Monday, January 31, 2011

0 To 60, Maybe a Bit Slower Than Usual

So if you noticed last post, I most carefully did not mention what exactly my exciting next-on-list title was. That was because I did not want to ruin the full effect of the following story:

As many of you know, (and I know there are *so* many of you :)) one of my favorite authors is Lauren Willig (and as previously mentioned, definitely my most followed one).  Last Thursday, she was in Manhattan doing a reading for the brand-new Pink Carnation tale, The Orchid Affair.  Having never attempted to attend any sort of this kind of event, it nevertheless entered my mind to go.  I mean why not, I'm in Manhattan anyway, it was starting at 7:00... But I felt kind of weird about it, naturally, so I put the question to my trusted advisors, the gg... and they pretty much all said, go for it! So I did.  It wasn't spectacular or anything, but I'm glad I went, it was fun to hear the author's take on the book.

Her take was that this book was different for two reasons: 1) The characters were more bourgeois than aristocratic and 2) The male lead was French... and a French revolutionary at that!  #1 was an obvious minus, as you know me and my snobby tendencies :) But at least it wasn't a noble marrying beneath him/her... a'la The Scarlet Pimpernel :) (not really, I don't really mind it in Sir Percy and Marguerite).  And they weren't low class, just not noble... actually Laura is artsy, kind of like Marguerite, and Andre is pretty bourgeois, but raised to a fairly high position by the revolution.  So in the end, it wasn't too much of a minus at all.  As for #2... well yes, I'm a total Anglophile, but I usually dive wholeheartedly into whatever I'm reading at the moment, so switching perspectives really isn't too much of a hardship for me.  So you wouldn't think I'd mind #2 at all.  Besides, given that this is Lauren Willig, I knew he wouldn't really be all a'la lantern les aristos (wow, I just looked that up, I actually got it right! go me :)) and he wasn't... so far from it actually, I thought it might have been a little more believable and still very doable if he had been a bit more in between... but enough said, don't want to spoil the surprise for you :)

Anyway, the truth is, neither of those two differences made much impact on my enjoyment of the book in themselves... but they did contribute to what I felt made this book very different than previous ones - a much more plot-driven, spy-centric storyline.  I mean, there's always some mystery/danger/drama somewhere in these books, but it's often (sometimes more often than others) almost the backdrop to the characters' developing relationship and/or the social scene of the time/place.  And since you know I'm not reading these books for the thrill (at least the thrill of a noble life on the edge), I'm perfectly happy with that balance.  This book, with the far more immediately dangerous setting than Regency London or far-way British India of early Napoleonic France, had a whole lot more of the spy stuff, and not really quite enough of the good stuff... These were characters with a job to do, and they spent most of the book doing it.  Yes, there was early admiration on both sides, but it really wasn't anything they paid any attention to, or anything we paid much attention to either for that matter.

I mean, it's not like I wasn't enjoying it... it's Lauren Willig after all, I would like her books simply because I like her books (familiarity breeds fondness? :)) And there was a brewing romance, if a subtle one... and the history was interesting as always, the writing as usual light, funny, and very well constructed.  But you know, I wasn't *loving* it (as is evidenced by the fact that it took me an entire week to get through (though I did read it every night, I just fell asleep reading it every night)).  Anyway, that was until about half way through... and I can literally mark the moment when the pace picked up... actually, it was when Andre's true allegiances are revealed so perhaps I am wrong in saying they were too extreme.  Realistic they may not have been, but fun they were.  (Except that the nuanced view of the world opened up by taking the other side's point of view for once is entirely lost, as Andre turns out to be not really on the other side at all... but perhaps I have said too much once again, I shall desist :)) Anyway, the point is, half way through, the book got good.  The romance picked up, most definitely, as the characters interacted more - and we had the treat of them playing a fake family, always a great opportunity for... out of the ordinary situations.  And the spy part picked up too, in its own way - though it does recede for i'd say the third and fourth fifths of the books.  But that was good - not too much tension, as as soon as things got really scary, we stopped spending so much time on them, and starting spending more time on things we cared a little more about :) And then of course at the end, it went back to the spy stuff for a final finish, but that's typical and totally expected, acceptable, and even necessary.  So all in all, entirely satisfactory.  Maybe not the absolute best, but I think I would say one of her smartest books.  And in case you were wondering, Colin and Eloise's story continues to amuse, even if it is not as necessary as it once was, now that there an old fuddy duddy couple :)

Verdict: 5/5

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Surprisingly, Junk Can Be Really Good

I think I mentioned that I had three P&P inspired books to read and review, meaning I've got one more left.  And though I haven't mentioned it yet, I acquired quite an exciting next-on-list on Thursday (more on that sometime soon, I promise :)).  And yet, neither of those two anticipated readings is tonight's topic.  Why? On Friday, I went to the library to pick up one of the many new books I put on reserve.  This one was Susan Elizabeth Phillips's latest.  Who's she? I'd say that of the authors whose books I read regularly, she's just about the... well trashiest, to put it bluntly (actually, there's one trashier, whom I have mentioned here previously... 10 points if you can find the post :)) She writes contemporary romance, pretty much chic lit, but without the urban setting or nasal twittering common to a lot of books answering to that genre.  But you know, we're talking stories that are unabashedly about two people getting together, without much else going on.  Nothing I'm complaining about, you understand, but anything that should make me drop everything and read? I wouldn't think so...

But on the train on the way home, I did not continue reading the P&P western (yup, no joke :)) I need to get through so I can get to the good stuff.  After reading the inside cover the new SEP, Call Me Irresistible, and noting that she uses characters from some of her other books, I remembered how much I love the dumb things... and I just couldn't put it down.  I started it on the train and on Friday night, instead of picking up either of the two books that were ahead of it on the line in my head... I let this one jump ahead.  And not only, I did *not* fall asleep three chapters in, like I often do on Friday night; I read the *entire* thing - straight.  So what gives? Am I that shallow? Well, yes.  Not that I didn't know it before, but clearly that is really all I care about in a book - good solid romance :).  But still... if there's anything this blog has taught me (wow, I learn from myself :)), it's that I actually do care about decent writing.  And as important as plot and characters are, I can't enjoy them if I'm disturbed by clumsy phrasing, by ridiculous and implausible speeches / behavior, or by a whole lot of irrelevant who knows what.  The point is, there are a lot things that make it hard to enjoy a really trashy book, even if the premise is everything I could ask for (not that it often is).  So clearly... that is not the case here! I can be snobby about Susan Elizabeth Phillips, but she knows her stuff.

Yes, in order to enjoy her books, you need to buy into whatever she's selling 100%.  Chava was flipping through the book last night, and she was like, I don't get it why does she like this guy... or some such thing.  And I was like Chava, whatever, just go with, clearly he's a good guy because that's the entire point of the book.  Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy.  Because seriously, these are books are really just here to entertain.  Almost everyone is perfect in their own way, except for the obligatory villain of course.  But everyone else is really nice and fun once you get to know them.  And everything works out for everyone too.  And it's never in doubt that it will.  And not only is it never in doubt for us, it's not really in doubt for them either.  I mean, there are moments... but even the most stressful ones don't really disturb the equilibrium.  The only thing that does... why all that wonderful angst of course.  So we've got no tension except romantic, A-OK there.  And very minor plot outside of our feature couple, A-OK again :)  In fact the only thing that wasn't 100% A-OK was that SEP usually puts plenty of male perspective in her books, and this one had almost none until towards the end.  I kept waiting for it, but I think she must have felt it wouldn't work in this one... so oh well, I have enough of an imagination to manage without it :)  Was totally fun in any case.

Here's my main point - or I guess my main question.  Am I crazy? Definitely not totally, since a lot of people love her books (I mean people on the websites I read of course :)) But is she really that good at what she does? Or was I just in the mood for good junk? Probably a little bit of both... but I guess the only way to find out is to read more in her genre... to which I say, no thanks.  The truth is, I have tried similar stuff and it's often pretty unreadable.  And come time to think of it, a lot of her oler books were pretty unreadable too.... or at least less readable than this.  Maybe she's getting better? Nah, I'd probably enjoy most of them just as much ;)  So I guess I do have pretty low standards.  So note to everyone reading this - do *not* pick this up from the library now.  Especially not on my say-so.  I think this one is really for me only... And if you do want to read it, call me first, and let's discuss :)

Verdict: 3.75/5

Saturday, January 15, 2011

P&P Cute as Can Be

As you may have noted in the post below, the next book on my list after that infamous one was another from the P&P genre, again recommended on austenprose.  This one is a modern take on P&P - that's another category that always peaks my interest.  I sent a link to Sarah Sp., and she not only promptly ordered it, she made sure I got to read it first - really Elisheva read it before I did but that's because I didn't go pick it up.  And she left in for me to pick up before she left on her trip so I felt very much in debt to both those wonderful girls for their considerate care - thanks :) Anyway, this one is a YA novel... I feel like that's been done before but I can't recall that I've read any previous takes.  So there was some excitement in it, tempered by my ambivalent attitude toward YA chic lit.  I mean, come on, we all like a little fantasy, but does anyone believe in happy-ever-after for these guys? More like happily-until-graduation at best... And of course there's the thing that I just find high school drama overly compelling - I mean, of course I sympathize with their friends issues and their parents issues and their college issues... but that's all so over for me I just have a hard time getting in to it (am I being an old crone? I don't think so, so maybe there's something else I just find uninteresting? No it's pretty much that I have no patience for people who I simply view as immature babies - and yes, I know that to much of the world, that's exactly what I am :)).  Anyway, the point is, it's not like I was expecting *that much* from this book.

Actually I feel like I knew exactly what to expect from this book:
1) YA - so inherently less interesting, see above
2) Pride and Prejudice - so a great romance :)
3) Pride and Prejudice retold - so somewhat off-tune at times, where the details are a bit forced.
And that pretty much sums up what I got, so brilliant me :) You know, I just realized I haven't posted the book title yet - it's Prom and Prejudice, by Elizabeth Eulberg.  Anyway, right off, I got annoyed because the main character was a teenager in a fancy school who doesn't really fit it in - so we've got #1 right off - high school angst up to the ceiling.  Besides that, I didn't like that she was the one who didn't fit in, the uncool one - Elizabeth may not be as rich as Darcy, but she's pretty much it in her sphere.  And she's pretty happy with her life as it is - other than the fact that there's no one for her to marry of course.  But trust me, if she was writing a book, she would not launch into complaints about her neighbors within the first two pages... That being said, Lizzy in this book doesn't hate her life that much... she has a chip in her shoulder about her ridiculously entitled classmates, but then Elizabeth has a bit of chip in her shoulder too... when it comes to Darcy at least, not really any place else that I've seen.  And more about her ridiculously entitled fellow students - that's shades of #3, where the story is stretched to fit the P&P plot.  Of course fancy boarding schools are full of snobby kids... but as nasty and at the same time as vanilla (not like we're talking drugs and whatnot) as these? nah... and I feel like part of the reason the setting is just so over the top was that the point of the book was more modern P&P than realistic and compelling high school tale.

....But why would  I complain about that? I have zero interest in compelling high school novels :) And yes, there was lot that felt forced about this book... Darcy for one does *not* seem like a seventeen-year-old.  And Wickham's evil influence on the weak and vain Lydia? Yeah, it's not the Girl Scouts, but she isn't exactly ruining her sisters' chance at a normal life forever... But the truth is, forcing is really a natural product of trying to turn a nineteenth century novel by a master writer into anything else... I am even ready to be *slightly* more forgiving of Regina Jeffers... well maybe not.  But when you read a P&P inspired book, you just can't complain that it's not as good as the original.  And more importantly, you can't complain that it's not as good as other books of its "other" genre, because they really have another goal in mind.  So I definitely give Prom and Prejudice some slack when it comes to eye-roll worthy situations.  And there were a few of those, but nothing too overwhelming really.

So #1 and #3 were right there... what about #2? And of course, since that's the reason I read this book, that is of course the crucial question.  Drumroll please.... Yes! We had #2.  Quite a decent romance.  I mean, totally cutesy of course, this being high school, but Darcy done right, even as a teenage boy, is still dreamy :) Dignified but such a softie underneath :) wise, kind, handsome, capable... oh come on, he's Darcy :) Can you see I can't stop smiling? I don't know why you'd expect anything otherwise.  Okay, I'm getting a little too rhapsodic, because of course Will Darcy the Pemberley Academy student is not Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley, Derbyshire, but he's nothing to sniff at.  And he loves our Lizzy of course.  Our Lizzy herself is not a bad sort either - she's smart and capable and phenomenally talented musically, which was a nice bonus.  So yeah, it was a good story.  But it was high school after all that.  There's just no angst, because there can't be.  Even I can't suspend my disbelief enough to think anyone's lives are going to be materially affected if these characters never get over their initial, unfounded, dislike.

I'd say the best I could say about this story is that it's cute.  Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I've read even some regular old chic lit that I'd give a higher rating than cute too... not that much, admittedly.  And on the plus side of recommendation, Huvi and S.b. both read this over Shabbos too, and they both thoroughly enjoyed it.  Found it cute as I did, but apparently don't have the same hang-ups about high school and so were able to enjoy it a bit more thoroughly.  Bottom line: I'm not telling you you have to read this, but I'm pretty sure if you take the very minimal time it takes to get through it (we're really talking an hour or two), you won't regret it.

Verdict: 3/5

Friday, January 14, 2011

So Bad It's… No, It's Bad

OMG I have been DESPERATE to write this review! So as you probably know, one of my chief sources for books these days is Austenprose.  There are a million and one P&P paraliterature books coming out lately, but I only find certain of them interesting - specifically, I have no interest in prequels or sequels, but I am a dedicated reader of same-quels (like that? :)).  I had read up to this point six - yes 6 :) - versions of P&P from Darcy's POV.  Some are better than others of course, all are not worthy of being mentioned in the same multi-volume tome as the original, but all of them up till now have been pretty fun.  So it wasn't like I was going to say no to yet another one - Regina Jeffers's Darcy's Passions, this despite the fact that she has published other P&P-inspired books and I had no interest whatsoever in reading them.  Anyway, I put it on reserve at the library (this was the third of the three reserves I picked up right before I left to Israel) and started it on the plane on the way back from Spain.  It took me a while to finish, but that's par for course these days, doesn't necessarily say anything about the book… and my main complaint with this book was not that it was boring.

So what was it about it then? WHERE DO I START?! Seriously, this is HANDS-DOWN the WORST book I have EVER finished, and quite possibly the worst book I have ever STARTED.  Are these caps annoying you? Take that twinge of impatience and multiply it… then raise it to the same power… and do whatever else you have to do until you're shaking your head in DISBELIEF… In the introduction to the book (yes, the book has an intro. :) - I can't even say that without shaking my head :)) the author states that she has taught in English literature.  I actually flat out do not believe her.  The grammatical errors in the text are *egregious*.  Aliza cited misplaced modifiers, but I don't even know what those are.   She made the basic mistake of using the inappropriate subject after a intro phrase (don't know the technical term, but it's the one for phrase like this : "Although handsomer than Mr. Bingley and now rumored to have 10,000 pounds per year, most of the assembly found him…") Then there's the complete misuse of transitions like "yet" and "however", when in fact the phrases in questions are either complete non-sequiters or in need of no transition whatsoever.  And seriously, is she UNAWARE that there is exists a tense known as PAST PARTICIPLE, to be used when referring to a continually occurring circumstance, so that it doesn't seem like we are flipping back and forth between two times and two locations… unless this rewrite contains the addition of a time machine? (man, I'm having fun with my scathing condemnation :)) 

Moving on from grammatical concerns, we have the next favorite red-pen markup to worry about - "word usage!" Sometimes it's a weird tone, sometimes it's unwieldy, sometimes, sometimes it's funny, and sometimes it's *just plain wrong*. Take this one - I read it aloud to various people and burst out laughing each time - "howbeit pale" - that's just an excerpt from a longer passage, but seriously… I actually don't have a clue what she meant to be saying with that one. Anyway, the list goes on - I'm just flipping through it looking for these examples and I amazed all over again.  Over and above the clumsiness of the wording, there's blatant anachronism littering the pages.  "I bet", "phenomenal father", "you're amazing" ?! Since when does P&P take place in current-day America (and yes, I know there are multiple versions that do - I will be reading and reviewing another one shortly :)) I definitely have a bee in my bonnet about anachronisms, but HOW MUCH EFFORT DOES IT TAKE to say "I surmise" instead of "I bet"?! It seems like nothing but deliberate disregard for historical accuracy, which the author may find cute but which I find slightly repulsive - really, that bad.  

So what else do we have? Well there's her completely inaccurate portrayal of Darcy, Elizabeth, and everyone else in the book.  But it's not like I could really expect anything better.  Any time you read something like this, you're risking a totally skewed portrayal of the characters - yes, this one was worse than most, but I don't know if I can even complain… All right, I can complain - Elizabeth was alternatively flirtatious and idiotic and Darcy was by turns maudlin and overly-anxious.  Whatever it was horrible.  And that was before they got married.  The author takes it upon herself to continue the story after they get married at which point the characters become UNRECOGNIZABLE.  And not just unrecognizable and Darcy and Elizabeth, fairly unrecognizable as human either.  They sit there swooning over each other and declaring their love ad infinitum.  We know, we've heard, we don't even care anymore, and can this book pleeeeease be over so I can write my review? 

There was literally nothing to like about this book.  I think one time (can't remember where), I thought there was a fresh take on one the scenes… so it wasn't all bad from start to finish, I *guess*.  But it pretty much was.  Literally, I was just sitting on the train and shaking my head as I read, alternatively wincing and grinning in disbelief.  I guess in the end of the day, I enjoyed hating a book so much… and I did get through it, and got to this fun part :) Congratulations to me!

Verdict: 0/5 (Earlier in the reading I was going to give it a 2 for being "so bad it's good" but I couldn't.  I just couldn't.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Good Romance, If a Stretched One

I'm not sure if I've mentioned her before, but Sharon Shinn is one of the 15 or so authors for whom I keep track of new publications (wow those prepositions were hard to get right :)) Anyway, her chief appeal is that she seems to be as big a fan of romance as I am :) That is, her books are technically science fiction/fantasy - actually, they *are* SF/fantasy - but she almost never fails to offer up a good romance as well.  The first book  I read of hers, Archangel (wait, now I remember, of course I've mentioned her before, I reviewed The Alleluiah Files a few months ago), was described to me by Peryl as a romance disguised as sci-fi.  That's not really true, as I've discovered since reading both genres a little more widely, but I'm not sure I would even want it to be true, since that would make the book a lot more trashy.  Anyway, the point is, Sharon Shinn's books are mostly composed of world description and a good romance, often with some transparent morality lesson woven in.  Her series that just finished up last year, The Twelve Houses, exemplified this, and also contained the added element of a continuing plotline involving political unrest in the fantasy land of the setting.  I had thought her new book, Troubled Waters, was the start of a new series set in a new world, but I'm not quite sure now that I've read it.  In any case, that's the book I'm reviewing now… which is all I really had to say :)

So like I said, what I mostly expect of these books is a decent romance, while I tolerate whatever else Sharon Shinn throws in there as she pleases.  In this one, I kind of liked what she threw in there anyway, it was a rather simple world where the emphasis was on the five "elements" of air, earth, fire, wood, and water.  There were very few complicated rules (some innocuous details about blessing coins light enough to be charming) and most of the magic seemed to be centered on our very powerful heroine (yay :)) You know I never say no to the main characters being awesome… and here we have the head of one of the most powerful families in the land along with the king's most trusted advisor, a pretty cool man in his own right too (I was going to write guy, but he's just not the type ;)) And big bonus, the plot was mostly court intrigue rather than national danger / war, which was a nice change from the Twelve Houses.  Because court intrigue can be dangerous, but it just doesn't reach to the level of tension of all out battle.  And we all know how much I *dont* like tension :) The book actually reminded me of Court Duel in that respect - though court duel did have the threat of war underlying all the polite chit-chat - it was just very underlying and didn't really emerge all that dramatically :) (one day I'll reread court duel and then you'll all get a more thorough review, don't worry :)) ANYWAY, what I'm saying is that there was really nothing not enjoyable about the rest of the book.  And it even ended pretty solidly, with nothing much left unresolved, which makes me think that there might not be a sequel in the works.  I mean, I guess there's room for one (though I'm not sure who would feature as the romantic couple) but there certainly doesn't need to be one… which of course makes this ending all the more satisfying. 

So that's all well and good, I'm sure you're saying :), but what about the romance? Isn't that why you read these books in the first place? Yes indeedy-do, you are correct in that assumption (not surprisingly, since I think I stated it very clearly a few paragraphs ago :)) Anyway, the romance… so I said to S.B., if I had read this book a few years ago I think I would have thought the romance was AMAZING.  He likes her from the beginning, there's TONS of interaction, and they don't get together till the end.  What more could I need (other than more from the guy's POV, of course :)) So it was good… but it was a little weird too.  They really both like each other from the beginning, and while they don't acknowledge it, they don't really hide it either.  So there's very little tension of the good sort (romantic, that is :)) Maybe I would always have noticed this? I'm not sure, but I definitely noticed it now.  Was *quite* a weird dynamic.  Like if these characters were other people or in other circumstances, there would have been no romance (at least in the sense I define it) at all.  But these characters (proud, stubborn, very different) and these circumstances (tense, happening times) mean that there is a whole book for them to play out the courtship dance.  So okay… I can enjoy that, even if it takes just a *little* more effort than usual.  And the truth is, these days I find myself saying sometimes, but *why* does he like her? where's the attraction, the shared sympathies? (also something I never paid much attention to before - I wonder if it's the blog or just getting older?) In any case, there was none of that - they make sense together, two powerful people (with complementary personalities, as is emphasized to some length in the book - since the whole premise of the world is elements and how each person is drawn to one of the five).  So they make sense, and I don't have to get annoyed about that at least.  All in all, quite satisfying… Nothing to complain about, lots to enjoy… no wonder I had no trouble getting through this book, between a late Friday night, sleepless Shabbos afternoon, lazy motzei Shabbos, and relatively early night at a luxury hotel, all in the midst of my vacation :)

Verdict: 4/5