Happy Valentine’s Day! Here, have a good book.

 I have literally been saving this book up to review it on Valentine’s Day even though I finished it several days ago, because I love it that much. Which makes me sound like a pronounced loon, I know, but when you spend your days chasing after toddlers and doing endless rounds of laundry, you learn to savour life’s small pleasures.

Author: Jordan Castillo Price
Publication Date: April 2012
Reasons I might actually remember this one:  This is a m/m romance featuring a cast of male and female magicians taking part in a reality television show. I don’t actually like reality tv much, and I don’t read a whole lot of m/m romance, and the truth is I don’t remember why I bought this book. (Clearly I have a problem; there’s a reason I gave up online shopping for Lent this year.) I think someone recommended it to me, but I don’t know who, or why, or under what circumstances, so maybe I’m imagining that part and I just liked the cover or something. WHO KNOWS. But if someone did rec it, I cannot thank them enough, because I loved this book. For half a day after reading it I couldn’t even start another book, because I didn’t want to leave the world of this book. 
The writing is superb, so seamless you forget you’re reading and just get lost in the story, but the best thing about this book is the cast of characters. The two romantic leads are wonderful, but so is absolutely every other one of the twelve-in-total magicians competing for the cash and fame. 
Seriously: even the ones designed for you to root against are fully realized, and ultimately at least a little bit sympathetic. The author could write a story about any one of the minor-character magicians, and I’d buy it in a heartbeat, but my personal favourites were the Math Wizard and Muriel Broom. If I thought it would work I’d track down the author and bribe her to write some form of sequel.
 
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When Idiots Date

Title: Fools Rush In
Author: Kristan Higgins
Published: 2006 
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Because I can’t afford enough pills, booze, or electroshock therapy to forget it?

I wanted to like this book. Oh, how I wanted to like it. I’ve read read two other books by Kristan Higgins–All I Ever Wanted and Catch of the Day–and I loved them both. I cried so hard at parts of those books that everyone who came in contact with me kept asking if I was okay, and suggesting I should stop reading whatever that was I was sobbing into, and I kept saying no, I can’t, it’s really good.

In retrospect, all the things that annoyed me about this one were present in the other two I’ve read; it’s just that they were either done well, or were just…less annoying. Like, the heroines: all three books feature heroines who’re idiots about men. But in All I Ever Wanted it was possible to overlook her crush on her jackass of a boss because he had actually slept with her (so I could sympathize with her wanting to imagine that meant something), and in Catch of the Day the heroine’s backstory-crush on the priest was hilarious. 

But this…ugh. Just ugh. She’s been in love with this guy since they were in school, when he was gorgeous and popular and she was plain and overweight. How do I hate her crush on him? Let me count the ways:

1. She’s an adult woman who has supposedly earned a medical degree (the least believable career imaginable for this woman, who comes across as scatty and clueless and perpetually distracted) but has never once questioned her crush on a guy who tomcats around with half the women in town;

2. She stalks him, spending the first third of the book arranging “accidental” meetings and memorizing his schedule so she can run into him (yet somehow the amount of time he spends in bars and hooking up with a string of women escapes her);

3. Part of her plan to win his attention revolves around losing weight. Once she’s a size eight, and has her one-and-only display of backbone in the entire book, he notices her. To be fair, in the scene where she kicks some other guy to the curb on their first date because he’s a condescending asshole? She was pretty damned cool. But oh, HOW I HATE heroines who diet down to a size eight to attract the hero. HATE.

4. The guy she has the crush on has a three-legged dog he dotes on. So she gets a dog just so they’ll have something in common. The dog is a pure pet moppet: all it does is hump legs and crap on the floor for comic relief, and half the time anyone comes over the heroine bars it in the bedroom or the basement or something. (I seriously don’t understand how an author who could write dogs so touchingly in her other books could have written this.)

5. Once they’re dating, the heroine realizes they never talk and they don’t share any interests. They just watch movies and sleep together, as far as I can tell.

6. And then the horrific revelations start coming. Some young girl she used to babysit shows up at the clinic to warn the heroine that Mr. Perfect Boyfriend slept with her and then dumped her. Some other ex of his sends him death glares all night. He confesses that his three-legged dog only has three legs because he was driving drunk and HIT HIM WITH THE CAR. His house is dirty, perpetually stripped down for renovations that never actually happen, and smells bad; he sleeps on a mattress on the floor. This guy is supposedly a carpenter in his thirties.

So, yeah. I had so much hatred going on for the hero and her crush-object that the whole rest of the book–her horrid sister; her lovely ex-brother-in-law who turns out to be the real hero; her single-parent friend who doesn’t want a man but sort of gets one anyway; her amazingly unsupportive mother–barely penetrated. I was way up to the supposedly-tense “will they be able to be together?” part near the end, and I still couldn’t forgive her for wasting her life mooning over a drunk-driving manchild. UGH.

Formidable Australian Men

Master of Moonrock

Title: Master of Moonrock
Author: Anne Hampson
Mills & Boon
Published: 1972
Reasons I might actually remember this one: Well, for one thing, it’s a vintage category without rape, sexual harassment, or the heroine getting slapped in the face. That’s a definite strength. For another, it features one of my own personal kinks: a reticent Australian man who can fly a plane.

In the beginning, the heroine is an orphan. Loren is being raised by her kindly aunt and uncle, alongside her boy-crazy older cousin, Janet. In the opening of the book Janet has a huge crush on the older son of Australian friends of her parents; the son, Thane, is twenty-five, Janet is twenty, and Loren, who is only thirteen, can’t stand him.

He ruffles Loren’s hair at a Christmas party, spoiling her first grown-up hairdo, and when she kicks him viciously in the leg he puts her over his knee and spanks her right there at the party, for which she hates him, and frankly so would I have. Although I’m not sure I’d have been thinking about killing him with an axe.

Anyway. There’s sort of an odd vibe around the spanking and her humiliation; I wondered if I’d imagined it, but then on the next page we get this:

“I’m not facing those people after what he did to me–I’d be just a laughing-stock! And Janet–she’ll laugh more than anyone!”

“Janet’s probably quite envious of you, my dear, if the truth were known,” commented Mr. Knight mildly. and although he and his wife seemed to derive some considerable amusement from those words, Loren merely scowled, as she had no idea what her uncle was talking about.

Wow. I remembered being horribly embarrassed at that age if relatives teased me about boys or in any way alluded to even knowing what sex was. If they’d made spanking jokes I think I would have actually died.

Moving swiftly on: her aunt and uncle are killed in a car crash when Loren is seventeen (so she’s sort of orphaned twice).  Janet has married and moved to Canada, and refuses to have Loren with her (“Certainly not! What a thing to ask anyone newly-married! We want to be alone.”), which leaves Loren with no choice but to go out to Australia to live with the man her uncle has appointed as her guardian until she turns twenty.

The man, of course, is Thane the Spanko:

“We didn’t exactly get on, did we, Loren?” and naturally she blushed; but when she raised her eyes he saw the militant sparkle in her expression, and the accusation.

“It isn’t gentlemanly to remind me of that!”

“You’re quite right, it isn’t,” he admitted, but with a short laugh which seemed to detract from any sincerity he might have wished to convey.

At his place in the middle of nowhere there are a bunch of employees, including his cousin Dena, who provides a beautiful instance of a female friend who isn’t all about trying to steal the hero or backstab the heroine. She admits up front she used to have a thing for Thane, but over the course of the novel falls in love with someone else, and is a friend to Loren.

There is also Thane’s terrifying outback grandmother, who cleared the land herself or something, and outrode all the men and built up the family wealth single-handedly, and who, although she’s slowly losing her faculties over the course of the book, is still keen enough to suspect Thane has brought Loren out there to marry her.

On the next ranch (ranch? farm?) there’s a beautiful shallow young woman who wants to marry Thane. This is considered a good match by everybody but Loren and Dena (Dena first refers to this person as “Felicity Brandon–alias a bitch!”), since she’s beautiful and her family are well-off and their land adjoins Thane’s. Her parents throw a movie party, renting movies from, I don’t know, the nearest town I guess, and inviting everyone over for dinner and entertainment:

…and shortly afterward the movies began, the projector and amplifiers having been set up and chairs arranged on the lawn. Mr. and Mrs. Bradon and their guests occupied the front seats, with the white stockmen behind. Right at the back stood the Aboriginal stockmen, men of fine physique, proud and enigmatic and possessing an undeniable dignity of bearing which was enormously attractive.

…wow. I’m not sure what’s weirdest about that scene: the racism, the bizarre social hierarchy (surely everyone there is a guest, but clearly some guests count more than others), or the way the narrator is openly ogling the Aboriginal stockmen.

Anyway. Thane likes Loren, enough to take time out of his schedule to go on horseback rides with her. Loren likes Thane, though she’s so young and virginal she doesn’t know this herself for half the book. Loren also likes Australia, and there are some nice descriptions of trees and sunsets and kookaburras and rosellas. Thane and Loren have conversations:

“Then stay afraid,” he advised. “This land should be treated with respect. Many people have lost their lives by flaunting its hospitality.”

“I know; Dena was telling me about the family who were recently found dead.”

“Their bones were found,” he corrected. “Whitened and dried by the sun.”

You just don’t get enough references to sun-dried bones in modern categories. Man, Thane should totally go to work for the tourist bureau.

Thane fires Cooper, a surly employee, for mistreating a horse, thereby proving that good men are kind to animals. Immediately after this Loren realizes she doesn’t want him to marry Felicity because she loves him herself, and I don’t blame her: men who care about animals, and who stand up to bullies, are hot.

The terrifying grandmother throws a fit, though, because she’d been the one to hire Cooper (back when she was still running things) and she resents Thane being in charge now. She fakes a heart problem and they send for the Flying Doctor, which is so Australian I can’t even find words. The doctor confirms what they all know: the old lady’s heart is fine, but her mind is going. Curiously, up until this point I thought she was just bad tempered, but after the diagnosis she goes downhill rapidly and is soon mumbling to herself and acting increasingly peevish and childish. It’s as though the doctor cursed her.

Thane brings up the spanking again. It’s like it’s on his mind a lot or something.

And he added, as if he could not resist, “A kick on the shin is at least something definite. The emotions are thrown right into the open.”

“Oh,” she quivered, going red, “reminding me of that again!”

He laughs, but tells her she got off easy, and she assures him (“in a small voice”) that she wouldn’t ever do that again, and there’s a whole sort of D/s vibe to this book. A page later (after he offers to fly her to Alice Springs in his own plane, and have I said men that can fly planes are way up on my list of irrational fetishes?) we get this:

“In so short a time, too,” he said, his dark eyes sweeping over her in a way that made her lower her head, but only because of a sudden shyness, since there was a curious expression in his eyes which was very like a caress. There was also a persuasive quality about him which made her feel pliable and weak and sort of–co-operative; yes, that was how she felt, and now it was Janet’s face which rose between hers and Thane’s. Janet used to shudder in an ecstatic kind of way, maintaining that Thane was so strong that he terrified her, and that he was so big she felt tiny beside him, and helpless.

Fifty Shades of Australian.

Speaking of Janet, she’s been writing letters to Loren: at first to say she was annoyed that Loren went to Australia to live with Thane, and then to inform her that Janet’s marriage is on the rocks after less than a year. Feeling sorry for her horrible cousin Loren asks Thane if Janet can come to visit. Dena, who is easily the most sensible person in this book, guesses that Janet only wants to make another play for Thane. The terrifying grandmother, who I guess isn’t too far into her decline to see the obvious, points out right at the dinner table that Janet is less upset about her own parents’ relatively recent deaths than poor Loren was when she came to them, and still is.

In the meantime Thane has gotten as far as kissing Loren once or twice, but hasn’t proposed to her, and she keeps worrying that something is wrong. Horrible Janet makes this worse by telling her that Thane brought Loren out there to marry just because his terrifying grandmother will step aside entirely and stop trying to run the ranch once he’s married. Horrible Janet says Loren is an idiot to think Thane loves her, that he’s just making use of her, and why Loren believes this is beyond me, since the grandmother is already requiring assistance with her meals and is obviously not running anything any more.

But Loren does believe her, and worse yet takes her advice not to tell Thane why she’s suddenly rebuffing him. Two pages later one of the good employees works out what’s happening and why (“She’s a bitch!”), but Loren won’t let him do anything about it and won’t confide in Dena, so we have pointless drama for a bunch of pages.

Then Thane loses his temper and shakes Loren. I’d like to say I disapprove–I mean, I feel I ought to disapprove–but quite honestly by that point I badly wanted to shake her myself. He reminds her she paid the penalty once for defying him, but instead of spanking her again (which I totally thought was coming next) he storms off, and she begins to realize he’s angry because he loves her.

She lets Janet talk her into going to Kouri End, the nearest town, to go shopping. Personally shopping with bitches who try to stab me in the back is not high on my list of enjoyable activities, but Loren is either nicer than me or an idiot, because she goes. Janet drives home, and Loren falls asleep, so naturally Janet gets them lost in the bush, and they have to camp out. There’s much lostness and driving and the water is running low.

A bull charges the jeep the next morning when Loren is outside walking around to change places with Janet, and Janet drives off and leaves her there, and seriously, if this book does not end with someone shooting that bitch I will be terribly disappointed.

Thane comes looking for Loren in his plane. He spots her, and Dena and her fiance (who’re driving around waiting for his signal) do the actual rescuing while he’s landing the plane. You know what, going weak-kneed for men who can fly is not an irrational fetish on my part after all. It’s a totally rational fetish.

Thane proposes, and admits the reason he hadn’t done so sooner is that he didn’t want to make his grandmother feel she was being turfed out. But the grandmother has confided she wants him to marry Loren. So all ends happily except for Janet still being alive, although the fact that Thane hates her and insists on having her thrown out “as soon as it can be arranged” is some consolation. In my head I like to imagine that it took weeks and weeks, and Janet had to stay there having everyone openly hate her while knowing her cousin was being spanked by a gorgeous Australian.

Active Ingredients:
Virgin Heroine
Australian Hero
Spanking
Orphaned Heroine 
Manipulative Will
Hero is Heroine’s Legal Guardian
Bad/Shallow Woman Wants Hero
Not Really D/s but it Feels Similar
Surly Employee Who Has to be Sacked
Bad Men are Cruel to Animals/Good Men are Kind to Animals
Bad Advice from Competitive Females
Australian Outback
Stranded in the Wilderness