Friday, October 29, 2010

"The Proposition," by Judith Ivory

The Chick: Lady Edwina "Hot Legs" Bollash. A prim and reserved phonetics teacher, she makes a living polishing country girls and middle class daughters to make advantageous seasons.
The Rub: Does she have what it takes to turn a common ratcatcher into a Viscount? All without having sex with him?Dream Casting: Miranda Otto.

The Dude: Mick Tremore. If two wealthy brothers believe a bit of spit and polish could turn him into a gentleman, and if it'll earn him more money to send home to the family, why not?
The Rub: All this training may give him access to higher positions like becoming a valet, but it can't raise him high enough to aspire to the status of a granddaughter of a duke, whom he's quickly coming to fall for.Dream Casting: Aidan Turner with a wicked 'stache.

The Plot:
Mick: All I want, if it's not too crass,
Is a gal with legs and a sexy ass.
Who'd help to give me class oh woooooouldn't it be loovly.

Edwina: I shouldn't go near him, but I'm strapped for cash.
He's much too bold and he's much too brash.
If only he'd shave his 'stache! Oh wooooouldn't it be lovely.

Mick: Oh, so, loovly learning all the sorts of words toffs say.
Still, I'd rather sit and look at Winnie's hot legs all day!

Edwina: Someone's hand resting on my knee,
Warm and tender as he can be.
Oh foke propriety!

Oh wouldn't -- it -- be lovely!

Mick: Loovly!

Edwina: Lovely.

Mick: Loverly?

Edwina: Lo-ve-ly.

Mick: Lovely.

Edwina: By George, you've got it!


Romance Convention Checklist

1 Unscrupulous Wager

1 Awesome Mustache

2 Sexy Legs

Several Ferrets

2 Twin Con Artists

1 Cornish Tavern Dance-Off

1 Secret Heritage

The Word: Bloggers are awesome.

Blogger friends are even more awesome.

In this instance, Jessica from Read React Review is awesome. More specifically, about a year ago she reviewed a novel on her blog called The Proposition. The review alone made me rush out to my Used Book Store, try and fail to find it, then have them deliver a copy from another branch.

This book would never even have blipped on my radar if not for her review, and for this, I must thank her, because The Proposition is one of the best books I've read this year.

Essentially, it's My Fair Lady with the genders reversed. Instead of a sociopathically manipulative asshole (who cannot sing), our Higgins is Lady Edwina Bollash, a prim and horrifically repressed woman who makes a steady but hardly outstanding living as a linguist who helps polish her female students' manners and accents in preparation for social seasons.

And instead of a shrieking codependent doormat (who, if she's not Julie Andrews, needs someone to sing for her), we have Mick Tremore, a cocksure Cornish ratcatcher with an epic mustache who's very talented at putting his ferrets down the right holes, ifyaknowwhatimean.

Anyhoo, Mick runs afoul of a horny dressmaker's assistant while on a job (don't ask) and is chased into a fancy tea shop by her outraged relatives. Thanks to her unique passion for linguistics, Edwina is the only one in the shop capable of understanding his garbled Cockney/Cornish dialect and she comes to his rescue. However, his antics also catch the attention of Emile and Jeremy Lamonte, two apparently wealthy and bored brothers who engage in a bet as to whether this ratcatcher, with the right training, can pass himself off as a gentleman - specifically, by attending the Duke of Arles' upcoming ball without getting caught.

Mick agrees to the scheme because the hundred pounds the brothers promise him will go a long way towards feeding his thirteen (!) brothers and sisters back in Cornwall. Edwina needs the money as well, but she ultimately capitulates for a more personal reason: she holds the Duke, a distant relative, responsible for her precarious circumstances and the idea of parading a ratcatcher beneath the proper peer's nose has a definite appeal.

However, once Mick moves into her house to begin his lessons, she finds it impossible to remain an objective instructor. Thanks to an angsty casserole of Proper Victorian Upbringing, Abandonment Issues and Low Self-Esteem, Edwina is easily frightened of Mick - of his vitality, of his sharp intelligence his low birth can't disguise, and his truly wondrous wealth of chest and facial hair. His 'stache, in particular, sets her ill at ease.

Thank goodness for Mick! Within the first six pages, Mick does what Outlander's Jamie couldn't do in 800 pages: convince me that he is Sex on Legs and Awesome at Everything. Sharp as a tack and surprisingly self-aware, Mick is the true narrator of this novel and the hook that kept me reading. I loved reading how he learns to appreciate (and, occasionally, worry over) the differences in himself that come with refining his behaviour and language, while still holding true to the parts of himself he refuses to change.

At the same time, he's not perfect. He worries that the training he's receiving, not to mention the love he's developing for Edwina, are only addicting him to a life he can never have, a life where one can have food and hot baths and gorgeous legs every day. Even if the training allows him to apply for higher positions like a valet or footman, he's still miles below Edwina on the social ladder.

Most of all, I love the voice Judith Ivory gives his point of view - the types of language he uses, especially at the beginning, and the subtle way his own narration and vocabulary choices change as he progresses through Edwina's training. He's earthy and sexy and passionate and once he knows he's hot for teacher he wastes little time in making it known.

Edwina, meanwhile is terrified both of her reaction to him and how flimsy her upperclass superiority proves against Mick's supreme confidence and common sense - he spends the majority of the novel uncannily slicing through her layers of proper, polite, polished flimflammery to the heart of herself she's desperate to hide. The first indicator of this is when he learns her first name and immediately shortens it to "Winnie" - turning her name into an endearment, an intimacy that shocks and attracts her.

Normally, I dislike heroines who are convinced they're unattractive (not that I'm ignorant of those types of feelings myself), but in The Proposition's rare case, I adored it. Edwina is tall (six feet!), lanky, flat-chested, red-headed, and pear-shaped, and she's hyper-aware of it. To be fair, she is all of those things - she's not whinging about how her bee-stung lips are too pillowy or some crap. To Mick, however, Edwina's features translate into three strengths: great hair, a fabulous bum, and gorgeous, gorgeous legs.

Another thing I feel I should warn you if you are going to read this novel (as you must): Mick is a leg man. The opening scene is Mick's soliloquy on the tremendous pair of gams he spots while ratting a dressmaker's shop. Mick loves legs, and Edwina's got a pair to make a grown man weep - or, in this case, shave off his 'stache in return for a peek. Edwina initially doesn't believe Mick's adoration of her features, but it does inspire her to examine herself more closely, and discover for herself that she is lovely (or, as Mick insists on pronouncing it, loovly *le sigh*).

Judith Ivory is a magnificent writer, and I'm so glad I found her. Fans of faster pacing might be put off by the wealth of detail she puts into certain scenes, but for me, it reminds me of Jo Goodman and Sherry Thomas in the best of ways. She also conveys the different accents in the story in an evocative but not distracting way.

If there were any flaws to be found in the book - one might consider the Surprise! Heritage development at the end to feel a bit tacked-on, but in this case, I don't care. Mick deserves it. FIND THIS BOOK AND READ IT.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"A Hint of Wicked," by Jennifer Haymore

The Chick: Sophia, Duchess of Calton. While she dearly loved her husband Garrett, eight years after his death she was lucky enough to fall in love again and marry Tristan, her late husband's cousin.
The Rub: When Garrett miraculously returns from the dead, he demands she resume her role as his wife and abandon Tristan for ever, and the law is on his side. But she can't just cut Tristan out of her life - however, neither can she leave Garrett.Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.

The Dude: Garrett, Duke of Calton. Having suffered through eight years of brain-damage and memory loss, he is not at all pleased to get home to find his wife shagging his best friend.
The Rub: However, even as he longs to cling to her, he fears that his deteriorating mental state may put her in further danger.Dream Casting: Kevin McKidd.
The Other Dude:
Tristan, Lord Westcliff. While just as grief-stricken as Sophia when Garrett vanished after the battle of Waterloo, now that Tristan's finally wed to the woman he's always loved, he's not going to give her up. Even to his former best friend.
The Rub: The only trouble is, Garrett married Sophie first, which legally nullifies Tristan's marriage to her.
Dream Casting: Matthew Bomer.

The Plot:
Garrett: I love you, perfect wife!

Sophie: I love you, perfect husband!

Tristan: I love you both - in a totally friendly, not at all resentful third-wheel way!

Garrett: "*dies*"

Tristan: So...what it's been, what, seven years? Think we can marry?

Sophie: Sure!

Tristan: HOORAY--

Garrett: HOLD UP, Y'ALL. Hands off my woman!

Tristan: Yeah, you and what army?

The Entire British Legal System: *glare*

Tristan: .... crap.

Sophie: I am so sad and conflicted, and yet I cannot bear to show spine and choose. I shall be as neutral as a Swiss.

Garrett: What a coincidence, because my memory's full of holes.

Suspicious Assistant Fisk: BTW, I secretly want to murder all of you and run away with your hawt dumb sister!


Hawt Dumb (Sequel-Baiting) Sister: Like, chill, you guys! I'll be back for the sequels!

Sophie: BTW, I choose Tristan.

Garrett: WTF. Why?

Sophie: Coin toss.


Garrett and AnimeJune: *grumble grumble*

Romance Convention Checklist

1 "Did I Sit in Something Wet? C'mon, you can tell me" Cover Artwork

2 Jackassy Husbands

1 Plot-Device Child

1 Obvious Villain

1 Dewy-Eyed Baby Sister

1 Opium Allergy

1 Bout of Amnesia

1 Uncomfortable Menage Fantasy

The Word: What can I say about this book? Well, the foremost emotion I experienced reading this book was anger. I felt angry at the characters, at their thought processes and decisions with which I completely disagreed, at the unfair situation, at their asshat behaviour, and at the book's complete lack of romantic development. And yet, after reading the pleasant blandness of Outlander, I can now safely say I prefer to be angry and engaged with a book than pleasantly disengaged.

The reason I was eager to read this book was because it is a true rarity in romance - a legitimate Love Triangle. Two guys, one girl, no menages allowed (apart from one squicky dream sequence). And, to be fair, author Jennifer Haymore sets up a truly prickly situation that doesn't really place any one person in the wrong.

Garrett, Tristan and Sophie used to be one of those super-BFF-4evah teams that pop up in romances wherever Idealized English Countryside is abundant and Good Parenting is lacking. Eventually, Garrett marries an adoring Sophie and with Tristan, they continue their superfriend shenanigans until the day Garrett is declared dead at Waterloo.

Sophie and Tristan are grief-stricken, but in their bereavement (Tristan loses his own wife a few years later), they find love in one another and marry. However, in a scene that redefines the word, "awwwwwkward," Tristan and Sophie discover that Garrett is, in fact, alive - when he bursts in on them having Consensual Bondage Funtimes and (rather understandably) interprets the situation in a negative way.

It turns out Garrett spent the last eight years in Belgium suffering from Ye Olde Amnesia. Having only lately recovered his memories, he came home expecting everything to be the same and is outraged, hurt, and betrayed to find his beloved wife in love with another man. He loses little time in exerting his legal authority and using his Convenient Army of Sleazy Henchmen (they're plentiful in Belgium, apparently) to keep Sophie and Tristan apart. Sophie, he determines, was his first and will be his again, and Tristan can go screw something other than Garrett's wife for a change.

Irrational? Yes. Understandable? Also yes. I recognize Haymore's attempt to make it difficult to take sides but I fairly quickly landed on team Garrett, for the reason that while both male protagonists act like Selfish Caveman Dicks, Garrett has the excuse of being brain-damaged and having suffered through poverty and enslavement for the last eight years.

Also, through Garrett's POV, we see the instability of his mental state thanks to his injury, and how much he relies on the normal, on the expected, on the fair, to maintain his sanity - even though it's clear that sometimes, life just isn't fair. Part of his attempt to keep Sophie by his side is because he genuinely loves her, but part of it is also his desire to maintain the "fairness" of the world. It wasn't his fault he didn't see Sophie for eight years - so why should he be punished for it by losing her to someone else?

Tristan, however, spends a good chunk of the book behaving like a ludicrously self-absorbed prick, until even I wished he would go away. We learn through explicit and tedious exposition that, oh, he's always loved Sophie, even from the very start - he just "let" Garrett marry her first and got himself a place-holder wife (poor gal) because he was a Nice Guy who finished Last. He spends the vast majority of this book thinking only of himself and his nether regions, like a dog with a bone that's been taken away - mine, mine, mine.

His best friend's back from the dead after having endured years of suffering and abuse and Tristan continually treats Garrett like dog crap for having the audacity to remain alive and return to the land and the friends he grew up with. I never really considered his actions or motivations to be founded on love at all, since he never really considers the consequences of his actions beyond how the outcome will benefit him. He continues to fight for Sophie after the courts nullify their marriage - so what does he want, a divorce? Yes, something incredibly expensive and difficult that will not only tarnish Sophie's name for ever but will tarnish Sophie and Garrett's daughter Miranda - the girl Tristan's raised as his own for seven years. Sorry Miranda, Stepdaddy's dick comes first.

Look, I understand that Tristan and Sophie are in lurve but Tristan doesn't give Garrett a scrap of slack until the last quarter of the book. He doesn't have the excuse of being helpless and damaged and lonely and frightened like Garrett - he lived untroubled in the lap of luxury for the last eight years. I wanted Tristan to suck it up, be a man, and stop whining.

Other than the requisite Cavemanosity of our heroes, the characterization's not too bad - with one glaring exception: Garrett and Sophie's daughter Miranda is the most unrealistically written child I've read this year - it's like Haymore tried to write her as a thirty-five-year-old, remembering only at the last minute that Garrett's only been missing for eight years. Seriously, Miranda acts and behaves like some weirdly ageless prophet-child from Dune. The spice must floooooow, Sophie - marry Garrett!

I did enjoy the subtle establishment of Sophie's maturity in the wake of Garrett's disappearance. She was a naive girl when they married, but grief made her an independent and strong-minded woman who cannot be the same person to Garrett as she was eight years ago. Her refusal to immediately choose between Tristan and Garrett was both enjoyable and frustrating - I liked how she wanted to give Garrett and their vows a chance, but there are certain moments where likening her to a passive rope caught between two snarling dogs wouldn't be inaccurate. I wanted her to show a bit more spine, and when she finally makes her choice, I felt I'd been told instead of shown her reasoning for it.

Which leads me to my biggest complaint about this book - it's not really a romance. Sophie is already in love with both Tristan and Garrett. Nothing about her relationship to either of these men significantly changes within the pages of this book. I kid you not, both her romances develop off screen. We, the reader, don't get to see any of it. Not a damn thing. We "arrive" in the story when Sophie and Tristan are already in full-swing (just an expression - they don't actually use a swing anywhere in the book, but I wouldn't put it past them). The most we get are bare snippets of backstory wedged in between purple prose about how in lurve they are. This severely weakened the story for me. I read romance because I need to see the love grow in order to believe it once it blooms. So not only did I not buy the romance, I didn't buy the ending nor her ultimate choice.

So is this book terrible? It's more mediocre than terrible. It's infuriating, it's imperfectly paced, and it's silly, but it's not out-and-out awful. Some of the situations in the book are handled with remarkable sensitivity but by the last page I felt nothing as keenly as disappointment for the book it could have been.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Outlander," by Diana Gabaldon

The Chick: Claire Randall. An ordinary nurse living in 1945, her whole world turns upside down when she walks through some magic stones and winds up in 18th century Scotland.
The Rub: Living in a war-torn country without modern amenities is tough - especially since she has no way of proving she's not a spy for the English.
Dream Casting: Amy Adams.

The Dude: James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser - a.k.a. Jamie. God's gift to women, Scotland, and horny incestuous gay army captains everywhere.
The Rub: He worries about being forced to marry a woman with a mysterious past. Could it be possible she might come to love him, despite the fact that he's only six feet tall, gorgeous, chivalrous, landed, educated, creative in bed, and a virgin?
Dream Casting: There's never been, nor will there ever be, a man born of a human woman who can ever even hope to approach the pure and glorious manliness of Jamie Fraser.

The Plot:

Claire: Gee, touring Scotland with my sophisticated and handsome husband is such fun!

Magic Stones of Convenient Plot Development: *ominous humming*

Claire: *poof!* Oh, bugger.

Savage Scots: Save our injured friend!

Claire: Who?

Jamie: *glorious red hair glowing by candlelight, which also conveniently sheens off of his bulging blood-streaked abs* Me.

Choirs of Angels: *ecstatic singing*

Claire: I'm suddenly a lot less afraid of the whole accidental time-travel thing.

Jamie: Sorry we have to marry for convenience, also sorry that I'm totally a laird and also a hot outlaw and also well educated and fluent in many languages and also great with animals and also probably going to be great in the sack - technically, I'm a virgin, but I mean the odds are good that...

Claire: Wait wait wait - you're a virgin? How the HELL did that happen?

Super Gay Duke Who Tried to Bone Jamie: I KNOW, right?!

Super Evil Gay Captain Who Tried to Bone Jamie: You'd think that with all these people trying to bone him, by fair means or foul, that at least one of us would succeed!

Super Bitchy Jamie-Fangirl Laoghire: IT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE.

Claire: All these people want to have sex with you?!

Jamie: *bashful look* *scuffs boot*


Claire: Score! This is going to be AWESOME!

Savage Mobs: Wait! We still need to have a WITCH TRIAL! And kidnappings! And barbaric custom and superstition!

Dougal and Colum MacKenzie, Jamie's Uncles: And we need to be all morally ambiguous and mysterious, until we reveal we're in love with Claire.

Claire: ...

Dougal: Well, we canna verra weel be in love with Jamie. That'd be Incest!

Super Evil Gay Captain: Didn't stop me! C'mon, Jamie! I'll let your wife live if you toss my caber, nudgenudgewinkwink.

Jamie: Okay.


Obvious Monty Python Reference: Le vache! Le vache!

Super Evil Gay Captain: *trampled by cows*

Claire: HOORAY!

Jamie: .... aaaguughaughguhg.

Claire: Walk it off, Jamie.

Jamie: Okay.

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Hot Highlander

1 Time-Travelling Heroine

1 Dumped Husband

1 Evil Gay Incestuous Rapist Captain Who Happens to Look an Awful Lot Like Dumped Husband

Several Lacklustre Romantic Rivals

2 Ambiguous Uncles

1 Marriage of Convenience

1 Evil Witch

Several Chapters Worth of Backstory

1 Necessary Spanking

1 Really Ugly Pair of Scottish Swim Trunks

The Word: Well, I did it.

I read Outlander. Part of me is tempted to say, "I can't believe I read the whole thing," but the truth is, I didn't. I skimmed about half.

*flinches, as if from the fear of stones being thrown*

Outlander is rather a contentious book in the romance world - some believe it's a romance, others don't, but most readers either desperately adore it, or avoid it like the plague, and both camps informed me in no uncertain terms on Twitter that I would love/hate it, which is part of why I wanted to read it in the first place, to see what everyone was talking about. *eyes the new copy of Dark Lover on her TBR*

Really, though, I neither loved nor hated this book. As unbelievable as it may sound, this book was a m'eh grade. It had good writing, a great heroine, an interesting story - but on the flip side it had terrible pacing, cheap characterization in many places, and Jamie Fraser.

*runs away from stones actually being thrown*

Now, for those of you who, like me, had previously been completely ignorant of Outlander, this is the story in a nutshell:

Jamie Fraser is Awesome and Everyone Wants to Have Sex with Him. For 800 pages.

people will tell you the story is about Claire Randall, a woman living in 1945 Britain who is magically transported through standing stones to 18th century Scotland, where she is more less adopted by a clan of hot, rowdy Scotsmen who eventually force her to marry outlawed highlander Jamie Fraser for various political reasons that take hundreds of pages to explain.

That's not the story. That's the Inciting Incident. The story is Jamie - how awesome he is, how he embodies perfection in every pore, how he's a holy mixture of Rob Roy, Chuck Norris and Harry Potter, how he inspires lust in every woman and jealous fear in every man, etc. etc. Every real piece of action in the story is driven by someone's desire to protect Jamie, possess Jamie, or make Jamie look even more awesome and cool as he whips out his own brand of Redheaded Scottish Justice.

And, just in case our own powers of interpretation can't be trusted, every so often Jamie or one of his friends will take Claire aside to a lovingly and elaborately described Scottish geological landmark and tell her about Jamie's courageous, painful past, in long and tedious blocks of exposition. I like to call these Jamie's Tragic Past Storytime Hours. How he was whipped by the Evil Gay Army Captain. How bravely he survived getting shot at and chopped in the head with an axe (!). How he rescued a litter of kittens from a burning orphanage with one hand while teaching blind children to read with the other - you get the point.

Now put down your pitchforks for a minute. I'll readily admit that Jamie, as a character, is a very nice young man, but I just wasn't crazy for him and I'll tell you why. You all like chocolate, don't you? I love chocolate. But imagine if someone forcibly shoved chocolate down your throat all day, nonstop, all the while screaming "CHOCOLATE! HOOORAAAAAAY FOR CHOCOLATE!" five millimetres from your ear while playing the bagpipes - would that chocolate still taste as good?

You see, Outlander spends so much time and effort and page count telling us how Extra Special Jamie is that it had the opposite effect on me - I thought it was too much, too over the top, and I couldn't buy Jamie's character. Worse, during the novel it obscures those true moments when Gabaldon allows Jamie's actions to show us what a decent man he is.

Yes, Jamie is nice - but he's not enough to base 800 pages on, which is why, after struggling along until page 446 (only about halfway through), I had to give up and skim. The pacing in Outlander is ridiculously slow. Lots of beautifully worded description, to be sure, especially when combined with Claire's witty and wry commentary, but there's little to no unifying action or plot. Claire just wanders around, wondering how to get back to her own time, until Jamie shows up to save her, have sex with her, or both. Reading the book itself up to that point was pleasant, but I wasn't at all emotionally invested in the story and just wanted to get on with it so I could read something else.

It also behooves me to point out how equally badly the book wants to make Black Jack Randall (ancestor of Claire's present-husband Frank and the book's villain) Jamie's polar opposite in every way - by shoehorning in as many flaws, sins, and perversions as possible. No real character development necessary - just make him half-impotent, bisexual, incestuous, and so rape-ariffic he'd screw a fence with a hole in it if it was capable of screaming "No! Stop!" at him. I realize the English were kind of douchey during the whole Scottish occupation thing, but it's not necessary to make Randall the Antichrist.

On the good side, Outlander is well-written and well-researched. The setting is opulently described, not just verbally, but through Claire's interpretation (the story's told from her first-person POV). The romantic aspects of the book were often aww-worthy, although romantic tension is pretty much nonexistent - if you're a character in Outlander who is not an immediate blood-relation of Jamie, falling in love with him is not a possibility, but an inevitability. The secondary characters are pretty interesting and, for all that he's not really worth 800 pages of hero-worship, Jamie is a very nice young man.

So I guess it all depends on what you're looking for. My opinion of Outlander falls squarely down the middle - if you love swoonworthy heroes who never take a step wrong, lots of love scenes and colourful scenery, you might want to check out Outlander. If you're looking for well-developed, realistic characters and gripping action - use this book as a doorstop instead. Did I hate this book? No. Will I want to read the other books in the series? Hell no.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"Venetia," by Georgette Heyer

The Chick: Venetia Lanyan. Raised in the country, she's only got a sheltered existence and possible marriage to a dull country gentleman to look forward to.
The Rub: The wicked Lord Damerel provides a nice jolt of excitement - but is he really as wicked as everyone says?Dream Casting: Amanda Seyfried.

The Dude: Jasper, Lord Damerel. Everyone thinks he's just a scurrilous rake, and he's fine with that - until he meets a girl who believes he could be more than that.
The Rub: However good Venetia believes him to be, he knows taking advantage of someone as sheltered and good as her would be the lowest sort of treachery.Dream Casting: Robert Downey, Jr.

The Plot:

Damerel: Well, hello there, pretty! *kisses Venetia*

Venetia: You're a perv!

Damerel: Hells yeah. I've also got your injured brother up at my house, so you'll have to see me to see him!

Venetia: Oh! How kind! You're not a perv!

Damerel: What ... that's not what I meant...

Venetia: In fact, you're awesome!

Damerel: Okay, this is making me uncomfortable. Let's end this.

Venetia: Huh, awesome yes, smart no.

Secret Mom: BTW, Vennie, I'm totally scandalous and not dead so that whole perfect reputation of yours doesn't mean beans.

Venetia: SCORE!

Damerel: Oh crap.

Venetia: *hugs* HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Angsty Rake

1 Informed Innocent

2 Lacklustre Romantic Rivals

1 Surprise! Mother

1 Kindly Perv Stepdad

1 Mother-in-Law from Hell

The Word: When one of my readers and frequent commentators on my blog, Vorkosigrrl, told me she wanted to send me a favourite book of hers in order for me to review it, I said "yes" (because I loves me some free books), but with some trepidation. There's always the possibility that I won't like it - or even worse, that I'll hate it. As much as I'd love to follow popular opinion, there are some books that, despite being beloved by many people in the romance community, I Just Don't Like. Nalini Singh's books are an example. C.L. Wilson's are another. I courted a mild bit of controversy when I hated Lisa Kleypas' Dreaming Of You, because I thought the heroine had the intellectual prowess of a baby distracted by the jangle of car keys.

My trepidation increased a fraction when the book I received in the mail turned out to be Georgette Heyer's Venetia. Now, I enjoy Georgette Heyer, but I don't love her. Her books are never unpleasant and frequently amusing and entertaining but it's hard for me to flat-out adore them.

Georgette Heyer writes in a very authentic 19th century style - however, as a result, she rarely delves into the minds of her characters, their personal feelings or motivations. The reader has little to go on when examining her characters but their dialogue and actions. Now, this isn't bad in itself - but some of Georgette Heyer's protagonists aren't emotionally demonstrative. They tend to be affable, wry, but scrupulously polite, or in the case of the Duke of Avon, cold, manipulative and scrupulously polite. So when neither the POV nor the characters' actions take us very deeply into their psyches, I find it hard to connect emotionally with her books. I'll always like them, and objectively admire the research and writing style, but I'm not swept away or particularly involved by her characters. This is why I couldn't glom onto These Old Shades or False Colours.

This also explains why I enjoyed Devil's Cub and Powder and Patch - Devil's Dominic is very open about his feelings, whether they're good or bad, so I felt more connected to his character, and really liked reading how he comes to grips with the consequences of being a selfish ass. Meanwhile, in Powder and Patch, the characters are primarily motivated by emotions - Cleone's emotional behaviour often results in her doing Damn Stupid Things but they're always understandable, while her love Phillip turns into a dandy to recover from the hurt of being rejected.

So was Venetia the rule or the exception? Well, a bit of both. The title character lives a very narrow and ordered life - not by her own design, but she's smart, cheerful, and naturally resilient enough to remain content with what she has. Her self-absorbed and reclusive father kept her in the country for all of her life, and after his death, she remained there to take care of her crippled but brilliant brother Aubrey and the family estate while their eldest sibling Conway avoided his responsibilities while serving in the army. She entertains herself by reading, cleaning up estate affairs, and avoiding the two vastly different yet equally determined suitors for her hand - the prim and proper Mr. Yardley, and the melodramatic and emo Mr. Denny.

Into this structured and ordinary existence comes Lord Damerel, dubbed "The Wicked Baron" by Venetia and Aubrey for the extraordinary rumours pertaining to his pitch-black reputation, said to involve gambling, orgies, and running off with a married woman. Intending to briefly visit his neglected nearby estate before continuing onward to a shooting party, he spots Venetia picking blackberries on his land and, mistaking her for a common wench, hits on her.

Venetia gives him a sharp and offended set-down, which only piques Damerel's interest in her. He thinks he's found the perfect opportunity to challenge Venetia when Aubrey injures himself near his property, requiring him to convalesce at Damerel's estate. Damerel expects to be confronted by an enraged or scandalized Venetia, and so is taken aback when Venetia arrives full of gratitude and goodwill. Venetia, unlike nearly everyone else in the neighbourhood, is willing to judge Damerel only on the basis of his present actions rather than his scandalous past, and as Aubrey recovers, the two spend more and more time together at his estate, to the consternation of Venetia's well-meaning friends and suitors.

It's probably no surprise that the character I enjoyed most was Venetia herself, and how she serves as the animated figure at the centre of the novel's theme of innocence. Now, I've bitched and moaned time and again about how many lesser romance novels conflate "innocent" with "behaves like a five-year-old" and I'm happy to say that this novel isn't one of them. Venetia is sheltered, that's one of the main barriers between an ultimate relationship between her and Damerel - as Damerel comes to care for her more and more, he can't help but fear that he's taking advantage of her inexperience.

Thanks to her selfish father, Venetia never had a come-out or a London season and she's only visited town infrequently. Her circle of acquaintances is very small and mainly comprised of older people. Both her suitors are the result of her cloistered existence - Yardley is one of the few people her father would permit to visit their estate, and Mr. Denny is the younger son of her close friend Lady Denny.

Venetia is innocent but she's not unintelligent - she and Damerel have several lively dialogues involving complicated literary quotations, for instance. However, her sheltered existence and lack of practical experience do give her an advantage in the sense that she is prepared to take people at face-value, and judge them on the behaviour they exhibit right now rather than dwell on the scandals they wreaked in their past. As her conversations with Damerel clearly demonstrate, she knows exactly what his innuendos mean and she's not afraid to be frank with him - however, she judges him on the fact that he's exhibited nothing but kindness and flawless hospitality towards her brother and herself.

Damerel is harder to get into, but that's mainly because he's not in seen as frequently as Venetia - this is her story, after all, far before the time when conventional romances started giving heroes equal head-time with heroines. That being said, what we do see of him is evocative and involving. He's been a Bad, Bad, Man - but before that, he was an impulsive, heartbroken boy the same as anyone else. When he first arrives, his behaviour is strongly seasoned with bitterness - he dislikes bearing the brunt of prejudice only less than he dislikes himself for providing such a good reason to be prejudiced against. His misguided but noble attempt to "save" Venetia on account of her ignorance demonstrates how far his character has come.

This is ultimately what I appreciate about Georgette Heyer - the tropes she used then are very common now, but reading her helps me understand how they came to be tropes in the first place, and why they work (when they're written well, at least).

So, what didn't I like about Venetia? Once again, the pacing - Heyer is a rambler, and will gladly fill up pages and pages with nonsequitors and characterizations and funny stories that ultimately have nothing whatsoever to do with the main narrative. Again, not unpleasant, but it makes it hard to stick with the story of a book when so much is narrative fluff. I wish there'd been more Damerel - he seemed like such an interesting character. Lastly, I felt a surprise came up at the end that really didn't need to be there and felt a bit melodramatic.

Ultimately, I had a good time reading Venetia and enjoyed her characters - nonetheless, it wasn't a total glom for me. I still felt a little detached reading it. Nonetheless, if you're a fan of Jane Austen and romantic Regency comedies, it would be worthwhile to give Venetia a look.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

"One Night for Love," by Mary Balogh

The Chick: Lily Doyle. Where her sergeant father is killed in an ambush, her father's superior officer offers to marry her. Mere hours later, however, she is shot and captured.
The Rub: After months of captivity and torment, she finally makes her way back to England - only to find her husband about to marry another woman.
Dream Casting: Dianna Agron.

The Dude:
Neville Wyatt, Earl of Kilbourne. When his long-lost wife returns, miraculously alive, he's overjoyed.
The Rub: However, the ton does not look kindly on earls marrying illiterate commoners.
Dream Casting: Rupert Penry-Jones.

The Plot:

Neville: We're about to be married. Isn't this nice?


Lily: *cough* 'Sup. I'm alive.

Neville: HOORAY! Er .... awkward.


Neville: Well, at least I still have you, Lily!

Lily: Well, frankly, no. We can't be together. It just doesn't make sense. For one thing, I can't read.

Neville's Cool Aunt: I can teach you!

Lily: Well, I'm also not your social equal...

Secret Dad: SURPRISE! You totally are!

Lily: Well that was easy.

Neville: Except for one thing....


Mary Balogh: *significant cough*

Lauren: OH? Ohhhhh. Never mind! I'm off to leave Freyja Bedwyn emotionally scarred and riddled with abandonment issues! 'Ta, bitches!

Neville and Lily: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist:

1 Quickie Wedding

1 Ruined Wedding

2 Ambushes

1 Unhinged Romantic Rival Who Gets Her Own Book

3 Lame Murder Attempts

1 Surprise! Dad

1 Piece of Parentage-Proving Bling

The Word:
Romance, as I've come to understand it, is a battle between fantasy and reality. Every romance fan reads romance differently, and as such, every reader prefers a different reality-to-fantasy ratio. I've always enjoyed Mary Balogh because she maintains a fine balance between fairytale coincidence and historical realism, and she utilizes this skill in a particularly gutsy manner in her 1999 novel, One Night For Love.

Neville Wyatt, the earl of Kilbourne, is compassionate, responsible, and dutiful. As the story begins he's standing at the altar, three seconds away from seeing his bride, Lauren Edgeworth, walk down the aisle. They've been affectionate friends since their nursery days, and Lauren is everything a future countess should be: elegant, cultured, educated, well-bred - as well as generous and kind.

However, before the wedding can proceed, a ragged beggar woman bursts into the church and puts a halt to everything. As it turns out, Neville cannot marry Lauren because he's already married - to this thin, illiterate commoner, sergeant's daughter Lily Doyle.

A year and a half ago, Neville joined the army as a form of parental rebellion, and fell in love with the daughter of his sergeant. When her father was killed in an ambush, Neville offered to marry her - as the wife of an officer, she would be guaranteed fair treatment if they were ambushed again. Lily reciprocated his feelings and they shared a tender, romantic wedding night. The next day, however, he witnessed her get shot in the heart moments before getting clonked on the head himself, and he returned to England believing she was dead.

Lily's return serves as the catalyst that cleaves everything in two. On the one hand, Neville is overjoyed to find his wife is alive. On the other, his blameless fiancee Lauren is utterly humiliated and his family is appalled.

Lily, too, finds herself torn. As it turns out, being the wife of an officer protected her from very little of the ravages of war. The only thing that kept her going through her months of captivity and torment at the hands of the Spanish was her memory of her husband. However, in her ignorance she assumed that Neville was simply a wealthy man who owned a large house. Suddenly realizing the true scope of Neville's social superiority - not to mention getting a gander at Neville's gorgeous almost-wife Lauren - fills her with terror.

Mary Balogh divides One Night For Love into different parts, a surprisingly effective pacing method. In the first half of the novel, Neville and Lily deal with the painful aftermath of her miraculous reappearance. Neville is overcome with horror and guilt when he discovers what Lily endured, and longs to make it up to her, to protect her and cherish her. But he can't protect her from everything - like his sister's overt hostility. Or Lauren's bleak, increasingly-unhinged unhappiness. Or Lily's own misery at the enormous and sudden expectations placed upon her as the new Countess of Kilbourne.

In this part of the story, Lily and Neville lose little time in discovering that they still love each other. But the novel's not even half over. Where could One Night For Love possibly go from here? In a surprisingly ballsy, intriguing direction. By the halfway mark, Neville discovers that, thanks to the original wedding papers getting lost in the war, he and Lily aren't legally married. When he breaks it to Lily as gently as possible, vowing he'll marry her privately by special license, he doesn't expect this reaction from her: "Thank God."

Lily refuses to remarry him, and a heartbroken Neville doesn't understand until Lily says, "Love is not enough."

That sound you hear is a hundred thousand housemaids-turned-Duchesses falling off their collective settees in a dead faint. Yes, Lily dares to declare, in the middle of Romanceland, that loving Neville is not enough for a happy marriage. You mean, love can't move mountains? Celine Dion lied to me!

Lily's love for Neville amounts to happiness when they're alone together, but it doesn't protect her from the feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and isolation she experiences everywhere else. To put it bluntly, at the start of the novel Lily is not qualified to be a countess. She can't read, she's ignorant of politics and manners, and she doesn't know how to do household accounts. Other romance novels treat luuuuurve like a Magic Eraser that conveniently eliminates all these problems so the Duke and his cowherd bride can traipse on down to the waterhole, tra-la-la-ing all the way, returning home in time to have a hundred fat, towheaded babies. But Lily refuses to subject Neville to a marriage that is unequal in nearly every way - emotionally, intellectually, and socially.

But the running theme in One Night For Love is identity. Lily continually has to adapt and reconsider her identity and who she considers herself to be. First she's a sergeant's daughter, then a wife, then a rape survivor, then a countess. By the end of the novel's halfway mark, Lily realizes that no marriage between her and Neville will work if she constantly remains a person who needs to be rescued and protected from society. So when she turns down Neville's proposal and takes employment with his Cool Aunt as her companion, Lily decides to pursue the learning and education she never received following her father's regiment.

The second half of the novel is just as thought-provoking as the first, for now Neville has to do the emotional heavy-lifting as he considers whether he wants Lily to develop and change and whether he'll still love the new person she becomes. He kind of wanted to be the white knight who protects his lady, but as the power dynamic between them slowly shifts in Lily's favour, they both come to terms with what identity really means and whether education and experience can truly influence someone's personality.

Every time I expected Lily to act like a martyr, she doesn't - which is kind of refreshing considering Mary Balogh lurves heroines who put up and shut up. But even when Lily says and believes things that seem a little silly and melodramatic (such as her longing to "be the moment" and walk barefoot to be in communion with nature, etc. etc.), I always found myself admiring and respecting her, for in One Night For Love, she doesn't let love solve all her problems - she sets out to solve them herself. Of the couple, she is the practical one and Neville is the emotional one who can't understand why they can't be together for ever and ever right now. As a character, he's a bit in the background. He spends much of the first half of the novel smiling kindly and wringing his hands, only really self-examining himself once Lily exerts her independence.
One Night for Love is easily one of the better Baloghs I've read. A Secret Parentage Plot that is Super Obvious from the Get-Go ("mysterious locket my father gave me that I'm never supposed to take off" is always Plot Device Code for "I'm a Secret Baby") and an unnecessary suspense subplot that is bizarrely solved entirely off-screen took away from the novel's overall strength - but otherwise, I definitely recommend One Night For Love.A

Saturday, October 02, 2010

September Round-Up

Truth be told, I didn't get a lot of reading done this month. Sorry, guys. There are a number of factors that contributed to my all-time monthly low:
  1. I got a job, one that takes up a massive amount of a day. Who knew?
  2. I got my driver's license, so while I still read on the bus to work, I took the bus (and, therefore, read on the bus) this month less than I used to.
  3. September is TV premiere month!
  4. I read Robin Hobb's Ship of Destiny which, while an awesome book and totally worth it, took a long-ass time to read, especially considering the previous three factors.
Anyway, for Heroines, we got:
  • 1 Spirited Hoyden
  • 1 Virgin Widow
  • 1 Stripper-Nurse ("Helloooooo, Nurse!")
  • 1 Heroine ... who really doesn't do anything other than Make Good Coffee and Bread
  • 1 Regency Miss with Deep Sexual Daddy Issues
  • 1 Kidnapped Innocent
  • 1 Vampire Juliet
For Heroes, we got:
  • 1 Glorified Thundercat
  • 1 Undercover Angel
  • 1 Tortured Spy
  • 1 Sexy Pirate with a Dark Past
  • 1 Lonely Wolfking
  • 1 Virgin Nerd Fireman
  • 1 Demon Stripper
For Romantic Obstacles, we got:
  • "I can't marry her - she caught me having a Fake Pagan Orgy Cult Party!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm already dead!"
  • "I can't love her - she's a vampire!"
  • "I have to save my ship - but she doesn't need me anymore!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm broke and angsty and a virgin!"
  • "I can't love him - he's a man who tells me what to do and I am an Strong, Independent Woman (tm)!"
  • "I can't love her - I'm too deeply in debt!"
In the Miscellaneous Department, We Have:
  • Several Fake Orgies
  • 1 Barbed Penis
  • 1 Fender Bender
  • 1 Evil Fake Artist
  • 1 Angry Dragon
  • 1 Misunderstanding About Birth Control

*September Pick* Re-Read Review: Ship of Destiny, by Robin Hobb. A+
Pros: Great characterization. Excellent examination of women. Adventure. Dragons. Sweeping romance! Engaging antiheroes! SERIOUSLY IF YOU HAVEN'T READ THESE BOOKS WHY AREN'T YOU DO SO RIGHT NOW?!
Cons: A little bit slow in the middle this time around.

Lord of Fire
, by Gaelen Foley. B-
Pros: Yummy dark hero. Surprisingly decent character development. Lovely writing.
Cons: Crazy-stupid story. Fake orgies for Great Justice?

Under Fire
, by Jo Davis. C+
Winner of the Too-High Expectations Award
Pros: Hot firemen.
Cons: Shallow characterization. Obvious villain. Sluggish pacing. Heroine who is both nurse and stripper and yet doesn't understand birth control.

*September Dud* Anthology Review: Hot Spell by Emma Holly, Lora Leigh, Meljean Brook, Shiloh Walker. C-
Winner of the "What is Read Cannot Be Un-Read" Medal
Pros: Meljean Brook's story. The language and worldbuilding in Emma Holly's.
Cons: The lack of conflict in Emma Holly's. The ridiculous worldbuilding in Lora Leigh's. The lame-ass Romeo and Juliet set-up in Shiloh Walker's. And oh just before I forget - THE BARBED PENIS IN LORA LEIGH'S STORY. Yes, ladies, his penis has a hook on it. Just what every woman wants.