Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sleeping Beauty, in Two Parts

I'm not sure this is going to be a review, so much as a ramble about two books I recently read. Well, one book, except then there was a "alternate ending" version. I've decided to make it my policy only to review books on here that merit at least a one on the five-point scale, and I'm just not sure these fit that bill. They were, quite simply, not that good. All I really want to talk to you about is the author's decision to rewrite her ending based on reader feedback.

Surprisingly, these were written by the same author as The Frog Prince, which I reviewed below. However, they were neither as funny nor as charming as that book, and the characters were worse than blah. What do I mean "worse than blah?" I mean grating and pathetic, is what I mean. But anywho, on to the real reason I'm posting this!

The story is meant to be a modern update of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, complete with diagnosable sleep disorders and sexy neurosurgeons. Also, there are some surfer dudes and an eventual arrest for sexual assault. So, you know, there's that. And of course, the character so cleverly named "Dr. Charmant" is obviously the one filling in for Prince Charming. The problem is that along the way, the girl's male best friend (who is somewhere along the gay-bisexual spectrum) is hanging around actually being, you know, charming. He takes care of her when she falls into her "episodes" of month-long sleepwalking. He is the one she looks for when she wakes up. She's had a crush on him for years, and he is the most loyal and patient friend she's ever known. Recipe for a romance, AmIright? Only, here's the thing: he is also her brother's boyfriend. Dude is gay. He loves women but is sexually attracted to other dudes. So, you know, that sort of helps things work a little better for Dr. Charmant who, rather than being charming and supportive or anything like that, is hetero but refuses to have sex with her right away. (Because, you know, who needs any emotional depth to a relationship when the eroticism of abstinence is there to keep things rolling?)

So already you can see why plenty of reviews would have come in routing for team "best-friend guy" rather than Charmant. And to her credit, the author took those complaints seriously enough to write an alternate ending version wherein our lovely heroine ends up with the gay/bisexual surfer dude. Here's the problem with that solution: He is still gay. She end's up with her brother's boyfriend. And you as the reader end up feeling kind of depressed for all of them because now she's stuck with a guy who will never find her as sexually attractive as he does her brother, he's ended up with his best friend with whom he had brief but probably short lived passion, and Dr. Charmant is still a nice guy who ends up...delivering her baby. In a word: Phiffle.

Here's how it should have gone down: She should have ended up with Dr. Charmant, but instead of gay-best-friend providing all support and love to her, Dr. Charmant should have done the heavy lifting there. The plot would have progressed not because she was aching to bang the doctor, but because she was slowly learning to trust and rely on him as a friend (whom she would also, coincidentally, like to bang). The issue with the first book is not that she ended up with the wrong guy, but that the character of the guy she ended up with is poorly developed. Don't marry her off to a gay man. Just improve the man she ends up with.

Like I said, no rating on this one (or, well, I guess "these ones"?). I don't recommend them at all. Just stick with The Frog Prince.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Frog Prince

"It was his pheromones that did it. With one sniff, sex researcher Leigh Fromm recognizes that any offspring she might have with the mysterious stranger would have a better-than-average chance of surviving any number of impending pandemics.

But when Leigh finds out that the handsome “someone” at her great aunt’s wake is Prince Roman Habsburg von Lorraine of Austria, she suddenly doubts her instincts—not that she was intending to sleep with the guy. The royal house of Habsburg was once completely inbred, insanity and impotency among the highlights of their genetic pedigree. (The extreme “bulldog underbite” that plagued them wasn’t called the Habsburg Jaw for nothing.)

It doesn’t matter that his family hasn’t sat on a throne (other than the ones in their Toilette) since 1918, or that Austria is now a parliamentary democracy. Their lives couldn’t be more different: Roman is routinely mobbed by paparazzi in Europe. Leigh is regularly mocked for having the social skills of a potted plant. Even if she suddenly developed grace, charm and a pedigree that would withstand the scrutiny of the press and his family, what exactly is she supposed to do with this would-have-been king of Austria who is in self-imposed exile in Denver, Colorado?"

I know, right? Sex researcher? Uncrowned Prince of Austria? The fetch was I thinking? Well, jokes on you dudes because this one was a winner!

First of all, it was funny. Not just "heh-heh" funny. I mean, chuckling out loud on the bus funny. Not every joke hit its mark, but enough of them did that I was charmed and delighted throughout.

It's not a weighty tome and it doesn't pretend to be, so the characters and plot don't do any more heavy lifting than strictly required in a light romance/comedy (I'd say romantic comedy, but that has such...connotations.) I liked the side characters all right, through they didn't have all that much to say. I absolutely loved the protagonist. I found her charming and hilarious. She was just the right amount of awkward and self aware and she didn't spend any time fishing for compliments (ok, so she did get a little too self effacing once or twice, but in this kind of book? That's almost unheard of, dudes.) And the hero was charming too, though not in a very fleshed-out, realistic kind of way. He was super hot and smart and observant and occasionally quite funny. So, okay fine.

I think more than anything this book hit the right tone and didn't overstay its welcome. It didn't try to be something deep and sweeping, and it kept the funnies coming without becoming totally crass and horrible (such a common problem with "funny" books these days). I mean, alright yes, there was some discussion of dildos and one masturbation joke. Since both of these were related to her line of work (sex researcher, only in a totally legit, academic, various graduate degrees kind of way and not...you know...code for pornography.) I'd still recommend it to my mother. (Maybe not to your mother, but mine would totally get it.)

Rating: Three glasses of champagne!

PS. These ratings things aren't really helpful, are they? What if I give you some points of reference? Like:

5: Out of this world. I loved/hated/loved it and will be buying the hard copy stat (rare that any book gets a 5 out of me)
4: Great.  Super. You should read it! It's fantastic!
3: Nice. Glad I read that. Recomended.
2: I may or may not recommend this one, because it isn't all that great but I did like some things and it was okay so....meh.
1: Woops. Probably should not have read this one.
<1: I deserve to be ridiculed for buying this book.

Does that help? No? Well buzz off, dork. This here's my bloggity turf!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Word on Amazon and the Fantasticness Thereof

So, I own a Kindle. And before you jump on your "Real books are so much better!" bandwagon, let me just inform you that: You're either an idiot or just cheap and using this as an excuse. Why, exactly, are real books better? Because they're made of paper? Because they have fancy covers? Because you like the way they smell? So basically, you're choosing a house full of dust gathering paperbacks you'll only ready once over...I don't know...forests? efficiency? living space? Come on, loser, no one believes your holier-than-thou booklover schpeel, so just buy the eReader already. And an air-freshener. Honestly.

Anywho, we were talking about my Kindle. Oh, my Kindle!! Holder of hundreds of books and yet fitting so nicely into my purse! Faithful companion on many a long commute home/wait at the DMV/boring church meeting (woops, probably shouldn't admit to the last one). That was, until...I dropped you. Hard. And you stopped turning on. And the hard reboot did nothing. And I may or may not have had a small meltdown not unlike that of a small child which involved telling my husband, and I quote, "I don't WANT to buy a new Kindle! I want MY Kindle, and it's ruined forever and I hate you!" (Seriously, the things this man lives through).

He knows I do not really hate him.

Enter: Amazon customer service, via livechat. After about 2 minutes of walking me through the steps to hard-reboot one more time (just in case), the nice Amazonian(?) was soon telling me that she would have a new Kindle to me ASAP. Since mine is off warranty, they'll have to charge me the $65 dollar replacement fee. Now, buying a new Kindle-keyboard would cost me about $140, and I had fully admitted that the dropping thing was totally my fault here folks. I think we can all agree that this arrangement is a fairly good deal for me. If we're honest with ourselves, it's also a great deal for Amazon since a working Kindle in my hands is money in the bank for them. I mean, a blog address like "onebookdaily.blogspot.com" clearly translates to "chaching!" for the folks at Amazon. So, it's a win-win. Actually, to be more accurate, it's a loss-freakout-win-win-eyeroll (that last one on behalf of my much beleaguered spouse).

Moral of the story: Seriously, just buy the darn e-Ready already. Dork. Oh, and thank you Amazon!


"When Jacqueline follows her longtime boyfriend to the college of his choice, the last thing she expects is a breakup. After two weeks in shock, she wakes up to her new reality: she's single, attending a state university instead of a music conservatory, ignored by her former circle of friends, stalked by her ex's frat brother, and failing a class for the first time in her life."

That will have to do for a synopsis, and it's...not very accurate. I mean, it is, but this isn't just about some girl who make a cake of herself over a guy. The subtext here, and the weight the author tries to give this otherwise flimsy story, is sexual assault and the way a young woman deals with the aftermath. So, you know, cheerful stuff.

It's a tidy little thing, very plot driven and easy to get through in an afternoon. The writing is smooth and the dialog much better than I expected. Unfortunately, none of the characters ever really come to life, with some side characters (most notably the stalking frat brother) barely more than caricatures. And, of course, there is far too much oogling of male physic going on. When the love interest can offer no more than ripped abs and some smoldering looks the whole thing feels icky and degrading to me. Luckily, a portion of the romance happens over email. That bit is charming, and I would have so much liked to see the same type of interaction in person. However, in person it's pretty much just sex and a brief mention that they "talked". About what, honey? Your bra?

Webber obviously wanted this to be, at least on some level, a PSA about sexual assault and why victims should out their attackers. The plot includes glimpses of the peer pressure, shame, fear, and potential consequences of surviving attempted (and successful) rape. It also takes the time to look briefly at the ways in which women both stand up for and betray each other in these situations. But, since it's a simple piece mostly concerned with the various ways a bra can be manipulated, it falls a bit short on this score. Jacqueline's roommate, Erin, had some real potential as a secondary character-the sorority girl/cheerleader/jock's girlfriend who unflinchingly supports her roommate against all societal pressure. But, unfortunately, she isn't every really developed. None of the other girls are either, though the book is filled with them. I kept wondering how this book would have read if the weight had been on the girls' relationships to each other in this situation, if their characters and motivations had been better developed.

Instead, this isn't really much more than a quick romance. And perhaps that suits its purposes best. In this way, the novel is perhaps more appealing (or at least more accessible/easily digestible) to the audience that would most benefit from it's message: busy and hormonally driven undergraduate girls. If a little drama/romance and some bump-and-grind will get girls to read it, perhaps they'll also respond to the plug for self-defense classes and being there for each other when crap like this goes down. So, in that way, well played Ms. Webber. Well played.

Rating: Two hickeys and a red solo cup.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Lions of Al-Rassan

"Over the centuries, the once stern rulers of Al-Rassan have been seduced by sensuous pleasures. Now King Almalik of Cartada is on the ascendancy, adding city after city to his realm, aided by his friend and advisor, the notorious Ammar ibn Khairan--poet, diplomat, soldier--until a summer day of savage brutality changes their relationship forever. Meanwhile, in the north, the Jaddite's most celebrated--and feared--military leader, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Ammar meet. Sharing the interwoven fate of both men is Jehane, the beautiful, accomplished court physician, whose own skills play an increasing role as Al-Rassan is swept to the brink of holy war, and beyond...."

So this was, how can I put this...great. Love. So glad I read this one.

First off, what I didn't like: The sex. It was mostly gratuitous. I'm not a prude when it comes to some literary coitus, but I only appreciate it when it is useful to the plot/character development/atmosphere. When sex is just thrown in there to titillate and fill some space (and in this case, possibly to gross the reader out?), I'm just not into it. And oddly, this is a work in which some sex is useful. It's about the fall of a very decadent empire, and the pleasures of the flesh are part of that empire. However, enough is enough. This was just a bit too graphic in most cases, and at that point it only detracted from Gavriel Kay's otherwise beautiful prose.

Other than that? Rock it, GGK, rock it. We all know I love me a strong female protagonist, and Jehane was definitely that. She had strength, depth, and (holy moly, can you believe it?) confidence! OMG!  A woman with confidence who doesn't spend any amount of time in front of a mirror wondering if she is pretty enough! Can I get an AMEN, sistas? Also, she's a doctor.  So, boom. Oh, and none of her worth was invested in her hymen, so that was a refreshing departure from the norm. As per usual with an epic novel, the cast was large. Other than Jehane, it was also entirely male. So that was odd, but sort of fun. Jehane's interactions with her all male costars were part of the novelty of her character. She got to be strong and intelligent and witty, and she neither submitted to her male leads nor spent the entire book competing with them. Refreshing indeed.

The novel parlays with religion and love, and treats both with fascinating nuance. Given that it's roughly based on the time leading up to the Reconquista in medieval Spain, Kay built his three religions to be roughly representative of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The beliefs of each as represented in the novel don't map well onto any of the three, and that isn't his intention here. His point is the interplay between three very similar and yet ultimately opposed methods of explaining the world. There is racial violence (the Kindaths, or Jews, get the worst of it) and there is tolerance and exchange, particularly among the three main characters who each come from one of the three religions. Kay gives you reasons to love and hate all three religions (though the Kindath's get a kinder portrait than the other two). But his purpose is not to convert you to any religion, but to get us look at the ways they interact, their power and their limitations.

More than the interplay of religion, however, I truly enjoyed Kay's treatment of Love. The long lasting love of an old married couple. Fidelity despite cultural expectations to the contrary. Short lived but bright flames of love. Love despite infidelity, or perhaps without any reference to sexual fidelity at all. And most of all, the question: Is it possible to be deeply in love with two people at once? I'm coming down on the side of no, and of course Jehane eventually has to choose one as well. But still, it's interesting. There are lots of interesting love plots in this novel, and none of them are the sappy fare that make you give the sour-grape face when you have to read past them. Also, and this is strange, most of the explicit sex is not related to any sort of love at all. Maybe that's why I felt it was so gratuitous? I don't know.

But more, even, than the treatment of religion and the exploration of love, I really, truly swam in the atmosphere Kay created here. Somehow he made me love Al-Rassan. I wept for it's fall. He gave the whole a sense of poetry and grace, so that even though you recognize it as a decaying corpse of an empire, you still long for it to rebuild itself. It made me want to read some Arabic/Spanish poetry and immediately buy tickets for Grenada. (Screw Iceland, our next vacation is going to be Spain).

War rears it's ugly head in this novel as well, but thankfully Kay allows it to remain ugly. Along side the courage and daring of the heroes, there is loss and pain and horror. None is immune from it. It is not forgiven or forgotten. Again, it was a bit more graphic here than I generally enjoy. I'm trying to excuse it all on the basis of a novel that treats so well with the desires, powers, and frailties of the flesh. But still. Ew. Worth the read, though. Oh, very worth the read.

Rating: Four lions by fountain.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Liveship Traders

"Bingtown is a hub of exotic trade and home to a merchant nobility famed for its liveships--rare vessels carved from wizardwood, which ripens magically into sentient awareness. The fortunes of one of Bingtown's oldest families rest on the newly awakened liveship Vivacia.

For Althea Vestrit, the ship is her rightful legacy unjustly denied her--a legacy she will risk anything to reclaim. For Althea's young nephew Wintrow, wrenched from his religious studies and forced to serve aboard ship, Vivacia is a life sentence.

But the fate of the Vestrit family--and the ship--may ultimately lie in the hands of an outsider. The ruthless pirate Kennit seeks a way to seize power over all the denizens of the Pirate Isles...and the first step of his plan requires him to capture his own liveship and bend it to his will...."

This is a trilogy, as most epic fiction is, and I read all three books within a day or two. This makes reviewing them separately somewhat more difficult, since I don't clearly remember where one left off and the other began. So, a triple review! Aren't you lucky?

First up, world building. Super delux. Loved the cultures, loved the lore, loved the magic. The religious was nicely downplayed as well. The whole book did not turn on belief in Sa, but the god came up enough to be interesting. I like divinity used as a character building tool, once in a while, rather than a main plot device. Also, as the books progressed, the glimpses we see into the mystery and magic of the Rain Wilds are fantastic. I liked Bingtown, loved the open sea, but most of all I loved the freaky acid-river-running-through-a-burried-city-in-the-jungle stuff. Woot, hommies. Woot.

The downside to this trilogy is the length, which is, in a word, lengthy. Each book is big enough to kill a rabbit with, and there are three of these suckers to plow through. The pacing was uneven, too, in all three books. When Hobb was rolling she was really really rolling, and when she was slow it was painful. But, you know, epic science fiction carries that price.

The other price for epic fiction is the initial downward spiral. Granted, not all books take you down very far. Some sort of whimp out at code orange. Some books, however, drag the protagonists straight into code red before building up to that eventual hurrah-filled climax. This book, on the other hand, took them down, and down, and down, and down. The whole first book was pretty much one very wide downward spiral straight past red into black. To be honest, it kind of pissed me off. You know right away that Althea should be with Vivacia and that the whole point of the story will be them being reunited and proving that they work best together. So, an entire loooooong book about that not happening was annoying. As was the fact that throughout it, Kyle Haven just kept being bad. Doing horrible things and never getting his comeuppance. I had the thought that Hobb is probably a sadist who really, really likes making bad things happen to the people she makes you identify with. I ended up loving the trilogy, but I stand by that thought. Hobb enjoys hurting her characters.

It can be forgiven, though, thanks to Hobb's beautiful ensemble cast of mostly women. None of them fit easily into the prescribed stereotypes, either. Althea, for example, is obviously the strong young heroine who will eventually win and prove that she can do anything a man can do, even captain a ship! Or can she? Is she really strong, or just headstrong and stubborn? Is she a good leader or just really selfish? And what about her mother, Ronica? She must be the evil manipulative older woman, yes? Or no, perhaps she is the strong, self assured matron that will hold it all together? Or is she something more complicated? And Keffria, the sister. She is the weakling, the fool. Married early to a cruel controlling man and still in love with him even now. She'll never save anyone's day or be anything useful at all. Will she? Or is she the leader you're looking for? And then, oh then, there was Malta. I hated Malta. Loathed her. And so will you, I'll promise you that. You will look forward to the day she is broken against the rocks of her own pride! And when she gets her happily ever after? You will cry for joy because you love her so. She a bitch. She's a child. She's a clever, pretty girl. She's a fighter. She will lose and she will win and you will love every second of it.

And then, mes amies, there is Kennit. Ah, Captain Kennit. Is he the villain? The hero? Will he deliver the world from slavery or destroy every other character you love? Right off, the first time you meet him, you will learn how easily he plans the deaths of those around him, and always for his own selfish purposes. He is arrogant, insecure, and blindingly charming. And his relationship to the whore, Etta, will have you wishing for his salvation while cursing the day he was born. He is truly a nuanced character and probably the best written one in this novel. Hobb masterfully avoided turning him into a perfect hero. So that during his last scene you were not sure, even then, if you loved him or hated him. Both, maybe? For me, a little more hate than love I think. There were other characters, too. So many that it would take pages to write about them all. And they were mostly nuanced as well. Deeply, gorgeously flawed. At times, Hobb let's their flaws far outweigh their strengths. She lets them stew in it, and you with them. That, I think, is both brave and smart of her, to trust her characters that much.

There were things I did not like about these books. The length and pacing I've already mentioned, but the serpents and dragons were also difficult to read. Really, the dragon we get to know best is sadly two-dimensional compared to the characters Hobb delivers. Since dragons are meant to be this incredibly intelligent, master race, that really is a shame.

These books were too complex and too long to lend them selves well to a triple-review. I've read half a dozen books since, so these are less fresh in my mind. Overall, it was a worth the time. I'm very glad I read through them, but I will not call them steller. They were complex though, on some levels, and the world was well built and imagined.

Rating: Four splinters of "wizard wood", but don't tell the dragons where it came from.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

War Brides

"Five young women, five wartime love stories, an adventure plot, and eventually, revenge."

I really loved this book, right up until the last few chapters when it descended rapidly into an eye-rollingly bad denouement. Oh Helen Bryan! Why did you do that to us?

First and foremost, Bryan rendered her setting beautifully. Every location, from Louisiana to London to Crowmarsh Priors had the feel of a real place, a real time. None of those flowery descriptions that weigh down a narrative and bore readers, and yet Bryan managed to transport us all back to the war torn countryside of England and make us feel right at home.

As a look into what life would have been like for a woman living in WWII England, this book was fantastic. Yes, we all know about the air raid sirens and the city children shipped off to live with strangers outside of London. But what about living without access to real meat for years at a time? What about "mend and make-do" until you're wearing a dress made of old linens? What about doing your part for the war effort by learning to milk cows? What about living with the constant fear that at some point, really any day now, the Germans will invade your homeland? What about being a foreign Jew in England, barely escaping the Nazis only to meet with mistrust and even internment in your new home? Bryan brings these questions up without any preaching about any of it. And it isn't a depressing novel either. Instead it's a story of survival, of bucking up under pressure, of living through these hard things and still finding joy, and even love, in one's life.

Each of the five protagonists is an interesting, three-dimensional girl with her own personality and quirks. Doubly fascinating is the way the author makes you sympathize with whichever character's viewpoint you are currently seeing, even when they do not like each other. Alice, for example, when the story is told through her eyes, is a wonderful girl. She's practical and kind and truly heartbroken over her failed engagement. And yet when you see her through Francis's eyes Alice is bossy, gruff, and a little annoying. The same can be said for each of the characters, you feel for Evangaline as she flees the states and you fall in love right along side her when she finally gets to know her husband. But when you see her through Alice's eyes you loath her. And it's this nuance, this refusal to let everyone be shiny and good and perfect, that I loved most about the novel. The five women are friends, of a sort, but this is no fairytale rosebud girls club. They do not all get along all the time. They do not even all really like each other. And yet, somehow, they need each other.

The book needed a better editor after the frequent typos and someone should really tell Bryan that having your characters sum up scenes for the audience by giving long speeches to each other about things both characters already know is just bad form. When you do that, the readers stop hearing the characters and start hearing the author. Yes, I know you are trying to give me important information in a clever way, but this is not how it's done. People to not stand around recapping each other about things they both know happened.

And then, the end. Oh bother. So much potential! Such a letdown! If there is one thing this author has not yet caught onto, it is ambiguity. Not all the loose ends should be tied up in a neat little package in the last three chapters! This is a novel about war and loss, and you know, sometimes people did go MIA. Some traitors were never caught, some spies never seen again. Having the now octogenarian women get back together and wrap up the puzzle in the course of an afternoon over sandwiches was not only poorly done, it was unnecessary. It made each of their stories seem a little less poignant as well. They went from being stories of survival and loss and strength to the Agatha Christie knitting group. I appreciate the desire to let them get even at someone or something for the losses they sustained during the war, but actually that "getting even" was cheap and dirty compared to the lives of dignity and humor that lead up to it.

Still, I'm glad I read it. I choose to ignore the last chapters and remember instead the feeling of being there with them as they struggled to find purpose and hope in a dark and frightening time. Pity the author did not trust her own story enough to let it be just that without a neat little mystery-solve at the end.

Rating: Two cheery "made-do and mend" pamphlets.