Saturday, March 29, 2008

His Favorite Mistress, by Tracy Anne Warren

You may have noticed that I don't use images that often in my blog. I figure most of my readers are handy enough to find links to the books I talk about on their own.

In this case though, the cover is important, because I wouldn't have read the book otherwise, despite the famous admonition about judging and covers and so forth.

Actually, I didn't judge this book by its cover, my three-year-old, Nadia, did. She often comes with me on my weekend jaunt to the library & UBS, and last time we went, she picked this one out for me. "I think you should read this one, Mama, it looks like a good one." I haven't read this author before, but that's the beauty of the used book store -- you can try new things without an $8 investment. So, I shrugged and indulged my girl. "What do you like about this one, honey?" I asked. "The picture," she said, indicating the gilt flourishes around the keyhole-shaped portrait.

Works for me.

And actually, it did. Solid characters & some great love scenes elevate His Favorite Mistress above a somewhat uninspired plot. I enjoyed Gabriella's rags-to-riches story and the hunky duke of Wyvern is a perfectly satisfactory alpha hero. I give it a solid B+.

Thanks, Nadia!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Last Twilight Addendum

OK, so I went back to the book to see if the plot point I mentioned was covered, and technically it was, but in kind of a hand-wavy, nothing really to do with the Rikki Kinn we came to know sort of way. It is also one of the points you probably wouldn’t get if you haven’t read the prior books.

One potential flaw, if you will, in Liu’s universe, is the rather black-and-white set-up. Shades of gray tend to be more interesting, and the end of Twilight hands us a can of worms that has a lot of potential for adding some nuance to Liu’s Justice League.

That is all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Marjorie M. Liu - The Last Twilight

I really love the Dirk & Steele series by Marjorie Liu. I even love the name “Dirk & Steele,” because, come on—how can you not? If you’re going to go there, you might as well go big (and hard and phallic-shaped). In Liu’s world, the “Others” among us include shapeshifters plus folks with a multitude of paranormal abilities: mind-reading, healing, metal forming, genies, that thing where you can sense something about an object by touching it (which has a name but I can’t remember it), a very interesting talent (Blue) for controlling electrical devices… all kinds of cool stuff. As might be expected, there is the Justice League— err, I mean, Dirk & Steele – for wearing the white hats, and the ominously-named Consortium, organized to exploit these talented folks, to the potential End of The World As We Know It. I was delighted to learn that Liu’s early writing career included a couple of X-Men titles – how cool is that for a cross-over to romance?

The Last Twilight delivers high adventure in an exotic, dangerous locale; it’s a densely-plotted, fast-paced, high-stakes move/counter-move story. The main character of Dr. Rikki Kinn is wonderfully different from our typical romance heroines – she’s smart and tough as hell, and while we eventually uncover her vulnerabilities, Liu manages to avoid making her seem like a stereotypical heart-of-gold character. Amiri’s human form is Nigerian, so this also qualifies as a multi-racial romance, although what with the shapeshifting and the particular evilness of the bad guys, that hurdle is pretty small potatoes in their relationship. I found that minimalist approach rather appealing.

Unfortunately though, I thought this book didn’t quite live up to expectations. Amiri, the hero, just didn’t quite click for me – I think that his voice just wasn’t quite right; it seemed a little too fragmented and dreamy. (There, I’ve used up my quota of “quites” for this piece.) There is a big plot point that I either missed or turns out to be a hole: without spoiling much, it turns out that the Bad Guys are after Kinn for her DNA, but I never did figure out what was supposed to be so amazing about her that the Bad Guys moved mountains (figuratively) and killed hundreds or thousands of people trying to get to her. I sped through to the end but this dangling thread left me thinking “Whuh--?”. I also got a little tired of waiting to find out what caused Kinn's scarring -- they payoff was all it was built up to be, I think, but (and you've seen this from me before) I can only take so many references to some awful event/secret before you need to tell me what it is.

If you haven’t checked out Dirk and Steele yet, do so at first opportunity. Reading them in order is good but not completely necessary—I haven’t been. My favorites so far have been Tiger Eye (#1) and Soul Song (#6). If you already like the series, you'll probably like this one just fine-- but if you haven't read any yet, do try at least one of my faves before you make up your mind.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Author Profile: Judith McNaught

Rhett and Scarlett. Jamie and Claire. Heathcliff and Cathy. Bogie and Bacall.

And Clayton and Whitney. And Julie and Zachary. And Ian and Elizabeth.

Don’t ask me why I haven’t read Whitney, My Love until now. Maybe I thought I’d already read it. Maybe McNaught needs a new blurb-writer (because based on the blurb I’d totally have passed). Maybe I’ve been avoiding McNaught thinking she was someone else. And sometimes I get all perverse and contrary and avoid something just because everyone else is telling me how great it is.

I make mistakes sometimes. It happens. Can you forgive me?

Whitney My Love is a bit of a slow starter, especially if you’re used to more contemporary pacing. Even worse, the plotting revolves around repeated “Big Misunderstandings,” which almost always puts a book into my dud category.

However, what not merely redeems WML but elevates it into the all-time favorite category, is McNaught’s ability to convince me that the hero and heroine are made for each other. Not just as in: “oh, he’s just perfect for her,” but as in: “these two people are soul mates, they complete each other, they could never be as happy, as fulfilled, with anyone else.” These couples are not pots and lids, they’re yin and yang, two halves a whole, incomplete without each other.

In a typical romance, the character meet each other, and in the course of facing some adversity, they fall in love, overcome the obstacles, and live happily ever after. If I can identify a pattern after only three books (I have a backlog to go through, hurray!), McNaught’s characters fall immediately in love, with a coup de foudre, even… but are then separated, by circumstance or their own folly or both.

To be completely honest, I would like to see a slightly more complex plot. But McNaught takes her time and builds layered, nuanced characters who are so appealing that you want them to behave perfectly. You expect them to do exactly the right thing. But then they do exactly the wrong thing. Really big, wrong things. You’ll be reading along and saying, “OMG, no, don’t do that!! Anything but that!!” even while you see that they really have no other choice.

McNaught is a master at setting up her character's dilemma such that choosing the fatal “X” is the only possible thing they can do if they are to remain true to themselves and to remain the person that their partner fell in love with. How they find their way back to each other, and learn to forgive each other and themselves, constitutes the meat of the story.

It’s very easy to do this badly—it goes something like this: Hero is an absolute paragon except for one fatal flaw: he is set up to hate, absolutely cannot abide, trait X. I mean, no X, no way, no how! Then Hero and Heroine fall in love, but of course, at some point, Hero learns, or is led to believe, that Heroine is an Xer. Or commits X in some way. With a flounce and a fight or what have you, drama ensues. But after some really good, possibly angry sex, he decides to forgive the Xness because he really really really really really really loves her. Wallbanger.

And if she isn’t really X, there was just some Big Misunderstanding about X and she isn’t really an Xer but was afraid to tell him about the apparent Xness and why it wasn’t really X… well, that would be a double-wallbanger. Note that the gender could easily be reversed here.

What keeps McNaught’s books from falling into this trap is the development of the characters to the point where they can forgive each other. It isn’t an out-of-character, false-ringing 180-degree turn for the sake of the HEA; it’s a progression, a dawning acceptance that happens in emotionally gripping stages. WML and Perfect just might be the ultimate character-driven novels. The choices the characters make, the things they do, seem almost inexorable as a result of who they are, and of McNaught’s ability to create such depth of character. In many ways, her books are not about falling in love so much as staying in love.

I was hoping to add something more recent to my selection of her books but I got too impatient to share my thoughts about the three I’ve read so far. So I can’t specifically vouch for everything she’s written, but Whitney, My Love, Almost Heaven, and Perfect are absolutely a gold standard. I might be the last romance fan to figure this out, but if you have somehow missed them too, don’t wait any longer.

And finally, if you’ll forgive a sappy reference:

These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
The trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They're the very things - we kill I guess
Pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us
You know it doesn't keep me warm
I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you, baby
And the more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I'd figured out
I have to learn again
I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But everything changes
And my friends seem to scatter
But I think its about forgiveness

Don Henley, “The Heart of the Matter”

Friday, March 7, 2008

Another List

A few posts down, O’Donovan asked, “What am I missing?” in regards to releases between June and December of 2008. So, more poking around… uh, I mean, researching yields the following list for books to watch for:

June, Liz Carlyle, Never Romance a Rake
June, Christine Warren, Walk on the Wild Side
July, Lynn Viehl, Twilight Fall
July, Eloisa James, Duchess by Night
July, Marjorie Liu, The Wild Road
July, Carly Phillips, Hot Property
July, Christina Dodd, Into the Shadow
August, Christina Dodd, Into the Flame
August, Julia London, American Diva
August, Stephanie Laurens, The Edge of Desire
August, Susan Andersen, Cutting Loose
August, Susan Mallery, Sweet Spot
August, Jennifer Crusie, Agnes and the Hitman (if you didn’t spring for this in hardback, now is the time!)
October, Lisa Kleypas, Seduce Me at Sunrise
October, Carly Phillips, Lucky Charm
September, JoAnn Ross, Crossfire
September, Christine Warren, One Bite with a Stranger
November, Nora Roberts, The Pagan Stone
November, Eloisa James, When the Duke Returns

That should help.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Suburban Renewal by Pamela Morsi

The first time I read this book, it didn’t make a big impression on me either way—not great, not terrible, not especially memorable. Which was a little disappointing, because her earlier contemporary, Doing Good, had really hit me as a book with a fresh and unique premise. (On the other hand, if it had been really memorable, I might not have re-read it!) This one also follows a non-traditional pattern, by opening with a challenge from Corrie to her husband on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary: should we stay married, or not? The subsequent story is a framed flashback with the point of view alternating between Corrie & Sam. Their marriage survives a series of crises, ranging from the annoying to the catastrophic; economic, medical, family – every area imaginable, and each one pushes one or both of the partners to the very limit of their resources. It seemed more than a little soap-opera-esque, with a bit of an anti-climactic ending.

However, with a few more years of my OWN marriage under my belt, I have to say, the story of Sam & Corrie took on far more meaning to me. My husband and I are coming up on our 10th anniversary. Since my first reading of this book, our family has gone through, among other things, 5 moves, (two cross-country), 9 job changes, 3 elementary schools, the birth of our second child, and a certain amount of drama with our extended families. We keep waiting for life to settle down, and it’s true that we have weathered our various crises, but it does seem like there is always another one just around the corner. This book offers both hope: these crises can bring us together; we can survive them—and horror: the crises never end, so we’d damn well better learn how to manage them.

As the title suggests, both characters re-invent themselves—and their relationship—more than once. Herein also lies the hope (we can adapt) and the horror (who will we be when it’s all over?)

Morsi’s characters reach a satisfying resolution, IMO. I particularly enjoyed the coming-of-age story arc for Corrie & Sam’s son, and I found Sam’s words to Corrie at the conclusion of the book to be tender and moving.

As for my story, the ending remains to be seen. But I found Suburban Renewal to be heartening. It resonated with me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Academics of Romance

One of these days, I will get around to constructing a "blogroll," or a list of other blogs that I read. In the meantime, if you like the idea of an academic or literary approach to the romance genre, check out Teach Me Tonight.

I'm fascinated.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Fantasy Vacation

No, sadly, I haven't been lounging in a Parisian coffee shop, sampling the cuisine in Madrid, or ogling the David in Florence. I have been on a bit of a reading tangent in the fantasy/paranormal genre lately.

Over the past couple of weeks I've gone through Anne Bishop's Dark Jewels trilogy and gotten started on Patricia Briggs' Mercedes Thompson series, so I've been neglecting my romance habit. But I replenished my TBR (To Be Read) pile at the used bookstore yesterday, so stay tuned.


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