Saturday, February 25, 2012

"The Dovekeepers," by Alice Hoffman

The Protagonists:

Yael: When her mother died in childbirth, her father raised her to believe she is cursed, already a murderess. When the destruction of the Temple forces them into the desert, she discovers how strong a person she really is.

Revka: With her husband and daughter murdered by the Romans, she arrived at Masada with her life in tatters, trailing two mute grandsons and a maddened son-in-law who lives only for pain. Believing her life is already over, she is astounded to learn there still is hope, even in the bleakest of times.

Aziza: Born a girl, she was taught by her mother Shirah to assume a boy's life in order to protect herself and her family. Here in Masada, she finds her woman's duties clash with her boy's warrior instincts.

Shirah: Raised in the ways of a now-outlawed Jewish cult, she is distrusted and despised as a witch, and yet will still provide aid and assistance to those who ask. While her spells can bring about fantastic change, she's also seen her fate (and the fate of her children) and knows that escaping it will be next to impossible.

The Secondary Cast:

Amram: Yael's brother and Aziza's lover. He is a warrior for the Zealot cause, but even he can be led astray by love.

The Man from the Valley: Revka's scholarly son-in-law. When his wife was brutally violated and murdered, he dedicated himself to a life of violence and self-inflicted pain, running into battle heedless of injury or death.

The Man from the North: A Welsh soldier forcibly conscripted by the Romans and then enslaved by the warriors of Masada, he befriends the women of the dove cote - Yael in particular.

Eleazar Ben Ya'ir: The leader of the rebels of Masada - he spurs and leads them on to victory with his persuasive speeches. But he is still only a man beneath all that glory.

The Word:
Really, there are both too many and too few words I could use to describe Alice Hoffman and the effect her writing has on me. Her magnificent use of setting, and character, and magical realism can make every story come alive in a different way. She's one of the few authors whose books I can become fully-immersed in. I haven't reviewed too many of her books (or at least, as a whole review), because even a year ago I was still determined to be a "romance" blog. Now, I'm more of a book blog that leans strongly towards romance and YA but I'll still read just about anything and review it, too.

I went into this book with equal parts eagerness and curiosity - curiosity mainly because this is an historical novel, whereas all the other books of hers I've read have been set in modern times - well, her novels anyway. She's had a story collection or two where it started in an historical period, but never as far back as this. I wondered how she would incorporate her magical grasp of setting and description into an environment as distant and exotic as this one (Judea, circa 70 A.D.).

The Dovekeepers is a story about Masada - the fortress that protected Jewish rebels and their families from invading Roman forces for four years after the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem - told through the eyes of four women who helped cared for the doves whose leavings kept the fortress' gardens and orchards fertile. These four women detail how life brought each of them to the fortress in the desert and how life in that confined, arid place changed them, for better or worse.

The novel is divided into quarters, each told from a different woman's viewpoint, a tactic I enjoyed. Yael's story begins first - as she spends the most time wandering around in the desert with her father before finding the fortress. Yael was raised to believe she was worthless, but she discovers her true worth once she and her father are left to fend for themselves, and she brings that strength with her to the fortress, where in the presence of other women she blossoms even more.

Revka's portion comes next. Her story deals in themes of hope and renewal, just as when all seems lost. She lost nearly everything she cared about in her journey to Masada, but it's with the other women in the dove cote that she learns to cherish and find joy in what little she has left.

Aziza's portion of the book examines gender. As Roman forces begin to gather in earnest as Masada becomes the last holdout against total occupation, Aziza struggles with both her feminine and her masculine identities. She is a sister and a daughter and a lover, but despite a law that forbids it, she is also a warrior and cannot stand idly by with the women while their brothers and cousins and husbands are dying.

Shirah's part comes last, which is fitting. She's the most mysterious character, and the one who offers the most opportunities for Alice Hoffman's lovely is-or-isn't-it-real magical thinking. Women with supernatural abilities are a prominent theme in a lot of Hoffman's books (Practical Magic, The Probable Future, The Ice Queen) and this comes across more potently in this particular setting, when religion and superstition had far more influence. Shirah is definitely a descendent (or, ha ha, in this particular instance, an ancestor) of the aunts from Practical Magic - distrusted by other women for being the Witch of Moab, she is still approached by them in their times of need for her cures and spells. But even as she helps women (and she performs special favours for all three of the other protagonists), she's also a woman with fears and desires and flaws of her own.

As each protagonist gets her point of view, we also get to see the other three through a new lens, and the result is a multi-layered portrayal of female friendship and support during a time of crisis. While male characters do wander in and out, and a few lay claim to our heroines' hearts, the changing viewpoints keeps the focus on the women. The men often find themselves struggling to find space in the heroines' stories, rather than the other way around and I found that highly refreshing.

As I mentioned earlier in my review, Alice Hoffman's fantastic description gives life at Masada heat and smoke and smell. The woman who described different types of rain in The Probable Future, here gives us a world dictated by heat and water, and the overabundance and scarcity of both. Her use of imagery and symbolism is marvelous - the very nature of the protagonists' job creates a fantastic contrast of themes. Masada, a stronghold of warriors and rebels, is mainly sustained by the contributions of gentle, beautiful birds that are symbols of peace. If not for these birds, the orchards would die and the warriors and all their talk of blood and freedom would waste away.

The Dovekeepers is fantastic book - with a strong feminine focus, memorable characters, gorgeous description, and lyrical writing that produces hope and light even in the face of an inevitably tragic event.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Untie My Heart," by Judith Ivory

The Chick: Emma Darlington Hotchkiss. A former con artist-turned-sheep farmer, she puts her old skills to good use to fleece an arrogant aristocrat who kills her lamb and refuses to compensate her.
The Rub: Unfortunately, she gets caught - and now this high and mighty viscount wants her to use her skills to scam his larcenous uncle. Or else.
Dream Casting: Emily VanCamp.

The Dude: Stuart Aysgarth, Viscount Mount Villiers. A sexually dominant, but financially-restricted aristocrat who wants revenge against his uncle for stealing priceless heirlooms from him.
The Rub: He can blackmail a tasty little con artist into helping in his schemes, but not into having sex with him. Damn!
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.

The Plot:

Emma: You killed my lamb!

Stuart: Don't care. Hey! You stole 50 pounds from me!

Emma: Don't care!

Stuart: *ties Emma to chair* You were saying?

Emma: Okay, I care very much now.

Stuart: Sharing is caring!

Emma and Stuart: *uncomfortable-sounding chair sex*

Stuart: Awesome! Now we can be sex friends and you can help me steal shit from my uncle!

Emma: NO!

Stuart: No to the con-artist deal or no to the sex-friends thing?


Stuart: Well then I'll just have you arrested!

Emma: ...fine!

Stuart: Yaaaaaaaaaaaay! Sex friends! And con artistry.

Cons: *are had*

Emma: Bee tee dubs, I'm framing you for assault so I can get away and hide my tempestuous secret emotions!

Stuart: BOO! But I was going to marry you!

Emma: SHIT.

Stuart: S'all good. Now you can be my sex wife!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Set of Daddy Issues

1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

1 Silent Lamb

8 Bad Horses

1 Terrible Uncle

2 Ugly Gumboots

1 Sexytimes in a Chair

Several Sexytimes on a Roof


1 Poke and a Send

The Word: This was a bit of a disappointing read for me, because I went in with such high expectations. At Read, React, Review's suggestion, I picked up The Proposition and adored the writing, the characters, and most of all, the interesting, gender-reversed retelling of My Fair Lady. Now, while all the elements of Judith Ivory's writing are still present in Untie My Heart, they were ultimately used to tell a story that made me uncomfortable and didn't seem to make much sense.

Emma is a widowed sheepfarmer in a small village in Yorkshire who survives by doing whatever she can - raising sheep, baking bread for the village, doing her neighbour's mending, and while it's a small life, it's honest and it's hers.

When a carriage owned by the new lord of the manor at the top of the hill (Viscount Mount Villiers) performs a fatal hit-and-run on her prize (and only) male breeding lamb, Emma is determined to obtain compensation. However, the lord responds only with condescending lackeys and rude letters and impractical bank cheques for meager sums that won't even begin to cover the income she's lost with the lamb.

When it looks like even a victory in court won't grant her the money she's owed (because the wealthy viscount can always appeal), she finally decides to fall back on her old roots: as a London con artist. Using an elaborate embezzling scheme, she manages to forge a cheque for the money she's owed and create a false bank account with which to cash it.

And then she gets caught.

As it turns out, the Viscount, Stuart, is in a despairingly complicated financial situation. He inherited the title while on the continent, and before he could get back to England, his villainous uncle attempted to usurp his titles and finances by having him declared dead. He arrived in time to save his title, but his uncle had twisted and tangled his finances so much that even months later, his lawyers and bankers are still trying to sort it out and he's on a very tight financial leash.

So while he's outraged to discover this woman robbed him, he's delighted to discover a way to embezzle his own money out of limbo, and a woman experienced enough in the art of the con to help him revenge himself upon his larcenous uncle. However, she still needs a little convincing so ... he ties her to a chair and has his way with her.

This was when the novel started to get unsettling for me. As it turns out, Untie My Heart is a romance founded on a BDSM theme. Which I perhaps should have guessed from the title. The thing is, because of that, I made the personal discovery that I do not like BDSM or those attitudes (in a "not my bag" way, not the "it's wrong you filthy, filthy hoors" way) and they made me very uncomfortable. Stuart is a man who openly states that he desires power in every situation (which is why he rages at being brought to heel by the mess of his financial affairs) and he likes frightening women - just a little, because they're so attractive when they're scared.

The "Chair Scene" is very indicative of the ultimate progression of Emma and Stuart's romance throughout the rest of the book - where Stuart makes a bunch of abrupt sexual decisions that terrify Emma until, quite suddenly, she's enjoying herself. Now, I already hate the types of romances where the hero sexually harasses the heroine until she finally gives in, but combine that with the couple's odd power dynamics, and the result is a read that left me uneasy. Stuart continually defies Emma's consent under the reasoning that he knows what's best for her, and while he righteously refuses to cross "the ultimate" boundary and insists that Emma is really in control of the whole situation, I didn't understand it.

But then, Emma is an inconsistently-written character to begin with, so it's hard to tell when she's in control or not. She swings between the Hardened Con and the Sexual Innocent and it sometimes comes across like the author is trying to play it both ways but it doesn't really work. For instance, one incredibly confusing and tense scene arises when she is appalled by something I would have assumed she'd encountered before with the type of criminal underworld past that she had.

Her criminal underworld bits (especially her and Stuart's plot to con his uncle into relinquishing stolen heirlooms) are the best parts of the novel, because they show the heroine at her smartest and most focused. However, the con really isn't the major part of the book. Most of the book is Stuart trying to get into Emma's pants and Emma fighting it and Stuart acting all concerned that she's fighting her perfectly natural beautiful urges and won't you let me help you release that sexual tension, darling? My bedroom's that way! Honestly, there were several times in this novel that the characters' actions just seemed so divorced from what I'd previously come to understand about them, their motivations and prejudices.

That being said, the writing is lovely, so rich and detailed - however, the downside is that if the author is describing an area or a situation that you don't like or feel is relevant, it takes forever. The pacing in this novel is very, very slow. There's one point near the beginning where two and a half pages of words are spent describing the hero's coat. It's an awesome coat, but since it can't talk or make any decisions does it really need that much description?

Honestly, most of the negativity from this review comes from lowered expectations and a discomfort with the material. Writing-wise, it's a solid book, with some interesting details about embezzlement and con artistry in late-Victorian England. And if you happen to like BDSM themes that don't translate into openly erotic scenes, then this might just be the romance for you.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Blink and You'll Miss It Review: "Catching Fire," by Suzanne Collins

Okay, so this is going to be a bit of a change-up - not a regular thing, unforch, but the fact of the matter is:

I read this book and totally forgot to review it.

It got lost in the shuffle.

I clicked on my YA tag and saw that there was no review for Catching Fire, even though I did read it.

And that's when I realized I'd forgotten. Eeep. I'd also already given the book back (it was borrowed). I also read it a month ago or more.

So I'm doing without my usual rigamarole because this is all from memory. I'm probably going to forget or misspell character names, that sort of thing, but my impressions of this novel are still strong.

My main impression? I felt cheated. *Spoilers for Both Books Ahead*

Let me explain. Catching Fire takes off after Hunger Games ended, with Katniss and Peeta returning triumphantly to their home district after Katniss' quick thinking saved them both from certain death. There's never been two winners in the Hunger Games before - the yearly tradition where each district sends two teenage "tributes" to a central arena where they all fight to the death.

Unfortunately, thanks to her little stunt, Katniss is under intense scrutiny from the Evil Powers that Be, who worry her defiance of the Games will spark a revolution they will have to mercilessly crush. Their Evil Leader, President Snow, makes it very clear to Katniss that she will have to toe the line as she makes her winner's progress through the districts - or else her family will suffer the consequences.

As in the last novel, "toeing the line" involves faking a romantic relationship with Peeta, which would paint her unorthodox moves in the Games as the actions of a lovestruck teenager rather than a rebel stickin' it to the man. Peeta is a nice enough guy, but Katniss also has feelings for Gale, a loyal childhood friend, and the idea of having even her romantic life controlled by the Capital (possibly for the rest of her life) is abhorrent.

The first half of the novel is quite strong. As Katniss and Peeta make their winners' progress through the districts, they witness that it's not only their hometown of District 12 that's dissatisfied with the Capital's tyranny. People everywhere feel the unfair weight of Capital control and the Capital's recent implementation of harsher punishments and regulations is taking its toll. Katniss has to war with some pretty hefty arguments - should she think of her family first and keep quiet, or should she look at the big picture and help turn that spark of defiance into a conflagration that could make things better for everyone? Or would that only end in more death and destruction?

The novel was well on its way to becoming something awesome when President Snow announces the rules for the Quarter Quell - the special Hunger Games that happen every 25 years (how convenient). Because it's the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, the Capital can choose just about any kind of rules it wants, and this time around, it decides that tributes will only be picked from the surviving Hunger Game winners. Which means that Peeta and Katniss have to compete in the Hunger Games again.

And then the novel's all downhill from there. It's not particularly badly-written (and the design of the particular Games is clever), but it's just. More. Of. The. SAME. Cinna gives Katniss a flamboyantly awesome entrance. Katniss meets more contestants and has to wonder if she'll have to kill them or be killed. Weird, poorly-developed sci-fi dangers are confronted and defeated. Katniss has to pretend she loves Peeta (more than she's already starting to) - only this time she's faking a pregnancy too! It's all well and good but I liked it better WHEN I READ ALL OF THIS THE FIRST TIME, IN THE HUNGER GAMES.

And I have to admit, this is a review where I will HAVE to spoil the ending, because it's integral to how I viewed this novel and why it left me so disappointed and angry. SPOILERS: At the end of the new Hunger Games, Katniss is rescued by her mentor Haymitch and is told that he and a bunch of conspirators have engineered the revolution, which is already in progress.

Yes. THIS is the part of the novel that angered me the most - ALL of the super-important stuff to the story happened TO OTHER PEOPLE, OFF-SCREEN. I, as the reader, missed it, because I was too busy slogging through what was essentially a retread of the first book. I'm sorry, but NO. I'm the fucking reader. I should have been allowed to read how the revolution was started. I should have gotten to read about the spies and the sabotage AS IT HAPPENED, not SECONDHAND at the very end of the novel. After getting to the end, I felt as if the author had put me at the kiddie table while the adults had their own conversation without me.

I've never had to worry about sequels in book form because usually, they don't end up in the same pitfalls as, say, movie sequels. Movies, because they are usually self-contained narratives, don't require a sequel - so when sequels are made in order to capitalize off the success of the first one, they often fall prey to the Same But Different trope - where they essentially tell the same story as the first movie, just with a different villain/setting, etc. Look at Home Alone 2 as an example - exact same plot, just in a New York hotel.

But with books? Where they are often written with a series in mind (as The Hunger Games clearly was), I expected Catching Fire to tell a different story. It started to, but halfway through, we get another Hunger Games, and somehow this is so much more essential to the reader than the actual revolution. And honestly, it didn't leave as big an impression on me as the first novel.

Here's hoping that Mockingjay will set things right.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

"The Forever War," by Joe Haldeman

The Protagonist: William Mandella. A good-natured pacifist with a master's degree in physics, he's conscripted into the war effort against the alien Tauran race.The Rub: Interstellar travel involves "collapsars" - portals in space that warp time - meaning an eight-month battle might keep Mandella away from home for 20 years - or longer.
Secondary Cast:

Marygay Potter: A young woman conscripted at the same time as William, their relationship deepens as they bond over how the war has affected their lives.

Sargeant Cortez: Potter and Mandella's commanding officer for their first battles and missions - a hardass whose methods challenge wartime ethics.

Captain Charlie Moore: Mandella's executive officer during his first command.

Diana Alsever: The ship's doctor during Mandella's command.
Science Fiction Convention Checklist:
Several Time-Dilating Black Holes

2 Surprise! Lesbians

1 Ship of Heterophobes

1 Nutless Cyborg

1 Instance of Hypnosis-Influenced Bloodlust

1 Billion Clones

1 Middle Finger
The Word:
I read this book for my dad.

I was influenced a lot by my parents, and I think my reading reflects that. There were a couple of years in my childhood in which our family's financial straights were nowhere near sound - but to this day I could not have picked out which ones they were. Apparently, those were the years where we had no dance lessons, rented no movies and the only furniture we had in the living room was bookshelves - but I was little. I had no problem sitting on the floor. We had carpeting.

But what I do remember is how every single Saturday, my dad would drive my sisters and I to his office downtown and walk to the main branch of public library. I could pick out whatever book I wanted. I took out books on biology, books on how to choose and train the dogs and cats I would ultimately never have, RL Stine and Ann Martin and Garfield anthologies. I discovered the fantasy section and took out The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

The only time my dad refused me a book was when I tried to take out a true crime novel about a young man who murdered his mother. He said it wasn't appropriate - I must have been eight or nine at the time. When I ask him about it now, he denies it. He says that doesn't sound like him, he would never have refused to let me read anything.

Even when we were poor, we were never without books. And we never had to go without hearing about books. For my father, he was always passionate about military history and science fiction. Isaac Asimov, Verner Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson. His voicemail has directed callers to "press 0 to reach that human we have enslaved to be our receptionist, live long and prosper!" for more than a decade. He adored Men In Black and frequently recreates the scene where the alien eats Vincent D'Onofrio, his hand arching up and shooting down like the tentacle that skinned that poor redneck farmer.

I have never read Starship Troopers but thanks to him, I know the famous lines - "I always get the shakes before I drop." "Everybody drops. Everybody fights!" When they made the movie based on the book, he organized a whole event for his friends to go and see it. He went into the theatre with his buddies all wearing nametags with their favourite lines from the novel on them - and he came out with his sci-fi reader heart broken into a million pieces.

But the novel he's always brought up the most, at least when he's suggesting sci-fi, is The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. According to him, Haldeman was drafted for the Vietnam War and subsequently wounded. While being treated, he read a couple of sci-fi novels and was disgusted with how unrealistically they portrayed the wartime experience and decided to write his own.

A couple of weeks ago, while visiting my dad while my mother and sister were overseas, I broke down and decided to read it. Our reading tastes don't overlap very often (I tried to get him to read Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command with a piece of scotch tape futilely masking the "romance" label on the spine, but he didn't bite), so I decided I really, really wanted to read this book, so that we could talk about it, and find out what made our particular inner readers tick.

Our hero is William Mandella, a young physics major who is drafted into the army to fight the alien Tauron menace. But this is no ordinary war. Humankind has discovered an ingenious means for interstellar travel - portals called "collapsars," through which ships can cross insane distances in the span of a microsecond. The only caveat? While the people inside the ships subjectively experience only a second of time - years will have passed in the objective world. For Mandella, it means that for each campaign, he returns to find that life on Earth has progressed without him, new technology has been invented, and human society has evolved - and not necessarily for the better. And for every attempt he makes to get out of the war, the military finds a way to drag him back in.
While there are definitely some kick-ass battle sequences and interesting technology scattered throughout the novel, this is essentially a book about the useless, wasteful ridiculousness of war and the disorienting effect it has on the soldiers forced to fight in it - which I enjoyed. I mean, cool sci-fi ideas are interesting and all, but I find the best sci-fi narratives use them to explore what we already know about humanity.

The use of collapsars is, in fact, a cunning way of both highlighting the alienation felt by war veterans and examining the changes of human society and tolerance by placing the hero in the position of the "old codger" who is literally behind the times.

In a particularly gutsy move (this book was published in 1975) Haldeman uses sexuality as the societal litmus test. When Mandella first returns to an Earth that's aged 20 years without him, he learns that one-third of the Earth's population is openly homosexual and that homosexuality is now encouraged as a means of bringing down overpopulation. When he travels back to Stargate as a commander, by the time he arrives, Earth's society is exclusively homosexual, and he's derisively nicknamed "The Old Queer" by soldiers who now consider heterosexuality a barbaric and deviant sexual proclivity.

Here's a snippet of a conversation between Mandella, his ship's doctor Diana and executive officer Captain Charlie Moore (both of whom are homosexual):

[Diana, regarding the elimination of natural childbirth:] "Mostly, though, it's not ... having to ... have a man. Inside me. You understand. It's disgusting."

Moore laughed. "If you haven't tried it, Diana, don't --"

"Oh shut up." She threw the empty capsule at him playfully.

"But it's perfectly natural," I protested.

"So is swinging through trees. Digging for roots with a blunt stick. Progress, my good major; progress."

It's these moments that made me enjoy the book. But I have to admit that this was a book I appreciated more than I enjoyed. The novel doesn't spoonfeed you characterization or story - it drops you right into the action and the details and the science and lets the experience wash over you. It also doesn't have much of a complicated, overarching plot - the narrative follows a linear episodic format as Mandella is bounced around from experience to experience, trying to adapt to rapidly-shifting history as best he can.

Personally, I wasn't very emotionally invested in the protagonist. He seemed like the prototypical "regular guy," nothing special about him at all. His only real claim to fame is his talent for Not Dying. And I understand that that's The Point, but at the same time, I couldn't really care about him. I think he could have had more personality - just because you're ordinary doesn't mean you're not special or different in some way. Mandella doesn't have a whole lot of agency in this story, either. In fact, he's more of an observer. In this way, I found it hard to care about the stakes since he has little power over what happens to and around him.

Ultimately though, I thought the storytelling was incredibly clever. It gives us cool space-age battles, but also demonstrates the bureaucracy, tedium and hypocrisy of life in the military - such as when Mandella, despite having no head for leadership and being barely older than his inferiors, is given command because objectively he's been in the military for hundreds of years and thus has the most seniority.

It gives us a fastforwarded look at human history and social mores, and how even the most "righteous" war looks pathetic and petty with the benefit of centuries of hindsight. And it also tells a story that, despite the battle suits and the invented technology and the alien battles, enacts a reality that actually exists - that soldiers go out to fight for their country, but it won't always be the same country by the time they return to it.B+.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

"Crazy For You," by Jennifer Crusie

The Chick: Quinn McKenzie. When she rescues an abandoned little dog against her practical boyfriend's wishes, she realizes she's settled for a life she doesn't want because she's afraid of rocking the boat.
The Rub: She decides to dump her old life (including her boyfriend), but finds a whole new set of problems arise when she tries to start something new (including her now ex-boyfriend).
Dream Casting: Laura Linney.

The Dude: Nick Ziegler. An uncommitted mechanic who's been serially dating 20somethings for 15 years or so, he's always had a warm, loving friendship with Quinn - and thankfully, sexual attraction never got in the way, because she was always dating someone else.
The Rub: Now that she's cut loose and is determined to live the wild life, he's finding it harder and harder to keep friendship and sex separate.
Dream Casting: Sam Trammell.

The Plot:

Quinn: Oh look a dog! I will love her and squeeze her and she will be mine.

Bill: Our apartment doesn't take dogs.

Quinn: OMG SHUT UP BILL. WHY DID I EVER HANG OUT WITH YOU? I know, I'll move completely out of your apartment and leave you a tidy little note. I never loved you in the first place so I'm sure it'll be like the two years you spent in love with me never happened!

Bill: And I'm sure I'll take this remarkably well with no psychotic breakdowns of any kind!


Nick: Wait, what? NO.

Quinn: C'mon, let's have a dirty little fling!

Nick: No ... thank you.


Nick: Fine.


Nick: Something is legitimately wrong with you.

Bill: Not as wrong as something is with me! *does crazy things*

Nick: Okay, Quinn, I'll protect you, but I can't commit. I can't even sleep in the same room with you.

Quinn: Why not? There's a killer on the loose!


Quinn: Oh, okay.

Bill: *tries to attack Quinn*

Nick: That'll do it!

Quinn: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Relationship-Aiding (and -Ending!) Pet

1 Hero Who Just Can't Commit

1 Psychotic Breakdown

1 Surprise! Lesbian

1 Not-So-Surprise! Homophobic Turd Principal

1 Dognapping (For Great Justice!)

3 Failed Husband Seductions

The Word: Okay, so I haven't read Jennifer Crusie in a while. Maybe I've lost touch. Maybe I've grown past her particular blend of humour.

Or maybe this book just sucked.

Quinn McKenzie is stuck in a rut, and has been for two years. She lives in an apartment she's only okay with, with furniture she's only okay with, with a boyfriend (Bill) she's only okay with. She's always been a peacekeeper, the one willing to help and fix things in order to prevent a scene. And the result is a life she's only okay with, but one she doesn't feel is bad enough to risk screwing up by trying anything different.

Until she rescues a tiny abandoned dog named Katie. She's always wanted a dog. Bill tells her to be reasonable, to be logical, their apartment doesn't allow pets, but Quinn is done being reasonable and insists on keeping the animal. When she comes back home the next day to find that Bill has taken Katie to the pound against her wishes - that's the last straw. She's done with Bill, she's done with boring, she's not going to wait around for life to get exciting.

And (of course) part of her "Get Life Exciting" plan is to get royally laid - by none other than Nick, her ex-brother-in-law, a pathologically commitment-phobic mechanic who, despite his ill-fated marriage and subsequent divorce from her sister, remains good friends with Quinn. And while all this is happening, good ol' Bill careens completely off the deep end and turns into a sociopathic stalker.

So let's start out with what I don't like, which is, frankly, most of this novel. I had some real problems with the characterization of the protagonists and their so-called history. Quinn is someone who wants to get some excitement, so she hits on her old friend Nick, who repeatedly spurns and dodges her advances because he's uncomfortable with mixing sex and friendship, despite his intense physical attraction to her. But Quinn is determined to have him, because she's a Free Wild Woman Now, but when she finally gets one night in bed with him, she flips her lid and labels him a jerk when he won't immediately commit - even though she made it clear she wasn't out for a relationship and just wanted Free Wild Woman Sex.

We're told that their friendship is decades long, but it's barely even referred to, and I don't think it really fits with Quinn's cavalier treatment of it with her desire for a dirty, sexy fling - especially since she emotionally reacts as if she'd expected a committed romantic relationship right away, which seemed terribly unfair to Nick.

That being said, I didn't like Nick much, either - he's described as someone who loves living alone and having no responsibility and is terrified of waking up next to another person - but I found that I kept asking, "Why?" What made him this way? Why don't we get any scenes or description that help develop why he's grown into this lifestyle? Nick is very shallowly developed, and his I Just Can't Commit! mantra comes off as a lame, stereotypical sitcom characterization, where his pathological solitude is filed neatly away under the It's Because He's Got Man Parts, Duh explanation.

And shallow is generally the impression I got from the novel as a whole - a lot of the surface appeal of the Jennifer Crusie trademarks are there (yappy dogs, romantically unsatisfied sassy girlfriends, bitchy town rednecks, colourful underwear, parents with Interesting Secrets), but everything's presented in such an offhand, underdeveloped way that it's only skin deep.

In fact, the most profound aspect of the entire novel is Bill's gradual descent into complete and utter madness - which makes it really jarring when the people he's stalking keep behaving like they're in a safe romantic comedy. Mild spoilers - there's a scene that happens directly after Bill assaults Quinn and rips her shirt off. Nick rescues Quinn and takes her back to her house - and not only does she not decide to call the cops right away to report an assault, but she decides it's a great time for her and Nick to have sex - while an unapprehended Bill watches from outside the window. Because, you know, THEY HAVEN'T CALLED THE COPS ON HIM YET.

Jennifer Crusie is also a fan of using repetition of a certain trait, word or mantra to define her characters and it can be extremely effective - but sometimes it can be way overdone. For the Crazy For You drinking game, take a shot every time Crusie uses the word "round" to describe Quinn. Seriously - every guy with romantic designs on her uses that word, over and over - soft and round, hot and round, luscious and round. By the end of the novel I was half-convinced she was perfectly spherical.

Ultimately, while Crazy For You had all the basic ingredients of a classic Jennifer Crusie novel, they weren't developed well enough. This is a book that's really, well, only okay, and worth skipping in favour of a more fulfilling book.