31 March 2012

#Bloggiesta: Tricks of Composition

Things to remember when taking a new header picture (since I'm getting a little looney - too much coffee):
  1. Remember where the blog title/subtitle will go.  My first ten shots had no room for the text.
  2. Iron your backdrop.  (I ironed and ironed....the remaining wrinkles will need to be Photoshopped out.)
  3. Think about tying the color into the blog theme.  I went through soooo many piles of books until I found several that were representative of everything I read but had cover designs that wouldn't clash.  Ditto with the knitting.
  4. You will not need all that stuff you gathered up for the photo.  My original set-up included a "Keep calm and carry yarn" knitting bag, Christina Rossetti's Complete Poems from Penguin, the Norton Anthology of Poetry, and my three-headed dragon puppet (he's blue, I like him alot) plus all the pointe shoes and books.  Oh, and Chaucer because he thought there should be a cat in the shot, too.  I took pictures and pared down and shot and pared down....  It took two hours.
  5. Shadows = the devil.  The lighting in my house is terrible.  I jerry-rigged a desk lamp to help with the shadows.
  6. Patience.  Patience.  Patience.

And pet the kittehs.  They get jealous and underfoot if you don't.

#Bloggiesta March 2012: New template?

So, in the very-early Saturday morning I have made progess on both the "definite TO-DO list":
  1. WRITE. REVIEWS. Lots of them. I have a huge backlog thanks to writing and sick mom (Mom is doing much better - the parents called me from Savannah, GEORGIA, the other week because they took a surprise trip to celebrate the end of radiation treatments - a little warning, parental units, please otherwise I worry unnecessarily). [ETA: wrote two so far]
  2. Back-up the blog (haven't done this in donkey's years).  Done and done.
  3. Write post for April Literature by Women book (the moderator skillz are in the toilet, too).
  4. Suey has a nice Goodreads widget that counts up her reading challenge there. I like it - must investigate Goodreads site to find the code.
  5. Find widget/linkage for my Posterous account so I don't have to cross-post all my pictures, only the ones I really, really want to.
  6. Redesign header picture. I like it but the books seem a bit too one-note (no offense, Prydain and Lloyd Alexander). I have the fancy D-SLR now and a Photoshop Express account so I ought to use it.
  7. Buy a mouse for my laptop. The touchpad is fine for basic navigation but sometimes my tap-taps just aren't fast enough or the drop and drag gets a bit wacky (PS Express editing is crazy-awful with the touchpad). Mouse will help with that.  There were only about, oh, thirty mice to choose from at Best Buy.  I wound up going with a Logitech that uses darkfield laser tracking (and is wireless).
And then there are the "would like to-dos":
  1. Investigate new Blogger theme. I've had my current template layout since the beginning of The Blog and it is non-customizable. Interpretation: both columns are too narrow and can't accomodate even the Blogger-designed widgets in places. Drawback: I can use basic HTML but I don't know doodle-squat about CSS, etc. I am willing to learn - is there a good book anyone recommends?  Not only did I find a really great, thorough, well-designed, easy-to-use book of HTML and CSS...I started dinking around with the Blogger Design Template and re-arranged my blog template to make it more user friendly.  And then I started updating the widgets (had two dead widgets, how does that happen?).  Not done yet.  Haha.
  2. This post on Mashable discusses how to use Pinterest to promote your blog and track your content. I lurve Pinterest. Must investigate.
  3. Go through the Google Reader and remove the blogs with dead URLs/updated URLs.
  4. Check prices on Photoshop (I queried the Oracle of Twitter about Photoshop vs. Elements - only Hannah answered; she was in the affirmative on PS so I will check it out).  One of us (me) remembered that I am a staff member at a University and can, therefore, get the academic pricing from the campus bookstore.  Considering that I could use any skillz honed in private in photo editing at work (possibly, you never know when designing gown/glove studies) I could definitely use the price break.
So, if you like, feel free to give feedback on my new template (outside of the header picture - I plan on working on a new picture when I have a bit of daylight to hand). I'd love to hear what to you think of the work in progress.

30 March 2012

Gratuitous Cat Picture Friday (8): Not the ears!

So, I have an account on Posterous now to upload the majority of my iPhoneography pictures.  It is fun.  Yet, I think I'll still be sharing a few photos here and there on SSWB because of my furry kids.  They are too cute.

Good grooming is important!  (But does Dante really enjoy having his ears washed?)

#Bloggiesta, ole! March 2012

So I hemmed and hawed....  I wasn't sure about signing up for Bloggiesta this year.  My schedule is crazy, my family is crazy (I haz a new nephew, he is cute as a bug!), I'm on edit 7 of my book (getting very close to the point where I'm willing to let other people read it), I've been in a blogging slump....

Ah-ha.  Blogging slump.  Giant backlog of reviews.  Lots of housekeeping to do.

OBVIOUSLY, I should sign-up for Bloggiesta.  I need it really bad!

I have to work part of the weekend, so I shouldn't bite off too much, but the definite TO-DOs:
  1. WRITE. REVIEWS.  Lots of them.  I have a huge backlog thanks to writing and sick mom (Mom is doing much better - the parents called me from Savannah, GEORGIA, the other week because they took a surprise trip to celebrate the end of radiation treatments - a little warning, parental units, please otherwise I worry unnecessarily).
  2. Back-up the blog (haven't done this in donkey's years).
  3. Write post for April Literature by Women book (the moderator skillz are in the toilet, too).
  4. Suey has a nice Goodreads widget that counts up her reading challenge there.  I like it - must investigate Goodreads site to find the code.
  5. Find widget/linkage for my Posterous account so I don't have to cross-post all my pictures, only the ones I really, really want to.
  6. Redesign header picture.  I like it but the books seem a bit too one-note (no offense, Prydain and Lloyd Alexander).  I have the fancy D-SLR now and a Photoshop Express account so I ought to use it.
  7. Buy a mouse for my laptop.  The touchpad is fine for basic navigation but sometimes my tap-taps just aren't fast enough or the drop and drag gets a bit wacky (PS Express editing is crazy-awful with the touchpad).  Mouse will help with that.
And then there are the would like to-dos:
  1. Investigate new Blogger theme.  I've had my current template layout since the beginning of The Blog and it is non-customizable.  Interpretation: both columns are too narrow and can't accomodate even the Blogger-designed widgets in places.  Drawback: I can use basic HTML but I don't know doodle-squat about CSS, etc.  I am willing to learn - is there a good book anyone recommends?
  2. This post on Mashable discusses how to use Pinterest to promote your blog and track your content.  I lurve Pinterest.  Must investigate.
  3. Go through the Google Reader and remove the blogs with dead URLs/updated URLs.
  4. Check prices on Photoshop (I queried the Oracle of Twitter about Photoshop vs. Elements - only Hannah answered; she was in the affirmative on PS so I will check it out).
So much for not listing too much.  Haha.  Maybe I will peep in on a mini-challenge or two, too!

Bloggiesta, ole!!

28 March 2012

New Music Obsession: Gotye

I was driving along the other day and heard a song on the radio (I don't always listen to the radio, usually I have an audiobook on my iPhone).  It was catchy, with a loping-lazy bounce and a little marimba hook.  I would have sworn it was John Mayer - not his style, but maybe he was branching out.  Nope, not him.  I did some Googling and the artist is the Belgian/Australian multi-instrumentalist Gotye.

The song?  "Somebody That I Used to Know"

I. Am. Obsessed.  It's got such a great hook and yet it's so simple in construction.  It's from his 2011 album Making Mirrors.  How did I miss it?  Buy, buy, buy!

And then Kate (via her friend Jeruen) turned me onto this:

There are five, FIVE, people around that guitar. They are Walk Off the Earth.  I will obsess over them, too.

26 March 2012

The Art of iPhoneography

Since I got my iPhone in November, and downloaded Instagram in January, I've been taking so many pictures with my iPhone.  It's always with me, and has quite a good camera, so I decided to look up a book for help/inspiration.

I'd seen Stephanie Roberts's The Art of iPhoneography floating around the store and decided to check it out.  The shape of the book is eye-catching, even though it isn't very large, and opens horizontally with the "home button" at the spine.

Stephanie is a documentary filmmaker and photographer (www.littlepurplecowphotography.com) and the focus of the book is less on the technical aspects of taking pictures with an iPhone and more about using that iPhone to look around you and capture spontaneous images.  The Art of iPhoneography is divided into major sections about the native camera, the more popular camera apps, photographers who are actively pursuing iPhoneography and samples of their work, and an inspiration section to spark your creativity.  She urges you to be present and actively see the possibilities around you.  Stephanie also urges everyone to share their work in some small way, through a blog or photo hosting site.

I thought this was a really handy guide.  Not so helpful to me with the "this is how your iPhone native camera/camera roll works" but the section of popular apps was very informational.  I only had Instagram and Hipstamatic at the beginning (and I was having trouble working out Hipstamatic) but I soon added Photoshop Express, ShakeItPhoto (love it), Photo fx, Lo-Mob, Camera Bag, Mill Colour, AutoStitch, PicGrunger (way cool), TiltShiftFocus (used it several times already), and TiltShiftGen.

Addicting, let me tell you.  I also signed-up for a Posterous account to upload my iPhone-taken and -altered pictures.  Too much fun and so time-consuming. 

I'm thinking about making my own daily photo challenge using some of the prompts from the back of the book.  Get ready for your close-up, my kitty-boys!

25 March 2012

Feline Beggars

This is the standard pose adopted by the cats when they want something. There are more cat photos coming - they are my captive subjects.

24 March 2012

The Hunger Games: On the big screen!

22 bookstore employees and assorted friends and family members.  2 rows of a movie theatre booked.  Midnight premiere.  Hmm, must be The Hunger Games.

This had to be one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I've seen in quite a long time.  Being a first-person narrative, it probably wasn't easy.  There wasn't too much exposition so the story didn't feel bogged down in trying to explain how Panem came into being or why Katniss and Gale are out hunting beyond a dead electric fence or why the citizens of the Capitol treat the Hunger Games like the World Cup soccer tournament.  The two small added scenes were quite clever and created the layer of manipulative government Katniss suspects in the book.  It was a good two hours of entertainment.

The casting for this movie is spot on.  Jennifer Lawrence owns Katniss inside and out.  Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is effortlessly charming.  President Snow (Donald Sutherland) looks sweetly paternal.  Stanley Tucci as Cesar-the-TV-personality is almost exactly like I imagined him in the book - charming, smarmy, false, and an outrageous blue bouffant.  Liam Hemsworth looks good as Gale (capable, big, strong, quiet) but doesn't have much to do so the adaptations for Catching Fire and Mockingjay (why these three movies weren't shot back-to-back since it was practically a given that The Hunger Games would make bank for Lionsgate...it out-pre-sold the last Harry Potter and Twilight movies) are more important for him.

Now, there are two drawbacks.  One (minor spoiler if you haven't read the books - and if you haven't read the books then you really ought to), I never felt Katniss and Peeta were in mortal danger at the end of the Games.  There are serious concerns about their injuries in the book but neither of them have more than a few scratches in the fight with Cato.  This doesn't provide enough of a contrast with the love angle Kaniss has to play with Peeta.  I fault the directing on that one.

As to the second drawback, this is a major fault of both the cinematographer and director.  Nearly every part of this movie was shot using shaky-cam/handheld work (exceptions are Cesar's segments which were obviously steadycam/crane/dolly shots).  The shaky camera combined with quick cuts running segments through woods with light filtering through leaves and foliage flashing past the camera added all up to one thing: motion sickness.  I don't get motion sickness - you can put me on the craziest roller coaster and I am good to go - but this really got to me (a quick poll of the group members revealed that most of us started feeling queasy during the movie).  We were sitting near the front and that probably made it worse so I would recommend sitting in the back to you have other places to look during the movie if you need the room to stop spinning.  There wasn't any need to have the shaky camera work throughout the movie.  The fast cuts were enough.

1) Movie the Movie: ??? was this for real?  or is it a spoof of a trailer??  I dunno.
2) ParaNorman - looks like Coraline, possibly might be cute
3) The Amazing Spiderman - not sure what to think; since I'm not a Spiderman afficionado I'll defer to my friends who are and they say this looks good
4) Titanic 3D - Yarf; money-making grab by Cameron and I don't get WHY they had to post convert it to 3D because it's going to look icky and dark (although, confession, even though I ding this movie for the story it has great effects and I get all choked up every time the theme music comes up)
5) The Host - the most low-rent teaser trailer ever; it's currently filming so they just put pictures representing all genders and cultural types with the "alien" ring around their pupils culminating with Saoirse Ronan...boooooorrrrrrinnnnnggggg (and the book is just Twilight with Aliens instead of Vampires, trust me I know; I read it)
6) What to Expect When You're Expecting - this does look very funny ("my kid ate a cigarette" "no judging") so I might break my rule about seeing comedies/rom-coms infested with celebrities
7) Breaking Dawn Part 2 - also a low-rent teaser; seriously, all they had ready was a shot of Bella stalking a deer?  That movie is already in the can.  Boring.

(I was disappointed in the trailers this go round - with all the super-awesome movie due out this summer this wasn't a great selection; I get that this is a "teen" movie but there are more things to pick that are shot/have better trailers)

The Reading Promise: a mini-review

The Reading Promise chronicles The Streak: the consecutive nights that Alice Ozma's father read to her from fourth grade until the day she left for college.

This is a very personal memoir, but not a very dramatic one.  As endearing as it is that Ozma's father - a children's librarian - is determined to remain a part of her life as their family breaks up, he also strikes me as being different from a number of fathers (including my own).  Although it is obvious he loves his daughter, Ozma never portrays him as affectionate which creates a sort of weird duality where he is both doting and distant.

I do like how there were no "revelations" through reading aloud for over one thousand nights: no one has an epiphany, no one is made a better person.  It is simply that reading aloud creates a coccoon of personal time for father and daughter that is meant to be savored.

23 March 2012

Gratuitous Cat Picture Friday (7): Ai! It's a alien!

I love it when Cheech Marin says that in Oliver and Company.  Appropriate here because I'm not sure exactly what Chaucer is going with the toys he is hoarding:

And then Dante was working on his nicest-kitty-ever pose (just don't look at the hairball in the corner):

15 March 2012

Mars and Venus post-alignment

Just having fun with the Instagram filters. I am actually amazed that the stars showed up at all!

Maya Rodale: The Writing Girls 1 - 3

So I came across The Tattooed Duke in our new Romance bays.  It sounded interesting...but it was also the third in Maya Rodale's Writing Girls series.  Eh, I decided to start at the beginning of the series since there were only three so far.

A Groom of One's Own opens with the wedding of Miss Sophie Harlow, a young lady in the gentry.  Except she is jilted, in the aisle of the church, when her fiancee informs her he's going to marry someone else.  Sophie flees to London to join her slightly scandalous childhood friend, Juliana, Lady Somerset.  Together, they become the first Writing Girls, writing about weddings (Sophie) and Society gossip (Juliana) for Mr. Derek Knightly at The London Weekly.

Except Sophie hates weddings now.  Develops near-panic attacks as the bride begins to walk down the aisle.  When the anxiety becomes too much for her she flees one set of nuptials and bumps into a very nice, well-mannered and considerate gentleman, Mr. Brandon.  As he escorts her home - since she's still a bit shaky - they strike up a rapport.  Imagine Sophie's horror when she is assigned to exclusively cover "The Wedding of the Year", the wedding of a double-duke to the daughter of another duke: her Mr. Brandon is the Duke of Hamilton and Brandon, engaged to Clarissa, daughter of the Duke of Richmond.  It's a dynastic marriage, uniting two great families and giving the impoverished Richmond financial support, and certainly not a love match.  It is the marriage Brandon desires because it is the proper thing to do.  It certainly isn't proper to start thinking about Sophie, desiring her, and how she makes his life better.

Now, there are some historical anachronisms (notably, female journalists really didn't exist, or at least exist publicly, in the Regency period) and the language and situational plot devices seem very modern.  But the creation of Sophie's phobia and the fact that Brandon is most definitely not the usual Regency rake (far from it) gives the tradition genre new life.  On the other hand, there is a rather unnecessary backstory mystery and a secondary love plot/character/solution that presents itself with "I WILL SOLVE THE PROBLEM" practically tattooed on his forehead.

Once Sophie's big day goes off without a hitch, Juliana steps into the spotlight in A Tale of Two Lovers.  The lovely widowed Lady Somerset is secretly the Lady of Distinction and no one knows who she is outside The London Weekly staff, not even her nemesis, The Man About Town, who writes a rival gossip column.  When Juliana spies Simon, Viscount Roxbury, having sex with an actress clad as a man, she thinks she's scored a juicy piece of gossip and uses her column to imply that the viscount is a homosexual.  The ton instantly believes this to be true even though Simon is likely the most notorious, womanizing rake in London.  The social ostracism sparks off a battle of wills between Juliana and Simon which results in more questionable, dueling newspaper columns, a cross-dressing visit to White's, a drunken serenade, a shooting, a hasty marriage, and the unmasking of The Man About Town.

A Tale of Two Lovers is a fun little read.  Juliana is stubborn, strong-willed, and completely off rakes since her husband died a notorious death involving a carriage, spirits, and a prostitute leaving her impoverished.  Simon is a bit unusual for a rake - he's at the mercy of his father's purse strings.  This novel is plotted very well - the B-plot involving the identity of The Man About Town is well inserted - and the sparring between hero and heroine makes for a good read.  The focus on homosexuality as deviant made me squirm a bit.  Even though the reaction is accurate for the period it got a bit uncomfortable after a while.

Now, there are actually four Writing Girls - the other two are Eliza, who is something like a gonzo or immersion journalist, and Charlotte, who writes an advice column.  Eliza is the heroine of The Tattooed Duke, the storyline of which caught my attention in the first place.  Sebastian Digby, the Duke of Wycliff, is a globe-trotting explorer in the vein of Captain Cook.  He's been gone from London for years.  London society is all agog to learn about his scandalous lifestyle so Eliza Fielding, known as W.G. Meadows to the readers of The London Weekly, goes undercover as a housemaid for the scoop.  Eliza has access to all the juicy gossip, including the fact that the duke is almost penniless and likely to try and marry for money.  Sebastian, on the other hand, is developing an affection for his cheeky housemaid - he even lets her see his scandalous, scandalous tattoos.  Jinkies.

I really liked the A-plot of this novel: mysterious, globe-trotting nobleman returns from who-knows-where sporting a collection of South Asian tattoos and falls in love with a reporter.  It's complicated by not one, not two, but three complicated B-plots.  The hero and heroine have a personal B-plot apiece plus there is competition for government funding.  Maybe could have used some editing.  The electronic file could have used better line editing as well: one might "console" another person, not "consol" and wear a "bauble", not a "bobble" (unless you're speaking of knitted garments and, considering the novel was set in London not the Aran Islands, I believe they were speaking of jewelry). 

There's just one Writing Girl left - Charlotte.  Despite some of my issues with each novel, they were fun to read and I'd like to see the conclusion of the series.

08 March 2012

Stephanie Laurens: The Cynster Sisters Trilogy

As mentioned previously, I read In Pursuit of Eliza Cynster then went back and started at the beginning of the Cynster series.  After a couple of days to get over the Bar Cynster, I polished off books three and one in the Cynster Sisters trilogy (Eliza's book is the second).  And I'll review them in that order since that informed my opinion of one of them.

Eliza Cynster is kidnapped at her elder sister Heather's engagement ball.  Although Eliza has been guarded due to a kidnapping attempt on Heather, the Cynster family thought she would be safe during the ball.  Although she is closely guarded, Eliza manages to make eye contact with a passing gentleman - scholar Jeremy Carling.  The two have an acquaintance and Jeremy believes the look on her face is out of character.  So he follows the getaway carriage, learns of Eliza's predicament, and follows them all the way to Edinburgh.  After a clever rescue, Jeremy and Eliza set off across Scotland with the kidnapping ringleader (but not, it seems, the mastermind) Scrope in hot pursuit. 

Although Jeremy is (what I realize now is the pattern-card for Cynster heroes) quite buff and perfect for a scholar, I liked how Eliza had a near-fatal flaw: she can't ride a horse.  This little detail added any number of diversions, back-tracks, and episodes of frustration over not being able to hire a gig/wheeled conveyance during the escape as well as providing convenient plot points where Jeremy and Eliza can engage in some pre-marital snogging.  One thing that was done well was the "introduction" of the extended Cynster family - by staying with the character "new" to the Cynster circle (Jeremy) the characters from the previous 19 or so novels can be summarized without obvious expositional time-outs.  New readers are caught up while old readers are not bored.

Given that Jeremy and Eliza appeared to witness the death of the unknown "laird" from a fall (there's some weird backstory for this laird character that doesn't make a lot of sense in book two), as The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae opens the Cynster family feels that the threat to Angelica, the youngest Cynster sister, is minimal and relax their guard.  Bold Angelica then practically orchestrates her own kidnapping.  While wearing the necklace Catriona loaned Heather, then Eliza (the provenance I understand having gone back to read Cynster #3 - it is supposed to help lead the girls to their true loves), Angelica asks for an introduction to mysterious English nobleman...who neatly kidnaps her during a party with no one the wiser.  The perpetrator soon confesses his true identity: Dominic Lachlan Guisachan, the eighth Earl of Glencrae, aka the laird who ordered the kidnappings of Heather and Eliza.  He didn't die, only landed on a ledge and messed up his knee.  Dominic needs Angelica's help to hoodwink his mother and save his clan.

Say what??

Yeah, those odd moments included in book two now make sense.  Dominic's mother is jealous of Angelica's mother.  Who was originally betrothed to Dominic's father until she eloped with Angelica's father at Gretna Green.  Dominic's father somehow kept tabs on Angelica's mother which caused Dominic's unstable mother to decide that everything that was wrong in her life (which, by all apparent standards, was comfortable and miserable only because she was nuts) is Dominic's father's fault.  So she stole an item of value that Dominic needs by a certain date to keep the clan out of penury.  She will only relinquish this item when Dominic kidnaps - therefore, compromises and disgraces - one of Angelica's mother's daughters and drags the girl up to Glencrae to be gloated over (and I totally apologize for the convoluted nature of the plot).  So Dominic makes a deal with Angelica: if she will travel to Glencrae with him, he will marry her when the ordeal is finished.

Now, there are all sorts of things in this plot that could drive me absolutely batty.  The speed at which Angelica "Stockholms" and agrees to Dominic's plot (that silly necklace is given way to much play).  The fact that Angelica is "unconventional" meaning she's a tomboy and has a brain and uses it.  The stalkerific nature of Dominic's father's scrapbooks detailing the details of his ex-fiancee's life.  The plot is beyond outer limits and crazy-pants.  And yet it all fits together to make a very readable book.  It's really my favorite of all the Cynster novels I've read so far.  One thing I really have to commend Laurens for is giving Angelica a rather modern and practical outlook on sex: she intiates it, participates in it eagerly, and gives Dominic a run for his money in the struggle for who gets to wear the pants in the relationship (yeah, yeah, the first night is still the best-est, most orgasmic first night you could ever possibly ask for but you can't get everything you want sometimes).  And I just have to mention the cover of this book - one of the loveliest covers, the colors are so lush.

The fact that I liked Angelica's book so much made me set the bar way too high for Heather's book, Viscount Breckenridge to the Rescue.  Bored Heather, tired of the usual round of "safe" parties for ton misses because that hasn't bagged her an appropriate Cynster-worthy husband yet, attends a dubious party of the demimonde where she crosses swords with her bete noir Timothy Danvers, Viscount Breckenridge.  When Heather stomps out of the party, Timothy witnesses her kidnapping - he immediately pursues the fleeing coach as it travels north to...Gretna Green?  Although Heather could have easily escaped with Timothy before they reached the infamous Scottish border town she refuses to do so because she suspects her sisters might also be in danger (which they are, but still - worst. plan. ever.).  When Timothy finally manages to break her out of the rooming house they hotfoot it a relatively short distance to the Vale of Casphairn (followed discreetly by a man/laird who seems to be the mastermind of the whole plot).

Now, this is where the book really started to lose me.  Heather and Timothy are attracted to one another but are given these ridiculous egos that constantly get in the way of true love.  When Heather consults Catriona she loans Heather the necklace on condition she pass it to Eliza then Angelica, Henrietta, and Mary in turn once each has found her hero (which makes me wonder what Laurens has in store for the two cousins).  Through the machinations of the Sight, Timothy is accidentally gored by a bull and nearly dies...which is way too much like Richard's nasty run-in with wolfsbane potion.  It is unfortunate, but this section of the book dithered around so much I was tempted to stop reading.  I think I would have liked it more had I not read Angelica's book which was better plotted (and flipped the bad guy over into the hero category).

Time to take another Cynster break but I'll make it through the rest of the series, not to worry!

06 March 2012

The Western Lit Survival Kit: mini-review

I really enjoyed Read This Next so I was looking forward to The Western Lit Survival Kit.

Sandra Newman snarks her way through literature, from the Ancient Greeks to the Modernists.  I enjoyed it greatly.  She name-checks I Spit on Your Grave when discussing Medea.  She calls Ezra pound on the floor:

Nowadays we would say that Ezra Pound had a personality disorder, which is what modern physicians have come up with to avoid saying the patient's an asshole.
(p 255)

I've read probably 80% of the books referenced in this guide.  So I can compare my thoughts to Newman's. I thought it was funny.

On the flip-side, if you haven't read a good portion of the Western literary canon you might have some trouble with The Western Lit Survival Kit.  The snark occasionally makes some books seem unreadable (cf. Medea) if you're just getting into reading classics.  If that's the case, read Beowulf on the Beach.  If you've read BotB and assorted books recommended therein, then give this one a shot.

04 March 2012

Stephanie Laurens: The Bar Cynster (plus one)

I picked up In Pursuit of Eliza Cynster the other week, read it, and liked it (review to come later).  But it's something like the 18th book in the Cynster series and 2nd in the Cynster Sisters Trilogy.

The mind boggles - I was interested in seeing how the whole thing started.

Which is with Devil and Honoria in Devil's Bride.  Miss Honoria Anstruther-Wetherby is a finishing governess just starting with a new family when she comes across an injured man in the forest.  He's been shot.  They are soon joined by a black-haired, green-eyed tyrant who immediately takes charge of the situation.  Due to an impending storm the stranger finds them all shelter at a nearby woodsman's hut.  At the height of the storm, the injured man - Tolly - dies of his wound.  In the morning, they are all discovered and the identity of the mysterious stranger is revealed: Sylvester Sebastian Cynster, sixth Duke of St. Ives, and known throughout the ton as Devil.  Honoria is also Compromised-with-a-Capital-C.  Because she has nightmares during storms she winds up looking rumpled, Devil is bare-chested because his shirt was used as a bandage, and, given his reputation as a rake, her virtue is now worth doodle-squat.  Devil has no problem introducing her as his fiancee - he's wanted her since about five seconds after they met - but Honoria has no intention of giving up her dreams of exploring interior Africa.

While the insta-love/lust plot is always a bit out there, the characters really make this book.  Honoria isn't just a mere governess but an heiress with a penchant for unconvenionality.  Devil, and five of his male cousins, make up the Bar Cynster - a group of known rakish bachelors who, although known to cut a swath through the lonely married or widowed ladies of the ton, defend their female family members (sisters, mothers, and eventually wives) with singular tenacity.  Devil's mother, Helena, is a delightfully frank French ton matriarch.  Over the course of this opening novel, Stephanie Laurens sets the stage for her sprawling family of prowling males and lovely young ladies.  As Devil and Honoria fall in love and learn to deal with each others' idiosyncracies, they also solve the mystery of Tolly's murder.

Vane - christened Spencer, but called Vane since he always knows which way the wind is blowing - is determined not to succumb to the dreaded disease of love.  As Devil obviously has.  So Vane makes A Rake's Vow (ha! see what I did there) to continue in his footloose ways.  Due to the weather he winds up paying an unexpected visit to his godmother, Minnie.  Strange things have been happening at Minnie's country house: things are going missing and the Spectre has been spotting roaming the grounds at night.  Vane stays to investigate and immediately gets entangled with Miss Patience Debbington.  Patience is Minnie's niece and she has no time for "elegant gentlemen" - her mother died of a broken heart because her rakish father failed to love in return and Patience wants no part of that.

The story of Vane and Patience and how they unravel the mystery of Bellamy Hall makes for a good read.  The collection of nutty hangers-on at Minnie's house gives off the air of an Agatha Christie house party.  There's a companion, Patience's brother, a family friend with her two children, a poet, a middle-aged lady who tats constantly, and an odd brother and sister researching the origins of Bellamy Hall.  Patience and Vane have a rather sweet romance that comes about when Vane realizes he will never escape Devil's fate.

Richard (Scandal - for some reason his nickname doesn't stick as well as the others' have), meanwhile, has been summoned to Scotland for the reading of a will.  Although he is Devil's brother, Helena isn't his mother, and the will being read belongs to his late mother's Highlander husband.  He is bequeathed his mother's necklace, a curious piece that immediately catches the eye of another guest present, Miss Catriona Hennessy, the Lady of the Vale.  Catriona is present because the deceased was her guardian - and she is now informed that, if she doesn't marry Richard in a week, her guardian's family will be disinherited and the wealth given to the Church.  Catriona is, understandably, pissed off.  She tries to worm her way out of the demand but when she consults The Lady, the inevitable must occur if he is to father the children forseen by The Lady: Richard and Catriona marry before leaving for the Vale of Casphairn (making her Scandal's Bride).  The most interesting aspect of this book is the focus on the pre-Christian mystical aspects of Catriona's "Sight" and how the Vale passes from mother to daughter.  It's a nice contrast to the concentration on primogeniture elsewhere in Britain. 

Demon (Harry) has promised his mother that he won't marry by special license, unlike his elder brother Vane.  He had no trouble making the promise because he's determined to never marry.  Now where have we heard that before?  Demon holes up at his stud farm in Newmarket - he is a genius when it comes to breeding horses - to avoid the matchmaking mamas of the ton.  While watching the grooms excercise his racing stock Demon spies an oddly familiar groom.  The slight boy turns out to be Miss Felicity Parteger aka Flick, the niece of a good friend, and she's soon forced to let Demon in on a secret: her dimwitted cousin is in hiding due to getting mixed up in a race-fixing scheme.  The two begin to investigate the syndicate together and wind up in all sorts of compromising situations (including the Point-of-No-Return-for-a-bachelor-and-a-young-lady) before finally (finally) sorting everything out.  Laurens works horses into nearly every conversation in a way that is rather endearing and a conversation between Flick and Lady Osbaldestone (who is the Dowager Duchess of Dovedale-type character in this series) illuminates the peculiar "rules" regarding courtship between a more experienced gentleman of thirty and a young miss of only twenty.  Which are boring and cause nothing but trouble for about thirty boring pages.  The title is A Rogue's Proposal which I wasn't able to work into the review.  Sad but true.

There are only two members of the Bar Cynster left and Gabriel (Rupert) is determined to remain unattached.  Which is why he's lurking on the steps of St. George's Hanover Square in the small hours of the morning in the hopes of meeting a mysterious Countess.  She needs help - her late husband has signed a suspicious purchase of shares in an unheard of mining company in South Africa and if the note is called in the family will be beyond destitute.  Gabriel agrees to help her in any way he can - and seduce her along the way.  Lady Alathea Morwellan, confirmed spinster, has no idea Gabriel intends to seduce her.  The two have been at odds since their teens when childhood familiarity gave way to adolescent awkwardness.  Alathea invented the Countess to get Gabriel's attention but the disguise is hard to drop even when lust threatens to get them in trouble; she's always had A Secret Love (hehe) for Gabriel.  When Gabriel unmasks the Countess, he is understandably angry for about 12 hours (mostly because he feels taken advantage of) but he returns to help Alathea sort out the Morwellan's financial troubles.  The backstory of childhood friends/sweethearts changes-up the relationship and lends the idea that one's best friend is also likely to be one's best life partner.  The mystery is good, too.

And then there was one.  Lucifer (Alasdair) leaves directly for Devon after his brother's wedding.  He does not want to learn All About Love so he's off to visit a fellow collector, Horatio, who has enticed him down with reports of a mysterious find.  Unfortunately, Lucifer arrives to find Horatio deceased - stabbed in the chest and dead only minutes.  Before he can summon help Lucifer is accidentally knocked unconsious by Miss Phyllida Tallent, who is lurking in the house for a mysterious reason of her own.  Once it's clear Lucifer didn't kill Horatio, the book gets down to the business of small town village life, finding the mysterious item that excited Horatio, and unmasking Horatio's murderer.  While I found the ultimate motivation of the murderer to be vague (aside from sociopathic tendencies), I really liked the development of Lucifer and Phyllida's relationship.  Horatio's books also made the bibliophile in me happy.

Laurens throws in a last-minute Cynster: Gyles Rawlings, the Earl of Chillingworth.  He's appeared in nearly all six previous books as a foil to the Bar Cynster.  He's just like them, so was used to spark jealousy on occasion, and is elected an honorary Cynster for services to the dukedom (he helped sort out Tolly's murderer and assisted in Alathea's rescue).  And he gets his own book - All About Passion - in which he sets out to have a perfectly boring, arranged, and altogether passionless marriage by arranging to marry Miss Francesca Rawlings, a distant cousin whose dowry includes the land that completes that of his estate.  All he wants is an heir so he needs a quiet, pliant wife.  A chance meeting during the marriage negotiations leads him to think he chosen bride is Franni, quiet, blond, and sweet.  Certainly not the black-haired hellion who sets his blood on fire.  But this is a romance novel so, guess what?  His bride is the half-Italian, passionate woman he desires...and it scares the hell out of him. 

There were a number of interesting scenes in this book - the progress through the estate village, the plum-picking scene, the Harvest Festival - that painted a lovely picture of rural Regency Britain.  The bedroom scenes were ridiculously hot and there may have been more in this book that in any of the others.  All About Passion loses points, however, by borrowing part of the mystery plot from Devil's Bride.

So that's the first seven Cynsters.  I'm having trouble telling the heroes apart so I think I'll take a bit of a break.

01 March 2012

The Madison Sisters Trilogy

Well, Lynsay Sands may have just lost me as a reader.  I read The Countess and The Heiress back in November when I was working my way through her historicals.  Both are quick reads and overlap - once you've read The Countess, parts of The Heiress are a bit boring (you get the scenes-that-you-only-saw-the-tail-end-of-in-book-1).

But they are funny books.  The scenes where the the sisters are trying to conceal the death of Christiana's husband (who turns out to not quite be her husband in name because he's actually the evil twin brother...it makes sense in the book) followed by the attempts of Richard and Daniel to hide the dead body are hilarious.  Lots of opportunity for slapstick.

Sands also set up a good mystery - the three girls all have substantial inheritances, kept secret because the money would not become theirs until marriage.  Well, an unsavory character discovered the secret and that's what drives Christana's marriage to the fake-Richard followed by an attempt to trick Suzette into a hasty marriage (even though Daniel has already agreed to marry her).  (Note to self: never gamble with sketchy characters by yourself in London....the girls' father got drugged, gambled away most of the estate, and the bad dudes who want to marry the sisters are the holders of the vowels.)

So that's two books.  They were entertaining for a couple hours.  They made me laugh.  So I went ahead and pre-ordered the third book, The Husband Hunt, for my nook.  I felt like I ought to read Lisa's story given that I'd read the first two and, considering that her book is set a few years later, it wouldn't re-tread the same ground as the first two. In this one, Lisa - having crushed on the family neighbor for most of her life - is determined to marry him but for Robert's part, his parents having a spectacularly bad marriage, he's definitely gun-shy regarding getting hitched.

Oh, dear.  I was so, so wrong.  I hated this book, really, truly hated it.  It reminds me of all the reasons why I stopped reading romance novels in the first place: a heroine that is too stupid to live.  I would have DNF'd this book and returned it after 40 pages but I bought it on my nook...no returns possible.  So I finished it.  For lack of any other coherent thought about his book, here's the bulk of my Goodreads review (and spoilers will abound, so you're warned if you want to read this):

Things (the major ones) that rubbed me wrong:
1) Lisa (and the maid) not knowing that Mrs. Morgan (whom Lisa met in the village near her brother-in-law's house) doesn't have a respectable London address or noticing that something truly "hinky" was going on when they got there.  The ton ALWAYS knows where the better parts of London are and if they don't know the servants certainly do.
2) Lisa developing a strange attachment to the see-through lingerie she's forced into at the brothel after being essentially Roofied and almost raped. She wears it for Robert later...WTF?
3) Bad dude can be seen coming nearly a mile away. Lisa has two brothers-in-law who seem well-placed to investigate the man yet they seem to know nothing. (And considering that the bad guys in the previous two books admitted there was a plot to marry and then kill all three sisters for their money...that problem seems to have been entirely forgotten....gah)
4) Christiana and Suzette (the three girls in this family have almost laughable names) dress up as prostitutes to enter a house with a BDSM basement and distract servants used to abusing women...worst. plan. ever.
5) Lisa gets kidnapped/attempted kidnapped five times in this book. You'd think she'd learn about running off on her own to strange addresses....
6) Worst foreshadowing ever: the window in Lisa's room has a lock that doesn't work right...and how does the villain enter the house later? dum, dum, daaaaahhhh

Additionally, Robert's issues with marriage have to be the weakest arguements ever.  EVER.  His two friends obviously have good marriages so the comparison with his parents' is ridiculous.

I understand that romance novels require some suspension of disbelief to make the plots work sometimes.  Someone has to have a misunderstanding, or the note gets misplaced, or a long-standing grudge comes to an almost laughably easy resolution...but wow, I didn't expect the plotting and characters of The Husband Hunt to be this dense.  I'm definitely thinking twice about buying any new Sands historicals.  Definitely a case of read-first, buy-if-liked.