Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

The Plot:

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

Mother Nature: Like HELL you will! *blizzard*

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

Ned: Oh....kay.

Selby: Come meet my virtuous and gullible ward!

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

Ned: Let's blow this popsicle stand.

Georgiana: Thank GOD.

Ned and Georgiana: *escape* Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

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

1 Hidden Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martin: Bah humbug!

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

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

Ellie: What do you like?

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

Ellie: Really? Hooray!

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

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

1 All-Inclusive Guilt Trip

Several Barrels of Gunpowder

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

1 Unfortunately Exploded Brother

Several Big Misunderstandings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duncan: 'Sup.

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

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

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

Duncan: Maybe later. *mopes*

Tenants: Merry Christmas, Laird!

Fiona: WHAT THE HELL. I am a moron.

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

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

Duncan: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Seriously Scarred Hero

1 Hungry Wolf

1 Mistaken Identity

Several Happy Tenants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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