Saturday, March 20, 2010

Review: Lead Me On, Victoria Dahl

Title: Lead Me On
Author: Victoria Dahl
Publication Info: Harlequin, 2010
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Grade: B+

I've really enjoyed Victoria Dahl's contemporaries--they're smart, fun, and witty. The main characters are interesting, and maybe I wouldn't be best buds with all of them, but they seem like really, truly possible people. My biggest complaint with Dahl's books, both the contemporaries and her historicals, is that there's always a lame suspense side plot. Leave it out! The books are so much better without the murder/stalker/assaulter/blackmailer. Lead Me On is no exception: the perfectly lovely story has a tacked on suspense plot that absolutely detracts from the novel, and keeps this book in B territory.

The book centers on plain Jane Morgan, who revels in just how plain and put-together she is. She's got her life in order, no messiness, and is looking for an ambitious, put-together, upwardly mobile guy. Trouble is, she's not particularly attracted to those guys. Instead, she's weak at the knees for bad boys, with crappy clothes, big boots and tattoos. The bad boy who's got her blood going is Chase. She thinks he's everything she doesn't want but is really attracted to. He thinks she's an uptight, prim secretary. Something about her draws him. She knows exactly what about him draws her, but doesn't want it to.

Despite her best intentions, she finally agrees to go out with him. She's willing to pursue a physical relationship with him, and is flabbergasted when he ultimately turns down sex if that's all she's willing to offer him. This being a romance, we know they're going to get together, but really, the story isn't really about them, it's about Jane, and her personal growth.

And woo boy, does she have a lot of growing to do. Jane's extreme put-togetherness is her masterwork of self-fashioning. She had a hard childhood, and even harder teenage years. She was wild, dangerous and self-destructive, and though she got herself together, her life since sixteen has been to prove that she's the opposite of that wild, dangerous and self-destructive teen. Which, for Jane, means a new life, a new name, a new type of guy, and as few ties with her past as possible, including minimal contact with her family.

She is ashamed of who she was, and that part of her is still that same person, evidenced by what she sees as a self-destructive taste in men. She has convinced herself that the person she wants to be would never fall for a guy like Chase, who, though she doesn't know it (and doesn't find out until the very end--thank you, Dahl), may not look like the guy she thinks she ought to want, but has the credentials, including a college degree and a successful business, that she requires. He is none of the things Jane thought he was based on his appearance; Chase is practically walking proof that Jane's reliance on appearances is misguided, though she, of course, takes most of the novel to realize that.

A family crisis compels Jane to spend more time with her family, and incidentally with Chase, and she begins to like him more, and see what a good person he is. What I like, though, is that Dahl is smart enough to make the story more complicated. It's not a simple "now that I know him better I realize how wrong I was" story; instead, Jane responds to the possibility that her judgment might have been wrong the way most people would--by holding even harder to her opinions. She has constructed her sense of self around certain ideas, and when they are challenged, she resists because rethinking a sense of self is scary. She keeps pushing Chase away. Chase is practically a saint, and keeps coming back, only to be pushed away again. All I can say is, may I be so lucky as to meet a guy with that much integrity, commitment to me, and a nurturing streak a mile wide.

I really liked watching Chase and Jane interact. Jane's issues are big and scary, but the tone of the book is light, and Chase and Jane are a fun couple to eavesdrop on. I did wonder a bit, though, what drew Chase to Jane to strongly, since he fell for her very quickly, especially given the crap he had to put up with from her. I giggled and laughed, though, and definitely rooted for Jane's growth, so she could see how great Chase was. Not a lot of growth for Chase, who is basically a static, though yummy, character. As I said, the book is really more about Jane, than Jane and Chase.

Two things keep this book from an A: Jane's resolution with her mother felt too fast, and the stupid assault/blackmail plot shoehorned in at the end. Why oh why, Victoria Dahl, are your heroine's so persecuted by the men in their lives, especially their exes? The episode with Jane's ex at the end of the book was completely spurious and I would have much preferred the novel without it. As for Jane's resolution with her mother, I had a hard time believing that their issues could be resolved in one or two conversations, and that Jane could subsequently come to terms with her own past so quickly.

Overall, though, Lead Me On was lovely, and I highly recommend it. I hope there are more to come.

p.s. I read the book from the library.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


I've got one. Why do headaches always strike when I have no food to eat so that I could take ibuprofen? Or there's the whole matter of not having time to do the whole dark room, no sound thing. Oh yeah, and there's the nausea to deal with too.

Stupid migraine-prone genes.

On the plus side, I finished Victoria Dahl's Lead Me On earlier. I really liked it. More to come later.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

category romance is apparently not for me

I've never been a category romance reader. I have very fond memories of my grandmother, whenever she came to visit, bringing four or five contemporary category romances with her. She'd read them over the course of her visit, and tell me about them when I asked. I remember one about skiing, where snowblindess played a role. She was greatly amused by how the main characters always noticed each other's eye color, even at great distances. I'll always have a soft spot for the distinctive covers of category romance because of her, but even as I became a romance reader many years later, I've never tried her favorite part of the genre.

A few weeks ago, I decided to read a few, and see what I thought. So, over the last week or two, I've read a few contemporary category romance, and I'm coming to the conclusion that they're just not my thing, grandmother notwithstanding. I read a few by Jill Shalvis and Kathleen O'Reilly, after seeing lots of recommendations for them on SBTB and DA, saying they're some of the best authors writing today. And they just don't do it for me. I don't care much about the characters, I'm not compelled by their problems, the story leaves me unmoved, and the happy endings don't give me the warm fuzzies.

I think the problem is that they're not funny enough for me , and there's nothing in the story but the romance. I know that's a weird complaint to make about a romance--that there's only romance in it--and yet, that's the problem. In historical romance, the language and setting, when well done, become a character as well. In a witty/funny romance, there's the wit and humor competing, hopefully harmoniously, with our main couple. I love Jennifer Crusie's early category romances, mainly because they're so smart and funny, and really sharp in the best way, but I haven't come across other category romance that works as well as hers (for me, at least). I'd love to have people tell me about other greats, but I'm absolutely not interested enough in more of the variety I read, to keep trying in the genre on my own. In a paranormal, there's the whole paranormal aspect, which keeps me interested, even when the relationship problems themselves are pretty mundane. But in a straight (not in the queer sense, but in the sense of straight delivery) contemporary, it's all the same crappy problems I or my friends have in real life. I don't read romance to read about other people dealing with intimacy issues, troubled childhoods, etc even when there's a happy ending promised for the main characters. Or so I've discovered. Yeah, I'm not a fireman, or dating a fireman, or a social worker, or a movie star, or whatever. But I'm not comforted and intrigued to read about their problems, mainly because their problems are my problems. To be fair, I stay away from what I consider straight historicals as well. If they're not funny, or otherwise edgy, they're probably not for me. Issue books--I'll mostly leave them alone. I'd rather read about improbabilities, whether it's werewolves or people who can always come up with a bon mot on demand.

It's not that there aren't contemporaries out there for me. I loved Lisa Kleypas' recent contemporaries. I like most of SEP's stuff. And of course Jennifer Crusie is a huge favorite of mine. Kleypas is about as close as it comes to straight contemporary for me, and I can't really say why her books work for me when so much else doesn't. Maybe it's because they're always something over the top about her books, be it the extreme wealth or crazy issues, that it reads to me as enough of an improbability that I enjoy it.

Anyway, if I have acquired any readers, and you've got suggestions for contemps I should seek out, let me know.

Monday, February 15, 2010

the trouble with traveling

Is that you pick up inconvenient germs. I've just gotten back from an interview, which went well, I think. But I've also come back with either stomach flu or food poisoning. Not fun. Really not fun.

And with all the traveling, I'm behind on the monstrosity. Oh well. At least I'm not puking and can sit at my screen and stare at it now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Review: Something Sinful, Suzanne Enoch

I'm feeling all kinds of rant-y today, so for your reading pleasure: A review-rant of Suzanne Enoch's Something Sinful.

Title: Something Sinful
Author: Suzanne Enoch
Publication Info: Avon, 2006
Genre: Historical Romance
Grade: F

In a nutshell, the story is about Sarala Carlisle and Shay Griffin. She's just arrived in England after living most of her life in India, and feels pretty out of place in London society. He's a stock, not-interested-in-marrying romance novel guy who succumbs to her wiles. They share an interest in commerce, and there's weak side plot about stolen/contraband imperial Chinese silks that Sarala manages to buy out from under Shay, and that eventually have to be returned. He's enticed by her beauty and commercial smarts. She's enticed by his beauty and commercial smarts. Danger is averted, the lovers unite, everything ends happily.

The romance is pretty standard. What really bothered me in Enoch's book, and what I'll now rant about, are the huge racefail/culturefails found throughout the book (I'm not even sure what kind of fail this one is, but it some many aspects just scream "wrong!" to me).

What's so wrong with the book? The main character, Sarala, self-identifies with Indian culture and feels really uncomfortable with British culture. Her name is Indian (though I'm guessing Enoch picked it off a babyname site, and chose it for its ability to be shorted to Sara in English, especially since the name is usually written Sarla and is pronounced more like Sarla than Sarala), she addresses her father in Hindi, she wears Indian clothes, etc. And almost all the details are wrong! There are actually two issues at hand that troubled me--the just plain wrong Indian material, and relationship Sarala had to India vs England.

To writers everywhere: Stop exoticizing India! Please! I'm begging you. India can be a great place, and Indians can be great people, but stop a) making it a backdrop for white people to have spiritual odysseys, and b) treating everything and everyone from there as exotic, spiritual, etc.

And, if you're going to use Indian words, phrases, clothes, what have you, get them right! Get the words transliterated correctly. The word for "father" is "pitaa," though to be honest, calling your father "pitaa" is very formal. Plus, if you're that formal, you'd probably say "pitaaji." If you're less formal, try "papa," or "bapu." Not "pati," which is what the main character of Enoch's novel calls her father. "Pati," when pronounced with a short a and dental "t," in Hindi actually means husband, and is not something you want a daughter calling her father, and when pronounced with a hard t, doesn't mean anything. This example wasn't the only Hindi misuse, but it's the one that I remember the most (and I don't have the book at hand at the moment). And while it's true that "pati" and "pita" only differ, in English transliteration, in vowel placement, there's a world of difference between the two in Hindi.

Get the clothes correct, if you're going to make a big deal about the cloths. For example, you don't wear a sari ON TOP of a salwaar kameez, as the novel's main character does at a masquerade. And, it's called a salwaar kameez. I can't remember off-hand what how Enoch spelled it, but it wasn't right, at all (salwaar kadeez, maybe). A sari is a long piece of fabric that, today, is worn with a short blouse and a petticoat, and is draped around the body, has pleats, and, in the most common way of draping it, one end of it goes over your shoulder and hangs down your back. Two hundred years ago, most women probably didn't wear petticoats with a sari (you can tell the petticoat is an introduced article of clothing, since the word in Hindi is "petticoat," though it's pronounced "payticote"), instead just a string around the waist that the sari could be tucked into, though to outward appearances, it probably would have looked much the same. A salwaar kameez is a style of clothing more popular in the north of India, and is loose trousers with a long top. You don't wear a sari with a salwaar kameez--in fact, I'm not even sure how you could. It's just too much clothing, like wearing shorts on top of jeans, or a skirt over trousers. Besides which, if you'd done much research on Indian fashions of the early 19th century, you'd probably have discovered that high class women in Delhi are more likely to be wearing long skirts with blouses and a scarf, called ghagra choonis or langhas, or a version of salwaar kameez where the kameez is fitted to the waist and then flairs out into a knee-length to floor-length wide skirt, and pants that are tight and long enough that they gather in folds at the ankle. Anyway, I'm willing to accept that Indian fashions of two hundred years ago are difficult to research, but don't get them plain wrong!

And to Enoch: Do you realize how ridiculous it is that your main character identifies with India and Indian culture to the exclusion of English culture? That's actually weird and sad, that she feels so disconnected from her own heritage. This aspect of the novel, the strange disconnect the main character felt to English culture, really troubled me. As a psychological problem, it's very interesting, though this novel didn't explore that problem. I didn't feel like there was close to enough exploration of what had led to identify so closely to Indian culture (laying aside for the moment that Indian culture is not monolithic, and so there's not really any one "Indian culture" for Sarala to identify with).

Also, I got really tired of the repeated descriptions of how exotic and tanned the heroine was. First of all, growing up in India isn't going to make an Englishwoman look more Indian. She might get more tanned--although, really, the voyage back to England took months, and even the most persistent tan is going to fade over the course of months--but her skin won't be permanently a different color. And--let's retire "exotic" as a descriptive word.

As I'm sure is becoming increasingly evident, I had a hard time engaging with the story, as I could not get past how a slipshod use of Indian culture was being used to exoticize the heroine. But even if all the Indian details had been right, I couldn't get past the heroine's bizarre insistence on identifying with India, with little explanation or examination of why and how that had developed. That kind of identification with a culture not your own is weird to me at the best of time (Trustafarian, anyone?), but in a historical, colonial setting, not only really weird, but just disturbing. It's historically incredibly unlikely, and for me as a reader today, it's problematic for the colonial and imperial overtones of why Sarala and her family were in India in the first place.

The romance on its own, dissociated for the culture stuff, was probably a C, but with the culturefail and historyfail, it was, for me, and F.

p.s. I got the book from the library.