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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shawntelle Madison: COVETED SERIES

Author:  Shawntelle Madison
Series:  COVETED
Plot Type:  Light Urban Fantasy (UF)
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality3; Humor2
Publisher and Titles:  Ballantine
       "Collected" (e-novella prequel, 12/2013) 
       Coveted (5/2012)
       Kept (11/2012)
       "Bitter Disenchantment" (e-novella, 12/2013)
       Compelled (3/2014)  

NOTE: This post contains reviews of the prequel novella and the first two novels in this series. At that point, I decided that the quality was too consistently disappointing to keep reading the series. I will, however, continue to update the book list above as new books are published.           

     In this world, the supernatural community includes werewolves, witches, warlocks, wizards, and all kinds of fae, from mermaids to goblins to dwarfs. The lead characters are members of the Toms River, New Jersey werewolf pack. Although humans don't seem to know that the supernatural world exists, I'm not sure that they could miss seeing such things as a zombie waiter in an upscale restaurant or a major werewolf war, both of which are a part of book 1.  

     The series heroine is Natalya Stravinsky, a twenty-something werewolf who was kicked out of her pack because she suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and mysophobia (aka germophobia) and because she rejected an arranged marriage with a top-level pack family. Five years ago, Nat had her OCD pretty much under control, but then her boyfriend, Thorn Grantham, deserted her and she fell prey to her weaknessbuying Christmas ornaments, scrupulously cleaning them up, and storing them in pristine white boxes that are neatly stacked everywhere in her antiseptically clean house. Nat's OCD is a huge part of the plot, to the point that you just want to tell her to get a better therapist and work a lot harder at getting over it.

     One of the cover blurbs compares Nat to Carolyn Crane's hypochondriacal heroine, Justine Jones, but really, there is no comparisonnot between the heroines and definitely not between the two series. Crane's series has a beautifully crafted mythology and a smart and sympathetic heroine, two things that this series lacks. Click HERE to read my review of Carolyn Crane's excellent DISILLUSIONISTS TRILOGY.

            E-NOVELLA PREQUEL:  "Collected"            
     This novella introduces us to Natalya and her obsessive-compulsive behavior. As the story begins, Nat has purchased a Victorian figurine in an on-line auction, but someone steals the package as it is being delivered to her house. She follows the scent of the perpetrator and discovers that a zmeea three-headed dragonhired a wood nymph to do the job. The zmee talks Natalya into a bargain. He will keep the figurine and give her two other collectibles if she will photograph an antique compass that is displayed in a display case in a factory run by leprechauns. Then, a villainous vodyanoy enters the picture and blackmails Nat into giving him the photographs. In the meantime, Nat has dragged her brother, Alex, and his best friend, Miles, into her dangerous adventure. The rest of the story follows them through their trip to the leprechauns' factory.

     This little novella illustrates all that is wrong with this series. First, the plot is nonsensicalall this drama so that Nat can possess a papier mache figure and a nutcracker. Even Nat herself muses, "Had I fallen so far that I needed these things, these trinkets? That I was willing to risk myself and my friends to add to my collection?" Yes indeed, she has, and not for the firstor lasttime. Then, there's the "romance." In a come-from-nowhere scene near the end, Miles, who has known Nat and Alex since childhood, confesses his long-term attraction to her on the eve his leaving town forever. That scene doesn't even come close to ringing true. And don't forget the awkward interior monologues in which Nat constantly belittles herself for being germophobic and obsessive-compulsive but just keeps right on with it, to the detriment of her life and the lives of her friends. 

     Long story short, you don't need to read this novella to understand book 1 because Nat's various mental ailments are described in that book in great detail. The only saving grace is that at the moment, this novella is a free download.

            NOVEL 1:  Coveted            
      The story opens with a mild bedroom scenea flashback that involves clean sheets, chocolate syrup, and empty promises. And that's about the end of the sex for our heroine in this book. After having been gone for five years, Thorn, the pack leader's son, has finally returned home, and he's slated to marry the daughter of one of the pack's top families. Thorn comes back only because his father has been injured, and wants Thorn to take on some of his responsibilities. Even though Thorn rescues Nat occasionally from threatening situations, he doesn't come across as much of a hero. He has agreed to the arranged marriage, but he keeps hanging around Natshowing up in her bedroom, breathing heavily in her ear, and telling her how much he wants her...if only things were different. They never have a real conversation, so it's hard to tell what the attraction is between them.

     Nat's life as a rogue werewolf means that she has no werewolf friends. Even her family is mostly estranged from her, except for her grandmother.  Family members and pack members are disturbingly rude and cold to Nat much of the time. When Nat's college friend, Aggie (also a werewolf), turns up at her door, Nat is thrilled for the companionship, even though she's nervous about having someone live in her ultra-clean house among all her treasuresor as she calls them, "my children."

     Meanwhile, the Long Island werewolf pack is trying to take over the Toms River pack's territory, and their pack leader (Luther) wants to kill Nat. During most of the book, no one seems to have a clue as to why the Long Island pack is so focused on Nat. When we finally get the answer, it is a total rip-off. Obviously Nat has to have known all along why the pack leader wants to kill her. Why didn't she speak up? Why didn't she include it in one of her interminable interior monologues? Who knows?

     Part-way into the story, Nat rejoins a therapy group, hoping to get her OCD under control. There, she is partnered with Nick, a sexy wizard who also has an OCD problem. Obviously, Nick is going to be the third point in Nat's love triangle along with Thorn. He's a much more likable and interesting guy, so that probably means she won't choose him.

     This book has so many problems, it's hard to know where to begin. First, there's the author's lack of skill in writing from the first-person point of view. Then there are the grammatical errors and the awkward use of language. Counting up the cliches would be "like plucking fruit off a tree." (p. 278) And don't forget the numerous holes in the plot. At one point, Nat's home is flooded by a creek next to her home that we have never heard about before this point. The flood is included in the story solely because the author needs Nat's treasures to be damaged so that her relatives can finally show some sympathy as they help her clean up after the flood waters recede. The story abounds with loose ends, like the eccentric therapy group member who merits several pages of description and is never heard from again. And then there's another unnecessary scene in which some tree nymphs plan (but never come close to carrying out) a kidnapping and humiliation of Nat's brother. It's a silly scene in which they fill their car with pink duct tape and shaving creamand it adds absolutely nothing to the plot. Perhaps the author intended these scenes to add humor to the story. If so, it didn't work for me. The way to add humor is to integrate it with the plot, not to manufacture "humorous" situations and drop them in every once in awhile before getting back to the story.

     In the most illogical and manipulative scene in the book, after Nat's brother is rescued from the Long Island werewolves, he is taken to his aunt's home to recover. Now, the aunt lives within walking distance of his parents' house, so why is he recovering at his aunt's house and not his parents' house. And why aren't the parents there with him. His mother has been worried sick about him, so why would she turn her back on him now? The answer to this is that the author needs him to be in a certain place with a certain few people so that he can once again be attacked. If the author followed the logical flow of things and put him with his parents, there would have been too many people around for the second attack to take place. This is the kind of plot manipulation that makes for a below average book with an above average level of annoyance for the reader. The attack scene that follows is staged so awkwardly and illogically that it is head-shakingly dreadful. A band of enemy werewolves sneaks up on the house, creeping in to grab a shotgun off a table and a cellphone from a purse. You'd think that if they could get inside and grab the gun and the phone they would then attack the only two people in the house who are conscious, but no...once again logic definitely does NOT prevail. What happens instead is that the enemy werewolves all go down into the basement to hide, and then come back up again and attack through the cellar door. They have sent poisoned food into the house, and they have been inside to check things out, so they are sure that the inhabitants are mostly sick or unconscious, so why in the world don't they attack while they are in the house grabbing the shotgun? And why don't they split up and attack from multiple angles? And why would they all go into the basement and then come right back up again? This whole section of the book quickly went from unconvincingly improbable to unbelievably awful. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Coveted.

     I'm afraid that I can't recommend this series based on book 1. I'm willing to take a look at book 2 in the hope that the writing improves, but I'm not optimistic.  

            NOVEL 2:  Kept             
     In this book, the heroine's various neuroses are just as bad and just as annoying as they were in book 1. She is still collecting and hoarding Christmas ornaments (a symptom of her OCD) and she still carries multiple packs of sanitizing wipes with her at all times (a symptom of her germophobia). She also continues in her estrangement from her lost love, Thorn Grantham, son and heir of the local pack leader. Nat is still attending her therapy group, where she continues her friendship with Nick, a white wizard who would like to be more than a friend.

     As the story opens, Nat's father disappears, and she learns that he has gone off to Atlantic City to pay a life-or-death moon debt to Roscoe, a former werewolf associate who is a criminal mob boss. Nat goes off on her own to find and rescue her father, but is immediately joined by her brother, Alex, and Thorn. Alex is soon called home when his wife gives birth to their first child, leaving Nat and Thorn on their own. After meeting with Roscoe, the couple fulfills the first task that Dad was supposed to do, but when they return to Roscoe, he insists that Nat must complete the rest of the assignment with no werewolf assistancewhich means that Thorn has to walk away. The rest of the story follows Nat as she makes a traumatic road trip to Maine accompanied by Nick and two other members of her therapy group. By the end of the book, Dad's moon debt situation is taken care of and Nat's pack status is resolved, but her romantic future is filled with uncertainty.

     In a secondary story line, Nat is just weeks away from the trialsa set of three tests of physical endurance that will determine whether she can rejoin the pack. She constantly professes that becoming a pack member is her major goal in life, but as the book begins, she hasn't done any physical training at all to get in shape. After she spends a single early-morning session attempting to run ten miles (and collapsing after jogging/walking/dragging only about half that many), we never see her train again. So when she performs quite well in the actual 10-mile run during the trials, we (the readers) are quite stunned.

     The author has the germ of a good story, but her writing skills aren't up to the task of constructing either sympathetic, realistic characters or a cohesive, believable plot. There was a point late in the book that I became engaged in the action, but it was a long time coming and it didn't last very long. Unfortunately, this plot has many more weaknesses than strengths. For example, the scene with Roscoe, Nat, and her father doesn't make much sense. Why would Roscoe allow Nat to pay off just one part of the moon debtand the lesser part at that? Why would her big, strong, honorable father let his emotionally damaged, physically weak daughter go off her own to pay off his debt? Once Thorn and Alex leave Nat alone, they don't seem to worry much about heranother unbelievable turn of events. Nat's history is filled with failure at almost everything she attempts, so why would they think she can do this alone? (As it turns out, she can't; once again, her friends bail her out.)  

     Characterization is also a problem. Nat is an extremely unlikeable heroinealways a whiny, fearful, shrinking violet who freezes up during almost every crisis and lets others fight her battles. When she does dredge up enough gumption to fight back, it's so rare and shocking as to be unbelievable. Thorn is also unlikable. He's a big, strong, thoughtless alpha who appears to have no idea how much he hurts Nat as he follows a pattern of coming on to Nat in one scene and then showing up with his fiancee in the next. He is furious that Nat is seeing Nick the wizard, but can't understand why Nat is bothered by the fact that he himself is engaged to be married. It's really impossible for me to understand what each one sees in the other.

     There are continuity problems throughout the book. For example, in one scene (on p. 29), Nat's mother explains everything she knows about Dad going off to pay his moon debt. Then (on page 30), we have this statement: "An hour later, Alex and Aunt Vera managed to convince Mom to talk." But Mpm already did all her talking on the previous page, and she doesn't provide  any more after that point. There are also a few dialogues in which questions and answers are not synchronizeda question is asked by one character, and another character appears to answer a different question.

     And don't get me started on the road-trip scene in which Nat and her friends riff on the euphemisms used by romance novelists for female and male private parts. That scene is obviously just thrown in for its general silliness, and it totally breaks the suspense build-up.

     I'm going to bring this review to a close by saying that I will not be reviewing any more books or novellas in this series. I will list the titles when they are published, but without any comments. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Kept

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