Friday, January 21, 2011

"Tumbling Through Time," by Gwyn Cready

The Chick: Persephone "Seph" Pyle. When a magical pair of high-heeled shoes sends her back in time to meet and help the main character of her theoretical first romance novel, it's not exactly the dream-came-true she thought it would be.
The Rub: Even as she starts to develop feelings for her character, Drum, she also realizes she's always had feelings for the real-life man she based Drum on, Tom Fraser.Dream Casting: Maggie Gyllenhaal.

The Dude: Tom Fraser. Seph's best friend, they shared an almost-torrid affair on top of a recycling bin until she called it off. Inexplicably, he still carries a torch for her.
The Rub: Trouble is, he's about to leave the company for a cushy position in Paris, working with a terribly fashionable and attractive female partner.Dream Casting: Colin Firth (per the author's express instructions.)

The Other Dude: George Drummond, a.k.a. "Phillip," a.k.a. "Drum." He was just living a normal life circa 1706, until some crazy 21st century author took over his life, populating his ship with anachronistic characters - one of whom steals some incredibly sensitive war documents that Drum was supposed to be guarding.
The Rub: He needs this author to come to his time and fix this mess she's created - but what if he falls in love with her? And isn't that bizarrely incestuous in some way?Dream Casting: Also Colin Firth (aaaaaawkward).

The Plot: No plot this time. Too crazy. Read the review!
Romance Convention Checklist

1 Awkward Love Triangle

Several Scientific Impossibilities

1 Pair of Magic Shoes

1 Deus Ex Machina Heroine

1 Flogging (Unsexy Variety)

1 Bout of Bathroom Lovin'


1 Fake Red Wig

The Word: *We are in a stark, white room, furnished only with a single table and two folding metal chairs - one of which is occupied by Dr. AnimeJune, Novel Psychologist. The door opens, and two handsome, tall, but charmingly Beta orderlies drag in Tumbling Through Time. She is tightly laced into a straightjacket, but that barely slows her struggles.*

Tumbling: You don't understand. You've made a mistake!

*the orderlies pay no attention and forcibly seat in her in the chair opposite Dr. AnimeJune.*

Dr. AnimeJune: *crossing her legs, the better to show off her fabulous candy-apple red heels* Tumbling, do you know why you're here?

Tumbling: I know why you think I should be here. You think I'm crazy. I'm not crazy. I'm not. Okay, so I'm not Keeper Shelf material. I get it. There's no need for restraints.

Dr. AnimeJune: Well, why don't we go through a few questions and see how things progress from there. *flips through chart* Let's see - you're a contemporary romance with a bit of an historical paranormal twist, am I right?

Tumbling: That's right.. I'm fluffy. I'm cheeky. I'm light and bubbly and irreverent. I have Colin Firth!

Dr. AnimeJune: You have a hero who happens to "look" like Colin Firth.

Tumbling: Correction - I have two heroes who happen to look like Colin Firth. It's like Bridget Jones' Diary, but with no Hugh Grant and twice the Firth! You'd be crazy if you didn't want two Colin Firths, am I right? Wait - what are you writing?

Dr. AnimeJune: *scrawls Lacklustre description of heroes into her notebook* Oh, nothing. What's your story, exactly?

Tumbling: Well, I have this heroine, see? Seph Pyle. She works for a pharmaceutical company. She's very buttoned up. Uptight. She's very uncertain about relationships - except for a special friendship she shares with a coworker, Tom Fraser, a friendship that continues even after she let him feel up her boobies only to call it off at the last minute.

Dr. AnimeJune: He's the guy who looks like Colin Firth?

Tumbling: One of the guys, yes. So you see, you should really be locking up Seph Pyle. She said no to Colin Firth! *nervous giggle*

Dr. AnimeJune: ...

Tumbling: *anxious cough* Anyhoo, Seph has this secret fantasy life - she's thinking of writing a romance novel.

Dr. AnimeJune: She's written a romance?

Tumbling: No, thinking of it. Anyway, while on route to a conference in Venice --

Dr. AnimeJune: Why Venice?

Tumbling: Why NOT Venice? Seph comes across a Nine West in an airport that has a fabulous pair of shoes. Magical shoes. *jazz hands* That are magically just her size and make her feel like she's walking on baby ducks.

Dr. AnimeJune: Made of rubies, I presume? Or silver?

Tumbling: No - pink taffeta. And MAGIC. *jazz hands*

Dr. AnimeJune: Go on.

Tumbling: Once Seph puts on the shoes, she finds herself magically transported onto a ship in 1706. There, she finds herself captured by the handsome, Colin Firth-esque captain, Phillip Drummond. He's the unwitting hero of her very own romance novel, and being stuck in her story has ruined his life! For instance, there are "romantic" full moons every night, and his ship somehow has walls instead of bulkheads, and his favourite table has a cannon in it since for some reason Seph thought that would be a great idea. Seph clearly hasn't done enough historical research! Hahaha! Isn't that just whimsical and clever?

Dr. AnimeJune: But you said Seph hadn't written her book yet. Not even an outline.

Tumbling: No, she only thought about it. Yearned about it.

Dr. AnimeJune: So she's in a book?

Tumbling: No, no. She's in the past! The actual past! The sexy Master and Commander past, only instead of chubby Russell Crow, we have dashing Colin Firth.

Dr. AnimeJune: Your heroine changed the past with her mind?

Tumbling: *pales* I didn't say that.

Dr. AnimeJune: Yes you did. Somehow, without writing anything down or even doing an outline, your heroine affected the moon's rotation and the architecture of a ship just with the power of her thoughts. *checks notebook* Moreover, when she finds a way to return to her own time, she discovers Phillip Drummond's ship (which she "unwittingly" named after a shoe store) actually exists in historical records, demonstrating her ability to completely alter the course of human history without any conscious thought or effort on her part. Did you intentionally make your heroine a superhuman, omniscient being?

Tumbling: No! It's not like that at all! It's just irreverent, sparkling comedy! It's not anything serious. It's MAGIC! *jazz hands*

Dr. AnimeJune: Mmm-hmmm. *writes Plot makes no damn sense in notebook* So Drum looks like Colin Firth - which means he looks like Tom?

Tumbling: Of course. He's the hero of her novel. Her romantic ideal. Isn't that sweet? Unfortunately, one of her other creations --

Dr. AnimeJune: Which she hasn't actually written yet.

Tumbling: Ahem. One of her other characters found their way onto Drum's ship and stole important papers for the war that he was supposed to be guarding. So, with some help, Drum transported Seph to the past to see if he could get her to bring those papers back and save his sexy Navy bacon.

Dr. AnimeJune: Help?

Tumbling: A Gypsy. Who has magic. *jazz hands* She magically transported the magically fabulous shoes to the present day and gave Drum some pieces of the same fabric.

Dr. AnimeJune: Why? Why would this Gypsy do this?

Tumbling: ... Because.

Dr. AnimeJune: Because why? *flips through notebook* I've read you end to end and not once is this magical Plot Device character or her motives ever explained. She literally just shows up, blathers on about how only The One For Seph is capable of physically taking off the Magic Shoes and curing her spontaneous time-travelling, and then she scurries away like a rat, never to be seen again.

Tumbling: Because it's magic! *jazz hands* Whimsy and mystery and sparkling, irreverent wit!

Dr. AnimeJune: Really? It's irreverent that whenever Seph zips back to the present, she discovers that while she was in 1706, being forced to trade inadequate handjobs to sexually-repressed Admirals for information, her body in 2010 was possessed by a strange entity (again - never explained) who gave her tattoos - one of which was on her boob - and tried to have sex with a bunch of people without her consent?

Tumbling: It's bubbly because it happened even though it's impossible! It's magic! *jazz hands*

Dr. AnimeJune: Why tattoos? Why boob tattoos?

Tumbling: M-magic! *slightly-less jazzy hands*


Tumbling: Sparkling....wit....*limp, defensive hands*

Dr. AnimeJune: *exasperated sigh* Listen. You're not hopeless - you have a very nice comedy voice. Well suited for light, breezy contemporaries. And the main hero, Tom, is quite a decent chap. Heroic, even. But the fact remains that the basic story runs on sheer comedy value without any structure, rules, logic, or worldbuilding to back it up.

You don't explain or ground anything. We never learn who was controlling Seph while she was on autopilot in 1706. We never learn why the gypsy gave her the shoes in the first place or why George Drummond looks like Tom, and therefore also Colin Firth, since he is inexplicably both an real and a fictional character.

Even fantasy novels with magical, all-powerful characters have established rules and boundaries because that gives the story structure and allows the reader to experience suspense. If your heroine had, say, actually written a manuscript and discovered some random Plot Device person or object that allowed her to enter the book, that might have been fine.

Instead, you don't outline her capabilities or weaknesses at all because she hasn't written anything solid yet - and so you unwittingly establish Seph as some astoundingly oblivious super-being who can literally conjure Colin Firths out of the air. How is this power controlled? Where did she get it? Do all her brain storms spin off into alternate realities? Will Tom end up in the cornfield if he forgets their anniversary? And how come she never uses this power - like, whenever they're in a naval battle, why doesn't she just concentrate really hard on a story she should write about an enemy ship that sinks when you throw marshmellows at it?

I mean, otherwise, this book reads like an incredibly imaginative and elaborate excuse to have a woman make out with Hot Historical Darcy Firth and Witty Contemporary Love Actually Firth at the same time.

Tumbling: ...

Dr. AnimeJune: ...

Tumbling: ...Okay. That makes me mildly obsessed - and a haphazard and incredibly silly novel - but certainly not crazy.

Dr. AnimeJune: You know what? You're right. That doesn't make you crazy.

Tumbling: *relieved sigh*

Dr. AnimeJune: I mean, it's not like your heroine at the end of the book doesn't have the Hero remove the magical shoes, as the Gypsy foretold.

Tumbling: ...

Dr. AnimeJune: I mean, because you obviously realize that your entire story was built around the fact that Seph's incapable of removing the shoes without help from her Soulmate (tm), and that despite how nice they feel, she has to shower and jog and clean floors in heels unless she finds The One. Since you're not crazy, clearly your heroine has a scene at the end where she has her hero untie the shoe ribbons and release her feet from pink taffeta bondage.


Tumbling: Eep.

Dr. AnimeJune: She decides it's "HEALTHIER" not to "TEST" the man she ends up with, with an "ARBITRARY" magical phenomenon.

Tumbling: B-but...


Tumbling: No! You don't understand!

Dr. AnimeJune: My decision is final - your story is mind-bogglingly nonsensical, your tone shifts inconsistently from inane and bubbly to graphically violent, you do not finish any plot threads you start, and YOUR HEROINE CHOOSES TO HAVE PINK SHOES WELDED TO HER ARCHES BECAUSE SHE'S THAT DESPERATE FOR A MAN. Take her to solitary, boys!



Sunday, January 16, 2011

"Room," by Emma Donoghue

*Spoiler Warning* I will be talking about stuff that, while it's a major part of the narrative, happens about half-way through the book. Room's a pretty good read, I'd recommend it, but here be spoilers. You've been warned.*

The Hero:
Jack. He loves his Ma, he loves his Fort made out of vitamin bottles, he loves Dora the Explorer, and he loves the Room where he and his Ma live. So why is his Ma so unhappy all the time?
The Rub: His Ma has been stuck in Room for a long, long time and has wanted to leave it longer than Jack's been alive - but is Jack ready to accept the existence of a world outside room?

The Supporting Cast:

Ma: Jack's mother, who was kidnapped as a student by Old Nick and held captive in a technologically-enhanced garden shed for seven years. Has tried to make as normal a life as possible for her son.

Grandma: Ma's mother, who helps look after Jack after the escape from Room.

Steppa: Ma's stepdad, and an awesome grandad to Jack. Smells like pot. Keeps it real.

Dr. Gray: Ma and Jack's doctor, who helps them adjust to outside of Room. A closet Poetry Major.

Noreen: Ma and Jack's nurse. Irish. Full of Common Sense.

Old Nick: Someone who deserves to die in a prison fire - i.e. the psychotic rapist who captured and held Ma and Nick in a shed for seven years.

The Word: Chalk this read up to my Nana, who gave me this book for Christmas. She's made it a tradition to give highly-reviewed books for Christmas - some have been hits, and some have been misses, but after reading all the reviews on the blogs, I was pretty excited to read this one, despite the fact that I was a bit nervous about the dark subject material.

However, the darkness of the material is well-controlled by the author's clever use of perspectives and pacing.

The entire novel is told from the first-person point of view of Jack, a five-year-old boy who lives in Room with his Ma. He runs Track everyday, skidding from one wall of Room to the other while his mother counts. He watches TV (especially Dora the Explorer), and plays with his toys - his Fort made of vitamin bottles, his Labyrinth made of toilet-paper tubes, and his Eggsnake made out of eggshells and string. He reads and is read to. He loves Room, and his loves Ma, but he's not a huge fan of Old Nick, who comes and visits Ma in the night while Jack hides in Wardrobe.

Room is neatly divided into four parts, and the first part of the novel relies almost entirely on dramatic irony and unconventional perspectives. Jack is happy and content in his world - it's the way it is because it's the way it is. However, the reader is able to understand the context of the situation in a way the very young narrator can't: the fact that Ma and Jack are trapped in an 11 by 11 foot garden shed by a sociopathic rapist called "Old Nick." Jack tells the reader everything that goes on in his room, things that are harmless and normal enough to him, but unwittingly shows us the horrific truth - for instance, the scenes where Jack has to hide in Wardrobe and count the creaks Old Nick makes on the bed with Ma, or his off-the-cuff descriptions of Ma's "bad wrist" and "rotted teeth," or the days where she simply lies in bed all day, acting "Gone."

However, Jack's world is about to change. In the novel's second part, Old Nick's been laid off, which means Ma and Jack have to find a way to escape Room - but this, of course, means convincing Jack that things do exist outside of Room and that things like ice cream and trucks and LEGOs - things he used to believe were "only on TV" - are real. Convincing Jack that the world outside of Room is a better place is an even bigger challenge.

The differences in perspective are the foundation of the novel's conflict and story. Ma's heroic and selfless attempts to create a semblance of normal life in Room helped preserve Jack from the true horrors of their situation. But Jack's Room is not the same as Ma's Room - something that grows even more apparent in the novel's third part, after they escape and learn to adjust to the world outside. The outside world frightens Jack, and he wants to go back to Room - it's where he feels safe, it's where the world behaves as it should. Adjusting his perspective is a constant struggle, particularly when no one on the outside (even his Ma) appears willing to understand his longing for Room.

Room works on such an emotional level because the reader understands both perspectives - I winced every time Jack wailed about staying in or going back to Room, because I sympathized with his plight but I also understood what staying or going back to Room would mean for Ma. Even though she's depicted completely through the eyes of her son, Ma is just as compelling a character as Jack - perhaps even more so because her development is only shown, and never told. We figure it out for ourselves because Jack's unable to understand the context of a nineteen-year-old girl taken from everything she knows only to return seven years later to find a world that's changed without her.

Jack's perspective acts both as a strength and a hindrance of the novel. His perspective is realistically imaginative and illogical - if things don't exist in Room, then they don't exist at all. I totally understood this. I remember a time when I was in kindergarten, and one of my classmates showed a picture of himself as a ring bearer at his mother's wedding for Show and Tell. I stood up and shouted, "That's impossible! Kids aren't alive yet before their mothers' weddings!" Everyone in my limited five-year-old experience had been born after, therefore nothing different could possibly exist.

At the same time, though, Jack's POV makes Room a slower read. Five-year-olds are fun to listen to - for about fifteen minutes. So how about an entire story made up of five-year-old ramblings? It's not that it wasn't interesting or coherent, but Jack's trains of thought are so tangled up in memories and explanations and TV references and off-the-wall descriptions that it takes a while to sort through it all.

As well, there was one other sour note - I thought the descriptions of the media treatment of Jack and Ma's escape to be cartoonish and exaggerated. Clearly, the media was meant to be depicted as invasive and and melodramatic, willing to depict a gruesome crime as even more gruesome to get more viewers, but in a book where every other detail seemed thought-out and realistic and an organic development of the story, the media coverage stood out like a concrete light pole in the middle of a forest - it was There To Prove A Point. It seemed false and contrived, but thankfully we don't get too much of it.

Yes, there is a lot of darkness in Room, even after they escape. However, it's balanced out with a lot of love and heroism and great characters. While Room contains rape and captivity and severe limitations, it is ultimately a story about the love between mother and child and how it can preserve innocence and intelligence even in the midst of great adversity.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"Lord of Legends," by Susan Krinard

The Chick: Mariah Ware, Countess of Donnington. When she discovers a crazed man trapped in a cage on her husband's property, she knows she has to help him escape and regain his former life.
The Rub: With rumours already swirling about her supposed infidelity, hanging around with a man who considers clothing entirely optional isn't the wisest course of action.
Dream Casting: Kelly Macdonald.

The Dude:
Arion, a.k.a. "Ashton Cornell." A unicorn king banished from his homeland and turned into a human by an evil fairy prince, the only chance he has of regaining his old life is to find the Prince's intended bride, Mariah Ware, and seduce her into the fairy world.
The Rub: The only caveat? Arion must leave Mariah Ware a virgin, or else he'll remain a mortal human.
Dream Casting: Alexander Skarsgard.

The Plot:

Mariah: Wow! A sexy dude in a cage, and it's not even Ladies Night!

Arion, King of the Unicorns: Virgin. HAWT. But my horn is gone - not so hawt.

Evil Fairy King: Want your horn back? It's easy - just get this Mariah girl to walk through my gate by seducing her mind, body, and soul.

Arion: That doesn't sound so ba--

Evil Fairy King: Oh but if you have sex with her you'll never be a unicorn again.

Arion: That is so completely the opposite of hawt. And amazingly counterproductive.

Vivian, Evil Mother In Law: You're an American girl, and thus obviously a whore. Someone's sticking it to you, and I'm going to find out who. Hey, neighbour whom I find Completely Trustworthy who is Totally Not a Crazy Vicious Sex Addict - go and do random evil!

Lady Westlake: Yes ma'am!

Random Evil: *is done*

Mariah: While it's lovely that the Prince of Wales invited us to his house, we are surrounded by completely evil adulterous fornicators. Keeping my nose up in the air all the time is making my neck hurt!

Arion: Wow, your judgmental prudery is so HAWT. Too bad we can't have sex!

Mariah: WHAT?! Why not?

Arion: Because you're married.

Mariah: Oh, well - well it's different with us!

Arion: Ooooh, shrill hypocrisy. So freakin' HAWT.

Evil Fairy King: NO SEX.

Arion: DAMMIT.

Evil Fairy King: You get the unicorn, I get the girl!

Mariah's Evil Husband: Sweet.

Lady Westlake: Yay! More random evil!

A Bunch of Characters: *get shot*

Arion: Here, I will give up my horn to save you, Mariah!

Mariah: Why would you do such a thing?

Arion: Because I don't need the horn on my head. I have something more important.

Mariah: Oh that's beautiful...

Arion: The horn in my pants.

Mariah: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Pure, Blameless Virgin(tm)

1 King of the Unicorns

1 Torn Shirt

Several Adulterous Spouses

1 Very Bad Husband

1 Prince of Wales

1 Evil Vagina

1 Super-BFF Brother-in-Law

1 Evil Mother-in-Law

1 Suspiciously Well-Informed Maid

1 Nasty Elf

The Word: When I got a copy of Lord of Legends at RWA, I have to admit I was more than a little interested in the novel idea of a hero who is a unicorn. However, even as I picked up the book, I steeled myself for silliness and easy "horn" jokes.

What I got instead, however, was a lazily-written hypocritical morality tale with some of the worst female characters I have ever read.

First, we have our heroine, Mariah - a Pure Virgin (tm) American Heiress. She married a mysterious English earl who vanished on their wedding night before he could do the deed, and two months later he hasn't returned and her Mother-In-Law's Annulment Trigger Finger is gettin' mighty itchy.

Mariah battles her depression with aimless wandering, which brings her to a folly at the edge of her husband's estate. To Mariah's shock, she discovers a cage inside the folly - a cage containing a gorgeous, mysterious naked dude who looks exactly like her husband, only with white hair and black eyes (yes, ignore the completely incongruous cover art). Since her mother spent some time in an asylum (don't ask), Mariah knows Everything About Crazy People, and decides to put her instinctive Man Whisperer skills to use and see if this strange person (whom she names Ash) can remember anything about his previous life.

Ash's bout of Convenient Amnesia swiftly evaporates and he remembers everything: he's actually Arion, the King of the Unicorns, exiled from the fairy otherworld (called Tir-na-Nog) and turned into a human by an evil fairy prince in league with Mariah's husband, the Earl of Donnington. The Evil Fairy Prince senses Mariah has some Fairy blood in her ancestry and wants to make her his bride, and in return for securing her, Donnington gets to hunt the most dangerous game - unicorn.

Yeah - this dude wants to trade his wife for a chance at big game hunting. Seriously. Dude might as well wear a name tag that says, "Hello, I'm the Earl of Donnington and I have a Ridiculously Small Penis."

However, the Evil Fairy Prince isn't taking any chances - he approaches Ash as well, promising to return him to his unicorn form if he helps seduce Mariah into crossing the Gate between worlds, stating that as a Pure Virgin (tm), Mariah won't be able to resist Ash's Mighty Unicorn Presence. However, since Ye Olde Double Standards are as real in Tir-na-Nog as they are in Victorian England, the Evil Fairy Prince tells Ash that she must remain a Pure Virgin (tm). Any poking, and Ash will remain a human forever.

Now, it's perfectly understandable that virginity and innocence play a huge part in the novel. Virgins and unicorns in mythology go together like bacon and eggs, so I can dig it. What I didn't dig, however, was Lord of Legends' misogynist and narrow-minded interpretation of virginity and innocence.

Exhibit A? The Evil Vagina - I mean, Lady Westlake, but I might as well call her the Evil Vagina because that's pretty much the entire summation of her character - she's Evil. Because she uses her Vagina. A lot. For eeeeeeeevil. Her Evil Vagina is both her motivation and her tool: desperate to bang the Earl of Donnington, she'll gladly use her body to lead good (Mariah's brother-in-law Sinjin) and less-good (Random Adulterer Dude) men astray by having awesome sex with them if it means it will achieve her goals.

And she's actually pretty good at workin' that Evil Vagina - she scores the L-Word from Sinjin within the span of a few weeks and wins Random Adulterer Dude from his mistress with a single against-the-wall encounter wearing wigs and makeup to disguise themselves as Mariah and Ash (for reals). She almost gets Ash, too, with the Whoops-I-Forgot-To-Wear-Clothes-Under-My-Trenchcoat Act.

But I digress - now we have Exhibit B: the Good Vagina, er, I mean Mariah. She starts out harmless enough - a bit drippy and naive, perhaps, but not wholly bad. All that changes once Ash and Mariah wind up at a house party hosted by Bertie, the Prince of Wales. Yeah. Unicorns. Princes. You've already been sniffing the glue for 190-something pages, you might as well throw some glitter in it and keep going.

Anyhoo, Mariah is shocked (shocked, I say!) to discover that some of the people at the house party are having affairs with people who are not their spouses. Here we learn what it means to be a Pure Virgin (tm) - it's not enough that Mariah abstains from sex because she is married. No, we learn she's also an insufferably judgmental shrew who openly condemns people for things that are none of her business. For one cannot be a Pure Virgin (tm) and simply think that adultery is bad - one must also hate adulterers and treat them worse than Regular People.

For instance, Mariah refuses to dance with any man at a ball if he's trailed by rumours of adultery. Page 251, her thoughts: "The adulterers. The ones she had determined to despise..." Never mind that they're your hosts and fellow guests. Never mind that they've been nothing but civil to you. They should all be branded with scarlet F's for Fornicators and wear sackcloth and ashes! If Mariah ever turned up in an Eloisa James novel, she'd be chased out with torches and pitchforks.

But of course she's in love with Ash - a man who isn't her husband. I thought there might be a ripe opportunity here for Mariah's own romantic conflict to allow her to discover shades of grey and perhaps judge her fellow guests less harshly, and be more willing to see the good in people... No dice. All other adulterers are whores for sleeping with other men. Mariah, on the other hand, is in love with a unicorn, and her husband is a jerk, so she doesn't count. I guess.

Amazingly, the message comes across as both ham-handed and confused. Having sex a lot makes you evil - except if you really really want to have sex and your lover is a unicorn and your husband wants to mount his head on his wall while selling you to an Evil Fairy Prince?

And in all of this long-ass review, I haven't even mentioned Arion the Magical Unicorn Dude, but yes, he's just that uninteresting. He gets a few chapters where he refuses to wear stockings and flips out over the fact that his penis is now about 9 inches shorter than it should be, and then suddenly he reads a few books and becomes eloquent enough to become the Prince of Wales' best friend. I really don't understand how his character was made more significant by being a unicorn since it didn't affect his grasp of human behaviour. Oh - it makes him more primal and dominant and predatory? Well gee - I have *never* read a romance hero described with those adjectives before!

To top it all off, the writing and worldbuilding are lazy. The descriptions of Tir-Na-Nog are twee, unoriginal and cutesy, flowers and fairies and Disney animation. Most of the descriptions of the fairies and their world is "like ours, only better." For example, the villain's hair is described as "a colour only a blind man would have called brown" and "far more resplendant than anything that could be called 'brown'". Soooo.... it's REALLY BROWN?

When all is said and done, Lord of Legends - when it's not prissily moralizing about Teh Evils of Sex (With Anyone But a Unicorn), it's boring you with uninspired worldbuilding, wildly inconsistent characters, and vague writing. Want to read a truly beautiful, witty, heart-tugging romance involving a unicorn? Pick up Peter S. Beagle instead.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

"The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount," by Julia London

The Chick: Lady Phoebe Fairchild, a.k.a. "Madame Dupree." For years, this well-bred lady secretly worked in trade by sewing fashionable gowns - but now a shopkeeper's threatening to expose her secret unless she accepts a commission to make gowns for a country lord.
The Rub: A very handsome country lord! Too bad his family is crazy and she has to pretend she's a servant!
Dream Casting: Carey Mulligan.

The Dude: William Darby, Viscount Summerfield. Thanks to his father's stroke, he's forced to cut short his six-year-long trip of the Continent and come home to take care of his mentally deranged family.
The Rub: But he's just so distracted by the hot new seamstress!
Dream Casting: Kris Holden-Ried.

The Plot:

Phoebe: I have to make dresses for Viscount Summerfield's bitchy sisters or an evil shopkeeper will tell everyone I dabbled in trade! Woe!

Will, Viscount Summerfield: I can't explore the world and ignore my responsibilities because my dad's had a stroke and my siblings need to eat! Woe!

Frieda: I'm a slutty secondary servant character who has a lot of sex and might be pregn ---

Will: WOE! Did I mention WOE?! I am TERRIBLE at EVERYTHING! Nobody LISTENS TO ME! My siblings have the combined impulse control of a monkey fuelled by chocolate-covered espresso beans!

Caroline Fitzherbert: Hey, I'm a slightly snooty romantic rival who might have a crush on the hero's brother inst---

Phoebe: So much WOE! I must sew ALL THESE GOWNS for sisters who are SEVERELY developmentally-challenged! How am I going to find the TIME to have SEX with WILL???

Joshua, Will's Brother: Hey, I do a lot of asshole, illegal things that are strongly implied to be a result of a Deep Dark Pain - but will my story get resolved or anythi--

Will: NOT IMPORTANT. I'm in love with a SERVANT! Your subplots DO NOT MATTER.

Joshua, Frieda, Caroline: *embarrassed silence*

Phoebe: Ahem - Surprise! I'm not a servant!

Will: YOU SIT ON A THRONE OF LIES! I NEVER WANT TO SEE YOU AGAIN - for a half-dozen pages.

Phoebe: *flips through* We okay now?

Will: Yup.

Phoebe: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Scandalous Tattoo

4 Effed-Up Siblings

1 Horny Smithy

Several Wild Horses

1 Angry Bitchslap

1 Snooty Romantic Rival

1 Sprained Ankle

1 Slutty Maid

Several Lovely Gowns

1 Secondary-ish Romanc-ish

The Word: If I had to describe this book is one word, or rather, two words connected by a hyphen, it would be half-baked. I like Julia London, I do - despite her casual grasp of history in her romance novels, she usually nails emotional drama like nobody's business. Even when her books go completely insane in the membrane, there's enough of a kick that even a terrible book can be entertaining.

Not so here.

The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount is the final book in the Desperate Debutantes series, following The Hazards of Hunting a Duke (which was lovely), and The Perils of Persuing a Prince (which was crazy and nonsensical, but still somewhat entertaining, in the way watching a baby hit another baby with a stick is entertaining).

But everything in Dangers just seems so haphazard, loosely connected and unfinished, that I couldn't take much enjoyment even from its silliness. But let me explain.

Way back at the beginning of the series, sisters Phoebe and Ava and cousin Greer were left penniless by a douchebag stepfather when their mother died. While the ever-practical Ava and Greer found rich, angsty guys to marry, Phoebe made ball gowns. By herself. Yes. Gorgeous, amazingly fashionable and complex ball gowns, with a high enough rate of production to make a decent name for herself. A fake name (Madame Dupree), but a name none the less.

Okay, filing that away under Completely Implausible, let's continue - now that Phoebe's sisters are Mrs. Rich and Angsty, she doesn't really need to continue dabbling in trade but she does so anyway because she likes it - until the shop keeper she's been selling the dresses with catches on to her scheme and blackmails her into accepting a commission to spend the summer as the personal modiste for the Darby family in Bedfordshire.

Meanwhile, Will Darby, Viscount Summerfield has spent the last six years Peter Pan-ing across several continents until he receives a letter that his father has suffered a stroke. It takes him about three months to get home - only to find his estate in shambles and his family transformed into a pack of rabid hobos because with his father catatonic, no one else had access to his money. This kicks his Angsty Guilt into overdrive and he initiates a number of measures to bring the Darby name back up to snuff - and that includes new wardrobes for his sisters.

Phoebe arrives at the country estate and finds that being a servant is hard work, y'all. Especially when the sisters she has to fit and sew for are Rabid Hobos who act like screaming, sobbing, over-caffeinated 12-year-olds. Frankly, Phoebe thinks they're spoiled little bitches, but her assessment unexpectedly coincides with Will's own frustration with his crazy-ass family. Well hey, our hero and heroine have something in common!

The thing is, Phoebe and Will's romance isn't very interesting - she's all whine whine our love can never be because I am a lying liar who lies, I'm compelled to home-decorate and flower-arrange for no reason, plus BTW work is hard, he's all whine whine I just want to be freeee, the walls are closing in, why do my siblings act like drunk retarded monkeys, BTW having a boner all the time for a serving girl is hard. Occasionally it's broken up by some deluded self-righteous lecturing on Phoebe's part that Will is just too much of a meanie to his slutty, dishonest, cheating, thieving siblings, or some really ham-handed and obvious seduction on Will's part. Rinse and repeat.

So I can see why the author would try to spice up the rest of the story with oodles of wacky ridiculous subplots and characters - it's just that she doesn't back them up with any sort of common sense, the characters are cartoonishly distorted, and what's worse, most of their stories wind up suddenly resolved off-screen in the final chapters.

First of all, I didn't get Will's siblings - Joshua (21), Alice (18), Jane (17), and Roger (16). Yes, they spent 3 months without money or supervision - and yet in three months' time they somehow managed to outgrow all their clothes, lose all their furniture and servants, and lose at least sixteen years' worth of aristocratic upbringing to the point where they all need to be retrained. The Swiss Family Robinson they are not.

There's no real explanation for the siblings' mysterious mental degeneration, and there's no real character development here either. Alice and Jane are present mainly to make "lowly servant girl" Phoebe look like Princess Grace in comparison. Joshua, meanwhile, is a completely wasted character who pulls off self-destructive stunts like stealing horses, gambling, and cheating at cards - in Regency England, these weren't silly japes, but serious offenses. Cheating at cards, in particular, would have been enough to leave him ostracized for life - and it certainly wasn't be the kind of crime one could simply "buy off," the way William does.

But why is Joshua doing all this, and why is he so hostile to William? Well, the novel very briefly suggests a secondary romance between him and Phoebe's closest romantic rival, Caroline - but then Joshua and Caroline are suddenly married off-screen, with no explanation for Joshua's behaviour, no outright solution to his (apparently) deep personal problems, no real build-up or description of his attraction to Caroline and vice versa.

Most of the other siblings' problems are resolved in a similar manner - in a "What a lovely epilogue, did I mention my insane slutty sister married some random dude so that whole scandal where she dry-humped a smithy in the gazebo is totally a thing of the past, try the quiche it's delicious" way. Truth be told, the pat conclusions irritated me more than the silliness. It's as if once the main story ended, the author saw no point in even trying with the subplots. They were just the car keys dangled in front of my face to keep me interested.

Subplots matter. Conclusions matter. Secondary characters matter - especially these ones, as Will's primary motivation is to help bring them together, and yet all their problems wind up conveniently solved by random happenstance rather than any action on the hero's part. As a result, The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount is easily the weakest book of the trilogy.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

"Flowers from the Storm," by Laura Kinsale

The Chick: Archimedea "Maddy" Timms. When this pious Quaker woman recognizes her father's mathematical partner in a madhouse, she knows he's not as crazy as they think - and that it just might be God's will to help him prove it.
The Rub: How far will she have to go and much will she have to give up to keep Jervaulx from being sent back to the asylum? And how much of what she feels for him is truly God's will?
Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.

The Dude: Christian Richard Nicholas Francis Langland, the Duke of Jervaulx. Once he was the wealthiest, most powerful peer in England - until an incapacitating stroke deprived him of every right and privilege.
The Rub: Maddy Timms seems to be the only person who can understand him, and he'll go to any lengths to make sure she stays with him. Any lengths.
Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.

The Plot:

Maddy's Dad: The Duke of Jervaulx helped me with my math paper! I like him!

Maddy: He's a total skeeze! What are you, crazy?

General Public: Guess what! The duke is dead!

Maddy: Um... awkward.

Months Later

Cousin Edward: Welcome to my lovely mental asylum! Just a few ground rules - no smoking, no sharp objects, and no unexpectedly falling in love with our patients.

Jervaulx: *in head* I'm totally not crazy! Here, let me demonstrate how not crazy I am by grabbing you by the throat while I carve a mathematical equation into the table with a straight razor! See! A crazy person would NEVER do that!

Maddy: Wow. He's totally not crazy!

Everyone Else in the Novel: WTF.

Jervaulx's Family: Let's solve this with a hearing!

Leader of the Hearing: He's totally crazy!


Jervaulx's Ambiguous Ball-Breaking Aunt: They can't send him back to the asylum if he marries a girl of good family and knocks her up! Even if he IS crazy!

Maddy: Well, now YOU'RE crazy.

Jervaulx's BFFs: Hey, the duke should totally marry you!


Jervaulx: *sad eyes*

Maddy: Okay, not you. Fine, let's get married. Whatever.

Jervaulx's Family: You married a Quaker? What are you, CRAZY?!

Quakers: You married a venal Duke in an Anglican ceremony? What are you, CRAZY?!

Maddy: I shouldn't care, but I do. He's so sexy and it turns out I like pretty dresses and foot massages and sex. I'll just tough it out...

The Plot: Who ordered the Secret Baby with Extra Angst?

Maddy: Screw this noise, I'M OUT. *rejoins Quakers*

Jervaulx: You ... CRAZY.

Maddy: I am utterly disarmed and undone by such an eloquent romantic speech! Plus I miss all the footrubs and sex.

Jervaulx: HOORAY!
Romance Convention Checklist

1 Quakin' Quaker

1 Stroke (of Genius!)

1 Actual Stroke

Several Complicated Mathematical Equations

1 Itteh Bitteh Kitteh Seduction Committeh

1 Broken Collar Bone

1 Enormous Tiara

4 Asshole Inlaws

1 Ambiguous Ball-Breaking Aunt

1 Secret Baby

2 Awesome But Morally-Challenged BFFs

The Word: I didn't want to read this book.

I know! Le gasp! But Laura Kinsale is the Awesomest!

Well, there are two fears that contributed to why I hesitated to take Flowers from the Storm off of my TBR:

1. It Wouldn't Live Up to the Hype - I was terrified that the novel touted across Romancelandia as the Best Romance Ever Written Ever couldn't possibly live up to the hyperbolic amounts of lurve and having my Romance Bar raised so impossibly high would result in nothing but catastrophic disappointment.

2. It Would Live Up to the Hype - and thus every romance I read after it would be seem like utter garbage in comparison, preventing me from enjoying another romance novel ever again.

But then I figured, Life is Short. And people are always writing and coming out with new books (including Kinsale herself - which has me all sorts of happy!), so I grit my teeth and took out Flowers from the Storm.

At the beginning of the novel, our protagonists couldn't be more different. The Duke of Jervaulx is a wealthy, lusty, womanizing rakehell who also happens to be a mathematical prodigy. Chaste Quaker Maddy Timms would rather have nothing at all to do with the immoral, "creaturely" Jervaulx, but she's forced to tolerate him thanks to the fact that he's co-authoring a mathematical paper with her father.

The paper earns both men serious acclaim, but Jervaulx has little time to enjoy it - the next morning, as he's about to duel with a husband he's cuckolded, he suffers a stroke. On the way to his townhome with a thank you letter, Maddy hears how the Duke collapsed during a duel and assumes the man is dead.

Months later, however, she learns differently. Having taken a position at her cousin's mental asylum, she is shocked to discover the Duke in the ward reserved for the violent patients, where he's been diagnosed with dementia brought on by immoral living. On their first meeting, Jervaulx snatches Maddy and brings a razor to her throat, only to carve a series of lines and curves upon the table with it. While the duke's keepers see this as just another demonstration of his insanity, Maddy recognizes his carving for what it is - a complex mathematical equation.

Christian Langland, Duke of Jervaulx, has been trapped in his own malfunctioning mind for months. He knows who he is, he knows what his life should be like, but he's helpless to communicate the truth to other people. When people speak to him, all he can hear is gibberish - similarly, when he tries to speak, his mouth can't form the words. The only language his mind can focus on is mathematical - and when Maddy returns to him in secret with the answer to his equation, he surprises them both by speaking his first words since his stroke - "cosine function."

Despite her former disgust for his indecent and immoral behaviour, Maddy knows that Christian is damaged, but not insane. Moreover, the more she learns about the asylum's barbaric "moral therapy," the more she believes that Christian does not belong here, and that perhaps it is her duty - her God-given duty - to help Christian recover and prove his sanity.

If I could name the two elements I love most in great romance, and what I loved most in this romance, they would be Conflict and Drama - both external and internal. Flowers from the Storm delivers it in spades, all of which revolves around the central theme of Control.

Externally, Christian spends the novel fighting to retain control over his legal standing in society, his powers of consent and his authority over his estates, finances, and titles. His avaricious brothers-in-law are all too willing to send him back to the asylum in order to control his wealth for themselves, and unless he can prove his competency, he is powerless over his own destiny.

However, his most difficult battle is the one within himself - psychologically, he's fully intact, but neurologically, his language abilities (reading, writing, speaking, and comprehending) have been severely impaired. Reading about how Christian has to come to grips with his impairment is wrenching - Laura Kinsale powerfully conveys the agony, the rage, the shame of a man born to power who is suddenly denied the ability to speak his own name without hours of practice. Even after he's let out of the asylum, he's still trapped by the limitations of his handicap. My heart broke for him about a dozen times throughout this novel, this man who has every scrap of pride stripped away from him again and again.

And yet, what saves him is his dependence - his dependence on Maddy. Maddy's development operates in reverse - a woman who is accustomed to ceding control who is inspired by God to disagree with and even defy those she would normally obey in order to do what she believes is right. Maddy is a Quaker, and her religion and upbringing are incredibly important to her character - and also a key source of conflict in her relationship with Christian.

And yet taking control leaves her just as confused and uncertain as Christian's sudden loss of control. She's used to being told what to do, to obeying the precepts of her religious elders, to sitting in silence and allowing God to speak to her during the Meetings. While she believes she's been called by God to rescue Christian, her support of him leads her into conflict with a great deal of her upbringing. He's a powerful Duke whose estate spends and controls an enormous amount of capital, something the thrifty, lower-class Maddy has no idea how to deal with. As a result, she can sometimes come across as wishy-washy, because she's a naturally passive person who's more comfortable ceding to someone else's authority than enforcing her own.

More points go to Laura Kinsale for portraying neither lifestyle as the "better" one - Maddy does help Christian improve himself as a man, but she doesn't "cure" Christian of the ills of profligate spending and luxurious dress and convert him to the ways of Quakerism. Similarly, Maddy doesn't suddenly open her eyes and discover that Quakers are repressive cultists and that her greatest dream is to wear low-cut gowns hand-sewn by blind Catholic nuns or some such nonsense. Christian is still an aristocrat, and Maddy's Quaker upbringing remains in her life - and that conflict remains even by the end of the novel. It just isn't enough of a conflict to impede their love for each other.

And what a love it is. This book will wring you emotionally dry - these two protagonists are defined as much by their flaws as by their strengths, and those flaws are not "fixed" by the end of the novel. You will be frustrated and angry and despairing while reading this book - I realize that up until now my review may sound very objective and unemotional, but this is a book you will tear through at a frantic clip. These characters have to suffer a great deal before they get to the end - and Laura Kinsale will ensure you suffer right along with them. In the good way, honest.

Okay, if I had to brutally honest - Flowers from the Storm doesn't topple Prince of Midnight from its pedestal as my favourite Kinsale, but it's still a profoundly emotional, epic character-driven romance.A+

Saturday, January 01, 2011

"Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West," by Gregory Maguire

The Heroine: Elphaba Thropp, a.k.a. "The Wicked Witch of the West." Apparently born mean and green, this neglected daughter of an aristocrat and a religious minister nevertheless seeks to understand her world and whether she can make a difference in it, despite her outcast status.
The Rub: The land of Oz has been overtaken by a despotic Wizard and his repressive government - is Elphaba doing the right thing by fighting against what she believes is evil? Or by doing so is she becoming a different kind of evil?

The Supporting Cast:

Galinda/Glinda: Elphaba's blond, popular classmate at Shiz University. Privileged, spoiled, but still pestered by a burgeoning social conscience.

Boq: Short Munchinkinlander with a crush on Glinda, who is nevertheless one of the first people to befriend Elphaba and become involved in her causes.

Nessarose: Elphaba's crippled sister, and their father's favourite. First owner of the Ruby Slippers. Possibly a religious fanatic.

Nanny: Elphaba and Nessarose's childhood nurse. Total Bad-Ass MoFo.

Fiyero: A nomadic Arjiki prince who meets Elphaba in Shiz University, and later conducts a romantic affair with her.

The Wizard: Big Ol' Bag of Dicks, politics-wise. A very bad dude.

Madame Morrible: Head of Shiz University, and a very bad dudette - and a possible recruiter for the Wizard's secret service.

The Word:
I hate books that don't make sense.

I really hate well-reviewed, "literary" books that don't make sense, because as little as I want to admit it, I sometimes do buy into the Emperor's New Clothes aspect of literary reception - where if I don't enjoy or "get" a well-received book, I tend to think it's because something is wrong with me rather than with the book itself. I'm too stupid to get the references. I'm too shallow or superficial to enjoy the theological and moral debates. I'm an ignorant philistine, etc. etc.

Well, that's how I feel about Wicked. But by now, after years of reviewing, I should know better. I should believe that with my intelligence, education, and experience, if I don't like a book, there is a reason for it. It may not be everyone's reason, but it's mine, and I'll try to explain it.

I opened this book expecting it to be a character study - a view of The Wizard of Oz from the side of the Wicked Witch of the West. However, characters factor fairly low on the novel's list of priorities - along with consistent worldbuilding and fantasy development.

But to make this fun - let's have the Wicked Drinking Game, where we take a shot every time we have a plot point that's unexplained or a newly introduced idea that goes nowhere.

In the eastern corner of Oz (Munchkinland), the wife of a minister gives birth to a green baby with sharp, sharklike teeth. How does this happen, exactly? Take a shot. However, the minister takes this as a sign from the Unnamed God that he's being punished for a lack of faith and decides to become more aggressive in his ministry, going so far as to uproot his young family and make them all missionaries.

The novel shoots ahead many years later, as a privileged, social-climbing upper-class girl named Galinda arrives at the prestigious Shiz University only to discover she'll be rooming with a strange, green girl named Elphaba. Despite her initial dislike of her prickly roommate who prefers speaking in stilted, pretentious dialogue (why? Take a shot!) Galinda and Elphaba grow closer in their studies, eventually learning that life in Oz outside the walls of the university is not as rose-tinged as their Head, Madame Morrible, would have them believe. Prejudice and bigotry run rampant, especially against Animals (note the capitalization - animals with sentience and the power of speech), and the Wizard who rules Oz apparently supports their disenfranchisement.

Despite their growing friendship, Galinda and Elphaba change when their Goat instructor, Professor Dillamond, is brutally murdered. When their attempt to bring the matter of the Professor's research of the true differences between Humans and Animals to the Wizard is disregarded, Elphaba decides to drop out of sight and join an underground resistance against the Wizard's tyranny, while Glinda, rather randomly, marries an old, rich dude (why? Take a shot!).

But that whole Animal prejudice business, is it resolved or even a major part of the plot? Take a shot! After this scene, the rest of the book really gives up on any kind of coherent plot, and mainly follows Elphaba around until the inevitable clash with Dorothy. She spends time as a terrorist, falls in love with a (married) former classmate, tries to make amends with the spurned wife of said classmate after their affair goes horribly awry, unintentionally kills two people with her thoughts (how? Take a shot!), and decides to refer to herself as a Witch despite possessing no inborn magical talent (why?? Take another freakin' shot!).

The story is built around all these random encounters, interactions that go nowhere, magical powers or objects that magically appear right when they're most needed and go away when they're not, none of which are explained. Similarly, the characters don't really act like people - their decisions and actions and reactions seem very abrupt and convenient.

Which makes the type of book I least like to read: the Idea-Driven Book. A book where the author has an Idea, one they want to explore and discuss, but instead of making a long-ass essay about it, they try to explain and display their Idea within the context of a narrative. Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but in the more extreme cases of Idea-Driven Books, the strength of the Idea comes at the expense of the Characters - in Wicked's case, the characters and the magical plot devices and the worldbuilding are all ciphers meant to help explain the Idea, rather than narrative elements that are well-developed on their own.

In Wicked's case, the Idea is Morality - what it is? What affects it? How does religion affect it? How does the lack of religion affect morality? How does morality change or suffer when it has to be applied by one dominant person to a large group? And while it's certainly a worthy idea for discussion, I think the examination of morality in the characters is doomed to fail if one doesn't bother to examine or develop the characters themselves.

I sympathized with Elphaba occasionally, but more frequently I was put off by the stilted dialogue, her sudden shifts in mood or temperament, or the random and unexplained appearance of a magical object that directly influences her character development (like the flying broomstick, a truly puzzling plot device - who exactly gave it to her and why? Take a shot!).

So as it was, the book failed to grab me. It's dark, it's depressing, it's frequently nonsensical and inconsistent and pretentious. I like to read about characters that act like people, and not like puppets for rhetoric. Failing to grasp the brilliance of Wicked may make me a phillistine, but so be it.