Sunday, February 24, 2008

9. Love in Excess

The title: Love in Excess
The author: Eliza Haywood (ed. David Oakleaf)
Publication: Broadview Press, 2000 (originally 1719)
Got it from: David, who got it at a university bookstore (Buffalo?)

Back when I was a fresh young undergrad, I remember reading Haywood's The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless for my Writing by Women class. I could probably sum up all 500 pages of that book with: "Oh no! I have heedlessly gotten myself into this situation where I am about to be raped! Who will save me now?" Seriously, I wanted to kick that crap out of Betsy. Once or twice going off into the garden with sketchy guys? Okay, that I can forgive you for. Continuing to do so over and over and OVER again? That's just dumb. She is the original Too Stupid to Live heroine of modern romance novels.

Okay, this novel reads at a bunch of different levels. First, I feel like throwing a party for the author for beating down the doors of the men's literary world and continuing to write even in the face of intense criticism. That misogynistic schmuck Pope actually wrote a poem about her as the prize cow in a pissing contest, for which I hope someone pisses on his grave. Cheers to you, Eliza, for telling everyone to eff off by writing whatever the heck you wanted. This book is also frustratingly hard to read because it was published in 1719. It took me a good year to get through it because I kept getting bogged down by sentences that ran for half a page and characters that kept popping up out of nowhere.

In the end, though, as much as I admire the themes and sentiments tackled by this book, I was extremely frustrated by the characters. The book basically centres around this Count D'Elmont, who has women swooning all over themselves trying to get into his pants. Some of them actually die pining for him. There's all the usual 18th-century stuff: love triangles (x10), wailing and gnashing teeth and cursing over love, epic swordfights, main characters dying off left and right, seductions, attempted rapes, lots of letter writing and romantic misunderstandings that take place in gardens, horny heiresses and the inevitable cross-dressing woman. Which sounds like a good time, but again: 1719! Page-long sentences! Confusing grammar and syntax! A year's worth of reading! So I stamp thee, Love in Excess: B.

Friday, February 22, 2008

8. Your Body: The Fish That Evolved

The title:
Your Body: The Fish That Evolved
The author: Dr. Keith Harrison
Publication: Metro, 2007
Got it from: Good old St. Catharines PL

It's not too often that I'd describe a book as cute, particularly a science one, but...."awwwwww!" If Yankee Mistress is some sort of zoological abomination, this book would be something fuzzy and cute and cuddly.

Or maybe I'm just overly optimistic after my last review.

This light and breezy book (it only took a few hours to read) is a compact little history about how we evolved from tiny little microorganisms to super apes: what we gained that made us "us" at each step. And can I just say I never noticed that our elbows and knees bend in opposite directions? Awesome! Or that horses actually stand on their toe, not their foot? And I never realized that women and men walk differently because women have to compensate for their wider hips (we have to sway our hips back and forth for balance, otherwise we'd fall over. Sometimes I just fall over anyway.)

What made this book so cute was that the ideas of the book are 21st century, but it was written in a 19th century style. I don't know how to explain this, but if you've ever read any non-fiction from 1800's you know that they write in that sort of grand, sweeping style with short, concise sentences and occasional humphs and tut-tuts from the author. For example:

"As a species, we have recently developed the ability to alter the genetic composition of other species directly, to produce Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's). Some people argue this is no different to altering the characters of other species through selective breeding, which we have been doing for thousands of years, but this is nonsense. Selective breeding is a way of choosing which cow genes we want in our cows...with genetic modification, we are moving genes from one species to another." (p.205)

I just can't help picturing the author of this work as some little British man with a monocle. He digs up bones in the desert, occasionally pausing to take his tea under the shade of his umbrella, while Al Jolson plays on the Victrola nearby. He says things like "rather!" and "quite, quite!" with frequency. He has all the sensibilities of a 21st century scientist, but prefers to party like it's 1899.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

7. Yankee Mistress (Kathryn reads Civil War romances, Part I)

The title: Yankee Mistress*
The author: Ashley Snow
Publication: Zebra, 1989
Got it from: Freemont's Used Books, downtown St. Catharines

This review is dedicated to the fine psychic dude who said that in my last life, I was a cranky Southern Belle, forever embittered by my Confederate officer fiance jilting me. This one's for you!**

I've gone through thousands of books in my lifetime, and I can safely say that this is the worst book I've ever read. Ever. This book is so hideous, if it were some kind of animal it would be a hairy tarantula-like creature that would make me jump up on the couch and whack it with a broom over and over and it would still be alive. ALIVE! And I would keep whacking it and it would still keep limping on, until finally it rolled over onto its back and gasped for breath for several minutes until its wriggly, hairy legs finally ceased moving. And I would throw it out the window, but then three days later it would be back. Because it's alive. ALIVE! Forever tormenting me!

This book insults me on so many levels, and not just as a woman. It insults me because I'm a human being and this book leaves no stereotype, racist remark, sexist utterance and sheer lack of decency unturned. I actually, at one point, felt physically ill reading this. I swear, I could feel my last meal churning within me. I had to look at a lot of pictures of Tyrone Power to feel better.

Why? Why did it have to be this way? The premise of the book, it is so good. A woman becomes a Union spy and is captured and seduced by a Confederate officer: that's hot. This book: so not. Oh God, where do I even begin? I only have to tell you the plot before you'll begin to see why this book is so painful.

So the story starts out, and we meet our "patriotic wench" (from the back cover), Selene Sprague, toiling in her uncle's tavern in Virginia one hot summer day. She goes to the well, is harassed by a bunch of Confederate soldiers (one of whom turns out to be the hero) and goes inside again. Then she meets Creepy Union Dude, who was a friend of her dad's, and he asks her to be a spy for the Union. She agrees.

This takes us to page 14. Oh, how I wish the story had ended here. Oh, how I wish it. But no. After page 14, that's when the story gets bad.

So Selene, the Patriotic Wench, spies on the Confederate jackasses, among them Jerkface McJerkington, the "hero" of this sorry piece of crap. And hears (what else?) secret Confederate plans that she must immediately take to the Federal lines. But oh noes! The hero sees her riding off on her horse and decides to go after her. After an easy capture, he debates whether to turn her over to the authorities but decides to keep her with him because her breasts are all sweaty and they're making him horny.

So they're headed to meet the Confederate army and they have to camp overnight. As Jerkface McJerkington is taking a leak in the bushes, Selene decides to make a break for it. This of course makes Jerkface really mad because nothing's worse than having to stop mid-pee to catch some "foxy, sassy" (also from the back cover) Yankee woman. So what does he do? Rape the ever-living snot out of her, of course! Nothing could be more romantic. Of course, the rape wasn't bad because her body, it rebelled! Oh how she hated his cause, but yearned for his touch! (From the front cover). And she comes all over him, so it's not really rape. Afterwards, Jerkface feels some remorse, and vows that next time, he's going to be more gentle.***

At this point, I would have taken a cleaver and castrated him. But what do I know? I'm not a foxy, sassy Yankee wench.

So they meet up with the Confederate army, and Jerkface decides that instead of turning her over to the authorities, on account of the perma-boner she's given him, he's going to stick her with the field surgeon while he goes to fight. So Selene helps there for awhile (OMG miraculously knowing exactly what to do even though she's never had any medical experience ever). Then our patriotic wench wisely decides to make a break for it. But oh noes! The men she thought were Union soldiers were actually Confederate spies! Then Selene faints and wakes up back home.

This probably should have been a good time to end the book.

Jerkface McJerkington, even though he hates Selene, decides that having a sex doll is even better and forces her to come with him, saying that she's just too dangerous to his mission. After an attempted rape in his carriage, they arrive at some port and Selene finds an old friend named Mattie and begs Jerkface to bring her along. So they all go off on a ship to Barbados, because he's meeting with secret English delegates who may save the Confederacy. In Barbados. For some reason. While on the ship, he forces Selene to marry him because then all his rape is justified, and he also physically and verbally abuses her friend Mattie. Selene, meanwhile, treats Mattie like her slave and orders her around. (Note: Mattie acts like a servile, simpering slave the entire time, constantly being abused by everyone, including Selene. In fact, she pretty much spends the whole book crying and being slapped around.)

But our Selene is a true foxy, sassy, wench, and whilst their ship is being bombarded by the Union, she decides her only chance to get free is to set fire to the ship. Of course, Jerkface is absolutely furious, but watching her dance around the flames like a madwoman also turns him on.

"A satisfied smile touched his shapely lips. Taming her was going to be a pleasure now that he had the time. She was his prisoner and his wife. There was leisure and time to take on the task of breaking her. And he intended to enjoy every minute of it." (p. 105).

After punching her in the face to knock her out, he locks her and Mattie in a cabin. A little while later he comes back, throws Mattie out, and rapes Selene good, but her treacherous body just loves it.

At this point, I would have tried to set fire to him. But what do I know? I'm not a foxy, sassy Yankee wench.

So then they're in Barbados for a good 150 pages. And Selene and Jerkface have sex on the beach a scillion times, and he buys her pretty things to appease her. And things are almost good, except that she falls in love with him for god knows why and he continues to tell her he hates her. Even, one time, grabbing her hair and yanking so hard her neck almost snaps, to tell her how much he hates her.

Then Creepy Union Dude shows up and promises to smuggle Selene to England in exchange for her becoming a spy for him. She agrees and sails off into the moonlight with him and Mattie while Jerkface stands on the shore shaking his fist at them.

Oh yes. I forgot to tell you that Creepy Union Dude is shown to be the Bad Guy because omg he kills the woman Jerkface had hired to stalk Selene all the time. Jerkface must be the hero, because he may beat and slap and rape women and force them to marry him, but god forbid he actually kill them. Creepy Union Dude never rapes or hits Selene (well, not until the end), but he's EEEVVVVILLL because he kills someone.

Then Selene goes to live with Creepy Union Dude in London for something like THREE YEARS and is kept his prisoner because he has all the money and won't send her home, where she desperately wants to go because she's so in looovvveee with Jerkface. Um, hello, all she had to do was bust into Creepy's desk and take the money! What kind of foxy, sassy Yankee wench is she if she can't even do that?

Never mind. The story continues to drag on forever. Creepy Union Dude sets Selene up to be his spy and she becomes the toast of London society. Why? Because she's the heroine, damnit! She catches the eye of Pervy Lord Man, which makes Creepy Union Dude happy, because he wants to bribe him. At one point in the novel, Creepy Union Dude deliberately leaves Selene alone with Pervy Lord Man, who proceeds to rape her good, until she bludgeons him with a lamp and runs screaming out the door where she runs into Jerkface McJerkington. Instead of being all concerned because DUDE, your wife just got raped by another man, he gets angry and tries to rape her again for being such a wanton hussy.

At this point, I would have tried to permanently lower his mizzen-mast. But what do I know? I'm not a foxy, sassy Yankee wench.

Yadda yadda yadda. Jerkface goes back to the States and Selene cries and begs him not to leave, but of course he does. Eventually Selene and Creepy Union Dude get into a fight, and she kills him with a pair of scissors and finally gets back to America.

Then it's half a year later in Washington. Selene meets Actually Nice Guy who agrees to take her across the enemy lines into Virginia so she can find her precious Jerkface. But it turns out Actually Nice Guy is a Confederate spy who used her to smuggle information. It's okay, though, he's still a Nice Guy who lets her live with his family in Virginia. Selene nobly and bravely tends to wounded soldiers until she gets word of her husband. She goes to tell him she loves him, but he tells her to screw off and she goes home crying. Later, Actually Nice Guy's family throws a ball and Jerkface shows up, telling her what a hussy she is for flirting with other men and tries to rape her against a tree but they are interrupted.

At some point, Jerkface gets typhoid. I say let the bastard die, but I'm not a foxy, sassy Yankee wench so what do I know? Of course Selene nurses him back to health and Jerkface thinks maybe she really does love him.

"But Selene, how can you love me? I dragged you away from your home, forced you to marry me, took advantage of you every chance I got. You've every reason to hate me." (p. 356)

No shit! I've been asking myself that the WHOLE BOOK.

Finally, in the end, Selene is somehow stalked by the woman Creepy Union Guy killed. (Look, don't ask me how a dead woman can stalk someone. The book doesn't explain either). And oh look! Creepy Union Dude is also not dead, and has somehow come back to life to seek his revenge on Selene and Jerkface! At the last minute Jerkface comes to Selene's rescue, kills Creepy and the war is over. Jerkface sweeps her into his arms and all is over.

What the freak is this? This book isn't even remotely romantic! The hero HATES the heroine for 99.9% of the book, and she pretty much hates him too until she thinks she adores him because he gives her some McLovin' on the beach, and that makes up for everything. Please!

Also, what's up with all the typos in this book? At one point, the author even spells one of her own character's names wrong!

There are no words to describe how much I hate this book. I wouldn't give it to my worst enemy in hell. F.

At no point in the book does the heroine ever become the hero's Yankee mistress, or is even asked to be his mistress. Rape victim, yes. Forced wife, check. But not mistress. I'm just sayin'.
**In my life before that, I was apparently an exotic dancer in Caesar's court. So for my next review I'm going to read Slave Girls of Rome.
***Ed's note: HAHAHAHAHA!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

6. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

The title:
Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
The author: Laurie Viera Rigler
Publication: Dutton, 2007
Got it from: The library. I'm cheap.

First, let me get this off my chest straightaway, before I review this and possibly other chick lit books: I am not a chick lit fan. It's not because I look down on a genre aimed at the 20-something lady demographic, to which I clearly belong. Hell, you're looking at a woman who is happy-dance excited that she beat out a scillion other romance-reading Smart Bitches to be crowned with the SB title "Viscountess Wette t'Shirte", which I wish was my real name that I could use to sign cheques, and put the O-faced lady on my passport. "Oh I'm sorry, Viscountess, I didn't realize. Here, your daquiris are on the house." But I digress. Speaking of the SBs, they pretty much outline my reasons for why I think the genre stinks. It's a long article, but I'll put the best parts here:

"...what irritates the shit out of me is that these characters [the chick lit heroines], they let you look down on them. They exist to make you feel better about yourself. And not only that, things happen to them because they are “nice” or “good” or “kind” and they aren’t complete bitchasses, and so they earn their happily ever after, and maybe it’s with the rich executive guy who just got his MBA and a promotion by age 24, and all is right with the world because suddenly, Dippi McHeroine can afford a new cell phone, now that hers is in pieces on the street. Or Jemima J-heroine loses weight after seeing herself photoshopped into slender glory, and ends up with a hot job, a new sense of self-worth, and a hot, hot man she’s lusted for all along. Or maybe Frumpi L’Heroine figures out all by herself a way to deal with her annoying evil boss and her annoying evil stepmother and finds a modicum of personal happiness - and of course a guy figures into the story most of the time somehow. But isn’t this genre often inculcating among young women the idea that fulfillment isn’t to be had professionally? That true fulfillment is money, goods acquisition, and a hot, hunky man? How is that addressing the needs to the young, female workforce, except using common rhetoric to slide the idea into their heads that the workplace isn’t really where they want to be, and reinforcing old, dangerous standards of what modern femininity is?" [emphasis added]

"Most of all, Chick Lit also doesn’t do it for me because the heroines never do anything, aside from make big messes. Stuff happens to them. Then, when they happen to do something, it’s a catastrophe. They aren’t often autonomous and they don’t make decisions to better themselves after they’ve had a three-martini lunch with their shallow friends about how much things suck. That’s not inspiring, and it’s not interesting. It’s dumb and I get irritated with people like that in real life. I don’t care about shoes and handbags to the exclusion of your having a brain. And I surely do not care about this that or the other hot guy, and it’s not because I’m married. I have single friends, but they are not weight-obsessed slackasses who stick their heads up their asses then complain about the view. I can’t handle people like that with a great degree of patience. I’m not friends with them. They annoy me. And I hate spending my leisure time with them."

Tell me about it. The world is full of people who think women are nothing but man-obsessed, shoe-lovin', chocolate-eating, airheaded messes. And that's the nice version. The last thing I want to do is read about some dumbass heroine who just perpetuates that and with whom I have NOTHING in common. Heroines whose lives, both inner and outer, are so devoid of life I want to explode something, like publishing houses. Just last year, I read three chick lit novels (Jenny Cruisie's Tell Me Lies, MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and Unwed and Gemma Townley's When in Rome) whose heroine were so stupid, so lifeless and so annoying I would have ceremonially burned the books had not they belonged to the library. (Yes, yes. I know that Betsey from U and U is a vampire so she's literally dead. I meant inside, people!) For a woman like me, who grew up with the cream tea awesomeness of, say, Marion Zimmer Bradley's heroines, the ladies of chick lit seem like Cream of Crap.

As for the book in question...

I didn't hate it. Which, considering the above views on chick lit, is saying a lot. Nor did I love it, even though my husband insists because it involves Jane Austen AND time travel it was written for me. The heroine of this book, Courtney Stone, is a rather frustrating embodiment of the chick lit genre, but she does get a little more interesting as the book progresses. The story basically involves her waking up in the body of Jane, a 19th century woman from the same genteel class of Austen's heroines. It's glaringly obvious that this book is a wish fulfillment for the author, who not only looks exactly like the heroine (based on her jacket picture) but also leads a similar life. Hey, we've all had our Mary Sue moments, but I wish the similarities hadn't been quite so close.

Courtney/Jane does have her moments, like when she ponders the time/space continuum and has her "OMG I really am selfish!" revelation at the end, but most of the time she's Dumb Chick Lit girl: "I'm so ashamed of my Jane Austen addiction because it's not cool!" "I drink vodka to escape the reality that my ex-fiance was a chick lit a-hole caricature!" "I'm going to stalk Jane Austen when I see her on the street!" The
pièce de résistance comes very close to the end, when she completely lost all credibility with me and I pushed back all the ground she gained. I can't tell you what it is, but if you read the book you'll know it when you read it. Suffice to say, her stupidity reared its ugly head in a very disappointing way.

And the payoff? Very disappointing. You're not even sure who the hero's supposed to be until 3/4 through the book, and the ending is confusing and rushed.

The reason I'm not totally trashing this book? Because it's the Regency. Sigh. I'm such a sucker. And because Jane/Courtney has a great friend in it named Mary, who reminds me of my own friend Mary. It's a slim save, but it's something. At least it only took a few hours to read. B-