Monday, January 31, 2011

sgwordy says...

He knows all my faults.

Riding instructor replies: Yes, our horses have us figured out in about five minutes. We begin to understand them in so many years.

The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook

Title: The Iron Duke
Author: Meljean Brook
Publisher: Berkley Sensation (2010)

Before doing a little write-up about this book I gave myself a cooling off period. This, I think, was very wise. You see, I had all kinds of expectations at the outset; I saw The Iron Duke on so many tops in 2010 lists, heard rave reviews, etc and so I was pretty excited to give it a read. I wasn't just disappointed (which happens and isn't that big a deal, we can't all like the same books) but downright livid! I honestly thought I must have been reading a different book! If I hadn't read the book on my Kindle I swear it would have been in tatters from multiple airborne trips ending against my wall. Usually if I dislike something this much I stop reading and don't bother to go through the trouble of a post, I mean, why re-live a yucky experience, but I feel the truth must out. (I sure would have liked a bit of a heads up because then I would have known to pass.) So then I tried to imagine what I would say but my brain fizzed out as it tripped over all the expletives and indignant mental shouting. To remain calm, and hopefully not be a complete jizzwad, I think the best thing for me to do is head chronologically through the book using subject headings to recount my comments (best thing about reading on the Kindle is the ease of note taking) so SPOILERS ABOUND!

In addition to the spoiler warning: I'm sure it's obvious but I really am about to crap all over this book so if you liked it then maybe you'll want to not read this. A friendly warning from one who keenly dislikes reading books I enjoy get crapped on...

Summary -

The Iron Duke is an alternate history, steampunk "romance." Romance gets the quoties because I've hardly read less romantic material, more on that later. Within the last decade the British Isles have been released from the oppressive rule of the technologically advanced Horde by a pirate-turned-savior who has been awarded a dukedom for his trouble. Mina, our heroine and a police detective, is mixed race Caucasian/Horde and subject to much indignity due to the hatred folks retain for the Horde. A murder investigation on the Iron Duke's property begins our story.

The World Building -

The award for Most Disappointing Thing That Didn't Actually Personally Offend and Make Me See Red is that the set up here is bang-up awesome but poorly executed and explored. The opportunity for cross-cultural interestingness alone is fantastic. You have the folks born on the Isles and previously subjugated by the Horde, the New Worlders who escaped and have now returned, and those like Mina who are mixed race and suffering for it. And, yeah, you do get a few good scenes because of this but the lack of internal consistency in how the various cultures behave sort of ruins the whole thing.

And speaking of internal consistency, don't get me started on the science! I don't mind hokey science if it at least follows some system of logic but holy damn, the liberties taken here are just plain crazy! I wonder if the author realizes just how advanced nanotechnology is. As in, there are progressive steps one would have to take to get to the nanogoodness and there are types of technology that would get left behind if nanobots were to be in common use. OH, and let me add that if the Iron Duke's nanobots could really do some of the things they are supposedly able to do I am pretty sure he would have melted from the heat produced by that type of activity. And oh, OH! That reminds me, that pneumatic heart pump at the end used to save Mina! Whoa! So much wrong with that that I don't even know where to begin. When blood is bubbling out of your mouth your heart is not your only concern. It's possible I would have bought it if the science leading up to it had been better presented but to explain it away with the murky and dubious power of the nanobots and other such nonsense was not going to work. (side note: for a book with awesome use of science and a culture adapted to nanotechnology let me recommend The Diamond Age.)

The Writing -

The writing style was also not to my taste. Way too explanatory. Example:
The Blacksmith glanced at Mina.
Interpreting that look as well, Trahaearn [Iron Duke] said, "You can tell her."
The Blacksmith and the Duke have a friendship previous to this scene. Also, they are privy to info that Mina is not. This is all very obvious to the reader so when the Blacksmith glances at Mina it's billboard obvious that he's not sure if he should speak openly to his friend. But, you know, just in case I'm an idiot I get an extra line explaining to me that this was a look to be interpreted and responded to. Ugh! How I hate to be treated like an idiot! The book is riddled with this nonsense. It's like I don't know how humans interact or something and so I need several lines to get me through one exchange. Oh, and there're the dreaded infodumping dialogue and infodumping internal monologues.

The Romance -

This is really the epicfuckingfail of the entire book.

The Hero is too stupid to live. Props to Brook since it's so often the heroines who fall into this trap so I suppose this can be thought of as innovative. His TSTL complex is different from the ordinary you literally would die if you were this stupid (he seems to avoid death fairly well, though it often appears to be blind luck) but that he's too stupid to live in society because he has no idea how to act around other humans. At first, this appeared to be a funny angle on his character as he has a friend who was always giving him tips on how to interact with Polite Society. Then it became more obvious that he was socially awkward in general - ok still funny but then it just ran right off a cliff into no one is this stupid! No one would do these things and not notice what they were doing and why it made people angry. Again, this is really too bad because, unlike Mina, he was raised in a Creche and so his socialization was in direct contrast to hers and could have been really interesting. Instead it was completely illogical, falling apart quite quickly into Complete Idiotic territory.

The Heroine is not so bad at first (neither character is developed well as their behavior in the second half of the book doesn't track at all with their behavior in the first half) and has quite a bit of potential to be an excellent protagonist. Her commitment to her work and her family is admirable and believable. How she gets through the days with her Horde parentage is realistic and, moreover, makes her dedication to living the life she has chosen even more admirable. But then she starts interacting with the hero and I pretty much lost most of my interest in her.

The Courtship is of the combative variety (read: sgwordy's least favorite) which I've always found to be the least creative way to generate tension but whatever, I'll still buy it if the rest of the book supports it. This very combativeness, though, becomes the highlighter of Idiot Boy's character. He's attracted to her from their first meeting and proceeds to suggest that he should become "her man." He does this in his usual graceless manner and when she declines, his response is "do you already have a man?" She does not and so he doesn't accept her refusal. He's all "you're not already owned (this social more, btw, not really in keeping with the world building or his background) and I get to have whatever I want so I will have you." She's all "I carry weapons all the time and I will shoot you." He is the worst kind of bully and it's pretty obvious why she wouldn't want to be around him even if you ignore the problems it would create for her family due to her racial background. Example:

Iron Duke speaking- "...I'd give everything you asked of me."

How, pray tell, would he be able to do this when he never listens to her or takes seriously anything she says?

So for the first half of the book Mina does not want to be around the Duke because he does not recognize that other people have personal will and dignity. Sensible. But then there's an about face to her aversion and it's that she has PTSD. This is also quite reasonable once you learn of her past but it was never once hinted at or obvious from her behavior in the first half. And even though Mina initially pointed out the irony of the Iron Duke treating her exactly as the Horde treats people she never mentions this again and it's no longer part of her reasoning for not wanting to be with him. In fact, she is attracted to him now because even though he disregards and undermines her at pretty much every turn she's now got the hots for him and it's only her PTSD that's holding her back from an intimate relationship. Wha????

And then he date rapes her! He fucking date rapes her! That is the culmination of his courtship. I have been an overbearing, dignity stealing, bully of a d-bag and now I will show you how great it would be if you were my girlfriend because I'm awesome at oral sex. And even though she repeatedly said no it's only after he's decided he's done that he notices she really meant no. (Holy fuck! Blood pressure rising at alarming rate just thinking about this again.) If I was able to retain an objective sort of attitude at this point it's actually pretty realistic that he would do this. He has ignored everything she's said so why would he start listening to her now? But what really takes the cake, the bakery and the whole friggin' town in which the bakery is located is that because he's genuinely sorry and misunderstood she's like "yeah, I can see how guilty he feels so it's ok. I need to learn to be intimate and I may as well let him help me do it."

Seriously! My brain cannot comprehend this much awful! I am stunned! How can anyone recommend this book?

And the amazing thing here is that, at the point of the date rape, I'm only halfway through my notes on how awful this book is. I feel like this post is the length of a novel and I've left so much of the bad out in what is clearly a failed attempt at brevity.

Supporting Characters -

There is a hero in this book and his name is Newberry. He is Mina's partner and how she can stomach the Duke's behavior when she knows what it's like to be respected and admired by a colleague I'll never know.

The Duke has a close friend who's mildly interesting and the airship's captain is pretty cool, too. That is, until these two have to start behaving in really odd ways so that I, the Idiot Reader, can receive some very heavy-handed messages re the captain's feline genes. And also, they are on her airship of which she is the captain and yet she still calls the Duke 'captain.' Is that weird to anyone else?

Ok, see how I tried to move on and address other things? I even clicked through my notes for some other topics (and, believe me, there are many to pick from) but he date raped her! I just can't get over it. Even if this hadn't happened the book would still suck but since it did the book has officially moved over into offensive territory. Again, how can anyone recommend this book?!? And what the shit is up with putting it on a 'best of' list? Heinous foul!

rating: 1 of 5 stars

Sunday, January 30, 2011

An Exchange in the Brotherhood

sgwordy: Oh my gosh, finally! Finally! A disguise!

Dr Musacha: Cool.

sgwordy: After how many hours of Assassin's Creed you're finally an assassin.

Dr Musacha: I feel so ill-equipped for this.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

I don't think anyone will be able to accuse Ubisoft of skimping on the graphics or the game play in this latest Assassin's Creed installment. The story, on the other hand, leaves much to be desired. Or everything to be desired because there really isn't a story. I think the developers are as seduced by the beauty of this game as I am and wanted another chance to show off. Originally planned as a trilogy this is, essentially, an add-on that unfolds like a Rome sandbox. As Ezio, alternately charming and fierce (seriously, what is his deal with his sister? why all the drama all of a sudden?) but always deadly, you get to faff about Rome accomplishing various tasks. One of these tasks involves a tank! I guess all the story is left for ACIII and Brotherhood is simply for stabby good times and the reconstruction of Rome. Hm.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If it was a movie, I wouldn't believe it.

I'm reading Dark Alliance: the CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion by Gary Webb and my mind, it is blown. This book is fascinating! It's not like I didn't already know about the CIA/Contra/drug thing but reading this makes me realize I didn't really know. Holy damn, it's hard to believe what people will do. One particular nougat of information that I have never once come across is that the crack epidemic was predicted by researchers well before it happened. These same researchers testified before Congress, requested research monies, and suggested ways to prevent the epidemic. They were ignored.

side note: I recognize some of the documented events from their appearance in The Power of the Dog.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg

Title: Falling Angel
Author: William Hjortsberg
Publisher: Harcourt (1978)

After a brief respite for the holidays, Michael (aka The Bomb) and I are back for another joint post wherein I will review the novel and Michael will review the movie it inspired.

You can get to Michael's film review of Angel Heart by clicking here.

Two comments to kick us off:
1. Thanks to Michael for suggesting this title as I'd never heard of it but loved it, and for loaning the book to me as I couldn't find a copy myself.

2. I wonder if the Essex County Council misses their book. Perhaps Michael had trouble finding a copy, as well. ;)

In Falling Angel New York private eye, Harry Angel, is hired to determine whether or not Johnny Favorite is dead or still hospitalized in a coma. Favorite, once a famous singer, was injured in WWII and a man to whom he has a debt, Louis Cyphre, has recently been given the runaround from hospital personnel. What appears to be a straightforward case takes a turn for the worse when Angel's witnesses turn up dead.

I quite liked the writing style and had good intentions of sharing several quotes. Unfortunately I wasn't reading this with pen and paper nearby and I'm terrible at sifting for the lines I liked later. Instead I'll give you the quote the author chose to share at the beginning:

Alas, how terrible is wisdom when
it brings no profit to the man that's wise!
---Sophocles, Oedipus the King

On top of the enjoyable writing style, I absolutely dug the dialogue. I really hope people spoke this way in the fifties! The dialogue was such a trip and I really enjoyed the way it supported the atmosphere. Problem was, I couldn't figure if it was authentic or just reminded me of movies set in the same time period. If anyone out there can set me straight on this I'd love to know.

The tone of the book was pitch-perfect (hehe, see what I did there?) and, better yet, you don't quite realize it until the book is over. Forgive me for gushing, but this book has several things going for it that are right up my alley: writing that requires the reader to participate in the story, shifting appearances, and parts that made the whole - in other words, clarity isn't found until the last page. The attitude of the protag was also tons of fun. As you navigate the story, at times heartening and at times horrific, Angel is the perfect companion. I weary of crime fiction in the first person but was glad to have it here.

The book surprised me in its gruesome violence. The surprise was because it was unexpected (didn't even notice the book is horror/crime fiction) but you'll notice my use of 'gruesome' rather than 'gratuitous.' It took me til the end but I did - and do - think the violence was pertinent to the story, or at least my interpretation of it. Still, one scene in particular had me cringing. Some mental images can never be undone. Oi! You have been warned.

For all my enjoyment of the style I found the book a bit dated. --Aside: I find crime fiction in general to be pretty in its time even if set in an alternate decade - do others feel that crime fiction is dated when read well past its publication?-- Speaking of dated, Angel is in his late 30s and the love interest is in her late teens. An age disparity this great rarely works for me in novels set after WWI. And for most of the book it was driving me a little nutty. But with the completion of the book I realized it followed the tone and intent of the story.

Angel's discovery of Favorite's life is really well done. Tracing his past back through his friends was a great way for the story to reveal itself through layers. As I said, I'm a big fan of shifting perspectives so going between folks with vastly different opinions of and experiences with Favorite was much to my taste. (I like the missing persons searches that occur via friends rather than events because then you can have the shifting perspectives business.)

This story is like a perfectly served meal; the next course is ready right when you finish with the current and it's always the right temperature. This, coupled with the tone of the book, bump Falling Angel up into more than just a horror or crime story. Even when you can't explain the melancholic, bittersweet turn to Angel's narration you are immediately sucked in to his emotional state while waiting anxiously for the next clue to Favorite's whereabouts.

I'm just going to make one small comment that will ruin part of the book if you're a first time reader. Highlight if interested: One of the stupid blurbs had me on the lookout for a surprise and so I predicted the identity twist well before the halfway mark. Grrr! Grrr! Why do blurbers and reviewers do this???? If you enjoyed the surprise then I will, too - if you just give me the chance. I've said before I'm a gullible reader who is very easily tricked but not if there's a big sign telling me to look out for a surprise. That being said, I still loved the ending. I didn't predict the 'deal with the devil' bit and it totally rocked my world to spiral into the horror that became Angel's reality.

I won't quote it here but the second paragraph on p. 8 has got to be one of the best bits in the book. If you read the book (and I encourage you to do just that) you'll want to give that part a second glance once you've finished.

Lastly, I hated the movie adaptation. It's not often that I feel all that strongly about movie adaptations but in this case I think they lost what was best in the book, ruined the rest, and added shit to fill the holes. But, I'll leave more details re this for my comments at the movie review. I'm looking forward to Michael's take on the movie - he always gets me thinking and often changes my mind on certain points - and some interesting discussion.

And in case you haven't already been, here's the link again for the movie review!

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Duke's Wager, To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton

Title: The Duke's Wager, To Wed a Stranger
Author: Edith Layton
Publisher: Signet (1983), Avon (2003)

Is anyone else suffering from the uncreative winter doldrums? No? It's just me whining about the cold, wanting to hibernate and wondering if the sun even exists? Huh. Well, I've never professed to being all that mature. Anyway... I bring my winter whininess up at all because I read The Duke's Wager the day after Christmas and To Wed a Stranger not that much later and have not been all that inspired to write (anything at all really, all I really want to do is wrap up in a blanket and read books) so I'm hoping flipping through the two will help me remember what it is I originally thought about them.

The short version: The Duke's Wager was so compelling - alternating between super awesome and super frustrating - that I was all geared up to gallop through Layton's back list but then To Wed a Stranger was so dull that I wonder if I should bother. What I'm thinking is that maybe I should stick with the Signets and pass on the Avons. Anyone out there know anything about romance publishing lines to help me with that? Do different lines have different requirements which might affect the type of book produced?

The long version: The Duke's Wager took what is, without a doubt, an uninspiring plot line - notorious rakes pursue gorgeous woman to any length - and made it fascinating. Whether purposely done or not, the adversarial relationship between the two men was the most compelling aspect of this would-be tired plot. And I don't mean adversarial as it relates to the woman but as it relates to the men, what they think of themselves and what they think of each other. So, the set-up: New to London, Regina Berryman made a teensy mistake in going to the opera on the night when only courtesans and their lovers attend. It is on this night that Jason Thomas and St. John Basil (both titled, rich, dissolute - natch!) see her for the first time. Thomas is like, I'll take that, thank you; Regina, shocked to her dainty little toes (they never make an appearance that I remember but I'm sure the descriptor works), runs out. The hunt begins for our Thomas (or rather for "his man" who waits outside Regina's house - with carriage - for an abduction, can we say creep?) and Basil joins later. As you have probably surmised, Thomas plans to just take what he wants but Basil goes about the courtship in what appears to be a more honorable manner.

What appears to be is significant because the book has several shifts in perspective for the reader. I've mentioned before how much I enjoy this in books. The slightly less gullible may not be so enamored with such a style, but you don't have to be the gullible reader I am to appreciate the nuanced perspectives given of the characters in this story. Things are not necessarily as they appear for almost the entire length of the book.

The main weakness of the story, and the source of all my frustration, is the heroine. She's intelligent and self-aware but given to moments of unexpected stupidity and commits the unforgivable (for me) crime of having the hots for a guy who demeans her. Yuck! So you'd think a romance where the heroine partly ruins the story would immediately get the chuck but the guys are so interesting that I couldn't put it down (plus the two female supporting characters are pretty friggin' awesome). These are not two people who are immediately described and spend the rest of the book showing you how well they match that description. These are two people that one feels one knows immediately (romance cliches are so informative) but who slowly unfold as events force their true characteristics to the surface. What's more, even if they're doing something that gives you the heebies you want to continue to get to know them because they are so dang interesting.

I also really liked the dark side of Regency life that Layton focused on. She brings some very real aspects of the culture to the table and lays them out for everyone to see. Nothing is swept under rugs and it paints a picture not often seen in romances. She also tends to spend a lot of time in the characters' heads. They think a lot and the reader gets to be there for all that thinking. I'm not so fond of that style but the book wasn't over-long so it was kept in check. Not so in To Wed a Stranger...

To Wed a Stranger is far less compelling and almost half again as long (felt twice as long, actually but I don't think it actually was in word count). In this one, a notorious flirt who never managed to catch a husband has finally settled on a complete stranger who needs her money. Can they work it out and have a happy marriage? These are not books packed with action so it's a must that the characters keep your interest. Doubly so since you spend so much time in their heads. I was so not interested. I liked how, once again, Layton took tired romance plot lines/situations and turned them upside down (a worse first time/wedding night I've never read) but that was about all the book had going for it. And speaking of the wedding night, in The Duke's Wager there was a kiss or two but that's about it and still the book managed so much better in the realm of intimacy tension. But again, in stories like these it really comes down to the characters; if you don't care about them you don't really care if they ever find emotional or physical fulfillment with each other.

Most annoying thing, though, was that the makings of an interesting plot with intriguing dramatic tension was so obvious. This is why I was wondering if Avon has requirements to their lines that would affect the book. Cut some of the useless sex scenes, develop the mom's character earlier - and with some subtlety - and you would get to the end with problems I can believe in. Problems that I would want to see the characters overcome. Ugh! So disappointing.

So I need some help here, do I try another Layton and so maybe re-capture (and hopefully improve upon) the awesome to be found in The Duke's Wager or is this a one hit wonder?

Two more things before I'm done. Thing, the first: when a notorious rake has done so many awful things that if I only believed half it would mean he's the devil himself, how can I not feel cheated when a threesome seems to be one of his personal low points? [side note: the book is bereft of sex scenes but not sexual situations or language. another interesting style choice by Layton.]

Thing, the second: my favorite bit from The Duke's Wager -

Jason speaking to his childhood nanny : "But you hope that the 'person' is a female one, and a pure honest, well-bred one at that, for somewhere in that reasonable breast lurks the unreasonable belief that your nursling will be saved by the love of a good woman."

She knew the moment had passed, and so she retorted, "Nonsense, arrant nonsense, Jason. The love of a good woman would roll of your back like water off a duck's. I make no doubt you've enjoyed the love of a good many women and some of them good women at that, but that would not change you in the least."  ...  "But," she said succinctly as she rose to leave, "the love for a good woman...ah that, my lad, would make all the difference in the world."

The Duke's Wager - 3 of 5 stars
To Wed a Stranger - 2 of 5 stars

Had to close comments due to SPAM - the SPAMbots have the hots for this post.

Friday, January 14, 2011