30 April, 2014

Review: Free Fall by Carolyn Jewel

Pity the poor novella that is meant to hook readers into a series. It's judged not only on it's own merits, but also on it's ability to reduce a complex world into an appetizing bite. One misstep on either side and the reader is ready to bury it. With that in mind, pour one out for Carolyn Jewel's Free Fall. Having a vague impression of liking Carolyn Jewel I picked up Free Fall sometime in 2012. As I only read books that are piping fresh or carefully aged, it sat in the TBR waiting for the right moment. Free Fall packs plenty of story into a decent sized length. (Let me pause to say I appreciate how Jewel tells her readers up front how long the text is. You won't end up buying a 20 page plot summary disguised as a short novel.) Here Be Spoilers, lassies!
We met Lys Fensic (the heroic characters tend to refer to each other primarily by their last names) in the lobby of her building, waiting for a friend to help her escape an abusive relationship. Her co-worker is trying to aid her but his assistance only increases her stress. At this point I was very interested in the paranormal world Jewel created. Fensic demonstrated some quasi-autistic characteristics that I wanted to explore. (Reluctance to make eye contact, sensory overload, aversion to unsolicited contact, struggle to use visual cues to translate emotional contexts). Then her friend shows up. My paranormal problems kicked into high gear and never settled down.
Khunbish is your basic predator hero. (He's supposed to have a line over the u but I can't locate the alt command for that so just go with it or correct me in the comments and I'll add it.) Although he's a computer specialist by trade, Fensic thinks of him as dangerously powerful because he's tall and frequently calm. She builds up fantasies in her mind of him banging girls who wear glitter when he's not beating up random men. Fensic has issues. But maybe not. Khunbish immediately refers to the coworker as "a pussy." This is based on absolutely nothing. A perfectly nice man is trying to assist a coworker with her belongings. Khunbish instantly dismisses him with a slur of questionable taste. Nice. Let me go ahead and root for him right now. Or not. ANYWAY.
I'm briefly given hope that Jewel is going to call Fensic out on her vaguely fetishized reading of Khunbish's character. When Fensic explains that she needs someone like Khunbish he does challenge her on her assumption that he's physically adept and or violent based solely on his size and potentially his Mongolian ethnicity. Both of them hand wave it and move on. Of course Khunbish is violent! He's a demon who could, if he so chose, utterly control her and... (Oh god, really?) There's something about how witches are super sexy hot to demons (who are all male, as presented in this short) and they could enslave them but on the other hand mages (who are all men) can enslave the demons and that's worse than actually dying because... I can't even.
Fensic isn't helpless in the ex-boyfriend showdown. (She's equal in power to the other characters but set up as untutored and therefore exploitable.) They go to get something it turns out they don't need and then it's sexy time. I appreciated how Jewel set up the sexual interaction between the characters as freeing for both of them. Fensic has been held back by the domination of others and the fear of herself. Khunbish has been required to suppress aspects of himself to fit into the normalized human culture. (Vanilla is, of course, used as a dismissive descriptor. Because why not hit most all my peeves?) The concept that honesty enhances their sexuality is well presented and well conceived. Until it's not. (This was my Free Fall reading experience, things were great, then really not great, then kind of great... oh no not great.)
Early in their encounter Fensic asks about condoms. Khunbish explains that demon / human sex is free from disease due to incompatibly. She says that's cool and all, but she doesn't use birth control. He says no problem because in his human form he's sterile. He can only impregnate her if he's in his demon form. Fensic wistfully reveals she's always wanted a baby (because OF COURSE) and even in his demon form it wouldn't matter because she's unable to conceive. WAIT! FULL STOP! If she's unable to conceive why is she asking about condoms in a birth control context? Talk about your mixed messages there, Cookie! Is this a passive aggressive conversation? "Well, I could get PREGNANT!" "No, babe, you can't unless I change" "JOKE IS ON YOU! Even if you change I can't get pregnant, HA!" Of course, she totally CAN get pregnant because his magic demon sperm knows no human infertility. So let's make this hybrid baby and get back to the guys trying to kill us.
Fight scene, drama, ex boyfriend, discover your true powers, blah blah blah. Now we're wrapping things up with another bait and switch moment. Khunbish has been forced to call in the local warlords, who are apparently the main couple of the book series. At the close of the fight, the female half of the partnership asks if they're ok with meeting the male half and they agree. Suddenly it's baby-louge time and they're meeting with the male half several weeks after the female half asked if it was cool to do it now. Fine, ok, something changed, we can go with that. We head over to the mansion where the various demon underlings are hanging out and they're doing fist bumps and hand jives and trash talking and we discover some are Indian, some are not described and here's the big dude and.... oh hell to the no.
The big dude is a sandy haired boy next door type who is deceptively un-powerful in his physical presentation. My paranormal problems are having a five alarm fire in my head as he lays down the law for Fensic and Khunbish. Mr. Big Dude condescendingly tells Khunbish to "use his words" (no kidding) to figure out his relationship with Fensic because they can't be together unless both of them swear loyalty (or not) to Mr. Big Dude's gang. If they swear loyalty there is money and safety in it for them as long as they comply with whatever Mr. Big Dude desires. If they don't then they are "a problem" for him and might end up getting killed or something. Furthermore, while their fealty is of their own free will, once sworn any failure of loyalty could result in their death. Khunbish is fine with this because apparently demons are totally used to being in gangs. They kind of like it. He's been a free agent for so long because... some kind of reason... but he knew it probably couldn't last with all the turf wars heating up. Fensic agrees because love and pregnant and all, and because she isn't sure how to control herself without Mr. Big Dude's group teaching her. Mr. Big Dude welcomes them and the baby into his gang. And. The. Baby. AND THE BABY. Wow.
Your experience with Free Fall will depend completely on if we have the same paranomal problems. If I'd been able to set aside my aversion to ethnic based personality traits and alpha hole heroes pretending to be beta and street gang culture as paranormal normality, I'd probably have given Free Fall a pretty high rating. Because I wasn't I ended up with a C read. I still like Jewel, but I think I'll stick to her historical stories instead.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

28 April, 2014

Review: Hot Under The Collar by Jackie Barbosa

Hot Under The Collar was purchased in 2012 and then promptly placed in the TBR pile where it languished until recently. When Courtney Milan suggested we all review Jackie Barbosa's work as a show of support, I had already begun reading it. (The problem I have with Jackie Barbosa is that I love her voice but I've lost interest in erotic fiction. When we're out of bed, she's one of my favorite authors. When we hit the sheets she's just as skilled but I'm wandering off.) With all of those caveats and disclaimers in place, I really enjoyed Hot Under The Collar.
Barbosa avoids a number of pitfalls in her fairly conventional setup of reluctant Vicar and former Courtesan. The first, of course, is that the pairing is completely expected. Vicars never seem to fall for young women of deep faith and enduring piety. The second is that Artemisia, the courtesan in question, is not unknown to Walter, our vicar. Before his injury in the military Walter was an underfunded pleasure seeker who admired Artemisia from afar. There was a danger that she would be something he earned, the nice guy rewarded with the dream girl. Barbosa does a good job of having them earn each other. Artemisia is lonely, yes, but she's not desperate. Walter is not obsessed with her because of her former status but because he enjoys her as she is then and now.
Hot Under The Collar presents two facts about Artemisia and Walter early then leaves them alone. Walter's injury is manageable. He's not impeded in his life nor obsessed with it. There's no detailed scar kissing scene or wallowing in man pain. He got shot, it sucked, he moved on. For Artemisia's part she was ruined and subsequently is infertile. These are facts in her life, not tragic flaws. Walter explains he cares about neither and he means it. She doesn't run and hide from who she is or from his acceptance of it. The objections and obstacles to their relationship are appropriate and appropriately dealt with. I understood the reason for one late arrival's introduction but he wasn't needed. Walter's discovery that true faith adds to lives instead of diminishing them worked without it.
If Barbosa ever decides to write a full length standard Regency I'm completely in.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

24 April, 2014

Review: The Unexpected Wedding Guest by Aimee Carson

No. No. No. No. No. No. Just No and more no. This is my second Aimee Carson book. Earlier this week I read (and loved) The Wedding Dress Diaries, which is a prequel to The Unexpected Wedding Guest. Everything I liked about the prequel is completely absent from the first volume of the series. No one... There's no... I just.... ARGH!
Spoiler Alert: I didn't like it.
Reese is the younger (and pampered) sister of the hero from The Wedding Dress Diaries. None of that matters. Although the prequel sets up the relationship between Reese and her brother as something to explore, it's brushed completely aside. As well, the supposed lifelong friendship of Reese and the heroine from the first book becomes irrelevant. Reese has real friends, the girls she went to college with. You know these are her real friends because they show up in the final pages of the book to populate the sequels. For most of the book Reese is either completely on her own or watching a man walk away from her.
Mason is the unexpected guest and Reese's ex-husband. His therapist (he's a war vet with a brain injury) has suggested he contact Reese for closure. It's completely logical that Mason would choose to show up unannounced three days before Reese's wedding. Of course none of the staff at the mansion she's rented for the event would challenge him as he walks right into the bedroom where her fitting is being held. Of course her future sister in law and lifelong friend would pick up her sewing kit and promptly skedaddle. Why wouldn't any of this happen? It makes total sense!
That's not fair. It makes more sense than most of the rest of the book. Reese has allegedly hired a mansion with a full staff. None of them appear, get names or do a single thing. Reese and Mason are left completely alone. Deliveries must be received by one of them, guests must be greeted by one of them, changes to the menu, decorations or favors must be hand completed by one of them. It's like Reese rented an empty house and has no friends or family. Look, that's not how rich people do things. I know rich people. I've worked for rich people. I've been rich people. There is absolutely no way a pampered rich person isn't going to have half a dozen people waiting to hop when they crook a languid finger. Just... no.
Reese's fiancé shows up, sees Mason and promptly calls off the wedding. He sees Reese as a useless doll. (Again, why is she throwing the wedding effectively by herself?) Reese lets Mason stay so they can discuss where their relationship went wrong while she sifts through the wreckage of her current one. Reese blames herself for the end of her engagement, even though her fiancé is a complete tool about it. Mason blames Reese of the end of their marriage, which means Reese eventually does too, even though Mason is a complete tool about it. Reese seems to spend all of her time chasing after tools that just want to slip in her box and then abandon her. We're supposed to feel sorry for Mason because he's a war hero and he's not rich and he has a brain injury. I didn't.
Spoiler: Despite Mason having severe short term memory issues they never appear to cause him difficulty. His brain inury is simplified to Gets Headaches and Forgot Your Name. His impotence is cured by exposure to Reese, so he never mentions it. His PTSD is hand waved away and his utter failure to communicate like an adult is excused as pride. Mason is an emotionally abusive jerk Reese will be running after and begging for answers from the rest of her life. So he's a war hero. So what? Oh yea, it also opens with body policing. 
Reese muddles through with the least amount of support possible from everyone in her life. She's treated like a child by just about everyone. When her inexperience leads her into possible danger, her suddenly present staff runs to find a man to take control instead of just speaking to her clearly. Reese is stuck between apologizing, self blaming, and meeting the needs of others throughout the book. Fail Whale, meet The Unexpected Wedding Guest.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

22 April, 2014

Review: Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet

Beautiful Darkness is a French comic book. (Wait, come back.) I implore you to read it. I understand if graphic novels don't work for you, I absolutely do. This isn't a manga or something you have to read in a specialized manner, It's a straightforward American-style comic book. Give it a try. I want to review this without spoiling any of the reveals in Beautiful Darkness. The story unfolds so elegantly that to disrupt the pacing would diminish the experience. Just put your library request in and come back later. Or keep reading.  (But buying it works too.)
Spoiler Alert: After a young girl dies suddenly in the forest the fairy tale creatures find themselves lost and disoriented in the woods. Aurora, being purest of heart, takes charge of the necessities of food and shelter while her prince forms an exploration team.
Vehlmann and Kerascoet (Kerascoet needs an umlaut on the e, but the alt text commands I know are being rejected by Wordpress. forgive me Kerascoet.) have created an absolute masterpiece. (Dascher's translations are smooth and natural.) It's been quite a while since I read a graphic novel that stayed with me for the rest of the week. Beautiful Darkness is deceptively straightforward, even light. It's a fairy tale in the most traditional sense of the word. Romance and quiet horror play out side by side in Beautiful Darkness while the reader considers the moral choices made within. There's a princess, of course (Aurora) and a prince or two. There are talking animals and girls lost in a forest and quests to overcome. A page from a comic depicting the young girl having lunch with a mouse
Beautiful Darkness is like stepping into a vintage Disney piece. The deceptively simple artwork reminded me of the late 1950's with a bit of Harriet Burns and Mary Blair mixed in. Aurora is separated from her prince by a natural disaster. The book follows her through a traditional fairy tale journey of self discovery as she seeks personal and romantic fulfillment. Like most fairy tale heroines, Aurora asks nothing for herself, she is focused on providing good for others. I don't think it's a coincidence that Aurora shares her name with Disney's Sleeping Beauty. There are enough woodland creatures to satisfy even Walt's mouse fetish. Not everyone in Beautiful Darkness gets their happy ending. It's the trip, not the destination.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

20 April, 2014

Review: The Wedding Dress Diaries by Aimee Carson

The Wedding Dress Diaries is a short prequel to Aimee Carson's Wedding Season series. It's been free at most e-book sites for several months but is also bundled in some versions of Secrets & Saris. As a sales tool, it's effective.
Amber Davis is a wedding shop owner and the best friend of the bride. Parker Robinson is the bride's estranged brother and Amber's childhood crush. When Parker shows up to refuse his sister's wedding invitation, Amber decides to change his mind. While I like the Little Girl Grown Up trope it felt unlikely that Parker wouldn't recognize Amber at all. He's a cop, and therefore fairly observant. I went with it.
Parker is estranged from his family with cause. Amber's knowledge of those causes is difficult for Parker to accept. He's reinvented himself and shaken off the insecurities from his upbringing. In the process he's also become closed and cynical. Parker's not interested in long term relationships, and the bridal shop owning best friend of his little sister has long term all over it. He's right about that, but Amber's been waiting half her life for a chance at Parker Robinson. She's not about to let him get away again. Here I had a bit of an issue.
Spoiler: Parker tells her a one night stand is all she gets. Amber agrees. Minutes later she's leaning on him about HEA and how he needs to open up. I hate when one character is honest about their intentions and the other character completely ignores them in favor of magical thinking. The genre generally rewards this, but it frustrates me.
After an unexpected round of Who's Got The Handcuffs, Parker and Amber head into the sunset. A gender flip could have made this exceptional. Amber's insistence that Parker spend time with his most toxic family member really bothered me. (Emotional abuse is no easier on adult children.) The Wedding Dress Diaries still won me over but I really hope Patrick doesn't buy into Amber's happy family fantasy in the long run.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

10 April, 2014

Revisiting Wonder Woman

While I no longer buy anything but Tiny Titans I used to be an avid fan of the DC Comics line. I subscribed to 20 or 30 titles a month (sometimes more) though the 80's and 90's and read extensively in the back issues of the decades prior. DC has gone to great lengths to throw my business away, so I'm raising my kids to be Marvel fans. There's still a tiny corner of my heart that desperately wants a Wonder Woman movie. Walking out of Captain America: The Winter Soldier I wondered why. Marvel is doing so much to be inclusive. What is there about Wonder Woman, a character I never followed as avidly as the JLA or Batman, that still tugs at me? Was it all based in Linda Carter's television series? (If that's the case why is my dream casting Lupita Nyong'o?) I decided to go back to the beginning - Wonder Woman's second appearance in DC Comics, Sensation Volume 1.

If you're a modern Wonder Woman fan, this is long before she became Superman's love interest, a pairing I have always had problems with. Back in the beginning Wonder Woman had no concern over being more powerful than her man. Diana focuses on Steve as the first man she's seen in her hundreds of years of eternal life. She's fascinated by him and falls in love. But Diana doesn't give up her immortality just for a boy. Yes, she's intrigued by him (and pressures her mother to allow access) but she doesn't leave the island for passion alone. The island is threatened by the global conflicts that will become WW2. The goddess instructs one of them to escort the fallen pilot back to the world to serve her there. Diana volunteers for the suicide mission. Her mother, obviously, says no.
Check Out His Fedora!

 Diana disguises herself to compete in a physical challenge designed to find the most physically adept of the Amazons. These women have not lived lives of lazy indulgence. For hundreds of years the daughters of Aphrodite have challenged themselves to continually improve. They strive to run faster, aim truer and defend themselves confidently. When Diana's deception is revealed her mother's reaction is not one of anger but of pride. Of course Diana is the most qualified, and of course she should be the one chosen to protect her people. Her mother presents Diana with her uniform and Diana pilots her invisible plane back to America.

Steve is badly injured so she leaves him in the hospital and explores her new world. She dress shops, she scandalizes the town by the scanty nature of her costume, she encounters (and defeats) low level criminals. In so doing, Diana comes to the attention of a P.T. Barnum type who offers her a job playing "Bracelets and Bullets" on the stage. Diana confidently accepts. She has time to kill so why not earn the currency of this nation? It is Wonder Woman's complete assurance that strikes me about this early appearance. She lacks the self doubt of other super heroes. Diana expediently assesses her options and selects the best routes open to her. She's a problem solver who refuses to be intimidated or exploited, even by people above her in power (her mother) or experience (her employer). When offered more money, Diana declines. She is driven by her personal goals, not fortune. When her manager attempts to cheat her she apprehends him and regains her pay.

Street Harassment Stays In Style
It's not only Diana's confidence that reminds me why Wonder Woman endures as an icon despite the mishandling of her copyright owner. It is the unequal power dynamic between her and Steve. In this first appearance Steve has nothing but respect for her abilities. When he sees her perform physical feats outside of his own he's not threatened. He laughs when she returns to rescue him and acknowledges her superiority.

The book closes with a reiteration of her femme identity and an establishment of the dual life that will carry her through the next several volumes but the bones of Wonder Woman are laid. Diana is an intelligent soldier impervious to the opinions of others. She is living her life without apology or explanation. If DC is interested in doing justice to the original conception of Wonder Woman then Lupita is exactly right for the role.

08 April, 2014

Review: Fall Guy For Murder by Johnny Craig

Johnny Craig is one of those artists we'd call mid list if he was an author. Prolific, talented, a cult favorite, but unable to adapt to a new publishing house. Tales From The Crypt, the Crypt-keeper, if you're a child of the 80's you may not recognize these horror icons as originating in the comic aisle. EC Comics was a casualty of the CCA but back in the day it was up there beside Marvel and DC and a host of other companies as a major player for your Saturday dime. Craig was one of their best artists, but he was also one of their slowest and least adaptable. When the horror line folded he wasn't suited to cross over into superhero work. With the 1950's on the rise, I hope work like Craig's gets a second life. Fantagraphics is doing their part by issuing a number of EC collections based on specific artists instead of specific titles or years.

Fall Guy For Murder and Other Stories is focused on Johnny Craig. Artistically, Craig was a very precise artist. His characters are ugly-pretty in the popular noir fashion of the day. As collected in Fall Guy they are predominately white, which was typical of the books as well. Craig's women have sharply angled faces with slashing brows and nipped waists. They're angry gold diggers looking out for themselves, taking the steps necessary to get what they want. His men are a series of failed Don Drapers, tired of the nagging, unable to meet the demands placed on them. Domestic violence is part and parcel of the murder plots. And yet. Craig's women are also sympathetic. They're placed in worlds they may have little control over and they lash out because of those limitations. Many of them are deeply loved by the men they are exploiting. Some of them reciprocate.

Craig generally worked on his own scripts and adaptations, giving his work an unusually cohesive feel. While his tales of vampires and schemers are fairly predictable to a modern reader, they are ruthlessly logical. Craig foreshadows his reveals with precision and care. He thought about his panels, the placement of objects or people. He thought about his twists, how they worked with their set up and the emotional payouts they contained. Even when the story reads as tediously familiar the art draws the viewer in. His work still pulls you into rooting for his poor doomed underdogs.

While Fall Guy For Murder focuses primarily on white characters there was a very interesting piece set in Haiti. I'd like to see if Craig had more non-white characters in his horror because what looks on the surface like a typical colonization story turns into something far more interesting. I'd like to think it's by design, but the few pages of the tale don't support a wide reading of his intent. The early depiction of the childlike Haitian people so eager to please their "B'wana-Steve" is typical of the period. They speak in childlike and imperfect english. They beat their drums and dance in joy while the white people marry. Their joy is in serving the white man as completely as they can and yet... In the end, he is betrayed. In itself, this isn't so interesting. The black servant shown as duplicitous is typical. Even the method of betrayal fit established stereotypes. What gives me pause and made me wish for more to examine was the reasoning behind the betrayal. The Haitians give "B'wana-Steve" exactly what he claimed to want. They don't inform him of the horrific repercussions of his desire, they only fulfill it. His word is his bond. Even his death won't free him of his fate as they solidify his punishment into an eternal sentence. They deliver him into hell with a joyful heart. I think Craig offered this revenge fantasy deliberately, and I'd like to think it brought a moment of pause to the young readers who encountered it.

07 April, 2014

Review: Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez

Anne Elizabeth Moore wrote a pretty excellent review of Julio's Day. You should probably click through and read it first. My experience is less with the text of this specific book and more with the Hernandez brothers body of work. Love & Rockets is so popular there's an even more popular band named after it. Any best of comics selection invariably includes a few pages of Hernandez work, invariably featuring murder or sex (generally non consensual).  Their art falls into the stylized realism end of graphic novels. The lingering focus on physical imperfections lets you know this isn't some lightweight superhero stuff. The grunts come off the page when they fuck. This is how you know it's literature, darling! Life isn't pretty!

Julio's Day is the work that finally convinced me I just don't like the Hernandez's work individually or collectively. No matter how much critical acclaim they accrue, they leave me feeling bamboozled. In the case of Julio, the conceit is that we're going to follow this man through the hundred years of his life, a page at a time. (His mother lives to about one hundred and thirty because that's how Gilbert rolls.) We hit all the predictable points for a Hernandez work. People will be molested, people will be murdered, ugly diseases will strike, sex will be shown, women will go mad. It's all so meaningless in it's meaning laden run through history. The plot twists are cheap and random, unearned left turns taken for the sake of exploration looping back into pulled punches of revelation.

Darling, listen, life is filthy. It's a filthy place. The very earth we depend on for our food will send parasites to kill us and poison future generations. The mud will rise and destroy our homes, obliterate our families. (Often at the exact moment the plot demands inexplicable random deaths to smooth over pointless truths.) Death cannot be sanitized. The past is a place where everything was left unsaid, the forefathers kept their secrets in their chests, their loves silent, their desires repressed. It has to be that way! If it isn't then our glorious open freedoms are nothing but brightly colored flags waving in the hot breeze of self satisfaction! What's the point?

Literature requires a point. Too often dark themes are mistaken for depth. There's no depth to Julio's Day. A man is born and a man dies. In between he is a witness to other's lives, living almost none of his own. His experiences are alluded to, they are suggested, where the experiences of those around him are flung out like depressing offerings to the fates. When Julio's great-nephew urges him to walk out of the closet and embrace the sun I wonder whose sun is he referring to? In their family legacy of early death, molestation, abduction, murder and madness where does Julio's great nephew see himself? His casual devaluation of the sum of his great uncle's scarcely examined life is the ultimate rejection of Julio himself. Julio's true day is being lived inside himself, away from the reader's eyes. The parade of anguish that we're offered is to let us know we're reading something capital-I important without rising to the challenge of really showing us the depths of the man.