Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Soup - June 29

Sunday Soup is... a little of this, a little of that, not too much work, and hopefully a tasty result.

Soup Dish:  book people are talking about..
Changing the focus of this a little - other book people out there do a much better job than I do of reporting the kerfuffles, so this will just be my little editorial corner. Links that caught my eye, and what I think about them, stuff like that... 

The Convoluted Calculus of Rating Books My initial reaction to this article was to go all kitty-butt-faced on this and think HOW VERY WRONG it would be to rate books in such ways. It then occurred to me that perhaps this was a tongue-in-cheek article and meant to be funny.  Or possibly both -- ie, the author perhaps does give a book 5 stars if:

“My friend loves this book and if she happens to see my rating, I want her to think I loved it, too, even though maybe under normal circumstances I would’ve given it three stars. Because she cares what I think, obviously, and it super matters that we have exactly the same feelings about everything all the time.”

... and thinks it's a really funny truth about book blogging.  I see comments that are laughing and agreeing. I don't know, maybe I'm having an Asperger moment, but I don't see the humor in it at all.  Of course, it's one of the reasons I don't rate books; I find myself unable to be that objective or consistent.  But I've been thinking about a system that would be something like this:

5- Strong recommend to any fan of the genre, auto-buy author
4- Loved it, will seek out this author again
3- OK, might read this author again but would not go out of my way.
2- Would actively avoid this author.
1- DNF, would recommend everyone avoid this author. (it would be pretty rare for me to say this about a book, but it seems like maybe a useful boundary.)

I feel like this is a scale I could use pretty consistently. I dunno.  I'm in the "musing" phase.

I absolutely loved this article about the social and evolutionary value of storytelling.  The neuroscience in there is fascinating, too:  "a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience."

This came out a couple of weeks ago, but I'm behind, and it's the first time in a long time that an article about romance novels has given me an itch to read up on ancient Greek philosophy: Argue for Your Wonk -- so it needs to be included here.  Will I read Aristotle this summer? I just might!

A new to me blog with a nice rundown of some favorite UF series -- everything that's on here that I've tried, I've really liked, so I'm going to have to check out the rest of them, obviously.

What I'm reading
The Windflower, by Laura London. You may recall that I went to a certain effort to snag this paperback at RT. I'm three-quarters or more through it as of now, and enjoying it very much. There's nothing at all subtle about this writing; it's just drenched in sexual imagery and tension from page one.  There is a level of descriptive detail in this book that I haven't seen in ages, and I am really loving it. It does make for a slower read, but it adds to my ability to imagine myself inside the story.  Another thing that I love about "old skool" romance-- and this book in particular does it really well-- is the development of complex secondary characters.

Having Her, by Jackie Ashenden. I really enjoyed this quirky couple, particularly the heroine. While I'm not a fan of the "desperate to lose my V-card" trope, that was probably the only negative for me. There's a BDSM element in the story, and refreshingly, it doesn't overwhelm the characters or the relationship they build -- it's well-done but it's not the focus.  Kara is a comic book artist, with candy-colored hair, facial piercings, and combat boots, while Vin is overbearing and overburdened. In a tiny way that I didn't care to think about too hard, Kara reminded me a little of my teenaged daughter and her interests and choices of self-expression, and I thought it was nice to see that population represented in romance.

Elemental Pleasure, by Lila Dubois. I think this one came on the thumb drive from RT14. It is very hard to keep all of those straight! An interesting fusion of menage and Illuminati-style conspiracy theory, the premise is that a very powerful secret society dictates three-way marriages among its members, using its influence and power to convince really smart and high-potential young individuals to join up.  It's not totally convincing, but I liked the characters and I'd give another book in the series a whirl for the fun of it.

Own the Wind, by Kristen Ashley. With Jessica's recent review in the back of my mind, as well as some recs from my book-club ladies, I grabbed this up from my RT14 stack (mass market format). In spite of their current popularity, I think this is the first "MC" (motorcycle club) romance I've read, too.  I liked it OK, and I didn't mind the level of detail that Jessica mentions. The oddest thing that struck me was the structure of the story - brief vignettes from the hero's point of view over the course of several years, until their adult interactions really start, and then most of it from the heroine's point of view, still with jumps in time of weeks and months. Overall, I don't mind Ashley's style, but I don't think I'm up for any more of her MC books. I don't really like the way women are portrayed in this "lifestyle."

That seems to be about it for this week... (let's just assume there are a tidy conclusionary couple of sentences here.  I don't seem to be able to come up with anything right at the moment.)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Vixen in Velvet, by Loretta Chase - Review

Title: Vixen in Velvet
Author: Loretta Chase
Publisher:  Avon
Series: The Dressmakers
Release Date: June 24, 2014
Reviewing: Advance e-copy
Reason for reading: Received a copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review. Also, I adore Loretta Chase.

The Short Answer 
Strongly recommend!  The characters are sharply drawn, with individual quirks, and the unfolding story is very much about the two of them finding their way to each other.  I especially love the way Lisburne's growing feelings are shown through his observations about Leonie. For example:
Dressmakers always had sharp things about them -- scissors, needles, pins. He had an odd sensation of having wandered inadvertently into danger.
And another one, just for fun:
He was, however, distracted by the stormy picture Leonie Noirot made, in a maniacally feminine concoction of white muslin: the swoosh of the billowing sleeves and the way the overdress-- robe -- whatever it was -- lifted and fell against the dress underneath and the agitated flutter of lace.  Her bosom rose and fell, the embroidery and lace like white-capped waves on a tumultuous sea. 

It was only a woman in a pet, by no means an unfamiliar sight.  all the same, he had to take a moment to slow his breathing to normal and drag his wits out from the dark seas into which they were sinking.

The Whole Scoop
Although this is the third in a trilogy, it stands alone, with no series plot arcs at all. Former characters get an occasional mention, but nothing that went before has a bearing on this story.

It is sometimes hard for me to find new things to say about a favorite author. Sometimes I prefer to just purchase my own copy of the book and read it purely for pleasure, without worrying about how I might review it.  In this case though, I was overcome by temptation and accepted the review copy.

As I expect from Chase, the characters are the main delight; the dialog sparkles; the trademark humor, offset by human frailties is there. So what can I say about this book, in particular, that I haven’t said about Chase’s work before?  A perfectly objective reader might find the plotting a bit weak. There are a few somewhat muddled threads about a society makeover, a poet, a charity, a scandal, and a bet. But the interactions between Leonie and Lisburne upstage these at every turn. The way they notice each other. The way they learn each other. It’s lovely and entirely romantic, and it totally works for me.

What underpins all these moving pieces, I think, is a story about beauty: what it means, how it is perceived, and how it is valued.  When the couple meets, it is at a viewing of a beautiful painting by Botticelli, and the hero and heroine are described as similar to the subjects of the painting.  The makeover thread is about changing society’s perception of a young woman from lackluster and clumsy to regal and desirable.  The poet in the story has been eviscerated by critics, yet his work is tremendously popular with the young women of the season – perception and value. And of course, Leonie's livelihood depends on making women feel, and be perceived as, beautiful.  I have many bits and pieces highlighted in the story supporting this idea, but one of my favorites is when Lisburne, in his pursuit to understand Leonie, discovers the Noirot sisters' charitable efforts to train young women (with otherwise dismal chances) at the sewing professions. Leonie shows him the wares that the girls have sewn and are offered up for sale:
[Lisburne speaking]  "Look at them. Little hearts and flowers and curlicues and lilies of the valley and lace.  Made by girls who've known mainly deprivation and squalor and violence." 

She considered the pincushions and watch guards and mittens and handkerchiefs. "They don't have Botticelli paintings to look at," she said. "If they want beauty in their lives, they have to make it."

"Madame," he said, "is it necessary to break my heart completely?"
In discussing the trilogy with friend, she was troubled by the nobleman-shopkeeper pairing.  Historically speaking, a shopkeeper is an entirely different matter than a governess, or a gently-reared girl fallen on hard times, or most of the variations on Cinderella tropes found in Regency romance.  I will say that this is pretty easy for me to suspend, but possibly not for everyone. What I see in this trilogy is the effort that Chase goes to to elevate the Noirot sisters from shopkeepers to artists.  From seamstress to couturier. To make the readers feel that these dresses, and the entire wardrobes, are indeed, works of beautiful art.

In the way of our beloved romance genre, these threads about beauty come to happy endings: the scandal mitigated, the ugly duckling has her transformation, and even the poet gets his girl.

The Bottom Line
If you need a plot-driven, fast-paced, action-oriented story, this might not be for you. But if you are interested in an exploration of character,  in watching attraction bloom gradually, with a bit of social commentary as a backdrop, there is no better author to bring that to you than Loretta Chase.

Around the Blogosphere
Long and Short Reviews
Addicted to Romance
Feminist Fairy Tale Reviews
Love Saves the World (she picked my favorite quote too!)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Summer Soup

Does your scheduling go all to hell in the summer? Mine sure does...

Soup Dish:  book people are talking about...
Amazon vs. Hachette. You don't need me to tell you about this; everyone is talking about it. I see this as another spasm in the death-throes of the 20th-century publishing model. Everyone involved in this industry is going to see their role adapt or die... or get lucky.  I think for a time, readers may be winners, but if Amazon is allowed to become a monopoly, that won't serve anyone well.  Yet no one is stepping up as a serious competitor in the ebook arena.  Why is that? I love my Kindle, and I love how easy it is to access thousands or even millions of books through Amazon...

BUT, on the other hand, I have music that I have purchased in 4 different formats (wax, cassette, CD, mp3...) and I refuse to do that with books. If a second format is required, it will be paper, and I won't require a device to read it.  More likely, since we're talking about text, people will find a way to strip off the DRM and import it onto any basic text reader.  I have zero ethical qualms about that, regardless of what it says in the fine print about my rights to read it on other devices or media, particularly if Amazon or anyone else feels that device lock-in is a good way to get me to pay for the same work multiple times.  No. I'm not talking about making dozens of copies or sharing more than I would a physical book, but I feel that if I've bought the book, I should be able to read it on whatever media I want to.

What I'm reading
Yeesh, it's been a long time since I've recapped my reading.  Two months! That's a lot of books. I think I'll stick to the highlights.

Most recently, I just finished First to Burn, by Anna Richland and liked it very much. I met Ms. Richland at RT and ended up sitting next to her on the flight home from DFW to Seattle. I'm afraid I may have distracted her a bit from the editing she was supposed to be doing on the second book in the series. The series features a cadre of warriors who were accidentally immortalized while fighting the Grendel alongside Beowulf.  Although I found the paranormal aspect of the worldbuilding to start a little bit slowly, the really unique bit of this book is that the hero is a military Special Forces officer, and a large part of the story takes place while the main characters are deployed in Afghanistan.  Ms. Richland writes about military life with authenticity and a great ear for the dialog.

Another RT introduction landed me with the book Stone Guardian, by Danielle Monsch. The premise is that an apocalyptic event crashes multiple dimensions together, allowing supernatural and magical creatures access to our world, with a lot of scary violence ensuing. I enjoyed the world-building quite a lot but I had a little trouble connecting with the characters, particularly the heroine. She vacillated between super-sweet and sarcastic wise-cracking, which felt inconsistent to me and undermined the romantic chemistry. I may at least sample the next one though because I do find the world intriguing.

A lot of people have been talking about Laura Florand, so I decided to give her a try. I thought the books were overpriced, so I managed to get a copy of The Chocolate Thief through the library. I suspect the main attraction of Florand's work must be the sensual way she writes about chocolate, because that really is wonderful, and her writing overall is perfectly fine. However, I didn't like her characters at all.  The author shows us the hero's vulnerabilities, but instead of endearing him to me he just seemed both pompous and insecure. But the heroine was much worse. A poor little rich girl, her life's dream is to expand the family's mass-produced chocolate dynasty (think the Hershey family) with a line of exclusive high end gourmet chocolate. Although the author attempts to convince us that she's a business genius, her meeting and approach with the hero-- the best chocolatier in Paris, and therefore the world- are completely ridiculous. We are then apparently supposed to feel sorry for the spoiled wealthy heiress who didn't get what she wanted. I DNF'd it.  Also, not for nothing, but it was almost impossible for me to figure out the reading order for this series.  Aggravating.

I'd been meaning to try Jade Lee ever since RT12, because she was such a great personality.  It took me awhile to get around to it, but I finally downloaded and read The Devil's Bargain.  I did finish this one, but I struggled tremendously with the premise. I pretty much hated it.  The hero is a viscount who has fallen on hard times, and hits upon the thoroughly disgusting scheme of pimping destitute women into the marriage market. More specifically, the market as a second (or third, or whatever) bride to an elderly, wealthy man who would like to have a well-trained hooker/wife available, now that his duty to God and country is done.  In some ways, it's rationalizable: these are women who would be left in desperate circumstances.  The viscount arranges for a marriage settlement and provides a "guaranteed product" to the grooms.  He knows the vices of the grooms in question and will not "do business" with the more depraved. However, the training of the young women, while falling short of actually divesting them of their virginity, was humiliating and degrading and I just could not get over my ICK factor.  Surprisingly, I did like the way the twist resolved the seemingly irreconcilable black moment. I would try a different book by this author but it would depend on the premise.

So after a couple of these disappointing reads, I thought Sarah Mayberry might be the antidote I was looking for. I started The Other Side of Us on the plane to RT14, and happily, I was right. I really liked that both characters were at a point in their lives where a romantic entanglement was just a really, really terrible idea-- him VERY fresh from divorce, and she recovering physically from a bad car accident. If you were best friends with either of these people, you'd be telling them, "sure, have some fun, but this is not the moment to get serious!"  Great chemistry; resonant, three-dimensional characters; and grown-up (but not perfect) emotional give and take. Strong recommend.

That's about a third of the books I've read since the last update, but it seems like a good stopping place.  Hopefully I can get back on track with more regular Sunday Soups.  RT14 really did inspire me to keep on blogging, and I'm going to try to get back to reviewing too.  I have some thoughts about the upcoming Loretta Chase book and I'm working through the biggest #wtf book I've read in a while; also known as Hate to Love You by Elise Alden. Angela James of Carina Press called it a "divisive" book at RT and I can see why. It just kind of begs to be talked about.


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