Friday, November 30, 2007

Gridlinked, by Neal Asher [1]

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

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

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

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

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

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Updated '07 Movies Watch List

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

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

Monday, November 26, 2007

Stardust [5]

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

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

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

The Premise.

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Risk Everything, by Sophia Johnson [1]

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

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

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

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

The Premise.

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

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

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

Monday, November 19, 2007

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen [4]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Premise.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 16, 2007

Echo Park, by Michael Connelly [2]


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

The Premise.

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

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

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

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

Deceived, by Nicola Cornick [0]

/***** (0/5)

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

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

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

"Only if you tell me, too."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 9, 2007

Transformers [3]

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

"Bumblebee, stop lubricating the man." --Optimus Prime when Bumblebee "pisses" on Agent Simmons played by John Turturro

What an entertaining CGI joyride for the geek in every one of us! Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS thrills with awe-inspiring visual/special effects and relentless action. Though empty, disjoint and hackneyed, I couldn't help but enjoy this action-packed, special-effects feast in a battle between the evil Decepticons bent on eliminating the human race and the good Autobots led by Optimus Prime. Although the movie vaguely follows 16 year-old Sam WitWicky (played by Shia LaBeouf), Captain Lennox (played by Josh Duhamel), and signals and systems specialist Maggie Madsen (played by Rachael Taylor) in three disparate plots, the movie affects a light-hearted humor all the while maintaining its jaw-dropping visual effects in the midst of a trite battle between good and evil. The movie had me laughing quite a bit and maintains a sense of humor throughout despite the gravity of the threat posed by Megatron and the Decepticons. I was impressed by actor Shia LaBeouf's performance as the boy with the "key," his portrayal of Sam was equal parts comedic and serious. The only recognizable actor in the movie? Jon Voight plays Defense Secretary John Keller though the role and the performance is nothing to scream about.

Possible SPOILERS ahead.

As with any fantastic, scifi movie containing more pulp than anything else, there's some nonsensical plot devices. For instance, Sam's glasses which hold the key to finding a cube. The evil Decepticon leader Megatron desires this cube of power to purge Earth of the human race. Stupidly trite, to be sure. At the end, much of the action was hard to follow though no less awe-inspiring. I thought it was weak and anticlimactic how Sam places the cube inside Megatron to destroy both Megatron and the cube. I found many transitions in the movie from Sam's plot to Maggie's to Captain Lennox's jarring and out of place. So many times, I'm not sure how we got from Point A to Point B.

Still, in spite of all the negatives, it's hard not to root for our good-hearted Autobots in their battle against the viciously ruthless Decepticons. It was great to see so many of the transformer favorites we grew up with including Bumblebee and Optimus Prime. In the cartoon, Bumblebee was small and used more like a spy in reconnaissance whereas here in the movie, they've upgraded his car model quite a bit! I'd love to see a sequel and I'd love to see one of my favorite childhood transformer toys in it: Sideswipe!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Heiress for Hire, by Erin McCarthy [1]

*/***** (1/5) needed to love first, then love will come back to you. You couldn't take love or buy it or demand it, but once you gave it freely, without thought to yourself, you received it in kind.

Though more guy-friendly than most romance novels, I found Erin McCarthy's HEIRESS FOR HIRE mostly a one-sided affair. We can count on three elements in all romance novels: words of love, acts of love and finally marriage, although not necessarily in that order. I felt our slow-and-steady, Mr. Dependable, Mr. Unselfish, Good-Guy farmboy Danny Tucker not only initiated all three of these elements common to any romance book, but he also exhibited an enthusiasm in all three aspects far surpassing our heroine, Chicago socialite Amanda Delmar. So by a one-sided affair, I mean Danny first voices the I-Love-You's (and often thereafter), services Amanda passionately, again articulates heartfelt words of love during the act of love, and proposes marriage three times before Amanda finally accepts. Hence, I felt the giving from the quote was mostly a one-way street from Danny to Amanda. Peculiar then that the quote was Amanda thinking about love. Amanda loves Danny certainly, but true to chick-lit, not nearly as much as the other way around. The book appeared to ensure Danny's skewed love-sickness as a price for Amanda agreeing to marry him and move to Cuttersville, Ohio. There's two love scenes here, and during the second love scene, I thought the three consecutive climaxes Amanda experiences from oral sex proved lopsided. Add to that Danny's heartfelt words of love during this scene and I didn't feel Amanda really measured up. Just didn't seem like Amanda wanted to return all of Danny's giving (love). We received a 1-sentence retrospective postmortem of Amanda waking Danny later that night but it just didn't come close to Danny's servicing and love for Amanda.

I liked how both the hero and heroine harbored insecurities here, and I liked how a physical attraction initially played a role. Many historical romances detail a heroine's physical shortcomings from the hero's perspective and he's careful to avoid using the word 'beautiful' even though he instantly has a hard-on for her (SUDDENLY YOU, VOICES OF THE NIGHT). Here, since Danny is attracted to Amanda, I liked how McCarthy doesn't shy away from letting her hero use the word 'beautiful' to describe Amanda even though she isn't perfect . I also enjoyed everyone empathizing and caring for Danny's lovable 8 year-old daughter, Piper. Danny's mother Wilhemina "Willie" Tucker steals the show prompting fits of laughter, and I was hoping for more of her.

I thought a more spoiled, arrogant Amanda Delmar in truth could have made for an enjoyable reading experience and although Amanda and Danny shared some passion, I don't believe they're a good fit together long-term. A deeper, vulnerable Amanda simply hides behind a glitzy Barbie-doll facade and it takes Slow-and-Stead, Mr. Unselfish, Mr. Dependable Danny Tucker to recognize this deeper, affectionate side of Amanda Delmar. She has all of her father's money but really yearns for his love. I thought a spoiled Amanda scorning all things poor including country hicks like Danny would have made for a more entertaining tug-of-war between Amanda and Danny. Of course then you'd have to alter Danny's character a bit so he isn't so laid back. I suppose I was thinking more along the lines of the movie OVERBOARD (1987) starring Kurt Russel and Goldie Hawn where you have the rich girl with amnesia finding love amongst a poor family. Goldie Hawn's character in OVERBOARD really earned everyone's love in that movie hundred fold while Amanda never seemed like a good fit for Danny and his daughter on his farm. Sure, Amanda cares for Danny's daughter Piper but that was a given, Piper is the quintessential, lovable 8 year-old innocent.

That such a light, quick 300-page superior paperback conveys a rather protracted read confirms the book's absence of any captivating plotting even for the romance genre. I admit to finding Amanda's saucy-sassy traits appealing and funny at times, but I question the point of some of the scenes we find in this novel. For instance, Amanda, Danny and Danny's daughter Piper venture on a protracted shopping trip to Walmart in the beginning. The whole exchange at Walmart seemed long and off. Next, from Amanda's cottage in Cuttersville, we have paranormal elements in a story where they simply don't belong. There's a bawling spirit in the cottage Amanda stays in and pennies magically fall from the ceiling. Amanda shrugs off the spirit's wailing for her long-deceased husband and she finds the magically-dropping pennies more funny than anything else. These paranormal elements really have no place in the overall romantic story, and if they do, the book failed to mesh the paranormal elements with the romantic story. Then, there's this melodramatic affair of Amanda rushing to rescue her poodle Baby from a hawk. I think the episode was supposed to prove Amanda's courage and loyalty but it was just stupid. The plotting which has Danny and Amanda thinking they're not right for each other and Amanda consequently rejecting marriage was a contrivance for Danny's "last-time" lovemaking. Danny performs oral sex for Amanda three times in a row thinking to give love and cherish her with everything he is for the last time. As it turned out, I think they had it right initially: I don't believe they're right for each other long-term because it's so one-sided, and I think Danny should find someone who would appreciate him more. Finally, Piper's stepfather returns and it's just more melodramatic nonsense as Amanda defends young Piper.

I was reminded of a couple other superior contemporary novels reading this one: TALK NERDY TO ME (**) where both leads are humble and likable, and INTO THE FIRE (****) which also contained paranormal touches but appropriate there. Anne Stuart's INTO THE FIRE is especially memorable for its decided dark and gritty feel, and yet conveys a passionate intensity like you've never read before. I think INTO THE FIRE is the only 'romance' novel I've read where of the three certainties in the romance genre (words of love, acts of love and marriage), marriage was no longer a certainty.

The Story, possible SPOILERS.

Chicago socialite, twenty-five year-old Amanda Delmar has it all: money, designer clothes and shoes, and lavish handbags. Everything except the one thing she covets most: her father's love. A vulnerable, compassionate woman resides underneath the rich, spoiled and high-maintenance facade and she longs for love. After she follows her friend Boston to Cuttersville, Ohio, and drops two grand on a manicure and a designer handbag, her father decides to employ a policy of "tough love" with Amanda. Her father cuts her off from all her money and her credit cards and compels Amanda to find a job and earn money for herself. In the process, she wouldn't mind hooking up with one of the brawny farmers in Cuttersville which may help her forget her cruel ex-boyfriend. I found some of Amanda's early bimbo comments very funny.

Enter Slow-and-Stead, Mr. Dependable, Mr. Unselfish, All-American-Farmerboy Danny Tucker. Danny has seen Amanda around town and finds himself attracted to her after a relatively recent divorce with ex-wife Shelby. Danny's wants and needs are simple: he wants a wife and family after his first marriage doesn't pan out. After just discovering the existence of his 8 year-old daughter Piper, Danny has what he's always wanted, though not exactly in the way he wanted it: a family with his daughter Piper. Since Amanda is looking to earn her way out of Cuttersville, Danny hires her to babysit his reticent daughter who warms up to Amanda. Amanda and Danny's attraction resonated although their long-term prospects on Danny's farm did not. Of course, I also thought the lovemaking was heavily one-sided in the second love scene (Danny doing all the giving). A one-sided love scene contrived by plotting which has Danny and Amanda believing they'll go their separate ways once school starts for Piper. The one-sided love scene would be fine if there was any love scene afterwards which wasn't such a one-way street. Alas, not to be.

The book concludes on copious words of love and affection from Danny as he proposes for a third time, this time on bended knee. All this after a lot of heartfelt words of love from Danny from before. Again, I didn't feel Amanda reciprocated Danny's words and acts of love in kind and that makes the entire "love" seem like a hoax concocted for a girl's delight.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Love and War, by John Jakes [1]

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

Jakes' American Civil War trilogy
1. North and South (***)
2. Love and War (*)
3. Heaven and Hell (skip, LOVE AND WAR hammered the nail in the coffin on this series)

George Hazard: "Lincoln and the cabinet and Congress all pushed [General] McDowell [towards the loss at the first Bull Run]. They forced him to send poorly trained amateurs into battle. The volunteers failed to behave like regulars, and McDowell's been punished for it -- by Lincoln and the cabinet and Congress."

"Ah," [Constance] murmured. "The first girl on the President's card proved clumsy, so he's changing partners."

"Changing partners. That says it very well...I wonder how many times he'll do it before the ball is over?" {George comparing the shifting of Union generals-in-chief in the Civil War to girls on President Lincoln's card in a ball}

Although I enjoyed the scant references to Sam Grant in this novel and flimsy glimpses of battle warfare and strategy of the American Civil War (almost nonexistent), I absolutely hated the overwhelming focus on Charles Main and disliked the prodigious exhibition of northern corruption and northern barbarity. Yes we get it, northerners are just as bad as southerners if not more in terms of their attitude towards people of color during this time period. Northerners' collective and indiscriminate zealotry towards all white southerners and colored people makes them worse. As the end of the war nears, the book singles out strained northern white/black relations marked by racism while highlighting improved southern white/black relations (the Mont Royal overseer Philemon Meek and Andy, for example). All of the characters' thoughts (especially George, Orry, Billy and Brett) spew repetitious, preachy drivel as if we didn't get enough of that in NORTH AND SOUTH (***). Don't get me started on Yankee-killing Machine Charles Main, I hated him towards the end of NORTH AND SOUTH (***) and it doesn't get any better here. Despite Charles' losses in this novel, he sure lives a charmed life always flying to everyone's rescue and charging in and out of forays with nary a wound or scrape to show for it. Unfortunately, Billy and Brett's plots here (the only two characters that seemed 'real' to me) involved plenty of preachy moralizing about slavery and racism. The two characters that least needed moral lessons on racism -- Billy and Brett -- received it incessantly. And Charles flying to a worthless Billy's rescue again and again and again and again was ... too much. Want to show off Charles' indestructible talents? Oh let's just have Billy get captured (again) or his love interest in trouble so Charles can save them (again). Billy gets tortured and beat up and wounded while Charles Main rides around like a godlike cowboy killing Yankees, killing villains (Cuffey) and beating everyone up without a scratch to show for it. Mont Royal, Cooper and his family in danger? No problem, here comes Charles to the rescue!

What a horrible book. Detailed? Sure. Wearisomely melodramatic? Absolutely. Although settings were stronger in this novel (compared to NORTH AND SOUTH), I can't say I liked the foggy prose in this one. I'm reading and reading and reading and it just seems like very little happens other than endless preachy moralizing and Charles-to-the-rescue histrionics. Conveniently, all of the antagonists (Ashton, Virgilia, Bent) survive for the next book. I hear HEAVEN AND HELL centers even more on Charles Main. Uhm ya, thanks but no thanks. Let's just say I only read this for references to factual events and people during the war (especially Sam Grant). I also enjoyed the technology noted by the novel: the repeating gun Spencer capable of firing many rounds in a short amount of time, and steam engines.

"Our keen-minded Southern journalists scorn [Sam Grant] for being round-shouldered and slovenly. Really important considerations, eh? ... Three years ago, Ewell said there was an obscure West Point man somewhere in Missouri whom he hoped the Yankees would never discover. He said he feared him more than all the others put together."

Clearly a prelude to LOVE AND WAR, the disproportionate focus on Charles Main in NORTH AND SOUTH adumbrates the unmistakable hero of this entire Civil War trilogy including this particular 1,078-page paperback. All well and good if you like the Charles-Main character but I found the imbalanced emphasis on Charles Main and his invulnerability in this bloated book unbearable. Especially since I savored every token passage on Billy and Brett while hoping for more. Billy and Brett seemed like the only realistic characters to me, and all the other fictional characters were larger-than-life and/or way over-the-top. I actually preferred Ashton and Bent's treacherously episodic scheming to the adventures of godlike, indestructible Charles Main. Long, protracted pages from Charles Main's perspective embodies the love and war in this novel while Billy and Brett receive forgettable treatment. Billy writes in his journal mostly about racial issues while Brett learns compassion and affection for colored people. Even when there is plotting with Billy, it's usually interspersed with Charles' goings-on and/or includes Charles in a significant, life-saving manner. The battle at Shiloh is sort of brushed off from Bent's perspective even though it's recognized as one of Grant's ingenious saves while Jakes assiduously details Lee's genius at the battle at Antietam (Sharpsburg) from a day-to-day basis completely from Charles' perspective. I was wondering what Billy was doing during the battle at Sharpsburg the entire time Jakes glorifies Lee, Stonewall Jackson and our fictional hero Charles Main. Following a 20-page account of Antietam exclusively from Charles' perspective we have Billy's 2-page postmortem. Just to fill up space and unable to find any storyline for Billy, the book makes Billy think of Charles "often" (p.426). Similar to Antietam, we have Gettysburg entirely from Charles' perspective which again left me wondering why Jakes couldn't give Billy some meaningful storyline.

I thought Jakes should have stationed Billy out on the western theater closer to Grant. With Shiloh, Vicksburg and the Third Battle of Chattanooga, Grant was phenomenal over there. The Third Battle of Chattanooga actually showcased Grant's chief engineer William F. "Baldy" Smith in a key strategic move known as the "Cracker Line." And Billy was an engineer! Very poor creativity from Jakes on Billy's entire storyline in this novel. A novel which serves one purpose and one purpose alone: glorifying Charles Main.

Apparently, the only storyline suitable for Billy in this book: getting tortured at Libby Prison in Richmond after he's captured and then bumming around for Charles Main to fly to his rescue again (like towards the end of NORTH AND SOUTH). At the end of the ordeal, Billy records the lesson he learned in an improvised journal. "I at last understand how the enslaved negro feels. I have dwelt a while in the soul of a shackled black man and take a little of it into my own forever." Not only is the lesson completely unnecessary after all the sermonizing introspection (from so many characters) and various discussions over the issue of slavery, but the recipient of this particular torturous lesson (Billy) was already sympathetic towards slaves and already against the institution of slavery. So what's the point of all these pages showing Billy beat up and tortured? I guess I missed the boat on that one other than to underscore more of the same, invulnerable Charles-to-the-rescue antics. I also don't understand why Orry needs Charles to do anything about Billy's imprisonment. Orry waits for weeks for Charles to help him rescue Billy. It's like no one can get anything done in this series unless Charles Main is the one to do it. The book tries to show a "friendship" between Charles Main and Billy Hazard, but it's handled extremely poorly because of the attention this series bestows on the character of Charles Main. There's no equal ground in this "friendship" it's all Charles, he's smarter, stronger, taller, tougher, faster, he's in a world of his own.

After Billy returns to service, the book uses him in a episodic plot device: a potential candidate for the death of a major character. Unlike Charles Main, we're constantly afraid for the life of the weak and inept Billy Hazard. Constance's premonition about the war leaving a widow amongst Brett, Madeline and herself, and then Brett's attraction for the handsome negro Scipio Brown all appear to foreshadow Billy's death. Billy is the perfect worthless character for this anecdotal plot device.

Never did I believe Charles would die, and of course I was right. Charles is too wishy-washy: he's itching for a fight one minute, he's disillusioned by war the next (yet he still wants to fight); he's gentlemanly, oh wait, no he's not; he's in love with Augusta Barclay, but he doesn't want to start something in the middle of a war (goes back and forth on the love with "Gus" a few times). And of course, our Yankee-killing Machine escapes everything unscathed while oftentimes rescuing his inept friends like Billy Hazard (just like in NORTH AND SOUTH). It was a little ludicrous that a confrontation between Yankees having the new rapid-fire Spencer gun against Charles' group resulted in 4 Yankee deaths and yet Charles and his entire group escaped without a scratch. What the hell was the gun shooting at?! It seemed like Jakes took the best parts of George and Orry and fused them into Charles's character: George's easy ways with the women, George's competence at soldiering and fighting, Orry's tall, aristocratic and handsome countenance, Orry's desire to fight and be a soldier. And of course we also have both Orry & George's disillusionment with war imbued hundred-fold in Charles' protracted musings. And yet even following these melancholy soliloquies about the brutal realities of war, Charles always exalts in war and fighting. For example, he loses his friend O'Dell in Texas from the last novel and more than once the book noted how he no longer considers war all that glorious. And yet, we have him itching for a fight later. Here, after he loses his friend Ambrose and he's separated from his love interest Gus, it's just endless pages of wishy-washy introspection. I understand the complexities of human nature especially during a time of war, but I just couldn't abide the resounding and protracted fictional plots dealing with Charles which more or less symbolized the love and war in LOVE AND WAR. Even the finale featured more Charles-Main melodramatic nonsense as he rushes to catch a train and hurdling every possible obstacle Jakes can throw his way. Finally, he just pulls a gun on the train's conductor.

Since we know which side ends up winning the war and we understand the grave crimes the country perpetuated for so long in retrospect (slavery), Jakes compensates for this by delineating the north's perfidious rancor and the south's refined kindness. After checking in on Charles, we immediately turn to the crooked Col. Bent and the corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron. From Billy Hazard's consternation that a colored man wouldn't step aside to let him pass on a sidewalk, we're privy to northern hypocrisy as well: they want to free slaves, yet still considered blacks beneath them. When Billy's southern wife Brett travels out to Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, for thread in a store, she's harassed for simply being a southerner. Later, when Brett visits Billy in Washington, they discuss how northerners aren't really fighting for the blacks or to free them, but rather for crushing the upstart traitors who defected. This idea that the north is for the war against the south, but against blacks, surfaces again when Constance attempts to build a shelter for black children in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania. "The North was no pristine fount of morality," Constance thinks.

Even all the characters on both sides of the army compel the reader to sympathize and cheer the south while hating northerners. For example, most of the southern army around Charles Main are good men, even aristocrats like Ambrose (Jakes only shows the foreign southern officer von Helm in a negative light). On the other hand, Jakes meticulously shows northern officers who rub the wrong way: the early generals-in-chief (McDowell, McLellan, Burnside), Ripley, and the gaudy Lt. Custer with Billy's army. Let's not forget the ext Following Lincoln's emancipation proclamation, we should have guessed the book would turn its attentions to the resentful Union soldiers (p.427). Furthermore, the book notes how bigoted white northerners beat "contraband" blacks and blacks in the army following the emancipation proclamation. By contrast, Madeline symbolizes compassionate white southerners educating their slaves (through Jane). Though Jakes accurately portrays the north's hypocrisy, I thought the entire notion was drummed out too much in too many different ways. When we finally do shift our attentions down south, it's to highlight how cruel some of the slaves treat each other (Cuffey) and how kind slave owners like Orry Main sponsor a slave's personal growth (Andy). While Virgilia dreams of indiscriminately obliterating good southern whites, we constantly see evidence of righteous vengeance visited on the north (Charles killing another two crooked Yanks when he conveniently arrives
just in time to save Gus and escape with nary a scratch!). Out of the blue, the Mains' old overseer Salem Jones shows up amongst a mob in New York City rioting and indifferently killing (burning) colored people following a federal conscription fiat. Down south, we see the honorable southern officer John Mosby saving Billy. From a reader's standpoint, the book never misses a chance to denigrate all northern whites while exalting southerners like Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson. Poor Billy, he's a weakling good for little else in this novel other than writing in his journal and getting captured.

This series' bottom line? North = corrupt, bigoted and inept, South = honorable, empathic and brilliant.

Jakes depicts an abrasively bilious anti-southern attitude pervading the north and overshadowing the Yankee animosity and slave cruelty from the south. From Orry's trips to George's home in Lehigh Station, Pennsylvania, through northern states in NORTH AND SOUTH, it's clear there's a generalized hatred for the south and all its white folk regardless of whether they own slaves or treat them poorly. When Billy ventures out to the city of Charleston, South Carolina, in NORTH AND SOUTH, he encounters some thugs and assumes they hate all northerners. But not so, Ashton and her husband Huntoon specifically hired those ruffians to eliminate Billy. The Hazards don't encounter nearly the blind prejudice against them in the south as the Mains deal with in the North.

A lot of preachy moralizing and Charles-Main-to-the-rescue theatrics comprises the bulk of this hefty 1,078-page paperback LOVE AND WAR. If you're down with that, dig in!

Friday, November 2, 2007

When We Touch, by Shannon Drake [1]

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

When he touched her, it was as if he did so because he had to, as if he had no other choice in the world, as if she were the greatest, most alluring treasure in existence...

Vaguely following Jack the Ripper's butchery of prostitutes during the Victorian era, Shannon Drake continues to excel at making belligerent hero-and-heroine interactions fun in WHEN WE TOUCH. Unfortunately, similar to an earlier novel I read by Shannon Drake COME THE MORNING (***), this 444-page paperback tends to meander in tiresome discourses quite a bit. I found this novel worse because the meandering discourses we find here aren't as historically informative as in COME THE MORNING. Although I liked both lead characters here, they didn't stand out as much as COME THE MORNING's hero and heroine either. The prose, plotting and pacing all seemed amateur and the entire reading experience seems to drag and stretch mercilessly as a result. Many of the people in WHEN WE TOUCH are factual such as Inspector Abberline, the Queen, and the royal family. I was reminded of the 2001 movie FROM HELL starring Johnny Depp (played Abberline) which was darker and a lot more interesting. Similar to FROM HELL, we encounter the theory here about an illicit royal marriage between the Prince and a Catholic prostitute producing a possible heir. WHEN WE TOUCH suggests many theories for the violent murders of prostitutes including the one purported by the movie FROM HELL about a maniacal doctor going on a rampage to preserve the royal bloodlines and eliminate all prostitutes.

WHEN WE TOUCH balances two basic plots: the romance between Lady Maggie Graham and Lord Jamie Langdon, and Maggie's noble perseverance to aid East End people living in poverty, especially prostitutes. Maggie also endeavors to uncover schemers during the Victorian era such as spiritualists communing for a seance which supposedly reunites grieving people with their deceased loved ones. Maggie's humanitarian activities in the decrepit part of London (East End) eventually lead to the Jack-the-Ripper plot. The sparse moments of romance and dull love scenes between Maggie and Jamie take a firm backseat to Maggie's escapades in East End and a spiritualist out to get her. I appreciated the book's attempt at a thrilling, nail-biting plot intermingled by an entertaining, yet combative romantic interaction, but I found the whole read still fairly dry.

The Premise.

Maggie's brother the Baron Justin Graham finds himself deep in debt. Widowed years ago, Maggie helps her brother avoid debtor's prison by agreeing to marry the doddering Viscount Charles Langdon old enough to be Maggie's grandfather. Charles' protective nephew Jamie Langdon catches Maggie's eyes and each enjoy an early tumultuous relationship. Jamie mistrusts Maggie and Maggie detests Jamie for believing the worst of her. When Charles' embittered daughter Arianna arrives for the wedding, sparks fly between Arianna and Maggie's brother Justin.

Meanwhile, Maggie's continued efforts in East End to uncover fraudulent schemers and help the impoverished place her in more and more danger. Jamie keeps an eye on her to make sure she doesn't cheat on his elderly uncle and instead ends up rescuing her from a seance plotted by dangerous people. Adrian Alexander is one of these dangerous people. Alexander escapes capture and vows to exact vengeance on the woman who uncovers his scheme: Maggie. When Arianna entangles herself with Alexander to oust her stepmother Maggie, Maggie must save her bitter stepdaughter Arianna.

The first half of the book mostly chronicles Maggie and Jamie's truculent relationship climaxing at Maggie's wedding with Jamie's uncle the Viscount Charles Langdon. In the background, we hear about brutal murders of prostitutes in the first half of the book. The storyline with the murders and Jack the Ripper monopolizes the second half of the book however and endlessly stretches this tiresome book. The pacing seemed to stagnate quite a bit during the second half as the focus shifted away from the romance. I'd enjoy the oblique plot with Maggie's seances and the brutal murders if it was handled in a darkly interesting way.

Again, not a bad novel and it seemed to offer more than the stereotypical romance storyline but still suffered from an uninteresting plot dealing with Jack the Ripper. I'd imagine Drake's strengths mostly rest with the medieval era.