Monday, May 31, 2010

My Top Ten Worst Romance Cliches!

My guest post about romance cliches I love to hate is now up at Babbling About Books! Go check it out!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

May Round-Up

It's that time again, folks! Living in Canada as I do, April showers lead to May ... snowstorms. Not even kidding.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Shy Artist
  • 1 Shy Homemaker
  • 2 Shy Ruined Spinsters
  • 1 Clumsy History Teacher
  • 1 Disgraced Journalist
  • 1 Scorned Wife
  • 2 Obnoxious Baby Sisters
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Formerly Adulterous Fortune Hunter
  • 1 Sly Bastard
  • 1 Hot Irish Ex-Con
  • 1 Jaded Cartoonist
  • 1 Angsty Editor
  • 1 Angsty Lord
  • 1 Angsty Warrior
  • 1 Underestimated Prettyboy
  • 1 Abandoned Mama's Boy
For Obstacles, We Got:
  • "I just can't win - my baby brother's been stolen by an evil magic king - and not the hot David Bowie kind, either!"
  • "I can't love her - I need to sell scandalous cartoons of her for money!"
  • "I can't love him - he cheated on me! Not once, but like a BILLION TIMES!"
  • "I can't love him - he's an ex-con!"
  • "I can't love him - I'm too scarred and sexywrong!"
  • "I can't love her - her dad stole my mum away!"
  • "I can't love him - emotional connections give me hives!"
  • "I can't love her - because I've decided to become serious. Just - because."
  • "I can't love him - he's actually smart enough to put up with my crazy!"
In Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 1 Evil Russian Brothel
  • 3 Annoyingly Under-trained Lapdogs
  • 3 Unorthodox Children
  • 1 Pair of Velvet Manacles
  • Several Re-Enacted Civil War Battles
  • 1 Unintentionally (?) Pink Drawing-Room
  • 1 Lost Diamond Necklace

*May Pick* Tempted All Night, by Liz Carlyle. A+
Winner of the Baggage-Handler Hero Award
Pros: Great characters. Complicated and well-drawn relationships. Heartbreaking backstories. Beautiful writing.
Pacing is a bit dense. That's it.

The Marriage Bed, by Laura Lee Guhrke. B+
Winner of the Devil's Advocate Medal in Lovably Flawed Characters
Pros: Character complexity. Tensely plotted drama. Sympathetic yet flawed characters.
Cons: Repetitive writing style. Awkward flashbacks. Heroine's development a little too sudden.

Too Good To Be True, by Kristan Higgins. B
Winner of the Lamest Payoff Award
Pros: Endearing heroine. Complex emotional obstacles. Lickable hero.
Cons: Annoying dog. No lickable hero POV. Cop-out ending.

Heir to Sevenwaters, by Juliet Marillier. B-
Winner of the Gold Medal in the Field of Insomnia Treatment and Research
Good worldbuilding. Unorthodox heroine.
Snail-slow boring-ass pacing. Overangsty sad-sack characters. Vague and confusing hints to previous books in the series.

Rewriting Monday, by Jodi Thomas. B-
Winner of the "Cry Me A River" Angsty Hero Award
Pros: Evocative setting. Good secondary characters. Nicely-integrated suspense plot.
Cons: Pathetic sad-sack hero. Underdeveloped heroine. Plot contrivances galore.

The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor, by Diane Gaston, Deb Marlowe, Amanda McCabe. C
Winner of the Gold Medal in Anachronistic Quirkiness
Pros: Interesting backstory. Passable writing.
Cons: Meatloaf said, "Two out of three ain't bad" - but what if those two of the three really, really suck?

*May Dud* It's In His Kiss, by Julia Quinn. C-
Winner of the Silver Medal in Anachronistic Quirkiness
Pros: Nice enough hero.
Cons: Hair-pullingly obnoxious heroine. Obviously eeeeeevil villain. Annoying secondary characters. Little to no plot.

Friday, May 28, 2010

"The Marriage Bed," by Laura Lee Guhrke

The Chick: Viola, Lady Hammond. As a young woman, she fell headlong in love with her new husband, but once she discovered he'd only married her for her money, she cast him out of her life and her bed.
The Rub: Nine years later, her husband desires a reconciliation in order to get an heir - but Viola knows a reconciliation is impossible if she wants to keep her heart intact.
Dream Casting: Katherine Heigl.

The Dude: John Hammond, Viscount Hammond. John needs an heir, but Viola refuses to bargain, negotiate, or adjust her complete loathing of him in any way. Since he's not the forcing type, he sets out to seduce her into compliance.
The Rub: As his seduction continues, John discovers he hasn't only missed an heir, but the wife who used to adore him, whom he is coming to adore in turn.
Dream Casting: Colin Firth.

The Plot:

John: I need an heir.

Viola: No.

John: Please? Smoochies?

Viola: NO.

John: Um, you're legally my wife so --

Viola: NO NO NO NO NO NO...

John: What am I supposed to do? Go back in time?

Viola: That would be a start!

John: Have you READ The Time Traveller's Wife?

Viola: Touche. Fine, I'll give it a go.

Crazy Mistress Babymama: Surprise! I have a baby! And I'm in love with you! And also in love with making scandalous scenes!

John: Oh no! You're not leaving me because of this Viola! NO! NO NO NO NO NO --

Viola: Who said I was leaving?

John: ...never mind. HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

Several Naughty Mistresses

Several Previous Guhrke Characters

Several Stolen Kisses

1 Big Nasty Lie

1 Impromptu Swimming Lesson

1 Consolation BJ

1 Overprotective Brother

1 Secret Baby

The Word: Laura Lee Guhrke has become a hit-or-miss author with me. It's mostly hit, and when she hits, she hits hard with classics like And Then He Kissed Her and His Every Kiss. However, on those occasions when she misses, she completely and utterly misses with novels like Secret Desires of a Gentleman. With The Marriage Bed, the controversial storyline could have easily been a miss of epic proportions, but thanks to some fantastic characterization, we get a hit instead.

The controversy? Adultery. Cheating protagonists, and whether or not they can have a believable Happily Ever After, are pretty hot-button issues in Romancelandia and have been for some time. Some readers adamantly refuse to read novels with adulterous protagonists because they just don't believe that sort of trust can ever be regained. For others, like myself, it depends on how the situation is written.

John and Viola, Lord and Lady Hammond, have lived apart for going on nine years at the start of the book. Both appeared briefly in the company of their mutual friends in His Every Kiss and presumably Guilty Pleasures as well, but never together.

At one point, Viola was once the sheltered and heavily-dowered sister of the Duke of Tremore. Then John, the new Viscount Hammond, came into her life. Despite the warnings of her brother that he was only a feckless fortune hunter, she fell madly in love with John, who professed the same feelings towards her. However, after only a few months of sex-filled married bliss, she discovered the truth: John had kept a mistress throughout the period of their courtship and right up to the day of their marriage. He'd even bought his mistress a going-away present with her money, the rest of which  went to repair his debt-ridden estates. Viola subsequently barred him from her bedchamber - and after waiting thirty business days for her to get over herself, John decided "aw, fuck it," and left her to drown his frustrations in a long line of mistresses.

After nine years of debauched living, John receives news that the heirs to his estate (his friend Percy and his young son) have died of scarlet fever. John had resigned himself to the idea of no children between him and Viola (who have lived in separate houses all this time), but now that the remaining heir to his estate is a spoiled, spendthrift layabout every bit as irresponsible as John's father, drastic decisions must be made. Namely - John has to shag his wife.

John approaches Viola with his need for a son and heir, and she responds by telling him, in no uncertain terms, to go fuck himself with a sharp instrument. However, she realizes her options are limited: as her legal wedded husband, John has the law on his side and is technically free to do just about anything he pleases with her. She decides to stall - thinking if she holds him at bay long enough, he'll eventually give up and leave her alone, just like last time. However, John has the similar idea of moving slowly. While he doesn't doubt her hatred of him, he remembers from their few brief months of wedded bliss that they could still fuck like bunnies when fighting like cats and dogs, so he hopes to slowly reacquaint her with the physical benefits of marriage to him.

So John sounds like a Grade-A Ass, doesn't he? Well, while Laura Lee Guhrke doesn't sugar-coat his actions, he's not unnecessarily demonized either. John and Viola entered into marriage with very different ideas of what marriage is. John's is very much in keeping with his time period: marriage was for money and property and alliance. His father's starving tenants are now his starving tenants, and if getting a wealthy heiress to marry him will save his estates, than he's not above a little emotional manipulation to get one. Conversely, Viola's idea of marriage is the modern idea of Love or Nothing: when John reminds her of her noble wifely duty to give him heirs, she is motivated by her feelings first and foremost when she refuses him. She doesn't give a rat's ass about the possibility of failed crops and the starving tenants she's supposedly responsible for.

This, ultimately, is how Guhrke maintains the drama in The Marriage Bed, by maintaining the delicate balance between historical and modern influences in the narrative. Both John and Viola are right and both John and Viola are wrong. It's wholly frustrating and completely gripping to read because both characters are selfish and difficult and flawed and yet you come to care for both of them.

John, who as misguided as he often is, usually wants to do the right thing, is now motivated by duty to fight for the wife he'd abandoned, and his evolving strategies to get close to her force him to, well, get close to her, and discover firsthand the wonderful woman she is, the woman he'd never bothered getting to know during their courtship. His attempts to wiggle into her good graces involve reminding her of the happy times in their relationship, and in turn he learns what he's been missing.

Meanwhile, Viola reacts to John's seduction techniques with increasing panic. She fell for him so quickly and so completely the first time that she knows it's only too easy to do so again. This is a romance novel, so we know how this ends, but in the process she learns to reconcile her love with her own emotional independence, so that she's no longer a girl falling love, but a woman falling in love.

That being said, despite layered characters, there are a few flaws. The writing is a bit lacklustre this time around - nothing too drastic, but frequent repetitions of the same flashbacks and over-used metaphors abound. As well, the pacing and characterization in the last quarter of the book seems a bit rushed - Viola's in particular. It seemed too quick, even though John has spent the last two hundred pages wearing her down.

That being said, The Marriage Bed is a fierce and emotional romantic drama that doesn't pull punches, but forces us to look closer at flawed characters we'd prefer to give up on.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor," by Diane Gaston, Deb Marlowe, Amanda McCabe

The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor is next on my RITA-Reading Challenge, since two of its three novellas were nominated for Best Romance Novella. However, I can safely say that after reading all three stories, if anything in this world is fair than Courtney Milan and "This Wicked Gift" should have nothing to worry about.

All three stories revolve around an incredibly unorthodox family, kind of like a Regency-era Brady Bunch. Leo, Annalise and Charlotte Fitzmanning, the children of the Duke of Manning and his mistress of twenty years, were raised at Welbourne manor along with the Duke's legitimate sons Nicholas and Stephen, as well as Justine - another of the Duke's by-blows by an earlier mistress. Naturally, they all boast scandalous reputations.

And, because these stories don't take place in Regency England but rather a cotton-candy, Care-Bears facsimile of Regency England, their household is loving and wild and oh-so-delightfully-improper.

"Justine and the Noble Viscount," by Diane Gaston
The Chick: Justine Savard. The product of the Duke's affair with an earlier mistress, she's given herself the responsibility of raising and teaching the wild Fitzmanning siblings, and it's up to her to smooth the ruffled feathers when Viscount Brenner arrives with devastating news.
The Rub: Despite her growing affection for the viscount, thanks to some impulsive decisions in her past she can never marry.
Dream Casting: Gemma Arterton.

The Dude:
Gerald "Gerry" Brenner, Viscount Brenner. Brenner is saddened when he hears the news that the mother he hasn't seen since he was ten has recently died, but confounded when he discovers her will makes him guardian of the illegitimate siblings he's never met.
The Rub: While Welbourne manor wakes him out of his cold, grieving stupor, can he really learn to love the family his mother chose over him?
Dream Casting: Lee Pace.

The Plot:
Fitzmannings: Look at us! We're wacky! And unconventional!

Brenner: Ahem. Sorry to inform you, but your parents are dead.
Fitzmannings: Look at us - we're emo! And brooding! But still very unconventional!

Brenner: Ahem, yes, well.

Justine: I'm somewhat less wacky! And more conventional! But at least I'm not related to you by blood!

Brenner: Let's get married!

Justine: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
5 Unruly Siblings

2 Maternal Snubs

1 Very Bad Parent

1 Idealized (But Still Very Bad) Parent

The Word: As the first novella out of the gate, "Justine and the Noble Viscount" doesn't make a very good impression. As it turns out, while the Duke of Manning and his mistress had three children over their 20 year relationship, both also had children from their previous marriages. The Duke's legitimate sons were raised with the Fitzmannings, but his mistress left behind a 10-year-old son when she left her Earl husband to live with the Duke.

At the beginning of this novella, we learn the Duke finally married his beloved mistress, only for the two of them to die of a fever four months into their wedding trip. Viscount Brenner, the new Duchess' estranged son, is appalled to discover that he's been made guardian of the Fitzmannings and the bearer of the bad tidings. Brenner would rather have nothing to do with the family his mother chose over him, but his cold, autocratic father raised him to respect his duties.

When he arrives at Welbourne Manor, he is disconcerted by the casual, loosey-goosey wallpaper-historical household, but the quiet and practical presence of Justine (a earlier by-blow of the Duke) helps him adjust.

Now, this story started out really interesting - the situation promised plenty of drama and, at least initially, the Fitzmannings and their parents aren't sugar-coated. The Mannings were loving but careless parents, and the Fitzmannings are spoiled and selfish, if good-natured. However, this novella worked like a stick of gum - tasty at first, it just grew blander and blander as time went on and the story decided to make an abysmally contrived effort to justify what was essentially child abandonment.

Brenner hasn't seen his mother since he was ten years old, but of course, we learn that his Bad Old Dad hid his mother's letters and wouldn't let her visit him so of course, his mother was a Saintly Thwarted Parent and his Bad Old Dad is a Selfish, One-Dimensional Stooge. I'm sorry, but writing letters to and visiting are not the same as raising a child. Within the context of the story it's painfully clear that yes, Brenner's mother did choose her lover over her own son and lived pretty happily without him, barring the occasional wistful sigh. If the novella had focused on Brenner's acceptance of his mother's decisions while still growing to love his half-siblings, this could have been a rich and original story. Instead, we get force-fed the usual Free-Spirited Mama Just Wanted to Be Freeee Drivel. I guess one reader's "spirited" is another reader's "selfish."

Also, other plot threads are given dreadfully short shrift thanks to the novella's length. Justine's past is barely sketched out, leaving a lot of details missing, which is a poor choice when she's the titular character of the story. Also, I hate to say this, but the relationship between Justine and Brenner seemed just a tad on the incestuous side. While they aren't technically related by blood, they both share a load of half-siblings so it did seem a little squicky.

"Annalise and the Scandalous Rake," by Deb Marlowe (RITA-Nominated)
The Chick:
Annalise Fitzmanning. The artist of the family, she prefers painting by herself to society parties, but when her half-brother Brenner offers to provide her works with a proper showing in return for attending a house party, she accepts.
The Rub: While some guests (particularly Mr. Milford) are friendly, can the shy, illegitimate daughter of flamboyant parents ever have a future in society?
Dream Casting: Camilla Belle.
The Dude:
Ned Milford. A secret caricaturist of all of the ton's misdeeds, when Ned is given an invitation to the infamous Welbourne Manor, he thinks he's hit the jackpot.
The Rub: The daughter of the manor turns out to be the girl of his dreams - so what will happen if she finds out his secret?Dream Casting: Rupert Evans.

The Plot:
Brenner: Hey! Welbourne Manor's holding a party! Free art showings and shenanigans!

Annalise: I'm in!

Ned: I'm in!

Annalise: Oh, this was a mistake. No one understands me and my ART!

Ned: Oh, this was a mistake. I'm in love with that weird artsy chick!

Unscrupulous Publisher: Extra! Extra! Never-before-seen prints of Fitzmanning Shenanigans!

Annalise: *gasp!* You LIAR! I shall immortalize your perfidy with ART! *does*

Ned: But I'm innocent!

Annalise: *gasp!* I BELIEVE YOU! Let's get married!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Cynical Cartoonist

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

1 Hidden Necklace

1 Damning Portrait

The Word: The timeline jumps forward a few months and deals with Annalise, the elder Fitzmanning girl. Despite her infamously larger-than-life parents, Annalise is shy and spends most of her time painting in her private studio. Refreshingly, Annalise is only too aware of her shaky standing in society and doesn't want to bother with the social rigmarole. However, her concerned half-brother Brenner convinces her to give it a go at an upcoming house party, and in return, he'll fund an official showing of her paintings.

Meanwhile, seemingly-regular gentleman Ned Milford is delighted to receive an invitation to the Welbourne house party. Unbeknownst to the peerage, he has spent the last several years wickedly lampooning the ton as the infamous caricaturist Prattle. With the Fitzmannings' wild reputations, this houseparty promises to inspire enough caricatures to pay Ned's bills for a good long while.

Ned and Annalise almost immediately experience a shared connection thanks to their love of art, and while Ned helps Annalise to become more bold, her unique take on life shakes him out of his cynical stupor. However, the social ridicule of the Fitzmannings (and Ned's participation in it) remains the big elephant in the room.

While easily the best novella of the bunch, Deb Marlowe's contribution still seems a bit truncated and oversimplified. The ending came along a little too fast and it seemed like Annalise and Ned overcame their biggest obstacle too quickly.B-

"Charlotte and the Wicked Lord," by Amanda McCabe (RITA-Nominated)
The Chick:
Charlotte Fitzmanning. She's secretly been in love with her brothers' best friend, Andrew Bassington, for years.
The Rub: However, she thinks he's searching the market for a proper, respectable wife - something she most definitely isn't.Dream Casting: Michelle Trachtenberg.
The Dude:
Lord Andrew "Drew" Bassington. He used to be fun and fancy free, but now that his solemn, rigidly proper brother's dead, he needs to be the responsible one.
The Rub: He loves Charlotte, but his family is way too boring and staid for her wild spirit.Dream Casting: Brandon Routh.

The Plot:

Charlotte: Woe! I love Drew Bassington but I'm too Feisty and High-Spirited!

Drew: Woe! I love Charlotte but I have to be too Boring and Responsible!

Charlotte: Let's have sex anyway!

Drew: Okay! Screw it, I love you! Let's get married!

Charlotte: No! It'll ruin your political chances!

Drew: ... WTF? You're a moron.

Charlotte's Brothers: Let's convince you with a poorly-written theatrical metaphor!

Charlotte: Okay, I'll marry you.


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Broody Stick-in-the-Mud

1 Sad Widow

2 Naughty Dogs

2 Matchmaking Brothers

The Word: Naturally, following the best story of the bunch, we now get the worst. Charlotte Fitzmanning, three-time winner of the Most Annoying Character in the Novella Award, is in love with Drew and has been for many years. Unbeknownst to her, Andrew is in love with her, too. However, to stretch the paper-thin story to fit novella-length, both characters are required to make a Big Effin' Deal about pretty small and easily conquered problems.

Andrew used to be the carefree BFF to the (Fitz)Manning bros, but when his older, respectable brother died, leaving behind a widow and young son, Andrew took it upon himself to be the man of the house. Because of this, Drew believes his fun-loving Welbourne Manor days are over, and that his newly solemn and dignified lifestyle would only crush the fiery spirit of poor Charlotte.

Charlotte, meanwhile, believes that Drew deserves a sophisticated political hostess of a wife, and after a half-hearted attempt to become such, she gives up in favour of mooning over the Love That Can Never Be, an infinitely more productive endeavour.

The rest of the novella proceeds in this fashion, as Drew and Charlotte brood over small obstacles blown way out of proportion instead of actually doing anything, to the point where Charlotte's brothers have to perform creepier and creepier feats of mischief in order to get them together. I'm sorry, but in what universe would two 19th-century gentlemen choose to lock their virgin sister alone in a summerhouse along with their randy best friend whose skirt-chasing antics are well known to them? What do they think is going to happen?

What's even worse is that instead of spending page time on developing the actual central romance, the author also sets up two secondary romances (Lady Emily and Nicholas, Lord Amesby and Lady Derrington) and then doesn't finish them. What the hell? So instead of getting one solid, well-focused romance, we get two half-baked subplots and a rushed, simplified, and contrived central romance written in such generalized, cliched romance language that it's practically meaningless.C-
So I think it's safe to say that I wasn't impressed by The Diamonds of Welbourne Manor. It's no use giving your characters an unorthodox and colourful parentage if the characters themselves get colourless, cliched stories. Best to leave these Diamonds in the rough.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Too Good To Be True," by Kristan Higgins

The Chick: Grace Emerson. When her kid sis and her ex start dating, Grace invents a fictional boyfriend to keep the pitying stares at bay while she gets her own love life together.
The Rub: Everything thinks she's dating the perfect guy - including her Hot, Sardonic, and Flesh-and-Blood next door neighbour, Callahan.
Dream Casting: Michaela Watkins.

The Dude:
Callahan O'Shea. Despite the fact that the kooky girl next door hit him, dented his car, and got him thrown in jail - she's still pretty cute.
The Rub: Will she be able to deal with his past as an ex-con?
Dream Casting: Sam Worthington.

The Plot:

Grace: Oh no - my beautiful perfect sister and my ex-fiance are in love! That can mean only one thing - The Old Maid Pity Stare!

Grace's Family (and, apparently, Society in General): *Old Maid Pity Stare*

Grace: But wait! I have a boyfriend! A totally hot, generous, perfect boyfriend!

Callahan O'Shea: Hey, look, I bought the house next door to you --

Grace: *whacks him with a hockey stick* Shut up, you!

Grace's Family: So who is this totally hot, generous, perfect boyfriend?

Grace: Uh, um, well he's totally not at all my totally hot, generous perfect ex-con next door neighbour.

Callahan: Wait, why not?

Grace: Oh. Really?

Callahan: Sure, I like you. But you don't mind I did time in prison?

Grace: Not at all. You don't mind I lied about having a boyfriend?

Callahan: You LIED? VICIOUS DECEIVER! *leaves*

Grace: ...WTF?

Callahan: Okay, I'm sick of this obstacle already. Let's get hitched!

Grace: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Hot Ex-Con

Several Accidental Injuries

1 Nasty Grandma

Several Bad Dates

Several Fake Battles


1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

Hundreds of Glass Ladyparts

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

The Word: I have to hand it to Kristan Higgins, whose RITA-Nominated Too Good To Be True is next on my challenge: in theory, the plot could have been ridiculous, contrived, and irritating - but instead, Higgins manages to make them into an entertaining, frothy story. A classic case of sounding silly on paper but proving good on ... um, different paper? That being said, while a good book, it's not great, and there will be a spoiler-warning later on so keep your eyes open.

Yes, Grace Emerson makes up a boyfriend. She tells her friends and family that she's dating a hot, gorgeous pediatric surgeon named Wyatt Dunn and repeatedly fantasizes about what a great, adoring boyfriend he is. No, don't run away just yet! There's a reason! A good reason!

Our heroine Grace, you see, was once engaged to a man named Andrew. However, Andrew broke off their engagement three weeks before the wedding and is now dating her younger, prettier sister Natalie. Hey! I can see your eyes glazing over! It's not what you think! No, the real knife in Grace's heart is that Natalie is a loving, adoring sister, her best friend - and not only that, but Natalie and Andrew actually have the Real Thing. The main problem is guilt - the whole family (Natalie and Andrew included) feels guilty and overprotective and pitying towards Grace and Grace can't convince them that she's totally okay with it.

In part, this is because she's not okay with it, but being regarded with pity as the Abandoned Old Maid isn't helping. Not only that, but she sees the strain it's putting on Natalie and Andrew's relationship, so in comes child-saving "Dr. Wyatt Dunn" to ease her family's concerns and help Natalie and Andrew feel more comfortable. Realistically, Grace knows that she can't keep up the charade forever, so she also throws herself back into the dating pool, with less-than-stellar results.

Grace does get a flesh-and-blood romantic interest in the character of Callahan O'Shea, but really, this book is more chick-lit than romance. First of all, there is no hero POV - everything is told, first-person, by Grace. Also, Callahan doesn't get a whole lot of book time, which is a shame because he's delectable. Third, this story is all about Grace and her relationship adventures, which Callahan factors into but isn't a hero of. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't make the book bad. This is more a matter of recategorizing a novel due to content rather than quality of writing.

The main plot of Too Good To Be True is how Grace manages the fine balance between not settling for less, and not holding out for absolute perfection. Her descriptions of life with Andrew demonstrate that, while she cared about him, a lot of what she enjoyed about their relationship was the stable, settled aspect of it rather than love or passion.

At the same time, her fantasizing about the perfection of "Wyatt Dunn" causes her to overlook the very, very good aspects of Callahan O'Shea. He's hot, he's a capable carpenter, but he does come with a past: he just served nineteen months in federal prison for embezzling. Grace not only writes him off initially because of his past, but she's incredibly, even cruelly, judgmental of him, without considering his present behaviour.

However, I found myself enjoying this book because Grace is such a winsome character. She's silly, and emotionally dependent, and childish, and very flawed, but you understand the thoughts and reasoning behind her actions belong to a fundamentally good person. Higgins also creates a memorable cast of characters - all of whom manage to be "quirky" while at the same time well-rounded. I particularly like how Higgins portrays Grace's family - yes, they're kooky, but not cartoons and not unloving.

Also, I was never bothered by Grace's lie of Wyatt Dunn, not once, for her family situation is a complex and painful one that the bald truth wouldn't have fixed. It's also easier to tolerate knowing the lie isn't just for her own sake, but so that Natalie and Andrew can be happy and explore their relationship without feeling shame over Grace.

This, however, leads me to my main problem with the novel: the ending. **Here Be Spoilers!**

The ending is, to put it bluntly, a blatant cop-out that ruins the complexity and realism of the first half of the book. We get to Andrew and Natalie's wedding - and guess what? Andrew waffles and walks out on her, too! And all so we can get some wa-ha-hacky hijinks of Grace punching Andrew in the face, Grace's parents being more open about their feelings, and Natalie - hell, I have no idea what this was supposed to do about her character.

Honestly, the more I think about this ending, the angrier and more disappointed it makes me. The whole point behind the conflict at the beginning of the book, behind the fact that Andrew dumped Grace for Natalie, was that it was True Love, the "kablammy" as Grace eloquently puts it. Andrew and Natalie just couldn't help it. We even get flashbacks describing Andrew and Natalie's love for each other - as well as the fact that, for a while, they'd suffered in silence apart, unwilling to date each other for fear of wounding Grace.

Part of Grace's real anguish was the fact that she couldn't really, truly be angry at Andrew and Natalie because they so obviously cared for each other. Not to mention part of the book's charm was that there weren't any villains - just obstacles. Andrew wasn't an evil ex - just a flake and a bit of a wimp. Really, Grace was her own worst enemy. I was fully expecting Andrew and Natalie to be happily married - and Grace to be happy with herself because she bagged a hot Scot-Irishman with a criminal record.

That makes Andrew's decision at the end all the more mind-boggling. So it wasn't true love from the start? It wasn't kablammy? Grace really was dumped because she wasn't good enough? What the hell does that mean? I mean SERIOUSLY. What was accomplished by Andrew being a villain? Instead of having a rich and dramatic and original narrative situation, we're back to the old romantic saw of the Scummy Ex Who Is Always Scummy Because the Plot Demands it.

**Here Endeth the Spoilers**

Despite the good this novel has to offer, it isn't perfect. Some may find Grace a little too cloying, or be annoyed by Higgins' unfortunately-evocative depiction of Grace's "adowable" poorly-trained lapdog, or just plain ol' pissed off by Grace's high-handed treatment of Callahan at the start of the novel. Nevertheless, most of the elements of this book (except for the **end**) worked really well for me.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Heir to Sevenwaters," by Juliet Marillier

The Heroine: Lady Clodagh. One of the many daughters of the Chieftain of Sevenwaters, she contents herself with wifely tasks such as housekeeping, cooking, and organization while her mother weathers a risky pregnancy.
The Rub: Her mother gives birth to a dearly-wished-for boy, but it is just as quickly stolen away by mysterious forces - and Clodagh takes the blame.

The Supporting Cast:

Lord Sean: Gruff, useless, and not-very-supportive father of Clodagh. Holds to the "I'm very busy, go back to the kitchen" mindset.

Aidan: Clodagh's childhood friend who crushes on her pretty hardcore. Too bad he's engaged to a twelve-year-old! Also - he kicks dogs when he's angry.

Sibeal: Clodagh's younger sister. Is a seer, which results in her being an old soul a la Dakota Fanning.

Deidre: Clodagh's twin sister. Kind of dumb. Possibly a traitor.

Mac Dara: The Big Fairy Pimp Daddy of the Otherworld. Loves the ladies. Specializes in mischief and douchebaggery.

Cathal: Super-gloomy BFF to Aidan. Favourite activities: standing in the rain and hating himself.

Willow: Elderly dispenser of uselessly cryptic advice.

Fantasy Convention Checklist

1 Angsty Half-Breed

2 Negligent Fathers

1 Evil Spell

1 Magic Ring

1 Tree Baby

Several Disturbing Predictions

2 Sets of Twin Magic

The Word: The Booksmugglers and I, we have similar tastes. After all, if not for them, I would never have read Linnea Sinclair or N.K. Jemisin. However, similar is not identical, and this is one of those cases that illustrates the difference. I really looked forward to Heir to Sevenwaters, especially since it was one of their most highly-hyped books. But guess what? So was Caressed By Ice. Oh well.

Heir to Sevenwaters
was by no means a terrible book. It's solidly written. It has good detail and setting. However, the two main factors that crippled this book for me were the pacing, and the protagonists.

Let's start with the pacing first, by telling you the story. Clodagh is the daughter of Lord Sean, the Chieftain of Sevenwaters, in ancient Ireland. Christianity is taking over other parts of the island but Lord Sean keeps to the old ways and maintains the alliance with the Fair Folk who inhabit the forest of Sevenwaters and keep Lord Sean and his holdings safe. Clodagh is just one of many daughters of Lord Sean, with nary a brother in sight.

However, Clodagh's pregnant mother Aisling insists she's finally carrying a boy, a potential heir to Sevenwaters. Despite her excitement, her pregnancy is exceptionally difficult and the whole household is worried after her health, fearful neither she nor the baby may survive labour. While Aisling is confined, Clodagh takes over her mother's tasks running the household and organizing supplies. To the author's credit, Clodagh is an unusual heroine - a gentle domestic, content to remain in the background measuring the flour stores and mending the sheets.

Then Lord Sean's nephew and heir-presumptive Johnny shows up, with a host of his warriors in tow, to visit and pay his respects. Clodagh is pleased to discover that Aidan, a young man she flirted with last year, has returned in Johnny's company and seems eager to renew their acquaintance. Clodagh is less impressed by Aidan's BFF Cathal, a scowling, sarcastic and brooding jerk who seems to know things he shouldn't.

So Clodagh flirts with Aidan, spars with Cathal, and worries about her mother - and all this takes one hundred and fifty pages. That's right, a hundred and fifty pages of repetitive and unnecessary set-up before the action of the story really begins. This is why I initially put this book aside while I'd been reading it on tour - while not so bad at home, pacing this slow was unbearable when trapped on a tour bus for seven hours on end.

So, a fairly huge chunk into the book, Aisling finally has her baby, and, true to her word, it's a healthy boy that Lord Sean names Finbar. The household celebrates, but all too quickly disaster strikes. After Clodagh checks on Finbar, Cathal shows up out of the blue, kisses her, then vanishes. Clodagh only gave into the kiss for a moment, but when she checks back in on Finbar, the boy is missing - and a strange changeling baby made of bark and leaves is left in his place.

Given his sudden disappearance, Cathal is fingered as the possible culprit. Meanwhile, Clodagh endures an avalanche of blame from her family when she reveals the kidnapping, and the deluge only worsens when a maid tattles about Clodagh and Cathal's smooch. While her father isn't quite prepared to believe she's a traitor, he certainly believes she's incompetent and possibly even mad - Clodagh insists that the infant of twigs left in Finbar's crib is somehow alive, but everyone else only sees a baby-shaped pile of trash.

Similarly, Clodagh is certain that Finbar's disappearance is thanks to supernatural whims rather than political machinations, and believes that keeping the changling alive is integral to keeping Finbar alive as well. Still, no one believes her, and Clodagh knows the days they spend searching for human conspirators will mean fewer days to find Finbar. Believing she has no other choice, Clodagh takes the changeling baby and hightails it into the Sevenwaters forest to seek out the Fair Folk and see if she can return the changeling for her brother. On the way, she encounters the runaway Cathal, who offers to accompany her on her quest for reasons he prefers to keep to himself.

As I established before, this book takes way too long to get going. A slow start isn't always a deal breaker, so long as there's something else to maintain my interest. Original characters, for one. A complex political situation. Intriguing magic systems. Hell, I love Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books and the action doesn't start until page 200.

Sadly, Heir to Sevenwaters doesn't have these. I'm told this book was supposed to be a standalone, but to me it came across as very closely tied to previous books. Backstories, setting details and characters are often dealt with in an intentionally vague way, as if the author is describing something she already expects her readers to know from an earlier novel, which alienates new readers like me.

And, frankly, the two protagonists, Clodagh and Cathal, are the dampest pair of wet blankets I've ever come across, whose combined self-esteem wouldn't fill a shotglass. They're definitely made for each other, for they share the same favourite activity: blaming themselves for everything that ever goes wrong, ever. Clodagh is whiny, pessimistic and easily discouraged - however, she also earns points for the fact that she doesn't go on and on about her failings at length. I appreciated her story arc - that of the housewifey girl in the background who suddenly has to make the active choice despite how unprepared and hopeless she feels. Still, while I appreciated and sympathized with her character, I wasn't particularly entertained by her.

Cathal is even worse. A relentlessly mopey - dare I say emo? - character, he's an exaggerated cartoon of the brooding, damaged hero. He's nigh unbearable in the novel's first half due to the inconsistency of his character - while he's almost childishly eager to launch into a rehearsed speech about what a worthless and scummy doom-magnet he is, he's also required by the plot to remain mum on the personal details of his life in order to maintain his "mystery." So what we get is a man who self-indulgently blathers on about the general suckitude of his life in frustratingly vague terms but shuts down faster than an infected PC whenever Clodagh questions him on any of it. By the last third of the novel he's easier to deal with - but that's because the mystery's out and he can self-indulgently blather on about the general suckitude of his life in glorious detail instead.

If the entire book had been like the last third of Heir to Sevenwaters, I might have enjoyed it a lot more. As it is, by the time the action and the mystery and the answers and the romance finally come together, the boring slog of a set-up's rendered me too apathetic to care about any of it. Heir to Sevenwaters isn't a bad book, but it doesn't move fast enough to be a very good one, either.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mixed Chorus Spring Tour, 2010

At last, my long put-off Tour Post. Every year I tour Canada with my University Mixed Chorus, which usually turns out to be a dense nine-day slumber party/musical/social event that keeps me going for the rest of the year. This year, we had an even longer tour (ten days) because we went further east than the choir has ever gone in its 66-year history. Regular readers of mine may want to skip this post - it's rambling and badly written and pretty personal, a bit a throwback to when my blog was more like a journal than a review sight. Without further ado, here are my ramblings on the 2010 Spring Tour:

Day One - Destination: Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
Theme: Pajama Day!
It's tradition on the first day of Tour to wear our pajamas, and everyone came out in sleepy style, myself included (in a new pair of red PJs). This was bound to be a special tour, because we were going so far east, but a group of boys in the choir decided to make it an even more special tour by sporting hideous, hideous mustaches, and nicknaming one of the buses, the Bustache.

After performing the hora (the circle dance that is our traditional good-luck charm before travelling anywhere on tour), we boarded the buses (I wound up on Bob the Choir Director's bus - a first, in all the four years I've gone on tour) and headed to Saskatoon, a pretty significant drive.

Secret Pals was different this year, too - Secret Pals is kind of like Secret Santa. You give your partner (who doesn't know who you are) a series of funny tasks/pranks to perform, in exchange for a clue as to your identity throughout tour. Usually, the first day of Tour is pretty prank-free because the Secret Pals don't learn who they're pranking until then, but this year the social conveners decided to give out Secret Pal info before the tour. Impulsively, I decided to give my Secret Pal a task I'd created at random, but couldn't actually see him perform it because he wasn't on my bus.

We had a break from the long drive in Lloydminster (a city that straddles the boundary between Alberta and Saskatchewan), then continued on to Saskatoon, following the nasty, freezing rain storm all the way there. In Saskatoon, we arrived at the church venue, where we briefly rehearsed before the lovely church people fed us great lasagna and nut-free dessert (whoohoo!). People performed Secret Pal tasks throughout dinner - playing a silly song on a recorder, reciting a poem, and in one case, smashing a porcelain pig in a sock (his subsequent clue was "THERE IS NO CLUE. YOU ARE A TERRIBLE PERSON."). Afterward, we performed in the church, and after that came the billets.

Ah, billeting. So many people in the towns we go to are generous enough to give us beds and breakfasts, and I can't help but be nervous and freaked out about the experience because I'm shy around strangers and have allergies. Oh, well. I ended up billeted separately from my billet partner (on account of differing allergies, the Tour Manager said) but the woman I ended up billeted with knew NOTHING about me having allergies and had nuts throughout the house. I freaked out a bit, and at the last minute another billet took me. I ended up sleeping on a hard floor in a room full of portraits of topless women. Did not sleep well, as a result.

Day Two - Destination: Yorkton, Saskatchewan
Yorkton was an interesting day. I got a Secret Pal task - I had to make a choir mascot out of play-doh and show it to Bob (I made a Bustache - a bus with a mustache!). Long drive, and when we arrived we actually had to buy our own dinner at a Superstore and eat it in about 15 minutes before we had to be ready to perform. We ended up performing before one of our tiniest audiences ever - despite the fact that the well-intentioned pastor gave out 150 free tickets, only 25 people showed up (and we're a 70-person choir).

We then left that church to go and have a group sleep in another church. Group sleeps can be fun - it's often like a big slumber party. I played Mafia with some other choir members, washed my hair in a sink, and then set up a bunch of soft chair upon which to sleep. That very first day of Tour I'd realized I could no longer comfortably sleep on the floor the way I'd used to. My first mistake? I'd unknowingly chosen the room designated for people who wanted to stay up (there were other rooms - "quiet rooms" - for people who wanted to go to sleep early - but they didn't have soft chairs or they were already taken). I didn't truly realize the people blabbing where I was trying to sleep had no intention of going to sleep until about 2 am. Frustrated and pretty close to tears, I dragged my sleeping back into a corridor and had an incredibly unsuccessful sleep on a hard floor in an area with three doors that no one tried to close quietly.

Day Three - Destination: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Theme: Beauty and the Geek Day!

Breakfast was served by the church, and it was pretty delicious. I changed into my theme costume earlier for pictures (I was both Beauty and Geek, i.e. the Sexy Librarian, which got some great reactions), but had to change back quickly because we had a morning concert in that church to repay them for the hot chocolate and pancakes.

We drove all the way to Winnipeg that day, where the great Anglican church served us a fantastic perogy supper with sour cream and onions! Other people also dressed up for Beauty and the Geek day - including one Tenor who went about in a fluffy pink Princess dress but refused to pose for pictures.

The concert went pretty well, with Secret Pal tasks during the intermission (including a tutorial on how lions reproduce, as re-enacted by a choir member), and I got my second task, to write a poem about the German song we had to memorize about shepherding. By the end of the concert, I was running on fumes after two days of barely any sleep, and I was nervous about who I was going to be billeted with. To my everlasting relief, I ended up billeting with the friendly youth pastor, who managed to pack all four of the choir members she was billeting, and all their pillows and luggage, into her tiny car. It covered the back the window, but she informed us that rear windows were unnecessary in Manitoba.

This wonderful woman and her husband squeezed four choir members into their tiny house, and praise Jesus I got a bed! FINALLY! I fell asleep composing the lyrics of my rap.

Day Four - Destination: Dryden, Ontario

We were almost ready to leave Winnipeg in the morning - but first we had a school concert, where we perform for kids. We were running late thanks to the time-zone change that we forgot to prepare for and we had to cut a few songs short - and then we spent forty minutes doing Secret Pal tasks, ha! I did my rap (to the beat of "Lazy Sunday") and got some laughs - then the person I gave Secret Pal tasks to completed his task: he had to dress up in a cheesy fake beard and maracas and perform as the Taco Lord.

Ah yes - the Taco Lord. One of the song we have to sing in choir is a gospel song called "I'm Gonna Sing," and each verse details one of the things we do for God because we love him - I'm gonna sing, oh Lord, I'm gonna preach, oh Lord, etc. etc. And it so happens that there is a verse where we sing, "I'm gonna talk, oh lord" which sounds, when sung by many people, to sound like "taco lord." So this entire year, we've joked about the Taco Lord and his cheesy goodness, so I made my Secret Pal perform as his avatar in the circle.

We were super behind by then, so we all rushed to the bus. We dropped off our stuff in the elementary school where we were to sleep, and then the nearby church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints gave us a delicious chili supper. Then off to the concert! We had us a good sing, and then we all went back to the elementary school for another group sleep. My concerns were alleviated that night because I had the good fortune to snatch a gym mat for myself so the hard gym floor wasn't an issue. I played the game "What If?" with some choir mates and then dropped off to sleep.

Day Five - Destination: Thunder Bay, Ontario
Theme: Super Hero Day!

This was a fun day - because we had a school concert, I put most of my superhero costume on beneath the school concert uniform. Still, extra padding aside, we had a great concert. The children got really involved, and the handbell ringers came out with a surprise both for the kids and for the non-bell-playing members of choir: a performance of "It's a Small World After All" with boomwhackers. Boomwhackers are coloured plastic tubes of differing lengths that give off a different note when you bonk them against something. So essentially, the handbell ringers beat each other with sticks, musically, creating a Disney song. Awesome.

Once the performance was over, you can bet I changed into my superhero costume right away - a made-up hero called Power Pixie!

Then it was off to Thunder Bay, Ontario. On the way, we made a half-hour pitstop in a small town to raid the stores for hotel night supplies.

After that, we arrived at an absolutely GORGEOUS Presbyterian Church, had a great dinner, then performed to our biggest audience. I'm talking floor seats and balcony seats full of people who couldn't wait to give us a standing ovation. It was a great feeling, and a great precursor to Hotel Night. Yes - in Thunder Bay we had the annual night on Tour when the whole choir stays at a hotel. It was actually better this year because we were two people to a room instead of four to a room. While I certain didn't make the same mistake I made my first year of Tour (which was to stay in on Hotel Night), I didn't wander around too far, either. I stayed in pretty much the same room with a bunch of friends until I felt tired - and then I went to bed. Easy peasy, and a lot of fun without too much fuss.

Day Six - Destination: Dryden, Ontario

The morning after Hotel Night rose bright and blue - for the first time in our entire tour, during which we seemed to follow the same storm front through Eastern Canada. Needless to say, some members of the choir weren't too appreciative of the sudden onslaught of sunlight this early in the morning.

Anyway, we had some time for sightseeing in Thunder Bay so we drove to the Terry Fox memorial. Fox's run apparently ended in Thunder Bay due to the return of his illness, but there was a pretty heart-tugging memorial to him. We took some group pictures, and then we returned to the bus to continue to Dryden.

However, there was no rush today because there was no performance today - we were originally slated to perform in Kenora, but that fell through. So, our bus drivers drove us to Kakabeca Falls, where we spent a couple of hours sightseeing. It was truly a beautiful place, albeit very cruel - "I have a great idea! Let's build clearly marked bathrooms near a giant waterfall and then lock them!" The weather lasted right until the end of break. One minute it was warm, the next, the temperature fell about five degrees and the rain started falling, right when we were getting on the bus to leave again.

Once we arrived in Dryden, we set up for a group sleep in the same school we slept at the last time (which was super generous of them). We came back to find out that pictures of our last performance there were already up on their bulletin boards - wow! That was fast! They must have really liked us! The night was much more casual because there was no performance - I chose, with some friends of mine, to trek through the rain to a Wal-Mart for more supplies and, in my case, an air mattress so I wouldn't have to put up with another bare floor EVER again. Despite the rain, it was a fun trip, I got a $25 air mattress and enough food to last me through the rest of tour if all of my other billet lunches were iffy, and we all stopped and ate at an A&Ws that served rootbeer in frosted glasses.

Seriously, at least that night, that mattress was the best $25 I ever spent. I slept like a baby.

Day Seven - Destination: Brandon, Manitoba
Theme: Rainbow Brite Day (each section of the choir wears a different colour - as Soprano II, I wore red)

This was kind of a down day for me. First, we had a hugely long drive (more than six hours), and depression just sort of snuck up on me. I'd received a Secret Pal task I didn't understand and despite spreading the word that I didn't understand it, received no word and was frustrated and sad. I love getting Secret Pal tasks, and my own disappointment was starting to get to me.

After a long-ass drive, we held a pitstop at a Country Market/Buffet Restaurant type place. Because of my allergies, I decided to order off the menu instead of the buffet, which turned out to be a huge mistake. I doubt this restaurant had ever had to deal with 70 surprise diners at noon on a Thursday, and I didn't take that into account. During the forty minutes it took for my food to arrive, my mood just got worse and worse. I just wanted to curl up on the bus and cry. I felt awful and antisocial - as well as lonely and miserable for being antisocial.

I guess God tried to send me a message as I left the restaurant (alone, while we were still on break) and perused the convenience store next door, because I actually won a crane machine prize. I. Won. A crane machine prize. They never work! And, thinking wasting money would make me feel better, won a teddy bear after only three tries! How weird is that? I felt a little better after that and vowed to get my shit together.

We arrived in Brandon, set up for choir, and I lost my shit all over again. My Secret Pal contacted me and said that my task wasn't completed, despite the fact that I'd made it clear I didn't understand it. Even after hints delivered from different people, I didn't get it, and I felt frustrated all over again. I hated asking a million people the same thing! Eventually, I did get my clue - but only, I'm sure, because I was a biggest crybaby in existence and not because I'd actually completed my task - and this only made me feel worse.

After an okay performance, I was separated from my billet partner again and sent off to another house, where at least I got the bed to myself to sleep.

Day Eight - Destination: Regina, Saskatchewan

I was briefly excited because this is the city where my favourite romance author Mary Balogh lives, but then I remembered she announced she's going to Wales. Oh well. We had a school concert today with, I swear, the least enthusiastic audience I'd ever seen. Usually at school concerts, we sing a lot of songs the kids can participate and have fun in and they usually go nuts for that sort of thing. This time, the kids in Brandon were slow and inattentive and I think only a dozen out of the whole bunch danced along to our songs. Bummer!

After that it was off to Regina. We arrived and set up early, with some free time to spare, so I took off with some friends and had frozen yogurt before dinner. The church folk gave us a great dinner and a nut-free dessert! Yum! We then had some delightful Secret Pal tasks to perform. Three guys had to swallow one spoonful of unadulterated vegemite each, two had to have a rap battle about the difference between affect and effect, and one had to do a trailer voice-over about Hotel Night.

After that, it was a pretty regular performance, except during the intermission. We all have to listen for when we get the signal to line up and end the intermission, and while we were talking, the room suddenly got all hushed and quiet. Instinctively, we all looked to our assistant conductor for the signal - and caught him frozen with a piece of cake lodged in his mouth. In complete silence, he shoved the entire thing into his mouth and swallowed it - only to discover it wasn't time to line up at all. Things just got coincidentally quiet.

Billeting was also uneventful except for one of our fellow billet partners who fell down the stairs (she was fine).

Day Nine - Destination: Wainwright, Alberta
Theme: Be Your Billet Partner Day!

The day dawned bright and sunny, and we had time for some Secret Pal shenanigans before we hit the road to Wainwright, our longest drive (more than seven hours!). I'd cheered up by then and no longer decided to be bothered by Secret Pals. It was my fault I felt this way, not my Secret Pal's. We arrived in Wainwright and had an interesting dinner - after a week of junk and travel food I craved veggies with a vengeance and had so much salad I surprised myself. We sang in a room that had the worst acoustics in the world (I could only hear myself and my row, no one in front of me), but that was probably for the best since most of us were crying by the end of it, because it was our last performance of tour.

And then, we had Skit Night - the one I wrote went over well, and we had a great time up until the end, when it had to be curtailed when one of the choristers had an asthma attack bad enough to call the paramedics (she's fine). I discovered who my Secret Pal was - it was someone who, thanks to pure fate, had ended up billeted with me and seated close to me on the bus nearly the entire tour. That was why she hadn't been able to send me messages, because she hadn't had an opportunity. Yes, it turns out that, YET AGAIN, I spent tour complaining bitterly about my Secret Pal directly to my Secret Pal. And in my frustration I think I said some pretty crappy things. Needless to say I felt awful and grovelled and felt like a terrible person. I then went to sleep on my crappy cheap-ass air mattress, which I'd discovered had sprung a leak after being slept on exactly once.

Day 10 - Destination: Home

Usually, the tradition of this day is - we get up, we eat a prepackaged breakfast and then we pour ourselves onto the tour bus and sleep until we get home. This time, our tour managers had managed to get us a pancake breakfast at a church - the only problem? Thanks to a mixup the breakfast wouldn't be ready for another half an hour by the time we arrived, which meant lots of cranky waiting. Boo.

At least the pancakes were good. We got back on the bus and headed back home, everyone tired and smelly and - in my case - quite ill with a cold and a vicious sore throat that struck suddenly and left me feeling like crap warmed over. It was actually kind of funny because when I arrived back at home, it was Mother's Day and that meant a fancy restaurant with my family. I was dead on my feet and ended up drinking about a gallon of honeyed tea but I made it through okay.

So that was my tour. Described in unstructured, stream of conscious-drivel. I actually want to join choir again and have another tour to make up for how much I screwed over this one - which was supposed to be my last. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed 70% of this tour, but the rest was me whining and complaining and being a complete infant and for some reason I want a chance to do it over and behave like an adult.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Tempted All Night," by Liz Carlyle

The Chick: Lady Phaedra Northampton. When a young girl from her village goes missing in the big city, leaving her young child behind, Phaedra fears for her safety and is determined to reunite mother and child.
The Rub: All clues regarding the girl's whereabouts point to a disreputable brothel - and the only person who may be able to help her find answers is a dangerously sexy rake.
Dream Casting: Lisa Dillon.
The Dude:
Tristan Talbot, Lord Avoncliffe. A jack of all trades, but master of none, he's abandoned his spying/mercenary past to nurture a reputation as a randy good-for-nothing - but his dying father's request brings him back into the field.
The Rub: In his quest to discover the secrets behind a murder and a shady brothel, he discovers that the supposedly virtuous Lady Phaedra may have a connection to them.
Dream Casting: Matthew Goode.

The Plot:

Phaedra: I'm here to look for some knick knacks!

Kemble, Disreputable Shop Owner: Buy something from my shop and witness a murder absolutely free!

Suspicious Russian: *stabbed*

Phaedra: Crap.

Tristan's Dad: A suspicious Russian was murdered! I want you to find out why! Question the witnesses!

Phaedra: Double crap.

Tristan: You know more than you let on.

Phaedra: And you're too sexy for your own good!

Tristan: *grins*

Phaedra: I mean - what I meant to say - oh, triple crap.

Phaedra and Tristan: *SexyTimes*

Tristan: That was nice. I'm off to storm an Evil Russian Brothel!

Phaedra: I'm coming with!

Evil Russian Brothel: *defeated*

Tristan: Awesome! Let's get married!

Phaedra: No - I can't have children!

Tristan: Oh, that's easily fixed. I'll buy one for you! *does*

Phaedra: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Repressed Spinster with a Dark Past

1 Jolly Underestimated Prettyboy

1 Suspicious Russian

1 Evil Russian Brothel

1 Eviller Russian Spy-Whoremaster

1 Abandoned Baby

1 Runaway Mum

1 Supportive Half-Brother

1 Absent Ambiguously Gay Full Brother

1 Pair of Velvet Manacles

The Word: I'm a safe gal. I like consistency. When I read a book that's bad or mediocre, I like to think I'm smart for not picking up more of the author's books. But as I've repeatedly discovered, every author writes a bad book now and then and I seem to have an unfortunate affinity for finding their worse books first. This happened with Julie Anne Long, with Kate Noble, and now with Liz Carlyle. Yes, I did enjoy Never Deceive a Duke, but I figured that was the height of her prowess, especially after reading the disappointing Three Little Secrets. I still had Tempted All Night on my TBR, though.

Tempted All Night blew both those books clean out of the water. WOW. I will admit, it took me longer to read this book then her others - why? Because it turned out to be my absolute favourite type of romance, the dense, not-entirely-dark, drama-filled romances with secrets and plot. I do enjoy a frothy meringue romantic comedy now and then (from Julia Quinn, for example), but I've always preferred the devil's food cake of romances. The Laura Kinsales. The Jo Goodmans. And now, apparently, Liz Carlyle.

Lady Phaedra Northampton has kept herself separate from society. She wears drab, ill-fitting gowns. She refuses to attend balls or parties. Her featherbrained mother and younger sister gad about town preparing for the sister's coming-out, while Phaedra remains at home. And all of this is a conscious choice. Thanks to a horrific event in her past, Phaedra believes that she's too scarred to make anyone a respectable wife, and that her sexual desires are both wrong and obvious to any rake who cares to look, so she believes avoiding society is the best decision for everyone.

That's not to say she doesn't have passions beyond the sensual ones she represses with shame and guilt. Unbeknownst to her family, she's been secretly investigating the disappearance of Millie, a young servant from her village. Millie left behind her baby girl in order to seek brighter prospects in London and hasn't been seen since, and all signs point towards a brothel of spectacularly ill repute.

Despite the increasing danger of her inquiries, Phaedra refuses to go to her powerful and influential half-brother Lord Nash for help - because the father of Millie's child is none other than her absent, wastrel full-brother Tony. Thanks to what I believe were the events in Never Lie To a Lady (now on my TBR!) Lord Nash already stuck his neck out pretty damn far for Tony, and Phaedra's loathe to bring more of Tony's fuck-ups to Nash's door.

Meanwhile, Tristan Talbot is literally dragged from the bed of a beautiful married woman to attend to his dying politician father, Lord Hauxton. An anonymous Russian gent was stabbed in the street in broad daylight, but Hauxton believes he may have had ties to a Russian spy operating out of a brothel that caters to the darker side of sexual desires. Hauxton needs someone he can trust to investigate - so who better than the disreputable son who's practically made a career out of being a horny layabout with more beauty than brains?

Tristan's first job is to question the two well-bred ladies who witnessed the murder - one of whom is none other than Lady Phaedra. Tristan suspects that Phaedra isn't as uninvolved as she lets on, and tries to charm her with his famous wiles, and both are surprised by how strongly she responds.

What I loved about this pairing is the complexity of our protagonists. Phaedra may be riddled with insecurities that are not her own doing, but she's still a sympathetic and independent character. She reminds me of Charlotte from Loretta Chase's Not Quite a Lady, actually: both heroines were taken advantage of when they were too young to know better, and have spent their lives relying only upon themselves because they believe they must keep the truth about their pasts a secret even from their family in order to protect them from scandal.

Tristan is just as interesting, however. He's not the disgruntled, cynical, jaded rake who hates his father, a staple of the historical romance. He's rather that same cliche, taken apart, and embroidered with realistic layers. He does like sex, rather a lot (he propositions Phaedra no fewer than three times in the novel, believing she's a different woman each time), but he's not a terrible misogynistic ass about it. While he does have a title, he refuses to answer to it (claiming Avoncliffe sounds like something from a bad romance - a dig at Avon Publishing?), introducing himself simply as Mr. Talbot.

His sense of self-worth and his relationship with his father are written in a similarly unorthodox manner. The product of an impulsive, improvident marriage that ultimately crippled his ambitious father's political career, Tristan doesn't hate his father (nor vice versa), but there is always this looming gulf between them, the inescapable fact that neither is what the other wanted, and that it's now far too late to change anything. I can't tell you how much I appreciated that the father wasn't turned into a one-dimensional clown of a villain (especially just after reading It's In His Kiss).

As well, the murder-suspense element of the plot works just fine - it doesn't suck the air from the romance, it's neither stupid nor overly complicated, and it also keeps the pacing moving forward at a nice clip. Liz Carlyle never forgets that the suspense is meant to further the romance, to throw the characters together and force them to reevaluate their emotional boundaries, not the other way around.

Most important is how wonderfully and richly the romance between Tristan and Phaedra develops - between the man who's cultivated a wastrel reputation to mirror his own dissatisfaction with himself, and the woman who's kept herself isolated to shield her secrets. Their relationship develops slowly, and many issues (notably Tristan's growing emotional dependence on her, and Phaedra's fear of desire) must first be explored and overcome. The romance itself is nothing special - the vibrant and multifaceted characters are what make it special and poignant. Yes, Phaedra learns to get her groove on, and Tristan learns to love himself as he loves Phaedra, but by being complex, three-dimensional characters dealing with real problems, their development is subsequently richer and more meaningful.

I'll definitely be reading more of Liz Carlyle from now on.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"It's In His Kiss," by Julia Quinn

The Chick: Hyacinth Bridgerton. The youngest Bridgerton would like to get married, but she's so overpoweringly awesome no other man can possibly keep up with her.
The Rub: How dare that Gareth St. Clair keep up with her! That jerk!
Dream Casting: Felicity Jones.

The Dude: Gareth St. Clair. After inheriting his grandmother's diary, he needs someone to translate - and if the lovely (if crazy) Hyacinth volunteers to translate, what's harm?
The Rub: Thanks to a secret only he and his cruel father know, Gareth's unworthy of Hyacinth's hand.
Dream Casting: Ryan Phillipe.

The Plot:

Hyacinth: Hi! I'm overpoweringly annoying!

Gareth: I see your Overpoweringly Annoying and raise you one Case of Daddy Issues.

Hyacinth: I see your Daddy Issues and raise you one Overestimated Sense of Self-Importance.

Gareth: I see your Overestimated Sense of Self-Importance and add an Offer of Marriage.

Hyacinth: I fold!

Gareth: HOO--

Gareth's Asshole Dad: I see your Offer of Marriage and raise you Overt Manipulation.

Hyacinth: You were bluffing?
Gareth: Crap.

Hyacinth: Know when to run, tough guy!

Gareth: Raise you one set of Endearing Personal Insecurities??

Hyacinth: Oh, all right.

Gareth: Royal flush! Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Secret Bastard

1 Italian Diary

1 Set of Hidden Jewels

1 Crotchety Old Grandma

1 Inconveniently Dead Dad

1 Inconveniently Alive Non-Dad

The Word: People warned me about this book, but I haven't always agreed with the general reviews of Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series. Many fans say that Romancing Mr. Bridgerton is the best of the lot and everything is downhill from there. I disagreed on two counts - first, I thought Romancing was unoriginal and cutesy and a huge let down (An Offer from a Gentleman remains my fave), and second, When He Was Wicked (a later novel) wasn't that bad. Not bad at all, actually. So while I had some reservations about It's In His Kiss, I still took the warnings from commentators and fans with a grain of salt.

So now I have a salty crappy book instead of a regular crappy book, I guess. Julia Quinn tends to dance a fine line with her "spirited" female characters. Spunkyville is only just up the road from ShutTheFuckUp Town, after all, and while some of her heroines (Daphne, Kate, Sophia, Francesca) can stay on the beaten path, others (Eloise and Penelope) traipse down that hill with wild abandon and drive me absolutely bonkers.

Hyacinth Bridgerton, the youngest of the Bridgertons, is the Mayor of STFU Town. The entire book is actually based around the fact that she's a crazy annoying, egotistical control-freak narcissist (or, as it's more commonly known in Julia Quinn land, "intelligent"), and only "special" people can tolerate - er, I mean, understand the real her. She's been through several seasons already and is still inexplicably popular but she hasn't found a husband yet and she's starting to wish for one.

Meanwhile, we have Gareth St. Clair, a young man cursed with an irrational cartoon villain of a father. In the prologue, Gareth learns that Lord St. Clair isn't his real father at all, but because he was born within the bounds of wedlock, the baron was forced to acknowledge him. Because of that, his father has treated him like dirt. By the time the rest of the novel opens, their relationship has worsened - with Gareth's older (and legitimate) brother dead, Gareth stands to inherit the St. Clair estates, and to prevent this from happening, Lord St. Clair is determined to mire his faux-son in debt.

The possible answer to Gareth's money problems may be his paternal grandmother's diary, but it's written in Italian and he needs a discreet translator he can trust. Why not choose the overwhelmingly smug and spoiled brat you barely know who isn't even fluent in Italian? Brilliant! Okay, okay, so Gareth and Hyacinth share one degree of separation - Bridgerton family friend Lady Danbury is Gareth's maternal granny so they're not total strangers, but still.

Seen in hindsight, the romantic development of It's In His Kiss is superficially similar to Mary Balogh's Slightly Scandalous. Both plots involve heroines who are so awesome (or at least believe they're so awesome) that the only man who can satisfy them is the one man who can take them down a peg. The only problem is that Balogh does a much better job of convincing the reader that Freyja Bedwyn is The Shit, whereas Quinn's Hyacinth just comes off as, well, shit.

If I want to dig into the subtle differences, I would have to say the main reason I preferred Freyja's particular brand of Crazy is because Slightly Scandalous explores both the upside of Freyja's confidence as well as the downside - such as her haughty, unforgiving and sometimes even cruel behaviour (particularly her views on her ex's new wife). She's confident and content with who she is but she's also flawed (and she can acknowledge that she's flawed), and she develops towards the end of the novel without compromising her character.

With Hyacinth, I got the impression that the novel was trying make her Batshit Insane while still Romance Heroine Perfect, and the two don't mesh. Hyacinth's behaviour is just seen as "quirky" without dealing with the negative implications (such as her complete self-absorption) and she doesn't change or develop or alter her behaviour beyond the Captain Obvious "If I Want a Smart Husband I Better Stop Pissing Off the Smart Dudes Who Hit On Me" decision. I know it's a balance - the heroine has to be proud of who she is, but still, everyone has problems and everyone has room to improve and in this case Hyacinth has about 100 fully-furnished rooms to fill with improvement. But nooooo, she's just Perfect Bonkers Hyacinth and it's everyone else's job to adapt themselves to fit her crazy rather than the other way around.

As well, when it comes to the romantic interaction, Freyja's interactions with the cunning Joshua are hilarious setpieces of forceful emotional and verbal combat, and Freyja enjoys herself even when she ends up on the losing end. In this way, Freyja and Joshua come across as equals. With Hyacinth and Gareth, she's petty and whines about how Gareth makes her feel small and stupid, which inspires her to do childish, petty things. This makes Hyacinth the child and Gareth the adult, and the power imbalance makes their interactions dull.

Gareth has some interesting moments as he does battle with his faux-father, and they're obviously supposed to be deep "why can't I act like an adult?" moments, but I can't help but feel his struggles would have been more poignant if his dad had been more than a ridiculously one-note villain. None of the characters ring particularly true in this novel. It's In His Kiss is like reading a very elaborate comic strip. Julia Quinn cut her teeth on stories that chose humour and personal drama over giant epic setpieces and elaborate plot devices, but in this instance, there's simply not enough story to go around and so we get repetitive and cutesy and whining banter between characters who have been exaggerated in order to seem more interesting.

Avoid this one, folks.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"Rewriting Monday," by Jodi Thomas

The Chick: Pepper Malone. When an indiscreet mistake causes her big-city journalism career to implode, she takes a dead-end job working at the smalltown Texas paper The Bailee Bugle to give herself some breathing room.
The Rub: Pepper has no intention of growing roots, but as the Bugle comes under attack from a mysterious man with a grudge, she discovers she cares about the town - and especially its reclusive newspaper editor - far more than she thought.
Dream Casting: Liv Tyler.

The Dude: Mike McCulloch. Family duty stuck him in the editor's chair at The Bailee Bugle, but for the last ten years he's only been going through the motions.
The Rub: A hot-shot reporter from Chicago could be just the person to convince him the cards life dealt him aren't as bad as he thought.Dream Casting: Scott Patterson.

The Plot:

Pepper: I need a job, I guess. I don't really care.

Mike: Sure, take this job, I guess. I don't really care.

Dastardly Deeds: *are done*

Pepper: This must be my fault!

Mike: This must be my fault!

Pepper: Why am I caring about people now? It's so uncomfortable and itchy!

Mike: Why do I care about Pepper? She's just going to leave!

Very Bad Man: Nyaahahaha! Don't mind me, I'm just hear to provide contrived plot and conflict!

FBI Dude: Um, no.

Very Bad Man: *defeated*

Pepper: Okay, I'll stay.


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Rootless Big-City Heroine

1 Sad-Sack Small-Town Hero

1 Secondary Romance

1 Precocious Child

1 Tidy Bakery

Several Nasty Pranks

1 Evil Ex

1 Big Ol' Coverup

2 Feisty Senior Citizens

The Word: Reading Rewriting Monday, my first book by Jodi Thomas, was an interesting experience. Reviewing it will be even more interesting, since, thanks to my Choir Tour, it's been more than a week since I read it. While it has some good things going for it and it looked like it had the sort of characters I normally love, Rewriting Monday had a number of glaring flaws.

In the book's introduction, our heroine Pepper Malone crawls into the teeny-tiny town of Bailee, Texas, with her former hot-shot-journalist tail between her legs. Back in Chicago, she'd made the incredibly boneheaded mistake of turning her ex-boyfriend's pillowtalk into an embarrassing expose. Her superiors, thinking she'd earned her story on her back, fired her, and her ex's influential family threatened to do even worse.

Disgraced and nearly broke, she decides to hide out in her mother's hometown to lick her wounds and wait out the shitstorm her life's turned into. However, she has no intention of sticking around permanently, or getting to know the people, or establishing any kind of connection.

In order to pay the bills and continue to eat, however, she applies for a job with The Bailee Bugle, a town weekly paper edited by Mike McCulloch. In a town where everyone knows everyone, Mike is an odd duck, a reclusive, anti-social single dad who's content to spend his days in his office and his nights raising his orphaned niece. Mike's not very forthcoming, but with some digging Pepper finds out that Mike grew up in the shadow of his hometown-hero brother Dave, only to have his own independence cut short when his brother died and family tradition dictated that he take over The Bugle as editor as his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather did before him.

"Content" is probably the wrong word for Mike. Emotionally, Mike's running on fumes. In true George Bailey style, he feels like family duty derailed the life he really wanted. He never chose to be editor, he never chose to stick in Bailee, but a hundred years of tradition and his guilt over his brother's sudden death keep his ass in the editor's chair. The only thing in his life that he doesn't regret is his rambunctious 13-year-old niece, the only family he has left.

Normally, even in a town the size of a postage stamp, Mike and Pepper would have no reason to interact beyond work, but all unwittingly, when Pepper becomes a Bugle employee, she becomes involved in a sinister and escalating war between The Bugle and a nefarious individual who wants the newspaper put to bed - for good. Pepper initially fears that whoever is vandalizing the building, leaving phone threats, and injuring the other writers is doing so at her ex's behest, but Mike fears the man may have a personal grudge against him. These two people, who have intentionally isolated themselves, find they have to rely on each other, and a slow-burning, very sweet romance develops. For the most part.

I should like Pepper and Mike's romance. I think. It's pretty unconventional by romance standards - a schlubby, shy, and nerdy hero paired with a promiscuous, commitment-fearing heroine. But it's like both characters sort of crossed the line until their own unconventional characteristics become unpleasant. Pepper avoids emotional ties pathologically, but I never felt she had enough motivation to explain the extent of her commitment-phobia. A+ books Going Too Far and How To Knit a Wild Bikini both have seriously isolated heroines that I loved, because they were more developed so their isolation and enforced apathy is sympathetic. I felt Jodi Thomas' treatment of Pepper's isolation was more shallow, and thus many times Pepper comes across as selfish and careless.

I mean, yes, her dad died and she was dumped in boarding school, but how does that explain absolutely no friends, no trusted colleagues and three broken engagements? The novel explains none of this - and if you're reading this book right now and are holding out for when we find out the details behind this supposedly "embarrassing" story of Pepper's that ruined her career, don't bother. We never really learn what she published and we never hear from her ex again until, in the purest of contrivances, he briefly appears to provide a paltry page-long romantic rivalry before vanishing once again.

Similarly, I have an addiction to sweet, slow-moving and underestimated heroes, so Mike should have been catnip, right? The bookworm little brother to the golden-boy football star who went off to war. The schmuck who ended up doing all of the work, with none of the fame that should have come with it. The thing is, like many aspects of this novel, he just takes it a little too far, crossing the fragile barrier between brooding and sad-sack. Mike is just a little too depressing and empty and dull. I sort of wondered why he'd just sat there for ten years instead of doing something if he was so miserable. The novel sells his trapped existence so well that by the end of the novel I'm not totally convinced of his happiness.

Neither of these characters were terrible, but if they'd just been a tad more subtle and underplayed they might have been great. It's a similar deal with the secondary romance, which plays out in a much more conventional fashion between a sugary-sweet baker who's as flaky and weak as her pastries and her gruff FBI ex-husband who's Too Manly To Make Friends.

There is good to this novel, though. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Bailee - a town that only seems small and insignificant to a big-city gal like Pepper. As Pepper begins to research into the town's history to find something, anything newsworthy, she discovers a wealth of kind and brave acts that built the town up into what it was. The suspense plot (I wouldn't really call in a mystery) was also well done, smoothly integrated into the plot and a constant threat, but still allowing for the characters to develop and actually have some, you know, fun. The supporting cast (at least those that weren't trying to knock boots) were all endearingly portrayed - each possessing enough colour and depth to be memorable without overwhelming the story with quirkiness.

While this was by no means a terrible, or even unentertaining novel, I will have to say I was less than satisfied. While the setting was good and the romantic pairing was unconventional, I wish the main characters had either been downplayed, or provided with enough character development and motivation to justify the extent of their foibles.