Tuesday, August 31, 2010

July and August Monthly Round-Ups

Okay, so I didn't do a July round up. As you could probably tell, around the end of July I was a little busy doing inconsequential things like travelling 3000 miles and visiting publishing booksignings, and in August I was busy jobhunting and interviewing and job training. And once September rolled around, I had more things to be busy for.

Awesome Busy Thing the First:
I made the shortlist for the Best Romance Book Blog Award for Book Blogger Appreciation Week! Yay! I'm currently in the running with the lovely Smexy Books and Fiction Vixen. It's such an honour! So be sure to vote for your favourite between September 13-17th!

Awesome Busy Thing the Second:

Someone on the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal chapter of RWA mailing list posted a link to the Casablanca Authors Blogspot, where Sourcebooks editor Deb Werksman was hosting a pitching practice session. People could post their novel's pitch and a little about themselves in the comments and Ms. Werksman would offer feedback. I thought, "Why not?" and posted my pitch for The Duke of Snow and Apples.

Her response (quoted from the blog): "AnimeJune--sounds like enormous fun, please send a full submission to Leah Hultenschmidt who just joined us--she read your pitch on Dear Author and really liked it."

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! An editor asked for a FULL! A real editor! One who read my first page from when it was posted on Dear Author and remembered the title! So yeah, that's another part of the reason why I've been slow on posting. I've been spending the time polishing my entire manuscript and making sure it's properly formatted and fits with Sourcebooks' guidelines. As per my author friends' advice, I also e-mailed the agent I submitted a partial to, to let her know where else I'd submitted.

I just submitted it yesterday so, until I receive a response, I am no longer working on The Duke of Snow and Apples. Done. Finito. Now I'm going to spend my writing time focusing on writing the sequel, Lord of Dreams. So excited!

Awesome (Not So Busy) Thing the Third:

Finally passed my driver's test. Third time's the charm, it seems - I failed twice before for "committing an unsafe act" but the streets were clear this time around, so now I'm free free FREE to drive (and, er, commit more unsafe acts) on a road near you!

It's odd to think that only three months ago, I had no job, no boyfriend, no license, no publisher interest in Duke, and now I have all of this. When it rains, it pours, I guess. God works in mysterious ways.

But hey - now that those things are behind me, I can go back to finishing up on my blogging backlog.

For heroines in August and July, we got:
  • 1 Motherless Journalist
  • 1 Guilt-Wracked Lawyer
  • 1 Cross-Dressing Pastry Chef
  • 1 Cross-Dressing Sailor
  • 1 Swimteam Star
  • 1 Abused Ex-Wife
  • 1 Would-Be Concubine
  • 1 Unethical Archaeologist
  • 1 Wary Widow
  • 1 Flaming Bitch
  • 1 Fake Mom
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Creepy Concubine Judge
  • 1 Roofie-Using Art Thief
  • 1 Underage Priest
  • 1 Gentleman Dragon Rider
  • 1 Vengeful Aristocrat
  • 1 Duke of Asshat
  • 1 Orphaned Bar Owner
  • 1 Vegetarian Veterinarian
  • 1 Gay Superhero
  • 1 Seasick Lawyer
  • 1 Convicted Murderer
  • 1 Half-Asian Bad Boy
For Plot Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love him! He won me in a card game!"
  • "I can't love him! I'm deeply in love with and committed to the boy I slept with and talked to only once!"
  • "I can't love her! I literally killed a man - albeit not with a trident."
  • "I can't love him! I must become Empress of all China!"
  • "I can't ride a dragon! My gentlemanly clothes will get all wrinkled!"
  • "I can't get my ship back! My dad gave it to my idiot sister!"
  • "I can't get my ship back. Again. Because now some sexy evil pirate has it!"
  • "I can't love her! She - she date-married me!"
  • "I can't love her! She smiles and expresses emotion like a normal person! How vulgar!"
  • "I can't love him! He drugged me and stole the MacGuffin that I, in turn, stole from the nation of Jamaica!"
  • "I can't be a superhero! My anti-super dad learning I'm gay will be bad enough!"
  • "I can't love him! I'm too busy bending over backwards for my neglected kids!"
  • "I can't love him! His mother killed my mother!"
For Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 3 Stolen National Treasures
  • Several Uses of Roofies
  • 1 Piece of Dragon Bling
  • 7 Quizzing Glasses
  • 1 Sarcastic Charm Bracelet
  • 1 Superhero Porn Site
  • 1 Poisoned Dessert

*August Pick* Re-Read Review: Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb. A+
Pros: Astounding worldbuilding, layered narrative, well-developed protagonists, thrilling adventure, hot pirate antiheroes.
Cons: Eh. I got nothing.

*August Pick* Re-Read Review: Mad Ship, by Robin Hobb: A+
Pros: New characters, new conflicts, bitchy teens finding redemption, dragons, sea serpents, and crazy emo ships.
Cons: Zip. Really can't come up with any.

Slightly Dangerous, by Mary Balogh. A
Pros: Lives up to character hype. Excellent opposites-attract romance. Sneaky-surprising villain. Good conclusion to a seven-book series.
Cons: Pacing is a wee bit slow. Emotionally liked it but didn't love it.

His Majesty's Dragon, by Naomi Novik. A-
Pros: Dragons! Yay! Super-nice hero. Spectacular world-building.
Cons: Hero is a bit too nice. Pacing drags a bit. Passive writing style.

Tangled Up In You, by Rachel Gibson. B+
Pros: Dark, well-handled storyline. Good characterization. Excellent exploration of themes.
Cons: Prequel baggage galore.

Hero, by Perry Moore. B+
Pros: Fantastic characterization. Subversive humour. Great father-son bond.
Cons: Grotesquely violent third act jars with the rest of the novel's tone.

A Not-So-Perfect Past, by Beth Andrews. B+
Pros: Original premise. Well-developed and unique heroine. Hawt convict hero.
Cons: Bit of a rushed ending. Not enough delving into hero's not-so-perfect past.

Tempting Torment, by Jo Goodman. B
Good conflict and use of setting. Lovely writing style.
Cons: Slow pacing. Unnecessary villain. Ridiculous short story at the end.

Forget You, by Jennifer Echols. B
Pros: Good characterization. Nice atmosphere.
Cons: Major romantic obstacle is heroine's flimsy denial. Inconsistent pacing.

Never Resist Temptation, by Miranda Neville. B-
Pros: Smart hero. Interesting Mommy Issues. Legitimately tough situation.
Cons: Poorly-constructed revenge plot. Heroine occasionally TSTL.

Snowfall At Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs. B-
Pros: Good secondary cast. Interesting story. Good setting.
Cons: Too Perfect To Be True Hero. Weak doormat martyr heroine. Telling over showing.

Stolen Fury, by Elisabeth Naughton. C
Pros: Not-terrible writing. Some decent action.
Cons: Boring storytelling, unethical protagonists.

*August Dud* The Concubine, by Jade Lee. C-
Pros: Original historical setting. Good worldbuilding.
Cons: Lamely-written heroine. Date rape love scene.

Other Things I Read and Reviewed:

Movie Review: Aquamarine. C-
Pros: Sarah Paxton as a mermaid is bright and sparkly.
Cons: The actual story is about two mentally unstable weirdo shut-in teens who stalk an innocent teenage boy.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Re-Read Review: "Mad Ship," by Robin Hobb

*Warning: Ship of Magic Spoilers Ahead*

The Principal Cast:

Althea Vestrit: Still determined to claim The Vivacia, her family liveship, as her own - only now she has to rescue it from pirates. Also, to her surprise, she finds herself the lynchpin of a love triangle.

Wintrow Vestrit: He gambles with fate to save his life and that of his father when he develops a shaky alliance with Captain Kennit. Develops crush on Kennit's ho, Etta.

Captain Kennit: Still recovering from failing to keep his arms and legs in the boat at all times, he's nevertheless determined to woo Vivacia to his cause - even if it means manipulating the jealousy between Vivacia and his ho-for-show Etta.

Vivacia: The sentient liveship of the Vestrit family, she's swiftly becoming a rabid Kennit fangirl.

Malta Vestrit: Slutty, selfish, manipulative, and possibly evil thirteen-year-old niece of Althea who struggles with her family's declining fortunes and her unwitting betrothal to Rain Wild Trader Reyn.

The Supporting Cast:

Brashen Trell: Former shipmate of Althea who's totally in love with her - but is he willing to clean up his act for her?

Reyn Khuprus: A mysterious member of a wealthy Rain Wild Trader family who's in love with Malta (Heaven knows why) - marrying him could set her up for life, but how much does she really know about him?

Etta: Kennit's GF, a former whore with a sharp tongue who dotes on Kennit but develops a fondness for Wintrow.

Grag Tenira: First mate and heir of the liveship Ophelia, he thinks Althea is the bee's knees and he's from a wealthy, upstanding Trader family to boot. What's not to like?

Paragon: A crazed liveship, abandoned by his Trader family, he only wants to be left alone - but he just might be the only one capable of rescuing Vivacia from pirates.

Maulkin, Sessurea, Shreever: Part of a tangle of sea serpents who are trying to discover why their kind are losing their memories, and what their ultimate destiny is supposed to be.

Fantasy Convention Checklist:

1 Pissy Charm Bracelet

Several Psychic Connections

1 Love Triangle

1 Unfortunate Knife Fight

1 Bad Dad

2 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

1 Angry Dragon

The Word: In this sequel to Ship of Magic, to quote Martin Lawrence: "Shit just got real." At the end of the last book, thanks to Captain Kennit and a slave uprising, the sentient liveship Vivacia ended up in the hands of pirates and most of her crew was killed. However, Kennit is dying, thanks to a poisoned leg that was gnawed off by a sea serpent. In a bid to save his father's life, Wintrow offers to heal Kennit with his priest training. However, by the end of it, pirate, boy, and ship wind up enmeshed in a bond none of them expected, revealing that Kennit's and Wintrow's pasts aren't so different.

Meanwhile, back in Bingtown, Wintrow's sister Malta learns about real life the hard way. Fed up with her family's poverty and horrible old-fashionedness, she longs for when her dashing father will return, replenish the Vestrit finances, and punish her cruel mother and grandmother for not treating her like the beautiful, pampered princess she is. When the news of Vivacia's capture reaches Bingtown, the Vestrit family is devastated. The idea that Malta's father might never come back, that her family might never regain their high status and luxury, forces her to re-examine her priorities with painful results.

Althea, having returned from a successful voyage aboard the liveship Ophelia, decides to mend fences with her family when she hears the news. She still wants to claim Vivacia as her own, especially now that she finally has the proof she needs to get her back, but she realizes that a united front is the best chance the Vestrits have of getting Trader support to rescue their ship.

In the midst of all this crisis, Brashen Trell, onetime friend and lover of Althea, comes up with a possible plan. It's unorthodox, it's dangerous, and it involves the despised, maddened lifeship Paragon, but it just might work. However, if he wants to be taken seriously (particularly by Althea, for whom he still carries a ginormous flaming torch), that'll mean taking responsibility, thinking ahead, and dealing with his drug addiction.

If the last book was about how the characters learn they have a lot of growing up to do, Mad Ship is about their attempts to do so - even if not all of them have the right idea. For the first half of the book, Malta is just about intolerably evil. She is outright manipulative, hungry for attention and power, and perfectly willing to play one suitor against another if it means making her friends jealous or getting more presents.

And she's thirteen. At the start of the book, her idea of gaining respect and growing up is to act like an adult without really understanding what it means to be one. There's an hilarious and painful scene where she very overtly propositions Brashen (who's 25), who reacts with as much horror and disgust as one would expect. But once the bright bubble-dream of her father's return bursts and she realizes there's no miracle waiting in the wings to set everything to rights, Malta learns just how much her petty scheming is worth in the long run.

As for Althea, the erstwhile black sheep of the Vestrit family finally tries to fit in society and act like a proper Trader daughter, even going so far as to accept the advances of Grag Tenira, a thoughtful, kind and upstanding Trader son. A great deal of the novel deals with her struggles within a more traditional role, and her self-exploration as to why a conventional lifestyle fails to appeal to her. Her internal conflict is externalized in her relationships with Grag and Brashen. Grag is everything a woman could want in a husband - wealthy, considerate, amusing. The only problem is that Althea doesn't want Grag enough to consent to be a wife, to organize the household and raise babies while Grag gallivants at sea. Similarly, she shouldn't still be this attracted to Brashen after a single one-night stand - especially considering his tawdry past and reckless use of cindin (an addictive narcotic). However, Brashen pushes her buttons and Grag does not - so what does that say about her?

As well, Robin Hobb also reveals more about the mysterious origins of wizardwood, the silvery material zealously guarded by Rain Wild Traders who fashion it into liveships for outrageous sums. Malta's Rain Wild suitor Reyn gains firsthand knowledge of what, exactly, wizardwood is but finds few people willing to believe him. And (at least to this reader), the revelation is both startling and original.

Those of you worried about Middle-Book-Itis need not fear - it isn't so much a second book as a flawless continuation of the first. It's hard to read them both and think of them as separate books rather than one continuous narrative divided into two books, with some characters fading into the background as newer ones (like Malta and Reyn) gain precedence. As you can probably guess from my review, it's easier to separate these two books by theme than by narrative. As it is, Mad Ship is a mad-good continuation of a great series.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (and WAIT)

Yes, after nearly a month of waiting, my last box of RWA 2010 loot came in, fully intact! Ultimately, shipping my books in three flat-rate boxes cost a bit more than last year and took a bit longer so I guess I learned my lesson. But still! Loot! I won't be creeping into any more book stores for a long time after this. Aren't they pretty?

In other news, after a long, long and incredibly spirit-draining three months of unemployment, I now have a job. A pretty kick-ass job, as a matter of fact. A job that is about a million times better than the last job I held. Good pay, fantastic benefits, a great environment, room to advance, easy transportation, my own cubicle and name plate, work that I like and am good at. The perfect job, really.

Let me tell you, being unemployed sucks. Being unemployed for three months sucks balls. Being unemployed for three months, whilst enduring dozens and dozens of job interviews and placement agency testings that shoot my hopes up only for nothing to come of them, sucks ZOMBIE DONKEY BALLS. I mean, I kept getting all these interviews, so I thought something about my resume must be good. But months passed and I never got hired, despite all those interviews, so the creeping paranoia set in that something must be wrong with me. Something I didn't know about. Something about my interview skills - was it my fashion sense? My references? Bad breath? What could it be? How could I fix it if I didn't know what it was?

Hopelessness began to set in. I felt like the loser slacker in the sitcoms who still lives with her parents and can't get a job. I no longer felt excited about interviews - no, that's not true. I still felt excited when I got to the interview and it seemed to go well and the company seemed great, but I couldn't afford to get my hopes up afterward. I couldn't understand what God's plan for me was.

Now, of course, I know what God's plan was. I went for an interview at the Dream Job. By this point, I'd been to so many interviews I was no longer nervous about answering tough questions like What I Felt My Weaknesses Were, and now knew better than to head into an interview without researching the company first. I could easily recite the well-worn stories about going above and beyond for a client, how my previous job experience was relevant to the current job posting, how I felt communication was my primary problem solver.

But my expectations? Lower than low. This company was too good, too professional. I'd been refused a job in a mailroom. Chapters hadn't even called me back, and they were retail! I'd speed-typed my way through seven different placement agencies with no results. It was obvious I would have to work temp work or for some small, one-room office operation or call centre.

The next day, I got a call from my mum while I was at a festival with my friend. The Dream Job wanted me to call them back. I dared to hope - just a little. Something to look forward to before the very nice regional manager gave me the inevitable "thought I'd let you know that unfortunately we've gone with another candidate" speech. I called them back.

I got the job. THE job. The dream job. The manager said, "I want you to know that you were the first candidate we interviewed, and you made it really difficult to interview anyone else. I wanted to hire you on the spot but I thought I would give it to the end of the day just to be fair, but I knew I couldn't hold another day of interviews. I was so impressed with your skills, your knowledge, your professionalism" -- by this point, over the phone, I was somewhat belying my sense of professionalism by happy-dancing.

In hindsight, I could see Big G's plan. All those interviews, all those months of polishing and waiting and trying, it was all meant to lead up to The Dream Interview. I needed those months of attempts so that by the time I had the Dream Interview, interviewing was so ingrained in me that I could show the best part of myself without being nervous. I had to go through the hell of being interviewed and passed over for crapshoot, poorly-paid jobs I didn't really want (except to pay the bills) in order to be ready to ace the interview for the job I really wanted.

So now I'm hired, and I just had my first day of work today. The office is full of a lot of great people and while there is a lot to learn (and I mean a lot), it's all work that I really like. It's a place where I can really build a career and make a lot of friends - it's definitely not the dead-end, pay-the-bills-until-I'm-published kind of deal I thought I'd eventually have to settle for.

So I'm really looking forward to working my ass off!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Preconception Dilemma

I've dealt with preconceptions about book stories before. There have been times, in the past, when reading the back cover blurb and the excerpt of a story have made my eyes bug out in true WTF fashion. In the last case where a story made me go "oh HELL naw," I checked the book out from the library to find out for myself, for as much as the story repulsed me, it also intrigued me enough to read how it would turn out.

Well, it's happened again, and with an author I've read before:
The backcover blurb (according to Book Binge:)
Pia was your typical popular girl in high school – she made friends easily, cheered on the squad, and had her share of dates with the school jocks. But she’s always had a hard time committing to something, or someone.

So when her best friend Crystal succumbs to cancer, Pia is devastated, but also shocked by the inheritance her friend has left her – her frozen embryos! Pia’s in a quandary. It’s not like she can just throw them away. But is she really capable of being responsible for another human being?

For once, Pia throws caution to the wind and decides to embrace Crystal’s legacy. But as she struggles with her decision, another complication arises that Pia is totally unprepared for. She finally meets the man of her dreams…and her life becomes more confusing than she ever thought possible.

The story made me go NO NO NO WRONG WRONG WRONG almost immediately, for a number of reasons.

First of all, I should say that my disgust at this storyline goes far, far beyond my own personal beliefs regarding abortion, whether life begins at conception, and artificial reproduction. I find I can read just about anything in a book if it's written well enough - no, the idea of someone willing someone frozen embryos after they're dead makes me squicky in so many different, equally heinous ways.

Reason the First: While I'll admit that it's a pretty unique and complicated take on the "Unattached Person Suddenly Inherits Children" storyline (see: Raising Helen), the embryo situation makes it so much creepier and more invasive. I mean, Pia is not just tasked with raising kids, but with being impregnated with kids - three kids, to be exact - meaning she's taking on the health risks and the physical toll, too. I'm sorry, but Crystal would have to be a serious life-saving, ass-kicking friend on the level of, say, Buffy Summers, to have the sheer, unmitigated balls to feel entitled to all that.

Reason the Second: Pregnancy issues aside, Pia is an unmarried, single woman with a life and a successful career - and her dead friend Crystal presumably knew that. Soooo, Super-Bestest But Unfortunately Dead Friend Who Clearly Hopes To Compete for Heaven's Dead Mother Of the Year: you're not exactly helping your friend by making her give up her livelihood for your kids, and neither are you giving your unborn children the best future by bequeathing their babysicle selves to a person who has not been in any way prepared for them. What's your deal?

Oh wait, maybe I'm judging too harshly - this is presumably something Crystal and Pia would have discussed, as it is something that intimately concerns both Crystal's and Pia's health and reproductive futures. Pia probably just never assumed Crystal would die so suddenly and thus thought nothing of it until it was too late.

Reason the Third: What's that, Dead-of-Cancer-Crystal? Oh, you didn't tell Pia in advance of your plans? In fact, you PURPOSEFULLY CHOSE TO NOT WARN HER because you KNEW she wouldn't want to do it? Um, look around you, Crystal - is it warm where you are? Are there little red men in capes and pitchforks around you?

WHAT. THE. EFF. I haven't read an action that seemed so unbelievably selfish, manipulative and cruel for a long time.

That's right - selfish. You're dead. Your husband's dead. You are not going to be AROUND to raise any kids, thanks to a severe cancer-kick in the groin by Fate. Why the hell do you want kids so badly? It can't be for you - you'll be DEAD. Is it the immortality thing? The continuation of the line? What's the point?

I mean, I believe the kids should be born, because I've personally been raised in the belief that life starts at conception - but people who believe in artificial insemination and in-vitro, in general, don't tend to share that opinion. So I ask you yet again, what is YOUR FUCKING DEAL?

I mean, if this had been some long-held pact between Crystal and Pia that Pia had accepted without taking seriously, I could have handled that. That could have been a good story. But I read the chapter one excerpt and it makes it really clear that Crystal's character intentionally decided to bequeath her kids to Pia without giving her advance notice to prepare or refuse consent.

Am I the only one who finds that decision inherently cruel and unethical? Pia is given something of a choice over her body, but a heavily manipulated choice. Yeah, you could raise the three babies your friend gave you - or you could be a selfish dried-up shrew and Worst Friend Ever and let them DIE in a freezer. You wouldn't do that to your poor, poor, saintly, bestest-friend, cancer-victim Crystal, would you? WOULD YOU?

ARGH! Just thinking about that storyline fills me with rage. But you guys already know what that means.


I'm going to have to read this entire book to figure it out for myself, aren't I?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Tempting Torment," by Jo Goodman

The Chick: Jessica "Jessa" Winter. Desperate to protect her infant charge from his greedy, murderous relatives, she arranges a marriage between herself and a mortally-wounded, comatose American to win passage to the States.
The Rub: The hitch in her plan is that her mortally-wounded husband lives -- and now she must guard her secrets while stuck on a ship with him.
Dream Casting: Romola Garai.

The Dude: Noah McClellan. It's bad enough he had to come to England to check on his family's holdings, but to end up shot in the gut and married? Life sucks, no matter how pretty his so-called wife is.
The Rub: Even as he comes to love her, it's clear she's hiding something. And what the hell is he going to tell his fiancee back home?
Dream Casting: Nathan Fillion.

The Plot:

Noah: Well, hey there! Although I'm American, I'm independently wealthy and great with kids.

Jessa: Really? *lightbulb!*

Highwaymen: Stand and deliver!

Noah: *shot*

Jessa: *double lightbulb!* Is there a priest in the house?

Noah: Wow, so glad I didn't die, and was saved by a pretty lady to boot!

Jessa: Awesome. *cough* BTWwe'retotallymarried.

Noah: You BITCH. Dammit, fine, I'll take care of your baby and take you to America.

Jessa: Well you don't have to be rude - it's not like I married you against your will while you were out cold with a bullet wound you received trying to help my baby.... Oh wait.

Noah: *on ship* Huh, well, this isn't so bad.

Jessa: *cough* BTWIwasincahootswiththerobberswhoshotyou.

Noah: You BITCH! Fine. Whatevs. I like your kid and you're pretty. Let's have sex.

Jessa: How dare you want to have sex with me! It's not like we're married and ... oh wait. Well, it's not like I was the one who suggested the people in the carriage hide their goods in my baby's diaper so I could run off with them and the highwaymen helping me ... Oh. Crap.

Noah: *drunker* Let's have sex.

Jessa: Okay, fine. *cough*BTWI'mavirginandmybaby'snotreallymine.


Jessa: You're such a meanie! It's not I lied about my entire background, my sexual history, and my baby's identity, in such a way that makes my affection for you look fake and calculating ... oh. Dammit!

Noah: FINE FINE FINE, damn it all! Let's go meet my family! *cough*BTWI'minlovewithyou.

Jessa: Really? HOO--

Evil Bitchy Rival and Vengeful Rapist: I'mma steal your baby, bitch!

Noah: Oh no you won't!

Rival and Rapist: *defeated*

Noah: Now, the book's over.

Jessa: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Fortuitous Bullet Wound

1 Unwitting Marriage

1 Precocious Infant

1 Boob Flash for Great Justice

2 Eeeeevil Guardians

1 Would-Be Rapist

Several Stolen Items

Lots and LOTS of Prequel Baggage

1 SuperBitch Ho Rival

The Word:
You know you're reading a Jo Goodman book when a plot to murder a baby is considered a "lighter" plotline. The previous books of hers I've read (The Price of Desire and If His Kiss Is Wicked) have a lot of darkness (rape, incest and assault kinds of darkness) and from what I've heard of fans of hers, a lot of her novels (at least her recent ones) tend to be pretty heavy in general. While this isn't my favourite book of hers, it's definitely still a pleasant read, even if some parts are difficult to swallow.

Our hero and heroine meet in a crowded coach on its way to London. Noah, an American lawyer in England to look over his in-laws' holdings, gains Jessa's approval by demonstrating an almost instant rapport with her crying baby, Gideon. En route, however, highwaymen attack the coach and force Jessa and Gideon from the vehicle. While reaching into his pocket for something to quiet Gideon's cries, Noah spooks one of the robbers, who shoots him, before forcing the rest of the coach to drive on without them.

It turns out Jessa's actually in league with the robbers, and her widow-with-a-child identity was meant to separate the travellers from their goods (by convincing them to hide their valuables in Gideon's blankets under the logic that robbers never look there) without resorting to actual violence. However, she feels horribly guilty that Noah got hurt and takes him back to her friend's cottage, where she and Gideon are hiding from more insidious villains than the authorities.

Jessa's not actually Gideon's mother, although she loves him like one. No, in fact her baby is actually the recently orphaned heir to a vast and wealthy estate. Jessa, his nanny, learned his unscrupulous guardians were planning an "unfortunate accident" for him, in order to take his inheritance for themselves, so she snatched the child and enough documents to prove his identity and fled. Ideally, Jessa hopes that travelling to America will free Gideon from his relatives' murderous clutches until he's old enough to claim his birthright. But how to get there? Robbing people doesn't pay that well.

On top of that, it looks like her brief descent into highway robbery might end up killing Noah when he's overtaken by fever. However, that does give Jessa's dim and morally-challenged accomplice Mary an idea: Noah clearly has powerful and wealthy relatives in the area. A fictional widow might not have the means to get to America on her own, but Noah McClellan's widow might. Although Jessa's understandably reluctant, she knows that leaving the continent is the only way to protect Gideon, so she rounds up a drunken vicar and has a quickie marriage ceremony. Noah even emerges temporarily from his fugue to mutter something that sounds like "I do."

However, those are far from Noah's last words, and Jessa finds herself in a bit of a pickle when Noah recovers, and is about as far as you can get from Pleased without tipping over into Murderous Rage. And who can really blame him - especially when he has a fiancee waiting for him back home in Virginia? While his impulse is to abandon the mercenary schemer (and this is one of the few situations in which the jump to this conclusion's pretty understandable), Jessa feeds him a sob story, truth evenly mixed with lies, about Gideon's fate that tweaks Noah's conscience enough to accept them onto his ship, although he insists on an annulment once they reach dry land.

Now, Noah spends a good 60% of this novel pissed as hell with Jessa, and expressively so, and if anyone else had written this book (Judith McNaught comes to mind), I might have thrown this book against the wall for the crime of being Misogynist Bullshit. Yet, the characterization, along with the plot device of forcing Noah and Jessa into close quarters for months on end, made for an entertaining, if uneven, emotional read.

The general progression of the plot is as follows: Noah rails against Jessa and the freedom that's been taken from him, then he mans up and tries to be nicer, only to discover another one of Jessa's secrets (she has quite a few), and the cycle begins again. The almost claustrophobic nature of the setting contributed to Noah's characterization in an excellent way: Noah feels trapped. He never asked for this marriage, and even as he begins to fall for Jessa, he resents his feelings because the ultimate choice has been taken from him. And as he discovers more about Jessa that she's hiding, it's like a noose tightening around his neck - now, he's not only trapped and in love with a woman, but trapped and in love with a woman who doesn't appear to trust or love him back. His rage and frustration are palpable, even when he uses them in hurtful words against Jessa.

Yup, call me a Bad Feminist, but I found Jessa the harder character to tolerate. She married a guy she thought would die, he didn't - but miracle of miracles, not only is he not a Wife-Beating Pedophile Rapist, but he's willing to take her to America just like she wanted. A reasonable woman in her position would be spending too much time thanking her lucky stars and taking care of her endangered baby to be overly sensitive about a few brutish remarks. You've won the lottery, Jessa, so stop bitching that your prize money's in small bills.

But oh, no, she moans and rails about how Noah is such an unfair brutish beast for saying such nasty things to her. I get that this means she's supposed to have spirit, but she's not doing all this for herself, she's doing it for Gideon - so mouthing off to her unwilling-but-unusually-tolerant meal ticket makes her look shortsighted at best, and downright stupid at worst.

However, as much as I disliked her complaining about a situation that's her fault to begin with, Jessa's not without depth and her mission to save Gideon is pretty selfless. So yeah, she's understandable - not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but understandable. Problems arise when Noah realizes that as her legal husband, he's entitled to legal sex. Helloooo, sexy silver lining! However, Jessa realizes that any boat-rockin' with Noah is bound to expose the fact that she's a virgin - which really puts a damper on the story that Gideon's her son. Here, the plot at last takes off and the emotional tension ratchets up. Both characters realize by now that they like the other, but Jessa's as unwilling to expose her secret as Noah is to reveal his vulnerability, and their frustrated impasse makes for great reading.

Tempting Torment was first published in 1989, and this makes me wonder how much of its oddities were more common back then. One thing I noticed with this novel is that Jo Goodman changes POV a lot, without warning, among characters both minor and major, and often within the same scene. While it was tough getting used to at first, I found I enjoyed the snippets I learned from surrounding characters. They added depth and perspective to an otherwise ordinary scene.

However, while I enjoyed the characterization, the emotional drama, and the story, Tempting Torment still has to struggle with abysmal pacing. This novel is 453 pages long (not counting the short story at the end), but the story is stretched out to an absurd degree by multiple elements:

1) the long (and frequently unnecessary) sex scenes,
2) ridiculous amounts of prequel baggage and,
3) an unnecessary villain.

The fact that Tempting Torment is apparently the last in the McClellan series partially explains problems 2 and 3, but number 1 really spoils my cheese. Some of the sex scenes are quite necessary to the story and the development of the characters (particularly the accidental deflowering scene), but just as many are the narratively useless, tedious and cheesy Look How Happy We Are sex scenes, plopped in during a moment of inactivity to show us just how in love our protagonists are (something that the author's already spent 300 pages showing us) instead of moving the plot along.

And that doesn't mean that 2 and 3 aren't just as bad. Concerning number 2, Goodman wastes valuable pages introducing us to all the characters of the previous books and Every. LAST. ONE. of their pukey-perfect-progeny - all of whom are adowable, cutesy, and completely uninteresting. And of course, it's not enough to be introduced to them, no, they all have to be interfering meddlers, every last one of them, because they're just so darn wacky that way! Ugh. Spare me.

And, Number 3 - we have the unnecessary villain, Noah's jilted fiancee Hilary Bowen. Her appearance stretches the story far past the narrative's best-before date, and Noah and Jessa are practically in their epilogue before she strikes. We do have necessary villains in this book - Gideon's evil relatives, for example - but why did we need the story padded an extra hundred pages to accommodate Hilary?

Again, this may be attributed to prequel baggage since from the way she's described, Hilary Bowen appeared several times in the previous books, where she generally acted like a Big Giant Ho-Bitch. Yet somehow Noah has no idea that she's a Big Giant Ho-Bitch, and his obliviousness is so inpenetrable that the reason he was sent to England in the first place was his family's attempt to keep him away from the Big Giant Ho-Bitch until someone better came along.

And Hilary doesn't even deliver. She talks big but is remarkably inept at bringing her schemes to fruition and her presence just makes the ending that much messier.

So, all in all? Tempting Torment is an uneven book - it's generally enjoyable, because Jo Goodman writes good drama and great characters, but poorly paced and unnecessarily padded.
And speaking of unnecessary padding, at the end of Torment, I found a tacked-on short story concerning the next McClellan generation called "Tidewater Promise," which made the novel itself look like an A+ in comparison and made me think pretty dark thoughts:

"Tidewater Promise," by Jo Goodman.
The Chick: Courtney McClellan. Indecisive and self-centred ditz.
The Rub: Stupid, selfish, silly, and incapable of recognizing the equally-silly Cameron for the mancandy he is.

The Dude: Cameron Prescott. The ship's boy from Tempting Torment, all growed up. Favourite hobby: handing his balls over to Courtney anytime she asks for him.
The Rub: He would really like Courtney to hold his balls in a less-than-metaphorical way.

The Plot:

Courtney: I'm an idiot! Help me find a man, Cameron!

Cameron: Um, I'm a man.

Courtney: Tee-hee, I mean a real man!

Cameron: Wow, you are an idiot!

Courtney: You're MEAN. And I somehow find that attractive. I've decided we're in love and should be married. Okay with you?

Cameron: Um, wh--

Courtney and the Other McClellans: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

Oodles of Prequel Baggage

3 Broken Engagements

1 Attempted Boat Theft

The Word: I hate to say this, but stories like this make me grateful for Jo Goodman's future dark period. As much as Kmont from Lurv a la Mode might hate this, I'd prefer romances with incest and assault and rape -- because at least Goodman gives them depth and originality -- over contrived, conventional, cliched cotton-candy drivel like this.

This story is pretty much 90% Prequel Baggage, 8% sex scene, and 2% story or character development. Courtney (daughter of Salem and Ashley from Crystal Passion) has just terminated her third engagement, on the eve of what was to be her wedding. Why? The novel never really explains - what I got is that Courtney is too much of an immature, spoiled airhead to make up her mind until the last minute. When her family expresses their (understandable) consternation at Courtney's ridiculous antics, she runs off in a huff.

And runs straight into Cameron Prescott, her childhood friend (and the ship's boy who helped Jessa in Tempting Torment), just arrived from a shipping expedition. Cameron, of course, has Loved Her From Afar, and is as Whipped as Whipped Can Be, but Courtney's head has always been too far up her own shapely ass to take notice. She doesn't want to go home and actually, y'know, accept the consequences of her actions, so she asks if she can take his boat for a sail.

When he refuses, she steals the boat because she's a First-Class Twit who confuses "Feisty" with "Moronically Selfish and Uncaring of Others." In fact, Courtney has no idea she's about to sail straight into a storm until Cameron sneaks back on the boat and tells her. Brilliant. Waiting out the storm on the boat together, however, gives both protagonists plenty of time to get drenched enough to take off their clothes, and of course, seeing one naked male chest convinces Courtney that Cameron is The One, and that they should get Married Immediately, Fuck the Engagement, because it's not like she was sure three other guys were The One until the Last Minute.

Oh, wait.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"A Not-So-Perfect Past," by Beth Andrews

The Chick: Nina Carlson. After the dissolution of her marriage to an abusive husband, Nina just wants to do the right thing, to prove to the town that she's not a failure or a victim, which is why she decides to evict her ex-con tenant.
The Rub: When a teen carjacker takes out the front of her bakery with his car, that ex-con might be the only person to help bring her store back up to snuff.Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.

The Dude: Dillon Ward. After spending five years in prison for murder, Dillon knows he's only bad news for people who want to get close to him. Nothing good can come of helping people or letting his guard down.
The Rub: Against his better instincts, he feels a need to protect the softhearted, fragile Nina - but his history with helping people's not a very successful one.Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.

The Plot:
Nina: Sorry, M-Mr. Convict Sir, but I have to evict you.

Dillon: Oh, crap.

Emo Foster Kid: *crashes car into bakery*

Nina: Oh crap, the sequel.

Dillon: I'll help you fix it.

All of Nina's Family Members and Her Asshole Ex-Husband: Oh, crap.

Nina: I think I'm in love with you.

Dillon: Oh, CRAP.

Nina's Evil Ex-Husband: Hey, loser, keep hanging out with that murderer and I'll take your kids.

Dillon: *punches*

Nina's Evil Ex-Husband's Nose: Oh crap!

Nina: Hawt. Let's date!

Dillon: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Ex-Con Hero

1 Battered Ex-Wife

1 Sister with Cold Feet

3 Precocious Children

1 Emo Teen

1 Abusive Ex-Husband
The Word:
While at the RITA Ceremony during RWA 2010, my pal SuperWendy clapped extra hard when A Not-So-Perfect Past won the RITA for Best Contemporary Series Romance. Wendy gave it a pretty high grade, herself, although she warned me that the heroine might be difficult to like in the earlier chapters. In her words, the heroine starts out as "such a doormat that her abusive husband left her." When I found a free copy of it at my public library, I decided to read it and see what all the fuss was about.

Yup, Nina Carlson is a doormat. She dropped out of college to marry Trey, a sophisticated, handsome psychologist who then spent the remainder of their marriage belittling, insulting, and slapping her around until he left her for a skinny doctor.

While ultimately she's relieved to be free of Trey and his emotional abuse, Nina's still locked pretty tightly into a victim mindset. She may not be taking any more of Trey's crap, but she no longer trusts her perception of herself and relies entirely on the opinions of others to maintain her self-image.

It's thanks to the town's and her overbearing family's insistent concerns for her well-being that she informs her tenant Dillon Ward that he has thirty days to vacate the apartment she owns. The excuse she gives is that she wants to turn the apartment (which shares a building with her bakery) into a tearoom, but the truth is that, as an ex-convict who did five years in maximum security prison for killing his stepfather, Dillon's not the town's most welcome resident.

Nina tells herself she's just doing the right thing, but her confidence is at such a low ebb that "the right thing" almost always means "what her family tells her" and not what she, herself, thinks. After all, she thought Trey would make a great husband, and look where that got her.

Dillon Ward spent his childhood trying to protect his dependent, alcoholic mother and rebellious bad-girl sister Kelsey (heroine of Andrew's previous book Not Without Her Family), until the day he caught his stepfather trying to rape her and ended the scum's life with a baseball bat. After five hard, live-changing years in prison, he keeps even his sister at arm's length and refuses to play the white knight any longer. Not that anyone in town sees him as anything but a vicious criminal.

When Nina hands him that eviction notice, he's more disappointed than angry - although he knows her "excuse" is full of shit, he knew it would have only been a matter of time before the town convinced the weak-willed "cupcake" to cut him loose. He decides to stay in town just long enough to see his sister Kelsey married to Police Chief Jack Martin before putting Serenity Springs, New York, firmly in his rear-view mirror.

However, an Angsty Foster Teen Angry At The World crashes his car into the front of Nina's bakery and changes everything. Dillon, seeing how upset Nina is, impulsively offers his carpentry assistance, only to be shot down by Nina's overprotective father, who insists on arranging for his own contractor. Nina's torn - her father's contractor won't be able to fix her property for two months, but hiring Dillon will only bury her under a deluge of disapproval from her family and the town.

However, deep down, she's tired of being the victim who needs to be rescued, so she carefully sends Life a polite inquiry as to whether it would be proper to grab it by the balls, and accepts Dillon's offer to fix up her baker, with the help of Jesse, the Troubled Foster Kid who wrecked it in the first place.

I never found it hard to sympathize with Nina, because Beth Andrews characterizes her really well. I may not have always liked her dependence on her reputation or her initial insistence on hiding her relationship with Dillon or her complete cluelessness about how much that hurts Dillon's feelings, but I always understood it. She's so desperate to maintain the good opinion of her parents and friends and townsfolk because she can't maintain one for herself. As SuperWendy states, Nina's biggest shame is the fact that her abusive husband had to leave her, because she didn't have the courage to do it herself, and she's terrified at the damage that failure might have done to her young children.

Dillon pretty much has a similar problem - everyone sees him as a dangerous murderer and he agrees. Unlike Nina, he's less ready to fight it. What good came of him trying to do the "right thing"? A man died and he wound up in prison. Any attempt to connect with or help people is bound to blow up in his face. Besides, he's not sure he wants to help Nina - while she appears willing to stand up for herself and get more out of life, parts of her remind him of his mother, who suffered under abusive partners and never protected her kids.

This of course, is why the novel ultimately succeeds - for in this relationship, it's Nina, squishy, chickenshit cupcake Nina, who has to take charge in the relationship for it to work, and boy, does she, with very enjoyable results.

As mentioned before, Beth Andrews' characterization is top-notch. I loved reading about Dillon's slow, unwilling thaw, especially in the presence of Nina's kids. I also enjoyed the depiction of Nina's abusive ex, especially in contrast to Dillon. Dillon's the town outcast and he makes no attempt to be friendly or charming, but Trey is a pretty insidious bastard. Very charming, very reasonable, very ruthless, he upholds a pretty respectable image in town. Physically, he never moved beyond slapping or pushing Nina, but his emotional abuse hasn't stopped even after the divorce. Whenever he's in public he puts on the Compassionate-Condescension-Face, the Respectable-Doctor-Face, and only Nina understands its actual "Me Smart, You Stupid" message that kept her subject and snivelling for so many years, convinced she was a failure as a wife and a mother.

Despite the shorter page-count compared to single title contemporaries, A Not-So-Perfect Past is a well-paced story and despite Nina's and Dillon's pretty severe problems the narrative never seems rushed. If there was anything that kept it from getting an A grade, it was probably the fact that it never delves enough into Dillon's past, in my opinion. The book tapdances around the idea of the "awful" things he had to do in prison but doesn't really go into detail, and I don't like to think I have to read the previous book (Not Without Her Family) to be able to figure out the protagonist of this one. Other than that, yes, Nina starts out the book as a weak, cringing, gullible doormat - but that only makes reading about her progress into a full-fledged character that much more entertaining.B+

Friday, August 13, 2010

"Never Resist Temptation," by Miranda Neville

The Chick: Jacobin de Chastelux, a.k.a. "Jane Castle," a.k.a. "Jacob Leon." Problem the first: her dastardly uncle loses her in a card game. Problem the second: he's later poisoned by a dessert she prepared disguised as a boy in the Prince Regent's kitchens.
The Rub: Problem the third: to escape investigation, she has to take a last-minute job offer from the Earl of Storrington - the same dude who won her in a card game.
Dream Casting: Little Dorrit's Claire Foy.

The Dude: Anthony Storr, Earl Storrington. Determined to ruin Lord Candover to avenge the death of his mother, he hires a talented young pastry chef in order to lure the gluttonous lord to his estate and into a card game Anthony's determined he lose.
The Rub: His male pastry chef's actually a female pastry chef - and one who has an even better motive for poisoning Candover than he does.
Dream Casting: Jude Law.

The Plot:

Candover: Hey, in this card game, can I bet my niece?

Anthony: Sure, I don't see any proble-- wait, wut?

Months Later

Jacobin: My uncle is such a pig! So glad I ran away and posed as a male pastry chef to escape! I hope he chokes to death!

Investigator: Dude! Candover's been poisoned!

Jacobin: Yaay! Wait, wut?

Anthony: Need a job?

Jacobin: If it gets me out of this pickle, then yes!

Anthony: Hope you don't mind that I already know who you are and didn't tell you and by the way you're pretty.

Jacobin: Oh, what a nice thing to say -- wait, wut?

Anthony: I'm pretty sure someone else killed Candover and is trying to frame you. Any ideas?

Jacobin: Well, I know who it couldn't be, he's such a gentle, harmless...

Villain: Not entirely harmless...

Jacobin: Wait, WUT? Ugh, my head hurts. Let's get married, Anthony.

Anthony: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Cross-Dressing Half-French Pasty Chef

1 Vengeful Aristocrat

1 Brief Moment of Gay Panic ("Why is this strangely slender and pretty boy so darn ATTRACTIVE?")

Several Panicked Gays

2 Aliases

1 Poisoned Bavarian Rose Cream

1 Case of Mommy Issues

4 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Sexual-Innuendo Urn

The Word:
The novel opens as Anthony Storr, Earl Storrington, wins a woman in a card game. Playing cards with a disgusting nobleman named Lord Candover -- whose chief aim in life seems to be embodying as many of the mortal sins as possible at one time (excelling especially at Pride, Wrath, and Gluttony, but still with heavy measures of Lust, Sloth, Greed and Envy) -- Storr got roped into the bargain in a lapse of judgment. He's on a mission to ruin and bankrupt Candover to avenge a family dishonour, and in a moment of weakness permits the man to offer his niece as a twenty-thousand-pound marker.

To his immense relief, he's spared an awkward and distasteful situation when the girl elopes with a French pastry chef before Candover can seal his end of the deal. Even better - now that the girl's off the table, the dissipated Candover owes Anthony twenty thousand pounds. However, the lord somehow manages to round up the cash - leaving Anthony to come up with another plan to destroy Candover and get his revenge.

Jacobin de Chastelux is no man's possession. Her uncle was a bad enough guardian to her after her parents died in Paris, but to be pawned off to one of his older, roue friends? She'd rather die. Three months later, she's working in the Prince Regent's own kitchen in disguise as "Jacob Leon," helping prepare sumptuous desserts for his famous feasts. When she does an especially good job at a particular dinner, she receives a job offer from none other than Anthony, Earl Storrington - who turns out to be much younger and more handsome than she'd expected. However, Jacobin knows better than to trust a man debauched enough to bet a woman's life in a card game, and refuses.

Trouble seems to follow her everywhere, though, as one of the guests ends up poisoned by one of the desserts she prepared - and not just any guest, but Lord Candover.

As investigators converge on the kitchen, Jacobin knows she's in serious trouble - 1) she prepared the tainted dessert, 2) while working under a false name because 3) she's the victim's estranged niece. Three very good reasons to take her straight to the gallows. Desperate to escape, she goes to Anthony and accepts his job offer.

Anthony knows that the only thing Lord Candover loves more than gambling is French pastry, so he hopes that by hiring a talented chef, he will once again be able to lure Candover to his estate. While he swiftly realizes his chef is a woman (who calls herself "Jane Castle"), and an attractive one, at that, he decides to keep her on anyway.

Never Resist Temptation was an odd book - while there were parts that entertained me, there were just as many parts that threw me off, resulting in a more or less neutral, or "m'eh" grade.

As something on the Good List, Anthony was a remarkably interesting character, and observant enough to see through both of Jacobin's aliases on his own brainpower, while still remaining girl-stupid enough to screw things up with Jacobin on a number of occasions. I enjoyed reading some of the subtler aspects of his Mommy Issues. His mother succumbed to depression after giving birth to his sister Kitty, and his instinctive coldness and subconscious resentment towards his sister was intriguing.

However, on the Bad List is the actual reason behind Anthony's thirst for revenge. (Mild Spoilers ahead). He believes his mother drowned in the process of running away with a secret lover (whom he believes was Candover), when in truth, she killed herself. On his property. It was hard enough believing he couldn't figure this out on his own, or that he never heard even a rumour pertaining to the real truth considering how many people are willing to drop anvil-sized hints in Jacobin's presence.

Considering how easily he discovers "Jacob Leon" --> "Jane Castle" --> Jacobin de Chastelux, the fact he remains so completely and utterly wrong about the circumstances of his own mother's death (like the fact he believes she died at sea instead of in the millrace not a hundred feet from his house) strains my credibility, especially considering how easily other members of his family figured it out.

And without giving the entire freakin' novel away, the ultimate reason behind his mother's depression stretched far beyond my capability to suspend disbelief and seemed unbelievably contrived. The whole construction of the Mother's Mystery plot was flimsy and poorly-constructed - with dates and timelines and some of the mechanics of the backstory never quite fitting.

As for Jacobin, while she's not completely unlikeable and not entirely TSTL, she tap dances down the thin line between Fiery and El Loco for most of the book. Yes, yes, I get that she's French and in historical romance anyone not Purely British must needs be Crazy and High Maintenance, but Leonie from These Old Shades would eat her for breakfast. Truth be told, Jacobin was much like this book - parts of her were pretty exceptional (like she actually says yes to a mistress offer instead of sticking her nose in the air, and how she says, "He hasn't said he loved me? Ha - not after I'm through with him"), and parts of her really grated (like her ridiculous idea to break into a neighbour's house looking for random pieces of evidence), and as a result, looking back a few days after I read her, she's not really that memorable.

Never Resist Temptation is far from a terrible read, and comes with some interesting perspective (especially of the servants quarters, where Jacobin works) as well as a legitimately tough situation for our heroine. However - the plot is wispier than meringue and the heroine occasionally flakey.

In a word: m'eh.B-

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Re-Read Review: "Ship of Magic," by Robin Hobb

The Principal Cast:

Althea Vestrit: When her sister inherits the family liveship Vivacia instead of her, she embarks on a quest to earn her ship back by any means necessary.

Wintrow Haven: Althea's nephew. Pulled out of the priesthood against his will and forced to work on the Vivacia by his brutish father Kyle. Bonds with Vivacia almost immediately but resents his loss of freedom.

Captain Kennit: Dashing pirate sociopath who wants to capture a liveship in order to become King of the Pirates.

Vivacia: Recently-quickened liveship, capable of seeing, feeling, and speaking. However, her fraught bond with Wintrow causes her to question her identity.

The Supporting Cast:

Brashen Trell: Former mate to Althea's father, and now out of a job. Worries about Althea's obsession with recovering Vivacia.

Kyle Haven: Althea's brother-in-law and new captain of the Vivacia. Misogynistic, abusive asshat extraordinaire and all-round fuckup.

Ronica Vestrit: Althea's mum, who's left at home to repair the family's daunting financial problems.

Paragon: A mad, blinded liveship. Serious emo tendencies.

Amber: A mysterious woodcarver who seeks to befriend the lonely Paragon.

Sorcor: Captain Kennit's seriously gullible and idealistic first mate.

Etta: Captain Kennit's crazy-ass ho.

Malta: Keffria's insanely spoiled daughter - Wintrow's li'l sis.

Maukin: A psychic sea serpent. Totally serious.

Fantasy Convention Checklist
1 Inconveniently Dead Parent

2 Spoiled Brat Daughters

1 Magic Charm Bracelet

Several Freed Slaves

Several Tangles of Sea Serpents

1 Sexy Dream In a Box

2 Inconvenient Tattoos

1 Severed Digit

1 (Imperfectly) Severed Leg

The Word:
Spoiler alert, this book gets an A+. Seriously - Robin Hobb is one of my favourite authors of all time. ALL TIME. She was actually the first author I ever wrote to - and she responded and read my blog! She wrote three practically flawless fantasy trilogies, all relatively stand-alone, although if you read them in order you get some nice overlaps and one hella twist (hint: one character is in all three trilogies but you won't realize it until the third!).

Anyway, she was one of the defining female fantasy writers I read growing up, and her female characters were lush and developed - something I really noticed. The only other writer who even came close was Tanya Huff - and later, Kate Elliott (whose seven-book Crown of Stars series is a must read!). I also liked Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, but his female characters? Crazy, silly, and insensible for the most part, although his later Otherland series does kick serious ass in the Awesome Ladies department.

Robin Hobb's first trilogy was The Farseer Trilogy, which seemed like a conventional medieval fantasy with psychic royals but had fantastic magic, worldbuilding, and a truly heart-breaking protagonist in the character of Fitz.

The first book in the following Liveship Trader Trilogy, Ship of Magic, introduces us to the concept of liveships - ships made of special wizardwood that, after three successive generations of family members work it, awaken into sentience and become cooperative, intelligent vessels capable of superior navigation, speed, and speech (through the figurehead, natch). While Trader families have to take on generations of debt in order to acquire one, once a ship quickens, its family's fortunes are virtually guaranteed.

Ephram Vestrit, a popular and well-respected Trader, is dying. While this is personally sorrowful news to his wife, Ronica, and daughters Keffria and Althea -- he's the third generation Vestrit to captain the family liveship Vivacia, which means his impending death also signals the impending quickening of the ship. To Ronica, a quickened liveship couldn't come at a better time - the Vestrit fortunes are dwindling dangerously with the onslaught of vulgar, money-hungry New Traders who are buying up Bingtown land and introducing the slave trade.

As for Althea, while devastated by her father's ill-health, she also sees the silver lining. Her loutish brother-in-law, Kyle, has captained the Vivacia since her father's decline, but once the ship is bequeathed to her, she'll set everything to rights. Having worked on the ship at her father's side since she was twelve, she knows everything about the Vivacia and looks forward to meeting her once she awakens.

However, things don't go as planned. Yes, Ephram dies, but, in a surprise move, he bequeaths the ship to meek, housewifely Keffria, instead - who obediently hands it over to her husband Kyle. Outraged and betrayed, Althea throws the mother of all shitfits, breaks ties with her family, and runs away - hatching a thousand different plans to get the Vivacia back, by fair means or foul. She doesn't give two shits about the law or her father's will - Vivacia is her ship.

However, even though legally Kyle owns Vivacia, the liveship still requires a blood Vestrit aboard her, particularly in her newly-quickened state. This is where Kyle's son Wintrow comes in, who is a Vestrit by way of his mother, Keffria. A quiet, contemplative, and religious boy, Wintrow's appalled when his father pulls him out of his monastery and forces him aboard Vivacia as a ship's boy. The priesthood is his life, he has no desire to be a sailor, and while he bonds with Vivacia almost instantly, he can't help but fight against the change in his circumstances and the loss of his freedom.

And along with all that, we also have the dashing pirate Captain Kennit, a ruthless and sinister rogue who, despite being motivated by the basest and most self-serving of intentions, becomes a righteous folk hero against slavery and oppression purely by accident. Acclaim is all well and good, but what Kennit really wants is a liveship of his very own, a prize that would guarantee him status as King of all Pirates. However, liveships are near impossible to catch...

What can I say about this series? The worldbuilding is exquisite - even the more down-to-earth elements like the Trader politics in Bingtown are colourful, exciting and fun to read about. Even when Robin Hobb has ships that can talk and gesture and gamble (one bawdy ship has a pair of oversized dice at hand), she never forgets the real aspects of sailing and she deftly portrays several aspects of shipboard life, across all sorts of ships (slavers, liveships, slaughterships, pirate ships, and merchant vessels).

But nothing beats those layered characters. If there's one prominent theme to be found in this novel, it's probably growing up. We start out with a lot of characters, and while some are immediately sympathetic, understandable or likeable, they are all pretty stupid or irresponsible or immature on some level and have a fair bit of development to accomplish before they come into their own - and not all of them have the chance to mature in ideal circumstances.

Althea is probably the most prominent character of the bunch - a confident Woman in a Man's Job whose dream is shot down by a misogynist idiot. However, as we read about her recovery from the betrayal and her desperate search for a legal loophole to get her ship back, we learn that a lot of what Kyle initially accuses her of at the start (i.e. of being a Spoiled Daddy's Girl instead of a Real Sailor) isn't entirely untrue.

When Althea disguises herself to try and win a ship's ticket (proof of employment) on another vessel, she discovers the work is a lot harder when her dad's not the captain. She can also be self-destructive and reckless, and drives former shipmate Brashen Trell near-insane trying to keep her from getting herself killed. Brashen, a disgraced and disinherited Trader's son before Althea's father hired him, is a nice foil as he watches out for her. He himself isn't the most responsible or far-thinking of young men, but he has to buck up pretty quickly to keep Althea's ass out of the fire. And sparks! So many sparks between them!

Wintrow's character arc is no less developed. Initially, he appears to be a pretty sensible, open-minded, and pious boy (he's 13 at the novel's start), but it's only once he's on a ship that we realize just how narrow and sheltered and naive his worldview is - but even as he learns about shades of grey, he also broadens and develops his religious tie with the world. His friendship with Vivacia is multifaceted and subtle - it's not a hate-love tie by any means. It's love-love, all the way, but neither Wintrow nor Vivacia know how to exist together and yet remain individuals, and the effects of their struggles as well as Captain Kyle's utter ignorance of the situation will have severe repercussions in future books.

Vivacia's character arc is especially interesting. In some ways, she's older than all the men aboard her, and possesses three generations worth of Vestrit sailing experience. At the same time, she's very much a child when it comes to personal experience. It's clear that every liveship keeps a close bond with its family, but Kyle's ignorance of custom, and Wintrow's unwillingness to be a sailor, cause Vivacia to develop differently, even independently of the Vestrit family - a dangerous notion. One of the novel's secondary characters, The Paragon, is a beached liveship driven mad, and the novel implies that this could be a possible fate for Vivacia if she's unable to form a true, wholehearted bond with someone.

I was initially worried about how well I might like this book - I hadn't re-read it for nigh on ten years. But within a few pages I was already sucked in, already experiencing the description and characters. If you haven't read Ship of Magic, I suggest you do. It's a classic.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Submitted to an Agent! And other writing milestones.

Today, I gathered my courage and presented my query letter, my synopsis, and the first three chapters of The Duke of Snow and Apples, proofread the bejeesus out of them, put them into an e-mail, said a prayer to St. Paul (patron saint of writers and bloggers), and hit the "send" button.

And promptly fell on my face when I received a "nonexistent e-mail address autoreply."

After I entered the agent's correct e-mail address, I sat back and thought. Well, it's done. I've done it. I pitched to an agent, I received a request for a partial, and a week and a half later I was able to write a decent synopsis and query letter and send it along with the first three chapters.


So what do I do now? Well, I have time before a response - the agent I pitched to is on holiday until the end of August. I also have a bunch of contests I could enter, both for feedback and to pad a future query letter if this one doesn't pan out. I'm also starting on the first draft for the sequel, Lord of Dreams. I love first drafts - I write them longhand in notebooks, because I am romantic and whimsical and vain of my handwriting but at the same time it's also harder to self-edit so I actually produce faster. And my heroine in this one is really interesting.

I'll also keep polishing and checking on The Duke of Snow and Apples. Writing the synopsis actually got me to chop a 3000-word scene because looking at the big-picture of my plot, that scene completely diminished my Black Moment. With it gone, my manuscript is 3000 words lighter and has a tighter, more emotional ending.

Either way, whatever happens, I DID IT. I am one of the only 10% of writers who actually submit something to an agent after getting a request. I may never be published, I may starve in obscurity in a penniless garret (how romantic!), but at least I will be able to say that I sent my stuff in. I didn't keep my manuscript in a box under my bed. I didn't hide my light under a bushel.


And now - to write some more!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Movie Review: "Aquamarine"

Okay, so I occasionally do film reviews on my blog, but it's not a regular thing. A movie really has to grab me, in order to inspire me to write a bunch of words on it.

Aquamarine grabbed me. But not in the good way. More like in the "I can't believe how creepy and unhealthy this movie is" way.

When I found a copy at my local branch of the library, I thought this could be a great waste of a few hours. Firstly, I like fantasy movies, and I like good teen romance films. Secondly, I adore adore ADORE Alice Hoffman, who wrote the novel upon which this film is based. I haven't actually gotten around to reading Aquamarine the book, but I think I still will - if only to see how the brilliant Hoffman actually intended the story to be like.

Aquamarine the movie, however, is essentially a story about two teenage stalkers, Claire (Emma Roberts) and Hailey (teen pop star JoJo), how they rescue a mermaid, and consequently learn absolutely nothing from the experience.

Claire is the "nerdy one," because she wears glasses and she's afraid to go in the water ever since her parents drowned. Hailey is the, er, "angry one" - although we don't really realize she's angry until later on in the movie because JoJo is good at singing but bad at making realistic people-faces.

They are also in love with the same guy - Raymond (Jake McDorman), a well-endowed surfer-dude lifeguard at Claire's grandparents' Florida beach resort.They've spent the summer stalking this poor oblivious boy, to the point where they've memorized his favourite colour, movie, song, as well as his physical mannerisms (he demonstrates his attraction to girls in a three-step process: 1) He fluffs his hair, 2) he stretches and 3) he flexes his muscles). But have they actually engaged him in physical or verbal contact? Nope.

Their love for him is jealousy free - because it's clear that neither girl is actually prepared to make an intentional move. I mean, there's a scene where Claire falls into a pool and nearly drowns until Raymond pulls her out, and all Hailey can squeal is, "You felt his biceps! If you'd gone under a little longer you could have had him give you mouth to mouth!"

Yet they swoon, shriek and squawk whenever a girl who does possess more self-confidence then a throwrug makes a move, such as the bitchalicious Cecilia (Arielle Kebbel). The movie makes her out to be a tanned, slutty attention-whore, when really the main difference between her and our "protagonists" is that when she wants something she actually goes after it. But for some reason that's bad. At least in this movie. If you're not a mermaid, that is.

But Hailey and Claire have even worse problems - it's the last week of summer, which means it's their last week together before Hailey's marine biologist mum takes her off to Australia, breaking up Hailey and Claire's BFF stalkerfest forever, as each is (so not surprisingly) the other's only friend. Oh noez!

Possible salvation arrives in the form of Aquamarine (the energetic Sarah Paxton), a mermaid who washes up in one of the resort's pools after a storm. Aquamarine is on the run from her dad, the King of the Sea, who wants to rope her into an arranged marriage. Aquamarine refuses the marriage because, unlike her father, she believes love exists and she's got three days to prove it before Daddy Dearest pulls her back into the sea to swim down the aisle.

If Hailey and Claire aid her in her quest, Aquamarine has the power to grant them a wish, any wish in the world - including the wish to stay together. Or a threesome with Raymond. Whichever.

Aquamarine uses her magic to give herself feet, and only takes a few steps before spotting Raymond and deciding that he is the one she's going to find love with. Cue more horrified screams from the Restraining Order Twins. Actually, if you're in the middle of the movie right now, you can make it more bearable by playing the Aquamarine Drinking Game:

Take a chug whenever
  1. Hailey and Claire shriek "WHAT?!" at the same time.
  2. Hailey and Claire shriek, period, expressing either displeasure or happiness.
  3. Hailey and Claire giggle and laugh at an inopportune time.
  4. A needless montage happens.
After much soul-searching, the two members of the Tattooing Raymond's Name On Our Asses Club choose chicks over dicks, graciously deciding to help Aquamarine win the man of their dreams in order to keep Hailey from being dragged off to another continent.

The film descends even deeper into creepyville once the BFFs decided to give the naive mermaid lessons on how to get boys - which is pretty much like getting racial sensitivity training from Mel Gibson. Yes, Aquamarine, let the isolated, shut-in weirdo girls teach you everything about things they've never even experienced!

And their advice is some of the most ridiculous I've ever heard. First, a tiresome montage where Aquamarine is forced to read millions of girly magazines like Seventeen and CosmoTeen, full of helpful advice Hailey and Claire have faithfully absorbed but never used. Then, they teach her all sorts of "perfectly normal," "flirty" behaviour - such as repeatedly calling Raymond only to hang up when he picks up the phone, "coincidentally" cycling past his house several times a day, and scrapbooking pieces of his hair (only, I'm making up that last part - but only that last part).

So can you guess what I hated most? Yes, that's right - the "protagonists." More useless, poorly written, and passive heroines I have never met. These girls never do anything for themselves. They're supposed to be the heroines of this movie, but once Aquamarine arrives, they're reduced to the comic relief sidekicks and follow Aquamarine on her adventures, spying and squealing with delight. Instead of taking action and changing their circumstances for good or ill, they essentially become spectators in their own story, living vicariously through the one decent character who actually has the balls to do something about her life.

They are doormats. They've been in love with this one guy for years, but spend most of their time staring at him from a distance and bitching about the girls who actually talk to him, muttering to themselves, "Raymond's too smart to fall for that type of girl." I'm sorry, but I'm pretty sure even MENSA candidates would prefer women who approach and talk to them than the girls who give them no indication of their existence. Moreover, Hailey and Claire have loved Raymond - and only Raymond - for all of puberty, but they just sit back and calmly watch as Aquamarine takes everything they've ever dreamed of but never bothered to try for.

What's more? They're stupid. The climax of this movie is one big, giant TSTL. Aquamarine gets pushed into the water by bitchface Cecilia. Falling into the sea not only reveals her tail, but alerts her dad who summons a giant hurricane to drag her back to his kingdom. Despite all her struggling, Aquamarine can't get away - so our two shortbus shawties jump into the water to save her. Let me break the stupidity down into manageable pieces:

1. Two human girls (one of whom hasn't gone near water in years ever since her parents drowned),

2. jump into the sea in the middle of a hurricane,

3. to save a mermaid, someone genetically equipped to swim and breathe underwater.

There is literally nothing these girls can do in the water if a freakin' mermaid can't do them, and yet this spectacular feat of brain-damaged reasoning counts as such a wonderful expression of love that the King of the Sea is forced to admit it exists and allow Aquamarine to go her own way.

But worse than all of that is this - Hailey and Claire learn nothing from the experience. You'd think these two desperate, lonely, cat-ladies-in-waiting would learn something about gumption once a hot, bubbly, confident sea creature splashes in and gets not only her man (even after he learns she has a tail!), but freedom from under her father's thumb.

Like, maybe Hailey and Claire could start looking at other boys, and actually talk to them, or stop reading Tiger Beat mumbojumbo about dating to actually date. Or just stop screaming Raymond's name like some shrill power mantra. But nooooooo - in one of the last scenes of the movie, after a besotted Raymond offers to meet Aquamarine in Fiji during his gap year, he confronts Hailey and Claire to thank them for hooking him up with Aquamarine and pecks them both on the cheek.

Our jellyfish heroines dissolve into grateful shrieks and giggles - OMG! Raymond paid attention to us! He kissed us on the cheek! - like a pair of yapping lap dogs overjoyed to receive the pathetic leavings of Raymond's affection for Aquamarine.


GAH! I mean, seriously. Okay, okay, they change a little - Claire loses her fear of the sea (I guess jumping into a maelstrom will do that to you?), and Hailey decides not to use their wish for them to stay together because she knows marine biology is her mother's dream. Besides, what with Facebook and MySpace and Twitter, there are so many more opportunities to monitor every new development of Raymond's sexual history even from as far away as Australia.

Aquamarine: It reminded me of a reverse Twilight, but with mermaids, where two unhealthily obsessed girls stalk the innocent, gorgeous boy to the detriment of their social development and yet no one sees anything wrong with that (in fact, Claire's grandparents gently tease her for it). The story is bad, the dialogue is horrendous (especially since half of it's composed of incoherent screeching), and the acting is terrible (particularly on JoJo's part).

The only bright spots in this movie are the talented Jake McDorman as Raymond and Sarah Paxton as Aquamarine. The development of their relationship is refreshingly normal - despite Hailey and Claire's concerted efforts to "train her," Aquamarine remains "kooky" - which in this movie means going up to the person she likes and telling him so right away. Oh Aquamarine, you'll never learn, Claire and Hailey despair. You haven't even figured out his Social Security number yet!