Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year In Review

Well, 2011 was an interesting year for me, both reading- and life-wise. The biggest change, of course, is that I finally moved out into my first apartment, and that affected my reading habits in a number of ways. Firstly - moving took a lot of time and planning, and left little time for reading. Secondly, carrying more than 300 books from my parents' house to my tiny apartment really put my reading and book-buying habits in perspective. Thirdly, I discovered Tumblr, which is the timesuck to end all timesucks.

Lastly, and this is the kicker - the apartment I ended up moving into is only twelve blocks away from where I work, so I've now been walking to and from work every day. It's nice. It's relaxing. And I save money because I only really take the bus to go to specific places like the mall or my parents' house for Sunday dinner.

But let me put this into perspective - I was raised in a suburb. I've more or less been taking public transportation to and from school/work/social life since I was seven years old. Waiting for the bus, taking the bus, transferring - that has essentially given me two times a day, every day, for the majority of my self-aware life that I can lose myself in a good book. That's not to say I don't read at other times, not at all - but suddenly not having those two times put a significant dent in my reading pace, and suddenly I had to find a time to read more. The result is that my reading slowed down considerably this past year, and I've only started bringing it back up to scratch recently.

....but I also got an XBox 360 for Christmas so who really knows at this point?

Anyhoo, all told, I only managed to review 38 novels, slightly less than half the number of books I read last year (79).

In writing news, I scrapped my fantasy romance The Duke of Snow and Apples, and have been rewriting it as a YA, tentatively titled Snow and Apples, and actually won NaNoWriMo for the first time because of it! A lot of people asked about the change, and really there are a lot of reasons, but mainly I did it because I actually feel a lot more comfortable reading YA. I have a young mindset, a young voice, and I'm still inexperienced in a lot of ways and I personally realized that by writing romance at this stage in my life, I was bound to wander into territory in which I have no personal experience and would have to rely on derivative writing.

But, despite my lower reading rate, I did manage to read a lot of very brilliant, as well as mind-meltingly terrible books this year. As I have done in Previous Year Round Ups, I'm basing my Best and Worst lists based on letter grade rather than number. My Best List is Comprised of all my A+ reviews, and anything that received a D+ or lower made it onto the Worst List.


Your Scandalous Ways,
by Loretta Chase. Romance. A+
It's really, really hard to go wrong with Loretta Chase. One of Chase's best features is her use of unconventional settings in her historical romances. This sumptuous novel takes place in Venice, as a jaded spy tracks down a notorious courtesan who's suspected of hiding letters that could unmask a traitor to England. Take a heroine who is entirely unashamed of her oldest (and highest paying!) profession and pair her with a hero who thought his spirit of adventure had all but died out, and what you get is a richly evocative, unconventional, and exotic romance.

A Lady Awakened, by Cecelia Grant. Romance. A+
And now we move on to the brilliant debut by Cecelia Grant. Her rigidly practical and controlled heroine also turns sex into a business venture, when she pays an irresponsible rake to have sex with her in the hopes of conceiving a false heir to prevent an actual scoundrel from inheriting her husband's estate. Her refusal to enjoy the act, however, forces the good-hearted and determined hero to take drastic romantic measures.

Indiscreet, by Carolyn Jewel. Romance. A+
Jewel also gives us an historical romance with an unconventional setting - when our heartbroken hero meets our ruined heroine in Turkey, only to end up having to rescue her from an evil pasha's harem. Lush detail, vibrant settings, and a meticulously developed hero and heroine make this a novel a true gem.

The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale. Romance. A+
Of course, my Best-Of List would be meaningless without a Laura Kinsale title on it. It seems that Exotic Settings were my ultimate kink this year - Chase gave me Venice, Jewel gave me Turkey, and here Kinsale gives us Hawaii - where our ninja-trained hero was raised before travelling to Victorian London to unexpectedly fall in love with a penniless seamstress. Yes, he's a ninja. With ninja powers. And secret babies and sharks and demon swords all factor into this story. Kinsale flawlessly combines outwardly weird story elements into a fascinating and entertaining whole.

Flowers from the Storm, by Laura Kinsale. Romance. A+
Yes, Laura Kinsale made my list twice. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Flowers is Kinsale's acknowledged masterpiece - a heartbreaking tale of an arrogant, brilliant mathematician Duke who is brought low by a stroke and deprived of his ability to produce and comprehend speech. He is rescued, in more ways than one, by a Quaker heroine who, while pious, is far from simple. A breathtaking novel.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Cathrynne M. Valente. YA. A+
Valente broke my heart with The Orphan's Tales, and she puts it back together again with this Victorian-influenced children's novel about an enterprising young girl who travels to fairyland and discovers it's not all fluffy, Disney cuteness. Uniquely lovely and horrifying as only the best children's fiction can be - because it's not a real adventure if you don't have the pants scared off you at least once.

Now, much like the Force, there was also a Dark Side to my reading experience this year. I've been quite sparing with my F grades on my blog - and this year, I gave out two. Without further ado, here are:


Tumbling Through Time, by Gwen Cready. Romance. D+
This hot mess of a novel messes with time travel, alternate histories, metafiction, Patrick O'Brien novels, Colin Firth, and fashionable shoes and completely fails to bind any of it together with any sort of logic or sense. Our heroine is apparently thinking of writing a novel, then gets transported - thanks to a Gypsy-cursed pair of shoes - back in time to deal with the irate hypothetical character of her hypothetical novel, who is simultaneously an historical figure in the middle of a war that is actually happening, while an unexplained entity possesses the heroine's body in the present and gives it a boob tattoo while simultaneously trying to have sex with a bunch of people. Confused yet?

Lord of Legends, by Susan Krinard. Romance. D
The hero is a unicorn who is transformed into a human man by an evil fairy prince in order to seduce a half-fairy woman into the fairy realm, but what really doesn't make sense about this ponderous, hypocritical and misogynist romance is how the hero manages to be so completely uninteresting while doing it. The author also clearly indicates to us who is the Heroine and who is the Villainess - the villainess is the woman who has a lot of consensual, enjoyable sex with a lot of people, whereas the heroine is the Pure Virgin who looks down on adulterers while having sex with a unicorn man while her husband is MIA. The moral of the story is, If You Have Sex and You're A Woman, You're Evil - Unless the Man Your Cuckholding Your Husband With Is A Unicorn.

Until You, by Judith McNaught. Romance. D
Another book in Judith McNaught's "Brain Injuries Make Romance Easy" series of insultingly twee, misogynist romances. A shapely redhead takes a blow to the head in front of a wealthy Earl who mistakes her for a highborn beauty, and her subsequent mental disabilities (particularly her inability to understand sex, ambition, or social rules) render her incredibly attractive to the hero. Until she actually remembers her own name - then she's tossed out on her ass as a "lying whore" and has to beg the jaded, woman-hating hero to take her back.

The Lady and the Libertine, by Bonnie Vanak. Romance. F
A helpful book for women who've been drugged, kidnapped, and either blackmailed or coerced into having sex with violent stalkers - it just means he's in love with you and it's up to you to change him into a better person! In this lovely novel, the hero steals a sacred jewel from a damaged heroine, threatens to take her to jail unless she has sex with him when she tries to steal it back, and then chloroforms her and ties her naked to a cathouse bed when she refuses to marry him. But it's because he's so tortured!

Whitney My Love, by Judith McNaught. Romance. F-
Yes, McNaught made it twice on my Worst List. Surprised? The ultimate in romance fail - where the heroine is just so stubborn, feisty and unconventional that the hero is simply forced to hit her, sexually assault her, and rape her in order to get her to see reason. And of course, when the hero discovers that his Perfectly Logical Reasons for treating the heroine like garbage are wrong - well, he's just Too Proud and Majestic to be Allowed to Apologize. Wrong and hateful on nearly every level. Whitney, My Love is my Worst Read of 2011. Congrats!

And now, the best of the rest:

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. YA. A-
Pros: Great social examination of media. Cons: So-so sci-fi worldbuilding.

A Dance with Dragons, by George R. R. Martin. Fantasy. A-
Pros: Vastly detailed world and characters. Cons: Slow pacing.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. Fiction. A-
Pros: Lovely characters and English village setting. Cons: Bizarre ending.

Lady Isabella's Scandalous Marriage, by Jennifer Ashley. Romance. B+
Pros: Well-drawn characters and realistic romantic conflict. Cons: Completely unnecessary suspense subplot.

Lord Carew's Bride, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B+
Pros: A delicious Beta hero and a kickass ending. Cons: Low conflict.

A Summer to Remember, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B+
Pros: Great characters and character development, particularly the heroine. Cons: Slow pacing.

Room, by Emma Donaghue. Fiction. B+
Pros: Terrific premise, excellent use of limited/unreliable POV. Cons: Constant kid-speak can be irritating.

The American Heiress, by Daisy Goodwin. Fiction. B+
Pros: Lovely detail, lots of drama. Cons: Ending abrupt and somewhat unsatisfying.

Here On Earth, by Alice Hoffman. Fiction. B+
Pros: Great secondary characters, creative re-telling of Wuthering Heights. Cons: It's Wuthering Heights.

The House At Riverton, by Kate Morton. Fiction. B+
Pros: Great atmosphere, good upstairs-downstairs drama and historical detail. Cons: Some "surprise" plot points obviously telegraphed.

His At Night, by Sherry Thomas. Romance. B+
Pros: Gorgeous writing, laugh-out-loud comedy. Cons: Fake identity renders romance slightly unbelievable.

Dark Angel, by Mary Balogh. Romance. B
Pros: Interesting hero with a dark past. Cons: Uneven pacing and conflict.

Forbidden, by Jo Beverley. Romance. B
Pros: Virgin beta hero, interesting conflict. Cons: Too much inner whining.

The Summer of You, by Kate Noble. Romance. B
Pros: Excellent atmosphere and characterization. Cons: Flimsy plot.

One Night of Scandal, by Teresa Medeiros. Romance. B
Pros: Heroine is delightful beyond all reason. Cons: Hero is mopey beyond all reason.

Then He Kissed Me, by Christine Ridgway. Romance. B
Pros: Complex secondary romance. Cons: Shallow primary romance.

Bad to the Bone, by Jeri Smith-Ready. Urban Fantasy. B
Pros: Unique vampire worldbuilding. Cons: Doesn't work as a standalone.

I'm Not Her, by Janet Gurtler. YA. B-
Pros: Good emotional development, realistic depictions. Cons: Relentlessly depressing, manipulative plotting.

Something About You, by Julie James. Romance. B-
Pros: Strong heroine, some nice humour. Cons: Romance isn't memorable, mystery plot isn't really a mystery.

Talk of the Town, by Karen Hawkins. Romance. B-
Pros: Interesting story idea. Cons: Cheesy secondary characters and corny small town setting.

Immortal Champion, by Lisa Hendrix. Romance. C+
Pros: Good historical detail, good secondary characters. Cons: Contrived conflict, annoying anachronistic heroine.

The Duff, by Kody Keplinger. YA. C+
Pros: Good interaction between heroine and friends. Cons: Dickwad hero, major family problems glossed over unrealistically.

The Sharing Knife, Volume One: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Fantasy. C+
Pros: Interesting worldbuilding. Cons: Ridiculously low conflict and slack pacing.

To Ruin the Duke, by Debra Mullins. Romance. C+
Pros: Sensible protagonists. Cons: Cray-cray storyline.

Tangled Up In Love, by Heidi Betts. Romance. C
Pros: Some interesting protagonist interactions. Cons: Exaggerated conflict, too many Meddling Matchmakers.

Something Borrowed, by Emily Giffin. Chick Lit. C
Pros: Solid writing. Cons: Bitter, envious, passive heroine is a major drag, and conflict is lessened by the Major Bitchification of the romantic rival.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire. Fiction. C
Pros: Well, it probably sounded like a good idea at the time. Cons: Pretentious, poorly-plotted, nonsensical "symbolic" bullshit.

The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount, by Julia London. Romance. C-
Pros: Uh, the book fits easily into a purse. Cons: Starts conflicts but doesn't finish them, plot is flimsy, character development makes no sense.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"I'm Not Her," by Janet Gurtler

The Heroine: Tess Smith. A misunderstood teenage outcast with an insanely popular older sister who sucks up all their parents' attention. Stop me if you've heard this one before.
The Rub: The insanely popular older sister gets cancer, has an painful identity crisis, and their parents both decide to check out early from the Responsible Parenthood Hotel, leaving only Tess to try and make sense of things.

The Secondary Cast:
Kristina: A star athlete with a guaranteed future ahead of her - until she gets cancer and has to change her whole outlook on life.

Mr. and Mrs. "Parents of the Year" Smith: One's a boozy perfectionist, the other's a professor with a Ph.D in avoidance. Neither of them know how to handle their older daughter's cancer or how to nurture their younger daughter's genuine artistic talent.

Simon: A troubled senior with *~brooding problems~* who nevertheless befriends Tess in her hour of need.

Clark Trent: A Hot Nerd with an unfortunate-sounding name who also befriends Tess in her hour of need, in a much healthier and more productive way.

Jeremy: A younger kid with a serious crush on Kristina, and a past that brings him closer to her than any other boy.

YA Convention Checklist:

1 More Popular Sister

2 Unsupportive Parents

1 Evil Bitch Ex-BFF

1 Troubled Love Interest

1 Nerdy Love Interest

1 McGuffin Art Contest

1 Shocking and Yet Manipulative Character Death

The Word: If someone had explained to me, on paper, what this book was about and what happened throughout, I would never have read this book. I would have put it down without a second thought, believing that I would never enjoy anything so relentlessly depressing and only mildly hopeful at the end.

But then I would be wrong. Now, I didn't luuuurve this novel, but honestly, I was just so surprised that I kept wanting to read to the end that I thought I would point that out as notable.

Because a lot of bad stuff happens in this book. Like, tragedy after tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. It just piles on, over and over, with very little if any relief for any of the characters, particularly the protagonist, Tess.

Tess is a bit of an oddball. She's plagued with low self-esteem because her older sister Kristina is gorgeous, outrageously popular, and has an Olympic-sized volleyball dream that their mother supports 110%. Meanwhile, Tess is bony, red-haired, and neither of her parents believe her artistic aspirations will be anything more than a hobby. She's used to being invisible at school, ignored by all in favour of her more popular sister. Her only friend is a chubby, vindictive fellow outcast with whom she loves to snipe and bitch about their despised sisters.

But then Kristina gets The Cancer. And it sucks, big time. As she gets chemotherapy and starts fighting her illness, she drops off the social grid entirely and swears Tess to secrecy. No dice - it takes all of five seconds for the school to realize Kristina's missing and the only source they have for information is Tess. Soon, Tess becomes the most visible girl in school, as everyone from Kristina's volleyball friends to her sort-of, maybe boyfriend starts hanging around Tess to find out how Kristina is doing.

And Kristina gets worse. And their parents flip out - Tess' dad detaches from the family entirely, and her mom busies herself with wallpapering over all their real problems to try and make up for the fact that the future she's imagined for her daughter will never take place. It's pretty heavy stuff.

And I kept reading. There are breadcrumbs of hope, scattered here and there. They are pitiful and small, for the most part, until they slowly, eventually, form into a cohesive message. I think the point of the book is that the fact that Tess doesn't fly entirely, completely to pieces beneath the full pressure of shitful fate is supposed to be some kind of victory. Her parents break, and Kristina breaks, and the popular kids reveal whose side they're really on, and through this Tess learns to develop an identity separate from other peoples' approval, as she discovers how little she can trust those people in a tough situation. Which is a message that's as depressing as it is uplifting.

Ultimately, though, this book was kind of a mixed bag for me. While the dramatic, tragic parts were handled in a painful yet evocative manner, the positive bits were all over the place. We get a lot of different characters who aren't all fleshed out with the same amount of sensitivity and detail. Tess's spiteful friend, for instance, gets the short shrift, turning into a sour, one-note villain. I couldn't understand why they were friends in the first place. As well, some of the plot points come across as contrivances to force more pain or negative pressure on the heroine to see how she develops from it, only it doesn't develop in an organic way. A shocking character death near the end of the novel is brought in so clumsily and obviously that it's almost funny in how blatant it is, and that kind of ruined the effect and gave the novel a cancer-opera feel similar to a Lurlene McDaniel novel.

While it wasn't a terrible novel, I wouldn't read it again, nor would I know who to recommend it to. The gains to the heroine and the message of the novel itself are fairly standard, and seem paltry compared to the bleakness of the majority of the book. Perhaps teenagers and people who've struggled with cancer (or with a family member who had it) will get more out of this novel than I could. To me, it was like medicine: useful, well-made, but not a voluntarily enjoyable experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

"A Lady Awakened," by Cecilia Grant

The Chick: Martha Russell. When her husband dies, she's left with nothing but an estate that will go to her despicable brother-in-law - unless she can produce an heir within the next nine months.
The Rub: Since her husband didn't do the job himself, she'll have to find someone who can, and the newly-arrived Theo seems as good a stud as any.
Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.

The Dude: Theophilus Mirkwood. A profligate rascal banished to the countryside to mend his ways, he'll have to prove his worth to his tenants and his father's steward if he wants to return to his high-flying ways in London.
The Rub: Associating with the forward-thinking, well-respected widow Russell does wonders for his reputation - and that's not even mentioning the 500 pounds she's paying him for sex!
Dream Casting: A younger Brad Pitt.

The Plot:Martha: I need a baby!

Theo: I need a project!

Martha: I'll pay you 500 pounds if we have sex!

Theo: YAY!

Martha: Hey hey hey! I'm not paying you for orgasms!

Theo: Wut.

Martha: You heard me. Babies only. None of that flimsy fun stuff.

Theo: Hey, I'm giving tenants new roofs.

Martha: Oh, really? New roofs? They'll have better shelter.

Theo: Oh yeah, they'll be much better off - and less water damage to the structure.

Martha: Oh, baby.

Theo: You like that, don't you? Improved living circumstances to the economically disadvantaged.

Martha: Keep going, don't stop!

Theo: And I'm going to build a dairy.

Martha: You BUILD that dairy!

Theo: And create a higher-quality product for a lower cost, creating an economic stimulus.

Martha: Oooh, keep stimulating that economy, right there....

Theo: I'm getting all RESPONSIBLE LANDOWNER up in here!

Martha: Wow. I'm totally pregnant now. Screw propriety, let's get married!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Ho For Show

500 Pounds on the Dresser

Several Denied Orgasms

1 Nasty Rapist

1 Determined Pig

Several Unsatisfying Wheels of Cheese

1 Unsatisfying Husband (Deceased)

1 Upright and Religious Romantic Rival

The Word:
Unless I come across a miraculous page-turner within the next sixteen days, this book is the best book I've read all year.

The author kindly offered me an ARC, and I accepted - but when the book arrived I kind of put it on my shelf and forgot about it.

Mea culpa. This is just one of those lovely, slow-burning, intricately written stories that manages to avoid NEARLY EVERY BURNING CLICHE I ABSOLUTELY DESPISE about historical romances.

Martha Russell needs a baby. Her husband is recently deceased, her brightest prospect is a position as a dependent in her brother's household, and Mr. Russell's entire estate will go to a slimeball of a brother with a vicious sexual reputation - unless Martha can convince people that Hubby Dearest took the time to pop a legitimate bun in her oven before riding out to break his neck.

Opportunity strikes when Theophilus Mirkwood arrives in town - an impossibly charming and promiscuous wastrel who has been stripped of his allowance and banished to the countryside by his father in order to mend his ways. He is shocked when the very prim Mrs. Russell very politely offers him 500 pounds to copulate with her once a day, every day, for a month - with the promise of 1500 more if their arrangement results in a boy she can pass off as Mr. Russell's posthumous heir.

Theo, who considers himself a thoughtful, thorough, and experienced lover (don't they all, though?), is even more shocked, however, at Martha's intentional and determined refusal to experience pleasure during the act, despite Theo's absolute best efforts. She'll have her cake, thank you, but she doesn't care to eat it, too.

Now, before you start thinking, Oh, she's one of *those* historical heroines. Another orgasmless widow? - keep reading. Martha is an exceptional, sensational, deeply moral, and uniquely wonderful character. She's a hen's tooth of an historical heroine who knows first hand about pleasure (if you catch my drift), but she's also witnessed the exploitation of women at the hands of men (both with her mother and her draining parade of pregnancies, and in the female tenants and servants she's responsible for). This knowledge has left her pathologically opposed to dependence of any kind.

For Theo, taking his pleasure without giving his partner any goes severely against his personal Rake Code, so when his many attempts to seduce her fail, he tries to please her in other ways - by talking to her, asking for her expertise and guidance on tending his estate, and studying ways to improve the lives of his tenants. To his surprise, not only does this work, but he starts enjoying it as well.

And oh, the protagonists. I loved them both equally, their idiosyncrasies and fears and motivations, and I love the fact that Cecilia Grant manages to create such wonderful characters without giving them some traumatizing or ridiculously momentous backstories to explain the way they act. Not that I don't like dramatic backstories, but it's refreshing to realize that one doesn't need to witness their parents die in a flaming carriage accident to become an interesting, flawed character.

Martha is a magnificent Swiss watch of a woman, precise, rigidly practical, controlled and well-ordered, with a strong sense of righteousness that sometimes goes a wee bit too far (honestly, deciding to provide a fake heir to jilt a guy based on sixteen-year-old rumours is the flimsiest part of the novel). However, as a result, she has severe social blind spots and is rather isolated from her community. But I adored her. She's strong and she's independent and aside from one iffy motivation ("this person allegedly raped an unknown woman sixteen years ago according to hearsay? I can't let him have his birthright!") she is a damn smart woman who knows how to survive in her environment.

Theo, meanwhile.... Mmmmm, Theo. He's a spoiled, lazy, charming, cheerful, thoroughly enjoyable rake who, even at the tender age of twenty-six, is starting to tire of no one taking him seriously or expecting much from him. Really, the only thing he's practiced or improved upon in his life is his skill at giving ladies Sexy HappyTimes, and Martha won't even let him do that. But as he tries getting her involved in his estate management in an effort to impress her, he starts making a difference and taking initiative, and finding something that he's actually good at. Reading how Theo grows up is just as wonderful as watching Martha loosen up.

What I love about the romance itself is that it develops almost entirely separate from sex. They knock boots within the first couple of chapters, and quickly establish that it's a businesslike arrangement between them (and is written as such). Almost all of their important interactions happen after sex, after the "duty" is fulfilled and they can relax enough to talk to each other.

The sex only becomes an act of pleasure after they fall in love with each other. Theo doesn't one day try some mysterious Far Eastern sex move and Martha doesn't magically discover her g-spot for the first time. Martha herself sets the perimeters of her sexual enjoyment - she doesn't want to surrender herself, sexually, to a man she doesn't admire and respect. And, without spoiling too much, she never does.
Thought-provoking, gorgeously written, flawlessly characterized, A Lady Awakened is a breathtaking debut from Cecilia Grant, who with her first book, proves herself worthy of the same bookshelf as Laura Kinsale, Mary Balogh, Sherry Thomas, Carolyn Jewel, Jo Goodman, and Judith Ivory.A+

"The House At Riverton," by Kate Morton

The Protagonist: Grace Bradley, a 98-year-old retiree who is asked by a filmmaker to provide historical details and advice for a movie to take place at Riverton, the house where Grace served as a maid as a young woman.
The Rub: The film is specifically about the tragic suicide of a famous war poet, but Grace, as the last surviving person who knows what really happened, is at last inspired to reveal the truth.

The Supporting Cast:

Hannah Hartford: Elder granddaughter of Lord Ashbury. Suffers from "progressive ideas." Wants to explore and make a difference in England's political scene, but her gender and class bar her from that dream.

Emmeline Hartford: Hannah's younger sister. Bit of a wild child, grows up to be a film actress.

Robbie Hunter: A friend and war buddy of Hannah and Emmeline's brother David. Becomes a soulful war poet. His violent death sets the stage for the novel's central mystery.

Alfred: A footman on (more than?) friendly terms with Grace who returns from the First World War greatly changed.

Marcus: Grace's grandson, a mystery writer who dropped off the grid to grieve over his wife's death. Grace starts recording her memories to give to him, in the event that he returns.

Frederick Hartford: Hannah and Emmeline's father. The second son of a lord whose business prospects invariably fail, he also shares a secret connection to Grace's mother.
The Word: In a way, the pacing of this story reminded me of a mixture of Downton Abbey and Titanic.

Downton Abbey, naturally, because like the BBC miniseries, we have an aristocratic family in the early twentieth century whose ancestral estate has an uncertain heir situation, and their lives are also witnessed and examined by their watchful servants.

And like the film Titanic, the story is narrated by the lone remaining, incredibly elderly survivor of the novel's central events, who, also like the Titanic's Rose, (here be spoilers)

In The House at Riverton, 98-year-old Grace Bradley is approached by an American film director who wants to make a movie about the events in 1924 at an English manor called Riverton House, where an up-and-coming war poet named R. S. Hunter committed suicide.

Back in those days, Grace worked as a maid at Riverton House, which was owned by Lord and Lady Ashbury. Specifically, she helped wait on Lord Ashbury's granddaughters, Hannah and Emmeline - two sisters who, along with Grace, were the only witnesses to Robbie Hunter's death. While Grace starts out as an invisible observer of the lives of Hannah, Emmeline, and their brother David, she is eventually drawn into their lives by chance, becoming Hannah's particular confidante. Through her eyes, we learn the backstory of the siblings, their family situation, the upstairs-downstairs politics that Grace defies in order to befriend Hannah, and the actual real-world politics that the headstrong Hannah longs to involve herself in.

Grace is an observant, thoughtful and very human narrator, going back and forth between the events of the past, and the trials of the present. For instance, after getting a glimpse of what the upcoming Riverton film is going to look like, Grace hopes to make a recording of what really happened to pass on to her beloved grandson, Marcus, before her health ultimately fails.

There's no real mind-altering, ground-breaking story to be told here (for instance, the truth of Grace's parentage can be easily guessed within the first few chapters), but it's a solidly-developed, detailed, and well-told story about secrets and class differences and the progress of history. It's a colourful and textured snapshot of rural English aristocracy from 1915 to 1924, that is itself contrasted against the (more) modern backdrop of 1999, where the "present" part of the story takes place. There's tragedy and renewal, death and betrayal and unexpected love.

I know that it sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the novel. It's a nice, meaty historical with interesting characters, excellent historical detail and context, upstairs-downstairs drama, and a tragic romance. For a novel to curl up with in a soft armchair by a fire, this is an excellent choice.B+

Sunday, December 04, 2011

"Immortal Champion," by Lisa Hendrix

The Chick: Lady Eleanor de Neville. When a brave knight saves her from a burning building, she envisions him as the perfect champion to rescue her from an unwanted marriage.
The Rub: Unbeknownst to her, this rescue will be four years and countless pages of angst in coming.Dream Casting: Zooey Deschanel.

The Dude: Gunnar the Red. Cursed to be a bull by day and a man by night, he's in love with Eleanor, but will she still love him if she knows the truth?
The Rub: While his feelings are true, he still has 600-year-old Slutty Ex Issues to deal with.Dream Casting: Gerard Butler.

The Plot:

Eleanor: Help! A fire!

Gunnar: 'Sup. *saves*

Eleanor: OMG, you're so amazing! We should totally run away together, what's your favourite colour, I wonder what we'd wear if we got married...

Four Years Later...

Eleanor: ...and I would like to have three girls and three boys, and at least one of them would have to be named Mary, because hello, we're barely out of the Middle Ages, and our first house would be...

Gunnar: How the hell are you still talking about that? Er, I mean, yay, romantic?

Random Storyteller: Did I ever tell you guys the story of how a bull totally turned into a sexy man and got it on with a lady?

Eleanor: No but do go on even though it's not like this story will have any future relevance to me!
Gunnar (as a bull): *un-bull-ed**re-man-ified*

Eleanor: Well shit. Who knew? Let's get it on!

Gunnar: Wow, REALLY?

Eleanor's Dad: Hell no. Then the novel would be too short! Eleanor, go marry some Random Dude! We need at least three more chapters of angst!

Eleanor: Argh, FINE.

Eleanor's Sweetiepie "Sir Cellophane" Husband: *dies*

Gunnar: Can we get married now?

Eleanor: No, first you have to get all pissy and air out your Slutty Dead Wife Issues.

Gunnar: Can we get married NOW?

Cwen: Dude, I haven't even gotten to cackle yet! *defeated* Crap.


Eleanor: FINE!

Gunnar: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 (Not Quite) Unbreakable Curse

3 Hot Viking Manfriends

1 Lady Seduction

1 Surprisingly Loving, Decent, and Completely Unfairly Treated Romantic Rival
1 Fortuitous Use of Greek Mythology

1 Secondary Romance (between Lucy and Henry Percy)

1 Evil and Yet Somewhat Ineffective Witch

1 Bad Dad

1 Whore Wife (Deceased)
The Word: Okay, the here's the deets - Nine Hot Vikings killed One Poor Dude while trying to rob a treasure. The One Poor Dude had One Bad Mutha, a witch named Cwen, who, to punish the Nine Hot Vikings, cursed them to live half their days as animals and the other half as men, with pesky immortality thrown into the bargain.

So two of the vikings (in Immortal Warrior and Immortal Outlaw) have attained their (literal) happy endings, and the other seven are still on the trail of the evil witch, who had fled into hiding at the end of Immortal Outlaw.

This particular story takes place in 1408, and is, if not directly connected to the War of the Roses, is at least War of the Roses-adjacent. Gunnar, a Hot Viking who is a man by night and a bull by day, is sheltering from a bitter winter at a neighbouring castle when a fire breaks out. He rushes in and rescues a young 14-year-old girl named Eleanor from the flames. While Gunnar tells a white lie to the injured Eleanor that he will return, he wisely hightails it out of there before he can garner any more unwanted attention, but not quickly enough to escape becoming Eleanor's First and All-Consuming Crush.

Eleanor's to be wed, you see, to her cousin, Richard Le Dispenser ("Pez," to his mates?), and that concept squicks her out to a major degree. She spends the next four (!) years pining over Gunnar and daydreaming about him rescuing her from her dreary normal life.

Four years later, Gunnar runs into Eleanor again, totally by accident, and in one of the novel's most awkward moments, completely forgets who she is. Whoops. While Gunnar would much rather slip away to sit peacefully under his cork tree and smell flowers, Eleanor is not willing to let her brave knight slip away as easily as he did the last time. Eleanor turns up the seductive charm to eleven, pretty soon Gunnar can't bring himself to leave, and he and Eleanor start getting along famously.

And that's when the novel runs out of conflict. Gunnar and Eleanor hit it off right away, and there's little to no angst or arguing or friction between them (beyond the usual hey-sometimes-I-turn-into-a-wild-animal angst). For the next hundred or so pages the novel's pace completely bogs down into historical detail, more of Gunner and Eleanor Making Nice, and a secondary romance between Eleanor's maid Lucy and Henry Percy that isn't as relevant or interesting as it thinks it is.

The pacing is pretty much the albatross around this novel's neck. We get long stretches of lagging, conflict-less scenes, some sudden and blessed drama, then more moping scenes. The conflicts that come up don't arise so much from the actions of our protagonists as they do from "fate" or because they kind of need to happen, and similarly, aren't solved due to the actions or decisions of our characters but rather through convenient fate.

Eleanor would normally be squicked out by the idea of a man turning into a bull - until a storyteller conveniently decides to tell the tale of Zeus and Europa around the fire. Eleanor doesn't know Gunnar turns into a bull during the day - until she goes under a weird trance and then encounters him in bull form. Eleanor is eventually forced to marry Richard le Dispenser - but hey, he suddenly gets a cough and then dies. Eleanor and Gunnar are still separated by distance - until some random kidnappers carry Eleanor off (in an encounter that happens off screen, by the way) and all but dump her in Gunnar's lap. Huh. Well, that was convenient.

And then, right on cue, Cwen shows up to make her contracted M. Night-ish appearance to reveal She's Known the Heroine the Whole Time and try (and once again fail) to un-save the day.

As always, I love the settings and the way the characters are incorporated into different periods of English history but the incorporation isn't enough. There needs to be more conflict from the characters, and this has always been one of the series' weakest elements. We need genuine character conflict and it can't be "Secretly I Turn Into An Animal" every time.

To be fair, in Gunnar's case we have actual backstory from him (an unfaithful wife) that colours his interactions with Eleanor and his perceptions of her behaviour. I liked that, and it did contribute to some of the romantic conflict - but it wasn't enough. Most of their conflict arose from elements in the book keeping them apart rather than their own actions.

As for Eleanor - I'll put it mildly and say I didn't much care for her. She's selfish - not so selfish that I can completely despise her for being insane but selfish enough to dislike her and find her intensely annoying. She's manipulative, deceitful, ungrateful - but she's self-righteous about it in a way that seems very anachronistic to me. I compare her to Melanthe from Laura Kinsale's For My Lady's Heart.

Melanthe is the epitome of selfish manipulation and working things to further her own interests - but she accepts what she's doing, what the consequences may be, and what she's getting out of it. She does what she does because she is practical and she wants to survive. Eleanor does what she does because when she wants something, she wants it - hang the consequences. That's what annoyed me and made her come across as anachronistically 21st-century minded - she has the drive for independence but none of the practicality to appreciate or understand the consequences of her actions. She's in love and that's all that matters.

I tend to really dislike characters in historicals who either don't realize or choose to ignore the realities of their historical periods, or judge the people who do work with the realities of their historical periods. In this case, I actually felt sorry for Eleanor's husband, Richard. To Lisa Hendrix's infinite credit, he turns out to be neither impotent nor a giant prick. He's actually a sweetheart who respects and listens to his wife. And okay, so he's no bull, but getting to marry a wealthy, influential guy like that who is also Not a Wife Beating Asshole is kind of like winning the lottery in 1400s England and Eleanor treats its all like it's the worst kind of torture. Oh no, not the comfy chair!

But then again, throughout this series I've also been a huge sympathetic fangirl of Cwen, so take my subjective opinions with a grain of Nordic salt.

As it is, with an annoying heroine and slow pacing, I couldn't really get behind this particular Champion.

Friday, December 02, 2011

"The Duff," By Kody Keplinger

The Protagonist: Bianca Piper. When a crass classmate calls her "The Duff" (the Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her group of friends, she's forced to re-evaluate how she and other people view herself.
The Rub: When this assessment comes right before the collapse of her parents' marriage, Bianca turns to that same crass classmate, Wesley Rush, for physical comfort, and discovers he's also more than he seems.

The Supporting Cast

Wesley Rush: Teenage dirtbag with a heart of gold. Obvious love interest.

Casey: Bianca's BFF from early childhood. Also kind of weirdly possessive about who Bianca may or may not be dating.

Jessica: Bianca's other BFF, whom Casey and Bianca rescued from being enslaved by evil cheerleaders.

Toby Tucker: An erudite, soft-spoken nerd whom Bianca has a crush on.

YA Convention Checklist:

1 Nasty Nickname

1 Surprise Bitchslap

1 Poor Little Rich Boy

1 Secret Affair

1 Case of Parental Drama

1 Case of Grandparental Drama

1 Nerdy Romantic Rival
The Word: The book was a little hard to get into because the main character and her Obvious Love Interest are pretty much entirely unlikeable for the first half of the novel. Bianca, when we first meet her, is a prickly little sourpuss who resents having to squire her bubblier, happier, boobier and prettier friends around town.

One night, while she is determinedly not enjoying herself at a dance club, Wesley Rush, the school's resident Rich Popular Horndog, attempts to chat her up. In fact, he's only being nice to her because he thinks that showing kindness to the least attractive member of a group of pretty girls (i.e. The Duff - the Designated Ugly Fat Friend) is the quickest way to get into the prettier friends' prettier, thinner pants.

Of course, because either a) Wesley is an absolute fucking moron or b) we need an Inciting Incident to start the plot as well as name the book, Wesley tells Bianca all of this to her face, and then acts all surprised when an insulted Bianca not only refuses to guide his dick into her friends' jeans, but throws a drink in his face as well.

Of course, the name sticks, and all of Bianca's nameless insecurities comfortably slide under the Duff umbrella and she starts wondering if she's just the pessimistic third wheel to her boobtacular friends. It doesn't help that Wesley starts calling her "Duffy" whenever they cross paths. And, to not help things even MORE, when Bianca's Parental Drama gets the best of her, she starts having sex with Wesley because that experience is slightly less unpleasant than dealing with her mother's flighty cowardice and her father's impending return to alcoholism.

I tried to sympathize with Bianca, but for the first half of the novel she's such a bitter, cynical pill who just makes ridiculous snap judgments about everyone. For instance, she contemptibly calls the cheerleaders The Skinny Squad, despite the fact that her best friend is a cheerleader and none of the cheerleaders are particularly mean to her. Wesley is just as bad, a cartoonishly insensitive boor we're supposed to eventually identify with once we realize he has Poor Little Rich Boy syndrome, a nasty grandma, and has no dude friends except That One Gay Guy because he's incapable of not stealing their girlfriends.

And their fights aren't really very snappy. None of this witty, quickfire His Girl Friday banter - just Bianca lobbing low-blow insults at Wesley right before (and often right after) they have sex, with Wesley smirking and saying, "See you next week."

What I'm saying is that the "romance" element of this novel kind of stinks, and has a pretty easy resolution at the end - much like the far bigger problem of Bianca's father's alcoholism, which takes a surprisingly dark and vicious turn only to be glossed over under the Happy Ending Umbrella. The writing is simplistic - this was really the kind of book I was hoping to avoid when getting into YA because this was what I assumed most YA was like before Jennifer Echols and Suzanne Collins changed my life.

The novel has some bright spots - most of the scenes with Bianca and her friends, actually. While her friends are sort of portrayed as bubbleheads at the start, over the course of the book we learn the actual origins and politics of their friendship, so that it's not as simple as Wesley makes it out to be. It's not the Plainer Smart Friend paired with the Boobier Blonder Dumb Friends. More like the pessimist who's friends with a pair of optimists, they play off and complement each other. It's the strongest element of the novel, and one that kept me reading.

That being said, the rest of the book talks a big game but fails to play up to it. I'm sorry to say it, but in my pile of YA fiction, this book is pretty much the Duff.