Saturday, November 27, 2010

"Captives of the Night," by Loretta Chase

The Chick: Leila Beaumont, nee Bridgeburton. When her husband is found poisoned, she's determined to find out who killed him - despite what a philandering jerk he was.
The Rub: She starts to regret her determination when the dangerously provocative Comte d'Esmond is hired to pursue the covert investigation.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Ismal Delavin, a.k.a. Alexis Delavenne, Comte d'Esmond. He's used to fixing dirty jobs, and investigating Beaumont is one of the dirtiest, but the job's not without its' perks - like Beaumont's hot wife, Leila ...
The Rub: ... who turns out to be too distracting and nosy for comfort. Esmond's got secrets to hide - one in particular dealing with Leila's own troubled past.
Dream Casting: Cillian Murphy.

The Plot:

Leila: Oh no, my husband's been murdered! Not that I miss him.

Leila's Suspicious BFF: He was a bit of a Douchebag Supreme.

Leila's Suspicious Platonic Manfriend: Total dickwad.

Other Suspicious People: Couldn't have happened to a more deserving assface.

Esmond: Still, I'm going to have to solve this murder, if only to keep it from going public. We should start with some basic questioning.

Leila: Okay - what's your name? Where are you from? What's your favourite colour? Where did you go to school? Did you like it there? What are your hobbies?

Esmond: ... I mean questioning the suspects.

Leila: Well that's no fun.

Esmond: *sexy eyes*

Leila: Curse your distracting sexiness! We need to solve a case!

Case: *solved*

Leila: Now you have to answer my questions!

Esmond: Only if you answer this one, will you marry me?

Leila: Oh, alright.

Esmond: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

1 Very Bad Dad (Less Recently Deceased)

Several Very Angry Husbands

1 Vulgar Stickpin

Oodles of Dark Secrets

1 Distinctive Perfume

The Word: Sorry for the wait, folks. I've spent the last week or so kind of distracted after reading The Children's Book, by AS Byatt - a huge-ass tome that spent a spectacularly long time making no point at all.

But now I'm back, and with a Loretta Chase novel, to boot. Captives of the Night was a lovely little find at a library booksale, a find that happens to have its roots in two separate Chase novels - The Lion's Daughter and Lord of Scoundrels.

Can you read Captives of the Night without reading those books? The short answer is yes - but you'll certainly enjoy a bigger understanding of Ismal's character if you manage to get your hands on Lion's Daughter first. In Daughter, Ismal was the enemy/heir-apparent of Ali Pasha, the tyrant of Albania. He spent most of the novel pulling fantastically evil stunts until he made the mistake of falling in obsessive love with that novel's heroine, Esme, only to have his ass royally handed to him by the combined forces of Esme, her father, and her husband Lord Edenmont.

Next, reading Lord of Scoundrels, I got my first look at the Comte d'Esmond, a minor character and distant acquaintance of the novel's hero, Lord Dain, who spent most of his brief time making eyes at the wife of another, skeezier acquaintance, Beaumont.

Reading Captives of the Night was when I discovered Ismal and Esmond are one and the same character. Older, wiser, and mostly reformed, Ismal now works under a different name for the British government, handling cases that require sophistication and discretion. One such case is the destruction of Beaumont, who has been running a dangerous Parisian blackmailing ring out of his gambling den known as Vingt-Huit. While Ismal succeeds at toppling Beaumont's empire, he finds himself dangerously attracted to the man's estranged wife, Leila.

The attraction is mutual, but Leila refuses to be unfaithful to her husband, however little she loves him. Unbeknownst to the world, Leila is the daughter of an English traitor who stole and sold English weapons to foreign powers. Ten years ago, Beaumont rescued her on the night her father was murdered. While she's long since dissuaded him (with violence) from her bed, she knows he won't hesitate to reveal her secret and ruin her if she embarks upon an affair of her own. She contents herself with the artistic career she's developed separate from her husband, and refuses to be a victim, although she still harbours certain body and sexual issues thanks to her husband's unkind manipulations.

After Beaumont loses his blackmail ring, he and Leila flee to England, but his situation only worsens until the day he's found murdered, a poison-laced bottle of laudanum at his side. Beaumont's trade in dark, dirty secrets means a public investigation is impossible, so, to Leila's discomfiture, Esmond is called in to discover who murdered Beaumont and why. A difficult task, as the list of suspects is long.

Even more difficult is the unwanted attraction between the two - Leila distrusts physical desire as her husband used to cover up his own inability to sexually satisfy her by claiming she had a freakishly insatiable lust. Esmond, meanwhile, has two previous novels' worth of sssssecretsssss that he has to hide from a woman who's a lot more perceptive than even she thinks she is.

Characterization-wise, this book is weaker than Loretta Chase's other novels, but still sound for all that. The only character who comes out as completely evil in this novel is Beaumont - even the novel's ultimate murderer gets a thoughtful and detailed rendering. Romance-wise, I felt the same way - it's good, a lot better than other romance novels I've read, but as I read it I kept discovering a sort of disconnect between the development of the romance and the interaction the characters actually have with each other.

Perhaps this is in part due to the novel's uneven pacing (particularly at the beginning where Esmond and Leila bounce around like angst-filled ping-pong balls before Beaumont bites it and they get together for reals). While I enjoyed how Leila and Esmond are fascinated/freaked out by the other's disquieting ability to see beyond their respective facades (Leila's discovery of Esmond's particular physical "tells" is quite funny), I felt Leila's burst of love for Esmond was underdeveloped at the start, since she doesn't really know him and what she does know isn't particularly wholesome. It didn't make a lot of sense until much later, when she really starts connecting the dots about Ismal's work.

As a character, Leila is unpredictable (which can be good, when she throws sudden and epically hilarious temper tantrums that involve destroying furniture and giving men concussions with warming pans), but she's also inconsistent. For instance, Leila worries so much about her sexuality and yet one brief post-coital conversation with Ismal cures her entirely. That didn't sit well with me.

I also felt Ismal played it a little too close to the vest. I do hate it when mysterious characters from previous books are suddenly open to explaining themselves in graphic detail, but I do want the protagonists of books to be developed and for the reader to be privy to their insecurities and feelings - and I only felt we got three-fourths of the way into Ismal's head in Captives of the Night, which is a shame.

Otherwise, though, Captives of the Night is a solid romance novel with a better-than-average mystery.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"One Touch of Scandal," by Liz Carlyle

The Chick: Grace Gauthier. An innocent governess, when her employer/fiance is murdered, she's fingered as the number one suspect.
The Rub: She tries to go to a family friend for help, only to discover he's out of town and she has to settle for Angsty McGoo instead.
Dream Casting: Sinead Keenan.
The Dude:
Adrian Forsythe, Marquess of Ruthveyn. Vaguely psychic, vaguely antisocial, but completely angsty - Adrian feels a strange urge to help this falsely accused governess - but he has no idea why!
The Rub: His vaguely psychic powers render commitment impossible - because his visions can't help but spoil the ending of every relationship he attempts.
Dream Casting: Richard Armitage.

The Plot:

Grace: Woe is me, my fiance was murdered and this cartoonishly-developed police commissioner thinks I did it!

Ruthveyn: Woe is me, my psychic powers make me sad and I must turn to drugs and orgies to cure my despair!

Commissioner Napier: Woe is me, I'm supposedly a dedicated lawman but I miss totally obvious clues to further the novel's suspense!

Several Other Psychic Dudes: Woe is us, our books will clearly have to wait for later!

Ruthveyn: Hey, how come my powers don't work around Grace?

Mad Scientist Doctor: I like to call it "The Edward-Bella Effect."

Grace: Whatevs. Let's get it on!

Evil Villain: Please excuse me while I try to kill you!

Grace: Huh, despite the fact that this book is FULL of psychic people, NONE of you saw this coming?

Ruthveyn and the Other Psychic Dudes: *stare off into space, whistling*

Grace: Fine, let's just get married.

Ruthveyn: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Angsty McSadPants Hero

1 Creepily TMI Sister

1 Bout of Drug-Induced Sex

1 Notorious Ass-Brand

1 Bout of Vaguely-Tantric Sex

1 Almost-Maybe Gay Scene

Several Vague Psychic Powers

The Word: Liz Carlyle is a interesting writer for me - some of her books hit (Never Deceive a Duke), others really hit (Tempted All Night), while others are a swing and a miss (Three Little Secrets). It makes it difficult to decide when to buy her books, and it provides me some comfort to know what her latest book, One Touch of Scandal, came as a free ARC from RWA 2010.

If I had to describe this book in one word, it would be underdeveloped. There are a lot of interesting ideas, a lot of good directions this book could have gone in, and some lovely writing, but it rarely follows through on any of them. We get a mishmash of underdeveloped ideas, underdeveloped characters, and hanging plot threads galore. A classic case of an author so preoccupied with setting the groundwork for a series that she doesn't concentrate on making the actual first story cohesive or understandable.

Let's begin, shall we? Our heroine, Grace Gauthier, is still reeling from the shock of losing her fiance, Edward, whose throat was slit by a mysterious assailant. Thanks to the investigation, she's barred from seeing her fiance's stepdaughters (to whom she used to be governess), and since Edward was her boss before becoming her boyfriend, the police (particularly the commissioner, Napier) are tempted by the easy "Blame the Nanny" crime-solving rule.

With no relations willing to help her, Grace is forced to try and find Lord Lazonby, a friend of her father's, to ask for his help. This takes her to the St. James' Club, a.k.a. the Fraternitas Aureae Crucis, a.k.a. The Psychic Dudecave. Unfortunately, Lazonby (a mysteriously hot and sexually ambiguous fellow whose dark past screams, morse-codes, and carrier-pigeons Sequel Bait) is out on an "errand," but his BFF Lord Ruthveyn is willing to help.

Why? Oh, yeah, because Ruthveyn is interested in her - more specifically, in the fact that he can't "read" her the way he can other people. Ruthveyn has a very vaguely-described psychic power where he can read people's emotions and possible futures by touching them or looking them in the eyes. This apparently makes him very angsty, because he screwed up his marriage with his last wife when he saw their marital future in a vision while doing the nasty. This could have been a very interesting problem - if the novel had bothered to develop or explain it, instead of simply repeating, over and over, that it Sometimes Happened, for No Particular Reason, and that When It Happened, It Was Bad.

So yeah, Ruthveyn wants to protect Grace, particularly from Keystone Cop Napier, a sketchily-drawn, easily-baited character who demonstrates no real investigative skill. And of course, the only way Ruthveyn can protect Grace is to hire her as a governess to his nephews and live in his house.

And as for the rest of the plot - there isn't any. The bland mystery is easily solved at the end, isn't paranormal at all, and is really more of an excuse for Grace and Ruthveyn to get together for no reason. Most of the book is Grace trying to find out what Ruthveyn's problem is while Ruthveyn (rather impressively) manages to shove in pages and pages of exposition about the Psychic DudeClub and their origins and genetics and mad science that nevertheless explains absolutely nothing about his own power and how it works. It reminded me really, really strongly of Amanda Quinn's Arcane Society series.

This novel is just so chock full of narrative holes it's impossible to read it without falling in one. Like why the deceased Edward wanted to marry his governess in the first place, considering she had no money, is half-foreign, and neither of them loved the other. Or what, exactly, Ruthveyn did for the Crown to have the grateful Queen keep him first on her speed-dial? Or, most importantly, WHAT are the perimeters of Ruthveyn's power and the exact mechanics of it that make it work in certain situations? He barely uses his power and yet it consumes his entire mindset. These are all valid questions that could have spun off into interesting and engaging paranormal stories but instead are blandly settled with half-assed conclusions.

Look, I understand about needing to maintain some narrative mystery to encourage people to keep reading a series but one needs to remember that even the first story in a series requires a conclusion that satisfactorily closes the door on something. This is Ruthveyn's story - therefore, an explanation about Ruthveyn's past and powers should be resolved in this book.

Even worse are the characters. Grace isn't bad, but is from Standard Heroine Casting - blond, wistful, no living family worth mentioning, wuvs children, yawn.

Similarly, Ruthveyn lives his life by the 10 Rake Commandments:
  1. Thou Shalt Not Wear Bright Colours
  2. Thou Shalt Not Smile Unless it Be in a Cynical and Jaded Manner at the Tomfooleries of Thy Inferiors.
  3. Thou Shalt Fear Commitment as Thou Would Fear Enforced Celibacy.
  4. Thou Shalt Continually Cultivate an Attitude, Reputation, and Style of Dress that Evokes the Prince of Darkness, Satan, and/or the Devil.
  5. Thou Shalt Monger the Whores, and Monger Them Well.
  6. Thou Shalt Not Possess a Well-Adjusted Childhood.
  7. Thou Shalt Be Endearingly Awkward and Nervous Around Children.
  8. Thou Shalt Not Have Successful Past Relationships with Women.
  9. Thou Shalt Have a Dark, Devastating Secret Pain.
  10. Thou Shalt Not Consume Tylenol to Soothe Thy Dark, Devastating Secret Pain - Instead, Thou Shalt Use All-Natural Remedies like Alcohol, Opium, and Totally Not-Awkward Drug-Fueled Orgies With Thy Dude Friends.
Ruthveyn is just so cliched, but without the well-developed backstory or explanation of his darkness that would at least explain the presence of his cliches. I still don't wholly understand his power or the pain it caused him in childhood - so how am I to understand how this same pain shaped him into the character he is in the present? And am I the only one who finds it creepy instead of bromantic that Ruthveyn and Lazonby first met when they attended the same random orgy?

As for the secondary characters, they're bland and easily skippable - with the creeeeeepy creepy exception of Ruthveyn's sister, who's dubiously memorable for her insistence on making lewd suggestions to Grace - about sleeping with her own brother. Um, ick.

This book could have been good - Carlyle has a beautiful writing style, and she drops hundreds of hints about Ruthveyn's past and the Psychic Dude Society's possible purpose, but she fails to pick them up again or resolve any of them. By the end of the novel, I was entirely dissatisfied - the romance wasn't wholly developed because too much time was spent on the psychic worldbuilding - and yet the psychic worldbuilding didn't satisfy because it explained nothing and was entirely irrelevant to the murder mystery that starts off the plot in the first place.

My suggestion? Protect your reading future. Skip this book.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

October Round-Up

Yes, I know, I know. I'm late. Also, once again I didn't read as much as I normally do. That, I can blame on two things: a certain time-travelling romance novel that took a hell of a long time to read, and this guy (Jensen Ackles):
Yup. A few months ago I decided to rent the first couple of discs of the first season of Supernatural just to see what all the fuss is about. Cut to now, where I've burned through five seasons to catch up with the sixth (now airing on the CW).

They say that, with Supernatural, you're either a Dean girl or a Sam girl - well, I'm a Dean girl. Who knew? I'm normally kind of annoyed by the Angsty Tormented Brooding heroes in romance fiction and yet Mr. Ackles' portrayal of Dean, a demon-hunter willing to go to any lengths (read: Hell) to protect his brother, is the core appeal of the series.

The only problem with now being caught up with season six is that now I have to wait a whole week for the next episode! Waaaaah.....

But hey, this is a book blog, not a Supernatural Superfan blog, so on with the books I read.

For Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Leggy Linguist
  • 1 Sheltered Innocent
  • 1 Illiterate Commoner With a Secret Past
  • 1 Time-Travelling War Nurse
  • 1 Indecisive Bigamist
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Perfectly Perfect in Every Way, Redheaded Virgin Outlawed Scottish Laird with a Heart of Gold
  • 1 Brain-Damaged Duke
  • 1 Unintentional Homewrecker
  • 1 Jaded Rake
  • 1 Almost Bigamist
  • 1 Virile Ratcatcher

For Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't love him! Well, I can - so long as I can love this other dude, too. Hey! I have a solution! Why can't they both love me? At the same time, I mean? Who could object to that?"
  • "I can't love her! She's too innocent, and I'm too tawdry and jaded in that terribly witty way that women find so appealing."
  • "I can't love him! He catches rodents for a living and still manages to be smarter than me!"
  • "I can't love him! I'm already married - and besides, he's way too pretty, virginal, honourable, well-liked, well-endowed, educated, and lion-hearted for my tastes. Uh, right?"
  • "I can't love him! I'd make a terrible duchess!"

In Miscellaneous, we got:
  • 1 Controversial Spanking
  • 1 Hidden Ferret (Guess where!)
  • 1 Parentage-Proving Locket
  • Several Stolen Blackberries
  • 1 Evil Witch
  • 1 Epic Mustache

*October Pick* The Proposition, by Judith Ivory. A+
Pros: Sexiest hero I've read all year. Gorgeous writing. Nice sexual awakening for heroine.
Cons: Big Surprise at the end was a wee bit tacked on.

One Night For Love, by Mary Balogh. A
Pros: Tough conflict, realistically portrayed romantic rival, fantastic character arc for heroine.
Cons: Hero is a bit on the passive side.

Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. B+
Pros: Bubbly writing. Lively heroine. Dark, sympathetic rake hero.
Cons: Blather - and lots of it. Unnecessary family "twist" at the end.

Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. B-
Pros: Good writing. Excellent setting detail. Well-drawn, wry heroine.
Cons: Scottish Messiah Jamie is a bit oversold. Founding member of the "This Book Is Too Damn Long" party.

*October Dud* A Hint of Wicked, by Jennifer Haymore. C+
Pros: Legitimately difficult conflict. One of the heroes isn't too bad.
Cons: The other hero is a dick - and he gets the girl. Also their child is probably the devil. Also there's no romantic development whatsoever.