Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: A Fighting Chance by Barb Wolfe

A Fighting Chance by Barb Wolfe is a romance between a journalist and a martial arts trainer that started out with potential and then fell apart. It's readable, but it's a mess.

This is disappointing, as it started out okay and I was delighted to see the unusual profession (in lesbian fiction) of one of the characters played a major part in the story. The first third of the book is mostly set in the Mixed Martial Arts women's only club run by DJ and her friend/crushee Jordan. Erin is a local journalist who decides to come do a piece on DJ, interviewing her and the people at the club. Of course, the moment they meet, it's soul mate time, with the minor complication of Erin technically being straight and having a boyfriend (don't worry, he doesn't last long). Erin signs up for classes and flings herself at DJ, and DJ tries to avoid getting involved, but falls pretty hard back. And then Erin panics over the speed of their intimacy (and the whole "I can't be gay?!' thing) and DJ has a tantrum and it all goes downhill. Not much happens for ages, except that neither character progresses in any way, and then they decide to get back together, or at least talk about it. The getting together romantic sex part happened so fast, and the next bit dragged on so much, that I actually couldn't remember if they had ever actually slept together. And then there's a rape worthy of the most epic face palming that comes out of nowhere and may be triggering to some people. I shred it in more detail later on in this review.

The last quarter of the book was a lot better, as it abandoned the dramatic events in favour of our two lovers talking and being romantic and having sex, and generally solidifying their relationship, so it does turn into a predictable but enjoyable romance.
The MMA fighting and training, and the self defence session (though see Always by Nicola Griffith for an awesome storyline set in a self defence class) was actually good. I don't know anything about MMA, but it all sounded believable; there was an awful lot of discussion about moves, and we got to see a lot of training and classes and get a rant from DJ about institutionalised sexism in the professional areas of the sport. The classes themselves, the little we saw of them, seemed quite interesting and had all these character dynamics going on amongst the minor characters and between DJ and Jordan.

If you dislike jargon and sporty stuff, well - it's not that bad, and is actually written in an approachable way. This would have been a much better book if it had continued with that theme, with Erin continuing to take classes and the two of them getting closer that way. Instead, it seems as if we've got segments of about four different types of stereotypical romance going on, and each bit makes increasingly less sense in the context of what has already happened.

The last quarter of the book gets back to the romance and MMA aspect, and it gets a lot better then, ending with a fight between Erin and her 'rival' for DJ's affections.

The Characters

It was pretty obvious from the start that this was an uber-Xena fanfiction, with our incredibly tall, dark haired, blue eyed and violent fighter who women constantly fall in love with, and the instant connection she feels with the journalist (writer type) cute little blond Erin who turns up to interview her and is initially very straight, until The Instant Connection happens. And, much as I love Xena, this feels like lazy writing. Xena's cursory physical description doesn't always make a lot of sense in fanfic, because the writer expects you to recognise them. That, and while they were obviously based on the original pair, they weren't the same people (which is good), but generally less likeable and shallower (which is bad). However, after it has been made obvious that our characters are, the overt fanfiction flags stop and it becomes its own story. So it isn't really worth picking up 'as fanfiction'. It is lampshaded near the end of the  book when Erin comments on DJ 'having a physique like Xena Warrior Princess'. Although I suppose the 'naive writer wants to write about mysterious fighter, they fall for each other (one turns gay, the other learns to love goodness) and the fighter teaches the writer how to kick ass is... basically, the overall plot of Xena).

 Disclaimer: I've read very little Xena/Gabrielle uberFanfic, and the one that did it best of all is Jericho by Ann McMan (and that was so good because the characters stood on their own without needing to recognise who inspired them. That's the difference really - they were inspired by, they weren't just direct inserts. Anyway, you can read my gushing review of it here).

 DJ's actions and her character had a fair bit of depth. Everyone's terrified of her, and she gives them good reason to be. DJ is morose and initially described as misanthropic with a hidden soft heart. She's not, she's borderline sociopathic. Apart from Erin, she likes exactly one other person, the woman she runs her club with, she's violent and unfriendly and goes into murderous rages, lacking the kind of control that somebody with that level of martial arts training should have. She's established as unreasonable from the very start, with her automatically kicking any woman out the door that dares to even ask about the high temperatures in her club (I assume there's a good reason and so does Erin, but DJ never actually explains. She just treats people who ask, or complain, as if they're supposed to know better and are horrible troublemakers). And she's incredibly rude about Erin daring to be late, only grudgingly accepting her very valid excuse because Erin is 'really cute'. This was a good case of 'show not tell'.

Sadly, it's undone to some extent by us being supposed to believe that she's Erin's perfect love (a good fit, probably, but a perfect softhearted hero? Hardly). I think we're supposed to see her as the brooding hero who needs to be saved by true love. That's the bit I don't like - I have no problem with a main character actually being horrible, as long as the book writes that consistently, and maybe points out that Erin has the apparent judgement and maturity of an inbred chihuahua.

Erin doesn't really have any depth. She's gorgeous, she broke up with her boyfriend out of sheer inertia, and - after flinging herself at DJ - she wanders off into a sulk for ages and abandons the article (going off and telling us about some other article she did at a veterinary clinic, which led nowhere, despite all these little hooks and potential plot elements of a hot vet, stray dogs need love and owners and women are gentler and better vets so the lady running it only hires women. The last bit is probably illegal and also pretty dumb. I just came back from the vet with my cat, and we had a perfectly nice, competent male vet this time, who I actually would rather have had than the woman my cat usually gets).

None of the other characters really mattered, except for Jordan. Poor Jordan, as soon as I made the Xena connection, I kept thinking of her as Joxer, but she was actually a smart, sensible, competent woman with almost all the skill that DJ has, and none of the violence, and all the control DJ lacks. Her only flaw that I can see is that she is relegated to the friendzone and has an unrequited crush on DJ. She would have been a perfectly good, believable and capable partner at the club if she had been emotionally independent.

About the Story

1. Pacing was awful.
Really awful. The first bit was fine, as they get to know each other and classes happen and so forth, and then suddenly they are apart and 'weeks later' have scenes that, if you missed the line about it being weeks later, read like reactions from the next day. We don't get next day reactions, we just get 'many weeks later' reactions, which show no real passage of time. And then they decide to meet up again and it goes into fast forward normal speed, and then ... it slows... right... down... again .... for recovery, hurt/comfort, getting to know each other time.

And then nothing really happens, except that they mope around separately, have a couple more relationship dramas about each other, whine at their friends... oh, and Erin gets a dog. The dog was cute, but it was boring to read all the housekeeping details (tell not show). We didn't get to read about getting the dog, we just read that Erin got the dog and did this with him. And he was really obviously being set up as a Plot Point. And then stuff steadily sort of resolves itself.

The book itself is a novel's length, though I really wish the middle section had been cut and it had been turned into a novella. One of the more irritating writing choices was the fact that it had 52 chapters. Or 57. One of those. Normally books of that length have 10-20 chapters! (Or none, in the case of Terry Pratchett). A scene change is not the same thing as a chapter. I wouldn't have cared so much if the rest of the book had been better, but as it was, it jarred.

2. Somebody has a real problem with quote marks. Nearly half the conversations seemed to be missing the opening quote mark which was a real pain, and internal thoughts had quote marks. They were already italicized, so this just became incredibly confusing, as it looked like one of the characters suddenly shouted or hissed something, sometimes even as part of a conversation. It stood out, as there weren't really any other grammar or typo issues.

Here, let me give you a quick example. Can you figure out what's going on?:

you like proper punctuation?" I looked at the reviewer.
"Yes! I correct people's grammar on the internet!"
"I hate people who do that".

3.  Inconsistencies, inconsistencies everywhere. For example, DJ tries to stop women falling in love with her (maybe?) and tends to love and leave at the first sign of commitment. But when Erin tells her she loves her, it is said this this happens incredibly rarely, even more rarely than DJ telling people she loved them. I'm pretty sure that was just really badly phrased and it was meant to be mutual love that was rare for DJ, but that isn't what was said.

And at the end of the book, DJ thinks about how Erin has gotten so much better at fighting over the last year, when it was only six months after the rape/getting together part, at which point Erin had only attended a couple of sessions. That's not a year of training.

And there were other things like that - whether it was bad editing or actually changing the story midway doesn't matter, as the reader can only take what is given.

4. The rape. This was handled so badly and was so unnecessary. There was already a story about the romantic tension between the women and the martial arts stuff, there was no need to suddenly turn it into hurt-comfort fanfic. The fact that none of it made sense or was so obviously staged just made it worse. Oh, it is also likely to be quite triggering.

Firstly, WTF? It was blatant drama thrown in to sidestep the potentially really awkward making up conversation and turn it into a 'DJ to the rescue! Now for weeks of gradual recuperation while DJ cuddles Erin and makes it all better!'

Secondly, it was a bad parody of DJ's 'tragic past' in which her previous girlfriend was raped and DJ 'did all the wrong things woe, woe, it's not my fault, I need redemption'.

Thirdly, the action and scripting was awful. Erin's very tiny dog somehow drags her right up to a homeless(?) man on the street, as in right up to, despite her instantly thinking he's someone to stay away from (cause ew, smelly). He grabs her, waves a knife, instantly decides to drag her off and rape her, and then tells her to 'go over there and tie your dog up'.

Um. So she does. And then apparently meekly comes back again and he drags her off. Seriously? (I do get that freezing up and ingrained obedience is a common issue in these kind of situations, but her reactions was never described, we only see her actions. And her actions were idiotic).  Then he throws her down and gets on top of her and hurray! The dog has magically come to the rescue! But of course, he's going to hurt the dog. So those maternal stereotypical female instincts kick in and she bashes him with a rock and then he falls unconscious onto her... and this knocks her out. Knocks her right out. Gives her a concussion and leaves her unconscious for about a day. But actually whacking the guy in the head with a brick hard enough to draw blood? Oh, he's fine, and getting up again, or at least flailing groggily, when the dog brings DJ to the rescue. DJ promptly uses her vastly superior fighting skills to badly injure this concussed man (my hero). Sure, there was provocation, but she happily decided to kill him, but luckily the police turned up in time.

The guy in the ambulance prompting DJ to lie about her status in order to be allowed to see Erin at the hospital - on the one hand, incredibly lax security that doesn't seem believable (they never asked for ID?), on the other hand, nicely tying up a plot hole of 'family only in the hospital room').

Later on DJ also becomes insanely murderous on learning that he's in the same hospital as her beloved Erin (because she half killed him) and spends hours hunting him down, to absolutely no purpose because he was under guard.

So Erin wakes up and surprise, has patchy amnesia that conveniently omits all their bad history but includes all the good bits and everything she needs to actually function.

So, then there's a lot of DJ caring for Erin and Erin being in love with DJ and Erin's best friend from work turning up for two minutes and then saying to complete stranger DJ who she knows Erin has spoken to about three times, that obviously they needed to talk more. Because obviously the woman she works with everyday wouldn't be able to fill in any gaps half as well as the woman she has been estranged from for weeks and weeks and barely knew to start with.

And DJ takes Erin home and there's more looking after of, and Erin the fluff-brain seducing DJ into bed, and DJ nobly resisting (because Erin doesn't remember the bad stuff between them) for about... oh, a minute. And they play house for a little while, with Erin pretending to be independent and strong willed, and DJ pretending to respect her rights to make up her own mind while just being completely, creepily, overwhelmingly obsessed.

There's also a fair bit of trauma from the near rape, which I didn't have any problems with (and it is good that it was shown) except in that it was mostly an excuse to throw them together, and DJ manages to claim her share of trauma from her ex-girlfriend's rape which just became overdone. DJ's stoic and emotionally scarred. We get it.

After this, DJ talks to Jordan who asks all the important questions like 'why aren't you taking her to a counsellor?' and 'what exactly does she remember about you?'.

However... It Gets Better
From there,  for the last quarter of the book,  the story becomes a steady wrap up of romantic mutual goo (in a pretty good way), talking out trauma, and both women going back to the gym for regular punching of things. Our ladies have lots of sex all over the house (non explicit, this is not an erotica), the dog is cute, and both of them actually start dealing with their rape trauma believably. That's right, the rape trauma ended up being fairly well handled, and liberally diluted with lots of True Love to make it easier to read.So if you made it two thirds of the way through the book, you might as well read on to the end.

The sex was mostly composed of non-explicit 'we had sex and it was awesome', summarised or fade to black scenes, and was fine. The few forays into slightly more explicit territory showed hints of going downhill, but it never went further than hints (and I was feeling paranoid and uncharitable by this point, so was glad I didn't have to endure badly written sex and may have seen hints that did not exist).

The unbelievable bit, though standard romance fare, was the way that it was uniformly amazing and that Erin showed absolutely no inexperience or regrets over her previous straightness (or bisexuality?).

So, Some Summary Stuff
I do have major problems with the character of the rapist. A random guy on the street deciding to rape you because you bumped into each other is incredibly statistically unlikely. A far, far more logical and narratively satisfying rapist would be Erin's ex, the boyfriend she's fighting with and breaking up with at the start of the book. Remember him? He's the guy that turned into this complete non-story, and wasn't even that horrible a character? He could have been refusing to move on and harassing her for most of the book, in all that empty 'weeks passing, oh my heart is broken, I am moving on' space. An angry, bitter ex is a much, much better character to push it a bit too far, and it wouldn't perpetuate the really dumb myth of it always being a random stranger. It's usually someone you know.

I also have major issues with the way that the first two times DJ sleeps with Erin, it is in situations of dubious consent.The first time, she thought that Erin was really drunk (it's okay! Erin wasn't really! Supposedly! Which just adds in Erin being manipulative) and the second, well, Erin was amnesiac. And sure, she told Erin that there was some history that they needed to discuss, but she never made Erin sit down and listen to it, and Erin was obviously happily lost in a romantic haze of only remembering good things about DJ. Oh, and that concussion, of course.

This is really shown up by the earlier scene, in which a drunken, heartbroken, physically stronger DJ (who also happens to be the love of Jordan's life) is trying to seduce Jordan in similar circumstances and Jordan managed to stop literally at the threshold of her bedroom. Because obviously DJ can only sleep with Erin in this story. It was actually a really good to see someone stand up for themselves and their mentally compromised object of desire and you know, not take advantage of that. But DJ had to go and spoil it later.

Jordan was actually the only character I really liked.

This started out with potential, and the martial arts was written so well for a romance novel (in that it worked - not too detailed, but believable enough to picture and providing an ideal context for romantic tension and development). It's a shame that the story didn't stay in the gym, but had to wander off into exploring or creating baggage for the characters, while also avoiding any actual resolutions or personal growth and delving into some very disturbing situations in the name of throwing two supposed soul mates at each other (before finally, finally having them grow up a bit and accept that they are madly in love with each other and then explore that). When it went back to focusing fairly solidly on the romance and the MMA aspects (including another self defence class) it became a much better story.

While the end and the beginning of the book worked out alright, with the fighting and the romance, the middle really, really let it down.
You can download A Fighting Chance from Amazon and Smashwords.

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