Friday, July 29, 2011

On Single Fathers: A Review of SEALed With a Kiss by Mary Margret Daughtridge

I don't like seals. They eat penguins. He's kind of cute though.
SEALed With a Kiss by Mary Margret Daughtridge is this month's book club pick over at The Science of Romance. If you're a fan of Mary Margret Daughtridge, have read the book, or just think you might be curious about it, I hope you'll head over there to join in the discussion.

Plot Summery: Jax's ex-wife dies and custody of their four year old son, Tyler, reverts to him. Jax is a Navy SEAL, and he hasn't had much of a hand in raising Tyler so far. He's convinced that Tyler should be handed over to his grandmother to be raised. Jax's CO orders him to spend some time getting to know his son before he makes any rash decisions, and Jax agrees. He quickly discovers that he has no idea how to handle the kid. When a hurricane threatens to cut Jax and Tyler's visit short, Jax makes the hasty decision to stay with Pickett, a very new acquaintance. Pickett happens to be a family counselor. My first thought was oh, how very contrived convenient. That's like having a leak in your roof and having a sexy and competent repairman fall out of the sky and onto your doorstep. With chocolate. And a puppy. Anyway, obviously romance ensues.

Jax genuinely wants to be a good father and do the right thing for Tyler. He listens to Pickett's advice and shows a lot of patience in dealing with the kid. Honestly, I was more interested in the progress that Jax made in his relationship with Tyler than I was in the romantic relationship. The father/son thing was touching without being sappy and felt realistic to me. Jax goes through a full and satisfying process of development throughout the book.

I have some issues with Pickett. I want to say first that I liked her as a character and as a match for Jax. I enjoyed her character arc, though not as much as Jax's. There is this detail, however, which frustrated me a lot. It's a bit spoilerish, so I'm hiding it bellow (highlight to read):

Pickett has decided that she doesn't like sex. Furthermore, she has general insecurities about her body. This is because the first (and only) guy she slept with said something kind of mean about her behind her back and she overheard. Then Jax comes along and tells her she looks sexy, and it's this huge emotional moment for her. She literally cries with joy her confidence soars and she decides to go to bed with him. So to recap: one guy says she looks better with the lights off, and she defines herself by it as unsexy. Another guy says "nice legs" and she has an epiphany of self confidence. It bothered me quite a bit that so much of how she defined not only herself, but sex and relationships in general, was based on the opinions of a small sampling of men. This type of plot isn't romantic to me, it's pathetic.

Ultimately, Pickett has some confidence issues and some fear of failure to overcome, and watching her work through all of that was fairly satisfying (the above issue aside). She starts out as a doormat, and to at least a small extent learns to be more commanding.

The relationship has some beautifully emotional moments, and plenty of steam as well. Jax and Pickett balance each other well, and I could see them working as a couple. More importantly, they both love Tyler and they seem to make good parents. I genuinely wanted to see them together as a permanent family.

There are a number of negatives to mention. The above spoiler was the most glaring one for me, but I had some other issues. The dialogue is a bit awkward at times, like the characters are aware of the parts they're playing. It reminded me of the way people talk in soap operas. The narrative gets kind of self aware at times, too, commenting on how romantic this or that moment is. Let's face it, this is a contrived plot to begin with. And it's pretty predictable. It doesn't help to layer on cheesy dialogue and narrative.

Overall, I had a lot of ups and downs with this book, but the good does outweigh the bad. It's a nice character driven contemporary. 3 stars.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More Fairies! A Review of The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

Well, I just finished The Iron King by Julie Kagawa and...oh my. Where to begin? I guess I should mention that this first caught my attention when someone on a forum (I honestly can't remember where, or I would provide a link) said that this book is a blatant copy of the movie Labyrinth. That made me curious, and to be honest I was prepared to like this book even if that was absolutely true. I love that movie. Having read the book, I really didn't see that strong a resemblance. The kidnapped little brother, and a few other things. I spotted a lot of the other influences more strongly--Alice in Wonderland and A Midsummer Night's Dream both got direct references. I love it when authors give nods to their source material, especially when they're referencing things that I love. Anyway, on to my review:

Plot Summery: SPOILERS! Meghan thinks she's just an ordinary girl who lives on a farm and goes to school, where she's not very popular but gets by with some help from her friend Robbie. Then her little brother is replaced with a changeling, Robbie reveals himself to be Puck (the trickster of legend), and Meghan embarks on a journey into Nevernever (fairyland). She meets all manner of adversity, including goblins and kelpies and other things that want to eat her. She also makes some new friends--Grimalkin the cait sith, and Ash the prince of the Unseelie court. Meghan is relentless in her quest to free her brother and make it home.

Parts of this book delighted me completely, and I did really like it overall. Right from the start I noticed that Kagawa has a talent for creating atmospheric settings that fit the tone of each scene and suck you right into the story. There were so many details--from living tries to iron bugs--that were at once original yet vaguely familiar. The plot is tightly packed and moves at a brisk pace, but doesn't feel rushed.

The main villain, incidentally, is basically technology. As progress happens, Nevernever is dying and a new breed of iron fae are coming into power. I worried briefly that it might turn into a blatant environmental awareness message, a la FernGully , but thankfully it isn't too ham-fisted. Moreover, some of the technology based monsters struck me as pretty frightening--there's a metal dragon at one point.

In my opinion this book was very plot driven, as opposed to character driven. I liked most of the characters, even loved one or two, but in the end I think I'll remember the plot elements a lot more. Meghan is pretty standard issue, as far as heroines go. Her most outstanding traits are strong personal loyalty (to her brother, and to her friends) and a certain measure of bravery. Good things to have, but nothing that makes a character pop out as three dimensional. To be fair, she develops a bit throughout the book, but I still find her kind of unremarkable.

I have to mention the boys and the love triangle I smell brewing. Puck (aka Robbie) is the friend type. He's a goofy guy and a trickster, and he's known Meghan a long time. But it's obvious that he wants to be more than friends (obvious to the reader, less so to Meghan). Ash is the forbidden fruit. He belongs to the Unseelie court, while Meghan is tied to the Seelie court, and he's supposed to be working to kidnap her. They like each other despite this. Which do I like better? At this point, as a romantic lead, I really liked Ash. He's dark and sexy, has strength and protective instincts, and some dark emotions to work through. I may change my mind after future books, but that was how I felt at the end of this one. I kind of hate love triangles, so I'm hoping the author handles all of this carefully.

So all in all, this is a very good book despite having a slightly bland heroine. I recommend it. 4 stars.

On Changlings: Review of Rosmary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, #1)This week I'm in a fairy frame of mind, so I thought I'd share a review of a book I read not too long ago: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire. Sadly, this book just didn't work for me. So why revisit it, why review it? Well, even though I disliked it, it's a mild dislike. And even though the negatives outweigh the positives, it had some impressive positives. Despite the bad start, I went out and bought the second book and I fully intend to read it. It wouldn't be the first time I disliked the first book in a series and ended up gobbling down the rest of them like candy.

This book has a definite case of exposition overload, a condition common to first books in a series, with a healthy dose of over-telling on the side. It's a book full of unrealized potential and falls just short of being good.

MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD: October Daye is a changeling (half faerie, half human) who works as a privite investigator both in the human world and for her fairy superiors. The book opens up with her on a particularly dangerous case for the fairy world, when she is caught spying on the bad guys. They transform her into a fish and dump her into a pond where she's stuck for fourteen years. After the fish incident, which essentially ruined her life, she wants nothing more to do with the faerie world. She's forcibly drawn back into it, however, when an old friend, Evening, is murdered and charges Toby to solve said murder.

Now I want to comment first on the things I liked about the book. It has a great opening that manages to make you instantly involved in Toby's story. You feel sorry for her, and you're curious about what's going on with the villains and why she's in this situation in the first place, and eager to learn more about the faerie world. The world building has so much potential, using a lot of vaguely familiar folk lore and mythology as well as some unique ideas. The characters also had tremendous potential, though there are a few too many to really name.

The first and most pressing issue is Toby herself. In a first person narrative, the main character carries the story--if you like that character, chances are the book will be enjoyable. I did not hate Toby. I sympathized with her, I wanted things to improve for her, and I liked her personality just fine. But as a PI she seems useless. We are told at the beginning that she's good at what she does, despite not having much magic or physical power, but this is never shown. All we see is her stumbling along, not spotting clues until they fall in her lap, and getting injured. You could make a drinking game out of the number of times she's injured in this book. Toby also has some serious issues when it comes to her social relationships, and that was a bit off putting. She's very inconsistent, saying she dislikes a character but then acting in a way that demonstrates otherwise.

If your looking for an intellectually stimulating murder mystery, this is not the book for you. The villain behind it all is extremely obvious to the reader long before Toby catches on, but I guess the mystery isn't the point. The world building was obviously the author's priority. The plot rambles along, convincing you that Toby really has no idea what she's doing, while explaining various details about the faery world. In my opinion, everything would have been better if the author had stuck with the plot introduced in the prologue rather then getting distracted by Evenings murder. I would much rather learn about faeries through a story of court politics and kidnapping then watch a PI dance in circles around an obvious murderer.

The world building is the most positive aspect, but even that has it's issues. Much of it relies on the reader having heard some of the mythology once before. For example the author refers to Oberon or Mab very casually, not taking a lot of time to explain their role, significance, or place in this particular story. As mentioned, I would have preferred to spend more time learning about the faery world and less time chasing the villain. 2 Stars

Monday, July 25, 2011

Snippet Reviews: Demonica

It's time once again for me to revisit one of my favorite series and attempt to describe what it was that made me keep reading. Larissa Ione's Demonica books are the best attempt at demon centered paranormal romance that I have come across so far. Dark, a little creepy, and very steamy. I would definitely label these as erotica. That being said, erotica is so subjective and difficult to apply a fair grade to. I will endeavor to do my best.

The overarching premise is that three brothers (who happen to be incubuses (incubi?)) run a hospital for demons and other creepy crawlies. Demons of their breed go through several stages of sexual maturity, and in the final stage they must either choose to bind themselves to one mate or go kind of crazy and start raping people. The mate bond, incidentally, is not exactly a fated mates thing. Readers are told up front that it goes wrong more often than not and one member of the pair kills the other to escape the bond.

My first comment applies to all of the books: I hate the naming scheme. They're all "Something Un-something" and I can never remember which is which. I've dealt with this a lot in my tenure as a paranormal romance reader--the Carpathian books are "Dark Something", J.R Ward's BDB books are "Lover Something", Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniel's books are "Magic Something". It's shorthand for readers to figure out which books belong to the same series. The same thing could be accomplished by just labeling and numbering them. Just a thought. Ok, end rant.

Book One: Pleasure Unbound  : I liked Eidolon, the hero, quite a bit. He's a doctor and a big brother and an all around stand up guy, despite being a demon. I never cared for Tayla, the heroine, quite as much. She's a demon slayer and she has a certain toughness about her that seems forced to me. I found her character arc pretty weak. It's erotica, so they fix their problems with sex quite often, but in Tayla's case I felt like sex was the last thing she needed (the first being a psychologist and the second being a solid ass kicking). I really liked the creepy demon hospital setting, and between that and the mate bonding system my interest was captured enough to continue with the series. 3 stars.

Book Two: Desire Unchained: Shade is probably my favorite hero of the series. He's pretty rough around the edges and has some dark tendencies (BDSM, because there just HAD to be one in the series somewhere). His relationship with Runa starts when she is still human, and he freaks out because he feels attached to her--this is a concept I'm fond of. I liked Runa, and I felt she and Shade both had satisfying and well balanced character development. I really enjoyed their love story. 4.5 stars.

Book Three: Passion Unleashed: Without a doubt I was not a fan of Wraith going into this book, but he redeems himself quite strongly. The heroine, Serena, annoyed me a bit because she projects virgin/martyr/helpless tendancies initially, but she gets more interesting. Wraith is the one that goes through the most in terms of emotional development. The plot had more in the way of mythology than the previous two books, and I really enjoyed that. 4 stars.

Book Four: Ecstasy Unveiled : Lore (the hero) is an assassin sent to kill Kynan, and Iness is essentially Kynan's guardian angel. I loved that premise, and I loved all of the world building employed in this book. Lore and Iness make a very interesting match. Unfortunately the pace of this book was a bit off and the plot is a bit disjointed at times. There are plot holes, as tends to happen when an author increases the complexity of their world. 4 stars.

Book Five: Sin Undone: In my opinion this book has the most coherent plot. Sin, our demon heroine, has actual demonic tendencies (other than the impulse to screw things) that she can't always keep from using. I really liked her and enjoyed her character arc. Conall is a good match for her. I felt a genuine emotional connection between them. This was a good, strong conclusion to the series. 4.5 stars.

If you like dark paranormal romance/erotica, I recommend these. Incidentally, there is a spin-off series called Lords of Deliverance in which many of the same characters appear. I will be reviewing the first one, Eternal Rider, soon. Happy Reading!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Violence and Magic: A Review of Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews

I stayed up late into the night finishing Magic Strikes by Ilona Andrews. That's something I try not to do, since sleep deprivation makes me a dangerous biologist/library assistant/penguin keeper, but this book was too good to put down. The following review is therefore bursting with praise. Please beware of MINOR SPOILERS, particularly if you have not read the first two books. You've been warned.

Plot Summery: Kate learns of The Midnight Games, a gladiator style fighting tournament. The shape-shifters of the pack are forbidden to participate in the games. Kate's former werewolf sidekick and good friend Derek is found near dead after investigating the tournaments in secret. She learns from her friend Jim (a werecat) that several of the fighters in the games may have intentions to take on The Pack. She and Jim defy Curren (the Beast Lord) and proceed to infiltrate the games in an effort to save their friend and stop the threat to the Pack.

When I first started this series I didn't care much for Kate. I couldn't see past the fact that she was yet another butt-kicking alpha female in an urban fantasy novel. Three books later, she's grown on me (like fungus). She has a sense of humor all her own. She's reasonably smart and competent. And she's tough not just in her ability to make sarcastic and defiant remarks, but in her ability to fight and kill. Over three books, little by little, it is revealed that she has a lot of heart and some weak spots that make her a more sympathetic character. Once you understand her back story, you can't help but like her and want her to succeed.

Kate is far from the only likable character in this series. The cast of secondary and minor characters is actually quite large, but not yet too big for my liking. They each serve a purpose in the plot or in helping Kate to develop, and they show up when it's appropriate to the story. I like Julie, Kate's ward, because she brings out Kate's big sister type impulses. I enjoy the friendship between Kate and Andrea because it seems genuine and heartfelt. And of course, there's Curren. After three books of building sexual tension between them, I can honestly say that I would relish their ending up together. I like that there is a romance, a hot but imperfect  romance, that is building over several books worth of time.

The plot of this book was fairly simple but still very enthralling. It's been my experience that with series, the second and third books are often so much better because they aren't burdened with world building like the first books always are. The author is free to tell his or her story within a world that readers are familiar with. That was certainly the case here. The pace is quick, the action is plentiful, and everything is easy to follow.

I like the way that magic is utilized within this universe. So often in fantasy, magic based fighting is bloodless and kind of boring. You end up with two wizards shooting sparks at one another, or there are a lot of passive parlor tricks. In Magic Strikes the magic is violent and vividly described. It adds a touch of horror that I really appreciate.

I struggled to grade this book, because I try not to give out five star ratings lightly. The bottom line is, I can't come up with any sincere criticisms that in any way affected my enjoyment of this book. I highly recommend trying this, even if you didn't love the first two books. I'm very happy to have stuck with this series. 5 stars.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Romance of Capes: Playing With Fire

The reason wives and girlfriends will agree to see this movie.
This week I will be leaving my isolated little igloo once again to see a movie, this time Captain America: The First Avenger. This is my fiance's pick, and since he was such a good sport about Harry Potter I'm doing what I can to get excited for it. I have seen a good number of superhero movies over the last several years. I've played a few of the video games (with very little skill). I can't seem to get into reading the actual comic books, nerd though I am. It's a shame because when it comes down to it, I really like the idea of masked crime fighters.

I've often remarked that superheroes and the heroes and heroines of urban fantasy have a lot in common. In both cases, you most often have an otherwise normal person who develops or discovers
superhuman powers. They learn to use those powers to apprehend/maim/kill the bad guy(s) and save the day. There might be a romance or romances. The only big difference is the clothes. Comic heroes get elaborate costumes and masks. Urban fantasy heroes wear a great deal of black and leather in the name of practicality (anyone who has ever actually worn leather knows that it's NOT practical, it is sweaty). Costumes function to maintain the heroes secret identity, and also serve as a symbol in themselves. Apparently maintaining an alter ego is not an issue in urban fantasy?

I really wish there were more novels that had that dramatic superhero feel. I want a book with masks and capes, over the top villains, sidekicks, illogical superpowers, and lots of gadgets. Recently, The Secret History of the Pink Carnation gave me the masks and the heroics, but it's not quite the same. So I've been searching for good superhero novels. While I dig through my TBR pile for possibilities (I have a few) I thought I'd share one that I read awhile back: Playing With Fire by Gena Showalter.

Basically it's the first person tale of Belle, an ordinary girl with a boring life, who unsuspectingly drinks a formula that gives her powers over the four elements. She is pulled into a world of paranormal wonders she never knew existed right under her nose. Rome, an agent of a paranormal organization, first hunts her to neutralize her but finds himself attracted to her and driven to protect her. Belle is being hunted by many people who want to use her new found powers for their own gains.

The best best things about this book--very cute, very funny, without being too sugery sweet. Belle is clumsy and emotional in the beginning, and seems like kind of a loser but with a good heart. She's so easy to relate to and that makes it all the more fun when she starts to grow both in the use of her powers and as a person. Rome was a very sexy counterpart, very likeable. There's also some interesting secondary characters introduced, such as Tanner the empath who becomes Belle's sidekick. Basically it's all the fun of a comic book but with a romance novel twist.

The negative part--it's a bit predictable. It doesn't have much in the way of truly original ideas.There's a great deal of exposition and world building, much of which is Rome explaining things to Belle. And while the humor is successful in it's own right, it sometimes detracts from the dramatic parts. It's a book that's hard to take seriously because it doesn't take itself seriously. 3 stars.

So there you have it. I wish that I had a five star example of superhero romance readily available, but I just haven't found one yet.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reflections on Phedre

It's taken me weeks to finish Kushiel's Avatar by Jacqueline Carey, and I'm not sorry to have taken my time with it. Like the first two books in the trilogy it's so vast and detailed that a quick read wouldn't allow me to take in everything. As it is I find it difficult to articulate what exactly appeals to me about these books.

First of all, if you haven't read the first two books in this series I strongly suggest giving them a shot. Myself, I mainly read romance and urban fantasy and almost never touch traditional fantasy. Phedre is a courtesan (and also a spy) who specializes in being submissive. She uses this role to move through wars and politics and all manner of intrigue. As a romance reader I am always innately cautious about approaching a book with this type of heroine and plot because I don't care for page after page of mindless pornographic sex without genuine emotion. And I sincerely doubted that a courtesan could find true abiding love with one person while still practicing her craft. But in fact, Carey has a talent for keeping everything tasteful without making it bland. And sexual intrigues aside, Phedre is a strong likeable character who develops and evolves into what I now consider one of my all time favorite heroines.

Furthermore, the world building in these books is completely unique compared to anything I've read before. It's set in a kind of alternate historical Europe. Any magic or fantasy elements employed are based on mythology including (but not limited to) Christianity, Greek, Eqyptian, Norse, and Celtic. These elements are never used too outrageously, but instead come up only when they fit the story.

In this particular book she has two major goals--to find and free Imriel de la Courcel after he has been kidnapped, and to free Hyacinth from his role as Master of the Straights. The key to this, incidentally, is to find and speak the name of God. These goals gave the plot a nice solid structure, so that this book seemed to have more order to it than the other two. The plot goes to some dark and strange places. There are many adventure elements and a lot more use of the mythology and religion that was touched on in previous books. In the midst of all of this there are some unexpected touches of horror, which as a fan of such things I enjoyed.

Phedre has done a great deal of maturing leading up to this book, and it's apparent in the narrative. She shows less willful recklessness and self focus, and more thoughtful planning. Furthermore, the focus is much less on her skills as a courtesan and more on her ability to endure hardships of all kinds. I was happy to see that, because while I enjoyed her role in the earlier books it was easy to see that this book was setting her up as a mentor figure. In other words, it was necessary to transform her into a character that could be viewed as a respectable teacher.

Joscelin's entire character arc for the trilogy has been learning to cope with loving Phedre, despite their opposing personalities and the nature of her work. Most of this was dealt with in the second book. In this one, he proves his level of devotion yet again. It's wonderfully romantic, of course, but doesn't leave much for me to say in terms of character development that I haven't already said. He has matured, displays less of a temper, and is obviously being molded into a father figure.

Now, for the secondary characters (there are too many to really mention them all) I felt fairly satisfied. Everyone had a role to play and appeared when it was time for them to play it. Hyacinth was one of my favorite characters from the first book, and I wish this one had more of him. But when he does appear, he's fascinating. As for Imriel, I found him to be a sympathetic character, but a little underdeveloped. Carey gives him a few character traits to make him memorable, but for the most part he exists to drive the plot forward. I can't complain to much about this, since I know he has his own trilogy. And Melisande, that villainous character I loved to hate, is in this book a lot less and is somewhat less villain-like. There are one or two villainous characters, but the plot is much more driven by quest based conflict than political intrigue.

I feel fairly confident in saying that this was my favorite book in the Phedre trilogy. I enjoyed having a more mature heroine. I liked most of the plot elements, especially the darker ones. The plot felt well paced. Most importantly, it drew Phedre's story to a conclusion that I found satisfying. It isn't precisely a happily ever after, but she does find peace and happiness. I really appreciate Carey's  intricate writing style and all the detail that goes into these books. Again, I highly recommend trying they. I don't have any complaints worth mentioning for this one. 5 stars.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Christine Feehan's Carpathians: The Good, The Bad, and The Fanged

The early books in Christine Feehan's Carpathian series are a particular guilty pleasure of mine. Why guilty? Well, because the truth is that there is a lot wrong with them thematically and stylistically. They are formulaic and repetitive, kind of anti-feminist, and in some case make no sense at all. Yet they're deserve a certain amount of mention and discussion because of their influence on the paranormal romance genre. Christine Feehan is one of the first authors that I know of to use the fated mate trope in such an unapologetic fashion, and to make it work so well. I suspect that she is responsible for the mass popularity of fated mates in the last decade, so we have her to thank for that (or blame, depending on your feelings).

Lest anyone think that I'm presenting myself as an expert on the Carpathian books, I have in fact not read every single book word for word. I read up to Dark Melody (book 12) with great dedication, and after that point I started to skim and skip, or listen to the audio version. I have yet to even open  Dark Peril, the most recent release. So my comments may or may not be relevant to the recent additions to the series.

Please keep in mind also that when I first read these I was approximately fourteen years old and chalk full of angst. I've since reread most of them at least once, but that first impression sticks in my mind the best. Onward! 

In the Beginning: The overarching premise of each book is that Carpathians (an immortal, bloodsucking, shapeshifting, and generally very powerful species) are in danger of extinction because they have very few women and children. The men must find a lifemate. If they don't, they go colorblind and lose their emotions, a condition that can only be remedied by--you guessed it--finding one's lifemate. If they don't find said female they may ultimately turn evil, or choose to commit suicide. Sound cheerful? Right off the bat we have this odd gender divide that makes no sense--only the men are subject to the harsh side effects of going solo for centuries. I really would have preferred this colorblindness curse to go both ways, or at least I would have found it equally interesting. But instead the women are set up to be the "light to a man's darkness" and the men are the pursuers. 

The women in question are most often humans with psychic abilities. These low level supernatural powers are what allow them to later be turned into Carpathians (you can't just pick up any hooker off the street, although in my opinion that would make a funny book). The men therefore have a massive advantage of power and knowledge over their women. If your a girl, and you become a Carpathian male's lifemate, you sit at home and make quilts, or if your really lucky you can be a healer. I did warn you that these books are pretty sexist. In some of the later ones (Dark Destiny, if I'm not mistaken) a few women fight the evil vamps alongside their mates, but even in those cases the man is presented as more competent.

I Just Can't Stop Reading: Again, keep in mind that when I started reading these books the fated mate thing was a new concept in my reading world. It sucked me in (pun kind of intended). Plus, Feehan has a talent for imagery. The opening scenes of Dark Prince, in which our hero visits the heroine (Raven) on her balcony in the form of a large black bird, remains one of my favorite romantic scenes of all time. 

The other thing that these books do well is this: the lifemate bond doesn't equal instant true love. It means a lot of things. The ability to share sensation, thought, and emotion, combined with intense physical need. But trust and affection still have to be built the old fashioned way: by getting to know one another and sharing lots of blood. For the most part, Feehan takes some time to actually develop the relationship. Some books are more satisfying in this regard than others, but at least the mate bond is not used as a stand in for relationship building.

The Men: I'm going to be bluntly honest about this...They all kind of blend together in my mind. Oh sure, they each have a few unique personality traits and there are a couple different professions. But the most prominent character traits are always dominant, protective, and lethal. 

My most remembered hero of the series is Jacques from Dark Desire. I have a fondness for crazy characters and Jacques is all kinds of messed up. He was tortured and buried alive, and his human mate finds him. She's a doctor, and she tries to help him. In the meantime he latches on to her mentally in order to hold onto his last scrap of sanity. The whole romance is kind of disturbing, and honestly I feel bad for the poor woman who basically go trapped into a life I would never want. But still, it has a certain beauty to it and it's certainly memorable.

The Women: I apologize for this rant, because the heroines are where Feehan really loses me. Most of the women have no prior sexual experiences, and those that do were negative. They rarely have friends or relatives to miss them, so they are basically kidnap bait. They are always less powerful than the men, no matter what unique powers they're given. They mostly end up as singers or healers. If they do want to fight, it's a BIG FREAKING DEAL. She basically needs her mate to permit her, because if he isn't cool with it he will absolutely lock her up. Fortunately some of the men aren't complete sexist asshats. Anyways...

The women are the victims of very flowery names and over the top physical descriptions. Savannah, Raven, Desari, Natalya...And they all have impossibly colored eyes, tiny waists, and flowing shampoo commercial hair.

Among our leading ladies, I've always liked Francesca the best. In  Dark Legend she is basically portrayed as an ancient Carpathian trying to live outside of their society in secret. She's artistic, has healing abilities, is clearly pretty powerful, and she has a soft heart. She rescues an abused human child, Skyler, and I found the entire story very touching.

Plot Oddities: Oh God, are these things formulaic. Read three in a row, I guarantee you'll see the pattern. Carpathian guy finds psychic woman, he gets his colors and emotions back, struggles to control himself, fights off a few bad guys, turns the lady into a Carpathian, the end. But along the way some odd stuff happens that I just have to mention.

First of all, the human to Carpathian conversion? Very painful unpleasant process with huge life altering effects. In some cases the process isn't something the women volunteer for, but something the men choose for them. Because forced seduction bordering on rape wasn't edgy enough. 

While I'm on the subject of stealing a woman's options and will: Dark Magic is easily the most disturbing romance in the series. When the heroine, Savannah, was an unborn child Gregori feeds her his blood when her mother is hurt. He does so to ensure that she will be his lifemate. Remember in Breaking Dawn when Jacob imprints on the baby, and all of the readers declared it creepy and disturbing? FYI, Christine Feehan did it first, and did it even more disturbingly if you ask me. Gregori also stalks Savannah as a wolf while she's growing up, pretending to be her pet. Eww?

I also wanted to say that Christine Feehan can't write fight scenes that hold my attention. She's great at building atmospheric settings and beautiful characters. But the fight scenes are uninspired, predictable, and go on forever

In the End: So yeah, these books are pretty bad but also strangely addictive. They have an undeniable place in the genre of vampire romance because they are the first and best examples of so many of the tropes and themes we've come to know and love. I'm not going to give them a glowing recommendation. But I will say that there's no shame in trying them, if you are at all curious. There is much to love and much to hate. Happy Reading!

On Love and Social Awkwardness

Courtney Milan's Unlocked is a novella length story set in the same universe as the Turner books. Having read it though, I can safely say that now knowledge of Unveiled is required, though I certainly recommend it.

In sum this is a story of a young man (Evan) who teases a young lady (Elaine) because he secretly likes her. He makes jokes about the way that she laughs. The jokes catch on, and soon everyone in London society is laughing at Elaine, thus humiliating her, chipping away at her self esteem, and ruining her prospects of finding a husband. Ten years later, Evan has long since come to feel great remorse for the way he treated Elaine and hopes to make amends, as well as to win her heart.

I think the pain of being teased and ostracized is something many people can relate to. I certainly can. An equal number of people can recall becoming (unintentionally) the instigator of such pain, and the need to atone for it. So this is a touching story from all angles. I liked and connected with Elaine and Evan. This is a wonderful and sweet little love story.

Now, as to the reason I am giving this story 4 stars instead of 5. It is a detail that is a spoiler of sorts and is more specific than I would normally mention in a review. I found it pretty glaring, though, so I have included it bellow. Highlight to read:

Elaine's distress at being teased about her laugh ran so deep that she became determined to change it. This process involved having a maid tell her jokes and hold her head under water every time she laughed her laugh. This obviously unwise course of action ultimately leads to her inhaling a ton of water and becoming ill for days. This is the sort of dramatic and dangerous behavior one might expect from a bullied teenager, not a grown woman of at least 20. Age distinctions aside, this made me very seriously doubt the judgement and stability of our heroine. It tainted for me what was otherwise an uplifting story of overcoming social isolation.

So, aside from it's one flaw, I was very touched by this little story and would highly recommend it. 4 stars.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Kate Daniels Double Review

Ilona Andrew's Kate Daniels series has been one that took me some time to warm up to. This is really strange when you consider that most urban fantasy fans seem to really like this series. When I went to buy the third and fourth books, a skinny nerd fellow caught sight of me and proceeded to launch into a "Kate Daniels is awesome" speech that cost me 8 valuable minutes of my life. So yes, these books have gained a certain popularity. And furthermore, they are exactly the kind of books I tend to enjoy: strong female protagonist, mixed fantasy elements and clever world building, violence and gore, friendships and relationships that build over several books, and most importantly a crisp readable writing style. So why the initial hesitation? I offer my reviews of the first two books by way of explanation.

It took me two times through Magic Bites to feel like I could articulate what I like and dislike about this story. The first time I listened to the Audible version and really disliked it. I attribute this partly to disliking the narrator's voice. The second time I read the Kindle version and had a slightly more positive reaction. Just goes to show that format matters.

Kate Daniels is a mercenary with magic abilities that she fights to keep secret. When her long time mentor and family friend is killed, Kate tries to solve the case and apprehend the murderer. The evidence shows magical anomalies, and Kate quickly realizes she is dealing with something entirely outside of her usual work. Her search takes her to the leader of the shape-shifters, Curren, and also into the midst of the vampire creating organization known as "The People". Besides all of this, the book is dense in world building and exposition, but handles it gracefully.

As a character I felt Kate was very likeable, even possible to relate to, but also a bit forgettable. She's very tough and reasonably intelligent. I got the sense that she has so much potential, both in her power and as a person, but in this book at least it isn't fully developed or realized. In my mind she blends in with all of the other alpha female leads I've encountered in urban fantasy. The secondary characters are similarly full of unrealized potential. I liked the shape-shifters immensely, and hope they will have more parts in future books.

The world building is by far the cleverest part of the book. There's this ongoing conflict between magic and technology, with magic gaining more and more of an upper hand. They fluctuate in waves, and when a magic wave hits man made technologies start to crumble. There's a lot more to it then that, and again it's not fully explained to my satisfaction. But I really enjoyed the ideas, very imaginative.

In the end, after rereading I can safely say that my main complaint is the lack of development and distinction in the characters. There's a lot of sequel baiting: the authors are counting on you buying the next book to see Kate start to grow as a character. That's all well and good, but it shouldn't get in the way of telling the complete story in the first novel. 3 stars

In Magic Burns Kate is back and as before is up to her neck in problems of the magical monster variety. Magic is increasingly erratic and approaching a flare. Someone keeps stealing valuable maps from the pack of shape-shifters. A local coven of witches may have been worshiping questionable deities and unleashed more then they bargained for. And in the midst of it all Kate encounters Julie, a thirteen year old who's fallen in with bad company. Desperate to care for Julie and stop magic monsters from overrunning the city, Kate sets out to solve the mystery of the deity and her misguided followers.

This book was significantly better then the first in my opinion. Before, I really struggled to understand and like Kate as a character. In this book, a lot about her is revealed to make her far more palatable. She shows a troubled past and present loneliness. She has a good heart and a solid sense of humor. Her unshakeable moral code is admirable. I liked that she began to show real connections to the people around her--Curran, Julie, Andrea, etc. And she's strong in so many ways that it's hard not to cheer for her.

I also found the plot and mythology much more intriguing in this book. Witches, Celtic gods, powerful objects--all much more to my liking then the monsters of book one. And I found it interesting that here and there the authors managed to comment about things like class, hierarchy, and power. For example, there is talk about poor people volunteering to have their bodies made into vampires (mindless killing puppets) in exchange for their family being paid a marginal sum.

Again, my complaints are mainly that both the world build and character development still seem to be dragged out. The romance reader in me can sense relationship drama coming on, and I wish it would happen sooner. I understand spanning these things over several books for sales reasons, but I'm not a fan of sequel baiting. I want each book in a series to feel complete all by itself, and this one didn't quite accomplish that. 4 stars.

I'm currently reading Magic Strikes and really enjoying it. This is certainly one of those series in which each book only works as a part of the whole and does not stand alone. But each book seems to be an improvement on the last, so I'm happy to continue.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Popcorn and Potter

As I recover from the Harry Potter movie event, and God knows one needs a full day to recover, I thought I'd share some random musings on the experience. I'm not going to go into a long and detailed review because 1) I'm not as comfortable reviewing movies as I am reviewing books, 2) I don't want to spoil anything, and 3) there is simply too much to mention. If you want a detailed analysis, my fiance wrote one--he is a much better movie nerd than I am.

First of all, in my earliest post on this blog I mentioned that Zippy, my Kindle, is pretty much the ideal solution for the reader on the go. I want to add now that when (for example) I'm stuck waiting in line and then in a movie theater for six hours and surrounded by rabid fans, this device is a life saver. I got through 2/3 of a book and several word scramble games before the movie started, time well spent indeed. Also, they make clip on lights for these things which make it possible to remain entertained when the movie theater refuses to keep the lights on consistently. I think the lack of light was an attempt to keep the aforementioned rabid fans in their seats, because they were a bit out of hand.

As for the movie itself, it was very good. Solid 4/5 stars if I were to grade it. A lot of the most important moments are done very well, but it did lack in a few places. I cried twice, which tells you that it managed to be emotionally gripping.

In our after Potter discussion (during which I had pancakes and coffee. mmm, pancakes) I reflected on a few book/movie details that did and did not work for me. (Minor Spoilers Here)

  • As I ranted in my previous post, these books have such wonderful characters. In this movie? Oh Snape, I so feel for you. And Neville, who I didn't mention before, was full of awesome. 
  • The mass death of so many minor characters is addressed really flippantly in this movie. I barely registered the sight of poor Fred, for example.
  • Memory scenes work better in the books than in the movies. This latest movie had probably the most successful memory sequence, but there were still missing pieces.
  • None of the romantic pairings in the movies are believable to me. Eight movies and I still don't feel the love between Ron and Hermione--it feels like the relationship is inevitable but not real or long lasting. And I won't even touch on Harry and Ginny, because I've come to the conclusion that the actress just sucks. All of this is handled slightly better in the books, but not by much. Rowling is just not good at romance. But one can't have everything.
  • Some of the fantasy element and world building seem to get lost in translation. It was glaringly obvious in the way that the hallows are presented. I'm convinced that your average audience member who had not at least skimmed book seven would not grasp their full significance
There you have it, my cliff-notes feelings on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, and the entire movie going experience in general. If your a fan of the books, or even just the movies (go read the books, you heathens) I think you'll enjoy this one.

In Defense of Category Romance: A Night of Scandal

Shy Puppy!
A Night of Scandal by Sarah Morgan is this month's book club pick over at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, but lucky for me it also serves to further prove my point that category romance is a diverse and varied sub-genre. This is one of those cases where the tropes and silliness are used pretty sparingly, and as a result you are free to take the book seriously.

Nathaniel Wolfe is a movie star who can't stop acting. He has very dark past which he makes every effort to bury by constantly keeping up a persona as a bored and disinterested celebrity. Katie Field is a costume designer working on Nathaniel's latest play. When Nathaniel's past creeps up on him unexpectedly, he recruits Katie to help him escape. She's then drawn into his world and drawn to him as a person. Katie is a chatty person, and honest to a fault. Katie has some confidence issues which she hides by wearing drab cloths (the color of the adorable puppy). They are opposites in many ways, and so they are able to help each other and heal many past wounds together.

I'm a fan of the opposites attract thing, so this romance really worked for me. I thought the relationship had a nice pace to it and developed along with the characters. For such a short book, it spans a variety of settings and each reflects where the characters are emotionally--from London, to a secluded island, to Rio, to L.A. I especially enjoyed Nathaniel's back story and how Morgan chose to reveal it in pieces until the end when the reader grasps the full horrific picture. I liked Katie's personality, she's very optimistic and personable.

I didn't care for Katie's character arc. Basically the focus is on her finding confidence in herself (particularly with regard to her appearance). I get that this is a deep seated emotional issue for many women, and the author handles it with grace. However, it pales in comparison to Nathaniel's story of childhood abuse and overcoming his emotionally stunted existence. In some ways I kept wondering how Katie, of the relatively happy (if poor and frumpy) life could begin to understand Nathaniel's pain. It's a testament to Morgan's style that I did believe their happily ever after despite this sort of uneven development.

Overall, I recommend this book. It isn't to fluffy, nor is it too dark. There are a lot of touching emotional moments and a surprisingly satisfying romance. 4 stars.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Seven Favorite Harry Potter Characters

Like so many people I'm eagerly awaiting the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2. Harry Potter is particularly special to me because I grew up with him. This final movie is the end of an era for fans like myself, and it's an occasion that deserves to be marked.

What is is about Harry Potter that compels nerds like myself to sacrifice time and sleep and money? Undeniably, part of the initial appeal is wish fulfillment. What ten year old isn't enchanted by the idea of a secret world full of magic? But that doesn't explain what would keep you reading (and watching) well into your teens and young adulthood. Because, let's face it, Harry himself is not that interesting of a character. He's "the chosen one" savior type character destined to bring balance to the force   save the Shire   kill wizard Hitler. Even at the age of 11 I realized how the series was going to end, so why keep reading? For me, aside from enjoying the random amalgam of fantasy elements, I think the main draw was the amazing supporting cast of characters. These books have some great secondary and minor characters, antiheroes and villains.

With this in mind, I present my list of characters that never got enough page time (or screen time). They aren't in and particular order, because frankly I suck at ranking things. Oh, and incidentally, if you haven't yet read all of the books or you're on of those people who's waiting to see the movies (because you can't read at a 4th grade level?) I'm going to be spoiling like crazy from here out. You've been warned.

Lily and James Potter: Seriously, why are the savior characters always orphans? Anyway, because Harry never knew his mother or father, what we learn about them in the books comes from pictures and stories related by their friends and the occasional borrowed memory. For me, those tidbits were a highlight of my reading experience. Not only am I curious about the type of people that gave birth to the chosen one, but the romantic in me wonders how they got together in the first place. By all accounts James was equivalents to the jocks in my high school that would strut down the hall yelling "WUZZUP?!" just for the sake of being obnoxious, while Lily is deeply kind.  I'm a sucker for that opposites attract type of relationship, and I wish we had more details. Not that I'm asking for a prequel--look what happened when Star Wars did that.

Severus Snape: Do I really even need to say anything about this one? Dark, twisted antiheroes are always so much more interesting to me than golden boy heroes. Not only is Snape a shady, slimmy guy that you love to hate, he also turns remarkably sympathetic. Seriously, I feel for the guy. Plus he becomes a spy. I realize that writing detailed accounts of a grown man behind enemy lines among Death Eaters, watching and participating in all manner of torture and other evils, would have pushed the books from dark and edgy young adult reading to completely inappropriate. That doesn't stop me from wishing Rowling had.

Sirius Black: My reasons for this one are much simpler. This is my favorite character. When he first appeared in book three, and it sets you up to think he's the villain (which I stupidly believed, but remember that I was 11 at the time) I was already intrigued. He's then built up as a slightly deranged uncle type with a rebellious streak. He's rather unceremoniously murdered in book 5, and it was at this point that I realized that Rowling was slowly picking off each of Harry's mentors and protecters. I never felt like Sirius got a full character arc. I expected more.

Nymphadora Tonks: Ok, yes, this is a very minor character, but a really awesome one. She's young and spunky, with a cool job, and she can change her appearance at will. If that doesn't call for a comic book series, I don't know what does. I loved every little appearance she made in the books. I even loved her (admittedly out of place and slightly creepy) romance with Lupin. It's unfortunate that she was reduced to tragic cannon fodder in book seven. Kill those characters Rowling! Be edgy.

Luna Lovegood: Another minor character, and I know she annoys a lot of people. But I love slightly crazy characters. She's fun and comical, but also has her own unusual brand of wisdom. This is one case where I feel the actress, Evanna Lynch, has done such a wonderful job with the part that I actually started liking the character more after she appeared in the movies. You get the feeling that she's just lost somewhere in her head and has only the barest grip on actual reality. More crazy girl please!

Ginny Weasley: In this case, I don't want more because I like the character, but because I don't. There isn't enough about her to convince me. What has she done in this series? Played quidditch and almost got eaten by a snake that one time. This would be fine had she remained insignificant, but Rowling made her significant. She's our hero's love interest--he marries her for the love of God. In light of that, I want her to be strong and self possessed and have power in her own right. But mostly she's just someone to be concerned about, and keep out of the line of fire.

The Malfoy Family: Again, I like villainous characters. None of them are quite as appealing as Snape, but they are tremendously interesting. The prejudice, the hate, the self importance, the twisted sense of loyalty. We love to hate Draco, but think about how he was raised: this cold, privileged, dark environment that basically brain washes him to think a certain way. His aunt is Bellatrix Lestrange, the absolute crowned queen of crazy family members. I'm not saying I sympathize with them, just that I think they're fascinating. Can I get a sitcom? No?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On Masked Heroes

I want to preface my review of The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig by saying that I started this book with absolutely no idea what it was about. I saw it online somewhere, took a fancy to the title, and ordered it for Paperbackswap without a thought. So basically, I went on a blind date with this book--and came out a very happy reader.

I'm rather fond of the book within a book method of story telling. And it does come up in my reading more often than you'd expect. From William Goldman's retelling of The Princess Bride, to The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley, to The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfeild (all also wonderful books) it seems that in certain cases this is the most suitable way to make a story seem immediate and relevant. In this case, Eloise is a graduate student who is interested in discovering the identity of the Pink Carnation, an English spy who helped to thwart Napoleon. She starts by researching the Carnation's predecessor, the Purple Gentian. She hits mostly dead ends until one of the Purple Gentian's descendents responds to her letter and invites her to read some of the family's papers. This opens up to the historical portion of the story, which follows Richard Selwick (The Purple Gentian) and his companions in Paris as they try to prevent the French invasion of England. The love interest in the book is Amy, and she has a girlish fascination with the Purple Gentian, having read much about him.

Anyone who has ever seen a super hero movie can guess where the romantic plot thread goes. Amy is fixated on the Purple Gentian, and pays no attention the Richard. She doesn't see that they are one in the same despite the wealth of evidence before her. Amy isn't just infatuated with the Purple Gentian, however: she wants to help him. She's always dreamed of being a spy, and she has a wealth of ideas to help her achieve that goal.

I have ample praise for this book. The characters, both past and present, are distinct and vivid. I was able to relate to Eloise and her slightly nerdy obsession with historical spies. I think she really helped to draw me in to the story of Richard and Amy. Richard is painted as dashing and heroic. That might sound bland, but in this story it works well, and Willig gives him enough flaws to keep him from seeming to perfect. Amy is youthful and spirited. To be honest, she is the character I liked the least, but I'll address that shortly. There are plenty of women of intelligence and strong character--Amy's cousin Jane, Miss Gwen the chaperone, and Richard's mother and sister.  The historical plot was extremely engaging. The style of the writing is witty, light, and fun.

As implied above, Amy was one of my complaints. I didn't hate her, most of the time I liked her. But she has several too-stupid-to-live moments, and they really damaged my opinion of her. A lot of this can be contributed to youth and inexperience, but some of it is just plain idiocy. She severely overestimates her own competence, and it puts everyone involved in danger. In other words, she's a walking, talking plot contrivance.

My second minor complaint is the pace. It slows to a crawl in places when it ought to be zipping forward. Obviously the author slows down for the romantic bits, and that's fine. But there are other times when a slow pace is used where one doesn't belong--like when a character is in need of rescue and everyone stops to talk about it over tea. I think this was supposed to be humorous, but it just made me impatient.

All told, this is a unique and very enjoyable historical novel. It's much lighter and more fun than it appears. 4 stars.

Monday, July 11, 2011

In Defense of Category Romance: Here Comes the Groom

My twelfth grade AP Lit teacher once dedicated several classes to talking about the difference between popular fiction and literary fiction. When she got to romance, she told us a story of how her elderly grandmother had a subscription to Harlequin, reading them by the piles. She would place her initials in the corner of each book upon completing it to remind herself that she'd read that one. The punch line of the joke, according to my teacher, was that all romance novels are the same anyway! Ha!

My teacher (ignorantly) thought she was referring to romance novels in general, but her comments applied much more specifically to category romance--those little 200 page things you pick up at air ports and grocery stores that have names like "The Virgin Secretary and the Playboy Boss Have a Secret Baby". I don't think I need to point out that there is a huge world of romance outside of Harlequin. But what I do want to address is this accusation of sameness among the category romance. Yes, category romance is the most guilty of repeatedly using the same tropes and silly premises over and over again. And of course, because it's romance, they all end with a supper sappy happily ever after. I absolutely acknowledge that some of them are just plain awful, without a single original thought in the whole book. But there are also books in this genre that have amazing characters, original plots, and heart breaking dilemmas.

I think the best defense I can offer is to show a few examples of good category books. The first is one of my favorite books that I've read this year, Here Comes the Groom by Karina Bliss. This is an example of how a good author can take a really silly premise and turn it into an awesome and satisfying story. Here is my review:

Dan and Jo are best friends who long ago made a marriage pact as a joke, which Dan then decides to take seriously. He starts planning the wedding against Jo's wishes and does everything possible to talk her into it. It sounds silly, I realize. But there is a lot more going on in this book then is apparent. In the interest of not spoiling the story, I'll just say that Jo and Dan have both been through and are still going through a lot of tough stuff. They are problems which I believe a lot of people can relate to.

Dan is an ex-soldier, now returned home for good and wants to take over the family farm. After the trama he experienced at war, he just wants a normal and happy life. This is partly why he fixates on the idea of a fast marriage of convenience with his best friend. Over time, however, Dan discovers that his feelings run deeper then that, and struggle to come to terms with those feelings as well as a number of other issues in his life.

Jo is a great female lead, all the way around. She's tough, smart, flawed but easy to relate to. She's struggled with a demanding career, ailing grandmother, and burdensome secrets that have lead her to stop hoping for a husband and family. The way in which each issue is resolved is emotional, imperfect and realistic, and just generally very well written. I love that this book delivers a happily ever after ending without becomming sugary sweet.

I'm giving this book 4.5 stars, because there was just one plot aspect that I did not like. I won't spoil it, but near the end there is a rather contrived and silly plan on Jo's part that had me cringing. This aside, the plot of the book had excellent flow and good taste. Overall, I highly recommend this book as a quick and satisfying feel good read.
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