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Well that was better than I thought it would be.

The previous Eloisa James I read was a frothy confection of a thing, airy comedy of no particular time period with a penchant for slapstick. This one is quite firmly set in a Regency that is more historically accurate than most romance versions, and provides more depth than I was expecting.

For one thing, this may be the romance novel most focused on its side cast I have seen. And they're interesting. The heroine has come from the country and imposed herself on a distant cousin because she saw a man at a ball and fell in love with him; the cousin's brother is in love with her. All very usual. However, we get a lot of time devoted to the marital feud between the cousin and her husband, which is both funny and genuinely nasty (I assume they get a book of their own later). The hero has a young illegitimate son he is raising, and does not tell the heroine who the mother is. At all. For the entire book. By which I include the ending. As in, we do not find out because it is not relevant and the heroine does not particularly care. I kind of wanted to applaud.

It was perhaps cruel of James to steal the heroine's father's bad poetry from Christopher Smart-- after all poor Smart was both a genuine madman and a genuine poet, and as Johnson said I had as lief pray with him as any man-- but she does admit to it right up front, and that the lines are much, much better when not taken out of context. If people were quoting Kit Smart to me out of context every single day at breakfast for twenty years, I might also depart precipitously at the first hint of better things in life; it is certainly one of the more convincing reasons for a heroine not to want to go home that I can recall.

So, except for a couple of scenes that touched my embarrassment squick, and maybe two moments where the hero lapsed into the sort of annoying alpha-male aggravation that I sometimes suspect is contractually required because it reads as so tacked-on-afterward, this was a well-rounded comedy of manners afraid neither to let its characters play jokes on themselves nor to make them complicated. I'll take it.
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Hey, that's a (mostly) contemporary romance novel I don't hate. I tend to read romances set in the past much more frequently, on the grounds that the attitudes towards gender that often turn up are moderately less annoying when set in a time period in which they would actually have been prevalent. Of course, then I wind up swearing at the anachronisms, but-- look, the times I tried contemporary romances (mostly as a teenager) I wound up violently annoyed at the sexism and swearing at the anachronisms, which is less pleasant when you're sitting there going 'dude, this claims to be set now and I know what now looks like and you missed'.

This not only feels as though it was set when it came out (2000), it also has a strong enough sense of place that I waited the entire book for the secondary couple to announce that they were going to go live somewhere in Camberville with six housemates, five cats, and about fifty-three computers, and then they went and did that, in so many words, and it was existentially correct.

I liked that thread so much I'm going to tell you about it instead of the primary one, honestly. The guy is a struggling young indie comics artist who wants to draw something that's pretty much a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and X-Men, and he's picked the girl as the person he'd like to use as his principal photographic reference for the heroine. He's so consumed with trying not to be skeevy about it that he fails to notice that anyone who looks at him for five seconds can tell that he is too wrapped up in his comic book to be skeevy about anything. She is very sarcastic to him. It's pretty adorable. I am a sucker for geek-types in love. Especially since he's mixed-race and one does not see that in romance much. The entire cast here is pretty chromatic, actually.

There's also a thread set during World War II (this makes sense in context) which I enjoyed, as it was clearly intended by both God and Suzanne Brockmann as a black and white movie starring Alida Valli and involving romantic angst, people blowing up trains, and the Alida Valli character being the most competent and yet most quietly traumatized person for about two hundred miles in any direction, you know, like she does all over The Third Man.

Also there was a primary plot. I think it involved terrorists or something. I wasn't really paying attention, except to play the 'tag the people who will turn up as protagonists of future books in this series' game.

Seriously, though, this was pretty good, did not make me want to throw things, had more threads than most romances, had more depth than some, and also, that secondary romance, I swear those are the kind of people I used to meet all the damn time at the sort of party where you're not quite sure whose house you're in but somebody brought anime. So I'll probably read some more of the series-- at least enough to find out how I scored in the game.
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I wanted to read a romance novel that did not cause me to wish to throw it across the room or beat my head against the wall.

And hey! That's exactly what I got!

This is not a great book, but it's better than it had to be. It's self-consciously a Cinderella story, a frothy bubbly confection of a thing in which the hero has literally been given the war-re-enacting uncle from Tristram Shandy as a cross to bear in life, along with an entire castle (yes, castle, I told you this was Cinderella, he's the Prince of-- consults book-- that part of Ruritania known as Warl-Marburg-Baalsfeld) full of Old Retainers of the eccentric sort, including of course illegitimate half-brother, elephant, and lion. And the heroine spends much of the book dressed up as her own stepsister and therefore has to bring her stepsister's three adored tiny dogs along with her everywhere, despite the fact that she is not at all a tiny dog person.

You know. That sort of book.

But it follows the time-honored rules of screwball; it is not a comedy of embarrassment, ever, it does not run out of plot halfway through and go digging around for a villain the way some romances like to, and the hero's original fiancée is a perfectly nice girl who does not get treated badly. For that matter, even the wicked stepmother is basically doing the best she can, although that does not make her a nice person.

And I have to like the hero, because his one goal in life is to run off to Tunisia and dig up Carthage in the correct academic manner so he knows it's done right. But he has to Marry For Money, of course, to feed his uncle and his lion...

If you're looking for correct period anything, this is not your book. This is a book which has kicked over the traces, admits cheerfully that it takes place in never-never-land, and grabbed anything from the entire eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it thought was shiny. Honestly I approve-- I think this is a sounder approach than trying to write a plausible historical while still using all the standard romance clichés, which happens a lot. It's not terrible on gender, though it is not spectacularly good. It is basically what it wants to be: a lot of fun.

I should try more of James now, though I freely admit I am running out of non-throwing-things romance novels. I have read all of Laura Kinsale and Lydia Joyce, the Jennifer Crusie I care about, the Julia Quinn that seemed survivable, and the Loretta Chase that does not make me want to scream. I need to track down the new Victoria Janssen. Does anyone have recommendations? Suzanne Brockmann maybe? Other ideas?
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Yesterday's review. Via [personal profile] rachelmanija.

This? Is lovely.

It's a short novel that's a prose translation of a poem originally composed in Telugu sometime in the second half of the sixteenth century. The author comes from what is present-day Andhra Pradesh. This piece, the Prabhavati-pradyumnamu, is one of his several extant works; its story is taken from the Hari-vamsa, an ancient compilation of stories related to Krishna. I know nothing about the history of Telugu literature, but the translators make an interesting argument that this is one of the first pieces in that linguistic tradition to use novelistic ideas of individuality and interiority.

But honestly you want to read this for the talking goose.

Her name is Sucimukhi and due to family connections she was tutored by the Goddess of Speech and given the title of 'Mother of Similes and Hyperbole'. She is both an extremely good poet in the best classical tradition, and, as far as I can tell, a ninja. I mean, the book would not go any differently if she actually were. There is an amazing scene where she wrestles a parrot.

Anyway! There is a demon, Vajranabha, who has obtained from the Creator, Brahma, the gift that no one, not even the wind, can enter his city without his permission. With this as his base of power, he challenges Indra for supremacy over the gods. Indra's best idea is to go to Krishna, and Krishna suggests that his son Pradyumna could sneak into the city disguised as an actor. If only he had some motivation to do so. And hey, Vajranabha has a daughter...

Enter one matchmaking goose and a whole lot of running about that teeters on the edge between sitcom, irony, and genuinely sweet and erotic romance. The young couple actually work well together and their courtship is continuously interesting. The bit I laughed hardest at: Pradyumna is a mortal incarnation of the God of Love, Manmatha. At one point he is pacing back and forth, racked by angst, and shouts "The God of Love is tormenting me! Right, that's me. But still, the God of Love is tormenting me!" *facepalm*

The translation, by Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman, moves neatly between the poetic and the prosaic, and is a nice blend of present vernacular with vaguely archaic-- a trick usually so difficult I don't recommend anyone attempting it, but it works here. All of the academic stuff you could possibly hope for is here, in preface and afterword and endnotes, but the text itself is intentionally designed so that you can just sit down and read it-- and highly readable it is. The translators have apparently done something else of Suranna and I will have to look it up.

In short, if you only read one sixteenth-century Indian poem this year, I can highly vouch for this one.

Also, if you put it in a blender with Longus' Daphnis and Chloe, a book from second-century-AD Greece that in some ways reminds me of this one only with pirates, you would in fact get THE BEST ROMANCE NOVEL OF ALL TIME. It is actually incredibly tempting.
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I have read a great deal of Heyer, but hadn't run across this one.

Traditionally I think of Heyer as comedy of manners, with her own peculiar slang, her Regency-that-never-was, witty and charming and mostly spun-sugar but with its occasional darker moments, and the odd thing like The Talisman Ring or The Masqueraders that subscribes to and/or satirizes a different school of fiction entirely. The Black Moth is one of the latter, and more completely the latter, the old-style blood-and-thunder drama: it has a different voice than I've seen Heyer have elsewhere, both more historical about the little insignificant details and more over-the-top about the generalities.

I mean this is a book in which there is an Earl who has taken to being a highwayman because he took the blame for his brother's cheating at cards. And a Duke who abducts a young lady not once but twice. And multiple duels. And scenes in which Honor Does Not Allow Them To Marry, and a night gallop over the countryside to Prevent A Fate Worse Than Death, and oh, you can't even see the top below the plot of this book, I am completely unsurprised to find it is her first novel, and yet--

underneath all that, these people are more real than she usually allows herself. They hurt each other for silly reasons, but they do hurt each other. They are drawn more roundly than I usually expect of Heyer. Her villain here is genuinely a rat bastard, who has made his sister marry someone he does not expect her to love for the sake of money, who as I have mentioned abducts a young lady twice and explicitly intends her violence; but he is not one-dimensional. He eventually realizes that it is not sufficient excuse that he actually believes he loves her. And the one who actually cheated at cards, and his wife, are an impressive portrait of a couple who are managing to make each other totally miserable because they have no idea how to talk to each other, and nearly leave it until too late to learn.

I can't believe a word of the plot, all the chasing about, but she did make me feel for her characters more than I am accustomed.

This is a direction I rather wish she'd continued with. She might have turned into Dorothy Dunnett (who clearly had this book memorized, I recognized some of the blocking). But then we would not have some of the later things-- I don't know, that's the sort of messing about with the timestream I'm not qualified for. At any rate, I very much enjoyed this, because I tend to value the plausibility of characters over the plausibility of events, and because there is nothing like a good blood-and-thunder drama.
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Oh dear.

I figured out on about page five of this that it is a piece of offensive, cliched, trite, dull, and overwrought Orientalist fiddle-faddle. I kept reading it because I have liked other work by the author and because I wanted to see how bad it could get.

If I had been planning ahead, I could have written a list of the most annoying cliches that could possibly have turned up in this, and taken a drink every time one of them appeared, and then I would have been too smashed to write this review, or possibly remember having read the book, a prospect which at this point sounds fairly appealing.

Let this be a lesson to me: start reading back covers again. As a general rule, I don't, because they tell me more than I want to know, or misrepresent things egregiously, or are just simply bad summaries. However, the back cover copy for this would have told me... uh, look, I'll just type out the first paragraph from the back cover here, and explain to you that the book is exactly and precisely this bad.

Cut for continued ranting. )
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So when the big box of books from [personal profile] octopedingenue came some time ago, I went through it looking at things, and started mentally cataloging them into short, long, fantasy, literary fiction, graphic novels, a book I really really wanted to read that Kawy sent because she is psychic (Thief Eyes by Janni Lee Simner, previously reviewed here), etc.. There was a small category, composed mostly of Crazy Beautiful (the HOOKS FOR HANDS book) which I mentally marked as 'books Kawy has sent me because they are incredibly bad'.

When I got to the Francesca Lia Block, I had absolutely no idea whether to put it in that category or not. None whatsoever. Francesca Lia Block has written books I find lovely and memorable and magnificent (Ecstasia, Primavera, the early Weetzie Bat books, The Hanged Man) and books I find utterly neutral and have trouble remembering exist (Girl Goddess #9, that one about teenage fairies) and a couple of the worst frickin' books I've ever read (Blood Roses, Echo, Psyche in a Dress). I tend to like her earlier stuff better, but there is never any guarantee that an author has gone into a permanent decline and indeed one usually hopes otherwise. Her prose usually gets critic-words such as 'lush' and 'purple' and 'adjectival' and her main issue tends to be letting language, style, and a liking for reworked myth and fairytale get in the way of thinking things through or causing them to make sense. When she doesn't run away with herself, it can work very well, and there is usually no telling in advance with any particular book which side of the line it will fall on, which is why I keep picking her stuff up.

Then I saw this was a novel about teenage werewolves.

Whoa-boy. That settled that question. Teenage werewolves are quite popular lately, and there is an entire subgenre of them, and its tropes are such that unless this book were to happen to be completely unlike and unrelated to every other book about teenage werewolves ever written, I knew this book would not just have run away with the author, but plunged off a cliff at full throttle and exploded in a mass of fireworks over the canyon. There is such a thing as a genre playing to someone's strengths, and then there is the opposite. I was holding out vague hope for this being totally unlike everything else in its subgenre, but that particular hope is always vague: never expect a book to be sui generis, especially when the subject is trendy.

Apparently she's written a vampire one, too. I-- the mind boggles. I have to read that book.

Because this? This was delightfully, enjoyably, compulsively readably terrible. )
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Third of Marjorie Liu's Iron Kiss trilogy, and decidedly not the place to start. I've tagged it as romance because that's where it was in the store and Liu's other books are paranormal romance, but honestly I don't think these are, because I don't think a book is a romance if the protagonist is in a committed relationship at the start and maintains it throughout. They are urban fantasy*.

They are also my favorite Liu, although I found this one mildly incoherent, in that I-can't-keep-track-of-all-the-factions way. (Mind you, I am ill and was reading fast due to a time crunch. Maybe it's more coherent if neither of those apply.) They are refreshingly unsentimental and relatively cliche-free.

The protagonist, Maxine Kiss, is the latest of a line of demon-hunting women who also happen to have a hereditary pact with some demons. During the daytime, the demons appear as moving tattoos, providing a socially unacceptable suit of impenetrable armor. During the night, they peel off her skin and act as her bodyguards. There's a plot involving various things about Maxine's heritage and the huge prison all the demons are being kept in and some sneak out of, but for me the heart of these books is the interaction between Maxine and her demons, the demons she knows she will some day pass to a daughter, leaving herself vulnerable and liable to be killed in short order by something-or-other seeking vengeance. Her relationship with them is really well done, the way she cares about them and knows they care about her but can never quite be certain what's going on in their heads.

Oh, yeah, and I like her relationship with her boyfriend better than I like her actual boyfriend, but they have a very good relationship which is one I would not actually consider terrifying and horrible if I saw it on actual people, which is extremely rare in the entire genre of urban fantasy at the moment. Mostly, the men in this genre, I want to slap with some kind of restraining order.

Now if only I could figure out whether the plot made any. damn. sense. Ah well. Liu has never been best at endings, or at plots for that matter; the plots have a tendency to turn into indecipherable rushing about. She's good at having cool bits, at characters, at entertaining banter, and at mostly not making me want to rant about the pernicious effects of the kyriarchy on the cultural collective id. There are days I'll take that. This was one of them. If she wants to write another in this series, I'd be fine with that, especially since I can't tell whether everything resolved. If not, I hope she writes something else I like as well, because frankly I am kind of done with her Dirk and Steele books as they seem to have started leaving out the banter.

I note there is also a newish Nalini Singh. I can't figure out whether I'm sick and tired enough to feel in need of that particular Id Vortex. At any rate, I notice that I keep thinking about Nalini Singh and Marjorie Liu at the same time, because my brain inexorably pairs them as some kind of matter/anti-matter thing. I don't know. Does that make sense to anybody else?

* My kingdom for different terminology, because I still hear 'urban fantasy' and think Charles de Lint from when I was a teenager. This is not that, 'k? In modern urban fantasy a larger percentage of the cast wears leather.
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Copy sent me by [personal profile] rachelmanija, in exchange for reviewing it.

An interesting although occasionally slightly incoherent take on the sort of urban fantasy where vampires, werewolves, fairies etc. are a mainstream and acknowledged part of life: this time, it's the nineteen-twenties. The protagonist, Zephyr, is a suffragette (votes for vampires-- it's after female suffrage), tireless do-gooding crusader, and rather ashamed of her demon-hunting past. Cue a complex plot involving the familial politics of vampire bootleggers.

I enjoyed the worldbuilding very much. This is a diverse and interesting take on New York City and the Jazz Age, with only a few points where I looked at possible anachronisms with raised eyebrows. It's fun and energetic. I found the plot mildly confusing, and Zephyr's love interest is exactly the usual sort of character one gets in these roles in this sort of romance. So this was a book I liked much better on a scene-to-scene level than as a whole, especially as I thought some of the characterization varied scene-to-scene in ways that were mildly inconsistent, and therefore preferred to take each scene as something of a separate episode.

With those caveats, I did like this much better than oh the last seven things I read that could have been classified as paranormal romance. I might read another, when it comes out.


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