Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Romance! (AKA, Not Kid Stuff)

So you should know I read (or listen to) a lot of romance novels. While it was a little embarrassing for my 16 year old to comment on the book cover icons on my Kindle (he tends towards sarcasm) (it's innate, more to do with his parentage than his age), I don't generally mind this being a known fact about Mel. I do, however, refuse to read THAT book, the one (well, three - it's a trilogy) everyone talks about, because too many people in the book world / romance readership world that I respect just didn't like it at all. The clunky writing, the inept metaphorical language, the fact that, in general, Powerful Bajillionaire with Surprising Amounts of Free Time Falls for Unassuming Nice Girl Who Will Change His Life is just not my storyline of choice - it all keeps me from touching the thing. I do want to point you all to this helpful list of other books (better books) for recent romance converts to check out. I've read Lisa Kleypas, Lorelei James, Linda Howard, and Maya Banks titles and think they're all authors worth checking out, so I presume the others from this article would be, too.

Elsewhere in the world of romance novels, the Romance Writers of America annual conference just wrapped up, and winners of the RITA Awards for excellence in the romance genre were announced. A few of the winners are books I've been meaning to blog about anyway, because I just really enjoyed them. These are all a little outside my normal romance reading (which tends towards Regency historicals and straightforward contemporaries) but I'm glad I checked them out. (Here's a list of the RITA winners at the Smart Bitches Trashy Books site, which is a great place to go to check out romance reviews and recommendations. Also, I raved about Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk a while ago, and look, it won!)


I heard a ton about Dragon Bound by Thea Harrison (RITA winner for best paranormal romance), but it was, you know, about a dragon? And other mythical creatures? Interacting with humans in modern-day America? So, sure, it was supposed to be super well written, and funny, and hot, but paranormal isn't my go-to choice, so I ignored everyone's advice. For a while. Then I was scrolling through options, and it was one, and I figured I may as well check it out, and wow. It's just great. I am a total dragon convert. Harrison probably doesn't write effortlessly, even though the final product makes it seem that way, but she definitely writes with tons of attention to the task at hand and a firm grasp of story and character. I've since gone and read the rest of the novels in the series (so far). This one is my  favorite, but they're each quite good. (And hot. Dragons. Yum. Who knew?)

While in paranormal land, I got the audiobook of First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones (RITA winner for best first book), which was read by Lorelei King. Fewer mythical beasts in this one, but the narrator, Charley Davidson, is the grim reaper. She sees dead people. It helps a lot when she's helping her cop uncle invesitage homicides, since she can interview the victims and all, but it's not too handy when her shower time is interrupted by the recently departed in search of a portal to the afterlife. Plus there's the complication of the big dark shadowy (sexy) figure visiting her in her dreams, and maybe, sometimes, not in her dreams. This is a fast-paced, fun, cleverly built book, more adventure than romance, and I'd probably have drawn a Stephanie Plum/Janet Evanovich comparison even if King (who narrates the Plum audiobooks) hadn't been the voice of Charley in my head. (King does excel with snarky humor and I give her props for being able to differentiate the internal and external dialogue so well when the text doesn't do it.) I've listened to the second in the series and definitely look forward to the third.

So, back to the Bajillionaire Man and the Woman Who Changes Him. Doukakis's Apprentice by Sarah Morgan (RITA winner for best contemporary series romance) is the kind of thing I normally avoid even more than the paranormals. The Greek tycoon who wears power as well as he wears his bespoke suits, who only cares about the next deal, and about getting revenge for some familial wrong. The feisty and smart but not necessarily educated woman who will fight for her point of view and become a thorn in his side. The transformation of the thorn and the tycoon into lovers, despite themselves. This has it all. Damon has taken over Polly's family business, an act of revenge prompted by Damon's little sister eloping with Polly's dad. Polly has been running the business, and has to fight to keep her little workplace-family intact despite their new corporate cubicle headquarters. Damon refuses to see that Polly is the heart of the company, much less that she's not really to blame for her dad's philandering. It's not a secret formula, this formula - you know they'll find love and respect for each other, despite the odds. But Morgan writes smoothly and with charm, giving personality to the characters that transcends their tropes.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Kid Stuff (But Awesome for Adults, Too)

I've listened to some super-good YA books this year. And I have outside proof that the books I'm going to write about are great ones - they all made it onto the "Best-Ever Teen Novels" 100 title short-list that NPR Books came up with this month. So, obviously I'm brilliant, and also you should read these books.

Start with The Fault in our Stars by John Green (which I listened to on audio, read by Kate Rudd. Although it's a great audio - I'm always a fan of Rudd's proficiency with teen voices - the book has some major tear-fest moments, which is mighty inconvenient while driving or trying to get my job done or whatever.) Anyway, TFIOS is a gorgeous, emotion-packed, wry, deep, fun book. About kids with cancer. Our narrator, Hazel, is a terminal teen, which, okay, isn't really a laugh-riot. But she's also just a teen, and a pretty engaging one. Smart and funny and, of course, sarcastic (as all the best teens are.) (Note to my teens: I love your sarcasm. Guess whether or not I am being straightforward.) Anyway, there's a boy - the beautiful Augustus - and books and video games and a Cancer Kids Support Group and hospitals and tulips and, all in all, I want to insist you read it without totally giving away the plot. Lots of people insisted I read it before I got around to it, and I now formally apologize to all of them for taking too long.

So when you've dried your eyes, move on to The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. Frankie is another bright teen, and her intelligence lands her in some serious hot water when she uses it for nefarious purposes. As a student at the formerly all-male prep school that her father attended, she led a fairly shadowy existence until she decides that the still all-male secret society her dad belonged to ought to be infiltrated. Specifically, by her. She can't break into the ranks, but she does manage to wrest control of their actions, directing an escalating series of campus pranks that - well, these things never end up quite textbook. The novel is her detailed confession after things go wrong, and Frankie's voice has tons of wit, brash charm, and more than a smidgen of social commentary. Tanya Eby's narration of the Frankie's journey into herself is fun, smart, and perfectly gauged to the text. I keep pushing this book on people, and so far no one has pushed me back, so I think I can safely say that you, too, will adore reading it.

Not yet sick of exceptionally smart teen girls? Good. Because Robin Wasserman's The Book of Blood and Shadow is next on my list for you. This is a quest, complete with academic puzzles, strange prophetic Eastern Europeans, and murdered friends. Nora and her best friends and her perfect new boyfriend have a lovely time translating ancient letters and manuscripts for a Latin professor, until the professor is the first in a string of murders that sets her on a journey to Prague, beset by secret societies (I do love a secret society) and chased by police. The worlds here are exquisitely drawn, and Wasserman draws you so deeply and steadily into her web that you are captivated before you realize it. Narrator Emily Janice Card's voice is fluid and graceful, despite the plethora of languages in the book, and her pacing and tone during the many tense scenes is, frankly, just a little too chilling at times.

And before we leave Prague, let's settle in with Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, audiobook read by Khristine Hvam. Did I mention that this is another book about a teenage girl who doesn't quite fit into her world and finds herself on a quest full of danger and self-discovery? This girl is Karou, who, as it turns out, maybe isn't all that human, despite her almost-normal student life in Prague. Her blue hair, inability to tell lies, access to wish-granting charms, and the fact that she was raised by a demon who frequently sends her through doors in his shop into other cities so she can collect teeth for him all point to a certain otherness about her. But she doesn't know who - or what - she is, and when those doors from her demon families' domain all start bearing the same black-handed mark, she has more questions than ever. Hvam's bright, edgy voice mirrors Karou's emotions and adds depth to Hvam's multi-faceted, imaginative, fascinating world. This is one of those audiobooks that kept me up nights listening, and I am eagerly awaiting the second book in the series, out in November. Read this, so you can tap your foot impatiently along with me, won't you?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fun, Smart, Tricky, Subversive Books for Everyone

You may have noticed, what with the Sayers, Bowen, Winspear, Christie, Tey, and Upson titles I'm always reading, that you can hand me a cast of English people in the early-to-mid 1900s and I'll happily disappear into their stories. Is there anything better than a country house with mysterious goings on? Yeah, I didn't think so. Which is why I grinned so much as I began Sadie Jones's The Uninvited Guests. The country house is of the crumbling variety, the inhabitants (mother, step-father, two children just coming into adulthood and one left to navigate childhood on her own) are individualistic and odd, and it is clear that Emerald's 20th birthday party will not go off without a hitch. Or two. Or a couple of dozen, in the form of refugees from a nearby railway accident, including one with a mysterious connection to the family. You're grinning, too, right? You want to know more? I won't tell you more, because that would spoil it, so go read it for yourself.

Another grin-getter? (Not a word, I know, but I am coining a phrase here, all right?) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. In addition to having the best cover ever (though the paperback isn't so brilliant), it packs a serious punch. Like Jones, deWitt is taking a known genre (outlaw Westerns) and tickling it to fit his fancy. The brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, are gunslingers sent from Oregon to California in search of the man they've been hired to kill. Along the way they encounter witches, bears, whores, panhandlers, dentists, and inventors. I listened to the audio, read by John Pruden, and through him Eli's narration hits every note of comedy and pathos, while remaining as understated and almost naive as deWitt drew him. I'm left with a deep well of affection for Eli, and a lot of admiration for deWitt's subversive skills.

And speaking of subversive, check out Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. Unless you're going to North Korea anytime soon (you're not, are you?), in which case you should definitely not pack this. But why go, when you can just inhabit the world Johnson creates - with a massive amount of research and imagination combined, I assume. The orphan in question, Pak Jun Do (or 'John Doe' to American ears), has one of those Forrest Gump-like careers, taking him from the orphanage's work details to kidnapping duty along Japan's beaches, from tunnels under the North-South Korean borders to Texas, of all places. And everywhere he goes, he is surrounded by the influence of the "Dear Leader." Jun Do is immensely likable and very much the kind of character you want to root for, despite all the odds against him. Johnson is quite a deft writer - closely observant, incisive, wry, and emotionally intelligent. I was particularly impressed with the fact that none of his characters were caricatures, which I almost expected given the setting. But even the Dear Leader has depth and humanity. I also loved how immediately I felt at home in Jun Do's world. Narrator Tim Kang kept the whole production rolling smoothly along, and somehow gave Jun Do the strong core of inner silence that carried the character through so many strange and often horrible experiences.

You guys, I loved these books. The last two, especially, rank super-high in my 'best of' list for the year so far. Check them out and let me know if you disagree. (You won't disagree.)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Friday the 13th

I'm not normally scared of Jason showing up in his hockey mask or anything, but I'm not above attributing bad stuff to the random coinciding of a number and a day of the week. Still, my Friday the 13th started off just fine, not like that one a couple of months ago when I spent 4 hours being audited by the Department of Public Safety. I'm enough over the jet lag (just back from visiting my mother-in-law) that I finally felt like I'd had a good night's sleep. It wasn't, for once, storming like - well, like Houston in July - so I was able to make my commute using actual visibility instead of sense-memory to guide me down I-10. I started a new paperback while on the treadmill, and almost, but didn't quite, lose my awesome Butterfly Creations bookmark when it fell onto the machine and rolled inexorably along the gap between belt and side rail before safely hurtling itself onto the floor behind me.

So after I finished treading and marked my place in Sherry Thomas's Beguiling the Beauty (which I'm happy to say I had fun with - I'd read good things at SBTB, but am on-again-off-again with her work), I headed to the gym showers. (Oh, gym showers. Nothing against the showers themselves - my hair has a very peculiar affinity for their foamy wash and conditioner - but even after 2 months of regular attendance, I'm just no closer to comfort with the whole blase nudity thing. There is just no reconciling my writing and reading matter with my prudish nature.)

So I retreated to a corner, attempting to dry myself while remaining somewhat covered with towels, and in the process managed to totally forget that I had dropped the drawer of my desk on my toe the night before when I was rearranging my study. Oops. Ouch. Ouch, ouch, quadruple ouch. Drying my toes has never been more painful. The middle one, in particular, was nothing but a mess of purple and black bruises. But I am, as you may not know, a very stalwart individual, and I limped off to work with barely a wince or a moan or a 'take pity on me, strangers, can't you see my pain?' histrionic.

And then at work, I was doing my most audio-friendly tasks (entering numbers from pieces of paper onto the computer. It's a lot of what I do, hence a lot of audiobooks at work for me) and was, despite my pain, very excited to start Deborah Harkness's Shadow of Night, her follow-up to A Discovery of Witches. It captivated me from the get-go, and I fleetingly thought that by taping and icing my toes, and enjoying this narration, my day would turn out just fine. No lurking chainsaws anywhere. But then... my MP3 player died. Well, as it turns out, it was just in a coma, but still, I had to go so very long, through so many papers, before it revived.

May as well have been in a cabin in the woods with no power and a psycho killer lurking outside.

I was still limping, wincing, moaning, and bruised on the way home, so I had it checked out - a sprain (I do have super-strong bones as well as a vast store of forbearance against pain. Or at least one of those things.) More tape, more ice, plenty of time to read while I waited for the x-rays to be analyzed. I staunchly persevered. At home, I couldn't walk the dogs like they wanted, but I curled up on the sofa and finished the Thomas book, sort of went to bed on time, and got up on Saturday expecting a nice, lazy, Jason-free day. Ha.

I mentioned the storms, right? Well, before the storms moved in for the day, the doorbell rang. It was a clear morning and no longer Friday the 13th, so answering to the stranger outside was okay. It was just the power company's tree trimmers. They come by frequently, since the neighbor I share a back fence with has masses of fast-growing bamboo under the power lines. (In case you're planning to landscape your yard, let me advise against this. It may do a good job of hiding an unsightly fence or wire, but it also tends to result in lots of disconcerting explosive popping and brownouts.) I let them into the back yard and went about my day. Just as the rain was starting, my internet went out. So did my tv reception. So did my phone line.

And then the thunder, and the pounding rain.

And let's not forget the people in my back yard with chain saws.

(To be fair, although they did idiotically cut the line to my phone box - which also holds those other services - they did pack up the chainsaws and go home when the thunder started.)

And then the power went out.

So I'm alone in the house, in the dark (-ish, it was noon) with no power (thank goodness my Kindle was charged up), no landline (my mobile was charged, too), no protection (okay, the dogs are giant and bark plenty, but would they really rip through a hockey mask for me? I've seen no proof of that to date.) And I'm limping.

(This was not a good time to start reading a book about being stalked by a mass murderer. Just a friendly tip from me to you.)

The power did come back on quickly, which is a good thing, because I've been eating a lot of frozen meals to avoid cooking for one and doing dishes while I await my family's return (tomorrow. Yay!) (Did I mention that our dishwasher is broken? Yes, my life, it is truly difficult.)

This sorry state of affairs continued through today, when the phone guy made it out (doorbell, stranger, back yard, repeat) to replace the line, which took the poor guy hours. At least he arrived after the daily rain storm. And although I discovered that I can't access any recorded tv content without a working phone/net line, I also discovered that Clark Gable and Colin Firth DVDs are very delightful company for lonely, limping me.

Better than Jason, anyway.