Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Library Loot: Requests Come Rushing In

Wow, today's a busy day - a new review, a monthly round-up, and as I suddenly just remembered - I totally got library loot this week!

First up, is The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Booksmugglers went crazy over this book early on (it came out in the UK first) and good thing they did because I ended up being only 4th in line when I requested a hold on it. I love me some epic fantasy (and am planning an equally epic re-read of some of my favourites after my RITA challenge), and let me tell you I am already knee-deep in this book. Holy crap. SO GOOD.

Second on the Loot list is The Duchess, the biography by Amanda Foreman that inspired the Keira Knightley movie. I loved the movie, even though Knightley is clearly sixty pounds too thin to play the Duchess of Devonshire but who CARES. The costumes, the scandal! I love reading history and wanted to boost my own historical research with some biographies so I thought I'd start with this. If any of you know some really interesting biographies of Georgian/Regency figures, please drop me a comment.

That's about it for now, folks!

March Round-Up

Another month, another monthly round-up! Didn't read as many books this month, had a bit of a slump, I suppose.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Gold Digger, WAY Over Town
  • 1 Recalcitrant Baroness
  • 1 Disabled Chef
  • 1 Victorian Vampire Slayer
  • 1 Secret Ho
  • 1 Insecure Single Mum
  • 1 Insecure Commoner
  • 1 Repressed Widow
  • 1 TSTL Novelist

For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Morally Ambiguous Frenchman
  • 1 Math-Challenged Aristocrat
  • 1 Repentant Reverend
  • 1 Secret Regency Wolfman
  • 1 Hot Viking
  • 1 Swingin' Bachelor Journalist
  • 1 Undercover Italian
  • 1 Scandalous Rake
  • 1 Science Nerd
  • 1 Former Street Thug Turned Millionaire Businessman

For Romantic Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love her - my insatiable werepenis is too hardcore for her delicate feminine ladyflower!"
  • "I can't love him - I used to be a whore!"
  • "I can't love her - I turn into an eagle during the day!"
  • "I can't love her - she's obviously a gold digger and I need to marry money to fund my expedition, in a totally unrelated and non-hypocritical way!"
  • "I can't love him - my traumatic past makes emotional vulnerability impossible!"
  • "I can't love her - I've bet my best horse I can bang her within the month!"
  • "I can't love him - he only married me for my money!"
  • "I can't love her - she's too good for me and I'm WAY too smart for her!"
  • "I can't love him - my job takes precedence, plus he's as untrustworthy as a three-dollar bill!"

In Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 1 Secret Werewolf Club
  • Several Dangerous Mantraps
  • 1 Airborne Marble Penis
  • 1 Wind-Up Fish
  • 1 Case of Arson
  • 1 Secret Love Child
  • Several Sanctimonious Sermons
  • 1 Bear BFF
  • 1 Sleezy Villain with a Nipple Fixation
  • 1 Stolen Pair of Spectacles

*March Pick* In For a Penny, by Rose Lerner. A+
Winner of the "Better Make Mine Beta" Hero Award
Adorable hero. Realistic and painful conflict. Great historical detail. Sweet romantic development.
Cons: Heroine occasionally overcome by Body Issues.

*March Pick* How To Knit a Wild Bikini, by Christie Ridgway. A+
Winner of the Baggage-Handler Hero Award
Sex-on-Legs hero. Strong-but-damaged heroine. Nice but subdued sequel baiting. Fantastic secondary characters. Lovely chemistry. Oodles of emotional baggage.
Cons: Slightly confusing fake-lesbian plot. Uneven timeline. Completely misleading title.

Like No Other Lover, by Julie Anne Long. A
Winner of the Gold Medal in Hero Nerdiness
Pros: Fascinatingly self-sufficient heroine. Sexy but clinical nerd hero. Gorgeous writing. Low-key conflict.
Cons: Slow pacing.

Immortal Warrior, by Lisa Hendrix. B+
Winner of the Best Series Introduction Award
Pros: Conscientious usage of Dude Group. Hot vikings. Sympathetic villain. Great setting. Good secondary characters. Good build-up for rest of series.
Cons: Little action except at climax. Hero and heroine don't spent too much time together. No animal POV.

Rises the Night, by Colleen Gleason. B+
Winner of the Pythagoras Love Triangle Award
Pros: Heroine has matured. Good twists! Sizzling sexual tension. Excellent secondary characters. Nice pacing and action.
Cons: Heroine still does Dumb Things and Ignores Advice.

Heart of Stone, by Jill Marie Landis. B-
Honourable Mention, Baggage-Handler Hero Award
Nice depiction of religion. Heroine with a real, un-watered-down past. Hilarious Surprise Love Child.
Cons: Telling-over-showing writing style. Bland hero. Subversion of historical accuracy in order to exclude Catholicism.

Lady Be Bad, by Candice Hern. C
Winner of the "No Religion, Please, We're Fictional" Award
Decent writing. Nice sexual awakening plotline.
Cons: Slow pacing. Inconsistent characterization. Shameless exploitation of religion for titillation without following through. Misogynist hero who hates Dem Slutty Womens until the very end.

Dreaming of You, by Lisa Kleypas. C-
Winner of the Too Stupid To Live Medal of Honour
Somewhat intelligent hero who recognizes intrinsic stupidity of heroine.
Cons: TSTL heroine. Lazy setting description. Florid sexual description. Cartoonish villain. Cartoonish characterization in general. Uneven pacing. Hero who totally slept with that hooker, Katiebabs.

*March Dud* A Certain Wolfish Charm, by Lydia Dare. D+
Winner of the Scooby-Doo Award in Lame-Ass Paranormal Worldbuilding
Unintentionally hilarious AlphHole hero shenanigans.
Cons: Drippy heroine. Violent caveman hero. Ridiculous and inconsistent worldbuilding. Intrusive sequel-baiting. Hateful secondary characters. Uneven romantic development. Huge gaps in character motivation and reasoning.

Non-Romances I Read This Month:

Belong To Me, Marisa de los Santos. A-
My mother suggested I read this. She found it by going into a bookstore and asking after something like chick lit, but classier, and this is what the Chapters employee gave her.

Santos tells the story of happily-married Teo and Cornelia who move to the suburbs to try and start a family. Almost immediately, the quirky, artsy Cornelia makes an enemy of blond-bobbed, Stepford-wife SuperMom Piper. In a lesser book, Piper would have been the one-note villain, but here she's as much of a protagonist as Cornelia as her perfect life comes apart at the seams once she realizes her best friend is dying of cancer.

As well, two other newcomers arrive in the 'burbs - insightful child prodigy Dev and his single mother Lake, who hides a mysterious connection to Teo and Cornelia. All these storylines intertwine but remain independent, making for a intriguing read. What I like best is the author has a great love of language - so her book reads like literature while still being loving and cheerful instead of relentlessly grim. People have this weird conviction that true art can't be happy. Do people not realize that happiness does exist in reality? Being grim and depressing doesn't make you more "real."

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill. B+
This was a Christmas gift from my Nana that I finally got around to reading - the story of a girl stolen from Africa to be a slave and the progress of her life as she moves in and out of slavery, eventually establishing a kind of tenuous independence for herself, ultimately learning that White People Can't Be Trusted. It was an interesting read, but even as I enjoyed the experience I felt a kind of detachment from the novel that I usually feel while reading University-assigned books: I liked the reading, but I didn't really like-like the book.

The Pink Ghetto, by Liz Ireland. B
This was pure fluff - occasionally entertaining fluff, but still fluff. Lazy, insecure do-nothing heroine miraculously lands a job as an editor at a romance publisher. How? Who knows. She has absolutely no idea what to do and no real drive to learn but somehow manages not to fuck everything up - although she stills fucks a whole lot of stuff up. Most of the enjoyment from this novel comes from the depiction of the romance publishing industry which manages to be both satirical and respectful. It's clear the author has experience in the industry. Sadly, the insecure do-nothing heroine from whose POV we read this tale is incredibly annoying.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"A Certain Wolfish Charm," by Lydia Dare

The Chick: Lily Rutledge. When her young nephew starts experiencing an especially painful version of puberty, she decides to visit his absentee guardian, the Duke of Blackmoor, to remind him of his responsibilities.
The Rub: The Duke quickly takes charge - the only problem is, he seems to be want to take charge of her as well.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Simon Westfield, Duke of Blackmoor. He feels bad for neglecting his best friend's son, but wowza! The kid's aunt is so hawt.
The Rub: While he totally wants to bury his bone in her backyard, he can't let on that he's secretly a werewolf. Because, you know, werewolves are just so reviled and unsexy these days...
Dream Casting: Robert Downey, Jr.

The Plot:

Lily: Raise your ward!

Simon: No thank you! *flees*

William, Simon's Sequel-Baiting Brother: *sniffs* A lady's been in your house! OMG are you in LOVE?

Simon: Wait, what?

Prisca Hawthorne, Sequel-Baiting Neighbour: WOW, you two should get MARRIED!

Lily: Are you crazy? I've known him for a day!

William and Prisca: OMG they're FATED to be together! By the way, isn't our INNUENDO-LADEN banter so INTERESTING and SUGGESTIVE? Don't you wish WE had our OWN BOOK?

Simon: OMG, I am so in love that I must violently threaten every man who touches you and control all your decisions!

Lily: What are you doing?

Simon: Run with it, toots.

Prisca: *tricks Lily and Simon into marriage* OMG, aren't I DARLING and CLEVER how I manipulate other people? Don't you just WISH you could read about me PERSONALLY and my SECRET DESIRES?

William: Not at all! I am TOTALLY NOT IN LOVE WITH YOU. At least, not in the way that MERITS AN ENTIRE NOVEL. I am going to MYSTERIOUSLY LEAVE after saying some INSULTING THINGS that will TOTALLY not provide conflict for a FUTURE NOVEL.

Prisca: I HATE YOU! ...See you in book 3, sweetie!

Simon: How DARE they be more interesting than me! I better keep my BIG GIANT SECRET to myself for way longer than necessary to up my angst factor!

Lily: What big secret?

Simon: What secret? I don't have a secret? I'm totally not a werewolf with an insatiable sexual appetite! Totally! No secrets at all!

Full Moon: 'Sup.

Simon: *poof!* Woof.

Lily: Uh-huh. Insatiable sexual appetite, you say?

Simon: WOOF! (translation: HOORAY!)

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Angsty Werewolf

1 Single Adoptive Mum

1 Broken Desk

1 Ripped Bodice

2 Sequel-Baiting Brothers

1 Sequel-Baiting and Incredibly Intrusive Neighbour

1 Rebellious Tween

1 Forced Marriage

1 Scorned Mistress

The Word: You know, I've enjoyed a couple of werewolf stories - mainly in the movies and television. In books, well, let's just say that most of the shape-changer novels I read didn't wow me. Werewolves have had their moments but up until now, I haven't really understood the literary appeal of werewolves and the reason they've gotten as much romantic attention as vampires.

According to A Certain Wolfish Charm, however, the appeal is simple:

Lycanthropy is Male PMS.

Think about it: a dude who's a werewolf has a surefire biological excuse for acting like a dominating caveman dickhole when it's his time of the month - the better to satisfy your dominating caveman dickhole fetish. And, hey, he can go back to massaging your feet and shopping for your favourite brand of tampons the other 28 days of the month. And you can totally love him despite the fact that he's a dominating caveman dickhole because - aww, it's his furry menses equivalent. It's not his fault. Give him a few days in his room with chocolate-flavoured dog biscuits and some Lassie films on DVD and he'll be as good as new.

This notion isn't restricted only to Lydia Dare's relentlessly contrived and silly debut, but sweet chocolate Moses, this author milks this idea and milks it HARD.

Our heroine, Lily Rutledge, is in a bind. Her oh-so-precious orphaned nephew Oliver, whom she looks after, is being body slammed by a particularly large, furry version of the Puberty Fairy and she's worried about his well-being. However, the boy's guardian - the scandalous Duke of Blackmoor, refuses to answer her letters for aid. So she does what any self-respecting romance heroine would do - she goes to his house unaccompanied to demand he live up to his duties.

However, she calls at the worst possible time. Simon (the duke), is a secret werewolf, you see, and the days leading up to the full moon when he makes his transformation render him painfully horny and angry, too horny and angry to be around civilized society. He just wants to be left alone, with his heating pad and Tylenol - *cough* I mean whores and whiskey - and Lily's presence in his house calls to him with the power of a thousand chocolate-covered pretzels. He promptly chucks her into a moving carriage and hopes that'll be the last of her.

The dim, neglected lightbulb in his head flickers when his butler informs him about Lily's worries about his ward's angstier-and-furrier-than-usual adolescent development. Suddenly, the ward he curiously never gave a damn about (despite the fact that Oliver is the son of his deceased BFF) becomes Priority #1. Of course, his flippant sequel-baiting brother William shows up at the exact same time, smells chocolate pretzels in the air, and immediately deduces that Simon's got a new girlfriend.

Simon and William track Lily down in her carriage and inform her of their change of plan: or rather, Simon tells Lily that Oliver should come and live with them in Westfield Hall. William, realizing Lily is Simon's Chocolate-Covered Pretzel, chooses to flirt with her instead in order to drive Simon completely batshit insane in time for them all to be confined to a small, airtight carriage for an extended length of time. Smooth move, bro.

So we are, like, 26 pages in and Simon is already entertaining graphic and violent thoughts against any man who even glances at Lily out of the corner of his eye. Um, what? Oh, right. It's that time of the month. Dominating caveman dickhole. As you were.

Of course, now Simon is all gung-ho for training Oliver in the ways of Secret Regency Wolfman Mojo - but less gung for the chocolate-pretzel 'ho who's all up in his grill. The full moon's a-comin', which means he's surging with enough Dominating Caveman Dickhole potency to turn poor Lily into a pile of pretzel crumbs if he loses control. Suggesting she mosey on home and leave the Secret Regency Wolfman training to the professionals causes her to lash out with her pure tears of goodness and her delicate pretzel fists. How dare they try and help her nephew after she asked them to! Don't they know that as a totally undesirable, decrepit 23-year-old, she has nowhere else to go?

We are now 60some pages in, and while Simon is convinced he'll only grind Lily to a fine powder under the Pestle of his Dominating Caveman Dickhole Masculinity, the far-thinking William is already convinced that Simon and Lily should just get married already, so he encourages Lily to rev up Simon's already murderous and stalkery behaviour by being petulant and defiant. And here, of course, is where the sequel-baiting neighbour Prisca Hawthorne shows up, she who is the Salt And Vinegar Potato Chip to poor crampy *cough* - I mean angsty William. Prisca is gorgeous and talented and full of Secret Longing as only the best Future Heroines are, and is as equally convinced as William that Simon and Lily belong together, regardless of the protagonists' personal opinions or choice in the matter.

So guess what? Prisca trips off to the vicar's gossipy wife and spreads rumours that Lily's ho'in' it up with the Westfield brothers - because Lily will totally appreciate being forced to marry a man she's known for less than a week amid speculation that she's a whore. Best Friend of the Year material, right here. So now Lily has to fight her inexplicable insecurities and Simon has to restrain his Dominating Caveman Dickhole Masculinity - all the while keeping his werewolf nature a secret.

When dissecting this hot werewolf mess, let's start with the characters, shall we? Characters that are never fully explained, leaving gaping holes in their reasoning and motivation. Unanswered Question #1 : How come Simon completely and conveniently forgets the existence of Oliver, his dead best friend and cousin's only son for SIX YEARS? Not only Simon - but his two brothers and his mother. I'm not talking about forgetting a birthday here and there - I'm talking about absolutely no contact other than an occasional bank draft for six years. It's never really explained why no one in his family bothered, although the implication is that Simon was too busy spreading his Dominating Caveman Dickhole Masculinity around England's sex trade worker community. Oh and he just doesn't check his mail that often - I'm not kidding, ignoring his mail is a repeatedly-mentioned character trait. What excuse does the rest of his family have?

Which leads me to Unanswered Question #2: Whose bright idea was it to consign the care of an orphaned six-year-old boy to an equally orphaned, unmarried, virgin 17-year-old girl? When you have a widespread family tree of Handsome, Rich, Potent Secret Regency Werewolves who could raise Oliver in their secret ways? Seriously - why did Lily get that job? Oh, right, so she can be both the dewy, chocolate-pretzel innocent and the mothering fussbudget to a child who's barely 11 years younger than she is. Of course!

Lily's little more than some Disney Princess attributes bound up in unexplained insecurities. She acts under the belief that she's entirely undesirable and way beyond her Best Before date - but she's only twenty-three. Hardly the point of no return, even by Regency standards. Even when she goes to a ball and is hit on by nearly every guy there (including two of her BFF's brothers), she remains convinced it's only because of her new dowry. Do we get an explanation or backstory for why she believes she is Utterly Unloved? Not a peep.

The only other major characters of note are William and Prisca, but their constant attempts to force an acceptance of their inevitable sequel down our throats pretty much ruin their characters' likability. Elijah and Jemma have stains on their monogrammed towels with better personalities than these two. William's not too bad, if a bit blank, but the manipulative Prisca is borderline hateful and the shit she pulls on page 135 is inexcusable.

As for Simon, he's the ultimate Dominating Caveman Dickhole - he really only has two modes: the Don't You Look At My Woman BITCH, I WILL KILL YOU Mode and OMG OMG Can I Have Sex Now? Can I Have Sex Now? Mode. Yup - he's either looking at men with murder in his heart or looking at Lily with lust in his heart - or he's doing both.

It's funny maybe the first one and a half times he "jokes" about dismembering his own brother when Lily smiles at him, but as it escalates into Simon threatening violence upon men who look at Lily, to hurting Lily's elbow as he drags her off into an empty room, to Simon panting with rage in the bushes as a harmless fellow pats Lily on the cheek, to Simon hauling Lily over his shoulder and taking her to the woods to "punish" her for letting another man touch her, to threatening her custody of Oliver if she doesn't return home with him - over and over ad nauseum. It's not funny. It's not romantic. It's even a little dull and repetitive, considering he feels and acts this way from page 20 in a 350 page book.

But oh right, this behaviour is permissible because it's that time of the month. Wolves are just bitches like that. Congratulations, you have a biological free pass to be a douchebag!

See, this use of the werewolf mythos might have been easier to swallow if Lydia Dare had bothered to develop it in her novel beyond a blatant excuse for Dominating Cavemen Dickholes as heroes. But no - the worldbuilding is just as contrived and lazy as the rest of the book. Werewolves and their existence are not explained, the first change (where Simon and William introduce Oliver to the world of Manly Wolfness) is completely glossed over in a brief told-over-shown scene, the "soul mate" aspect is literally sprung on us fifteen pages away from the end, and the wildly inconsistent climax goes completely against what little paranormal development Dare's produced.

So if you're looking for an interesting werewolf paranormal, you're screwed. If you're looking for an accurate historical, you're screwed. If you're looking for understandable characters with realistic motivation, you're screwed. I'd say this book screwed the pooch, except Lily already did (oh yes, I went there). Avoid this book - it's a dog.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Rises the Night," by Colleen Gleason

The Chick: Lady Victoria Gardella Grantworth de Lacy. While still reeling from the death of her husband, Phillip, she knows she still has a job to do: stop evil vampire Nedas from awakening an evil magical artefact.
The Rub: She'll have to do it on her own since the two men in her life are pretty unstable - one is clearly self-serving and the other seems to have switched sides entirely.
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.

The (Sort of) Dude:
Sebastian Voiget. Handsome, French, morally ambiguous, and totally hot for Victoria, he seems willing to help her on her quest ... and out of her complicated Victorian undergarments, aw yeah.
The Rub: Apparently, if you shake his family tree hard enough, handsome, French, morally ambiguous vampires will fall out - which may put a damper on his fling with a vampire slayer.
Dream Casting: Alex O'Loughlin.

The (Sort of) Other Dude:
Maximilian Pesaro. A stern, no-nonsense Venator (vampire slayer) who helped Victoria in the last book, he's gone MIA in Rome.
The Rub: Victoria eventually tracks him down - to find out he's engaged. To the daughter of a possible Evil Vampire Fanboy. Awkward.
Dream Casting: Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Plot (Some *Spoilers*)

Aunt Eustacia: Ohnoes! A very evil vampire wants to get a hold of an Important Magical Object and take over the world!

Victoria: Ohnoes-- wait, didn't that happen in the last book?

Aunt Eustacia: Different vampire, different object.

Sebastian: Here, let me offer you my unexpected, morally ambiguous, and French assistance!

Victoria: Um....'kay. Can we have sex, too?

Sebastian: Great idea! See, that's why you're the Venator.
Sebastian and Victoria: *Les SexyTimes*

Sebastian: *ties up Victoria* It's been swell, but wouldn't ya know it, my granddaddy's a vampire and I kinda think vampires aren't all that bad and I have to tie you up to keep from you from interfering in the Big Evil Plan but I'll call you later, sometime, okay? *flees*

Victoria: Damn your sexy French moral ambiguity! *escapes to the Opera House of Evil Plans*

Max, Venator Friend from Previous Book: What are you doing here? Leave! I'm totally a traitorous turncoat who's totally working for the bad guys. Totally.

Victoria: I don't believe that.

Max: Oh? *beheads Aunt Eustacia with a SWORD*

Victoria: Okay I believe you now.

Max: PSYCH! *royally fucks up Evil Plan*

Victoria: It's great you saved the world and everything, but you killed my aunt. That's cold, dude. I think you should leave.

Max: Will I have a chance if I leave only to come back even more emo and brooding and guilty than before?

Victoria: ....maybe.

Max: Okay then!

Sebastian: Hey, I'm still here! And incredibly morally ambiguous and French!

Victoria: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Vampire Slayer Widow

1 Hot Frenchman

1 Hot Semi-Jerk Possible Traitor

1 Opera House of Evil Plans

1 Obsidian MacGuffin

1 Secret Base in a Church

1 "Holy Shit" Death

2 Cases of Carriage Nookie

1 Secret Society of Vampire Fanboys

The Word: Okay, I read the first book in the Gardella Vampire Chronicles (The Rest Falls Away) a while ago, but didn't review it (I think because I didn't really consider it romance - which it isn't), but the series definitely has romantic elements in it, so when I decided to pick the second book off my TBR series, I thought I'd give it a shot. I consider myself immune to most Urban Fantasy or vampire paranormals - mostly because I need series to end. I frankly don't want to have to worry about how the heroine's life can get any worse over a never-ending crapload of books. I also tend to disagree with the whole vampires-are-romantic thing. They eat people. They're dead. They don't go to heaven or die. Not hot.

But I really liked the concept of the Gardella Vampire Chronicles, about 19th century Venators, or vampire slayers who work for the Pope. Gleason keeps to the traditional mythology - including the religious aspect of it. Holy water and crosses! I notice a lot of paranormals or UFs do away with the whole revulsion-towards-holy-objects "myth" because they don't want to bring religion into it. Yes, by all means have demons and vampires and angels but for heaven's sake, don't bring God into it (this is me, rolling my eyes heavily). Gleason also brings the humour and absurdity of Victorian society into play, especially in the last book when our heroine Victoria had to battle the rigours of the Season as well as the Queen of the Vampires.

Be forewarned - here there be spoilers.

Things take a more sober turn in Rises the Night, as they should. Victoria's understandably glum after having to stake her vampirized husband in the last book. She's dealing with her grief by throwing herself even deeper into her training and slaying. Unfortunately, after she whupped Vampire Queen Lilith's ass in the last novel, vampires are few on the ground in London and when Victoria finally does find a bloodsucker to introduce to Mr. Pointy, she discovers a dark, twisted conspiracy.

All the way over in Italy, Lilith's son, Nedas, has apparently discovered an ancient obelisk that would allow him to awaken an army of zombies to take over the world, and is being helped by the Tutela, a secret society of Vampire Fanboys. Victoria, as a wealthy widow whose Venator status is relatively unknown, is the perfect candidate to try and infiltrate the Tutela and perhaps gain access to their Evil Plans.

In The Rest Falls Away, Victoria negotiated a bizarre, hazy love-quadrangle - while she was very much in love with her handsome (but oblivious) husband Phillip, she got serious vibes from the other two corners: fellow Venator Max, who was Arrogant, Morally Rigid and Hot; and the human owner of a vampire-friendly pub, Sebastian, who was Seductive, Morally Ambiguous and Hot. Staking Phillip brought it down to a triangle, but by Rises the Night it's more a straight line between Sebastian and Victoria as Max is worryingly MIA in Italy.

Victoria and Sebastian develop a tricky, but very entertaining relationship in this novel that's quite fun to read. A year after Phillip's death, Victoria has determined that love is no longer in the cards for her. She can't afford to put anyone else at risk and she refuses to give up her Venator lifestyle the way her mother and grandmother did. But nothing's wrong with a careless fling with a hot Frenchman who doesn't want any strings attached either! Still - how far can she trust him? As much as he tries to hide it (as he obfuscates nearly everything else in his past), it's clear Sebastian feels much more for Victoria than he's willing to let on.

I very much enjoyed Victoria in Rises the Night. She's matured a great deal from her trials in the last book (where she had an annoying tendency to jump into things headfirst to prove She's The Man and fail spectacularly) , and while she still pulls Irritatingly Reckless Shit on occasion, she does a lot more preparation so when the crap hits the fan it seems like less of a happy accident when she manages to survive. That being said - there's a moment near the very end when she lets something Very Bad happen because she's being Very Stupid, and that lessened my admiration of her a tad.

That being said - it's a fun book. The pacing is good, the detail is colourful, the action scenes are coherent and lively without being too graphic. Gleason also expands the mythology without overpowering the book - including hinting that not all vampires are all bad. Despite the slightly darker tone, Victoria maintains a cynical sense of humour, particularly during those times when she has to juggle social obligations with vampire fighting. Her infiltration of the Tutela means she has to follow society's rules again, and here the paranormal element provides a nice excuse for biting social commentary (pun intended).

If you're looking for a witty, well-written paranormal series with historical elements and a plethora of hot dudes who all have pulses, The Gardella Vampire Chronicles is an excellent choice.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Behold! AnimeJune's RITA Reading Challenge!

Well, as of today, the 2010 RITA/Golden Heart Nominations have been announced, and Twitter has been echoing with the squee-ing of authors both new and experienced. What I noticed most of all, however, was how many of those RITA nominations are, right now, unread on my TBR. I can't have that! I must be as educated as possible to know who to cheer for at RWA Nationals 2010!

So, I decided to start up my RITA Reading Challenge - to read those nominated books that I have on my shelf (OR a different book of theirs already in my possession, sorry I must protect my bank account) before the awards ceremony. The books in my RITA Reading Challenge are:

Stolen Fury, by Elisabeth Naughton - nominated for Best First Book and Romantic Suspense

Start Me Up, by Victoria Dahl - Talk Me Down was nominated for Contemporary Single Title Romance, so I'll be reading the sequel I picked up at RWA 2009.

Too Good To Be True, by Kristin Higgins - nominated for Contemporary Single Title Romance.

Tempted All Night, by Liz Carlyle - the sequel, Wicked All Day, was nominated for Historical Romance.

With Seduction in Mind, by Laura Lee Gurhke - nominated for Historical Romance. Okay, I don't own this one, but I've seen it at my library. If I can't find it, I will read The Marriage Bed by her instead.

Rewriting Monday, by Jodi Thomas - her western, The Lone Texan, was nominated for Historical Romance.

Snowfall at Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs - her novel A Lakeshore Christmas, was nominated for Novel with Strong Romantic Elements

The Fire King, by Marjorie M. Liu - nominated for Paranormal Romance.

For The Earl's Pleasure, by Anne Mallory - nominated for Paranormal Romance.

Surrender of a Siren, by Tessa Dare - nominated for Regency Historical Romance.

A Rake's Guide To Seduction, by Caroline Linden - her A View to a Kiss is nominated for Regency Historical Romance.

Revealed, by Kate Noble - nominated for Regency Historical Romance.

It's In His Kiss, by Julia Quinn - her novel What Happens in London is nominated for Regency Historical Romance.

The Diamonds of Wellbourne Manor anthology - Deb Marlowe's novella "Annalise and the Scandalous Rake" and Amanda McCabe's "Charlotte and the Wicked Lord" are nominated for Romance Novella.

Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols - nominated for Young Adult Romance.

Whew! Fifteen books in all - think I can get them read before July?

And before I forget - I want to congratulate those books I have read and loved that are nominated:

Not Quite a Husband, by Sherry Thomas - nominated for Historical Romance

Scandal, by Carolyn Jewel - nominated for Regency Historical Romance

"This Wicked Gift," by Courtney Milan in The Heart of Christmas - nominated for Romance Novella.

All well deserved! Congrats, ladies!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Heart of Stone," by Jill Marie Landis

The Chick: Lovie Lane, a.k.a. "Lovie Lamonte," a.k.a. "Mrs. Laura Foster." Sold to a brothel at age eleven, she eventually earned enough money on her back to escape that wretched life and open a boardinghouse as a respectable "widow."
The Rub: While the small Texas town of Glory thinks she's genteel lady, she knows they could never understand her past, especially Brand, a kind-hearted preacher who deserves better.
Dream Casting: Reese Witherspoon.

The Dude: Reverend Brand McCormick. He thinks good Widow Foster is the bee's knees, and knows she likes him back despite her bizarre reluctance.
The Rub: Unfortunately, when the son he never knew he'd had decides to show up, leaving his reputation in tatters. Will the good widow still have him?
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.

The Plot:

Evil Uncle: What am I supposed to do with my orphaned, non-denominational Irish nieces?

Brothel: We'll take two!

Evil Uncle: SOLD!

Lovie/Laura: 0_0

Several Years Later

Laura: I am a refined widow. I run a respectable boarding house. I love children and animals. I'm totally not a seasoned prostitute. Did I mention my excellent taste in home decorating? I'm so not a whore.

Brand: I'm a charming, pious preacher. I have two adorably mischievous kids. I think I love you. You're totally not a seasoned prostitute. Did I mention I'm a widower? You're so not a whore. Wanna date?

Laura: No!

Brand's Kids: *sad eyes* Please date our dad!

Laura: Fine, I will.

Brand's Secret Love Child: Did someone order a Plot Device?

Brand: 0_0

Laura: Well I'll be damned.

Brand: We could still date!

Laura: Too bad I'm still a dirty, dirty whore! *flees*

Brand's Secret Love Child: *sad eyes* Please marry my dad!

Laura: Oh, FINE. I will.

Brand: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Fake Widow with a Dark Past

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Understanding Widower Preacher

1 Nasty Politician

1 Secret Baby

3 Missing Siblings

1 Bible

Several Black Eyes

1 Shady Former Partner-In-Crime

The Word: First off, I would like to thank Jill Marie Landis and her publicist for offering me a free copy of her Inspirational romance Heart of Stone, the first in her Irish Angels series. I have to say I was a little nonplussed by the title of the series. I don't really understand the focus on the characters being Irish - it doesn't really affect the protagonist's outlook, religion, or behaviour.

That's just a quibble, however. Heart of Stone is not a terrible romance. I may be damning it with faint praise, but it does have a lot of good things going for it and avoids a lot of the pitfalls I was expecting (especially after reading A Bride in the Bargain). However, it just didn't manage to be interesting.

Life dealt Lovie Lane a crappy hand. There's really no other way to say it. Orphaned at the age of eleven in the disease-ridden Irish Channel of New Orleans with her three younger sisters, her cold-hearted uncle dumped her two youngest sisters in an orphanage while Lovie and her sister Megan went someplace entirely different: a brothel. A day later, Megan too vanished, leaving Lovie utterly alone.

Years later, Lovie now goes by the name Laura Foster and owns a luxurious boardinghouse in the small town of Glory, Texas. To the townsfolk, she's a respectable and incredibly wealthy widow, but Laura feels like a fraud. Jill Marie Landis, to her infinite credit, doesn't whitewash Laura's past: she wasn't some idealized noble prostitute who only did it a few times to keep the barest of crusts in her belly, but an accomplished veteran and survivor who earned the majority of her fortune from it.

While she holds a high standing the community, Laura shuns social contact. Inside, she considers herself fallen and inferior and dirty, unworthy of association with the decent, moral people of Glory. To her, even starting a friendship is akin to deception, for surely no one would want to befriend her if they knew the truth. However, she hasn't given up on looking for her three lost sisters (presumably the heroines of future books in the series), and she keeps up her respectable front and her boardinghouse in order to provide a refuge for them once she tracks them down.

The fine balance of her life is rattled when Brand McCormick, the widowed preacher of Glory, takes a romantic interest in her. Although she likes him, very much in fact, she can't afford a relationship with him. Sooner or later the truth about her past is bound to get out, and Brand's reputation will go down in flames if it does.

However, in a delightful twist, good ol' Fate trashes Brand's reputation first when a young man claiming to be Brand's son shows up during his service and accuses his father of abandonment. In a nice narrative parallel, Laura finds herself defending Brand as the citizens of Glory fight over whether their preacher should be forgiven for an 18-year-old sin or tarred and feathered. This smaller, more manageable Big Dirty Secret strengthens the equality of the protagonists and makes the release of Laura's pent-up guilt and shame more believable, so that she's better able to handle the fallout from her own Big Dirty Secret.

Another thing I liked was the depiction of religion. Naturally, it's very important to Brand, and this comes through well, but I especially appreciated the notion of religion as it relates to the heroine, who is an atheist. Yup - she doesn't believe in God. Thankfully, she's not treated to a preachy sermon (although probably because she doesn't make her atheism well known), and neither is she given a giant Road-To-Damascus revelation about God's existence either. Her introduction to God is subtly played and quite personal - her admiration for Brand is part of why she makes an attempt, but mainly it's thanks to her own quiet exploration and curiosity. And even then - she's not an enthusiastic, scripture-quoting convert by the end of the novel, merely someone who's more willing to accept God into her life.

While the realism and the narrative plot parallels were quite good, this novel wasn't perfect. One of the flaws, I felt, was the reason for Laura's atheism. Part of it is due to her tormented childhood and how understandably difficult it is for Laura to reconcile the idea of a benevolent deity with the trauma she suffered - I get that. I do. But the novel also suggests that a large part of her atheism is just plain ignorance, and the fact that she'd never even picked up a Bible or heard a single Bible story growing up. Laura doesn't even know the story of Noah's Arc.

Hello, if she was raised until the age of eleven by lower-class Irish parents in 1840s Ireland, she would have picked up some religion, she would have heard Bible stories. She might not have believed it or understood it, but religion would have been in her life - it just would have been Catholic. It's okay to have Catholic-raised characters lose their faith and then convert to Protestantism, Jill Marie Landis. I don't find that offensive - but I do find subverting historical accuracy in order to keep Catholicism out of a religious narrative offensive.

Another flaw was the writing style. Jill Marie Landis definitely belongs to the Tell-Instead-of-Show School of Flawed Writing and she demonstrates this fairly early on page 25 when Laura notes Brand's "hands were not the hands of a man who shied away from hard work." Meaning? Show, don't tell! It gets worse, when, at the end, Landis decides to Tell instead of Show Brand's Big Moralizing Speech, under the excuse that Brand is so impassioned he doesn't remember what he said, only that it was awesome and about love and forgiveness and stuff and people in the audience cried. Lame.

Lastly, our hero. I liked Laura, our heroine. True, I felt that for a survivor of her calibre she could have shown a bit more grit and been a little less "This is why I can't have nice things," but her character seemed genuine and her past wasn't watered down. Brand, on the other hand - he's too nice. Too nice and too understanding and too forgiving. In other words: boring. Other than a told-instead-of-shown "carousing past," a half-Cherokee love child (whom he instantly accepts with open arms), and a tendency to use his adorable and emotionally-fragile motherless children to score dates with chicks, he didn't have any flaws. He doesn't have a temper, he doesn't misunderstand things, he doesn't lash out or get frustrated.

You can be a genuinely good, religious man and still make mistakes, but Brand just makes all the right moves and as a result has about as much spark as one of those Japanese body-pillows with a face on it. As a result, the development of the romance is pretty one-sided, as Brand is so perfectly forgiving, understanding and accepting (and totally in love with Laura) that Laura's personal development is the only real obstacle to the HEA. This lopsided development made a lot of the book pretty tedious and as a I result I didn't really enjoy it as much as I might have if Brand had had a little more life to him.

That being said, this novel has good narrative drama, an intriguing heroine, and a gentle but no less genuine take on religion. Except for the one or two points I mentioned, the story is realistic and doesn't ask for a lot of suspension of disbelief.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"How to Knit a Wild Bikini," by Christie Ridgway

The Chick: Nikki Carmichael. A talented chef, she's no longer cut out for restaurant work after she tears her ACL, so she goes looking for work as a private cook instead.
The Rub: All she wants is an impersonal, business relationship - but her boss wants anything but. Trouble is, she needs the money too badly to quit.
Dream Casting: Ellen Pompeo.

The Dude:
Jay Buchanan. The editor of a popular men's magazine, he's sworn off women after his bachelor antics complicate a childhood friendship - but he's pretty sure the chef he's hired is a lesbian.
The Rub: Aw crap, his chef has sexy boobs. Sexy non-lesbian boobs.
Dream Casting: Bradley Cooper.

The Plot:

Jay: I need a chef!

Nikki: That would be me!

Jay: ....Except not a girl chef.

Nikki: DAMMIT.

Needy McBigBoobs: Oh Jaaaaaay!

Jay: Fine, I still need a chef!

Nikki: Right here!

Jay: ... to be my fake girlfriend.

Nikki: DAMMIT.

Jay: My fake lesbian girlfriend.

Nikki: ???

Jay: Just run with it. Gee - you're fun to have around!

Nikki: Hsssssssss, commitment, emotion, it burns us it does!

Jay: Aaaah, my lifestyle, my beautiful debauched bachelor lifestyle, WHAT IS HAPPENING TO YOU??

Nikki: Let's just have mindless sex and get it over with.

Jay: *sniffle* But I want more than that.

Beautiful Debauched Bachelor Lifestyle: *fizzles* *dies*

Nikki: Hsssss! *flees*

Jay: *chases* We're getting married, dammit, and you're gonna like it!

Nikki: Oh, fine. Let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Swingin' Bachelor Journalist

1 Emotionally Closed-Off Chef

1 Dark Past

1 Fake Lesbian Girlfriend

1 Surprise! Sequel-Baiting Sister

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

1 Secondary Romance (Needy McBigBoobs and Sex-Mex the Landscape Artist)

1 Bum Knee

1 Troubled Niece

1 Use of Fruit for Erotic Purposes

The Word: I am ashamed, dear readers. Very, very ashamed. I have not been as loyal to Christie Ridgway as I ought to have been. I quite enjoyed the first book of hers I read, way back in 2008, and since then I haven't bought another. No - I had to win this one at a raffle at RWA 2009. Shame on me, because this book is wonderful.

I remember another blogger mentioning her novels as being surprisingly dark and multidimensional despite being marketed as fluffy, breezy comedies. Don't get me wrong, there is sweetness and light in this book but there is also depth, and pain, and severe personal problems as well.

Nikki Carmichael needs a job. She's a first-class chef, but after tearing a ligament in her knee she can no longer work on her feet in the demanding restaurant setting she's used to. Thanks to some deep-seated emotional problems, knee surgery is not an option for her, so she decides to find work as a personal chef instead. She gets a phone call from editor Jay Buchanan offering her a temporary job cooking meals for himself and his niece, ending in an anniversary dinner for his parents.

Jay Buchanan is the famous editor of NYFM Magazine, which is described as Maxim only slightly classier. A former ladies' man, he's decided to give up on women for a year. Refreshingly, it's not because Dem Womens are harshing his buzz, but rather thanks to his own irresponsibility. Months ago he had a drunken one-night stand with needy childhood friend Shanna, who now wants a relationship, and he's rightfully disgusted with himself for putting her in such a painful situation. Thus, he's given up on ladykilling - however, he still has no idea how to reject Shanna's increasingly hopeless advances without wounding her further.

When Nikki shows up in person to accept his job offer, he nearly fires her on the spot. Since Nikki came recommended to him by a lesbian acquaintance, he assumed she played for the other team too, but after one look at her he knows she's as straight as he is. This puts a serious crimp on his whole "avoiding women" deal. However, when Shanna drops by at the same time, he devises another use for Nikki: he claims she's his girlfriend, hoping Shanna will finally take the hint. In private, however, he insists Nikki be a lesbian - a resolution destined for failure, if the red-hot, instantaneous chemistry between the two is anything to go by.

However, this isn't just some wa-ha-hacky "they have to pretend they love each other" plot, but rather a way to explore Nikki's issues and Jay's evolving expectations. Yes, beneath the light-hearted "fake relationship" plot lies a very damaged heroine who never completely recovered from a horrific event in her past. She blames her own emotional vulnerability after her mother's death for the trauma she endured and has since completely shut herself away from all emotional ties in a way that's almost pathological. She has no friends. Her apartment is bland and neutral. Her only "pet" is a plastic fish that needs to be wound up now and again to swim around in its tank.

Jay won't let her just be a personal chef, though. He continually nudges into her personal space, forcing her to feel because he can't help but feel for her. She's helped along by the presence of Jay's teenage niece Fern, who's living with Jay while their parents are on a cruise. Even though Nikki's spent her life keeping out of other people's, she can't help but notice that Fern's relationship with a local boy is a lot like the disastrous one she had at the same age, which challenges her determination to remain uninvolved. As well, after she ducks into a yarn and knitting shop called Malibu & Ewe, she encounters the friendly, sequel-baiting owner Cassie who seems to know more about Nikki than she lets on.

Nikki, as a character, is mesmerizing. It seems I have a taste for damaged, emotionally shut-off heroines (see my love for Jo Goodman and Laura Kinsale as an example), because I loved reading about Nikki. In many ways she's selfish, cowardly, and pitiable - but also strong and determined to move on from what happened to her, which was truly awful and in keeping with how her character evolved from that experience. In many ways, I think Shanna's part in the book is to work in contrast to Nikki - as someone who emotionally gloms onto other people and suffers from cripplingly low self-esteem, she comes across as a far weaker person than Nikki.

That being said, even Shanna's character is developed enough for a light secondary romance with Jay's BFF. Fern's plotline, despite its brevity, is also richly drawn (even if its conclusion is a little pat). The Malibu & Ewe shop (which apparently plays a part in all three books in this series, including Unravel Me and Dirty Sexy Knitting) is supportive of the story without becoming intrusive, and the sequel baiting is there but kept to a nice minimum.

But let's talk about the best part of this book, shall we? The hero. Jay. Mmmmmmmm, Jay! He's just the man Nikki needs and his romantic evolution is the highlight of the novel. Yes, he's still a bit of a player at the beginning of the novel, but even then he realizes there are consequences to his actions and that he needs to clean up his act. At first, Nikki seems like his Perfect Woman - she doesn't want to get involved, she doesn't want to talk about her feelings, she doesn't want to blubber about her problems.

However, Jay can't help but notice what she doesn't say, the little things about herself she doesn't even know she's revealing, that turn on his empathy. He's a secret nurturer and he doesn't even know it until he's pulling his hair out whenever Nikki stubs her toe. By then it's too late, and it's wonderful and funny to read how he struggles against how much he feels for her and how much he reacts to her pain. My favourite scenes in the novel are Jay's reaction when Nikki reveals her past, as well as their first sex scene. So tender and sweet. Jay is a wonderful hero.

How To Knit A Wild Bikini may sound like a wispy meringue of a romance, but it is so much more than that. Well-developed characters, moving drama, nicely-paced secondary narratives, healing, sisterhood, an irresistible hero, all topped with humour. Beneath the meringue topping is a devil's food cake of lurve.

And this time I'm coming back for seconds. Ahem, as soon as my Lenten book-ban is over.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"Lady Be Bad," by Candice Hern

The Chick: Grace Marlowe. As the young widow of the revered Bishop Marlowe, she was trained from the first days of their marriage to be proper and pious in all things.
The Rub: Without her sainted husband to guide her, she fears the strange attentions she's receiving from the rakehell Rochdale will lead her down the wide, sexy path to sin.
Dream Casting: Katherine Heigl.

The Dude: John Grayston, Viscount Rochdale. The ultimate ladies' man, he can get any woman into bed with him, and is willing to stake his champion racehorse on it. Even a bishop's widow shouldn't be too hard.
The Rub: He actually starts to like this lady, but what will she do if she finds out about the wager?
Dream Casting: Patrick Dempsey.

The Plot:

Lord Rochdale: I can seduce any woman in England!

Random Skeezy Dude: Bet you your favourite horse you can't seduce the the bishop's widow!

Lord Rochdale: Done and done! Hey pretty lady!

Grace: *pious glare* Women's urges are sinful!

Lord Rochdale: *smoochies*

Grace: Women's urges are delightful! LET'S GET IT ON!

Lord Rochdale: *sudden guilt* Umm, why don't we go shopping for purity rings instead?

Grace: *sexy glare*

Lord Rochdale: Oh, hell, it's ON LIKE DONKEY KONG.

Lord Rochdale and Grace: *SexyTimes*

Lord Rochdale: Here, Skeezy Dude, take my horse!

Random Skeezy Dude: Awesome! I won the wager!


Lord Rochdale: Crap.

Grace: Maybe I was too hasty. Skeezy dude, bet you your awesome horse I'll marry Rochdale!

Random Skeezy Dude: Okay! I sure do love these inappropriate wagers!

Lord Rochdale: WAGER?! YOU WHORE!

Grace: Crap.

Lord Rochdale: Dammit, let's just stop making wagers and get married.

Grace: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Orgasmless Widow

1 Misogynist Rake

4 Merry Widows

1 Set of Mommy Issues

2 Pretty Horsies

1 Sexy Wager

1 Inconveniently Dead Husband

1 Bitch Stepdaughter

The Word: Colour me supremely disappointed. When I read my first encounter with Candice Hern, her It Happened One Night novella "From This Moment On," I enjoyed the thoughtful, mature characters and their unusual relationship. I liked pacing and the detail. I don't think I was unreasonable for expecting the same in Lady Be Bad.

Sadly, we get a very conventional storyline, inconsistent characterization, and slack pacing. Lord Rochdale is the best lover in London (or so he thinks), and is known for being a rank degenerate - romance novels rarely have fabulous lovers who aren't also giant douchebags. Anyhow, he's also a horse aficionado and when Lord Sheane wagers a prize-winning horse that he can find a woman Rochdale can't seduce, our hero accepts. Lord Sheane goes out and promptly picks Grace Marlowe, the widow of a revered bishop, a woman so prim butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. Rochdale has three months to get her into bed, or he loses his horse, Serenity.

Thanks to Rochdale's scandalous reputation, Grace is immediately suspicious of his advances, Unfortunately, she can't help how much his presence rattles her defenses. Trained by her much-older husband to repress the feminine weaknesses of lust and desire, she gets her jollies by hanging out with her lusty widowed friends but keeps herself tightly wound. She's much too polite to tell Rochdale to piss off, however, so she sort of has to sit there and take it as Rochdale awakens all sorts of sensations she's convinced are sinful and wicked.

I think we all know where this story is going. However, romances can overcome predictable storylines with engaging characters, but this novel fails in this regard as well. Let's start with Grace - I never bought her character. She's supposedly the wife of a bishop - a very vocal and pious religious leader who had a very powerful effect on her worldview. Religion should be a very important part of her character. There are several times in the novel where she feels lost or full of self-loathing because she's been trained to believe that lustful feelings are wrong. Does she pray for guidance? Does she rant at God? Does she even think about God? Is God even mentioned in any way that isn't oblique? Nope.

I'm sorry, but I call BULLSHIT. Not only that, but it's cowardly writing. This isn't an argument about religion, it's an argument about good writing and character development. In the case of Lady Be Bad, religion is only used as a literary excuse for Grace to be sexually repressed and to make her dead husband bad in bed. Heaven forbid her religion should have any other effect on her life! You want to make your heroine the pious widow of a bishop in order to make her seduction by a rake more exciting? Fine - but you still have to follow through with her characterization. If religion is important enough to her to determine her sexual choices, it's important enough to affect other aspects of her life as well. You can have characters who are overtly religious without making your book overtly religious.

Lord Rochdale, I'm afraid, isn't much better. Yet another rake from the "My Mum Didn't Hug Me Enough So All Women Are Whores" school of thought, who used to be a kind, bookish Beta destined for the clergy until Dem Slutty Womens broke his widdle heart. He's also one of those miraculous men who's managed to make himself fabulously wealthy almost solely through gambling (because we all know how often that happens). Yes, he secretly thinks all women are schemers, liars, and sluts - but he can't even be consistent in that. I kid you not, there is a section in the book where Rochdale goes off on an internal monologue about how all women come from the same skanky mold, and not ten pages later, he admonishes Grace for supporting her husband's sermons on married relations because they're anti-women. Excuse me?

What's worse is that he doesn't really change. Yes, yes, even though Grace is kind-hearted and lovely and totally different from every other woman in existence, he continues to jump to conclusions about her character. Mild Spoilers ahead: nearing the end of the novel, Grace and Rochdale have a falling out when his wager comes to light. When Grace learns that Rochdale had forfeited the wager and given his best horse to Lord Sheane, she in turn wagers with Sheane that she can get the famous rake to marry her. The prize? The horse! However, on page 299, literally eight pages from the end, Rochdale hears gossip about her bet, makes a wild leap to the conclusion that Dem Slutty Womens have struck again - and very publicly breaks off his engagement to Grace, squealing all the while that she's such a manipulative, deceitful skank. Only when he discovers she's recovered his bestest, favouritest horsie does he go in and apologize. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?

These are only small sections of the book - the rest is relatively inoffensive, but unfortunately exceedingly dull. The pacing drags on and on as Grace ponders on her feelings and her burgeoning sexuality (all without even thinking of God), and Rochdale very slowly comes to see that Grace isn't all that bad. It's not terrible, but it's not very gripping. Nothing really arises that makes this story particularly unique or poignant or emotional. I appreciated the ways in which Rochdale comes to see that, while Grace coming into her sexuality is a good thing, the reasons why he's doing it are wrong. Grace is a pretty nice person when it all comes down to it. Her late husband (while being horrible in bed thanks to the good ol' G-O-D) isn't demonized or turned into an awful abusive monster. But nothing really gripped me. The story was predictable from start to finish, the characters weren't well-drawn enough to make up for the tired plot. Around page 200 I just started skimming.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Dreaming of You," by Lisa Kleypas

The Chick: Sara Rose Fielding, a.k.a. "S.R. Fielding." A novelist famous for writing about the underprivileged of London, she accidentally rescues the owner of a gambling hell from thugs, and sees a grand opportunity to guilt him into helping her research for her latest book.
The Rub: She'd rather do a little more intimate "research" on the criminal "underbelly" - as long as that criminal is Derek. Too bad he wants nothing to do with her!
Dream Casting: North and South's Daniela Denby-Ashe.

The Dude: Derek Craven. He brought himself up from the gutter to become the richest man in England. He knows first hand that the slums of London are no place for a naive country girl.
The Rub: He quickly comes to love Sara, but pushes her away because he believes he has nothing to offer her - nothing but piles of money, stunning good looks, and the anatomical blessings of a bull.
Dream Casting: Johnny Depp.

The Plot:

Derek: Ah! My pretty Alpha Male face is threatened by thugs!

Sara: Anachronistic Twit to the rescue! *kills thug*

Derek: Are you here by yourself?

Sara: *eyes sparkle* Oh of course, everyone is so nice, what could possibly be unsafe about walking down dark alleyways in 19th century London by myself? *sparkle sparkle*

Derek: You're a moron. And an inexplicably attractive one to boot. GO AWAY.

Sara: *sparkle sparkle* How dare you refuse my naive and blundering advances! *wears pretty dress, gets drunk* Look at me, I'm a seductive worldly woman!

Derek: You're still a moron. *gropes* GO AWAY.

Sara: *sparkle sparkle* Fine. I'll go and marry my almost fiance, who's a real man! *sparkle sparkle*

Perry: No I'm not.


Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress: I'll get you, my pretty, and your little virginity too!

Derek: *saves Sara* Guess we have to get married, now.

Sara: Um...thanks?

Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress: *crazy evil bullshit*

Sara: Wow, you make me look organized in comparison! Can we have our happily ever after now?

Derek: ...

Sara: *sparkle sparkle*

Derek: Okay.

Sarah: HOORAY! *sparkle sparkle*

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Too Angsty To Live Hero

1 Too Stupid To Live Heroine

1 Crazy Whore Ex-Mistress

2 Smug Marrieds from Previous Kleypas Books

Several Easily-Won-Over Servants

1 Rapist for Hire

1 Lookalike Hooker

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

The Word: I'm sorry, but Lisa Kleypas and I? We are done. I'm not picking up her option, we're going in a different direction, it's time we see other people, yadda, yadda, yadda. But we are done. I'm taking her books off my shelves, and after Lent will probably trade them in for better, used books. I've tried. Really I have. Some of her books have been diverting, especially when I was starting out as a romance reader, but I just can't read her books anymore.

In romance, there is an element of fantasy, for when it all comes down to it, everything (at least everything that matters) works out for the hero and heroine. However, there is a wide spectrum concerning the amount of fantasy in a romance novel and, as I've repeatedly discovered, Lisa Kleypas sits pretty darn close to the "full out fantasy" end of the field.

Lisa Kleypas Land: Reality - Not Welcome.

Her heroes are pretty much always richer than God - or end up richer than God by the end of the novel. Sure, some of them aren't aristocrats (*maidenly gasp*) but they are all rolling in money and tend to be physically interchangeable - huge and dark and ugly and hot, or huge and blond and pretty and hot. Her heroines are "feisty" and "quirky," by which I mean they act like 21st century girls after a summer spent cloistered with the full collection of Jane Austen's works on DVD: full of modern enlightenment, tolerance, saintly goodness, and great tits.

The heroines are perfectly good - but their main draw is their pillowy-soft innocence that lures our heroes (used to the dried-out charms of bus-station-toilet-paper ladies) with the promise of Charmin. Our villains are perfectly evil in as many ways as it is possible to be evil and are soundly vanquished in the end - or worse, are retroactively neutered into goodness by becoming heroes in a sequel (et tu, Sebastian?). Her writing style dedicates the majority of her description to letting us know how wealthy and grand and classy the setting is by overusing words like "rich," "sumptuous," and "succulent" - without actually describing the settings in any great detail.

Once the protagonists start having sex, they go at it like they're stockpiling it for the upcoming Sexpocalypse. Precious narrative time is spent on shopping trips, spending sprees, and general romantic gestures on the part of the hero, by which I mean, the hero spends an obscene amount of cash on the heroine. Then some random dude shows up at the end waving a gun and our hero gets to prove he's a man for free.

*sigh* I'm sorry, but I need some substance with my cotton candy. I need some nuance, and some subtlety. I need Lacklustre Romantic Rivals who aren't cartoons. I need sex scenes that have narrative purpose. I need heroines who have spine and don't wander around like doe-eyed sheep looking for a hot shirtless shepherd. I understand why readers love Lisa Kleypas, but I also understand why I don't.

Dreaming of You, considered by many to be Lisa Kleypas' masterpiece, is just the final nail in the coffin of my fandom. The book opens on one of the worst examples of TSTL (Too Stupid To Live) behaviour I've ever read. Our heroine is Sara Fielding, a writer who rose to literary fame with the publication of Mathilda, a novel about a reformed prostitute (possibly a reference to Defoe's Roxana?). She prides herself on her meticulous research, which involves walking through some of London's worst neighbourhoods by herself at night to interview people, her only protection the pistol in her purse which she's never learned how to aim. She goes alone, of course, because her family - oh, they just wouldn't understand. Neither can I, honey.

She comes across a man being set on by thugs and fires a warning shot - into a thug's neck. Nice. The surviving thugs flee, and Sara helps the injured man back to his place of business: an infamous gambling club. Turns out the man is Derek Craven, the club's owner. Sara is delighted. Her next novel is about a gambler, so she figures this is an excellent way to gather more research.

Frankly, by this point I'm surprised Sara can read, much less write bestselling, socially-conscious novels about prostitutes and criminals. She's a walking contradiction. She's simultaneously described as a naive country bumpkin glowing with purity who rarely travels beyond her precious little village of Greenwood Corners - and a globally-thinking, anachronistically open-minded crusader. She apparently has no knowledge of or common sense regarding how to act and behave in London's seedier neighbourhoods but still somehow manages to write dark, profound works of fiction a la Charles Dickens. She's a pure creature of fantasy - pure and sheltered and shy and virginal and yet still somehow knowledgeable enough to make thought-provoking commentary about society.

Our hero is also a fantasy creation, albeit one less grating and less obviously fictional than Sara. Derek Craven was born in the gutter, raised by prostitutes and even worked as one himself (but only on the ladies - which of course makes him sexier instead of realistically damaged, like Gabriel St. Croix), until he eventually clawed himself up to become the obscenely wealthy man he is today. He tosses and turns in his gigantic, overly-symbolic bed, wondering why money and power don't make him happy.

To quote the folks from Team America, there's an emptiness that Derek needs to fill, and only one emptiness will do. Sara, the Sugar-Free Marshmellow of Goodness, charms the hearts of all the jaded people in his club through her sheer purity, Derek included. The novel tells us that Derek falls for Sara because she is the saintly bleach to his dirty, sexy stain but what the novel shows us is that Sara unintentionally blackmails Derek into falling for her.

How? Every time she makes overtures that Derek refuses, she goes out and does something stupid and nearly gets killed. When Derek refuses to kiss her, Sarah disguises herself and gets shitfaced at a party filled with hookers and rakes. When Derek refuses to have sex with her, she runs off with a complete stranger and nearly gets gangraped during a riot. I think Derek somehow senses that unless he puts a ring on her finger, the next time he says "no" she's bound to throw herself down a well.

There's also the cartoonish villain, Lady Ashby. I'll admit it's refreshing to have a novel where the hero is stalked by a crazed, possessive ex-lover, but she's not a character, she's a collection of evil traits sewn up in a bag of skin and blond hair. It's not enough to have her be jealous of Derek. No, the author has to make her a sexual deviant so kinky she makes even the jaded Derek blush, who has countless abortions because she doesn't want to get fat, who ruins debutantes' lives for the fun of it, etc. I'm sure Lisa Kleypas would have written in a scene where she kicks puppies if it wouldn't have strained the novel's wordcount.

The novel loses its Stupid around the midway point - Sara learns a bit of common sense from her near gang-bang - but makes up for it with a surplus of Boring. Derek mopes and sleeps with Sara lookalike-hookers. Sara tries to make it with her fiance, Perry - who sadly morphs from a gentle but boring lad into a full-on condemning mama's boy. Oh, yes - heaven forbid the romantic rival should be a good, consistent, or realistic character. That would suggest that there is a sentient, reasonable human male in the world who finds the heroine undesirable! That cannot be borne! Any man who doesn't want to marry the purely pure candy floss Sara must be wrong in the head, evil, and/or gay!

The novel dissolves into scenes of shopping trips, Craven's sickeningly cutesy Smug Married friends meddling where they're not wanted, over-the-top evil Lady Ashby antics, lots and lots of pointless sex - and an 11th hour climax. Not a word of which was unexpected. I suppose the fault is mine in supposing that Dreaming of You might be different from Lisa Kleypas' other books, that if I just keep reading, I'll eventually find the Kleypas book that fulfills all the promises her fans make about her storytelling ability. But the fact is, like C.L. Wilson and Nalini Singh - I just plain don't like her writing.

Oh well.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

"In For A Penny," by Rose Lerner

The Chick: Penelope Brown. When a handsome aristocrat, with whom she'd only flirted with before, asks for her hand in marriage, no one is more surprised than she when she says yes.
The Rub: Despite her growing affection for her husband, she fears she'll never be anything but a vulgar, emotional Cit - hardly the sophisticated, gently-bred lady that Nev deserves.
Dream Casting: Hayley Atwell.

The Dude:
Nathaniel Arthur Delaval Ambrey, formerly Viscount Nevinstoke, now Earl Bedlow, a.k.a. "Nev." When his father dies, leaving the family deeply in debt, Nev proposes marriage to a wealthy heiress.
The Rub: Sadly, marriage doesn't solve all of his problems - can he fix his estate and still keep his wife happy?
Dream Casting: Northanger Abbey's J.J. Feild.

The Plot:

Nev: Crap, I need money! Want to get married?

Penelope: Um...sure?

Nev: Excellent! What could possibly go wrong?

Former Mistress: *takes ill*

Poachers: *poach*

Tenants: *seditious mutterings*

Sir Jasper, Nev's Neighbour: Did you really just ask that question?

Nev: Crap! And on top of that, my wife hates me because I'm such a hopeless failure!

Penelope: Crap! And on top of that, my husband doesn't love me because I'm an unsophisticated Cit!

Sir Jasper: Easy solution! *tries to murder Penelope*

Nev: Hands off my wife!

Penelope: Oh, Nev, you're so sexy when you take charge!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Marriage of Convenience

1 Fatal Duel

1 Inconvenient Mistress

Several Unsatisfied Tenants

1 Precocious Sibling

1 Almost Elopement

6 Insulting Engravings

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

1 Use of Condiment for Erotic Purposes

The Word: I'm going to have to thank Ana from The Booksmugglers for recommending this book. Or, more accurately, she suggested me to Rose Lerner, who very kindly sent me a free copy of In For a Penny, her debut novel. As it turns out, I have to thank her for more than just a free book.

I'm going to have to thank her for writing such a delightful, thought-provoking and detailed historical romance that defies the pervasive notions in other romance novels that Fantasy trumps Narrative, Realistic Problems are Boring, and that Life is Perfect when you're in Love.

Lord Nevinstoke, known as "Nev" to his bros, is a typical man of his class and time, but a good man for all that. He's a jolly fellow who drinks frequently, plays cards, races curricles, attends the theatre, and hangs out with his mistress, Amy. He's not a saint, but he's hardly a Duke of Slut. While dropping in at a party, he trades quips with a pretty young heiress named Penelope Brown before being called away.

However, his charmed life comes to a halt when his father, Earl Bedlow, is killed in a drunken duel. All at once, the easygoing Nev is forced to assume the heavy burden of responsibility made even weightier by the discovery that his irresponsible sire left the family bankrupt. Out of options, he returns to that same woman he flirted with, offering his hand in marriage. Her fortune in return for his title. Penelope shocks them both by saying yes.

However, that is hardly the end of troubles for our two protagonists. Everyone knows that Nev married Penelope for her fortune and many of his noble friends and relatives look down on her as a Cit (short for citizen, or middle-class woman unrelated to a title). Furthermore, after their marriage, Nev and Penelope head down to his ancestral seat of Loweston and discover an estate in shambles, starving and resentful tenants, unscrupulous churchmen, and a manipulative, power hungry neighbour named Sir Jasper.

More than that, however, our protagonists also have to contend with themselves. Lerner so wonderfully captures the history and the social themes of the period, and channels that into her characters. Our protagonists are definitely people of their time, but remain sympathetic, identifiable human beings. Many times in lesser romances, our protagonists come ready-made with 21st century beliefs and behaviours and spend most of the narrative fighting against the barbaric 19th century norms.

Nev represents the ultimate hypocrisy of the aristocracy in the 19th century - a class designed to wield the majority of the nation's wealth while simultaneously believing that handling money is vulgar. Nev is good-hearted, well-intentioned, and smart in his own way but he's hopelessly out of his element whenever money is concerned and this brings him no little shame as he discovers the extent of his estate's decay. Confronted by new feelings of worthlessness and incompetence, Nev goes to some rather extreme measures to distance himself from his father's reckless example - such as breaking it off with his BFFs Thirkell and Percy.

While feelings of being a good-for-nothing are new to Nev, Penelope has had to struggle with them all her life. As part of the upwardly mobile middle-class, Penelope's been trained to aspire to a class that will never truly accept her. Her father's money bought her fancy clothes and an expensive education, but she was continually bullied at her girls' school for being a Cit. She fights with an iron-bound determination to be ladylike in all respects but is eternally tormented by the conviction that she will never be good enough.

Nev and Penelope like each other almost immediately but have to struggle with their feelings of inferiority. The fact that their marriage was based on a financial agreement is one of the hugest hurdles. Nev loves Penelope but despairingly believes that he's paid her back in poor coin, that she traded her dowry in return for an irresponsible failure of a husband. Meanwhile, their marriage of convenience convinces Penelope that she has nothing to offer except money. She certainly doesn't believe she's pretty, sophisticated, or ladylike enough to have attracted Nev on her own.

However, that is not only what the protagonists go through. Instead of focusing on repetitive internal monologuing, Rose Lerner brings out these themes by providing realistic, well-researched external obstacles that engage the internal struggles our protagonists wrestle with. The dilapidation of Loweston is excellently described, as well as the very real work and expense needed to bring it back up to snuff. Really, the depth and the amount of detail in this book puts so many lesser historical romances to shame. Many blue-blooded romance heroes are anachronistically blessed with superb mathematical acumen or a gift for manipulating the stock exchange that explains why they can waste their time drinking and whoring while their tenants miraculously remain well-fed.

But oh, the realism in In For a Penny just makes the narrative that much stronger and the romance that much more potent. Some readers want their romance to be a puppies-and-rainbows fantasy but I always prefer it when a romance blooms despite realistic adversity. I adored the protagonists because I understood them despite the historical differences.

Nev is adorable, a sweetheart through and through. He's very much a jovial Beta from the Georgette Heyer model, but he always wants to do the right thing and improve himself as a person, and when he comes into his own and learns to stand up for himself, it is a delicious development indeed. Similarly - I would have hated Penelope in a lesser romance. Gee, a heroine who refuses to believe the hero loves her despite his constant protestations to the contrary? But here, I understood her distressing upbringing, the pain inherent in being too hoity-toity for the peasants but too vulgar for the aristos. I empathized with all she tried to hide about herself in order to be a perfect lady. Their romance is sweet and affectionate and the lust is downplayed - but there still is sex involved, sex that, like the rest of this romance, isn't fantasy-perfect but still lovely and satisfying.

It sounds so trite to say that In For a Penny is a breath of fresh air, but it fits the bill. YES, there can be realism in a romance. YES, there can be heroes who aren't muscle-bound cavemen in cravats. YES, there can be real problems in a narrative that don't come with easy solutions. In many ways, In For A Penny reminds me of the best of Mary Balogh - both authors write their narratives to fit into their historical periods, rather than the other way around.

What do you MEAN Lerner's next book, Lily Among Thorns, isn't out until 2011?!