Saturday, February 20, 2010

Book Review: Testimony

Anita Shreve is one of my favorite authors, and I bought Testimony shortly after it was released, but I didn't get aroudn to reading it until now.

Each chapter of this book is written from the perspective of one of the multiple characters.  Most chapters are written in first person, some in third person, and there's even one written in second person.  Each character is giving their testimony of the events that surrounded a sex scandal at a private secondary academy in Vermont.

The problem with this book centers on the sex scandal. It starts when Mike, the principal, is given a videotape that was filmed in one of the dorm rooms.  In the video, a fourteen year-old female student performs oral sex on an eighteen year-old male student, then she has sex with another male student (who is either seventeen or eighteen), while a nineteen year-old males student watches and masterbates.  Everyone appears to be drunk.

Yes, it is statutory rape, and that is a crime, but I just had a really hard time accepting the magnitude of this scandal.  Shreve describes it as so big and receiving so much media attention that Anderson Cooper and Brian Williams types camp out at the school.  One characters recalls that the small town of one thousand doubled in population.

Come on.  Even if the scandal was compounded by the school's attempt to keep it quiet, I don't think a reader can reasonably be expected to believe in all this.  I went to a private boarding academy, and sexual stuff went on all the time.  There were even some crimes committed, and we didn't even get local news attention.

This was disappointing to me, because it really affected my ability to enjoy this book.  What I love about Shreve is how much she can convey with her simple style of writing.  Body Surfing is an excellent example of this.  Also, I just had a hard time connecting with her characters in Testimony.  I didn't feel the emotional connection like I did in Light on Snow, for instance.  This is not one of her best works, in my opinion.  If you've never read Shreve before I would recommend starting with Body Surfing, Light on Snow, Resistance, or Fortune's Rocks.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: Ravishing In Red

Oh, yeah, I forgot that I read this book, too.  Not bad, but not great, either.  The plot is coherent and kinda interesting, so that's a plus.  The characters are believable and likable, another plus.  But for me, no emotional connection.  Bummer.  I'm kind of intrigued by the next book in the series though, Provacative In Pearls.  (I know, ridiculous titles.)

Book Review: A Reliable Wife

This book... confuses me.  I wish I could take a picture of the back cover so you could see the description and reviews that made me super eager to buy this book.  "Thrilling," "suspenseful," "intoxicating," etc, etc, etc.

Seriously?  No.  (And I'm not alone.  The customer reviews at are all over the map.  Some love it and some, like me, thought it was pretty bad.)

The description is what sucked me in.  Ralph Truitt is a lonely man who places an add for "a reliable wife."  The woman who responds, unbeknown to him, plans on killing him and taking his money after they wed.

I'm a sucker for shit like that, what can I say?  And in the hands of one of my favorite romance novelists, I think it could have been a damn good story.

But this was not.  The writing, my God, the writing.  It is praised and praised and praised, but I thought it was not very good.  It just felt forced, like the author was trying really hard.  A lot of the negative customer reviews at point out that it is repetitive, and YES, it is!  And really, this book is ALL about sex.

Ralph is simultaneously obsessed with sex and celibate for twenty years.  Maybe that's not so contradictory, but the way Goolrick writes it, it seems that way.  We hear all about what a libertine Ralph was as a young man.  But we also hear all about how he is convinced that his lust is evil because he uber-religious, crazy mother told him so as a child.  Now that I thought made no sense.  There's no indication that Ralph believes anything else his mother ever told him, or anything else about religion, yet for some reason he's had this skewed view of sex his whole life.  But even though he thinks it's evil and will only hurt people, I wasn't sure how that supposedly affected him.  He's promiscuous as a young man, then goes completely celibate after losing his wife.  Then when Catherine, his new wife, arrives he is again obsessed with sex.  I don't know, it just all felt very disorganized and contradictory to me.

Catherine was certainly more likable, but she was utterly predictable.  As was the plot.  There were no shocking twists and turns, despite what the reviews say.  There were a few things held back from the reader, but they didn't blow my mind when they were revealed.   

Let me just give you an example of what I'm talking about as far as the sexual obsession and not-so-good writing goes:

He wanted to slice her open and lie inside the warm blood of her body.

Jesus.  What the fuck is that?  That shit is straight out of Star Wars.

In the end, I guess I just can't enjoy a book that's essentially about the constant sexual thoughts of a fifty-some year old man.  Ick.  This book is not very original and not well-written.  I'm really, really pissed that I bought this one instead of Roses.

Book Review: Into The Wilderness

When I first started reading this book, I was really excited.  I went to the bookstore in the mood to read an epic romance, and this book pretty much fit the bill.  As a bonus, it's loosely based on The Last of the Mohicans, and who doesn't wish they were Cora to Daniel Day-Lewis's Hawkeye?  I DO.

Into the Wilderness is the story of Elizabeth Middleton and Nathaniel Bonner.  The book is set in late eighteenth century New York state. Elizabeth's father is a judge and landowner in the small town of Paradise.  Elizabeth was raised in England by her father's sister, but she and her brother move to America to live with their father when Elizabeth is twenty-nine.  She plans on starting a school in the town, but until she arrives she doesn't know that her father plans on her marrying Richard Todd, a wealthy doctor.  The judge has worked out a plan that when Elizabeth marries Richard, he'll deed a portion of his land in return for Richard paying off the judge's debts.  But Elizabeth isn't too keen on that plan, especially after she meets hunky Nathaniel Bonner.

Nathaniel's father's name is Daniel Bonner, but he goes by Hawkeye.  His wife was Cora, and his father is Chingachgook.  That's about it as far as The Last of the Mohicans go.  But from the physical descriptions of Nathaniel, I think it's safe to say that Sara Donati had Daniel Day-Lewis in mind.  Anyhoo, the Bonners and their Mohican family happen to live on the parcel of land that is at issue in the wedding plans.  When Elizabeth and Nathaniel develop feelings for each other, they hatch a plan to pull a fast-one on the judge and Richard: Elizabeth will pretend to agree to marry Richard, and thus she'll sign the deed giving her the land.  But in the small window between the conveyance and her wedding, she'll elope with Nathaniel.  After their marriage, the land will go to her husband.

I'm not giving anything away by telling you that they carry out their plan.  And then the book goes on.  And on.  And on.

Not that that's necessarily a bad thing.  I was certainly interested and entertained the entire time I was reading.  There is plenty of action moving the plot along.  But I was a little disappointed because I never really became attached to Elizabeth and Nathaniel.  I cared about them, but their love story didn't move me.  Elizabeth comes very close to being too perfect to like.  She does have one MAJOR screw-up that I think was well done on Donati's part.  (It makes me think she knew readers were going to dislike this lady if she continued being perfect.)  But all in all the book is well-written, consistent, and enjoyable.  It just didn't capture my emotions.  Bummer.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Book Review: The Elusive Bride

Stephanie Laurens is an auto-buy author for me.  I buy her books no matter what they are about.  Her books aren't always great or the kind of story that I will remember and re-read, but I pretty much always enjoy the reading experience.  There are some romance novelists that seem like lazy writers to me, and I would never put Laurens in that category.  Her books may be very similar to each other, but I can usually tell that she has put serious thought into the plot.

So I'm a little disappointed to discover that I didn't really enjoy reading The Elusive Bride.  It's a bummer because I was really looking forward to it as it is the second in her Black Cobra quartet and the sequel to The Untamed Bride, which I enjoyed.

Laurens does step outside of her formula a bit in The Elusive Bride, so maybe that's what did it.  Instead of being set entirely in England, the books spans the characters' journey from India to England by land and by sea, and thus there was considerable focus on the journey and events along the journey instead of the romantic relationship.

I gave a synopsis of the basic plot of the quartet when I reviewed The Untamed Bride, so I won't repeat it.  Suffice to say that the Black Cobra cultists are chasing the heroes of the books because the heroes have something they want.  That's fine, I get it, but The Elusive Bride is pretty much nothing but cultists attacking the traveling party again and again and again, always unsuccessfully.  Not a single member of the traveling party perishes and only one is ever injured.  Boooring.

There were a few deviations from the standard Laurens' formula when it came to the characters, I suppose.  Gareth, the hero, came across as a little more vulnerable than her traditional alpha hero.  He was not the pursuer, the way Laurens' heroes usually are.  That should have worked for me, but I don't think Laurens fully exploited the opportunities she set up there.  Something about it just didn't feel right.  I think it might have been that the reader didn't know enough about Gareth to really connect with or understand him.  The heroine, Emily, was very likable, I thought.  And the reader got to know her well.  But again, something was missing, and I think it was genuine conflict.

This is a romance novel, as such, standard genre elements should be followed (I think.)  The conflict in this book was all about the traveling party being attacked by cultists.  Any conflict between Gareth and Emily felt forced or contrived.  Definitely not genuine.  Also, Laurens kind of deviated from her usual sex scenes, too.  They seemed much shorter than usual.  That's not necessarily a bad thing (as she tends to overdo it in that department), but it just made it feel even less like a Laurens' book.

Finally, after reading The Untamed Bride, my sister complained about the misleading title.  The same thing happens here!  Emily is the pursuer in the romance, no question about it.  The whole relationship aspect is predicated on her determination to discover if Gareth is "The One" for her and then convincing him that she is "The One" for him.  Not exactly my definition of "elusive."

Some Thoughts On Series and Sequels

A week or so ago I found myself wanting to read a book but not just any book.  I wanted to read an epic or adventure story.  One that spans time, geography, etc.  And of course, one that features some kind of love story.

It was kind of a weird urge to suddenly have such a specific desire for a book, but I had just finished re-reading Shanna by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, and that book is kind of epic.  I freakin' love it, and wanted something similar.

The problem is, those kinds of books are hard to find in the romance section of a book store.  Historical romances these days tend to be pretty limited to the courtship stage, and they're usually all set in England, where the characters stay.  Besides, it's been a while since I read a genre romance that I really enjoyed.  So when I went down to my local Barnes & Nobles looking for something, I just walked around the Fiction & Literature section until something caught my eye.  I ended up with Sara Donati's In the Wilderness, which was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.  Yay!

Now, I'm still reading the book so I will review it later, but since starting it I've discovered that there are at least five other books in this "series."  And for some reason, that bothers me a little bit.

I'm not sure how to explain it exactly, but sometimes the knowledge that the story is going to go on and on is kind of . . . disappointing.  Sometimes it's better to introduce a reader to the characters and then end the story somewhere, after which the reader's imagination can take over.  The more an author tells us about them after the initial happily ever after, the more likely it is that the author will take the characters somewhere I don't want to go.

Does that make sense?  It's almost like a soap opera in some ways.  The best example I can think of comes from Days of Our Lives.  I used to watch that show a lot.  And for years one of the big stories was Austin and Carrie.  Austin and Carrie loved each other, but Carrie's sister Sami tricked Austin into bed and got pregnant.  After that, Carrie had to watch the man she loved with her sister, and Austin was stuck with a woman he didn't love.  This went on and on, and viewers like me just wanted Austin and Carrie to get together, until finally it was revealed that Austin's brother Lucas was the real father of Sami's baby.  Sami was a rotten liar, and Austin and Carrie could finally get together.  But it's a soap opera, so happily ever afters aren't allowed.  Conflict is interesting, so no long after Austin and Carrie's love story was finally realized, Carrie leaves Austin for Mike Horton.  WTF?

The same goes with books.  If an author is going to continue his/her characters' story into another book, then he/she is going to have to put some conflict in there in order to make it worth the read.  But then that just makes the previous books' happily-ever-after feel . . . ruined, to some extent.  See Meg Cabot, Queen of Babble in the Big CityI just feel like the more details you add to the sequel, the more you take away from the original reading experience.

This is one reason why I think many epilogues in romance novels are limited to showing how the hero and heroine have gotten married and had children.  There was a very legitimate commentary on Smart Bitches about how happily-ever-afters in romance novels are often conditional on having children (looked for the post but couldn't find it to link to), but in some ways, that's not such a bad way for an author to go.  It shows the reader that the characters' lives are evolving, but it is generic enough that it doesn't restrain imagination.

For me, it just comes down to less being more.  When I finish this story about Elizabeth and Nathaniel, I'd like to believe that they are able to live out their lives happily.  But from what I've read of the next book, it sounds like there's a whole lot more hardships for them to go through.  Ugh.

Finally, I will just add that I think this is in part what is being my disgust of Pride and Prejudice sequels.  I'd like to leave Darcy and Elizabeth's life together to my imagination, thanks.  I don't want anyone writing about how it turns out he's a vampire or whatever.  That just takes away from the original.  And, it's dumb.  (Don't even get me started on this shit.  If ever there was a need for perpetual moral rights in artistic works, THIS IS IT.)