Sunday, March 29, 2009

This Absurd Expansion of my TBR Is Brought To You By the Public Library

Okay, so I know I made a vow (on camera, no less), that I wouldn't buy another book until I went to RWA Nationals. My TBR pile was sort of getting out of control thanks to my purchases and a truly serendipitous cluster of book-contest winnings, and I wanted a chance to trim it down before I encountered the RWA Nationals Goodie Room.

Well, when I made that vow, I was unaware of my Public Library's semi-annual booksale, which sold perfectly good romance novels for 50 cents a piece (or you could bring your own box and pay a flat rate of 10$). How - how could I let such a chance go by? If I didn't check this out, I would have to wait until September for the next semi-annual booksale, and that's just unreasonable, wouldn't you agree?

This isn't an addiction. I can stop whenever I want. But why would I want to with all these wonderful books? Besides, I was very responsible with my book buying at this sale. With two exceptions, I'd only bought books by authors I knew and enjoyed. But I can see that you're disbelieving, and shaking your heads in disapproval, so allow me to go over my purchases in finer detail:

The Already Reads:

These two I'd already read and adored, but had borrowed from the library. Well, now I own them, and technically since I've already read them they don't go on my TBR pile anyway, so nyaa nyaa nyaa.

The Series Finishers:

True, I was a little iffy about getting these, because even though I loved the first book, these last two weren't as favourably received by critics. However, I've been known to disagree with reviewers before - and something about both stories really interested me, and I wanted to finish the series. Besides - they were CHEAP!

The Developing Favourites:

These are books by authors whose works I've read once, and really enjoyed, so when I saw these books on the table at the sale, I quickly snatched them up to see if I didn't just get lucky the first time around.

The Already Favourites:
These, as my regular readers will know, are all books by favourite authors of mine, so I feel nothing but justified in snatching them up. I'm a dedicated acolyte of the Church of Balogh, Laura Lee Gurhke has impressed time and again, Loretta Chase is, well, Loretta Chase (and considering this is her latest book, I'm still doing a happy dance for grabbing it for fifty cents), and Eloisa James impressed me quite a bit with Duchess In Love, and this is a story within the same series.

The Lucky Dips:

Okay, so these two were the exception to my "only buy books by authors I've read and enjoyed" rule. With Candice Hern, I've never read her novels, but I really enjoyed her story in the It Happened One Night anthology, so when I found this at the sale, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to get to know her in a longer format. With Judith McNaught...hmmm, it's an interesting situation. I already have Almost Heaven on my TBR pile, but I still haven't gotten around to reading it (I'm rectifying that situation, though - it's next up when I'm done Sex With Kings), but I've heard nothing but how wonderful and awe-inspiring and magical all of her historicals are. And, admittedly, the first page of Almost Heaven really caught my attention. And - and it was FIFTY CENTS. So SUE me. It was cheaper than a cup of coffee.

The Very, Very, VERY Lucky Dip:

While I left the book sale with a rather exaggerated amount of pride (all fifteen books ended up costing $7.50 combined, less than a single new paperback costs here in Canada), this is the find that made me embarass myself by shouting "SCORE!" in the middle of a crowded library parking lot. It's by Loretta Chase. It involves an honourable secondary character from Lord of Scoundrels. And Chase's website says it's out of print. Can you say DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH?

So, really, dear readers, after all this can you blame me for temporarily lifting my no-book-buying vow to visit this important library book sale?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

"For My Lady's Heart," by Laura Kinsale

Alternate Title: A Knight to Remember
The Chick:
Melanthe, Princess of Monteverde. A widow of a wealthy Italian prince, as well as heir to powerful lands in her own right, Melanthe lives a life surrounded by intrigue, stealth, and machinations, as warring factions strive to kill her, marry her, or use her to further their own agenda.
The Rub: Herself no stranger to scheming, all her hopes for escaping her pursuers depend on her maintaining calm, emotionless control. Love will only weaken her, especially love for a nameless knight who disapproves of her just as much as he adores her.
Dream Casting: Kate Beckinsale.

The Dude: Ruck, the Green Knight, a.k.a. Sir Ruadrik of Wolfscar. Years ago, when unfortunate circumstances left him nearly destitute, a random act of charity from a foreign princess saved his life, and he swore himself into her service, using her memory to guide his chivalrous exploits and keep him chaste for thirteen years. Now a full-fledged knight, he encounters her again...
The Rub: ... and discovers that his holy virtuous princess is actually an ice-cold bitch with a scandalous reputation, which doesn't sit well with the devout and rigidly honourable life he built for himself in her name.
Dream Casting: Hans Matheson.

The Plot: (the following has been translated from Middle English)

Ruck: My wife ran off to the church, and took all my money because Nun School's apparently real expensive, and I'm pretty sure I got put under a vow of chastity and I'm only seventeen! Fuck my life.

Princess Melanthe: There's a sucker born every minute, chump. Have some emeralds.

Ruck: What incomparable kindness and mercy! What a wonderful, amazingly pure and virtuous woman - I will dedicate my life to her service and purity ...

Thirteen Years Later

Melanthe: Hey, chump, I need you to kick your own liege's ass and destroy your hard-won reputation of honour and loyalty to aid my clandestine power games. Hop to it, Sir NoSexPlease!

Ruck: Fuck my life, the sequel.

Melanthe: Your life must be pretty exhausted now, chump. Why not give me a try?

Ruck: No! I made a vow to avoid the wretched sin of lust! I must stand firm...

Melanthe: Firm? I'm all for that!

Ruck: Oh all right.

Melanthe and Ruck: *quickie wedding*

Gian Navona, Melanthe's Medieval Stalker: Heeeeeeeeeere's Gian-y!

Melanthe: PSYCH! I totally don't love you Ruck and we're totally not married and your feet smell and don't think of following me because I'm a dirty whore just like you always suspected and by the way I hate you. Buh-bye! *flees*

Ruck: *follows* Hands off my wife! She's Mrs Chump to you people!

Melanthe: Ruck, what did I TELL you? GO AWAY.

Ruck: Your "Lassie go home" ploy may work with some Regency-era Duke of Slut, but I've spent thirteen years thinking with my better head!

Gian: Oh no you don't - *trips* *drowns*

Ruck: Huh. Convenient.

Melanthe: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Ice Queen, Slightly Thawed

1 Chivalrous, Sex-Starved Knight

1 Cute as Hell Assassin (who gets a sequel! Yippee!)

1 Rather Lame, Crybaby Assassin

1 Act of Lovemaking Improved Upon By Tips Administered During Confession (thanks Catholic Church!)

1 Crazy Bad Wife (deceased)

1 Ye Olde Perverted Stalker

1 Plate of Poisoned Shellfish

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

2 Cameos By Real Historical Personages (Eddie 3 and his fly honey Alice Perrer)

The Word: This is funny - in my last post, I was bitching a bit about how I don't enjoy a lot of the romances that were nominated by the RITAs this year, but that every once in a while a great author will come along and provide a reason for reading more romance. I mentioned Kinsale in the review because even though at the time I wrote that post I hadn't finished For My Lady's Heart, I already knew I loved it and wanted to raid all the Chapters and used book stores I could find for her backlist.

The novel is set in medieval times, around the decline of the reign of Edward the Third. Ruck, a young knight, accompanies his wife on a pilgrimage to Avignon because, upon his return from the Battle of Poitiers, he discovered his lusty wife had suddenly taken to seeing holy visions and ecstasies and is now wed to Christ. Riiight. Anyway, he hopes maybe a pilgrimage to the Pope's palace will shut her up for a few days and allow him to have sex with her again.

Turns out she actually wants to take the veil and swear them both to a life of chastity (for they're still considered married), and has also instructed the church to take everything he has on him (including horse, weapon and armour) to pay for it. However, he's saved from poverty when a foreign Princess he met at the Pope's palace takes pity on him and gives him some emeralds, enough to buy back his possessions and more. This act of kindness, coming at a very distraught time for him, provokes him into swearing fealty to her, even though he doesn't know her name and believes it unlikely he'll ever meet her again.

Thirteen years pass, and we meet Princess Melanthe. Being an insanely wealthy widow in Regency England was one of the few ways a woman could live a free and empowered life. Being an insanely wealthy widow in the Middle Ages, however, meant having a bull's-eye drawn on your ass with gold paint. Melanthe's claim to her deceased husband's Italian estates (as well as her English properties) has earned her the unwelcome attentions of several nasty Italian factions. One of these is the Navona clan, led by Gian Navona, who claims to protect her. Another is the Riata clan, who have peppered her retinue with hidden assassins.

Both factions have seen to it that any man who too openly fancies her hand (and the riches to be obtained through marriage to her) soon meets a nasty end. While Gian does this because he would prefer to marry her himself, the Riata are all too willing to murder her to keep her holdings from falling into the hands of someone too powerful for them to deal with. As a result, Melanthe's life is a tightrope walk, as she must constantly ply favours and play the factions against each other to keep their attention off of her. She's cold, cunning, calculating and distrustful of emotions - as they could too easily sign the death warrants of innocent people, not to mention her own.

However, Melanthe has been doing some scheming of her own. Plying the Navona clan with false promises to protect her from the Riata, she plans to flee to England and shack up on her own English estate, surrounded by loyal English guardsmen, before any of the Italian factions are the wiser. She figures once she has the home-court advantage, she'll be able to live by her own terms and defend her properties with clean, lawful steel instead of desperate intrigue, thereby gaining a measure of personal freedom.

However, her plans are sidetracked when she's roped into a dinner with an ambitious duke who unwittingly endangers both their lives by courting her openly despite her refusals. She saves both herself and the oblivious duke by manipulating the duke's nameless knight into serving as her champion. The Green Knight, whom we realize early on is really Ruck, is torn between serving his liege and serving the Princess. Ignoring his pleas, Melanthe orders him to humiliate his liege in combat, thereby destroying his relationship with his master as well as severely denting his knightly reputation. She then accepts him into her service.

Melanthe and Ruck do not hit it off right away. No sir. Melanthe has real trouble trusting, much less comprehending, Ruck's honesty and rigidly single-minded dedication to honour, virtue, and chivalry (and chastity, let's not forget that!). So used to pretty lies and poetic threats, Melanthe is annoyed, then intrigued, and then fascinated by Ruck's forthrightness and devotion to his vows. Ruck's reaction to Melanthe is a little more vehement. For thirteen devout, chaste years, he idealized and beatified Melanthe in his mind, only to meet her again and have his expectations shattered beyond measure. He believes her to be a whore, a tease, and quite possibly a witch. Of course, he aims just as much vitriol at himself - for being so easily taken in, or being so naive, for continuing to sinfully lust after her even when he knows her to be a manipulative harlot. Oh, the delicious drama.

However, the romance doesn't really get going until a false plague panic causes all of Melanthe's retinue to desert her - save Ruck. Melanthe, married to an Italian prince at age twelve, has spent her life surrounded by people - servants, advisers, her retinue. Quite literally, she's never been simply alone with another person in her life. Abandoned in a wasteland with only a knight for company, the sudden and utter removal of every reason to lie and scheme and play-act both terrifies and exhilarates her - allowing her to loosen up a little.

Or, occasionally, a little too much. Truly, Laura Kinsale's charactersation in this book is superb. Melanthe's life is so complicated, she wouldn't feel out of place in a George R R Martin novel, and thus her reaction to her sudden, freeing isolation is complicated as well: part liberation and part mental breakdown. True, when it's only her and Ruck and a desert, she no longer has to worry about being stabbed in the back or poisoned or tricked, but at the same time, all her points of reference for how to deal with herself are also kaput. She becomes childish and unreasonable, excitable and dreamy, frightened and adventurous, in one crazy mixture.

One of the most subtle and tender changes in her behaviour is the way she sleeps. This may sound weird, but hear me out - Melanthe, once she's with Ruck, sleeps a lot in this book. For hours. For days. But this is simply an indication of how swiftly she comes to trust and depend on Ruck - for someone who has spent eighteen years of her life sleeping with one eye open, she feels safe enough around Ruck to let all those sleepless nights catch up with her and drop off to dreamland at the drop of a hat. To her, complete trust is an unheard of luxury as decadent as silk sheets and chocolate strawberries and she will indulge for as long as she can.

And Ruck. Ahhh, Ruck. Laura Kinsale completely blew me away with her depiction of Ruck. I've read a few Arthurian romances where the heroes are pure and chaste and chivalrous and do craaay-zay things for love, and I've found almost all of them to be boring. But Kinsale gives us a knight who's pure and chaste and rigidly honourable and Chivalrous with a capital C - but blends it all with realistic motivation and heartwrenching pain. He may look perfect on the outside, but inside he's always praying for forgiveness and doing penance and doubting himself. He has a backstory just as complicated as Melanthe's that, also like the princess's, we only discover by bits and pieces to flesh out the story.

He also manages to be a controlled, strong, and confident character without being a stereotypical Alpha male. While he takes charge in dangerous situations, he always defers to Melanthe - not because he wants to, but because it's his job. I reveled in his clashes and confrontations with Melanthe - while both characters seem to be polar opposites (he is honourable and honest, she is cunning and calculating) at heart they are both control freaks who have built their lives around strict forms of discipline to protect themselves from the tumult all around them. Ruck clings to his code of honour and to God, in theory to keep himself from sinning, but really to protect himself from falling headfirst in love with a woman who could very well abandon him as Isabelle, his wife, did.

Melanthe, meanwhile, clings to cunning and deceit, always dodging, evading, always on the emotional and intellectual move. She's a spiritual nomad - always keeping herself in a state of intrigue and flux because it leaves her with options and exit strategies. Even as their romance blossoms, she always remains on the alert, always suspicious of treachery. Trusting Ruck is enough of a trial, at least at first.

One pivotal scene that really struck me about her character is when Melanthe finally meets Ruck's unique serving staff who have protected his estate. Melanthe gets on their bad side by identifying their seeming incompetence for what it is (actual incompetence), and immediately jumps to all sorts of conclusions regarding possible treachery - did they screw up Ruck's chance of inheritance on purpose? Are they whispering poisonous things about me to Ruck behind my back? What's their angle? This scene alone demonstrates so much about her character. She's spent so much of her life dodging shadows that she looks for them everywhere just to survive, and I couldn't blame her, even though in this case Ruck's staff are innocent of her imagined crimes.

I'm sorry if this review is getting a little long, but this book was just marvellous and jam-packed with detail on nearly every level. I'll try to trim it down. Did I mention that this book uses a lot of Middle English, particularly in dialogue, to the point where Kinsale has to provide a glossary, but she still manages to convey lively wordplay that flows smoothly and is understandable? Did I mention that she manages to find an understandable (and incredibly funny) excuse for Ruck's awareness of foreplay and sexual pleasuring despite being chaste for more than a decade? Did I mention all of the historical detail, all the epic battle scenes with lances and swords and armour described with lavish paragraphs? Did I mention how even the secondary characters and their lives are well developed and morally grey? Did I mention the gorgeous language and writing style of Laura Kinsale? DID I?

*pants* I still suspect I'm leaving out some crucial aspect of Laura Kinsale's awesomeness, but there you go. I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. She creates a fantastic, fully-realized and original setting that serves as the glittering stage upon which a slow, subtle, and truly mesmorizing romance takes place between two very flawed, damaged, and beautiful people. I used to think chivalric romances really only worked in short format, because if stretched too long the story appeared stylized and unrealistic. But I used to think that way about fairy tales too, until authors like Robin McKinley rewrote them into gorgeous novels. Laura Kinsale manages to convey all the sweeping, epic grandeur, as well as the heartstopping romance, by keeping all the elements of a chivalric romance while at the same time shoring them up with historical detail, motivation and characterization that lends it depth, grace, and realism.

I've found myself another favourite author.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

RITA/GH finalists announced! My reaction: "M'eh"

I should be more excited about the books nominated for the 2009 RITAs (for best romance novels) and Golden Hearts (for best unpublished romance manuscripts), especially since I'll be attending them this year, but I can't really muster much of a response.

Mostly, this is because I disliked more than a couple of the titles that are now finalists, and I'm feeling a bit of Reviewer's Angst for not liking them more. I mean, these are the titles that could receive the highest honour in the romance community, and yet I cannot consider them in any way to be the best model of the romantic form, in my own humble opinion.

My general reaction as I read the list, in point form:

-Private Arrangements nominated twice? M'eh. This was a book I thought was meticulously and skillfully executed, but failed to emotionally engage me. Sometimes reviewing a romance can be difficult because in my head I give it a Technical Grade and an Emotional Grade. PA got a high Technical Grade from me because it was well written and researched with a fantastically realized setting, but a low Emotional Grade because I couldn't engage with the characters or the storyline.

-Series Romance Categories? Skip, skip, skip... (I've never read more than one series romance - partly because of the truly horrendous experience I had with that one, and partly because I don't consider them enough story to be worth their price)

-Snowfall at Willow Lake? That could bode well. It's already on my TBR pile. However, checking some of the finalists' reviews at All About Romance, a disturbingly large number of them earned a simple B or lower (and I coincide with AAR's grades pretty frequently, but not always). Haven't checked SaWL (I never check reviews of books on my TBR that I haven't read yet), so I have no idea what to expect.

-Sweet Talk? Okay, I gave this one a good grade, but again, I can't help but flash back to the abomination that was Sweet Trouble (so bad it ruined the trilogy and made me give away even Talk to the Used Book Store, even though I gave it a B+).

-Duchess By Night in the Historical Category. I enjoyed that book, but even though I've been collecting EJ books like crazy I never get as excited about reading them. They're excellent while I'm reading them, but I have a bizarre type of selective memory that makes them fade in my esteem the longer I go without reading them.

-Also Seduce Me By Sunrise got nominated. Big surprise. I like Lisa Kleypas in measured doses but simply reading the excerpt of this novel nearly sent me into a sugar coma.

-Sigh.... To Seduce a Sinner by Elizabeth Hoyt - she's another source of my Reviewer's Angst. People go crazy for her novels and I've read two of them and while they were pleasant I could never really get what all the huge fuss was about.

-Inspirational Romance ... skip, skip, skip - even though I'm a practicing Catholic, I steer clear of Inspirationals for the most part, probably because so few of them have Catholic characters. I'm not anti-Protestant by any means, but when I went to Harlequin's website and looked up their writing guidelines about Inspirational Romance, it gave me the heebie jeebies: protagonists and Christian secondary characters can't swear, drink, play cards, celebrate Halloween, kiss with lust in their hearts (as opposed to simple tenderness) or lie unless there's a good reason and they redeem themselves by the end. So ... the Jewish, atheist and Muslim characters in these novels are allowed to lie and do bad things? Gee ... Also, their guidelines for which historical periods to use in Inspirational Romance is either a) Jesus' time or b) after the Reformation so ... huh, I guess that means no historical time periods where everyone is Catholic. How convenient. Pass!

-Novel with strong romantic elements category - Tribute is the only one I've heard of and it got bitchslapped by critics.

-For the Paranormal Category - Dragon Wytch? SERIOUSLY? This novel combined two things I despise - people who replace "i"s with "y"s in words for absolutely no fucking reason other than they want to sound magical (no one is actually called a "wytch" in the novel, by the way), and a story that serves primarily as a bridge between two more important novels and so has no real plot of its own. A magical witch gets shagged by a her three boyfriends and learns to use a magical unicorn horn, then shags her two remaining boyfriends when her main boyfriend goes missing. Riveting stuff.

-Reading the Regency Historical Romance category, my eyes bugged out of my head at the nomination for Celeste Bradley's Duke Most Wanted. I read one of her Duke books. It did not impress me overmuch. Indeed, it was one of my Worst Books of 2008. Julia Quinn's Mr Cavendish, I Presume was nominated - and while I love me some Julia Quinn, I was expecting The Lost Duke of Wyndham to be nominated. From what I gathered reading other people's reviews, many readers were put off by the fact that Mr Cavendish mirrored a lot of the events of its sister book (the two plots occur at the same time), so that it was almost like reading the same book twice. However, I haven't read either so I can't really say. Myself, I plan on reading the two books with a suitably large cushion of time between them so I won't have this reaction.

-I've been disappointed and disbelieving while reading the nominations of the other categories, but I haven't felt the hulk rage at a deserving author has been robbed until now, reading the nominations for best Romance Novella. TWO stories from It Happened One Night were nominated - Stephanie Laurens' and Jacquie D'Allesandro's.

Mary Balogh's "Spellbound" was NOT NOMINATED.


Stephanie Laurens' "The Fall of Rogue Gerard" was only mildly amusing, but Jacquie D'Allesandro's "Only You" milked every cliche it could like a mechanical literary breastpump while remaining unrealistic and historically sketchy. How in HELL could anyone think "Only You" is a better story than Mary Balogh's meticulously crafted, gorgeously atmospheric and emotionally wrenching "Spellbound"? REALLY? I wouldn't mind Jacquie D's nomination at all if "Spellbound" had also been nominated, but these stories were in the same collection, which means the women who nominated the novellas read "The Fall of Rogue Gerard," "Spellbound" and "Only You," one after the other, and made a conscious decision to include "Gerard" and "Only You" while consciously excluding "Spellbound."

It boggles the mind - really, truly, it does. It's like they opened a treasure chest with a sparkly piece of glass, a diamond the size of a baby's fist, and an onion inside and thought, "Hmmm, I have to choose the most valuable things in here. I could take all three, but I'd much rather have sparkly glass and onions than a diamond. Yeah, let's not take the diamond. I don't like diamonds. Who needs them? Mmmm, onions." GRRRR!

I don't have much to say about the remaining Categories (YA and Suspense, two genres I have not read very much of) and the Golden Hearts (again, haven't read them because they are unpublished, although due props to all the finalists!). But I can't help but feel disappointed. These are supposed to be the finalists for the RITAs - the absolute best of the best of the romance genre, and I can't help but feel like what I consider to be the best parts of romance aren't what the so-called authorities of genre consider to be the best.

It's during times like these that Reviewer's Angst comes down especially hard. I keep thinking, am I a real reader of romance? Am I reading romance the way it's supposedly meant to be read? I am missing the biggest draw of the romance genre and focusing on quibbles (like, uh, realistic characterisation and historical accuracy and beautiful writing???)? What does this mean? I don't know. This feeling won't last for long though - every time I feel like I might want to give up on the romance genre a truly stunning writer comes along (Mary Balogh, Jo Goodman, Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase, Jennifer Crusie, and, as I'm coming to discover, Laura Kinsale - oh, yeah, NONE OF WHOM ARE NOMINATED THIS YEAR) that convinces me to keep reading.

RITAs, schmITAs, is all I can say for now.

Friday, March 20, 2009

"The Kiss," by Sophia Nash

Alternate Title: Kiss Off, Already!

The Chick:
Georgiana Fortesque, a.k.a. Georgiana Wilde. The daughter of a steward, Georgiana became a marchioness when she married her troubled childhood friend Anthony. She was widowed shortly thereafter when he died on their wedding night. Now she runs his estate - but the new Marquis, Anthony's cousin, Quinn Fortesque, has come to take over.
The Rub: She's secretly been in love with Quinn for decades, but fears he'll never return her love because of a tragic accident from their past.
Dream Casting: Emily Blunt.

The Dude: Quinn Fortesque, Marquis of Ellesmere. Called back to the estate of his childhood by his shrewish aunt, he admires the work Georgiana has done with the place and wants to settle her and her family with a nice cottage and pension - although Georgiana's not quite willing to give up her position yet.
The Rub: His late wife was a Big Fat Ho, hence he's taught himself to guard against all of his emotions - especially love.
Dream Casting: Matthew Macfadyen.

The Plot:
Quinn: Hey, Georgiana, it's been a while.

Georgiana: Oh! Hello, Quinn! If only he loved me...

Rosamunde, Heroine from A Dangerous Beauty: G, he totally loves you.

Georgiana: No he doesn't - I'm too deformed and fugly.

Grace, Georgiana's other BFF: Um, I actually think he does?

Georgiana: And I actually think you are mistaken. For I am all that is damaged and unworthy and you are all that is perfect and good. Here, let me lie down in this puddle so you can walk over it and into Quinn's waiting arms without getting dirty.

Ata, Georgiana's Mentor: Open your eyes - Quinn loves you!

Georgiana: Nope. Impossible.

Quinn: Georgiana, I love you!


Quinn: *shakes her* Get a hold of yourself! I love you damn it, and I'll give you a HEA if I have to cram it down your throat and gag you with a gym sock!

Georgiana: Oh, all right.

Quinn: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Heroine with a Disfigurement and a Martyr Complex

1 Hero Who Can't. Feel. Emotions.

1 Precocious Child

1 Very Bad Aunt

1 Lacklustre but Still Decent Romantic Rival (*sigh*, again Grace?)

1 Baby Falcon

1 Evil Whore Wife (Deceased)

Several Previous Nash Characters

1 Sex-Induced Death

The Word: This? This sharp, cracking sound? This the sound of some of my highest expectations of this year crashing to the ground. I thought I had so much to look forward to in The Kiss. I loved Sophia Nash's previous novel. The Kiss had a gorgeous cover. All About Romance gave it a glowing review and my friends at Eloisa James and Julia Quinn's message board raved it was even better than A Dangerous Beauty.

Sadly, it was not to be. Like, really, not to be. I think every romance reader has a differing level of tolerance towards certain romantic tropes. For instance, Alpha Males - some readers enjoy really aggressive heroes while others turn away if they cross too many barriers. Another example would be martyr heroines. Mrs Giggles is a romance critic I seriously admire - if she hates a novel, she will absolutely tear it to shreds, man - but lately I've come to acknowledge that she has a lower tolerance for self-sacrificing heroines than I do. She slammed two of my favourite romance heroines (Sophie Beckett from An Offer from a Gentleman and Fleur Bradshaw from The Secret Pearl) for being bloody martyrs, while I quite enjoyed them.

Mrs Giggles, if you're reading this review, I would suggest you never pick up The Kiss - it will likely make your ovaries explode with sheer rage.

I wanted so much to like this novel, but the first two chapters quickly established the type of slog that I was facing: In these first two chapters, Georgiana's delightful eccentricities (she's headstrong! And speaks her mind! How quaint!) and Quinn's emotional repression (he must not feel emotions - because then he won't feel pain! What can possibly go wrong?) are hammered into my skull by the unsubtle woodpeckers of redundant exposition.

Georgiana, you see, is actually Saint Georgiana of the Gimpy Leg, Patron Saint of Disturbing Levels of Romantic Obsession, Marchioness of Doormat, and Queen of the Martyrs. She married her childhood friend Anthony, Marquis of Ellesmere, out of convenience, only to be widowed on their wedding night when his amorous attempts to claim his husbandly rights caused him to stroke out. Twelve months later, she's running his estate, but of course she must do all the menial work herself even though she's half crippled because she's headstrong and speaks her mind and all that hard work doesn't leave a lot of time to do any pesky rational thinking.

Anyway, she receives the shock of her life when Quinn Fortesque, the new Marquis and the Secret Burninating Passion of Georgiana's life, shows up to take up the reins. Quinn got called back from diplomatic service by his mean-spirited aunt (Anthony's mum) who never believed Anthony's marriage to Georgiana was valid and wants Quinn to give this lowborn invader the boot.

Quinn, Anthony, and Georgiana all used to be friends as children. Anthony was the son of the lord of the manor, Georgiana the daughter of his steward, and Quinn was Anthony's impoverished orphan cousin. Their warm friendship was shattered after a fall from a tree disfigured Georgiana and Quinn, falsely blamed for the accident by Anthony, was packed off to boarding school. Subsequently, Anthony proceeded to perform some more feats of asshat-ery, and Quinn acquired Emotional Issues thanks to a Big Fat Ho of a wife, widening the gap between the three friends even further.

Now Quinn's back at Penrose, the Ellesmere estate. While Georgiana and her family have done an excellent job with Penrose's upkeep, he can see that her father's health is failing and she's doing most of the work (the better to be martyred, my dear) and he would rather have the family settled somewhere with a nice pension. Georgiana rebels against the unfair usurpation of her stewardship duties, forgetting the pesky logistical detail that stewards are hired employees and thus can be dismissed at will.

To regain control, Georgiana defiantly invites the Widows' Club (the rehab-for-mourning-chicks introduced in A Dangerous Beauty) over to party, inadvertantly introducing Quinn to Grace (also from ADB), a formerly strong character whose biological clock is ticking so desperately now she'll marry just about anyone, and she's sophisticated, sexy and rich enough to land just about anyone. Unfortunately, she has an unfortunate tendency to choose Heroes from novels that aren't her own.

Here's the thing about romances - the Hero and the Heroine are the main points around which the story turns. While excellent writing (naturally), well-drawn supporting characters, and intriguing themes also contribute to a good romance novel, it's very difficult to enjoy these things if one or the other of the protagonists doesn't make the grade.

Such is the case with The Kiss. Despite some good points (which I'll discuss later), Georgiana made the novel nearly unbearable. While I've occasionally read of heroines who are too fiesty for their own good, I've never encountered a heroine who was as much of a soggy doormat as this one. She seriously spends most of the novel doing the breaststroke in her Olympic-sized swimming pool of self-pity, and enjoying every minute of it.

Part of my annoyance stems from the fact that Georgiana (and, hence, the author) repeatedly tells the reader that she's a strong woman who never dips into pity and, according to page 190, doesn't have a martyr bone in her body. Let me give you a rundown of her behaviour in this novel: she does most of the work around the manor, she continuously chucks Grace in Quinn's path because Grace is so beautiful and perfect and better than Georgiana in every possible way, she gives up her virginity to Quinn to use as a fucking security blanket, and repeatedly performs activities that jeopardize her health and her gimp leg because she can't bear to let anyone know she's in pain. Uh-huh. If she's not a martyr, I don't know who is.

Georgiana makes such a concerted effort to remain unhappy in the most cheerful of circumstances that I just couldn't stand her. She spends most scenes on the sidelines, writhing delightedly in the agony of thwarted dreams as Quinn courts Grace, or teases his daughter, or exists. She flat-out refuses to acknowledge anything positive said about her, by anyone, because what will she do with her day if she's not spending every minute of it bemoaning the torments of fate?

This stubbornness never wavers as the novel progresses. Pretty soon, everyone else at the house party can tell that Quinn is in love with Georgiana, and no fewer than four characters inform Georgiana of this. Georgiana ignores all of them. The camel's back broke under the weight of straw before the halfway mark of this book, but the last piece of dried grass to land upon the twisted wreckage of this particular animal's spine came when Ata, the elderly leader of the Widow's Club, finally gives Georgiana the "grab your man and kiss him, you fool!" speech. The scene ends there, leaving the reader to assume that this time, Georgiana will pull her head out of her ass and finally participate in the romance already. Sadly, unbelievably, frustratingly, no - Georgiana once again rejects anything that disputes her claim as Queen of the Unloved Martyrs and runs off to her secret island cottage to cry, leaving Quinn to do all the work.

Quinn, while not as bad as Georgiana, remains disappointingly underdeveloped. His reasoning behind his emotional repression is fairly run of the mill for a romance hero (wife was an irredeemable slut who damaged his belief in all humanity), and doesn't really explain his stubborn refusal to admit his love for Georgiana until the very end of the book. Still, he earns points because he's the character who actually works at the romance. Georgiana is constantly running away in tears, leaving Quinn to chase her with compliments and protection and good deeds. I think this is my main reason for disliking Georgiana - her determination to nurse old wounds limits her participation as a character - she's too busy reacting to actually do anything and control any part of the story. Instead, Quinn is the one who makes decisions and determines the outcome of the plot, rendering the story structure poorly balanced between action (Quinn) and dithering inaction (Georgiana! ARGH!).

So, what did I like about the novel? Similar to my experience with Match Me If You Can, Sophia Nash has a subtle hand for backstory - never giving us a explicit flashback, and yet still littering the narrative with enough hints to give readers a clear view of what happened way back when to drive Georgiana, Quinn, and Anthony apart.

Also, in my review of Match Me If You Can, I mentioned Series Perfection Syndome, and the tendency for characters from previous novels to be idealized in the later novels they cameo in. Such wasn't the case here - Rosamunde and Luc from ADB show up and are still just as entertaining (and snarky) as before. Luc in particular - one prominent symptom of SPS is that the novel's hero tends to display an immediate rapport with Previous Heroes (a sure sign that he is The One for our Heroine). Luc, far from toothless although he's married with two kids, despises Quinn nearly on sight, and the feeling is mutual. Their gradual transition to friendship is natural and consistent with both their characters, and doesn't feel inevitable because they are both Nash Protagonists.

Sadly, all the secondary characters are too reasonable and logical for their own good - most of them discover the true situation between Quinn and Georgiana early on, and their repeated attempts to convince the hard-headed protagonists only re-enforces the protagonists' unrealistic obstinance in ignoring the advice and experience of characters they are supposed to love and respect.

I might still give Nash's lastest novel - Love with The Perfect Scoundrel - a shot, because even though Sophia Nash's language has become dismayingly florid of late, my main problem with this novel wasn't her writing, but her heroine. Rosamunde and Luc were an exquisitely matched pair of personalities, and thus I enjoyed A Dangerous Beauty immensely. Sadly, I can only hope that The Kiss doesn't stand for The Kiss of Death for my admiration of Sophia Nash's writing.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"Match Me If You Can," by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Alternate Title: Score: Love-Love

The Chick:
Annabelle Granger. Born to a family of condescending overachievers, she's always been treated like the family failure for never settling down into a profession (preferably in medicine or finance). Her latest venture, taking over her grandmother's matchmaking business, needs a high-profile client if it doesn't want to end up like her other failed businesses.
The Rub: She finds a perfect client with Heath Champion - an uber-successful sports agent who wants a high quality trophy wife. Trouble is, she would rather match him up with herself - but that would jeopardize her business.
Dream Casting: Shopaholic's Isla Fisher.

The Dude: Harley D. Campione - a.k.a. "Heath Champion." Heath clawed his way up from nothing to become one of the hardest working and wealthiest sports agents in the country. Thanks to his money and success, he expects the best in everything - so to help find himself a perfect wife, he tries out a professional matchmaker.
The Rub: Heath thrives on putting out the most successful image, so he needs a mate to match - sophisticated, collected, elegant - so why is he attracted to his hot mess of a matchmaker?
Dream Casting: Nathan Fillion.

The Plot:
Heath: Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.

Annabelle: How about this one?

Heath: Too boring.

Annabelle: This one?

Heath: Too shy.

Portia Powers, Annabelle's Business Rival: Hey, Heath, I have --

Heath: Too crazy.

Portia: But I didn't introduce anybody yet!

Heath: CRAY-ZAY. How 'bout you, Annabelle?

Annabelle: You love me?

Heath: Uh, I never said that...

Portia: Don't be an ass.

Heath: Crazy McTight pants is right - I do love you.

Annabelle: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Scatterbrained Red-Head with Relationship, Body, and Self-Confidence Issues

1 Workaholic Hero Hiding a White Trash Past

1 Dude Thinks He's a Lady

1 Crazy Ass Business Rival

1 Secondary Romance (between, surprisingly, the Crazy Ass Business Rival and Heath's BFF Bodie)

5 Very Bad Family Members

1 Pink Princess Party

3 Stolen Phones

1 Precocious Child

1 Blundered Marriage Proposal (Rejected)

1 Horny Book Club

Several Previous Susan Elizabeth Phillips Characters

The Word: Well, I've finally given Susan Elizabeth Phillips a try. I was introduced to her, indirectly, by the Smart Bitches who sent me an audiobook of this very novel. I have a very short attention span when it comes to listening to nothing but dialogue (especially dialogue spoken by a woman trying to imitate the sexy male voices and failing miserably), so I chucked the set after I heard one chapter, but what I did hear was enough for me to go out and get the book.

The novel opens on the worst day of Annabelle Granger's life - and hers is a life almost entirely composed of worst days. Her super-successful family (composed of bankers, vice presidents, and surgeons) think of her as the lazy, freeloading black sheep, her last boyfriend waited until they were engaged before telling her he was a woman born in a man's body, and her resume's full of failed jobs and businesses. Her latest venture is a takeover of her late grandmother's matchmaking business, and thanks to family connections (with previous SEP characters), she's landed an appointment with Heath Champion - sexy gazillionaire mega-agent, a client who could make her career.

Every possible thing that could go wrong before the interview does, and Heath almost turns her down flat, but through sheer gumption she convinces him to let her perform one introduction. Impressed by her results, he signs on as a client, although he keeps his previous contract with Power Matches, run by razor-toothed business maven Portia Powers.

One might wonder why a man as gorgeous, rich, intelligent, and charming as Heath would need a matchmaker. Heath grew up as the lowly son of the trailer-park drunk, and since attaining success beyond his wildest dreams, is very image-driven. Now that he has everything, he's built his life around showing everyone that he's got everything. He knows his wines even if he doesn't drink that much, he owns an appallingly expensive home he hasn't even furnished yet, and has a professional designer pick out everything he wears - all so that people will never look at him and think of that white trash junkyard kid ever again.

Now, however, he wants a wife - but one who will be as much of a status symbol as everything else he owns. Someone sophisticated, someone classy, with good taste and connections, someone well educated, who will nevertheless give up her job to take care of Heath and their family. Cue eye-rolling here.

He initially doesn't think Annabelle's all that up to the task - she has "train wreck" written all over her. She's open and wacky and careless, and a complete emotional pushover (after Heath heroically defends her from a bullying former client, she chastises him for being too mean), who's one issue short of a full subscription. But her empathy and quick thinking and positive attitude help her come up with a whole host of talented women for Heath to pick over, and he never attributes it to her when he can't quite connect with any of them.

The novel does an excellent job of demonstrating how Annabelle and Heath complement each other perfectly. Despite her own insecurities (and she has many), Annabelle never tries to be anyone other than herself. She wears bright colours and can communicate openly with just about anyone from stuffy seniors to overcaffeinated toddlers. She's in the process of changing her life, of trying to recover from her many past failures, but she never curbs her own sense of style and self-presentation.

Heath, meanwhile, is an example of the emotionally walled-off individual who is amazingly confident on the job and slavishly devotes himself to his work to hide the fact that he really doesn't have anyone to come home to. His empty house is a cheeky metaphor for his own inner struggle - on the outside, the house is astonishingly constructed, located in a trendy neighbourhood, and is a marvel of architecture and design. Anyone walking past it immediately assumes the occupant has money and power. Inside, however, it's empty except for the basic necessities because Heath's never had the chance to buy furniture or decorate or add any personal touches to it because he doesn't have the time.

These differences spark some intriguing reactions when Heath and Annabelle come together and realize what lies beyond the surface. Heath initially has trouble respecting a woman who makes no attempt to intimidate or impress with her attitude or appearance, but eventually discovers how well adapted and flexible it makes her when dealing with people and changing situations. Annabelle, meanwhile, is bowled over by Heath's machismo at first, but soon finds out it's all image, and that he's never bothered to reveal or explore his real self because he doesn't understand how anyone could consider it as important as his Game Face.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips also does a wonderful job of integrating character backstory without resorting to tedious exposition or flashbacks. Heath grew up in a trailer park, Annabelle's ex-boyfriend's a chick now, but these elements of pain and character-building betrayal are smoothly and subtly layered into the novel without taking up too much space, surfacing only at significant moments (such as Heath's embarrassment about his middle name and Annabelle's phobia of men handling ladies' underwear).

Also, I should point out that I've finally come across an example of the Those Three Little Words cliche done well. In this case, Heath pops a surprise marriage proposal on Annabelle. He then launches into a speech about all the little things he loves about her, but he refuses to actually say that he loves her. Everything we (and Annabelle) have come to know about Heath shows us that his refusal to say "I love you" actually does translate to "I don't love you." After all, Heath is an image-driven agent, who built his career on selling dreams. Annabelle realizes his "I love your hair, I love the way you snore" crap is a diversion, and that if he truly believed what he was selling he would cut the bull and say Those Three Little Words.

So, with all I loved, why didn't this novel get an A? All in all, I really have three main problems. The first (and least) of the problems was the presence of Annabelle's bookclub - nearly all composed of smug marrieds from previous SEP books. During certain scenes (mostly during the lakeside retreat), I felt they crowded the book and stunk a little too much of Series Perfection Syndrome. Series Perfection Syndrome (copyright AnimeJune) happens to characters from previous novels in the same series who, because they've officially already attained their HEA, are consigned to Mary/Gary Sue status if they appear in later novels as supporting characters. You've probably encountered a few examples of this - in most cases, the previous couples are still crazy in love, never so much as fight, are adorably pregnant or surrounded by adorably perfect children. Heaven forbid Mr Handsome from Book #2 should be sleeping on the couch or Mrs Fiesty from Book #3 is feeling neglected. Granted, we didn't get too much of this in Match Me If You Can, but enough of it to annoy me.

The second problem I had with this novel came from the depiction of Annabelle's family. They are singularly awful people who, one and all, make it their sacred duty to boast of their own successes while tearing down Annabelle at every turn. They wouldn't be out of place in a Jennifer Crusie novel, if that gives you any indication of how icy and self-involved they are. Many of Annabelle's painful personal issues stem from their treatment of her. However, towards the end of the novel, the author tries to redeem them without making any of them actually correct their behaviour towards Annabelle.

Granted, how this comes about is an interesting scene - Heath, invited to dinner with the Grangers, can only be impressed by them. Growing up in an impoverished home with a revolving door of stepmothers and as asshole of a dad, Heath sees the ambitious, pushy Grangers as the perfect family. From an outsider's perspective, he interprets a lot of their body language as being loving and supportive of Annabelle. However, in doing this he remains completely oblivious to all of the wretched things they are saying to Annabelle.

This remains my most painful scene to read because I sincerely hated how Heath remained so mindlessly unaware of how miserable Annabelle was. I expected him to defend Annabelle, or give the heartless, sycophantic Grangers the verbal smackdown they all deserved, or at the very least take Annabelle aside and explain to her just how little he respects their so-called "opinions." Instead, he joins them. The novel also depicts how the Grangers go into Loving Supportive Defence Mode once Heath breaks Annabelle's heart, and I nearly put the book down. What the hell? I'm sorry, but if the Grangers are loving and supportive of Annabelle when her back is turned but verbally abusive to her face, that doesn't make them a good family. That makes them hypocrites.

Finally, my last, and biggest problem with the novel stems from the secondary romance between Portia Powers and Heath's friend Bodie. Portia is a marvellously concocted character - while she starts out as an almost impossibly eeevil villain (she makes all her employees weigh themselves once a week, culling the fatties from the staff), her shattering descent into a complete mental breakdown is mesmorizing to read. However, I found her redemptive relationship with Bodie both unsettling and inconsistent. Bodie's initial tactics to win her over were dead turn-offs (blackmail, lies, and derogatory language - like how he plans on correcting her with a dog collar) - he comes off as overaggressive, not to mention insulting and mean. Then, abruptly, he turns into a broken-hearted man-baby because she doesn't want to show him off in public.

Those problems aside, Match Me If You Can is an entertaining, realistic, and complex example of the "opposites attract" romance, more profound and meaningful than a simple Dharma & Greg rehash. Annabelle manages to be sparkly and fun without coming off as a fruitloop, and Heath is confident and aggressive without being threatening or offensive. This novel could very well be your perfect match.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Games of Command," by Linnea Sinclair

Yup, the Book Smugglers dared me to read a sci-fi romance! My Guest Dare went up today, so check it out if you're interested.

If you're new to the blog and are checking it out thanks to the Book Smugglers - welcome! Hope you like reading my reviews!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Shows You Should Watch If You Know What's Good For You, Part Two

Now that I've described the merits of Chuck, an established TV show, it's time for me to hype my second favourite show, the rookie series Dollhouse.

I could just tout this show by saying that it's created by Joss Whedon, the auteur behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, and that I'm pretty sure the Bible says you're bound for Hell if you don't support his shows with unquestioning loyalty (don't believe me? It's ... it's somewhere in the back. Yeah.). Ahem.

But the reviews and ratings for the show's first few episodes have been shaky, so I've taken it upon myself to encourage newbies and doubting Whedonites alike to keep watching the show. It gets better. I swear. I'll admit it - the first few episodes were weird, and a little disjointed, but the episodes have been increasing in quality at an exponential rate and I'd hate for Whedonites and sci-fi fans to abandon the show before it shows its true potential.

The premise for Dollhouse is admittedly a bizarre one: the titular establishment keeps a stable of "dolls" or "actives" - human beings whose original personalities have been wiped, and who can be programmed with completely new personalities in accordance with the wishes of the Dollhouse's select and high-paying clientele. The Dollhouse's brilliant but amoral whiz kid Topher Brink (the adorable Fran Kranz) can imprint memories, skills, and subconscious desires into the dolls to fit with the client's needs - turning an active into a skilled hostage negociator, a hulking Russian thug, an experienced midwife, or even an assassin. The Dollhouse's pull comes from the fact that the Dolls truly believe everything they've been programmed to be - they won't pretend to be in love with you, for example - they'll be imprinted with a personality that genuinely believes itself to be in love with you.

While the Dollhouse insists that the Dolls all "volunteered," they work in secret, with the 'House remaining an urban myth to the general public. When clients come in, the 'House staff program a doll to suit the assignment, and once the dolls complete the assignment, their handlers return them to the Dollhouse where their minds are wiped clean again. In between assignments, the Dolls exist in a murky, childlike tabula rasa state of innocence.

Our main character is Echo (Eliza Dushku). Currently, she's the House's most popular doll - probably because she's hot and limber and looks a lot like Faith from Buffy. Her handler (sort of a Watcher figure, whom the active is programmed to trust implicitly) is Boyd (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who supervises her remotely while she's on assignment, with orders to extract her from the situation should things get ugly. While Echo's brain is supposedly scrubbed to within an inch of its life after every assignment, she's started showing unexpected bursts of ingenuity and initiative on her assignments that weren't part of her programming.

Echo's eccentricities worry the Dollhouse higher-ups, particularly Lawrence Dominic (Reed Diamond), the chief of security. Months prior, another active named Alpha who displayed similar quirks wound up going insane and butchering a number of the Dollhouse staff before escaping, and Dominic doesn't want to see it happen again. Meanwhile, on the outside, renegade cop Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) believes the Dollhouse really exists, and is determined to expose it for the human-rights-violating, science-fictiony-prostitution ring it really is.

I'll admit the show has a slow build-up - particularly in the fact that most of the characters who are allowed, er, characters are the shady operators of the Dollhouse who are pretty nasty people for the most part. Echo shows some spunk, but it's subtle, and slow, and she's still called upon to be a different personality every week.

However, while the audience expects more from Echo, they might forget the subtler, quieter dynamics that take place behind the scenes as the storyline accelerates - each episode is substantially better than the last, and next week's episode, "The Man on the Street," is believed by many Whedon fans to at last provide a crux for the series' story. But until then, we've had tiny interactions, blink-and-you'll-miss-it references with regard to minor characters that add delicate layers to the overarching plot that will surely come into play once the main story really get's going.

While Echo (and her fellow dolls Sierra and Victor) remain more or less empty canvasses (barring a few hiccups), we learn more about Boyd, Echo's empathetic handler who is strangely disdainful of the whole Dollhouse operation despite his participation in it; about Ballard and his obsession with Dollhouse; about the Dollhouse boss Adele DeWitt and the uphappy situation with her own, unrevealed, employer; and the ever-present threat of former Doll Alpha, who, without revealing his identity, makes his displeasure with his former employers known in sinister ways.

While the show suffers from a an almost-too-original plot and a shaky first couple of episodes, the show's rapid improvement over the last few weeks demonstrates, I suspect, only the tip of the iceberg of potential this series holds. Is a person more than her personality? Are the dolls' assignments considered consensual? How can you develop a character out of nothing? Could wiping a person's personality be considered murder? This last episode alone ("True Believer") demonstrated all that I love about Joss Whedon - thought-provoking symbolism, hilarious dialogue, exciting twists, and girls punching people in the face. Yes, it's weird - but when has Joss Whedon ever been normal? While FOX reportedly kissed mucho Whedon derriero to get Whedon to return to Friday Nights at Fox (a.k.a. The time slot where Firefly died), ratings are ratings. Don't let what happened to Firefly happen to Dollhouse. Keep Whedon on the air!

Shows You Should Watch if You Know What's Good For You, Part One

I consider myself a TV-holic. It goes through stages - I'm watching a dozen shows in September when all the new stuff comes up, and over the months, as work and school and other commitments take precedence, I leave more programs by the wayside when they lose my interest. Eventually, I even let older shows I've watched go when they no longer provide the entertainment worthy of the investment of an hour's time.

But occasionally, there are shows that wow. Shows I watch religiously - either ones that grab me right away and hook me in, or the ones that grow on me until I can't imagine missing a single episode. I could describe them all here, but I don't want to take up that much of your time. Instead, I'm going to introduce you to two of my favourite shows - one of which is established, one that's just started, and both of which are on the ratings bubble right now so future seasons for them are uncertain. I think everyone who loves a show that's ratings-challenged (hi Arrested Development and Pushing Daisies fans!) experiences a certain feeling of helplessness when they hear their favourite show's future is iffy. Some write letters. Some keep the DVD sales up. Some send bags of peanuts to producers.

Me, I'm taking it to my blog. I think these programs are exciting and entertaining, and I don't want them to end up on the "brilliant but cancelled" list this year (*sigh* So long, My Own Worst Enemy...).

The first show I'm discussing today is NBC's Chuck. The story? Chuck Bartowski (the adorable Zachary Levi) is a regular shmo with above-average intelligence who had a bright future ahead of him - until his roommate Bryce Larkin stole his girlfriend and got him expelled from Stanford. The show opens five years after this event, where Chuck is a computer techie at Best Buy, er, I mean a Buy More electronics store. He makes eleven dollars an hour. He lives with his sister and her boyfriend, Captain Awesome. And his life is going nowhere.

Everything changes when he receives a mysterious e-mail from his erstwhile roommate Bryce that downloads millions of bizarre images into Chuck's brain. It turns out Bryce is a CIA rogue operative who stole a joint CIA/NSA project called the Intersect - a program designed to facilitate the exchange of intel between the two agencies, using images subliminally coded with the nation's secrets.

Only now all of those secrets exist solely in Chuck's head. The agencies send CIA agent Sarah Walker (Yvonne Strahovski) and NSA agent John Casey (Firefly's Adam Baldwin) to act as handlers. Chuck simultaneously represents the USA's biggest asset as well as its biggest liability - while his newfound ability to "flash" (or access Intersect information) on persons, names, or objects relevant to CIA cases helps Sarah and John fight evil, the secrets in Chuck's head also make him an irresistible target for America's enemies.

In case you forgot, however, this show isn't all spywork. It's got a bit of everything - romance, drama, action, mystery, and more recently, sci-fi. The title is really the most accurate description of the show: it's all about Chuck, and how he adjusts to his changing circumstances. The excellent writing combined with Zachary Levi's spot-on performance makes Chuck a lovable and engaging centerpiece. At the beginning of the show he's a certified loser - he's still licking his wounds five years after his dreams were shattered and lives in a kind of never-grow-up stasis, never moving out of his sister's apartment, still plugging away at the dead-end job he took up after college, and forget about girlfriends!

His life might have proceeded indefinitely in that direction if not for the Intersect. Thanks to the secrets in his head, he's thrown into situations of danger and excitement he never would have dreamed of, and suddenly, Chuck develops an identity that goes deeper than a Buy More nametag. Spywork doesn't always agree with him - he's often clumsy, naive, and too goodhearted in situations that call for head-bashing and gunplay - but that's not the point. The joy of Chuck comes from watching how adventures with terrorists and gunrunners and assassins unwittingly contribute to Chuck's self-discovery, as he unearths hidden depths of intelligence, cunning, bravery, confidence, determination, and morality to deal with situations.

Before I bore my regular romance readers out of their minds, there is a romance to Chuck. Throughout the series, Sarah and Chuck skirt around their burgeoning feelings for each other, feelings that continue to develop despite ever-present obstacles. Sarah is an experienced spook, fully knowledgable in foreign languages, weapons, and martial arts. She's less experienced at love - her last boyfriend (and CIA partner) went rogue and stole government secrets, so she's hesitant about entering into a relationship again, especially with the computer nerd she's supposed to be protecting. Chuck, meanwhile, pines for Sarah but at the same time feels a relationship with her is incompatible with his plan to return to a normal life once the Intersect is extracted from his brain. He's also intimidated by her because, well, she's a walking weapon and he's a nerd.

Regular romance readers will be intrigued by the reversed power dynamic in Chuck and Sarah's relationship. In Chuck, Sarah is the physically powerful, dominant, take-charge Alpha while Chuck is the submissive, physically weaker, emotional Beta. The Alpha-Beta dynamic itself is still intact (the Alpha generally solves problems physically, the Beta intellectually - the Alpha is emotionally suppressed while the Beta is expressive), but in the romance novels I read the hero is almost always the physically dominating Alpha while the heroine's job as the Beta is to counter the Alpha with cunning, wit, and emotion. It's particularly sweet here to see the reversed gender dynamic - especially since Chuck can still be incredibly sexy without breaking down doors and kung-fu gripping everybody.

By Season Two, both Sarah and Chuck realize they're in love with each other, but they remain stuck on the sticky question of whether entering into a relationship would be wise with both their futures so uncertain. Season Two also heralds the appearance of a new villainous entity: "Fulcrum," a secret society composed of CIA double-agents who achieve their ends through violence, subterfuge, and eeeevil. Fulcrum's on the lookout for the Intersect, and while so far only Chuck, Sarah, Casey, and their boss General Beckman (Bonita Friedericy) know it's locked in Chuck's head, he's still in considerable danger should the baddies ever find out the truth.

While Chuck's first season was cut short by the writers' strike, the strike also cut a swath through the number of pilots available for the following TV season, so Chuck was able to secure a second season. Now, however, the writing industry's bounced back, hordes of potential pilots are waiting in the wings, and Jay Leno's new talk show with NBC takes away an hour of primetime space every weekday. Chuck's not doing terribly, but its ratings are average, which means it's still at risk of being cancelled to make way for new blood or more Leno space. I can only hope that NBC gives Chuck the third season it deserves - the show possesses a highly sympathetic character, zinging humour, some truly hilarious action scenes, and a sweet and slow-burning romance. In truth, it's got a little bit of everything. The first season's out of DVD, I recommend giving it a try.