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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Job land

The only thing harder than finishing a phd is using that phd to get an actual, honest to goodness job. Getting a job in any field is hard enough, but getting a job where that phd is a wanted asset--that phd that you spent the better part of a decade acquiring--now that's really hard.

I'm somewhere in the middle of job land. It's a weird and awkward place. I know so many other grad students and recent phds who are there too. I'm competing with people I like and respect for one of only a handful of jobs. I wish the profession was different, but I don't see any change coming immediately, with the number of phds produced each year so far outstripping the number of jobs available.

Actually (and this is part of a much larger rant), I get pretty mad at what I see as irresponsible graduate education. I don't think most people, when they start grad school, have any real idea of how difficult it is to get a job in academia. It's hard, and I don't think most grad schools are very upfront about how hard it is. Then again, why would they be? Most schools rely on very cheap grad student labor to teach. Knowing that 80 or 85% (I can't remember the actual number, but it's awfully high) of people who start phd programs won't get jobs in academia, would, I think, be a big deterrent. Most won't even finish the phd. If you manage to actually finish the phd, you then pretty much have to be able to wait around for a few years before you get a real (tenure-track) job, taking one-year positions or post-docs if you can get them. And this is after the years of grad education where you're not really earning (but at least hopefully you're not being charged for--in fact, note to potential grad students: DON'T GET A PHD IF YOU HAVE TO PAY FOR IT!). I'm very lucky, in that I was funded for grad school, and I'm coming out the other end with no debt. If I get a job, it'll all be golden. But I can tell you, if I ever have any students thinking about academia as a career, I'll make sure they know what all is involved, and what the prospects really are. It's not that I don't think anyone should do it (I'm here, aren't I?), I just want people to know what they're signing on for.

Back to the monstrosity.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

the Rubric

I should probably make my rubric clear, since all the grades are my own personal judgments, and something that absolutely didn't work for me might be someone else's bestest favorite ever.

A: Fantastic. Plot, characters, themes, writing--all worked for me. The book stayed with me, and might very well end up on my keeper shelves. Ex: The Grand Sophy, Georgette Heyer.

B: Pretty darn good. I might have some problems with the book, but it make me think, was over all well done, and is something I'd recommend. Ex: Spymaster's Lady, Joanna Bourne

C: Neither good nor bad. It's fine, but not something I'd recommend, nor something I'll reread, probably. Overall, the book might work, but not really for me, and I might have some big issues with it. Ex: Again the Magic, Lisa Kleypas

D: Not great. Probably leaves me thinking, why did I buy/read this. Has some massive problems, in theme, characterization, plot, writing. Ex: Dark Prince, Christine Feehan

F: Terrible. How did this get published? There's probably a massive fail in it. It might be something I'll pass on, but not in a good way. Ex: (nothing comes to mind at the moment, probably since I try and forget them as soon as possible, as soon as I remember one, I'll stick it in)

DNF: Pretty self-explanatory. Did not finish. Either because it's all around so bad, or it hits an absolute no-no for me.

Review: Awaiting the Moon, Donna Lea Simpson

Title: Awaiting the Moon
Author: Donna Lea Simpson
Publication Info: Berkley, 2006
Genre: Gothic romance
Grade: C

Ok. I just finished Awaiting the Moon, and my gut reaction is: Huh? I was very excited when I found this book at the UBS; after all, what's not to love about a historical romance with a hint of werewolves? So many of my favorite things combined. And it turns out, that's part of the problem--there's just too much going on in the book. A warning--massive SPOILERS ahead.

The premise of the book is that Elizabeth Stanwycke, an English woman, has arrived at the castle of the count of Wolfram, to tutor the niece of the house on the proper comportment and manners of an English woman of breeding. Elizabeth's in need of a job far away from her old home because she had an affair with her old employer's brother, who promised to marry her, but instead revealed the affair and left her with a tattered reputation, no home, and no means of support. A friend, Frau Liebner, happens to be in need of someone just like Elizabeth to tutor her great niece in Germany, and so Elizabeth and Frau Liebner (ne Wolfram) head to Castle Wolfram. Note to writers looking to set novels, especially ones with gothic elements to them, in German-speaking lands--STOP NAMING CASTLES AND FAMILIES AFTER WOLVES! If it's not Castle Wolfram, it's Castle Wolfenbach, or Castle Wolfheim, etc. How about a normal German name? Something without Wolf in it?

Anyway, there are strange goings on in Castle Wolfram. It's a gothic. Need I say more? Mysterious tragedy, nighttime wanderings, half-heard arguments, blondes wandering nude in the snow (I'm not making this up), murmurs of werewolves, secret drugging and/or opiate addiction, mute servants who know all but reveal nothing. You might be thinking, more or less standard gothic fare (except for the nudity, I suppose). The central mystery seems to be whether or not there are actual werewolves in the forests around Castle Wolfram. And there's also the matter of the mysterious blonde woman. And someone in the castle is spreading dangerous and destructive rumors about the other members of the Wolfram family. And on and on and on. Since I don't want to reveal everything, let me just say that there is not a single inhabitant of Wolfram castle without a secret of some sort. Not a single one.

But wait, there's more. As our various mysteries build and are eventually revealed (and really, isn't the world spooky enough without random secret keeping for what seem to be, at least some of them, somewhat flimsy reasons?), our intrepid Elizabeth and Count Nikolas are unable to keep their hands off each other, engaging in not-so-secret nighttime adventures (which everyone in the castle seems to know about within days, and take with no comments--huh?). Which is one of my biggest problems with the book--I mean, Elizabeth lost her home, position, and reputation for sleeping with a guy in England. Why in the world is she doing the same here? So technically they don't quite sleep with each other, just doing everything but, but pregnancy shouldn't be her only concern here. She's totally aware of the dangers of losing her reputation. After all, it happened before. And, I found it entirely unbelievable that Frau Liebner and Count Nikolas weren't more concerned about her past. It's one thing for them not to know, but another entirely, for that period, for them to know and keep her as tutor of a young girl. Plus, he's her employer. Part of me still just finds their relationship icky. I would have expected someone with Elizabeth's past not to take such a risk again, not even for Twue Wove. At least not without some stronger guarantee of how she'll be protected from any consequences.

Not to mention that Elizabeth is ridiculously assertive. To the point where I was thinking: she's an employee in the house! Why is she telling everyone how to better run their lives? Why don't they tell her to shut up? She'll think about how she's not supposed to be assertive, and how she should keep her nose out of everyone's business, and then do it anyway. It's not that people can't mean to do one thing and then do another; it's just that in her position in the household, I found it ridiculous that she got away with it.

Also, the big reveal about Nikolas? Totally threw me for a loop. Gothic is all about atmosphere and silly coincidences, not actual supernatural stuff. Given the big build up and eventual rational (ish) cause of one of the other Big Secrets, I found the revelation about Nikolas one secret too many.

I had such high hopes for the book, but then found myself getting more and more frustrated with it, especially the second half. I really liked seeing a setting outside of England, and I liked the snowy winter atmosphere that hangs over the book. But too many secrets, and too many decisions where I thought, Why would you do that? Don't you directly know, from you own personal experience, that the consequences are dire? Maybe as I mull it over, my opinion will change, but as it stands--Grade: C

Disclaimer: Bought the book myself.

a monstrosity in the works

I've been working on my dissertation for years now. I'm not slow in the wider grad. school scheme of things (unless you're talking about a science diss, in which came I'm way behind), but it feels like I've working on it forever. I remember a few years ago (!) when someone told me that for every grad. student, there comes a time when you suddenly spend 6 intensive months and finish the damn thing, albeit somewhat crazier and more badly groomed than you were 6 months before. But what's a little crazy and a few split ends against the satisfaction of a spanking new, complete dissertation? I thought the theory sounded bonkers, yet now I kind of long for a six months' trial by fire, as long as there's the promise of being done on the other end. Or maybe I'm in it now, and won't even realize till I'm a few months on the other side. There's enough misery going on that it would be nice to know that it's going to get better and not worse.

Ok, back to the monstrosity.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio

What the old posts of First Page Saturday at Dear Author (and a whole bunch of other posts on that wonderful website) have taught me is that there is a whole world of crazy kink out there that had never, ever, occurred to me. I mean, stone statues as objects of desire!? Dendrophilia?! Look it up, I kid you not. Savage Love has always been my "weird stuff that exists in the world" point of reference, but romancelandia, and especially the suburb of erotica has really, when all is said and done, plumbed the depths of "weird stuff" far more effectively. Probably because it's a genre that's about extensive description at minimum, and psychological examination (for good or for ill) at best. And sometimes, it's a psychological place that makes me scratch my head in bemusement, or shrink away in horror and repulsion (you know you've got the wrong book when all you can think is "eww").

And, by the way, props to the good folks at DA for First Page Saturday. Being still in the abyss of dissertation writing, I truly relish the chance to let my inner editor off leash and sic her onto someone else's writing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Some authors I love-part the first

Dorothy Dunnett: She's my absolute reference point for beautiful writing, plotting, and complex characterization and emotional depth. Oh, Lymond! Oh, Niccolo! I spent most of the summer before college reading the Lymond chronicles, and probably far too much of my first year of college reading the House of Niccolo. I don't love her mysteries nearly as much, but the historicals--!!! They made me rethink what a talented author could do with historical fiction. If you're a Dunnett newbie, beware that the first of the Lymond books, The Game of Kings, was her first book ever, and it doesn't really take off till page 75 or so. If you can make it through that, it's all clear sailing.

Georgette Heyer: If you want to know what the Regency genre can and should look like, look no further. My first Heyer was Devil's Cub, and it was quickly followed by others. My favorites are Devil's Cub, The Grand Sophy, Sylvester, and Friday's Child. But how can I leave off The Convenient Marriage, The Corinthian, Cotillion, and Frederica? She showed me how funny and smart the most frivolous of plots could be. I'm not a fan of the historicals, which all suffer from Very Important History Syndrome, but the light, silly ones? I gobbled them up, they're all on my keeper shelves.

Jennifer Crusie: Oh, Jennifer Crusie, how I adore you. Rom-coms in book form, only better, smarter, and funnier than any rom-com you'll find in theaters today. Crusie is what the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s would look like if they could be transplanted to today--meaning, edgy, sharp, and actually witty. In true "show, don't tell" fashion, no one is described as witty, they just are. I love it. My favorites are Faking It and Bet Me, though you can't go wrong with Fast Women, Agnes and the Hitman, Charlie All Night, and Anyone but You. Am I forgetting a favorite? Probably. You can't really go wrong with anything by Crusie.

Connie Willis: For To Say Nothing of the Dog alone, she'd make my favorites list. If you haven't read it, it's only because you've never realized how much better your life would be with a mad-cap, time-traveling novel about the Blitz, Victorian times, ruffles, ugly art, dogs, and fate. Not to mention naiads, cathedrals, and punting. The plot's a bit complicated (how'd you guess?), but it's a book that makes me laugh just thinking about it. I love just about everything she's written--she's another rom-com writer, only with a sci-fi bent, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is far and away my favorite.

Shouting into the Void

Here's my yawp to the world. What do you need to know about me? I'm a grad student, getting my PhD. I love, and am sometimes infuriated by, romance novels, urban fantasy, paranormals, etc. These are the things I'll be talking about. I'll try and post a review or two a week, old stuff and new, and see where that gets me. And hey, if I pick up a few readers along the way, it could be worse.