Thursday, November 29, 2012

Twilight (Part I of the Twilight Review Series)

Author: Stephenie Meyer
Genre: Fantasy, or "Teen Paranormal Romance"
Original Pub. Date: 2005

When I was eleven, I decided cookbooks were for squares and mixed up two batches of bread entirely by guesswork. The first I dyed green, dubbed Christmas Bread, and forced upon my mom and stepdad while they were just waking up from a nap and too sleepy to resist. They still haven't forgiven me for this. The second, Oatmeal Delight, was the remains of the Christmas Bread batter with added oatmeal and sugar. We flung it out the back door into the snow. Come the spring thaw, it was still there; not even the starving forest animals would touch that nasty green lump of slime.

For anyone not following (Not you, Mom, you're the smartest!! My Christmas wish list is in the mail.) this very clear analogy to the Twilight series, allow me to elaborate. Twilight contains all the ingredients that ought to go into an exciting, romantic fantasy thriller. Lives are put at risk*, hearts are broken**, and extravagant promises are made***. Sadly, these ingredients appear to have been assembled by a drooling buck-toothed space monkey, the characters have all the depth and appeal of a spreading pool of vomit**** steaming fragrantly in the noonday sun, and the plot is so utterly without twists that the spoiler quote on the back of the book appears on page 195.

I doubt I have any readers who are blissfully unfamiliar with the basic story. And I do mean basic. A boring seventeen-year-old girl moves to a crappy little mold-stain of a town in Washington and falls in luuuuurve with a weird kid who turns out to be a 104-year-old vampire. He falls in luuuuuurve with her because her blood smells good (and let's just not go there, shall we?), and then he saves her life eight or nine times as she stumbles around getting almost eaten by another vampire and run over by classmates. Yup, that's about it.

Writing this review, I'm reminded of a segment (starts at about 6:50 in the first video) in Red Letter Media's review of The Phantom Menace in which people were asked to name salient qualities of the characters from Star Wars Episode IV versus Episode I, without referencing appearance. For Han Solo, they came up with descriptors like "roguish," "arrogant but charming," "a thief with a heart of gold,"  and so on. For Queen Amidala, "monotone" and "Natalie Portman" were the best they could do.

Twilight has left me in a similar position. Other than the fact that every character in the book is a retard, I can't think of a single characteristic for any of them that goes beyond the superficial. The heroine, Bella, is clumsy and calls her parents by their first names. She likes to cook. That's all, I guess, except for her delicious personal odor. We're told over and over again (mostly through the other characters' slavish praise -- I guess having yummy bodily fluids makes you "interesting" and a "diabolical" plotter in times of crisis?) how awesome and well-read and mature she is, and yet she never does or says anything above the intellectual level of window-licking. Typical Harlequin romance heroine syndrome, in short. We're told she's smart, and then she runs into traffic because the Greek billionaire knocked her up and her hair extensions fell out. That's Bella.

Her paramour Edward is strong and fast and has cold skin. He likes Bella because she apparently reeks of air freshener and iron supplements. He plays music well, and frankly, I'm less impressed that he plays the piano and more surprised he's only gotten good at one fricking thing in a hundred years. He also goes to high school over and over again in different places in order to blend into society, an idea that, in the hands of a competent writer, could be extremely amusing. Given that Edward begins dating an actual high school girl, though, it just comes off as a pedophile's supernatural fantasy rather than a teenage girl's, which is how Twilight is marketed. Edward and his equally young-looking vampire siblings' attitude toward life can be summed up in the immortal words of Matthew McConaughey:

To recap, then, we have one dumb teenager who trips over her own feet a lot, and one pedophiliac blood-sucker, who both fall in love at first sight based on B.O. and plot necessity.

Then we get to the really batshit insane stupidity that fills the other 5% of this book's 498 (!!!) pages. The only weakness of the vampires in this series, besides their tendency to lust after children and drink human blood? They glitter in the sunlight. Glitter. Like little shimmewing pwincesses covered in sequin fairy dust made from the sparkly tears of the unicorns that die horribly in a fire every time Stephenie Meyer rings a bell or touches her keyboard. Just to be clear, sparkly princesses are typically girls.

Yep, that guy's clearly straight.

I mean, who needs all those hideously unsparkly and unsexy vampires created and adapted by other writers and filmmakers:

Gag me with a spoon, right?
Closeted-gay Tom Cruise in a gay-club white ruffled shirt playing an actually gay vampire is still less gay than Edward Cullen. I probably could have just reviewed this book with that one sentence.

And yet, gentle readers, how could I deprive you of a few samples of the writing that's swept the hearts, minds, other [ahem] parts, and wallets of teenage girls and potentially sex-offending adults everywhere? While Meyer's writing style isn't quite as bad as her characterization, plotting, and continued existence, it's still no walk in the forest with a glittery shaved-chest dude who wants to borrow your nail polish and then suck your blood.*****

There's her powers of description:

My head spun around in answerless circles. (139)

As I crossed the threshold of the cafeteria, I felt the first true tingle of fear slither down my spine and settle in my stomach. (145)

I dressed quickly, something stronger than butterflies battering recklessly against the walls of my stomach, my argument with Mike already a distant memory. (221)

It's something, and it's stronger than butterflies . . . that really narrows it down. I've got it! Stegosauruses! No, how about tow trucks? My gag reflex? Obviously not Bella's digestion.

The house was timeless, graceful, and probably a hundred years old. (321)

The cabbie's question punctured my fantasy, letting all the colors run out of my lovely delusions. Fear, bleak and hard, was waiting to fill the empty space they left behind. (441)

There's also the emotion seeping from every page, an oozing, suppurating, repetitive emotion no penicillin could cure:

His anguish was plain; I yearned to comfort him, but I was at a loss to know how. My hand reached toward him involuntarily; quickly, though, I dropped it to the table, fearing that my touch would only make things worse. I realized slowly that his words should frighten me. I waited for that fear to come, but all I could seem to feel was an ache for his pain. (246)

He closed his eyes, lost in his agonized confession. I listened, more eager than rational. Common sense****** told me I should be terrified. Instead, I was relieved to finally understand. And I was filled with compassion for his suffering, even now, as he confessed his craving to take my life. (272)

Anything not worth writing is worth writing twice, I guess?

He was too perfect, I realized with a piercing stab of despair. There was no way this godlike creature could me meant for me. (256)

Lucky you: he's a pedophile!

He lifted his glorious, agonized eyes to mine. "You are the most important thing to me now. The most important thing to me ever." (273)

And then there are the just plain old WTFs:

"You know Bella, Jacob?" Lauren asked -- in what I imagined was an insolent tone -- from across the fire. (121)


There was a basketball game on that he was excited about, though of course I had no idea what was special about it, so he wasn't even aware of anything unusual in my face or tone. (129)

Leaving aside the fact that I'm not sure what that sentence means, Bella's constant inexplicable knowledge of what other people are and are not aware of becomes pretty grating by the end of this book. So does continuing to live.

It was quiet except for the whirring of the machines, the beeping, the dripping, the ticking of the big clock on the wall. (477)

Similarly, Twilight was an awesome read except for the main characters, the secondary characters, the plot, the descriptions, the dialogue, and occasionally the punctuation. One and a half stars.

Stay tuned for further installments in the Twilight review series -- I'm reading the sequels now. FML.

* The readers'.

** The readers'.

*** "Oh God, I promise I'll quit smoking and drinking and repent for all my misdeeds and volunteer at a soup kitchen every weekend if you'll just please oh God make the book end now and let Stephenie Meyer break all her fingers and be unable to type ever ever again . . ."

**** I provided this after I finished the third chapter.

***** And while this doesn't sound all that great to me, apparently it's the hottest chick fantasy since the eighties' glorious explosion of fictional pirate-rape, so let's just roll with it.

****** Take note please; this is the only time this concept appears within Twilight.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Villains by Necessity

Author: Eve Forward
Genre: Fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 1995

A good contrasting companion piece for the partial-birth aborted monstrosity Mistborn, Villains by Necessity offers a slightly different twist on the forces of good vs. forces of darkness trope. In Mistborn, the forces of good have failed, and our bumbling moron heroes have to start all over again with the ultimate fight against the ultimate evil: a crappy plot device. Villains by Necessity, on the other hand, takes place in a generic fantasy world shortly after Good has triumphed over Evil, Light has conquered Darkness, and insert any other capitalized cliché you can think of.

Most of the evil people and creatures have been either exterminated or "whitewashed," leaving the world a gooey, cheerful place that almost anyone would find sickening. (Just imagine if Nicholas Sparks ruled the world with a fluffy pink fist, and you'll get the picture.) There are a few baddies still running around: our eponymous protagonists, who band together to find the crystal pieces that will open the Dark Something-or-Other and restore balance to the . . . you know what, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter at all.

Villains by Necessity is utterly ridiculous in every way. Our anti-Dungeons & Dragons party villains, the assassin, thief, dark sorceress, black knight, centaur, and druid, bumble around a map similar to those I used to draw when I was nine and thought I could improve on the maps in The Lord of the Rings. Doggerel verse leads them from one silly adventure to another, pursued all along by a band of hypocritical "heroes" with dumb names. The plot twists are, to say the least, a bit predictable.

And none of that matters either. I love the hell out of this book.

Cheesier than a stoner's pizza this book may be, but it has something both delightful and difficult to define; for lack of a better word, I'll call it charm. Sam, the assassin, is a character archetype I particularly enjoy: the stone-cold killer with a heart of, if not gold, then at least something warmer than stone.* Forward manages to make him both convincingly ruthless and also kind of sweet, like the dorky guy who couldn't get up the courage to ask you to prom, only a homicidal lunatic. His dwarven thief sidekick provides comic relief in much the same way that Gimli doesn't in The Lord of the Rings.** The sorceress is a pointy-toothed cannibal, the druid isn't really evil, and the black knight has a secret, while the centaur is just along for the ride. They are all such stereotypes.

And yet. Each of these characters grew on me in a way I might find shameful if I hadn't long ago given up decent human emotion, along with tequila shots, black nail polish, and a few other vices.*** There are some truly hilarious moments in this book, too.**** The denouement, while utterly expected, is also satisfying; the characters all find just the destinies they ought, based on their character classes characters.

Villains by Necessity might not be everyone's steaming potion of bat's wing, but I give it a +12 modifier. Er, four stars.

* Such as pizza. A killer with a heart of pizza would be just the ticket.

** In the books, I mean. Let's all pretend the dwarf jokes in that sickening travesty of a movie trilogy never happened, all right, along with everything else in them?

*** Although one might reasonably argue that I abandoned shame before drinking the tequila shots and wearing the black nail polish.

**** For any of the six other people who have read this book: Gnifty Gnomes, guys. I need say no more.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Duchess By Night

Author: Eloisa James*
Genre: Historical Romance
Original Pub. Date: 2008

Unusually for me, I have very little to say about this book, unless it's to make the general comment that it is, like most of Eloisa James's other books, decently written, entertaining, and a good example of a fun genre.

Oh, what the hell, I guess I do have something to say. I originally picked up one of James's books to see what Avon's been doing with the historical romance subgenre, since it's one that has a lot of potential -- Georgette Heyer, anyone?** -- but one that's lately turned into an orgy (pun intended) of anachronistic peeresses-having-barn-sex and oiled-up guys in kilts. Don't believe me?

Should you, God forbid, wish to read this book, visit
And yes, now that you mention it, I did make that photo as offensively large as possible. Please take a moment to savor the equally offensively large offensive pun, and do also note the tantalizing tag line scrawled across one of Fondle-Me-Sword McBreezy's golden-brown shoulders.***

The cover of Duchess By Night is better than this one, almost by default, and I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that the book is better too, though I haven't had the pleasure of reading X Marks the Scot.

Like most of Avon's historical romance publications -- or those I've read, anyway -- Duchess By Night has a more restrained attitude, in addition to a more restrained cover, than entries in many other publishers' similar lines of sex-in-postchaise stories.**** Harlequin's books, for example, almost always require the hero and heroine to jump into bed with each other with unseemly haste. To give Harlequin's writers a little bit of credit, the heroes frequently don't finish the job that way. Even so, it's hard to build up much sexual tension, or plot of any kind, when the driving force of the first few chapters is all aimed at getting two people unclothed. Two people, let us recall, who are almost always rich and titled, and therefore surrounded by servants and others -- not to mention the morals of the period, but let's not even bother with those. Harlequin so rarely does. In short, Jane Austen these books ain't.

Eloisa James's books take a little longer to reach a climax, let's say, although they do contain plenty of . . . postchaises. I'm not sure if this reflects James's preferences or Avon's editorial preferences -- given what I know about the industry, I'm guessing the latter, with James choosing Avon as a publisher partially based on that good fit -- but the fact that the first sex scene is often in a double-digit chapter makes Avon's historicals in general, and this one in particular, more interesting as novels rather than just sexy corset time interspersed with a few lame attempts at plotting.*****

Duchess By Night is part of a series, and as such contains multiple secondary characters who all have their own sexy and corset-y books. And further as such, it would be sporting with your patience to really describe much of what goes on here. Suffice to say, a duchess dresses as a man and goes to a scandalous house party in the country. There are a few farcical misunderstandings; as in most of James's books, the plot and tone are strongly influenced by Shakespearean comedy. There are truly funny moments, the characters aren't too annoying, and if you're looking for a light fluffy read, you could do much, much worse.

Since you might have gathered that from my point of view one review (more or less) covers most of James's books, let me clear up the great mystery that's no doubt been tormenting my gentle reader(s) (Hi, Mom!!): I chose this one because of the dedication page. In the context of my recent read, Laura Lee Guhrke's Mara, Daughter of the American Revolution The Charade, it seemed worthwhile to post an example of truly flawless author etiquette as a counterpoint.

Georgette Heyer, inventor of the Regency romance, also dabbled in the 18th century (in which Duchess By Night is set). Heyer's The Masqueraders (1928) features a woman wearing men's clothing who becomes friends with a man who then discovers her secret. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the only point of similarity between the two books. The plots are otherwise entirely different, the characters are completely dissimilar in every way, and honestly, most people wouldn't even notice the small loan James took from Heyer for this one.

The dedication reads: "This book is dedicated to Georgette Heyer. Though a few writers before her did dress women in male clothing (Shakespeare comes to mind), Ms. Heyer's brilliantly funny cross-dressed heroines set the standard for all modern romance novelists."

How gracious is that? Duchess By Night gets 2.75 stars; it wasn't a great read, but it was perfectly acceptable, if forgettable. Eloisa James, on the other hand, gets about a million stars for style and courtesy.

* Not, not, NOT to be confused with E.L. James. Now that's a similarity that would have most decent writers tearing out their hair in frustration.

** Hah! Reviewers can use foreshadowing too!

*** Pam cooking spray, then 425 degrees for half an hour.

**** While I'm not discounting historical romances set in other places and times, let's face it: when we think of the genre, we think 1770-1830 in the British Isles.

***** Since I've already ranted about novels vs. romance novels, please feel free to catch up before reading on.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2012

Some reviewers have the common courtesy to review previous books in a series before diving right into reviewing a sequel; as you can see here, here, and here, just for example, I'm not one of those, so read on at your own peril.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is, depending on how you count it*, the fourteenth entry in the Vorkosigan Saga, a long-running space opera extraordinaire following the adventures of a highly dysfunctional, highly intelligent, and highly entertaining family of aristocratic military crazies who range across the known galaxy, leaving broken hearts and mayhem in their wakes. Most of the books focus on Lord Miles Vorkosigan, born short and deformed due to his mother's gestational exposure to a military biotoxin. His tactical genius and talent for intrigue let him get away with having a lot more fun than he probably ought to be able to.

From reading reviews of other books in this series, I've noticed that some readers are annoyed with Bujold's habit of writing the books entirely out of their in-universe chronological order**, despite the fact that she provides a handy-dandy chronological list in the back of each book for those among us too stupid to figure it out for themselves. I happen to like this. Some of the books cover pivotal turning points in the main characters' lives; others are a little less important to the overall plot arc, and I love it when Bujold goes back and fills in some gap in the history she's told so far.

This is somewhere in between. It's almost a standalone title, since it follows Lord Ivan Vorpatril, Miles's cousin and an important secondary character in most of the other books, but it also includes far too many in-jokes related to the previous books to be a good intro to the series as a whole.

As the in-jokes (and Bujold's dry, witty sense of humor in general) are one of this series's greatest charms, I would highly recommend starting at the beginning and reading the series all the way through. And not just for that reason; the earlier books are much better than this one for a whole host of reasons, the series-itis that afflicts Captain Vorpatril's Alliance being first among them.

I've written about series-itis before, when I reviewed Charlaine Harris's Deadlocked. This is a phenomenon that primarily manifests as flatness in previously well-rounded characters, perhaps better expressed as characters becoming caricatures of themselves. While Alliance isn't as bad in this regard as Deadlocked or the latest Stephanie Plum book, it definitely veers in that direction. (For those readers who are already familiar with this series, Emperor Gregor is the worst victim here.)

It's too bad that this book suffers from such a major flaw, because it's otherwise a good entry in the series. The last, Cryoburn, took a bizarre left-turn into a completely different narrative style from the rest of the series. Some people (you know who you are) really enjoyed that book; it left me exhausted, both from the effort of pretending I wasn't disappointed and from the clearly cathartic emotions the author poured onto the pages. Worse, it really suffered from series-itis, because there was no damn way in the world anyone would give a damn about it if they hadn't already read the rest of the books. The main character's struggles -- and particularly the struggle he encounters at the end, though I'm trying not to give a spoiler here -- have no emotional resonance taken out of context of his previous experiences.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance reverts back, in tone, to A Civil Campaign (which is, both chronologically and in the order the books were written, a couple of books before Alliance). The title character's marriage (as the title would indicate) is central to the story, and this marriage brings with it a pack of genetically modified and pseudo-criminal in-laws, a couple of awkward formal parties, and the utter destruction of a historical landmark. In other words, Bujold at her farcical comedy-cum-occasional tragedy best. As a result, this entry in the series was stronger. I appreciate what Bujold was doing with Cryoburn, but it just didn't showcase Bujold's strengths.

As an unapologetic nerdy fan of all things space opera***, I've always loved the Vorkosigan Saga. There are quite a few books to which I'd give, again, an unapologetic five stars, and most would get four. Captain Vorpatril's Alliance scrapes a three and three quarters -- not that such a rating isn't respectable, mind you. It's just not up to Bujold's standard for this series.

With deep regret, feeling as I do that this recommendation marks the end of an era: Lois McMaster Bujold, this should be the last of the Vorkosigan books. Leave this series behind while you're still arguably on top.

* A couple of the books I've included could reasonably be counted as a different series, sort of, and I've also left out a couple of books that are tangentially part of the same series. Feel free to debate passionately amongst yourselves.

** For any of those readers who happen to stumble on this review: get over yourself, princess.

*** My ultimate dream is to see Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen performed by someone in a mugato costume, but I'm not holding my breath.
Just imagine the poison-fanged soprano goodness.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Literary Showdown: The Charade Vs. Mara, Daughter of the Nile

The Charade
Author: Laura Lee Guhrke*
Genre: Historical Romance
Original Pub. Date: 2000

Mara, Daughter of the Nile
Author: Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Genre: Historical Fiction/YA
Original Pub. Date: 1953

I always know how a romance novel is going to end. So does every other reader of the genre; it's one of its unique charms. Saying I know how The Charade is going to end, leading me to review it before I've even finished it, therefore, isn't going to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Let me reiterate, then: I know exactly how this book is going to end, and not because it's a romance novel. I know how it's going to end because I've read Mara, Daughter of the Nile, Eloise Jarvis McGraw's much better book upon which The Charade is blatantly and, I presume, shamelessly based.**

In Mara, Daughter of the Nile, a young slave girl attracts the attention of not one, but two Egyptian noblemen, both of whom want her to work as a spy at the court of Queen Hatshepsut -- one for a rebellion against the Queen, and the other for the Queen, ferreting out the leaders of the rebellion. The rebellious young lord is handsome, mysterious, and has right on his side; Mara's freedom and future are assured if she betrays him, but of course, and she's put in quite a pickle*** by the clash between her self-interest and her conscience.

I'm not going to give any more spoilers for this book, because it is absolutely in my top ten favorite books of all time, ancient Egypt obsessive that I am, and I don't want to ruin it for anyone. If you haven't already read this book, go get it right now. Five stars.

Now, on to The Charade. It opens with a young fellow standing off to the side of a marketplace in 1775 Boston, watching a ragged young girl steal some food and befuddle some other guy from whom she also steals. Mara opens with the title character stealing some food in a marketplace and befuddling a young man while the hero watches, and that, combined with the double-agent book cover blurb, was enough to send me Googling. I found this review, in which someone else (who'd read the whole book) picked up on the fact that The Charade is a borderline rip-off of Mara.

Unlike that reviewer, who thinks this is okay -- she compares this act of rewriting to writing a romance inspired by a fairy tale**** -- I'm only finishing this book because I paid for it. That reviewer says The Charade "succeeds as a work on its own," and while I agree that it's not the worst book I've read by a long shot, it's also a) very bad form to, ahem, adapt something that's not even in the public domain yet, and b) very bad form to not just borrow the outline of a plot, or steal a character here and there, but write a book over again virtually scene by scene.

I give Guhrke credit for transposing the setting successfully. All of the elements work; a slave becomes a transported indentured servant, an agent of the Queen becomes an agent of the King, the idealistic young rebel playing two roles (lazy aristocrat and commoner with a purpose) stays sexy across all space-time locations, and even the carnelian amulet the hero of Mara wears transmutes to a medal of the Sons of Liberty.

However, I can't forgive this author for the lack of any acknowledgement that this story isn't her own. Let me put this in a way all of my readers between the ages of about 27 and 40 will understand/give a crap about. Reading The Charade is like listening to "Ice Ice Baby." We all know that riff is from "Under Pressure," and no matter how many times Vanilla Ice tells us it's not duh duh duh duh duh duh duh, yo, it's actually duh duh duh duh duh duh ting duh or whatever, it's still David Bowie and Queen. Rather than take the high road à la MC Hammer***** and his sampling of Rick James, Guhrke just goes ahead and pretends that this awesome, exciting plot and these fun, sexy characters were all her own invention.

Also, and doubly unforgivably, while this book isn't bad enough to be the "Ice Ice Baby" to Eloise Jarvis McGraw's "Under Pressure," it's no better than a "Can't Touch This" compared to a "Super Freak." For the mediocre writing but great (unoriginal) plot and scenes, I'd give The Charade three stars. Since it's about one and a half steps up from plagiarism******, let's go with that number of stars.

Final judgment in the Literary Showdown: plot, characters, writing quality, and originality are all in favor of Mara, Daughter of the Nile.

* Does anyone else suddenly want a pickle? Anyone? Has my love of puns finally taken over my brain? I don't know, but I still want a pickle.

** To be fair, I guess it's possible that Laura Lee Guhrke is weeping all over the altar of a Catholic church in a hair shirt right at this exact moment.

*** Seriously, that wasn't even on purpose. I really want a goddamn pickle now.

**** If you're looking for one of these, which actually can be pretty fun, I recommend Eloisa James.

***** And there's a phrase I never thought I'd type.

****** Disclaimer: to my knowledge, there are no actual words from Mara, Daughter of the Nile that have been copied and pasted into The Charade. The similarities, however, warrant a note from the author crediting McGraw as an inspiration at the very least.