Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My June Round-Up!

So, what happened to me in June?
  • I entered the first seven pages of The Duke of Snow and Apples in the Emerald City Openers contest.
  • I bit the bullet and signed up for an agent appointment at the RWA National Conference in Orlando. I'll get to pitch my novel to a REAL agent! I'm terrified/ecstatic/despairing/excited!
  • I got a LOT more involved in my RWA chapters - I've been critiquing a lot, and getting critiqued in return. General consensus for Duke's first five chapters: strong!
Oh, and I also read a bit.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Fake Fake Aristocrat
  • 1 Almost-Widow
  • 1 Actual Widow
  • 1 Sexy Mechanic
  • 1 Wounded Divorcee
  • 1 Maimed Translator
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Fake Rake
  • 1 Chimera
  • 1 French Exile
  • 1 Bastard Home Renovator
  • 1 Geeky Architect
  • 1 Widower Single Dad
For Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love him! I have car oil under my nails!"
  • "I can't love him! I'm still mourning the loss of my perfect, athletic, straight-A fiance to cancer!"
  • "I can't love him! I've just been widowed, and the marriage wasn't that great!"
  • "I can't love her! She's in league with shapeshifters!"
  • "I can't love him! I'm an unloved, unwanted orphan with ridiculously ugly Angelina-Jolie-esque lips!"
  • "I can't love him! He's a sexy Brit just like my mean ol' ex!"
For Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 1 Missing Arm
  • 2 Counts of Fear-Vomit
  • 1 Slutty Backhoe
  • 1 Slutty Ghost
  • 4 Precocious Children
  • 1 Really Good Footrub
  • Several Sequel-Baiting Siblings
*June Pick* The Fire King, by Marjorie Liu. A
Winner of the Best Reason To Learn a Foreign Language Award
Pros:
Awesome shifter hero. Awesomer translator heroine. Cool magic. Great story. Angst, angst, everywhere.
Cons: Pacing gets a wee bit slow near the middle.

Start Me Up, by Victoria Dahl. A-
Winner of the Nerdy Hero Award
Pros:
Adorable hero. Well-drawn heroine. Relevant sex scenes. Good story.
Cons: Annoying BFF. Suspense subplot a little too pat. Romance a little abrupt.

A Rake's Guide to Seduction, by Caroline Linden. B+
Winner of the Fake Rake Medal
Pros:
Well-characterized and intelligent heroine. Sweet romantic development. Refreshing lack of Big Misunderstandings.
Cons: Conflicts are a little too low-key. Silly 11th-hour villain and climax.

Crush On You, by Christie Ridgway. B-
Winner of the Too Angsty To Live Medal of Honour
Pros: Well-developed angst. Interesting townsfolk. Nice initial set-up.
Cons: Heroine who refuses to get over herself. Lame secondary romance. Vigorous sequel-baiting.

A Cottage By the Sea, by Ciji Ware. B-
Winner of the Ho For Sho' Award
Pros:
Interesting time-travel element. Yummy hero. Well-drawn and empathetic heroine.
Cons: Amateurish writing. Bitchy Ho ancestor. Historical infodumps galore.

*June Dud* The Making of a Duchess, by Shana Galen. C+
Winner of the TSTL Medal of Honour
Pros:
Straightforward hero who refreshingly doesn't use his tragic past as an angsty obstacle to his relationship with heroine.
Cons: Unbelievable plot that hinges on stupidity of villains. Cowardly, self-pitying heroine who pukes when she's spooked.

Other Books I Read:

Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher - reviewed at The Green Man Review.

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Lyndall Gordon.
This giant tome is pretty much the reason behind why I only managed to read six romance novels this month. I was interested in the story of Mary Wollstonecraft because for my second novel, I wanted to base the character of my heroine's mother on a radical proto-feminist, and thought reading this biography would be a great way to start research - on both the mother as a character, and how the heroine might turn out as a result. How did one express feminism in the 1700s-1800s? Pretty gripping stuff, for the most part, and who knew Wollstonecraft's daughter Mary Shelley (the author of Frankenstein) would be scandalous enough to elope with a married man?

Basically, however, nearly everything Mary Wollstonecraft preached about then is regarded as common sense now (raise your own kids, breastfeed your own kids if you can, learning should be about engaging the mind instead of strict memorization, etc.). So yay, Mary!

"A Rake's Guide to Seduction," Caroline Linden

The Chick: Lady Bertram, nee Celia Reese. Once a naive, innocent girl, an unhappy marriage destroyed her illusions. However, when family friend Anthony Hamilton starts paying his attentions at a family house party, could it be possible to love again?
The Rub: Her first marriage was also supposed to be a love match, so how well can she trust her own judgment?
Dream Casting: Carey Mulligan.

The Dude: Anthony Hamilton, Viscount Langford. Once, he thought it was too late to pay court to lovely Celia, but now that she's widowed, it might just the the right time to tell her how he's felt about her for years.
The Rub: However, with his scandalous reputation, is he truly worthy for her hand?
Dream Casting: Lost in Austen's Tom Riley.

The Plot:

Celia: Guess what? I know you're nicer than everyone says you are.

Anthony: Wow, I should totally marry you before someone else d--

Celia: Guess what? I'm ENGAGED!

Anthony: ... crap.

Four Years Later

Celia: Guess what? Marriage sucks. Widowhood, albeit better, also sucks.

Anthony: I still want you after all this time, but I'm so unworthy!

Celia: Guess what? I think we should have sex.

Anthony: ...sounds good to me!

Celia: Guess what? I think we should also get married.

Anthony: Are you sure?

11-Hour Plot Gimmicks: Are we early? Have we ruined things between you and Anthony yet?

Celia: Oh piss off, you guys. We're getting married!

Anthony: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Fake Rake

1 Wary Widow

1 Persnickety Parent

1 Absent Douchebag Parent

1 Delightful Uncle

3 Slutty Friends

1 Erotic Foot Massage

1 Fake Wife

1 Romantically Lacklustre and Also Possibly Insane Rival

2 Supportive Brothers

2 Uses of Hero as Human Punching Bag

The Word: Continuing on my with my RITA-Reading challenge, I read Caroline Linden's A Rake's Guide to Seduction. Despite its close title to Victoria Dahl's A Rake's Guide to Pleasure, the plot of this unexpectedly sweet story is closer to Carolyn Jewel's Scandal, albeit softer around the edges - which makes it pretty aaaawkward since they're both nominated for the same RITA this year.

In both cases, we have the Wary Widow burned by a love match gone bad and the Rake who adores her but must prove he's different from the rest. In the case of Rake's Guide, however, Anthony Hamilton is more like a Fake Rake. While he's not a altar boy, the greater part of his black reputation is the result of gossip springing from the unorthodox way he was forced to maintain himself after his earl father kicked him out.

It seems the only person in the world who's willing to look past the tall tales and see him for who he really is, is Celia Reese, the kindhearted sister of one of Anthony's few friends. After the two share a quiet conversation at a ball, Anthony realizes the depth of his feelings for her, and after taking some time to try and clean up his reputation and get his affairs in order, he goes to Celia's brother the Duke of Exeter for permission to court her -- only to learn she's already accepted another man's suit.

Celia marries Lord Bertram (nicknamed Bertie) in a love match, but through the author's use of journal entries, the reader witnesses the gradual, painful decline of their marriage over four years. One point Linden has over Jewel is her refusal to completely demonize Bertie, even though he was still a terrible husband and a poor match for Celia. The author demonstrates the other factors in the couple's lives (a sickly father-in-law, isolation in the country, differing interests, etc.) that all contributed to the collapse of the marriage.

After Bertie dies, Celia is freed from their relationship, but she's no longer the innocent, free-spirited girl she once was. After four years at her husband's country estate, isolated from the friends and family she was too ashamed to admit the truth of her marriage to, returning to her loving family isn't the joyful reunion her brothers and mother expected. In a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to cheer her up, her mother hosts an enormous houseparty and invites hordes of eligible bachelors. Distressed by the attention but unwilling to admit so to her family, Celia finds unexpected refuge with Anthony, who was invited at her brother's behest.

Now that Celia is free to marry again, Anthony sees his opportunity but must struggle with his own reluctance. He realizes marriage is no longer high on Celia's Favourite Things list, nor does he wish to impose on her while she is still emotionally fragile. As well, his reputation remains as nasty as ever thanks to misunderstanding, misinformation, and the public's love of the scandalous villain. Anthony is an easy target, and he has no desire to bring Celia into the crossfire.

As a result, his seduction (if it can even be called that) is sweet and slow, based more on affection and emotional understanding than physical desire (although that does play a part). Unlike Sophie from Scandal, Celia isn't vehemently opposed to marriage to Anthony, but she does want to make sure she knows him well enough to take the plunge. True, she has lovey-dovey feelings, but she had those for Bertie when she'd barely known him two months, and look how that turned out in the long run.

As such, I would consider Rake's Guide far lower in conflict than Scandal, despite the similarities in storyline. While lovely and slow by itself, put beside Scandal, Rake's punches seem a little pulled. Anthony's not a real rake, after all, and Celia, unlike Sophie, already knows Anthony's a good dude and just needs time to think. As well, I suspect in a last-ditch effort to raise tension, some silly plot developments (a fake wife and a murderous villain) pop up in the last couple of chapters, but without any real effect on the plot.

That being said, the character arcs in this story are nicely done - particularly Celia's. I could definitely tell the difference between pre-marriage Celia and post-marriage Celia, and understand the numbness she can't help but feel despite being in the midst of a party. I liked the subtle tension between Celia and the people trying to cheer her without understanding the source of her discomfort.

If I had to choose between Scandal and Rake's Guide, Scandal would win by an easy margin. However, that doesn't mean A Rake's Guide to Seduction isn't a good book on its own.
B+

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Start Me Up," by Victoria Dahl

The Chick: Lori Love. After ten years running her late father's garage in the tiny town of Tumble Creek, Lori's looking for whatever scrap of adventure she can get - provided it comes with no strings attached.
The Rub: Quinn Jennings fits the sexy-nerdy bill, but he comes with the complication of being her best friend's brother. Will using him for mindless sex damage her friendship with both of them?
Dream Casting: Rachel McAdams.

The Dude: Quinn Jennings. An absent-minded architect, he's no good at being an attentive boyfriend, so when his hot childhood pal claims she's up for a fling, he's the first to volunteer.
The Rub: Before long, he discovers an entirely new muscle's involved in their boot-knockin' - his heart. But what if Lori really is only in the mood for an empty fling?
Dream Casting: Zachary Levi.

The Plot:

Molly, Lori's Friend: HEY THERE, GOOD BUDDY, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU NEED SOME STRING-FREE SEX!

Lori: Well, maybe --

Molly: TAKE IT FROM ME, YOUR QUIRKY FRIEND WHO IS SO QUIRKY EVERYTHING MUST BE SAID IN CAPSLOCK - HAVE SEX!

Lori: I do like sex.

Quinn: What a coincidence! So do I! I'm also willing to take ideas from your favourite erotica anthologies!

Lori: So glad quirkiness isn't a genetic trait! Let's do it!

Quinn: Yay! You're fun!

Lori: Wow, you're seriously harshing my self-pitying "my life sucks" buzz.

Secret Murderer: Sorry for killing your dad and ruining your life and vandalizing your garage!

Lori: Hey, the buzz's back.

Quinn: Let me kiss it away!

Lori: Oh, alright.

Quinn: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Beta On the Street But an Alpha in the Bed Hero

1 Naughty Mechanic

1 OMG QUIRKY BFF from Previous Novel WHO IS CRAZY-INSANE FOR SOME REASON

Several Dog-Eared Erotica Books

1 Secret Vandal and Murderer

2 Silk Ties

1 Instance of Public SexyTimes

Several Disconcertingly Hot Exes

The Word: As my readers may have figured out by now, I love me some Victoria Dahl historicals. However, I haven't had a chance (until now) to read her contemporaries - which is strange, considering I met Victoria Dahl in person at RWA 2009 and picked up a signed copy of Start Me Up way before I'd even checked out A Rake's Guide To Pleasure or One Week As Lovers from the library. Well, it's about time I tried a contemporary, as I wind down my list for the RITA-Reading Challenge.

Anyhoo, Start Me Up is a perfect title for this story about a protagonist whose life (professional, emotional, sexual) has run out of gas. Lori Love used to be a small town girl with big dreams - to go to college, get a degree in international business, and travel the world. Unfortunately, when her father was brain-damaged in an accident during her freshman year at college, she was forced to leave those dreams behind and care for him and his run-down garage in Tumble Creek, Colorado.

Ten years later, her father is dead and Lori still works as a mechanic in Love's Garage, the very backwater, blue-collar existence she sought to escape after graduation. However, dreaming big is no longer an option for Lori with the mountain of her father's hospital bills looming over her head. The town sheriff (and hero of Dahl's previous novel, Talk Me Down) adds to her share of problems when he reveals he's re-opening the investigation around her father's death because he suspects Mr. Love's accident wasn't so accidental.

By this point, Lori would be satisfied with a pretty small dream: a torrid summer of string-free sex to take her mind off her pitiable circumstances. Encouraged by her best friend Molly (a jarringly annoying character who happens to be the heroine of Talk Me Down), she decides to spring for some sexy clothes in an attempt to snag a shag partner.

To her surprise, she catches the interest of Quinn, Molly's successful architect brother. Lori is initially squicked out by the idea of using her best friend's sibling for mindless sex, but Quinn (normally a sweet, nerdy Beta) proves an eager and creative Alpha in the bedroom who is more than willing to rifle through her erotica collection for ideas.

Quinn is an adorable hero, and not at all the cold or cynical character I was expecting when I read "[he] has buildings on the brain - not love and romance" on the back cover blurb. He's actually funny, cheerful, and sweetly awkward. He initially volunteers for the affair because he believes himself to be a bad boyfriend. Not on purpose, but his geeky, ADD personality means when he focuses on something he loves (like his work), he loses track of times and dates and birthdays and inevitably drives his neglected girlfriends away.

He sees a fling as the perfect way to get a little sumthin'-sumthin' without hurting his partner's feelings. However, Quinn's determination is no match for the novel's slender but integral suspense subplot. As the sheriff's investigation continues, someone starts vandalizing Lori's garage and Quinn can't remain uninvolved any longer.

As for Lori, her hookup with Quinn brings all her insecurities to the forefront. Quinn is wealthy, sophisticated, and successful at a job he adores, which only exacerbates her own low estimation of the impoverished, grease-monkey life she never wanted but had handed to her anyway. Funnily enough, Lori and Quinn come from the same town, similar backgrounds, and had the same dreams as teenagers - a tragic twist of fate is the only reason their lives took such different paths, but Lori's convinced they're too different to hazard a real relationship.

In lesser hands than Victoria Dahl's, Lori would have been a self-pitying dishrag. To put it bluntly, Lori hates her life and pretty much everything in it - it would have been too easy to make her a dark, dreary and unlikable character, yet Dahl shows us that life, strength and wit continue to bloom beneath the debris of the perfect life she'd once envisioned for herself.

While more subdued than in Victoria Dahl's historicals (probably because sex isn't such a Huge Fucking Deal in modern times), the sexual subplot is still present and symbolic of the narrative conflict. Quinn and Lori are both unsatisfied with at least one aspect of their lives, but their sexual encounters allow them to explore beyond the limits they've established for themselves. For Quinn, who reads Lori's dirty books as "homework," this means abandoning his absent-minded, passive personality to play the role of the Aggressive Alpha Hero, with sexy results. For Lori, who feels powerless in her lacklustre existence despite all her struggles, discovers her kink for submission - her desire to willingly submitting to powerlessness.

The characters are well-developed and very empathetic (especially the delicious Quinn!), the pacing is even, the writing is lovely, and the sex - while very elaborate, descriptive and graphic - is relevant to the storyline. The one niggle I found with this book was the progression of the romance itself. It seemed a little abrupt. I had a similar problem with Rake's Guide - so much of the narrative is spent on the sex and the protagonists' individual lives and insecurities that the romance seems to pop up relatively suddenly and without a lot of development. I got that they liked each other from the start, Quinn and Lori have a great rapport, but after only two lays Quinn is already thinking of love? Already?

However, since the characters are so human and so likable, it's hard to complain. Overall, an excellent novel.
A-

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

"Crush On You," by Christie Ridgway

The Chick: Alessandra "Allie" Baci. With her family winery on the financial skids, her plan to turn the location into a wedding hotspot could save it from bankruptcy.
The Rub: Is she desperate enough to accept help from shallow Hollywood womanizer Penn Bennett?
Dream Casting: Lizzy Caplan.

The Dude: Penn Bennett. Trying to get in touch with his long-lost half-brothers, he volunteers to help fix up an historic cottage on the Tanti Baci property - in part because he's helplessly attracted to the prickly third Baci sister.
The Rub: However, it's clear Allie's called the "Nun of Napa" for a reason - she's still connected to the memory of her deceased fiance.
Dream Casting: Ryan Kwanten.

The Plot:

Penn: Hey, turns out I'm related to your neighbours...

Allie: How dare you be hot and popular and successful! You jerk!

Penn: Wait, what? Um, why don't I rebuild your cottage?

Allie: You got some nerve volunteering to help me with my business! What a prick!

Penn: Excuse me? What did I do?

Allie: You're a real piece of work! What kind of man turns me on at every opportunity just with his smile? A puppy-kicking pervert, that's who!

Penn: You are all kinds of crazy. But at least one of those kinds is inexplicably attractive! Marry me?

Allie: What took so you damn long to ask?

Penn: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Financially Incompetent Dad

1 Sexually Irresponsible Dad

2 Sequel-Baiting Sisters

1 "Enmity" Between Two Prominent Secondary Characters That Totally Doesn't Mask Flaming Mutual Attraction That Will Explode in the Final Book of the Trilogy, No Sir

1 Secondary Romance

1 Cheating Fiance

1 Dead Fiance

1 Thieving Bimbo

The Word: First off, I would like to extend a warm thank-you to Christie Ridgway, who kindly mailed me an ARC of Crush On You, the first book in her "Three Kisses" Trilogy, after I crushed hardcore on her novel How To Knit a Wild Bikini. Unfortunately, while Crush On You had a lot of Ridgway's trademark humour and charm, it seemed a shallower read than the previous two books of hers that I read and loved (Bikini and the equally-improbably-named The Care and Feeding of Unmarried Men).

Alessandra Baci is the youngest of the three Baci sisters, the owners of the Tanti Baci winery in Napa Valley. Unfortunately, while their father was on his deathbed he confessed to mucking up the winery's finances pretty hardcore and extracted a promise from them that they would try and save the family business rather than sell it. Allie, known to the well-intentioned townsfolk as the "Nun of Napa," takes this promise to heart, and believes her idea to turn the winery into a picturesque wedding destination could keep the Tanti Baci name afloat.

When the workers hired to renovate an historic cottage on the property get a better offer and start packing up, Allie dashes out to stop them - and ends up meeting Penn Bennett, the host of Build Me Up, an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition-type altruistic renovating show. To the town gossips, however, he's also known as the "bastard Bennett."

The (legitimate) Bennett brothers grew up next door to the Baci sisters (and are, in fact, silent partners in Tanti Baci), and when their own father died their world was also turned upside down when dear ol' dad included two previously-unknown bastard children in his will. While Penn is ostensibly visiting Napa Valley to get in touch with his long lost brothers, he's really there to hide out and lick his wounds after being humiliatingly conned by a trampy ex.

While getting a tour of the grounds, Penn witnesses how easily Allie sweet-talks the workers into staying, as well as how the whole town seems to fawn on her, and he immediately identifies her as a user who relies on her good looks and crocodile tears to manipulate those around her. Meanwhile, Allie pegs Penn as a shallow overconfident womanizer, and the both of them follow their preconceptions into Jackassville for a short while.

Penn's daytrip into Douchebag territory is swiftly derailed, however, when he discovers why the town venerates Allie as the "Nun of Napa." Five years ago, she was engaged to Tommy, the popular, athletic, straight-A, cancer-battling hometown hero. However, Tommy unexpectedly succumbed to his illness fifteen minutes before their wedding and the townsfolk have treated Allie with loving kid gloves ever since.

I rather enjoyed this plot element, as Christie Ridgway shows a knack for involving dark and prickly subplots in otherwise light and comedic stories and the darkness here is established very well. I love how Ridgway demonstrates that Allie's "Nun" status is comforting but also very isolating - everyone is so very, forcefully understanding of Allie's grief that they don't really allow her to get over it. As a result there's an unspoken understanding in the community that Alessandra Baci couldn't possibly date another man after saintly Tommy, and the subtle, textured atmosphere of the town's grief, regret, and guilt has pretty much enforced Allie's celibacy.

So, what didn't I like? Alessandra. She rides those preconceptions about Penn all the way to the end of the line at Big Bitch station. This may sound harsh, but it's like she only has two moods, Horny and Angry, and Angry is definitely her default mode. The word that keeps coming up when I try to describe her is ornery - she just likes being angry and she doesn't need a good reason. I guess the idea is that she prefers the control of being angry over, say, falling in love or losing her emotional independence, but the result is an unpleasant heroine who spends 90% of the novel bitching at the hero for things that are her fault. She rages at him for being good looking (which means he's vain), good with people (which means he's a huckster), and successful (which means he only cares about money) - and it all boils down to the fact that she's attracted to him and doesn't like it.

As for Penn, while I didn't not like him, he wasn't really a fully-fleshed-out character. I mean, the pieces are there. Raised dirt-poor by a single mum only to discover his two half-brothers lived in luxury only 400 miles away? Had a hefty chunk of his savings stolen by a bimbo blonde with a sob story? That's gotta sting. I mean, Ridgway sets up the trust issues and cynicism, but none of that really played into his relationship with Allie. I couldn't fully understand why he didn't feel he was right for Alessandra (discounting the number of times she tries to bite his head off for the audacity of possessing a hot ass). It amounted to a "this isn't my world, these aren't my people," but this is told more than it's shown.

Alongside this main romance, we also have a bland secondary romance between Baci cousin Gil and his unrequited love for his BFF Claire - who's on the cusp of marrying another man. This plotline might have sparked an interest had it not been for the fact that Gil is as passive as a coat rack and does virtually nothing but make calf-eyes at Claire until she comes to her senses.

Rounding out the cast, we have Allie's older sisters Stevie, who keeps her sequel-baiting to a nice minimum, and Giuliana, who spends the novel exerting Jemma-levels of effort declaring she has nothing but the Purest, Blackest Hatred (Not To Be Confused with Burninating Sexy Passion) for Penn's half-brother Liam.

To sum up, Crush On You could have been an excellent book. The elements were all there - drama, tragedy, angst. However, the narrative never digs very deep into these characters, but prefers to emphasize the under deeveloped surface conflict without really examining the characters' motivations for their actions. I wouldn't give up on the trilogy completely, but Crush On You could probably be skipped.
B-

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Because I Am Obsessed: the RWA 2010 Eating Guide

Okay, perhaps writing my RWA 2010 Planning post was a little early, because already I'm unhealthily excited about the upcoming National Conference, to the point where I'm taking myself on little 360 tours of the Swan and Dolphin Resort, as well as looking at the restaurant websites. Obsessed? Yes, maybe, but in the process of mentioning it on Twitter, I had requests to make a post about it to help out the newbies. So, you know what, why not?

Okay, this is mainly going to deal with the restaurants AT THE HOTEL. We're in the middle of Disneyworld so there are probably a gajillion more, but these are the ones that are located in the Swan and Dolphin. Remember, folks, RWA is giving us two luncheons, a dinner, and two breakfasts while on this conference so you won't always have to use a restaurant anyhow.

Ahem. The restaurants are as follows:

Shula's Steakhouse
Mmmmm, steak.
Open for: Dinner only, folks.
Price Level: Smoldering Desert Sheik - and he will definitely require you to perform certain tasks in his harem for a night out here.
People Who Will Hate It: Vegetarians and Vegans. Literally every entree and every appetizer has meat or fish in it. Two types of side salad and French onion soup are your only options.

El Mulino - New York
Italian food! They also have a kid's menu and a nice dessert menu.
Open for: Dinner only.
Price Level: Aristocratic Younger Son - yes, everything's on the wrong end of expensive - especially the entrees, but the pizzas, soups, appetizers, and antipasto aren't too bad and can be shared without a great deal of expense.
People Who Will Hate It: Folks who hate subtitled movies. Everything's in Italian, so you have to read the food descriptions.

Kimonos
Voted "Top Sushi Restaurant" by Orlando Magazine, and since this is a part of the world that's actually next to the ocean, I'm inclined to trust their judgment. Also - nightly karaoke!
Open for: Doesn't say - but I would assume dinner.
Price Level: Sexy Shape-Shifter - it depends. Ordering sushi individually can get ridiculously expensive, but their salads, platters, and sushi roll combos aren't bad.
People Who Will Hate It: People with violent seafood allergies.

Todd English's Bluezoo
I don't know who Todd English is - should I? This is apparently his restaurant. I guess he works here. I think. Anyhoo, given the name, this is primarily a seafood restaurant. Comes with a raw oyster bar.
Open for: Dinner only.
Price Level: Greek Tycoon - most entries are thirty bucks and up.
People Who Will Hate It: People with seafood allergies, and people looking for dessert who have nut allergies - nearly everything's served with peanut ice cream.

Garden Grove
A garden-themed restaurant - brightly-lit, nice green and yellow tones, with a giant tree in the middle! Suppers are served buffet-style, with different themes every night - Backyard BBQ, Mediterranean, Fisherman's Wharf, etc. Also, some Disney characters may show up on the weekends to make sure you're enjoying your omelette.
Open for: Breakfast, lunch and dinner!
Price Level: Up and Coming Lawyer - their breakfasts aren't bad, neither are their lunches, but their suppers (buffet-style) are steep - around thirty bucks a plate.
People Who Will Hate It: Fans of Menus.

Fresh Mediterranean Market
Fresh food inspired by the Mediterranean, use of seasonal vegetables, sounds pretty healthy and the place looks pretty and well-lit. Has what looks like a killer breakfast buffet.
Open For: Breakfast and lunch.
Price Level: Compassionate ER Doctor - breakfast's not bad, but lunch can be steep.
People Who Will Hate It: People with Nut allergies watch out - a lot of their breakfast foods are gussied up with almonds and pecans. Ask the servers for a nut-free alternative.

The Fountain - Eats and Sweets
This seems like a much more casual hang-out - burgers, salads, milkshakes - with an extensive ice cream menu.
Open For: Lunch and dinner.
Price Level: Hot Mechanic - finally! Prices are decent across the board. For a light lunch, you can have a nice soup for under five dollars.
People Who Will Hate It: Vegetarians, Vegans, the Lactose Intolerant and the Health Conscious. Yeah, it's a burger-barn, so if you're looking for something that's not fried or topped with chili, this might not be your gig. Also the desserts are primarily ice cream. Dessert-wise, while the nut-allergic should be wary (walnuts and peanuts present), there are nut-free options (soft serve and sorbet.).

Cabana Bar and Beach Club
If you're looking to chill out by the pool with a nice meal with friends - this is the place. Right next to the Dolphin lap pool. It's mainly seafood flavoured, but with other alternatives. Great kids' menu. Extensive cocktails!
Open For: It doesn't say, but I would suspect lunch and dinner.
Price Level: Handsome Preacher with a Secret Past - the meal menu prices are great, affordable food all around, but if you're looking for liquor, they will rob you blind.
People Who Will Hate It: People with Seafood Allergies should be wary, but there are options. Vegans and Vegetarians who don't eat fish will find few options.

The Splash Terrace
Another poolside restaurant to eat after you swim (or an hour before - remember your mother's advice!).
Open For: Doesn't say - I'm assuming lunch and dinner.
Price Level: The Intrepid Journalist - very affordable prices.
People Who Will Hate It: People with Seafood Allergies and Vegans. There are lovely vegetarian options (with cheese), though.

The other options are the quickie-cheapie places - Picabu, Splash Grill, and Java Bar. None of them display their menus or prices, but I'd expect an inexpensive fast food vibe from the first two, and a standard coffee and wrapped-pastries vibe from the third.

As for lounges, Shula's, El Mulino, Bluezoo, and Kimonos all have lounges - as does the lobby, called (unimaginatively enough) the Lobby Lounge.

Are these your only options? No - we're in the middle of Walt Disneyworld so there are lots of other restaurant options - particularly in Downtown Disney. But will I list them? No. Part of the fun of travelling is the exploration and surprise aspect of it - even for the over-planning me. No, this guide is for those who want to know firsthand what to expect from the conference hotel itself - so where to meet for get-togethers, where to eat between workshops, or where to eat when you don't want or have time to leave the hotel to look for other places.

Hope this helps!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

RWA National Conference 2010 - My Master Plan and Helpful Guide

It's that time of year again! Next month, I'll be going down to Orlando, Florida to take part in the 2010 Romance Writers of America National Conference. It took a while for the workshop schedule to show up on the website, but given that the entire conference had to shift from Nashville to Orlando in a very short amount of time thanks to the floods, I'd say the folks at RWA are doing a bang-up job.

Now that the workshop schedule is up, I've already obsessively planned my conference experience in advance! Similar to last year, this isn't an iron-clad, set-in-stone schedule. I may switch workshops, I may skip some in favour of others. I may meet up with an old friend (I made so many last year!) or even an agent. But, in a perfect world, here's what I'll be doing:

Monday, July 26th
Noonish: I arrive! I'll probably rest for a while if I wasn't able to sleep on my flight (departure time: one in the morning!), but then - DISNEYWORLD.

DISNEYWORLD! Probably Downtown Disney first, since it's open after dark and my Park Hopper passes are only for two days.

Tuesday, July 27th
All Day: Disney, Disney, Disney, DISNEY! Yes, I actually added an extra day onto my trip when I discovered the Conference would now take place in a hotel smack DAB in the middle of Disneyworld. The Magic Kingdom Park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Epcot are all high priorities. I considered the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios until I discovered it's 80$ US a day. I'll take my chances on Park-Hopper passes with Disney. Yay!

Wednesday, July 28th
8:00am: Conference registration! Last year, as a newbie, I was amazed by registration. Listen close, newbies - with registration, you might just get a cool tote bag, a conference badge and lanyard and this year's conference pin (which is probably still the musical-themed Nashville logo), a flashdrive with the conference handouts on it, a full schedule for the conference, and free books. Yes, that's right. FREE. BOOKS.

Sometimes the lanyards come with an extra ribbon - last year I had a "First Timer" ribbon on my badge stating that this was my first time at the conference, and getting one basically means that for the next three days, 2000 of the nicest women in the world are perfectly willing to answer your questions, joke with you, and check to make sure you're getting where you're going and having a fun time doing it!

Another ribbon is the coveted "First Sale" ribbon, which you are entitled to if you sold your first book within the last year - I'm hoping against hope that maybe, just maybe, next year in New York I'll have one. Maybe.

However, while registration opens today, there aren't any workshops or events planned until later - today is Librarian's Day, where awesome folks like Wendy are showered with swag and first-born children for their valiant efforts to provide literary smut to us poor, empty-walleted readers.

So, 8:05am to 5:00pm: MORE DISNEY! Hopefully with other bloggers and author friends!

5:30 - 7:30: The Literacy Autographing. One room. 500 authors with pens and hopefully handheld heating-pads to deal with writer's cramp. A BUTTload of books donated by publishers. The Literacy Autographing event is HUGE and open to the public - you get to smooze and have books signed by your favourite authors, and all the proceeds go to charity! Watch out for raffles and other prizes too, I won one last year!

I'm already excited to see Jennifer Ashley (Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage), twitter pal Victoria Dahl, Tessa Dare and her new Stud Club, Jennifer Echols (I have an ARC of Forget You which I will be reviewing shortly after my RITA challenge, but I have a feeling I'm going to want an official signed copy to cherish for ever and ever), Lisa Hendrix (also awesome on Twitter), Julie James, Marjorie Liu, Courtney Milan, Christie Ridgway, Sherry Thomas - the list goes on an on. And on.

Afterward: I hit the RWA Online Chapter party! It's going to be off the hook, I'm sure.

After After that: More smoozing? You never know. Going to the nearest hotel bar, you'll be sure to run into someone you know or someone you'll want to know!

Thursday, July 29th
9:30 am - 11:00 am: Annual General Meeting. I honestly can't remember if I attended that last year. I remember last year had a great opening session with Janet Evanovich. Was that the Annual General Meeting? No idea. I'll probably be there regardless - mainly because this year is the 30th anniversary of RWA!

12:15 - 2:00: Keynote Luncheon. FOOD. Yay! Also - free books on the seats, courtesy of our Keynote Speaker, Nora Roberts. Hmm, this would probably be a good time to give her a second chance after I wasn't impressed by The Blue Dahlia. Luncheons are lots of fun - everyone is so friendly at RWA. I'm normally someone who is really nervous and skittish around new people but that was never the case at Nationals. Make new friends! Sit with new people! Listen to the interesting keynote speaker! Last year, it was Linda Howard, who probably made a lot of people squirt sweet tea out their noses with her hilarious speech.

Okay peeps, after the Keynote Luncheon, the conference gets down to business. While still lots of fun, people will be running back and forth to workshops and agent/editor appointments, so take lots of notes and learn all you can! Here's what I'll be doing:

2:00 - 3:00: Pantsers, Plotters, and Plotsers (CRAFT)
Speakers: Claudia Dain, Sabrina Jeffries, and Deb Marlowe
Three authors (a pantser, a plotter, and someone in the middle) will discuss the advantages, pitfalls, and lessons learned about each process—and how you can make your process work for you. I've decided to see this one because I am primarily a pantser (someone who writes without a set plan or outline, by the seat of my pants), and could probably do with some advice!

3:15 - 4:15: So You Think You Can Pace? How to Disco, Waltz and Hip-Hop with Words! (CRAFT)
Speakers: Laura Marie Altom, Margaret Daley, Michelle Grajkowski, and Winnie Griggs
Three authors and an agent will teach attendees how to give scenes page-turning quality by relating pacing rules through popular dances, which translates into maximum reader appeal. Most of the negative feedback for my novel concerns my pacing - sometimes I bog down in too much detail. Learning how to better pace my story is therefore a high concern.

4:30 - 5:30: Paranormals (CRAFT)
Speakers: Kelley Armstrong, Jeaniene Frost, Terri Garey, Colleen Gleason, Juliana Stone, and Cheryl Wilson
Crossing genres and markets with books that go bump in the night. Join New York Times bestselling authors Kelley Armstrong, Jeaniene Frost, and Cheryl Wilson plus paranormal authors Terri Garey, Colleen Gleason, and Juliana Stone as they discuss the nuts and bolts of writing paranormals and their enduring crossover appeal in romance, urban fantasy, and the young adult market. My novel is a paranormal, so learning the cross-over appeal of the paranormal and all of its related sub-subgenres, and from some awesome authors no less, would be a great experience!

OR

The Tiny Art of Elevator Pitches: How to Craft Them and How to Use Them (PUBLISHING)
Speaker: Carrie Lofty
Learn techniques to creating an elevator pitch that is concise, effective, and memorable. Yes, I could learn about paranormals - but now that my manuscript is done, learning how to market and pitch my material is just as important and pitching is one of the first steps. Plus, Carrie Lofty is the shit.

Afterward: No more workshops for today, so now would be a good time to grab some dinner with new friends, bloggers, and authors. Or, if you're a member of a particular chapter of RWA, they might be having their annual party tonight. Check your schedule and keep up with your chapter buddies!

8:00 - Midnight: The Moonlight Madness Bazaar. Basically, it's where RWA chapters sell crafts and merchandise to raise money. I wasn't sure what to expect the last time I went, but found all sorts of cool stuff - jewellery, t-shirts, pins, hats.

Throughout the Night - You never really know where you'll end up. On this night last year, I ended up wandering into the Harlequin Pajama Party and winning a paperweight.

Friday, July 30th
7:30 - 8:30: Continental breakfast with the RWA! Bagels, baked goods, juice, that sort of thing - unless you have allergies like me, in which case the hotel usually compensates with fried potatoes, eggs and bacon! Why do I have the feeling more people are going to be claiming nut allergies this year?

8:30 - 9:30: Parade of the Paranormal (RESEARCH)
Speaker: Shannon Delany
Join author Shannon Delany to discuss lesser known beasties and paranormal powers, where to find resources and how to twist traditional tales and scientific studies to your advantage. This just sounds so interesting to me - it's easy to find places to research history for the Regency aspect of my novel, but tips on how research the lesser known myths and paranormal beasties in order to enrich my series' worldbuilding over future novels would be really helpful!

OR (maybe)

Submission 101 (CAREER)
Speakers: Catherine Mann and Joanne Rock
In this interactive, focus-group style workshop, attendees will learn the essentials of a selling submission package including query letters, story blurbs, synopses, and sample chapters. Yup - while I do love research and writing tips, this year I'm focusing more on learning how to market my material and this class could help. On the downside, it is two hours long so I may have to pass in favour of another workshop. If I get lucky, it might end up on the conference DVD!

OR

Your Pitch Begins With You: Strengthening Your Pitch by Strengthening Your Presentation Skills (WRITER’S LIFE)
Speaker: Amy Atwell
Learn to prepare yourself physically and psychologically for an editor/agent pitch by using the same techniques as performers preparing to face an audience. Former actress and director Amy Atwell will get attendees to walk the talk in a basic Acting 101 style workshop. Again, pitching - I want to pitch well so agents will give me monies and put a pretty cover on my precious, precious baby! It also has the bonus of not being two hours long.

9:45 - 11:15: Avon Book Signing, Harlequin Book Signing. What is a publisher book signing, you ask, with wide eyes full of innocence? A publisher book signing is a mythical event where dozens of authors under a particular publisher all meet in a room and sign books for free. FREE. FREEEEEEEE. It's Halloween for Booklovers!

Ah, but don't get ahead of yourselves, my greedy bookworm munchkins. You must past three tests for the chance to claim your plunder: 1) The lines are usually HELLA long. 2) The rooms are frequently INSANELY crowded and 3) The organization of the each signing is up to the individual publishers so you might end up in a neatly-marked room where everyone gets a chance to browse, you might end up in a scratch-each-others-eyes-out free-for-all, or you might end up locked out thanks to a room capacity cap.

That's not to say it's not worth it - it often is. But some tips to remember: Don't be too greedy - books run out really fast. It would really suck for the gals at the back of the line to find out all the books are gone. Also, remember your airline's luggage weight limits and how much it might cost to post your books. Be respectful to the authors - they're giving away their books for free and crippling their writing hands to do it. It's also considered a faux-pas to simply grab a book off an author's pile without standing in line or having the author sign it.

Thirdly, remember your conference priorities
- this is a biggie. More often than not, you're going to find that at least one of the publisher booksignings will coincide with a workshop you want to take. I'm not saying don't go to any booksignings. I'm not even saying that booksignings have to be a lower priority - I met a person who went to all the signings and just bought the conference recording to make up for the workshops she missed. If buying the conference recordings and bringing home a hundred free books would make your year - DO IT. You've made up for your conference fee and even some of your airfare right there. HOWEVER - if there's a workshop that you feel could deal with a problem you've always struggled with, or offer advice you really think you need, or help you improve yourself as a writer - take the workshop. They're just free books - and more often then not you can trade with your new friends or have them score books for you.

11:00 - 12:00: Mining the Past: Researching for Historicals (RESEARCH)
Speaker: Joyce Moore
Examine sources for research — with a focus on transportation, currency, costume and other factors — that allow an author to create a believable setting for historical romance. Eh, there's about a 50-50 chance I'll take this - mostly because I took a similar workshop last year. You can never do too much research though. If not - this will probably be a good time to check out the Goody Room.

The Goody Room is the room where authors and publishers drop off free promotional materials for registered conference goers to take, free of charge! I'm talking bookmarks, candy, beer-bottle cozies, letter openers, booklets of excerpts, rulers, door hangers, gum, kleenex, pretty much anything that can fit an author's name on it - and even books, although they are few and far between and they vanish really quickly. Last year, you could drop in any time throughout the conference, and find new and different things each time. However, in the FAQs for this year, it says that attendees may only go through the Goody Room once, so I'm not sure.

12:15 - 2:00: Awards Luncheon. More good food, more good friends, and more free books on the seats from the Speaker Jayne Ann Krentz! This is the luncheon where they give awards to the awesome librarians, scholars, and journalists who helped promote romance.

2:00 - 3:00:
Taming the Man-Eating Synopsis (CRAFT)
Speaker: Jo Davis
Do you shiver in dread at the mere thought of writing a synopsis? An award-winning author will debunk common myths and demonstrate how to use mapping and flowcharts to tame your synopsis into a concise selling tool.
Frankly, I don't know the first thing about writing a synopsis, but I know I'm going to need one if I want to sell my novel so this is a pretty high-priority workshop for me.

3:00-4:15: Berkley Booksigning, Pocket Booksigning
Lucky me! No workshops catch my eye at the same time!

4:30 - 5:30:
Active Settings for All Genres and Subgenres (CRAFT)
Speakers: Dianna Love
Discover how to use deep point of view to turn ordinary descriptions into engaging prose that will give your setting an active role in the story.
Sometimes I have trouble with settings - particularly because I have to manage both an historical and a magical one!

EDIT: 6:00 - 9:00: The Gathering - this is the once-a-year-party for the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal Chapter of RWA, of which I am a member. Dancing, awards, goody bags, and great food - and all with a steampunk flair!

Saturday, July 31st
7:30 - 8:30: Breakfast!

EDIT June 25th: 9:00 - 11:00: Agent Appointment!
I took the plunge, dear readers - I signed up for an Agent Appointment. I'm going to have to polish, polish, polish, practice my pitch, discover what a synopsis means. Terrifying - but I'm finally taking a risk in order to get my novel into the hands of an agent! I expect to get another e-mail letting me know exactly when within the 9 - 11 am period I'll have my appointment.


8:30 - 9:30:
Dress for Historical Success (RESEARCH)
Speakers: Elisabeth Burke, Isobel Carr, Linda-Joyce Clements, Peg Herring, Coralie Jensen, Julia Justiss, Jade Lee, Jeannie Lin, Pam Nowak, and Judy Ridgley
Authors put in hundreds of hours researching the correct clothing styles for their stories. This fashion show features costumes from a variety of time periods and will educate attendees on how to achieve historical accuracy in costume.
Fashion show? How can I NOT be there? Clothing is one of the things I've found most difficult to research, simply because it's so different, and I often can't identify a lot of fashion terms (still not sure what a flounce is). This could be a great place to learn and get more research sources.

OR

Serial Vampire Bondage…Genre Mash-Ups: the New Big Thing (CAREER)
Speakers: Nina Bruhns, Cynthia Eden, Donna Grant, Lisa Renee Jones, Pamela Palmer, and Caridad PiƱeiro
Join a panel of multipublished masters of the mash-up who will discuss storytelling techniques for crossbreeding novels, the pros and cons of blending genres, and where and how to market these exciting new hybrids.
I'm definitely interested in how to market genre mash-ups - since my manuscript straddles the line between Historical and Paranormal.

OR

YA: Like Romance, but Different (PUBLISHING)
Speakers: Tera Lynn Childs, Sophie Jordan, and Kathryn Smith
Three authors discuss the similarities and differences between the world of romance publishing and that of young-adult fiction, focusing on both craft and business topics.
While I'm currently writing adult romance, I haven't given up on YA. Most of my short stories have been YA, and after reading fantastic YA from the likes of Jennifer Echols, I can tell it's not nearly the shallow genre I ignorantly took it for.

9:00 - 10:30: Ballantine/Bantam Dell Booksigning
Not much chance of me making this one, what with the three workshops jockeying for position above. Oh well!

9:45 - 10:45: Finding an Agent as an Unpub (CAREER)
Speakers: Beth Cornelison and Lucienne Diver
Learn the do’s and don’ts of finding the right agent as an unpublished author, how to snare an agent’s attention, and the unique relationship between an agent and an unpublished author. This pretty much speaks for itself.

OR

How to Write a Synopsis Using Narrative Structure (CRAFT)
Speaker: Jenni Holbrook
Agonizing over writing a synopsis? Learn how to break down the main story line using the basic narrative structure to write a short and concise synopsis.
Okay, this is more of a back-up workshop in case I can't make the synopsis-writing workshop on Friday.

11:00 - 12:00: World-building for Your Werewolf, Duke, or Small-Town Doctor (CRAFT)
Speaker: Tanya Michaels
Great characters deserve great worlds, and Tanya Michaels will teach you how to make your characters come to life through the use of a three-dimensional, memorable setting.
This one is also a 50-50 for me, since I've done a great deal of worldbuilding for my novel already and RWA doesn't provide lunch on Saturday. It's still a possibility though - one can always improve one's worldbuilding!

12:00 - 1:30: NAL/Sourcebooks Signing
Again, no prior commitments, so, provided I'm out in 45 minutes, I should be able to make this one, too!

12:45 - 1:45:
What Came Before: the Art of Backstory (CRAFT)
Speakers: Winnie Griggs and Wanda Ottewell
An author and editor show how to include backstory in a novel: what to include onstage, when to reveal it, and how to thread it through the story in a subtle, non-intrusive manner. The hero of my novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples, has a pretty significant backstory, and lots of my other future characters will have sordid pasts as well. I'd really like to learn how not to release it all in an infodump!

2:00 - 3:00:
My Manuscript Is Done: What Do I Do Now (CRAFT)
Speaker: Judy Baker
Do you have a finished manuscript but don't know what to do next? This workshop will take you through the process of pulling together a submission packet that will catch the attention of editors and agents. Again, pretty self-explanatory.

OR

The Secret Life of Pantsers: Magic Tricks and Delightful Games (CRAFT)
Speaker: Kathleen Baldwin
Explore how your creative mind operates, and why some writers are pantsers and others are plotters. Both types of writers will benefit from discussing the tricks and tools that make a writer’s life easier.
As a pantser, I know I could certainly use some tips to make writing a bit easier!

3:00 - 4:15: St Martin's/Grand Central Book Signings
Hmmm, given my schedule, I might be able to make it, or I might not.

3:15 - 4:15: Talking the Talk: Writing Historical Dialogue (CRAFT)
Speakers: Madeline Hunter, Janet Mullany, Miranda Neville, and Lauren Willig
A panel of four best-selling historical romance authors will show you how to create period-perfect dialogue that both readers and publishers will buy. Something that might sound historically accurate to you, may sound stilted to others, and since my story operates from a traditionally Regency-esque setting, it would be good to get tips to prevent my characters from sounding wooden.

6:30 - 10:00: RITA Awards Dinner and Ceremony
Now this is a new one for me - last year, the RITAs didn't have a dinner - instead we had a ceremony with a reception afterward. But hey! Dinner! And awards! Since I'm pretty close to finishing my RITA Reading Challenge, I'll know just who to cheer for. Sabrina Jeffries MC's.

And After That: Not much. Goodbyes, mostly. Last year there was a blogger party after the RITAs, but I don't know what's arranged this time.

More Tips:
  • If you find yourself with spare time and no one to spend it with - that's a great time to mail your free books home! The hotel should be able to direct you to the nearest post office, or RWA may do what they did last time, and have a temporary post office set up in the hotel! Posting your books is always a good thing - some airlines may charge for heavier luggage, but others simply won't let you take your heavier luggage on at all. Best to play it safe!
  • Get as much sleep as you can!
  • Bring BUSINESS CARDS - and something to keep business cards in. Nearly everyone brings business cards to the conference and it's a great way to keep in touch, as well as introduce yourself to agents, editors, and other writers!
  • Be Positive! If you hated a book by a particular author, save it for your blog - but don't blab it all over the conference, because odds are, that author just might be there. The conference is for writers to network and learn and have fun. Opinions aren't necessarily unwelcome, but the conference isn't a reviewing environment. On the other hand, however, don't tell an author you loved her book, when you really didn't...

Book Blogger Appreciation Week 2010 - My Post for the Categories



Well, it's that time again - time for Book Blogger Appreciation Week, where all types of bookworms with access to reliable internet come together to celebrate the joy of reading. This year, registrants can nominate themselves for categories, so, similar to last year, I am nominating myself for Best Romance Book Blog in the Niche Category, and Best Written Book Blog in the Featured Category. I have to admit to being a little disappointed that there's no Funniest Book Blog Category this year - I guess because humour is so subjective? I dunno, I love reading hilarious reviews as much as I love writing them.

Anyhoo, as part of my nomination, I have to make a blog post with the five posts I'll be submitting for each category that best represents the Best Romance and the Best Written. Three have to be reviews, descriptions, or an analysis of a specific title, and the other two are up to me.

Without further ado:
Five Posts for the Best Romance Book Blog Niche Category:
1. "Dreaming of You," by Lisa Kleypas (review)
2. "In For a Penny," by Rose Lerner (review)
3. "Immortal Warrior," by Lisa Hendrix (review)
4. History Vs. Romance - "The Duchess" (commentary)
5. "Going Too Far," by Jennifer Echols (review)

Five Posts for the Best Written Book Blog Featured Category:
1. Miss Manners Vs. AnimeJune (rant)
2. AnimeJune's Guide to Exploiting the Dead For Fun and Profit (rant)
3. "A Certain Wolfish Charm," by Lydia Dare (review)
4. "The Wild Road," by Marjorie Liu (review)
5. "One Week as Lovers," by Victoria Dahl (review)

Enjoy! And wish me luck!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

"The Fire King," by Marjorie Liu

The Chick: Soria. A former member of the magical Dirk and Steele Detective Agency, she's hired to translate for a dangerous, captured creature who speaks a dead language.
The Rub: She soon discovers that shady dudes with guns are far more dangerous - and much less sexy - than her ancient charge.
Dream Casting: NCIS's Cote de Pablo.

The Dude: Karr. A powerful chimera, he awakens inside a tomb and is swiftly captured by powerful forces and discovers a woman who can somehow speak his language - although none of this is as weird as the fact that he supposedly died three thousand years ago.
The Rub: Even three thousand years can't erase the sins he committed as leader of his people, or his genetic predisposition towards insanity.
Dream Casting: Brad Pitt.

The Plot:

Karr: *wakes up* Huh, shouldn't I be dead?

Shady Dudes: Funny thing about that. *captures*

Other Shady Dudes: Soria, we need your translating skills!

Soria: Sure why not? Um, but why am I translating for a powerful shifter in an iron body-cage?

Karr: I was wondering the same question.

Shadier Dudes with Guns: Capture them both!

Soria and Karr: *escape*

Karr: Man, I totally love you, but I'm dark and lonely and possibly a psychotic killer!

Soria: Man, I totally love you, but I'm maimed and lonely and ... you are built like a stevedore so who cares?

Karr: YAY!

All the Shady Dudes at Once: Who's up for a Super-Magical-Race War?

Karr: No, thank you!

All the Shady Dudes: Awww..... :(

Soria: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Broody King with a Daaaark Paaaast

1 Independent Heroine with a Daaaark Paaast

4 Unintentional Psychic Gloms

1 Angry Dragon

1 Tasty Goat

1 Helpful Grad Student

1 Surprise! Frenemy

The Word: Few authors have managed the powerful literary double-tap with me - where I read one book and am enthralled, then read their second book and become a Fan For Life. Majorie Liu manages to live up to the awesomeness that is The Wild Road with The Fire King, the RITA-nominated 9th book in her Dirk & Steele series of paranormal romances.

Soria used to be a member of Dirk & Steele, contributing to the paranormal detective agency with her unique psychic ability to learn and understand any language she hears. However, after losing her right arm in a horrific encounter, she's spent the last year living in seclusion, barely coping with her altered lifestyle, unable to bear public scrutiny, and tormented by her phantom limb. On her way to a job interview as a translator for the UN, she's intercepted by people sent by Dirk & Steele with an important assignment - they've captured a violent, dangerous creature, but his language is so old that it's virtually died out and they need her psychic skills of translation.

For his part, Karr, a man with the power to shape-shift between dragon and lion, wasn't surprised about waking up in a tomb. After all, he has pretty clear memories of dying - and of asking for death. No, the very fact that he's alive is the real shocker. Raised in a time period when his kind were at war with pure-blooded shape-shifters, Karr knows he can't trust anyone at the paranormal facility where he's held captive - not even the beautiful woman who can somehow speak his language.

During her brief conversations with the prisoner, Soria can't quite see Karr as the monstrous, violent shifter her superiors insist he is. So when unknown soldiers storm the facility - with orders to take both Karr and his translator alive - Soria takes a risk and frees Karr from his bonds so that the two can escape into the Mongolian steppes.

Strange things are afoot at Dirk & Steele, apparently, and Soria doesn't know who to trust. Neither does Karr - in his day, all shape-shifters were the enemy, and so he should label Soria an enemy simply for associating with them. However, he's now trapped in a world where he's 3000 years out of date, and the one person he can communicate with is Soria so it looks like they'll have to stick together.

Where do I start with how good this novel is? Well, first of all the paranormal element is really well handled - while it's integral to the story it doesn't overpower the very human development of the romance, and it adds colour to the action scenes without taking away from the suspense or oversimplifying the violence.

As in The Wild Road, the language is exquisite. While Liu provides lots of external conflict, the internal conflict takes centre stage and she paints her protagonists in a hundred different shades of loneliness that take into account both the human aspect of the romance in the story as well as the magical aspect of the paranormal in the story.

Both Karr and Soria struggle to be defined by something other than their physical freakishness. Karr's ability to shift between two skins (dragon and lion) renders him an abomination to pure shape-shifters. To humans, he was both a god and a demon. To his own kind, he was the leader upon whom their safety depended. Therefore, being seen simply as a man by the ever-practical Soria is something he'd never even thought to hope for.

Similarly, Soria wants to be seen as a woman, not as a cripple - but that's something even she has trouble managing. The tendency of most people to look away from her arm, as if willing it not to exist - as if willing Soria not to exist - has eaten away a fair share of her personal identity, but the determination, trust, and just plain gumption she demonstrates leading Karr to safety demonstrates she hasn't lost her identity, but simply forged a new one, one Karr comes to care very deeply about. This conclusion is only strengthened by reading the holyshit scene detailing how she loses her arm, which I won't spoil because it needs to be read to be truly appreciated.

If The Fire King has anything even remotely resembling a flaw, I suppose it's the fact that Lannes isn't in it. Even then, it makes up for it with a mystery suspense plot that is a hair more coherent than The Wild Road's (where Lethe's exact history still puzzles me even by the end of the novel).

The lack of gorgeous bookworm gargoyles aside, The Fire King is a spectacular read and I wish it the best of luck at the 2010 RITAs!
A

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"A Cottage By the Sea," Ciji Ware

The Chick: Blythe Barton Stowe. After a horrendous divorce from her famous director husband, Blythe retreats to a cottage in Cornwall - and starts getting visions of a possible ancestor who endured similar relationship problems.
The Rub: Could these visions be trying to tell her something? Something other than "you need to start taking your medication again"?
Dream Casting:
Amy Adams.

The Dude: Lucas Teague. As a widower, single dad, and owner of a nearly-bankrupt estate, Lucas finds the brash Blythe and her innovative ideas a breath of fresh air.
The Rub: He hasn't quite recovered from the death of his wife, or the impact it's had on his relationship with his own son - but can he still find it in his heart to love Blythe, too?
Dream Casting: Clive Owen.

The Plot:

Blythe: Boo hoo, my life is a mess! I'm off to go hide in Cornwall!

Lucas Teague: Hello, I'm your sexy repressed British landlord. Feel free to explore my mysterious, gothic, but totally ghost-free castle!

Blythe: Hey look, a genealogy chart. *pokes*

Blythe Barton the 1st: Hello, I'm your ancestor! You're totally supposed to relate to me as I use, abuse and cheat on the people who care about me in order to fulfill my own selfish whims! Aren't I such a free-spirited woman?

Blythe: Wow! My ancestor was such a free-spirited woman and totally not a devious lying whore. Guess I better forgive my sister for sleeping with my husband, because she was obviously just being a free-spirited woman!

Lucas Teague: Care to be a free-spirited woman with me?

Blythe: You betcha!

Lucas Teague: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Hot British Widower

1 Cheating Man-Ho Husband

1 Cheating Ho Sister

1 Cheating Ho Ancestor

1 Well-Bred British Uppercrust Ho Godmother

1 Precocious Child

1 Surprise! Baby

Several Wyoming Anecdotes

1 Magic Genealogy Chart

The Word: First of all, a thank-you to the folks at Sourcebooks for the ARC of this re-print.

The novel opens as production designer Blythe Barton-Stowe finalizes her divorce from her successful director husband of more than ten years, Christopher. On top of the already deep wounds of her husband's infidelity (and with her own sister, no less), fate pours on the lemon juice, salt and vinegar when Blythe discovers Christopher plans to marry her sister, who's now pregnant with the child Christopher would never give Blythe.

With the ink still drying on the divorce contract, Blythe flees to Cornwall to escape the paparazzi and lick her wounds in relative obscurity. Remembering her late grandmother's stories that her family is descended from landed gentry in Cornwall, Blythe rents a cottage on the property of Barton Hall. Despite her initial determination to keep to herself, she can't help but befriend the gentlemanly lord of the manor, Lucas Teague, and she soon finds herself trying to help him and his estate's rising financial troubles.

Things take a weird turn when Blythe discovers a genealogy chart in Lucas's library that reveals the existence of another Blythe Barton - this one born in the late 1700s. Even weirder, when she touches the chart, she finds herself sucked into a series of visions that reveal the original Blythe Barton's tawdry and tangled romantic history - a history that closely parallels what the present Blythe is going through. Except for the small, insignificant, barely-worth-mentioning fact that Blythe Barton the First is a selfish, venomous, cheating shrew.

Harsh? Yes, but true. Nice Present-Day Blythe apparently needs to learn a lesson from the life of Hateful Past Blythe, but her ancestor is such a bone-deep awful person that these repeated flashbacks are extremely unpleasant. We're supposed to pity and empathize with Hateful Past Blythe because she was forced into marriage against her will in order to combine two estates - but since her reaction to these events is to intentionally make every person around her suffer because the spoiled brat couldn't run off with an artist, my own well of sympathy dried up pretty damn quick.

Long story short - Hateful Ho Blythe openly rejects her adoring husband Kit and treats him like dirt because of his physical appearance and conducts an adulterous affair with his brother Ennis, getting pregnant in the meantime. We are repeatedly force fed the idea that Hateful Ho Blythe is "courageous" and "independent." Sorry, but I interpret "courage" as standing up for yourself and doing the right thing despite how much you may not like it - not deciding to do whatever the hell you want, regardless of how many people are hurt in the process. In traditional historical romances, Hateful Ho Blythe would be the character who drowns at the start of the book under mysterious circumstances to give her widower a brooding edge that attracts the real heroine.

But, as much as I hated reading about Hateful Ho Blythe and her Courageous Way of Humiliating Her Husband's Pockmarks and Penis Size On Their Wedding Night, her background does have a narrative purpose. I appreciated how Nice Present-Day Blythe (who, like Kit, endured her spouse cheating on her with a sibling) is able to better handle her own tragedy, with all the bitterness-betrayal-rage baggage that comes with it, after seeing it re-enacted in Ye Olde 1700s.

However, despite an interesting story and a well-developed heroine, A Cottage By the Sea is not without flaws (or at least, flaws that aren't a certain skanky ancestor). Ware exhibits standard My Exhausting Research - Let Me Show You It behaviour - that is, dumping lots of information and detail on us that isn't necessary to the story. From a writer's perspective, I'll freely admit how frustrating it can be to research a vast subject when only a narrow slice of it needs to be in the novel. But a lot of the period detail we get in the flashbacks has little to no bearing on the story - and in turn, seems odd. When Hateful Ho Blythe is worried about her upcoming nuptials, is the history of smuggling in Cornwall really going through her head?

This also applies to how Ware tries to explain what is essentially a paranormal plot device in scientific terms. Maybe this is because I'm a fantasy reader, but a simple "it's magic" explanation would have sufficed for the time-travelling genealogy chart. Instead, we get numerous very tiresome exchanges about how memory and experience can change DNA that doesn't really explain the genealogy chart in the first place. I respect the work Ware put into this, but it's boring and time-consuming, unhelpful, and unnecessary.

Another flaw is that Ciji Ware's writing feels amateurish thanks to a complete reliance on that most Wretched of Writing Tropes: the speech-tag/adverb duo. "She whispered sadly." "He grunted rudely." "She hissed quickly." Ware's characters NEVER, and I mean NEVER, just "say" anything. They screech, scream, sob, interrupt, cry, howl, boil and fume (how does boiling translate into speech? Or fume for that matter?) with distracting frequency.

It's ridiculous, but I suppose since this is a reprint, I can chalk it up to the time period it was written in, way back in ...*checks date* wait, 1997? That's it? Speechtag/adverbs were stupid even then! The Speech-Tag/Adverb is a lose-lose in nearly every situation - if you're a good writer, they're redundant, because your dialogue should already convey the volume and tone by itself. If you're a bad writer, it's a lame crutch to make up for dialogue that's not doing what it's supposed to do.

Despite this, A Cottage By the Sea provides an interesting heroine and a detailed setting. While it didn't really impress me, neither was it a terrible novel.
B-

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

"The Making of a Duchess," by Shana Galen

The Chick: Sarah Smith, a.k.a. "Mademoiselle Serafina Artois, Comtesse de Guyenne." A young governess, Sarah discovers her employer is a spy for Britain's Foreign Office when he needs her to fill in for an injured spook and find evidence that the Duc de Valere, a French expatriate, is really a traitor.
The Rub: Sarah is really, really bad at spying, and the Duc is super-cute - but if she fails, her boss will totally fire her.
Dream Casting: A younger Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Julien Harcourt, Duc de Valere. After losing nearly his entire family in the French Revolution, Julien's spent years smuggling himself back and forth across the Channel looking for his vanished loved ones.
The Rub: While his duty also dictates that he marry another French aristocrat like the lovely Serafina - she refuses him. And vomits at odd times. Why?
Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:

Sir Northrop: Spy on the Duc or you're FIRED!

Sarah: Eeep! *pukes*

Julien: Strange - you smell like upchuck, yet I find you strangely attractive. Marry me!

Sarah: Crap.

Sir Northrop: Sarah, have you found anything? Have I mentioned I'm evil yet?

Sarah: Double crap. Confession time, Julien, I'm not a spy.

Julien: Well, duh. Wanna help me find my long-lost brother instead?

Sarah: Yay!

Guards: *in French* Who goes there?

Julien: Quick, a distraction!

Sarah: *pukes*

Julien's Long-Lost Sequel Baiting Brother: *rescued*

Sir Northrop: By the way, did I mention I killed your parents? And that you're secretly a countess?

Sarah: Huh. Convenient. Arrest him!

Julien: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Poor, Unloved Governess with a Secret Past

1 Handsome Duc with a Secret Agenda

2 Evil Incompetent Spies

2 Bouts of Fear-Induced Vomiting

1 Long-Lost Sequel-Baiting Brother

1 Dandy Smuggler

The Word: When I first started reading this book, I found that the plot of The Making of a Duchess shared a lot of superficial similarities with Laura Kinsale's latest novel, Lessons in French. We have a hero who lives with his mum, both of whom escaped from the French Revolution with little more than the clothes on their backs. The hero is torn between his English and his French identities and his title provides little more than a few extra letters attached to his name on a dinner invitation. His mother is one of those Our Lady of Perpetual Impish Melancholy types, who pretend to be gullible while secretly knowing everything, about everybody, particularly when the plot demands it. We also get a heroine who believes she is completely plain and unlovable.

However, the crucial difference that makes Lessons in French an enjoyable romp and The Making of a Duchess incredibly silly is that unlike Lessons in French , the actual meat-and-bones plot of The Making of a Duchess hinges on the complete and unbelievable incompetence of several key characters for the story to work.

It's 1801, and our heroine, Sarah Smith, divides her time between acting as governess to Sir Northrop's children, wallowing in self-pity over her unloved orphaned existence, and complaining about how ugly her wide, ripe, bee-stung strawberry lips are (Awful Heroine Cliche #2). One day, however, her employer takes her aside and reveals he has an entirely different job for her. It turns out Sir Northrop's a spy for the British Foreign Office, and he suspects that Julien Harcourt, the Duc de Valere, is a traitor.

However, the female operative who was originally assigned to infiltrate Julien's social circle was injured on the job and Northrop needs a replacement at the last minute. Northrop, as well as the injured agent known as the Widow, believe Sarah is the perfect candidate because she roughly matches the Widow's description, speaks fluent French, and she's good with kids. Yup. I'm totally not kidding - Northrop equates "patient with young children" with "mad deception and infiltration skills." Although, come to think of it, given how willful and childish some lesser romance Alpha Males can be, governess experience could come in handy.

Northrop tells Sarah that she'll be masquerading as the highborn Mademoiselle Serafina Artois - a countess from an exiled French family who were old friends of the Harcourts before coming to a grisly (albeit not widely-known) end. Oh, and Sarah only has three days to learn her cover before she's due to meet the duc. Oh, and if she doesn't agree, Northrop will fire her and blackball her from ever getting another governess position.

Um, yeah. We're barely a couple of chapters in and already we're asked to believe that a professional spy would send an unarmed woman to spy on a possible traitor
  • with no previous spy experience,
  • with only three days to adapt to an aristocratic cover, despite a lifetime of living as lowerclass,
  • with a cobbled-together, incomplete backstory that requires fluency in Italian, which Sarah doesn't possess,
  • and with only a lady's maid for back-up, a lady's maid who only speaks Italian
Armed with these paltry advantages, I suppose I can't really blame the poor, unprepared heroine when she meets the handsome, dashing Julien Harcourt and literally vomits with terror.

Thanks to the French Revolution, Julien lost his father, his young brothers, and his home and had to start over with his mother in England. Despite the war with Napoleon, Julien has repeatedly smuggled himself into France to search for evidence that his lost brothers are alive. When he receives a letter from a former servant who knows the location of his brother Armand, Julien knows it's his duty to do everything possible to return to France and rescue him.

He also recognizes his aristocratic duty to marry and carry on the family name, preferably with a Reign of Terror escapee like himself, in order to flip the metaphorical bird to the dirty, unwashed peasants who tried to eradicate his kind from the face of the earth. Serafina, the daughter of old family friends, is the perfect candidate. Far from being turned off by the delicate beauty who re-experienced her breakfast into his priceless Ming vase, Julien is inexplicably attracted to "Serafina." However, when he proposes marriage in a typically businesslike, Alpha-Male fashion, Sarah (appalled and unprepared) refuses him - which only serves to spark his interest more.

Needless to say, Sarah Fucks Things Up Repeatedly, and because she is an Unaffected Pure-Hearted Innocent, this is supposed to be charming and novel instead of annoying and contrived. Sarah is grating in the first half of the novel, as the chickenhearted martyr who constantly wars between pants-shitting terror and self-loathing depression (about how she's an unloved, unwanted, orphaned governess with repulsively pillow-soft, silken lips, in case you forgot and missed the 10 times she reminds the reader of this).

However, she only gets worse as the novel progresses. At least at the start, you can't really blame her for being out of her element, because her Incompetent Spy Superiors Who Are Totally Not Incompetent Obvious Villains (Oh Wait, Yes They Are) do put her in an impossible situation. In the second half of the novel, though, she no longer Fucks Things Up Repeatedly because she's in the dark - no, now she Fucks Things Up Repeatedly because she's an idiot. Or worse, to serve her own purposes, such as when she "charmingly" withholds the real location of Julien's long-lost brother and holds her knowledge of it over his head to keep him from leaving her behind. Yes, because your need to be the centre of attention is a much higher priority than finding the long-lost brother who's been imprisoned for years.

Julien, however, is refreshingly direct. While he holds to the too-familiar Why Am I Inexplicably Jealous Around This Strange Girl Who Smells Like Flowers and Purity? mindset at first, once he realizes he likes Sarah, he tells her - like, right away. He's remarkably honest with his developing feelings and doesn't prevaricate or use his broody, angsty tragic past as an excuse.

However, even a nice hero can't fix a story that only works thanks to the stupidity of the villains and the incompetence of the heroine, where the "twist" about the heroine's past is clearly telegraphed, E-mailed, candy-gram-ed, and FedExed by PAGE 43, and the rest of the spy plot is simplified to the point of wallpaper historical.
C+