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Review: One Week Girlfriend by Monica Murphy¬

Published February 25, 2014 by Shannon

One Week Girlfriend (One Week Girlfriend Quartet, #1)

I wasn’t planning to write a review for One Week Girlfriend by Monica Murphy. I was planning to write it up as one of a handful of books I’d read recently about which I didn’t have much to say. Then it turned out I actually had quite a lot to say.

First, though, the blurb:

Temporary. That’s the word I’d use to describe my life right now. I’m temporarily working double shifts—at least until I can break free. I’m temporarily raising my little brother—since apparently our actual mother doesn’t give a crap about either of us. And I always end up as nothing but the temporary girlfriend—the flavor of the week for every guy who’s heard the rumor that I give it up so easily.

At least Drew Callahan, college football legend and local golden boy, is upfront about it. He needs someone to play the part of his girlfriend for one week. In exchange for cash. As if that’s not weird enough, ever since he brought me into his world, nothing really makes sense. Everyone hates me. Everyone wants something from him. And yet the only thing Drew seems to want is . . . me.

I don’t know what to believe anymore. Drew is sweet, sexy, and hiding way more secrets than I am. All I know is, I want to be there for him—permanently.

I have enjoyed Ms. Murphy’s books in the past, when she wrote fluffy Regency erotic romance as Karen Ericson. She’s definitely got writing chops, and I got hit hard by the “OMG this book is such delicious crack” train fairly early on. The plot is patently ridiculous, and the title alone pretty much spells it out for the reader, and the audio was only six hours long, so it was not a huge investment of my time. By themselves, Drew and Fable were likable enough characters, and I was pretty much with them, barring a few problematic elements about which more below, until the end when the crack train turned into the “WTF did I just read” wagon and plunged straight into the dark woods of Do Not Want.

My first problem with the book was the fact that Murphy applies the foreshadowing with all the delicacy and subtle flare of a hammer to the back of the skull. I knew almost immediately what Drew’s angst was, and spent the book in a state of mild impatience, waiting for Fable to catch up.

So let’s just talk about that angst. It comes in the form of Adele, Drew’s stepmother. I have met cardboard cutouts with more depth. Adele couldn’t have been more of a shrieking harpy villain if she’d paraded around with her henchmen trying to figure out how to go about actually skinning puppies. I couldn’t take her seriously because I wondered how anyone who encountered her could fail to see that she wasn’t even trying to hide her sociopathic tendencies.

I absolutely get why Drew suffers so much. I don’t want to minimize his suffering, but I didn’t feel there was any nod toward character growth from him. He focuses a lot on Fable, on how much he wants her, but he can’t have her because his man pain is too intense. Then at the end of the book, he runs off, thus allowing us to break the story into multiple books and milk it for all it’s worth. And Fable, rather than conclude that Drew needs a good dose of therapy, instead comes to the conclusion that he secretly wants her to save him.

Excuse me while I call bullshit.

I get the power of the “Only I understand his pain and only I can fix him” fantasy that’s common in romance novels. I also tend to overlook the fantasy when it’s a white knight rescuing a Cinderella from her circumstances. I think that’s because in the second case, real life has taught me that even if I did have a Prince Charming, if I’m not ultimately happy with how my life is playing out, there isn’t a thing my white knight is going to do to make things better, whereas the “I can change him” narrative is one reason why women stay with abusive men.

I never thought that Drew was abusive to Fable in the same way that, say, the love interest in that awful book about the myriad hues of a certain color was. However, he clearly needed to work on his own shit, and the last thing he needed was for someone to fix him. Especially someone who was the good girl to his stepmother’s evil sociopathic slut.

The audiobook narration wasn’t particularly awesome. Kate Rudd does a fine job reading the part of Fable, but Luke Daniels over emoted when he read Drew. Because of that, Drew came off like a bit of a dork who needed his lunch money taken. I never found him particularly sexy.

I guess I’d recommend this book if you’re totally on board the whole New Adult craze and don’t mind reading about protagonists who have no friends but each other and seem determined to stick it out with each other in an unhealthy, destructive cycle. I don’t buy that as a romance concept, and so I’ll pass on the rest of this series.

Final Grade: D

Review: Shell Shocked by Angelia Sparrow

Published February 24, 2014 by Shannon

Shell Shocked

It makes me incredibly sad to write this review. I’ve seen Angelia Sparrow online in various blogs and forums, usually contributing thoughtful comments with which I tended to agree. Recently, I ran across Shell Shocked at All Romance Ebooks and remembered I’d always wanted to try some of her work. Now I have, and I’m not sure I ever will again.

The blurb is as follows:

Sean Dempsey came home from Iraq with artificial knees, scorched retinas and a lot of baggage. He supplements his disability checks with money made writing romance novels under a female pseudonym, ironic as he has grown very nervous around women since a certain suicide bomber. When he meets Gabriel Herne, legless phone psychic, the sparks startle him. It’s everything he’s written about and never believed.
Swept into a whirlwind romance, Sean has to learn about his newfound bisexuality and his lover’s pagan faith at the same time. And when he has a religious experience of his own, he discovers everything changes in its time, just like the Wheel of the Year.
NOTE: This novel contains erotic scenes of hot men celebrating pagan holidays in an accurate depiction of the Wheel of the Year.

I wanted to love this book so hard. I can’t tell how many times in romance novel circles people have lamented the lack of diversity in class or ability as well as race. “Where are the romances with non-billionaires?” rings out throughout comments sections the Internet over. I love that these books, while thin on the ground, are out there, and I hope that anyone wanting to write a romance who is reading this blog won’t walk away from this review thinking they have no excuse not to write such stories, because they are absolutely necessary.

I liked that our protagonists, Sean and Gabriel, were poor. Both draw disability, and so eating out is a luxury they can’t often afford. They have to deal with bureaucracies all the time, since they count on the services of a neighborhood clinic. I know what it’s like to have to scrimp and save because you have such a tiny amount of cash to live on. I love that they kept on keeping on despite their lack of money, like anyone does when they’re put in that position.

And here endeth the positive things I have to say about this book, because the rest of it is a steaming hot mess.

Let me start with the writing. Many people think writing romance is easy. Stage a fun meet-cute, get the characters into bed together, slap on a few punishing kisses and “mockable prose” (TM that NPR podcast) andvoila, you have a romance. I have also heard people say that they find romances unrealistic because the conflicts are often overblown.

Here’s the thing, though. All stories require conflict. It doesn’t have to be overblown–oh noes! I am strangely attracted to a wealthy but psychotic billionaire who’s into BDSM and wants me to sign a contract and who never actually lets me consent to anything and I must fix him with my hoo-ha of chastely chasteness–but it’s got to be present. As I’m reading, I need to find the obstacles preventing the romance believable, and I need those obstacles to reveal something about the characters. This does not happen in Shell Shocked. Sean has PTSD, sure, and that’s not a walk in the park for him, but Gabriel figures out how to calm him down early on. Gabriel does keep a few secrets from Sean, namely the reasons for why he’s a double amputee, but this is only brought out when something needs to happen. A few other situations crop up that could have been fleshed out into meaningful external conflicts, but the characters solve them in short order and move on to more cuddling on the couch. Yes, this is how real life works, but good fiction can’t work that way.

There are vast swaths of the book where the men go about their days in lavish, excruciating detail. I half expected a scintillating scene of them doing their taxes, or possibly scrubbing the bathroom. The ebook is only 130 pages long, and even at such a short page count, there was too much dead wood. It reads like fanfiction. I don’t mean to denigrate fanfic, because I’ve read a lot of it that was very good, but when you’re playing around in someone else’s sandbox, I think that gives you the opportunity to spend more time writing about characters hanging out. I know, for example, that in the Harry Potter books, Harry’s going to fight Voldemort. I read fanfiction because it allows for him to do normal teenager stuff, and if I like the way a particular author writes Harry and company, I’ll put up with “in this chapter, Harry, Ron and Hermione have a snowball fight and literally nothing else happens but we’ll write about it for 5000 words.”

In professional fiction, though, you’re dealing with creating a world and original characters in that world. You don’t have time for a chapter where the characters sit around and talk about how much they love Dr Who and then clean out the refrigerator, unless that scene reveals something significant about the character or the world. (And no, a fictional character’s love of another fictional character is not a significant detail no matter how you slice it.)I had a pretty good handle on Sean and Gabe, so after awhile, I was just left bored by all the cozy domesticity.

I probably could have forgiven a lot of the unnecessary padding if I thought the characters were anything to write home about. Unfortunately, they’re both problematic. I’ll start with Sean. I don’t know enough about PTSD to know if that aspect of his character was written well, but PTSD doesn’t excuse the fact that he spends quite a lot of the book being an ass. I had a huge problem with the fact that Sean’s a romance writer, doing it for the easy money. I hate it when romance writers create romance writer protagonists. Sean wasn’t as awful an example of the type as he could have been, but there were still a few cracks about how romance novels are easy work. It’s hard to separate author from character when stuff like that comes up, and all I end up thinking is, ‘I really need for you to not think of me as a mindless and stupid lemming, Ms. Author, because I did spend $3 on this book and with an attitude like that, clearly buying a latte would have been a better choice.’
As for Gabriel, we don’t get any of his POV. He comes across as a perfect boyfriend, and while he has some definite character flaws–he’s not so good at disclosing things that are important, and he has a tendency to be bad with money–the aforementioned lack of conflict means none of those flaws are illustrated except when it’s convenient. More than that, though, my problem with Gabriel was that Sean is always literally carrying him around. In fact, Sean does things to facilitate carrying Gabe around much easier. Maybe this is a thing that really happens in relationships between wheelchair users and people who can walk, but I don’t buy it, because I’m disabled myself, and what I want from a partner is not someone who will do things for me, but someone who will help me do things for myself. I don’t want to be my partner’s security blanket, and that’s how Gabe read to me.

While I’m on the subject of passing judgments on fictional characters, I was bothered by the fact that this story was set in New York. That’s got to be one of the most expensive cities to live in, even if you aren’t on disability. I never understood why Sean and Gabriel stayed there. They don’t seem to have close friends outside of each other, and neither has family in the city, so they don’t have roots. Every time a money issue cropped up for them, I kept thinking, “This would be so much easier in Jersey. Or Pennsylvania. Or really anywhere that isn’t New York.”

TLDR: When I wasn’t bored, I was either frustrated or puzzled or annoyed. I wanted this book to be awesome and it left me with a profound sense of being glad I was done with it. I want someone to write me poor and disabled characters that have a romance that is compelling. Too bad this wasn’t it.

Grade: D

Review: Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan

Published February 23, 2014 by Shannon

Boy Meets Boy

In an ongoing effort to make inroads into the massive TBR pile I have accrued, I unearthed David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy from the digital stacks, and was very glad indeed that I had. Here’s what goodreads has to say.

This is the story of Paul, a sophomore at a high school like no other: The cheerleaders ride Harleys, the homecoming queen used to be a guy named Daryl (she now prefers Infinite Darlene and is also the star quarterback), and the gay-straight alliance was formed to help the straight kids learn how to dance.

When Paul meets Noah, he thinks he’s found the one his heart is made for. Until he blows it. The school bookie says the odds are 12-to-1 against him getting Noah back, but Paul’s not giving up without playing his love really loud. His best friend Joni might be drifting away, his other best friend Tony might be dealing with ultra-religious parents, and his ex-boyfriend Kyle might not be going away anytime soon, but sometimes everything needs to fall apart before it can really fit together right.

This is a happy-meaningful romantic comedy about finding love, losing love, and doing what it takes to get love back in a crazy-wonderful world.

In our library, we have a section where we categorize books that provide a rosy view of the past or the present. These are not books that (usually) make you think. They’re meant to provide a smile to the face, and a song to the heart. We call them “Gentle or nostalgic fiction.”

“Gentle or nostalgic fiction:” was a perfect summary of what Levithan gives us. The town where Paul, our protagonist, lives is a left-wing, progressive, LGBT-friendly utopia where the homecoming queen and the high school quarterback are the same person (AWESOME TRANSGENDER CHARACTERS BEING AWESOME! YEAH!), where the town’s Boy Scout troop decided that if gay kids weren’t allowed to participate, they’d just call themselves the Joy Scouts, and where the Gay-Straight Alliance was a place to teach straight kids how to dance. It does not resemble any actual town anywhere in America, and I read one Goodreads review that supposed that such a utopia would be actively harmful to any struggling gay teenagers. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I loved the idea of the place. I think Levithan is appealing to our better nature and saying that such a town *could* be created, had we but the wherewithal to make it happen, because people can be incredibly good and kind and tolerant. I don’t see how Levithan’s gay utopia is any different from the plethora of small-town romances for adults where everybody is kind and compassionate and people drop over to make you cookies when you’re sad, and there’s a lonely police offficer/Marine/wounded Navy SEAL hiding out somewhere that just needs your love.

By setting this book in a nostalgic small town, Levithan is able to move past making the story he’s telling an “issue book.” Paul is gay. He’s very accepting of the fact. He knows who he is and what he wants. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t make mistakes along the way, and that’s where the charm lies. This is a lovely coming of age story about changing friendship dynamics, first loves, and figuring out what you want. Paul is a terrific first-person protagonist, with a sense of whimsy that I found charming. Watching him struggle to do the right thing for all the people in his life, even and especiallyy himself, gave me all the happy feels, and I read the book with a constant smile.

Noah, Paul’s love interest, was something of a cipher. I didn’t think he was nearly as interesting as Paul’s friend Tony, (who lives in the next town over, where things are not quite so liberal-utopia happy and has to deal with religious parents) or Infinite Darlene, (a bit of a walking stereotype, to be sure, but I still loved her.) Nonetheless, Paul was so deftly drawn that I found myself liking and approving of Noah because Paul did.

I wasn’t quite so crazy about the subplot involving Paul’s best female friend dating a meathead and their relationship’s consequent drifting apart. I thought Joni treated Paul badly, and though she comes around in the end, I wanted a bit more closure than I ultimately got. Of course, since the theme of the book is that friendships and people change, there’s no other way for the story to go, but still… why was she the one who had to be so horrible?

I read this on Audio, which is why the grade isn’t higher. Presentation does matter, and this was not an enjoyable audiobook experience. I don’t really mind full-cast recordings, and think they can be done well, but in this case, not only was there full cast, but intersticial music that I found distracting. The narrator also had a tendency to help the text along more than it needed by over-emoting everything. This is something that happens frequently in commercial audiobooks for young adults, and it drives me nuts. I do want the readers of my audiobooks to evince some enthusiasm for what they’re reading, but I don’t need them to cry and laugh with the narrator when the text does a fine job making it clear what the narrator is feeling. We say in our audiobook department at the library that a book’s reader should be like a pane of glass, letting the listener perceive the nuances of the text on her own.

I thought this book was lovely and poignant in the best possible way, despite the obnoxious audio presentation. It’s a sweet romance with terrific characters. I highly recommend it.

Grade: B

Review: Dirty Laundry by Heidi Cullinan

Published February 20, 2014 by Shannon

Dirty Laundry (Tucker Springs, #3)
I love Heidi Cullinan. If you search through back posts, you will find that the ones concerning her are all me flailing about how awesome she is. It occurs to me, though, that some people might not think this is an adequate reason you should read her books.

Here, then, is a review of Dirty Laundry, which was the most recent Cullinan book I’ve finished.

Goodreads says:

Entomology grad student Adam Ellery meets Denver Rogers, a muscle-bound hunk of sexy, when Denver effortlessly dispatches the drunken frat boys harassing Adam at the Tucker Springs laundromat. Thanking him turns into flirting, and then, much to Adam’s delight, hot sex over the laundry table.

Though Denver’s job as a bouncer at a gay bar means he gets his pick of geek-sexy college twinks, he can’t get Adam out of his head. Adam seems to need the same rough play Denver does, and it’s damn hard to say no to such a perfect fit.

Trouble is, Adam isn’t just shy: he has obsessive compulsive disorder and clinical anxiety, conditions which have ruined past relationships. And while Denver might be able to bench-press a pile of grad students, he comes from a history of abuse and is terrified of getting his GED. Neither Denver nor Adam want to face their dirty laundry, but to stay together, they’re going to have to come clean.

As I mentioned before, I loved this book. There are three reasons for this. They are:

    Cullinan deals frankly with the issue of disability.

  1. The BDSM scenes were written in a way that I understood what the characters got out of the play, and I never had any doubt about anyone’s consent.
  2. Louisa. That is all.

Let’s start with the disability aspect. Adam is, as the blurb informs us, obsessive-compulsive, and he has an anxiety disorder. When he meets Denver, even after the smoking hot sex, Adam still has OCD and anxiety issues. Denver doesn’t fix him with the power of his Mighty Wang. (BTW, one of the reasons I’m glad I can’t see is that I can’t even imagine the pictures that come up when you google ‘mighty wang’.) Adam also doesn’t need for Denver to fix him. He likes who he is when Denver’s around, but he acknowledges that he’s got to keep going to therapy and keep finding ways to cope with his mental illnesses. At no point does he think to himself, ‘My mother has cancer, and I am having lots of good sex, so I’ll just stop taking my medication.’ Nor did he help to inspire some sad sack of a non-disabled person with his super special bravery.

The BDSM angle was a pleasant surprise. BDSM is a sub genre that I understand intellectually, but it doesn’t really do it for me as written in about 85 percent of the BDSM-themed romances I’ve read. This is because in the books I’ve read, the mind-reading dom knows exactly what the sub wants, and gives it to her. He just knows that nipple clamps and elaborate Japanese rope tricks and figging (!!!) are exactly what the heroine wants. (That last link is maybe not something you want to click on if you don’t care to learn about certain kinky practices. Also that actually came up in a book I read once, and threw me out of the story really hard.)And of course the sub wants all of it and it’s hot but I’m left wondering, “Wait, why would anyone voluntarily submit to that?” I don’t mean to judge any real live kinky people that read my blog. Go on with your bad selves. Characters in books, though, are another thing entirely.

I never felt that way with the scenes in Dirty Laundry. Cullinan explains exactly what it is the characters are getting out of the scenes, and once she does, and makes it clear that everyone is consenting enthusiastically, the resultant sexytimes were extremely hot, even if they didn’t turn my particular crank. She also does this without pausing the action for needless info-dumping.

Lastly, I want to mention Louisa. I have expressed my frustrations about finding a lack of positive portrayal of trans folks in my reading. Louisa, a fellow grad student who befriends Adam, is just such a character. She’s kind, she’s sensitive, and she’s not without problems or issues of her own. She also reminded me of my own dear friend who is trans, because I could see her filling a similar role for someone in her own life. She hit me on a very personal level, and I adored her. I want her to have her own story, to find someone as awesome to share her life with. I really hope this can somehow happen.

As for the Adam/Denver romance, it was lovely. There was a bit of instalust on Adam’s part, but I loved how after their initial encounter, it’s Denver who pursues Adam, mostly because no one has ever taken his number and then not followed up. He was endearingly awkward about it, and I love endearingly awkward. I also loved that Denver took Adam as he was, without needing to change or analyze him. He gave him the space and safety to work through his stuff. And I loved that Adam provided Denver with emotional support as well. I never got the sense that one or both of them were going to regret their life choices after the HEA.

In sum, I loved this book. Small-town contemporaries are rarely my favorite things, but this was sweet and charming, as well as being one of the best depictions of a good, balanced BDSM relationship I’ve read lately.

Grade: A

Review: Dreams of Dark and Light by Tanith Lee

Published February 16, 2014 by Shannon

Dreams of Dark and Light: The Great Short Fiction

Back when I was a wee small fan of science fiction and fantasy, someone turned me onto the Women of Wonder anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent. (The link goes to a review of the one I read. I was having a hard time tracking down a link to the version I read on Amazon. Anyway, that anthology introduced me to several female authors of SF, including Tanith Lee, who it turns out has written a metric fuckton of books. (That’s a technical term.) Relatively few of these are accessible, which makes me sad, but one that I did read as a teenager was Dreams of Dark and Light. On a lark, I recently decided to revisit this collection. Goodreads says of it:

Publication of The Birthgrave in 1975 heralded a new and brilliant luminary in the firmament of modem fantasy. Ostensibly a sword-and-sorcery epic in the tradition of Robert E. Howard, this novel about a youthful heroine with incipient psychic powers astounded readers with its striking originality and intense emotional impact. Tanith Lee today is one of the most versatile and respected writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT represents a massive midcareer retrospective of her achievements over the previous decade.
Here are unforgettable tales of werewolves that prowl chateaux, an Earthwoman in exile on a distant planet, demons that inhabit bodies of the living dead, a race of vampiric creatures who prey upon a cursed castle, and many other works of exotic vision, mythic science fiction, and contemporary horror. Also included are two stories that have received the World Fantasy Award, “Elle est Trois, (La Mort)” and “The Gorgon,” making DREAMS OF DARK AND LIGHT a distinguished one volume library of myth-weaving at its most eloquent and evocative.
Although acclaimed as the “Princess Royal of Heroic Fantasy,” Tanith Lee has long since transcended genre conventions to create a body of work of remarkable psychological depth and artistic distinction. In her imaginative sympathy with characters, human or otherwise, Lee remains unexcelled in the portrayal of deeply felt emotions. Her stories explore many of the most significant themes in twentieth-century literature – life and death, coming of age, the nature of good and evil, love in all its manifestations. And she remains, above all, one of the great natural storytellers working in the English language … Tanith Lee truly has become the Scheherazade of our time.

I wrote brief impressions of each of the stories as I read. I don’t really know how to make this review more cohesive, so it will be rambling and disjointed… like most things on the blog. C’est la vie, I suppose.

I hated Rosemary Jarman’s foreword to this anthology. It boils down to: “Tanith Lee writes smartly, unlike all those hack writers.” She does write smartly, and her stories do require a close reading, but I could have done without bait of blatant literary snobbishness in a collection that contains a lot of genre work. I felt insulted, so I’m just saying it’s a good thing I didn’t actually read this collection for the author of the foreword. Plus, when there are stories that are totally works of style over substance, being labeled a “smart writer” translates in my head to a pretentious one.

“Because Our Skins Are Finer” reminded me of The Brides of Rollrock Island. A seal hunter receives a visit from one of the Shealce (selkies, obviously) who forces him to empathize with her people. I really liked the poetic language, and the evocativeness of the setting. A fairy tale with a kernel of darkness, but still plenty that was sweet.

“Bite-Me-Not, or Fleur de Fur”: I actually remembered quite a bit of this one. It’s another fairy tale, and at first it seems like it might be a Cinderella or possibly a Rapunzel story, but it’s neither. A castle has been under siege by winged vampires for years, and the duke is said to be cursed because of the loss of his daughter. Meanwhile, a scullery maid longs for something more than this provincial life. The darkly compelling and primal winged vampires were the most interesting part, and certainly were what stuck in my teenaged head. Also, this one wins at feminism because the scullery maid heroine rejects the life of a princess in order to pursue yet another path. Granted, that path is with a vampire whom she falls in love with, but it’s all her idea. Also this is the second story with the theme of love as a subversive element.

“Black as Ink” is largely forgettable. It has more of a magical realism element than the other two stories, which were pure fantasy. Magic realism can be done really well or really badly. It often feels extraneous, and if I’m left to ponder whether or not I’m missing something, the story ceases to entertain. I was not entertained. Also, the protagonist is a whiny, privileged little shit. I have no doubt I wasn’t meant to find him all that sympathetic, but there wasn’t really enough in his story to compel me, either. Also this begins a running theme of an evil yet compelling woman forcing a man to do stupid things. If this were a drinking game, you’d definitely take a shot every time an evil seductress shows up in this anthology, and this is where you’d start.

“Bright Burning Tiger”: Another story with a magical realism bent. The more I think about it, the more I like its style. It has a very old-fashioned flare, with the narrator being an observer and not the protagonist. It’s about a man who hunts tigers. There’s another bit of supernatural that might be real or it might be the product of an unreliable narrator. Unfortunately, it’s also about British colonialism, and the India portrayed is a savage place, and the Indians were shown as superstitious natives. I could have done without that bit of racism, and I was not sufficiently entertained. But there is no evil seductress so there’s that.

“Cyrion in Wax”: I remember enough of this one that I was excited to read it again. I loved the idea of a courtesan as a protagonist,. and I used the name Mareme (the name of the courtesan in this story) in RP for a long time. Unfortunately, though this was a fine swashbuckling adventure tale, Mareme herself was pretty useless. Also, the homoerotic subtext was strong in this one, which I mostly appreciate, but dammit, I wanted Mareme the whore to have more to do.

“A Day in the Skin; Or, the Century We Were Out of Them”: After the last couple of duds, this was refreshing. I think real SF fans would call this a post-human story. It’s all about how an accident on a planet humans want to settle on forces the survivors to go into a stasis outside their bodies until they can artificially construct android bodies to replace the ones the accident damaged. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but it’s the kind of measure I could see a greedy corporation taking as a means of cost-saving. Our protagonist, Scay, has a day out in the body of a woman (he is male). He meets and talks to an old friend, and not much happens, but not much needs to. It’s a story about a bunch of cool ideas, and Lee plays with them well. It’s also a lovely story about friendship. I wish the idea had been expanded on some more.

“The Dry Season” is another winner. Set in an alternate Rome, it’s about a garrison commander who sees a girl, tries to save her from her own people’s religion, and bad things ensue. I’m beginning to sense a theme: dude sees girl. Bad shit goes down. That is what has happened in several of these stories. That said, I loved how anti-colonialist this story was, in comparison with “Burning Bright”, and again, we have a protagonist who isn’t very likable, but who is nonetheless interesting. The seductress wasn’t evil, but the protagonist did start waving his dick around (metaphorically speaking) when she showed up, so feel free to take a drink.

“Elle Est Troi (La Mort)” apparently won a World Fantasy Award. I am not sure why it’s so well-regarded. It left me rather cold. It’s about three artists in Paris who each encounter death in various forms. The horror element didn’t work for me. It was too… magical-realism-ish, and if you took away that element, you’d get a story about people who navel gaze a lot and whose lives don’t mean anything. Which, OK, if that’s your thing, that’s awesome. It’s not mine, though. I actively hated it, and think I hate it more because I don’t know why it got the accolades it did.

“Foreign Skins” gets us back to stories I liked. We’ve got another story set in India. The unattainable woman is here, this time in the form of a wanderer who arrives at the house of a British government worker and his wife. The man and his son are both fascinated by her, but it’s the son who gets an interesting coming-of-age tale. This is Lee at her best, with a cast of characters I find sympathetic even if I don’t always like them very much. This has the feel of a fairy tale, and the fantasy element is decidedly present, not ambiguous. Also the seductress isn’t evil, per se, but even though I liked it, I still think she counts. Drink up.

“The Gorgon” seems, from what I can tell on Goodreads, to be universal favorite among reviewers. Allow me, then, to be the voice of the fun police when I tell you I hated it. The plot centers around a writer who ends up on a Greek island. There’s a smaller island nearby, which the locals are silent about. Predictably, he swims over there, and encounters a masked woman. Who, it turns out, (spoiler spoiler spoiler look away now!) wears the mask due to facial paralysis. And despite this grueling disability, she pretty much disdains the man’s pity. He leaves the island and now can’t write anything, because… I’m not clear. Either way, we get a narrative about a disabled person that isn’t really her story. It’s the story of how she affected an able-bodied person, and, just… ugh. STFU, Tanith Lee. Also, drink. Because the woman hiding behind the mask was soooooooo evil and she ruined the writer’s muse.

“La Reine Blanche” is not one of the best stories in the collection, but after the awfulness that was “The Gorgon” I’ll take a bland, inoffensive dark fairy tale over something that makes me outraged. This one actually has a heroine, a queen shut up in a tower. Why she is there, and what her destiny is revealed to be, is interesting. I loved the imagery, and loved that for once the vaguely unlikeable protagonist also got to be the unattainable woman. That’s why you can skip drinking on this one.

“A Lynx with Lions” is set in the same world as “The Dry Season” and “Cyrion in Wax.” Cyrion is back with another swashbuckling adventure tale, a tale of swordsmanship, demons, and vengeance. It’s frothy and fun, which I can’t say for a lot of these stories. There was no evil seductress woman either, which is a bonus. I could have done without Cyrion the white savior, but we can’t have everything.

“Magritte’s Secret Agent” is another story that’s just fun. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, but I liked it. We have a female unnamed protagonist who becomes rather obsessed with Daniel, a beautiful man who is confined to a wheelchair. Beautiful, silent men will show up in other tales, too, so equal billing for unattainable members of your gender of choice for everyone! She insinuates herself into the life of the young man and his mother and in the end changes both irrevocably. I liked that this wasn’t nearly as grossly ableist as “The Gorgon”, because the protagonist totally owned her uncomfortable feelings around Daniel’s disability. But I still didn’t understand Daniel’s mom’s motivations. She was, to me, the most interesting character, so I wish she’d made a little more sense.

“Medra” is science fiction, and it’s pretty good. It’s a slice of life story about a young woman who was the last survivor of a planetary evacuation and the swashbuckling man who finds her. There’s no overwrought evil woman doing evil things here, and while the titular Medra seems to be a little silly, there’s more to her than meets the eye and I found her fascinating. Definitely one of the better offerings.

“Nunc Dimittis” is a darkly romantic tale of a vampire and the man who is her thrall. It’s also a story about dying, and rebirth. It’s a bit on the dark side, but it’s also incredibly sweet.

“Odds Against the Gods” was my favorite of the stories in this collection when I was a teenager. I still love it. It’s a swashbuckling tale of a former religious initiate turned thief who singlehandedly (and with the help of a friend she meets along the way) destroys several gods. It’s told in the cadence of a fairy tale, and the heroine is unapologetically bisexual and not slut-shamed. Her name is Truth and she lies like a rug. I adored this story and it left me with a huge smile.

“A Room With a Vie” is straight-up horror. A woman checks into a vacation flat and discovers that the room she’s rented is actually alive. There’s some serious Freudian imagery in this one, and it was pleasantly creepy. The ending is ambiguous, which is not a thing I’m generallycomfortable with. I liked it though. Definitely one of the more memorable pieces in the anthology.

“Siriamnus”: Hello, Dr. Freud. Hello, evil seductress woman. Take a drink. I hadn’t missed the evil seductress, but she’s still here to make me rage. I’m pretty sure Lee doesn’t feel the overt misogyny of her character, Tohmet, a slave in a Greek household where the young man of the family is taken with an exotic female (and African) slave who, naturally, causes all the trouble to everyone because she’s exotic and dark-skinned and a woman, but that being the case it is my personal preference never to read anything where the moral is, “Yup. Women be castrating bitches.” Especially when that’s literally my take-away.

“Southern Lights” was another horror story. This time the “vaguely evil seductress” thing is played with, because our protagonist is a woman. I love that this is a queer story. It’s also dark fantasy, and even a little steampunk-ish. A traveler finds herself staying the night with an alchemist and his daughter. It is not nearly as fun for her as it was for, say, Janet.

“Tamastara” was just weird. It seems to be a science fiction story about the Hindi faith and reincarnation, and there were fascinating things under the surface, I’m sure. Sadly, I don’t know what they were because I spent the whole time being bored. I couldn’t even really tell you what it was about. I do know there was no evil seductress, though, so props for that.

“When The Clock Strikes” is another clear winner. It’s an inverted Cinderella story, which turns every aspect of the tale, from the cinder wench (TM Andrew Lang) herself to the stepmother to the prince and the glass slipper on its head. I liked it, despite the evil seductress. It’s dark and angry, and not too long. Lee is clearly at her best when writing these dark fairy tales.

“Wolfland” is Tanith Lee doing gothic. And also there are werewolves. The heroine is basically a hapless damsel while also being incredibly hard to like. Bitches be materialistic and money-hungry, emirite? I did think the story worked, though, and it was nice to see werewolves in their traditional, actually-scary rather than paranormal sexy, incarnations.

“Written in Water” rounds out the anthology and lets it end on a relatively positive note. Lee’s evil seductress is sort of inverted in that she’s actually the protagonist, and she doesn’t start out that way. Basically, a man falls from the sky and a woman takes him in, finding that he is her perfect helpmeet. Then it turns out that at some point she must have read this post because apparently she is the last woman on earth and she’s not having that helpmeet bullshit, and while I admire the sentiment it felt random. I think I was supposed to see her as an unreliable narrator, but then it turns out she’s right about everything? And… I don’t know. Also the heroine is a dried-up spinster at 35, which as a 32-year-old spinster lady didn’t give me happy feels at all. It was entertaining and disjointed and I liked the setup a lot more when it was called Starman.

***********

Overall, a mixed bag. When the stories were good, they were awesome. When they were bad, they were overblown and verbose and there were too many evil seductresses. I’m not sorry that I reread this anthology, but I’m not nearly in so much of a hurry to rediscover the rest of Tanith Lee’s books.

Final grade: C

Tilting at windmills: Heroines who top?

Published February 14, 2014 by Shannon

I just got a DM from a reader who wanted my romance expertise. (Ha!) She’s looking for books where the heroine is the one who tops, or at least is the sexual aggressor. I still stand by my Kit Rocha rec, because their characters totally run the gamut of sexual positions and methods, but my Reader’s Advisory brain is failing to engage. I do know that sex as something that’s being done *to* a woman is kind of a pervasive cultural narrative, and it would be good to see less of it.

Oh, hey, look, NPR does romance

Published February 13, 2014 by Shannon

I spent an hour of my life listening to the latest episode of On Point, an NPR show I’d never heard of before. I’m sure someone will invariably write a thoughtful and well-reasoned critique of the podcast, but it won’t be me because the romance blogosphere needs another article about how the general public doesn’t understand the genre like it needs a hole in the head. But I do have thoughts, which I present in a handy list format.

  1. One of the guests was Wendy the Super Librarian, whose blog I’ve read for years and whose speaking voice matches my mental picture of what it would sound like. So, um, go Wendy?
  2. I’ve never read anything by Angela Knight, but on the strength of that interview, I need to fix that. Holy wow, she’s a firecracker. Or maybe it’s just that any middle-aged Southern lady comes off that way when she talks. Either way, she was passionate and very well-reasoned and articulate.
  3. I started drinking the first time Tom Ashbrook mentioned The Twilight Fanfic That Shall Not Be Named. I know, I know, it’s revolutionized the genre. But blargh, we hates that book.
  4. I loved Wendy’s statement that a good library has something in it that will offend everybody. That is so very on point. (Ha, did you see what I did there?)
  5. Angela talked a lot about how romances are all about the girl power. I might have liked it if she hadn’t taken a dig at feminists, but I cannot have everything I want.
  6. The first half of the podcast was a nuanced and interesting conversation, with a lot of interesting points made about the genre. Then it was like the powers at NPR said to themselves, “Wait! I know what element this show is lacking! We need a white dude from the literary scene to give his very valuable and much-needed thoughts on yaoi.” So they found one. I’m so glad they did. My poor lady brain was trying to figure out what to think and it has such a huge problem forming its own opinions, so thank God there was a man there, finally.
  7. Speaking of men, a caller gave the lonely cry of the poor oppressed male romance reader and suggested romance writers should market books toward men. All these books with their lady feelings won’t possibly be considered legitimate and worthwhile until that happens, the billions of dollars readers spend notwithstanding. And we wouldn’t want the men to be left out, because it’s not like there are whole genres heavily marketed to them already.
  8. Angela Knight said that if it weren’t for romance readers, those white dudes in the literary elite couldn’t sustain the publishing market share by themselves. She got really passionate about that, too. I raised a fist in solidarity.
  9. Someone brought up the “Well, aren’t romance novels formulaic?” question. I took another drink, but had to give it to Angela and Wendy for both pointing out that (1) every genre has a formula, (2) The book is about the journey rather than the destination, and (3) If you are writing paint-by-numbers crap that is entirely predictable, you are doing it wrong.
  10. Harlequins and bodice rippers got brought up. So did the stupidity of romance titles. I have often ranted at length about the stupidity of romance titles, so I feel weird that when that bit happened near the end of the podcast, I was like, “This has nothing to do with anything! If you don’t have anything substantive to ask, just stop right now!”
  11. Wendy made predictions for the future. Yep, erotic romance and small-town contemporaries are where it’s at. Personally, I think there should be more books that combine the two.

For a puff piece about romance, this wasn’t the worst. I thought the conversation was, for the most part, lively and interesting, and both Angela and Wendy were class acts that did not once tell Tom Ashbrook he was being smug and condescending. That said, there was something painful about hearing said smug condescension for an hour that made the whole experience more rage-making than it ought to have been.

I’ll be curious to read other people’s takes on that show.

Review: Marked by Kit Rocha, Vivian Arend, and Lauren Dane

Published February 10, 2014 by Shannon

Marked (Beyond, #3.5; Thompson & Sons, #1)

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Marked from Bree, half of the writing team that is Kit Rocha because we are friends. Being smart humans, regular readers might notice that this makes me a touch biased.

This is an anthology of romance novellas from three of the best writers in the genre who are not Heidi Cullinan. I imagine it’s going to get hyped all over the place, but I promise, the hype is worth it. I want to point to this anthology every time someone stridently proclaims that romances can’t be feminist, because all of these stories are, to one degree or other.

The anthology opens with Kit Rocha’s “Beyond Temptation”, which is book 3.5 in their Beyond series. From their website:

Kit Rocha returns to Sector Four in BEYOND TEMPTATION. A promise to a dying friend backfires when Noah Lennox finds that the girl he was supposed to rescue is all grown up–and wearing O’Kane ink. He wants to protect her from the secrets of their past, but she wants him. And an O’Kane woman always gets what she wants.

We all know that I am Not generally a fan of the trend toward motorcycle club romances. That isn’t exactly what the Beyond series is, but people do tend to recommend them to readers who like that sort of story. Hell, I know I would myself, if our library were ever to carry any of Kit’s books.

There are two things that set the O’Kanes apart from other motorcycle club stories: the heroines are even matches for the heroes, and the setting is dystopian. The first shouldn’t need to be explained, except to elaborate that I buy Rocha’s romances so much more because the power is evenly distributed between the couple and I never feel like anyone is getting into something they didn’t consent to. As to the second, Dallas O’Kane is practically a purring kitten compared to the other criminals in the Sectors, and they, in turn, at least have a sense of freedom which the more “law-abiding” members of society, who live in the walled city of Eden, which the sectors border, entirely lack. Reading Rocha’s books, I’m convinced that, no, I wouldn’t want to live in Eden, so, yes, life in the Sectors with the criminal element is, in fact, preferable. Neither Wylde nor Ashley ever got me around to that position, and if an author can’t convince me their criminal gangs are the best choice of people to hang out with, I can’t buy it for their heroines.

Beyond Temptation” is excellent, and it stands alone. (I’ve read the first Beyond book, and have the second and third on the TBR pile. I was able to keep up with no confusion, and I enjoyed meeting both our hero and heroine.

Emma has been with the O’Kanes for several years, where she’s carved out a place for herself as the apprentice to Ace, the main tattoo artist in the Sector. She still misses Noah, the best friend of her older brother, for whom she’s always had feelings. When he turns up in Sector Four, in order to do a favor for Dallas O’Kane, the leader of the gang, Emma wants nothing more than for Noah to stay so they can explore the attraction they’ve both felt for a long time.

For Noah’s part, he wants too things: to protect Emma and to bring down Mac Fleming, the leader of Sector Five. For damn sure he doesn’t want to be distracted by Emma, who is not the innocent, naive young girl he left behind. She’s strong, capable and competent, and he finds that alluring and sexy.

Both of these characters were well-drawn. I particularly loved that Noah got to be a bad-ass alpha man while also being a top-notch hacker. It’s like people are complicated or something, and like they don’t always adhere to obnoxious stereotypes! Emma is also great. She’s tough as nails, and she’s been through a lot. She stands up for what she wants, and gives as good as she gets. Also, she juggles knives, which I love. Naturally, the two of them have smoking chemistry, which is all entirely consensual.

A lot happens in this story. Rocha drops the reader in and expects her to keep up. I appreciate my intelligence being respected. I don’t need you to explain your world to me if you’ve done a sufficiently good job telling a story in that world. This is also clearly a slice of a larger story. It stands perfectly well on its own, but fits neatly into the rest of the series. The reader is given tantalizing glimpses of other characters, but never in a way that feels like sequel baiting. I particularly loved the introduction of Trix, a fellow refugee from Sector Five, a recovering addict who gives Noah some straight talk he desperately needs. She’s a complex character, and I want her story.

TLDR: A great start to the anthology, a fast-paced tour de force of a story. I really need to catch up on this series. A.

Vivian Arend’s “Rocky Ride” is the second story in the anthology. I’ve read Wolf Signs, one of her paranormal novellas, which was cute and sweet, and which I should remember about more often because it had a deaf heroine who was competent and kicked ass all over the place and wasn’t an inspirational story for the hero, but I haven’t read anything else she’s written, a fact that I intend to remedy soonest. “Rocky Ride”, is the start of her new Thompson and Sons series, which in itself is a spin-off to her Six Pack Ranch books. It stands alone, and was a complete delight. Here’s the blurb from Vivian’s website:

He’s got a touch that’s hotter than hot

It took a hell of a lot of fast-talking and more than a few speeding tickets before Mitch Thompson convinced Constable Anna Coleman to take him for a ride. Only now that she’s loosened off her stiff RCMP uniform, it’s not nearly enough. Their secret sexual escapades are mind-blowing, but Mitch wants more than her body—he wants her heart.

Her world could go up in flames

It’s a dangerous road to walk, and Anna doesn’t know how far she can safely tread. Bad boy Mitch may have lured her wild side out to play, but giving in to their increasingly passionate desires could endanger her very civilized career. Somewhere between yearning and obsession there has to be a balance point.

Or they’re both going to get burned.

I loved a lot of things about this novella. I loved that it was set in Canada. It’s weird how few genre novels I can think of that aren’t either US or UK-centric. Granted, Canada is not a truly exotic locale, but it was nice to see mounties in some other context than “Due South,” you know?

Anna, our erstwhile heroine, is an RCMP officer. I thought she was great. She’s allowed to be competent. Not once does someone need to rescue her from herself. In fact, though she doesn’t go off on an anti-sexism rant, she clearly labors under conditions that do not afflict her male coworkers in the same way. Yet, she still triumphs. She insists on equal partnership with Mitch, our hero, and by God, she gets it. I suspect some romance readers will find her strident and pushy and aggressive, but she’s a cop. Meek is kind of not in the job description. At least it isn’t for the kind of cops I want going after bad guys.

Mitch is awesome, too. He’s cultivated a bad-boy image, but at heart he’s a good man. I loved what a caring partner he was for Anna, and I loved the interactions he had with his family. (In fact, Arend writes family dynamics that feel very familiar to me, with people sniping at each other a lot, but where the love is obvious.) Mitch is no pushover, either, and in the end, I thought he and Anna made a great couple. Plus, he’s a working class man who is not, in fact, part of the criminal element. That’s also rare, in my experience.

The sex is hot, too. There’s a lot of it, but Arend integrates it well into the relationship and highlighting how the dynamics change as Mitch and Anna go from fuck buddies to people with a real relationship.

As with the Rocha story, I got the sense that Mitch and Anna had full and complete lives before the story began and would have full and complete lives after it was over. I’m now eager to read her SixPack Ranch books, which, from the blurbs, look like they’re similar to books I’ve read and loved by Lorelei James. If they’re all this fantastically feminist, I am so on bored for more! A.

Rounding out the anthology is “All That Remains” by Lauren Dane. I didn’t love this story as much as I did the other two. That being said, I enjoyed it, so we’re talking B+ love rather than A love, which is still not too shabby. The blurb goes like this:

New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author Lauren Dane takes you into a brand new world in ALL THAT REMAINS. Summer Killian falls fast and hard when Charlie arrives in Paradise Village. But the heat turns all the way up when she learns Charlie is also with Hatch – the man she loved four years before. While she’s not sure she’s cut out for a triad, neither man is going to give her up.

M/M/F is a setup that turns my particular erotic romance crank. I love the idea of two men who are hot for each other being hot for a woman. With a setup like that, you don’t run into the question of, “Oh, my. What if their penises accidentally touch one fine day while they’re boinking the heroine?” Plus, it seems to me that a relationship like that is less likely to leave someone out in the cold. It’s also been my experience that M/M/F stories tend to develop their heroes better and give them individual personalities, whereas M/F/M stories (that’s the one where there is no penis touching, no sir!) often trade character development for sexytimes. Your mileage may vary, of course.
What I loved about “All That Remains” is that Dane makes the relationship between these three characters plausible. It’s also commonplace and unremarkable. There’s some fiddly bits of SF to explain why this is which really worked for me, and I appreciated an explanation beyond, “Oh, well, you know, it’s what they do.” By making the M/M/F triad a thing that is unremarkable, Dane is free to highlight the way that the three characters negotiate that relationship. Summer is drawn to Charlie, but can’t forget Hatch, who left her once before. Hatch is blunt and strong-willed, and he and Summer butt heads, so Charlie has to negotiate being a mediator for both of them. All of these characters had distinct personalities, and I really liked that I couldn’t just say, “Oh, yeah. He’s always and forever the alpha. That guy’s the beta.” It didn’t work like that.

I also appreciated the fact that Summer had female friends. We didn’t get much page time with them, but I loved that Dane acknowledged how important Summer found her relationships with her sister and her female boss, especially in a world where, because of post-apocalypse reasons, women outnumber men. Other authors would have insisted that was cause for women to be catty backstabbing bitches, but Dane avoids that route.

The other thing I loved was that Summer, despite being with two men, never lost her agency. She actually calls Hatch and Charlie out for trying to police her emotions. It seems so rare that I read a woman in a romance utter the words, “Hey, dude, that is not cool what you just did/said/had done to me.” without treading into silly, feisty territory.

I do think there wasn’t quite enough of a story in this novella. There was an awful lot of sex, and while it was generally well-written, I found myself zoning out after a while.

My real problem with “All That Remains”, really, is that it isn’t Captivated, which was one of my favorite reads of 2012. I loved that book so much, and “All That Remains” didn’t quite capture the magic for me. I do look forward to Summer’s sister Dulce’s book, despite the fact that I am going to stubbornly wait until it’s all available to read because, ugh, not a fan of serials. She’s got quite a helping of backstory angst, and I’m sure I’ll be delighted to see more of Summer and her men in Dulce’s book.

In summary, I loved this anthology. All of the stories were excellent, and I have lots of new books to look forward to reading and catching up on.

Review: The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders by Corinne Holt Sawyer

Published February 9, 2014 by Shannon

J. Alfred Prufrock Murders

We are discussing The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders on the next episode of the Book Hoarders Podcast. The episode gets recorded tomorrow, so this will be quick.

Goodreads says:

Here is a rousing whodunnit that delights with its full-blooded portraits of septuagenarians run amok in a California retirement community, their once passive acceptance of life’s injustices changed to indignation when a murderer is discovered lurking in their midst. — A quartet of oldsters, all women, are moved to surprising action when one of their own, a not-so-sweet busybody named “Sweetie,” winds up face-down on the beach, her body covered with tiny puncture wounds. The four not-so-gentle ladies realize what the young investigating officer has trouble accepting–that even the most seemingly docile among them may be provoked into taking a life, even a series of lives, if the pleasure of the time they have left is threatened. Armed with such insight, they shrug off their infirmities and take to the investigative trail, complete with shocking revelations.

More than a lighthearted tale of irrepressible grande dames who choose to drink one last time from the fountain of youth, The J. Alfred Prufrock Murders provides an image of exuberant youth refracted into “old” age. Steadfastly refusing to be “cute” in her depiction of “golden girls” revivified, Corinne Holt Sawyer achieves a rare blend of comedy, pathos and taut suspense.

What I Liked: The tone is lighthearted without being slapstick. There’s just a bit of snark in Sawyer’s tone, but I never got the sense she was laughing at her characters, or expecting us to laugh at them. The old ladies themselves were colorful and interesting, although I suspect none will linger in my mind long enough to remember details about their personality traits. I also appreciated that Sawyer asks a lot of tough questions about what it means to forgive people, and what friendship is worth. She doesn’t provide easy answers, and that was a pleasant surprise.

What didn’t work: I should have guessed the murderer long before I did. In fact, when I figured it out, my reaction was a dismayed, “She isn’t going to go there, is she?” I don’t want to spoil the identity of the killer, but I felt like my genre expectations were disappointed. And I know that’s not fair, because “You didn’t write the book I wanted you to write” is never a valid criticism. But she didn’t. Furthermore, the real murderer was a tacked-on bit of cliche that I could have skipped.

Who Might Like it: Fans of cozy mysteries. The violence is present, but it’s glossed over. If you like for your frothy humor to have a couple of interesting ideas to chew on, this is a good pick for that.

Final Assessment: It was an easy read. I liked the characters and the writing style, and would read other books if there are more, even though the actual solution to the mystery didn’t work for me. This is the kind of book where a C grade isn’t a bad thing, so that is what I’m giving it.

Review: Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded by John Scalzi

Published February 3, 2014 by Shannon

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

On September 13, 1998, John Scalzi sat down in front of his computer to write the first entry in his blog “Whatever” — and changed the history of the Internet as we know it today.

What, you’re not swallowing that one? Okay, fine: He started writing the “Whatever” and amused about 15 people that first day. If that many. But he kept at it, for ten years and running. Now 40,000 people drop by on a daily basis to see what he’s got to say.

About what? Well, about whatever: Politics, writing, family, war, popular culture and cats (especially with bacon on them). Sometimes he’s funny. Sometimes he’s serious (mostly he’s sarcastic). Sometimes people agree with him. Sometimes they send him hate mail, which he grades on originality and sends back. Along the way, Scalzi’s become a best-selling, award-winning author, a father, and a geek celebrity. But no matter what, there’s always another Whatever to amuse and/or enrage his readers.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded collects some of the best and most popular Whatever entries over the history of the blog, from some of the very first entries right up into 2008. It’s a decade of Whatever, presented in delightfully random form — just the way it should be.

I don’t know what random impulse got me to purchase Your Hate Mail Will be Graded. I think it was something like this: I was reading posts on Whatever and realized, “Hey, he compiled lots of his blog entries. Now that everyone has e-readers, I betI can get this accessibly.” Sure enough, I could, and spent the whole day reading.

What I Liked: John Scalzi is articulate, witty and entertaining. He doesn’t always write about things that interest me, and I don’t always agree with him, but I do think he’s worth listening to. This collection is a thorough sampling of his work, and I think, if you’ve never read his blog before, you’d know right away if he’ll work for you.

What I Didn’t Like: This is totally on my own head, but Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is a collection that’s meant to be dipped into randomly. I glommed it in a single sitting. I never got a good sense of one piece flowing into another. I know that blogs don’t flow together, but honestly, I’d probably have a better sense of cohesion had I just trolled through the Whatever archives myself. Also, while I like Scalzi’s writing, sometimes he got a little too smug for my taste. I probably wouldn’t have noticed aforementioned smugness had I read the book more slowly, but taken all together, it made me bristle.

Who Might Like It: Fans of Scalzi. People whose views skew just a little to the left. Fans of bacon.

P.S. I am so glad we have moved on to not using people’s sexual orientations as nouns. Every time Scalzi, who generally means well, mentioned “the gays” I bristled. It sounds demeaning to my 2014 ears, though I’m sure I didn’t think much about that word choice issue even back in 2008.