18 August, 2014

July Reviews Roundup

It's been a reasonably chaotic summer, but I had a few reviews up at Love In the Margins.

July Recap:


Romance:

The Hidden Blade by Sherry Thomas
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
Seduction's Canvas by K.M. Jackson
Trapped At The Altar by Jane Feather
The Millionaire's Ultimate Catch by Michelle Monkou

Graphic Novels:

Watson And Holmes by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi

Uncategorized:

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

18 July, 2014

Review: The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

In America it's the 4th of July, which means a fair amount of our readership is out baking in the sun and knocking back bad beer. It seems like as good a time as any to drop an unpopular review. The Shadow Hero is reclaiming an obscure Golden Age hero with the aim of exploring his never revealed origin. In short, it's an American comic book with an Asian-American lead. (File that under Rarer Than Domesticated Unicorns.) Yang and Liew are relentlessly talented. The Shadow Hero is expertly paced. Clever sight gags mix with atmospheric panels to create a constantly moving sense of space. It also tackles racism in a way that tries to be nuanced but feels recycled. The Shadow Hero's origin story is six parts Ancient Chinese Secret and four parts Mommy Issues with a dash of Fated Mate sprinkled across the top.

This graphic novel is tagged for ages 12 to 18. I'm not sure this age range will make the distinctions Yang and Liew demand. When a number of characters tell Hank he hits like a girl, providing girls who can fight doesn't erase the sexism reinforcement. Even the girl herself tells Hank he hits like a girl. She doesn't tell him he hits like a boy or that he hits without full force. (Serving as an exception isn't refuting an ism.) I gave this book to a group of teens in the targeted age range and discussed it with them afterward. None of them picked up that Yang intended three of the female characters to disprove the sexism. Several of the racist conventions being explored and subverted were new to them as well. While this was a group of primarily white teens who may not be exposed to the same racist concepts as others, it made me consider if The Shadow Hero is appropriately targeted. My take on the use of Tongs and secret gambling dens might be different if the book was aimed at an adult readership. 

yellow face postcards are arranged randomly over a map backdrop
I was also disappointed that Hank's growth involves completely changing who he is. When we meet him he's a pacifist longing for a simple life of domesticity. Hank greatly admires his father, a man who prefers simple sober living to warfare. His mother dreams of different things, and it is her vision of Hank that prevails, despite her being the distant and less obviously loving parent. Hank strives to keep her attention and in doing so becomes the opposite of who he once wanted to be. The book doesn't leave this for the reader to judge. The text continually reinforces that a pacifist life is for cowards. Everyone successful in The Shadow Hero lives a life of violence or fear. Hank's longing for tranquility is exposed as an unworthy goal.

A green masked superhero fights with an asian woman before they recognize each other All of that aside, I still consider The Shadow Hero a must read book. The send up of some superhero conventions are pitch perfect. The characters, aside from the Fated Mate, are individual and fully imagined. Hank's story, as well as those of his parents, is emotionally compelling. His mother's frustrated dreams, arising as much from her own poor choices as from fate, are heartbreaking in their effect on Hank's future. I wish Yang and Lieu had imagined an origin story with less Dragon Ladies and more innovation, but taking The Shadow Hero as a whole it's worth investigating. When I closed the book I didn't feel the need for the story to continue but I was glad I'd experienced it.

*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

08 May, 2014

Review: Hush by Carey Baldwin

(NOTE: Between writing this review and posting it the author has corrected the Amazon page to reflect that it is a reissued work. However in the weeks between this review posting on LITM and being transferred here, no further changes have been made. What I originally pointed out at Amazon remains the case on her webpage, Kobo, B&N and iTunes. Make of that what you will.)

I DNF'd Carey Baldwin's Hush for reasons that didn't have much to do with the story. One of my absolute hottest buttons is a rewritten work issued without disclosure. When George Lucas takes his fiftieth pass at Star Wars you generally know going in that he's swapped some stuff up. There's an implicit consent involved. While Baldwin has extensively reworked her limited release anthology tale Solomon's Wisdom, there is enough of the prior story left that I went from "This seems weirdly familiar" to "I've read this before". At that point I didn't want to continue. My consent for that experience had not been solicited.
I get that Solomon's Wisdom had a very limited audience. Most readers are not going to hit the same wall. I also understand the choice to market Hush as new material given the additional work put into it. I simply disagree. So, if you've read Solomon's Wisdom and give your consent to checking out Hush, let me know how it goes. (I stopped at the point where her brother-in-law bursts through the door.)
Hush is a romantic suspense dealing lightly with domestic violence. Anna is the girl next door, the quiet librarian with a spine of steel. Charlie is the former soldier turned medic haunted by their shared childhood. A death from the past and a death from the present intertwine, potentially placing Anna and her elder sister in danger. There was a lot I liked about Solomon's Wisdom that I still liked in Hush. While I found both Anna and Charlie to have cases of arrested development, I appreciated their honest communication. Both want to understand how their past created their present. Anna is proactive in her sexuality and her boundaries. Baldwin has a straightforward style that will work for a reader or it won't. I felt the same way about Charlie and Anna halfway through Hush as I did at the end of Solomon's Wisdom. Neither of them became more than pieces on the game board. If they won or lost was less important than turning the page and seeing where they went next.
Hush was supposed to be my second swing at Baldwin's work but I think I'm out. I like her working class settings (even with the advanced degrees) and everyday problems, but she didn't fully capture me with either version of Anna and Charlie's reunion. Baldwin is worth checking out but not an author I'm planning to follow.

* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

05 May, 2014

Review: A Girl From Flint by Treasure Hernandez

A Girl From Flint was fascinating in all the wrong ways but ultimately a completely satisfying read. I don't understand Urban Books. While they're shelved in the romance section most of the ones I've read have very few romantic elements. As Ridley said on Twitter "EVERY BOOK YOU LIKE WITH SEX IN IT THAT ENDS WITH THE CHARACTERS TOGETHER ISN'T A ROMANCE NOVEL." A Girl From Flint is absolutely not a romance, although it has a number of elements familiar from Romantic Suspense. Treasure Hernandez has taken that model and used it to construct a morality play. Although Tasha doesn't die, it's certainly a book intent on showing us the wages of sin are death.
It's hard to take Urban Books seriously. Between the slang and the stereotypical portrayal of black life, they read like the worst of white stereotypes. Almost everyone does drugs, even the police. Men pimp or deal dugs, women shake them down for cash unless they're a token hardworking mother left to die on their own. Bar fights are expected, if not required. With all of that said, Treasure Hernandez is compulsively readable. I completely rejected the world she was building but I found myself compelled to read on. Although the book is focused on a women who makes her living as an escort, many romance standards remain. Tasha is a hermetically sealed heroine. Men routinely hand her thousands of dollars merely to be seen with her. She saves herself for a one night stand with her one true love. Later in the book there is another (mostly) consensual sexual encounter but Tasha finds it (and the man) repulsive. This is such a fantasy world that I wanted to just stop and consider it. Tasha learns early that pretending not to be after a man's money is a fast track to having him hand her larger amounts. Men slip fat wads of hundreds into her jacket pockets and buy her designer gowns because she's willing to flatter them. She's a good girl in a world full of gold diggers so they respond generously. Tasha has a pimp she cuts into her take, but again, she doesn't trade sex for the cash. Right. Ok. Let that sit and let's move on.
Another common romantic suspense standard comes late in the book when Tasha is forced to work for the police. The heroine blackmailed into a sting operation is pretty yawn worthy at this point. We all know the hero will have her back and rush in to save the day. They might go on the run, they might not. Corruption will be exposed, names will be cleared and HEA's will fall from the sky like angel tears. Except not. The only person saving anyone is Tasha. She has to make hard choices based on incomplete evidence. Betrayal by those close to her results in... her being betrayed. There's no HEA for Tasha, no white knights and no vindication. The hard working student who had her eyes on an educational prize has been replaced by a street smart hustler with deep knowledge of the game. This is the exact opposite of the standard romance trajectory.
I'll be honest, enjoying A Girl From Flint made me feel really, really racist. Everything is wrong with this portrayal of black life. Somehow Hernandez works enough reality in there to keep the reader going. I grew up surrounded by the drug trade and street hustling. Elements of A Girl From Flint rang very true to my memory even as others made me cringe. (A character gets leg cancer. LEG CANCER. I kid you not. It's totally curable by surgery, no chemo or radiation required. LEG CANCER.) Tasha's relationships hinge primarily on how much cash her dude is putting down. She falls in love because he's the hero. He falls for her because she's "not like the other girls" who are apparently all bitches in addition to being hoes. Everything is wrong with A Girl From Flint and yet it's the only book I managed to finish this week.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

02 May, 2014

Review: The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou by Jana DeLeon

Archeologists date The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou to 2012 in my TBR stack. I was going on about missing gothic romance and a friend sent me a couple Harlequin Intrigue titles to try. DeLeon was an interesting author. Her mechanics are off but the finished product reads smoothly. I'd suggest this one for the night you just can't settle down but still want to read. The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou is an undemanding read. There is an air of the older gothic with definitely modern touches.  It's soap-tastic in it's you've-got-to-be-kidding-me plot details.
Ginny walked out of the woods sixteen years ago with no memory of who she is or how the school in the center of the Bayou burned down, killing the students inside. Paul is a former cop who has switched to private investigation. He has a personal interest (of course) in the mystery that Ginny has largely put behind her. Paul is woefully undeveloped by DeLeon. I knew roughly who he was but he never became more than a sketched in concept of a lead. For the purposes of the story we don't really need more, yet filling in some of those empty areas would have made for a much richer experience. Of course Ginny and Paul team up to work the puzzle, endangering themselves and those important to them in the process.
The Lost Girls of Johnson's Bayou is a solidly working class story. Ginny has a job and a side hustle. She and her mother work hard and count costs. Paul has a partner but no special connections or heavily financed back up. The actions they take are believable. When Paul asks Ginny out to dinner in The Big City she reminds him she has an early shift so they stay close to home. Their response to danger is reasonable as well - no one goes on the run, gets whisked to a safe house, or calls in the FBI. While the emotional punch of one plot resolution is pulled by the speed (and sheer chance) of it's resolution, not every question is answered. I appreciated the author's willingness to let a few loose ends lie.
DeLeon brings in some elements I was concerned would overwhelm the mystery (or be a face palm of a resolution) before setting them aside in favor of a more original explanation for the events in Ginny and Paul's past. The red herrings are appropriately explained with enough foreshadowing for the reader to find the revelations at the end satisfying. While there is a baby in the epilogue it isn't Ginny or Paul's. Overall, a decent read and an author I'll try a second book by.
Spoiler Alert: The questionable element is a nod to the obsession with satanic cults and child abuse that ran rampant a few decades back. I thought DeLeon was going there, but fortunately she only side swiped it. 
*This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.

30 April, 2014

Review: Free Fall by Carolyn Jewel

Pity the poor novella that is meant to hook readers into a series. It's judged not only on it's own merits, but also on it's ability to reduce a complex world into an appetizing bite. One misstep on either side and the reader is ready to bury it. With that in mind, pour one out for Carolyn Jewel's Free Fall. Having a vague impression of liking Carolyn Jewel I picked up Free Fall sometime in 2012. As I only read books that are piping fresh or carefully aged, it sat in the TBR waiting for the right moment. Free Fall packs plenty of story into a decent sized length. (Let me pause to say I appreciate how Jewel tells her readers up front how long the text is. You won't end up buying a 20 page plot summary disguised as a short novel.) Here Be Spoilers, lassies!
We met Lys Fensic (the heroic characters tend to refer to each other primarily by their last names) in the lobby of her building, waiting for a friend to help her escape an abusive relationship. Her co-worker is trying to aid her but his assistance only increases her stress. At this point I was very interested in the paranormal world Jewel created. Fensic demonstrated some quasi-autistic characteristics that I wanted to explore. (Reluctance to make eye contact, sensory overload, aversion to unsolicited contact, struggle to use visual cues to translate emotional contexts). Then her friend shows up. My paranormal problems kicked into high gear and never settled down.
Khunbish is your basic predator hero. (He's supposed to have a line over the u but I can't locate the alt command for that so just go with it or correct me in the comments and I'll add it.) Although he's a computer specialist by trade, Fensic thinks of him as dangerously powerful because he's tall and frequently calm. She builds up fantasies in her mind of him banging girls who wear glitter when he's not beating up random men. Fensic has issues. But maybe not. Khunbish immediately refers to the coworker as "a pussy." This is based on absolutely nothing. A perfectly nice man is trying to assist a coworker with her belongings. Khunbish instantly dismisses him with a slur of questionable taste. Nice. Let me go ahead and root for him right now. Or not. ANYWAY.
I'm briefly given hope that Jewel is going to call Fensic out on her vaguely fetishized reading of Khunbish's character. When Fensic explains that she needs someone like Khunbish he does challenge her on her assumption that he's physically adept and or violent based solely on his size and potentially his Mongolian ethnicity. Both of them hand wave it and move on. Of course Khunbish is violent! He's a demon who could, if he so chose, utterly control her and... (Oh god, really?) There's something about how witches are super sexy hot to demons (who are all male, as presented in this short) and they could enslave them but on the other hand mages (who are all men) can enslave the demons and that's worse than actually dying because... I can't even.
Fensic isn't helpless in the ex-boyfriend showdown. (She's equal in power to the other characters but set up as untutored and therefore exploitable.) They go to get something it turns out they don't need and then it's sexy time. I appreciated how Jewel set up the sexual interaction between the characters as freeing for both of them. Fensic has been held back by the domination of others and the fear of herself. Khunbish has been required to suppress aspects of himself to fit into the normalized human culture. (Vanilla is, of course, used as a dismissive descriptor. Because why not hit most all my peeves?) The concept that honesty enhances their sexuality is well presented and well conceived. Until it's not. (This was my Free Fall reading experience, things were great, then really not great, then kind of great... oh no not great.)
Early in their encounter Fensic asks about condoms. Khunbish explains that demon / human sex is free from disease due to incompatibly. She says that's cool and all, but she doesn't use birth control. He says no problem because in his human form he's sterile. He can only impregnate her if he's in his demon form. Fensic wistfully reveals she's always wanted a baby (because OF COURSE) and even in his demon form it wouldn't matter because she's unable to conceive. WAIT! FULL STOP! If she's unable to conceive why is she asking about condoms in a birth control context? Talk about your mixed messages there, Cookie! Is this a passive aggressive conversation? "Well, I could get PREGNANT!" "No, babe, you can't unless I change" "JOKE IS ON YOU! Even if you change I can't get pregnant, HA!" Of course, she totally CAN get pregnant because his magic demon sperm knows no human infertility. So let's make this hybrid baby and get back to the guys trying to kill us.
Fight scene, drama, ex boyfriend, discover your true powers, blah blah blah. Now we're wrapping things up with another bait and switch moment. Khunbish has been forced to call in the local warlords, who are apparently the main couple of the book series. At the close of the fight, the female half of the partnership asks if they're ok with meeting the male half and they agree. Suddenly it's baby-louge time and they're meeting with the male half several weeks after the female half asked if it was cool to do it now. Fine, ok, something changed, we can go with that. We head over to the mansion where the various demon underlings are hanging out and they're doing fist bumps and hand jives and trash talking and we discover some are Indian, some are not described and here's the big dude and.... oh hell to the no.
The big dude is a sandy haired boy next door type who is deceptively un-powerful in his physical presentation. My paranormal problems are having a five alarm fire in my head as he lays down the law for Fensic and Khunbish. Mr. Big Dude condescendingly tells Khunbish to "use his words" (no kidding) to figure out his relationship with Fensic because they can't be together unless both of them swear loyalty (or not) to Mr. Big Dude's gang. If they swear loyalty there is money and safety in it for them as long as they comply with whatever Mr. Big Dude desires. If they don't then they are "a problem" for him and might end up getting killed or something. Furthermore, while their fealty is of their own free will, once sworn any failure of loyalty could result in their death. Khunbish is fine with this because apparently demons are totally used to being in gangs. They kind of like it. He's been a free agent for so long because... some kind of reason... but he knew it probably couldn't last with all the turf wars heating up. Fensic agrees because love and pregnant and all, and because she isn't sure how to control herself without Mr. Big Dude's group teaching her. Mr. Big Dude welcomes them and the baby into his gang. And. The. Baby. AND THE BABY. Wow.
Your experience with Free Fall will depend completely on if we have the same paranomal problems. If I'd been able to set aside my aversion to ethnic based personality traits and alpha hole heroes pretending to be beta and street gang culture as paranormal normality, I'd probably have given Free Fall a pretty high rating. Because I wasn't I ended up with a C read. I still like Jewel, but I think I'll stick to her historical stories instead.
* This review originally appeared at Love In The Margins.