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Originally published at Jean Marie Ward. You can comment here or there.

Modern Fae Cover for "On the Shelves"

While I’ve been groveling–er, adjusting to The New Management, things have been popping on the news front. Hellebore and Rue has been named as a Goldie Award Finalist in Speculative Fiction, along with a collaboration between our editor Joselle Vanderhooft and Hellebore and Rue contributor and publisher Steve Berman. Which makes it a great time to plug Joselle’s freelance editorial services and fellow Hellebore editor Catherine Lundoff’s fiction and editorial projects. Speaking of Hellebore & Rue and Catherine, they’re both up for Lesbian Fiction Reader’s Choice Awards. Vote early and often.

Meanwhile, the world has been showing review love for The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity. The first is from Night Owl Sci-Fi, which mentions my story “Fixed” along side Elizabeth Bear’s, Anton Strout’s and April Steenburgh’s. (You should see my grin.) The second is from Janicu’s Book Blog on Live Journal, which gives you a little taste of every story in the collection. Obviously it’s time to update my review links. :-)

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ISBN-13: 978-0373296149
Book Source: Net Galley

Disguised as a young man and fleeing from an arranged marriage to her brother’s murderer, Chinese noblewoman Ai Li takes pity on a starving barbarian (i.e., European) mercenary at a roadside tavern and offers him her rice bowl. Under no illusions as to her gender, Ryam is overwhelmed by her beauty and her kindness to a bai gui, (“white devil”). When he discovers the rice is drugged, he rushes to warn her. He finds her beset by bandits. Ai Li is a skilled practitioner of the double sword technique known as “butterfly swords”, but alone she’s no match for a dozen armed men. Despite the effects of the drugged rice, Ryam’s brute strength is enough to tip the scales in her favor, and they escape together.

Impressed, Ai Li enlists his aid. She’s determined to tell her family about her betrothed’s treachery, and she needs an ally she can trust if she’s going to make it alive to their home in Chang-An, the capital of Tang Empire. But there’s more to the matter than Ai Li admits—deep secrets, hidden agendas, and a growing attraction that could get them both killed.

I really wanted to love this book. I long to read romances set someplace other than North America and the British Isles. A romance set in Tang China—a time of unparalleled artistic achievement and innovation, peopled with outrageous characters like Wu Zetian, the only Chinese empress to reign in her own right—how could it fail? Butterfly Swords gives you a taste of the culture and opulence of the period. But every time the setting threatens to sweep you away, the romance yanks you up short.

Yes, I know Butterfly Swords is a romance. Even if it hadn’t said so on the cover, I could tell from the way the hero is far more interested in the heroine’s feminine charms than her rice bowl after he hadn’t eaten in days. If that failed to clue me in, I’d know from the way Ai Li revels in his “masculine scent” (translation: several weeks’ worth of unwashed sweat), from the big sex scene which occurs exactly two-thirds of the way through the book, and the subsequent eighty pages of dithering up to the “dark moment”. Then there’s the heroine’s miraculous ability to perform her sword forms less than a week after breaking her ankle and walking on it for miles, and the hero’s equally miraculous ability to fight drugged and perform drunk. For all its luscious Silk Road window dressing, Butterfly Swords reads exactly like every “Reluctant Bride” medieval romance of the past twenty years.

I also realize romance, like all genre fiction, must follow certain rules above and beyond the HEA—a basic structure and sense of pacing that defines it, comparable to the armature of a statue or the wooden frame on which a painter stretched his or her canvas. But just because I know the structure is there, doesn’t mean I want to see it, anymore than I want to taste the flour and baking soda in a chocolate cake. It’s a mark of a novice.

In Ms. Lin’s defense, she is a novice. Butterfly Swords, a 2009 Golden Heart Award-winning manuscript, is her first published book. This argues the clichés I find so irritating may be the very qualities its editor and other reviewers found attractive—a counterbalance to its “risky” setting. With that in mind, I hope Butterfly Swords succeeds in spite of my misgivings. It may be the only way to convince major publishers to take a chance on unusual settings and multi-cultural characters…and to give Ms. Lin the chance to grow as a storyteller. Critical grousing aside, anyone with guts enough to defy romance conventions and let all the men see through her heroine’s disguise has my vote. The writing, too, shows a lot of promise, and after all, even Nora Roberts wasn’t built in a day.

Verdict: One thumb up, with hope for future books.
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ISBN-13: 978-0778328506
Book Source: Net Galley

Lady Miranda Rohan committed Society’s ultimate crime. After allowing herself to be abducted and deflowered by a fortune hunter, she neither married him nor pined away in decent obscurity. Instead, she adapted to her new life and thrived…except for an occasional spot of boredom. Unfortunately, boredom is a Rohan’s Achilles heel. It’s only a matter of time before her risk-taking nature reasserts itself, playing into the schemes of Lucien de Malheur, the notorious Earl of Rochdale.

Lucien isn’t called the Scorpion simply because he used to keep one as a pet. He’s almost a caricature of Ms. Stuart’s trademark Scorpio heroes: literally scarred and twisted, the light inherent in his name all but extinguished by his experiences. Seeking a cruel poetic justice for his dead half-sister, he will stop at nothing to achieve his vengeance against the Rohans, including relative innocents like Miranda.

As we discover in his first scene, Lucien was the true, if hidden, architect of her ruin. I could accept that. What I found difficult to swallow was the scenario he devised, one which couldn’t help but lead to the 19th century equivalent of date rape. At some level, a man as intelligent as Lucien must’ve known and accepted this outcome. Turning a man capable of that into hero material presents an almost insuperable challenge. Ms. Stuart just about pulls it off.

With the story of Lucien and Miranda, she returns to her favorite theme: the redemption of the not-quite-damned. Lucien excels at mind sex, seducing by the force of his personality and playing on the sunny Miranda’s inevitable curiosity about his shadow life. He claims she wants him to play her Caliban, but he takes his cues from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Not to mention Hades. Ruthless, the first book in the House of Rohan series, teased the reader with allusions to the abduction of Persephone. Here we see the myth played out, minus the crazy mother-in-law as Deus ex Machina. Miranda-as-Persephone is more than a match for her Dark Lord, especially given her Shakespearean skill set. I loved, loved, loved the strategy she used to wear him down—and the insight Ms. Stuart gives into its cost. The banter and smashing climax (Of the plot! Geez, some people—you know Ms. Stuart always delivers more than one of those) provide everything a fan could ask.

But a part of me still hesitates. It’s one thing to say fiction need only answer to itself and the truth of its characters. It’s quite another to accept it when a hero’s truth contradicts a deep-seated conviction. Heroes don’t hurt heroines, even by proxy. My daddy taught me that, and my mamma reinforced it by teaching me Frying Pan Kung Fu a very early age. It’s to Ms. Stuart’s credit that I enjoyed this book so much in spite of it.

Verdict: Two thumbs up for the writing, but with reservations.
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ISBN: 978-0778328209

Source: Net Galley

One thing must be said about large families: they don’t let you get bored. Lady Julia and her favorite husband, enquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane, were closing in on eight months of honeymoon when her siblings Portia and Plum cornered them in Shepheard’s Hotel in old Cairo.

Portia’s former lover Jane unexpectedly found herself widowed on the brink of becoming a mother. The disposition of her late husband’s estate (a tea plantation outside of Darjeeling, India) depends on the gender of Jane’s unborn child, and based on hints in Jane’s letters, Portia suspects Jane’s husband was murdered. Jane or, worse yet, her child could be next. Portia convinces Lady Julia and her somewhat reluctant husband to accompany her and Plum (Portia’s chaperone—the Lady Julia Grey mysteries revel in their late 19th century setting, after all) to the estate.

The trip is arduous, complicated by family peccadilloes and newlywed strife. The marriage of two personalities as decisive as Nicholas and Lady Julia is guaranteed to be volatile, which is exactly how Ms. Raybourn’s fans want it. Romantic mystery series don’t survive on their sleuth’s deductive prowess. They thrive on tension and conflict, ideally sizzling between the principals at all times in all places—the more exotic the better.

And what could be more exotic than the zenith of the British Raj? There is a full measure of deceit, skullduggery and death awaiting our intrepid aristocrats at the tea plantation known as The Peacocks. But that’s only part of the novel’s allure. Like Elizabeth Peters’ classic Amelia Peabody mysteries, Ms. Rayburn’s lush prose invites readers to become tourists of the mind, exploring some of the most evocative locales in history through the fictional experiences of her likeable, passionate and privileged protagonists. The fact that those experiences resonate in the reality beyond the covers of Ms. Peters’ and Ms. Raybourn’s books is a credit to their skill and in no way diminishes their value as entertainment and escape.

Although the fourth in the series, Dark Road to Darjeeling works well as a standalone mystery. In fact, the relatively small number of family members in the cast may make it easier for new readers than earlier volumes in the Lady Julia Grey series. Ms. Raybourn’s sly, sexy wit shimmers through the pages, and the story is punctuated with the historical equivalent of Easter eggs. Chances are you won’t catch all of them. I know I didn’t. Fortunately, they’re too subtle to qualify as in-jokes, and missing them in no way detracts from the reading experience. But the pop of recognition when you catch one makes it doubly gratifying, like Ms. Raybourn’s tip of the hat to one of the most famous rooms in America. I’ve always loved that room, and I can’t think of a better setting for characters I adore.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.
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ISBN-13: 978-0778328490
Source: Net Galley

Miss Charlotte Spencer wants to become a woman of the world without experiencing the messy situations the condition normally entails. But nothing works quite the way she planned. She can’t even curse properly—except when she stumbles blindly into her secret crush, Adrian Rohan, cub of the devilish Marquess of Haverstoke (hero of Ruthless, the first volume in Anne Stuart’s House of Rohan series).

Fortunately for Charlotte, contrariness is bred to the Rohans’ bones. Being too tall, too strong-minded and too original for Society’s taste merely adds to Charlotte allure. Far from viewing her as an “antidote” in the sense of 19th century slant—an unattractive spinster firmly on the shelf—Adrian sees her as the true antidote to his growing boredom with the rakish life style. He fights the impulse to claim her, ably assisted by his suave older cousin, the Comte de Giverney. But when Charlotte’s quest for second-hand sensation takes her into one of the unsafe areas of a Heavenly Host orgy, Adrian rushes to her rescue. Sort of. Let’s just say Charlotte’s in for an education of the most sensual kind.

Like all of Ms. Stuart’s heroes, Adrian qualifies as mad, bad and dangerous to know—though not necessarily for the reason you might suspect. He does debauchery with the best (or worst) of them. He’s beautiful, demanding, sarcastic and high-handed. But he isn’t an all-out rotter. He can’t be. Ms. Stuart doesn’t cheat on her previous books’ endings. His father, the marquess, earned his happily ever after, and Ms. Stuart follows the HEA to its inevitable conclusion: a happy, stable home life for his children. This smoothes Adrian’s hard edges and changes the central romantic question from “Will he give in?” to “Will she?” Most of the obstacles arise from Charlotte’s actions and choices, which helps distinguish this entry from books one and three of the House of Rohan entries.

As does the theme. Most of Ms. Stuart’s books revolve around the themes of predation and redemption. Here the story hinges on the characters’ sense of duty, most often expressed in protectiveness. The admirable characters rush to each other’s rescue, heedless of image or their own self-interest, and invariably wind up butting heads as a result. It’s a wickedly devious plot device, complicating their lives far more effectively than any villain ever could.

Which isn’t to say Reckless fails to deliver ample servings of the tension, wit, lush writing and, yes, sex Ms. Stuart’s fans expect and crave. There’s danger, a high-tension secondary romance and a charmingly roguish matchmaker. Recurring characters, suitably adjusted for their respective experiences, play out the roles sketched for them in Ruthless, but as with Devil’s Cub (Georgette Heyer’s romance about the son of a notorious rake and a cit’s daughter) you don’t need to have read the first book in the series to enjoy the second.

Or, in the case of this trilogy, eagerly anticipate the third.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.
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ISBN-13: 978-0778328483
Source: Purchased

Yes, it’s true. I’ve succumbed to the siren lure of Net Galley, which means I’m back in the reviewing business—at least for books I actually want to read.

And I always want to read Anne Stuart. Even when I rage at her for forgetting to describe a major character (not a problem in Ruthless) or the vagaries of her copyeditor (ALWAYS a problem), I would read her grocery lists if somebody let me.

Fortunately for you, they only let me read her books. Ruthless (which I bought in anticipation of reviewing the other books in the series) ranks as a vintage Stuart historical.

Impoverished 18th century gentlewoman Elinor Harriman storms the gates of hell—aka, the country estate of dissolute but dangerously gorgeous Viscount Rohan, leader of a Paris-based version of the Hellfire Club known as the Heavenly Host—to prevent her demented syphilitic mother from gambling away their little family’s last centime. Elinor fails, but something about her interesting (if not conventionally beautiful) looks, her vulnerable pride and tart tongue piques Rohan’s “curiosity”. He thinks his jaded appetites have finally up with him. Any dedicated Stuart reader (heck, any romance reader) knows better.

Along the way to the happy ending (for crying out loud, the book’s labeled romance; it’s absolutely no spoiler to say there’s a happy ending), the reader finds finger-sizzling sexual tension, beaucoup witty dialogue, a murderous villain, and a darling secondary romance.

Rohan slinks. Stuart, like Georgette Heyer, possesses the enviable ability to create truly feline heroes—predatory, lethal, graceful, beautiful, image-obsessed men who somehow remain entirely masculine. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s damn near impossible. My forebrain, trained in the ways of masculinity by my career Army father and years of working with warriors of every stripe, laughs at the very notion. Yet Stuart and Heyer always manage to slide past my preconceptions, usually by letting the hero’s act slip just a little and following up with the one-two punch of a killer back story.

Ruthless doesn’t explode any preconceived notions of Stuart’s style or her favorite plot devices. I knew who the hidden bad guy was at the second assault. But I didn’t hate the characters for failing to keep up, because they either lacked the necessary background or were, um, otherwise engaged at the moment. Stuart writes too smart for that.

She writes beautifully, too, and when I wasn’t wishing I could’ve given the manuscript one final proofing, her words and emotions propelled me through the pages. Lifting this book to a higher level were Stuart’s playful allusions to Heyer, specifically Heyer’s These Old Shades and Faro’s Daughter (one of this redhead’s very favorite books ever). Meanwhile she rings the changes on the Persephone myth with a variation as juicy as the pomegranate seeds that spelled Persephone’s doom.

Or her salvation. That’s the beauty of Stuart’s tales of dangerous men. She never breaks them. Over the course of the novel, her hero and her heroine grow into a delicious accommodation which ultimately respects both parties—something my forebrain loves as much as good writing, and that’s saying a lot.

Now to dive into the next two books of the House of Rohan series, Reckless and Breathless. Like I said, Net Galley has a lot to answer for.

Verdict: Two thumbs up.
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People are still reading With Nine You Get Vanyr and enjoying it!  Go us! 
[personal profile] gwynraven  was kind enough to review Vanyr in her blog yesterday.  I've enjoyed and appreciated all the reviews for Vanyr, including the not-so-great ones.  gwynraven's was wonderful, but better than that, gwynraven is a fan.  For Teri and me, Vanyr was one big love letter to fandom, and it's indescribably splendid to know the book gave at least one fan a really good time.
Aside from doing the happy dance about the review, I've been deep in the writing cave ever since Capclave.  I had a good time at the con, but bad person that I am, I haven't formatted my photos yet.  Another item for the pre-World Fantasy Con to do list, which is getting longer by the minute.  But what else is new?
Well, the fact I may actually get to moderate a panel at World Fantasy.  It looks like a really good one too.  I'll post the details as soon as the schedule is confirmed.
Last but certainly not least, the spouse person reengineered his web site to work better on Word Press.  You can see the new version of
Hail Dubyus
by clicking on the link.  Go Greg!
Cheers and smiles,
Jean Marie
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The only reason I won't be buying Jeri Smith-Ready's (aka [profile] jer_bear711) new book Wicked Game at my local Borders today is because I was one of the folks lucky enough to buy it at RavenCon a couple weeks ago.  Which means I've already read it (aka devoured it in one sitting).  Which means I can honestly tell you to run out and buy it, because it's a fabulous book.  
Yes, the book has vampires.  (Hawt vamps, even.)  Yes it has romance.  But it takes both in directions you've never seen before.  The heroine, Ciara, is a con woman trying to go straight by helping a group of vampire DJs keep their station from being gobbled by a homogenizing radio conglomerate.  (Can you say Clear Channel?  Jeri didn't, but that's what it reminded me of.)
The vamps were turned at the transformative moments of 20th century music--the delta blues of the Twenties, the rockabilly of the Fifties, the psychedelic Sixties, the reggae of the Seventies, the Eighties' goth and alternative scene, and the grunge Nineties.  But they're stuck there.  Jeri modernizes the old Eastern European tradition that a vampire can't cross a threshold which has been scattered with grain.  According to the tradition, the vampire will be forced to count each grain and will be trapped until sunrise.  In Jeri's hands this translates to OCD vamps, and it works beautifully.  
Just about everything in the book works beautifully--plot, characterization, language.  My only gripe is how long it will take before book two is ready to roll.  But Jeri's trying to mitigate the pain.  Over the next twelve months, Jeri will be posting the turning stories of each of her vamps on her site.  I'm looking forward to them all.
But I really want to read what happens next.
Cheers and smiles,
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[profile] gidget83 's review of Vanyr in My Boyfriends Live In Romance Novels took me completely by surprise--in a good way.  Folks are still discovering the book.  Wow!  Cheers and happy dances, Jean Marie
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 Pan's Labyrinth just reminded me of all the reasons I loathe Hans Christian Anderson.  
Real fairy tales exist to show the rewards of grit and resourcefulness, and the consequences of wickedness.  All sacrifice has a purpose, and virtue is rewarded in this life, because face it, we have no guarantee of any other.
Sure it's fantasy.  But it's empowering fantasy.  All so-called "fairy tales for grown-ups" do is remind you this life is screwed, and anything you try to do to make it better will only make it worse.  Which, thankfully, is not always the case.
I so didn't need to see this exquisitely realized gloom fest before bedtime.  Its internal inconsistencies are pissing me off too.  I know bleeding chunks (emphasis on the bleeding) were left on the cutting room.  Otherwise some of the characters' actions make no sense.  I can even guess the contents of the deleted scenes.  (Steam.Steam.Steam.)
Nope, I'm not mad at writer/director Guillermo del Toro.  He's entitled to his vision, and give the man his props, he realized it exceedingly well.  But I think all the critics who gushed over the damn thing without letting audiences know what kind of experience they were in for should be handed over to Captain Vidal and his trusty hammer for a good, old-fashioned question and answer session.
Snarls and kisses,
Jean Marie
(Off to find something meaningful to look at...like the original King Kong.)
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All right, who's having the attack of hysterics in the nosebleed seats?  Do you have any idea how hard it's going to be to get the medics up there?  They'll have to carry their own oxygen.
Oh well.  Ahem.  As I was saying...
Like any good Virgo, I track my Amazon and B&N sales on Publishers Marketplace.  It's not an absolute indicator of how well With Nine You Get Vanyr is doing, but it helps me gauge the effectiveness of individual online ads, the impact of con appearances, etc.
At the end of July, I noticed a bump in Amazon sales rankings extending from the 25th through August 2.  I was pleased but stumped.  I hadn't taken out any new ads.  My name had fretted its hour on the DragonCon front page and been replaced by newer additions to the schedule.  Could word of mouth have finally started a buzz?
Sort of.
Today while trolling for reviews for the first time since May, I came across a very entertaining notice in Raph Koster's Book Review-o-Rama.  Raph was kind enough to review Vanyr, even though he hated it.  He called it a Mary Sue "trainwreck" (sic).  Bless his heart.
Seriously.  This is a classic example of the old marketing axiom: There's not such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right.  It also demonstrates the only thing nearly as powerful as a great review is a terrible one.  People will drive ten miles out of their way to look at a train wreck.
The numbers line up.  Raph posted the review on July 21.  Allow a couple of days for people to get past the weekend and finish whatever they had been reading, and suddenly my Amazon rankings are almost as good as they were the month Vanyr was reviewed in Romantic Times BOOKreviews.  The only bad part is Koster probably won't believe my thank you note is sincere.
Much better for the ego, if not for the pocketbook was the notice I found on the website of the New England Science Fiction Association.  NESFA maintains a catalogue of "recursive science fiction".  Don't know what that is?  Neither did I until I read the helpful explanation.  The short version is a work of fiction which refers to science fiction or fantasy fandom, or pointedly to another work of science fiction or fantasy literature, cinema, television or related media.
WooHoo!  Vanyr belongs to a recognized sub-genre and is included in its catalogue--without any effort on my part.  The book's in good company, too, amid works by people like Mercedes Lackey, Fritz Leiber, Sharyn McCrumb, Fred Saberhagen, James Tiptree and Roger Zelazny in a catalogue of over 950 works.  I didn't notice [profile] acheronp's DragonCon story, though.  Will have have to bring it to NESFA's attention by way of a thank you.  
Speaking of DragonCon, I'm going (as if there was any doubt) and I'm going to be a very busy girl.  So far, I know about six panels in two tracks (SF/Fantasy Literature and Matters of the Force/Star Wars), but apparently there will be more.  (Big hugs and smoochies to [personal profile] vampry, Cathy and Nancy.) Will post the schedule as soon as I know what it looks like.  Hope to see some of the usual suspects there.
Hugs and smiles,
Jean Marie

 

 

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I won’t pretend I’m the mildest of women. I’m not. But I do tend to bend over backwards to give writers, editors, choreographers and movie makers the benefit of the doubt. I almost never write a bad review for the simple reasons that 1) it never makes me feel any better about wasting my time on the item to begin with, and 2) there is no such thing as bad publicity as long as you spell the perp’s name right.
But sometimes, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do. And this girl’s gotta trash Peter Jackson’s misbegotten KING KONG.

Rant and possible spoilers behind the cut )

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Jean Marie Ward

May 2017

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