Thursday, December 27, 2007

I Am Legend [3]

***/***** (3/5)

I caught Francis Lawrence's big-screen rendition of Richard Matheson's highly-acclaimed 1997 novel I AM LEGEND and I have to say I was entertained. If you're fan of zombie movies and Will Smith like I am, this is definitely one to check out. It contains the requisite slow-quiet-but-suddenly-loud-fast moments which prompt the jumpy jolts from girlfriends or wives clutching for your arm. Will Smith plays Col. Robert Neville, the highest-ranking doctor in the army, and his performance conveyed a palpable mix of insanity, desperation and genius. It seemed like Will Smith bulked up for this one, I haven't seen him so ripped before. There's a couple other actors, but the zombie action/horror and Will Smith's character Neville take center stage. As much as I liked the movie for its jumpy-jerky moments, I can't say the movie proved any more entertaining than some other zombie movies I've seen in the past, namely 28 DAYS LATER. I AM LEGEND definitely featured a hodge-podge of scenes from weird and slow-developing to tense and thrilling. From the time the movie spent portraying Neville's humanity in the face death and chaos, it also appeared to followed Matheson's book fairly well (though I haven't read the book). Watching I AM LEGEND, I thought: Charlie Huston's slick vampire/zombie book ALREADY DEAD (***) deserves a Hollywood version!

The Premise.

In 2009, a virus originally created by mankind to completely cure cancer has mutated, going airborne and wiping out 588 million people worldwide. In 2012, the virus has reached epidemic proportions with a very small percentage of people completely resistant to the virus. Most of those totally resistant to the virus fall prey to those infected by the virus. Those infected by the virus exhibit preternaturally aggressive behavior with all of their body functions tremendously accelerated including their respiratory systems. These "zombies" have lost all humanity and feel the simple need to feed, feed, feed. They're susceptible, however, to ultraviolet radiation and consequently cannot abide sunlight. For the first half the movie, we see our protagonist Robert Neville cope with catastrophic and horrific conditions in a desolate New York City interspersed by flashbacks chronicling how he got there and what happened to his family. Neville, as far as we can tell, is the last man on Earth completely resistant to the virus. Both a military colonel and a doctor, Neville possesses the conditioning, knowledge and wisdom to combat both the virus and its infected hosts.

Neville operates a laboratory in the basement of his NYC apartment for research, desperately trying to find a cure. His only companion is his beloved dog Sam and we can sense what being alone has done to Robert Neville. He's on the brink of insanity: talking to mannequins, his dog Sam and to himself. Real meat is scarce as Sam-the-dog and Neville subsist on a high-protein diet. At night, he shutters his apartment with reinforced steel and tries to forget the noises and horrors that lie outside when the zombies come out to play. When an infected test rat (subject #9 or was it #6?) shows signs towards curing, Neville is ready to test on an infected human, or zombie. Things go terribly awry when a trap he sets to catch one of the zombies sets the same trap for him the next day.

The movie is intense, slow-and-jumpy, horrifying and thrilling. I enjoyed it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Shadow and the Star, by Laura Kinsale [3]

***/***** (3/5)

Laura Kinsale sure doesn't believe in half measures. From what I've seen in three of her books so far, all of her characters are unique and her stories intense, every single one of them extreme cases of a trite plot in romance. I have to say that Kinsale breaths much needed life into trite romance plots. It's a wonder when a romance novel really tells a story beyond the sexually-experienced hero deflowering the innocent virgin. In THE SHADOW AND THE STAR, Laura Kinsale takes the tortured-soul-hero-with-demons routine to an emotional-angst extreme with her pretty-boy hero Samuel Gerard.. Kinsale's writing and prose enrich the reading experience tremendously and it's so nice to read her after so many poor romance novels. Kinsale skillfully sets the scene, builds the tension and concludes very satisfactorily. The oriental flavor and Hawaiian settings are nothing short of magnificent. I officially love all of Kinsale's endings from three of her books: SHADOWHEART (***), FLOWERS FROM THE STORM (****) and now, THE SHADOW AND THE STAR.

It's a tribute to Kinsale's characterizations and writing that even though all three of her heroines in the novels above are virgins, they still manage to stand out separately. Kinsale puts her heroes through a unique hell as well, and that too is delicious. I liked the way Kinsale flashed to Samuel's warrior training every other chapter for the first half of the novel and slowly but surely brought his perspective to the present. Our heroine Leda's subservience may rub some readers the wrong way, but if you can get past that, Leda's humor is something else. Leda's propriety and manners even during the most obscene circumstances proves absolutely hilarious. In Kinsale's note to her readers in this 449-page paperback, she reveals her inspiration for Leda's character: "[Leda] embodied the steadfast, kind and courageous ladies...the circle of grandmother and aunts and their friends in a small Texas town. Proper, generous, proud, sure of what was right and what was wrong..." And certainly, the circle of South Street ladies and their culture resonates in this book. I found Leda obstinately clinging to her propriety and morals in the most bizarre of circumstances and situations absolutely hilarious. Even after marriage, she continues to call her husband, "Dear Sir..." Leda is innocent, funny, proper, loyal to a fault and so caring and compassionate, any guy would give the world to her. And she would deserve it. Leda's humor is the highlight of the novel, and the book consequently belongs to Leda Etoile. That the novel belongs to Leda is even more astonishing given the inspiration for THE SHADOW AND THE STAR derives from Samuel's brief appearance in THE HIDDEN HEART which points the spotlight on Lady Tess and Gryphon Meridon.

"Really, I should like to have my own garden, with a fish pond in it, full of goldfish with tails like silk. Do you ever think of things such as that, Mr. Gerard? Whatever do gentlemen think about, I wonder?" She pondered the question, and answered herself. "Political difficulties, I suppose. It must be very trying and dull to be a man."

My problems with this novel stem from a pacing standpoint and the heavy reliance on the Ashland characters (characters from the prior book THE HIDDEN HEART). If you thought FLOWERS FROM THE STORM slow-developing, you'll find THE SHADOW AND THE STAR much more so. In fact, I thought this book never found its drive until the finale. This book also contains elements of the supernatural which fog the action sequences.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Our tortured hero Samuel Gerard is described as a handsomely perfect Gabriel and he harbors a lot of emotional angst over an abusive childhood. After Lady Tess takes in the young boy Samuel as part of her family, he grows up in a caring environment at Hawaii and under the tutelage of his martial arts master Dojun (originally the Ashlands' butler). Years later, at 27-28, the Ashlands and Samuel return to England. In a dressmaker's shop, Samuel's beauty awes Leda Etoile. In London, martial arts expert Samuel plants filched valuable items in shoddy establishments to uncover their underhanded practices. Practically invisible to Leda, Samuel utilizes Leda's cramped upper floor apartment as a haven during his heists. An injury to his leg prohibits Samuel from returning a stolen sword mount (the hilt).

Strained finances and unwanted advances compel Leda to accept Samuel's proposition of a position as his secretary. Things progress from there and despite the fact that Samuel has always envisioned marrying Lady Tess' daughter Kai (Lady Katherine), a publicized night of passion joins Samuel and Leda in marriage instead. Samuel and Leda's union represents a first in the romance genre for me: both are virgins. Kinsale handles it very delicately, very sweetly as both of their innocence wrenches your heart.

Events shift to Hawaii towards the second half of the novel as Leda outfits the beautiful home Samuel has built there. The stolen sword mount and Dojun's purpose takes center stage and the action finally starts to pick up. Japanese legends, martial arts and the Hawaiian backdrop lend this a refreshing romantic reading experience. Not to mention the very unique characters: Leda's hilarious propriety and Samuel's anguished emotional angst.

Another excellent offering from an adept author.

Enslaved, by Hope Tarr [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Hope Tarr's ENSLAVED showcases its sexually-experienced showgirl heroine enslaving her honorable, handsome hero Gavin Carmichael. I'd characterize Gavin Carmichael as a regular doormat of a hero and the novel represents another case of grinding an honorable guy to dirt for a sexually accomplished heroine (apparently, in the romance genre being an honorable guy loving a sexually-experienced heroine means he has to debase himself for her). As much as the book likes to think the enslaving was mutual, all the evidence points elsewhere: Gavin's instant lust and shock at any number of Daisy's staged lascivious gestures and outfits, his lovesick thoughts (relatively early), his gentle tenderness, his monetary protection, his support of her acting career, his suffocating need of Daisy in the long-term, the book's detailed account of Gavin going down on Daisy every single time to persuade her to stay with him long-term, Gavin loving Daisy's daughter and taking her in as though she's his own daughter, Gavin returning to Daisy after one of her lies and rejections, etc., etc., etc. What exactly is Daisy bringing to the table here? Her sexual expertise? Please. Certainly isn't love, affection, caring, honesty, trust and loyalty. Daisy relishes controlling Gavin like the lovesick lapdog that he is and even when he's repeatedly going down on her, it's a form of manipulation (because he wants to give her pleasure to convince her to stay with him forever).

Another reviewer said guys could read this book. I strongly disagree, I wanted to tear my eyes out from the emotional melodrama mostly chronicling Gavin's lovesick angst (like a virginal heroine) and Daisy's (s)exploits/fear of commitment (like a libertine hero). This book's message: no matter how badly you treat a besotted, honorable guy and how many times, don't worry, he'll come back to you so feel free to keep running roughshod all over him. Tarr's previous book VANQUISHED (**) featured a gripping plot dealing with the women's suffrage movement and the villain contracting the hero to destroy the heroine's reputation. all of which paralleled a budding romance. ENSLAVED, however, offers little more than juvenile misconceptions, misunderstandings and cliched introspective thoughts we've seen from a myriad of other romance novel characters. The writing in this one, though above average, deteriorated from VANQUISHED significantly, the settings are nonexistent and the plotting is a big stinker (adolescent musings and predictably trite). Again, Hope Tarr doesn't shy away from brassy carnal scenes, though ENSLAVED's lead pair severely lacked the passion and chemistry portrayed between VANQUISHED's h/h. The positive? Well the book is a page-turner and definitely qualifies as a mindless, vacuous read which you might find enjoyable if you're not so annoyed by the plotting and disgusted by the lovesick puppy dog hero as I was.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

No guy would put up with Daisy's shit and continue to pursue and protect her like Gavin does. If she wants a simple fuck partner, fine, screw her and be done with it already. But of course our honorable hero is a glutton for punishment and returns to be abused again and again. I grew tired of the constant references to Daisy's past lovers. I think one or two references is fine since there's a natural inclination, but not 100! Also consider Daisy's thoughts comparing how wet she is from Gavin's touch compared to her past lovers. The book is more interested in having Daisy contrast and compare Gavin with Daisy's past lovers than build any meaningful chemistry and romance between Gavin and Daisy. Daisy contrasts her eight prior liaisons ending with her current affair 252 pages into the novel.

When her other liaisons ended, it was usually with a minimum of bother and a suitably expensive parting gift. No lover from her past had managed to make her feel so wholly miserable, so utterly lost.

And here I am thinking: you know what, Daisy, I really don't give a shit about you. You've consistently failed to show Gavin the smallest fraction of the devoted loyalty, support, respect, tenderness and love he showers you with. I cannot relate to Gavin's gluttony for punishment time and time again and I simply can't abide Daisy's callous disregard for his feelings. I have no respect for a hero that clearly fails to have any self-respect and a little pride of his own.

"...stay with me, not only to see the week out but for always." --Gavin (p. 241)

After Daisy rejects Gavin's plea (again), Gavin resolves to just go down on her again and try to convince her to stay with him forever that way. I don't know about you, but sounds like a deft manipulation to me on Daisy's part to get him to pleasure her more. He's too lovesick to care.

When Gavin initially finds a letter in Daisy's room addressed to a "dearest darling Freddie," Gavin jumps to the wrong conclusions. Daisy perpetuates Gavin's misconceptions about Freddie and allows him to believe the worst while rubbing salt on his wounds.

"I see. You love this...Freddie. And yet you let me make love to you. No, not let me, seduced me, made me so mad for you I'm all but your slave. What was the point of it all?"

She had the effrontery to shrug. "A month is a long time to sleep alone. I wanted you. You wanted me. If we choose to barter our bodies, why shouldn't we? We're both adults. Where's the harm?"

She goes insofar to imply it doesn't mean anything (she did it before too). He storms out only to return for more of Daisy's shit. On p. 229 of this 376-page paperback, Gavin thinks, "He'd been making a great many assumptions lately, including that the passion and tenderness Daisy had shown him must mean she was as head-over-heels in love as he was." What tenderness has Daisy shown him? She's just manipulating his lovesick attentions to have him go down on her every time, what's she doing as a show of tenderness? All of the love scenes at this point has Gavin go down on her with Gavin constantly thinking (and I paraphrase): "he wanted to taste her, to lick her, to inhale her scent...", blah, blah, blah. Great for the female readership to get off, I'm sure. Immediately following the letter incident and his injury, Gavin reasons he needs to eat Daisy's pussy more to convince her to stay with him and not go back to this Freddie (p. 229). That "proximity and history" places him in the driver's seat to win Daisy's long-term commitment. After putting everything on the line for her prior and having her reject him, he comes back for more of Daisy's shit here and I just wanted to throw up. Enough already! I found myself begging for Gavin to be done with her and start fucking other women.

Ah but the torturous read gets worse. Following a lecture from Daisy's adoptive mother Flora regarding Daisy's fear of commitment on p. 256 (like so many libertine heroes), evidently Gavin needs a lecture of his own on his snobbish attitude (pp. 262 - 263). First, Gavin's friend Rourke reminds Gavin of Daisy's sexual experience (as if we could forget) and then admonishes Gavin on his lofty expectations so much like his evil grandfather. So after laying his heart on the line for Daisy, protecting her, supporting her, loving her, going down on her repeatedly for her pleasure alone, it's now unfair to expect a little honesty? Rourke advises Gavin to fight for Daisy (p. 263) as though he's been picking his nose this whole time. Gavin puts Daisy first in everything all the time. And after getting lied to and rejected (from a long-term commitment), it's Gavin who must beg and crawl on hands and knees to Daisy? How does that remotely compute? This is yet another case of grinding an honorable guy to dirt for a bitchy whore. In fact, Gavin's emotional angst and self-loathing over feeling bad about his "snobbishness" (pp. 264 - 266) far outweighs Daisy's self-reflection earlier. When Gavin comes calling to Daisy to beg her to take him back, it's as though she's doing him a favor to allow him to even talk (p. 272). After she takes him back for a week before her big show, she once again rejects (again again again) his marriage proposal and ring. No romantic victory is worth that kind of roughshod treatment, especially at the hands of someone like Daisy Lake.

The denouement depicts a heart-to-heart where again Gavin is begging and crawling for Daisy to have him after Daisy rejects his proposal for marriage. As an added bonus (as if he hasn't already given everything to her), he bestows her the deed to her very own theater. I was sickened by Gavin's incessant (and unwarranted) groveling for a woman who constantly lies to him and shuns him. It's a dumb and very trying pattern: they have some sex, she prevaricates and lies, misunderstandings exacerbate the situation because they never talk it out (until the very end), Gavin cannot stay away and comes begging and crawling back to her, they have more sex, rinse and repeat.

The plotting and introspection essentially reverses the common hero-and-heroine gender roles in the romance genre. Similar to Julia Ross's GAMES OF PLEASURE (*), the sexually accomplished and cynical heroine makes a mockery of the honorable, sex-crazed hero who is too witless to notice and too pathetic to care. Certainly, Gavin Carmichal is no self-respecting man and bereft of any semblance of pride. Gavin is always blushing, always shocked, and completely manipulated by Daisy. Daisy holds back any long-term commitment so he'll just go down on her every time and she'll enjoy his tongue and mouth on her pussy every single time.

She thought if they made love enough, sooner or later she'd be sated and ready to move on. Unfortunately, the very opposite was proving true. She couldn't seem to get enough of him...

A thought so reminiscent of libertine heroes, don't you think? Of course Daisy can't get enough of Gavin. Gavin wants nothing more than to eat Daisy's pussy 24/7, and as long as he's being manipulated to do it, hell, why not? Also consider, for example, Daisy sleeping the night away with Gavin following their first sex scene. No matter if sex with men (in general) lasted an hour or turned into an all-night fuck-fest, Daisy studiously sent her lovers away forbidding them to actually sleep with her (p. 187). Gavin, she allows to sleep with her. Just like notorious libertine heroes slumbering with their virginal heroines after their first night of sex and the libertine thinking how he's never cuddled and slept with any of his previous mistresses. Furthermore, there's some marks on Daisy's abdomen which Gavin starts to pet but Daisy pointedly censors. She eagerly wants him to touch and lick her everywhere except the abdomen. Just like a tortured hero forbidding his virginal heroine from touching some scars on his back, for example. All the plotting is the same, and I've seen it all countless times in other romance novels with the genders reversed. Which is why I cherish Madeline Hunter's unique depiction of her sexually experienced pair in STEALING HEAVEN (*****) so much.

I find romance novels concentrating on sexual experience and past lovers (like ENSLAVED) an empty, aggravating reading experience mostly. They tend to be repetitive because they have no real story to tell other than psychological introspection and trite plotting.

If, as Daisy says, lying and rejecting Gavin constantly hurts her more (p. 369), why then were all the moments when she's lying and rejecting him portrayed from Gavin's perspective highlighting his hurt? Just saying at the end that she hurt more doesn't make it so when all the evidence in the book points to the contrary. We're privy to Gavin's angst and hurt a lot more. And he didn't deserve it, she didn't deserve him!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Ransom, by Julie Garwood [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I found Julie Garwood's RANSOM listlessly mild, barely holding my interest, and too amateur in terms of writing, plotting and pacing. You can always count on Julie Garwood for mutually giving lead romance pairs and her characters blend together after you've read one of her books. There's really no difference in the lead characters of her books: sweet, loving, innocent virgins and fiendishly big, gruff, yet gentle warriors. Garwood loves her Highlanders, and I didn't appreciate this book's predominantly patronizing and superior attitude with respect to the English. Yes, we know Highlanders detest the English, but why are all the English warriors weak, fat and short and all the Highlanders statuesque giants? Are there no real warriors in England? Like every other romance novelist, Garwood is big on experience in many respects, and not only do Highlander lairds like Brodick Buchanan and Iain Maitland (from THE SECRET *) easily dispose English warriors, but they also patronize their own Highlander young men. For example, Brodick's warrior Dylan patronizing the young MacPherson warrior Proster. In combat, sometimes youth is better served over experience, but you'd never know it from this amateur novel. Not only are Garwood's towering giants preternaturally strong, but they all move as fast lightning! I call bullshit! Ordinarily, agility and stamina don't go hand-in-hand with strength and brute force! Big brutes like Garwood's Highlander lairds usually sacrifice quickness and stamina for brute strength. A smaller warrior will almost always win the endurance and stamina game against bigger, stronger warriors. The bigger they are, the harder they'll fall. Garwood makes her Highlander heroes seem like cartoons the way they discard weak English foes.

This 486-page hardcover contains too much interminable conversation, it dwells on many routinely disengaging plots, and its writing is the basest kind of amateur (I saw the word "bossiness" used). When I compare Garwood's plots and writing with a Laura Kinsale or Madeline Hunter, Garwood's books leave much to be desired. Again, the lead characters here are sweet but they're the same as every other Garwood novel, and you can only take so much of the same thing over and over.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

RANSOM is actually a sequel to THE SECRET (*) which features Iain Maitland and Judith. RANSOM returns Iain's warriors Ramsey Sinclair and Brodick Buchanan, both lairds of their own clans now. Our hero is the fearsome heathen Brodick Buchanan while our heroine is the sweet, innocent virgin Gillian. In the prologue, our evil English villain, Baron Alford, assaults the English manor Dunhanshire. Gillian is a little child and Gillian's father entrusts a valuable jewelry box to Gillian's older sister Christen. Both Gillian and her older sister Christen flee the sieged castle via secret passageways but Alford's evil English warriors apprehend Gillian and her escort. Romantically, the jewelry box belonged to King John's true love, the deceased Arianna, and holds some secrets.

Years later, we find the young woman Gillian rescuing a young boy, Alec. Alec is none other than the Laird Iain Maitland's son, the hero of THE SECRET. Baron Alford releases Gillian to find and retrieve her sister Christen who he suspects resides amongst the Highlanders. Alford ruthlessly desires the jewelry box entrusted to Christen. If Gillian fails to retrieve her sister and the box, Alford will kill Gillian's beloved Uncle Morgan. Along the way, Gillian runs into Alec's protector Brodick Buchanan and the two share an instant attraction. After running around the highlands, gaining allies, and getting married, Gillian returns to Dunhanshire within Alford's allotted time. There's a secondary romantic pairing between Ramsey Sinclair and Bridgid KirkConnell as well. Everything concludes romantically as King John discovers the real culprit behind the death of his One-True-Love, Arianna.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Sweet and Vicious, by David Schickler [2]

**/***** (2/5)

David Schickler's follow-up to his well-received KISSING IN MANHATTAN (which I haven't read) features a rural love-on-the-run tale in SWEET AND VICIOUS. A guy's version of love and romance isn't nearly as deep and introspective as so many romance novelists would have us believe, and along those lines, it was refreshing to read Schickler's SWEET AND VICIOUS. Humor, adventure and love beget a much-needed levity in this grim adventure starring two lovers. Like most male authors writing about love, traces of tragedy rears its ugly head here. Unlike others, I wasn't so much disappointed by the ending as I was unhappy by the execution of it. I wish Schickler spent some time integrating the Stewart McFigg character into the storyline a bit more. As it stands, the end reeked of Grace settling down after high adventure and passion with Henry. There's elements of the paranormal in the story though nothing overstated (Color Danning and her intuition, Hunter "Honey" Pobrinkis' glimmers). The first two chapters grip but then the book sags considerably when we look into the back stories of our mobster goons Roger and Honey Pobrinkis, and continues to stagnate even when we return to Henry and Grace. I'm not sure rural America is really like this with so many extremes (the slutty Perry Danning vs. the pious Stewart). For an afternoon book, it took a week for me to finish this 242-page hardcover; I was reading other novels and my interest in SWEET AND VICIOUS waned the more I read it. The prose is pretty good and Schickler enriches the reading experience by deftly setting the scene, fleshing out all the characters, and gut-punching you with an intense writing style. The intense writing style reminded me of my favorite SFF author: Matthew Woodring Stover and his book HEROES DIE (*****).

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Thirty-two year-old Henry Dante, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound bruiser, works for the notorious Chicago mobster Honey Pobrinkis, a brutal man with an obsession for diamonds. Henry tells us that he "bust(s) people's heads [for a living]," but he's secretly proud of the fact that he's never killed anyone. Apparently, he wants to give his soul a "sporting chance." Henry's defining characteristic: two bulging, spiking knuckles on his left fist. Henry seldom talks, he's street-smart, a gentleman at heart and has a soft spot for women in distress.

When Honey receives a premonition (a "glimmer") that his long-time associate Charles Chalk will abscond with his 40 million dollar diamonds, Honey dispatches his enforcers on a bringback. Honey's womanizing nephew Roger, Henry and the dumb Floyd drive to Chalk's farm to retrieve Chalk and the diamonds. The 40 million dollar diamonds in question represent seven planets minus Pluto and Neptune (the later two planets weren't discovered when the Planets were made). When Roger decides to have a little fun on the side with Chalk's supermodel wife, Henry intervenes. Henry knocks out his two partners Roger and Floyd, filches the Planets instead and heads west from Illinois into Wisconsin. Henry is honorable though and doesn't change cars or license plates, wanting to give Honey a "sporting chance." I liked Henry overall, but not changing plates or cars due to some notion of honor was just plain dumb.

Meanwhile, we get plenty of back story on Grace McGlone growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin. After Grace dubiously loses her virginity in the backstage trailer to a famous evangelical orator (Reverend Bertram Block), Grace decides to clean up her reckless teenage act and "try for heaven." She avidly devours religious literature and decides to get baptized. Shy and bumbling yet muscular, Stewart McFigg has liked the sexy redhead Grace since grade school, and after college the two date a bit. As opposed to the womanizing devils of romance novels, it's nice to root for an underdog hero for a change. Grace however awaits the "one" and the adventure she feels is coming. When Grace spies the huge man with a suitcase and red truck bearing Illinois license plates, she instantly knows he's the one. Grace walks through a car wash she works at, introduces herself to Henry and promptly joins Henry on the adventure. Drenched and soaked, Grace puts her feet up on the dashboard of the passenger side of the truck and declares, "Tallyho!" Grace believes the Planets acquired from "blood money," and convinces Henry to give away each of the seven diamonds as they traverse west across the country.

The book slows down from there as Henry and Grace marry, enjoy hot passion, and make their way across the northwest. Roger and Floyd are hot on Henry's trail, and Henry takes steps to delay them but still gives Roger and Floyd a "sporting chance." All the plotting climaxes at Great Falls, Montana, where Bertram Block, 12 years after taking Grace's virginity, is putting on a performance at the Hammerspread, an open-mouthed amphitheater. For almost all his life and across the country, Bertram Block invigorates audiences, casts out devils, champions the Gospels, and lays hands on townsfolk. Grace needs to confront Block after all this time, and Honey and Roger Pobrinkis follow.

Not a bad book, but ultimately falls flat after the initial two chapters. The token two paragraphs of back story Schickler gives Stewart at the very end seemed rushed and shallow. I wanted to know the how and why behind Stewart deciding to forgo saving himself until marriage when he was so earnestly "trying for heaven" before. Also seemed like Grace was settling for Stewart. The writing can be intense, dark, humorous and adventurous, but also disengaging with so many back stories.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End [1]

*/***** (1/5)

1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (5/5)
2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2/5)
3. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (1/5)

In the age of trilogies and series, Gore Verbinski's final installment to the Pirates trilogy AT WORLD'S END continues to showcase Johnny Depp as the incomparable Captain Jack Sparrow. Sly and knavish, Jack Sparrow dangles circumstances and people on strings of his own making. Although things don't turn out exactly the way Jack Sparrow divines, he nonetheless qualifies as the prime mover and shaker in the story. You have to love characters like Jack Sparrow that never seem to be on anyone's side and always scheme and plot, leaving their options open. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Jack's scheming and plotting in CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (*****), more of the same here gets annoying. Everyone seems to unwittingly oblige Jack Sparrow's scheming in AT WORLD'S END. Played by Orlando Bloom, Will Turner's ineptitude glaringly takes center stage and he does nothing here. In fact, Will manages to get caught quite a bit. Keira Knightley stars as Elizabeth Swann and she seems to scream, rant and rave a lot while rising as a captain and "Pirate King." I cringed at her "freedom" speech at the end so reminiscent of Mel Gibson in BRAVEHEART. Orlando Bloom's acting was pretty atrocious in LORD OF THE RINGS and his characteristic intonations plague this one. Keira Knightley isn't much better. Tom Hollander's villainous Lord Cutler Beckett was the standout performance of this movie.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Bigger, louder, and more doesn't always equate to good or better and this final installment demonstrates the point. Consisting of alternate dimensions, sea goddesses, people coming back from the dead, and convoluted plotting, this movie accentuates the eccentric, magical, and eldritch hundredfold. A large cast and big names highlight this final installment: Johnny Depp (Jack Sparrow), Keira Knightley (Elizabeth Swann), Orlando Bloom (Will Turner), Geoffrey Rush (Captain Barbossa), British actor Bill Nighy (Davy Jones), Stellan Skarsgard ('Bootstrap' Bill Turner), and Chow Yun-Fat (Captain Sao Feng). As opposed to CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the humor in AT WORLD'S END dulls instead of entertaining. The movie drags quite a bit at the end as the Black Pearl and Dutchman do battle around a whirlpool maelstrom. Other pirate ships and the villain Lord Beckett's armada simply watch the protracted affair where Jack, Barbossa, Elizabeth, Will, and Davy Jones spar. After the good guys win, the other pirate ships cheer and rejoice as though they did anything. The on-board marriage while the two ships are locked in battle was cornball cheesy to the extreme. I'm not sure I understood the convoluted Calypso plot where nine pieces of eight binds the powerful Calypso.

The basic premise.

From DEAD MAN'S CHEST, we know Captain Barbossa returns from the dead while Elizabeth leaves Jack Sparrow for the dead. We also know Lord Beckett commands the Armada and holds Davy Jones' heart. Davy Jones and his ship the Flying Dutchman terrorize the seas in a dark alliance with Beckett. In an effort to subdue Jones, the Dutchman and Beckett's armada, the witch Tia Dalma guides the pirate lords to call a brethren gathering and submit each of their "pieces." This will consequently free the powerful sea goddess Calypso, compelling her to aid them against the Dutchman. Since Sparrow possesses one of the 9 pieces, Barbossa, Will and Elizabeth must first venture to world's end to rescue Jack Sparrow first. Everything comes to a head as the Flying Dutchman captained by Davy Jones and the Black Pearl captained by Barbossa square off in a maelstrom. It's all very convoluted and very dumb. This trilogy's marquee humor declines considerably in this final installment. The performances and acting made me cringe a lot.

I was begging for someone to stay dead by the time the movie finally ends.

The Bargain, by Mary Jo Putney [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I don't think I've read a novel as uninviting, as boring and as unimaginative as Mary Jo Putney's THE BARGAIN in quite some time. In THE BARGAIN, you have the aristocratic and domineering Lady Jocelyn Kendal, a heroine with commitment issues who flees her kind, down-to-earth hero Major David Lancaster after he conveys words of love. Romance novelists savor shattering the arrogance of male aristocrats while lauding and respecting that same quality in their lady heroines. Lady Jocelyn represents the crown of beauty, elegance, compassion and aristocracy to David, but I disliked Jocelyn's superior, snide demeanor, often directed towards David's sister Sally (more than once, the beautiful Jocelyn thinks Sally's bland looks beneath her station). Granted, Sally inflames their belligerent interactions, but it's always Sally apologizing to Jocelyn (twice), it's Sally begging Jocelyn to allow her dying brother to stay in Jocelyn's home (p. 69). David's patience with the commitment-wary Jocelyn knows no bounds as it takes over 320 pages for something to happen in this 371-page papberback. I found the exchanges between David and Jocelyn completely bereft of passion and chemistry. Putney's David Lancaster is very dry; it's possible to write engaging honorable heroes, but you'd never know it from this book. The book belongs to Jocelyn, her tiresome struggle to overcome a family scandal during her childhood and consequently commit to David. The book isn't big on the something-happening department as it relays an interminable succession of the mundane. A cure for insomniacs to be sure. Impossibly, the prose and writing fare worse than the plotting and pacing. For instance, consider: "[Jocelyn] looked tantalizingly huggable." (p. 116) Nevermind that David's thoughts about Jocelyn being "huggable" here seemed better suited to what a girl wants a guy to think, but tantalizingly huggable? Juvenile prose to say the least.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

The basic idea of the novel isn't bad: a soldier dying from his injuries at Waterloo while the daughter of an earl in need of a husband before her 25th birthday to retain her fortune. The book reminded me of Nicola Cornick's awful DECEIVED in which its heroine wishes a husband deeply in debt and safely locked behind bars to acquire her own debts. Regrettably, THE BARGAIN fails to execute this idea in any entertaining fashion. In exchange for securing his sister Sally's long-term future, David agrees to marry Jocelyn and help her secure her fortune. Neither expect the marriage to last as all the doctors anticipate David's death at any minute. When David's sister Sally perseveres to help cure David, Jocelyn is left with an unwanted husband. Jocelyn has her sights set on a notorious rake from the beginning: the Duke of Candover. Since Candover only engages in affairs with married women and widows, Jocelyn hopes her widow status will soon attract the pimp's attentions. David has other plans and methodically courts Jocelyn as her husband after his convalescence from a paralysis. Conveniently, David's elder three brothers perish and he inherits a barony. Jocelyn agrees to help David organize his affairs at Westholme since she has more experience in the administration of an estate. When highway robbers jump the coach, the book showcases Jocelyn's superior gunship as she kills the man threatening David. Not only only is she beautiful, a virgin, an heiress, a charitable philanthropist, and a competent estate and finance manager, but she's also an excellent gunshot. David's stolid courtship continues at Westholme. The book is at its exhausting worst here: David arranges affairs outside the estate while Jocelyn helps tidy up his home from the inside. They go about their business during the day, they share each other's day over dinner, they exchange a comfortable kiss, go to separate beds to sleep, rinse and repeat. Jocelyn finally invites David's amorous desires in bed when the prospect of sleeping with him would help improve her chances with Candover since Candover shuns innocent virgins. After they share a night of passionless sex, David expresses his heartfelt words of love. Jocelyn rejects David after their first night together and travels back to London to kiss Candover. The glutton for punishment that he is, David gives chase and finds Jocelyn kissing Candover. When Jocelyn mildly explains her scarred childhood with her divorced mother and that she was experimenting to ensure she has no feelings for the duke anymore, David happily agrees like the puppy dog he is. The End.

In spite of the slight gender reversals in personality and status, many things in this book conformed to the romance stereotype. It's David who must pursue Jocelyn and make all the moves. It's David who must chase Jocelyn after she rejects him towards the end. The book mentions Jocelyn is no "green-eyed girl" and yet she's a 25 year-old virgin like all the other virginal heroines. David courts Jocelyn so languidly, so sluggishly, so passively, you have to wonder about their chemistry. Because of her childhood scars, Jocelyn responds so disinterestedly, so apathetically that if the roles were reversed, romance readers would scream for the girl to move on and not waste your time! I know I was screaming for David to move on and let Candover have her. All the while, Jocelyn yearns for the notorious rake, the Duke of Candover. Towards the end, Putney sets up a vulnerable Candover for a future book. A rake and libertine shielding a deep vulnerable side, where have we heard that one before? I was hoping to see Jocelyn realize her dream of sleeping with Candover. At least then David would be free of her.

I thought Sally steals the show completely and she deserved much more appreciation and love from her brother David for everything she does for him. Sally survives independently as a governess, visits her dying brother daily, perseveres to cure him despite the odds, nurses her brother, and then aids Dr. Ian Kinlock immeasurably with his finances and practice. She's spirited, giving, resilient and unafraid to make the first move. There isn't a guy in the world that wouldn't fall in love with Sally Lancaster. Compared to Jocelyn's uninspiring paragon of superiority and aristocracy, Sally shines and perseveres.

Anyway, a very boring book to a vaguely interesting idea.

Monday, December 3, 2007

The Marsh King's Daughter, by Elizabeth Chadwick [1]

*/***** (1/5)

I would not wish Elizabeth Chadwick's 13th-century English medieval THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER on my worst enemy, let alone a friend. I enjoy challenging, engrossing reads and although THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER certainly is that, it offers no payoff for the torture and suffering the book inflicts on its main character Mirial, and, by extension, its readers for close to 300 pages of this 406-page hardcover. Although this book produces a "happy" ending in the last 3-4 pages, I much prefer Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE's dolorous conclusion to this book's relentless torture. Like LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE (***), Chadwick here shines at transporting the reader to another time and place. Chadwick's medieval English settings are immaculate, her look into the 13th-century mercantile trade thorough, and her writing and prose exquisite. Also like LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE, I could not put down THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER hoping beyond hope that the book would reward me somewhere for such an agonizing reading experience. Alas, not to be. In the middle of an extramarital affair with her lover (and the book's "hero") Nicholas, Mirial thinks, "There was a price to be paid and she had a nagging premonition that it would beggar them in the end." (p. 251) My reaction: hell, I'm already paying a steep price on behalf of these characters for reading this much, you mean I'll have to suffer even more? Plangently, the book responded with a thunderous, "YES!" Even after faithfully finishing this torturous novel, I'm not sure from where the book derives its title from because Mirial isn't a marsh king's daughter. Maybe it refers to the crown Mirial covets, a crown that once belonged to Empress Mathilda. But I still don't see the connection to a marsh king.

THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER mostly drums out an evil man's medieval possession of our main character Mirial. Mirial's willing marital consent to an apparently good, handsome man (Robert Willoughby) quickly dissolves to years of despair and pain. Robert asserts his ruthlessly possessive nature, and, frightfully for Mirial, painfully claims his marital rights as a husband. Although not exactly rape, it's the best word to describe the way Mirial recoils in fear and horror to a coupling with her husband, and then submits her unwilling body to Robert's callous abuse time and time again. Over the years of her second marriage, the book mostly showcases Mirial's fear and pain at the thought of her husband Robert claiming his marital rights during the nights and mornings. When he's not around, she often thanks circumstance for not having to submit to his marital rights. I like challenging books, rich plotting, and eruditely historical reads; but this isn't challenging, it doesn't contain nearly the intricate plotting as LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE, and the history doesn't measure up either. There has to be payoff somewhere for this kind of torturous read... but no.

I also didn't enjoy the adulterous affair between Mirial and her "hero" Nicholas. Most of the novel parades Robert's brutal coupling with Mirial or the dreadful anticipation of it. The guilt-ridden adulterous affair Mirial shares with Nicholas represents the only times in the entire novel Mirial enjoys a fulfilled lovemaking. At the time they initiate the affair, Mirial knows nothing of her husband Robert's diabolic malevolence. I was hoping she'd abstain from an adulterous liaison with her hero strife with guilt until she learned the full impact of her husband's perfidy and leaves him. She's basically sleeping with two men at the same time here: times when her husband Robert forces her and the adulterous moments of pleasure with Nicholas. The whole time I'm thinking: who's the father if she becomes pregnant? She thinks she's barren and throws Nicholas' caution out the door when he's careful at first not to spill his seed inside her. When the shock of an impending pregnancy finally looms, Robert informs her she is not the barren one, but he is (Robert has never fathered a child with two previous wives and mistresses in between). Robert proceeds to imprison her after uncovering her faithlessness and surreptitiously arranges Nicholas's demise. Even when she's pregnant with another man's child, the book brutally portrays Robert affirming his marital rights as Mirial's husband. Mirial accepts Robert's sexual brutality because she feels she's wronged Robert, and the contrived plotting which prevents her from learning the full extent of Robert's treachery (until the very end) also checks her from fleeing Robert. When she finally does learn of Robert's treachery, she doesn't kill him when she has the chance! Then she laments over her fate after she's captured by Robert! What did you think he'd do after ruthlessly killing so many people, Mirial? Sit around? The book tortures readers and extends Robert's devious and incessant plotting until page 399 of this 406-page hardcover! Are you kidding me?! Neither Mirial nor Nicholas take proactive steps to at least thwart Robert, in essence allowing him one last gasp after another!

I also didn't understand another thing: why would the Mother Hillary (the Abbess) at St. Catherine's go to so much trouble to notify Muriel's husband (Robert) of a rumored lover when Mirial fled the abbey? The Mother Abbess racks her brain to remember the rumored lover's name and goes insofar to await Robert before his departure just to tell him the name after she remembers . Mother Hillary professes to care for Mirial but how come she doesn't think twice divulging all of the dirty rumors of a past lover to Mirial's current husband, Robert? For a cunning Mother Abbess, she has no discretion?

Although I liked Mirial's fiery spirit, there's too many things I disliked about her too. She just accepts Robert's callous sexual abuse, reasoning she went into the marriage willing. And then she fails to kill him after his true, wicked character surfaces. I was actually hoping for some respite from Mirial's incessant suffering and rooting for Magdalene and Nicholas. A prostitute like Magdalene finally finding some love with Nicholas was the best part of a novel entirely about someone else: Mirial.

The "hero" (I place this in quotes because he fails to do anything and sparingly appears in the novel) Nicholas's honor prevents him from doing anything ruthless, even if it means helping someone in trouble. Stephen Trabe is right, honor is for fools and "honorable" fools like Nicholas de Caen really deserve death for clinging to their superior notions of morality. He has no qualms about filching royal treasure (because he feels King John owes him), but won't take ruthless steps to protect Mirial from Robert. Nicholas shuns doing anything outside of honor because of the underhanded way King John killed his family He doesn't want to become like King John, he reasons. He's simply too naive and too dumb to understand that taking ruthless actions to secure the safety of those you love from a villain who will never relent doesn't make you into a villain! After the pirate who holds Nicholas in captivity (le Pecheur) frees Nicholas (because Nicholas can't do anything by himself), Nicholas runs into his assassins again. The assassins corner him and again he needs rescuing, this time by a factual historical figure, Stephen Trabe. After he returns home, Nicholas thinks he will not resort to murdering Robert like Robert hired assassins to kill Nicholas and numerous others before him. First Nicholas wants to rescue Mirial, then worry about Robert, never really understanding that the two are intimately linked! Nicholas actually wants to honorably bring Robert to trial! Like when has that ever worked in a novel? He fails to understand that Mirial's safety depends on dealing with Robert first! All of it plays out melodramatically in the last 10-12 pages as Nicholas and Mirial run from Robert since Nicholas failed to deal with Robert first. Earlier when Nicholas witnesses the murder of one of Robert's competitors in the merchant business, he fails to investigate the blatant clues linking Robert to the death of Robert's competitor! Nicholas often waits around in a reactionary, "honorable" role (translation, foolhardy).

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

I found the premise of the novel very promising but in spite of Chadwick's superior writing and settings, this book was like punishment. I don't look to literature as an avenue for pain and torture, I really don't!

THE MARSH KING'S DAUGHTER is about the trials, tribulations and hardships of Mirial, born as Mirial Weaver, then Mirial Woolman, and finally (and most calamitously) Mirial Willoughby. Similar to Madeline Hunter's BY DESIGN (***), this book takes a very comprehensive look at the mercantile class in 13th-century England. We first see a spirited Mirial at home in her wealthy grandfather's stone house. Her grandfather was a reputed weaver and loved Mirial while her mother and stepfather wish to send her off in a convent due to her unruly behavior. She's described a kindred spirit, all defiance and pride. We see her stepfather beat her for her defiance and then ship her off to St. Catherine's. As a novice oblate at St. Catherine's, a wicked Sister further causes Mirial problems and Mirial dreams of escape. Meanwhile, Nicholas de Caen travels as a prisoner in King John's baggage train over the coasts of England. After the tide decimates the baggage train, Nicholas barely manages to escape with a treasure chest. After concealing the treasure chest, Nicholas collapses near St. Catherines. Mirial finds him and nurses him back to health. As Nicholas prepares to leave the abbey, Mirial hitches a ride with him and discovers of the treasure. She salivates at a crown originally belonging to Empress Mathilda. Before Nicholas and Mirial prepare to part ways, Mirial absconds with a significant minority of the treasure and the priceless crown in the middle of the night. Nicholas tries to find her but the "hero" that he is, fails.

Seasons pass. In the town of Nottingham, Mirial builds a fortune for herself from the portion of the treasure she took. She excels in the weaving trade, something she loves. Also in Nottingham, she meets ~60 year-old Gerbert Woolman and ~40 year-old Robert Willoughby, Gerbert's heir. Grisly old Gerbert lusts after Mirial and after discovering Mirial's escape from the convent forces her into marriage. But old Gerbert is pretty harmless and Mirial learns to appease him without consummating the marriage. More seasons pass. Mirial's stepfather soon attempts to sabotage his competition in Nottingham after Mirial's business takes off. Gerbert dies, and soon the handsome and vigorous Robert begins courting Mirial. Mirial accepts his heartfelt marriage proposal. After marriage with Robert, Mirial's hell begins as Robert abuses her body in bed. Since Mirial willingly agreed to the marriage and Robert is very caring otherwise, she learns to endure Robert's rights as a husband in the bed.

Mirial's fear, anxiety and pain from the anticipation of coupling with Robert and/or from the actual coupling comprise the bulk of the book's content. Unknown to Mirial for most of the novel, Robert ruthlessly eliminates his competition in his vast businesses and we as readers soon learn that it was Robert who eliminated Mirial's first husband Gerbert to obtain Mirial and her thriving weaving business.

On the side we're privy to brief glimpses of Nicholas's happenings. Nicholas too builds a fortune from the chest Mirial leaves him and realizes his dream in sailing and shipping. He soon owns four ships. The heart of the novel was definitely Nicholas' mistress Magdalene. A prostitute by profession, Magdalene soon comes to love and care deeply for Nicholas. Predictably, Nicholas and Mirial soon reunite under the worst of circumstances: Nicholas with Magdalene, and Mirial as Robert's wife. Nicholas is bitter about Mirial absconding with a portion of the treasure like a thief in the night and they affect a mutual hatred for one another. Nicholas and Mirial share passion though and for the first time in her life, Mirial enjoys sensual pleasure in an adulterous affair with Nicholas. A lot of grief and guilt ensue on both their parts (especially Mirial's). Nicholas asks her to leave her husband, and she rejects his proposal. Nicholas then marries Magdalene when he deduces she's pregnant (Magdalene genuinely didn't want to entrap him). Magdalene loves Nicholas dearly and knows of his affair with Mirial. After Mirial rejects running away with Nicholas, Nicholas comes to return Magdalene's love and devotion in matrimony. Again, I loved Magdalene and Nicholas's union, and it resonated so much more than Mirial and Nicholas. Nicholas is oblivious to Mirial's condition and Mirial's husband Robert discovers Mirial's adultery with Nicholas. Since Robert knows he's barren, he surmises the real father of the child Mirial carries. Again we're treated to more fear, anxiety and pain as Mirial (who feels horrible about her affair Nicholas) allows Robert to abuse her body sexually while she's increasing.

Truly, the adage, "You've made your bed, now you must lie in it," tortuously reverberates with Mirial's character.

The book comes to a very unsatisfying conclusion as Robert treacherously plots and schemes to eliminate Nicholas and sexually abuses Mirial's body. I hated that the book killed off Magdalene just to fabricate a "happy" ending for Nicholas and Mirial. Between Mirial and Magdalene and their babies, Robert kills off Mirial's baby, Mirial survives while Magdalene's baby survives but Magdalene dies. All so Nicholas and Mirial (really barren now after they kill her baby) could be together.

If you're into self-inflicted torture, this book is for you!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dust to Dust, by Tami Hoag [2]

**/***** (2/5)

As opposed to Michael Connely's ECHO PARK ** (the last murder mystery I read), Tami Hoag's DUST TO DUST exhibits the writing of a woman's human touch. Hoag fleshes out her protagonists' personal lives (Kovac and Liska), the history and lives of those characters involved with the crimes all interconnect (Savard, Wyatt, Andy & Mike Fallon, Thorne), and an element of love factors into the crimes. Hoag demonstrates a knack for setting the scene in Minnesota surpassing Connelly's ECHO PARK and her prose also seems to follow at a higher level. Although Hoag seems comfortable writing 44 year-old Detective Sam Kovac and he bears many similarities to Connelly's Harry Bosch (married to the job, old, lonely, bulldog-like after a mystery), I liked Connelly's Bosch much better. Connelly spares us the repeated reminders of his protagonist's loneliness -- quit whining and do something about it already if you want someone in your life, Kovac! I can't say I enjoyed DUST TO DUST as the human element here stunts the mystery and suspense (Connely built the suspense and mystery much better). With the exception of bailing out Kovac in near-death situations more than once, Liska's character and angle in this book with the Curtis case seemed extraneous. Kovac's partner 32 year-old single mom Nikki "Tinks" Liska resembled the token kick-butt chick archetype who simply doesn't need anyone's help like Kovac needs her constant help. Liska even disposes of an iron-pumped 200-pound-plus baddie at the end mostly by herself. The final chapter shifts between Kovac and Liska in short passages and it was a little melodramatic, trying to inappropriately add tension and action to a book mostly about tortured characters disbelievingly all interconnected by circumstance and tragedy. The book never really grips until we read a tortured Amanda Savard's perspective more than 120 pages into this 354-page hardcover. And then of course we don't really hear much from Savard afterwards as the book prepares for a very sad denouement. Although I have to admire Hoag for the markedly sad ending, I don't have to like it. The lack of an engaging suspense and mystery confounds my problems with the novel.

Hoag lingers on her characters' loneliness quite a bit, and I found it tiring. A humor which clearly aims to shroud hidden vulnerabilities -- especially tough-chick humor from Liska -- didn't help the reading experience. Thirty-two year-old single mom Nikki Liska obviously finds herself still attracted to her cheating ex-husband. Despite her tough-chick demeanor, ASHES TO ASHES repeatedly mentions Liska's vulnerability and of course she dons an insensate exterior around her gorgeous ex-husband Speed to discourage him. The book reminds us again and again that Liska's 44 year-old partner Sam Kovac is lonely, only having an estranged daughter to show for his two failed marriages. An older, retired cop's desolate solitude (Mike Fallon) magnifies Kovac's loneliness and he sees himself in the bitter, lonely Mike Fallon down the line: alone at home, sitting in front of a tv and eating a tv dinner. Kovac wallows in self-pity and loneliness quite a bit, even after his involvement with Savard. Okay we get it, they're lonely, even though both Liska and Kovac are more than capable of doing something about their lonely condition, they mope around about it tirelessly. Even though Hiaasen's Mick Stranahan in SKIN TIGHT (**) was divorced 5 times, he's content living out in a stilt house off the coasts of South Florida by himself. That was much more believable than Sam Kovac's feminine moping around.

The Premise, possible SPOILERS.

The suspense behind DUST TO DUST's murder mystery actually overlaps four different cases. You have the apparent suicide hanging of police cop Andy Fallon, part of the notorious Internal Affairs division. Then there's the subsequent suicide of his decrepit father, retired cop Mike Fallon. Two cases from the past also come into play: the Thorne and Curtis murders, two cases Andy Fallon was investigating. There's quite a few balls in the air, and Hoag contrives to weave them all together. All of it stems from an element of love and tragedy from the Thorne murder years ago which turns Captain Ace Wyatt into a hero and ruins Mike Fallon's police career. Similar to Connelly's ECHO PARK, Kovac and Liska stage a scene to acquire a taped confession twice in DUST TO DUST. Also like ECHO PARK, killers will be killers and things never go according to plan. As I mentioned before, Liska's investigation into the Curtis murder seemed terribly extraneous. I suppose we need to have a girl kicking some butt?

Anyhow, Hoag fails to build the suspense and I lost my interest numerous times during the novel (beginning 100 pages and the final 250 pages or so). The constant reminders of Kovac's loneliness crowned by the sad ending really clinched my overall dissatisfaction with the novel. I really didn't care who was the killer 100 pages into the novel!

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spiderman 3 [2]

**/***** (2/5)

1. Spiderman (4/5)
2. Spiderman 2 (4/5)
3. Spiderman 3 (2/5)

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies captures the Marvel comics in an entertaining manner and its final installment -- SPIDERMAN 3 -- is no different. Unlike other people, I didn't mind the extra dose of villains here while Raimi continues to excel at imbuing a personal touch to his movies. Unfortunately, I felt some of the plotting in SPIDERMAN 3 seemed far-fetched, even for a superhero movie. For example, you have Harry Osborn / New Goblin conveniently lose his short-term memory early on, and then later, when it becomes important to the story, conveniently reacquire it. After Harry recalls who he believes killed his father (Peter Parker / Spiderman), he impels Mary Jane to dump Peter. Mary Jane dumping Peter in turn makes Peter revert to his darker side with the Venom suit. I thought Mary Jane should have dumped Peter without Harry's interference. Brock/Venom and Sandman magically running into each other on the street to join forces against Spiderman also seemed out of place. I found Sandman/Marko 's angle as it relates to Peter's uncle's death back in SPIDERMAN also contrived. You could just have Marko doing what he does because of his daughter, no need to connect it to Peter's uncle back in SPIDERMAN and fuel Peter's revenge further. I thought the lure of power and Mary Jane's rejection should provide enough reasons for Peter's darker side instead of forcing a connection between Marko and his uncle's death. Too many of the characters seem to die in SPIDERMAN 3 only to miraculously reappear later on. Twice with Harry/New Goblin, and then Sandman seems to perish only to miraculously return later. Although Harry and Peter teaming up during the climax may also seem contrived, I actually enjoyed that bit. SPIDERMAN 3 enjoyably wraps up Harry's story arc and his friendship with Peter.

Tobey Maguire plays Spiderman / Peter Parker as he now deals with inner demons and a growing cast of villains in SPIDERMAN 3. Recall from SPIDERMAN 2 that both his love interest Mary Jane and his friend Harry Osborn discover the truth of Spiderman's identity. Mary Jane played by Kirsten Dunst is accepting ("Go get'em tiger!" -- a quote from the comics), while Harry desires vengeance for his father and to kill Spiderman/Peter. James Franco plays Harry as the character transforms himself to the new Goblin and relentlessly pursues Peter. Peter furthers his relationship with Mary Jane though things decline between the two here. Negative reviews of Mary Jane's performance prove detrimental to her acting/singing career and watching Spiderman kiss a classmate (Gwen Stacy) upsets Mary Jane. The city basks in Spiderman's glory and Peter becomes a little egocentric. Meanwhile, criminal Flint Marko breaks out of jail and needs money for his ailing daughter. He enters a radioactive facility and the experiments accidentally disintegrate him. Flint Marko becomes Sandman -- able to manipulate dirt and sand -- as he now finds the power to acquire money for his sick daughter. You also have a dangerous, symbiotic substance ("Venom") which finds refuge at Peter's decrepit apartment. "Venom" is a symbiont and requires an organism to magnify its power. Finally, there's Eddie Brock played by Topher Grace, the photographer who challenges Peter's exclusive pictures of Spiderman at the Daily Bugle. After a darker Peter destroys Brock's career by uncovering forged pictures, Brock lusts for revenge against Peter.

The climax once again sets up Mary Jane as the damsel in distress. Villains from all three Spiderman movies capture poor Mary Jane to stage the climactic fight. Although SPIDERMAN 3 was enjoyable and the special/visual effects good, too many nonsensical plot devices drained some of my appreciation of the movie itself. I did like Harry and Peter teaming up at the end though.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Gridlinked, by Neal Asher [1]

*/***** (1/5)

'The runcible has been developed to the stage where it is near perfect in function. Humankind can now step from star system to star system with ease...' --Dragon talking about advancing human technology including runcibles, matter transmitters controlled by AIs

A feeling of detachment and apathy permeated my reading experience of British author Neal Asher's 2001 science fiction debut GRIDLINKED. The characters failed to capture, the plotting and pacing sagged while the fragmented prose stuttered. As with any science fiction and fantasy novel, world building and settings factor significantly because the SFF story's backdrop lies outside of a contemporary or historical setting. Although GRIDLINKED adequately builds its universe, I felt its clunky and tediously scientific prose swallowed any potential wonder or excitement in GRIDLINKED's universe. The science fiction What-If scenario in GRIDLINKED? Matter-transmitting "runcibles" controlled by AIs allow humankind to literally step from world to world light years apart. A threat to exploiting this technology forms the foundation of this novel. GRIDLINKED contains an overwhelming element of mystery in its characters (Dragon, the Japanese demigod Horace Blegg) and suspense in the plotting (Dragon's motives, Cormac's mysterious scheme at the end). A story may spell things out for its readers, essentially dumbing it down, or it may intentionally leave readers in the dark by obfuscating the prose. Instead of some balance in the delivery of the mystery, I thought GRIDLINKED chose the later in the extreme to the point of disinterest (fogging the prose and mystifying characters and their intentions to the point of apathy). There's terrorizing Separatists who detest AI's growing role in the universe, sympathetic mercenaries, mysterious dragons, androids, and our James-Bond agent in the center of it all: Ian Cormac. Unlike some science fiction novels, the AIs here aren't "bad" and they represent an extension of humanity. In fact the AIs exhibit more emotion and attitude than the characters. Like the quote below, I found Ian Cormac's character characterless, and I just didn't care about our mercenary John Stanton or Stanton's lover Jarvellis whose boring perspective appears in droves later in the novel.

"Ian Cormac: Yet another mythical creation of hero-starved humanity. Earth Central Security (ECS) does have its monitors, its Sparkind and troops, and, yes, it does have its secret agents. But let us be honest about these people: they are, on the whole, grey and characterless. Again, this is all about what we want to believe. We want to this superagent who so easily sorts out all the bad guys for us. Cormac is to ECS what a certain agent with the number 007 was to M15. At best he is fictional creation at his worst he is a violent and disruptive role model." --From Quince Guide, compiled by humans

I immediately compared James-Bond agent Ian Cormac with Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs, and boy, is Kovacs hundred times more interesting. Morgan's gritty protagonist makes for wondrous world building and a hard-boiled detective story in ALTERED CARBON (****). In terms of a gripping plot, pace and characterizations, Asher's GRIDLINKED pales by comparison.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

In the prologue, a technician steps into these matter-transmitting runcibles on his way to the planet Samarkind. As soon as he steps on the other side to Samarkind an explosion kills all of the planet's 10,000 residents. Back on the planet Cheyne III, the book opens with a gridlinked Ian Cormac killing Angelina Pelter. His chainglass weapon called "shuriken" harbors an independent AI and it seems to bail out Cormac in any tight situation. Being "gridlinked" places any information at Cormac's fingertips and as one of Earth Central Security's (ECS) most valuable agents, he's been gridlinked for over 30 years now -- 10 years too many according to convention, and quickly losing his humanity. The mysterious demigod character Horace Blegg advises Cormac to disconnect from the grid and Cormac spends the rest of the book attempting to regain his humanity. Blegg diverts Cormac's operation on Cheyne III uncovering terrorist cells to investigating the explosion on Samarkind. Angelina Pelter's psychopathic terrorist brother Arian Pelter chases Cormac. The majority of the interminable middle sections of the book spend time at Samarkind as Cormac and his team try to discover what happened. Everyone considers hacking into the powerful runcible AIs impossible and for someone to accomplish such a feat killing 10,000, it's imperative Cormac uncover the how's. I'm not sure it's ever fully explained even in the end, and if it is, it's scientifically overbearing. Eventually a mysterious and powerful extragalactic entity called "Dragon" appears over Samarkind. Dragon implicates one of its makers, called "Maker," an entity consisting of energy.

Pelter chases Cormac across the galaxy with a single-minded purpose: kill Cormac. The chapters studiously alternate between the boring events on Samarkind as Cormac and his team investigate the explosion and install a new runcible AI, and to Pelter traveling across the galaxy to kill Cormac. Finally the book climaxes on the planet Viridian as all relevant parties converge for a showdown. There's many uninteresting pages from the smuggler Jarv's perspective towards the end. I found Jarv and Staton's reunion corny and too convenient, while Cormac's end-game scheme protracted and drab.

At the end of the day, not only did the book bore me, but I failed to understand the point of it all. Maybe I just didn't get it, but nor did I want to; the book tried too hard to sustain a measure of suspense and mystery over 400 pages into a 426-page hardcover. The Dragon implicates the Maker in the destruction of Samarkind, Dragon wants Cormac to kill the Maker, Cormac agrees, but in the end, concocts a sheme to renege on his promise to Dragon after learning the Maker isn't all bad, and along the way he faces off against the psychopath Pelter. Oh and the mercenary Stanton (originally with Pelter) and his love interest the smuggler Jarvellis find each other after much hardship. Did I miss anything? It all seemed too dumb and the boring content and prose didn't help.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Updated '07 Movies Watch List

- Spiderman 3 (**)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (*)
- Knocked Up (***)
- Transformers (***)
- Stardust (*****)
- Superbad
- 3:10 to Yuma (**)
- Beowulf
- Enchanted
- Life Free or Die Hard
- The Bourne Ultimatum (****)
- 300 (****) Seen it, enjoyed the spectacle, but haven't reviewed it
- I Am Legend (***)

I'm always curious about the movie box office broken down in various ways. This is a nice site for it: Box Office Mojo. For comprehensive, nationwide reviews: Rotten Tomatoes.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Stardust [5]

*****/***** (5/5)

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, screenwriters Vaughn and Jane Goldman bring acclaimed British author Neil Gaiman's novel to the big screen in a very enjoyable STARDUST (2007). Often characterized by a fun-hearted parody, STARDUST pokes fun at many cliches inherent in the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) genre. For instance, our hero Tristan Thorn's innocent clumsiness and the 90+ year-old guard sparring with skill and finesse. Like most stories in the fantasy genre, our hero hails from humble roots (a shop boy) and isn't the older, richer and powerful hero of the romance genre. Also like most fantasy stories, there's a coming-of-age here as Tristan learns of swordfighting and his true heart under an older man's guidance (Captain Shakespeare played by Robert De Niro). There's plenty of magic, air pirates maintaining a gruff exterior to hide a cultured, sensitive inside, a throne contested by scheming brothers, evil witches coveting youth and beauty, and a quest for the star, our heroine. The movie handles all of it with humor, satire, and warmth. Although I haven't read Gaiman's novel, I'm sure it was more entertaining than Gaiman's NEVERWHERE. I read Neil Gaiman's NEVERWHERE a long time ago and despite Gaiman's marquee humor, the impotence of NEVERWHERE's protagonist frustrated me while I found the reading experience fairly dry overall. Comedy, fantasy, action, adventure, and romance all render STARDUST as a decidedly enjoyable albeit lightly predictable fare.

STARDUST stars Claire Danes as our falling star Yvaine, Charlie Cox as our politically-incorrect Prince Charming Tristan Thorn, Michelle Pfeiffer as the old witch Lamia coveting youth and beauty, Robert De Niro as the gruff, sensitive pirate Captain Shakespeare, and Mark Strong as one of the princes in line for the throne of the magical realm of Stormhold. I'm sure there's botox and plenty of makeup involved, but can I just say that Michelle Pfeiffer looks even more striking in her late 40s than she did when she was younger! It's ironic that her character here craves youth and beauty. The performances were all solid, but I'd single out Michelle Pfeiffer's portrayal of the evil witch especially, it's deliciously sadistic. I thought the scheming brothers in ghost form applauding, cheering and bantering amongst themselves was hilarious!

The Premise.

Set in England, eighteen year-old shop boy Tristan Thorn pines for the most beautiful girl: Victoria played by Sienna Miller. Victoria manipulates Tristan's lovesick attentions for goods at the shop. No smooth operator by any stretch of the imagination, Victoria laughs when Tristan soulfully articulates the lengths he would go to win Victoria's hand in marriage. When a shooting star falls in the magical realm of Stormhold across the Wall forbidden to all, Tristan promises to return the fallen star for Victoria in exchange for her hand in marriage. Tristan's pledge to return with the star from across the Wall (where no one ventures) moves Victoria enough to give him a week until her birthday, else she'll marry the taller more adept Humphrey.

In the magical realm of Stormhold, its aged king played by Peter O'Toole lies in his deathbed. He sends off his magical jewel to the heavens to bring down the shooting star Tristan and Victoria spy earlier, a jewel which responds only to royal blood. Before the king dies, he bequeaths the kingship to the person of royal blood who retrieves the jewel. The surviving princes watch as the jewel flies off into the sky and brings down the star. Meanwhile, the evil witch Lamia also sees the shooting star. Lamia and her two sisters covet stars because of their powerful magic to revitalize. They've already killed and exhausted the magic from the last fallen star.

So the stage is set, you have: Tristan, the conniving princes and Lamia, all after the star for their own reasons. Tristan arrives at the scene first and finds a girl, Yvaine, instead (in fact the star). Tristan possesses a magical babylon candle for rapidly transporting people. In exchange for this candle to return back to the heavens, Yvaine agrees to accompany Tristan back across the Wall to England and help him win Victoria's hand in marriage. Along the way, the scheming princes, air-faring pirates, Lamia and true love pose obstacles for Tristan and Yvaine. Tristan completes his quest of course, but with different results. The ending stretched quite a bit, but it was still fun and unique in its own way.

Humorous, satiric, adventurous, and fun, I was charmed by STARDUST.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Risk Everything, by Sophia Johnson [1]

*/***** (1/5)

Sophia Johnson's 11th-century Scottish medieval romance RISK EVERYTHING offers nothing in terms of substantive characters, engaging story or captivating settings. The prose here exceeds a Julia Quinn, Samantha James, Kathryn Caskie or Lisa Kleypas but not by much. The book reads as a woman's secret fantasy to have a beautiful, muscle-leaden, huge- "tarsed" (manhood) Scottish warrior dominate and possess. RISK EVERYTHING cuts to the chase and often borders on the erotic maltreatment of its virgin heroine Meghan of Blackthorn to magnify a sensual possession. Both lead characters are utterly forgettable and the love scenes often eclipse the participants and their purported connection. The hero Rolf MacDaidh must assert his masculinity with Meghan at every turn. Meghan meanwhile harbors the I-am-like-man-hear-me-roar syndrome, also for the entire book. She is an expert marksman, lethal with a dirk and sword, master horseman and mesmerizing on the bagpipes. Of course she spits curses at Rolf 24/7 but that's fine given Rolf's maltreatment. Meghan initiates nothing from a lovemaking standpoint even though the entire middle section of the novel contains copious love scenes. Apparently, having our virtuous Meghan initiate anything sensually would make her look like a slut. From her first oblique reference, we recognize the book's villain. Rolf of course spurns the villain's lewd advances -- apparently only female villains initiate anything sensually. We also know that false pretenses compel Rolf to the vengeance he exacts from Meghan of Blackthorn. The flimsy evidence which points to Blackthorn's Connor as the culprit behind Rolf's grievances seemed a ridiculous ruse to have the hero abduct and "possess" the heroine.

The book would be remiss to let a moment pass without reminding us Meghan can, in fact, best all men in arms with the possible exceptions of Rolf, her cousins Mereck and Damron and her brother Connor. Mereck, Damron and Connor appear so often in their happily-married lives, we quickly deduce they appeared as heroes in prior Sophia Johnson novels. Even the final climax featured these heroes from other books, not Rolf and Meghan necessarily. When our muscular, high-handed medieval cartoon pimp (Rolf) services Meghan in their first love scene, Meghan even thinks of how the men in her family (i.e., Mereck, Damron and Connor) have a reputation for pleasing women and superior lovemaking skills (p. 160). I thought it a little incestuous and creepy to think about relatives' lovemaking skills while going at it with Rolf. Even though this book takes place mostly in Rolf's castle at Rimsdale, it often depicts Rimsdale's inferiority compared to Damron's Blackthorn. Rimsdale's dog Ugsome pales in comparison to Blackthorn's hound Guardian (p. 93). The Pride of Blackthorn Meghan must properly teach all of Rimsdale's inept warriors in arms and combat. In her thoughts, Meghan constantly compares Rimsdale and its people with Blackthorn and finds Rimsdale entirely lacking. Why didn't this book just take place in Blackthorn if it rocks so much?

I'm reminded of many superior, yet sensual, medieval romances reading this. Julie Garwood's characters in GENTLE WARRIOR (***) and SAVING GRACE (**) discovered a sensual passion that resonated. I found Shannon Drake's bellicose hero-and-heroine chemistry passionately entertaining in COME THE MORNING (***). As far as honorable medieval possessions goes, Madeline Hunter's BY POSSESSION (****) still reigns supreme. Its characters Addis and Moira are memorable and their chemistry palpable.

The Premise.

After discovering Connor of Blackthorn's plaid and weapons, Rolf MacDaidh blames Blackthorn for the death of his wife and bairn. The Lord of Vengeance Rolf MacDaidh abducts the Pride of Blackthorn Meghan to exact his revenge as recompense for his wife and bairn's demise. Fiery-spirited and capable of besting any man in combat and arms, Meghan insists his brother innocent of the crimes against Rolf's family. Romantically, Rolf and Meghan have known each other since they were young and share a mutual attraction. As revenge against Blackthorn, Rolf intends to ruthlessly use the Pride of Blackthorn Meghan as his leman, his whore.

We may segregate the book into three parts. The first part involves Meghan's abduction, her repeated attempts at escape, and finally her acclimation at Rimsdale as Rolf provides her time to accustom her to the idea of his leman. Although he feels bad about it, Rolf often exhibits brutal savagery towards Meghan. We have the predictably common plot device of making the sexually-experienced hero Rolf behave as a "callow youth" around our virginal Meghan. The second part begins as Rolf proposes a "handfast" (a temporary marriage) to reconcile Meghan's pride and steadfast refusal to become Rolf's whore. Rolf initiates a virginal Meghan to passion and he feels triumph that he's the only man having plunged the depths between Meghan's legs. They promptly engage in many love scenes showcasing Rolf's engorged "tarse" and muscular, broad-shouldered frame. It's funny, although it lacked avid descriptions of the guy's muscular frame, Sylvia Day's ASK FOR IT (**) still surpassed this cheap novel as far as sensuality goes. The final third part displaces Meghan as mistress of Rimsdale when Rolf must honor his marriage contract to another woman. After bedding her many times, Rolf still refuses to let Meghan return to her home. Everything comes to a convenient conclusion as Blackthorn's heroes from prior novels fly to their rescue.

I'm having no luck at finding finding substantive, fun romances lately...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen [4]

****/***** (4/5)

I found Sara Gruen's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS thoroughly enchanting in a very engrossing tale of the 1930s traveling circus Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Part wonder, part adventure, part tragedy and turmoil, and part romance, my first Gruen novel conveys a novel artistry in the settings, characters, prose and storytelling that resonated. Similar to Cornwell's rendition on Arthur, I find here a popular style of writing many authors choosing as of late: a first-person narration that shifts from a flashback when he's 23 years old and to the present tense when he's 90... or 93. The flashback comprises the bulk of the book's content over the span of 3 to 4 months when 23 year-old Jacob lands in a shady traveling circus amidst the historical backdrop of the Great Depression and the prohibition of alcohol. Normally, first-person flashbacks tend to affect a doleful disposition. Not so here. Remarkably, I found the present happenings of our senile 90-or-93 year-old Jacob in a nursing home refreshingly funny and instructively captivating as we laugh and empathize with Jacob. I'll never look at my grandmother the same way again. In fact the book derives its title from a grumpy Jacob grousing over another old man claiming to bring water for elephants in his younger days.

Bathing is...embarrassing, because I have to strip...Now, there are some things that never die, so even though I'm in my nineties my sap sometimes rises...[The nurses] always pretend not to notice...It means they consider me nothing more than a harmless old man sporting a harmless old penis that still gets uppity once in a while. Although if one of them took it seriously and tried to do something about it, the shock would probably kill me.

Personal wants and simple plot devices prevented a perfect 5-star rating on my part. I'm impressed by Gruen's research into the time period and traveling circuses, and admittedly, Gruen's hypnotizing writing style, symmetric storytelling and gritty characterizations far surpasses many of my 4 and 5-star books. I read a 553-page large print edition of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS containing black-and-white photos of 1930s circuses and for the first 100 to 200 pages, I was enthralled. The wonder and the adventure of it had me smiling and on the edge of my seat. The book then settles down with the August Rosenbluth character who factors in more and more prominently. Much of the plotting deals with August, his wife Marlena and our protagonist Jacob as the third wheel at a private dinner or outing. August's violent schizophrenia took center stage and the August character and his prominence choked much of my enthusiasm. Instead of August, I was hoping for more wonders of the circus, more Camel, Walter, and more plots with the animals of the menagerie. When circumstances finally unite our star-crossed lovers, we then have the Circus manager Uncle Al episodically fomenting trouble. The caste-like, hierarchal circus society consisting of performers, workers and rubes was very interesting, but Jacob's helplessness within that hierarchy, although gritty and realistic, proved altogether exasperating. I was hoping to see Jacob doing more, whether helping the elephant or protecting Marlena (both from August). I also found the ending a bit disappointing and anticlimactic, I wanted to see at least one more chapter of closure in the flashback rather than relaying the aftermath in the present tense.

At its heart, the book expresses Jacob's story of love -- an impossible love for his wife, a love for animals and the elephant, and of course, a love for the wondrous circus. Unlike so many potboiler romance novels, here's a love between a man and woman that isn't so trite: we have a sexually-inexperienced, red-haired 23 year-old college boy and the compassionate star of the circus who dares to love him, and in return, warrants his affection, caring, loyalty and love. Even though their first love scene isn't ideal by romance standards, it nevertheless reverberates with passion and we witness Jacob's joy for giving as she guides him. Granted, it's written entirely from Jacob's perspective and even though the first lovemaking wasn't scientifically precise (again, by romance standards), the book captures how each gives their heart for the other. Everything isn't initiated by Jacob and that in itself was noteworthy. For myself, love is about mutual giving, and I always hope to see some semblance of that. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS doesn't disappoint.

...she lies nestled against me, her hair tickling my face. I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin...I lie motionless, savoring the feeling of her body against mine. I'm afraid to breathe in case I break the spell.

I'm astonished to read a very believable and resonating account of a male character written by a woman. In spite of Jacob's frustrating helplessness at times, I loved how realistic, how passionate and how intense he was about the animals, friends and love he cares for. I appreciated Jacob's passion and intensity minus the inane, repetitious introspection so common to the romance genre. No, guys don't think and muse about things for endless pages, and Gruen thankfully discarded that element of the romance. Things are happening anyway, so Gruen need not fill the pages with cheap introspection.

The Premise.

The story actually begins with the ending. It was actually deftly done, and Gruen fills in the details when we encounter the prologue at the very end of the book again. Ironically, this adds a measure of suspense to the novel.

We then transition to a present-day nursing home where ninety (or ninety-three) year-old Jacob Jankowski reminisces about his past with a circus. Although this may sound very melancholy, Gruen enriches the dour present with anecdotal humor. The story shifts between a presently old Jacob and a 23 year-old Jacob's adventures with a traveling circus in the 1930s (I don't think it's clear exactly what year). During the last year of Jacob's veterinary degree at Cornell right before exams, Jacob's parents perish in a car accident. It's the Great Depression, times are bad and the bank consequently confiscates his parents' home and his father's veterinary practice. Jacob grieves all the more when he discovers his father mortgaged everything to help pay for his Cornell tuition. Without a dime to his name, without a home and having walked out of final exams, Jacob hops on a train in the middle of the night. He discovers later the train belongs to a traveling circus: Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.

We eventually find out that many traveling circuses are disintegrating during this time and the Benzini Brothers don't actually run this circus. Uncle Al ruthlessly manages this circus and he's described as a "buzzard, a vulture, an eater of carrion." Essentially, Al keeps his ears open to failing circuses and ensures he's around to absorb some of their prizes. More than anything else, Uncle Al covets freaks. Uncle Al's equestrian director and superintendent of animals is schizophrenic August Rosenbluth, and eventually Jacob works for August. August is the common flavor of tall, dark and handsome: charming, affable and inviting -- when he wants to be. Twelve years his junior, August's wife is the pretty and acrobatic Marlena, the star of the equestrian act and really the star of the circus.

The circus travels from city to city and Uncle Al makes an impromptu detour for a failed circus to absorb some of its spoils. Uncle Al especially desires a man with a twin protruding from his chest. Ringling picks up the freak but Uncle Al lands Rosie the Elephant instead. They even acquire the train car to house Rosie. On one charming night that turns awry later, the audience erupts in appreciation of Marlena and Rosie's incomparable act.

As I mentioned before, I thought the book limps to its conclusion. I would have appreciated another chapter in the flashback depicting our protagonists in a new act with another circus. Still, I found the reading experience a captivating novelty to say the least.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Echo Park, by Michael Connelly [2]


Michael Connelly's 2006 mystery ECHO PARK perpetuates many of the genre's themes though it still manages to intrigue and keep readers in suspense. You know a mystery novel will throw many curve balls at you, and you know oftentimes, the culprit is the last person you'd expect. In spite of all this, ECHO PARK still imparts interesting suspense. Michael Connelly writes a series of mystery novels on Police Detective Harry Bosch, and this is my first Connelly novel. It isn't bad, and very readable. Not a page-turner by any means, slow and steady best describes the pacing of this novel. The prose is average and the settings of Los Angeles and Echo Park fairly tame, relying on the names of real streets, neighborhoods and establishments to build the scene. The suspense keeps you interested but it isn't on-the-edge-of-your-seat kind of suspense. Like most mystery novels, I found the ending protracted and anticlimactic. There's a lot of politics in the novel as the book takes place during the fall election season. Two spots up for election directly affect our protagonist Harry: the position of District Attorney and a city council seat. Much of the politics was good as it posed and postured intriguing scenarios, making the read far from cut-and-dry. I liked that the villain here isn't all bad but definitely demented. Our villain Reynard Waits accurately characterizes Harry Bosch as an "eye-for-an-eye guy." Our protagonist Harry exhibits a cold, ruthless streak and I liked that as well.

The Premise.

In 1993, Detective Harry Bosch investigates the disappearance of Marie Gesto. After discovering her car in the exterior garage of High Tower apartments where many fledgling actors live, Harry has a bad feeling about the case. They find neatly folded clothes and groceries in her Honda Accord inside the garage, but they're never able to find the body or nail down any suspects. Harry's prime suspect is Anthony Garland, the ex-boyfriend of the girl who lived in the corresponding apartment. The girl now lives in Texas and bears a resemblance to the missing Marie Gesto. Without any solid leads, evidence or a body, the department catalogues the case under unsolved.

Thirteen years later, police cops pull over Reynard Waits in his window-cleaning van late at night driving through Echo Park, a burgeoning location in LA County near Dodger stadium and Hollywood. The police accidentally discover the severed body parts of two prostitutes in bags and immediately arrest Waits. Eventually the prosecuting attorney running for election Rick O'Shea involves Harry and his Gesto case from thirteen years before. In order to avoid execution, Waits' lawyer brokers a deal in which Waits admits to murdering 9 people including Marie Gesto. In exchange for Waits' confession to the 9 murders, the state agrees to offer him life in prison instead of execution.

Harry is part of the Open-Unsolved Unit and won't give up his Gesto case without seeing it through. He's obsessed over it for some time now. O'Shea agrees to bring Harry on board, and they question Waits about the details of Gesto's murder. Waits answers all of Harry's questions adequately. A handcuffed Waits leads his lawyer and the prosecution team to Gesto's body on a field trip as the final confirmation before the prosecution team will accept Waits' confessions in exchange for life in prison. Harry is against offering Waits anything less than the needle but goes along to see his case through.

This is a mystery novel where the killer is revealed right away: 20 pages into the novel, in fact. There's more to the story obviously as politics within the police department and the upcoming election come into play. Lawyers and rich people always spin and skew public opinion, further confounding and frustrating Harry's efforts. The action is light while Harry slowly but steadily works through the clues and leads. A refreshing read in the midst of so many romances actually.

Deceived, by Nicola Cornick [0]

/***** (0/5)

"I love you," [Marcus] said..."Do you love me, Bella?" [he asked].

"Yes," Isabella whispered. "I told you." { Much earlier and it was a simple 'I love you too' in response to Marcus' prior heartfelt words of love }

"Tell me again. I need to hear it many, many times."

"Only if you tell me, too."

"I love you," he said... "I am no gentleman, but I do love you."

The above epitomizes Nicola Cornick's lopsided 378-page paperback DECEIVED. The heroine Isabella immaturely wants to one-up Marcus at every turn and requires to hear him voice the words of love first and a lot more than the other way around. Calculatingly and deliberately, she makes sure to win everything against Marcus and gives nothing in return to all the love, affection, caring, comfort and tenderness her hero Marcus showers her. He certainly earns her love, but she does and says nothing to earn his and like most romance novels, DECEIVED doesn't feel it's necessary for the heroine to do anything to earn a hero's love other than disparage, humiliate and insult him. Another one-way street? You bet. A few notable exceptions aside (Madeline Hunter, Elizabeth Hoyt, Mary Balogh, Laura Kinsale, Julie Garwood, and KEW of course), historical romance novelists promote the same kind of heroine every novel: haughty, barb-tongued, give/concede nothing first, and demand/take everything. The prose was average, and the plot to locate the villain Warwick was... poor. Marcus knows Warwick involved Isabella's brother Freddie in Warwick's schemes. Yet Marcus fails to take steps to tail Freddie who could lead Marcus to Warwick. Instead, he's ineffectually camping out at Fleet Prison for leads on Warwick. At the end, we have a long conversation between Warwick and Isabella to settle things. Yeah, this entire plot with Warwick was just plain bad. Again we have lead characters in a romance novel never saying how they really feel until the very end, all to prolong the novel and inundate readers with repetitious introspection. The premise of the novel (heroine jilts hero) initially peaked my interest, much to my misfortune. I thought Sylvia Day's hero in ASK FOR IT (also a Marcus) was *much* better and exhibited a more realistic response after he's jilted.

At the onset, DECEIVED belabors on the meandering thoughts and background exposition of its hero and heroine pair. It seems like for every sentence spoken there exists paragraphs of rumination and exposition. I know women want to know what people are thinking, but the musings and thoughts here struck a glibly cloying cord. Part 1-Revenge pits the hero Marcus and the heroine Isabella against each other as each try to gain a leg up on the other. I found this juvenile game adolescently contrived. Marcus here seemed less a guy in love and more like a feminine concoction for the heroine's delight. Of course we know who will win this combative game: it's always the heroine. As "masculine" as the book tries to make Marcus, he's emotionally dithering, stupid and ultimately submissive while Isabella is obstinately resolute, witty and rebellious. Marcus is always the bad guy, always at fault, always wrong while Isabella always the victim mandating apologies and respect and always right. I found the plotting very immature, very one-sided while the characterizations juvenile. Because of the lopsided nature of this "romance", the love scenes never made an impact and seemed little more than a cartoon pimp servicing a virgin-like heroine. Despite being experienced, the book fears allowing the heroine initiate anything sensually or go down on him like he goes down her in the love scenes.

The best pairing in the novel? Not the main one, but rather, Isabella's sister Pen and Marcus's friend Alistair. I was hoping for more of Pen and Alistair actually.

During Part 2-Seduction, we have Marcus do a 180 and play the courtly suitor because he feels bad for treating Isabella poorly. She demands his respect, his apologies (p.222, "...he had not asked for [her] forgiveness..."), his forgiveness, his trust, patience, comfort, tenderness and love (and demands it all from Marcus first) and offers nothing in return. She's always the victim, always right and always immaturely needs to one-up Marcus in their combative game. Despite ruthlessly purchasing Marcus to pass off her debts, blackmailing him (p. 26), debasing him in public at an ambassador's party (she enjoys that), jilting him 12 years ago at the altar and refusing to see him or return any of his letters by way of explanation, the novel contrives to make Isabella morally and justifiably on superior ground compared to Marcus. Isabella callously goads Marcus about the jilt by saying she thought he was made of sterner stuff than become broken-hearted about her (p. 114). When Marcus says some cruel things in response, of course it's Marcus who needs a dressing down and it's Marcus who apologizes often and to the very end (p. 372). Despite Marcus apologizing first and often, going down on her in the love scenes, servicing her, paying off her debts, complimenting her after a Salterton party (p. 276), protecting her, respecting her, comforting her about about her lost child and last lover , etc., etc., I see very little, if any, outright reciprocation from Isabella other than in her meandering thoughts. Although no one wants a biddable, subservient wife, Isabella says little and shows less in terms of affection and caring for Marcus. She dismisses him after they share a heated public discussion at a ball early on, she throws him out after he shows up at her London home late at night, she announces their marriage in the Times in a way that purposefully disparages him (twice), and she intentionally demeans him at an ambassador's party. Not only debasing him in public, but taking pleasure in it. In the beginning, she wishes never to see Marcus out of prison and makes no attempt to free him despite supposedly "loving" him. Please. And Marcus accepts everything and the book makes him constantly think he needs to grovel and demean himself before her.

The whole time, I felt Isabella flaunts her superiority, and says and does nothing to earn his love. No apology for breaking his heart years before (and I understand her dire circumstances compelling her to marry someone else, but she still coldly brushes off his feelings after the jilt). No apology for humiliating and debasing him time and time again. No apology for purchasing him or blackmailing him. No comforting him, no taking a chance and telling him she loves him first, and no sorry's for retreating behind her cold shell of indifference again and again. Isabella has too much pride to say the words of love first or offer any concessions or apologies and yet expects Marcus to give and initiate everything whether it's acts of love or words of love.

When Isabella divulges she had taken a lover during her discontented marriage, I couldn't understand Marcus' jealous and possessive reactions, even considering the time period. He already assumed from the start she'd had many lovers before, and when she reveals she only had one, he should be happy, not wishy-washy and dithering.

Marcus never seemed like a real male character, just something to crumble and mold according to a woman's delights while the woman concedes and reciprocates nothing outright. Marcus serves as a vessel to assert the Isabella's superiority in every way and to bestow his tender obeisances in the love scenes. I found Marcus' wishy-washy, indecisive introspective musings very trying to read. I'm probably more critical of romance novelist heroes than most, but nevertheless much of Marcus' behavior, speech and thoughts elicit annoyance because it seems so forced, so nonsensical and/or so dumb. For instance, although Marcus desires revenge against Isabella for jilting him at the altar 12 years ago, the book tempers Marcus' suitably spiteful designs with wishy-washy lust, possession, rage (over anyone saying anything bad about her), sympathy, affection and jealousy (jealousy at the prospect of Isabella turning to another man for marriage at Fleet Prison). The dressing down he receives from Isabella at an ambassador's soiree because the important people knew her better than knew him was more juvenile nonsense. She relishes in dressing him down and making him look bad there. Talk about childish. Earlier, he gives her his family jewels which she rejects and then she proceeds to debase him publicly at the soiree. What does he do in response? Well he kisses her in public. Of course, something she craves anyway at all times. A man's pride doesn't work that way, which is why it's palpable that Marcus represents a feminine concoction, nothing more.

Then we have this game Marcus and Isabella play to gain the upper hand on each other. After Isabella agrees to retract a rather unfavorable admission of their marriage in the Times, Marcus naively accepts her honorable intentions at retraction. Then, he finds out later that she simply retracted her unfavorable account of Marcus in their marriage by depicting worse circumstances which denigrate Marcus' name. Even though he knew that she fight him every step of the way, he stupidly did not request to read the retraction before she sent the retraction to the Times. Some of the things he says and thinks to his best friend Alistair after reading Isabella's supposed retraction in the Times confirms a nonsensical and weak characterization concocted for the heroine's benefit. For example: "Devil take it, I'm starting to think that she married me just to plague me." Both of their adolescent plotting is supposed to be funny and his consequent frustration with her rejection of his terms intends to ascribe a humorous appeal. I found myself reacting with aggravation and disgust at this adolescently dumb cartoon pimp of a hero. After his friend scolds him that he started the revenge, the book forces Marcus to think he provoked her by his own high-handed behavior and he had only himself to blame. What high-handed behavior? It's not like she signed on to any of his terms. When he shows up at her home one night because he wants her, she later throws him out. Again, the book makes him think that he deserved it. When Isabella purposefully garbs herself in a provocative cherry-red silk for a ton event to annoy Marcus, he obviously lusts for her and thinks, "Damn it, she would drive him insane at this rate." The book yet again makes Marcus think he's the bad guy here forcing his thoughts at self-reproach, that he had done very little to earn Isabella's respect (p. 171). On the one hand, Isabella craves Marcus' rugged masculinity, and yet he thinks, says and does some of the most ridiculously emasculate things.

The premise? Isabella seeks a Fleet Prison man for a husband whose debts make her own twenty thousand debt look like nothing. She wants him to take on her debts, marry him, then annul the marriage after she comes into her inheritance. She would pay a prisoner to take on her debt. I thought this premise was good, and I liked Isabella's ruthlessness. Hence, I was disappointed that the book tried to temper Isabella's plans by highlighting her generosity and compassion. She wants to give some coin to the prison's low-class occupants in the stews. We're reminded again and again that she feels dirty and bad for doing all this. We get it, she's not a bad person, no reason to drum it out mercilessly.

The worst of it? When Isabella learns that Marcus wishes to safeguard his true identity and his location at Fleet Prison, she uses that information to blackmail him into marriage and later wishes the man she supposedly loves stays in prison. Marcus' nonchalant reaction to her blackmailing sickened me. Any guy would be angry, particularly enraged at Isabella's callous blackmailing. She jilts him at the altar 12 years ago, blackmails him into a marriage of convenience to pass off her debts to him 12 years later, and then doesn't feel any compunction to free the man from prison, a man she supposedly loves. Forget about freeing him from prison, she expresses displeasure at the very thought of seeing him out of prison. Marcus knows all this and yet he pines for her regardless. We see him in emotional turmoil and really more excited than anything else at the prospect of seeing her out of prison. He rages over his friend demeaning Isabella (and yet Isabella has no qualms demeaning Marcus in public with the newspaper and at an ambassador's party). He dislikes the idea of people talking about her soiled reputation at a ball. He wants to protect her. How does this even remotely compute? Assuming we dismiss the jilt years ago and discount way she wants to marry and drop someone in Fleet Prison, I thought Marcus should be most upset at how she tries to blackmail him for her ends. What if divulging his true identity and location at Fleet Prison would hurt others? It won't but she doesn't know that!

I thought Marcus' clandestine stay at Fleet Prison served nothing. He learned nothing new about the villain Warwick and he accomplished nothing. Seemed like a very poor ruse to have Isabella chance on him in prison so it will feel like a different kind of historical romance even though all the introspective musings are exactly the same.