28 March, 2014

Review: Secrets And Saris by Shoma Narayanan

After reading The One She Was Warned About I wanted to check out another book by Narayanan. Secrets & Saris surprised me by being having some fairly controversial content. Shefali Khanna is a recently jilted bride overseeing a child care center in a new town. Neil Mitra is a television personality with too much baggage to start a new relationship. This is a conventional start for Harlequin so I wasn't prepared for where the story went. Narayanan bit off more than the page length allowed her to fully chew. The relationship between Shefali and Neil felt as though I were watching them through a zoetrope, their conflicts circling back as quickly as they'd cleared.
Shefali is a very traditional woman. She was prepared for an arranged (but not hasty) marriage when her fiancé leaves her at the altar. Never having planned for a life beyond wife and mother, she breaks with her family to explore what she wants from life. Shefali is confident, capable and engaging. She also ends up with a HEA despite her best efforts. Shefali spends way too much time telling Neil what he thinks, feels or wants and far too little time protecting herself. She repeatedly agrees to things she knows will make her unhappy. Passive aggressive might be her middle name.
A confident woman of Indian heritage looks skeptically out at the viewer
Mills & Boon cover
For his part, Neil is an enigma. His heritage is brushed over as irrelevant, except for two odd scenes. The first, an obvious plot device, involves him not being expected to understand Bengali. The second has Shefali ruminating that Neil's mother appears more culturally conservative than her own. This was a point I would have liked to explore. Neil's family was less traditional than Shefali's, so why did she interpret Neil's mother that way? Was it only her clothing, or was it in the fetish/appropriation sense? In a way Neil serves the same role the half-Indian hero does in most of his appearances. His heritage makes him mildly exotic without informing much of his personality or the plot. Unlike most, Neil is culturally identified as Indian, not English.
The major conflict between Shefali and Neil involves abortion. I suppose you could say it's Shefali's uncertainty about Neil's commitment or their inability to fully express their feelings. I'd disagree. Neil's hangups are tied directly to children, as are Shefali's. She's ready to start a family and he is not. Shefali decides to marry Neil with the hope of changing his mind over time. (Oh honey, no.) In the end I admired Secrets & Saris more than I enjoyed it. While I liked the ambition, at the book's close too much was swept aside. 
Spoiler Zone: Neil has a child from prior relationship. He pressured his former partner into having the child instead of terminating the pregnancy. Shefali is surprised he is raising his daughter alone, apparently expecting Neil to have then asked a female relative to raise her. Although a devoted father, Neil decides not to have more children. Narayanan lightly touches on how Neil feels entitled to dictate how both women use their wombs but shies away from the point by book's end.
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

27 March, 2014

Review: Unforgotten by Tohby Riddle

This is a somewhat atypical graphic novel. Instead of a full narrative, the images are used to illustrate what is essentially a poem. The fairly simplistic text furthers the narrative of the images along without really integrating into them. I'm not certain the text is needed at all.

There's a deep sense of history in Unforgotten, mixed into a dreamlike state for the angels to move through. Riddle has created a lovely mixed media rumination about caregiving. The message is portable to caregivers, parents or protestors. It is not easy to care for others, to work toward good. Self care suffers. The caregiver's needs can be invisible against the chaos and clamor of the needy.  Eventually, we all need external care to move forward. A lovely but not essential book.

24 March, 2014

Review: Concealed In Death by J.D. Robb

Ok, so the 38th book in the In Death series is out and… guys? Hey, where's everyone going? Wait! Come back! Eve goes to Africa! (I am totally lying. But come back anyway.) I liked this one! Well, mostly. Anyway, Eve catches a cold case. (By book 38 we all know what In Death is about, right? Abused street kid turned murder cop marries Irish abused street kid turned thief and business tycoon, together they hit the sheets while chasing murderers. There. You can skip books 1-37 if you want.) Early on I was concerned that the flaws of the last few books would mar the reading experience of Concealed In Death but Roberts / Robb has moved back into the sweet spot. It's crime time.
Roarke buys a building, and with it he reveals a fifteen year old murder. While his outrage at the crime happening on his turf was tedious (the guy is like dogs and trees, I swear) having Eve work a cold case was an interesting angle. Although lacking the rush against time urgency of an active serial killer, the department still lets her focus on a single case. Mavis, a character we've seen too little of since the earlier books, is brought back for a pivotal plot turn. She is a welcome figure in Eve's world. Mavis loves but does not idolize her. In fact, Eve's almost pathological inability to consider living people is highlighted throughout Concealed In Death as she struggles to make connections with those she values. Eve is a terrible friend, but people stay in her life anyway.
Without giving away the storyline, the cold case touches on aspects of Eve and Roarke's own youth. Eve has moved past her childhood flashbacks, now she dreams of her victims. Conversations with annoyed dead people is a surprisingly satisfactory way to push the plot along, making Eve's intuitive leaps seem more natural. The resolution is no mystery, but In Death has always been more about the journey than the destination. There are some dropped points, astonishingly long memories, and a few characters built up only to disappear at the close. I'm on the fence about everything related to Africa. It's quirky and a little post-colonial. Ultimately I went with it. Roberts continues to provide diverse side characters without making an issue of their ethnicity. Eve's New York is not a single class or color, even if the core characters often are. Concealed In Death is one of the better books in the series and a good entry point for the curious.
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

21 March, 2014

Review: Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

Sometimes I wonder why I stopped reading Neil Gaiman. Surely, I think to myself, it can't all be carryover from his wife? Luckily, I had the opportunity to read Facts In The Case Of The Departure Of Miss Finch. It's not just the wife. Gaiman and I, we broke up for me. Finch neatly encapsulates so many things I dislike. I can't even say "We'll always have Sandman" because I hear he's started writing it again. In keeping with tradition, because I loathed Facts In The Case Of the Departure Of Miss Finch and it's an older release, spoilers will fly.

J'accuse: Self Importance

Exhibit One: Gaiman has cast this tale with himself, Jonathan Ross and Ross's wife Jane Goldman as the main characters. As a narrator, Gaiman is so important that he must hide himself in a hotel room in England so he can finish his film script. If people knew where he was they'd call. Of course, Ross finds out and therefore invites him out, proving him oh-so-correct!

Exhibit Two: Ross and Goldman want Gaiman to add some pleasure to their evening. They are stuck with, saddled with, insert your choice of adolescent eye rolling here, the person of Miss Finch. they find her skin crawlingly boring and want Gaiman to help them endure her company. This depersonalizes Finch and sets her up as a joke. Miss Finch does not enjoy what they enjoy (sushi) and therefore is a unbearable. They get her title wrong repeatedly and dismiss her expertise in her field of study. Miss Finch is less than them, but they endure. Oh, how they endure.

Exhibit Three: Why does Miss Finch accompany them? What charm does she find in the company of those who disparage her and snigger behind her back? The reader doesn't know. Who wouldn't want an evening with Gaiman, Ross and Goldman? Isn't the answer evident? Isn't Miss Finch lucky to be taken up by such? Why would the reader care about how she sees events? She's a stodgy bore, she is.

J'accuse: Elitism, Gatekeeping 

Exhibit Four: Our party has decided to take Miss Finch to an underground theater presentation. They clearly consider themselves to be slumming, having a laugh at the artistic pretensions of the troupe. Ross suggests perhaps one script borrows from Gaiman's work, Gaiman suggests no, perhaps Rocky Horror Picture Show? Ross wonders if the sideshow performer was once on Ross's television show. Who can recall? There must have been so, so, many forgettable faces in the other chair.

Exhibit Five: Our party is fairly bored with everything they see. Oh, a trick knife to slit her throat. Yawn. Chopping off a fake hand. Hmm. Planting your partner in the audience to gull the rest. What a chore. Moving from one tired room to another, jaded. Until they aren't. Even then they wonder how one could achieve the same results with proper lighting and a larger budget.

J'accuse: Sexism, Objectification

Exhibit Six: We've established that Miss Finch is a killjoy. In fact, Miss Finch is not her name. It's a name Gaiman has chosen to apply to her, because to give her a real name would somehow make her a real person and she is not a real person, she is a fictional character in a fictional book. That Gaiman the character feels free to take this woman's name from her is treated as a natural event - her name isn't important, Gaiman's story is.

Exhibit Seven: When Gaiman gets her alone and bothers to really listen to Miss Finch she becomes softer, more attractive in his eyes. Less pinched, less tedious. As a reader, we are supposed to care about this. How our fictional Gaiman views Miss Finch must be of importance to us. He doesn't realize he's been a complete tool toward her, of course.

Exhibit Eight: The magical realism kicks in and Miss Finch is unwillingly granted what is stated to be her secret desire. This manifests as a member of the acting troupe grabbing her without permission and taking her into the set piece while Gaiman and Ross and Goldman not only do absolutely nothing, they move into a different room. Let's stop for a second. a protesting member of their party has been taken by persons unknown to them and their reaction is to shrug and seek further entertainment.

Exhibit Nine: Miss Finch returns without her clothes. She is now a sexual fantasy instead of a person. She's topless, her conservative clothing discarded for a scant loincloth. Her hair is unbound, her demeanor sexual and wild where it has been pinched and disapproving. Her glasses are no longer needed, her body is muscular and fetishized. She has been recreated as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with her saber-toothed pets.

J'accuse: First Against The Wall

Exhibit Ten: Miss Finch concerns the party not at all. Gaiman imagines that Finch looks at them consideringly before leaving into the mist. The party moves to an empty room and sits, awaiting the actors. The actors fail to arrive, their cash box untouched, the hall seemingly deserted. They leave. Let's say that again, THEY LEAVE. Gaiman gives himself a moment by asking the others if maybe, possibly, they should wait for Miss Finch? The others say no. After all, why bother?

Exhibit Eleven: The book opened with them sitting around a table of sushi (of which Miss Finch, being versed in parasites and disease disapproved) considering how they've not talked of this for years because who would believe them? That's what is important. Not Miss Finch. Not her fate. Who would believe them? A troupe of actors who fetishized blood abducted their companion and appeared to recreate her as a highly sexualized fantasy and the concern is who would believe it. Right. It's really weighed on them, it has.

Exhibit Twelve: They've never been questioned in her disappearance. Miss Finch was a woman with no one to mourn her, no one to miss her. Whatever purpose she had in England was of so little matter that the last people to see her alive are free to eat sushi and ruminate on that crazy, crazy night. No police. No loved ones. No employers. Whoever put her in their path long forgotten. A woman was entrusted to them and abandoned and they ease their minds by telling you about her, as they perceived her, without even the courtesy of leaving her with her name.

Right. That's why I stopped reading Gaiman. His art became about the status quo and how to uphold it.

20 March, 2014

Review: Rage of Poseidon by Anders Nilsen

Go get this. Now.

I loved Rage of Poseidon. Loved. It. Anders Nilsen uses a beautiful silhouette art style to bring a modern reality to the ancient gods and goddesses. His writing is sparse but evocative. In some cases I wished for a bit more to flesh out a concept or character, but I never wished for less.

From the punk rock defiance of Prometheus to the rise of the Nazarene, the gods and goddesses of Nilsen's world struggle to find themselves in a world that has forgotten them.  Does that sound twee? Ok, it's not like what-if-god-was-one-of-us coffee house strumming. Nilsen's work is grounded in reality, in human motivations and change. Minerva's inability to understand the Nazarene at war with her longing to believe. An abusive father apologizing with video games. Finding yourself in a terrible place but not regretting the way you got there.

Keeping this book from getting the attention it deserves is an overly designed presentation. The book is bound, accordion style, as a single sheet. Hold it wrong and the contents cascade out across the room. What works as a limited run art piece doesn't translate as a mass market presentation. I don't want to worry about keeping my book secured on the shelf, I want to consume it, commute with it, share it. A book that demands as much to manipulate as it does to consider is an art statement. Art is inherently exclusive. Rage of Poseidon deserves more than that. I almost ignored this exceptional graphic novel.  I'm glad I went back for a second look.

19 March, 2014

Review: Tokidoki Spring 2014

I have a love / love relationship with tokidoki. There's no hate in my heart. If I lived in an area that actually sold their product it would be difficult not to have a different handbag for every day of the week. As it is, I'm limited to what I can reasonably mail order or convince a friend to pick up in person. (tokidoki mail order has been very good to me - I'm also known at Ju Ju Be and The Giant Peach.) 

The Spring 2014 line has some interesting and not entirely welcome changes. While I absolutely love the prints (a big improvement from Winter 2013 but not as stunning as 2013's Portrait) the bag selection has been narrowed. Many styles have removed their interior zipper pockets, replacing them with sewn in card rows. Making that an even more questionable choice, some of the same bags don't zip at all. (So I am going to move my ID and credit cards from my wallet to unsecured slots in an unsecured bag? Someone at tokidoki lives a very different life than I do!) The shoulder drop feels tighter and the zippers a little tighter. The good news is that the lining problems of Winter 2013 appear to have been resolved. 
The photo to the left shows two bags from the City print and one from Vintage America. Vintage America is adorable, and will likely sell out first. Elvis, Route 66, Jukeboxes, everything that makes you say Baby Boomer Nostalgia is redesigned into a more modern presentation. This hobo could use a slightly longer strap, but it's workable. This is the bag I most missed a zip closure on - with it's tendency to drift around the back it would be too easy for an item to wander off. It's not a great public transit option but it's too cute not to own. 

The taller Shopper is going back. The handles have a nice feel but shopper tote needs a shoulder option and this one won't stay put. Great depth can't make up for a snap top and an inability to sling it out of your way. On the other hand, the Bowling bag is a solid win. This comes in Vintage America as well and might be the best bag on offer. Spring 2014 is much larger than previous Bowlers (which could be a negative, depending on your needs). Featuring a deeper exterior zip pocket, a top zip and an interior zip, this offers more security than the other bags. I can carry this anywhere I go without having to make sure it's not going to attract grabby hands. If I knock it off my desk, I won't be picking my lip gloss out from under my coworkers feet. The Bowler is a solid win and the City print really invokes NYC. In a good way. Unfortunately the Spring 2014 collection doesn't include any cosmetic bags or small cases for electronics. I mix and match my tokidoki items so it's not a deal breaker, but I did miss certain small sizes I'd have picked up in this print run. 

I've also been very pleased with the collaboration between Ju Ju Be and tokidoki. While most of the Ju Ju Be product is geared toward the baby crowd, there are pieces that suit those of us past the diaper zone as well. Pictured on the right are three bags in the Animalini print. Ju Ju Be is less expensive than the main tokidoki line, but also less durable. After about 6 months of kid use a Fuel Cell lunchbox gives up and quits. I love the careful thought they've put into strap lengths, pockets and zippers. I also love being able to throw them in the washing machine after the beach or gym.  

14 March, 2014

Review: Cemetery Girl Book One by Charlaine Harris and Christopher Golden

My curiosity for how Charlaine Harris would translate into this new medium was strong. After all, from the necrophilia and furry-fetish loving of Sookie Stackhouse to the quasi incest is best life of Harper Connelly, Harris can be trusted to dish out WTF action in a page turning fashion. 
As graphic novels go this is a definite C read. The art is fine, the pace is numbingly slow, the storyline is hardly original yet still intriguing enough. Issuing this first chapter in hardcover is a blatant money grab as the content better suits a $3.99 rack title, but you've got to pay your marquee name somehow. We open with Calexa waking up in the cemetery with only a vague memory of having been killed and dumped. She takes her name from the tombstones and hides in the crypts, afraid whoever wanted her dead will find her if she leaves. Calexa is already off to a perfect Charlaine Harris start because if I ever wake up with no memory and the knowledge that someone might want to finish me off I am absolutely going to do anything except stay where they left me. But our dear Calexa, she… who are we kidding? She doesn't matter at all. Let's spoil this thing and you'll see why I brought this book to you.
Calexa witnesses the murder of a girl named Marla. Because there is a huge empty hole in the house of Calexa's body, Marla takes up residence. Calexa hates having Marla's memories of a loving Hispanic/Black family in her brain and she wants them gone. Marla isn't terribly happy about being trapped in Calexa's white slacker brain, but she doesn't know how to leave. The rest of the book is Calexa leaving Marla's family in agony because reporting the murder doesn't fit into Calexa's plans. She carries around Marla's magic smart phone. It can answer calls, be accessed without a password, and never loses power or leads the police to it's location. (Ah, Charlaine, I love the way you roll.)
Eventually Calexa realizes that Marla videotaped her own murder. I'm not sure how, what with lying on the ground and then being dead and buried and all, but Marla got some damn good camera angles. Calexa realizes that Marla has solved her own murder while giving Calexa a way to report the crime without involving herself. Eventually Marla's murderers come looking for the phone, endangering Calexa. This is the kick she needs. Calexa sends the video of the murder to Marla's entire contact list, including Marla's parents. (Hey Mom & Dad! Know you're sick with worry - but here's a cool video of my murder and a few snapshots of where my body is buried! XOXO!) Cops round up the villainous brown kids, as the mentally ill white kid (Calexa, in case I lost you) finds safe haven.
That's the entire book. $24.95 worth of action, right? But wait! You also get a snippet of the script for Book Two revealing that Calexa was experimented on in a mysterious laboratory and that Marla won't be the only dead person to invade her empty brain!
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

10 March, 2014

Review: Bounce by K.M. Jackson

In keeping with my 2014 policy of reviewing more DNF's, I'm going to talk about the first few chapters of K.M. Jackson's Bounce. At it's heart, Bounce is about a woman rediscovering herself. We meet Sabrina struggling to emotionally connect to her husband after learning of his infidelity. Sabrina's pain and conflict is realistic. She is presented in a different way than a woman in her position usually is. Meeting the primary couple during resentful sex was a unique way to open the book. Hats off.
Bounce is written in the first person. First person is like being trapped at a party with a stranger you just met. If you like the person, it's a wonderfully intimate evening. While Sabrina was talking I was trying to make eye contact with anyone else in the book. Because of the daring opening, we're asked to approve as Sabrina tries to force herself into willing consent.  A few pages later we flash back to the night Sean revealed his affair. While I understood Sabrina better after that, I liked her less. Sabrina and I, we won't be friends.
Sean has been failing her emotionally, then he reveals he was meeting up with a coworker. There's no understanding of what led to this affair, or how long it lasted, or any of the details that would make his position a sympathetic one. Dude can't keep it at home. Ok. Sabrina kicks him out. I've got her back. We'll find out later why she let him come home and… Sabrina calls him home before he's had time to find a place to sleep that night. She decides, with a complete lack of data, that her marriage is worth saving and they need to move forward. She shuts it all down and soldiers on. Look, I get that she's operating from a place of fear and wishful thinking, but I'm not. While Sabrina wonders if the new nanny is too sexy to be around her man I wonder what the hell is wrong with this girl? Does she have a doormat kink?
We follow Sabrina to work, another refreshing change from the normal Lunch With The Girls post infidelity tradition. Here we find that she has a secretary who routinely fails her. Sabrina is stressed about the woman's inability to perform simple tasks but gives her a pass because she's too emotionally overwhelmed to do otherwise. By the end of the first few chapters it's clear that Sabrina's man is a cheater, her secretary is inept, her boss is a sexist racist, and her children are deeply disappointed in her as a parent. Sabrina immediately blames herself for everything. Hey, me too!
I get that Jackson is (probably) setting the stage for Sabrina to realize the problem isn't her ass or her time management or any of the other things she's stressing on. The problem with Sabrina is her inability to emotionally connect with her own desires and insist they be met. She's fetishizing external approvals and needs above her own. She's relying on a secretary to ensure promises to her children are kept instead of keeping them. She's placing the concept of her marriage above her actual one. Sabrina probably gets her head straight over the course of Bounce and lays down some laws for everyone, herself included. I couldn't stick around to find out. The more Sabrina focused on how inadequate she was the more I wanted to get away from her.
Bounce had strong word of mouth. With a broader point of view than Sabrina's I might have really loved it. As it was I gave up after a month and moved it from the TBR to the DNF.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

03 March, 2014

Review: The Last Wicked Scoundrel by Lorraine Heath

I've been off Lorraine Heath lately, but the amount of domestic violence in Moonstruck Madness made me inclined to examine how a modern Avon author addresses it. It was interesting how less in charge of her life Winnie is than the heroine of McBain's book. The set up for The Last Wicked Scoundrel involves two side characters from an earlier series. Winnie is the widow of a duke and William is the physician that saved her life.
Both Winnie and William have an abuse history. Winnie is an orphan abused by her dead husband. William is a child of the streets with multiple abuse points. Both of them blame themselves and excuse their abusers in a fairly predictable and natural way. William's scars  are internal, Winnie's external. (Cue yet another round of Scar Kissing.) In the three years that Winnie has been on her own, William has refused to cross the class and wealth lines that divide them. Until suddenly, he does.
(Spoiler alert. Part of William's problem has been that Winnie's husband wasn't dead. In an earlier book William and his friends staged the duke's death and shipped him off to Australia. The duke, having failed to die, returns with a fair amount of anger toward his wife.)
Winnie fears she's going mad and her physician is a natural place to turn. Faced with a new proximity, and having spoiler related reasons of his own, William sets about seducing her. This was utterly boring. I was interested in the emotional development of Winnie and William within the short confines of the novella but suddenly we're all about the licking and the stroking and the succumbing. Winnie never knew it could be like this, William has waited so long, yadda, yadda, yadda. Back to the plot.
While those surrounding Winnie consider her late husband a monster, he is properly shown to be a fairly average (if vindictive) man with entitlement issues. He murdered previous wives because they stood up to him. Winnie's failure to do so preserved her life. His thwarted plan for her disposal seems out of character and a bit convoluted, but I was willing to go with it. The acknowledgement that the women prior to Winnie were emotionally stronger but equally abused is important. Abuse is dictated by the abuser. It is their choices that dictate the violence. It is their failings that trigger it.
Winnie compares a moment of emotional damage from William to prior physical damage from her husband. It's important to me as a reader that she recognized it but it's more important that William accepts it. He doesn't tell her she's wrong, he examines if he agrees with her. He does and he makes amends. She is a woman determined to break old patterns. She is not willing to be in any way diminished. Unfortunately the author is working a tough tightrope by having Winnie skirt into TSTL territory. Winnie goes from never confronting a threat to thinking confronting threats alone is a better choice. It's not. It's pretty idiotic. Let's hand wave that and get back to William.
Spoiler Alert. [su_spoiler title="Can't Wait To Get Nasty?"]William killed his mother by accidentally shoving her down stairs while she was beating him. His father sells her body to the hospital and takes off. William becomes a mudlark, then a thief, then a physician to the Queen.[/su_spoiler]
William makes assumptions based on his abuse history that are natural and logical and get left unresolved. Heath addresses his survivor's guilt but leaves the possibility that his abuse was willingly enabled alone. Complicity in domestic violence is still pretty taboo for the historical romance world. Abusers are not monsters, in the sense that they can present normally and defend their actions. Collaborators may feel completely justified in their own choices or love the abuser to the point that they also subscribe to the logic of the abuse. (There's a lot in that basket. Maybe we'll unpack it in another thirty years.)
Overall The Last Wicked Scoundrel was worth the time. I would have liked less sex and more relationship building, but that's pretty much a given for me. Winnie has a few TSTL moments, including one that completely discounts parental rights in the Victorian era, but overall she's trying to take control of her life. William is wonderfully beta. I say give it a go.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.