Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dracula In Love by Karen Essex

dracula cover

August 29th, 2010

Gentle Reader,

It was but a few hours ago that I finished
Dracula In Love by the woman of Independent Means, Miss (Mrs?) Karen Essex.  The novel attempts to tell the story of the vampire Dracula's infamous visit to the Native Shores of England through the eyes of Wilhemina Harker, née Murray.  Although Mina has the untested love of solidly middle-class and unimaginative Jonathan Harker, Esq., she becomes Enraptured by the dubious pleasures of the Flesh after Count Dracula lures her into his toothsome clutches.  Her bestie, Lucy, also becomes embroiled in a Scandalous Affair with a Bold American Gentleman.

Reader, I have come across much disappointment in ye olde bloggosphere in regards to this book, and I regret to say that I share these intrepid reviewers' opinion.  This novel is a mess and completely unsuccessful as a Romance or Vampire novel.  It adds nothing to the myth of Dracula and often comes off as cheesy when it's trying to be spooky.

The largest difficulty for the book are the characters.  Mina is completely uninteresting.  Although she has Frequent Visions, she chooses to ignore them and marry Jonathan like a Proper Young Lady.  This would be bad enough.  But she never changes into a properly wicked woman, and thus remains a complete Yawnfest.  Even after His Lordship Count Dracula appears and saves her from the evil Victorian Menfolk.

Speaking of--as we know, in many Victorian (and modern) novels, women are portrayed as archetypes of either being sweet and innocent, or sexually voracious and Dangerous.  Although perhaps trying to overcorrect this, Essex has committed the opposite but equal sin of presenting the male characters in the book in just such a fashion.  To wit, Jonathan, who is sweet and Innocent before he leaves for Austria (Austria, really?  Let's just suck all the exoticism out of that trip) and becomes quite Dangerous and Untrustworthy after he returns, having experienced the lamias' fellatious acts performed upon his Person.  But 'tis not just Jonathan with whom Mina must be Concerned--every male character is this book is some sort of threat, except for the old gentleman at the Cemetery, who will not be banging anything other than Heaven's Door any time soon.  Morris Quince and The Count are both sexually voracious (
or so we are led to believe--actually the Count seems quite normal in his sexual appetites, unless you count the Blood) and of questionable character, while the other male characters repress their sexuality but are arguably of a more immediate Threat.

And this leads me to the biggest disappointment in the novel, Dracula Himself. 
Lamest. Dracula. Ever!  He isn't even present for the first two-thirds of the book, and when he did appear in Full Force, I had to cheer.  Yet it quickly became apparent that this Dracula was being played by Sensitive Alpha Male, having left Dangerous Alpha Male in, I don't know, the Land of the Little People, perhaps.  The poor gentleman puts on a good show, but he is totally whipped by a woman who repeatedly rejects him to be a Proper Young Lady.  What kind of relationship is this, anyway?  It's time to move on, brother.

There was one good part of the novel, however--when Mina and Jonathan stay at Lindenwood Asylum, where Doctors Seward and Von Helsinger reside.  This section of the novel was genuinely creepy and for a good fifty pages I thought the author was doing something interesting with the tale of Lucy and Mina and had a genuine Idea rolling around in her head.  In fact, the entire novel would have been better if it had been centered around those chapters.  But Alas, it was not to be.

Dear Reader, I know so many of us love the vampires.  Particularly The Vampire of all the vampires, his royal countiness himself, Dracula.  But it's my firm believe that Ms. Essex doesn't know vampires from pixies and has little insight into Dracula's appeal.  She should stick to straight historical novels next time and I'm sure she will be more successful.  

With sincerity, and many thanks to Carrie from Books and Movies for sending me this book,


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Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

the maltese falcon cover

A few months ago, I reviewed the movie The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart.  The movie was okay, but I was interested in finding out how the book (called the best detective novel ever written by some) was in comparison.

Sam Spade, a PI with the personality of a junkyard dog, receives a visit from a beautiful, mysterious damsel in distress.  She wants him to follow a man named Floyd who has sexually enthralled her sister.  Spade's partner, Miles Archer, volunteers to tail Floyd because, "Maybe you saw her first, Sam, but I spoke first."  Hours later Miles is dead and Sam finds himself embroiled in a crazy chase for a priceless piece of art.

If you're looking for a book where you can really get into the characters' heads, don't pick up this one.  The narrator doesn't make any presumptions to tell us the characters' motivations, and merely relates their actions.  It's easy to see how Hammett might have been influenced by Hollywood--he visually describes everything so perfectly and clearly, but things like emotions are left for the reader to guess at based on dialog and expressions.  Perhaps that's why reading it felt almost like reading the movie to me--that and the fact that the movie follows the book almost scene-by-scene.

I have to say, though, there are some really interesting things going on in this novel.  I did a quick google search and was surprised by the lack of literary analysis for this book, because it could definitely stand up to it.  To me Spade is the American version of Camus' Stranger--perhaps not completely amoral or without emotion, but he's definitely resigned himself to the ideas that things will never change, so there's no point in trying to improve oneself or one's situation; and right and wrong lie only in the eyes of the beholder.  This philosophy is encapsulated in what's called the Flitcraft Parable, where Sam relates the story of the strangest case he ever solved:

A man named Flitcraft had left his real-estate-office, in Tacoma, to go to luncheon one day and had never returned. He did not keep an engagement to play golf after four that afternoon, though he had taken the initiative in making the engagement less than half an hour before he went out to luncheon. His wife and children never saw him again. His wife and he were supposed to be on the best of terms. He had two children, boys, one five and the other three. He owned his house in a Tacoma suburb, a new Packard, and the rest of the appurtenances of successful American living.

Flitcraft had inherited seventy thousand dollars from his father and, with his success in real estate, was worth something in the neighborhood of two hundred thousand dollars at the time he vanished. His affairs were in order, though there were enough loose ends to indicate that he had not been setting them in order preparatory to vanishing. A deal that would have brought him an attractive profit, for instance, was to have been concluded the day after the one on which he disappeared. There was nothing to suggest that he had more than fifty or sixty dollars in his immediate possession at the time of his going. His habits for months past could be accounted for too thoroughly to justify any suspicion of secret vices, or even of another woman in his life, though either was barely possible. "He went like that," Spade said, "like a fist when you open your hand." [...]

"Well that was in 1922. In 1927 I was with one of the big detective agencies in Seattle. Mrs. Flitcraft came in and told us somebody had seen a man in Spokane who looked a lot like her husband. I went over there. It was Flitcraft, all right. He had been living in Spokane for a couple of years as Charles - that was his first name - Pierce. He had an automobile-business that was netting him twenty or twenty-five thousand a year, a wife, a baby son, owned his home in a Spokane suburb, and usually got away to play golf after four in the afternoon during the season."

Spade had not been told very definitely what to do when he found Flitcraft. They talked in Spade's room at the Davenport. Flitcraft had no feeling of guilt. He had left his first family well provided for, and what he had done seemed to him perfectly reasonable. The only thing that bothered him was a doubt he could make that reasonableness clear to Spade. He had never told anybody his story before, and thus had not had to attempt to make its reasonableness explicit. He tried now. "I got it all right [...] but Mrs. Flitcraft never did. She thought it was silly. Maybe it was. Anyway it came out all right. She didn't want any scandal, and after the trick he had played on her - the way she looked at it - she didn't want him. So they were divorced on the quiet and everything was swell."

"Here's what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up - just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk alongside him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn't touch him, though a piece of the sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his finger - well, affectionately - when he told me about it. He was scared still, of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works."

Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clear orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and live only
while blind chance spared them. It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, and not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had gone twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life a random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort to make absence painful.

"He went to Seattle that afternoon," Spade said, " and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife
didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of woman that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he has settled back naturally into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

The case of the Maltese Falcon might have been a beam landing next to Sam and waking him up, but he knows the feeling won't last forever.  By the end of the book, he's readjusted to exactly the way things were--not happily, perhaps, but with a stoic sort of resignation.  But then I don't think happiness exists in Sam Spade's world--he never once smiles out of genuine amusement, except at his secretary.

Speaking of Sam's secretary, another interesting element of the novel is how women are treated.  If I had to name one central message of the book, it would be that women can't be trusted.  Brigid O'Shaughnessy is clearly a femme fatale type who tries to lure Sam into her web with sex; Effie Perine (it's strange how she's referred to by her first and last name all the time) is clearly the only woman Sam has genuine feelings for, but even she betrays him by siding with Brigid.  There isn't a single female here that doesn't betray a man in some way.  Not only is womanhood in general suspicious, but femininity is equated with evil--two of the male villains are homosexuals and all of them are effeminate.  That's why Sam ends up giving Brigid over to the police--not because she's an evil, manipulative bitch, but because she's a woman and honor only exists between men, even if those two men are sons of bitches like Spade and Archer.

The book was first published in 1929, at about the same time as The Great Gatsby, and honestly I think the two are comparable as literary works.  Hammett is a great writer, and even though I do think the mystery was kind of a fail--because I couldn't have cared less who killed Miles--his snapshot of the evils of greed and consumerism and what they can do to a person's life are spot-on and still spookily relevant.  Actually, The Maltese Falcon might be more successful than The Great Gatsby in its criticism of the American psyche, since Hammett doesn't wrap everything up in pretty language and extended literary metaphors.  I don't know why American teenagers aren't forced to read this book just as they are The Great Gatsby--they should be.

So, should you read the book or watch the movie?  I think I got a lot more out of the book, even though they're both pretty much the same.  The novel is smarter and more subversive, although I didn't realize that until close to the very end.  Spade isn't a likable or sympathetic character in either, but I think I understood him better after reading the book.  And while the mystery was silly and rather pointless in both the book and the movie, I think Hammett did a marginally better job of making it all seem believable in the novel.  So in this instance I'd have to say the book wins.  Read it!

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Musical Notes--Comes In Three

musical notes button

It's been a while since I've done a Musical Notes, so I have several songs to share!  In case you don't know (or remember), Musical Notes is a semi-regular feature where I talk about songs I listened to that were inspired by my reading.  Let's get to it!

Leaving Paradise

Touch is a big deal in this novel, and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" fits several themes in Leaving Paradise, including the theme of wanting to be touched.

The Maltese Falcon

This novel is just begging for a torch song like "Your Heart is as Black as Night."

Dracula In Love

This song is completely not keeping in with the mood of this novel, but whenever I see the title, "Accidentally In Love" starts running through my head.

Don't you just hate it when a goateed and dread-locked rabbit steals your girlfriend?

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Fragment Friday--The Maltese Falcon

Fragment Friday is hosted by Book Chic and it's really easy.  All you have to do is read a short passage from your current read or a book you really like.  This week I'm reading from the hard-boiled detective story, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett.

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From Dusk Till Dawn Readathon Update

dusk till dawn button

Have you heard of the From Dusk Till Dawn Readathon?  It goes over the weekend from eight at night until eight in the morning, plus there are a lot of fun mini-challenges and a twitter feed you can follow while you're reading.  Since I'm a night owl and like to read at night anyway, I thought this would be the perfect readathon for me.

Last night I read for about six hours and almost finished The Maltese Falcon.  Tonight I think I'm going to start on Firespell by Chloe Neill, unless of course I change my mind (which, if you know me, is entirely possible).

If you're a late-night person who enjoys reading like me, why not sign up for the readathon?  You don't have to stay up the whole night, but while you're up you can join in the fun and possibly get some prizes and swag.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles

leaving paradise cover

Leaving Paradise is a book about forgiveness and responsibility, but is also a Cinderella tale gone wrong.

A year ago, Caleb Becker confessed to hitting Maggie Armstrong's car while driving drunk.  In the wreck's aftermath, Caleb was sentenced to almost a year in juvenile detention and Maggie had to go through a year's worth of painful surgeries and physical therapy just to get out of a wheelchair and walking.  Now Caleb is back in his hometown of Paradise, expecting everything to be the same and to move on with his life.  But everything isn't the same--not for the people Caleb left behind when he was sentenced, and especially not for Maggie. 

Elkeles was admirably ambitious with this novel in terms of plot and storytelling.  You think you know what's going on at the beginning, but as the book progresses you realize you don't, and the actions of the characters start to make sense in a whole different way. 

Maggie at first seems like a whiner (not that I blame her; I've thrown pity parties over a lot less than she's had to go through), but as you learn more about her you realized that the accident has completely erased Maggie's self-identity.  Everything she thought was true and certain in the world and about herself has been turned on its head, and as a result she has no self-confidence.

Caleb, meanwhile, is an odd character.  He's a mix of bad boy and knight-in-shining armor, and it doesn't quite work.  In a way, Caleb and Maggie go through a role reversal during the course of this book--he starts off having all the confidence in the world, or at least appearing to, and then loses it and his emotional center, after which he decides to leave Paradise.  Maggie had no confidence and wants to get away from Paradise, but questions her motives for leaving and gains a sense of purpose.

I mentioned earlier that this book is a Cinderella tale gone wrong--there are definitely elements taken from the fairy tale, like the fairy godmother, the dress, the wicked stepsisters, and the magical ball.  But this isn't a retelling of the fairy tale by any means, and the novel seems to fight a little too deliberately against the happily ever after ending.

Overall, I thought Leaving Paradise was really good.  But the last 100 pages were a train wreck.  They were very choppy and rushed, and I lost all sense of Caleb's motivation.  It was as if after setting us up to believe that Caleb and Maggie could get together, Elkeles suddenly changed her mind and decided they couldn't and shouldn't.  But she didn't take the time to set us up for that, so it was difficult to follow.  There were also a bunch of plotlines just left hanging at the end, and it didn't feel like a whole book.

This is obviously an early book by Elkeles, but even though it faltered in the end execution, I still love the author's voice and feel invested in the characters.  Naturally, I'll be picking up the sequel to Leaving, and I can only hope the loose ends are wrapped up and the story is well-concluded then.

Side note:  I freaking love this cover.  Touch is a big deal in Leaving Paradise, and the cover is visually striking and captures that theme and the tension between Maggie and Caleb perfectly.

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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Book of Double Entendres

harry potter audiobook cover

In this installment of Harry Potter, Harry becomes deeply aware of his "wand"--which, we're informed repeatedly, is an impressive eleven inches long.  Aunt Petunia refers to it as "his thing", and Cousin Dudley is intimidated whenever Harry whips it out.  When Harry proves his manly prowess by chasing away Dementor kisses, the Ministry of Magic tries to emasculate him by threatening to take away his "wand."  The fact that Dementor kisses have a vaguely homosexual overtone only reinforces Harry's masculinity--and further undermines Dudley's, seeing as how he couldn't resist the Dementor's kiss.

Harry is understandably upset about the threat to take away his wand.  Not only does he instinctively know losing it would mean not returning to Hogwarts; unconsciously, he senses that to lose one's wand equates to being emasculated.  He has prima facie evidence of this in the form of Sirius Black, someone who has been un-manned by the shenanigans of the Ministry and his inability to use magic.  Sirius rattles about his miserable house, completely impotent.  This is represented not only by his failure to control Creature, but also the fact that he is the last in his family line, symbolically at least unable to produce children.

When Harry heads to Hogwarts, he faces more challenges and threats to "wand"--namely in the person of Dolores Umbridge, the current Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.  Umbridge is possibly the most loathsome character in the entire series, but why?  Obviously she represents the evils of bureaucracy, but then so does Prime Minister Fudge.  Umbridge's repulsive personality is antithetical to everything magical or feminine, even though she is a hyper-feminized character.  We're even told her wand is "an unusually short one."

This setting up of Umbridge as the antithesis of everything Harry Potter and Hogwarts stands for creates for the reader a witch in the worst, most frightening sense of the word--a woman who has gone wrong, who does everything a woman shouldn't do.  Instead of eating babies as medieval witches were said to do, however, Umbridge continually attempts to force Harry to deny his manhood and emasculate himself.  She calls Harry a liar and demands that he continues to lie.  From this we learn that the words that issue from a man's mouth (or at the very least a wizard's mouth, which can speak things into existence and thus create) is a metaphor for potency and ejaculation.  As Harry fails to stop himself from speaking the truth and doesn't lessen the power of his words by telling lies, he proves he has the honor and stamina to move on to the next challenge in the story.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the book where Harry comes into adulthood and decides for himself what will separate him from Voldemort and make him his own man.  Therefore it's no surprise the book is filled with so many metaphors for physical and sexual power.  This power will not be actualized, however, until book seven.  For now Harry is merely establishing the parameters and basis for his life as an adult.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Booking It--Full Circle Bookstore

full circle bookstore

Since I've moved to a new state, I've decided to explore some local independent bookstores.  Fortunately, Oklahoma has a good selection of them (at least compared to SoCO, which had, um, zero).  First up is Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City.  It abuts an eerily empty mall and smells like an old house.  The inside is pretty cozy with lots of places to sit and read and cool shelves that go up to the ceiling and require ladders.

The books are obviously a personal selection, which is refreshing.  That being said, their romance section is just sad--two shelves, half of which are Jennifer Crusie--and they have an interesting section titled "gentle reading," which I assume is code for sappy sap.  The literature, fiction, and mystery sections are kick-ass, though, and there are very large non-fiction sections.

creepy man

Colorful touches give the store some personality, like this scarecrow man.  Don't know what the deal is with that.  The store also has a mascot named Pearl the Buffalo, whom I completely missed somehow, but I read about it on their website.

I think the main drawback with this store is the location.  It's tucked away back in a corner close to an awkward intersection, and the entrance is through the deadest mall I've ever been in in my entire life.  Like The Stand dead.  But maybe people in Oklahoma don't go to the mall on Fridays, what do I know.  There weren't a lot of people in the store, either, but compared to the mall it had good traffic.

Overall I think this is a pretty decent bookstore.  It's one of those stores where you can browse for a long time and find unexpected treasures, but there's also something a little wonky about it.  I completely get what the store is shooting for, but it hasn't quite reached the level of Powell's or The Tattered Cover, yet.

Do you know of any good bookstores in driving distance of Oklahoma City?  Let me know in the comments !

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fragment Friday--Harry Potter and the Order Phoenix

Fragment Friday is an awesome meme hosted by Book Chic where you read a passage from a current or recent book.  Today I'm reading from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which hopefully I'll be reviewing soon!

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Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman

Odd cover

I rarely take much note of opening sentences, but this book has one of the best I've ever come across: 

There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place.  Odd meant the tip of a blade, and it was a lucky name.

He was odd, though.  At least, the other villagers thought so.  But if there was one thing that he wasn't, it was lucky.

Is that a great set-up or what?  As the opening paragraph states, Odd is a boy living in a Viking village.  He has one lame leg and an infuriating smile, and at the end of one very long winter he decides to go off on his own to his father's hut in the woods.  There he meets a bear, a fox, and an eagle, and has many adventures.

This a great piece of storytelling, and I was continually surprised by the problems Odd encountered and how he surpassed them.  One of Odd's most unusual characteristics is that he doesn't let things bother him.  And even when they do, he just smiles.  I think this trait of Odd's is the most striking part of the book:  Odd has gone through a lot of crap--losing his dad, breaking his leg, being an outcast in his village, and then this adventure.  Through it all, Odd maintains his cool demeanor, even as the reader empathizes deeply with his losses and challenges.

I think this marks Odd as extraordinary because learning not to let bad things affect you--or at the very least affect your outward demeanor--and thinking through situations instead of just reacting to them is something we learn to do as adults (hopefully).  But for Odd, it's part of his essential make-up.  Even though he is a child, he's more of an adult than anyone in his village or even the beings he meets in the forest.  It's not until he leaves the village for the forest and then returns, that anyone realizes this, however.

Does this mean Odd doesn't change during the course of the book?  No.  He discovers new ways to see his parents and he finds out what makes us human.

This is a very short, entertaining little gem of a book I highly recommend.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Just the Sexiest Man Alive by Julie James

Total hours of sleep while reading this book over a two-day period: 9.

Just the Sexiest Man Alive is a weird title.  I also don't read many contemporary novels.  But the reviews for this book on some of the blogs I read were so good that I decided to get it anyway.  And I'm really, really glad I did.  I honestly did not expect that much from this book, but I was pleasantly surprised--mainly because it's the most imaginative recreation of Pride & Prejudice I've ever read.

Taylor Donnovan is a sexual harassment attorney from Chicago who is temporarily relocated to LA to head the legal team for a huge lawsuit.  HUGE.  Taylor is a workaholic who has only two priorities:  making partner, and forgetting all about her recently ex-fiance, whom she caught having sex with a 22-year-old grad student in his office.  Ouch.  Fortunately, both of these plans are coming along rather well.  At least until the firm "asks" her to babysit celebaby Jason Andrews as he does research for an upcoming role as a litigation attorney.

Andrews is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.  He's won an Oscar and been voted the Sexiest Man Alive by People magazine 3 times.  Oh, and he's a notorious playboy.  So, the man's filthy rich, handsome, and charming--basically what every woman in the world wants.  Just like Mr. Darcy in Pride & Prejudice.  And just like Elizabeth Bennett, Taylor is determined before she even meets him not to like him, for two reasons:  one, her former fiance was rich, handsome, and charming, and she doesn't want to go down that road again; and two, her initial impression of him leads her to believe he's a spoiled, arrogant, self-centered celebrity.  And in fact he is (at one point he says to her, "What do you mean you can't go to Napa with me for the weekend?  Do you know who I am?).  But, you know, there are redeeming qualities.

Aside from the Pride & Prejudice references (there are at least two lines in the book obviously borrowed from the production with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth), there are funny moments that feel like they're being channeled from a Preston Sturges film, with classic romantic high-jinks and super-smart, witty dialog.  In fact, it's pretty obvious Julie James is something of a cinemaniac and that Just the Sexiest Man Alive is meant to be a romantic comedy in book form.

Overall the book is successful and enjoyable.  It's not perfect.  The protagonists don't meet for the first fifty pages, which contain a lot of tedious back story and setting up of unnecessary subplots.  Also, the ending feels rushed and didn't wrap up the story very well, emotion- or plot-wise.  The writer lets us know that Jason is addicted to gambling, but doesn't give Taylor a chance to figure it out before the book is finished.  So what was the point of that?  Also, the "Mr. Wickham" character, another actor who's Jason's younger, handsomer professional rival, apparently wants revenge against Jason for... something... but he just appears and disappears whenever it's convenient and that storyline is never fully developed, either.  I would have preferred it if Taylor and Jason got together in the middle of the book--but admittedly, that wouldn't have worked with the story arc the author set up.

Despite these problems, I really really liked this book.  Bordering on love.  It was fun, unputadownable, had great film references, and I did feel as if I was being transported into the world of a Hollywood celebrity.  There were moments when I was thinking, "Is LA really like this???"  Whether it is or not, it's certainly entertaining.

*Reposted from my old non-book blog, 2/8/09

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Fragment: Odd and the Frost Giants

Friday Fragment is a meme hosted James at Book Chic Club.  Every Friday, you read an excerpt from a book and post it so other people can hear it!  It's really fun.

This week I'm reading from Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman.  I hope you like it!

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer

second life of bree tanner cover

I'm sure everyone is familiar with the premise of this book by now, so let's just cut to the chase, shall we?

What I liked:

This is a very quick read.  I think I read it in three hours or less.

I liked seeing how vampires who aren't perfect tree huggers with superpowers live.

What I didn't like:

It's a good thing this book was so short, because otherwise I doubt I would have finished it.  I didn't feel any emotional connection with the main character or narrative tension in the story--and it wasn't just because I already knew certain things the characters didn't.  Meyer could have played with that, but instead she made every step in the plot painfully obvious and as a result it was pretty bland and uninteresting.  Yawn.

And I know y'all will be shocked by this, but once again the Cullens are made out to be perfect little loving balls of light.  It kind of made me sick.  And since when is Edward a redhead?

What I hated:

The cover.  I know it fits in with the whole white/red/black thing going on with the other books, but visually it's pretty lame.  And there's a scene from the book that I think would make a way better cover.  If I had PS on this computer, I'd totally make my own cover for this novella.

What I loved:

Fred!  He was awesome, and the only character in the entire book who was even vaguely interesting.  I very much wish this book had been about him.

I also enjoyed learning random sparkly vamp facts such as their kissing sounds like two stones smacking together.  Can you imagine the soundtrack in vampire porno movies?


Not that I was expecting much from this novella, since it is so short, but I think it was a missed opportunity on Meyer's part.  She could have at the least made it interesting, perhaps drawn some parallels between the coven and gang psychology, or the young vampires' bloodlust and drug use, or something; but she really couldn't do much with the coven or bloodlust, because she working so hard to make Bree likable.  As a result, Meyer removed Bree from nearly all coven-related activity and, like the cheese she's named after, made her soft and bland.  And a victim, even before she meets the Volturi.  HM OKAY. 

I'm really glad I got this book from the library instead of buying it.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Lost Duke of Wyndham by Julia Quinn

wyndham cover

For those of you not familiar with the romance genre, Julia Quinn is a Major Name in historical romance.  She's not as big as Nora Roberts, but she's certainly the leader of the pack of Regency-era romance writers that emerged in the 1990s following the success of the
Pride and Prejudice miniseries.  This is the first book not related to the popular Bridgerton series that she's released since 2000, and it's surprisingly good.

I've never been a huge fan of Julia Quinn, though I do read her books.  My issue with her is that her books are just too perfect--the heroine is always decent, smart but not too smart, pretty but not too pretty, etc.  The hero is likewise rich (they are always, always rich), handsome, dashing but not so much that he would ever dream of abandoning the heroine, and an overall a nice guy.  The plot moves along in the expected way, and at the end your have a pleasantly believable HEA.  Quinn's books feel to me like the equivalent of literary pablum:  I have never hated one of her books, and I have never loved one of her books.  They're just pleasant, non-thought inducing ways to spend the time.

The Lost Duke of Wyndham is pretty much more of the same, although technically Quinn has really upped her game with this book.  The storyline, characterizations, and plot twists are tight and solid.  The beginning was a little rough because the heroine kissed the hero within the first ten pages and, of course, swooned.  Urn, swooning, really?  Let's rewind 75 years and try again.  But somehow, the plot and the hero pulled me out of my skepticism and dragged me back into the book.

Since this is Julia Quinn, it's hard for me to say anything too bad or good about the book, although there was one bad point and one good point that stood out to me.  The really great part of the book is that, although it's pretty clear from the beginning that Jack (hero) is the real Duke of Wyndham, you don't know until the end if he's going to accept that fact and take over his duties.  Things become even more complicated when a Major Plot Twist is revealed.

The bad part of the book is Jack and Grace's (heroine) relationship.  It starts out with the rather unlikely kiss-and-swoon and picks up a bit once Jack moves into the ducal palace; but although the two are clearly attracted to one another, I had difficulty seeing them as a real couple.  The sex scene was kinda awkward.  Even worse, I barely cared if these two got a HEA.  The central relationship in the book was actually the one between Jack and his long-lost grandmother, and that was almost completely ignored.  I wanted Jack and the dowager duchess to come to some sort of understanding or armistice, but they never did.  And you would think that a man who spent his whole life unaware of half of his family tree would be a little curious about them, but he never evinces any curiosity in the inhabitants of the palace other than Grace.

Interestingly, the reviews for this book on Amazon are completely spread out--there is a nearly-equal number of people who gave the book one star, two stars, three stars, and so on.  This is amazing because usually people LOVE Quinn's books--for The Duke and I, 118 out of 164 reviews gave the book 5 stars.  Even toothpaste commercials can't claim results like that.  Could The Lost Duke of Wyndham actually be arousing more feeling in people than that of warm fuzziness??  One reviewer actually called this book "too charming," which is amazing because all of her books are charming--the difference here is that people actually seem to be noticing.  In a book where Quinn is clearly growing as a writer, the light-hearted Kodachrome feeling that carried her earlier work is beginning to feel more like artifice than ambiance.  I'm not suggesting Quinn stop writing romance, but (sad to say) she might benefit from writing in another subset of the genre for a while.  Paranormal romance, anyone?

*Reposted from my old, non-book blog, 6/23/08

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Monday, August 9, 2010

Rosario + Vampire, Volume 3, by Akihisa Ikeda


I'm happy to report this manga keeps getting better.

When we last left our friends at Yokai Academy--a school for monsters, where the only human is freshman Tsukune--our motley band of heroes was being threatened by the school "enforcers," who had discovered Tsukune was human.  Or had they?  After Tsukune is beaten up and comes close to death, Moka, a cute vampire, pumps vampire blood into his veins and suddenly he's totally kick-ass!  Yeah, Tsukune!!!  Of course, Moka still has to save him in the end, but at least he got in a few punches.

In the latter half of the manga, word has spread around the school that Tsukune beat up the school bully.  The captain of the wrestling team is shocked and wants Tsukune to join his team.  Being no dummy (unlike the captain), Tsukune refuses, which eventually leads to him getting another dose of vampire blood from Moka and kicking the captain's trolly buttocks. 

What are the effects of all this vampire blood, you might be wondering?  Well, so far no one knows.  Tsukune himself doesn't remember becoming a vampire and the fact that Moka bit him without permission causes something of a rift in their relationship.  But don't worry, after a few minutes Tsukune appears to return to his completely normal, human self.

In the last chapter, Tsukune is tutored by the sexy math teacher who likes her students to be very, very obedient.

As you can probably tell, the characters are developing more now and the formula is starting to become interesting.  I have to say I found this volume to be very exciting and fun to read, and Tsukune is simply adorable.

As for the objectification of the female characters, there were six gratuitous panty shots (a good half of them for poor Kurumu).  Don't even get me started on the cleavage.  And the math teacher is a dominatrix.  Other than that, though, there's not as much creepy sexual stuff going on in this volume as there was in the previous one, which is fine with me.

So far this manga is definitely on an improving trend, and I can't wait to see what comes up in the next volume.

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Saturday, August 7, 2010

When Art Meets Life--and Murder

what alice knew cover

What Alice Knew by Paula Marantz Cohen "stars" Henry James and his two siblings, William and Alice, as the main characters.  It also prominently features their friend, John Singer Sargent, and several other artists and writers.  While reading the book I couldn't help but wonder which of the characters and paintings were real and which weren't.  This is just a small sampling of what I found.

henry james

Henry James (above) is obviously a real-life someone.  He and Sargent were great friends, but he had to have his portrait painted twice because the first one pleased neither the artist nor the subject.  I would love to get my eyes on that rejected work, but I have yet to find it.

I actually remember this painting from the first-ever art history course I took, although I didn't know it was of Henry James at the time.  The instructor used it as an example of Sargent's skill--to make the links in the watch chain, for example, he dipped half his brush in bright yellow paint, and the other half in a dark gold, then just painted the links--simple! 

I think this is a great portrait of James--you can see that he's always thinking and trying to be serious, but has an intrinsic humor; it looks like he's trying hard not to smile.  I kept picturing James like this in my mind while I was reading the book.

Alice James

I also really wanted to find a picture of Alice James, Henry's sister.  She spends most of her time in bed due to incapacitating headaches.  Unfortunately, I couldn't--but I did find a painting of William James' wife, who was also named Alice.  Doesn't she just look... yeah.  Poor woman.

Ellen Terry

The portrait above is of Ellen Terry, a famous dramatic actress in the Victorian era.  By painting her in the persona of Lady MacBeth, Sargent was following in the footsteps of famous eighteenth-century portraitists like Sir Joshua Reynolds.  The scene where Sargent paints this work is actually in What Alice Knew, and is so much fun!

Vernon Lee

Another great scene in the book is the dinner party Henry and Alice throw to lure one of the murder suspects into questioning.  Among the other guests is famous actress Fanny Kemble, Constance Fenimore Cooper (whom I'm guessing is Constance Fenimore Woolson?), and Vernon Lee, whose portrait is seen here.  Her real name was Violet Paget, but, as the book put it, "had lately, in rebellion against her femininity, renamed herself Vernon Lee").  How cool is that?

Vernon Lee's portrait is actually one of my favorite Sargent portraits, just because you can practically see her personality, almost as if she's right there in front of you.  I also like it because Sargent painted it after he had sworn off portraiture, so you can tell it's a portrait of friendship and everything he likes about Vernon--who apparently was quite the irrepressible character.

daughters of edward darley boit

Another very interesting character in the book is Ella Abrams, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman.  I thought for sure she and her family were real historical figures, but so far I haven't been able to find them.  In the book she was painted several times by Sargent, as was her family.  I immediately thought of this work, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit--probably just because it's one of his most famous pieces, but I also thought the familial atmosphere of the Abrams in the book and Boits in this work was very similar.

walter sickert

One person I did NOT expect to be a historical personage was Walter Sickert, mainly because he was the most obvious murder suspect in the book.  But, surprise, he was a real Victorian painter!  Here we see a photograph of him from 1911, around the time of the book's epilogue.  Does he look like a murderer to you?

jack the rippers bedroom

I was also surprised to find out the real Walter Sickert was tangentially involved in the Ripper murders--or so he believed--and that he's been accused of being the Ripper several times.  He claimed to have roomed with the Ripper briefly, based on some incidents related by his landlady, and painted a work he titled Jack the Ripper's Bedroom (pictured above).  Several writers have used this as a jumping-off point to argue he was the actual killer, including Patricia Cornwell, who supposedly bought up nearly all of his paintings and then destroyed them in the search for his DNA.  She denies this--although she does claim to have samples of Sickert's DNA, and that it matches samples found on the Ripper letters, soooo... how'd you get those samples, Cornwell?  Just sayin'.

camden town murder

More than likely, Sickert was simply a sensationalist capitalizing on the Ripper murders, just as he did with this painting, Camden Town Murders.  It was exhibited during a later period of London-based serial killings (c. 1911).  This work appears in the very last scene in What Alice Knew, along with the observation, "Perhaps Jack the Ripper is back."

What Alice Knew is an excellent book that's very well-researched and will submerge you completely into Victorian London.  It comes out September 7th--check back then for my review!

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Musical Notes--Short!

musical notes

Musical Notes is my semi-regular feature, where I talk about what music my reading inspired me to listen to this week.  This week's is pretty short and only includes two books!

What Alice Knew

One of the characters encountered in this Victorian-set novel is a Marxist, who began talking about "children of the revolution."  I was like, Hmmmm, where have I heard that before?

Cornered Tigress

I was flipping through this book to make sure I didn't still want to keep it (I didn't), and the hero's name is Jonas.


That's all for this week!  What have you been listening and reading lately?

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Friday, August 6, 2010

Fragment Friday-What Alice Knew

This is the first week I'm participating in Fragment Friday, hosted by Book Chic Club.  It's where you read a passage out of your current book, and it's really fun. 

I forgot to adjust the volume for my soft voice this week--sorry about that!  I know I start off very, very quiet, but I get louder once I start reading.

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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Whore and the Artist: Two Novels Set In Renaissance Italy

creation of eve cover

Carrie from Books and Movies was so nice and generous to send me her ARC of The Creation of Eve when she heard I was excited about it.  Sadly, however, I had some major issues with it from the start and just couldn't get into it.

The premise of the book sounds awesome--Sofonisba Anguissola, a real-life Renaissance painter whose work was praised by Michelangelo, falls in love and navigates the court of 16th-century Spain.  I think the crux of all my problems with this book is that it reads like a novelized script--I could see the art and what was happening so clearly in my mind, but I think the author was so focused on setting the scene and giving us the feeling of being in a movie that she neglected to think in-depth about the motivations of the characters.

Basically, Sofonisba just doesn't seem to think like an artist the way, say, Alex from To the Hilt does.  With Alex, you know he has a passion for art to the point that he would want to die if he wasn't painting.  Sofonisba seems to treat art the way I do--which is to say, a fun and interesting hobby.  She doesn't have a strong will or a fierce passion for it, which makes me wonder why the heck she's putting herself through the torture of trying to be a female artist when it would be much easier for her to do what her culture tells her she should be doing, getting married and having babies.

Secondly, I had a MAJOR issue with how her relationship with the sculptor, Tiberio, is set up.  As far as I can tell, the entire impetus for her sleeping with him was that he gave her the tingly body parts.  That's pretty weak motivation for doing the bumpin' nasty even in a romance novel, but for this novel I found it to be negligent and a bit insulting.  I'm not saying her having sex out of wedlock is objectionable or unrealistic, but the stakes for Sofonisba are very high, risking her career and her and her family's honor; yet she sleeps with this guy anyway, apparently out of the blue and for no reason other than she's kinda sorta maybe attracted to him.  HUH.

To my mind, this book should have been about a woman who's strong--or foolish--and brilliant enough to earn the respect and tutelage of Michelangelo, one of the most machismo artists in THE era of male bravura art.  Instead, it's about a girl who falls wherever a man pushes her, be it into a career as an artist (her story of how she became an artist begins with her father noticing she draws well--she never mentions how she feels about it, as if it's incidental), a studio room where he wants to have sex with her, or a foreign court (where she languishes and waits for Tiberio to suggest they marry--way to be proactive, Wallpaper McPassive!), with nary a whimper of protest or personal opinion, even just to herself.  And while we may not know much about the real Sofonisba, I'm pretty sure a woman who stayed single until she was in her late thirties, proposed to her second husband, and was called one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance DESPITE the fact that, no, she did not receive proper anatomy lessons (let's stop whining about that, please) would be a little more independent than that.

And don't even get me started on the historical inaccuracies.

botticelli secret cover

The Botticelli Secret was another book I really wanted to like, but just couldn't get into.  Although I did get farther with this one than with The Creation of Eve.

Here's another great premise for you:  While posing as a model for Botticelli's Primavera, Luciana discovers there is a secret hidden in the painting.  With the help of a young man named Guido who wants to be a monk, she travels to all the great cities of Renaissance Italy searching for the answers to the painting's hidden message.  The back blurb describes it as a cross between The Da Vinci Code and The Birth of Venus (which quite honestly made me laugh; what will those crazy kids cross The Da Vinci Code with next????).

Could there be a more polar opposite character to Sofonisba than Luciana?  This girl, who's about thirteen, is a prostitute living in poverty who is tough as nails, brimming with street smarts, and lewd, crude, and shameless.  She should logically be a completely unappealing character, but she has a certain Artful Dodger-esque charm to her--and Luciana isn't the type to let anyone decide her fate.  She's balanced out nicely by the wealthy, modest, and educated Guido.  I'm just going to assume they sleep together at some point.

The only real problem I had with this book is that it was so long and the plot was so silly.  I still have no idea what secret The Primavera contains, why Botticelli painted it (the secret, that is), or why Luciana and Guido were chasing it around.  It was supposed to be because they thought that would protect them from people trying to kill them, but really THAT MAKES NO SENSE. 

In the end it's all just an excuse to travel around Italy, anyway.  I honestly wouldn't have had a problem with that if the book was shorter, but it wasn't and then it was due at the library so... that was the end of that.

I should mention that both of these novels might masquerade as YA, but are actually more geared for adult historical fiction.

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

bones cover

This book could easily be called The Shakespeare Code--it has all the mystery, puzzles, treasure, and travel of The Da Vinci Code, but with more solid research backing it up.

Kate Stanley has her dream job, directing Hamlet at the Globe in London.  A former Ph.D. student studying Shakespeare, Kate burned a lot of bridges when she quit Harvard, and she swore to never look back.  But now her former mentor, Professor Rosalind Howard, appears with a box she claims holds the secret to something big, and she wants Kate to help her uncover it. Although highly doubtful, Kate agrees to keep the box and think about it--but before she can give the professor her answer, the Globe has burned, and one person is dead: predictably, Rosalind Howard.  Kate quickly becomes convinced Roz was murdered, and the same person is now chasing her in pursuit of the box.  With the help of famed Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Lee, a mysterious man named Ben who claims to be Roz's nephew, and a wealthy eccentric who lives in a town called Shakespeare, Kate travels across England and the US in search of answers, and finding mainly more questions.

Phew!  As you can probably tell from my summary, this is a complex book, but it doesn't feel that way while you're reading it.  An academic mystery about Shakespeare might sound staid and doddering, but believe me, it isn't.  It starts off with a bang and, even though it is a long book, goes by very quickly.  The characters are interesting, the facts about Shakespeare are surprising, the mystery is fascinating, and it's chock-full of fun and smart references to Shakespeare and his plays.

That being said, there were some major plot holes--shouldn't Kate need an ID to fly, for example?  I figured out who the evol villains were before page one hundred, and the story seemed to lose a lot of its focus when the issue of Shakespeare-might-not-be-Shakespeare-but-all-these-other-rich-famous-people-take-your-pick popped up.  Sir Henry called that idea ridiculous, and I have to admit I agree with him.  When the book became more about that than anything else, I got a little bored with the whole thing.

Even with its problems, though, this novel is a lot better than similar novels I've read.  I loved the main characters, especially Kate, who is believably intelligent and stubborn enough to follow through on investigating the mystery (I also have to confess that I connected with her immediately because she wrote her dissertation on occult Shakespeare--I wrote my MA thesis on hermeticism in Giorgio di Chirico's work).  I loved the places Kate went to in her search for Shakespeare, and how obsessive and excited people still get over his plays.  My absolute favorite part of the novel, though, were the historical scenes from Shakespeare's own time--they were very few and far between, but they were the most emotionally engaging and striking part of the book.  I am definitely a hundred times more interested in Shakespeare now than I was a week ago!

I highly recommend this novel, especially if you're a fan of academic mysteries.  It picks you up immediately and doesn't loosen its grip on you for a long time.  And, unlike a few other academic mysteries I've read, in this one you do feel like the conclusion to the mystery is important and will matter, even to people who don't live to study the subject.

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Is It Unethical to Accept Payment for Positive Reviews?

sheep Image by seier+seier

The art world doesn't seem to think so.

According to an article cited on The Art History Newsletter, it is common practice for artists or galleries to hire noted art historians and critics to write reviews or catalog entries of their work.  The going price is $1-2 per word; for an average catalog entry (1000 words, plus "an extra charge if the writing needs to be turned around quickly”), that can turn into a very lucrative sideline for art historians with big reputations--such as Richard Vine, the managing editor of Art In America and one of the NYC art critics kept on retainer by artist agencies like Katharine T. Carter & Associates.

But it's not all roses and sunshine!  “You have to realize that you haven’t bought this person body and soul for the price of an essay,” Eleanor Heartney says.  No, but you have made them your bitch.

As book bloggers, it's cool if we make money from our reviews.  But we're expected to mention if we received a book for free or if we get commissions from book sales; and most consider it a personal affront if they're required to write positive reviews in return for being provided books.  That's not only good ethics; the FCC cares enough to protect consumers from being bamboozled out of $6-24 at the book store to regulate our review practices. 

The people who spend thousands of dollars on paintings, however, can suck it.

There is an obvious element of don't-look-behind-the-curtain to the buying and selling of art--no one had even heard of Caravaggio until Sir Denis Mahon started writing about him in the 1950s; now he's the quintessential Baroque painter and collectors fall on Caravaggio's work like rabid dogs, paying millions of dollars for them.  But when the voices studying, chronicling, and cheering on that magic show are motivated by money in absence of genuine feeling, it kind of leaves a bad taste in one's mouth.  Why doesn't the FCC regulate art criticism in print the way it does blogging?  Because art is more of an opinion?  Because the writers are above reproach and have professional standards, unlike bloggers?

Whatever the answer, from now on I'd like to announce that I am paying myself for every word I write.  This post has just made me a bazillion dollars.  I'll expect reimbursement from myself any day now.

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