Lots and lots of book reviews

One of the nice things about taking a cruise is that I have time to read. This trip, I was able to get a lot of free books, with the understanding that I would review them. So, without further ado, my reviews:

Romances

Love Overdue, by Pamela Morsi.  On the one hand, this was a stock romance:  Dorothy Jarrow (DJ), a buttoned-up young woman planning on being a librarian, let’s lose on a vacation and has a fling with a “hot” guy.  Several years later, when she moves to a small town to run the library, she discovers that Scott, her landlady’s son is that same young man.  Because DJ is embarrassed about that uncharacteristic fling, and because she assumes Scott is a player, she’s delighted when he doesn’t recognize her.  Scott, on the other hand, is not a player, but he’s put off by DJ’s manifest discomfort around him. The rest of Love Overdue is about DJ’s and Scott’s growing attraction to each other, helped along by a gossipy small town, and a charmingly meddling landlady.

As you can tell, Love Overdue doesn’t deviate from the romance script.  The thing is, though, that all romances stick to the script.  Without it, they’re not romance novels.  The difference between one romance and another doesn’t lie in the story arc, which, subject to the applicable gimmick, is always the same.  Instead, the differences lie in (a) writing quality; (b) character development; and (c) believability.  Love Overdue scores high on all three metrics.  While Morsi is no Shakespeare or even a Jane Austen, she’s a solid, grammatically correct author who hits the right note when it comes to the delicate balance between description, dialogue, and the character’s interior monologues.  I especially like the way DJ and Scott are nice people, who live in a fully realized, but not overly done, community that feels real.  DJ’s “uptightness” is a bit overplayed, because it’s necessary to the plot line, but Morsi does a skillful job of letting DJ unwind, even as Scott decides that, maybe, romance is in his future.

For romance lovers, I recommend Love Overdue.

***

Against the Mark (The Raines of Wind Canyon), by Kat Martin.  One of the things that savvy romance novelists learn to do is to build on previous novels, by having each novel feature a different friend or family member.  Years ago, while on vacation somewhere, I got hold of one of Kat Martin’s early books in the series and enjoyed it.  Martin’s writing is anything but simplistic, but she had all the right ingredients:  tough, beautiful woman who needs help from a tough, gorgeous man.  The plot, dialog, and character were all decent.  I ended up reading a few more of her novels and, while I wouldn’t rave about them, I enjoyed them.

Against the Mark, however, didn’t work for me.  The plot isn’t bad:  gorgeous woman hires gorgeous, strong man to help her reach closure by proving that her father, from whom she was estranged didn’t die accidentally but was, instead, murdered.  For some reason, though, Martin’s writing grated on me this time around.  I felt as if she was writing on autopilot.  She didn’t seem interested in her characters.  Instead of writing witty or intelligent dialog, she fell back into the lazy writer’s habit of having someone say something inane or ordinary, and having the other character think “Wow, she’s so brilliant (or charming or witty).”  Good writers don’t use such cheap tricks.  Rather than instructing us repeatedly about their character’s virtues,they actually let us see those virtues played out in real time.

I haven’t given up on Kat Martin, because I think she’s a solid genre writer.  I just wouldn’t bother reading this particular book in her Raines of Wind Canyon series.

***

Three Little Words, by Susan Mallery.  Susan Mallery writes some of the best dialog in the romance novel business.  Her female and male leads are incredibly good at repartee.  As the plot requires, they’re funny, insightful, loving, seductive, or romantic.  I could read a whole book made up solely of Mallery’s by-play between her lead characters. Sometimes, though, no matter how good the dialog and romance, the rest of the book can drag down the story.

Mallery used to write trilogies:  books about three sisters, or three friends, or three brothers.  Lately, though, all of her romances are set in the fictional town of Fool’s Gold, which is located in the California foothills.  In the first few Fool’s Gold novels, Mallery’s gimmick was that Fool’s Gold was a town that had ended up with a preponderance of women, making romance a rare and special thing.

In recent novels, though, Mallery simply places her plots in the imaginary town of Fool’s Gold.  To that end, all of her Fool’s Gold books have recurring characters, some of whom were the leads in past novels and some of whom will clearly be the leads in future novels.  This repetition can actually be a very nice quality in a romance novel, because it presents a fully-realized fictional universe.  However, if a writer gets lazy and forgets to explain who all the various recurring characters are, it can become very frustrating, even for someone who has read some or all of the past books.  As a reader, you find yourself reading through pages and pages of dialogues between people who clearly know each other, but to whom you don’t remember being introduced.  I kept feeling as if I was at a cocktail party, trying to catch up with an ongoing conversation between people a group of people whom I barely know.

Three Little Words is the perfect example of both Mallery’s strengths and her weaknesses.  I loved the romance between Isabel, a woman temporarily managing her grandmother’s wedding dress store even as she prepares to open a high end fashion store in New York, and Ford, a former Navy SEAL who has returned to his home town.  The two have known each other for years, since Isabel’s sister jilted Ford.  Isabel, who had a teenage crush on the slightly older Ford, wrote him letters over the years while he was away in the military.  Ford never responded, but the letters form a bond that allows the two to start a pretend romance to get Ford’s marriage-minded mother off his back.  Both Isabel and Ford (especially Ford) are people I would enjoy meeting, simply for the pleasure of their conversation.

If only the rest of the book was as good.  It’s not bad, mind you.  It’s just not as good.  The first page skipper is a kind-of boring romance between Ford’s math-teacher brother and Ford’s military-hardened colleague.  Even if you track that romance, you may just want to skip the endless dialog between Isabel and her friends.  Most of it doesn’t advance the plot, and it’s just not as much fun as spending time with Isabel and Ford when they’re on their own.

So, I recommend this novel highly for the central romance, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself skimming a lot of the pages that aren’t central to the main romance.

***

Fantasy

The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, by Emily Croy Barker.  This book crept up on me.  When I started reading it, the plot (dissertation student dumped by boyfriend who’s about to marry someone else) left be assuming it would be another ordinary romance, maybe with a little witchcraft thrown.  I assumed that the heroine would get revenge against her boyfriend or find Mr. Wonderful.  That, however, was not what happened.  Instead, the book really begins when Nora Fischer wanders away from a rather depressing wedding to find herself the darling of an A-list crowd garden party — and it turns into a party that never seems to end.  Nora is reinvented as a gorgeous woman, married to an even more gorgeous man, living an enviable social whirl.

But all is not as it seems, and Nora finds herself plunging into an ever darker world, inhabited by ordinary people, fairies, and warlocks.  I am not exaggerating when I say that I couldn’t put this book down.  The plot was never predictable, but always satisfying.  The characters were fascinating and seemed like real people.  Nora was indeed a thinking woman who intelligently dealt with the completely unforeseen challenges that kept coming her way.  I’m scared to say anything more about the plot, lest I give too much away.  Suffice to say that it was imaginative, but sufficiently grounded in the characters’ very real personalities, so that it never bogged down into silliness.

I was actually surprised how much I liked this book, because I really don’t like the whole magic/fantasy romance genre.  Too many of them draw their inspiration from the Twilight series, with moody vampires struggling to protect their whiny heroines from fellow vampires who lack that loving feeling.  Bleh.  The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic is not one of those dreary Twilight derivatives.

If you’d like an imaginative take on an ordinary woman’s journey into a magical world, I recommend The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic.

***

History

History’s Greatest Scandals: Shocking Stories of Powerful People, by Ed Wright.  I’m not sure why this book was available on a review website, since it was written in 2006, but I enjoyed it nevertheless, and am happy to throw it a kind word.  This book, which was originally published in Australia, contains a (very) few factual errors, but is otherwise a straightforward and enjoyable series of short chapters detailing all sorts of famous scandals involving famous people.  The author covers political misconduct (Did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with Sally Hemings?); murder in high places (Was Catherine the Great a husband killer?); false prophets (what would a scandal book be without Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker?); dugitives (anyone remember Lord Lucan?); and much more.  This is the kind of book you can dip into when you’re waiting for a bus, or just want to read for a few more minutes before sleep overtakes you.  Of course, it’s also the kind of book that, with its bite-sized chapters, leads you on until you discover you’ve missed your bus or read all night.

Bottom line:  an enjoyable light read that takes you dancing through the sordid side of the history of famous people.

Autobiography

What’s So Funny?: My Hilarious Life, by Tim Conway.  Tim Conway’s book was exactly what you’d expect from Tim Conway:  it’s a light, charming read, written by a talented blithe-spirit who never met someone he didn’t like.  If you’re looking for sordid revelations about Tim or the comedy geniuses with whom he worked (Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman, etc.), you are looking at the wrong book.  Tim sees himself as an “everyman”
who fortuitously could make people laugh and who ended up having wonderful experiences because of that.

Tim describes growing up in a half Irish (his father), half Romanian (his mother) household.  His entire family consisted of these two, slightly eccentric, but lovable and loving people.  One of the gifts they gave him was that they were anything but helicopter parents.  He had a simple, wholesome, all-American upbringing, without being burdened with too many expectations, or the overwhelming parental focus that is often the lot of the only child.  To hear Tim tell it, he was born well-adjusted, but with a strong sense of humor.

I would have preferred the book if it had a bit more gossip about the many fascinating people Tim met throughout his lengthy show business career.  Not mean or sordid gossip, but just a few more stories that bring alive the great comics and actors of the past.  Tim reserves that narrative depth only for Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman, both of whom come off as wonderful people.

What’s So Funny doesn’t rank as a great show business autobiography.  Tim Conway is just too diffident and self-effacing for that.  It is, however, a light, lively jaunt through one very funny man’s life.

I actually have several more books that I still have to read. I blush to admit that they’re the more “serious” books. I just couldn’t seem to bend my mind to anything but light reading while on vacation. Apparently my brain needed a vacation too.  And to end on a light note, one of the most brilliant Tim Conway/Harvey Korman sketches ever:

 

On Yale, sex, porn, and relationships *UPDATED*

It’s no big secret in the Bookworm Room that I like romance novels.  Someone I know calls them pornography.  He’s both right and wrong.

A large percentage of today’s romance novels have pretty explicit sex scenes scattered through the pages.  The language isn’t as vulgar as true pornography, but the sex is certainly graphic enough to fall under the heading of “erotica.”  It’s also dull.  There are only so many ways to describe “insert tab A into slot B.” Moreover, romance writers, because they’re aiming for romance and not hard-core porn employ no end of awkward and embarrassing euphemisms, all of which make the whole experience seem a little bit like peeking under the modesty skirts that some Victorians allegedly used to hide the legs of their Victorian piano.

Given my druthers, I read nothing but Georgette Heyer’s exquisite romantic comedies of manners, which might end with a chaste kiss on the last page.  Sadly, though, Mrs. Heyer died in 1974, and there are no new Heyer books forthcoming.  Even I, a most enthusiastic fan, can read her existing fare only so many times before feeling a bit of ennui creeping over me.  There are other writers out there publishing “traditional” romances (i.e., no sex), but they lack Heyer’s wit and erudition, making their books a poor substitute.  Moreover, many of these traditional books are overtly Christian, and that simply isn’t a genre that appeals to me.

So, as I said, my friend is correct that there’s an erotic element to today’s romantic novel market (which is, I believe, the largest segment of both the paperback and ebook market).  What he misunderstands is that the graphic–ish sex isn’t the “porn” that draws women in.  The real porn aspect of these novels is what I call “relationship porn.”

Relationship porn doesn’t have dialog revolving around body parts and sex acts.  It has dialog revolving around a woman’s real needs.  The following aren’t verbatim quotations from any specific book, but I guarantee you that you can find variations of these themes in any modern romance novel you pick up:

Lainey walked self-consciously down the stairs, aware that Caleb had never seen her in anything other than an over-sized sweatshirt and jeans before.  In the clingy black dress, she felt acutely vulnerable.  As she drew closer, Caleb let out a long, low whistle.  “My God, Lainey!  I could look at you forever!”

Safe for the time being under the sheltering overhang of the cave, Rob carefully checked Karen to make sure she was okay.  Her hair was hanging lankly around her ears, her pale face was covered with mud, and her clothes were drenched and ragged.  She had never looked more beautiful to him.

Brad turned to Victoria and said, “Don’t worry, baby.  I’ll take care of the dishes for you.  You just go to bed.”

Yup — there’s the real porn.  Our romantic hero, who looks good and smells better (unlike many of Hollywood’s most famous and narcissistic stars, both male and female), thinks that, under any circumstances, our heroine is the most gorgeous thing in the world and he helps out around the house.

What’s sad is that relationship porn didn’t used to be a niche market idea.  Before the sexual revolution  hit, popular culture encouraged men to appreciate and cherish their woman.  That is no longer the case, though, which may explain why women are so happy wrapped in the loving arms of a romance novel.

A young Yale grad, Nathan Harden, has just published a new book that reveals both a symptom and a cause of the unloving culture we’ve created for young American women.  The title pretty much tells its own story:  Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.  I haven’t read Harden’s book, but he spells out the premise in a recent Daily Beast post, descriptively entitled “When Sex Isn’t Sexy: My Bizarre Education at Yale University.”  That premise is a simple, and sad, one; namely, that Yale has become one of American education’s major sex purveyors, and that the sex it sells to students has nothing to do with romance, love, and respect, and everything to do with commerce and impersonal relationships:

When the average person thinks of Yale University, sex probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Nevertheless, in recent years Yale has positioned itself as a leader in a radical new form of sex education, complete with sex toy pageants, porn star lectures, sadomasochism seminars, and fellatio demonstrations. What does any of that have to do with the mission of Yale University? That’s the question I set out to answer in my new book, Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad.

[snip]

Yale’s cozy relationship with corporate interests in the sex industry—including numerous major porn production companies and some of the nation’s largest sex toy companies—has been the backbone of its infamous “Sex Week at Yale” event for the past ten years. Other elite universities, including Harvard, Brown, and Northwestern, have begun holding sex-themed events modeled on the corporate-backed events at Yale. Yale’s leaders say that academic freedom requires them to allow these activities. But I think they need to learn a basic business lesson: When a company comes into a classroom to market and sell its products, that’s called advertising, not education.

Yuck.  Pardon me while I go refresh my mind by spending some time with Lainey and Caleb, or maybe Rob and Karen, or perhaps I’ll ask the imaginary Brad to help me out around the house.

UPDATE:  Somehow it seems apropos to note here that the First Lady has found herself guest editing a website that includes her fitness and lifestyle tips alongside sex advice from prostitutes.  Michelle Obama, of course, has nothing to do with sex advice; it’s just that the commercialization of sex, and its uncoupling from romance (pardon that pun) is everywhere.

UPDATE II:  As Abercrombie & Fitch is discovering, in a market glutted with sex, even sex stops selling.  Maybe they should raffle off their male models with the promise that the guys will come to the lucky winner’s house and do the dishes.

I really HATE bait-and-switch romance novels

I’ve already confessed to having a weakness for romance novels.  My problem with this shameful weakness is that there was only one Georgette Heyer. Everything else is second best, with most books being more secondary than others.

Because of my fondness for Heyer’s wit and delicacy, I prefer true romances — the literary dance that takes two charming individuals right up to the kiss — as opposed to bodice rippers, many of which are just rather boring soft-core porn.  I thought that I had found one of those true romances the other day, but I’ve been terribly disappointed, not only because the romance part was ultimately a failure, but because it was a stealth Progressive book.

The book that so disappointed me — and that leads me to a riff about good romances and about non-political romances — is Kissing Adrien. The book’s premise is a good one:  Claire, an extremely buttoned-down American woman goes to Paris to help wrap-up a distant, and deceased, relative’s affairs.  While there, a young man — the Adrien of the title — whom she’s known and loved since childhood, takes her under his wing.

The novel’s correct trajectory would have been for Adrien to have viewed Claire simply as a childhood friend but then to fall in love with her as his joie de vivre and sophistication help her become happy with herself and with life.  The novelist, however, chose to have Adrien’s love date back to Claire’s childhood, which is an impossible premise.  As written, Adrien is charm personified, and Claire, who seems “likeable enough” when the book begins, proves to be a repressed, unhappy, rigid lump.  Adrien’s love is not believable, destroying the book’s central premise.

I can forgive a bad plot.  Finding a romance novel built around a person growing and changing, rather than a person ripping her clothes off in the first chapter, is pleasant enough for me to stick with the book.  What I can’t forgive is that, three-quarters of the way through the book, after Adrien has taught Claire about the pleasure of fine wine, good food, relaxation, and beautiful clothes, Adrien also teaches Claire (a self-professed Republican) that capitalism is cruel and evil, and that socialism is the most civilized, humanist way to go.  Claire is overwhelmed by the force of his argument, and from then goes on happily to embrace the notion that Communism is consistent with Christianity, because the original Christians were probably communists.  (Never mind that they voluntarily embraced a communal life, rather than having it thrust upon them by a totalitarian state.)

There is no greater turn-off in an ostensible romance than suddenly having someone’s political views thrust in ones face.  Talk about romanaticus interruptus.

The only good thing in all this is that, having gotten the book as a free Kindle download, I’m not feeling cheated.  Ultimately, it proved to be worth precisely what I paid for it — namely, nothing.