Saturday, September 29, 2007

Knocked Up, directed by Judd Apatow [3]

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

It's sad when I start contrasting and comparing movies with chick-lit. KNOCKED UP's hero Ben Stone (played by Seth Rogen) is a romance heroine's worst nightmare: chubby, medium height, slight scruffy beard, unemployed and a chronic druggie/partier. He says and does some of the most boorishly unromantic things. Ben Stone spends time getting high with his goofy male friends, endeavors to launch a potentially lucrative website which maps out (in minutes/seconds) the nude scenes from every possible movie and for every possible actress. Later, Ben and his dorky buddies discover there's already a website that does what they intended. Ben Stone lives off a minor settlement from the Canadian government which approaches its last hundred dollars, and has no other prospects.

Meanwhile, Alison Scott played by Katherine Heigl has everything going for her: she works for E! Entertainment and she was recently promoted, she's young, relatively tall, beautiful and is on the way up. Alison and her older, married sister Debbie go out to celebrate her promotion on a night in town. Though Alison doesn't often party, her recent success prompts a night of drunken stupor where she meets an opportunistic Ben Stone. Ben isn't a ladies man by any stretch of the imagination, but an inebriated Alison knows no better and proceeds to have unprotected sex with Ben. When Ben is in the middle of putting on a condom, Alison yells, "Just do it!" and Ben believes she may have some other form of protection, ditching the condom.

A repulsed Alison wakes to find a scruffy, chubby, hairy Ben in her bed. After they talk over breakfast, it's clear to Alison that she made the biggest mistake in her life. Not only do they have nothing in common, Ben is as gauche as they come often speaking his mind about topics which horrify Alison.

Six weeks later, Alison discovers she's pregnant and the only guy she's been with recently was Ben. Alison calls Ben to notify him, and the "fun" begins from there. Although Ben reacts very unfavorably at first (to say the least), he's a generally good guy and tries to support Alison with trips to the gynecologist and baby shopping. The strident interaction between the two exacerbates with Alison's hormones and Ben's impolitic, adolescent behavior. Eventually, Alison and the baby inspire Ben to clean up his life while Ben's offensively, oafish jokes and manner finally make Alison smile. She starts to have a bit of fun.

Paul Rudd plays Alison's brother-in-law and though I thought he was good, his camaraderie with Ben was a bit weird. I mean you have father of two daughters heading to Las Vegas with Ben and getting high. I suppose Rudd's character needed an outlet for release too.

The movie isn't as laugh-out-loud funny as Apatow's previous movie THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN or the other big comedy hit from two years ago, THE WEDDING CRASHERS. In the end, however, this one is very endearing. I have to commend Katherine Heigl's character Alison for staying with Ben as long as she did given Ben's crass behavior. I would have cut Ben off as a hopeless cause and raised the baby by myself much earlier were I in her place. She definitely has the means to raise the baby by herself. Then again, it's written, produced and directed by a guy, and we wouldn't see Ben try to redeem himself if she were to cut him off so early.

Friday, September 28, 2007

'07 Movies To-Watch

A footnote of movies I want to see (but haven't yet):

- 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 Serpent Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt [2]

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

With THE RAVEN PRINCE's (****) Edward de Raaf, THE LEOPARD PRINCE's (****) Harry Pye and finally THE SERPENT PRINCE's Simon Iddesleigh, Elizabeth Hoyt's heroes evince some of the most unconventional yet compelling guy-characterizations I've ever read in this genre. These are believable, passionate guys in love, not just rich, handsome, pining cartoon pimps to service the virgin heroine. Probably the best of any virgin-heroine-saving-the-tortured-soul routines I've read, THE SERPENT PRINCE paints the wounded story of Viscount Simon Iddesleigh's quest for revenge. Originally introduced in THE RAVEN PRINCE, we know Simon is an expert swordsman, and an accomplished duelist. Although I generally don't go for the virgin-heroine-rescuing-the-tortured-soul routines, that's not what I didn't like about THE SERPENT PRINCE. Thankfully, there were no ultimatums here and no emasculating the hero at the end like so many tortured-soul-revenge stories in romance. In fact, this was the darkest, most believable tortured soul/revenge stories I've read in romance, and better than Madeline Hunter's THE SEDUCER (**). Unlike Hoyt's prior two novels however, THE SERPENT PRINCE was mostly a *yawn* for 250-275 pages in this 362-page paperback. I also thought the settings and prose declined from THE LEOPARD PRINCE, but the disappointingly boring plotting and pacing may have contributed to the weak prose and settings.

I liked the characters, and again their interaction and passion is mutually giving which I always enjoy in Hoyt's stories. Hoyt isn't afraid to let her heroines grab their heroes by the balls, so-to-speak. Unfortunately, THE SERPENT PRINCE's profligate, handsome hero and virginal, sweet heroine dutifully mimics romance genre's strictures for the h/h (more so than Hoyt's characters from prior novels). Other than the h/h, I also liked one of our antagonists, Sir Rupert Fletcher. His characterization was unique, and although I didn't agree with him, I found myself understanding him. He is the perfect gray character, and I do like ruthless realists.

If [Sir Rupert Fletcher] could, he would've lied; he made no bones about it. He'd found that deception was often the best way. More often than not, people wanted to be lied to; they didn't like the truth. How else to explain why they fell for lies so quickly?

Since we don't learn the complete background behind Simon's plight for revenge until 275 pages into this novel, it was difficult to get behind his revenge. The book describes a convincing tale of a man who truly loses a part of his soul with each duel and each kill. We desperately wanted to see Simon drop the revenge for his heroine Lucy even though Lucy didn't lay down any such ultimatums. Once we learn the full import of Simon's revenge, we finally begin to understand his demons, his rage, and his helplessness. But by this point, it's late in the novel, and we're rooting for him to give it up. Thankfully, love doesn't handicap Simon like so many other romance novels, and actually empowers him to redouble his efforts.

Like Hoyt's prior two novels, THE SERPENT PRINCE is very sensual. She never disappoints in that department.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Country-bred Lucy Craddock-Hayes astonishingly chances on a naked man in a ditch near her home in quiet Maiden Hill. Leading a quiet life and being courted by a handsome vicar for two years, this naked man suddenly upends her simple life. After discovering he isn't actually dead, Lucy takes the naked man to her home for his convalescence. The tall, dark and handsome man turns out to be none other than the Viscount Simon Iddesleigh. Simon and Lucy enjoy some spicy, enjoyable exchanges early in the novel. Each intrigues and ignites the passion of the other.

In the midst of his quest for cold revenge, Simon Iddesleigh finds that Lucy incites something in him beyond passion: a hope for redemption and salvation. Simon has already dueled and killed two men responsible for his older brother's death and he has only two to go. When attempts on Simon's life place Lucy in danger, Simon quickly leaves Maiden Hill to return to his town home in London. Simon's foray in Maiden Hill leaves Lucy bereft and after two years of waiting for the vicar's marriage proposal, she rejects it. Simon is equally empty and probably moreso given his inner demons . He returns to Maiden Hill to propose marriage. Lucy is thrilled, and accepts.

The Viscount and Viscountess return to London, and Simon continues his plot for revenge. Simon desperately makes love to Lucy as if it's their last time. Lucy wants Simon to stop dueling but Simon cannot rest until his brother is avenged. Simon doesn't reveal all the reasons behind his dueling until much later and though Lucy asks for it many times, Simon changes the subject. If you're looking for a rosy tortured-soul-hero-bent-on-revenge romance story where the heroine conveniently lays down the ultimatum (her or the revenge) which ultimately releases the hero from his tortured plot for revenge, this isn't it. Lucy does save Simon from his tortured plot for revenge and from his inner demons, but not before his vengeance runs its course. There's some tense moments at the end, and the impact of the tortured soul really resonates here.

Again, one of the most grittiest, realistic revenge stories I've read in this genre. I thought the background behind Simon's reasons for his revenge should have been revealed much earlier. Between Foley's DEVIL TAKES A BRIDE (***), Hunter's THE SEDUCER (**) and Hoyt's THE SERPENT PRINCE, all dealing with the hero's tortured plight for revenge, this is one of the better ones. Certainly better than Medeiros' awful THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (*) which emasculates its hero.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn [1]

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

I found Lian Hearn's fantasy tale ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR: TALES OF THE OTORI BOOK ONE entirely a forgettable experience. Unlike Jim Butcher's FURIES OF CALDERON (*), this book doesn't even manage to hook me enough to tempt me to find what happens next. Though I mildly liked this novel's feudal Japanese setting, the lyrical prose, and the magical elements dealing with special abilities of a group of people, I found the plotting, the sluggish pacing, and the characters, amateurish to say the least. For a novel often dealing with eastern martial arts, I thought the book failed to describe engaging fight sequences. Fight sequences often resorted to, "He was cut down in four slashes," or "Takeo held him off," or "(the villain) was more skillful and experienced and held the advantage." As for the plots, well, the webs of intrigue the book touts from Lady Kaede's perspective was uncouthly rustic: Lord Shigeru's revenge plight never resonated, Takeo's devotion and loyalty to Shigeru seemed an easy manipulation on Shigeru's part, the different clan dynamics a black-and-white affair, and the love between Takeo and Kaede entirely a one-sided stint from Kaede to Takeo, not to mention hollow. Kaede throwing herself at Takeo, and Takeo rejecting her was... cold on Takeo's part and prematurely degrading on Kaede's part given her prior strength of character. A deep-rooted enmity should have replaced Kaede's affections for Takeo after his persistent rejections.

Note that the book makes no claim to historical fact and though the settings and characters bear resemblance to Japanese names and places, a boy's-coming-of-age fictional fantasy best characterizes this 287-page hardcover. Although the book boasts about its complex intrigue plots more than once, it essentially boiled down everyone against the evil Tohan clan and their insidious leader Lord Iida Sadamu. There was no real intrigue or mystery here and most of the plotting was very predictable. For example, Shigeru accepting marriage to Kaede in exchange for traveling to the Tohan stronghold Inuyama was so predictable. It was also clear from the beginning that Shigeru wished to use Takeo and his assassination talents to eliminate Iida while Lord Arai moves against the Tohan militarily. I just didn't get Takeo's blind loyalty to Lord Otori Shigeru once Takeo discovers that Shigeru plotted to find him and knew about his special talents from the beginning. Shigeru would sacrifice Takeo to revenge just as Iida would kill Takeo. Just because Shigeru is kind and respected, and he adopts Takeo, he deserves loyalty? Uhuh, don't you love simplistic, honorable young boys like Takeo? So easily manipulated...

I don't necessarily mind Love-At-First-Sight plots, but this book handles it very crassly and it's all too one-sided. Kaede's strong reaction easily overshadows Takeo's. If anyone deserved Takeo's undying loyalty, it would be Kaede. Not the Otori, not Shigeru, and definitely not the Tribe. Only Kaede's love comes without any conditions or restrictions. But Takeo seemed too easily brainwashed by Shigeru and the Tribe to recognize Kaede's giving love. There isn't even any hint of Takeo's vocalized love for Kaede.

ACROSS THE NIGHTINGALE FLOOR is the opening novel to a trilogy dubbed the Tales of the Otori. Again, I liked the feudal Japanese settings, and I found the factually-based concept of the nightingale floor also pretty unique. The book draws its name from real inventions constructed at many residences and temples throughout Japan. In the story, these nightingale floors are sensitive to anyone walking on them and "sing" as a result. Since the villain Iida has many enemies, he has these floors constructed around his residence at Inuyama alerting the guards to any assassination attempts. And no, I don't want to find out what happens in the other two books.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

For sixteen years, our main character Tomasu grows up amongst the pacifist, egalitarian group of people known as the Hidden. Unknown to him, he's actually the son of a notorious assassin descended from an archaic race known as the Tribe exhibiting special powers such as invisibility, making copies of your appearance, and acute hearing, sight and touch. The Tribe mostly work now as mercenaries selling their services to the highest bidder, keeping their numbers low and veiled. The book's evil clan the Tohan and their cruel leader Iida persecute various Hidden villages believing their ways blasphemous. When Tomasu returns to his remote village from a venture into the nearby mountains, he finds the village burned and everyone killed by the Tohan. Almost thirty-year-old Lord Otori Shigeru rescues Tomasu from the village, gives him a new Otori name -- Takeo -- and takes him to Otori lands. Shigeru isn't there by accident however, and he's actually looking for the son of the famous Tribe assassin to aid him in a plight for revenge against Iida and the Tohan. The Otori and Tohan clans have a mutual hatred for one another and at a recent battle, the Tohan have forced their subordination.

Back at the Otori stronghold of Hagi, Shigeru trains, teaches and formally adopts Takeo as the Otori heir. After Muto Kenji of the Tribe appears in Hagi, Takeo finally learns of his Tribe heritage and his special talents. For a year in Hagi, Takeo learns of patrician ways, sword fighting, calligraphy, and with Kenji as his tutor, Takeo trains his Tribe talents.

Meanwhile, fifteen year-old Lady Shirakawa Kaede is a hostage under the Tohan, and grows up for half her life with servants which demeans her family and noble rank. Kaede grows into a beauty and struggles to fend of older mens' attentions. Consequently, she harbors a hatred for older men. As she's betrothed to a couple of older men who eventually die, she gains the dubious reputation of causing the death of men who want her. Eventually, Iida matches Kaede with Lord Otori Shigeru in a political alliance to bring both the defeated Otori clan and Kaede's clan out west to heel. Shigeru accepts for a chance to travel to Iida's stronghold. Kenji warns Shigeru that the Tribe are now aware of Takeo and will stake a claim on him that Shigeru and the Otori can do nothing to prevent.

When Kaede finally lays her eyes on Takeo, it's love at first sight. Closer to her age, she feels safe with Takeo despite never talking with Takeo once at this point. Takeo's reaction doesn't nearly match Kaede's. Still, Takeo wants her too. Takeo's blind loyalty to Shigeru and the Otori seems to fog everything else.

As the story drudges along to its predictable and unsatisfying conclusion, Kaede's dubious reputation rings true. The book leaves many plots for subsequent books. No thanks, I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Monday, September 24, 2007

River God, by Wilbur Smith [3]

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

I love brave and honest men, they are so easily manipulated.

Except for the last parts of this 528-page hardcover published in 1993, I found myself mostly captivated by Wilbur Smith's RIVER GOD: A NOVEL OF ANCIENT EGYPT. The book silhouettes a compelling tale of Egypt in 1780-B.C. embroiled in bitter war and eventually giving rise to a line of princes and pharaohs that lifts Egypt to the peak of its glory. Entirely written in a very unique first-person, we journey through two generations with our main character, a boastful and vain eunuch slave narrator. Although I can't say I really liked his character, Taita's first-person narration strikes a very fresh appeal: he's a eunuch slave, he's vain, he's brilliant, he's artistic, he's compassionate, he's vengeful, and he loves like a man. Ultimately, he's very human. In the epic RIVER GOD, we're privy to political intrigue, conspiracy, love, war, violence, kingdoms lost, despair and triumph. We read about an Egyptian civilization turned upside down with the advent of a new technology (wheel), and the introduction of a new animal (the horse). I enjoyed the battle warfare and the passionate moments of love between Lostris and Tanus. The book can be violent at times, and if you're sensitive to slavery, you may not like this historical tale of ancient Egypt.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Although Wilbur Smith packs some page-turning enthralling moments, I found the last 50 pages overwhelmingly melancholy. After a heart-wrenching love story spanning most of the first half in this novel, I couldn't take the sad ending. Taita's self-aggrandizing commentary wearied me and his love for his mistress Lostris as a man irked me. Granted, these are very human emotions especially for a handsome, brilliant man castrated after he's enjoyed a woman's passion, but I was begging for some other perspective in this 528-page Egyptian epic. I especially wanted Tanus' perspective. From Taita's point-of-view, everyone else is too one-dimensional: Tanus the redoubtable honorable warrior, Lostris the stubbornly passionate Queen, Kratas the jocular ruffian, and even Prince Memnon seems drab. For most of the novel, Lostris affectionately considers Taita her father and brother. At the end, Lostris wishes for a different kind of love with Taita in the next life. Considering the fact that Lostris and Tanus had to hide their passion and love for each other in this life and they never knew each other as husband and wife, I found this last wish of Lostris' especially sad. More so than the deaths. Did she love Taita more than she led on in the beginning? Had Taita not been a eunuch, would she have eventually cast aside Tanus intimately? After a gripping battle in the middle where the invading Hyksos thoroughly rout a well-trained and disciplined Egyptian army, I found our protagonists' retreat back through the cataracts south of the Nile very, very protracted. Only to arrive at a very unsatisfying conclusion. But alas, such is history.

I'm not sure who is the River God in RIVER GOD. Ostensibly, it may refer to Tanus' role in the first half when he's acclaimed Akh-Horus, an Egyptian God. However, our narrator's influence overshadows all other characters here and his love for his mistress Lostris eclipses that of Tanus' love for Lostris... at least from Taita's perspective. The book firmly belongs to our eunuch-slave narrator Taita: playwright, inventor, surgeon, economic investor, astrologist, architect, singer, scholar, and most of all, devoted slave to his mistress Lostris. Since Taita appears to be behind every vital event and innovative thought for Egypt, if there's any god here, it's Taita. What else can you expect from the author of these scrolls?

The Story.

It is a time of turmoil in ancient Egypt ruled by a weak king, the Pharaoh Mamose. The Pharaoh has lost half his kingdom (Lower Egypt) to a usurper while robber bands rampantly plague his citizens. The loss of the fertile delta and the lower kingdom (relative to the Nile's flow) beggars Egypt's citizens while the robber barons discourage profitable trade. Pharaoh Mamose is a morose fellow because of these problems, but he also worries over a lack of a male heir. Hundreds of wives have failed to produce one son for him! In the midst of this declining time for Egypt, we have our eunuch Taita, slave to Pharaoh Mamose's most powerful, wealthy yet sadistic lord, the Lord Intef. Intef's 14 year-old daughter Lady Lostris loves the powerful warrior Tanus whose father was paupered and discredited with treachery. Of course, Taita serves as the link between our two lovers Lostris and Tanus.

The story opens at the festival of Osiris (an Egyptian god) with a play written and directed by Taita wherein both Tanus and Lostris partake major roles. Lostris' wealthy father Intef hosts the entire festival including the play where the Pharaoh sits in attendance amongst other nobility and favored gentry. There's some treachery right of the bat as Intef strives to eliminate his enemies.

As the story rages on, the honorable and capable Tanus refuses to supplant Pharaoh Mamose from the crown despite enjoying the support of the entire army and faces possible death as a result. While Tanus steps aside to watch his love Lostris married to Pharaoh, Tanus numbly accepts the edict forcing him to evict the robber barons plaguing Upper Egypt in two years time else submit to penalty of death by strangulation. The first half is fairly heart-wrenching as both Tanus and Lostris drown in their own misery while Lostris' slave Taita saves both from attempted suicide.

...I had seen both their faces light up at the intimate touch, and sensed their mutual passion like thunder in the air. I knew that they could not restrain themselves for much longer, and that even Tanus' sense of duty and honour must in the end succumb to so great a love as theirs...

After aiding his mistress Lostris cope with her first painful time and loss of virginity to Pharaoh, Taita whips Tanus back into shape and masterminds the scheme which will help Tanus fulfill his promise to Pharaoh and destroy the robber barons. A new legend rises amongst the people of Egypt of Akh-Horus, the Egyptian god destroying the robbers and protecting his people. Trade and economy fluorish as a result of Tanus' and Taita's efforts.

While I was still busy with the lamp and my back was turned to the entrance, my mistress (Lostris) screamed. It was a sound so high and filled with such mortal terror that I was struck with equal dread, and the courses of my blood ran thick and slow as honey, although my heart raced like the hooves of the flying gazelle. I spun about and reached for my dagger, but when I saw the monster whose bulk filled the doorway, I froze without touching the weapon on my belt. I knew instinctively that my puny blade would avail us not at all against whatever this creature might be.

In the feeble light of the lamp the form was indistinct and distorted. I saw that it had a human shape, but it was too large to be a man, and the grotesque head convinced me that this was indeed that dreadful crocodile-headed monster from the underworld that devours the hearts of those who are found wanting on the scales of Thoth, the monster depicted on the walls of the tomb. The head gleamed with reptilian scales, and the beak was that of an eagle or a gigantic turtle. The eyes were deep and fathomless pits that stared at us implacably. Great wings sprouted from its shoulders. Half-furled, they flapped about the towering body like those of a falcon at bate. I expected the creature to launch itself on those and to rend my mistress (Lostris) with brazen talons. She must have dreaded this as much as I, for she screamed again as she crouched at the monster's feet.

Then suddenly I realized that the creature was not winged, but that the folds of a long woolen cape, such as the Bedouin wear, were flogging on the wind. While we were still frozen by this horrible presence, it raised both hands and lifted off the gilded war helmet with the visor fashioned like the head of eagle. Then it shook its head and a mass of red-gold curls tumbled won on to the broad shoulders.

'From the top of the cliff I saw you coming through the storm,' it said in those dear familiar tones.

My mistress screamed again, this time with wildly ringing joy. 'Tanus!'

She flew to him, and he gathered up her up as though she were a child and lifted her so high that her head brushed the rock roof. Then he brought her down and folded her to his chest. From the cradle of his arms, she reached up with her mouth for his, and it seemed that they might devour each other with the strength of their need.

Much to our narrator Taita's heartbreak and sorrow, the book finally joins our separated lovers Tanus and Lostris while a wind storm secludes Tanus, Lostris and Taita in a burial cave. Eerily, although Taita never really laments over Lostris' loss of virginity to Pharaoh, Taita mourns the consummation of the love Tanus and Lostris bear for each other. Though Taita loves both Lostris and Tanus and though Taita is a eunuch, Taita envies Tanus nonetheless. The import of this love affair engenders the son which will carry Pharaoh's crown.

The mystery and intrigue behind the robber barons are revealed after Tanus' allotted time to bring them to heel comes to pass. A threat greater than the usurper in Lower Egypt and the robber bands soon arises out of the northeast: the Hyksos and their Shepherd King Salitis. The Hyksos sweep everything in their path and introduce our narrator Taita to the wheel, horse and chariot. The second half of the novel dragged quite a bit as remnants of the Egyptian civilization flee on the Nile down south, ever south. They must traverse six cataracts and endure over two decades before they're able to return and reclaim Upper Egypt. By this time, the Prince Memnon, Lostris & Tanus' son, is a man and ready to take back what is his.

Mostly captivating and enjoyable warfare/love, I could have done without the second half and the sad, overwhelmingly melancholy conclusion to this novel. Yes, I'm probably a sucker for happy endings.

More ramblings...

One of my biggest problems had to do with the plot device that has Taita scheme to pass off Lostris & Tanus' son as Lostris & the Pharaoh's son. First, I didn't like how Lostris was so amenable to sleep with the Pharaoh after she and Taita discover she's pregnant. I had hoped she would recoil from going to the Pharaoh's bed after her dreamy lovemaking with Tanus, . Eventually, Taita could convince her that sleeping with the Pharaoh would best serve the unborn child's interests and she could begrudgingly acquiesce. As it is, she's too ready to go to another man (the Pharaoh) after Tanus. Secondly, you would think one of Pharaoh's hundreds of other wives would have already attempted to pass off another man's son as Pharaoh's! Taita notes how the sexual appetites of some of Pharaoh's wives knew no bounds, so you're telling me not one of them thought to pass of another man's son as Pharaoh's? Seriously, why does it work for Taita and Lostris?

Worst, the second time Lostris is pregnant, Taita divines a dream to explain her condition without implicating Tanus. Taita dissembles that he dreamed the old Pharaoh resurrected from his sarcophagus in spirit form to impregnate the Queen Lostris. First, it seems ludicrous that this deception wouldn't work on the late Pharaoh during Lostris' first pregnancy yet will work like a charm on a hundreds of others. Secondly, I love how Tanus is too proud and honorable for kingship yet will consent to passing off illegitimate children of his as the previous Pharaoh's. Talk about hypocrisy, I didn't see how Wilbur Smith is able to credit Tanus' character. He won't even marry Lostris after her second pregnancy and assume regency for a short while until Memnon is of age. Tanus' character reeks of a duplicitous air of self-important morality. I just don't get how Tanus justifies deceiving the Egyptian crown with his own children yet won't take a temporary regency? He doesn't care that he'll never be able to acknowledge his own children, and that nevermind other people, but even his own children will not know their own true father? It's actually quite sad, to his last dying day, none of Tanus' children know him as their true father and Tanus makes Taita promise not to reveal it.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Breach, directed by Billy Ray [3]

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

While I'm engrossed in Wilbur Smith's RIVER GOD: A NOVEL OF ANCIENT EGYPT, I wanted to share my reaction to BREACH. I caught it on DVD a couple weeks ago and though it was slow-developing, I thought it was good. Chris Cooper was magnificent playing FBI senior agent Robert Hanssen.

Hailed as the single greatest security breach in U.S. history, BREACH portrays the factually-based betrayal and consequent conviction of grizzly FBI veteran Robert Hanssen. There's some weird moments in the movie, like Hanssen's interest in porn and young women, most notably his young partner's wife played by Caroline Dhavernas. Hanssen's religious nature was also a bit bizarre, but all of the irregularities in his nature mysteriously framed the persona of a man in the most clandestine levels of government betraying his own country. Ryan Phillippe plays the part of the upstart, young FBI agent partnered with Hanssen to uncover the evidence which will ultimately prove how Hanssen has been selling secrets to the Soviet Union for over 25 years.

I thought Ryan Phillippe was miscast, they needed a much stronger actor than what he offers to the table. There's a scene at the end where Chris Cooper's character Hanssen is intimidating Phillippe with a gun, and Phillippe's acting left something to be desired. Chris Cooper was amazing, and just like AMERICAN BEAUTY, he just exudes a palpable aura of depravity and mystery.

The movie is an actor's movie, extremely light on the action. If it wasn't so slow-developing and Ryan Phillippe's presence, this movie would have scored higher.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ashes in the Wind, by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss [4]

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

"You honestly wanted to marry me?" [Alaina] questioned in amazement.

"Madam, I wanted you any way I could get you, and that's no lie."

There's romances... and then, there's romances. Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' sweeping, 565-page civil war romance ASHES IN THE WIND warmly engages readers. It's incredible that a book published back in 1979 such as this one still reigns supreme compared to the spewing potboilers shedding from romance shelves these days. In ASHES IN THE WIND, the hero and heroine verbally spar on an equal level and there's a veritable seesawing in the game of wit rather than the common hoax of making the hero look like a moron in response to the heroine's "wit." Here, each of our leading pair give as good as they get, in terms of the sexual tension, games of wit, love, and caring. There's a connection and chemistry here that actually overshadows the common scientific ministrations of a libertine initiating a virgin (or near-virgin) to sexual passion, a initiation "plot" often dominating romance novels. Here, the heroic pining at the end isn't forced, it isn't egregious and it isn't so blatantly one-sided (from the hero)! Here, the intrigue/war plot parallels the passion skillfully! Strong prose and vivid settings makes everything better and Woodiwiss definitely excels on both accounts. I will have to read other KEW books in the future, and I wonder if there's other civil war love stories out there. I found the book's attempts to describe the civil war an anemic affair, and the focus firmly rests on Alaina and her struggle.

My problems with the novel: torpid pacing, a ridiculous ending and a fun yet debilitating second part which seems to handicap its protagonists. The first half of part two features some rather fun moments of strife (and tension) between the hero Cole Latimer and the heroine Alaina MacGaren based on a misconception. The second half of part two, meanwhile, actually spent time portraying their mutual love and caring for each other reminiscent of Julie Garwood's sweet h/h interaction. I thought Woodiwiss made the bickering from the first half of part two fun and balanced, a rare talent amongst romance novelists and yet she still spent time on their tenderness and caring for each other after they prevailed against the misconception which separated them intimately. Unfortunately, Woodiwiss intersperses clues which portends the return of villains at the end, and Cole and Alaina just seem to ignore all the clues and fail to proactively dig deeper and possibly prepare better against villains at the end who have them at a decided disadvantage. Essentially, the romance handicaps them from thinking and acting logically, especially Cole. I also felt the pacing meandered quite a bit in this 565-page epic with seemingly pointless passages.

ASHES IN THE WIND soundly belongs to its heroine Alaina MacGaren, a young seventeen year-old girl who loses everything to the war and the Yankees: her father, her mother, her brother and her home. She dons many guises including that of a ragged boy to escape persecution when she meets a Union Captain, the Doctor Cole Latimer. Alaina, of course, detests Yankees. Alaina is many things, but foremost among them: resilient beyond belief. The book follows Alaina, her adventures and her thoughts much more closely than Cole's, all in the context of the American Civil War.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Alaina MacGaren must flee her home Briar Hill on a plantation in Louisiana after some crooked Union soldiers brand her a spy for sheltering Confederate soldiers and carrying some things for one of them to a Confederate camp. Alaina's father and one of her brothers has already died serving the South in the war and her mother passes away shortly thereafter. When the crooked Union soldiers threaten her, she and her devoted huge slave Saul journey south to New Orleans, a city the North currently holds. Although she's separated from Saul, she meets Union Captain Doctor Cole Latimer in New Orleans who rescues her from three bullying Union soldiers. Dressed as a dirty, ragged boy to protect her identity and the price on her head, Cole has no idea who this is and escorts "Al" to her uncle's home in New Orleans, Angus Craighugh.

At the Craighugh home, Cole meets Alaina's cousin Roberta, a twenty-two year-old superficial beauty after money. Cole also offers Al work at the hospital he's stationed at and Al agrees to earn her keep at the Craighugh home. When Roberta discovers Cole hails from a wealthy family from Minnesota, Roberta makes a play for Cole while "Al" persists in her enmity for all Yankees though it's getting harder and harder to do in Cole's case. KEW's plots and settings again reign supreme crafting a circumstance which has "Al" inexplicably save a drunk and unconscious Cole from the river one night. Cole bears a rather large bump on his head, and Al takes him to the Craighugh home for rest late in the night when Roberta will be asleep and her parents out for the most of the night. Al dulls Cole's pain with more liquor once Cole is in the guest bedroom. In a drunk stupor, Cole awakes and mistakes Alaina for a prostitute in a brothel. Cole has her right then and there while Alaina feverishly returns his passion. When Alaina sees her virgin blood, she runs from the room as Cole sleeps away his injury and inebriation after taking Alaina's virginity. An incensed Roberta wakes to find Alaina's virgin blood on the bed Cole sleeps in and takes steps to trap him. Roberta's parents arrive on the scene and a befuddled Cole must marry Roberta considering the evidence in plain sight.

Part one ends with the conclusion of the war as a crippled and limping Cole takes his unhappy and acrimonious wife Roberta back to his home in Minnesota. Cole finally discovers "Al" 's true identity and grudgingly leaves Alaina. Alaina now must contend with the unsavory attentions of the book's villain, one Jacques DuBonne. By this time, more allegations against Alaina MacGaren mount as she's unjustly branded a spy, traitor and murderer by both the North and South. Alaina assumes the identity of her friend Mrs. Hawthorne's niece and finally Alaina can act like a lady for once. On the down side, this also attracts DuBonne's attentions. When DuBonne's advances become difficult to fend off, Cole offers Alaina marriage after Roberta passes away.

"...Major [Cole] Latimer has assured us by letter that he understands the entire situation, but he also assures" -- Mrs. Hawthorne's lips twitched beneath the spurs of a threatening smile -- "that he heartily doubts that you (Alaina) would have the wisdom to accept [the marriage proposal]. I believe he said -- ah, yes -- here it is. 'She has a penchant for foolishness and trouble that outweighs all the considerations of common sense. I extend the suggestion [for marriage] most willingly and wish you luck in your attempts to convince her, though I doubt much will come of it. Will be anxiously awaiting your reply.' "

Alaina's mind flogged itself in a confused melee.
Outweighs all common sense! That blithering bluebelly idiot! She could just see his gaping grin above his broad brass-buttoned chest. That miming jackanapes! He pities me and plays his savior's role most heartily, but he does not want me for a wife.

Her mind hardened, and her neck stiffened.
Well I don't want him as a husband!

After DuBonne abducts Alaina only to have Alaina burn him, a stubborn Alaina finally consents to marriage with Cole. Although Alaina fumes over Cole sending a proxy to say the marriage words, she does finally travels up to his estates in Minnesota as his wife.

Part two chronicles the stringent, combative tension between a married Alaina and Cole, both under a false misconception perpetuated by a very bitter Angus Craighugh, Roberta's father. The tension-filled, witty altercations were often fun mainly because there was a genuine back-and-forth. The tension then mellows out to a loving care and giving on both their parts as they finally succumb to their passions. Mystery and suspense coincide this burgeoning romance in part two up in Minnesota. Jacques reappears, and Cole's stepmother Tamara Latimer also makes an appearance to explain some of the intrigue from part one. It seemed like everything connected too neatly and the ending was a bit nonsensical. Cole and Alaina dismiss the clues too easily earlier.

Still the book was fun overall, epic in proportions, the love was equal parts fun and heartwarming by highlighting the connection between our leading pair, and the plotting was laced with engaging intrigue. The writing and settings were far superior than I'm used to from romance novelists. Olden is still golden...

Warily [Cole] asked, "Now that you have me up here, what are your intentions?"

"Hot and cold compresses to make the swelling go down. That much I know about home remedies." [Alaina] gestured casually. "That robe, please. I plan to see to the entire man. After we've tended your leg, I'll shave and bathe you."

"I'm not an invalid, madam," [Cole] assured her. "I can bathe myself."

"You'll have difficulty getting into the tub. It will be simpler if you're bathed here."

His brows crinkled thoughtfully. "All over?"

Alaina's eyes raised slowly to his. "I think you can manage a few places."

"You've crushed my hopes."

"Serves you right," she chided with a smile twinkling at the corner of her mouth...

Cole had second thoughts as to her charity when she slapped the frigid bulk of snow onto his leg, almost bringing him straight out of the bed. And if that was not enough, she nearly scalded him again, this time with a steaming towel still dripping wet from the kettle.
"Be careful with that thing!" [Cole] yelped. "You could end our hopes for a family altogether."

"I'll try to be more careful," Alaina apologized, sweetly contrite...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

In the Thrill of the Night, by Candice Hern [1]

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

Candice Hern's IN THE THRILL OF THE NIGHT mostly extols the sexual expertise and womanly conquests of its notorious libertine while describing a widow's struggle to overcome her first (and only) love, entirely a passionless affair. The book essentially showcases a libertine initiating a near-virgin with carnal passion. You've seen it before, trust me. I thought the beginning and most of the first half demonstrated great potential and I even laughed out loud at some of the Benevolent Widows' meetings who later discreetly fashion themselves as the Merry Widows. The second half however precipitously shatters in the tiresome pining of its libertine hero. Pining from romance heroes is fine when it isn't egregious, imbalanced (mostly from heroes) or forced. Here, all of this is true. The prose is a bit shoddy, there's actually an attempt at settings and I appreciate that. While the premise of the first half grips, it dissipates later in the face of Adam's egregious, imbalanced and forced pining in the second half. There's one real love scene 190 pages into this 284-page paperback. The sensuality is rather light here. I felt the book indulged on too much repetitive introspection from the hero as he thinks and pines about Marianne endlessly. It was basically regurgitating the same essential idea worded differently over and over!

The "love" here isn't mutual in the least, I'm sure IN THE THRILL OF THE NIGHT is a welcome addition to chick-lit. It's about the experienced and disciplined rake going down on his heroine repeatedly without the least bit of reciprocation from the heroine. I know for a fact womanizers want to be loved at least close to the amount of servicing pleasure they give so freely to their mates. But it should be a matter of the girl wanting or wanting to learn (whichever the case may be) to give and return the guy's pleasure in kind, and we just don't see this earnest desire to reciprocate and give sensually from Marianne. Understandably, our disciplined libertine services the near-virgin during their first time and its all about her, but even during their second and third times, he's the one giving everything, and I mean everything. His servicing attentions simply aren't returned. The hero's thoughts and words here further exacerbate the glaring inequality in love and pleasure. For every 1 word or thought of endearment from the heroine we have at least 20 from the hero. You know it's chick-lit nonsense when you start noticing something like this.

Does the hero Adam love his heroine Marianne a lot more than the reverse? There's little doubt about it. Adam pleasures Marianne, thinks about her incessantly, and voices tender words of affection, at least 20x more than the other way around.

I have to say I liked the premise and some of the first half. The Merry Widows' meetings were actually entertaining, while Adam sabotaging Marianne's potential lovers was rather fun. Marianne punishes him at the end for it and that was good too, and she also subtly sabotages Adam's betrothal earlier. I liked the characters Marianne and Adam independently but I didn't like them together contrary to what the book seemed to force between the two. It was nice to see them tease each other as well instead of the heroine insulting the hero all the time. I thought the book could have made things a lot more interesting, I was thinking of a dozen different scenarios which would have spiced up the second half rather than resorting to incessant romance-hero pining. For example, somehow having Marianne reciprocate Adam's night of pleasuring her when she assumed it was someone else.

When the reputation of a rakehell hero overwhelms the connection between the hero and heroine as it does IN THE THRILL OF THE NIGHT, the book forfeits any claim to chemistry. It becomes less about the two of them together and more about the rake's eminent sexual experience delivering a disciplined sexual service. I'm sure it's flattering when a rake who's conquered countless, nameless women turns his attentions to you. IN THE THRILL OF THE NIGHT introduces our hero Adam Cazenove as a notorious libertine from the opening chapter, and we constantly hear about his sexual conquests. Doesn't he have any bastard children considering the vast quantity of women he's bedded? Provisions can't be 100% back then, hell, it isn't now.

During their first time, Adam services Marianne in a very disciplined manner. Bereft of sexual fulfillment with her first husband, Adam & Marianne's first night is understandably all about Marianne. But the interaction, and even the aftermath where the widows discuss Marianne's mysterious night of passion, becomes less about the connection between Adam and Marianne and more about Adam's sexual skill. I suppose that's ok since the book makes it clear Marianne already experienced a spiritual love with her late husband and now she simply seeks carnal fulfillment. Since Marianne doesn't want to marry anyone, maybe it's perfectly fine that Adam's sexual prowess overshadows everything else, and definitely exciting for the woman.

Regardless, and in spite of Adam's claim that Marianne was/is only woman he's ever truly loved, it wasn't about Adam and Marianne, it was about Adam, his carnal skill with countless, nameless other women, and then Marianne. Earlier, when Marianne reveals to Adam that she never experienced sexual pleasure with her late husband, Adam's carnal prowess comes to the forefront, not their mutual connection. Later, of course, as the widows discuss the list of possible candidates who could fulfill Marianne so deftly on her dark, mysterious night, it again becomes about Adam's sexual prowess with other women. We wouldn't read a romance novel about a woman who enjoys sexual pleasure with an experienced rake and not have the rake return her affections, right? Here, it's actually Adam wanting and desiring more (love, marriage) from Marianne while Marianne still reluctant to do so. And as I mentioned, it's also Adam who gives her everything in bed (he's going down every time, he's coddling, he's caressing, he's touching, he's licking, he's kissing, he's nibbling).

Another problem I had with this novel: if a man really loves another woman as Marianne's late husband David is purported to love her, he would pay closer attention to bring her sexual fulfillment. He would ask others, he would experiment (with her), he would listen and observe her reactions. But apparently, the deep, once-in-a-lifetime "love" between Marianne and her late husband never extends to the bedroom. I just can't believe a man would ignore that aspect so blatantly if he truly loves her. He may not succeed at first if he isn't experienced, but he would keep trying and fulfill her needs. Regardless of the time period.

The Premise (briefly) possible SPOILERS.

The respectable Benevolent Widows mostly organize charity balls for London Society and support each other against another forced marriage. Lady Gosforth shocks its four other members when she announces she occupied her time during the winter by taking on a lover. The youngest trustee, twenty-nine year-old Mrs. Marianne Nesbitt, is amongst the shocked but the more they posture their arguments for and against, the more Marianne agrees for taking on a lover. Marianne has never even considered taking on a lover after her late husband David's death, and now she views such a notion as a possible betrayal. Still, why deny herself a sexual pleasure she never really had with her first husband? She would like to experience the kind of sexual pleasure the other women talk about at least once. However, she still loves her first husband dearly and firmly rejects any notion of remarrying. Marianne reasons she can be the modern widow and take on a lover, not a husband. During subsequent balls, Marianne awakens to a sexual undercurrent with men she's long denied herself since her first husband.

As they discuss a list of potential lovers for the women, notorious libertine, thirty-four year-old Adam Cozenove's name comes up first. Adam is Marianne's dearest friend for years dating back to when her late husband went to Oxford with Adam. Fully aware of Adam's amorous adventures, Marianne has never thought of Adam that way with her, but now she entertains such a notion. Although Adam has always thought of Marianne with David, he's very receptive to the notion of becoming Marianne's lover. Unfortunately, he is now betrothed to a young virgin and too honorable to betray his betrothed Clarrisa Leighton-Blair. Marianne's desire to take on a lover couldn't have come at a worse time for Adam when he's just signed the betrothal papers. Marianne has Adam help her with a list of potential lovers instead. Adam torturously narrows down Marianne's list often rejecting men based on the most eccentric absurdities.

The book continues as Adam cannot help but sabotage the men on Marianne's list of possible lovers. He just can't stand the thought of Marianne being with anyone else other than her late husband David... and possibly himself. This part was actually fun. Although not as calculated as Adam, Marianne believes Adam's young virgin betrothed Clarissa is all wrong for him and subtly encourages Clarissa to pick a new husband.

About three-quarters through the novel, we finally have a situation where Adam gives Marianne her first mind-blowing pleasure on a dark night while she assumes it's someone else. Later, she learns that the man she expected never showed up and is horrified to discover a complete stranger could have made love to her. The book dissolves into a drowning, romance-hero pining from there. Though there's a steady dose of that throughout. I thought the way Marianne finally learns of the identity of her mysterious lover man could have been handled in a much more engaging manner. Why not craft a circumstance with Marianne and any of the rejected or departed candidates Adam dissuades from pursuing Marianne? Would have been more fun, and in fact such a circumstance should have eventually happened and shed light on who is discouraging the men on Marianne's list. Also, I thought Marianne should have retaliated Adam's servicing pleasure and consequent cover-up by giving Adam pleasure and preventing him from discovering her identity or having him assume it's his betrothed Clarissa. She could have managed it by donning a different perfume and possibly blindfolding him. Any number of creative ideas in this regard comes to mind.

Again, this novel could have been so much better without the repetitively egregious romance-hero pining and/or some balance in the sexual pleasuring after the first time. The fulsome references to Adam's sexual exploits and his experience easily eclipsed the connection and chemistry as well. Adam is nothing if not disciplined (almost scientific) in making love to the only woman he supposedly cannot control loving with all his heart and soul.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Something Sinful, by Suzanne Enoch [0]

/***** (0/5)

The abysmally congested realm of historical romance repackages and refurbishes so many of the hackneyed stories and trite hero characterizations, you really begin to appreciate authors like Madeline Hunter, Elizabeth Hoyt and Laura Kinsale. Most historical-romance heroes just blur together and the interaction between the hero and heroine constitutes a new version of the same'ole package we've seen umpteen times before. The hero makes all the moves sensually, ably servicing the heroine, while enduring her verbal onslaught at his expense otherwise. A "quick-witted" (romance translation = imprecating, insulting towards the hero) near-virgin heroine is nothing new. That way, the heroine wins both games: the hero conveniently laughs and enjoys the heroine's insults getting her way as a show of "wit," and has her passion adequately serviced by the experienced hero in the love scenes. It's always the arrogant hero that needs to be taught a lesson. SOMETHING SINFUL offers absolutely nothing new from all these true and tried historical-romance formulas.

The prose is horrible, the settings are absent, characters from past novels are too much in evidence, a doormat hero Shay is the romance genre's delight, the "romance" between the lead pair overwhelmingly one-sided, the love scenes (two, after 270 pages) are awful, the ending contrives, and the overall plotting/pacing is terribly dull. Bad? You bet.

SOMETHING SINFUL is anything but, and describes a tamely mundane affair. Aside from the plot with the silks which drags and lasts the entire book, we have an interminable succession of soirees, balls, recitals, luncheons, and plays. Nothing happens, and I mean nothing. The plot dealing with the silks congeals and chokes in the midst of a barrage of ton events. The plot dealing with the "romance" stifles at kisses for over 270 pages! Seriously, the book is just bad in most ways -- plotting, pacing, prose, settings, characterizations, and fun factor. I don't read to wait over 300 pages for something to happen! Not to mention the blatant one-sided giving and showering in the "romance" from the hero to the heroine. You've heard of the doormat heroine, right? Well Suzanne Enoch crafts the quintessential doormat hero in chick-lit, there's no equal ground here. I wanted Shay to find someone who would appreciate him more, which would have been just about anyone else. I'd love to see Sarala cheating him on after they marry so he'd have grounds for divorce.

My first Suzanne Enoch book, and right of the bat, the book flounders horribly. I tend tune out a novel when characters from prior novels (Zachary, Eleanor in this case) or characters for future novels (the Duke, Sebastian) overshadow this story and its characters. Now I haven't read other Enoch books and I'm just guessing here. SOMETHING SINFUL's ending represents the 3rd or 4th novel I've read which has its protagonist(s) concoct a peaceful resolution with the villain only to have the villain return later to terrorize some more. Why do romance novelists persist with this idiotic plot device? Just makes the protagonists look dumber than they already are. And the end is convoluted, the harder the book tries to make it look fun, the more it seems contrived and convoluted.

Suzanne Enoch's SOMETHING SINFUL tediously has its quick-witted heroine Sarala insult the common, regency-romance hero Shay Griffin, all the while having Shay enjoy it. Although Shay's appearance, thoughts and behavior conforms to the mold of a regency-romance hero, I did appreciate how Enoch, in general, downplays appearances in favor of plotting. Still, the h/h interaction here has Sarala outwitting a pathetically besotted Shay at every turn. We've seen all this before. Romance novelists will often elevate their heroines at the expense of their dumb, besotted heroes. The heroes refrain from riposting the heroine's jibes and maneuvers in earnest, but rather, they stir the heroines' passion with kisses and touches, something the heroine enjoys anyway. There's no back-and-forth here, Sarala enjoys victory after victory from every exchange while Shay seems handicapped; in the end, he settles for kisses.

Despite Sarala feigning a dim-witted, maidenly ignorance to extract information from Shay about a shipment of silks, our besotted Shay will not, of course, plot any such dissembling gestures in return. Instead, he whines about being bested in a business transaction over and over. Okay we get it, you stink at business in spite of a reputation to the contrary! Quit your whining and do something about it! A verbal exchange after Shay bestows Sarala with a ruby necklace further highlights Shay's impotence. Towards the end of this exchange about the ruby, lacking anything to say, he kisses her instead. Of course. He simply fails to keep up otherwise, and the kiss only underlines his ineptitude. After Shay observes Sarala actually don the ruby necklace at a recital, he cups her cheek because once again he's too dumb to spar with words.

But alas, the hero's pathetically sensual response to the heroine's insulting imprecations isn't anything new. It is, in fact, romance's way to keep the heroine on top -- in every that matters. What's funny is our heroine Sarala bends over backwards at everything her mother forces upon her: a new English name (Sarah), English gowns, etc. Yet, she won't accept Shay's offer for the silks. Shay supports her preferred birth name Sarala in front of Sarala's mother but this kind gesture isn't even in the least reciprocated as Sarala continues her barrage of imprecations and cold demeanor with Shay. Of course, Shay enjoys bearing the brunt of her superior, snide attitude. All the Griffin men in SOMETHING SINFUL make self-deprecating jokes for their wives' delight. Teasing the women - about anything - is just taboo. Suzanne Enoch's heroines must be put on a pedestal while the men ground to dirt, right?

Sarala in fact lives for showing up Shay. Talking with her father once, Sarala dreams of pilfering Shay dry of all his wealth ("taking every guinea he owns"). Like the disingenuous way she made off with the silks in the beginning? To what end? Why do you live for debasing him, don't you want him to do well? At the end, she wants him to pine and grovel before she accepts marriage. Despite the fact that he's already groveled and pined endlessly by this point. But alas, she wants to hear the word "love," and it's a competition to make him debased first. He's already bestowed compassion, gifts, tenderness and caring on her, and she wants him groveling more. Yep, bitch of a heroine and a doormat hero here. Then again, I guess that's chick-lit at its best.

I thought love was more about giving, so why is it ok for the heroine to take-and-take at every turn? Shay and his family give everything to Sarala while Sarala continues to insult Shay and dream of impoverishing him. I swear, Sarala doesn't deserve Shay or any Griffin generosity for that matter. Because at this point, she's just being a royal bitch and of course the chick-lit that this is, Enoch lets her get away with it.

The plotting plummets to a new abyss when Sarala and Shay are compromised in the midst of an intimate moment. Abiding regency tradition, the public exposure mandates a marriage. All of sudden, the plot conveniently forgets Shay's plight to remove the silks from Sarala's possession for her own protection. I swear Sarala is a complete Bitch with a capital B. I just couldn't take her, debasing Shay for her joy and pleasure (raising the price of the silks on Shay to 12 thousand, silks that place her in danger, and then laughing at his face when he divulges it's for her own security).

At another point in the novel, Sarala thinks at least she had a master strategist on her side (Shay). Are you kidding me? Has Shay demonstrated any acuity for business, negotiations and strategy with Sarala? Any whatsoever? I mean even a little? Nope. Zilch. Nada. He's a besotted boy, and Sarala exploited that from the very beginning when she acted the ignorant virgin. If since that first time Shay had shown anything with her, anything at all to indicate he can "negotiate" and "strategize," I must have missed it. God forbid Shay tease Sarala at all or seem like he's holding his own conversationally rather than having him kiss her when he can't think of anything else to say. Towards the second half of the novel, Sarala thinks she enjoys her "arguments" with Shay because it leads to heat. If you can call insulting, mocking and making the hero look dumb so he has no answer left but to kiss you, then okay, I'll buy the term "argument." Soooo, very, very one-sided here.

When a meeting between Shay and three dangerous Chinese men finally occurs, Sarala of course insists on joining the show! And every dangerous meeting thereafter. Is there a reason why every heroine insists on plunging headfirst into potentially dangerous situation? Is it some Just-Because-I'm-Woman-I'm-Still-Your-Equal-Macho thing? And they say guys are macho? Sarala can't shoot, she can't fence, she's just going to watch the show! Please...

I also thought Sarala's agreement to sell the silks to Shay after she learned they were stolen property was horribly underhanded. She profits off of Shay, and since his family has the money, and since her family needs funds, she really doesn't have any qualms about it. When Sarala and Shay are "trapped" to marry, Sarala frets she doesn't want him to be trapped into marriage. She thinks (and I quote): "she and [Shay] both preferred to deal honestly." What a bunch of crap, she prevaricates from the get-go with Shay posing as an ignorant innocent to extract information from Shay. Then, Sarala actually sells silks to Shay for 4 thousand; silks she knows are stolen, and silks she knows Shay will have to return to the Chinese emperor without any sort of sale. She doesn't think about that? And she's talking about dealing honorably?! If Sarala were serious about honor, she would reveal her "secret" from her past to Shay (immediately) when she learns of his intent to follow through on the marriage instead of "showing" him much later. A secret about her lack of virginity which becomes obvious from its first abstract reference. At another ball, Sarala baits Shay into showering her with more compliments by telling him there's something wrong with her and that she didn't grow up English (even though Shay just finished voicing his admiration of her and lauding her uniqueness). If you were honest about telling him the truth about your lack of virginity, why the duplicitous approach to acquire more compliments and then later just seducing him? Just so you can hear more tender drivel for you? What a bunch of hypocritical crock. Love? There's no giving from her end, it's all take-take-take.

Let's examine how badly one-sided this is, shall we? (the giving entirely from hero to heroine)
  • Shay compliments her shrewd business perspicacity and more than once tells her he admires her. In return for his admiration and respect, Shay meekly accepts her insults.

  • Shay bestows Sarala with ruby necklace worth a lot more than the silks she deviously heisted.

  • Shay's brother Zachary rents some land from Sarala's father which helps her family postpone creditors for weeks

  • Shay's prestigious family (the popular "in" crowd) invites Sarala and her family to join them at every ton event. In essence, elevating Sarala's family's status tremendously and helping their image amongst the peerage. Sarala goes from an empty dance card to having all eyes on her at every event simply by association with the Griffins.

  • Shay pays Sarala and her family four thousand for stolen silks, a fact Sarala is aware of and has no qualms about collecting.

  • Shay makes it a point to call his heroine her preferred name Sarala in front of her mother instead of Sarah.

  • Shay defends Sarala from Melbrouke's most remote denigration... constantly.

  • Shay gives Sarala a Roman coin, an antique coin from a time period Sarala cherishes.

  • Shay invites Sarala to share her past in India even though he has no prior interest for the region. He asks simply because he genuinely wants to know about her. Sure, Sarala asks Shay about antiques and Roman history, but that's because she already harbors a prior interest in such things. Sarala simply doesn't return Shay's genuine interest.

  • Shay remembers everything about Sarala.

  • Shay's thoughts and words shower Sarala with tender words of love and caring about how unique she is, how he enjoys her "wit" (basically insults and imprecations), how much he loves her business sense, how he hopes she'll be fond of him as much as he is of her, etc., etc., etc. Shay tells Sarala how much loves her green eyes, brilliant mind, breathtaking smile, unique character. Shay tells his older brother Melbourne how much he loves her peculiar differences, and how all those things make her unique to him (her accent, her tan skin, her childhood in India, her business acuity). Both in his thoughts and words, Shay's pining far overshadows Sarala's. And it's Sarala who demands why he wants to marry her. As though she needs him crawling on hands and knees to beg her to accept. It isn't Shay who hesitates to marry, it's Sarala. I understand her past (lack of virginity), but she's just cold and a Bitch with a capital B.

  • Even after all this, it's of course Shay tenderly mouthing I-Love-You first. I haven't seen such of a pathetic, debased display of a doormat hero in quite some time.

  • Shay is also an interior re-decorator! He refurnishes his town home's furniture with bright colors the way

  • Shay desperately worries about Sarala's security after he discovers the silks could endanger its owner.

  • Shay goes down on her their first time servicing her desires because he really want to.

  • Shay's family must compensate Sarala's family monetarily for "ruining" her in public even though she wasn't a virgin to begin with. Even though she attempts to stop marriage, she goes along with the monetary compensation.
This suits chick-lit just fine I suppose. But the book was gawd awful.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Clive Barker's Galilee

So I gave Clive Barker's family-saga epic GALILEE about warring families the old college try, but I couldn't finish it. I gave up after 100 pages or so. I tried to find a more comprehensive synopsis on the web and consequently had even less of an inclination to finish the book. The bloated book's anemic first-person narration, paranormal elements, and excessively drawn-out, stagnant prose contributed to my abandonment. Then I found out the rest . . . and it was just more blah . . .

Since I couldn't finish the book, I can't, in good conscience, rate this novel. From the 100 or so pages I read, however, I'd have to give this one a big fat zero.

Drive, by James Sallis [2]

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

I've read a few noir-like novels in the past but only James Sallis' 158-page murder novella DRIVE qualifies as true noir. It's psychologically twisted, it's erratically nonlinear, and big on the style rather than the plotting. I think a murder noir like DRIVE is worth reading once, and the short 2,3-page chapters realizes a quick read. The novella lacks a chronological flow and chapters jump erratically to different times and locales in Driver's life. The excursive prose equals the novella's dark, nonlinear intensity while the book mostly follows Driver's transition from a movie stunt driver to cold-blooded killer. Remarkably, DRIVE is extremely light on violence and language.

The Premise.

Since it's tough to describe such an erratically nonlinear murder noir such as DRIVE, this is going to be brief. We pick up the story in middle as we read about Driver in a hotel bedroom strewn with three dead bodies. From various flashbacks both from his childhood and from a more recent time period, the rest of the novel shows how the scene in the opening chapter comes to pass. We discover that Driver is a stunt driver for movies, and later, he's drawn into small-time "jobs" requiring good drivers. Driver earns a formidable reputation as a driver, he's the best at what he does, and everyone knows it. Driver doesn't want to know anything about the small-time "jobs" and he expects people to follow through on their ends of the deal. A betrayal from a driving job goes terribly astray and Driver coldly retaliates.

Driver expects people to hold up their end of the bargain as long as he holds up his end driving people and things in and out of discordant circumstances. When they don't hold up their end of the bargain, Driver methodically exacts his vengeance.

Because of the detached persona of its main character Driver and the nonlinear pacing, the book never really grips. Still, it was interesting to see a simple, humble stunt car driver transition into a cold-blooded murderer. Doesn't get any darker than this.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

You Suck, by Christopher Moore [2]

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

"Tres chic." [Tommy] grinned like he imagined a sexy Italian man-whore might.

"Who drools in public," Jody said.

Damn, she's immune to my sexy Italian man-whore grin, Tommy thought.

I found Christopher Moore's YOU SUCK: A LOVE STORY a steep decline from the magic of BLOODSUCKING FIENDS (****). BLOODSUCKING FIENDS enthralled, humored and prompted fits of laughter while its sequel YOU SUCK failed to garner any outright laughs and I found the crux of the pacing and plotting exasperating, mostly going through the motions. I thought Moore should have chosen a different backdrop for YOU SUCK (not San Francisco again) with new characters supporting Jody and Tommy rather than the Animals, detectives Cavuto and Rivera, and the Emperor. Moore writes the goth minion character, sixteen year-old Abby Normal, with a pronounced sass and panache. Consequently, Abby completely steals the show and while the first half of the book returns Jody and Tommy, both as vampires this time, the second half of the book showcases Abby and her intrepid teenager wit. Abby is a welcome addition to be sure, and only chapters with Abby's amusing first-person narration resonates. I liked the beginning and I enjoyed Jody & Tommy therein, and Abby's journal was generally funny, but I really disliked the ending here.

"How 'bout I buy you a cup of coffee instead," [Tommy] said. "We can talk."

"It's because I have small boobs, isn't it?" Abby said, going into a very practiced pout.

"Of course not." Tommy smiled in a way he thought would be charming, mature, and reassuring. "Coffee won't help that."

I could have done without the Animals this time around, I could have done without Blue-the-Hooker's plot (a ruse for Elijah), and I definitely could have done without the ending here which I found an evasive cliffhanger possibly setting up another book in this line. My biggest problem: it seemed Jody & Tommy's continuing story served as backdrop to launch Abby's character. I would have liked to see Jody and Tommy more prominently, at least in the end. I would have liked to see Tommy make more of an impact some way, but I suppose Moore admirably keeps him in character.

I just didn't enjoy this one as much as BLOODSUCKING FIENDS. I hope however Christopher Moore writes another one in this line of love stories. And I hope the next one is much better than YOU SUCK.

Although fully titled YOU SUCK: A LOVE STORY, it's debatable which couple the title references: Jody & Tommy, or Abby & Steve? By the way, I thought Steve the Asian scientist met the new girl that started working at Safeway in BLOODSUCKING FIENDS?

The Story.

YOU SUCK picks up exactly where BLOODSUCKING FIENDS left off: Jody transmuting into mist to escape the bronze statue from the ear holes, kissing her lover Tommy and turning him into a vampire so they could be together forever. Tommy makes attempts at vampire-life acclimation in the first half or so, and Tommy and Jody share a continued love with some feral sex. Since Tommy is a vampire now they need new minion(s) for daytime errands while also requiring a new apartment. Recall from BLOODSUCKING FIENDS Jody promised the police detectives Cavuto and Rivera she'd take the old vampire and leave the city. Instead, Jody and Tommy hope relocating to a new apartment and laying low will suffice.

Tommy and Jody runs into Abby Normal, a 16 year-old goth who desperately tries to suppress her perkiness. Having witnessed Tommy's fangs grow, Abby willingly agrees to find Tommy and Jody a new apartment with very specific requirements while running interference for them with the police detectives Cavuto and Rivera and other would-be vampire hunters. In essence, Abby becomes their minion. Abby is, without a doubt, the heart of the novel. Only her perky, teenage humor keeps the book afloat.

Abby: And [the blond ho] goes to bite me, and something yanks her back off her feet and I go flying. So I'm all, "Owned! Bee-yatch! Dog fucking owned you!" Doing a minor booty dance of ownage, perhaps, in retrospect, a bit prematurely. (I believe hip-hop to be the appropriate language for taunting, at least until I learn French.)

Meanwhile, the Animals from BLOODSUCKING FIENDS take their share of the money from the old vampire Elijah's paintings to Vegas and bring back Blue, a blue-painted hooker with rather large implants. The Animals always wanted to enact some semblance of the Smurfs cartoon on a sexual level, and having Blue among the 7 or 8 of them realizes their deep-seeded fantasies. Blue, on the other hand, dreams of riches that does not rely on good looks and willingly agrees based on the money they're offering. Blue eventually discovers the existence of the vampires Tommy and Jody. After the Animals blow over six hundred thousand on Blue, Blue has a new agenda: to capture one of the vampires, and she convinces the Animals to help.

From here on out the story splinters into 3 major perspectives. First, we have Jody and/or Tommy (either together or separately) doing their thing. Tommy is finding the vampire lifestyle a difficult adjustment, while Jody of course revels in her newfound power as her abilities bloom making her the kick-ass vampire she is. Then we have Abby, and her role builds and builds while eventually completely eclipsing Jody and Tommy in the second half of YOU SUCK. Finally, we have fragments of the story involving Blue's agenda to capture one of the vampires.

There's also Steve, the Asian scientist who can conveniently turn vampires back to regular humans (later, Abby affectionately calls him "Foo Dog"); Elijah the old 800 year-old vampire encased in bronze just biding his time for an opportunity at escape; of course, the Emperor of San Francisco returns, the slightly-delusional homeless man and his two dogs; and we have our homicide detectives Cavuto and Rivera at it again investigating murders.

The plot dealing with Blue and the Animals was the weakest in a relatively weak book. I enjoyed the sparse moments between Jody and Tommy. I found the ending a cop-out and entirely unsatisfying. I have to praise Christopher Moore for the ambiguity of concrete "sides." Too often, black-and-white scenarios rule stories but not here. The Emperor and the Animals betray Jody and Tommy after they learn Jody turned Tommy, and then later regret it. Blue has her own goals obviously, while Elijah is driven by his own rules and motivations. Sometimes Elijah is an ally, other times a bitter enemy. There's only one thing you can count on here: Abby's steadfast loyalty to Jody and Tommy. Moore laces her character with an adolescent humor which makes the book readable.

Abby: Let me say right here, if I haven't made it clear, that I have seen as many pale, naked old-man parts in the last twenty-four hours to bruise my delicate psyche for a lifetime, so don't be surprised if you someday find me wandering the moors at midnight, a crazed look in my eye, babbling about albino Tater Tots nesting in Brillo pads and being pursued by sagging man ass, because that shit can happen when you've been traumatized.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Night Whispers, by Leslie Kelly [1]

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

Leslie Kelly's contemporary romance NIGHT WHISPERS features the proverbial heroine-saving-the-hero's-soul act; here, this act takes the form of restoring the adolescent rogue in our perceived "overwrought, cagey" hero. By the end, the hero Mitch Whymore conforms to his heroine's wild ways and makes all the concessions. The concluding 5-6 pages in this short 212-page paperback extorts mooning introspection and paragraphs of pining words from Mitch for the heroine's delight. The chick-lit factor is high, and the hero's pining seemed like forcibly shoving food down his throat and making him choke on it. The book mostly highlights a guy's strong, muscular physique for the female readership's imaginative pleasure; Kelly throws in a doctorate, professorship and writer for good measure. The prose isn't bad and the book did start out in a fun, sexy manner but the rest of the novel failed to maintain the opening's draw. The plotting and pacing dragged after the opening in spite of the meager 212 pages. The romantic tension inherent in the first half fizzles out as if it was stupid to consider in the first place, while the danger to the heroine in the second half, all of a sudden dissipated. The characters are entirely forgettable. Although NIGHT WHISPERS discusses sensuality and sexuality at length, it phlegmatically disappoints in that department as well.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

DJ Kelsey's (AKA "Lady Love") new 10-to-2 AM hit radio show pushes the boundaries of propriety in Baltimore, MD, and discusses a new topic every night: desire, sensuality, sexuality, attraction, etc. The songs, callers' comments, and topics range from the erotic to the humorous as Kelsey tactfully and admirably balances the program.

Ever since she was 12, Kelsey has had a crush on Mitch Wymore who grows up in the same house. A younger Kelsey constantly played pranks on Mitch to get his attention while Mitch assiduously ignores her growing up.

Having worldly, traveling parents, a rebellious Mitch grows up with Kelsey and Kelsey's family (Kelsey's mother and Mitch's mother were close friends from college). Kelsey's parents reform Mitch's riotous ways, nurturing him in the process, and our tall, dark, handsome and muscled Mitch (worthy of a GQ cover) eventually finishes a doctorate to teach as a professor and author successful college text books. Mitch feels beholden to Kelsey's parents for taking him in during a sensitive time in his life when he could have ended up in jail. When Kelsey's mother asks if Kelsey can stay with Mitch in Baltimore, Mitch cannot refuse despite his misgivings of bearing the brunt of Kelsey's pranks from the past. Kelsey has a new radio station gig in Baltimore.

The beginning shows promise when Mitch returns from a 6-month trip in China to find a bikini-clad Kelsey in the garden of his row house in Baltimore. Mitch hasn't seen Kelsey in over a decade and he's shocked to see how much Kelsey has curvaceously filled out. Kelsey exploits his desirous reaction, fully enjoying having Mitch ogling her and taking notice of her for a change. He's further shocked to discover the popular Lady Love on a Baltimore radio station turns out to be none other than Kelsey.

Mitch feels following through on wanting Kelsey sexually would betray her parents' trust in him considering they took him in when he needed it most. As a result, he desperately distances himself from Kelsey. This romantic tension vacuously fizzles out as if it never existed halfway through the novel. The second half of the novel has our h/h at odds with each other over Kelsey's radio show. Mitch believes the show attracts unsavory stalkers and claims it will only be a matter of time before someone acts on their perverted dreams for Lady Love. Kelsey discriminately omits telling Mitch of letters and gifts from a stalker type and their relationship strains consequently. The second half of the novel builds on this conflict over Kelsey's sultry radio show. Mitch's concerns finally evaporate in the face of an overwhelming, pining introspection for his heroine Kelsey. Mitch makes all the concessions, he thinks and pines to himself over his heroine endlessly, and verbalizes incessant words of tenderness for Kelsey. Predictably, the book ends by having Mitch call in to Kelsey's show declaring his insalubrious love over many paragraphs. Kelsey evinces a more roguish persona from her man Mitch which more or less translates into a nauseatingly feminine "hero." In so doing, Kelsey apparently "saves" Mitch's soul. Exactly like how girls may like to see their heroes, but not plausible men in love.

Mitch's endless introspection and words at the end seemed like a choking, suffocating excursion in girlish pining. In effect, Mitch represents an effeminately, fulsome romantic-hero caricature complete with the trimmings of a chiseled, muscled frame and a rich career.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Talk Nerdy To Me, by Vicki Lewis Thompson [2]

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

Heroes in contemporary romance all stem from the common mold of Navy SEALs, bodyguards, sports athletes, billionaires and detectives. Known for amusing yet uniquely sensual "nerdy" books, Vicki Lewis Thompson's TALK NERDY TO ME managed to strike a fresh appeal with its 6-foot-5 electrical engineering hero (tall, dark and handsome of course) and fashion model with very creative aspirations building inventions. Common interests in science and technology, yet profoundly contrasting backgrounds and personalities, weld the attraction in TALK NERDY TO ME and shortly thereafter, the love. I found all the characters in TALK NERDY TO ME very endearing and the h/h chemistry crackled with a resounding electricity. The sexual innuendo in the technical jargon was generally funny and sexy too, though a bit cheesy at times. I overlooked some of the technical inconsistencies mainly because Vicki Lewis Thompson definitely has a knack for making brainy talk sound like an aphrodisiac. I really enjoyed the first half of the novel, but I thought much of the later parts in this 357-page paperback failed to maintain the first half's excitement and engagement. The resolution to the primary plot at the end was quick and empty, and I found the Where-Are-They-Now epilogue four years after-the-fact, extremely on the cornball cheesy side. Over-the-top careers were handed out to everyone in the epilogue. Much of the novel takes place over the course of one night, and it felt like a draining, episodic marathon: pizza, fix washer, take Manny and Kyle to see Rick and Eunice next door, eat, drop off Rick, block off damaged back door, make love, head over to mom & Aunt Myrtle's, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, you get the point. The plotting and pacing are subpar, the settings deficient, the prose below average. Still, the likable, refreshing characters and light-hearted tone relays an entirely readable experience, and for half the time, an entertaining fare. The sensuality isn't bad, but Anne Stuart's INTO THE FIRE (***) still takes the prize for the most sizzling contemporary romance I've read to date (admittedly, that list is limited).

The Story.

I should note that TALK NERDY TO ME isn't necessarily the heroine entreating the hero to talk nerdy to her, but mostly the other way around. We have a scatterbrain genius in a model's body talking nerdy to her electrical engineer of a hero. The book belongs to its heroine Eve Dupree: successful fashion model, a high school dropout, and a genius inventor at heart breaking out of her shell of glitzy drudgery. Here, our heroine isn't insecure about her looks, but rather, she's insecure about her brains. An inventor at heart, our fashion model Eve Dupree is sick of the urban, glamorous life. She purchases a house in small-town Middlesex, Connecticut to that end, a relatively small town where everyone knows everyone. She'll continue working on small modeling jobs to support herself with trips to New York City (not too far from Middlesex), at least until her inventing career pans out! Meanwhile, she'll have the space and personal time to focus on her inventing ideas, foremost among them a project to build a hovercraft running on biofuel, or more precisely, running on scraps of broccoli. Too scatterbrained to concern herself with small everyday details such as locking doors or cleaning up or fixing the washing machine, Eve works on her creative ideas passionately.

Driving by on his motorcycle, electrical engineer Charlie Shepherd overhears a small explosion coming from a house. He stops by to make sure everyone is alright and meets Eve, or technically, Eve's hand under the garage. Charlie invites Eve over for a game of pool over at the local Rack and Balls, and they hit it off instantly enjoying common interests and a sensual chemistry. She plays pool like a pro, Sam Adams is her beer of choice and most of all, Charlie is awestruck by her creative passion and her hovercraft invention.

Charlie's cousin, Ladies' Man Rick Bannister, arrives into town with two of his "associates," and Rick and Charlie offer to help Eve finish her invention. Eve could use Charlie's expertise in electrical engineering not to mention his stamp of approval. After Eve shows her hovercraft to Charlie, Rick and Rick's two associates Manny and Kyle, Eve notices the disappearance of her hovercraft notes. Later, Eve notices forced entries into her home. During this time, Rick and Eve's neighbor Eunice grow closer, and so too does Charlie and Eve. When Eve shares her concerns about the missing notes and forced entries to Charlie, both actively work together to formulate a list of suspects and to figure out who wants to steal Eve's invention. An invention which could generate a lot of money.

From the beginning, the culprit isn't a secret and I found it odd our educated Charlie failed to include the one person on his list of suspects that's actually behind stealing the notes and forced entries. I mean there wasn't any theft or forced entries before Eve showed the invention to Charlie, Rick, Manny, Kyle and Eunice so technically all of these people should be on the list of suspects regardless of an absent motive. Still, it was nice to see our lead characters actively try to work things out together and capture the perpetrator unlike other romances which seem to ignore the problem until the problem arises again at the end.

The book also highlights the different directions the h/h are taking as they hopelessly fall in love. Eve wants to settle down in the small town of Middlesex, CT, after a glitzy modeling career while Charlie has grown up and lived in Middlesex all his life and endeavors to land a dream-come-true job at the Hoover Dam in Nevada.

The second half sagged quite a bit, and the conclusion was pretty dry. For a strong start consisting of crackling sensual chemistry, amusing sexual innuendos, and very likable, refreshing characters, it's unfortunate the second half failed to grip. Still, I like the characters, and I will most likely read other books in Vicki Lewis Thompson's line of "nerdy" romance novels.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

New Bush book, Robert Draper's Dead Certain

Not sure if you've read Robert Draper's brand spankin' new Bush book DEAD CERTAIN: The Presidency of George W. Bush, but I've been hearing some discussion about this book where I live here in DC. There's plenty of GW biographies out there from the left and right sides, though I don't know if any one of them had the access to all the one-on-one interviews Robert Draper has had. Draper personally interviews George W. and Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Karl Rove, and perhaps 200 other key players in the Bush Administration.

I haven't read this myself yet but from what I'm hearing, the most fascinating information in the book deals with how Bush delegated the decision to disband the Iraqi military after the invasion. Something that's arguably considered a mistake now since many of the former Iraqi soldiers went on to join the insurgency. Laura Bush's enmity towards Karl Rove was another very juicy tidbit.

I may have to check out this book, I'm certainly intrigued. By the way, what a great title. DEAD CERTAIN, I love it...

I recall when the country was up in arms about Bill Clinton sleeping with an intern and then lying about it. I abhor all politicians and I hate the extremes on both sides of the aisle, but if I'm going to be realistic about this, I have to wonder which was the lesser evil. Having Bush embroil us in Iraq on the claim of nuclear weapons or Bill Clinton sleeping around and then lying about it? One ill-researched decision based on misinformation affects many countries and various peoples while the other affects a specific family. I love how Bush and the republicans ran on bringing integrity back to Washington D.C. in 2000, and now we have over 10 republican legislators mired in sex scandals including ex- Idaho Senator Larry Craig.

Have a few hours to kill at the airport?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher [1]

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

Codex Alera series
1. Furies of Calderon (1/5)
2. Academ's Fury
3. Cursor's Fury
4. Captain's Fury - Dec '07

Best known for his Dresden Files series, author Jim Butcher's foray into epic fantasy begins with the tediously predictable yet irritatingly addictive FURIES OF CALDERON. I found the book mostly epic fluff, but surprisingly unputdownable. The book contains episodic, soap-opera plotting which will inexorably compel me to find out what happens to some of the characters in spite of my overall lack of enjoyment. With names like Gaius Sextus and Legionnaires in the Legion, a Roman inspiration characterizes the book's settings and backdrop. This book firmly belongs to the young woman Amara, her missions under the First Lord and her romance with Bernard.

Some positives to begin with. I liked the magic system: humans command "Fury" elementals incipient in earth, water, air, wood, steel to do their bidding. Some of the elementals lend themselves to naturally restorative functions such as water furies while other elementals exhibit a tendency for destruction such as earth furies. For a fantasy series, Butcher injects the book with a prevalent romantic flavor. Astonishingly, I felt some of the romance here could have been written by pure romance novelists, and it almost seems like Jim Butcher has read some historical romance novels. For instance, Amara's tingling, melting reactions in response to a tall, broad-shouldered, handsome widower. The pacing is fast, and Butcher keeps the action and romance flowing in this 504-page paperback. There's some genuine gray characters and the book thankfully dismisses the black-and-white Good vs. Evil struggle in epic fantasies. In fact, treachery and civil conflict marked much of the climactic battle here with each group and character striving for their own end goals.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Now for the negatives which easily overwhelmed the positives. The plotting was entirely formulaic and predictable. There's even a magical river flood akin to the flood in Tolkien's FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING before the companions arrive at Rivendale. The prose was, in general, below average to average. There's an attempt at settings and world building but I've seen better, even in pure romance novels. I hated that our 15 year-old protagonist boy Tavi behaves more like a 7,8 year-old baby often crying and screaming in terror most of the time. If I were a 15 year-old boy, I'd resent anyone calling me a "boy" or "child" at every turn, and I'd definitely avoid any emotional outbursts in public (hugging, crying). Tavi is too much of a do-gooder at 15, I know I found myself in much more mischief at the same age. For a series about a boy's coming-of-age, the first installment FURIES OF CALDERON firmly belongs to our young woman Amara, and her mission as Cursor under the First Lord of the Aleran Kingdom. I really could have done without Amara's romance with Tavi's uncle, the tall, broad-shouldered, strong and handsome Bernard. I found myself begrudging any chapter from Amara's perspective, which comprises a majority of the novel. I don't know, something about her, I just didn't like, and I liked Bernard even less. The entire combination was just... bleh. Butcher mostly employs Amara's perspective in the prolonged climactic finale featuring the battle between the Marat barbarians and the Roman-inspired Alerans at the Garrison in Calderon Valley. The interminable climactic battle was long and pointless! Almost every other chapter, there's the threat of a major death, but unfortunately, you know this type of novel lacks the audacity to kill off a major character. By the end of the novel, with *everyone* surviving for future books, it all seemed sooooo very, very, very vapidly pointless. It's funny, I couldn't take The Major Death in Scott Lynch's RED SEAS UNDER RED SKIES, but I was begging for some deaths here, Amara and Bernard most of all. I would have given the book 2 stars if this novel had killed off Amara and Bernard! Most of the protagonists I found aggravating or unlikable. I disliked Tavi, hated Bernard and Amara. I liked Tavi's Aunt Isana (though she sparingly appears), I enjoyed the redoubtable warrior Aldrick's mistress, the water witch Odiana, and I definitely enjoyed our disillusioned antagonist Fidelias. Finally, the magic is egregiously overused. It's a danger of fantasy novels, but magic users here fling their furies at foes and allies alike with impunity and without any limitations. Whenever Amara needs some aid in a pinch, oh let's just call on her wind fury Cirrus to fly her to safety or deliver a lethal blow! Oh someone suffered a fatal wound? Fear not, Isana's water fury Rill to the rescue! It gets seriously out of hand, and you start to question whether death exists for our main characters in Butcher's world at all.

The Story.

Academ Amara wants to graduate the Academy and become a full-fledged spy in the Cursor Legate directly under First Lord Gaius of the Aleran Kingdom. As part of her confirmation from Academ to Cursor, the First Lord dispatches Amara on a mission to investigate a rebel camp and report back the identity of the High Lord(s) behind the insurrection legion. Her plans take a turn for the worse when she's betrayed by her own instructor, her patriserus Fidelias. Amara flees the camp with the assistance of her wind fury Cirrus, and quickly reports back to the First Lord Gaius. The First Lord Gaius, not without resources and power of his own, consequently sends Amara to the Calderon Valley where he senses the inchoate stirrings of doom.

In the Calderon Valley, we have Steadholder Bernard a tall, broad-shouldered widower commanding two powerful furies of his own (earth and wood), his sister Isana a powerful water craft commanding the water fury Rill and finally their 15 year-old nephew Tavi. Customarily, if the person were to command a fury, they would have done so well before Tavi's age, and he rues the absence of a fury of his own, a fact belittling the boy's status in the world of FURIES OF CALDERON.

The story then fragments into sundry pieces, each frantically driving the pacing. In one group we have Fidelias, Aldrick and Odiana, sent by the High Lord Aquitaine, a ruthlessly ambitious man fomenting the insurrection against the First Lord. Bernard and Tavi travel Calderon Valley in search of a flock gone astray. Isana remains at Bernardholt dealing with the inimical steadholder Kord. Finally, you have Amara traveling to Calderon Valley to gather information. Bernard and Tavi encounter the gargantuan Marat barbarians in their search for the flock, barbarians Alerans haven't seen in over 15 years. There appears to be a conspiracy afoot fomenting chaos and confusion. In fact, Fidelias has convinced the barbarian horde to attack Calderon Valley and Clan Herdbane's headman Atsurak leads the charge. Later, Tavi convinces Clan Gargant's headman Doroga and Clan Horse to dissent from Atsurak's complicity with Fidelias.

The story chugs along as characters separate and reunite fairly consistently with the Marat barbarian horde on the move.

The most enjoyable part of the novel definitely involved Tavi and Kitai's quest for the Blessing of Night. Tavi represents the Alerans and Kitai represents Clan Gargant in a competition to retrieve the Blessing (a magical mushroom) from the Valley of Silence amongst the Wax Forest crawling with deadly dog-sized wax spiders. If Tavi wins, Clans Gargant and Horse will withdraw from the Marat horde attacking Alera and help the Alerans instead at the battle taking place at the Garrison in Calderon Valley. This quest portends for Tavi much more than he bargained for though, and the full impact of exactly what he bargained for won't be realized until later novels.

I found the the interminable, incessant conclusion involving the climactic battle between half the Marat horde (Clans Wolf and Herdbane, still 10,000 strong), and the meager Aleran legion defending the Garrison led by Amara, very, very painful and insufferably long. Not to mention that it was glaringly obvious no one was going to die and that Tavi will triumphantly arrive with the Marat Clans Gargant and Horse to help. At the battle scene, Tavi does little else other than flail and run around.

Anyway, I can't believe I want to read the next novel in this series after this poor fantasy effort. I guess Jim Butcher hooked me enough to find out if/when Tavi will ever get his fury, who Tavi's parents are, will we see Tavi's Marat rival Kitai who turns out to be a girl, will Tavi grow out of his crying and screaming, will Amara and Bernard ever die. Episodic? Anecdotal? Fluff? Yep. Yep. And yep.