Thursday, December 31, 2009

"A Rake's Guide to Pleasure," by Victoria Dahl

Alternate Title: Poker Face

The Chick: Emily Jensen, a.k.a. "Lady Emma Denmore." On the run from a creepy relative, and determined to make it on her own, she uses her cunning card skills and an aristocratic alias to fleece nobles of their fortunes in order to secure her own independence.
The Rub: The Duke of Somerhart, who met her as a girl, could very well ruin all her plans if he recognizes her - and yet, he's too tempting to ignore.
Dream Casting: One Tree Hill's Bethany Joy Galeotti.

The Dude: "Hart," Duke of Somerhart. Renowned for his cold demeanor and rigid self-restraint both in and out of the bedroom, he's attracted to Emma and can't understand why she insists on refusing him when it's perfectly clear she wants it as much as he does.
The Rub: In his attempt to loosen her screws, he risks losing his tightly-held control, and he refuses to be made into a naughty figure of ridicule and gossip.
Dream Casting: Eric Bana.

The Plot:
Hart: We should be lovers.

Emma: We can't do that.

Hart: We should be loooooooooooovers and that's a fact!

Emma: Why are you singing?

Hart: ...

Emma: My answer is no.

Hart: Okely dokely. *smiles*

Emma: Curse my horniness! I give up! Uncle! UNCLE!

Hart: Sexy uncle?

Emma: Yes, of course, sexy uncle, damn your eyes...

Hart and Emma: *sexx0r*

Emma: *leaves*

Hart: How DARE you! When I find you I'm going to strangle you...

Lancaster, Future Dahl Hero and Emma's BFF: *glares*

Hart: an erotic and consensual manner for our mutual pleasure?

Emma: Hart, go away!

Matthew, Creepy Suitor: Let's get married, whore!

Emma: Hart, come back!

Hart: *saves Emma*

Matthew: *falls off cliff*

Emma: Thanks for saving my life and all, but I think I'll be on my way...

Hart: Okely dokely. *smiles*

Emma: Oh all RIGHT I'll marry you.

Hart: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Cold As Ice Hero

1 Emotionally Restrained Heroine with a Dark Past

3 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

1 Romantically Lacklustre but Still Very Charming Sequel-Baiting Rival

1 Crazy Stalker

1 Very Bad Parent (Deceased)

2 Inconveniently Dead Siblings

The Word: I wasn't expecting to like this novel as much as I did. Don't get me wrong, I walked into this novel expecting to like it, but the first four or five chapters made me think I knew where the book was going - but by the time I'd settled down to what looked like a pleasant-but-nothing-new read, the book got all, like, intellectual on me and stuff.

Our heroine, Emma, has her whole future planned out - arriving in London under the assumed name of Lady Denmore with only 600 pounds in her pocket, she's padded her nest egg quite nicely by trolling the card rooms and gambling tables at parties and hustling aristocrats out of their coins. Her ambitions are small but precious: to amass 3000 pounds in winnings, which, invested in the funds, should leave her independently set for life.

She's close to attaining her goal when she meets the Duke of Somerhart at a party. She remembers Somerhart from her girlhood, when she spotted him at one of her degenerate father's scandalous parties. While only a small event, she still remembers him and is frightened he'll recognize her as well, revealing her deception and ruining all her plans.

Somerhart, or Hart as he is known, does not recognize her - but he is attracted to her nonetheless. In Society he's adopted the nickname of "Winterhart" for his chilling hauteur and his restraint in both his public and personal life. He pursues Emma, both flabbergasted and challenged by her repeated refusals, especially since it's obvious to both of them that they're horny as hell for each other.

The first few chapters of this novel were well-written but otherwise unexceptional. Somerhart vacillates between Angry and Horny in standard Alpha Male fashion. Emma worries about her past, and whether all her lies will catch up to her. As well, it's apparent early on that this is a story that revolves primarily around sex and sexual attraction and I wasn't sure whether I was comfortable with that or not. I don't read romance novels for the sex, I skim most sex scenes, and I avoid erotic romances and erotica. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," etc. etc., but I'm just not a personal fan. It's like, I personally hate the colour orange - but I don't think the colour orange is wrong or that people who do like orange are filthy pirate hookers. Don't just expect to find me wearing orange.

Further in, the story starts peeling back all these layers, revealing a depth I wasn't expecting. At its heart, A Rake's Guide to Pleasure is an intelligent, insightful, and most of all interesting examination of lust and morality. Yes, it is a story that focuses on sex and humping and squishy fun feelings, but as an intellectual theme rather than mindless sex scenes and humping for no reason. The novel has three characters who are tormented by lust and their own individual objections to it.

Emma's fear and personal trials with Hart come from the fact that she is a naturally sensuous woman. Hart's seduction of Emma never lowers itself into forceful seduction territory because he really doesn't have to work that hard to get Emma revved up. Emma fights herself more than she fights Hart in those scenes. Now, as a woman in 19th-century England she already has a reason to think sex is evil and wrong, but Victoria Dahl takes a different tack.

Emma's father was a selfish and self-indulgent rake who held parties that were little more than orgies. Growing up in that household and witnessing the things she did, taught Emma to believe that the natural sexual urges she feels are wrong, that the inevitable result of sex is the deviancy and promiscuity her father demonstrated. Emma's frightened that giving in to her sexual urges, even a little, will leave her as mindlessly and selfishly addicted to pleasure as her father was.

As well, Victoria Dahl cannily inserts the special moral pressure society applies to sex when dealing with Emma's con - while she feels guilty about impersonating a noblewoman (a crime), lying to people, gambling recklessly, and doing nearly anything for cash - it's her sexuality that troubles her most.

However, Somerhart is also a character taught by circumstance to mistrust his sexual appetite. When he was younger, he fell in love with another man's mistress and become a laughingstock when his incredibly personal letters to her became public. Society's laughter and scorn ingrained in him a sense of his own perversity. He came to associate lust with loss of control, and therefore, as "Winterhart," he continues to have sexual encounters but under rigidly enforced terms. There's a certain scene in the novel where Emma engages in an intentional act of voyeurism with Hart that evocatively establishes Hart's personal views on sex: Hart reacts with anger and fear after it's done once he realizes how little mastery he had over the situation.

The third character is Matthew, the crazed former suitor of Emma's who stalks her to London. His views on sex are influenced by a radical religious sect. He blames Emma for inflicting lust on him and believes the only way to absolve himself of sin and save himself (and Emma) in the eyes of God is to marry her - and spend his marriage dutifully "shepherding" Emma (by any means necessary) towards the path of the righteous. While Matthew is definitely is sinister, misogynistic and mentally imbalanced, Dahl also makes him a pitiable figure. Like Emma and Hart, he experiences perfectly natural sexual urges but is crushed by the conviction that they're sinful and wrong.

Yes, sex is the central theme of the novel and the sex scenes are graphic - but they are also beautifully written, narratively relevant, and judiciously applied. Every sex scene between the hero and heroine has a purpose, every romantic encounter accomplishes something. The voyeurism scene, for instance, between Emma and Hart has a direct bearing on the plot and on the protagonists' character development and if it hadn't been included, a significant part of the narrative would have been missing. My main complaint about sex in romance has never been about morals or sexuality, but that so many sex scenes in romance seem put there to fill a quota or fulfill an unspoken genre expectation than to serve the story. Unsurprisingly (this is a romance novel after all) love does manage to sneak its way in, even though it does so later in the book.

Leaving the big important themes aside, I liked Victoria Dahl's writing style - it's very lyrical without losing its clarity. I'd heard very good things about her style and I'm glad to say she lived up to the hype. I enjoyed her characters for the most part (although Hart was very much a run-of-the-mill Cold Rake for most of the novel). She even managed to scrounge up some sympathy in me for a fundamentalist Christian misogynist scumbag. Okay, so while this review technically is out on December 31st, I already did my year round-up - so let's just say that Victoria Dahl was a very pleasant way to start my new year of reading.

A little early.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

AnimeJune's 2009 - the Year that Was

2009 was a busy year for the blog. In my 2008 retrospective, I mentioned how that was the year I finally focused my blog into a romance review site, rather than just a mishmash of whatever important thing was going on in my life at the time. If 2008 was when Gossamer Obsessions became a romance review blog, than 2009 was the year that people, uh, actually starting reading Gossamer Obsessions as a romance review blog.

2009 was full of good (finished the first draft of my romance novel!) and bad (got rejected for grad studies...), but mostly it involved me discovering and commenting on other blogs and becoming absorbed into the social world of blogging and reading that I hadn't discovered before. I started writing a few more commentaries (basically on how Not To Lose Your Shit as an Author and a Critic, and the argument of Sex in Romance), which people started commenting on in turn.

I made blogger friends (Katiebabs, the Booksmugglers, KristieJ, Barbara, Lusty Reader, KatiD, Leslie, Raych, Carolyn Crane, Kmont, Jessica, Trelaina) and I even made author friends (Leanna Renee Hieber, Julie James). I joined Twitter this year and it's only made communicating easier with other bloggers and authors (including Laura Kinsale and Courtney Milan!).

I even Guest Dare'd for the Booksmugglers, discovering Linnea Sinclair in the bargain!

I started taking more part in the social side of reading that I didn't before - this was the year I actually participated in Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and ended up being nominated and eventually shortlisted for Best Romance Blog (the award which eventually went to the fantastic Book Binge). Yeah, I didn't win, and there have been a lot of complaints about the event, but I discovered so many more blogs thanks to BBAW (such as Rip My Bodice and Books I Done Read) that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Also - this year I discovered RWA Nationals, and wow, was it a once-in-a-lifetime-experience! I met all sorts of people (reader, blogger, and author) and probably carried away far more free books than were good for me.

As well, I ended up reading a whole lot more than last year. In 2008, I wrote 37 reviews. In 2009, I ended up reading and reviewing 63. Almost double the amount! As for my Best of and Worst lists - there aren't going to be any special or consistent numbers this time around. Instead I'm going to stick to the good ol' letter grade. I didn't think it'd be fair to, say, have a top 10 list that involves most of the A+ and A graded books but leaves some out - and, for the same reason, I'm not going to add books that just got Cs and C+'s to the Worst List to pad out the number.

Let's start with the Good, first:


11. The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, by Jennifer Ashley. A.

This book really has a lot going for it - great storytelling, fascinating characters, and no clear villain still alive to point the finger at. My favourite aspect of this novel is that even though Lord Ian, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, tells Beth that he's incapable of loving her, it's clear from the start that he can and does - the beauty of his characterization and development come from how he slowly realizes that he's been experiencing love all along, but was just incapable of identifying it in himself without help from others.

10. Not Quite a Husband, by Sherry Thomas. A.

Now this was a Second Chance Challenge that did work. Bryony, honestly, is one of my favourite heroines of all time - and writing the blog entry describing just what it was about her that got me to empathize with her brought me to tears because I've experienced a lot of what she went through. I understood her isolation and her insecurities, the comfort she took in her separation from the real world. I understood how she reacted to Leo's flaws, while at the same time I empathized with Leo and felt sorrow for both. Mostly, I loved reading about her painful joy while experiencing a second chance at love - thanks to Leo's intense grovelling.

9. Devil's Cub, by Georgette Heyer. A.

By now I've read three of Heyer's novels, and so far this is the only one that's really impressed me. We have a dashing but spoiled and hot-headed hero, and a downtrodden plain jane heroine. Combine the two, add a stray bullet and a skanky ho sister, and you have a deliciously frothy road romance where our hero learns that actions have consequences, women holding guns shouldn't be taunted, and that he really must check to make sure the woman he's abducting is an actual slut and not just a Ho for Show.

Similarly, our reasonable Heroine discovers that Bad Boys are Hawt, Good Boys are boring, and that one really must check to make sure the mysteriously wise old man she divulges all her secrets to is just a mysteriously wise old man and not her love interest's dad.

8. Fast Women, by Jennifer Crusie. A.

Like all the best Crusie novels, Fast Women combines light and dark, humour and tragedy. While tagging along with the heroine's long journey to recover her mojo and self-esteem after a crushing divorce, the reader also taps into murder, conspiracies, and the very real marital woes of other main characters that demonstrate that marriage isn't all Happily Ever After - it takes work, and the strength of this novel comes from reading how the heroine and hero work (and work and work) to make sure their romance lasts. Along with a smart mystery and crackling dialogue, we also have well-rounded characters on both sides of the gender line - there are no demonized exes, and no obvious villains (relationship-wise - of course the murderer is a villain!).

7. Just the Sexiest Man Alive, by Julie James. A.

Truly a marvellous debut - complete with a goofy but sexy celebrity hero who discovers his World's Sexiest Smile isn't valid currency with the heroine, a strong heroine who doesn't allow her personal relationship problems to affect her mad courtroom skillz, and a storyline that doesn't compromise our protagonists' professions and career ambitions.

For anyone who's ever hated those romantic comedies that end with the heroine or hero giving up a big promotion or quitting their jobs to get with their Soul Mate - read this book. Yes, romantic heroes and heroines, you are allowed to have a job that's important to you and still struggle with relationships!

6. Almost Heaven, by Judith McNaught.

Okay, so I'm not exactly a fan of all her books, but McNaught's Almost Heaven is a sweet and satisfying tale of learning to trust after being betrayed. While our protagonists both learn they were tricked long ago by a vindictive third party, re-exploring their love isn't a simple matter of flicking a switch on and off. In one of the smartest uses of the Big Misunderstanding plot, McNaught shows how each protagonist re-enters their relationship holding something back, afraid that the happiness they've discovered might just turn out to be another trick, and how their love can't truly flourish until they're willing to give up everything. Well-written and empathetic (with a take-no-shit heroine), Almost Heaven is a literary treat.

5. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. A+.

Okay, there's been some controversy on the Interwebs as to whether this is a romance or not, because of the ending. Well, I for one will come out on the side that this is a romance. Unabashedly. We have a hero who bounces back and forth through time but mainly towards events that matter a lot to him - and more than any other time and place, he winds up running into his wife/soul mate - over and over, through different periods of his and her life. Despite the less-than-happy events of the end, the hero and heroine are forever changed for the better by the miracle that allowed them to find each other, and if that isn't a romance - or at least romantic - than I don't know what is.

4. For My Lady's Heart, by Laura Kinsale. A+

Ah yes, the book that set off my perpetual fandom of Laura Kinsale. A complex and well-characterized medieval where our Princess is more accustomed to rescuing herself from her tower than depending on anyone else, and a knight who clings to his (doomed) vow of chastity like the last broken spar of a sinking ship. For those readers who love seeing complete opposites (calculating aristocrat, honest warrior) thrown together to mingle, react, and change, I heartily suggest For My Lady's Heart.

3. His Every Kiss, by Laura Lee Gurhke. A+.

Shame, shame on me for abandoning Laura Lee Gurhke after the so-so Wicked Ways of a Duke, because I almost missed this stunner: a composer tormented by a constant ringing sound in his head thanks to a concussion hears music for the first time in years while he's around a starving violinist, and he'll do anything - anything - to keep her close enough to help him finish his long-awaited symphony. It's difficult to get more tormented than this hero, who's barely been able to think over the constant whining sound in his head, and now he has to deal not only with the possible love of his life, but a secret baby, too!

2. Natural Born Charmer, by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. A+.

Again, another book that came out of the blue after reading a so-so novel first. I liked Match Me If You Can, but it was nothing special, so reading Natural Born Charmer was a pleasant kick to the face (uh...). What could have been the time-honoured Tortured Hero with Horrible Childhood plot turns into a story about how the hero's Neglectful Parents have changed their lives for the better, and how our stubbornly cute heroine pulls the hero's self-pitying head out of his own ass so that he can discover this amazing fact for himself.


1. The Prince of Midnight, by Laura Kinsale!

A+ While For My Lady's Heart was excellent enough to make me try another of Laura Kinsale's books, Prince of Midnight was gorgeously, all-consumingly, obsessively, spectacularly AWESOME enough to make me go out and order/steal/borrow/find all of her books that I possibly could!

Our hero, S.T. Maitland, is a formerly-dashing folk legend turned bumbling fool thanks to a shot-to-hell inner ear that screwed up his sense of balance - but even the fact that he can barely walk in a straight line won't stop him from coming to the rescue of a beautiful damsel, no matter how many times he trips over himself trying. His romantic view of the world helps thaw the grieving heroine and re-introduce her to the joys of living. Can it get any better? I think not.

As with the good, however, there must come the bad. The really, really bad. Thankfully, I didn't find so much bad this year to round out a full Top Ten list - so you'll simply have to be satisfied with the six novels I read that couldn't keep themselves above a C- grade.


6. Scandalous By Night, by Barbara Pierce. C-.

I see-sawed several times in my expectations/reactions to this novel. As readers know, I was squicked out by the first chapter excerpt, but upon reading the next couple of chapters, I was quite intrigued! It looked like we had a developed, three-dimensional villain; it looked like we had complicated family drama that couldn't be solved in an easy, unmask-the-traitor manner; it looked like our heroine was realistically torn in her loyalties between the villain and the hero.

Looks can be deceiving - beneath the veneer of originality is a story by turns predictable and creepy. Turns out our developed villain really is just a cartoonishly sex-addicted evil poisoning MILF, the heroine is a doormat, the hero is forceful, exploitative and cruel, and the novel ends without solving the hero's family problems! (NOTE: as it turns out, I met Barbara Pierce at RWA 2009 and asked her about the abbreviated ending - turns out she'd planned to extend the story into part of the next book, but the publisher cancelled her series so she had to cram what endings she could into this book. As sad as it is, I still have to review the finished product and the ending was crap - not really the author's fault crap, but still crap).

5. Untouched, by Anna Campbell. C-.

Ugh. Many people love this book, or so I'm told. It has an interesting premise, to be sure - a young lord is declared mad and then imprisoned by his evil uncle who wants to control his fortune, and the heroine is kidnapped and taken to the hero to sate his sexual needs.

Unfortunately, we have to deal with a whinging doormat weakling heroine who blames herself for everything that goes wrong in the world, including but not limited to the hero's inability to give her an orgasm on the first try. Add to that innumerable and completely ridiculous, unnecessary and page-wasting sex scenes (including a sequence of three consecutive back-to-back scenes of frantic humping that made me want to throw this book under a lawn mower), overwraught purple prose, and an inconsistent and poorly-developed plot.

4. Half Past Dead, by Zoe Archer and Bianca D'Arc. D.

I wanted to like this book, since Zoe Archer was kind enough to offer a free ARC and she's great fun on Twitter, but the fantasy-nerd in me couldn't get over the inconsistent and contradictory world building of her story, "The Undying Heart." The zombie hero can still get it up even though the story establishes he has no blood circulation, and the incompetent Mary Sue heroine's hired by a secret organization to track evil wizards despite a) having no magic training, b) having no weapons training, c) her crusading experience consists of handing out pamphlets.

And the overall-good-storytelling-and-basic-writing-ability-nerd in me wants to chop off the head of Bianca D'Arc's shuffling, brainless entry "Simon Says," about a guy with angst. I guess. And zombies. And the heroine he ruined for all other men because he's just that awesome. I think. And I think they hunt zombies. Listless, cliched writing and absolutely blank characters.

3. The Last Heiress, by Bertrice Small. D-.

Where do I start with this book? How about the flat, childish heroine propelled by a single motivation that is repeated over and over (we GET IT, you want to herd SHEEP)? How about the cowardly manbaby hero who'll get with the heroine but won't marry her because he's much too scared to ask his Daddy for permission? How about the redundant and ultimately pointless scenes of Tudor court life that allow the author to cram in every last scrap of historical research she did, despite the fact that they have no bearing whatsoever on the story? Or how about the groan-inducing sexual euphemisms like "love lance," "love juice," and "love passage" during intimate scenes? Pick one! Pick them all! Just don't make me think about this stupid book any longer than I have to!

2. Wild Blue Under, by Judi Fennell. D-.

This was a silly, silly book. However, the silliness like the fish puns and the cartoonish worldbuilding and the murderous albatrosses in this book are not what made this novel stink like week-old tuna left in the sun. In a discussion I had with a reader who liked the novel, she told me I obviously too this book too seriously.

If "taking a novel too seriously" means expecting cause-and-effect in plotting, or expecting plot threads integral to the novel to be wrapped up, or feeling entitled to characters who behave like realistic human beings, or expecting random deus ex machina solutions to problems to be explained and not just packed away under the ludicrous "the gods decided it but don't want to tell you why" excuse, then I can't really imagine how not to take a book seriously. The central mystery of the novel is solved in a heartbeat by Zeus without ANY REASON GIVEN, the reason the heroine needed to be dragged to the ocean turns out to be false but we're never told the real reason she needed to grow a mertail despite the fact that IT'S THE MAIN MOTIVATION BEHIND THE ROMANCE PLOT, the hero's reversion to his merman form doesn't work the way it's supposed to the first time but that's never explained (although the "gods promise it won't happen again"). I can tolerate feathered spies. I can handle a jokey parody setting - but even jokey parody settings need to be consistent and established for a novel-length (series length!) story.

But even a dimbulb heroine who believes she's fatally allergic to 75% of the Earth's surface doesn't make this the worst of the worst. Oh no. Not nearly.


1. Fool Me Once, by Fern Michaels!

F. This was the worst of the worst. THE WORST. The most AWFUL, HATEFUL, HAIR-PULLINGLY-LUDICROUS book I have ever read. EVER. EVER. One of the only TWO F grades I've ever given in this blog's history. This is a book that I really think had no right to be published. Inaccurate word usage, a complete ignorance of how the real world operates, inconsistent backstories, flagrantly nonsensical plot points (the heroine thinks a yorkshire terrier's bound for an abusive home, so she buys another yorkshire terrier thinking she'll switch the two), and shambling puppet characters with the mentality, morals, and world-view of eleven-year-olds. There - there are no words to accurately describe just how bad this novel is.

Our heroine, whose hobbies include taking photos of adowable puppies, worshipping her perfectly-perfect daddy, harbouring an unwarranted prejudice against lawyers, and curling herself into a fetal ball and sobbing herself to sleep at the first mention of trouble, learns that her now-deceased mother was a bank robber, and that to keep her unexpected inheritance she needs to get Mean Ol' Mummy's accomplices to pay up. Needless to say, she finds a cute fella who reminds her of her perfect Daddy - and wouldn't you know, she reminds him of his perfect Mummy! Thankfully, when they marry, she won't have to give up her precious, all-knowing Daddy - Daddy actually says (I'm not making this up), that he's not giving her away - he and her hubby will just "share her."

Don't worry about the vomit, readers - the heroine's 1, 000 000 Yorkshire terriers will make short work of it!

So that's it for 2009, folks! Here's hoping to some fun reads in 2010. And now, to round out my post - the Best of the Rest of Gossamer Obsessions 2009:

Loretta Chase, Lord of ScoundrelsA-

Mary Balogh, Slightly WickedA-

Guest Dare for Book Smugglers – Linnea Sinclair, Games of CommandA-

Julie Anne Long, The Perils of PleasureA-

Jo Goodman, If His Kiss Is WickedA-

Gaelen Foley, The DukeA-

Mary Balogh, and co., It Happened One Night – combined grade B+

Eloisa James, Duchess in LoveB+

Julia London, The Hazards of Hunting a DukeB+

Susan Elizabeth Phillips, Match Me If You CanB+

Suzanne Enoch, After the KissB+

Mary Balogh, Slightly ScandalousB+

Julie James, Practice Makes PerfectB+

Leanna Renee Hieber, The Strangely Beautiful Tale of Miss Percy ParkerB+

Mary Balogh, Slightly Tempted - B+

Meljean Brook, Demon Angel - B+

Tessa Dare, Goddess of the Hunt - B+

Julia Quinn, When He Was WickedB+

Courtney Milan and co., The Heart of Christmas - B+

Eloisa James, An Affair Before Christmas - B+

Julia Quinn, Romancing Mr BridgertonB

Judith James, Broken WingB

Teresa Medeiros, Yours Until DawnB

Jane Austen, EmmaB

Eloisa James, Your Wicked Ways - B

Kate Noble, Compromised - B

Jane Feather and co., Snowy Night with a Stranger - B

Connie Brockway, So Enchanting - B

Amanda Quick, Second SightB-

Julia Quinn, To Sir Phillip, With LoveB-

Sabrina Jeffries, One Night With a PrinceB-

Liz Carlyle, Three Little Secrets - B-

Judith McNaught, Something Wonderful - B-

Eloisa James, Desperate Duchesses, averaged grade B-

Georgette Heyer, These Old Shades - B-

Nina Bangs and co., This Year’s Christmas Present - B-

Elizabeth Boyle, Love Letters from a Duke C+

Nora Roberts, Blue Dahlia - C+

Nalini Singh, Caressed by Ice - C+

Charlaine Harris, Dead Until DarkC

Nalini Singh, Slave to SensationC

Sophia Nash, The KissC

Jo Beverley, HazardC

C.L. Wilson, Lord of the Fading LandsC

Adrienne Basso, The Christmas Countess - C

Phyllis Bourne Williams and co., The Holiday Inn - C

December Round-Up

Well, Christmas has come and gone, I'm several novels richer - and several feet of shelf-space poorer. Yes, I know I'm a little early in my December round-up, but I do have my Year-End post to write, and I'm pretty sure I won't finish Victoria Dahl's A Rake's Guide to Pleasure before the New Year, or if I do, I think I'll just post it as the first romance review of 2010 anyway.

December was a month of anthologies, Christmas stories and second chances, so there was a lot of romance to go around. For heroines, we got:
  • 1 Batshit Insane Cross-Dressing Page
  • 4 Unsatisfied Wives
  • 1 Virgin Romance Author
  • 1 Virgin Dairy Farmer
  • 1 Virgin Accountant (what's with all the virgins in Christmas antho...oooooh, right)
  • 1 Psychic Animal Whisperer
  • 1 Merry Widow
  • 1 Recovering Rape Victim
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Cold-Blooded Assassin
  • 2 Sexy Santas
  • 1 Poor Little Rich Boy
  • 4 Clueless Husbands
  • 1 Autistic Savant
  • 1 Machiavellian Fop
  • 1 Intrepid Investigator
For Romantic Obstacles, we had:
  • "I can't love him - I don't even know what he does for a living!"
  • "I can't love him - he's a dirty filthy pervert who wants to touch my no-no place with his wee-wee!"
  • "I can't love her - I can't even manage eye contact!"
  • "I can't trust him - the tabloids said he cheated on me!"
  • "I can't love him - he loves his job too much!"
  • "I can't love her - she's a lying liar who lies!"
  • "I can't love her - she's a total doormat to our selfish asshole children!"
  • "I can't love her - she touches cows! In bad places!"
  • "I can't love her - I could accidentally murder her during sex!"
  • "I totally love him because he's perfect and saintly and if anyone says different I WILL CUT THEM A NEW HOLE WITH MY SHINY KNIFE - but he's sooo out of my league!"
  • "I can't love her - she's a romance writer! Them bitches be CRAZY!"
And, in Miscellaneous Oddities, we Have:
  • 1 Elvis-Themed Nativity
  • 1 Magical Snowglobe
  • Several Spontaneously Humping Woodland Critters
  • 1 Impressively-Mustachio'd Detective (who will be getting his own book, please please?)
  • 2 Families of Notoriously Passionate Redheads
  • 1 Baby Trade
  • 1 Really Really Bad Hair Day
  • Several Severe Brain Injuries
  • 1 Trip Down a Chimney Hampered By Unexpected Boner
  • Several Pieces of Furniture Broken by Sex-Addled Telekinesis
*December Pick* The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie, by Jennifer Ashley. A
Winner of the Julia Quinn Medal in Sequel Baiting.
Ahhhh, now this was a delightful romance that actually did live up to all the hype. A hero with autism. A been-there-done-that heroine. Sexy redheaded brothers who miraculously manage to pimp their own respective stories while still contributing to the narrative at hand! Ashley skillfully tells a familiar story (a hero who can't express himself) from a unique point of view (Asperger's). Definitely worth checking out.

An Affair Before Christmas, by Eloisa James. B+
Winner of the Surprise! Sexual Education Award.
Now this Eloisa James novel came with an intriguing romantic obstacle - the heroine, raised by her man-hating mother to despise the penis, drives her hubby to hair-pulling insanity with her loyal refusal to "vulgarly" succumb to his sexual ministrations. The result? Estrangement, cured only by the heroine's leap into independence and the hero's discovery that love is more important than sex. But of course, both learn that sex can be good! While the heroine is a bit squirrelly, the writing sparkles, the themes are delightfully conveyed, the hero is yummy, and lessons are learned by all (except Jemma, who continues to bash her head against the I'm-TOTALLY-Not-In-Love-With-My-Sexy-Husband-So-Please-Stop-Asking-Until-Book-Six Wall).

So Enchanting, by Connie Brockway. B
Winner of the Lamest Excuse for a Magic Power Award.
This was my first Connie Brockway, and while I really enjoyed the interplay between the hero and heroine, I ended up puzzled by the plot point of the heroine's magic - she can influence animals when she becomes emotional. However, her power doesn't really contribute to the plot (investigating threats made against her ward) - it just serves as an excuse for the heroine to suppress her emotions. Brockway deserves kudos, I guess, for coming up with an original motivation for being repressed, but while the story is enjoyable and the outbursts of the heroine's magic are occasionally amusing, I couldn't understand why Brockway chose to go the paranormal route when there are hundreds of other real-life reasons to repress that would have served just as well.

These Old Shades, by Georgette Heyer. B-
Winner of the Dem Crazy Gingers Award.
Heyer wrote this when she was my age (23), and it is certainly interesting as a piece of fiction. Kidnappings! Baby switchings! An entire family of fiesty people whose tempestuousness is genetically tied in with their redheadedness! Yes, the Fake Heir, despite being raised by bad-tempered Titians, is naturally clumsy, plodding, and interested in agriculture - because he's really a peasant and a brunette! Despite an engaging (if psychotic) heroine, this romance didn't quite match up thanks to an emotionally frozen hero who thaws too slowly - if he does at all. It's hard to tell. Oh! He twitched an eyelash! It must be lurve!

This Year's Christmas Present, by Sandra Hill, Nina Bangs, and Dara Joy. B-
Winner of the Best Way to a Man's Heart Is Through His Hemmoraging Brain Award.
A generally uneven anthology, all three stories depend somewhat on wacky silliness, but only Nina Bangs' story (about a worrywart accountant who's seduced by an old flame) manages it with style. The other two deal with Scrooge-y heroes who discover the true meaning of Christmas after taking serious bumps to the noggin - unbalancing Dara Joy's hero enough to make him start reading romance novels to woo his opposite number, while the swelling grey matter of Sandra Hill's protagonist helps him overcome his aversion to his lover's talent for impregnating cows by hand.

Caressed By Ice, by Nalini Singh. C+
Honourable Mention, Best Way to a Man's Heart Is Through His Hemmoraging Brain Award.
This was my Second Chance Challenge, and while it didn't warm me up to Singh, it did provide greater insight into what doesn't work for me - her worldbuilding is great, her plots are interesting, but her particular frank, declarative writing style made me feel like a kindergartener being lectured on basic facts. I understand why other readers like her, but I've given up on her for now. Much like These Old Shades, we have an emotionally repressed hero - and, again like Shades, I didn't feel this Ice Man thawed enough by the book's end to satisfactorily convey his contribution to the romance. Instead of really experiencing his changing emotions, we get descriptions of how his mentally-created shields act like a psychic garlic press everytime he feels a feeling - nothing says "I Love You" like bleeding out of more than one facial orifice! That being said, I admired the heroine, who (wow, AGAIN like Shades) knows she loves the hero from the get-go and will do what she can to rope him in.

*December Dud* The Holiday Inn, by Phyllis Bourne Williams, Farrah Rochon, and Stefanie Worth. C
Winner of the Gold Medal in the Field of Insomnia Research and Treatment.
My goodness, but this was a boring, BORING book. The general plot of all three stories revolves around fractured couples who make up over the holidays spent in a swanky resort. The result? Lots of stilted dialogue that reads like an uninspired transcript of someone's couples' therapy, smacked up against travel-brochure-perfect descriptions of the hotel perks. None of the stories truly stuck out as being original, and they all tended to blend together, making the whole read about as exciting as a lump of coal. What a snooze.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

"So Enchanting," by Connie Brockway

Alternate Title: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

The Chick: Francesca "Fanny" Brown, a.k.a. "Mrs Walcott." After an imperious lord outed her and her con-artist husband as frauds, she found a job protecting an heiress in a tiny Scottish town. Six years later, the lord returns - will he destroy her reputation yet again?
The Rub: He thinks she's running a con - what would he think if he discovered her real magical powers?
Dream Casting: Anne Hathaway.

The Dude: Lord Greyson "Grey" Sheffield. When his brother-in-law asks him to investigate a threat made against his young ward, he travels to the small town where she resides with her governess - whom he instantly recognizes as the devious little mesmerist he nabbed six years ago.
The Rub: All evidence points to a dastardly scheme being afoot - and he's certain Fanny is behind it. Frauds don't change their spots - their adorable, spirited, pretty little spots...
Dream Casting: A young Liam Neeson.

The Plot:
Alphonse: I'm an experienced medium, believe me, I've watched Ghost, like, 30 times--

Grey: LIES! *fraud revealed*

Fanny: Gee, thanks.

Six Years Later...

Grey: I'm here to investigate a threat made against your rich, beautiful, and bubbly charge, Mrs ...Walcott.

Fanny, a.k.a.: "Mrs Walcott": Gee, thanks - the sequel.

Amelie, Fanny's Pupil: Hey Hayden, wanna start a secondary romance?

Hayden, Grey's Nephew: Would I!

Grey: *facepalm*

Grey: How can I trust you? You're a lying liar!

Fanny: How can I trust you? I have an empathetic connection to animals!

Amelie: I'm so sorry Fanny, the threat was fake! Don't tell anyone!

Fanny: *double facepalm*

Amelie: Whoops! Spoke too soon! I'm being shot at by a crazed stamp collector!

Every Other Character In the Book: *UNITED FACEPALM!*

Grey: Take THAT Stamp Nerd! *kicks ass* I love you Fanny. Even if you can emotionally influence animals.

Fanny: Really?

Grey: Yes. I'll love you no matter what - unless you collect stamps.

Fanny: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Orgasmless Widow

1 Emotionally-Repressed Paragon of Justice Hero

2 Really Dumb Lovers

Several Horny Animals

1 Drunk Footman

1 Fake Magic Power

1 Real Magic Power

1 Ambiguous Magic Power

1 Evil Stamp Collector

1 Very Bad Husband (Deceased)

The Word: This novel, my first try at Connie Brockway, started out really strong. Lord Greyson Sheffield, a straight-laced crusader dedicated to bringing down fake psychics and spiritual mediums, busts a seance held by Alphonse Brown and his inexplicably lovely wife Francesca and outs them as frauds. Unfortunately, while distracted by Fanny's hotness he accidentally lets Alphonse escape. His reasons are personal as well as moral: after Grey's half-sister died, his father threw away his fortune, his credibility, and his son's respect chasing after mediums and fortunetellers in an effort to track down his daughter in the afterlife. Grey grew into a man who despises deceit in all of its forms, especially when perpetrated against the innocent and gullible.

Alphonse's flight (and subsequent Death by Train soon afterward) leave Fanny with nothing but bad memories of the man she eloped with. Unbeknownst to the general public, Fanny actually is psychic - she possesses the power to influence animals when she becomes emotional. She's ashamed of this power, ever since the day when, in a 12-year-old rage, she inadvertently set a pack of dogs on her older brother. She eloped with Alphonse after he convinced her that he valued her strangeness, only to discover soon afterward he only wanted to use her power to help his cons.

However, she soon meets up with a distant friend from her hometown with an interesting proposition. Thanks to some strange and unexplained phenomena that have taken place around his young daughter, Amelie, rumours spread that the girl is a witch and a group of religious fanatics have started making threats. He plans to move his daughter to a small, out-of-the-way town in Scotland and wants Fanny to serve as her governess. Fanny agrees because she sees it as a chance to start over with a new life - but she flatly refuses to reveal anything about her magic to the girl. She's spent too much time alone thanks to her strangeness.

As it turns out, Amelie's father is dying of cancer, and has placed some very particular terms on Amelie's inheritance to ensure that she remains out of harm's way. According to the terms of his will, Amelie will only get her fortune a) if she marries or b) if she remains in the town of Little Firkin until she's twenty-one. On top of that, if Amelie comes into her inheritance by adhering to all the terms, her father's will promises a legacy of 100 000 pounds to be divided amongst all 217 of Little Firkin's inhabitants - thereby surrounding Amelie with people who have 100 000 reasons to keep her alive.

Six years later, however, Lord Collier (Amelie's guardian) receives a letter warning of a threat on Amelie's life, and he sends his brother-in-law to investigate. His brother-in-law is none other than Lord Greyson Sheffield, who arrives in Little Firkin accompanied by his high-spirited but very silly nephew Lord Hayden. Lord Greyson doesn't believe there's a real threat - Little Firkin won't get a penny if Amelie dies before her 21st birthday, and it's clear that most if not all of the townsfolk are already living on expectations of their fortune.

However, he becomes decidedly more interested when he recognizes Amelie's governess as the con artist's wife whose hotness he appreciated all those years ago. He's immediately convinced that Fanny must be running some kind of angle. He can't understand why she would consent to confinement in a tiny backwater if she didn't have something else going on. From Fanny's corner, while she doesn't want to be outed by Greyson, she's also unwilling to let him steamroll over her, particularly since she's lived a perfectly upstanding, if boring life for the last six years.

While the novel starts out strong with two capable, if opposed protagonists and a bizarre but interesting plot, it loses steam as it goes along. Those expecting a flat-out paranormal may be disappointed - Fanny's magic is very subtle and mainly serves to give Fanny a motivation for repressing her emotions, as well as provide an emotional obstacle between her and truth-is-everything Grey, who continues to suspect Fanny of hiding something. While Fanny's initial distaste for her powers emerges from an incident in her childhood when she accidentally hurt someone, in the present she hides her powers because it makes her "weird," and once she gets her HEA she lets her powers roam free without any fear at all that someone might get hurt.

Grey, meanwhile, one of those Just the Facts, Ma'am Types who depend on logic because love is a delusion, yadda yadda, who nevertheless gets a gleeful kick out of pissing Fanny off. It's rather delightful, especially when Fanny starts giving as good as she gets - mainly by making fun of Grey's age (he's 38 - but truth be told he acts much younger). Sometimes they adhere a little too closely to type, and there are a couple of silly moments when small animals start spontaneously having sex around them because they're responding to Fanny's Magical Horny Vibes. However, they're both intelligent, capable, and motivated. They've both suppressed their feelings to protect themselves from harm, and they find an unexpected sympathy with each other as they learn to express their loneliness.

It's such a shame then that the book also decides to waste precious narrative time on their respective wards, Lord Hayden and Amelie, who don't have the combined brain power to operate a potato clock. Not only are we treated to their relentlessly silly secondary romance, but the book occasionally dips into their points of view so we can get a front-row seat to their unbelievable vapidity. They don't really contribute to the novel at all and their romance is set from the very start, so I don't understand why we need so many scenes of them fighting good-naturedly over who has the prettiest highlights. I suppose Amelie has a shade more depth because she has the drama of being a virtual prisoner in Left Armpit, Scotland thanks to Daddy Dearest, but she more than makes up for it with her childish selfishness - especially where Fanny is concerned.

While this novel is by no means terrible, it does lack focus, and I felt the paranormal aspect could have been developed a little bit more. As a result, the novel is merely a pleasant read, instead of a stellar one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie," by Jennifer Ashley

Alternate Title: Autistic Endeavors

The Chick: Mrs. Beth Ackerley. A young widow who's experienced all the highs and lows of life, all she wants is to settle down with a nice gentleman and a minimum of drama. That is, until she unexpectedly falls for the dark, eccentric stranger who warns her that her nice gentleman is not so nice.
The Rub: Lord Ian Mackenzie, hell, all the Mackenzies, are High Maintenance Drama 24/7.
Dream Casting: Kate Winslet.

The Dude: Lord Ian Mackenzie. Kept in an insane asylum since he was nine, Ian is a genius at some things and helpless at others. However, he knows what he wants, and he wants Beth.
The Rub: Ian is incapable of forgetting anything he's ever witnessed - and I mean anything - and he worries that the secrets locked in his head may harm the ever-curious Beth, if he doesn't unintentionally do so himself.
Dream Casting: A younger Gerard Butler (think Dracula 2000).

The Plot:

Ian: Hi Beth, I'm Ian. Let's get married.

Beth: Are you crazy?

Ian: Yes, actually.

Inspector Fellows: See! I warned you! Lord Ian's crazy!

Mac, Cameron, Hart - Ian's Brothers: Ian, are you crazy?

Beth: Well, I'm crazy, too. Crazy IN LOVE.

Mac, Cameron, Hart: ...

Ian: No, no, no, I'm the one who's --

Mac, Cameron, Hart: *whisper explanation in ear*

Ian: Oh. Now I understand the reference. I love you, too.

Beth: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Tortured Hero

1 Merry Widow

1 Separated Couple With Sequel Potential (Isabella and Mac?)

1 Brotha from Anotha Mutha

2 Cases of Muuuuuurder

2 Really Bad Parents (Deceased)

1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

Several Examples of Ming Pottery

2 Surprise Lesbians

The Word: Okay, I'll admit I was drawn to this story mostly by the gimmick of the plot. This book has also received a shit-ton of fantastic reviews, but really I'll admit that without knowing anything about the author, it was the novel's idea that drew me in until I knew I at least had to try reading it. Boy, am I glad I did.

As it turns out, it's not just a gimmick - but a legitimate plot device the author uses to explore the historical romance - and particularly the time-honoured cliche of the emotionally inexpressive hero - from a new and interesting angle.

The novel's hero, Lord Ian Mackenzie, spent the entirety of his adolescence in an insane asylum, where he was subjected to ice baths, electric shocks, and regular beatings. While his brother Hart, the Duke of Kilmorgan, wasted no time springing him from the joint once their monstrous father died, it's clear to everyone that Ian isn't normal. He tends to focus on seemingly inconsequential things to the exclusion of all else. He misinterprets body language and lacks the ability to understand humour, irony, or sarcasm. He cannot maintain eye contact and he's incapable of lying. However - he can learn entire languages in days, is brilliant at mathematics, and remembers every single thing that anyone has ever told him - ever, whether he understands it or not.

Modern readers, of course, can identify Ian's condition as Asperger's Syndrome, a type of low-level autism. However, in the 1880s, this diagnosis didn't exist yet, so most of the people around Ian (including people he cares about) are inclined to think that Ian is just crazy, or at the very least extremely eccentric.

However, thanks to his looks, fortune, and his powerful family, Ian is capable of moving within Society and living more or less by his own terms. He knows what he wants, and because he is a fundamentally honest person, when he wants something he goes after it openly. When he meets the lovely Mrs Beth Ackerley at the opera, he's immediately attracted to her, and subsequently warns her that her fiance, Lyndon Mather, is a philandering, debt-ridden jerk with a house full of spank-happy mistresses. Mind you, Ian doesn't do this out of the goodness of his heart or for Beth's protection. He wants her, and he possesses the information required to separate her from her fiance - in his logical mind it makes perfect sense to use one to gain the other.

Beth is grateful for Ian's assistance and attracted to him in her turn, but remains uncertain. Her life has been an emotional rollercoaster - born in the slums, she worked as both workhouse drudge and gentle companion, experienced the abuses of her drunk father and the love of her kindly vicar husband, and unexpectedly inherited a fortune from an elderly widow. Her life has been so unpredictable and varied that she believes she needs stability, peace, and quiet, even as her attraction to Ian promises to be anything but normal.

Deciding to embark on a string-less affair with Ian, she comes to appreciate his honesty, forthrightness, intelligence, and even his incredible bluntness. However, she has to contend with the suspicions of Ian's protective brothers who distrust her intentions (particularly Hart), the accusations of a dogged Inspector obsessed with bringing the Mackenzies down, and Ian himself, who remains convinced that he's incapable of feeling or understanding love.

Ian is definitely the focus of this book, but I feel I ought to expound upon Beth first because she is such a subtly powerful character I'm concerned the skill that went into her characterization may be overlooked. Jennifer Ashley gives both of her characters interesting backstories but doesn't dwell on their pasts as constant, recurring sources of angst so much as use them to drop hints to explain the drives and motivations that have brought their characters up to this point.

Beth has a very varied past that's made her into a flexible social chameleon. Her ability to quickly adapt to any situation allows her to communicate successfully with Ian. Ian is honest to the point of crudeness and often fails to comprehend whole stretches of conversation, but Beth knows how to roll with the punches, overcome and learn from her surprise, and identify what Ian means to say. Their conversations are some of the loveliest I've read, and while Beth's wry humour often flies right over Ian's head, she learns the language of his ticks and hard truths to see the emotions underneath that he has such trouble expressing.

What can I say about Ian? He takes himself as he is and while he recognizes that his disorder renders him an inconvenience or a threat to some people, there's no self-pity or recriminations or "I wish I was normal" nonsense. In the case of emotions, I can't help but compare him to Caressed by Ice's Judd Lauren. In Ice, Judd tells the reader and Brenna that he's in love, but his cold behaviour, language, and thought processes show us nothing. Conversely, Ian believes he can't feel love, even as his growing need to keep Beth with him "always," his dependence on her to make the noise of the world stop, the increasing ease with which he can communicate with her, demonstrates that he can and does, even if he's as yet incapable of identifying it in himself.

As well, I truly have to commend Jennifer Ashley for the well-rounded cast of secondary characters. The common tendency in romance series introductions, particularly those based around siblings and family, is to shoehorn the spunky sisters and manly brothers into the storyline long enough for them to demonstrate how hot, troubled, and single they are, tease the heroine and hero with knowing looks, exchange a few choice (mostly insulting) words with whomever is destined to be their opposite number, and then stomp out without really adding to the story. It's all so much sequel baiting, turning potentially interesting characters into future advertisements for the series.

However, The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie is centred on the importance of family - and I mean real family, not A Group of Perfect Sexy People Who Are All Happy With Each Other All the Time. Although they love him dearly, Ian's brothers have as difficult a time understanding him as anyone else, and aren't these Uber-Enlightened Ahead of Their Times blokes who instinctively understand the symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. Hart, especially, believes Ian is crazy and quite possibly dangerous, and the murder-mystery subplot of the novel ably demonstrates the tangled ties of trust, distrust, love, gratitude and sacrifice that bind brothers together.

I loved reading about about Ian's family and while, yes, there were sequel baiting galore (dead wives, jiltings, and alcoholism ahoy!) every character was well-developed in the limited page space they received, and they all contributed to the story while still fueling interest for the series. And wow, am I interested in the series (particularly Cameron's story)!

I've noticed that The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie's appeared on a lot of this year's Best of 2009 lists, and I can see why. A unique premise, a fleshed-out and contributing cast of secondary characters, no clear-cut villain (ahem, no clear-cut living villain), and a romance both sweet (Ian's unique declaration of love is worth the price of the entire book) and spicy (sex scenes are hot but not so numerous as to detract from the narrative). You'd have to be mad not to try this one out.