Friday, October 31, 2008

AnimeJune's First Ever Corny Cliche Hatefest

SPOILER WARNING: In my Cliche Round-Ups, I often tend to go into explicit detail about plot points that occur at or near the end of romance novels, even more so than in my reviews. If you read Sophia Nash, Elizabeth Hoyt, Maya Rodale, Celeste Bradley or Eloisa James - I spoil a few of their books. You have been warned.

I don't think I can say any longer than I am new to romance novels. I still have a TBR pile full of new authors I haven't read yet, but I've established a few favourite authors (Julia Quinn, Mary Balogh, Jo Goodman, Sophia Nash), and have developed certain expectations of the genre. I have also, to my dismay, begun to notice how certain romance cliches get bounced around. After reading several romance novels consecutively, sometimes the more heinous chestnuts and repeat offenders stand out, so at infrequent moments on my blog, I plan to bitch about them. That's about it. Enjoy!

The first one on the docket? The Barren Baby Epilogue.
What is it? It pretty much speaks for itself, but I'll elaborate - in a romance novel where the heroine is proven to be barren, the epilogue shows her many years later, happily surrounded by kids with her hubby.
Recent Offenders: The Raven Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt; A Dangerous Beauty, by Sophia Nash; The Duke Next Door, by Celeste Bradley (okay, not quite, it's more of a Barren Pregnancy Epilogue, but still the same sort of thing).
Why I Hate It: First of all, it's unrealistic. As Celine Dion has often sung, love can move mountains, but it cannot make you fertile. But some romance novels seem to uphold the theory that romance heroines possess a Magical Observant Womb that shrivels up like a Nazi staring at the Arc of the Covenant when in the presence of a Abusive Asshole Husband only to inflate to uber-fecund proportions once the heroine is married to the Man of Her Dreams.

A Dangerous Beauty, while a very enjoyable novel in all other respects, is the most egregious recent offender. The heroine, who never got pregnant once in her entire eight year marriage to a man whose previous wife died in childbirth (proving, at least in theory, that he was capable of impregnating women), conceives TWINS barely a few months after her marriage to Luc. There's miraculous, and then there's just overcompensating.

Secondly, this cliche is condescending. In both The Raven Prince and A Dangerous Beauty (but especially the former), the heroine's barrenness poses an obstacle to the romantic relationship. In the particular case of The Raven Prince, Edward, who lost his entire family to smallpox, needs to marry a woman capable of having children in order to repopulate the family tree, fill his palatial estate with the pitter-patter of happy feet, and fulfill his duties to his aristocratic ancestors. There's a particularly painful and beautiful scene somewhere past the middle point where Edward and Anna share an intimate moment, only for Edward to wrench away in anguish because he needs a wife who can have children.

One of the most significant points in the novel, character-development-wise, is when Edward finally chooses Anna over children. Ultimately, he realized that his determination to produce heirs was just a way of trying to recover his own lost family, and that the only way to move forward from his own tragedy was to make a new family with Anna. Great! Wonderful! Romantic! True love means sacrifices! Flash forward to the epilogue - Anna and Edward have a son, with apparently another bun baking in Anna's miraculously repaired oven.

I mean, WHAT? The epilogue basically just magics away the biggest obstacle in the book with NO explanation and for NO reason. Imagine, for a moment, that the most significant barrier between Anna and Edward's relationship was his hideous smallpox scars - and that in the epilogue his scars just evaporated off his face, leaving him perfectly handsome, smooth-skinned, and ready for a roll in the hay.

It's this element of the Barren Baby Epilogue that really gets me - because it's a betrayal of the story. With The Raven Prince (and A Dangerous Beauty, and others) we have this relatively unconventional couple who agree to live together in love despite unconventional circumstances (in this case, an inability to have children, which in the romance world is as bizarre as having three hands) - only to have this tacky, conformist, white-picket-fence, have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too, fairy-tale ending tacked on at the end. It's a cheap cop-out, is what it is.

Examples of This Cliche Done Well: As much as I hate cliches, there are always ways to write them well. Eloisa James' Duchess By Night is an example. In this case, the heroine assumes she's barren because her four-year marriage resulted in no pregnancies. In the epilogue, she and Jem have a baby son - after ten years of trying. Now that I can believe - this isn't a story about two sterile people who are rewarded by the Romance Plot Device Fairy with a honeymoon baby. This is a story about two people who accepted realistic circumstances and happened to get lucky.

Second on the Corny Cliche Docket: Those Three Little Words
What is it? When a romance heroine refuses to believe her hero loves her because he won't actually say "I love you," in those exact words, to her face. Yes, it occasionally happens to heroes as well, but the worst offenders in my experience have been women.
Recent Offenders: The Heir and the Spare, by Maya Rodale; The Duke Next Door, Celeste Bradley.
Why I Hate It: Well, the biggest reason I hate this cliche is that the heroes in romance novels who refuse to say Those Three Little Words have no problem performing just about every other kind of action or gesture that expresses "I Love You" short of actually saying Those Three Little Words, and this often makes the heroines look a) stupid, b) blind, or c) ungrateful as fuck.

I mean, Emilia from Heir and Deirdre from Duke have husbands who shower them with presents, defend them from naysayers and attackers, make passionate love to them every night (and morning, and afternoon...) while muttering "I need you" and "I can't live without you," and these bitches keep whining up until the final chapter about how their men can't get the word order right in their proclamations of adoration so it must not mean anything. Has no one told these women that actions speak louder than words?

Deirdre, in particular, needs to get her preternaturally gorgeous head out of her unbelievably tight ass. Her husband Calder abducts her favourite dressmaker to personally sew her a wearable orgasm in silk and lace and muslin, plays with her boobies in the middle of a working factory, beats her attempted rapist into attempted-rapist-flavoured-jello, and carriagejacks a vehicle to ride to her rescue, and through it all Deirdre mopes about how terrible it is to get presents from, have life-changing sex with, and be rescued by a heart-stoppingly handsome man who doesn't love her. How tragic!

Example of This Cliche Done Well: I haven't actually come across one - feel free to point one out to me.

I'm not completely obtuse, I can recognize the kernel of truth trapped in the centre of this gooey cliche - men have a hard time expressing their feelings, and women aren't mindreaders and can't assume what a man feels if he doesn't express it. The thing is, in most of the books I've come across where the man can't say Those Three Little Words, he's already expressing his feelings in physical, emotional, and (heh) financial ways that are perfectly obvious to everyone except the heroine. If they kept the cliche general (hero is too afraid to express affection) instead of specific (he won't say "I love you"), there are many ways in which this could work, in which the hero, afraid of being made vulnerable, acts brusque or wry or cold with the heroine, only to reveal his softer side later on.

If the guy's already genetically engineering you unicorns and painting every wall in his mansion your favourite shade of magenta and showing you the myriad ways in which tender savagery isn't an oxymoron, then saying Those Three Little Words is kind of redundant, isn't it? Which makes getting mad that he won't say them about as understandable as bitching at Wolfgang Puck for not folding your napkin for your complimentary seven-course banquet into a peacock like you asked.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"The Price of Desire," by Jo Goodman

The Chick: Olivia Cole. Cut off from her father and stepmother, she lives quietly with her irresponsible brother Alistair until he trades her to the owner of a gaming hell as collateral for a thousand-pound debt.
The Rub: Girl's got more issues than Reader's Digest, with a past full of violence, sexual abuse, and abandonment.
Dream Casting: I imagined a younger Megan Follows.

The Dude: Griffin Wright-Jones, Viscount of Breckinridge. The aforementioned owner of the gaming hell, he is none too pleased to receive a woman in place of the thousand pounds Alistair owes him.
The Rub: While technically an aristocrat, the revenues from his hell are what keeps his family estates financially afloat, so he can't afford to compromise Olivia's reputation and put his business at risk. Also, other than Olivia, he has terrible taste in women.
Dream Casting: Christian Bale.

The Plot:

Griffin: You owe me a thousand pounds!

Alistair: Trade you for my sister?

Griffin: What the fu--

Alistair: NO TAKEBACKS! *flees*

Olivia: Hi.

Griffin: ...Awkward.

Gentleman Villain: *tries to rape Olivia* *fails*

Griffin: What the HELL was that about?

Olivia: Oh nothing - want to play cards?

Griffin: You like cards?

Olivia: Oh, yes - they help distract from my monstrously awful, traumatic past that has left me emotionally scarred past all recognition.

Griffin: Hawt! Marry me?

Olivia: No.

Gentleman Villain and Friends: *kidnap Olivia*

Griffin: *rescues* NOW will you marry me?

Olivia: Okay.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Heroine with a Traumatic Sexual Past

1 Aristocratic Hero Slumming it in Trade

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

1 Attempted Rape

1 Evil Whore Wife

1 Evil Whore Mistress

1 Case of *cough cough* Convenient Consumption

1 Secret Baby

1 Slightly-less-precocious Adult Sibling

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Gentleman Villain

The Word: Alistair Cole blows a thousand pounds playing in Griffin Wright-Jones' gambling hell. To ensure Alistair pays his debt, Griffin takes Alistair's heirloom ring - an impressive piece of bling with emeralds and diamonds - as collateral. However, Alistair manages to steal the ring back and leaves a letter in its place saying that Griffin may take in Alistair's sister Olivia as a marker instead.

Griffin is far from pleased at this turn of events, but he also feels sorry for Miss Cole - a quiet, close-mouthed woman who reacts to the news with surprising calm. She knows her brother only too well, it seems, and treats his irresponsible actions as a matter of course, the only important goal in her life being to survive. She doesn't hold out a lot of hope that Alistair will come back with the money, and neither does Griffin - so the beginning of the novel leaves the two in an awkward situation.

Unsure of what to do, Griffin gives Olivia a room in his hell, but when a mysterious man breaks into her room and nearly sets fire to the building in his attempt to rape her, Griffin becomes concerned about her personal welfare. Conversely, Olivia, despite the assault on her safety, tries to convince Griffin to let her work at his hell as a card dealer as a way to earn her keep.

Essentially, despite some action (kidnappings!) and plot twists (a secret son?), most of the novel is simply what happens when a man and a woman, along with their respective emotional baggage, are more or less trapped in the same house for an extended period of time. While Griffin has personal problems of his own, poor chap (including a missing wife with an embarrassing sex addiction), he's still reasonably well-adjusted compared to Olivia, who experienced the very worst of human nature in her childhood and lived to tell about it.

Or not tell about it. As a child and young woman, she encountered an astonishing number of horrors that she kept tightly locked and hidden away in different layers of herself, and the magic and core plot of The Price of Desire is watching how Griffin's quiet, gentle, loving persistence slowly (oh so slowly) peels each layer away, forcing Olivia to open up a little more each time. And as this is happening, Olivia, who at the start of the novel is a calm, passive presence, starts exerting a little more control over her life and begins cunningly insinuating herself deeper into Griffin's life.

Within a page, I knew that this would be a book I enjoyed reading. Goodman has an extraordinarily beautiful writing style that made even the love scenes special, different, and sexy. Her characters are amazingly complex (particularly Olivia's brother Alistair, who continually refuses to be as good or as bad as we want him to be), and their interactions heavily laced with wit. That being said, the novel was a tad on the over-wordy side. Holy crap - these characters talk and talk and talk and talk. While the writing is lovely and the characters' dialogue has zing, I found that the protagonists often spend pages nattering amongst themselves communicating something that could be conveyed in a paragraph. While the nattering was enjoyable to read, it did make the novel's pace rather slow and rendered the novel a bit difficult to pick up again after I'd put it down.

Still, I'm conflicted - because I don't think the novel would have been nearly as good had the novel had a faster pace. Olivia's past is a seriously dark one, and it would have cheapened the novel if she'd explained it all at once in a giant expository chunk at the end of the novel. It works much better as it is, slowly teased out chapter by chapter, detail by detail.

Also, the slow pace allowed me to be shown the depth of the characters rather than told, particularly Olivia. While Griffin is great and all and certainly well-developed, most of this book is dedicated to Olivia, and rightly so. I would have expected a regular person with her kind of problems to be living the rest of her life in a padded cell, curled up in a fetal position. While Olivia has her moments of weakness (including occasional moments of catatonia), her character isn't weak or simple. Her hardships, instead of breaking her into irretrievable pieces, forged her into a nimble, cunning, wary person who lives life by slipping into and hiding in cracks, rather than falling through them.

That being said, there were a few flaws - most notably regarding Alistair's heirloom ring. By the end of the novel, no fewer than three villains are gunning for the bauble, one of whom reveals that an astonishing and frankly unbelievable number of Griffin's and Olivia's present problems originated from the baddies' quest to get it. Described as having a square-cut emerald surrounded by twenty-one diamond chips, it sounds beautiful and expensive, but as it doesn't make the wearer invisible or attract the Dark Lord Sauron I can't really explain what the big deal about it is. It didn't help that one of the aforementioned major villains only appeared in the eleventh hour with little to no introduction other than being mentioned in passing in a couple of chapters.

Those annoyances aside, this was a wonderful romance to read. As mentioned before, it's a fairly long novel, but I seem to be developing a preference for these - it allows the romance to develop more slowly and realistically, with fewer "suddenly overcome with overwhelming tempestuous passion by Chapter Two" moments. I will definitely be looking for more books by this author. A-.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

SUBMITTED: My Application and Portfolio the University of British Columbia for their Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing.

I finally did it. I've been fiddling with this for well over a month (putting most of my other writing on hold) to work on my portfolio pieces. I have to pick the genres of writing I want to study, including a main genre - and I chose Fiction (main genre) and Writing for Children, with Screenwriting and Creative Non-Fiction on the side.

For my main genre fiction sample, I put in a revised version of "House Hunting". Even now, I think it's one of my best pieces, and the only one to receive a "sooo so close, but no cigar" from an editor of a magazine. I had to cut it down to 20 pages (from 29) to fit the sample requirements, but I think I did alright. For my Writing for Children sample I wrote a whole new story, "A Clean Trade," about a girl and a magical washing machine.

I was much more nervous about "A Clean Trade" because it was a new story and hadn't gone through the same amount of feedback and revision as the much older "House Hunting." It still got a lot of feedback, just not same amount because there is a deadline.

I finished both revisions and stories in early October, and started on the actual application writing, and I've pretty much been a nervous wreck ever since. I've proofread the stories a million times, and couldn't help but cut a few words or any a new phrase each time. The deadline was coming up, and I actually wondered at the last minute whether I should add a Creative Non-Fiction sample to my portfolio seeing as how I've done so much of it for The Gateway, Green Man Review, and this very own blog (I decided against it - as I couldn't find my best pieces in their original published formats and I felt that adding something this new at the 11th hour would not help my application).

I was always pretty convinced I'd get into VFS, but the MFA Creative Writing Program at UBC? HARD. OLD. PRESTIGIOUS. Holy crap, their alumni have won the Giller, won Genies, been shortlisted for IMPAC awards. I wasn't up to their level! They only accept 60 students a year! I'm not good enough!

But I finally decided to send it in yesterday. I'd had enough. The deadline's in two weeks, but I finally realized I was done. My stories were finished and if they sucked now, they weren't going to be any better in two weeks and would probably be even worse if I kept compulsively fiddling with them. The same with my application - I pored over it to make sure I didn't make any spelling mistakes, and while I moaned that I didn't have enough awards or fiction publications or samples to put on it, I realized that I wouldn't have any more to add in two weeks.

So I finally sent it in. I'm already convinced I must have made a million unwitting mistakes, but now I feel strangely peaceful, because I know now that I'm past the point where I can do anything about it. I can go back to my writing (and preparing for NaNoWriMo!), and try to get some more things published. I really really want to get accepted, but if in February it turns out I was rejected, at least I'll have a nice little nest egg I won't have to spend on tuition and living expenses, eh?

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"The Duke Next Door," by Celeste Bradley

The Chick: Deirdre Cantor. Since she was sixteen, she's been in love with Calder Marbrook, the Marquis of Brookhaven (and heir to the ailing Duke of Brookmoor). When her cousin Phoebe, the Marquis' fiancee, runs off with another man, Deirdre offers to marry him in Phoebe's place.
The Rub: Deirdre jumped into marriage partly to escape her evil stepmother, but when Calder turns out to be colder and more controlling than she realized, she wonders if she's only fled one cage for another.
Dream Casting: Mamma Mia's Amanda Seyfried.

The Dude: Calder Marbrook. Nicknamed "The Beast" by the ton for his brooding nature and the suspicious death of his adulterous wife, his fiancee Phoebe's desertion has only fanned the flames of rumours that he's a violent and abusive man. When Deirdre offers her hand in marriage as a way to quiet the whispers, he accepts on the spot.
The Rub: His first wife was a deceptively beautiful woman who secretly hated him and died in a carriage accident while fleeing with her lover, so Calder naturally has some trust issues when it comes to beautiful women.
Dream Casting: A Knight's Tale's Rufus Sewell.

The Plot:

Calder: Dammit! My fiancee's absconded with another man!

Deirdre: Marry me instead!

Calder: Sure, why not?

Meggie, Calder's Daughter: Welcome home, Papa! Who's the lady?

Calder: Congratulations, Meg, you have a new mommy!

Deirdre and Meggie: ... what the HELL??

Calder: Chop, chop, Deirdre! Turn my daughter into a proper lady or no pretty sparkly things for you!

Deirdre: Oh no I won't!

Meggie: *glistening neglected child eyes*

Deirdre: Okay, I will.

Deirdre and Meggie: *fiesty female double-team!*

Calder: God, you annoy me.

Deirdre: No, I don't.

Calder: You're right. *sexx0rs*

Baskin, Deranged and Romantically Lacklustre Sexual Rival: *attempts rape*

Calder: You're a whore!

Deirdre: No I'm not - oh to hell with this. *leaves*

Calder: That's right, I want you to leave! ... No I don't.

Deirdre: Oh good. *gets shot*

Calder: Egads! She's dead!

Deirdre: No I'm not.

Doctor: You can never have children!

Deirdre: *vomits* Oh yes I can!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Hero With a Dark Marital Past

1 Fiesty Feminist Heroine

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

1 Precocious Child

1 Evil Ex-Wife (deceased)

1 Very Bad (step-)Parent

2 Duplicitous Solicitors

1 Gay Clothing Designer (fer reals)

1 Romantically Lacklustre (and most likely Mentally Ill) Sexual Rival

1 Secondary Romance (butler Fortescue and Irish maidservant Patricia)

1 Obvious Sequel Setup (shy stumblebum Sophie and lazy cad Graham)

The Word: Many years ago, a cranky asshole with aristocratic ambitions wrote a will stating that his enormous fortune would go to the first granddaughter (or great-granddaughter) who managed to marry a duke and elevate the family into a higher social circle. One of the granddaughters, Phoebe, nearly succeeded in marrying Caldor Marbrook, heir to the Duke of Brookmoor, but ran off with his bastard half-brother instead (the events of Desperately Seeking a Duke).

In The Duke Next Door, Caldor's reputation is taking a beating thanks to Phoebe's desertion. His first, adulterous wife died under mysterious circumstances that did not reflect well on him, and Phoebe's change of heart has renewed Society's belief that he is the "Beast," a villainous man who women can't help but run away from.

Phoebe's cousin Deirdre, who's (conveniently) loved Calder from afar all these years, seizes her chance and proposes marriage in order to quell the rumours. To their mutual astonishment, Calder says yes. However, what Deirdre has not taken into account in her hasty proposal is the inarguable fact that Calder is a big FLAMING IDIOT. Deirdre arrives at her new home, Stupidhaven, ancestral seat of the Marquis of Dumbass, to find out that Caldor has a daughter, Meggie, whom he's never mentioned before.

And just as Deirdre had no idea her husband had a daughter, neither was Meggie informed that her father had married. Calder, heir to the Duke of Asshat-ery, thought it would be more convenient to tell them both at the same time to spare him from repeating himself. That's not all - when Deirdre becomes understandably upset, Calder reminds her of her marital oath of obedience, and promptly orders her to be a mother to Meggie and turn her into a proper young lady. Marquis Moron lays the fucking hammer down: if Deirdre doesn't do as she's told, he won't buy her any dresses or let her attend any balls or parties!

Cue chorus of sassy "Oh No He Di'n't!"s. It's here that the novel descends into ultimate, frustrating stupidity as two equally short-sighted and ridiculous characters act out their melodramatic and unrealistic power-struggles.

Deirdre grew up under a cruel stepmother who used abusive lessons to train Deirdre in the ways of society so that she might marry a duke first and secure Grandpa Asshole's money. While at first she thought she'd escaped such tyranny by marrying Calder, she now sees that his "flaming passion" or whatever was really just the fire she jumped into to escape the pan. Her plan? To punish Calder by being as fucking irritating as possible, which involves most of the ideas in the Firey Heroine Handbook: turning up where she shouldn't, finding offense in every single thing Calder says, spoiling (and enlisting the assistance of) his daughter Meggie, converting all of Calder's household staff to her charms, flirting with harmless sadsacks until they turn into Obsessed Stalkers, and disobeying perfectly rational directions because her Fiesty, Independent Spirit(tm) won't allow her to obey any order made by That Cruel Man.

That being said, Calder's no prize either. His nickname "The Beast" is surprisingly appropriate - anyone here watch Disney's Beauty and the Beast? Remember how the Beast, at first, couldn't express his feelings so he basically just ordered Belle about ("You will join me for dinner. THAT WASN'T A REQUEST!" *doorslam!*)? This is pretty much Calder for the first half of the book - he catches Deirdre in some awkward situation, and is so blustered at how sexy she is that he acts like a douchebag and reminds her how she is his wife, that he has the legal right to do anything he likes with her, and he will, once ... once he wants to, he just doesn't want to right now, because he's busy, with - with manly stuff, yeah, and totally isn't not doing stuff to her because he's a coward. Yeah. Once he wants to do something, then the hammer will come down ("the hammer is his penis").

There's also the fact that he is a terrible father. I don't mean he's absent-minded, like Jem Strange in Eloisa James' Duchess By Night. I don't mean he isn't home enough, like Adam in Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl. He essentially packs Meggie off to different estates and ignores her whenever he's not bitching at her to sit still and be quiet. For the majority of the book he sees her as this pesky responsibility. There's even an ugly hint somewhere around the middle of the novel that he can't bear to look at Meggie because she looks like his late wife, who was a Big Fat Ho.

While thankfully Celeste Bradley doesn't follow through with this, Calder never shows any particular affection for or attachment to his daughter throughout the book, even with Deirdre's supposed "help." He intended to pack Meggie off into Deirdre's care, and that's essentially what happens - Deirdre takes responsibility for Meggie while Calder runs around being the same jackhole he's always been. At the end of the book, Calder and Meggie are supposed to have this moment of parental bonding - but since it's a scene where Calder lets Meggie threaten a inn full of drunken louts with a pistol, it's hard to take too seriously.

And that's essentially my main problem with this book - I found it so hard to take these characters seriously because they don't act like real people, they acted like tropes. And not only the heroes - the secondary characters (like Deirdre's maid Patricia, who's so stereotypically Irish she shits leprechauns) never seem fully realized, either. Because of this, as the novel progresses their actions become more and more outlandish, until the so-called climax when events spiral into downright stupid.

As well, this novel doesn't totally work on its own. Yes, it's part of a trilogy (The Heiress Brides), but romance trilogies aren't the same as fantasy or sci-fi trilogies. Fantasy trilogies essentially tell one story over three books, so you can't read them out of order. Romance trilogies, however, are usually three separate stories that share a common thread or theme - the protagonists of the novels might be siblings, or part of a club, or used to serve together in the war. So while it's easier to read them in order, it usually isn't a huge hassle if you accidentally pick up the second or third book at the bookstore.

Not so here - this book heavily references the events, themes, and characters of Desperately Seeking a Duke, to the point where people reading The Duke Next Door first will be left in the dark. For instance, this novel repeatedly insists that Deirdre's stepmother Tessa is an evil, treacherous viper - but we never actually get to meet her until one scene near the end. The relationship between Deirdre and Sophie, and Deirdre and Phoebe (who never appears), is based on previous history that is poorly explained. Also, there's a subplot about the Duplicitous Solicitors and their schemes to undermine the granddaughters' attempts to marry dukes so that they may keep Grandpa Asshole's money for themselves that requires at least some knowledge of Desperately Seeking a Duke for it to make sense.

I'm sorry to say - wait, no I'm not sorry to say that Celeste Bradley's The Duke Next Door was a big giant dud. It didn't even reach the level of the guilty pleasure - I can sometimes tolerate characters who do silly, unrealistic, or anachronistic things if I can relate to the characters themselves and their motivations for the silly, unrealistic, or anachronistic things they do. I just couldn't do that with cold, selfish, "boo hoo lonely boy" Calder, or Deirdre, who acted Fiesty, Defiant, and Disagreeable for no understandable reason than because Celeste Bradley appears to have rubber-stamped "Fiesty, Defiant, and Disagreeable" onto her forehead instead of coming up with real character development.

I'm really glad I got this book at the library, because I don't think I would have been able to recover from the embarassment of actually having paid money for this. D.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The Serpent Prince," by Elizabeth Hoyt

The Chick: Lucy Craddock-Hayes. An innocent member of the country gentry, she discovers Simon Iddesleigh lying in a ditch - naked, unconscious, and beaten to within an inch of his life. She takes him home to nurse him back to health.
The Rub: Simon is a sophisticated, urbane aristocrat, while Lucy is a simple country miss. What could they possibly have in common?
Dream Casting: A younger Jennifer Connelly.

The Dude: Viscount Simon Iddesleigh. Attacked while hunting for the men who conspired to kill his older brother, he quickly falls for the purehearted goodness of Lucy, whom he considers to be "his angel."
The Rub: Most of the men who murdered his brother are still out there, and Simon's determined to hunt them down one by one and return the favour. However, he's fully aware of the wrongness of his murderous intentions, and believes himself too damaged for a pious angel like Lucy.
Dream Casting: Buffy the Vampire Slayer's James Marsters.

The Plot:
Lucy: I say! A naked man! Finders keepers!

Simon: Wow, I feel better already. Want to get married?

Lucy: Sure!

Simon: I'll be back in a minute, I have to go powder my wig.

Two Skeezy Men Who Helped Kill His Brother: What?! You're still alive?

Simon: I challenge thee to a DUEL!

Two Skeezy Men: SHIT. *overwhelmed by Simon's sword prowess**die horribly*

Simon: *overwhelmed by brooding angst**still alive, though* The only murderer who remains is Sir Rupert Fletcher!

Christian, Simon's BFF: But he's my dad! And a cripple! I challenge thee to a DUEL!

Simon: Wait, seriously? Okay, fine.

Lucy: No more duelling, and I mean it!

Simon: Anybody want a peanut?

Lucy: *leaves in a huff*

Simon and Christian: *hack! slash! stab! poke! angst!*

Sir Rupert: No! Stop! Uncle! UNCLE, DAMMIT! Spare my son!

Simon: Leave England, then.

Sir Rupert and Christian: *banished*

Lucy: *returns* You're alive!

Simon: Merry Christmas!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Brooding, Angst-Ridden Hero

1 Naive Country Virgin

3 Bloody Duels

1 Pair of Sexy Red Heels (Simon's!)

1 Act of Self-Pleasure Accidentally Walked In Upon (Lucy's!)

1 Precocious Child

1 Murderous Conspiracy

1 Skeevy Villain with a Noticeable Nervous Tic

1 Skeevy Villain with Unconventional Sexual Proclivities

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

1 Cameo From Previous Author Characters (The Raven and Leopard Princes make an appearance)

The Word: Lucy Craddock-Hayes is having a regular walk near her country home when she encounters a horribly beaten man left to die in a ditch. Without further ado, she has him carried to her house to convalesce. Once he regains consciousness, the man introduces himself as Viscount Simon Iddesleigh. Even though Simon won't tell her the exact details of his attack and Lucy's father makes his passionate dislike for the man perfectly obvious, Lucy and Simon hit it off. Lucy's bored with dull country life and her dull country courtship with a listless young vicar, and Simon is a welcome breath of charming, witty fresh air. On the other side, Simon believes himself to be a dark creature of sin and evil who likes taking refuge in the company of a good-hearted innocent like Lucy.

The hero who believes himself to be evil (or at least too evil for the heroine) is a common romantic trope. The reasons for these beliefs can range from the silly ("my father was an asshole, therefore I am destined to become an asshole") to the common ("I have sex and gamble way too much for the heroine to like me") to the realistic ("I am mentally scarred from fighting in the war").

Thankfully Simon has very understandable reasons for believing himself to be a demon. His brother, Ethan, was killed by a conspiracy of men who did not appreciate Ethan's moral objections to their plans. They did so by slandering Ethan's wife's name until Ethan (a terrible swordsman) was forced to challenge them to a duel, in which he died in less than a minute. Simon, in return, plans to do the same to the conspirators - force or trick them into calling duels, and then brutally defeat them. He's already taken one down, but has three more to go.

Again, revenge plots are common in romance novels, but this is the first one I've personally read where the hero acknowledges from the start that what he is doing is immoral and wrong, and experiences serious psychological consequences as he performs these crimes anyway. The oft-idealistic setting of the romance novel is usually very supportive of killing the "bad guys," but Hoyt refuses to demonstrate any righteousness in Simon's actions. The novel also (and this was the biggest surprise to me, who found the villains in Hoyt's earlier novel Raven Prince to be rather cartoonish) provides one of the most human romance novel baddies I've come across in a long time. Here we have a man who knowingly committed an evil act to cover up a serious mistake, but he had sincere, realistic, and understandable motivations for doing so. Yes, Virginia, there do exist people who do bad things for good reasons that don't make the bad things they do any less bad.
All of this serves to put Simon in a pretty serious moral, emotional, and psychological quandary as he continues his mission of vengeance, and also serves as the main romantic obstacle between himself and Lucy, who condemns his actions outright.

The disappointing thing about this novel, was that Simon's dueling was pretty much the only big romantic obstacle. Lucy is a bit of a non-character - she has no dark past, she has no niggling personal flaws that are solved by book's end, and she has no serious issues to deal with. She's human enough to escape being a Mary Sue, but she really has no personal investment in the romance. With her innocent country ways, she has an excellent influence on Simon and his personal darkness, but there's nothing that Simon can really do for her (besides the obvious - really good sex and financial security).

This made the romance rather lopsided, as Lucy served more as a catalyst who spurs Simon's personal recovery than a romantic character in her own right who is improved by Simon's company. In other novels, both hero and heroine come into the relationship with emotional baggage, and one of the joys of a good romance is watching how the union of two peoples helps them both to recover from their own problems.

This is why I gave this generally well-written novel this particular grade - because, frankly, the excellently realized revenge portion of the story completely overshadowed the romantic aspect of the book - turning it into something akin to an action movie where the scarred, hardbitten cop is the centre of the film's narrative but he has some winsome B-movie starlet as the requisite love interest who inspires him to greater heights of heroism but doesn't really contribute anything other than estrogen and the occasional damsel-in-distress scene.

I've always seen romance as a partnership between the hero and the heroine, but in The Serpent Prince, Simon ran the show while Lucy watched lovingly from the balcony. Sorry, but she really wasn't quite my cup of tea. B.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whoring For Books

Regular visitors to my site will notice that I've added a few book widgets to my blog - first, I added Julie Anne Long's Like No Other Lover widget, and now I've added the Smart Bitches/Dear Author Buy a Contemporary widget. They've both had mentions about the book Flat-Out Sexy on their blogs, while bemoaning the fact that ordinary contemporary romances that don't involve spies, vampires, serial murderers/rapists, but are instead just extraordinary stories of love between two ordinary people, are becoming an endangered species.

I can relate. While I'm more of an historical fan myself, I love the books of Jennifer Crusie, Christine Ridgway and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I'm also a big ol' meanie when it comes to vampire/spy/thriller romances - I just don't like 'em (in general - there are exceptions).

So Dear Author and the Smart Bitches have started a contest with crazy prizes - one of which is a $100 gift certificate to Amazon to a random person who's posted this widget on their blog. Which is what I have done.

I don't care if I'm shameless - it costs nothing to post one on my blog and the books are free - my Julie Anne Long widget won me a signed copy of The Perils of Pleasure which is on its way to my mailbox as I type this.

Books books books. Free free free. I'm a simple-minded creature at heart.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

In the "That's Just WRONG" Category:

I've been looking up new romance authors on the internet. Even though I've been reading romances for well over a year now, I'm still exploring new authors because there are so many, dear God. Plus, romance authors have some of the most beautifully designed websites out there (ironically, sci-fi authors, whose characters fight robots and insanely developed technology and the Singularity, often have really crappy-looking websites).

I like looking at the covers, the author's bio, and of course - their books!

Today, however, I came across an author's new book, and the book trailer explained the plot: girl tells lies, a boy gets the boot from his family and nearly dies, and years later comes back to work revenge. Oh, well, that sounds good.


The excerpt ... wow. The writing wasn't bad, but the plot it explained was. In the excerpt, our hero, ostracized from his family (and nursing a wicked throat wound) remarks on the cold, devious beauty of our heroine, calls her a "lying bitch," remarks upon her "calculated betrayal," and how he wants to choke her until she begs for mercy.

Our heroine? She's all of TEN YEARS OLD. Dude! Hero! Don't be talking about her pure alabaster skin and her ringlets that "saucily [frame] her face", you perv! SHE'S TEN! Has no one told you "You can't play cricket until there's grass on the pitch, old chum"?

And then there's the implications for the rest of the novel. Years later, when she's (thankfully) of marriageable age and engaged to another, he steps in with the intention of seducing her in revenge. In revenge for something she did when she was TEN. DUDE! Seriously? What is this, Atonement? She was TEN, you ASS. YOU have anger management issues, buddy!

The plot rings all kinds of creepy. But you can be sure that if I can get my hands on this novel without actually paying for it, I will definitely read it and see if it follows through on this idea, and write an hysterical review of it.

For the curious, this novel is:

Saturday, October 18, 2008

"A Dangerous Beauty," by Sophia Nash

The Chick: Rosamunde Baird. As a teenager, she was caught stealing a kiss from a duke's son, but refused to marry him and eloped instead with a country squire who turned out to be an abusive monster. Her actions led her to be ostracised from both her family and her community. Now widowed and penniless, she has nothing to lose.
The Rub: On top of the fact that she believes she's barren and nearly the entire country thinks she's a whore, the one man who shows her kindness is the younger brother of the duke's son who ruined her reputation.
Dream Casting: Bionic Woman's Michelle Ryan.
The Dude: Lucifer (I'm not kidding) "Luc" St. Aubyn, Duke of Helston. A former Navy commander and war hero, he inherited the dukedom when his older brother died at sea. He's known far and wide as "Lord Fire and Ice," for his passion in the bedroom and subsequent refusal to commit afterwards.
The Rub: Growing up in family with not one, but two abusive husband and father figures has convinced him that "happy marriage" is an oxymoron. His estate is also in secret financial straits, which is he secretly trying to fix with the secret royalties from his secret novel, which he's written secretly.
Dream Casting: Clive Owen.

The Plot:

Rosamunde: *kisses Henry St. Aubyn*

Rosamunde and Henry: *CAUGHT!*

Rosamunde: *elopes*

Eight Years Later:
Ata, Dowager Duchess of Helston: Come join my Widows' Club and celebrate my granddaughter's wedding!

Rosamunde: Oh, no really I can't...

Ata: What? Are you BUSY?

Wedding Guests: *SHUN* Whore!

Luc: *Dukely Glare*

Wedding Guests: Oh hey, Rosamunde welcome to the party.

Luc: I want to love you, but evilness is genetic, don't you know!

Rosamunde: I want to love you, but everyone thinks I'm a slut!

Luc: Hey, Random Best Friend Countess, want to get married?

Random Best Friend Countess: Don't be an idiot.

Luc and Rosamunde: *married*

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Dastardly Duke Drenched in Deadly Devil Symbolism

1 Big Misunderstanding

1 Orgasmless Widow

3 Very Bad Husbands (deceased)

1 Meddling Grandmother
1 Very Bad Parent

1 Secondary Romance (Sylvia and Rawleigh)

2 Secret Talents (writing and singing)

1 Case of Temporary Blindness

1 Attempted Molestation

1 Royal Smackdown as Reward for Attempted Molestation

1 Romantically Lacklustre (but still fairly decent) Romantic Rival

1 Obvious Sequel Setup (widow Georgianna - what's she been up to?)

The Word: I read romance the way my father reads science fiction - with the expectation that 70% of what I read will be awful, 20% will be pleasantly enjoyable, and 10% will be a glorious joy to read and is the reason I'm willing to slog through the other 90%. Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl is one such novel, Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me and Welcome to Temptation are others, and this book, A Dangerous Beauty, by Sophia Nash, is another.

Rosamunde Langdon, daughter of an earl, is the family favourite. At seventeen, she's a rides-horses-astride, hair-blowing-in-the-wind, beat-boys-at-sports kind of fiesty female heroine who is sadly not uncommon in many lesser romances. Her behaviour has never been checked because her daddy and her big brothers love her to pieces. She also believes herself to be in love with Henry St. Aubyn, son and heir to the Duke of Helston, and steals a kiss from him after beating him at a horse race. However, Henry admits he's in love with another.

Unfortunately, they were apparently caught, and her and Henry's outraged fathers insist that they marry. Rosamunde doesn't understand why everyone is so upset by what she saw as a harmlessly flirtatious peck on the lips (and for much of the novel, neither could I). In a lesser romance, this fiesty Welsh lass and this nervous cold duke's son would enter into an unwilling marriage only to (could it be?) truly fall in love later.

Not so for dear Rosamunde. Instead of conceding to her father's demands, she hastily elopes with a country squire - her pride believing it better to marry a man she barely knows than a man who loves someone else. However, this is a mistake she lives to regret. Her father and brothers sever all ties to her, the community shuns her as a whore, and her husband turns out to be a heartless golddigger who insists on controlling every inch of her life. Only her sister Sylvia stays true to her.

Eight years pass. Rosamunde is no longer an adventurous, winsome girl. The eight years of misery under a cruel husband's thumb, and all thanks to one bold kiss, have taught her to hide her high-tempered nature under a dampening blanket of submission, passivity, and compliance. She blames her natural spirit for the mess made out of her life and reputation, so she's spent her appallingly miserable marriage determined never to let her passionate heart come out of hiding.

Now widowed and penniless, she receives an invitation from Lady Ata, Dowager Duchess of Helston, to attend her granddaughter's wedding and join her Widows Club, an elite circle of husbandless women Ata entertains and discretely obtains livings for. Rosamunde (as well as Sylvia, who's been living with her and her husband for all these years) has no other option - unless she wants to return to her deceased husband's cottage and submit to the lecherous intentions of his disgusting cousin. With deep misgivings about appearing in public again, she accepts.

The other wedding guests are all too obviously aware of her past, and (despite Ata's support), bitterly resent her presence. All except for Luc, Duke of Helston, and younger brother to the now deceased Henry. He notices the hints of fire that simmer underneath Rosamunde's quiet and reserved exterior. He's also a person who hides his true nature - in this case, a bookish intellectualism and literary ability he masks with a prickly shell of scalding cynical wit. Intrigued by the hidden depths lurking underneath Rosamunde's tranquil exterior, he makes it a quest to provoke, encourage, and please her in order to reveal the strong woman hiding within.

This was a delightful novel to read, on a number of levels. Mostly, this was thanks to Rosamunde's character. I've encountered so many devil-may-care heroines who somehow manage to get away with being anachronistically feminist that I enjoyed reading about a similar heroine who actually encounters social repercussions to her heedless actions. While even I thought her downfall at the beginning of the novel seemed exaggerated and a little contrived, the book surprised me by explaining it very well at the end with a twist that truly came as a surprise while still being heralded with significant hints.

Similarly, Luc was a surprise - a literary-minded writer who masks his true skills under an alpha male exterior. However, I felt his "devilish" nature was a bit overdone - I could understand how he could believe himself to be evil, or at least prone to evil behaviour, being the descendant of two generations of cruel men who abused their wives terribly, but did he really have to be named Lucifer Judas Ambrose St. Aubyn, Duke of HELston? And this isn't just me getting angry over a small detail - the novel plays on the pun of Helston being "Hell-ston" way too often.

That being said, the pairing of Rosamunde (who hides a dominant spirit beneath a submissive appearance) and Luc (who hides a vulnerable heart beneath an abrasive exterior) led to beautiful (and darkly funny) exchanges of dialogue and action. In the true spirit of opposites-attract romance, their differences turn out to be complementary rather than contradictory. Luc's provoking comments stir Rosamunde's bold temper, while Rosamunde's patience and acceptence win through to Luc's hidden tenderheartedness.

Also (and this is similar to one of the reasons I loved The Secret Pearl), the sex scenes are few, pointedly relevant, and have realistic consequences. The book is deeply sensual regardless thanks to Sophia Nash's lush writing style, and the scenes of intimacy are all the more potent because they are carefully used.

Rosamunde is, in this case, an Orgasmless Widow, a romantic cliche that is often derided, although I frankly don't understand why. In contemporaries, of course, the Orgasmless Widow cliche is a bit silly because it's often a contrived way to both demonize the heroine's previous husband and render her sexually inexperienced without being a virgin. In historicals, though, the Orgasmless Widow is fairly realistic. Sex Ed wasn't a big issue back then, and sex wasn't as clinically understood either. While there probably were a few talented lovers back then, it wasn't unreasonable to assume that many marriages, while happy, probably weren't mutually sexually fulfilling.

Anyway, back on topic - Rosamunde's husband abused her in many subtle ways, one of which was his selfish and possessive way of having sex, which taught Rosamunde to despise the feel of a man's hands. To ease this, Luc proceeds to make love to her in a long, detailed, several-pages-spanning love scene - without using his hands. I won't explain more than that, because it's a beautifully written, narratively relevant, and sexy scene that needs to be experienced firsthand.

Romances can be written in almost any setting (because love happens everywhere), with any type of people - but the true test of a good romance resides in the strength of the heroine and hero and the chemistry they experience together. Sophia Nash provides a fantastically detailed setting, appealing secondary characters, real social drama - but it's the combination of these two unique, damaged, multifaceted characters that made A Dangerous Beauty such wonderful experience to read. A few flaws (such as Rosamunde's sister Sylvia's martyr complex, and an epilogue that seemed unrealistic and overcompensating), keep this from being a perfect A, but I still want to buy this book (I've borrowed my current copy) and keep an eye out for her next Widow's Club novel, The Kiss. A-.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"The Heir and the Spare," Maya Rodale

The Chick: Emilia Highhart. An American heiress, she travels to Britain to try and land a titled husband in order to please her industrialist father. She falls hard and fast for a man others identify as Lord Phillip Kensington, but is confused by his contradictory treatment of her.
The Rub: Along with being as clumsy as a three-legged giraffe, she has the bad luck to fall in love with an identical twin - so who is she really in love with?
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude:
Lord Devon Kensington. Born a minute after his twin brother Phillip, he's always been referred to - by both his brother and his cold Duke of a father - as "the spare," and therefore not as worthy of respect or attention. Forced to flee Britain years ago after impersonating Phillip in a duel that went bad, he turned to trade and became successful and wealthy on his own merit.
The Rub: Returning to Britain after hearing news about his father's failing health, he is dismayed to discover that Phillip has convinced everyone in the ton that his twin Devon died in a shipwreck - so when Emilia falls into his arms, it's Phillip she thinks she's in love with.
Dream Casting: Milo Ventimiglia.

The Plot:

Emilia: Oopsie! *trips*

Devon: *catches* A beautiful girl!

Phillip: A cure to my money problems!

Devon and Emilia: *smooch*

Emilia: Oh my!

Phillip and Emilia: *grosser smooch*

Emilia: EW!

Phillip and Devon: We're twins.

Emilia: I figured that out, thanks.

Phillip and Devon: We hate each other!

Emilia: Yeah, I knew that too.

Phillip: Marry me and be a duchess!

Emilia: How about NO.

Devon: Marry me, then, since I've compromised you.

Emilia: Now that I can live with.

Butler: Congratulations - by the way, Devon, you're actually the firstborn! So you're the Duke!

Devon and Emilia: HOORAY!

Phillip: SHIT.

Romance Convention Checklist:
3 Instances of Twin Switcheroo

1 Stumblebum Heiress

1 Convenient Compromisation Attempt (failed)

1 Convenient Compromisation Attempt (successful)

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Big Misunderstanding

2 Meddling Chaperones

1 Regency-Era Equivalent of Car Sex (in a moving carriage!)

1 Instance of Ungentlemanly Fisticuffs

1 Attempted Rape

1 Deadly Fever (unsexy variety)

1 Ignored Butler with an Important Secret

The Word:
Emilia Highhart is a stumblebum - she's renowned for bashing into tables, falling down stairs, and tripping over carpets, loose cobblestones, and her own feet. So she's not completely surprised when she loses her footing going down the stairs at her first ball of the Season. However, she is pleasantly surprised to land in the arms of a handsome dashing gentleman who later steals a kiss from her before leaving mysteriously. According to her aunt and chaperone, the man is Lord Phillip Kensington, a scandalous rogue (is there any other kind?). Around Emilia, however, he displayed all the manners of a gentleman, so she figures the rumours can't all be true.

However, the man who caught and kissed her wasn't actually Phillip, but Devon Kensington, Phillip's twin brother. Separated in age by barely sixty seconds, Devon, as the youngest, was all but ignored by his father, who rested his attention on Phillip, the all-important heir. Nicknamed the "spare," and treated as such by society, Devon spent his life striving to be better than his brother and gain a measure of his father's approval. When his father requests that Devon stand in for Phillip in a duel with another Duke whose wife Phillip debauched (so that, again, the all-important heir's life need not be risked), Devon complies, but when the duel goes bad, he flees for America, determined to achieve his own success freed from the restricting expectations of his father and society.

And succeed he has - but when he hears his father's health is failing, he returns to Britain in order to pay his last respects. He tries to lay low (as he is unsure of how welcome he may be in his mother country after seriously injuring one of the Prince Regent's BFFs), but soon realizes it's not necessary: during the years of his exile, good ol' Phil convinced everyone that his brother had died at sea. While he's instantly attracted to Emilia, he leaves after kissing her because he doesn't want to follow in his rakish brother's footsteps.

Hilariously enough, Phillip's roving eye lands on Emilia as well. He's amassed a huge debt through partying, and sees the plucky heiress as the solution to his mounting financial problems. The fact that she already seems disposed to like him (mistaking him for Devon) is a bonus. He brushes off the fact that he can't remember doing the things she insists he did as a result of his binge drinking.

Emilia observes the surprising changes in "Phillip's" behaviour with confusion and concern - at times he seems caring and affectionate (Devon), while at others thoughtless and perfunctory (Phillip). Thankfully, she discovers her mistake quickly enough to save the novel from turning into some cutesy Regency remake of the Olsen twins' It Takes Two - once the twins are aware of each other's intentions for Emilia, it turns into a fierce competition built on years of spiteful, bitter twin rivalry.

However, although the plot steers away from the silly "which twin is which?" antics, the romantic tension and conflict dissolve soon afterwards. Emilia and Devon admit their love for each other fairly early in the plot. What remain are frivolous obstacles that compete to be the silliest and most irritating - most of these involve Phillip's ever more desperate attempts to marry Emilia by any means necessary (including faking a compromising position), Devon's painful tendency to misunderstand Emilia's feelings for Philip (what she evinces as utter disgust Devon somehow interprets as a hidden ambition to one day be a duchess), and Emilia's distress that Devon, despite showing her he loves her in a rainbow of magical ways, won't actually say he loves her, in those exact words, to her face.

The plot is ridiculous cotton candy fluff, but the characters are compelling enough to read on. Emilia showed every potential of being a character I despise, and yet never became one - she's girlish, naive, falls in love very quickly, has a "delightful" tendency to "adorably" trip over everything, and responds to problems by baracading herself in her bedroom with the promise to never come out. However, she treats her clumsiness as an ordinary flaw to be recovered from and dealt with as professionally as possible, rather than as an "aw-shucks" mannerism to be nurtured as an essential part of her personality. She also learns the difference between Phillip and Devon very quickly, and has the smarts to recognize Phillip's cold and rude behaviour as a sign he is a cold and rude person, and something she's not willing to put up with, unlike some other romance heroines (*cough*Bella from Twilight*cough*).

However, The Heir and the Spare is really the Phillip-and-Devon show. Both are driven by jealousy and bitterness thanks to an upbringing by a father who liked nothing better than pitting one brother against the other. Devon hates being denied a father's respect and affection simply because he exited his mother's womb sixty seconds later than his brother, and dedicates his life to earning success on his own terms.

And Phillip .... Oh, Phillip. Unbeknownst to Devon, the spoiled heir didn't spend his childhood basking in his father's love, either - rather (out of Devon's hearing), Phillip was always compared to his brother and found wanting. He hated the fact that he was the heir to a Dukedom and thus one of the biggest catches of the ton and would inherit a fantastic estate and couldn't be the smartest, most responsible, most talented brother as well. It reminded me a bit of the relationship between twin brothers George and Oscar Bluth from the TV show Arrested Development. George, the businessman, had a wealthy successful company. Oscar, the hippy, had a full head of hair. In one scene, George orders a hooker and spends the night blubbering about how unfair it is that Oscar has all that great hair. "Why can't I have the company and the hair, and Oscar have nothing?" he wails. "It's not fair!"

It's much the same way with Phillip. Cry me a river, Phil. He's mesmerizing to watch - not because he's a sexy rake, no, quite the opposite - he's such an complete, over-the-top fuckup it's like watching a train wreck in slow motion. He has no tortured backstory (other than the "wah wah my daddy didn't love me" one), he has no dark past, he's just a spoiled selfish pig who is entirely motivated by narcissism. His entire mindset is, "I'm a sexy, powerful manly man! It is beneath me to feel second best to ANYTHING!" and I get to read with increasing glee as his overriding self-absorbed desire to make himself look better digs himself an even bigger hole to bury himself in. This is a guy who told his family and friends that Devon was dead in order to get more attention.

To be a devilish, sexy villain one has to succeed at being a devilish sexy villain - and Phillip can't even do that. All of his half-cocked drunken schemes (and there are many) to snag Emilia end with him flat on his face with Devon's boot halfway up his ass, every time. Amazingly enough, Phillip eventually gets his own book - The Rogue and the Rival. But he's no Sebastian St. Vincent (of Devil in Winter fame), so I have no idea how he'll come close to redeeming himself. The characters were fun to read about, but the plot fizzled out the halfway mark. B-.

Monday, October 13, 2008

That Special Music Redux

A few days ago, I mentioned how I'd finally come across a musical score I'd been hearing since I was very little but had never been able to identify. Well, it turned out to be a score composed by Jerry Goldsmith called "The Final Game" from Rudy. I'd never seen Rudy, so I suppose that's my loss and why I went fifteen years never being able to listen to this song. A few commenters who are similarly interested in film scores asked if I could post a clip of it, and thankfully I found a YouTube montage to the song, here:


Saturday, October 04, 2008

CLASSIC REVIEW: "Clarissa," by Samuel Richardson

The Chick: Clarissa Harlowe. Beautiful, fashionable, kind, loyal, with an unimpeachable moral character, this third child of a wealthy, untitled family is forced to fend off her relatives' repeated attempts to marry her to the repulsive Mr Solmes, as well as Robert Lovelace's ruthless advances.
The Rub: She's a self-righteous doormat, and borders on Mary Sue territory. Also displays an unfortunate 18th-century heroine tendency to render herself physically ill due to emotional overstimulation.
Dream Casting: There's really no one I could possibly cast as Clarissa, who is repeatedly lauded as the "best of all women," and perfectly perfect in every way.

The Dude: Robert Lovelace. Wealthy, handsome, charming, and the heir to a title - his courtship of Clarissa becomes increasingly obsessive, as he becomes determined to have her, by any means necessary.
The Rub: He's an unabashed rake - and not one of those pansy rakes with a ridiculous code of honour like "never defile the innocent." He's not above using lies, manipulation, mail tampering, elaborate disguises, drugs (on himself and others), and rape to get what he wants.
Dream Casting: Again, can't really cast this dude, who makes every other rake in romantic fiction look like a lovestruck schoolboy.

The Plot:

Clarissa's Family: Marry Solmes!

Clarissa: No thank you.

Lovelace: Marry me!

Clarissa: Nope.

Anna Howe, Clarissa's BFF: Marry nobody!

Clarissa: Now there's an idea.

Lovelace: Hey, look! A distraction!

Clarissa: What - ?

Lovelace *absconds with Clarissa*

Clarissa's Family: You WHORE. *shuns*

Lovelace: Now will you marry me?

Clarissa: Care to take a raincheck? *flees*

Lovelace: *catches her*

Clarissa: Family, help me!

Clarissa's Family: WHORE. *shuns*

Lovelace: *date rapes*

Clarissa: *imprisoned**released**flees again*

Clarissa's Family, Uncles, and Anna: Well, you might as well marry Lovelace now.

Clarissa: NEVER! *dies*

Messenger: Hey - I just got this letter saying the family's willing to totally forgive Clarissa for everything that's happened and ... oh, am I too late?

Lovelace: Mother$%&"#$! *duels* *dies*

Clarissa's Family: WE ARE ALL IDIOTS. *PUNISHED*

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Rapacious Rake

1 Put-Upon Virgin

1 Sassy Best Friend

1 Moronic, Control-Freak Family

Several Big Misunderstandings

1 Use of Ipecac For Romantic Purposes

2 Ho's in Disguise

1 Wrongful Imprisonment

The Word: This is the reader's Everest. Something that people will read once in their lives in order to say that they did it, but might never read ever, EVER again. Clarissa is well-known as the longest novel originally written in the English language, clocking in at just under a million words. Like Richardson's previous (and much shorter) novel Pamela, it's written in letter format. Half the novel involves Clarissa's letters to and from her family and friends regarding her changed circumstances, and the other half involves Lovelace's letters to and from his family and rakehell buddies as he cooks up his dastardly plans to snare Clarissa into marriage, all the while scrawling pages' worth of self-justification for his actions.

Clarissa is, as I've mentioned previously, perfectly perfect in every way. At the start of the novel, she's the darling of her wealthy bachelor uncles, her friends, the community, and her parents. When Robert Lovelace, a handsome cad, starts courting her, her perfect world starts to slip and long-hidden resentments in her family bubble to the surface, particularly among her jealous siblings James and Arabella. James knew Lovelace at university and hated him for being popular, rich, and handsome. Lovelace previously courted Arabella, only to dump her for Clarissa. The siblings also possess a deep resentment and jealousy of Clarissa herself, as she's the family favourite who unexpectedly inherited the largest share of her late grandfather's wealth just because she's so darn cute, and now stands to inherit the money of the bachelor uncles as the Apple of Their Wealthy Unmarried Eyes.

Together, James and Arabella conspire to convince the family that Lovelace's intentions are dishonest, and that the only way to protect Clarissa from his dastardly intentions is to marry her off to Mr Solmes - an elderly, wealthy widower with a reputation for being a miser. Clarissa doesn't particularly care for Lovelace, either, but when she refuses to marry Solmes, her refusal - a completely unexpected act of defiance from a previously perfectly obedient daughter - is construed as an indication of her illicit passion for the rake. This only stokes her family to go to greater lengths to try and force her to marry Solmes.

Clarissa maintains her refusal - she disapproves of Solmes' miserly character and his unkind treatment of his family. However, through James and Arabella's machinations, Clarissa's defiance is interpreted as spoiled selfishness and soon the whole family turns against her. Imprisoned in her room for disobedience, she retains only one friend, to whom she must write in secret: the fantastically bitchy spitfire Anna Howe.

Of course, when Lovelace hears about her stubborn refusal, he also interprets her unwillingness to marry Solmes as a sign that she harbours feelings for himself. He maintains a secret correspondence with Clarissa through subtle emotional blackmail - he writes that he's so passionately on fire for her that if he doesn't communicate with her he's sure to do something uncontrollably drastic. Clarissa, to maintain propriety and shield her family from scandal and violence, agrees.

The pressure from her family rapidly escalates, to the point where Clarissa becomes convinced that they are planning to forcibly marry her to Mr Solmes, whether she wills it or no. Lovelace suggests that Clarissa run away and, with his assistance, stay with a female relative of his until she's allowed to inherit her grandfather's wealth and become independent. Clarissa reluctantly consents, then changes her mind at the last minute. Lovelace, however, has planned ahead and promptly tricks Clarissa into fleeing with him, and things go downhill from there.

Clarissa's family, convinced she has eloped with Lovelace and has sacrificed her virtue, wants nothing more to do with her, and Lovelace shows an increasing desire to have entirely too much to do with her. Clarissa's only hope lies in protecting herself from Lovelace's advances while trying to negotiate with her family through letters and her friend Anna's assistance.

The rest of the novel is a battle of wills - with Lovelace rifling through every trick in the rake's handbook to take advantage of Clarissa, and Clarissa using all the powers of gentle persuasion she possesses to maintain her distance from Lovelace and salvage enough of her reputation to regain her family's approval.

I read this book for Lovelace and Anna Howe, easily the two most entertaining characters in the novel. Lovelace is a complex character - a rake, to be sure, whose initial intentions for Clarissa are far from pure. To him (at least for the first 750 pages!), Clarissa poses the ultimate challenge, the white whale to his Ahab. To tarnish the reputation of such a renowned, kind-hearted, chaste virgin would immortalize him within the ranks of the world's most notorious seducers for eons. His seduction of her is also motivated by anger - insulted by the presumption of the Harlowe family for expressing a low opinion of him (considering them to be untitled upstarts whereas he is the child of peerage), the shearing of their fluffiest, most spotlessly white sheep would be a cutting blow indeed.

However, around the novel's mid-point, his pursuit turns more into obsession, as he realizes that he might just be falling in love with her, for real. Does this change the nature of his seduction? Not a whit. His game plan remains essentially the same - he'll stoop to any means, fair or foul, to snare Clarissa. At one point, hilariously, he intentionally drinks ipecac and makes himself sick in order to ellicit sympathy from Clarissa - and it WORKS! The only difference after the midpoint of the novel is that he fully intends to marry her, and justifies that he'll then have the rest of their lives to make up for his deceit and prove his whole-hearted devotion.

As for Anna Howe, had I not known this book was actually written in the 18th century, I might have considered her character a bit of an anachronism - she's fiesty, she's sassy, she's whiptongued and smart as a tack, and has no problems speaking her mind. Whereas Clarissa is far too polite and tranquil to condemn her family's short-sighted and selfish actions, Anna has no such compunction. Clarissa is all too willing to take shit from her family and sit quietly - whereas Anna takes a gleeful delight in composing searing diatribes against the narrow-minded Harlowes, Lovelace's machinations, and the stupidity of the world in general for causing any stress whatsoever to Clarissa's well-being. Most of Clarissa's plans for redemption involve waiting out the storm of her scandal with saint-like patience, while Anna councils direct action.

My only disappointment with Anna is that the novel obviously paints her as Clarissa's "problem" friend - a well-meaning but imperfect lady meant to improve under Clarissa's benevolent influence (her opposite number is Lovelace's confidante Belford, whose knowledge of Lovelace's machinations horrifies him into eventually abandoning his rakish ways). When Anna sends letters of vitriol against Clarissa's family and suggestions that Clarissa take legal action against them, Clarissa responds with pages and pages of lectures on the virtues of familial loyalty, temperance, and tranquility, to which Anna will respond with slavish gratitude that Clarissa (perfect, lovely Clarissa) is so willing to tolerate her devilish temper and instruct her on the proper manners of a lady.

This is particularly apparant when the girls discuss Anna's boy problems - throughout most of the novel, she's courted by Charles Hickman, a man who's upright, well-off, kind-hearted and gentle. However, Anna also thinks he's boring and her inferior in intellect - a trait she cannot abide. In one of her most articulate letters, she rails against the unfairness of society that makes the husband the representative of the family. She can't stand the thought of her person, status and reputation being subject to a man who's not as smart as she is - an opinion I completely agreed with and found entirely refreshing to read in an 18th century novel. However, Clarissa naturally responds with more lectures on the natural state of wifely submission, etc. etc., along with a few well-aimed jabs at how difficult smarter men can be (in one letter, Anna whines that Hickman is not as exciting as Lovelace, to which Clarissa responds, "And that's bad HOW?").

With all of this, Clarissa is an interesting but difficult read, mainly because of the main character. In theory, I admired her actions, but in practice it was frustrating to read. In a nutshell, the plot is: "Clarissa says no." That's it, really - "no" to her family's demands, "no" to Solmes' marriage proposal, "no" to Lovelace's plots and schemes. But despite the fact that she actually shows enough spine to refuse to perform things she doesn't believe in, she also never says "yes," - that is, take an active role in her future and fight for her rights. Of course, doing so (gasp!) wouldn't have been ladylike, and Clarissa is never permitted to be anything less than the 18th century feminine ideal. Thank goodness for Anna Howe. B.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Goddess of Spring," by P.C. Cast

The Chick: Carolina "Lina" Francesca Santoro. A lonely forty-something divorcee whose bakery faces financial ruin, she is contacted by the Greek Goddess Demeter and offered a deal: if she'll spend six months in the mythical Underworld masquerading as Demeter's daughter Persephone, then Persephone will take Lina's place and turn her bakery into a success.
The Rub: Lina is forbidden from telling anyone that's she not really a goddess - even Hades, King of the Underworld, who turns out to be much sexier and accommodating than Demeter led her to believe.
Dream Casting: As Lina, Laura San Giacomo. As Persephone, Anne Hathaway.

The Dude: Hades. As in, Greek God, brother to Zeus and Poseidon, and ruler of the Underworld.
The Rub: His connection with the dead, and the fact that he's not an air-headed moron, renders him particularly unsuited to the company of his fellow deities, so he's a bit of a celestial outcast. Also, turned one of his mortal ex-girlfriends into a sprig of mint when she tried to throw herself off a cliff to escape from him (for reals).
Dream Casting: Heroes' Sendhil Ramamurthy.

The Plot:
Lina: My bakery is failing!

Demeter: *poof* I can help! Just switch bodies with my daughter Persephone!

Lina: Wha? *Goddess-ified*

Demeter: Have fun in the Underworld!


Hades: Excuse me?

Lina: ...lo. Holy Dark Tormented Hero, Batman!

Crowds of Peaceful Ghosts: Persephone, you're awesome!

Underworld Animals: Woof! Neigh! Rrowr! (Translation: "We think you're MORE awesome!")

Hades: I think you're the awesomest of all.

Lina: Really?

Demeter: Sorry, time's up!

Lina: *Middle-Aged-Woman-ified*

Hades: *SHUN*

The Actual Persephone: Hades, don't be an ass.

Hades: I'm sorry, Lina. Let's make up.

Lina: Oh, alright.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Dark, Brooding, Outcast Hero

1 Middle-Aged Heroine with Body Issues

1 Mystic Pizza (for reals)

1 Romance Involving Secondary Characters (Iapis and Eurydice)

1 Meddling Maternal Figure

Several Fawning Animals

1 Shower Peep-Show

The Word: Carolina Francesca Santoro, or "Lina" to her friends, is in a bit of a fix. Thanks to an error made by her slimy accountant, she owes the IRS a huge debt and runs the risk of losing her bakery. In an attempt to find new recipes to attract more customers, she comes across a used cookbook for "Italian Goddesses." In it is a recipe for a delectable pizza that requires meditation and invocations to Demeter along with flour, butter and spices. When she performs the spell, she gets zapped into another world and finds herself face-to-face with Demeter.

Yes, Demeter. Goddess of the Harvest, and mother to Persephone, Goddess of Spring. Demeter is annoyed because the mortals in her world have been pestering her about the lack of feminine attention in the Underworld. Demeter's daughter Persephone, as the goddess of light and flowers and springtime, etc. etc., would be perfect for the job, except that Demeter worries her daughter is too immature and frivolous for the responsibility. So she switches the soul of her daughter with that of Lina, sticking forty-three-year-old Lina in the body of a smokin' hot young Goddess.

Lina, Demeter tells her (she doesn't really offer Lina a choice), will take Persephone's place and sojourn in the Underworld for six months to bring some sweetness and light to the inhabitants. Meanwhile, in Lina's body, Persephone will use her natural light and sweetness to make Lina's bakery a financial success, and maybe grow up a little, too. Lina, knowing her Greek mythology (particularly the story about the Rape of Persephone by Hades), balks, until Demeter conveniently tells her that most of the mythology humans have heard in her world is false, and that Hades is actually a boring loner killjoy, uninterested in women.

After that, she swears Lina to secrecy and plunks her down at the entrance to Hades, where things begin to take a very familiar turn if you've read Cast's other novels, particularly Divine by Mistake. However it's not nearly as good. Like Divine, Lina has to pose as a Goddess while people a) fall in love with her, b) swear eternal loyalty to her, c) plead to serve her hand and foot. And she also gets to ride fabulous horses. And she's pampered in every conceivable way. And everybody loves her.

Divine by Mistake's Rhiannon was able to escape being a Mary Sue because the novel also had an overarching conflict - evil demons to fight in the first book, her Bizarro-world evil twin in the second. There's no such unifying story in Goddess of Spring, which made it by turns tedious and irritating. Most of the book is like reading about someone else's trip to Disneyland, as Lina gasps with delight over the endless beauties of the Underworld (over and over again), and sickeningly cute creatures (fairies! fireflies! nymphs!) crawl out of the woodwork and shower her with praise, adoration, and sparkly drool, and as Hades becomes increasingly moody and horny around her.

This lack of conflict repeatedly irritated me. No one figures out until the very end that Lina's not a Goddess - she conveniently has a magical voice in her head that spits out ready-made infodumps about the weird things she encounters, and she miraculously manages to perform a number of celestial tasks without so much as tripping or breaking a nail. She possesses some unexplained charm over animals as well. Everyone - literally everyone loves her and it was enough to make me want to puke.

As such, the characterization is fairly one-note. Along with Lina, there is Eurydice (yes, the dead bride of Orpheus) - who's turned here into an infantalized, dithering twit who would like nothing more than to don sparkly pink lipgloss and kiss Persephone's ass all day, if the Goddess so commanded it. There is also Iapis, Hades' number-one manservant, who's wise and jovial and - oh, did I mention he approves of Lina? And that Hades' horses like Lina? And Cerberus likes Lina?

Hades is the only one who gets more characterization than the simple "would eat broken glass if it meant Lina'd be happy" personalities of the others. He falls for Lina as hard and fast as the others, but he alone manages to restrain himself because he reasons that the sunny, sparkly Goddess of Spring deserves better than the somber, emo God of the Underworld. Lina tries on at least TWO occasions to jump his immortal bones and he refuses because she deserves better than a quick tumble. Still, most of my goodwill towards him dissolves at the end, when he makes the same bonehead, inexplicable, inexcusable mistake TWICE in the span of a chapter just to add some much needed, but last-minute conflict. Sadly, because it came so late, and without so much as an augmentation of tension for a lead-in, the one time something bad actually happens to Lina it feels as contrived and fake as the rest of the entire novel.

Part of the reason I'm angry is that I'm not new to P.C. Cast's work, nor am I unfamiliar with her unique literary charms. I loved Divine By Mistake and Divine by Choice. Hell, in the latter novel she managed to satisfactorily explain away rape and adultery performed by the novel's good guys, and that's saying something. The protagonists of all three novels are middle-aged women who are zapped into magical worlds where they're treated like royalty, but still get to use their modern-day skills. However, Rhia had to confront some pretty nasty problems and use her inherent smarts and daring to overcome them. Conversely, Lina wasn't challenged by anything. It was all ointment and no fly. I never really got a sense of the strength and goodness that everyone else seemed to see because she never got the opportunity to express such talents under real pressure.

I still have Goddess of Light, unread, on my bookshelf, which deals with the god Apollo (who actually had a couple of funny cameos in this book). While I eventually will get around to reading it, I'm going to wait and let the cloying sweetness of Goddess of Springtime leave my mouth before giving it a go. Meanwhile, Goddess of Springtime gets a C+.