Sunday, October 31, 2010

Book Review: Fully Involved [2007]

Fully Involved is the first book I've read by Erin Dutton, and overall it was a decent story. Reid Webb is a firefighter who loses Jimmy, her best friend and partner, in a terrible accident and blames herself. Jimmy's sister Isabel Grant, who now has custody of his orphaned son, also blames Reid for encouraging Jimmy to become a firefighter in the first place. To complicate matters further, Reid has had a crush on Isabel since they were both children, and is desperately afraid of betraying her feelings to a woman who apparently a) is straight, b) hates her, and c) has custody of a child that Reid has half-raised, and may choose to move away with him. Isabel struggles with becoming the parent of a depressed, angry child and the restrictions that places on her work time even as she realizes that she feels friendship, and possibly more, for Reid. However, feeling that her brother threw his life away as a firefighter, how could she ever become romantically involved with Reid?

Grade: B-

Random Thoughts:

Fully Involved deals heavily with the nobility of firefighters and the firefighting profession, which isn't really my cup of tea. Why did I pick it up, you ask? Good question. It might have been the flames on the cover. I did appreciate the depth of the story, but occasionally it felt as if it might be a bit too complicated, between all the tragedies and the job changes and the child-raising and the exploration of firefighting as a dangerous but necessary career.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes

Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Beyond the Highland Mist [1999]

Once in a while I just chuck my TBR list and pick up something random at work that catches my eye. In this case it was the audio version of Karen Marie Moning's Beyond the Highland Mist, the first of the Highlander series. I'm a sucker for a good Scottish accent, so I was curious as to how a narrator would handle reading an novel set largely in 16th century Scotland. Phil Gigante (who apparently calls the genre "kilt lifters" instead of "bodice rippers") did a very good job, which means that I have spent the last week slipping into brogue at every opportunity. More than usual, I mean. The plot, however, wasn't really my cup of tea.

The fairy king and his fool are furious that a mere mortal, one Sidheach James Lyon Douglas, Earl of Dalkeith (known as "The Hawk"), has managed give their queen immeasurable carnal pleasure. The Hawk is a legendary lover of women, and the fairies are determined to punish him by marrying him to a completely unwilling partner. Adrienne de Simone escaped a harrowing relationship with a beautiful, treacherous man in New Orleans, only to be transported to 16th century Scotland and forcibly married to the Hawk. He is smitten with her on sight, but she has vowed never to fall for a beautiful man again . . .

Grade: B-

As a general rule, I am not fond of romance novels that contain extended falconry-based metaphors in which the woman is compared to a free-spirited bird who needs to be tamed by a master's hand. I nearly gave up listening when Sidheach actually hooded and bound Adrienne, but I put my eyes back in my head and muddled through somehow. I would describe the book as Outlander Lite, in which the setting of Dalkeith is vibrant and interesting, the romance complicated and the characters fairy well-developed. However, the historical depth--the sense of characters being placed in a larger world that might have a significant impact on their personal and political well-being--is largely absent. There are a few well-drawn supporting characters, but very little sense of community.

Random Thoughts:

The Hawk is rather unbelievable as a character--"this man who liberally dripped honor, valor, compassion, and chivalry"--in addition to being the hottest man in Scotland ("corded muscle," hung like a horse, bronzed skin, etc.), hand-carving all the items for his future children in the nursery that he designed, loving his mother, being good to his tenants, and so on. Luckily his perfection is redeemed (for me, at least) by his determination to view Adrienne as a woman to be claimed and branded as his.

It was sometimes a bit awkward to be listening to the sexy bits of a romance novel being read out loud. And by awkward I mean unintentionally hilarious. If I could run a search on the number of times the word "shaft" was used, it would definitely be in double figures, which would be only slightly more than the number of comparisons between that body part and the same part on a stallion. On the plus side, having someone read names like Sidheach and Aoibheal for me meant that I didn't have to figure it out myself and keep getting drawn out of the narrative trying to pronounce things in my head.

It's not clear if the fairy queen ever actually did sleep with the Hawk, or whether she is just using him to get revenge on her lovers. Another shoe that never really dropped was King James, who used the Hawk cruelly during the years of his service (even assigning him to sleep with a court lady), and who would definitely not approve of the Earl of Dalkeith finding real love with Adrienne. Maybe this is addressed in later books in the series?

ETA: An amusing new review of Outlander. Jamie is rather too perfect as well, now that I think about it.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Book Review: Blameless [2010]

The problem with reading something like Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series is that when you finish a book like Blameless and the next one isn't immediately available, you feel bereft. You ask the air around you "where is the next book?" and sniff in a pitiful way. But there is, sadly, nothing to be done about it until next July. WARNING: There are spoilers for the first two books in this review.

Blameless picks up where Changeless left off, with Alexia inexplicably pregnant and estranged from her stubborn, outraged husband, the werewolf Alpha Lord Maccon. Someone also seems to be trying to kill her, and the morally upstanding Queen Victoria has kicked her off the Shadow Council. To make matters worse, Lord Akeldama has disappeared from London altogether, along with his efficient network of beautiful young men. Lady Maccon, with the support of Madame Lefoux and her father's capable ex-butler Floote, proceeds to Italy. There she hopes to find some method of proving herself innocent of adultery with the assistance of the supernatural-loathing Templars. While Professor Lyall attempts to restore Lord Maccon to sense and determine why Britain's vampires are so set on killing Alexia, the lady herself discovers intriguing new information about her preternatural state and the potential capabilities of her unborn child.

Grade: A-

Blameless was a very enjoyable, quick read. I suggest reading it while sipping a delicious cup of tea. As I expected, it was filled with clever turns of phrase and fascinating revelations, such as the fact that pesto is actually an infamous Italian antisupernatural weapon. By this, the third book, the major characters are well-established, and Carriger introduced a few new faces as Alexia traveled through France and Italy. More tidbits about her father's mysterious and colorful past were revealed. However, yet again, there was an almost criminal lack of Lord Akeldama throughout the bulk of the novel, although his scene with Biffy (I don't want to spoil it) near the end of the book was incredibly moving. I eagerly await the next installment!

My reviews of Soulless and Changeless.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: No

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sports I Love: Football

It's past time for another entry in this series, and football season is well underway. Unlike some of the other sports I've discussed, football is not one I've ever really played. I am exclusively a TV football watcher and an armchair critiquer, albeit one with the ability to get interested most games, whether or not I have any history of caring about the teams involved (see rooting hierarchy at the bottom of this post).

My family has a football history that I've always felt connected to, even though I am way too young to have known the primary person involved. You see, my grandmother's uncle was Knute Rockne of "win one for the Gipper" fame. His family--my great-grandmother's family--emigrated from Voss, Norway to Chicago, and he ended up coaching at Notre Dame. My grandmother lived in South Bend as well for the entire time that I knew her, and sometimes talked about going to Knute Rockne-related events. I know she was proud of the association, and I have the now-decrepit Notre Dame gear to prove it. My family's trip to Norway for the Rockne Family Reunion in 1994 (I think?) was one of the more memorable events of my childhood.

My earliest memories of football involve watching the Utes with my dad, especially rivalry games with BYU. Usually we would watch on TV, but sometimes we would walk up to the stadium and actually go to a game, which was incredibly exciting for young me. We lived close enough to the U of U campus (dad always walked or biked to work) that I could usually hear the marching band practicing from my bedroom window, especially on quiet nights. At some point before I went to high school, our family's football enthusiasm died off, I'm not sure exactly why. I still cared in an oblique way about the Utes, but I focused my attention on my high school team, attending the occasional game and reveling in our victories over East High. My college team was pretty awful (our swim team was much better), although I did attend games to support my friend in the pep band. We did occasionally manage to beat Kenyon or OWU. I never embraced the fervor for Ohio State football that many of my classmates had been born and bred to. During my graduate school stint at the University of Wisconsin, I embraced Badger football, although I never got to attend a game.

I remember watching the Bears win the Superbowl in the 80s, and being vaguely happy about it. Growing up in Utah, there is pretty much a void in terms of which NFL team you should like. The Broncos are the closest choice, I guess, but Denver is an eight hour drive away. A lot of my classmates liked the Raiders, probably because it was cool, but then Raiders gear was banned from school. After I moved to New England, I started to watch the Patriots whenever I got the chance. My partner disliked football, but the sport eventually won her over during the run up to one of the Superbowls. I do try to catch the Patriots games if at all possible, although I wouldn't call myself a "die-hard" fan. I would like to actually go to a game some time, but I think the stars would have to align for that to happen.

In the meantime, I very much enjoy flipping through the channels on a Saturday or Sunday and rooting for teams using the following hierarchy:

College Football
Definitely root for: Utah, Wisconsin, Iowa, Notre Dame, Kansas
If they're not playing, root for: Anyone in the Big Ten vs. any other conference (above excluded). Determine rooting for within-Big-Ten conference games via complicated formula.
If no Big Ten games, root for: The underdog. Whoever has better uniforms (this excludes the Oregon Ducks automatically).
If none of the above: Change the channel, it's probably not worth trying to watch college football.

Definitely root for: Patriots, Bears
If they're not playing, root for: The Broncos, teams that have former Patriots players that aren't jerks
If none of the above, root for: The underdogs of the Midwest.
If no believable underdogs, root for: A good football game, maybe one with a safety or successful on-side kick.

Meditation Index

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Book Review: The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!" [2001]

I picked up this Harlequin romance by Cathy Gillen Thacker for the title alone, make no mistake. It's the last book of a series, The Lockharts of Texas, that I definitely haven't read the rest of, including The Bride Said, "Surprise!", The Bride Said, "Finally!", and The Bride Said, "I Did?" While the punctuation of all four titles is extremely irksome, I feel that The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!" is definitely the "best" of the lot. Apparently the rest of her sisters weren't virgins when they got married, for one thing. Also, VERY IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER, as far as I remember, she never did say "wow" during the course of the book (despite having over two-hundred pages in which to accomplish this feat), and certainly not in the sort of salacious situation that a seasoned romance reader like myself might imagine and hope for. I could be wrong, but I am not reading it again to make sure.

Kelsey Lockhart and Brady Anderson have started a promising ranch business together, but they need more money, fast. In order to get a loan, they get married to prove to the loan officer (a family friend) that their business arrangement is going to be a lasting partnership. The notoriously fickle (and VIRGINAL) Kelsey has a reputation for never following through, and Brady is hiding a mysterious past from everyone. Of course. It has something to do with the guy that keeps coming around and being vaguely threatening. And then Kelsey and Brady end up having sex after several close calls, I forget on which pretense, and fall in love! Brady turns out to be the secret heir to an oil fortune! They get married again, but this time for reals! THE END.

Grade: C-/D+

I probably would have cared more about the characters if I had grown to know and love them in the earlier books in the series, so I am being a little lenient about the lack of introduction. While reading, I remembered yet again why I usually shy away from series romance titles: there inevitably comes a point (not nearly close enough to the end) where I am rolling my eyes and waving the book around and wishing they would GET TOGETHER ALREADY. The obstacles are the type that, given the weak character and plot development up to that point (generally post-sex but pre-"I love you"), stretch the bounds of believability.

I also dislike the gender roles as they are played out in mainstream romance, although this book at least featured an equal business partnership instead of a handsome gajillionaire (which Brady is) falling for his subordinate. Despite her "tomboy" status (referred to several times), Kelsey is unable or unwilling to:
  • Bargain for a good price on horses, despite the fact that she owns a ranch
  • Work a computer
  • Disobey Brady when he orders her into the house
  • Talk to her sister about a broken laptop without his help
My eyes did a lot of rolling, let me tell you. So, in conclusion, don't bother reading The Virgin Bride Said, "Wow!", because I've already done the work for you. Just sit back and enjoy the sheer beauty of that title.

Book Review Index
Dead Mother: Yes, two for two! So many dead mothers, it's hard to handle!

    Monday, October 18, 2010

    Book Review: Mockingjay [2010]

    The long-anticipated conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay was released with much fanfare and twittering and online salivation. Thanks to my friend, I did not have to wait in the holds list forever to receive my copy, but I admit that it still took me quite a while to get in to the book. I have been having the same trouble writing this review; apparently Mockingjay has some kind of dampening effect on my production.

    Mockingjay picks up shortly after the conclusion of Catching Fire with Peeta a prisoner and Gale, Katniss, and her family living in the restrictive underground bunkers of District 13 after the fiery destruction of District 12 by the Capitol. After Katniss uses her leverage as the Mockingjay to ensure Peeta's safety, the rebels begin a marketing campaign (for lack of a better word) and military offensive to reclaim each district from the Capitol's hold. As they inexorably move toward a final confrontation with President Snow inside the Capitol itself, Katniss struggles with her love for Gale and Peeta and learns to negotiate live as a living symbol of hope for a cause that might not ultimately be trustworthy.

    Grade: B+

    I admit that I couldn't put Mockingjay down, once the narrative picked up, but it did take quite a while for that to happen. The action was sporadic through the first two-thirds of the book, with scenes of life in District 13 interspersed with fast-paced and danger-fraught military encounters. Katniss, for all her good qualities, can be a difficult character to empathize with. I experienced a vague sense of disappointment with the ending, but haven't been able to put my finger on exactly why, or what I would have done differently. Perhaps it was even too . . . hopeful?

    Random Thoughts:

    The touches of Roman influence, especially the gladiator games and the names of the Capitol characters, were intriguing.

    I did end up liking the Hunger Games series quite a lot, especially its social commentary, but I didn't love the Katniss-Gale-Peeta dynamic, which at times felt overwrought and unnecessary. The trilogy tells a story where horrible things happen to basically good people, sometimes for no reason, and it kept that atmosphere consistent throughout the books, right to the bitter end. At times it almost seemed that Collins would opt for the nuclear holocaust version of events, given how many times weapons of mass destruction were referenced, but I guess then she would have lost her first-person narrator.

    Speaking of the end [SPOILER ALERT], I don't believe that Katniss--under any circumstances--would have been all right with subjecting other people to a new Hunger Games. That just didn't sit right with me, considering all that she had been through as a tribute, even if revenge against the Capitol had been a motive--she knows from the example of her prep team that not all Capitol citizens are evil like President Snow, despite their wasteful ways. I'm also not so sure that she would eventually cave and have children, given her absolute resolve against it in Catching Fire.

    My review of Catching Fire here.

    An article about the extreme violence in the Hunger Games.

    An article about the parallels between the trilogy and reality shows.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes, but not the main character's, so I guess No (someday I should figure out the rules for this stat)

    Tuesday, October 12, 2010

    Book Review: Braggin Rights [2007]

    I have been on a bit of a lesbian fiction jag lately, and that makes it easier to pick out the wheat from the chaff. I am afraid that Kenna White's Braggin Rights was in the Cream of Wheat category: not nearly as tasty as something homemade. It had several elements that made it promising (including one of my favorites, Enforced Bed Rest), but the narrative never quite came together in a believable way.

    Taylor Fleming is a rough-riding cowboy who consistently has trouble with a senile neighbor, Rowdy Holland, stealing her family's cattle. When she confronts Rowdy's daughter about his behavior, she is stunned to find that Jen Holland is the "dream woman" she had met and pissed off at a gay bar the night before. After the women agree that Jen will talk to her father, neither expects that the next time they meet will be when Jen hires on to nurse Taylor through an accident that resulted in two broken legs. Jen needs the money to save her father's farm from foreclosure, but will their initial dislike of each other ever turn to love?

    Yes, yes it will.

    On the plus side, Taylor and Jen are very tame names, by lesbian romance standards. The romance had some nice elements, and the story took a twist that I didn't expect at the end. There were some believable obstacles, which doesn't always happen in romance novels. The main problem I had was that White didn't show enough of the development of their feelings for one another. They got off on the wrong foot, and then it seemed like they were suddenly deeply in love and negotiating cast-bound intimacy. More time was spent, page-wise, on a scene where Jen conquers her fear of horses than was given to, say, them discussing how Taylor was rude to Jen at the bar because she was looking . . . for Jen. Rewriting the book in my head had the effect of completely taking me out of the story. In addition, some of the euphemistic language used was more, um, creative than erotic (my favorite was the repeated use of "chamber"--I'll leave you to guess what body part that described), often destroying the flow of the scene as I recovered from my amusement. I do like Kenna White, and I will no doubt read other books by her, but I don't feel like this was her best effort.

    Grade: C+

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes

    Sunday, October 10, 2010

    Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher [2008]

    I have not read much nonfiction in 2010, in contrast to my somewhat regular consumption in 2009, but Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective has been on my TBR list for several years now. When the folks at Unshelved noted that the audio version was narrated by Simon Vance, that was all the incentive I required to put it on my holds list immediately.1

    In a country house in 1860, three-year old Saville Kent was brutally murdered and his body disposed of in a privy, most likely by a member of the household. Suspects in what came to be known as the Road Hill Murder included Saville's father, governess, and siblings. After local police bungled and obstructed the investigation, detective-inspector Jack Whicher was sent from London to work the case, which had gained fervent national interest due to detailed and sensational newspaper accounts. When Whicher identified Saville's sixteen-year old half-sister Constance as the murderer, but was unable to produce anything but circumstantial evidence, his career was seriously jeopardized and the family's privacy was permanently shattered. The solution to the mystery, unraveling in the eye of a scandal-hungry public, took intriguing twists and turns over the course of the next century.

    The book is nonfiction that reads more like fiction. On the surface, it's about a crime committed in Victorian England, but Summerscale uses the murder to tease out the complicated relationships between public and private spaces, between the working and middle classes, between husband and wife and first families and second families, and most importantly to examine the rise of the detective, both historically and in popular literature. Along the way, the reader learns word origins, peculiarities of Victorian behavior, historical tidbits, and a little bit about the religious controversies of the late 1800s. A fascinating read.

    Grade: A-

    Random Thoughts:

    As an ex-Victorianist-in-training, I often had the sensation that I was reading someone's dissertation, particularly because she tied it so strongly to detective and sensation fiction like The Moonstone and Lady Audley's Secret. Therefore, I spent a lot of the book thinking about how much grueling research Summerscale must have conducted in order to generate such a well-nuanced depiction of not only the crime itself, but the overall atmosphere of Victorian society. She uses weather reports, railroad schedules, portraits of the people involved, and other primary sources to set the scene with minute details for each stage of the investigation. One of the reviews described her approach to the material as "fastidious," and that pretty much nails it. The voracity of Victorian appetite for sensation (fed by and resulting in a constant stream of newspaper articles) no doubt gave her an absolute wealth of information from which to generate her story. The overwhelming amount of information about the case also points to a public fascination--on the level of an OJ or similar trial today--with murder and scandal that clearly did not develop as recently as one might have theorized.

    The pros of reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher in print form include the photo pages, as well as voluminous end notes that reveal the scholarly approach behind Summerscale's fiction-esque narrative. The pros of listening to the audio book: Simon Vance. The audio version also has an insert that depicts the floor plan of Road Hill House, which is pretty cool, even though you wouldn't necessarily be scanning it while driving.

    For more about how the book was written, see Bookslut's lengthy interview with Summerscale here.

    Book Review Index
    Dead Mother: Yes

    1Seriously, I am strongly considering checking the catalog for whatever Simon Vance has narrated and putting it on my list. I know him primarily as the dreamy voice of the Temeraire series, but I am more than willing to listen to him talk to me on just about any subject. Needless to say, I follow him on Twitter.