Wednesday, December 31, 2008

I'm going to the RWA 29th Annual Conference!

I did it.

I booked my plane. I booked my hotel (pricey but worth it!).

I'm going to the Romance Writers of America Annual Conference!!!

Gah! I'm so excited! I drank in all the blog entries on the last RWA conference in San Francisco and it sounded like such an awesome experience - meeting my favourite authors, going to workshops and seminars, meeting agents and editors... How exciting could that be for an aspiring romance author who is 75%....70%....okay 65% percent through the first draft of her first romance novel, The Duke of Snow and Apples.

It's my own little adventure - I might as well go while I'm young enough to recover from it, eh?

It also means I should probably set a deadline for my first romance novel, hahaha.

Any of my readers been to RWA? What's it like? What should I bring (or NOT bring)? What's your favourite part about going to the conference?

"For the Love of a Pirate," by Edith Layton

Alternate Title: For the Love of Someone Who In No Way Resembles a Pirate, But Who's Still a Real Swell Person
The Chick: Lisabeth Bigod. Raised by her gruff, loving grandfather after her father died, she grew up on stories of Captain Cunning, a legendary pirate, and his grandson, a friend of her father's who became a highwayman. When she discovers her deceased father betrothed her to the highwayman's son, she's secretly pleased, expecting the fiance she's never met to be as rash and exciting as his ancestors were.
The Rub: Surprise! He's not! While he's the spitting image of his father and great-grandfather, he's a meticulously proper gentleman - who's engaged to another.
Dream Casting: Scarlett Johansson.

The Dude: Constantine Wylde, Lord Wylde. Raised by an entirely different sort of relative (in this case, a puritanically correct uncle), he believed his father died a war hero. When Lisabeth's grandfather Captain Bigod explains the truth, that his father got his head blown off while robbing a coach - oh, and that Constantine's also engaged to his granddaughter - he's shocked, to say the least.
The Rub: Constantine's already engaged, and he's terrified of what might happen to his moral and upright reputation if the truth about his criminal parentage gets out.
Dream Casting: Elliot Cowan.

The Plot:
Constantine: Let's get married!

Random Proper Lady: Okay!

Captain Bigod: Hold it right there! You're engaged to my granddaughter! And your father died a highwayman!

Constantine: WHAT?!

Captain Bigod: Don't interrupt me - I have at least a chapter's worth of slightly convoluted backstory to reveal!

Lisabeth: Your great-grandfather was also a pirate! A sexy, sexy pirate...

Constantine: *glare of offended propriety*

Lisabeth: Wow, for the descendant of sexy rakes you sure are boring.

Constantine: Wow, for the descendant of lower-class, unconventionally-raised tradespeople you sure are attractive.

Lisabeth and Constantine: *sexx0r*

Constantine: Guess we have to get married - just let me make the tastefully timed, respectfully planned arrangements according to strict Society Standards.

Lisabeth: Which means?

Constantine: No more sex.

Lisabeth: Too boring for me! Sorry! *flees*

Constantine: How about if I pretend to be a pirate and fail spectacularly?

Lisabeth: Much better!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Prudishly Proper Protagonist with a Pirate Past

1 Nicely Fiesty Heroine

1 Interclass Romance

2 Convoluted Backstories

1 Alcoholic Governess and Former Ho

2 Inconveniently Dead Fathers

1 Nasty Uncle

2 Hot BFFs

1 Bitchy Ex-Fiancee

1 Annoying Frenchman

1 Grand Romantic Gesture Gone Horribly Awry

0 Actual Pirates

The Word: To put it simply, Edith Layton's For the Love of a Pirate is one of the worst-marketed romance novels I've ever come across. Let me explain this in the clearest terms possible: The title is For the Love of a Pirate. The cover artwork shows two vaguely-drawn people in what can only be the most awkward and painful game of "This Is How the Lady Rides (Cloppidy-Clop)" ever. The back cover blurb isn't much better, labeling Captain Bigod as a "fierce, aging pirate" and Lisabeth herself as "a bewitching pirate".

Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. This is not a book about pirates. Bigod runs a shipping business, and the worst his granddaughter does is wear pants. What this is (or at least looks like), is a pretty egregious error on the part of the title and blurb-writers at Avon, because they focused on what was a tiny detail in the novel and marketed the whole book around it. And this is a shame on two counts - first, for the reader, because the pirate romance (the kind that actually has pirates in it) is a legitimate (sub-?) sub-genre in romance and so the pirate fan who picks up this book up specifically looking for scenes that take place on ships, hidden treasures, fighting with cutlasses, etc. will be disappointed. And secondly, this is a shame for the author, Edith Layton - because this is quite a sweet, gentle and slow-burning romance that has been severely handicapped by its swashbuckling advertising and the unmet expectations it is bound to provoke.

Our hero is Constantine Wylde, who is, refreshingly, an anti-rake. Raised by his strict, vicar uncle after his father and grandfather died, Constantine grew into a somber, responsible, proper gentleman with a good head on his shoulders. Three days after announcing his engagement to a woman as sensible, restrained, and prim as himself, a rough, shady-looking stranger (Captain Bigod) barges into his house and orders him to call off his betrothal, on the grounds that he is already engaged to his granddaughter, Lisabeth Bigod.

Captain Bigod then launches into a long, rather tedious, but still twisty explanation: Constantine's father and Bigod's son were rascally BFFs, which didn't please Constantine's grandpa any. Grandpa Asshole cut off Constantine's dad without a cent, so to get enough money to take care of his pregnant wife, Constantine's dad and Bigod's son decided to team up and become highwaymen. Their plan didn't go so well because Constantine's dad died on the first try, and Bigod's son was later murdered by a jealous husband. However, before they both met their hilariously stupid demises, they made a pact that if one of them had a son and the other a daughter, they should totally marry - a pact they signed in blood (I'm not kidding).

Constantine takes all this in with the placid calmness of a cow gazing at an oncoming train: his uncle had raised him on the story that his father died a war hero. While he knows that he if outright contests a silly pact written by two drunken idiots, there's nothing Bigod or his granddaughter can do about it, he realizes that if his humiliating ancestry becomes public, his reputation and engagement will be destroyed. Fearing this, he accepts an invitation to Bigod's estate in the seaside town of Sea Mews, ultimately hoping to break off the engagement discreetly while buttering up the locals enough to keep quiet about his history.

When he arrives at Sea Mews, he makes two dismaying discoveries - first, that along with a highwayman father, he possesses a legendary pirate great-grandfather (Captain Cunning) whose infamous plunderings are more than likely the source of his family fortune; and second, that his prospective fiancee Lisabeth is really quite lovely.

Lovely, and terribly disappointed in him. She grew up on stories of pirates and highwaymen, and allowed herself some girlish fantasies about the subjects of the numerous portraits of Captain Cunning and Constantine Sr. in her grandfather's house. Although she knows her devoted grandfather would never force her to agree to her father's pact if she didn't want to, part of her wanted to meet Constantine and see if he was as adventurous and passionate as his forebears. While Constantine bears a striking resemblance to his ancestors, she pegs him immediately as a prude with a stick up his ass, and can't quite shake the feeling of being cheated somehow.

The two don't get off to a great start - Constantine is a stickler for morals and etiquette and can't hide his disapproval for Lisabeth's unconventional behaviour and upbringing (not to mention the way the village idolizes his ancestors' criminal pursuits), and Lisabeth couldn't give a rat's ass about London Society's rules and continually compares Constantine to his rakish forebears and declares him wanting.

However, through continuous contact and compromise, the two slowly grow to love each other and change in some charming ways. Let me get this off the table right now: this isn't the Regency version of Dharma & Greg, and Constantine does not become a pirate. While he does loosen up and stop nagging about the insignificant rules of Society, he remains a responsible, thoughtful, and moral person - always determined to do the right thing. Lisabeth, meanwhile, is the one who has to do the most growing up - it doesn't take her long to realize that while pirates and robbers and bad boys are fine to fantasize about, it's actually kinda nice to hang out with a respectful guy with manners and common sense, once you teach him how to laugh at himself and not sweat the small stuff.

Nothing calamitous happens in the book - (and other than the geneaology lesson at the start of the book) no dark secrets are revealed, no evil stalkers show up, no one turns out to be a spy, and perhaps most important of all, NO PIRATES SHOW UP. The biggest obstacle in the relationship comes when Constantine has to finally bite the bullet, break off his engagement to the random woman from the novel's opening, and give Lisabeth a proper betrothal - and here, the problem's more of an misunderstanding, a demonstration of how different Constantine and Lisabeth still are.

Constantine puts off the engagement, puts off the wedding, refrains (mostly) from going ga-ga over Lisabeth, and goes back to following Society's rules by the letter, all so that he might shield Lisabeth from scandal in the eyes of Society. However, Lisabeth, who was never raised by such strict rules, only sees Constantine retreating behind his shell again and knows she's not in love with the prude from London, but the more relaxed man he was in Sea Mews.

For the Love of a Pirate doesn't deserve the detriment of frustrated expectations that will doubtless arise in people who pick up the book based on the cover and the blurb and are hoping for adventure and bloodshed. However, even on its own, it's more of a mildly pleasant romance than a truly engaging one. The beginning is a bit of a slog, as not only is Constantine and Lisabeth's tangled connection explained at torturous length, but it's repeated several times as they run into new people and seek help or advice, or discuss it again amungst themselves.

As well, the writing leaves something to be desired - a lot of the events that bring Constantine and Lisabeth together are sort of these rambling walks and explorations and outings they embark on around Sea Mews that the author skims over with a page of exposition. Since these small events seemed so important to how Constantine and Lisabeth drew closer, I might have liked to have read about them in more detail rather than have a page of synopsis.

However, I did appreciate what Edith Layton did with her characters. I was dreading that she might try and make Constantine into more of a rake (or worse, a pirate) by the end of the novel, but I'm glad she kept his character arc realistic. And I was altogether charmed by the idea of a heroine who has to give up implausible crushes on long-dead pirates to realize that plain, all-round nice men can be romantic heroes! Yes, Lisabeth is sort of a "spirited" heroine who says "fuck-all" to Society's rules, but Layton subtly made her a woman whose disregard for the niceties was based on innocent ignorance rather than outright anachronistic defiance.

If you are looking for an adventurous, breathtaking pirate story with a dashing, sword-wielding hero - avoid this book. If you merely want to relax in an easy chair and read a sweet little tale about two wrong-headed but good-hearted people who improve in each other's company, than For the Love of a Pirate might just be for you. B.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Lost in Austen" - Lost in AWESOMENESS

See this miniseries. Rent it, buy it, steal it - so long as you watch it, I don't care. This delightful series I discovered merely by chance turned out to be one of the most awesome Austen(ish) adaptations I've ever watched.

Here in Canada, the W Network showed it as part of their Jane Austen Marathon weekend. I thought the idea looked funny, so I TiVo'd all four episodes, with no idea what I was in for.

The gist of the story is this - Amanda Price, an average British woman from Hammersmith, is starved for romance. She works at a boring little job at a bank with an unsatisfying live-in boyfriend. Her ultimate guilty pleasure is to settle in on her couch in a fluffy bathrobe, with a bottle of wine, and a lovingly crinkled copy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. When one of these reading nights is interrupted by her boorish boyfriend, she storms off to her bathroom - and discovers Elizabeth Bennet in her bathtub.

Yes, that Elizabeth Bennet. Austen's Elizabeth Bennet. Our Elizabeth Bennet. Lizzie explains that the attic in her house has a mysterious door set into an outside wall that logically shouldn't go anywhere - only when she finally managed to force it open, it inexplicably led her to Amanda's bathroom through a door Amanda had painted shut. Disbelieving, Amanda tries the mysterious door, only for it to slam closed - stranding Elizabeth Bennet in 21st century Hammersmith, and Amanda in, well, Pride and Prejudice, around page 5 or so.

To Amanda's horror (and excitement), she finds herself in the middle of her favourite novel, surrounded by characters she's loved and loathed for fourteen years, with one really big problem - the main character who is supposed to set all of the book's beloved events in motion is now MIA, and it looks like Amanda, who knows little of 19th century manners, rules, and customs, will have to take her place.

If you live in an apartment, condo, or townhouse that shares thin walls with other people, either invite your neighbours over to watch it with you or else watch it while they're on vacation because you will be loud when you watch this miniseries. I know I certainly was, most of my exclamations falling under four categories: 1) "YES! YES! YES!" 2) "OH FUCK, NO!" 3) "THEY CAN'T DO THAT!" 4) "OH GOD THAT'S AWESOME!" all interspersed with wild laughter and general shrieking.

This is not a strict, accurate adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, by any stretch of the imagination. Although Amanda arrives in the 19th century English countryside armed with a novel's worth of information about the characters, her clumsy attempts to keep the story on course without Elizabeth inevitably send the plot careening off the rails. In the first episode alone she flashes her privates ("It's called a landing strip!" she explains to a fascinated Lydia), snogs Bingley, earns the suspicion of Charlotte Lucas and, of course, comes face to face with Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy (a gorgeously brooding Elliot Cowan) - and the wrong end of his infamously disapproving glare.

To put it bluntly, the miniseries fucks with Pride and Prejudice's plot pretty hardcore, which is part of the show's madcap charm. The wrong characters marry, relationships between famous friends are destroyed, alliances are struck between former enemies, and secrets are revealed. So why did I end up submerged in sudsy, screwball fun instead of drenched with outrage?

Because the miniseries ultimately stays true to Jane Austen's work, just not in the way that you might expect. Mainly, this is through the screenwriters' apt grasp of the characters and the period, as well as their superb script. Even though Amanda's presence causes the story to change, Jane Austen's characters remain the same. Even with Lizzie gone, the way they react to Amanda and the story's new developments remain consistent with their personalities, biases, and quirks. For instance, Amanda's common sense and modern belief in marrying for love realistically earn her the admiration of Mr Bennet and the wrath of Mrs Bennet. And Mr Darcy is as much of an arrogant asshole with Amanda as he was with Elizabeth, to the point where even Amanda's instinctive lust for him fades in favour of disgust.

However, in a few instances, new elements are added to the characters (including a retcon of a significant character's backstory) - but most of these changes concern things that were either a) never brought up in the novel so there's nothing to contradict (such as Mr Collins' hilarious first name and his immediate family), or b) things you'd expect people to lie about (like the shameful backstory).

A great deal of the fun of this series lies in watching what will happen to these characters next. Most Jane Austen fans like me are completely familiar with the plot of P & P, we could recite what happens with our eyes closed, we've watched the cinematic adaptations (the Colin Firth version, the Keira Knightley version, the new Masterpiece Theatre version, the Bollywood version, the Mormon version). We love the characters, but we know what's going to happen. Shocking endings are pretty much nil after the first delighted read, so for me it was a supremely unexpected pleasure to enjoy the characters with a returned sense of surprise and suspence (and also to yell and shout at the screen during particularly scandalous developments).

And, even though she causes irrevocable havoc with the storyline, I liked Amanda Price (played by Jemima Rooper). While she's pretty much a walking culture-shock punchline for most of the first two episodes, by the halfway mark, with the surprising aid of a character whose name I shall not reveal (it's funnier if you find out for yourself), she gains some footing in the culture and fakes it well enough to let off some hilarious one-liners and commentary. While she initially enters the novel with all the lovey-dovey feelings for Darcy that repeated watchings of Colin Firth will provoke in a woman, she encounters the harsh truth that it is infinitely easier to read about an overbearingly rude gentleman like Darcy than to experience the blunt edge of his overbearing rudeness in person.

Lost in Austen is not an adaptation, but rather an homage, not only to Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, and Colin Firth (whose portrayal of Mr Darcy inspires a very special visual reference), but to the readers and rabid fans of her novels. How many times have we read her books with the desire to confront her characters face to face with what we know about them? To experience the period for ourselves, with all of its merits (dresses!) and flaws (Regency toothpaste = salt + chalk)? To marry a man with a comfortable income who doesn't have to work evenings and weekends for it, or at all for that matter?

Take my advice - put on a fluffy bathrobe, grab your comfort foods of choice, and plop down on the couch with a copy of Lost in Austen - a miniseries that's witty, insightful, shocking, and unabashedly romantic. A++

Friday, December 26, 2008

Corny Cliche Hatefest: Part Deux

Yes, it's happening again, as I predicted: my second Corny Cliche Hatefest, my rant about what I hate hate hate in badly-written romance. While most of these cliches were from To Sin with a Stranger by Kathryn Caskie, I have found them in other novels as well. It's just that having to read them all at once in one novel irritated me enough to make another point about them.

As with my previous Cliche Hatefest post, SPOILERS BEWARE. Major Major Spoilers Ahead. You have been warned.

The Gorgeous Protagonists
What is it?
Romance heroes, heroines, and their sequel-bound relatives who are devastatingly tall, beautiful, muscular, and awesome - and at least ten times taller, more beautiful, muscular and awesome than everyone else.
Recent Offenders:
To Sin with a Stranger, too many Lisa Kleypas novels to count, Sins of Midnight by Kimberley Logan.
Why I Hate It:
This sounds like an odd duck of a cliche, I know. I'm not "hating people because they're beautiful." I have nothing against good-looking heroes and pretty heroines, and if a hero is handsome, it's genetically realistic that his siblings would also be hot. It's not like I'm rooting for heroes with bad teeth or anything.

What I hate is the cliche of the hyperbolically beautiful protagonist. The ones the author isn't satisfied to make simply handsome, or relatively good looking, but the protagonist who has to be the most beautiful, the most built, the tallest in the room, the protagonist who has to be the perfect physical specimen and ultimately superior to everyone else in the world, except maybe their siblings. The hero whose manliness makes every other man look girly - or the heroine whose feminine curves make every other woman look masculine. Or, at the very least, a protagonist whose physical perfection isn't a relevant plot point - for example, I'd pardon this cliche if the hero was a famous underwear model, because it would make sense to the story.

I hate this cliche for two reasons: it's unrealistic, and it's condescending. First of all, most romances (or at least the best romances) are built around interaction between the hero and the heroine - conversation, bantering dialogue, witty jokes, sensual encounters. Are good looks necessary to any of these? No. Being pretty doesn't make you smart, witty, or good in bed. So what, then, is the point to making them paragons of conventional physical beauty if it's not directly relevant to the plot?

Nothing's wrong with having a handsome hero (I love me some handsome heroes), but why does he have to make everyone else look bad in comparison?

The worst recent example of this was in To Sin with a Stranger, when the seven Sinclair siblings walk into a room for the first time. Laughably, all seven swoop in like aliens from Mars, or angels from Heaven - here's a direct quote (page 39): "Behind [Sterling, the hero] was a collection of the tallest, most beautiful beings she had ever seen. The women were the height of most men, their features delicate and perfect. The men were giants, a least a foot taller than any other gentleman in the assembly room. Like those of [Sterling] himself, their muscles were pronounced beneath their dark blue coats, protruding like great river stones embedded in a shallow creek."

This is an excellent paragraph for proving my point - not only does it dehumanize the characters and take away their realism, it also makes them bland. The paragraph calls them "beings." Not "people," not "humans," but "beings," as if they are a different species altogether. How does that make them relatable? What is the reader supposed to get out of that?

And notice how none of the seven siblings are described individually - the women are all "delicate and perfect", the men "giants." They're not even individual people - they're just cookie-cutter hotties, every one of them adhering to the same idea of beauty. What makes people individual, special, and different are their flaws - could none of them be short? A little too thin? Have an endearingly crooked nose or cleft chin? They all sound the same - and completely dull.

The condescending part comes from the fact that these types of characters are often so perfect for no discernable reason to the plot, and they all hammer home the same ideal of beauty that not everyone agrees with. I like skinny, lanky guys myself - so why do all my romance heroes have to be huge hulking Schwartzeneggars who have to walk through doors sideways if they're titled gentlemen who don't do any manual labour??? I mean, if romance authors are reading this, let me ask you: you spend so much time creating a hero or heroine with a unique backstory and character and personality - why don't you want them to be that way physically? Can't they be unique and special and loveable inside and out?

No Means Yes!
What is it?
It's the tendency of romance-novel parents, best friends, eccentric aunts, and meddling servants to interpret the heroine's utter loathing for the hero (and vice versa) as boundless love.
Recent Offenders: To Sin with a Stranger, many others
Why I Hate It: This is another cliche that I tend to dislike only when it's exaggerated, but this cliche does tend to be exaggerated a lot.

When it's not exaggerated, this cliche can make sense. The opposites-attract theory's worked before, and it makes sense that people with opposing personalities might clash and dislike each other at first, only to discover how they complement each other later. And, after weeks and months of the hero and heroine sniping at each other, it's natural for their friends/relatives/servants to wonder why their friend seems to be so obsessed with this other person, even if it's only to make spiteful comments about them, and believe that their friend's pride prevents them from knowing their own mind.

However, many romance novels lately have taken to speeding up this process, to the point where Heroine A and Hero B only have to declare that they hate each other on sight for their confidantes to sigh, "It must be love!" No, it must be bullshit. Although there may be a thin line between love and hate, it's not realistic or natural to immediately assume that when someone declares a hatred for someone, they're hiding romantic feelings.

In To Sin with a Stranger, it takes Isobel and Sterling a total of TWO encounters within as many days for everyone to assume they've the hots for each other. During the first encounter, Sterling implies Isobel's a slut. During the second, Isobel slaps him silly. And yet, days later, Isobel's declaration of hatred for Sterling is refuted point-blank by a total stranger who says she "saw the fire between them" - you know, when Isobel was making Sterling's eyeballs rattle around in his head.

But this isn't the worst part about the cliche, the part that makes me grind my teeth whenever I encounter it - the worst aspect of the "No Means Yes" cliche, in which nosy relatives or servants think they know the hero/ine's mind better than the hero/ine themself does, is when they inevitably meddle and manipulate events to throw the hero and heroine together. It shows a dangerous and unrealistic disregard for the hero/ine's feelings. In a realistic world, imagine you are a spinster aunt in the Regency period, and your beloved niece and ward comes to you crying about what a brute Earl Toddy is, how terrible he makes her feel, how she hates everything he stands for. If the first thing that comes to your mind about what to do is engineer a scenario in which your niece and Earl Toddy are forced to spend the night alone in a snow-bound inn without supervision .... well, I guess you should be relieved that Social Services as we know it didn't exist in the Regency. But there's no way I'd consider you a responsible guardian.

It's those exaggerated cases that I despise, the ones in romance novels where well-wishers assume the hero's romantic intentions are contrary to his declarations based on very little time or evidence, and proceed to thwart the protagonists' orders/wishes/feelings/consent. I suppose this is a little ironic coming from a reader of historical romance, in which the heroines are nearly always in a position where their consent matters little in regards to what their fathers and guardians do for their own good. But I just plain don't like it when, in regards to romance, the heroine's wishes are sabotaged and thwarted by people who claim to know her mind better and claim to be doing it all for her own good. It's - well, it's pretty much as repugnant to me as the "no means yes" defence, that when a woman (or even a man) says "no," it's your judgement call, and not theirs as to whether they mean it or not.

Virgin In the Street and a Freak In the Bed
What is it?
It's when a virgin heroine in an historical period, upon entering into her first sexual encounter, knows exactly what will happen, what to do, and some neat tricks to make it better.
Recent Offenders: To Sin with a Stranger
Why I Hate It: Um, because it exists completely in the realm of fantasy? Because it's a blatant refusal to write characters realistically influenced by their time periods? I could go on. As Julia Quinn's novels have demonstrated, well-bred misses in the Regency were not educated on sex to the extent that we are today. It was mainly "close your eyes and think of England." They likely wouldn't know what would happen unless they were told the night before their wedding by their mothers. And the ones that did learn about sex probably knew squat about oral sex.

It's not at all unlikely to assume that once they did have sex, they could grow better at it, more exploratory, etc., but it's insulting when the virgin heroine suddenly knows (without being asked or told) how to perform an exemplary blow job, or where to touch the hero, or the fact that there's even more than one position.

Why this is insulting to me is because it's a move that obviously panders to the reader rather than the story. Rather than remaining true to the characters and the time period of the novel, the author would prefer to scrap realism and consistent character development in favour of a more titilating sex scene, that in itself would probably be out of place in the novel's time period.

I really don't understand this tendency for authors to write historical romances and not make them historically accurate! Why write in the Regency if the characters don't act like the figures in the Regency? Writers can write about any place or time - you could even make up your own fantasy world that's like the Regency where that type of action could be tolerated! Here's a hint: maybe the people who read novels set in the Regency do so .... because they prefer to read about people who act like they're in the Regency.

"To Sin with a Stranger," by Kathryn Caskie

Alternate Title: Sad Pasts Excuse All Sins!
The Chick: Isobel Carrington. After a burst of self-righteous fury compels her to interrupt a boxing match to hawk her charity and spar (verbally and eventually physically) with one of the fighters, she is horrified to discover that someone's placed a wager that she and the fighter (Sterling Sinclair) will marry by the end of the Season, and that the whole of the ton (and the city as well) wants in on it.
The Rub: She's the untitled daughter of a disapproving MP of a father, and one with a tarnished reputation to boot: she lost not only her brother at the battle of Corunna, but her beau, with whom the ton matrons erroneously assumed she'd relinquished her virginity.
Dream Casting: Rosamund Pike.

The Dude: Sterling Sinclair, Lord Blackburn, a.k.a. "Greed." After his father booted him and his six siblings out of the family estate for being spoiled brats nicknamed "The Seven Deadly Sins," he's taken to gambling and prize fighting to pad their meager allowance. After meeting Isobel at the boxing match, he places a ten thousand pound wager that he'll marry her by the end of the Season, thinking he can kill two birds with one stone: 1) marry a respectable girl and thus earn back his father's respect, and 2) get enough money to allow his sibs a standard of living appropriate to their noble station.
The Rub: His brothers convince him to extend the bet, and encourage him to play hot-and-cold with Isobel in order to make sure the wager doesn't appear to be a sure thing, whether he really wants to or not. Also, he used much of the family's remaining allowance to make the bet, so if he loses, he loses everything.
Dream Casting: Matthew Macfadyen.

The Plot:
Isobel: Hi folks, I'm here to tell you this interruption in your boxing match has been brought to you by Moral Guilt, Self-Righteous Superiority, and Flighty Female Behaviour!

Sterling: Hey lady...

Isobel: Back off, asshole! *bitchslaps!*

Society: IT MUST BE LOVE!!!

Isobel: What? Someone's bet I'm going to marry that brute? But I hit him in public!

Society: NO MEANS YES!!!

Sterling's Sibs: Wait, Sterling, YOU placed the bet? With all of our money? But she hit you in public!

Sterling: Haven't you ever read a romance novel? The harder she hits, the hornier she is! Plus, I'm a sex god and the heir to a dukedom. It's a sure thing!

Isobel: Sterling Sinclair, you are a brute and a cad and a terrible human being!

Sterling: Want to have sex on an ancient Greek sculpture?

Isobel: Okay!

Ancient Greek Sculptor: *rolling in grave*

Isobel's Jackhole Dad: Psst, Daughter I Emotionally Abuse To Hide My Secret Pain and Fondness For Her, Sterling's the one who made the wager!

Isobel: WHAT?!

Sterling: But I love you!

Isobel: Oh, that makes it okay then. *marries*

Society: CHA-CHING!!!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Vulnerable Heroine with a Tarnished Reputation

1 Scoundrel Hero with a Gambling Problem

6 Selfish, Spoiled Siblings

2 Very Bad Fathers

2 Inconveniently Dead Mothers

1 Ill-Thought-Out Wager
1 Meddling Servant
1 Defilement of an Historical Art Piece for Sexual Gratification

1 Murderous Irishman

1 Whiny Best Friend

The Word: For this review, I must thank the wonderful Ana from The Book Smugglers. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about the gap between Idea and Execution, and I mentioned To Sin with a Stranger as an example of a book with an idea I thought of as a silly gimmick that was still getting some good reviews here and there. Ana, who had bought the book, couldn't review it for her site because of the overwhelming magic that is Smugglivus (their awesome blog anniversary party/festival/natural phenomenon), and wonderfully mailed me her copy so that I could review it. First of all, THANK YOU ANA! Secondly, did this book exceed the low expectations I'd given its idea? Nope. It met my low expectations pretty well, and in some cases even sank past my low expectations with a few of its ideas and themes that I flatly disagreed with. If you need any other indication - the cliches in this book alone have inspired a new Corny Cliche Round-Up post that is forthcoming.

Anyway, on to the plot, such as it is. Sterling Sinclair and his six siblings, to deal with their father's retreat into alcoholism after the death of their mother, decided to become spoiled brats to get his attention. When people started calling them names (i.e. "The Seven Deadly Sins") because they become spoiled brats, their poor little feelings were hurt, and they decided to become even nastier hellions to deal with their boo-hoo inner pain, instead of, you know, improving their behaviour or trying to redeem themselves, because, well that just isn't as interesting and we wouldn't have a plot, now would we?

Well, they finally do get their father's attention, but not in the way they imagined - waking up out of his haze of scotch-fumes, Daddy Dearest realizes his kids are idiots and carts them off to London, permits them only the barest of allowances, and gives them four years to bring honour back to the Sinclair name or else. A month later, Sterling's taken to prize fighting in Pugilistic clubs to line his siblings' pockets on his winnings and the wagers his brothers place on him.

In the middle of his match, however, he meets Isobel Carrington when he comes to within an inch of punching her in the face when she jumps between the fighters waving pamphlets for her charity, shrilly trying to guilt the spectators into coughing up dough for her precious widows and orphans. Her pontificating impresses exactly no one (including me). It's only the next day, at a ball, that she feels concerned for her reputation. But oh, it was her golden, shiny sense of righteousness that made her do it! She sees other people whispering about her appearence in the club and knows it's only a matter of time before her father finds out. Her father is a cruel asshole MP who spends ninety percent of his day at work and the other ten percent telling his daughter what a disappointment and a burden she is.

Her distress increases when Sterling and his siblings show up. Sterling acts like the smug douchebag he is and caresses her face in public, and Isobel earns points from me for bitchslapping him (twice!) instead of obediently falling all a-twitter in lust for him. Unfortunately, her violent reaction causes people (including her father) to think a little sumthin'-sumthin's going on between the two, and the very next day an anonymous bettor places a ten thousand pound wager at White's that Isobel and Sterling are bound to marry by the end of the season.

It comes as no surprise that Sterling's the one who placed the wager. He thinks it's a perfect plan - Isobel's from a respectable family, so marrying her should earn him his father's respect, and the resulting winnings will ensure his siblings live the lifestyle to which they've become accustomed. Of course, what neither of the protagonists count on is the interest this wager stirs up among the ton - pretty soon, everyone's betting on the relationship, and society finds itself divided mostly along gender lines: the men bet against the marriage, thinking it's unrealistic, and the women bet for the marriage, thinking it must be "twue wuv." And no one considers themselves too scrupulous to do whatever they can to influence Isobel and Sterling into the outcome they bet on.

I know my Alternate Title for this book wasn't exactly funny, but it's meant to explain my main problem with this novel (and I have many). There wasn't a single character I sympathized with or related to in this book. None. There are two reasons for this:

1. Most of these characters' bad behaviour or ridiculous decisions are "explained" away by sad pasts (as mentioned above) and

2. Sad pasts aside, none of their actions or decisions made any sense!

Let's start with Sterling Sinclair. I give Caskie props for her gimmick: Sterling embodies Greed pretty well - he makes several unwise decisions with money in this novel in attempts to get more money, BUT they aren't founded on any realistic reasons. Let's go with the big one: the wager that he and Isobel will marry. He's known this girl for, what, fifteen minutes, and he's already willing to bet the rest of his family's allowance (which is supposed to last four years) that he'll marry a woman who barely knows him and what little she does know about him she doesn't like (and has made it very obvious that she doesn't like). His reasoning is literally this: "I'm a Marquess and she's a mere Miss. Also, I'm handsome and awesome. I see no flaws in my plan." I know arrogance is a common trait in romantic heroes, but this one tipped over the edge into delusion. I just couldn't believe that a man who truly cared for his siblings' welfare would risk all of their finances on such a flimsy wager.

That being said, his siblings aren't much better. Daddy Dearest left them just enough for room and board, but they need Sterling's extra money to maintain appearances, so that they may keep their place in society. While they fret and worry over the lasting physical damage Sterling risks every time he gets into the boxing ring, no one else in his huge family is willing to do anything else to bring in money. Sure, his sisters can't do much except look pretty and pimp themselves out at parties, but Sterling has three able-bodied, supposedly intelligent brothers who do shit-all while Sterling gets punched in the face for their benefit. Sterling's loathsome sister Ivy ("Envy") is easily the worst of the bunch - she mouths horrified exclamations over the bruises he receives so she can afford baubles, and then turns around and steals his hard-earned money, leaving weights in his purse so that he won't realize until she's already spent it.

But of course, all the Sinclairs' bad behaviour is "explained" away by their boo-hoo past with their absent alcoholic father.

Now, let's look at Isobel. Despite her awesome bitchslapping skills, she's a whining self-righteous hypocrit with delusions of grandeur. Her "I'm doing this for the widows and orphans" martyr bit, her "I'm the only one who can help these widows and orphans" schtick, as well as her "I'm so much better than everyone else because I'm the only one who helps these widows and orphans" attitude get old really fast. She doesn't like being manipulated by her frankly disloyal best friend Christiana and the members of the ton trying to improve the wager's odds, but she has no problem playing with Sterling's feelings and manipulating other people in order to pump society for donations.

She's also one of those mythical Regency virgins who jump their hero's bones at the first available opportunity, Society's mores and the threat of pregnancy and the loss of reputation be damned, who also happen to be adventurous sexual tigresses on the first try. To Sin with a Stranger is a pretty accurate title, all things considered - she and Sterling don't get a chance to really talk or get to know each other for very long before she decides to have sex with him on a Grecian marble sculpture. When they started going at it, I actually flipped back about a hundred pages to see if I'd missed some significant conversation. They talk and dance and make goo-goo eyes at each other, but even flipping back I could see they didn't actually spend that much time together, or at least, not enough time to justify her actions. This made the sex scenes blatantly unrealistic instead of sexy - the first couple of times they make love, she initiates actions and allows actions that seem anachronistic (at best) for her to know about, much less tolerate.

But of course, all her actions are "explained" away by the teary fact that her brother and boyfriend died on the same day, and her mommy committed suicide and her daddy's an asshole.

And don't get me started on her father. For the majority of the book he is a manipulative, conniving, threatening shithead who calls her an embarassment, believes her to be a slut, threatens to ship her off to a pig farm if she doesn't seduce Sterling, whines about what a burden she is and how he'd rather she marry anybody so long as she isn't his problem anymore, and then turns around and tries to push her at another dude because he suddenly doesn't like Sterling anymore and is bizarrely proud of the fact that two men are competing for the daughter he treats like shit.

But then at the end of the book it's revealed he has a sad past, so all of his behaviour is okay. Oh, he was just so sad that his son died and his wife killed herself that he decided to emotionally abuse his daughter and force her on men she says she hates all so that she won't marry and leave him. Leaving aside the fact that there's no rational connection between his motivations (keep her from marrying!) and his actions (threaten her with pigshit if she doesn't marry!), there's the rather obvious fact that his inner vulnerability does not excuse his actions. Actually, knowing the why behind the asshat-ery actually made it worse for me - it's easier to stand a father character who's an asshole just because he's naturally an asshole than a father who intentionally abuses his daughter because he loves her too much for her to leave. It turned wrong into creepy and wrong.

This whole book seems to thrive on the idea that if a person has bad things happen to them, it excuses the retarded things they do later. The Sinclair siblings are selfish, spoiled rich kids who got off on intentionally distressing others but get to be sympathetic characters because they conveniently have an alcoholic dad they can blame all their problems on.

Another part of the book I disliked was the sexual aspect. Now, I'm not a prude, but this book had ideas about sex that I frankly disagreed with. First, the hero and heroine have sex before they really know each other all that well (although, to be fair, by the end of the novel I wasn't sure they knew each other all that well), and the hero and heroine realize their feelings for each other during their sexual encounters rather than through conversation (although, to be fair again, they interact more in the sexual encounters than they do at dinner parties and balls).

I might have written this off as poor plotting rather than a message, until about page 210 when Isobel's irritatingly forward maid Bluebell is discussing a list of Sterling's good qualities and mentions "good in bed" twice (although she's seemingly unaware that Isobel already cashed in her V-card). When Isobel points out Bluebell's repetition of that quality, Bluebell replies (I'm officially quoting the novel now): "That's because it's the most important thing. Miss Isobel, you are so innocent. Don't you know that if you got a man who can make you happy in bed, whether or not he's got a title or money don't matter a lick."

Cue my shriek of "BULL-FUCKING-SHIT!!!" This line basically encapsulates the worst sort of romance, the novels that conflate sex with love. I'll make my beliefs clear: Sex != Romance. I definitely think sex can contribute to a romance (it certainly can't hurt, haha), and a well-written sex scene can definitely be a fun part of a romance novel, but the idea that a man's suitability as a husband revolves solely (or even mainly) around his prowess in bed is offensive. Thousands of years of history have written a hundred thousand tragic stories about women who discovered the hard way that a guy who gives great sex isn't necessarily the guy who loves you enough to stick around. And that's how I read romances - despite the fact that Sterling and Isobel had great sex with each other, I never believed their romance, because even though the sex scenes were well-written, their characters and their vertical interactions weren't. Their characters' actions were poorly motivated if not outright nonsensical, and they blamed the worst of their flaws on other people.

All of that being said, there were some things (gasp!) that I enjoyed about the novel. One of those things was the detail - I particularly liked reading about the sacrifices the Sinclairs had to make to their new household to maintain the illusion they were still rich - like the fact that the drawing and dining rooms were the only expensively- and fully-furnished rooms in the house - leaving their own bedrooms full of broken and cheap furniture. Or the extra servants they hired when they had parties to convince guests they employed more people than the incompetent pair of servants their father gave them.

Caskie also lent some historical relevance to the story by including the non-fictional Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, in a brief cameo. Lord Elgin was the man who saved (looted?) the Parthenon Marbles, and his appearance at a Sinclair dinner party gives rise to some intriguing political drama between Isobel's minister father, Elgin, and Sterling. Historical romances don't necessarily have to have direct ties to historical figures or events, but it's always interesting when authors tried to involve historical happenings with the romance of their characters.

Another element I liked, that I didn't expect to, was the way the public got involved with Sterling's wager. Everyone wants to bet on Sterling's wager, it turns out, and the lengths complete strangers go to in an attempt to influence Sterling and Isobel one way or the other were quite funny. During one dinner party, Sterling and a rival on opposite sides of the room race to see who can ask Isobel to dance first, with the men (who bet against Sterling) "accidentally" getting in Sterling's path while the women (who bet for Sterling) "coincidentally" block the rival's progress. Their delightfully underhanded support and sabotage were the bright points in the novel.

That being said, they were tiny sparks in a vast black sea of badness. To Sin with a Stranger was cliched, hackneyed, offensive, stupid, and in many ways nonsensical. Avoid this sin and do some penance instead. C-.

Monday, December 22, 2008

"What a Scoundrel Wants," by Carrie Lofty

Alternate Title: Full-Mental Alchemist
The Chick:
Meg of Keyworth. A trained alchemist, she funded her secluded life with her sister Ada and her own research by selling handmade counterfeit emeralds. However, when her sister is wrongfully imprisoned, it becomes clear that someone considers Meg's abilities to be far more valuable than the fake gems she peddles, and will do anything to possess it.
The Rub: She's a blind pyromaniac whose only hope of rescuing her sister is the very man who put Ada away in the first place. However, she has no qualms against manipulating, lying, cheating, and stealing to gain some advantage for herself. Also, just a tad crazy.
Dream Casting: Pushing Daisies' Anna Friel.

The Dude: Will Scarlet - the legendary sidekick of Robin Hood. However, he and Robin are on the outs, he's given up on the altruistic-martyr-thief act, and works for the Sheriff of Nottingham because it's easy money. His charmed life comes to an abrupt end when his compatriots in the sheriff's service murder a nobleman and he's made the fall guy.
The Rub: There's only one witness to the murder who knows that Will didn't do it - and it's Meg. But she ain't talking unless there's something in it for her - preferably the rescue of her sister.
Dream Casting: Yummy younger Christian Slater. Yes, indeed.

The Plot:
Will: Yup, working for the sheriff is easy - so long as my pesky conscience doesn't get in the way.

Will's Boss: *murders an Earl*

Will: SHIT. Wait, you there! You saw I didn't do it!

Meg: Actually, I can't see anything.

Will: DOUBLE SHIT. Hey, you look familiar...

Meg: Maybe you met my sister.

Will: Oh yeah, when I arrested her... oh .... awwwwkard. Well, if I help you rescue your sister, will you help clear my name?

Meg: *punches Will in face* *poisons him* *ties him to a tree* Sure, why not?

Meg and Will: Ada, we're here to rescue you!

Ada: Bitch bitch whine moan bitch moan whine whine.

Meg: Gee, thanks.

Ada: Moan whine bitch, it's him or me, sis, make your choice, bitch whine moan.

Meg: I chose Ada.

Ada: Moan moan whine bitch moan whine whine.

Meg: Fuck it, I choose Will.

Ada: WHAT? Oh, moan moan moan...

Will: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Blind, Violent, Pyromaniac Heroine

1 Angsty Hero with Surrogate-Daddy Issues

1 Super-Secret Recipe for Fake Emeralds

1 Evil Sheriff

1 Bitchy Sister

1 Evil Ex

Several Chemically-Induced Explosions

2 Barrels of Greek Fire

Several Severe Arm and Hand Injuries

1 Secret Traitor

1 Case of Depression Cured by Abandonment in the Woods

The Word: Because I pimped out Carrie Lofty's widget on my blog, I was entered in and subsequently won a copy of her debut novel What a Scoundrel Wants, on the condition that I review it before January 2. Well, that's no problem for me - I review every romance I read, and this way I get a nice free book.

First, I should be honest and say that I'm not at all familiar with the Robin Hood myth. I saw the animated Disney movie when I was a kid, and Prince of Thieves a couple of times (although I did watch it again after I read this novel), but I just knew the basics - steal from the poor and give to the rich. I'd never heard of Will Scarlet, and had no idea of his background (it varies, apparently). So I came into this novel with no knowledge of Will Scarlet or his real connection to the famous Hood.

Did that hamper my enjoyment of the novel? Not a bit. As the novel opens, Will's working for the new Sheriff of Nottingham (and I do know enough of the story to know that this is not a good thing - the equivalent of Robin the Boy Wonder temping for the Joker's toy company). Will was supposed to be guarding Marian and her son Robert while Robin's off fighting the war in France, but circumstances (mostly involving his own angst and resentment at living in Robin's shadow), caused him to leave and find work elsewhere. Deciding "to Hell with giving to the poor! I want something for me!" he gets a cushy job doing dirty work for the Sheriff, including arresting a woman in the marketplace attempting to sell fake emeralds.

On what seems like a routine job, he and his band come across a local Earl and his men. To Will's horror, his co-workers rush the group and brutally murder the Earl and attack his followers. While all this is going on, Will hears screams and sees two of his compatriots fighting over who gets to rape their struggling female prisoner first. Will makes short work of them, although he gets injured in the process, and drags the woman to safety. However, his motives for saving the woman are not entirely altruistic.

He realizes that, as the newest recruit and the only one in his group who wasn't in on the plan to murder the Earl, he'll be the one blamed for the noble's death and the woman he rescued is the only living witness who can testify on his behalf. However, he encounters two obstacles to his plan - first, this woman (Meg) is blind and thus didn't see anything, and second, she's the sister of the counterfeiter he arrested and is the real creator of the fake emeralds.

Meg was traveling with the Earl in the hopes of rescuing her sister, and is outraged to have her quest cut short - and by the very scoundrel who arrested her sister in the first place! However, while she possesses a hard-won independence in many aspects of her life (like her alchemy), her blindness still forces her to rely on other people to get around - hence her determination to rescue a sister she really isn't all that fond of, and her willingness to stick with Will (after beating the crap out of him, first).

However, together in the woods after she tends his wounds, the loneliness of her isolated existence overwhelms her and she and Will share a passionate physical encounter. This does not suddenly make Meg all sunshine-and-butterflies for Will. Oh no. Not at all. She develops instead a fierce hatred for Will for sneaking past her closely-built walls - she views his physical effect on her as a personal, intentional violation. So she drugs Will and decides to risk the woods by herself. However, once Will recovers, he catches up to her, and further circumstances involving the evil Sheriff's plot force Will and Meg into an uneasy and unstable alliance.

And oh, it is unstable. So very, very unstable. I really enjoyed this novel, and the main reason for this is Meg. Oh, Meg. I loved her, in a "she's so crazy, but awesome" way. She's a blind character, but holy crap, she is a mad blind character. She lived a relatively normal life with her father and sister until a sudden raving fever overtook her and landed her in a coma for six months, depriving her of her sight. Society believed she was possessed by the devil and shunned her family, and her father subsequently severed any remaining ties by spending the rest of his life obsessively pursuing a cure. A few years after that, Meg discovered the full extent of her sister Ada's resentment for her dependent condition.

The result is Meg's "fuck society, ethics are for sissies" attitude. Society's rejection of her has left her with no moral qualms against manipulating, hurting, and using people for her own benefit. She double-crosses Will several times in the book because she either a) thinks she can score a better outcome for herself, or b) because she wants to punish Will and distance herself from feelings that threaten her carefully controlled lifestyle. She does some downright nasty and wrong things, but I couldn't help but love her for it. She isn't a shrinking violet or a shy recluse who hides her deformity - instead, she flaunts it and uses other people's shocked and nonplussed reactions to her benefit. However, she's not exactly a person who's content and zen with being blind, either - she still longs for colours and becomes obsessed with the details of Will's appearance that she can't make out by touching. Her connection with colour also translates into a manic fascination with fire, an element she dreams about constantly and is the only thing she remembers about her coma.

And when she's threatened, SHE WILL CUT YOU LIKE A BITCH. You wouldn't expect a handicapped female character to resort to such physical means of expressing her displeasure, but wow. She punches, kicks, bites and launches herself at people who piss her off with waving fists of fury. During one delightful interchange with Will, early on in the book, she responds to a quip from Will by grabbing on his balls and yanking. Hard.

Of course, the closer that Will and Meg become, the more they rely on verbal, rather than physical sparring, and Carrie Lofty has a zinging way with dialogue that keeps the language fairly contemporary although she does sprinkle some medieval words in.

As for Will, while he was nice enough at the start of the novel, he was more or less eclipsed by Meg and her crazy antics. Mostly, his problems were less concrete than hers, and more founded on angst and pent-up resentment against Robin Hood, a figure he hates and loves both. I found I couldn't really understand his motivations at the beginning of the novel, primarily his stubborn determination not to be altruistic and the difficulty for him to embrace his naturally heroic side. Meg and Will are both fundamentally selfish characters at the start, but I had a better time understanding how Meg became that way than Will.

However, by the second half, Will starts to redeem himself, as it becomes apparent that as a character, he's the base that neutralizes Meg's acid (romance explained through SCIENCE!). He's a quieter, subtler character who provides a nice foil for Meg's ferociousness and keeps her from becoming too over-the-top. He's the one in their relationship who recognizes his love first, and works at cracking Meg's shell in a refreshingly open way. The main obstacle to their romance (other than the obvious villains with swords) is Meg's meticulously guarded exterior, and to my everlasting delight, Will learns a thing or two from Meg's unscrupulous methods and plays dirty to earn and keep her feelings.

My favourite part - Here Be Spoilers - is after a fire set by the villains severely burns Meg's hands. Wrapped in bandages, she can't feel anything, not even pain. While she's become used to her blindness, she always counted on being able to feel Will, and the threat of losing sensation in her hands sends her into a listless depression that separates her from her lover.

What does Will do? He, dear man, drags her bodily out of bed, takes her to the middle of the woods, gives her a walking stick, and tells her to find her way home on her own.

Then he leaves her there.

You'd think abandoning a blind woman in the woods would be a terrible and entirely unromantic thing to do, but in this case, it works. I recognized her as such a fierce and ballsy and take-no-prisoners character that dumping her alone in the woods and forcing her to rely on her bald wits as she's done her entire life comes across as the perfect solution.

In this novel, the characters live a medieval setting, one that's not the most common in romance but one that I recognize from my history of reading epic fantasies, and Carrie Lofty does not disappoint in her description. She has a cunning sort of writing style, describing things with words you don't quite expect and that don't always fit but convey the precise image or sound or smell that's occuring at the time. There is also a great deal of violence and bloodshed, so if you're squeamish about thumbs popping or throats being slashed, um, don't read this novel.

Lofty's descriptions of Meg's alchemical methods were also engrossing - using such simple elements as, say, sugar, Meg creates enough explosives and smoke bombs to double as Medieval Batman. The author describes Meg's methods and some of her recipes but always melds it into the story, giving just enough information to keep from becoming an infodump or from detracting from the main plot, which isn't really about alchemy or science at all but rather about simple greed and power-grabbing.

The only flaw I could see in the novel was with Will's background and motivations - even by the end of the novel, when he faces down Robin and comes into his own, I couldn't really understand the initial source of his angst with Robin and his turn to the dark side (or at least the "shady work for money" side) that made the beginning of the novel possible. Maybe this was because I had no prior knowledge of the Will Scarlet character, but all the same... At least in the first half of the novel, it was difficult to see him as a real character because his personal reasons seemed so hazy. Thankfully, by the second half he jettisons most of his clinging issues and focuses on Meg, and his real character, as a hero of cunning rather than brute force, emerges.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"False Colours," Georgette Heyer

Alternate Title: Wonder Twin Powers, Activate!
The Chick: Cressida "Cressy" Stavely. Used to running her father's household, she discovers three's a crowd after Daddy marries a girl her own age, so when Evelyn Fancot proposes a marriage of convenience, she accepts.
The Rub: However, by the time she has to introduce him to her family, she's having second thoughts, so it comes as a delightful surprise when Evelyn turns out to be much more charming, funny, and insightful than she thought! But is he really Evelyn?
Dream Casting: Wives and Daughters' Justine Waddell.

The Dude: Christopher "Kit" Fancot. He returns from a diplomatic assignment in Vienna to find his twin brother got engaged in order to pay off their mother's monstrous debts and then vanished without a trace. He agrees to take Evelyn's place for one night (thinking Evelyn might show up later).
The Rub: Trouble is, Evelyn doesn't show up, and no one knows where he is. Worse - Kit finds himself falling for the witty and endearing Cressida.
Dream Casting: Topher Grace.

The Plot:
Kit: Hi, Mum! I'm home! How are you?

Kit's Mum: Deeply in debt and your brother's missing. You?

Kit: ... would pretending to be Evelyn make you feel better?

Kit's Mum: YES!

Kit as "Evelyn": Hello Cressy.

Cressy: Hi.

"Evelyn": Hi Cressy's Grandma.

Cressy's Grandma: Don't "hi" me, young man!

"Evelyn": So, uh, Cressy, want to go for a walk?

Cressy: You're not fooling anyone, Kit.

Cressy's Grandma: WHAT? A twin-switch? That's a terrible trick!

Cressy: An absolutely terrible trick!

Cressy's Grandma: A devious deception!

Cressy: A terribly devious deception!

Cressy's Grandma: What do you want to do about it, Cressy?

Cressy: Marry him!

Cressy's Grandma: WHAT?

Kit: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Twin-Switch Plot

1 Engagement of Convenience

1 Cranky Grandma

2 Secondary Romances (Evelyn and Patience, Sir Bonamy and Lady Denville)

3 Unwelcome Houseguests

1 Overturned Phaeton

1 Vulgar Gossip Article

The Word: Christopher "Kit" Fancot returns from Vienna to check on his twin brother, Evelyn, after getting a weird feeling that his more reckless and mercurial sibling might be in trouble, and falls head-first into a sticky situation.

The boys adore their mother, Lady Denville, a woman who is generous and kind-hearted but incredibly ditzy, short-sighted, and extravagent. A compulsive shopper and gambler, her expenses (and also her failed attempts to hide her expenses from her sons) have landed the family deeply in debt. Kit arrives just in time to discover that Evelyn has gone to some rather drastic measures to try and pay off their mother's costs. Their father, the deceased Earl of Denville, was afraid that his heir Evelyn might turn out to be as financially irresponsible as his wife and thus tied up Evelyn's inheritance in a Trust to be governed by his prudish brother Henry until Evelyn either a) turned thirty or b) convinced Henry he was responsible enough to be allowed his inheritance early.

Evelyn, at twenty-four, and burdened by a (not unearned) devil-may-care reputation, thought that a marriage to a perfectly proper, unexceptional girl, might be just the thing to obtain his inheritance from his uncle. He proposed to a lady named Cressida Stavely, who accepted his engagement knowing full well it would be a marriage of convenience.

Kit hears all this from his mother, as well as the hitch in Evelyn's plans: Evelyn is due at a party to be introduced to (and gain the approval of) Cressida's relations, but he's nowhere to be found. Kit is encouraged by his mother to take Evelyn's place at the party, and agrees. Innately aware that Evelyn isn't in serious trouble and should arrive soon, Kit figures he'll only have to play the part for one night to spare his (and Cressida's) reputation before Evelyn returns to fix up the mess.

At the party, Kit decides to learn a little more about this Cressida girl, because he feels loath to help his brother shackle himself in loveless marriage. He discovers a girl who is witty, plain-spoken, intelligent, and fully aware of the convenience of her and Evelyn's arrangement. Cressida governed her father's household for years after her mother died, but she knows her reign is at an end now that her father has married a vapid woman only a few years older than herself. Her new stepmother has made it more than plain that Cressy is no longer welcome, and so she accepted when Evelyn proposed.

While Kit's pretence at the party goes smoothly, the rest of the plan does not. First of all, Evelyn does not return at all, and no one seems to know where he is. Secondly, Cressida's formidable grandmother, Lady Stavely, intimidates Kit's mother into inviting them to Evelyn's country manor in order to learn more about the prospective groom. Kit, forced into close quarters with Cressy and Lady Stavely, must now maintain his facade 24/7. On top of that, he finds himself quickly falling for the winsome Cressy, but can't figure out a way to break the truth of his circumstances to her without jeopardizing everything.

This was my first Georgette Heyer novel. She's known as the Grand Poobah of the Regency Romance genre, renowned for her fantastic research and word-usage as well as her wonderful plots. The back cover blurb compared her to Jane Austen, and in many ways, it's not an unjust comparison.

For instance, Heyer's language (which I'm assuming is spot-on because I can only understand 3 out of the five expressions she uses in her dialogue and description) matches the conversational, witty, and wry tone of Austen which gives the story a fluffy, bouncy feel that hides a secret edge. Kit, Evelyn, and their mother share a loving bond expressed through amusing banter, but as the book progresses their conversations and interactions reveal a bond born out of an unspoken alliance against a cold and often dictatorial patriarch.

Lady Denville, for example, is an intensely annoying character for much of the novel - she's a reckless spender, is ridiculously stupid about how finances work, and is directly responsible for the majority of the Fancot family's immediate problems. She's driven the family tens of thousands of pounds into debt - and that's only the debt that Kit and Evelyn know about. She developed a habit over the years of hiding and obscuring her financial dealings to "spare" her family the stress of her expenditures, to the point where even she can't remember how much she owes. However, for much of the book, the other characters wrap her in cotton wool, pinch her cheek for being just so darn cute, and do their best to hide from her the true enormity of her thoughtless behaviour. For much of the book, I just barely tolerated her, and couldn't understand why everyone was so determined to protect her from the reality of her actions.

However, slowly, the book reveals the harsh reality of Lady Denville's marriage that explains a great deal of her behaviour, as well as her sons' unwavering devotion to her and Evelyn's attitude. She married an older man when she was very young, a man whose initial attraction to her whimsical and carefree nature rapidly chilled when he re-identified it as flightiness and stupidity. Lonely and unhappy thanks to her husband's distance, she looked for comfort elsewhere - in clothing, gaming, fashionable parties, and her sons, but, equally terrified of her husband's disapproval, she started attempting to cover up her financial blunders, which further entangled her situation. Her sons, upon whom she lavished the most of her affection, grew up thinking themselves her protectors from their censorious father.

And the Trust only strained the familial relations further. The Earl of Denville, judging Evelyn to be as frivolous as his wife, gave his fortune and estates into the hands of his brother Henry upon his death, to be turned over to Evelyn before he turned thirty only at Henry's discretion. Essentially, Evelyn is an Earl who has no true power over his lands or his money, and while he only appears at the end of the novel, the hints of his feelings of impotence are sprinkled throughout the novel by the testimonies of his servants and friends. Subsequently, his powerless situation only increased his desire to misbehave and act rakishly.

Other than that, the characters were refreshingly angst-free. Kit, despite his rather desperate circumstances, is a remarkably cheery and smart-tongued fellow, and it's great fun to read his banter with Cressy, who's not nearly as hoodwinked as he thinks she is. The story is told almost entirely from his perspective, but Heyer still gives us an entertaining picture of Cressy, a self-assured, confident woman untroubled by the crippling self-esteem problems that adorn so many other romance heroines. The story was complicated enough, so I was thankful for the uncomplicated character backgrounds.

That being said, the language kept me somewhat at a distance from the novel, making it a book easy to put down but hard to pick up again. I didn't find myself as emotionally involved with the characters as I am with my favourite romances. As this is my first Heyer novel, I don't know if this is because I just personally can't connect with her style, or whether this was just a Heyer dud. Overall, however, this was a very pleasant book to read - I loved the detail she lent to the setting, I liked the language. The pacing left a bit to be a desired and the ending was a little anticlimatic, but I'll definitely be trying another Georgette Heyer novel. Any suggestions? B.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Never Deceive a Duke," by Liz Carlyle

Alternate Title: Diddle Her On the Roof

The Chick: Antonia, Duchess of Warneham. The fourth (!) wife of the Duke of Warneham, he married her at bargain price because she was seriously damaged goods. Now widowed, she hopes she might be able to regain some of her independence - although that depends on the new Duke's plans.
The Rub: 2 parts Asshole Husband, 2 parts Unspeakable Tragedy, 1 splash of Guilt, 1 part Crazy, 1 drizzle of Seriously Crazy. Shake thoroughly, serve on the rocks.
Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.

The Dude:
Gabriel Gareth Lloyd Ventnor - a.k.a. "Gareth Lloyd." Very distantly related to the Duke of Warneham and initially raised by his Jewish grandparents, he was intentionally thrown into horrific circumstances as the Duke's revenge for the accidental death of his heir. Despite the Duke's obsessive attempts to procreate, when he dies childless (under suspicious circumstances), Gareth unexpectedly inherits the title.
The Rub: 1 part Jewish Angst, 3 parts Sexual Abuse, 1 part Rage, splash of Abandonment. Stir.
Dream Casting: Daniel Craig.

The Plot:

Solicitor: Congratulations, you're a Duke!

Gareth: WHAT? How?

Solicitor: Congratulations, you're a widow!

Antonia: Oh, thank god.

Skeezy Doctor: Here, Antonia, take this medication for your craziness...(warning, side effects may include Sleep Crime)

Gareth and Antonia: *sleep-walk sex*

Gareth: Um...awkward. I feel like a heel, so why don't I try and clear your name of these nasty rumours, eh? Kemble!

Kemble, Magical Mystery Elf: *poof!* I live to serve!

Gareth: Solve the Duke's murder, immediately!

Kemble: Yes, Sir! *mystery solved!*

Gareth and Antonia: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Sexually-Damaged Hero

1 Basketcase, Sleepwalking Heroine

2 Loyal Servants

1 Illegitimate, Anti-Semitic, Rapist Footman

3 Counts of Muuuuuuurder

2 Very Bad Husbands (deceased)

2 Traumatic Pasts

The Word: I have to admit, I walked into this novel with pretty low expectations. Partly because I'd just finished a Mary Balogh novel, and partly because I'm feeling a bit of romance novel exhaustion - I'm tired of the lame titles and boring covers and back-cover blurbs that don't hint at the real story but instead tell us the story the stupid marketers think stereotypical romance readers want to read. However, here's the thing about low expectations: I'm often pleasantly surprised, as I was with Never Deceive a Duke, the sequel to Never Lie to a Lady.

Gareth Lloyd, the successful part-owner of Neville Shipping, finds out by a solicitor that his distant cousin, the Duke of Warneham, has died childless, and that he, as the only living male heir, has inherited the title. However, Gareth doesn't really want the title - his past with the Warnehams was incredibly traumatic and he doesn't want to relive that by assuming responsibility of the Warneham fortune and estate.

However, he's encouraged by his friend Lord Rothewell to at least check out the estate and make sure the affairs are in order before resuming his normal life. There, he finds a scandal waiting to break forth: it turns out the not-so-dearly departed Duke died under suspicious circumstances (possible poisoning), and the name at the top of the incredibly long list of those who wished him ill is none other than his widow, Antonia.

While Antonia initially puts on a brave front, Gareth gets an inkling of her serious issues when he catches her sleepwalking on the roof in a thundering rainstorm, babbling incoherently about children and carriages. While he eventually snaps her out of it, she celebrates her return to sanity by jumping his bones in a spectacularly dramatic fashion. Gareth gives into passion and they make love in the rain.

Gareth feels terribly guilty about it the next morning. While he knows next to nothing about his cousin's fourth wife, his interactions with her convince him she's innocent of the Duke's death and his impression of her mental fragility fills him with concern over how the rampant rumours might damage her future prospects. To assuage his guilt for taking advantage of her (as he sees it), he decides to try and solve the mystery himself and end the rumours for good so that she might get on with her life. However, while solving the mystery, the two continue their physical relationship, each seeking some form of comfort in the other.

While their sexual relationship starts quickly, their romantic entanglement takes longer. Before her marriage to the Duke, Antonia endured another loveless marriage and the horrific deaths of her children, and in her subsequent grief she was judged mentally unsound and was subjected to barbaric 19th-century mental health treatments. Her period of mourning was barely over before her father packed her off to be married to the Duke (who was desperate enough for an heir to look past her mental history). Since then, she's even convinced herself that she's a basketcase and thinks that Gareth couldn't possibly want to handle her kind of baggage.

Gareth, meanwhile, thinks Antonia is out of his league, both socially and emotionally. His father came from a lower branch of the ducal family, and married a Jewish girl, to boot. When his parents died, he lived with his maternal grandparents who fostered his sense of Jewish identity, and he only later came to live with the Duke's family. However, when the Duke's son and heir died in an accident, the spiteful noble blamed Gareth and vowed this grubby Hebrew boy would never inherit - and he gave 12-year-old Gareth over to a press-gang (forced naval service) and spent the rest of his life obsessively trying to create or find an heir to take Gareth's place, just to make sure. Gareth ended up working for men who were little better than pirates and endured horrific abuse at their hands before being rescued by the Neville family and becoming a self-made man. Still, most of the locals still think of him as the jealous Jew boy who killed the Duke's son, and he doesn't want to damage Antonia's reputation by associating too closely with her.

On top of this delicious drama we have the surprisingly entertaining murder investigation, headed by Gareth's delightful assistant Kemble, who dredges up a host of juicy local secrets which add spice to an already entertaining story, including a suspicion that the deaths of the Duke's previous two wives might not have been accidents.

Part of what I found interesting about this story was that the narrative focus leaned more in Gareth's favour then in Antonia's. Almost all romances give both the hero and heroine a point of view, but usually the heroine gets the lion's share - she's the protagonist the usually-female readers are expected to identify with. This time, however, I felt I saw the majority of the story through Gareth's eyes, and wow, is he an intriguing character. Ethnically Jewish (although religiously ambivalent), the bigotry he has to endure adds an extra layer to his outsider status, and his discussion of the Jewish reverence for grief touches a chord with Antonia, a woman whose family pushed her to disregard her grief in favour of social advancement.

His sexual history also lends extra meaning to his relationship with Antonia. (I already warn about spoilers in my reviews, but to reiterate: Here Be Spoilers) As the indentured cabin boy aboard a ship of ruffians for over a year, he was repeatedly raped. He taught himself to take it, to become good at it, in order to survive, and ever since (even after escaping) has thought of himself as a bit of a whore.

Since then, in his sexual relationships (with both Antonia and Xanthia, the heroine from Never Lie to a Lady), he always suspects women sleep with him for their own comfort and pleasure, and not because they feel any particular affection for him. Don't get me wrong - Gareth does not have a ridiculous "All Women are Whores" mindset, but his traumatic experience has taught him to believe that giving sexual comfort is what he is good at, and hence, what women are looking for when they sleep with him. Although I haven't read Never Lie To A Lady, the way Gareth describes his relationship with the heroine (a very confident and strident lady, it seems), he's used to women who can sleep with him one night and walk away from him the next day.

With Antonia, he initially thinks she sleeps with him to get over her demons (and he cares for her enough that he's happy to oblige), and convinces himself her feelings for him are purely physical - to the point where later on in the book, when Antonia declares a desire to give him especial pleasure, his surprise is so evident it's heartbreaking. And romantic.

That's not to say that Antonia's not an important character. While at the beginning she is a damsel in severe distress, Liz Carlyle manages the amazingly subtle task of keeping her a downplayed, quiet, and relatively unobtrusive person throughout the novel - the difference is that in the end, she's her own downplayed, quiet, and relatively unobtrusive person, because she chooses to be this way, instead of being forced into it by her father.

That being said, there were some things that kept this from A status. I felt the ending was a bit anti-climactic, and one of the characters felt forced and arbitrary - that would be the Illegitimate, Anti-Semitic Rapist Footman. He seemed like a cipher, or a catalyst who invoked plot changes without actually being a character. We rarely see him "on screen" (so to speak), and it seems the entire purpose for his character's purely evil existence is to piss off Gareth and to show the Reader that Gareth votes OH HELL NAW on Anti-Semites and Rapists. He's even fired "off screen" a quarter of the way in only to appear again at the very end to cause a contrived crisis that finally forces our protagonists to admit their love for each other. He is the living embodiment of a Plot Device, and it irked me that a lot of the romantic plot depended on the actions of a narrative creation who was so obviously a puppet.

Otherwise, though, we have a romance seen primarily through the eyes of an unconventional male protagonist, and a very enjoyable one. It was a realistic, believable, and quite romantic story about two broken people who find their jagged edges fit together remarkably well.

Monday, December 01, 2008

"Slightly Married," by Mary Balogh

Alternate Title: Strange Bed(wyn) Fellows

The Chick:
Eve Morris. Thanks to her brother's untimely death in battle, she stands to lose her childhood home to a loathsome cousin. The only way to keep the estate and secure the futures of her numerous outcast dependents is to marry before the anniversary of her father's death - but the only man available is the very one who brought her the tragic news of her brother's passing.
The Rub: She'll marry Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn if it means her adopted orphans and her loyal servants will be safe, but she still wonders what happened to the lover she secretly waited for - and wonders if Aidan has one of his own.
Dream Casting: Keira Knightley.

The Dude: Colonel Lord Aidan Bedwyn. When he encounters a dying Percy Morris on the battlefield, he promises to protect the man's sister, "no matter what." But when it becomes apparent she's going to lose her home - does "no matter what" mean marriage?
The Rub: He's the younger brother of the Duke of Bewcastle, who might not approve of his little brother marrying the daughter of a Welsh coal miner.
Dream Casting: Stephen Moyer.

The Plot:

Percy: Protect my sister! *dies*

Aidan: Um, okay. Sorry, your brother's dead.

Eve: ....

Aidan: Anything, er, I can do? Cold beverage, perhaps?

Evil Cousin: Hello there, Lord Aidan! If you like this estate now, you should see it once I've cleared all the orphans and fallen women and handicapped dogs out of it! It'll be spectacular ... provided Eve doesn't miraculously marry someone within the next five days.

Aidan and Eve: *married by special license!*

Evil Cousin: SHIT.

Eve: Thanks, Aidan, you've been a real pal, saving my home and all. Now, if we'll just be on our merry way...

Bewcastle, Aidan's Ass of a Brother: I think NOT! You must be introduced to society! You have responsibilities! You have duties!

Eve: Okay, I'll come to London and have a season, but only to honourably repay Aidan's kindness. Yeah, honour, not love at all.

Aidan: And I'll be your protector, and make sweet, sweet love to you, and defend you against my asshole of a brother - but all in the name of honour, not love, no, not at all. Love is for chumps. And the Welsh.

Eve: Shit, now I love him, but he's only in it for the honour.

Aidan: Actually ... I'm in it for the love, too. I guess I'm a chump.

Eve: Really?! That works out perfectly, because I'm Welsh!

Aidan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist:
1 Interclass Romance

1 Emotionally Repressed Hero

1 Coal Miner's Daughter With a Heart of Gold

1 Evil Cousin

1 Inconvenient Will

1 Marriage of Convenience

2 Precocious Orphans

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

3 Snooty Siblings

1 Secondary Romance (the governess and the vicar)

1 Lacklustre Romantic Rival

The Plot:
When I read the first novel in Julia Quinn's Bridgerton series, and then the second, I couldn't help but compare them and their similar plot structures (see more in my review of The Viscount Who Loved Me), even though they turned out to be different stories in the end. Now that I am reading my second Mary Balogh novel, the first in her Bedwyn series, Slightly Married, I do find myself making some plot comparisons to The Secret Pearl.

In both books, a woman facing a future of destitution at the hands of a creepy cousin makes a terrible sacrifice with a rigidly honourable man, and ends up finding love anyway. In this case, though, while young Eve Morris finds herself in dire straits, at least she doesn't have to resort to prostitution like Fleur did in The Secret Pearl.

Aidan Bedwyn, fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, comes across one of his dying captains, Percy Morris. This same man saved Aidan's life on a previous occasion, so Aidan vows to follow Percy's dying wish: to personally carry the news of the captain's death to his sister, Eve Morris, and protect her - "No matter what!" (the doomed Percy places an especial emphasis on this) When he arrives at Eve's estate, Ringwood manor, and imparts the tragic news, the woman takes it hard, and while she expresses her sincerest gratitude for coming all this way, she insists she has no need of protection.

Aidan, relieved, takes his leave of her. However, the vehemence with which Percy demanded his sister's protection leaves Aidan uneasy at how uncomplicated their encounter was. Listening to some of the town gossips, he discovers the truth: Eve is on the very brink of losing her home.

Her father, angry at his son and daughter for thwarting his wishes (Percy in joining the army, Eve in rejecting his offered suitors), wrote in his will that Eve would own the property for only one year after his death - and then it would pass to Percy. If she decided to be a good little girl and marry just like daddy wanted within the year, Ringwood manor was hers to keep. However, if she didn't, it would go to Percy. Eve, being on loving terms with her brother, didn't see the problem - if Percy inherited, he would just give it to her, anyway. However, the will also said that if Eve didn't marry in time and Percy died before inheriting, the estate would be handed over to their bootlicking, social climbing cousin. With Percy six feet under French soil, and Daddy Dearest's Death Anniversary only days away, Eve stands to lose everything.

Aidan, bound by a rigid code of honour, sees no other way to fulfill Percy's wish than by offering Eve a marriage of convenience - if they marry in London by special license, Eve could keep her home. Eve, for reasons of her own, has no choice but to accept. It's not only her livelihood on the line - along with adopting an abused dog and a pair of neglected orphans, she's populated her staff with loyal, but ruined servants no one else would think of hiring (a governess with an illegitimate child, a housekeeper with a criminal record, a cook who once worked in a brothel, etc.). If she lost her house, she might be able to stay with distant friends, but her dependents would have nowhere to go.

Both agree to the marriage of convenience, and both agree never to see each other again after the vows are read. They are simply too different, they reason. Eve is soft-hearted to a fault, the daughter of a grubby coal miner lucky enough to marry into money. Aidan is cold, supposedly unfeeling, and his blood's so blue it's practically indigo.

However, they encounter a hitch in their plans when their secret marriage accidentally becomes public knowledge. Aidan's brother, the Duke of Bewcastle, insists that Eve return to London, learn to be a lady, and attend the requisite balls and parties and social events taking place in celebration of Napoleon's surrender. Heedless of Eve's feelings or Aidan's protests, Bewcastle doesn't want to risk the estimable Bedwyn family reputation by leaving Eve in the country as if they're ashamed of her. No one is more surprised than Aidan when Eve acquieses - as a way of repaying Aidan's sacrifice. She would only have to play the part for a month or two, she reasons, and then life could go back to the way it was. Life doesn't turn out to be that simple, however.

Aidan and Eve are the typical opposites-attract couple. Emotional vs. practical. Fire and ice. Elizabeth and Darcy. The majority of their conflict arises from the fact that they are essentially strangers when they marry, so their attempts at romance are hesistant, halting, and often painfully awkward as each discovers and adapts to the other's sharp corners. Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound within the first few days of their courtship, but these are the natural misunderstandings of people unaccustomed to the other's methods of communication or background.

Aidan's family certainly does not help matters, at least at first. Holy cow - I don't know if Julia Quinn and Mary Balogh ever considered writing together, but if the Bedwyns and the Bridgertons met at a social event, they'd start a blood feud of epic proportions. When Aidan's siblings eventually learn of his marriage, Eve isn't immediately welcomed with charming smiles and giggles. Oh no. While the Bedwyns share certain things in common with the Bridgertons (a happy childhood with loving parents, an affection for each other, the older brother who gained the title too soon thanks to their father's death), they are not the easy-going liberal aristocrats adored by Lady Whistledown.

They are conservative and they are snobs. There really isn't any other way to put it, and I enjoyed it as a happy change. They are generally a good family who share a good relationship with each other, but they sniff condescendingly when referring to "the vulgar masses," make several nasty comments about the Welsh, and make all sorts of indelicate assumptions about Eve's character. So they're basically realistic aristocrats raised with an understandably high opinion of their status that's consistent with the times. While Aidan's brother Alleyne and sister Frejya eventually warm to Eve's open-hearted refusal to be cowed, Bewcastle remains almost villain-like in his arrogant asshat-ery. Eve is not immediately welcomed into their ranks, but rather, she sneaks in through the back door. She accepts their advice on deportment, manners, and social customs, but retains her own mind when it comes to how she chooses to socialize and deport herself.

Ultimately, though, as Aidan and Eve secretly start to have feelings for the other, their main obstacle is guilt. Each gradually becomes aware of just what the other had to give up for the marriage of convenience, and as a result, the protagonists guiltily suppress their growing affection, fearful that the other is only going through the motions for the sake of honour and would resent the imposition of real emotions into their businesslike arrangement. Aidan learns that Eve never married during the year after her father's death because she was waiting for a lover who arrived too late. Eve, similarly, discovers Aidan had his eye on a General's daughter accustomed to army life.

This conflict is mostly why this review gets a B+ while The Secret Pearl got an A. While I found the conflict believable and understandable at first, I felt it was spread too thinly over the novel's length. In The Secret Pearl, the main obstacle between Fleur and Adam is pretty concrete (because it's, er, Adam's wife), but with Slightly Married, I felt two hundred pages of "I can't love him/her, because s/he's already planning on leaving forever, so there's no point in telling him/her" to be too much. They're already married, and for the last hundred or so pages Aidan and Eve were really only one pointed conversation away from an HEA, with only pride and an increasingly misplaced sense of honour keeping them apart.

That being said, this was still a very enjoyable read. Mary Balogh has a wonderful way of conveying atmosphere, particularly with rural settings like Ringwood. After closing the book, I was left with a powerful physical sense of the area - from the flower-scented dell filled with summer sunshine, to the river and the fish, to the comfortable old trees and the halls filled with comfortable friends and family.

The characters were all spectacularly drawn. On paper, Eve sounds like a complete Mary Sue - she's so perfect! She adopts orphans! She takes in the poor! She keeps a three-legged, one-eyed dog! However, I never got the impression she was Little Miss Perfect because Mary Balogh showed both sides of that characteristic: how it was its own virtue and flaw. Eve's soft-heartedness makes her a loving person and an excellent companion for the emotionally-restrained Aidan - however, her overheated emotions and sensitivity can land her in hot water and lend her a tendency to panic in tense situations. Similarly, Aidan seems like the typical Alpha Male at first (especially since most of his early dialogue with Eve is spoken in decisive sentences that start with "We will do this and this, and then you will do this and this," expecting obedience the first time), but a lot of his emotional reticence stems from a concern for other people and an unwillingness to burden or manipulate them with his emotions.

This is the reason I enjoyed The Secret Pearl and still really loved this book - Balogh takes even the most familiar of tropes and manages to put a little bit of a new spin to them that forces me to re-examine the tropes and why they exist in the first place. Despite the conflict that thins towards unbelievability near the end, this is still going on my Keeper shelf, and I look forward to reading the other books in her Slightly series. B+.