Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Appearances Can Be Deceiving

A Berenstain Bears children's book taught me the exact phrase of the title and it is amazing how often it comes up. You might wonder what this has to do with Dream Mountain by Gena Hale and the answer is a lot.

I'm not going to do a full review, but here's what I'll say. The things I enjoyed as well as the issues I had with Paradise Island continued in the sequel. To me, there were too many POV characters, too much plot and the romance came in too late, at page 126 of 248. That said, the characters were appealing, the romance, once it started, was strong and the story another rough and tumble intrigue with twists and tangles enough to please practically anyone. I suspect the third book will be much the same balance when I read it.

Now on to the title of this piece which is not actually a review, but a stray thought finally. I'm using Dream Mountain as an example, but remember that this part is out of the author's control and certainly not limited to these novels.

I am your typical Harlequin Presents romance reader. I don't read for the formula but rather for the emotions within the story. If the framework has similarities to other novels, as long as the characters are unique and their sorrows and passions make my gut clench, I'm happy. The trend toward mystery and thriller romances is one that honestly has left me behind. Romances are short and the more story that's taken up by things other than the relationship between the main characters the more pages taken from exactly why I read romances. If I want to read something with a world saving plot or a political intrigue, I'll pick up fantasy or science fiction. With romance, I'm looking for interpersonal conflict, relationship obstacles and emotional meltdowns.

That said, Sheila Kelly, besides being a friend (or so I think of her whatever she might consider me ;)), is a writer whose work generally pulls me in even though she doesn't write the types of books I seek out. Her SF is more space opera action thriller than my preference of sociological SF and her romances tend toward the thriller side. Therefore, when I picked up the Gena Hale romances, I thought I'd found a section of her writing (since she writes under so many names) that would not only pull me in, but actually fall into one of the types I seek out. As you can tell from my reviews, they were not of the type I prefer. So why would I think this, having read almost everything else she's written? Simple. That's what the marketing folks chose to convey.

Dream Mountain is written under a different pseudonym than the intrigues by Jessica Hall, the cover is in pastels and shows an isolated cabin on a blanket of snow with sheltering mountains behind, the title is in fancy script with shiny blue letters, and the teaser says: "Where two lost hearts find a love that dreams are made of...."

Step back and think about that description. Where do you see the mobster who buys the coal mine to sell the tailings to the Chinese Tong? Where is the hint that the lost hearts would be one abandoned by her uncle in a mountain cabin with no way to escape and the other is fighting for his life while contract killers try to eliminate him because of what he knows? What? You didn't expect that description? I can't say I did either, though I had a hint of the disconnect between the cover and what lay beneath because Paradise Island is the same way.

If you look at the bottom, there is a quote that does match the contents: "Nonstop adventure, gnarly intrigue, lots of laughs...and a hunk, what more could you ask? -- Catherine Coulter." Still, I have name recognition issues and how do I know Catherine Coulter shares my taste. I rarely read the reader blurbs for that reason, or at least the ones on the cover because by then I've usually made a decision to buy the book already.

I see this disconnect as a problem with expectations. When I read the Jessica Hall books, I knew they were thrillers; the covers made that much clear. With the right mindset going in, the Chinese Tong, family tradition and betrayal, the CIA and others didn't confuse or shock me, nor did they interfere with my enjoyment of the novels. I don't always read the backs of books, and never when I choose a book for the author. So, all I have to go on is the cover itself. In this case, the cover lied to me and affected how I read the book.

The story is good, if a little overloaded, but the lie of the cover made me spend the beginning thrown off and confused. I can't help wondering what the publisher was thinking in choosing to present this novel in this way. How many picked it up only to be disappointed when the relationship doesn't get top billing? How many looked away and toward the obvious thrillers because that's what they prefer, thinking this pastel beauty would be all about the internal conflicts?

This is a topic that comes up every once and a while among readers, but never have I personally experienced such an obvious case. Now I have to wonder how many books have I looked away from simply because of the cover when it could have been one of my favorites had I only given the author a chance? And how are we to judge when we can't trust the publisher to steer us the right way? With so many books published every year, there has to be something to narrow books down to the ones that get further consideration. Suddenly, I understand why word of mouth is more important than anything else.

So, what are your stories? What fantastic books have you almost passed up because of how they were marketed? What book confused you not because of the writing but because of the marketing? What book did you see vanish from the radar despite being a fantastic read because it was pushed in such a way to attract the wrong readers?

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Paradise Island by Gena Hale

Paradise Island was published in 2001 and is the first Gena Hale romance novel. As a writer, I'm trained to notice some things that a normal reader does not and in the beginning, some of these types of slips caught my eye. However, soon enough, I was sucked into the story. People often accuse romances of being formulaic and it is true that there are certain elements that show up time and again. However, what makes the stories unique is the handling of specific themes or even events. I can't tell you how many times I've read a romance with either the hero or heroine having amnesia in the beginning, some good, some not. This definitely fell on the good side. The characters were unique and the heroine special in a way I can't reveal without spoiling, but which made the story more enjoyable for me.

I've read many of Sheila Kelly's novels in her other incarnations as S.L. Viehl and Jessica Hall, but this is the first Gena Hale for me. Paradise Island starts a series, but the two involvements that come up in this one are resolved properly, so I wonder who is up in the next. It was a good, enjoyable read with both a plausible plot and a hint of terror as the characters wind their way through international espionage and political maneuvering of which they are only tools, but critical ones. I don't really know what to say without spoiling it, because everyone knows the main story line since it's a romance. I can say that the emotions were realistic, drawing me to the characters and their tales. I had a little trouble with there being so many main characters, POVs and storylines, unusual in a romance, but they are handled well and resolve nicely despite being relatively rare in the genre.

Bottom line is that this is good entertainment. While I am drawn to complex, sociological novels, a permanent diet would be exhausting. I've always read romances as a good break and this one successfully served that much so that I was going to jump back into a heavier book and instead found myself reaching for Dream Mountain, book 2 in the series. I don't think I'm ready for my break to be over yet :).

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

My older sister is adamant about reading books in order, something I've never paid much attention to, but suddenly, I'm faced with exactly why she feels this way and it is very frustrating. I have just finished City of Pearl by Karen Traviss, a debut novel of exceptional quality that has the complexity of characters and themes that first drew me to sociological science fiction and keeps pulling me back. Now I swear only coincidence led the first two books I mention to include ecological themes, but while Gods Old and Dark touched on the theme, City of Pearl is steeped in it.

The story starts out with an EnHaz (Environmental Hazard Enforcement) officer ready to retire who is given an offer that she can't refuse--or remember thanks to a technology called Suppressed Briefing which is a chemical "need to know" memory suppressant. She agrees to travel 75 years in cold storage with a team of marines and scientists to find out what happened to a religious group that attempted to colonize a distant planet, taking with them a genetic storage of all the unique plants and animals on Earth with the intention of recolonizing Earth after Armageddon.

You learn most if not all of that in the first few chapters, a set up rife with enough conflict to keep anyone happy. Does Karen Traviss leave it there? Of course not. Not only are there multiple types of aliens on the planet each with very specific agendas and unique philosophies, but the humans are living happily in the equivalent of a zoo. And that's not telling it all, but I'm stopping here with the plot and story hints because I think I've said enough to pique your interest.

What I will say is that the characters are real, their backgrounds affect who they are and why they behave the way they do, and they're not always right. They have both fallibilities and a strength of purpose that drew me in. The planet is complex, the people are more so and the conflicts are all plausible. The enemy isn't always obvious either because of conflicts between perspectives and moments of weakness that have consequences I could both see and hope would not come about. In case my description didn't make it clear, this is not a pure entertainment, adrenalin-rush, 2-hour read. Her language is approachable and comprehension was never an issue, but I read this book slower even than my normal crawl because there was so much to absorb and I didn't want to miss a bit. This is my method of reading, but another equivalent would be to say this is the type of book that has enough depth to be read again and again. Each time you would find another telling phrase or something that you missed the first time through.

Oh, and in case you're curious, I read the second book first, Crossing the Line, because I was selected as an advanced reader. I've been signing up for the book lottery every month at several publishers. It's a good way to be exposed to new authors or genres you wouldn't normally read and though I haven't been chosen in a while, the effort led to Karen Traviss, making it definitely worth while. I read the second book, recognized the skill and how I enjoyed the way she writes. Took me a while, but then I picked up City of Pearl and, though her first novel-length published work, it has not disappointed me at all. The only disappointment I felt was that in coming to the end, I'd already read the next one. However, I just went to her website, , and discovered she has a third coming soon :).

For those who are curious, here's my reader review:

Crossing the Line is an intensely complex novel told in a direct, approachable manner that drew me right in. It twines the lives of five different species, each with both unique and familiar traits, showing where common interests and desires can lead to conflict and disaster both within and between species. I've never read Karen Traviss before but I plan to find her first novel, City of Pearl, just to experience the history of these characters in her own words. That said, this novel stands alone, not requiring anything more than you'll find between the covers. It sparks a desire to know the past and future of those characters introduced in this book merely because they become real, each with their own desires, failings and needs. I will certainly put her on my list of authors I seek out and keep track of. It's a pleasure to find another author along the lines of C.J. Cherryh, who explores aliens neither as carbon copies of humans nor cardboard cutouts and who takes the time to generate a full philosophy and approach to life that is coherent, cohesive, and distinctive.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Day in the Life Take 2

And for your pure enjoyment, another day in my life:

My kids had an interesting assignment a few years ago called unfortunately/fortunately. They have to write a story in which fortunate and unfortunate events happen that accelerate something simple into something excessive. That's what my morning felt like. Let's see if you agree.

I work until midnight or one every night/morning and require a ton more than 4 hours sleep. Fortunately, my boys are old enough and responsible enough to get themselves ready for school. I'm usually awake before they leave, but often just barely. After they leave, I go do my wash up, which I do in the altogether.

This morning, unfortunately, Jacob forgot his school backpack. Even more unfortunately, his backpack has the key to the house that the boys share. He pounds on the door and I finally connect that it's not the boys playing another silly door game. So, I throw on my knee-length, hot pink, washed-silk robe (looks like a smoking jacket and is really soft) and run for the door as he starts ringing the doorbell.

I open the door with a reasonable expectation that he's waiting on the other side. But no! Rather than waiting, they're trying to break into the back yard (how that would have helped I don't know since the house is still closed up in the morning). Anyway, into that wide open space, our indoor escape artist slipped, prompting me to say VERY loudly *SHIT* and run out in my pseudo-sexy robe and bare feet to chase after him. I glance across the way, and there's one of my neighbors and her daughter staring back at me. LUCKILY, I unlocked the door first or we would have been in a pretty, pink, pickle.

Yes, I got the cat back in. Yes, I got the boys off to school. And yes, I took my blushing self (now matching my robe) back into the house to finish washing up and facing the day.

At least no one almost died this time...other than of embarrassment that is.

My dear friends tell me I should put this is a novel, but I don't write chick lit and why would I torture a character like this? Wasn't it bad enough in real life? :)