Category Archives: Reviews

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

 

The first Buy, Borrow or Bash for the year features three novels that have nothing in common with each other. In no time-space continuum should these three novels be lumped together in this graceless fashion. Unfortunately, I just happened to read them  in succession. Sometimes it just happens that way.

Since I did a ton of reading last month, I’ll try to post a second BBB next week. I read faster than I analyze and review.

I wish I could set a regular day for posting this feature, except I now have an erratic schedule that leaves me horribly muddled.

 

Carola Dunn’s Lord Iverbrook’s Heir (1986; Kindle edition 2010) 

Hugh Carrick, Viscount Iverbrook, returned from the West Indies to find that his brother and wife passed away, leaving his nephew Peter in the care of his in-laws, with the no-nonsense Selena Whitton in charge as legal guardian.

Since the child is his heir presumptive, Viscount Iverbrook is not keen on leaving Peter where he is. Hugh doesn’t have a high opinion of women, and having hung around ignorant ones most of his life. Hugh is determined to wrest Peter away—only to out that find the child thriving in an estate run wholly by women! The rich Whitton lands are run by Selena, who was brought up by her father to care for the farm. With Lady Whitton, who acts as the neighborhood apothecary with her herbal teas, and Delia, a younger sister addicted to gothic romances, Hugh finds the whole household charming. He finds it impossible to stay away, even as he butts heads with Selena over who has more claim to Peter.

Throw in a destitute Whitton cousin (Sir Aubrey) who wants to marry Selena to gain the estate, a scheming ex-mistress determined to stalk Hugh, a talkative best friend who always says the wrong thing, a couple of nosy solicitors, and ta-dah! You have all the ingredients for a romantic comedy.

Selena doesn’t trust Iverbrook easily. She always acts as if he’s about to kidnap the child, which might be grating to a modern audience. But during that era, men had the upper-hand in almost all legal disputes, so Selena’s paranoia is understandable.

Lord Iverbrook’s Heir was written after Angel, so this book doesn’t suffer from the flaws of that earlier novel. Lord Iverbrook’s Heir has tighter subplots without being simplistic.

Once again, there’s nothing more graphic than a few stolen kisses. At this point, however, I know I’m reading a Carola Dunn novel. I’m used to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Lily Everett’s Sanctuary Island (2013)

Ella and Merry Preston have been estranged from their mother since their parents’ divorce. Fifteen years later, however, with Merry pregnant and Ella having problems at work, the sisters finally agree to visit their mother Jo-Ellen, a recovering alcoholic who lives in a remote place called Sanctuary Island.

Ella’s a prickly, defensive heroine, the type who takes offense at practically anything. She immediately trades barbs with her mother’s handyman and friend, Grady Wilkes. Grady’s a decent man traumatized by a near fatal accident, and he only wants to help heal the rift between his friend and her grown daughters. For reasons known only to himself, Grady makes it his mission to show the beauty of Sanctuary Island to Ella.

Sanctuary Island revolves around themes of forgiveness and second chances. It’s a competent piece of contemporary romance. Unfortunately, its plot is somewhat cookie-cutter. Most the characters suffer from poor communication skills! One of the best parts of the book is when Ben, the local veterinarian, calls out the hero and points out, “this could have been resolved if you talked to each other, man.” (It’s not an exact quotation, but it’s a good estimate.) A Romance Novel Trope has been lampshaded.

Despite its predictability, Sanctuary Island has some good moments. Wild horses and horse-lore play a huge part in the novel, and this element brings freshness to the narrative. Horse therapy works for some people, and the author really knows this aspect of her story well. Readers who remember their childhood love of ponies should swoon. It’s worth noting that the first time Ella sees Grady, he’s riding a horse and looking manly. Of course he would be riding a horse…

While Sanctuary Island wasn’t the right romance novel for me, I’m definite other readers will just adore it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931; reprinted 2013) 

If you’re looking for a romp through the fringes of high society, look no further than Highland Fling. Reissued by Vintage with an introduction by Julian Fellowes, this volume presents Nancy Mitford’s world of dilettantes and workshy nobles to a new generation of readers.

Young Albert Gates decides to become an abstract painter on the day his best friend Walter Monteath proposes to Sally Dalloch. After two years in Paris, Albert returns to London only to be dragged off to a shooting party at a Scottish castle. There he meets Sally’s friend Jane Dacre, a woman ready to fall in love with anyone since she has nothing better to do. The guests assembled at Dalloch Castle are divided between the conservative ‘grown-ups’—an odd collection of peers and military men—and the younger set, who are only keen on poetry and partying.

It’s hard to sympathize with Sally and Walter Monteath’s money troubles or Jane Dacre’s indecisiveness. Only Albert has some sort of goal for himself, and even he’s haphazard and flighty. Overdrawn at the bank and yet coasting on allowances and their family connections, everyone in Highland Fling leads a charmed existence. Dorothy L. Sayers and Edward Gorey endlessly parodied these sorts of characters, in everything from Clouds of Witness to The Curious Sofa. 

Social comedy stems from the clash between the old and the young, the serious and the flippant, the moneyed and their dependents. There’s loads of 1930s pop culture references—everything from Jaeger pajamas to Laszlo—which will probably stump a reader unfamiliar with the time period. Maybe enterprising Downton Abbey fans should take footnotes for their fanfiction.

Highland Fling is like a well-made soufflé; it’s airy and insubstantial. It might leave you craving something with more meat to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow

 

This blog post incorporates ideas from earlier pieces written for the San Francisco Book Review

Side Comments of the Month XI — Post-Holiday Catch-Up

Side Comments of the Month XI — Post-Holiday Catch-Up

Top row: books courtesy of the SF Book Review and some angels connected with the Young to Publishing Group. Bottom row: gifts from friends and Adam.

 

1. I got another haul of great books this past holiday season. I know I shouldn’t crow that friends and strangers send me books, but damn it, I like big books and I cannot lie. I had to part with so many books when I moved countries, so there’s a pleasure in rebuilding the collection.

These babies are now in my ever-growing Books To Read pile, which still is bigger than my new Books Finished and Now Must Review pile.

 

2. Last week, my family drove to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation to see the newly opened Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination

My nephews spent a lot of time waiting to sit in a real hovercraft while I had silly fun with  the “give your robot facial expressions” terminal. A family friend, Kevin, lamented that Hans Solo trapped in carbonite was nowhere to be seen, aside a ton of Boba Fett-related props. I didn’t even notice these omissions until he mentioned them because there were tons of other cool models. I especially liked Obi-Wan Kenobi’s sweet, scratched-up ride from Episode IV: A New Hope.

Since I was feeling queasy that day, I skipped The Millennium Falcon Experience. I didn’t want to risk throwing up midway. Lots of people at the exhibit were unable to see it too due to limited seats. If you’re planning to visit this exhibit—it runs until February—I highly recommend buying all your tickets online.

 

3. Adam and I just finished watching all the episodes of Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals (also known as Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth). For a gag anime that features tons of cross-dressing and silliness, the last episode had at least three shifts in art styles during a furious fight scene. I think the animators wanted to outdo themselves for the finale! It was unexpected.

This show is the animated equivalent of cotton candy and Pop Tarts. I think I will miss it.

We have now returned to more serious, age-appropriate fare like Mushishi and Space Brothers. 

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Three

This month’s installment features two early novels from my favorite romance writers, and a new title from someone I haven’t read before.

There are some spoilers in these reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something. 

 

Loretta Chase’s Knaves’ Wager (1990; reprinted 2013)

Knaves’ Wager focuses on a seemingly intelligent man making a stupid bet.

Lord Robert’s embarrassing the family by living with Elise, his scheming French mistress. Everyone thinks she’s just out to con the family and Lord Julian, the Marquis of Brandon, is finally called in to control his younger brother.

In his attempt to separate the two lovers, Lord Julian makes a dumb wager with Elise: if Lord Julian can seduce the virtuous Mrs. Lilith Davenant in eight weeks, Elise will leave Lord Robert and return all of his blackmail-worthy love letters. If Lord Julian fails, Elise will get everything she wants: marriage, perhaps, but most definitely money.

Lilith, however, might be the last woman to succumb to Lord Julian’s charms. She’s a virtuous widow who blames Lord Julian for her husband’s early death by dissipation. It doesn’t help that her husband owes Lord Julian thousands of pounds, and Lilith feels obligated to re-pay the debts despite her dwindling finances. To top it off, Lilith just accepted her perennial suitor, Sir Thomas Bexley, a baronet with political ambitions.

Lord Julian, however, relishes the challenge that Lilith presents. As the London season gets underway, Lilith keeps bumping into Lord Julian—whether by accident or not—and despite her better judgment, she’s attracted to him.

All these encounters brings Lilith’s spunky niece, Cecily Glenwood, to Lord Robert’s attention. He begins to realize he may not want to marry his mistress after all!

Knaves’ Wager might be more complicated than the average romance novel: it has well-developed characters and two love triangles. It somewhat reminds me of Mansfield Park. I think the connection is a deliberate one, as Lord Julian gives Lilith a copy of the book with the inscription “may life with your ‘Edmund Betram’ be truly happily ever after.” (I’m not sure if that’s a dig at Edmund―I love Edmund!―Fanny Price really loved Edmund!) Perhaps the “evil” of not marrying for love is the whole point of the literary reference.

I digress, though.

Knaves’ Wager is a quaint artifact from Loretta Chase’s early career. Like The English Witch, I dug this book out from the bowels of the Oakland Public Library, and once again I was surprised by the lack of sex. There were ample opportunities to insert sexy scenes into the novel without wrecking the plot, but I get the feeling that Chase was being held back (by an editor or a publisher) regarding the amount of sensuality allowed. If anyone out there ever wants to write Loretta Chase fanfiction, Knave’s Wager would be the place to start.

heat meter: one           final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s Angel (1984; Kindle edition 2010) 

Angel might be Dunn’s homage to Jane Austen: the eponymous character has twice the schemes of Emma Woodhouse and half the brains of Katherine Morland. It’s a truly frightful combination.

Lady Evangelina Brenthaven’s gotten eighteen marriage proposals and yet she’s  rejected them all. Bored with polite society and eager to find out if anyone would like her if she wasn’t titled and rich, Angel disguises herself with drab clothes and an assumed name. With her indulgent parents’ permission, Angel passes herself off as plain Evelyn Brand while on a country holiday with her cousins.

Angel finds play-acting fun until she realizes her cousins expect her to stay in character—they want her to do house chores and defer to the social rank of their neighbors! Not much can keep Angel’s spirits down, however, as she starts making matches for her cousin Catherine and Lady Elizabeth Markham, the daughter of a local lord.

The neighborhood is abound with eligible gentlemen, so Angel has many candidates for her friends: there’s Sir Gregory, Lady Elizabeth’s cousin; Lord Welch; Gerald Leigh, the nice but poor vicar; and the mysterious limping Mr. Marshall.

With so many men introduced as potential love interests, Angel becomes an entangled mess. Not content with a simple love triangle, this novel has a love dodecahedron. Throw in a ton of Shakespearean references, a priest hole, an attempted murder, a missing heir and voilà! Subplot madness.

This is the first Carola Dunn romance that disappointed me. Perhaps I should have lowered my expectations, seeing that Angel was only her second novel and that I had read her more polished historical romances first. Angel lacks the passion of Miss Jacobson’s Journey, the fleshed-out characters of The Improper Governess or Lord Iverbrook’s Heir, or even the elegant conceits of The Frog Earl or Crossed Quills.

I still like Carola Dunn. I haven’t called off my hunt for her other romances. I probably just won’t purchase Angel if I find it in a bookstore.

heat meter: one          final rating: bash 

 

Anne Stuart’s Never Kiss a Rake (2013) 

The Russell family is in deep trouble. A shipping tycoon known for his honesty, Russell died in a suspicious accident and became the scapegoat for his company’s bankruptcy. His eldest daughter, Bryony, suspects foul play after inspecting his papers. Bryony decides to send her two sisters away so she can infiltrate the households of her father’s old business partners. With her face lightly scarred with smallpox marks, Bryony thinks she’s ugly enough to pose as the perfect housekeeper while searching for the truth.

Adrian Bruton, Earl of Kilmartryn, has secrets of his own that can land him in jail, so he’s immediately on the alert when his new housekeeper isn’t quite like the other servants. Stuck in a loveless marriage to a cruel beauty, Adrian thinks Bryony is fair game, especially if the government sent her to spy on him. What follows is a titillating cat-and-mouse game, sandwiched between bouts of domestic politics worthy of Remains of the Day or Gosford Park. 

If this book was set in contemporary times, Bryony could sue Adrian for sexual harassment and win a million-dollar settlement―he continually makes suggestive comments while Bryony’s working, and at one point he pins her against the bed. The guy’s a sexual predator, and I don’t think that’s a compliment. Since this is a romance novel, however, we’re supposed to find this all charming, especially since Byrony’s always making excuses to search her boss’s bedroom for incriminating evidence.

The mystery and intrigue bits of Never Kiss a Rake are handled well, although it’s frustrating that some elements are deliberately left at a loose end. I hope this doesn’t mean that Anne Stuart’s recycling her villain for the sequels starring Byrony’s sisters! I assume they will be investigating their father’s other shady business partners. Ah, well. Some days I miss the era of standalone novels.

This is the first Anne Stuart novel I’ve read. While I do have some quibbles, Never Kiss a Rake was an enjoyable read. I’m not sure if I’d actually want to buy a copy, but I liked it enough to consider reading the author’s other novels.

heat meter: three           final rating: borrow

 

Side Comments of the Month X

Side Comments of the Month X

1. I’m a firm believer in serendipity. So when I get unexpected invitations to book launchings, I go. Last week’s chance event was Kate Perry’s book launch at the Presidio Social Club.

I’m usually shy around absolute strangers—especially in a tightly knit crowd—but the atmosphere was warm and accommodating. Kate and her team made me feel at ease at once! I haven’t started reading her book, Say You Will, but it’s now in queue on my “to read” shelf.

I met some fabulous people like Regency romance author Sara Ramsey, who just kept me in stitches. I had a good time and I can’t wait for more events like this to come my way.

 

2. Adam and I just finished the latest South Park three-episode arc. It’s a fine skewering of Black Friday, HBO’s A Game of Thrones, and the never-ending video game console wars.

I always adore South Park episodes that have the kids role-playing. It’s amusing to watch Stan and Kyle in medieval attire, debating the merits of the Xbox One versus PlayStation 4. This arc doesn’t surpass the brilliance of Imaginationland, but it tries hard. The social commentary has a clean bite.

In these episodes, Eric Cartman channels his inner Littlefinger while Kenny unleashes his love for blonde braids. Kenny’s newest incarnation as magical princess Kenny is the polar opposite of his other alter ego, Mysterion. I don’t know which alter ego I like better.

 

An example of the film's beautiful symmetry. And I'm not referring to Christian Bale's cheekbones, either.

3. When the weather is temperamental, nothing compares to curling up on the sofa and watching a guilty pleasure on Netflix. So over the weekend, I found myself watching Equilibrium (2002) again.

I’ve had a thing for Christian Bale forever (trust me to have a crush on him since Empire of the Sun). Sure, I loved him as Batman, but his portrayal of John Preston brings on the giggles and the glee. The look of consternation on his face when he first holds a puppy is priceless.

Equilibrium has many hammy moments, and maybe mixing guns and martial arts is an idea that the Mythbusters should debunk. I don’t know. I think these elements are balanced out with the film’s beautiful shots and immaculate symmetry.

Among dystopian movies, Equilibrium not as bleak as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or as hip as The Hunger Games. Still, I re-watch this film when I want to see Christian Bale kill as many opponents as possible. He never disappoints.

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

This month’s Buy, Borrow, or Bash takes a look at three well-established authors: Loretta Chase, Carola Dunn, and Eloisa James.

There are some spoilers in these mini-reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Loretta Chase’s The English Witch (1988; Kindle edition 2011) 

For readers hooked on Loretta Chase and her Carsington novels, The English Witch will pose a conundrum. A Chase novel without sex scenes? How is that possible?! 

The lack of sex is no impediment to an amusing story, though. The English Witch reels with plots within plots, and a heroine with more fiancés than Ranma Saotome. 

Alexandra Ashmore spent the last six years rusticating in Albania, where the locals call her “the English Witch” due to her extraordinary beauty. Her father, an amateur archaeologist, dragged Alexandra all over the region and now expects her to marry Randolph Burnham, the son of the man funding his expedition.

Alexandra, however, doesn’t want Randolph, so she’s forced to write to her godmother for help. Her godmother promptly sends Basil Trevelyan to the rescue.

Basil’s a scheming man, the typical amateur gentleman spy that the Regency era loved so well. With Alexandra’s cooperation, Basil feeds a cock-and-bull story to her father about being a long-lost secret fiancé.

He contrives to bring everyone back to England, where Alexandra manages to snatch up more admirers. Finding himself growing attached to his fake fiancée, Basil must keep on scheming to drive away the competition and win Alexandra’s trust.

The novel suffers from too many minor characters (most of them made their first appearance in Isabella, which I haven’t read yet). It gets confusing. Fortunately, Basil’s an interesting take on the reformed rake trope, and Alexandra’s a tsundere. While it’s not Chase’s best work, I still find it rewarding to trace a writer’s development. If you keep these things in mind, The English Witch will be a good read.

heat meter: one chili           final rating: borrow 

 

Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey (1992; reprinted 2012) 

Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a great novel that transcends the limitations of the genre. It’s more a historical adventure with lots of character development than an empty will-they-do-it-doggy-style mess.

Right before a Jewish matchmaking ceremony, Miriam has doubts about getting married and becoming a wife. She feels pressured to accept the suitor that her mother likes, but all she really wants to do is to travel with her favorite uncle. At the crucial moment, Miriam rejects the quiet young scholar presented to her before he can utter a word.

Years later, her uncle’s death leaves Miriam stranded in France due to the war. She approaches the mysterious Jacob Rothchild for help and he makes her a deal: he’ll give her Swiss papers and help smuggle her back to England. In exchange for this, though, first she must travel with two agents and a secret cargo of gold destined for Wellington’s army near Spain.

Despite the recklessness of the plan and stern warnings from her maid, Miriam accepts before she meets her traveling companions: Felix Roworth, a snobbish aristocrat, and Isaac Cohen, the same man she cruelly rejected years ago.

Roworth and Cohen hate each other on sight and it takes all of Miriam’s diplomacy and quick thinking to keep the mission on track. Miriam’s the glue that keeps these reluctant companions together, and soon Roworth and Cohen find a real reason to hate each other.

If you’re looking for a ramshackle travelogue through Napoleonic war zones, Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a fascinating, well-researched novel. It’s exciting, with most of the danger and emotions coming across as natural. It delves into the plight of marginalized Jewish communities, and the casual discrimination they faced long before World War II.

Apart from these elements, the novel’s got an incredible, well-developed love triangle. At one point I didn’t know which guy I was rooting for: Lord Felix, who slowly sheds his anti-Semitism, or Isaac, who’s out to prove he’s become a better man since he was first rejected.  

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Eloisa James’s The Ugly Duchess (2012) 

There are loads of bad fathers in historical romances, but the Duke of Ashbrook is one nasty entitled ass. He embezzles his ward’s dowry and brings his duchy to the state of bankruptcy. To save himself from public exposure, he forces his heir, James Ryburn, to marry Theodora “Daisy” Saxby to cover up the crime.

Daisy’s been a part of the Duke’s household for years, so she and James grew up together. This makes the Duke’s demand seem natural and yet emotionally awkward for James. How does one transform affection for a best friend into romantic love? James doesn’t know.

Being young and weak-willed, however, James gives in to his father’s tantrums. James orchestrates a romantic proposal that Daisy innocently accepts. The shit hits the fan, though, when the marriage is consummated and Daisy finds out the awful truth.

The Ugly Duchess is a strange take on how trust can be lost and regained. The pacing of the novel is odd: it starts out fine with several time skips, but the second half of the novel speeds up until there’s no breathing space.

I find it weird that a couple that’s been estranged for seven years can resolve their differences in one long conversation that takes place over a single day. The conversation itself spans several chapters, in a variety of rooms in a house besieged by paparazzi. Perhaps a less attentive reader will say I’m nitpicking. Given the heroine’s character development, though, it just seems improbable. It’s even more improbable than the plot twist of James becoming a pirate after getting thrown out of his house.

Maybe other readers won’t have the same issues I have. (Some Amazon reviewers take issue that James had mistresses while they were separated. I didn’t have an issue with that. While cheating is morally reprehensible, it does make the character historically accurate.)

The Ugly Duchess is still a decent read, and I like that the author credits Dorothy L. Sayers for inspiring the House of Lords scene. I’m sure there’s an Eloisa James novel out there that I will totally agree with. This one, though, is not it.

heat meter: four chilies           final rating: bash

 

Side Comments of the Month IX

Side Comments of the Month IX

My current books for review, courtesy of San Francisco Book Review and Penguin USA.

1) I have no idea how I landed on the Penguin Books marketing list but I was stoked they sent me a preview copy of Nora Roberts’ latest book, Dark Witch. It was absolute serendipity. The day before the book arrived, I was staring at all the Roberts novels in the Berkeley Public Library, puzzled over which book I should check out first. But getting a free book solved my little conundrum!

I wish I knew who to thank for this unexpected treat. Since I don’t, I will just say this: thank you, anonymous person at Penguin USA, for putting me on your mailing list. I want you to know I am an absolute sucker for free books.

 

 

The awesome Ender's Game poster by Martin Ansin.

2) This weekend, I watched Ender’s Game with my ten-year old nephew. As one of those books I felt was unfilmable when I first read it, I checked it out mainly to satisfy my curiosity. The adaptation shifts many things about but it’s a perfectly satisfying science fiction film. I liked it. I’m glad I didn’t stay away just because Orson Scott Card is Not a Nice Person. Some days I do manage to convince myself that yes, “the author is dead.”

I was relieved that most of the controversial scenes in the book were toned down and that the ages of the characters were adjusted. Like the adaptations of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire and G.R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Ender’s Game would have been impossible to film if they stuck to the original ages. (Ten year-old Kirsten Dunst played the six-year old vampire Claudia; a fourteen-year old Maisie Williams first played nine-year old murderer Arya Stark. At the start of Card’s novel, Ender is six.) I think Asa Butterfield did a good job as Ender Wiggins, a child with a fragile psyche and the instincts of a killer.

When I read the book, I really loved the idea of a mind-controlled video game. I don’t know what I was expecting but the filmmakers visualized the game well. While I was disappointed that Valentine didn’t have enough screen time, with so many scenes toned down or cut for a PG-13 rating, it was inevitable that some subplots would be discarded, too.

On a fangirl note, Asa Butterfield has the most intense blue eyes I’ve seen on the large screen since Elijah Wood first wore hobbit feet.

 

A Space Brothers manga cover by Chuya Koyama.

3) I haven’t seen Gravity yet but two other fictional astronauts have kept me at the edge of my comfy chair. Adam and I got totally sucked into the ongoing anime series, Space Brothers (2012). Its Japanese title is Uchuu Kyoudai.

The Nanba brothers, Mutta and Hibito, love space exploration so much that they do goofy things like trace the progress of the International Space Station and look for UFOs. As kids, they both swore that they go into outer space. As adults, though, only one brother is on the road to reach his goal… until the other one gets a huge wake-up call, and becomes hell-bent on catching up.

Space Brothers is set a few decades into the future so some of the technology feels like pure science fiction. Yet I can’t doubt the rigorous training for astronauts—both mental and physical—that’s depicted in all its minutiae. From  JAXA to NASA, both Mutta and Hibito jump through hoops just for a shot at their shared dream.

While sometimes heavy-handed with extolling the virtues of scientific discovery, the real soul of Space Brothers lies in the strong, complicated bond between the two main characters. They’re always competing and yet they’re always protective of each other. It’s sibling interaction at its best.

Fullmetal Alchemist is the only other series I can think of that depicts such a complex sibling relationship. If you loved that aspect of FMA and can appreciate “info dump” series like Nodame Cantabile and Bakuman, Space Brothers is definitely worth checking out.

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

I can imagine your eyeballs rolling but please hear out this rationale. I learned from the late Dr. Luisa Mallari-Hall, my old thesis adviser, that I should approach all literary exercises with the same effort and analytical precision. (I loved her so much. She was equally enthusiastic over post-Marxist literary theory as she was about Filipino Harlequin-style romances.) 

When I decided to try my hand at writing a historical romance, I started with a survey of the genre. (Hey, a woman’s got to know her comp titles.) Since I consume so many of these novels nowadays, I thought it might be fun to post occasional reviews of the best and worst ones. 

At the end of each review, there’s a “heat meter” and my final assessment. Please take note that the heat meter refers solely to the amount of sex in the novel. That’s never any indication if the book is worth reading or not! Some of these books have lots of sex but suffer from shoddy writing, plotting, or editing. You have been warned!

So what do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. As I suffer from limited means right now that’s the highest praise I can give. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to check it out from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Mary Balogh’s A Matter of Class (2009)

The set-up is a genre cliché: Reginald Mason, the son of a prosperous tradesman, is threatened with disinheritance unless he marries a young woman with a title. His father already has a girl in mind: Lady Annebelle Ashton, the disgraced daughter of a spendthrift earl. Despite being long-time social rivals in the neighborhood, the earl and the former coal miner agree to marry off their troublesome children.

The first chapter didn’t really grab my attention. I’m glad I gave the book a chance, however, because it immediately got more interesting when the hero stopped acting like a silly ass. Once the flashbacks started, the narrative got even better.

As the title suggests, the book discusses the subtle class distinctions of the Regency period, and how a well-kept fortune can buy upward mobility for future generations. Not a lot of historical romances come with genuine twists, but this one does (or it would have, if I wasn’t also a keen mystery reader.) In hindsight, some of the earlier scenes (like the proposal) becomes clever and subtle. It’s a better read than the first Mary Balogh book I picked up.

heat meter: three chilies            final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s The Improper Governess (1998, reprinted 2010)

Lissa Findlay is the new chorus girl at the local theatre. Unlike the other performers who are dying to catch the attention of a rich patron, Lissa is uncomfortable when men try to wine and dine her. She may a chorus girl, but she’s unwilling to be anyone’s whore.

Rakish Lord Ashe originally wanted to make Lissa his mistress, but there’s just something about her that brings out his chivalrous streak. When he makes an outrageous offer to employ her as a governess instead, Lissa is naturally suspicious of his motives. Yet she is forced to accept.

Unknown to Lord Ashe, Lissa has a secret: she kidnapped her two step-brothers and is currently hiding them from her abusive stepfather. Only poverty forced her to “tread among the boards,” an occupation wholly suitable to a woman of genteel breeding. Will Lissa be able to keep up the charade when she finds herself falling in love with her employer?

The Improper Governess is the second Carola Dunn novel I’ve read. Her romances are a treat for readers who care more for plot than meaningless steaminess. This novel has elements reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (down to the sickly boy named Colin!) but rest assured this work is no rip-off. From the heroine down to the minor characters, everyone is slightly flawed and fleshed out. Overall, it’s a satisfying romance with mystery elements.

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Amanda Quick’s Dangerous (1993, reprinted 2008)

Prudence Merryweather isn’t your typical Regency debutante. She’s almost on the shelf, she wears eyeglasses (oh horrors!), and worst of all, she fancies herself a paranormal investigator. She captures the attention of Sebastian Fleetwood, the Earl of Angelstone, a blasé noble who similarly dabbles in amateur investigations on the side.

Prudence’s younger brother dislikes any libertines showing interest in his sister, so he keeps issuing Angelstone one silly challenge after another. Further misunderstandings along the way (the dumb type that can only happen in a romance novel), cause Angelstone to publicly announce that he is engaged to Prudence. While Prudence agrees to go along with the farce to protect her reputation, she isn’t so sure if Angelstone understands that it’s only make-believe…

This must be the first Amanda Quick novel I enjoyed. After reading Dangerous, I worked through half of her books available at the Berkeley Public Library (her hardcovers take up a lot of space in the general fiction section) but most of them made me go “meh.” Oh well.

Dangerous reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: disparate Sherlockian elements such as amateur detecting (good) and cheesy ghost-of-the-week vibe (frothy fun). While some sections feel uneven and I don’t particularly like the way the villain is unveiled, the hero’s obsession with picking locks is amusing. For that alone, I’d buy a copy.

heat meter: four chilies            final rating: buy

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

My Fandom is More Hardboiled than Yours: Dashiell Hammett

Not in photo: my copy of Nightmare Town. Its disappearance from my bookcase is a mystery in itself.

This blog post incorporates ideas from an earlier piece written for the San Francisco Book Review

 

“Flypaper” was the first Hammett story I ever read. It appeared as a featured classic in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and I just loved how it punched me in the gut. Its crisp, no-nonsense style opened up the noir side of detective fiction for me.

Since I adore so many authors, it’s taken me several years to  absorb as much Hammett as I can find. I haven’t gone through every single word he has ever written, although it’s safe to say that I’m more than a casual fan. I freaked out with delight, for example, when I found a bootleg copy of Wim Wenders’s Hammett (1982) in the backwaters of Metrowalk. I had a similar moment of absolute bliss when I finally went on Don Herron’s amazing walking tour. When I first contemplated moving to the Bay Area, the idea of walking the same mean streets as one of my literary heroes tickled my fancy.

All these fangirl elements came into play when I picked up a book called Hammett Unwritten. This slim novel tackles one tantalizing mystery about this literary icon: why did Dashiell Hammett stop writing after 1934?

This novel has a fanciful hypothesis. Tracked down by the femme fatale who inspired Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Hammett finally gives up the one object that she desires. He hands over a counterfeit statue, a relic from the case that inspired The Maltese Falcon. 

Unfortunately, as soon as he gives the souvenir away, his words dry up. People from Hammett’s life—real and fictional—emerge from the past to harass him. As his writer’s block worsens over the years, these people mock him for giving up the one item that had influenced his mercurial rise in society. Sometimes they feed him misleading clues regarding the statuette’s real origins and power. Verbally battered and growing old and insecure, even Hammett’s cynicism cracks under the pressure. He starts thinking there might be some truth in the lies.

Hammett Unwritten is full of brilliant one-liners and twists. Even a hardcore fan who’s read a biography or two might be surprised by all the details. Facts are cleverly sandwiched among a dozen falsehoods, and by the end a reader almost buys the half-truth that Owen Fitzstephen wrote this novel. Mystery lovers, especially hardboiled fans, should appreciate this satisfying con and double-cross perpetuated by Gordon McAlphine.

If I seem to be tossing roses in McAlphine’s path, it’s because I’ve read some cringe-inducing pieces that feature Hammett as a character. Not all fictional versions of Hammett ring true. He’s a complex man, and some attempts I’ve read just feel reductive. He played a lot of roles in his life, and not all of them are pleasant: private detective, communist, womanizer, absentee father, Hollywood scribe. So far, Hammett Unwritten is the only book that does justice to his complexity. It deserves the honor of sharing shelf space with Hammett’s own masterpieces.

 

Side Comments of the Month VIII — the Casual Fan Edition

Side Comments of the Month VIII — the Casual Fan Edition

We called it "X-Men Live."

1. Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of watching Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, now on its August run at the Berkeley Rep. It never occurred to me that I’d have the opportunity to watch these giants of theatre in action, so I felt incredibly blessed.

The performance went well. At one point Stewart fell flat on the ground and I almost had a heart attack—I wanted to call 911! Thankfully, it was just his character’s drunken stupor. It’s amazing how Stewart still has complete mastery over his body. I know people half his age who don’t.

Several times during the play, Stewart and McKellen sat opposite each other and got all snippy with bon mots. During these moments, I half-expected Billy Crudup to wheel in a glass chess set. No, that didn’t happen. But it would have been cool if it did.

No Man’s Land is a depressing play to watch if you hang out with a) old people, b) alcoholics, c) writers, or d) any combination of the above. Still, I’d watch it all over again in a heartbeat if I could. Hell, I’d probably watch McKellen and Stewart read a phone book out loud, they have so much expression in their voices and their faces.

 

2) I watched two “old” movies, The Hunger Games (2012) and Shaun of the Dead (2004), just in time for their sequels.

Despite my distaste for shaky cam, The Hunger Games was okay. It’s a slick, well-made popcorn movie. Jennifer Lawrence made that film a blockbuster; I think her performance alone sustained my interest.

Incidentally, I know the battle lines are drawn between fans of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. If anyone is asking, I prefer Battle Royale for its development of minor characters. The other tributes in The Hunger Games do not get the same treatment. The one thing Battle Royale doesn’t have is Jennifer Lawrence.

(I think I am working my way backwards through this trope. In the future, I might tackle The Running Man or The Lord of the Flies.)

A romance with BRAAAINS.

I tend to avoid horror movies so Shaun of the Dead was a pleasant surprise. I think I was worried it wouldn’t entertain me as much as Hot Fuzz (2007). Despite the zombies, Shaun is a sweet romantic comedy. I find the concept so refreshing I might even give Warm Bodies a try now.

Nick Frost plays such a jerk in Shaun—I have to say I agreed with their beleaguered roommate on so many counts—so I’m counting the days to World’s End. I want to know which Nick Frost shows up: “Nice” Nick or “Jerk” Nick.

Of course, I’m also waiting for Martin Freeman to have some speaking lines in a Simon Pegg movie. Martin Freeman is great in comedies.

 

3) Here’s a quasi-serious question for anyone reading this: is it possible to a casual fan nowadays?

I’ve been pondering this question ever since my brother-in-law asked me, “do you know who the new Doctor is, and do we care?”

I could actually answer his question because I lurk nerd sites like i09 and the Mary Sue. I might be crucified for saying so, but I only care about Doctor Who when the show bothers my friends, because I hate to see my Facebook wall explode with nerd rage.

I remember asking my friend Mary Ann, a longtime Doctor Who fan, where to start watching and she was at a complete loss. I think she started watching Doctor Who when she was in her mother’s womb, and for that reason I feel that getting into Doctor Who is like getting into Star Trek: it’s a lifelong commitment. I don’t have that sort of time or energy.

My brother-in-law snorted at this idea. He said he just read some good Doctor Who novels when he was a kid, and he just thought of them as alternative reading material to The Hardy Boys. “It’s possible to like something without going nuts over it,” was the subtext.

That made me remember… I didn’t grow up on the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, I went straight from junior editions of Sherlock Holmes to the complete, unabridged canon when I was twelve. The anecdotes and the conversation may seem pointless, except it illustrates my idea of “lifelong commitment.”

So… is it possible to be a casual fan of anything nowadays? Sometimes I feel it’s impossible, when the internet is booby-trapped with hardcore fans intent on protecting their “turf” and misogynist trolls persist in thinking that fake geek girls exist. What do you think?

Side Comments for the Month VII – the Mindless Violence Edition

Side Comments for the Month VII – the Mindless Violence Edition

There are spoilers for Battle Royale and Hellsing Ultimate in this post. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text with your mouse.

 

The "class photo" from the ending credits of Battle Royale is a disquieting coda to the film.

1. In Things I Should Have Viewed Ten Years Ago, I finally got around to watching Battle Royale (2000) on Netflix. It’s a beautiful movie. Now that’s what I call gratuitous violence done right! It also has just the right amount of gravitas. While watching I tried not to get attached to any of the characters in case I’d have to see their heads blown apart. The massacre in the lighthouse is especially poignant. I was rooting for the guy with the GPS system; unfortunately, he does not survive.

Incidentally, I can’t believe that the mousy male lead, Tatsuya Fujiwara, also plays the villainous Light in the Death Note movies. He will play Shishio Makoto in the upcoming  Rurouni Kenshin sequels, too. I think I need to catch up on my live action film adaptations.   

Going back to Battle Royale, though, the film ends on an optimistic note in spite of its high body count. I haven’t heard good things about the sequel, so I’ll probably won’t touch it. I might check out the novel. But yes, I’d love to see Battle Royale again.

 

2. Adam and I also finished watching Hellsing Ultimate (2006) a few days ago. It’s one of those anime series that I cannot figure out if I liked it or not. It has a lot of objectionable content, ranging from gratuitous amounts of blood to rape (specifically, mind rape and necrophilia.) While I seek out violent entertainment of the Quentin Tarantino variety, I do draw the line at scenes depicting the rape of a murder victim, with the violation carried out in full view of her young daughter. That’s just sick.

Still, objectionable scenes aside, Hellsing’s vampire anti-hero is fun to watch. I never latched on to the sparkly vampire trend so I’m happy that Alucard is a throwback to the old gothic traditions. I do wish, though, that Hellsing Ultimate’s basic plot was more than Vampires versus Immortal Nazis. Nazis can get so tiresome

Hellsing Ultimate reminds me of the second season of Code Geass with its ability to make my eyes roll hard, with such things as the Vatican deploying its secret army of gun-toting priests. There’s also a female character perennially addressed as “Sir” in complete ignorance of the proper forms of address. (That seriously does not make sense. Integra

I like giant robots.

Hellsing is supposed to be the last member of an ancient noble family. Even if she was a marchioness, a viscountess, a baroness, or a baronetess in her own right, she should still be addressed as Lady Hellsing.) Call it nitpicking but a major theme of the story is the love of tradition and the continuity of the social order. A character that’s supposed to uphold these things wouldn’t allow anyone to call her Sir. I know it’s irrational on my part, but this bothers me more than the gun-toting priests!

 

3. Lastly, I caught Pacific Rim with my nephew and my brother-in-law over the weekend. I know it’s not doing well in the United States, but since I am a fan of Stringer Bell I hope it earns most of its money back overseas. Pacific Rim is a great popcorn movie. No heavy cerebral processing is required! The film definitely satisfies the ten-year old boy part of me that wants to see Giant Robots Fight Giant Monsters. I love that my two adopted home cities, Manila and San Francisco, are both destroyed within the first five minutes of the film. 

Pacific Rim probably the closest thing I’ll get to a good live action Neon Genesis Evangelion film. Even if it doesn’t have a whiny Shinji or a tsundere Asuka, I’ll take it.