Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Final Countdown

This is it, chickas. My taxi arrives at 10:30 pm tonight to take me to the airport in time for my red-eye 1:15 am flight to Orlando, to participate in the 2010 RWA National Conference!

But before I flight off to indulge my unhealthy obsessions with All Things Disney and Free Books, I thought I'd go back and consider the promise I made myself last year: My Nashville Resolution (back before the floods required RWA 2010 to relocate). Did I achieve what I set out to do? How is this conference experience going to be different from my first one? Let's see:

1. During the Year Leading to Nashville, I will either have made my First Sale (so that I get the pretty ribbon!) or have a Finished Manuscript. Did I do it? YES!
Okay, okay, not my First Sale. But I do have a Finished Manuscript AND a pitch. And I will be hawking both hardcore at RWA2010. For one thing, people last year were always asking what my novel was about, and I always dithered because a) I wasn't finished and b) even before I was finished I still felt I had too much story to describe at once. But now that I have my pitch, describing my book will be a snap, and great practice for my Agent Appointment!

2. During the Year Leading to Nashville, I will not buy a Motherlovin' amount of books and will Save My Money. Yes and No
Not buy a lot of books this year? Ha. Hahaha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Get real. I haven't even finished the freebies I got last year before buying new books. It's an illness, I tell you. But as for the saving money part - yeah, I kinda did do that. I had a good job and still lived with my parents so I have a bit saved away.

3. During the Year Leading to Nashville, I will participate in my RWA Special Interest Chapters, Network with other Authors/Bloggers, and Join a Critique Group. OH HELL TO THE YES
Last year, I hadn't really participated in my two RWA Chapters (RWA Online and FF&P), mainly because I hadn't finished my manuscript and felt I didn't have much to contribute. But once I finished, actually finished my first draft and joined a critique group, I started chatting a lot more and paying a lot more attention, as well as realizing that the Online Chapter really isn't my style, so I'll know not to review next year.

4. During the Year Leading to Nashville, I will budget for Shipping Costs. Sorta.
If by budget you mean, saved my Granny money and GST rebate cheque.

5. During the Year Leading to Nashville, I will Apply for the University of Alberta School for Library and Information Sciences. No.
*sigh* I chickened out - well, chickened out and got impatient. I landed a receptionist job I really enjoyed, and a part of me was eager to settle and be a Grown Up with a Real Job instead of the perpetual student, so I let me reference letters and preparations fall by the wayside. Six months later, I lost that job, and the receptionist industry is good, but not my passion, and now I'm kind of kicking myself for not going ahead with the library studies thing. It's a profession, and one I think I'd really enjoy. This year, the deadline for applying is February, so I'm going to be trying again - unless I get an absolutely spectacular job that I really like, and even then... Well, we'll see how it goes.

So hey, all things considered, I think I did pretty well by my Nashville Resolution. Anyhoo, while I won't be blogging while at RWA 2010, I am bringing my iTouch so I will be Tweeting - click the little blue origami bird at the top of the blog for my feed to see how it's going.

See y'all in a week!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"The Concubine," by Jade Lee

The Chick: Chen Ji Yue. Desperate to save her family from the poorhouse, she's determined to use all the wits at her disposal to ensure she gets chosen as the new Empress of China during the Festival of Fertility - even if it means kicking a man out of her palanquin and lying about it to the Festival authorities
The Rub: The odds are stacked against her - she's poor, she's average-looking, and the Master of the Festival is none other than the scoundrel she forced out of her palanquin!
Dream Casting: Ziyi Zhang.

The Dude: Sun Bo Tao. As the close childhood friend of the new Emperor, he's placed in charge of the 60 or so women competing to become members of the Imperial Harem.
The Rub: He soon starts to develop feelings for one of the concubines, but besmirching a virgin who belongs to the Emperor is a capital offense.
Dream Casting: Daniel Dae Kim.

The Plot:

Ji Yue: I will be empress!

Bo Tao: Ha, fat chance!

Ji Yue: Who are you supposed to be?

Bo Tao: The hero - that's why I'm manipulating events around you, fondling you against your wishes, and watching you endure a humiliating physical exam because I'm horny.

Ji Yue: Oh, right. As you were. Wow, life as a concubine sucks!

Bo Tao: Life would me would suck a lot less. Let's get it on - while protecting your virginity.

Ji Yue: *high on opium* Virginity? Who needs virginity?

Bo Tao: Sweet!

Ji Yue: *sober* Crap! I've ruined our futures!

Bizarrely Benevolent Emperor: Eh, go ahead and marry each other. Why not?

Ji Yue and Bo Tao: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Irresponsible Playboy

1 Ambitious Concubine

60 Backstabbing Bitches

1 Lesbian Three-Way Peep Show

1 Evil Mutha

Several Evil Eunuchs

1 Illegally-Lotioned Labia

1 Date Rape

The Word: Oh my, but this book was a silly read. I mean, I didn't really know what I was in for when I picked up my first Harlequin category novel, that had been languishing on my TBR ever since I won it at RWA 2009, but it wasn't quite this level of silliness - and disturbing silliness, I might add. While at RWA last year, Jade Lee (who is actually rather awesome in person) explained that Harlequin never did another Chinese historical after this one, and while I can't presume to know the reasons behind the publisher's choices, I will say that The Concubine is probably not the best representation for Chinese historical romances.

Sun Bo Tao is widely regarded as the mooching slacker BFF of the newly-crowned Emperor. He's a man with no family, no money, no prospects, who prefers to live off the largess of his Imperial buddy. However, after he and the Son of Heaven get into an argument, the Emperor makes him the Master of the Fertility Festival - a China's Next Top Concubine type of event where the Emperor has to choose his Empress and traditional twenty-seven concubines. Bo Tao's not looking forward to babysitting 60 bitchy virgins.

Anyway, he bums a ride on a passing palanquin to get to the Forbidden City, unaware the palanquin's intended for one of the concubine-wannabes and that a man's presence in the vehicle will disqualify her from the running. However, Bo Tao, sensitive prince that he is, sees the girl through the palanquin's curtains, realizes she's poor and average-looking, and immediately refuses to give a shit because he figures she hasn't a got shot anyway.

However, Chen Ji Yue, whose participation in the Fertility Festival is her family's last chance of financial survival, won't be defeated so easily. Raised by her mother to compensate for her average looks with her above-average smarts, she kicks Bo Tao out of her palanquin anyway and lies her way out of the scandalous situation in order to stay in the running.

Now, the main conflict of the novel is that Bo Tao, who supposedly develops feelings for Ji Yue, cannot act upon them because all of the concubines officially belong to the Emperor unless they're expelled from the Festival, so deflowering an Imperial virgin is akin to stealing from the Emperor and is considered treason. Ji Yue, meanwhile, needs to become Empress to feed her family, which means she has to beat out 59 other backstabbing girls and Bo Tao's sexy presence is one distraction she just doesn't need.

Now, props go to the author for an unconventional historical setting. Colourful and vivid, it was very interesting to read an historical that, while similar in some respects to British historicals (societal pressures and prejudice against women) is also so different. It also provides an excuse for rarely-used euphemisms for penis - in this case, "dragon organ" and "jade stalk."

However, an interesting and well-developed setting can't make up for subpar characters and silly plotting. It doesn't help that our "hero" (note the use of quotation marks) is a bit of a sleaze. First, he nearly ruins the heroine's chances for no reason other than the fact that he doesn't want to walk to work.

Then comes a squeamish and unintentionally funny scene where the concubines are lined up to endure a physical examination. Cosmetics are strictly prohibited and those who are caught are brutally hosed down and dismissed from the Festival. Ji Yue, near the end of the line, is terrified because she fudged the rules and applied a perfumed cream to her no-no special place, forgetting that part of the examination involves the Traditional Hymen Role Call.

Naturally, Bo Tao is there to "observe" the "examination" - particularly Ji Yue's. What a scamp! And he very kindly offers Ji Yue the opportunity to hide the scent of her cream naturally - by allowing him to play with her boobies. I'm not really certain about the practicality of that, and after a few minutes, neither is Bo Tao, who then directs his attentions directly to the pertinent area with his fingers, exclaiming (direct quote): "There is so much cream here!" It should be noted that he continues to refer to the way her "sweet cream flows" for the rest of the novel.

He then proceeds to enchant Ji Yue with other romantic acts, such as taking her up to a secret tree house to watch three harem ladies getting it on - ostensibly it's to reveal the sorry life of being a concubine but really it's to score free nookie.

And finally, when all is said and done, when Ji Yue finally loses her virginity, it's the closest I've ever personally read a scene come to date rape. In fact, I'm pretty sure it would count as date rape. After the halfway point, Bo Tao rescues Ji Yue from some corrupt eunuchs who had force-fed her opium in order to hand her over to horny Dutch envoys. Stoned out of her gourd, I guess Ji Yue has some sort of romantic epiphany and begs Bo Tao to make love to her - and he does. It's all very romantic, especially the sparkling lights that Ji Yue hallucinates during the act and the ultimate horror she experiences when she realizes only after the fact that she lost her virginity and signed her death warrant and destroyed her family's honour.

At the heart of it, this scene struck me as rape because when it happens Ji Yue is drugged and Bo Tao is sober. Yes, Ji Yue initiates the romantic encounter, but her horror after the act as well as her hallucinations during the act indicate that the effects of the drug removed her ability to grasp the consequences of her actions and give informed consent.

Meanwhile, Bo Tao is as sober as a monk and knows full well a) that Ji Yue is drugged (direct quote: "You are not yourself, Ji Yue. They gave you opium.") and b) if she's caught without her virginity, she will take the blame and most likely die for it. He is completely aware of the disadvantage Ji Yue is under, but one kiss from her seems to makes him lose his senses. Know what actually makes you lose your senses? OPIUM. If that's not rape, then at the absolute very least it is sexual exploitation. How romantic!

That being said, Ji Yue's not well-developed as a character either. For someone we are told is smart, politically savvy, and very ambitious, she comes to the Festival incredibly naive. She's trapped in a palace with 60 other girls competing for 28 spots (one of which is the post of the freakin' Empress of all China), and yet Ji Yue's surprised they can't all be girlfriends, braid each other's hair and have ticklefights. Also, a lot of her "political" actions to ingratiate herself with the Dowager Empress don't seem to make sense - one scene where Ji Yue admits to having a candy addiction to placate the Empress still has me scratching my head.

While this book ultimately failed to impress me, with its weak heroine, sleazeball hero, and exploitative love scene, I will admit that the change of setting was interesting and did make me wish for more romance novels set in historical China. I still love me some British historicals and likely always will, but I'm also a fan of Japanese and Chinese history and having romances based in that culture would be a welcome change - which has me mighty interested in Jeannie Lin's upcoming novel Butterfly Swords, which is being published in October 2010. By Harlequin.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

"Slightly Dangerous," by Mary Balogh

The Chick: Christine Derricks. Despite being an impoverished widow who's estranged from her bitter in-laws, she insists on looking on the brighter side of life.
The Rub: However, only a few interactions with the haughty Duke of Bedwyn convince her he's all cloud and no silver lining - so why is she so attracted to him?
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Wulfric Bedwyn, Duke of Bewcastle. Despite being rigid, proper, and supremely logical in all things, Wulfric's life hasn't been quite the same since all his siblings married and moved on with their lives.
The Rub: Surely his life could never be so empty that he'd need Mrs. Christine Derricks to fill the void - she's so uncouth and improper and unsuitable!
Dream Casting: Patrick Dempsey.

The Plot:

Christine: What a nice party.

Wulfric: What a dull affair.

Christine: What an arrogant prick!

Wulfric: What a vulgar young woman!

Christine: I don't like you.

Wulfric: I find myself in complete agreement. Sex?

Christine: Sure, why not?

Wulfric and Christine: *SexyTimes*

Wulfric and Christine: Goodbye and good riddance!

Wulfric and Christine: *invited to same wedding* DAMMIT!

Wulfric: Well, I suppose, if you were amenable, we could be married.

Christine: Oh hell no.

Wulfric: .... *sniffle*

Christine: Emotions! Oh, alright, I'll marry you!

Wulfric: Quite. *In private* HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Haughty Aristocrat

1 Wary Widow

2 Nasty In-Laws

5 Smug Married Couples

1 Snake in the Grass Villain

1 Stolen Quizzing Glass

7 Spare Quizzing Glasses

1 Torn Dress

1 Barren Baby Epilogue

The Word: If I want to be completely honest, I didn't start reading this book with the highest of expectations. You see, Slightly Dangerous is not only a novel, but the final novel in the lengthy series concerning the Bedwyns. The final novels in romantic series with recurring characters tend to be more significant because in more cases than not, these are the novels reserved for the "most interesting" characters, that one rake who's just that much more brooding and troubled than the rest, that one female assassin whose past is just that much more mysterious, or that one couple whose vitriolic enmity is so very obviously hiding a secret attraction. Think of Villiers in Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series. Or Jesse (Sweet Trouble) in Susan Mallery's Bakery Sisters Trilogy.

Again, while the previous novels in the series revolve around their main characters, they also serve to hype up the mystery/angst/hate-love aspect of those special recurring characters, and these final novels in the series end up coming under especial scrutiny because of that build-up. However, truth be told, once the mystery is gone these characters rarely live up to the hype. Secret shames turn out to be run-of-the-mill Big Misunderstandings. Villainous rakes are neutered into vulnerable fluffy ducklings in disguise.

Frankly, I was expecting Slightly Dangerous to be more of the same. Wulfric Bedwyn, fondly dubbed "The Duke of Asshat" by yours truly, turns up in every Slightly book to make cold, asshat-y comments about propriety and respectability before inevitably surrendering to the romantic whims of the protagonists, with an occasional softened gaze or private crying jag to indicate he does have a heart underneath that formidably controlled exterior. How could the last book possibly do his character justice with any sort of narrative consistency?

To my delight, with Slightly Dangerous Mary Balogh manages to create a moving and realistic romance concerning Wulfric without retroactively rewriting his character into a secret cuddler.

At the beginning of the novel, Wulfric is feeling somewhat out of sorts, but he refuses to examine his feelings deeply enough to identify his problem for what it is: loneliness. His siblings have all absconded into their respective HEAs, his mistress of ten years has died, and his ginormous estate is empty. Thanks to this, he makes a rare impulsive decision to accept a friend's invitation to a houseparty. However, when he arrives, he is appalled to discover that instead of a gathering of intellectuals, it's a betrothal party for a very young couple whose equally young friends are eager to cause mischief.

However, he's not the only accidental outsider. Christine Derricks, a penniless widow, is browbeaten by her friend Lady Renable into attending the same house party as well, even though the two hostile siblings of her late husband will be there, too. She quickly achieves the dubious distinction of making two equally awful first impressions on Wulfric: the first when she accidentally drips searing lemonade into his eye (and he mistakes her for a servant), and the second when she meets him eye-to-eye in the drawing room and openly calls him on his asstastic attitude.

She succeeds both in discombobulating Wulfric and eliminating the rest of her social nervousness and she proceeds to have a lovely time. Her natural charm bubbles to the fore and she's soon the life of the party, even though her clumsiness and unladylike antics earn her the ire of Wulfric and her spiteful in-laws. Wulfric thinks Christine is a human trainwreck, but he can't look away, and his inability to curb his interest unsettles him deeply.

However, Mary Balogh knows just how to pace this romance. Wulfric and Christine don't tumble headfirst into love or even understanding during the two weeks of that houseparty. Wulfric is a thinker, a rationalizer, and the rules of the aristocracy are embedded in his very bones. He knows that Christine is completely unsuitable to be a duchess - she's vulgar, she's clumsy, she's low born, she's barren. He knows this from the outset. He can't stop watching her or feeling attracted to her, but by Nora he'll fight it as long as he can with every rationalization he can find.

However, as he and Christine keep running into each other despite their attempts to avoid each other, Wulfric eventually succumbs to the realization that he cares about her. However - he keeps rationalizing, only this time, in the opposite direction. When he finally does buckle down and decide to pursue Christine into marrying him, he goes at it with the same coolly strategic, logical, and rational determination he applies to everything else. He doesn't suddenly break into song or burst into tears or say the magically "right" thing. By wooing Christine as Wulfric, he doesn't transform into a completely different loving character - instead Mary Balogh shows us that aspect of his character's been a part of him all along.

And Christine's no slouch of a character, herself. While there's definitely a Pride & Prejudice vibe going on here, Mary Balogh deftly demonstrates how she's Wulfric's perfect match. Just as the Duke of Bewcastle is notorious for lowering the temperature of every room he enters with his chilling hauteur and intensely private nature, Christine can't help but bring light and happiness to everyone around her with her ability to laugh at herself as well as others. However, Christine's social ease in society and around other men turned into a double-edged sword when her husband's jealousy and insecurity eventually soured their marriage. She's conflicted - while at ease with herself, she does suffer moments of hyper-consciousness of how tawdry she looks in comparison to the perfection of the ton.

Thanks again the great characterization, the opposites-attract element of the romance also poses one of its most difficult obstacles. Christine has trouble reconciling her attraction to Wulfric with her perception of him as being cold and emotionless, and has trouble grasping how two people so different could make each other happy in the long run, especially considering her first marriage to a man who was also her vast superior in rank.

Even while reading this story, I had trouble with my emotional grade and my objective grade. Emotionally, I'd rate this book a B+, because I liked and appreciated it but didn't love it. Objectively, however, there's too much that's good about this book to let it lower the novel's grade. Objectively, I adored the characterization - not only of the protagonists, but also of the villain, a character who turned out to be a real surprise and one of the most subtle and insidious baddies I've ever read, which was pretty refreshing for a genre where the villains are usually telegraphed from the very beginning. As well, I liked how the other Bedwyns were included into the story without being intrusive.

Finally, I also took into account how Slightly Dangerous fits as a final chapter in the Bedwyn saga, and how it remain absolutely consistent with the character of Wulfric while also managing to be wholly and realistically romantic. I think in this case, it works beautifully as a final chapter - while his siblings do have parts in the story, they serve more as reminders of how each of their stories have helped shape and prepare Wulfric for his own. The way he stood up for Eve in Slightly Married, how he came to Judith's defense in Slightly Wicked, how his interference set the stage for Freya's romance in Slightly Scandalous, learning the truth behind his botched first engagement from Gervase in Slightly Tempted, to enduring the heartbreak of Alleyne's "death" and miraculous return in Slightly Sinful. They've all paved the way for him to finally realize that some things cannot be ruled or controlled - like love.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Forget You," by Jennifer Echols

The Chick: Zoey Commander. When her relationships with her parents unravel, Zoey will do anything to keep her own life controlled and on track - with her athletic achievements, her schoolwork, and a popular football captain boyfriend.
The Rub: When she receives a concussion in a car accident and loses the last twelve hours of her life, she discovers she didn't spend very many of those hours with her boyfriend, but another boy entirely.
Dream Casting: Blake Lively.

The Dude: Doug Fox. The school's resident bad-boy charity case, he falls for the Good Little Rich Girl and thinks she feels the same.
The Rub: However, after seemingly coming to a significant emotional milestone together, Zoey wakes up and acts as if it never happened.
Dream Casting: Penn Badgley.

The Plot:

Zoey's Dad: I'm marrying my 24-year-old pregnant mistress!

Zoey's Mom: I've decided to cast off this mortal coil!

Zoey: Who needs this pesky virginity anyway?

Brandon: I like your attitude!

Zoey and Brandon: *SexyTimes*

Zoey: Hurray! This means we're boyfriend and girlfriend! *bonks head*

Doug: Hey, let's date.

Zoey: Are you crazy? I have a boyfriend!

Doug: Um, how hard did you hit your head?

Zoey: I have a boyfriend! A boyfriend named Brandon! We had sex, so we're totally going steady. Even though I've known him personally for years and know he sleeps around all the time and we haven't dated or talked or even seen each other in a week, I know this time is different. So even though you're hot and mysterious and I'm missing a huge chunk of my memory, I can't date you, Doug.

Doug: You're right - no amount of brain damage can explain that kind of denial. *reveals truth of what happened that night*

Zoey: *gasp* I am sickened, disgusted and horrified. I never want to see you again - after we have sex that is.

Doug: Wow, you have whacked-out priorities.

Zoey: Fine, fine, we can date, too.


Romance/YA Convention Checklist

1 Mysterious Dude with a Dark Past

1 Teen Manwhore

2 Silly Twins

1 Case of Amnesia

2 Appallingly Awful Dads

2 Weeks in Juvie

1 Near-Drowning Experience

1 Dreamed Near-Drowning Experience

Several Raw Oysters

The Word: Oh, curse you, high expectations! I'm actually feeling really guilty, because this is the second time in a row that an author whose last book I absolutely A+ gushed over offered me a free ARC that ultimately didn't live up to their previous work. The first of these, of course, was Christie Ridgway's Crush On You, which didn't crush so much as firmly squeeze me.

The second is Forget You, by Jennifer Echols, she who so completely bowled me over with her flawless YA novel Going Too Far.

The novel starts off strongly, with our troubled perfectionist heroine Zoey. Despite being popular, athletic, and privileged, her life is coming apart at the seams. First, her father gets his 24-year-old human resources manager pregnant. Three months later, Zoey's mother attempts suicide and has to be committed. Desperate to keep the news of her mother's breakdown from becoming public knowledge, Zoey's secret is nevertheless already known to her worst enemy: bad-boy classmate Doug Fox, whose police officer brother was first on the scene.

Doug and Zoey have been at odds for a number of years, ever since the homecoming dance Doug missed in ninth grade because he was in juvie. Despite living in different social strata (Doug's from the wrong side of the beach), they participate on the same swimteam, so they can't avoid each other as much as they'd like to.

Still reeling from the absolute suck of it all, Zoey propositions her dim football star friend Brandon and loses her virginity to him, thinking so long as she's seen dating the popular football jock, keeps up her athletics, and maintains the image of the perfect student/daughter/girlfriend, she can pretend her life is still normal. Provided she and Doug can come to some sort of understanding so he doesn't blab that her mum's in the loony bin, that is.

Fate, however, has other plans. Zoey attends a football game and gets into an argument with Doug, and the next thing she knows, she's in her bedroom with a killer headache and no memory of the night before except a dim recollection of Doug pulling her out of her totalled car after she swerved to hit a deer. Not only that, but Doug comes to see her that morning with his leg in a cast, suddenly sweet and considerate, and he acts as if they're in a relationship.

Needless to say, Zoey is desperate to discover what happened that night, and whether or not she'll be able to hold onto her relationship with Brandon. However, her appallingly selfish father, outraged that his Hawaii honeymoon plans might be disrupted by his inconsiderate daughter's concussion, doesn't believe her claims of amnesia and threatens to have her locked up in the psych ward next to her mother. Since the last thing Zoey wants is to be compared to her crazy mom, she decides to try and piece together what happened that night without giving away the fact that she doesn't remember any of it - and doing that means confronting Doug again.

Now this sounds like a terrific premise - a girl who strives to be controlled, but has to come to grips with the fact that she's lost twelve hours of her life and the snippets of what she learns don't mesh with the person she thinks she is. However, the big, giant, recurring flaw in this story is that the main character's primary motivation doesn't make sense.

If I were to create the ultimate Forget You drinking game, I would need only one instruction: every time Zoey says "Brandon is my boyfriend," take a shot.

Zoey continually rebuffs Doug's advances, and rejects the growing realization that something happened between them, because "Brandon is my boyfriend." She lives in horror that what happened that night will get back to Brandon and make him break up with her, because "Brandon is my boyfriend." The number one obstacle between Zoey and Doug is Zoey's relationship with Brandon.

This would have been fine and dandy if not for a few flaws.
  1. Zoey's first and only romantic interaction with Brandon is one quickie in a car. I'm totally not kidding. Zoey propositions Brandon out of the blue, and they have sex once, and suddenly Zoey believes that she and Brandon have consented to be in a serious, exclusive, and committed relationship. After one bout of sex. She doesn't talk to him after it happens, she doesn't date him, and she doesn't bring up any relationship expectations with him at all. Not even a, "I guess this means we're boyfriend/girlfriend, right?" She persists in this belief even though she never talks to or even sees Brandon for much of the novel. Now, I suppose this could be chalked up to an understandable teenage belief that girls place more importance on the act of sex then boys, except for this whopper:
  2. Before their quickie, Zoey and Brandon were friends for years and she knows his entire sexual history. Brandon is a nice but dimwitted horndog who's always getting into trouble for dating several girls at once and never committing. He's pretty easy when it comes to sex and when his irresponsibility blows up in his face, Zoey's always been there with a shoulder to cry on. So she already knows his careless and immature attitude about sex, and yet she assumes one quickie with him without any communication about dating or relationships will somehow magically turn him into the complete opposite of the person she's come to know from years of experience - i.e., a person who understands that sex equals a committed relationship without needing to be told.
This part of the novel completely boggled my mind. I never, not once, understood Zoey's motivations for believing she and Brandon were in a relationship - or at least, enough of a relationship to serve as the main obstacle between her and Doug. For me, this goes beyond being mistaken and into delusional, or at least in hardcore denial.

I might have bought it if Echols hadn't shown us that Zoey knows Brandon inside and out. I might have bought it if maybe Brandon and Zoey had dated a couple of times along with the quickie. I understand that Zoey is emotionally vulnerable, but she bases her idea of their relationship on a single action, and yet somehow this single action is the largest obstacle to overcome in the novel.

Okay, okay, the novel tries to explain this, but not until much later in the book, and it's not entirely effective, in my opinion. The novel eventually and tentatively suggests that Zoey made a relationship out of nothing to justify her impulsive action with Brandon, thinking, "I'm not a messed-up ho if I have sex with someone with whom I share a relationship." Therefore, her actions to push Doug away and cling to the idea of Brandon stem from an attempt to rewrite her own history and make herself normal. And while this is consistent with the theme of the novel, this explanation comes so late that while it retroactively explains some of my problems with the novel, it doesn't erase the consternation and confusion I felt while reading it.

And if this were the only flaw I had with the novel, Forget You would have gotten a much higher grade. I enjoyed the characterization otherwise, and Echols has a wonderful sense of atmosphere - in the way she describes the high school relationships, the small-town's wealthy, touristy, and poverty-stricken locales, and the different sorts of people to be found in this area. I felt totally immersed in the setting and the characters.

For the most part - unfortunately, Forget You also stumbles when it comes to pacing. I realize when the plot involves piecing together the past that there's going to be a lot of narrative jumping back and forth, but Zoey's lost night still doesn't quite fit even when we learn the whole story, and the novel's ending waffles back and forth a great deal, throwing in an 11th hour dramatic reveal that felt completely unnecessary, and cheapened the significance of the, er, 10th hour dramatic reveal.

I really, really wanted to glom this book as much as Going Too Far, but it just doesn't measure up. However, I will keep it on the shelf. Knowing what I know now about the heroine's motivations, perhaps reading it with that knowledge will improve the story a second time around.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Hero," by Perry Moore

The Hero: Thom Creed. The son of a disgraced superhero, he just wants to live a normal life, play basketball, graduate high school and make his father proud.
His Angst: When Thom discovers he has superpowers, the same superheroes who turned their backs on his father want Thom to join their team. If Thom joins the League, he'll have to keep his heroics a secret from his father and his homosexuality a secret from everyone.

The Supporting Cast:

Hal Creed, a.k.a. "Major Might": Thom's father. Used to be a famous non-powered superhero, until a crucial mistake cost him his hand, his standing in the League, and the lives of thousands of innocents. He now slaves away at a factory to provide a solid home life for his son. Essentially, he's BatDad.

Miss Scarlett: One of Thom's teammates, and a flaming bitch. Also possesses fire powers.

Typhoid Larry: Another teammate, he has the ability to give people diseases. Hasn't quite mastered the handshake.

Golden Boy: The super-speedy leader of Thom's team in the League. Bit of an asshole, but sad past. Has the hots for Miss Scarlett.

Ruth: An elderly, chain-smoking precog who gives Thom crusty but sensible advice.

Goran: Mysterious Eastern European immigrant, with whom Thom shares a strange connection.

Justice: The most powerful of the superheroes, and leader of the League - a mix between Superman and the Martian Manhunter. Former BFF of Hal Creed.

YA Convention Checklist:

Several Doses of Angst

1 Inconvenient Porn Site

Several Sad Pasts

1 Colostomy Bag

2 Gay Crushes

1 Straight Crush

1 Inconveniently Invisible Parent

1 Gay Supervillain

1 Stained Supersuit

1 Ring to School Them All

The Word: Chalk this up as another winning suggestion from The Booksmugglers. I was already intrigued by the idea of a boy having to struggle with two secret identities - (his superheroic one as well as his sexual one), but the 10-rated review from The Booksmugglers sealed the deal. While I didn't consider it as mind-blowingly awesome as the Smugglers did, it was still an enjoyable, unique, and emotional read.

Teenager Thom Creed just wants to make his father proud. Despite a litany of tragedies, Hal Creed managed to keep food on the table, a book in Thom's hand, and his head held high. Hal used to be Major Might - a famous superhero who didn't need any jumped-up, fancy superpowers. However, a superbattle gone horribly awry left Hal crippled, disgraced, and bitterly resentful of all superpowered beings. Despite all this and his wife walking out on the family in the bargain, Hal broke his back to ensure Thom had everything he needed growing up.

Thom would do anything to avoid bringing more hardship or shame on his father, so when he starts developing superpowers of his own, he feels he has to keep them secret. Of course, along with the sci-fi angst, Thom also has a very realistic, human angst: he's not only superpowered, he's gay, and he can't quite decide which secret would destroy his father more.

Thanks to a tragicomic incident in which Thom accidentally breaks the family laptop while surfing gay superhero porn (it makes more sense, and is a heck of a lot funnier, when you read it), he recklessly decides to run away before his father takes the computer to the shop and inevitably learns his secret. When supervillains hijack the bus Thom's on, Thom's burgeoning healing powers prove useful and gain him the attention of the superheroes who show up to save the day. The Superman-esque Justice, the leader of the League of superheroes, even asks Thom to try out for their probationary squad.

Despite knowing he'll have to add yet another secret to the growing roster of Things He Can't Tell Dad, Thom believes he should use his powers to make a difference. When he wins a place on the League's probationary squad, he ends up on a team of supers who are all as messed up as he is, just in different ways.

Perry Moore does an excellent job handling the novel's human plot (i.e. Thom's relationship with his father and his teammates). This plays out in the well-drawn cast of characters - none of Thom's teammates are as confident or easygoing as they appear, and despite their fantastic superpowers, their greatest hardships are as understandable as anyone's - illness, poverty, parental abandonment, a stint in supervillainy. Okay, maybe not that last one. Even more surprising is that the human plot takes centre stage, while the action-and-violence-heavy sci-fi plot is downplayed until the end.

I adored the depiction of Thom's relationship with his father. Despite the stress on Hal's life, and despite Thom's fear of revealing himself to his father, ultimately they share a loving, supportive, yet understandably unperfect father-son bond. Hal is not perfect, and his personal bigotries and bitterness place strain on Thom, but everything about his actions and his attitude so clearly demonstrate the love and care he feels for his son, and vice versa. Seriously, on the Best Dads List, they're only just behind Veronica and Keith Mars.

As well, Perry Moore shows a definite flair for awkward-humour, those moments of cluelessness we all suffer that spiral out of control into painful situations that have you laughing, cringing, and commiserating all at the same time. It starts with the Gay Porn incident, but continues throughout the novel, and it's viscerally funny, for as I read it I kept thinking, "Oh, that could totally happen to me. Um, except for the laser-eyes bit." This is ultimately what I loved about Hero, that despite the special powers and other sci-fi trappings, above all of that, Perry Moore nails the character aspect of the story, the whirring gears and wheels behind the masks and cowls.

Unfortunately, this leads to why this book didn't have me falling down in absolute worship after the last page - the sci-fi aspect seemed a bit rushed. I found myself questioning several aspects of the murder mystery, and the development of Thom's superhero identity seemed inconsistent and a bit of a deus ex machina. As well, and I hesitate to spoil this so I'm going to hint at it (but consider yourselves warned), the plotline where a significant character from Thom's past re-enters his life made very little sense and left me with nothing but questions at the end.

Finally, I had a problem with the violence, which is both cartoonish and horrifically graphic. My problem's not that there is violence in the first place - I can handle violent books. My problem is that the violence never appears until later in the book, so it jars with the tone of the novel that's been established so far. I suppose it affected me all the more because it was unexpected and didn't fit with the first half of the novel. The first half dealt with more human dilemmas and poked gentle fun at the comic-book aspects of superherodom (such as handling the media), only to shift gears into violence that seemed cruel, gratuitous, and unnecessary to the plot. I actually felt physically ill by the novel's climax.

That being said, this novel still has a unique premise, sharply-drawn human characters, and a lot of sympathetic human drama along with action and excitement. I'd definitely recommend it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My RITA-Reading Challenge: The Conclusion

Well, I finally did it. Once I polished off that last word in my Tangled Up In You review, my RITA-Reading Challenge came to an end. So how did I do? Do I now view the RITAs as the ultimate arbiter of romantic good taste? And who will I be rooting for at the RITA dinner in Orlando? Read on and see:

2010 RITA for Best First Book
I read: Stolen Fury, by Elisabeth Naughton. C
Who Should Win? No idea. Naughton's is the only author on this list I'm familiar with.

2010 RITA for Contemporary Series Romance
I read: Crush On You, by Christie Ridgway (B-), who's nominated for Silhouette Special Edition novel I Still Do.
Who Should Win? Again, no idea. Crush was pleasant but it didn't wow me, but I'm not familiar with anyone else on the list. I really enjoyed Ridgway's other books, so I may just cheer for her anyway.

2010 RITA For Contemporary Single Title Romance
I read:
Who Should Win? It's a tie between Christie Ridgway and Victoria Dahl. Dahl's books are more consistently good, but she's never managed the ultimate heart-tugging A+ grade that Ridgway has. I'll be happy if either of them wins.

2010 RITA For Historical Romance
I read:
Who Should Win? Sherry Thomas. Yes, Liz Carlyle's book got the higher grade, but Not Quite a Husband emotionally whooped my ass. I'm tempted to go back and retroactively give it an A+ rating, but I don't think that would be fair or honest to my reaction at the time. I'll still cheer if Carlyle wins, but my emotional favourite is Thomas.

2010 RITA for Novel With Strong Romantic Elements
I read: Snowfall at Willow Lake (B-), by Susan Wiggs, who's nominated for Lakeshore Christmas
Who Should Win?
No idea, and the Wiggs book didn't wow me. I am kind of leaning towards Deanna Raybourn for Silent On the Moor because it sounds interesting, but unfortunately I got a used copy of Silent in the Grave after the cutoff for my RITA challenge so I haven't read it yet.

2010 RITA for Paranormal Romance
I read:
Who Should Win? Very obviously, I will be cheering for Marjorie Liu. I like Jewel, but I've only read one book of hers and that was an historical.

2010 RITA for Regency Historical Romance
I read:
Who Should Win? Kate Noble all the way!

2010 RITA for Romance Novella
I read:
Who Should Win? Courtney Milan hands-down. Best of the novellas I've actually read.

2010 RITA For Romantic Suspense
I read: Stolen Fury, by Elisabeth Naughton (C).
Who Should Win? No idea.

2010 RITA for Young Adult Romance
I read: Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols (A+).
Who Should Win? Jennifer Echols all the way!

Confused about who to cheer for at the RITAs, too? Check out my reviews and see for yourselves.

"Tangled Up In You," by Rachel Gibson

The Chick: Maddie Jones, a.k.a. "Maddie Dupree." Growing up pretty much on her own turned Maddie into a successful woman who knows how to take care of herself. When she heads to the town of Truly, Idaho, to write a book about how her mother died, she thinks she's strong enough to handle the past.
The Rub: She doesn't think she's the type to fall head over heels in love, much less with the son of the people responsible for her mother's death. So what gives?
Dream Casting: Lauren Graham.

The Dude: Mick Hennessy. He moved back to Truly with only two goals in mind - to forget his parents' sordid past, and take care of his unstable sister and her son, but nosy true crime writer Maddie Dupree seriously threatens the first of his goals.
The Rub: So why does he find her so damn attractive?
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:

Maddie: I just want to write a book about my mother who was murdered by a psycho!

Mick: I just want to get over my past as the son of a murdering psycho!

Maddie: Well hey there, hot stuff.

Mick: Well, hello ther- wait, are you writing a book about me? Dammit, you're still hawt! Let's get it on!

Maddie: Whee!

Maddie and Mick: *SexyTimes*

Maddie: Wait, wait, I have to tell you - your mom killed my mom, back in the day. Just FYI.

Mick: Are you SHITTING me?

Maddie: No.

Mick: ........DAMMIT, STILL hawt. Let's get married!

Maddie: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

2 Intertwined Dark Pasts

3 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Emotional Sister

1 Secondary Romance

1 Precocious Child

1 Precocious Animal

Several Illegal Fireworks

2 Local Bars

Several Food-Scented Bodyscrubs

The Word: This is my first Rachel Gibson novel, but I gotta say, this author's got guts. The central plot element of Tangled Up In You is incredibly dark, and could have gone in any number of wrong directions, but Gibson makes you take it for what it is - something that can't be solved or explained away, but can provide an interesting character drama between two different - and yet similar - characters.

Twenty-nine years ago, in the small town of Truly, Idaho, a fed-up housewife entered her husband's bar with a shotgun and shot him and his mistress dead, and then turned the gun on herself.

The mistress, a twenty-four-year-old waitress named Alice, had a young daughter named Maddie, who grew up to be a successful true crime writer in Boise. Raised by an elderly great-aunt, Maddie learned how to take care of herself and while she enjoys the life she has, she can't help but wonder how things might have turned out differently if her mother hadn't been murdered. When she uncovers some old journals of her mother's after her great-aunt's death, Maddie decides to travel back to Truly and see if she can't give herself some closure by turning the experience into a book.

First on her list of things to do is a trip to Mort's, one of Truly's bars, to meet with the owner, Mick Hennessy. Mick has a reputation for more than just fighting, womanizing, and his military service - it was his mother who walked into that bar and murdered his father, along with the woman he was cheating with, before committing suicide. Maddie introduces herself by her pen name, and is caught off-guard by how charming and attractive Mick is.

Despite sharing some entertaining banter, Maddie knows a relationship between them is entirely inappropriate and she tries to focus on her investigation into the murder-suicide, with limited results. Few townsfolk are willing to dish on the details, and those that do lay most of the blame on Alice's shoulders, for being the slutty homewrecker who made decent Rose Hennessy snap. Also, despite Maddie's determination to stay away from Mick, neither of them can deny the explosive chemistry between them.

This being a small community, it doesn't take long for Mick to discover why Maddie's in town - although he still doesn't realize her true identity. Just the knowledge that some jumped-up writer wants to drag all of his carefully-hidden skeletons out of the closet is enough to piss him off. Mick and his older sister Meg endured a hellish childhood subjected to the townsfolk's stares and gossip, and while he eventually escaped by joining the military, his sister never really recovered. Mick returned to Truly to help his emotionally fragile sister and provide a good role model for his nephew Travis, and he knows Maddie's arrival - timed just when the gossip seems to have died down for good - will bring only more bad luck to the Hennessy family.

It's so interesting to watch Mick and Maddie connect because they both evolved the same way from the same incident with their parents, even though both see the situation from a different perspective. Maddie taught herself to shun emotion because it makes one dependent - a belief enforced by the pages of her flighty mother's journals, describing a woman who flitted from man to man, looking for one to support her. Mick, meanwhile, keeps himself calm and collected because his experience with his parents (and their epic marital spats) taught him to equate emotion with mental illness, and that dwelling on the past (like his sister does) is unhealthy.

There's no real way to explain something as incomprehensible as a murder-suicide, and Rachel Gibson doesn't try to. Rather, she explores how people can move on from a tragedy that cannot be understood by trying to understand the people behind it, while learning more about themselves in the bargain. Initially, Maddie resents how the townsfolk seem to close ranks around the memory of a psycho murdering housewife over a waitress who only slept around, and oblivious Mick unintentionally enrages Maddie by saying how maybe "that waitress" drove a put-upon woman too far.

Following the "same but different" theme, the drama and tension come from how both protagonists learn the uselessness of blaming and finger pointing - but at different stages in the story. This leads to why I personally wasn't bothered by the fact that Maddie continues to hide her true identity from Mick until the end. Maddie learns pretty quickly that she has no real reason to hate Mick or Meg, especially once she learns their upbringing wasn't that different from her own. All of them became orphans that night, 29 years ago. Her unexpected and growing empathy for the Hennessys helps to her open up emotionally about the death of her mother and paves the way for her developing affection for Mick.

While Maddie's empathy leads to love, for Mick, the development is reversed - he learns to love Maddie first, before he knows her connection to his past. Because of that, when the inevitable Big Reveal comes, and his wrongheaded desire to bury the past makes him do Typical 11th Hour Stupid Things, it's too late for him to throw Maddie in the closet along with all of his other skeletons.

So, with all the good, there is some not-so-good. Rachel Gibson devotes an annoyingly large amount of time touting the Smug Marrieds from her previous books (complete with unnecessary story infodumps) as well as the sequel-baiting characters who haven't gotten books yet. I just found these segments uninteresting and intrusive. As well, the secondary romance seemed undercooked and unnecessary - it takes places over two measly scenes.

Still, despite these flaws, this is a solid book that, even with the darkness of the conflict, still allows for fantastic banter (like how Mick adores Maddie's food-flavoured bubblebaths), humour, and believable romance.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Snowfall at Willow Lake," by Susan Wiggs

The Chick: Sophie Bellamy. Formerly a hard-line prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, a hostage crisis re-arranges her priorities and she flies back to the U.S. to be closer to her family.
The Rub: Despite all her good intentions, she might still be too late to be the ideal mother to the children she left behind when she pursued her career in Europe.
Dream Casting: Robin Wright.

The Dude: Noah Shepherd. A studly veterinarian, he should be the town catch - except that he's an unabashed nerd with Peter Pan syndrome.
The Rub: He really, really likes the sexy Sophie, despite her protests, but he also longs for a family full of children - can he really expect that of Sophie who's already having trouble with her own kids?
Dream Casting: Mark Ruffalo.

The Plot:

Sophie: Despite my job's fame and contributions to world peace, I wish I could see my kids!

Terrorists: This is a hostage situation! *defeated* Wait, no it's not.

Sophie: Perfect excuse! I'm coming home, kids!

Noah: Hey, you're pretty. What's you here for?

Sophie: To martyr myself for my kids because I'm a selfish human being whose pathetically empty life is full of regret!

Noah: Hawt.

Sophie: Wait - we can't!

Noah: Why?

Sophie: I'm not ready! You're too young! I can't have kids! Pick one, and let's run with it! Better yet, let's go with all three!

Noah: ... okay. S'cool. Let's get married.

Sophie: WTF? Oh who am I kidding. HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Perfectly Perfect Studly Nerd Vegetarian Vet

1 Martyr-y Ex-Diplomat

2 Precocious Older Children

1 Puppy

Several Nasty Hockey Moms

The Word: In a word, "m'eh." Well, maybe I should elaborate. Taking this up after the snoozetastic Stolen Fury, at least Snowfall at Willow Lake (the penultimate book in my RITA Reading Challenge) is a pleasant "m'eh." For the most part, it's a nicely told, comforting read, but it's also really obvious that this novel is a later book in a huge series, with half-described recurring characters who are probably welcome sights to regular readers of Wiggs but leave newbies like me a little bored and unimpressed.

Heck, even the protagonists, while pleasant to read about, left me a little bored and unimpressed.

Noah Shepherd is driving through a hellish snowstorm in Avalon, New York, on the way back from delivering an animal patient when he comes across a car that slid into a ditch after hitting a deer. The car's driver, a beautiful, sophisticated blond woman, seems to be mostly unhurt but when she notices the blood from a minor cut on her knee, she has an intense nervous reaction and blacks out.

Noah couldn't be happier. A born romantic who's been dumped one too many times for being nerdy and committing, he sees this as the perfect opportunity to play the White Knight. He carries the unconscious woman to his home/clinic, and once she comes to, he sews her up and offers her a place to stay the night, as the snow's too deep to really go anywhere.

Unfortunately, the woman - while pleased, flattered, and comforted by Noah's attentions - isn't looking for a relationship. Sophie Bellamy used to be one of the top-ranked prosecutors of the International Criminal Court in Holland, whose actions sent many dictators and war criminals to prison. At her job, she made a difference, she changed lives - and in her last case, she actually contributed to the liberation of an African nation from a bloody dictatorship. However, the strenuous nature of her work left little time for her children back in America, who had to make due with visits and e-mails while mummy got warlords convicted.

When some of those warlords started a massacre at a celebratory function and took Sophie hostage, after she escaped (physically) unscathed, she decided to right the wrongness in her life, and the wrongness she inflicted on her children when she took herself so far away from them to further her career. So now she's unemployed in Avalon, New York, desperate to mend fences with son Max (12) and daughter Daisy (19), and become the mother they should have had all along.

The novel continues on from here, and it's nice enough, and certainly has moments of realism (like how Max and Daisy aren't immediately willing to drop everything and suddenly believe their mother's home to stay), but everything feels kind of hazy and undefined.

Part of that is because there's a great deal of telling over showing in this book. We're told about certain aspects of the protagonists, and yet it never really enters into how they act. Frankly, Noah is the Perfect Boyfriend. He's shy, he's gentle, he doesn't eat meat, he's an Iron Man champion, he's in a garage band, he loves animals. He is perfect in every way. He's the Mary Poppins of lovers, the Man That Man In the Old Spice Commercial Could Smell Like.

At the beginning we're told that his girlfriends dumped him because he acts like a teenage boy, and Wiggs describes his stereo system and video games and his gym, but Noah never really embodies this immature image in any of his dialogue or actions around Sophie, so the supposed "flaws" in his perfect God of Sex, Healer of Animals, Flexer of Abs image don't really pose any obstacle to the romance until the very, very end.

Sophie was both more understandable, and less sympathetic. She's really the protagonist of Snowfall at Willow Lake, because she's much more developed. I understood her struggles with guilt and regret that she wasn't the perfect super-mum to her kids. I understood her reluctance towards a relationship with Noah thanks to the feeling she doesn't deserve any time to herself that could be spent on her estranged children instead. I understood how she felt she was between a rock and a hard place, with the former coworkers who think she's crazy for choosing to raise her kids instead of liberate nations, and the clique-y hockey moms who look down their self-righteous noses at her for gallivanting about Europe instead of staying home.

At the same time, though, she's depressing to the point of being pathetic. She's whiny, mopey, passive and a martyr who has to be tricked and manipulated through every stage of her relationship with Noah. And she's this way before the hostage situation, too - continually guilt-ridden and full of self-loathing that her kids are too far away to see her win a medal for world-saving.

I expected a hot-shot lawyer who's faced down warlords to have a little more spine. I get that she feels she has to bend over backwards for her kids, but for some reason her mopeyness renders her weak in nearly every other situation, too, not just the ones involving her children. She no longer stands up for herself. She gets taunted by the hockey moms. Bullied by her parents. Patiently led along the primrose path by Noah, whose attraction to Sophie is never satisfactorily explained. It's easy to see why someone would love Sex Vet Extraordinaire, but what does he find so appealing about Sophie in the first place?

That being said, she wasn't an awful character, just a frustrating one who insisted on defying her HEA for as long as possible for martyrish reasons. The entire book is competently written. I liked the setting of Avalon New York, and while the sequel baiting is a little awkward, it's never shoved down your throat. Wiggs also gives the novel a strong supporting cast - Sophie's children, her coworkers, and Noah's friends are all fully drawn. If you're a Wiggs fan who's read the entire series up to this point, I think you might like this book. Those new to Wiggs might want to start with an earlier book and work their way to this one.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"Stolen Fury," by Elisabeth Naughton

The Chick: Dr. Lisa Maxwell. After years of searching for a rare trio of Greek artefacts, she finds the first of three Furies in a cave and thinks she's finally in the money.
The Rub: Her luck takes a turn for the worse when her Fury is stolen after a botched one-night stand.
Dream Casting: A short-haired Nicole Kidman.

The Dude: Rafe Sullivan. He's willing to do whatever it takes to get his hands on those Furies in order to ensure his mother spends her last months of life in peace - even if it involves seducing, drugging and stealing from a respected archaeologist.
The Rub: When she's not unconscious thanks to the application of his roofies, Lisa's pretty hot stuff.
Dream Casting: Javier Bardem.

The Plot:

Lisa: Hurray! I found an ancient Greek artefact!

Rafe: *drugs her* *steals the Fury* Yoink!

Lisa: CURSES! Give it back!

Rafe: Let's be partners instead!

Lisa: I know he's a thief and a liar, but he's so darn sexy, why not trust him?

Rafe: I want the Furies for myself, but she's so darn sexy, why not let her tag along?

Evil Shady People: We want the Furies too!

Guns: Bang! Bang!

Several Lesser, Shady People: *die*

Lisa: I'm too old for this shit. I don't even want the damn Furies anymore.

Rafe: How about a huge gorgeous engagement ring instead?

Lisa: SCORE! I mean, HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Roguish Thief

1 Intrepid Archaeologist with a Sad Past

Several Lacklustre Romantic Rivals in Various Stages of Health and Skeeziness

2 Annoying Little Brothers

2 Unpleasant Irish Dads

1 Sequel-Baiting BFF

3 Greek Artefacts

1 Use of Roofies

1 Crazy Bitch with an Unreasonable Vendetta

Several Moral Grey Areas

The Plot:
At first, I was just going to centre this review around how boring this book was, how I only wanted to read it as part of my RITA Challenge (it's nominated for both Best Romantic Suspense and Best First Novel), and how I gave in the urge to skim at around page 139. However, as I kept reading, I noticed something else - I was annoyed by the protagonists and their shifty moral attitudes.

Which is pretty odd timing - yesterday, heated debates erupted on Twitter regarding the so called "Moral Brigade" running All About Romance. One of their reviewers gave a negative grade to Victoria Dahl's A Little Bit Wild, taking the author to task for a heroine the reviewer neither liked nor understood because she was brazenly sexual. Which made me question - how do morals fit into fiction, and the reception of fiction?

I mean, how come some authors can totally get away with assassin heroes (Robin Hobb), treasonous and incestuous heroes (George R R Martin), Dukes of Slut heroes (Lisa Kleypas), and prostitute heroines (Mary Balogh) - and yet in books like this one I can't get over the morally ambiguous attitudes of our protagonists? I'll try to explore my reaction as I go.

1. Maybe it's because this was one of the only interesting aspects of Stolen Fury.

This is my first romantic suspense, a genre I wasn't really excited to explore in the first place. Our heroine, Dr. Lisa Maxwell, is on the hunt for the Furies - a near-legendary collection of three Greek reliefs. When she discovers one of the long-lost Furies while spelunking in a Jamaican cave, she thinks she's hit the jackpot. Still buzzing from her victory high, she succumbs to a one-night stand with a sexy Latino stranger.

This sexy Latino stranger, real name Rafe Sullivan, promptly drugs her (after an intense makeout session), and steals the Fury for himself. When an outraged Lisa comes after him, he says the only way she has any hope of getting her first Fury back is to team up with him and help find the third (unbeknownst to Lisa, Rafe already possesses the second). Of course, given the Furies' priceless nature, several nastier people also want to get their hands on the Furies and are willing to do very nasty things to make sure no one gets in their way.

What follows is a story that's 60% plot, and 40% redundant lust speak. There's nothing wrong with establishing the characters are attracted to each other, but you don't have to keep repeating this over and over. It's a romance - attraction is a given. Move on with the plot please!

Neither the plot nor the characters particularly grabbed me either - don't get me wrong, nothing about this book was terribly done, but it all seemed so rote. Like the author hits all the right notes and has all the needed material but there's no life behind it. Everything seemed routine. Damaged heroine who doesn't believe in love? Check. Rakish hero who hides a chewy marshmallow centre? Check. Hot sequel-baiting BFFs and siblings? Check.

2. None of the characters ever really acknowledge or care that what they're doing is wrong, even to the very end.

Maybe that's it. When characters are flawed, I expect a bit of acknowledgment that what they're doing is, well, flawed. It doesn't have to be the characters themselves. Not everyone can be that self-aware, but their interactions with other characters, the dialogue, and the situations should indicate to the reader that this isn't the norm. Or if not, then I like the characters to evolve into an awareness of their actions with the progression of the plot, to the point where they can either continue that way (and become a villain), or improve (remaining a hero).

Throughout the novel, Lisa rails against Rafe for being a thief. She definitely has a reason for this - waking up to a roofie-hangover and an empty safe will do that to a gal. But this supposedly "respected" archaeologist is herself a thief - in fact, in the very first chapter, we read how her acquisition of the first Fury involves trespassing on private property and smuggling the Fury to prevent it from being claimed by the Jamaican government and landing her in jail for ten years. Lisa claims she doesn't take well to "unsolicited advice." What? You mean like federal laws? I kept hearing Indiana Jones growling "It belongs in a museum" in my head.

She demonstrates a continual apathy towards the illegal way she obtained the Fury in the first place, only really acknowledging it's illegal when someone steals it from her and she realizes she can't go to the cops. This really made me question her ethics as an archaeologist - you'd think cultural ownership of antiquities would be a major issue in her line of work. In the end, she relinquishes the Furies, but not because she stole them in the first place. And she doesn't turn her Fury over to Jamaica - she sells it to a gallery owner who has no problem displaying stolen pieces. Um, what?

Yes, Rafe's own thievery is acknowledged, but police officer Hailey, a secondary character (and heroine of Stolen Seduction, the last novel in this trilogy), fills Lisa in on how she caught and arrested Rafe for breaking and entering and then chose to hide the evidence and get Rafe cleared in order to spite her rich, overbearing father. Lisa doesn't bat an eye. Nope, nothing at all wrong about a police officer completely abusing the ethics of her profession and obstructing justice because she has daddy issues! Nothing at all!

3. What acknowledgment there is, is always accompanied by very weak justifications that aren't consistent with the character development.

Whenever the novel really confronts the ambiguity of the characters, it's usually followed by a reason that doesn't really cut it, at least with me. Rafe's main reason for going after the Furies is to get enough cash for his terminally-ill mother to spend her last few months in luxury. I can sort of understand this, but we learn that Rafe isn't exactly in dire financial straights - his business partner is rolling in money.

Furthermore, we soon learn his day job is acquiring rare pieces and antiquities for his BFF's gallery, which involves negotiating with those who are willing to sell and outright stealing pieces from those who aren't. Oh, but Rafe only steals from stupid rich people who don't really care about art and only refuse to sell because they're snobs - and they usually don't even notices the pieces are missing. Sorry, but you have to be pretty darn stupid not to realize that your exceedingly rare and expensive antiquity is missing, so Rafe's "excuse" for his occupation doesn't fly with me. Rafe steals art. He's been stealing art for years. He steals art and then gives it to a gallery for his BFF Peter (hero of the sequel, Stolen Heat) to get disgustingly rich off of. Explain to me the Robin-Hood-esque nature of that, please.

As for Lisa, she spends most of the novel believe she's "earned" the Furies because of the suffering she experienced at the hands of her cold archaeologist boyfriend while he searched for them. I'm sorry, but you're not entitled to violate federal and international laws because your life sucks. To be fair, the novel implicitly suggests her mindset's a little skewed when the deus ex machina villain shows up with almost the exact same motivation.

So how is this different from the other rogues and scoundrels in fantasy and romance literature? And how is this different from the AAR reviewer who disliked A Little Bit Wild because of her own moral reaction to it? I have to say, I don't entirely know. I think my biggest objection is that the characters don't improve or develop off their flaws, nor are they really developed in any real depth in the first place.

Our protagonists, the "good guys," don't reach the end of the novel having learned not to steal art, or to respect the ethical standards of their chosen professions - something that comes across as incredibly out of character. I'd feel the same way about a doctor heroine who dispenses sub-par care to a patient because he's a criminal. This tips this down from a C+ into a flat-out C.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Links for RWA 2010!

Oh, Blogging National - you were so cool. In 2008 and 2009 I could go to one blog and see the posts of dozens of other blogs all about the same thing: the RWA National Conference. Unfortunately, due to low readership, Blogging National won't be doing the same thing this year. It's a shame, because for the last couple of years it was a fantastic resource for armchair writing enthusiasts like to me to find out more about the conference beforehand (as I did for the 2009 conference by reading the posts from the 2008 conference), or to reminisce about the great time I had in D.C.

I've decided to try and pick up some of the slack by having a Mr. Linky page dedicated to all things RWA. Are you blogging about RWA 2010? Do you know someone who is? Get their link on down to the Mr. Linky page (in the above tab). What better way to experience RWA 2010 in the comfort of your own living room?

"His Majesty's Dragon," by Naomi Novik

The Hero: Captain William Laurence. A loyal, up-and-coming sea captain in His Majesty's Navy, Laurence's naval dreams are dashed when he wins a dragon's egg in battle and is required to bond with it - automatically enlisting him in the Aerial Corps and depriving him of all other military privileges.
The Rub: Despite his growing affection for his dragon, Temeraire, his Navy habits don't always sit well with his unconventional Corps superiors.

The Supporting Cast:

Temeraire: Awesomest Dragon In the World - a.k.a. Laurence's dragon. A particularly rare Chinese breed of dragon, and one of the only ones in Europe. Likes books and shiny things.

Captain Berkeley: An older dragon captain who trains with Laurence and Temeraire. Wuvs his dragon, Maximus.

Captain Harcourt: A rare female captain, thanks to the fact that Longwing dragon breeds only accept female riders. Wuvs her dragon, Lily.

Lieutenant Granby: Bit of an ass to Laurence in the beginning, but he learns his lesson.

Captain Roland: Another female captain. Thinks Laurence is Hot Stuff.

Captain Choiseul: French captain who defected to England. Wuvs his dragon Praecursoris.

Captain Rankin: Ass extraordinaire. Hated by everyone because he doesn't wuv his dragon, Levitas.

Fantasy Convention Checklist
Several Thousand Dragons

3 Plucky Children

3 Women In Men's Clothing

2 Nice Pieces of Dragon Jewellery

1 Traitor

1 National Hero Who Is Nevertheless An Ass

1 Dragon Instructor

1 Huge-Ass Battle

1 Secret Power

The Word:
My mother tried to get me to read Anne McCaffery's Pern series. After trying to read the first book three times, and unable to finish it each time, I finally gave up on it. My mum also suggested I read Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brien. I slogged through 100 pages before calling it quits.

Yet, despite being unable to handle either of those estimable series, when reading the start of a series hailed as a hybrid of the two, I thoroughly enjoyed it - thus, His Majesty's Dragon, first in the Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik.

Set in an alternate history where dragons and humans co-exist, Napoleon is threatening England with invasion and all of her armed forces are on alert. Will Laurence, captain of the naval ship Reliant, performs his duty for King and country by soundly defeating a dilapidated French frigate. Curious as to why such a small French ship would fight back so savagely instead of surrendering, his questions are answered when his crew discover a dragon's egg smuggled in the hold.

To Laurence's dismay, the ship's surgeon informs him the egg is close to hatching, which means someone on the ship is required to harness and take responsibility for it. A dragon left unharnessed can go feral, and England needs every dragon it can get its hands on to face Napoleon's greater draconian numbers. Unfortunately, taking responsibility for a dragon automatically enlists one in Britain's Aerial Corps, condemning one to a hard-scrabble life on society's margins, as dragons are too high-maintenance for their handlers to leave them for very long.

The crew cast lots to see who will handle the dragon, but fate trumps them all when the newly hatched reptile ignores everyone on the ship except for Laurence. Laurence is a good-hearted chap and determined to do his duty by the dragon (whom he names Temeraire after a famous ship), but he's also the gently-bred son of a lord, so the step-down in status stings quite a bit.

Laurence's status as a gentleman and his Navy upbringing set him apart when he and Temeraire are sent to Scotland for training. Here, Naomi Novik's keen grasp of setting, social history, and world-building come into play. Despite the fact that there's a clear fantasy element - dragons! - involved in the narrative, Novik still vividly conveys the early 19th-century atmosphere - not only in the setting, but in the characters' language and attitudes.

Learning how the dragons are fed and trained was fascinating - particularly how dragons are flown similar to ships - we not only have the captain riding the dragon, but midwingmen, bellmen, and riflemen as well. Novik's clever description of their ingenious dragon-riding and signalling system is brilliant, but also easy to understand.

Laurence, despite being almost too perfect (dutiful, loyal, tough but fair, quick to adapt, etc. etc.), is still a man of his time and a gentleman besides, so the haphazard, informal atmosphere of the Aerial Corps sets him ill at ease. Fastidious in his dress and manner, he's nonplussed by the Corps' need to pack light (leading to a uniformly rumpled appearance), their inclusion of women in martial matters, and the fact that many of the instructors are dragons themselves.

Nevertheless, Laurence's love and affection for his dragon grows with leaps and bounds, to the point where when he is actually offered the opportunity to leave his dragon with the Corps and return to the navy and the life he once knew, he refuses. One of the novel's lovelier elements is the great care taken with (nearly) all the dragons in the Corps - while Novik never introduces an explicit bonding or imprinting phenomenon like the Pern novels, nearly every captain shares a deep friendship with their dragon and vice versa.

Of course, as this is an introductory novel, there isn't a great deal of action, but Novik balances that out with surprisingly layered interior conflict. For example, Laurence is forced to re-evaluate his reliance on manners and his definition of what makes a gentleman, when he strikes up a tentative friendship with another rider, Captain Rankin. Still disconcerted by the relatively loosey-goosey habits of the Corps, Laurence feels comfortable around Captain Rankin, who is also a gentleman who appears to hold the social graces in as high esteem as Laurence does. However, he soon learns the man's haughty airs come at the expense of his dragon Levitas, who remains neglected and ill-cared for precisely because his captain is too busy experiencing the finer things.

I enjoyed so much of this novel - the ingenious world building, the brief but vivid moments of action, the characters both human and reptile. However, the novel's not without its rough spots. Novik's writing is disconcertingly passive, and while enough happens that I'm still engaged and entertained, her style of writing does occasionally distract from my enjoyment. As well, while protagonist Laurence is fun to read about, I kind of wish he had more flaws. He seemed almost too perfect, but I do realize this is the first book in a series and if we hate the main character we're not going to want to read the rest of the series.

That being said, this was still a hella good start to a series and I look forward to reading the next books.