflicts were realistic and interesting. Their timing was not. Tiffany and Daniel are both trying to figure out who they are. Both have degrees they don't want to use. While I completely disagreed with Daniel's choice of work I want to focus on Tiffany. About Daniel (certainly the more compelling sibling) I'd say that most 35ish year old men working the back of a kitchen (who are not chefs) have beaten their bodies to the point that they would welcome any alternate opportunity. That Daniel is in possession of funds, education, contacts and support but chooses to take a fairly low level position on impulse mystified me. He is banking on the financial support of a girlfriend he is estranged from while rejecting all paths that lead to his own financial stability. At 25, this is a mistake. At 35 it's running into poverty instead of away from it. Daniel will struggle for the rest of his life where a slight change of course could have given him the work he loves and the ability to enjoy his life while doing it. (I have to stop talking about Daniel. His dominance of a book not about him is turning into his dominance of the review.)

Tiffany has been chasing publishing jobs she doesn't find rewarding. I wanted Tiffany to grow into an appreciation of her own worth but she never does. Tiffany is the over achieving student, she's the impassive faced minority who magically brings the hateful white bigot into line, she's the understanding and self demonizing girlfriend and the overly devoted employee. Even as a rebellious daughter she's just a little too good. When the women of the town want to socialize with her Tiffany wonders why they would want to. Tiffany never wonders why she should want to talk to them. When Chris calls her out on her lack of interest she examines it as a personal flaw. Tiffany spends the entire book wondering what she offers others and ends it the same way. It is always Tiffany that is inadequate and Tiffany that must change. I wanted Tiffany to demand more for herself and standing up to a sick old racist was insufficient. Tiffany suddenly decides her jobs are unsatisfying. Her inability to make friends is her personal flaw and not a facet of her being uncomfortable in her own skin (this was hinted at but not developed). Breadcrumbs of an alternate career path are laid in the story. They are not used. Tiffany appears to give up her professional dreams so she can have the boy, because the boy trumps everything else in her life. She doesn't find a different dream, unearth a deferred dream, or reveal a dream she was afraid to follow. She settles. She's going to be with the boy and figure the rest out later. Again, understandable at 25 but troubling in your 30's.

I think Back to The Good Fortune Diner would be a stronger read without the racism. Or a stronger read with more racism in it. Of course the only Chinese family in a town is going to face bigotry. I've repeatedly lost friends to other states because they wanted their children to grow up as something other than "the Asian kid" in town. Having Tiffany face racism from one man was dealing with it in a token manner. Tiffany stands up to him, he folds. He's a softie underneath anyway. It's true enough in that it could happen, but it feels far too pat. Leave it out. Adding in Daniel's concern that his parents are bigots without really resolving if they are makes the post-racial ending even less satisfying. Daniel's story was too big for this book. Including all of it not only short changed Chris and Tiffany but it ended any chance to resolve the core of their arrested development. Why do their parents constantly fight? How did they both feel about the sudden move from the big city to the small town when they made it? Why did they press their children to get educations if they don't want either of them to use them? How does this dynamic stop influencing their children and start informing them? Chris and his father get their emotional issues resolved, leaving Tiffany as a Magical Asian when I wanted her to be the star. Removing most of Daniel's romance would have given Tiffany more room to earn a happy ending instead of concede her way to one.

All praise to Essex for making me care enough about her world and her prose to devote so much thought to it. I'm absolutely going to read her next book but I have to give a mixed recommendation to this one. Essex suffers from a lack of space over a lack of ideas. She might be better served by a longer word count. Back to the Good Fortune Diner is more enjoyable than my review suggests. It's actually very good, it just isn't amazing. There's a joke in there about the no-win life of the American (or Canadian) born Chinese, but I'm not going to explore it.

*I also wanted to explore Daniel's unconventional choice not to be the dominant financial power in his relationship and his willingness to subvert that gender norm. Really, the wrong couple led the book.

* If you haven't read the discussion at My Extensive Reading I highly suggest it. Among many excellent comments Sunita brings up a point I'd failed to consider. 

03 January, 2013

Review: Your Wicked Heart by Meredith Duran

I've held off writing this review because so much about Your Wicked Heart annoyed me. First of all, the blurb being used to sell it is not only inaccurate, it's a complete inversion of the central relationship.

"She’ll do whatever it takes to secure a berth on an England-bound ship, even if it means pretending to be the wife of the absentee viscount who jilted her. But when the anchor lifts, she’s not the only impostor on board—for the stranger in her bed claims to be the real Viscount Ripton. Can she trust this devastatingly attractive scoundrel? Or is his offer of friendship only a pretext for seduction...and revenge?" - Simon & Schuster

His offer of friendship? Can I get that again, please?

"Amanda's having the worst day of her life. Her groom failed to appear at the wedding, her employer withheld her references and now a man claiming to be the real Viscount Ripton has kidnapped her. When the anchor lifts she can only pray the truth isn't as bleak as her fears." - Meoskop

I spent less than ten seconds on that. (At least I read the story.) Pretending to be the Viscount's wife? More like destitute bride in search of answers. An offer of friendship? More like crazy accusations and deranged imaginings. Can she trust him? Not if she has half a brain in her head. I haven't been reading Meredith Duran lately. The middle of Your Wicked Heart reminded me why I liked her so much while the beginning and end made me want to DNF the short and call it a day. Amanda is beautifully portrayed as a lost soul at the end of her rope. The book opens on her heartbreak and desperation giving the reader every reason to root for her. Our first encounter with Spencer shows a power mad man who can't function without the full weight of his wealth behind him. He's threatening, he's accusing, he's enraged. He doesn't have to listen to anyone because he has already made up enough answers in his head to satisfy himself. He enables his relatives (who then disappoint him) while assuming the darkest motives in those his relatives dupe.

In the center of the novella I was able to put aside Spencer's extreme dysfunction long enough for Duran to charm me with the tale of a poor little rich boy and a scrambling companion. Amanda's issues of self worth rang true, her desire for more than she has while accepting that she's likely to have even less also worked. Spencer's defensive posturing turned to desperation and exhaustion. Slowly I began to accept that this couple deserved more than a third class ticket on the Titanic. (I even got past Spencer telling Amanda she was inviting rape by appearing above deck without him because he's a super duper good guy and those sailors, no telling! This isn't some classy ship I kidnapped you onto, baby, it's full of all kinds of miscreants!!)

Eventually, Amanda and Spencer catch up to the other Viscount Ripton and all is revealed. (Here lie spoilers.) I was disappointed in Amanda's revelation that she agreed to wed as an escape. A more complex situation involving Amanda actually having feelings for both men would have been welcome. Knowing that Amanda did not love the second Viscount, Spencer still steps aside for the man. Amanda, it seems, is a commodity. He paints it as freedom of choice, but it's still appalling. A freedom of choice requires communication and Spencer hates to use his words when his power will do. Amanda tells them both to get lost. She searches for work she doesn't find until she does. She then rejects the job because Spencer arranged it for her. She hopes he will come and find her. Amanda is about to be homeless, cannot pay for her food, and she turns down the only viable job offer she has based on principle and magical thinking. I completely lost patience with her.

In a less capable author's hands I wouldn't have finished the story. Duran carried me though with her beautiful descriptions of place and her ability to make me feel for the most appalling people. If issues of power and communication bother you less than they do me you'll probably love Your Wicked Heart. There are worse ways to spend a buck and a lot Duran gets right.

02 January, 2013

Review: The Work Of The Devil by Katherine Amt Hanna

All credit to the cover designer. This is an arresting image with fantastic use of tone. I like almost everything about it. (The borders are too tight on the author's name, but I'll go with it.) This should be on a NYT bestseller, but it's not. It's on a novella from fledgling author Katherine Amt Hanna. When I read Hanna's work it feels like there is a major talent inside who can't quite get where she needs to be. The fact that I found The Work of the Devil to be flawed and still have tons of comments to make illustrates that. I'd rather be frustrated by Hanna than entertained by many. It's my hope she keeps writing.

The Work of the Devil is a fairly classic SF set up. It's evocative of golden age books while keeping a modern pace. It it was a short filler story in an ongoing series I'd probably be calling it brilliant. Unfortunately, there are no full length novels holding it up. Hanna has built more world than she can comfortably deal with in 70 odd pages. This leaves gaps the reader can't leap. She also relies on a few twists the experienced SF reader will easily see coming. As well, in a book largely free of racial cues, she ends with a bit of whiteness. It's so tiny it's not even a sin but until Hanna introduced pointedly Hispanic characters I hadn't assigned race to most of her leads. The larger problem keeping The Work of the Devil from realizing it's potential is authorial choice. Hanna appears to be supporting an American obsession - the purity of the ignorant faithful. Her dominant character holds to his simplicity and triumphs against a powerful force beyond his understanding.  He hails from a community which is faith based and machine averse. We slowly come to understand there is a an second community more like our own (or an early 1900's version) with limited mobility and no aircraft. This second community is not explored and exists only to solve problems for the main characters.

Why the main community has limited contact with the second for hundreds of years is explained as an article of faith. They are sworn to shun, so they largely do. These are weighty issues for a novella to carry. The division has to be accepted for the reader to continue. Through the second community the main community is made aware that their lifespans are shorter and their illnesses greater. A third community (or artifact) is potentially the source of this difference. The second community cannot approach the artifact because reasons. Those reasons are explained as a compulsion they involuntarily experience. Our main community feels these compulsions in differing but muted amounts. The second community theorizes it's a function of proximity but the logic for this is shaky. It's made shakier when our main community approaches the artifact and only the least worldly of the characters is able to maintain free will. The compulsion extending from the artifact affects each in different ways without an explanation for those differences made. The purpose or origin of the artifact is left unsaid as well. Toward the end our main characters are told there may be a dozen of these artifacts left in place for hundreds of years. Why? To what end? Is there a repercussion for the destruction of one?

Why destroy the artifact at all?  Is Hanna in favor of the destruction, or does she oppose it? The most sympathetic character is set up to make a sacrifice and achieve a victory. He is the least knowledgable. He is a man of faith and rules, not deep thought or insight. A man he trusts says there is an object they do not understand and that object must be destroyed. Destroying it may (or may not) change the health of their community. (I'd argue their rejection of the medical knowledge the second community has could be a factor in the differing life spans.) They approach the artifact. It has machines therefore it is evil, because their faith labels all machines as evil. It has the ability to alter their behavior and it takes an animal for food (as do they, but that's beyond their insight levels). It exists, it is not them, and therefore it must be destroyed. The author's position in this is invisible. I don't believe it's invisible by design. The Work of the Devil reads like a text written without an eye to what the author knows versus what the reader knows. The ending is frustrating because the reader is not certain of the previous events' meaning. The Work of the Devil is a great pitch piece but it isn't a great novella. You should still read it.