Friday, November 28, 2008

The Gap Between Idea and Execution

I love ideas. I get lots of them every day (more if I write). However, I, being a physically average woman, cannot write them all down into a novel - mostly it helps if I take one BIG idea that I've thought about and detailed for a while (i.e. as I'm doing now with my NaNoWriMo romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples which is doing REALLY WELL!) and just start in on it.

Great Ideas do not necessarily equal Great Books.

And, as I'm beginning to discover, Terrible Ideas do not necessarily equal Bad Books. Case in point:
Scandalous By Night by Barbara Pierce. I mentioned this before on my blog how the general idea (a man who decides to seduce a woman in revenge for something she did when she was ten years old) gave me the serious willies, and I couldn't possibly understand how it could be turned into a realistic story. However, a lot of the reviews for it were positive (although, I must add, many reviewers commented on the oddity of the hero remaining angry at a ten-year-old).

Another case in point is this novel:

To Sin with a Stranger, by Kathryn Caskie. It's been getting a lot of press, and I read the blurb and I thought - what?

On first glance, it sounded incredibly contrived and somewhat tiresome. Seven siblings, allowed to run ragged after their father loses it after his wife's death, are nicknamed The Seven Deadly Sins by society and their feelings are hurt (boo hoo). To guard their hearts against the naughty ton bullying, they assign themselves to a particular sin (I'm imagining a lot of frustrated paper-rock-scissors matches over who got Lust, natch) and decide to live it to the fullest.

Wait - really? That's how you deal with being snubbed by society for being spoiled brats? By becoming even more spoiled brats?

Oh, and did I mention - their names also (out of purest coincidence) eerily correspond (either alliteratively or symbolically) to their chosen Sin: Lachlan is Lust, Grant is Gluttony, Sterling (as in silver, baby) is Greed, Siusan is Sloth, Killian is Wrath, Ivy is Envy, and Priscilla is Pride.

So they're basically like the - wait, wait, wait WHAT? Ivy is Envy? Who chooses to embody envy? Or, for that matter, Wrath? I can definitely imagine people wanting to embody the other mortal sins - after all, the reason they're so widespread is because they're fun! Who doesn't like sex, food, money, sleeping in all day and being awesome? Am I right?

But Envy? Who gets off on being envious? The fundamental core of Envy is hate: unlike Jealousy, which is just wishing you had what other people have, Envy isn't necessarily wishing something for yourself, but rather hating people who have something you don't. A jealous person is someone who sees a neighbour with a big house and wishes she also had a big house. An envious person is someone who sees a neighbour with a big house and wishes it would burn to the ground. Iago from Othello, for instance, is an envious person, because he doesn't want to seduce Desdemona away from Othello or steal Othello's exalted position for himself - rather, he wants to make Othello suffer for having the gall to acquire something Iago doesn't himself have.

I feel similarly about Wrath - who wants to be angry all the time? - but I can see it explained away in a romance novel by making Killian, say, a soldier, or someone out for revenge. But envy? I seriously can't imagine how a person could dedicate their life to envy and not be miserable all the time. The information from Caskie's website also states that each of the siblings already demonstrated proclivities towards their particular sin before choosing it, which makes me wonder: if Ivy is Envy, why would her siblings encourage that? Wouldn't they find it, oh, creepy or malicious or mentally disturbed? Or (since they seem to be loving siblings from what I've gathered from the reviews) wouldn't they be worried for her happiness?

But I've gone off on a tangent. Back on topic - these siblings basically sound like the Bridgertons if they'd been raised by Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey. Eventually, however, Deadbeat Daddy Dearest comes to his senses and kicks his progeny out of the house and limits them to a frugal allowance, essentially cutting off the rest of their finances until they can clean up their act and get married.

And that's the plot. After my eye-rolling over the Everyone's a Particular Sin idea and the title of the next book in the series, The Most Wicked Of Sins (which sounds like a terribly shark-jumping title for the second book in a series of seven dedicated to the sins - what are the next books going to be - The Almost Wickedest Sin? Still Somewhat Sinful? It's Gotta Be a Sin Somewhere?), I also gave a mental groan at the idea of characters who willingly dedicate their lives to being assholes.

I know the rake and the rogue and the scoundrel are all supposed to be hot, but they overcrowd the genre. I can tolerate the occasional rake, but when it comes right down it it, I think a guy who screws around is an asshole. I think a guy who eats like a pig is an asshole. I think a woman who makes it a point of pride to be prideful is an asshole. Why would I want to read about or associate with people who make a point out of being selfish public nuisances?

Well, here's where the difference between the Idea and the Execution comes into play. I've been reading the reviews for this novel on various websites, and the reactions to the book have been incredibly positive. The first novel, or so I've read, concerns Sterling (i.e. Greed). Now, following my expectation that To Sin With a Stranger was going to be a sucky romance, I immediately assumed all the sins would concern sex in some way. Greedy - for more sex! A glutton - for sex! Wrathful - Because he doesn't get enough sex! Sloth - because she's uh, too lazy to have sex?? Well, believe it or not, Sterling's problem actually does concern money - that is, gambling and prizefighting to get extra dough for his siblings.

Now that sounds like something I would want to read. With Siusan's book will we have a lazy heroine instead of the usual perky-as-Sunday-morning kind? With Grant's book will we actually get an overweight hero (probably not - Caskie also considers excess the same as gluttony on her website description, and given the romance genre's [oft unreasonable] insistance on physically perfect heroes, I'm guessing he'll be an alcoholic or an exhausted partyboy instead)? And I have to admit I'm curious as hell to see what she does with Ivy.

Ideas come in all shapes, sizes, and colours, and can be formulated in a moment - but executing an idea takes much more time, detail, and effort - which means the story behind the idea can often take you by surprise. This is never more apparent than in romances. People unfamiliar with the genre think all romances are alike, because their ideas sound alike (the rake who falls for a virgin, for instance). But, as Stephanie Laurens, Mary Balogh and others have demonstrated with anthologies like It Happened One Night (where each author writes a different story around the same idea), it all depends - usually on the characters.

Science fiction and fantasy, for example, are genres that are based on ideas - oftentimes they don't have to make sense or be physically possible, so long as the story itself makes a point or allows us to explore an aspect of human nature we might never have thought about without the idea of a spaceship that uses baby brains for fuel, or something. Science fiction, in particular, is a genre that relies on ideas that are all unique that eventually demonstrate that humans are all the same (how they react to a crisis, for example, be it aliens or just a bad day at work).

Conversely, romance tends to be a genre that relies on ideas that are familiar to show us how humans are all different. How a rake carries out a romance with a virgin depends entirely on who the rake is, who the virgin is, and the varying elements and people who shaped them into the people they became.

I mean, I look at my one of my favourite romances of all time:
The Secret Pearl, by Mary Balogh. Beautiful book. Gorgeous book. I will cherish it for all time. But the idea? A man hires the hooker he deflowered to be his daughter's governess. What the hell? He doesn't even check her references! Or her background! Yes, she was a virgin before he had sex with her, but she could totally have been a nutso cultist before that! And he's just going to trust her with his precious five year old girl? WHAT?

And yet it turned out to be a wonderful book. Just goes to show, I guess. I'm not spending any more cash on myself now until after Christmas, but I just might want to give To Sin with a Stranger a try once I have some holiday money.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

"Private Arrangements," by Sherry Thomas

Alternate Title: Absence (and Divorce!) Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

The Chick: Phillipa Gilberte "Gigi" Saybrook, nee Rowland. Born to a wealthy family sneered on by the aristocracy for their connections to trade, her mother trained her practically from the cradle to snare a peer as a husband. Determined to make a match based on prestige and social standing, she certainly wasn't prepared to fall in love - and so fortuitously with the heir to the Duke of Fairford!
The Rub: However, said heir was promised to another, and in a desperate move, Gigi resorted to forgery and deception to win his hand - and ended up destroying their newborn marriage the day after the wedding. Now, ten years later, she decides to petition her long-absent husband for a divorce, so that she may be free to marry again.
Dream Casting: Natalie Portman.

The Dude: Camden Saybrook, Marquess of Tremaine. He fell in love with Gigi almost as quickly as she with him - but when he found out about her underhanded dealings, he married her anyway, gave her a glorious wedding night, and then promptly abandoned her for the Continent in revenge.
The Rub: Ten years later, he's willing to grant Gigi her divorce - provided she allow him his husbandly rights long enough to produce an heir.
Dream Casting: Persuasion's Rupert Penry-Jones.

The Plot:
Gigi: I need a title!

Camden: I need money!

Gigi: *in lurrrv* What a delightful coincidence...

Camden: Sorry, I'm taken.

Gigi: Oh really?

Fake Letter from Camden's Sweetheart: Sorry, I'm taken, too.

Camden: Wow! What a delightful coincidence! Too delightful...*finds out truth* Oh HELL no.

Gigi and Camden: *married*

Camden: See you next Tuesday from never, bitch. *absconds*

Ten Years Later
Gigi: I need a divorce!

Camden: I need an heir!

Gigi: Well, I don't find that delightful at all...

Camden: Too bad. *shags senseless* Still want that divorce?

Gigi: Not so much.

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Fiesty Heiress

1 Impoverished Aristocrat

1 Marriage-Minded Mama

1 Secondary Romance (aforementioned Mama and a Kinky Duke, yeah!)

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

2 Lacklustre (but still halfway decent) Romantic Rivals

3 Uses of 19th Century Birth Control (no, apparently a Dutch Cap isn't a type of mushroom)

1 Expensive Piece of Apologetic Bling

The Word: As most reviewers know, the hardest books to review aren't the really excellent books, nor the terribly awful books. In fact, it's downright fun to write a searing diatribe against a piece of literary monkey feces. No, dear readers, the hardest books to review are the ones in the middle - the ones in which you can't find anything egregiously bad, and yet somehow, for reasons you can't really express (which is part of the difficulty), you just don't connect with the characters, or the story. You'd really much rather be reading something else.

That's how I felt with Private Arrangements. It's the 1880s, and Gigi Rowland is a lady on the make. Her mother, Victoria, who was spurned by the gentry for marrying a wealthy tradesman, reared Gigi with a heightened sense of ambition - an ambition that could only be sated by marrying a Duke. Then, of course, Victoria and Gigi could regain their status in society and crush the fops who snubbed them under the heels of their expensive leather boots.

Gigi's hopes are raised and then dashed when she becomes engaged to a Duke who promptly and inconveniently dies soon after. Luckily for her, the new Duke's heir, Camden Saybrook, is just as impoverished and debt-ridden as the last one. Gigi's upbringing has taught her to believe that marriage is more like a financial or business partnership than a sentimental one, and she offers to pay off Camden's debts in return for his hand. When he politely declines, because he is promised to another woman (an equally poor and wishy-washy aristocrat), Gigi is inexplicably hurt, and only then realises that she's fallen in love with this man.

Gigi knows that Camden has feelings for her, and she also knows that his attachment to this other woman is based on honour rather than sentiment. Naive, unused to passionate love, and trained from birth to go after what she wants, she is determined to have him, and has a letter forged and delivered to Camden announcing his intended's marriage to another man. Camden, delighted to be released from his obligation, proposes, and so passes a whirlwind three-week engagement, which Gigi can't entirely enjoy because she's terrified her shameful deceit will come to light before the wedding can be made final.

Unfortunately for her, it does. Camden is understandably outraged, but instead of calling the wedding off, in revenge for her betrayal he goes through with the wedding, gives her a torrid wedding night, and then flatly dumps her and leaves for the continent.

Ten years pass - ten years with husband and wife on separate Continents, never exchanging so much as a word. That is, until Gigi petitions Camden for a divorce. Having captured the attentions of a truly loving, gentle, and kind-hearted man (Lord Frederick), Gigi finally wants out of her farce of a marriage so that she may start a new one with Freddie. To her surprise, Camden refuses, and lists off her own adulterous lovers (the law states she can't obtain a divorce for adultery if she's also committed adultery). However, he will keep her secret affairs a secret and allow the divorce to proceed if she will give him a year to try and beget an heir upon her. Gigi is appalled by the notion, but really has no choice, so she concedes.

There were a lot of things about this book that I liked in theory, but which, for reasons I can't satisfactorily explain, didn't grab me in practice. I liked that we finally have a romance where the hero is the moral superior. I liked the cosmopolitanism of the novel (the characters weren't all English born, the story didn't only take place in England - hell, the hero's English is a second language!). I liked that Gigi's mum was an unabashed, manipulative social climber but wasn't a cold evil bitch (quite the opposite in fact). I liked having a heroine who was independent and pragmatic and aware of Society's arbitrary dictates, who was also willing to work alongside and manipulate those same limitations to get what she wanted, instead of being one of those abominable Anachronistically Feminist Nuisances who say "To Hell with Society!"

Of all the characters, Gigi was probably my favourite - she's vibrant and nuanced, vulnerable and yet very capable. I related to her choices (even her Big Giant Bad one). She's incredibly flawed, which is a refreshing change from heroines who are usually the lily-white creampuff foils to their devil's food cake heroes. Camden wasn't too bad either, but when I closed the book after the last page, I just couldn't remember anything significant about him.

And this is probably why this book was produced only a "m'eh" from me - while I enjoyed the book well enough while I read it, once I put the book down it became out of sight out of mind. Even terrible books keep me thinking about them once I'm through - usually about how much I would love to be stuck alone in a room with the protagonists long enough to beat some sense into them. With this book, all I could truly remember was the mildly annoying profusion of name-dropping in this book - while it was all historically accurate name-dropping, I found it just as distracting in a historical romance as I do fashion and celebrity name-dropping in a contemporary.

I know this review is shorter than my reviews usually are - but that's because when it comes to this book, I don't really have a lot to say about it. And, ironically, that says plenty about how I felt about it. B-.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Re-Review: "An Offer from a Gentleman," by Julia Quinn

*New Feature!* Alternate Title: The Bridgertons - Now with 50% Fewer Daddy Issues!

The Chick: Sophie Beckett. Turned into an unpaid servant by her evil stepmother after her father dies, Sophie takes a huge risk by crashing a masquerade in a mask and borrowed gown. She falls for Benedict Bridgerton, but when the clock strikes midnight, she's forced to flee.
The Rub: Two years later, when Sophie and Benedict's paths cross again, he doesn't recognize her, and Sophie doesn't remind him.
Dream Casting: Scarlett Johansson.

The Dude: Benedict Bridgerton. At a masquerade hosted by his marriage-minded mother, Benedict runs into (and swiftly falls for) an unknown masked woman. For months (and years!) after she mysteriously vanishes, he still can't get her off his mind.
The Rub: Two years later, he finds himself attracted to Sophie, a simple housemaid, but feels as if he's somehow "cheating" on his masked paramour.
Dream Casting: Alex O'Loughlin.

The Plot: (borrowed from last review)
Benedict: Marry me!
Sophie-in-Cinderella-disguise: No.
Benedict: Be my mistress!
Sophie-years-later-as-servant: HELL no!
Benedict: NOW marry me!
Sophie-returned-to-solvency: Okay.

Romantic Convention Checklist: (also borrowed from last review)
1 Interclass Romance
1 Very Bad (Step-)Parent
9 (!) Anachronistically Wonderful and Accepting Relatives
1 False Accusation
1 Previously Undiscovered Inheritence
1 Obvious Sequel Setup (look out, Colin Bridgerton)

The Word: I'm not going to be doing re-reviews of all the romance novels I've read in the last couple of years, but I feel it my duty to do so with this one, primarily because a) I'm only just now reading it within the context of the Bridgerton series as a whole, b) I didn't read it this time while writhing in a hospital waiting-room for six hours waiting for the doctors to tell me I didn't have appendicitis and c) I enjoyed (and understood) it so much more this time around!

If The Viscount Who Loved Me was thematically centered around fear, than An Offer from a Gentleman is focused on identity. Sophie, right from the start, is a woman with an uncertain identity. A bastard, although her father never officially acknowledged her, he provided her with the upbringing and education of a gentlewoman. However, he dies unexpectedly, leaving the two daughters of his new wife dowries and Sophie nothing (apparently). However, he does stipulate in his will that if his Countess (i.e. the evil stepmother) wants to receive three times her allotted allowance, she has to keep Sophie under her roof until she turns twenty. This spiteful, evil woman does exactly what we expect her to do: she quickly turns Sophie into an unpaid maid-of-all-work, and Sophie, an illegitimate child with no other living relatives, complies because she knows she has nowhere else to go.

Sophie's upper-class education and upbringing prevent her from being satisfied with the hard, thankless life of a servant and keep her from truly connecting with other people of the servant class. On the other hand, her bastard status bars her from the gentry, so from the very beginning, she is a woman stuck between two worlds, ultimately belonging to neither.

Benedict Bridgerton, meanwhile, has identity issues of his own: on paper, he sounds downright bland. He's not a rake, he doesn't have his brother Anthony's Daddy Issues, he doesn't have a dark or secret past, he hasn't been shaped by a tumultuous childhood or bad relationships. While he appears briefly in the previous Bridgerton Books (The Duke and I and The Viscount Who Loved Me), his presence was more identified by who he wasn't - Benedict was the one who Wasn't the Viscount (Anthony), Wasn't the Rake (Colin) and Wasn't the Child (Gregory).

And what a relief he is! Dark, brooding, slutty, angsty heroes are all well and good, but one needs a breath of fresh air occasionally, and Julia Quinn provides it with her subtle portrayal of Benedict. When I first read the novel, I couldn't quite understand what his problem was, precisely because it wasn't the Writ Large, Terrible Burninating Secret that Only the Heroine Can Soothe kind of deal I was used to (I was just starting out with romance when I first read this).

Instead, Benedict's identity is, like Sophie's, suspended in the middle, albeit in a more low-key way. He's the quintessential Middle Brother. Raised in a family of eight chidlren, as the second-born son he doesn't have the responsibilities that eldest Anthony has, but he's also too old for the rascally ways of Colin (little Gregory's still at Eton in this novel).

While never neglected or passed over, he's never been in a position to assert his own identity - unlike, say, Anthony, whose cautious, controlling personality necessarily came to the fore when he assumed the title of Viscount upon their father's death. For his entire life, Benedict has been surrounded by loud, talkative, supportive, and loving brothers and sisters, so he's never really been on his own long enough to really find out how his identity extends beyond the labels of Brother and Son.

And at the beginning of the novel, he's sick of it. Attending his family's masquerade ball in a black mask, he's chased around the room by Society misses and their mamas, who, tellingly, pursue him for his simplistic identity as a popular, wealthy Bridgerton, rather than his personal identity as Benedict (they refer to him as the "Number Two" Bridgerton).

Just then, Sophie sneaks into the party in an antique borrowed dress and a demimask. Her fairy godparents (the late Earl's loyal servants who resent serving the Countess and her daughters while the Earl's biological child slaves for no pay) have arranged for her to have one magical night off, provided she return by midnight so that her stepmother and -sisters (who are also attending the ball) won't find out.

It is a testament to Julia Quinn's superb use of theme and symbolism that Benedict and Sophie's first meeting occurs during a masquerade, when the identities Society gives them can be hidden while their true identities shine through. The honest fiction of the event allows Sophie and Benedict to meet and share an hour of pure connection untainted by the influence of class barriers. However, the clock strikes twelve all too soon, and Sophie flees.

Two years pass, and fate brings Sophie and Benedict together again. Sophie found work as a housemaid in the country after Evil Stepmother (who discovered her Cinderella act) gave her the boot. Benedict searched for the mysterious woman in the silver dress for months, and even though he's now given up on the idea of ever finding her, he still carries a torch for their one moment of blissful understanding. Unbeknownst to him, so has Sophie.

When Benedict saves Sophie from being raped by her employers' drunken son and offers to find her a position in his mother's household, Sophie is sure that he'll recognize her - and is honestly disappointed when he doesn't. However, as much as she would love to tell him the truth about that one glorious night, she keeps it to herself, convinced that nothing could ever come of it. After all, Benedict is a wealthy gentleman, adored by the ton, and Sophie is simply a bastard housemaid. Best-case scenario, he would ask her to be his mistress, and Sophie's endured the sting of bastardy too long to even consider inflicting that taint upon a child of her own.

Even while these two characters try to hide their true hearts from each other, their souls' compatability can't be denied - and the rest of the book details how incredibly difficult it is for both Benedict and Sophie to remove the masks that Society has given them.

I've heard other fans of JQ say they love her books precisely because they DON'T need pirates, or vampires, or bands of gypsies, or ridiculous wagers to fuel valid, realistic conflict. This has never been more true than with An Offer From a Gentleman, which has just been bumped up ahead of Duke and Viscount as my favourite book in the series (granted, I haven't read the other five yet, but I'm getting on it, don't worry!). Here, the characters maintain the conflict, and they do so believably because they are realistic, well-written characters.

Benedict in particular - Sophie's a more understandable character because her problems are firmly established in the prologue, but with Benedict, we aren't clued in to his precise character by the backcover blurb ("This soulful, damaged Duke..." "The dastardly spy with a dark secret...." etc. etc.), and only through reading the novel do we discover who he is, piece by piece. He's also realistically influenced by his environment and upbringing - that is, he is a Rich Boy, through and through. Not that he's a bad Rich Boy, by any means, but a lot of the conflict between him and Sophie (particularly once they realize their feelings for each other), springs from his sheltered idealism that prevents him from truly understanding what Sophie's been through. I loved this - I've encountered too many interclass romances where the Noble, Wealthy Hero is just so Understanding, Tolerant, and Uncaring of Society's Rules and understands the Valiant, Poor Heroine completely.

Not so in An Offer from a Gentleman. Benedict's never known a day of true hardship in his life, bless him, and he sees no reason why Sophie can't be his mistress (but not wife - he still has some standards) and live happily with rainbows and puppies with him. Sophie is more of a pragmatist, and I couldn't help but cheer for her every step of the way, even when she refuses Benedict (which she does often). This heroine's got some serious common sense, y'all. Some Romance Heroines think they can break Society's frivolous barriers by stomping their feet and tossing their tempestuous (often red) hair. And on the other end of this wide spectrum, we also have Heroines who dig in their heels when faced with a HEA for completely arbitrary, contrived, and silly reasons (see: my hatred of the "he never says he loves me" cliche in my recent Corny Cliche Roundup).

Sophie occupies the blessed middle ground - she has a realistic understanding of how Society works, and is determined to squeeze the best life she can into the tiny square of existence she is permitted. And as the book progressed, even I was screaming "Hang society! Just get together you two, damn it all! Have lots of sex and babies already!", but I never once doubted Sophie's reasons or considered her irresponsible or selfish. I believed her reasons and actions, even if I didn't agree with them.

There are very few flaws to be found in this book, but I'll note the only one that currently stands out to me: Violet, Benedict's marriage-minded mother, states early on in the novel that she wouldn't mind if her children married paupers (albeit of staunch moral character and impeccable breeding), so long as they married. But when Sophie is placed in her household by Benedict (who wants to keep her close so he can eventually wear her down into agreeing to be his mistress), the perceptive Violet seems to figure out the relationship between the two quite quickly. However, she seems curiously amused about it, which seemed out of character. I don't know, but if I was a Regency-era mama who found out my son got me to hire his potential mistress as a ladies' maid for my daughters, I wouldn't chuckle over it, I'd be pissed!

But this is only a minor quibble. An Offer from a Gentleman is an intricate, subtle, and refreshingly character-driven romance that only improved upon a second read. It had a lovely overarching theme, well-drawn, sensible, but romantic characters, and Julia Quinn's characteristically witty dialogue, not to mention a great fairy-tale premise. I recommend this wholeheartedly. Hell, I recommend the series wholeheartedly (at least the first three books I've read), if you haven't tried it already. A.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"The Runaway Duke," by Julie Anne Long

The Chick: Rebecca Tremaine. In an attempt to catch her older, prettier, more proper sister in the middle of a tryst with a dissolute nobleman, she is caught with him instead, and to save her honour she's forced into an engagement with him.
The Rub: She's far too Fiesty and Redheaded for her foppish fiance - and she'd much rather read scientific journals and practice medicine than embroider cushions for the rest of her life.
Dream Casting: I'm running out of redheaded actresses! I went for Bryce Dallas Howard again.

The Dude: Roarke Blackburn, Duke of Dunbrooke - a.k.a. "Connor Riordan." To rebel against his abusive nobleman father, Roarke joined the army - and used the Battle of Waterloo to fake his own death. Now working as a groom for the Tremaine family, he can't bear the thought of Fiesty, Redheaded Rebecca being forced into an unhappy marriage.
The Rub: The dukedom he abandoned isn't doing too well in his absence - especially now that it's managed by a former mistress of his who managed to con her way into the position of Duchess of Dunbrooke.
Dream Casting: Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

The Plot:
Rebecca: Caught you!

Edelston, Dissolute Nobleman: No, caught you!

Rebecca's Parents: No, caught YOU!

Rebecca and Edelston: *engaged*

Connor: *fake Irish accent* So, you don't want to get married, then?

Rebecca: Oh no, I'd much rather be a doctor, seeing as how it's such a successful career choice for a woman in 1820s England!

Connor: Let's blow this popsicle stand, then, baby!

Connor and Rebecca: *abscond!*

Edelston: Waaah, my fiancee ran away!

Cordelia, Duchess Con Artiste Extraordinaire: Cry me a river.

Edelston: Ahem, waaah, my fiancee ran away with the incriminating piece of evidence I was blackmailing you with that proves you're really a Secret Ho!

Cordelia: SHIT.

Connor: I love you Rebecca Tremaine, because you're Fiesty and Redheaded.

Rebecca: I love you Connor, because you're awesome and true....

Edelston: Pssst, he's secretly a Duke!

Rebecca: ... scratch that. I never want to see you again.

Connor: Really?

Rebecca: Who am I kidding? I love you, because you're a Duke with a Sad Past.

Edelston and Cordelia, Awesome Villains: What about us?

Connor, now Roarke: I'll pay you a thousand pounds if you ship off the States, and we'll be even.

Villains: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Feisty, Redheaded Heroine With Anachronistic Ideas

1 Tortured Hero with a Daaaark Past

1 Perfect Blond Sister

1 Very Bad Parent (deceased)

1 Fake Irish Accent

1 Band of Gypsies

1 Lacklustre Sexual Rival

1 Gypsy Slut

1 Secondary Romance (Lorelei and Colonel Pierce)

1 Delightfully Delicious Villain

1 Piece of Nudie Jewelery

2 Incompetent Henchmen

The Word: At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to our heroine, who is Spirited, Independent, and Improper, as evidenced by her Red Hair - Rebecca Tremaine. She also has a sister, Lorelei, who is everything that she is not - blond, conventionally beautiful, and proper. In an attempt to one-up Lorelei, Rebecca tries to catch her in the act of holding a secret tryst with Anthony Edelston, a local baron. Unfortunately, Lorelei is late, so when Edelston shows up he mistakes Rebecca for Lorelei in the dark and shoves his tongue down her throat. The two are caught in a compromising position and forced into an engagement.

But Rebecca cannot stand being shackled in marriage - her Fiesty, Redheaded Spirit rebels against it utterly. An avid reader of her father's scientific journals, she would much rather be a doctor.

Yes. A doctor. I very nearly carted this book off to the secondhand store right then. I've come across my fair share of anachronistically feminist characters in historicals, but Rebecca Tremaine tops the whole lot. She likes reading about science - that's fine. Her daddy lets her play with his guns - less fine, but not quite a dealbreaker. But when she demonstrates her secret heart's desire to be a doctor, my responses were, in this order - 1) "Ahahahahahahahahahahaha." 2) "Oh shit, she's serious." 3) "Bitch, please."4) "Dammit, not another one of these twits again," and 5) "This cannot end well."

The setting of this story is 1820s England. If this were, say, in Laura Lee Gurhke's preferred time period (1890s), I might find this slightly more believable. But in the 1820s? What the hell kind of Fiesty Redheaded dreamworld is Rebecca living in? Men wouldn't let her practice on them. Other women wouldn't let her practice on them. She'd never be allowed into the colleges to train properly. Besides - which one would she prefer to be? A physician (diagnosis and theory) or a surgeon (actual physical contact)? The doctor who worked both in theory and on patients never came into being until later on in the century. Rebecca ends up mending a bullet wound later on in the novel - which would make her a surgeon (physicians in the early 19th century kept their gentleman status by not touching their patients) - and surgeons were tradespeople.

The first chapter of this novel was so hard to read because my mind kept screaming: "No no no no NO NO NO THAT'S WRONG AND WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!" Eventually, for the integrity of this review, I forced myself to continue reading even though it became obvious that Rebecca was clearly a mentally deranged individual with no concept of how the world around her worked.

Anyway, her fiance Edelston is a cad - he's up to his eyeballs in debt, and is so casually evil it's rather hilarious. Upon the announcement of the engagement, the first thing Edelston does is conjure up ideas of the many ways in which a wife can "accidentally" die and leave her husband her fortune. He also drops a few words expressing his interest in wife-beating during a regular conversation.

Rebecca turns to Connor, her loyal groom (who secretly pines for her, natch), and expresses her fears about the upcoming nuptials. Connor, entranced by her Fiesty Redheaded Spirit and horrified at the idea of it being trampled beneath the emotionless wheels of holy matrimony, agrees to help smuggle her out of the country - maybe even to America. Connor (who gave up his constricting title as the Duke of Dunbrooke by faking his death during the Napoleonic wars) wants to go because it's the place where a man may earn his own way off the sweat of his back, instead of being born into privilege. Rebecca wants to go because she's heard magical fairy tales about a country wild and disorganized "Where they might tolerate female doctors," she hopes. Honey, 19th-century Americans were rebellious. They weren't retarded.

The fiery Titian heroine with outlandish ideas and the uber-villain in the first chapters were very difficult to read - but thankfully, the novel picks up a bit after Connor and Rebecca get the hell out of Dodge. Edelston, it turns out, isn't really an uber-villain - but rather a stupid and generally harmless young man with a bad taste in jokes who needs Rebecca's dowry to fend off his creditors. When the engagement is announced, he sends a letter to a noblewoman he's been blackmailing to tell her that it's all cool, he's not going to need to milk her for cash anymore, and he's willing to hand over the incriminating evidence he's been holding against her.

The woman shows up at the Tremaine estate with remarkable promptness - Cordelia, the Duchess of Dunbrooke. True to his word, Edelston tries to produce his evidence - a gold locket with Cordelia's portrait inside that reveals details about her background that don't correspond with the story she's been telling the ton. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Edelston, Rebecca swiped the bauble on her way out the door with Connor, not knowing what it was but thinking it could be pawned for cash to fund her escape.

Cordelia's determination to recover the locket and protect its secrets far exceeds Edelston's desire to retrieve his fiancee, and she sends paid ruffians after the fleeing couple. When certain circumstances reveal to Cordelia that her locket is not only in the hands of another, but in the hands of the one man who, were his true identity known, could unseat her from her place of power in Society, her plans to thwart Connor and Rebecca's flight become decidedly more serious.

Cordelia went a long way towards saving this novel from an F grade. She is easily one of the best-written villains I've read in a romance novel - a woman of grey morals and subtle nuance, her character is embroidered with realistic motivation and inner turmoil. Lots of cheesy romance villains seem to be bad just for the sake of being bad - but Cordelia experiences moral doubt and (gasp!) actual emotions. I've always thought the best villains experience moral quandaries because their ultimate choice to do the wrong thing is much more frightening and sad to read about than a villain who only thinks "me me me, mine mine mine."

Edelston was also a uniquely written character - hapless, thoughtless, and gutless, he's a ninny, but a ninny with character and, yes, a capacity for good as well as evil.

As well, Julie Anne Long possesses a truly beautiful and original writing style that was a joy to read - I particularly loved her descriptions and her observations on society. So I loved her style and I loved her villains - so why didn't I like this book?

Because I hated the protagonists and couldn't believe their relationship for a moment. Not only is there a physical age gap between Connor (29) and Rebecca (18), the emotional age gap is even wider. I've always been fairly creeped out by romances in which, at one point, the hero as an adult knew the heroine as a child. While I can tolerate it sometimes, in The Runaway Duke this aspect of the relationship only enhanced the ick factor between them both. Connor and Rebecca have known each other since Rebecca was twelve, and Connor refers to her throughout the entire novel as "wee Becca" - her childhood nickname. Even after their relationship becomes sexual, he continually treats her like a child - he controls nearly every aspect of their trip, he lies to and omits the truth from her "for her own good" (a fairly common romantic Hero trait, sadly) and dumps her to be babysat by a band of Gypsies while he gallops off to solve his problems alone ("to protect her").

To be fair, Rebecca contributes by acting like a child. Yes, readers, she's not only an anachronistic feminist, she's an infantalized anachronistic feminist - a book-smart street-dumb nitwit who has no idea how the world operates around her and stares and pokes and touches things with an eternal gaze of slack-jawed, wide-eyed wonder. She does a number of cutesy and very silly things "in the name of science!" that only enhance her ineptitude, and I continually questioned her relationship with Connor - he always seemed more of a parent to her than a lover, and I never bought their sexual relationship.

Anyway, on top of all of those problems, count a climax that deflates far too quickly (and ultimately gives neither protagonist what they were looking for) and an important character who inexplicably disappears, and you have a generally unpleasant read. However, I'm not going to give up on Julie Anne Long just yet. This was her first novel, after all, and despite the hackneyed plot and loathsome protagonists, she produced some exceptionally fine writing and demonstrated she could write vivid, three-dimensional, motivated characters - even if they were the villains who were forced to cede pride of place to Miss Doctor Horrible and Captain Hammer-Headed. C-.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

NaNoWriMo Update

One of the things I was most looking forward to this year was National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, for short.

Why? Because it was something I've been interested in for years but couldn't do. For the last four years, I studied towards my English Major and Comparative Literature minor, which meant that every November (and March) was Death Month - i.e. the month where I would have five three-thousand-word academic essays due in the same week. Delightful.

Anyway, now that I'm working a regular nine to five that doesn't have homework, I've taken it up and I'm having so much fun doing it. First of all, because during this month I let my old novel (Reading the Willow King) rest for a while, while I try to pound out a new novel based on a new idea in a month.

I'm making fairly good progress - right now, I'm at 19 500 words, just shy of halfway towards the 50 000 word endpoint. A little behind, I guess, but if I work at it, I'll catch up. But it's so nice to be able to work on a new idea that I have a lot of enthusiasm for than slog through a novel I still kinda like but is getting stale.

Really, I'm hoping that this NaNoWriMo helps me to get into the habit of writing novels fast and consistently on a schedule. It's much easier to write the first draft of a novel while the idea is still fresh in one and a half months than to drag out a first draft over twelve (yes, twelve) months more because you feel an obligation towards it. Am I doing historical research? Nope - I just write whatever I possibly can whenever I possibly can, and by God it's actually forming a plot that could be revised into something GREAT later on.

That's not to say I'm going to abandon The Willow King completely - just, for a while. A month, maybe. At least until I'm finished the first draft of my first romance-fantasy effort, The Duke of Snow and Apples.

Monday, November 10, 2008

CLASSIC REVIEW: "Mansfield Park," Jane Austen

The Chick: Fanny Price. The daughter of poor, struggling parents, as a child she was taken away to live at Mansfield Park with the family of her wealthy uncle Sir Thomas Bertram, as a favour to her mother, Sir Thomas' sister-in-law.
The Rub: In the years she spent growing up in Mansfield on her uncle's charity, her vicious aunt Mrs Norris and her vain cousins Maria and Julia never let her forget her status as the inferior, ignorant "poor relation" - and as a result, she developed a crippling shyness and fear of being noticed.

The Dude: Edmund Bertram. The second son of Sir Thomas, he is the only Bertram family member who ever goes out of his way to show kindness to Fanny (who, as a result, secretly adores him).
The Rub: Oblivious to Fanny's affections, he falls for the sophisticated and ambitious Miss Mary Crawford. Also possesses all the romantic qualities of a wet dishrag.

The Other Dude: Henry Crawford. Brother to Miss Crawford, he's wealthy, handsome (if short!), and has a way with the ladies - but finds himself truly attracted to the shy and retiring Fanny, the only girl who makes no effort to impress or amuse him.
The Rub: Well, he is a rake - and those habits die hard.

The Plot:

Sir Thomas Bertram: Let's adopt a poor relation!

Fanny: *adopted*

Maria, Fanny's Vain, Slutty Cousin: Hello, poor relation!

Julia, Fanny's Slightly Less Vain, Slutty Cousin: Hello, poor relation!

Mrs Norris, Fanny's Monstrous Hell-Bitch Aunt: Stop dirtying the carpets with your tears, poor relation!

Edmund: Hello, Fanny.

Fanny: *in luuuuurve*

Eight Years Later

Henry and Mary Crawford: Hello! We're new to the neighbourhood!

Henry: *winks*

Julia and (the now married) Maria: *swoon*

Fanny: *unimpressed*

Mary: Oh, Edmund, I shouldn't love you because you're a worthless second son destined to be a poor, pious clergyman! And yet I do! Isn't that quaint?

Edmund: Aww! You're so cute when you say things that go completely against my personal beliefs! Want to ride my horse?

Fanny: *SO unimpressed*

Henry: Hey, Fanny, wanna go out?

Fanny: No, thank you.

Henry: Please?

Fanny: No.

Henry: Pretty please?

Fanny: No.

Henry: Suit yourself. *bangs cousin Maria*

Mary: Oh, Henry, you rascally scamp! What delightful scrapes shall you get into next?

Edmund: *ideals shattered* Oh man, what a fool I was! She was the only woman I could ever think of marrying! Now what'll I do? Hey Fanny?

Fanny: Yes?

Edmund: You'll do.

Fanny: *delighted!*

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 "Poor Relation" Heroine with Low Self-Esteem

1 Hero Oblivious to Heroine's True Feelings

1 Horrid Aunt

2 Rascally Rakes (let's not forget Tom Bertram Jr!)

1 Woman Who Would Actually Be Pretty Cool if She Were Alive Today, but In Regency Times is Kind Of a Bitch

1 Cuckolded Husband

1 Failed Theatrical Attempt

1 Hasty Elopement

The Word: The novel begins with three sisters - one marries a baronet (Lady Bertram), one marries a clergyman whose living was provided by aforementioned baronet (Mrs Norris), and one marries a sailor (Mrs Price). Years later, Mr and Mrs Price aren't doing so well, thanks to an overabundance of children and Mr Price's fondness for drink. Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, and Mrs Norris, to help Mrs Price out, decide to adopt one of her kids - that way Mrs Price has one less mouth to feed and at least one of her children will get a chance at a decent education and upbringing.

Fanny Price, by virtue of being the oldest Price daughter, is promptly uprooted from the only home she's ever known and sent to live with strangers. Mrs Norris and the Bertrams give themselves a giant self-righteous pat on the back. However, they're convinced that while Fanny's improvement is assured now that she's in gentler-bred surroundings, it's unrealistic to suppose that she'll ever be the social, intellectual, or moral equal to the Bertrams' own children Thomas, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. Fanny's terror and homesickness are met with little sympathy, especially from the childless, widowed Mrs Norris who treats her like an ungrateful leech on the saintly Bertrams' charity, nevermind that her own position in the Bertram household is hardly less self-serving. The only family member who makes any effort to treat her with compassion is her cousin Edmund.

Time passes, and eight years of languishing in the shadow of her beautiful, educated, accomplished, and spoiled cousins Maria and Julia have transformed Fanny into a shrinking violet, a severely timid and shy young woman who would prefer to fade into the wallpaper, who trembles with horror at the thought of being remarked upon, even in a positive way (which is rare, thanks to Mrs Norris - who dispenses one acidic retort in Fanny's direction for every ass-kissing compliment she gives Maria and Julia). The only thing the Fanny feels at all strong about is her all-consuming adoration of Edmund.

Their quiet country existence is upset by the arrival of two newcomers - the half-siblings of the current rector's wife: Henry and Mary Crawford. Sophisticated, intelligent, and urbane, Henry captures the attentions of both Julia and Maria (even though Maria is engaged to the unintelligent Mr Rushworth), and Mary catches Edmund's eye. Henry is very obviously a rake who trifles with both cousins' affections and appears to take great pleasure in pitting one against the other - Mary, however, is a more ambiguous character. Materialistic? Certainly. Ambitious? Most definitely - however, even though she claims she could never condescend to marry a second son and has no respect for the clergy, she surprises even herself in her affection for Edmund. She is also endearingly kind and thoughtful towards Fanny, even as Fanny silently ties herself into knots watching Edmund fall fast and hard for a woman whose moral compass is clearly not pointing in the same direction as his.

Mansfield Park was a novel I both did and didn't like. Fanny is a frustrating character to relate to, as her social phobias continually force her into the role of a passive observer, particularly in the novel's first half, where inwardly she despairs of Edmund and Mary's growing relationship and disapproves of Henry and Maria's deepening flirtation but is too anxious to do anything about it. She cries and she trembles and she sits in the corner and stares while the much more interesting plot points happen elsewhere.

However, things begin to take off in the novel's second half as Fanny finds it increasingly difficult to fade into the background. With one daughter already married off, Sir Thomas finally starts to take notice of Fanny, and remarks upon the "sudden" improvement in her looks, manners, and bearing. Rather belatedly as it seems to me, Sir Thomas decides it is time to introduce Fanny to Society, a prospect Fanny regards with pure fear. The scenes of Fanny's coming-out are laced with Austen's trademark delicious irony - while inwardly, Fanny is a nervous wreck in perpetual deer-in-the-headlights-mode, outwardly her precise and automatic behaviour is interpreted as impeccable manners, which earns her Sir Thomas' approval and, more amazing still, the attention of Henry Crawford.

Reading this novel for the first time (without knowing how it was to turn out), I rejoiced when Henry found himself falling for Fanny, the shy wallflower who refused to swoon at his feet like the others. He was smart, handsome, rich, and a more healthy romantic alternative than Edmund. Trust me, it's not because Fanny and Edmund are biologically first cousins. While Edmund is kind to Fanny, none of his actions towards her before the end are anything but brotherly, and while he alone of all the Bertrams makes an effort to befriend her, he also takes her for granted for much of the novel and remains generally oblivious to her feelings and inner turmoil. He "thoughtfully" lets Fanny ride his horse, but once Mary enters the picture, this gift to Fanny, thoughtlessly given, is just as thoughtlessly taken away when he lends it to Mary instead.

As well, Fanny's love for Edmund veers a little too close to obsession to my tastes. One has to wonder - does Fanny really love Edmund for who he is, or does Fanny fixate on Edmund because she's the starving dog and Edmund the only one who threw her crumbs from Sir Thomas' table?

Ultimately, what won me over to Henry's suit was that he, not Edmund (nor any of the Bertrams, for that matter), caught on to Fanny's deep-seated fear of social situations and acknowledgement. Henry, in a conversation with his sister regarding his intentions for Fanny, is the first one to see the Bertrams' neglectful treatment of Fanny for what it is, and connect the dots between it and Fanny's shamefully low self-image. At one point he actually makes a speech about how he plans to devote himself to convincing Fanny of how lovely and delightful she actually is, and I was sold. Yes! Yes! Yes! I thought. Go for it, Fanny!

Sadly, it doesn't happen that way, and the end rapidly arrives all the errant plot threads start wrapping up at once. Fanny can't trust Henry because she remembers all too well his emotional manipulation of her cousins, and (perhaps as an angry response to her perception of Edmund's moral capitulation to Mary) refuses to relinquish her moral standards in favour of Henry's affection. Things proceed very quickly from there - Henry's impatience gets the best of him and he runs off with Maria, Julia elopes with a Mr Yates, Thomas Bertram Jr falls deathly ill after being abandoned by his wastrel friends, and Mary reveals her true colours when she responds to the news of Tom Jr's illness with a little too much glee.

While the ending is sudden, the message it sends is a valid one: the overall theme of Mansfield Park being that money and education can't buy class. Sir Thomas' biggest mistake comes at the beginning of the novel when he assumes that Fanny, coming from a poor family, can never hope to become the equal of his own children, all four of whom have been given the best education and instruction that money can buy. And how does that turn out? Tom Jr fritters away Edmund's inheritance and nearly kills himself with degenerate living, Maria humiliates her husband and ruins her reputation by running away with another man, and Julia elopes with a fop. Of the five children in Sir Thomas' household, only the socially-inferior second son Edmund and "poor relation" Fanny emerge from the novel's climax with their reputations intact.

Built on this mistaken assumption that an expensive upbringing automatically bestows moral fibre, Sir Thomas' plan to improve Fanny by removing her to more wealthy surroundings backfires - Fanny is emotionally crippled rather than improved by her stay at Mansfield Park.

Similarly, the novel's theme applies to the Crawfords as well - the Bertrams are initially attracted to the wealthy, sophisticated siblings, so much so that even steadfast Edmund is entranced. The Bertrams cannot understand why Fanny refuses Henry's suit, seeing only his good name and fortune while Fanny is able to see beyond the superficial fripperies and judge his character from his actions rather than his upbringing. In fact, when Sir Thomas decides to punish Fanny for refusing Henry, his idea of the perfect sentence is to return her to her impoverished home, thinking that might make her see Henry in a more positive light.

So thematically, I thought Mansfield Park to be an interesting and relatively entertaining book, but romantically, I thought it was terrible. Instead of ending up with the handsome, entertaining man who genuinely noticed her inner torment, Fanny ends up as a consolation prize for a man who politely ignored her for much of the novel.

There's no romantic build-up a la Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. Edmund and Fanny's interactions for 99% of the novel remain on the level of brother and sister. Edmund literally realizes his feelings for Fanny within a single paragraph on the last page of the novel. One minute, he's pining for Miss Crawford, and the next it's "Hey, wait a minute, Fanny has lady parts, too!" Edmund shows his brotherly affection for Fanny many times in the novel, but he never showed any understanding for or even awareness of Fanny's true character - her poor self-image, her social terrors, her keen eye for observation. Their marriage at the end of the novel is ultimately one of convenience - for both the characters and as a narrative device by the author. To me, they didn't get married because they loved each other - they got married because they were there and unattached.

When it comes right down to it, while I appreciated the points Jane Austen made with this novel, I found I couldn't connect or empathize with the characters, or the romance elements of the story. While I enjoy Austen's writing, Mansfield Park wasn't nearly as enjoyable a read as Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. C.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

"Gilding the Lady," by Nicole Byrd

The Chick: Clarissa Fallon. Yanked from her upper class life as a child and dropped into the servant class by a Duplicitous Solicitor, she's only recently been rescued by her brother and his wife, who believe the best way to make up for lost time is to train her to be a lady again and give her a proper social season.
The Rub: Nasty people from her unfortunate past have a tendency to show up again, and either try to murder her or frame her for murder.
Dream Casting: Atonement's Romola Garai.

The Dude: Dominic Shay, Earl of Whitby. After Dominic humiliates the cousin of one of his friends, said friend makes a bet that he can't turn the clumsy, foul-mouthed Miss Fallon into the toast of the ton.
The Rub: He's damaged from the war, and doesn't like having responsibility over people's lives.
Dream Casting: I got lazy this time around, and just thought of Hugh Jackman.

The Plot:

Clarissa: Oh, 'ow will I evah be a damn shit bloody lady with my lower-class clumsiness and bad language and socialist sympathies?

Random Buddy: Hey Dominic - can you say Extreme Makeover: Regency Edition?

Dominic: Fine, whatever. Hello Clarissa, let's see if we can make you into a lady...

Mysterious Horrid Woman From Clarissa's Past: *dies*

Bone-Headed Magistrate: A large, female criminal was murdered! Surely it must have been the wisp of a gently-bred girl with powerful social connections who done it!

Clarissa: Let's save me from the noose, first.

Storyline: *abandoned*

Gemma, Clarissa's Sister in Law: Jinkies! Let's put our heads together to solve the crime!

Gang of Gently-Bred, Sheltered Ladies: Eureka! We've solved it!

Criminals (all but one): *CAUGHT!*

Final Criminal: Nyaa! There's only one thing I can do! Blow up the witnesses!

Clarissa and Dominic: *trapped by gunpowder*

Dominic: We've only got an hour to live - let's see if there's a window, or some way to escape!

Clarissa: Actually, I was thinking we could have sex first.

Dominic: Do we have time?

Clarissa: Oh yeah.

Dominic: Then let's get it on!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Socially Backward Heroine

1 Disdainful Damaged (Half-)Deaf Hero Adored by the Ton

1 Evil Fake Belgian

1 Noticeable But Still Sexy Facial Scar

1 Gang of Amateur Female Sleuths

1 Mortality-Induced Bout of Lovemaking

1 False Accusation

1 Unique Social Wager

The Word: In the case of this book, I really do think you can judge it by its cover. It's pink, has a bizarre title that has little to do with the story itself (I think it's some bastardization of "Gilding the Lily"), the image looks like a woman having a seizure, and, although you can't tell from the photo, it's covered in glitter. That pretty much explains this novel - in a nutshell, it's a cutesy, cheap, incomprehensible piece of idiotic, inconsistent drivel whose plot convulses in all directions.

As the novel starts, it looks like it might at least have an interesting story, if a blunt and spoon-fed writing style and characters who are stereotypes from the outset. Apparently (I say apparently because I think most of this story is explained in more detail in Byrd's previous novel Vision in Blue) when Clarissa Fallon was a little girl, her brother was lost at sea and her mother died, and the Duplicitous Solicitor charged with her care dumped her in an orphanage so he could keep her trust fund for himself (to purchase a lifetime supply of wax for that handlebar moustache of his, I'm assuming).

Anyway, after years of abuse at the orphanage, she was sold into service and worked as a maid until her brother and his sweetheart Gemma tracked her down and returned her to the good life. Sadly, she's picked up a few bad habits from her time in service - including bad language (translation: "says 'bloody hell' a lot"), clumsiness, a lack of manners, and a "charming" tendency to drop her "h"s. Her brother and sister-in-law try to prepare her to have a proper social season, but apparently demonstrating good breeding and flawless manners isn't like riding a bike.

Enter Dominic Shay, a man adored by the Ton for ... well, apparently for being an ass. When one of his thoughtless comments humiliates the cousin of one of his friends, the friend makes a wager. Pointing to a girl running with wild abandon from her outraged governess outside their men's club, the friend bets that Dominic won't be able to transform her into the toast of the ton. Dominic accepts.

So we have this Eliza Doolittle My Fair Lady thing going on - not bad. Their meet-cute continues the interesting-if-not-exactly-genius element of the novel: Clarissa, frayed by the pressure to re-learn lady-like behaviour, trades places with her maid for a few minutes so she can engage in a normal, relaxed conversation with some neighbouring servants - and gets unmasked by Dominic, who has no idea what she's doing. Could this lead to something interesting? Sadly no.

The plot takes a complete U-turn when Mrs Craigmore - the villainous matron of the orphanage Clarissa stayed in who ended up fleeing with embezzled funds - turns up dead, strangled by a scarf Clarissa dropped on the street. The major eye-rolling doesn't start until an oblivious magistrate has Clarissa dragged into the law courts to declare her a person of interest in the crime - even though there were no witnesses, the victim was a huge-ass woman with a criminal past and Clarissa is a blond wisp of a thing, and without even taking into consideration the fact that Clarissa's a gently-bred lady with a shit-ton of powerful social connections (Countesses and Earls and Marquises, oh my!). Realistically, no magistrate in his right mind who valued his job would so bluntly accuse a woman of Clarissa's social stature on such a dearth of evidence (the only thing that ties Clarissa to the crime is her scarf and a witnessed disagreement between her and Mrs Craigmore).

But of course, NO ONE in this book considers these completely logical facts. Clarissa half-convinces herself she's headed for the gallows already, and the Pygmalion plot is promptly jettisoned for Regency Scooby-Doo as Dominic, Clarissa, and all of her muslin-clad girlfriends take out their magnifying glasses and Nancy Drew Amateur Detective kits to try and find the real murderer before the English Legal System (which has never been known to favour the white, wealthy, and upper-class before!) invariably condemns poor Clarissa to death.

This book reads like something a highschooler would write for a project on category romance - each character resembles a doll plastered with post-it notes detailing some romantic cliche or other. Clarissa's got a Traumatic Past, a Delightful Sympathy for the Lower Class, a Lower-Class accent. Dominic's got a Facial Scar, a Traumatic War Past, a Disdain for the Ton, etc. However, Nicole Byrd never actually follows through on any of these tropes or keeps them consistent with their characters. Clarissa inexplicably loses her servant accent halfway through the novel, and somehow, even though her My Fair Lady subplot was interrupted by muuuuurder, still manages to ace her coming-out ball.

Similarly, we are told Dominic has a scar and a traumatic war past, but does he have nightmares? Shades of PTSD? Does his scar affect how his face moves? How other people see him? Are other people repulsed? That answer to all these questions is no. None of these time-worn stereotypes have any bearing or relevance on these puppet-like characters or how other people react to them - which makes the novel read like Byrd felt she had to stick her characters with these stinkers or people wouldn't think she was writing a romance novel.

On top of that, her plot is obviously, egregiously contrived. The best romance plots are stories that are determined by the actions and decisions of the characters. Romances are, at heart, character-driven stories. However, in Gilding the Lady, Byrd treats her narrative like a hockey puck, an inanimate object to be smacked around by unbelievable coincidences in the direction of her choosing, rather than letting the consequences of her characters' actions move the plot forward.

The most obvious instance of this is the ending. I have no qualms about spoiling this, because it is so exhasperatingly bad that if it prevents you from reading the book, I have done you a service. Dominic and co. eventually thwart the gang of thieves who killed Mrs Craigmore, but their ringleader (who coincidentally turned out to be Clarissa's dancing-master - whoda thunk?) escapes. However, they've gathered enough evidence to clear Clarissa's name so Clarissa and her family go out to the country to have her coming-out ball.

Clarissa is promptly kidnapped by the Evil Dancing Master shortly after desert. How did the Evil Dancing Master make it out to the country unnoticed even though he's a wanted man? How come any of the real servants didn't see through his footman's disguise? Nicole Byrd doesn't bother to explain. Evil Dancing Master locks Clarissa and Dominic in a shed and piles gunpowder against the door tied to the same fuse to be used for the fireworks display in an hour's time. Of course, none of the servants will notice the fireworks fuse suddenly leads to an abandoned shed instead of to the fireworks because the servants are all idiots.

It's at this point that Clarissa says, "We only have an hour to live. Sure, we could spend that looking for a window or calling for help or ripping my ballgown into a rope - but why don't you take my virginity first?" Cue the gagtastic Oh-My-God-Magical-First-Time-Deflowering-Orgasm scene. Of course, once they're finished, then they find a window to call for help, which appears within the minute. I very nearly put the book down then (this wasn't the first time I'd had that impulse, though). For three hundred pages, Clarissa and Dominic battle sexual tension without anything more serious than some hot kisses, but it must have been around this time that Nicole Byrd got the ridiculous bullshit idea that if she didn't put in a steamy sex scene full of throbbing and heaving and mindless pleasure, that her readers might mistake her book for something else (like *gasp* regular fiction???). Once again, the actions the characters take don't seem motivated by firm and well-established characterization, but by the outlandish and absurd dangers that Nicole Byrd puts them in.

In essense, avoid Gilding the Lady at all costs. It looks and reads more like a sad parody of romance than a true example of the genre - everything from the pink glitter of the cover to the bland, blind supportiveness of the hero to Clarissa's anachronistic "hot DAMN" approval of the Earl's hot bod at the start of the novel speaks to the lowest common denominator. Girls like pink! Girls like glitter! Girls like steamy sex scenes with no narrative-build up! Girls don't care if the heroes have no consistent character traits so long as they're hot! Girls want to read about a Cinderella story but would much rather skip the boring work the heroine has to do in the middle for something more exciting - like a murder mystery! Girls like CSI, right?

Gilding the Lady is essentially the book that non-romance-novel-readers think we romance-novel fans read. Want to prove them wrong? Then leave this book the hell alone. D-.