Saturday, October 31, 2009

October Round-Up

So, here I am, munching on Halloween candy (because we didn't give any out - li'l sis has the flu. Oh well. Candy sacrifices must be made for the greater good, nom nom nom), and putting together my second monthly round-up. I got a lot more read this month, mainly because I got pretty lucky, reading-wise, with the books I pulled off the TBR pile. But let's round-up, shall we?

For heroines, we got:
  • 1 heartbroken widow who actually loved her husband
  • 1 ditz who believes she's deathly allergic to the ocean
  • 1 Tall Bookish Brunette (who naturally comes accompanied by a Prettier, Blonder, Boring-er Sister)
  • 2 tough gals who don't need no help from no man, no how
  • 2 boring and occasionally shrill single mums

For heroes, we got:
  • 1 romantic highwayman with inner ear problems
  • 1 bookish translator who prefers independent life
  • 1 southern boy who don't take kindly to people who organize with electronic devices
  • 1 star football player/underwear model
  • 1 shiftless rake hiding a heart of gold
  • 1 merman prince
  • 1 heartless businessman who simply must have sex with hookers twice a week or else his junk will explode

In the Romantic Obstacle department we got:
  • "My heart/the world/society/certain appendages are too hard for love to be anything but a fairy-tale."
  • "I must obey the rules and the rules say I must not bang the beautiful woman who speaks to the deepest secrets of my soul, so too bad for me."
  • "She's my dead best friend's wife, dude - even Regency Bucks have a bro code!"
  • "She's my fiancee's sister, dude. Bro! Code! Pay attention!"
  • "I'd like to bang this hot southerner but some crazy-ass ghost keeps haunting my children."
  • "My dad told me he took money to annul our marriage."

In Miscellaneous Oddities, we have:
  • Grieving Widower Bird Mercenaries
  • Rock Star DILFS
  • A Crazy-Ass Ghost Mum
  • Equestrian Sex (by which I mean sex on, rather than with a horse)
  • Hot Cult Babes
  • Sweaty Beaver Costumes
  • Psychic Children
  • Fake Annulments
  • Several Evil or Otherwise Shamefully Negligent Parents

*October Pick* Prince of Midnight, by Laura Kinsale A+
Winner of the Best Hero EVER Award. Hoo boy, S.T. is a hot hot hero. We have an older, scarred swashbuckler who just wants to swash buckles again, no matter whose buckles need the swashing. Romantic and sentimental, he's a teddy bear - a dashing sword-wielding, cult-babe-saving teddy bear.

Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips A+ (yes, same grade as Prince of Midnight, but it just missed out on being the top pick - why? Because S.T. Maitland could kick Dean Robillard's ass ANY DAY)
Winner of the Superb Characterization Award. That's the most of what I come away with from this wonderful book - no one in this novel is precisely a villain, even though if written by a lesser writer, this book could have had, like, six or seven baddies gunning for our hero and heroine. Honestly, you think you're going to hate a character - give it a few chapters. You'll change your mind.

When He Was Wicked, by Julia Quinn B+
Winner of the Most Interesting Gender Reversal Award. The Bridgerton series picks itself back up with this story where (gasp!) we have a heroine who's afraid of commitment being chased by a romantic hero who wants marriage and babies! How quaint!

, by Kate Noble B
Winner of the Most Surprisingly Poignant and Complicated Daddy Issues Award. Romance heroes who hate their dads are a dime a dozen, so Max's tug-of-war problems with his stick-in-the-mud father really contributed to the complex layers of his character. The scene where Gail helps him come to terms with his true feelings for his father was one of the most powerful things I've read in a long time.

Three Little Secrets
, by Liz Carlyle B-
Winner of the Perpetually Second Best Award. Seriously, if you have to choose between this book and Mary Balogh's "Spellbound" from the It Happened One Night anthology, choose the latter. Exact same story, all-round superior execution, half the page count.

Blue Dahlia, by Nora Roberts C+
Winner of the M'eh Award of Excellence in the Field of Adequacy. While this was my first Nora, in the words of the esteemed fellow Canadian Shania Twain, this book didn't impress me much. Obvious plotting. Boring and selfish characters. Contrived single mother plotline. However, there was lots of detail, and none of the characters acted too much like cartoons (although the pregnant lady who didn't tell the father of her child that he'd, uh, fathered a child because she didn't want to be a bother is a headscratcher), but nothing really to interest me.

*October Dud* Wild Blue Under, Judi Fennell D-
Winner of the Highest Puns-to-Plot-Development Ratio. Yeah, instead of doing actual worldbuilding or creative explorations of what an underwater society might actually be like, Judi Fennell decided to make her Atlantean inhabitants just like us, using North American colloquialisms with ocean-themed words shoehorned in. Lame lame lame.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On the Far Side Contest, Judging, and Writing

I finally got my marks back for the On the Far Side contest, the first writing contest I decided to send my precious baby The Duke of Snow and Apples to.

Yeah, I didn't end up placing. Didn't even break the upper half. Still, though - I got some valid comments and some interesting grading. I got fantastic marks for Craft and Dialogue, average marks for Characterization, and lower marks for Plot and Pacing (most of the judges felt I started too slowly, which is a problem I know I have).

I felt the judging was harsh but fair - whenever I send something out I always think it's Buckets of Awesome so it always comes back as a slap in the face when I discover people think it's somewhat less awesome.

However, someone in the Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal chapter of RWA (of which I am a member, and the chapter which hosted the contest) decided to open the proverbial can of radioactive worms by bitching about a particularly low grade given by one of the judges, going so far as to say the person's judgment should be questioned for giving her such a "hateful" low grade when the other judges had given her a, hmm, medium-low grade.

This, of course, led to a Greek Chorus of griping and whining about how some judges are just spiteful and contests are a crapshoot and the lowest grades should be thrown out and "discrepencies" should be rendered invalid, and the pervading tang of sour grapes grew so powerful it practically wafted off of my computer screen.

The Writer in me, still whimpering from not being considered Completely Awesome and Well-Written by all, remained silent - but the Reviewer in me shouted, "SUCK IT UP, LADIES."

I find the idea that a person's judgement should be rendered invalid because it doesn't match up with the others ludicrous. The judging is meant to be impartial - names aren't allowed on the manuscripts when they're turned in. Judging is also a volunteer effort that takes up a lot of time - the idea that someone would volunteer a massive amount of personal time to judge a contest just because she's a spiteful old hag who wants to piss on people's dreams doesn't make sense. It's like that lame-ass witch Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty: "You spent 16 years focused on punishing one teenage girl? Really? Instead of taking over the world or doing something else equally evil? Have you never heard of multitasking??"

One commenter said, "It was obvious the judge hated my work, so I don't see why her opinion should count." Um, because hate is an opinion? Because you're allowed to hate stories you think are poorly-written and plotted? Because this was a writing contest, not a back-patting, hand-holding contest? If a judge is allowed to mark you highly, they're allowed to mark you poorly - that's the gamble of entering a contest. I openly dislike critique groups or contests or other writing circles that discourage negative or critical comments (no matter how reasonable or polite) because they don't want to hurt writers' feelings. This isn't about feelings! Feelings are irrelevant! This is about writing! Okay, I'm sounding like a bad Superhero Movie Villain, but I'm firmly of the belief that CRITICISM IS YOUR FRIEND. Your nasty, bitchy, hurtful friend.

And I really dislike the notion that a judge whose opinion is different from the others shouldn't be counted. Everyone is different - why would you want them all to judge you the same? I guess, from the writer's point of view, when considering how to re-write a story it's a safe bet to consider the weaknesses/strengths that 3 people all pointed out to you rather than the weaknesses/strengths that only 1 noticed. I get that, but in the matter of judging, a person's opinion shouldn't be rendered invalid just because it's different.

Why do I say this? Because a discrepency happened to me - only in a different way. I got four scores, all out of 150: 114, 115, 118....and 150.

A perfect score. I GOT A PERFECT SCORE! From a published author! Yippee! Hooray! FIVE OUT OF FIVE ONE HUNDRED PERCENT! HOORAH!

But WAIT! It's a discrepency! It's so much HIGHER than my other scores - it must not COUNT! The judge obviously loved my story way too much to have a valid opinion of it!

I'm willing to bet that not many people in my situation would care to complain about that. If the worm-can-opener had received that score - a score so much more positive than all the others - would they have bitched about biased judges? Hell no. If they're willing to count an odd review even though it's oddly high, I don't see why they shouldn't count an odd review if it's oddly lower than the others. That's hypocritical.

Of course it sucks that someone stomped on your work. It's entirely your perogative to ignore their comments on your story and rewrite it your own way. But a judge's job is to judge your work - not to make sure they match up with the other judges. Their job isn't to make you feel better, but to give a careful analysis of your writing.

Now, I'm off to try and make my plot move faster!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Wild Blue Under," Judi Fennell

Alternate Title: Chasing Tail

The Chick: Valerie Dumere. After years of rootless wandering, she's finally settled down to help run her dead mother's store - too bad it's about to go bankrupt. Could a mysteriously hot dude who claims she's earned an inheritance from her deadbeat dad be her salvation?
The Rub: Yeah, she's earned an inheritance - she just has to follow this hot dude to the ocean to get it. Don't mind his talking seagull sidekick. Just ignore the evil albatross trying to divebomb your car. Forget the fact your dead mom said you're allergic to the ocean.
Dream Casting: Sarah Michelle Gellar.

The Dude: Rod Tritone. As son of the High Councilman of Atlantis, he's basically Prince of the Sea, and he doesn't like the idea of having to go all the way to freakin' Kansas to retrieve a long-lost sea princess who's only half-human. With great power comes great responsibility, though, right?
The Rub: Valerie's totally got it goin' on, but Rod can't dilute his precious princely bloodline with the dirty mudblood of a hybrid.
Dream Casting: Matt Bomer.

The Plot:
Valerie: Look at this store, isn't it neat?
Wouldn't you think my story's complete?
Wouldn't you think I'm the girl - the girl who's got everything?

Rod: I've got issues and complexes aplenty.
I've got guilt trips and plot holes galore.

Valerie: You want daddy issues? I've got twenty!
But who cares, no big deal - I want moooooooore.....

Rod: *ahem, next song* An albatross is trying to kill us,
'cause humans, dey killed his wife.
He's been hired by a heinous villain,
and has been paid to end your life.

But hey if you come with me, girl,
Just ignore my talking bird,
I'll give you a big fat diamond,
And pretend this plot isn't absurd.

Valerie: This dude's CRAY-ZEE.
This dude's CRAY-ZEE.
But, god, his six-pack's,
Tasty as a Big Mac,
Take it from me!

I'm risking danger? Think I'll pass,
But hot holy DAMN look at his ASS.
Fine I'll go with you, ignore all my red flags,
But you're CRAY-ZEE.

Rod: *cough KEY CHANGE* There, you see her, checking out your sexy thighs,
Wow she's got such pretty eyes, I really want to bang her.
Though I fucked my brother's life, so I can't take a wife,
I wanna, BANG DE GIRL.

Valerie: Wow, I want him, even though he's really nuts.
I have seen a lot of butts, and by far his is the nicest.
Though my dad ran away, so all men must be that way,
I wanna BANG DE BOY.

Livingston, the Talking Seagull: SHALALALALALA, you're both dumb,
Your "issues" aren't worth chum,
SHALALALALALA this is contrived,
How are you both still alive,
Enough to BANG DE GIRL?

SHALALALALA, this book is hell,
The girl's TSTL,
She's not smart enough to do much else,
Our hero's dumb as well.
Might as well BANG DE GIRL!

Rod and Valerie: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Secret Princess with Daddy Issues

1 Secret Sea Prince With Brother Issues

2 Huge-Ass Diamonds

Several Talking Birds

1 Evil Albatross

Several Interfering Deities

1 Remarkably Incompetent Villain

2 Inconveniently Dead Parents

1 Fake Allergy

1 Letter From an Inconveniently Dead Parent That Conveniently Explains Entire Backstory All At Once

The Word:
When I picked this book up at the Sourcebooks signing at RWA National, I was pretty interested. A merman romance? Intriguing! I felt some pretty heavy anticipation in regards to the worldbuilding. I haven't read very many books that have an underwater setting so I was curious as to how it could be accomplished in a romance. Also, I had a bit of an unhealthy curiosity about how merpeople actually DO IT - sparked, in part, by a hilarious spoof on Saturday Night Live where Reese Witherspoon, playing a mermaid, tries to seduce Will Ferrell while talking about laying eggs and having him fertilize them.

BACK ON TOPIC - the merman romance. Yay or nay?

NAY. SO MUCH NAY. There aren't enough perturbed horses in the world to convey just how much NAY there was to this story. The characters are contrived, the villain is breathtakingly incompetent, the threats are silly and the worldbuilding is cartoonish. And the PUNS. Horrible water-themed PUNS were everywhere.

Our merman hero is Rod Tritone, brother to Reel, the hero of Fennell's debut novel, In Over Her Head. Yes. Merman brothers named Rod and Reel. It's silly all by itself without considering the contextual implications of naming mermen after things that are supposedly dangerous to them - isn't that akin to naming human kids Gun and Knife? Anyhoo - he's a prince, or rather, the son of the High Councilman of the sea (who's named Fisher. I shit you not. Can someone tell me how that is NOT like calling a human Murderer? Or Killer? REALLY?).

Rod's been given a strange mission by the Council - it turns out Lance Dumere, one of the recently deceased Councilmen, begat an heir with a human woman, and the Council believes this hybrid girl is the key to some vaguely described prophecy and that bringing her back to her heritage could possibly save the world. The book's hazy on the exact details, but suffice it to say - Rod's got a job: find the girl, bring her back to the ocean, and dump salt water on her so she turns into a mermaid. He also has to do all of this in three days, or the tail he's sacrificing to pass for human won't grow back.

Rod flies out to Kansas, of all places, to find the woman (Valerie) who's currently running a shop that sells ocean-themed souvenirs. He informs her of her father's death and says he left her a legacy. Valerie refuses point-blank - even though she's never met her father, knowing that he abandoned them has left her very bitter and she wants nothing to do with him.

That is, until a Plot Device Accountant shows up to conveeeeeniently inform her that her deceased mother (who owned the shop) forgot to pay some taxes and the IRS is gunning for her, at which point Valerie jumps on the idea of a legacy. How ... coincidental.

By this point, Valerie and Rod have some tedious, cutesy and contrived interaction, most of which involves Valerie falling down a lot and admiring Rod's bod. Yes, Rod is apparently so attractive that Valerie just falls down at random times while looking at him. I'm not exaggerating - it's a good thing she spends most the rest of this book sitting in a car because in these first chapters she makes Bella Swan from Twilight look like a figure skater.

A monkeywrench is thrown into Rod's plans when a talking seagull superspy (I'm serious) crashes his party. This seagull, seemingly named Livingston for the sole reason of providing Rod with an "I presume?" joke, tells Rod that explosives were found in a trench he'd recently been excavating, leading the Council to think someone's out to kill Rod to mess with the line of succession. It turns out the main reason Rod was even sent on this mission was to get him out of harm's way - but all for naught. Livingston informs Rod and a freaked-out Valerie that "JR," an infamous albatross mercenary/assassin (again, not making this up), has been hired to take both Rod and Valerie out.

This starts off what turns out to be a road romance as Valerie, Rod and Livingston hop in Valerie's car and try to race to the ocean before JR - who's gained control of all the birds in the area. This leads to some painfully silly action sequences where birds drop dead fish on the car and fly around with blankets to block the windows and peregrine falcons launch other, smaller birds at the windows and somehow Valerie, Rod and Livingston scream about how OMG! Our fast-moving metal box designed to weather heavy impact is no match for dead fish and blankets and very determined small birds!

Meanwhile, uh, back in the ocean, Rod's family are kicking themselves for not actually telling Rod about the threat on his life before sending him three thousand miles inland without any backup. They also make some half-assed attempts to find out who is responsible for the threat, but it's all for show - the villain, Rod's cousin Drake, is so obviously, idiodically evil that it's practically tattooed on his forehead and the fact that his nefarious plans remain undiscovered for so long suggests bad things about the combined IQs of the Atlantean Royal Family.

But really, none of Judi Fennell's characters are much sharper than a bowling ball. Valerie is one of those people who probably has trouble chewing gum and walking at the same time. She nearly runs her car off the road more than once because she's so entranced by Rod's unbelievable sexiness that she fails to remember she's driving a vehicle at high speed to escape from murderous attackers.

Much of the novel is from her POV and 85% of her mental output is Ass! Look at that ass! And those abs! And his chest! Pectorals! Glutes! Manly Thighs! Rock hard --- shit! Birds are attacking! It's really hard to get to know her character - especially what she sees in Rod other than his physical appearance since the very sight of him sends her into Bimbo Mode. If she's like this all the time I wonder if she's capable of driving a car with an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue in the passenger seat.

Also - she tells Rod she doesn't want to go to the ocean with him because she's deathly allergic to it. Why does she think this? Because of a poorly-remembered event in her childhood and because her mother told her so. Has she ever been tested? Does she carry any medication? Has she ever been to an allergy doctor? You can't just believe you're allergic to the entire fucking ocean (75% of the earth's surface) based on hearsay without checking it out with a doctor! She's supposed to be twenty-nine years old! When my throat starting itching when I ate bowls of mixed nuts as a teenager, I said, "Huh, guess I won't eat nuts anymore" - only for my mum to say, "Don't be a moron. Get yourself tested to make sure what you're allergic to!"

Of course, Valerie also has Daddy issues stemming from her belief that her father abandoned her. She's spent years living a vagrant lifestyle which she blames on her father - she thinks he passed on a "deadbeat" gene and that's why she's never been satisfied sticking in one place. She's determined to keep her mother's store afloat because she thinks doing otherwise is to abandon her mother's memory the same way her Dad did.

Rod, on the other hand, is one of those rigid stick-to-the-rules types thanks to one mistake he made in his past. In one of the few interesting aspects of this book, Rod actually blames himself for his brother Reel falling in love with a human (the events of In Over Her Head). Apparently, Reel had a shot at the Immortality that's bestowed on certain members of the royal family and turned it down to live as a human with with his lady love Erica. Rod, who accidentally introduced them, doesn't really consider the whole "true love" part - thinks he's condemned Reel to a shortened lifespan separated from the ocean. Yes, it's pretty selfish reasoning on Rod's part but at least it's something.

Still, despite the "issues" which are supposed to make our protagonists so darn "deep," they remain superficial and mostly inconsistent characters. When Rod jumps in the sea 3/4 of the way through the book and his tail doesn't grow back, he takes it as a sign he should flip the almighty gods the almighty bird, and run off to Kansas with Valerie - completely forgetting the whole "Valerie needs to be returned to the sea to save the world" aspect of his mission. Sure, I guess rules and regulations aren't the most important thing in the world but saving the fucking world sure is! Also, did I mention that our protagonists' deep inner turmoils are neatly and instantaneously solved within pages of each other?

As for Drake, the villain, the whole joke is that he's managed to convince everyone he's so stupid he couldn't possibly be behind any nefarious plot, when really he's quite functionally stupid enough to do all sorts of badness. He's the kind of villain who's so exaggeratedly bad he accidentally chokes minions into unconsciousness and unwittingly kills henchmen.

And that world-building I was so excited about? What world building? The world of Atlantis reads like Judi Fennell's "research" consisted of watching Disney's The Little Mermaid even more times than I have - which I suppose is an achievement in and of itself. I'm talking about a world fuelled by fish puns and cliches. Imagine an American sitcom circa 1985, only with all the human colloquialisms replaced with their aquatic equivalents. "Everyone was on fins and needlefish," "that's the fifty-thousand clam question," "Son of a Mer!" Also, the mermaids all wear coconut-shell bras tied with seaweed. Did I mention all the joyful sea creatures that just drift in an out, dropping chirpy "hello"s and wisecracks? Thank heavens they don't burst into song!

Oh, and after reading this book I think I owe Bertrice Small an apology. "Love lance" may be a silly name for penis, but at least it's a recognizable metaphor. "Love lance" has nothing on "shell-fillers" - the Mer term for breasts. Several times Rod catches himself admiring Valerie's "shell-fillers." I can only hope that shell-fillers isn't the actual term but more like the Atlantean equivalent of "sweater puppies." Seagulls, hilariously, use an existing but incorrect sexual euphemism - they admire Valerie's "hoo-has." Sorry, birdbrains, think further south. I realize breasts are kind of an oddity under the sea where mammals are few are far between but sheesh.

As for the plotting, it's haphazard at best, and downright contrived and sloppy at worst. Several plot threads are left dangling and plot holes left gaping under the laziest bullshit excuse of all, "The gods said so." Yes, Atlantis is a world still under the rule of the Greek gods of mythology, whose entire purpose is to serve as deus ex machina. The villain's plot is foiled by Zeus - why? Hell if I know! When asked this, Zeus just lifts an eyebrow and gives a cryptic riddle response which is I guess is supposed to make the reader want to get the next book (Catch of a Lifetime). When Rod first jumps in the water, his tail doesn't grow back right away - but it does once Valerie's in danger. Why? The gods refuse to say - although they assure Rod it won't happen again. It turns out Valerie's not the vague MacGuffin needed to fulfill the prophesy - so why did the gods tell the Council to tell Rod to get her in the first place? STOP QUESTIONING THE ALMIGHTY DEITIES!

When you get right down to it, the novel doesn't have a point at all. Wild Blue Under is just an awful piece of writing. The characters are inconsistent and stupid, the villain cliched, the world-building unoriginal and unfunny, the tone flips from cartoonish to dead serious without enough transition, the characters' deeply ingrained personal problems are solved too easily and neatly, and the plot remains incomplete thanks to convenient deus ex machina excuses.

I picked this book up at RWA Nationals thinking it was a fresh new tail - but what I got instead was a three-week-old stinker. If you snag yourself a copy, do yourself a favour - throw it back.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

"Compromised," by Kate Noble

Alternate Title: The Viscount Who Loved Me- Er, My Sister

The Chick: Gail Alton. When the arrogant Viscount Fontaine accidentally chucks her into a lake, she's angry. When that same man compromises her innocent sister Evangeline, necessitating a secret engagement, she's furious.
The Rub: When he teases her and mocks her and kisses her - well, Gail feels rather less furious. But he's still engaged to her sister, whose reputation will be ruined if the engagement is broken.
Dream Casting: Keira Knightley.

The Dude: Maximillian "Max" St. John, Viscount Fontaine. When his needy, manipulative father threatens to ruin him if he doesn't marry within three months, Max feels rather lucky when he accidentally compromises Evangeline Alton, the darling of the season. Too bad her sister's such a brat.
The Rub: However, to perform a proper courtship to deflect the rumours, Max and Evangeline must have a chaperone to uphold propriety, and guess which brat volunteers?
Dream Casting: Ian Somerhalder.

The Plot:
Max: Oh, no! A runaway horse!

Gail: *dumped in lake* You're an idiot.

Max: Oh, no! A compromising position!


Max: Oh, no! An inexplicable and unspeakable forbidden attraction!

Gail: Wow, you're sexy!

Max: Oh, no! Daddy issues!

Gail: Okay, you're an emo, but you're still sexy!

Max: Oh, no! The engagement's official!

Gail: That's okay - we'll elope.

Max: Oh, YES!

Gail: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 "Plain Sister" Heroine

1 Blissfully Beta Male Hero

1 Inconvenient Compromisation

1 Hotter Blonder Sister

2 Secondary Romances (between Hero's BFF and the Hotter Blonder Sister, and the Hero's Horse and the Heroine's Horse)

1 Set of Daddy Issues

1 Silly Stepmother

1 "Just Friends" Agreement Doomed to Failure

1 Very Bad At First But Most Likely Just Misguided Parent

1 Exaggerated German Accent

1 Cantankerous Cat Lady

1 Regency Date-Rapist

The Word: Many people suggested this book to me, first and foremost being the Book Smugglers. The Book Smugglers write fantastic reviews, and are one of my all-time favourite blogs. Naturally, we share recommendations for different books and sometimes our opinions match perfectly (What a Scoundrel Wants, Games of Command) and sometimes they really don't (Lord of the Fading Lands, The Orphan's Tales).

I have to say, however, I was really excited about reading Compromised, the debut novel from Kate Noble. According to the Smugglers' review, the hero was that rare and delicate of romance creatures - the Beta Male, and the excerpts of Noble's writing were astounding. Good stories and Beta Males are all very attractive notions but give me original and beautiful writing and I'll be there. When I went to RWA, I broke one of my cardinal rules (Don't Buy More Than One Book By An Author You Haven't Read Yet) and bought both Compromised and Revealed.

So. My reaction to the book. Yes. Well. I'm actually rather conflicted - I don't remember ever having this many different opinions about the same book, as I was reading the book, but ultimately, what went through my mind when I finished was, Wow, five or six years from now Kate Noble's books are going to be awesome.

But let's discuss the plot details, shall we? Gail Alton, recently returned to England after a childhood spent tramping around the Continent with her diplomat father, is nervous about her busybody stepmother's determination to give her and her sister Evangeline a proper coming-out in Society. Gail is Brown-Haired and Plain and Feisty and Speaks Her Mind which means, according to Article Forty-Five-Dash-One-Paragraph-Six of J. Quinn's Law, that her sister is legally required to be Blonde, Gorgeous, Perfectly Accomplished, and about as exciting as a piece of Melba toast.

To relieve her pre-coming-out stress, Gail goes for an early morning ride and is nearly mowed down by Maximilian St. John when he loses control of his horse. The two have a nice big fight about who's at fault and leave in a mutual huff, each hoping they'll never see each other again. Max has problems of his own. His overbearing and smothering father, the Earl of Longsbowe, is convinced that his son needs to marry, and threatens to spread rumours about Max's illegitimacy if he doesn't comply within three months.

Max's reluctant search for a wife brings him to Gail and Evangeline's coming-out ball, where he narrowly rescues Gail from being molested by a scumbag who had roofie'd her punch with booze. Gail repays his quick thinking by vomiting on his shoes, and in his search for a box of Ye Olde Wetwipes, he comes across Evangeline alone in the conservatory. They share a pleasant kiss before being separated by a disapproving housekeeper.

Delighted that he may have finally found a woman suitable enough to be his wife, Max plans to return and pay court to her the next day. When he arrives, he overhears the girls' stepmother harangueing her husband about her stepdaughter's scandalous behaviour. The stepmother is actually referring to Pukey McDrunkAss, a.k.a. Gail, but Max misunderstands and thinks he's compromised the other sister.

Thinking to kill two birds with one stone, he confesses to Sir Geoffrey, the girls' father. While Disapproving Dad agrees that an engagement is necessary to spare Evangeline's reputation, he orders Max to court Evangeline for a month before revealing the betrothal in order to disarm potential scandal.

Gail is Not Pleased. Evangeline, being Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice, refuses to openly complain about her new circumstances, but Gail senses her sister's fear and pegs Max for a thoughtless seducer. Max, meanwhile, wants to get to know his future bride more but Gail's constant, disapproving presence proves to be an obstacle.

The first part of thise book was a bit of a trial. Nothing was terrible or poorly written, but nearly everything about the story followed a trail that had already been blazed, paved, painted, lit, and ridden by Julia Quinn many times before. We have the spirited brunette saddled with a boring, hot, blonde sister. We have secondary characters who are tedious/narrow-minded/conformist so that our protagonists look clever by pointing out how tedious/narrow-minded/conformist they are. We have the Cantankerous Old Dame Whom Nobody Messes With who immediately befriends the heroine, and so on.

Kate Noble also demonstrates a dismaying tendency to tell instead of show. On page 190 this phrase describing Max and Gail caught me: "They warred with wits, words and intellect. It's a wonder they didn't kill each other." Phrases like this distance me from the text - I don't want to be told they war with wits and words. Why can't I read their wits and words for myself? That phrase reads like the back blurb of the romance novel - you know, the part that repeats the obvious to get people to read the rest of the book.

However, just when I'm about to write this book off as Julia-Quinn-lite, I get a glimpse of something fresh, something genuinely funny, something subtle and moving. Max is a yummy character - a witty, bookish intellectual who fumbles, blushes, and teases instead of relying on his Potent Masculinity or Punishing Kisses to get stuff done. He's easily the best part of this novel, and his relationship with his father is intriguing stuff. Most Bad Dads in historicals are blustery, stout bastards but Max's dad is whining, weak, and manipulative - yet somehow comes off as twice as threatening.

Even Gail gets a new twist on a tired trope - she's a feisty wallflower, if that makes any sense. After her runaway tongue ruins one of her father's diplomatic missions, Gail is embarrassed by her feistiness and while she's free to be a spitfire in front of her family and Max, she clams up in public. To Noble's credit, none of the characters in Compromised are strictly cut-and-dry, but some things are hammered home a little too obviously - such as how badly Evangeline and Max suit (Evangeline is frequently referred to as "boring"), which is told to us more than it's shown in order to emphasize just how perfectly Max and Gail fit - again, something we already know so it doesn't have to be spoonfed.

All in all, this was a difficult novel to review - some segments of the novel feel like a re-tread, while some surprise. Some scenes tell us that Gail and Max bicker, while others give us actual dialogue between the two that crackles with energy and palpable tension and feeling. Some chapters impress me with subtle and realistic problems, while others are solved too easily. Some parts read like every other Regency I've ever read, while some parts are so powerful I want to read them again and again (holy CATS page 290-291!!!!).

Which brings me back to my earlier statement - that this book, while not the best book I've ever read, really makes me look forward to the books Kate Noble will write in the future once she learns to harness her tremendous skill with dialogue, characterization, and intimate scenes and stop imitating the styles of other writers.

I give this novel a B - a high B. Not quite a B+ but pretty darn close.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"Three Little Secrets," by Liz Carlyle

Alternative Title: The Accidental Husband

The Chick: Madeleine, Lady Besset. A wealthy widow, she moves to Walham Green, a village on the outskirts of London, thinking a change of scenery might prove beneficial to her troubled twelve-year-old son.
The Rub: Turns out her new house - the entire village, even - is owned by none other than Merrick MacLachlan, the scoundrel her father bribed to annul their hasty marriage 13 years ago. So why does he insist they're still married?
Dream Casting: Reese Witherspoon.

The Dude: Merrick MacLachlan. A tough but fair real estate developer, he gets the shock of his life when his faithless, runaway wife moves into one of his new houses.
The Rub: He's spent thirteen years trying to forget the woman who abandoned him, to no avail. Even after all this time, he still pines for her - the cowardly, adulterous bitch!
Dream Casting: Patrick Dempsey.

The Plot:

Merrick: Howdy neighbour - wha? You're my WIFE!

Madeleine: We're not married!

Merrick: Oh, we are TOTALLY married.

Madeleine: Nu-uh!

Merrick: Uh-huh!

Madeleine: Nu-uh times a THOUSAND.

Merrick: I have proof!

Madeleine: Nu-uh!

Merrick: Uh-huh times INFINITY! I have the papers right here...

Madeleine: *fingers in ears* I CAN'T HEAR YOUUUUUUU, LA LA LA....

Geoff, Madeleine's Son: Oh, don't mind me and my troublesome psychic visions of Scottish origin. I'll just take my twelve-year-old-self (feel free to count back the months, Merrick) somewhere else.

Madeleine: Whoops.

Merrick: Oh, it's ON, wifey.

Madeleine: Fine, we can stay married.

Merrick: Hooray! ... I think.

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Hard-Hearted Businessman Hero

1 Widowed Single Mum Heroine

1 Foiled Elopement

1 Regency-Era Dominatrix

Several Accidental Adulteries

Several Quite Purposeful Adulteries

1 Secret Psychic Baby

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

1 Noticeable Limp

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Drunken Suicide

1 Big Misunderstanding

The Word: I was pretty excited to read this, because I read Carlyle's Never Deceive a Duke, which was quite good, but I have to say, the squabbling protagonists (the shrill, whining heroine in particular) and the contrived continuation of a Big Misunderstanding really bogged down what could have been an interesting read.

Once upon a time, when Merrick and Madeleine were Crazy In Love Youths, they eloped to Scotland but were caught after the fact by Madeleine's politically-minded father.

Thirteen years later, Madeleine is a widow with a young son who has a Vague Troubling Disorder but since he won't tell his mummy why he goes blank-eyed at odd times and starts predicting things before they happen, she can't do anything about it. She purchases a lovely little cottage in a village suburb of London thinking she might be able to find some help for his condition in a new place.

By this time, Merrick has also matured into one of those domineering, time-is-money, whore mongering, hard-hearted billionaire businessmen types who transcend time period and Harlequin SuperRomance lines. One of his buddies from a previous book in the series (Two Little Lies) wants to buy a house in his new development, so Merrick decides to show him a completed example - which turns out to be the one Madeleine's just purchased.

Their reunion isn't a chipper one. Madeleine's father told her that Merrick had annulled their marriage in return for thirty thousand pounds, so, heartbroken (among other things), she married a man her father chose for her and went off to the Continent. Merrick, however, never agreed to or received any payment beyond a royal ass-whupping by her father before the gangsta ran over him with his carriage (ouch!). By the time he'd recovered, Madeleine had already left England with another man, leaving him to curse his wife for the faithless wench she was.

Okay, so we have the Big Misunderstanding. Both protagonists believe the other is at fault for how their marriage turned out. However, this misunderstanding is cleared up by page 85 - or at least, both protagonists learn the other's story. So - this means the Big Mis is finished, right? We can go back to having the protagonists communicate like adults?

Nope. Madeleine stubbornly denies, denies, denies everything Merrick says, and continues to rail and shriek and harp at him throughout the book. Yes, the Big Mis gets dragged out all the way to the end of the novel because the heroine flat-out refuses to confront the subject because it's too painful. Yes - discovering the truth is so painful, it's much easier and less morally ambiguous to treat a man like shit and believe the worst of him without any tangible proof.

As the really, really obvious evidence that Merrick is telling the truth piles up - some of which Madeleine should already know (such as how annullments work and that her political father had political motivations to keep her from Merrick), it makes the heroine's actions look both selfish and stupid. Carlyle actually turns the results of their elopement into a bit of mystery, which is both unnecessary and boring since we already know what's happened.

Their squabbling gets old really fast, and they continue it for most of the book. It's not wry ribbing or witty banter, but vicious, intentionally hurtful bitching. Their spiteful catfighting continues for the better part of the book, and this is what ultimately hinders the romance. There isn't a real build-up or resurgence of romantic feeling - it's just Bitch, Bitch, Bitch, Bitch, Bitch - oh, we were tricked? Okay then. Luuuurv. It's recycled love - once the Big Mis finally peters out, they just revert to how they felt before, rather than any new feelings they might have developed knowing each other as adults.

But hey, take away the Big Mis (which was stretched out way past its welcome thanks to the heroine) and everything's just fine and dandy, right?

As you may have guessed by now, I hate the heroine. She's kind of a bitch. No, she's worse: a shrew. With more than one book I've discovered I tend to think bitchy heroines are awesome. But a shrew, in my mind, is a woman who is all bark and no bite. Instead of actually backing anything up or taking action, Madeleine just sits on her ass and throws insults at Merrick, or else coos helpless motherisms at her son without actually helping him. She's definitely a pupil of the "Oh, you heartless fiend!" school of dialogue, complete with the requisite "traitorous body" that melts like lustful margarine in a microwave at the merest flutter of the hero's eyelashes.

As well, the historical setting is disappointingly vague. No dates are given, no specific fashions are mentioned, gaslights are noted once in passing, and only a mention of Queen Adelaide (wife to William the 4th, he who reigned between George 4 and Victoria) gives us any real indication. With all the talk of Merrick's development company, work ethic and business discussions, it all seemed a bit too modern to me, which gave this novel the taint of a wallpaper historical.

When it all comes down to it though - a major reason why this book didn't work for me is become I'd already read a wonderful book - actually, a novella - that had the exact same plot but managed it so much better in every respect. In Mary Balogh's "Spellbound," from the It Happened One Night anthology, we also have a hero and heroine who reunite a decade after their elopement was botched by an angry father. Again, both protagonists believe the other responsible. However, in the shorter format of a novella, the misunderstanding was confronted and solved in realistic amount of time, but the characters' shared pain and longing still came through. Really, at nearly every point in Three Little Secrets I ended up comparing it to "Spellbound," usually unfavourably.

However, despite my annoyances with this novel, it wasn't strictly bad. Other than the aforementioned harping and bitching, the writing was serviceable. The secondary characters were all well-drawn, and the characters from previous series keep their Prequel Baggage to themselves and contribute to the current storyline.For all my problems with Merrick and Madeleine, there was enough character development and backstory to motivate their pain and their actions, even if I thought Madeleine was irritatingly passive. I still have Tempted All Night on my TBR, so I won't give up on Liz Carlyle yet.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Prince of Midnight," by Laura Kinsale

Alternate Title: I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again, You Never Gonna Keep Me Down

The Chick: Lady Leigh Strachan. When her parents and sisters are killed when an evil cult leader takes over her town, she dresses as a boy and flees to France to learn how to fight so that she can have her revenge. In particular, she seeks out the elusive Prince of Midnight, the best highwayman of his day.
The Rub: She doesn't find a dashing hero, but a handicapped, half-deaf recluse who can barely walk in a straight line.
Dream Casting: Natalie Portman.

The Dude: Sophocles Trafalgar "S.T." Maitland, a.k.a. the Prince of Midnight. After a bomb blast took away half of his hearing and all of his balance, he's lived in isolation with only a wolf for company. The appearance of a desperate woman on his doorstep suggests an end to his painful loneliness.
The Rub: As much as he loves her and wants to help her, she returns his romantic gestures with cold, hard practicality. He fears that once he helps her attain her revenge, she'll abandon him to solitude once again.
Dream Casting: A slightly younger Russell Crowe.

The Plot:

Leigh: Help me avenge my family!

S.T.: Sure. *trips* I'd be happy to. *falls on face* By the way, I adore you. *stumbles*

Leigh: We have sex if you want - as payment for your help.

S.T.: Oh HELL no.

Leigh: C'mon - let's take this ship to England!


After the Worst Boat Trip Ever

S.T.: I'm cured! Let's go kill some cult leaders!

Cultists: JOIN US! Come for the willing cult babes, stay for the acid we'll pour in your ear!


Leigh: Oh no! The evil cultists made my beloved highwayman deaf!

S.T.: Hell, no. Wait - you like me?

Leigh: ...maybe.

S.T: Good enough for me! *rescues Cult Babes* *rescues Leigh from burning building*

Magistrate: Hey, aren't you the Prince of Midnight?

S.T.: Crap. Remember me as a romantic bumbler! *flees*

Leigh: OH HELL NO. *wrangles a pardon* Let's get married!

S.T.: But...but my issues...and my dizziness...and my...

Leigh: Don't be a moron.

S.T.: Okay.

Leigh: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Emotionally-Repressed Heroine with a Sad Past

1 Stumblebum Hero

1 Pet Wolf

3 Fancy Horses

1 Deadly Fever (Unsexy Variety)

1 Real Deaf Ear

1 Fake Deaf Ear

1 Miraculously Vanishing Balance Impediment

Countless French Endearments

3 Hot Cult Babes

3 Evil Perverts (including the Marquis de Sade!)

1 Bout of Sex on a Horse

The Word: I've been calling myself a Laura Kinsale fangirl ever since I read For My Lady's Heart, a fantastic medieval romance about a chaste knight who falls in love with a calculating Italian princess. Since then, I've hyped Kinsale to the skies, proclaimed her as one of my favourite authors - even though I'd only read one of her books (not counting the excerpt of French Lessons at RWA Nationals).

I decided to rectify that. I had three of her books on my TBR - Flowers from the Storm (used), My Sweet Folly (used), and The Prince of Midnight (new). Rifling through the three huge boxes I keep my TBR pile in nowadays, I found The Prince of Midnight first and decided to have at 'er.

Now, of course, I'm a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth, sneaking-Kinsale-books-into-friend's-purses Laura Kinsale fangirl. Woe is me.

Imagine a room, if you will. Standing in the middle of that room is Adam Kent, Duke of Ridgeway from Mary Balogh's The Secret Pearl. On his expensively-tailored jacket is a blue ribbon with the words "Favourite Romance Hero" embroidered in gold thread. The door opens in that room and S.T. Maitland staggers in. He moves slowly to get his bearings, and keeps his head cocked at an odd angle. He approaches Adam Kent with careful steps.

Then he knees Adam in the balls.

As Adam doubles over in agony, S.T. removes his ribbon and pins it to his own lapel. Pearl's Fleur quickly enters, pins a red "Second Favourite Romance Hero" ribbon on Adam's shirt and helps him out.

S.T. Maitland, Favourite Romance Hero, BAR NONE.

He doesn't feel very romantic at the novel's start, however. Once an infamous highwayman who stole from the rich when they annoyed him and occasionally gave to the poor, he was betrayed by a former paramour and while he managed to elude the authorities, the encounter killed his favourite horse, rendered him deaf in one ear and destroyed his sense of balance. He's perpetually plagued by dizziness and vertigo - even turning his head too quickly can unman him. As a result, he's lived for the last three years in an abandoned castle making several half-hearted attempts to paint and sculpt, all the while bemoaning the good ol' days.

Lady Leigh Strachan needs to learn how to fight. Her family is dead, her life destroyed, and her town overrun by an insidious reverend and his rabidly misogynistic Christian cult. The rest of her town has either been converted or cowed, so she knows she can't just murder the Reverend (although that's definitely Step One) - she also needs a popular folk figure to inspire the people to reject the cult itself. Who better than the Prince of Midnight?

However, when she tracks him down, she's bitterly disappointed to discover he's a stumbling, impractical mess of a man, of no use to anyone. She fails to recognize S.T. as a hopeless romantic, and when she succumbs to a fever, he ignores her pleas to let her die and insists on aiding her in her quest once she recovers. S.T.'s 9/10ths in love with her already and sees their mission as a way to recover some of the thrill he's been missing since he retired the Prince of Midnight's half-mask.

The story shares some basic similarities with For My Lady's Heart - once again, we have an idealistic hero paired with an emotionally-walled off heroine - but there the similarities end. S.T. is not an alpha male or a hardened warrior, but a flamboyant romantic at heart. He's all about jewellery and teasing and French endearments. He longs to seduce Leigh and sweep her off her feet and make mad, sweet love to her. He worships the ground she walks on and wants to solve all of her problems and buy her beautiful clothes and if she asked him to drive to the store and buy her some Ye Olde Georgian Era Tampax he'd saddle up and race off to Yon SafeWaye in the blink of an eye.

Part of this is because he genuinely loves Leigh but also because he wishes he could return to the carefree, adventurous, and roguish man he was before his accident. His vertigo is a severe and constant burden on his pride and sense of self - he used to be a graceful dancer, a talented rider, a legendary swordsman and at the beginning of the novel he can't be any of those things and so his romantic pursuit of Leigh is, in a sense, the one way he can regain some of the adventure of his youth.

He's just so sweet and adorable, but it all falls flat when it comes to Leigh. The only way Leigh was able to recover from the loss of everything she'd known and find a purpose in life was to lock all her emotions away behind brutal practicality. She fears allowing herself any emotion will only break the dam she's placed on her grief, drown her and leave her too paralysed with sorrow to fulfill her goal. She responds to his romantic advances with cold acquiescence - she offers her body numerous times to S.T. as "payment" for his services, knowing her identification of sex as a financial arrangement equals instant bonerdeath for the passionate S.T.

However, as much as she tries to convince herself that S.T.'s vertigo renders him useless and unnecessary dead weight on her journey, he keeps coming up with new, unintentional ways to awaken her dormant sentimentalism - such as his innate kindness and skill with animals like his tame wolf Nemo (who's frightened of all women except, eventually, Leigh) and a pair of abused horses. As much as she tries to convince herself that the only things important in life are things that can directly help her kill Reverend Chilton, S.T. slowly re-introduces her to other aspects of living that are fulfilling and needful (affection, kindness, romance), indirectly helping her with her crushing grief.

This is demonstrated in a harrowingly powerful scene where S.T. instructs Leigh in training a gorgeous grey horse who, thanks to a long history of abuse, has a vicious temper. Leigh follows the instructions like clockwork but is set off balance once the horse starts to trust her. Terrified by the notion that this terribly hurt animal is willing to follow her so easily, she realizes she's bonded with it and just like that, her emotional dam bursts. I can't describe the rest of the scene because it needs to be read first-hand to be appreciated.

But is there is so much more to this novel besides the romance - a fair amount of buckles are swashed as Leigh and S.T. confront the cult (which is creepy with a capital CREEP even BEFORE we learn about its secret Ultra-Creepiness that involves a purple silk curtain and a rope), several damsels are rescued (to Leigh's feminist disgust), and secrets revealed. It's addictive stuff.

However (Um, Spoilers Ahoy), the novel takes an interesting turn in the last hundred pages, a turn that seemed initially contrived but then delightfully surprised me by making altogether Too Much Sense. After the Cult Leader dies, the local magistrate recognizes S.T. as the Prince of Midnight. Leigh manages to guilt the magistrate into giving S.T. a headstart, but our hero not only refuses to let Leigh come with him, but he fails to meet her in London afterwards as he promised. He is later captured and then officially pardoned and he still refuses to go and see Leigh. By this point I was saying, "NO! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, S.T.? THE CONFLICT IS OVER, STOP MAKING MORE UP! GO TO HER, YOU FOOL!"

When he finally does ball up and reunite, he's awkward, inarticulate, even cowardly. "WHAT THE HELL, S.T.! MAN UP!" And that's when I realized the truth of it: when he was romantic and adventurous at the novel's start with Leigh, S.T. figured there would always be an obstacle to an ultimate HEA - at first, it was because he feared Leigh would leave him once her revenge was attained. Then, it was because of the price on his head. He figured he could give it his all without being afraid of failure because failure was inevitable. Once every obstacle is taken away, once the HEA is actually within his grasp, the determined romantic is terrified because failure is not inevitable - he could actually have it all.

Or he could lose it all over again.

I also thought this made the romance's conclusion more poignant and meaningful. Although S.T. frequently tells Leigh that he loves her, she never believes him - because every romantic, poetical thing he says is just a repetition of what he told countless other women when he was a dashing highwayman. While the true emotions behind his words for Leigh are different, I can understand how "this time it's for real" isn't very convincing.

Once all the cards are on the table, once every obstacle is overcome, S.T. can't be romantic, or articulate - he can only tell the bare truth. It's a subtle reversal of the relationship dynamic - after 500 pages of pursuing Leigh, now he is the one who shies - so Leigh is finally required to pursue S.T. and claim their happiness. This final choice renders S.T.'s love more powerful while at the same time it demonstrates how far Leigh has come emotionally - that she's willing to be the one who chases, who puts her own heart forward instead of having someone claim it.

And by golly, it's just wonderful.

Sorry, Adam Kent.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

"Natural Born Charmer," by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Alternate Title: Sex, Beavers and Rock and Roll

The Chick: Blue Bailey. Her nomadic childhood gave her the ability to adapt to changing situations, but when she's hit with the one-two punch of her lover cheating on her and her free radical mother emptying out her bank accounts, even she has trouble landing on her feet. Good thing sexy football star Dean Robillard is there to give her a lift.
The Rub: Dean is obviously attracted to her, but she has too much pride to become one of his conquests. Besides - she knows a shiftless ragamuffin like her has no place in Dean's multimillion-dollar world.
Dream Casting: Kristin Bell, with hair dyed black.

The Dude: Dean Robillard. A world-famous football star, when he first picks up Blue on the freeway, he's intrigued by her refusal to jump into his lap and thinks he's in for a delicious challenge. Nothing long term, though.
The Rub: When both of his shamefully neglectful parents show up at his Tennessee farmhouse, Dean desperately needs a buffer, any buffer, to keep him as far away from his hated progenitors as possible. Even a feisty sprite in faded hand-me-down clothes will do.
Dream Casting: Ryan Phillipe.

The Plot:

Dean: Hey, baby.

Blue: Don't make me walk this entire freeway by myself.

Dean: Fine with me!

At Dean's New Farm House...

Dean's Mom, April: Oh, hi son!

Dean: Mom? GET OUT.

Blue: Don't throw your mother out of your house.

Dean: Fine.

Riley, Dean's Baby Sister: We're related!


Blue: Don't send your sister away.

Dean: Fine.

Dean's Dad, Jack: Hello, Dean.


Blue: Don't throw your father out of your house!

Dean: FINE...

Blue: Gah! I don't care if we have matching psychological baggage! I must run away to hide my girly broken heart so you'll still think I'm tough and feisty!

Dean: Don't be a moron!

Blue: Wow. Persuasive.

Dean: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Tough-as-Nails Down-on-Her-Luck Heroine

1 Playboy Athlete Hero

2 Sets of Mommy Issues

1 Set of Daddy Issues

3 Very Bad Parents

2 Reformed Very Bad Parents

1 Accidental Case of, er, Launching Your Rocket Before Being Cleared for Lift Off (ifyaknowwhattamean)

1 Bout of Old People Sex

1 Secret Rockstar Relation

1 Secret Precocious Sister

1 Secondary Romance (between Reformed Very Bad Parents)

1 Pregnancy Scare

1 Small Town

1 Nasty-Ass Bitch Queen of Small Town Who Secretly Hides a Heart of Gold

The Word: I was beginning to think I was boring you, dear readers. You may have noticed that of all my reviews, the category with the most titles in it is the old, reliable B+ category. That's where I place books that are enjoyable and definitely keepers, but don't completely sweep me away. Recently, though, I've been able to spice things up with a D- (The Last Heiress), a C+ (Blue Dahlia) and a regular B (Your Wicked Ways).

And now, I can offer another delightful A+ review.

The introduction sounds like the beginning of a joke: a famous football player encounters a woman in a beaver suit on the side of the road. The beaver in question is Blue Bailey, a gal on a doozy of a losing streak: she dumped her life in Seattle to help a former lover who turned out to be a scumbag. On top of that, her world-saving social crusader of a mother emptied Blue's bank accounts to ransom kidnapped children in South America. And on top of that, her temporary job as mascot for a lumber yard is most likely kaput since she lost the head of her beaver costume.

Broke, jobless, and homeless, she really doesn't have a choice when Dean Robillard offers her a ride. Even though he initially gives a fake name and they both joke around with Blue's initial assumption that he's gay, it becomes pretty clear that Dean finds Blue sexy and doesn't care who knows it. However, Blue's not biting. She doesn't need the complication of a playboy like Dean, sexy or no, and she refuses to be beholden to anyone. All she needs is a ride to a place where she can get another job and enough money to start over as a portrait artist.

Dean takes her as far as Garrison, Tennessee, where he's recently bought a farmhouse. There, he gets a nasty shock when he discovers the new housekeeper he's only traded e-mails with is actually his mother, April. Dean's got issues of his own - particularly with his raging drug-addict mum who abandoned him to chase booze and rock stars. It doesn't matter to him that his mother's been clean (and successful) for ten years. However, Blue takes pity on April (who's clearly been fixing up Dean's house as a redemptive act) and blurts out a lie about April's ill health to keep Dean from kicking her out.

Yeah, it's a little manipulative but Dean figures out the truth pretty quickly. Before he can take action, however, things begin to snowball: the 11-year-old half-sister he's never met appears on his doorstep, Blue ticks off the small town's unofficial Queen Bee, and Dean's biological father (legendary rock star Jack Patriot) shows up to deal with his wayward daughter. It's all a bit much for poor Dean to take, so he comes up with ways to keep Blue near him to provide a buffer against the madness.

I loved this book from beginning to end. The setting, the humour, the dialogue, the pacing, the characters - wow, the characters. What I loved most about Natural Born Charmer is that the book has no villain, even though the plot gives plenty of opportunities to have one. Just when you think one of the characters is meant to be a hateful obstacle to the protagonists' happiness, Susan Elizabeth Phillips develops them and gives them, like, depth and stuff. Whoda thunk?

I read this novel gripped with entertaining frustration because there's a childish part of me that occasionally wants a character to hate on but none of these characters give me a chance. Just when I thought I was meant to hate April the Junkie, I discover she's been secretly renovating Dean's house to make up for the childhood comforts she couldn't give him. Once I start to think that Dean's absentee dad (and April's Life Ruiner) Jack Patriot is going to be the novel's faceless villain, he not only shows up and redeems himself, but starts another romance with Dean's mum! Then we're introduced to the Town Bitch who rules the town with an Iron Fist and she's so appalling and hateful and vicious and I think, "Oh, we are SO in for a scene where She Gets Her Comeuppance in a Hilarious Way That Probably Involves The Loss of Her Cheap Ass Wig and Some Public Humiliation" .... but then Blue gets under her skin and discovers an actual reason for why she's shut herself off from the town and has stewed in spite.

I liked this especially when I compared it to Match Me If You Can, where the heroine's family treats her like shit for 90% of the novel only to make a surprising about-face at the end. I could tell Susan Elizabeth Phillips was trying to do the same thing with Annabelle's family that she does here with Dean's, but she never gave the family members enough detail or depth to truly explain why they suddenly go from horrid-to-loving.

That's not to say all the characters are happy bunnies. Susan Elizabeth Phillips skillfully manages to make her characters sympathetic without whitewashing their mistakes. While it's tempting to pity April and the asshat treatment she initially gets from Dean, the novel never loses sight of the fact that she spent Dean's childhood as a star-struck junkie who dumped her kid at every opportunity to bang some rock star on tour. Same goes for rocker legend Jack Patriot - who had his lawyer do the majority of his parenting with support checks. Dean had a legitimately awful childhood thanks to his parents and it takes more than a hug and a newly renovated kitchen to erase his resentment.

This conflict also makes Dean a more rounded character. His hatred of his parents is definitely an issue he needs to overcome, but neither is it an unrealistic or exaggerated character flaw. Even as he pigheadedly refuses to accept his parents' redemption, I understood his reasoning.

An interesting aspect in Natural Born Charmer is that Blue and Dean have matching baggage. Usually romances tend to go for the Opposites Attract strategy and have one character be too cold and distant while the other is over-emotional, but here, both Blue and Dean have the same problem: neither knew their fathers growing up and both were abandoned by their mothers who felt they had better things to do than raise kids, and as a result, both are distrustful of opening themselves up to other people who'll only end up leaving them like all the rest.

Blue doesn't even have the luxury of being able to easily hate her mother. While Dean's mother wasted his childhood snorting coke and having sex with drummers, Blue's mum spent it feeding orphans in Venezuela, protesting the construction of nuclear reactors and bringing medicine to the victims of tsunamis -- leaving her daughter in the care of various distant friends and relations. Blue could never wish for her mother's attention without feeling guilty about the Starving Kids in Africa. How is one little girl supposed to compete with that? I really enjoyed reading Blue struggle with this aspect of her character.

However, both protagonists hide their vulnerabilities in intriguing and different ways. Dean hypes himself up, lives larger then life, with designer shades and expensive clothes and fancy cars, essentially hiding behind his fame. Blue, on the other hand, dresses herself in grungy old clothes and eschews makeup. While she initially insists it's just because "she doesn't care about clothes," it becomes apparent later on that it's all a show to deflect attention away from herself. She thinks dressing like the cute, petite woman she is will only encourage people to take advantage of her. She dresses like a hobo and never settles in one place because she believes it's better to keep people at a distance than risk growing roots that will inevitably be pulled up.

I adored Blue. I've read a lot of tough-girl heroines, but have encountered relatively few tough-girl heroines who only act tough to hide the girly, romantic, and imagative people they really are for fear that people will think they're weak. It's gripping to read how panicked she is at the idea of being stuck in Garrison and how her frantic wish to leave is slowly undermined by a growing desire to stay, even if she's risking heartbreak. We also grow to know her through her art - she's a painter, but she restricts herself to portraits of people and dogs because she doesn't want to reveal too much of herself to strangers by painting what she really wants. It's equally engrossing to read Dean's fear of falling for Blue because he recognizes her emotional skittishness and hesitates to acknowledge or reveal his feelings for fear of scaring her away.

It's all a delicious, subtle, moving tightrope act as two people, each scared to make the first move, circle around each other to hide the fact they're taking baby steps closer each time. And I loved every word of it. After Match Me If You Can, I went out and bought a bunch of used and new editions of Susan Elizabeth Phillips' novels and now I'm even gladder for doing so. I really liked Match Me If You Can, but Natural Born Charmer blows it out of the water in nearly every way.

Monday, October 05, 2009

"Blue Dahlia," by Nora Roberts

Alternate Title: Blue Dull-ia

The Chick: Stella Rothchild. A widow with two young boys, she moves to Tennessee to take over as manager of In the Garden, a plant and landscaping nursery run by wealthy Rosalind "Roz" Harper. She's eager to start alphabetizing and organizing invoices and creating spreadsheets...
The Rub: If only the devastatingly studly landscaping designer Logan would just toe the line with her new way of organizing things! Oh, and a crazy-ass ghost might be haunting her kids.
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: Logan Kitridge. As landscaping designer for the successful In the Garden, he's always done things his way, and he can't figure out why his boss Roz wants to mess with that success by hiring a snooty Yankee woman to mess around with his ordered chaos.
The Rub: It's really a damn shame when he starts to fall in love with that snooty Yankee woman, because she's very determined to keep everything in rank and file, and Logan knows that love is anything but obedient and quiet.
Dream Casting: Men in Trees' James Tupper.

The Plot:

Stella: I'm here for the position of manager --

Roz, Stella's New Boss: YOU'RE HIRED!

Logan: You've ruined my haphazard organizing scheme, Yankee woman!

Stella: You won't sign your paperwork, Southern-fried man!

Logan: This woman works with *shudder* computers and actually *gag* files things! Why do I find her so hot?

Stella: Everything else in life is perfectly ordered and categorized, so why do I find a chaotic manbeast like Logan so attractive?

Logan: Maybe you just need a little mussing.

Stella: I'm a quiet person, I don't get mussed...

Ghost: OOOOoooOOOOoooo.....


Logan: You were saying?

Stella: ...

Logan: Let's get married!

Stella: Oh, all right.

Logan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Control Freak Widow

2 Precocious Kids

1 Rascally Southern Man

1 Stereotypical Gay Best Friend

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Crazy-Ass Ghost

1 Annoying Pregnant Woman

Several Strange Dreams

2 Sequel Baits (Pregnant Woman and Boss's Son, Boss and Geneologist)

The Word: This is my first try with the legendary Nora Roberts, she of the Bottomless Backlist, the Fecund Fountain of Fiction, and I have a not-so-legendary confession: after getting about 230 pages in, I just gave up and skimmed.

Yes, I skimmed all the way to the end in about 20 minutes, and found that, after all, I wasn't really missing anything. Sorry, Nora. I don't think I've really skimmed through a book before. I try to give every book my all, but I just couldn't do it with Nora Roberts' Blue Dahlia.

Oddly enough, it wasn't because the book was horrible. It wasn't. It was because it was boring. I can read all the way through a heinous book like The Last Heiress because there's a masochistic part of my brain that's eager to see how much worse it can possibly get. With Blue Dahlia, the storyline was so predictable and the characters so bland that I just flew through to the end and discovered, to my utter lack of surprise, that it turned out just as I thought it would.

But let's go into details, shall we?

In September of 2001, Stella Rothchild loses her husband in a plane crash (oddly enough, not the plane crash I was expecting one to die in during that period of history) and finds herself a single parent to two rambunctious boys. Flash forward two and a half years later, and Stella's moved her family to Tennessee - partly to reconnect the boys with their grandfather and stepgrandmother and partly to win a job as a manager of a gardening centre run by Rosalind Harper.

Stella immediately starts re-arranging things and butts heads with Logan Kitridge, the landscape designer, and the two get into a stereotypical order-vs.-chaos rivalry. Stella bitches about everything that's not colour coded and lined up ruler-straight, and Logan mopes about being forced to use new new-fangled technology like computers and spreadsheets. It's all a little exaggerated and cliched, with Stella quickly labelled as a Control Freak while Logan is the Old-Fashioned Southerner meant to loosen her screws.

As annoyed as I sound with these characters now, they never really progressed beyond the point of mild irritation as I was reading the book. Why? Because the conflict in this story is very low. I guess Nora Roberts was trying to make the story realistic and shy away from some of the plot contrivances that other romances have to raise the tension, but the result was that there was very little tension, at all, in this novel - and there still were a few plot contrivances.

Everything just progresses a little too easily in this book. Stella is swiftly hired by Roz and immediately they're the best of friends and Stella befriends everyone else in short order (barring the occasional snipe at her being a Yankee). Stella has a bitchy mum, but as we meet her once and then never see her again, she doesn't have enough of an impact on the narrative. Logan is divorced, but he discusses it in very vague, bland terms - he has no bitchy ex-wife, he has no heartbreak. The relationship just faded and he felt a bit bad and then he moved back to Tennessee and felt better. As much as angst-ridden heroes can sometimes bother me, Logan needed a bit more angst, because then he might at least have had more depth as a character. I don't even know why Roberts bothered to mention he was divorced if it had so little bearing on how his character turned out.

Even the bickering between Stella and Logan feels tired and half-hearted. There's no witty repartee - it's just the same old "Why do I love your chaotic wildness/Why do I love your tight-assed organizedness" discussions. Nora Roberts' writing style doesn't help. It's certainly not terrible, but it's definitely ... workmanlike. The kind of plain, blunt, here-you-go, telling-instead-of-showing style that I guess makes sense for someone who churns out something like six books a year.

That's the problem I had with this book - nothing about the novel was strictly bad, but nothing was good either. I needed spice, I needed conflict - and the only thing close to a real conflict we get is with the Crazy-Ass Ghost who haunts the house where Roz and Stella live whose Secret Past is easily deduced even though the author believes she needs a whole trilogy to reveal it. People who have read this series - would I be remiss in guessing (scroll for possible spoilers) the ghost is the mistress of Reginald Harper and that her baby boy was stolen from her and is actually Roz's ancester?

The only character who went above bland annoyance for me was Hayley, a pregnant woman who shows up on Roz's doorstep. Again, her past is conflict-free but here it was just unrealistic and became the very plot contrivance I'm sure Nora Roberts was trying to avoid. Hayley's pregnant, nearly broke and on her own - and why? Because she decided to move away from her home town when she found out her babydaddy (who was a friend and a one night stand) was in love with another girl, and she just didn't want to "bother" him with the news. Yes, that's right, because an infant knowing who her father is and a man knowing that he's fathered a child is such a "bother." It's such a ridiculous bullshit excuse, but I held out, thinking Hayley might mature over the novel and think twice about not telling the father of her child, but nope. Her babydaddy is mentioned exactly once and is never brought up again, even when her baby's born.

I'm sorry, but while I was reading this book I needed a better reason than that to understand why a character like Hayley's would make that sort of decision. Even a cliched past like an abusive or uncaring boyfriend would provide an adequate motivation for Hayley's actions, but her bland, I-didn't-want-to-ruin-my-friend's-life excuse makes her look selfish, irresponsible, and shortsighted - which clearly contradicts all the extensive telling Nora Roberts does to impress upon the reader just how smart, capable, and in-love-with-her-child Hayley is supposed to be.

So yeah, I skimmed. And I didn't miss a whole lot. I did argue with myself about skimming through, about not giving the entire book a chance, but I'd managed 230 pages. Frankly, I have a TBR pile of 182 books and Christmas is coming up. Life's too short to waste on mediocre novels.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

"When He Was Wicked," by Julia Quinn

Alternate Title: Just Friends

The Chick: Francesca Bridgerton Stirling, Countess of Kilmartin. Francesca married early, and for love - but luckily managed to get two awesome men in the bargain. Not only is her husband John the love of her life, but his cousin Michael is her rakish BFF.
The Rub: After her husband unexpectedly dies, she turns to Michael for comfort, only to find he's grown twitchy and distant. Why can't their friendship remain the same as it's always been? And why is Michael suddenly so hot right now??
Dream Casting: Little Dorrit's Claire Foy.

The Dude: Michael Stirling. He falls in love with Francesca Bridgerton at first sight - too bad she's all set to wed his cousin and best friend, John, the Earl of Kilmartin. Michael represses himself mightily in order to be Francesca's confidante, knowing it's the closest he'll ever get.
The Rub: John's death sends Michael reeling with guilt. Not only does Michael, the impoverished cousin, now inherit John's title and John's money, but now John's wife is free for the taking. How can he go after Francesca knowing John's death is responsible for all his good fortune?
Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.

The Plot:
Michael: I'm in love with Francesca Bridgerton! Who knew?

Francesca: *married*

Michael: SHIT.

Francesca's Husband John: *dies*


Francesca: I need comfort!

Michael: I need about 5000 miles of personal space! *flees to India*

Four Years Later

Michael: I'm back!

Francesca: Let's be friends again!

Michael and Francesca: *smooch*

Francesca: I'll take that as a no? *flees to Scotland*

Michael: *follows* Screw conventions! Marry me!

Francesca: Can't we just have sex instead?

Michael: *sexx0r* Now can we get married?

Francesca: ... let me sleep on it. Baby, baby, let me sleep on it. Let me sleep on it, and I'll give you my answer in the morning.


Francesca: ...Fine. *married*

Michael: *suspicious cough*

Francesca: Aaugh! Don't die! I love you!

Michael: Heh heh, it's only a head cold.

Francesca: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Repressed Rake

1 Wishy-Washy Widow

1 Inconveniently Dead Husband

Several Deadly Fevers (Unsexy Variety)

1 "Just Friends" Arrangement Doomed to Failure

3 Nice Mums

1 Quickie Wedding

2 Guilt Trips

The Word: I was a little worried about you, Julia Quinn. While I loved the first three books of your Bridgerton series, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton was a well-written dud that made a whiner out of a perfectly good scoundrel. And then came To Sir Phillip, With Love which had its cowardly man-beast hero and the spiteful, spoiled and shrewish Eloise - and two annoying children.

Needless to say, I approached When He Was Wicked with more than a little trepidation. I knew relatively little about Francesca, the third-youngest of the Bridgerton siblings, and I'm always a little hesitant regarding Love at First Sight stories. While they definitely can be written well and believably, more often then not they're contrivances based on beauty which don't impress me with a good opinion of the hero's taste.

I needn't have worried. The story begins by introducing us to Michael Stirling, society's Merry Rake. However, he's no Duke of Slut - as his cousin John holds the title of Earl of Kilmartin, Michael is simply Mister Slut, one who gets around but doesn't really have any marriage prospects, which is fine by him. Until he falls immediately, painfully, and completely in love with Francesca Bridgerton - a mere 36 hours before she's set to marry John.


For the next two years, Michael contorts himself into a variety of painful emotional positions as he maintains a close friendship with both John and Francesca while still hiding the embarrassing secret of his love for his cousin's wife. All unknowingly, Francesca twists the knife with her nosy insinuations into Michael's love life and her attempts to matchmake for him.

However, everything changes the day John goes to bed with a headache and doesn't wake up. While Francesca is overcome with grief, Michael is beset with an extra emotion: guilt. In the blink of an eye, he goes from impoverished gentleman to wealthy Earl, and as a bonus, the woman of his dreams is now up for grabs. Michael spent years wishing he could have Francesca for himself, and now he starts to wonder if he somehow wished for John's death - and that (as irrational as it may seem) John's strange and sudden demise might somehow be thanks to him.

This fractures what remains of his friendship with Francesca. When she comes to him for comfort for her grief, he doesn't trust himself around her and flees to India for four years. When he finally returns, he and Francesca find themselves on unstable ground. While she was incredibly hurt by what she sees as his abandonment of her, she still wants to return to the easy friendship they had of old. However, even she can deduce that something about Michael has changed, but he refuses to explain why.

Francesca, irritated and confounded and hurt by Michael's secrecy, proceeds to poke and provoke him, and when his self-control finally snaps, they both have to deal with the consequences.

There is an awful lot of set-up before Francesca and Michael finally confront their attraction head-on, but it's all well-written and very interesting to read. While Francesca is the Bridgerton in this book, I found the central focus of the novel to rest on Michael, who is an engaging character. He's caught in an agonizing tug-of-war for most of the book. While he wants Francesca, he can't have her. While he cultivates his rakish reputation to keep Francesca at arm's length, he's also hurt when she disapproves of his habits. His assumption of John's title, wealth, and property terrify him because he believes he's taking over John's life and erasing the traces of his cousin's existence in the world, and he fears making Francesca his will only complete the process.

Francesca is a harder character to identify with, since for the greater half of the book she is oblivious to Michael's feelings and mostly concerned with her own malaise and desire for a baby. She doesn't strictly get involved in the romance until about the halfway mark, but that's not to say the set-up's not there. She's "m'eh" about re-entering the Marriage Mart because she's convinced she'll never find a love like the one she had with John, but Ye Olde Biological Clock is ticking away. Meanwhile, she is still delightfully nosy and intrusive in regards to Michael's life, because while she doesn't know he's drowning in Unrequited Lurve, she does sense that something's off and she's very desperate for Michael to be happy.

However, once she does become aware of her own feelings for Michael, her development is subtle and sensitive. It's not only the spectre of John that hovers over her (although that's also important), but also the fact that loving Michael seems a tad incestuous. He was already a close, trusted confidante of hers while John was alive, so the fact that now she's experiencing feelings for him brings home the fact that she's not the same woman she was, and this troubles Francesca because she wonders if she's the same woman John loved, and whether that's good or bad.

For once, she's not John's Wife or John's Widow, and she wonders whether she's somehow dishonouring her husband by identifying herself separately from him. Yes, she can be a bit wishy-washy and for the greater part of the novel she prefers to run from her problems, but since Michael is always pursuing her, I never minded.

Once the romance really gets going, what Julia Quinn does - without any fancy bells or whistles - is provide an intriguing gender reversal. In this novel, Francesca's the one with the tragic past who indulges her physical desire with Michael while shying away from commitment (thanks to her tragic past) - something that's usually the hero's role. Meanwhile, Michael is the one who already knows he's in love and wants marriage and sex and babies right away, just as soon as he soothes Francesca's fears and insecurities (usually the female role).

However, there were some flaws. I know Julia Quinn is seen as a funny writer, and maybe I'm just overexposed to her writing style of late, but her humorous style just didn't click with me. It seemed tiresome - something you recognize is supposed to be funny but is so expected and familiar that it isn't.

Also, and maybe this is just a personal preference of mine, I was put off when Francesca started making comments about how Michael's performance in bed went above and beyond what John did. This just struck a painfully wrong cord with me. John wasn't a Demonized Impotent Evil husband from a cliched romance novel - he wasn't even a passable husband. He was supposed to have been a great husband whose death was a real tragedy rather than simply the removal of an obstacle between her and Michael.

Since most of the book remains consistant to the fact that John was a Heckuva Guy, it seems tacky and contrived when Francesca starts saying that Michael is better. Michael would certainly be different, and I wouldn't blame Francesca for comparing but - well, I guess when I read the book I was under the impression that Francesca was a woman who was lucky enough to find true love twice, rather than a woman who needed a genial Stepping-Stone Husband until she found her One True Love.

Other than that misstep, I thoroughly enjoyed When He Was Wicked. As is par for the course in a Julia Quinn novel, there are no tawdry wagers made, or disguises used, or huge misunderstandings - only real, compelling emotional obstacles.