Saturday, November 28, 2009

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "The Heart of Christmas," by Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and Courtney Milan

Once again, a Christmas anthology. I have to offer Courtney Milan a big thank-you for this, because I won it from her on Twitter and I'd been looking forward to it for a while. This collection has quite a bit to recommend it - it had a story by one of my all-time favourite authors (Mary Balogh), and stories by two newcomers to explore. Did it measure up? Read on.

"A Handful of Gold," by Mary Balogh.
The Chick: Verity Ewing, a.k.a. "Blanche Heyward." Outwardly a genteel young lady, she moonlights as an opera dancer to support her impoverished family - but the prices of her sister's medical bills keep getting higher.
The Rub: When a handsome, wealthy and jaded rake offers her a princely sum to accompany him on a week of debauchery, can she make the ultimate sacrifice?
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby. Knowing his father's planning to set him up with a boring bride, Julian decides he'll have one last hurrah before settling down - preferably a hurrah with popular opera dancer Blanche.
The Rub: Blanche turns out to have unexpected spirit - and Christmas spirit. Suddenly, Julian starts wondering what it'd be like to have her the other 364 days of the year.
Dream Casting: Matthew Goode.

The Plot:
Julian: Hey, five hundred pounds says you'll spend some not-so-Silent-nights with me.

"Blanche": ....sure.

Julian: Yay! A whole great week of sex and sex and...

"Blanche": Yay! Christmas! *arranges decorations* *snowball fights**delivers baby*

Julian: *no sex*

Julian: WOW. You're so ... so hot when you're all Christmasy and domestic!

"Blanche": I know, right?

Julian and "Blanche": *sexx0r*

"Blanche": Our love can never be! *escapes*

Julian: *tracks down* You're a moron.

Verity: Oh, well!

Julian: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Jaded Rake

1 Martyr Heroine with a Secret Identity

1 Lusty Yorkshire Ho

1 Surprise! Baby

1 Piece of Christmas Bling

The Word: Julian Dare, young Viscount Folingsby, is having a bit of a pre-life crisis. His dad is pressuring him to settle down, marry, and have an heir and Julian figures this is the year he'll finally get down to it. However, he wants one last blow-out so he accepts an invitation from a BFF to spend the holidays exploring the Twelve Positions of Christmas ("Two Lords A-Laying!") with their honeys at a rustic hunting lodge.

As he has no current mistress, Julian sets his sights on Blanche Heyward, a shapely opera dancer. Unbeknownst to him, "Blanche" is really Verity Ewing, a poor gentlewoman who dances to support her family, particularly her ill sister Chastity who requires expensive medication. Despite her efforts, the bills keep mounting up, and when Julian offers her 500 pounds (250 up front) she figures it would be selfish to refuse when her sister's life is at stake.

She sounds like such a martyr, doesn't she? However, Julian discovers the extent of Verity's innocence once they reach the hunting lodge, and considers martyrdom to be a complete bonerkill. He very grumpily prepares to be the One Unsexed Partridge in a Pear Tree while his friend and his Yorkshire ho get it on. Feeling a little guilty, Verity decides to earn those 500 pounds a different way by providing Christmas cheer.

I enjoyed this story, for the most part. Balogh actually injects a religious element into the story, particularly the theme of the star of Bethlehem, that I really appreciated. I'm a practicing Catholic, but I understand the PC-ness of most of the Christmas narratives on film and in books today that mention Santa and Frosty and Rudolph but never Jesus. However, it was lovely to read a story that entwines the religious symbolism of Christmas into a story without becoming preachy. Still - Verity was a little annoying. I appreciated that her martyrdom is depicted as a flaw, but she just keeps doing it, even at the end when she runs away like a cowardly French Hen. I also didn't buy her return to society at the end and the lack of concern that she might be recognized as Blanche.

So, while I can't help but enjoy everything that Mary Balogh writes, this story only rates a B.

"The Season for Suitors," by Nicola Cornick
The Chick: Clara Davencourt. Shot down 18 months ago by the Duke of Fleet when she proposed marriage, she swears she feels nothing for him now! Nothing!
The Rub: Surprise! She's wrong!
Dream Casting: Alison Lohman.

The Dude: Sebastian Fleet, Duke of Fleet. He loves Clara more than he's ever loved another human being, experiencing physical pain when they're apart.
The Rub: Too bad he can't marry her, cause... he's got guilt, and angst...and stuff.
Dream Casting: A younger Christopher Reeves.

The Plot:
Clara: I HATE YOU, Sebastian! You're a RANK SCOUNDREL!

Sebastian: What? You invited me here!

Clara: I need you to protect me from other rakes and rank scoundrels.

Sebastian: Uh, no. But I'll fondle you at a ball. And in your parlour.

Clara: Does this mean you'll marry me?

Sebastian: Nope. Because of a dark and shady shadowy secret in my past that influences every one of my present actions.

Clara: Is that all? *gets Sebastian drunk*

Sebastian: *shitfaced* Marry me?

Clara: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Spirited Heiress

1 Angsty Rake with a Dark Past

1 Inconveniently Dead Brother

2 Babies

Several Nosy Servants

The Word: Crazy. That's the word for this story. CRAY-ZAY. This story is just off-the-charts, flat-out, hilariously nonsensical. Our protagonists may seem like run-of-the-mill romance protagonists, and they may spout lines that have been found in romance novels, but there is a complete dearth of motivation, rhyme or reason to this entire piece.

What makes this story unique is that it's so bad it's almost good, in a cheestatic way. Clara Davencourt once proposed marriage to the Duke of Fleet, only to be refused. Now she swears she feels nothing for him - but that doesn't stop her from inviting him over to help her with a problem. Turns out she's inherited quite a bit of cash from a dead (fairy?) godmother and now all sorts of fortune hunters are trying to compromise her. Basically, she wants Rake Lessons to keep from being compromised and who better to give her one than the Duke of Fleet?

Sebastian refuses point-blank and the Rake Lessons plot point is dropped. Oh well. Clara and Sebastian meet again at a party where Clara declares she feels nothing for Sebastian and Sebastian declares that he really likes Clara but he can't marry because of something awful in his past that occurred on Christmas. When he was twelve. Sebastian smooches Clara and Clara insults him and then Sebastian leaves in a huff and then Clara mopes that Sebastian doesn't love her even though five minutes ago she was giving him shit for kissing her. Sebastian shows up at Clara's house in the evening with presents for his godchildren and in another moment they're on the floor and Sebastian gives Clara her first orgasm but then he's all "We mustn't! This is WRONG! MY SECRETLY DARK SHADOWY PAST COMPELS ME!"

Yes, when Sebastian was twelve, his eight-year-old brother fell through some thin ice and since than he's blamed himself. He can't possibly be faithful to a woman because the trauma of losing a brother at 12 makes him a constantly horny Man-Ho. Ohnoez. But then - DOUBLE OHNOEZ! - Clara falls through some ice the next day just like his brother did, right when Sebastian is passing by. The horror! The ANGST! She lives, of course, but figures out that Sebastian loves her, and would totally marry her if only the frozen corpse of his eight-year-old brother didn't constantly hang over him like a gruesome ghostly pinata. Which is when she decides to get him falling-down drunk because that's the only way he'll confess his feelings.

This story is so ridiculous and contrived it nearly veers into parody - particularly the Duke of Fleet, who's like Courage the Cowardly Dog. He's afraid of responsibility, he's afraid of his feelings, he's afraid of babies and skating and quite possibly large spiders, too. He's a big giant whiner with the flimsiest of motivations for refusing marriage but it's quite fun to watch him scurry and cower from the various Plot Devices gunning for his character development. Near the end, he's actually so terrified of the prospect of sexxin' the heroine that he can't get it up right away!

So yeah, this wasn't exactly a slow or boring read - but man, as a serious story it fails on so many levels. The characters are flat and one-dimensional, their motivations and driving forces contrived or non-existent. There is no real connection from scene to scene, no realistic force that carries the characters from one decision to another. The story moves along like a rabid monkey - swinging from weak plot device to weak plot device without ever really touching on something grounded, solid and well-developed. C.

"This Wicked Gift," by Courtney Milan
The Chick: Lavinia Spencer. When her brother not only blows her Christmas money on a scam artist but winds up ten pounds in debt, what's an impoverished but sexy librarian to do?
The Rub: Well, her secret crush will erase her debt if he can have his way with her. What could possibly go wrong?
Dream Casting: Alyson Hannigan.

The Dude: William White. A dirt-poor counting clerk, he's worked himself to the bone, and when his last hope at rising above the poverty line leaves him only a paltry ten pounds instead, he might as well use it to get the girl he's always wanted.
The Rub: Now that he's actually paid to have her, how can he ever get her to forgive him, and learn to forgive himself as well?
Dream Casting: Matthew Macfadyen.

The Plot:
Lavinia: I'm ten pounds in debt!

William: I'm holding your debt! I accept Visa, Mastercard, and sex.

Lavinia and William: *sexx0r*

William: I am an awful human being who has ruined something precious.

Lavinia: Actually you don't owe me anything.

William: I am too poor and hateful for your love!

Lavinia: No, really, I'm fine...

Duplicitous Solicitor: Want to screw over your relations for money?

William: Uh, no.

Future Hero of Proof By Seduction: Want to help me secure financial independence? You're hired!

Lavinia: Huh, guess that scratches both "poor" and "hateful" off your list. Let's get married!

William: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Sexy Librarian

1 Idiot Brother

1 Imaginary Middle Initial

1 Inconvenient Inheritance

1 Duplicitous Solicitor

The Word: Honestly, I didn't quite believe the hype. And there's been a lot of hype about Courtney Milan, she who touted the prettiest bookmarks at RWA 2009 as well as a shitload of promo for a book that wasn't due out for another seven months (Proof By Seduction debuts in January). But holy CATS I believe it now! "This Wicked Gift" is worth the price of this entire anthology and, I feel a little guilty saying, totally kicks Mary Balogh's story's ass.

Our heroine is Lavinia Spencer, a no-nonsense, super-efficient librarian who discovers, to her dismay, that her brother James has fallen for the Regency equivalent of the Nigerian Prince E-Mail scam. He not only lost the money she'd carefully saved to provide a decent Christmas celebration for their impoverished family, but the con artist is now holding a 10-pound debt over her brother's head.

While browsing the shelves, library regular William White overhears their argument. He's even poorer than the Spencers - his father died a ruined man when William was only 14, and he's been slaving away in poverty on his own ever since. Recently, he'd discovered that his father's former business partner (who'd reneged on his promise to provide for William) had died leaving him a puny legacy of ten pounds, destroying any remaining hopes that he might have something other than abject poverty in his future. As he's always held a longing in his heart for the lovely Lavinia, he gets an idea.

Okay, so by this point I was thinking, "Is this going to be a 19th-century Can't Buy Me Love deal?" But it goes so much darker and deeper than that, exploring morality, poverty, and the expectations of love regarding both. Historical romances in general tend to avoid or lessen the threat of poverty as a plot conflict - at least one of the protagonists is already insanely wealthy. Sure, some novels may linger over the poverty of the other protagonist (usually, let's face it, the heroine) but there's always the obvious safety net that the man of her dreams is richer than God. In the case of "This Wicked Gift," both protagonists are poorer than churchmice, and the idea of how love can survive in such a tense environment of financial want isn't swept under the rug (although it is solved, in a very realistic and delightful fashion).

I adored William White. He is a very, very flawed character and Courtney Milan takes a risk with what he does in this story but it pays off in spades. With gorgeous, melodic writing not unlike that of Julie Ann Long, Milan movingly conveys William's despair and hopelessness that motivate his actions, as well as how he eventually comes to rise above his circumstances. Lavinia is an excellent foil - she's much more optimistic and can-do than William, but also controlling and occasionally condescending.

And have I mentioned the writing? I bitched in my review of The Christmas Countess that I felt there was a shortage of beautiful, original writing in romance - a language of rhythm and poetry and evocativeness - well, it's writing like Courtney Milan's (and Julie Anne Long's, and Mary Balogh's, and Laura Kinsale's) that I want to read in romance, the reason I read romance in the first place. Thank you, Courtney Milan, for this truly was a wicked gift. Uh, "wicked" the way the kids say it. A+

Taking the whole anthology into account, we have a solid entry from the ever-dependable Mary Balogh, a crazy-ass story by Nicola Cornick that's fun to giggle over, and a truly magnificent story by Courtney Milan. If you're looking for a wonderful Christmas romance, get The Heart of Christmas for "This Wicked Gift" - with a "Handful of Gold" as a lovely bonus.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Christmas Countess," by Adrienne Basso

Alternate Title: Mother Lover

The Chick: Rebecca Tremaine (no, not that Rebecca Tremaine). Six years ago, she thought the illegitimate child she'd given birth to had been stillborn. She's shocked to discover her baby was given away, instead - to a wealthy earl and his wife.
The Rub: As far as Society is concerned, the Earl is the girl's legal parent, so if Rebecca wants to see her child, it has to be on his terms.
Dream Casting: Samantha Morton.

The Dude: Cameron Sinclair, the Earl of Hampton. After his beloved wife died, his daughter Lily was the only thing that kept him sane, and he'll be damned if he lets anyone else take her away.
The Rub: He frankly doesn't know what to expect when meeting Lily's biological mother - but a strong and insistent attraction isn't one of them.
Dream Casting: James Purefoy.

The Plot:
*to the tune of Winter Wonderland*

Rebecca: Older bro, are you listenin'?
My baby girl, I've been missin'.
Turns out she not dead!
She's a lady, instead,
Brought up by a handsome, wealthy earl.

Cameron: No one knows, I'm not my kid's dad,
She kept me sane, when things got real bad.
I've raised her up well,
So you can all go to hell,
'Cause I am a handsome, wealthy earl.

Charlotte, Cameron's Sister: I am full of angst and body issues,
Because I'm sheltered and I have a limp.
See, my romance only gets a subplot!
Lovin' sure ain't easy for a gimp.

Rebecca: Naughty thoughts, I've been getting,
About Cameron, and I've been betting,
Under some mistletoe,
I'll be his ho-ho-ho,
And he'll be my handsome, wealthy earl.

Cameron: My sexy hips, they've been thrustin',
And my pants, are tight to bustin',
Sure the plot is contrived,
Look! My yule log's arrived!
I am such a handsome, wealthy earl.

Rebecca: ...

Cameron: See, the Yule Log is a euphemism...

Rebecca: I get it.

Cameron: my pants...

Rebecca: Yup. Got it. I'll marry you.

Cameron: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Widowed Single Dad

1 Inconveniently Dead Fiance

1 Precocious Child

1 Gimp Sister

1 Hot Brother

1 Secondary Romance (Cameron's Gimp Sister with Rebecca's Hot Brother)

1 Christmas Tree

1 Near-Drowning

The Word: For all the faults that this novel had, I can't fault it for an unoriginal plot: Six years ago, Rebecca Tremaine gave herself to her beloved fiance, Phillip. Not long after she discovered she was pregnant, Phillip was killed in a freak accident before they could wed. When she finally delivered her illegitimate baby, her parents told her it was stillborn.

The novel opens as Rebecca, going through her deceased father's paperwork, discovers her daughter actually survived, and that her parents had given her away to a wealthy childless couple to hide their daughter's shame. Shocked and betrayed, but desperate to see the daughter she never knew, Rebecca entreats her brother Daniel to meet with the adoptive father - Cameron Sinclair, the Earl of Hampton.

Cameron and his wife Christina adopted the girl, Lily, shortly after miscarrying for the fourth time, and passed her off as their own. Now widowed, Cameron believes he is the only one living who knows Lily isn't his natural child and he's none too pleased when Daniel informs him that Lily's biological mother would like the chance to see her. Fiercely protective of his little girl's state of mind and her reputation in society, he'd prefer to deny the Tremaines any involvement in his child's life. While the Tremaines are mere gentry, Daniel informs the Earl that he's not without influence and, furthermore, possesses a letter proving Lily isn't Cameron's.

Cameron caves, but not before he first tries to scare Rebecca away by being intimidating, and then by imposing strict limits on her visits with Lily. When neither of these attempts work - and he starts to feel more sympathy for Rebecca's plight - he finally decides to invite her and Daniel to a big Christmas house party at his estate. This way, Rebecca will have the opportunity to meet with her daughter in a crowded public setting without raising suspicion.

Okay, so here we have a plot ripe with conflict and intrigue - a truly sensitive, painful situation where no one is really to blame. Rebecca has to struggle with the fact that she has no legal rights to Lily, and that revealing her situation will only do her daughter more harm than good. Cameron adores his daughter and doesn't want to dishonour his late wife's memory by letting anyone else take care of Lily, but once again - more harm than good?

However, despite the original set-up, the novel quickly loses steam. Yes, the idea is good, but the execution is tedious, dully-written, cutesy, and often historically inaccurate. I realize that once the house party starts, the story becomes low-conflict and more character-driven, but the writing style fails to do it justice. I've discovered this distressingly often in lesser romance novels: the Captain Obvious writing style. It's not a case of telling over showing - it's a case of showing and telling. It's when the character's dialogue or actions show the reader perfectly clearly but the author has to tell us as well - just in case! Basically, the reader has to wade through endlessly repetitive and redundant sentences that weigh down the plot like so much literary clutter.

I know romance readers aren't stupid, and you know romance readers aren't stupid - but books like these are what make me understand how the genre's detractors could get that impression. The author treats her readers like five-year-olds who need to be informed that when a character smiles it means she happy and when he scowls it means he's mad, and her writing has all the subtlety of a rampaging elephant.

However, perhaps I'm exaggerating this point simply because I've encountered so many romances with this particular style of writing that it just raises my frustration a notch higher. There can be ambiguity in romance novels! Different interpretations of certain narrative points aren't a bad thing! Objectively, the writing isn't horrible - it's just conventional and obvious and overused and I want something more. As well, the historical setting is pretty lacklustre. The characters think and say a lot of phrases that seemed anachronistic - correct me if I'm wrong, but would "Geeze, what now?" have been said in 1845 England? Or "She looked sexy"? Or "She drove him nuts"?

It's not only the writing - other writers (such as Lisa Kleypas) can make up for lacklustre technique with emotional punch, narrative energy, and interesting, well-developed characters. Most of the characters in The Christmas Countess are vaguely formed, and usually dependent on a very limited set of motivations and characteristics. for instance, Charlotte is focused entirely on her gimp leg. It's understandable that it would be her focus, certainly, but we don't get an indication of who she is as a character beyond her deformity. The whole point of her subplot is that her disability doesn't define her, but the author fails to give us any definition beyond that point - besides how shy and retiring and giggly she is. We only learn her interests and her passions at the very end, when she tells her love interest point-blank. In one sentence.

Our heroine Rebecca is similarly ill-drawn. The minute she finds out about Lily she is a-fire with maternal instinct, longing to hold and mother her. This is a huge theme throughout the book and a legitimate conflict in her character, that she wants to be a mother to her daughter but she can't. Lily's better off as the daughter of an earl than the bastard of a dead barrister, and Rebecca bemoans the fact that her contact with Lily is destined to be impermanent. However, near the end of the book, when Cameron proposes to her after a night of lovemaking, she refuses. Because her feelings, they are so complicated.

Suddenly, the chance to become the permanent, undisputed mother and guardian to the daughter she's missed for six years now takes a back seat to her own angst. This. MAKES. NO. SENSE! She's a mother whose daughter was taken from her! She has absolutely no legal rights over her child - if Cameron decided to pack Lily off to a Julia Quinn novel she'd have no say. Her desire to be in her child's life has influenced all of her actions up until this point! And yet, when she's offered a chance to permanently be in her child's life she waffles because, oh, will it be a love match? Are you KIDDING ME? That's what's most important to you? Raising your own child with a man who's wealthy, caring and good in bed is nice, but heaven forbid you should settle with a man with whom you're merely content. If that's the case, screw Lily!

So, while I'll give Adrienne Basso credit for coming up with an unconventional plot, her execution of it is average at best. All the holly and mistletoe and cutesy precocious children can't make up for a lack of character consistency, uninspired writing, and a wallpaper historical setting. Give this book a lump of coal.

Monday, November 23, 2009

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "Snowy Night with a Stranger," by Jane Feather, Sabrina Jeffries, and Julia London

For the first entry in my Big Christmas Review, I chose Snowy Night with a Stranger - partly because I heard good things, but mostly because I found a copy in my library for free. Yes, I'm cheap. But still! Will this anthology fill me with tidings of comfort and joy? Read on!

"A Holiday Gamble" by Jane Feather
The Chick: Lady Georgiana "Georgie" Carey. Her slimy cousin and guardian's planning on forcing her to marry his business partner in order to get his hands on her inheritance.
The Rub: Unexpected newcomer Viscount Allenton doesn't seem like her cousin's other skeevy houseguests - could he possibly help her pull off her daring escape?
Dream Casting: Gemma Arterton.

The Dude: Edward "Ned" Vasey, Viscount Allenton. Offered shelter by Lord Selby when a blizzard closes the roads, he dislikes the lord's rather shady friends but is charmed by his host's cousin, Georgiana, whom he suspects is smarter than she looks.
The Rub: Georgiana's up to her neck in trouble, and her sinister guardians are all too willing to fleece Ned as well.
Dream Casting: Hellboy's Rupert Evans.

The Plot:

Ned: What-ho, off to spend Christmas with friends!

Mother Nature: Like HELL you will! *blizzard*

Lord Selby: Come and join my pants-optional Christmas party!

Ned: Oh....kay.

Selby: Come meet my virtuous and gullible ward!

Georgiana: *lies* *cheats* *steals* Who, me?

Ned: Let's blow this popsicle stand.

Georgiana: Thank GOD.

Ned and Georgiana: *escape* Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Pickpocket Heroine
1 Romantically Lacklustre and Abusive Rival
1 Inconvenient Inheritance

1 Hidden Will

The Word: Ned Vasey is on his way to what he thinks will be a very dull Christmas party. His brother's death has left him with an unwanted title, an impoverished estate, and new duties that require him to leave his burgeoning financial empire in India. At this party, he plans to propose to an old childhood friend in order to cross "Heir and a Spare" off of his growing To-Do List.

Unfortunately, Ned is robbed by a pickpocket, and a huge-ass blizzard buries the road. He's forced to take shelter at a nearby manor. The manor's owner, Lord Selby, initially offers him a warm and generous welcome, introducing him to a house full of Yuletide guests - as well as his lovely ward Georgiana.

As Ned is soon to find out, however, nothing is quite as it seems - particularly Georgiana. Even though she's an heiress, her sleazy cousin's locked up her assets pretty tight by hiding her parents' will and affiancing her to his violent brute of a business partner. She puts on a blindly obedient face to fool her superiors while secretly playing every con trick in the book for the extra funds she's amassing to plan a jailbreak. Ned unsettles her, mainly because he seems to be the only one who notices her innocent front is only a front. However, he admires her cunning and gumption in the face of skeeviness.

I admired Georgiana too, in theory. In practice, however, I was rather bored. Much like how I reacted to my first attempt at Feather (Almost a Lady), nothing is offensive or intolerable about her writing or her characters, but nothing's grippingly interesting, either. Georgiana, a woman who cheats, lies and steals to escape an unwanted marriage, is the only redeeming character. Ned Vasey is charming and genial and relatively quick-witted - but the story never digs much deeper than this superficial description. The story is refreshingly free of horrid cliches and huge leaps in realism - but at the same time, there's no spice, no juicy conflict. I read the whole story feeling rather detached from the characters and events, and in the end, wasn't that much entertained. B-

"When Sparks Fly," by Sabrina Jeffries
The Chick: Elinor "Ellie" Bancroft. Travelling with her aunt and rambunctious cousins for the holidays, one of her carriages veers off the road, injuring her aunt and stranding the whole group. However, they are soon rescued by a passing nobleman.
The Rub: A passing nobleman who (gasp!) hates Christmas!
Dream Casting: Anna Maxwell Martin.

The Dude: Martin Thorncliff, Baron Thorncliff, aka the "Black Baron." So nicknamed for his involvement in the suspicious death of his older brother, Martin turned his back on Society - and on Christmas, the holiday upon which his sibling died.
The Rub: Ellie might be just the girl to inject some Christmas spirit back into his life - but what will happen when she discovers the truth of his past?
Dream Casting: Sacha Baron Cohen.

The Plot
Ellie: Our carriage flipped! Will no one help us?

Martin: Bah humbug!

Ellie: Watch you're language! There are children! It's Christmas!

Martin: Bah humbug! I hate children! I hate Christmas!

Ellie: What do you like?

Martin: Explosives. Endless self-recriminations. And women with low self-esteem who are prone to making ridiculous assumptions.

Ellie: Really? Hooray!

Little "Charlie" Dickens: I am totally ripping off Sabrina Jeffries when I grow up!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Plain Jane Heiress with Low Self-Esteem

1 All-Inclusive Guilt Trip

Several Barrels of Gunpowder

1 Fictionalized Real-Life Character (little Charlie Dickens!)

1 Unfortunately Exploded Brother

Several Big Misunderstandings

The Word: It's funny that right after I read a story that bores me, despite its realism and lack of cliches, I get a story that's far more interesting, despite being chockful of them.

Ellie is an heiress who is plump and wears glasses (ye gads!) and such monstrous deformities have driven all eligible men away in vomiting droves, leaving only obvious fortune hunters to ask for her hand. As she travels with her aunt and her cousins to a Christmas party, thinking of ways to convince her father to allow her to give up on marriage altogether, one of their carriages skids down an embankment and into a river, injuring her aunt.

They are rescued by a sooty, black-clad baron named Martin Thorncliff, with whom Ellie has an instant connection, and by instant connection, I mean they both immediately jump to completely and ridiculously wrong conclusions about each other. Martin assumes Ellie is a spoiled brat (he even thinks her glasses are a ditsy affectation), and Ellie assumes that Martin is poor. In reality, Martin is an inventive chemist who specializes in Blowing Shit Up (specifically, Blowing Shit Up Without Also Blowing Beloved Family Members Up On Popular Religious Holidays), and thinks his vocation is too dangerous to risk a wife and family. And Ellie, well, she wears glasses and is unfashionably curvy - in Regency Romancelandia, she's practically the Hunchback of Notre Dame!

Okay, so the general story is kind of ludicrous - Jeffries manages to shoehorn in an impressive number of misunderstandings into a novella-length narrative - but it's still cheesetastic fun. Other than the requisite I'm Too Ugly To Be Loved Because Of My Corrective Eyewear angst, Ellie is rather sensible, and wastes little time in telling Martin that he's an angsty moron. And yes, Ellie's cousins bring along their little friend Charlie Dickens, and there are several twee hints about how the whole situation will inspire A Christmas Carol, because when I think "Scrooge," a devastatingly handsome mine owner with guilt issues and a taste in explosives is exactly what comes to mind! Personally, I think it'd be more likely that exposure to Martin and his obsession with fuses and explosions inspired Dickens' real-life belief in Spontaneous Human Combustion as a Plot Point (read Bleak House if you don't believe me).

That being said, while it was a more lively and engaging narrative than Jane Feather's contribution - at times it was a little too cheesy and repetitive. B

"Snowy Night with a Highlander" by Julia London
The Chick: Lady Fiona Haines. To warn her brother that the Prince Regent's men are looking to arrest him, she's forced to leave comfortable London society behind and return to Scotland, under the supervision of Laird Duncan Buchanan, the arrogant brute who humiliated her so many years ago.
The Rub: Thankfully, the laird's too busy to take her, so she only has to deal with his masked, but compellingly attractive, servant - conveniently also named Duncan. Huh, what are the odds?
Dream Casting: Gosford Park's Kelly Macdonald.

The Dude: Laird Duncan Buchanan. Horribly scarred and disfigured thanks to a fire, the once-arrogant man's become a guilty recluse. Thankfully, when he escorts Fiona across the Highlands, she doesn't recognize him under his face-coverings.
The Rub: He quickly comes to admire and love Fiona - but she still has all-too-sharp memories of what an asshat he used to be before the fire. How will she feel when she discovers the truth?
Dream Casting: Ewan McGregor.

The Plot:
King George's Friends: Warn your brother! Prinny's out for his ass!

Fiona: I have to go back to Scotland? Ew. Escorted by Jackass Extraordinaire Duncan Buchanan? Double-ew!

Duncan: 'Sup.

Fiona: Wow, your name is Duncan? And yet you work for Duncan! Isn't it a strange coincidence that you're both named Duncan?

Duncan: ....Yes. Yes it is.

Fiona: Wanna trade stories about what an asshole Duncan is?

Duncan: Maybe later. *mopes*

Tenants: Merry Christmas, Laird!

Fiona: WHAT THE HELL. I am a moron.

Duncan: That's what I love about you, baby.

Fiona: Okay, fine, we'll get married.

Duncan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Seriously Scarred Hero

1 Hungry Wolf

1 Mistaken Identity

Several Happy Tenants

The Word: Coming right out with it, this is my favourite story in the entire collection. Once again, I underestimate Julia London. My bad! This story manages to pack quite a emotional wallop, as well as some subtlety and excellent plotting.

Lady Fiona Haines is a Scottish expatriate living the high life in London when some friends of King George warn her the Prince is gunning for her brother Jack (the hero of London's Highland Scandal), for the charge of sleeping with the Princess of Wales. Whether it's true or not, Prinny wants to make an example of Jack so that he'll have an excuse to divorce his despised wife.

Fiona, it seems, must find her brother somewhere in Scotland and warn him to hide if he doesn't want to risk being hung even better than he already is (wink wink). Even worse, her bro was last reported seen at Blackwood, the estate of Laird Duncan Buchanan, the entitled douchebag who insulted Fiona at a ball and made her leave Scotland in the first place years before. She's never forgotten nor forgiven the insult (he compared her to a woodchuck), and rumours of the Laird's scandalous behaviour have only confirmed him as a Jackass of the highest order.

Unbeknownst to her, the years have not been kind to Duncan. At the height of his careless, carousing lifestyle, a fire ripped through his mansion during a drunken house party, severely burning him and killing one of his close friends. Society made him a pariah, and his own guilt made him a recluse. He wears an eyepatch, a low hat, and several scarves to hide his deformity when he meets Fiona to take her to Blackwood, and when she mistakes him for a servant, he decides not to correct her.

I think both Sabrina Jeffries and Julia London tried to provide a Beauty and the Beast-type story but London manages it so much better. Duncan is truly a wonderful and compelling character. He wasn't scarred in a war or a battle or saving a basket of kittens from a burning orphanage - he got shitfaced with his friends around a bunch of candles and now one of his friends is dead because of it. The story never sugarcoats the fact that he really was a jackhole back in the day, but now, with a crippled arm and ravaged face, he's a very repentant jackhole, haunted by the disastrous consequences of his thoughtless actions. While he's managed to improve himself as a person and as a laird, he still thinks he's up for a few more helpings of humble pie with an extra drizzle of guilt for his just desserts (damn, now I'm hungry).

I liked the heroine almost as much. Fiona Haines is an unabashedly pampered society miss and makes no attempt to hide the fact, much to my delight. Julia London gives her (along with the expected City Girl Tramping Through the Highlands Is Re-Introduced To The Wonders of Country Life development) a subtle and moving nationalist awakening. Having rejected the supposedly rustic Scottish lifestyle for the sophisticated London set, she gradually recovers her Scottish nationalism and appreciation of Scottish life and culture as she travels with Duncan, after years living according to England's rules.

However, along with all this goodness, there were a few flaws - mainly some logistical inconsistencies regarding how Fiona never recognizes Duncan even when he removes his scarves (he's only burned on one part of his face). Also, Fiona bases her resoundingly negative appraisal of Duncan's character on the one insult he made about her on the one time they met eight years ago - this seemed a little much for a comment about how much she resembled a woodchuck. I really didn't understand how an insult a third-grader could make would bother her to such an extent.

That being said, this story was delightful, and easily the best in the collection. A-

While none of these stories was terrible, there was only one that I truly enjoyed (Julia London's "Snowy Night with a Highlander"). Taking an average of the three grades, I will have to give Snowy Night with a Stranger a solid, if unexceptional, B

AnimeJune's Big Giant Christmas Review!

It's that time of year, folks, when I finally have an excuse to read and review the plethora of Christmas themed romance novels and anthologies that pop up like snowmen during the holiday season! Hooray!

And I have a delightful line-up for you - first up is the Jane Feather/Sabrina Jeffries/Julia London anthology, Snowy Night with a Stranger, followed by The Christmas Countess, by Adrienne Bosso, and after that, I'll be tackling The Heart of Christmas, an anthology of novellas from Queen of Awesomeness Mary Balogh, Nicola Cornick, and the wonderful Courtney Milan, who was kind enough to give me a free copy when I won a contest on Twitter.

There will be a short break whereupon I will read and review Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, the prequel of sorts to Devil's Cub, thanks to the wonderful folks over at Sourcebooks.

BACK TO CHRISTMAS THEMED ROMANCES! Snow! Holly! Mistletoe! Gingerbread debauchery and peppermint scandal!

The Holiday Inn anthology, headlined by Farrah Rochon is next (thanks to the wonderful Booksmugglers, from whom I won this book last year), followed by Eloisa James' An Affair Before Christmas (which I won last year from her messageboard in a short story contest), and then (again, thank you Booksmugglers!) I review This Year's Christmas Present, an anthology led by Nina Bangs (whom I met I RWA!)

There will be another short break, in which I will read a novel by Laura Kinsale that I cannot review until January because the book's not out until February, but am reading it in December so that I can ship it to my fellow Kinsale-a-holic Kat from BookThingo, who lives in Australia, and I just assume that it will take a while to reach her because Kangaroo Mail travels so slowly, what with all the hopping - almost as slow as my Canadian Polar Bear Mail (but the melting ice caps are speeding things up as of late!).

And after that, to celebrate the end of my Big Giant Christmas Review, I am holding a Second Chance Challenge with Wandergurl from BookThingo. Basically, for the Second Chance Challenge, I challenge a blogger who has given up on an author I loved after only one book - to try another book by the same author, while I give a second chance to a favourite author of hers that I've placed on my Do Not Read list after a single attempt. In return for Wandergurl giving Laura Kinsale a second chance by reading Prince of Midnight, I will be giving Nalini Singh a second chance to win me over by reading Caressed By Ice - Ice! C'mon! It's Winter-Themed! It totally fits! Totally!

Here's hoping for Happy Holidays, dear readers! Happy Festivus, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Smugglivus to everyone - and Merry Christmas to those of us who don't believe Frosty the Snowman melted on the candy cane cross for our sins!

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Desperate Duchesses," by Eloisa James

Alternate Title: The Jemma/Beaumont/Villiers Variety Chess Hour (guest-starring Roberta St. Giles and Damon Reeve)

The Chick: Roberta St. Giles. Sick and tired of being embarrassed by her eccentric poet father, Roberta wants a suave, sophisticated gentleman who isn't a slave to his emotions - and the Duke of Villiers is just the one.
The Rub: She's set on marrying Villiers, but who says she can't get some nookie on the sly from her patroness' sexy brother Damon?
Dream Casting: Bryce Dallas Howard.

The Dude: Damon Reeve, Earl of Gryffyn. In town visiting the Duchess of Beaumont, he's almost immediately attracted to her new ward, Roberta.
The Rub: She's in love with the biggest Asshat in London. What's a poor single dad to do? Make out with her, of course!
Dream Casting: Simon Baker.

The Plot:
Roberta: I'm in love with Villiers!

Jemma: That's nice, dear. I'm in the middle of a chess game.

Roberta: I'm in love with Villiers!

Damon: You're a moron. An adorably sexy moron.

Harriet, Duchess of Berrow: I want revenge on Villiers!

Jemma: Huh, I just discovered a huge-ass stone to kill two birds with.

Villiers: I want to have sex with Jemma!

Jemma: You want to marry Roberta.

Villiers: I want to marry Roberta!

Roberta: YAY!

Villiers: Wait, no I don't.

Roberta and Damon: *sexx0r*

Villiers: Wait wait wait, yes I do!

Damon: Too late!

Villiers: WHORE!

Damon: *stabs with sword*

Villiers: ...exit stage left!

Elijah, Jemma's Husband: How many books until ours, darling?

Jemma: Just three more.

Elijah: DAMMIT!

Damon and Roberta: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Single Dad Hero

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

2 Angry Spouses

1 Big Pimpin' Poet Parent

1 Precocious Child

Several Games of Chess

1 Game of Strip Dominoes

Too Much Strawberry Champagne

The Word: This is going to be a bit of an unconventional review. When I first started reading Eloisa James (my first book of hers being Duchess By Night), I was confused. There are many fans of the Desperate Duchesses series on the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn messageboard, but there were so many people who were purported fans of certain characters who hadn't even had books yet (primarily, Jemma, Elijah, and Villiers). Reading Desperate Duchesses, the first book in the series, helped clear this up a bit, as I discovered that an Eloisa James series is a bit of a different creature from a regular romantic series.

Essentially, while Desperate Duchesses was a wonderful book, it wasn't that good of a romance. How so? Keep reading.

Roberta St. Giles, daughter of the Mad Marquess, is at her wits' end. Her father, an eccentrically romantic poet who lives with his courtesan, Mrs. Grope, has effectively scared off every hope of a suitor with his melodramatic and unpredictable behaviour. While her father is off humiliating himself at a ball, Roberta runs into the Duke of Villiers, a famously fashionable, elegant, and disdainful aristocrat. Instead of being repulsed, Roberta considers Villiers' coldness a turn-on: here is a husband who won't humiliate his wife with public theatrics. Here is a husband who won't rule with the whim of an artistic temperament. Essentially, Villiers represents everything that Dear Ol' Dad is not, and Roberta won't rest until she has him.

To achieve her goal, she leaves her dad in the country and repairs to the townhouse of Jemma, the Duchess of Beaumont, claiming distant kinship. Jemma, recently returned from Paris, is delighted to have a new project - as is her brother Damon, who is visiting with his illegitimate son, Teddy. Both are nonplussed, however, when they discover Villiers is the object of Roberta's affection.

Jemma still agrees to help Roberta, although she has her own agenda in mind. Her dear friend Harriet, widowed duchess of Berrow (and heroine of Duchess by Night), after revealing the horrendous treatment she received at Villiers' hands and the part he played in her husband's suicide, wants Jemma to help exact her revenge on the duke, as publicly and humiliatingly as possible. And what could be more embarrassing, or more public, than to trap the amoral rake into marriage? Jemma baits the trap by challenging the famously-competitive man to a chess match, although her plans go a bit awry when her estranged husband Elijah challenges her as well.

It's all a deliciously frothy drama stew, with some colourful and engaging characters and dialogue - but as a romance I don't think it meets the criteria. There is a lot going on in this book: along with Roberta and Damon (who tries to seduce her away from Villiers every chance he gets), we have the chess matches between Jemma and Villiers, lots of wonderfully written and layered repartee between Jemma and her husband Elijah, some chess between Jemma and Elijah, Elijah's flirtation with Charlotte Tatlock, and Villiers being Villiers (i.e. an ASS).

As an introduction to a series of novels, it's a marvelous and well-paced introduction. We get just enough meat with Harriet, Villiers, Jemma and Elijah to give us an idea of their stories and characters and tantalize us into wanting to read their eventual books, while at the same time providing an overarching narrative that concludes satisfactorily by novel's end.

However - the narrative is not Roberta and Damon's. The general definition, I've come to understand, of a romance novel is that the interaction between the heroine and the hero (or several heroes, if you're reading certain forms of a erotica) is the main story. However, as much as I enjoyed the development of Roberta and Damon's relationship, it's relegated to the role of a subplot, the sum of pages devoted to their romance barely enough to fill a novella. Roberta has a very simplistic reason for being "in love" with Villiers and she gets over it fairly quickly once Damon starts puttin' the moves on her. Similarly, it's never really made clear exactly what Damon finds so appealing about Roberta, at least to motivate how he falls in love with her in a relatively short amount of time. I can't help but feel their story would only have benefited from more "page-time," but alas - we must have another loaded argument between Jemma and Elijah!

Some more pages of explanation might have made the main characters more understandable as well. Roberta, at least in the first half of the novel, comes across as a bit of twit - only we learn later her dreamy-eyed longing for Villiers (despite his awful treatment of women and his hordes of unacknowledged spawn) is much more calculating - and I honestly can't decide if that's a good or a bad thing. Also, she cheerfully makes out with another dude an awful lot for a woman who's destined for someone else. To be fair, that's practically Damon's sole form of courtship. Not a lot of banter between these two - in some scenes, Roberta will be in the middle of a sentence about chess or poetry or something and Damon will out of the blue start nibbling her ear and Roberta will smile and play along and have a nice game of tonsil hockey but then, oh, what was I saying about poetry? And oh yeah I'm engaged. I appreciated how Roberta eventually discovered she possesses an inner romantic after all, but other than that her story didn't grab that much of my attention.

In this sense, Desperate Duchesses deviates from the traditional method of starting a romance series. Even in introductory novels, the romantic hero and heroine's relationship tends to come first, with the roles of the future characters and series-long mysteries or plots taking up space in the background. In the traditional sense, this novel fails, because even as it creates a wonderful and engaging set-up for future novels, it allows what is traditionally the main narrative to fall by the wayside.

But just as a book it's hella entertaining! How should I review it? Well, in this instance I'm going to have to give it two reviews.

As a book, regardless of genre, on its own merits of plot, pacing, and entertainment value: A

As a romance, where the Hero and Heroine should be IN OUR FACE and be examined in the greatest depth: C+.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For the First Time: Library Loot

I discovered the weekly event Library Loot from Marg over at Reading Adventures, where once a week bloggers announce what they've checked out from the library. While a fabulous idea, it's not one I've participated in because I haven't had a lot of incentive to go to my local library. Not only because I already have a ginormous TBR pile, but because the romance selection at library closest to my house sucks hardcore.

My library doesn't catalogue paperbacks in the same way it does hardcovers. You can't search for them and reserve them, for one thing - you just have to be satisfied with the random selection of the particular branch you happen to be in. They do pick up new books, but it's just not worth it to stop in every day to see. Mostly I give the shelves a once-over every month or so - I find a couple of books that are interesting, but not enough to get me to tear away from my slow decimation of my TBR.

That is, until a couple of days ago, where I found a veritable bounty of interesting books, so I thought this week I actually could participate in Library Loot! Huzzah! First thing out of my loot bag:
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie. This has been on my Wishlist for a while - thanks in part to glowing reviews and the intriguingly original notion of a romantic hero with Asperger's Syndrome (a mild form of autism). And now I can check it out for free! While I am a bit iffy about the fact that the hero (and his sequel-baiting bros) are Scottish (Sir Walter Scott has instilled in me a fiery hatred of phonetically-spelled brogue in dialogue), who knows? It could still be good!

I also found Scandal, by Carolyn Jewel. I haven't read anything of hers, but the Internets have been positively afire for her recently, with many of my blogger friends declaring that she is a fabulous writer. This the first book of hers that caught my attention thanks to its explosion over the Internet, although Indiscreet is now making the rounds as well, with positive reviews.

I believe this novel's story is about a rake who makes an ass out of himself in front of the married woman he loves and now that she's a widow he has to make less of an ass of himself. Yay redemption!

Despite my disdain for the unwarranted proliferation of Nathan Camp covers (he has and always will look like Prince Humperdink to me), I was intrigued by the notion of The Christmas Countess. First of all, after I finish another trio of romance reviews I will be doing reviews of Christmas romances and anthologies for the upcoming season, and I figured this would be an excellent addition to my event that won't take away from my Gift Budget.

Second, the plot really interested me - a woman discovers her illegitimate child wasn't stillborn after all and is being raised by a very distant (but very handsome) male relation. So, despite the fact that the people on the cover look like they've fallen asleep standing up, I decided to give this one a shot.

This is yet another addition to AnimeJune's Big Christmas Review - because it's winter-themed. Yes. That's the excuse I'm going with. While I wasn't totally impressed by my first novel of Sabrina Jeffries', and my first attempt at Jane Feather (Almost a Lady) resulted in a DNF (this was before I was reviewing on my blog, sorry), I really enjoyed my shot at Julia London. Plus, the reviews I've been reading about this anthology seemed pretty high, and besides, it's from a library and is free. What can I lose?

Monday, November 09, 2009

"Something Wonderful." by Judith McNaught

Alternate Title: Something M'eh.

The Chick: Alexandra Lawrence. A booksmart but naive country girl, she marries the dashing Duke of Hawthorne when he accidentally compromises her. Four days after their wedding, he tragically dies at sea.
The Rub: Turns out her saintly dead husband isn't as saintly - or as dead - as she thought.
Dream Casting: An Education's Carey Mulligan.

The Dude: Jordan Addison Matthew Townsende, Duke of Hawthorne. While he's willing to marry Alexandra to restore her honour, he secretly thinks all women are scheming whores. Except that Alexandra seems so innocent...
Dream Casting: ...that is, until he returns from being tortured to discover her trying to marry his cousin! That WHORE!
Dream Casting: Zachary Quinto.

The Plot:
Jordan: Oh noez! Bandits!

Alexandra: Watch out! *inadvertently saves Jordan's life*

Jordan: Wow, you're kinda hot for a thirteen-year-old boy.

Alexandra: Um, I'm a chick.

Jordan: SHIT. *marries*

Alexandra: Oh, you're so manly and heroic!

Jordan: Oh, you're so innocent and alluring! Not like all the other whores--I mean, women.

The Plot: Crap! I'm late!

Jordan: *kidnapped*

One Year Later

Alexandra: Jordan! You lied to me and slept around and were going to lock me away in a situation that conveniently mirrors my secret daddy issues! How dare you!

Jordan: Alexandra! You got prettier and sexier and actually got a life and enjoyed yourself instead of properly martyring yourself to a ragged husk of your previous self in grief over me! How dare you!

Alexandra: You're a moron.

Jordan: You're a whore!

Alexandra: Screw this, I'm OUT --- *gets shot in head*

Jordan: I'm so sorry! I totally love you again! Stay with me?

Alexandra: Guh.....*drools*

Jordan: I'll take that as a yes! Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Duke of Slut, Alphhole Hero

1 Bookish Innocent

1 Rusty Suit of Armour

2 Handicapped Servants

1 Set of Mommy Issues

Several Attempted Muuuuuuuurders

2 Sets of Daddy Issues

3 Traumatic Head Injuries (1 Fatal)

1 Limber Mistress

4 Very Bad Parents

1 Birthday Party of DOOM

2 Evil Family Members

The Word: I was pretty excited to read this book, since my first shot at McNaught, Almost Heaven, was quite delightful. However, while the plot of Something Wonderful shares some plot similarities, and McNaught's writing was engaging enough to keep me reading, the story itself as well as the characters fell below the mark.

Our hero, using the definition very loosely, is Jordan, Duke of Hawthorne, who apparently popped out of the womb ruggedly chiseled, cynical, and deeply mistrustful of women. He's about to receive an injection of Vitamin Lead from some bandits with guns when a figure in a dilapidated suit of armour blunders in and accidentally saves his life. Jordan thinks his saviour is a pre-teen boy and takes him to his inn to recuperate. He's a little shocked to discover his hero is Alexandra, a pre-teen girl, but isn't repulsed by her like he is by other women because apparently Inherent Female Evilness occurs during puberty.

Alexandra, unfortunately, is not a pre-teen girl, but one of those oh-so-precious chestnut-haired, big-eyed, late-blooming, book-learnin' moppets that are the magical Tylenol to the Alpha Male Headache. And now her reputation is totally compromised. While Jordan isn't over the moon about being forced to marry, he finds Alexandra somewhat charming. She's so innocent, you see, and pure and unconventional - not like all dem other womens who are all mindless, shallow whores. Of course, he plans to pack his little Hannah Montana away at his cozy estate while he parties hardy with red-haired ballerinas. Yeah, all other women are evil, ice-hearted sluts, but they're more fun to bang, right?

The novel picks up the pace a few days after the wedding when Jordan is kidnapped, press-ganged, and lost at sea. Alexandra is grief-stricken but determined to prove she's worthy of the name of Townsende - however, her "I Heart Jordan" attitude convinces Society (who knew Jordan as the Duke of Slut, Viscount Slutbanger, Baron Wangtangle) that she's a moron. As annoyed as I was by Alexandra, once she figures out the truth, I rather admired her "Screw this crap!" reaction. Alexandra decides to shuck propriety and have fun, and ends up becoming the diamond of the Season.

Ugh, but then Jordan returns. Turns out he was just being tortured by the French for a year and a half and he shows up in England just in time to keep Alexandra and his genial cousin Tony from marrying each other. This is when Jordan goes from being an annoying alpha male to a hateful, certified Grade-A Pig. Despite spending a year and a half surviving on nothing but memories/fantasies of Alexandra, once he sees her he immediately jumps to the absolute worst of conclusions without any evidence and proceeds to spend the rest of the book treating her like a stinky turd.

Much like Almost Heaven, for a good slice of the novel our protagonists hate each other thanks to a misunderstanding, with the hero douchebaggin' it up Kanye-style until an inebriated servant lets the backstory-cat out of the bag and then the hero spends the remaining pages grovelling like the nasty, nasty boy he is. However, I could understand Ian's asshatery from Almost Heaven because he was purposefully tricked by a third party into believing the worst about Elizabeth - and he figured this out before the halfway mark. Jordan's main reason for hating on Alexandra stems from his outrage that his wife still isn't gnashing her teeth in the outer darkness wearing sackcloth and ashes a year and a half after his supposed death.

So yeah, Jordan was expecting to come home to a cocker spaniel of a wife who would drape herself over his legs and slobber at his feet and is miffed when he discovers she had the gall to get a life of her own. What a prince. Oh, and there's a half-assed plot to kill him which gives Jordan even more of an excuse not to tell Alexandra anything so that he can throw shit fits whenever she can't keep up.

Alexandra, however, improves over the course of the novel, and I appreciated she wasn't willing to put up with Jordan's bullshit. I did enjoy how the story involved Alexandra growing up and facing the realities of life and deciding to remain optimistic anyway. It makes her sunny nature much more realistic and powerful when she decides to do it in adversity than when she's obliviously believing the world is all sunshine and rainbows because she's never taken a step out of her hometown. While she does have some daddy issues, she doesn't agonize over them at tedious length, but instead uses them to hone her Bullshit Detector. Her dad left her and her mum to rusticate in the country on a pittance while he lived in luxury with his mistress and their child in town - so Alexandra knows she's not going to put up with that crap from Jordan and she's willing to make his life a living hell if he tries. Gotta admire that in a gal.

On the other hand, she very easily converts back to the "I Heart Jordan" team when she learns he has a sad past that totally explains why he acts like an immature little shit. He swings back and forth between the pendulums of Prince Charming and Asshole, depending on his mood, what he had for breakfast that morning, and which gesture of Alex's he idiotically misunderstood the day before. He is like this up until the very end, to the point where I think the only reason Alex takes him back is because the bullet she took to the head eliminated her ability to say no.

Another reason I'm ticked off at Jordan is that he had the potential to be, if not a huggable teddy bear, than at least a well-written character, but the book never follows through. He did endure 15 months of torture, but does this influence his character once he returns? Does he bear any scars, physical or mental? Does he even ruminate on this dark period and use it to determine how he should be living his life differently? Uh, no. We get one description of how the pain was so bad he almost went crazy and how thinking about Alexandra was the only thing that kept him alive but once he returns this entire experience is completely swept under the rug. One moment he's all "I have a new lease on life and it's going to be with Alexandra and puppies and bunnies and fluffy marshmallow clouds" and the next he's right back to being Mayor of CynicalTown, capital of Misogyny. It's obvious his captivity was just a plot device to keep him out of the picture for a year. I guess amnesia was too unrealistic.

And as for the "suspense plot," don't bother. It's just there to provide another excuse for Jordan to wipe the mud from his boots off on Alexandra's prostrate backside. I should say spoiler alert before I go on because there's no way you could guess who the villain is - not through any ingenuity on the story's part but because we only ever meet the villains once, and their motivations are flimsy to the point of farce. Jordan's aunt claims she and Bertie, her crippled son, wanted to kill Jordan for his money - despite the fact that she could have just asked for money whenever she pleased from the nephew who adored her as a second mother. Bertie's motivation is, uh, I guess that he has a bum leg, and he's angry at people who don't have bum legs. We only get a page of explanation for their repeated attempts to murder the hero, because the whodunnit isn't as important as the excuse their attempts give Jordan to abuse Alexandra even more now that he suspects her of attempted murder - along with general whorishness, disobedience, and feistiness.

On the plus side is the fact that I couldn't really stop reading this book. The pacing and the drama kept the pages flying through my hands, even as I wanted to enter the book and kick Jordan in the face. Something Wonderful was a bit like a soap opera that way - the characters were exaggerated and the writing occasionally florid (Jordan is described as "ruggedly chiseled" no fewer than three times) and the situations unrealistic - but holy crap, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? For all my harping on the hero, the book was actually enjoyable and quick to read, and the heroine (for all that she gave into the hero too often for my comfort) was entertaining to watch develop, which nudged this book just out of C+ territory.

I have two other of her books on my TBR (the polarizing Whitney, My Love and Until You) to see if Almost Heaven was just a fluke or whether Something Wonderful was just Something Random. Here's hoping for the latter.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

ANTHOLOGY REVIEW: "Half Past Dead," by Zoe Archer and Bianca D'Arc

Alternate Title: Twist & Shuffle

First things first, I would like to thank the authors of this piece, particularly Zoe Archer, for being kind enough to offer an ARC of their two-novella zombie romance anthology, Half Past Dead. To repay your generosity as well as the time and effort you spent writing your novellas, "The Undying Heart" (Archer) and "Simon Says" (D'Arc), I would like to, very tentatively, suggest you not read this review. It may hurt your feelings. I'm not attacking you personally, because (at least in Zoe Archer's case) you are hilarious on Twitter and you have some really original ideas. I just didn't happen to care for your stories.

Onwards and upwards, as they say:
"The Undying Heart", by Zoe Archer.
The Chick: Cassandra Fielding. Freshly initiated into the magic-protecting secret society The Blades of the Rose, she's charged with following a Bad Dude named Broadwell, who may be in possession of a powerful Source of magic.
The Rub: Whattayaknow! Her secret crush who was thought dead is also tailing the same Bad Dude! Wait - what? He still is dead?
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.

The Dude: Samuel "Sam" Reed. Transformed into a zombie by evil sorcerer Broadwell, he managed to break free of his control and vowed to have vengeance.
The Rub: His surprise reunion with the love of his life reheats all of his cold parts - but his mission is to break Broadwell's spell - and that means death, real death, for him.
Dream Casting: Rufus Sewell.

The Plot:

Cassandra: I'm so sneaky, trailing after this sneaky sorcerer. I'm so glad I'm not at Almack's!

Sam: BOO!

Cassandra: OMG! You're alive!

Sam: Uh...yeah, about that...

Cassandra: No worries. Let's go kill a sorcerer!

Sam: You're not scared of the fact I'm a walking corpse? That I'm cold to the touch and all broody and stewing in angst?

Cassandra: Dude, I've read Twilight. I'm all over that shit.

Evil Sorcerer: Curses! Foiled again by meddling Anachronistically Feminist heroines and Angsty Heroes! *defeated*

Sam: Oh Cassandra, I never stopped loving you. Your heart, your strength, your braaaaaaaains...

Cassandra: What was that?

Sam: Nothing.

Cassandra and Sam: *break spell*

Sam: *dies* ... *revives* OMG, I'm alive!

Cassandra: Hooray!

Sam: You still love me?

Cassandra: Yeah! Team Jacob! *flashes T-shirt*

Sam: Hooray! ... I think.

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Anachronistically Feminist Heroine

1 Hero Suffering from Overdose of Vitamin Angst

1 Evil Sorcerer

2 Secret Societies

Several ZomBoners

1 Magic Hoo-ha

1 Death By Bees

Several Undead Marines

The Word: Cassandra Fielding, the aforementioned Anachronistically Feminist Heroine, is staking out a nasty fellow by the name of Broadwell when she receives the surprise of her life - Samuel Reed, the man she believed was killed in the Crimean War beside her brother Charlie, is not only alive, but hunting the same man she is!

Eh, turns out she's only half right. Sam was killed in battle, but by his commanding officer (Broadwell), who then used evil magic to bring him back as a zombie and make him do his evil bidding. Sam is very vague about what's he's done (going only so far as to say it was Very Very Evil, No Really I'm Talking Evil Evil, So Evil I Can't Tell You Because I'll Lose Readers' Sympathy Evil), but it was enough to make him break free of his master's spell. For the last three years he's hunted Broadwell, hoping that once Broadwell's dead, Sam will become completely dead (instead of *heh heh* mostly dead) and gain some peace.

He, rather reasonably, expects Cassandra to freak the hell out upon learning he's a walking corpse. Conveniently, however, Cassandra is part of a secret society known as the Blades of the Rose, whose purpose is to protect sources of magic from being misused, particularly by yet another secret society called the Heirs of Albion, of which Broadwell is a member. She thinks that Broadwell's in possession of a powerful Source - probably the very one that gave him the power to raise zombies - and she convinces Sam to team up with her and stop him before he turns a boatload of drowned Marines into the 1858 version of Thriller.

While I applaud Zoe Archer for the originality of making the hero a zombie, she neglected the number one rule of zombie fiction: don't make your main characters less interesting or understandable than the zombies. Cassandra is Standard Issue Mary Sue - she fights for factory reform! She scoffs at Stuffy Social Strictures! She still finds Sam sexy despite the fact that he doesn't breathe, eat, sleep, or have a pulse! She's so beautiful and willow-waisted but of course totally strong and not fragile at all! Also - did I mention she's an experienced Sex Goddess who went out and lost her virginity with some random dude because it's not fair that men are allowed to sow their wild oats while women are not? In 1850s England!

In one of the cooler aspects of Zoe Archer's world-building, Sam can't stay in public long without awakening instinctual That Ain't Right feelings in the local populace, who tend to go all lynch-mob-y about that sort of thing. But not Cassandra, of course! She even righteously condemns the townsfolk for being "ignorant fools." Yes, yes, what morons they all for hating a zombie, especially when all other zombies are still being used for Evil by Broadwell. What fools. This just struck me as bad characterization, that Cassandra wasn't at all perturbed, even instinctively, by Sam, when every other human being within a 100-foot radius was, to the point where they're willing to murder him within one hour of him going out in public. I can definitely believe she'd be able to fight or suppress those feelings, but the fact she felt none at all made her a little Too Perfect. Sam's a zombie. There's a reason people are afraid of them.

As for Sam, he, too, is shiny-happy-good. He was able, through sheer Awesomeness (the novella really doesn't give any other reason), to break Broadwell's enchantment over him and gain back control over his own body. He uses this as an excuse to drown in angst about how he's a monster and worthless and he and and Perfect Good Cassandra can never have a future. As understandable as it is, it gets a mite repetitive, along with his constant declarations of how Perfect and Wonderful and Thin and Gorgeous and Loving and Spirited and Compassionate Cassandra is.

It's often a sad tendency for characters in fantasies and romance fantasies to suffer from Mary Sue Disease, because authors tend to focus on the External Tension (wizards, monsters, the end of the world, etc.) and so they keep the Internal Tension (i.e. character flaws) to a minimum. I'm looking at you, Lord of the Fading Lands! However, Zoe Archer's world-building is flat and inconsistent as well.

Yes, yes, yes, Cassandra is Feisty and Passionate and Righteous and all that crap, but she's never handled a firearm or weapon in her life and she's banned from using magic - so could someone explain to me why the Blades of the Rose thought an unarmed woman would be the perfect person to tail a dangerous sorcerer by herself? Even Sam, bless the decaying chunks of his heart, thinks that's ridiculous. Also - why would the Blades even recruit Cassandra in the first place? She mentions they heard of her campaigns for factory reform and contacted her. Yes, because handing out pamphlets and frequent public speaking have everything to do with hunting down evil wizards, right?

And I haven't even got to the zombie stuff yet! Sam mentions his heart was cut out, oh, then it's back! He hasn't had a zomboner in three years, yet once Cassandra shows up, wow! But wait - Sam establishes that zombies have no blood circulation! So, what, his zomboner's really rigour mortis or something? HOW DOES THAT WORK?

I'll tell you how - the Magic Hoo-ha. Jennifer Crusie established the romance novel concept of the Sparkly Hoo-ha, where a hero who used to go half-mast with just a sexy smile from a stranger can now only float his boat in his Soul Mate's port. Well, this is the Magic Hoo-ha - where consistency, good story-telling and established rules go out in the window. Logic has no place in the heroine's vagina! Hence, Sam gains zomboners, a higher body temperature, and restored nerve sensitivity, and all just from burying his bone in the right woman's Pleasure Cemetery!

Maybe I better cut down on the euphemisms. But seriously, the novella offers no other explanation for the blatant deviations from established zombie-ness. Zoe Archer is blazing a relatively new trail with zombie heroes. That's fine. When writing fantasy, you can make up whatever rules for zombies you like. Zombies smells like cheesecake. Zombies tap-dance in the sun. Zombies can register to vote - whatever you want. You can make up whatever rules you want SO LONG AS YOU ABIDE BY THEM. D

I'm already running a high word count, though, so let's move on to the next novella:

"Simon Says," by Bianca D'Arc
The Chick: Dr. Mariana Daniels. Years ago, she had a brief, torrid affair with a soldier in Special Forces who abandoned her without a word. Just when she thought she'd gotten over him, he shows up covered in blood at her clinic.
The Rub: Uh, ZOMBIES!
Dream Casting: Jennifer Morrison.

The Dude: Simon Blackwell. When a horde of zombies took out his team, he was bitten but, miraculously, didn't die. He's not only immune to the contagion, but now that he's got super-healing powers he can hunt zombies really well.
The Rub: Um, having super-healing is, uh, so freaky, yeah, he's such a monster, no one can ever love him, also he's a lone wolf, etc., um, ohlookZOMBIES!
Dream Casting: Michael Muhney.

The Plot:


Zombie: *nom nom nom* Tastes like angst!

Simon: Wow! I'm alive! With my newfound superpowers, I can be ... overcome with broodiness!

Mariana: You're hurt!

Simon: That's classified.

Mariana: Are those zombies?

Simon: Let me distract you with sex!

Mariana: Do you love me or are you just going to wimp out thanks to a mild, contrived inner turmoil?

Simon: Hmm, which Kama Sutra position haven't I tried yet?

Evil Marine Zombie: Braaaaaaains!

Simon: *kills Zombie* Oh, all right, I love you.

Mariana: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Lone Wolf Hero

1 Soulful Healer Heroine

1 Set of Commitment Issues

Several Zombie Marines

1 Zombie Grandma

1 Brief Torrid Affair

Several Sex Positions

The Word: We start with a rather snappy prologue where Special Forces commander Simon Blackwell and the one survivor in his command run the hell away from a shitload of zombies. While Zoe Archer's zombies are based on fantasy and folklore, Bianca D'Arc's are science fictional in origin - started by a contagion a la 28 Days Later. Simon's friend gets eaten, while he's only nibbled - however, he doesn't die right away like his comrades. Instead, he lives long enough to be rescued.

Cut to, uh, sometime later and Simon is spying on his ex-girlfriend's house. For her own good, natch. He's not only survived the contagion, but emerged from the ordeal with super-healing powers, so the military's hired him to hunt the last remaining zombies in the forest near Quantico to make sure they can't spread the disease.

While he heals fast, he doesn't heal, say, Wolverine fast and when, after his super-secret-stalker mission, he's clawed up pretty good by the undead, he decides to show up at his ex-girlfriend's naval clinic. See, he's kept his super-healing powers a super secret because he doesn't want to end up a labrat, and he fears going to a bigger hospital. Yeah. That's it.

His ex-girlfriend, Mariana, must fight the resurgence of Tingly Feelings for Simon because after their brief affair (where he was the best lover EVER and ruined her for ALL other men) he left without a word. Without even a post-it. Simon, too, has Tingly Feelings for Mariana, but with his super-secret-super-healing powers he feels like a freak (I can practically hear "Undying Heart"'s Samuel Reed cackling, "That's your angst? Man up, dude!") and figures the life of an ex-Special-Forces Zombie Hunter is no place for a lady or some other such vague hogwash.

And then zombies show up. They eat a grandma. Mariana should contract herself out to the Pentagon because her soulful searching eyes are really good at weaselling out Simon's super-military-secrets. Lots of sex is had. Emotions are questioned. More zombie Marines - (zombie Marines seem to be the running theme between these two novellas, and yet, they are still not as creepy as the Marines Katiebabs and I met at RWA 2009).

I can't really describe much more about this story. I may not have liked Zoe Archer's plot or characters, but at least her writing engaged the reader. She showed us what was happening, how her characters felt, with imagery and use of the five senses. Bianca D'Arc tells, tells, TELLS us everything, and in the most overused, laziest of cliches. Simon is actually described as the "strong, silent type" with a complete lack of irony. "Undying Heart" reads like it actually took some literary skill and creativity to write - "Simon Says" reads like someone built a story out of pre-used sentences, like those magnetic poetry kits you put on the fridge. ________(heroine) ________ (verb) ______ (overused expression for worry) = (Mariana) (watched him go) (with her heart in her throat).

For example, this torrid affair Simon and Mariana had in the past? We are told what happened, in the vaguest of terms - most of which boils down to: We Had Lots of Sex, He Touched Me Like No Other Man Ever Did, Sometimes He Was Charming And Nice As He Made Me Breakfast. Simon's angst is pretty mild, but he keeps repeating it like a mantra. Even the zombies were m'eh - easily recognizable creatures based on horror movies. Claws, eaten-away faces, moaning, the misbegotten results of an experiment gone wrong, all that jazz.

While this story doesn't quite merit an F as it's not so bad it's offensive, it's relentlessly tedious. D-

General Anthology Grade: This anthology's dead on its feet - whenever it's not contrived, it's boring. Whenever it's not obviously spoonfed to the reader, it's nonsensical or inconsistent. Definitely a Big Ol' D