Saturday, May 29, 2010

Home in Time for Christmas

The title: Home in Time for Christmas
The author: Heather Graham
Publication: Mira, 2009
Got it from: MC, Xmas 2009


I know - a Christmas book in May? What was I thinking? Actually, we've been having a heat wave here with 36 degrees Celsius being the high (that's oh, about a million degrees Fahrenheit for you American readers). I thought reading about snowstorms might cool me off a bit.

This book had a very promising premise. Jake Mallory is an American Patriot about to be executed for treason by the British. Just as the noose is about to drop, his adopted sister, who practices witchcraft, arrives and says a spell that makes him disappear. Jake lands in the middle of a Massachusetts road and is nearly run down by the story's heroine, Melody Tarleton. She takes him home to her kooky family and they have to figure out what to do with Jake.

My friend, who gave me this book last Christmas, wrote, "feel free to despise it," worried that the story's far-fetchedness would bother even my time-travel loving self. So I'm going to take her up on her offer, though not because the story is far-fetched - of course it is, why would anyone buy a time-traveling soldier book thinking otherwise? I despise it because it sucks. Hardcore. I usually think of nice things to say about books I don't like, but I just can't for this one. How do I despise it? Let me count the ways:

10. Poor copy editing. This may or may not be poor Heather Graham's fault, but since she's going to take the flack for the rest of my criticism, I'll let her off the hook. Maybe this book was rushed out in time for the holiday season, but I have never seen so many typos in a commercially printed book in my life. Sentences where key words were left out, the dreaded it's/its mixup and too many others to count marred my reading experience.

9. Poor editing, period. This was the read deal-breaker for me. Again, this may be because the book was rushed out for the holidays, but nobody - not even mega bestselling authors with years of publishing history - should be let off the hook from close editing. If I didn't have the finished book in my hands, I'd say this was just a rough draft. The narrative flow was awful, jumping here and there all over the place without any semblance of coherence. It was as if I were reading pieces of the author's first draft, before she had a chance to link scenes together.

8. Wooden dialogue. The dialogue in this book had all the finesse of an eighth grade short story competition. Now, I don't have any serious writing classes under my belt, but even I know that you can't just keep saying "he said/she said." It's amateurish. Even, "he pontificated, she burbled, the thing bloviated" is a more creative approach. And the way people spoke in this book - ouch. It sounded so unrealistic, so forced, so expository, that I cringed the whole way through. Just listen to this "bantering" between Melody's parents as an example:

"We have been married since time began," he said with a sigh.

She was no longer completely concentrating. She gave him a good jab in the ribs.*


"Speak for yourself, my love. I am not that old."


"And, my dear husband, you do recall that you might be considered an alchemist."

"Right. Just like Merlin. Where's the sword? I can pull it out of a stone."

See how kooky they are? See how they playfully banter with each other? See how the author is forcing them to be cah-razy and making no sense at all?

7. Poor characterization. Every single character in this book is two-dimensional. Jake is (I think) supposed to come across as mysteriously enigmatic, but really, I think it's because the author couldn't be bothered giving him a personality other than "random Patriot" and he's really just very boring. Melody is gratingly annoying, always flying off the handle at her family. Her "trait" is that she's an artist, which I didn't realize until 3/4 of the way through the book, when we learn that Jake is teh one, not her boyfriend Mark, because he recognizes her true artistic spirit. At one point, Jake realizes Mark is not right for Melody because he doesn't recognize that she's "so much more" than Mark thinks she is. Really? I think Mark has her spot on.

The rest of Melody's family can be lumped into a sort of, "oh, you wacky people, you" category. Her mother is a sort of hippy-dippy free spirit (gag) who believes in women's freedom but nevertheless spends the whole book slaving away in the kitchen and smothering her family. Melody's dad is an absent-minded blob who does - well, I'm not sure what he does, but it's vaguely science-y. He contributes very little to the story. Melody's brother bickers with her like they're both seven and is creepy enough to have a thing for strippers, which is what he wants to introduce Jake to as part of his twenty-first century experience. Then there's Mark, Melody's boyfriend, who serves as Jake's foil because he's so uptight and old-fashioned and...oh, wait. Jake's like that too. Never mind.

6. Cliches ahoy! I've already mentioned the kooky family. How about the lovable deformed pets? The overprotective brother? (you actually get two in this story!) The magical wishing well? The old diary that provides all the answers? The notes sealed in the fireplace? The "years later" epilogue where everybody finds true love, there's a passel of kids named after other characters and everybody's gotten successful and found their true calling?

5. Serious anachronisms. Other reviewers have pointed out that Jake mentions the U.S. constitution even though he time-traveled before it was even written, but I won't touch that. My main problem is Jake's handling of being in the twenty-first century. I'm reminded of a line from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (a movie that deals with time travel in a much more fun, creative way) when Ted, after hauling historical figures through time, commends Socrates for handling time travel, "with the greatest of ease." Jake understands and accepts everything so completely that I almost shrieked, "Are you serious!?" In mere days, he talks 21st century slang and words like cell phone, the Internet, etc. roll off his lips easily. He's so adept at picking up our language that his sister, still living in the 18th century, starts to say words like "seriously," too. Amazing! He also instantly knows how to run appliances and groom himself 21st-century style. What a guy.

4. Where's the good times? Think of all the fun you can have writing a story about somebody from the Revolutionary War arriving in the 21st century, and you can bet Heather Graham didn't write about it. Jake's "education" in modern times consists of him watching lots of DVDs like Full Metal Jacket and learning words like "dickhead." Yes, you heard that right. When Jake's announced he's learned this, Melody's mother says, "Wonderful. We've taught him all the right stuff." I found this to be the most unintentionally hilarious line in the book. Old Jake would have probably been better off if he'd dropped into, say, the middle of Siberia rather than with these nuts.

3. Mystical mumbo-jumbo. A book can have magic, but it has to have rules. A book can beat you over the head with a moral message, but it has to figure out what it's saying first. This book did neither.

Despite people hurling back and forth through time like paper airplanes toward the end, it was never clearly explained how this all worked, despite the fact that Melody's dad's work supposedly helped it all. It was some sort of combination of black holes, electo-magnetic waves, magic herbal potion and rose petals. Look, everybody knows if you're going to time-travel only one thing does it, like a phone booth or a DeLorean or a hot tub. Not five!

And what the hey was this book trying to say about religion? It was all over the place. Melody's mom went on and on about acceptance and understanding and they all attended some sort of Wiccan all-inclusive party, but the characters kept mentioning Jesus and there was a mystical priest thrown in for good measure. With no overarching theme or message, all I could get from this book is love your family, be true to yourself, there is no "I" in we, accept all religions, worship God, women should work outside the home except when they have to cook for their families, women should be traditional and stay home and make lots of babies, love each other for ourselves, miracles happen at Christmas, if you wish for something hard enough it can come true, don't choose that traditional man choose the other one, love your brother even when he's an asshole, bring home stray things you find on the side of the road, the world hasn't changed in two hundred years except it has....I could go on, but I'm afraid I'd start making as much sense as this book.

2. It's weird. That's the one word I can use to sum up this book, and I can't think of a better one. It's like something you would see a night you were up sick and couldn't sleep and you turned on the TV at 5 am and this was on, and you watched it and got a little creeped out and then afterward you're never quite sure you saw it or it actually existed because you can't find it on IMDB.

1. It's boring. This really saddened me. It wasn't even so bad it was hilarious and entertaining, it was just bad. About halfway through I kept wishing it would end. It wasn't even that long but it felt way too long. I wouldn't have finished it except that I felt like I had to because a friend gave it to me.

Usually I end my unfavourable reviews by saying, "I didn't like it, but here's why you might." But I can't. I really can't recommend this book to anybody and I wish to warn you away from it right now. Please save yourself or your loved one the $20.00 and stay as far away from this book as possible. If you value your reading time (and I know you do) avoid Home in Time for Christmas because there is nothing worthwhile about this book. I am giving it a D, and it's spared the F only because I still like the concept.

*This is an example of the bad writing right here. If she really wasn't concentrating, she wouldn't have heard him and wouldn't have elbowed him in the ribs. But don't expect this book to make that much sense.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Too Much Happiness

The title: Too Much Happiness 
The author: Alice Munro
Publication: McClelland & Stewart, 2009 

Got it from: DC, Xmas 2009

Having never read any Alice Munro stories, and hearing so many great things about this author, I was curious to read her latest acclaimed book. I wasn't sure what to expect, but this is probably my most different reading experience of the past five years.

Munro's writing is technically brilliant, and she takes you to places you don't expect. "Dimensions" is the story of a young woman visiting her husband in jail for committing a crime that you don't discover until the end, so repulsive that it makes you visibly uncomfortable. "Wenlock Edge" starts out as a seemingly normal story of a girl and her roommate, only to evolve into something bizarre as the narrator is invited into a dinner party where she is asked to strip naked for an older man and read him stories. I found this story to be the "humorous" one of the bunch and I mean humorous in a weirdly creepy sort of way. "Free Radicals" had me on edge, worried as a killer on the loose dines with a widowed old lady whose home he had broken into. The most interesting story (for me), "Child's Play," deals with two girls and their obsession with a mentally challenged girl decades ago and how fear of the unknown can lead to terrible consequences.

Don't read these stories if you are looking for a light read, where everything is spelled out for you and the endings are happy. I'm going to be honest and say that I didn't like this book. It wasn't my cup of tea at all, but I do appreciated that it made me think and I still can't figure out all the hidden symbolism and meaning in these stories. My only suggestion is that if you do read this book, it is with an open mind and no expectations.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Little Miss Red

The title: Little Miss Red
The author: Robin Palmer
Publication: Speak, 2010
Got it from: The Library

High school student Sophie Greene is bored with her boyfriend of three years and wants to lead a more glamorous life, like the star of her favourite romance books, Devon Devoreaux, in this modern spin on the Little Red Riding Hood tale. On the plane to Grandma's house (a Florida condo, not a cabin in the woods) bringing family heirloom menorahs in place of the basket of goodies, she meets bad-boy Jack, a wannabe rock star motorcycle-riding kind of guy. But will Sophie give up her practical life in California for Jack's big bad wolf ways?

The problem with this book, as other reviewers have mentioned, is that Sophie is pretty shallow. Her naive views of what love should be could give Twilight's Bella a run for her money. In the end she of course realizes how self-absorbed and self-interested Jack is, but I didn't feel that Sophie herself was much better. Added to that, both Jack and Michael, Sophie's emo boyfriend, are pretty lame. Jack isn't a wolf so much as a mooching flirt and only a girl as airheaded as Sophie would fall for his act for even a second. Michael seems lazy and neglectful, and his claim to Sophie's love is that he's good at helping her pick out outfits. Sophie's tracksuit-wearing Grandma provided some amusement, as well as Sophie's references to the ultra-cheesy Devon Devoreaux novels. But overall this book doesn't rate much more than a middling "C".

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Make Your Move

The title: Make Your Move
The author: Samantha Hunter
Publication: Harlequin, 2010
Got it from: Kobo Books

This is the first book I read on my brand-new Kobo eReader, and I bought it for one reason only: the hero is a nerd!

Jodie Patterson is the owner of a Chicago bakery, Just Eat It (heh), which specializes in cookies with special frosting that enhance women's sexual attractiveness. The frosting was developed by Jodie's friend and business partner, Dr. Dan Ellison, a scientist at the local university. Jodie and Dan have had a thing for each other for years, but neither one has had the guts to make the first move: he because he's too shy, she because she's afraid of commitment. She's so afraid of commitment, in fact, that she's had too many one-night stands to count. One night, after bringing home Dan's colleague and rival Jason, Jodie realizes that Dan is the reason she's into nerds and Dan realizes that he's jealous and wants to be more than friends with Jodie.

Reading books like this reminds me of why I love contemporary romance and nerdy heroes. I don't know any firefighters, Navy SEALs, special ops agents, cowboys or viscounts in real life, but professors? I think I probably know more men who teach at universities than don't. So guys who save the world with their brain power? I'm so there. Maybe they're not dodging bullets and engaging in high-speed car chases, but damnit, they have a paper to deliver and they've got to defend their thesis against that jerk who always wants to talk about his own research. And why join the NRA when you can be the member of a chess club, baby? When I read this book, I thought: here's an author who really gets that men with glasses are sexy. Can I just beat this dead horse one more time and bemoan the fact that there aren't nearly enough nerd heroes in romance?

Oh yes, the book. I'm supposed to talk about that. I'm afraid I can't give an objective review because I was so enthralled by the fact that the hero was an honest-to-goodness nerd. Or maybe that's the point. The book was incredibly silly. The villain was over-the-top. The obstacles facing the hero and heroine were almost non-existent. The plot was so light it could float away on a morning breeze. But I loved it. LOVED IT. End of story.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Behind a Mask

The title: Behind a Mask; Or, A Woman's PowerThe author: Louisa May Alcott
Publication: Wildside Press, 2005 (originally 1866)Got it from: SC, Xmas 2009

If you only know Louisa May Alcott from Little Women, you'd be surprised to discover this novella (published here as a single volume rather than in an anthology) about "romance and sexual intrigue." I certainly had a hard time remembering it was Alcott. It almost seemed like Austen in its writing, with a healthy dose of Bronte manipulation and head games thrown in for good measure.

Jean Muir is the catalyst of the whole story, a seemingly innocent, meek young woman who arrives at the Coventry household as governess only to cause jealousy and strife amongst the once peaceful household. She manages to deceive everybody in the family, but the reader of course knows better, having caught a glimpse of Jean's true self in the first chapter: "a haggard, worn and moody woman of thirty at least" (ouch). She manages to have both the Coventry brothers fight over her in a jealous rage - and I do mean fight, with knife wounds and all. But what is her true purpose? I won't spoil the story, but it certainly took an interesting and unexpected turn at the end. A must read for anybody interested in women's social standings in the 19th century.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

New York: the Novel

The title: New York: the Novel
The author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publication: Doubleday, 2009
Got it from: La Library

You can forgive me for not posting anything new in nearly a month when you realize I've been trying to get through this close-to-900 pages bad boy. I've been a fan of Rutherfurd's since Sarum and when this book was announced, I looked forward to it with much anticipation. I love New York, I love Rutherfurd, I love long historical family epochs that explore a city's history. What more could you ask for?

So, was it worth it? For me, yes. I knew enough about New York and its history to anticipate key moments, but not enough so that some moments came as a surprise. As ever with Rutherfurd's books, they're as much history as narrative fiction. (Hint - if you're not a fan of the info dump, I suggest you skip this one). New York follows the lives of a handful of New York families, and because it's such a multicultural city, we get families of several different nationalities: Native, Dutch, English, Irish, African, Italian, Puerto Rican, Jewish. The main family are the Masters, descended from a somewhat rascally Englishman (another Rutherfurd trope) who goes on to found a wealthy, prosperous New York clan.

The Masters are the only family that survive the entire narrative, from the time of the 17th century Dutch settlers through to the World Trade Center attacks and beyond. I was a bit disappointed that the histories of some families never got picked up again: the story of a black slave family named Hudson never gets re-introduced and we're only given a teasing glimpse of an illegitimate Native American branch of the Master family. But the new characters that Rutrherfurd introduces are so interesting that it's not hard to forgive him. Particularly exciting are the stories of the Civil War draft riots, the 19th century robber barons and the building of skyscrapers like the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings in the 1920's and 30's.

This book definitely requires a lot of attention and patience to fully appreciate, and it does slow down in some parts, particularly the descriptions of battles in the Revolutionary War. But if you have the time to devote to it, and don't mind your histories with a little action and romance thrown in, New York is a very rewarding use of your reading time.

4 1/2 Statue of Liberties out of 5.