Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Let the Brain Melting Begin! The Best of the 2009-10 TV Season

It's that time again - the time when old shows return (yay to The Office, Fringe, and Saturday Night Live) and new shows premiere to suck me in and waste my valuable, valuable time.

Isn't it great?

Yes, it's not even October yet, but I've already narrowed down my best-of list to three. My top three new shows of the season are:

3. Eastwick. Admittedly, I didn't know what to expect of this series. I didn't like the movie (the cherries! Ewww....), hadn't read the book, and the early reviews on this show were pretty terrible.

Now that I've seen the premiere, I think it's maybe because people expected this show to be serious. It's not. It's really not. But that's all part of the fun.

Yup, Eastwick is fun. We have a delightful New England small town setting, light humour, fun characters, and Paul Gross. Dude, Paul Gross. If you are Canadian, you are obligated to support this show just to show your patriotism.

The plot, such as it is, is this: the small town of Eastwick used to be famous for its witches, although now most of the townsfolk just hype it up as a fun folksy myth. That is, until three women start developing powers. Roxie (Rebecca Romijn), a free-spirited artist cruelly labeled the town slut because she's dating a much younger man, starts having prophetic dreams and visions. Kat (Jaime Ray Newman), a harried nurse with five kids who's married to a lazy drunk, discovers she has power (although little control) over nature. Finally, there's Joanna (Lindsay Price), a shy, mousy reporter who discovers she can hypnotize and control people with her eyes.

These women never really discover the true extent of their magic until a dark, mysterious stranger strolls into town (Paul Gross, reprising Jack Nicholson's role), who encourages them out of their repression but who may, unfortunately, be the devil. If there was a recipe for Eastwick, it would be a dash of Gilmore Girls for setting and atmosphere, a spoonful of Practical Magic for the fantasy aspect, and a cup of Desperate Housewives for light, soapy humour. I hate to sound sexist, but it really is a fun girly show to watch curled up under a blanket with some hot chocolate.

The characters are great, too, and it's fun to watch how their magic both complements and complicates their lives, especially with the Devil's interference, which has both good and bad consequences. Kat, the working mother with the unemployed husband, spends so much time caring for other people and embodying the nurturing and life-giving aspect of nature (which is magically demonstrated by her ever-growing tomatoes), but she also possesses the darker half of mother nature's powers: destructiveness (in the premiere, she unintentionally causes an earthquake and has her asshat husband struck by lightning).

Joanna is used to being ignored and a doormat, despite her passion for journalism, until the Devil (alright, alright, Darryl) reveals that the reason she's taken for granted is because she believes she's undeserving of notice, so her hypnotic powers have unintentionally convinced everyone around her to ignore her and take her for granted. Once she actually starts going for what she wants, she gets it - but how far can she take her powers of persuasion before she crosses the line?

And Roxie, well - she's already pretty uninhibited, but when the woman who always lives in the Now starts getting crystal-clear visions of the Yet To Come, how can she plan ahead?

Seriously, ladies, ignore the reviews - try Eastwick, and have some fun.

2. The Vampire Diaries
In this case, do listen to the reviews. For some reason, I find I can tolerate vampires much more on television than I can in romance, and Vampire Diaries is no exception. My goodness, this show is addictive, thanks in part to the fact that it manages to uphold all the dark, interesting aspects of vampire mythology while at the same time taking it in new directions.

Main character Elena (Nina Dobrev, another Canadian!) starts the new school year in Mystic Falls, Virginia, with a firm resolution to Be Happy. Months before, her parents were killed in a car accident so now she and her drug addict brother Jeremy (Steven R. McQueen) live with their aunt. Even as she's trying to convince her friends and the townsfolk that She's Okay (in part so that they'll stop asking if she is), she's not the same bubbly, social girl she was before and she spends a lot of time writing in her journal, in order to keep some of the past alive.

At school, she runs into a mysterious new student, Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley). Instead of pity or determined cheerfulness, he shows her compassion and understanding, and she quickly takes to him. Unbeknownst to her (although fully knownst to us, heh), Stefan is a 200-year-old vampire. He doesn't sparkle, thank heaven, but he wears a special ring that allows him to come out in sunlight.

Oh, and he has an older brother, Damon (Ian Somerhalder), who's also a vampire, only eeeeevil, and he demonstrates his evilness in the Grand Tradition of Vampire Fiction by being funnier and sexier than the Good Vampire (a la Eric over Bill in True Blood and Spike over Angel in Buffy). Damon and Stefan have a history, a deep dark mysterious history, involving a girl they both loved who died in a fire in 1845.

Did I mention that this girl, Catherine, just so coincidentally happens to conveniently look exactly like Elena? No?

While we have this delicious drama, however, the show doesn't hamper itself by making this the only conflict. The show doesn't burden us with overbearing angst and darkness and emo-ness, but provides a well-rounded plot with several different threads (not all of which involve vampires, or evilness, or magic). Along with the Elena-Stefan-Damon conflict we also have the troubles of Elena's troubled brother Jeremy who's in love with the quarterback's equally troubled (albeit older) sister, Elena's friend Bonnie who just might be a witch, and the quarterback, Matt - a genuinely nice guy whose brief romance with Elena came to a dead halt upon her parents' death and who wants to renew their relationship. This is one of the show's main strengths - while it does give us the spice of a magical main storyline, it also provides some down-to-earth relatable human dramas as well to keep the story from becoming overblown or boring.

However, even from the vampire angle, the show takes it in some new directions. Stefan really wants to live a normal life, so instead of lurking in the shadows he goes and joins the football team. A vampire. On a football team. In a jersey. In an episode titled "Friday Night Bites." In that episode, he even makes some jokes about how he shouldn't try out because he's "supposed to be the loner." Even though Stefan, by being the Good Vampire, is relegated to the role of Second Sexiest Dude on the Show, it doesn't mean he can't crack a joke, be cheerful, have fun, and, y'know, like, not drown in an Overwhelming Pit of Centuries-Old Angst.

And Damon. Oh, Damon Damon Damon. He is hilarious. He definitely takes the Buffy route by using his evilness as an excuse to crack wise and be funny rather than glower and grimace. No one in town knows he's evil but Stefan, so Damon breezes in with a sneaky grin and all these vampire double-entendres and everyone laughs but Stefan is suddenly all Growly Face because Damon's been Eating a Bunch of People and has Enslaved the Head Cheerleader with his Sexy Hypnotic Vampire Eyes but only Stefan knows.

That being said - there is some Serious Vampire Drama in this show, and it's well-developed without taking over the plot entirely. So yeah. Hawt vampires. Actual humour and depth. Dark drama evenly mixed with light soap. So go out and watch it!

1. Glee
To paraphrase ex-Glee-club leader Sandy Ryerson (Stephen Tobolownsky): "What's Glee? KILL YOURSELF!"

Seriously, Glee is a great show. Like the two other shows I've hyped in this post, Glee succeeds because it combines darkness and light in equal measure. Primarily, it's a surreal comedy about Will (Matthew Morrison), a teacher at his former high school who decides to take the Glee Club (full of misfits and rejects and one blackmailed popular jock) and make them good enough to place at Regionals.

Of course, he does have obstacles - like Sue Sylvester (the incomparable Jane Lynch), the leader of the school's champion cheerleading squad the Cheerios, who doesn't like the idea of Glee Club stealing the Cheerios' thunder. He also has to deal with his immature wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig), his burgeoning affection for the school's cute but obsessive-compulsive guidance counselor Emma (Jayma Mays), and the prima donna affectations of Rachel (Lea Michele), a truly gifted but arrogant Glee Club member who won't tolerate anyone getting the solos but herself.

Each of the Glee Club members gets their own story (and songs!) as well as fantastic character development. Even characters that threaten to be stereotypical (like school bully Puck and bitchy cheerleader Quinn) get fleshed out in truly original ways. Not to mention, each and every one of these characters can sing and do so in gorgeous musical numbers. Of course, the show takes the Chicago route when it comes to these numbers - characters only sing when they're a part of a Glee Club performance or rehearsal, or else in a fantasy sequence. No High School Musical I'm-singing-the-script nonsense.

However, these characters also have to face significant real-world problems that aren't immediately relevant to Glee Club - cheerleader Quinn (Diana Agron) finds out she's pregnant, Terri and Will are struggling to have a baby of their own, Rachel falls in love with popular jock Finn (Cory Monteith), and flamboyant tenor Kurt (Chris Colfer) has to come out to his dad.

There is just so much to love about Glee - the singing, the hilarious writing, the direction, the character development - that if I wrote it all down this post would be far too long. Just take my advice - watch the show.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Commentary: The Difference Between Liking and Empathizing With

*WARNING: THIS POST MAY HAVE SPOILERS ABOUT THE MOVIE DISTRICT 9, WHICH I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU ALL SEE BECAUSE IT WAS AWESOME. IF YOU'VE ALREADY SEEN IT, BY ALL MEANS READ ON. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED* I hate Seinfeld. That may seem like a weird way to start a post on a romance blog, but there you have it. Many people have said that Seinfeld is a hilarious, ground-breaking show in terms of comedy and direction, but I couldn't give a crap. Why? Because I despise the characters - they're a bunch of whiny losers who inexplicably feel entitled to perfection and spend episode after episode complaining about a single tiny flaw that one person had.

I don't really care that some of the jokes were funny (admittedly, some are) because I just don't like watching the characters. Even now, if a re-run comes on, I would rather turn off the TV then let their high-pitched whines serve as background noise.

I like The Strangers. You know, the movie in which Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler are terrorized in their own house by random mask-wearing people. A lot of my coworkers scoff that The Strangers was a terrible horror movie, but I have to admit that this movie scared the everlovin' shit out of me.

I don't normally watch horror movies, but I was on a bit of a Scott Speedman kick so I rented it. The first fifteen minutes, in a very subtle and beautiful fashion, quickly set up the dynamic between Kristin (Tyler) and James (Speedman). Returning from a wedding reception, James proposes to Kristin but is rejected. We don't even see the proposal or the rejection - at the beginning of the movie, we simply see James drive Kristin back to their house - James with a white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel and Kristin with tears on her face.

For the next ten minutes, James and Kristin fumble around each other as they try to decide what to do now and the actors convey the characters' emotions so powerfully - it's obvious they still love each other but have no idea how to move on from the failed proposal. Kristin is hesitant and guilty, James is saddened but still a consummate chivalrous gentleman.

Without these fifteen minutes, I don't think this movie would have worked for me. But by the time the Strangers show up to cause hell, I cared about the characters enough that I was really engaged by what happened. I was scared when they were scared, because I wanted them to survive and resolve their relationship problems (as well as the obvious problem of freaky psychopaths in doll masks stalking their property with hatchets).

In cheesy slasher flicks, the victims are, more often than not, selfish, vapid characters who are purposefully annoying (remember the scene from Scream when Jaime Kennedy points out that the people who drink the most beer and have the most sex die first?). I never found slasher flicks very scary because often I wanted the characters to die - the characterization in these films are often so shoddy because the filmmakers seem to want the audience to root for the villain (Michael Myers, Freddy Kreuger, Jason, Chucky) because they're the characters the franchise is built on that come back in film after film.

What I'm trying to get to, with my hatred of Seinfeld and love for The Strangers, is that I am a reader and watcher who likes characters. Story is all well and good, but the characters are paramount. At first, however, I thought that when I read a book or watched a movie that I needed the characters to be likable. I had to like them - they had to be people I could stand to be around on a daily basis and who agreed (more or less) with my own moral and ethical standards.

This seemed to fit with my opinion of Seinfeld (where the characters are self-centered, lazy, duplicitous assholes) and Strangers (where the characters only want what's best for the other).

My own understanding of my character preferences changed when I saw District 9. I'm definitely not going against popular opinion when I say that I adored this movie and that it was awesome. The special effects were spectacular, the story was gripping, the format (half shaky-cam, half documentary) was very effective - but what fascinated and entertained me the most about this movie was the main character, Wikus.

However - was Wikus likable? Hell, no. At the beginning of the movie, he's this weaselly, patronizing, bigoted bureaucrat who's married to the boss's daughter, which explains how he lands the important job of heading the task force to evict the alien refugees (known colloquially as "prawns") from their current slum of District 9 to the newer, more tightly-guarded and prison-like District 10. The move is exploitative, shady, and quite possibly illegal in how it offers the aliens little to no rights - and Wikus knows it. When he offers an eviction notice to an alien with a request that he sign it, the alien angrily swipes the clipboard from his hands and screams, "Fuck off!" Wikus picks up the form, now dirtied by the alien's handprint, and says they'll consider the mark a signature of consent anyway.

Also, when soldiers burn a shack filled with unborn alien eggs, Wikus gleefully giggles at the camera and says, "It sounds like popcorn going off!" What a guy.

Of course, everything changes when Wikus unintentionally winds up infected with alien DNA, and he gets put through the wringer. He's kidnapped, tortured, and experimented on, as it's discovered that his mixture of alien DNA allows him to operate the prawns' biologically-programmed superweapons, which human governments want for themselves. Wikus becomes South Africa's most valuable biological commodity, once he's harvested.

Wikus manages to escape and flees to where no one would think to look for him - District 9. However, does he become likable then? Not really. Although he eventually does team up with a rebellious prawn and his young son who seek to return to their mothership, it's obvious that Wikus is still mainly looking out for himself, and that his prejudiced beliefs haven't just miraculously evaporated. He makes a lot of selfish, fearful decisions throughout the movie.

So why was he my favourite character? Here is the argument I've been getting towards: liking a character doesn't necessarily equal feeling empathy for them. It can, but it doesn't have to. Liking something is easy to define. To feel empathy for someone, however, means you understand them, and even sympathize. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to like or agree with them.

Take X-Men's Magneto, for example. His character's not exactly friendly - he's murderous, ambitious, power-hungry, with plans for mutant domination. However, he provokes a lot of empathy as a character, as his backstory allows us to understand why he is the way he is. He survived the concentration camps of World War II, so he's experienced the very worst of human hatred, so it makes sense why he's hell-bent on preventing that from happening again.

Ultimately, I think I prefer characters who incite empathy over characters who are simply likable. As long as the characters make decisions I can understand on a sympathetic level, then I don't necessarily have to like them - although inevitably that's what usually happens. Think of Michael Scott from The Office - he's a terrible boss, but as we get to understand his character and his incredibly lonely childhood and personal life he inspires an enormous amount of empathy (at least from me), so that when he does make those rare good decisions it's all the more powerful. With The Strangers, because we get that first 15-minute interlude where we get a glimpse into the characters' personal lives, we understand them and thus empathize with their terror when their lives are invaded.

However, with the d-bags from Seinfeld, I can never empathize or understand why they'd all get so worked up over the small stuff, to the point where it ruined their personal lives.

With Wikus, even as he did occasional asshat-ish things, we understand what he's going through because we see it happen. He has his whole life taken from him, all at once - his job, his reputation, the wife he adores, and even his humanity. His desperation to return his life to the way it was, no matter the cost, rings true - and that, of course, makes the moments where he finally grows some balls and decides to think of others for a change all the more powerful because we already know how much motivation he has to think only of himself.

If the writer/director had turned Wikus into a grandstanding hero who quickly realizes the utter foolishness of his asshat-ery, he might have made Wikus more likable, but he would be crippling our empathy for Wikus because it would weaken our understanding of his character. The beginning of the movie shows us a Wikus who is a small-minded, callous pencil-pusher - if he suddenly changed all of his principles at the drop of a hat, it wouldn't have made any sense. The fact that it takes so long for Wikus to consider life beyond his own nose corresponds with what we've come to grasp of his character - so when he finally does decide to make the selfless choice, it's a choice that is clearly motivated, that incites our empathy and that finally (finally!) makes us like Wikus as much as we understand him.

In this roundabout way, I'm trying to tie all this in to romance novels. Some authors, in a mistaken bid to pander to readers instead of concentrating on the strength and foundation of their narrative, put all their effort and writing talent into making their characters as likable as possible - they want to give their characters lots of good qualities to incite reader admiration, but because they are afraid of turning readers off, they don't give their protagonists any corresponding faults.

Unfortunately, this type of thinking results in the Mary Sue heroine/Gary Stu hero. Mary Sues are heroines who are perfectly perfect - they're kind to animals, they give to the poor, they love children, they ignore bigoted social conventions, and they're nice to everyone (except maybe the slutty villainesses) and are, in turn, loved by everyone else.

Easy to like? Sure. Easy to empathize with? No. Because we're not perfectly perfect, it's very difficult to comprehend the how and the why behind a Mary Sue's reasoning. Why are they nice to everyone? Why do they ignore a social convention that everyone else follows to the letter? To quote Dollhouse's Topher: "Everyone who runs towards something is also running away from something else" - so a character who has strengths in one area has to have weaknesses in another, else their strengths are meaningless.

I'm not saying that characters in romance shouldn't be likable - but I'm saying that I, as a romance reader, prefer well-written, flawed characters whose actions and decisions I can understand over characters who are always nice and always kind but who don't have a real basis for why they act the way they do.

My name is AnimeJune, and I read for flawed protagonists.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"The Last Heiress," by Bertrice Small

Alternate Title: Inglorious (Spineless, Whiny, Badly Characterized) Bastards

The Chick: Elizabeth Meredith. As the mistress of the wealthy estate of Friarsgate, Elizabeth is independent and outspoken, but she still needs an heir if she wants her lands to prosper after she's gone.
The Rub: Of course, Elizabeth is Fiery and Spirited and Strong-Willed, so she will only tolerate a husband who obeys her every whim, won't disagree with her ideas for Friarsgate, and will let her wear pants. In the 1500s. Yeah, good luck with that, lady.
Dream Casting: Claire Danes.

The Dude: Baen McColl. The bastard son of minor Scottish gentry, Baen is sent by his Da to Elizabeth's farm to see if he can purchase some of her famous sheep. He quickly discovers that being bossed around is a real turn-on.
The Rub: Being born on the wrong side of the blanket has left him with Inferiority Issues, and all the spine of a beached jellyfish. At least he's well endowed!
Dream Casting: Gerard Butler.

The Plot:
Rosamund, Elizabeth's Mum: You need an heir!

Elizabeth: NO! I'm 22 and can do what I want! *stomps foot*

Thomas, Elizabeth's Ambiguously Gay Uncle: You need a husband!

Elizabeth: Husbands are for sissies! Love is for sissies! I am WOMAN! And I can do what I want! *tosses hair*

Baen McColl: Hey, you're pretty.

Elizabeth and Baen: *smooch*

Elizabeth: I need a maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.

Thomas: Off to court with you!

After Several Very Boring and Pointless Tudor Court Chapters...

Elizabeth: Baen, let's get married!

Baen: No, I have ISSUES! And I love my Daddy too much!

Elizabeth: Why don't you just ask him if you can get married?

Baen: What? And ruin a perfectly good father-son bond with logic? ARE YOU MAD?

Elizabeth: You're a moron. Don't come back.

Elizabeth: *preggers* SHIT.

Baen: Fine, let's get married.

Elizabeth: NO. I am an angry, hormonal pregnant woman and I can do what I want! *water breaks* Fine, I forgive you.

Baen: Hooray!

Thomas: But wait, wait, wait - book's not over!

More Pointless and Self-Indulgent Tudor Court Chapters...
Anne Boleyn: *dies*

Elizabeth: Hooray! ... wait a minute.

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Fiery, Tempestuous Female Who Can't Be Tamed

1 Bastard Hero with an Inferiority Complex

1 Set of Daddy Issues

1 Ambiguously Gay Uncle

1 Snooty Sister

Half a Book's Worth of Redundant Description

Several Uses of the Word "Love Lance," "Love Passage," and "Love Juice" To Describe the Male Sexual Organ, Female Sexual Organ, and Sexual Bodily Fluids of Both Genders, Respectively

1 Romantically Quite Good Rival (sorry, Flynn!)

Several Historical Personages (watch The Tudors, I'm not catching you up)

1 Surprise! Baby

The Word: When I told my friends and bloggers and fellow Tweeters that I was going to read a Bertrice Small novel, I got a lot of LOLs and smirks. "Can't wait to read the review," they said.

"Can't wait to read what you think of Small," they said.

Well, HA HA HA FRIENDS. Thank you SO MUCH for letting me read this. "Oh no, keep driving AnimeJune, don't worry about the CLIFF of ridiculously bad plotting and asinine characters you're heading towards."

After finally finishing The Last Heiress, I'm tempted to spread my arms and scream, Gladiator-style, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED??!"

Actually, the start of this book was rather deceptive. See, I could tell from the e-giggles of my Twitter pals that Bertrice Small didn't have the highest reputation for good writing, so I was tentative, perhaps expecting another literary clusterfuck a la Fern Michaels. But no. Bertrice Small's storytelling has many faults that I can't wait to describe at length to you, dear readers, but actual bad writing isn't one of them. I started this book expecting the worst and when the beginning was rather blandly pleasant I was put off my guard.

Sneaky, sneaky Bertrice Small.

The novel starts off harmlessly enough - Elizabeth Meredith, rambunctious Tudor-Era Feminist, is the heiress to Friarsgate, a tidy estate on the border between England and Scotland. She cares only for her sheep and her crops, and we know this because Elizabeth takes every possible opportunity to tell anyone who will listen that she cares about only for her sheep and her crops.

Her mother, Rosamund, and her Ambiguously Gay Uncle Thomas despair over Elizabeth's future - at age 22, she's already an old maid by Tudor standards and Friarsgate needs a proper heir. At last, they decide to send her on a trip to court to see if she can snag a husband.

While preparations are underway, Baen McColl, the bastard son of a Scottish noble interested in Friarsgate's famous wool, arrives at the estate to see if he can buy some of Elizabeth's sheep. While thoroughly charmed by the breathtakingly small scope of Elizabeth's hobbies, interests, and world-knowledge as well as her childish and self-absorbed personality, Baen knows he hasn't got a chance because he's an unlanded bastard.

Despite their unsuitability, Baen and Elizabeth share a few smooches before Elizabeth's packed off to court.

Okay, so by this point I've realized the characters are a tad simplistic and the writing style veers into Redundencyville, but we've only touched the tip of the iceberg. Once Elizabeth goes to court, we are treated to the most tedious, pointless, self-indulgent segment of the novel. Elizabeth knows it's unlikely she'll find a proper husband at court and that the whole endeavour's doomed to fail - well GUESS WHAT? It does!

But not before we are treated to chapter, after chapter, AFTER CHAPTER of Elizabeth's wanderings around the court that only confirm her suspicions again and again. Meanwhile, the reader is clumsily spoonfed Tudor history as Elizabeth miraculously befriends a sketchily-characterized Anne Boleyn who whines about how life is so hard (tell it to Catherine of Aragon, honey). This entire segment of the novel goes on for way too long and contributes absolutely nothing to the story. I nearly made this novel a DNF by the halfway mark - not because it was heinously bad, but because it was JUST. SO. BORING.

Elizabeth's character isn't affected in the least by her failed introduction at court, and when she returns to Friarsgate, her relationship with Baen is picked up as easily as if she'd only been gone a day. The Tudor court sequence of the novel, which takes up a disastrously large chunk of the book, reeks suspiciously of an author desperate to show off how much historical research she's done, regardless of whether it serves the story or not. I'm sorry, Bertrice Small, but Phillipa Gregory you ain't.

The novel picks up after Elizabeth returns - and by picks up, I mean becomes childish and stupid instead of boring and stupid. So yeah, it's still pretty stupid but at least stuff is going on. Elizabeth comes to the lightning-flash conclusion that Baen is the man of her dreams and decides she'll go to any lengths to get under that kilt. I kind of admire her angst-free love for Baen and her gumption, but her efforts are wasted on Baen, who rejects her advances because he is a coward and a weenie. He loves her too, but thinks he can't marry her because he owes his loyalty to his beloved father. Of course, he never actually bothers to ask his supposedly beloved father if he can marry Elizabeth because that would mean he'd actually have to grow a pair and destroy the only contrived obstacle to their relationship.

So what happens is, they make lots of hot, illicit love (described with creeeepy creepy euphemisms like "love passage," "love lance," and "love juice"), but when Elizabeth asks for a ring, Baen makes a lot of sad mopey faces and rides away. Elizabeth ends up impregnated with his Ultra-Fertile Weenie Male Seed, and even when her male relatives show up to drag Baen to the altar he's all like, "But I can't, I'm just a poor bastard, my loyalty's to my Da" (to Small's credit, Baen's dad is all "WTF. My son is a moron.").

Of course, Baen returns to Friarsgate to marry Elizabeth, who is quite determined to make his life a living hell for having the audacity to come back and help take care of her baby. Once she goes into labour and her Huge-Ass Alpha Male Spawn ends up wedged in her, uh, love passage and Baen has to help it out, Baen quickly apologizes and is just as quickly forgiven. The end? Nope.

Bertrice Small has done so much arduous historical research that she simply can't let us finish the book without making sure we know just how faithfully she watched every episode of The Tudors, so in the final chapters Elizabeth is yanked out of her HEA by a hysterical Anne Boleyn (now pregnant with Queen E) as the plot comes to yet another standstill as we are subjected to pages of pointless description of Anne's coronation that have nothing whatsoever to do with Elizabeth, Baen, or Friarsgate and everything to do with self-indulgent page-padding.

UGH. Not only was the plot a torturous slog, but the romance was paltry, to say the least. Elizabeth and Baen are very childish, simplistically drawn characters who are given exactly ONE motivation each to explain all their illogical, selfish behaviour. Elizabeth loves Friarsgate with an obsessive, all-consuming passion that blinds her to everything else. Her romance doesn't change this - one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes in the novel is when her water breaks and her mother realizes Elizabeth has neglected to prepare any baby clothes or even bring the family cradle out of the dusty attic in the entire nine-month span of her pregnancy because she was just too darn busy with Friarsgate. Bertrice Small's overuse of speech tags only emphasizes Elizabeth's immaturity - she's always wailing, shrieking, sobbing, pouting everything she says.

Baen was just as bad, if not worse. His father is supposedly Scotland's Awesomest Dad who took in his bastard and raised him with love and kindness, so Baen refuses to do anything on his own because he fears his dad will take any independent action on his part as a sign of disloyalty. Elizabeth (quite reasonably) assumes Baen's dad must be a tyrant, but the truth is that Baen is a coward. Baen's given a relationship obstacle that could have been solved with one conversation, and it never made sense why he held out as long as he did. He never even solves his obstacle himself by growing some balls and flat-out asking his dad if he could marry Elizabeth - he has to be dragged kicking and screaming to that conclusion as Elizabeth's male relatives do the asking for him (Baen's father says yes immediately, because he really is Scotland's Awesomest Dad).

Waiting for other people to solve your problems for you doesn't make you romantic protagonist, it makes you a weenie.

Add to that the fact that Baen and Elizabeth don't spend that much time together. Well, "on page" time. The author tells us Baen spends months working for Elizabeth, but throughout the novel Elizabeth spends more pages at court or alone on her estate than she does with Baen.

On top of that, the book's length was painfully unnecessary. If I could describe Bertrice Small's writing with a single word, it would be "redundant." She writes as if for an audience of goldfish, always reminding us of perfectly obvious things and repeating backstories and descriptions, along with doing an abominable amount of telling over showing - as well as telling and showing, which is even worse. For instance, Elizabeth will have an experience at court, and in the next scene, Elizabeth will meet a secondary character and take up an entire page describing in dialogue exactly what we just read. Bertrice Small's characters also have no sense of privacy or discretion and will happily regurgitate their backstories and personal histories to anyone who will listen. Phillipa, Elizabeth's sister, has her history with Queen Catherine of Aragon repeated no fewer than three times to three different people.

Also, Bertrice Small needs to ease up on her adverbs and speech tags - maybe this is because she is from an older generation of romance writers who used more purple language (like Kathleen E. Woodiwiss *shudder*), but she re-uses the same ones again and again! The words "wickedly" and "candidly" should be removed from her vocabulary because every time she used them, I heard Inigo Montoya's voice saying, "You keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means."

Also - Bertrice Small, I hate to be the one to break the news to you but - boys have a penis, and girls have a vagina. "Love lance" is not an appropriate euphemism for penis. You also use the word "manroot," and I really would prefer you use "manroot" so long as "love lance" is never mentioned again. Same with "love passage" for vagina - you're not going to end up on the other side. You go in and out, that's how sex works. Also, it's called semen, not "love juice." The penis is not a fruit, the vagina is not a juicer, and that is not how you fulfill your daily vitamin C intake.

So there you have it, folks. I read a Bertrice Small novel, and it was repetitive, boring, illogical, simplistic, juvenile, self-indulgent, pointless and silly. That being said, I don't think it quite merits an F grade. Why? Because even though I disliked her novel, Small's style can be pleasant on occasion when the story isn't quite so silly (such as at the beginning) and her historical scenic descriptions do create a sense of atmosphere - unlike Fern Michaels, who can't even write about her own century accurately. And, unlike Susan Mallery, while I found the story stupid, I didn't find it hateful. Frankly, Baen and Elizabeth are both idiots, and deserve each other.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Day Five

What do you MEAN they haven't announced Best Romance Blog yet?? What am I supposed to do with this post?

Oh, tell people what I love best about my blog, in 50 words or less? As wordy as I usually am, I only need three:

My review format.

As regular readers know, my reviews for the last two years have a specific format. While I've tweaked it a bit over the months (adding the Alternate Title for laughs), I've generally remained the same. If you look into my older archives when I was just starting out my blog in 2004-2006, you can see that I had a really, really loose way of reviewing things (I briefly had a Crush du Jour rating which I jettisoned because it used too many images and made no sense).

But my review format really reflects myself as a reader. You'll notice I start out with a break-down of the hero and heroine and the main problems that keep them apart, then I have a funny little synopsis of the plot and the romantic conventions, and then a lengthier, in-depth review of the book as a whole.

Whenever I remember a romance I read, I always remember the characters first. Romance is generally more character-driven than plot driven - a lot of plots are really similar (I stand by my belief that Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels and Celeste Bradley's The Duke Next Door have the same plot - although Lord of Scoundrels is by far the better book), but it's always the characters who stand out to me.

There are, in fact, many romances that have silly plots but are redeemed by loveable, empathetic characters, which is why all my reviews have a silly plot breakdown but can still be favourite reads.

But I like to go in-depth about what I care about, so after my plot descriptions and romance conventions I do a detailed review as well. There's nothing I hate worse than a review that states an opinion and doesn't back it up with an explanation. Sometimes this involves plot spoilers (in my review of Teresa Medeiros' Yours Until Dawn, I needed to spoil the ending because it was the ending that ultimately decided my review grade).

So, as you can see, I love my review format because it fits the kind of reader I am, and what my priorities are when I read. As well, the break-down format also forces me to analyse a lot of what I've read in hindsight, which helps me understand the books even more after I've read them.

Now, my task for BBAW today is also to describe in 50 words or less where I'd like my blog to be next year. Hmmm, that's a tough question. I like routines and schedules. I'm not really a fond-of-change person.

I think what I'd like to be next year is a blogger who has a more regular schedule. Right now, I read whenever I can and review whenever I'm finished, so that means reviews can be anything from two days to two weeks apart, because I have a 3-romance books, 1-regular fiction book reading habit. I guess I'd like to be a faster reader so I can get you guys funny reviews faster, but how I'll accomplish that is anyone's guess.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Day Four

Okay, so for Day Four of Book Blogger Appreciation Week, my task is to talk about a favourite book of mine that I never would have found without the recommendation of another book blogger. I've frequently received comments on Gossamer Obsessions from people saying, "Wow, I have to try this book now" or "I read this and loved it, thanks" after reading my reviews, and this swells my dear bookworm's heart to uncomfortably large proportions, really it does.

But once, I was a romance newbie. The first book blog I can remember reading was Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Novels - this was waaaay back in 2006-2007, before they shortened their name to Smart Bitches, Trashy Novels. To this day I still can't remember how I found this blog in the first place, but the beautiful site design caught me (yes, I'm shallow and like bright colours and shiny things), and I started reading their posts.

I'd never read romances before that. I was strictly a sword-and-sorcery gal, avidly chewing my way through door-stopper fantasy trilogies by Tad Williams, Kate Elliott and Robin Hobb. I wasn't an opponent of romance - rather, I was oblivious to it. I didn't care one way or the other. Most of my favourite heroines fell in love with men who died (or fell in love with Death, as in Tanya Huff's marvellous Wizard of the Grove duology), or red-headed beanpole scullery boys who turned out to be secret kings (such as in Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series), or two men at once (in Mickey Zucker Reichert's Beyond Ragnarok books our heroine's love triangle is only further complicated when she sleeps with two dudes and gives birth to BOTH of their sons AT THE SAME TIME, FO REALS).

The romance in my favourite fantasy books was the tasty french fries that came with the meaty steak-sandwich of the plot - it flavoured the story, but it wasn't the whole deal. There were evil uncles to kill and magical ships to captain and talking wolves to befriend. I couldn't understand how a plot could be interesting if it didn't have a giant monster to kill in it.

But I read the Smart Bitches' posts anyway, and they were hilarious. They fiercely defended the honour of Good Romance (Kinsale and Kleypas and Crusie), but holy crap when a romance was bad they would beat the everlovin' literary shit out of it (one of their DNFs was a Fern Michaels book - why oh why didn't I listen??). I was intrigued by some of their reviews, but, hey, none of them had dragons in them. Nothing to get too excited about.

However, thanks to their effusive and witty reviews, in 2007 when I went on a bookrun, I decided to pick up a copy of one of the books they recommended the most highly: Bet Me, by Jennifer Crusie. Since I was a university English major at the time, it went at the bottom of my TBR because I had course reading. When I finished reading all the books on my reading list, I decided that after a year of reading heavier works like Samuel Beckett's Malloy (a DNF), Mary Barton and Diamond Grill, I was eager to relax and read something fun.

So I picked up Bet Me.

Frankly, I think I'm way overdue for a re-read (and re-review!) of Bet Me because it is a fabulous book, and one that quickly got me hooked on romance. We have a heroine who is plus sized, wears terrible clothes, and has a CRAY-ZAY mother. We have a hero who is hot, dyslexic, and gets horny watching women eat good food. We have a delusional psychologist ex, a crazy cat, a cheesy Disney snowglobe, delicious chicken marsala, and great shoes. We have a delightful sex scene that involves bondage and donuts.

On top of the madcap craziness, however, we have two characters who are very sympathetic and real. We have villains with motivation who aren't necessarily bad people - just the wrong people. We have a plot that begins with a gimmick (a drunken bet) that doesn't become a contrivance for the whole novel. And I discovered that I don't need an epic quest or a magical sword to be entertained.

I discovered a similar thread in the fantasies I read as well as the romances I started to devour: I like characters. I loved Robin Hobb's Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies because the protagonist Fitz is an empathetic hero who faces real problems (self-doubt, loneliness, a need to belong) along with his psychic powers and the aforementioned evil uncle. I rooted for Simon in Tad William's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series because underneath the armour and the hasty knighthood is an uncertain 16-year-old boy who rarely has an idea of what the fuck's going on but will try to do the right thing anyway. I adored Alanna in Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant series because she was a strong character with realistic motivations in an unrealistic, magical world.

Similarly, I grew impatient with fantasies like Melanie Rawn's Dragon Prince trilogy because the characters didn't make sense or make human decisions - the series had all the magic and bombastic special effects but the characters were propelled by the plots and didn't behave like real people.

I don't think reading Bet Me changed me as a reader. Instead, it helped me better identify what kind of a reader I was. I'm character-driven, and most romances tend to be character-driven stories. I don't think I would have found this out about myself without the help of the Smart Bitches.

Thank you, Sarah and Candy!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week: Day Three

So, at the time I am writing this, the Best Romance Blog has not been announced yet, but no matter! I recently found out that Online College.org's blog posted a top 100 list of Best Book Blogs and guess who's #72! Of course, the number doesn't determine the worth (all the blogs are organized by category - and the General Review Blogs are first), but still! You'll notice that Babbling About Books and the Book Smugglers also made the list.

Back to Book Blogger Appreciation Week, today we have a meme! Questions are in bold.

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snacks?
I don't snack while I read, usually. However, I always read during breakfast, sometimes during lunch, and occasionally during dinner if I'm by myself (which usually means just a sandwich or an omelette before I hop off to work a night shift).

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

Oh, it horrifies me. Back when my generous mum and dad bought my books new, I'd always be very particular about taking care of them. Creased spines? Oh no! Bent covers - a tragedy! Now that I buy my own books and I'm incredibly cheap, I don't care so much as long as I can get a book for the least amount of money, so I don't mind the older books I get at library sales or used book stores, but I still don't mark pages. And when it comes right down to it - I usually don't need to. I have a selective memory, but I tend to always remember (sometimes down to the page number) what I read.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears?
Bookmarks. Always bookmarks. Again, I don't dog-ear pages (book abuuuuuse!), and besides, I brought home, like, 65 bookmarks from RWA Nationals so I can use a new one every time!

Laying the book flat open?
Hardcover or trade paperback, yes (great for when I'm eating messy/sticky foods and can't touch the pages). Mass market paperback, no (creased spines! The HORROR!).

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both?
I pretty much read 99.9% fiction. I read some interesting non-fiction in university, but right now all I have on my TBR are fiction reads. I think if I ever do get into non-fiction it will probably be biographies of interesting people.

Hard copy or audiobooks?
Hard copy all the way. I've tried audiobooks, but I have ADD, so I can't actually pay attention to one person speaking all the way through without drifting off and then I lose my place (so to speak). Also - romance audiobooks are really, REALLY silly - I tried a Susan Elizabeth Phillips audiobook (Match Me If You Can) and the female narrator could NOT convince me she was voicing an alpha male. No she could not. I'm glad I turned it off before I got to any sex scenes. Ick.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point?
I can put a book down at any point, because usually I end up having to. I hate being unoccupied, at any time, be it on the bus, at the supermarket, or even brushing my teeth. I need to have a book with me (yes, even when brushing my teeth - I do it for 3 minutes) to fill up those tiny 3-, 4-, 10-minute gaps of nothing and that means I usually have to put it down suddenly when something important happens in real life.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away?
Not usually. I'm very lazy and I can usually guess what the word means from the context of the sentence. If it shows up often and I still can't figure out what it means, then maybe I'll look it up.

What are you currently reading?
Bertrice Small's The Last Heiress.

What is the last book you bought?
Mary Balogh's Simply Perfect.

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time?
I'm a monogamous reader. Unless I absolutely have to, I usually only read one book at a time. Even as a University English major I read like this, and I did it without too much trouble because I always was a keener and a bookworm who'd buy the entire reading list once it came out in August and read ahead.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read?
I can (and do) read anywhere, but my favourite places are in bed in the morning before I have to get up, and my father's armchair in the library in the afternoon.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books?
Both! As a reader of both fantasy and romance, I'm accustomed to both grand, sweeping epic series (fantasies) and the more stand-alone books (romance).

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over?
YES - The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh. I'd recommend pretty much anything written by Mary Balogh.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?)
By the amount of space I have. I'm not kidding. I like organizing my books when I have some spare time but more often than not I just squish my books wherever they'll fit. Right now I do have a different system for my Read books and my To Be Read books. If they're To Be Read, they get packed away in three storage boxes by my bed. Bookshelves are a luxury, if a book wants to end up on a shelf it'd better impress me with its story!

Don't forget to check out other BBAW participants to see how they answered their memes!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Goddess of the Hunt," by Tessa Dare

Alternative Title: The Rakehell, the Wench, and the Wardrobe

The Chick: Lucy Waltham. A tomboyish, free-spirited young woman, she's desperately in love with Sir Toby Aldridge. The only problem is, he's set to marry another. Lucy won't take defeat lying down, however - she's determined to use any means necessary to win Toby for herself, even if that means practicing her wiles on cold-as-ice Jeremy Trescott, her older brother's BFF.
The Rub: Jeremy starts wiling right back, proving he's not nearly the human glacier she's taken him for.
Dream Casting: Sense & Sensibility's Charity Wakefield.

The Dude: Jeremy Trescott, Earl of Kendall. He knows that Lucy's love for Toby is not returned, and wants to protect his best friend's sister from heartbreak. However, Jeremy risks his own heartbreak - Lucy's almost impossible to resist, especially since she keeps throwing herself at him to "practice" for Toby.
The Rub: He has a sad, secret past. Also, she's his best friend's sister, which means touching her breaks at least six rules of the Universal Guy Code.
Dream Casting: Jake Gyllenhaal.

The Plot:
Lucy: Toby, Toby, Toby...

Jeremy: He doesn't love you, you know.

Lucy: LA LA LA I'M NOT LISTENING....Toby, Toby, Toby...wanna make out?

Jeremy and Lucy: *smooch*

Jeremy: Lucy, Lucy, Lucy....dammit!

Lucy: Toby, Toby, Jeremy...dammit!

Lucy and Jeremy: *married*

Lucy: Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy...

Jeremy: Angst, angst, angst...

Lucy: I love you, you know.


Jeremy and Lucy: *sexx0r*

Jeremy: Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.

Lucy: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Angsty Hero with a Sad, Secret Past

1 Fiesty Heroine Who Hates Those Horrid Social Conventions

1 Inconveniently Dead Brother

1 Inconveniently Neglectful But Still Unfortunately Alive Brother

7 Minutes in Heaven (in an ancient wardrobe, no less!)

2 Sequel-Baits (Sophia and Toby)

1 Senile Grandma

1 Precocious Child

Several Drunken, Resentful Tenants

The Plot: Lucy Waltham has been in love with Sir Toby Aldridge for eight years. For eight years she tagged along with her brother Henry and his sexy manfriends Felix, Jeremy, and Toby as they did their sexy manthings every autumn at her bro's estate. Their sexy mancircle has weakened over the years thanks to Felix's and Henry's marriages, and now Sir Toby's set to propose to Sophia Hathaway, a perfectly-perfect blond beauty.

Lucy's all "like HELL he will" and is determined to seduce Toby away by any means necessary. She's nineteen and hawt, but untried, so one night she decides to launch her unpracticed goodies in Jeremy's direction so that she can approach Toby with a measure of experience. She thinks Jeremy's a prickly, stern stick-in-the-mud with all the sexuality of a starched linen napkin and if she can raise his flag, well, Toby's bound to give her a twenty-one gun salute!

Jeremy's all, "that bitch be CRAZY" but becomes crazy in lust with her nonetheless. However, he also cares for her and believes the glorious happy ending she thinks she's dashing towards is really the edge of a cliff. Toby, while a generally good dude, definitely doesn't return Lucy's feelings and is quite enamoured with his not-yet-fiancee. To try and persuade Lucy from her headlong dive into inevitable heartache, Jeremy starts shadowing her and sabotaging her childish quests for attention.

Goddess of the Hunt runs with two romantic cliches that normally get on my nerves: the spirited, feisty heroine who's allergic to Regency social norms and the gloomy hero who thinks he's too dirty and evil to deserve happiness. However, romance is a genre that is built on cliches and the best writers can not only overcome them, but use them in an entertaining way that demonstrates how they became popular enough to be cliches in the first place.

In my case, for an author to engage me with a cliche they must first 1) provide a reasonable motivation for the cliche to exist in the first place and 2) do something new with it. It doesn't have to be narratively - we all know the Sensuous Virgin isn't going to remain a Virgin for ever - but thematically, psychologically, or symbolically the author should create something fresh and unique. Mary Balogh is terrific at this.

And so, it seems, is Tessa Dare. After reading the first chapter excerpt at RWA, I was all set to hate Lucy, who came off as yet another infantalized, foot-stomping, anachronistically-feminist nuisance. However, she's an infantalized, foot-stomping, anachronistically-feminist nuisance who willingly puts herself in a very un-feminist position. She's in love with a man, and she's willing to use all of her feisty spiritedness to be the most submissive, proper, girly-girl wife ever. She will do anything for Sir Toby, even suppress her own personality, and sweet Jeebus, it is Oh So Wrong, in the Best Way.

It's much the same with Jeremy. We have yet another Mad, Bad Hero who's afraid his ugly, dirty bear-hands will smoosh his beloved's marshmellow face. Instead of being towering and imposing with his Extra-Strength Masculinity, however, he acts like the most paranoid of suburban parents, forever chasing Lucy around and bellowing at her to be careful of sharp corners and always ALWAYS look both ways before crossing the street - even as he's half-paralyzed with lust. Even as he longs to bone Lucy nine ways from Sunday, he yearns to convince her that wearing a football helmet at all times for her safety is all the rage right now. He'll even decorate that football helmet with diamonds and give her ruby-studded elbow-pads, now doesn't that sound nice?

Really, however, the main reason I found Lucy endearing and Jeremy sympathetic (instead of annoying and tiresome, respectively) is Tessa Dare's writing. There are two types of writing, I've found - Storytelling and Wordsmithing. Storytelling is when you can compose an understandable, engaging narrative. Wordsmithing is when you can uniquely string words together to create a brilliant sentence, with loving metaphors and gorgeous imagery. My favourite authors are always a mixture of both - not only can they tell a rippin' good yarn, but they can do it with such lyrical, poetic writing and turns of phrase and vibrant similes.

The majority of romances I've encountered always seem to lean more towards Storytelling, so to find one with beautiful writing as well as engaging storytelling is a real treat. Lucy's inner thoughts and struggles are so romantic and idealistic, that I quickly moved from simply tolerating her to wholeheartedly admiring her. She definitely has a bit of Anne of Green Gables' madcap charm, a charm that is sharpened by intelligence and burgeoning self-awareness. While she's a bit clueless for the first half of the novel, she really comes into her own in the second without compromising her character.

In the end, however, what keeps this novel from an A grade is Jeremy. While I enjoyed the direction Tessa Dare took with his character, he seemed a little obvious to me. By that I mean that his character is so clearly telegraphed from the beginning that I knew almost exactly how he would progress and where he would end up. He's Crazy Repressed, then he's Crazy in Lust, then He Gives Lots of Orders and Gets Angry (while still Crazy in Lust), then he Backs Off Because He's Insecure (while still Crazy in Lust), and then he's Rescued from the Pit of Despair by the Heroine (while still Crazy in Lust). Romances always have Happily Ever Afters, so I feel the suspense and excitement of romance comes the different ways in which the characters adapt and change to fit their HEA. With Jeremy, there were few (if any) surprises.

All that aside, Goddess of the Hunt is a strong debut from new author Tessa Dare, and I eagerly await her sequels, Surrender of a Siren and A Lady of Persuasion.

Book Blogger Appreciation Week Day Two: Interview Swap!

Some of the awards have been given out already (congratulations Book Smugglers!) but Book Blogger Appreciation Week continues. Today, bloggers will interview other bloggers about blogging (and other things). Today, I will be interviewing Beatrice from My Kingdom for a Book. She comments and reviews on fantasy novels (which I love) and paranormal romances (which I am slowly, gradually coming to love).


Quick! What's your favourite colour?
Blue, any shade!

What made you want to start book blogging?
I love reading, and I love to write. I had a friend who was encouraging my writing about a year ago, and she suggested I start reviewing books. I started out with some books I'd picked up at the library, and have taken off from there. It's been an amazing experience that has opened a lot of doors for me.

What process do you go through when you review a book? Do you take notes, or just review from memory?
I read a book without taking any notes! It's probably a bad habit. With big reviews, I try to blog some during the reading so I can get all the little details. If I haven't blogged during the reading, I try to blog as soon as possible after I finish so that nothing slips away. It's difficult to try to blog about one book after you've started reading another!

Who is your favourite author and why?
My favourite author is Peter S. Beagle (OMG - he's one of my favourites, too! Innkeeper's Song is the shizz!). I love his books about unicorns! I also had a chance to meet him at Dragon*Con recently, which moved him to the top of my list! He was wonderfully attentive to his fans, and spent several minutes talking with me about some writers that we had in common. He had gone to Stanford with them, and I had been their student during my undergraduate years studying writing.

What aspects of your life and/or childhood shaped you into the kind of reader you are today?
I watched The Last Unicorn when I was very young -- probably about four years old. I was captured by the beauty and wonder of unicorns. As soon as I was old enough, I read the book. It was so well done, and so well-adapted into the movie (I should hope so - Beagle wrote the screenplay!). I think that Beagle's book and movie were what turned me toward fantasy and science fiction in the first place. It continues to be my favorite genre even now. (If you love unicorns, I might suggest Lord of Legends by Susan Krinard - where the romantic hero is a unicorn!)

I can also remember my parents reading to me at night before bedtime. One favorite was Where the Wild Things Are! I loved Max and his wolf suit. I am really excited about the movie next month. I will always hear my dad's voice reading that book to me. I almost think I could quote it from memory because we read it so many times!

My parents really were a big influence on my reading. They always had a book around, and my mother tells me that I would sit at her feet while she was reading and tell her that I wished I could read, too. My parents and I swap books all the time now.

Given the recent controversy about paid book bloggers - what's your take?
I would love to be one of them! No, not really. I don't feel like my opinion is for sale. I don't want to feel forced to tell people that I like something when I don't really. I also think it's unethical if you do not disclose that you've been paid for your opinion.

What bloggers do you like - and what do you like about them?
I love Rip My Bodice! They are hilarious. They read a lot of books that I enjoy, so I get what they're talking about. I am really quite a bad book blogger. I drop by book review blogs, but there are so many! It's a full-time job to keep up with them all.

I also read The Barefoot Kitchen Witch. She doesn't blog about reading, but about cooking! I love her step-by-step photos, but what really keeps me coming back is what she shares about her family. I love getting a peek inside people's lives. I'm kind of a voyeur in that way, but hopefully not creepy! Oh, and Knotty Yarn! I heard her read one of her blog posts as BlogHer, and she's hilarious! I guess I like blogs that make me laugh.

Wow! Well, it was very nice to meet you and I'll definitely be checking out your blog more in the future! Hope you're enjoying Book Blogger Appreciation Week, folks - next up is my review of Tessa Dare's Goddess of the Hunt.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week has begun!

So, it's Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Hurrah!

For this first day, participants are encouraged to do a post dedicated to blogs we love that didn't make the BBAW shortlists thanks to the cruel capriciousness of fate. Tomorrow, I'll be posting an interview with blogger Beatrice from My Kingdom For a Book.

Today, however, as I avidly refresh the BBAW page to see some of the early BBAW winners (Congrats, Books on the Nightstand!), I will bring to you blogs that I personally love:

The Thrillionth Page
What does blogger Carolyn Crane review? WHATEVER SHE DAMN WELL WANTS TO, ha ha ha. Her commentaries are funny and thought-provoking (particularly her post on the "moment of longing" in romances, le sigh), and she won't hesitate to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Ye Olde Internets (after receiving a bunch of meme-ish blog awards *cough*onefromme*cough*, she created the Ultimate Blogger Award to end all blogger awards and then gave it away in a draw), the attraction of cowboy menages, and the repetitive silliness of backcover blurbs.

Happily Forever After
With all the controversy and differences in opinion over the Internets, people forget that blogs can still be fun to read even if your tastes differ. I always read Barbara's blog, even though our romantic tastes are like night and day. If I hate a book - she'll probably love it (so I'll suggest it to her!), and vice versa. So it's always great to read her blog to see what she didn't like! At the same time, Barbara writes her reviews with grace and style, providing an eloquent look at the different flavours and attractions of the romance genre that I might not have discovered yet.

The Misadventures of Super Librarian
Wendy, here, is romance's very own superhero. She writes reviews, commentaries, and whatever else strikes her fancy. She also will not put up with Internet bullshit. The blogosphere has had its share of controversies, but Super Librarian is there to remind us that, "Dude, it's the internet. Quityerbitchin'."

Ramblings on Romance
Ramblings on Romance is a lovely blog, and not just because Kristie J and I are LIKE THIS *crosses fingers*. She (and the other blogs I've mentioned) blog what they like, because they like it. Most bloggers don't get paid, so we have to provide our own motivation. And when Kristie J gets motivated, hooooooly crap. We get authors like Judith James getting better book deals! I'd hate to see what would happen if Kristie J hated something - would the author vanish down a well?

That being said, I do have a question to ask of the blogosphere: what is wrong with people getting paid for reviews? One of BBAW's biggest controversies was how one of the blogs nominated got paid for reviews, and people assume their opinion has been bought. How is that? From what I understand, the blogger was upfront about it and kept a list of prices in return for book reviews. I have a problem with a blogger being motivated by money instead of just plain reading, but how is what they do unethical? Maybe I'm ignorant of the situation, but how, for instance, is this different than receiving an ARC from a publisher?

ARCs are free books, but they cost the publisher money - hence, they are sacrificing money to a blogger in return for a review. I've received many ARCs while writing for The Green Man Review and let me tell you, it has never prevented me from writing a negative review when one was warranted. One example - I received a press kit from TA Barron's publicist about his Tree of Avalon series. Because the ARC was the last book in the series, the publicist also sent me the first two books of the series, in hardcover, for free - along with a pretty keychain and postcards, the whole deal.

I really, really, REALLY didn't like The Tree of Avalon. I wrote a review explaining as such. I threw out the keychain, in case you're wondering - not because I didn't like it but because the chain snapped (it was a very pretty keychain). So, to me, ARCs are an investment/gamble on the part of publishers - how is paying for a review any different? I'm not asking this in defence of the paid blogger, I'm asking this because I am genuinely curious as to where the whole "unethical" argument comes from. Let's discuss!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Your Wicked Ways," by Eloisa James

Alternate Title: She's Having a Baby - Whether He Likes it or Not

The Chick: Helene, Countess Godwin. Married to the Earl of Godwin for ten years (but estranged for nine), Helene's desperate to have a baby - with her husband, if she absolutely must, but anyone with a penis will do.
The Rub: Her husband only agrees to get her with child if she promises to move back into their house ... where her husband's mistress still resides. And if she has a child with anyone else, the Earl will divorce her.
Dream Casting: Gwyneth Paltrow.

The Dude: Rees Holland, Earl Godwin. Ten years ago, he eloped with a sweet young girl who shared his love of music, only to discover she was really a gawky, frigid shrew (surprise?). Good thing he's an Earl and can just kick her out of the house!
The Rub: He's also a composer going through artist's block. He needs someone with Helene's expertise to help him finish his opera. Could she be persuaded to offer her talents in return for his Alpha Male sperm?
Dream Casting: Matt Damon.

The Plot:

Helene: I want a divorce.

Rees: No.

Helene: I want a baby.

Rees: Double-No.

Helene: I want you to get rid of your mistress.

Rees: Non.

Helene: I want an orgasm.

Rees: Niet.

Helene: Fine, I'll just have a baby with the sexy Earl of Mayne (future protagonist of Pleasure for Pleasure).


Helene: FINE - do you just want me to leave?

Rees: ... no.

Helene: Let's stay together, then.

Rees: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Year of Bad Sex

1 Lusty Opera Singer

1 Lustier Vicar

1 Secondary Romance (Opera Singer and Vicar)

1 Fabulous Makeover

1 Countrified Anti-Makeover

2 Lacklustre Romantic Rivals

1 Comic Opera

The Word: I read this book very quickly. The writing and the situation grabbed me and I devoured this novel within a relatively short amount of time. However, even while I was reading Your Wicked Ways, I realized it was literary cotton candy. There wasn't a lot of substance and I knew it wasn't good for me. While the writing was lovely and the situations entertaining, the plot, characterization - and worse, the romance - seemed underdeveloped.

Lady Helene, Countess Godwin, personally calls on her husband, Rees, to ask for a divorce. It's not the first time she's made the request, but it's the first time she's been desperate enough to ask him in person, in the very house he kicked her out of nine years ago to make room for his ladies of loose virtue. The reason for her desperation is plain: the swinging pendulum of her biological clock keeps poking her in the uterus every other second, and she knows she's not getting any pregnant-er in her estranged marriage to the Earl.

Rees refuses - partly because he feels it's not worth the expense or scandal, but mostly because he doesn't give a shit so long as his own life is comfortable. And it is - sort of. Mostly. If one considers living in a filthy house (because the outraged servants left) filled with crumpled sheets of paper (his operatic work-in-progress ain't going so well) and a bored opera singer (hired for her musical, rather than sexual, assets) comfortable.

Outraged but undaunted, Helene is determined to become preggers by any means possible. She doesn't need her husband - she just needs a man. Any man. She'll do anything - even if it means cutting off about four feet of hair, drastically changing her style, and wearing a sexy gown to parties. Rees comes to his senses when he realizes Helene's planning to turn her womb into a public attraction and steps in with an offer she can't really refuse: he'll sire her child, and in return, she has to return to their house - even though his mistress is still in residence. If she doesn't agree, then no deal - and if she gets pregnant by another man, Rees will divorce her and leave her destitute.

Rees sees this as an excellent way to kill three birds with one stone: 1) he shuts up his wife, 2) he protects his line of succession, and 3) he can use her musical talents to spruce up his sagging opera. Despite the painful humiliation of such an arrangement, Helene agrees, but is determined to keep her presence in Rees' house a secret to protect her reputation.

Let's start with what I liked about the novel. Eloisa James' writing is as sparkling, detailed, and humorous as always, and the problems surrounding Rees and Helene's marital discord is a unique one: Rees is bad at sex. And I mean bad. Even his mistress doesn't have anything nice to say about it. Essentially, the failure of Rees and Helene's first sexual encounters sparked an escalating round of asshole one-upmanship as each protagonist threw acid on the other's self-esteem and pride to cover up for their own feelings of incompetence. Rees convinced Helene she's an unattractive, frigid stick; Helene convinced Rees he's a disgusting pervert and a second-rate composer, etc.

Rees is a definite change from the run-of-the-mill Dukes of Slut who are born with an issue of Cosmo in one hand and a GoogleMap to the Clitoris in the other. He doesn't have an instinctive knowledge of what women like in bed, so he has to go out of his way to explore and find ways to make sex enjoyable for Helene, and his attempts are very sweet as well as romantic. I also liked Rees' mistress, Lina. Helene moving into the house creates an intriguing conflict in Lina's character that makes her secondary romance with Tom, Rees' vicar brother, just as engaging (if not more so) then Rees and Helene's reconciliation.

So, what didn't I like? Well, Helene and Rees. While they both redeem themselves admirably enough by novel's end, for the better half of the book they are pretty unlikeable people. As harsh as this may seem, Helene really does act like a shrew and her obsessive need for a baby comes across as selfish at worst and shortsighted at best. She harps at her girlfriends and nearly destroys her friendship with BFF Esme twice when her jealous ranting about her friends' happiness goes too far.

But she can't HELP being a bitch, SHE NEEDS A BABY. She'll jump on any dude with a penis - who cares if her husband's concerned a bastard will become his heir? ARISTOCRATIC RESPONSIBILITIES DON'T MATTER - SHE NEEDS A BABY. Who cares if her child might grow up in poverty if Rees divorces her for adultery, that her child might be shunned by society for being a bastard, that her child might not have any marriage prospects thanks to his/her mother's reputation? WHO CARES ABOUT HER CHILD?! SHE NEEDS A BABY! The prospect of motherhood seemed to be all about her, her, her.

However, as irritating as Helene was in the first half of the novel, Rees is worse. On top of the bad sex, he's just a jerk. A workaholic striving to finish his opera before deadline, he ignores or insults pretty much everyone who's not serving his immediate needs. He orders Helene to come back to the house to help him with his opera, but insists Lina stay in residence so that he can call on her to sing the parts whenever he wants. Never mind that Helene finds living with her husband's old ho (no matter that they aren't sleeping together anymore) understandably humiliating. Never mind that Lina is bored out of her skull, would rather return to her old job, and (as we discover later) is allowed out of the house so rarely that no one in London knows what Rees' mistress looks like (creeeeeeepy).

While both characters change, adapt, and improve by novel's end (particularly Helene, who eventually loses both her baby-mama-drama and the stick up her ass), it seemed like too little, too late. The novel is 351 pages long but I still felt not enough time was spent on the romance. The first half of the book is spent with the hero and heroine hating each other, and bitterly bitching about their hatred for each other to their various friends and confidants. The romance doesn't really get going until the halfway mark, and even then Rees and Helene's re-romance has to share space with Lina and Tom's relationship.

My lack of conviction in Rees and Helene's HEA is further compounded by how murky their personal history remained throughout the novel. The rocky start of their marriage is a huge issue they still have to deal with, but it's only vaguely described. We discover only half-heard snippets of how they fell in love in the first place, why and how they eloped, and (the most glaring omission of all) we never actually discover why Rees kicked Helene out of the house to begin with!

So while I found Your Wicked Ways unique and sweet, it still left me somewhat unsatisfied. I grew to like the flawed characters - Helene's desire for a baby is subtly revealed to
be a deepseated need for companionship and affection rather than maternal instinct. Once she and Rees start growing closer, she sees herself more as a woman and less as an empty womb. However, the ending left me with too many unanswered questions.

Monday, September 07, 2009

My posts for BBAW, and Other Updates...

So, I've been shortlisted for Best Romance Blog (and got a nifty button for it!), and for all the newcomers and regular readers, I thought I'd provide the five romance-related posts I sent to the panel that ended up with me on the short lists:

The Secret Pearl Review

The Year in Review - My Best and Worst of 2008
For My Lady's Heart Review
The Price of Desire Review
Just the Sexiest Man Alive Review

In other news - yes, my blog does look slightly different. I decided to find a new template, yes. Partly on a whim, and partly because while searching the shortlists of BBAW nominees I came across Rebecca's Reads and discovered she had the SAME template! I guess I just wanted to find a new style.

I like my new template, in general. The pros:
  • Bigger font, centred posts - clearer to read, doesn't evoke frightening "wall of text" as much, makes reviews look nicer
  • Pretty, pretty colours - to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of orange, maroon, or beige (my blog's old colours) so this was an easy choice
  • It doesn't match any blogs I know
  • It still looks artsy and has three columns for Widgets
Unfortunately, there are some things to adjust to:
  • Smaller columns - lots of stuff has to be trimmed or has its edges nibbled off by smaller margins, thereby looking silly (but I don't know how to change - I used the "shrink to fit" option but that does bupkiss). I wish I could widen my columns
  • Can't change the title font - gaaah, if anyone here is a master of font and HTML, do you know a code to make my title Georgia font instead of the whatever-it-is square font, without offsetting all the tags, etc?
I mean, my blog looks great but it doesn't look perfect. There is a part of me that whispers, "maaaaaybe you were a little hasty in changing your blog template, especially during awards week" but an equal part that likes what I've done differently. Maybe I just need a little computer help. Anyone with any knowledge of coding and computers know how to fix and edit my template? Let me know!

EDIT: This just in - fiddling with HTML for an hour does bring results! Hurrah!

"Demon Angel," by Meljean Brook

Alternate Title: The 800-Year-Old Virgin

The Chick: Lilith, a.k.a. "Lily Milton." A 2000-year-old demon serving under Lucifer, when she met a young knight named Hugh and accidentally-on-purpose engineered his downfall, instead of letting him die she helped turn him into a Guardian, an angelic helper. Not that she expects any sort of favour in return.
The Rub: Even after 800 years of banter and cat-and-mouse, she can't bear to reveal her secret to Hugh: that she's not a full demon at all, but half-human, and thus capable of love and physical pleasure.
Dream Casting: Milla Jovovich.

The Dude: Sir Hugh, a.k.a. "Hugh Castleford." A Guardian, one of the half-human, half-angel creatures who protect humankind from evil, Hugh is very good at his job - except when it concerns Lilith. He keeps hoping he'll come up with a way to save her from Lucifer's clutches, but after 800 years of failure he can only come up with one idea...
The Rub: ...and that's to kill her. The pain of that sacrifice, combined with 800 years of disillusionment, cause him to lose faith and renounce his Guardianship. However, years later, Lilith resurfaces, alive and well and apparently involved in a conspiracy to pin him for murder.
Dream Casting: Billy Crudup.

The Plot:

1200 AD...

Lilith: This Hugh guy's hot. Pity he's such a Goody Two-Shoes.

Hugh: This Lilith chick's sexy. Shame she's a demon.

For 800 Years...
Hugh: You don't have to be evil! I can save you!

Lilith: Aw, you're so cute when you're delusional. Really, really cute.

1991 AD...

Hugh: There's only one way I can possibly free you from Satan! *stabs Lilith*

Lilith: Gee, thanks. *dies*

Hugh: Argh! 800 years of angst have caught up with me! Screw you, Guardians! I'm OUT! *quits*

2007 AD...
Lilith: 'Sup. I'm alive.

Hugh: Um, awkward. I'm still going to save you, though.

Lilith: Why do you ALWAYS have to think of everyone ahead of yourself?

Hugh: Because it's sexy and YOU LOVE IT.

Lilith: Dammit, you're right!

Hugh and Lilith: *make the demon with two backs*

Lucifer: Hey dudes, I'm here to do some evil and ...

Lilith: Zip it. I've already trashed your evil plan, so go sit on a pitchfork.

Lucifer: Oh! H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks! Foiled again!

Lilith and Hugh: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Virgin Hero with a Martyr Complex

1 Bad-Girl Heroine

Several Twisty Bargains

1 Vain Vampire

1 Horriblly Translated Literary Ode

1 Loveable Hellhound

1 Monk's Robe

1 Mangled Closet Door

The Word: What is it with paranormals these days? Why don't they suck anymore? Early on in my romance reading, I received several paranormal romances and urban fantasies to read by The Green Man Review and I burned out on them fast. For so many of these novels, they weren't terribly written but they were just so much "m'eh." The smart-alecky, tough-as-nails, troubled magical heroines all read the same and just seemed so interchangeable.

So did something happen between then and now that they don't suck anymore? Spoiler alert - this is a positive review for Demon Angel and the book I'm reading for Green Man right now (Devon Monk's Magic in the Blood) is also shaping up to be very, very good. Maybe I've matured. Maybe writers have gotten better. I don't know.

Anyhoo - Demon Angel. Our protagonists meet in 13th century England. Hugh is a 17-year-old knight in the service of a baron, and Lilith is a demon sent to tempt souls into corruption. Specifically, Lilith's task is to corrupt the baron and his hot child bride, but when she meets Hugh, she spots an opportunity to seduce an innocent - something that earns big points in Hell.

However, Lilith underestimates Hugh's virtue - as well as his wit and honesty. He doesn't try to deny his attraction to her, and yet he manages to hold her wiles at bay by questioning her, bantering with her, trading jokes and laughter. His stubbornness both frustrates and intrigues Lilith, who spends more and more time with him.

However, Hugh is soon warned away by his mentor Georges, who reveals himself to be Michael, leader of the Guardians - former humans granted angelic powers to protect humankind from the temptations of demons. Neither Guardians nor demons can kill humans, nor impede their free will, but that doesn't mean they can't do a lot of damage. However, even learning Lilith is a demon doesn't shake Hugh's fascination with her, as well as his conviction that some capacity for good lies within her.

When Lilith's machinations with the baron and his wife come to fruition, Hugh sacrifices himself to save their souls - and Lilith turns out to be more corrupted by Hugh than the other way around. Even though her failure is bound to provoke Lucifer's wrath, she rescues Hugh after he's mortally wounded and hands him over to Michael to be transformed into a Guardian.

800 years pass. Hugh adjusts to Guardianship and he and Lilith cross paths frequently. He discovers that Lilith is a master of lies and half-truths, who always has some evil excuse handy to explain away the secret good deeds she performs. He remains convinced that she's compassionate at heart and if he tries hard enough, he'll find some way to release her from Satan's bondage.

Lilith isn't indifferent to Hugh's attempts, but under threat of Lucifer's Punishment (yes, it's capitalized) she keeps quiet about it. Unbeknownst to Hugh, Lilith isn't a pureblooded demon. Secretly, she's the Hellish equivalent of a Guardian - a former human given demonic powers using a similar ritual that gave Hugh angelic powers. Needless to say, most halflings don't last long - most of them end up giving into their human natures and are condemned to eternal torture by Lucifer. So, unlike demons, Lilith can feel love, loneliness, and pleasure (mostly for Hugh) but she's forced to deny these human weaknesses.

Being half-angel doesn't turn out to be all it's cracked up to be, either. After 800 years, Hugh is dead tired of failure, and his own human nature clashes with his angelic responsibilities. While he's immortal and has magic powers and kick-ass wings, he's bound to respect humanity's free will. This means if a man decides of his own free will to murder an unsuspecting family, Hugh can't stop him. This, coupled with his inability to help Lilith, makes him question how much good he really does as a Guardian.

He reveals his decision to Fall (i.e. renounce his Guardianship and become mortal) to Lilith at the same time he makes good on his last attempt to save her: by stabbing her in the heart. In theory, when a demon is permanently killed (by cutting its heart in two or beheading it), she is no longer bound in service and her soul is free to flee to whichever underworld it's destined for.

Shoot forward sixteen years to the present day. Hugh (who, sadly, no longer looks seventeen), is now an English prof at a university. A couple of his students have gone missing, and the Feds consider him their number-one suspect. While jogging, Hugh discovers the mutilated corpse of his missing student - and Lilith, alive and breathing.

Turns out Lilith was only mostly dead when Hugh left her, giving Lucifer enough to work with to revive her and send her back into the demonic workforce. Under the name "Lily Milton," she works for the FBI, and is now bound by a bargain to kill Hugh if she doesn't want to be condemned to eternal torment.

WOW. I know this sounds like a lot of plot description, but we aren't even halfway in. Demon Angel has a lot of story, and I mean a lot. You have demons, angels, vampires, nosferatu, Indian food, RPG card games, demonic senators, bargains, double-crosses, mystical rituals and sex.

For the most part, it works. Even with all the plot, the vibrating connection between Hugh and Lilith rings clear throughout the book and the author never allows the story to overwhelm the romance. Thanks to excellent pacing, the plethora of story elements never becomes narrative clutter, and keeps both the tension and the romantic stakes high throughout. There were so many scenes where the situation is at oh-god-the-world-is-ending but you don't notice until the end because Hugh said a nice thing that made Lilith's insides go all quivery! HUGH AND LILITH FOREVAH!

Character-wise, this story reminds me of Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart. In both novels, you have a hero who's so pure and shiny you could see his ass from space coupled with a woman who's forced to walk a tightrope wearing her Evil Bitch face to keep her enemies at bay, even though she's a really a Tootsie Pop waiting for the right man to find the soft toffee centre hidden behind the hard candy (how many licks, Hugh?). Moreover, I really liked Demon Angel's protagonists - Hugh's portrayed as a straight-arrow without being rigid. He's virtuous and honest to fault without being judgemental or puritanical - when confronted with Lilith's antics he's more likely to laugh it off.

And as for Lilith - holy cats. Pun intended, she's endured a Hellish existence for 2000 years. Lucifer hates her because she's half-human, but he also intentionally made her a halfling because he gets off on watching her suffer with her dual nature. Wow, Lucifer's a prick. She loves Hugh and wishes he could save her, but at the same time is afraid that his attempts will only bring suffering down on them both. She could have been a moping dishrag, but Meljean Brook never lets her.

Instead, over the millennia Lilith evolved into someone adept at working the system, of using tactics Hell encourages (theft and deceit) to hide what humanity she's kept for herself. For example, her human apartment is filled with stolen books. According to Hell, she steals them for the evil thrill of petty theft, but really it's because she loves reading and Lucifer doesn't allow books in Hell. When you compare Lilith to, say, Sascha from Nalini Singh's Slave to Sensation, a heroine who also has to hide her true nature, there's no contest. Sascha lets her problems walk all over her until she's a whinging "woe is me" wet blanket. Lilith faces her problems and manipulates them to eke out a life for herself.

That being said, while the plot never trips up the characterization or the romance, it does trip itself up from time to time. I admit I lost track of the number of arrangements and bargains that changed sides, and I had to flip back several times in the story after an obscure deal was mentioned or a minor character who was only introduced once suddenly became important. As well, several past events from previous Meljean Brook works were mentioned, enough events to become somewhat confusing. This might have made sense if Demon Angel had been the fifth book in a series - but it's the first novel, after one short story in Emma Holly's anthology Hot Spell. I think when I read the first book in a series I should be able to do without Prequel Baggage, but maybe that's just me. That being said, I really want to read Hot Spell.

Okay, so while at times Demon Angel was a little confusing, ultimately it was a satisfying and very romantic read. I felt for both the protagonists' pain and enjoyed how neither of them gave into despair and self-pity. I liked how the fantasy aspect was well-developed and served to rachet up the romantic tension without overwhelming the romance. The characters deserved their HEA.

And I deserve to read Hot Spell, dammit! Meljean Brook's got me liking vampires again! How the hell did that happen?