Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Summer Without Rain By Christie Gordon

Generally, when I dislike a book, I try to find something good about it. Not just something good to say, I try to find some kernel of enjoyment for myself, to hang onto through all the badness. Unfortunately, I don't think I can come up with one good thing to say about Christie Gordon's A Summer Without Rain.

First of all, from a strictly technical point of view, the book is plagued with typos, grammatical and punctuation mistakes and formatting errors. I'd be embarrassed to let my fanfic go out looking like this novel, let alone my professional novel which, presumably I am getting paid for.

Truth be told, I'm not even sure how to characterize the rest of the story. Though I also have a list of talking points I put together in the course of reading the book, there was so much wrong and so much I disliked about the story that I truthfully feel I won't even be able to capture them all or adequately communicate how awful it was.

Let's start here: very early in the book, I thought to myself, "Oh, God. This is a bad yaoi novel."

A short time later, I was looking up the author on Goodreads for an unrelated piece of information (I wanted to know if she was actually from Ireland, where the book is placed) and I saw that she had recently made a blog entry titled "Yaoi versus M/M Romance: What's the difference? Is there a difference?" In the course of her post, Gordon writes: I tend to think Yaoi takes this romantic emotion thing a bit further. Maybe the men don't really act like real men - but dang, we're surrounded by real men all the time, can't we just have some made up men that act how we'd like them to act for once?

To which I thought, and commented to my husband, "I don't want my men to act like this. EVER."

I suppose I should have put a disclaimer somewhere in the earlier paragraphs: though I have nothing against yaoi or fans thereof (I actually quite liked Under Grand Hotel, myself), I am not a fan of the yaoi paradigm. It's purely personal preference, but I don't generally like my men pretty and androgynous, I don't like the rigid bottoming politics/conventions of seme and uke, and I don't like the hysterical high-school level drama and I don't like the crying. My gods, the crying… (I told y'all about how I feel about the crying…)

Though Gordon doesn't really set up a seme/uke relationship between her protagonists, Shannon and Ciaran, in nearly every other way I can think of, she's borrowed the flowery, overly emotional, cartoonish, weepy conventions of yaoi. In fact, it was literally impossible for me to think of Shannon and Ciaran as real people and I could only picture them as exaggerated manga men…though calling them men is a bit of a stretch for me.

That's not a slight against men who have a less "manly" deportment; in the course of the book both Shannon and Ciaran fail to demonstrate even basic behaviors of adulthood, down to small things like the assertion of independence and separation from one's family.

Okay, wait. Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. (spoilers and bile under the cut)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Oleander House by Ally Blue

Given my recent history with the genre, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous, starting Ally Blue's Oleander House. It's nothing against Blue; I just don't know her work and lately I start every book with a sense of trepidation. And so, when a book is actually a good read, I find myself appreciating it more than ever before and with a great sense of relief.

(I had a similar experience regarding acting after watching three seasons of Dante's Cove, but I digress)

Oleander House is the first in Blue's Bay City Paranormal Investigations series. Newcomer Sam Raintree is starting his first job for the investigation group, a haunted house. His ability to put his best foot forward, however, is a bit derailed by his immediate attraction to his good-looking, married-with-kids boss, Bo.

What surprised me most about Oleander House (and pleasantly so) is how willing Blue was to put the simmering romance between Bo and Sam on the back burner, in favor of her plot. Though the romance is a strong thread throughout and feeds into the haunted house plot, the haunted house is definitely her A storyline and the romance more the subplot. More, the haunted house plot-line was (although telegraphed much earlier than it took the characters to figure it out) interesting, quick-paced, had internal logic and fed well into her romantic subplot. There was also a decent creep factor here. I love haunted house stories and there were subtle rumblings here that reminded me of Marble Hornets (not a book), or House of Leaves, or even The Haunting of Hill House. Though I think the 'resolution' of the haunted house plotline was a little weak at the end, it was still logical, dramatic and fit well with the story Blue had set up. The secondary characters were good and balanced, fleshed out and individual and the dialogue was excellent, natural and snappy as actual conversation.

On the other hand, I wasn't entirely sold on the romance angle. And this is why: (spoilers under the cut)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Conquest by S.J. Frost

Conquest, by S.J. Frost, was a book I disliked so much my husband was afraid to be around me while I was reading. I can't blame him; if I'd been on the other end, the number of sighs, growls and outright shouts of, "OH, COME THE FUCK ON!" would've been…offputting, to say the least. It's a book I disliked so much that I made a list. A list of talking points I wanted to cover in the course of this review.

But first, a couple few disclaimers:

1. One of my problems with the book is that of personal preference. I don't like insta-love books, where the protagonists see each other across a crowded room and immediately know they're meant for each other forever. It's a valid story type, a lot of people like it, I'm just not one of them. I prefer stories where the protags have to work for their relationship and their happy ever after.

2. I don't like stories where the protagonists are (for a given value) perfect, and all the story's conflict comes from the cruel, uncaring world outside. I don't think all relationship conflict in the story needs to come from internal conflict, but I want a balance of internal growth with external drama.

3. (And this one should be obvious, but I'm gonna say it anyway) This is all just how I felt about this book and is, obviously, predicated on those above two issues. So take this review how you will.

Truth be told, I feel like Conquest failed me on two fronts: technically, the writing itself wasn't very good (I'll get into more detail about that in a second) and the story itself was both uninteresting and contrived (more on that, too).

Okay. So we're going to skip over the fairy-tale set up of how the band of the title, Conquest, goes from being a nowhere bar band to being the financial rival of the top names in the business in under a year, okay? Just…handwave all that, because…whatever. Just handwave it, all right?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Downtime by Tamara Allen

You know, it's funny. I find it's harder for me to write about a book that I liked than one I didn't. I'm not sure why that would be, but I'm certainly finding it to be the truth as I sit here and try to think about how to talk about Tamara Allen's Downtime.

When my book group was doing nominations for this month's book, I perused the blurbs for all the suggestions and I'd stuck Downtime on my 'to-read' list then, based mostly on my own fondness for time-travel stories. I had a mental mix-up about what book was actually our book of the month—the group has two 'featured' books, generally, the Book of the Month and the Featured Author book and I got them crossed—and so I didn't actually acquire or start reading Downtime until a couple days ago.

Getting the book in an ebook version was actually rather tricky. None of my usual vendors carried it and I ended up having to go through Smashwords, which was my first time at that site. Nonetheless, the book was worth the little extra effort for acquisition.

Downtime is the story of Morgan Nash, an American FBI agent in London, who gets sucked back to 1888. And, as it's a romance, there's obviously a love story there.

I'm looking at those words and they sound terribly dry, but it's safe to say that Allen infuses the premise with a lot more life and color than I do by that description. (spoilers beneath the cut)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Into Temptation

I have to confess (heh) that I wanted to see the movie Into Temptation primarily for Jeremy Sisto. And, given the trailer and my history of watching "my boys" in the movies they've worked, I was truthfully expecting very little. But instead, I really enjoyed the movie, as bittersweet to the taste as it turned out to be.

Sisto plays a priest, John Buerline, who hears the confession of a prostitute, Linda (played by Kristen Chenowith), who tells him she plans to kill herself on her birthday, leading Beuerline in a long, agonizing search to find her before she can carry out her plan.

One of the things that I really liked is the lack of sensationalism. Prostitution isn't made out to be something glamorized or titillating, neither is Linda's abusive background. The priests of the piece, Buerline and his mentor, O'Brien, are merely men and, while they have their flaws, they're mostly the everyday venal sins of regular people. The movie itself feels very stripped down in that respect; rather than making everyone within it larger than life, it puts a magnifying glass to something very ordinary, showing shine beneath the tarnish.

It's rather funny that I ended my day with this movie because I was talking with some friends today about another movie that we'd all seen at different times, Six: The Mark Unleashed, which is very distinctly a Christian film. It's also an awful film and one of the places I felt it failed (which I talked about in this conversation) was in the fatuous, inaccessible way that it portrayed faith and the value thereof.

On the other hand, I felt like Into Temptation was a far superior film in that respect, even though it is not specifically a religious movie. Buerline is something of a misfit priest; he has trouble relating to his congregants, to the men and women who come to the shelter he started, to people in general. He's well-meaning, but he's soft and rather na├»ve and lacks the self-confidence and charisma that could overcome those first two obstacles. What he does have, however, is that deep-seated, rock-solid need to help. To save. And while the jaded, more streetwise part of me spent a lot of the movie going, "Oh, god, John, no…" I did and do have to respect his determination to do what he felt was the best thing, through both embarrassing and dangerous situations. More specifically, though we never see Buerline pray (outside of church services) and though we see very little outward sign of his faith, his persistence and his genuine emotion and empathy illuminate his character and his faith far better than any amount of spoken prayer. Buerline walks it like he talks it. And while it's a faith not always certain of its footing, it is a faith that is always striving, which seems like the more workable and more reasonable kind.

Too, I really enjoyed his relationship with O'Brien. Though their scenes were often short, the genuineness of respect and camaraderie and friendship were warmly present without a lot of exposition. O'Brien's concern and protectiveness for his friend…and his understanding that Buerline had to go his own way, regardless of any advice given was beautifully acted and beautifully presented. It's not too often, anymore that clergy are presented with such quiet even-handedness and it was really refreshing to watch.

(Spoilers beneath the cut)

Dead & Buried by Barbara Hambly

You know, I do, sometimes, also, read books which I actually enjoy!

I'm a huge Barbara Hambly fan. Though I won't say that I own everything she's written (there are definitely some short stories I haven't gotten my hands on), I will say that I own—and have read—nearly everything she's written, including obscurities like the Beauty and the Beast tie-in novel. I am a Barbara Hambly fan.

So there was much rejoicing in the land when I heard that the British publisher Severn House was picking up a new Benjamin January book (hopefully with more to come) and even more joy when I got my hands on my own copy of Dead & Buried.

If you've been reading this journal at all lately, you know I've been struggling through a number of books that have left me less than happy. The Husband, too, because he has to hear me growling about it. So Dead & Buried was really good for both of us. On Twitter, I compared it to aloe on sunburned skin and yes, it really was that great a relief to me.

For those not in the know, the Benjamin January books are historical mysteries set in pre-Civil War New Orleans (largely). Benjamin January is a free man of color, a surgeon and a musician who returns to Louisiana after a long absence in Paris. Hambly has an advanced degree in History and it shows in her work. Her great love for New Orleans comes through with equal transparency, both the city itself and the deep-reaching, complicated culture that is its background and backbone.

In reading D&B, there was a pleasure, of course, in seeing again characters like Ben, Rose, Hannibal and Abishag Shaw. But there was also a familiar pleasure in just reading again those names which we only know in passing, like Bernadette Metoyer and Crowdie Passebon. It's a quiet but clever illustration of the world Ben lives in, to give the reader that experience of vague but neighborly connection, the familiarity of the faces and personalities that surround him and inform his reality.

On a more personal level, one of the reasons I love the series so much is that I feel like Hambly really gets both the complications of family life and that of Southern families, in particular. I feel such an odd sense of nostalgia as I read the books, bittersweet reminders of my own relatives and relationships with them. I can see my own family peeking through the pages and it's a rare thing for me to find an author that can or does evoke that, let alone so well.

I also always enjoy the construction of Hambly's mysteries, similar to a Hidden Picture puzzle, where all the pieces are present but require the right focus and context to put together. I like that they can be put together, by the reader, given enough thought and I like that, even so, they don't always turn out like I thought they would.

(spoilers beneath the cut)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Soul Bonds By Lynn Lorenz

Each book I read seems to raise the bar, but I honestly think Soul Bonds is one of the worst books I have ever read. This is especially annoying because I'd read one of Lynn Lorenz's books previously and while it didn't blow me away, I'd found it perfectly readable. This, on the other hand? Not so much.

Lorenz's prose is still perfectly readable, if a little florid (there's a lot of use of 'backdoor' and 'sweet rose', if you know what I mean). But the premise, the characterization and execution are all so painfully ludicrous that I couldn't wait to get to the end and, if I wasn't reading it for a specific purpose, I would've put it down long ago. Worse, there's actually a kernel of a really brilliant idea here (imo) that Lorenz completely overlooked.

(completely and incredibly spoilery beneath the cut)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Mask He Wears by Fae Sutherland and Marguerite Labbe. Another book where there was so much I disliked about it, I barely know where to start.

So let's start with the premise: Ian is the secretary to lawyer Stephen. Ian has a crush on Stephen, Stephen has a crush on Ian. There are two basic problems that I have with this:

First of all, we're told that Ian is head over heels in love with Stephen and vice versa, but we never really get to see what it is about Stephen or Ian that's so worth turning their personal and professional lives upside-down for. It's all tell, no show and it's much harder for me, as a reader to be invested in a relationship that I never get to see.

Secondly, there's a huge power disparity between lawyer Stephen and Ian the secretary that never gets addressed. And it's not just that Stephen is a lawyer and Ian is the admin (I'm sorry, secretary belongs back in the 50's, yo), Stephen is also Ian's boss. While I'm willing to let the author take me on a trip to either explore the unequal power dynamics or create a way to make the relationship work despite the wild inequality of power, the power disparity has to be acknowledged. I need to know that the author knows it's there, the elephant in the room.

(Spoilery beneath the cut)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Live For Today by Carol Lynne

There are two things that I just don't like in my fiction: lots of crying (by men or women) and the unironic use of the word "lover". Live for Today has lots of both.

Unfortunately, I feel like that's only where the books problems start. (Mildly spoilery below the cut)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Maritime Men by Janey Chapel

So on the one hand, Janey Chapel is someone I know, someone I've met, someone I admire. On the other hand, the reason I know her, have met her and admire her is, initially, at least, because of her writing.

So reading Maritime Men was just as much a pleasure as I thought it was going to be.

From a writing standpoint, Chapel hits all the right notes: her characters have distinct voices and personality and the tight, terse language of her prose follows and enhances that of her characters and the world in which they live. (I feel like I have so much more to say about this, but it's tangential to the actual review) The dialogue reads naturally, sounds real.

As a reader, the chemistry between Eli and Cooper is vivid and hot, but I never feel like it's being spoon-fed to me, it's just there, for me to pick up and feel much more viscerally than if Chapel told me how Meant For Each Other these guys are. In part, this works because she created an existing (platonic) relationship for the two before changing the playing ground between them…but it wouldn't work nearly so well if Chapel wasn't so talented at writing the characters in a way that shows their existing rapport.

Very personally, I like men who act and talk like men (though what that means isn't inelastic)—especially when they're military men—which is what Chapel writes. Their communication is present, without being voluble and overwrought. There's not a lot of brow-clutching or hand-wringing. Cooper (the POV character) doesn't spend a lot of time worrying or speculating about what it all means, where it's all going, whether this is all True Love. By his own words, Cooper's a simple guy with simple wants and that comes across. Though this approach doesn't work for all stories, I felt like it did work here, fitting with the character and the situation (and the scope of the story).

And, though at 48 pages on my Nook, there's not a lot of room for deep plot, the relationship between Eli and Coop fills up the space and time beautifully. I'm glad I already have Anchors Aweigh ready to go on my Nook.

Calendar Boys: March - Kiss Me by Jamie Craig

There's an art to short story writing. I think it's much harder than writing a novel, because a short story has such a limited space to introduce the characters and the conflict and then create a satisfying resolution. It requires a specific economy of vision and language that's hard to carry off.

Kiss Me does not carry it off.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Channeling Morpheus for Scary Mary by Jordan Castillo Price

In recent years, I have not really been a vampire fan. It's a truth that's hard to spot, given that I continue to read the Anita Blake and the Southern Vampire books and True Blood is still appointment watching for me, but it's true, even so. A good story will always suck me in, but a vamp story will seldom get a second look from me to even find out if it's good.

Which is why it was both a surprise and delight that I enjoyed reading Jordan Castillo Price's Channeling Morpheus for Scary Mary so much. Though I generally try to approach all books with an open mind and heart, I'll confess that I came to this one really expecting to dislike it. I haven't had the best of look finding m/m books that I enjoy, lately, and between the vamp thing and everything else, I was feeling pretty cynical about the whole thing. So JCP had a lot of prejudice on my part to overcome and the fact that I did enjoy the book as much as I did is a testament to how hard JCP worked to involve and enmesh me in the world she'd created. Successfully.

I think I might have felt somewhat less satisfied, as a reader, if I hadn't come into the book knowing that it was an omnibus of five novellas that had been published separated; read as a single whole, there was some transitional choppiness from one novella to the next and that could've been confusing and/or irritating if I hadn't come in with that previous knowledge.

I also thought that Wild Bill felt like a pretty blatant Spike (BtVS) rip-off, look to feel. But neither of those really minor mental stumbles was enough to overshadow the story that Price was telling or my interest in it.

I liked Michael; he was the right balance of bravado and vulnerable for his age and character; his stubbornness and determination, even when scared and in over his head (which he frequently was) won me over. He didn't spend a lot of time hand-wringing and brow-clutching; he was always very action-oriented, practical and yet, not afraid to cop to his feelings or to let himself be protected or feel protected when necessary. I liked Bill, who was not an all-seeing, all-knowing slick Euro-vamp, but instead a being trapped physiologically—and arguably mentally—at an age not much older than Michael and just as scared and uncertain beneath a similar veneer of jaded bravado.

Though each novella was, perhaps, fairly predictable, I never had a strong sense of where the greater story arc was going and I love that uncertainty. I don't want to be certain of where the story is going and, though I felt reasonably sure that Michael and Bill would end up happy in the for-now sense of an HEA, I was entirely interested in how that would happen and how that happiness would be engineered.

On the other hand, I do wish Price had taken the time to perhaps flesh out each story a little more. The character of Mary is, in theory, so integral to Michael; his best (and seemingly, only) friend, the one from whose death all Michael's subsequent actions spring. She felt like a gun on the table that was underused. Not that I would've wanted Mary to show up as a vamp later; I think that would've been trite and overdone. But I think I would've liked to have seen more of who Michael was, and that would've required Mary.

Which leads into my next thought; though I loved the book and I loved Michael and Bill, I felt like JCP's vision was a little myopic when it came to anyone outside of them. Other people were only characterized thinly, shallowly, and Price's prose—which was otherwise blunt and interesting—seemed to fall down and become more confused when she was juggling more than two characters. More than once, I felt confused as to what was physically happening and though I could piece it together, it stood out from the rest of the time, when she painted the picture of Michael and Bill so vividly.

I think most of all, I really loved Price's voice for the book and her style in general. It was blunt and unsentimental while still being emotional. It read perfectly for the characters and for the overall tenor of the book. There was a palpable sense of both Bill and Michael's isolation and their fringe existence—separately and together—set apart from the bright teem of 'normal' society. There was an equally vivid sense of how both Bill and Michael were looking for connection while simultaneously—especially in Bill's case—being afraid of it. Those emotions are not things a reader—or, more fairly, I, as a reader, want to be told. They're things that need to come through relatively sub-textually, through voice and setting and action and I felt like Price nailed it.

More, I felt a real and present sense of regret when I reached the end of the book, wanting to read more, know more, see more. There's nothing better or more satisfying that an author can do for me.