Friday, February 26, 2010

February Round-Up

It's Monthly Round-Up Time! Hooray!

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Repressed Bluestocking Spinster
  • 2 Flighty Society Misses
  • 1 Practical Country Miss
  • 1 Pregnant Rape Victim
  • 1 Civil War Orphan
  • 1 Angsty Psychic
  • 1 Tomboyish Multilingual Warrior
  • 1 Alien Zombie Hunter
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Damaged Pretty Boy
  • 1 Heartbroken Cop
  • 1 Country Bumpkin-turned-Fashion Plate
  • 1 Dissolute Rake
  • 1 Down-To-Earth Rancher
  • 1 Sexy Lumberjack
  • 1 Mooching Slacker
  • 1 Ugly Prince with Self-Esteem Issues
  • 1 Intimidating Recluse With a Dark Past
For Romantic Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love him - he dresses like a farmer!"
  • "I can't love him - he's a technologically-inferior Earthling!"
  • "I can't love her - she looks like a twelve-year-old!"
  • "I can't love him - if I lose my temper he might go out and be crushed by a tree and it'll be all my fault!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm broke!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm all ugly and can't tell what colour dress she's wearing!"
  • "I can't love him - he's just a rake with no sense of honour!"
  • "I can't love him - he's an abusive monster just like my stepdad! I'll still shag his brains out, though."
  • "I can't love her - I've got a psychotic murderer to watch as he slowly dies in agonizing pain!"
For Miscellaneous Oddities, we got:
  • 1 Blood-Stained Pillow
  • 1 Helpful Ghost
  • 1 Helpful (Fake) Ghost
  • 2 Rocking Chairs
  • 1 Addiction to Peanut Butter
  • Several Pairs of Fancy Stockings
  • 2 Secret Artistic Talents
  • 1 Surprising Allergy to Chloroform
  • 1 Hidden Pirate Treasure
  • 1 Lost Pair of False Teeth
  • 1 Fake Egyptian Artefact
  • Several Zombies
*February Pick* One Week As Lovers, by Victoria Dahl. A
Winner of the Eloisa James Award in Historical Sexual Education
Burn-the-house-down chemistry. Deliciously damaged hero. Gorgeous writing style. Relevant sex scenes. Smooth blend of tenderness and sexiness.
Cons: Silly plot ("I know there's a treasure! My dead 11-year-old great-uncle said so!").

*February Pick* (it's a tie!) The Lion's Daughter, by Loretta Chase. A
Winner of the "Better Make Mine Beta" Hero Award
Heroine's cuter than a bug's ear but can hog-tie you in two minutes flat. Sexy Beta hero. Sexier villain - who gets a sequel! Yippee!
Cons: Labyrinthine smuggling plot. Annoying 12-year-old secondary character. Also - this book's out of print!

Powder and Patch
, by Georgette Heyer. A (It just misses out on being the Monthly Pick - just because I feel the other A-grade books have a shade more depth)
Winner of the Dandy Eye for the Bumpkin Guy Award
Delightful description, witty dialogue, adorable hero who gives himself a make-over to impress his gal.
Cons: Heroine is incredibly silly, albeit sympathetically so.

Bound By Your Touch, by Meredith Duran. B+
Winner of the Mary Balogh Trophy in Cliche Herding
Pros: Excellently lyrical writing style. Well-developed characters. Good use of themes. Lovely and original depiction of time-honoured Spinster/Rake cliches. Surprising ending.
Cons: Emotionally unengaging.

Pieces of Sky, by Kaki Warner. B
Winner of the Too Angsty To Live Award
Pros: Great setting, sweet and tender romantic pacing, excellently-drawn heroine, pleasant blend of dark and light.
Cons: Telling over showing. A hero who, despite being generally adorable, does some brutally sadistic, cruel and downright evil things for which he shows little/no remorse. A ham-handed 11th hour separation plot that pads the book for 40 pages for no reason.

A Bride in the Bargain,
by Deeanne Gist. B-
Winner of the Too Stupid To Live Medal of Honour
Pros: Good development of unconventional setting and time period. No mentions of throbbing members. Lovely cover. Sexy lumberjack hero who has no qualms about getting shirtless.
Cons: Borderline-brain-damaged heroine who believes she can kill people with her mind. Last-minute health crisis that achieves absolutely nothing and stretches the story another 80 pages.

The Down Home Zombie Blues, by Linnea Sinclair. C+
Winner of the Gold Medal in the Field of Insomnia Treatment and Research
Thorough, detailed world-building. Kick-ass heroine. Rational, intelligent cop hero who's a secret Beta.
Cons: Jargon jargon TECH DETAILS jargon jargon romantic development jargon TECH jargon TECH PREP FOR ACTION SCENES actual plot movement and action tech tech jargon zzzzzzzzz.....

The Perils of Pursuing a Prince, Julia London. C+
Honourable Mention, Too Stupid To Live Medal of Honour
Emotional punch. Rough-around-the-edges-but-secretly-cuddly hero. Enjoyable silliness.
Cons: Heroine who's an older version of Screechy from The Care Bears. Unpleasant rip off of Jane Eyre plot point. Overuse of "Wales is just naturally magical" cliche. 11th-hour ghost intervention.

*February Dud* Too Wicked to Kiss, by Erica Ridley. D+
Winner of the Lamest Pay-Off Award
Pros: Um...a rather silly, slightly adorable hero who obviously wishes Julia Quinn had written him into a lighter Regency.
Cons: Contrived paranormal powers. One-note characters. Non-existent character motivation. Terrible home decorating. Overuse of the word "undulate." Hero's guilt based on teenage angst. Heroine who thinks ugly abusive murderers are sickening but handsome abusive murderers are sex on legs.

Non-Romances I Read This Month:
(Pics forthcoming - Photobucket's all angsty right now).

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris A++
This. Book. WAS AWESOME. I fell right in and knew this book would become a lifelong re-read and favourite by page 21, and this feeling continued all the way to the very, very end. The novel takes place at St. Oswald's Grammar School for Boys, a prestigious private school in England. Bastion of upper-class education. Drenched in centuries of history and tradition. Certain to last forever.

Or will it? The novel is told from two characters' points of view: one is a cantankerous, loveable elderly Latin professor who's one term away from his Century (100th term of teaching at St. Oswald's) who's given his heart and soul - along with those 33 years of his life - to the school; the other is a person who loathes the school for its exclusivity and stagnant values and is determined to bring the institution crashing down. Great twists, gripping writing, scandalous secrets, and hilarious descriptions of school politics and infighting make this the literary jackpot. I truly haven't enjoyed a book this much in YEARS.

Second Nature, by Alice Hoffman A
In the non-genre world, if you asked me who my favourite authors were, Alice Hoffman would be on the list. Love her work - consistently love it. While Second Nature does not quite reach the exact heights of awesomeness that The Ice Queen and The Probable Future did, it's still a wonderful read, with an excellent small-town setting and just a hint of the unreal to it.

In this case, the unreal part comes when a recently-divorced single mum takes in a young man raised by wolves who was supposed to be transferred to an asylum. Yes. Raised by wolves. BUT IT WORKS. The man (who distantly remembers being named Stephen) falls in love with her and tries to adapt to the human world, but his mindset remains distinctly wolfish. It's not a traditional romance (the ending is more bittersweet), but add in a great cast of secondary characters and subplots, and it's lovely all the same.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"One Week As Lovers," by Victoria Dahl

The Chick: Cynthia Merrithorpe. When her stepfather promises her in marriage to a cruel, perverted peer to clear a debt, she decides to fake her own death - and use the subsequent excess of free time to search the nearby cliffs for treasure.
The Rub: Her childhood BFF - in whose empty house she's currently hiding - decides to return to his estate after a ten year absence.
Dream Casting: Rachel McAdams.

The Dude: Nicholas Cantry, Viscount Lancaster. The combined double-whammy of learning his fiancee is cheating on him and his childhood sweetheart just died inspires him to return to an old country estate to get his bearings.
The Rub: His dead sweetheart's not so dead, but still as debt-ridden as he is, making a marriage financially impossible.
Dream Casting: Christopher Egan.

The Plot:

Nick: I'm marrying a woman who hates me, and my best friend died! FML.

Cynthia: I've had to fake my own death to escape an Evil Rapist Fiance and search for gold - but now my best friend's returned to his estate! FML. Er, OOOoooooOOOO! I am a scaaAAAAaaary ghOOOOosssst! *waves hands*

Nick: Good GOD, am I in a Julia London novel?!

Cynthia: What? No! I mean--

Nick: Busted. Whatevs. Let's search for booty!

Cynthia: Which kind?

Nick: BOTH kinds.

Cynthia: Yay!

Boots: *knocked!*

Nick: Awesome. Now we can get married.

Cynthia: Uh, NO.

Evil Rapist Fiance: Yeah - because she's marrying me instead, pretty boy!

Nick: *shoots him*

Evil Rapist Fiance: *dies*

Cynthia: NOW we are getting married.


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Broke Aristocrat

1 Fake Ghost

1 Unhappy Fiancee

1 Evil Rapist Pervert Fiance

1 Secret Treasure

1 Instance of Shrinkage

1 Negligent Step-Parent

Several Terrible Nude Sketches

1 Duel

1 Noticeable Neck Scar

Two Knotted Cravats

The Word: Normally, I wait a while before reading another book by the same author. I have a huge TBR to work through, and with an author I like, I don't want to burn through all their books and leave myself with nothing new of theirs to read. However, One Week As Lovers by Victoria Dahl (whose A Rake's Guide to Pleasure I read in January) had such a pretty, pretty cover and was a brand-new, spine-uncreased library paperback, so I decided to fudge my regular reading rules.

Like Rake's Guide, while both protagonists get their share of exploration, the narrative tends to lean slightly more towards one character's particular development. In Rake's Guide, it was Emma, who fought her sensual nature. In One Week, it's Nick. He and Emma struck up a friendship in the previous book, but marriage was out of the question - Nick's father died leaving him and his family wallowing in debt, and neither his brother nor his mum are willing to give up the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed, so he needs to marry an heiress.

At the opening of the book, Nick seems all set - he's handsome, popular, and affianced to a wealthy, if middle-class, woman. Of course, nothing is as it seems: his fiancee hates him and is in love with someone else, his charming manner is just a decade-old front, and no one in London truly knows who he is beneath the golden hair and pretty smile. As the cherry on top of his Life Sucks Sundae, he receives a letter from the housekeeper of one of his country estates informing him that Cynthia Merrithorpe, a close childhood friend, has died. With financial pressure and familial duties closing in around him, Nick decides to travel to the estate, Cantry House, to relive memories of happier times before he shackles himself into a loveless marriage.

When he arrives, he's further horrified to learn that Cynthia committed suicide to escape marriage to the elderly Lord Richmond - a sadistic monster involved in Nick's own dark past. Then the ghostly spectre of Cynthia starts wandering through his house, leaving grisly tokens of her death (she jumped off a cliff into the ocean): salt-stained hair ribbons, strips of seaweed, etc.

Okay, so pretending to be a ghost isn't Cynthia's most brilliant plan, but she has little choice. She refuses to marry Lord Richmond, but with her family still deeply in debt to him she fears her little sister Mary will be forced to take her place. Thanks to a journal written by her deceased great-uncle, she believes a fortune in gold is hidden somewhere in the cliffs around Cantry house, where she's been hiding to promote the idea of her "death." Once she finds the gold, she can pay off her family's debt and use the rest to book passage to America. Nick's unexpected return ruins all her plans, so she hopes to frighten him away.

When this "ghost" trips over her own feet while "gliding" across his bedroom floor, Nick realizes his friend is very much alive - and is overjoyed. Instead of sending her packing, he agrees to keep her secret and help her look for the treasure as well.

I'll say this outright: do not be daunted by the incredibly silly madcap plot that, in a light Regency author's hands, would involve ridiculous clues written in Latin, rambunctious children, cantankerous but secretly kind old ladies, and perhaps a small animal or two - a puppy, perhaps. Yes, Cynthia's basing her family's financial future on the journal entries of an eleven-year-old boy, but it's really only a formality to bring Cynthia and Nick back together in a situation reminiscent of their childhood escapades, when they were both innocent and untarnished.

It's this return to innocence - or at least a semblance of innocence - that allows Cynthia and Nick to re-kindle their affection despite the ten years of loss and pain that both feel is an impediment to their being together. Cynthia has always held a torch for Nick, even after he abandoned the country for London when he was fifteen, but she's convinced that he's a proper, polished Viscount now, with a sophisticated gentleman's idea of honour and little memory of or appreciation for country ways.

As for Nick, the horrific events in his past have forever scarred him, and he exists behind a smiling golden mask of the pretty society charmer. Cynthia knew him as the boy he was, before he left Cantry House and the tragedy that followed, and in essence she's the only woman left in the whole world who remembers who he really is, beneath the mask, beneath the taint of abuse.

Like A Rake's Guide, One Week also has a sexual subplot. Both Cynthia and Nick have humiliating sexual encounters in their pasts that have shaped their outlooks on sex. Cynthia is a complex character, seemingly contradictory, but wholly real. She's goofy but practical, independent but also self-conscious of her country upbringing. The circumstances behind the loss of her virginity gave her very frank and casual ideas about sex but in many ways she's still a pupil of the Eloisa James School of Anatomical Ignorance. Meanwhile, Nick struggles with certain desires born out of his reaction to his abuse, which, since they've emerged as a result of his past, he views as ugly and wrong.

So, is One Week As Lovers better than A Rake's Guide to Pleasure? Hell yeah. It took a while for me to warm up to A Rake's Guide because the introductory chapters seemed a little too conventional, and the romantic relationship developed much later than the sexual relationship - but that's more of a personal preference than a literary flaw since the sexual relationship between Somerhart and Emma is a narrative arc all on its own.

With One Week As Lovers, the romantic development is just as important as the sexual relationship - both are at the forefront. There is a deep undercurrent of sweetness and affection between Nick and Cynthia that's immediate and powerful - and I'll freely admit I'm a sucker for that stuff. I'll take sweet over spicy any day, but Victoria Dahl manages both. Think of the literary equivalent of a gingersnap. A sexy gingersnap. In this case, One Week has the perfect cover. I mean perfect. Look at it. It's tender and sweet and evocative of a deep emotional connection - but let's not fool ourselves. The folks on the cover are also two minutes away from being nekkid.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

"The Perils of Pursuing a Prince," by Julia London

The Chick: Greer Vaughan Fairchild. To save her beloved cousins (or at least, herself) from destitution, she travels all the way to Wales, in order to claim her inheritance from a distant relation.
The Rub: The crazy, dark Prince of Powys seems convinced she's a swindler, and refuses to hand over the money until he sees valid proof of her identity - which means until she does, she has to stay in his castle. Unchaperoned.Dream Casting: Zooey Deschanel.

The Dude: Rhodrick William Glendower, Earl of Radnor, Prince of Powys. When his black-hearted, soulless cousin Percy pays him a surprise visit begging for a handout, he automatically assumes Percy's beautiful traveling companion is his partner in crime.
The Rub: While waiting for the proof to arrive, he can't help but enjoy Greer's company - but what if she's only conning him?Dream Casting: Clive Owen.

The Plot:

Greer: I want my inheritance!

Mr. Percy: I want to swindle marry you!

Rhodrick: Fat chance in hell, suckas.

Greer: Could you possibly be any ruder?

Rhodrick: Why yes. *drunkenly fondles*

Mr Percy: Still want to give me all your money marry me?

Greer: No - but we can make out!

Rhodrick: HELL TO THE NO.

Greer: Could you possibly be any crazier?

Rhodrick: Why yes. *locks her in a tower*

Greer: Hmmm, you know I'm actually starting to like you now, could you show me that strange white house just over yonder --

Rhodrick: A THOUSAND TIMES NO. It is FORBIDDEN! Totally bad! Evil! Not-in-the-cool-way-evil!

Greer: Could you possibly BE any more angsty and secretive?

Rhodrick: Anything for you, pumpkin. *reveals sordid past*

Greer: ... dammit. Let's just forget the creepy house and get married!

Rhodrick: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Dark, Broody Colourblind Hero with a Dark, Broody Past

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

1 Bum Knee

1 Evil Cousin

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

1 Inconveniently Dead Wife

Several Welsh Endearments

1 Mysterious Death

1 Unexpectedly Helpful Ghost

The Word: I was all set to enjoy this novel. I really enjoyed the two other works of London's I've read, particularly The Hazards of Hunting a Duke which slapped the crap out of its silly title by showing surprising depth and nuance (her novella, "Snowy Night with a Highlander" from the Snowy Night with a Stranger was also a treat). With The Perils of Pursuing a Prince, the second in her Desperate Debutantes series, I expected the same sort of thing. While the introduction was very enjoyable, despite the unrealistic plot (I like to call this effect the Lisa Kleypas High), it soon fled down Silly Lane, took a left turn at Crazy Street, and then jumped off the Stupid Cliff.

Greer, the cousin to Ava (The Hazards of Hunting a Duke) and Phoebe (the next book, The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount), nevertheless found herself in the same pity-boat as them when their mother died and their turd of a stepfather claimed their inheritance. Good ol' Stepdad also informed the three girls of his intentions to marry them off to the first dudes who asked, so Ava and Greer came up with different plans to come into some cash to prevent that from happening. Ava decided to woo a wealthy duke, and Greer decided to head to Wales to see if her father left her an inheritance.

Ava's won her Duke, obviously, but Greer doesn't know that by the beginning of the novel. She hitched a ride to Wales by playing lady's companion to an elderly woman who has just now died, leaving Greer nearly-broke and stranded in Left Armpit, Wales with an over-solicitous and faintly creepy dude named Percy. Thankfully, she does discover she was left some cash, but it was passed to a distant, married-into-the-family relation - the same relation Percy claims robbed him of his inheritance.

The man in question is Rhodrick, the Earl of Radnor, also known by the hereditary title of the Prince of Powys. During their ride to his estate, Percy fills Greer's head with all sorts of sordid tales about the Prince's eeeevilness, and their first meeting with the Prince only confirms all her fears. Seriously, Rhodrick has the perfect Angst Trifecta for damaged heroes. Spooky castle? Check. Physical disfigurement? Check. Mysterious death in his past and/or long-dead wife? Check and check!

Worse - the Prince refuses to hand over her inheritance until she can prove her identity. Percy, it seems, is Not A Nice Man, and Rhodrick adheres to the "fly with the crows, and you're going to get shot at" maxim - since Greer arrived in Percy's company without a chaperon and claims him as a friend, Rhodrick assumes she's either a lying whore in cahoots with Percy, or as dumb as a box of hair. Their opinions of each other don't exactly improve when a falling-down-drunk Rhodrick catches her exploring his hallways at night, mistakes her for a sexy ghost, and makes out with her.

But wait! We're still in Pleasantly Silly territory! Greer's and Rhodrick's assumptions about each other aren't entirely unfounded. Yes, Greer takes Percy's word over Rhodrick's even though she's only known him for five minutes, but that's till four minutes more than she's known the Prince, whose idea of welcoming her to the castle involves shoving his whisky-soaked tongue down her throat and rambling on about magic.

Still, while Pleasantly Silly, the story's not exactly gripping - in the next couple of chapters Greer responds to Rhodrick's banter with limp-wristed exclamations of "Oh!" and "You are vile!" and "I hate you!" which moves Rhodrick's categorization of her from "Lying Whore" to "Box of Hair," to "Box of Sexy Hair" and eventually to "Box of Sexy Hair I Like to Sniff."

Then comes that left turn to CrazyTown. Percy starts puttin' the moves on Greer, and Greer finds herself enjoying a rather nice bout of tonsil hockey - a rare occurrence for a romance heroine, since most of them seem to come equipped with Lie-Detecting Naughty Bits that shrivel with distaste at the touch of anyone who is not the hero. Unfortunately, Rhodrick walks in on them sucking face and flies into a self-righteous Heathcliff-esque rage. After kicking the shit out of Percy, he drags a screeching Greer up to a tower room and locks her in. A few more pages of screaming, punctuated by the occasional "you are vile!", follow.

Ostensibly, Rhodrick does this because he suspects Percy of trying to compromise Greer into marriage in order to get two inheritances for the price of one, but it's also because his Angsty Lonely Prince Feelings are hurt. See, he's got a bum knee and a scar and isn't very pretty, and he's so broodily wounded that Greer would rather play mouth darts with scum like Percy than him.

After paying Percy to run away like a little bitch, he dutifully releases Greer so she can pull more Too Stupid To Live rebellious bullshit that makes her so insanely attractive to him. Things proceed from there. Greer wants to visit a little white house on Rhodrick's land because she remembers it from a dream. Rhoderick and all of his friends warn her away, taking into account her Box of Hair intelligence and using a lot of yelling, raised eyebrows, and loud hand gestures, taking care to trail off mid-sentence before telling her why. Greer will not be gainsaid - she must clean that house, it's part of her past. How does she know this? Because she saw it - in a dream! A dream with her dead mother in it!

Yeah-huh. Such is life in CrazyTown. Our protagonists lie and brood and have backdoor lovin' with each other, all the while continuing to distrust each other for reasons that should have been resolved chapters ago, and the story gaily trots over the edge of Stupid. The white house scandal (hurr) is revealed to have, gasp! Nothing to do with our protagonists and yet revealing that story makes Rhoderick and Greer hate enough other again, until a patently absurd intervention on the part of Greer's dead mum's ghost heals all wounds. Why? Because Wales, it is magical! That's reason enough!

As you may have guessed, Greer didn't really impress me all that much. She comes off as foolish and self-absorbed throughout most of the story, and she's not that clearly developed. She can't really hold her own against Rhoderick, even conversationally ("You are vile!"), and she doesn't really have any good motivations for her major actions in the story. I never got a sense of her passions or interests. Her "character progression" is "I want money. I can't have money. I'm going to mope about not having money. I'm going to scream about how vile Rhoderick is. Guess I like Rhoderick now. Guess I hate Rhoderick now. I don't want to marry him and move to Wales. Now I do want to marry him and move to Wales, because my dead mum said so."

Rhoderick was a different matter. I actually liked him for the most part - I have a soft spot for physically self-conscious heroes and Julia London's good at writing them. Yes, he sometimes jumps to stupid conclusions but there's always a reason why, and you can empathize with his loneliness. There's a scene close to the end of the novel (but not close enough, apparently) where he presents Greer with a huge-ass sapphire ring and asks her to marry him. When Greer refuses (because she's a moron who only now decides she's Too Strongly Feminist A Heroine To Marry On The First Go) Rhoderick is so hurt - not angry, not angsty, but genuinely humiliated and saddened, that I suddenly wished the novel was a hundred and fifty pages longer so he could find someone more sensible than this screechy twit.

I'm not going to give up on Julia London entirely. She imbues her writing with a lot of emotion, enough that even sometimes-silly plots can be enjoyable. There were elements of this story (mostly at the beginning) that I quite liked. However, emotion is nice but it needs direction and motivation, and that's where The Perils of Pursuing a Prince fails. Read this book as much as you like - it's still a frog in the end.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Bound By Your Touch," by Meredith Duran

The Chick: Lydia Boyce. Resigned to being a spinster, she's satisfied supporting her father's academic work in Egypt and arranging to sell the artefacts he brings over.
The Rub: When the degenerate Viscount Sanburne buys a forgery he claims was shipped by her father, she and Sanburne have to work together to clear her father's name.
Dream Casting: Emily Blunt.

The Dude: James Dunham, Viscount Sanburne. Ever since his father allowed his sister to be shut away in a madhouse, James has dedicated his life to embarrassing and spiting his father.
The Rub: While he gradually grows to like Lydia rather a lot during their investigation, he cannot comprehend her devotion to her own father, when all evidence points towards his perfidy.
Dream Casting: Ryan Kwanten.

The Plot:

Lydia: I call this Meeting to benefit my Illustrious Father to order!

James: And I am interrupting this Meeting with a fabulously expensive artefact in order to spite my Horrendous Father!

Lydia: It's a fake.

James: What?

Moreland, James' Dad: LOL, owned.

James: Huh, that's funny, seeing as YOUR dad brought in the artefact!

Lydia: My dad's not a fraud!

James: My sister's not crazy!

Lydia: You're not devilishly attractive!

James: You're not sexy!

Lydia's Dad: Er, I kinda am a fraud.

James' Sister: Totally crazy. CRAZY not to stay in this delightfully luxurious madhouse, that is!

James: ...

Lydia: ...

James: Who am I kidding, you're totally superhawt! Let's go to Canada!

Lydia: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Repressed Bluestocking

1 Bad Boy Rake with a Sad Past

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Neglectful But Not Totally Bad Parent

1 Drunk-Ass Fake Fiancee

1 Junkie Sequel-Baiting BFF

1 Bitchy Sister

1 Crazy Sister

1 Canadian Honeymoon

The Word: I was both excited and bit timid about reading Meredith Duran's Bound By Your Touch - excited because I'd met Duran in person at RWA and had a lovely time, and also because the reviews for her books have been out of this world, nearly across the board. My timidity sprang from the same reasons - what if I didn't like it?

Well, finally I bit the bullet, ending up with a little bit of both. Ultimately, I liked the novel, very much - but I didn't love it.

The novel opens on a rather unnecessary prologue in which Lydia Boyce declares her love to a young admirer, George, only to learn he'd already proposed to her younger sister Sophie. Ouch. Four years later, Lydia is still unmarried and firmly believed to be on the shelf. She gets her kicks from handling her father's business in England while he conducts research and looks for artefacts in Egypt.

She's hosting a meeting with some members of the Egypt Exploration Fund, hoping to secure donations to aid her father's research, when Viscount Sanburne, carelessly dressed and coming down from a truly epic high after a drug-fueled party, bursts in and commands attention for the rare Egyptian artefact he's recently purchased. Sanburne's father, Earl Moreland, is a member of the EEF, and Sanburne hopes to rub his sire's upturned nose in the fact that he's bought a rarity out from under him.

Lydia's outraged by Sanburne's hijacking of her meeting, but her unorthodox education comes to her rescue when she identifies the artefact as a fraud, and swiftly sucks all the air out of Sanburne's sails. Her victory is short-lived, however. A humiliated Sanburne tracks down the man he bought it from and discovers the shipments had been mixed up: the forgery he'd brought to the meeting had originally come to England in a shipment from Mr. Henry Boyce - Lydia's father.

For several years, James, Viscount Sanburne has been at war with his father, and every scandal he creates, every drunken debacle he orchestrates, has been an arrow aimed at his father's reputation. When James' battered sister Stella murdered her abusive monster of a husband, Moreland had her confined to a madhouse - to protect his political reputation, James thinks. Blaming his father's dependence on social standing for his sister's confinement, he's dedicated his life to destroying the family name his father apparently cherishes more than his actual family.

At first, James suspects that Moreland, Mr. Boyce, and Lydia may have conspired together to bring him a fraud in order to publicly shame him, and he confronts Lydia at a party, to try and make her confess. Lydia is horrified by his accusations and at the danger to her father's good name should James' theories go public. When she discovers that the fraud did originate from her father's shipment, she decides to enlist James' aid to discover who sabotaged her father's shipment and why. She cannot trust anyone else to help her and keep quiet, and she hopes the novelty will amuse James enough to agree.

At first that is the precise reason why James agrees to help - amusement. His life of whoring and drinking and carousing has become agonizing of late, and he wonders if perhaps he's taken the rake charade too far to become anyone different. He's still tormented by the idea that he's partially responsible for his sister's confinement, and despises his helplessness in rectifying her situation.

His cynicism is also piqued by Lydia's single-minded faith in her father - even when more and more evidence arises that suggests he's not as innocent as she believes. At first, her optimism angers him and he wants to prove her father is just as selfish as his own - and his hero's journey in Bound By Your Touch is how he eventually moves from disdaining her blind trust to wanting to protect it, and her, from becoming as damaged as he is.

Along with themes of faith and trust, repression and identity are also addressed, particularly in Lydia's character. Her sister Sophie, now married to George, has turned into a raving bitch who continually reprimands Lydia's bluestocking behaviour and mocks her spinster status - despite the fact that her own marriage is not a happy one. In the social world her prettier sisters comfortably inhabit, Lydia's forced to play along with society's idea of the quiet, retiring spinster. Her behaviour must remain carefully controlled - she cannot shame her politically minded brother-in-law (who foots most of the family bills), or jeopardize her younger unmarried sister's prospects.

Lydia's work with her father's business is the only outlet in which she can exercise her independence, and if it goes belly-up, she'll become spinster by nature as well as in name. In this way, James and Lydia are alike - both inhabiting roles and identities that don't quite fit, and both terrified that one day they'll wake up unable to escape the rake and the spinster they've become.

Throughout the novel, however, they find freedom in each other. When they first meet, their Rake and Spinster masks are fixed firmly in place, but as they continue to work together, each notices the tiny cracks in the other's facade. James, in particular, wants to believe he's got Lydia pegged, and is continually surprised when she doesn't meet his expectations. Lydia, meanwhile, is envious of James' position and status and the freedom it supposedly gives him, until she slowly discovers how trapped he is, in a prison of his own making.

Meredith Duran's characterization is subtle and powerful, her plotting a satisfying, slow burn. The only major problem I had with the novel was the writing style - not because it was bad, or unoriginal. Quite the opposite, really. Duran writes with unique and lyrical description, ignoring the time-honoured mentions of throbbing manhoods and sapphire eyes.

Unfortunately, at times it comes across as too ornate and a little overdescriptive - and I felt distanced from the romance. Like when you stare at a carving and your eye is so caught by all the curlicues and spiraling lines and intricate patterns that you don't see the bigger picture (at least right away), I felt the description of a character's emotions during a scene diverted my attention from the actual emotional heart of the scene.

Much like my reaction to Sherry Thomas' Private Arrangements, I appreciated and enjoyed this book but failed to emotionally engage with it. Perhaps this reaction will change with Duran's next books. Bound By Your Touch is good enough to land on my Keeper Shelf so a re-read when I'm older may improve my opinion. Goodness knows, reading Sherry Thomas' later novels made me a fan easily enough.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"The Lion's Daughter," by Loretta Chase

The Chick: Esme Brentmor. The half-Albanian daughter of Jason Brentmor, when her father is declared murdered, she flees to avoid capture - and plan a bloody revenge.
The Rub: Due to a case of mistaken identity, her young cousin is kidnapped and his reluctant guardian Varian insists on following her to the capital - unaware of Esme's plans for vengeance, or her expectation that she'll likely die in the attempt.
Dream Casting: Carey Mulligan.

The Dude: Varian St. George, Lord Edenmont. After squandering his family's fortune, he's spent years using his wit and charm to mooch off of richer people. When his latest patron pays him to accompany his son to Venice, and that son ends up kidnapped, he has no choice but to turn to a crazy half-Albanian girl for help.
The Rub: He soon grows to love that crazy half-Albanian girl, but he has nothing but debts and a dilapidated house to offer her.
Dream Casting: Dominic Cooper.

The Plot:

Esme: My father is dead! I need revenge!

Varian: I've squandered my fortune. I need money!

Percival, Esme's Cousin: My father could be a smuggler! I need a secret chess piece!

Esme: Varian's so hot - but I have to have my revenge!

Varian: Esme's so sexy - but she's only 14!

Esme: I'm 18.

Varian: SCORE!

Esme: Aren't you overcome with guilt and dirty filthy thoughts because you're a rank scoundrel and I'm a pure young girl?

Varian: Yeah, but I'm too selfish to be a martyr.

Esme: SCORE!

Sexy Villain: Yoink! *steals Esme*

Varian: Oh HELL no.

Fisticuffs: *ensue*

Not-So-Sexy-Anymore-Villain: Fine, here, have some free money! I'm off to be pretty in three (!) more Loretta Chase novels!

Varian and Esme: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Puberty-Snubbed Red-Headed Heroine With Self-Esteem Issues

1 Fake Dead Dad

1 Sexy Villain (and Recurring Loretta Chase character!)

1 Jealous Gay Manservant

1 Jealous Straight Brother

2 Rather Nice Brothers

1 DIY Home Reno

1 Bastardy Fake-Out

Several Cold Baths

1 Missing Chess Piece

The Word: Usually, there's a line of precedence with the books on my TBR. I don't immediately read the books I buy because I have, like, 200 other books already waiting to be read (some that have spent several years waiting on the literary bench). But, when I learned that The Lion's Daughter (recently purchased at a library sale) was one of Loretta Chase's earlier books and a part of the Scoundrel series (a series of bizarre and convoluted chronology including Captives of the Night, Lord of Scoundrels and The Last Hellion), I decided to bump it up.

The novel opens on a conspiracy - Jason Brentnor is a British exile known as the Red Lion, and adviser to Albania's wiley/insane ruler Ali Pasha. Rebellion and unrest are brewing in Albania, possibly headed by Ali Pasha's young cousin Ismal, and Jason fears that his daughter Esme might be caught in the crossfire and used as a hostage to ensure his cooperation. Jason has already told Esme his plans to send her to England to his estranged family, but he also decides to fake his own death - in part so that he can suss out the real cause behind the attempts against Ali Pasha, and in part to ensure Ismal will have no reason to need Esme as a pawn.

Unfortunately, he underestimates his daughter, one of those hoydenish, pants-wearing, snubbed-by-the-puberty-fairy heroines who is far more influenced by her Albanian heritage than her English one. She never wanted to go to England in the first place - her father's family disowned him after he lost an important piece of land in a card game, and subsequent nasty letters sent from Jason's father conveyed their disapproval of his Albanian wife and equally savage Albanian daughter. Instead, she flees both her guardians and Ismal's henchmen, determined to wreak vengeance or die trying.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, Jason's 12-year-old nephew Percival eavesdrops on his father Gerald (Jason's brother), discovers his father has been smuggling weapons into Albania to help Ismal's rebellion, and sees him stuff a coded message into the black queen piece of an expensive, antique chess set and give it to his shady accomplice.

Percival realizes this information is important to his uncle Jason, but his father has already arranged to have him transported to Venice, in the care of indolent, impoverished nobleman Varian St. George. Percival offers Varian a larger bribe to take him to Albania instead, where the story really begins.

Confused yet? Bear with me, it gets a bit less complicated. *deep breath* Varian and Percival arrive in Albania only to run into Esme who is fleeing Ismal's henchmen and in the ensuing fracas, Percival is kidnapped by mistake. Esme knows that Percival's in little danger since even Ismal is aware of the bad PR that can come from murdering an unarmed British tween, and Esme agrees to take Varian with her to the city of Tepelena, where Percival will most likely end up. *gasps*

Yes, retelling it all makes it sound like an absurdly complicated set-up, but The Lion's Daughter is a complex and rich romance, evoking both the familiar and the exotic, creating both sympathetic and believable characters that nevertheless have pretty unique backgrounds.

I adored Esme - one of very few heroines I would actually term "adorable" with a straight face. Yes, she's an unconventional character for her time but thankfully Loretta Chase gives her the background, smarts, and skills to back it up. She's not one of those "Princess Jasmine" heroines who rebel against the system without really knowing what the outside world is like and who turn out to be brainless twits when they do. You know, the ones who traipse about their rich daddies' estates in boy's clothing only to discover, *gasp* walking down dark alleys at night in an unfamiliar part of town as an unaccompanied woman is unsafe?

Esme's father, knowing the political instability of Albania, made sure his daughter learned how to protect herself, physically and mentally. Seriously, she's built like a 13-year-old boy but can take down men twice her size. She's also smart enough to recognize when she's physically outmatched and use her brains instead. It's Esme who takes the lead when she, Varian and their ragged band travel to Tepelena.

That's not to say she's a superwoman. She's been raised to believe herself an outsider - half-British, half-Albanian, with a fiercely independent streak that sets her apart from women of both nationalities. She's self-aware enough to be uncomfortable with her alienating temper and boyish appearance but not enough to give them up without a good reason. Despite this, she tries to hold herself emotionally aloof on the road to Tepelena - for she knows she's likely to die once she attains her revenge and attachments will only make her duty harder. She's definitely a literary descendant of Leonie from Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades.

She's also got a bit of Alex from Judith McNaught's Something Wonderful, too, in that our hero, Varian, mistakes her first for an underage boy, then for an underage girl, only realizing she's eighteen roughly halfway through the book.

Varian is another unique hero - far from a go-get-'em Alpha, he's more of a slacker Beta. After blowing his entire fortune with gambling and reckless living, he's gotten by on his looks and his charm, leaching off of wealthy hosts in return for the cachet of his aristocratic presence. He's garnered a reputation of being little more than a whore, willing to do almost anything for enough coin, agreeing to babysit Percival for a healthy sum, only to take him to Albania on the promise of an even healthier one.

Now that Percival's been kidnapped and Varian has to rely on a young woman far more honourable and self-sufficient than he is, he is forced to re-evaluate his style of existence, which involves a great deal of guilt. He refuses to allow himself to be a martyr, thankfully, but he sees this as an indication of his inherent selfishness. Even though Esme's thirteen (he thinks), he can't help but be attracted to her (and make out with her a little). Even though he's penniless and has nothing to offer her, he can't stay away from her for her own good (although once he learns she's 18, visions of Pedo-Bear no longer dance through his head). Even though Esme is All That Is Awesome and he is All That Is Lazy and Whorish, he can't help loving her and wanting to be around her forever, oblivious to how much Esme's presence improves him as a person.

Seeing these two kids come together is wonderful (their first sex scene is one of my personal faves), and the basic elements of the romance - the dialogue, the characterization, the emotional development - are good enough that we don't even really need the complicated political subplot and exotic locations and Secret Family Drama - but having them makes an already wonderful novel even better. It's tasty, original icing on top of an already heavy, rich, delicious cake. Okay, sometimes the "Who's Got the Black Queen?" becomes little more than a confusing game of political hot potato, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Is it better than Lord of Scoundrels? Well, I think so. The sweet and spicy combo of Varian and Esme is incredibly romantic, and our characters are allowed to be flawed and make mistakes without coming across as morons. We also, as I came to discover from experienced Loretta Chase readers, get a sexy, sexy villain who ends up appearing in three other Chase novels (one of which is his own).

I'm looking forward to it!

Laura Kinsale Giveaway Winners!

Tetewa and Renee please E-MAIL me your snail mail addresses. You win!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My True Geek Confession

Thanks to my blogger friends Kmont and The Booksmugglers, I've learned today is True Geek Confession day, hosted by the folks at Alert Nerd, another awesome blog. Essentially, if you consider yourself a Geek, today is the day you tell your readers about your guilty pleasure - your really guilty pleasure, I mean an opinion you hold that could possibly get you chucked off a cliff by your fellow nerds. I have three confessions to make, one short, and two long.

I do like my share of sci-fi and fantasy literature and movies, as well as some comic books and adaptations. Love Joss Whedon. Love Ultimate Spider-Man. But more than anything, I'm a film geek, so that's what my confessions will be about.

Confession #1: I love the shit-tastic movie S.S. Doomtrooper and continue to think it is the most cheestastically-bad-enjoyable movie of all time. Nazis! Mutants! Indestructible British People! But I've already written a lengthy review-synopsis of its badness here.

Confession #2: I fucking hate The Magnificent Seven. Oh, it's such a great Western! Oh, Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen are so great! FUCK them.

Okay, as a movie on its own, it's not totally bad, but as an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, it completely ignores the entire fucking point and message of the original movie to have a nice little shoot-'em-up with the same number of people.

Case in point: for The Seven Samurai, a lot of the film's drama comes from the fact that, in the time period of the movie, samurai were becoming kind of obsolete. People were tired of war. But you couldn't just quit being a samurai. You couldn't even choose to become a samurai in the first place. You were born a samurai, raised a samurai, everyone in your family was a samurai, and you died a samurai. So what's a samurai to do when his countrymen no longer need him, or even respect him?

In The Magnificent Seven, our heroes are gunslingers, for which they are derided since most people in the West think being a gunslinger is a shitty job. The American version does a piss-poor job explaining why our heroes are gunslingers in the first place if the job is so damn hard. In Samurai, our heroes have no choice but to be who they were raised to be. The heroes in Seven? They have a choice to not be gunslingers (one of them even gives it up in the end!), so why are they gunslingers? I dunno, they like shooting stuff or something?

Another reason: in both movies, the seven warriors protect a town from an invading enemy. In Samurai, another layer of conflict is added because the raiders are ronin, or rogue samurai. Yeah, the villagers need to rely on samurai to protect them from other samurai. There is a lot of distrust between the villagers and their protectors - how can they trust the seven? How are these samurai any different from the ones stealing their food and women?

In Seven, the gunslingers protect a Mexican town from - um, other Mexicans. In a true adaptation, the gunslingers would be protecting the Mexican villagers from rapacious and bloodthirsty American cowboys like themselves. Instead, it's all Gee, thank you white men for saving us from ourselves!

My last huge complaint about the adaptation: the character of Chico (Horst Buchholz), from Seven, who plays a butchered caricature of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune's character) from Samurai. In Samurai, Kikuchiyo is the "fake" samurai. He's actually a drunk and quite possibly insane peasant masquerading as a samurai for the perks. His family was murdered by samurai so, in an effort to gain mastery over his own fate, he decided to become a samurai himself. The other six samurai kinda view him with contempt at first, because, as mentioned before, you can't just choose to be a samurai, especially if you're from peasant stock. However, gradually over the course of the movie he ends up earning samurai status - by sacrificing his life taking down the head ronin raider, and in return he's celebrated with a samurai burial.

Chico's situation doesn't even remotely approach the drama or layers of Kikuchiyo's. The movie already indicates that gunslinging in a choice - so how is Chico a fake or a poseur? Because he's Mexican (with a bizarre German accent)? That's a weird message. Also, at the end of the movie he decides to remain in the village with his new girlfriend - um, what? Okay, so Chico is a bit of a mixture between Kikuchiyo (Fake Samurai) and the Teen Samurai from the original movie who falls into an unfortunate relationship with a village girl, but Chico's choice at the end of the movie betrays both characters. First, he gives up being a gunslinger, which the samurai cannot do (the end of Samurai's pretty bleak that way) - which is part of the tragedy of the Teen Samurai who's barely out of short, uh, kimonos and has already been rendered redundant. Second, hell, he gives up being a freakin' gunslinger which is the complete opposite of what Kikuchiyo does!

Seven Samurai's message: Being a samurai sucks. Then you die. The Magnificent Seven's message: Being a gunslinger sucks. Then you die. Unless you quit! Or choose not to be a gunslinger in the first place! Or you're a Mexican!

Confession #3: Something positive this time around - I love Hook. No, really. Not just nostalgia love, but real love, can watch it a thousand times without getting bored love, it formed the basis of my childhood imagination love.

Why this would be a True Geek Confession is that Hook is most definitely not seen as one of Steven Spielberg's better films. Whenever Entertainment Weekly or American Movie Classics comes out with a Best-Of list of Spielberg's movies, Hook either isn't mentioned or is laughed off as one of his weirder efforts.

I can never understand why. I love this movie. It's brilliantly cast, it's surprisingly faithful to the book (I'm not familiar with the play), and it manages to put in some surprises.

The story follows Peter Panning (Robin Williams) a workaholic corporate lawyer with a fear of heights who is too busy with his job to be a proper dad to his kids (particularly his increasingly resentful son, Jack). He overcomes his workload and fear of flying long enough to travel with his family to England to meet with Wendy Darling - yes, the Wendy Darling (played by Dame Maggie Smith) who's being honoured for her work with orphans and adoption. Peter remembers her as the woman who took him in at age 12 and found him some adoptive parents - before that, everything's a blank.

Truth is, he's actually literary hero Peter Pan, and while he may have forgotten who he is, his enemy, Captain Hook (a marvellous Dustin Hoffman) hasn't, and he kidnaps Peter's children to hold them for ransom. Luckily, Tinkerbell (Julia Roberts) arrives to help Peter remember who he is in time to save his kids from the dastardly pirate.

This is delightful movie. I really don't understand the negative reaction. Think the amnesia is contrived? Read the book. One of the aspects of Never-Neverland is forgetfulness - that's why Peter and his Lost Boys never grow up. It's not just that they stay physically young, but also mentally young as the land gradually leeches away their experience. If they remembered everything, then they'd learn, and mature, and wouldn't be children anymore. In the book, Wendy, John, and Michael have a hard time remembering their own mother once they return home. It makes perfect sense what Peter forgets his heritage once he gives up Never-Neverland, and why he kinda has that little breakdown halfway through the movie where he forgets his own children and goes full-on Pan.

So much of the movie is intelligent and creative - the screenwriters obviously read the book because so much of the movie's story is a development from direct plotlines in the book (such as how Peter Pan returned to Wendy every spring), and so much of the symbolism and visuals of the movie ring true. The only real deviation is the character of Tinkerbell, who's rewritten as a playful tomboy with a wistful crush on Peter - instead of the *cough* sociopathic little whore she is in the book who's described as having the figure of a Playboy centrefold, a teeny-tiny boudoir filled with lingerie, decidedly adult affections for Peter (as does Tiger Lily!), and murderous designs on any bitch who steps on her turf. She actually has Wendy shot in the heart in the novel, and a conveniently-placed necklace is the only reason Wendy remains a character at all.

*Ahem* as you may have guessed, I absolutely despise the original Tinkerbell character from the novel and the Disney adaptation, particularly after working in the Disney Store where she is splashed all over the children's and adult merchandise. I guess she's seen as some sort of pre-Ariel feminist Disney figure, despite the fact that she's a traitorous little bitch who makes deals with Hook and thinks having a 5 millimetre waist makes her fat. So I don't really mind the Julia Roberts remake.

BACK ON TOPIC - the movie is awesome, the music is awesome (John Williams! Whoo!), the actors are awesome, Rufio (Ru-FEE-OOOOOOOOOOOOOO) is awesome, and the Glenn Close cameo (as the male pirate confined to the Boo-Boo Box) is awesome.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Interview and Giveaway with Laura Kinsale

For me, there hasn't been a giant five year gap in books by Laura Kinsale. I only discovered her last year, when I finally got around to reading For My Lady's Heart, a battered copy I'd picked up at a used book store at the Smart Bitches' recommendation. I read it, adored it, then read The Prince of Midnight and became a Fangirl for Life, and started frantically acquiring all the precious copies of her backlist that I could. I still have many favourites to look forward to, such as Flowers from the Storm, Uncertain Magic (my next read of hers, to correspond with Sourcebooks' re-release in June), and The Shadow and the Star.

However, that didn't make the arrival of Laura Kinsale's newest book, Lessons in French, any less welcome or highly anticipated. While I reviewed it last month, the marvellous author herself agreed to stop by Gossamer Obsessions during her blog tour and answer a few questions (I am in bold, Laura Kinsale is in, um, regular).

Quick, randomness: what's your favourite colour?

Second, when I went to RWA 2009 I discovered that there seem to be two main types of writers: the plotters (who outline and plan extensively each novel, down to the chapter) and the pantsers (who write, as it were, by the seat of their pants with relatively loose outlines but a firm idea in mind). Which writer would you characterize yourself as, or if you feel you don't fit into either category, could you explain why?
Hint: Ever since high school, when I was supposed to outline a paper and then write it, I would write the paper and then go back and create the outline.

Definitely a pantser. Because I always start with the characters, and the characters develop their story.

In your latest novel, Lessons in French, you depart from what some would call your trademark dark, conflict-driven style to write a lighter, comedic and more character-driven story. What was harder about writing a "light" story, and what was easier?
Every book is difficult in its own way. I didn't want to write slapstick, which I don't like to read, so I had to walk a fine line between verbal humor (without being snide or snarky, which I also don't care to read), physical chaos, and a bit of heart-tugging to bring it all together.

From my personal experience with reading your books (Lessons in French, The Prince of Midnight, For My Lady's Heart), many of your couples involve an emotional, romantic hero and a withdrawn or practical heroine, which is atypical in historical romances, where the greater tendency is towards cold heroes and warm heroines. Is there a conscious reason behind this?
If you took all my books together, you'd find a wide variety of heroines, from warm and practical and funny, like Callie in Lessons in French, to coldly calculating, like Melanthe in For My Lady's Heart. I've done some chilly, proud heroes - Ransom in Midsummer Moon springs to mind. Sheridan in Seize the Fire is anything but romantic; he's a cynic out to steal the heroine's jewels. So I'd say the characters of each pair are created relative to one another, rather than as a larger tendency across all of my books

What sorts of research did you conduct for Lessons in French? And a follow-up question: what's the oddest/wackiest/most interesting fact or piece of information you discovered during that research?
I have all sorts of pamphlets and books from the 19th century agricultural fairs and societies. The wackiest thing I discovered was an actual contest at a fair in which a prize was given for the farmer who supported the largest number of legitimate children. I used that in Lessons in French.

This is the first book you've published in 5 years, and since 2004 many new methods of book promotion have emerged, what with the rise of Twitter, social networking sites, and book bloggers, as you've no doubt noticed, as you are now participating in a blog tour yourself. What are your opinions on these new methods of book promotion?
Social networking is great for getting the book and my name out there in front of people. That said, I'm a firm believing that no amount of publicity is as good as writing a book that readers will love. In spite of all the changes, my job is to write, not to promote. It suits me better by temperament and talent in any case. What many people would consider a couple of little blog posts are huge tasks for me. I don't tend to articulate well in short formats.

Finally, a question I'm sure you're going to be asked very frequently - what are you working on next?
I have several things I'm working on, but it's too soon to tell what will gel!

It was great to have you with us, Laura! Can't wait to read what you write next!

And for all you rabid fangirls out there, thanks to the lovely people at Sourcebooks, two lucky commenters will win free copies of Lessons in French (Yanks and Canucks only, sorry)! Just leave a comment by midnight, February 17th (MST).


Laura Kinsale's unique and powerfully written love stories transcend the romance genre. In this, her first new book in five years, she delivers a poignant, funny, sexy, Regency romance sure to delight her many fans and attract a whole new readership.

Trevelyan and Callie are childhood sweethearts with a taste for adventure, until the fateful day her father discovers them embracing in the carriage house and, in a furious frenzy, drives Trevelyan away in disgrace. Nine long, lonely years later, Trevelyan returns. Callie discovers that he can still make her blood race and fill her life with excitement, but he can't give her the one thing she wants more than anything—himself.

For Trevelyan, Callie is a spark of light in a world of darkness and deceit. Before he can bear to say his last goodbyes, he's determined to sweep her into one last, fateful adventure, just for the two of them.

About the Author

Laura Kinsale, a former geologist, is the New York Times bestselling author of Flowers from the Storm, The Prince of Midnight, and Seize the Fire. She and her husband divide their time between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Texas. For more information, please visit or follow her on Twitter, @LauraKinsale

Monday, February 15, 2010

Cruelty in Characters - Can it be Overcome?

Now, I just finished reviewing Kaki Warner's Pieces of Sky. While in general I liked it, it wasn't the bee's knees. In particular, something the hero did was extremely off-putting. It involved two small incidents within the admittedly epic scope of a Western novel, so it didn't affect my grading of the novel as a whole, but it troubled me and continues to trouble me now even as I think about it.

SPOILER WARNING: The rest of the post contains EXPLICIT spoilers about Kaki Warner's Pieces of Sky. You have been warned.

A few weeks ago, Dear Author had a discussion about whether there is an Irredeemable Trait, a line that, if a hero crosses it, makes him impossible to redeem in the eyes of the reader.

For 90% of the novel, Brady, the hero of Pieces of Sky, is a charming, no-nonsense rancher who is dedicated to protecting his home and his family.

However, near the middle of the book (p.189, to be precise), Brady crossed My Personal Line and performed an act that left me sickened and disgusted. Let me paint you a picture of Brady's past: his family (the Wilkins) and another family (the Alvarezes) endured a blood feud over ownership of the RosaRoja ranch. Several people died during the feud, most at the hands of Sancho Alvarez (who was Evil in pretty much every possible way it was to be evil), with the help of his half-brother Paco.

At one point, Paco and Sancho laid in wait for Brady but ambushed his kid brother Sam instead, but that didn't stop them from brutally torturing the boy and leaving him for dead. Paco and Sancho both ended up in prison for 10 years, but at the beginning of Pieces of Sky they escape with the intent to win RosaRoja for themselves.

Soon after, however, Paco is captured by the Wilkins. Brady brings him into the family barn and pumps him for information on Sancho, but not very effectively, since both Paco and Brady know that Paco's not going to leave the barn alive. Up to this point, I can accept the fact that Brady has to kill Paco. Within the context of 1860s New Mexico, where ranches and outposts were pretty isolated and most men made their own laws, I understood that, to Brady, it was necessary to kill Paco in order to protect his family. When reading historical novels, one has to realize that the morals of the period might be different from our own.

However, Brady doesn't kill Paco. Instead, he ends up forcing Paco to hang himself, threatening him with a much longer and more gruesome death if he doesn't perform it by his own hand - knowing that Paco, as a Catholic, considers suicide to be an unforgivable sin. The book makes it clear that Brady is making Paco hang himself precisely because Paco is Catholic, so that Paco will die in the terrified certainty that he's going to Hell.

Let's read this horrifying scene together, shall we?

Brady watched, detached, thinking it an odd thing to see a man die while he was still alive. It began in the eyes - a faint dimming, like a lantern slowly going out. Then the body seemed to shrink into itself, as if the spirit had already flown. And finally all that was left was a trembling shell with the resigned, numb look of a steer in the slaughter line. Seeing it happen to Paco Alvarez filled Brady with a cold and bitter satisfaction.
This scene absolutely disgusted me. This wasn't a man killing another man out of necessity thanks to the circumstances of their historical period. This was a man who intentionally kills another man in the worst way possible for the express purpose of making him suffer.

This is, I think the Line-Crossing Evil for me. It's not necessarily murder, or theft, or manipulation - even rape, in very, very particular circumstances. All of these, if depicted within a certain context or historical period, can be forgivable or at the very least understandable. But to me, CRUELTY defies period or context.

I'll admit sometimes the line is blurred - in Gaelen Foley's The Duke, when our hero Robert confronts the heroine's rapist, he beats the everlovin' shit out of the guy before having him transported, and this didn't bother me. In fact it was entertaining and even a bit romantic for the hero to lose his aristocratic sophistication long enough to go apeshit on this guy.

But - he didn't kill the guy.

And - his action was the result of passion and over in moments. He didn't coldly stand by and watch for fifteen minutes as a weeping man hanged himself. Brady's actions were cold, calculating and intentional - he knew what he was doing, he knew what it would do to Paco, and he knew exactly what Paco was going through. And he stood by and watched.

I'll also admit that the scene with Brady and Paco may struck me personally because I am Catholic - not because I hate watching a professed Catholic character die, but because my upbringing made me more aware of the type of psychological torment Brady intentionally put Paco through. Technically, what Paco did wasn't a mortal sin (one of the main qualifications for a mortal sin is that it has to be performed of your own free will), but he didn't know that. And Brady knew he didn't know that.

Still, I kept reading the book. Why? Because there was a whole lot of book left - and part of Brady's inner struggle involved coming to terms with the sins he'd performed during the blood feud. I read books in a pretty Catholic way, actually - a hero can get away with all sorts of nasty things, provided he expresses remorse later and improves himself as a character as a result. If by book's end Brady had come to revile the things he'd done to Paco and acknowledge they were wrong and try to change, I might have been able to tolerate the hanging scene as a necessary demonstration of Brady's character arc from a man willing to inflict cruelty to a man who rejects cruelty.

The novel does indicate this - slightly. Brady pukes his guts out after Paco hangs himself, but on the next page he regrets not castrating the man. Paco's death sort of fades under the blanket of Brady's general guilt and isn't mentioned again - which I inferred meant that Brady considered it no more or less evil than the other things he'd done during the feud. What could be worse than psychologically, theologically, and mentally torturing a man to death? How could that be in any way equal to just shooting the man between the eyes?

Even then, I might have brought myself to accept that flimsy "redemption" - if Brady hadn't done it again. By p. 342, Brady rides up to a cave where Sancho has kidnapped Jessica, only to find Jessica safe. To defend herself, she'd smashed a lit lantern across Sancho's face and fled. Brady arrives inside the cave to find his worst enemy burned to a crisp - but still alive. He pulls his gun to end it, but can't pull the trigger. Instead, he decides Sancho should suffer and he sits down and thinks about his life. In the cave. Two feet away from a horrifically burned man suffering a living death. After some time has passed, he finally decides mercy is better than vengeance, but wouldn't ya know it? Sancho's already dead.

So Brady ended spending several long hours next to a horribly burned man without doing anything. Without even noticing the guy, so deep was he immersed in his brooding.

Sancho's death only disturbed me more - why? Because I began to think I could see the author's intentions behind Brady's actions. Now, I'll freely admit - I'm not a mind reader. I could be completely off base about this. But these are the impressions I personally got while reading this book.

Brady, despite describing himself as a roughened cowboy who does what needs to be done, never actually kills anyone on-screen. A flashback, where he tearfully admits to putting his dying brother Sam out of his misery, is the closest we get. The only two times where he could have killed a person (and, in the context of the narrative, have been wholly justified in doing so) one of them ends up hanging himself, and the other succumbs to tremendously painful injuries inflicted by someone else.

I've read lots of romances where villains conveniently die by accident or through their own evilness, to prevent the protagonists from having to kill them and thereby staining their consciences. This is what Paco's and Sancho's deaths seemed like to me - that Paco hanged himself so that Brady wouldn't have to kill him, and that Sancho conveniently died before Brady could offer him mercy - so that readers wouldn't be disgusted by a hero who murders.

As if Brady forcing a man to hang himself and watching a man die in pain for several hours is somehow morally superior to killing them outright. What horrified me about this aspect of the narrative was that it seemed to me like Kaki Warner was trying to get keep her hero out of the Moral Frying-Pan - only to drop him into the Moral Fucking Hellfire.

Other people may not feel this way about Brady, or feel as strongly as I do. Other people may be wondering why I gave the book a B. I guess I could attribute that to another author flaw - inconsistency. For the majority of the novel Brady is a well-drawn, sympathetic and attractive hero, except for two sadistic moments that happen quickly and then vanish without any repercussions on the character's development. By the time I finished the book, I remembered more about Brady's good aspects than the two Bad Incidents.

But it didn't make the Bad Incidents go away. This was why I kept it out of the review - I feared that my own reaction to the Bad Incidents was too personal, so I decided to make it a separate post and rate the book itself from a more objective standpoint that said - there was bad, but more good than bad.

What do you think? If you've read the book, how did you react to these two scenes? Am I totally off my rocker?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

"Pieces of Sky," by Kaki Warner

The Chick: Jessica Thornton. When her brother-in-law rapes her to try and get her to sign over the deed of her estate, this English miss (now pregnant) flees to America, only to be injured in a stage coach crash.
The Rub: She's rescued by the Wilkins clan, led by the rustic but charming Brady, and discovers she'll have to live on their charity for three months to recover from her injuries - will that be enough time to let Brady into her heart?
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: Brady Wilkins. He quickly finds himself falling for this beautiful Briton who is battered, but not broken.
The Rub: However, with a murderous psycho bent on destroying the Wilkins now on the loose, can he afford to be distracted from his family duties?
Dream Casting: Josh Brolin.

The Plot:

Here's the story, of a man named Brady,
A rowdy cowboy who would never ever tire.
Determined to protect those who he loved most,
From a kook obsessed with fire.

Here's the story, of an English lady.
Who was made pregnant by a sexual assault.
So in fear, she fled across an ocean,
Unsure that it wasn't her fault.

*Key Change!* So when this lady is lost and injured,
Brady takes her in without any hope of thanks.
They love each other, but it takes a whole book,
To overcome the huge-ass Brady Angst.

The Brady Angst, the Brady Angst.
Four Hundred Pages of the Brady Angst!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Proper English Miss

1 Darn-Tootin' Cowpoke

1 Blood Feud

1 Psychopathic Pyromaniac

1 Evil Brother-in-Law

2 Hawt Sequel-Baiting Brothers

1 Rape

1 Near-Rape

Several Deaths By Fire

2 Rockers

1 Smelly Dog

The Word: Jessica Thornton is five months pregnant, alone, and on the run in a foreign country. However, as bleak as her situation appears, it's more palatable than what she leaves behind in England: a malicious brother-in-law who proved beyond all doubt that he was willing to do anything to get his hands on her estate, Bickersham Hall - including rape her. Unable to tell her sister the truth, and knowing her husband would try again unless she signed over the deed, Jessica chose to flee to America instead on the flimsy hope that she'll be able to find her brother George in the New Mexico Territory.

En route to the last address she received from George, she meets up with a rugged, uncouth rancher named Brady Wilkins when she unknowingly whacks his Brady bunches with her umbrella. When their stagecoach overturns, he goes for help and Jessica wakes up in a bedroom in RosaRoja, his ranch. There, a doctor gives her a double-dose of upsetting news - first, that she's carrying twins, and second, that she must remain bedridden until the babies are born.

Brady sympathizes with Jessica and her plight, but he's got concerns of his own. The ranch demands a lot of his time, his two brothers are dropping hints that they might want out of the family business, and on top of that, a batshit insane survivor of a blood-feud in the Wilkins' past has been released from prison and shows every sign of wanting to avenge past hurts.

Whether they want it or not, however, our protagonists are stuck together and need to make the best of things. The first thing they have to overcome (if not the most important) is the culture shock. In these first few chapters, Pieces of Sky reminded me strongly of Baz Luhrman's movie, Australia - in both cases, we start out with a delicate English lady discovering firsthand the roughness of farming and cattle-ranching, as embodied by the dirty, sweaty, unshaven, angsty hero.

There are a lot of instances where neither one has an idea what the other is saying (apparently, Yanks don't understand big words, and Brits don't know ranch slang), with a little bit of bias leaning towards Brady, who says what he thinks (if rudely), over Jessica, who says a lot of Big Words that don't really mean anything. Kaki Warner does a fantastic job demonstrating the cultural differences between Jessica and Brady - while I understand both of them, I also comprehend how one person's mannerisms or speech could be so alien to the other.

For the most part, the novel's sense of pacing is well-handled. This is a slow and sweet romance, rather than a quick and dirty one. Jessica, very understandably, requires considerable time and care before she'll even consider a sexual relationship with a man. Most of the romance moves forward thanks to words, kind actions, hand-holding and kissing. In a masterful use of balance, Brady comes off as raw, unadulterated, honest, and honestly sexual - even though for most of the book he doesn't do more than kiss Jessica.

Praise should also be given to the excellent setting, which has as much importance in the narrative as a living character. It's obvious that a lot of time and research went into the creation of RosaRoja, the landscape, the ranchers who take care of it, and the real, often backbreaking work these men did even during the good times. Lots of lesser romances have business tycoons or millionaires who rarely have any scenes where they're doing actual work, but Brady and the Wilkins brothers give their all to their ranch.

As for the protagonists, they're both well-developed - mostly. This time I actually enjoyed the heroine more, for a change. She's all starch and stiff-upper-lip at the outset, loosening gradually under the unorthodox kindness of the Wilkins family, but a strong and capable character throughout. She's been through hell and has some pretty serious psychological scars to overcome, but she's practical and analytical - there are many poignant scenes when emotions get the better of her, but at her core, she's a woman who thinks, which is a refreshing change. Near the end of the novel, when Brady decides at the 11th hour to fall off the angst-bandwagon and send her away for her own good, Jessica actually calls him on his bullshit instead of just fleeing in tears.

As for Brady, his courtship of Jessica is incredibly sweet. He's the down-to-earth cowboy and doesn't brook a great deal of nonsense. He treats most problems like the Gordian knot, ignoring the subtleties and just cutting right through to a solution, much like Alexander the Great who, in the myth of the Gordian Knot, solved a puzzling twist of rope by simply slicing through it with his sword. Jessica surrounds herself with needless rules and social mores and upperclass mannerisms in order to protect herself, so it takes a man who sees that fluff for what it is (fluff), to deal with her emotions directly to help her heal.

That being said, while his romance with Jessica reveals the better part of his character, he's somewhat inconsistent in his feud against Sancho (the sociopath stalking the Wilkins). While I understood that to protect his ranch and his family he had to break a few rules, in some instances he is startlingly sadistic and cruel. One scene in particular really disturbed me, enough that instead of bogging down this review with it I will make an independent post discussing it. As well, while he has reasons for his angst, it becomes overwhelming at times.

This leads me to some more of the novel's flaws - first off, the ending. In a move strikingly similar to the conclusion of A Bride in the Bargain, after the hero and heroine admit their love for each other, something contrived happens that makes the hero send the heroine away for a year for no reason other than ridiculous angst, which stretches out the novel's last act to an absurd degree. It's pointless, it's unnecessary, and it's damn boring to read forty pages of Brady moping, refusing to answer Jessica's letters, chasing himself in circles of "Should I go to England to see her? No, I won't," until suddenly he smacks his head and says, "Why not go to England?" Gee whiz, you finally realized what you already claimed to know, FORTY FLIPPIN' PAGES AGO?!
Lastly, we have the writing style - Kaki Warner tells. A lot. Occasionally it's not as bad or noticeable since she tends to tell a lot of little things instead of making an egregious blanket description of a big thing - for example, she'll say: "The wind was blowing. The mesquite trees were tall. The sky was a ripe colour of red and gold" instead of, say, "The scenery was beautiful." But it's still telling instead of showing and as a result the novel is pleasant to read but not wholly emotionally engaging. I think the highlight of her tell-over-showing occurs in the laughably truncated sex scene. I'm all for vague sex scenes, but the one in Pieces of Sky on page 317 skims over it so clumsily it's almost funny.

While the novel is well-researched and starts out strong, it eventually peters out thanks to lacklustre writing. While I don't feel the last couple of days reading it were wasted, I am thankful I got this book at the library and didn't pay the trade-paperback price for it.