Friday, October 26, 2007

North and South, by John Jakes [3]

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

John Jakes' American Civil War trilogy
1. North and South (3/5)
2. Love and War
3. Heaven and Hell

Here we confront another great lure of the subject: its fascinating and tragic paradox. The schism should not have happened, and [yet] it had to happen (speaking of the American Civil War). But that is my interpretation; as one historian has said, "Every man creates his own Civil War." --John Jakes in his Afterword of NORTH AND SOUTH

I frantically devoured John Jakes' opening salvo on the American Civil War, a behemoth 735-page hardcover entitled NORTH AND SOUTH (published in 1982). Its sequel, LOVE AND WAR, clocks in at 1,078 pages and I've already started it. Not since Elizabeth Chadwick's LORDS OF THE WHITE CASTLE have I found a book so unputdownable as Jakes' NORTH AND SOUTH. Deftly weaving factual events and people in American History with fictional characters and storylines, this astutely impartial novel sets the stage for the Civil War (1861-1865). Our tale here begins on June 1842 when two youngsters from opposing regions and contrasting opulent families (one family from the industrial north, the other from the plantation south) commence their turbulent friendship at West Point, and climaxes on April 12, 1861 when Confederate soldiers led by Brigadier General Beauregard opened fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, marking the onset of a bloody American Civil War which claimed over 620,000 lives (more than all the wars in
American history combined).

John Jakes balances factual events and people, fictional families, friendships,
poignant characterizations, love, lust, extremist fanaticism, and politics all under the shadow of slavery and racism which ripple even to this day. This book's primary intent? Entertainment. Although factually bloodier and darker than Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian Warlord trilogy, a glibly melodramatic fictional plotting characterizes Jakes' NORTH AND SOUTH, and this book definitely seemed lighter (than Cornwell's Warlord trilogy). Although consisting of some tense episodic plotting, all of our fictitious protagonists survive in this opening installment, albeit with some wear and tear. I actually wanted Charles Main to die. I didn't necessarily like the decidedly Southern focus of the novel, or some of the soap-opera-ish, melodramatic fictional plotting which just prompted questions of idiocy towards some of the characters. Half the time, I felt like I was reading a more intense version of the 80s TV serials Dallas or Falcon Crest about rich families. You remember those, don't you?

"Which way will you go, sir? North or South?"

[General Robert E. Lee's] face looked haggard in the rain. "I'm certain of one thing only. No matter how each man or woman answers the question you asked, I think there will be but one result from what we've allowed the extremists to do to us. Heartbreak. Good-bye, Lieutenant."

I thought NORTH AND SOUTH skillfully portrayed the factual events, politics and
fervid extremist views on both sides which embroil this conflict. Jakes convincingly illustrates how a sectional storm of extremist malevolence could wipe away reason and good intentions. Personal ambitions and desires drive much of the extremist views. Anti-slavery, antagonistic northern views seems to put the South on the defensive, and Jakes magnificently captures how even reasonable men from the south against slavery fight for the South because of prevalently generalized anti-southern sentiments. The book conveys many factual legislation, people, politics, writers and authors during this time period, all of which widens the sectional schism and races the country to an unnecessary yet imperative conflict (the paradox that Jakes speaks of in his afterword). Jakes deftly realizes West Point, its cadets and its curriculum, an Academy which produces most if not all the brilliant Civil War officers on both sides. The book adeptly highlights the contrasting economies between the industrial North and the agricultural South, an economic contrast symbolized by the very appearance of our fictional families: the stocky, blue-collar ironmasters the Hazards from Pennsylvania, and the tall, aristocratic rice plantation owners the Mains from South Carolina.

Cooper Main: "This is the age of the machine, and we [the South] refuse to acknowledge it. We cling to agriculture and our past, while we fall farther and farther out of step. Once the South practically ran this country. No more. Every year we lose respect and influence at the national level. And with reason. We aren't attuned to the times." He stopped short of citing the familiar proof -- the peculiar institution to which the South's prosperity had become shackled as firmly as the slaves themselves were bound to their owners.

Cooper had concluded that the significant difference between the economic systems of the North and South was not in industry versus agriculture but in motivation. The free Yankee worked to better himself. The Southern slave worked to keep from being punished. That difference was slowly rotting the South from the inside...

Cooper Main: "We're content to be what we've been for a hundred and fifty years -- farmers whose crops depend on the sweat of black bondsmen. We ignore men like George's father, even though they're becoming legion up North. George's father manufactures iron with free labor. That iron goes into machines. Machines are creating the future. The Yankees understand what this century's all about, but we only understand the last one..."

George Hazard: "This piece [of meteor fragment] may have traveled millions and millions of miles before it crashed here. My father says the iron trade has had more influence on the course of history than all the politicians and generals since the beginning of time" -- he held up the meteorite -- "and this is the reason. Iron can destroy anything: families, fortunes, governments, whole countries. It's the most powerful stuff in the universe."

"Oh? You really think it's more powerful than a big army?" [asked Orry Main].

"Without weapons -- without this -- there
are no big armies."

The book intermingles much history into the fiction: we hear about Robert E. Lee's military brilliance early in this novel and often, we hear about all the legislation which attempted to balance interests over slavery from the Missouri Compromise to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (allowed residents to decide over the slavery issue). We're intimately involved in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) caused by a dispute over Texas' southern borders from the eyes and ears of our main characters Orry Main and George Hazard. Several incendiary historical figures conflagrate the delicate balance between the North and South: former Vice President and South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun and South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks to revolutionary abolutionist John Brown. The book also notes the Nullification Crisis over the Tariff of 1828 which hit South Carolina particularly hard and triggers the debate over power at the state versus federal level. The book further has many of its fictional characters read popular literary works during the time including Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Late in the novel, we even meet Confederate President Jefferson Davis, seen as a sharp and astute leader by northerner George Hazard. Later in 1861 we met Abraham Lincoln at the onset of the Civil War, when many northern politicians view Lincoln as a weak leader while southerners see him as an ape.

Why were three adults so upset about one man's escape? ... At last George [Hazard] began to understand something of the Southern dilemma. He began to understand the stranglehold that slavery had on those who practiced it. Not one slave could be allowed to escape, for if one succeeded, thousands might try. The Mains and all others like them were prisoners of the very system by which they profited. And they were prisoners of fear.

There's quite a bit of love and romance in this novel. We have the emotionally-charged, angst-filled and impossible romance between Orry Main and Madeline LaMotte lasting the entire novel. There's the rushed romance between George Hazard and Constance receiving very superficial treatment. There's the romance between Cooper Main and Judith, and that was a sweet one actually. Finally, and my favorite, we have the romance between Billy Hazard and Brett Main sealing the connection between the two families, and representing the potential for love between North and South during a time of turmoil and conflict.

[Billy Hazard] studied [Brett Main's] eyes. How pretty they were. How free of guile. She wasn't as flamboyantly attractive as Ashton, and she never would be. Yet she did possess beauty, he thought; beauty of a simpler, more substantial sort, compounded in part of the shy gentleness of her gaze and the kindness of her smile. It was a beauty that time could never erode, as it could her sister's. It ran like a rich, pure vein, all the way to the center of Brett's being.

Or so his romantic eye told him.

I found the titles of the prologue and the four parts of the novel very chilling and the writing/content therein often adds to the title's ominous tones. The prologue, entitled Two Fortunes, sets up the two prominent families as early as 1686 from the first-generation immigrants that traveled to the British colonies. More than 6 generations later, second sons Orry Main and George Hazard meet and form close bonds in the first part called Answer to the Drum. This first part also has Orry and George in the Mexican-American War after graduating from West Point. The second part Friends and Enemies establishes civil strife between and within families while Charles Main and Billy Hazard follow in Orry & George's footsteps at West Point. More of a soap opera feeling dominates Friends and Enemies. The third part gives me goosebumps every time and all the more because it's a quote a by real historical figure: "The Cords that Bind are Breaking One by One." South Carolina is the first to secede from the Union in this third and pivotal part and we're privy to the orgasmic celebrating in Charleston after South Carolina's secession. The fourth and final part March Into Darkness marks the commencement of the Civil War as Confederate troops open fire on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. There's also long and contrived plotting dealing with our fictional characters during this time (albeit entirely addictive). The end here stretches quite a bit as Orry Main travels up to Union territory during this time of war. All in all, the book spans from 1842 to 1861 discounting the prologue which sets up the first-generation immigrants in 1686 over 6 generations earlier.

You might think a novel about the American Civil War would focus more on the North, right? Not so in this opening installment, I thought Jakes skews the bulk of the perspective from the South and the Southern family Mains. The Mains are a lot more fleshed out: Tillet Main the father, both his sons Cooper and Orry, and both his daughters Ashton and Brett. I'd be remiss not to mention Tillet's nephew and Orry's cousin the reckless, yet incredibly handsome Charles Main whose adventures and character development probably outshine that of any other character in terms of sheer page count (his early reckless brawling and whoring ways, his development into a gentleman when he prepares for a duel with a Smith, and finally his leadership as a soldier after he's stationed at Texas). By contrast, the northern Pennsylvania industrialists the Hazards receive, at best, a perfunctory treatment: the patriarch William Hazard perishes in the first part of the novel, Stanley the eldest son isn't nearly as interesting as Cooper Main, and consequently, doesn't receive nearly as much attention. Orry's perspective and love story easily overshadows George Hazard's (Orry and George are the two second sons who meet and become friends at West Point in 1842, remember). Cousin Charles Main's character development and adventures eclipses Billy Hazard's, the youngest Hazard brother, and for that matter, eclipses that of every other character as well. And of course Ashton and Brett Main are far more evident than the irksome, fanatic Hazard daughter, Virgilia. Furthermore, Orry's love interest Madeline LaMotte is a lot more fleshed out than George Hazard's love interest Constance.

Madeline LaMotte thinking: Something in the young cadet's eyes, in [Orry Main's] courtly bearing and his shy demeanor, called out to her, spoke to her on a deep and primitive level.

Slavery and issues from the South (particularly South Carolina which is the first state to secede in 1861) could explain the pronounced Southern focus and the emphasis on all the Mains (the American version of British aristocracy in the 18th and 19th-century fueled by slavery).
Regardless of the reasons for this decided focus on the Mains, I found myself wanting more perspectives from the North and from Billy Hazard (the youngest Hazard son) in particular to offset a lopsided emphasis on Charles Main. Unfortunately, there's more plotting focusing exclusively on Orry and Charles Main than on George and Billy Hazard. For example, during a leave from West Point after George and Orry's second year, the novel shifts its attention emphatically on Orry Main and Mont Royal, South Carolina, also setting up Madeline LaMotte and the other Mains in the process. During Madeline's marriage reception to Justin LaMotte, Charles Main (Orry's cousin) shines as a young rogue brawler. Nothing whatsoever about what George Hazard did back home in Pennsylvania and nothing about his family in any interesting or involved fashion. Cooper Main visits his younger brother Orry at West Point earlier as well. Following the Mexican-American War, we finally find more of an account on the Hazards as George feuds with his inept older brother Stanley and wrests control of Hazard Iron away from him after their father's death. Still, we find much more extensive plots dealing with Orry, Ashton, Brett, Cooper, Charles and Madeline LaMotte down in South Carolina as Orry copes with one arm and grooms his cousin Charles. Twice, Orry visits his friend George Hazard up north at Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, and the book painstakingly chronicles the entire journey up north from Orry's perspective (once with his sister Brett and later towards the very end making the journey by himself).

Although I enjoyed Charles' characterization in the very beginning as a reckless 7 year-old boy, I really disliked him the more he grew and the more the book focused on him. For instance, NORTH AND SOUTH spent a seemingly pointless 7 chapters (over 60 pages!) exclusively on Charles' adventures in Texas with the pernicious Captain Bent.
I found the entire ordeal with Charles and Bent in Texas pointless and exhausting. Even portions at the end seemingly about Billy Hazard and Brett involved Charles as he flies to the rescue at a rigged duel between Billy Hazard and Forbes LaMotte.

I also found much of the fictional plotting involving these two families ridiculous, convoluted and too soapy. It just seemed like these characters were stupid letting the antagonists repeatedly foment conflict and tension. For example, consider Virgilia Hazard's singular purpose in the novel: disrupt the delicate friendship between the Mains and Hazards. Repeatedly, Virgilia causes problems between the two families and yet idiotically, George Hazard seems to allow it every time. For example, Virgilia Hazard shows up every time Orry Main is visiting the Hazard home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, to provoke and antagonize. And George just allows it every time without taking any steps to at least isolate Virgilia when Orry is visiting. Earlier, George agrees to allow Virgilia to accompany the Hazards down south to the Main home despite knowing Virgilia's inflammatory and antagonistic disposition condemning all white Southerners and despite knowing her desire to
indiscriminately eradicate every single one of them. Dumb, on George's part. Later, when marriage to Billy seems finally possible, Brett Main rushes to share the news with her older, prettier sister Ashton Main first despite knowing from a very early age Ashton's avariciously ambitious nature. Why would you do that, Brett, when you're aware of Ashton's sick and twisted mind? At the end, I was frustrated by Orry's anemic response to Ashton's treachery. Orry simply gives Ashton a slap on the wrist and banishes her for from Mont Royal for a grievous offense which warranted a harsher comeuppance.

George & Orry's turbulent friendship represents a microcosm of the entire conflict over slavery and the events leading to the Civil War itself. When George asks Orry to allow a slave on the run to escape a likely death sentence, Orry seethes and reminds George -- a Northerner -- to stay out of the South's affairs.

Orry Main
: "Once before, I tried to explain the nature of things in the South. I told you we understand our own problems, our own needs, better than outsiders do. I told you we'd eventually solve those problems -- so long as outsiders didn't interfere...if you want us to continue to be friends, don't ever ask me to do something like that again."

[George] hoped Orry was right about the South's eventually solving its own problems. If the South did not, the rest of the nation would surely take action.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

With Heart, by Dorothy Garlock [1]

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

I really wanted to like Dorothy Garlock's WITH HEART more, and it's probably one of my better and readable 1-star romances. I liked both our lead characters here, I thought the hero was slightly different from the historical-romance archetype, and I enjoyed their sparse moments of romance together. Not to mention the late 1930s Oklahoma backdrop constituted a new setting for me. Unfortunately, the bungling plot and pace of this 433-page paperback disappointed big time. The characters and passion in most romances usually supersedes any plot or more often, the romantic tension is the plot. Here, Garlock attempts to balance the plot having to do with surreptitious dealings in Rawlings, Oklahoma, with Kathleen & Johnny's burgeoning love. But since the passion and love was rather on the light side, the blundering plot really exacerbated the entire reading experience in this romance novel.

Heroes and heroines from past novels crowding the plotting never sits well with me, and there's just too much of Keith and Ruth McCabe in this novel, a hero and heroine from one of Garlock's prior novels, I presume. It seemed like this novel's hero Johnny Henry constantly deferred to Keith McCabe for help and building Johnny's characterization. For instance, light-hearted banter between Keith, his wife and Johnny molded Johnny's characterization from our heroine Kathleen's eyes during a dinner after the rodeo. Barker Fleming attempts to bond with his long-lost son Johnny after the rodeo as well while helping Keith ride his flock back to his ranch. Johnny mentions connections through Keith McCabe which could succor a dangerous situation our protagonists create from uncovering the surreptitious conspiracy in Rawlings, OK. And Johnny turns to Keith McCabe when he wishes to entrap a murderer as well. Too much Keith McCabe, enough already!

I thought an episodic bookkeeping characterizes much of the plotting. There were too many times in the novel where Garlock painstakingly notes to include all the characters in the room before allowing someone to divulge pertinent information. For example, Kathleen makes Barker Fleming wait until Paul and Adelaide are in the room together before sharing what happened at the clinic with Doc Herman. Or in a gossiping way, Kathleen asks Johnny whether he heard about the young girl in town (Judy) looking for her real parents. It all amounts to amateurish bookkeeping if you ask me. Worse, for over 3 pages, we're treated to a confrontation between a local merchant Leroy and our newspaper owners Kathleen and Adelaide when Leroy threatens to withdraw all local advertising. Kathleen fumes at Leroy for being spineless, and the entire altercation seemed pointless since we knew Doc Herman was pulling the strings and naive of Kathleen to prolong and provoke an altercation with an intimidated hireling. I think that dumb and pointless argument accelerated the book's decline while the melodramatic ending hammered the final nail in this book's coffin. Finally, it's funny and I'm probably bad for saying it, but I really didn't find our villain Doc Herman's clandestine activity all that condemning. I'm skeptical a profitable market would exist for his service: a pseudo adoption agency, providing homes for unwanted children of unwed mothers. Are there really that many affluent couples not able to have children of their own?

WITH HEART mostly belongs to Kathleen although I thought our hero Johnny managed to make an impact as well. The passion is PG-13 though their connection wasn't any less resounding for it; in fact, I find more explicitly sensual romance novels involving a notorious libertine scientifically igniting a virgin's passion empty by comparison.

The Story.

On her own, our feisty, sassy 26 year-old redhead Kathleen Dolan travels to Rawlings, Oklahoma, to accept part ownership of the local newspaper there, the Gazette. When a couple of hooligans attempt to hijack her and her car on the road, All-Around-Cowboy, 25 year-old Johnny Henry rides to her rescue. By the time Johnny arrives at the scene of the crime however, Kathleen has things well in hand. Johnny represents a slightly different mold on the romance hero: he's isn't rich or prominent, and he believes himself unworthy of Kathleen. Ever since he's little, Johnny faces slurs from being the by-blow of a whore and a drunk Indian. I liked Kathleen, she does have that sass which is so appealing to romance readers.

The backdrop is late 1930s Oklahoma, after the Great Depression and before World War II. We're afforded the opportunity to learn a little bit about the production of newspapers back then. After arriving in Rawlings, Oklahoma, Kathleen quickly learns of the inimical Doc Herman and how he has over half the town under his thumb. There's an amateur plot dealing with an astounding number of pregnancies in Rawlings from out-of-town mothers, and I'm not convinced of its iniquity to be honest. The supposedly evil conspiracy wasn't handled in a very interesting way either. There's a rodeo where Johnny earns the All Around Cowboy title, there's a murder later, and Johnny's father appears to make amends. Kathleen and Johnny share a sparkling romance, and I enjoyed that part of it. Just wish there was more of it.

The conclusion to the novel was too easy and gratuitously melodramatic with a villain's one last gasp. Kathleen and Johnny's ongoing story continues in a subsequent novel AFTER THE PARADE which takes place following World War II. The premise was intriguing, we have husband and wife estranged for 5 years after the loss of a child...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Island of the Sequined Love Nun, by Christopher Moore [2]

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

While Christopher Moore's ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN stems from some semblance of fact and history in the islands of Micronesia, Moore admits in his afterword, "[my readers] know that using my books as a reference source is tantamount to using glazed doughnuts as a building material." The book satirizes on tribal cargo cults in the fictional Micronesian island of Alualu where the Shark People worship a long-deceased World War II pilot who delivered them from the Japanese and brought them western goods and luxuries. A very interesting blend here of a mysteriously pernicious conspiracy, light-hearted, westernized humor, a lackadaisical character's epiphany, supernatural weirdness, and deranged plotting make for an entertaining read amidst Moore's well-researched tribal context. The two significant women in the novel, Beth Curtis our Sky Priestess AKA Love Nun and tribal "mispel" Sepia, are both outlandish, especially crazed love nun Beth Curtis. We also have a transvestite navigator (Kimi), a grizzled outcast cannibal (Sarapul), the burdened yet muted tribal chief (Malink), the sad Dr. Sebastian Curtis, and finally the iconic and pristine matron of an airline company Mary Jean Dobbins. Last, but certainly not the least, we have our main character 30 year-old ladies man Tucker (Tuck) Case.

We encounter a disenchanted, lazy Tuck in the beginning of the novel going through the motions and usually opting for the easy way out. Again, Christopher Moore gets guys right: despite having many women, a beautiful piece of ass never fails to pique Tuck's interest. Described as a "geek in a cool guy's body," our pilot Tuck suffers a groin injury while having drunk sex and trying to pilot a plane. Understandably, Tuck spends most of the first half of the novel more concerned about his sexual prospects than all the trouble he acquires when he crashes the plane while having sex. Tuck comes to the attention of the Sky Priestess, Island Love Nun Beth Curtis and she and her husband eventually hire a strained Tuck to pilot their Learjet for deliveries from their island in Micronesia to Japan.

When, one morning, Tuck spent an empty hour trying to will his member to life by mentally wrapping his fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Nelson, in Saran Wrap, only to find his fantasy foiled by her insistence that he had no lead in his Number 2 pencil...he made his way to the beach.

I found ISLAND OF THE SEQUINED LOVE NUN funny, and in spite of the book's lack of flow from chapter to chapter, Moore seems to maintain an almost exasperating level of hilarity to his writing. On the down side, I found the chapters and pacing in the novel keenly jagged, lacking any flow or cohesion. Because the novel describes twisted circumstances with many angles, I'm not sure if any of the chapters really connected and the pacing seemed to come to a screeching halt as a result. The plotting and pacing doesn't really find its impetus until Part Three called Coconut Angel, and not even then until conditions impel Tuck to flee the island. I found Tuck's persistently apathetic demeanor towards the natives' dire circumstances tiring. Tuck really doesn't do anything until the island's mendacious Dr. Sebastian Curtis and his sadistic wife Beth Curtis place his own life in danger. I'm still at a loss to understand Beth Curtis' motivations, she was scary!

Despite the book's torpid pacing and twisted plotting, the book was still funny.

...traditional golf, as it was had always left Tuck cold. Strange, then, that he absolutely yearned for a seven iron, or maybe a shotgun...Tuck had been up since before dawn, awakened rudely and kept awake by what seemed like eight million roosters. it was now ten o'clock and they were still going strong. What joy to feel the thwack of a seven iron on red feathers, the satisfying impact of balanced metal on poultry (suddenly silenced and somewhat tenderized for your trouble). He saw himself wading into a bucket of roosters, swinging his seven iron madly (but always keeping his head down and his left arm straight), dealing death and destruction like the Colonel's own avenging angel. Welcome to Tucker Case's chicken death camp, my little feathered friends. Now kindly prepare to have your nuggets knocked off.... Tucker Case was not a morning person.

I did appreciate the main theme of the novel: characters in a rut awakened by an urge to change and make an impact. From Tuck to the reporter Jefferson Pardee and from the natives Malink to Sarapul, these characters in a rut take steps to change and do something. It just takes too long for Tuck to come to his epiphany and the sluggish pacing (it takes close to a 100 pages just to reach the island) dampened any sort of potential for an excited page-turning read.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Lessons of Desire, by Madeline Hunter [1]

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

Carnal pleasure is as much a woman's need as a man's. Do not deny your desires, but beware whom you choose as a partner. Most men are conquerors at heart. Seek out the enlightened few who have risen above this primitive curse. If you choose to take your pleasure with a conqueror, make sure you cede only your body and only temporarily. And never, ever succumb to the delusion that you can change such a man. --Artemis Blair speaking to her daughter Phaedra of lessons about desire.

This advise would apply in Madeline Hunter's LESSONS OF DESIRE if Elliot Rothwell actually did anything. Instead, he harbors a lot of emotional angst and he acquiesces to everything according to Phaedra's terms and conditions. I have to admire Madeline Hunter for writing a heroine so different from the historical-romance norm such as Phaedra Blair, but I can't say I liked Phaedra and Elliot together. The book belongs to Phaedra Blair, her eccentric individuality, her dogged pursuit to print her late father's explosive memoirs, and her investigation to discover her late mother's last lover. On his deathbed, Phaedra's father claimed this last lover of her mother's eventually caused her mother's morose decline. Elliot Rothwell accompanies Phaedra on this journey to discover her mother's last lover. Elliot tries to dissuade her from printing portions of the memoirs which vilify his family, but he mostly cheers her on from the sidelines. Throughout the second half, Elliot inappropriately grovels at Phaedra's feet quite a bit too. Even following the very last page of this 386-page paperback, it didn't seem like Phaedra really wanted to marry him. Although she finally agrees and thinks she wants marriage with Elliot, she unfairly tests Elliot quite a bit. She makes him beg and voice copious words of love and affection before nonchalantly agreeing to marriage. Phaedra really doesn't deserve Elliot, and I was a little sickened by Elliot's constant debased groveling at Phaedra's feet.

I found the plotting, prose and settings below-average in this novel, but my dislike of the characters may have something to do with that feeling. For many romance books with relatively weak plotting, it's usually a hit-or-miss deal resting on whether the characters work for you or not. Madeline Hunter is better in this respect than most because she usually intersperses some intriguing plotting aside from a gritty romance itself. In LESSONS OF DESIRE, I felt the incongruous h/h interaction took away from the plotting dealing with Phaedra's memoirs. STEALING HEAVEN (*****) also featured a confident, strong heroine at odds with her hero. There however, the hero turned heaven and earth upside down for his heroine, and it was very compelling. The combative tension there was mutually acknowledged and anticipated by both. In LESSONS OF DESIRE, Elliot doesn't really do anything, and his excessive groveling at the end seemed very inappropriate for a woman who clearly doesn't want marriage. Her last-second turnaround towards marriage wasn't very convincing either.

The best part of this book? The preview to SECRETS OF SURRENDER featuring Roselyn Longworth slated for a June 2008 release. Who is Kyle Bradwell? No wealth and title? Interesting... And good to see Alexia again in SECRETS OF SURRENDER.

In many ways, LESSONS OF DESIRE represents the antithesis of RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and its heroine. RULES OF SEDUCTION's Alexia was practical, sensible and amenable to marriage, while LESSONS OF DESIRE's Phaedra is the polar opposite. Phaedra doesn't believe in the very institution of marriage. In other ways, the two novels are similar. There are three things you can count on from a romance novel: words of love, acts of love and marriage (not necessarily in that order). In both RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and LESSONS OF DESIRE, we find the words of love in the concluding pages of the novel.

Phaedra Blair believes in a philosophy espoused by her late mother, "free love" (a forward concept for the time period). Later in the novel, Elliot recognizes the philosophy for what it is: "free pleasure." Phaedra also scorns a marital relationship which in her view chains a woman to a man. Poor Elliot, more than once, Phaedra fervently rebels against marriage with Elliot. When Elliot disconsolately provides Phaedra with the names of lawyers who help women in divorce cases, Phaedra hypocritically feels a "twist of disappointment" that Elliot would not contest her wishes for undoing their marriage. When Elliot writes to her expressing concern for her safety at her home, Phaedra almost blames Elliot for not asking her to come live with him. All this after Elliot practically begs her to continue with the marriage only to have her reject the marriage, and by extension, him! And over what? A feminist philosophy which repudiates the notion of marriage and how it always has to be: the woman chained to the man. If anything, it was Elliot enslaved by Phaedra, not the other way around.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

Elliot chances on too many opportunities to protect Phaedra from herself but he never seizes them. The book makes Elliot too much of a romantic goody boy: in Italy, he arranges to liberate Phaedra from an imprisonment of her own making twice, he protects her, he submits to her conditions for intimacy, he accepts Phaedra's lifestyle of "free love" and defends Phaedra's mother and her way of life when Phaedra expresses hatred towards her mother, he honors Phaedra's oath to print her father's controversial memoirs, he never coerces the witness Merriweather to retract statements which impugn Elliot's family, he never asks Phaedra to omit the portions of the memoirs which malign his family's name, he doesn't even abscond with the manuscript when Pheadra didn't want to print them herself. He further stays away from Phaedra when she rejects marriage to him. A continued liaison would obstruct her stubborn need to undo the marriage. All of her strife and pain is self-inflicted, and she causes poor Elliot much emotional angst. Elliot seemed too accommodating. Elliot is lucky that Phaedra comes around, and that seemed cheap too because she was pregnant by then.

It was all too much, a little ruthlessness from Elliot to save her from herself was definitely in order. He's already loving Phaedra under her terms (as a "friend" in free love), in various good-boy ways he's already protecting her promise to her late father about the inflammatory memoirs, and he won't even request that she remove the portions which maligns his family. Lord, enough already... Even if the portions of the memoirs detailing Elliot's father prove true, what is the point of it all except to drudge up the past and give the ton more gossip? If she's worried about the press she inherited, she could have recovered losses incurred by not printing the memoirs a thousand fold by accepting Easterbrook's compensation. If the popularity of the memoirs keeps the press afloat, it won't really be her doing, she didn't write the memoirs, and she didn't build the business. What's her stake in any of this except a promise to her late father condemning others from his grave?

I thought it was incongruous to have Elliot to use the words "love" first when it was always Phaedra who rejected and rebelled from him. After everything Elliot does under her terms both with their passion and the memoirs, it should have been Phaedra who first comes forward with her love to Elliot. In one of the love scenes, Elliot thoroughly services Phaedra going down on her and all he asks of her in return was to vocalize she's his for tonight. She refuses. Elliot grovels quite a bit at the end which didn't seem to fit considering Phaedra's philosophies and persistence to continue with the publication of the memoirs. Similar to THE SAINT's hero and heroine, you have Elliot wanting more from Phaedra (marriage) than just the "free pleasure," while Phaedra resistant to the last page. Unlike STEALING HEAVEN, the philosophies and plight of this book's aggressive heroine Phaedra simply aren't justified. Her philosophy is just naive, and her plight to publish the memoirs just plain stubborn (the memoirs will provide mere gossip and slander peoples' names, nothing else). It seemed like Phaedra was running roughshod all over Elliot, so he'll be debased, so he'll grovel, and so he'll voice words of love first. Even in the last 4 pages of the novel, she forces him to grovel after he's already voiced words of love and affection a month earlier. Elliot asks, "What must I say or do to convince you that we belong together?" She coldly answers, "I came here to listen." So he continues to grovel at her feet: "I want this marriage, Phaedra. I need it to know you are mine. I love you even more than I desire you. I want you with me always. I want to return to a home where you live. Do you never dream of such things too?" Until she hears this groveling (something he's done before at least twice), she still lets him suffer and imagine the worst: that she still doesn't want marriage. She has this superiority complex to be on top the entire book and her realization she "loves" Elliot doesn't change that, even at the denouement. The way Phaedra approaches Elliot after she publishes the memoirs clearly reinforces her need to chain her hero, to make him debased. She waits for Elliot to reiterate his words of love and desire to marry her before casually accepting the marriage.

On page 384 of 386, the thought of marriage with Elliot now prompts a giggle of happiness all the while she tests Elliot with his love and desire to marry her. It was another incongruous turnaround for a woman who loves Elliot but obstinately refused to marry him because of her philosophies. The book slowly builds Phaedra's love for Elliot and that was good, but her sudden acceptance to marriage was too contrived. Especially after she publishes the memoirs. Any hero would be forced to forsake a nonsensical course such as Phaedra's to condemn families' names. But Elliot of course encourages her and grovels at her feet at the end to take him.

Towards the end, Elliot thanks Phaedra for her decision to leave out the ignominious references to Elliot's family. He says, "I thank you with all my heart, Phaedra. You showed more generosity than I deserve. Your decision spared innocents the glare of scandal and my parents' names the worst whispers." What about the innocents from other families? She really published the posthumous memoirs of a man clearly with nothing to lose in his grave while his written words destroy peoples' lives? And for what? So her bequeathed printing press would prove successful from the memoirs' sales? So she'll preserve her promise to her possibly-bitter late father on his deathbed?

Some of the transitions from a grave, quarrelsome tension to a sensual undercurrent seemed unsuitable at best, very jarring at worst. They're arguing over the gravity of how these memoirs could sully families' names and all of a sudden there's all this sexual chemistry. Other times, Elliot's thoughts over his mother's cheating and his father's cold imprisonment segues into his desire for Phaedra (p. 69). It didn't work for me, but maybe it did for others.

I didn't like this book weighing the greater evil between their father the jailer and their mother the adulteress. Elliot's mother loves another and in response, his father incarcerates her. Of the two evils, LESSONS OF DESIRE taints Elliot's father the late Marquess of Easterbrook's actions as the greater evil. I'm not so sure. He tragically loved someone who loved another. The father responded unfairly, but I don't believe their mother's betrayal in wedlock was somehow "less wrong."

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell [2]

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

Warlord Chronicles, a tale of Arthur
1. The Winter King (***)
2. Enemy of God (***)
3. Excalibur (**)

Arthur was probably no king, he may not have lived at all, but despite all the efforts of historians to deny his every existence, he is still, to millions of folk about the world, what a copyist called him in the fourteenth century, Arturus Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus: Arthur, our Once and Future King. --Bernard Cornwell, Historical Note in EXCALIBUR

Cornwell's EXCALIBUR marks the crowning jewel of a fulsomely callous portrayal of women in 5th-century Britain, at least any woman of note (with the lone exception of Ceinwyn). Maybe it's unfair and provincial of me to view ruthlessness and calculated ambition potentially admirable in men but singularly unbecoming in women. Regardless, Guinevere's promiscuous ambition for power, glory and fame while Nimue's cold, religious fanaticism to sacrifice women and children for her pagan religion both distinguished Cornwell's final Arthurian installment EXCALIBUR. Although some may see EXCALIBUR as Guinevere's road to redemption, I can't say I really saw it that way. Admittedly, EXCALIBUR belongs to Guinevere, but I couldn't get over Guinevere betraying Arthur with Lancelot and then ready to betray him again with the druid twins back in ENEMY OF GOD, and all for power and glory. The humble first-person narration in a flashback makes for an inviting reading experience though the portentously gloomy tones tends to drown some of the enthusiasm. Cornwell's settings, historical backdrop and prose are all solid.

EXCALIBUR highlights the monumental battle in Arthur's lifetime which repels the Saxon conquest of Britain for an entire generation: the battle at Mynydd Baddon, or simply, Mount Badon. Of the three books in this Arthurian rendition, magic plays the biggest role here, and I can't say it was for the better. In the first part, The Fires of Mai Dun, Merlin and Nimue attempt to bring the old gods back. I found myself most engaged in the second part Mynydd Baddon in which we're treated to the warlord in Arthur at his best: battling against insurmountable odds. The final two parts, Nimue's Curse and The Last Enchantment concludes with Nimue's pagan fanaticism.

Mount Baddon. In time the poets would make that name ring through all of Britain. It would be sung in a thousand halls and fire the blood of children yet unborn, but for now it meant nothing to me. It was just a convenient hill, a grass-walled fort, and the place where, all unwillingly, I had planted my two banners in the turf. One showed Ceinwyn's star, while the other, which we had found and rescued from Argante's wagons, flaunted Arthur's banner of the bear.

So in the morning light, where they flapped in the drying wind, the bear and the star defied the Saxons.

On Mynydd Baddon.

As opposed to the madness of Christianity in ENEMY OF GOD, EXCALIBUR now turns its attentions to painting the pagan religion of 5th-century Britain in a very gruesome light via Nimue's fanatically insane group of followers. Again, you have to admire Cornwell's decided aversion to black-and-white storytelling. Where ENEMY OF GOD describes a mad and violent Christian movement, EXCALIBUR now concludes with a fanatically cruel pagan depiction with child sacrifices. Past friends and lovers now become cruel enemies (Nimue), allies plot and scheme (King of Gwent Meurig, Mordred), traitors repent and expiate (Guinevere), while apparent enemies exhibit valor and heart (Derfel's Saxon father, King Aelle). Readers will find merit in evil and cruelty in apparent good. All of it adds to Cornwell's well-researched and captivating tale of Arthur.

...[Arthur] had loved the practice of war. He tried to deny that love, but he was good at battle and quick in thought and that made him a deadly soldier. It was soldiering that had made him famous, and had let him unite the Britons and defeat the Saxons, but then his shyness about power, and his perverse belief in the innate goodness of man, and his fervent adherence to the sanctity of oaths, had let lesser men undo his work...

By the end of ENEMY OF GOD, I thought Guinevere's betrayal would teach Arthur something of ruthlessness and cold retribution. Unfortunately, Arthur's downfall rested on his most noble quality: his persistence to forgive and believe in the goodness of people and the sanctity of oaths. In the end, he wanted gratitude, but both the Christians and the pagans hate him by EXCALIBUR and he finally relinquishes his power in EXCALIBUR. Our narrator Derfel loves Arthur dearly and vehemently defends him here:

'I still think Arthur let us down [by relinquishing his power after Mynydd Baddon],' Dafydd said...How many times have I been forced to listen to that same condemnation of Arthur? If only Arthur had stayed in power, men say, then the Saxons would still be paying us tribute and Britain would stretch from sea to sea, but when Britain did have Arthur it just grumbled about him. When he gave folk what they wanted, they complained because it was not enough. The Christians attacked him for favoring the pagans, the pagans attacked him for tolerating the Christians, and the Kings, all except Cuneglas and Oengus mac Airem, were jealous of him. Oengus's support counted for little, but when Cuneglas died Arthur lost his most valuable royal supporter. Besides, Arthur did not let anyone down. Britain let itself down. Britain let the Saxons creep back, Britain squabbled amongst itself and then Britain whined that it was all Arthur's fault. Arthur, who had given them victory!

Despite devoting his life to bringing back the old gods, Merlin in the end sacrificed that endeavor for the love he bears for Arthur, a man he loved above all men. Merlin returns to his crudely droll ways, and his advise to look to ourselves for guidance and salvation (instead of any god or gods) rings true in EXCALIBUR.

'[Guinevere]'ll be out of [her prison] in two years! One, probably. If Arthur wanted her gone from his life he'd have put her to the flames, which is what he should have done. There's nothing like a good burning for improving a woman's behavior, but it's no use telling Arthur that. The halfwit's in love with her! And he is a halfwit. Think about it! Lancelot alive, Mordred alive, Cerdic alive and Guinevere alive! If a soul wants to live for ever in this world it seems like a very good idea to become an enemy of Arthur...'

'Most of [Pliny's] notions are arrant nonsense, of course. All that rubbish about Druids cutting mistletoe on the sixth day of a new moon! I'd never do that, never! The fifth day, yes, and sometimes the seventh, but the sixth? Never! And he also recommends, as I recall, wrapping a woman's breast band about the skull to cure an aching head, but the remedy doesn't work. How could it? The magic is in the breasts, not in the band, so it is clearly far more efficacious to bury the aching head in the breasts themselves. The remedy has never failed me, that's for sure...'

We received a hint of a woman's cold viciousness when Guinevere betrays Arthur in ENEMY OF GOD, but here, all of the female characterizations exacerbate, all of them ruthlessly ambitious in their own goals/devices: Guinevere, Nimue and Arthur's second wife Argante. Argante puts on a sanguinary display to her goddess Nantosuelta. Men such as Cerdic and Lamelot can be cruel and ambitious, but neither of them demonstrate the ostentatious histrionics of callous truculence all the notable women characters in this novel sponsor (again, with the lone exception of Ceinwyn). Surprisingly, Arthur's sister, pagan-priestess-turned-devout-Christian Morgan, saves the day for Derfel.

I didn't find the book's attempts to redeem Guinevere very convincing. In EXCALIBUR, Guinevere admits to sleeping with the old Powys King and later, sleeping with a Powys chieftain for the sake of power. Guinevere wants to be a man, and failing that, covets being a Caesar's wife, an empress surrounded by power, beauty and glory. Arthur dreams of a much simpler life, the very thought of which suffocates and repulses Guinevere. Guinevere sets her ambitions aside to be what Arthur wants in this novel though, but I thought her words and the attempt were half-hearted because Arthur's rustic dreams strip Guinevere of who she really is: an ambitiously "clever" woman (though manipulative would be a better word). She consents to Arthur's wish of a simple life bereft of power and glory out of some obligation: "I do owe [Arthur] some happiness, do I not?" At another point in this novel, Guinevere asks Bors, Lancelot's champion who defects, whether he too grew bored of Lancelot. Cornwell's Guinevere continues to exhibit a savagery far surpassing men.

'[Christians] all worship motherhood, but they're all as dry as husks...[motherhood is] such a waste of life!' [Guinevere] was bitterly angry now. 'Cows make good mothers and sheep suckle perfectly adequately, so what merit lies in motherhood? Any stupid girl can become a mother! It's all that most of them are fit for! Motherhood isn't an achievement, it's an inevitability! But it was all Arthur wanted me to be! A suckling cow!' --Guinevere

Guinevere finally reveals to Derfel why she wanted Lancelot to be king. In ENEMY OF GOD, Derfel thinks Guinevere may love Lancelot, but the truth is actually worse (in my mind). Guinevere sleeps with Lancelot so she'll have him wrapped around her finger, something she couldn't do with Arthur. "I wanted [Lancelot] to be King because he's a weak man and a woman can only rule in this world through such a feeble man..." Since she was saying all this to Derfel so passionately, was it by her command or acquiescence that sent men to slaughter Derfel's wife and children back in ENEMY OF GOD? Since she can control such a weak man so easily, I couldn't help but wonder if she somehow plotted to have Lancelot rape Derfel's wife and kill his daughters back in ENEMY OF GOD. Is she that naively dumb to believe she'll "control" all the whims of such a weak man once he sits a throne? And if she did agree or command to kill Derfel's family because she so deftly controlled Lancelot then she's worst than Lancelot. Conveniently, it seems Derfel doesn't recall Guinevere's possible involvement in Lancelot's perfidious plans for Derfel's family back in ENEMY OF GOD. Derfel and his men are too enamored (manipulated) by Guinevere here in EXCALIBUR.

Derfel's conversations with Igraine before the beginning of Part One, The Fires of Mai Dun, proved interesting. A very interesting look at love, fidelity and Arthur.

'[Arthur] wanted a free Britain and the Saxons defeated, but in his soul he wanted Guinevere's constant reassurance that he was a good man. And when she slept with Lancelot it proved to Arthur that he was the lesser man. It wasn't true, of course, but it hurt him. How it hurt. I have never seen a man so hurt. Guinevere tore his heart.'
'Were you ever unfaithful to Ceinwyn?'

'No,' I answered truthfully.

'Did you ever want to be?'

'Oh, yes. Lust does not vanish with happiness, Lady. Besides, what merit is there in fidelity if it is never tested?'

'You think there is merit in fidelity?' [Igraine] asked...

I smiled. 'We want fidelity in our lovers, Lady, so is it not obvious that they want it in us? Fidelity is a gift we offer to those we love. Arthur gave it to Guinevere, but she cold not return it. She wanted something different.'

'Which was?'

'Glory, and he was ever averse to glory. He achieved it, but he would not revel in it. She wanted an escort of a thousand horsemen, bright banners to fly above her and the whole island of Britain prostrate beneath her. And all he ever wanted was justice and good harvests...' And a free Britain and the Saxons defeated.

Later, Sagramor shares rumors about Arthur remaining faithful to Guinevere even after he renounces her and marries the young Irish princess Argante. Tragic, that he should remain loyal to Guinevere to the last while that fidelity and loyalty wasn't returned.

I found this comment by Culhwch funny:

Nimue screamed as the boy fell, then she leapt at Arthur again with her hands hooked like claws, but Arthur simply backhanded her hard and fast across the head with the flat of his sword blade so that she spun away dazed. The force of the blow could easily be heard above the crackling of flames. Nimue staggered, slack-jawed and with her one eye unfocused, and she dropped.

'Should have done that to Guinevere,' Culhwch growled at me.

More than once, EXCALIBUR (and the other two books as well) describes the feeling in battle, and I thought it was an apt description. The warring doesn't necessarily strip the soul as so many romances would have us believe, it just is. For many men during this time period, it was a way of life.

A terrible hate wells up in battle, a hatred that comes from the dark soul to fill a man with fierce and bloody anger. Enjoyment, too ... Ours was a world where swords gave rank, and to shirk the sword was to lose honor, and so I ran ahead, madness filling my soul and exultation giving me a terrible power as I picked my victims. They were two young men, both smaller than me, both nervous, both with skimpy beards, and both were shrinking away even before I hit them. They saw a British warlord in splendor, and I saw two dead Saxons.

It is the beguiling glory of war, the sheer exhilaration...I watched Arthur, a man as kind as any I have known, and saw nothing but joy in his eyes. Galahad, who prayed each day that he could obey Christ's commandment to love all men, was now killing them with a terrible efficiency. Culhwch was roaring insults. he had discarded his shield so that he could use both hands on his heavy spear. Gwydre was grinning behind his cheekpieces, while Taliesin was singing as he killed the enemy wounded left behind by our advancing shield wall. You do not win the fight of the shield wall by being sensible and moderate, but by a Godlike rush of howling madness.

Suddenly You, by Lisa Kleypas [0]

/***** (0/5)

I found Lisa Kleypas' SUDDENLY YOU completely unreadable; this qualifies as yet another iteration of the perfect-notorious-rake-initiating-the-imperfect-virgin-to-passion storyline (the words "notorious rake" are used to describe Jack later in the novel). This book revels in the handsome, muscular frame of an experienced rake igniting the virgin passions of a plump, ordinary-of-appearance spinster under slightly different circumstances. Is it me, or are all romance rakes' names Jack? Written mostly from the heroine Amanda's perspective, SUDDENLY YOU is interested in one thing and one thing alone: celebrating notorious rake Jack's chiseled perfection and opulent riches (I counted so many descriptions of the hero's handsome, muscular bearing, I lost count) while he initiates a plump spinster virgin to passion and pleasure. We have the forward, scoundrel comments which Amanda scorns outwardly yet secretly relishes. We have the tender, scientific ministrations of a libertine igniting tingles and ripples through Amanda's core. SUDDENLY YOU never misses a chance to remind us the hero is, in fact, muscular and handsome. We have yet another romance novel's artifice to contrive the attraction of a perfect hero for a mediocre-looking virgin. We have the virgin heroine's insecurities over her plump, ordinary appearance (insecurities which last to the end). We have the hero regaling her with praise about her appearance and tender words of affection. We have the hero encouraging her in business and profession and treating her an equal. In the early love making, we have Amanda wanting more though she knows not what -- yet the hero knows (you know you've read this in some form thousands of times). We have the experienced hero easily aroused and honorably putting a stop to the escalating sensuality ("Amanda I don't trust myself with you any longer. I have to leave while I'm still able"). We even have the virgin heroine yearning to discover the mysterious hero's tortured past and truly know him like no other woman before. The hero Jack is infatuated with her (there's no other word for it) while the heroine Amanda tries to cut things off, predictably prompting Jack to come to a decision about the married life he never wanted. You've read all of this before, the characters are the exact same and the juvenile plotting is the same.

Jack is just like every other handsome cartoon pimp from any romance novel lauding Amanda's brains while Amanda is like every other "witty," ordinary-looking virgin fawning over Jack's muscles. An adolescently insipid storyline characterizes the plotting and pacing, and the servicing from the hero is evident. Essentially, a tall, dark, rich, handsome and muscular hero (Jack Devlin) thrives as a publisher, and meets a successful author who is also a 30 year-old, plump, ordinary-looking virgin (Amanda Briars). Eventually, Amanda agrees to write a series for Jack's publishing conglomerate. This context serves as background noise to our pimp Jack servicing and initiating Amanda to passion and pleasure. There's even a break-up, Amanda finding "comfort" in another gentleman, a pregnancy, etc., etc. What a horribly forgettable 375 pages.

I think romance novelists assume if you give perfectly handsome heroes enough of a lascivious past with a myriad of nameless, faceless and meaningless pretty women, he'll grow tired of beauty. That a plump, ordinary-looking heroine will instantly inflame his attraction based on her "boldness, imagination and wit." Jack notes from his perspective, "her features were pleasant, if not...beautiful." So you gravitate to "pleasant features" when you're obviously a perfect Adonis? Is there no such thing as a beautiful, smart, quick-witted virgin in these superficial historical romances anymore? It annoys and aggravates me to no end how romance novelists will describe their heroines as average looking, plump and "pleasant" from the perspective of a hero who's instantly attracted. The guy admires wit, cunning, eyes, hair and soft skin -- very deep guy here. If a guy finds a girl attractive, no guy will hesitate thinking of her as beautiful except in romance novels. In romance novels, she's "not precisely beautiful." Then again, I'll never understand the perfect-guy-instantly-attracted-to-the-average-looking-heroine ruse anyway when I know ladies' men prefer women who they find beautiful no matter how many women they've had. Our hero Jack pines for her from the get-go: "he wanted to kiss her... he wanted to charm her..." Best of all from the girl's point-of-view, he wanted to know her. At another point in the novel, Jack appreciates how much Amanda eats in public. Apparently, this makes her more "real" and "authentic," and all the pretty ladies he's known are summarily condemned as shallow.

The heroine of course fosters no such deep motives for her attraction. Tall, handsome, muscular, thick black hair, blue eyes... in a word, perfectly attractive to anyone with eyes. On the other hand, you need to look long and hard to notice our plump spinster Amanda's attractive features, something only apparently possible by mature, experienced heroes. I had to laugh when Jack thinks to himself at one point, "He liked being able to fluster her, something he guessed that few men were able to do." Uhm no, one muscular cartoon pimp is as good as any other judging by the origins of Amanda's attraction! We again have a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A fat, rich man (Kerwin Stephenson) disgusts our plump Amanda after Amanda and Jack break up. Portliness is viewed as attractive in the women of romance novels yet abhorrent in men. If this is sounding like the worst case of a tritely hokey potboiler, well, then it is. When Amanda draws an average-looking widower's attentions who loves children, she accustoms herself -- or settles -- for a "pleasant and ordinary life." She muses, "Hartley would never sweep her off her feet, but help her to keep them planted firmly on the ground." So let me get this straight. Average, modest men who love children are too dull while fat men too repulsive. Talk about a nauseating indulgence on female-biased appearances. Chick-lit? You bet, 10/10 on the chick-lit meter, and that's not a good thing. This book is completely devoid of any inkling of substance or fresh appeal.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Skin Tight, by Carl Hiaasen [2]

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

Imagine the following cast of characters. A big, late-thirties ex- State Attorney investigator divorced five times. An abjectly rich, miserly cheap and terribly incompetent plastic surgeon. A clumsy, equally-incompetent vainglorious TV reporter. The cerebral, street-smart TV producer. A bitter nurse with a secret down on men. And finally last, but certainly not the least, a 6-foot-9 bouncer sporting a facially-burnt Rice Krispie effect. Throw in a 5 year-old unsolved missing-person case suddenly resurfaced, and what's the end-result? Why, Carl Hiaasen's whacky and twisted SKIN TIGHT in this 420-page superior paperback, of course! Hiaasen sticks to his strengths: convoluted plotting, offbeat, humorous dialogue and discreetly gray characterizations. I found the pacing fairly anemic however, as I finished three other books while reading this one which is ironic since the prose lends itself to a fast, easy read. SKIN TIGHT never really grips. Settings obviously played backseat to the twisted plotting. There's a couple love subplots thrown in as well: the ex-investigator falls for the TV producer while the surgeon actually loves a TV actress in both of their own uniquely disturbing ways. Admittedly, I'm probably jaded and numbed by modern culture, but I found the book's insouciant approach to death and violence refreshing after so many sensitive romance novels.

[Stranahan] was not a paranoid person, but took a practical view of risk: when someone pulls a gun at your front door, there's really no point to asking what he wants. The answer is obvious, and so is the solution.

The title of this book I believe refers to plastic surgery, and our doctor's fumbling attempts to cover up a botched surgery. Our main character Mick Stranahan investigated a missing-persons case for the State Attorney's office when he still worked there years ago. Now assassins show up at his stilt house out on the tidal flats of Biscayne Bay, a mile from the tip of Cape Florida. Mick is a no-nonsense, smart, tough character having experienced it all, and harbors a healthy cynicism towards government and the rich. Hiaasen's twisted Florida world teems with corruption and duplicity at all levels of the government and the affluently prosperous. Many times, SKIN TIGHT seemed to speak to and about the fraudulent corruption we find in today's society. Mick wants nothing more than to be left alone in his quiet home off the bay, but unfortunately, the depraved, outside world comes a-knockin'. Mick can take care of himself though, boy can he ever.

Tina clutched his hand. She couldn't take her eyes off the fire. "Mick, have you got enemies like that?"

"Hell, I've got friends like that."

I like that many of the characters here aren't cut and dry. Only in Carl Hiaasen's story can we begin to actually empathize with a cheap, incompetently corrupt doctor who blithely hires assassins to eliminate threats, bribes city officials for his own divinations and yet at the end discovers love with a TV actress in his own twisted way. Only here, can we begin to understand a grotesquely murdering 7-foot bouncer. I also liked Mick dictating the majority of circumstances and situations after he fends off an early assassin. Our 7-foot bouncer Chemo proves a much larger obstacle to Mick however. Still, it was nice to see Mick in control of the bizarre circumstances he didn't set in motion.

Chemo got the impression that he was losing control, which made no sense, since he was the one with the pistol.

The wacky plotting mostly features Mick fending off Chemo while striking back at the root cause of the entire affair (the botched surgery and consequent cover-up), Chemo willing to do anything for costly dermabrasion treatments for his burnt face, and Dr. Rudy Graveline providing Chemo the means and motive to kill Mick. Mick and the TV producer Christina Marks share an adventure through all this.

SKIN TIGHT isn't bad, and I liked the twisted plotting and characters. But I thought the book failed to really capture and retain interest. It wasn't outright funny, and its strength lies with a mishmash cast of gray yet colorful characters. I may check out another Hiaasen book down the line.

An adjustment to my review of KEW's Ashes in the Wind

I find I harshly underrated Kathleen E. Woodiwiss' ASHES IN THE WIND, a book that charmingly combines history, plotting and a love story. Originally, I gave it 3 stars, but I've since deservedly bumped up its ranking to 4 stars.

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

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Saint, by Madeline Hunter [1]

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

This series on the Dueling Society marks some of the more monotonously leaden writing I've read from Madeline Hunter. I thought THE SAINT couldn't possible be any worse than the novel that started this series (THE SEDUCER **) but it manages to anyway. Like its predecessor, THE SAINT grasps at setting the stage for subsequent books rather than focusing on telling its story. Worst, I found THE SAINT bereft of an engaging storyline. After the opening chapter, the plotting floundered for over 250 pages while the deadpan hero-and-heroine interaction further paralyzed this plot's pacing. THE SAINT reveals the crux of the mysterious plot in conversations spanning 10 discontinuous pages or so towards the end. Rather than inviting interest, I found the contrary dynamic between our hero Vergil Duclairc Viscount Laclere and his heroine American Bianca Kenwood very blase.

Based on THE SEDUCER and now THE SAINT, this series on the Dueling Society seems to explore how love muddles the best laid plans (or enriches, depending on you look at it). In THE SEDUCER (**), love with Diane obfuscates Daniel's single-minded plot for revenge whereas here, "Saint" Viscount Laclere's love complicates a gifted heiress' dream to sing in the opera, something considered taboo for the time period. Although I found THE SEDUCER's plot drab and its hero Daniel's contrivances to call out a superior shot stupid, THE SAINT's plot is worse as it conveys the salient points of the mystery in prosaically conversationalist diction. Nothing happens for the first 250 pages in this one other than Countess Glasbury's (Vergil's sister) vocational party lasting a few days. More than ever, I wanted this MH book to "show, don't tell." For example, Bianca and Vergil discuss the background behind Vergil's older brother's death from discovered letters, while Adrian Burchard and Vergil reveal other elements in two separate discussions. I also found THE SAINT more predictable than most, as I guessed Vergil's deceased brother's blackmailer from the mysterious blackmailer's first reference in the novel. The finale feebly concludes the novel with a duel to decide everything including the fate of the love story. I thought a very stagnant plotting and pacing supported its lackluster love story.

I can't say either the hero or the heroine really stood out, though both had potential. A contradicting dichotomy of innocence and desirous promiscuity characterizes our virgin heroine Bianca. Despite the book's efforts to make this contrasting dichotomy seem like a novelty in virgin heroines, it was nothing new. Good romance novelists usually present their virgin heroines with a hint of aggressive reciprocation. With the exception of the opening chapter, I found the verbal exchanges and love scenes between Vergil and Bianca in this novel incongruously uninteresting and completely forgettable. The last two or three pages seemed to rush a resolution to the strained love story which didn't fit. I thought Bianca should have went on to perform in Italy for a few years if Vergil was going to conveniently throw propriety out the door at the end anyway. With his sister Penelope, a dubious reputation mars Vergil's family already, so what's the point in preserving some pretense with Bianca and her dreams? I mean you have all this tension in the love story due to society's rules and norms and at the end, you throw them all out the window like it was much ado about nothing. Weak!

I thought Bianca "won" her way most of the time in this novel in spite of Vergil's so-called guardianship restricting her, while Vergil's love seemed to overshadow Bianca's (I discount Bianca's protestations of love in the throws of virgin passion, and no, her reassurance of that love later didn't balance the scales). THE SAINT reverses gender roles a bit: the guy here wants marriage and a life together while the girl wants to just have sex. I thought Vergil made all the concessions and he's the only one who considered both of their individual dreams and combined futures. Vergil has to be careful not to spill his seed inside her so she can continue her dreams to sing. It's Vergil who reiterates again and again that he doesn't want to coerce Bianca into marriage with a pregnancy or a soiled reputation. It's Vergil who refuses a strictly sexual relationship with Bianca to protect her from a notorious reputation. Later, Vergil concedes Bianca's platonic sexual liaison when she persists in refusing marriage. At the end, it's Vergil who first concedes defeat by agreeing to disperse Bianca's money so she may travel to Italy for her singing career and promises to visit as often as possible. Vergil does all of the servicing in the love making; for a virgin heroine with advertised hints of a mistress' aggression, she's pretty self-absorbed in all the love scenes. The love scenes are primarily described from Bianca's egocentric perspective. Losing yourself to passion is one thing, losing yourself again and again without the least bit of any desire to reciprocate is quite another.

This book gave me flashes of Emma Holly's BEYOND INNOCENCE (**) where its hero attempts to pass off the heroine to his brother (for different reasons), though falls in love with her himself. Here, our hero Vergil wishes to marry Bianca off to his rakehell younger brother Dante, a vapidly standard romance-hero characterization whose story in THE SINNER I have no desire to read. I could have done without so much Dante and this book's attempts to make him seem deeper for a future novel wasn't very convincing. Between returning THE SEDUCER's hero and heroine Daniel and Diane St. John, trying to paint characterizations for this book's story and setting up characters for future novels, I thought THE SAINT had its hands full. As a result, THE SAINT failed to tell a compelling tale of its own. I'm trying to remember if Cornell Witherby appeared in THE SEDUCER. I don't remember Witherby dueling in THE SEDUCER. Both Adrian Burchard and Julian Hampton continue to intrigue and I'll have to read their stories in THE CHARMER and THE ROMANTIC, respectively.

The Premise.

American Miss Bianca Kenwood's grandfather Adam left her a fortune and named the Viscount Laclare her guardian until she turns 21 or marries, whichever comes first. A talented singer, Bianca dreams of singing with others for a big audience in a grand setting. Vergil Duclairc the Viscount Leclare gets in the way. Titles, money and English propriety mean little to American-born Bianca, and she forges her own path towards disreputable singing career. After a very engaging opening chapter, the book sags considerably for over 250 pages under the guise of a gathering amongst Penelope's "inner circle" of friends and acquaintances at Laclere House in Sussex. There's two apparent attempts on Bianca's life while other characters arrive for the social gathering. Bianca's cousin Nigel Kenwood, Dueling Society members St. John, Witherby and Dante all join the party at Laclere House. Penelope's friend Mrs. Gaston, an eccentric sponsor of the arts, also joins the party. The ill-reputed Duclairc family is in full form: Vergil, Dante, Penelope and Charlotte all appear. While Bianca plots to realize her dream as an opera singer in Italy, Vergil investigates his older brother's suicide.

The action moves to London for a bit before returning to the country in Manchester where Bianca owns a percentage in a mill. It returns to London as Penelope prepares Charlotte for her first coming-out. The book concludes on the coasts of luscious Normandy in France where a duel lasts about 2 pages found in the last 7-8 pages of the novel. The pacing lolls for days and vacuously zips along for weeks and months. It all seemed disjoint and incongruous. Besides the opening chapter, nothing in the novel invited interest or attention.

I'm thinking THE CHARMER and THE ROMANTIC are better.

Friday, October 5, 2007

3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold [2]

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

Watching this movie reminded me how much I miss westerns. Although I didn't like the ending and Christian Bale's weak character in Mangold's 3:10 TO YUMA, I enjoyed other parts of it and the music was nice. It felt like a very slick western, which is a novelty these days. I've heard this is a remake of Glen Ford's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN made in 1957, and though I haven't seen the original, this one is good.

Russel Crowe stars as notorious western outlaw Ben Wade while Christian Bale stars as the honorable and crippled husband Dan Evans in need of funds. Sharpshooter Ben Wade and his redoubtable gang just robbed an armed stage coach carrying the Southern Pacific Railroads payroll. Railroad representative Butterfield recruits paid volunteers to escort Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma bound for prison. Christian Bale's poor and crippled character Dan Evans joins the escort for 200 dollars. This movie is about this escort while Wade's gang is hot on the trail. Wade himself manages to eliminate a few comprising his escort service and you start to wonder who's the real captive(s) and captor(s). Eventually, the movie turned into a journey of male bonding between Crowe's Wade and Bale's Dan Evans.

I liked the movie, but I thought Christian Bale's Dan Evans was too dumb. Bale's Dan Evans is another one of those "brave and honorable" men who are too dumb. He's crippled, he isn't the gunman Wade and his gang are, and yet he wants to escort Wade for a chance to make his sons proud. Okay, I guess. Crowe's Wade pretty much plays with Christian Bale's Dan Evans the entire movie and while Crowe was enjoying himself, Bale's character was struggling to survive.

If not for the stupid, honorable and meaningless characterization of Bale's Dan Evans, I would have liked this movie more. I miss westerns!

The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh [3]

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

"If I loved you, Fleur," [Adam] said, "and knew that you loved me, I would turn heaven and earth upside down [for you]"

I found Mary Balogh's THE SECRET PEARL a chronically addictive reading experience containing the right touches of an impossible, challenging road to love and featuring tortured characters that never really leave you. Unfortunately, I thought THE SECRET PEARL needed to balance the memorable characters and heart-rending love story with better pacing, prose and settings. A majority of this 399-page paperback amounts to meandering introspection. Granted, one of the advantages of literature includes sharing the thoughts of characters but some novels (often of a romantic nature) makes the introspection and thoughts very interminably exasperating. THE SECRET PEARL contains a lot of introspection and if it weren't for the uniquely endearing characters and their plight, I probably would have found the book pretty bad. Not your typical rosy romance fare, the characters and premise alone offer a worthwhile reading experience. Although the ending wasn't bad, again I thought it resorted to amateurish introspection instead of gripping plotting or possibly a chapter or two of marital bliss. The love here is mutually giving, and it isn't just the hero giving everything.

Rarely are romance heroes as interesting or honorable as THE SECRET PEARL's Duke of Ridgeway Adam Kent, and I thought the novel belongs to him. Adam's time with the English infantry at Waterloo scarred him terribly along his face and body, so he isn't handsome by the time our heroine Isabella Fleur Bradshaw meets him. Adam is vulnerable, and harbors insecurities of his own, though it isn't belabored. After a shocking opening scene in which Adam hurts Fleur -- knowingly, for reasons that are clear from the context -- Adam's vulnerabilities and his efforts at atonement afterwards really melt your heart. Also very much unlike the last romance I read (Joyce's VOICES OF THE NIGHT), the hero Adam here astutely infers the heroine's situation, figures out her pursuers, consequently takes steps to discover her complete history, and in turn, really helps her. THE SECRET PEARL's Adam Kent is a man of action, from beginning to end. I think I'm a sucker for a romance novel in which the heroine really detests the hero all the while he's doing everything in his power to help and protect the heroine. I'm not sure why or how, but I'm ineffably drawn to a heroine's intense, unwarranted hatred for her hero (not superficially insulting, imprecating). In this respect, THE SECRET PEARL resembles Hunter's superior THE RULES OF SEDUCTION (*****) and its heroine Alexia's unwarranted enmity for her hero. Even though the title of this book refers to the heroine, I thought the hero Adam was a hidden treasure in his own right. If only this novel offered something more in terms of prose, pacing, settings, and love scenes.

It was the first time he had seen her smile almost directly at him. And it had been a total smile, lighting up her face, making of its beauty a dazzling thing. He could have sworn that all the rays of the sun had been directed at her face when she had lifted it to the sky, even though the clouds had still been low and heavy.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Our horribly-scarred Duke of Ridgeway Adam Kent picks up a prostitute from the street after the theater. It's been a long, torturous time for Adam since his last time with a woman and so he doesn't mind a reticent, uninviting prostitute. When taking off his clothes, Adam is ashamed by his unseemly, scarred appearance in front of a whore, which in turn drives him to anger and vengeance at Fleur's expense. Adam takes her, knows he's taking a virgin from the first thrust and yet doesn't relent. The prostitute turns out to be a deceased baron's daughter, Isabella Fleur Bradshaw. Fleur is running from a murder charge and a second cousin's obsessive pursuit who assumes the baron's title after Fleur's father passes away. Later, she learns of a theft charge mixed in as well. Scared, alone, fleeing the noose and hiding amidst London's poverty-stricken streets, a hungry, grimy Fleur turns to the last thing she has to sell: her body.

We learn more about Adam which makes this story's road to love, so challenging and heart-wrenching: Adam has
a five year-old daughter and an estranged wife who cheats on him with his own younger half-brother. With the exception of that one time with Fleur, Adam has been faithful to his wife for five years despite his wife cheating on him with other men. Adam is all too aware of his wife's cheating.

Following Adam's violent coupling with Fleur, Adam feeds her and pays her thrice as much as the norm before parting ways. Nightmares of a cruel, scarred monster haunt Fleur while Adam takes steps to locate Fleur and employ her. Eventually, Adam's secretary hires Fleur as a governess at his estate in Willoughby. Fleur is unaware of the identity of the child's father when she accepts the governess position. She's thrilled to escape a life of prostitution.

The bulk of the novel takes place back at Adam's beloved home at Willoughby. Adam travels back to Willoughby for damage control when he hears of his wife's plans to invite a few notorious guests for a few weeks. Fleur is already there tutoring Adam's daughter Pamela, and soon, Adam's half brother Thomas arrives with Fleur's obsessed second cousin Matthew. The more we learn of Adam, the more your heart will melt for him. There's plenty of introspective musings both on Adam's part and Fleur's part during the time Adam's wife entertains many guests at the Willoughby palatial estate.

Again, THE SECRET PEARL's road to its happily-ever-after is challenging, and it isn't rosy. If you buckle up for a substantive love story, I found the love story and its lead characters very rewarding. I just wish better plotting, pacing, settings and prose equaled the heart-rending love story and the unique hero-and-heroine characterizations.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Voices of the Night, by Lydia Joyce [1]

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

"Perhaps you are being the one taken advantage of," Maggie said with no small amount of asperity. "Perhaps I am using my body to try to tie you to me, to squeeze more money out of you. I have no regrets" --yet-- "so why should you?"

Wow, for a book with above average settings and prose, I was thoroughly disappointed by Lydia Joyce's VOICES OF THE NIGHT. Although I found our heroine Maggie King's spirit, pride and determination methodically admirable, there's nothing attractive about her from a physical standpoint to justify our hero Charles' instant and incessant lust for her. I absolutely hated our hero Charles, he's lusting after Maggie for no reason I could ascertain; he hasn't met a single woman who's fiery, spirited and determined before Maggie? Worse, Charles' behavior at the end of the novel takes stupidity and ineptitude to new lows. He can't figure out anything by himself and he doesn't think and observe. These historical-romance heroes like Charles are good for little more than looking pretty and flaunting the power and wealth they were born into, an attractive combination for a spirited, yet ordinary-looking heroine's happily-ever-after. I'd prefer romance novelists write strictly from the heroine's point-of-view than torture and annoy me with Charles' ludicrous thoughts and lack of brains. Or maybe have him appear sparingly to service the heroine from a carnal standpoint in the middle, and then drop by at the end so the heroine can marry into the wealth and title the hero was born into. As the villain continues to terrorize, our dumbfounded Charles cannot figure out his identity and worse, doesn't even make an attempt to think about it before the climactic conclusion which has him scrambling.

This book obviously belongs to its heroine Maggie King down to every word. A prostitute's daughter growing up amidst London's poverty first as a pickpocket and then a dancing hall singer, Maggie perseveres, finds love and exhibits a far more cunning persona than our dumb hero Charles could ever hope to match. The book is all about Maggie and her problems with the local mob boss Danny. I may have enjoyed maybe one, or at the most, two moments in VOICES OF THE NIGHT. I liked how Maggie was aggressive sensually, street-smart, compassionate and cunning, but Charles is an impotent Ken doll by comparison. There's nothing to Charles except have him there at the end so Maggie can marry into the title and wealth Charles was born into.

I was reminded of a prior book and a movie reading this one. The essential premise reminded me of MY FAIR LADY though this book's central plot and hero are nothing like the movie's misogynistic male lead Henry Wiggins and its focus. I was also reminded of Jo Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL (**) also featuring a feisty, aggressive pickpocket of a heroine living in poverty whisked off by an weak hero born into his wealth, beauty and title. I thought Goodman's book had better prose and settings than this one though, and there were some genuinely witty exchanges in Goodman's A SEASON TO BE SINFUL whereas this one just resorted to having the hero lust after an unattractive child for the entire novel. Charles fails to think and act on his own to proactively protect the heroine from the villain hounding her.

The Story, possible SPOILERS ahead.

Tall, rich, and handsome Lord Edgington, Charles Crossham, makes a bet with his sister to pass off a street urchin as a lady of the peerage at the next Edgington social gathering. Charles wants his sister Millie to retract some harmful words slandering a girl Charles helped introduce into Society (unknown to his sister). If Charles is successful passing of a guttersnipe into society without anyone taking notice, Millie agrees to not only retract her harmful words, but to convince their mother to introduce the victimized girl herself next Season.

Meanwhile short, scrawny and plain-faced Maggie King and her "retinue" of poor friends ("chavies") survive day to day in poverty. Maggie is a dance hall singer and manages to make enough to pay for a small, congested flat for 8 or 9 of them total. The dance hall she worked at fired her and she can't seem to convince any other dancing hall to take her. She needs money to pay the rent and quickly all the while she ignores requests for a meeting with the mob boss Danny O'Sullivan.

At an audition, opera connoisseur Charles takes notice of Maggie and whisks her away for the wager he intends to win. He installs her in a row house, gives her an allowance of two pounds a week, arranges for new gowns, sets up all of her chavies with jobs and at schools, has tutors train Maggie in Society etiquette, speech and deportment, arranges for singing lessons to help Maggie after the wager runs its course. Charles gives everything he is to Maggie including going down on her. The main plotting with villain Danny and wager between Charles and his sister, both come to head at the party where Maggie must fool Charles' peers into believing she was gently bred.

As a warning, what follows details an account of my gripes with the plotting and especially our hero Charles.

Towards the end, Charles watches a blatantly distressed Maggie abruptly leave a room full of guests in the middle of a game, and yet he fails to notice the villain (whose identity is a secret to Charles) trail after her. He can't put 2 and 2 together at all? Instead of trying to figure something out and T-H-I-N-K on his own, he spends the rest of the time trying to convince Maggie to tell him who, amongst the guests, she suspects. My gawd I was dying a thousands deaths at this doofus of a hero rack his nonexistent brain to try to figure things out. To the very end, he's completely incapable of putting two and two together on his own and needs Maggie to drop small hints before finally convincing her to spell it out for him. She refuses. Her hints? Maggie asks subtle questions behind the origins of the wager which Charles should have been thinking about and piecing together on his own way before!! Charles = biggest inept dolt in the world. Charles notices nothing and thinks for himself even less. While dressing Maggie, we have: "...the shape of the revolver seemed to shout itself through the cloth of the pocket, but Charles did not seem to notice." Have I mentioned what an oblivious dumb ass Charles is yet?

If Maggie can rise and overcome in Charles' upper-class world by fooling them, I don't understand why Charles can't even make an effort to help Maggie in her world by neutralizing her nemesis Danny. The mob boss Danny O'Sullivan torments Maggie, Charles knows about it, and yet he doesn't even make attempt to dig deeper behind the connection between Maggie and Danny, let alone try to extricate Danny. He pusillanimously accepts Maggie's decision to escape Danny by leaving the country after the end of the wager. He doesn't have to try to strongarm Danny or anything, but maybe he could think of something from a patrician's point-of-view to help remove Danny? Or try to find out more about Maggie's history with him? Or barring all of that, at least investigate what role Danny played in Charles' wager with his sister since Danny apparently set up Maggie's audition which started it all? Instead of proactively doing any of this however, Charles meekly waits around for Danny to strike...

I didn't quite appreciate the way Charles comes to condescend High Society after spending time with Maggie. After Maggie, Charles views those of his class beneath him and their concerns petty (which they probably are), but he cultivates a healthy aversion to the thoughts and concerns of all people from his class, and seriously hates his mother and sister. "Yet his sister's manner of speech was not so different from that of most of the women of his acquaintance. The sophisticated ones were arch and their words barbed, and the ingenues simply burbled..." He's too good for his peers all of a sudden? What does he want them to talk about instead, was he too naive to understand the different concerns between the poor and rich from the beginning? It's reality, get over it, start helping the poor if you feel guilty for being rich, or start living amongst the poor if you feel you're too good for the rich now. I really could have done without Charles' supercilious, condescending attitude towards the upper classes. The contrasting concerns between the poor and rich seemed like a revelation to Charles, is he really that naive? More nonsense from Charles in the same vein: "Part of [Charles] wondered if [Maggie] could possibly ever be taken for a lady, not because she was too coarse but because she had an edge, a certainty and strength and definitiveness that he had never seen emerge from protected parlors of the gently bred." First what does "edge, a certainty and strength and definitiveness" exactly mean? It's too vague. And now not only is he too naive to understand the starkly contrasting problems the poor and rich deal with, but again he wants to generalize all of the "gently bred" as insipid and thoroughly lacking in character. Late in the novel, Maggie receives another note from Danny and after she shares the note with Charles, like a wide-eyed dolt, Charles asks, "What should we do?" Maggie confidently answers she wants to kill him. Charles is in awe of Maggie's determination from living amidst less-than-favorable conditions. Is he really that clueless? I had a tough time abiding this naivety and condescension in Charles' characterization.

I don't know, I really don't believe guys are as deep as so many romance novelists would have us believe. Charles' instant, lascivious desires for child-like, plain Maggie so early in the novel jarred me out of my reading every time. There's really nothing about Maggie for Charles to go ga-ga over: no lips, ordinary hair, plain eyes, no legs, no buttocks, no breasts. When VOICES OF THE NIGHT's heroine Maggie steps onto the stage, our hero Charles finds himself attracted to how proudly Maggie carries herself: chin up and shoulders squared. Now Maggie's proud bearing engenders admiration definitely, but lust? Maggie's miniature, thin, child-like frame and grubby appearance doesn't cool Charles' desire for her one bit. I was a bit repelled by Charles' attraction to Maggie. The book mires Charles' introspection and thoughts with references to Maggie's sharp mind, proud demeanor, "definitiveness," etc., etc. How, then, is he physically attracted to her? It doesn't seem like Maggie possesses any visibly desirable characteristics, and I found Charles' attraction to child-like Maggie 40 pages into the novel on the first day they meet a bit disconcerting to say the least. He wants her based on her proud constitution and, at times, snide remarks? Joyce never fails to remind us how small, frail and scrawny Maggie is and every time she's in Charles' arms, I have this creepy mental picture of a pedophile with a small child. I wish the book stuck to writing from Maggie's perspective because Charles' amorous thoughts towards a small, scrawny Maggie seemed forced, and prompted me to stop, shake my head and remind myself: ah yes, this is a female author writing this guy after all, I have to make some allowances for these unbelievable desires towards a grubby, child-like heroine. These jarring moments occurred every time we're privy to Charles' thoughts.

Conspicuously, not even once does Charles use the word "pretty" or "beautiful" to describe Maggie (even though he's attracted to her). Not even when Maggie dresses up and bathes much later in the novel. Why is Maggie allowed to see Charles as handsome (fairly consistently) but Charles not allowed to see Maggie as beautiful if the attraction is mutual? Maggie notices Charles' broad, tall frame at every turn and how he's "very handsome." Later, the novel has Maggie view him as, " so handsome, unmistakably rich, so smooth and golden, like an idol..." At the dinner table of the party where Maggie acts like a lady, Maggie again sneaks a peak at Charles and is struck by how much he looks like a "handsome Adonis." So why isn't Charles allowed to think of Maggie as "pretty" or "beautiful" even once? Instead, he has deep thoughts admiring Maggie's mind which cause him to have a hard-on. Wow, VOICES OF THE NIGHT harbors a deep, inflated picture of the male psyche and its sexual desires, while simplifying Maggie's attraction for Charles based on his tall, broad-shouldered and handsome countenance. I didn't like any of it.

Much of Charles' salacious reactions to Maggie seems more like a girl's response. For example, "...reaction shot through his body from groin to gut..." Why does this sound like a girl's warm, tingling reaction rippling through her center? A guy's lust isn't this deep! Or better yet, why this reaction at all? What's the foundation? Maggie's intelligence and pride? And this triggers lust? Seriously? So point me to a romance novel where a woman is attracted to a poor, untitled Plain-Joe of medium height for his cunning mind (except Hoyt's THE LEOPARD PRINCE ;)).

Many of Charles' thoughts and musings on Maggie seemed like what a romance novelist pressures on her romance hero, not really a guy's plausible reaction. For instance, "Maggie's face rose in his mind, cunning, wary, her expression alive with intelligence and precocious knowledge of the evils of the world..." And this subsequently drives him to lust: "...the memory came of her, in his arms, her small body drawn...he shifted uncomfortably, willing his erection away..." ?! Again, I have to shake my head and continue as dissonant as all this sounds to me given Maggie's very unattractive appearance.

Lydia Joyce sure doesn't miss a chance to convey Charles' amorous desires for Maggie (yet jarring) in every passage from Charles' perspective. Even when the neighborhood villain brutalizes Maggie's friend Nan, and Maggie's hand visibly tightened on a boy's arm, Joyce makes Charles think again about his desire for Maggie again. So a woman is brutally beaten and raped, Maggie hand simply "tightens" around another boy's arm as a reaction and you have Charles wishing it were his arm? Are you kidding me? It is this type of baseless, lustful introspection from the hero's perspective which make this novel very difficult to digest, I mean a woman was just beaten and raped and Joyce is more interested in making Charles feel more lust for a small, thin, unattractive girl like Maggie.

No, guys really aren't that deep... considering what Charles has to go on, his desire for Maggie seemed way too forced. Later in the novel, at the actual party, Joyce describes her heroine Maggie like so: "...her painful slenderness was transformed into ethereal sublimity, the translucency of her skin glowing like alabaster in the pale light of the gas jets." It isn't clear if this is Charles viewing Maggie as such, but if it is, it's another contrivance. What does "ethereal sublimity" look like anyway? Is that supposed to be pretty? Am I too shallow to ask? In my opinion, it's another example of romance's persistent contrivances at matching up tall, rich, "very handsome" men with ordinary, Plain-Janes.

Other times I had to laugh and ask myself if any guy would truly believe the utter bullshit Charles spews half the time in his thoughts and words. For example, when he's sermonizing, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." Oh... my... lord. Does he even know how he sounds? This is so damn stupid, I don't have the proper words to express my reaction to Joyce's laughably ludicrous characterization of her hero Charles. Is he trying to be deep? Brooding? Tortured? All of the above? Well, it's coming across as foolish and preposterously idiotic.

It's a good thing I was reading Hiaasen's SKIN TIGHT at the same time where the men are hunks and the women are pretty to substantiate the guys' initial lust.