Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Year That Was: 2010

Well, Christmas has come and gone, and it's almost 2011. Time to describe my year in reading!

2010 was an interesting year - I finally got myself an awesome job, I finished and polished The Duke of Snow and Apples and started the first draft of The Lord of Dreams (the sequel, based on Sleeping Beauty) and pitched it to a bunch of agents.

This was the year I also got rejected by a bunch of agents (and one editor), so at present I'm a little unsure what to do with my novel now - rewrite or try someone else.

But 2010 was not a year of weakness. I took on the inappropriately named Miss Manners who faulted me for my bad taste in writing a negative review, I reread an absolutely brilliant fantasy trilogy from my youth, I vented my poisonous hatred of all things involving Air Canada, Continental Airlines, and Newark Airport, and I read and reviewed Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, not entirely favorably.

My reading tastes also started to change - I started reviewing fantasy and YA as well as romance, and I think I'll be doing a lot more of that next year (for my 2010 family bookrun, I picked up Kate Elliott's Cold Magic and The DUFF by Kody Keplinger).

As well, I discovered Supernatural, and my obsession with that, combined with my super-busy new job, may have contributed to the couple of months in which I experienced a bit of a reading slump. Despite my so-called reading slump, however, I managed to best my 2009 record of 63 reviews - this year, I reviewed 76 novels! Wow!

But now on to the big show - my best and worst reads of the year! Again, like last year, I don't go by a Top Certain Number. Because I had a lot of A and A+ reviews this year, my list is comprised of the A+es, although I am not including the A+-reviews of The Liveship Trader Trilogy, since they were re-reads. Similarly, for the worst list, it's everything that gets a C- or lower.


8. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. A+

This is when I started seriously reviewing fantasy for Gossamer Obsessions, because it was just Too Damn Good for a capsule review at the end of my monthly round-ups.

Honestly, everything that I've always loved in epic fantasies is done near-perfectly here: creative theology, great world building, well-realized characters, fantastic magic, a Sexy God of Darkness and Chaos, excellent plotting that mixes fantasy, tragedy, murder mystery, political intrigue, and romance. Can't wait to read the sequel!

7. Tempted All Night, by Liz Carlyle. A+

This was one of my most pleasant surprises of the year. Liz Carlyle's kind of hit or miss with me (as you'll see if you scroll down to my Worst List below), but when she hits - wow, does she pack a wallop.

Tempted All Night impresses not only because it's a profound, layered and very emotional romance, and not only because it has a satisfying, well-paced mystery - but also because Carlyle takes two of the most overdone stereotypes (the Shamed Sensualist Heroine and the Weary Rake), takes them apart, and reconstructs them into wholly realized, believable characters.

6. How To Knit a Wild Bikini, by Christie Ridgway. A+

Another surprise - despite the cute, fluffy title-and-cover mashup, How To Knit a Wild Bikini is another intensely emotional romantic read about a very damaged chef heroine and the playboy bachelor hero who melts like homemade fudge in her hand.

The hero made this romance for me - the player who swears he doesn't want commitment or emotion in a relationship until he meets the one woman who's just fine, thank you, with keeping her secret pain to herself. Turns out our hero's a secret cuddler - too bad he doesn't realize this until it's too late to back out.

5. The Proposition, by Judith Ivory. A+

What's better than My Fair Lady (well, okay - other than any romance where the hero has greater sensitivity than a coat rack)? How about a gender-reversed retelling where our linguist heroine has to train a debonair, mustiachio'd rat-catcher to pose as the son of a duke for an upcoming ball in order to spite her miserly, abusive uncle?

The Proposition is all that and more - thanks in large part to a fantastic hero who's not willing to sit around and Do Little to win our heroine's affections and convince the repressed, neurotic redhead that she's Sex and Perfection on two longer-than-life legs.

4. In For a Penny, by Rose Lerner. A+

Probably my favourite debut of the year - Rose Lerner presents us with an historical Regency romance that isn't afraid to use actual historical realism to influence the story.

Our hero? An impoverished and charming aristocrat who's hopeless with financial matters. Our heroine? A wealthy, but middle-class heiress who's convinced she's too vulgar and common to be truly loved by the hero and accepted by polite society. The result? Two compassionate and well-matched characters who must overcome their convictions of their own faults and fight for a chance at true love.

3. Going Too Far, by Jennifer Echols. A+

While I heard the gushing reviews and positive buzz, it took reading Going Too Far to finally convince me that the upward surge in YA popularity and media visibility in the last several years is more than just a trend brought on by Harry Potter and Twilight, but an actual revolution in the way teenagers and adults read.

Gorgeous, haunting, emotional, all these words could be applied to the unusual but lovely romance between a rebellious stir-crazy Bad Girl and the repressed, grieving young police officer she's paired with to work off a trespassing charge. This book is the novel that convinced me just because a novel is about teenagers, doesn't mean it's restricted to teenagers or somehow less sophisticated and "literary" than "adult" fiction.

2. The Wild Road, by Majorie Liu. A+

I read this pretty early on in 2010 (way back in mid-January), but it still sticks with me as one of the best books I've ever read and the perfect introduction to the estimable Marjorie Liu. Despite being the eighth book in her Dirk & Steele series, it works excellently as a standalone - with a intriguing, original paranormal plot that never overwhelms the romance or the character development.

And what characters! If you need only one reason to read this book, do it for Lannes - the virgin, book-restoring, tea-drinking, lady-saving, low-esteem-having gargoyle hero who comes to the rescue of our nameless, blood-soaked, amnesiac heroine.

And my favourite, number-one must-read book of 2010 is:

1. Revealed, by Kate Noble! A+

At last, a sprightly comedy Regency that still retains depth, originality, and smarts! Our heroine, Phillipa, is the sort of Regency woman who would end up dunked in a fountain in a Julia Quinn novel for the crime of being Popular and Prettier Than You. But here, she's not the villain - just the sly, witty and charming heroine who likes popular society and isn't afraid to enjoy it.

Too bad she has to fall for a bespectacled, bookish third-son spy who hasn't a snowball's chance in Almack's of being invited to the society's most lavish fetes in order to catch a dastardly French foe. A lively, confident heroine plus a wry, beta hero equals the funniest, freshest romance team-up I've read in a long, long time.

And now, for something completely different...


7. One Touch of Scandal, by Liz Carlyle. C-

For me, this year Carlyle was both the best of writers, and the worst of writers - and this bizarre attempt at a paranormal Regency fell completely flat. In an attempt to divide her story between the paranormal element and the romance element, Carlyle failed at both.

Our hero is an Angsty McAngstypants who Just Can't Relate to the Ladies because of his magical power - a magical power that is poorly explained, but apparently allows him entree into a Magical Dudeclub that is just as shoddily developed. The worldbuilding is both lacklustre and confusing, and yet requires so much nonsensical infodumping that there is barely any room for Angsty's romance to a French governess who's suspected of murdering her former boss and fiance.

6. Hot Spell (Anthology), by Emma Holly, Meljean Brook, Lora Leigh, and Shiloh Walker. C-

I ordered this thanks to Meljean Brook's story (the best of the lot), only to discover it was an erotic romance anthology. But that's not what made this anthology 3/4 terrible for me. No - between Emma Holly's lack of conflict, Shiloh Walker's derivative Romeo & Juliet retelling, and Lora Leigh's frankly disturbing fascination with barbed lion penises, I was alternately bored, insulted, and squicked out.

Seriously - barbed lion penises. On a dude. So the lady can't get away. What is read cannot be unread!

5. The Concubine, by Jade Lee. C-

When I think of the Ultimate Romance Hero, I automatically think Sleazy, Exploitative Date-Rapist in Ancient China. Don't you?

Because that's who our charming hero is in The Concubine - a man forced to babysit 60 hot backstabbing virgins who are competing to be the new Empress. But hey - it's not like his job's without perks. He gets to sit in on the heroine's invasive and humiliating physical exam, and afterward, when he finds her out of her mind on opium (administered by evil eunuchs, natch), who's going to miss the odd hymen or two? Certainly not the heroine!

4. It's In His Kiss, by Julia Quinn. C-

It stands to reason that if you have eight kids, you're bound to drop at least one of them on their head - the result of which is Julia Quinn's penultimate Bridgerton novel, where the reader is inflicted with the youngest Bridgerton, Hyacinth. In a world without Ritalin, Hyacinth's compulsive egomaniacal behaviour is inexplicably regarded as a sign of intelligence, instead of a sign that she should be carted off to the asylum for a round of ice-baths and shock therapy.

Yet our hero desperately needs her to help translating his grandmother's diary from Italian in order to find his secret inheritance - despite the fact that Hyacinth can barely read the Italian Winnie the Pooh. Nothing in this story makes any remote sort of sense, so don't bother.

3. Dreaming of You, by Lisa Kleypas. C-

Ah yes, Lisa Kleypas' so-called masterpiece. Our heroine is a profound writer of deep, dark social novels, who has somehow never managed to learn that a) walking alone in bad neighbourhoods at night in 19th century London is a stupid idea, b) getting drunk alone at a party with sexual deviants and prostitutes is a stupider idea, and c) running off with a stranger during a riot in order to spite the man who refused your blundering attentions is also a really, really ridiculously stupid fucking idea.

But our rags-to-riches former-urchin-hooker hero just can't resist the purity of our murderbait heroine. So after angsting and whining and having sex with lookalike hookers (so romantic, they should totally make a Hallmark card for that), they get together and have a million fat rich babies. So ladies, apparently the best way to land a rich, hot husband is to act so idiotically, suicidally stupid that they have to marry you or you'll end up drowned face-down in the kiddie pool at Six Flags.

2. Too Wicked to Kiss, by Erica Ridley. D+

Ah, the review the lovely Miss Manners took umbrage with. An attempt at a Gothic Romance, Too Wicked to Kiss is little more than a midnight game of Clue played by drunk people in a creaky old mansion. Obvious suspects, melodramatic dialogue, an entirely unsympathetic cast of characters, nonsensical protagonists, an inconsistent Plot Device Magical Power that the heroine barely uses, and a story with more holes than a wiffle bat.

It doesn't help that the heroine's attraction to the hero makes no sense at all - considering she believes he's a murderous monster just like her rapetastic stepdad for the first half of the book. Oh wait - of course there's a difference - the hero's a hawt murderous monster.

And my absolute worst read of 2010 was...

1. A Certain Wolfish Charm, by Lydia Dare! D+

Although this book and Too Wicked to Kiss share the same letter grade, this one just edges past thanks to Certain Wolfish's ability to cram a slightly higher concentration of stupid into one novel.

In this perfect storm of Fail, we have a paranormal element that is entirely undeveloped and whose sole purpose is to give the hero an excuse to act like a psychopathic, misogynist, backwoods caveman who is perpetually one snifter of brandy away from peeing on the heroine to mark his territory. If you're expecting to see werewolves, ladies - prepare to be disappointed because it all happens off screen!

There is no worldbuilding to speak of. No explanation about werewolves or how they came to be. Our heroine is forced into marrying the hero by the screamingly obnoxious secondary character who OF COURSE gets a sequel. The hero is possessive to the point of murderous violence by page 20. The inciting incident is entirely contrived and makes no sense within the context of the story, and the heroine is a dishrag with unexplained self-esteem issues. Honestly, the further I read, the stupider I felt. Worst read of 2010!

And now, the best of the rest:

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Since the Surrender," by Julie Anne Long

The Chick: Rosalind March. When her sister goes missing, the recently widowed Rosalind is desperate enough to ask her husband's former right-hand-man, Chase Eversea, for help.
The Rub: Thanks to an illicit smooch between her and Chase that got him moved to another regiment years ago, there's some pretty stormy water under that bridge.
Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.

The Dude: Captain Charles "Chase" Eversea. An honourable former soldier who is still recovering from a war injury, the last thing he needs is to reunite with Rosalind, the biggest reminder of his most dishonourable mistake.
The Rub: However, the one thing he can't resist is a challenge - both to find out who's been kidnapping girls, and whether the now-widowed Rosalind is as receptive to his charms as ever.
Dream Casting: Hugh Jackman.

The Plot:

Rosalind: Chase, I need your help!

Chase: Like hell you do!

Rosalind: Your best friend might be responsible!

Chase: Like hell he is!

Rosalind: I really don't like it when you touch me like that.

Chase: Like hell you don't! Let's get married.

Rosalind: Give up my widowed independence? Like hell I will. You're not hurt, are you?

Chase: *sniffle* Like hell I am!

Rosalind: Also this mystery somehow involves puppets. You're not afraid of puppets are you?

Chase: *from very far away* Like hell I am!

Rosalind: Hey! You solved the crime! Let's married!

Chase: To hell with it! HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

Several Irritating References To Cows

Several Creepy, Clue-Dropping Puppets

1 Unfortunate Puppet Phobia

Several Erotic and Pseudo-Erotic Paintings

1 Creaky Old Bed

1 Slutty Angel

Several Naughty Nicknames

1 Impish Urchin

1 Botched Marriage Proposal

1 Surprise Frenemy

1 Dumb Sister

1 Surprise Magical Power

The Word: If I had to categorize this book in one word - it would be odd. Not necessarily in a bad way, but out of the other Julie Anne Long books I've read and adored, well, it seemed a bit all over the place. We have a mystery that involves puppet shows, we have a surprise! magical healing power, an artist who likes drawing naked ladies more than the average fellow, mermaids, elaborate theatre sets, painted angels giving blow jobs ... and a hero and heroine that don't quite register - at least not as well as her previous characters.

We also have the Wall of Stupid. But we'll get to that later.

The story starts out with some nice tension and drama. War veteran Captain Chase Eversea has been banished from Pennyroyal Green for the criminal offense of being a Gloomy Gus and remaining unentertained by his brother Colin's descriptions of inseminating cows by hand. Well, officially he's been tasked to go to London to see if the new man they've hired to be Pennyroyal Green's vicar is up to the task.

While in London, he receives a written plea for help from the last person he ever wanted to see again - Rosalind March, the widow of his former military commander, Colonel March. Years ago, Chase (nigh unwillingly) developed an attraction to her, and the two shared a passionate kiss. The next week the Colonel shunted him into a different regiment before the Battle of Waterloo, a battle that resulted in a leg injury that still pains Chase and requires the use of a cane.

Rosalind, however, is desperate - her silly, featherbrained sister has mysteriously vanished from Newgate prison after pulling a Winona at a jewellery shop, and the person she believes responsible is one of Chase's close, personal friends. Oh - and a mysterious, fake-Italian painting in an isolated, dusty museum is somehow related to her sister's disappearance.

Chase takes in her story with several pillars' worth of salt and refuses to help her, but changes his mind when he notices a painting of a suspiciously similar style while getting drunk in a brothel (don't ask). He's further motivated to assist her when he catches her spying on a group of his inebriated manfriends, and when catching turns to impassioned groping, and groping leads to the discovery of a pistol tied to her garter - he realizes if he doesn't help her she's doing to do something even more ridiculous.

But that's not the Wall of Stupid. That comes later. Let's discuss what I liked about this story first. The writing, mainly - Julie Anne Long's style is so, so lovely, that it's capable of papering over so very many sins. It's lovely enough that while I was reading the story I really enjoyed it, only realizing later the oddities and randomness and sharp bits that stuck out.

So - what I didn't like. Firstly, I didn't get the *drama* between Chase and Rosalind. At the start of the novel, when the both characters are just hinting at the bad blood between them, I had in mind something truly awful and tragic - which of course made me crazily interested to learn what could have Chase act so angry and make Rosalind feel so guilty.

Then I learn it's a kiss. That's it. Okay, so she's married, but after one kiss, she says, "Um, no more of this, thanks. It's wrong." Five years pass after that.

That's it? Really? I dunno, maybe I'm desensitized from reading Dark and Scandalous Pasts, but this seems a pretty small potatoes reason for the Extra-Strength Angst and Guilt Rosalind and Chase share between them.

That's not to say they don't make a good team - once Rosalind is taken in hand, of course. Thankfully, she doesn't manage Rebecca Tremaine levels of TSTL-ness, but a lot of her actions, beliefs and decisions seem out of character for the practical, military wife we're told she is. And for someone who claims to want her independence, she's pretty easily manipulated.

Chase is a more relateable character, at least to me. Yes, he's dealing with a permanent war injury (a Dr. House-ian leg of pain), but he doesn't make it a Giant Festering Wound of Angst, nor does he feel it renders him unworthy of the heroine's affections, which is refreshing. However, if you were to ask me what the true obstacle between Chase and Rosalind was, I wouldn't be able to tell you. Okay, Rosalind wants to wait a while and soak up some capital-I Independence before jumping back into the Marriage Game, and Chase wants to have a lot of sex with her - but he wants her to want it, I think. So he basically spends most of the book either solving the case or trying to subtly make Rosalind as horny as possible.

Which is fine. By fine I mean, okay but not my cup of tea. Tolerable because the poetic writing made it sound more romantic than sleazy.

But then we meet the Wall of Stupid. One minute, I'm tripping along, buying all sorts of random odd nonsense (again: mermaids, ghosts in hats, paintings of farting cows) until I run into the plot development that is Too Damn Stupid for me to get around. It grinds me to a complete stop.

Mild spoilers ahead.

Now, I'm buying into the hero with his dual purpose of Solving the Crime and Layin' the Lady, but then the two goals coincide horribly. Let's just say, after several days' worth of investigation and innuendo, Chase and Rosalind discover that shady things are afoot at the more-or-less abandoned museum they found the original painting in. Men come in but they do not come out. Mysterious, girlish giggles are heard in the walls. So Chase and Rosalind very sneakily break into the museum where Bad Shenanigans are Most Certainly Going On, then proceed to have very torrid sex against an ancient bureau. And then they leave without looking further.

And then they do it again - again, middle of the night, government property, breaking and entering, possible kidnappers/pimps/gentleman of leisure most certainly on that property - just to have sex on a bed that might have been owned by Henry the 8th.

I'm sorry, but there is a time and a place to break into a museum in order to fornicate upon a piece of antique furniture, and it's not the time when you suspect your sister has been kidnapped into sexual slavery and it's not the very place where said sexual slavery might be going on! PRIORITIZING - YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

Honestly, nothing after that - especially the mildly anticlimactic resolution to the mystery - could really break down the Wall of Stupid. Even once I reached the rather heart-tugging end of the romance, that Wall still stood behind me like a monument to plot details that don't make sense, and even the best writing in the world couldn't write that action away.

Since the Surrender is still an enjoyable read, all told, because Julie Anne Long is a wonderful writer, but it is most definitely not one of her best. If you are bound and determined to read the entire Pennyroyal series all the way through, this book won't torture you, but there are definitely better books in the series.

Monday, December 20, 2010

"The Spymaster's Lady," by Joanna Bourne

*Spoiler Warning:* Okay, most of my readers know that my reviews come with spoilers but there is a surprise in this book that's very well done - unfortunately, it only lasts until about page 80 so I can't really review this book without spoiling it. If you don't want to be spoiled, in a nutshell: The Books is Awesome and You Should Read It because the Surprise is Fun and the Next 300 pages are, too. If you don't care, read on - but you have been warned.

The Chick:
Annique Villiers, a.k.a. "The Fox Cub." A talented spy prodigy from a very young age, Annique has been delivering and keeping secrets for most of her life. Her biggest secret: she holds a copy of Napoleon's secret invasion plans for England.
The Rub: Her biggest problem - Grey, Britain's most dashing spy, knows she has the plans, and is perfectly willing to use whatever seductive methods he can to pry them from her brain.
Dream Casting: Summer Glau.

The Dude: Robert Greyson Montclaire Fordham, a.k.a. "Grey." When he recognizes the infamous Fox Cub in a French prison, he's determined to take her secrets for England - and mete out his revenge for the brave comrades he believes she murdered to get those secrets.
The Rub: As his feelings for her grow, he needs to convince her that his demonstrations of affection aren't just to get her to reveal her plans - although he would really like to have the plans, too, of course.
Dream Casting: Benedict Cumberbatch.

The Plot:

Annique: Yeah, this trapped-in-a-French-prison thing? I'm so over it. You guys with me?

Grey: Sure. *freed* And for your reward, I'm going to capture you and take you to England to interrogate you for the secret plans I know you have, you dirty French whore!

Annique: Merde.

Sexy Spy Friend: This dirty French whore-spy whom I find delightful and already implicitly trust is also totally blind.

Grey: WTF.

Annique: Yup. I'm awesome. Frenchly awesome.

Bad Guys: *attack*

Annique: *escapes*

Grey: Don't go! I love you! I mean - I need to interrogate you some more!

Annique: Au revoir!

Tree Branch: *le smack!*

Annique: Well, hey! I can see again!

"Robert": Do allow me to courteously and selflessly guide you to London for purely altruistic reasons. I do not in any way remind you of Grey, unless any resemblance increases the chance of you having sex with me. BTWi'mtotallyGrey.

Annique: Merde, the sequel: Merd-er. You understand I cannot give you the secret plans, oui? I won't betray my country! I'm Frencher than French! Blue cheese runs in my blood! Gerard Depardieu's nose looks totally normal-sized to me!

Grey: *cough* You're Welsh. Surprise!

Annique: Shit. Screw this, I'mma going home. *escapes again* *is captured*

Grey: Oh ENFER to the NON.

Annique: *is rescued*

Grey: Now that you don't have to give me the plans, will you marry me?

Annique: Oh, okay.


Romance Convention Checklist

1 (Totally Not) Accidental Death of a Parent

1 Evil French Spy

1 Very Sympathetic and Delightful French Spy

1 Unwittingly Un-French Spy

1 Accidental Boob Punch

1 SexyTimes in a Bathtub

1 Case of Temporary Blindness

1 Unconventional Reaction to Opium

Several Sexy Spy Buddies

The Word: As I have come to discover through attending Romance Writers of America conferences, writers who are fabulous and entertaining in person don't necessarily write books that I find equally fabulous and entertaining.

So it comes as a genuinely delightful surprise to enjoy The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne. I found the woman endlessly helpful and fascinating when I met her (and briefly escaped down eight flights of stairs with her) at RWA 2009, where she won her RITA.

But I am not supposed to review the author! My bad! (psst - A+!)

The Spymaster's Lady opens in a French cellar-turned-prison, where Annique Villiers, the infamous spy known as the Fox Cub, is held prisoner by a fellow French spy, Leblanc. She's got serious dirt on Leblanc, enough for him to want her dead - eventually, once he's done with her first. On top of that, she's secretly carrying a copy of Napoleon's Albion plans - a.k.a. Invading England for Dummies - and she can't afford to let Leblanc get his hands on those, either.

It's not long before she decides to make a break for it, but she's not alone in prison. Two English prisoners - one seriously wounded - are chained in the same cellar and she frees them as well. Unbeknownst to her, one of the spies is Grey, the Head of Section for Britain's own spy network who's been looking for both the Albion plans and the Fox Cub he blames for the murder of his men.

Displaying a shocking lack of gratitude, Grey and his sidekicks capture Annique once she's led them to safety. While Annique can't escape, she succeeds in making her transportation across France a monumentally difficult task that very nearly drives poor Grey completely bonkers. Despite himself, he starts empathizing with and admiring her, and his motives for carrying her off to England subtly change.

But he still needs those darn Albion plans.

You know, I've never been totally interested in spy books, contemporary or historical. The closest I came was Almost a Lady by Jane Feather, which bored me into a DNF. However, I found myself totally immersed in The Spymaster's Lady because the primary focus of the narrative isn't so much on the spywork as on the character development thanks to a life of spywork.

Annique, the daughter of French spooks, has been spying nearly as long as she could walk - carrying messages, dressing as a boy, living with gypsies. Grey, meanwhile, started out in the Army and came into spywork late in life. Seeing them interact during both work and play, how they hold themselves, how they communicate with other people, how they react to their growing attachment to each other, brings these differences into play.

And between them, the Albion plans stand as an emotional McGuffin. Where the plans end up is ultimately up to Annique, and yet the prospect of deciding haunts her - if she keeps the plans to herself, France's invasion will go on as planned but will result in the deaths of thousands of innocent English villagers. If she divulges them to England, she'll save lives but at the cost of her own countrymen. Where do her loyalties lie? And how does she decide? At the same time, how can she trust anything Grey does when she always has to measure how much he claims to love her against how badly he needs to know those plans?

I loved Annique as a character. Some of my Twitter friends complained about how she essentially spends about 80% of the book in some form of captivity but she was never a captive character. She's always fighting or plotting, or twisting some form of her impossible situation to her advantage. Let's face it, some situations are just plain impossible - particularly for a nineteen-year-old girl spy surrounded by sexy enemy man-spies. She may not always have the upper hand, but she manages to elevate a few (middle) fingers when she thinks no one's looking.

Grey has a harder time of it, character-wise, but Joanna Bourne manages the very delicate task of making him a dominating character without being exploitative - which seems impossible since he's essentially Annique's jailer for a large chunk of the book, but somehow it works. Yes, he's got Annique captured, but dammit if he doesn't have to watch her every second of every day to make sure she doesn't MacGuyver a castrating implement out of brass buttons and thumb tacks. Girl's high-maintenance, y'all. What he grows to learn in the novel is that he can only control her physical body, and that is far from her most dangerous aspect. The rest of her has to be treated differently.

So yes, some things do live up to the hype - both of the reviewer community and the author's personal presence. The Spymaster's Lady has some of the loveliest writing (particularly when integrating accent and cadence) and one of the strongest heroines I've read this year. I can't wait to get my hands on more of Joanna Bourne's awesome books!

Monday, December 13, 2010

"What I Did For Love," by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The Chick: Georgie York. Once a famous sitcom star, now she's tabloid fodder thanks to the public combustion of her marriage. She needs to jump-start her career, and fast. The last thing she needs is her picture taken next to her former castmate, Hollywood screwup Bram Shepard.
The Rub: When she and Bram end up date-rape-married in Vegas, she knows a quickie divorce will only tarnish her image even more. Staying married makes better publicity - but what if she falls for Bram for real?
Dream Casting: Isla Fisher.

The Dude: Bramwell Shepard. Bram wants to make a new start in Hollywood, but thanks to his self-destructive partyboy past, he's got no creditability. His accidental marriage to America's Tragic Sweetheart could be just what the doctor ordered.
The Rub: Trouble is, keeping Georgie at arm's length is a full time job - and he's only got room in his life for one.
Dream Casting: Jensen Ackles.

The Plot:

Georgie: My life sucks! My super famous husband dumped me for Angelina Jolie an even more famous woman who happens to love charity work in Asia!

Bram: My life sucks! I've turned my life around and want to make movies again but no one will let me!

Georgie and Bram: *Roofied* *Married*

George: Oh hell no.

Georgie and Bram: *They fight, and fight, and fight and fight and fight. FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT, FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT, the Georgie and Bramwell show!*

Georgie: Crap, now I've gone and fallen in love with you. Later, peeps! *flees to Mexico*

Bram: But I still need you to help with my movie! I ... er ... love you.

Georgie: Wow. Unconvincing.

Bram: Oh crap, now I really love you! But how can I prove it? I know! I'll make a really really, ridiculously maudlin art film!

Georgie: I am totally won over by your complete lack of directing skills!


Romance Convention Checklist

Several Digs at Angelina Jolie

2 Plot Device Roofie Pills

1 Surly Goth Housekeeper

Several Thousand Paparazzi

2 Secondary Romances

1 Dressing-Room Striptease

1 Case of Almost-SARS

1 Man Makeover

1 Really, Really Silly Short Film as Apology

The Word: Eight years ago, Georgie York was America's Sweetheart when she played the goofy, perky Scooter on the popular sitcom Skip & Scooter. Eight years later, while the public still loves her, her main claim to fame is the scandalous dissolution of her marriage when her superstar husband left her for celebrity philanthropist Jade Gentry. Now, with her film career teetering after a series of romantic comedy flops, and the paparazzi stalking her for reaction shots to the news that her ex and Jade are having a baby, Georgie is desperate to do something, anything, to show the public she's more than a romanticized Hollywood victim.

When Georgie heads to Vegas for a little R&R before she embarks on her latest plan (to cultivate a happy, bon vivant image by serial-dating her way through Hollywood's sexy B-list), she runs into her ultimate nemesis, former castmate Bramwell Shepard. The Skip to Georgie's Scooter, he played her gallant, wealthy romantic interest on-screen, but made her life a living hell off-screen - until his irresponsible, hard-drinking, drug-taking partyboy antics ultimately led to Skip and Scooter's cancellation.

However, despite her hatred for Bramwell, when the two accidentally drink cocktails laced with Miraculous Plot Device Roofies, they wake up the next morning in bed - together, naked, and married.

However, after the revulsion and panic wear off, Georgie comes up with a plan. A quickie divorce won't do anything to help her image, and staying married - especially to her Skip & Scooter castmate - might actually create positive buzz and make the general public see her as someone else, someone better, than That Woman Who Was Dumped by People's Sexiest Man Alive. She's even desperate enough to pay him fifty thousand dollars a month to keep up the sham marriage for six months.

Unbeknownst to her, Bramwell Shepard isn't the same addicted fuckup Georgie remembers - not that anyone in Hollywood bothers to notice. He's found his passion in producing the screenplay of a modern literary classic, but no one in Tinseltown's willing to gamble on a man with his reputation and his rights to the screenplay are due to expire soon. Marriage to television's Girl Next Door would go a long way towards clearing his name and getting his film financial backing.

What follows is an engrossing and occasionally frustrating romance between two engrossing and, yes, frustrating and flawed characters. Georgie is clearly the character we're meant to sympathize with early on, as the vast majority of the book takes place from her POV. She's grown up in the spotlight, so much so that she's used to defining herself by the roles she's typically cast in: the loveable quirky almost-pretty screwup. In essence, she wants to recast herself, hoping that by changing her outward image that the public sees, she'll be able to improve her interior self that she's unsatisfied with.

That being said, while she has loads of friends and is respected by casting directors and producers alike as one of the "few truly nice people in Hollywood" - she can be a bit, well, judgy. Think Emma Woodhouse in Prada heels. She makes a lot of judgment calls about the people around her and is only right about them, well - never. And, again like Jane Austen's Emma, when she latches onto an idea about a person it's very hard for her to change it - she bases the stability of her reality on her ability to categorize the people around her. This takes on a particularly frustrating quality in regards to Bram - for the first half of the novel (and some of the second), Georgie is so determined to paint Bram as the bad guy that she ignores the very obvious evidence that he's cleaned up.

To be fair - Bram doesn't make a lot of effort to convince her otherwise. Like a lot of SEP heroes I've read (Dean from Natural Born Charmer, Heath from Match Me If You Can), Bram is a very self-motivated and single-minded character who, thanks to a rough upbringing, believes he has to succeed on his own. While he's accepted responsibility for his involvement in Skip & Scooter's cancellation, he tends to keep people at a distance because he believes the only way to truly fix his life is to do it by himself. Because of this, he intentionally speaks and behaves in a way that reinforces Georgie's bad opinion of him in order to protect his personal life.

And yet, when Georgie's ex-husband drops by unexpectedly, Bram provides a jarring and effective contrast. Bram talks like an asshole and looks like an asshole, but his actual actions are responsible and far-thinking. Georgie's ex, Lance, however, is a consummate charmer who's made a career of putting a positive, selfless, compassionate spin on behaviour that's as petty and selfish and greedy as the next guy's.

That being said, Bram and Georgie's romance develops subtly - almost too subtly, since they spend a vast chunk of their dialogue fighting like cats and dogs, but the growth of affection is definitely there, and it fits the novel's theme that actions mean more than words. By the end of the novel Georgie and Bram's insults and one-liners are the same, but the context and emotions behind them are different.

As well, Susan Elizabeth Phillips' provides a solid cast of secondary characters - including a few people from previous novels (some people from Glitter Baby, and Dean's parents from Natural Born Charmer). None of them turned out exactly as I expected - from Bram's worshipful goth housekeeper Chaz, to Georgie's manager father Paul. Paul surprised me in particular - I thought for sure he would turn out to be one of the novel's villains but SEP is a master at peeling away layers and letting the secondary characters have stories, too.

Furthermore, I felt this time around that SEP did a particularly awesome job with the setting and the background for the story. I loved her descriptions of the people, occupations, and politics of the film industry. By the end of the novel, I actually found myself wishing Skip & Scooter was a real show, because the descriptions the author wove into the story made it sound pretty interesting. Hear that, Ms. Phillips? Pitch that idea to ABC!

Once again, Susan Elizabeth Phillips can't help but impress. I look forward to reading the rest of her titles on my TBR!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: Disney's "Tangled"

I was really worried about seeing this movie, y'all. Downright anxious. I liked The Princess and the Frog, Disney's previous attempt to reinvigorate the animated musical, but I didn't love it. Moreover, as the press for Tangled came out, heavily marketed towards male audiences (the rock-music-flavoured trailers, the title change from Rapunzel, the preview that strongly emphasized the male character, Flynn, over the freakin' title character Rapunzel), I got more and more worried.

Not that the movie would be bad - marketing is marketing. I read romance, folks, so I've already been trained to see a lot of cover art and blurbs and previews as counter-productive. No, I was worried that, after waiting for more than three years since Enchanted, my expectations would be so damn high that no movie could hope to live up to them.

I have never been so glad to be wrong.

In the movie, the rapunzel is not a radish craved by a desperately hormonal pregnant woman, but a magical flower with the power to cure the sick and heal the injured. For centuries, however, a selfish woman named Mother Gothel (played by the stupendous Donna Murphy) kept the plant hidden so she could hoard its magic and keep herself forever young and beautiful.

However, Mother Gothel's luck runs out when soldiers of the king uncover the flower, uproot it, and carry it back to the castle to save the queen from dying in childbirth. The queen survives and the flower's magic lives on in her baby girl and her beautiful golden hair - until Mother Gothel returns and steals the child to raise as her own personal fountain of youth.

Years pass, and Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) remains in her tower, entertaining herself by acquiring a multitude of lucrative skills (including baking, painting, candle-making, and darts). Despite her mother's enormous efforts to depict Rapunzel's tower as the only thing that protects her and her healing magic from a terrifying, exploitative world, Rapunzel longs for freedom. She's particularly keen to visit the nearby kingdom and its beautiful floating-lantern festival that just happens to coincide with her birthday.

Meanwhile, from that very kingdom flees a dashing thief known as Flynn Rider (played by Zachary Levi). After stealing a priceless crown and double-crossing his thuggish partners, he discovers Rapunzel's tower by accident and tries to use it as a hideout - clearly underestimating the power of an overenthusiastic teenage shut-in armed with a frying pan. Rapunzel, wily gal that she is, offers the captured Flynn a deal: she'll return his loot if he escorts her to the kingdom for the festival and back again.

And thus starts our story - and it's just about as good as all the classic Disney movies I remember. The most impressive thing about Tangled is how much the story manages to accomplish in so little time. The story doesn't just focus on the grand adventure and the magical lost-princess story, but also on the emotions of our characters. This is one of the few Disney movies were I completely, unironically believed the romance between the protagonists that sprouts up within a couple of days (these Disney Princesses love their short courtships, don't they?).

Despite what the marketing will tell you, while Flynn is a hilarious character and he definitely gets his own arc, Tangled is still Rapunzel's film. Because, after all, Mother Gothel was never the only person keeping Rapunzel in that tower - part of that was Rapunzel's own doing. There's a hilarious montage after leaving the tower where Rapunzel swoops between exuberance at her new freedom and guilt at disobeying her mother. She doesn't blithely run off and forget her parental figure (a la Little Mermaid) or disgard the responsibility she feels she has to the healing power of her hair. Neither she can she completely eliminate the nagging possibility (planted in her mind by Mother Gothel) that her desires to live free and be her own person are selfish.

That, in turn, just makes Mother Gothel probably one of the best-written Disney villainesses in years, if not ever. Mother Gothel's about a zillion years old, but that's thanks to the magic flower. Other than that, she's a regular woman - no magical powers, no nasty minions, no plans for world domination. Just an utterly selfish human being who's managed to keep Rapunzel isolated with her words alone - she's not only raised Rapunzel to believe the world is a scary place, but that Rapunzel is too naive, clumsy, and inept to survive in it. This is perfectly demonstrated with her show-stopping musical number, "Mother Knows Best," a song that is awe-inspiring for the sheer number of Mommy Issues Gothel inflicts on Rapunzel in only a couple of verses.

Which leads me to yet another thing I adored about this movie: the music. Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater craft a seriously catchy number of songs to flesh out the story - songs that not only maintain the classic fairy-tale feel but also inject a lot of humour and nuance. Yes, we have the standard "I Want" and "Holy Crap We Were In Love The Whole Time" songs that Alan Menken does so very well ("When Will My Life Begin" and "I Can See the Light," respectively), but we also have the deviously diva-esque number "Mother Knows Best," the comedy romp "I've Got a Dream," and a wonderful score as well. Alan Menken is the man who taught me to love film scores as much as songs with lyrics, and he maintains his high standard in this movie.

Lastly, even animated films require good vocal performances to carry the story, and the actors don't skimp here either. Mandy Moore is already a well-known singer, so the fact that she managed to carry off the musical numbers without sounding like, well, Pop Star Mandy Moore is a testament to both her talent and commitment to the material. Zachary Levi is equally awesome as the one-line-spouting Flynn.

But really, all in all, Tangled is flat-out a wonderful fairy tale movie. It runs with the magic and the angst and the beauty and the drama and it does it all with passion and sincerity - despite the successes of snarkfests like Shrek it never gives in to the easy ironic jokes that could be made. Sitting in that theatre, I felt like I was three, five, six and 22 again - i.e., I felt the same as I did the first time I saw The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and Enchanted. I felt swept away by a totally gorgeous, immersive story.

In case you're wondering, I'm off to listen to the soundtrack for the umpteenth time.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

"Immortal Outlaw," by Lisa Hendrix

The Chick: Matilda Fitzwalter aka "Maud," aka "Marion." Desperate to help her half-brother Robin earn their father's title by solving a series of riddles, she's forced to rely on a hostile stranger for help when Robin injures himself.
The Rub: Said hostile stranger wants to be paid in booty ... and not the pirate kind.
Dream Casting: Zoie Palmer.
The Dude:
Steinarr the Proud, son of Birgir BentLeg. Cursed to live as a man by day and a ferocious lion by night, he's torn between his desire to help Matilda and his vow to her cousin to bring her home by any means necessary.
The Rub: While it's really no contest which side he's choosing, he can't afford to fall too deeply in love with her, for how likely is it that she's just the woman he needs to break his curse?
Dream Casting: Sam Worthington.

The Plot:
Matilda: Sir! We need help on our "pilgrimage"!

Steinarr: Oh really?

Matilda: Yes, it's all about ... *lies, lies and more lies*

Steinarr: Mmmmmmno.

Matilda: Will you do it for a shilling?

Steinarr: Nope.

Matilda: A Klondike Bar?

Steinarr: Tempting, but no.

Matilda: A rousing adventure involving puzzles and religious symbols and a rock that looks a lot like a vagina?

Steinarr: I only heard one word in that whole sentence. Guess which one.

Matilda: Fine. Help me and you can hit it.

Steinarr: DONE.

Adventures: *are had*

Puzzles: *are solved*

SexyTimes: *are performed*

Evil Witch Cwen: *does vague evil witchy things*

Steinarr: If only I were not cursed to be a lion at night, because then we could totally be together forever and ever...

Matilda: Easy now, Simba. Look what I have! *magic lion necklace*

Steinarr: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Big Misunderstanding

1 Accidental Deflowering

1 Evil Cousin

1 Stallion Manfriend

1 Very Bad Dad (Deceased)

1 Evil(ish) Witch

1 Suggestively-Shaped Rock

2 Surprise! Magical Powers

1 Horny Collier

The Word: If you are new to reading Lisa Hendrix' Immortal Brotherhood series, let me give you a quick recap: nine hot Viking Dudes tried to steal a treasure guarded by a canny witch named Cwen. When her son was killed in the fray, she caught our poor Dudes, stole their Symbolic Viking Man Jewellery, and cursed them to live forever as humans for half the day, and wild animals the other half.

Our Dudes were pretty bummed out until, in Immortal Warrior, Ivar Greycloak (who was human by night and an eagle by day) discovered the curse could be broken if one was lucky enough to find his respective Symbolic Viking Man Jewellery and a sexy, willing babe at the same time.

This gave our Dudes hope ... for about two hundred years and then they gave up. Immortal Outlaw takes place in the year 1290, and this novel's Dude, Steinarr, works tag-team style with his fellow Dude Torvald. By day, Steinarr works as a bounty hunter and rides his stallion buddy in a totally platonic, non-erotic equestrian way. Once the sun goes down, Torvald becomes human and keeps Steinarr, who works nights as an uncredited extra for The Lion King, from killing people.

It's a tough life but someone's always got it tougher - as Steinarr discovers when he tries and fails to save an old man from brigands and winds up babysitting two pilgrims named Robin and Marion who are clearly Lying About Everything. They're desperate for protection, but Steinarr can't afford to stay too close and risk hurting them in his lion form once night falls, so when Marion tries a little too hard to bribe him, he scares her off by demanding her virginal goodies in exchange.

In actuality, Marion, real name Matilda, is struggling to protect both herself and her half-brother Robert, the illegitimate son of Lord David Fitzwalter. Now deceased, Lord David left instructions informing Robert that, despite his bastardy, he would be able to inherit his title if he could find a hidden treasure and present it to the king within a set amount of time. The treasure is protected by a heinous trail of difficult riddles, and if Robert can't solve them, the title will go to a skeezy cousin named Guy of Gisbourne - and Guy will do anything to keep Robert from winning. Fortunately, things aren't yet bad enough that Matilda's willing to barter her maidenhead.

However, things get worse once Steinarr and the "pilgrims" part ways. Steinarr learns a garbled version of Matilda's story from Guy, who offers him ten pounds to bring Matilda back and eliminate Robert as a threat. Meanwhile, Robert breaks his leg obtaining one of his father's clues. When a much-more-desperate Matilda and Steinarr cross paths again, she accepts his scandalous offer to have sex with him as much as he likes in return for his escort as she attempts to solve her father's riddles herself.

There was so much I wanted to like about this book, but it was unfortunately more than what I actually liked about this book. Most of what I liked about Lisa Hendrix's writing the first time is still here - the lush description, the historical relevancy (including the novel's sly "interpretation" of the Robin Hood myth), the fascinating antihero Cwen. However, a lot of what I thought this novel needed was missing.

Firstly, the pacing. Okay, the whole "riddle plot" seemed a little silly and over-elaborate to me at first, but then I remembered this is a story about a Hot Viking Dude who turns into the MGM mascot after sunset. However, the riddles make the story's pacing very episodic, chopping the story into segments centred around scenes that require so much mechanical and physical detail to make sense that I often felt myself held at a distance from the story. For instance, there's a sequence where Steinarr and Matilda explore a giant, cracked rock that had me so confused as to what was physically going on that I felt completely excluded from the narrative.

Secondly, the paranormal element. This isn't about the hero's curse - rather, this is about the heroine's. Matilda, as we are told at the start, shares an empathic connection with animals, a magical power she's carefully hidden to prevent accusations of witchcraft. Now, I'm down with the ladypowers, I am - when they are used as an actual paranormal element, and not as a plot device.

Matilda's power's main contribution to the narrative is the sudden empathetic connection she develops with Steinarr (because he's half-lion), allowing her to feel first-hand his own repressed emotions - lust in particular. Because of this, she's constantly thrown off her game by induced feelings of horniness and starts to develop sympathy and affection towards Steinarr without Steinarr having to actually do anything to earn it.

But surely that's not all her powers are for. She can commune with animals. That's a pretty big deal. Considering how much time Matilda spends hiking through the woods and struggling to examine tiny things in enclosed spaces, a little animal power could have come in handy. But she doesn't use it. She barely thinks about it. It doesn't seem to affect any part of her lifestyle. It doesn't contribute anything to the riddle solving plot. There is no reason for her to have powers in this book - except to make the romance easier. See that Chekhovian pistol on the mantlepiece? Sorry, it's just a Relationship Cheat Code. This pissed me off to no end.

And is it sad that Immortal Outlaw isn't even the first romance novel I've read that thinks giving a heroine Vague Animal Powers will spice up an otherwise regular historical?

Thirdly - the hero. It's not that Steinarr's a bad character, it's that he's a bit of a noncharacter. I get that he's good and true and likes the ladies, but that could describe all the Dudes. What about his character is supposed to differentiate him from the other Hot Viking Dudes? Throughout the novel, I never got a clear picture of his interests and desires beyond Sexy Cuddling and Not Accidentally Eating People. Moreover, it's not that his internal conflict is weak, it's that it's little more than the same conflict that Ivar from the previous novel had: "I'd totally love her if it weren't for this Stupid Viking Curse. I'm so lonely." There has to be more to it than that - this is only the second book in a nine-book series where every Dude is Cursed and Lonely. Are they all going to share the exact same Angst over the exact same problem?

That being said, the writing and historical detail are excellent, yet again - as are the Supporting Dudes Torvald (stallion by day) and Ari (raven by night). The development of the Robin Hood myth (thanks to Ari's meddling) is a nice comedic counterpoint to the story as Steinarr and Matilda keep running into people who've fallen for the fable hook, line and sinker. Immortal Outlaw has a strong foundation and does build on the series' overall story (although witchy-witch Cwen is relegated to the role of a Peeping Tom for much of the novel), but as a novel in its own right, it's only okay.