Saturday, March 26, 2011

"His At Night," by Sherry Thomas

The Chick: Elissande Edgerton. Desperate to free herself and her aunt from under the thumb of her tyrannical, abusive uncle, Elissande is willing to go to any lengths to escape - even if it means trapping the stupidest man in the world into marriage.The Rub: Her new husband is not entirely pleased about being trapped - and just might be a whole lot smarter than he lets on.
Dream Casting: Keeley Hawes.

The Dude: Spencer "Penny" Stuart, Lord Vere. Working as a covert agent for the crown, he's cultivated the persona of a lovable buffoon in order to divert suspicion while he investigates crimes.The Rub: When he finds himself trapped into marriage by a scheming, ambitious chit, his adorable-idiot disguise becomes that much harder to maintain, particularly when he starts falling for his little gold-digger.Dream Casting: Dan Stevens.

The Plot:
Now up on Tumblr! (new format - feel free to leave me feedback either here in the comments or on Tumblr),
Romance Convention Checklist

1 Flood of Rats

Several Spies

1 Love At First Sight Romance

1 Secondary Romance (between previous Sherry Thomas characters!)

1 Eeeeevil Uncle

1 Surprise! Dad

1 Forced Compromisation

3 Paintings of Narrative Significance

1 SexyTimes Painting

1 Drunk Recitation of the Song of Songs

The Word: I didn't start out as a superfan of Sherry Thomas. I appreciated Private Arrangements more than I liked it (although I've been intending to reread it for a while now), but Not Quite a Husband absolutely blew me away and rightfully earned its author the coveted RITA award. So I was pretty excited to read His At Night - especially once I learned more about the hero.

Everyone in London believes the Marquess of Vere is an idiot - a friendly, well-liked, open-hearted idiot, but not someone you'd trust with your plants when you went on vacation, even if they were plastic. Formerly a genius, Vere supposedly sustained a head injury after a fall from his horse and he's never been the same since.

But that's only what he wants everyone to believe (including his own brother Freddy, last seen wooing the wrong heroine in Private Arrangements). In truth, he's a covert agent who cleans up messy situations with panache and discretion, using his bumbling-fool-image to wrangle his way into and out of delicate situations with no one the wiser. His latest mission is to finagle a way into the house of Edmund Douglas, a diamond mine owner suspected of extortion - and Vere hopes to do this by manipulating the man's niece, Elissande.

To the outside world, Elissande Edgerton appears to be only the most dutiful and gracious of nieces. However, in truth, her uncle is a calculating, manipulative and emotionally abusive monster who has made life a living hell for the women living under his roof. Elissande would have run away long ago, had she not stayed to protect her laudanum-addicted aunt from weathering the brunt of Edmund's venom. When her uncle leaves on a business trip, she sees it as an opportunity to look for ways to escape and take her aunt with her.

Opportunity knocks in the form of Lord Vere and a host of his friends, begging for shelter after their houseparty on a neighbouring estate was disrupted by (and I'm not exaggerating) a flood of rats. Elissande finally sees a way to escape from her uncle's clutches: marriage. Vere and Elissande take immediately to each other - and I mean immediately - and it is intensely amusing to read. It takes a rare author to make me totally buy a Love At First Sight romance but Sherry Thomas manages it with style.

There's only one problem - Vere, despite being perfectly smitten with Elissande, is working a case, which means he still has to pretend that he fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down. And to the world-weary Elissande, getting herself and her aunt safely out of her uncle's reach means snagging a husband smart enough to protect her, so she decides to seduce and/or compromise Vere's friendly brother Freddy.

Both Vere and Elissande's plans go awry when she ends up compromising herself with him instead, necessitating their hasty (and definitely not appreciated on Vere's part) marriage. However, Vere still needs to keep up his facade and Elissande's uncle is nowhere near out of the picture yet.

The rest of the novel is odd, and while it's handled well, it's not quite on the same level as Not Quite a Husband. The biggest obstacle is, of course, Vere's dropped-on-his-head disguise. He maintains it for the greater part of the novel, and while he lets it down little by little around Elissande, most of the romantic development occurs while Elissande is still at least somewhat convinced that Vere's not quite right in the head, and I'm not sure what to think about that. I kept experiencing a little niggle of uncertainty in the back of my mind when reading Elissande and Vere's interactions for the greater part of the novel.

Character-wise, the novel is right up there with Not Quite a Husband, and this time we actually have some stellar humour that would put Julia Quinn to shame. When Vere acts stupid, he acts really, really stupid, with a dedication to his work that will make you laugh out loud while reading the novel on the subway. Yet at the same time, there's a dark element to his character as well as Elissande's and the mystery revolving around Edmund Edgerton takes some decidedly twisted turns.
That being said, the romance doesn't quite click as well as in Not Quite a Husband - again, some of the characters' motivations didn't seem to fit, and I couldn't entirely buy how the relationship developed to such a point while at least one of the protagonists was hiding behind a clever disguise. However, His At Night still succeeds at being vastly entertaining, charming, and witty.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

"Until You," by Judith McNaught

The Chick: Sheridan Bromleigh, a.k.a. "Charise Lancaster." Formerly a lady's companion, when she receives a traumatic head injury on the same day her rebellious charge elopes, she's mistaken for the wealthy heiress.
The Rub: What will happen when her newfound friends - and romantic interest, Stephen - discover she's actually an impoverished Irish-American commoner?
Dream Casting: Felicia Day.

The Dude: Stephen Westmoreland, Earl of Langford. When heiress Charise Lancaster gets a whack on the head right before he has the chance to tell her he accidentally killed her fiance (don't ask), he feels it's his double-duty to take care of her and make sure she finds a good match.
The Rub: He quickly finds himself falling for her, but feels like a jackass for hitting on the woman of the guy he mowed down in his carriage.
Dream Casting: Ioan Gruffudd.

The Plot: (to the tune of "Bohemian Rhapsody")

Stephen: Mamaaaaa, I just killed a man!
Ran him down right in the street,
His wife-to-be he'll never meet!
My guilt trip's only just begun - and now I have to find his fiancee!

Mamaaaaa -- *~oooOOOoooooo~*
I'm so torn up inside,
I have to tell this girl the truth tomorrow,
I'm so sad, I'm so bad,
I hope she doesn't hit me.

Sherry: I'm screwed, my time has come.
The girl I'm guarding ran away, and I have to tell her fiance.
How can I face this imposing peer?
Let's dive into my backstory instead!

Daddyyyyyyy *~OOOooooOOOO~* *(What a long infooooo-dump!)
I love to horseback ride,
I'm sure this part will be relevant later on!

*guitar solo*

Stephen: I see an incoming crate about to hit you - look out!
Please look out! Don't let it give you amnesia!
Oh too late it hit her!
I have to babysit her! SHIT!

Sherry: *wakes up* I HAVE NO FACE!

Stephen: What the hell?


Stephen: What the hell?


Stephen: This girl is nuuuUUUUUUUUUUUUUUTS.

Sherry: I'm just a poor girl, with no memory.

Stephen's Doctor and All of His Relatives: She's just a poor girl - get with her romantically!

Stephen: GUYS, I have KNOWN her for less than a DAY.

Stephen's Doctor: If you don't, she might crack, will you bang her now?

Stephen: You're CRAZY. NO! I killed her fiance!

Stephen's Friends: Bang the girl!

Sherry: You're CRAZY! I have no memory!

Stephen's Sis in Law: But he's nice!

Stephen: You're CRAZY! She's too pure and sweet for me!

Stephen's Doctor: Bang the girl!

Stephen: You're weird and creep me out!

Stephen's Bro: Bang the girl!

Charise: Bitch, you stole my name! YOU'RE A HO-OOOO-OOOOO-OOOO!

Sherry: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO! I'm a phony! An impostor! Steve will think that I'm a whore! I'll run away - what could possibly go wrong with that? With THAT? WITH THAAAAAAAAAAT?


Stephen: So you think you can love me when your name is a lie?
You're such a cheap tramp and I hope that you die!
Oh, Sherry - you're such a skanky ho, Sherry!
I should have known! I should have known all women are whores!


Sherry: I know what will help things - my virginity.

Stephen: That doesn't really matter to me.

Sherry: Let's pretend it did, theeeeeeen.

Stephen: ....

Sherry: ...

Stephen: ... Fine, dammit. Whore.

Sherry: HOORAY!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Case of Convenient Amnesia

1 Case of Vehicular Manslaughter

1 Inadvertent Identity Theft

1 Flirty French Rival

1 Inconvenient Elopement

Several Interfering Relatives

1 Highly Invasive and Unethical Doctor

Several Slutty Womenz

The Word: So - you want to be a Judith McNaught heroine?

Do you think you have what it takes?

While the rewards are pretty stellar, getting the hand of a McNaught man is no cakewalk, ladies. No sir. Let's allow her novel Until You to illustrate the rigours you'll have to endure if you wish to win the hand of one of her Ginormously-Endowed-In-Every-Meaning-of-the-Word Heroes.

Yes, this is going to be a highly sarcastic and bitchtastic review. I thought - and hoped - that the misogynist douchebaggery of Something Wonderful might have been a fluke, but now it seems more likely that the delightful Almost Heaven was the real departure from an author's style that, erm, appears to glorify certain types of feminine and masculine behaviour that I find, how shall I say it? Crazy wrong.

But back on track, ladies, it's time to ditch your pride and break out the L'Oreal Flaming Auburn hair dye. Firstly:

1. You Must Have a Long and Detailed Backstory That Clearly Establishes You Have Unusual Talents, Hate Sex and are Not a Racist.
In Until You, before the real story even starts, we are treated to an incredibly long, elaborate and detailed description of the heroine, Sheridan Bromleigh's, backstory. Her Irish daddy took her travelling all over the country, giving her a broad, hands-on education on Horsies, Native American Relations, Why Hookers are Eeeeevil Wimin, and Tolerance of Misogyny.

Is all of this relevant to the story? Not nearly. But since this is also an Amnesia Plotline where Sherry spends most of the story in a brain-damaged haze, we need to have it spelled out to us early on that Sheridan is not a Secret Ax Murderer and Baby Eater. So we have that.

Anyway, after endless pages chronicling Sherry's Wild Hoyden Phase, we get to the actual plot. Sent over from the United States with her spoiled and wayward charge Charise Lancaster, Sherry was supposed to chaperon the girl's first meeting with her aristocratic fiance. However, as soon as the ship reaches port, Charise flees with a strapping soldier, leaving Sherry to break the embarrassing news to her intended.

Enter Stephen Westmoreland - while Stephen's out driving his fancy new team of horses, a drunk runs out into the street in front of him and is squished like a genteelly-impoverished, ne'er-do-well grape. Stephen is crushed (albeit not quite as crushed as the other guy) to discover the deceased aristocrat was engaged to be married, so he takes it upon himself to meet the girl and deliver the bad news himself.

However, he manages to fuck that up as well when the woman he meets at the docks takes a blow to the head and wakes up with no memory. Not entirely unreasonably, he assumes the woman is Charise. Entirely unreasonably (and pretty unethically), his Skeevy and Invasive Family Doctor insists Stephen pose as her actual fiance to keep the fragile egg of her woman-brain from scrambling into a crazy omelet. Of course, the Skeevy and Invasive Family Doctor is doing this because he immediately believes the barely-conscious, neurologically-damaged, identity-less woman he's known less than a day is The One For Stephen.

Dudes, I ship Kurtosfky in Glee, and even I think that's crazy.

2. You can't have ambition.
Oh no, ladies - upward mobility for the delicate sex is a vulgar no-no in McNaught land. Our hero, Stephen, while not an outright assbag like Something Wonderful's "hero" Jordan, is still a cynic distrustful of women ever since that one summer when he got a truckload of property and titles all at once and suddenly all the women in England wanted to bang him. The horror!

I love (and by love I mean hate) how this novel treats the idea of marrying for wealth, land and position like a particularly filthy and notorious kink. Indeed - the Skeevy and Unethical Family Doctor even remarks that he "didn't approve one bit of these modern marriages of convenience".

First of all - modern? AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Secondly, really? As if marrying up were the equivalent of getting Justin Bieber's name tramp-stamped on your lower back? These damn kids and their marriages of convenience - in my day, we married for love, and we LIKED IT!

Sherry, however - she's too busy trying to remember what her face looks like (a scene that is supposed to be dramatic but is unintentionally hilarious) and rediscovering that she has red hair (a scene that is, admittedly, very intentionally hilarious) to work any gold-digger wiles on Stephen, which convinces him of her Innate Goodness and Purity.

Thank goodness Stephen is surrounded by Good Role Models like his sister in law (previous McNaught heroine, Whitney) who totally didn't marry for wealth and prestige - she married her wealthy, prestigious Duke totally by accident.

3. Abandon all manners and social graces.
Another reason the Skeevy and Unethical Family Doctor is so desperate to throw poor Sherry into Stephen's lap is to "protect" Stephen from marrying Miranda Fitzwaring - a well-bred society woman who is supposedly his opposite number in the Ton set. Quoth the Doctor:
She was lovely, gracious, and serene - as she'd been taught to be - but because of that upbringing, she had neither the desire nor the ability to evoke deep emotions in any husband

Yes, it's not enough that a polite, well-bred, responsible upbringing makes Miranda unattractive to Stephen - no, in McNaughtland, good breeding freezes your ovaries into tasteful, round ice cubes and makes you completely unable to have passion with anyone. Excuse me, but I have an entire family tree of well-bred, upper-middle-class aunties, grandmothers, great-aunts and cousins who would be perfectly willing to extend an embossed, gilt-edged invitation to that idea to Go Fuck Itself.

But of course, Sherry knows virtually nothing about the English peerage or rules of gentility and proceeds to embarrass the servants by refusing to follow the order of precedence. Which - once again - swiftly proves to cynical, hard-hearted Stephen that she is All That is Good and Womanly-Soft.

4. You are not allowed to find anything even remotely attractive or desirable about yourself - that's your man's job.
One of the more hilarious traumatic aspects of Sherry's amnesia is that she forgets what she looks like and when she wakes up and has to rediscover it, she's somewhat less than pleased to discover she has red hair and grey eyes. Since only WHORISH WIMIN appreciate their own looks and maintain high self esteem, Sherry's horror at her disgustingly "brazen" hair just provides further proof to Stephen that Sherry is the Epitome of Feminine Perfection.

Beginning to notice a pattern? While the novel starts off silly but harmless, it swiftly moves into wallbanging territory as the plot stops being about An Actual Story Between Two Flawed People and more about Just How God Created the Perfectest Woman for Widdle Stephen.

A process that apparently involves taking the average woman and removing several vital parts - Ambition, Sophistication, Knowledge, Social Poise, and Self-Esteem. Sherry never comes across as a fully-formed, adult character, and that's not just because of the bump on her noggin. Stephen and all the other characters admire her more for what she isn't (a money-grubbing, superficial, overeducated, snobby whore like the rest of us ladies) then for what she is - childish, cutesy, rude, and embarrassingly ignorant. Reading Something Wonderful and Until You back-to-back, you get the message that brain injuries are the cure for all womanly faults.

Hey, but it's not all bad! If you manage to tightly suppress and destroy your Whorish urges to Enjoy Wealth, Respect Social Boundaries, Cultivate Knowledge, and Say No to Your Man, you win the ultimate prize:
1. A ruggedly chiseled man-baby whose lightning-quick mood swings and possessive, intolerant, and suspicious tempers are now yours for life!
He constantly questions your actions and motivations and continually suspects you may be cheating/lying/whoring with any number of dudes - because of that one woman in his past who fucked with him. Because you are a woman, it's of course your fault he feels that way, so it's up to you to give up your virginity in order to calm his righteous manly anger the way Sherry does!
2. Piles and piles of wealth
- too bad actually enjoying wealth and buying things are for whores!

3. An elevated rank in the peerage with all of its accompanying responsibilities - bet you're regretting your charming ignorance of complex social rituals now, eh?
Yeah, Stephen, Sherry's utter ignorance of social custom and the duties of being a countess is adorable now, but try to hold a dinner party. Or serve in Parliament. Or take care of your tenants. Or take her out in any public setting where she'll have to interact with servants in a professional manner.

I have two more McNaught novels on my TBR. What the hell am I going to do?