Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Spellstruck," by Jaclyn Reding

The Chick: Jenna Wren. A single mother to two kids, and owner of a popular spa in her hometown of Ipswich-By-The-Sea, she treats the town's women to fantastic herbals treatments that leave customers feeling refreshed and changed ... almost as if by magic.
The Rub: ... Because it is. Jenna, along with her mother and sister, are descended from a long line of hedgewitches, but they have to keep their powers secret - mainly because the town is infamous for banishing a woman suspected of witchcraft to a desolate island three hundred years prior.
Dream Casting: Small New England town? A young mother? I immediately thought Lauren Graham.

The Dude:
Jack Gabriele. Formerly Jenna's husband, they married right out of high school, but after years of struggle and an unspoken misunderstanding, their marriage crumbled. While they've been divorced for four years, Jack still carries a torch for her.
The Rub: During senior year, rumours broke out that Jack had cheated on Jenna with the school tramp, rumours that Jack never refuted. Jenna, being pregnant, married Jack anyway, but never quite believed that he'd been faithful.
Dream Casting: Alex O'Loughlin.

The Other Dude:
Declan Cavanaugh. A gorgeous, wealthy, charming mystery man who stops into town and has an eye for Jenna.
The Rub: He just might be a figment of Jenna's seven-year-old daughter's imagination. Or eeeeeeeevil.
Dream Casting: The Mentalist's Simon Baker.

The Plot:

Jenna: I wish I had the perfect man.

Haillie, Jenna's sister: Let's make a list!

Cassie, Jenna's seven-year-old daughter: *swipes list* Hocus pocus!

Declan Cavanaugh: *poof* Hey baby. Seen any buried treasure around? You're pretty.

Jack: Oh no!

Cassie: Oh no!

Jenna's Mom: *magical meddling*

Jack and Jenna: *luuuuuuuuurv*

Declan: Not so fast! I haven't even BEGUN my evil plans yet!

Jenna, Eudora, Haille, Cassie: Hocus pocus!

Declan: *de-poofed*

Jenna and Jack: Hurray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

2 Precocious Children

1 Decidedly NOT Romantically Lacklustre Ex

1 Big Misunderstanding

1 Small Town

1 Too Sexy For His Own Good Villain

1 Buried Treasure

1 Secret Great-Great-Grandma

1 Public Shunning

1 Storm-Induced Session of Lovemaking

The Word:
Jenna Wren worked as a homemaker for years, raising her two children while her husband Jack became more and more distant. When their marriage crumbled, Jenna was left with no college education and no experience. Somehow, through sheer determination, her supportive family, and her own unique skills, she pulled herself up by her bootstraps and became a small-town (and beyond!) success.

In the picturesque New England town of Ipswich-By-The-Sea, Jenna's hair salon and spa, IpSnips, has become the number one place for a woman to relax and gain some inner peace. Partly, this is because Jenna (along with her sister and her mother) are witches - hedge witches, to be more precise. Using herbs and spells, Jenna creates products and treatments that grant peace, self-confidence, attractiveness, and even fertility. Her family has kept it a secret, mainly because the town is infamous for the legend of the Ipswitch - a woman who was banished to a nearby island 300 years ago on suspicion of witchcraft who has become the town's boogeyman and supernatural scapegoat. "Coming out" as a witch doesn't seem too wise in a town that takes great glee out of demonizing them.

Despite her success, Jenna is lonely. The problem with living in a small town is that she knows everybody and everybody knows her - and everyone also knows her ex-husband Jack and his jovial Italian family, which means that the pool of willing daters is infinitesimal. In a moment of frustration, Jenna and her sister Hallie dream up a recipe for the Perfect Man - including blond hair, green eyes, money, humour, and a host of other fantasy properties. Unbeknownst to them, they're overheard by Jenna's seven-year-old daughter Cassie. Cassie swipes the list to try out her own burgeoning magic powers, with the intention of creating a boyfriend for Hallie.

However, things go awry. The next day, a mysterious stranger appears in town, the exact match for Jenna's list, but instead of hitting on Hallie he sets his eyes on Jenna, who is bewildered but pleased.

I thought I knew how this novel would turn out - that the novel's plot would revolve around cutesy antics between Jenna and the spell-made hunk, but no. The appearance of Declan Cavanaugh acts more like a catalyst for the plot, rather than the plot itself. Jack, you see, still has feelings for Jenna. He's slowly been building himself into a better man - improving his education, learning his own craft (architecture), all under the assumption that he'll be able to re-enter Jenna's life whenever he's ready. The sudden appearance of a sexy stranger who shows attention to Jenna gives him a none-too-gentle jolt.

This is one of the reasons I loved this book - while there is an element of magic, and it's important to the characters, I don't think I could categorize this book as a fantasy because the magic isn't a huge element of the plot - most of it revolves around Jack and Jenna reuniting, town politics, and the secrets that caused Jack and Jenna's first marriage to dissolve.

If you've read the Romance Convention Checklist, you'll notice the "Big Misunderstanding" convention. It's common enough to be a cliche, and is usually one of the least tolerated. But Reding shows us that even though something is a bit of a cliche, doesn't mean it can't be done well.

The Big Misunderstanding plot is usually such a howler because it's usually maintained by character flaws that readers despise: jealousy and idiocy. What usually happens with Big Misunderstandings is that one of the protagonists will perform an action that, while innocent, is interpreted out of context by the other. For instance, the heroine might kiss her male cousin on the cheek at the train station, and the lurking hero might think "She has another man! The whore!" Big Misunderstanding plots are egregious because the misunderstanding is usually so tenuous, because it stretches out a problem over three hundred pages that could be easily solved by a simple, pointed conversation.

However, the misunderstanding in Spellstruck is one that helps the novel, because it isn't the only means of support for the plot. Basically, back in highschool while Jack and Jenna were going steady, rumours ran rampant through the school that Jack and Diana, the school tramp, had hooked up. While Jack told Jenna personally that nothing happened, for reasons of his own he refused to openly discredit the rumours.

However, unlike typical Big Misunderstanding plots, this misconception doesn't immediately put a halt to Jack and Jenna's relationship. Jenna married Jack anyway. In a realistic fashion, the Big Misunderstanding did not directly affect their relationship - in this case, it affected how Jenna understood Jack's character. Married right out of highschool (Jenna found out she was pregnant at about the same time the Jack/Diana brouhaha began), her unquenched suspicions created a snowball effect that gradually accumulated all kinds of other, realistic marital problems that all contributed to their eventual divorce.

Just as the misunderstanding wasn't the only contributor to their divorce, so it stands that revealing the truth behind the misunderstanding doesn't immediately heal their relationship - which is another reason why romance readers tend to despise the Big Misunderstanding Plot, that upholds this idea that revealing one secret will immediately smooth over any and all previous arguments.

However, it certainly helps. This reunited-lovers tale was a cozy delight to read. Jack and Jenna's relationship started when they were teenagers, when they had to struggle to make ends meet with two small children, when they were forced into difficult roles out of necessity. When they reunite, both are successful, accomplished adults who've taken a stab at their dreams, so their relationship blossoms in new, and wonderful ways, and they are more able to share themselves, because they've finally come to understand who they are as people.
There were a few flaws, but most of these are a matter of preference. The biggest flaw: I thought there was a little too much exposition for my taste - I understand that Reding wants to give the reader a detailed portrait of everyday life at Ipswich-By-The-Sea (heaven knows now I want to live there), but it sometimes comes at the expense of a pages-long infodump or tangent on one of the minor characters' personal lives that I didn't feel was particularly relevant to the story. Also, readers who like a little surprise in their novels will want to steer clear of this one - while beautifully written, the outcome is easily predictable from within the first couple of pages.

However, these flaws are easily overlooked, especially by the fact that a book with a plot like this could have turned out much worse if written by a lesser writer. The magic in the story is ultimately a supportive device, and Reding wisely keeps it that way. Even the eventual showdown with Cassie's mixed-up spell is dealt with quickly and finally, with little angst. Jaclyn Reding instead delights readers with a different type of magic: that of wonderful writing. B+.

That Very Special Music

I love movie scores. Yes - not just the songs by Aerosmith or Kenny Loggins that accompany the more dramatic scenes, but the wordless, instrumental music that accompanies all the scenes. They fire up the imagination. I'm a huge fan of John Williams, Danny Elfman, Alan Menken, Howard Shore, and others, and the hours I've spent daydreaming while listening to the themes for Saving Private Ryan, Edward Scissorhands, and Beauty and the Beast.

But there's always been this one song that escaped me - this one theme that I've heard since I was a kid, almost exclusively on movie trailers to movies like Angels in the Outfield and Pocahontas during the 90s. I loved that theme - a sweeping, repetitive anthem that rallied the mind to all sorts of epic victories. I could never find out that song, but whenever I heard it on a commercial or a trailer, I'd recognize it and listen as hard as I could. But I didn't know who composed it or what movie it was from so how could I find it?

Well, thank you Youtube. While watching a random video about horseracing, I heard the song. The song, the one I could only hear in snatches but always sounded triumphant. To my everlasting gratitude, the video's author provided the source of the song: it's a theme by Jerry Goldsmith (composer for Mulan) for the movie Rudy, called "The Final Game." I'd never seen Rudy, although I knew roughly what it was about.

It took me all of five seconds of indecision before I downloaded it onto my iPod. I finally found the song. It only took me all of fifteen years to find it. I'm listening to it right now. It's nice to be able to hear the whole thing, and imagine. It'll certain help inspire me as I try to teach myself screenwriting over the next year.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Again the Magic," by Lisa Kleypas

The Chick: Lady Aline Marsden, younger sister to Marcus (It Happened One Autumn) Marsden. She fell in love with McKenna, a servant of illegitimate parentage, but was found out. Her cruel father threatened to ruin McKenna's life if he ever came back, so she lied and told McKenna that he was an "amusement," but too lower-class to love.
The Rub: A few months after McKenna was sent packing, she was involved in an accident that left gruesome scars up and down her legs.
Dream Casting: Frances O'Connor, despite her involvement in that terrrrible Mansfield Park adaptation.

The Dude:
John McKenna, a servant who left the Marsdens' service after Aline allegedly betrayed him. He moved to America and became a wealthy, talented, but ruthless businessman - albeit one who could never forget the love of his life.
The Rub: After twelve years, he returns to Stony Cross Park (the Marsdens' seat) - publically, to do business with the new Earl (Marcus), but secretly to punish the supposedly cold, calculating woman who broke his heart.
Dream Casting: It wasn't easy, but eventually I settled on Christian Bale.

The Plot:
McKenna: I love you!

Aline: I love you, too!

Evil Earl Dad: *shakes fist*

Aline: Wait, no I don't!

McKenna: *leaves*

Aline: Oh! Nothing could hurt more than this!

Oven: *explodes*

Aline: *on fire* I STAND CORRECTED!

Twelve Years Later
McKenna: That bitch. I know how I'll get my revenge! Give her dozens upon dozens of orgasms! That'll teach her!

Aline: *fully revenged*

McKenna: Dammit, now I love you again.

Aline: Really? Because I could do with a bit more of your vengeance, if you don't mind.

McKenna: Well, is there anything else you haven't told me?

Aline: Um, I have scars on my legs I was afraid to show you in case you rejected me.

McKenna: You BITCH.

Aline: That's more like it!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Interclass Romance

1 Revenge Scheme

1 Gay Best Friend

1 Romance Involving Secondary Characters (Livia and Gideon, gettin' it on)

2 Meddling Siblings

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Matronly Servant

1 Set of Disfiguring Scars

The Word:
This novel was suggested to me by the folks at Eloisa James and Julia Quinn's message board, when I mentioned to them the revenge plot I found so sickening in Susan Mallery's Sweet Trouble. Some suggested I read this offering by Kleypas, as it also had a revenge plot, so that I could see how a revenge scheme between the hero and heroine could be done well.

Well... the good news is that the revenge plot of Again the Magic did not make me want to slit my wrists with the pages of the book. The bad news is that Again the Magic was altogether a stilted, tedious, melodramatic read all on its own.

Aline Marsden and McKenna, a stable boy in her father's household, enjoy a secret, idyllic romance at the novel's start. Both are teenagers, passionate, and carefree, and yet both are still very aware of the dangers of their feelings for one another. Aline's father is one of the most powerful earls in England, and McKenna is a stable boy, and one of illegitimate parentage, at that.

When someone tattles on Aline and McKenna's trysts, Aline's father, the Earl, informs her of his plans to send McKenna away, and then he threatens to destroy him if he ever comes back. Aline knows that McKenna won't go quietly as long as there's a chance to maintain their relationship, so she pretends to dismiss him, claiming her feelings were only exploratory and that she'd rather flirt with real gentlemen and forget the embarassment of dallying with a servant.

Heartbroken, McKenna leaves. Twelve years pass. Aline, still unattached, acts as hostess for her brother's endless house parties with American businessmen. One day, a large contigent of wealthy industrialists shows up - one of whom is McKenna, now the business partner of millionaire Gideon Shaw. On the outside, McKenna's intentions are to conduct business with the new Earl, but he also harbours a secret desire to revenge himself upon Aline, preferably through seduction and then abandonment.

One of the differences between the revenge plot in Magic and, say, that plot in Sweet Trouble, is that Aline isn't fooled for a moment by McKenna's cold civility. She instantly recognizes his thirst for vengeance and, in an odd move, desides to fulfill it. If she gives him a few lusty tumbles, she figures, maybe he'll get over his obsession with her and find some peace, which is more than she can say for herself.

Even though her cruel father is many years dead, Aline still finds herself unable to reveal to McKenna the true extent of her feelings and the lie she'd been forced to tell him all those years ago. A few months after McKenna's initial departure twelve years past, an unfortunate kitchen accident left Aline with disfiguring burns all over her legs. In the present day, she can't bear the thought of revealing her hideous scars to McKenna and risking rejection, so she maintains the lie that she doesn't love him and never did.

Sounds like a delightful set-up, doesn't it? Sadly, no. In a nutshell, Again the Magic is the perfect example of the dangers of excess. I don't mean that the characters do things to excess, I mean excess in writing: an excess of sentimentalism, an excess of melodrama, an excess of sex scenes, and an excess in purple description. Do you know how when you eat a box of chocolates, the first ten pieces are delicious, but after that, you can't really taste the candy anymore? That's what started happening about thirty pages into this novel.

No one this book does anything by halves. All emotions are vivid, huge, and exaggerated: burning rage, deadening sorrow, heart-rending bliss, searing passion, blah blah blah. The characters are constantly battered about by hyperactive sentiment - no one is slightly perturbed, or somewhat disappointed, or more or less content. I could understand this in the first few chapters of the novel, which dealt with the protagonists when they were teenagers - young, and inexperienced and sensitive. However, by the time they're adults, they're still perpetually consumed by some particular emotion that is nearly always painful and that effectively hinders rational thought. Also, and this is a complaint I've often had with Kleypas' novels (even the pleasant Wallflower quartet): there are way, WAY too many sex scenes. I don't mean that they're too graphic, or raunchy - I simply mean that there are too many of them.

Every writing class and mentor I've ever had has told me that if something isn't directly relevant to the story I'm writing, it should be cut. No one, apparently, told the author this when she was writing the novel. Not only do we get dozens of mind-blowing moments of sexual congress from Aline and McKenna, we are also treated to a myriad of sexcapades from the completely unnecessary secondary romance between Aline's sister Livia and McKenna's business partner Gideon that seems to have been shoehorned in at the last minute.

It goes back to the box of chocolates metaphor - the sex scenes at the start are significant, but the more they happen, the less meaningful they get, and they less meaningful they get the less they contribute to the story, and the less they contribute to the story the more they bog down the plot. Very quickly, the intimate scenes became the literary equivalent of a commercial break, with Ryan Seacrest's voice booming in my brain, "Aline and McKenna discover new feelings for each other - BUT NOT UNTIL AFTER THE BREAK." *American Idol music*. Every time Aline and McKenna started panting for each other, I could feel the narrative pace coming to a dead stop.

With nearly every aspect of the novel dialed to 11 from start to finish, the book was the opposite of exciting: instead, it was dead boring. There were no dynamics - no heightening of tension, no quiet moments between scenes of significant action, no subtlety or adjustments to the tone or pace. It was just page after page of "OMG THIS IS BEAUTIFUL AND EPIC." This reminds me of another quotation, this time from The Incredibles - "If everyone is special, than no one is." It's the same thing here - if every single aspect of the novel is epic and grandiose and fantastical, than nothing really is. The total effect is lost.

As for the revenge plot - while I wasn't as offended by it as I was in Sweet Trouble, part of that could have been that McKenna's "dastardly" plan to avenge himself on Aline was so frustratingly vague. McKenna's plan at first seems to be merely to seduce and embarrass Aline into lowering herself to, ahem, dally once again with a servant. He puts this plan in motion by telling Aline precisely this, to which Aline responds, "Okay." Um, alright.

McKenna is an overpoweringly dominant character (as most of Lisa Kleypas' heroes are), so most of his seduction consists of telling Aline in no uncertain terms what he plans to do to her, while Aline squirms and giggles in secret delight at McKenna's "self-confidence." So ... McKenna's plan is to have great sex with Aline which she will also enjoy? That's not exactly a dish served cold. Also, McKenna, with all of his "dastardly" schemes, completely forgets to consider the threat posed to him by Aline's brother Marcus - a man with enough power and connections to do very, very unpleasant things to McKenna should Aline come to any real harm.

I'm sorry to say, that this wasn't a story that swept me away. Like a meal that's all dessert and no meat, it started sweet but soon became sticky, unsatisfying, and tasteless. C.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"Sweet Trouble," by Susan Mallery

The Chick: Jesse Keyes, the youngest sister to Claire (Sweet Talk) and Nicole (Sweet Spot). Five years after leaving Seattle, pregnant with her ex-boyfriend's child, she's come back into town to make things right with her sisters and to help her son Gabe get to know his father.
The Rub: Jesse has a wild-child past that people are slow to forget. Plus, Jesse and her ex, Matt, did not part on the best of terms - when she told him she was pregnant, he called her a whore and turned her out.
Dream Casting: Throughout the series, it's been Kirsten Bell.

The Dude:
Matt Fenner. A former geek, Jesse's guidance helped the wealthy computer programmer to gain some style. He ended up falling in love with her, but when he heard that she'd supposedly cheated on him with her own sister's husband, he vowed never to see her again. Even when she told him she was pregnant with his child.
The Rub: Even though Jesse told him about the baby, in the present day he's outraged and surprised that she never involved him in the child's life, and plans nasty revenge.
Dream Casting: Before I knew for sure that he'd turn out to be an abusive monster, I thought Topher Grace. Now, I think Saddam Hussein.

The Plot:
Five Years Ago...
Jesse: Matt, I'm pregnant!

Matt: WHORE.

Jesse: Matt, it's yours!

Matt: Don't care!

Present Day...

Jesse: Matt, meet your son!

Matt: WHAT?! How could you keep this from me? I will have my vengeance! I'll get you, my pretty, and your LITTLE BOY TOO! MWAHAHAHAHA!

Jesse: Matt, I love you.

Matt: Fantastic. *sues for sole custody*

Jesse: ... YOU BASTARD.

All of Jesse's Friends and Sisters (with their powerful rich husbands): YOU'RE FUCKING DEAD.

Matt: I didn't mean it! It was a clerical error! Here, have some shiny diamonds!

All of Jesse's Friends and Sisters: Aww! How romantic! Marry him!

Jesse and Matt: *married*

AnimeJune, and any reader with a shred of feminist sensibility or common sense: Motherfu@#%^&&@#$@#%!!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Revenge Plot

1 (Totally Not Secret, The Father's an Asshole) Baby

1 Geek-to-Chic Makeover

1 Asshat Lawyer

1 Repentant Mother-in-Law

1 Surrogate Father Figure

3 Absolutely Mind-Blowing Brownie Recipes

1 Precocious Child

1 Inconvenient Slutty Past

1 Big Misunderstanding
The Word:
Five years ago, Jesse Keyes thought she might get over her slutty, irresponsible past. After years of mindless, empty partying with boys and booze, she finally found a man who adored her: Matt Fenner, a dweeb who, with her help, ditched his geeky duds and turned out to be smokin' hot underneath. Who had millions of dollars. Who knew about her past and didn't care.

However, it didn't last. During a vulnerable moment (she'd found an engagement ring in Matt's luggage), her sister's husband tried to take advantage of her. When they were caught in the act by Nicole, the husband blamed Jesse, and because of her screw-up history he was believed. She got thrown out of the house, and worse - Nicole told Matt's mother, who told Matt, who then turned around and told Jesse that he never wanted to see her again. And when she tearfully revealed she was pregnant, he said "once a slut, always a slut," and that he didn't care if the child was his.

In the present day, Jesse's managed to clean up her life: she found a steady job and a support network in Spokane, where she's raised her son, Gabe, as a single parent. But Gabe's started asking who his daddy is, and Jesse's vowed never to lie to her son, so she heads back to Seattle to see if she can make things right. When Matt dodges her calls, she shows up in person, with pictures of Gabe, whose resemblance to Matt is worth as much as a paternity test.

Matt, when he discovers the truth, is astonished and outraged. He blames her for intentionally keeping the truth from him. When his nasty alpha-male logic collides with the rather elephantine fact that she did tell him (and he dumped her anyway), he justifies it under the ludicrous notion that she'd told him about the pregnancy at a time when she knew he wouldn't have believed her, and had done so on purpose because she's a devious whore. He immediately plans to destroy her emotionally, the first item on the list being to butter her up with friendship and (false) forgiveness, and the second being to sue for sole custody of Gabe. His first reaction to Gabe is one of total apathy - when his lawyer remarks that if he wins the battle, he'll actually have to take care of the kid, Matt reasons, "That's what nannies and boarding schools are for." Wow, what a sweetheart.

Matt Fenner is the reason I despised this book. I wanted to toss him into a burlap sack and have a gang of meth-crazed hobos beat him with sticks. I wanted him to be hit by a bus. I wanted the real hero to jump out of the bushes and sock Matt in the face.

I did not want him to end up with Jesse. There wasn't a single page of the novel in which I thought Matt was a good partner for Jesse. For the vast majority of the book, he's emotionless, callous, manipulative, vindictive, and malicious. The only thing worse than the first half of the novel, in which he says things about wanting her broken and bleeding by the side of the road, is the second half, in which he starts to actually bond with his son and develops an absurd self-righteousness about all the years he lost because Jesse had "kept" Gabe from him.

Part of my hatred is, surprisingly, thanks to the parts of the book I found enjoyable. As usual, Susan Mallery's female characters are relateable and evocatively written. Jesse, in particular - she was given pretty short shrift in the earlier novels, mainly because I think the author was trying to save her best material for Jesse's own story. Mallery movingly demonstrates, through flashbacks, Jesse's deep-seated insecurities about being the family screw-up, her wonder at finding herself in a steady, loving relationship, and the pervading terror that somehow her party-girl past will destroy her happiness - and that she might deserve to be destroyed. All of this, however, serves to make Matt's actions and intentions towards her all the more appalling.

Thankfully, Jesse's not an idiot this time. When she meets Matt again, although she still harbours feelings for him, she realizes that he's changed, and not necessarily into a nice person. He treats women like objects, he's emotionally walled-off, and is vindictive to a fault. Even through all this, Jesse still tries to repair the damage and reunite father and son, and even makes amends with Matt's mother - now a lonely, sad woman who's also a victim of Matt's selfish power-trip punishments.

The "revenge plot" is not an uncommon one in the romance world - that is, a story in which the hero or heroine initiates a relationship with their significant other for the express purpose of exacting vengeance, only to fall in love with them instead. I'm not too familiar with this type of storyline, but several romance fans have assured me that there are stories in which this type of thing works - mainly because it creates a psychological tug-of-war in the revenge-seaking protagonist between the polar opposites of love and hatred.

However, I felt this plot failed in Sweet Trouble's case because with Matt, there was no build-up of love. He consistently hates Jesse for the majority of the novel, without a sufficient resurgence of romantic feeling to balance it. While Matt acknowledges once or twice that he's still attracted to Jesse, he never considers her feelings or questions the righteousness of the pain he's planning to inflict on her. His Big Realization that he's still in love with Jesse is a Big Realization - precisely because there was no development of positive feelings for her beforehand. It was like flicking on a light switch - one minute, he's "I will destroy her," and the next it's "OH SHIT, GOTTA STOP HER FROM FINDING OUT ABOUT THOSE CUSTODY PAPERS!!"

However, I think what I despised most about this book were the ugly and misogynist undertones concerning Jesse's responsibility towards Matt. Throughout the novel, most of the blame for the five years Gabe spent without a father and Matt spent not knowing his son is placed squarely on Jesse's shoulders. Whenever Matt reflects on the years of "firsts" he missed with his son, he never, not once, at any point in the novel places any of the blame or responsibility for this on himself.

Never once does he reflect on that pivotal moment when he told Jesse that he didn't care if her child was his and derive any feeling of personal culpability for Jesse's exile to Spokane. His complete and one-sided belief in Jesse's total responsibility for their breakup remains unchanged even after he realizes that she never cheated on him. I might have been able to relate to his anger and his loss better if he'd had at least one thought of, "I'm part of the reason Gabe doesn't know me - gee, if only I hadn't lost my temper," but this never happens. I'm not saying that Matt should take all of the blame for their breakup, but he bears at least part of the responsibility. In the novel's flashbacks, a lovestruck Matt swore to Jesse that he'd never let her past affect their future, but when his vow was actually tested he broke it. The novel never dwells on this, Matt's most telling contribution to Jesse's flight to Spokane, nor acknowledges any part of his betrayal of her.

What's worse, is that even the other characters begin to think this way, too - Jesse's exile to Spokane is seen as a "mistake," yet another example of her irresponsibility and flightiness. If she'd only stayed, and waited for Matt to get over his pathetic man-boy insecurities, this could have all turned out fine. The only voice of reason seems to be Jesse herself, who believes that those five years in Spokane turned her into a better person and kept her from reverting to her screwup ways, and that Matt ultimately failed in his promise to love her despite her past.

And that's what it comes down to in Sweet Trouble - Jesse's slutty past. If she hadn't been such a whore, Nicole wouldn't have thought she'd slept with her husband. If Jesse had been a good little girl, Matt would have believed her and married her and lived happily ever after. If Jesse had obeyed society's rules, Gabe would have grown up with a father and society's happy natural order would have prevailed. The appalling connotations of this book, that Jesse's breakup with Matt, and the absence of Gabe in Matt's life, are ultimately consqeuences of Jesse being a floozy, are hideous.

Jesse, at least, proves to be a strong character who resists this bullshit for the majority of the book, but ultimately she gives in at the end, because Rat-Bastard Matt is inexplicably the hero of this piece. I closed this book after reading the last page with a mixture of rage and, yes, sadness. Rage that books are still being written that tout pathetic, abusive, self-involved and hypocritical males as the romantic ideal, and sadness, because after reading all three books in Mallery's Bakery Sisters Trilogy, I thought Jesse deserved better. F.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

"Sweet Spot," by Susan Mallery

The Chick: Nicole Keyes, fraternal twin sister to Claire Keyes, heroine of Sweet Talk. Nicole's life's a trainwreck at the moment - her husband Drew cheated on her with Jesse, the baby sister she practically raised since she was six years old. The only thing worse than reliving the painful betrayal is being the butt of her friends' pity. On a whim, she offers Hawk plenty of hot commitment-free sex in return for pretending to be her adoring new boyfriend to deflect the constant "aww, how sad" looks from her friends, family and coworkers.
The Rub: Despite her own near-constant state of family crisis and her conviction that she'll never land a decent man, Nicole's biological clock is madly ticking, and not at all assuaged by her sister Claire's blissful state of pregnant engagement. To make things even worse - Jesse turns out to be pregnant, too: possibly with Drew's kid.
Dream Casting: From the start of Sweet Talk, I'd always pictured Nicole as played by Slither's Elizabeth Banks.

The Dude:
Eric "Hawk" Hawkins. A former NFL-player-turned-football-coach, he likes Nicole on sight and aggressively pursues her. When she offers herself to him as his on-call sex kitten in return for his pretend commitment, he thinks he's hit the jackpot...
The Rub: ... as long as he thinks he doesn't actually have to commit. He "doesn't do relationships" after he lost his beloved wife Serena to cancer. A house full of girly knicknacks and hordes of pictures of his dead wife contest to the fact that he's only got room in his life for Serena and Brittany, his teenage daughter.
Dream Casting: Huge, muscular, and hot? It could only be The Shield's Kenny Johnson.
The Plot:
Nicole: I caught my husband cheating with my sister and threw them both out, and now I'm alone. Could life get any worse?

Claire, Nicole's Sister: *happy pregnant sparkle* Oh, how terrible. *sparkle sparkle*

Nicole: Grrr....

Hawk: Hey, you're hot.

Nicole: Oh, good. Let's have sex and you can pretend to adore me!

Hawk: Works for me!

Jesse, Nicole's Backstabbing Baby Sister: Guess what, I'm pregnant!

Sheila, Precocious Stray Dog: WOOF! (translation: So am I!)

Brittany, Hawk's Teenage Daughter: I'm pregnant, too! Yippee!

Hawk: WHAT?! Nicole, this is all YOUR fault - you're like a preggo magnet!

Brittany: Scratch that, turns out I'm just gassy.

Hawk: Uh, Nicole, we can get back together now.

Nicole: Yeah, well guess what - I'M PREGNANT.

Hawk: SHIT. Uh... I mean ... Let's get married.

Nicole: HELL no.

Hawk: What if I buy you presents, first?

Nicole: Okay.
All Condom Companies in the Greater Seattle Area: *bankrupted*

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Sexy (Ex-) Football Player
1 Single Dad/Widower
1 Scrappy Yet Honourable Foster Child

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

4(!) Unplanned Pregnancies

1 "Whoops I Peed on the Stick Too Soon" Non-Pregnancy

1 Saintly Late Wife Who Continues to Influence From Beyond the Grave

1 Crazy-Ass Spoiled Cheerleader Bitch Daughter
The Word:
In my review of the first book in this trilogy, Sweet Talk, I mentioned how at first it was hard to like Nicole Keyes, sister to famous pianist Claire Keyes, because she seemed like such a vindictive, angry person. While her own novel, Sweet Spot, is definitely not up to snuff, it isn''t because Nicole is the heroine this time. I actually found her to be an incredibly likeable character and found myself relating to her very easily. Sadly, Sweet Spot didn't hit the spot, mainly thanks to some frankly unbelievable and contrived plot developments, wishy-washy characters and one character U-Turn that turned the latter half of this novel into a real slog.

As mentioned in the previous book, Nicole's not having a very good year. In Sweet Talk, she recovered from gallbladder surgery, knee surgery, and the betrayal of catching her husband sampling Jesse's goodies, all the while reconciling with Claire, her other sister who had never had the chance to really connect with her family thanks to her musical career.

Even though Claire and Nicole are on pretty friendly terms now, Nicole's happiness meter remains fairly drained. Even though she realizes in hindsight that her marriage to Drew was a mistake from the start, Nicole believes finding a man who truly cares about her is a lost cause. She's a workaholic who's never developed a social life and is a rut person, so she's convinced she only has more of the same to look forward to.

Than she meets Hawk. When Nicole catches a teen, Raoul, stealing donuts from her bakery, Hawk, the kid's football coach, tries to talk her out of calling the police. Nicole ends up calming down more thanks to Raoul's sincere apology and acceptance of responsibility than because of Hawk's domineering intervention, but Hawk feels an attraction to her anyway, an attraction that Nicole secretly returns but is too frightened to admit.

Hawk, in an admirable twist, is a man who knows what he wants immediately, and thus begins openly and aggressively coming on to Nicole. Nicole initially refuses, although Hawk does manage to rope her into hanging out with him and volunteering for his football team. Eventually, however, as the nasty surprises start piling up in her personal life (finding out about Jesse's pregnancy through their lawyer, Cheating Bastard Drew's unwelcome re-appearance, the smothering pity of her friends and family), Nicole desides it's time for a little "Selfish Me Time." She offers Hawk an audacious deal: Hawk can have her any way he wants, as often as he wants, whenever he wants. In return, he'll play the part of the Doting Boyfriend in order to fend off the draining sympathy of Claire, refute the hurtful comments from Drew, and convince as many people as possible that Nicole Keyes' life is not a Bottomless Pit of Suck.

The first stages of Nicole and Hawk's courtship are funny and sexy. Hawk's honesty about his pursuit of Nicole is refreshing, and his macho alpha-male "act first and ask Nicole's permission later" approach comes across as flattering and necessary instead of offensive and domineering. Nicole is a rut person who's comfortable with familiarity, so it feels realistic that a she'd need a take-charge partner to force her to change her routine and enjoy new things. Mallery's characterization of Nicole is spot-on and relateable. Although she does tend to maintain a negative image of herself, she's fierce enough that she never comes across as a self-pitying dishrag. She's believable and real and I found myself relating to her on a number of levels.

However, as the novel moves towards the second half, several plot elements occur that seem so forced that it moves the story in an equally forced direction. It placed unnatural stress on the characters that skewed the story. Spoilers ahoy: Hawk's teenage daughter Brittany gets pregnant, and abruptly transforms from a bubbly and harmless minor character into a flat-out ridiculous, spoiled princess bitch within the span of a few pages. The set-up seemed hopelessly contrived, because it created character traits and weaknesses out of thin air that were not properly developed and set up in the first half. Hawk is demonstrated to be a perfectly capable parent in the first half, but once Brittany gets pregnant, Brittany drops about ten years in mental age and Hawk suddenly becomes an incompetent father. With proper buildup and clues that Hawk might have been ignoring certain aspects of Brittany's character, Mallery could have pulled this off, but as it was, it seemed too out-of-the-blue for me.

From there, things get more convoluted, until the last thirty pages were a swamp to get through. You can probably picture it in your head - lots of backtracking, indecisiveness, running around, scapegoating, and ice cream binge eating. Hawk's final wooing of Nicole is so cheesy and cheap, that it almost wrecked the goodwill stored up from his forthright courtship at the novel's start. While this novel had a firecracker of a heroine and some excellent initial scenes, the book's action eventually ends up hinging on unbelievable happenstance. C+.

Monday, September 01, 2008

"The Viscount Who Loved Me," by Julia Quinn

The Chick: Kate Sheffield. Thanks to her family's strained finances, she has to share her first season at the advanced age of twenty-one with her seventeen-year-old half-sister Edwina. Knowing Edwina, the more conventionally pretty one, is the more likely of the two to make an advantageous match, Kate makes it her duty to make sure Edwina doesn't fall for a cad.
The Rub: Years of living in Edwina's sparkling, gorgeous shadow have left Kate with an overdeveloped sense of her own unattractiveness. Is also irrationally terrified of thunderstorms.
The Dreamcast: Nora Zehetner, a.k.a. "Eden" from Heroes. She looks to be just the right match of pretty and pert to play the saucy Kate.

The Dude:
Viscount Anthony Bridgerton. The eldest of the eight Bridgerton siblings, he lives a rakish existence but still takes his duties as head of the family very seriously, ever since his father died unexpectedly of anaphylactic shock from a bee sting when Anthony was eighteen.
The Rub: He worshipped his father to such an extent that his father's sudden death at the age of 38 convinced Anthony that, just as he supposedly can't measure up to all of his father's other accomplishments, he won't be able to surpass his dad's lifespan either, so he lives life as if his days were already numbered. Is also terrified (albeit a little more understandably) of bees.
The Dreamcast: Firefly's Sean Maher.

The Plot:

Anthony: I need a wife.

Colin, Anthony's Brother: Well, Edwina Sheffield's pretty.

Anthony: She'll do. **ACTUAL QUOTE FROM NOVEL**

Kate: Nu-uh! You won't go near her!

Anthony: Will too!

Kate: Will not!

Anthony: Will too!

Kate: Ow! Bee sting!


Kate and Anthony: *compromised*

Anthony: Uh, I like my women the way I like my coffee, COVERED IN BEES?

Kate and Anthony: *married*

Bishop: ....till death do you part....

Anthony: Yeah, well, that's what? Eight years? Not too bad.

Kate: *carriage overturns*

Anthony: SHIT. We could have had EIGHT years!

Kate: Hey, I'm still alive!

Anthony: YEAH!

*ten years later*

Anthony: *still alive*

Bees: *not amused*

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Heroine With Poor Self-Image

2 Inconvenient Phobias

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Relationship-Marring Pet (dog)

1 Relationship-Advancing Insect (bee)

2 Cameos from Characters from Previous Quinn Novels (Simon and Daphne!)

1 Game of Pall Mall (croquet) Involving the Mallet of Death

The Word:
The second in the Bridgerton family series of romance novels by Julia Quinn, this one involves Anthony, Daphne's oldest brother who appeared in The Duke & I for almost the sole purpose of punching Simon in the face. This review is rather spoiler-heavy, so you've been warned.

Now, of course, he gets his own story. Anthony, the eldest Bridgerton, was the one who was the hardest hit when the children's father died from a sudden allergic reaction to a bee sting. At eighteen, Anthony was on the cusp of manhood already, while his brothers were sixteen, twelve, and two - and the youngest Bridgerton (Hyacinth) not even born yet. He shared a special relationship with his father and was devasted when he collapsed from a simple bee sting in the prime of his life.

The interesting thing here is that while modern readers will know it was an allergic reaction, realistically Julia Quinn uses the Regency-era ignorance of fatal allergies to create an interesting plot element. Anthony emerges from the tragedy of his father's death with the unshakeable conviction that his days, too, are numbered. In Anthony's eyes, if a man as exalted, accomplished, and unshakeable as his magnificent father could be felled by a mere bee at the age of thirty-eight, than his struggling son certainly can't last much longer.

At the novel's start, he's spent the last ten years living scandalously, all the while still maintaining his duties and responsibilities to his large family. However, as his biological clock keeps ticking towards his imagined endpoint, he decides to settle down to meet yet another duty as Viscount: marry and beget an heir. He really has only three qualities the future Viscountess must meet: 1) She must be reasonably pretty. 2) She must be reasonably intelligent. And 3), she must not be a love match. Really, Anthony reasons, it's better for both of them if neither of them loves the other, because it will only make it more painful when he meets his inevitable early fate.

He settles his eye on Edwina Sheffield, the impoverished but ravishingly lovely star of this year's Season. She's more than pretty, she likes to read, and there's no emotional spark between them. To Anthony, this is perfect, except for one small detail: Edwina refuses to consider any suitor who doesn't meet her older sister's approval. There, Anthony meets a brick wall.

Kate Sheffield's heard plenty about Anthony's rakish ways in the local gossip papers, and is not so easily charmed by Anthony. Far from being a sharp-tongued harridan, Kate is a rather enjoyable and sympathetic character. She's used to being the "other sister," and always unfavourably compared to Edwina. While jealousy's never been an issue since Edwina is thankfully a bubbly and caring person, Kate has convinced herself that no one could possibly notice her if Edwina were in the room as well, and resigns herself to the fate of seeing Edwina married off well so that Kate and her stepmother may live above the genteel poverty line.

She's already suspicious when Anthony approaches her to gain the required approval, and when Anthony tosses off a thoughtless compliment ("you're as lovely as your sister"), Kate immediately pegs him for a dishonest, caddish flatterer - the last kind of man she wants her sister to associate with. Of course, Anthony refuses to be disuaded and rises to the challenge.
I enjoyed this novel very much. At first, I was a little unsettled, because the narrative and obstacle structure of The Viscount Who Loved Me seemed almost identical to that of The Duke & I. Man whose relationship decisions are essentially decided for him by his now-deceased father fights his wrong attraction to a wrong woman, until he and she are compromised into a marriage, where his dark secret problems are confronted and eventually solved in the fourth quarter of the novel.

However, I thought the obstacles and personal problems of Anthony and Kate to be more believable than those of Simon and Daphne, so I felt the structure suited their story more. Simon's refusal to have children in order to spite his dead father came across as rather childish and disturbing and a little exaggerated. Daphne, herself, didn't have any real problems other than the fact that she was a bit too nice.

In The Viscount Who Loved Me, however, both character have realistic foibles that are complemented and eased by their partners. Anthony is terrified of falling in love because ignoring permanent attachments to people has been the only thing keeping him from fearing his early demise. Kate, meanwhile, has to struggle with the nature of their marriage - Kate, stung by a bee, is compromised when a horrified Anthony tries to manually suck out the venom to save her life. The bee stung her on the chest. You can work out the rest of the details yourself. However, while Kate is secretly thrilled to be married to Anthony, she despairs over "trapping" Anthony, hates considering herself to be the second choice, and fears that Anthony's really thinking of someone else when he makes love to her.

Kate is afraid that Anthony doesn't love her. Anthony is afraid that he does. The theme of fears and phobias (Kate is also afraid of storms, as Anthony is of bees) adds an excellent layer to a novel about two people who, to escape their deepest fears, have constructed facades and personalities in order to protect themselves. Anthony arranges his life around his belief that he won't reach his 38th birthday and lives as an emotionally unattached rake, Kate prepares herself for a life of spinsterhood and devotes her life to her sister as she believes she'll never have one of her own. I don't know, but living a life controlled by fear always came across to me as more relatable than living a life controlled by spite.

Despite the similarities in story structure, I quite enjoyed the interactions between the hero and heroine much more in The Viscount Who Loved Me, and how each became a better, less afraid person around the other.