Review: Not Quite a Lady by Loretta Chase

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Now I know why Loretta Chase is the go-to author when converting new readers to the wonders of Romancelandism.

There is so much I could say that is good about this book. Not only was it incredibly well-written, but the characters were believable and engaging. Nothing took me out of the story, and that’s pretty amazing, especially considering that this is a Secret Baby book. I felt a flat-out, completely cynicism-free enjoyment of the story that I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

Lady Charlotte Hayward has a terrible secret — when she was seventeen, she fell in love with a rake and became pregnant by him. Unfortunately for her, he is killed in a duel (over another woman, no less) and she is left to face the scandal of a bastard child alone. Her stepmother, Lizzie, takes Charlotte away to the country, where the baby boy is born in secret and given to a clergyman and his wife who had been unable to have children of their own. Charlotte’s father, Lord Lithby, remains unawares of her plight, thinking his daughter is suffering from the same “wasting illness” that claimed her mother’s life a year before. Immensely grateful that scandal was diverted and ashamed of her actions, Charlotte devotes herself over the next ten years to being the best Lady she can possibly be. She lives in terror of her wedding night, when her husband will find out her shame and either her marriage will be ruined or scandal will erupt. To try to circumvent this she has become an expert in Not Getting Married, at least until she meets Darius Carsington.

Darius Carsington is the youngest son of the Earl of Hargate, and a devoted man of science. His particular area of expertise is the mating practices of animals; an expertise he puts into practice with the loose women of London society. He’s a slave to Logic and only has one rule regarding the women he beds — Don’t Sleep With Virgins. He has lived a relatively carefree life, but his father has given him an ultimatum. Either he turns around Beechwood Estate, which has been in Chancery for the past decade and is therefore falling apart, in one year’s time or he has to marry. Darius takes the challenge and finds himself next-door-neighbor to Lady Charlotte, who he can’t quite figure out.

I obviously can’t do justice to the plot or the characters in this review. When cut down to a few sentences of description they read like so many cliches, but on the pages they come to ferocious life, taunting and teasing and tumbling into piles of dirty laundry. While other readers more familiar with the Regency Romance genre may find these cliches to read tiredly despite Ms. Chase’s amazing writing, to me they were fresh and funny and new. And the dialogue — oh, the dialogue! It’s witty and dry without being over-the-top and there were several times that I laughed out loud. For example, when Lady Charlotte is reading some old love letters she found in a trunk and starts crying:

“I am not afraid of weeping,” came a deep voice from somewhere in the watery blur.

She looked toward the sound.

“My brother Rupert is not afraid of snakes, scorpions, or crocodiles, but he is afraid of weeping women,” Mr. Carsington said as he entered the room and gently closed the door behind him. “It is a terrifying sight, calculated to unman the stoutest-hearted fellow. Yet I am not afraid. I come armed.” He drew out a handkerchief.

Or after Darius dumps a pile of dirty laundry on Charlotte to hide her from the prying eyes of the local harridan:

He hastened to the heap of dirty linen in the corner.

An apron caught him in the face.

He saw Lady Charlotte’s upflung hand before he saw the rest of her.

The household linens and items of attire became a writhing mass as she struggled to extricate herself.

She sat up, sputtering, a pair of his drawers on her head. “You,” she said. “You.

He bit his lip. He coughed. He snickered. And finally, he let it out, a great whoop of laughter.

She scowled at him. “I was afraid to breathe,” she said. “Then my nose itched, and I dared not scratch it. Then –”

She broke off, glaring at him — no doubt because he must be grinning like an idiot.

“What?” she said. “What?”

“On your head,” he said. “My drawers.”

She looked up.

“You have my drawers on your head,” he said.

A pause.

Then, “Oh that,” she said. “Yes. I do that sometimes. Wear drawers on my head. It’s one of those interesting habits one gets to know about the other person as one gets to know the other person.”

“I should not wear them outside if I were you,” he said.

I loved how Darius and Charlotte talked about things to each other, and how Big Misunderstandings were avoided even though the potential for them was there. Yes, it was a little contrived how Pip comes back into their lives. Yes, the villain wasn’t particularly devious, just a little misguided (heck, I could see him as the hero of another book). Yes, her father must be dense to not have figured things out. But still, it was a good read, a solid story with excellent writing and strong characters.

Ms. Chase does such a brilliant job of capturing how people think and speak that it reads as real as anything I’ve ever read. She is certainly one of the best authors of our time and I hope she gets the recognition she deserves. I will be looking up her backlist.

This one definitely gets an A+.


Review: Putting on the Dog by Cynthia Baxter

Putting on the Dog
I am a longtime lover of the cozy mystery. I cut my teeth on Aggies (Agatha Christie and Agatha Rasin) and still want to move to Locdubh and solve mysteries with Hamish. Or maybe go burgling with Bernie. I had been looking for new reading material and vaguely remembered Wendy recommending a book about a woman with a weird cat solving murders. I spotted Cynthia Baxter’s books and thought they sounded about right, so I picked up Putting on the Dog. Unfortunately, I picked up the wrong book — the one I vaguely remembered was actually Killer Cruise by Laura Levine. While I could have been pleasantly surprised and found a new series to lovingly follow anyway, that was unfortunately not the case.

Ms. Baxter is actually quite the competent, if not excellent, author. I enjoyed her writing style quite a bit, and I liked her use of the first person POV (I may be in the minority on that one). The first chapter or two I was hooked, lapping up every sentence like a cat laps up cream. The only problem I really had with the writing was the constant reference to Max’s and Lou’s (the dogs) breeds — after the first couple of mentions, it became redundant. The main character is witty, her insights are funny, I could sink right into the narrative. Then, all of a sudden, I just couldn’t keep reading. It’s not a wallbanger like Dark Lover was, there was no sense of disgust when I set the book aside. In fact, I think I’ll pick up a different book in the series at some point to try reading this again.

What got to me was an accumulation of small, seemingly insignificant details that built up to the point where I didn’t really care whodunit anymore (which is weird for me — I can’t stand not knowing what happens). First there’s Chess, who is a cardboard cutout of a flaming homosexual. I know there’s people out there like that — I’ve met a few, for that matter — but his character just seemed like a stereotype for stereotyping’s sake. And after a few interactions between the heroine, Jessica Popper, and Chess, Jessica started seeming like a bit of a prude. She’s made extremely uncomfortably by his nipple ring. Granted, I wouldn’t want to stare at someone’s, but the squick factor isn’t as large as Jessica makes it out to be. Then there’s the boyfriend, Nick. When he first enters the story, the way he’s described makes me think he’s a total loser. It was hard to see what Jessica saw in him, especially when the alternative, Shawn Elliot, is described so much and so attractively. Granted, I know the tropes and it’s likely (although I’ll never find out) that Shawn turned out to be the murderer or some such, but he still seemed so much nicer and more hero-like than Nick. One of the big things that made me stop reading was Jessica’s interactions with Nick — I got to the point where reading about her making the obviously wrong choice for the umpteenth time would make me pull out my hair. She consistently neglects Nick, saying she really loves him and such but deliberately choosing to spend time with Shawn or go on “dates” with busboys to try to find out more about the murder. She knows her relationship is on the rocks but she still acts in ways that she even acknowledges will drive the wedge in further. And, to top it all off, she has sparkling Mary Sue level interpersonal skills, instantly befriending and then immediately taking advantage of nearly everyone she meets. I wanted to reach through the pages and strangle her — or maybe smack some sense into the poor schmuck she was manipulating. But those were all taste issues, and what didn’t work for me could be someone else’s mana from heaven.

Also, could we stop with the idiot arrogant cops stereotype? I know that there has to be some compelling reason for the protagonist to be trying to solve the mystery on their own, but I am so sick of seeing law enforcement portrayed this way. Yes, some cops care more about closing the case than what actually happened. And some are stupid, certainly. But there are intelligence and aptitude requirements to become a police officer, and it is extremely challenging and very coveted to become a detective. It would be nice to see that reflected more often in fiction.

Overall, this book had a lot of potential and got off to a great start, but turned into a DNF less than halfway through. It’s mostly a matter of taste, so I will be looking for other books and other primary protagonists from this author, and don’t let this review deter you from checking it out for yourself. Final Grade: Did Not Finish.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Ruminations on Superhero Universe Creation

We went to X-Men Origins: Wolverine this weekend, and although it was a good movie, it got me thinking about both the nature of the comic book universe and the X-men universe in particular. Any movie, comic, novel, or what-have-you reflects the cultural mores of the time and the atmosphere of the time it was created in. As time goes on the way that we view certain things can change greatly, and that can greatly affect how the audience reacts to the media they are viewing.

Now, let me start by saying that my experience with the X-Men universe is limited to the movies and some brief explanations by my husband from his comic-reading youth. So in a way I am looking at the X-Men movies completely out of context from the rest of the series and am instead viewing them in context of the world today. Considering that X-Men takes place in a universe that differs from our own mainly in the existence of mutants, I, as a non-fan, would expect people in said universe to react to certain things much the same as people in our world. Thus, the behaviors and reactions of the characters and the general populace of the X-Men world does not necessarily make sense to me because their reactions are not those that I would expect from people today in our world.

This isn’t because of any fundamental issue with the X-Men universe (although they need to get their timeline straight), but rather an issue inherent to any series that is published over a very long period of time. While we as a society change and grow at a rapid pace in the real world, the characters in these long-running series generally stay close to the same age or do age, but at a much slower rate than the time that is passing between issues. For example, X-Men was created in 1963, at the height of the Cold War; long before computers became household appliances and shuttle missions became old hat. Nuclear annihilation hung on the horizon and was a very real possibility, and society was very different because of that. The government was actively engaged in secret tests of every sort that stretched and often broke the bounds of ethics. Naturally, the distrust of the government and fear of nuclear war at the very least influenced the construction of the society in the original X-Men, not to mention the social shunning of anyone different that was common at that point in time. As the years progressed the comics could adapt themselves to the times, somewhat, but the very bones of the story still kept their original forms.

Which brings me to the movies. The movies themselves are set in a time that seems to be very similar to our own. However, the illusion breaks down when some of the characters behave in what seems like an anachronistic manner.

Think of it this way: in this day and age, everyone is obsessed with being politically correct. Can you imagine if mutants were discovered/started developing today? They’d probably get spots on Oprah where she gushes over how difficult life is for them. The military would probably openly recruit mutants, most likely giving bonuses for more useful powers. None of this hush-hush stuff, either; they’d want the largest number recruited possible, which would mean plenty of mutant-recruitment-oriented publicity. Pro sports? Please. They would be all over mutants like white on rice. There’d probably be a congressional hearing on whether letting mutants play is the same as steroid use. There would be issues with whether mutants are covered by ADA and whether being a mutant is semantically the same as being disabled. They’re not disabled, they’re “differently abled,” seriously. How many class action lawsuits would be brought against major corporations or the government for causing the mutations through pollution/harmful chemicals/inaction/whatever? Most teenagers would be waiting anxiously for their powers to show up, and the ones without would probably go the same way the fake-fang-vampire-wannabes do in our world. Not to say life would be cushy for mutants, but in a way they would form a super-culture, rather than a subculture, one that is lauded and emulated by those not in it.

My point is that the X-Men universe, when taken in context of its Cold War era creation, makes a good deal of sense for the society that existed at the time. However, like many similarly long-running series, when it tries to keep up with the times, it actually loses some of its original punch. In a way it is best for series like that to stay at a fixed time in their alternate universe and neglect bringing in elements from today’s culture; the story will read more authentically and it helps to keep the timeline straight.

Which brings me to two other comments: first, the timeline for X-Men confuses the heck out of me. I think it’s because so many artists and writers have worked on the story over the years, adding and removing details as necessary for their tenure on the line. What I really wish comic artists/authors/creators/Stan Lee would do is write out the personal history for each significant character in advance. I know it’s a lot of work but it would really help to keep cannon cannon and to keep the audience from going “Huh?” Also, I would love to see a version of the X-Men where all the powers are kept a little more reasonably within the realm of science. Some of the characters are within the realm of plausibility but others jar me right out of the story because their powers are so absurd. I can suspend disbelief quite a bit, if you go the science-is-magic-and-we’re-not-going-to-explain-it route (like Star Wars before they mentioned the midichlorians) but when you start to give a scientific explanation and then throw logic and reality out the window I start raising my eyebrow. Then again, I may be in the minority on that one.

In any case, it was a good movie, by far one of the best in the series (I like the first about as much if not better and the only reason I like the second is because of Nightcrawler. The third made me go OMGWTFBBQ). If you’ve got the money and aren’t paralyzed by fear of the swine flu then by all means see it. I will say it’s rather dark, though — probably not good kiddie fare. Final grade: 3.5 out of 5 stars

On Fandoms

The other day, while watching Bones and NCIS, I got to thinking about Rule 34 of the internet. For those of you who don’t know, Rule 34 states that if it exists, somewhere on the internet there is porn of it. Dual thoughts struck me: first, that somewhere out there there’s a Duckie/Gibbs slash fic and I really don’t want to find it, and that the idea of there being a fandom for either Bones or NCIS seemed really strange. The only thing stranger would be a fandom for Law and Order. There probably are plenty of fan shrines to all of the aforementioned shows and their characters out there, but they aren’t exactly fandom material. When contrasting Bones, NCIS and the various reincarnations of Law and Order with other shows and comics and books that have huge, thriving fandoms, I discovered several key points that appear to be necessary to the creation of a strong fandom.

1. The world setting and plot must be epic in scope. Look at Star Wars, Star Trek, the Harry Potter series, the X-men universe, the Naruto universe, and the Bleach universe. Each of those series is set in a world is at stake if the hero(es) doesn’t succeed and where there are many, many ancillary characters that pass through over the course of the story. This makes it easy for fans to come up with their own characters and relatively smoothly introduce them to the cannon characters without really changing the overall plot. If you look at Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, however, the stories are more episodic in nature with the occasional overarching plot, and the cast of characters are fairly small and tightly-knit. In order to create and introduce a fan character into one of these settings, you would have to change either the cannon setting or characters.

2. The world setting is lush and unique. Star Wars, Star Trek, Naruto, etc, all take place in a world that is not like our own in some key way. Even Bleach and Harry Potter, which take place partially in a world almost identical to ours, depart from reality in significant ways. This allows the fan some creative freedom in their fanworks. Contrast this with Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, which all take place pretty much in the real world and in a very rule-bound portion of it. It puts far more of a limit on the fan creations.

3. Characters have special powers. What’s more appealing to the reader/viewer than the idea that they are special in some way? In the series/books/etc with the strongest, largest fandoms, characters have or develop special powers or talents above the norm. Fans who create their own characters can give them special powers as well and therefore feel special vicariously. In Bones or NCIS or Law and Order, there are no special powers (unless you consider being a genius a special power; and for a fan to create a genius character requires some specialized knowledge on their part, therefore making it far more difficult).

4. The cannon characters follow archetypes. This appeals to us because we love seeing the noble hero, the tortured hero, the wise old man (or Vulcan), and so on. In Bones/NCIS/L&O the archetypes are more subtle because the characters are supposed to be “real” people.

5. Additional plot is easily worked in, as in a “quest” style plot or an epic in scope plot. This comes back to the creativity of the fan. Also, Bones/NCIS/L&O are all mystery series, and it is quite complicated to come up with new and intriguing mysteries for the characters to solve. Not that fans can’t, but it is far more of a challenge.

In any case, I’m not a sociologist or English lit prof or psychologist or any of that, so take my musings with a grain of salt. I also don’t think fandoms are necessarily a bad thing, although sometimes they do get crazy. But it is interesting to examine them and try to figure out just why they are so special.

Review: Fool by Christopher Moore

Fool website

Well, at least I was warned.

The inside dust jacket (as well as the front of the webpage and a few other places) of Fool bears a cute little warning:

“This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that’s the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!”

and I have to agree, this book certainly reaches “unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity.” I didn’t do an accurate count but it seemed like some variant of spooge/spunk/giz/gizm/etc appeared on every single page, sometime multiple times. And some of the relationships — oy. This is definitely not a book for the faint of heart, weak of stomach or otherwise easily disturbed. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, however.

This retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear follows Pocket, the Black Fool and jester at King Lear’s court, as he struggles to set things right after Lear divides the British kingdom between his two spiteful daughters and banishes his loving daughter. When Lear devises an idiotic plan to split up his kingdom amongst his daughters based on how much they say they love him, his daughters Goneril and Regan spin lies while his youngest daughter Cordelia, whom Pocket loves dearly, thinks the whole test is a load of bupkus and says as much. Lear banishes Cordelia for speaking the truth, then banishes his staunch supporter Lord Kent for defending her. Pocket, though he views Lear as a father figure, is rightfully pissed off and sets out to make things right. And after quite a bit of subterfuge, magic, mud, and (as Christopher Moore would say) fuckwittery, he does. Sort of.

The story itself isn’t bad. The plot is satisfyingly twisty and the characters are fully realized. Considering that it’s pulled from Shakespeare a happy ending isn’t guaranteed, which adds some suspense to the reading. The footnotes are humorous and helpful, since some of the language sprinkled in is Old English and some is just British slang that American readers might not recognize. The anachronistic references — a specialty of Christopher Moore’s that worked very well in Lamb — and quasi-fourth-wall-breaking comments were hilarious, like the bit about how “there’s always a bloody ghost.” And the voice the story is written in, which is a Moore trademark, is humorous as always.

What got to me, however, was the amount of sex and wanking that went on. It was nearly constant and some of it was frankly rather icky. Not to mention the people Pocket has slept with — not only has he slept with Regan and Goneril, Cordelia’s half-sisters, but also (minor spoiler alert) Cordelia’s mother. And the laundry wench. And the kitchen wench. And some random wench in the great hall. And…well, the list goes on. Add to this Drool, Pocket’s assistant, wanking off to or humping just about anything that moves (and some things that don’t), and the descriptions of the quantities of spooge resulting from said wanking and humping, and you have a book that I very nearly put down forever after the first couple of chapters. Thankfully, the first few chapters are the worst in that regard, and after I got past them and the plot really started moving I was able to suppress the squick factor and enjoy the story.

Also, I wish the author’s note had been at the beginning instead of the end, because knowing that he had used bits and pieces from other Shakespeare plays (most notably the witches from MacBeth) would have saved me quite a bit of confusion.

Overall, this book is worth reading if you enjoy Christopher Moore’s humorous voice and if you don’t mind the squicky bits. It’s definitely not his best work — for me, his best is still Dirty Job followed closely by Lamb and Blood Sucking Fiends — but it is better than some of his others (I never did like Fluke that much. There was a lot of spooge in that one too — anyone else see a pattern here?) I give it a final grade of B-/C+.

Review: Dark Lover by J.R. Ward

Dark Lover website

When I picked this book up at the library, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had seen all the internet jesting about the ohveruhse ohf thhe lehtter “H” and some other bits and pieces, but I had also seen that the Black Dagger Brotherhood books have a devoted following, including some of the jesters. So I checked it out from the library, determined to find out what the fuss was about. As it stands I still don’t know. I never finished it.

The idea of a bunch of hulked-up, super-powered, ludicrously-named, hundred plus year old vampires talking in modern slang seemed…well, laughable, but I was willing to let that slide and just enjoy the story. Equating evil with impotency and the smell of baby powder (lolwut) was actually an interesting idea, though one I’m sure I’m missing something on (like the reason for the smell). Wrath musclesploding when he went through the change was funny as heck to me (though I don’t think that was intentional, but it did work for the world building) I suppose.

But all of that I could forgive for the sake of the story, for the sake of a few laughs and an enjoyable read. What made me nearly peg the book into the wall were the vigilante cop, the soulmate-as-consent and the bad timing of the sex. I am so sick of seeing cops in fiction taking the law into their own hands. Not only is that a completely inaccurate depiction of law enforcement — Butch would have been off the force and in jail faster than you can say “fhail” — but it feeds into the mentality that a) cops are the bad guys and you’ll get beat up for just about anything, and b) it’s acceptable for cops to behave that way because the justice system doesn’t work. I have friends and family in law enforcement and let me tell you, that bothers them as much as it does me. Behavior like Butch’s is the reason that cops’ hands are more and more tied when it comes to defending themselves. As far as the soulmate-as-consent bit, I’d like to refer you all to the Smart Bitches take on that topic. Which brings us to the timing of the sex scenes. I wish I could remember better — I flung this back at the library a while ago — but the sex scenes took place after incredibly depressing discussions, or after the heroine learned of her father’s death, or a big fight or something similarly not-happy-in-the-pants-making. It may have just been me but this left me feeling dirty and a bit disgusted.

And does every male character in the book have to be built like a Mac truck?

Not that J.R. Ward isn’t a good writer; in fact, despite their timing, her sex scenes are smokin’ hot. And the world building is interesting, to say the least. In fact, I think I’d be willing to read one of the other BDB books if someone recommended it to me. And for many, many others out there, Dark Lover may be their most cherished and beloved book. But for me, this book was a total DNF.