Tuesday, June 23, 2015

John Doe on Her Doorstep


The title: John Doe on Her Doorstep
The author: Debra Webb
Publication: Harlequin Intrigue, 2005
Got it from: Library e-book

A year ago I read the second book in this series, Executive Bodyguard, now I have gone back and am reading the first.  For those who don't remember my previous review, the Enforcers are part of a secret organization known as the Collective, who funnel money from the government to create high-tech military weapons, including the Enforcers themselves.  Enforcers are genetically bred to be superior both physically and intellectually.  One of their prime creators is Dr. Archer, who is something of a father to the Enforcers.  When he is murdered by mysterious enemies, one of the Enforcers, Adam, is sent to eliminate the suspected traitors, which includes his daughter Dr. Dani Archer.

En route to his mission, Adam is ambushed by thugs who mug him, beat him and leave him for dead.  If he was an ordinary human he would be dead, but because he is an Enforcer he survives, albeit without his memory.  He literally stumbles into Dani's house, who's there wrapping up loose ends after her father's death.  Since he doesn't remember who he is, much less that he's supposed to kill her, he lets Dani, a medical doctor, take care of him.  Dani doesn't go to the police as she has a good reason not to trust them.  She's intrigued by Adam, who heals impossibly quickly, and also because he's hella sexxay on account of being a genetic superhunk.  There's some funny scenes as Adam has to be taught how to do everything from eating to showering.  Also look for the trademark patented Debra Webb spooning scene, which appears in every one of her novels I've read so far - not that I mind.

What I liked about this book: The whole idea of the Enforcers is intriguing.  Dani is a strong female character and I thought her relationship with Adam was believable and hot.  The action was fairly fast-paced and exciting.

What I didn't like about this book: It felt too short, but I guess it had to fit into the required category length.  If I hadn't read the second book in the series, I probably would have rushed out to do so, as it helps flesh out the story.  Also, the ending was something of a letdown.  It had the same ending as the other book I reviewed today, and it was too predictable and unoriginal.  I would have preferred a "happy for now" rather than a "happily ever after forever and ever" ending.

Hmm...Debra Webb seems to be becoming my go-to author for romantic suspense. 

Royal Wedding





The title: Royal Wedding
The author: Meg Cabot
Publication: HarperCollins, 2015
Got it from: The library

Remember all the way back in 2009 when I was binge-reading the Princess Diaries series and I thought it was all over?  Well, it turns out that Mia's back! 

I was as excited as the next fan to spend time with all the characters again.  Neurotic Mia is now 26 and dividing her time between being Princess of Genovia and running a youth centre in NYC.  I don't want to spoil any other revelations, but we get an update on all her high school friends too.  Michael, who still suffers from being styrofoam bland, whisks Mia away for an island vacation where he proposes.  Mia's dad, the Crown Prince of Genovia, is suffering from a midlife crisis and still hasn't gotten over Mia's mom, who was recently widowed.  (Gee, I wonder where this is going?)  Meanwhile, a shocking family secret threatens to shake the family to its core.  Or maybe introduce the main character for Cabot's new kid series.

Don't get me wrong, I still like Cabot's writing.  The pop culture references are fun - who doesn't love a book that mentions Sex Sent Me to the ER?  But I have been reading all the glowing reviews and thinking, what am I missing?  This book would have been a less-than-average addition to the original series.  And the cliched ending was a huge letdown.  I would have liked to see Mia grown more mature, intelligent and forging her own path, rather than the same tired old ending.  I guess when you're writing about princesses, you're not going to be breaking any feminist ground. 

Rating: 2.5 tiaras out of 5.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

The title: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
The author: Sydney Padua
Publication: Pantheon, 2015
Got it from: The library

Ah, Ada Lovelace.  Daughter of Lord Byron, the original Queen of Steampunk, arguably the world's first computer programmer.  Is there anything she can't do?  Sydney Padua doesn't think so, as she sets out to prove in this graphic novel/alternate history/adventure/science and math lesson.  Yes, it's all over the place, as hard to pin down as Charles Babbage's never-finished Analytical Engine.  This graphic novel is really a series of vignettes of "what might have been" if the computer had actually been built and was used to solve crime and various economical woes.  Interspersed are a whole lot of background notes (seriously, at one point I was in the footnote of a footnote of a footnote).  Various Victorian personages drop in and out, including Queen Victoria (apparently the world's first fan of LOLCats), George Eliot and of course the Romantics. 

It's all a lot of silliness, of course, but oh my goodness is there a lot of math and science.  I encountered terms I haven't heard since school and didn't know I even remembered.  After reading detail after detail of how the Analytical Engine was designed, I think I may actually have a slight grasp of how computers work.  Don't worry, it's not all dry mathematics, there's actually some pretty great historical humour in here that Victorianists will appreciate.  I particularly love a scene where actual computers (people who did computations) try to wreck the machine Luddite-style and Babbage sits them down to tea to reason with them.  Both Babbage and Lovelace were fascinating characters who make excellent heroes this quirky and fun book.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Indigo

The title: Indigo
The author: Beverly Jenkins
Publication: Avon, 1996
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks

I wish - I really, really wish - that there were more romances featuring minorities.  And I wish there were more historicals.  And I wish they were as good as Indigo.

But there aren't, so I will have to rejoice in how much I enjoyed Indigo.  It felt like a breath of fresh air.  There was a lot going on in this book that I loved.  First of all, it is set in Michigan in the 1850s, a time and place I know almost nothing about.  The Civil War is looming in the distance, and slavery is still very much a thing.  Hester Wyatt is a former slave who has made a life for herself in the free north.  Since the death of her beloved aunt, she has had to survive on her own.  What I liked about her is how fiercely independent she is, but still shows cracks of vulnerability.  Hester knows her life as a free woman is precarious: slave catchers have been kidnapping freed slaves and sending them back south.  Hester could give in to despair, but she doesn't.  She has worked hard, scrimped and saved, and denied herself every luxury to remain independent in her own house.  Nor has she turned her back on those less fortunate.  Her home is part of the Underground Railroad, and this is how she encounters the hero, Galen Vahon.

Galen is from a wealthy New Orleans family, members of a group known as the free people of color.  Here again I learned about something I was entirely ignorant of.  Galen's family occupies a unique position in their society: they are wealthy and privileged, but because of the color of their skin, they are looked down on by whites.  But because of their distinction, they are not really accepted as being true members of "the race" that Hester and other African-Americans identify with.

Galen reminds me a lot of the Scarlet Pimpernel, because he has used his wealth and privilege to help others escape capture.  He works for the Underground Railroad and has earned the nickname "The Black Daniel" because of his heroic rescues and legendary derring-do.  When the story opens, he has been betrayed and is caught and badly beaten.  Luckily he is found and taken to Hester's safe house for recovery.

Of course in true romantic fashion, he's a surly patient and she's a stubborn nurse.  But they gradually come to respect one another for the lives both have built.  Naturally, there's romantic tension, but Hester immediately senses that she won't be welcome in Galen's aristocratic family.  She knows her hands, dyed indigo from her years spent  picking dye plants, will forever mark her as a former slave. 

I love novels that involve politics, and this one has it in abundance.   It was wonderful to see it from the perspective of the African-American community of her time.  Some of Hester's friends, including Hester herself, prefer to take a course of direct action by helping runaway slaves make a new life for themselves in the north.  Other people in Hester's circle are more involved in the intellectual side of the movement, taking part in debates and reading and writing for abolitionist papers.  And some of course do both.  But this novel doesn't always dwell on this serious subject, even though there's some pretty heavy stuff going on (including a slave catcher who's stalking Hester).  There's also some more lighthearted moments, such as carriages breaking down, making mud pies, shopping trips and fairs.  As Hester and Galen's relationship grows, they become more playful and fun together, bringing comfort to each other amidst dark and troubling events.  And the ending?  I was in tears.

It may be a touch old-school (it was written almost 20 years ago), but there's nothing in here for anyone to object to.  It's a fascinating history lesson, a tender love story and an exciting adventure rolled into one.  What's not to love?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ella Minnow Pea

The title: Ella Minnow Pea
The author: Mark Dunn
Publication: Anchor Books, 2001
Got it from: The library

Word play is at the heart of this delightful little novel written entirely in letters (one of my favourite kinds).  The heroine, Ella Minnow Pea (get it?), lives with her parents Amos and Gwenette Minnow Pea on an island off the coast of South Carolina.  The citizens of the island revere language and one of their founding fathers, Nevin Nollop, the man who invented the pangram "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog."  The island has been isolated to the point where the citizens are trapped in a Victorianesque society that shuns technology.  As the story opens, 18-year-old Ella writes to her cousin on another part of the island to tell her the letters of Nollop's famous pangram have started to fall off a memorial plaque in the town square.  Their fall has been interpreted by the sinister High Council as a sign from the dead Nollop that the letters should be banished from the island.  Use of the letters in either writing or spoken word result in the stock, a public flogging or even banishment.

As the first letter (Z) is made illegal, the word disappears from the letters and hence, the novel.  As they begin to drop one by one, the citizens try to band together to help one another.  Meanwhile they have to become more and more creative in their writing to avoid the "illegabeticals".  It gets particularly comical toward the end of the novel when Ella and a local university student try to conduct a romance using just a handful of letters (he refers to himself as her "amigomate.")  I was also amused when two of the villagers changes their names from Buzz and Zeke to L'il Tristan and Prince Valiant-the-Comely. 

Lurking behind the silliness and clever word tricks is a greater theme about the blind adherence to religious cult.  There is also more than a smidgeon of similarity to totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany, where everyone lives in fear, neighbours turn on neighbours , and people are banished or disappear under a brutal police force.  But read it how you will, this is one for us logophiles.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Hot

The title: Hot
The author: Julia Harper (aka Elizabeth Hoyt)
Publication: Hachette, 2008
Got it from: Borders, Buffalo, April 2015

Quick review: the cover and title of this book are stupid.  They tell you nothing about the real content of the book and imply it's some sort of chick-lit summer romance.  It's actually a reissue of a contemporary of one of my favourite authors, Elizabeth Hoyt. Now that she's made it big in the historical realm I guess they want to cash in.  It worked - I definitely picked it up because the author's name is in big letters and because it's about a librarian who's being chased by an FBI agent.  Except the fact that she's a librarian doesn't really have much to do with the story.  The heroine is Turning Hastings and she's out to clear her deceased uncle's name, and she's willing to sacrifice anything to do so - even taking advantage of a bank robbery to do a little heist on her own.  Turner and the hero, John MacKinnon, play cat and mouse and don't actually meet until over 200 pages in - their relationship develops via cell phone as she's being chased.  For the most part this book was entertaining but it often teetered on the edge of "annoying quirky cutesy"* (Would a 31-year-old really eat nothing but pickled herring?  Really?) You can definitely tell it's by an early Elizabeth Hoyt who was just finding her voice.  Even though it's no Maiden Lane series, I want to read the sequel, so that tells you something.

Rating: 3.5 pickled herrings out of 5.

*See authors I dislike for this trope: Phillips, Susan Elizabeth.  Cruisie, Jennifer.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Double review: Further Chronicles of Avonlea and The Story Girl

The title: Further Chronicles of Avonlea
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1920 (My edition: Seal Books 1987)
Got it from: N.B. c.1993

While I was in the middle of reading one L.M. Montgomery book and listening to another on audio, Anne fandom was hit with a huge blow this past weekend with the death of Jonathan Crombie who played Gilbert in the classic Sullivan films.  Two weeks ago at Easter when I reviewed Cool Japan Guide I went down the rabbit hole and started researching the Japanese obsession with Anne, and somehow ended up finding this interview with Crombie. Even though Gilbert of the books will always be my favourite, Gilbert of the movies was everything he should be.  A generation of Anne fans will mourn him deeply.

Anne and Gilbert don't make make too many appearances in this follow-up to Chronicles of Avonlea, although Anne does narrate one of the stories.  What makes these two collections interesting is that they were written to be published as a whole from the beginning, rather than compiled together from various stories like many of the Montgomery collections that began appearing in the 1990s.  The fact that it's set in Avonlea is almost non-essential.  Except for a few mentions of peripheral Anne characters, these stories could be set anywhere in Montgomery's beloved turn-of-the-century P.E.I.  As always, her stories are full of warmth, humour and the follies of human nature, and I enjoyed them with a few serious caveats.

On the whole the first few stories felt stronger than the last handful and overall I thought Chronicles of Avonlea was stronger than its sequel.  Fans of the TV show Road to Avonlea will recognize the story "The Materializing of Cecil," about a spinster who makes up a beau from her past only to have a man with the same name show up in town.  "Her Father's Daughter" was a nice story about a girl who reunites with her estranged father on her wedding day.  "The Brother Who Failed" shows Montgomery's Victorian sentimentality with her It's a Wonderful Life plot: a brother who feels like a failure is proved to be everyone's hero.  "The Son of His Mother" showed Montgomery's near-obsession with sons (she had two herself and was unapologetic in her bias).  This story features a mother so obsessed with her son it borders on mental illness. 

Each story is worth discussing, but I want to focus on a couple of things that rubbed me the wrong way as a modern reader.  "The Education of Betty" has a man raising the daughter of a woman who refused him, and he ends up romantically with the daughter in the end.  Yuck.  I find May-December romances incredibly creepy, especially when it's the man who's older.  Even though the girl in this was 19, I just found the whole concept gross, especially as the "lover" was her father figure growing up. 

The other aspect of these stories I can't forgive is their casual racism, even though it was perfectly acceptable at the time.  As much as I love Montgomery, holy crap was she racist.  She basically looks down on anyone who isn't a white well-to-do Protestant, but it's even more pronounced here.  There's a throwaway line at the end of "The Materializing of Cecil" disparaging the Chinese, but you could write a thesis on last story, "Tannis of the Flats," and its depictions of First Nations people.  I'm not going to repeat the slurs here but suffice it to say the whole story is based on racist stereotypes and ethnic insults abound.  Modern readers will be horrified.

The title: The Story Girl
The author: L.M. Montgomery
Publication: L.C. Page & Company, 1911
Got it from: Hoopla Audiobooks, read by Grace Conlin, 2006

Less racist (although still classist) was my audiobook listen of The Story Girl, which along with its sequel and the Chronicles of Avonlea formed the basis of Road to Avonlea.  This is the only one of Montgomery's books that I didn't remember a thing about from having read as a child, except for the scene where the children pay someone for a picture of God. Montgomery has said it was an autobiographical story.  It features a summer in the life of a group of clannish cousins, along with their mischievous hired boy Peter and a wet blanket of a friend named Sara Ray.  It's narrated by one of the boy cousins, but the true protagonist of the story is Sara Stanley, the narrator's cousin.  Although she's not as beautiful as their conceited cousin Felicity, Sara is more beloved for her imagination and her ability to tell marvelous stories.  Her tales form many stories-within-stories that often reflect events in the children's lives.  Grace Conlin reads beautifully and the oral storytelling in the book makes for a perfect audiobook experience.  I expect to follow up with the sequel The Golden Road in the near future.