Sunday, August 21, 2016

Mini-Reviews: Turbulent Times and Sour Nostalgia

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0465079709/themisaofsupe-20
Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X by Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith is, admittedly, not my usual reading fare.  But we were featuring the audio version on a digital display at work, it's been positively reviewed all over the place, and it scratches my dormant Former History Major itch.  All that and The Autobiography of Malcolm X was one of the few books I was required to read in college that didn't make me want to poke my eyes out.

This book covers a few brief years (from the late 1950s until Malcolm's assassination in 1965) and details Ali's rise to Heavyweight Champion of the World, Malcolm's break from the Nation of Islam, the rise and eventual fall of their friendship.  It's the sort of book where nobody comes off looking all that good.  I'll be honest - not an Ali fan.  There are certain things I respect about the man, but this book covers the period immediately before and after Ali defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.  It's easy to forget now, what with the canonization of Ali that has occurred over the past 20 to 30-odd years - but he was a once a young man.  A young, insufferable, 21-year-old kid.  It truly is amazing what Ali was accomplishing (both personally and professionally) at such a young age - but I'm an old lady now.  I'll be honest, it's a rare 20-something that I don't find insufferable. 

The book is interesting and it's obvious the authors put a lot of time in researching it.  But where this book sings is in the final third after Malcolm has broken with the Nation and he's got a giant target painted on his back.  Look, you know what's going to happen.  Malcolm is going to die.  But knowing that doesn't make the final chapters of this book any less suspenseful.  It's like a thriller towards the end, as Malcolm is slowly marching towards his final destination.  I'll be blunt: it's a nail-biter, even though you know exactly how it's going to end.

It's an interesting mix of race, politics, social history and boxing.  If you're a non-fiction reader, chances are there's at least a little something to appeal to you here.  It's a book about complex men, one of whom finds himself on the path to tragic destiny.  It's not an easy read, but then history seldom is.

Final Grade = B+

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1476749116/themisaofsupe-20
Back in the day Mary Higgins Clark was my Kathleen Woodiwiss.  I devoured her books during my teen years, but once college hit (and all leisure reading came to a dead stop), we parted ways.  Shortly after I finished school and could start reading for fun again - I discovered romance.  So I never did get caught up on MHC.  The Melody Lingers On is a recent release (2015), and while it features some Clark trademarks, I can't say it's a book I particularly enjoyed.

The plot is basically Bernie Madoff.  Wealthy hedge fund guy swindles a bunch of people, and then disappears off the face of the Earth, presumed dead.  The heroine is a single mom who works for an upscale interior designer in New York City.  Through a series of events she ends up dating, and falling for, the missing-Bernie-Madoff-like-guy's son.  The son is also in investment/finance and the assumption is that he's in cahoots with Daddy Dearest.  Is he innocent or is he a scumbag?

What Clark does well in this book are what I consider her trademarks.  She's the master at juggling multiple points of view and peppering in misdirection.  She's one of the standard bearers when it comes to introducing multiple characters and then setting them on a collision course - all coming together for a dramatic finish of the novel.

What doesn't work well in this book?  The heroine.  When the heroine isn't uninteresting, she's annoying.  She's like a reactive Mary Sue.  Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth and she wouldn't know proactive if it hit her upside the head.  She's the type of heroine who "reacts" to what is around her and she takes zero initiative.  She never thinks to ask why - about anything.  Plus it doesn't help that she's raising her daughter, the very definition of Plot Moppet; a kid so cutesy-wootsy I'm keeping my uncharitable thoughts to myself before one of my Dear Blog Readers has me committed. 

The story marches on to the conclusion, which is OK but not terribly suspenseful.  Mary Sue comes off smelling like a rose, even though she's a ninny.  Blah, blah, blah - The End.

I've read worse (Lord knows I have), but this isn't very strong at all.  Especially given my fond memories for 1980s/1990s era MHC.  Which makes me wonder: is it just the more recent work that is problematic?  Or are my fond memories colored by rose-tinted glasses?  Is this a case of nostalgia getting the better of me?  Whatever it is, I think I'll dip further back in the MHC's archives for my next read by her, just to satisfy my curiosity.

Final Grade = D+

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

#TBRChallenge 2016: How Times Have Changed

Title: No Mistaking Love by Jessica Hart

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Harlequin Romance, 1993, Out of print, not available in digital

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: A few years ago I fell in love with Jessica Hart's Harlequin Romances, and naturally she has a ginormous backlist that I've been collecting ever since.  This is one of her oldies.

The Review: One of the misconceptions about genre fiction that tends to annoy me the most is when people seem to think that genre doesn't evolve.  That it doesn't change.  That the romance novel published today is going to be identical in style and tone as a romance novel published 20 years ago.

Um, no.

No Mistaking Love is a perfect example.  Cracking open my battered used copy, reading the first few paragraphs, I knew I was reading a Jessica Hart story.  This is truly amazing, but her style and her skill in the category format was just as strong in this 23-year-old book as it is in her more recent works.  The words sing off the page.  Her way of setting her stage, of developing her characters - I knew these people inside and out before I was clear of the first chapter.  Where this book shows genre evolution?  Baby, it's all in the content.  I wanted to gut the hero before I got out of Chapter Two and my opinion of him never rose above garden slug.

And that's probably an insult to garden slugs everywhere.

Kate Finch had a horrible crush on Luke Hardman (get it? "hard" and "man?") when she was a gawky, awkward teen girl with Coke-bottle glasses.  She's all grown up now, but that doesn't mean she's not above feeling flummoxed when she spots Luke at the theater one night.  After all, most girls don't forget their first kiss.  But it's a brief moment, they don't even speak in fact, and she's put it all out of her mind until she shows up to a job interview she has the next day.  You guessed it - that too-good-to-be-true sounding secretarial job?  Turns out Luke Hardman is now her boss.  Oh, and he doesn't recognize her - which any romance reader worth her salt knows is going to come back to bite Kate in the butt during the final chapters.

Luke is cookie-cutter, high-handed, Alpha jerk.  The author tap dances a bit around his insecurities of "not being good enough," but this is so minimally explored he merely comes off as a boorish AlphaHole.
"Oh really?  In my experience, women have a fine disregard for the truth when it suits them!  I'm sure you can type, I'm just not convinced that you haven't increased your speeds - oh, just an extra ten or twenty words a minute! - to make your CV look more impressive."
And this would be on page 29.  DURING THE JOB INTERVIEW!!!

Luke is like this for the whole blessed book.  Right down to telling Kate she WILL get her hair cut to look more stylish and sophisticated and he WILL buy her a new wardrobe for the same effect before they go on a business trip to Paris.  And even though he told her to be polite and charming to the French businessmen he wants to broker a deal with, when she is polite and charming he accuses her of forgetting that it was a "business meeting":
"Instead of tarting yourself up like a dog's dinner and leaning all over Xavier so he could get a good look at your cleavage?  Anyone watching you would have known that business was the last thing on your mind!"
This is Luke for the whole blessed book.  When he's not being insufferably rude, he's being a possessive jerk.  I seriously loathed him from the moment I met him to the close of the final chapter.

Kate on the other hand?  Despite the fact that she falls for Luke (thereby making me question her intelligence) - this was the early 1990s.  Which means romance heroines were starting to push back a bit more against brutish heroes.  They'd still swoon, but at least they'd do some pushing back.  Kate verbally spars with Luke to the point where you can almost confuse this with an Enemies To Lovers story.  She gives as good as she gets - it's just a shame that Luke doesn't seem to learn his lesson.  At all.  They're blissfully in love at the end (because of course), but there's nothing on the page to make me think Luke will change his ways AT ALL.  He was a high-handed jerk at the start of the story, he remains one at the end.

And did I mention that at the start of the story he's dating a model Kate knew growing up?  And that towards the end of the story he's sending Valentine's Day flowers to not only Model Helen, but some chippy named Lynette as well?

RUN KATE!  RUN AND SAVE YOURSELF!

Sigh.

However, I'm not entirely sorry I read this.  Hart's writing and style sing for me, even when it's 23-years later.  The way she weaves a story is just marvelous.  This is also an interesting book when looking through the lens of category romance history.  The story is entirely the heroine's point of view (as it so often was back in the day), but she's got some backbone.  This isn't a damsel waiting to be rescued.  It's just too bad it's 1993 and we were still stuck on this sort of insufferable hero.  Although really, these days the genre is boasting criminals, mafia bosses and stalkers as "heroes."  Luke is positively Boy Next Door in comparison.

If you're a Hart fan, I do think there is some merit to reading this - if only to further immerse yourself in the history of her writing.  As a category romance history nerd?  There's also some merit to be found here (did I mention the fairly graphic - by 1993 standards - sex scene?  In a Harlequin Romance!).  However if you don't nerd out on old categories and you've never read Hart before?  Yeah. It's not worth a treasure hunt through library sales or used bookstores.

Final Grade = D+

Friday, August 12, 2016

Reminder: #TBRChallenge for August

For those of you participating in the 2016 TBR Challenge, this is a reminder that your commentary is "due" on Wednesday, August 17.  This month's theme is Kickin' It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)!  This is the moment where I remind everyone that 10 years ago was 2006 (::sob::).  So really, this theme should be fairly easy for most of us with ginormous TBR piles.

That being said....

Remember - the themes are totally optional and are not required.  It's not about the themes but reading something (anything!) out of your TBR.

You can find more information about the challenge (and see the list of participants) on the Information Page

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review: Playing With Fire

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1101884363/themisaofsupe-20
I don't know an author alive who doesn't wish to "hit it big" with a popular series (And frankly if you're a writer who says you don't? Liar, liar pants on fire).  But I also think that hitting upon that Big Series Idea is a bit of a double-edged sword.  Because as great as being successful is, readers can be a demanding lot.  Once we discover your series and love it? That's all we want from you.  Which leaves authors dealing with how to keep things fresh for them, from a writing standpoint.  Some authors fail miserably at this, get bored, and morph their popular series characters into Pod People.  Others, like what Tess Gerritsen has done with Playing With Fire, write a stand-alone book.  The hope is, of course, that your series readers will stop whining long enough to pick it up and read it.  Which I finally have.  And you know what?  It's pretty good!

Julia Ansdell is a professional violinist.  Before heading home to Boston after a performance in Rome, she enters a decrepit antiques shop and buys an old book of gypsy music.  Tucked inside the book is a handwritten, presumably unpublished, manuscript for a waltz titled Incendio.  But when she gets home and plays the waltz for the first time?  It has a powerful effect on her 3-year-old daughter, Lily.  So powerful that it seems to have "changed" her - and not for the better.  Can music truly be evil?  Or is Julia losing her grip on reality?

This is a novel with alternating timelines.  There's the present day Julia story and then there's Lorenzo Toedesco, a young Jewish musician living in World War II-era Italy.  The Lorenzo story details the history of the waltz and eventually the two story-lines collide as Julia searches for answers.

Gerritsen does some interesting things with this book.  It starts out one way, with the reader thinking we're going to get a Domestic Horror novel with a Is My Child Evil? plot and frankly I was bracing for some paranormal woo-woo.  But as the author begins alternating between Julia and Lorenzo the story carries you on a totally different path.  I can see some readers feeling like the resolution to the Julia story-line is a "cop-out" - but I didn't.  I rather liked the way the author twisted it around.

You never know for sure when you throw something up on the ol' Interwebs - but I would hazard a guess that this blog is predominantly read by romance readers.  And romance readers tend to like "happy."  So I feel like this is worth noting - this story is tragic.  There are also some rather upsetting elements.  A family pet is killed/murdered and part of this story is set in World War II-era Italy and features a Jewish family.  Descriptions of how people died during the Holocaust are included. 

The author resolves her story lines, she wraps up her plot, but readers should expect that not everybody is going to be skipping through meadows filled with wildflowers at the end.  This one has a heartbreaking ending.  I think the author ends it the way she had to end it, and I didn't feel like she was unnecessarily heaping on piles of tragedy just for the sake of it - but after finishing this story I feel like I should read a nice Harlequin Romance to cleanse the ol' palate.

Of course I want another Rizzoli/Isles book and certainly this book won't be for everyone - but I rather liked this.  It's what I call a Quiet Thriller and Gerritsen twists and turns the plot in such a way to keep things lively and interesting. 

Final Grade = B

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Retro Review: Hot As Ice

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B003R4ZZLA/themisaofsupe-20
This review of Hot as Ice by Merline Lovelace was first posted at The Romance Reader in 2002.  Back then I rated it 3-Hearts (C Grade) with a MPAA sensuality rating of "PG-13."

+++++

Major Charles Stone has been missing since his plane went down over Soviet airspace in 1956. Imagine the government’s surprise when Stone literally resurfaces encased in a block of ice! Not wanting to muddy relations with newfound allies, the OMEGA team is called into action. OMEGA is a top-secret government agency with highly trained operatives - operatives that tend to be called in as a last resort when crisis is afoot. They dispatch biologist Diana Remington to get the goods on Stone. Her objective is to restore him, and debrief him on why his plane went down.

Diana is witness to a scientific marvel when Major Stone is revived, and shows little effect from his years under deep freeze. The trick is to keep him concealed, get him to trust her, and gently ease him back into a society that is light years beyond 1956. It’s easier said than done though, as Diana knows immediately that her objectivity is slipping under the heated gaze of Charles Stone.

Enjoyment of this lasted entry in the Code Name: Danger series hinges on the reader swallowing the whole “Iceman” angle. I was willing to suspend belief somewhat, but was unable to wholly let myself go. The scenes when Charles is first revived provide the reader with a certain amount of hope, as the author does a good job of portraying what it was like to be a pilot during the Cold War. Charles wakes up, fiercely protecting what he knows, thinking that the people who have found him could very well be KGB agents trying to brainwash him.

However, he’s in for a bit of shock when it comes to Diana. When it comes to women’s liberation, Charles is the classic fish out of water. Diana doesn’t cook? She doesn’t wear a bra? However, her being a doctor, not to mention a biologist doesn’t seem to faze him.

Diana finds herself warming up to Charles mainly because she begins to feel sorry for him. Here’s a man who has missed out on half of his life, with no family left, and many friends dead. There is also the issue of Diana being involved with another man, and Charles once having been engaged to an army nurse. These issues are briefly explored, and dropped entirely once the story reaches the climax.

While I liked Diana and Charles, my skepticism of the “Iceman” angle, and my desire for more background exploration left me lukewarm. That said, I did finish Hot As Ice in one morning, and found the premise of a top-secret government agency like OMEGA an appealing one. Readers who enjoy military themes, or have followed this series will likely enjoy a return visit regardless.

+++++

Wendy Looks Back: Back in the day Harlequin would (occasionally) squeak through with a completely banana-pants plot for a romance - oh, like military heroes found frozen in a giant block of ice.  Makes secret babies and amnesia look almost quaint, doesn't it?

Also, I obviously was completely oblivious at the time - but DIANA AND CHARLES?!?!?  If that name combo wasn't outlawed in Romancelandia in 1981, it definitely should have been by 2002.

Lovelace had a 20+ year career in the US Air Force and retired as a Colonel.  She's written a bazillion books and is still writing today, for a variety of Harlequin lines.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Review: All I Am

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B013ASCHZY/themisaofsupe-20
About a month ago I asked the Twitter hive for recently published contemporary romances featuring virgin heroes.  A couple of folks chimed in with All I Am by Nicole Helm.  Descriptions such as "super good" and "VERY sweet" may have been bandied about.  I happened to already have the book in my TBR thanks to the last time Harlequin had a killer sale I couldn't ignore, and voila!

Wes Stone was injured in an explosion while he was serving in Afghanistan.  He's back home now, living life as a hermit.  After multiple surgeries, the reality that his dreams of becoming a veterinarian are officially over, tired of the pity and of people treating him like an invalid, Wes lives in his remote cabin in the woods, surrounded by stray animals he's taken in, and getting his organic dog treat (yes, really) business off the ground.

It's at one of the local farmer's markets where he's selling his dog treats that he meets Cara Pruitt - local party girl.  Cara is in her mid-20s and has no clue where her life is going.  Her job at the local beauty salon is going nowhere, the job interview her sister set up for her was a disaster, basically Cara is a screw-up.  But then she meets Wes and something inside her snaps.  She basically hornswoggles him into giving her a job.  Wes can make dog treats, but the business side of things?  He's not terribly organized.  Being a salesman?  Ha ha ha ha!  Wes is rough around the edges to the point where he totally needs Cara's help.  And if she's working for him?  It buys her a little time with her own family and dealing with her own shortcomings.

We all know where this is going, right?  What we have here are two seriously screwed-up people who spend an exorbitant amount of time in their own heads.  Wes is no good dealing with people, so he pushes everyone away before they figure out how truly screwed-up he is.  Cara figures admitting you're a failure and owning that fact is better than waiting for others to discover it about you - so she runs.  A lot.  She's the master at self-sabotage.  Ultimately these two people are the perfect people for each other - it's just going to take some time for them to convince themselves of that fact.

It's an interesting romance and it features two types of characters I have a massive soft spot for - the heroine with a "reputation" and the awkward, inexperienced-in-the-ways-of-love hero (read in between the lines there).  And they're both very good at shutting people out of their lives.  However when these two get together, the uneasiness, the uncertainty - it's all very sweet.  Cara knows flirting, she knows sex - but in every other aspect of her life she's uncertain.  Wes isn't certain of anything other than he's tired of surgeries, he's tired of the empty promises that doctors make, and he's tired of being alone.  It just takes him a little while to realize that last bit.

This all being said, the conflict here is, outside of Cara's crummy friends and a local Mean Girl, all internal.  And when you have two characters so wrapped up in their own insecurities and uncertainties?  It gets pretty exhausting after a while to be constantly wrapped up in that.  Especially during the last 20% or so of the story when the author has to wedge the couple apart again in order for Wes to make his Grand Gesture (and it is worth the wait) - but still...exhausting.

But it is emotional and it felt like characters with real problems.  Because really, at the end of the day, feeling insecure and unsure of yourself - this is tangible conflict that a lot of readers will have no problem relating to.  I may have wanted to smack Wes and Cara at times, but these aren't bad people.  They're just screwed-up people who really don't know who they are or where they're going - but they end up figuring it out together.  Which, really - isn't that what we all want?

Final Grade = B

Monday, August 1, 2016

Link-O-Rama-Jama: Book Thingo Podcast, Unusual Historicals & Archives

One of highlights of attending the RT Book Lover's Convention was getting to meet fellow bloggers who I hadn't met in person yet.  One such blogger was Kat from Book Thingo, an Australian institution in the romance community.  She asked to record a podcast with me, and given that I never can seem to pass up an opportunity to blather on about romance novels (and there's a lot of blathering...), I said yes.  So we commandeered an empty conference room and viola!  This is the result.

A minor correction - I'm no longer selecting adult fiction for Orange County, but that's where I was when I was awarded RWA's Librarian of the Year in 2011.  I've since moved on, and up the ladder, with a different employer :)

+++++

 I somehow managed to get my monthly column of Not-Your-Usual Historicals to Heroes & Heartbreakers in July.  Come for the books featuring "bad girls," steamy desert locales and Gothics - stay for the insidious Katy Perry ear-worm.

+++++

And she e-mailed me an update ages ago - but my Real Life has largely been swamped so that e-mail got buried under a giant pile of other e-mails and well....

Here we are.

Some time back I had a nice chat with archivist Caryn Radick on a paper she was writing about how romance writers use archives in the course of their research.  You can access her paper online and completely nerd out on all things library archives and romance novel research.