Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ya learn something new everyday...

Psst, readers, let me tell you one of my quirky flaws - sometimes I mispronounce words. I know what they mean because I read about them often, but they're the types of names or words that don't come up often in conversation with me (either because I'm a poor listener or I'm socially rather awkward), so I have an idea in my head of how they should sound that really isn't how they're pronounced. My family jokes about it quite a bit.

I used to pronounce "doctrines" as "doc-treens" instead of "doc-trins."

I used to pronounce the last name in "Simon and Schuster" as "shuster" instead of "shooster."

And, just now, reading an interview at The Good, the Bad, and The Unread, I discovered my favourite romance author, whom I've been pimping out to friends and other romance readers in person as well as online, pronounces her last name an entirely different way than I do.

Random Friend: "Recommend any books?"

Me: "Yeah, how about The Secret Pearl by Mary BAH-LOW."


I dunno, I remember reading Mary Balogh's website and how her last name is Welsh, and perhaps I confused that with Gaelic, which uses a lot of consonants in ways they really aren't supposed to (hate elementary school teachers? Give your kid's name Gaelic spelling), and I also thought of words like slough and through and eventually narrowed it down (in my head) to an "oh" sound, or a "oh" sound with a weird little cough at the end.

According to the author herself, it's actually pronounced "Bah-log."

Reeeeeaally glad I figured that out before the RWA National Conference.

"Second Sight," by Amanda Quick

Alternate Title: Keeping Up with the Joneses

The Chick: Venetia Milton, a.k.a. "Venetia Jones." A struggling but talented photographer whose family depends on her income, when her latest wealthy client dies after paying her a kingly sum (and sharing a night of passion with her), in tribute to him she takes on his last name to start up her own photography business as a respectable widow.
The Rub: She's less than pleased when said client (Gabriel Jones), comes back from the dead and tells the public he's her long-lost husband.
Dream Casting: Lost in Austen's Morven Christie.

The Dude: Gabriel Jones. As a member of the Arcane Society -- a club of sorts for paranormal enthusiasts (and those with paranormal abilities) -- he faked his own death to flush out a thief who tried to steal a valuable alchemical formula from him. When Venetia's inopportune name-change foils his plans (supposedly), he declares himself Venetia's long-lost husband in order to protect her from those who might want to use her to get to him.
The Rub: Venetia refuses to listen to his perfectly rational, controlling demands! Also, he possesses psychic abilities he's not entirely comfortable with.
Dream Casting: Christian Bale.

The Plot:
Gabriel: You take great photos.

Venetia: Love me! Love me, you impetuous fool! *glomp*

Gabriel: Uh ... sure.

One Day Later

Gabriel *dies* (*OR DOES HE?*)

Venetia: Wow, that sucks - might as well use his name for respectibility, though. Hi, everyone! I'm Mrs Jones!

Gabriel: *back from dead* Hi, everyone, I'm her husband!

Venetia: Um, WTF, dude?

Gabriel: By taking the name Jones, you put yourself in great danger! You basically told the world you were my widow!

Venetia: I thought I was telling the world that I had one of England's most popular last names, actually.

Gabriel: Take a tip from me - you're prettier with your mouth closed. Let me do all the manly protecting and work!

Evil Killer: *bitten by snake while Gabriel gets ass kicked*

Evil Killer's Evil Girlfriend: *tricked by Venetia then pushed off a bridge by random secondary character*

Venetia: Yeah, you're sure doing a lot of protecting, all right.

Gabriel: Shut up and marry me.

Venetia: Okely dokely.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Fake Widow

Various Psychic Abilities

2 Counts of Muuuuurder

1 Alchemical MacGuffin

1 Bout of Car Sex (Victorian Equivalent)

Several Sweet Tranvestites

1 Duplicitous Solicitor

1 Evil Whore

2 Precocious Siblings

The Word: Second Sight opens with a prologue in which Gabriel Jones, our hero, and his cousin unearth the tomb of an ancient alchemist who, incidentally, founded the Arcane Society - the Victorian England Psychics'R'Us club that both the Jones boys are members of. Inside, they find a heavy strongbox with only an aged notebook inside that supposedly contains a formula capable of heightening psychic abilities. The Jones cousins don't get a good look at it, as almost immediately the book is stolen.

Sometime later, Gabriel Jones hires Venetia Milton, a budding photographer, to take pictures of some of the important Arcane Society artefects at his secretly secret isolated estate. While the gal takes good photos, she's secretly planning how to get into Gabriel's pants, for yes, she's one of those everyday, run-of-the-mill Victorian virgins who believe it's perfectly alright to have no-strings-attached sex with a near-complete stranger with no consequences. Where do romance heroines get these ideas?

Anyway, Gabriel finds nothing amiss about his Victorian virgin photographer's attempted seduction and promptly tumbles her. However, after a good bout of mattress dancing, Gabriel spots some intruders on his property and hustles Venetia out a secret passageway while he deals with the criminals himself. Venetia opens the paper the next day and discovers his death notice.

Thanks to Mr Jones' admirable habit of paying his photography bills in advance, Venetia now has enough cash to start her own studio. Deciding to pose as a widow to appear more respectable, she enters the London photography scene as Mrs Jones, as a subtle tribute to her deceased deflower-er.

She soons becomes a smashing success, but her plans go awry when the formerly-former Gabriel Jones re-appears in public, perfectly alive, and happily telling reporters that he's Venetia's husband. Reunited, he explains that the thieves who broke onto his estate tried to steal the strongbox (the one from the prologue). Since the notebook with the formula in it was already stolen, he assumes the box (or, more likely, the bizarre recipe carved onto its lid) is still somehow relevant to the formula. After moving the strongbox into storage, he faked his own death in an attempt to flush out the thief, but then someone had to impersonate his widow and ruin all his plans and now he has to force his way into her life to protect her and find the thief at the same time.

In a nutshell, he believes the dudes who came after him for the strongbox will now go after her - either to get to Gabriel himself through their marital ties, or to snatch any photographs she may have taken of the box.

This was the aspect of the plotline that threw me the most. First of all, Venetia never explicitly proclaims herself as Gabriel Jones' widow. She just calls herself Mrs Jones, never giving a husband's name, thinking (rightfully), that Jones is a popular, commonplace last name that really only carries a special significance for her. Gabriel, however, immediately jumps to the conclusion that she's intentionally posing as his widow. He then assumes that every villain will identify London's newest Mrs Jones as his widow as well - again, despite the fact that Jones is an exceedingly popular name, Venetia isn't even part of Gabriel's social circle, and their business interactions were confidential.

Secondly, I was bothered by the fact that Gabriel's plan to pose as Venetia's husband doesn't leave her with an exit strategy. Venetia is a talented photographer, but she's also a woman in society, and even the tiniest smudge on her reputation could damage or even cripple her career. Once Gabriel's business is finished, there's no way he can explain away posing as her husband (and moving into her house) that won't ruin her reputation. When he's actually questioned about this by a relative of Venetia's, Gabriel explains, "Oh, well hopefully she'll marry me for real." Which just plained bugged me, because essentially from the outset he leaves Venetia no other choice but to marry him, if she wants keep herself and her family out of ruin and poverty. Hawt.

Thirdly, Gabriel bemoans Venetia's thoughtlessness in drawing the villains' attention upon herself by claiming kinship with him by taking his name, and yet never thinks that he's doing the exact same thing (only much more effectively) by publically coming out as her husband. I mean, think like a villain: which would convince you more that Venetia is the wife of Gabriel Jones - the fact that she now has the last name Jones, or the proclamation Gabriel makes in the newspapers naming her as his wife? I mean, really. It's like Gabriel caught Venetia playing with matches in a wooden building, and decided to burn down the building to keep her from setting fire to it.

Once I recovered from this whoppingly contrived set-up, however, the progression of the mystery isn't that bad. Amanda Quick goes into some interesting detail about late nineteenth-century photography and introduces it into the setting and Venetia's lifestyle without resorting to infodumping. During the course of Venetia and Gabriel's search to find the thief, a lot of Venetia's photography expertise comes in handy.

That being said, I'd more categorize this novel as inoffensive than actually good. Venetia and Gabriel, once they finish their convoluted and unrealistic actions that introduce the story, aren't annoying or brash or irritatingly anachronistic - but they're not that interesting, either. When they're not explicitly furthering the plot, they're kind of blank.

In Venetia's case, she's supposed to be the sole provider for a family that's always been threatened by scandal. Venetia and her younger brother and sister enjoyed a normal life until their parents died and it was revealed her father was a bigamist - he already had a wife and kids squirrelled away elsewhere, meaning Venetia and her sibs were legally illegitimate. Not only that, but their dad's evil solicitor ran off with their inheritance and there wasn't a thing they could do about it without revealing their true status and socially dooming themselves. The only thing that kept them from poverty was Venetia's photography.

However, this never came into play with her character - I expected someone in her position to be more stressed, more dedicated - and particularly, more restrained. I never bought her anachronistic "I-deserve-one-night-of-passion" bullshit at the novel's beginning - this was before she even had a studio and still worked freelance, for Pete's sake! Given her situation, she had way too much to lose (like her family's entire financial future) by throwing herself on Gabriel, and what's worse is that her seduction of Gabriel is premeditated so the whole "spur-of-the-moment" excuse doesn't work either.

As well, the whole bigamist storyline seemed kind of pointless - there are a myriad ways to lose a fortune in 19th century England that are less flamboyant than this, and there seemed to be no particular use for it. You'd think the heartbreak of learning her father's marriage to her mother was false would have some sort of effect on how Venetia deals with her own pretend relationship with Gabriel, but it never comes up. I think I was more annoyed that Quick added the bigamist past and didn't make use of the obvious conflict than the fact that she employed a bigamist past in the first place.

The only real result of the bigamist storyline seems to concern the poorly-developed character of Venetia's little brother Edward - a boy we are told is ten but acts and is treated more like he's six (he thinks Daddy's a "big mist" - isn't that cute for a kindergartener?). Edward's sisters and aunt won't let him play with other children for fear he'll blurt out their secret uncontrollably (what, does he have 19th century Tourette's?), which proves to be a valid reason as he does blurt out his secret to Gabriel after about five minutes. But his loneliness allows Edward and Gabriel to bond, which immediately marks Gabriel as Good Husband Material.

Also, we have the whole plotline of paranormal abilities that, while it never bothered me, never appeared particularly important. Venetia can see auras and Gabriel, uh, can "smell the psychical spoor of violence," but both abilities are essentially window dressing. The characters don't really need them to solve the case and the instances where they do use their powers rarely give them any extra insight or advantage.

Gabriel's power ("violent spoor smelling"?) in particular is poorly developed - it's weakly hinted at the beginning that Gabriel is ashamed of his powers and thinks they're evil, but he never employs them enough to really explain why. He doesn't think of his powers that often, and he explicitly uses them all of four times in the entire novel, so the 11th-hour revelation that Gabriel considers himself a monster comes off as a paltry ploy to milk some angst out of an otherwise whitebread character.

However, all things considered, this book turned out much better than I was expecting. I didn't know precisely what it would be like reading Amanda Quick (a.k.a Jayne Ann Krentz), but my last experience with a romance novel by an author with a huge backlist purchased from a remainders bookstore didn't go so well.

Second Sight
was well-written and moderately interesting, and full of interesting historical detail. I enjoyed reading it - its flaws mildly irritated me, whereas more annoying problems would have had me throwing the book at the wall (or, in my head, arguing, slapping, and beating some sense into the characters). Still, the characters came across more like blank slabs of clay shaped and coloured by how the plot had to progress, rather then as characters in their own right with distinct personalities and abilities that moved the plot forward naturally with their realistic motivations and decisions. B-.

Monday, February 23, 2009

"Broken Wing," by Judith James

Alternate Title: The Male Prostitute...He Goes To Work With Only His One Tool

The Chick:
Sarah, Lady Munroe. When her investigators tracked her missing little brother Jamie to an infamous brothel, she assumed the worst. When she finds out that Gabriel St. Croix, the whorehouse's prime attraction, kept the boy safe for five years, she's overcome with sincerest gratitude ... and maybe something more.
The Rub: While she adores Gabriel practically from the get-go, even she can't ignore the fact that he's seriously damaged goods. Also, just because her other family members are grateful towards Gabriel for protecting Jamie, it doesn't mean they're going to be all sunshine-and-butterflies about their beloved Sarah falling for a seasoned streetwhore.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Gabriel St. Croix. Abandoned at the brothel at a young age, he endured a lifetime of sexual and physical abuse to get where he is today. He protected Jamie not only to keep him from experiencing what Gabriel had, but also to give himself an emotional connection in a world that's otherwise dead and bleak to him. When Jamie's family offers Gabriel a place to stay and a wealthy sum in return for his actions, he accepts, seeing a way to free himself from prostitution, if not from the emotional emptiness that tears him up inside.
The Rub: He, too, almost immediately falls for Sarah, but his upbringing has made it difficult, if not impossible, to separate lust from love. He simply can't get his head around how Sarah could possibly love him, broken and used as he is.
Dream Casting: Dominic Cooper.

The Plot:
Sarah: Jamie! You're safe and pedo-free! How can this be?

Jamie: *points to Gabriel*

Gabriel: Hi! I'm an empty shell who drinks to make myself feel dead and cuts to make myself feel alive!

Ross, Sarah's Brother: Hey, dude, thanks for saving my brother and all. Want ten thousand pounds?

Gabriel: I'm kinda paid by the hour.

Ross: ...

Sarah: Oh, Gabriel, I love you!

Gabriel: Gee thanks, I want to fuck you, too.

Sarah: That's not what I mean, silly.

Gabriel: Oh, well then, I love you too!

Sarah: Hooray--

Gabriel: But now I have to go on a perilous sea voyage to earn your respect!

Sarah: But you already have--

Gabriel: BYEBYENOW *absconds* *vanishes*

Sarah: SHIT.

Several Years Later

Sarah: You're alive?!

Gabriel: Uh, yeah, I kinda got broken again.

Sarah: Oh you big silly! Come here, you!

Gabriel: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Lady In Pants

1 Broken Man Ho

1 Rascally Pirate Cousin

1 Evil Uncle (deceased)

1 Very Bad Husband (deceased)

1 Evil Gay Slaver

1 Bitchy Fake Mistress

2 Hot Dudes Who Will Be Getting Sequels, yesssss? (Jacques Valmont and William Killigrew)

The Plot: Kristie J from Ramblings on Romance read this book, adored it, and quickly started a quest where she enthusiastically pimped this novel to friends and fellow bloggers. Er...maybe pimped is an inappropriate term, given the contents of this novel.

Our hero Gabriel St. Croix is a whore, and has been ever since he was abandoned outside a Parisian brothel when he was only a child. Exploited and victimized ever since, he works and behaves with an icy detachment enabled through copious drink and self-mutilation, his only ambition to earn enough money to get himself out of the brothel and take himself somewhere nice where he can forcibly end his suffering for good.

For the last five years however, he maintained one tenuous link to humanity and compassion: Jamie, a child also abandoned to the dubious parenting abilities of the whorehouse by shady characters. Gabriel dedicated himself to protecting the boy, sacrificing his own comfort, dignity and body to convince the brothel owners to leave Jamie alone. However, Gabriel doesn't consider himself a philanthropist or a hero - in his eyes, his defense of Jamie was as wretched, desperate, and self-serving as all of his other actions, performed only to keep himself connected to companionship he doesn't deserve.

When, miraculously, relatives of Jamie's come all the way over from England to rescue the boy, Gabriel writhes in selfish, irrational hatred directed at the wealthy johnny-come-latelies here to take Jamie away from him.

Jamie's sister Sarah, and half-brother Ross, Earl of Huntington, are overjoyed to have found their brother after five years of fruitless searching. Their formerly close-knit family was torn in all directions by a conniving uncle who desired the title for himself: he left Ross to languish as an unransomed prisoner of war, married Sarah off to a vicious old man, and arranged for Jamie's kidnapping and subsequent abandonment at the brothel.

Both Sarah and Ross are doubly grateful to Gabriel for protecting Jamie from the horrors of prostitution. While Ross is leery of forming too close an acquaintance with a seasoned whore and would rather just pay the thoughtful catamite and take off, Jamie (who, now ten years old, spent half of his life under Gabriel's care) is frightened to leave the only guardian he can remember. Sarah hits on the idea of hiring Gabriel for a year to be Jamie's companion and help ease the child back into normal life, with a lucrative reward to be bestowed upon him at the end of his service.

Gabriel accepts their proposition, but he's accustomed to believing the hand that feeds him hides another hand that wants to do other things in return. Sarah falls for him right from the start - initially out of simple gratitude for protecting her brother from a terrible fate, but gradually more for the tender personality she occasionally spots peeping out from beneath his horrid web of scar tissue. However, Gabriel is at first harsh and cutting with her - entirely unused to love, he interprets her avid interest as lust and tries to play the whore to scare her off.

Sarah, however, refuses to be driven away, and the first third of the novel unfolds in a delicate, wonderful, unhurried fashion as the two slowly warm to each other, albeit not without some awkwardness. Sarah's love for Gabriel fascinates and terrifies him both, and he ends up revealing more and more about his past - thinking something eventually will disgust her enough to make her give up trying, but it backfires as the stories he considers sickening or indicative of his own weak and degraded nature only convince Sarah of his strength and courage that allowed him to emerge sane from such horrific experiences.

Sarah, meanwhile, gives her love openly and without compunction, but holds back on her lust. She does lust after pretty, pretty Gabriel (and who wouldn't?), but she's wary of revealing this to him or trying to act on it - the last thing she wants is to appear to be anything like the people who used and abused Gabriel for their own pleasure. As their relationship progresses and Gabriel starts making tentative moves on her, her reluctance to engage physically creates more misunderstanding and conflict the two have to work out.

The first third of this novel really involved me - the writing was simple but elegant, the characters were unconventional but not anachronistically so, and the conflict intricate, internal, and realistic. Gabriel is a character who has grown used to rigidly compartmentalizing his life, to the point where he almost has two personalities - he has his Real personality, a man who is warm and vulnerable but realistic, and then he has his Whore personality, a guarded, icy creature who performs with mechanical but emotionless precision. While his actual personality eventually befriends Sarah, when it comes to love, he automatically resorts to his Whore personality.

Sarah could have annoyed me - she's another one of those historical heroines who wear pants just for the heck of it, but James provides a realistic motivation for her behaviour that doesn't leave her as a 21st-century woman in a 19th-century story. Sarah intentionally ostracized herself from Society when she fled her abusive husband's house to help look for Ross and Jamie with her cousin Davey, and since she's ruined already, she simply sees no point in wearing uncomfortable clothes when there's no one to please. Her release from societal rules has left her incredibly confident and tolerant, which makes her the ideal candidate to try and introduce love and compassion to Gabriel, without setting off his knee-jerk Whore instincts.

That being said, despite all the wonderfulness, this only lasts for the first third of the book. Many times while I was reading this, I got the impression that Broken Wing might have made a better novella than a novel. The novel has a beautiful, unique setting (which even takes place out of England at points, le gasp!), beautiful writing, a great hero - but a plot structure that, if not outright contrived, is at least unfocused.

A lot of the goodwill engendered by the first third of the novel is drained in the second, where the narrative sags under a near complete lack of conflict. In the first part of the novel, Gabriel and Sarah explore love, but in the second part, they've found it already and just want to make it perfectly clear to everyone who is reading that they are IN LOVE and are PERFECT FOR EACH OTHER and ARE HAVING A FABULOUS TIME PURSUING A NUMBER OF INTERESTS. The second part of this novel was like reading someone else's vacation diary - "look at how much fun we're having!" - which left me bored and not a little concerned that I still had half a novel to go before the end.

I suppose by the end of this second act, Judith James must have realized it too, as at the start of the third act she introduces a conflict in a disappointingly contrived fashion: Gabriel decides to go privateering with Sarah's cousin Davey in order to earn his own fortune because, apparently, along with the confidence and improved self-image Sarah's company has given him, he's also acquired the Alpha Male tendency to never be happy unless he's paying for everything. It doesn't matter that she's a countess with a fortune of her own, oh no.

This third act, in which Gabriel is washed overboard and held captive by slavers and mercenaries, is altogether the weakest of the novel. Its tone and setting (especially its violence), is a vast change from the gentle, subtle wonders of the first act. This wouldn't have been such a problem if Gabriel and Sarah ended up achieving, improving from, or learning anything from the flamboyant drama of this last section, but instead it plays almost like a prequel to the events of the novel's introduction. Gabriel, captured by an evil former "employer," essentially falls off the wagon and becomes addicted to emo again, reverting completely to his belief that he's too dirty and broken and twisted for Sarah to love so there's no point in going back to her.

And when Sarah and Gabriel inevitably reunite years later, what we get is a condensed, Cole's Notes version of the first act when Sarah has to convince Gabriel that he's worthy of love, again, and forgive him of all of his faults, again. Only this time around this has to happen within the short span of a few pages (make way for the HEA!), and all the subtlety and nuance of Gabriel's conversion in the novel's first act goes out the window. Gabriel comes around (again) to Sarah's confidence in him far too quickly for a man who's spent the last several years re-convincing himself of his innate Whore-ableness. And for Sarah's part, I felt Sarah forgave Gabriel too easily with only a disturbingly token amount of betrayal. For a woman who had to spend the last couple of years sitting on her ass twiddling her thumbs because Gabriel fell off the deep end, I expected her to kick Gabriel's ass a bit more before humping him with wild abandon.

That being said, this novel was still a pleasure to read. Judith James has a knack for language that kept the prose (if not the plotting) lush without being purple. While I love me some Regency England, I enjoyed exploring settings outside the British Isles, her incorporation of historical events into the narrative, and her cosmopolitan cast. I still think Broken Wing could have been better plotted, and might have worked better in a shorter format, but while this book doesn't make the A grade I'll definitely be on the look-out for her next books. B.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"Romancing Mister Bridgerton," by Julia Quinn

Alternate Title: Pump Up the Volume, Regency-Style!

Spoiler Warning: Okay, I always warn about spoilers on my blog, but this one has a doozy that effects the previous three books of the Bridgerton series. If you're just getting into the series now - THIS HAS SPOILERS THAT AFFECT YOUR BOOKS. You have been warned. That is all.

The Chick: Penelope Featherington. Thanks to various personal problems over the years (weight issues, ugly dresses, skin problems, and shyness), she remained a perpetual wallflower and has accustomed herself with surprising contentment to the life of a spinster. Now twenty-eight and firmly on the shelf, she still has a crush on Colin Bridgerton, but believes nothing could ever come of it.
The Rub: One day, she stumbles upon Colin's private travel journals - and discovers they're actually good. Her passionate approval of them surprises Colin and makes him pay closer attention to her ... which puts secrets of her own at risk.
Dream Casting: Ginnifer Goodwin.

The Dude: Colin Bridgerton. Renowned for his rascally, charming ways and frequent travels out of England, he could charm the petticoats off of half the ton with his famous crooked grin. However, he feels strangely unfulfilled, until the woman he's known for years discovers and praises the writing talent he's suppressed.
The Rub: He's more used to taking Penelope for granted than for falling in love with her, and has to reevaluate his entire estimation of her when she reveals hidden reserves of wit, fire, and talent.
Dream Casting: Zachary Levi.

The Plot:
Penelope: Woe is me! I'm a spinster with an unrequited love!

Colin: Woe is me! I'm handsome, rich and popular, and yet strangely unfulfilled!

Penelope: Oh come on. Suck it up and grow a pair, why don't you?

Colin: *blink blink* You have pretty lips and boobies. And a spine! WHY HAVEN'T I NOTICED THAT BEFORE?

Penelope: Beats me! Oh, and I'm Lady Whistledown, too.

Colin: OMGWTFBBQ??! (copyright Smart Bitches) Ahem, well, that doesn't matter, because I love you!

Penelope: Oh good! I love you too!

Colin: Thanks to your support, I'm publishing my travel journals!

Penelope: And thanks to your love, I'm writing my first novel called - The Wallflower.

Colin: - NO, it can't be!

Penelope: Oh yes it can - on top of being Lady Whistledown, I am also secretly *rips off disguise* LISA KLEYPAS!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Rascally Rake

1 On-The-Shelf Spinster

1 Secret Talent

1 Secret Identity

1 Bitchy Blackmailer

1 Nosy BFF

1 Not-Very-Supportive Mother

1 Obvious Sequel Set Up (Eloise and her mysterious letters)

The Word: Back when I set out to read Lord of Scoundrels, one Anonymous Commenter warned me off it, and suggested I read Romancing Mr Bridgerton instead. Both novels, written by excellent historical romance authors at the peak of their abilities, have been hyped to high heaven. I already have high regard for what I've read of the Bridgerton series, so when many commenters and reviewers said they thought RMB was the best of the bunch, that notched my expectations for this novel significantly higher. Did it measure up? Read on.

Each Bridgerton novel I've read has had a cohesive theme that drives the romance, and RMB is no exception. Essentially, this novel is about taking things and people for granted. This theme is particularly suited to this story because the characters are ones that readers of the first three books should be familiar with: Colin (the rascally younger brother who pops up in all three books to cause mischief) and Penelope (the tragicomic best friend who hasn't a hope in hell of attracting a man because she's either fat, pimply, shy, or wearing a dress in a horrid colour). These two characters are not only known to Julia Quinn readers, but they're known to each other - or at least, they think they know each other.

When RMB begins, however, Penelope's Season days are far behind her: she's now content to be a twenty-eight-year-old spinster happily on the shelf right next to her BFF Eloise Bridgerton (also a spinster, albeit by choice rather than circumstance). Despite her utter lack of prospects, she's far happier now that no one expects anything of her than she ever was during her Seasons. The only fly in her ointment is her everlasting love for Colin. Oh, Colin, Colin, Colin. He's so dreamy and perfect and popular and handsome. But someone so pretty and flawless could never fall for an ugly duckling like me!

Penelope's thoughts tread a lot along this path until she accidentally comes across Colin's private travel journals, and discovers they're actually quite good. She also discovers, when Colin comes in and catches her, that he never had any intention of showing his journals to anyone and, despite his charming behaviour during social engagements, is as perfectly capable of throwing a temper tantrum as anyone else. While Colin takes great pleasure in his journal, he never planned to show it to anyone else, suspecting they might just emptily praise him because he's a popular Bridgerton rather than for his actual merit, and what he's always wanted ever since he can remember is to have an actual purpose in life other than to be popular and well-liked...

Wait, wait, wait - did I just accidentally pick up An Offer from a Gentleman? Isn't Benedict Bridgerton supposed to be the sibling with the artistic talent he's kept private, who, as a younger son, feels dissatisfied with his lack of definable purpose and identity? Am I having literary deja vu?

As it turns out, dear readers, I am not - Colin, more or less, has the same personal problems as Benedict. Only he's distressingly whinier and less subtle about it.

Of course, his hissy fit breaks Penelope's shiny perfect picture of him. He's a Bridgerton, and for years Penelope just assumed he lived a charmed life of oblivious happiness. She'd never thought he could be pissy, or petty, or jealous, or whiny. SURPRISE! And of course, when Penelope finally speaks her mind and praises his writing skills while at the same time giving him a scathing "I wish I had your problems, so quit your bitching" speech, Colin finds himself forced to reevaluate his image of Penelope that he's taken for granted all these years.

Their relationship takes another turn when a popular society matron offers a thousand pounds to whomever can unmask Lady Whistledown, a popular anonymous gossip columnist who's offended/entertained the ton for a decade without ever revealing her true identity. When a mean-spirited attention whore claims that she's Lady Whistledown, Colin catches Penelope in the act of delivering Lady W's final column that refutes the bitchface's claim.

Cue a chorus of "Whaaaaaaaaaat? Penelope is Lady Whistledown? No WAY!" Way. I had to admit I had a really hard time believing it at first. Julia Quinn set herself the incredibly difficult task of conveying events from Penelope's point of view without revealing that she's Lady Whistledown, even during scenes where Lady Whistledown's identity is the primary focus of the conversation. I actually found myself flipping back to all these scenes to see if she slipped up. While the writing's not necessarily on the wall, there are clues, albeit subtle ones, and most of these spring from Penelope's behaviour and how she reacts to certain comments.

Anyway, as believable or unbelievable as this may be, it does open up some interesting territory in RMB's romantic development. Colin and Penelope have known each other for so long that each has become the other's constant, in a way. To Penelope, no matter how dreary or humiliating her life became, she could count on Colin to always be confident and cheerful with a roguish grin on his face. Colin, meanwhile, seemed content to consider Penelope a particularly well-spoken and tasteful piece of window dressing.

Penelope's rude awakening that Colin has insecurities and asshat tendencies is not much of a jump, but Colin's reevaluation of Penelope is something to see. Coming to grips with the idea that Penelope might have feelings and opinions that actually matter is trying enough on the poor chap, but to discover that Penelope is not only capable of higher brain function, but is better at something than he is, is a new experience entirely.

Julia Quinn mines fertile (and rarely tilled) ground as the true impact of Colin's newfound love for Penelope sinks in. Unlike his married siblings, he doesn't have the chance to make a first impression, or a second, third, or thirty-third impression. He doesn't possess the luxury of showing only his best side, or editing his background. He doesn't get the meet-cute, or the misunderstanding, or (obviously) love at first sight. Realization dawns on him that he's let ten years' worth of chances with her go by, and that she already knows the best and worst of him, so the only chance he has now is to be taken as he is. He also has to come to terms with his misplaced pity for her. Frankly, there were times when thought of her as Poor Little Penelope (mainly because she often intentionally acts like Poor Little Penelope) - but now that he's head over heels in love with Poor Little Penelope, what does that make him?

That being said, I found RMB to be nowhere near as entertaining as An Offer from a Gentleman. The main (or, I should say, first) reason for this is that Colin - who was such a uniquely mischievous presence in the previous novels - comes off as terribly uninteresting in his own book. He was so much fun in the previous novels, and when the backcover blurb promised that he had a "secret," I was psyched. Yeah! Mischievous man-boy Colin has a secret! And it's...

A secret diary? Really? Who are you, Anne Frank? And a hidden artistic talent? What, again? Colin's predicament and sense of poor-little-rich-boy ennui is so obviously similar to Benedict's, and so much more poorly written, that it completely deflates the image built up for him by the previous books. At the very least, he deserved his own hang-up! I mean, in his extensive travels, he could have come across any number of problems - a rare disease, witnessing a crime, bankruptcy, a secret baby, anything but the same thing that plagued the hero in the book right before this one! It deeply disappointed me that a character who was such a memorable fixture in the previous books couldn't have an inner conflict uniquely suited to his character.

And on top of that, I never found Penelope's personality to be in sync with that of Lady Whistledown. Whistledown's columns opened every chapter of the Bridgerton novels leading up to this one, and they're all sarcastic, witty, and mature. Penelope, on the other hand, comes off as a marshmellow with sparkly eyes and chipmunk cheeks who uses the words "magical" and "soul" far too often. The idea, of course, behind Lady Whistledown is the Pump Up the Volume-esque idea that Lady W says all the things that Penelope is too shy and tongue-tied to say herself, but I didn't always buy it. Even when she's being "lively," she's a little too gooey for my taste, and a shade too cutesy to convince me she's responsible for Lady W's no-nonsense prose. I often found her actions, thoughts, and behaviour corresponded with someone much younger than she's supposed to be.

Also, the secondary characters (read: the other Bridgertons and their significant others) threaten to overcrowd important scenes with banter that becomes inane rather quickly (imagine two pages of a discussion on the metaphorical significance of glue). I kinda wanted to smack Hyacinth Bridgerton, but she wasn't nearly as irritating as Eloise, who comes off a shrill gossipy hypocrite who latches on with the unwanted tenacity of a bulldog to reveal other people's secrets but gets all huffy and offended when people ask after hers.

However, there were many good points to this novel. Again, Julia Quinn focuses more on dialogue and relationship dynamics than wacky twists of fate - when Colin stops navel-gazing and Penelope forgets to be sugary, their interactions are fairly entertaining. I enjoyed how ten years worth of taking each other for granted hampered their relationship, and how they have to overcome it. Penelope, without being a total dishrag, is so used to being socially rescued by the Bridgertons that she automatically assumes most of Colin's initial romantic overtures are performed out of pity. Colin, himself, is used to pitying Penelope.

Julia Quinn, thankfully, doesn't perform the mistake that many lesser authors have done by retconning this with convenient "Oh, I never really pitied you, I could always sense the spirited fire of your fiery spirit that you kept hidden" bullshit. Colin actually did pity Penelope and take her for granted for years and Quinn doesn't sugarcoat it or try to write it off, but instead uses it to spice his growing conflict as he realizes how incredibly wrong he was. His realization leaves him with real guilt and horror at how many times over the last decade he could have lost her forever without ever knowing what he could have had, and this inspires him to rather delightful feats of romantic forcefulness - particularly during my favourite scene in the novel, where Colin tries to announce his engagement to Penelope in front of her family, and finds this a more difficult task than he expected.

However, I'm sorry to say that my dear Anonymous Commenter is going to be very disappointed in me - I loved Lord of Scoundrels (and she did not), and, unfortunately, I wasn't overly impressed with Romancing Mister Bridgerton. While Julia Quinn's writing style is still lovely and some memorable scenes had me giggling, I had certain expectations for this novel that (whether they were fair or no) weren't met. Much of Colin's conflict felt like a re-tread of An Offer from a Gentleman (a book whose status as the Best of the Bridgertons remains unchallenged), and what original conflict remained wasn't enough to sustain my interest in the entire novel. B.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

"Dead Until Dark," by Charlaine Harris

Alternate Title: Oh No! Vampire Bill!

The Chick:
Sookie Stackhouse. A waitress in northern Louisiana, she falls for Bill, the new vampire in town, because not only is he dreamy and mysterious, but she's somehow unable to read his thoughts like she can with everyone else.
The Rub: With a killer on the loose murdering vampire groupies, now's not the best time to be dating the undead.
Dream Casting: Not today - I just based it on the casting from the HBO show.

The Dude: Bill Compton, a.k.a. "Vampire Bill." A Civil War-era vamp, he's trying to "mainstream it" (i.e. try to live openly and peacefully with humans), and feels a strange attraction to Sookie - a perky blond waitress who isn't the least afraid of him.
The Rub: Um, while Bill may be a gentleman, not all of his fellow vamps are keen on toeing the line. And some of those non-toeing-line vamps are keen on Sookie, too.

The Plot:

Bill: Hi, I'm a vampire!

Sookie: I LOVE BILL!

Bill: I love you too, Sookie.

*several people die*


Bill: Um, okay?


Bill: Because I'm WHIPPED, that's why!

Sookie: Oh alright, I love you again.

Bill: Hooray!

Romance Novel Conventions

2 Alluring Vampires

1 Perky Blonde Waitress

Several Murders

Several Quarts of Blood

Several Misunderstandings

The Word: Reading Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark was a bit of a let-down for me. To be fair, I didn't have the highest expectations for the novel as I whole. I got burned out of vampire romances early while reviewing novels for Green Man, and I never really got back in the groove. Vampire romances on TV have been fine - but the books I left by the wayside in favour of different fare. With Dead Until Dark, I watched the show first (True Blood), and one of my friends lent me a copy of the book after I talked about it, so this review is going to end up being someone comparative between the two.

In the world of the novel, vampires have just come out of the "coffin," thanks to new synthetic blood that makes feeding on humans unnecessary (or at least not as necessary), and they're now recognized as legal citizens with all the rights that regular human beings have. However, there are still a few bumps in the road to peace between humans and vampires, namely:

1. Not all humans are keen on welcoming vampires with open arms, and

2. Not all vampires are keen on restraining themselves to "mainstream" it - i.e. stop feeding on unwilling humans and try to live normal human lives.

In the middle of this political mess is Sookie, a young waitress living in Bon Temps, Louisiana who "enjoys" quirky outcast status thanks to her gift for reading people's minds. In fact, she doesn't refer to it as a gift - she calls it a "disability," which isn't entirely inaccurate. Because of the effort it takes to keep everyone's thoughts at bay and the incredible awkwardness of being forced to hear every date's private thought, she's curtailed her social life to practically nothing. Nearly everyone else in Bon Temps thinks she's harmless but crazy, except for her manager Sam, her waitress friend Arlene, her womanizing brother Jason, and her grandma.

When Bill strolls into town, Sookie immediately pegs him for a vampire and is entranced by a particular trait of his - it's not his pallor, or his fangs, or any other of the creepy vampire characteristics that have made "fang-bangers" (slutty vampire groupies) such a national punchline. When she looks at him, she hears .... complete and total silence. She's completely unable to hear what he's thinking, and it's a huge relief. Think of this as a gender-reversed Twilight attraction, if you will.

Bill starts to feel the same way about her, but both have to come to terms with the unexpected obstacles in their relationship - Bill can only come out at night, the other vampires he hangs out with aren't exactly the friendly type, human society isn't quite as welcoming of vampires as Sookie is, and someone in the town of Bon Temps has started murdering vampire groupies in gruesome ways.

I'll just come out and says this right away: I liked the TV show better. Gasp! Shock! That being said, the show wasn't perfect, either - some parts were painfully cheesy, while others were really entertaining. But either way, whether this will enrage Charlaine Harris' fans or not, I felt the show (in most ways) dealt with vampire culture and dating and the integration into the community better than the book did.

First of all, I notice that Charlaine Harris, or at least the narration of her main character Sookie, uses a lot of passive language and passive description. This left me feeling left out of the action, at a distance from what was going on, and as a result I was bored and uninterested. As well, while the vampires "coming out of the closet" is mentioned once in the beginning, the book never goes into any great detail on this fact - like, what are vampires doing all over the world? How is the government reacting to vampires? How are vampires getting jobs? Sookie claims to know a lot about vampires, but a lot of what she hears is vague, hearsay, or just plain wrong - which doesn't make sense in a society that has just accepted vampires and wants to know more about them.

True, you could argue that, as a humble Southern waitress, Sookie can't be expected to know everything - but she could at least hear something. We get nothing. The show, on the other hand, used a lot of clever ways to show how vampires were being accepted into the community (or not) - with everything from fake commercials for synthetic blood ("This blood's for you!"), clips of religious organizations hating on vampires shown on a TV in the background, articles about the Vampire Rights Movement (from the American Vampire League) being shown in a newspaper. It's just the little details, but the show manages to convey way more about the "vampire outing" phenomenon than the book did.

I mean, the idea of vampires being recognized as legal citizens is a unique one, and a lot of my disappointment about the book stemmed from the fact that Harris, while she creates this idea, doesn't back it up or build on it too much in the book.

That being said, the book does succeed in showing us the normal humdrum eccentricities about dating a vampire that are pretty funny - and different from a lot of vampire romances/shows I've read. None of this hiding in the shadows to steal a kiss or visiting Vampire Bill in a crypt scenarios - they go to the movies. They stay in and read. Sookie has to be careful what she eats and what jewellery she wears (so that she doesn't taste bad or hurt Bill will silver). Those little details, I think, were what kept Dead Until Dark from being a total wash-out.

These details really helped keep up my interest in this book, because the characters felt flat as paper to me. The first chapter did not set a good example, and it just continued on from there - our heroine (nudging the fourth wall) begins the book by describing herself, then introducing and subsequently describing all of her friends and Significant Characters like they were items in a catalogue. "Hi! I'm Sookie Stackhouse, I'm blond and pretty and have great legs - look! There's my Kooky Best Friend Arlene who has red hair and freckles, and there's my Selfish Brother who's hot and blond," etc. etc. Gee thanks for pointing out all the archtypes in your story right away, Sookie. I totally wouldn't have figured it out for myself eventually.

Most of the characters are described at face value and then don't contribute any real, well, character - most of it is "explained" to us by Sookie. Frankly, I shouldn't have to be told what characters are like, they should be able to show me all by themselves. Maybe I'm a little biased because all my absolute favourite characters on the show are, in the book, either absent (where is Tara? She's fantastic!) or abbreviated (Jason, Lafayette, and to a lesser extent, Sam), but most of the characters in the book (other than Bill and Sookie), were cardboard.

One example I found was with the character of Sam (spoilers ahoy): I actually found that Sam's character was better developed on True Blood than in Dead Until Dark, particularly with his power. In both versions, he's a shape-shifter. In the novel, however, he springs this on Sookie rather suddenly, and Sookie, after a "huh" moment, accepts it, and then never brings it up again. Furthermore, there was very little build-up or foreshadowing to Sam's ability in the novel. It just seemed to come out of nowhere, and then it was instantly accepted like normal, and I didn't buy that for one second. True Blood plays the shifting more into Sam's quiet, shy character and provides some nice foreshadowing beforehand (and Sookie's famous reaction to it is hilarious).

That being said, the show didn't always improve on the original. I was surprised to find out that the love scenes in Dead Until Dark are actually really gentle and sweet - and really tame, especially considering it's a romance. So, of course, there really isn't a good explanation for the incredibly, uncomfortably graphic sex scenes in True Blood, other than the crappy excuse of "It's HBO - what else are you watching it for?" I never thought the raunchy nude scenes in True Blood were necessary, but figured if it was part of the novel, then I couldn't complain. Well, news flash - they weren't.

Yes, True Blood is based on Dead Until Dark, and it's more or less true to the events of the novel - but put side-by-side, I believed the events of True Blood more because the writers provided a context, structure, and foreshadowing that gave credence to the actions and events in the narrative that Dead Until Dark (with its unnecessarily limited narrator) didn't.

True Blood: B. Dead Until Dark: C.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

"Fool Me Once," by Fern Michaels

Alternate Title: The Book That Will Make You a Cat Lover

The Chick: Olivia Lowell. A single, dog-loving photographer, her father always told her that her mother died in childbirth - so when a lawyer shows up to announce her mother only recently passed away, and has left her a considerable fortune, Olivia's a tad surprised, to say the least.
The Rub: Mommy not only didn't die in childbirth, but Mommy robbed a bank, and her dying wish is for Olivia to track down her accomplices and get them to come clean.
Dream Casting: Ellen Pompeo.

The Dude: Jeff Bannerman. The executor of a different dead old lady's will that left her considerable fortune to her dog, Cecil, he left the dog in Olivia's care while the other lawyers fought over the estate. Now he finds himself roped into Olivia's mother's scheme.
The Rub: Um, Olivia doesn't trust him because he went to Lying Liar school to becoming a Scummy Lying Liar - er, I mean a lawyer. A lying lawyer. Because lawyers always lie.
Dream Casting: Ben Affleck.

The Plot:

Olivia: Waaaah! My mommy didn't love me! Even though she left me millions of dollars!

Jeff: Can I help you fix your problem?

Oliva: Wow! You're just like my Daddy! Hawt!

Jeff: Wow! You're just like my Mommy! Sexy!

Various Dogs: *woof woof woof woof* (translation: "This plot is creepy and makes no sense!")

Other Dogs: *bark bark bark bark* (translation: "Shut up, or you won't get fed!")

Olivia and Jeff: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Very Bad Parent (deceased)

1 Gold-Digging Stepmum

2 Hidden Accomplices

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

2 Evil Lawyers

1 Secret Prostitution Ring

1 Ocean of Tears

1, 000, 000 Dogs

The Word: I picked this book up at random at a remainders bookstore for $5, because the name sounded familiar. She's published a lot of books, I figured. A lot. So it's natural to assume she knows how to write. I may not like this book out of taste, but given her publishing history it's a given that she'll at least understand the basics of readable dialogue and adult characters and how things like big corporations and the legal system work. Yeah, not so much. I figure out exactly what letter grade I was going to give this book by the time I read the first two chapters. A hint - it's the first letter of the author's first name.

By the second chapter, I already realized that this book was awful. Astoundingly, head-poundingly bad. The kind of bad that made my head hurt. The kind of bad that made me hate the first couple of pages of the next book I started reading after Fool Me Once, because after 309 pages of pure verbal fecal matter, just seeing words, any words printed on a page made me associate it with teeth-grinding frustration. Reading this book gave me mental hives. It made me hate dogs. If I even see a Yorkshire terrier within the next 48 hours I'll be hard-pressed not to kick it in the face.

I realized this after two chapters, and I faced a dilemma. Should I consider this my first DNF (Did Not Finish) review for this site? Or should I continue reading this literary equivalent of a sack of burning cat hair so that I will have the material for the fully-fledged smackdown of a review that outlines all of its horribleness in detail to prevent future generations from picking this up by accident?

Readers, I READ THE WHOLE THING. Consider it literary Fear Factor - like eating a whole crate of hissing cockroaches and then bobbing for sheep testicles in an open sewer, only I didn't get the money afterwards.

Welcome to Fernland - land of illogical enchantment.

Olivia Lowell is a dog photographer, and, thanks to the magic of Fernland, makes a decent living at it. Her latest client is a dog who inherited a huge fortune from a crazy old lady, and she's worried about his welfare. His handler (one of the estate's lawyers) would much rather leave the dog in her care than tend the dog himself until the estate is settled, and Olivia worries that the poor Yorkshire terrier won't receive the love and care it needs in its million-dollar mansion surrounded by servants.

Anyhoo, she finds out she has worse things to worry about: a lawyer pops up out of the blue to inform her that the mother she thought died in childbirth is, well, still dead - only she kicked the bucket two weeks ago instead of thirty-four years ago and left her a load of cash. Olivia is devastated (we know this because she spends an entire chapter wailing, crawling around on all fours, eating cheerios, and sobbing herself to sleep surrounded by her dogs).

On top of the fortune she's inherited, however, her mother reveals a startling secret: she and two friends robbed a bank when they were college buddies, and that's what helped her start up her multi-million dollar business. In a letter, Mommy Dearest reveals that her final wish is for Olivia to pay her share of the stolen cash back from Mommy's estate, and find her accomplices and get them to pony up, as well.

Yeah, first off folks, Mommy didn't rob a bank. Mommy and her friends stole from a bank. As explained in the prologue, it was a small-town private bank whose careless manager left packages of bearer bonds just lying on his desk and the three girls decided, one day, to snatch one. The definition of robbery (as opposed to theft) is taking someone else's property without their consent with intimidation or violence. If you shoplift a candy bar, for example, that's theft. If you beat up a kid (or threaten to) for his candy bar, that's robbery. But throughout the book, Fern Michaels refers to this as a bank robbery, possibly because that sounds more exciting and dangerous. Hey, it's not like it's a writer's job to know what words mean and to use them properly, right?

Anyway, even as Olivia sobs and condemns her mother for being an evil, evil thief, she's simultaneously planning to dognap Cecil (the rich dog) from his terribly abusive multi-million dollar estate, by buying an identical dog and giving him to the careless handler instead, apparently mistaking dogs for goldfish. Hey, stealing money is wrong, but stealing dogs isn't a morally grey issue! It's totally not wrong to steal a dog from an estate we find abusive, especially if we send another innocent dog into that supposedly abusive situation in its place! Nope, nothing wrong there!

Things go awry when she buys similar-looking dogs and then forgets which dog is which. Ruh-roh! Things go even awry-er when, at eleven o'clock at night, she decides to phone Jeff (the Lying Liar Lawyer who's Cecil's handler) and demand he drive fifty miles through the snow to her house, all so that she can scream at him about what an awful lawyer he is, how lawyers are all the scum of the earth because they are lawyers (and because her wonderful, perfect Daddy hates them), and how she's sure he'll lose his lawyer license ("or whatever it is lawyers have" she says) because he's so horrible to dogs. The shit hits the fan when she equates his abandonment of Cecil to Mommy's abandonment of her, dissolves into tears, throws a crystal candy dish at his head, and leaves the room.

Inexplicably, Jeff finds this behaviour both an aphrodisiac and a soporific, and instead of leaving, falls asleep on her couch. Yeah, I'm totally safe in the house of a woman I barely know who just threatened me with violence, and whose dogs tried to bite me to shreds! Furthermore, the next morning, Jeff lets Olivia regurgitate all of her problems in front of him and offers to help find the two accomplices to her mother's crime.

This - this book was just terrible. I've written, deleted, and re-written this review so many times because I honestly don't know where to start with this book. First of all, I'll go with the characters - because the characters are usually what I notice most about a book (particularly with romances).

Olivia acts like a child. With a characterization that is eerily consistent throughout the novel for all of its inherent wrongness, Olivia thinks, reacts, analyses, and acts like a twelve-year-old girl. She throws tremendous crying temper tantrums throughout the book with little to no provocation, and needs only a mild prodding to drop everything she's doing and curl up in a tearful, sobbing ball of misery. She's not alone - everyone in this book cries buckets at the drop of a hat. Because they're happy, because they're sad, because they're surprised, because their convenience store doesn't carry Visene... She also has a disturbingly childlike view of the world, in simplistic blacks and whites, when it comes to life, morality, and relationships. She's selfish, irrational, spoiled, cutesy, hypocritical in the extreme, and melodramatic. Take this passage from page 140-1:

"[once she] Buckled up, she closed her eyes again, and this time she thought about Jeff Bannerman and all her new feelings. She could hardly wait to get back to Winchester. She wondered how he was making out with the dogs and all the snow. Her lips still felt hot and bruised from the lip lock he'd planted on her before she left the house. She smiled to herself. Her destiny. She hoped Jeff felt the same way." Does this really sound the way a thirty-four-year-old woman thinks and feels? Am I the only one who reads that and thinks teenager?

It's not just her, though - all the characters are about as subtle as a brick to the face. We have hot-shot lawyer Jeff, who (fortunately, I guess) is also a mental teenager. We know that he's perfect for her because she's an infantalized Daddy's girl and he's an infantalized Mama's boy. For example, she neglects to respond to his e-mails for one day and he speed-dials his Mommy to ask for advice. The book also proceeds to show how nicely they match by indicating how each reminds the other of their parent. Olivia notices Jeff shakes hands like her Daddy. Jeff notices Olivia has the same favourite colour as his Mommy. I know that in some ways this can be true (girls marrying their fathers, etc.) but the novel is so blatant about this that it got decidedly icky (especially during a skin-crawlingly awkward moment during Olivia and Jeff's wedding where Daddy Dearest insists he's not giving Olivia away - he and Jeff will just "share" her - cue dry heaves!).

And as for the plotting ... Actually, I found it about the same as the characterization. It all seemed strangely immature, as if a child had written it. If anyone here's a writer, find a sample of something you wrote in elementary or junior high school and you'll see what I mean. Even though your stories may be about "adult" worlds with spacemen and presidents and police officers, all the main characters tend to act either a) just like 12-year-old you, or b) like your parents.

Also, your good guys tend to have the upper hand in every conflict and argument and always win without having to compromise or give up anything really important, because everything in the world moves to please and comfort them - why? Because it's the world you created to house the characters you like and you're too busy at age twelve to do research on how a last will and testament works, how businesses hire new CEOs, and how people rob banks. It's fun to write, but as I was painfully reminded with Fool Me Once, it's not that fun to read, and it's certainly not supposed to be published.

All the major problems that Olivia encounters are usually conveniently solved within pages, leaving the rest of the book to be padded with events that have no bearing on the story. It read like a teenager's journal - the exciting stuff is breezed over in no time and the rest is stream-of-consciousness drivel. It went a little something like this: "Olivia got up at five. She decided to take a shower. She noticed her soap was running low. She went downstairs and fed her dogs. Then she made herself a sandwich. Then she read a page of her mother's diary and spent the rest of the day sobbing in a fetal position on the kitchen floor. Then she felt hungry, and made herself another sandwich."

So instead of actually developing a complex plot, we get a linear daisy-chain of events swiftly dealt with, in between mind-numbingly tedious slogs of everyday minutae. Over and over. The dialogue is equally unreal - I don't think I can think of a single conversation in the entire book that didn't sound stilted in some way. Again, another flaw of Fern Michael's writing style is that all the characters speak the same way - in many short sentences that bounce around a myriad of topics like a rubber ball with ADD. "My mom came over last week. I hadn't seen her in a while. Looked like she was sick. I made a cake today. Chocolate's my favourite. I love dogs. Guess my mom died. Oh well. Who wants cake?"

This whole rattling mess of a book is fueled by stereotypes, cliches, and artificial cutesiness. Did I mention the number of dogs in this book? And how wise and all-knowing and mischievous and adowable they are? These dogs are everywhere, on every page. Olivia accumulates dogs like dust bunnies and they follow her from scene to scene. Olivia is perpetually one step away from becoming the Crazy Dog Lady whose month-old, half-devoured corpse the cops discover when neighbours finally complain about the stench and the barking. I'm not even sure Jennifer Crusie would deal with that many dogs.

And so many of the novel's problems, prejudices, and obstacles are based on cliches that are so commonly-used they're transparent. Like how about Olivia's hatred of lawyers? She makes ridiculous assumptions about at least two people (who both turn out to be rather decent fellows) just because they went to law school. Of course, Michaels never gives us an explanation of why Olivia hates lawyers (other than that her dad hates them, too) - almost as if it's a given for people to hate lawyers. Oooooh, I get it! She hates lawyers because they're greedy and unscrupulous! Men love football and hate housework! Women nag and ask if their dresses make them look fat!

And how about Olivia's mother Allison? Throughout the book, everything is set up to make Allison look like a greedy, cold, calculating sociopath who never cared for anyone but herself. Olivia even finds a diary in which the woman describes all the ways she tried (and failed) to abort Olivia and how angry she was that she had to give birth to "it," and how disappointed and embarassed she was to find out how boring Olivia turned out as an adult.

Oh, but then Olivia meets a cantankerous old caretaker who reveals that Allison secretly watched over Olivia, was proud of her work, watched Olivia's graduations in secret (just ignore the fact that this directly contradicts the events written in Allison's personal diary). He also explains that Allison had (gasp!) a sad past that totally explains all of her eeevil behaviour. So what, are we humanizing Allison, here?

Nope. Several chapters later we learn that Allison is an even more evil life-ruiner than before, the cantankerous caretaker and his earth-shattering revelations are never mentioned again, and Allison is back to being the Big Bad everyone hates. So, was the caretaker's conversation just page-padding?

Honestly, how can someone write 309 pages without an ounce of original thought in them? Need another example? The private detective agency Olivia goes to to find the accomplices - it's called The Private Detective Agency. Michaels couldn't even give it a proper name - how lazy is that? This novel is a farce of a legitimate publication, with a plot that doesn't make sense past twenty pages, characters are are all just facets of the same personality, and unrealistic dialogue, that is forced to milk dusty, decades-old cliches to get any sort of drama at all. Avoid this novel if you value higher brain function. Really. I read this whole thing for you. Don't let my wretched sacrifice be in vain! F.